Increase Your Farm Income Part 1: Extending the Season

Greenhouse seedlings

Extending your farm’s production season—either by getting a jump on an early harvest or by continuing into the winter months—is a great way to bring additional income to the farm. Both early-season or late-season extensions are worth considering. However, if you can offer spring and summer crops before other farms, you will reap more of the benefits. Customers drawn to your early produce are more likely to stick with your stand throughout the entire season. It is much harder to get customers to shop with you once they have already found another source they like. Customers are more excited to see the season’s first crop of tomatoes than they are to see them in January. Our taste buds naturally change with the seasons. Butternut squash soup might sound better than a Caprese salad when temperatures drop.

The best option is to do both: figure out ways to harvest as early as possible and to extend the season into the winter months.

My row crop farm is on the coast in Carmel, and we normally plant our tomato seedlings in the first week of May and harvest them in mid-August. This means that even though our tomato season extends late into the fall, we are often two months behind other farms that debut their tomatoes earlier in the summer. This year, we put up hoop houses so that we can capture both the early market and the late market. We will plant some favorite varieties in the hoops to harvest a month or more ahead of schedule. Later in July, we will plant a smaller succession that will carry us through into winter. The hoops will protect the tomatoes from the rain, which weakens the plants and encourages fungus. And since it never freezes where we are, we may be able to harvest tomatoes until it is time to drop seed again! 

Easy Ways to Extend your Season:

  1. Have several planting dates for your crops to ensure there is no lapse in product. This momentum keeps customers coming back each week.
  2. Don't limit yourself to direct seeding your crops when the ground is warm enough and temperatures are favorable. Give crops like peas, zucchini, cucumbers, and beans a head start by planting batches in trays in the greenhouse. If you don’t have a greenhouse, you can cover seedling trays with fine-spun polyester row cover material to warm them up a few degrees.
  3. Plant varieties that are resistant to fungal diseases so that they perform well in the rainy season.

Remember, you don’t need to do an entire planting this way, but having at least some early popular crops will increase farm income.

Season Extenders Requiring More Time or Money:

  1. Invest in a hoop house or high tunnel. Depending on the climate, a hoop house can typically hasten crops by one month. Hoop houses also allow subtropical crops to thrive through the winter in locations where they would otherwise freeze.
  2. Floating row covers will give some protection from both frost and pests. They increase the temperature by a few degrees and protect crops from the wind. There are varying thicknesses; the heavier covers offer more frost protection.
  3. Consider low tunnels. They can provide a two- or three-week jump start compared to unprotected field plantings.
  4. If you already have a hoop house and live where winters are cold, consider heating the hoop house with an active "trench-style" compost pile. This could increase the temperature inside the greenhouse by up to 10 degrees.

Funding for Season Extension

The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) offers grants to farmers to pay for hoop house materials, but not for the labor. For example, we were able to get a heavy-duty 30-foot by 100-foot high tunnel with gutters for water catchment for $8,500. The labor to put it up cost $2,500. All I paid out of pocket was $2500 for labor. You can find out more about this program on the NRCS website.

Season Extension Pays Off

Utilizing these suggestions to get the most out of your production season will pay for itself within the first year. Most farmers who have been in business for the long haul incorporate some or all of these suggestions. If you are looking for a way to be more profitable, extending the season might make all the difference!

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This article was written by Jamie Collins.

About the Author: Jamie Collins, owner of CCOF-certified Serendipity Farms near Monterey, California, has farmed organically for two decades. She sells produce via farmers’ markets, CSA, and other direct-to-consumer outlets. On the side, she works as an organic inspector and farm and marketing consultant, and she writes about food and farming for various publications.

Funding Acknowledgement: Funding for this blog post was made possible by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Agricultural Marketing Service through grant AM180100XXXXG055.

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