Seeds, plants and vegetables: Many options for growing produce
One thing that has been notable during the COVID-19 crisis has been the rush to purchase and hoard anything that might be in short supply.
In the rural Northwest Corner, this hasn’t just applied to grocery store items such as toilet paper, cleaning supplies, white flour and yeast. It has also applied to farming items.
First to disappear quickly were baby chicks. Experienced amateur poultry farmers usually order their chicks ahead of time and receive them by mail. But retail suppliers reportedly sold out very quickly this year.
Some area egg farmers chose to hatch some of their eggs rather than sell them at farm markets.
The next edible area of anxiety was beef and pork (chicken for cooking had already been scarce, since the beginning of fears about the pandemic). Several large U.S. processors of meat have now closed their plants because they weren’t able to protect their workers from COVID-19.
Locally raised meat remains available for now from area purveyors such as Whippoorwill Farm in Salisbury, Wike Brothers in Sharon and McEnroe Organic in Millerton, and at many area farmers markets (as well as at grocery stores, of course).
But even before the announcement was made about the possible future reduction in the supply of beef and pork, many area residents had already made up their minds that they were going to substantially increase the size of their backyard vegetable gardens. An increase in the desire for homegrown vegetables does not, of course, mean everyone in the area is suddenly going vegan; it simply means that people are becoming insecure about the availability of food in general.
Plenty of plants for now
Which leads to the question of whether there will be a shortage of seeds and “starter” plants.
And the answer, apparently, is that there’s no need to worry. Sarah (Paley) Coon and Chris Coon, owners of Paley’s Farm Market in Sharon, said what other garden centers seem to be saying, which is that everyone who plants professionally has hundreds of seed packets in their offices so there is no need to worry that the region will run out of lettuce, tomatoes, corn and other edible summer essentials.
Sarah Coon said that Paley’s, like all professional growers, ordered seeds many months ago, before the COVID-19 pandemic. They are well stocked and will continue to plant seeds if their supply of starter plants for home gardeners begins to sell out.
Fewer seeds for home gardens
Seeds packaged for retail sales are somewhat less abundant this year (but there is no need to panic or to hoard).
Julie Fine, who is sales representative for the Northeast for Johnny’s Selected Seeds, said in an email interview last week that, “There has been a real run on home garden seeds. Many of our packet sizes are sold out, and we just don’t have enough people to re-pack those fast enough to keep up.”
Like many companies, Johnny’s has had to deal with “the challenge of social distancing and labor shortages in the warehouses,” Fine said. “Usually those warehouses are arranged tightly, to efficiently move people and packets through rows.
“Johnny’s had to rearrange the rows, establish one-way traffic to prevent people walking toward each other and getting too close, and add disinfecting protocols.”
The company also had to “suspend home garden orders for a month in order to keep up with farm orders — the people who are feeding our communities.”
Like many of the farmers interviewed this week, Fine said that ultimately she hopes all this concern about the food supply chain will “contribute to a long-term valuing of local food production and the value of sustainably produced food.”
Shop local, join a CSA
One way to support local, sustainable food sources is to buy more produce and meats from the farmers who are struggling to make a living in this area. Their meats, herbs, vegetables, fruit, honey and more are sold at farmers markets, at some stores and, sometimes, right on their farms.
Another way to support local agriculture is to join a CSA farm. CSA stands for community supported agriculture. The idea is that patrons sign up ahead of time and give their money to a farm as it is preparing for its growing season; it’s a little bit like buying options on the commodity market.
Everyone shares in the bounty as vegetables become ripe and ready to eat (“shares” are picked up weekly at the farm), but everyone also shares in the potential risks of farming (some years, the weather doesn’t cooperate and there just aren’t that many tomatoes, or basil, or onions or other popular edibles).
Janna Siller is the farm director for the Adamah CSA at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Falls Village.
“We order all the seeds we need for the season in the winter according to a meticulous farm plan,” she said. “So we are all set with enough seeds to grow for our CSA regardless of seed company supply. Most farms that I know do the same.”
As a general rule, most farms order more seeds than they will need, so even if a larger than anticipated number of people sign up for a CSA, most farms can cope, without either reducing the size of each share or limiting the number of members it will accept.
“Most farms that I know in this area are not expanding but rather are swerving toward retail sales to replace the revenue they usually have from wholesale sales to restaurants or institutions,” Siller added.
For your home garden
For anyone who’s new to the world of home farming, here are some handy hints.
First, always buy a lot of lettuce seed; you can continuously plant lettuce from early spring until autumn. By July, even in a normal year, it’s very hard to find lettuce seeds. Don’t plant an entire packet at one time. Four to six packets should be enough for the average family for the whole season.
Read the instructions on your seed packets or ask advice of the experienced gardeners and farmers at your local garden center.
One farm market employee worried that many people will try their hand at planting this spring but will not follow directions and will lose their crops. If this happens, there are always the farm stands. But it’s always better to follow the directions.
Speaking of which, this has been an early spring in the Tri-state area and many people (perhaps suffering from cabin fever) are eagerly going out and putting seeds and starters in the dirt.
Ask for advice on the best dirt for your situation. Again, your local garden center will be able to help you out here. And be mindful that not all plants want to be outside yet.
“It’s still too early for peppers and tomatoes,” warned Sarah Coon, “but not for kale, peas, broccoli, lettuce and spinach.”
“All the foods that kids don’t like,” her husband, Chris, quipped.
Where to buy plants
Starter plants of all kinds are available now at Paley’s and many other area farm stands and garden centers, including Freund’s Farm in East Canaan.
The Weatogue farm stand will have vegetable, flower and herb plants beginning Friday, May 15, at 9 a.m. The sale is expected to continue for three weeks. Bring a check or exact change for payment. The stand is at 78 Weatogue Road in Salisbury; for more information call Elvia Gignoux at 860-435-0345.
CSA memberships are available at Adamah in Falls Village (get information at www.fvcsa.adamah.org or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org); at Rock Steady Farm in Millerton (www.rocksteadyfarm.com and email@example.com); and Ridgway Farm in Cornwall (www.ridgwayfarm.com and firstname.lastname@example.org or call 860-672-5880; you can also order items online for pickup at the farm, which is on Town Street in West Cornwall).
To learn more about area farms, markets and CSAs, go to The Lakeville Journal Co. website and read our 2019 edition of Discovering Farm to Table at www.tricornernews.com/discover-farm-table-2019.
This issue has not yet been updated for 2020, so phone ahead to be sure the farm or market is open.