Growing organically in central Maine

Rocky soil and a short growing season are two of the challenges of farming in the highlands of central Maine. A third is access to markets. In their 26 years of farming organically on the cusp of Zones 3 and 4, Barbara and Jason Kafka have adapted both to nature and circumstance.

Photo by Kathleen Hatt.
Holding bunches of Sweet Annie, Jason Kafka chats with visitors to Checkerberry Farm’s stand at the Common Ground Fair in Unity, Maine. B

On the once neglected 100-acre Checker-berry Farm, the Kafkas grow 20 acres of crops. Among their crops are 2 acres of alliums (onions and garlic), 2 acres of cabbages and broccoli, half an acre of watermelons and cantaloupes, and three, .75- acre blocks of sweet corn, a difficult crop to grow organically. Corn is given a head start in a greenhouse. At about two weeks, the 288-cell trays of corn seedlings are set into the fields using a Water Wheel Transplanter.

The Kafkas are able to extend the area’s limited growing season by utilizing four 17-by-48-foot-high tunnels from May to October, and by covering field crops with polypro or plastic mulches in crop-appropriate colors.

From town to country

When the Kafkas bought Checkerberry Farm in 1981, it was what they could afford. Both had grown up in an area of farms and gardens. Jason had worked in an orchard during his high school years in Mass-achusetts and, after college, for a natural food distributor, and Barbara had gardened, but neither had ever farmed or lived on a farm. Neither had inherited land or equipment, but organic farming was what they wanted to do. As the two renovated dilapidated buildings, renewed fields that got good light, but were anything but level, and learned to grow crops, they also both worked at other jobs. Barbara was an elementary school teacher and Jason was a fuel hauler. Barbara has continued teaching, and Jason trucks gas and oil in the winter months, a job he loves and one which dovetails well with farming.

Awesome onions

Onions are a Checkerberry Farm specialty because onions seem to like conditions on the Parkman, Maine, farm and because the Kafkas like growing them. A favorite is the mild, long day, Vidalia-type Alisa Craig, which averagea 1 1/2 to 2 pounds, but may grow to 3 pounds—so large that people, on first glance, have assumed they were cantaloupes.

In February, the Kafkas begin planting new seeds for leeks, shallots and five kinds of onions in a 26-by-48-foot production greenhouse. Some seeds for the approximately 20-ton crop are planted a single seed to a cell; other varieties are planted in bunches. When the onions are pencil size and the soil has warmed, generally mid-May, seedlings are transplanted from cells into the field. The fields are high in organic matter, a result of the previous season’s cover cropping with a combination of legumes and grasses and the addition of “lots and lots” of compost. To prevent root maggot, fields are on a minimum three-year rotation from any allium.

Onion fields are cultivated weekly. Early in the season, Jason uses the farm’s lightest tractor to pull a Williams tine weeder. The weeder’s fine spring tines, which resemble bed springs, “tickle the soil,” cutting weeds before they’re even visible. When the onions are larger, he switches to a Reigie belt-driven power cultivator, a time-saving invention that cultivates an acre of onions in 20 minutes, getting right up to the plants without pruning their roots. The Kafka’s onions are irrigated via an overhead system (drip irrigation is not practical) at the rate of an inch of water a week.

Scouting for pests and diseases is ongoing, and the Kafkas and their three full-time and several part-time employees are always on the lookout. When thrips are present, they are sprayed with Entrust’s SpinTor (spinosad), a substance approved for organic use. Some seasons, such as 2007, no spraying is necessary. Onions are fertilized weekly with Neptune’s Harvest fish/seaweed mix.

Bunching onions are planted and harvested throughout the growing season. Dry onions are pulled beginning in early September and continuing through mid-October. After the harvested dry onions have been windrowed and the tops have dried, they are put in 15-bushel wooden apple bins and taken to the 3-by-7-foot topping table. The topping table, which is easily moved from field to field, is a recent and treasured labor-saving addition to Checkerberry Farm. Custom made by Univerco of Napierville, Que., Canada, the topping table consists of pairs of rollers to which spirals have been welded. The onion tops get pinched between the rollers and are thus removed.

Once topped, the bins of onions are stored at about 32 degrees Fahrenheit in 60 to 70 percent relative humidity. They are checked for sprouting just prior to shipping in 50-pound red mesh bags.

Oddities

Organic farmers, says Jason, are expected to grow oddities, and as an oddity, the cultivar of cabbage known as kohlrabi (Brassica oleracea Gongylodes Group) certainly qualifies. Sometimes described as “an organic green Sputnik,” kohlrabi, from the German for kohl (cabbage) plus rabi (turnip,) will grow almost anywhere. Kohlrabi has virtually no pest issues, and the 130-day (longer growing) Gigante variety the Kafkas grow stores well.

Another of the unusual crops at Checkerberry Farm is Sweet Annie, Artemesia annua. A noxious, invasive weed to some, dried Sweet Annie’s feathery blue-green foliage is used as the foundation in decorated wreaths and as a substitute for baby’s breath in floral arrangements. Handling the fragrant Sweet Annie may cause skin or other allergic reactions. Sweet Annie has become the signature decorative plant of Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners’ Common Ground Fair.

Marketing away from markets

Checkerberry’s first farm income came from sales at a Common Ground Fair in the early 1990s. The three-day farmers’ market at the annual fair continues to generate an important, but “shrinking, thank heavens” portion of the farm’s income, now about 10 percent. (Virtually all of the farm’s kohlrabi, 15 bushels in 2007, and Sweet Annie crops are sold at the fair. Neither crop has caught on in other markets.) By diversifying both crops and markets, the Kafkas have been able to decrease dependence on a single market (Common Ground Fair) while expanding farm income to cover a 10-month period. In 2007, for example, the last cabbages were sold in early March and seedling sales began in April.

After that first Common Ground Fair, the Kafkas began participating in five other farmers’ markets, logging over 500 miles a week in the process. Since 2002, when they began devoting a .25-acre to growing seedlings, primarily alliums, for other farmers, the Kafkas have been able to reduce farmers’ market participation to two a week and driving to 88 miles.

Checkerberry’s primary outlet, accounting for 85 percent of the farm’s income, is now wholesale sales to Crown O’Maine Organic Cooperative. Crown O’Maine, begun in 1995 by Jim Cook of Skylandia Organic Farm in Grand Isle, Maine, is a specialized distribution business that picks up from about 25 member farms and delivers their local and organic produce to natural food stores, restaurants, buying clubs and institutional kitchens.

A twist

The years since the Kafkas first came to Checkerberry Farm have seen many changes. True, neither the 100-day growing season nor the need to cultivate hillside fields with one foot on the brake has changed, but markets have grown and organic farming methods have become more widely accepted. “It’s a nice irony,” says Jason, “that conventional farmers who once thought of organic growers as ‘two-goat marijuana farmers’ are now coming to us for advice.”

Kathleen Hatt is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to Growing. She resides in Henniker, N.H.