Family operation looks to a bright future

Dimond Hill’s farm store in what was once home to the farm’s milking herd. Customers enjoy the delicious smell of new-mown hay in the mow.

After a long history of transplanting by hand, Dimond Hill Farm’s Owner Jane Presby and Farm Manager Donald Grandmaison have found their way to decrease transplanting time at the Concord, N.H., farm. “It’s all about having the right stuff for your operation,” says Presby. For Dimond Hill Farm’s 3 acres of crops, the right tool is a waterwheel transplanter. Before this year, it took a single person two to three full days to set 1,200 plants. This year, the job took only 15 minutes.

A simple, elegantly designed, land-driven waterwheel planter can set plugs, pots or bare root plants through plastic or other mulch. It has a three-point hitch and is pulled by the farm’s New Holland TL100 tractor. In the future, it may be pulled by horses.

The planter works like this: Two 80-gallon tanks supply water to the center of the planting wheel. Spikes on the planting wheel drill holes in plastic (or other mulch) and fill the holes with water. Operators riding close to the row take plants from four self-feeding slant trays and set them into the holes. The slant trays will hold up to 18 flats of plants. Plants can be set at various intervals (determined by the spacing of the spikes on the planting wheel) along one to four rows from 8 to 36 inches. The setting of the planting wheels on an axle determines the spacing between the rows. Up to four rows can be planted at a time. Standard spikes will plant round or square pots of up to 2.5-inch diameter, but can also be ordered in custom sizes.

Kathleen Hatt.
Dimond Hill Farm, “As fresh as it gets.”

This year, Dimond Hill Farm’s new waterwheel planter was used to set 2,800 peppers, 1,500 Packman broccoli, 1,400 squash, 1,400 cucumbers, 1,400 eggplant, 500 cabbage, 500 pumpkins, 200 field-grown tomatoes, 100 brussels sprouts and 20,000 lettuce seedlings, all in 3-inch pots.

Six generations at work

On a prominent hill with an arresting view eastward across the Merrimack River Valley, Dimond Hill Farm (www.dimondhillfarm.com) has been home to six generations of the Abbott-Presby Family. Throughout its history, the farm has followed agricultural trends and responded to the needs of its neighbors. Early generations of the family milked cows, raised pigs and chickens, harvested hay, grew vegetables, sold timber, and kept both draft and riding horses. In the mid-1950s, the family operated a dairy and delivered milk. The dairy herd was sold in the mid-1970s. By then, the family had begun growing and selling raspberries, sweet corn, pumpkins and winter squash. The produce selection has continued to grow, and eggs from a small flock of chickens will also be available soon.

In 1996, a good day’s vegetable sales brought $35. In each of the succeeding years, sales have doubled. Helping contribute to the farm’s success is the farm’s manager, Donald Grandmaison. Grandmaison began working at the farm when he was a junior in high school and continued through University of New Hampshire degrees in environmental horticulture and plant biology. He has been farm manager since 2005.

Waterwheel Transplanter before planting wheel or wheels are mounted.
 
Planting wheels of the waterwheel transplanter can be set closer together or farther apart on the axle, depending on desired row spacing.

Tons of tomatoes

Presby and Grandmaison grow tomatoes in hoop houses and were the first New Hampshire farmers to grow them in coir (coconut fiber) bags. This year the farm grew 13 varieties, alternating fovea leaf mold-resistant varieties with nonresistant ones. At $2 per bag, coir bags are expensive, but have the advantage of being free of bacteria and fungal spores and of being sustainably produced. Coir in raised beds is also used to grow carrots, spinach, mesclun and Swiss chard at Dimond Hill Farm.

In addition to growing tomatoes in four hoop houses, Presby and Grandmaison experimented in 2007 with growing tomatoes outside on red plastic. Outdoor tomatoes produced well, but yields were not comparable with hoop-house tomatoes because the outdoor tomatoes were not staked. Tomatoes started in late February and transplanted April 1 were first harvested in hoop houses in June. Yields were 100 to 150 pounds per day. The highest yield ever was a 2006 weekend when 3,000 pounds were harvested.

Loads of lettuce

Lettuce, one of Grandmaison’s specialties, is planted every five days throughout the growing season except July 15 to August 15, when heat makes lettuce bitter. Mesclun and American greens are planted in raised beds containing coir, chosen because it drains well, doesn’t compact and has neutral pH. To prevent botrytis, mesclun and lettuce crops are rotated. Grandmaison plants at night, sprinkles the beds with cold water and returns in the morning to see the sprouted seeds. Yields from the raised beds of lettuce are 1 pound per square foot.

Head lettuce—bibb, red oak, Nancy and romaine—is grown along the edge of a field where trees provide shade. Between 80 and 100 heads are picked, washed and bagged a day. Roots are washed, but to prevent mold, leaves are only misted.

Rows of plastic

To help with moisture retention and to keep crops cleaner, Grandmaison and Presby grow all crops (except, of course, corn) on plastic. This year they experimented with different colors of plastic. They were interested in seeing whether different colored plastic mulch would affect light, and thus the heat and color, to plants. Under lettuce, they tried white plastic because it reflects light away and thus keeps the soil cooler. The .6 millimeter white plastic they used tore easily, but disposal was easier than thicker plastic.

Farm Manager Donald Grandmaison in Dimond Hill’s farm store.

Some cucumbers were grown on blue plastic, others on black. Blue plastic is said to help reduce cucumber beetles, and Grandmaison and Presby found this to be true. Their cucumbers grown on black plastic were covered with beetles whereas those grown on blue were not.

On this, their first year of growing tomatoes outside, Grandmaison and Presby tried red plastic. Red plastic is said to force more compact growth, early flowering, and earlier productivity.

Disposing of over 15,000 feet of plastic mulch is an issue. Ongoing research suggests that used plastic mulch may some day be used as a fuel source, but at the moment it is not recyclable.

Marketing

As with any real estate, location is key to a farm store’s success. Located on the side of the road people travel on their way home from work, Dimond Hill Farm’s store location is ideal.

For farmers considering starting a farmstand, Presby suggests parking yourself in a lawn chair near the side of the road and observing people as they pass by. By observing the kinds of cars and who is driving them, you can learn much about your potential customers, she says.

Dimond Hill Farm owner Jane Presby (dark green shirt) speaks with visitors at a Vegetable Twilight Meeting sponsored by the University of Extension Cooperative Extension.

A flower garden, picnic tables and five llamas encourage visitors to stop at Dimond Hill Farm. Inside the barn housing the store, clean, colorful vegetables attractively displayed in slant board trays encourage sales and repeat visits. Produce is rotated and the bins kept filled since customers tend to take vegetables from the middle of the slant boards. Adequate space between displays facilitates walking (and maneuvering strollers) within the store. High school and college students working in the store and throughout the farm bring enthusiasm, energy and opportunities for teaching and learning for the customers and for Presby.

Presby makes it a practice to let customers know what produce will be available next because she finds that people enjoy change. Produce gaps are filled by local farmers. Products from other small businesses (such as Sandwich Creamery ice cream) enhance the selection. Every day a different sample is offered, everything from apples to green beans to fiddlehead ferns to salsa and melons.

“Being a farmer is being a teacher,” says Presby. “Teaching people how to use your product is now a farmer’s job.” Squash is an example: Many of Presby’s customers no longer know what to do with fresh squash. They are accustomed to purchasing it cut and bagged. By telling customers how easy it is to put squash like delicata or Carnival in a microwave or how simple it is to cut large squashes into rounds and throw them on a grill, Presby increased squash sales.

Farmer’s markets also draw customers to the farm, says Presby. When people who have purchased from Dimond Hill Farm at a farmer’s market run out of produce midweek, they come to the farm store to restock.

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

For further information
• Water Wheel Transplanter www.robertmarvel.com/equipment.html
• Effects of colored plastic mulch on various crops www.robertmarvel.com/whyplasticmulch.html