The Tricky and Delicate Art of Grafting Tomatoes

~Notes from the field SongHaven Farm~

It’s raining, sleeting and occasionally snowing here at 6800 feet elevation in Cahone today. A classic stormy spring day on the great sage plains and I am elated that I have indoor work to do around the farm.

For most of us in the high desert of Colorado we use high tunnels (think unheated greenhouses or poly-tunnels) to get our precious hot crops to market in a timely fashion. For instance, without a tunnel the typical tomato crop wouldn’t start yielding till the beginning of August and then will start to decline in production in mid-September when the weather gets cooler. With a unheated tunnel we can push that production up a month and possibly get tomatoes by the beginning of July. This gives us an additional four weeks of fresh tomatoes for our customers during a period of optimal temperature and growth.

One downside to growing these hot crops in a tunnel is that space is limited and often, unless you are a farmer with many high tunnels or moveable tunnels, we end up planting the same crop in the same space. This can lead to problems of plant disease that weaken our crops and yield. With this in mind, we are doing a grand experiment here at SongHaven Farm this year – side grafting tomatoes!

Yes, indeed, it is as tricky as it sounds. To graft tomatoes you must start both a “rootstock” plant, and the plant that is your “scion,” or fruit part of your plant. Ideally they will grow at the same rate till grafting time comes. When that time does come you try and match up the stem size of your two plants and then the delicate business of tomato surgery begins. Grafting tomatoes is very similar to grafting apples – the idea is to cut off the top of the rootstock and then slice into both stalks and fit the fruiting tomato into the rootstock stem and clamp it together. After the plant is potted up it is left in a dark, high humidity space with a temperature of around 70 degrees for three nights. Once it comes out of its healing chamber it is then “weaned” from the fruiting tomato stem and root system and onto the rootstock stem. Very tricky business indeed. Adding to the complexities, here at SongHaven Farm we can’t use heat mats to keep the environment warm (like most farmers) because we are off the grid and therefore have to use a wood stove to heat our healing chamber. It’s a whole other ballgame…whew!

So, why are we going through all this trouble? Well, call me insane, but I like a challenge and I also like to experiment with new things year to year. I am hoping that this experiment will yield a greater abundance of great tasting tomatoes (because we just can’t get enough of them) and give our tomatoes better disease resistance. We’ll let you know how it goes….

Rootstock and Fruit part of tomato grafts.

Keeping the graft joined and healing.

Pot up the graft, keeping warm and cool as it binds.

Newly grafted tomatoes!

SWFF Coop & Growing Partners’ Community Leadership Training

Usually with such early Spring weather it is a challenge to sit through a group work session. Community leadership training on food justice issues is certainly an exception! I had the honor of spending the day with over 20 men and women from Pagosa Springs, Bayfield, Cortez, Mancos, and Durango. We spent our morning divulging, formulating, and nurturing the seeds for community change. We focused on the issues of unequal access to healthy foods, living wages for local producers, and resilience in our regional food system. As Richard Male (a world renowned organizer) shares, “issues are problems with solutions”. The beauty is this change starts with people willing to commit and be actively involved. For a moment this felt daunting, but really we all have a function we can focus on.

Ole Bye, our General Manager, expressed this while speaking on the role of Southwest Farm Fresh for small producers in our area. Though we cannot always offer amazing low prices, we are representing the producers in getting a fair price. There isn’t much capitalizing in a producer cooperative. All net profits cycle back to the farms, the operations, and the continual development of our local food system. Ole noted that some of the greatest issues we face as a distribution cooperative are the crop supply and price point needs of producers. With so many creative minds ready to organize maybe we can find a way to finally bridge the gap of equal access and fair price for local products.

We were also lucky enough to visit the Cortez Middle School with Nina Williams of the Montezuma Orchard Restoration Project. Amazingly they’ve planted 75 trees next to the football field. These will serve for genetic preservation, historical research, economic revitalization, and fresh apples in the schools! We also spoke with Travis Custer, a Board Member for the Montezuma School to Farm Project. This organization has expanded to schools all over the county and is now deepening its roots in the education system, showing new generations of local food eaters how to grow their own.

Travis Custer shares the impact school farms are having with kids and families.

Rachel Bennett
CSA Coordinator for SWFF Cooperative

Why Eat Local Food?

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As someone who grew up on vegetables from Costco and processed foods, I never discovered the difference between local food and “other food” until I spent a year working on farms in New Zealand, through the Willing Workers on Organic Farms (WWOOF) Program. I started doing this because it was a way to travel for free, as traveling on a budget was my first passion. But as I spent more time around farming and local food, they slowly started to become additional passions of mine. Now, working every day with local farmers and food, the reasons to eat local become more and more apparent. I have listed a few below. Feel free to add to the list by commenting on this blog, as I am sure there are many, many more reasons!

  1. It tastes better! I don’t think anyone can argue the fact that a local tomato (all other fruits and vegetables) tastes better than one purchased at the grocery store. Locally grown food simply has more favor.
  2. Support LOCAL farmers, and therefore your LOCAL community. Supporting local agriculturists is a great way to put money back into your local economy, helping to create more jobs and stimulate the local economy.
  3. It is better for the environment, as local food has not traveled very far. Food purchased at grocery stores has traveled hundred, sometimes thousands of miles, to get there. That is a lot of fuel that adds to the carbon footprint of your food.
  4. Local food hold more nutrients. Local food is sold usually within a day or two of being harvested! As soon as vegetables are harvested, they start to lose nutrients. The sooner you have them in your home, the better for you and your family.
  5. Local food is fresher, therefore lasts longer. You will be surprised at how long local lettuce will last in your fridge. Local food spends its shelf-life in your hands instead of on trucks, being hauled across the country.
  6. You can know your local farmer! Knowing your farmer can make vegetables more appealing to kids, and you can ask them directly about their growing practices. You can visit the farm, you can see where your food is grown and learn about how it is grown. This also helps build a stronger community.
  7. It helps maintain farmland and open spaces in your community! (instead of buildings)
  8. It teaches you to eat seasonally!
  9. It helps your community to be sustainable, to depend only on itself for survival. Imagine a world where nothing had to be shipped in to sustain us.
  10. Did I mention it tastes much better?

Southwest Farm Fresh 2016 CSA!

Thinking about signing up for the Southwest Farm Fresh CSA? Want more information about the CSA model before you commit? Want to know why you should sign up for the Southwest Farm Fresh CSA instead of other CSAs? Read this blog before signing up!

What is a CSA?

HeirloomTomatoes.LickSkilletCSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture. It is a way for consumers to buy local produce directly from a farmer (or farmers) in their area. Consumers pay in advance, at the beginning of the season, for produce they will receive throughout the farming season. The consumer paying in advance makes the life of the farmer much easier (hence the title, Community Supported Agriculture), as it helps them cover the beginning of the season costs, like seeds, labor and the many other costs of planting and harvesting a farm before the farmer can make it to the farmer’s market. In exchange for the investment, the consumer receives a “share” of the farmer’s produce for the season at a better rate than buying throughout the season.  It helps both the farmer and consumer get to know one another, as the consumer is buying directly from the farmer. Connecting agriculturists and consumers helps to build a stronger community, each side gaining a deeper understanding and respect for the other.

Why Southwest Farm Fresh CSA?

Being a member of the Southwest Farm Fresh (SWFF) CSA allows you to experience the benefits of any CSA, with many added bonuses. Because the SWFF has 18 farms contributing to the CSA, it is what is known as a “multi-farm CSA.” As a member of the SWFF CSA, you will enjoy the benefit of getting to know several farmers, instead of just one. In addition, you will get to enjoy the freshest, local produce all season long from a different variety of farms each week.  SWFF will provide you wiHGF.PepperStartsth weekly newsletters which will include recipes and ideas for how to use your produce. It is a wonderful way to get the whole family involved in cooking dinner and eating a healthier diet. When kids know their farmer, they can be more encouraged to eat the vegetables in front of them. Parents can say, “Eat your carrots! Mike and his sons Kanan and Gavin from Homegrown Farm grew them!” There will also be an opportunity to visit a few of the farms over a weekend towards the end of the season. This is a great opportunity for children and adults alike to learn where their food comes from and how it is grown. Also with the SWFF CSA, you have the opportunity to add meats from our three meat producers. With the meat add-on, you will receive one to two pounds of beef, pork or lamb. In addition to meat, you can add James Ranch Cheese (1/2 pound every other week), bakery items from Absolute Bakery in Mancos or gluten free baking mixes from New Hat Baking in Durango.

The pick-up location is conveniently located at the Smiley Building, 1309 East 3rd Avenue, on Thursdays from 4-7. If you are out of town, we encourage CSA members to ask a friend or relative to pick up their box! If you members are unable to pick up the box one week, we encourage members to inform us in advance so we can make arrangements to donate it to a low-income family that week. At the Southwest Farm Fresh Cooperative, we believe in community. We believe in supporting one another to make our community stronger. This is why unclaimed boxed will be donated to low-income families in our community. In addition. We are offering the opportunity for our CSA members to sponsor a low-income family for the season. Depending on how many sponsorships we get, this may rotate between different families, or all go to one family for the whole season. This is a wonderful way to get involved and make a positive difference to others in our community. If you would like to do this, please add an extra CSA on your application form. There is an opportunity to sponsor a full-share or half-share.

Thank you for supporting LOCAL food, farmers and agriculture!

Get to Know your Local Farmer: Red Canyon Farm

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Kim, posing with one of her latest experiments

Visiting Red Canyon Farm, owned and operated by Kim Lindgren, gave me the opportunity to visit the gorgeous and unique Mc Elmo Canyon, an experience I am very grateful for. With autumn in full swing, the trees seemed to be glowing against the background of the blue sky and the red rocks of the canyon. Passing picturesque farms and homes with the cool breeze blowing in my face, I felt an amazing energy as I drove deeper into the canyon on my way to Red Canyon Farm. If you have never ventured up Mc Elmo Canyon, it may be time to take a trip! With the mouth of the canyon located just over an hour from Durango, this spot is worth the drive. A walk, run, or hike at Sand Canyon is a great winter retreat.  If you have a little more time, you can also visit the Hovenweep National Monument, located in the heart of Mc Elmo canyon, about 40 minutes past Kim’s farm. At the National Monument, there are ancient ruins, hiking trails and a visitor center where you can learn about the people who lived in the four cornIMG_0804ers thousands of years ago.

As Kim showed me around her property, which is 15 acres in total with 4 acres dedicated to food production, we were followed by two gorgeous turkeys, who over the years have become family pets. “They like to be around people. If you are on the other side of the property, they will come find you,” Kim says with a smile. The property is unlike anything I have ever seen. A neatly-planted vegetable patch with stunning red canyon walls in the background. Flowing Mc Elmo creek running right through the land. A luscious orchard, sheep and dogs sitting peacefully in the shade the trees provide. A chicken with her baby chicks resting on a Ewe’s back as she sits in the shade. Donkeys “hee-haw”ing for attention. All of these plants and animals seemingly living in a unique symbiotic harmony.

Kim and her family, consisting of hIMG_0812er husband and two daughters, have been living in Mc Elmo Canyon for twenty years. Kim and her husband, Eric, moved to their property In Mc Elmo from Albuquerque when their daughters were young, because they wanted to raise their daughters on a farm. “The kids grew up raising food,” Kim says proudly. “It’s a lot of who they are.” Mc Elmo canyon has served as farmland for many different people for thousands of years. Right from Kim’s property, ancient ruins can be spotted. When the Lindgren family first bought their property, they found a lot of evidence of ancient peoples on the land. In fact, Kim says it is hard not to spot some sort of ancient artifacts around here. Needless to say, this is a very special place.

Red Canyon Farm consists of a large orchard with 500 apple, pear and peach trees and a garden in which she grows almost all of the food they eat as a family. There is also a large green house, stuffed with tomatoes and peppers, which she sells though the Southwest Farm Fresh Cooperative. There are also more animals than I could keep track of. Red Canyon FarIMG_0814m sells lamb, so at any given time, there are about 30 lambs (baby sheep), 15 ewes (adult female sheep) and a few rams (adult male sheep) on the property. Kim also keeps two donkeys, three Pyrenees guard dogs to ward off predators, two pet dogs, as well as chickens, ducks, geese and bees.

Growing your own food is a lot of hard work, but Kim seems grateful to have the opportunity to do so. “I do not like butchering season,” Kim says of raising sheep for food. “I choose which sheep are toIMG_0843 go and I take responsibility for that sheep’s life. If I am going to eat meat, this is how I want to do it. It is looking at my practices right in the eye.” The sheep are an important part of the farm, as they eat the fallen fruit from the orchard. “I think this (eating the fruit from the orchard) makes our lamb taste better,” Kim says. Since their farm is organic, the fruit from the orchard falls faster and it is hard to keep up with. Having the sheep to help “clean up” is a two-for-one for Kim.

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Kim’s daughter, Maya, poses in the greenhouse

Red Canyon Farm, being so lush and full of delicious food, also makes it a target for predators, like mountain lions and bears. The fruit from the orchard is very enticing for the bears, especially in the fall, when they are preparing for the winter. They hop over the fence and gorge themselves on the luscious fruit. “The animals all get very tense when the bears are around,” Kim says. The mountain lions have also been a huge problem over the years on the farm. A few years ago, they lost two dozen sheep to one mountain lion that was living in the area. They also simply just jump over then fence and help themselves to what they like. Kim once woke to a mountain lion right outside her window, as it took one of her sheep for its dinner.

Kim mostly runs her farm by herself, but gets help from Eric, who runs the tractor and cares for the orchard. Her two daughters, Mesa and Maya, both in their twenties, also help when they come home. Eric still works part time in Albuquerque, staying there for a few days every two weeks. The rest of the time, he is able to work from home. Kim, however, has been farming full-time for about fifteen years now. “Every year is different,” she says. “There is always something…a new disease, a new bug.” Kim is originally from Pheonix and worked as a Social Worker before dedicating her time to the farm. “I didn’t necessarily see this (farming) as my life’s calling, but it was a wonderfIMG_0845ul lifestyle to bring my kids up in.”

Kim’s favorite crop that she grows are her heirloom tomatoes. “I am a cook so I am always looking for flavor. I am kind of addicted to these tomatoes. I have to grow them. I can’t stop.” If you have not ordered Kim’s heirloom tomatoes yet, you should give them a try…they are delicious!

Being a small farmer is tough. It is hard work. It is hard to make a living. One thing that Kim struggles with, like manyIMG_0849 small farmers, is finding the right labor. The right person to do the job. “It is a very tricky thing,” she says “My (other) biggest challenge is marketing. It is a big issue. It is a totally different thing than growing the stuff. I like that the co-op does it for me. It makes it much easier. As my kids say, ‘This is cool. This is what you need.’” Kim sees the co-op as having the potential to help farmers in our area feed our entire community, to make the local food scene much more prominent in Southwest Colorado and beyond. I agree!

Get to Know your Local Farmer: Homegrown Farm

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Homegrown’s famous lettuce mix

Homegrown Farm in is run by Emily and Mike Jensen, who are absolutely passionate about what they do. This is their tenth season on their 12 acre farm, 2 ½ of which is under production for vegetables. A visit to their farm in Bayfield was a wonderful experience, highlighting how efficient a small farm can be if you are lucky enough to have two people who have dedicated their careers to it. Not to say that Mike and Emily are not extremely busy, because they are. They also have two young boys, Kanan and Gavin, and since they live on their farm, the lines between parenting and farming often get crossed. When I asked Mike how many hours a week he works, he laughed and said, “Oh Goodness. I try not to think about it. I am always working. I am taking care of the kids while I am washing lettuce. If I really had to put a number on it…well, it has to be over 80.” Despite the long hours and hard work, they make it look appealing and easy. Their farm is absolutely beautiful, with neatly planted rows of vegetables and a very tidy washing station. Their kids are well-behaved, charming and could probably teach most of us a thing or two about vegetables.

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Emily, farming and parenting like a pro!

Both Mike and Emily are from California, although much different areas of the state. Mike is from Los Angeles, while Emily from Lake Tahoe. They met in Santa Cruz, California, where they both were geologists. From there, they traveled a lot together and eventually landed themselves as interns on a large farm in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. After that experience they knew that they wanted to be small farmers, and wanted to buy land in Colorado. They looked all over Colorado before settling in Bayfield. They both started out working other jobs and farming on the side before they were able to commit full-time to their farm. As Mike puts it, they have no “plan B,” meaning that they do not have a back-up plan. They intend to make being farmers not only their jobs, but the centerpiece to their lifestyle, for as long as they can.

Homegrown Farm follows a “biodynamic” model, a somewhat complicated method that involves a homeopathic approach to the longevity and sustainability of the soil. It uses what is called “preparations” to keep the soil fertile and to enhance the quality and flavor of the food. These “preparations” are made from fermented manure, minerals and herbs. There is a lot more that goes into the Biodynamic method. If you would like to learn more about biodynamics, please visit www.biodynamics.com/what-is-biodynamics.

Mike and Emily grow twenty five different crops for their CSA, which has twIMG_0602enty-five members. This is the last year they will participate in a CSA, with the intention of producing more crops for the Southwest Farm Fresh Cooperative next year. Homegrown produce can also be found at the Durango Farmer’s Market on Saturday mornings. Homegrown produces eight different crops for Farmer’s Market, including carrots, salad mix, beets, kale and winter squash. The couple hires about five employees during the peak season in addition to five to six work-trades. “I haven’t found the right spot quite yet foIMG_0609r how many workers to hire to make a profit,“ Mike says. “The more workers, the more food, but not necessarily more profit.” Mike looks forward to having his kids being his farm hands when they get older. “In four more years, we will have some free labor. It is called chores,” he says with a smile.

When I asked Mike what his favorite crop is, he answered, “Garlic. It is the odd one. It is truly seed selecting-choosing the best seeds for the following year. The garlic gets better each year, more accustomed to our soil.” Emily likes the winter squash. “I love it,” she says. “It keeps forever, it is versatile, you can eat the whole vegetable including the seeds, and it is amazing how much food you get from one plant.”

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The Jensen Family

According to Mike, the most difficult part of being a small farmer is the unpredictable factors, such as the weather, as a short-term challenge and learning how to sustain themselves with only their farm as a long-term challenge. “One storm can wipe out your whole season. The season can be shorter than expected. Also, we can’t support ourselves on just farming right now. We need to find out how to do it right.” “A lot of Americans do not value their food and do not want to pay for it,” Emily adds. “We do this (farm) for our lifestyle and our family, and for people who value food can also buy from us. We feed about 50 families, but it needs to be 50,000 to change the way people think about food.”

Mike and Emily divide upIMG_0607 the work list so that they each have separate duties on the farm. Mike is in charge of the fields, while Emily takes control of the processing (washing and bagging produce) and is also in charge of the house. Mike smiles as he remembers when they first started and they did everything together. “We both touched every carrot at first,” he says. Now, splitting things up gives them a little bit of separation in their day. “It is so cool to be able to work and support ourselves as a family. I get to see my kids all the time,” Mike adds. “Homesteading is our passion,” Emily says. “Growing vegetables is our business because it is the best way we can make a living out of our homestead. We want a diversified farm. It has already evolved so much and it will continue to change.”