Published Apr 25, 2024

Over the Garden Gate: Tips for Vegetable Production

By Jacqueline Venner Senske

Farmer-to-farmer tips for vegetable production

With raising vegetables, as with many things, personal experience is often the best teacher. But that insight can also come from hearing the experiences of others. From swapping tips with neighbors over the garden gate to connecting with virtual “neighbors” online, farmer-to-farmer learning remains a central way of passing on knowledge.

For this article, vegetable farmers from across the state, and representing a range of farm sizes and enterprises, shared advice and musings in response to the question: “What are your favorite lessons gleaned from experiences on your vegetable farm?”

The answers may spark ideas, raise eyebrows and make heads nod – just like those neighborly chats. Lean on the proverbial fencepost with us and browse these tips worthy of sharing over the garden gate.

Plan and Think Ahead

Notepad iconErik Sessions
Patchwork Green Farm | Decorah, Iowa

Put some texture in any cement floor surface, indoors or outdoors. You’ll be walking on it with wet boots or shoes and heavy tubs – you don’t want a slick surface!

Do your best to site a hoop house on level ground. All of our land is sloped, and we learned the hard way that it would be a good idea to level the ground before constructing a hoop house.

Don’t sell poor quality vegetables (over-ripe tomatoes, under-ripe winter squash, dirty lettuce, buggy kale). You will lose customers and reputation, both of which are hard to win back.

Stephanie Meyers
Sonshine Farm | Hubbard, Iowa

Keep records! Planting dates, first harvest dates, amount sold, etc. Take the time to do this as it helps with future planning. Even though it is time-consuming, it is very much worth it in the end.

Carly McAndrews
Trowel & Error Farm | Cedar Rapids, Iowa

The No. 1 book I recommend to any beginning vegetable farmer is “Crop Planning for Organic Vegetable Growers” by Frédéric Thériault and Daniel Brisebois.

In the winter of 2019, I was trying to finish grad school and plan our first CSA season. I had six seasons of farm work but no experience with crop planning. I was trying to piece together different resources to figure out exactly how much to plant to make sure I had enough each week of the season. I’m not a math person, and I was swimming in numbers and spreadsheets, totally unsure if my numbers were right.

Then I found this book (by Thériault and Brisebois) at a farm conference, and it made crop planning feel straightforward and accessible. I especially like that it is geared toward people going into their very first season farming on their own.

Be Resourceful

Garden tools iconJill Beebout
Blue Gate Farm | Chariton, Iowa

Talk to your regional seed reps. Whether you are a big or small producer, they are a valuable resource.

Partner with other farms for group buys and projects.

In the off season, do your tool equipment maintenance and inventory your supplies so those things are all ready when you need them.

Kathy Rose
Lyn Farm | Lanesboro, Iowa

I container-garden using recycled cattle protein tubs, milk crates, rusted wash tubs and plastic feed sacs. Containers fit into small areas with fences to keep rabbits, chickens and goats out.

Erik Sessions
Patchwork Green Farm | Decorah, Iowa

Hire an accountant for tax preparation. You’ll save a lot of money – and time and frustration.

Matt Johnson
Long Walk Farm | Council Bluffs, Iowa

For maximizing germination of plant starts, we use a simple germination chamber that keeps a steady temperature and humid environment for fast and consistent germination. We use old single-door and double-door coolers that are no longer functional, put a crock pot filled with water in the bottom of the cooler and use an Inkbird thermostat to control the temperature.

A germination chamber like this can be set up for less than $100. Nonfunctional coolers are cheap or often free, old crock pots are inexpensive at thrift stores and new Inkbird thermostats are less than $50. We grow lots of lettuce transplants in paperpot trays and with this setup we can germinate lettuce in 48 hours consistently.

Use the Right Tools for the Job

Shaffer Ridgeway
Southern Goods Farm | Waterloo, Iowa

Buying a waterwheel transplanter was a huge time saver on my farm. It was a game changer.

Tractor iconErik Sessions
Patchwork Green Farm | Decorah, Iowa

Buy a reliable tractor as soon as you can afford to.

T.D. Holub
Garden Oasis, LLC | Coggon, Iowa

Mechanize and build infrastructure whenever possible. In all aspects of our farm where I have been able to build something or purchase machinery, it has helped increase our farm’s efficiency, which in turn increases our productivity.

On my vegetable farm, mechanical help has been most effective with soil prep (chisel, disc, Perfecta field cultivator), seeding (vacuum seeder), planting (waterwheel), harvesting (potato harvester, utility task vehicle to bring in harvest) and washing and packing (AZS Rinse Conveyor).

Over the years, I have added these pieces of equipment to increase efficiency and speed. When we first started our CSA, it took nearly six to eight people to perform all of our farm tasks. Now it takes just three – my partner Sarah and myself plus just one employee.

Mechanization helps to set the pace because you have to keep up with the waterwheel or the produce washer. It’s more sustainable on your body because a machine can lift heavy totes and loads; it makes activities faster and more comfortable; and generally, it creates a little nicer product due to all the previous factors.

By this, I mean if your task can be performed in a comfortable manner and a faster, more efficient way, you will have less burnout and thus have a product that is better because the people producing it aren’t overworked and overstressed.

Take Care of Your Soil

Plant iconShaffer Ridgeway
Southern Goods Farm | Waterloo, Iowa

When I was starting out with vegetable farming, I wish I’d known more about nutrient requirements and pest management. I also wish I would have made a production plan.

Erik Sessions
Patchwork Green Farm | Decorah, Iowa

Test for salts in your hoop house soil.

Rob Faux
Genuine Faux Farm | Tripoli, Iowa

A buckwheat cover crop early in the season followed by a thick cover of something like Japanese millet in a field that has had Canada thistle issues will suppress the Canada thistle effectively for a couple of years. But that’s often enough to get back on top of controlling them with other methods.

Take Care of Yourself and Your Team

Barn iconJill Beebout
Blue Gate Farm | Chariton, Iowa

You don’t have to grow every crop, and it’s okay to drop crops that don’t do well for you or that you don’t enjoy growing.

Emily Paulsen
Brun Ko Farm | Exira, Iowa

Less is more. Get really good at growing and marketing one thing. And if veggies are your “thing,” pick five to 10 crops and probably just one sales avenue the first year.

Erik Sessions
Patchwork Green Farm | Decorah, Iowa

Try to take a little time off mid-season for rejuvenation. Also, pay your help well.

Want to Learn More?

Stay connected with other farmers in-person and online. Our upcoming field day season will feature over 50 events around Iowa and surrounding states.

To connect virtually, our horticulture email discussion group is an excellent way to hear and share tips and experience. If you’re not already signed up, contact debra.boekholder(at)practicalfarmers(dot)org.

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