Hello there!

Although we are blanketed with snow at the moment, at the farm we’re already feeling like the 2021 season is about to get going! We’ve finished our crop plan, pored over our spreadsheet, calculated the total number of seeds we’d need for this season, and which seed companies we buy them from. Then we called the ever friendly folks at Johnny’s & Fedco to order our seeds. We’re so lucky in this region to have some amazing seed companies to choose from. For the second year in a row, these companies are being inundated with orders. They have ramped up supply in the face of lots more demand for seeds than ever before. Even so, they are struggling to keep up with demand and we’ve had to make substitutions and some of our seeds have been backordered. I thought it might be interesting to talk a bit about varieties of crops, what they are and why they’re an exciting part of farm planning. 


To start off I wanted to share this article explaining plant breeding and varieties. It’s written by a plant breeder and the founder of Johnny’s Seeds, he’s able to give a lot clearer and more succinct explanation than I can about plant varieties.

Plant Breeding at Johnny's Seeds

If you read that article, you know that variety choice can influence the stature of a plant, how it sets its fruit, how big the fruit is and what it tastes like. Not only that, but some varieties come with disease resistance, meaning they've been bred from parents that aren’t as affected by specific plant diseases. 


At Book & Plow, we consider a lot of different things when choosing which varieties to grow. For instance, with tomatoes, we choose varieties that have resistance to a super destructive disease called late blight (phytopthera infestans). We invest a lot of time and resources into tomato production. They are heavy feeders meaning they require more fertilizer than most other crops. They prefer warm soil so we grow them using black plastic mulch. They need to be pruned, staked, and trellised, and pathways between beds get a thick layer of straw mulch to keep weeds at bay. If we were to grow non-resistant variety, there is a chance we could invest all that time and those resources into our tomato crop and have our yield drastically reduced by getting late blight. Buying seeds with resistance is a great way to ensure a good harvest from our tomatoes. 

The worst thing about late blight is that it not only affects the leaves, it can also ruin the fruit! Once you get it, there's nothing you can do besides wish you grew resistant varieties.

As we experiment with different varieties season to season, we do end up with favorites (carmen and olympus peppers, bolero carrots, and delicata squash to name a few). It is important, however, to try new varieties as we continue farm. Even in non-pandemic-induced-gardening-frenzy-years, there are seed crop failures and it’s nice to have a backup variety that we know grows well in our system. Also, if we never try new varieties, we’ll never know if there’s a tastier option out there!

Most years we choose one or two new varieties to trial. By limiting ourselves to just a few, we allow ourselves the chance to actually observe differences. Each time we add a variable to track during the season, we are giving our future selves a lot of responsibility to hold on top of weeding, harvesting, washing, learning, teaching, etc. Fortunately we’re all nerds! We love making observations and using them to inform our decisions.That said, it’s important to keep things simple- a lesson that I quickly learned as a farmer is to be kind to my tired, sweaty August-self and not try to complicate the plan too much in January. 

Usually when we trial a variety, we only grow a small amount of it to observe how well it grows and what we think of it. A few years ago, a neat squash caught my eye in a seed catalog called the North Georgia Candy Roaster. It was described as a very old heirloom squash that made the most delicious pies and quick breads. We grew half a row of it and were smitten with its beautiful peach and teal coloring as well as how odd and sculptural it looked. CSA members loved it as well, and we got glowing reports from members about the pies and muffins they baked. We grew an entire bed of it this past season and will continue to do so in the future. 

Another variety trial success was the Ethiopian mustard/ Abyssinian kale we grew this season. A friend of ours who works at a seed company told us about this plant that was being marketed as a microgreen but had incredible flavor when full grown. We seeded 1 row of it this past season and the feedback from our CSA members was overwhelmingly positive. I was excited the week we gave it out because I had preharvested some and tried the recipe for Gomen Wat I was planning on including in that week's newsletter. I thought it was SO delicious and I was curious to see if members agreed. Even so, I wasn’t expecting the response it got. It seemed like everyone was asking if that ~special kale~ was in the next week’s share, where they could buy it after the CSA ended for the season, and confirming that there would be more of it in next season’s CSA share. 

As with every minute detail of the farm, there is so much thought, observation, trial and error that goes into the varieties we choose. If you have any variety recommendations or crops you want us to try, please send us an email and we’ll see what we can do!

Ethiopian crops in the US
I'll leave you with an interview with Menkir Tamrat- the man responsible for bringing lots of Ethiopian crops to the US. It's a great read and includes a recipe for gomen at the end.

For Book & Plow Farm,

Kaylee Brow
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Book & Plow Farm · 301 E Hadley Rd · Amherst, MA 01002 · USA

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