by Camille Cody
“Know Your Farmer” and “Food From Here” are hot phrases and bumper stickers right now. The movement advocates a much-needed return to family-run business and community building. When we ask ourselves how we can support the farmers in our area, most of answer it from a consumer standpoint. We need to buy more local goods so that local farmers can make a decent living. Fortunately, in the past few years CSA’s, farmers’ markets, farm to table restaurants and roadside produce stands have popped up all over the place, providing many avenues by which to satisfy our desire for fresh, seasonal produce. These are all good things – farmers get the funds they need for the farm to survive (hopefully with some left over) and we get full bellies and the satisfaction of having strengthened the local economy.
When Dick Schneider asked himself these questions, his response came in a completely different form. Help the farmers from the front end, not the back end, of their growing process. This spurred another series of questions: How can I help make the farmer’s life better? What varieties of crops grow best here? What growing methods are the most successful for the varieties of crops that grow here? He has answered these questions, and hundreds of other plant, variety and growing condition specific ones in his own highly specialized growing operation.
Experimental farming with an altruistic bent is as close a label as any when describing Rain Coast Farm, Dick’s food intensive hub of self-built greenhouses, record-keeping garden shed, and intensive growing spaces including in-ground plantings, boxed raised beds, container gardens and hanging baskets. More to the point, Dick has decided to help support his local farmers by identifying some of this region’s hard-to-grow crops (specifically tomatoes, peppers, eggplants and cucumbers) along with a few high-demand ones like strawberries, raspberries and apples, experimenting with different varieties and growing conditions to determine the best possible combination of the two. He then offers that knowledge (and saved seed) to local farmers to help expand and strengthen their own productions. And he does all this without earning a penny. In fact, what he and his wife, Anne, don’t eat themselves, they give to friends and visitors or donate to food banks. Even the small amount of money that he accepts from people who buy his starts he puts right back into Jefferson County agricultural endeavors, such as the Farm to School program and OlyCAP services.
“I don’t want to compete, I’m done with money,” says the 10-years retiree. “I’m not a pro, I wasn’t going to be a breeder.”
For someone who doesn’t consider himself a professional he has one of the most highly efficient and controlled growing operations outside of a land grant university that I know of. He starts all plants from seed and records everything from germination time and rate, to feeding schedule and cultivating, to amount and weight of produce. And how many non-professionals keep a refractometer around the house which is used to test the sugar content of a fruit to determine its ripeness and comparative flavor quality?
Not that I’m entirely convinced the man even needs a digital gadget to know when his crops are ripe. He spends everyday in his garden, in and out of the greenhouses, tending raised-bed strawberries and hanging tomato buckets, pruning indeterminate tomatoes (the kind that keep producing fruit until frost, unlike determinates which produce one flush of tomatoes and are spent) and using IPM (integrated pest management) to keep bugs at bay in his apple, plum and pear orchard. “I don’t spray anything,” he says. “I don’t need to.” One trick – he likes to hang red plastic cups coated with Tangle-Trap (an organic, insect trapping adhesive coating) in each of his fruit trees. The bugs are drawn to the bright color (they are particularly attracted to reds and yellows) and get stuck on the gooey outside, never to bite into or infect an apple, plum or pear.
He is so familiar with his property – the lay of the land and the fall of the sun – that he knows which areas of the garden and orchard will mature first. He advises to “use your land and the sun to set up your garden. Afternoon sun is much more useful than morning sun.”
He has blackberries running up the fence on opposite sides of the orchard. The berries in the back – that get the heavier dose of afternoon sun – are a full two weeks ahead of the front fence crop. And his main tomato-growing greenhouse was built with an angled roof, slanted so as to catch the highest amount of sunlight during its most active time of the day.
Some other practices Dick has found to be most beneficial to growing are planting lettuce in 2 1/2-week cycles, pruning fruit trees heavily so the fruit will stay low and getting tomatoes out of the ground – he has found that there is no better place for them (outside of a greenhouse) than in large black pots where the soil can get nice and toasty, which is what tomatoes need for adequate growth in this climate.
At a time in history when so many new, young farmers are hopping onto the scene, we need experienced mentors to guide and advise. It is essential that older farmers (the majority of farmers in the US are now over 50 years of age and winding down their production) pass onto the next generation their local wisdom about the soil, the microclimate, and the yearly cycles. The young farmers of North Jefferson County are lucky to have as an additional resource the altruistic, detail-oriented, record-collecting Dick Schneider. The young farmers just have to want it. “We have an open door,” Dick says. “Anybody is welcome. I just want to keep farmers in business.”