Work for Your Farm? Evaluating and Tracking New Crops.

It seems fitting to talk about our farm’s crop tracking systems for the New Varieties issue of the Quarterly. Roots has been an ASCFG varieties Trialer since 2014. The plant geek in me absolutely loves trying, comparing, and ruthlessly eliminating different crops. I find it’s important to first review my criteria for what to grow. We are limited on land, so choosing top performers is essential to our profitability. I consider my market. Designers want fancy colors, new varieties—and are willing to pay a premium. Supermarkets want longevity, bright colors, and low price. And I consider my climate. Several seed suppliers and influencers are located in very different regions than mine; I’ve so often tried their suggestions only to be sorely disappointed. It’s hard to not get sucked into every flashy new thing, but you can lose a lot of time, money and space!

Here is a bit of my system for tracking new crops and determining what to grow:

1. My crop plan is the heart of my planning for my farm. It’s a massive Excel document, with tabs for seeding schedules, field maps, and task lists by month. Each year, I copy last year’s document and rebuild it as the next year’s plan. I keep this document in Dropbox so I can access it on any device. Using Google Sheets or similar would also work well.
2. I love paper and clipboards! I print copies of the pages of the crop plan for transplant seeding and direct-seeded crops, plus a summary of all trial crops. These clipboards live either in our seeding room or hung from my desk in the barn. There is always extra paper to make notes, plus columns for things like actual dates and numbers. Anyone may write on these.
3. Anything that is a trial crop gets highlighted every place on the crop plan. These may be ASCFG Trial cultivars or just other things I am curious about. When things are seeded that are highlighted, that signals to the seeder that they must mark those crops to be tracked by using a neon label.
4. At transplant time, anything that has a neon label gets flags with names that go into the row. Each field map has a “front” and the flag must be placed at the front of that crop. We use the neon flags on wire stems that people often mark invisible dog fences with.
5. If the crop is a staked and netted crop, we then tie neon flagging tape with the name onto the net, using similar protocol as above.
6. We find it best to plant test varieties right alongside the same type of plant of our tried and true crops. For example: we already know the marigolds we love. Putting a test variety beside them gives us immediate comparison on time to bloom, height, productivity, etc.
7. I make so many notes! The important thing is to just get them down somewhere during the chaos of the season. You can integrate them later. I make: paper notes on any of the aforementioned clipboards, notes voice texted into my phone’s “notes” page, and notes in the Excel crop plan, either on the seed-starting page or on the field map page. It just must go in the line with the crop.
8. I make two types of notes: 1) Big picture. What is missing in terms of form, color, or abundance during certain times of year? What colors do we have too much of? For example, how can we balance that two-week period in June when everything is yellow and white? 2) Comparative notes. These are very important when evaluating varieties of existing crops on your farm. Time to bloom, productivity and yield, vigor and disease resistance, vase life, and ease of harvest are all important factors.

As with anything, this takes time and dedication. But if you pursue it with curiosity, it’s just another part of the farming game (you know, that game where the rules change every day?) Best wishes for crop planning this winter!

Michelle Elston

Roots Cut Flower Farm

Contact her at [email protected]