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Inside, the growing season starts simply and peacefully enough, with Dan Kent seeding celeriac, shallots, and onion, and Megan starting flowers like delphinium and cosmos. It's snowy and sleeting outside, but pretty cozy in the greenhouse. "It's not bad work, honestly," says Dan. Photo: David Sommerstein
Inside, the growing season starts simply and peacefully enough, with Dan Kent seeding celeriac, shallots, and onion, and Megan starting flowers like delphinium and cosmos. It's snowy and sleeting outside, but pretty cozy in the greenhouse. "It's not bad work, honestly," says Dan. Photo: David Sommerstein

"We struggle early, finish strong": Lessons learned on a Lisbon farm

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With highs in the 40s all week, it looks like the weather has finally broken. It's springtime in the North Country. But it could still be weeks before the soil is warm enough to plant crops. Farmers are starting seeds now. They're planning. And they're worrying.

All this year, David Sommerstein is sending monthly stories from one organic vegetable farm, Kent Family Growers in St. Lawrence County. He'll follow the seasons, the crops, the labor, and the business of making a living being an "eat local" farmer. This time of year, all the action's in the greenhouse.

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The seeding desk becomes the Kents' main office during the early spring. Photo: David Sommerstein

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***

It's still winter outside the Kents' greenhouse when I visit. Mountains of plowed snow crowd the driveway. The outdoor wood boiler's roaring. But inside, it's spring. Neat rows of bright green starts, some already several inches tall, cover the floor.

In one corner, Dan Kent's in a flannel shirt and denim vest, hunched over a desk like a jeweler. With a tweezer, he deposits a microscopic celeriac seed in one cell of a tray of potting soil. He jokes each seed is "approximately the size of a quark." He'll repeat this action several thousand times.

Meanwhile, Megan Kent's in a green pullover, long brown hair pulled back in clip. She taps delphinium seeds into a plastic gadget. Ever so gently, she sews this season's flower crop. The two of them work steady-handed and intensely focused.

"It's not bad work, honestly," says Dan. "You mean on a day like today?" Megan answers, "you can hear the sleet and snow hitting the plastic ceiling here in the greenhouse. This is a nice place to be on this kind of day."

"The blessings of diversity"

This scene happens every year.

Outside the greenhouse on Kent Family Growers' farm, spring is a long way away. There are reports the frost is two feet deep into the soil. Dan and Megan may not be able to plant outside until May. Photo: David Sommerstein
Outside the greenhouse on Kent Family Growers' farm, spring is a long way away. There are reports the frost is two feet deep into the soil. Dan and Megan may not be able to plant outside until May. Photo: David Sommerstein
"In 11 years of growing, we've gotten used to expecting the growing season to begin April 15 to maybe the 24th. I don't think we've ever been stymied more than a few days out of that range."

But this year – major stymie. Dan says the frost is reportedly two feet down outside.

"From the looks of things outside the greenhouse, I don't think we're going to have soil we can work until real close to May."

And the dominoes cascade. Dan had to tell the three foreign workers coming here on work visas this summer, from Brazil, Hungary, and France, to book their flights a week later.

Meanwhile, the cold's already done its damage to one crop. Most of the shallots didn't germinate. Because they're daylight sensitive, there's no second chance.

"If you seed them now, there isn't enough time between now and June 21 – the solstice – for them to put on enough leaf matter to support putting on a big bulb. One chance to do it. If you blow it, that's it for the year. We've got to think about 2015 for shallots now."

The Kents will have half the shallot harvest they were counting on – if they're lucky. That's thousands of dollars lost in wholesale sales downstate.

Some years a crop like sweet corn or leeks might bomb altogether.

But here’s where the Kents have built what Dan calls “the blessings of diversity” into their business plan. Of 40 crops, most will come through.

Diverse markets give them flexibility. They may not meet their numbers for the wholesale market, but the Kents’ 130 CSA subscribers – most of whom already paid - will get their shallots. So will local stores like the Potsdam Coop and Nature’s Storehouse in Canton.

Onions well underway. But Dan Kent says because of the cold, several trays of shallots didn't germinate, "and that represents thousands of dollars lost in potential sales." Shallots are daylight sensitive, so there aren't enough days left until the summer solstice to start over. "There's no second chance," Dan says. Photo: David Sommerstein
Onions well underway. But Dan Kent says because of the cold, several trays of shallots didn't germinate, "and that represents thousands of dollars lost in potential sales." Shallots are daylight sensitive, so there aren't enough days left until the summer solstice to start over. "There's no second chance," Dan says. Photo: David Sommerstein
That's income. But it's also what Community Supported Agriculture is all about – members investing in the reward and risk that inevitably comes with farming. Megan says they've earned it.

"It reflects that they trust us to provide the food that they're paying for. They wrote that whole check, paid in full, and they're not going to see any food until June. But they trust that they're going to get it, and they will. I really appreciate that with our customers. They know that we'll come through for them."

What they've learned

Gardening tip from the Kents! Once you've seeded a tray, float it in a shallow pan. Let the water seep up from the bottom rather than watering from the top. That way you won't flush out the delicate seeds.

It's one of countless tricks Dan and Megan have learned these 12 years. But certainly not the biggest.

"In the first few years, the entire growing season was this mentally pathological experience. Every mistake I took really hard. I assumed that I was heading us towards bankruptcy with every mistake."

The Kents have more on the line than ever this year. More customers. Big plans to sell wholesale in New York City to distributors who may not be as understanding as the hometown CSA folks.

But even with this crazy winter, Dan's put the pathological stuff behind him. He adjusts his wire-rimmed glasses, jerry-rigged with red duct tape on one arm.

"I've learned since then that a lot of these things work out. We struggle early and finish strong."

So, farmers, backyard gardeners – there's some advice, a mantra if you will. "Struggle early. Finish strong." By July, the crops will be high. The sun will be warm. With fingers crossed, Mother Nature will deal us a good hand after a winter we'll never forget.

***

David Sommerstein is checking in with the Kents' progress all year. Check out the first installment in a Year on the Farm here.

You can follow along with regular photo and video updates, including posts from the Kents themselves, on the Year on the Farm Tumblr page. Bookmark the page or "follow" it to get regular updates all year long.

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