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Designing the Organic Dance
Going from field to field, Nash Huber sees growing crops as a delicate dance.
“When you think about design, it’s not something you just pull out of your head,” Huber said.
“You’re looking at trying to get all these criteria (weather, soil, etc.) in. It’s very much like a dance.”
Since starting Nash’s Organic Produce in 1979, Huber has upped his farming acreage by hundreds of acres (more than 450 total), which comes with plenty of planning, designing an intricate system of areas from 200-foot beds to 45-acre expanses.
Huber and his wife, Patty McManus-Huber, own 19.5 acres and lease the rest with about half of that protected strictly for farming by conservation easements with the North Olympic Land Trust and PCC Farmland Trust.
Crew members like Sam McCullough, the seed, field and equipment manager, work in 16 different locations all within five miles of Nash’s Farm Store at 4681 Sequim-Dungeness Way.
“It can be well planned and worked out to total controlled chaos and everything in between,” McCullough said.
“There is a plan going on but you have to stay flexible and adapt. Farming is not something you can cheat and rush, and you’ll never know it all. It’s a constant work-in-progress.”
McCullough said farmers rarely get ahead by being greedy.
Enter crop rotation.
The soil they work on is subject to a number of factors if they continue to replant their vegetables in the same spot. It could lose nutrients and structure, leading to destructive insects and diseases. With carrots they rotate spots every four years to avoid root fly maggots.
Each year, the farm alternates dry (grains) and wet (vegetables) crops except berries, orchards and sometimes artichokes, in the fields.
McCullough said it’s a constant learning process.
“A lot of it is experience of what grows well in that season and with as diversified of a cropping pattern as we have, it could come down to logistics,” he said.
“As easy as the rotations that follow each other, those plants will contribute to each other. You don’t want to put root crops on top of root crops.”
Love when a plan comes together
While some may need a map to navigate the acreage on Nash’s Farm, McManus-Huber said her husband, McCullough and others know the grounds so well, they hardly refer to maps. She said maps are mostly used in the winter, planning the crop sequence for the next season despite an ever-changing landscape.
Chris Tipton, vegetable production and sales manager, said their plans change a lot over the course of a year.
“Our design stays fluid around soil type and the weather,” Tipton said.
“With our orchards or pig grounds or perennial crops being fixed, shorter term planning things have to have more fluidity. You keep in mind how pests affect it, and how do we plant our brassicas? Part of our philosophy in maintaining everything is having the flexibility to not dictate terms and at the same time learn the lessons and apply them.”
Huber said “You don’t tell nature what to do.”
He added that warmer years like this year change things.
“There hasn’t been a spring like this in 25 years. I remember springs like this in the 1970s and 1980s,” he said.
“It changes the timing you get in the field. Two springs ago you couldn’t get in the fields until April. This year we were starting in March.”
Waylon Barrett, vegetable production manager, said they generally look at fields and find what is best suited to those fields that seem warmer and drier or vice-versa.
“Every season things aren’t going to go where you thought they were going to go,” Barrett said.
“And some years it designs itself with nature involved.”
With the message of growing organic foods front and center, Huber’s crew find many of their techniques are things everyone can do.
Creating a healthy habitat for birds, certain insects and flowers is crucial to a healthy field system, McCullough said.
“If it’s not productive, we’re not going to push it. Chances are you’re going to damage the soil,” he said.
He compares using pesticides to modern medicine in that pathogens in people are building up immunities in much the same way plant predators are.
One of Huber’s biggest allies is phacelia, a plant that attracts insects, namely honeybees, that eat aphids and other invasive insects. With brassicas like Brussels sprouts, they’ll plant three rows of crop and then one row of phacelia.
“This is something gardeners can do,” McManus-Huber said. “Don’t just make it a vegetable garden. Plant flowers that will attract these types of insects to protect your garden.”
To kill weeds without pesticides, McCullough said in the spring they’ll plow and disk to produce good tilth in the soil and pre-irrigate it to flush out weeds, keeping moisture up.
“You just killed an entire generation of weed seed,” he said. “We may do that one or two or more times depending on the time of year.”
Timing it right
Life on the farm always is going, McManus-Huber said.
Crew leaders might be on phones or doing field walks resolving problems and timing harvests just right each season.
“It’s noticing the texture of the soil, smell of soil, to what that crop looked like last year and as time goes on your experience builds at the same time,” McCullough said.
“You wouldn’t want to put a bunch of spinach, a fast crop, 3-4 weeks, then one bed of parsley that can go all the way into next spring. You’ve created a bed there you are going to have to work around. You plant like things with like things so fields stay the same age. It’s hard to do and sometimes you have to work around that.”
“But when things are working right, there’s a synchronicity between everyone,” Tipton said. “We’re finishing each other’s sentences and there’s a point in the season where we get to that. It just naturally develops that way.”
But the nature of the farm is to grow and change.
“It’d be nice to take a field every year and cover crop it and rotate it with the others, every five or eight years,” McCullough said. “We’re working our way to that point, but it’s like this farming thing is addictive. You never have enough ground.”
Tipton finds it’s tricky but fun keeping the nuts and bolts of the business together while room for trying new things expands.
“There are lifetimes of projects here from seed breeding to acclimatizing a variety (of seed) you like to this area to growing all the varieties you want to play with,” McCullough said. “When you’re doing it right, it’s fun.”
For more information on Nash’s Organic Produce, call 683-4642 or go online at www.nashsorganicproduce.com.