Have you ever wondered about how U-Pick farms work? Here’s a fun and informative Q & A with Anaswara, our expert U-Pick farmer who shares her years of expertise in U-pick farming.
On an organic U-Pick picking farm, participants pick their own produce. They learn how to recognize and harvest their own produce instead of receiving a CSA box each week. A picking farm is a form of Community Supported Agriculture. CSA’s usually deliver a box of food to families once a week. Many consumers in a regular CSA feel they get too much of some produce and not enough of others, and it’s sometimes wilted. With our organic picking farm, everyone harvests only what they want and need. The freshest produce is available at its nutritional peak. Pickers understand they pick only for their family and produce is for immediate consumption, not for canning, freezing, or drying. Our pickers have been very conscious and honest. If one cares about eating healthy food, perhaps one is more likely to be ethical and fair.
U-pick farming is the hope for the future for small farmers. On a picking farm, participants pay for a year in advance and then come to pick when it’s convenient for them. This gives the small farmer start-up money to buy seed and hire help to plant and tend the veggies.
All my farmer friends told me this wouldn’t work, and it has worked beautifully. People treat the crops with care. They so enjoy being in nature and picking their own food.
An organic picking farm can be done on a small scale as well. Even if your home’s backyard only has a few beds you could start with one or two friends as your pickers. Or, 3 friends could join and each grow a different crop in their small backyards to share with the other two friends. One could grow produce, the second herbs and berries, and the third fruit trees to share with one another. All sorts of growing and sharing combinations are possible. Pray and follow Amma’s guidance to grow your own organic food. Amma will guide you.
We advertise our picking farm with the flyer shown here. The families who come on our farm tours receive a flyer. Our friends also hand out flyers for us at the Farmers Market.
Turtle Barn Organic Farm has a big bulletin board on the farm at our pickers table. There is a layout chart of the farm beds. The beds are numbered on the chart and on a corresponding number on a tall stick in the bed. As crops mature and are ready to pick, I list the crop and its bed number. I write any harvesting information needed on our clipboard that pickers take with them when they pick. I also place a tall stake with the vegetable name and a long pink fluorescent ribbon on the markers where the crop is located. That way it is easy for families to find the vegetables when they are ripe.
I guide and go with new pickers until they are comfortable harvesting alone and am available if they need coaching by phone. Pickers fill out a Picking inventory sheet each time they pick. I use the Picking inventory as a guide to what and how much to plant each year. Pickers weigh produce and estimate herbs in handfuls.
Pickers pay me for the whole year in advance which comes out to about $9. a week for organic produce and herbs. Since most herbs are perennials, I often have extra volunteer herb plants they can adopt and take home to start their own herb gardens, especially the cilantro and mints.
No, Turtle Barn Farm has about an acre under cultivation. At this size, it is way too much for one person to keep up. So, how do I find farm crews and helpers for the farm? There are several avenues we have explored. We first started with friends.
When I began, Don, a 70-year-old man who lives in our garage apartment, and I did all the planting. I was in my 50’s and he was in his 70’s. Now I’m 76 and he’s in his 90’s. My husband had a full time environmental career, so on weekends, he took care of anything weighing over 40 pounds. Don and I took care of the rest. I quickly learned the importance of support and farm crews for the farm.
I’ve had apprentices who paid me to teach them. I’ve mentored many young adults who want to grow their own produce. They are eager to learn from someone who has had more experience.
A vocational training High School wanted students to learn organic farming. For many years they brought 15 students out to the farm for 2 hours each week to help create new beds. A lot can be accomplished with 30 hours of farm crew each week! They helped with planting and I taught them organic methods. We do only a little shallow tilling, so most of our digging is by hand, as is seeding and weeding. The students learned a lot and helped us a lot!
I feel we are helping youth learn some gardening skills that will be useful for them in the future and hopefully become our next farmers. Students are making connections with nature on our farm that don’t seem to be happening in their biology class. For example, Harrison, a bright senior in engineering, was amazed to learn that each flower on strawberry plants and apple trees had the potential to become a fruit. He was astonished that adding beehives to our farm increased our crop’s production by almost 50%.
We found many others in the community who wanted to engage in farming. We’ve hired farm crews at Universities, High schools, Junior high schools, Agricultural and Vocational training schools, youth in farm clubs like 4-H, scout groups, International Student organizations, our local Boys Home, churches, and the Hindu Temple. We even had UPS and Amazon Drivers as part of our farm crew!
I’ve had Amma friends stay with us from 1-6 weeks and help on the farm for their room and board. If you have room for someone to live with you, and are willing to provide their meals, there are international agriculture groups who will match you with someone who wants to learn what you have to teach for a few weeks or months. Betty, an Amma friend, has an herb farm and has used several different international agricultural groups for years. She’s had many successful apprentices work on her farm and visit us and work on our farm.
I like to schedule farm crews one day a week and prefer having 2 to 4 workers come for 3 to 4 hours at a time. After the farm crew finishes for the day, I give them a begging bowl and we each go beg and pick our lunch from the farm. Our farm crew lunches create community and allow for so many interesting conversations with people from so many ages and backgrounds.
After our final fall harvest, we celebrate with a campfire cookout and singing around the campfire. Amma tells us to make every day a celebration. We’ve created a mini global village with what Amma refers to as Unity in Diversity.
Anaswara shares her gardening journey: From Houseplant Defeat to U-Pick Farm Victory
I am grateful for the opportunity to share about my 50 year gardening journey with you. It culminated in the creation of Turtle Barn Organic Picking Farm.
My journey began in my 20’s when I couldn’t keep house plants alive. I was really over mothering them with too much water. This was my first lesson in gardening; a little benign neglect could help plants roots grow stronger. A plant’s life may begin in a sheltered greenhouse, yet our goal is to support plants thriving in the wilds of our gardens. Overly sheltered plants develop weak stems and are prone to disease. We want to harden them off so they become strong enough to endure cold and wind.
My backyard produce garden began when I was in my 30’s. I came back from a Llama Foundation Retreat in New Mexico with a “garden calling”. I found myself in Llama’s magical gardens every spare moment I had. When I returned home, I built two 8 by 16 foot raised beds and planted them chock full of vegetables. By the next year, I had converted the rest of our small backyard into vegetable beds and created many herb beds in the front yard. This was the start of something big to come in the future!
When I was in my 40’s, I was so blessed to meet Amma and did a lot of Seva in Amma’s San Ramon, California Center newly started produce gardens in the early 1990’s. I felt Amma graced me with a full-blown gardening transmission. My desire to grow food, care for plants, and share nature with families grew stronger each year I helped in Amma’s amazing Ashram Garden.
When my husband’s environmental career moved us to a new city, we bought a home on a 1 ½ acre lot and created our farm, Turtle Barn Organic Picking Farm. We started turning our Bermuda grass yard into a vegetable and herb garden and planted fruit trees.
One of the parents asked me if I gave farm tours. It sounded like fun, so she brought her Girl Scout Troop for a tour at our farm. All the parents and children wanted to pick produce.They were excited to discover their favorite foods growing and be able to pick them. This farm tour gave birth to our picking farm. We started with 6 families and grew quickly to 15. I guess it was an idea whose time had come for me.
Soon, we had so much surplus produce that I decided to be a vendor at our local Farmers Market. Many of my friends enjoy being vendors, but I did not. I brought a turtle puppet to the market and had fun playing with all the children who came to my booth.
On an Organic picking farm people come to the farm and harvest their own produce. They pay for a year in advance which gives the farmer money to buy seed and hire farm help to care for the plants and soil. Our families love giving their children the experience of seeing how food grows and picking their own food. They love spending time in nature as well.
An organic picking farm can also be done on a smaller scale. If your home’s backyard has only a few produce beds, you could start with one or two friends as your pickers. Or, 3 friends could join and each grow a different crop in their small backyards to share with the other two friends. One could grow produce, the second herbs and berries, and the third fruit trees. All sorts of growing combinations are possible. There are all sorts of possibilities when we are inspired by Amma’s guidance to grow our own food and create community.
Turtle Barn Organic Farm has received much publicity for what is considered an innovative farming approach. Below are some of the news articles, links, and a video about the farm. We hope these will show you possibilities and inspire you to take your next step in your gardening journey.
Summer is right around the corner. Without a doubt, everyone wants to grow tomatoes. They are a delicious addition to any meal.
Tomatoes are easy to grow, even if you neglect them a bit. They are originally from the Andes Mountains in South America, where they have hundreds of varieties and can even be considered a weed. They are part of the nightshade family, as are peppers and eggplants.
A very important reason to grow them is they are on the list of the Environmental Working Group. This group compiles a list of fruits and vegetables with the highest levels of pesticide residue. Cherry tomatoes are on the top dirty dozen list. Therefore, either you should grow your own or buy organic.
They are easy to grow and, even if neglected, you will still get a harvest, though it may not be the largest harvest crop. But imagine if a little care is given? Well, then you’ll get a bumper crop and delicious-tasting tomatoes.
Tomatoes need a lot of sun!
They are a warm season crop that can’t be put outside until the soil has warmed up to at least 55° and the night temperatures don’t fall lower than 45°F; if the temperatures fall below this, they should be protected with cloths, sheets or garden blankets. Otherwise, they can easily get shriveled up and frost burned. Many times, I see the transplants being sold early in the season at nurseries; people quickly snatch them up on a nice warm day, forgetting that at night it could easily drop to high 30°F.
Tomatoes need lots of sun with a minimum of eight hours. They require well-drained soil, ideally with lots of organic matter. They will not tolerate wet feet, as the plant will rot. I have observed that, the richer the soil in organic matter, the larger production they yield and the tastier they are. The highest yields usually come from loam and clay soil. If you have sandy soil receiving southern exposure, these will produce the earliest tomatoes in the season, as they will drain quickly, and the soil will warm up early.
Tomatoes are very tolerant of slightly acid soils and will do fine with a low pH of 5.5. Higher pH will facilitate more minerals and nutrients to be readily available for absorption by the plant, so it is best to keep the pH at 6.5. Tomatoes also do well on slopes, provided they get consistent moisture; otherwise, they will develop blossom end rot.
Types of Tomatoes
Before you plant, it’s important to decide what type of tomato you like. They come in various sizes, shapes and colors.
What are your favorite kinds of tomatoes?
Do you like the large tomatoes, called beefsteak, which tend to be more watery, less meaty and grow round or oblong and are larger? (It’s clear a meat-eating person named them this way). I will call them large juicy tomatoes from now on. Upon slicing them, they can easily spread across your sandwich. These tend to weigh around a pound or more. The larger the fruit gets, the more prone to cracks. These are the varieties that take the longest to ripen.
Do you prefer those that have more pulp, are pear-shaped, have very little seeds and are often used to make sauce? These are called plum tomatoes. Used a lot in sauces, they have less juice and are usually mid-summer producing.
There are also more recent varieties, called grape tomatoes, which are more flavorful than cherry tomatoes.
They come in yellow, pink, red, orange, and various other colors that are definitely worth trying. The advantage for home gardeners is that the many varieties out there can be tried, even if one per season. The best is to grow several varieties that ripen at different times from early to late season.
Or is your preference to use the small cherry tomatoes, with no fuss, and for which you can avoid all those pesticides?
Another factor that will influence your decision is the space available to you. The height of tomatoes can be from two feet to eight or more feet. It all depends on the particular type you grow and how long your growing season is.
Three basic kinds: Determinate, Intermediate and Indeterminate Tomatoes
Tomatoes on a vine
Determinates are those that stop growing at a particular point. These do not need pruning, they usually are no taller than three feet and produce a smaller yield but can be sufficient for small spaces and containers, or varieties that are specially made for sauces. Once they stop growing, they will begin to flower and all the fruit comes in at once. These are ideal for those who want to can tomatoes and don’t want to have the season stretched out over a long period of time. If you plant the small varieties in containers, just be aware they can dry out quickly. Therefore, regular watering is a must.
Intermediate and indeterminate will grow from four to eight or more feet; they need pruning and can be staked or left to grow on the ground.
Staking versus Non-Staking
If staked and pruned, the fruit will be less susceptible to diseases; sometimes they say the yield may be slightly reduced but the fruit will be larger. My experience is that the staking or cages may reduce the yield some, but not the pruning.
The staking or use of cages and pruning may delay the fruiting stage by a week or so. When staked or caged, they are more susceptible to blossom end rot and sunscald. If you allow them to spread on the ground, then you run into disease problems, as the fruit will develop against the soil and is thus more likely to get disease. Therefore, straw mulch is essential to help prevent this problem. Also, animals like slugs can easily reach the fruit on the ground.
They are also more susceptible to other diseases, as air circulation is minimal and funguses can easily develop.
It is almost impossible to prune them on the ground and your overall yields will be less, as more energy will go into the actual plant and leaf production versus fruit production. It will be hard to see or find fruit if the plant is left to spread on the ground.
If allowed to grow, they will continue to do so until frost hits them or the plant gets diseased and dies. Once they start to produce, you will see the various fruits at different stages of development, from flowering to having fully ripe fruit all in the same plant.
Another decision that has to be made is the length of time to harvest, which is dependent on bloom time. There are early bloomers, – from 40 to 60 days, mid-summer bloomers, – from 60 to 80 days and late summer bloomers, – from 80 days on. These correspond to the dates to harvest that the packages mention. The dates to harvest will range from 50 days to 90 days. This is the necessary time that the temperature must be warm above 45°F but ideally in the 60’s or warmer. The warmer the better, as the fruit will ripen faster on the vine and taste better.
To learn more about growing vegetables sign up for Amritaculture 101 a comprehensive course on growing food with Nature on the Amrita Virtual Academy website.