Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Webb City Sentinel market column - 6-21-17

Fue Yang, who will soon to complete his Agriculture Business degree from Crowder College, is the manager of our Education Center located on the Yang Farm, as well as one of the market’s growers. When he needed an internship project for his studies, the center provided an excellent venue and the market served as his supervisor. His final report on the project, written in early May, is a wonderful peek into his experience. Since our monthly Tunnel Twilight Walk at the Center is tomorrow, I thought today would be the perfect time to share it. I have reprinted it, with Fue’s permission, below after the current market news.

Tomorrow, the fabulous Geriatric 5 play. The Free Kids Meal is chicken with rice, market produce and milk. Both the music and the kids meal runs from 11 to 1. The market is open from 11 to 2.

The Market Lady, Carolyn Smith, will demonstrate a recipe tomorrow featuring Braker Berry Farm blackberry jam.

Stewart’s Bakery is serving Mexican casserole for $6. Ana’s Bananas has fresh cut fruit salad and grilled chicken salad for $5 each.

On Saturday, Scott Eastman plays. Cooking for a Cause benefits the Webb City High School Band Boosters. The Free Kids Meal is egg casserole and a biscuit. All three runs from 9 to 11, while the market is open until noon.

Stewart’s Bakery is serving spaghetti and meat balls and Ana’s Bananas will have their fruit salad and grilled chicken salad.

Fresh Ground Seed Library, a project of the Master Gardeners, will be at the market Saturday, with information on seed saving. Look for them north of the pavilion.

The June Twilight Tunnel Walk is set for tomorrow starting at 7 pm at the market’s Year-Round Education Center located on the Yang Farm, 1213 Route U, Rocky Comfort (1.77 miles south of the intersection of State Highway 76 & Route U).

Walk through the Center’s two high tunnels with Extension experts and experienced farmers. The walk is free and open to growers and the general public. No reservations are needed and it';s free. The Twilight Tunnel Walk takes place on the fourth Thursday through September. 

Planning the Education Center planting schedule in 2016

Fue’s Report - Agriculture has always been familiar to me. My childhood pretty much revolved around agriculture. My parents had various agricultural jobs throughout my childhood. I remember my mom and dad working as cucumber pickers in Wisconsin during the summers. There were rows after rows of pickling cucumbers growing in what seemed like an endless field. When we lived in Massachusetts my mom would pick us up after school and go straight to the apple orchards where my dad worked as an apple picker. I can remember sitting in between the rows of apple trees doing homework and watching my dad work while chewing on a freshly picked apple and enjoying the light breeze blowing.

From what I can remember we had always grown our own vegetables throughout my childhood. From mustard greens to cucumbers to corn, we had it growing in our garden. I remember being taught how to use a garden hoe to weed and dig holes to plant seeds. That little vegetable garden that we had would eventually grow into a small business we called Yang Family Vegetables, which we started in Massachusetts around 2003-2004.

In 2006 my dad started making preparations to retire. We came to Southwest Missouri to look for, and ultimately purchase, a small 43-acre cattle farm. In February of 2007 my wife and I, along with our two young daughters, moved here to live on the farm. My parents retired in 2010, relocated here, and wanted to continue vegetable farming. In late 2011 I quit my job at La-Z-Boy in Neosho, Missouri, and picked up farming again in the spring of 2012. During this time I debated whether or not I wanted to do this for a living. If I did then I wanted to go back to school because I thought that by going back to school I could learn new ways to farm. I wanted learn some of today’s technology and utilize it on the farm and try to make it more efficient. I finally made the decision to go back to school in the fall of 2015 and enrolled as a business ag major at Crowder College. Well, I say I made the decision but it was actually my wife who enrolled me, so I couldn’t exactly turn back now.

A couple of weeks after I received my acceptance letter from Crowder, I got a phone call from Eileen Nichols (Webb City Farmers Market Master and supervisor for this internship). That one phone call would completely change the way Yang Family Vegetables operates today. She was working on a grant to establish an education center that consisted of two high tunnels and a seed starting greenhouse. The education center was going to be focused on season extension and winter production. There would also be monthly walkthroughs and various workshops throughout the year.

I was very excited about the project but kind of nervous at the same time. It would provide the technology that I had wanted to learn about. I would be working with the Webb City Farmers Market, Lincoln University Extension, and University of Missouri Extension, as well as having a farmer mentor to learn from. But I would also be going to school at the same time and was afraid I that had chewed off more than I could handle. My dad also was very hesitant about the project because of the added workload and he was skeptical as how it would improve our farming practices. Most importantly, he didn’t want to let everyone down if things didn’t go the way it should. I am happy to say that the Education Center is in its second year of operation and accomplishing its goals.

This year has been tough out in the field. In fact, in all the years that we have been farming here I have never seen it as bad as this year. My Troybilt tiller died and had to be resurrected and my tractor was down for a little while as well. Our well pump also died for a bit. Then we got hit with rain, wind, and hail that pretty much destroyed everything out in the field. My green onions, sweet onions, and snap peas that were in the field looked like someone had laid a 2 by 6 on top of them and pushed them down flat onto the ground. My lettuce, spinach, green beans, cucumbers, zucchini, and summer squash were ripped to shreds by the hail. We had to replant most of the plants and what we didn’t replant are still trying to recover. The plastic on tunnels on one side are full of little welts, divots, and holes but it did protect the tomatoes and other plants I had in there. Not a single plant in the tunnels was affected by the storms.

My internship revolved around working in the high tunnels as well as out in the fields. My daily activities included watering the seedlings in the seed starting greenhouse and monitoring for pests and diseases, planting, transplanting, weeding, irrigation, fertilization, tilling, etc. Over the course of my internship, I acquired a lot of information that I will use on my farm. One of the things I learned is the importance of planning. We had always guess-timated everything. My mentor, Karen Scott of Oakwood Farms in Granby, showed me her planning schedule. I was absolutely amazed at all the information she had. She had her whole year planned out in weeks. Each week consisted of different things she had to get done in that week. She also had her planting schedule, including the specific cultivar, mapped out for the year. Since she practiced succession planting, her plan consisted of plantings every three weeks. She has specific dates on when to plant, what to plant and how much to plant whereas for us it was “I think this is enough,” or “the plants are fruiting so it’s time to replant.”  The result of that is sometimes we plant enough and sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we replant too early and most of the time we replant too late. I will continue to write in my journal as suggested by Eileen after my internship is over and use it as a starting template.

Last year we planted two rows of tomatoes and one double row with each plant being 18 inches apart in the heated tunnel. We had pesticide damage last year so the leaves and branches were stunted. This year we decided to do three double rows to save space since last year’s double row worked well. That would leave us two rows to plant zucchini and cucumbers. We transplanted the tomatoes at 18 inches apart like last year but this year the tomatoes are growing to be bigger than we had anticipated because we grew a different cultivar of tomatoes in hopes of decreasing the chances of pesticide damage. Even with all the pruning, the plants are still a pretty good size and the leaves from different plants are overlapping and seem to be a little over crowded. Next year I am going to plant them about two feet apart to help with the crowding. I will get fewer plants but there will be better air circulation, which should keep down diseases and plant stress. As of right now the tomato plants are a good four and a half feet tall and have on average three to four cluster of tomatoes on each plant.

One of the things I wanted to include in this report was the education part of this project. One of project’s main goals is to teach other farmers and the community about season extension and winter production through the use of the high tunnels and the seed starting greenhouse. Every fourth Thursday beginning in April and ending in October, Lincoln, MU Extension, and the Webb City Farmers Market hold a Twilight Tunnel Walk that’s open to the public. This walk-through is designed as an introduction into the usage and benefits of the tunnels and the greenhouse. It also shows the progress of our produce as it is growing, the problems and pests that we might have.

This year they decided to do a pilot field day for high school kids. Two week before the field day I was asked to do a presentation. I have never done a presentation before and was pretty nervous about it. Karen and I met and discussed what I was going to talk about and made up a general a list but I still didn’t know what I was going to say. Randy Garrett with LU Extension who organized the field day suggested I talk about my experience with the tunnels and the project. 
When it was my turn to present, I took a deep breath and told myself it’ll be ok, just go slow. As I looked at the kids looking at me, a sense of calmness kind of took over me. I was still pretty nervous but I opened my mouth and the words just started to come out. I talked about where we came from, about how I grew up around agriculture, how my parents farmed during their time in Laos (methods we still use here), about how we started Yang Family Vegetables, and about how I tried to walk away from farming but ended up coming back to it. The farther I tried to get away from it the deeper I became involved. Now I embrace it with arms wide open.

Throughout my time at Crowder and my involvement in the education center, along with this internship, the experience has really opened my eyes. I learned in school that we live in a society where food is readily available. A society where being hungry means a trip to the grocery store, or even easier, a trip to McDonald’s. I realized with the education center that there is useful technology out there, but it takes farmers like my parents longer to see the need for change because their set ways have been passed down from generation to generation. I’m starting to notice that there are big differences when working in the tunnels vs. the fields. The tunnels are a lot easier, they are less labor intensive, and the growth and production so far has been better than the field. This internship helped me start collecting data via a journal that will be useful later on. I have seed starting dates, transplanting dates, and now harvesting dates that I will always have on hand and available when I need them for reference.

My goal is to pass on the knowledge of what I have and will learn in the coming years. The world is changing and we need to change with it. The average farmer today is at or near the age of retirement. Farmlands all over the world are being developed and the population is ever growing. The decisions we make today will impact the lives of our children, their children and their children’s children. I am choosing to go backwards to move forward. Backwards in the sense of small local farmers growing for their families and their surrounding community. Forward in a sense that one day with enough small local farmers we might just feed the world, at least our part of it.