Turtle Creek Gardens, a division of GRVWFarms, LLC, is a burgeoning CSA enterprise and developing farm located just north of Delavan, in the southeastern corner of Wisconsin. The farm was named for geographical features in the area: Turtle Creek (meandering to the east), Turtle Creek State Wildlife Area, Turtle Valley Conservation Area, and Turtle Lake (just north of the farm).
Seventeen acres of the 80-acre farm have been set aside for vegetable and fruit production. The remaining acreage is pasture, which is home to 75 head of cattle, shared between Geary-Wolf Farms, LLC (an affiliated entity) and our neighbors at VDB Organic Farms, Bob and Beth Van De Boom. Bob and Beth own an additional 40 acres and manage the grazing lands and cattle, along with 100 laying hens.
The 17 acres designated for vegetable and fruit production were formerly planted in conventional corn and soybeans. Transitioning land from conventional agriculture to organic agriculture is a process that requires 3 years under the USDA's National Organic Program standards, in order to build fertility and enhance microbial life in the soil.
In the spring of 2010, we began the transition period by planting cover crops, fruit trees, several species of berries, and rhubarb and asparagus crowns. As a soil-building stragegy, cover crops are used to protect the soil from erosion, build top soil, and stimulate microbial activity, which is the main source of fertility on an organic farm. In our case, we chose winter rye and red clover as our cover crop mix. Like other grasses, winter rye has a large root system that adds biomass and helps break up compacted soils and hardpans that impede water drainage and the development of living soil. The richest soils in our nation are the prairie soils that were once composed primarily of perennial grasses, with their extensive root systems growing 20 or more feet deep into the ground. To give a perspective on how we have depleted our top soils in America, prairie soils were up to 10 or more feet deep before the beginning of the 20th century. Today, top soil on our agricultural lands is only about 2 feet deep at best, and most areas suffer from only a few inches.
Along with winter rye, we planted red clover, a legume. Legumes--such as beans, alfalfas, clovers, and vetch--take nitrogen from the atmosphere and "fix" it in the their root systems in the form of nodules. When the leguminous plant is mown or dies during tilling, the nitrogen in the nodules is released into the soil where it becomes available to successive crops. Similarly, grasses and legumes provide livestock fodder. Animal manure gathered at the end of the season from a barn or lounging area is spread onto the vegetable fields and tilled under. Over the course of winter, the manure composts naturally, adding valuable nitrogen to the soil. These systems make the addition of synthetic fertilizers--such as those used in conventional farming--unnecessary.
Greenhouse and Season Extension Hoop House
Over the course of 2010, we constructed two major outbuildings for growing our crops: the greenhouse and the season extension hoop house. The 20' x 72' greenhouse is used primarily to sow seeds of crops that can be easily transplanted into the field as soon as the soil thaws in spring and can be tilled. The greenhouse's outer covering consists of a double layer of plastic. A small fan blows air between the layers, which helps insulate the building during spring and fall. When temperatures reach below the mid-50s F, a propane heater kicks in to prevent small seedlings from freezing.
The first crops we sow in the Spring (early March) are the Alliums (onions, shallots, and leeks). Alliums are a longer-season crop and require a long period of time to photosynthesize before developing bulbs, which begins soon after summer solstice. In addition, since onions are a high-demand food in a CSA, and can tolerate some cold, it's smart to get them sown and transplanted as early in the spring as possible.
But a greenhouse isn't just for starting spring crops. We use it throughout the season to sow continuous successions of crops. Lettuce, for example, needs to be sown every two weeks to provide a weekly allotment of this crop to CSA members. We also have multiple spring and fall successions of the Brassicas (the mustard family) which includes broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, turnips, and brussels sprouts
The greenhouse also allows us to get a head start on growing heat-loving plants like basil, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, cucumbers, melons, and summer squash, rather than waiting until it is warm enough outside. Generally, all of these plants do better if started in a greenhouse as it provides a protective environment. High winds, heavy rains, and cool spring and fall nights can damage and kill tender seedlings. A green house acts like an incubator for plants until they can be moved to a transitioning space known as the "hardening-off area". Most hardening-off areas consist of structures with walls that can be removed, or opened and closed as weather permits. A fragile seedling needs to be slowly exposed, over the course of a week or more, to the often harsh conditions of life in the field. A hardening-off area allows some wind and rain to buffet small plants until they develop stronger stems and "harden" to outside conditions. Once hardened, these crops can be transplanted as vigorous plants better able to fend off predators and abusive weather.
The second outbuilding constructed in 2010 was the season extension hoop house. This building is similar in size (30x72 ft) and construction to the greenhouse, except it has only one layer of heavy plastic.
Hoop houses primarily serve as a heated space to grow plants in the ground. The clear plastic traps heat from the sun, which warms the soil inside the hoophouse, so it can be used earlier in the spring and later in the fall to grow crops that normally do not grow well in the cold, thus extending the normal outdoor season. Hoop houses are also commonly used for growing plants such as tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants, among others which thrive in hotter temperatures. We expect to use our hoop house both for season extension and for summer crops.
Fruit Trees and Shrubs, and Berries!
Our first year at the farm also saw the planting of our perennial crops of fruit trees, berries, rhubarb, and asparagus. With the help of workershares and friends, we planted more than 40 dwarf apple, pear, and peach trees, and several rows of raspberries, currants, black berries, and strawberries. Perennial plants grow continuously year after year, and require several years to produce fruits or otherwise reach maturity, unlike annual plants that complete their growth cycle and can be harvested in less than a year. While we wait for our perennial crops to bear fruit, we will continue to bring in fruit from other farms, such as apples from Ela Orchard in Rochester.
In 2011, we established hives and honey bees on the farm. Our longtime friend and beekeeper, Dan O'Leary of Honey Valley Apiary, helped with the setup and monitors the hives throughout the season. Dan has over 60 hives located around the East Troy area, including at the Zinniker Family Farm. When Dan is ready to extract the honey from the hives, he keeps our honey separate from what's been collected at the other sites. Honey we sell comes directly from the hives at Turtle Creek Gardens.