by Elizabeth A. Tomlin
“When we first started, it was literally one-half acre behind 105 Stone Road. That was the farm,” remarked Zaid Kurdieh of Norwich Meadows Farm, Norwich, NY.
That was in 1998.
Now, nearly 20 years later, Kurdieh farms around 100-acres of certified organic vegetables.
His farm consists of nearly 1,000 different varieties of vegetables and includes approximately 10 acres with 95 high tunnels.
He serves over 1,000 CSA members in Norwich and New York City, and sells directly to both consumers and restaurants.
“Selling it is the hard part,” Kurdieh attested. “The first few years was experimenting. Who was going to buy from us?”
Kurdieh said “from day one” he was certified organic, because that is what he believes in. “I’m not going to feed people stuff that I don’t eat.”
He bases what is grown on his farm by where he sees markets heading and by what people are currently buying.
“CSAs have been steadily plateauing or declining for most everybody. I noticed that a few years ago. We are still in total right around 1,000, but we were up to about 1,500.”
Kurdieh says he and his colleagues are hypothesizing that the decline is due to the increasing number of farmers markets, more farm stands and an increase of people offering “readymade meals that are sourced from farms.”
Growth has been seen in high-end restaurants. “That’s been almost exponential growth in the last three years. It’s been growing dramatically for seven years, but this year we’re probably going to double our sales to restaurants and they’re going to account for about 60 percent of all of our sales, which is a radical shift.”
Kurdieh also reported market sales have gone up drastically this year after plateauing last year. He credits this to the fact that his farm is continuing to produce abundantly, while other farms have been less fortunate this year in their production due to weather conditions.
One of the primary reasons for Norwich Meadows Farm’s continued production is due to the high tunnel operation.
Initially, Kurdieh said he had thought that the longer the tunnel, the better the advantage.
However, he pointed out they can be sorely affected by inclement weather — high temperatures, high winds and snow coverage.
Kurdieh said he first started making them 10 feet on center and 300 feet.
“With 300 feet, you get a lot of heat in the middle and it’s hard to dissipate that. And if you get wind, 300 feet is a bigger footprint. Now we like ours five or six feet on center. It also helps when it snows. This is the first year we had more than eight high tunnels get fully or partially destroyed when we got four feet of snow in seven or eight hours, even though they were braced.”
Kurdieh says the problem was with the 2x2s used for the braces. He advises people, “if you are going to get into high tunnels in a serious way like we have here, you had better figure on maintenance. I’m investing in steel braces this year and I’m going to use 2x4s. We’re not going to use 2x2s anymore. There’s a lot of maintenance in high tunnels. Even in the summertime, the first few years we would have thunderstorms every other day and they would call for [high] winds. We used to have guys with knives standing next to the high tunnels to cut the ropes… If you don’t cut those ropes and that plastic flies off, you destroy the steel. It’s easier to replace the plastic than to replace steel.”
Kurdieh says they’ve never had to cut the ropes. “But, that does happen. We anchor them. We’ve learned a lot over the years. We definitely brace them and do things that we didn’t do early on.”
Fertilization was an issue when Kurdieh became involved with high tunnels, leading him to make the decision to fertilize more than the recommended amount as he anticipated a higher yield. Now, 15 years later, he doesn’t know if that was the best decision.
“Now we do extensive soil samples in the high tunnels and we have way too much stuff in the soil. So, we’re watching a lot closer — we do leaf analysis now and that has helped tremendously. The health of our crops the last two years is the best it’s ever been, given all the circumstances.”
Kurdieh says he takes base samples in each tunnel and then rechecks the following year to see what has happened over the year. “Five years ago I was managing towards something way different than I am managing towards now. I’m already very high on a lot of nutrients and I don’t want to get any higher.”
He reminds farmers that if one ounce is good, two ounces is not better. “You’ve got to be very, very careful,” he emphasized.
“You want your soils to be as healthy as possible, you want your ratios — in terms of nutrients — to be in the ball park of what they’re supposed to be in. You want your organic matter to be as high as you can possibly get it and if your managing that properly, you’re going to see that in the health of your stock.”
Heavy duty cover cropping and crop rotations are crucial components in soil and plant health on the farm.
“Our rotations are very, very strict. I have artichokes here. There’s not going to be artichokes [in that location], for sure, for three years.”
Kurdieh says ideally, he would like one-third of his land to rest for two years, but he does not have enough land to allow him to set that amount aside and still produce what he needs for his markets.
“This year we’re doing about 20 acres of cover crops. It’s the most I’ve ever done. We do some cover cropping in the high tunnels in the form of fava beans.”
In addition to being edible, fava beans fix nitrogen in the soil, suppress weeds and support microbials. They reportedly do well in cold weather, tolerate shade and require a minimum watering.
“We’re doing a lot of education,” Kurdieh remarked. “We’re educating chefs on crops that are very edible, like broccoli. Three-quarters of the plant is very edible and it’s one of the worst plants in terms of what it takes out of the soil. There’s not a lot of chefs that are going to utilize every part of a broccoli plant, so that’s part of our marketing.”
Michael Mazourek, Cornell Associate Professor, Plant Breeding and Genetics, Horticulture, says high tunnels offer an alternative growing space to open fields. “As many growers have at least one that has been used for multiple seasons, we have to develop a new set of management strategies and crops adapted specifically to excel in high tunnels,” Mazourek remarked.
“High tunnels require much more management than open field production,” said Kurdieh. “Rotations and cover cropping are essential to keep high tunnels productive.”