Shae Keane is early in her farming journey and signed up for the Field School to learn and meet others. She has volunteered to blog about each Field School session that she attends. Here is her post on the second session, held Dec. 19th.

Saturday, December 19— Field School Second Session

IMG_20151219_094506028With a theme of “Year-Round Crop Production,” our second Field School session took place this past Saturday at Couch Farms in Rogersville, Tennessee. There was quite a chill in the air, but Farmer Joe Couch had planned ahead. We arrived to a wood stove-heated greenhouse that he had started up early to keep us warm.

With this session’s focus on greenhouses and their ability to extend the growing season, this seemed an appropriate choice of a classroom. Daniel Horne of the National Resource Conservation Service began our session with information on their High Tunnel Program. He began first with discussion of soil, telling us, “All critters that are in the soils work with us if we work with them.” These critters, he explained, are holding and releasing nutrients, and, thus, are essential to soil health. He emphasized the importance of cover crops like clover, vetch, Lespedezas, and legumes to assist in fixing nitrogen in the soil, to minimize inputs, and to promote the health of these friendly critters.

John Hamrick with the UT Extension Office then spoke about “Crop Planning.” He began with discussion of choosing a high tunnel site, testing soil, and preparing one’s site. A large portion of his lesson was on bees and the logistical pieces that are important to consider—such as a sturdy structure to hold the beehive, which can grow to weigh several hundred pounds. He encouraged aspiring beekeepers to “be nice to your neighbors,” in hopes that they might understand if they are to discover your bees on their land, who are known to wander up to two miles from their hive to forage their foods.

Lexy Close then guided us in the practice of making our own extended growing plans. She handed out several worksheets with tables and exercises to facilitate the process of doing all the math necessary to plan for season extension farming. For the example she guided, we planned for hypothetical run, grow, and sell through a CSA system – community supported agriculture.

After our exercise, we rose from our seats and Joe gave us a tour of his heads of lettuce—baby romaine, red leaf, leaf lettuce, bibb lettuce— growing in a hydroponics system just behind us. He shared with us stories of the benefits a system like this can bring to a farm. He spoke of his usual process of harvesting– cutting the whole head of lettuce from the roots. But, he added, there was one customer who liked to purchase them another way. Realizing that the root system is attached to these lettuce heads floating in water, this customer requested that he leave the root system. They would then place it in a vase on the table, allowing for its continued growth, and, in turn, an extended source of lettuce leaves for their enjoyment—simply by keeping the roots attached.

Joe has clearly stayed attached to his roots, too. He has known the farming life since the time he was a baby, he told us. His father was planting as long as he could remember. Twenty-five years ago, his father died of a heart attack. Yet, Joe carries on his father’s gift of growing. In addition to lettuce, Joe grows 50 acres of rye and wheat, a half- acre of watermelon, sweet corn, tomato, peppers, and cucumbers, among other crops. Three years ago he first integrated his current hydroponics system. Six people are employed in the entire operation, which were once his children. His favorite part of being a farmer, he says—“just watching things grow.”

During his younger days, Joe had stepped away from farming and began a job at Eastman. Though a much higher salary, it was not long before his love of farming brought him right back to the growing lands—“If you got a billion dollars in the bank and hate what you’re doing, what good is it for?” He may not have boats and fancy cars, he says, “But I got a tractor.” And for him, that means far more.