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A Lesson in Pepper Production

One of our largest annual investments on the farm is in compost.  It is the key to soil fertility and healthy crops so we have used it liberally on numerous plots.  We can't possibly collect and manage the scale of compost piles we would need for our farm so this is one item we've chosen to purchase.  It's also not easily hauled by bike so it is nice to have it delivered directly to our garden plots.  

This spring, there was one plot that did not receive an application of compost and early on in the season it is already showing in the health of our plants.  The carrots at this site are fairing well but the more heavy feeding plants like tomatoes and peppers in particular are significantly underperforming compared to last season.  

The health of our pepper plants has been a concern for the last month.  A few weeks after transplanting, the pepper growth appeared quite stunted.  This is somewhat common in spring when the weather is cooler but once it was clear they were not going to recover, the problem needed to be addressed.  Our best hypothesis is that the cause of the stunting could have been cool spring temperatures or inadequate nutrient availability in the soil.  Since the peppers were transplanted outside fairly early, I figured it was likely that they had just had too much stress from cool spring nights so I bought an entire new crop of pepper transplants and planted our pepper beds again.  

Unfortunately, soon after this, we began to notice similar problems with the new transplants.  So, more intervention was required.   The question was whether to pull out the peppers entirely to plant some quicker crops that would perform better there, or invest more in trying to solve this problem without any assurance of success.  The deciding factor was the fact that the central purpose of our farm is to provide our members with a balance of fresh food, not just to earn an income.  So, instead of pulling the peppers and planting more lettuce that we could sell to other customers, we ordered another load of compost and went to work.

This course of action is a good example of what makes our farm different than a typical market garden.  Economically, we should have just scrapped the peppers for the year and planted some other quick crops that would still perform well in that soil.  That would allow us to still earn some income from those beds this season.  However, our membership farming model changes the game because we committed to growing a diverse mix of produce for our members, who also happened to vote for more peppers in our crop selection survey last fall!  By sticking with our pepper production for better or for worse, we let our accountability to our members trump business sense.  To a shrewd business owner this might seem like a mistake, but in the long term though, accountability to our members IS business sense, so we have faith that we are on the right track.

**Follow Up: This compost remedy was not enough to rejuvenate the pepper crop. Our mistakes were transplanting them too early before the soil had warmed sufficiently, pruning the lower leaves and burying the plants too deep, and mulching the soil after transplanting which slowed its ability to warm up from Sun exposure. We ended up buying new pepper transplants from a local nursery and the growth of the new plants quickly surpassed the earlier planted stunted peppers. It was a costly but valuable learning experience.


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