Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Winter at Marini Farms - The Challenges and Joys of Managing the Greenhouses

February may seem like a perfect time to take a winter break but, at Marini Farms, it is a crucial month for the start of planting in the greenhouses.

"Greenhouse production is important to vegetable farms because it helps bring in early income, giving cash flow to help get the farm planted," explained Mike Marini, third-generation owner of Marini Farms. "Any way you can start earlier or extend a season helps."

The early greenhouse plantings contribute to Marini Farms' reputation for having some of the best and most flavorful fruits available on the North Shore.

"We seed all our own seedlings for our field crop," Marini said. "This insures we are starting with a healthy, disease-free transplant and the best possible varieties, which reduces risk. There is nothing worse than buying into your problems."

He cites an example of a box store selling tomato plants infected with late blight. "The poor home gardeners did not have a chance of producing a healthy crop on their own," Marini exclaimed.

Marini Farms grows tomatoes, rhubarb, cucumbers, swiss chard, zucchini, green beans, peppers, carrots, peas, annuals, perennials, herbs and an astounding array of hanging plants in its greenhouses. Currently, there are four greenhouses on the farm, which cover about one acre of Marini Farm's total 200 acres devoted to mixed fruits and vegetables (another 100 acres is leased for growing corn).

Another reason for staying close to the farm during February is that winter weather conditions must be carefully watched as heavy snowfalls can threaten greenhouse structures. Three years ago in February, Marini Farm lost three of its greenhouses due to snowstorms, as pictured below when the roofs were flattened.

"It was a challenge to lose them at this time because we had to rebuild our infrastructures while we were also trying to grow our crops," Marini noted. "Flowers can only be held together for so long, but eventually you have to give them the proper growing space otherwise quality will be compromised."

The financial costs were also challenging as all three greenhouses had to be rebuilt simultaneously. However, as Marini jokingly adds, "Some were outdated, old chicken coops converted to growing houses. They were long overdue for some modernization."

To ensure consistent quality and volume of products grown within the greenhouses, Marini Farms must carefully manage:
  • effective pest and disease control
  • efficient heating and energy costs (which means that instead of opening the greenhouses in January, due to high costs of heating, they now open in late February for production. The retail houses officially open around May 1st, but many customers come in before that to browse or shop as walking through a colorful greenhouse is uplifting and often helps put one in a good mood after a long winter).
  • proper ventilation
  • accurate fertilization amounts
  • thorough maintenance of the plants and buildings
The right timing of planting is also essential. Marini Farms starts seeding its vegetables and planting its first greenhouse tomatoes in March - work that brings Mike Marini much joy, perhaps better than a winter getaway vacation.

"Working in the greenhouses is one of the most peaceful and self-gratifying jobs on the farm," he claimed. "At the end of the day, you can look back and physically see that you have accomplished something. Nursing and watching those plants grow only add to the experience."

Greenhouse Trends

The greenhouse industry is rapidly changing and becoming more competitive, according to Marini. Here are some of his observations:
  • Consumers have moved away from planting large gardens to creating more container gardens, with more perennials, varieties and colors than ever before.
  • Vegetable and herb gardens are becoming increasingly popular.
  • Larger, individual plants are replacing "six-pack" purchases.
"Ten years ago I never would have thought we would be planting tomatoes in greenhouses over more flowers, but we are and can not have enough of them," Marini said, adding, "We continue to adapt and change as the industry changes."

Proud that 90 percent of what Marini Farms sells is grown on-site, Marini noted the greenhouses make farming a year-round event.

"Marini Farm is part of every season," he said. "We produce our own product, giving our new and loyal customers the best quality possible at affordable prices. We are very lucky to have returning customers who have been buying their flowers from us for years."

Written by Blogger Pros.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

A Behind-The-Scenes Look From Third-Generation Farmer Mike Marini

From digging in piles of dirt as a toddler to now managing over 200 acres of farmland, Mike Marini's passion for farming only gets stronger. Marini is proud to be a third-generation farmer, and feels lucky he has his father Mario by his side out in the fields providing him advice and direction in the day-to-day farm management. No two days are ever the same and the best thing about farming, according to Marini, is that it is always changing.

When asked what it was like growing up on the farm, Marini responded, "It was a rewarding life, and I learned about the value of hard work at a young age. It was also great being outside every day playing in piles of dirt, climbing on the equipment, seeing the world happening around me and being able to eat off the vine anytime I wanted to. I was lucky to be involved in a family farm growing up and I am fortunate that I had the opportunity to take over the farm after I graduated from college."

There is no doubt Marini feels he has the best job in the world. Learning from his dad's work philosophy to "take things as they come and roll with the punches," Marini says he is tested each day with new challenges and adjusts accordingly. Uncontrollable forces like weather and machinery failures make day-to-day planning interesting, and result in constant changes in the day's priorities.

"Nothing ever gets my day down," is the one motto his dad operated by. His dad took over the farm at eighteen and most days visitors continue to see Mario out in the fields or giving his two grandchildren (three- and five-years old) a ride on some equipment. Mike and his wife, Kim, his college sweetheart from The University of Delaware, are expecting their third child in July.

Winter Preparations

The farm gives us fresh produce in the spring, summer and fall, but one wonders, what happens in the winter? Running one of the largest farms in the region involves a lot of preparation, according to Marini. He starts planning for the next season the day the prior season ends and the farm is buttoned down for the winter months.

Marini focuses on crop planning, event planning, submits applications for energy grants, attends integrated pest management seminars and other industry programs and education agricultural events.

While this extensive preparation can seem overwhelming to most, Marini downplays the rigorous schedules and task-juggling, focusing instead on the personal fulfillment, joy and, most of all, community involvement he derives from running the farm

Working in community, everyone helps each other out, Marini reports. He wants his customers to be happy and enjoy the quality of fresh produce. Every season the farm tests out new varieties and recently added four new corn and twelve new tomato varieties. "Quality and freshness are at the forefront," states Marini, adding, "Farming is quite a process which goes beyond growing, harvesting and marketing."

There are many functions that contribute to running a successful farming operation. One of which, green energy, was covered in the November 19 blog on Marini processing its own fuel.  The farm is installing its fourth corn-burning heater this year.

Marini is a leader in the trend of farms turning to their land and operations to generate renewable energy. "I applied for three grants and got them all," Marini shares, once again making the work as owner of one of the largest farms in the region look easy.

He believes that local produce has many benefits including exceptional taste, freshness and nutritional value. In addition, he believes in supporting local interests and community groups, other local farmers, and contributing to the economic well-being of the area as a small-business. Marini stays connected to industry developments through his board positions with the Farm Bureau, the Farm Security Administration (FSA) and other off-season vegetable grower meetings.

Marini is always looking for ways to add value to the farming operation. "Diversity is necessary for survival," he notes. With the fall corn maze, Christmas on the Hill holiday festivities, the Strawberry Festival and other family events, the farm is better able to balance their seasons. Planning these types of events is often done in winter.

Additionally, the winter entails busy planning for the next crop season. Greenhouses open in January/February and seeds are planted in February. The challenge is to keep a consistent crop from the opening to the closing of the farm season.

Running a farm is "like a race horse at the gate getting ready to go. Once you go, there is no turning back," according to Marini.

Marini balances farming life with strength, perseverance, patience and joy. He hopes he can be as fortunate as his dad who has tilled the soil for nearly all of his 75 years.

In the meantime, Mike Marini, third-generation farmer, is ready to keep "racing," serving the community with fresh and superior quality produce.

Written by Blogger Pros