A visit to Wilson Farms

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jim wilson

Jim Wilson, the fourth-generation farmer at the helm of Wilson Farms in Lexington, likes to note the distinction between good farmers and good businessmen, and listening to him during a 90-minute tour last week, it's clear he claims membership in both cohorts. Considering the thriving concerns his family operates both in Lexington and in southern New Hampshire, there should be no argument, either. 

The tours themselves, which he said he's been conducting for decades, are an example of the latter. The farm engages with the community in a number of ways, from cooking demonstrations to lots of kid-centered activities, but our early evening stroll was adults only. We numbered about two dozen, which Wilson said was high, and which he attributed to the rainy summer — two previous tours were canceled because of bad weather.

As you can imagine, the rain was a big theme, the central factor of the growing season. Wilson pointed out two parcels that were planted with lettuce but were then overwhelmed by water; he has since planted a grass (Sudan, I think he said, though it's not in my notes) he expects will reach 8 or 9 feet, which he'll then mow and plow under to help ready it for productive use again next year.

Two other themes were technology and integrated pest management. The first leg of the tour took us through a Dutch-designed-and-built, computer-controlled greenhouse with myriad smart facets, including rolling tables that eliminate the need for aisles between every tabletop, radiant heating, and a sophisticated watering system that can deliver individually to every plant in the 32,000-square-foot space.

I can't do justice to the totality of IPM, but here's one anecdote Wilson shared that helps illustrate it: The farm uses row covers in the spring, which helps young plants withstand early-season chill. But they also prevent the first generation of a pest from getting into the young plant, meaning that they don't have to spray to control the fly's second and third generations in June and July, when row covers are no longer functional (the plants are much bigger, and the heat retained by the covers would burn up the plant).

A squash blossomIPM includes a range of strategies, such as where different types of tomatoes are planted, so that if, say, the heirloom varieties develop a fungus, there's a lower chance it will spread to the cherry tomatoes. He also said that when workers go out to harvest in the morning, they begin with the youngest plants, because older plants are more likely to have a developed something infectious, which could be carried to the younger plants.

One surprise to arise was that Wilson uses Roundup, a Monsanto chemical, to kill the winter cover crops he plants, which drew a few gasps from the tourists, and clear disapproval from one in particular. Using cover crops is a cheaper and otherwise preferable method for adding nitrogen to soil compared to topical applications, but its "natural" benefits would seem to be lessened by making an agricidal agent part of the plan. (The farthest I can venture is "would seem to be"; I'm no farmer, and I don't know what the alternatives are. Wilson, the first member of his family to graduate college, has clearly considered the angles.) 

The family owns 32 acres, including all the buildings, in Lexington, and has about 600 more in New Hampshire. Wilson said they grow about 75 different plants at each location, with smaller, more labor-intensive crops grown in Lexington, where they "average two-and-a-half crops for every inch" by harvesting and replanting the very next day.

Wilson came back repeatedly to the business viewpoint, talking about wholesale and retail options, and describing how the farmers are always fine-tuning not only growing strategies but commercial potentials, "so that we only plant in quantities that we think we can market." 

Farmer Jim Wilson of Wilson FarmsThe farmer also ventured into farming theory a couple of times, such as when he related that "the one philosophy in farming is, 'there's no perfect system.' I know what the weaknesses are in what I'm doing. You adapt what you can and you try to adjust."

Wilson, who said he followed college with a couple of years as a ski bum in Utah, is both avuncular and intense. At the end of the tour, someone showed him her photos and he commented that he always look angry in photos (he appears that way in many of mine, too), but he is friendly and impressively knowledgeable. When I asked if the farms grow fruit, he reeled off the acreage of the strawberries, blueberries, etc., without even a pause. I asked about that and he tossed it off: "It's just what you do."


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