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Try, Try Again With Beginning Farmer Adam Phelps

From a deer infestation to exceedingly wet spring weather, Adam Phelps has learned to deal with all sorts of adversity in his first three years of farming.

farmer adam phelps in front of greenhouse

Photo: Annie Corrigan/WFIU

Adam Phelps created a greenhouse out of this structure. Unfortunately, because of an installation error, his roof "leaks like a sieve."

You hear it all the time.

Farming is not easy.

The weather works against you. Pests can decimate your crops. And then of course there’s human error.

Most of the time on Earth Eats, we talk to farmers who have it (at least sort of) figured out, but how about a dose of reality from someone new to growing food?

Learning From Failure

Adam Phelps embraces the title of “beginning farmer,” which to him means, “You mess everything up the first seven times. You spend more than you need to. You do things over and over again and you keep doing them wrong.”

He has been growing food on Ghostwood Farm in Lawrence County, Indiana for about three years. His property is 33 acres, but right now he’s only farming on one acre.

Another acre is ruled by his 100 chickens who produce about 55 eggs daily. Today, instead of pecking and foraging, the chickens are roaming around the barn, clucking and screeching at every little disturbance. “They’re so dumb,” Phelps says with a heavy sigh. “Any little thing will set them off.” To be fair, he has managed to keep all his birds alive, despite some trouble with fox attacks last year.

We walk into the greenhouse which is home to his tomato and pepper starter plants.

When he purchased the property, he transformed the original structure into this greenhouse by installing fiberglass windows and a polycarbonate roof. “This has been a big time investment that I keep messing up,” he says. “I’ve tried a bunch of different things and I think I’m getting kind of close to getting it right.”

What does he keep messing up?

For one thing, the polycarbonate is corrugated. When I put it up, I nailed it in the gullies because that way it’s held tight to the wood. The problem is that’s where the rain runs, so my roof leaks like a sieve. To replace it would cost me another $500 of polycarbonate. I’m not going to do that, so I just deal with it.

adam phelps in greenhouse with starter plants

Photo: Annie Corrigan/WFIU

Phelps will transplant these tomato and pepper plants in the next several weeks.

Pests, Pests Go Away

His 33 acres of land is mostly wooded, so the battle with deer is never ending. His first attempt at a garden three years ago was eaten bare by deer.

When he dug up the one-acre lot for growing more food, he erected an electric fence. He baits it with peanut butter, “And they come along with their little noses and touch that electric fence and they learn to fear it.”

The only time the fence did not successfully deter deer was during the drought two years ago. “They would fight right through that electric fence to get in here.”

The drought is a distant memory at this point. Phelps is still recovering from the winter. Since the ground thawed late, and early spring was so wet, he is behind on all his crops. His asparagus, for instance, hadn’t popped up by the first week of May, which could mean no asparagus to sell at the first farmers markets.

One perk of the historically cold temperatures several months ago — Phelps hopes it killed some of the pests. He struggles most with spotted cucumber beetles and squash bugs.

Level Up

He’s not sure he’ll earn his black belt in growing food anytime soon, because he learns something new every year.

Last year, he tried trellising tomatoes for the first time, and it made a huge difference in his harvest. “You can find this stuff on the internet, but you don’t believe it until you do it yourself.”

This year, he will experiment with planting okra at the end of every garden bed as a way of trapping stink bugs. “In my opinion, the only thing that should be eating okra is stink bugs,” he jokes.

Annie Corrigan

Annie Corrigan is a producer and announcer for WFIU. In addition to serving as the local voice for NPR's Morning Edition, she produces WFIU's weekly sustainable food program Earth Eats. She earned degrees in oboe performance from Indiana University and Bowling Green State University.

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  • Amanda Gilds

    Fry the okra, you’ll love it!

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