Humming Along

The bees are floating from blossom to blossom on the boysenberry vines, pollinating just they way we expect and appreciate so greatly. The cucumber plants are regularly wound around their support twine, ensuring healthier fruits. Swiss chard, fava beans, and tomato plants are all reveling in the sunlight. Strawberries surreptitiously arrive, often hidden in the shadows of their leaves. And like little treasures, hundreds of potatoes are being unearthed from dark soil. The farm is humming along nicely, as you can see.

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Margarita winds cucumber plants up around their support twine after they have grown taller.

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 Cucumber plants

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PotatoesIMG_0415

Yellow Swiss Chard2015-05-28 Rhubarb 069

Red Swiss Chard2015-05-28 Rhubarb 067

Fava Beans2015-05-28 Fava Beans 048

Tomato Plants2015-05-28 Tomatoes 054

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Strawberries2015-05-28 Strawberries 076

Fields getting some much needed water on a hot, sunny day.
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Growing and Harvesting Salad Mix

For over 15 years, salad mix has been a mainstay of Gathering Together Farm’s vegetable offerings. Our growing, harvesting, washing, and packing methods have expanded and evolved considerably over the years, and though we feel like we have a pretty good system now, we’re still constantly reevaluating our practices and looking for ways to be better and more efficient farmers and marketers.

We currently harvest and sell about 800 pounds of salad mix per week including up to 200 pounds per day. That salad mix goes to dozens of restaurants around the state, several grocery stores, our nine weekly farmers’ market booths, CSA boxes that opt for the extra salad option, and our own on-farm restaurant.

The exact components and specific proportions of each ingredient vary day to day, but any given mix generally has at least 30 different types of leaves in it. Our relationship with Frank and Karen Morton of Wild Garden Seed (WGS), the seed-growing arm of the farm, has been fundamental in the development of our salad mix “recipe” and growing techniques. WGS actually supplies a good majority of the seed used for growing salad mix, and because of that seed pipeline, we’re able to produce a whole lot of high-quality salad mix cost effectively.

Our salad mix starts with seed, greenhouse, and irrigation manager Joelene Jebbia and her seeder tractor. With feedback from the field crew, the packing shed workers, and the market staff, Joelene makes hundreds of small decisions about what to plant, how to plant, and when to plant, and those choices lead to an overall successful outcome for the salad mix program.

Sometimes, Frank Morton gives Joelene his standard seed, but often he’ll offer her seed that is less desirable to his seed clients but perfectly fine for GTF salad mix. For example, both piles of chard seed above are from WGS. The smaller seed on the right is similar to what retail/wholesale customers receive when they order from WGS. Each cluster contains two or three individual seeds. In the seed cleaning and sorting process, larger seed is separated out because each cluster holds four to six individual seeds, which is generally undesirable in chard seed for growers that want to avoid the effort of thinning heavily. The larger clusters when direct seeded for salad mix, however, produce dense rows that make for easy harvesting.

Joelene also gets orach seed from WGS. Orach plants sometimes produce small, dark seeds (photos above and below) which are slower to germinate than the standard larger, lighter colored seed. Frank sets aside this inferior grade for the GTF salad mix program. As long as Joelene knows that the seed needs more time to get going, she can schedule accordingly and get a good product while using up what some seed growers might consider a waste product.

Joelene direct seeds about 2500 bed feet of salad components like lettuce, mustards, and other specialty greens (as well as cilantro and dill for bunching) every five days throughout the spring and summer. The time and amount of seed invested in seeding so much so often may seem excessive, but having an over abundance of nice greens makes the harvest exponentially easier and faster than picking through rows of lettuce that have already been cut before, saving the farm a lot of labor (and money) in the long run. Occasionally in the summer, entire salad mix plantings will be completely overtaken by weeds, so again, it saves a major effort if the crew can just skip on to the subsequent planting.

Joelene seeds four rows per four-foot bed with her Allis Chalmers tractor fitted with Planet Jr. seeders attached to a bar. This wide spacing allows air to move freely through the plants, keeping moisture-based fungal problems to a minimum. The rows are also easy to access and navigate through when cultivating and harvesting.

She usually seeds four different types of lettuce or two different types of mustards per bed. In the spring, she seeds extra mustards because she’s aware that there will be some loss to flea beetles. In summer, she seeds more frequently, so the crew can skip plantings that are too weedy if necessary. Throughout the growing season, she switches to crop varieties that will fare best in the upcoming weather conditions.

Radicchio, chicory, and endive for salad mix are not direct seeded. They get seeded by hand with the weekly head lettuce plantings and are transplanted out in the field after growing in the propagation greenhouse for about 6 weeks.

After direct seeding, the rows of salad mix seedlings are covered with floating row cover as an exclusionary technique that helps prevent insects from damaging the leaves. Floating row cover, however, can heat up the soil too much and damage the leaves during hot weather.

The earliest leaves of mustard greens will be harvested when the plants are four to six weeks old.

‘Basic’ arugula

A couple weeks after seeding, the rows are cultivated first with a basket weeder and later with a shoe on a cultivator tractor.

‘Double Purple’ orach

Joelene factors in color, texture, flavor, shape, productivity, disease resistance, ease of harvest, seed availability, and seed cost when selecting crops and individual varieties of crops for salad mix.

‘Maraichere Tres Fine’ frisée endive

‘Homi-Z’ mustard

‘Blade’ lettuce

‘Piano’ spinach

‘Dane’ lettuce

‘Jester’ lettuce

‘Dark Green Romaine’ lettuce

‘Virtus’ sugarloaf chicory (above left)

In the spring, summer, and fall, the field crew harvests salad mix first thing in the morning five days a week. On hot days, it’s important to get tender cut greens into the cooler as quickly as possible to keep everything fresh. Every half hour or so, a driver will shuttle tubs of cut greens from the fields back to the packing shed.

The crew leaders (Rodrigo, Palemon, and Carmelo) get an order each morning for a certain number of pounds of salad needed for the day. They know roughly how many pounds can fit in one tub on average (though this changes depending on the season and the proportions of the mix components) and therefore how many full tubs are needed to fill the order. Crew leaders use a loose formula that factors in the proportions of the major component groups (lettuce, mustards, and specialty extras) to figure out how many tubs of what need to be picked. The leaders delegate pickers to different areas of the field, splitting the crew into two larger groups for cutting lettuces and mustards, and leaving individual workers to pick specialty crops that appear in the mix in smaller proportions.

Ideally, the crew will find rows of fresh greens that have never been harvested before. New greens are easiest to harvest because a crew member can simply grab a handful (gently) and use a small knife to cut many stems at once without needing to pay much attention to individual leaves.

As each crew member cuts along, he or she will sort the leaves, tossing out or trimming leaves that are too large, damaged by insects, yellowing, or otherwise unsightly. Occasional weeds also get discarded.

Handfuls of greens are tossed into ten-gallon plastic tubs until the tubs are full. Crew members carry full tubs to a flatbed truck for transport back to the packing shed.

Greens that grow too large for using in the salad mix are often cut and sold in bunches.

Some crops require pickers to cut each individual leaves one at a time. This method is much more time consuming than the handful harvest technique.

At times when weather conditions, irrigation problems, insect damage, heavy weeds, or inconsistent seeding limit the supply of untouched rows of greens, the crew will have to return to lettuce or mustard plants that have already been cut once (or sometimes twice) a few weeks earlier, which slows down the harvest considerably. In the late fall, winter, and early spring when greens grow slowly or go dormant, the salad harvest can be painstaking and incredibly time consuming because the crew will have to pick through larger and/or damaged leaves to find the tender new ones.

‘tatsoi’

‘Black Summer’ poc choi (above left)

Radicchio, chicory, and endive take over three months to mature, which is significantly longer than all the other salad components. They also take quite a bit longer to harvest and process, so a couple crew members will be sent out apart from the main group to fill tubs with these bitter greens that add color and flavor to the salad mix.

‘Indigo’ radicchio

Whole heads of radicchio, chicory, and endive are cut, and then a crew member will tear or cut the leaves into smaller pieces and sort out the larger, tougher, off-color bits.

‘Maraichere Tres Fine’ frisée endive

Until all the salad is harvested for the day and the packing shed workers are ready to wash it, tubs of greens are stored in a walk-in cooler. When time allows, packing shed workers fill up a large, stainless steel tank (formerly a milk tank) with cool, clean water. They pull the tubs out of the cooler and unceremoniously dump the leaves into the water.  About 30 pounds of salad can be mixed and dunked in this tank in one batch without crushing the leaves.

Washers use their hands to gently dunk and swirl the leaves in the water, mixing and agitating the ingredients to free clinging bits of dirt (that will sink to the bottom). Washers also keep their eyes out for weeds, cucumber beetles, or unsightly leaves that they pluck out of the water and discard.

After rinsing and mixing, packing shed workers pull scoops of salad mix out of the water and deposit them into perforated plastic salad spinning canisters until the canisters are about half full.

The plastic canisters get loaded into The Greens Machine, a type of electric commercial salad spinner. (We have three of them.)

The salad spins for about 3 minutes, and at the end of the cycle, it is moist but not dripping wet anymore.

After salad washing is done for the day, the big tank and the salad spinners are rinsed out with a bleach solution.

Most of our salad mix is packaged up in 10-gallon plastic tubs lined with perforated plastic bags (from Vegetable Growers Supply). The tubs are stored in the cooler until they head out to their final destination.

We harvest and wash most of our salad mix the day before it reaches our customers. If kept in a refrigerator, it will stay fresh for another five to seven days.

On any given day, Gathering Together Farm salad mix will contain many but never all of the following components:

Lettuce:

Flashy Trout Back‘ (speckled cos) from Wild Garden Seed
Dark Green Romaine‘ from Wild Garden Seed
Red Iceberg‘ from Wild Garden Seed
‘Merlot’ (dark leaf) from Wild Garden Seed
‘Oscarde’ (red oakleaf) from Wild Garden Seed
‘Brown Golding’ (romaine) from Wild Garden Seed
‘Hyper-Red Rumpled Wave’ from Wild Garden Seed
‘Really Red Deer Tongue’ from Wild Garden Seed
‘Pinot’ (red lollo) from Wild Garden Seed
‘Lollo di Vino’ (red lollo) from Wild Garden Seed
‘Jack Ice’ (green crisp) from Wild Garden Seed
Jester‘ (speckled crispleaf) from Wild Garden Seed
‘Red Zin’ (red romaine) from Osborne Seed Company
‘Dane’ (green crispleaf) from Osborne Seed Company 
‘Flint’ (green oakleaf) from High Mowing Organic Seeds
‘Blade’ (red oakleaf) from High Mowing Organic Seeds
‘Antago’ (lolla rossa) from High Mowing Organic Seeds
‘Red Rosie’ (red romaine) from Johnny’s Selected Seed
‘Sergeant’ (green oakleaf) from Johnny’s Selected Seed 
‘Dark Lolla Rossa’ from Johnny’s Selected Seed

 

Mustard:

‘Homi-Z’ from Wild Garden Seed
‘Osaka Purple’ from Wild Garden Seed
‘Golden Frill’ from Wild Garden Seed
Basic‘ (arugula) from Wild Garden Seed
‘Mizuna’ from Johnny’s Selected Seed
‘Tatsoi’ from Johnny’s Selected Seed 
‘Black Summer’ (pac choi) from Johnny’s Selected Seeds
‘Red Choi’ (pac choi) from Johnny’s Selected Seeds

 

Other:

‘Triple Purple’ (orach) from Wild Garden Seed
‘Magenta Magic’ (orach) from Wild Garden Seed
‘Pink Passion’ (chard) from Wild Garden Seed
‘Golden Chard’ from Wild Garden Seed
‘Rhubarb Chard’ from Wild Garden Seed
‘Maraichere Tres Fine’ (frisée endive) from Wild Garden Seed
‘Wrinkle Crinkle Crumpled’ (cress) from Wild Garden Seed
‘Natacha’ (chicory escarole) from Johnny’s Selected Seeds
‘Indigo’ (radicchio) from Johnny’s Selected Seeds
‘Virtus’ (sugarloaf chicory) from Johnny’s Selected Seeds
‘Cressida’ (cress) from Johnny’s Selected Seeds
spinach from Osborne Seed Company 

Friday Morning Harvest

Yesterday morning was cloudy, threatening to rain. Crew members pulled into the parking lot at 7:00 a.m., then loaded into trucks and headed out to the fields for a big harvest day.

At this time of year, much of the harvest involves bunching greens. This task is not exactly difficult, but it does require a skilled labor force that can produce consistantly sized, high-quality bunches. With a large crew, it’s also important that workers are able to move swiftly from one job to the next without wasting time in the transition. Often times, small groups will break out and work on bundling up different kinds of greens.

The morning (like most mornings on the farm) started with cutting baby “greens” for salad mix.

lettuces for salad mix

harvesting arugula for salad mix

harvesting spinach, mustard greens, and bok choy for salad mix

harvesting spinach for salad mix

transitioning from cutting salad to bunching up greens

bunching arugula

bunches of spinach

Many of our greens are covered with floating row cover to protect them from insect damage. At harvest time, the row cover is pulled back.

bunching baby bok choy

Over the course of the morning, a crew driver will ferry full tubs of greens back to the packing shed every half hour or so. This keeps the greens from wilting in warm weather (not such a problem yesterday), and it keeps the packing shed crew busy washing and distributing bunches while the field crew harvests.

harvesting mustard greens

harvesting bunches of yellow mustard

(Have you tried this stuff yet? It’s so mild and delicious.)

As the crew finishes up in an area, the floating row cover is put back in place until the next harvest.

bunching Italian parsley

Jess breaks off springs of Italian parsley.

David bunches up some radishes, and Enrique works in the rows of Italian parsley.

bunching radishes

In Oregon, farm workers are not legally entitled to paid breaks, but every morning around 10:00 at Gathering Together Farm, the crew stops to rest and enjoy hot coffee and pastries baked in the farm stand kitchen by Ana, Paula, or Mary. This tradition is something of an extension of our farm lunch program.

Then it’s back to work.

chard

kohlrabi

Seed crops are integrated into fields alongside our market crops. This red kale (above left) has been cut and is drying before threshing, and the chard (above right) is flowering and will be harvested later in the season.

rows of lettuce

All morning, the packing shed crew (Sally, Mariana, Robyn, Laura, and Lisa, on this particular day) is busy washing and distributing salad mix and bunches of greens.

Working in the packing shed is a very wet job.

All of the produce harvested, washed, packed, and sorted yesterday will be at farmers’ markets this weekend. Find it at the Corvallis Farmers’ Market, Newport Farmers’ Market, Beaverton Farmers Market, Portland Farmers Market, or Hilldale Farmers’ Market.

 

Organic Compost Program

Healthy soil is at the heart of any organic farming operation. Because the use of chemical fertilizers are specifically prohibited on certified organic ground, organic farmers must maintain soil fertility by adding nutrients in the form of compost and other soil amendments. Though it may not be the easiest or even cheapest option, Gathering Together Farm has a large, involved program that makes enough compost on-farm for the vast majority of our fertility needs.

The bulk of our farm-made compost is composed of animal manure (horse, cow, alpaca, rabbit, pig, chicken), hay, straw, vegetative farm waste/green chop, and leaves. John Eveland (GTF co-owner) uses his long-standing relations with other local farmers to procure as much feedstock (material to be composted) as possible. Much of the animal manure originates literally across the street from GTF, and even the most remote feedstock sources are within a 10-mile radius of the farm’s home base.

Many of the feedstocks are free or cheap (though they must be loaded up and trucked back to the farm). Some compostable materials, particularly chicken manure, are quite expensive. Ten years ago, John could buy a truckload of chicken manure for $25, but today he pays over $350 per load. The price has risen so dramatically because some farmers who traditionally used chemical fertilizers have turned to manure as a source of nutrients as the price of conventional forms of nitrogen have fluctuated. Chicken manure, as a commodity, is in high demand.

The vast majority of feedstocks used in our compost program do not come from certified organic operations because we simply could not obtain enough compostable material for our needs. That said, soil tests on our farm have consistently shown no or very low levels of chemical compounds, putting us well within the standards for organic production and actually with lower background levels of chemicals than most organic farms.  Fortunately, the land that we farm was never a target for heavy pesticide or chemical fertilizer use in the past because it was mainly used for pasture or hay before we started growing vegetables. Unfortunately, that ground was fairly nutrient poor when we started to work it intensively, so it has easily absorbed large amounts of organic compost, and we’re still working on making the land more productive by adding more nutrients.

As we intensively farm in this area, we export large amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium off the farm in the form of fruits and vegetables. Even though we employ many organic practices aimed at maintaining soil fertility (cover cropping, appropriate irrigation to reduce leaching, crop rotation, etc.), we need to consistently replace the nutrients lost by adding compost to the soil.

We produce three different grades of compost for three different purposes. Our standard mix includes animal manures, hay or straw, and other vegetative materials. We apply this product every time we prep a field for planting, and it’s a general all-purpose nutrient booster. The main component in our greenhouse potting soil mix (recipe here) is a blend of composted rabbit manure and leaves (obtained from the city street leaf pickup program). Lastly, we lightly compost chicken manure (meeting but not exceeding organic compost standards) for a high-nitrogen soil additive that is applied during field prep to crops that need extra nitrogen like melons, cucumbers, sweet corn, onions, peppers, and tomatoes. Sometimes we top dress crops with more of this chicken-manure based compost as the plants are growing.

Chicken manure is the most nitrogen rich of the feedstocks we use in our compost, and it has the most stored potential energy to heat up compost piles. Chicken manure is added to composting feedstocks after all the other materials are starting to break down and warm up, and the compost tender mixes in just enough to bring the piles up to temperatures that meet organic composting standards.

John has been personally responsible for the majority of the compost program from the farm’s inception until recently. He has always enjoyed his hands-on efforts in the composting yard, but being the owner of the farm pulls him in many different directions and finding time to devote to regular compost turning has proven harder and harder. This year, Dan (above) has taken over most of the day to day compost duties. Dan has some composting experience from previous jobs, and he brings a new passion and focus to the task. (I caught up with Dan to take these photos around 7:00 PM after he had already driven a truck up to Portland, worked the Saturday market booth, packed up, driven home, and unloaded the truck.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gathering Together Farm, John in particular, is notorious for purchasing used (sometimes antiquated) equipment that needs a fair bit of tinkering to stay in service. About 10 years ago, however, John special ordered the compost turner and had it shipped from a factory in Austria because there was no decent equivalent available in the United States. The Sanberger 5000 has a rotating drum fitted with specially designed, hardened paddles and a 5,000-pound block of concrete in the back to keep it stable.

Obviously, there is a health and safety concern when dealing with animal manure in proximity to food crops. In 2002, NRCS, EPA, and USDA finalized organic composting standards to ensure that pathogens are eliminated before the end product comes into contact with food. Compost must be turned at least 5 times in 15 days, and it must maintain a temperature of 130-170° during that time. While these standards were developed with food safety as a primary concern, the same methods will also sterilize weed seeds and cook out the vast majority of residual chemicals in the feed stocks such as antibiotics, pesticides, and fertilizers. Raising the compost temperatures too high, however, will kill off the beneficial bacteria needed to break down the organic materials, so the compost tenders pay careful attention to air/water/nutrient balance to maintain temperatures within the ideal range.

Dan will turn compost every other day for three or four weeks straight until the piles reach (or surpass) the mandated temperature and time standards. After that, he’ll turn the windrows about once a week to keep them active. After the composting process is complete, the final product will be piled up until it’s needed. We are currently using up what’s left of the compost produced in 2011, and the piles we’re working on now will probably not be spread on fields until next spring.

Dan drives the tractor at a snail’s pace alongside the linear piles of compost while the paddles of the compost turner aerate the material and re-mound it into nice, neat windrows.

Adding air and mixing compost activates the decomposition-inducing bacteria, releasing energy in the form of heat. As John says, “You could fry an egg in there.”

Water is also an important element in the composting process. As the piles heat up, they get seriously steamy. The piles that Dan is working on now are quite moist after winter and spring rains, so there’s been no need to add extra water.

In a couple months, we’ll gather a new batch of feed stocks and begin the composting process again. Those materials will be quite dry at the end of the summer, so Dan will need to add water to activate decomposition. The compost turner is designed to be fitted with a large water tank that can spray water directly into the windrows as the piles are turned.

At the end of each windrow (and when he’s moving the compost turner around the field), Dan raises the drum of the compost turner for unencumbered mobility.

Turning compost is a slow and somewhat monotonous job, but the compost tender must be actively paying attention to the task at hand, making sure that the rows stay straight, and the turner isn’t getting plugged up.

Though it’s not always pretty to think about where the nutrients that produce organic fruits and vegetables come from, the reality of farming is that we’re part of a complex ecosystem, part natural and part human constructed. Compost is the reason we’re able to keep producing such good stuff.