Flame Weeding

Weed management is one of the biggest challenges in organic farming. At Gathering Together Farm, we rely on an integrated approach using seedbed preparation strategies, cultivation, and hand weeding. A method of weed control that is very effective for our direct-seeded crops is preparation of stale seedbeds. Every time the soil is disturbed, a new flush of weeds germinates from the soil seed bank. The stale seedbed method relies on a tillage pass, then waiting for the weeds to germinate, killing the emerging weeds with flame, and then planting our crop.

We are currently in full-steam-ahead planting mode, getting our five acres of high-tunnel greenhouses planted with mustards, spinach, arugula, mâche, carrots, beets, turnips, radishes, bok choy, and peas. Pictured below is a greenhouse where our production manager Joelene has already raked the soil to create a fine seedbed for planting arugula and mâche. After a couple weeks of waiting, the weeds have emerged at cotyledon stage and are rapidly killed by a quick pass with a propane flame.

 

Our agronomist, John Yeo, has put together new backpack flame-weeder setups with a burner for each hand. In the past, whoever was flame weeding would carry the propane tank in one hand and hold the burner in the other. With this new contraption, the propane tank fits on John’s back, and he can burn twice as efficiently with a burner in each hand, and more ergonomically than carrying the tanks.

Flame weeding works well on dicotyledon weeds, or dicots for short. A dicot is a flowering plant that bears two cotyledons which emerge from the seed itself, however doesn’t work so well on grasses, as the growing point is below the soil level where it stays protected from the flame. Often established weeds won’t be as affected by flame weeding, which is why timing is essential for this operation. If we catch the weeds at the cotyledon stage, they can be eradicated in this efficient manner. Reducing our on-farm weed pressure has been one of John Yeo’s primary goals since he started with the farm in early 2015. He’s excited to apply concepts of biology and timing to the weed management program for another season of growing exceptional certified organic vegetables.

Here are a couple of videos that demonstrate our flame weeding practices:

 

 

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.