The Life of a GTF Tomato

  • Seed Selection—there are thousands of tomato varieties in this world, and we need the tomatoes that grow well and sell in this area. Joelene spends countless hours meeting with seed company representatives and other farmers talking about which varieties they think are best. Then she has to use her twenty years of growing experience on GTF land to choose what’s best for us, taking into consideration what sells well at markets and wholesale.
  • Seed Timing & Grafting—We seed tomatoes about every other week from January through April. We have to have successions of dozens of different varieties of tomatoes, some in hoop houses, some outside. Plus nearly all of our tomatoes destined for hoop houses must be grafted, so we have to match the timing of rootstock and scion tomatoes which grow at different rates but must have the same stem girth at the time of grafting.
  • Flat Preparation—We make our own propagation soil mix for all the transplants we grow. To do that we have to make our own compost (a very complex piece of the puzzle), and then sift it all by hand, mixing it in a cement mixer with peat moss, perlite or pumice, and our own special mixture of micro ingredients and mycorrhizal fungi. The greenhouse crew makes soil nearly all day twice a week about January—April.
    • Tomato Seeding—We seed all of our tomatoes by hand, and the flats sit on hot tables to improve germination. For grafted tomatoes, twice the number of plants must be seeded.
    • The Grafting Chamber—After many years, Joelene has finished our grafting chamber to be a deluxe resort where tomatoes can form graft unions, a place where they can have just the right amount of light, heat, and moisture. Two people graft two to three days a week for at least two months. This takes precision razor cuts, sanitation, steady hands, and many years of practice.
    • Up-potting—After the tomatoes have sealed their grafts and the graft clip pops off, it’s time to up-pot all the seedlings into larger pots, which the tomatoes grow up in for another couple weeks.
    • Succession Planning & Disease Rotation—We graft nearly all the tomatoes destined for hoop houses. This is because we don’t have quite enough houses to rotate our hot weather crops as much as we’d like, so there is more disease build up in that soil. Many of the diseases that inflict tomatoes are soil born, so that’s why we graft disease-resistant rootstock with heirloom tomato scion material. We have more land outside of hoop houses and can do a better disease rotation, so grafting isn’t as important for outdoor tomatoes.
  • House Preparation
    • Install snow protection in the winter so we don’t lose any houses to snow. Remove them in the spring.
    • Soil testing—Check for all the macro and micro nutrients, add fertility and other various amendments. It’s actually quite a bit more complicated than that, especially including mid-growth applications.
    • Till the ground and form the beds.
    • Lay out drip tape and hook up irrigation, including trench digging, pressure calculations and pipe repairs.
    • Lay plastic over the drip tape and cover edges with soil to hold in place.
    • Sterilize trellising wires and install in the houses.
  • Tomato Transplanting—All the up-potted tomatoes must be loaded onto flatbed trucks and driven out to their planting destination. For many of the things we grow we use a partially mechanized transplanting method (tractor attachments that allow people to either sit or lay down while they plant), but all of our tomatoes get transplanted by hand. It’s a whole lot of bending over, at first in the cold and muddy spring, and later in the blistering hot summer.
  • Tomato Trellising—We have metal hooks with twine hanging down from the greenhouse ceiling. The strings are attached to the tomato plants planted below, and the plants grow up the strings as the season progresses.
  • Tomato Pruning—We prune nearly all of our indeterminate tomatoes to have two main leaders, one to twine around each string hanging down from the trellis. For about ten weeks out of the year a four-person crew works about three full days a week pruning and trellising tomatoes. Trellising entails twining the new tomato growth around the strings as the plants grow. Pruning involves careful pinching and clipping of branches and suckers. Anyone who’s spent much time pruning tomatoes knows the feeling of having green sticky tomato gunk all over your arms and hair and face. We prune largely to decrease disease pressure allowing more air flow through the houses.
  • Greenhouse Shading—In the summer months it can get way too hot inside a long hoop house, so we have to provide the plants some shade. If we had all the dollars we would just buy shade cloth, but we don’t , so we have designed a mud cannon to shoot mud all over the outside of our greenhouses, thus shading our tomato plants. Before the cannon was invented, it took a crew of four people standing (barely) on the back of a flatbed throwing mud up onto the houses one Nancy’s yogurt scoop at a time while driving forward in a jerky fashion.
  • Weeding—This is the one thing that doesn’t take too much time with tomatoes, as they are planted in plastic mulch. The plastic we use is a special plastic designed to prevent weed germination, but also designed to allow lots of heat to come through. This extra heat on the root system is what really drives up our yields.
  • Pest & Disease Monitoring—The plants have to be constantly monitored to see how they’re doing, see if we need to address any pest or disease issues, or if we need to apply mud or go through and do another prune. This is a duty shared by many who are at the farm all the time. We all watch and observe and share our concerns.
  • Tomato Irrigation—Irrigation is a very delicate dance. Water too much and you get disease and dilute fruit; water too little and you’ll have stunted plants and decreased yields. And those are but a few of the problems that can arise from improper irrigation. Joelene lives at the farm and gets up with the sun every day. She spends her entire day turning water on and off all around the farm until it’s dark out, and it’s light out for a long time in the summer! She has to use decades of knowledge about farming to decide which crops need what, taking into account what the weather’s been doing for the past few weeks and what it’s projected to do. Only so much water can be drawn from individual pumps at a time, so crops have to be prioritized, and a huge mental map must exist.
  • Tomato Harvest—Our field crew of about fifteen people harvests tomatoes nearly every day for almost four months straight. It’s a lot harder than it sounds to judge when a tomato is at the perfect time to pick, especially because every variety is different, every microclimate is different, every hoop house is different, and all of our eyes are different. You don’t want it too ripe or else it won’t make it to market, but you don’t want it so green that it won’t finish ripening. And aside from that, the simple mechanics of getting your body into a greenhouse packed with tomato plants taller than you, while holding a flat of thirty pounds of tomatoes while it’s crazy humid and reaching 90 degrees outside—that’s difficult.
  • Tomato Grading—Once in the packing shed, all of our tomatoes get graded by a crew of 2-3 people. Every single tomato gets picked up, felt, looked at, and put back down into its final destination. Tomato grading takes a trained eye and hand, and is broken down into the following categories:
    • Grocery Store Order—get packed into nice boxes and delivered all over Corvallis and Portland.
    • Restaurant Order—get packed into nice boxes and delivered all over Corvallis and Portland.
    • Farmers’ Markets—get packed into yellow flats and sent to markets.
    • #2’s—get sold discounted by the box or get roasted by our food processing crew and used in our salsa, in our restaurant (pizza sauce) and sold wholesale to other restaurants.
    • Compost—another place where the whole cycle begins again.
  • Heirloom Tomatoes—Heirlooms are so huge and delicate that they have to be cradled to stay protected. When harvested, we put them in foam-lined yellow flats in a single layer, so they take up a lot of space on pallets.
  • Marketing Tomatoes—Every year the giant selection of tomato varieties we grow changes to match changes in growing conditions and market demand. This information has to get compiled by our office and given out to our marketeers and our customers, which takes a good deal of time as well.
  • Cleaning Tomato Houses—At the end of the season we have to remove all of the dead tomato plants from the trellis strings. The plants get loaded onto a flatbed and get taken to our compost pile. The strings must be cleaned of all plant material, wrapped up in an organized fashion, and unhooked from the greenhouse ceiling. Then all the plastic must be carefully pulled out of the soil and thrown away. The drip tape must be gathered together and moved out of the way for the winter, and then the whole cycle starts over again.

Though tomatoes are one of our most labor-intensive crops to produce, many of the things we grow take nearly as much work and time, such as leeks and strawberries.

This blog post was written by Laura Bennett.

Dry Farming Project

One of our employees, Amy Garrett, also works for the OSU Extension Small Farms Program. With a project funded in part by National Institutes of Food and Agriculture under the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, she is using some of GTF’s land to do a dry farming trial. How is such a feat possible? Dry farming has existed for a long time and was the main form of farming before modern irrigation systems, the rise of dams, and aquifer pumping.

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After last year’s drought, more and more people became interested in the dry farming techniques, as it seems evident that warmer summers and less snow pack are going to continue. Last year, GTF had its water rights cut off in September, even with senior water rights. Other farms had theirs cut off in June or July. If this happens again, it will be helpful to have methods of farming that don’t require irrigation.

In her little plot of land, Amy is planting melons, tomatoes, squash, and potatoes. These will be grown all summer without irrigation. First, she plants everything a little deeper since the plants rely on moisture in the soil. The seeds are planted 4 to 5 inches down.IMG_1566

After covering the seed with soil, Amy uses her boot to push down on top of the soil to bring the moisture to the surface and create capillary action. If the roots can extend down three feet, they’ll reach groundwater. She uses wider spacing between each seed so they won’t compete as much with each other for water. Fortunately, the roots of dry farmed crops grow deeper than irrigated crops. The roots of tomato plants can stretch as deep as 5 or 6 feet.

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This isn’t a yield-maximization strategy, but dry farming has been known to produce more flavorful produce that people often seek out. This year, the early adopters of dry farming in Oregon are getting together to do research and develop best practices. Small farmers in Western Oregon have created a collaborative learning community with a Facebook page called Dry Farming Collaborative.

Amy first got a taste of dry farming when she went around and visited small farmers in northern California and Oregon. One farmer in particular has been dry farming  in Oregon for over 40 years and was the one who inspired her to look more in depth at dry farming methods.

At this point, Early Girl and Big Beef tomatoes are the only plants that have leaves above ground at GTF.IMG_1572 All of the crops and varieties are ones that have been successfully dry farmed or came from dry farming systems (like Seed Revolution Now). Two of the potato varieties that Amy is planting, Purple Majesty and Mountain Rose, are also grown by GTF (irrigated), so it will be interesting to compare the dry versions with the irrigated versions. It is believed that dry farmed potatoes store longer than irrigated. The other two potato varieties being dry farmed are Yukon Gold and Nicola. Amy says it would be fun to have a dry farm themed dinner featuring dry farmed produce and do side-by-side tastings of dry farmed and irrigated produce.

If it rains, Amy will come out to cultivate. She says it is important to keep the top layer loose, which acts as a mulch. Crusting and cracking in the soil accelerate moisture loss, so loosening the top few inches will help to conserve the moisture below. Other than that, she actually doesn’t need to tend the plot very often. Since there is no irrigation, fewer weeds will grow.IMG_1581

We look forward to watching this process unfold throughout the summer, and we will do monthly blog posts documenting the progress of these dry farmed crops. Stay tuned.

 

 

Seeding and Soil Mixing

Paula expertly using the Hamilton drum seeder.

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Daisy staying very focused as she carefully inserts seeds into each cup.

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The greenhouses are filling up, slowly but surely.

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Mustards

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Austin filling trays with soil.

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22 Sustainability Facts about GTF

1) What do you tell your customers at the farmer’s market when they ask you if you are organic/sustainable?
Absolutely! We have been certified by the Oregon Tilth since 1987. We are also Certified Salmon Safe and have our Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) certification to ensure we have the best farming practices for preventing the spread of foodborne illness and disease. We hold ourselves to the highest standards of protecting the environment and maintaining and enhancing biodiversity, while also growing exceptional produce.

2) How many acres do you farm?
We have approximately 60 acres under certified organic production.

3) How many acres do you own for vegetable and fruit farming? Lease?
We own 32 acres, with about 12 acres in crop production. The remainder consists of riparian wildlife habitat, our roads, packing shed, barn, and several residences. We also farm another 48 leased acres in parcels surrounding our property.

4) How long has your current operation been in operation?
29 years

5) What is the amount of greenhouse vs. field grown?
We have slightly over 4 acres of certified organic high tunnel greenhouses, which we utilize for winter production as well as to hasten ripening of summer crops.

6) What kind of pest control methods do you use? What pests are you dealing with?
Many different pests love our certified organic crops as much as we do, including cucumber beetles, aphids, spider mites, slugs, symphylans, nutria, deer, gophers, moles, and crows. We strive try to create an environment where our crops thrive and pests don’t. This starts with promoting habitat for native beneficial insects, ground beetles, and raptors, which our abundant riparian frontage provides enormous benefit.

We bring in beneficial insects such as predatory nematodes, predatory mites, parasitic wasps, and ladybugs when required, and plant flowering insectary habitat such as buckwheat and phacelia to promote their populations. We also use organically approved pesticides only when necessary, or on trap crops where we’ve attracted the pests away from our cash crops. We have great success with covering our mustards, arugula, and spinach with floating row cover that does an excellent job of simply providing a physical protective barrier.

Our primary insecticide is Pyganic, which is a natural pyrethrin derived from chrysanthemum flowers and degrades very rapidly after application. We typically only spray Pyganic on trap crops for flea beetles and on cucumber beetles. For protecting our squash seedlings, we’ll mix Surround clay with Pyganic to kill the beetles already on the plants and leave a lasting repellent clay coating until the seedling can get established. We apply Sluggo only to the edges of our greenhouses in the winter to repel slugs from entering from the surrounding habitat. The predatory mites do a good job of controlling spider mites, and we love releasing armies of ladybugs to feed on our abundant aphid population.

We also fend off a variety of plant diseases that can sometimes be prevented by sprays of certified organic products. For control of onion downy mildew, we primarily spray Oxidate, which is an approved hydrogen peroxide product that leaves no residue on the crop. Although copper sprays are allowed in organic farming, we almost never use them, as we hold ourselves to a higher standard. Our goal is to avoid spraying crops for diseases, and we try to prevent diseases through agricultural practices such as crop rotation, choosing resistant varieties, grafting onto resistant root stocks, controlling humidity and ventilation in the greenhouses, proper nutrition, and not over-irrigating.

7) Do you spray conventional pesticides ever? If so what kind? How often, when, and where?
No, all of our farming inputs have been approved by the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI).

8) What kind of weed control methods do you use?
Hand weeding, mechanical cultivation, wheel hoeing, cover cropping, planting through plastic, and strategic flame weeding.

9) Do you spray conventional herbicides ever? If so what kind? How often, when, and where?
No, we do not use any synthetic herbicides, fungicides, or insecticides.

10) Do you use any other soil inputs or enhancements?
We test our soils regularly for all the plant essential elements to ensure adequate fertility for producing the highest quality crops. In addition to our farm-made compost and leaf mulch, we supplement the fertility of our soils with feather meal and other blended organic fertilizers, fish emulsion, and OMRI approved gypsum and lime. Some of our fields have had boron deficiencies, so we are starting to apply low rates of organic soluble borax where needed. The compost helps promote microbial diversity and microbial populations to stave off pathogens. We also add a microbial biocontrol to ourfinished compost specifically to prevent Sclerotinia, a plant pathogenic fungus. We make our own potting media for starting transplants, which is a mix of composted leaves, microbially-active rabbit manure, peat moss, perlite, mycorrhizal inoculum, glacial rock dust, and other micronutrients.

11) What kind of irrigation methods do you employ?
Overhead and drip irrigation are used for our crops, and irrigation scheduling is determined by the crop needs, which vary throughout the season.

12) Do you currently use any water conservation practices?
We are very careful not to over-irrigate, as over-irrigation leaches nutrients and wastes water. We track the soil moisture and crop growth closely, and irrigate only when needed. We also schedule our irrigations with cultivation operations, avoiding watering after cultivation to let the newly-cut weeds wither in the sun. Our water rights allow us to irrigate from the Marys River, and we have placed screens on our pump intakes to ensure we are not killing any small fish.

13) Do you currently practice any riparian habitat management?
The farm hugs the Mary’s River, so our property contains a great deal of riparian area. We have added to that with additional plantings of trees for bank stabilization. We maintain generous buffers around our fields to ensure that our farming operations are not detrimental to the health of the river.

14) Do you currently receive energy from any renewable energy sources?
Solar panels heat the water for our farm stand. Our pizza oven is fired by wood that we harvest on the farm from trees that naturally fall every winter. The off-road diesel we use for running our tractors is a blend containing renewable biodiesel.

15) What kind of soil management techniques do you currently utilize?
We implement conservation tillage methods to ensure the long-term productivity of our soils. We mitigate the effect of tillage on soil structure by continually adding organic matter through our farm-made compost and also by sequestering carbon with cover crops wherever and whenever possible. We put a great deal of pride in the health of our soil. We’re convinced that the microbial diversity, variety selection, and nutrient richness are what create the superb flavor in our produce.

16) How many varieties (approximately) of crops do you currently farm?
We produce approximately 50 different types of vegetables with over 300 different varieties.

 17) Do you use any cover crops? If so, on what percentage of your acreage?
We cover crop any ground that comes out of production by the end of October, which varies annually. In the winter of 2015-2016, over half of our acreage was planted in cover crops, and the other half was planted in late fall storage crops and overwintering crops. We try to make sure every part of the farm gets a cover crop at minimum every second or third year.

18) Do you cover soil with compost? Do you compost your own? If not, where do you source from?We have a complete composting operation on the farm, and we source feedstocks from our neighbors whenever possible to reduce the carbon footprint of transporting material. We also source from neighboring cattle barns, rabbit sheds, rotten hay, our own cover crop green-chop, leaves from the city, and non-marketable produce even the gleaners won’t take. It all ends up being recycled into our compost which is the foundation of our farming, fertility, and sustainability operations.

19) Do you have any livestock on your operation? If so what kind and how many?
Sally trains three haflinger horses for light draft work and pulling carriages. We have an egg producing chicken flock of 200 free-range chickens that move between various pastures in two large mobile chicken coops. We protect them from predators with portable fencing. The flock is a mixture of Red Star and Black Star layers. In addition to their pasture foraging and veggie scraps, they are fed certified organic chicken feed from Modesto Milling. Our eggs are currently not certified organic as we started the operation in mid-2015, but we plan to have them certified organic at our next Oregon Tilth renewal.

20) How many employees do you have?
We have approximately 30 on-farm full-season employees, which increases to almost 150 total employees in Philomath, Corvallis, Newport, and the Portland metro area during the harvest season. We treat our employees with the utmost respect and consideration, providing breakfast every day and Farm Lunch on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. We regularly schedule health care clinics, physical therapy clinics, occasional massage therapy, and provide our employees with seasonal produce for them and their families.

21) Do they live on your farm? Are they there year-round?
Three employees live on the farm, in addition to the farm owners. The majority of our on-farm employees live nearby in Philomath and Corvallis. We have some part-time staff members in Newport and Portland, who work at the farmers’ markets we attend. Working at the markets provides these employees a source of part-time income, an opportunity for participation in the sustainable agriculture movement, and fresh organic produce for them and their families.

22) Is there any other information available that would explain how you farm, grow, and operate your business?
There’s plenty more to share. Visit our website at www.GatheringTogetherFarm.com. Also, feel free to explore our blog for additional information on our produce, farming practices, crew members, and more.

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: