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:

 

 

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

2015-05-28 Cucumbers 060

2015-05-28 Cucumbers 059

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

2015-05-28 Tomatoes 056

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