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.

Strawberries

We’re right in the middle of strawberry season, but unfortunately, the situation doesn’t look good. We primarily grow ‘seascape’ strawberries, which are ‘day-neutral‘. Day-neutral strawberry varieties (as opposed to June-bearing) will continue to set fruit as long as temperatures are mild-hot. They usually flush two or sometimes three times: once in late May/early June, once in August, and (hopefully) again in late September/October if the weather doesn’t get too cold. In each flush, the whole patch of seascape berries ripens up pretty quickly, so the window of opportunity to pick and sell the fruit is short. This year, that window has coincided with several heavy rains, which will ruin a good portion of this year’s spring crop.

When picking berries after it’s rained, the crew has to examine each fruit for rotten spots or marks. Lots of berries get thrown out, and the extra inspection makes for a very slow harvest.

All our strawberries are grown on plastic mulch, which adds heat to the soil and ripens the fruit a little early. After a rain, however, plastic mulch will also prevent water from draining into the soil, so the berries are often sitting (and rotting) in little puddles.

The berries that do end up at markets are good ones. They look good, and they taste good. The berries that come on later in the summer, however, will be even better because they’ve seen more sun and hot days to sweeten them up.

The crew recently planted some more ‘seascape’ berries that will hopefully begin to bear fruit in August. A few times per summer, the crew will clean up the rows by cutting strawberry plant runners to encourage more fruit production. We usually harvest off each strawberry field for two years before plowing under the plants and moving on to newer, more productive berry patches.  In the fall, the plan is to plant some new June-bearing strawberries (‘Benton’ and ‘Hood’). We purchase all our strawberry plant starts from Lassen Canyon Nursery.

This year, we have two large greenhouses planted with strawberries. In an attempt to get fruit as early as possible, these plants got an extra “tent” layer of floating row cover for added heat.

The strawberries coming out of the greenhouses look great. These plants ripen fruit over a longer span of time, so the yield from any single picking is a little lower than a good harvest of field strawberries, but they’ve certainly pleased many fruit-hungry farmers’ market customers in the past month or so.

Our strawberry offerings in the next few weeks may be somewhat slim, but keep an eye out for more of our berries later in the summer.

 

Training Caneberries

A few years back, the farm management decided that marionberries and boysenberries would be a welcome addition to our produce offerings. We have a lot of good farmers in our midst here, but none of us had much experience growing caneberries (berries that lose their core and look like a thimble – blackberries, raspberries, boysenberries, etc.). The plants, however, grew and thrived and bore a whole lot of fruit.

Problems arose during harvest and again when the plants needed pruning at the end of the season. Most caneberries produce fruit on year-old canes, so during the spring, summer, and fall, both last-year’s growth and new sprouts must be encouraged to thrive, meaning that the crew had to pick fruit that was hidden in the interior of the plants behind a thorny veil of new growth. This system made the harvest slow and sometimes painful. In the fall and early winter as they pruned, the crew again had a hard time disentangling the old, spent canes from the ones that would produce the following year’s fruit, which took extra time and did some damage to the newer canes.

Last summer, a woman name Brigida joined the crew. She had extensive experience working on other berry farms and offered up a solution to ease both harvesting and pruning. We’re trying it for the first time this spring, and so far, it seems to be working really well.

Last fall, the crew cut and removed all the old canes. As the plants have greened up this spring, it’s been easy to distinguish the year-old canes from the new growth (next year’s productive canes). When the new shoots were about 18 inches tall, all the shoots in one area were gathered together in a bundle, flattened on the ground, and pinned down to keep them from growing up into the older canes.

As the new canes continue to grow, they will be flattened and pinned again and again until there’s a whole line of canes running horizontally along the ground.

At harvest time, the crew will only have to contend with the thorns of the fruit-bearing canes that are growing on the trellis, so the fruit will be easier and faster to pick. At the end of the season, those spent canes will be clearly separate, so the crew can cut and haul them off without damaging next year’s production.

When the old canes are gone, the newer canes will be unpinned from the ground and trained up onto the trellising for the next summer harvest.

We are hoping for a good marionberry and boysenberry year. We should begin harvesting the fruit in July and will have berries available at our farmers’ market booths, in our CSA, and at our farm stand.

Le Tour De Greenhouses

David and Carmelo pick arugula raab in a greenhouse full of overgrown salad greens.

It’s no secret that Gathering Together Farm has embraced the use of season-extending plastic greenhouses. This year we have 38 of them plus the heated propagation greenhouse for starting seedlings. Greenhouses offer extra heat during the cooler seasons and the opportunity to deliver a measured amount of water to plants (as opposed to whatever the sky lets loose). Unfortunately, they are expensive to buy, build, and maintain because of the infrastructure costs and the extra labor hours needed to set up irrigation and do the work that a tractor could do out in an open field. There is also the looming risk of losing greenhouses during winter snow storms or other extreme weather events. This winter we had two small greenhouses collapse under the weight of snow in January (read more here), but the middle-of-the-night snow-sloughing efforts of John, Sally, and several crew members saved the rest during the deep snows at the end of March.

The reality is that we have thousands of individual and restaurant customers that want to buy produce from us year round, and we have nearly a hundred employees that are eager to work as much as possible. Growing under cover allows us to produce larger quantities of higher-quality fruits and vegetables for more of the year than the outdoor Oregon climate would permit.

At this time, all our greenhouses are in use. Our mid-season staples like tomatoes and cucumbers are well established, and some early spring crops are finishing up and will soon be harvested, torn out, or tilled in to prepare for planting fall crops. Each photo (or set of two photos) below represents a single greenhouse, so you should get a good sense of how we’re employing these shelters. (There are two additional greenhouses planted with more tomatoes that were somehow overlooked during the photo shoot. Sorry.) In some of these photos, you will see weeds because unfortunately, this organic farm is not pristinely weed-free.

first of the season strawberries

white salad turnips going to flower

potatoes

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 raspberries 

beets

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  snap peas

zucchini

white salad turnips

carrots

lettuces for salad mix (plus weeds)

potatoes

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  sage and tarragon

baby leeks that will soon be dug up and transplanted outdoors

marjoram

cucumbers

carrots

scallions (left) and baby bunching onions

 

peppers (See more about planting peppers here.)

carrots

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 tomatoes (See more about trellising tomatoes here.)

the propagation greenhouse with the tomato grafting chamber in the back on the left

red leaf head lettuce

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 head lettuce

tomatoes

strawberries

Sometimes when we want to add extra heat in a greenhouse, the crew will build a floating row cover tent over the crop.

tomatoes

The crew (Macario on the left and David on the right) lays down plastic mulch in a greenhouse that was  later planted with more tomatoes and eggplant.

tomatoes

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 bok choy

radicchio for salad mix

potatoes

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 basil

overwintering chard

flowering watercress

spinach (See more about seeding this spinach in here.)

flowering watercress

Cucumber and Tomato Trellising

After finally getting some tomato and cucumber starts planted in greenhouses, it was time to begin the ongoing task of trellising.

The vast majority of our trellising is done with twine, and when possible, we reuse the same twine year after year. After cleaning out greenhouses at the end of the season, we stash away boxes of twine wound around special hangers.

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In smaller greenhouses and greenhouses planted with cucumbers, twine hangers are placed on lateral wires strung down the length of the greenhouses.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hanging twine in taller greenhouses requires a specialized tool (a piece of bamboo) to reach up to top wires.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gathering Together Farm grows its entire cucumber crop inside greenhouses, and the elaborate trellising system makes the harvest infinitely faster and easier than rummaging through prickly foliage looking for camouflaged fruits on the ground. The fruits also turn out to be much more attractive and marketable. Later on during the summer, the crew will pass through this greenhouse almost every day, twisting off a fat cucumber from each vine as it hangs suspended from the twine trellising.

The cucumber trellising system starts with a crew member affixing a plant clip (from Hydro-Gardens) around the base of each cucumber stem and clipping it onto a single line (one twine per plant).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Then a crew member gently winds the twine around the stem a few times.

A little slack is left in the line, so it’s flexible enough to move but won’t let the plants fall as they get heavier.

Every two to three weeks, the crew will return to this house and secure the growing vines to their individual lines by continuing to wind the stems up and around the twine.

Larger greenhouses planted with tomatoes, get an independent trellising infrastructure because the tremendous weight of the growing plants and fruits could potentially collapse the entire greenhouse if it was suspended by the greenhouse frame alone.

T posts are driven into the ground at six foot intervals (two plants between each post).

Top bars on the T posts are strung with wires down the length of the greenhouse.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The ends of the lines are braced with serious wooden posts and anchors. The crew adds additional horizontal supports to keep the lines from flopping over to one side or the other when they’re fully loaded.

Later, a crew member ties a loose knot with the twine around the base of each tomato plant…

…and gently winds the twine around the stem up to the top.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Each tomato plant will eventually have two leaders, so an extra twine is hung next to each plant to support the additional branch in the future.

Trellising cucumbers and tomatoes is incredibly time consuming, and the infrastructure (especially the T post system) is quite expensive. Doing it well, however, leads to healthier plants, higher yields, better quality fruit, and an easier harvest.