Melon Season

A version of this post first was first published on Wayward Spark.

Every August, some Gathering Together Farm workers spend countless hours each week picking and picking up melons. Literally tens of thousands of pounds of melons. In addition to harvesting cantaloupes almost every day for over a month, there’s also the task of sampling and selling melons at our nine weekly farmers’ markets. For a few melon pickers, there are times when it feels like melons are taking over the entire farm schedule.

Melon pickers and melon sellers are asked variations of the same question thousands of times: “How can I tell if it’s ripe?” or “Can you pick me out a ripe one?” The short answers are you can’t tell, and they’re all ripe (hopefully).

Melons and watermelons do not get sweeter after they are picked (unlike peaches or tomatoes). They only get softer. That means you’ll want to get one that’s vine ripened and freshly picked. Your best bet is your local farmers’ market or farm stand. We highly recommend that you buy a melon from a reputable seller (like GTF) or one you’ve bought good melons from before. Anything at a grocery store is kind of a gamble with some winners and some losers.

If you have melons growing in your own garden, there are a few signs to watch out for to gauge ripeness.

Most cantaloupes, like this extremely fragrant, softball-sized charantais melon show they are ready to pick by a subtle tearing from the vine.

With a gentle tug, they will “full slip,” separating cleanly from the vine.

Lots of netting, the raised scabby stuff, is another sign of a good cantaloupe.

There are some melons that are already too mushy by the time they will full slip. Gathering Together Farm sells ‘Honey Oranges’ and ‘Honey Pearls’ which are orange and white honeydew-type melons. Determining if these varieties are ripe requires a careful examination of the blossom ends, and when they start to glow translucent, the melons are cut free from the vine.

Picking a ripe watermelon is a much bigger challenge than picking a cantaloupe. There are four things to look for, but every planting varies in its ripeness signs, so you basically can never be sure until you open up a couple and see what the indicators are for that particular group of vines.

The most reliable sign of ripeness are the dead tendrils. At the juncture between the main vine and the vine that leads to an individual watermelon, there is a little tendril. There are two more tendrils at the junctures to the left and right of the primary one. While the watermelon is growing, the tendril will be green, but as the watermelon reaches its peak of flavor, the tendrils will usually wither and die.

The other strong indicator of ripeness in watermelons is the thump. One must handle a great deal of watermelons over several years to attune his or her ear to the perfectly ripe watermelon timbre. One of my former coworkers used to equate it roughly to the thumping of a person’s head, chest, and gut. The tone of the head is under-ripe, the chest is ripe, and the gut is overripe. This is a gross exaggeration, but it’s kinda sorta true.

The thump trick does work but only out in the melon field. Often times when watermelons are transported, their tone changes, so thumping one at the grocery store won’t help you much.

The other two things to look for are size and a good ground spot. While small watermelons will ripen up, they will never be as good as a medium or large melon. A good ground spot will be a yellowish area where the skin touched the ground, but it’s not known to be a reliable indicator on its own.

At GTF, melon pickers (Sally the owner, Joelene who’s been there for almost 20 years, Sarah who’s been there for five seasons, and Dan who was new last summer) go down rows leaving neat little piles of ripe melons as they pass. Later, the melons are usually boxed up, carried over to an aisle, loaded onto a farm truck to be driven back to the packing shed, unloaded onto a pallet, reloaded onto a market truck, unloaded at a farmers’ market, and hopefully sold or else they’re loaded and unloaded several more times before reaching their final destination.

One way to speed up the process and keep the lifting to a minimum is the watermelon-toss method. Groups of two or three workers will gently throw watermelons from person to person bucket-brigade-style until they reach their destination in the large bins on the flatbed of the truck.

In the below photo, Joelene is tossing to Dan…

…and Dan deftly catches it.

There is a fair bit of skill and muscle involved, but it’s actually kinda fun.

We grow four successive plantings of melons and watermelons that get seeded during the month of May. The first planting is always smaller (both in number of plants and size of fruit) because it’s exposed to cooler nighttime temperatures. The second and third plantings are almost always robust, and we harvest the bulk of the crop off of those plants. The fourth planting can be great if the weather holds up, but if the fall rains come early, it can be a near-total loss.

Melons and watermelons appreciate as much heat as they can get. We transplant the seedlings into plastic mulch and then cover them with floating row cover to add extra warmth and limit insect damage. When the plants start to flower, we remove the floating row cover for pollination. The plants are watered regularly with drip irrigation until the first fruits are fully ripe. At that point, Joelene will water only enough to keep the plants alive because too much water can cause the fruit to split or taste diluted.

This year, Gathering Together Farm is growing the following types of melons:

Honey Dew Types

‘Honey Orange’ from Johnny’s Selected Seed
‘Honey Pearl’ from Johnny’s Selected Seed

 

Charentais Type

‘Edonis’ from Johnny’s Selected Seed
‘Santo’ (trial) from Johnny’s Selected Seed
‘Rubens’ (trial) from Johnny’s Selected Seed
‘Anasta’ (trial) from Johnny’s Selected Seed
‘Agustino’ from Osborne Seed Company

 

Cantaloupe

‘Sarah’s Choice’ from Johnny’s Selected Seed

 

Galia or Tropical Melon

‘Arava’ from Johnny’s Selected Seed

 

Watermelon

‘Sunshine’ (yellow) from Johnny’s Selected Seed
‘Starlight’ (red) from Johnny’s Selected Seed
‘Little Baby Flower’ (mini red) from Johnny’s Selected Seed
‘New Orchid’ (orange) from Johnny’s Selected Seed
‘Sorbet Swirl’ (multi-colored) from Johnny’s Selected Seed

 

The season is short, so if you like a good melon, don’t wait.

Learn more about the best method for cutting a watermelon here.

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.

 

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.