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.

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.

CSA 2011 – Week 7: Soil Fertility and Cover Crops

I had the pleasure of following Farmer John around the barnyard this morning to get some knowledge of our soil fertility tactics here at GTF. We first discussed cover crops. John says that cover crops work well for farms that have long rotations, or space that they do not need to plant anything into for up to 6 months. In the traditional cover cropping system you let the crop go for awhile, sometimes until as much as 6 feet high. Then, you would disc it down and let the green material break down for another 6-8 weeks before it’s ready to plant in.

We have a bit more of an intensive rotational system because most of the land we farm is planted almost all year round without much of a break, since we over winter quite a bit of crops. We do however have some parcels of ground clear of food crops in the winter that we will utilize cover crops in. When we use cover crops we usually plant field peas, vetch, and rye. Our cover crop system is a little bit more modified than other farms. We will let them grow until just before we need to use the parcel to plant in, and then we use a forage chopper to truck away the greenery as one of our compost feed stocks. We can then plow, disc, and prepare the land to be ready to plant in the next day. This saves us the 6-8 weeks of waiting for the plants to break down in the field. In our case the cover still serves the purpose of holding the soil from eroding in the winter rains as well as keeping the micro-organisms healthy and happily eating away.

As I followed John around to assess a manure spreader that went out of commission last night, he explained that we will use this tactic especially in fields where we will be planting later summer crops such as melons. There is a point in the fall, towards the end of October, that it gets too late to plant a cover crop. If we don’t plant early enough the cover crop will not have a developed root system, and we will end up with an insignificant crop that will not hold the soil or build it. If we don’t plant anything into an empty field, winter weeds can serve the same purpose; or in fact chickweed, which grows in plenty around here, makes a great winter cover.

As John got out from under the manure spreader, diagnosed the problem, and then made a phone call to our loyal mechanic, he added that we tend to rely more on compost than cover cropping. Our compost is a stable addition to the soil. We do two main types of compost: your basic compost and composted chicken manure. The chicken manure compost along with a fish fertilizer that we run through our irrigation are our two main fertilization tactics for crops that need more nitrogen to thrive. We also apply gypsum to all of our fields since our soil is low in calcium. The good thing about gypsum is it doesn’t change the pH of the soil either, which is another important factor. As I wrapped up brain-picking with John this morning, socket wrench still in hand, I was just amazed with the amount of interesting information I had learned. Maybe I should do this more often!

Lisa Hargest
CSA coordinator


What’s in the Box?

1.5 lb Potatoes (purple viking) – See below.
Carrots, bunched – They are great raw, on salad, slaw or stir fried.
1 bunch baby Walla Walla onions – chop the onions and eat raw on salads or soups. Try them grilled! The top green part goes well with eggs, cheese, stir fries or pasta.
1 bunch beets – They are great boiled, roasted, or even grated raw and dressed. Eat the greens too; they are great sautéed with olive oil and salt.
1 green pepper– It is wonderful grilled, sautéed, roasted, or raw.
Summer squash (1lb) – Try them sautéed, grilled, in a soup or stir fried.
2 cucumbers – Eat raw, on salad, or marinate them.
1 bunch parsley – Chop it raw as an addition to a sauté, use in pesto with or without basil. See recipe.
1 bunch basil – Make pesto! Eat with tomatoes, olive oil, vinegar and salt.
Romaine lettuce – Make a salad, or add to sandwiches.
2 tomatoes – Chop raw on salad, eat plain like an apple!
1 pint of strawberries

On Purple Viking Potatoes
These purple Viking potatoes were freshly harvested this week. The skins are sensitive and have not hardened yet. These potatoes are a bit more starchy, but do well baked or boiled. I would mash them up with some butter and salt. If you wanted to try something different you could boil them whole, then chop and add some balsamic vinegar, mustard and salt while still warm. They are also quite tasty roasted with the usual rosemary, salt and olive oil.

Tabouli
1/2 cup bulgar
1 bunch parsley, chopped finely
1 bunch baby onions, chopped, greens and all
2 tomatoes, chopped
1/2 cup fresh mint leaves, julienned (optional)
1/4 cup or more lemon juice
1/4 cup or more extra virgin olive oil
2 cloves chopped garlic
Salt and pepper to taste
Optional: chick peas, cucumbers, a pepper

Boil 3/4 cups water, add to bulgar and cover. Let sit for 15-20 minutes, or until bulgar is tender. Add lemon juice, olive oil, garlic, salt and pepper. Place in
refrigerator. Add the rest of the ingredients about 30 minutes before serving. Serve cold.

Raw Beet Salad
1 bunch beets, greens chopped off and beets grated
3 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
3 Tablespoons apple cider vinegar
Pinch of salt
2 Tablespoons honey, maple syrup or sugar

Combine all ingredients in a mixing bowl and season to taste. This is a very simple salad. It goes great on any green salad.
Variations: add grated carrots or chopped parsley to switch it up.