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.

CSA 2011 – Week 8: Crop Rotation and Irrigation 101

Last week’s discussion with John was so interesting that I decided to follow Joelene Jebbia, our Irrigation manager, around for an hour to learn more about what she does. She began similarly to John, socket wrench in hand out to fix a spigot in the circle garden’s irrigation riser. I spent most of this time just watching what she was doing, and gazing at the amazing array of tools she has in her truck. Once she changed the spigot, we headed out to a greenhouse thatrecently had a fall crop of potatoes planted in it. Joelene was setting up the drip irrigation in it since the seedlings had started to pop out of the ground. As she was busy doing her thing, I got to pick her brain about how she decides what gets planted where and how intensive irrigating all 50 acres really is.

She explained to me that she keeps a record of everything that we plant each year, how much of it, and when it is planted. This aids her in the winter when she plans out where everything is going to go. For next season, for example, it is good to know where brassicas (kale, cabbage, broccoli, etc.) were planted so that we do not plant onions in those places because they seem to do poorly in an area where brassicas once were. It is also important to not plant the same crop into the same ground consecutively. For example, if you plant arugula in one area, and the last of the planting got flea beetles, as it often does, and then you plant more arugula into that same soil, then that new crop will not thrive because there are already existing flea beetles in the soil that will eat it before it gets a chance to thrive.

As Joelene pulled the drip lines down the rows of potatoes, she elaborated that she also takes into consideration the micro-climates of each field. For example, how much sun the field gets, and what time of day it gets sun, compared to how much sun the potential crop likes. Thinking about whether the field is on high or low ground, therefore if it will be wet or just moist early in the season, is another huge factor.

Joelene explained that every year her plans get thrown off a little just by the weather patterns. For example, this year she planned to plant our onion crop just west of the compost piles, but when it was time to plant, the ground was way too wet to plant into. So, she shifted the plan slightly and it will work out. When deciding where everything gets planted, she also thinks about ease of watering, her other main task at the farm. She has to make sure that she will be able to access all of the crops with either overhead or drip irrigation and make it logistically workable for her.

Irrigation takes up a lot of her time year round, and most intensively this time of year. We grow crops in 31 different hoop houses that need to be watered on top of our outdoor crops. For the outdoor crop irrigation, Joelene and Sarah will start laying pipes down in April and continue through June until all the fields are set. Of course, there are a lot of repairs on pumps, drip lines, and pipes that go along with this.

This time of year is the busiest for keeping up with all of the watering, and outdoor watering will usually continue well into October depending on the season. The variability of the weather patterns plays a huge role in all of this, and working with mother nature seems to be your best bet. The potato house was all set up for watering, 2 of 4 that would get done today. After she placed her tools back in their locations, she drove to the tractor where she would begin her next task.

What’s in the box?

1.5 lb Potatoes (Rose Gold) – Steam, roast, or mash. These are versatile.
Carrots, bunched – They are great raw, on salad, slaw or stir fried.
1 bunch 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 chard– steam, or sauté these greens, much like spinach but not quite as tender.
1 purple pepper– It is wonderful grilled, sautéed, roasted, or raw.
Assorted Summer squash – Try them sautéed, grilled, in a soup or stir fried. Try hollowing out and stuffing the round ones with a grain mixture, goes well with cheese, meat, mushrooms, then bake or grill them for 15-20 minutes.
1 cucumber – Eat raw, on salad, or marinate them.
1 radicchio– They are wonderful grilled and topped with balsamic vinegar.
1 bunch cilantro– Make salsa with the tomatoes! Eat with cucumbers or squash.
Romaine lettuce – Make a salad, or add to sandwiches.
2 tomatoes – Chop raw on salad, sandwiches, or make salsa with cilantro and onions.
1 pint blueberries – I would be surprised if these made it home!

Stuffed Squash
4-5 assorted summer squash
3-4 small-medium Walla Walla onions, chopped
3/4 cup nuts, (almonds work best) ground
1 cup cooked brown rice, quinoa, or bread crumbs
3/4 cup grated cheese, (your choice, Swiss, cheddar or parmesan work well)
2 eggs
2 cloves finely minced garlic
Salt and pepper

For Zucchini, cut ends off and cut them in half long ways and scoop out the inside and set aside. For the rounded squash (patty pans or 8-ball) cut the first inch top off and scoop the inside out. Sauté the onions in olive oil, chop the squash flesh and squeeze any water out. Add this to the onions and cook a little longer. Beat the eggs and add to the nuts, rice (or grain of some sort), cheese, garlic, pinch of salt If the mixture is too runny add more of the grain. Stuff the squash with the mixture and bake in a slightly oiled pan at 350 degrees for 30 minutes.
Variation: add other spices if you would like, cilantro would go nicely, or even add some chopped tomato or chard.

Radicchio Salad
1 head of radicchio finely shredded
2 oranges, peeled and divided into sections
3 baby onions, thinly sliced
2 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Dressing:
2 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 Tablespoons balsamic vinegar
Pinch of salt
Touch of sugar or honey

Place onions on an oiled cookie sheet and brush with olive oil. Bake at 300 degrees for several hours, until onions are dried out and brown. Mix radicchio with dressing and top with orange wedges and onion slices.
Variations: Add cucumber, grated carrots or peppers to this salad. Also, chop your head of lettuce and mix it in with the radicchio for a larger size salad for more people.