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.

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.