Ode to the Beetle in Your Salad

Diversity as an Organic Pest Control

We have all had the experience of finding the occasional beetle in a salad or a slug in a head of cabbage. When we encounter such a thing, we have to decide how we feel about it. But it’s hard to know what to think, and there is so much more to think about beyond what meets the eye.

On occasion we’ll get a call from a chef who bought our produce saying that an upset customer found a bug in their salad. We thought it was important to tell our customer base more about the truth behind that bug in the salad mix, and why it is actually something to make you feel better about your food rather than worse.

So why would anyone feel good about finding a bug in their salad? There are three main reasons why this would be the case, which I’ll get to in a bit. But first, it is essential to understand the concept of the microbiome. The microbiome is the ecosystem of non-human lifeforms that exists in your digestive system to regulate your digestive and mental health. Having a diverse microbiome is a healthy microbiome. This is because a diversity of microbes can protect a diversity of attacks on your health. A small amount of “bad” microbes cannot take hold and create an infection because they have to compete for space and resources with the diversity of beneficial microbes present. The same is true of the ecosystem outside our bodies. A diverse ecosystem is a health ecosystem. When a farm’s ecosystem has a diversity of bugs present, it is harder for one bug to become a major infestation.

The first reason why a bug in your salad is a good thing is that we do not use any broad-spectrum pesticides. Broad spectrum pesticides eliminate all forms of bug life within a certain category, whether they’re beneficial, indifferent, or damaging to the crop being “protected.” The ecosystem then has such a lack of diversity that it is essentially a blank substrate that can be easily taken over by a pest again, rather than kept in balance by the multitude of different kinds of critters all vying for the same space.

Also, broad-spectrum pesticides create heavy selection pressure on pest populations, forcing them to rapidly develop resistance to the chemicals being dumped onto the ground. This can quickly lead to the creation of what are commonly referred to as super bugs that are so resistant to our methods to control them that complete crop failure becomes a likely risk. Additionally, there are many other negative environmental side-effects of broad-spectrum pesticides aside from the fact that you’ll make pest control harder for yourself the following season. As our agronomist John Yeo takes on pests on the farm, he remembers Jerry Mahoney’s quote, “If we poison the earth, we’re poisoning ourselves.”

Secondly, broad spectrum pesticides are not good for your health in a more direct way than harming the environment. Anything that is designed to blindly destroy life should not go into your body. Of course there is a system in place that is designed to make sure that anything applied to food crops does not harm you, but this classification system is flawed. In simplified terms, for a pesticide to be approved for use, it must be classified under “non-mammalian toxicity.” But this is highly problematic, as the majority of cells in your body are not actually mammalian. They are protozoan, bacterial, fungal, etc. Just as described above, a healthy microbiome is a diverse microbiome.

And lastly, on our farm we feel very strongly about never spraying anything on leafy greens specifically, as they will be consumed raw. That means no organically certified pesticides either. Straight up nothing goes on greens that you will put into your body raw. Leafy greens such as lettuce, spinach, and arugula are very delicate and must be treated as such. To spray something on a leafy green is to eat what you spray, and we take that reality very seriously.

So what do we do to control pests on our farm? Our main control methods are exclusion and staying in tune with the annual rhythms of pest populations. Exclusion controls pests by creating a barrier between them and the plants. For our outdoor greens we put floating row cover, a cheese-cloth like fabric, over the greens and just lift it up when we need to harvest. For crops inside hoop houses, we hang netting over the ends of the house to keep bugs from getting in.

Working with the natural cycles of pest populations is also very important. There will always be certain times of year when pest populations reach their climax. It’s like clockwork. During the times when we know aphids will be rampant, we don’t harvest the crops that they have infested. We wait it out, move on to the next planting, and go back to the old planting after the aphids are gone and it has produced a new set of shoots to harvest.

We also focus heavily on interplanting insectary plants to encourage the growth of beneficial bugs who like to eat pests. Currently, we plant lots of alyssum, and in the past we have also used calendula and phacelia. Alyssum is excellent at attracting wasps that eat aphids and thrips, which are major pests on our farm.

At the very bottom of our pest control repertoire are organically certified sprays, of which we use only three. The most commonly used spray is Surround, a brand of kaolinite clay that is very fine that we spray on winter squash seedlings to protect them from cucumber beetles. The second is BT, a bacterium known as Bacillus thuringiensis that is a naturally-occurring bacteria that lives in the soil. We spray it on Napa cabbage seedlings to prevent moths from laying their caterpillar eggs on them. Lastly, we will use Pyganic, a chrysanthemum derivative, on our pepper seedlings to protect them from aphids. In all of these cases, the crops get sprayed at a very young age to get them through to when they will be strong enough to protect themselves.

If you are reading this, you are likely already someone who is able to choose to pay the extra dollar for organic produce for ethical and health-related reasons. You probably already know that conventional food production is rife with environmental degradation, minimal nutritive quality, and a corporate-controlled suppression of science. But perhaps you didn’t know that finding a beetle in your salad is a physical embodiment of environmental and nutritive health. Either you see a beetle on occasion and you know that you’re eating real food, or you never see any sign of life on your food and you know that it’s been eradicated.

Diversity is what it all comes down to. Diversity is what we work to preserve.

Delicious, nutritious diversity.

By Laura Bennett

Flame Weeding

Weed management is one of the biggest challenges in organic farming. At Gathering Together Farm, we rely on an integrated approach using seedbed preparation strategies, cultivation, and hand weeding. A method of weed control that is very effective for our direct-seeded crops is preparation of stale seedbeds. Every time the soil is disturbed, a new flush of weeds germinates from the soil seed bank. The stale seedbed method relies on a tillage pass, then waiting for the weeds to germinate, killing the emerging weeds with flame, and then planting our crop.

We are currently in full-steam-ahead planting mode, getting our five acres of high-tunnel greenhouses planted with mustards, spinach, arugula, mâche, carrots, beets, turnips, radishes, bok choy, and peas. Pictured below is a greenhouse where our production manager Joelene has already raked the soil to create a fine seedbed for planting arugula and mâche. After a couple weeks of waiting, the weeds have emerged at cotyledon stage and are rapidly killed by a quick pass with a propane flame.

 

Our agronomist, John Yeo, has put together new backpack flame-weeder setups with a burner for each hand. In the past, whoever was flame weeding would carry the propane tank in one hand and hold the burner in the other. With this new contraption, the propane tank fits on John’s back, and he can burn twice as efficiently with a burner in each hand, and more ergonomically than carrying the tanks.

Flame weeding works well on dicotyledon weeds, or dicots for short. A dicot is a flowering plant that bears two cotyledons which emerge from the seed itself, however doesn’t work so well on grasses, as the growing point is below the soil level where it stays protected from the flame. Often established weeds won’t be as affected by flame weeding, which is why timing is essential for this operation. If we catch the weeds at the cotyledon stage, they can be eradicated in this efficient manner. Reducing our on-farm weed pressure has been one of John Yeo’s primary goals since he started with the farm in early 2015. He’s excited to apply concepts of biology and timing to the weed management program for another season of growing exceptional certified organic vegetables.

Here are a couple of videos that demonstrate our flame weeding practices:

 

 

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.

How To Graft Tomatoes (GTF Method)

Gathering Together Farm has been growing a significant portion of its tomato crop in greenhouses for over 15 years. Because of the limited space available under cover, the greenhouse rotation schedule has been less than ideal, making it necessary to plant tomatoes in the same houses more frequently than recommended. Over the years, the soil in particular greenhouses began to harbor various diseases that were stunting the growth and production of the tomato plants grown under cover. It became apparent that something needed to change if the farm was going to continue to plant tomatoes in existing greenhouses. The solution was grafting. Now, about 70-80% of the Gathering Together Farm tomato crop comes off grafted plants.

In essence, grafting tomatoes lets farmers reap the yield off of the tomato variety of their choice, but that scion is grown on highly disease resistant rootstocks. The result is more vigorous plants, a larger yield of higher quality fruits, and a longer period of productivity. Tomato grafting has been practiced for decades by growers who have been planting tomatoes in the same ground year after year because of limited space for necessary crop rotation.

At Gathering Together Farm, Paula has been grafting tomatoes for four years, and at this point, she has a fairly high success rate, about 90-95%. Paula and Joelene learned the art of grafting tomatoes from reading the literature online and in print, experimenting, and collaborating with Alice at Log House Plants, who was figuring out grafting methods around the same time.

To start off, ‘Maxifort‘ rootstock from Johnny’s Selected Seeds are seeded into 2.5″ pots, and all the other varieties of tomato scion are seeded into flats with 98 cells (“100s”). Even though the seed is relatively expensive, Gathering Together Farm over-seeds the rootstock by about 40% to account for an 80% germination rate and the fact that some rootstock plants will be unsuitable for grafting. Trays of seeded pots and flats are placed into a dark, humid chamber heated to about 85°.

The sprouting chamber is a farm-made structure with grated shelving underlain with rubber hoses through which warm water flows from an electric water heater. The sides and doors are plastic with velcro closures.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Starting four days after seeding, Joelene pulls every tray of pots seeded with rootstock out of the hot chamber and examines each pot for any signs of above-ground sprouting. If even the slightest bit of white tendril is showing, she pulls the pot and joins it with other sprouted tomatoes on a warmed table in the greenhouse. She sorts the new tomato seedlings daily until it becomes apparent than anything left is never going to sprout (up to two weeks after seeding). Grouping seedlings in like-staged trays will allow Paula to more easily match rootstock and scion at the exact same stem size.

The scion varieties generally sprout at about the same time, so Joelene pulls them out of the sprouting chamber when she sees any above-ground growth.

Tomato starts grow on heated tables for about three weeks.

There’s some debate among the grafting team about whether or not the rootstock plants should be placed under lights after seedlings are pulled from the sprouting chamber. At this time, it is believed that the lights may stunt the elongation of the stems, so the rootstock plants are allowed to grow on warmed tables without lights while scion plants do grow under lights.

It is critical when grafting for the stems of the rootstock plants and the stems of the scion plants to be the same diameter. If it seems like the rootstock or the scion is outpacing the other’s growth, Paula will move trays off the warming tables to slow growth. Sometimes she will even move trays to the ground in the shade if she needs to let the plant parts match catch up.

Here’s what the ‘Maxifort’ rootstock looks like when it’s ready for grafting. Ideally, the rootstock plants will have straight stems, but sometimes they don’t. Some bent-stemmed rootstock plants can be used for grafting, but really crooked ones or plants with the cotyledons too close to the soil surface are discarded.

The day before she plans to graft, Paula selects rootstock plants that will match up with the scion.

She waters the rootstock well because they can’t be watered again directly for a couple weeks.

She puts the rootstock under lights in a last ditch effort to encourage the stems to grow as straight as possible.

Paula moves the scion into a dark area to slow photosynthesis so that the plants are as dormant as possible when grafting.

For grafting, Paula splits these double edge razor blades (from Fred Meyer) and uses one blade for two trays of grafts (64 plants) before discarding it.

These are 1.5mm and 2mm silicon tomato-grafting clips from Hydro Gardens.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

First, she pinches the top of the rootstock and swiftly cuts the stem at a 45° angle. She must cut the stem at least an inch above the soil level, so that when the tomato start is transplanted into the ground, the scion stem will not touch the earth. She also cuts the stem below the cotyledons, so that the rootstock will not produce any foliage or fruit.

She discards the rootstock top.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Then she finds a matching scion plant and cuts its stem at a 45° angle.

This is a tray of mostly cut scion.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

She fits the clip on the rootstock stem and then slides the scion in, matching up the 45° angles.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The line of symmetry of the clip should be perpendicular to the plane of the graft so that the clip is in contact with the rootstock and the scion equally.

If she’s grafting larger seedlings, Paula will sometimes cut off the cotelydons to decrease the weight of the scion and keep it from slumping over and putting extra pressure on the graft.

Each tray is marked with the date of the graft.

Paula heavily mists the newly grafted plants. The tray of pots is placed inside another solid plastic tray.

She mists the inside of the cover, tightly closes the top vents, and fits it tightly on the bottom tray, eliminating any airflow and preventing the plants from drying out. Gathering Together Farm purchased the covers from McConkey.

The post-graft healing “building” is a structure built inside the Gathering Together Farm propagation greenhouse. It’s divided into two chambers, a dark chamber and a shaded chamber. Each chamber has built-in shelving for trays of grafted tomatoes with lids. The dark chamber, is covered with black plastic under a reflective tarp (silver side out to prevent the absorption of heat). The shaded chamber is covered with white plastic under shade cloth with some insulation on the south side to keep it from getting too hot. The healing building offers a shelter with limited temperature fluctuations, limited sunlight (or no sunlight), and limited airflow that will allow the plants to heal slowly without attempting to photosynthesize until the graft is set.

The trays of newly grafted plants are placed on shelves in the dark chamber and left there for about three days.

After three days in the dark, tomato plants are moved onto shelves in the shaded chamber for a day, and then they stay in the same chamber with overhead lights for another day.

After a day under lights, the top vents on the cover are opened.

The next day, the covers are propped open to allow limited air to flow through the trays. A day or so later, the covers are taken off completely.

Eventually, the uncovered trays are moved out to unheated tables in the propagation greenhouse.

With each step after the trays come out of the dark, the plants are assessed, and if they seem to be wilting or looking sickly, Paula will move them back a step and wait another day to try again.

About a month after grafting, the joint between rootstock and scion will have healed, and the stems will have grown enough so that the clips will start to pop off or they can be removed by hand.

Grafted tomato plants will be transplanted into the ground a few weeks later. When planting, it is critical that the graft line remain well above ground, so that the scion will not root into the soil. The graft will remain visible for the full life of the plant.

This is the Gathering Together Farm tomato-grafting method for the 2012 season It is probably different than any of the tomato-grafting methods practiced around the world. As we continue to learn from our mistakes and experiment with new techniques, this process may change in little or perhaps big ways.

Gathering Together Farm grows and grafts the following varieties of tomatoes:

Red Indeterminate Tomatoes:

Big Beef F1 from Osborne Seed Company

New Girl F1 from Johnny’s Selected Seeds

Rebelski from Johnny’s Selected Seeds

Big Dena F1 from Hydrogarden

Arbason F1 from Osborne Seed Company

Colored Indeterminate Tomatoes:

Cherokee Green from Johnny’s Selected Seeds

Cherokee Purple from Johnny’s Selected Seeds

Black Krim from Seed Saver’s Exchange

Pruden’s Purple from Johnny’s Selected Seeds

Momotaro F1 from Territorial Seed Company

Rose from Johnny’s Selected Seeds

Carolina Gold F1 from Osborne Seed Company

Brandywine Yellow from Osborne Seed Company

Copia from High Mowing Organic Seeds

Indigo Rose from Johnny’s Selected Seeds

Roma-type:

San Marzano 168 F1 from Johnny’s Selected Seeds

Golden Rave F1 from Johnny’s Selected Seeds

 

Gathering Together Farm also grow the following tomato varieties ungrafted:

Red Determinate Tomatoes:

Siletz F1 from Seeds of Change

BHN 826 F1 from Johnny’s Selected Seeds

Roma-Type:

Mariana F1 from Johnny’s Selected Seeds

Viva Italia from Osborne Seed Company

Cherry:

Yellow Mini F1 from Johnny’s Selected Seeds

Black Cherry from Johnny’s Selected Seeds

Sun Gold F1 from Johnny’s Selected Seeds

Favorita F1 from Johnny’s Selected Seeds

Sunpeach F1 from Osborne Seed Company