THIRD YEAR FOCUS- Greenhouse Manager
Prepared 12/6/11 by RC
This year was my second year serving as greenhouse manager at North Slope Farm. It gave me an opportunity to try to maximize efficiency within our greenhouses. I was able to practice my management skills to perfect, to the best of my abilities, the routines of the greenhouse production. Dealing with two hoop houses, the Farmhouse Gothic and Ralph’s House as well as one heated greenhouse, used primarily for seedlings, gives an opportunity to manage over many different projects in a season. This year was no different; we had a wide variety of activities occurring throughout the year.
The Farmhouse Gothic had been designated to tomato growing. Our crop care manager was set on furthering his and North Slope’s experience with grafted tomatoes so he took the reins of the hoop house and grew towering tomato plants of heirloom and red slicing varieties. After the tomatoes completion, the Farmhouse Gothic held radishes and attempts at late summer squash which were cleared out to house layer chickens over the winter. This gives the girls a nice protected spot to roam over the winter months. As snow accumulates outside the chickens will be able to walk on the ground and scratch up bugs and dirt.
Ralph’s House, the other hoop house, had an early start to the spring with plants of kale, swiss chard, scallions and fennel that had been transplanted the previous fall. During the summer Ralph’s House primarily held pole beans, including a very cool variety called yard-long beans. These beans were not quite a ‘yard’ long but more like a foot and a half and quite tasty. Now as fall sets in Ralph’s House has been converted to a winter green haven, full of kale, swiss chard, radishes and peas for tasty treats for farmers and the local Hopewell market that goes year round every Wednesday afternoon (2-6) at the Hopewell train station.
My major focus as greenhouse manager was on the heated seedling greenhouse. Planning out a constant healthy flow of seedlings is always a challenge. One can always plan out a detailed step by step run down of what happens when and in what amounts but weather, animals and poor germination can always throw any well thought out plan off. Of course, as in any year we faced all these problems. To start the general plan for the farm was to start early and hopefully get plants growing out in the field in early April. This ambitious goal faced many challenges. The seedlings in the greenhouse faced the dangers of rodent attacks. Despite seedlings being positioned high up on germinating tables, these savory fresh green sprouts attracted constant attention from rodents and other pests in the cold month of March. When most other food sources were gone during this cold month, the heated greenhouse seemed to become a haven for pests who liked to chomp away at our tender young plants. Even after setting traps, covering trays with remay and setting in place mouse guards (slick sheets of metal that the rodents can not climb) around table legs we still had a lot of seedling loss from rodents, especially of our squash plants which had to be reseeded many times.
Additionally, at the beginning of the year we found the weather outdoors to be challenging. The spring was wet (as most springs are) but our fields did not start to drain until well into April, far past our goals for planting. The wet spring caused similar issues on other farms in the area, impeding many farmer’s starting dates but with our clay soil and slow draining fields it became quite a nuisance. As a result of the rainy weather, much of the first succession of seedlings planted for the field never made it beyond the germination tables. Instead, the second succession of seedlings became the first set to touch ground. Yet even the second set had to be transplanted in our big garden beds which are better draining beds then our traditional field beds and do not need tractors to cultivate them. These garden beds are usually reserved for direct transplanting of salad, arugula, tat soi, carrots, radishes and turnips. However, they were very useful for transplanting our second succession while we waited for the traditional field beds to dry enough for tractors to prepare for planting.
In a sort of mirror image of the spring, the fall also brought some devastating rains. The floods of hurricane Irene and later storms brought similar wet conditions to our fall fields as we experienced in early spring. Once again our field production was halted, with mud pits were field beds once laid, transplanting a final succession was again thrown off course. Instead a later set of seedlings needed to be seeded, after our initial crop plan would have ended. These seedlings were transplanted again into the well draining big garden beds. These experiences come to show that again and again plans have to be revised to suit environmental issues and dilemmas; one always has to prepare for the worse. Also, these experiences point to the validity of having different growing conditions to be utilized when necessary. In our case the two different types of field beds allowed us to make use of seedlings that else wise would have gone to waste. It seems a good idea of any farm to have a wetter and dryer field option to help combat bad weather throughout the year.
Seedling sales are the other major aspect of greenhouse management. In the germination greenhouse we grow seedlings for special orders and for selling at markets. This year I planned out numerous successions of seedlings for sale to hopefully keep them young and vibrant. If they live in a pot too long they can get diseased and worn down and their roots can get bound and not transplanted easily. Though we use cow pots, which allow the roots to grow threw the manure based pot walls, which help reduce damage to the plants, they still do need to be planted in the grown to be fully healthy plant. Therefore we seeded a number of successions of plants, which seemed to help keep our seedlings in good shape. With special wholesale orders to places like Whole Earth in Princeton and The Kitchen Garden we were able to make extra money at the start of the year before our crop plants took off. Also, when we look at the work the greenhouse did strictly for North Slope Farm, providing seedlings for the season, we can consider the flats grown for NSF as a distinct “seedling order”. In this way we can evaluate the value of the functioning greenhouse in money earned and saved by growing seedlings.
This 2011 season faired reasonably for the seedling market.
Wholesale Accounts: yielded $2,573 gross
Farmer Markets: yielded $2000 gross
NSF total #s : cowpots- 1961 pots (approx $3922 worth)
: trays- 539 trays (approx $5,390 worth)
When looking at the overall products produced in the heated greenhouse and their worth to the farm (in cash and in seedlings for the field) it seems that the heated greenhouse alone stands to bring at least a $14,000 value to the farm.
The biggest challenge in preparing seedlings for sale is to be able to constantly have healthy seedlings people want. At times one may expect certain varieties to be more popular than others and be surprised by the customer’s lack of interest. However, it seems that one can never have too many sun gold cherry tomatoes, nasturtiums and basil (the three most popular items for wholesale and resale markets). It is key to always keep a constant supply ready for sale each week. Space to store all seedlings for sale and field has to be well managed and all table space, including tables outdoors must be utilized. The greenhouse becomes quite a juggling act in the beginning of the season and many hours are spent watering and caring for these baby plants but if taken care of properly it is quite rewarding to see them grow.
The greenhouse has been a great way to plug into the heart of a farm. Being able to adequately plan and organize seedlings has been quite a venture and a wonderful learning experience. It is always a challenge to be able to produce a healthy seedling at its peak, ready to go the moment the weather and field conditions will corporate. Of course, it does not always go as planned and is always a little sad to have to throw unhealthy and old seedlings in the compost pile but when you plant and see a healthy seedling grow into a nutritious bountiful plant, it is quite rewarding. Planning the greenhouse seeding schedule helps to coordinate an entire farm and is a great experience to be taken to future work at another farm or my own one day. Organizing the greenhouse also teaches one patience; you can not rush nature but if you work hard you can hopefully find the best balance to produce the healthiest plants possible.