Last January, David and I went to visit Ted Hutten at his farm. Ted is a farmer we really admire because he works hard, grows a lot of wonderful food, and he has such a unique sense of humour!! He is well known at the Halifax Farmer’s Market where he has a busy stall all year. He’s been selling there for years, building up a very loyal customer base, along with a loyal group of people working for him.
We found him in his greenhouse working – of course. He is always working. He still works 100 hours a week for 8 months of the year. He didn’t say how many hours he works during the other 4 months of the year, but knowing Ted, it is likely only slightly less than 100 hours.
Ted showed us what was growing in his greenhouses and coldframes. He runs a 100 member full-year CSA. January to March is a challenging time to provide a good variety of items in the CSA box. Pea shoots and micro greens were growing in trays. He is making sure his customers get something green in their box even though it is freezing cold outside with snow on the ground. The micro greens were growing in a greenhouse heated with wood generated from pruning his orchard. Ted launched right into a discussion of a problem with the micro greens.
A quick aside. A farmer needs to know how to effectively solve problems. David and I are constantly in problem-solving mode or problem-avoidance mode on our farm. So for us, watching other farmers ‘take us along’ as they discuss and tackle a problem is useful for our own problem-solving. Even more than just learning about the solution. And Ted is a delight because I think he really likes to engage with challenges.
Here is Ted explaining in his rapid-fire style what is going on.
“I had problems with the plants [micro greens] dying and I thought it was damping off … but I had Viliam Zvalo (a horticultural expert) and he said …that I had added a little bit of soluble fertilizer, trying to give me a little more growth and the salts were high and it was causing pythium* which is in peat moss soil which affects the plants. … Fertility is an issue, in the wintertime especially. The uptake is a bit of an issue. Last year, I would pick a flat, like this. A 28- or 30-day-old flat that is ready to be picked. That’s what I’m selling, typically, and when I cut it last year, all of the cotyledon leaves were yellowing, so I had a 7-day shelf-life on the micromix but about a 2-day shelf life on the cotyledon leaves with slime… It’s a combination of density, and I have to have a relatively high density or I can’t make money, so when the density was a bit too high I was getting insufficient fertility and cotyledon leaf yellowing and that was causing the quality issue after two or three days in the bags. It’s a tough go, this is a very tough go to make money at this. I’m now convinced I’m not going to make any money at it but I think it’s good for my business to do it and I will continue to do it because it gives me a leafy product. We’ve had spinach every week, we’ve had arugula, we’ve had mache steady through the winter but we’re running really low, we’re basically out of those crops now and they won’t kick on again until late February when the daylength is substantially longer so this gives me a green offering for my CSA boxes and for the market customers- which helps sell apples and carrots- that’s the only reason I do it, and because I like it, it’s challenging.”
Ted continues: “What I do is, every day, I put this fan in- I plug it in for an hour each day after I water- I won’t now, because it’s noisy, but that will hopefully dry out the foliage and that helps to prevent fungal disease.”
Ted then asked David if he grew micro greens.
David: “Yeah, I used the mushroom-based compost, though.”
Ted: “Yeah, I’ve used mushroom compost.”
David: “Did you have disease too?”
Ted: “I use mushroom compost for all my seedlings only using mushroom compost as fertility, which eliminated all the fungal diseases.”
Ted: “All my pathogens were like these black moulds on the bottom of spring bok choys, like Shanghai choy, all of them, even Tatsoi. They get big and even the lettuces get that basal rot on the bottom, that soft rot and as soon as I used mushroom compost, it eliminated it 100% and Valley Mushroom said that it’s a combination of things and that the mushroom is so strong that it overpowers the other damaging fungi. Really interesting. I have not tried to grow this [micro greens] in mushroom compost, you’ve got me on to something now, though. Maybe I should be incorporating mushroom compost into my soil.”
Cool! Fight fungal disease with mushroom compost.
David: “Leonard North of Valley Mushroom told me about a University of Pennsylvania study where they trialed all these different seedling media, including peat moss and mushroom compost with some sort of lightening agent and the mushroom compost was far superior to everything else.”
Ted: “Yeah, but you can’t grow in mushroom compost alone.”
David: “I’m sorry- peat moss and mushroom compost with sand or vermiculite.”
Ted: “That would give you a balance.”
David: “That’s what I use for soil blocks- two parts mushroom compost, two parts peat moss, one part sand.”
Later in the conversation, Ted mentioned that Viliam Zvalo told him not to plant winter lettuce until late February, which is what he did the previous year, because of insufficient daylength. When there isn’t enough light, lettuce stems become elongated, making them susceptible to disease problems.
With every little disease or pest problem, growers have to put together a number of different, interacting solutions. If the problem is a mould disease, it could be about air circulation, day length, soil medium, fertility, density… Or all of them. On top of that are the marketing issues, and whether money can be made on the crop or not.
Ted came by our farm today (March 4 2013) and gave us an update. He said he can actually make money on the micro greens. He is now using mushroom compost as the base for his soil medium. No problem with disease now. He suggested that might also be a function of longer day length at this time of year. In March the day-length is so much better than in January.
Ted showed us his barn and how he stores and prepares vegetables for the CSA boxes every week. The barn is a beautiful huge wooden structure located across the road from Ted’s house and greenhouses. We talked about farmers markets and CSAs and labour strategies for the family farm. We talked about how to make equipment decisions and when it makes sense to mechanize. What really caught David’s attention was the way Ted handles kale.
Kale is a very popular crop these days, especially in January when there is very little local green product at the market. In the fall, Ted continues to harvest Kale into the winter until the first big snowstorm. He harvests the whole plant including the stock, since a heavy snow would rip the kale leaves off the stalk. Ted packs the kale plants into apple bins, and keeps them in the barn in an above-grade room where they freeze. One at a time he brings the bins into his barn basement, where it is above freezing, strips them and packs them into poly bags and sells them at market.
*From Wikipedia: Pythium is also known as water mould. Pythium-induced root rot is a common crop disease. When the organism kills newly emerged or emerging seedlings it is known as damping off, and is a very common problem in fields and greenhouses. This disease complex usually involves other pathogens such as Phytophthora and Rhizoctonia. Pythium wilt is caused by zoospore infection of older plants leading to biotrophic infections that become necrotrophic in response to colonization/reinfection pressures or environmental stress, leading to minor or severe wilting caused by impeded root functioning. [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pythium]