Archive for the ‘Agriculture’ Category

Winter Salad 2012

February 6, 2012

Back at the New Year I posted about several Fall/Winter gardening experiments, including a Greenhouse Crop that I was re-seeding much more densely and a Cold Greenhouse Crop that I had planted.

The new planting in the greenhouse, under lights only, no soil heat, is doing very well. After a month I was able to harvest enough greens (leaf and romaine lettuce, beet greens and spinach) for salad for 4 people. Parts of the planting are not dense (a result of the November initial seeding). Had it been more intensive it would have been better. I cut individual leaves from each of the plants with the hope that they would grow back. It a couple cases I pulled the plant because things are very (over)-crowded and harvesting is difficult.

The Cold Greenhouse suffered a structural failure in late January after a very heavy snowfall and rains. I examined the inner cloche and row cover and can find a couple seeds just starting to break ground. Can’t identify the plant yet.

The salad from the greenhouse was tasty with Huckleberry Vinaigrette dressing.


Experiments in Winter Gardening

January 3, 2012

This is an update on my three winter gardening explorations:

Digging fall carrots Nov 13

Fall crop. This experiment was to plant carrots, beets and chard in late July for fall harvest. I had old seed, so I over-seeded and became challenged to thin and weed effectively. Nonetheless I got all three crops to produce. I gambled with the weather leaving the crop in the ground (unmulched) into November. Animals ate the beet leaves in October and the chard leaves after that. The ground froze before I got all the beets and carrots pulled, I assume the chard is lost, the beets and carrots are an open question.

Digging fall beets Nov 13

LESSONS: The usual challenge of other activities keeping me from weeding and thinning; mulching with leaves or straw and a light row cover would probably have extended the harvest and kept away animals; the harvest needs to be finished before the freeze (or better protection is needed).

Greenhouse crop. November 1, inspired by Square Foot Gardening, I planted a 2×4 foot bed to carrots, leaf and romaine lettuce, beets, chard and spinach.  Individual seeds were planted at recommended their spacing.

The bed is on a bench in my (poorly insulated) greenhouse, a 2×6 frame filled with amended soil sitting on a heating pad set for 70F.  Four full spectrum fluorescent lights were 6 inches above the soil on a timer from 5AM to 7PM. Carrots and leaf lettuce came up fine. The romaine and chard did not germinate, and the spinach only poorly. I replanted spinach mid-November (no more chard seed). One spinach from the first planting seemed to be doing OK and then about Thanksgiving got wilty.

December 1 I raised the lights to 18 inches, and wrapped a plastic curtain around the lights making a terrarium of the bed and lights. The spinach recovered, perhaps due to the increased air temp and humidity.  Three leaf lettuce plants were coming along slowly.  The carrots continued slowly.

Mid-December, after reading Coleman’s 4-season gardening, I replanted spinach, romaine and leaf lettuce at Coleman’s 1” row spacing. One of the original leaf lettuce failed after Christmas due to lack of water (its hard to water in the confines of the terrarium).

January 3 I harvested 3-4 spinach and 3-4 leaf lettuce leaves to start an experiment in regeneration. Lights and heating pad draw (on average) 0.110 KW, lights only draw 0.062 KW (measured by WattMeter). So, my energy cost Nov 1 – Jan 1 was   0.11KW * 24hrs/day * 61day * $0.07689/kwhr = $12.38 (An interesting experiment but spendy for a handful of lettuce leaves.)

I’ve now turned off the heater to see how things grow with the light (and its heat) only.

Dec 2 (31 days since planting)

Dec 14 (looking west)

Dec 31 (looking east)

LESSONS: Heated growing space is costly and plants need to be planted densely and then thinned for eating as they grow. Carrots at 3” spacings need to be interplanted with something faster growing. The goal is to cover every square inch of soil with edible leaves as quickly and completely as possible, then retreat the number of plants as the plant size increases.

Cold Greenhouse crop. Based on more Coleman reading, on January 1 I planted in my hoop house under a cloche and a wire frame covered with row covering. Spinach, leaf and romaine lettuce, and beets and carrots. The first question will be can I get germination.

UI, Sodexo and Local Food

December 19, 2011
Last Wednesday Mark McKinney and I had a very interesting meeting with representatives of Sodexo the food service contractor for the University of Idaho, Charlie’s Produce, their supplier and UI’s Sustainability Center. The question was how to supply UI with more local produce. It was motivated by Sodexo’s contract with UI that sets a goal to use 12.5% local food (measured in dollars, local defined as Latah county).

Here is my attempt at a summary of what we learned:

Sodexo/UI works in large quantities (eg 400 lbs of potatoes/week) and wants to deal with a limited set of suppliers that can guarantee its needs.

Sodexo has a contract with Charlie’s to seek out local supplies that are competitively priced. Charlie’s is willing to serve as a middle-man between a local grower and UI’s needs.

UI requires Sodexo and Sodexo requires Charlie’s to carry a large food-borne illness insurance policy. Charlie’s places insurance and quality assurance requirements on its suppliers.

Sodexo and Charlie’s each have production requirements for growers, things like: no animal manure, fenced fields & hand-washing facilities. The requirements may vary with the crop. I have not seen them.

Sodexo/UI purchases many processed vegetables (lettuce shreds, baby carrots) because they don’t want to spend kitchen time with whole vegetables.

Charlie’s has delivery trucks coming to Moscow and proceeding to points south, and returning mostly empty to Spokane. They also have capacity to back-haul from Spokane to Seattle.

Charlie’s is willing to pick up from a local grower in Latah County, but only if the grower can provide sufficient volume to make the stop cost effective (think about a pallet load of cases of product).

Processing facilities require Federal inspection and are capital-intensive so they can handle semi-truck volumes quickly.

Charlie’s has a processing facility in Seattle, WA. Consequently, a local head of lettuce might travel 350 miles to the Seattle processing facility, become shreds, and travel 350 miles back to UI, all the while consuming 3-5 days of its shelf life.

The produce industry is moving to a system of vendor product tracking, so when there is a quality or health issue, the product can be traced back to the source field. Charlie’s is beginning to implement tracking on a voluntary basis.

Vendor product tracking is anticipated (by Charlie’s) to become mandatory and to be a requirement imposed by retail distributors on their suppliers (eg, grocery stores will begin to require it of their suppliers).

[The exception to all of the above is UI Soil Stewards, a student group farming just east of the Moscow City limits. Because they are covered by UI insurance, and because they are a student group that advances the idea of local eating in other ways, they are selling root vegetables (fewer health risks) directly to UI kitchens.]

From this, I conclude that there are real challenges for the local produce grower wanting to sell to UI, either the grower must:

  • work on sufficient scale to wholesale vegetables to Charlie’s, who will insure, track, process and deliver them to UI, or
  • participate in a grower’s co-op that can serve the role of Charlie’s in insurance, quality assurance, processing, delivery and relationship management with growers.
Either option will be capital intensive. Either faces challenges to get established in the county.