Summer Cover Crops

 

Buckwheat germinating
Buckwheat summer cover crop germinating

The other day I sat down with Louis at Our Table Coop to outline a cover cropping plan for the summer. For the past 15 years I’ve been using two basic cover crops here in the Northwest for filling in summer gaps in the field: buckwheat and sudan grass. I’ve experimented with a few others and I’m continuing to experiment, but those two are solid and each has a particular place. Creating the summer cover crop plan is pretty simple using those two crops, once the crop plan is mapped out, which I usually have done in December or Januay. The whole process of figuring out what beds would get buckwheat and which would get sudan, and how much of each we needed to order was done in about a half hour. Here’s are the basics of my approach.

Buckwheat gets planted anywhere there’s at least an eight week gap between crops starting in May. Sudan gets planted anywhere there’s more than a ten to twelve week gap starting in May. Gaps are easy to see on the map, they show up as white blocks and you just have to count the number of blocks between the last planned crop (or the expected maturity of a winter cover crop, usually mid-May to early June, and a late planted crop).

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Sudan cover crop

 

I have these kinds of gaps for several reasons and in other parts of the country they might not be as common. We’re typically cropping nearly all of our ground at least once, if not twice a year. Even then we can have blank gaps because our planting season is so long, starting in February and going until October in the field. Some of our cash crops are finished as soon as early April so there’s plenty of opportunity to build soil biology and organic matter and to keep nutrients cycling high in the soil profile by using cover crops in the summer.

A Few Details

Buckwheat takes between four and six weeks to start flowering and it starts setting seed shortly after it starts flowering, within a couple of weeks. The flowers are obvious and white so it’s kind of like a flag saying, “turn me in, now!” It goes faster with longer, warmer days and slower earlier and later. In either case it’s not going to last much longer than six weeks at the outside, and with four weeks, even if it isn’t flowering yet it will already have decent growth in most cases. I like to give a cover crop four weeks to break down before planting, therefore the minimum of an 8 week gap. If it’s less than 8 weeks, I’ll usually just let the weeds go for less picky crops, like tomatoes, or do a bare fallow for trash sensitive crops like carrots or salad greens.

Buckwheat flowers
Buckwheat flowers

That four to six weeks to flower is about as fast as any weed, but weeds aren’t as kind as the buckwheat and they don’t signal that they need to be mowed before they set seed in the same way. This is one of the reasons I like the buckwheat. Even if the patch is very weedy, those flowers give me a visual signal that I need to mow and incorporate or I’ll have seed setting, buckwheat and weeds.

I usually use a seeding rate of about 60-80 lbs per acre and I either broadcast it with a “belly grinder” (shoulder bag type broadcast spreader), or put it down with a drop spreader. It needs to be incorporated and a ring roller works well, or a shallow disking, or slowly dragging the rototiller over the bed with the pto off. I don’t worry about letting the previous crop break down much after incorporation before seeding, although it’s nice if it can be a week or two after the inital incorporation.

I’ve used all sorts of sudan grass and I’m not particular but I prefer the smaller stemmed types like Piper. In the past it’s been important to specify untreated seed as the seed is commonly treated with fungicide, at least in our area. I have an impossible time finding Organic buckwheat or sudan seed, which makes me think I should start growing it myself. Immediately after that thought I start thinking there must be some reason no one is growing it organically for seed on a small scale and that I’d probably find out why if I tried to.

The sudan starts out a little more slowly than the buckwheat, but it can be maintained essentially indefinitely with mowing, at least until first frost when it will die. I use the same seeding technique as with buckwheat, and go a little heavier, maybe 80-100 lbs per acre. It varies quite a bit how long it takes, but whenever the suday starts to elongate, as if it’s about to send up seed heads, I mow it short. This is usually timed pretty well to knock back any weeds starting to set seed as well. It’s possible to keep mowing it weekly and to maintain a sod, I’ve done it to create alleys in summer squash and melon plantings, mowing regularly with a flail mower, but if I’m just using it as a cover crop I’ll let it go until it is about to head out again before mowing it a second time.

Sudan used to make sod aisles between rows of summer squash
Sudan used to make sod aisles between rows of melons

Even though we don’t get any rain in the summer I only ever irrigate these cover crops once, giving them a little over an inch immediately after seeding. There is no question I’d get more biomass if I irrigated more. Whenever the crop is on the edge of a sprinkler irrigated crop and it gets over spray it gets significantly larger. To me, it’s not worth the extra work, or the extra electricity and displacement of limited water resources to get the extra biomass, and I still get good growth and coverage. I do water again after incorporation (or just before if it’s too dry to work in, which is usually not the case as the plants seem to keep the water pumped up into the upper levels of the soil). I water after incorporation to help it break down and to germinate any weed seed that is near the surface during the four week wait before planting a cash crop.

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A field of winter killed sudan

 

How to Complicate Matters

I really like grass/legume mixes, as the grass and legume are complementary. The grass is good at taking up soil nitrogen, which encourages the legume to work with rizobacteria to fix more nitrogen from the air. The two nurse each other, and the upright structure of the grass provides a scaffold that helps any legume to climb and make more bio-mass without shading itself out.

The legume I’ve had the most success with in Sudan is clover. There are two ways I plant clover with sudan. I have had some success seeding it at the same time as the sudan, although I usually do this in separate passes since the seed sizes are so different it’s hard to mix evenly, and they don’t throw the same distance from a broadcast spreader.  This works ok, but the sudan tends to outcompete the young clover, which isn’t well suited to the hotter, drier time of year. The other way I seed it is to wait until a mowing in September and then to broadcast the clover seed over the mowed sudan. It usually starts raining soon after this and the clover comes up sheltered by the sudan, and then takes over in the winter when the sudan dies back, providing more growth and cover through the winter.

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Crimson clover

 

There are two clovers I use: crimson and red. I use crimson if the field is going to be turned in in the early spring, especially if the next crop is sensitive to trash. Crimson clover is easier to kill than red clover, and this works especially well because the sudan is mostly broken down by the late winter and the lush clover works in easily.

I use red clover if the field won’t be planted until later the next summer, or even fall, as the red clover is a weak perennial and is deep rooted enough that it can be mowed at flower and continue through the following summer with no supplemental irrigation if needed.

More Complications

For a while now I’ve been wanting to try sunflowers as a summer cover crop alternative to sudan. Mostly I just think this would be a pretty alternative, but I also hear that sunflowers can create significant biomass.

I somewhat consider my plantings of dry farmed popcorn, flint corn, dry beans and winter squash as a summer cover crop. They are very low input since they’re not irrigated, and low yielding, but they give an excuse to keep the field clean and they provide cover all summer. There is significant biomass above what is harvested. I haven’t done it yet, but every year I think I need to spin on some clover when the squash starts to die back to provide more winter cover. I have friends who do this before the canopy fills in in early summer, but they’re irrigating with sprinklers so it’s a very different situation for them. We finish harvesting the field too late to get it worked up for our typical rye/vetch winter cover crop, or at least it always feels that way.

A lot of folks talk about the wonders of mustards and forage radishes as cover crops, and for orchard or grain situations I can understand that. For vegetable production, particularly in a place where brassicas are so important as a cash crop and club root is such a big problem when rotation are short, I can’t see incorporating a brassica as a summer cover crop. Although, similar to the corn, beans and squash, I do think of high density salad greens, which are largely brassicas, as a great cover crop. I frequently let these go to flower before turning them in, which probably doesn’t help with club root problems, but it does provide beneficial habitat and is essentially a free cover crop since it’s already planted and it will still grow thickly after harvesting.

Things I’ve Tried

I’ve tried a few other legumes. Cowpeas never did well for me and I think we’re just too cold for them. I did have a good crop of soybeans one summer, using old edamame seed, but someone told me they’re hard on the ground, and the seed isn’t cheap so I abandoned the thought in subsequent summers.

As much as I like the idea of super diverse cover crop mixes, the simplicity of the variations I have now means they actually get planted and are easy to manage. I think that’s a good starting point for anyone new to cover cropping and it’s way better than the alternative, which is bare, or weedy ground.

Making Wood CSA Boxes (update)

CSA box showing new lid design
CSA box showing new lid design and what happens when you screw up the screen printing, oops.

I just made an update to the page on making Wooden CSA Boxes. This includes an update to the lid design which makes them a little cheaper and easier to assemble, and should make them much stronger and more functional. I walked Louis (whose hands are featured above) through the full process of building the boxes and I was really glad I had my old post to remind me how I did it the first time. After two years we’re building 63 more of these boxes and we’re finding more uses for them around the retail end of the farm.

Covering Ground

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Beds covered with clear greenhouse plastic to speed early season germination

I was listening to an interview with Jean-Martin Fortier on The Ruminant podcast earlier today where he was talking about his use of tarps. I’m not a big fan of plastic, both from an environmental and an aesthetic standpoint. Jean-Martin is a little flippant about it, but I think he’s right when he says we just need to get over our aversion to plastic as market gardeners. I’ve had similar discussions with Tom Denison in the past and Tom’s insightful and experienced attitude is that the reality is that the amount of plastic used for covering ground is actually pretty small due to the very thin films and even the tarp thicknesses that are used and that even though it’s not ideal, it does make the soil texture underneath pretty amazing, it suppresses weeds reducing needs for further disturbance of the soil (and the resulting diesel and/or labor), and the plants respond well to it, increasing yield per space.

I don’t use much plastic, but Jean-Martin’s discussion of how he uses tarps is inspiring and also reminds me of a technique that I used to use when I was growing on a smaller scale than I am now, although it could be used on a larger scale too.

In the early spring here in the Northwest, the soil can be slow to dry out and to warm up, even though the temperatures are close to appropriate for planting pretty much through the entire winter. What I would do is to cover a bed with clear plastic (leftover greenhouse plastic scraps) to warm it up and to protect it from the rain, drying it out a little bit. Then I would prep the bed and seed it and put the clear plastic on. The trick was to take the plastic off just before the seed germinated so that I didn’t fry the seedlings, usually this was just a few days. This works well when it’s raining and overcast but you want to get early seeds in. If the weather is sunny and dry it’s not so necessary but the plastic can keep the moisture higher in the bed.

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A day after removing the plastic from the beds the seeds have germinated. You can see in this photo how much drier the surface is where the beds were covered versus where they weren’t covered at the far end of the beds but there is still obviously moisture where the seedlings are.

It’s a little funny that I’m trying to keep the moisture of rain off of the seed, but in our climate here in the NW we have so much moisture in a typical spring that it’s better to moderate that moisture with the plastic, and it also helps to protect the seed from rotting or getting washed out of the soil. It’s also funny that the plastic, in dry conditions, has the opposite effect, and it keeps the moisture higher in the soil, essentially holding in humidity and improving germination that way.

I think I originally got the idea from Tom Denison who was probably telling me about doing something like that with early potatoes. I used it for mustards and other salad greens and definitely had much better stands early in the year when trialing it against uncovered ground or even ground covered with floating row cover.

Now I’m thinking more about how I can use JM’s tarping techiques effectively in our Pacific NW climate and also about the possibility of going back to using some of the clear plastic on some of our early salad seedings. The goal here would be to offset the plastic’s environmental impact by reducing our tractor useage, and increasing our yield per bed (which is essentially also reducing our tractor useage).

A Second Look at No Till (repost)

Below is a post from November 10, 2008, that was originally on a now defunct blog. I still haven’t gotten around to playing with no-till in the years since then but I’m partially posting this because there seems to be interest. I’ll put a few additional thoughts I have looking back at this at the end of the post.

I just got back from the Washington Tilth Producers annual conference in Bellingham, Washington, where Dr. Paul Hepperly of the Rodale Institute gave a keynote address on no-till and then followed it up with a question and answer session that was very informative.  About five or six years ago I spent two seasons trying to get no-till garlic to work.  Those experiments definitely turned me off from no-till in vegetables but Dr. Hepperly’s talk, even though it was on a grain rotation, actually gave me some hope that it might work in a few specific vegetable crops.

When we ran the garlic trials, three farms went in on a SARE Producer Grant.  47th Ave. Farm, Praying Mantis Farm, and Sauvie Island Organics all tried to establish thick stands of sudan grass, plant garlic into the cover crop, and then use the winter-killed cover as a mulch to suppress weeds.  This did not work for us for a variety of reasons, all reasons that Dr. Hepperly’s system avoids.  Also, as an aside, the Producer Grant turned out to be a lot of work for us to manage which made us less excited about those grants, but more excited about the Research and Education grants when the OSPUD project came around in 2005 (more on that in a future post).

The rotations that Dr. Hepperly was primarily talking about were field corn planted into a cover crop of hairy vetch and soybeans planted into a cover crop of cereal rye.  Not only were the cover crops providing all of the weed control, they were also providing all of the fertility for the cash crops, and, at the same time, reducing economic and environmental costs by limiting tractor passes and other inputs, and holding soil from erosion.  Perhaps the most amazing part is that they were out-yielding conventional tillage systems, consistently!

There are some important limitations to the no till approach that Dr. Hepperly described, and in the question and answer session he clarified that the entire rotation is not always no-till, when they have weed problems, or if other issues come up they need to till sometimes to establish strong cover crops.  I made a list of the points I recognized as important to making the system work:

Weedless cover crop

For cereal rye they seed very heavily, I think he was saying 150-200lbs/acre.  A fellow I was talking to at lunch also mentioned that instead of seeding in one pass at a heavier rate, two passes at right angles to each other at a more typical rate of 80-90lbs/acre give more early coverage in the field.  For vetch, since the seed is expensive, a higher rate isn’t used but winter kill oats are added for early weed suppression.  Buckwheat or other summer annuals are also possible, but the cover crop has to be an annual for the system to work.

Sufficient Biomass

To create an effective mulch there needs to be sufficient biomass, I think he was saying about 5 tons per acre. If there is too much biomass there can be problems as well but mostly it sounded like you just need enough so that there’s good ground cover when it’s killed.

Roll down at full flower

To kill the cover crop it has to be rolled down, preferably with a roller crimper, at full flower.  They’ve done some good design work on the roller crimpers and there are a lot of little details available on the web site.  A roller crimper is  available for sale from Buckeye Tractor whose equipment I’ve used and is well made.  

There are a couple of keys here: full flower, leaving the stalks attached to the ground, and crimping the stalks.  The window is narrow for achieving full kill, it has to be after full flower, but before the cover crop sets viable seed.  If full kill isn’t achieved the cover crop becomes the weed.  Leaving the stalks attached to the ground helps keep them in place when the secondary seeding or planting operation happens.  Crimping the stalks helps with more completely killing the cover crop.

Don’t expose soil when planting

The point of the mulch is to shade weed seeds and prevent them from germinating.  If your planter exposes the soil and leave a strip then there will be in line weeds to deal with.

Direct seeding only works with large seeds

Small seeds don’t push through the mulch so this only works with large seeded crops, or transplants.  Another important point with direct seeding is that the press wheels need to be be heavy enough to provide good soil contact for germination.

The mulching effect has a limited time window 

The mulch starts to break down immediately so the system works best when the crop provides a full canopy by the time the mulch has broken down enough to let weed seeds germinate.  

With all of this new information I’m re-inspired to try no till on a few vegetable crops.  Good candidates, I think, are winter squash, tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, fall brassicas, sweet corn, beans, and melons.  The trick, it seems to me, is to find crops where the planting dates roughly match the flowering dates of a cover crop, and that will provide a good canopy later in the season.

On small scale plantings this systems seems like it would require very little investment in equipment for trials.  Crops can be crimped with a 2×4 and some string, and transplanted or seeded by hand or jab planter.  On a larger scale more might need to be invested in a roller crimper and no till seeder or transplanter, but the roller crimper is not terribly expensive and modifications can be made to existing equipment to make them work in no till situations.

February 2015 – Additional Thoughts

Here in the Northwest I think there are a few drawbacks to thinking about no-till systems that are specific to our climate. No-till systems tend to help keep ground moisture and to keep the ground cooler. In hot and dry climates this is a big plus, but for us here in the Northwest we are almost always hoping to warm things us and dry them out a bit so the heavy mulch of no-till can be counter productive in all of the potential crops I mention above. Slugs and voles are also problematic in my area, particularly when there are damp conditions and there is ground cover. Bare soil in the field helps control both of these pests whereas mulch exacerbates the problem.

Another note that was left out of the original post, the Rodale system wasn’t all no-till all of the time, but for certain years of the rotation there was no tillage. This helps break build up of perennial weeds that establish in no till systems, and also makes crops that aren’t appropriate for no till fit into the rotation system.

The Cost of Saving Ugly Produce

A small sampler share of delicious produce from Slow Hand Farm that wouldn't have made grade at any grocery chain
A small sampler share of delicious produce from Slow Hand Farm that wouldn’t have made grade at any grocery chain

My good friend Katherine Deumling (cookwithwhatyouhave.com) just posted a short video about the French grocery chain, Intermarche, and their campaign to reduce food waste by promoting “inglorious fruits and vegetables.” This campaign follows the FAO initiative launched in 2011, SAVE FOOD: Global Initiative on Food Loss and Waste Reduction.

I am completely onboard with the FAO’s mission to reduce food waste. I think it’s fantastic that Intermarche is recognizing that fruits and vegetables should be a greater part of our diet and that people need better access to fresh fruits and vegetables. I also agree that size and visual appearance is not a good blanket indication of the quality of produce. When I started Slow Hand Farm in 2008 I intentionally put produce in my farm members’ shares that were “inglorious” but delicious. I put in anything that I would have eaten out of my own garden and reduced waste like so many other small farms do.

My late night, quick comment on Katherine’s post was, “Unfortunately this actually most likely means less $ to farmers.”

This deserves more explanation because I think the issue of food waste and food access goes much deeper than strict grading standards, and I worry about people oversimplifying and missing the bigger picture.

As a follow up to my comment Katherine posted two more articles, one from the New York Times and another from Grist, which both seem to imply that approaches like Intermarche’s have worked in other places to the benefit of all, including farmers. Certainly in some cases farmers have, and will benefit from this approach, but for farmers as a whole I think this makes things worse. Even though selling more produce (even at a lower price) definitely adds gross revenue to the farm’s income statement, it can actually reduce the bottom line, cutting into profits by adding significant expenses.

Let me explain that last point because I don’t think it is an obvious one, especially to non-farmers. As a farmer, I frequently leave produce in the field, not because some part of it is not edible, but because it is more work (read cost) to harvest, sort, wash and pack the produce than the return (read income) that I can receive from selling it. Most times it actually takes longer to sort, wash and pack substandard produce meaning the cost of production is actually higher, not lower, than quality produce. This produce is left in the field or is composted on the farm and provides fertility for future crops. I do not consider it waste, it is home grown fertilizer.

To be clear, this is not the vast majority of the produce being discussed in the above articles. The vast majority of the food waste discussed above is already harvested, and probably washed (I use the term washing loosely here), but is discarded either at the sorting stage (also called grading) before it is packed and shipped, or because once it has been packed and stored and shipped and stored again, it no longer meets the grade. Standard grades (usually based on size, color and shape) are set not so much because they ensure any kind of eating quality, but because they let far away buyers know, with a kind of short hand, what they are buying. If you’re a produce buyer buying cases of lettuce, you want to know that when you’re comparing two cases of romaine lettuce from two different suppliers, who in turn have bought those cases from different brokers, or maybe even farmers somewhere far away, that they both have the same number of heads, the same basic size of heads, they same basic color. You don’t want to pick the one that is $23 over the one that is $24, and then after buying 50 cases realize that what you’re getting is some tiny, mis-shapen, off color variety of romaine packed only 20 to a case that you can’t sell. You want to know that a case of romaine is a case of romaine, your typical loaf shaped green thing with a tender heart and 24 heads to a case. The standards are there to make life easier for distant buyers, not to improve the quality of our food.

Food that is rejected after the expense of harvesting, washing, sorting and being shipped from the farm is waste. It’s wasted energy (which can’t be recovered) and it’s wasted nutrients (which can be recovered by composting but usually aren’t). For the farmer that sells produce this way, and especially for the middlemen who distribute produce this way, being able to sell rejects as “inglorious fruits and vegetables” definitely increases the bottom line, at least in the short term.

But here I see a second problem in this nearsighted solution: the basic economic concept of supply and demand. To review for a moment, as supply increases, demand, and the corresponding price, decreases. There are only so many fruits and vegetables that the world’s population can eat, therefore demand is increasing slowly. It increases as we improve our diets (eat more fruits and vegetables), and increase our global population, but there are still limits. If we actually had a shortage of fruits and vegetables worldwide and adding “inglorious fruits and vegetables” into the supply didn’t make up for the full shortage then demand probably would stay high and prices to the farmers would would be good. Intead we have an abundance of fruits and vegetables and an inefficient distribution system, so by increasing the inefficiency by reducing the waste, prices will only be driven down. Increased supply without a corresponding increase in demand leads to lower prices. Lower prices are not good for farmers as a whole.

If having big grocery chains accept sub-standard vegetables to reduce food waste, increase food access for the poor, and generate more income for farmers isn’t the answer then what is?

Shifting more of our food dollars to local farms by buying directly, or encouraging the grocers we buy from to do the same would make a much bigger difference. Shorter supply chains reduce waste in shipping and storage, and any “waste” that stays on the farm can actually contribute to the farms fertility in the future.

Reducing income and wealth disparity and therefore increasing the purchasing power of the poorest segment of our population would go a long way toward improving food access.

Increasing food prices could help in several ways. Many of the worlds poorest are the food producers and so when we talk about getting food to the poor, increasing farm income, while at the same time reducing income and wealth disparity, would disproportionately improve conditions for small farmers and farm laborers at the same time as it increases access to food for all poor people.

Increasing prices would also encourage less waste by the end users of food. As food prices have dropped in the US food waste increased by 50% between 1970 and 2010 (http://visualizing.org/visualizations/21-shocking-us-food-waste-facts-statistics).

Intermarche’s marketing campaign for ugly produce is a good one. We all need to understand that visual appearance is not a stand in for more important qualities of food like taste, nutrition and environmental impact. Their campain is limited though, and we need to think beyond just the easy (and false) path of spending less to get more. We also need to make larger changes to the system to address some of the root causes, not just the superficial symptoms.

Growing Radicchio

 

chioggia radicchio
Chioggia radicchio cases ready to be shipped

On the last day of this past October I had the good fortune to visit T&T Seeds in Chioggia, Italy. T&T is a commercial seed company specializing in radicchio, but also offering all sorts of chicories and a number of other vegetable seeds as well.

I’ve been growing radicchio on and off for at least 15 years now but I’ve always felt like I was stumbling around in the dark a bit. Visiting T&T, specialists in radicchio, definitely shed some light on the topic and gave me a peek at some of the possibilities and techniques. I’m going to attempt to translate my notes and memories (two months later) of what the folks at T&T passed onto me. Usually I write about my own production experience but I thought other folks might find this information, which I don’t find widely available in the US, useful in their own experimenting with cool season chicories.

 

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T&T Chioggia type chicories being trailed on a farm scale in Italy.

 

Radicchio

Most of the information I got was from one of T&T’s breeders, Andrea, who fortunately spoke excellent english and was obviously very familiar with the regional production practices and especially with the varieties that T&T sells. We started by talking about early, or “precoce,” types (as opposed to late or “tardiva” varieties which are produced differently). The production practices he was showing us and was describing were on farms fields that were probably 15-30 acres of radicchio rotated with crops like wheat, corn, beans and maybe watermelons. This was conventional production and for wholesale markets, most of it for tight, full sized heads that would then be cut up for bagged salad mix.

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Andrea, our super generous and informative guide from T&T. Andrea is one of the seed breeders at T&T.

 

For the Chioggia area both transplanting and direct seeding are used, but it sounded like transplanting might be slightly more typical, and certainly wasn’t uncommon. Plants were grown in plugs and planted out at three weeks. Direct seeded crops were seeded a few days later than the plug trays were seeded since there would be no transplant shock. Holding plants in plug trays longer than three weeks was not recommended as it causes problems with the roots which in turn causes uneven maturity. Spacing for plants, direct seeded or not, was about 12-14” in line and about 18” between rows. When plants were direct seeded they would be thinned in the field to make sure the spacing was even. On the farm we saw, the soil appeared to be clay loam. It sounded like irrigation is primarily with natural rainfall but sometimes by big gun. We did see drip lines at their research farm, which had sandy soil.

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New variety trials at T&T’s home fields.

 

Timing for planting depends on the variety and the desired harvest date. The shorter maturing varieties are transplanted from the beginning of August to the middle of the month and were harvested from the end of September into November. Longer maturing varieties are planted from mid August to the beginning of September and are harvested from November possibly into February.

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A field of Treviso type radicchio in early November in Chioggia.

 

When I was thinking about how this compares to my experience here in the NW, I’m not as aware of the relative maturity type of the varieties that I’ve grown (something I’ll start paying more attention to), but it seems to me they probably plant a week or two later than I do and this is probably due to warmer nights and faster growth early on. The latitude is almost the same so it’s not about day length (although we might not get as much sun later in the season due to clouds).

Harvest timing is based on the head maturity. Heads are typically harvested when they are full and solid. If they are over mature they have a tendency to rot a bit at the leaf edges, requiring more cleaning and loss of weight. If there’s a threat of hard frost they might harvest slightly immature with a bit of green still in the wrapper leaves and leaving an inch or so of root attached. They are then stored for a few days to a week and the heads finish maturing in storage (I’m not sure if this is at a slightly higher temperature than typical storage or not but I would assume so).

Tardiva varieties are grown very similarly to precoce but they are harvested differently. They are dug with the root and then forced in flowing water (or water that is regularly changed). There is a great video on this process here. I’ve heard rumor of folks over here doing this successfully in buckets on a very small scale, changing the water every few days instead of using flowing water.

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A beautiful head of chioggia type radicchio in the field. The outer leaves have been pushed down to reveal the tight head.

 

There are three basic shapes for the precoce radicchio: Chioggia, Treviso, and Verona. The Chioggia shape is completely round, Treviso is long and upright, and the Verona type is half way between with a round bottom, but a slightly pointed tip.

The typical radicchios are red and T&T has a particular deep color red that they select for. They also sell Castlefranco, and Lusia which are red flecked green varieties, as well as a completely green variety. According to Andrea, older varieties of Castlefranco were typically harvested and then blanched in cow barns on straw for a few days to a week. They were then watered which opened the head into a rosette. Modern varieties are tight which makes them self blanching in the field, but not open at harvest so they are typically peeled back slightly at harvest to display the same rosette as the old varieties. Sometimes Lusia or the green varieties are harvested in the same way and passed off as Castlefranco.

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I believe this was a Lusia type that Andrea had peeled back in the Castlefranco style.

 

Here in the U.S. we typically have one or two varieties available from a seed company in a particular form. T&T has three Sugarloaf radicchio varieties available (one of my favorites), a 75 day, a 90 day and a 120 day. If you want a standard red Chioggia type, they have 10 available ranging from 55 to 160 days. It’s easier to think about extending harvest with that range available. This year I’m trailing seeds from T&T but I also looked around and found varieties I wanted to try from Wild Garden Seeds, Adaptive Seeds, Uprising Seeds, Seeds from Italy, High Mowing Seeds and Johnny’s Selected Seeds. Osborne Seeds is the main importer of T&T seeds here in the Northwest. I’ve heard from them, and from other growers of T&T varieties that they are exceptionally uniform for radicchio so I’m curious to trial them against other companies.

In Italy, when fields are harvested they are gone through once, or maybe twice, and the typical yield is 80 heads out of 100 heads planted. In poor conditions it can take 4-5 harvests to get that yield. The heads of Chioggia we were seeing there were about 1lb each, beautiful and tight. My yields have been significantly lower than that here in Oregon, although I also have very heavy vole pressure and have found that voles prefer radicchio over most other winter crops.

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Chioggia type radicchio is given a final cleaning in a big tank of water before being packed into styrofoam flats for shipping.

 

Spring Production

I wasn’t very interested in spring production so I didn’t ask much but Andrea did mention it a few times. Apparently they use the shortest day varieties to produce heads in late spring before temperatures get too hot.

It does seem that radicchio is produced in many areas now, and by moving north and south the harvests can be extended. A helpful chart in their catalog shows planting and harvest periods by variety for four different regions of Italy with seeding dates ranging from mid May to late July in the most Northern mountain regions, and mid July through mid August in the South.

Other Chicories

We talked less about other types of chicories but we did see escarole, endive, catalogna, puntarelle and a few other specialty types of radicchio including a beautiful light rose colored one. According to Andrea they do have different day length varieties of the escarole and endive, but they are planted more like lettuce, with successions to spread out the harvest. The endive is banded 3-5 days before harvest to blanch, although some of the varieties are partially self blanching. They are selecting a puntarelle for more northern production but most production is currently done farther south, near Rome, and the timing is very specific, by variety, to get fat stalks.

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Lane Selman, @culinarybreedingnetwork, taking notes on radicchio in the fields.

 

Thank Yous

A big thank you to Jason Salvo @jasonsalvo for the initial contact information for T&T. During our visit @culinarybreedingnetwork and I were posting photos to instagram and there was some great conversations on production here in the US in the comments. I also want to thank Chris Fields @camporossofarm and Alex Wenger @thefieldsedge. Apparently there are some folks here in the US who are growing really beautiful stuff, maybe even surpassing what’s happening in Italy in some cases, but certainly without the same demand or big production.

Financial Analysis as a Tool on the Farm

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Farmers come to me asking about tools that will make their farms more profitable. Usually they’re thinking about some new tool for cultivating weeds quickly, or maybe for washing salad mix faster, or preparing perfect seed beds with speed. Those kinds of tool purchases are tempting because they hold the illusion that simply by putting down x hundred dollars, the farm will then be able to make x hundred dollars more and thus will be more profitable. Usually it’s not that simple.

The tool I’ve always been most interested in using to make the farm more profitable is financial analysis. This may lead to the purchases of tools like the ones mentioned above, but it also helps to avoid putting down x hundred dollars on a tool only to realize that it’s costing more to use the tool than it’s bringing in. Further, it’s the best tool for figuring out where to target efforts for new tool purchases, or even just simple system improvements on the farm.

There are two books that came out in the last few years that I’ve been highly recommending: Fearless Farm Finances and The Organic Farmer’s Business Handbook. For farmers just starting out and working with small scale diverse vegetable operations The Organic Farmer’s Business Handbook is particularly suited to explaining the business side, and even a little of the production side, of just such an operation. Written from a single farmer’s perspective it describes the well thought out, and relatively simple but effective systems of a successful, diverse vegetable operation. Fearless Farm Finances gathers information and voices from a wide variety of farms, not just vegetable operations, and it takes a deeper look at financial management tools and approaches to managing the business side of farms. These are both great books, useful for both beginning and seasoned farmers and they approach the topic from different enough perspectives that they work well as companions.

For folks who are interested in learning more first hand, Chris Blanchard, based in the Midwest and one of the farmer authors of Fearless Farm Finances, is putting on a workshop in January in Illinois, Rutabagas to Riches. I’ve seen him speak at the MOSES conference and he definitely does a great job of presenting the information in a usable way.

Richard Wiswall, based in New England and the author of The Organic Farmer’s Business Handbook, also offers workshops and speaks at conferences. You can find out more about his upcoming talks at his website.

Here in the Northwest its been good to see this topic gaining traction as well. I’ve tried to work many of the tools talked about in these books into workshops I’ve been teaching. For years I felt like it was almost taboo with many farmers worrying that taking a business approach was tantamount to letting the economics drive the farm. Like any tool, the tool should not be driving the farm, it should be used where it is most effective and it has to be applied appropriately to be effective. There’s a learning curve with any tool, and no tool works in every situation. These books offer powerful, useful tools, but remember that they’re just that, tools.

 

Italy Teaser

Carlo Petrini speaking at the opening ceremony for Terra Madre, flanked by delegates from 150 countries
Carlo Petrini speaking at the opening ceremony for Terra Madre, flanked by delegates from 150 countries

Since getting back from Italy I’ve been trying to find time to go through my journal, notes and photos and to get some stories and articles written up. So far I haven’t been very successful in finding much time, but I have been constantly thinking about the events and many of the stories have been starting to form as I tell abbreviated versions to friends who ask how the trip was.

Yesterday I sat down at my computer, finally got around to downloading the photos from my phone (in addition to the several thousand I took with a DSLR), and I made a little list of topics I’d like to flesh out in future blog posts, talks and articles. I’ll post that list here in hopes that it spurs me to action.

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Advice to myself for the “next time” I go to Terra Madre

This is something I should have done after the first round, although I think I did a pretty good job of remembering a lot of this when I went this time. My experience was definitely different this time, largely because it was the second time I’d been, but also just because the event itself has changed over time. I definitely would make changes in my approach next time though so I need to get these down for myself, and maybe they would act as useful suggestions for other folks headed to the event.

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Kathryn Lynch Underwood speaking in a workshop on urban agriculture.

Reflections on Conversations with Jim Embry and Kathryn Lynch Underwood

I had a lot of conversations with delegates from all over the world but there were two that stood out for me, telling stories I think are important within the context of Slow Food and how it is integral to what we sometimes think of as larger issues of socio-economic status, cultural diversity, and equity.

Differences between 2006 and 2014

A lot of this will probably come out in other stories, but it might deserve a post of its own. The event has grown in many senses since the first time I attended. Mostly I think that was for the good, some of it was just different, but there were also a few things that I missed from the first time I attended.

View from inside the US booth at Terra Madre during the speakeasy. Much socializing between delegates from all over the US, and passersby from all over the world.
View from inside the US booth at Terra Madre during the speakeasy. Much socializing between delegates from all over the US, and passersby from all over the world.

The US Speakeasy

This was a great way to meet other delegates and I have a few little vignettes that might make a larger story. My longer conversation with Jim Embry started here, but before that even happened there were a number of little scenes that unfolded and added a lot to the Terra Madre experience that was unexpected.

Riding the Bus, Eating at the Canteen, and Being More Outgoing

As it was in 2006, the bus yielded some of the best conversations and connections of the entire event. The canteen had similar potential, and I really forced myself to be more outgoing than usual, which generally created many more wonderful small interactions with delegates from all over the world, many of which held valuable little tidbits, not to mention crazy coincidences.

Annie Hehner was one of the many delegates I met riding the bus to and from the event. In the six days I was there I rode the bus 10 times, spending at least 30 minutes per ride talking to delegates.
Annie Hehner was one of the many delegates I met riding the bus to and from the event. In the six days I was there I rode the bus 10 times, spending at least 30 minutes per ride talking to delegates.

Meeting Paula

Paula Gaska was someone I worked with through email a number of years ago, but never actually had the opportunity to meet in person. The story of actually meeting at Terra Madre brings up a few points about the event I would like to share.

The Ark of Taste had amazing displays of all sorts of foods from all over the world, including this selection of apple varieties that have particular importance.
The Ark of Taste had amazing displays of all sorts of foods from all over the world, including this selection of apple varieties that have particular importance.

Learning more about the Ark and Presidia

I recently agreed to sit on the Ark selection committee for our region, but without a good understanding of what the Ark actually is. Terra Madre and the Salone provided a great opportunity to get more familiar with the worldwide Ark, as well as the Presidia, and to think about how it applies in our area.

A wonderful display of beans from Lucca. I came across this display just after watching a short film in a workshop on seeds about bringing back the Scritto variety pictured here.
A wonderful display of beans from Lucca. I came across this display just after watching a short film in a workshop on seeds about bringing back the Scritto variety pictured here after it was nearly lost.

Growing Beans and Corn Together

I grow corn and beans together and these were two crops that were relatively easier to find at the Salone than vegetables so they became a focus of mine during the event. I was a bit surprised to find an Italian grower there that was also growing them together.

Many delegates dressed in traditional costumes from their particular regions. The Sami were some of my favorites and I regret not having talked to them while there.
Many delegates dressed in traditional costumes from their particular regions. The Sami outfits were some of my favorites and I regret not having talked to them while there.

The Distraction of Products

At some point I realized I was getting distracted by products as consumer good, and what I was really wanting was to focus more on products as connection to the people and producers. I’d like to expand that thought a bit.

Creating Slow Vegetables?

After leaving Torino we visited a Biodyamic vegetable grower near Lucca who had just gone to the Salone (and Torino) for the first time. Like me, he was disappointed in the lack of vegetables at the event and we agreed there should be a Slow Vegetables component, just as there was a strong Slow Fish and Slow Honey component.

Hunchback cardoons growing at Azienda Agricola Nico near Lucca. The ones in the center have been buried for blanching, and the ones on the right are waiting to be buried.
Hunchback cardoons growing at Azienda Agricola Nico near Lucca. The ones in the center have been buried for blanching, and the ones on the right are waiting to be buried.

Growing hunchback cardoons

That same grower showed us the way he blanches cardoons, a method that had been described to me, but he passed on some critical details which make me want to try the process and that I should write out for others.

Being Recognized in Pistoia (the reach of Slow Food and Terra Madre in Italy)

This is a funny little story from traveling after Terra Madre.

Demonstrating how to make a green radicchio look like castlefranco by peeling back leaves. Our hosts from T&T Seeds were incredibly generous with time and knowledge.
Demonstrating how to make a green radicchio look like castlefranco by peeling back leaves. Our hosts from T&T Seeds were incredibly generous with time and knowledge.

Growing chicories

We went on a great (4+ hour) tour of T&T Seeds and learned a lot about growing chicories. This definitely deserves a write up, and probably a longer article that collects information from other growers in the US that are growing chicories and experimenting with Italian methods as well as new approaches.

Gio and Naturasì

In 2006 Gio was our chaperone at Terra Madre. On this trip I had a chance to visit her in Verona and learn more about the company she works for, Ecor/Naturasì. I knew that they were a large natural food chain, but I didn’t realize the extent of their commitment to organic and biodynamic producers. I think they may have a model that we should be looking at in the US.

Terra Madre 2014 and Updates

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Looking out over a small portion of the non Italian section of the completely overwhelming Salone del Gusto, Torino, 2015

Last Wednesday evening I got back from a two week trip to Italy which was amazing and completely overwhelming. The Italy trip started with the marathon event that is Terra Madre, now integrated into the enormous Slow Food show the Salone del Gusto. From there I traveled to Tuscany and then Chioggia, visiting farms and seeing a lot of the country side between. My final stop was Verona where I fell into bed sick, but managed to recover enough to have a nice visit with my friend Gio who works for the fascinating food company NaturaSì, now part of Ecor. Coming back, I stepped straight back into harvest and deliveries on the farm and then a presented a workshop on equipment at Tilth Producers 40th annual conference with my friend Chris Jagger from Blue Fox Farm in southern Oregon. It’s been a whirlwind and I wish I had a week just to process it all, get my notes straight and fill this blog and my websites with stories and information I gleaned while I was there.

I will be talking about my experience at Terra Madre at Slow Food Portland’s upcoming Terra Madre Talks event on the afternoon of December 7, and maybe showing a few slides. I’ll certainly be slowly working on getting some of the stories and photos posted on this website over time. Recently a lot of my internet content uploading has been through my instagram feed, simple photos and extended comments/conversations with other growers there (of course it’s mixed in with a bit of other stuff too).

One last note before I get back to writing agricultural plans for other folks and trying to figure out the plan for vegetable expansion at Our Table, where I’ve been growing for the past two years – Don’t forget that the amazing and dynamic Michael Ableman and I are teaching our Growing for Family, Neighborhood and Market workshop at the stunningly beautiful seaside, hot springs retreat, Esalen, December 12-14. Please sign up, please let everyone you know know to sign up. We want to see you all there and spend the weekend talking vegetables and soaking in hot water while overlooking the ocean!

Feeding the Future Workshop

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This December 12-14 I’ll be co-teaching a workshop titled Feeding the Future: Growing for Family, Neighborhood and Market at Esalen on the central coast of California. Michael Ableman and I have been teaching a version of this workshop at his farm in Canada for the past four years and this year we’re excited to bring it to such a beautiful location.

Esalen is a beautiful and special place overlooking the Pacific Ocean, dedicated to education and research. They have a variety of lodging options and spectacular hot springs and gardens.

Please join us for what should be a very special weekend of fun learning and sharing of ideas on how to create spaces on all scales that are productive and that feed ourselves and our communities.