Growing and Harvesting Salad Mix at Gathering Together Farm

August 23, 2012 · 1 comment

This post was written by me but originally published on the Gathering Together Farm blogWhen I use the first-person words “we” and “our”, I am speaking as a representative of Gathering Together Farm.

For over 15 years, salad mix has been a mainstay of Gathering Together Farm’s vegetable offerings. Our growing, harvesting, washing, and packing methods have expanded and evolved considerably over the years, and though we feel like we have a pretty good system now, we’re still constantly reevaluating our practices and looking for ways to be better and more efficient farmers and marketers.

We currently harvest and sell about 800 pounds of salad mix per week including  up to 200 pounds per day. That salad mix goes to dozens of restaurants around the state, several grocery stores, our nine weekly farmers’ market booths, CSA boxes that opt for the extra salad option, and our own on-farm restaurant.

The exact components and specific proportions of each ingredient vary day to day, but any given mix generally has at least 30 different types of leaves in it. Our relationship with Frank and Karen Morton of Wild Garden Seed (WGS), the seed-growing arm of the farm, has been fundamental in the development of our salad mix “recipe” and growing techniques. WGS actually supplies a good majority of the seed used for growing salad mix, and because of that seed pipeline, we’re able to produce a whole lot of high-quality salad mix cost effectively.

Our salad mix starts with seed, greenhouse, and irrigation manager Joelene Jebbia and her seeder tractor. With feedback from the field crew, the packing shed workers, and the market staff, Joelene makes hundreds of small decisions about what to plant, how to plant, and when to plant, and those choices lead to an overall successful outcome for the salad mix program.

Sometimes, Frank Morton gives Joelene his standard seed, but often he’ll offer her seed that is less desirable to his seed clients but perfectly fine for GTF salad mix. For example, both piles of chard seed above are from WGS. The smaller seed on the right is similar to what retail/wholesale customers receive when they order from WGS. Each cluster contains two or three individual seeds. In the seed cleaning and sorting process, larger seed is separated out because each cluster holds four to six individual seeds, which is generally undesirable in chard seed for growers that want to avoid the effort of thinning heavily. The larger clusters when direct seeded for salad mix, however, produce dense rows that make for easy harvesting.

Joelene also gets orach seed from WGS. Orach plants sometimes produce small, dark seeds (photos above and below) which are slower to germinate than the standard larger, lighter colored seed. Frank sets aside this inferior grade for the GTF salad mix program. As long as Joelene knows that the seed needs more time to get going, she can schedule accordingly and get a good product while using up what some seed growers might consider a waste product.

Joelene direct seeds about 2500 bed feet of salad components like lettuce, mustards, and other specialty greens (as well as cilantro and dill for bunching) every five days throughout the spring and summer. The time and amount of seed invested in seeding so much so often may seem excessive, but having an over abundance of nice greens makes the harvest exponentially easier and faster than picking through rows of lettuce that have already been cut before, saving the farm a lot of labor (and money) in the long run. Occasionally in the summer, entire salad mix plantings will be completely overtaken by weeds, so again, it saves a major effort if the crew can just skip on to the subsequent planting.

Joelene seeds four rows per four-foot bed with her Allis Chalmers tractor fitted with Planet Jr. seeders attached to a bar. This wide spacing allows air to move freely through the plants, keeping moisture-based fungal problems to a minimum. The rows are also easy to access and navigate through when cultivating and harvesting.

She usually seeds four different types of lettuce or two different types of mustards per bed. In the spring, she seeds extra mustards because she’s aware that there will be some loss to flea beetles. In summer, she seeds more frequently, so the crew can skip plantings that are too weedy if necessary. Throughout the growing season, she switches to crop varieties that will fare best in the upcoming weather conditions.

Radicchio, chicory, and endive for salad mix are not direct seeded. They get seeded by hand with the weekly head lettuce plantings and are transplanted out in the field after growing in the propagation greenhouse for about 6 weeks.

After direct seeding, the rows of salad mix seedlings are covered with floating row cover as an exclusionary technique that helps prevent insects from damaging the leaves. Floating row cover, however, can heat up the soil too much and damage the leaves during hot weather.

The earliest leaves of mustards will be harvested when the plants are four to six weeks old.

‘Basic’ arugula

A couple weeks after seeding, the rows are cultivated first with a basket weeder and later with a shoe on a cultivator tractor.

‘Double Purple’ orach

Joelene factors in color, texture, flavor, shape, productivity, disease resistance, ease of harvest, seed availability, and seed cost when selecting crops and individual varieties of crops for salad mix.

‘Maraichere Tres Fine’ frisée endive

‘Homi-Z’ mustard

‘Blade’ lettuce

‘Piano’ spinach

‘Dane’ lettuce

‘Jester’ lettuce

‘Dark Green Romaine’ lettuce

‘Virtus’ sugarloaf chicory (above left)

In the spring, summer, and fall, the field crew harvests salad mix first thing in the morning five days a week. On hot days, it’s important to get tender cut greens into the cooler as quickly as possible to keep everything fresh. Every half hour or so, a driver will shuttle tubs of cut greens from the fields back to the packing shed.

The crew leaders (Rodrigo, Palemon, and Carmelo) get an order each morning for a certain number of pounds of salad needed for the day. They know roughly how many pounds can fit in one tub on average (though this changes depending on the season and the proportions of the mix components) and therefore how many full tubs are needed to fill the order. Crew leaders use a loose formula that factors in the proportions of the major component groups (lettuce, mustards, and specialty extras) to figure out how many tubs of what need to be picked. The leaders delegate pickers to different areas of the field, splitting the crew into two larger groups for cutting lettuces and mustards, and leaving individual workers to pick specialty crops that appear in the mix in smaller proportions.

Ideally, the crew will find rows of fresh greens that have never been harvested before. New greens are easiest to harvest because a crew member can simply grab a handful (gently) and use a small knife to cut many stems at once without needing to pay much attention to individual leaves.

As each crew member cuts along, he or she will sort the leaves, tossing out or trimming leaves that are too large, damaged by insects, yellowing, or otherwise unsightly. Occasional weeds also get discarded.

Handfuls of greens are tossed into ten-gallon plastic tubs until the tubs are full. Crew members carry full tubs to a flatbed truck for transport back to the packing shed.

Greens that grow too large for using in the salad mix are often cut and sold in bunches.

Some crops require pickers to cut each individual leaves one at a time. This method is much more time consuming than the handful harvest technique.

At times when weather conditions, irrigation problems, insect damage, heavy weeds, or inconsistant seeding limit the supply of untouched rows of greens, the crew will have to return to lettuce or mustard plants that have already been cut once (or sometimes twice) a few weeks earlier, which slows down the harvest considerably. In the late fall, winter, and early spring when greens grow slowly or go dormant, the salad harvest can be painstaking and incredibly time consuming because the crew will have to pick through larger and/or damaged leaves to find the tender new ones.

‘tatsoi’

‘Black Summer’ poc choi (above left)

Radicchio, chicory, and endive take over three months to mature, which is significantly longer than all the other salad components. They also take quite a bit longer to harvest and process, so a couple crew members will be sent out apart from the main group to fill tubs with these bitter greens that add color and flavor to the salad mix.

‘Indigo’ radicchio

Whole heads of radicchio, chicory, and endive are cut, and then a crew member will tear or cut the leaves into smaller pieces and sort out the larger, tougher, off-color bits.

‘Maraichere Tres Fine’ frisée endive

Until all the salad is harvested for the day and the packing shed workers are ready to wash it, tubs of greens are stored in a walk-in cooler. When time allows, packing shed workers fill up a large, stainless steel tank (formerly a milk tank) with cool, clean water. They pull the tubs out of the cooler and unceremoniously dump the leaves into the water.  About 30 pounds of salad can be mixed and dunked in this tank in one batch without crushing the leaves.

Washers use their hands to gently dunk and swirl the leaves in the water, mixing and agitating the ingredients to free clinging bits of dirt (that will sink to the bottom). Washers also keep their eyes out for weeds, cucumber beetles, or unsightly leaves that they pluck out of the water and discard.

After rinsing and mixing, packing shed workers pull scoops of salad mix out of the water and deposit them into perforated plastic salad spinning canisters until the canisters are about half full.

The plastic canisters get loaded into The Greens Machine, a type of electric commercial salad spinner. (We have three of them.)

The salad spins for about 3 minutes, and at the end of the cycle, it is moist but not dripping wet anymore.

After salad washing is done for the day, the big tank and the salad spinners are rinsed out with a bleach solution.

Most of our salad mix is packaged up in 10-gallon plastic tubs lined with perforated plastic bags (from Vegetable Growers Supply). The tubs are stored in the cooler until they head out to their final destination.

We harvest and wash most of our salad mix the day before it reaches our customers. If kept in a refrigerator, it will stay fresh for another five to seven days.

On any given day, Gathering Together Farm salad mix will contain many but never all of the following components:

Lettuce:

Flashy Trout Back‘ (speckled cos) from Wild Garden Seed
Dark Green Romaine‘ from Wild Garden Seed
Red Iceberg‘ from Wild Garden Seed
‘Merlot’ (dark leaf) from Wild Garden Seed
‘Oscarde’ (red oakleaf) from Wild Garden Seed
‘Brown Golding’ (romaine) from Wild Garden Seed
‘Hyper-Red Rumpled Wave’ from Wild Garden Seed
‘Really Red Deer Tongue’ from Wild Garden Seed
‘Pinot’ (red lollo) from Wild Garden Seed
‘Lollo di Vino’ (red lollo) from Wild Garden Seed
‘Jack Ice’ (green crisp) from Wild Garden Seed
Jester‘ (speckled crispleaf) from Wild Garden Seed
‘Red Zin’ (red romaine) from Osborne Seed Company
‘Dane’ (green crispleaf) from Osborne Seed Company 
‘Flint’ (green oakleaf) from High Mowing Organic Seeds
‘Blade’ (red oakleaf) from High Mowing Organic Seeds
‘Antago’ (lolla rossa) from High Mowing Organic Seeds
‘Red Rosie’ (red romaine) from Johnny’s Selected Seed
‘Sergeant’ (green oakleaf) from Johnny’s Selected Seed 
‘Dark Lolla Rossa’ from Johnny’s Selected Seed

 

Mustard:

‘Homi-Z’ from Wild Garden Seed
‘Osaka Purple’ from Wild Garden Seed
‘Golden Frill’ from Wild Garden Seed
Basic‘ (arugula) from Wild Garden Seed
‘Mizuna’ from Johnny’s Selected Seed
‘Tatsoi’ from Johnny’s Selected Seed 
‘Black Summer’ (pac choi) from Johnny’s Selected Seeds
‘Red Choi’ (pac choi) from Johnny’s Selected Seeds

 

Other:

‘Triple Purple’ (orach) from Wild Garden Seed
‘Magenta Magic’ (orach) from Wild Garden Seed
‘Pink Passion’ (chard) from Wild Garden Seed
‘Golden Chard’ from Wild Garden Seed
‘Rhubarb Chard’ from Wild Garden Seed
‘Maraichere Tres Fine’ (frisée endive) from Wild Garden Seed
‘Wrinkle Crinkle Crumpled’ (cress) from Wild Garden Seed
‘Natacha’ (chicory escarole) from Johnny’s Selected Seeds
‘Indigo’ (radicchio) from Johnny’s Selected Seeds
‘Virtus’ (sugarloaf chicory) from Johnny’s Selected Seeds
‘Cressida’ (cress) from Johnny’s Selected Seeds
spinach from Osborne Seed Company
 

Full disclosure: I have been contracted by Gathering Together Farm to be their social media manager, so I have been compensated for writing/photographing this blog post. That said, I would promote the heck out of the farm even without compensation. You can read more about my past experiences working at Gathering Together Farm in this blog post.

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