Apr 23, 2007
Kentucky Grower Builds a Retail Destination

Back before Jimmy Dean came to mean sausage, the country singer crooned a tune that contained the line, “that spells Kentucky, but it means paradise.”

Bill Gallrein Jr. knows what he had in mind. You just can’t beat Kentucky’s climate and the long, mild growing and marketing season, he said, and he’s learned how to farm those rolling hills without ruining them.

By Feb. 1, he’s putting cuttings into the farm’s greenhouse. He’ll have vegetable and flower plants by April 1. Field-grown peas and strawberries will be ready by May 30, green beans by June 20. His big crop is sweet corn, and that comes July 1.

The beans and the corn, and also summer squash and zucchini, grow in a thick mat of wheat residue that keeps the produce clean and the soil in place. He’s been using no-till techniques since his father adopted them in the 1970s, when Kentucky led the nation’s farmers toward a new farming style that greatly reduced soil erosion and spared hillsides (and sidehills) everywhere.

“No-till really complements our area,” he said. “The way our land lays, we can’t fall plow without having a major erosion problem.”

Bill and his wife, Randie, put on a slide show and talk at the Ohio Fruit, Vegetable and Potato Growers Conference in Columbus in January. The Gallreins came back to Columbus the next week for a big nursery show.

Gallrein Farms, Shelbyville, Ky., is a complex operation 20 miles east of Louisville. It includes a beef herd, field crops like corn and soybeans, 200 acres of vegetables, 40,000 square feet of greenhouses, an on-farm retail market and several other attractions that make it, in Bill’s words, “a destination.”

“I like the diversity,” he said.

The spring customers want plants – the farm specializes in providing hard-to-find flowers – the summer visitors want fresh produce and the fall crowd likes the atmosphere created by pumpkins, corn mazes, petting zoos, tours and hayrides. People find their way to the place, even though it’s not on the beaten track.

Most of the work is done by Bill and Randie, Bill’s father, nephew Matthew McQuade and seven H-2A workers.

Randie is the “people person” who organizes much of the retail effort, while the men do most of the production, harvesting and preparing produce for sale. The two major vegetable crops, sweet corn and green beans, are pretty thoroughly mechanized from end to end.

The process for this year started last fall when fields intended for sweet corn, green beans and summer squash were planted to wheat as a cover crop. Bill likes wheat better than rye, because its spring growth is easier to manage. He’ll kill it with Roundup this spring and plant crops into the dying residue.

The cover crop serves several purposes. During the fall, it grabs nutrients left from the previous crop and holds the soil in place. Wheat roots are good for soil microbes, giving them something to eat. After spraying in the spring, the wheat dies down to a thick straw mat that discourages weeds and keeps rain from splashing soil onto the crops – reducing the impact of disease and keeping the crop clean.

Green beans grown on 40 to 45 acres are harvested with a one-row Pixall harvester.

The process is similar for sweet corn, which also is machine harvested. They grow 100 acres of sweet corn.

Some of the land is double cropped. Early sweet corn gives space for a later crop of green beans. Early green beans can be followed by soybeans.

While some of the crops – strawberries, raspberries, blackberries – are offered u-pick, the sweet corn and beans are offered ready-picked only – and the sweet corn is bagged at a dozen each. Randie said that greatly reduces the mess and confusion that can surround sweet corn sales, and when customers come to trust the market, they don’t even bother to look in the bag.

Green beans are sold bulk, by the pound, and usually displayed in bushel baskets.

“A lot of our beans are sold to people who sell at farm and farmers’ markets,” Bill said. “These buyers come mostly for sweet corn, but they take a bushel or two of beans.”

Some beans are sold to supermarkets, through a broker. Those are larger sales of from 40 to 200 bushels at a time.

Black plastic mulch has a small place on the farm, Bill said. Tomatoes and early watermelons are grown on plastic.

Bill is sold on his H-2A workers and, for the most part, the program that allows foreign workers to come to his farm. He hopes Congress will act this year to continue and improve the program.

“They’re expensive, but we couldn’t go back to running this farm by hiring school children,” he said.

To hire H-2A workers, he has to “jump through some hoops,” such as running advertisements in local newspapers and hiring qualified people who apply. Very few do. He must also pay the same rate to everybody he hires.

The H-2A workers are well paid – $8.75 per hour, plus housing and transportation to and from their place of origin before and after the season. Kentucky’s long growing season helps amortize overhead costs – which include the transportation and paperwork that go with the H-2A process.

Why doesn’t H-2A work better? Gallrein thinks it’s because “the government doesn’t want them here.” Just as it phased out the well-liked Bracero program at the end of the 1960s, the government hasn’t done much to facilitate the H-2A program that started in the 1980s. Those who maintain it displaces domestic workers from jobs have opposed it.

Gallrein’s experience is that domestic workers don’t want farm jobs, and immigrants, if they have papers and are legal, take other work – leaving farmers in the odious position of hiring workers without legal documents or jumping through H-2A hoops to obtain legal ones. Gallrein hopes the new Congress will assess the situation and provide a smoother functioning, legal process for farmers to obtain productive workers.

Growth in fruit and vegetable production in Kentucky is averaging 7 percent to 10 percent each year, and is not expected to peak for several years. Tobacco growers are looking for alternative crops, and the Kentucky Agricultural Development Fund is working to help them find their market niche in fruits and vegetables. In 2002, horticultural crops contributed more than $120 million to Kentucky’s economy.

“Kentucky’s strategic location, within a day’s drive of half of the U.S. population, is helping these new growers considerably,” said Matt Ernst, Extension associate in agricultural economics at the University of Kentucky. “It may help offset the traditional advantage that the big three states (California, Texas and Florida) have and the low labor costs of Mexico and South America.”

As Gallrein said, Kentucky is a great place to grow fruits and vegetables ¬– if the manpower is available there and not in some foreign country. Like the song says, that spells Kentucky but it means paradise.

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