Nov 14, 2013
Northeast vegetable farms diversify to survive

Dave Marchant has met the challenges associated with operating a wholesale organic vegetable farm on the Lamoille River in Fairfax, Vt.

Now in its 21st year of operation, River Berry Farm grows 40 acres of organic vegetables, 3 acres of strawberries, 1.5 acres of organic raspberries and takes advantage of 18,000 square feet of greenhouse space.

“There is a real mix of how we make a living,” Marchant told dozens of visitors to his farm as part of this summer’s North American Strawberry Grower’s Association (NASGA) tour. “The wholesale vegetable end has kind of boomed. With the local aspect, people just want more and more and more.”

Marchant, who formerly worked in the strawberry IPM program at the University of Massachusetts, said the farm he operates with his wife, Jane, is part of the 15-member Deep Root Organic Co-op, consisting of operations throughout Vermont and the eastern townships of Quebec.

Founded in 1986, Deep Root Organic is one of the oldest co-ops of organic vegetable growers in the United States.

“We do about 90,000 cases among the member farms through the co-op,” he said. “The nice thing is the pricing isn’t as good, but you can concentrate on growing some things efficiently like cabbage and lettuce. We do a few crops on a larger scale and have the smaller retail things like berries, with a small raspberry pick-your-own.”

Carrots, beets and parsnips are the River Berry Farm’s mainstays, with abundant lettuce harvests also being part of the sales equation. Fall is oriented toward cabbage, corn and root crops, with asparagus in the spring, he said.

River Berry Farm has a 150-member Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program and a seasonal farm stand.

“Our on-farm operation is very small, with a couple acres of pick-your-own strawberries,” Marchant said. “Our bedding plant operation is probably the most lucrative part.”

The strawberry production started as an IPM approach, with the vegetables all certified organic.

“Strawberries make for the best vegetable ground a year or two later,” he said. “Four years ago, we converted our strawberries to organic and that was a real challenge. We use a matted-row system with corn polymer plastics. Weed control is a big issue. We typically pick strawberries for one year and rotate the crop.”

His strawberry of choice is Cavendish, which he finds “far superior” to Jewel or Honeoye.

Unable to use herbicides as an organic operation, some effective organic spray materials are used to ward off tarnished plant bugs and other intruders. He said a cocktail mix of BotaniGard has been effective.

“Leaf spot cropped up almost to the point of being epidemic because this year was so wet,” he said. “My plan now – because we get a lot of fog in the fall – is to go to a copper spray program.

“From a disease standpoint, using a MilStop product or BioWorks plant shield, even with all the rain we’ve had, gives very good control.”

Marchant’s fertility program consists of a compost of chicken manure from a large egg farm.

He said one noticeable trend is an earlier season for strawberries.

“The season moved at least 10 days from where it normally has been,” he said. “By the Fourth of July, the last two years, we’re done.”

Pete’s Greens

Meeting the demands of a voracious local market has put the operators of Pete’s Greens, a certified organic, four-season vegetable farm, on a fast-paced pattern of just keeping up. Throw into the mix a massive fire that derailed crucial operations, and the scramble intensified.

In January 2011, a fire destroyed a processing and packaging facility at Pete’s Greens, located in Craftsbury, Vt. By July of that year, the facility was replaced with a new structure. During the NASGA tour in August, owner Pete Johnson explained how the operation bounced back.

“We lost the original building and an addition to that building,” he said. “We lost about two-thirds of the food that was in there. It was an $800,000 loss, and we had about $250,000 in insurance. It was amazing and a bit overwhelming. A lot of fundraising went on; people raised a ton of money for us. We got some really nice loans that, interest-wise, have been really fair.”

As a result, the farm – located on the edge of the state’s Northeast Kingdom – was quickly able to process and package its wide range of organic produce and pastured meats.

Johnson said the farm pushes some crops to the limit in the cold climate, so they can be started earlier and extended longer through winter.

“We do a lot of leafy greens, storage crops – beets, carrots, potatoes – and everything else to fill in. We do just enough for our markets, and have a 400 to 500 member year-round CSA in which members get our produce in a couple of different share sizes.”

Pete’s Greens operates a farm stand with its own produce, as well as locavore shares from other local food producers.

“It’s really fun to be part of encouraging other Vermont producers to produce a greater diversity of the diet,” Johnson said.

Johnson said wintertime lows can reach minus 35˚ F, and it isn’t unusual to experience those temperatures for two or three consecutive nights.

“The coldest winter nights are 8 degrees colder up here,” he said. “There are a lot of greenhouses south of here. There is some winter production here, but it’s not the best location for that. But the soils are good, so we took what we had and built it.”

As an organic operator, the farm grows vegetable crops for two years and then rotates in alfalfa or similar plantings for two years.

“We hardly ever irrigate here,” Johnson said. “We irrigate more for survival than peak performance.

“We’re just a diversified operation,” he said. “Every year we do 40 crops. Hopefully a few of them are big winners, a bunch of them moderate winners and there are a few that suck and you lost money on. We fully diversify our marketing. When adding it all together it’s a crazy, complicated thing. That’s kind of how we evolved – it’s how we are and what we do.”

Attracting and maintaining a strong labor force is “by far the biggest challenge we have,” Johnson said. “We have five H-2A folks, two families from Mexico, 12 full-time year-round managerial types and three or four passing through. Some really blossom. The diversity of things we do requires pretty high-performance people. In a lot of different ways it can be a real challenge to produce that.”

Gary Pullano

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