What we learned from our Overwintering Spinach Trial

For some reason I’m fascinated with spinach. Perhaps it’s the different colors, textures, and growth habits, but all of it intrigues me. We sell a lot of spinach on our farm: baby, leaf, and bunched.
Last year we decided to do several trials. One was in the fall comparing 8 different types, looking at growth habits, hardiness, and disease resistance. The other was a ¼ acre, 9 variety, overwintering trial, looking at the same characteristics. We are located in zone 4a, and can get quite cold during the winter.
The process started Mid-summer with identifying the area for the trial. We wanted well drained soils as spinach doesn’t like wet feet, especially during the winter. We choose a sloping, Hoosic gravelly loam that had previously been in spring greens. The field was tilled and fertilized, beds where made, and the Spinach seed was planted mid October, 3 rows on the bed, 18” apart. Seed spacing in the row was 12-16 seeds per ft.
After seeding, the spinach germinated and was cultivated once before winter covers were put on in late November for overwintering. We used one layer of Typar 518 or 2 layers of Covertan 30 weight. The winter of 2014-15 was severe, with good snow pack. The rowcover was needed, because when part of it blew off, that area died. (Thankfully it didn’t destroy all of any one variety, so we still were able to collect data from all varieties.)
Spring came on slowly, with late April snowfalls. We didn’t’ get out into the fields until April 12th when we fertilized the spinach with krehers 8-3-3, putting down 60# N to the acre. We were, however, able to check the spinach in late March as the snow receded.
One problem we had was that rowcovers on spinach can cause rubbing, or white spots on the leaves. We didn’t want to hoop the spinach, so we ended up delaying harvest by pulling row covers completely off. This was done approximately at the end of April.
early trial
We started harvesting spinach from this section the last week of April, and continued through the last week of May when the last varieties bolted.

The results: the field was evaluated on May 15th when all the pictures were taken. I evaluated bolting again at the end of May to confirm our earlier results and make any last minute observations.

A note about the pictures: We clear-cut the field early May for a wholesale order, that is why many of the leaves look a little ragged.

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Space- Solid all around spinach. A little slow growing and had a tendency for the bottom leaves to be yellow.

Emperor- Wow, what a great spinach. Early, tall, dark green. It did have a tendency to have deformed leaves and show some bottom yellowing. Bolted quickly as well, but for an early spinach this was great. We really like this variety for bunching. Scored low mainly because a low percentage of plants deform.

Giant Winter- Bolted early, one of the quickest to size, but color wasn’t great. Leaves yellowed as well.

Giant Winter
Pidgeon- Best spinach overall. Sized quickly, took forever to bolt, held off disease and deformity was okay. Great color, easy to harvest.

Tyee – An old standard. Minimum score on all aspects was a 6. You can see why people still grow this.

Racoon- Absolutely beautiful spinach (was our favorite in the fall trials) Very upright, easy to pick, bolted relatively soon though and flavor wasn’t great. Very good disease resistance.

Bloomsdale- Older variety, grew a bit slower and bolted relatively soon, but scored best for flavor. Very savoyed leaf.

Regiment- Another nice variety. Not on our list to grow again since their are much better varieties.

Renegade- Second best score overall. Large leaves, slow bolting, relatively nice flavor, good disease and deformity resistance.


They say the proof is in what you grow next time, so here’s what we’re going to overwinter again. Space, Emperor, Pidgeon, and Renegade. Even though Emperor scored lower, it’s earliness and size were winners for us. Its all about what you want in a spinach, and as our overwintered spinach only has to last several weeks before the regular field plantings come in, we will take earliness and yield over bolt tolerance.

We also overwintered baby red Russian kale in the field. Of course it bolted quickly, but would have been fine for one cutting of early spring greens.

red russian kale

To check out more pictures of the trial, click here!  

What are you looking for in overwintered spinach? What varieties have you tried?

Can the boss work the hardest? PT 2 Tips to increasing worker effectiveness

In the last post, I talked about some of the reasons I feel that farm crews have a hard time operating at peak effectiveness. My main point was that good crew members, while wanting to work their hardest, don’t work as quickly as the boss because many times they are not sure exactly what is expected or required of them.

Cleaning beets with a Fells bunch washer

Cleaning beets with a Fells bunch washer

Here are just a few tips to building a great, more effective team, motivating them, and increasing their productivity.

  • Have clear expectations and instructions. Having and understanding a field map, knowing where the label goes on the kale bunch, etc. can save more money than you think possible. After I give instruction on a task for the day, I have employees repeat them back to me. It’s amazing what can be lost in translation, especially in under 5 minutes.

  • Have a clean, concise farm/crew handbook. There are so many reasons for a crew handbook, it deserves it’s own blog post. A handbook puts everyone on the same page and eliminates many mistakes by informing your crew before things come up.

  • Make them feel that you are all on the same team, because you are. Have a “we” mentality, not a “me vs them.”  If you complain about your crew, it will get back to them, and that is not winning with people.

  • Be organized in thought and space. Walking in and being able to go over how we want the day to go, what we wish to accomplish, and what tools and supplies need to be readied changes the game. Also, having supplies, tools, and equipment laid out clearly decreases worker frustration immensely.

  • Never ask them to do something you are not willing to do. When the weather is nice, the work load steady, and the crop clean, I rarely work with the crew. But when the weather is 34 degrees, sleeting and windy, the fields muddy and the orders huge and ominous, I am out there with them, encouraging them, working alongside, and feeling their pain.

  • Cull the bad apples. Once we had a crew member, who, when challenged to keep up with the rest of the crew in weeding, said, “we’re all winners, no matter our speed.” These need culled, for their sake as well as the crews moral. If a great crew member sees another getting away with shoddy, slow work, all sorts of problems will develop.

Work with them, sweat with them, bleed with them, laugh, and cry with your crew. It will go a long way to building an efficient team that can change the way your farm operates for the better.

What tips or thoughts do you have on helping your team operate well together?

Can the Boss Work the Hardest?

I was working with some of our younger crew members weeding swiss chard today. The chard had been planted on plastic, and because of our cold, dry spring had grown slow enough to let a few weeds take hold.Weeding carrots

I quickly moved through 2/3rds of the bed myself, plucking the weeks and dropping them into the path, knowing that the 90 degree day and steady wind would quickly shrivel them up. The crew members slowly moved through the other third, carefully making sure that no weeds were left in the bed.

My wife and I were discussing this at dinner. The crew members were working diligently and trying their hardest but not getting the amount of work done I was. I think there are a couple reasons to explain this:

  • You have probably been farming longer, and weeding more, than they have. Experience counts. You can identify, hopefully, all the weeds, and crops that you have growing on your farm, and therefore can work faster. Your muscle memory is trained, and weeding is probably at this point more like therapy.

  • You have more skin in the game. It’s your farm, you enjoy all the rewards (and disappointments) of farming. To them, it is a job. To you it is your life and, hopefully, passion.

  • As the boss, you usually have other jobs besides the physical, strenuous jobs that your crew does all day. I know when I worked for other farms, I tried to make sure that I paced my exertion so that I was still productive at 5 PM. As a boss now, I can spend up to 2/3rds of my time doing non-strenuous office or sales work. This allows me to sprint when I’m in the field. The crew needs to treat a work day like a marathon.

  • You know exactly what you want. Your crew is constantly evaluating, checking, and waiting for feedback. I knew that the very small weeds would never make it and therefore left them, the crew heard, “get the weeds out,” and therefore were going to make sure all the weeds were out of the field.

What are your thoughts? Other than the obvious, “you just can’t get good help these days,” what do you feel are reasons that crew members sometimes don’t work as efficiently or as quickly as you, the farmer, do?

The Third Plate- what will we be eating in 50 years?

While I’m on the tractor or driving to a market, I frequently listen to books on tape. Audible is one of the best things for farmers, allowing us to get two things done at once. I usually listen to a mix of history, business, and food books.

The Third Plate

The last book I finished was The Third Plate by Dan Barber. I have been privileged to meet him several times while at the Stone Barns Center where one of his Blue Hill restaurants is located. What I didn’t realize is that he was named one of Times 100 most influential people in 2009, or had won several coveted Chef awards.

The Third Plate is a history of agriculture, but told in a fascinating and taste-centric way. It is a culinary smorgasbord, describing various flavors, foods, and chefs. It is a hopeful book, describing the few in this country that are trying to right the culinary wrong that we have perpetuated over the last 200 years in this country. But overall, it is a storybook, bringing you to far off places like the Dehesa of Spain, the grain fields of western NY and Washington state, and many more. There are stories of wheat, tuna, emar, rice and corn and the infamous Foie Gras.

The overall premise of the book is Dan’s wrestling with sourcing ingredients, and how chefs have inadvertently singlehandedly caused the exploitation of resources. Demands for a consistent wheat has caused the proliferation of just two varieties, when there are over forty thousand available, with specific varieties having overtones of chocolate and other fascinating flavor profiles. The demand for greater and greater yields has diluted the flavor that was once known by our ancestors. Tuna used to be a canner fish, and now has been fished almost to extinction because chefs popularized it.

Back in the day, oatmeal, porridge, and corn meal mush were staples. One of the reasons for the lack of interest in these inexpensive, nutritious foods is because all the flavor has been bred out of the modern varieties. Dan talks about using ancient corn for polenta, and how the flavor and smell changed his opinion of this dish.

This book is definitely worth the read. It is a great education about food, food culture, and how some of the best chefs in the world are wrestling to affect change in an industry which relies primarily on a refrigerated tractor trailer backing up to their door twice a day.

How to transplant better

Here at our farm we transplant well over 100,000 transplants each year. A significant portion of those are transplanted and set by hand. In order to do that efficiently, there are several systems we have set in place.


      1. Good soil preparation is key. If the soil is cloddy, or has too much trash, or is hard, sticking the transplants in is going to be tough. We try to till the same day to create a loose, friable soil. This also helps the transplants out compete the weeds as they are both starting the same day. .

        Tilling with the Kuhn Rototiller

        Tilling with the Kuhn Rototiller

      2. Clearly marked beds helps the transplanting process go smoothly and cultivation afterward work well. There are several ways to achieve this. For our greenhouse transplanting, we have created marker rakes that create lines in the soil.

        Bed marker in Greenhouse

        Bed marker in Greenhouse

        With our basket weeder, we can turn the row sweeps upside down and use them to mark the rows.

        Marking beds for transplanting with Super C and Basket Weeders

        Marking beds for transplanting with Super C and Basket Weeders

         Currently, since much of our transplanting is done on raised beds made with our bedder which has a rolling basket behind it, we fasten tubing around it that creates the lines for transplanting.

        Bedder with Rolling basket

        Bedder with Rolling basket

        To mark in-row spacing, we use ½” x1” 6’ long sticks that have the different spacing marked on them in different colored paint. That allows us to easily scoot along the field as we lay transplants out.

      3. Properly grown transplants that come out of their trays easily is another essential. Start with a good compost base mix, use the right size cell, and harden them off properly. We prefer the Speeding or Winstrip branded trays, although there are many other options. Right before transplants head to the field, we loosen them by using one of our poppers. See video below for a quick explanation.

      4. Efficient planting techniques is the last key to good transplanting. Our transplanting team is usually comprised of 3 or more people. Two to lay out the transplants (one on each side of the bed) and one person to do the actual transplanting. We find that the transplanter works fastest by being in the bed, and straddling a row of transplants. As you can see in the video below, we have a specific method we use to transplant. One hand grasps the transplant and lifts, the other hand pokes the hole with the index (and middle finger if they are big rootballs) and the thumb follows up by sweeping soil back around the plant. We try to irrigate right after transplanting or time our transplanting before a rain storm to set the plants in well.


Having a good system for transplanting has made it much more enjoyable. We find with 3 well-trained people we can plant 3000 plants per hour. What are your favorite transplanting tips and techniques?


Pennsylvania Conference Recap

I was recently in PA for an all day conference on winter growing, season extension, wholesale, and food safety. I presented three times and we also heard from Cathie, a local grower and a Bill, representative from Wegmans supermarket who was talking about the great oportunities for growers of all sizes to sell to the wegmans family of stores.

My first talk was a standard winter growing and greens production.

Second talk was on Field systems and season extension. I have fun doing this talk as I get to discuss equipment, and show beautiful pictures of vegetables.

The last talk for the day was on Farm Planning, Wholesale markets, Food safety, and washing and packing. This was a lot of new material for me, and is the talk which took the most work. It went very well though.

There was signifigant interest in our annual bed strawberry system. Here’s the link to the slideshow that I have done on this.

Another question was the source of our supplies. Here’s the link to our resources page.


A grower also had a question on the bags that we use for our wholesale lettuce mix. They are from Uline, link here.

If you are a grower near a Wegmans, and they have stores in Western NY, PA, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and the Carolinas, you should look into sales oportunites through them. They are a very farm friendly company, and have employees whose sole job is to travel seek out new farms to sell to them. Definately worth a call or email.

Many thanks to Beth at the Blair Conservation District for organizing this event!



What I learned from today’s Field Walk

Today was the first real field walk of the season. Frankly, the ground has been covered with snow before today and we just couldn’t get out in the field. There are so many reasons to do a field walk, but the biggest is that you get a real idea of exactly what is happening on the farm, in the moment.

Today there wasn’t too much to see. There were still patches of snow, lots of mud, and cover crop starting to green up. The compost piles were finally thawed, and that’s good because people are starting to ask about buying it.

A couple key takeaways:

  • The overwintered spinach looks great. Other than the section of cover that blew off, its green and growing. Hopefully, we can get in there later this week and fertilize and cultivate. Interestingly, the spinach that we harvested last in the fall is for the most part alive as well, especially the Space and Red Kitten varieties. It had no cover on it. I’m still trying to figure that one out…

    overwintered spinach under covers


    fall planted and harvested spinach that’s hanging on for dear life

  • I hate voles. They created significant damage in row covers as well as some of the overwintered crops. Granted it was a hard winter for them but why did they have to create holes every 2 ft in that brand new cover as well as destroy some overwintered cropping? Agrid3 and bait boxes do a wonder on these guys. I’ll have to set those up as well.
  • New drainage is working excellent. I am disappointed that we won’t be here longer to benefit from the money we put into the drainage project, but for this spring it will be great. No ponding in the lower fields and a 8″ deep flow was making its way into the river with no erosion. It does need overseeded with more grass, since last year’s take was a bit sparse.
  • Scallions are bulletproof. Two different locations, different dates and soil types, survived. Not looking forward to cleaning them (overwintered scallions usually have lots of dead lower leaves on them) but it’s amazing how hardy they are. No covers, even in -25 F, and they live. We need to clean them up, fertilize, and row cover them to push them along.

Hope you have enjoyed this mini-tour of the farm. I usually do 2 a week. One early in the week to get a feel for what we’ll be harvesting, and a Friday walk to come up with the task/work list for the week. That gives me a few days to get supplies, plan out the daily schedule, and organize our efforts.





Imagine a city that has a farm within the city limits. A large, 166-acre farm. A farm with around 120 acres of open farmland for growing crops, 40 acres of woods and streams with opportunities for silviculture, and several acres of outbuildings and farmyard. A place where community can learn, grow, and share in the excitement of food.
Imagine if this property was divided into several farms. One would be a large teaching farm that would bring in the nation’s best and brightest farmers to train the next generation of eager farmers. There could be classroom teaching time, but also plenty of space for students to actually get their hands dirty, to experiment, trial, and learn by doing. After students had graduated from the teaching farm, they could start their own incubator farms, a 1- to 3-acre plot where they would farm on their own, but with supervision from the staff at the school. Another possibility would be farmshare, where farmers could long-term lease 5-acre blocks of land.
Imagine if this farm had a large year-round farmhub building. This building serves as the region’s year-round farmers market, with wide corridors, plenty of parking, and heat in the winter. Also included is a 6-day-a-week store for the regions farm products, where after a farmers market, farmers can drop off their extra products for sale during the week. This will allow community members who can’t make a farmers market access to fresh, local products all week long.
Imagine if another aspect of this building would be crop storage and a processing kitchen. When farmers have extra tomatoes, basil or green beans, they could turn them into salsa, pesto or pickles. The storage facility would allow farmers in the area access a climate controlled storage and distribution facility.
Imagine if a large community garden was a part of this. Where community members from all socio-economic cultures and walks of life where invited to learn how to grow their own food. Where classes on beekeeping, orchard pruning, soil health, tomato pruning and more would happen. Where there would be access to water, compost, a mentor’s knowledge and more.
Imagine a location for summer camps to teach kids about farming and food, and how their food choices influence so many aspects of their life and their community. Where students from the surrounding high schools, colleges and technical schools could come out and learn how food is produced.
Imagine if this farm was landscaped beautifully, with fields of flowers and sunflowers, native plants and trees, windbreaks of curly and pussy willow, dogwood and redbud. That it had trails for walking, hiking, and cycling, picnic spots. Boardwalks along the stream and marsh, where families could check out the frogs, turtles and other wildlife that call it home.
Imagine, a blank slate, where the possibilities are endless, and we are allowed to dream and create  a very, very special place.
That is my vision. And Saratoga PLAN made the first step of that vision possible yesterday with a press conference announcing the planned purchase of the Pitney Farm on West Avenue in Saratoga Springs. We’ve been working on this project for five years now and we will continue to work on it for another 50. In fact, I don’t believe that it will reach its full potential in my lifetime. But that is why we are starting now, so that our children, and grandchildren can work this land for generations to come.
I want to thank fellow farmer Sandy Arnold, Saratoga Plan, and the Saratoga Institute for their part in helping all of this to come to fruition. We’re a great team, and I feel that the right players are at, and are being invited to, the table to make this work. We’re not sure what parts of our vision are feasible, and we will make the next year a time of research, discovery, and planning to see what is possible. Feel free to reach out with thoughts, ideas and concerns. We want the community’s involvement in this project.
Till next week,

Workshop Review: Chris Blanchard’s “Run Your Team”

231632_origNOFA-VT does a great job organizing a calendar of workshops and tours. This workshop was another home run for them! Managing people is always one of the hardest parts of business, and I’m always interested to hear another farmers take on this difficult subject.

Chris Blanchard is a former farmer of 25 years, and is now an educator, consultant, and speaker. You  can learn more about him and what he does at his  website, PurplePitchfork.com . I highly recommend checking out his Podcast as well.

Chris started off the morning by having us all introduce ourselves and say whether we were a good boss or bad boss. It was interesting to see what people thought they were and why. Then Chris opened by telling us that his farm used to be known as the “Yelling farm” and no one wanted to work there. This is what made him really focus on learning to manage people.

Here are the takeaways that I got out of the conference:

  • Screen your potential employees by creating hurdles for them in the application process, i.e., employment application, references, showing up for interview on time, etc. At KFF, our farm, we had an online application, interview, and then checkout day that the applicant had to survive, before getting hired.
  • Tell the rules- UPFRONT. Have an employee handbook, do a walk-around the farm and show them where things are and the procedures that help the place run.
  • Blurry edges make crappy work. Define the job so there is a clear expectation for how and why things are done. Use SOP’s, directives, checklists, etc… Common sense isn’t as common as we would like to think.
  • Establish authority by following up. To often we tell someone how to do something and then 15 minutes later they are doing it their way. You need to follow up 15 minutes later and retrain (if they don’t understand) or reprimand (I’m just going to to do it my way).
  • Fire well- don’t drag it on by just giving them the rough, miserable jobs so they want to quit. You owe it to them to let them move on into a job that is better for them.
  • Order Propagates- keeping things organized encourages the workers, speeds everybody up, and helps you find thing later.
  • You don’t know what you  don’t know until employees show up.

Overall, I really enjoyed the workshop. Chris is a fabulous speaker and entertaining. I came away realizing I had a lot of work to do to be a “good boss” but Chris gave me many tips to help me on the journey.


Speaking Engagement: Maximizing Profits through Year-round Wholesale Production

_MG_74701I will be speaking in East Freedom, PA on April 9th. The event is sponsored by several Pennsylvanian agricultural organizations and is FREE!  It will be a full day event with me covering several topics.

  • Winter vegetable production- I will cover what we have learned in 10 years of winter production. From varieties, to tunnel management, to seeding dates, you will leave this workshop knowing how to grow during the winter months.
  • Season Extension- In this workshop, I will cover how we s-t-r-e-t-c-h the season to provide greater product diversity in the spring and fall, as well as cool season crops during the mid-summer heat like spinach and lettuce. The emphasis will be on larger-scale wholesale quantities. Yes you can have spinach from April to December from the field!
  • Wholesale marketing and food safety- In the last couple years our farm has scaled up, received certified organic status, and focused heavily on food safety so that we could sell to larger, wholesale buyers. We’ll talk about our journey and demystify wholesale markets, GAPS, and food safety!

This is my main speaking engagement of the spring, don’t miss it! Attached is a flyer of the event. April9_Flyer

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