Grower/Supplier Extends Shelf Life Of Produce

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New Morning Farm produces mixed vegetables on 40 acres in southern central Pennsylvania and markets the produce at several retail farmers markets in the Washington, DC, area as well as through a wholesale distribution co-op.

The farm aims to produce a consistent supply for as long as possible during the season to satisfy the demand of the busy farmers markets it serves. To that end, the farm employs several techniques to maximize the number of weeks throughout the season it can supply fresh green beans and sweet corn to
retail customers and to its wholesaler.

During the past few years, New Morning Farm has been extending the growing season for its beans and corn by starting production earlier in the spring. This past season, green beans were produced — from the field and not from the greenhouse or high tunnels — for 19 consecutive weeks and sweet corn for 14 weeks.

There are some favorite varieties that the farm is familiar with and whose growth and yield are predictable. Starting plants in the greenhouse in early April to be transplanted to the field after a few weeks is also key for optimizing earliness in these crops. Additionally, steps are taken to ensure that the ground can be accessed for transplanting, unhampered by the wet, cold soil conditions often prevalent in this area of the country in April and early May.

Making Preparations

For green bean production, the ground is prepared in the fall, forming plastic-mulched raised beds with two drip tapes per bed. Laying the plastic in the fall allows the farm to transplant when it might otherwise be too mucky and also warms the soil significantly, so that the plants grow rapidly after transplanting. After transplanting, the beds are covered with fabric row cover supported by wire hoops, creating a warmer environment to speed growth and protect plants from any late frosts.

New Morning Farm plants Provider and Jade bean varieties from Jordan Seed, which typically mature about one week apart, in flats in the greenhouse during the second week of April. Seeds are planted two per cell in 72-cell flats and allowed to germinate between 70°F and 80°F. When plants have developed solid root balls, usually after about two weeks, they are allowed to harden off in an unheated tunnel for a few days
before transplanting.

Meanwhile, successive generations of Jade have also been planted in the greenhouse, at intervals about 10 days apart. Spacing the plantings in such a way compensates for the shorter amount of daylight hours at that time of year, though later, main-season plantings are planted roughly one week apart.

When plants have hardened off in late April, they are transplanted with a tractor-mounted, water-wheel type transplanter, two rows per bed, plants spaced 6 inches in the row. The plants are covered with Agribon-19 row cover the same day, which will remain in place into late May. Throughout May, the temperature underneath the row cover can be quite warm, encouraging rapid development. This rapid development uses a great deal of water and the ground is irrigated increasingly heavily through May as the plants flower and begin to set pods, with the overall yields being proportional to the amount of water applied.

Early Harvest

The first of the pods are usually ready to be harvested the second week of June, and each generation is harvested two to three times, by hand, with overall yields typically larger than the direct-seeded, main season crops. Thus far, no plants have been lost to frost, and so in the coming season, the plan is to plant in the greenhouse even earlier, in the beginning of April, to be harvested by the beginning of June. These techniques are advantageous not only for the regularity of supply, which they provide, but for their profitability, as the wholesale market price for fresh green beans is often higher at this time of year.

For the earliest sweet corn, New Morning Farm grows only a couple of varieties that reliably produce high-quality ears even in cool weather condition. Those varieties are Ice Queen (Harris Moran Seed Co.) and Xtra-Tender 270 (Johnny’s Selected Seeds), which mature about one week apart in flats in the greenhouse beginning in the second week of April.

These are planted with one seed per cell in 200-cell trays, and are usually ready to transplant in about two weeks. In late April, after hardening off for a few days, the plugs are transplanted with a carousel-type transplanter in rows 36 inches apart, with plants spaced 9 inches apart in the rows.

After transplanting, the entire field is covered loosely with large sheets of fabric row cover that remain in place until the plants are about 20 inches tall. The sheets can be removed temporarily once or twice, however, for mechanical cultivation. The row cover significantly warms the soil, accelerating the growth of the plants.

The first ears are usually ready to harvest by the first week of July, though the date can vary somewhat, depending on the weather. Incidentally, transplanting at least the earliest three or four generations of sweet corn avoids any pressure from seed corn maggots as well as providing near-perfect stands, with soil conditions that might normally produce relatively poor germination.

McDermott is field manager at New Morning Farm in Pennsylvania. He is in charge of managing soil fertlity, field preparation, seeding, transplanting, planting, row covers, marketing, and managing the harvest of snap beans and sweet corn.

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