We are very much relieved and happy that three of our foreign professionals have just been released from quarantine and are doing what they do best; getting things done! They are Pascual, who has been with us enough years that I’ve lost count. He is a very quiet, reserved person, at least around the “patrone” (boss). He is a very dedicated employee that everyone likes to work with because he always pulls his weight. He also plays the accordion. My kids got their hands on one for him last summer; not sure if he took it home or left it here. Artemio (Timo) has also been with us for a number of years. He is very clean cut and conscientious, he helps Leon with the Forum market quite often in the summer months so some of you have met him I am sure. He spends most of his time in the packing shed working with Leon to fill orders and generally keep things rolling there. The third guy is new to us but we know members of his family well. His name is Pablo and he is 18 years old and on the biggest adventure of his life. His father, Adrian, has worked us here Elmridge for a decade and has helped out at the seaport market many times so many of you would also have met him. I would have to say Adrian is the most concerned, caring person I have ever met, period! That is why we have worked to get two of his sons here to work with their father. Pablo’s older brother, Estaban (Teban), 21, started work here last season, went home for two weeks at Christmas and then came right back. He did his two weeks in penitentiary (that’s what we call quarantine, really) and has been working since late January. Leon, from Jamaica, who is the most known to many of you, has been with us for 14 years now and has grown into the role of packing shed operations manager. He knows more about what goes on in the packing shed than anyone, including me. The Forum market is his baby and he will do anything in his power to beat his old high sales record at the market. Believe me, that kind of dedication is something we do not take for granted. So that’s our crew of five to this point.
We will need more guys very soon but it isn’t clear how that is going to go because Ottawa keeps changing the rules and, every time, seems to not anticipate the effect it will have on agriculture. We were just ready to have Pascual and Artemio arrive when the federal government changed the rules and shut down almost all flights in and out of Jamaica and Mexico. And then the three day Toronto quarantine happened. They were supposed to have started nearly a month ago. A third guy was to have started a couple of weeks ago. He still isn’t here but we managed to get Pablo here in his stead. The three guys who start this week were spared the extra three days in Toronto because Elmridge farm is considered a government approved quarantine facility. And, believe me, we’ve earned that designation. It’s been a very long bit of red tape. And now the rules have been changed yet again, any of our employees arriving right now will have to quarantine three days in Toronto….and then another 14 days here…or maybe 11 days…no one knows, and the rules change continuously.
March 25, 2021
So on to the anticipation of spring and what that brings with it.
On Wednesday we filled about 1000 trays with 25 pounds of seed potatoes each and put them in the greenhouse to sprout. Ideally we should have done this about a week ago but we just didn’t have the crew to do it. We did however, put them in the sweet potato storage for the last two weeks where the temperature is maintained at 12-14 Celsius which woke them up so I don’t think we are behind very much. The sprouting tray design is very open so that light can penetrate and keep the potato sprouts from stretching as they "look" for light. My maternal grandfather lived just a km from here and sprouted some potatoes to grow for early harvest and originally designed and built some trays in the 1960’s. Some of those trays are still being used today. To give you an idea of the difference in scale, he may have had about 40 trays. We would require about 2500 trays to hold all of our seed potatoes this spring. I am going to explain why and how we green sprout seed potatoes.
For most farmers the only reason to sprout potato seed is to make them earlier for harvest to capitalize on a better price. We do that too but we also sprout all of our seed potatoes so that they will come out of the soil faster than the weeds and we can use non-chemical forms of weed control. Mechanical weed control is a game of timing in potatoes. The first flush of weeds usually accounts for about 80% of the weed pressure for the season so it is essential to win this battle in order to have any hope of winning the war on weeds. We need the potatoes to be poking through the soil before the weeds are more than an inch high. We can then go through the field with our flame weeder and quickly and efficiently burn off all of the emerged weeds (I’ll do a rundown on our flame weeder one of these days). The protruding bits of potato plant get burned as well, but because of the size of the potato seed piece they come back in a matter of a couple of days and grow like crazy. From there we watch the growth of the weeds and the potatoes closely and will partly hill them up when the second flush of weeds emerges (it is essential not to hill them up completely at this stage or there won’t be the opportunity to bury weeds with a second hilling). The second and final hilling is done just before the potato leaf canopy closes the rows. Again, timing is critical. Hill too soon and sunlight on the soil will produce yet another flush of weeds. Wait too long and the large potato plants will get a lot of damage. Not doing the second hilling is not an option because the mess of weeds escapes will cause more yield loss than the damage done to the potato plants by hilling and harvest will be a nightmare unless we spend an ungodly amount of time and money on pulling weeds. Weeding creates plenty of jobs but they don’t pay our bills; not my favourite scenario. If for one reason or another we get a poor stand of potatoes, the canopy can never fully shade the soil and we will be fighting weeds all the way through the season for a small yield potential. Also not a profitable scenario. Fortunately I am an unflappable optimist when it comes to crop potential so I go back at it year after year mostly undaunted…..I think that is part of the popular definition of insanity…..
Yet another reason for us to green sprout our potatoes is to get them to grow and mature as early in the season as possible. Disease pressures build during the growing season and in order to be exposed to as little disease pressure as possible we want our crop to grow and mature quickly. We do not use any conventional fungicides on potatoes so we can’t just keep the plants alive and “healthy” by pouring on more chemicals. We rely on biological controls that compete with the fungal spores (mainly early and late blight) and various bacteria that can attack the plants. They aren’t as effective per se as the commercial chemistry but combined with earliness, a healthy soil biome, and the application of foliar micronutrients we are able to harvest crops as big as the conventional growers but in a healthier more sustainable way. It’s taken us 25 years to perfect our techniques but we are now successful much more often than not. I would also just like to mention that the conventional “crop protectants” used are continuously being switched out for newer, less harmful alternatives and some of the very newest products actually meet organic standards. So at least the world of pesticides is moving in the right direction. Big companies like Bayer and Monsanto are pouring many millions of dollars into developing new, better alternatives then has been used in the past. That’s good news for everyone on the planet.
The how. We use a unit of measure to calculate the best amount of time to sprout the seed before it becomes counter productive and just weakens the seed and reduces yield in the end. That unit is “Growing Degree Days”. It is measured by taking the average of the day’s high and low temperature and subtracting five (5). When the accumulated degree days reach about 250 we need to remove the seed to somewhere cool so that it becomes partly dormant again. The seed just thinks the weather has turned cold again and it is waiting for the right conditions to grow. It is naturally evolved to do this.
Most farmers opt for artificial light to sprout potato seed. We don’t. We are running greenhouses anyway and the sunlight in a greenhouse is far superior to what can be produced artificially. On top of that, greenhouse plastic is engineered to produce what is known a 'diffuse light'. That just means that there will be virtually no shadows, allowing the light to penetrate the stacks of seed trays and prevent the seeds in the middle of the pile from producing long sprouts in search of light. We want sprouts as short as possible so that they won’t be broken off during the planting process. Another advantage of using a greenhouse is that the seed potatoes (that cover only about half of the greenhouse floor space) absorb vast amounts of heat during the day and release it at night resulting in a considerable savings in heating fuel. It’s like having 40 or 50,000 thousand pounds of porous water that air can travel through and exchange heat efficiently.
Generally the seed will be in the greenhouse for about two weeks and then planted or removed to cold storage depending on whether the fields are ready to go. For management reasons we don’t plant potatoes the very first day we can get on the fields in the spring like many farmers do. Our first priority is to get the carrots, beets and peas planted during our first window of opportunity and then potatoes in the next opportunity after that. We have found that the potatoes actually mature sooner if we wait just a bit for slightly warmer weather before we plant.
Keep eating your veggies.