Progress report for FNC18-1129
Mad Farmers Collective is a relatively-small, but highly-productive market farm located in downtown Indianapolis, that has been in operation for nine years. The farm is owned and operated by three farmers, with the assistance of one full time employee and one part-time seasonal employee. The vegetables are sold at a local farmers market (from March through December), and to 5-10 local restaurants and stores nearly every week of the year. In general, the farm is known for its salad greens, root vegetables, tomatoes, and a wide variety of specialty roots and greens that are marketed, primarily, to local restaurants.
The farm consists of approximately 1.5 acres, nearly all of which is cultivated. We use a permanent bed system, which allows us to keep tillage to a minimum. We grow year-round, with the aid of multiple caterpillar tunnels (4 14'x50' tunnels) and high tunnels (4 14'x48' and 1 30'x48'). Nearly every bed is cropped multiple times in a season, which encourages us to manage the soil as sustainably as possible. This also encourages us to rotate crops as frequently as possible, and to pay close attention to soil quality and maintenance.
While the farm is not certified organic, we have followed organic standards since the beginning, prioritizing good soil management practices to maintain fertility and the use of crop rotations and physical barriers for pest pressure reduction. In general, these efforts have been largely successful and harvests continue to be solid and plant health continues to be substantial.
In addition to the aforementioned sustainable practices described above, we have also made a concerted effort to create substantial habitat for beneficial insects. This includes having the farm bordered by a combination of native plants/flowers, berries, fruit trees, and cut flowers. We also maintain several hives around the farm - the honey harvest is modest, pollination assistance is the priority.
We continue to explore ways in which to make such a small space as financially-productive as possible, without sacrificing the ecological health of the space. We have not figured out the answer to this particular dilemma, but we feel that our prioritization of sustainable soil management and substantial crop diversity have provided an excellent starting part in this endeavor.
Small-scale market growers are increasingly interested in the opportunities that exist within salad greens production. The attraction is obvious: they are a quick-growing crop that does not take up significant physical space; they are an accessible market product, in regards to customer familiarity and preferences; and, if grown well, the greens can be sold for a premium.
One of the surest ways for a farm to realize the full financial benefits of salad green production is to insure that the entire process is pursued as efficiently as possible. Even if the bed preparation, crop care, and harvesting are completed easily and quickly, it is easy for those efficiencies to be lost in the processing stage – the harvest tote might be incorrectly sized for the task, small batch washing might be too time consuming, and the resources devoted to salad green processing might negatively impact the processing of other crops.
This project focuses on the processing end of salad green production – designing a wash station that is affordable for new and small farms – one that incorporates tools and layout design for an efficient work flow and minimum time burden, while also maintaining a high bar for vegetable cleanliness and shelf life.
- Identify the tools and wash station layout that will improve the processing of salad greens for restaurant and farmers market customers.
- Build a model wash station for small farm salad green production.
- Compare the time and spatial burdens of this new wash station with the farm’s previous practices through worker feedback and time monitoring of relevant tasks.
- Share findings (feedback and time monitoring, in addition to wash station implements and design) through field days and website and social media.
We will do multiple timed comparisons of the salad greens washing/drying process in order to have a decent idea of the effect the new salad greens wash station has on the efficiency of that part of the farm’s operation.
We will also interview participants to get a better sense of what, if any, qualitative differences exist between the two washing/drying processes.
Finally, we will assess the quality of the leaves after each process and compare their appearance and overall quality.
Since we have not yet completed the wash station, we have nothing to report for this section.
Educational & Outreach Activities
In our initial grant proposal, we described hosting an on-farm workshop where we would discuss the components of our new salad greens wash station, as well as our experiences related to the SARE application process, the wash station design choices, and how the wash station fits within the overall workings of the farm. We are excited to say that, largely due to momentum from the SARE grant, we are now offering two on-farm wash station workshops, and have been able to develop a closer working relationship with local and statewide Purdue Extension representatives.
In a week, we will be hosting a farm tour and workshop about wash station design and operation, in collaboration with Purdue Extension-Marion County. The event organizers from Extension were encouraged by our SARE grant, and were looking for a suitable host site for this particular topic/workshop. We are excited to be able to be able to walk participants through our current wash station, while also describing the ways in which the salad greens-specific wash station will, hopefully, improve the overall flow and efficiency of post-harvest cleaning and processing. It is unlikely that this tour would have happened if it were not for the SARE grant, and the momentum that it provided for us to re-imagine and improve our current wash station set-up.
We are also planning on hosting a farm tour and workshop later in the fall in collaboration with the Hoosier Young Farmers Coalition. This event will be more focused on reaching small and mid-sized farms in central Indiana (the event with Purdue Extension-Marion County will primarily be serving backyard gardeners and small hobby farmers). By that point, the wash station expansion will be completed and we will be able to clearly demonstrate to attendees how the individual components work, and how the general wash station area functions on a day-to-day basis. As part of this event, we will be joined by James Scott Monroe, a statewide educator with Purdue Extension focusing on food safety. We first met Mr. Monroe last year, when we invited him and another statewide Extension educator, Michael O’Donnell, out to the farm to discuss wash station improvements and food safety considerations. Mr. Monroe was so encouraged by this visit, that he decided to conduct his own research into ‘bubbler’ water tank effectiveness. He will be presenting his findings at this fall workshop.
While the wash station expansion has yet to be fully-completed, it has been encouraging to see how the SARE grant has prompted us to take active steps to improve our farm’s operation and, possibly more meaningfully, reach out and develop relationships with farm-focused organizations and groups that can help disseminate the information while also conducting their own, parallel research and technical assistance.
Our work has been delayed over the last eight months, due to the fact that we lost the lease to one of our farming sites. Moving tools and materials off of that particular site was a substantial burden. However, we were able to build the basic structure of the wash station, consisting primarily of a 10’x20′ lean-to roof. We are in the process of building out the tables and shelving for the space, and will follow that with the construction and installation of a bubbler tank for the washing the salad greens, in addition to modifying a washing machine to act as a large salad spinner.
In spite of the construction delays, we have continued to research materials and layout considerations in anticipation of continuing the construction of the wash station. One way we have done this is by reaching out to Purdue University Extension Service (specifically, Michael O’Donnell and James Scott Monroe, two statewide Extension Educators focused on organic vegetable production and food safety, respectively). We have gained a better sense of food handling standards that we should be sure to incorporate into our new wash station, and we have encouraged these two Educators to explore salad greens handling and processing more fully.
We are excited to complete the construction and finally be able to put this wash station addition into use. At the moment, the clearest lesson we have learned is how important it is to intentionally set aside time for these sorts of projects. Too often, the daily requirements of the farm consume all of the available time in a day. We have had to work hard to carve out time specifically for this project. The end result will be worth it, but it has been a reminder of how important it is to set firm deadlines and, most importantly, to allot adequate time and resources so that those deadlines can be met.
We have not yet completed this project, so the final outcomes of it are not yet known.