Increased Profitability for Small Farms in Silicon Valley Through Year-Round Production of Baby Greens

Progress report for FW21-385

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2021: $23,204.00
Projected End Date: 12/01/2022
Host Institution Award ID: G334-21-W8613
Grant Recipient: Spade and Plow Organics LLC
Region: Western
State: California
Principal Investigator:
Sam Thorp
Spade and Plow Organics LLC
Expand All

Project Information

Summary:

Santa Clara County (SCC), home to 2 million people and the nation’s leading tech industries, was almost entirely made up of agricultural land less than 50 years ago. Over the last few decades, these areas have been purchased for urban development and, according to the Open Space Authority of Santa Clara County, “are considered extremely vulnerable to development over the next 30 years, with over 14,145 acres deemed at risk.” 

Santa Clara County (SCC), home to 2 million people and the nation’s leading tech industries, was almost entirely made up of agricultural land less than 50 years ago. Over the last few decades, these areas have been purchased for urban development and, according to the Open Space Authority of Santa Clara County, “are considered extremely vulnerable to development over the next 30 years, with over 14,145 acres deemed at risk.” 

Spade & Plow Organics is determined to lead the way for at-risk communities and farms who are navigating how to create sustainable and profitable production while staying in SCC. We are seeking to research how the fast crop of leafy greens can be grown year-round, doubling the production and quality, while using minimal acreage and labor costs. Leafy greens have posed a profitable solution to small and urban farms struggling to remain afloat. To expand this crop group's potential, we will test the utilization of insect netting in warm months to control pests, remay cloth in cold months to retain water and sunlight, and directly planting seeds into a thin layer of compost to increase yield, quality and decrease production cost. To track the progress of treated and untreated beds on a 2.75 acre plot, we will record weekly yield, percentage of crop with pest damage, total labor hours spent, and soil temperature. This information will be shared with SCC’s small farmer network, universities and news stations through an extensive report, workshops, volunteer days and ongoing farmer to farmer conversations.

 

 

 

Project Objectives:
  1. Establish and standardize a process for effective year-round leafy green production using a combination of seeding directly into compost, application of remay cloth and netting to create a cost effective and accessible recipe for small farm use.
  2. Track the quality and profitability of production and methods throughout the year.
  3. Evaluate and share information with Silicon Valley small and urban farms, active community supporters of small farms, and the larger community of California at-risk farmers. This will be done through workshops, presentations, volunteer days, and publishing a research report.
  4. Create an opportunity and network for small farms to continue profiting and growing as land becomes less available. According to the California Department of Food and Agriculture, "About 3.4 million acres of land in California's agricultural counties are now urbanized" and "Development is now consuming an average of about 40,000 acres of agricultural land per year." With shrinking land comes shrinking profit and a need to maximize space in a more sustainable way. By having a cost-effective, data backed solution available for other farms to model, they will be able to add on a group of high profit crops with less land required.
  5. Distribute weekly fresh produce to small farm supporters and families in low income communities. Spade & Plow Organics already has an existing successful Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program delivering over 700 boxes a week to local families. 200 of these homes are designated as living below the poverty line by California Census' Standard Poverty Measure and receive free weekly subsidized boxes paid for by the Farmers to Families Food Relief Program (FFFR) and other local non-profits. By increasing the year-round production of leafy greens, Spade & Plow will be able to include this healthy produce in consumer's weekly boxes, whereas we are currently only able to add it at certain times of year and in limited quantities.
  6.  

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Aparna Gazula, Ph.D - Technical Advisor
  • Jenn Smith (Educator)
  • Nick Thorp - Producer (Researcher)
  • Sam Thorp - Producer (Educator and Researcher)

Research

Materials and methods:

OBJECTIVE 1. We created a year-long sustainable planting schedule for leafy greens by testing a new compost application and use of remay cloth and insect netting. We also made the detailed schedule easily adaptable for other small farms. 

Materials: tractor and tractor implements, 7 varieties of seeds, 50 tons of compost, 3,000 feet of remay cloth, 3,000 feet of insect netting, soil thermometer, 2.75 acres, ground staples, sandbags

Methods: 

  1. On May 1, 2021, 2.75 acres of land was designated as the leafy green production research site(, this piece of land was located at the Van Dyke Ranch, our farm in Gilroy on Block F, the eastern center block on the ranch. 75% of the research zone (2.0625 acres) housed all 7 varieties of seeds being tested with remay, insect netting and top-compost application. The other 25% of the research zone (0.6875 acres) also housed all 7 varieties but will not receive the additional treatment. The 25% of untreated ground was on the East portion of block E, and on the same section for each bed to make application easier.  Before planting, 100% of the beds will be prepared with the following standardized measures A-E. 

A-Disc the field: Removed and mulch the previous crop. In this case the previous crops were radishes and head lettuce.

B-Rip the furrows: The furrows were ripped to help create better drainage in the soil. This practice was used to help create less standing water in the growing area, which leads to quality and yields issues in baby greens. 

C-Pre-irrigate: We then irrigated the field prior to planting to help bed prep and presprouting weeds to cut on overall weeding and sorting time. This practice was done for all planted ground treated or untreated. 

D-Mulch: Mulching breaks up the larger dirt clogs, forming an even uniform bed especially desirable for baby greens and an easy compost and remay application. Mulching helps for a more even and consistent seed distribution and better soil-to-seed contact resuliting in hirer germination rates and better spacing. 

E-Burn the bed: We used burning after mulching and additional irrigation. This helped us cut down on any additional weeding by allowing us to burn weeds at a very young stage. While not having disrupted the soil and activating more weed seeds. 

  1. After the above tasks, S&P completed the compost application, direct seeding, and weather protection described below in F-G. The actions took place on a 75% section of each bed. The remaining 25% of beds will not receive measures F-G and will solely be direct-seeded. See planting schedule and treated vs untreated bed feet below. 

 

F-Compost spreading and seeding: A thin one inch layer of compost was spread as evenly as possible across the top of each bed. Previously, S&P mulched the compost into the ground the same way all other commodity beds were prepared. Since baby greens have a shallow root system, their roots will not grow past this layer of compost. We expected this spreading to allow greater use of less compost and significantly improve weed pressure by up to 50%, improving quality and quickening the growth of leafy greens. Some of the in-field challenges that came up we’re due to inconsistent layering of compost. We saw many clumps and bare spots of ground. Some improvements were made to our compost spreader and changes to compost suppliers that made some improvements.  

G-Remay cloth/netting application: From November 15, 2021 through March 5, 2022 (crops 6-9), we applied remay cloth to beds to protect from frost and insects. This kept soil and plants warmer during the colder months and extend the planting season. We observed the remay cloth to add approximately 3-4 degrees to the bed and allowed water to go through and remain longer(See table below for temperature comparison below). Most notably we noted a change in harvest date, in some case a harvest day as much as 7 days earlier (See table for days to harvest comparison below). In-field challenges arrived in our region, where we see high winds in the afternoon, which cause rips and tears in the cloth, leaving exposed areas of the growing area, while also adding on additional repair and maintenance hours. We started tracking hours for repair and maintenance of remay cloth during the 2nd week of production ( See table for weekly labor hours records).

*Insect netting was be applied to plantings planted May 1, 2021 to September 11th, 2021 (crops 1-5). This allows sun and water to access the growing area, but keep out problematic warm weather pests like flea beetles. In field challenges that led to issues were the same as the remay cloth, although we saw less tearing or ripping with the insect netting, wind still left exposed areas of the growing area. We used several different application methods from tractor implants, ground staples and sand bags to limit issues. In order to track pest damage issues and insect netting effectiveness, we ran a visual evaluation with each harvest and rated pest damage based on total percentage of marketable yields.( See tables below for yields comparisons and pest damage scores )

Items A-G were recorded by producer Nick in the below chart from May 1, 2021 to March 5, 2022. A new chart will be created for each of the 9 crops. 

*Note: We found that crops in the warmer months will take 3-4 weeks and cooler months will take 5-6. (See GANTT chart for more details)   

OBJECTIVE 2:  Track the quality and cost of year-round leafy green production from bed prep through post-harvest on both treated and untreated beds.  

Materials: project economics spreadsheet

Methods: 

  1. Quantitative data was be collected weekly by Nick from treated and untreated beds. All data was input into excel ‘project economics’ spreadsheet below to determine cost of each variety during each season. This is a spreadsheet used for all S&P crops. Thus, certain categories listed are marked as $0 if they do not pertain to leafy green production. A separate project economics spreadsheet will be used for the 75% of treated beds and the 25% of untreated beds to compare results. 
  2. Along with the data above, Sam collected other weekly data from each crop ( treated and untreated) including soil temperature, insect damage, yields, quality issues, customer feedback and other weather related conditions.

OBJECTIVE 3:  Analyze the data collected to determine profitability for small farms 

Goal: To significantly increase yield, quality, and growing months with less than half the increase to labor costs and space 

Materials: none 

Methods: Every four months from the start day of May 1 2021, project team members will review the data collected in objectives #1 and #2. At each review, the following topics will be discussed and documented:

  1. What was the revenue from leafy greens this season and what was the cost put in? Compare data from the treated vs untreated beds.
  2. How much more labor was required for weeding on the untreated vs treated beds compared to the amount of additional time put in for compost, remay and insect netting application? 
  3. When remay cloth was used, what was the soil temperature of treated vs untreated beds?
  4. How much harvest from the treated vs untreated beds was considered unsellable due to insect or weather damage? 
  5. Were there any abnormal weather conditions or variables that could have significantly impacted the crop? (i.e. forest fires, early or late frost) 
  6. Is there any leafy green of the 7 varieties that seemed to produce more than the others or was more resistant to pest and/or weather damage?
  7. Compared to other non-leafy green commodities grown this season, what is the profit difference between those and leafy greens? Is the profit margin high enough with leafy greens to offset the cost of non-leafy green commodities?

Evaluation and review on May 1st 2021: 

  • We are finalizing beds for our first planting and do not have revenue, harvest or labor data for any of these questions. 

Evaluation and review on September 1st 2021: 

  1. Our average revenue per bed foot for this season for treated ground for 8.72 versus the untreated ground is 6.72. This difference, although significant did not make up for the difference with the additional maintenance, application, and material costs for the treated ground. We resulted in an average net difference of -$0.29 per bed foot. 
  2. An unexpected amount of time was needed for not only netting application but also maintenance. We saw significant damage and torn netting due to windy summer days and required daily maintenance to fix and repair, with an average of 8 hours a week for just netting. Labor differences for weeding were minimal if any. 
  3. With netting use, we actually saw a cooling effect, with 1-3 degree cooler temperatures where the netting was used. 
  4. Due to wind issues and maintenance/repair on netting, we noticed no difference between the treated and untreated areas when it came to insect damage. All of the harvests for this season for the baby kale and the mustard was considered unsellable due to insect damage. 
  5. No abnormal weather conditions. 
  6. The lettuce varietes performed very consistently. Spinach also performed well on the treated and untreated ground. Spinach saw the most significant yield increase on treated ground.  
  7. Leafy greens continued to make up a significant part of our overall sales at farmers' markets, the CSA program, and wholesale sales. Even with some challenges on kale and mustard, the profit margin was still significant enough to make up the difference for other commodities. 

Evaluation and review on January 1st 2022:

  1. Our average revenue per bed foot for this season for treated ground for 7.12 versus the untreated ground is 6.28. This difference, although significant did not make up for the difference with the additional maintenance, application, and material costs for the treated ground. We resulted in an average net difference of -$0.96 per bed foot. 
  2. An unexpected amount of time was again needed for remay application but also maintenance. We saw significant damage and torn remay due to windy days and required daily maintenance to fix and repair, with an average of 6 hours a week for just remay. Repair and maintance here was a little lower this season, due to lower wind speeds for the Fall season. Labor differences for weeding were minimal if any. 
  3. With remay use, we saw a warming effect, with 2-3 degree cooler temperatures where the remay was used. 
  4. Due to wind issues and maintenance/repair on netting, we noticed no difference between the treated and untreated areas when it came to insect damage. Only the harvests from later in the season on kale and mustard were considered sellable
  5. No abnormal weather conditions. 
  6. Spinach performed well on the treated and untreated ground again. Spinach saw the most significant yield increase on treated ground. Lettuce started to see some breakdown and quality issues this season, treated and untreated ground did not make a difference with these quality issues.   
  7. Leafy greens continued to make up a significant part of our overall sales at farmers' markets, the CSA program, and wholesale sales. Even with some challenges on kale and mustard, the profit margin was still significant enough to make up the difference for other commodities. 

Evaluation and  Review on May 1st 2022:

  1. Our average revenue per bed foot for this season for treated ground for 9.83 versus the untreated ground is 7.83. This difference, although significant did not make up for the difference with the additional maintenance, application, and material costs for the treated ground. We resulted in an average net difference of -$0.94 per bed foot. 
  2. An unexpected amount of time was again needed for remay application but also maintenance. We saw significant damage and torn remay due to windy days and required daily maintenance to fix and repair, with an average of 6 hours a week for just remay. Repair and maintance here was a little lower this season, due to lower wind speeds for the Winter season. Labor differences for weeding were minimal if any. 
  3. With remay use, we saw a warming effect, with 2-3 degree cooler temperatures where the remay was used. 
  4. Due to wind issues and maintenance/repair on netting, we noticed no difference between the treated and untreated areas when it came to insect damage. Because of the cooler temperatures through the Winter season, we saw no pest damage across any commodities.
  5. No abnormal weather conditions. 
  6. Spinach performed well on the treated and untreated ground again. Spinach saw the most significant yield increase on treated ground. Lettuce started to see some breakdown and quality issues this season, treated and the untreated ground did not make a difference with these quality issues. We saw a full season of harvestable yields on both kale and mustard, adding to the overall gross revenue of baby greens for the season. 
  7. Leafy greens continued to make up a significant part of our overall sales at farmers' markets, the CSA program, and wholesale sales. Even with some challenges on kale and mustard, the profit margin was still significant enough to make up the difference for other commodities.
Research results and discussion:

Yields and increased costs and time were all tracked on planting by planting basis. More details on individual planting can be viewed through the below good sheet: 

https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/10B_nfzJ780KxKnckf8-6u5zMxGmb0H_RZK-qnuwzqEg/edit?usp=sharing

Participation Summary
3 Producers participating in research

Research Outcomes

No research outcomes

Education and Outreach

6 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools

Participation Summary:

Education and outreach methods and analyses:

No outreach has been completed at this time. 

Education and Outreach Outcomes

1 Producers reported gaining knowledge, attitude, skills and/or awareness as a result of the project

Success Stories

No participants
Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.