Organic production methods for Belgian endive: Boosting small organic farmers’ winter income

Project Overview

FNE16-841
Project Type: Farmer
Funds awarded in 2016: $12,357.00
Projected End Date: 02/28/2018
Grant Recipient: Jade Family Farm
Region: Northeast
State: Pennsylvania
Project Leader:
James Eisenstein
Jade Family Farm

Annual Reports

Commodities

  • Vegetables: Belgian Endive

Practices

  • Crop Production: conservation tillage
  • Education and Training: demonstration, networking, on-farm/ranch research, workshop
  • Farm Business Management: cooperatives, marketing management
  • Pest Management: cultural control, flame, physical control
  • Production Systems: general crop production
  • Soil Management: organic matter, soil analysis

    Proposal summary:

    Small-acreage Northeast Organic farmers typically receive little income in the dead of winter. Witloof chicory, called Belgian Endive in the U.S., has the potential to generate winter sales. The roots of the plant are stored in a cooler after being harvested in the fall, and forced weekly to produce the high value Belgian Endive chicons prized by restaurant chefs and retail customers alike. We found no step-by-step instructions for farmers for commercial organic production of Belgian Endive. Though we received a good price from our organic producers’ co-operative ($1.60 per four ounce chicon in 2013) and it sold well at our indoor winter farmers market, hardly any farmers in the Northeast (or anywhere) take advantage of its marketing potential. Through careful documentation of each step outlined in Section 4 below, we will report our conclusions on how to organically produce this crop through on-farm workshops, conference presentations, and wide distribution of a “How to Grow Organic Belgian Endive in the Northeast” booklet. A SARE grant would permit us to focus attention both on organic growing and forcing techniques. It would build on four years of previous efforts to produce Belgian Endive, which were successful enough to conclude it’s feasible to generate winter income. We will grow two varieties and refine both soil-forcing and hydroponic-forcing techniques we experimented with previously. Drawing on the limited research on conventional production, we will be able to improve root and chicon production, including application of pressure by placing weight on growing chicons for higher quality

    Project objectives from proposal:

    Farm description

    Jade Family Farm, 11 years in business, produces certified organic vegetables and some tree fruit and berries. Located in Juniata County, Pennsylvania, it has about 125 acres stretching from a forested strip on the slopes of Tusarora Mountain down to the valley. About 10 acres are in vegetable production. We have a greenhouse for spring seedlings and three high tunnels (one awaiting assembly). We grow a variety of vegetables (tomatoes, lettuce, peppers, radishes, collards, kale, etc.). We sell to farmers markets in Hershey, Boalsburg, and State College, Pennsylvania and to the Tusarora Organic Growers co-operative. Our 100 member CSA delivers to Harrisburg and State College. John Eisenstein farms full time, with assistance from other members of his family. He writes and speaks well. His father, James Eisenstein, a retired Penn State professor who helped write this proposal, works about three days a week and his mother helps in the packing room, does some harvesting, and sells at two farmers markets. James has written a number of books, articles, and reports and is willing and able to produce the “how to” booklet. Jade Family Farm has a website, jadefamilyfarm.com, and a face book page (jadefamilyfarm). On Nov. 15th, 2014, Pennsylvania’s leading agricultural newspaper, Lancaster Farming, published a profile of John Eisenstein (http://www.lancasterfarming.com/Organic-Growers-Seek-Strength-Through-Diversity) that describes his operation and his commitment to sustainable agriculture. Like most small organic family farms in central Pennsylvania, the farm just about breaks even. The winter months, especially January through early March are difficult financially given very little income. There is little work to do then, so there is time available to produce chicons. This would make a direct and important contribution to the sustainability of the farm, as it would for other organic farmers who would be able to do the same.

    Project Objectives

    For some small organic farms, winter income can be supplemented by relying on the information about how to grow Belgium Endive successfully that we will develop and make available The potential for generating income by selling it is promising. It is harvested when very few local greens exist. Adele Sofia Gemignani, National Produce Purchasing Manager for Albert’s Organics (the largest seller), emailed us that “Only a few growers that I know of grow Belgium Endive organically.“ Domestic grows enjoy a price advantage over imports. Our previous efforts found eager customers at our indoor winter farmers market, and the sales manager at the organic co-op to which we belong, Tusarora Organic Growers (TOG), informed us that Four Seasons, an organic wholesaler in Ephrata, Pennsylvania, charged wholesale customers $51.50 for a 24 count box of chicons. At the going rate of 70% of the wholesale price going to growers, this would come to $38.63 for 24 chicons, $1.61 each, or about $6.40 a pound. TOG told us that they would “sell like hotcakes,” and that they could move 10 boxes @24 per box a week. For the 2400 roots we plan to grow, wholesale income generated would approach $3,800.

    Methods

    We found no methods described for organic production, and descriptions of conventional methods call for using inputs prohibited for organic production, and also disagree on important details. We will strive to adhere to our project design as closely as possible, recognizing some changes are inevitable. We incorporate both hydroponic and soil-based forcing techniques. Hydroponic growing produces higher quality chicons, but it is easier for many growers to implement soil-forcing methods. Raised beds make for better growing and harvesting. Our raised beds are 30 inches wide and 200 feet long. Planting the rows four inches from the edge will allow for 22” between rows, well within the recommended 15” to 24” range. With a total of 800 feet of linear row, 3 plants per foot, we should harvest about 2400 roots. Two varieties will be seeded using a precision seeder randomly in blocks 50’ long at the rate of 14 seeds per foot. Too much nitrogen results in big leaves and small roots. We will add (organically approved) nitrogen carefully, plus phosphorus, potassium, and trace elements, and adjust pH to 5.5-6.5. We will plant Totem non-GMO organic seed from High Mowing seeds. Tan and Corey, HortScience 25 (11) recommend Faro for hydroponic forcing. We are searching for a source, but may have to substitute another variety. Belgian Endive germinates in soil temperatures of 50 degrees F or higher. We’ll test using a soil thermometer before planting, keep seed beds moist during germination, and thin seedlings to about 4” between plants. We will flame-weed once prior to emergence and hand- weed three times. Estimates of time to harvest range from 90 to 140 days. Planting too early reduces germination rates, risks fall bolting, and can lead to roots too big for optimum production. Given our average first frost date the first week of October, and assuming a 120 day growing period, we will sow 17 weeks before frost in early June (soil temperature permitting). Roots less than 0.6 inches in diameter will be discarded. Optimum root diameter is 1.5”, with 1.25”- 2” or even 2.25” acceptable. To test maturity, we will cut several roots vertically and look for the white tissue below the crown to be ¼” – 3/8” in diameter. Harvested roots will be handled carefully, and will remain in the field for 4 to 5 days protected from the sun and frost with straw. Leaves will be trimmed to about 1” from the crown and roots to about 8”, then placed unwashed and separated by variety in our cooler at just above 32 degrees with 96% to 98% humidity. Roots can be stored up to 14 weeks. We will begin weekly forcing in mid-December for 12 weeks, the last begun at the end of February. Since some roots won’t be suitable, the following estimates are approximate. Four hundred roots will be forced in a 1:1 sand/compost mix, 200 of each variety, following the methods described by Maynard and Hill, “How to Grow Belgian Endive in Connecticut”: roots will be closely packed, the 8” trimmed roots buried up to the crowns, and watered till thoroughly moist. Four square foot wooden boxes, 8” deep will be planted at the rate of about 2.45 sq inches per root, easily accommodating 200 roots per box. We will then cover the box with reemay row cover, to shield the growing chicons from 6” of insulation placed on the reemay, then plywood, then sand bags sufficient to apply one pound of pressure per root. The insulation keeps the soil a little warmer, and the pressure produces higher quality chicons. Forcing room air temperature will be between 55 and 65 degrees, 4 to 8 degrees higher than soil temperature, and air humidity kept at 90%. The remaining 2000 roots will be forced hydroponically, again with air and hydroponic solution temperatures as above. We tried hydroponic forcing in early 2014 using crude methods. Our technical advisor is familiar with hydroponic techniques, and we will rely on her advice in designing a low-cost hydroponic system. We aim to harvest 200 chicons per week for 12 weeks. Growing medium and air temperatures and the method of applying pressure to the growing chicons will mirror what is described above for soil based forcing. Nutrients will be added to water consistent with organic standards Outcome measures. COSTS: We will record in the “project record notebook” expenditures for seeds, organically approved amendments, materials to insulate the forcing room and construct the racks and boxes used to produce chicons, hydroponic equipment, a heater for the forcing room, boxes for storing roots and for packing chicons for market, and other miscellaneous outlays. We will photocopy and distribute a “How to grow organic Belgian in the Northeast” booklet. LABOR: We will record how long we spent on every step of the production process, from ordering seeds to delivery of chicons for market, as well as time spent in outreach. ROOT PRODUCTION: For each variety grown, number of seedling germinated per row foot, total weight of roots produced, percent of usable roots (1.25 – 2.25” diameter), and total weight of usable roots. Each of the preceding measurements will be calculated per square foot of growing bed. CHICON PRODUCTION: For each variety, total weight of harvested chicons per pound of root, total weight of marketable chicon per pound of root and percent of weight of harvested chicons that are of marketable quality. INCOME PRODUCED: For each variety, total income for market and wholesale sales, , income per pound of harvested root, income per pound of usable root, income per pound of harvested chicons, and income per foot row of plants The production and income measures will be compared to comparable data found in academic studies of conventional Belgian endive production as a baseline. OUTREACH: The number of requests for the “how to” booklet mailed and distributed at workshops and demonstrations, number of attendees at on-farm demonstration workshops, number of attendees at conference workshops; number of farms we know of planning to grow Belgian Endive.

    Timetable

    In March, 2016, we will order our seed (High Mowing has organic seed for the Totem variety; we will search for “Faro”, and if unsuccessful substitute another variety). In April we will make the two raised planting beds using equipment we already own have (and used successfully for two years), test and amend the soil as indicated, fertilize as needed, and prepare the beds for seeding, Seeding will occur in early June after testing for soil temperature above 50 degrees. Belgian Endive germinates relatively slowly, so we will be able to flame-weed the beds before the seedlings emerge. After germination, we’ll install drip irrigation along each row. Seedlings will be thinned to four inches apart when they are 2” to 3” high. We will monitor weed growth and cultivate and hand weed three times before harvest when needed. Harvest will occur in early to mid October, using the same implement that we used very successfully on carrots in 2014 and 2015. We will trim the roots to 8”. After curing in the field (protected from the sun to prevent drying out), we will carefully pack the roots in boxes for storage in our cooler by the end of October… After our fall harvesting ends and before forcing begins in January, 2016, we will renovate and better insulate our existing forcing room, construct the wooden boxes to be used for soil forcing, construct the racks that will hold both these boxes and the hydroponic forcing units, and in consultation with our technical advisor, design the hydroponic forcing system and purchase the necessary supplies (a pump, water temperature controls, containers, tubing, etc.). In late December, we will prepare our sand/peat soil forcing mixture and set up our hydroponic system. We plan to begin forcing in early January, one batch per week for 12 weeks to insure a continuous supply. We will keep careful track of which varieties are forced when and in which locations. When the chicons are ready for harvest each week, we will trim them, pack, weigh, and transport them to our organic wholesaler or winter farmers market. At some point during the forcing process, we will offer an on-farm workshop publicized by the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA). At the completion of the forcing process in March, 2017, we will analyze the outcome data gathered throughout the process (described in the previous section) and write our booklet, “How to Grow Organic Belgian in the Northeast” for distribution using the outreach plan outlined in the next section. From that point on, until we present our workshop at the Feb., 2018 PASA conference, we will continue to distribute the results through our outreach plan. Of course, we will also submit annual reports and the final report as SARE requires. Our Technical Advisor usually organizes an organic session at the Mid-Atlantic Fruit and Vegetable Convention (mafvc.org), which attracts 1500 fruit and vegetable growers, and she has already invited us to present our findings in 2017 or 2018.

    Outreach plan

    We will write and distribute a detailed “How to grow organic Belgian in the Northeast” in both printed and electronic form. We will offer it to the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA) and other organic associations in the Northeast (MOFGA, NOFA, Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Working Group) for posting on their website and inclusion in their other distribution channels. John Eisenstein is a board member of the Tusarora Organic Growers Association, and will make the booklet available to other members of the co-op. Since he knows most of them, and lives close to them, these organic farmers should be especially interested in growing Belgian Endive. We will also offer both on and off-farm workshops publicized through PASA, as well as present at the aforementioned Mid-Atlantic Fruit and Vegetable Convention. We have already participated in workshops at PASA’s annual conference and will propose offering a workshop at the 2018 PASA conference. We have already received email confirmation from the PASA conference organizer that the idea sounded great and that PASA would certainly consider scheduling it. We will consider presenting workshops in other states and through other organizations as our schedule permits. We will print enough copies of “How to grow organic Belgian in the Northeast” to hand them out at workshops and mail them for the cost of postage to anyone who requests one. This offer will be announced through the sustainable agriculture organizations (such as PASA) listed above.

     

     

    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.