I know, I know. I’m late on this post again. Think of it this way – my Farming in Focus post will just surprise you – you never know when it will show up! I have a really good reason for holding this post for almost a week, though. I was waiting for the pea harvest! The peas in my garden were getting pretty close to picking in May a few weeks ago, so I emailed a farmer friend who I know grows peas and said, “Hey, when do you guys harvest peas? I’d like to profile you for my May Farming in Focus!” Unfortunately, they weren’t harvesting peas, but they were getting ready to plan green beans, so I jumped at the opportunity to photograph some green beans going into the ground. I was all ahead of schedule with this post until I got an email just a few days before the end of the month that said, “We’re getting ready to harvest peas now!” So I decided to hold it to include some pea harvest photos (because… obviously that’s worth waiting for.) But then it rained, and rained, and rained some more. So we waited, and waited, and waited some more. Which is a good lesson about farming – you can’t control the weather. I took the pea harvest photos just yesterday. Hope you enjoy.
This month I visited Kirsch Family Farms in St. Paul, OR and met up with third generation farmer, Brenda Frketich.
Frketich and her family grow nine crops on a total of 1,000 acres. About 300 of those acres make up the home farm where Frketich’s parents live. Right down the road Frketich lives on 55 acres with her husband, Matt, and son, Hoot. Those nine crops include hazelnuts, ryegrass seed, tall fescue grass seed, green beans, peas, wheat, radish seeds, cabbage seeds and crimson clover seeds.
Until recently, Kirsch Family Farms only grew two crops: grass seed and hazelnuts. For years they did what a lot of farmers do – they regularly traded fields with neighboring farmers in order to rotate crops on the same land to preserve soil quality. But, as Frketich said, “Every farmer has their own way of farming,” and in order to maintain consistency in practice, they decided to learn how to grow their own rotation crops. Over recent years they’ve picked up seven additional crops that allow a rotation model they control. Frketich told me it’s definitely harder this way, and some of the rotation crops are riskier to grow, but it’s still better to not have all your eggs in one basket.
Frketich told me her favorite crop continues to be hazelnuts, even though for a long time her family wasn’t planting additional hazelnut trees because eastern filbert blight made it really difficult to grow them profitably. Eastern filbert blight is caused by a fungus that creates cankers and die back on branches and requires multiple fungicide applications to control. That changed when Oregon State University recently released a blight-resistant hazelnut tree. Now, as Frketich is doing, many Oregon hazelnut growers are planting new orchards once again.
As I drove to meet Frketich, I kept seeing fields of crimson clover dotted with tiny seedlings, and I could not figure out what was going on. It turns out that in the first few years while the hazelnut trees are getting established, farmers can grow crops in the rows between the trees. This makes total sense – the trees are not big enough yet to form a canopy and block the sunlight to the ground, but they must be planted far enough apart to accommodate their future growth leaving a bunch of open ground. That seemed so clever to me until Frketich told me that it’s actually more of a constant trade-off. Sometimes you want to spray to control weeds in the crimson clover but you’re limited in what you can apply and the timing of that application because it might damage the hazelnut trees, and vise versa. For these trees in the picture above, this will be the last year they grow side-by-side with any other crops.
There are only three crops Frketich grows to actually eat, and green beans are one of them (peas and hazelnuts are the other two). This year they are planting about 52 acres of green beans, split into two different plantings – one in May and one in June. Frketich told me this is basically to split the risk; the weather in Oregon is iffy this time of year and splitting the planting dates helps alleviate some of the risk associated with lack of control over the weather. They know the risk all too well. This year one of their pea fields got too much rain after planting and rotted in the ground. Fortunately, they were able to rent the land to a pumpkin grower, but that’s not always the case, and it’s a huge investment of time, labor and input cost to have that field not produce a crop. Before the green bean seeds even go into the ground, Frketich told me they’ve already been over this ground about 15 times. That includes passes to work the soil, and incorporate fertilizer, pre-emergent herbicides and moisture. I asked Frketich why they didn’t use a no-till approach with green beans and she told me no-till only works for some crops. Crops like green beans and cabbage need loose soil to establish a root structure, whereas crops like wheat don’t, but they do use a no-till approach when possible.
This is what a green bean seed looks like before it goes into the ground. Why is it pink? It has a seed treatment on it that helps protect the seed as it germinates and emerges. The planter creates a furrow in the ground and drops ten seeds per foot and then covers the furrow back up as it passes by. The green beans will emerge in about seven days.
While green beans are getting planted on one part of the farm, Frketich’s husband Matt is applying a fungicide to their grass seed fields on another part of the farm to treat for rust. You can see why it’s called rust – it looks just like metal rusting on the blade of grass. The fungus restricts nutrients that the plant needs to develop seeds, which is exactly the kind of thing a grass seed farmer doesn’t want. Kirsch Family Farms grows turf grass seed (as opposed to forage grass seed for animals). Most of the seed they grow ends up in residential use and golf courses.
I had never been on a sprayer before, so I was pretty excited when Matt agreed to let me climb up on the truck and go for a few passes with him. I was particularly impressed with the technology the truck uses to apply the fungicide. The GPS guided sprayer is so precise that it knows exactly where it’s already been, so even if you drive over the same area you’ve already sprayed, the “auto boom” feature will turn the sprayer off so you can’t over-spray. So I said to Matt, “You mean you could just drive around willy nilly all over the field and it would turn on and off as necessary so you’d never apply twice in the same spot?!” “Well, yes, you could do that,” he said. His tone told me that was probably the stupidest idea he’d ever heard, but I thought it sounded pretty fun. The truck also has auto-steer which means he doesn’t even need to touch the steering wheel on fields that are more or less rectangular.
I grow cabbage in my own garden, and most people know what a cabbage plant looks like, but I’ve never seen cabbage flower and go to seed. If you’re growing the crop to eat the cabbage, you don’t want it to bolt (produce a flowering stem) because it impacts the flavor of the cabbage. But when you’re specifically growing the plant for the seeds, that’s exactly what you want. Frketich told me they even split the cabbage heads to induce bolting.
Another thing I didn’t know is that cabbage seed production requires a pollinator. Sitting on the corner of this field of cabbage were about 40 bee hives that Frketich rents for the duration of the bloom on their 26 acres of cabbage. It’s a symbiotic relationship, the bees need the pollen and nectar to produce honey for the beekeeper, and Frketich needs the bees to pollinate the cabbage flowers so they get a good seed crop.
This is a pea harvester! Kirsch Family Farms has a contract with Norpac Foods, so all of the peas they grow end up in bags of Flav-R-Pac frozen peas. Norpac determines the variety of peas Frketich plants as well as the planting date so they can properly stagger all the harvesting contracts they have. When it’s time to harvest, Norpac sends out its team of harvesters operating on a 24-hour schedule. The workers put in 12-hour shifts from 7:00 to 7:00. In fact, the harvesters arrived on Frketich’s fields at 3:00 a.m. so by the time I got there Friday morning at 10:00, they had already moved on to the neighbor’s field. But, no matter, we just drove over to the neighbor’s farm to watch these bad boys harvest at one acre of peas per hour! The team operates four harvesters for a combined rate of four acres per hour.
That’s right, I climbed up on a moving pea harvester to get this shot! I could actually hear the pea pods crunching as I stood up there. Inside the harvester is a giant drum that spins and throws the pea pods against a screen to break open the pods and filter out the peas, leaving all the pods and plant material behind. I couldn’t help but marvel at the efficiency of this beast – imagine having to pick and shell all those peas by hand.
In the end, all that’s left behind on the field are the empty pea pods and plant material. Frketich has a nice trade set up with a cattle farmer – he comes and rakes up the leftover plant material and carries it off to feed his cattle. He gets the feed, and it cleans up the field for Frketich. She says she’s talked to other farmers who have tried not cleaning up the field, but the vines take so long to break down that you end up fighting them for a long time after the peas are gone.
I hope you learned something, because I sure did. And I had a blast climbing up on farm equipment! If you want to learn more about the trials and tribulations of Kirsch Family Farms – check out Frketich’s blog Nuttygrass.