Wednesday, April 25, 2007

A fourth greenhouse growing herbs?

I didn’t post last week because Chuck and I were involved in deep negotiations with a young man named Bjorn. He is from Sweden and is a health food addict. He loves to cook wholesome, mostly organic food, using fresh herbs and spices. He noticed our three greenhouses driving by and he came in to see what we were growing.

Our greenhouse number one grows nothing but butter lettuce. We harvest 400 heads of crisp, tasty lettuce each day and deliver them the same day to local grocers. Greenhouse number two produces 600 heads of robust pak choi each day, which is delivered along with the lettuce. Finally, greenhouse number three was designed to grow 600 heads of Red Sails and Green Ice specialty lettuce, ones with the crinkly leaves.

Bjorn said that was all well and good, but warned us against putting all our future into our conviction that the lettuce market will stay healthy forever. “I used to grow nothing but hydroponic lettuce in Sweden, until some multinationals set up a hydro-lettuce growing operation just across the highway from my location. I had two greenhouses, so they built four giant ones. That’s when I looked around for something else to grow.”

It took him forty days to go from seed to harvest, since his operation wasn’t fully automated. He figured out that if he started growing herbs instead of lettuce, he could produce 5000 herbs per day, instead of the 800 heads of lettuce he was growing and harvesting each morning in his two greenhouses.

When you consider that pre-packaged small bunches of herbs sell for a higher price than a head of lettuce, the decision to switch made sense. Chuck thought about this for a moment, then bombarded Bjorn with questions. He wanted to know every single detail about the operation. How many people did he need to harvest and package the herbs? Three full-time employees, was the answer.

Did her use an organic fertilizer? No, because Bjorn is convinced that plants absorb inorganic nutrients, even from organic fertilizers. By feeding them inorganic nutrients to begin with, he’s just saving some time that it takes an organic fertilizer to break down into inorganic components.

We were glad to have found a like-minded person, who understood that our basic ferts, Advanced Nutrients Micro and Grow, were just as healthy for growing our vegetables, as any high-priced organic product. The expertly designed macro and micro nutrients in two-parts of the very popular hydro three-part (we don’t use Bloom because we don’t want our lettuce to go to flower and seed) provide our leafy crops with just the right nourishment to grow into large and beautiful salad ingredients.

Chuck and I showed Bjorn around our specialty lettuce operation, and he was really impressed with our Nutrient Pond. “We use a different hydroponic method. Our herbs grow in Styrofoam blocks, just like your lettuce, but the blocks are then placed in a long, u-shaped receptacle. These receptacles are designed to move smoothly along much narrower canals than your pond. The roots hang down into the space under the receptacles, which is flushed once every ten minutes with a recycled nutrient solution.

“Herbs get water stressed easily, so this way the roots never hang in water for too long. It’s almost like a combination hydroponic/aeroponic system. The roots breathe in between flushes—they appreciate these periods of oxygenation. Every two weeks the nutrient solution is discarded and the system of canals is flushed with plain water for a day."

“This cleansing with plain water is necessary to prevent diseases and allows the plants to concentrate essential oils,” explained Bjorn. “These oils are responsible for the strong taste and fragrance of my herbs.”

We told Bjorn about Sensi Cal Grow which ensures that our lettuce will always be crunchy and fresh, and Sweet Leaf, which is an Advanced Nutrients product designed to enhance the taste and fragrance of each plant. “The berry sugars and amino acids in Sweet Leaf load up the cells of the lettuce with carbohydrates, which in turn get rid of that slightly bitter taste that untreated lettuce sometimes has,” said Chuck.

We were reluctant to use Sweet Leaf, at first, since it is normally used during the flowering stage of plant growth. However, we tried it and it works equally well during the vegetative stage of our lettuce by enhancing the production of fragrant oils that in turn make our lettuce sweet and irresistible.

“And even though we use a synthetic base fertilizer, we do add an organic touch by using three Grandma Enggy products: Fulvic Acid, Humic Acid, and Seaweed Extract. The first two re-create that rich, black, organic topsoil that grew all those tasty vegetables in our grandparents’ day.”

Bjorn lifted out one of our Styrofoam squares with a Red Sails lettuce plant in the middle and had a horrified expression on his face when he looked at the black roots. “This would not be good for my herbs,” he said with a sigh. "We package them in hard plastic containers, with their white roots intact. If we allowed them to become black, we would lose half our customers.”

I explained that we cut the roots off at harvest time, so for us having the rich, black, organic Humic Acid coloring our nutrient solution is no problem. “You could always just use Golden Honey Fulvic Acid by itself,” I said, “and still get good results.”

“You can also use Mother Earth Super Tea Grow for that organic touch. It is a great complement to synthetic fertilizers, because even though you’re right that plants absorb inorganic nutrients even from organic fertilizers, there is something to be said for those age-proven organic ingredients that add something extra to any vegetable.”

“What herbs are the most popular?” asked Chuck, and I could see that he was already building the fourth greenhouse in his imagination. "Marjoram, Mint, Oregano are all popular, but Basil sales account for 40% of our profits. Lately, we have grown a lot of Cilantro, since the local Italian community has increased its demand for this herb."

“How long does it take to go from seed to harvest?” I asked. “Anywhere from 28 days to 42 days, depending on the specific herb. Our crops mature 25% faster than herbs grown in soil. Thanks for telling me about your plant nutrients. When I go back to Sweden, I must order some samples from Advanced Nutrients.”

We told Bjorn that the company’s online store would make that easy. “Be sure to contact the very helpful tech guys at Advanced Nutrients,” we told him. It’s a toll-free call and when you’re on their website, check out the Advancedpedia and the Nutrient Calculator, as well. They are very useful tools in deciding how to put together the perfect diet for whatever you grow.”
Bjorn thanked us and handed Chuck his business card. “If you ever want to get into the herb growing business, give me a call. I’m always looking to partner up with bright, enterprising young men, such as yourselves,” said Bjorn, with a charming Swedish accent. I knew that it wouldn’t be too long before Chuck would be dialing Bjorn’s cell phone number.

And so he did, and now we’re knee-deep in negotiations. Stay tuned to this blog for further developments.

posted by silvio @ 9:29 PM   0 comments

Thursday, April 12, 2007

The Path of Specialty Lettuce, Part Two

On Day 11 of the growth process of our Specialty Lettuce, the day temperature of our 5500 square foot greenhouse is set at 24º C (75º F) from eight in the morning to six at night. Just before our day staff leave at 6pm each night, the temperature in the greenhouse automatically drops to 19º C (65º F).

Our three greenhouses are set to run automatically, but we still have an employee on duty at night to make sure that all goes smoothly. Chuck and I often drop in at night in order to safeguard our investment.

All of the Red Sails and Green Ice plants in our Specialty Lettuce greenhouse have been moved to the Nutrient Pond by Day 11. The nutrient solution in the pond consists of purified water with our main fertilizers, Advanced Nutrients Grow and Micro, as well as all the additives, supplements, and root colonizers called for by the Nutrient Calculator on that company’s website.

The pH of the Nutrient Pond should always measure 5.8. If there is any deviation, a valve opens on a side tank and small amounts of pH Up or pH Down are added to the Pond, depending on which way the correction is required.

The total dissolved solids (TDS) of the solution is 1200 parts per million (PPM), or 1.71 EC. To give you an idea of quantities, our Nutrient Pond contains 2000 Liters of liquid. Dissolved in the solution are 3200 mL of Micro, 3200 mL of Grow, 4500 mL of Mother Earth Super Tea Grow, 2500 mL each of Humic Acid and Fulvic Acid, 12500 mL of B-52, 374 mL of Barricade, 20000 mL of Scorpion Juice (once every three weeks), 12500 mL of SensiZym, and during week 11 and 12 only 600 grams each of Piranha and Tarantula, topped off by 3000 mL of Voodoo Juice.

When we stop adding the root colonizers, we adjust the quantities of the other ingredients accordingly, to maintain a uniform ppm level. We also add Sensi Cal Mg Grow, which completes the total dissolved solids picture.

We never add Bloom into the mix, since we don’t want our lettuce to bolt and go into flower and seed production. Just to refresh your memory, on Day 11 our Specialty Lettuce plants are situated in the middle of Styrofoam squares that are floated on our Nutrient Pond.

By Day 18, the leaves of our lettuce plants have grown to cover most of the Styrofoam floaters. The roots have grown into the solution extensively (especially after being treated with the root colonizers) and the surface of the Pond is entirely covered with either green or green with red borders heads of lettuce.

By Day 21 the lettuce leaves are overlapping and re-spacing is necessary. Additional Styrofoam squares are added as spacers in between the head of lettuce on the Pond, to reduce the number of plants from 90 per square meter to 35 per square meter.

By Day 32 the Pond is completely covered with lettuce plants, but the leaves are not overlapping and there is adequate room for each plant to develop to its fullest capacity.

Day 40 is Harvest Day, and each head of Specialty Lettuce should weigh 5 oz. (150 grams). These last days of growth will eventually be reduced so that it will take 35 days from seed to harvest, rather than the 40 that it will take initially.

Harvesting will take place early in the morning to take advantage of the cool temperatures, and the 600 heads of leaf lettuce per day will be packaged and stored in the harvest room of the greenhouse, in which the temperature is kept at 0º Celsius. The cooling will ensure that the lettuce will stay crisp and crunchy, until it gets to market.

We store our lettuce in polyethylene head wraps that have ventilation holes in them so the plants can breathe. The individual heads are carefully placed in boxes and taken to local supermarkets as quickly as possible. So the lettuce that we pick in the morning will be on neighboring store shelves after lunch.

It is important to market freshly picked lettuce the same day, even though with cooling and proper storage Red Sails and Green Ice lettuce can stay fresh for 3 or 4 days. With consumers becoming ever more conscious of healthy eating, we pride ourselves on delivering fresh, crunchy, extremely tasty produce from our hydroponic Nutrient Pond to your table as quickly as possible.

Lettuce should never be stored with apples, pears, tomatoes or other produce that give off ethylene. Ethylene can cause russet spotting on midribs of lettuce leaves. A great trick for reviving slightly wilted lettuce is to place it in ice water. This treatment will restore its freshness and crunchiness.

One of the reasons that our lettuce is so crunchy is because we feed both our Specialty Lettuce and our Butter Lettuce with the micronutrients of Sensi Cal Mg Mix Grow. Calcium is the secret ingredient in lettuce crunchiness, and Magnesium is necessary for the absorption of Calcium.

Sensi Cal Grow has Amino Chelated Calcium, which is the highest quality available and is readily absorbed by our lettuce plants. But it also has four other forms of Calcium (Calcium Acetate, Calcium Chelate, Calcium Nitrate, and Calcium EDTA), as well as compounds of Boron, Cobalt, Copper, Iron, Manganese, Molybdenum, Zinc, and the aforementioned Magnesium.

This full spectrum of micronutrients means that there is no lockout of Calcium or Magnesium. The ingredients of Sensi Cal Grow are all pharmaceutical grade precursors and reagents, as well as high quality chelators. It is the best quality product of its kind on the market.

Calcium is essential for both humans and plants. Our Butter Lettuce has benefited from our use of Sensi Cal Grow for a number of years, and now our Specialty Lettuce can look forward to a crunchy future, thanks to this excellent Advanced Nutrients product.

posted by silvio @ 5:08 PM   1 comments

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

From Seed to Salad: the Path of Specialty Lettuce

Our Specialty Lettuce greenhouse functions much the same way as our Boston Lettuce operation, except that right now it will take forty days to go from seed to salad, using the Controlled Environment Agriculture model.

This tried-and-true system was designed by a professor at Cornell University—in upstate New York—in order to be able to bring crisp, crunchy lettuce to your table year round.

The Cornell model produces 1,000 heads of lettuce per day. Our more modest operation on a slightly smaller scale will have an output of 600 heads of specialty lettuce each and every day, 365 days a year.

A special area of our 5500 square foot greenhouse is dedicated to seed germination. An automatic seeding machine places one seed each into 10 plug trays of 100 plugs each. (The reason we start off with 1,000 potential plants, instead of 600, is to allow for attrition and the selection process that takes place later.)

The trays are misted with water to soak the media thoroughly then they are placed in the ebb and flow bench. Here they are periodically flooded with a very mild solution of Advanced Nutrients Scorpion Juice (to impart induced systemic resistance to pathogens and pests), as well as Organic B, which gives them a boost of B vitamins for stress relief.

This sub-irrigation is only for a quarter of an hour, every 12 hours. It is important not to over-water the trays at this point, but the plugs should not be allowed to dry out completely either, since that will also kill the seeds.

Lighting is provided by fluorescent tubes and is on 24 hours, at the strength of 50 micromoles per square meter. The temperature of the germination room is set at 20º C (68º F) and the seed trays are equipped with plastic humidity covers to maintain the high level of humidity required for germination.

A half-strength solution of our base fertilizers (Grow and Micro) is added to the sub-irrigation water 24 hours after sowing. The EC of the water is set at 1.71, or 1200 ppm. The pH is adjusted to 5.8 pH, with the possible addition of Advanced Nutrients pH Up or pH Down.

Since the day of sowing is considered Day 0, this is actually Day 1. The temperature is raised to 25º C (77º F) and the lighting is increased to 250 micromoles per square meter. Sub-irrigation continues for 15 minutes every 12 hours, for the first six days.

The humidity covers are removed on Day 2. The seeds have germinated (hopefully) and the radicle root has started to penetrate the soil of the plug. The high humidity levels for the first two days of seeding were maintained to ensure that the seeds would not dry up. This is also why low light levels were maintained during day 0.

No matter how accurate the seeding machine is, double seedlings are sure to happen, so on Day 3 these are removed to guarantee a uniform crop. Consistent environmental conditions are absolutely essential at this stage.

Seedling selection takes place on Day 5, and this is a labor intensive process. Seedling are judged by the size of their first leaves. Those inordinately large, as well as those too small, are discarded. We are prepared to discard 20-30% of the seedlings at this time.

On Day 6 the seedlings have grown to a sufficient size to require more frequent feeding/watering. The ebb and flow sub-irrigation system is set to flood the trays for 15 minutes, every 6 hours (four times per day).

From Day 6 to Day 11 the seedlings are allowed to grow in the trays, with the roots coming out the bottom of the plugs. The leaves eventually start overlapping, which is a sign that it’s time for transplanting.

At this time, our seedlings are treated with No Shock and Jump Start, which are Advanced Nutrients products specifically designed to reduce the shock of transplanting and give a boost to the young plants so that they are able to thrive in a new setting.

Transplanting normally takes place right after a sub-irrigation interval, to ensure that the seedlings to not get desiccated during transfer. Also, one has to be very careful with the exposed roots.

The seedling plugs are placed into pre-cut squares in Styrofoam floaters and placed on the Nutrient Pond. The Pond contains a pre-mixed solution of our base fertilizers, Micro and Grow, as well as vitamin and growth supplements and root colonizers, that are designed to nourish each seedling so that it can grow into the healthiest, crispiest head of lettuce possible.

The ingredients in our nutrient solution include Sensi Cal Mg Mix Grow, since research has indicated that lettuce plants not only require extra Calcium to ensure that crunchy texture, but also Magnesium to facilitate the absorption of the Calcium. The synergistic effects of these two elements play a vital role in plant growth.

At this point our specialty lettuce seedlings are introduced to Piranha, Tarantula, and Voodoo Juice. No, we’re not shooting a horror movie, these are very effective root colonizers made by Advanced Nutrients.

Used at half-strength in a hydroponic situation, these phenomenally effective products permeate the roots of our lettuce with beneficial fungi, bacteria, and microbes respectively. Their presence not only ensures root growth, but it also wards off harmful fungi, bacteria, and microbes, as well as facilitates nutrient absorption.

It’s all right to use Piranha, Tarantula, and Voodoo Juice at full strength in soil, but in a hydro grow it is advisable to cut back to half the suggested strength. The living organisms in these products do their job so enthusiastically, that they might multiply so fast that your roots are overwhelmed.

We had this happen with our Boston Lettuce crop. I noticed that the roots became slick and slimy, showing symptoms of root rot. I alerted my partner, Chuck, who phoned the Advanced Nutrients tech guys immediately.

They advised us to stop adding the three root colonizers and flush to system with a weak solution of HyOx, which killed off about half of the enthusiastic microorganisms. Then we re-introduced Piranha, Tarantula, and Voodoo Juice at half the suggested strength and we had no problems ever since.

In fact, a larger healthier root system has ensured that our Boston Lettuce is consistently of high quality. We are hoping to produce our Red Sails and Green Ice specialty lettuce crops to the same high standards.

posted by silvio @ 9:03 PM   0 comments