Hosts Jason Fischbach and Ashley Olson discuss winter production of spinach in high tunnels with Chris Duke of Great Oak Farm and Bill Warner of Snug Haven Farm. Have a high tunnel greenhouse that sits empty all winter? Tune in and learn about the winter spinach option.
Recorded September 15, 2020
Ashley Olson, JASON FISCHBACH, Chris Duke, Bill Warner
JASON FISCHBACH 00:00
This is a podcast about new crops, you’re gonna love it. Join us on the cutting edge, a podcast in search of new crops for Wisconsin.
Bill Warner 00:11
Since all my customers are at market all I just do is give them a leaf. And that’s all you have to do to sell it and give it to their kid that’s even better yet because they’ll freak out that their kids eating a vegetable. (music)
JASON FISCHBACH 00:40
Welcome to the cutting edge, a podcast in search of new crops for Wisconsin. And today we’re shifting gears quite a bit to talk about a more of a specialty crop of vegetable crop and that’s spinach grown in a high tunnel over the winter months in Wisconsin. Excited to talk about this because I think there’s a lot of potential and we know that these high tunnel greenhouses are popping up all over the place. So so we have two guests today. Chris Duke with Great Oak Farm, and Bill Warner with Snug Haven Farm, am I doing that right Bill?
Bill Warner 01:12
Correct, you do.
JASON FISCHBACH 01:14
Alright. And joining me is Ashley Olson, our co-host from Vernon County. Hi Ashley.
Ashley Olson 01:20
Hi, Jason. Good to see and hear everybody again today on the podcast, looking forward to learning a lot here about winter spinach. And growing crops in the high tunnel especially. Yeah, we kind of had a little dose of winter last week, cold weather, huh?
JASON FISCHBACH 01:38
Frost for us, which is, you know, I suppose average in the normal times. But these days with climate change. We haven’t had frost this early in September for a while for a number of years. So let’s just start with introductions. Chris, you want to introduce yourself and where you’re located, what kind of farming you do, and when you you know, your involvement with winter spinach?
Chris Duke 02:00
Sure. So, uh, yeah, this is Chris Duke from Great Oak Farm, we, we have about 12 acres of certified organic produce that we grow out, up in the Great North Woods. We’re about twelve miles south of Ashland, Wisconsin, so not far from Lake Superior, about as far north as you can go in the state. And for winter production, we have three 30×96, high tunnels, or the the equivalent of we have to tow 30×96. And then we have two smaller ones that that combined to make up the the footprint of a 30×96. And we’re also in the process of putting up another 30 by 96, as well this fall. So really trying to maximize the return on investment. But I think in those high tunnel structures they’re pretty spendy, you know, somewhere between 10 and $15,000 worth of materials. And it’s it’s it’s really a loss to just let that investment go and sit idle through the winter months. It should be trying to try to do something for us. So yeah, that’s where I was mostly excited about winter spinach production. And I’m participated in in a trial. Was that 2017? Jason?
JASON FISCHBACH 03:27
Yes. 16,17, 15, 16 17.
Chris Duke 03:31
Okay. Yeah, a trial with, with extension, starting to look at how to sort of, is there a better way to do winter spinach in in a high tunnel and will with with addition of heat and light? And we’ll probably talk about that more later, I guess. But now we are just growing it un-heated on un-lighted.
JASON FISCHBACH 03:56
Chris Duke 03:56
JASON FISCHBACH 03:57
Great. Thanks, Chris. Bill, can you introduce yourself?
Bill Warner 04:01
Yeah. Hi, my name’s Bill Warner from Snug Haven Farm. I, along with my wife, Judy Hagaman own Snug Haven Farm. I put up my first hoophouse. Well, Chris, you were probably born but I bought my first hoop house in ’89 or ’90 and started growing spinach in the winter of ’95. And I just actually, I don’t grow anything in a high tunnel because if you put them up before 10-15 years ago, they were called hoop houses. So I don’t go to high high tunnel growing, I do hoophouse growing. But anyway, by 2008 and Chris, you’ll probably get there. It’s it’s kind of like a like any addiction. You know, five wasn’t enough. So I needed seven and now I’m up to 13. And I actually, I’ve, well, I have the equivalent of a yeah, I’m the equivalent of 14-12×95 or 12 by or 30×96′, I mean, or 30×95, there’s some of each. And in 2008, I haven’t put any up since 2008. But that put us almost to an acre. And we would fill them all, except for half of one. We’d fill them all with spinach all winter. Oh, like, really I don’t, I kept saying that I’d probably be better off just growing in the winter and not even in the summer. And this year, we actually did it just because we weren’t sure how our markets were going to go. We got set, we were prepping everything for the winter. So I really don’t know, the only outside vegetable I had this year is garlic. And it’s not all that much. And last year, I think the only outside crops we had were garlic and peppers. So I really like the protection of the hoops. But now when we had got hit with spinach downy mildew, three or four years ago, two years in a row, that was doing a lot of damage really hard to control. So we cut our, we slowly cut our spinach production down. And we’re about now we’re doing about, we’re at about 50% of it is spinach and the rest is carrots, collard, kale, chard, turnips. I think that covers most of it. And that stuff is just like spinach, the more it freezes, the sweeter gets. So but that’s what we’re doing right now. So.
JASON FISCHBACH 06:28
There’s so much to talk about where to start, I have seven million questions just from your intros. Maybe we should start with because we’ve probably got a lot of listeners to our podcasts that are more field crop folks. So we should talk a little bit just about the high tunnels and maybe just I’ll throw out kind of my my overview if you guys have anything to add. So I would say the big difference between a hoop house and a high tunnel is just the the frame shape. I think though, when these started out there, there literally were hoops. They look like Quonset style half moons out on the landscape. And then we’ve more or less moved to these Gothic arch frames with a peaked roof. And for whatever reason that kind of become came known as a high tunnel, I think. But essentially, these are metal frames, usually usually galvanized steel, this steel is supposed to last 30 years, and then you put a plastic layer over the top sometimes too with a blower fan for a little more insulation, with roll up sides and doors that open on the side for ventilation. Sometimes there vents at the top. But once you start adding more bells and whistles like Gable end vents or any sort of heat, then we start to call them greenhouses and there’s, you know, kind of a gray area between what’s a greenhouse and what’s a high tunnel. But generally a high tunnel is considered a simple structure with plastic over the top that gives you some season extension fall in spring and better protection from herbivores deer and rabbits and thunderstorms and hail and so is that do I have that about right in terms of what’s a high tunnel? Would you add anything more to that? For folks that might not be familiar with high tunnels?
Bill Warner 07:59
Well, I might have said wrong earlier. I don’t think there’s any difference between a hoop house and a high tunnel, except when you started building them. You know, I think they’re still the same structures. It’s more that they didn’t call anything a high tunnel I think until Hay Grove started doing their high tunnel things before that everything was a hoop house. So I think it’s just if you’re an old fart like me are used to hoop house you’ve been saying hoop house since 1990. So it’s I’m never gonna say high tunnel.
JASON FISCHBACH 08:26
Gotcha. Chris, anything to add?
Chris Duke 08:29
I’ll just say that. Also, the nice thing about the hoop house for us or high tunnel whatever you want to call it is um, yeah, protecting against snow. Um, and, and not just, you know, wind and rain and that kind of stuff. But a lot of times we’re getting our tunnels planted in the spring, when there’s still quite a bit of snow on the ground. I’m getting started planting and you know, March and yeah, I mean, the the sidewalls can be four feet high of snow, you know, that slid off and I would I would also say with the structure of the tunnel, we’ve really gone toward liking the ones with the peaked roof because they shed snow better than the round roof ones. The round roof ones, the snow kind of slides down and then it sort of wants to build up around the around the, the the arch of the tunnel structure, but the Gothic peaked roof, it sheds snow and then it drops straight down and it’s it’s a lot easier to just move out with a loader and, and then also let more more light you know come in into the house because you know the sun is such a such a low angle in the wintertime. that’s a that’s a precious commodity. So really try and not let that let the snow get higher than you know three feet or two feet along the outside so that we can still let lots of light in.
JASON FISCHBACH 10:02
Ashley Olson 10:02
I can hear, as we’re talking about structure, one thing I comes to mind where I am located over here on the western, southwestern side of the state in Vernon County, the high tunnels we have, I think, in Vernon County the most in the state that were partially funded, or maybe fully funded through NRCS, Natural Resources Conservation Service. And as we’re talking about the structures, maybe we can talk a little bit about the cost of them too. And maybe that’s down the line. But are, did either of you. You’ve been doing this many years, uh utilize the NRCS at all when constructing your high tunnels or hoop houses.
Chris Duke 10:52
Um, we did, yeah. At Great Oak Farm, we got a cost share for an NRCS tunnel. Yep.
Bill Warner 10:58
When it first came out. I don’t think I had really hardly any other unbroken ground because I was just farming mainly and hoops, and you had to put it on ground that was already broken. That you were already farming. So I I really wasn’t out. Well, I probably would have been eligible, but already having 13 of them. I didn’t think I’d be very high on the priority list.
Ashley Olson 11:20
Yeah, there’s, there’s lots of them going up. I just was thinking about that. If we have listeners that have heard of that through through the NRCS. So interesting to know.
JASON FISCHBACH 11:29
So, let’s um, maybe walk us through your production cycle, you know, when do you start seeding or planting, transplanting the spinach? What what are your harvest schedules look like over the winter and spring? And when do you usually transition out of spinach into your next crop in the spring? So, Bill do you want to start?
Bill Warner 11:48
Yeah, I’m just about done planting all my spinach right now. We just use an earth way seeder to plant our spinach.
JASON FISCHBACH 11:56
Just an editor’s note here as these guys talk about their spinach production. We recorded this podcast on September, 15 2020. So Bill was almost done by September 15.
Bill Warner 12:07
And I, let’s see what’s the day today I started a week ago Monday planting. And when we plant we put shade cloth or silo bags over the top of the hoop so that the spinach germinates better. Before we knew a lot about it, we’d lose a lot of germination to heat. And so we get really good germination with shade cloth or silo bag, or shade cloth is about 60%. And that that works better. But the silo bag when it’s like 90 in August, and you’re making beds, it’s it’s fairly dark and cold in there. There’s no sun getting through on the silo bags, or the bags you see on the side of the road or dairy farms or beef farms. You know, they’re white on the outside black on the inside. So that’s how we put them over our hoop. And then we’ll start what I planted last week, we’ll probably we only do we only like to harvest really big leaves because it’s a lot more efficient. They taste just as good as the small leaf. Why waste our time. People asked for baby and I’m like you realize how much more I’d have to charge you for baby. Because you’re right. I feel like you’re wasting your crop, you’re wasting growth, you’re wasting a lot of that. So we like doing everything big. And so we’ll start harvesting. Well, we I’m probably the only farmer down here that really is looking forward to frost in the spring, late frost in the spring and early frost in the fall, you know, because really, it’s the cold that makes the spinach good. I mean, our best tasting spinach is in January and February, because it’s been called for so long. I kind of put it on a bell curve, you know, it’s just really good spinach in November and May or late April, I’m sure for Chris being up in the in the Arctic North up there that you know, your sweetness comes a little last a little longer but and then it’s too good to be called spinach, you know in December and the other end of the bell curve and it’s exceptional, phenomenal in in January, February. But then we’ll we used to do row cover over everything but we don’t do that anymore. We now use what I call a sub structure. I’ve got an idea from John Biernbaum at Michigan State. And I re-did it a little re-designed it different, but basically when you have as many hoops as I do, you always have plastic around. And so on the inside about two feet from each end wall, you, we take, we take an electric conduit and it bends really easy with a bender, than anybody can do it. It’s just a handbend 90 degrees and we build a structure that’s either four foot high or five foot high and it’s all but it’s 26 foot wide instead of three or 30 foot wide and it goes almost the full length, and then we’ll cover that with with old plastic, we get a little more light, I think, than the row cover. And it heats up quicker, stays warmer longer, it gets just as cold, which we want in the winter, because but the one problem with that is it’s very hands on. Because the heat in the winter can ruin the taste of the spinach. As much as the cold can make it better. So it’s a lot of it’s almost like dairy farming, you can’t really leave the farm, you know, well, you can be gone, but you don’t know which days if it’s cloudy, you don’t need to do anything. But if it’s sunny, but we’ll start, we usually start our seed, we have a winter spinach share, but now we’ve made it a winter CSA type thing. It will just start…
JASON FISCHBACH 15:43
Just cutting in real, Bill, just a quick question before we move on here. So the structure that you’re building inside the high tunnel, would it be fair to call it like a low tunnel within the high tunnel like it’s a smaller greenhouse?
Bill Warner 15:54
Yeah, it’s it’s it’s flat across the top at we used to conduit comes in 10 foot. So you cut it in half and you got a five foot posts for the height, but you’re pounding the ground a foot. So it’s about four foot high, and it just is flat across then you can get other conduits and mix and match them. So you can slide them back and forth. And you put a brace pole in the middle. I have pictures of that from other presentations. But I don’t know how I get it to you now I guess I could forward a PowerPoint. But and then so that’s my second layer plastic. And what’s really neat in there is I mean, I had I didn’t kind of read your study very much, but I would never heat to grow spinach. I I just can’t see it paying maybe your numbers. That’s why we have universities do research for us. And people like Chris hopefully doing the work. But so light light is far and away the number one thing I mean, heats fairly irrelevant. In January, February for I shouldn’t say irrelevant, but it’s a lot warmer under there. And you get more light than the row cover. And I can put my heater under there. So when we’re the size we are, my employees are going to need to start cutting even in January if it’s below zero at like 10 o’clock. And it sure takes a lot less heat. When I did read your study, I didn’t know where you’d put the heater if you’re heating the whole hoop house. Man did you spend a lot on propane Or Chris, I suppose the University spent it for you.
Chris Duke 17:25
No, we actually just heated the top V on the bed. So it was it was one, one bed at a time. Yeah with with a little inflator tube that ran down the bed. That and then yeah, and then each of the three beds was heated to a different degree.
Bill Warner 17:43
Yeah. Did you have row covers over those then?
Chris Duke 17:46
Yeah, correct. Yeah.
Bill Warner 17:48
Oh, cool. Okay, so you’ve retained a lot of heat. But the, the five foot high one you can, it’s easy to go under to pick collards and kale. The four foot one works for spinach, because you’re kind of hands and knees harvesting anyway. So but I do like the five foot one more and more when I think my ground warms up faster. And when I was talking with Matt Kleinhenz from Ohio State University, I don’t know if he’s extension there. But it used to seem if in the cold winters, I would go and thaw my spinach first thing in the morning and it takes, run my heater for about an hour, which cost me about a buck fifty and do that in each hoop. And it seemed like my spinach just did better. And he was saying the photosynthesis there’s really almost not a lot enough light for two of those months. And the damage comes if you can’t use that photosynthesis. And so I’ve had I have hardly any damage compared to what I used to have as long as my spinach thaws out every day. And with that substructure unit, it thaws out a lot quicker and probably is using the sun better and getting less damage. I don’t feel that it goes too far.
JASON FISCHBACH 19:05
If you’ve planted here by you know, mid September, it’s September 15th, today when would be your first harvest off off that bed and how often will you harvest it and then when will be your, your last harvest typically off a bed.
Bill Warner 19:18
Um, well with as many hoops as I had when I planted them all my first harvest would be late October, maybe a little bit to farmers market a little earlier just for a little more cash flow. But our CSA would always start the first or second week in November. And that’s where at one point we were doing about 200 pounds a week to that and about 150 pounds 200 pounds a week to market and a little bit to restaurants. But to me it’s really start doesn’t it tastes better in late October but it doesn’t really start tasting really good until November. My I don’t have end walls on my end at that point. So I’m trying to get it to freeze as much as possible. I really don’t put my substructure over. I’m not answering your question. I should run for office. I’m doing good at that. Anyway, I, so I’ll go back to the question. We’ll harvest some of the hoops as late as early May, again, the spinach. By that point, I tell my winter customers that it’s not going to taste as good, but I got to charge as much because all of a sudden, now we’re going out to the farmers market, the largest one on the largest market, United States. And I’ve got all these people who haven’t had spinach for six months, and they taste it and say it’s the best ever. And we’re kind of thinking it’s the bottom of the barrel. But we have harvested into May, early May. It’s, it’s still really taste good in mid to late April, if you can keep it cool enough as long as possible. But usually, when I had all those hoops, you take out the worst germinating hoops earlier and you plant lettuce in or you plant carrots in and you slowly take out the worst hoops and just keep the best one, I still have one more hoop to plant. I don’t think my kind of my rule of thumb down here and I know Chris’s would probably be a little different. But if I plant like last week, that’ll be ready for Halloween. If I plant this week, it’ll be ready for Christmas. And if I plant next week, it’s ready in February or March.
JASON FISCHBACH 21:17
Chris, what is your, what does your production cycle look like?
Chris Duke 21:21
Yeah, so we are growing quite a bit of other crops in the hoops during the summer. So it’s definitely a balancing act of when do we pull tomatoes or cucumbers or peppers, and and get you know, get spinach seeded. Um, but usually a like Bill, I kind of start the end of August, and then try and wrap it up by the third week of September. And yeah, the the different successions, it’s amazing what, you know, seven days will do in the fall. You know, it’s waiting seven days in between plantings. It’s like, way different than in the spring, you know, waiting seven days, sometimes those plantings almost catch up with each other. But yeah, in the fall as the light and the heat just drops away, those the they grow so slow. So yeah, the the early planted stuff. Well, I should back up the other big variable for us is the weather because, you know, last week it was in the 50s. And, and for the high and cloudy with the lows, right about frost. And then that’s, that’s actually decent weather for germinating spinach. But sometimes it’s too doggone hot. And that soil in the in the in the hoop houses has, it’s just warm to the touch, you know, when you’re getting ready to seed. So that’s, you know, another thing that that we try and do is wait until that soil is cooled off a little bit before we seed it. So like Bill said, we get a little bit of germination. And, and when we’re getting ready to seed, we’ll, we’ll open up that the ends of the hoops and roll up the sides at night. And so try and get that place cooled down as quick as we can sort of the opposite of what you’re doing, you know, for the summer crops, the heat loving crops, but in general, yeah, putting it in, you know, sometime about early September, give or take, you know, two weeks plus or minus. And then first harvest starting to come, you know, right about October to November. And but just like Bill, I mean, our main bulk of the harvest comes, yeah, later, March, it’s really kicking in. Once we get past March 15, you can almost kind of put it on your calendar, it’s going to be waking up March 15. And then then after that, we’ll be picking pretty steady all the way through that first week of May. And then we are we’re also juggling, you know when to terminate that crop and dig it under and transplant the next crop. Because we’re trying to max out the production we can on the spinach before it’s getting ready to bolt but at the same time, we need to get, you know, the next season’s crops in the ground. So yeah, in general, I think we have a pretty similar harvest season of little bit November and and then some in December, January as well. But for us it’s so dark and cold that mostly we’re just using our our spinach in that high tunnel. It’s sort of sitting in sort of like in the walk and basically and then once some we don’t have any substructures inside or any way to heat it up. So once the sun comes out and warms that tunnel up to about 34 or 35 I can go out and start picking, and that that spinach is thawed out, and it’s ready to go. So yeah, I hope that answers your question.
JASON FISCHBACH 25:09
Yeah, that’s great. I’ll just make one comment on the germination for the listeners, because that is a huge part of the puzzle for this. With spinach germination, the optimum is about 55 to 60 degrees. And if you, even if you get above that temperature for an hour, the enzymes in the, in the seed start to break down, and you lose that that seed in the germination. So that’s why you know, direct seeding in the high tunnel can be so risky in the fall, because you get one hot, sunny day, and, and you’re done. And in the fall, you don’t really have much room for error, like these guys said, if the difference between a week could mean picking spinach in the fall versus picking spinach in February. So I think, you know, Bill, your comments about managing that soil temperatures is so important. And Chris, I think you’ve kind of learned as you’ve gone too about just how important it is that, you know, some people have gone I know, they’ll they’ll they’ll start their in flats and then transplant, is that something either of you have done? Or is it just not worth it?
Chris Duke 26:04
I’ve done it a little bit. But it’s so time consuming. But the other thing is a lot of times in the fall we’re about out of soil mix. And we’ve already went through our, our two totes and so it’s like, geez, so trying to, I mean, yeah, a couple times we did, but you know, then it’s like 50 to 75, you know, 128 cell flats, and that only does like half a hoop house, you know, I mean, it’s like when you’re spacing them out every four inches, that’s a lot of hands and knees work whereas we normally seed with a Jang seeder, a three row Jang. So we’ll do one pass up, and then scoot over and come one pass back. So there’s, there’s six rows across a bed. And each one is is spaced just far enough apart for those posts, those little posts, they’re posts from Johnny’s, um, to fit, right, I think there may be like a three inch wide scuffle hub, but that fits just right down in between, it’s almost like a row of spinach about every six inches then across that bed. And so one trick that that we’ve done to help germination, particularly in in in September, because I mean, we can have temps today was about 80. And then last week, the high was 50. And it was cloudy. So yeah, that makes a huge difference. But we’ve we’ve adjusted the brush on the Jang to ride higher than than it normally would, with most other crops. So it’s not articulating a single seed per divot in the roller that it’s pouring out, you know, two to three seeds per divot, so we can kind of make up for, you know, potentially spotty germination. And then if it comes in too thick, we can always thin it out, that’s not a big deal um while we’re harvesting. But then there’s also going to be some, you know, it’s mechanically cultivated with a hole. So there’s, you’re going to take some plants out every now and again, whether you like it or not so cultivator blight. But if you if you plan ahead and have maybe a little thicker seeding than, than you had anticipated, that doesn’t leave you with, you know, all of a sudden, somebody moves their hoe wrong and takes out 12 inches of spinach, then you know, you’re not you’re not in trouble. Um, so the the other thing that that we’ve done this year that has been really great is paying attention to those warm days. And turning on the overhead irrigation in there for an hour or two, maybe three, during the during the hottest part of the day, middle of the day, turn the irrigation on and just do that. Regardless of you know, if if that spinach is just starting to germinate or even if even if the ground is pretty wet in there. Um, just to help cool it off a little bit. And that seems to help a lot. I like Bill’s idea of using the shade cloth and even those those silage bags over top. I think that’s that’s another really great idea that I’d like to try.
Bill Warner 29:22
Jason, i want to jump in a minute you’d said something about the temperature on the germination. What I have found out and maybe it’s because of the sun but with this with the shade cloth or the silo bag, it can be 80s out and I’m not worried about the germination it’s I think the sun hitting the soil directly is you know really heats up that soil where the temperatures if you know if it’s 80 out I’m not worried as long as my shade or silo bags are on.
JASON FISCHBACH 29:51
Right on. Yep. Um, okay so let’s shift to varieties. So with in cooperation with Chris and some other growers up in the Ashland area, we ran a series of trials, as Chris said, 2015 through 2018. One of things we did was a variety trial and we looked at, I believe it was, if I remember right, six different varieties, which is, you know, there must be at least 50 or 60 varieties of spinach, so and you just can’t do it all. But, you know, we found that Corvair and Renegade seemed to do the best, both for picking ease overall production. So can both of you talk about varieties that you’ve, you prefer and and how you’ve kind of come by which varieties that you use.
Bill Warner 30:31
All right, um. Well, I’ve always tried to go with the darkest green Savoy or semi Savoy I can get. Now of course, I look at the spinach, downy mildew numbers too, but it seems like whenever I find a variety I like about a year later it goes out of sale. And I would talk to Johnny’s about this and they said basically, you know, he said years ago that it’s all done for California, all the spinach seeds made for California. And they got downy mildew, so they have to quit, keep switching varieties. He said they ship the seed out, they ship seed to California by semi into Johnny’s by UPS. And so not so we get the crumbs. So usually when I find a kind I like Spargo and Springer were my favorite, one they quit producing about 10 years ago and the other one five years ago and I just ran out of it. I buy about I try to buy five years worth of it and put it in the freezer. And then I now I’m my favorite. My favorite one best one ever is was Spargo or Springer, whichever was second. And I’m out of that. So I’ve been using Carmel for a while, the Regiment or did you say Regiment or Renegade?
JASON FISCHBACH 31:48
Bill Warner 31:50
Yeah, they didn’t seem as quite as dark if I remember right. So, but then you always have to try some others. And I was working with John Debazio for a while at Johnny’s when he was a spinach breeder. He’s not doing that anymore. He’s doing more the kale and collards and going for the shoots and sprouts. But so I’m just planting less and charging more. It’s kind of a cool system when you get everybody addicted. Just but i right now I’m growing to Carmel, I’ve done a little bit Tasmin. And the new kind I’ve tried, you got to keep trying new kind every year because you never know when they’re gonna pull carmel off the shelf is Kolibri, or I haven’t looked it up. It’s called…
JASON FISCHBACH 32:33
Bill Warner 32:34
Kolibri. Okay, so this is the first time I planted that. It’s a real tiny seed. What do you do with all the different sizes of seed that you get with your Jang seeder there? I’m curious to plant? I mean, those were tiny and the other ones were huge.
Chris Duke 32:47
Right. Yeah. The cool thing about that Jang is we just use the same 24 cell roller you know, to seed them out. But you can adjust that brush high and low. So when the seeds real big, you jack that brush way up. When the seed drills small, you can bring it down to where it’s, it’s almost touching that roller. And yeah, it’ll handle it is amazing, though, that you make a good point. I mean, that the spinach some of it’s twice as big as the other stuff. Yeah, it’s crazy.
JASON FISCHBACH 33:19
Chris, what varieties are you using these days?
Chris Duke 33:22
Yeah, so um, that’s, I’m a little bit stuck. I feel like I’m starting over right now because Corvair and Renegade. Man, those two just cranked it for me and nice big leaves fast, easy pickin, like Bill said not quite as dark green. But the renegade I liked quite a bit because it’s a more flexible leaf. So when it’s spinning dry, it doesn’t tend to break or crack. Sometimes that that winter spinach is so thick and and it when you’re spinning it dry, it wants to wants to break. But yeah, Renegade was great. And Corvair was great. Both of them, we could put them in in the fall, and they wouldn’t want to bolt um, I mean, they would just keep going. We get many pickings off them. And then last year, we got hit with the downy mildew. And um, I was I was looking at the the resistances you know, resistance packages that both of those have we’re pretty much all either Corvair or Renegade. And yeah, both of them were susceptible to 12 and 14. So twice we sent in samples to figure out which race we had. Both times the samples were in too bad of shape by the time they they got tested so they couldn’t tell what one it is. But it’s it’s got to be either 12 or 14. So this year, we started out with trying a bunch of different spinaches that were resistant 12 and 14. And yeah, rolling the dice. We tried the Aztech, Sue and Apache. I didn’t like those at all. They really wanted to bolt for me. So like Bill, I have some Calabrian now, some Lizard and good old Space, we’ve had decent success with Space before. It’s okay. It’s, it doesn’t really seem like it wows me. But it seems pretty steady. We’ve had decent luck with um Kookaburra, in the past. Some years that seemed sort of hard to get. So I haven’t consistently planted that one. All the varieties that we’ve tried have been like Red Kitten, and that one is really cool. But it just wants to hug the ground, it never wants to lay up, it wants to lay down flat on the ground, it doesn’t want to want to stick up in the air. And especially for the winter, you need a spinach that’s gonna be pretty erect. So those leaves are up off the ground. There’s airflow down there, there, they’re staying cleaner, there’s, you know, not getting damaged. So, yeah, I will, I’ll definitely try some Carmel next year Bill and see how that one does up here.
Bill Warner 36:10
The Carmel is a little lower to the ground, too.
Chris Duke 36:12
Okay. But the one thing about I mean, my not knowing a lot about spinach downy mildew is, you know, if you don’t grow it on your place for a while, for like a month or two, you’re not it’s not supposed to stay around. So my theory is it’s going to always be around and the races are going to change. So you might want to try Renegade again. Again, that’s, I’m not an expert at it. So don’t call me if it fails. But just tell me I’m smart if it works.
JASON FISCHBACH 36:44
Downy mildew. I just jumping in here that I would agree. I think by far, it’s the biggest limitation on winter spinach production in the high tunnels because it’ll wipe wipe out a patch, and it goes fast. And it’s a it’s a water humidity loving fungus. And so the you know, on the high tunnel, it’s that humidity is really high, especially during the day when the sun’s out, and it’s hard to ventilate the high tunnels in the winter, because you’re pulling in 30 below air which isn’t always a good thing. And so and there’s it’s evolving all the time. So there are all kinds of different races of, of downy mildew, I think there’s 16 or 17 now that have been identified new ones seem to emerge every couple years. And so the each of the varieties will have a characterization of its resistance. So which of the races it’s resistant to and so that’s why the breeding is always having to stay ahead of the fungus. And so the varieties change a lot. So if there is you can have your downy mildew tested. And it’s definitely recommended to figure out what race came in that year. And then make sure you’re next year planting varieties that are resistant to it. And there is even in the research community some it’s not entirely clear where this is coming from in the winter. In the Northeast, they were doing winter spinach for a while. And then all of a sudden downy mildew showed up, you know, New York State and just wiped them out. And there’s questions, is it coming in with the seed? Is there some movement you know, or over overwintering, I should say over summering in this case, right? Is there some residual so it’s definitely something that the research community is trying to better understand this pathogen because there’s a lot of potential for winter spinach but not if it’s getting wiped out with mildew. And nobody wants to, you can spray fungicides but nobody wants to do that in the winter on a fresh eating crop like that, so that’s just not really an option. But um, so how are you are you guys harvesting by hand, in our trials you know, we had to hand harvest individual leaves just because the way we’re picking but are you guys using scissors or using the salad mix harvesters?How are you doing your harvest?
Chris Duke 38:40
Well, we’re just picking by hand and you know, that was something that I really was a big eye opener for me with winter Spanish production before the trials I always just would you know, cut across the ground with a knife and always had my eye on or scissors and had my eye on one of those those kind of greens harvesters. But, you know, I had some spots, some some beds in a tunnel that were hand harvested from the trial and then I had my beds that were just cut clean across the bottom. And the regrowth on the beds that was cut clean was minimal. I mean, when you’re damaging those those new little leaves that are starting to grow. That took that spinach plant so much work to grow those little leaves because daylights limited heats limited. And so when you nip off those little tiny leaves, man you really shoot yourself in the foot on yields. So yeah, after the first year of handpicking with those trials, I just switched all the handpicking now and and I think that’s a good way to go.
Bill Warner 39:50
We use those little Victorinox or whatever those little red knives that are serrated. You probably have a three inch blade and you can go pretty quick with those but one leaf at a time. Definitely, I always tell the people don’t cut like I cut. Because I’m if I’m cutting it usually means I’m in quite a hurry. And but if you do the one at a time, you get to just pick those big leaves. Sometimes when we’re getting in January, February, we have what we call the big leaf, pick the medium cut, and then the heavy cut. And obviously, the more you can do the big leaf cut, the faster it adds up, the more you’re saving the leaves, like Chris would say. And then usually kind of in January, you start having to cut more medium, but you still, the better you can leave the leaves, the quicker they come back. And once for us, once we hit very early February is when we get out, you can start actually, you know, I go through every week, and I kind of estimate how much I have. And that number doesn’t really start climbing until February, you can start to see that spinach starting to inch up and add some growth. So we do the one leaf at a time, except if we’re doing our what our final cut is, and it’s the clean cut and then you’re taking everything and try and do as quick as you can without getting the yellow leaves. But our goal is to you know, we we try to. Well, we tell the customer that sometimes we try to have the best and charge the most you know, it seems to they they have trouble arguing with that, you know, so by doing one leaf at a time, you got nicer looking spinach. big leaves are nice, restaurants like them, they’re easier for them to take the veins off.
JASON FISCHBACH 41:32
So so so here’s my, my test for each of you. So, winter spinach grown in a high tunnel is totally different than the spinach that customers these days are used to and that’s baby spinach in a in a bag. So here’s your your chance you each get a minute to explain to a customer why winter spinach is different and why it’s so much better.
Chris Duke 41:55
I would say um, we know just like, like, like, when I first started farming, I didn’t really get the difference between um, like maybe a cauliflower that was like a 56 day cauliflower versus the 80 day cauliflower. Like why would you ever plant the 80 day cauliflower, right? When you can use harvest it in 56 to 60 days. But, you know, good things come to those who wait and when that plant gets gets a little bigger, and can can really put some put some flavor into the part that you eat. Um, I mean, it’s almost always better. That 56 day cauliflower is going to be meh, it’s going to be okay, but that 80 day cauliflower is going to knock your socks off. So same with the winter spinach. I feel like you know, you eat it when it’s big and um, yeah, it’s got way more flavor and, and, and a better texture than those little tiny baby ones that haven’t even really got a chance to get rolling yet.
JASON FISCHBACH 42:58
That’s pretty good. And so Bill can you do better?
Bill Warner 43:01
Well, well, yeah, no, I don’t know well yeah, no, actually, Chris has got it colder than I do. So he can have sweeter spinach than I do if he if he does everything. But since all my customers are at market, all I just do is give them a leaf. And that’s all you have to do to sell it. And give it to their kid, that’s even better yet because they’ll freak out that their kids eating a vegetable. I think it was May 99 issue. There used to be a magazine called Gourmet Magazine, which was a big foodie magazine. And it was a national wide but somebody in the Ritz in Chicago was using our stems. And you know, the restaurants take off stems just because they take longer to cook. And the stems are the actual sweetest part. So we sometimes even just sample the stems just to get people attention but all we do we just sample it. I then I go on to sampling the next person and eventually they’re just come back or they.. You know, that’s just give them a taste. That’s always the best sell.
Ashley Olson 43:58
How are you marketing? Uh, you said something about CSAs, and this is both for Bill and Chris, but maybe Bill could start. How are you marketing your winter spinach?
Bill Warner 44:07
Um, well, my wife and I were managers of the Dane County farmers market in 2000 to 2002. And that’s that was soon after we started growing spinach all winter. We had had someone who had our spinach in the spring. The first time I had it, I took it to a restaurant before market started and he had said it was the best he’d ever had. He’d take it all year next year. And then we would start selling it in late April at the market. And then someone else knew we had it in winter and said, hey, I put eggs on my porch. This is like 97 maybe, and says I put eggs on my porch. Can we buy spinach and I’ll put it on my porch for my neighbors to pick up. So that kind of started our our spinach CSA but then we started winter market in 2002. And I said I’ll, I’lll just buy sampling just and as we’ve had market, we quit doing restaurants slowly, because they always switch chefs and you got to train a new chef, as I like to call it, but it’s just, it was just sampling spinach. That’s just, you know, either guilt they buy it or they like it, you know, I don’t care which way it is. You know, they just, that’s all it is, is just. And now that we’re cutting back, I mean, with downy mildew. I think we told our CSA people that we had to cut back. So we raised our price from $11 a pound to $13. To hope a lot of them would drop out.
JASON FISCHBACH 45:33
Wait, wait? Can you repeat those numbers?
Bill Warner 45:38
Yeah, we we, we raised our price, because we were cutting back growing like 80%. We raised our price from 11 to 13 dollars a pound. Yeah, that’s when I saw $4.50 on your reports, I was kind of like, what?
Ashley Olson 45:53
JASON FISCHBACH 45:55
Chris, did you hear those numbers?
Chris Duke 45:58
Bill Warner 45:59
Well,back the chef that told me he could take it all winter, we were $3.50 a pound then. And that had to be 95. And he actually raised he said, well I should be paying you four or five. And he, he must have known more. Like he wanted that product, he wanted everything I could grow. So he’s like, here, I’m gonna pay you for it. So he raised our price from $3.50 to $5 on us, or no $3.50 to $6. So the first year, we just just chop it off, throw it in a bag and take it in and not even wash it. And then so that fall, the next year, I said, well, what makes it worth six now? He goes if there’s no stem, and it’s washed. And so that’s when I realized that with the hoops, and you kind of it’s just, I can only grow so much in a hoop. So I want to add all the value I can to everything I grow in it. That’s so we take it clean, not a lot, there’s hardly any stem. Even though that’s the sweetest part. But anyway, we raised our price, trying to get people to drop off. So I’d still have some at market. Well, not enough, not enough people dropped out. So at market, I had to start taking pre orders, I’d send out an email and people have to sign up and nobody wants to get on more email lists. But they would if they saw me giving people spinach at market and they couldn’t buy anything they got on the list. And so what was really now I’m thankful for spinach downy mildew, because when our market got canceled in mid mid March, because we sell every week, all winter, 100 some pounds of spinach at market. Then, I had an email list of 500. And so I was able to just still sell to people. During when we were shut down, I was able to still process orders to set up, did some very quick acting setup sites. And we had told our people, when we first started raising the price that we’re gonna raise at 50 cents a pound a year, and we’re gonna make them buy other stuff, and we still can’t get people to drop out. So this year, our CSA will be $14.50 a pound and our market price will be $14 a pound. But again, they don’t have to wash it, it will last. Well, we tell them it will last two weeks, but it usually I mean, really it’s three weeks. So I mean, if you cut it right and treat it right, it will last. I mean Chris could tell you that.
Chris Duke 48:22
Oh, yeah. Yeah, it’s it’s really cool. One of the things that our farm has focused on with the high tunnel crops and field crops is crops that are fussy that that you can put them in a cooler and you’re okay, for a week or so. You know, you don’t have to sell them like raspberries or for crying out loud somebody better eat them, like within 48 hours of them getting picked, or it’s just a waste of time. So yeah, I really liked that about the spinach. Um, our spinach prices, right about eight bucks a pound, um, that that that we’ve been selling it for. And then it’s getting marked up from there. You know, to to whoever so we usually sell in like a six ounce bag. So yeah, it’s so somewhere between eight and nine bucks a pound now. But yeah, I think yeah, it’s a premium product and I think it’s fair for us to charge up a better price for it. And it’s different. It’s a totally different product and that baby leaf mechanically harvested California stuff. Um, and you know, it’s, it’s, I think it’s really interesting, I get a lot of feedback that like like Bill said, some people will will get spinach and they’ll get two bags because their kids want to eat a bag on the way home like it’s potato chips or something. It’s so sweet and good. And mostly we sell our our spinach through CSA and then we sell whatever is leftover wholesale and it’s, it’s a little bit trickier for us up here because without heating our tunnels at all for harvest, it’s really variable, the time that we can pick our, our spinach. So our, our winter CSA runs from November to March but, you know, it needs to be picked on, you know, by a certain time to be ready and yeah, you can hold in the cooler for a week, you know, or 10 days beforehand, if the weather warms up, but sometimes we’re just locked down and it’s way too cold to go pick spinach. So then, you know, there’s there’s no spinach to sell CSA. And then when it does warm up, we’ll move it out wholesale, but everybody loves it. Nobody else has winter spinach. And it’s a pretty easy product to move. So yeah, I would agree with Bill.
Bill Warner 50:56
If, if I was younger, and if I wanted to be crazy, and there was no spinach downy mildew. Chris, you’re younger, but there’s spinach, downy mildew. You can you can..
Chris Duke 51:05
I don’t want to be crazy, though Bill. That’s That’s
Bill Warner 51:09
What I mean, I, you know, this is just a product that’s not out there. If you want to grow 100 hoophouses. You could, I mean, it’s, there’s just not another product that’s out there. You can’t I want to ship it to California, but I can’t, I did for a couple of customers. But the dog sniffed it at the border. And I was like, dude, shouldn’t the dogs be sniffing what’s going out? You know. And so we actually got a letter from the California Department of, you know, Ag that we can’t ship spinach unless we go through a process. But I thought it’d be cool to be shipping spinach to California, because that’s where it all comes from.
JASON FISCHBACH 51:44
Right? Here’s what spinach is supposed to taste like.
Chris Duke 51:47
Yeah, right, you’re doing them a favor.
Bill Warner 51:50
There’s no other product like that. I mean, there’s a few farmers now doing it around here, and you see it in the co-op a little bit. But in the in the weekly newsletter from the co-op, you always hear the customer complaining why I can buy it at market, and why can’t I buy it, the co op and the co op says, Well, you can get full price at market, you know, here, you can bring it to us, but he’s not going to get full price. So like Chris said, unless he’s got that little bit of glut, he’s not wholesaling it. So it’s just not another product out there. So marketing is not a problem.
JASON FISCHBACH 52:21
You don’t have to answer this question if you don’t want to, because it’s a little personal. But let’s take a bed of spinach three feet wide, 96 feet long. If you’ve crunched the numbers, what kind of returns might you expect off that one bed bed of spinach, we’re talking $100 per bed thousand dollars.
Chris Duke 52:39
It’s one of those crops that works. It’s it’s pretty, you know, it’s it’s under cover and protected. And it’s, you know, you can sell thousands of dollars of it. And it didn’t take expensive tractors and and take a lot of work to do. You just kind of have to seed it and then go pick it on a sunny day. So I haven’t really it’s not one of those things that’s like high on the laundry list to evaluate. Hmm, is this one really worth it? Or let’s really get down to the nitty gritty. I mean, we were growing, you know, for CSA, so it’s a big array of different crops. So you know, usually, I’m more bringing the magnifying glass on the ones that are making me cuss a lot and seem expensive and don’t have the best return. I haven’t really put the put the tight look down on the spinach yet. Because if it ain’t broke, I don’t, I got other things to fix, you know,
Bill Warner 53:36
We do four foot beds, so and then they’re in 99, or 95. We don’t plant the last five feet on each side. So it’d be one four by 85. If everything goes right, and you can ask Chris that always happens, right? If everything goes right, we might get 200 pounds off of a bed. So that would be you know, a $10,000 out of a hoop in the winter. But again, for us to get that much we’d have had to quit harvesting tomatoes in mid mid to late August. We’ve had to prep that bed, we planted in early September and we’re that means to get that 200 pounds. That’s the beds, we’re still harvesting in early May. So that’s a that’s a nine months, eight months, whatever it is. So that’s a lot of time in the ground. So you know, you think of arugula you can plan arugula quite a few times in that point and get less per crap but more in that timeframe. But again, once you’ve got the bed up and do you have chickweed at your place, Chris?
Chris Duke 54:42
Bill Warner 54:44
Oh, wow, nevermind then. But anyway, so but then that means you’ve got all that time of weeding in there you got de-gunking so I guess that’d be 2000 a bed. If we can get to 200 pounds. That doesn’t happen very often. You know because you have to, do go through in the winter and then you’re going to get the aphids coming out big time. Your, mine come in late February, early March. Does that put you in mid March to late March when your aphids start coming? Chris?
Chris Duke 55:09
Yeah, it really depends. Some years there not much. And some years, it went when we did those heat trials, there was more degree days, you know, and so things warm it up and they like that. But normally, we’re a little cooler. So we can we can, we can get skirted by a little longer without having the aphid problems. And some years, it’s really, it’s minimal, you know. So, yeah, the perfect bed would get you 2000. But perfect doesn’t happen all the time. Yeah, we’re not that much.
JASON FISCHBACH 55:42
In terms of, you know, like a supply chain for larger scale spinach production, say more than CSA, does it? Does it work? Do you think to put up high tunnels to grow winter spinach? And that’s your main crop? And then the summer is you figure it out versus now it seems like you put up a high tunnel because you’ve got a summer crop you can grow and sell and then you just tack on winter spinach? Because you can, does the other way around work? Do you think? Or do you have to have a good summer crop that you can sell to justify putting up these high tunnels.
Chris Duke 56:12
I think it just really depends on on your market, you know, if if, for us, we can sell, you know, like about $10,000 worth of tomatoes pretty easily out of a tunnel during the during the summer, and then, you know, roughly, it’s about five to six thousand probably then worth of spinach that comes out of the tunnel in the winter, just kind of real rough. But so in the you know, just looking at the numbers, that way, juice to squeeze makes more sense for us, if we’re just going to grow one crop to focus on that summer crop, and then get the leftovers off the winter spinach just to kind of keep some revenue coming in and keep that structure trying to pay for itself a little better. For us up here, you know, because our growing season is, is is is pretty cold in the winter. And that that spinach isn’t doing much regrowth at all in January and February and we’re fighting against, you know, you don’t want to have it be too big going into January and February, because it gets so cold that you’ll get some some some tip burn off of the bigger leaves seem to have more more susceptibility to cold damage versus if you take it in a little smaller. And then and then pick it, you know, maybe a little bit November and then start up again kind of the third week of March or so, you know that that seems like a like a, like a good system for our climate and, and also our markets really.
Bill Warner 57:45
Yeah, I would think that you know, tomatoes are much more valuable up there in August than they are down here. Because I don’t even know if outside tomatoes always make it up in Ashland are…
Chris Duke 57:58
Bill Warner 57:59
So that that’s no up here. You know, when mid mid August comes, you know, people are giving away tomatoes. We try not to so I try to be done with that. So we do have that different season. But I have slowly been going like I said for years I thought it except that I really enjoy selling tomatoes being somewhat of a smartass. I know that’s hard to see that but selling tomatoes and sun golds at market. Sungolds are just pure candy if you do them right, and cut back on the water. But really this year is making us focused and I’m thinking more of it that I’m just focusing on fall growing on my kale and collards and chard crops, carrots, they’re there on the ground and just trying to be done in June, early July because like I said, we got the largest farmers market in the US. I don’t do a summer CSA that, you know, come come August. Nothing’s new, everybody’s got everything and the price plummets. So it’s really, really hot. You know, I’d rather not, I’d rather be you know, work from like, you know, six in the morning to about noon and jump in my little, you know, my little four foot deep swimming pool and cool off and then come back in the house. You know, I’m in my 60s, so I gotta slow down at some point. But, so we’re focusing more on not doing the summer crop, but we have enough hoops that in the past I do three or four in the summer of tomatoes and and that’d be my only summer crop. But the winter and spring crops seem to be best. And last time I gave a workshop at MOSES. You know, I said they’re no longer season extenders, we’re adding a season we’re not extending a season we’re just adding winter before you know they’re considered early and late. And you know, with Chris being up in the Arctic Circle or close to it, that you know that that winter one is tough and those big leaves do get brown tipped in but when we do grow the spinach, we grow it as slow as possible. We’re airing it, we’re opening up our tunnels everyday. Well, the inside tunnel, we open up pretty much every day, it’s gonna, if it’s only going to get down to the 20s, we leave it open, we’ll even keep our end walls somewhat open a little bit to let cool air in, because heat can kill it. And when you get, you know, some of that big leaf tip burning is from if, if it’s gotten too hot and grown a little too fast in the last week, then that gets way too tender. And that’ll give you your tip burn. And so, you know, come March, if it’s above 20, we leave everything wide open as possible, we don’t have roll up sides, we just roll up our ends, and keep our inside tunnels open. But most of the time nowadays, they’re open. But when Chris was talking earlier, I’m gonna keep rambling sorry, when when he was talking earlier about setting the snow. When we had that polar vortex, usually the coldest weather follows the snow for us. And I’ll leave the snow on my hoops. Because that gives me insulation. So we had the 20 something below we had, which for us is rare 25 below with about six inches of snow on my hoop and that inside cover my hoops in one area, which is a little more level than the other only got down to 18 at night. Which is phenomenal. So you’re dressing for 25 below. And by the time you get in the hoop, you’re sweating, because it’s 18 but so we use the snow as insulation, because usually the cold follows the snow. But then at some point you need the light to come in. You know, that’s that times I did have to turn on my heaters because it was dark in there. But I tried to barely thaw it out because I wanted it to stay. I didn’t want to melt the snow off my hoops.
JASON FISCHBACH 1:01:54
Bill Warner 1:01:55
Thanks. I’m not often accused of that.
Ashley Olson 1:01:58
I just, you know, I just want to add as we’re getting ready here, probably to near the end, it’s just really interesting to me the difference in the growing seasons that I mean, I know that is with all crops, but even having these high tunnels or hoop houses. You know, just in Wisconsin alone. Bill, from where you’re located a little south, Chris up up to the north, it’s it’s been very interesting to, to hear just the different methods and and things you like to see or don’t see based on your location.
Chris Duke 1:02:30
Yeah, one of the things with with that snow and what what what Bill was saying Yeah, for, for, for light snow like that, I don’t mind leaving that, you know, on top of a house, especially overnight, and when it’s going to be getting cold. And then then I’ll we’ve had, you know, some pretty big snow events and snows kind of a lot. And so I’m in a hurry, all that snow sheds off the roof and, and it can pile up to be six, seven feet tall, you know, in short order, that puts a lot of pressure on the sidewalls pushing in. And so you sort of have to be a little bit careful when you’re when you’re removing that snow so that you don’t, you know, plow out one side of a tunnel that’s, you know, got eight feet of snow off, you know, banked up to the side. And then the other side of the tunnel with the wight feet of snow pushes on it. And then the the whole thing. I mean, this has happened to a number of growers up here, the whole thing, just, vroom, slides off to the south if you plow the south side up first. So yeah, I think when you got smaller amounts of snow that you can use that to your advantage and, and a lot of times right before a snow, I’ll go plow and move the old stuff that’s there, so the new stuff will come and fall. And then it’ll be two feet, you know, three feet high on the sidewalls and that’ll kind of help protect the cold from from sneaking in quite so fast along the edges. Once all that snow once all that fresh snow slides off the tunnel and then it’s got a nice nice layer of insulation. The only you know other consideration with that is really good drainage around the outside of your tunnel. And I guess that’s that’s probably true for what you get a lot of snow or or just rain or you know, any kind of a mix, but really making sure that anything that’s melting along the outside is not draining into your tunnel and making those outside beds all wet, because that’s gonna once that soils cold and wet that spinach is just gonna sit there I mean any crop is gonna, but that spinach is gonna do and so really try and slip that ground away so that you know that snow melt runoff and it’s not making wet spots in your in your tunnel. The other thing that comes into those wet spots is slugs. And you don’t want that on those nice big pretty spinach leaves. Um, making holes in them and stuff so yeah, I guess one more consideration, always things to consider.
Bill Warner 1:04:58
Yeah, cuz we have We were kind of in a bowl that faces south. And when we moved to this place in 95, we built and that’s really before, there’s all the talks of site preparation, so our North beds definitely get pretty wet. In fact, starting in November, we don’t water the North beds at all, you know, I mean, it’s hard enough to sneak into water when we need to in the winter, but we definitely get less sneaking in. So, you know, I definitely the site prep is important, but because we get less production on the north, but we just quit watering them at a certain point and go goes four or five months without water. And, um…
Chris Duke 1:05:39
Um, one thing that’s funny is, you know, um, with that, the water in the, in the high tunnel, it seems like it’s such a pain in the butt when it’s, you know, 15 below or whatever, and you don’t want to go outside and think about watering. But you know, it’s, it’s, it’s, it’s one more step, making sure your hydrants are staying thawed and drained and making sure you drain out your line, you know, be before you, it gets cold again, and it all freezes up. So that’s, that’s, that’s another expense that you know, has to be figured into your, into your price. Another thing that that we did here, because we do have such a long winter, is we oriented our, all of our high tunnels, East West, so they got a great big south wall. And our wind comes mostly from the west in the summer, so we can open up the ends and they ventilate really good. And then in the wintertime, we got that big South face that’s really soaking up the rays because, um, yeah it is zero sun, you know, coming from the north side. So we want to really maximize the amount of light that gets in there. Especially during the winter. Because, yeah, it’s, it’s, it’s at such a premium, there’s only a few hours of it, and then really try and catch as much as we can.
Bill Warner 1:07:01
Yeah, that’s an important point. Chris, what can I just, I’m gonna, sorry, I’m not going to ask, I’m just gonna keep talking. Yeah, that that’s the point Chris made is what you know, even when I was giving my first workshop, I think in 93, I said East West, because then at least you get the maximum amount of sun, but the greenhouse people would swear you got to go north south and and there was more greenhouse people than there was hoop people at the time. And it’s and Chris is so right, you get the max sun absorption if you’re East West, and, and with a greenhouse, you want even light on all your plants, and that’s why they’ll go north south. But you know, there’s still some hoop house or high tunnel people that will disagree with East West, but I can’t imagine putting one any other way. We’re, we got some that slope, we’re slightly facing a little bit north of East on a couple and they warm up a lot faster, but they cool down faster, but it’s mainly east west.
JASON FISCHBACH 1:07:59
Well, you guys did a great job. It’s so fun interviewing, you know, farmers that are out there figuring this stuff out, and on the cutting edge. So any last words of advice for our podcast listeners about winter spinach, before we wrap it up.
Chris Duke 1:08:15
Um, I would say just one thing I guess I didn’t talk about was, um, was row covers, and we don’t have a substructure inside like bill does, but I do use row cover usually heavyweight row covers, and, and sometimes two or three layers when it’s wicked cold at night. And then then as soon as it’s it’s warming up though, just like Bill said, even if it’s it’s not plastic, it’s still letting some ventilation through but man, you still got to go pull that stuff and make sure those leaves are able to get to that sun and that they’re not sitting around all humid. Um, and I think for us I I tried plastic before and it was trapping in a lot of humidity I was having a lot more like leaf disease pressure in general. And I feel like when I switched to the, to the row cover at night, even sometimes doubled up or tripled up, then most of that went away. But I can still still get away with having a little bit bigger leaf and and less tip burn, but anyways, yeah, I just want to throw that out row cover can work pretty good too. But don’t don’t leave it right on your plants. When we first started. We just drug it right over the plants and then it kind of freezes and sticks to the leaf and it doesn’t you don’t get that envelope of air underneath of the the row cover between the row cover and the ground that the spinach is protected in. So really make make a nice a nice hoop structure under there to put your row cover over, don’t let it touch those big leaves and yeah, I mean just go plant some you’ll be surprised how well it grows really.
JASON FISCHBACH 1:10:01
Bill, any last words?
Bill Warner 1:10:03
Yeah, probably, I would say in the early 2000s, when I gave a workshop, my first slide would say, “Why take winters off when you can work?”. And so it’s just if you’re gonna do it, you got it. You know, that’s why a lot of farmers don’t necessarily want to do hoops all winter, because they want a break. If you’re going to do it, you’re going to have to spend the time to do it. And you’ll learn a lot just by doing it, but you’ll have to be out there. You know, I don’t have to go out every day. I just don’t know which days I do or don’t can’t go out and depends on the sun and the clouds. So if you do it, just know that you’re going to be going out, but hey, good vitamin D, you know, it’s, it’s good to be out in the winter, it shortens winter up a lot for me. So I assume that shortens your winter up going out in March at 80 degrees in your hoop and you feel it’s warm again.
Chris Duke 1:10:57
Yeah, it feels really nice. That feels a lot better than when you go out in January. And you get those 35 degree drips of water that drip off the roof and come right down the back of your neck and your jacket. That’s not the fun part. But like Bill said, I mean, you want to extend extend your season. You’re extending your season. That means you better either you or your employees are gonna have to be out there working in January and February. So somebody’s got to do the work. But yeah, I mean, I feel like it’s worth it. You already have that high tunnel structure and it’s a pretty easy product to market and it’s pretty straightforward to grow. But yeah, like like I would agree with Bill, you’re gonna put in a little bit of time.
JASON FISCHBACH 1:11:41
Thanks, guys for your time telling us about winter spinach. This has been great. And thank you listeners for listening to the cutting edge a podcast in search of new crops for Wisconsin. (music) Brought to you by the University of Wisconsin Madison Division of Extension.