Sunday, March 1, 2009

How the Farmer Plants His Seeds

Imagine trying to get 10,000 tiny seeds from seed packets into these growing trays. Now imagine 70,000 seeds.

That's what Leigh Hauter has been working on the past week--getting a jump start on the crops for his CSA at Bull Run Farm. So far, Leigh and his helper have 20,000 seeds planted and the broccoli and cabbages are sprouting. Now just 50,000 more seeds to go.

I get dizzy thinking about planting just a few hundred seeds. That's because I use my fingers. Fortunately for modern farmers, there are some mechanical aides to make the process a bit easier. But let's not jump too far ahead.

Seed starting for Leigh Hauter actually begins in January when an 18-wheel truck arrives with pallet-loads of organic potting medium. The road to the farm wasn't designed for an 18-wheeler, so the bags are dropped at the end of the driveway. Leigh has to load them into his pickup truck and deliver them the rest of the way to the greenhouse.

Waiting at the greenhouse are many hundreds of plastic seed trays in which the new year's seeds will sprout and grow until the last frost date passes and they can be transplanted into the fields. Some growers forgo manufactured seed trays and make their own "soil blocks" in which to sprout seeds. But Leigh says he usually gets several years' service out of a plastic tray. He orders about 200 new ones each year to replace the ones that wore out or were "mishandled" the previous year, meaning run over by the tractor.

Leigh's strategy is to give his seedlings ample room to grow in the trays, so he chooses trays with 50 cells. Other trays have 72 or even more cells, because the cells are much smaller. He also likes to add some fertilizer to his growing mix--a little compost, a little bone meal, some kelp. "I know some growers like to transplant their seedlings into bigger pots and fertilize them at that time," Leigh said. "But that would be too much work for us. I could not see us doing that. So having a little bit of fertilizer in there now saves us work."

Leigh and his helper pour the starting mix into the trays in assembly-line fashion, then tamp it down with plaster molds that match the shape of the seed cells. Now comes the fun part: getting one seed into each cell. Leigh's helper is stubborn. He still uses a simple manual seeder that drops one seed at a time into the cells. But Leigh has graduated to a vacuum device that delivers five seeds at a time. It has different-sized nozzles depending on the size of the seeds being planted. Some growers use similar vacuum machines that can plant an entire tray, each seed placed precisely in the middle of its cell. But these cost thousands of dollars. Leigh is content to deploy his own time and labor instead.

Once the seeds are placed in their cells, more growing medium is poured over them and tamped down. At this point they are watered. There's a hose with a watering wand that hangs from above in the greenhouse. Until they sprout, the seeds may only need to be watered every two or three days. But once they turn into little plants with leaves and root structures, they will need to be watered as much as two or three times daily. In the past, extra hoses and sprinklers made watering easier. But Leigh said the greenhouse was moved from another location and the more elaborate watering system fell by the wayside.

Planting and watering all day in the greenhouse doesn't exactly fire the farmer's imagination. But Leigh says it's pleasant enough work. "Better than being outside in the cold shoveling snow or something." With its wood-fired boiler, the greenhouse stays toasty. Last week when temperatures climbed to 60 degrees outside, Leigh had to roll up the sides of the greenhouse. "It would have been 110 degrees in there."

I was curious where Leigh buys his seed. In my own case, I've narrowed seed purchases to a few distributors: Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, located in Virginia; Johnny's Seeds in Maine; Heirloom Seeds in Pennsylvania. I like the idea of buying seeds from people in our area who work organically and focus on open-pollinated heirloom varieties. Leigh says he also buys some seed from Southern Exposure and from Johnny's, but his favorite seed company at the moment is E&R Seeds in Munroe, Indiana (sorry, they don't have a website). "Johnny's seeds are very reliable and they've got a great catalogue, but they've gotten expensive," Leigh says.

So for now at Bull Run Farm it's fill trays, plant seeds and water. And don't forget to keep the fire in the greenhouse boiler burning. "Yesterday we were out cutting firewood," said Leigh. "We've got about 100 acres of woods and lots of trees the gypsy moths killed a couple of years ago." What the gypsy moths killed will soon be heating water that runs in copper tubes under all those seed trays. Peppers and tomatoes can't be far behind.

This is the second in a continuing series of articles about Leigh Hauter and the methods he uses he grow remarkable organic produce at his farm in The Plains, Virginia.


Greg W said...

That is one busy operation! I only plant about 300 new plants each year from seed and it is all I can do to keep track of it all. I'm impressed.

Thanks for reminding us of what major growers go through for us.

Sylvie, Rappahannock Cook & Kitchen Gardener said...

Ed - can you share the contact info for Heirloom Seeds? I had tried to contact them a couple of years ago, but was not successful. Thanks a lot.

Ed Bruske said...

Greg, I'm with you. Keeping track of a few dozen is enough for me.

Sylvie, Heirloom Seeds only accepts online orders any more. And this year they said it would take a month before my order would be shipped out. I don't know if they're extremely busy or just short-staffed. You can find their website here: