Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association
Efficient Systems Fuel the Food Project

Publications \ The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener \ Spring 2002 \ Food Project

Michael Docter
Michael Docter spoke about efficient harvesting systems at the Farmer to Farmer Conference in November. English photo.


By Jean English

Michael Docter runs a 600-member Community Supported Agriculture farm, The Food Project, in Hadley, Mass., that not only provides abundant and diverse produce to its members but sends a substantial portion of its yields to the Western Mass. Foodbank. Dorter's energetic persona and ability to maximize efficiency everywhere on the farm have been critical to the success of the operation. That efficiency was the subject of his talk at MOFGA's Farmer to Farmer Conference in Bar Harbor last November.

The Food Project started years ago on little acreage, some borrowed, as the Chili Project, which grew beans, tomatoes, onions and other ingredients that were used to make a vegetarian chili for the Food Bank, soup kitchens and shelters. It was a "very sexy idea" that got lots of publicity, said Docter, and it was very successful – except that nobody liked the chili.

After a while, The Food Project realized that fresh ingredients that were going into the chili were more valuable to local agencies than the chili, so the Project started raising fresh vegetables instead and tried to find ways to make its operation self-sustaining, instead of relying on fundraising. Eleven years ago, the Project looked at several CSAs. "Most were very small, garden-scale, operating very inefficiently according to conventional agricultural standards," said Docter. "We thought we could take this very efficient market model and if we could scale it up we might be able to make a profit – i.e., surplus vegetables for the Food Bank." So the Project bought 45 acres of Hadley loam, "some of the most productive farmland in the world," and by its third CSA year was breaking even. "We started with about 100 shares, and broke even by the second or third year" – although "breaking even" included a lot of Dorter's donated time. They had calculated that they needed 250 shares to break even. Now, the farm supports itself even as it gives away half of its produce by weight – including such items as butternut squash, carrots and beets. It sells out of shares every year; has an 85% return rate in an area with 15% turnover in population; and has a waiting list of members. "I think CSAs work when you figure you can capture 1% of the population within 20 minutes of the farm," he said. Proximity to the markets of Northampton and Amherst – both within 20 minutes – is a key to The Food Project's success.

One price of this success is that "we're harder on our soil than we would like to be. I wish we could put more land out of production and into rotations. On the other hand, [our] organic matter has been going up 0.1% each year for the last 10 years.

"We are hard on ourselves and the people we work with," too, said Dorter. "We demand a high production rate."

Efficient Harvesting Systems

Docter keeps his Palm Pilot with him all the time in its special case that keeps dust out. On it he keeps a "crew to do list," a "me to do list," records of crop planting data, including variety, planting date, seeder setting, and so on. Some data are kept on paper during the day, as well. At the end of the day, the Palm Pilot "pops into its cradle on the computer" and the data are downloaded.

Despite superb organization, not everything goes as planned. Last year, on June 2, a hail storm devastated the farm's peppers and tomatoes, which had to be replanted – forcing the farm workers "to get creative." They built simple tents of Reemay suspended on stakes over the new transplants. The tents pushed the tomatoes and peppers so that their growth caught up, and peppers were so responsive to the Reemay tents, producing about a week earlier than normal, that this will be a new system for growing them.

One of the farm's main harvest containers is a half barrel made of plastic, a byproduct of a nearby pickle factory. The round-bottomed half barrels work like sleds in the field, and the round bottoms enable workers to clean them easily as well. The smoothness is very unabrasive to lettuce and other tender crops. The one drawback with the barrels is that they don't stack or nest. Sheetrock buckets are used often, too, because of their "human scale."

"Adam Smith is sort of our friend on the farm," said Dorter. "We try to break everything down into smaller tasks. The day before we're going to harvest carrots, beets and tomatoes – three crops that don't suffer by being picked the day before share distribution – we top carrots before pulling them with a quick flick from the hand. Then we fork a lot of our carrots or [less commonly] lift them with a simple bed lifter." Buckets have previously been placed in the field wherever they're going to be needed. Carrots are harvested into the buckets, and the buckets are put on a truck. Likewise, beets are topped and put into buckets the day before distribution.

Tomatoes are grown as an early crop – Johnny's 36 on plastic and covered with hoops and Reemay – and as a main season crop – half a dozen varieties that ripen from one side of the field to the other. This scheme helps control diseases, since pickers only go into the planting that is already producing. A stake-and-weave system supports the tomatoes. Twine for the weaving mounts on a box on a worker's belt. The plants are never suckered. "The more you mess with it," Dorter believes, "the greater chance of disease." Upon harvest, heirloom tomatoes are given a quick polish with white gloves, then are put one layer deep in tomato trays, which "act like a little bunkbed" as they are stacked, keeping the fruits in good shape. The heirlooms are picked a little pink, because they tend to crack otherwise. Brandywine is the main heirloom tomato, because it "gives the flavor we want and actually has yields." Striped Zebra is sometimes grown as well.

After tomatoes are removed from the buckets into which they were harvested and put in trays, the empty buckets are heaved onto the truck, ready for the next day's harvest of summer squash, cucumbers, and so on. "Rather than restack the buckets somewhere, we drive them out to the field and put them where they're to be used the next day."

Corn is picked as one person pulls a half barrel with one hand and picks with the other hand, while two other people pick with two hands. Six or seven people can pick about 2,000 pounds of corn in about 45 minutes this way. The barrels are dragged to the ends of the rows and put on trucks, then brought to the distribution building.

Carrots are planted five times, 15 to 20 days apart each, with the July 4th planting being the largest. Upon harvest, they are run through a used, $50 washer, then go in a rolling bin to the distribution room. "Bulk carrots are one of our most popular crops," said Dorter. Even as the crew is harvesting the last crop of carrots, rye has been overseeded into the crop and is producing a winter cover crop.

Adolescent lettuce is grown from seed in the field, sown every seven days from mid-April to September 15th. It doesn't have all of the postharvest needs of baby lettuce, yet is not a head lettuce. This method is cheaper than setting out transplants, gives the farm better control over the crop, and Docter believes the plants tend to be stronger than transplants. They are harvested right into the half barrels with a quick cut of a sharp knife when they are about 6 inches tall. When full, the barrels are pulled to the ends of rows. Each lettuce crop is cut only once during the heat of the growing season.

Tatsoi, mizuna and arugula are planted every week and are covered with Reemay to keep off flea beetles and to produce a better eating quality. Spinach is cut two or three times. Red Russian kale is also cut and recut.

Most of these greens are taken into the distribution room, where the "sleds" that they're in become sinks as they're filled with water to wash the greens. Then the greens are gently lifted into wicker baskets that are set on the cement slab floor. "We love wicker baskets for greens. The wicker wicks off excess moisture." The greens are not refrigerated, since that would dehydrate them. This saves a lot of time, since the crew doesn't have to pack and unpack a cooler.

Brassicas are harvested later in the day. Cauliflower gets a quick cut across the top to remove some leaves, but a wrapper of leaves remains on for protection, as the fragile crop gets bumped a bit in the harvesting bucket. Cabbage is cut high enough so that no peeling is required, yet low enough so that the head isn't scalped. Most of the cabbage loopers come off of the broccoli and cabbage plants when they're soaked in plain (not salted) water for 10 to 15 minutes. Then they're put in plastic containers in the distribution room, since they are too heavy for wicker baskets.

Brussels sprouts have the outer leaves stripped from the stalk, then someone cuts the stalk with a machete, high and low, and the entire stalk of sprouts is sold to the CSA members. This "saves the time of having to break the sprouts off, and [customers] get this cool looking thing that makes them all happy."

A delicious Hakurei white turnip, which is called White Lady in some seed catalogs, is placed in shallow tomato trays and gets a quick hosing down. The trays drain well.

Some crops, such as most herbs, are not washed. Spinach is picked right into the bushel baskets from which it is distributed to customers. The Hadley silt loam does not get the crop dirty. Cabbage is barely washed, although it might get a quick hose down if necessary; it keeps better, however, if it's dry.

As the day warms, cucurbits are picked by pairs of workers, one person picking each half of the bed into buckets that have already been put in place. "We're not really raising vegetables," Docter joked, "we're putting buckets down where we need them."

Moving on to peppers, Docter says that an old, sweet variety called Sweet Italian is the finest tasting pepper he knows, and corn borers tend not to bother it because of its tight top. It needs a simple trellis, as tomato plants get, because it produces so heavily that it tends to lodge. A half tobacco lath makes a good trellis.

Some crops are grown in a "They Pick" system, where customers can have all they want. "They can fill their bathtubs if they want." These include flowers, dill, basil, cilantro, green beans, sugar snap peas and snow peas. Strawberries were sold this way, but are limited now.

Winter shares are harvested into bins on the back of a tractor. The crew waits for a dry day when the temperature is below 18 degrees to get the best tasting fall cabbage.

To harvest for donating to the Food Bank, cabbage is cut, retaining a bunch of wrapper leaves, is turned upside down so that the cut end cures for an hour or two, then the harvesting crew comes back and tosses each head to a person who places it into the bin. Since no money is being made on this food, "we have to do it fast, so it's sort of an Olympic event."

Likewise, because they're near college towns, dozens of volunteers turn out to pick about 7 acres of winter squash into windrows for the Food Bank. The farm crew just drives through with the tractor to pick up the nearly dozen varieties.

Distribution

The farm has three distribution days, with about 200 of its 600 members coming on each day to pick up their produce. A magnetized board tells people what they can take for their share or share-plus, and as soon as an item runs out, it is removed from the board – so "no one knows what they're missing.

"We realized early on," said Docter, "that a CSA as originally envisioned was not going to work for us or for most Americans. People want choices." So The Food Project gives people a bag and tells them to walk down along tables and fill the bag half-way or two-thirds or whatever amount, depending on what's available that day. "When we switched to this system from telling them what they had to take, customers said they felt like the Berlin Wall had come down." Putting bulk produce out and letting customers fill their bags "saved us thousands of dollars each year. We don't have to unit price things. It also allowed us to focus more on producing what they want," rather than spending time bunching carrots, radishes and beets, and so on. Instead, the farm crew just topi these items, washes them and puts them out in bulk.

Produce is displayed in shallow containers so that customers don't dig around as they choose. Another table holds lettuce, and yet another has salad greens, where people can make their own baby salad mix. This "gets us away from the regulatory hassle of saying we're preparing a ready-mix salad, because they're mixing it themselves. Also, a lot of people don't like or love arugula, so people get to decide what they want to take." Customers can take what they want in an "unlimited bag" of things that "don't cost us any money to grow" – such as kale, collards and chard that get too big.

Docter says you can take something off the board if you know it's running out. Likewise, "if you know broccoli is popular and you don't have much of it, stick it at the end of the table. The grower has an incredible amount of control."

The main reason people had, in the past, left the CSA was that they were getting too much food. "We're constantly trying to cut that back and give people more choices."

A share costs $400 and a share-plus costs $520. A share-plus buys a bigger bag and more of some items, although Docter says that nobody buys the share-plus any more, they just take more for their $400 bag. The harvest season starts on June 1, with a week or two of greens, and ends with two winter shares, distributed in mid-November and mid-December. Customers are paying about 80 to 90 cents per pound for their 400 to 500 pounds of vegetables. "Most customers don't know whether they're getting a good deal. You have to tell them they're getting a good deal." A student thesis found that customers who paid $400 at The Food Project would have paid $780 at the local grocery store for the same items (but not organic) or $1,180 for the same (organic) items at Bread & Circus. "But they're making a separate trip, out of their normal day," Docter pointed out. So The Food Project tries to make the trip more convenient for them by buying local goods from other small businesses – goods such as bread, cider, goat cheese, eggs and fresh pasta. "We've fostered a lot of cottage industries this way," he adds.

The CSA grosses about $225,000 in share income each year and makes another $70,000 (about $15,000 to $20,000 net) on goods it buys and sells. They make "pennies" from most of the items they buy in, but "make a fortune off of apples," buying them at 40 cents a pound and selling them at $1.40. The money that they net from these extra items enables them to hire one or two workers each year. Docter wouldn't recommend buying and selling such goods to most CSAs; one reason it works for them is because of their scale.

Docter himself takes home about $30,000 in pay and gets about $10,000 in housing, utilities, phone expenses, etc., because he's incorporated. (See below.)

Q & A

When asked how they inspire workers, Docter said they have good years and bad. Normally they have only four or five people working on the farm, "so there's a sense of urgency." He said that good systems, a good flow of work, clear tasks, and getting everybody on board to recognize that something has to be done fast are ways to motivate workers. "Don't have a lot of waiting around."

He added that we come from a culture where for the last hundred years we have been trying to find ways not to work, so his workers "have to realize we are farmers, we have to work fast and efficiently." He admitted that he has not mastered this problem but is constantly working on it.

His workers receive many benefits, including housing and food on top of their $550 to $850/month wages. "I try to treat them with respect and give them a lot of benefits." He has housing that he has to rent from the Food Project. He explains that an IRS statute says that if you're farming for a company and that company requires in writing that you must live on the farm, then your housing and other expenses are deductible pre-tax. So he rents the farmhouse, barn and farmland from the Food Project. "Everything I can spend in relation to living there, I'm required by this company that I own" to deduct it.

When asked how soil fertility is maintained, Docter responded that they cover crop fairly aggressively – as soon as a crop is out of the ground; that they take leaves from the suburbs around them and let them sit for a few years to compost; they apply a granular organic fertilizer as necessary, although they are moving away from that; and that, for $180, they fill a big grain hopper with soybean meal, which is used to supply nitrogen as needed. If soybean meal isn't cheap in a particular year, they'll use some other material.

Asked about their organic status, Docter said that the farm is not certified organic but is organic. "Our customers can come and inspect us anytime. We don't need third-party certification. We're pretty strict."

Regarding cultivation, the farm hires someone to plow the 45 acres for $15 per acre three times a year, because this costs less than buying and maintaining their own big tractor. If the person plows within three days of when they need him, he gets a small bonus. During the growing season, their weed control is done with Farmall Cubs and an Allis Chalmers G tractor, with a few different types of weeders, depending on the size of the crop and weeds. They kill some weeds by using a stale seedbed system; others by flaming. Their beds are al 40 inches wide (except squash, which grows on 80-inch-wide beds; and tomatoes, on 60-inch rows) to accommodate their equipment. They avoid buying compost in order to avoid importing weed seeds. "Our overall theory on the farm," said Docter, is that "every year we try to reduce our weed pressure. If you can keep a field clean for three or four years, you're going to see a dramatic reduction in weed pressure in subsequent years." Their rotations are based more on weed pressure than on anything else.

Seeding is done with a Planet Junior seeder on their Allis Chalmers G tractor, with a Briggs & Stratton motor on the back. "We try not to thin anything" – except parsnips, which germinate so irregularly; rutabagas; and broccoli and cabbage, thinnings of which are replanted. Replanting sets the transplanted thinnings back and thus extends the harvest season.

MOF&G Cover Spring 2002