Rebecca Tilley, in her 11th year of growing and marketing organic produce full-time near Williamsport, Ohio, is finding she can earn excellent prices by selling to chefs at restaurants and has also begun custom-growing for her chefs.
Rebecca specializes in brightly colored roots and greens and heirloom tomatoes, but this year she’s adding another crop—two acres of butternut squash, in the variety Ultra HP which has been requested by her chefs. She’s also growing one acre planted in two different varieties of sweet potatoes, one for her farmers market customers and another specifically requested by her chefs.
“The chefs have requested ‘Beauregard’ for its flavor,” she explained. “This variety can grow quite large, but the chefs don’t mind because they process the sweet potatoes, so the larger size is actually an advantage. But farmers market customers can be ‘intimidated’ by a four-pound sweet potato. So for the market, I grow the variety ‘Covington,’ which produces a more uniform ½ to ¾ pound size.” She will be planting a total of 6500 slips.
“I’m trying to increase the size of the orders I deliver to my restaurants to make each delivery more worthwhile. I sell about 60 percent of what I grow at farmers markets, and about 40 percent to chefs.”
Fortunately, the two Saturday farmers markets she attends from May through October are busy, upscale ones in Columbus, Ohio, where customers are willing to pay good prices for top quality produce. Rebecca takes pride in building eye-catching market displays with lots of bright colors, and also in choosing the varieties with the best flavor.
To facilitate quick transactions, she no longer sells her roots — carrots in yellow, orange, white, red and purple; beets in golden, purple and red; and her distinctive heirloom tomatoes and slim Japanese eggplants — by the pound. Instead, her helpers pre-fill quart bowls of these, each containing a variety of colors and types, which are sold for a flat $3 a bowl. This method cuts out the need for weighing each order and for making small change.
“Customers have difficulty in visualizing exactly what a pound of something will look like,” she explained. “This way, they can see exactly what they’ll be getting for their $3, and won’t be disappointed.”
Her bite-size greens, cut at about 3 inches, in green, red, bronze, dark red, and purple, in a variety of leaf shapes and types, as well as rainbow chard, spinach, arugula, and kale, are sold by the pound from open bins where customers can request their own mixes.
Freshness and quality are very important to Rebecca. “My greens stay fresh a long time. I’ve tested them,” she said. “I pick in early morning, and the greens immediately go into our 35 degree cooler. I believe that prompt cooling makes a big difference.”
In fact, Rebecca and husband Justin Tilley are in the process of constructing an additional cooler, so they have the best conditions for storing their variety of crops. In addition to the 35 degree cooler, they’re building a 24×30’ cooler, to be held at 60 degrees for long term storage of their butternut squash and sweet potatoes. Within this cooler will be a separate 10×13 room held at 85 degrees with humidity controls for curing these vegetables before storage.
In efforts to be more precise, Rebecca explained, “I have been curing vegetables in the greenhouse, but the temperature there can be highly variable, and I could not control the humidity. Within the curing room, I’ll have just the right conditions.”
To avoid sudden crunches of large volumes of perishable produce that need to be moved out quickly, the Tilley’s aim is to gradually transition, as much as possible, to less perishable crops, like their current onions in sweet (“Candy,”) red, and yellow storage onions, potatoes, and their 1 1/2 acres German Extra-Hardy garlic.
I’ve been replanting from my own organic garlic, which in our zone 5 climate is very winter-hardy, for 9 years now. I sell the smaller bulbs (under 2 1/4 inches in diameter,) at the farmers markets and to chefs, and ship the rest as planting stock to growers and gardeners all over the country from my website. The bulbs will keep in good condition into the next April. Garlic has been a great crop for me.”
She also sells garlic scapes during the two weeks of the year when they can be harvested, either rubber banded seven to a bunch at market, or by the pound to an oriental grocery “who will buy all I can raise.”
Tilley Farmstead grows large Italian eggplants, mostly for a restaurant customer, who use a lot of them for baba ganoush and for making marinated eggplant. The slender Japanese eggplants add extra color to her market stand.
This year Rebecca and Justin, newly married last October, will both be working together fulltime growing and marketing organic produce. “I feel like I really ‘lucked out’ that we can do this life together,” she commented.
Justin, who has never farmed before, brings a new perspective and fresh eyes to the operation. He realized Rebecca has been working incredibly hard doing many things like weeding and even planting onion seedlings on her hands and knees. “He understands that may work for now,” Rebecca continued, “but Justin is looking ahead to the future and trying to mechanize as many operations as possible,” which will shorten some of extremely long days she used to work in the past. “He’s trying to figure out how we can farm smarter.”
After attending an organic conference in Ohio put on by OEFFA last winter, Justin has become interested in trying flame weeding, specifically in using a four-jet, tractor-drawn flame weeder, which they hope to purchase by May to use on the roots and greens.
Justin also has considerable mechanical expertise, and has been working hard to get Rebecca’s frequently under-maintained mechanical equipment in top working order. Last winter, “We bought an Allis G with a belly weeder, so we can watch exactly what we’re cultivating, instead of pulling the cultivator behind the tractor. It will be a big deal if we can cultivate within 2 or 3 inches of the plants,” she explained.
Fully Certified Organic since 2015, Rebecca has always used spraying organically only as a last resort. For weed control, half of her acreage is planted in plastic mulch. She uses shiny reflective mulch with squash and eggplant to control troublesome insects, which seem to be repelled by the bright reflected light. “I always try to make the plants healthier, using foliar feeding and added nutrition, before I resort to spraying,” she added. As an extra weapon against a serious infestation of cucumber beetles, if needed, she plans to try Pyganic 5.0, which has been approved for certified organic growers.
Reemay row covers, not insecticides, cut the flea beetle populations on arugula and kale, although insect damage on kale sometimes necessitates replanting anyway. Copper has been effective against fungus diseases, when she has resorted to it. Including cover crops in vegetable rotations and between succession plantings has built the health of Tilley Farmstead’s soil, as has an unlimited supply of manure.
“I may lose one main crop a year due to weather or pests, but other crops really thrive in that same condition. Planting a diversity of crops as well as growing short-season crops is a huge benefit for vegetable farmers. Farming really is a grand experiment!” she concluded.