by Sally Colby
Robert Ramming grew up on a small farm and says he got the farming bug in 1968 after subscribing to an organic gardening magazine. “We moved to Yolo County in 1980,” he said. “We bought farmland in 1984, and started farming in 1994. This year will be our 23rd season.”
Pacific Star Gardens is certified organic and includes 40 acres. The acreage is carefully planned for rotation, which is the key to weed, insect and disease control. Ideally, the deep clay loam soil is covered with a cover crop over winter. Robert uses a plow-down mix for cover crop, which includes vetch, winter peas and bell beans.
“Then we disc it, rototill it and drag an I-beam over it to level it out,” said Robert. “We use a drop spreader to put out composted chicken manure pellets. About every third year we add gypsum to bring the alkalinity down and add calcium and sulfur.”
This season’s El Nino means extra moisture, which has altered the planting schedule. “The last time we had a huge El Nino like this was in 1997, and we couldn’t get on the ground until April,” said Robert. “Normally, we start transplanting at the end of February. We put tomatoes on black plastic mulch with floating row cover and get tomatoes a month early.”
The 3,000 square foot greenhouse is heated in a unique and economical manner. “The greenhouse is already a solar collector,” said Robert. “We just needed ‘rocks in the basement’. We put 1,000 five-gallon buckets of water in the greenhouse with a little bleach in each one to keep the nasty stuff from growing.”
Robert says the buckets heat up during the day, and each one yields 400 BTUs. This contributes one third of the heat needed to keep the greenhouse warm at night. “Ultraviolet light degrades plastic, so we painted some of the buckets black or gray,” said Robert. “A circulating fan helps move warm air around, and even in winter, the ambient temperature in the greenhouse is about 80 degrees.” Robert estimates that each bucket saves one gallon of diesel fuel. A back-up boiler supplies any additional heat that’s needed.
Tomatoes are started from seed in a germination chamber, which Robert constructed when he was first growing seedless watermelon. “We use a rectangular, galvanized horse trough with an immersion heater, with bricks to set trays on. A thermostat controls the heater. The downside is that there’s no light, so we have to watch them and pull them out and put them on a heat mat table in the greenhouse.” In addition to starting seeds for their own crops, the Rammings also start seeds for other farmers in the area.
The Rammings strive to grow five rounds of tomatoes each year, and try to get a lot of plants in early for late June farmers’ markets. “The tomatoes are all determinate,” said Robert. “We grow six or seven varieties with short stakes and woven strings.” Although some growers grow tomatoes in high tunnels year-ground, Robert says that for him the profit margin isn’t worth keeping them inside.
Each year Robert tries new tomato varieties, including some developed by private breeders. “A breeder in Woodland developed the Sweet Tangerine tomato, an orange determinate,” he said. “That was our standard for a while, then we stumbled across Carolina Gold, which is an older variety from the east. It has good foliage cover and bears well. We recently came across an improvement that’s even better and has tremendous yields and great flavor.”
The first three rounds of melons are started in the greenhouse in peat pots and are put out in March. “They are under floating row cover until early April,” said Robert. “Once we’re in mid to late April, after the rainy season, we can direct seed. Seed is pricy so we have to make sure that each seed counts. We’ve tried a lot of different melons, but 95 percent of the melons we sell are ambrosia or regular cantaloupe.”
Other crops include cauliflower, broccoli, baby leeks, Brussels sprouts, chard, spring onions, celery, cabbage, fennel, dill, beets, carrots, asparagus, potatoes, sweet potatoes and a selection of squashes as well as apricots and assorted berries.
Three wells supply water for Pacific Star Gardens, but Robert says, “Most farms in western Yolo County that are in the flood control district always try to use canal water because it’s the cheapest water,” he said. “You don’t want to pump out of the ground unless you have to.”
Pacific Star Gardens attends five markets each week throughout the summer. In a good year, with ideal weather and yields, farmers’ markets account for about one quarter of sales. “At the farm stand, we sell tomatoes and melons, and have u-pick strawberries, blackberries and apricots,” said Robert. “We also sell veggie boxes, or membership accounts and egg subscriptions.”
Robert has been restoring a seed cleaner with a view to expanding into another market. “It’s a Clipper model 27 grain separator,” he said. “We went in with another farm on it, and we’re researching it online. If we grow seed for the birds, the seed doesn’t have to be cleaned that well. But vegetable seeds have to be cleaned to a certain purity.” In the future, Robert would like to grow grains for flour and bread, and perhaps even for beer.
Robert has spent a lot of time analyzing various business models for organic farms, and has determined that selling as directly as possible is the best option for them. “The overhead becomes a huge portion of it,” he said. “The only way you can make up for the inefficiency of production is by selling full retail and having customers come to you. There’s no marketing, no packaging, no shipping, no distribution, no advertising. That’s where we see a light at the end of the tunnel. People are attached to the farm – you can have a small enough clientele where everybody can know each other instead of 400 or 800 people that you have to take boxes to and a full-time person to handle the accounts.”
Innovations continue after decades of farming
by Sally Colby