by Bill and Mary Weaver
Root vegetables, many of them planted in July and August, harvested in late fall and stored for the winter, give Tipi Produce a steady winter income during what is normally downtime for growers.
“Roots account for 20 percent of our sales for the year,” commented Steve Pincus of Evansville, WI, who farms with his wife Beth Kazmar, their son Ari, daughter Sophie and 20 employees at the height of the season. “During winter, I take a mixture of root vegetables on deliveries twice a week to local natural food stores in three area cities.” To make deliveries worthwhile, though, Pincus advises, plan to have a variety of root vegetables, many of which can be planted soon, to offer your customers. The farm’s deliveries also include onions, leeks and greens as long as they’re available, and storage cabbage.
“We have worked out planting and harvesting times for seven root vegetables that sell well for us and yield about 20,000 pounds per acre. (Carrots have a much higher yield.)” All but one can be machine harvested, and all can be machine washed in a variety of barrel washers.
Tipi Produce makes several plantings of a number of these roots, to have a fresh crop that is not oversized when they harvest for storage as late in the season as possible. Roots that can still be planted now and in the coming weeks for fall harvest and winter storage include carrots, daikon, turnips, winter radishes, and in many areas, rutabagas. Other roots grown by Tipi Produce for winter storage that need to be planted earlier include celeriac and parsnips. Carrots are by far their best seller.
All these crops can be harvested with the same machinery and are stored at the same temperature for winter-long sales.
Carrots for winter storage, for example, are still being planted in July. “Bolero” is the storage carrot of choice for late October and November harvest. “I’ve been growing Bolero for 20 years. Our customers love them for their sweetness and lack of fiber, and they’re still good eating the next May.”
For late summer and earlier fall harvest, the favored variety is “Nectar.” About a month before seeding the first carrot planting, Pincus moldboards under a shoulder-high cover crop of rye and hairy vetch. To prepare the seedbed for their 4+ acres of fall carrots, “I like a seven-foot Perfecta field cultivator with a shank and leveling bar and a crumble roller on the back from Unverferth. It levels the soil and makes a firm seedbed for good contact between the soil and the seed.
“We plant raw seed using a Mattermac vacuum seeder at 24 seeds per foot, aiming for a final stand of 10 to 12 plants per foot. Our carrots are Nantes types,” Pincus said.
“Typically in July, we give the field a good first dousing if it’s dry, and add about ¼ inch of water a day after that, using drip or overhead. Carrot seeds are near the surface so they need both moisture and air at this stage, so don’t overwater.”
If you get a poor stand, don’t hesitate to replant. “With a thinner stand, carrots adapt by growing larger and rougher,” Pincus said.
Many weeds simply won’t germinate in hot soils. Tipi Produce has several devices for weeding their carrots. “But unfortunately, as organic growers, we still have to do some hand weeding. During August we hand weed 4+ acres of carrots sequentially over about three weeks.”
For harvesting all their roots, the operation in the past used a mid-50’s one-row harvester. “Reuters Farm Equipment in Michigan is the headquarters for finding parts and expertise for these machines. A shoe undercuts the carrots, and they’re pulled up by the tops. We added a belt to convey the carrots into a bin,” Pincus said.
“We think it pays to have one person walk behind the harvester to look for carrots left behind because their tops ripped off. These are generally the largest carrots, and they’re worth $1 a pound wholesale. Without this machine, we wouldn’t be in the carrot business. With it, we can harvest and stash in the cooler 15,000 pounds of carrots a day with a harvest crew of five, plus people back at the cooler to put away the bins.”
Pincus has recently purchased a second hand, 3-point hitch European harvester. “With it, we can work faster, with less physical effort, and it will handle the carrots more gently. It will be by far the most complex machine on the farm,” said Pincus.
Daikon is the only root vegetable not machine-harvested at Tipi Produce, although the operation has found a way to machine wash the brittle roots using a special slow-speed barrel washer.
For winter radishes, Pincus grows Red Meat radishes, which have a light green exterior that hides the shocking pink center. “We sell them under the name ‘Beauty Heart.’ They’re quite sweet, and a favorite with our customers. They store well, and can be washed in a barrel washer. A second planting is made for winter storage,” said Pincus.
Purple top white globe turnips can still be planted with time to mature for winter storage and sales. Two plantings are a good idea, using the second planting, harvested in cold weather when the first planting may be getting oversized, for winter storage. Having a second planting can save you, too, if your first planting is attacked by root maggots. Later plantings often miss the last hatch of these pests and go undamaged.
For organic growers, noted Pincus, the solution could be very lightweight row covers, to block the flies from laying the eggs in the soil from which the maggots hatch.
For summer planted rutabagas, Pincus says, “The variety ‘Helenor’ is vigorous, and sizes up late in the season.”
Long-term storage temperatures for all the roots are 32 degrees F and close to 99 percent humidity. In the frigid Wisconsin winters, Pincus sometimes needs to add heat. “Drying out is our biggest problem, so we cover the bins with plastic,” said Pincus.
All the roots Tipi Produce grows for winter storage except daikon will store until early March. Probably the turnips will show signs of deterioration next. “The celeriac is still in good condition when we’re transplanting next year’s crop, and the ‘Bolero’ carrots are still good eating in May and beyond,” said Pincus.
When we spoke with Pincus the first week in April, he was preparing to make his first transplanting of lettuce, and would be running the last full delivery route for his winter vegetables a few days later, with an abbreviated route continuing a while longer.
“We still have carrots and celeriac from storage, and freshly dug parsnips that overwintered in the ground,” he added.
Plant soon for winter-long storage and sales
by Bill and Mary Weaver