Saturday, February 25, 2012

Dream Job and Bad Bugs

Our son, Jonathan, is a 2004 graduate of NC State University and has worked in the so-called "real world" since that time. He has enjoyed jobs in Silver Spring, Maryland; then Cary, Raleigh, and Greensboro. He has been bossed around, and has been the boss.  His last job was such a nightmare that he doesn't even mind working for his work-aholic parents.

Not so much each individual task, but overall, Jonathan calls working here on our tomato farm his "DREAM JOB".  SWEET!!!! 

Being a little obsessive (like his mother),  Jonathan not only does the job at hand, but also grooms the plant of anything else that needs attention.   During the weekly leaf pull, we average pulling off 2 to 3 leaves per plant, per week.  This occurs at the bottom of the plant where the oldest leaves are. This time consuming job is not glamorous, but must be done for the overall health of the plant. We must be careful to break leaves off without breaking the plant and leave clean breaks so no disease will begin on the plant scar. 

While Jonathan is pulling leaves, he has started noticing tiny fruit that needs to be pruned off the plant, so he does that.  In addition, he notices plant scars that haven't healed properly, so he carries his trusty paring knife and scrapes the area clean.  He also sees plants that haven't slipped and broken (nearly half into without breaking completely) and repairs the damage with duct tape. (What else?)  He has an eye for details about the plant and will multi-task until he is satisfied with each plant's appearance and health.  That's a good thing unless you are dealing with 3,500 plants and must complete the leaf pull task by day's end.  (Thankfully we have Jeremy and Daniel pulling leaves with Jonathan and are able to finish one house in under a day.)

With all that observation and a "case of  tomato plant OCD", Jonathan has also found nasty little aphids!  He marks the spot where he has found them and Tim does his microscopic study of the little boogers and tells us that they are potato aphids.  Do those aphids not know that ours is a TOMATO, not potato, house?!?

Although we have already been putting our friends, "aphidius ervi", in the house, it seems that these GOOD bugs cannot keep up with the new outbreak of  BAD aphids.  The kind of aphid explosion we have witnessed this week was more and likely brought on by the lack of a good, cold winter.  Yes, we fight aphids, spider mites, and white flies every year, but this year, the aphids seem to be fighting back.  Since the really warm weather isn't even here yet, we have to step up our plan of attack.    We need more aphidius ervi to the tune of $700.00 this week.  Yes, $700.00 is an outrageous amount of money to spend on bugs that are practically invisible, but they are such a necessary part of our working paradise. 
Aphidius Ervi - aphid destroyer, magnified a jillion times
So we all continue to work and wage war against our enemies, the aphids, white flies, and spider mites.  Coming soon, a special treat the spider mite cannot resist.

Monday, February 20, 2012

"Smokeless Heat"

By beginning our tomato crop in October, you may wonder how we are able to heat the space (and I do mean space....12,000 plus square feet of area enclosed by a two thin layers of plastic).  We are burning woodchips in a “wood gasification boiler” which is also know as an "automated wood waste combustion unit".  

With mostly our own funds, and a little cost share assistance from Tobacco Communities Reinvestment Fund through RAFI we were able to purchase and put our boiler into operation in the 2010/2011 season.

Ours is a “Goliath 300” and was purchased from “New Horizons Corporation”.   The wood burns inside the firebox at approximately 2,000 degrees.   The woodchips are automatically fed into the firebox by a controller when heat is needed.  The Goliath unit will heat water to about 190 degrees.  This hot water is then pumped into the greenhouse into four 200,000 Btu heat exchangers.  The heat exchangers act similar to radiators by re-circulating the water from the boiler to the greenhouse.  Fans blow the greenhouse air across the hot coils inside the heat exchangers to extract the heat out of the water.  This system keeps the greenhouse space an average of 65 degrees. 

This one million Btu, woodchip burning boiler, with automatic feed, when combined with the proper water storage,  is capable of heating groups of houses, agricultural greenhouses, tobacco barns, chicken houses, workshops, etc.   For us, this heater is large enough for future greenhouse expansion.  For fuel, we are using ground-up wood waste (woodchips) from Elkin Sawmill, a central NC lumber yard.  The woodchips are a waste product from wood processing.

Research done by Dr. Mike Boyette of North Carolina State University has proven that this technology can heat greenhouses, chicken houses, and tobacco barns using woodchips. According to Dr. Boyette’s research, converting to wood boilers requires upfront capital costs, but this initial investment is quickly offset by the cost of wood energy.  Estimates are that the simple payback period of the wood boiler system is in the range of 4 to 5 years.  Our analysis reveals that we can recover the capital costs of converting to a wood energy system in about 3 years.  This is based on today’s price of woodchips relative to LP gas. 

I know this all sounds technical, scientific, and like way too much information, but our operation is now so much more cost effective by using wood waste instead of traditional fuel.   It's a great feeling not having to write out a check for LP gas at the end of the season.
Not your typical flames, it's roaring sideways from the other box.  Within this box, the water in the pipe system is heated and then the heated water is pumped into the greenhouse heat exchangers.

Within 30 seconds of the picture of the fire, here's what the exhaust looks like.
That's how much smoke we get with a full burn. 
The boiler burns the wood and exhaust gases so HOT and thoroughly that we RARELY see smoke.

The clean, woodchip pile also serves as a great play area for our 3 yr. old grandson.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

A Tough Couple of Days

The week started out pretty nice with a good picking on Monday.  While our associates were picking, Tim decides to get on one of our working carts and begin working the tops.  (Clips, suckers, etc.)  I, Nancy, who is rarely pictured because I am the photographer, was on the other cart doing the same job.  In fact, that is my main job to go along with grading and packing of tomatoes for delivery. 

Not the large cart, I was on that one, but you get the picture.

A view from the top of the cart.  Note the narrow work space.  Falls sometimes occur.
When one set (two rows) is completed, those large, heavy carts need to be moved to the next set.  As Tim was moving the cart, he somehow had his RIGHT HAND in the wrong position and smashed the top of it pretty thoroughly.  He said he heard it go "crunch!!!"    There was a little blood and a bit of swelling. (Graphic)  He wrapped it in cloth and duct tape (what else) and came home so I could clean it and be grossed out.  I cannot stand the sight of spit, so how can I bear to look at blood.  (I know, much too graphic.)  After the discussion of how he should be more careful, we agreed that getting hurt with the work cart was just a fluke.  Heck we fall off all the time, but usually land on our feet.  After all, we've done this for 18 years.

The next day, Tim managed to smash his LEFT THUMB while using a hammer.  There was lots of throbbing going on, but nothing too gross. 
Within an hour of that, he went into an old shed looking for some type of wooden strips.  He hasn't been near that shed for ten years and just walks in like he had been there yesterday and steps on some hundred year old nail with his RIGHT FOOT.  The antique nail went through his boot, sock, and foot!  I can only imagine how he must have cried like a baby this time.

As he hobbled into the house, he said, "out of my four appendages, I only have one that ain't hurt, my left foot"!!!  (Tears)  Poor Tim.  I always almost afraid to look.  Nasty.  No other description is necessary.

This was late in the day so the tetanus shot was going to have to wait until the next day.  After a day of hobbling and moaning, he finally was able to see the doctor after 4:00 p.m.   While examining his foot, they saw his bandaged hand and asked what had happened.  Upon futher examination of the hand the nurse discovered the infection there. Not only did he get his tetanus shot, but a prescription to go with it. 

And to boot, while he was doing all that to get hurt, he missed a dental appointment.  He cannot tell the difference between Tuesday and Thursday.  Why can't this man just slow down and smell the tomato blossums?

Monday, February 6, 2012

 Being tomato growers, we learned quickly that on cold, cloudy, and rainy days, we do not "work the plants" for fear of breaks, leaf damage, and causing plant wounds that will not heal.  Overall, there are only a few tasks that we will do in the tomato houses on cloudy days. Once in awhile, when those nasty, raw days come around, we'll drive an hour and fifteen minutes east and have lunch at the Cypress Grill. 

Sometime around the second week of January, The Cypress Grill opens up for its short season. (Mid-January through early April)  What's the specialty.....fried (cremated) herring, an Eastern NC favorite. We try to go 2 to 3 times a year, and usually for lunch.

So far this year we've had with plenty of cloudy days, but we've not had the time to travel to Jamesville, when Saturday night rolled around, we needed to go out for a nice supper.  Yes, I'm an Eastern North Carolina southerner and will always call my evening meal supper.  Dinner is the big meal on Sunday after church, as well as all the big meals on my favorite holidays. 

Back to the Cypress Grill.   It's a wonderful place to be, with ambience like none other.  For goodness sake, it's a fish shack ON the Roanoke River that transports you back in time.  The owners are not even trying, it's just that quaint.   We love it!

My plate Saturday night.  Two herring, stewed potatoes,
 coleslaw, and hushpuppies.  All for only $7.95.
   All I added was the vinegar and salt on the herring.  Delicious!

So as not to disturb the other patrons, while we were there (the building is tiny), I only took pictures of my plate.  To get the full visual, go to the following blog.  You'll enjoy the experience.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Old Greenhouse

The pine trees are east of the house.  That means a good bit of shade for the morning.
Whenever we display images from our little piece of heaven on earth, it seems we only show the beauty of the plants growing in what call "the new greenhouse".  With that in mind, I bet you're wondering if there's a new one, there must be an old one.  Well there is!!!!
When asked how did you meet Tim, I always say, "he came with the house".  He did, and in addition to Tim coming with the house, the old greenhouse came with the farm.  IT'S OLD!  (1980's)  When Tim built the old greenhouse, it was actually two hoop houses that housed tobacco plants on a float bed.  When the tomato idea came to mind, we used one of the old houses for the first 400 plants.  Success!!!  Tim then had the bright idea of joining the two structures together.  For some reason, he felt this would be more efficient.  I don't know about that, but it is a big awkward looking house.
Greenhouses are aluminum structures with 2 layers of plastic covering it.  Between the layers of plastic is a pocket of air blown up like a balloon.  That is the only insulation from the outside elements.  Ours is riddled with tiny holes from past storms and so it will not hold air and allows water to pool on the top when it rains. Yes, we should have already replaced it.  In addition, it faces the wrong direction, east/west instead of north/ south.   It has a nice pine forest behind it.  That's not good, tomato plants need full sun, not shade half the day. 
Other than all that's wrong with the house, it actually grows some darn good tomatoes. Because it's so shady, the tomatoes won't ripen in a timely manner. They just hang on the vine about a week past their due dates and get huge! Sometimes two clusters of tomatoes per plant come off all within one week's times and then there's nothing else to pick until a week later. That's our feast to famine.
We manage the old greenhouse the same way we manage the new greenhouse.  In fact, without the Old Greenhouse, there would be no New Greenhouse and no Sunburst Tomatoes.  We are just as particular with the plant nutrition and care and use the same beneficial insects.  We find that it is so unpredictable that it's actually a lot of fun.  It's a nice bonus to go into that greenhouse and feel no pressure because whatever you do, that house has plans of its own.    We love you, Old Greenhouse:)
Tim on top dipping out water after an inch of rain the night before.

Interior view of that large pool

Look at the water pooled overhead
Sweeping out water (plus suckers)
Rain clouds building on the horizon.  Get the bailing buckets ready.