REAL TALES OF HIGH VALUE FARMING
Letter from Pheasant Hill Farm, #3, MARCH 5, 2003

Affording Essential Equipment
There are a lot of good buys out there. Just go slow, and pay as you go.

By George and Melanie DeVault

Editor's NOTE

George DeVault was editor of New Farm® magazine from 1981 through 1991 -- and a long-time champion of local food systems and innovative direct marketing approaches to high-value farming.

He, his wife Mel and 23-year-old son Don farm near the village of Vera Cruz, PA, a little over an hour north of Philadelphia. They've been farming there organically since 1985. They extend their growing season with 6000 square feet of greenhouses, and sell cut flowers, herbs, fruits and vegetables through farmers' markets and directly to customers on their farm through a subscription service.

George continues to edit the Russian language version of New Farm® magazine, and in their spare time, he and Mel have edited and published six books on farming and market gardening.

Almost immediately after I was hired to create the New Farm® web site, I called George for ideas and help ... and he responded.

He showered me with articles he'd written for the Russian New Farm® which had never been printed in the U.S.: a two-part series on Joe Salatin's poultry operation, and a great profile of Steve Moore's innovative greenhouse operation. And he snagged us a translation of a fascinating story about one woman's successful effort to homestead in Russia.

He also passed on many helpful observations, including a recent email note: "Looking quickly at NF web site, struck me that maybe it's a little heavy
on traditional crops, livestock and marketing." "You're right," I answered, "we haven't gotten up to speed on high-value crops, diversification and
direct marketing. Want to help us get started with a monthly column?" And so was born this Letter from Pheasant Hill.

George and Mel will also be working with us on developing a series of articles on the basics of sustainable farming to help beginning farmers get a leg up. Many of you asked for this in email notes, and we'll get it up and running as soon as we can.

A final note: Earlier this year George was selected as a Food and Society Policy Fellow. This fellows program brings together leaders in health, consumer education, aquaculture, local food policy, nutrition, sustainable agriculture and organic farming. Fellows use the media, scholarship, public education and outreach to promote food systems change through the creation and expansion of community-based food systems that are locally owned and controlled, produce goods and services needed by residents, exercise environmental stewardship, and provide quality jobs. Click here for more on the fellows program.

For more on Pheasant Hill Farm, click here.

THE QUESTION:

“I love your contributions to the new electronic version of "New Farm." Your recent article on what to grow mentions:

‘Salad mixes, spinach and other greens are washed, spun dry and bagged, usually in half-pound units. Everything goes right into the walk-in cooler, which is set at 40°F. (Think you can't afford a cooler or a decent, high-capacity salad spinner? Think again. More on that in a future column on essential equipment.)’

I am in the process of purchasing some kind of refrigeration equipment for my soon-to-be harvested greenhouse crops of mesclun and lettuce. I have purchased a 5-gallon salad spinner similar to the one I see you holding in the picture for your article. Can you please e-mail advice on purchasing a used refrigerator or cooler?”

David Tannen
Over Fork Over Farm
Primm Springs, TN

THE ANSWER:

You made our day! So glad you like our stuff on NewFarm.org. Here are a few ideas in answer to your questions:

REFRIGERATION
Gotta have it for what you and we are growing. In the beginning, we had a collection of used refrigerators. They use a lot of electric, but they're cheap (free, in some cases). When they filled up, we piled our own refrigerator with as much as we could.

Watch the classified ads in area newspapers. Farm papers, too. We found our used 6- X 8-foot Bally walk-in cooler in the Sunday paper. A refrigeration company had taken it out of an old school. It came delivered and installed with a new compressor with a 5-year guarantee at a price we couldn’t refuse.

Auctions, especially going-out-of-business sales of restaurants and restaurant supply houses, are another good place to pick up reasonably priced used equipment. Watch the auction notices. Call refrigeration and restaurant supply companies and let them know you're looking. We picked up stainless steel work tables and a 24- X 24- 14-inch stainless double sink when Walnut Acres, America’s original organic farm, ceased operations at Penns Creek, PA, and was sold at auction two years ago.

If you're handy, you can build your own cooler with an old air-conditioner. Growing For Market newsletter published plans a few years ago. Might check their website: www.growingformarket.com. If you don't already subscribe to the newsletter, it's well worth the money.

Instead of using an old AC unit, you can build your own insulated box and pick up a used compressor and evaporator here and there. Case in point is our old Bally. We had a fire in our garage in January. Damaged the cooler box so badly that it makes more sense to buy a new (larger) box. We're upgrading to a 1-hp compressor to make sure we can keep the larger box cool enough, even though it will leave us strapped for a time.

So we have a matched 3/4-hp compressor and evaporator, plus the old box, that we're trying to figure out what to do with. “Advertise 'em on eBay,” says the refrigeration guy. Good idea. Look for used equipment on eBay. (David also mentioned closings of K-Marts and Wal-Marts and says auctions are being handled by the SB Capitol Group: www.esbcg.com/equipment/index.cfm and www.edstallings.com.)

Another refrigeration resource: www.barrinc.com. Barr Inc. sells -- and buys -- new and reconditioned refrigeration equipment, coolers, freezers, chillers and refrigeration systems. Located in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, they advertise in Growing for Market newsletter, so they would seem to be open to dealing with a New Farm crowd.

SALAD SPINNERS
Hand-cranked 5-gallon spinner works really well. We have (had -- heavy smoke got them, too) two of them, plus a spare basket. The spare basket really speeds up the production line and cuts down on cranking, as lettuce/mix can drain a lot while we're spinning the first basket.

We bought our spinners through Johnny's, then later found the same thing for maybe $40 less at a nearby restaurant supply house.

Hand-cranking can be tough on aging shoulders, though. Melanie just had shoulder surgery. Torn tendon and messed up rotator cuff. She blames the salad spinner, in part. I blame big dogs tugging at the end of the leash more than anything. (Never mind the dog bite, eight stitches, frozen pipe, septic backup and other craziness this winter. We’re ready for spring!)

We're looking at a 20-gallon Dito Dean VP1 stainless steel motorized spinner. Check it out on the web at www.selectappliance.com. Runs about $1,500. Yikes! (Plastic version is available for couple hundred bucks less.) We figure what it saves in time and wear and tear on the farmers will boost production and sales enough to more than pay for it before long.

Lots of people we know around the country use old washing machines for the same purpose -- with good results. Like so many other things, which way you go is entirely up to you, depending on your personal tastes, finances, customers, cash flow, schedule, and so on.

Appearances have become important in our operation, since it is in our home and most of our customers come out to the farm to buy their veggies. If they didn't, we’d probably be retrofitting an old washing machine right now. Just something not terribly appetizing about pulling your dinner salad out of someone's rusty old Maytag or Kenmore.

WASHING
You don’t need anything terribly fancy, especially in the beginning. Witness the old side-by-side wash tub pictured in the January 17 column. We got them for free from the basement of a row home in Allentown, Pa., while helping a friend move. The bread trays (full of sleeved Romaine head lettuce) were given to us by another friend, who got them free from a supermarket. George built the picnic table about 20 years ago. Please note that while we recycle, we are extremely conscious of proper sanitation. We constantly wash and disinfect everything, including field knives and harvest containers. We have our well water tested for nitrates and coliform at least once a year, as a regular part of organic certification.

Keep in mind that one of these days the feds will likely crack down on backyard greens operations, so the more sanitary and professional you can make it the better. Making salad mix is now borderline “food processing,” in the eyes of various authorities around the country.

Already, in places like California, you have to wear surgical gloves while handling salad mix. Wash water has to be tested regularly. “In 10 years, you’ll probably have to wear a space suit when making this stuff,” a California grower we know said recently. To head off potential legal problems, know the law ahead of time. Check with your Extension office, Health Department and other local or county officials first.

Will get into all that and more in a future column . . .