High Tunnels, Cat Tunnels & Wash Pack Tour of Blue Star Farm: EP76 | Show Notes

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[Andy] This is the Ag Engineering Podcast that rolls right into the details on tools, tips, and techniques that improve you, your farm, and our world. I’m your host, Andy Chamberlin from the University of Vermont Extension, and this podcast is sponsored by Northeast SARE. Thanks for listening. Today’s episode comes to you from the Hudson Valley area in New York, where my colleague, Chris Callahan, and I visit Sue Decker of Blue Star Farm. We got to know a little bit about her and her starting greenhouse benches in the previous episode. Today, I’d like to share with you the rest of the tour, as she shows us around her high tunnels and her wash and pack area. Thanks to Chris for leading the majority of this conversation, so I could focus on photos and videos. So make sure you check out our YouTube and Instagram channel so you can see that content as well. You’ll hear a brief introduction by her again, and then we’ll get into the tour.
[Sue] So I’m Sue Decker from Blue Star Farm. We are located in Stuyvesant, New York, and that’s about half an hour south of Albany. We grow year-round. We are in unheated tunnels and we’re also five acres on rented property. We’re standing right now in front of our heated benches. And we run these year round. They are currently have some pepper seedlings on them right now.
[Chris] Yeah. Wanna do a little more walking and talking?
[Sue] Yeah, sure.
[Chris] All right.
[Sue] So let’s go to our micro house.
[Chris] Love the sliding door.
[Sue] I like it too. It definitely keeps the rodents out.
[Chris] And a nice…
[Sue] Yeah.
[Chris] Nice weather.
[Sue] You have to learn how to step over it, but… So this was our first house that we bought. So like I said, that was…
[Chris] This was the one you thought would do it, right?
[Sue] This is, I thought, “This is perfect. I don’t need anything else.” And this is just devoted to micro greens at this point. So I’m just gonna hit a few places with water here.
[Andy] It’s a cute little house.
[Chris] It’s awesome.
[Andy] Well-constructed little house.
[Sue] Yeah. Yeah. I mean, the thing is about this, this is, we rotate the trays here in micros and definitely, there’s some micro climate that is created by doing them on stands like this without light for every single bench, but…
[Andy] If there were lights, you couldn’t water this quickly.
[Sue] Right. Right. But in the heat of July, it works for us too. And we actually cover the top trays with a little bit of shade. All right. So we were in high tunnel.
[Chris] Yeah.
[Sue] One. So this is high tunnel two, which really kind of has more of our, you know, our January, February seedings of lettuce. We kind of redid everything since we had some.
[Chris] And are they numbered in terms of their construction order?
[Sue] As we built them?
[Chris] Yeah.
[Sue] Yes.
[Chris] Okay.
[Sue] Yeah. So…
[Chris] So this, so I’m just noting this one has a double sliding door with a larger opening. Was that…
[Sue] Yeah, we actually redid the openings on this. They came with eight-foot openings and this actually came with a, it was a wooden wall. So we actually built the end walls from scratch. We still have one of the roll up doors in the back and for winter growing, it always gets shaded out. So you’re always gonna have a little bit poorer growth there because you just don’t have the sun.
[Chris] So have you bought all these tunnels so far used or…
[Sue] No.
[Chris] No.
[Sue] No, the first two we bought used and then the third one and the cat tunnels, we bought new, and almost all of them we were able to do with some grant money.
[Chris] Okay.
[Sue] So they changed the ruling on the size the last time around and we had already ordered our 144 foot tunnel and we couldn’t go over 96 feet. So we said, “Well, okay, how about, you know, two 100-foot ones?” And so they said, “Yeah, that’s fine.”
[Chris] Yeah.
[Sue] So that was, we built all three of them at once.
[Chris] I think you mentioned earlier, you do end up doing some trellis crops.
[Sue] Yes.
[Chris] Tomatoes and cukes and things like that, so yeah. In the same houses.
[Sue] Yes.
[Chris] Yeah.
[Sue] Yeah. Yeah, these, you can see where the old sisal twine was from the last tomatoes that we had in here. We do have an unusual issue in our first two houses in that we have peanut root-knot nematode. So I have not been able to get rid of that yet. I can’t prove it, but I really think it came in on a source of peanut meal as nitrogen. So I would not recommend that to anybody.
[Chris] Peanut root-knot nematode.
[Sue] Knot nematode. We had the nematode identified twice.
[Chris] Wow. Wow.
[Sue] Yeah, so and because it never freezes in here and I haven’t moved to actually losing the skin for winter, because our winter crops are so important to us.
[Chris] Right, right.
[Sue] We’ve tried the solarizing, we’ve tried the mustard, we tried a biological and nothing has really worked yet.
[Chris] Steaming?
[Sue] Yeah, that’s next on the list. So we are working with a woman out of Kingston who has done the coursework with Elaine Ingham.
[Chris] Okay.
[Sue] That, you know, we’re gonna try that biological approach here through the summer, ’cause we wouldn’t steam probably until the fall anyway.
[Chris] Yeah. Yeah.
[Sue] And see if perhaps it makes a difference. In high tunnel one, last year we took the skin off and we got some good rain last year and we were able to grow a good crop of mustard in it, and solarize, so maybe it’s gonna be better there?
[Chris] Yeah.
[Sue] We’re not gonna plant any tomato crops in this tunnel this year. We’re gonna try and go fallow for the summer.
[Chris] So does it mainly hit the tomatoes? Is that the…
[Sue] It mainly hits the tomatoes. We haven’t had success. We haven’t grown cucumbers in here for years.
[Chris] Okay.
[Sue] Because they’re a lot more sensitive to it. So we kind of keep those going in the other tunnels.
[Chris] And so other than the biological treatment, the environmental treatment would be freezing. Is that…
[Sue] Yeah.
[Chris] Yeah. Wow.
[Sue] Yeah. Yeah, I suspect that, you know, it’s more of an issue. Like, I mean, peanut root-knot nematode, I mean, it’s not something you hear about in the Northeast. Yeah. Yeah.
[Sue] So, you know, I’ve tried to even connect with farmers like in Georgia.
[Chris] That’s what I was, I mean, somebody I’m sure is…
[Sue] Yeah, and I haven’t really made the right connection yet. I’m sure that somebody has had the same problem. Maybe not in a greenhouse.
[Chris] Yeah, but in terms of treatments, it would have to be an organic grower, most likely.
[Sue] Exactly. And that’s always been the problem.
[Chris] Yeah. Wow. And how’s it show up with the tomatoes?
[Sue] Well, we mainly do cherry tomatoes and quite frankly, the yield is still quite fine. There are definitely varietal differences. Definitely Sakura, which is nematode-resistant, is successful.
[Chris] Wow.
[Sue] Whenever we pull the plants, there’s no galls on the roots.
[Chris] Huh.
[Sue] Ever.
[Chris] Huh. Wow.
[Sue] And everything else does, so that’s a great variety for that purpose, but you know, like I said, we’re not really trying to get early tomatoes and we’re usually out by after Labor Day, so.
[Chris] Yeah.
[Sue] We can function with it.
[Chris] Yeah. Yeah.
[Sue] So yeah, this is high tunnel three. So this is our largest house and right now we’re transitioning. So we have some winter crops here of chard and spinach. Spinach is kind of on its way out and we just planted basil this morning and we’ve got two successions of snap peas, which we also transplant so we can get really thick stands.
[Chris] That’s cool.
[Sue] Yeah. And then we have one gargantuan little patch of carrots here, which we experimented with this variety. It is, I wanna say romance, it’s a 70 day carrot and I wouldn’t do a 70 day carrot, ’cause it’s got more top than bottom at this point.
[Chris] Pretty densely in there too.
[Sue] Yeah.
[Chris] Yeah.
[Sue] Yeah, we do six, five rows? Five rows, I think we do.
[Chris] Wow.
[Sue] Yeah, but it just has like incredible vegetation on the top, whereas Napoli and I think Yaya was the other 50 day that we trialed, that did well too.
[Chris] And this tunnel you went, looks like extended ground posts.
[Sue] We did. We did. And with the idea that we wanted to get a tractor, like, up against the sides, but in the end, we’re not doing that. You know, the less turnover of soil we can do, the better. We use a BCS in here now and we don’t even use the tiller part of it, but we use the spader type implement part of it to prep between summer and winter beds. Yeah, and that’s, you know, I think that makes a difference. You know, otherwise if we have a little bit of compaction here and there, we will broad fork it and then we’re just raking amendments in.
[Chris] So even though you’re not using the height for the intended purpose, do you feel like there’s better temperature or humidity management in here?
[Sue] I do. I also think that your heat sink, too, for the winter, is better, ’cause you’ve got more air volume here. We tend to have a problem with our spinach, you know, in that we just have an aphid breakout. Generally it’s like the third week in March, but we have continually started to add ladybugs and pirate bugs now too on a very regular basis and at larger amounts than what they recommend.
[Chris] Huh.
[Sue] And we got better results. We actually pushed off our peak aphid explosion until this month, you know, pretty much almost the same, a month later. And a month later, we’re kind of ready to rip some of this out anyway, so it’s becoming more successful.
[Chris] Yeah. And I’m noticing this house also. It’s got the roll up sides, no ridge vent and two gable vents.
[Sue] Yes.
[Chris] But everything’s passive other than the HAF?
[Sue] Correct. Correct. Yeah, and those roll up sides can go, because of the height, can go up pretty far, so we get a lot of good air circulation in here for sure in the summer too. Really, everything is pretty happy, except for lettuce.
[Chris] Yeah.
[Sue] Lettuce is the only crop that we have an issue with, you know, kind of in February where we see that die off because of crown rot.
[Chris] Huh.
[Sue] And I think it’s…
[Chris] And no heat related stuff in the summer or in here anyway?
[Sue] No. Yeah, and we don’t pack our house with tomatoes either. If we do have tomatoes in here and they’re beside each other, we’re gonna skip a bed.
[Chris] Ah, okay.
[Sue] So we have better air circulation. We have so much tunnel space that we do that, generally.
[Andy] That’s a good problem to have.
[Sue] Yeah, we haven’t, we do still do tomatoes outside. You know, maybe at some point we will switch that so that we’re doing all of our tomatoes in the tunnel, but we haven’t made that switch yet. So we can go to the two caterpillar tunnels on the side here. These are, you know, both probably primarily filled with lettuce, but we do have those shallots in the back too. So we are trialing different varieties now of the one cut lettuces, ’cause some of them, I think, are more prone to that problem.
[Chris] Okay. The crown rot problem.
[Sue] Yeah. Yeah. And you know, just conversing with other farmers, there’s definitely some that have been eliminated for winter production. There’s some good wind today.
[Chris] Yeah. So are you mainly doing head lettuce then?
[Sue] No, this is all for salad mix.
[Chris] Okay.
[Sue] So this is five row, six inch spacing and many of the salanova varieties.
[Chris] Yeah.
[Sue] And these are the… Oh my goodness, the wind. Yeah. So these are conserver, right?
[Chris] Ambition, it looks like?
[Sue] Oh, ambition. So ambition in the front, conserver in the back. We had a heat problem in the back and those guys died.
[Chris] Notice you’re getting herbs in wherever you can on the perimeter too.
[Sue] Yeah. We try and get parsley wherever we can along the sides where it stays a little bit cooler and damper and we do a lot of cilantro for people, so we turn that crop over every two or three weeks, seeding-wise.
[Chris] Yeah, it’s feeling nice in here.
[Sue] Yeah. And then we do, we just throw some of our leftover garlic, a spring garlic in. This one’s just been cleared out a little bit more. So not too much different. This was over-wintered escarole.
[Chris] Oh yeah.
[Sue] And I think there’s frose in the back, which looked horrible throughout the winter and took off again in the spring. So it just wasn’t very happy going through the winter. And these houses are gonna get a lot colder. That cold’s gonna creep in on the side. We were able to put this, you know, the insulation board down on these two.
[Andy] As far as cat tunnels go, you’ve really done a good job about like buttoning ’em down and making ’em work well.
[Sue] As much as we can, yeah. Yeah.
[Andy] They can be a hard thing to do right.
[Sue] Yeah. I mean, I like the Farmers Friends construction. They’re pretty, I mean we get some wind here.
[Chris] Yeah.
[Andy] Is that what these are?
[Sue] Yeah, and they’ve been really good for us.
[Chris] Good.
[Sue] You know, we did try them originally, just kind of bringing the plastic to a point on this end.
[Chris] Yeah.
[Andy] Yeah.
[Sue] Couldn’t do it here. You know, we just have too much wind.
[Chris] Huh.
[Sue] And it just ripped and shredded the front of it. So we did make a point of…
[Chris] Hitting this side. Okay, yeah.
[Sue] So we built the poly ourselves and then, you know, the idea would be to do a poly on the back end too, but we just haven’t gotten around to it and we don’t get the kind of wind on the east side. There’s another cat tunnel in the back, but that really only has some baby turnips in it and scallions, so if you wanted to…
[Chris] Little wash/pack, Andy?
[Andy] Oh, absolutely.
[Chris] This is a cool siding.
[Sue] This is what they put on dairy.
[Chris] Yeah.
[Sue] Yeah. It’s great. ‘Cause we’ve dropped that in the winter and it keeps everything clean in here and it just cranks just like the side of a greenhouse. We have it contained in here.
[Andy] Is it a mesh screen or transparent solid?
[Chris] Yeah, solid.
[Sue] Yeah, it’s a transparent solid, so we don’t get snow in.
[Andy] Yeah.
[Sue] And the wind whips around here and it would drift in.
[Andy] Yeah. Yeah, it would.
[Sue] So yeah, it just kind of comes with a crank.
[Andy] That’s great.
[Sue] And it’s, you know, it’s that roll bar in the center of it and then a roll at the bottom. Yeah. It works really well for us. And I would be tempted to do this on the front of our run in shed too, but that’s a lot bigger.
[Chris] Yeah.
[Andy] I like that the crank’s behind a little door.
[Sue] Yeah, it is. It’s all self-contained.
[Andy] It keeps it protected.
[Sue] The tools belong in there.
[Chris] Yeah.
[Sue] I mean, there’s a straight one here too that you can, you know, lock into a drill.
[Chris] Oh.
[Andy] We to batten down the hatches as the storm’s coming in.
[Chris] Oh, that’s cool.
[Sue] Exactly.
[Chris] So how long has this been here?
[Sue] So the original barn was that part of the barn and that overhang. And then we added this addition. And this addition, I’m gonna say, hmm, six years?
[Andy] Okay.
[Sue] Six, seven years. We also got a grant to work on this. So this is basically a 30 by 40 area also, but split into two rooms and we put a bathroom back here and then a break room and we considered maybe doing some processing in that room too, but it’s a little bit small for that. So we limit our processing to vacuum packing, pretty much. And we do strawberries and peppers and ginger and turmeric and some melons.
[Chris] And then freeze them?
[Sue] And then vacuum pack them. That’s a vacuum packer. And then we have a standup tray freezer.
[Chris] You happy with the amount of space you have?
[Sue] Yeah, we are. I mean, the one thing I would change is I would make the drain in the floor wider.
[Chris] For clean out or…
[Sue] Yeah.
[Chris] Yeah.
[Sue] And we also have a, this goes out to like a, it’s almost like a sewage system, so there’s a two tank scenario.
[Chris] Okay.
[Sue] And then it pumps out to like a sand mount. So we have a filter in the last one to catch, you know, a lot of stuff. And you know, we know when that’s full because it starts…
[Chris] Starts to back up.
[Sue] It just doesn’t really flow, yeah.
[Chris] That’s a hose reel I haven’t seen before. Flow Master?
[Sue] I love it.
[Chris] Yeah.
[Sue] Totally love it. And that little stop on the…
[Chris] That is beautiful.
[Sue] That is like some kind of European garden hose thing. And we just mounted it on the ceiling upside down and it’s fantastic.
[Chris] That’s nice.
[Sue] And it stops and then we just let it go.
[Chris] Andy, did you see the hot and cold mix?
[Andy] I did.
[Sue] Yeah, that’s so we don’t freeze our fingers off. We do have a little hot water coming in there for the winter.
[Andy] It’s makes a world of a difference.
[Sue] Yeah, it does. It does. So, this is mostly our break room, but we do have this standup freezer.
[Chris] Oh, that’s nice.
[Sue] And that’s how we, you know, we freeze everything, the strawberries loose on a tray. And you know, that does a really nice job.
[Chris] So it actually takes trays, yeah.
[Sue] It takes trays, yep. That’s a separate thing that you can buy as an insert. And then everything freezes flat too.
[Chris] Yeah.
[Sue] So that it fits into your freezer in a much better way. You know, we sell a lot of frozen stuff. I mean, we sell strawberries and kind of, this is our stock.
[Andy] Oh yeah.
[Chris] Isn’t that beautiful?
[Andy] Oh, fun.
[Sue] Yeah. So we’ve got, this is ginger in pretty much quarter pound packs, red and yellow peppers, strawberries, a pound.
[Chris] Oh, some vegetable broth, what a great idea.
[Sue] Yeah, we did that too. It’s not exactly a big seller. And this was squash too. Can’t recommend that either. It’s a zucchini and yellow squash mix. It looks really pretty, but you know, once you get it, like, you know, defrosted and in something it gets mush.
[Chris] Yeah.
[Andy] Yeah. Squishy pellets in the stew.
[Sue] Yeah, pig food. And then dehydrator, we do some dehydrating of herbs, but not a lot of that. And then this is the first cooler that we did and this was a tack room to go with the horse stalls, which I…
[Chris] I love that latch.
[Sue] Yeah. My 80-something-year-old mother-in-law made this. She made the whole door out of parts of spare insulation that were laying around and she pieced together two layers, so that was four inches, and built the door and then made this latch. So I hope when I’m 80-something, I’m doing the same kind of thing.
[Chris] Yeah, me too.
[Sue] So this is ginger germinating. We’re about ready to take this out. It’s getting pretty tall, but we’re kind of waiting for things to not go down to 34 degrees. So the ginger has germinated well. We bought all of our ginger through a co-op. Just, you know, standard $3 and 30 cents something a pound, rather than nine or 10 a pound, where you can get it at other places. And then we got our turmeric this year from a grower in Florida and that’s been very slow, but generally turmeric is very slow. It takes much longer. We seeded this… Yeah, 3/8.
[Chris] Oh, yeah. So you bought ginger at like the food co-op?
[Sue] Yeah.
[Chris] Off the retail shelf.
[Sue] Yep. Yeah. Bulk, you know?
[Chris] Yeah, yeah.
[Sue] You know, I mean, it can be hit or miss, you know, sometimes they sit in the warehouse for a while.
[Chris] So that’s just pivoting on that screw.
[Sue] Yep. And this is like got a little tiny rubber band kind of thing in it. And then you just shove it up against this wedge.
[Chris] Love it.
[Sue] Yeah. Yep. It does well. It seals well. And that’s about the tour.
[Andy] Wonderful.
[Chris] Wow.
[Andy] This is sweet.
[Chris] Thanks so much, Sue. Appreciate it.
[Sue] Yeah. My pleasure.
[Andy] Thanks for listening to today’s episode. I hope you enjoyed it. If I can ask you or direct you to do one thing, that is to go to the website for this podcast, agengpodcast.com. That’s A-G-E-N-G-P-O-D-C-A-S-T dot com. There you’ll find the show notes. You’ll find links to the farmer who we chatted with today, as well as photos or videos from the call when I visited the farm. If you’ve got some feedback to share, my contact information’s on there, or you can leave me a voicemail and you can do that right from the link in the description, in the mobile app you’re listening to this to. So go ahead and do that. Thanks again for listening and I hope you have a great day.