Justin Rich: I’m Justin Rich, and we are at Burnt Rock Farm in Huntington, Vermont, which is about 15 miles east of Lake Champlain and 25 miles southeast of Burlington. Nestled in the foothills of the Green Mountains. I got mountains to three sides of us, and we farm along six miles of the river valley, which is how far you have to go to chase small fields in these tight valleys. Welcome to our farm.
Andy Chamberlin: I’m your host Andy Chamberlin, and I take you behind the scenes with growers who share their strategy for achieving the triple bottom line of sustainability. These interviews unravel how they’re building their business to balance success across people, profits, and our planet. Today’s episode comes to you from Huntington, Vermont, where we visit with Justin Rich of Burnt Rock Farm. This farm visit starts off quickly. Literally. Most of the fields at the home farm are in cover crop this season. We jumped in the side by side for a stretched out field tour. After seeing fields of storage crops, including onions, potatoes, and sweet corn, we hop out of the truck and step into the barn where I asked Justin how he got into farming, what fulfills him in this career, and some advice he’d give to those just starting out. He describes how he’s structured the business to his personality and to align with the goals of the farm. And then we wrap the episode with a walk past some field equipment and get a tour of the greenhouses that are all part of wholesaling over 30 acres of vegetables. And this is The Farmer’s Share.
Justin Rich: The home farm here is 17 acres of which only, if we cropped all the cropping ground, it’d be like four and a half acres. Most of our production is elsewhere. We have all of our wash pack facility, all our greenhouses, store much of our equipment here, not all. And then we have a property up the road with another barn that gets anything that we can put in there on pallets we do. But most of our production is not here, especially this year. And this year we’re growing about 25 acres of actual vegetables, another 10 in cover crop, full season cover crops, and it’s a little under 20,000 square feet of greenhouse space. But we don’t do nearly as good a job as a lot of other folks do with their tunnels because it’s actually a pretty small part of our business. They have to complement the field crops like the potatoes and squash and onions is where we focus our attention. The greenhouses fill in the production gaps.
We got quite a bit of frontage down here along the Huntington River and all these fields were in potatoes last year, so I thought that was a good opportunity to take them out of production and put them in some soil building cover crops for the summer. Here we’ve got field of buckwheat, Japanese millet, some oats, a teeny bit of peas, and then undersewn with some red clover. We have a bunch of different little equipment yards full of stuff that mostly gets used. Some of it doesn’t get used as much, but yeah.
Andy Chamberlin: That’s a big rig.
Justin Rich: Yeah, that’s our Grimmy one row bunker potato harvester, which we bought two winters ago and it’s amazing. So that right there saves about, we calculated last year about 200 person hours of labor during potato harvest, which is important because that’s a pretty busy time of the year for lots of things. Like somebody said, I have this device, I can save you 200 hours of labor in February. I’d say, what does it cost? Maybe. But if I can do anything that’ll save 200 hours in September, it’s so valuable because that’s when it’s just such a production crunch on a farm like ours. We’re still bringing in sweet potatoes. We’re bringing sweet potatoes, potatoes, winter squash, and harvesting tomatoes and spinach.
Andy Chamberlin: It’s go time.
Justin Rich: It’s go time 100%. Right now I like to remind people there’s a gear above where we’re working right now. And two years ago, we realized we threw out a lot of cull vegetables, and so we started saying, let’s do as good a job as we can of actually composting this stuff into a usable product. So right to our left is our current compost pile, and it’s probably 70% wood chips by volume. To the right is last year’s pile that’s finishing.
Andy Chamberlin: It’s looking good.
Justin Rich: And then down below here, we have two years ago’s pile, which I will spread at some point this summer down there. So it gets much more, it starts looking like potting soil by this time. I got a nutritional analysis done on it. It’s nothing to write home about, but it’s actually good. It’s not loaded with phosphorus. It’s got a little bit of nitrogen, a little bit of phosphorus, and a little bit of potassium. So it’s just a lot of carbon and micronutrients. We can get wood chips here. So it’s a way to turn wood chips into a spreadable usable product. So we farm with more topography than most. We’re allowing all these cane terraces along the Huntington River. So this is a field we rent from our neighbors who have a vineyard on the slopey ground above their flat fields. But in Vermont especially, don’t want vineyards on flat ground in a mountain valley, you’ll get all sorts of cold air pooling and late frost in the spring, early frost in the fall.
But it works out well for us because they don’t want the flat ground and I don’t want the hilly ground. So our business is mostly winters, well, it’s largely winter storage crops. We grow summer stuff too, but a lot of our markets were built on these storage crops. So we still focus on those. So we’re trying to grow things in multiple acre blocks for the most part. So there’s two and a half acres of onions, which we exist in this at times awkward middle scale, but it works really well in servicing local direct wholesale accounts. So selling to stores in Chittenden and Addison County. But we ship a little bit of stuff through Deep Root, but it’s not a huge part of our business. But right now we’re on a cane terrace. So that’s got cliffs on three sides. It’s basically a lobe of gravel sticking out into the valley.
So there’s cliffs everywhere, not majestic western cliffs. They’re eroded tree covered eastern cliffs. We used to crop this little half acre here, but it’s awkward shaped and really bony. So whenever we put something down here, it never quite did as well. We might let that one revert to clover.
Andy Chamberlin: Rocks.
Justin Rich: We have a nice rock picker, which is very useful in fields like this. So you can see looking down these wheel tracks. I’m actually excited to run the rock picker through this whole field this August because onions are a great crop ahead of the rock picker. We get to double crop this field of onions in the spring, and then we pull a bumper crop of rocks out in August or September. But it’s really handy. Rocks are expensive. So that culvert we just drove across when we came in the fields that blew out during the Halloween flood two years ago. And what did I get? Probably a tandem dump truck load of fill from the town from ditches, and then probably 20 plus yards of our own mined rock out of this field.
So rather than have it be $4,000 to fix a culvert, it was free, which is nice. So yeah, that’s our onions. Our potatoes are about five miles north of here. If you want we can take a right up there. On the radio they said a lot of Vermont is experiencing mild dryness. I’m like, that’s not even really a term I don’t think. Everything is green.
Andy Chamberlin: It’s a Vermont dry.
Justin Rich: Only five inches of rain a month here when it’s Vermont dry.
Andy Chamberlin: You can access the somewhat damp fields.
Justin Rich: Yeah, I haven’t been swamped out all year, which is nice. But we still, we’ve been getting the amount of rain that the weather maps say we are supposed to normally get, but we usually get 50% more than that. Just being in a valley on the western slopes of the Greens. We catch a lot of the rain as it slows down overhead. So Charlotte might get a half inch, we’ll get an inch. Hey Dan. Which is often not nice, but sometimes it is nice. This year we actually had a thunderstorm the other day. I said, wow, an actual thunderstorm.
Andy Chamberlin: They’re so rare now.
Justin Rich: This year has been, and we’ve had a couple of nice slow soakers.
Andy Chamberlin: We have.
Justin Rich: One thunderstorm. Knock on thermoplastic. Because the most damaging thing for us economically is a super wet June because it just leeches out so much nutrition from the soil. Sets the plants back, makes their roots grow shallow, and then it always dries up at some point. And they have shallow root systems and there’s not as many nutrients. You can imagine that’ll cut 30 40% off our potato yields. The plastic culture crops seem to do fine with it no matter what the temperature is. They shed the water during heavy rains and we irrigate easily when it’s hot and dry. So those are plastic culture is crop insurance for us.
Andy Chamberlin: It’s pretty much the majority of things are in plastic.
Justin Rich: We got about nine acres in plastic culture right now and 16 bare. So slightly more favorable.
Andy Chamberlin: Now we hop from the side by side into the truck to check out some fields further up the valley.
Justin Rich: This truck used to be our nice truck and now it’s just another rusty truck with weird problems. But I’ve been saying for two and a half years now, trucks have gotten too expensive. I’m not going to buy a new truck and then hasn’t gotten better. But a constant dilemma for me is we need seven working pickup trucks on this farm. And a bunch of them don’t even get 1,000 miles a year. This one might get seven. So you can’t justify buying anything new because in 12 years they’ll be rotted out anyway and it’ll have 80,000 miles on it. And it used to be you could get a truck with 120,000 miles on it, that was four years old for a third the price of new, now they want two thirds the price of new. So the spread has gotten bad, but that’ll correct itself. So we have one field that was a mile south where we just were that it is just in cover crops this year again. So as much as I like cover crops, it doesn’t make the greatest podcast material.
So we spread it over six miles of the valley with about 35. If we planted every inch of our arable ground, it’d be about 35 acres. But that takes about 50 acres of support land just between headlands and perimeters. Unlike in field crops, we don’t plant the whole field and then plant the headlands. The headlands stay permanently grassed for us. So we’re pulling into a nine and a half acre field. But again, it’s an 18 acre field on the maps, but we get nine and a half acres of vegetables out of it. And it’s our biggest field. And this is where we have our sweet potatoes and all of our brassicas this year as well as our baby spinach production, and this year we actually have had some deer pressure in here. So we might need to do something about that. And these sweet potatoes have definitely suffered from the cool days and cool nights that we’ve had this year.
I feel like we’ve been living on the coast of Maine all summer, which is very comfortable. It’s very pleasant weather to work in, but certain crops like it and other crops like sweet potatoes are saying, I prefer North Carolina weather please. These nights in the forties are definitely outside of my comfort range. Last night it was 49 here.
Andy Chamberlin: In July.
Justin Rich: In July. Mid-July.
Andy Chamberlin: Very comfortable.
Justin Rich: It was awesome for me.
Andy Chamberlin: The plant [inaudible]
Justin Rich: I always take solace in knowing that if I’m uncomfortable sleeping at night, the sweet potatoes are happy.
Andy Chamberlin: Good rule of thumb.
Justin Rich: I’m sweaty, but at least it’s better for the business. So it’s nice. All these fields are down along the river, so we can always, unlike if we had one big 50 acre field, it’d be a lot easier to have irrigation. But it’s not that bad to irrigate, at least because all these fields are along the river. So we can drop in suction lines wherever we need to. And this was last year’s sweet potatoes. So that’s got oats and red clover that’s coming up underneath. And that will probably go to potatoes next year, I believe is the rotation.
Andy Chamberlin: So you must put just about as many miles on the tractors as you do the trucks going six miles up and down the valley.
Justin Rich: We put a lot of miles on the tractors. Yeah. Not bad though. It’s only, our furthest field is five miles from the home farm. And you can get there in 13 minutes if you have what used to be called a European road gear, but now more and more we’re coming with that 24 mile per hour road gear. And we used to have a little case 265 cultivating tractor, which was great for what it did, but I think its top speed was 11 miles an hour.
Andy Chamberlin: Takes you twice as long.
Justin Rich: And it only weighs 1800 pounds. So you’re driving it on the road for five miles and there’s people texting, there’s people drunk, there’s people just bad at driving. There’s people who are just too busy sight seeing. And if you got hit from behind by a guy driving a pickup truck, you got a roll cage and a seatbelt. But so all of our tractors now are heavier than pickup trucks, which is-
Andy Chamberlin: Safety feature.
Justin Rich: Well, A, they come with the faster gears and they can do other things. And it’s nice to send one of the crew up the road. I don’t have to worry about whether they’re going to get clipped by somebody. I know multiple people who have been hit by cars while driving a tractor. So that’s the logic why people drive Hummers. I want to be the guy who survives a car accident. It’s bankrupt logic eventually, but I think it makes some sense on tractors and people the last two years has seen an intense increase in bad aggressive car tractor interactions. And we’re pulling into the home farm from the south. We have to take a left across the other lane. And I’ve been buzzed while turning left with my blinkers on in a well lit tractor with working blinkers. I’ve been buzzed five times on the left while turning left.
Andy Chamberlin: Geez.
Justin Rich: And I’m in a tractor that weighs twice what that car weighs. So these people are just being dumb. It’s the only way to put it really.
Andy Chamberlin: Impatient.
Justin Rich: It’s just wicked dangerous. But we’re not as diverse as a lot of farms too. So we don’t have three cultivating tractors set up with for three row bed top greens and five row greens and one row crop. We do everything is either plastic culture or two row in the field. So we can use the same equipment to cultivate potatoes as we do corn and brassicas. And usually I can go out on a Sunday and cultivate all the plastic culture in an afternoon, or I can go out and cultivate all the two row crops in an afternoon. So it’s nowhere near as much equipment changeover as a lot of folks I know a lot of people have fleets of [inaudible] and 140s, but we don’t.
I’ve worked on farms before that all I did was drive a cultivating tractor for three months in the summer. On the left coming up is a four and a half acre rented field. Winter squash that just came into production this year. We’ve rented for the last two years while it waited organic certification. But it’s grown a really nice crop out there. Very nice dark green. Ross just mowed all the perimeter, so it looks well kept.
Andy Chamberlin: When I drove by that coming in, I was like, wow, that is a good looking stand.
Justin Rich: Yeah, we transplanted out, we transplant squash and we set it out about five days earlier than normal. So the plants were really stocky and you could barely pull them. And they really appreciated being at that younger stage of growth because the bigger problem for us around that late May, early June window is you might get a night where it’s 44 degrees and windy and that’s just murder on a young cucurbita transplant. And we don’t remay any of those. So it was really valuable to be able to put short stocky plants in and then the weather was just perfect. So all the buttons were pressed, all the buttons were pushed on the squash this year. And while, yes, it is not always the most economical thing to be driving three, four miles to get to a field, a lot of the rotational benefits are quite huge.
We just do not see certain insect diseases build up. I take great pride in somebody saying, oh, do you ever have a problem with this? I’m like, I don’t even know what you’re talking about. I’ve never seen that before. And it’s not that we’re doing anything, we’re just, we’re in an isolated valley. The nearest vegetable farm is probably Lewis Creek Farm, which is five miles to the west and over some 2,400 foot mountains and to the south where a lot of the insects fly in from like potato leaf hoppers. There’s no farms for, I don’t know, 20 miles and there’s mountains. So we’re protected a little bit there. The leaf hoppers always end up showing up, but we don’t get that June 18th pressure that some folks might get.
Andy Chamberlin: Do you have a standard rotation or is it always evolving?
Justin Rich: It’s always evolving as more land comes in and out. I try to not put ground in early crops multiple years in a row. That’s just how you get certain weed problems. But even that’s all manageable. So that’s not a deal killer. But as a tiebreaker I’ll say, well, we had onions there last year, so let’s put late brassicas there. But the only problem is the onions come out early in the summer so we can get a nice big lush oat and pea winter killed cover crop in. So then it’s a good field to put spring crops in next year because it has a winter killed cover crop in there. So Ross is up here at the general store getting irrigation gas, which in a dry year, it’s definitely not zero on the budget, but figure every dollar you spend on gasoline returns $50 worth of crops. So don’t really complain.
Andy Chamberlin: Worth it.
Justin Rich: So this is a rented field five miles north of the home farm, again along the river. And this is in Huntington Village. So it’s, there’s houses everywhere. This field is basically like a park for people. They just walk their dogs and sometimes they play Frisbee through it, which I have to have words about when that happens.
Andy Chamberlin: Just because they’re trampling through.
Justin Rich: I’ve found it dangerous to get between people and their recreational pursuits. Sometimes it needs to be done. So in this field, in order to keep the dogs out, you can see we have potatoes there. And then I have two passes of the grain drill. Two peas.
Andy Chamberlin: A buffer from the people.
Justin Rich: Literally it’s a buffer. It’s good for the soil health too. And the big thing we did this year, production change wise, is we laid drip tape in all the potatoes, which so far I’m very pleased with. So you can see there’s another oat pea dog barrier on the riverside of those russets. But yeah, so the potatoes got rotated five miles from last year. And I have not sprayed it for potato beetles yet.
Andy Chamberlin: Whoa.
Justin Rich: And there are some out there. They’re definitely there, but they just have not reached anything approaching an economical threshold.
Andy Chamberlin: I was at Deep Meadow. And he was considering not growing potatoes next year [inaudible]
Justin Rich: Because he’s got one farm. Potato beetles are super lazy and they can eat a lot of different stuff. So if you grow potatoes in one spot, they’re like sweet. I’m just going to eat that again. This is a little over five acres total in three blocks. Very pleased with how this drip worked. We rigged up our hiller to have a drip dispenser on it, but we laid the drip about four inches inside, so we laid it at hilling. So we were able to time weed the field pre-emergence, and then at first hilling we laid drip and it went, took a little bit of adjusting, but worked pretty well. But now we can come out and just water this field for giving the equivalent of a half inch of water twice a week to supplement whatever falls from the sky. And this year it’s been pretty nice. We’ve gotten some rain, but not crazy.
Andy Chamberlin: Do you measure and irrigate based on, you got a quarter inch of rain, so you’re going to supplement X number of hours? Or do you just-
Justin Rich: We basically have a rotate.
Andy Chamberlin: Go by feel.
Justin Rich: We just like Tuesdays and Fridays now, we run the pump for five hours. And this is low flow .22 GPM per hundred foot drip tape, so it’s not putting out much water. So we let it run for a couple hours. And if we have heavy rain on Monday, we won’t irrigate on Tuesday. The plan is to irrigate and then we back off if it rains a lot, but it’s going to be perfect. We’re going into this nice hot dry weekend with fresh moisture in the soil. Because for us, since we’re in a potato rotation, we can’t adjust the pH to be below six for scab control. So our biggest tool for scab management is resistant varieties. And then just maintaining good soil moisture. Sometimes easier said than done, especially in the sandier parts of the fields. But this I’ve been very happy with. Anyway it’s definitely a bunch more work. This is $1500 worth of drip tape for five acres. So it’s not nothing. But potatoes are the most management sensitive crop we grow, which if you’re a farmer who possesses any excessive pride can be very great and it can be very demoralizing.
I always say, I can try to manage the heck out of onions and they’re just going to yield what they want to yield. Same with winter squash, it’s more weather dependent. But with potatoes, managing the fertility and controlling diseases and controlling soil moisture and dealing with insects is, the farmer has a lot of input. A lot of times you can go to a farm, let’s say July 30th in Vermont and all their potatoes are sticks and they got 10,000 pounds per acre, maybe yield, but it was low input. Low output. We try to do our potatoes as high input, high output. If we get a 35,000 pound breaker crop, which would be a crop failure in Idaho, but that’s pretty darn good for rain fed Northeastern organic potato production, I’ll take it. That means we have 150,000 pounds potatoes in the barn to wash all winter, which keeps our crew going and it makes me have to borrow less money the next year to get things going in the spring.
But these are Satina gold potato, which is our most reliable potato yields. It just seems to like growing here. It’s delicious, looks great. Gold potatoes are our best sellers. And you see my drive lane for spraying, you mangle the potatoes there, but they yield better than a pure drive lane would.
Andy Chamberlin: Yeah, that’s minor.
Justin Rich: A couple years I did put in drive lanes. I’m like, why am I wasting land on a drive lane? We have one tractor with ginseng shields for the tires, but we actually don’t spray with that tractor. But that was really handy when we did, it parted them very nicely. So that right there is the same variety as this here. I don’t know about you but don’t these look a little more robust?
Andy Chamberlin: Just a bit bushier.
Justin Rich: I think they were planted the same day. These fields both had squash last year, the year before it had red clover. The year before that, this one was onions and that was in rye. But I can’t imagine that would have an effect three, four years later. So I don’t know. I’ll take it. That’s usually our best yielding block in this field. So this is the two and a half acre field here of all the random varieties. We grow mostly golds, russets, and reds, and they’re mostly over there. But then our secondary golds, our secondary reds, our fingerlings, our Adirondack reds, the purple potatoes are all over here in this block. We do a fair amount of red clover as a cover crop. So if we have land open this time of year, we will drill red clover in with oats, mow the oats off in six weeks, then let the red clover grow all fall, and then next year and then kilt the following spring.
Because I love cover cropping, it’s probably my favorite thing to do on the farm. You just get so much done in such a short period of time when you’re drilling covers and it’s so satisfying because you know you don’t have to do anything to that field for X period of time now. We can spend quite a bit of money on cover crop seed and diesel to till it all in. So incorporating some longer cover crops like red clover has been pretty handy. So you just have to mow it twice a year in its main growing year. Red clover leaves the soil so mellow the next spring. You can just use a high speed disc or a shallow tillage pass. You can kill it pretty easily. So we try to use the moldboard plow for the most part if we have winter rye in the spring, just because you actually get a kill. Seth, we drove by the sweet corn field. I forgot to pull in there so we can hit that on the way back.
Andy Chamberlin: What’s your favorite crop to grow?
Justin Rich: Potatoes. Like I said, they respond. The more work I put into potatoes, the better they do. And that just, I try to take a lot of pride in my work and so that helps.
Andy Chamberlin: How many employees do you keep on?
Justin Rich: It’s me plus seven right now. But we have seven people who work eight to four jobs. It’s not 12 hour days.
Andy Chamberlin: That’s good.
Justin Rich: No, I know, but a lot of times people say, oh, you have that many employees for that many acres. Yes. But our guys work 30% fewer hours than your H2A workers who are putting in 75 hour weeks. It’s just a different. All those guys here earn as much money as quickly as possible.
Andy Chamberlin: They’re trying to-
Justin Rich: They want the hours, what are they going to do? Watch tv, otherwise?
Andy Chamberlin: They’re here. They might as well work.
Justin Rich: It is just a different model entirely.
Andy Chamberlin: So do you have locals or H2A?
Justin Rich: It’s all local workers.
Andy Chamberlin: Wow.
Justin Rich: We’ve had a lot of people been with us for a number of years.
Andy Chamberlin: How many do you keep throughout the winter?
Justin Rich: Four. And we cut it down to four days a week in the winter. Just gives people a little bit of time to relax, go on vacation. So four people four days a week. But somebody’s almost always on vacation. So it’s probably not even probably three full-time equivalents on payroll during the wintertime.
Andy Chamberlin: And that’s still pretty full workday.
Justin Rich: Yeah. Storage crops are nice because you’re never like, oh my God, this is going by. The other day we had this emergency cauliflower harvest. What? The cauliflower is ready. I swear we’re out there two days earlier. We’re like, oh, it’s not ready yet. And all of a sudden we brought in 300 pounds of cauliflower.
Andy Chamberlin: You turned around and-
Justin Rich: Having to hustle stuff. I like getting an email from somebody saying, hey, would it be possible to get 2000 pounds of gold potatoes next Tuesday? I’m like, yep. Yes, we have that. I have a sheet on my corkboard of what the inventory is all winter long and it’s nice to be able to say yes.
Andy Chamberlin: What’s your sweet corn acreage?
Justin Rich: About four. We did four successions of about an acre. It’s probably, if we mapped out it’d probably be a little under four acres just because of transplant loss. But we don’t have a nice enough cedar to-
Andy Chamberlin: Yeah, so that’s transplanted.
Justin Rich: The only thing we would see would be corn. I’m not going to spend $6,000 outfitting a two row max emerge planter to do a good job. So we just transplant. It works well. A lot of folks even transplant their first one or two plantings anyway.
Andy Chamberlin: To give it that extra jump.
Justin Rich: We should remay the first planting, but we just, mid-May’s busy.
Andy Chamberlin: When do you typically start harvesting that?
Justin Rich: We’ll go set. Probably two weeks. Everything, all those heat loving crops are a little slower this year.
Andy Chamberlin: So yeah, first August then?
Justin Rich: Yeah, last year I think we were harvesting like the 24th of July, but I highly doubt we’re going to be there. The first variety we planted is this variety sweetness, which tassels at about butt height. They make these nice little ears, but they’re fast, they taste good, but they’re just funny looking.
Andy Chamberlin: The ones to kick the season off.
Justin Rich: Yes. And we only do that with the first planting. And maybe we shouldn’t even do it because getting them riped three days earlier. It’s not like we run a farm stand or the farmer’s market where that can really matter. If you’re first at farmer’s market and sell 2000 ears at $1 each instead of $.75 each, that really makes a difference. But being in direct wholesale, like we mostly are, that extreme incentive for the tail end of the earliness bell curve is not there. Which is nice. I feel like that’s the most stressful stuff to deal with. Trying to push stuff into higher management parts of the growing season.
Andy Chamberlin: That’s a good way to word it.
Justin Rich: But again, if you have a farm stand where, or a farmer’s market where you can sell an extra $2,000 of stuff, that’s different.
Andy Chamberlin: How do you harvest the corn?
Justin Rich: With our hands.
Andy Chamberlin: Hands into baskets?
Justin Rich: We drag-
Andy Chamberlin: Gaiters?
Justin Rich: Pickle barrels, big barrels that you drag or some people just carry a sack and pick right into the sack. And then we have a drive lane every 20 rows of corn. And then in the drive lane will be a big hay wagon. So people will just throw their sacks on the hay wagon, which can be pulled by a tractor. So that just creeps through the field to keep up with people. But corn is fun to harvest. It’s so different from everything else. It’s not even 30 man hours to harvest an acre of corn compared to everything else, which is hundreds. So you can see all this was set out.
PART 1 OF 4 ENDS [00:32:04]
Justin Rich: So you can see all this was set out what, probably almost three weeks ago at this point. Purple leaves. It’s just been so cool.
Andy Chamberlin: Yeah.
Justin Rich: Everything’s grown out of…Some varieties are worse than others.
Andy Chamberlin: What varieties of corn you got?
Justin Rich: These last four successions are all Allure…
Andy Chamberlin: Yep.
Justin Rich: Montauk and Latte I believe.
Andy Chamberlin: Yeah, those are good ones.
Justin Rich: And then the first one, it’s Allure and Sweetness.
Andy Chamberlin: Yep.
Justin Rich: Which is tasseling at belt height. But we backed off the nitrogen quite a bit this year. This has only got 80 pounds of nitrogen in chicken poop and I’m pretty pleased with the color on it. I was just trying to see some of these…putting more legumes in the cover crop rotation, what we’d get out of that. And I don’t know, at first glance I don’t think these look chlorotic.
Andy Chamberlin: No, looking good.
Justin Rich: I was a little nervous earlier on in the season just because it was so cool for nitrogen mineralization. So this field had Brassicas in it last year and some of the Brassicas had…April 6th this year I came out and drilled about half this field to peas. So the later successions all came in after a disking and either a knee high or waist high pea crops. So you should have gotten 80, 90 pounds of nitrogen just from that. But we’ll see.
Andy Chamberlin: You do everything organically?
Justin Rich: Yes, yeah everything’s organic. Even this Galinsoga. So it’s all cultivated.
Andy Chamberlin: You must have high tractors to get into the…
Justin Rich: Yeah, we have two mudders that have 27 inch belly clearance.
Andy Chamberlin: Yeah.
Justin Rich: So this stuff all got cultivated I think a week and a half ago, before the tassels really elongated. But we’ll probably do the third and fourth planting once more. But this is sweetness who is super annoying and low. It’s funny when a plant’s only this tall, how does it even generate enough? You’re like, oh, that’s why the ears are this big.
Andy Chamberlin: Yeah, they’re half size compared to the Montauks later on in this season.
Justin Rich: I know. And you’re like, why even bother? Why don’t we just skip that first week?
Andy Chamberlin: It’s the warmup. It gets people excited.
Justin Rich: Yeah, exactly. And we can sell every ear of sweet corn we pick. And for us, I don’t want to push the season into September. I want it to pretty much be late July through August and then be done. Because once September 1st hits, there’s way too many competing demands on our time. And I think what also helps us a little bit is we transplant and I think it was…Was it 16 or 18 inch spacing? So we’re giving each plant a fairly large amount of space.
Andy Chamberlin: Yeah, you are.
Justin Rich: Uh-oh. Raccoons usually are more savvy than that.
Andy Chamberlin: They’re like, nope, two weeks.
Justin Rich: I don’t know Kevin. Maybe a week and a half.
Andy Chamberlin: Got to beat the farmer.
Justin Rich: No, it looks like we’re going to fence this this week or next week.
Andy Chamberlin: You run electric around here?
Justin Rich: It works alarmingly well. Just two strands.
Andy Chamberlin: Just to keep the coons out?
Justin Rich: And it works. Yeah, we’ve dealt with them with harsher methods before, but in a remote field you have to do it at night and it’s less work to just put up a fence than it just trap them, dispose of them during the day. And I don’t know, you usually have six to 12 of them at a time, so you can’t trap them all at once. So it’s just keep them all out at once. So we’ll come through this afternoon, you just do a perimeter mow, perimeter cultivation, set the fence and then should be good to go. Then over here. I think this is Montauk here, just look how much…And that’s a real corn plant now, especially…
Andy Chamberlin: The big leaves.
Justin Rich: And also this is where it was right on the edge of this variety was where we did get in here and distant all the fall Brassicas seeded peas and they got this tall before disking them in and then that should be 40 to 50 pounds of nitrogen right there on top of the 80 pounds we put down. So that should be enough to grow a good corn crop. And I think from a nitrogen management standpoint, I think these look good.
Andy Chamberlin: Yeah and they’re at the point, they’re good, they’re established, they can take it the rest of the way.
Justin Rich: It only gets easier from here out. It’s not like they’ve shallow root systems. We’ve had really nice rain this year. So their roots should be perfectly developed. They can handle it if it’s dry from here on out. But I’ve been really impressed with…We’re trying to grow more peas as a cover crop just because they’re relatively inexpensive. And just the root nodulation you can get on just a forge pea in six weeks is pretty amazing. So I mean if you got that big root nodule in there, it’s giving you nitrogen. It’s not just eating the nitrogen that’s already in the soil, it’s fixing new stuff. So that’s all the production fields, Andy.
Andy Chamberlin: Cool.
Justin Rich: Pretty boring. 80% of the acreage is in five crops, four crops.
Andy Chamberlin: It’s enough to keep you busy.
Justin Rich: Yeah, well I like to think that our model makes us all just not super stressed out in the summer. I mean just dealing with stuff is stressful. But imagine if you had to deal with stuff cropping up while you didn’t have time to deal with it because you were just…
Andy Chamberlin: It just eats away at you.
Justin Rich: You just have too much. So we’re never really off here, but we’re never doing that packing CSA shares till 11 o’clock on a Tuesday night thing that, I don’t know, maybe that’s not as common as it used to be.
Andy Chamberlin: Or packing van to head to market.
Justin Rich: Yeah, leaving at 3:00 AM to drive two hours to the market and make all your money in four months. I mean some people love it because then they can just have the winter off or do something else in the wintertime, there’s a lot of different ways to do it.
Andy Chamberlin: You’re much more steady year round.
Justin Rich: Yeah, and I mean I’ve got two young kids and try to be present in the lives of my family and as it is, there’s plenty of times where dinner’s being made and I’m still out on a tractor at eight o’clock and that happens. But it’s not built in as a guaranteed seven day a week thing.
Andy Chamberlin: Are the kids involved with the farm much?
Justin Rich: They’re six and nine, so not super.
Andy Chamberlin: Not a ton.
Justin Rich: No. I mean they appreciate it. They go out to the greenhouses and pick tomatoes and stuff and my daughter especially just sees the beauty in a lot of the crops. And so you ask her what her favorite vegetable is and she says cabbage and I’m pretty sure it’s just because it’s that blue-green.
Andy Chamberlin: Yeah, it looks cool.
Justin Rich: Yeah, she does eat it. But I’ve often wondered what the best way to integrate the kids into the farm is because we’re very mechanized. So it’s not safe for little kids. In the wash house there’s conveyor belts and rollers. It’s not childproof.
Andy Chamberlin: Right.
Justin Rich: We don’t have chores like collecting eggs from 20 chickens.There’s stuff that…Homesteady things that kids could do. But a lot of modern farming is really not that appropriate for untrained people, even adults to be around.
Andy Chamberlin: So how’d you get started in farming?
Justin Rich: I grew up in a pretty agricultural area in the Hudson Valley and did not farm as a kid. We’re a generation removed from dairy farming on my father’s side. But so he grew up going to his father’s dairy farm as a kid. But there was none of that in my life growing up. And when I was in college I worked in bike and ski shops selling and tuning bikes and skis, which was fine. But I wanted to do something else between my junior and senior year. And there was a pretty well established vegetable farm just, well there were a number of them just up the road from where I grew up. But I got a job working at Roxbury Farm, which had been in that area just for a couple years at that point. They’d moved from another town I think two years before that. So I lived in my parents’ house that summer and worked at Roxbury five and a half days a week. And I often say it as when you’re a six foot 180 pound 20 year old kid on a farm, they know what to do with you.
Yeah, they’re real proud. I wouldn’t say I couldn’t do anything. So we just had an irrigation main break. It’s six feet down and it seems easier to have you dig it out rather than go run into an excavator. You’re like, I can do that.
Andy Chamberlin: Just get it done it.
Justin Rich: Yeah, exactly. So I think I [inaudible] some of the summers saying during much of the summer I couldn’t wait for it to be over. But then by the time it was done I developed so much just satisfaction from the work that I was compelled to go back and do it again. So it was the opposite of…Dessert tastes good but you feel bad afterwards if you eat too much. Farming doesn’t taste good in the moment sometimes, but at the end of the day you feel very satisfied. And I still hold that that’s true. So I worked there for four years and then I went to graduate school for soil science for two and a half years and I met my wife there and she’s from Richmond and here we are. She works in textile manufacturing so she’s not involved with the day-to-day on the farm but provides a very important farm service, which is a paycheck that has nothing to do with how much it does or does not rain. But she’s always been amazingly supportive.
Andy Chamberlin: Oh that’s good.
Justin Rich: Not that I get asked for advice very often, but one piece of advice I will give a young farmer if they ask is, don’t try to do it with your partner unless you’ve got a couple hundred grand to burn because it’s expensive to get started. It’s a capital intensive business. I love seeing my wife at the end of the day. You know we’re not sniping at each other all day.
Andy Chamberlin: Right.
Justin Rich: And she doesn’t want to farm. So it makes it easy. We each have our own spheres.
Andy Chamberlin: Was she more involved at the start or not really?
Justin Rich: I mean in the early years, especially before we had kids, she definitely helped harvest things now and then, but it’s not we were trying…I think I did an okay job of matching what I could more or less take care of myself with how much time I had. But when you don’t have kids, you got a lot of time. So I’d go work 50, 60 hour weeks on another farm then come and do nighttime farming here. That’s something you can do in your twenties and thirties. I wouldn’t do it now.
Andy Chamberlin: Yeah.
Justin Rich: Barely out of my thirties. What do you want to see now? We can go in the barn.
Andy Chamberlin: Yeah. Let’s see your wash pack.
Justin Rich: Let’s go in the barn. Yeah. So our wash pack setup is for potatoes and sweet potatoes and then we just throw some tubs in to wash kale. So we’re pretty basic in here, especially this time of year. A lot of other folks are very specific about their greens and their bubblers. But we just don’t do that.
Andy Chamberlin: Yeah, that is a whole nother thing.
Justin Rich: Yeah, we’re doing less of that every year actually. I think greens are one of those things that it’s easy to get into and scale up as you go. But I don’t know, I think we grow up a very nice baby spinach, but there’s a lot of farms who do a really good job of marketing it and merchandising it with cute bags. And I just, my eyes roll back when I have to…
Andy Chamberlin: It’s a whole nother thing.
Justin Rich: Think about doing that. Yeah, we do 20 to 30 grand worth of baby spinach a year and we’re doing less of it every year. So it’s not like it’s nothing crop for us. But in the grand scheme of things on the picture, it’s single digit percentages and if we don’t have a lot of labor, it’s one of the more labor intensive ones. So it just seems to be falling off. We don’t even offer it for wholesale at the stores anymore because for us four stores each order. Yeah, we’ll take one case of five ounce bags of spinach and then we have to go out and harvest 11 pounds of spinach, whatever that comes out to. And it’s like, I don’t really want to do that because the spinach might be three miles up the road.
Andy Chamberlin: To go get a crate.
Justin Rich: But yeah, during the pandemic, spinach, we harvested so much spinach that year, but last year dropped back down a little bit and then this year, yeah, like I said, we just scaled it back where we took it off. We only sell it in bulk now. We sell it to our summer CSA and then in bulk to a couple restaurant and farm stand clients.
Andy Chamberlin: Have a CSA or you’re part of…
Justin Rich: We have a multi-farm CSA in the summertime and so for a Burnt Rock Farm that’s basically a wholesale account, it’s wholesale account that’s owned by me. I’m the buyer but it’s a transaction that way we’re like Burnt rock Farm will sell the product to Mighty Boots CSA who then pays an invoice and the other farms were involved the same way.
Andy Chamberlin: How many farms are in that?
Justin Rich: It’s three of us at this point. Now it’s us, Trillium Hill Farm in Hinesberg and Tamarack Hollow and then Cloud Water Farm over in Warren is involved on a few perennial crops and the one pickup is at their farm. So stuff goes down to Boston and then it goes over to Warren. So we’ve been doing that 10 years now. It’s worked great.
Andy Chamberlin: Wow.
Justin Rich: It’s been a lot of change in that. It was originally us, Kingsbury Market Garden in Warren and Woods Market Garden in Brandon. John passed away from cancer last summer so he’s not involved. And then Aaron stopped vegetable farming over at Kingsbury, doing just herbs. So it’s changed a bit. So that’s why we started growing Sweet Corn is because John wasn’t able to do it. And turns out it’s fun. It works well in our systems. It’s nice to have. We grow a lot of crops in a three to five acre block range. So corn slots in nicely at the four acre block with the five acres of potatoes, five acres of winter squash, two and a half of sweet potatoes, two and a half of onions.
Andy Chamberlin: You’ve got enough lettuce to…
Justin Rich: Three of Brassicas. Yeah, I think we’re kind of nearing our max on potatoes and squash just from a rotation standpoint. Because I think as it is right now we’re a pretty tight five year rotation on potatoes. Sometimes four. And I really don’t want to be doing four long term. I think I’d rather be five, but we need a little bit more land to do that. So I’m not hunting aggressively for more land but it could be put to use.
Andy Chamberlin: Is there much more in this valley that you could absorb?
Justin Rich: No, I mean between us…
Andy Chamberlin: It seemed like there’s a couple other farms on your [inaudible].
Justin Rich: The one dairy farm in town, all of the field corn and the well-managed hay was theirs. And there’s still a couple guys mowing 10, 20 acres of hay for the horse market. But in terms of acres, that’s it. So probably our biggest competition is with house lots now. Luckily a lot of the good farmland is technically floodplain here so you probably can’t build a house there but there’s a lot of houses that flood here every time it floods. So they have to make the rules a lot more restrictive than they were in the seventies, which I think has been done. But it just puts us in a position where we just want to do what we’re doing better. Higher yields, lower input. There’s plenty of ways to increase your revenue without adding more land.
Andy Chamberlin: Right. So is your plan to maintain where you’re at as far as revenue or do you want to continue to grow that and keep refining things down?
Justin Rich: Well I think all else being equal, there’s no reason to not try to make more money.
Andy Chamberlin: Absolutely. Yeah.
Justin Rich: So not trying to stay at the same dollar value year over year because especially the last two years you would’ve been behind 10% if you did that.
Andy Chamberlin: Exactly, exactly.
Justin Rich: It was actually really funny to farm in the, what’s quote unquote, the low interest 2010s. Because on our end we saw plenty of…or low inflation, 2010s because we saw plenty of inflation in the 2010s. The cost of land kept going up, the cost of the machinery kept going up. But I think a lot of that was masked by low inflation and consumer goods. It’s like big screen TVs and sneakers didn’t get more expensive. But anything made out of steel got a lot more expensive between 2010 and 2020 and that’s only kept going. So I’m grateful we did a lot of our capitalization before now because I feel bad for anybody who’s like, I got a cool million to spend on the equipment right now. And they realize, oh I’m only getting $500,000 worth of equipment based on my crop budget from two years ago. So times are pretty good in agriculture right now. But high input prices and high equipment prices should give everybody a little bit of pause. But at least in vegetable production in Vermont, it’s more labor is the big expense for everybody.
Andy Chamberlin: And you manage labor by scaling up in equipment. You’re a pretty young farmer. How did you get to be a 50 acre farm wholesaling stuff with that much capital?
Justin Rich: Well I told you my wife works off farm. So for the first couple years we were here, I worked full-time off farm. So everything made on the farm, stayed on the farm and then I’d have to look at our taxes. But I would say even after the third year when I was farming here full time, I contributed very little money to the household. My wife and I, we didn’t have kids at the time so we could live more cheaply. So she had a regular day job and that was super important. I mean it enabled me to spend more money on investing in things than people in a different situation if they were single or if they were to have kids or if their partner, if they wanted to farm together, there’s lots of ways it could go, it could be harder.
So we had some savings coming into it all. We bought the property in foreclosure auction in 2008, which was quite fortunate. So within a year of that we had six figures of equity in the house. So the first barns we built were the home equity loan based on the fact that we bought our house at the bottom of the market and it inflated. So it’s still paying off a home equity loan there. But actually that will be done in a year.
Andy Chamberlin: Woo-hoo.
Justin Rich: That’ll be a nice $983 and 44 cents a month I get to keep.
Andy Chamberlin: There is a nice race.
Justin Rich: That’s a real marker paying off a loan.
Andy Chamberlin: Big one.
Justin Rich: And back then I did a lot of that work myself. So I built the barn cheaper than it would’ve cost. The barn we’re standing and now I didn’t build this and we hired Bud Carpenter Construction to build the barn. I did the plumbing but I mean that’s the plumbing.
Andy Chamberlin: Yeah, yeah.
Justin Rich: It’s like a weekend project. It saved thousands of dollars to do it myself. But I didn’t do the electrical. My neighbor does the concrete work. So this barn is a little more of a retail price. So what I’d say is it’s just been putting production first, yield first, lifestyle second. And I just poured all the money back in for probably basically the first five years. All the money the farm made back into the farm. So I didn’t pay myself but for the first few years I had a day job.
My wife had a day job the entire time. And then eventually when you get to a certain point and it’s longer than people probably want to hear, but it doesn’t really fly wheel until close to 10 years in my experience it just seems like you’re always, how am I going to pay that bill and running to the bank to deposit the few checks you got that month, that week. That ebbed…You’re like eight to 10? Which is longer than people want to hear.
Andy Chamberlin: It’s a long time.
Justin Rich: But just think, what is farming? Farming is possibly the most capital intensive business you get into besides opening a mine. You basically need to buy a small used car dealership worth of machines. You need land and you need buildings to do it all in. And places like the [inaudible] show you don’t need buildings technically you can do it without buildings. There’s so many different ways to do this. You can do without machines. But between high input marketing, labor, machines, buildings and land, you need to have a couple of those falling in your pocket because you can’t make do without all of them because that’s farming.
But everybody has a different mix of what their strengths are and what their brains like to focus on. I’m a terrible marketer, that’s why I like direct wholesale. My marketing is yes, Healthy Living, I’ll get you what you ordered and it will be there tomorrow at the price I told you. You just basically have to be an adult. Say what you got, deliver what you say and that’s the best marketing you can do. And the stores appreciate it because you’re reliable. And I don’t have to be taking pictures of myself on social media because I’m not good at that.
Yeah, I’m always cognizant too of when we started this farm, I heard from a number of farmers, I don’t know if they said you’ll never make it, but the comment was like, the market’s so saturated, what are you going to sell? And they were wrong. So if somebody asked me right now, I’d probably be wrong in what I recommended because people who are established, which I’d like to think we’re established now, you have big blind spots based on what you’re spending your time doing. You miss marketing opportunities because you’re not hunting for them or you’re of the wrong age to understand them. So there’s plenty of opportunities in agriculture, you just got to…
Andy Chamberlin: Yeah.
Justin Rich: You got to look at what your strengths are. If you’re bad at machinery, if you don’t know which end of the screwdriver to use, you probably don’t want to get a lot of tractors. You’re going to blow your whole budget on fixing things.
Andy Chamberlin: Are you a people person? Are you a tractor…
Justin Rich: But there’s so much space for all those different types of people to be successful. And maybe it’s not running your own farm, maybe it’s working on a farm or you’re like, “God boy, the people who run that farm are really bad at marketing. I could do that.”
Andy Chamberlin: So maybe the more CSA customer forward focused.
Justin Rich: Yeah, I mean do you just love nerding out on making the most beautiful farm stand? There’s a place for you, not here but lots of other places would love to have you. So I don’t know, I love what I do. Never am I thinking, “Well going to go…” I’d never fill in the blank of what would I do next if…if I weren’t doing this. Because I don’t know, for me it works perfectly. It fits my personality. And also I run the business. If I want to do more machinery work, I just do it. At this point, my coworkers are better than I am at harvesting stuff. So I mostly do sales, general management. Most of the mechanic work and buying stuff, just buy stuff all the time.
It’s just costs hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to run a farm our size. You almost get too good to be like, yeah that’s only $1,200 order it. You’re like, that’s a lot of money.
Andy Chamberlin: Oh yeah.
Justin Rich: I kind of need that thing though. We’re out of tomato trays. This is a good problem to have. We’re out of tomato trays, that means the 130 trays we have are full of tomatoes. Okay.
Andy Chamberlin: You just got to do it.
Justin Rich: It’s so cliche to say you got to spend money to make money, but you do.
Andy Chamberlin: It’s a high cash flow business, a lot of money coming and going.
Justin Rich: You just got to have slightly more coming than going. Hopefully not slightly more but more money coming than going. And I think it’s easy in this business to sweat the small stuff or ignore the small stuff and you have to be somewhere in between because for me the most expensive thing I can do is forget to take care of a crop at a critical stage of its growth. So if I’m too busy micromanaging people here about “You got to use your left hand more when you’re cutting” stop it, stop. People are going to be different speeds at things.
If you’re micromanaging people instead of realizing, oh you just had leafhoppers blow on potatoes, you might have just lost 10,000 pounds of yield and that person is wasting 30 cents a week harvesting that thing slower than you want them to do it, leave them alone. And you’re annoying them. So I mean I work with a bunch of adults who work hard and want to do a good job. We all mess up sometimes, but if somebody’s messing up because they just messed up, it’s just what happens. It’s humans doing human things all day.
Andy Chamberlin: You said you have a key crew of seven people or so are they coming back year after year?
Justin Rich: So we’ve been at six people a year until this year we went up to seven and we’d usually have four, four, maybe five of those folks return. So we’d only hire one or two new people a year. And sometimes those people would jump into the returning mix and sometimes they’d say one year and leave. But it’s crucial because then training happens sort of organically. You just make sure the first day of broccoli harvest, two new people don’t go out alone.
Andy Chamberlin: That’s a big accident to have.
Justin Rich: Hannah’s our manager here and she just does a good job of pairing people up and helping people out. I noticed you’re doing this, you might want to consider, but the most important thing is to have people who want to do a good job. There’s easier ways to just earn a generic paycheck than farming. So if you’re treating people like robots, they’re just going to do a bad job or quit. I don’t know unless they’re one of that 1% of people who is motivated by being yelled at. But that’s a really rare trait.
Andy Chamberlin: Yeah, I don’t think that’s a common…
Justin Rich: Yeah, it’s not. But sadly, especially when I was younger, I just remember seeing farmers yell at their crew a lot and just, what are you doing? It’s not good for anybody. Nobody’s blood pressure is benefited by that. And I have kids. So even kids don’t like being yelled at.
Andy Chamberlin: No.
Justin Rich: It’s a human thing. So we don’t advertise typically for employees. So anybody who applies here by default wants to be farming. So I find hiring to be challenging because you never know how people are going to click with the rest of the crew and how are they going to handle the adversity of August weather or day 11 of squash harvest. But it’s amazing once people step up, especially if you let them get there.
Andy Chamberlin: What fulfills you the most in this career?
Justin Rich: Being able to use so many different hopefully skills in a given day to achieve and sometimes I’m sitting at my desk for four hours in the morning and then yesterday we had a tractor split in the shop and we got that put back together. I don’t like wrenching on tractors because what wrenching on a tractor means to me is something’s broken, but I hate having broken stuff. So you’re wrenching the tractor to get it unbroken. And just the satisfaction of tightening that final bolt on that one hydraulic line as you put the tractor back together and you’re like, now this tractor and then turning it on.
Andy Chamberlin: Done. Get it out there.
Justin Rich: And the tractor runs and Ross backs out of the shop and he gives the okay sign. You’re like, all right, it’s just lots of little victories. And then the seasonality is very satisfying too. Not that we’re ever out of season, but just today is different from November 1st, which is different from February 1st. Different from May 1st. There’s always something to look forward to. And therefore any time of year, which you might not love as much will be over soon.
Andy Chamberlin: That’s true.
Justin Rich: Just don’t drop the ball.
Andy Chamberlin: Next week’s going to be pretty close to this week. But three weeks ago was a completely different time of year.
Justin Rich: Exactly. I don’t know, maybe I’m just really good at adapting to my reality. What do you love about it? I love it because you have to, otherwise the option is sell it and go work in finance or something. You’re like, “That doesn’t sound attractive to me.” So I don’t know, I love walking through a field. I love just eating the food out of the ground. I love operating machinery. I love building things. I love designing things. I love tweaking systems. I even like bookkeeping the extent to which I have to do it because that’s where you get to see where you’re lying to yourself. You say, I hate or I love growing cauliflower and you look like, wow, we sold that much cauliflower? Oops. Cauliflower’s not a loser, but it’s barely a winner for us.
Andy Chamberlin: What’s one of your, we’ll say weaknesses that you delegate to somebody else? Some might do bookkeeping or crew management or whatever.
Justin Rich: Especially as I get older, I find my presence around the crew is not beneficial. I don’t think I’m disliked, but I think scarcity breeds fondness perhaps. So Hannah who’s our manager, she basically tells everyone what to do all day and she’s a tremendous people person and knows farming. She’s been doing this for 10 years and she’s been with us for six or 7, 17, 18, 19 and 20. Sixth year. Yeah. I don’t feel like I’m particularly great at telling people how to do things. I don’t know if I’m bad at it, but it’s not something I specifically enjoy. So crew management.
But also that’s just the reality of a lot of that’s the same stuff day in and day out. And my job is to put out fires, sell stuff, fix stuff, which is a type of fire. But yeah that’s how you get so far behind. If you say, all right Justin, you got 10 hours till you’re going to harvest these three crops, you’re going to wash these, box these. So what happens then if you had budgeted in and then the clutch goes out on the tractor that day, you either can’t pivot to attach the problem, or you have to stay up until three in the morning. And like I said, I have a family so I’m trying to avoid that.
Andy Chamberlin: And trying to get the boxes and rubber bands together versus getting that tractor going again or connected your sale of thousands of pounds.
Justin Rich: People can be trained to do that stuff better than they can be trained to be diesel mechanics. So that’s kind of how I take it. And if I had somebody on the crew who’s was really into mechanical work, I’d have them help me with it or do it. One guy Ross works for me, he’s pretty good at fixing stuff so he’ll do a lot of bigger stuff on the cars and trucks and he helps me in the shop with stuff like splitting that tractor the other day. I mean I’m not that good at that stuff either I just don’t have any options. I’m not going to bring it to the dealer to split a dry clutch tractor. I mean that’s not that hard. That’s actually a bad example because we put a new clutch in that seven years ago then we’ve been done. But I also just try not to own machinery that’s so old that it is constantly in the shop because our stuff has to run.
Andy Chamberlin: Fair enough.
Justin Rich: We have some redundancy built in, but I like to say I like to buy tractors and trucks in the middle third of their lives.
Andy Chamberlin: So you buy used but not worn down.
Justin Rich: The best is to buy a tractor from usually a guy who bought the tractor when he retired to plow his driveway and put 200 hours on it in eight years and then decides they want a smaller one. Those are the best because they’re usually well maintained. They’re inside all the time. They’re not overworked. Because that’s happened a couple times.
Andy Chamberlin: Yeah that, yep. That’d be a good find.
Justin Rich: But you have to be ready to buy it when they’re for sale. It’s not like, oh the tractors broken, what am I going to replace it with now because that’s a good way to spend tens of thousands of dollars more than warranted for new machines. So I mean that’s what I do at lunch. I’m eating my lunch at my computer looking at Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace.
PART 2 OF 4 ENDS [01:04:04]
Justin Rich: At lunch, I’m eating my lunch at my computer looking at Craigslist, my, favorite marketplace, and tractor house. And if once a year you find something that saves you $10,000, it’s a pretty productive lunch.
Andy Chamberlin: Yeah, exactly.
Justin Rich: Yeah. We bought one new tractor ever. But the rest of all been generally lightly used. And the only one that we bought that was more heavily used, broken hour meter, that’s the only one that we ever have to split. It’s like, “Oh that’s what, 6,000 hours on a utility tractor does, wears out.” Yeah, it’s a vegetable farm, we’re pretty easy. On tractors, we put 250, 300 hours a year on a couple different tractors and the transplanting tractor is literally just kind of idling through the field at 1200 rpm.
Andy Chamberlin: Right. It’s not heavy work.
Justin Rich: Your biggest issue there is making sure you’re getting enough oil to the top of the engine.
Andy Chamberlin: Rev it up at the end of the row.
Justin Rich: Yeah, “Just make you go to 1500 every couple minutes.” And I guess our loader tractors, but it’s not like we’re turning manure piles every day. Loader tractors get used for pallet fork work and for taking out the compost. Pretty easy work. And then a lot of our hours are roading.
Andy Chamberlin: That’s true.
Justin Rich: You’re driving down the road at 24 miles an hour. So our stuff tends to last decently because I try to buy it with relatively low hours, and then it takes a long time to get high hour at 300 hours a year. Our new Massey we put 400 hours on in the first year. Because I’m like, “This is under warranty, let’s get as many hours on this as possible.”
Andy Chamberlin: Get all the kinks worked out of it.
Justin Rich: Yeah, exactly. So far we had one hydraulic hose bad, and I was a three and a half minute repair, once they sent me a new hose. I was like, “Okay,”
Andy Chamberlin: Can handle that.
Justin Rich: “Fantastic.” And that’s still under warranty for another year and a half.
Andy Chamberlin: Perfect.
Justin Rich: Hopefully I don’t need it, but at least it’s there. But we bought that one new because last, like a winter and a half ago, the used market was really high and, yeah, good deal from a dealer up in Quebec that’s worked with a couple Vermont growers and they seemed to want to sell a tractor.
Andy Chamberlin: What are you excited about and your next year of farming life?
Justin Rich: Seeing at this experiment with just not growing a whole lot more stuff, but just trying to do better at it works out financially at the end.
Andy Chamberlin: That seems like a 10-year plan, not a one-year plan, though.
Justin Rich: Well it’s every year. Yeah. We haven’t built a new bar in a number of years. We’re not going to upgrade any equipment for, maybe upgrade this or that again if a good deal comes along. But no plans.
Andy Chamberlin: Yeah, no major infrastructure…
Justin Rich: “Oh, I’m going to buy a carrot harvester.” Nothing like that. We got that potato harvester a year ago and that was eyeopening. We took down a greenhouse here last spring and we’re rebuilding it up the road on an old silage pad. So like a 75-year-old concrete pad. Not good for anything except for as a shed floor. So we’re building a greenhouse over a shed or we’re building a greenhouse over a concrete pad that’s just a storage shed.
Andy Chamberlin: For a shed, yeah.
Justin Rich: Just to have more enclosed covered space. That potato harvester is sitting out in the sun and the rain right now. And I’d prefer that not to be the case.
Andy Chamberlin: Drying and rusting and…
Justin Rich: Belts cracking.
Andy Chamberlin: Yeah.
Justin Rich: I mean you replace one of those belted chains. It’s three grand probably. I don’t know.
Andy Chamberlin: And quite the project.
Justin Rich: Yeah.
Andy Chamberlin: They’re not easy.
Justin Rich: Not easy, and expensive and yeah. I don’t think that’ll be that problem right yet, but.
Andy Chamberlin: What did you envision your farm would look like when you got started?
Justin Rich: My farming experience when I first started was on a 30 acre CSA farm. So it was very mechanized, very good systems, very good weed control. It wasn’t one of these, “Yeah, we’ll weed whack the pig weed down so we can get to the pumpkins.” It was very dialed in. And so I just wanted to have a farm that was mechanized enough that I knew it would take a lot of the backbreaking work out of it, which it does. The materials handling, there’s no reason to be carrying heavy things all the time. You have to do it no matter what.
Andy Chamberlin: There’s tools for that.
Justin Rich: Yes, there are tractors with pallet forks. Use them. Don’t carry a 60 pound leg of cabbage, 50 feet out of a field, carry one head of cabbage eight inches and drop it in a bin. So I had a very good template set in front of me from Jean Paul and Jodi at Roxbury farm, so, not that I was copying what they did, but the systems seemed to make a lot of sense to me. And one of the most important things in any business is knowing what things can look like and how to get them there. So I worked there for four years and just saw how they did it. And so even our business is totally different from theirs, the systems aren’t that different. Think about stuff and use hydraulics when possible.
People get really, I don’t know, especially right now, I’ve very bent out of shape, but diesel use, I’m like, “We burn more gas in the delivery truck than we do diesel in the tractors.” That number might actually be more equal now. It used to be way more. We’re getting more efficient on our trucking. The truck has more stuff in it every day, and we’re still just running one truck three days a week. And the tractors we’re growing twice as much as five years ago. So the fuel use is fairly linear per acre.
Andy Chamberlin: Yeah, that makes sense.
Justin Rich: So if you’d asked me my first year plowing up slopes was 2009, “Is this what things would look like?” I’d be like, “I don’t know.” I don’t think I’d lie to myself about where I wanted to be. I knew what direction things wanted to go and then I said to myself, “you have to be able to sell the stuff in order to grow the stuff.” So what I was able to sell led me where we were able to grow.
Andy Chamberlin: I see.
Justin Rich: So the winter storage crops back in the 2010, ’11, ’12, ’13 period was a huge growth area around here. Probably still is, I don’t know. But it always seemed, and also I worked full-time elsewhere so I didn’t have time in the summer to go to a farmer’s market or even do deliveries. So I grew half acre of sweet potatoes, a half acre of squash, a quarter acre of onions and just stuck it in storage in my basement. My mom built a little walk-in cooler in the basement of our old barn, like an eight by eight. My mother’s a carpenter so it was handy. So I didn’t know exactly where it was going, but I knew, “That sells, that’s worth growing. We’re going to do that. And then we do little more.”
Andy Chamberlin: Wholesale and equipment was your vision from the start.
Justin Rich: Quantity of product, and if we could go to a farmer’s market and sell eight grand worth of stuff, sure we’ll do it. But I think I always had a little bit of hesitation due to the hustle of do four small farmer’s markets. Because I just know there’s so much work in that. And we did the Burlington Winter Farmer’s Market for a number of years and it just never sold enough revenue. Maybe other folks make it work, but then a lot of those winter markets have a lot of turnover and I think some of them might just be too big for their client base, too many vendors, or whatever it is. Or people are like, “Why would I go to the farmer’s market? City markets right there.” And it’s also indoors. So people buy food as far at supermarkets. So we’ve always said “Let’s sell to the supermarkets.” And in this area we’re super lucky to have not just one good co-op, like five different large stores that buy local organic produce and sell a lot of it. That’s huge. And that’s not something most people have.
Andy Chamberlin: That’s true.
Justin Rich: Between City Market, Healthy Living, Middlebury co-op and then place the Intervale food hub. And farmers too who buy a large chunk once a week. I mean they’re fantastic outlets because it’s so much more efficient to pack 30 cases of something than 30 cases each of one different crop or one crop. One case each of 30 different crops, rather. When we sell to [inaudible] we’ll pack a hundred cases of butternut. And it’s like, “Wow, that is so much faster than you’re even packing 20 cases of butternut.” Your elbows start getting a little sore by the end of it, but trying to have anybody do that. So I guess to sum that up, I didn’t have an exact roadmap, I just knew how to follow the road signs. If you sell everything at the price you want, grow more of it. Don’t grow three times as much. And if something doesn’t sell, just you can’t grow it, or you have to figure it out or drop it. And if a market doesn’t work out, you have to drop it.
We’ve never dropped a customer, like, “That restaurant never pays its bills.” We’ve had such good luck with everyone who buys stuff. So on that end, I think we’ve had it really easy without even knowing it. Other people are like, “Oh, I was selling to this fly-by-night a health food store that closed down, and they had $8,000 in outstanding invoices. I guess I’m never going to say that.” I’ve just never had that happen. Yeah, I think if I added up all my unpaid invoices in 12 years it’d be like 800 bucks, which…
Andy Chamberlin: Nice.
Justin Rich: Yeah, at most there’s like $30 each.
Andy Chamberlin: Yeah.
Justin Rich: Maybe not even that much. I don’t even know. There’s nothing. People pay their bills, which is great. I don’t know if that’s a Vermont thing or what.
Andy Chamberlin: I don’t know, maybe
Justin Rich: I don’t look too much into it. Thank you everybody. Thank you all those Vermonters listening to this podcast.
Andy Chamberlin: You don’t have to hunt people down to…
Justin Rich: For paying your bills. We sell to a bunch of restaurants and caterers and they’re all just great.
Andy Chamberlin: Good.
Justin Rich: And they want to use our stuff. I’m not a salesman, you see. So I don’t go out there and glad hand, I don’t walk into the back of a restaurant and convince people to buy our stuff. I don’t have that gene. It would come across as disingenuous, I think, if I tried it.
Andy Chamberlin: There’s a certain level of authenticity in the Northeast, I think.
Justin Rich: Yeah. But there’s even, I worked for Eric Rosendale for years and he was so good at walking up to, he could sell anything to anybody. He was so good at it. And I just watched him in awe, like, “How do you do that?” Because he’s not lying either. It’s like, “Wow.” He just loved people, so.
Andy Chamberlin: Certain level of charisma, some people are just scary.
Justin Rich: Absolutely. My charisma is just having the stuff on the invoice that’s supposed to be in the truck.
Andy Chamberlin: Follow through.
Justin Rich: Responding to emails. Sorry to people whose emails I don’t respond to.
Andy Chamberlin: It’s tricky. Where do you get your business or farming education? How did you learn this stuff? Did you have a mentor or anything like that?
Justin Rich: Farming education, I referenced this a bit earlier, but working at Roxbury Farm in Hudson Valley. They ran, it was entirely CSA with a little local farmer’s market on Saturdays, which was for community relations more than anything else. Just to let people know we’re here. So that was probably 1% of their business, or just a very small amount. The rest was a thousand plus member CSA in the Albany and New York City areas. So it’s a very different business to run. But you still have to plan out crops, plant them, weed them, fertilize them, water them, harvest them, you know, still have to do all the things. It’s just how you get there is different.
So as far as business sense, it’d be, well as far as farming sense go would be working for Jean Paul and Jodi down there who were, I wonder if it would’ve been better for me to have worked on a disaster farm first, just so I could have appreciated how well it was run at the time. Because getting dropped into a very well old machine. You think, “Oh, all machines automatically oil themselves.” No, it’s applied. But I don’t spend too much time thinking about that because it seems to have worked out okay.
Business sense, I don’t know. I think there’s some hard lessons, but a lot of business is just basic math and then basic principles. I don’t try to do my own taxes. QuickBooks is really helpful in doing your business because being good at business is often just making sure you’re not spending more than you make. And if you are, make sure you get a loan. I just ask people business questions a lot. My father ran a small business. It was more in services than it was in production. Baby steps I guess. Because I definitely have farm friends who are much savvier business people than I am, but I don’t think I’m a slouch.
Some people are just so good at sniffing out that extra sale or this opportunity. And I’m fairly conservative by nature when it comes to… I’m like, “I’m going to grow two acres of sugar snap peas next year.” It just doesn’t happen. We’ll baby stuff, try it, and if it doesn’t work, we don’t grow it. But I like to think I have a decent idea of what the market can take, which makes you look smarter than you are because you don’t have to hustle to get rid of stuff. Nothing makes you feel dumber as a farmer than like, “Oops, how am I going to move that 500 pounds of cauliflower I harvested yesterday? Oops.”
Because look, with perishable stuff, you have to let buyers know a week can advance that it’s coming so they don’t order it from California. Because that’s a pipeline, and they have to stop the pipeline if they’re going to take your stuff. So I feel like a lot, in this type of business, a lot of business sense, it’s just common courtesy and following through on what you say. And that gets you really far, and not bullshitting people. If you say, “Yeah, we got some really nice melons coming this week,” don’t send crappy melons. If you say it’s really nice, make sure it’s really nice and everything should always be really nice. But if you use that modifier, make sure here.
So I don’t think there’s too much magic to it and be being realistic about what stuff costs. I remember always asking at Roxbury, I asked Jean Paul how much things cost and it blew my mind. And this was back 20 years ago, so everything was cheap. “But how though?” I remember making a crop budget before we bought this farm, and I think I found it a couple years ago. It was just hilarious. I was so wrong. At least I knew ballpark I wasn’t off by a factor of 10.
Every now and then somebody will see a machine and they’re like, “What does that cost like $2,000?” I’m like, “80. $80,000.” They’re like, “What?” You can just watch minds being blown. Like, it blows my mind too sometimes.
Andy Chamberlin: Yeah.
Justin Rich: I didn’t pay that by the way. That’s just what it would cost if you bought new.
Andy Chamberlin: Right, exactly. Yeah. Yeah. That’s an $80,000 tractor. I got it for 50, but…
Justin Rich: Yes, yes. Replacement cost. Post covid inflated replacement cost.
Andy Chamberlin: Well then what’s the time that you felt really challenged by farming?
Justin Rich: Whenever we have those Junes where it rains 14 inches. Because it’s just, you don’t get a do-over in these crops. If you’re doing 35 successions of baby spinach, you get 34 do-overs.
Andy Chamberlin: Yeah.
Justin Rich: Worst case you might lose three successions. So worst case scenarios, like 10% loss from any one. But our field mostly don’t flood from the river, but if you get seven inches of rain in a week, they flood from the air. And then your fungal diseases take off, so you have to go in and spray all these preventative biological fungicides. And so you compact the wheel tracks, which makes the water stand longer, which raises the humidity, which increases diseases, which makes… You just get in these bad positive feedback loops, which are fairly demoralizing. But it’s been a couple years since we had one of those. But all of our worst years financially have been the years where it rained 10 inches or more in June, which has been three of them. It was, until two years ago we had, no, last year we had a pattern where even numbered years were pretty good and odd numbered years always had one month where we got too much rain, usually May or June. And the June ones were disasters. May we could somehow get through better.
But those weather events, because knowing you don’t get to redo it, you have to look at that browning stand of crop for the rest of its, you have to limp it along, harvest a half yield, sell a half yield…
Andy Chamberlin: Follow through with what you can.
Justin Rich: And then wait till next year. And that, I don’t know if it makes you very zen or if it just makes you resigned or what, but those are never the best moments.
Andy Chamberlin: Knocks the wind out of you.
Justin Rich: Yeah. And then of course just break something because you did something stupid is never great. But that’s, that’s not like existential, it’s just, “Oh, that’s annoying.” Raising something up and cracking the rear window of the tractor. “Oh, I have better use for the $275 than a new window, but that’s what I’ll spend it on. And then spend two hours installing, okay.”
Andy Chamberlin: Just stupid mistakes.
Justin Rich: Yeah, just stupid mistakes. But you learn from them mostly.
Andy Chamberlin: Slow down, not rush.
Justin Rich: Yeah, yeah, exactly.
Andy Chamberlin: What advice would you give your beginning farmer self now that you’ve been in this close to 20 years. Not even 20 years.
Justin Rich: Beginning farmer self. Well, I think when I was younger I did it pretty well I think. Yeah, I worked for other people for a number of years. I didn’t jump the gun. Because there’s been plenty of people who’ve started farms without much experience and did great. But I think the number who’ve failed is much larger, because it’s a pretty unforgiving business.
Andy Chamberlin: You don’t hear about them because they’re gone.
Justin Rich: Exactly. Or they’re the ones, there’s a guy who ran for governor a couple years ago and he was slamming the local food industry. He’s James Ehlers, and he’s like, “You need to have a trust fund to grow organic vegetables.” And I’m like, “You know, just because you did it and it didn’t work out, don’t be a jerk.” You know? It was such a jerky comment, and there are so many people who work their asses off doing this. And to have him just dismiss everybody like that out of hand because he saw somebody with a trust fund who he thought had it easier. I don’t know anybody who succeeds in this business because of a trust fund. If they have one, good. That would be handy. Good. But if you’re doing, the money can actually make you worse at this because you can start off, I can spend a million dollars starting a farm pretty easily.
Andy Chamberlin: That doesn’t mean you’re going to be successful at it.
Justin Rich: And you might have bought all the wrong stuff, and then you turns out “I want to buy the right stuff.” You’re like, “Oh, the wrong stuff I bought lost value.” You’re like, money makes it easier, but it doesn’t make you succeed. It just smooths over some bumps. And just even in my and life worth my wife working off farm with a good job, that has been huge. And that’s like a form of, is that a trust? It’s outside money, but it’s not paying for the farm. It’s just allowed me to be able to focus more on the farm and not have to work maybe a hundred hours a week. You know what I mean?
Andy Chamberlin: Taking some of the stress out, yeah.
Justin Rich: I don’t apologize for that because okay, this is what our situation, we’ve made the best of it. I try to pay my folks well and not complain about money because nobody wants to hear anybody complain about money. There’s times where it’s hard, but it’s my job to smooth those out. Anyway, to get back to your original question, I would’ve liked to have taken a proper year’s diesel mechanics course, because everything I do in the shop is self-taught. Sometimes you’re better at teaching yourself than others. I’m the type of mechanic, lots of farmers are this way, you learn how the equipment works and you have it broken open. You’re like, “Oh yeah, that’s where that shift fork goes.” So you learn after the fact, which probably a lot of mechanics do this, but when you talk to a real mechanic who understands empirically how these things work, it’s mind-blowing. Like “Wow, if I could just import that knowledge, my life would be a lot easier.”
So back in my more experiential twenties, that probably would’ve been a good idea. I worked for other people for a number of years and I didn’t, here I didn’t bite off more than I could chew. When we bought this place, it seemed so huge. So if you buy land, mind where it is, and there’s a lot of good things about where we are, but it’s also a tight valley without a lot of land. So expansion possibilities are not as rich as they could be elsewhere. I think I have a habit of just turning that around into looking at the positive of, “Oh, it’s great. We have to travel six miles to get to a field, so our potato beetles don’t fly that far. Great.”
And that is good, but if I had 30 more acres it would be handy. But I’m not going to go out and try to poach land from the dairy farm neighbors. They need to make a living too. And they’re really good at what they do. So I’m not going to start doing that. So all the land we’ve gotten has basically been either a neighbor offered up a two acre field or knocking on some doors. And then one neighbor passed away a couple years ago and we bought his place. Which was, that was a challenging year or two. Buying a farm that wasn’t in current use, so paying full property taxes and the mortgage on a field you couldn’t crop for two more years.
Andy Chamberlin: So you didn’t use it.
Justin Rich: Couldn’t. It was had a spraying of, had a passive urea on it so we couldn’t crop it for organic crops. But even that has benefits because then you can break the sod one year, cover crop at the next, and then plant it the third. And if anybody’s ever plowed a sod and planted into it that year, especially organically knows the hazards.
Andy Chamberlin: Can you grow a field not organic or do you have to be a hundred percent?
Justin Rich: We could have had a split farm, but I just didn’t want to deal with it. Yeah, I could’ve grown conventional sweet corn organically. And if that was the only option we could have done that, I could have told the stores, “This is a transitional ground. It’s grown organically, but it’s not certified organic.” And they would’ve paid conventional prices, which maybe would’ve been better than nothing, but I don’t know.
We didn’t have to, we didn’t need it yet. Whereas if we lost that, well we own that field now, but that’s why we had a little more, we’ve always had a little more land in rotation than we have in production and that, we’ve never lost a field to anybody yet, knock on HDPE…
Andy Chamberlin: You’ve never needed to…
Justin Rich: But having that buffer to absorb losing something would be huge.
Andy Chamberlin: Gives you an opportunity to cover crop it, to test it, to work with it, learn it.
Justin Rich: Yeah. And these 30, 40 year old sods, acid sods can be pretty tough things. If you actually plowed one of these fields, even around here, if you plow it eight inches deep, you come back next year, the sod is still there, eight inches deep. So we try to chop it up with the disc and then plow it. Or even, the last really browned rotation, I just used the high speed disc harrow on it and disced it probably six times.
Andy Chamberlin: Jeezum.
Justin Rich: Well, that way you wouldn’t have that pickled layer down below. Well even if we’d put, it would’ve been moldboard plow. And then use a conventional tandem disc harrow twice or three times, then field cultivated it twice. It’s similar number of passes.
Andy Chamberlin: Yeah, I guess so.
Justin Rich: The high speed discs are very handy because we have ours set to only work about three, four inches deep. So you can keep everything high up in the soil.
Andy Chamberlin: On the top.
Justin Rich: Ish. And we still use the Mopar plow, we still chisel plow, we still use a field cultivator and a tandem disc, so we’ve never bought a piece of tillage equipment that replaced another one. They just add.
Andy Chamberlin: Another tool in the box.
Justin Rich: It’s like being a timber framer, like, “Oh, how many chisels do you have?” “70. This one’s only used for this.” It’s tillage tools for an organic farmer. It’s an obscure reference. It’s like chisels for a timber framer.
The nice thing about them is the roller on the back carries the weight of the disc. So discs have a reputation for causing compaction because theoretically all the weight is in the soil. So either on the bottom of the disc or resting on the bottom tangent of the concavity of the disc. That’s what keeps the disc from sinking all the way in. In our soil it’s actually the rocks that it hits. So I think we get less compaction than they would in a wet silt loam. But with a high speed discs, there’s a roller in the back that’s set three inches above the disc. So when the disc penetrates, it’s actually riding on this roller, which is on top of the soil.
Andy Chamberlin: Gotcha.
Justin Rich: So that’s actually providing your depth control. And we did some penetrometer readings last summer, and I couldn’t find a plow pan in any of the fields that had multiple passes with that. So I’ll keep doing that. I mean, one year’s test after you’ve been using a tool for a year and a half is not conclusive, but it’s not…
Andy Chamberlin: Right.
Justin Rich: Like driving a wet grain buggy through a field during harvest with a hundred thousand pounds of corn in it on one axle, it’s not causing that level of compaction. And also a lot of the concerns about compaction, I think, on our scale are kind of overblown because people hear about soil compaction, which is not nothing, but the machinery used on vegetable farms in the Northeast is so small, they’re light machines. Even a 10,000 ton tractor is a light tractor. You’ve got it on pizza cutter, veggie tires. You can start getting there. But you start looking at your flat plate area for a certain tire size and dividing out the weight of the tractor by that, you’re like, “Oh, we’re at like six psi? Oh, huh. Not bad.” Assuming your tires are inflated correctly.
But we use all radials on all the tractors and they’re at, they’re not as low pressure as Michelin tells you to run them, because Michelin really wants you to buy new tires when your sidewalls blow out. But we’re higher than they recommend.
Andy Chamberlin: Little marketing, there.
Justin Rich: But you do get better traction, but.
Andy Chamberlin: At a cost.
Justin Rich: Your cost per acre doubles.
Andy Chamberlin: It’s time for our special segment. What’s in your pocket?
Justin Rich: I’ve got a multi-tool on my belt. I’ve got a quick knife, an Inkzall. Usually that’s a pen, not a Sharpie. I don’t know. I have a Sharpie too. Phone. A nut driver.
Andy Chamberlin: Is that always on you?
Justin Rich: There’s often some sort of impact fitting in a pocket. I got a microphone.
Andy Chamberlin: Oh, there you go.
Justin Rich: And then we put the microphone in my trash pocket. So there’s trash in that pocket too.
Andy Chamberlin: Ah, that’s all right. Oh, that’s nice.
Justin Rich: And a house key.
So this is the potato room in the wintertime. So this is passively cool down to 37 all winter. And then in the summertime we pack tomatoes in here. So we have intake and exhaust fans that, if it’s below a set point outside, the fans kick on. If it’s above a set point inside and below a set point outside, they kick on and cool it off. So we try to keep it, I think I have it set at 54 in here, which this time of year’s pretty impossible to keep it below 60.
Andy Chamberlin: Yeah.
Justin Rich: Because, although last night it was 49.
Andy Chamberlin: Yeah. Yes.
Justin Rich: It was 60 here this morning.
Andy Chamberlin: Nice.
Justin Rich: That way we can come in and pick tomatoes and ahead of an 80 degree weekend we can pick them or more orange and they kind of arrest in here instead of over ripening over the weekend. So this room becomes just box storage and tomato packing. And the nice thing about this room, Andy, is it’s more or less rodent proof. The only way rodents get in here is if they come in a bin, which does happen every now and then. So we can store cover crop seed in here.
Andy, to follow up on your question that I got off on about, what would you tell your young self to do? Build everything taller. This barn has 21-foot ceilings and that’s perfect. I’m not going to go higher than that with anything. But we built a barn up there in 2011 and I have nine-foot ceilings. Why? They’re like, “Well, the garage we’re building it behind is nine foot.” What an arbitrary thing to try to meet. It’s actually harder to build an addition at the same height. If you go up above, you don’t have to match roof.
Andy Chamberlin: Yeah, yeah.
Justin Rich: It was just silly. It would’ve cost almost no extra money, it would’ve doubled the storage. I mean things like that. And that’s because I didn’t ask enough questions of other people who’d built things. Because everybody says build it bigger, but you’re like, “I only have $40,000 to spend.” And like, “Build it taller, it only cost you $2000.”
Andy Chamberlin: Right. It doesn’t cost that much more to go a little taller.
Justin Rich: Same roof, same foundation. You want to see the greenhouses or…?
Andy Chamberlin: Sure.
Justin Rich: One thing we do have, we have front hitches on three out of five tractors.
Andy Chamberlin: That’d be fun.
Justin Rich: All the non loader tractors have front hitches. I’m a huge proponent of front hitches.
Andy Chamberlin: Did you add those or buy this tractor with them?
Justin Rich: I’ve added them all. It was close to five grand.
Andy Chamberlin: This right here is what we wish we had for putting hay wagons in the barn.
Justin Rich: Because you could make that up, you know it.
Andy Chamberlin: Yeah. Well it’s one of those things we keep talking about, and then…
Justin Rich: No, it’s actually really handy, like when we brought back the rock picker into the shop up the road, I’ll put a draw bar right here and then just lift it up and drive it in.
Andy Chamberlin: It’s a lot easier than backing it in.
Justin Rich: So we use a tractor for cultivating, you can drop weights as needed. Most vegetable farmers don’t get nerdy, that nerdy would ballasting their tractors. But it makes a big difference. If you don’t have a heavy implement elevated with a three point hitch, why do you have 800 pounds hanging off the front? And if you’re lifting a 3,500 pound speed disc, you need the weight on the front. So we have weight blocks that we just drive up to, pick them up and drive away
Andy Chamberlin: With this.
Justin Rich: So they use the Walterscheid hook ends, which I think I like the way the European tractors are specced. They drive faster. They have Walterscheid hooks on the back. Their draw bars are better designed. Like our draw bars are like, they’re not even technology, it’s just a bar. It’s like 1580s technology.
Andy Chamberlin: Steel.
Justin Rich: Yeah, just a big bar of steel. Whereas in England. They have ways to dropdown pick up wagons from the tractor seat and it locks in place. So that’s an improvement, but it’s not the way things have been done here, so. Nice thing about this was the tractor all M series, even the high crops, come with a loader valve installed. They don’t make it as an option. So when I put this on, already had a loader joystick to operate this, which has been handy. Because otherwise I would’ve would’ve had to run it off an SCV in the back. And then you lose an SCV and I only have two pairs on this tractor. And I run hydraulic top link off one of them. So you’d use up both of your SCV’s when you’re running the potato harvester. Actually, I would take the top link off and run the harvester.
Andy Chamberlin: You got a camera back there too, huh?
Justin Rich: Oh yeah. Big fan of these magnetic [shoop] cameras you can see up under the rearview mirror.
Andy Chamberlin: Yeah. We installed the same one, so we can put it on the bucket loader and see the blade, see what we’re scooping.
Justin Rich: $278 or whatever. Yeah, we have one on one of our loader, the cab loader tractor, on the pallet forks, so you can, because visibility isn’t amazing.
Andy Chamberlin: No, it’s not a forklift.
Justin Rich: It’s a good test of skill, but it’s easy to make a mistake. Especially on uneven ground, which we are sometimes dealing with.
Andy Chamberlin: Well we have a Monosem corn planter, two row corn planter. But our plantings of corn, he’ll plant four or five times throughout the season, but four different varieties each time. So it’s only a couple cups of seed.
Justin Rich: Right. It’s a yogurt container.
Andy Chamberlin: It’s only in the bottom of the hopper. So we just put one of these cameras in there so we can see, “Okay, we know…”
Justin Rich: It was one of those from a shoop, or like a cab cam…?
Andy Chamberlin: It was like a RV backup camera, and then dad bolted a magnet to it and made a little battery pack so we can.
PART 3 OF 4 ENDS [01:36:04]
Andy Chamberlin: …Camera, and then dad bolted a magnet to it and made a little battery pack so we can clip it anywhere.
Justin Rich: We’ve had good luck with them. The wireless ones I’ve never used, I just know if it’s wireless it means it needs to have batteries, and it will run out of batteries when I need them.
Andy Chamberlin: It is one more thing.
Justin Rich: We’ve had one of the cameras go bad, and I keep meaning to send it back to [inaudible], but I haven’t done it. But I’m sure they’ll send me new one.
But it’s interesting, during when we’re running potato harvest, I’ll put two monitors in sometimes so I can look at two different places on the harvest.
Andy Chamberlin: Right. Oh that would make sense.
Justin Rich: And then the harvest yourself has good joystick cluster to adjust everything. So I feel very, like I’m in Illinois. There’s no GPS at least.
But yeah, so that’s that one. We broadcast all our fertilizer, and just in the world of electronic tech stuff, we did put in a Trimble EZ Guide 250 GPS unit in the one tractor that we haul the fertilizer spreader with because organic amendments are quite expensive. And we spread everything calculated based on 30 foot tram lines. So with the GPS I can actually spread at 30 feet exactly instead of guessing or hopping out all the time and pacing out 30 feet. So that’s been useful.
You can see that one up there.
Andy Chamberlin: Your GPS or the camera, what are you talking about?
Justin Rich: So that those are handy. It’s only useful if you’re spreading quite a bit of… $1,400 a ton potassium sulfate. But so we’ve got cameras now in three of the tractors just because it’s so useful to be able to see what’s going on.
Andy Chamberlin: Well then once you have it in one, then you go to use a different tractor, it’s like ah, I wish I had the camera.
Justin Rich: So we have three cab tractors and they all have cameras now, radios. And so this one has a front three-point hitch too with a rock box. It’s so handy to be able to do whatever you want. We can put a weight on the front. We can put a rock box on the front. We can put pallet forks on the front.
Andy Chamberlin: Oh, that would be kind of nice.
Justin Rich: When we’re transplanting, we’ll put pallet forks on that Deere that Hannah just drove away and put a big pallet on it and just load 20 extra trays on there, if you don’t need it for weights.
Also, front hitches are by far the best way to plow snow Because they float. You can have each of these arms float independently of each other mechanically and hydraulically. So if you’re plowing… We use a snow pusher and if you’re pushing over uneven terrain, the pusher just rocks up and down instead of torquing your loader frame, which is how a lot of people plow snow. I mean maybe if you have a perfectly flat lot, it doesn’t matter. But I just remember when we used to plow with a blade on our loader, just like the stress of wanting to plow close to the ground but not wanting to tweak that loader frame even though they were springs and stuff is… Yeah, it makes plowing snow recreational as opposed to a stressful… First of all, having a cab and a front three-point hitch.
Andy Chamberlin: I see you skimped on your greenhouses.
Justin Rich: Totally skimped. Yes. Andy’s re referencing the Harnois, which are not the cheapest greenhouses but there it’s so well-built. They take twice as long to build and cost a little bit more. But when we price these out, it actually was marginally more than a Rimol. And no offense to Rimol, but this is a bit more greenhouse for the dollar.
Andy Chamberlin: Yeah. People who put up Harnois don’t seem to regret them.
Justin Rich: Yeah, they’re end wall doors are not great. They’re not awful, but Harnois, I know you’re listening to this. Come on guys. I know you can design a door that doesn’t hang up as much. It wouldn’t take too much, apparently more than I can do though. But they’re such strong…
Andy Chamberlin: Yeah, you don’t have to worry about…
Justin Rich: They’re so complicated. They take a lot longer to build. They have all these proprietary fasteners that you won’t find on the other company’s houses, but they’re just… That oval tube is so burly, and they use very strong inflation blowers. And their whole inflatable sidewall curtain is super nice.
Andy Chamberlin: Inflatable sidewall curtain?
Justin Rich: So if you look over here, this curtain is inflated. So there’s a jumper tube halfway down the greenhouse you can see. So it steals inflation air from here, pushes it down there. And then in the spring when you’re rolling your greenhouse sides up and down, the roll-up tube presses up against this pillow. You get amazing air sealing compared to just having your roll-up side rolled down over a two by 12 baseboard. So you can use… We use a thinner baseboard that’s a cedar two by six.
Andy Chamberlin: I have not seen this before.
Justin Rich: Yeah. I think some people even buy Harnois don’t put them up because by the time this comes, I’m like, boy, this took twice as long as I thought it was going to take. They don’t do it. But it’s super useful.
Because also, even in the springtime when you roll the sides up, you don’t want the wind right on the plants anyway. So this is above the young plants. So it’s venting the hot air because you’re supposed to keep the wind off.
Andy Chamberlin: Yep, ventilation…
Justin Rich: It’s a very good design [inaudible].
Andy Chamberlin: Get the cool evening air, it kind of stops that from just barging in.
Justin Rich: Exactly. But just imagine when this rolls down, it seals so nicely.
Andy Chamberlin: That’s smart.
Justin Rich: So we have a Rimol house over there that we retrofitted it with this style where we put on new baseboards last year. But everything seems very well-engineered on these, and a lot of it’s proprietary parts. A lot of the other greenhouse companies all use the same fittings from that one company that makes all the greenhouse strapping. And I don’t know. The salesman Harnois was super helpful, gets right back… I mean it’s just a very professional organization, and they’re two hours north of here and they obviously know how to deal with snow load. So the house isn’t very beautiful because we just picked it for orders today, but we can move like 55 flats out of here this week. So it’s a pretty good week. It’s kind of our first week of summers here in full force. It’s not going to get here, it’s… We’re on.
Andy Chamberlin: Here we are. It’s go time.
Justin Rich: Yep.
Andy Chamberlin: So you have tomatoes in all three?
Justin Rich: Yeah. So here you want to walk out, I’ll show you. We got cukes kind of on their way out in that house above us. And we’ve got those hybrid heirlooms in here as an experiment, mostly for our summer CSA because people say they want the heirlooms. So we’ll see. But we’re right in pruning this morning, so we’ll clean this up this afternoon. This house was just built last spring, so I haven’t run power to it yet. So we’re technically inflating with an extension cord. So I’ve been reluctant to hang fans. I should just hang fans. You know when you’re giving yourself an excuse to not do something? That’s the excuse I’ve given myself. It’s not motors, just fan… Well, fan motors.
So this is a 2.5 meter format high-speed disc, which is super handy. Super heavy. But it’s a great way to incorporate things that are too stringy for a plow, but perhaps too hard or tough for a regular disc, which just doesn’t quite have the down pressure. And normal discs are only offset on one plane, but these discs are offset like this. So they actually have suction on them so they want to suck into the ground, and then the roller on the back provides your depth gauge. So we run this three out of eight depths, which is about three and a half, four inches for the most part.
The softer the ground… It’ll go a little bit deeper in soft ground. Because obviously that roller will compress soft soil more. But you can tear up sod with it. It doesn’t like do it in one pass, but you slowly kill it all because.
Andy Chamberlin: It’ll get there.
Justin Rich: If you get down I think below three inches, you get 100% undercutting I believe, based on the spacing. But on sod you’re often not getting three inches down. So you do have gaps. You have to just get a couple different angles.
But I really feel like the best way to deal with sod if you’re actually bringing sod into production is to get a heavy duty rototiller. I mean we usually just use a moldboard plow.
Andy Chamberlin: Just pulverize it.
Justin Rich: But especially if it’s an old sod, just like, because you literally need to mechanically chop up the sod and if you plow it, you all of a sudden just put it eight inches down. We don’t have a heavy duty rototiller, but if I was at an auction and one were to sell cheap, I would buy it.
Like I said, we do all our cultivation not with mid-mass but with front three point hitches. So here’s the Tilmor basket weeder set up to be run on a front hitch, and it works great. From a turning perspective, it’s a little more advantageous to have belly mount, but if your rows are straight and you don’t have to compensate much, you can do it off the front just fine.
Andy Chamberlin: You set the camera up front to watch that?
Justin Rich: I can see this one. I should have a camera set up on that one in case I catch a rock. And that’s the biggest risk. I’m not worried about hitting the plants, but if you get a rock in here and you’re plowing for a hundred feet because the rock stopped your baskets. But we actually only use this a little bit. We use it for our one planting of beets and carrots in the fall and then often once or twice in the spring on young brassicas. But we use the finger weeder a lot more than these on potatoes and corn and brassicas. Because brassicas lay down so much when you transplant them that sometimes the basket eater can rip them up. Finger weer does it too.
So I love things with depth wheels. So these parallelogram linkages on a front hitch that can also float if it hits a big rock. So with this, I basically set the front three point hitch so that the toolbars at a medium height and then let the parallel gangs bounce up and down as needed with these gates wheels.
Because our ground rolls a lot. We don’t have hills but we don’t have laser flat fields. They’re all alluvial floodplains for sure. So moving water deposited that stuff and it dances as it deposits. So even in our quote flat fields, you can have three foot topography, one end to the other. Ups and downs. So having things that can follow the contours instead of being cantilevered up when you crest the top of a knoll and smash into the ground as you… Other way around. Smash into the ground as you crest and go down.
Andy Chamberlin: Yeah, yeah. Float is needed in Vermont land.
Justin Rich: Float is handy. Super handy. And you can buy three point hitch cultivators for so cheap. That was a six row. So I’ve cut that down and used it three times and I got it for a hundred dollars at an auction. It was like a four by seven toolbar is worth right $900, and I got all the gangs and just cut stuff off and modify it.
Andy Chamberlin: Is there much you need to do in order to take a rear mounted three point and turn it to a front? Just flip it around?
Justin Rich: One thing you do have to pay attention to, as you can see I torched off the backside of the gang because your hitch is here, you’ll hit your front tires. So you sometimes have to have stub outs to push the implement further away from the tractor. And I’ll admit on our finger weeder, if I raise the hitch all the way up, the front tires will hit some s-tines. So if I lower the hitch… I have to go all the up and then drop it two inches to turn. I should just put some stops on something.
Again, I know the hack to get beyond it. So it’s one of those things I should fix. But…
Andy Chamberlin: It’s good till somebody else hops in.
Justin Rich: It’s true, it’s true. That’s a ditch bank flail that we use for mowing cover crops and ditch banks. We have a lot of… In the humid northeast, you lose a slight percentage of your field every year to trees growing and brush growing.
So this allows us to establish a field perimeter and then maintain it. Again, one of these things like I was looking for one for a couple months and all of a sudden one came up on Facebook marketplace out in the Finger Lakes, and it’s like Ross, you want to take a drive out to Finger Lakes? Absolutely. Out there’s a box truck, loads up, this comes back with it.
That’s a rock picker, which is exceptionally useful. Our little piece of mining equipment that we own. It’s basically a rough potato digger. I mean that’s a Lockwood from the seventies. Lockwood makes potato harvesters, so it’s not too hard for him to make rock potato harvesters. The rugged model. And it holds about two yards of rocks on the back. And it holds way more than I’m comfortable putting in there. But it feels like you’re cheating when you’re out picking rocks from a field. You’re like creating rock piles, and you’re cleaning your fields up.
Andy Chamberlin: That must be as satisfying…
Justin Rich: Oh it’s just great. It’s a little stressful to run it because you’re always worried about a rock jamming something. But overall we’ve picked, I don’t even know that I’m around… 50 yards of rocks out of there in just in two years. And we use a lot of rocks for building roads and filling in low spots on accesses. And as wet a climate as we have, it is really beneficial to have solid road base. And if you go and pick rocks when it’s wet enough, you get a little bit of soil sticking to the rocks. You actually get the fines for your mix, for your roads. But between that and then road ditchings from the town, we can usually make a pretty good road base. We’re standing on our own two feet of… It’s like probably mostly gravel from the town.
So we got mulch-lifters, bed-shapers. This is the finger weeder front cultivator. Again, I can’t recommend front hitches enough. Not for everybody, but… Skinny tires, high crops and front hitches. On certain tractors. Because obviously you want fat tires for tillage. So we have, all of our tractors are on 72-inch tire centers except for our loader tractors, which are on 68-inch tire centers so that the outsides of the tires won’t go into adjoining rows if you have to drive in to get a crop out with a loader. But that means they’re… We can’t mark beds out with them. We can’t bed shape with them because they’re driving on too much of the bed top. But we have two other tractors that’ll do that unless one’s in the shop getting split.
Yeah, we’ve been there for two weeks. I’m just so happy it’s out now.
So this is a front three point hitch to skid-steer adapter we made. I’ve only ever used it on the snow pusher. We don’t have any other skid steer equipment. It’s either that or mount or weld-on three point hitch. I figured it would be safer to do it this way in case we ever had to sell it.
We made these a couple of years ago which are really useful during storage crop harvest. It’s a double pallet fork so you can put two bins on the back. So we’ll have one of the loader tractors out during harvest with two bins on the back, during squash or onions, and a bin on the front. And then we’ll have another loader tractor out. So this one’s creeping to the field, loading up, pulls out of the field. The other one pulls in with front and back single forks, fills that one up. This one unloads, loads the wagon. So you don’t have people standing there being just waiting for the tractor to come back.
So much of the year we’re super over equipped with machines but it allows you to leave things on certain pieces of equipment, and every now and then you need five running. And for us that’s like August and September and October we’re just like flat out, all the machines are running. Even if you don’t have enough operators, you have three operators and five machines because you just need all these different things happening.
Andy Chamberlin: When it’s go time, it’s go time.
Justin Rich: Exactly. When it’s go time, it’s go time. Our weather is so… can be really disadvantageous during harvest season.
Rollover plow I like a lot. So you don’t have dead furrows in your fields.
The spare parts piles. Stuff you bought for 50 bucks and never used.
The subs-soiler mostly gets used during sweet potato harvest because we can cut the vines, and the sub soiling just doesn’t hurt. So we can cut the vines and go in and mow the vines and lift the plastic and cut the vines off. But this we bought originally after a wet year where we thought we were having a lot of water ponding in the wheel tracks in winter squash. So it was a way to rip the wheel tracks kind of late bind in late June. Don’t use it as much for that but it gets… Every now and then we’ll move these shanks in ahead of planting carrots. That’s a little overkill but has its uses.
Big-tine weeder, I just bought for pretty cheap. Don’t really use it. And then we still do use the regular 10-foot tandem disc harrow for certain things, but nowhere near as much since we got the high speed disc. But the amount of farms I’ve seen that don’t have a rear pallet fork blows my mind.
Andy Chamberlin: Yeah, I think the first time I saw one of those was at John Sat’s and I was like that is genius.
Justin Rich: But people try to harvest one bin of melons and drive it out on the front forks. I’m like, guys they’re like $280.
Andy Chamberlin: It’s a cheap implement.
Justin Rich: Such a cheap thing. Again, I’m probably too good at spending money. But that’s no-brainer.
Andy Chamberlin: I would think it’s pretty easy to pick up pallets with rear forks too because you can see what you’re doing.
Justin Rich: So easy.
Andy Chamberlin: Because you’re not like loading a truck, you don’t need the lift.
Justin Rich: No, you need a foot.
Andy Chamberlin: Got to shovel it around.
Justin Rich: A foot of lift is all you need.
We’re at the propagation greenhouse now. And we poured a slab in here last year, which was amazing. Poured a slab in about two thirds of it so that we could wheel in bins of onions for curing after harvest. Not to mention just concrete is such an amazing surface in general on a farm. So you can use pallet jacks and put your pot and soil bins on wheels and you can fork around everything. It’s just great.
I’d like to pour a slab in the other end too, but just haven’t prioritized it this year. But it’s an interesting, interesting problem we had last time. We’re like, oh we want to pour a concrete slab in an existing greenhouse. And the concrete truck, it was wet last July if you don’t remember, couldn’t get over to the end. And then we had a really easy solution. We just like undid half the greenhouse plastic and put it up with some sticks.
Andy Chamberlin: Roll it up.
Justin Rich: Yeah, we just… Five minutes later you can see where he poured the concrete. This is where the shoot came in. I can’t believe that’s still there.
So we brought in, we had a pretty bad garlic crop. So we have garlic curing over here that we just brought in last week, no, this week, on these racks, which I think I ripped off from Josh Volk article in Growing for Market 10 years ago. I didn’t rip off. You put them in the magazine for us to copy and I did. They’ve been really useful. Couple hours with a nail gun in the chop saw.
We bought some nice bench tops three winters to go to make some nice cedar benches instead of… We had hog panel ones, which were always kind of a hassle. They weren’t free but should have them for a while.
We put in a pellet boiler with a grant help from a grant that Vern did, I don’t know, eight, nine years ago in 2014. And that’s actually worked really well. I know a lot of folks have had mixed opinions of their Maxim central boiler, Maxim pellet boilers. But I think it’s been great. It’s been super reliable. Saves us a bunch of money on heat. And we used to buy corn from a farmer down in Addison County. He didn’t have any this year. So we bought wood pellets. And the wood pellets are actually a little nicer to burn. So I’m a little torn now.
But we finally… Two springs to go. I finally made just one heat bench just with some leftover pex tubing. And it does great for just the germinating, those early eggplant and tomatoes. We should probably have a couple benches of this, but I think this is tidy.
Andy Chamberlin: Just enough to get stuff going and then you can pull it off.
Justin Rich: Exactly. Exactly. We put in three zones, four zones on the manifold, no three zones on the manifold, one for the main heat, one we’ve used for this and one… We still have a spare one so we should probably do something else. And I never… I didn’t even know this was a thing, but apparently houses now get built where the hot water’s constantly circulating. I’ve never lived in a house that had that. So we just use one of those little, they’re expensive little pumps but they push like, they use 10 watts of electricity or something crazy. So that’s what we use for circulating through here because you don’t need to push much gallons per minute through half-inch pex to keep a heat bench warm.
And these aren’t super commonly used around here, but these prop tech trays, they’re nowhere near as bombproof as the plastomers that a lot of people bought around here 20 years ago but you can’t buy anymore. They’re a rigid tray, but compared… So the cell size is nominally the same as a thermal injection molded 128. But I think it’s 22% more space efficient just because the walls are so thin and you don’t have those curled edges. So in terms of how many plants you can get in a greenhouse, I think it’s the number I came up with is 22% more space with one of these. And you get more soil because it’s a deeper tray, which isn’t always a good thing. But for things like onions that are in the greenhouse for two months in the spring, they run out of juice a lot less with this tray than compared to a 128 style tray.
Like I said, you can see all the chips on them. So they do… If you’re rugged… If you’re aggressive with them, they will show you. The biggest downside to them is they don’t nest and they come from California. So how many you can get on a pallet is somewhat limited. They’re a little more of a bulky item. But yeah, I haven’t bought any a in couple of years though, luckily.
Yeah, stuff made pf plastic is just crazy right now. In the last couple of years we’ve definitely started using hay wagons more than trucks and trailers, proper trailers because it’s just so easy to hook up a hay wagon. And you know, these are three grand new, which is…
Andy Chamberlin: Those are nice wagons.
Justin Rich: Yeah, there’s a guy over in Ballston Spa, New York who deals them, and they’re probably four grand now. But yeah, that’s just how everything is. They’re spec’ed nicely in my opinion. They use used truck tires. I’m sure they’re middle of the road quality, but that’s all I need. But eight ton running gear, so you can fill that up with… you can put 20 bins of potatoes on there. Technically. I probably wouldn’t put 20. I think we do 18 potatoes are kind of heavy once you put them in a bin though. But we’ll fill that up with 20 winter squash bins. They’re lighter.
Andy Chamberlin: Yeah. Three grand, that’s not bad. And the spring-assisted tongues?
Justin Rich: Spring-assisted extended tongues.
Andy Chamberlin: Uh oh that [inaudible].
Justin Rich: So you don’t have to be good at backing up a truck. You have to be not awful. As long as you’re not awful, you can do it.
And then love these lock-ease. I don’t know if you guys use these.
Andy Chamberlin: No, I haven’t seen those.
Justin Rich: Yeah. So instead of having a pin in them, they lock in place. They’re like 26 bucks a piece. But you don’t lose them. And you never have your hair clip pin pulled out. I don’t know. But you have, I’ve definitely pulled the disc carrier before when I lost the pin, and all of a sudden… Boy that sure got a lot easier to pull. Yeah, Because you left the harrow back.
So we use those on all the… Pretty much anything that’s drawbar-driven, we have those lock-ease pins. Lock EZ? What do they call them? I don’t know. Shoup sells them. AgriSupply sells a cheaper version, which aren’t nearly as good. And Shoup is mostly combine, concaves and stuff, but they also have a lot of stuff that’s useful for our smaller scale farms. They’re bread and butter is servicing grain farms in the Midwest.
Andy Chamberlin: Big stuff, yeah.
Justin Rich: But a lot of the stuff is the same. Yeah. The mechanism, it’s pretty ingenious. It’s simple. It’s just that plate.
Andy Chamberlin: Just that. Yeah. So it’s going to be durable.
Justin Rich: Yeah, it’s easy. Spray some fluid film on them every now and then when I remember to. They last 10 years, cost me two bucks, three bucks a year to have them.
Andy Chamberlin: You would’ve spent that on cliffs.
Justin Rich: Totally.
Andy Chamberlin: Well and time saving. It doesn’t take long to drop a pin.
Justin Rich: And if you take this off, you don’t want to put it in there?
Andy Chamberlin: Yeah, right.
Justin Rich: It doesn’t disappear. Exactly. So I consider these… like those cameras, they’re relatively inexpensive and they help you avoid annoying mistakes.
Andy Chamberlin: And it’s something you’re going to use every day. You’re always hitching it on, hitching it on.
Justin Rich: People pull pins out, and they bust their knuckle. It’s just so much better. Or they lose the pin and don’t use it, and then it balances out. So that’s what we’re trying to avoid, mostly.
Andy Chamberlin: Don’t use the pin unless we hit the road and then it’s like, well probably should.
Justin Rich: So these are both insulated containers. This container we’ve had for probably 10 years. This one’s heated with a cool bot. That one’s heated with a compressor. I built an anti room there, so the last three feet of that container is an insulated wall. So the cool bot dumps there. It’s got a warm corner, so you have to exhaust that heat in the summer. I would’ve done it differently.
It works fine, but you lose three feet. So I was trying to avoid… So I knew shipping container doors are awful. So we built a front wall here with a normal door. So like, just walking and out. But we used this until three years ago. This is the only cooler we had because we don’t do that much cooling. But with things like sweet corn and cabbage, you’d need to be able to… So we want to increase our cabbage and our sweet corn. So then we hung an evaporator in here with a proper compressor outside, hang some construction string lights and it’s party town.
Andy Chamberlin: So what’s the cost for a one of these?
Justin Rich: This was six for the container delivered. Again, I’m sure it’s much more now. This was two and a half years ago.
Andy Chamberlin: But it was just like this, insulated and…
Justin Rich: This is exactly what it looked like. That is a false wall in the back that I built six inches though from [inaudible] wall. Because this also… The way these containers are designed to work on ships is they have the AC unit on the back and it pushes cold air down along the floor and then returns back up. It’s about eight for the reefer unit installed. It’s about 14. And this, we won’t even turn it on until we bring in sweet corn. So this way we can bring sweet corn and melons in in the heat of summer. Because before we grew sweet corn, we just never were bringing in hundreds of pounds of hot produce. So the cool bot worked fine in there.
I mean, people often grossly overestimate what a cool bot can do. A cool bot AC unit is like the world’s smallest cooler. So if you want to heat a two-foot by two-foot by eight-foot cooler, it’ll do a great job. As soon as you put hot stuff in there, it doesn’t have capacity. When you look at the cooling capacity of even a small four-bank evaporators. I don’t know, a lot more. So things like sweet corn, you have to get the them down to temp quickly so we can just pick into 20-bushel bins is how we ship stuff like CSA. You bring roll a 20-bushel bin here straight from the field, fill up your double pallet forks, fill the bins, drop them in here, eight hours later they’re cool. Whereas in a cool bot, it would be 57 degrees in there, and the corn be 63. So being able to remove energy is important.
Andy Chamberlin: How do you move the bins around in here.
Justin Rich: Pallet jack.
Andy Chamberlin: Oh, Okay. That works on this floor.
Justin Rich: Some work better than others. But yes.
Andy Chamberlin: Selective pallet jacks.
Justin Rich: Yeah. I mean, they’re designed to be able to do it. It’s that when you twist things around fully is when you can run into problems, especially if you do it slowly. The idea with going with this is we weren’t sure if we needed a lot more cooling capacity than we have here. And if for whatever reason we need more than this, the next step is to build a cooler. And then this becomes an expendable, sellable item, which you could then sell because it’s truckable. I mean, that’s the idea. Is it going to go anywhere? Probably not.
Andy Chamberlin: But I could.
Justin Rich: I guess my job is to professionally worry about what can go wrong. So why did I build that door over there? Just in case we had to sell the place.
Andy Chamberlin: You never know.
Justin Rich: You never know. Never know with this. And if I built something with a concrete floor and framed it out and then it’s too small, then what?
Andy Chamberlin: It’s single-use. It’s a cooler. It’s committed. Yeah. Yeah. Versus, yeah, like you said, this shop…
Justin Rich: And if we needed more than this, we could put a cooler right here. 16-foot ceilings. But I just didn’t want to. I’m comfortable with the amount of debt we’re carrying right now. I’d like it to get smaller.
Andy Chamberlin: Always.
Justin Rich: But you know, need it to get to where you need to be.
Speaker 1: I’m Andy Chamberlain and that was The Farmer’s Share. Be sure to follow us on Instagram. Subscribe to our YouTube channel so you don’t miss out on any free bonus content, or visit thefarmersshare.com to check out more episodes and interviews. This podcast is supported by the Vermont Vegetable and Berry Growers Association and the Ag Engineering Program of the University of Vermont Extension. Thank you for listening.