Talking Transplants

5/4/2013 7:00 AM
By Helen Margaret Griffiths New York Correspondent

How a Central NY Organic Farm Adds to Early-Season Sales and Farm Income

LODI, N.Y. — Lou Johns and Robin Ostfeld, owners of Blue Heron Farm, hosted a NOFA-NY field day April 25 on the production and sale of organic transplants.

The course, “Farming Transplants: The Basics of Greenhouse Production for Sales and Farm Use,” drew participants from many parts of New York state, including Palmyra, Corning and Bloomfield.

The pair started Blue Heron as an organic farm in 1986, and in 1995 got their first greenhouse — a recycled glasshouse that they attached to the front of their house. For a number of years they used it for producing transplants for the farm.

As their business became more established, their stand at the Ithaca Farmers Market became bigger, but in early spring it was hard to fill all the space with produce. They decided to raise plants to fill the space.

“Plants are a bit of an obsession for me, as you can see looking around the garden,” Ostfeld said, noting she had no problem moving into this new sideline.

Transplants have since morphed into a very important part of the farm income, accounting for about 10 percent of the farm sales.

“I started off growing all these unusual perennials that really excited me, but soon realized that if I had to explain to most customers what they were this wasn’t the way to go,” Ostfeld said. “We had to grow what we could easily sell.”

Ostfeld and Johns make a good team for greenhouse plant production, as Ostfeld has “green fingers” and is naturally the plant person of the team, while Johns is skilled at construction and the technical aspects of plant production.

Johns has put up the four plastic greenhouses with greenhouse kits obtained from Griffin Greenhouse Supplies and CropKing. In addition, they have a number of high tunnels on the farm.

The tour of the transplant production facilities started at the initial glass greenhouse, which has now been converted to a house with solid plastic covering. It is home to Ostfeld’s impressive personal plant collection and the all-important germination chamber used for the initial stage of producing the transplants for the farm and retail market.

Blue Heron focuses primarily on transplants of garden vegetables, some flowers and common herbs. Due to customer requests, Ostfeld said she has now started to produce native perennials and plants such as the calorie-free natural sweetener Stevia (Stevia rebaudiana), which she said has grown beautifully.

“I like to keep learning and trying,” Ostfeld said.

The next stop was the potting station, where a large selection of cell trays and row trays were neatly stacked. Even though they mainly use the plastic trays, Johns is anxious for them not to become too dependent on plastic. He has been making seeding boxes and templates, but the white oak warped.

“I need to talk with the people who have made apple boxes; they have identified the wood I need to use” Johns said.

They have tried a number of potting mixes, but prefer McEnroe Organic Premium Lite Growing Mix.

As for seeding, “we’re pretty unusual, I think, but all the seeding is hand-seeded, using these little green hand-held seeders,” Johns said, holding up a $4 seeder familiar to many home gardeners. For transplanting into the final trays for retail or their farm field (different trays are used depending on the end use), the spatulas used in chemistry labs work very well, he said.

Johns said they fertillize with diluted fish emulsion on an as-needed basis, usually once or twice a week. They don’t use drip irrigation because it requires too much filtering.

The tour moved to a greenhouse with kale that had been planted in the fall and was still being harvested for market. The house was “double skinned,” but not heated, and had been adequate for growing crops such as kale through winter.

Putting the double layer of plastic on the greenhouses is tricky and it can be too tight, Johns said, noting there is debate as to whether there should be outside air or greenhouse air between the two layers of plastic.

All the houses at Blue Heron have outside air between the plastic layers, Johns said, because they believe it results in fewer condensation issues and better light transmission. None of the houses has supplemental lighting.

Choice of house design is important. Johns recommended “tall houses,” because he said they hold heat much better. Asked about the best thickness of plastic for coverage, Johns said, “Six- to 8-mil plastic, if it is put on correctly, should last 12 years or more, and if you are replacing it more often you will not be making any money.”

All the Blue Heron greenhouses are multi-season, with crops such as kale, salad mix and, new for this season, sprouting broccoli grown in raised beds through the winter and early spring. The final harvest of the kale and lettuce mix is made in mid- to late April, after which homemade tables are placed on top of the raised beds for the transplants.

“Robin is always anxious for the last harvest as her transplants are waiting in the wings to come in,” Johns said.

Some houses have propane heaters, but wood could be burnt if the producer has the time, and adequate supply to make it financially viable.

Plants are watered manually with a hose. To make it easier for the workers, the system is identical in each house, with the same wand types and brass adapters (plastic breaks too easily) and a user-friendly overhead trolley system to keep the hose and wand off the ground.

Insects are often a problem in greenhouse production, with aphids usually being the major issue. Johns and Ostfeld have had good results with pest control by using beneficial insects purchased form IPM Laboratories in Locke, N.Y.

Having transplants ready at the right time is important, particularly with the annual Ithaca plant sale taking place in mid-May. Ostfeld keeps extensive records and tables on the computer with charts reminding her when to make certain seedings and do certain transplant.

“This is where experience comes in, along with keeping records,” Johns said. “And labeling/dating things is really important.”

So what and how much should you plant for sale?

“Pay attention to what your customers want,” Johns said. “Grow what you know about, and start small.”

Johns also told visitors to stay educated on current trends. For example, container gardening is now popular, so it’s important to have plants for sale that will perform under those conditions.

“Farming is a life of speculation, so get use to it,” he said. “You may end up having too much and you’ll just have to eat it.’ “

Having high-quality plants for sale is very important. “Seconds” should be brought home for personal use or donated to friends, rather than reduced for sale,” Johns said.

The plants must be hardened off before going to market. Johns showed the various areas they use for “staging” the plants before taking them for sale at the farmers market or to one of their retailers. The transplants need to be able to withstand wind buffeting and direct sun without wilting.

Labeling each pack within a tray is labor intensive, but if the transplants are to be sold via a retailer it may be worth investing in a printer such as the GC-1 stand-alone garden printer available from The printer has served Blue Heron well, Ostfeld said.

Selling transplants does require certification. For organic production in New York state, a grower may become a NOFA-NY certified producer. Both conventional and organic producers are required to be certified through the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets.

Anyone considering starting a transplant business should contact their local Cooperative Extension office for assistance with certification procedures.

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