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Growing Salad Greens: An Easy and Lucrative Cash Crop

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This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2014 January Issue Newsletter

By Alexandra Phillips

Dan Kittredge grew up on a farm in central MA and has continued on his own path, building a profitable business from the ground up. He farms Kittredge Farm in North Brookfield, MA and grows salad greens 40 weeks out of the year.

Dan presented a comprehensive plan for how to grow greens on 1/4 acre, 20-40 weeks out of the year, earning $1,000 a week. The important goals to keep sight of are crop vigor and vitality, which lead to less work and greater profit.

Dan grows Asian greens, lettuce, and arugula from seed he buys in bulk quantity and broadcasts densely by hand. He grows the different greens in separate beds: lettuces, Asian greens, and arugula. His preferred lettuce varieties are Red Oakleaf, Outredgeous, Paris Island Cos/Basic Romaine, Black Seeded Simpson, and Green Oakleaf. Asian greens that he grows include Mizuna, red mustard, red choi, green choi, tat soi, and frills mustard. Also, arugula offered in mid-summer has a great market because few bother to grow it at that time of the year. Seeds costs from $30 to $150 per pound and one pound will cover 1500 to 10,000 square feet depending on the seeding rate and whether transplants are used. To prepare his beds he rototills shallowly (two inches deep at most) and as little as possible. He tills in basic crop fertilizer and organic matter. His beds are four feet wide with one foot walkways. Dan uses drip irrigation and estimates the cost to be $50/1000 square feet.

Dan emphasizes using a seed inoculant at the time of planting as one of the most important steps for improving the "gut" health of the plant. Next, fertility amendments determine plant health by building and improving the soil's nutritional profile. Healthy greens that have access to the proper minerals in the soil can be cut four to five times, as opposed to just once or twice. Soil testing is strongly encouraged to gain an overview of the amounts of minerals in the soil. In Dan's handout he lists the ideal amounts of each mineral that the soil should contain. On top of remineralizing, Dan encourages cover cropping and mulching of pathways to avoid exposing bare soil to the elements.

The equipment needs of a greens business can be very low-cost. Dan carries out all his tasks using a hay rake, scissors (10-12" shears), 20- to 22-gallon plastic tubs (for picking, sorting, washing, and shipping), a 10-gallon washing sink, and Hefty Slider bags from the grocery store. (Two and a half gallon bags hold two and a half pounds of greens.) Also important is an invoice book, vehicle for deliveries, and cooler. If applying foliar sprays, a backpack sprayer is necessary. Regarding ideal land for growing greens, one needs at least six to eight hours of sunlight a day, and the grower needs a steady source of water.

Dan broadcasts his seed and then rakes it in with a garden rake. He inoculates seed before planting and recommends soaking seed (mix of 95% water, 4% kelp, 1% sea minerals). If seed is soaked, allow it to dry slightly before planting or the seeds will stick. Water in the seeds with a shower nozzle until the ground gets evenly moist. Lay drip tape at this point. Continuing to keep the soil most is very important while seeds are germinating. Creating an ideal environment for the plant during germination gives it a head start on life. After two to three days of nozzle watering, water with drip tape and continue to supplement drip watering with a weekly foliar feed. This is an asset to the plants, but is not completely necessary. Foliar sprays improve quality and growth during the later cuttings of greens.

Asian greens generally take three weeks to grow while lettuce takes four. Aim to cut the greens from one and a half to three inches off the ground, leaving the leaf between two and a half and four inches long. The best time to pick is shortly before the dew comes off or just before the dew sets. The greens then go inside to be sorted (removing weeds), washed, spun, weighed, and stored. After the first picking greens can be cut again after a week to 10 days.

Dan encouraged attendees to let their greens go to seed and to save their own seed. As plants get healthier and stronger their seeds reflect those traits and will out-compete the seeds from most seed companies.

Begin planting outdoors in early April and continue on through mid-September. If necessary, use hoops and row cover for season extension. Dan plants in his hoop houses by the beginning of October in the fall, and begins planting in January or February if the weather is relatively mild.

Dan prefers to sell directly to confirmed customers. His main base is health food stores and restaurants but he also recommends selling to hospitals, schools, farm stands, and farmers’ markets. To gain customers he will make phone calls to chefs and bring them samples of his product. He explains to them the quality of the operation and health of the greens. $1000 a week is possible: with 10-20 pounds a week of mesclun mix and arugula sold at $10/lb, five or six customers equals $1000/week.

Dan changes the price of his greens depending on the time of year. April through October he charges $10/lb, November and March he charges $11/lb and December and January he charges $12/lb.

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