Farming Magazine - August, 2009

FEATURES

Sparrow Farm

Getting ready to make the most of winter production
By Judith M. Powell

In Ted Sparrow’s greenhouse on a bleak March day during mud season, summertime colors contrasted a dreary grey world outside, as a peppery fragrance of herbs and mixed greens perked the olfactories, bees buzzed overhead and red ladybugs on shiny green leaves took on the importance of crown jewels. Pale green lettuce to red-stemmed beet greens and orange- stemmed chard were thriving. Who would have guessed this greenhouse could provide so much.

PHOTOS BY JUDITH POWELL.
Every week all winter long fresh greens are picked for market. Jim Letteney, full-time employee, and Ted Sparrow display a sample.
 
Since the farm’s organic certification in 1984, Sparrow has built up a protective insect population. He buys bumblebees annually from IPM outlets.
 
Egg sales provide year-round income. The Sparrows raise their own chicks organically— this year, 1,000 chicks. The chicks and the hens are raised free-range.

Winter production and sales

All winter, while 8 feet of snow accumulated outside, the Sparrow’s heated 20-by-100-foot greenhouse stayed busy growing produce for two winter farmers’ markets and several health food stores. Winter marketing moved 10,000 pounds of tomatoes, 800 pounds of chard, 1,000 pounds of cucumbers and 200 pounds of lettuce, all certified organic. Once every two weeks, fresh produce and 300 dozen eggs filled the Sparrow Farm delivery van for its run to eight health foods stores in central to southern Maine.

Field-grown produce

Come spring, fields are prepared for planting the additional output that will be needed to keep up with the surge in customer demand seasonal farmers’ markets bring. Once the weather clears in May, organic seedlings grown at the farm are transferred to the field. Squash, string beans, peppers, eggplant and more beets, plus another 5,000 pounds of tomatoes, 1,000 pounds of chard, 2,000 pounds of cukes, 1,000 pounds melons and 5,000 pounds of potatoes are grown outside to supplement greenhouse output.

History

Sparrow and his wife Karen started their farm in Pittston, Maine, in 1985. They began with sheep. “We started out with 100 ewes on rotational grazing. We had 50 acres, which wasn’t enough land for profit. We made about $100 per ewe selling meat, fleece and pelts retail from the farm here,” Sparrow explains. “Gradually, we changed from sheep to organic vegetables, then added cranberries and organic laying hens. Our goal was to get enough income.”

During their transition from livestock, “We found out that farming is not an exact science,” Sparrow says. Their heavy clay, scantic buckton soil was not good for growing vegetables. They had problems with insects and disease, and rain and wet conditions ruined many tomatoes. As they learned which crops do well field-grown and which would be more profitable protected in a controlled environment, they constructed three greenhouses: one heated with propane and two as season extenders. “I sited them with their long sides facing south, keeping the small north side covered with a reflective aluminum-faced insulation.” With steady light and less disease from sheltering the crops from rain, their yields and quality increased. “My rate of production doubled in the greenhouse because I can control conditions,” he says.

Since the farm’s organic certification in 1984, Sparrow hones his techniques to control disease. Crop rotation is one. “You cannot grow the same crop in the same place every year.” Beneficial insect usage is another. “I have built up a protective insect population over the years, and my bees, dragonflies and ladybugs survive over the years and build up. I don’t use pesticides. They take out the good bugs along with the bad.” Bumblebees are purchased annually from IPM (integrated pest management) outlets, and one quadrant of the hive is placed in the greenhouse and three quadrants go in the cranberry bog.

Egg production

The farm added free-range laying hens 10 years ago, and eggs provide a steady income stream year-round. “One winter, we brought in 800 hens in crates and we put them in the greenhouse. Then, we were using shredded paper as bedding. Businesses gave us their paper for free if we picked it up, but commercial paper shredding took away our supply. Now we raise our own chicks organically. We raised 600 this year and are going up to 1,000 next year.” A new house for new chicks was built with radiant heat in the floor. “They stay warm all winter, and we don’t have to deal with lights, so it’s safer. We run electric hot water through pipes and had zero chick loss this winter.” Despite raising their wholesale price in 2007, egg demand stays strong. “Chicken feed prices increased when corn was diverted to ethanol production, so we had to adjust. Eggs are an inexpensive protein for people compared with beef,” Karen explains, and health food store customers keep on buying.

Cranberries

“There’s a market for organic cranberries,” the farm’s records show after 10 years of production. Sparrow Farm berries are sold fresh and frozen in cello packages, and damaged seconds are made into sauce in their licensed home kitchen. Sauce can be custom-ordered, e.g. without sugar for diabetics, and about 50 12-jar cases are sold annually. The cranberries are grown in three bogs on 2 acres. “The fresh market requires that berries to be colored up. This happens later in fall when nights turn cold, around Columbus Day. We harvest dry, which can be tricky because we’re fighting the chance of frost.” This year, the farm invested in a mechanical harvester. “You can’t rent harvesters around here,” Sparrow explains, “so I’d have to spend two days driving to Massachusetts going to get and return it, so it’s going to pay off.” Another investment this year was their large walk-in cooler purchased used from a local florist shop, which replaces several coolers. Bags and boxes of cranberries, produce and eggs can now be organized and managed much more easily than before.

Consumer trends

“We pretty much sell out at market,” Karen says. “It was customers who pushed for having a winter market.” The retrenching economy is not impacting the Sparrows. “We’re seeing an increase in consumers. They’re looking for fresh year-round, and consumers are paying attention to food safety after so many recent food recalls. Also, many do not want to support cross-country shipping and its costs and implications, so they’ll go looking for local.”

Future plans

Sparrow keeps assessing ways to streamline and improve effectiveness. “We’re not fully automated yet. Now, only our greenhouse heat and exhaust fans are automated. We need more fans and automatic lights that come on when growing conditions are less than optimal.” He’d someday like to convert to solar power. “I like to have the sun heat our water by using coils that I’d attach to the end of the greenhouse, but this is pretty expensive.” He’s hoping that the developing stimulus packages might include environmental grant money for small businesses. A little “green” money would be put to good use at Sparrow Farm, and Sparrow would be off and running finding new ways to reduce electric energy reliance.

The author is a freelance writer from Whitefield, Maine.