When you’re a teaching farm at a university, the winter and early spring months require creativity and innovation.
“There just isn’t much for students to do in the fields in the spring semester,” said Brad Jaeckel, manager of the Washington State University’s Eggert Family Organic Farm. “So using season extenders, like our hoophouses, is really valuable for them to get some hands-on experience.”
Low-tech but efficient
The farm has around 4,500 square feet of farmable soil underneath three separate hoophouses, Jaeckel said. The buildings, constructed with a steel frame that’s wrapped in insulating plastic, work much like greenhouses, though without any extra heating or lighting.
Optimal crops and timing
“They’re really low tech, but are so useful and effective, especially this year,” he said. “Because of the late-arriving warm weather and the wet conditions,we’re really behind in getting many of our summer crops in the ground. These hoophouses have kept our students busy and provided food to organizations that need them.”
In order to figure out which crops would work best in the hoophouses, the farm did extensive research, he said.
“We had graduate students spending several winters to figure out the optimal crops and timing for when to plant them,” Jaeckel said. “And we can share that information with interested farmers in the region. But basically, spinach and kale work the best, and we plant in late September or early October.”
For the last month or so, and continuing into May, the students have been tending to and harvesting spinach and a little kale grown on the farm.
Spinach harvest bountiful
These veggies were all planted early last fall and went dormant over the winter, Jaeckel said. And even in a winter as harsh as this one, they came right back much earlier than a plant growing outdoors would have.
In fact, the spinach harvest this year has been one of the best the farm has ever seen, with around 136 pounds of spinach harvested just last week. All this fresh produce feeds the Palouse, getting sold and served up by local organizations.
The three biggest customers for the Eggert farm’s early spinach are the Moscow Food Co-op, both the produce section and the deli, the WSU student-athlete kitchens, and the Whitman County Council on Aging.
“It’s really great to provide these important organizations with fresh, organic produce at a time when there just isn’t much available,” Jaeckel said. “And knowing that the spinach is being enjoyed by WSU athletes and folks at senior centers means a lot.”
Early budget bonus
By selling the produce, the farm gets an early-season budget boost that helps at a time of year when there are more expenses than profits.
That income is put to good use, paying for important expenses like seed for summer crops or equipment maintenance, Jaeckel said.
Sometime in May, when the spinach starts to taper off, they’ll till those plants under and start planting their summer hoophouse crops: tomatoes, peppers, basil, and cucumbers.