He’s part risk-taker, part competitor and all about exceptional produce. For 46-year old professional chef turned organic farmer, Jeff Miller’s passion for producing excellent results starts with seeds and ends with very satisfied consumers.
Now in its 23rd year, Willie Green’s Organic Farm sits in the rich, fertile valley south of Monroe. The micro-climate and mineral-rich soil allows Miller and his staff to work the 55 acres to reap the benefits of their many varieties of specialty salad greens, vegetables and fruit.
Getting a jump on early spring production is essential to Miller. “This year we broke ground in February and got the carrots in,” said Miller who supplies ten Farmer’s Markets, 150 winter CSA members and wholesales to Charlie’s Produce. “Last year we grew and harvested 2,500 – 3,500 pounds of salad mix each week of the growing season,” Miller told over 80 people who attended the May 19 Farm Walk sponsored by the WSU Small Farms Team and Tilth Producers.
“The trick to growing greens is water. We seed every day or every other day,” said Miller. His hoop house sees intensive action. Inside, an all metal germination chamber consists of a waterbed heater, water tray and two heat lamps to provide warmth and humidity to germinate seeds. Using a hand held Seed Easy Seeder, Miller and his team seed five-hundred 200-plug lettuce trays per week. Ninety five percent of his seeding is done by hand. Automated watering produced uneven results, so now all hoop house watering is done by hand. In hot weather that could mean the trays are watered up to five times daily.
Nearby farmer Tom Giberson came to the Farm Walk to learn more about how Willie Green’s operates. “I’m interested in mechanization and I want to get into wholesaling organic produce locally and regionally,” said Giberson. “I liked seeing the peas in the covered field house and learning how the early production technique can get crops ready for harvest quicker,” he added.
One of Miller’s chief concerns is labor. “Organic farming is always labor intensive. My goal is to minimize that by flaming and scarf tilling to reduce the weeds,” said Miller. “We cultivate before we see the weeds. It takes discipline. Every Tuesday is cultivating day. There aren’t many weeds in our greens beds due to quick rotation and constantly working the ground,” added Miller.
Using the right equipment is crucial to Miller’s success. “I’m a firm believer in new equipment. There’s only a certain window of opportunity and thousands of dollars are at stake. I buy a tractor every four to five years,” explained Miller.
Another essential piece of equipment is his high density seeder which plants 20 rows at a time. Four hole sizes allow for different size seeds. Two people run it to ensure seeding goes smoothly.
A greens cutter machine is a huge asset. “That machine has revolutionized the way we increase the production of salad mix,” said Miller. A ground driven conveyor belt straddles the greens bed and, cutting at a slow pace, dumps greens into a bin on the back. It yields 250 – 300 pounds of greens per 100 feet bed in 15 minutes. “The salad greens are the highest quality because they’re not handled much,” said Miller. From there greens go onto a conveyor belt in a shaded wash house, through a triple wash machine and a spinner and are bagged by hand.
For Carol Miles, WSU Vegetable Extension Specialist, the Farm Walk provided an opportunity to examine unique farming methods. “The diversity of growing environments — high tunnels, low tunnels, hoops, open beds — was intriguing,” said Miles. “And his focused mechanization. He doesn’t have lots of equipment, but he has key pieces of equipment that allow him to focus his production for a series of crops,” she added.
Miller is excited to provide his produce to people throughout the region. “I’m proud of my garlic and raspberries this year. They’re gorgeous,” said Miller. Always up for a challenge, when asked his favorite food to eat he grinned and said “My red beefsteak tomatoes because they won the Best Taste of West Seattle’s Farmer’s Market last year. Competition is fun for me.”
By Betsy Fradd, WSU Extension
Farm Walks, held on innovative organic and sustainable farms throughout the state, are designed to provide opportunities for hands-on, farmer-to-farmer learning. Learn more about the WSU Small Farms/Tilth Farm Walk series by visiting the WSU Small Farms team Web site.