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Vegetables


Douglas – “If we think back to our childhood, and how good vegetables used to be, then we know that it can happen again,” Wyoming Seed Analysis Laboratory Gil Waibel told the Wyoming Farmers Market Conference in Douglas in early January.

“The challenge isn’t going back to heirlooms, but creating the new niche markets that can breed vegetables that do taste good,” he said. “But where do we start? With either purchasing seed or saving our own.”

During the conference, producers in niche livestock and crops markets from Wyoming and surrounding states came together to not only learn about issues ranging from how to properly follow rules and regulations to Waibel’s discussion on how to save one’s own seed.

“There’s nothing wrong with saving your own seed, but it does take effort. If you’re trying to grow heirloom varieties, you may not be able to find what you’re looking for, so in that case it is better to produce and control your own seed,” he said.

Because some heirloom varieties may not be found in seed dealers’ selections, Waibel said there’s a lot of seed trading that goes on among the people who raise them.

When a producer has the goal of harvesting seeds, Waibel said that it’s important to know the crop, including planting dates and watering demands, to harvest mature seeds. “Some species want to be harvested and left in the field for 10 days or two weeks to fully mature, and with carrot seeds you’ll have to wait two years to produce seeds.”

According to Waibel, an heirloom variety is not only a seed over 50 years old, but also one that is not a hybrid, because some hybrids are over 50 years old. “If you plant the heirloom seed and harvest the plant, the seeds you’re harvesting will be the same as what was planted.” It is widely accepted that better taste, fragrance and texture result from heirloom varieties.

“Heirlooms don’t fit modern production practices because, as in tomatoes, vegetables are bred and produced that are very tough in order to survive shipping and packaging, but in that they lose some palatability,” said Waibel. “Producers now also breed for a uniform product. If there are over two percent green tomatoes in the truck the marketers don’t want them. Producers are looking for varieties that will ripen uniformly, but through all that the taste and texture is sacrificed.”

“Are these vegetables bred for the end consumer or for modern ag production?” he questioned. “Taste and texture are something to market and if we can come up with concepts to sell. It’s something to consider.”

In the organic versus traditional decision, Waibel advises that if the market says it wants organics, then it probably pays to get into an organic program. “If it doesn’t care, then go traditional.”

“If your fields are really weedy I recommend getting the field under control first and then transitioning into organic,” he continued. “Organics work great on rich soil, but if you need to be supplementing too much it may not pay to be organic. You also have to know what’s legally organic and you have to have a source of organic seed.”

“Anything you can do to add value is good business,” he concluded.

“The key thing about a high tunnel is that it is not a greenhouse,” states Dan Drost, Extension specialist at Utah State University (USU). “There are different zoning regulations for greenhouses relative to removable, temporary structures like a tunnel.”

In terms of zoning, tunnels are also structures without power sources such as cooling fans or heaters.

“We heat the thing with sun coming through it and cool it by opening doors and ventilating the sides. If we put fans in it, it becomes a greenhouse again,” explains Drost, noting that greenhouses can be subject to different rules and taxes.

A high tunnel is also different than a low tunnel, which only covers a single plant or series of plants. However, low tunnels can be used inside high tunnels for increased temperature control.

“We can grow a wide variety of crops inside a high tunnel, and we want to build or purchase one that allows us to use our existing equipment,” recommends Drost.

The tunnels in Logan, Utah at USU, for example, are built to accommodate a small tractor that can be driven through from end to end to manage the soil inside.

Heat retention

“How does the tunnel work?” he asks. “Sunlight brings in shortwave radiation to warm up the soil. Once we have plants in there, they warm up, as well as absorb some of that shortwave radiation.”

At night, as the shortwave radiation is converted to long-wave radiation, it rises in the tunnel, keeping the air warm inside.

“Some of it passes out, and that’s why it cools over time, but a lot of that heat gets reflected back into the structure,” he explains.

To grow crops in a high tunnel, it is important to know about the temperature environment that it is located in to be able to strategize which crops are grown and with what timelines.

“We want good thermometers and good records, and we can also use general climatic data,” Drost suggests.

Temperatures inside the tunnel can vary quite a bit from the outside temperatures based on sunlight, wind and other factors.

Insulation

Temperatures around the edges of the tunnel can also differ from those further toward the middle, and buffer zones may be necessary for growing crops.

“Effectively, the heat of the tunnel melts some snow during the daytime, the snow tends to run down the sides of the tunnel, and it subs back into the structure as a cold, dense, wet environment. It takes a lot of sunlight to warm that soil back up enough to make these plants capable of growing,” he describes.

One way to combat this is to dig two fit ditches along the edges of the tunnel and fill them with plastic-wrapped foam board to create insulation. The USU tunnels use this technique along the long edges of their tunnels with non-growing buffer zones on the short ends where the doors are located, allowing people and equipment to move in and out.

Maintaining temperature

“The main thing we are trying to do is manage temperatures, and there are a lot of ways for us to do that,” Drost continues.

The plastic sides of the structures can be tied up to let cool air in on a hot day, and some designs include vents that can be opened in the ceiling.

“Ultimately, we’re looking at growth and trying to prevent cold injury,” he says.

Understanding optimum temperature ranges for crops being grown within the tunnel is a key to this objective. Drost warns growers that plants with similar heat preferences should be grown together to increase success.

“In the summer, we pull all of the plastic off,” he adds. “In a very short time, we can go from indoor production to outdoor production.”

Using a simple meat thermometer, growers can use a probe to measure soil temperature to determine when covers should be removed for the season.

“We usually suggest measuring between noon and 2 p.m. because that’s when temperatures are going to be about mid-range,” he notes.

Crop options

Across the United States, a wide variety of crops are grown in high tunnels, with over half of tunnel acres devoted to tomatoes.

“In Europe, they’re growing fruit trees. They are also starting to grow cherries and peaches under plastic in the Northwest, because one rain event can ruin a cherry crop,” Drost says.

Raspberries, blackberries and strawberries are often successful in tunnels, although they may limit other crop varieties that can be grown in the same structure.

“There is a little interest in squash. In the winter, cool weather crops like Chinese cabbage, lettuce, spinach, bok choy, kale and mustards are really good options because they can take the cold temperatures,” he comments.

Melons have also been grown in tunnels, although they present a challenge because bees in some areas do not prefer to be under plastic.

Basil, on the other hand, can compliment many other crops quite well, according to Drost.

Cool season crops such as lettuce, broccoli, carrots, beets, onions, rhubarb and asparagus have been successful for some producers, as well as warm season crops such as peppers, eggplants, summer squash, cucumbers beans and sweet potatoes.

“There are all kinds of designs and cost structures that go with tunnels,” he adds, adding that the Natural Resources Conservation Service and other programs often offer incentives for interested growers.

To learn more about using high tunnels and making decisions about what to grow inside, Drost directs growers to tunnels.usu.edu.

Natasha Wheeler is editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Casper – As the fall colors settle over the state, Leeward Tree Farm opens it’s annual vegetable stand to sell the wide variety of produce they grow each year.
        “We started selling vegetables about 1996,” comments Kylie Smidt, member of the Smidt family, who owns Leeward Tree Farm. “We’ve been selling vegetables for about 15 years.
Beginning a farm
    The family operation began when Smidt’s parents Bruce and Jennifer Smidt began the tree farm in 1994. They started growing vegetables around the same time. Her brother Freddie also works with both the vegetable and tree aspects of the farm.
        The main segment of the operation is the tree aspect of the business. Leeward Tree Farm began marketing and selling trees in 1998.
        “We have 10 acres of trees west of Casper,” Smidt says. “We specialize in the native trees, but we grow hardy introduced species as well.”
        Freddie works primarily with the tree portion of the business, while Smidt concentrates on vegetables, but they work together to get all the jobs done on the farm.
        She notes that while they don’t have huge variety, if it is hardy in Casper, Leeward Tree Farm has it.
Vegetables
     Though trees constitute the main portion of the business, in 1996, the Smidt’s began selling vegetables at farmers’ markets, and they have continued to expand from there.
    After acquiring the land they currently operate on in 2004, Smidt says, “We had a trailer that we sold vegetables off of.”
        In 2007, the family’s creativity and experience traveling across Western states led them to a more unique venue.
    “My parents are originally from Iowa, and while driving out there, we had seen places where people used grain bins for a variety of things,” she explains. “We thought the grain bin would be a fun way to sell out of, rather than a trailer.”
        The family acquired an old and unused grain bin from a neighbor and has been selling veggies from their grain bin stand since 2007.
Yearly schedule
    Even with the grain bin stand, located on Zero Road west of Casper, Smidt  sells produce weekly at the farmers’ market each Saturday at the Agriculture Resource and Learning Center in Casper.
    “We usually start the last week of July with farmers’ markets,” she explains. “We don’t open the stand until the sweet corn is ready.”
    The stand is open until six every evening, but Smidt notes that after six, there is some sweet corn and squash available, and payments are accepted based on the honor system. The other produce is only available when the stand is open.
    Usually, Smidt says the stand opens in the middle to end of August, and it stays open until all of their pumpkin crops is sold, offering lots of opportunity to area residents to purchase the wide variety of fresh produce.
Lots of veggies
    “We try to grow everything that we can here,” says Smidt. “Sweet corn is our biggest crop, and we have five acres of that. Pumpkins are our second biggest.”
    The list of available produce includes sweet corn, winter squash, summer squash, cucumbers, tomatoes, beets, carrots, cabbage, onions, eggplant, potatoes, green beans, zucchini, cantaloupe, honeydew and pumpkins.
    “We do a little bit of everything,” she adds.
    With little advertising done each year, Smidt says they have seen a growth in customers, regardless.
    “There is enough traffic out here that we get quite a few people,” she says. “I’ve notice that most of our customers find out about us by word of mouth. We get quite a variety of people.”
    To contact Leeward Tree Farms, call 307-265-0467. Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Sheridan – A sunny afternoon with brilliant blue skies finds a myriad of children and adults wandering through the Koltiska Pumpkin Patch east of Sheridan. Some pumpkin pickers are wandering around the acreage, searching for the “perfect” pumpkin.  Other successful folks are sitting on hay bales, proudly displaying their selections, while they wait for the next tractor-pulled wagon to arrive and take them back to the shop.
    The Koltiska Pumpkin Patch, now in its eighth year of being open to the public, began several years before when Gary Koltiska decided to plant pumpkins simply because he was fond of the orange orbs.
Planting pumpkins
    “My grandfather homesteaded the land in this area. We’ve always had a place in Clearmont to run cattle, but once we got irrigated farmland here, I plowed a field up and said I wanted to grow pumpkins. The first time we planted pumpkin seeds we did it by hand, one seed at a time, on 4.5 acres. It took us about two weeks,” says Koltiska.  
    They got smart fast, traveling to Colorado to buy a vegetable planter that could be pulled behind a tractor, thus eliminating the arduous task of hand planting.
    The Koltiskas were told that pumpkins wouldn’t grow in Wyoming, so Gary was determined to give it his best shot.  He was extremely pleased when the pumpkins began to grow on the vine.
    For a few years, the Koltiskas didn’t think of selling the produce, but turned the cows loose on them.
    “Cows really love pumpkins,” the Sheridan rancher says with a smile. “Then Vicki asked me what I was going to do with all these pumpkins, and we came up with the idea of selling them to local grocery stores.”
Finding a market
    “Carl’s IGA said they’d take some, and we had a good run with them for several years,” says Koltiska. “SuperValue in Billings also began to sell our pumpkins. The first few years of selling them commercially was labor intensive as we had to hand pick then load 50,000 pounds of pumpkin by hand onto the semis. We produced enough pumpkins to fill two semis.”   
    They later began loading the pumpkins into large cardboard boxes on pallets, which could more easily be loaded and shipped.
    All good things must come to an end, however, and when Carl’s closed its doors, the Koltiskas lost a customer.
    “We talked to Wal-Mart, but they wanted a guaranteed 250 acres of pumpkins. We usually planted between four and eight acres, and they wanted all of the pumpkins to look the same,” he said.
    That’s when Vicki decided that the community might benefit from a pick-your-own patch, and the rest is history. Koltiska disagrees with the “sameness” policy that grocery stores dictate – every pumpkin must look alike.
    “People actually want pumpkins of all different shapes, sizes and colors,” he says.
    Today, even though Koltiska says he doesn’t really keep count, he estimates more than 1,200 people, including school kids, come each year to find the perfect pumpkin.
Pumpkin farming
    For those interested in how pumpkin farming works, at the Koltiskas, the soil is cultivated and seeds are planted in mid-May.  Once the irrigation water is sent down from the Big Horn Mountains, the crop is irrigated. Since they don’t use herbicides on the pumpkins, the patch isn’t a tidy row of leaves, but a high mass of leaves.
    “We do cultivate a couple of times during the growing season before the vines get too big,” says Koltiska. He explains that pumpkins need to be in a four-year rotation. “We’ll plant pumpkins one year, the next year that ground will be summer fallow, then we’ll plant a wheat crop, then the following year will be summer fallow and finally pumpkins again.”  
    Because of the rotation system, he adds that it’s a good thing their farm has plenty of land to move the patch around.
This year’s crop
    This year, Koltiska said the drought has made a different in the crop.
    “We’ve seen a lot of male flowers, but not so many female ones, so that’s made a difference in the yield,” he says.
    The pumpkins are ready for harvest between late September and early October. This year, the season is running from Sept. 17 to Oct. 7.
    “Once it freezes, you lose your crop,” he says. “It really is a very short time frame when you can pick good pumpkins.”
    Once the visitors have selected their pumpkins and ride back in the wagon, they pay for their pumpkins. Pumpkins are priced at six dollars for the largest pumpkin, and based on a graduated scale. After they make their purchases, visitors are invited to come into the large metal shop and enjoy juice, lemonade or water and some tasty cookies.  Long tables are creatively decorated with Halloween figures. At one table, people can guess how much a display of several pumpkins weighs.
Agriculture education
    “We have a lot of school groups come out to pick pumpkins and learn about agriculture,” explains Koltiska.
    Each year, they pick a school to come out and pick pumpkins free of charge. This year, Tongue River Schools were selected.
    “It kind of helps when your grandparents own the patch,” says Koltiska, referring to granddaughter Sadie who lives in Dayton and lends a helping hand during the pumpkin harvest.
    Koltiska says one of the pleasures of growing the pumpkins is the people they meet.
    “There have been a few times when it’s been rainy and muddy, and people are still come out and have fun,” he comments. “It’s not just for kids. We have some ladies in their mid-fifties come out this year, and they had a great time. We also had some 80-year-olds from Alaska came out, and they just had a ball.”
    Koltiska sees his pumpkin endeavor as a great stress reliever and says he enjoys being out in Mother Nature.
    “After all these years of growing pumpkins, I still love walking through them,” Koltiska mentions. “Every pumpkin is different.  I’m certainly going to keep on doing this.”
    Rebecca Mott Colnar is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

The recent, strong El Niño phenomenon has plateaued and will likely diminish soon, according to Plantalytics Senior Business Meteorologist Jeffrey Doran.

Doran was one of several speakers during a March 30 Plantalytics webinar, presenting the likely outlook for weather and planting in the upcoming season.

“This El Niño has actually tied for the strongest ever with 1997-98, and in the short term, remnants of El Niño will be influential,” he noted.

Neutral weather patterns are likely to settle in quickly, although comparative years from the past indicate that it may be difficult to predict how quickly or severely the El Niño pattern will subside.

“In 1958, the transition never fully occurred. That’s more of a rarity. Other years represent what we typically know to be the case, and that is a very rapid transition. But that transition can be a lot different. In 2007, it was a lot slower. It wasn’t until August that we saw neutral patterns, and in 2010, it was a lot quicker, and we actually got to neutral by May,” he explained.

Precipitation

Looking at current moisture conditions, Doran commented that the Drought Monitor indicates continued dry conditions in California, despite increased precipitation this winter.

“Storm tracks across the Pacific Northwest have brought plenty of moisture to that area, and down south, a subtropical jetstream has brought plenty of moisture to Texas, Louisiana and Oklahoma. Unfortunately, right in the middle is where we are not getting the precipitation we desperately need,” Doran explained.

In the Southeast and Delta regions of the United States, excessive moisture is becoming a concern due to saturated soils, but adequate precipitation levels are predicted throughout most of the nation for the first few weeks of April.

“May looks warmer for most growing areas on average. That’s good news to start to get the crop in and get some growing-degree days. In terms of precipitation, there are no anomalous trends,” Doran continued, indicating that the beginning of the planting season should be favorable for many farmers in the U.S.

The forecast for June continues to look favorable, with adequate moisture across the Corn Belt, although Texas and the Delta region may experience a dry spell with warmer temperatures that month.

Vegetation index

Jude Kastens, research assistant professor at Kansas State University, noted that the Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) indicates that the western Corn Belt has not yet begun to show significant crop growth, and strong snowpack is evident in the Rocky Mountains.

“Plants photosynthesize heavily in the red portion of the visible light spectrum, and healthy vegetation tends to reflect light very heavily in the near infrared. The NDVI utilizes those two aspects of reflectance from healthy vegetation as opposed to not healthy vegetation and creates an index that increases with vegetation vigor,” he described.

In the heart of the wheat belt, from central Kansas to Oklahoma and north-central Texas, NDVI data indicates fall-planted wheat is beginning to emerge, showing advanced crop development due to high moisture levels.

“The Northwest crop emergence appears to be about normal pace for that area,” he added.

Crop predictions

Market crop basis levels for this season have flat-lined, according to Kevin McNew, ag economist with GrainHedge, who also spoke during the webinar.

“Traditionally, basis moves from lowest at harvest to highest as we go through the season into the late spring and early summer. This year, U.S. average basis has been flat. I attribute that to farmers holding tight to stock,” he remarked.

Collectively, the three major crops – corn, soybeans and wheat – have the largest stocks in the U.S. compared to the last 10 years, and McNew stated, there are currently no real grain shortages.

“Our expectations for corn planting this season are 7.8 billion bushels, which is only slightly up from last year but still an exceptionally high number,” he said.

Wheat is expected to drop 3 million acres from last year, after a natural drop in winter wheat plantings seen in the USDA’s January crop report.

Corn levels

“Corn is going to be the wildcard. Corn is the one thing that we have a hard time gauging,” McNew added.

Corn export and industrial inventories are closely monitored, but there is not currently an accurate measure for corn used in livestock feed, according to McNew.

“The corn number has the potential to be somewhat shocking one way or the other,” he mentioned. “Right now, the average analyst expects a 2 million acre increase in corn. Most people I talk to are saying that’s probably a given, and we could even have that number higher, based on the crop that gives farmers upside yield potential.”

As the season progresses, meteorologists and market analysts will continue to monitor trends, and the webinar speakers emphasized their continued efforts to keep clients informed as forecasts evolve into 2016.

Look for more on the corn and wheat outlook on page 23 of this week’s Roundup.

Natasha Wheeler is editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..