Family history and a bright future

Broccoli is grown on Pearmine Farms for the processing food market. The linear move sprinkler system in the distance is one of the moves toward efficiency.

The growing of vegetables for processing has been going on for a long time in the Willamette Valley of Oregon, and the Pearmines are the third generation of their family to continue the practice, along with their children.

Ron Pearmine, along with his brother Larry, owns and operates 1,000 acres along the Willamette River near Salem. They grew up on this farm, which is part of the grower-owned cooperative NORPAC Foods, which has seven processing plants and about 220 members in Oregon.

Growing broccoli, cauliflower, sweet corn and bush beans, Pearmine Farms is diversified for a reason: spreading the risk is important. The Pearmine Farms acreage is split evenly between vegetables and grass grown for seed for the landscape industry, which provides a good rotation crop as well as another way to increase marketing possibilities. The normal rotation is two or three years in grass seed followed by two years of vegetables. During those two years, two different vegetable crops are grown.

"There’s a different level of risk associated with growing for processing," Pearmine notes, and that is important in his area. He doesn’t have as long a season as growers in the southern regions of the country, so he grows the varieties at the best grades possible for processing to squeeze them in between the planting in April and a harvest prior to October. The four vegetable crops grown for NORPAC are contracted, which lowers his risk considerably, with the processor selecting and supplying the seed to be grown. "In terms of the cultural growing, there’s not too much difference."

Pearmine is also constantly trying new methods of lowering that risk, which means growing for quality, yield and efficiency. Good cultural practices "every step of the way" are his focus, from soil prep to the timing of planting and harvest. Much of the harvest goes to frozen packs, though the corn and beans may be either frozen or canned. The farm also has a 50-acre sweet cherry orchard, with that fruit also going to processors.

The co-op chooses the varieties to be planted, and most of the seed goes into the ground mid to late April. "Each crop is a little different," he says of the timing, and that goes for ground prep, too. The ground is pretty flat, with veggies planted on the flat and sprinkler irrigated. The bush beans are planted on 20-inch rows and broccoli is in a bedded system on 20-inch rows; cauliflower requires 40-inch rows.

Normal soil prep is to till the fields when the soil dries out in the spring, with either preemergence or postemergence herbicides used for the numerous weed pests. A disc or Vibra-Shank is used to till the entire field, with any deep tillage being done in the fall and restricted to compacted fields.

"We’re trying to do less of that," Pearmine says. One of the innovations the farm is trying this year is to strip-till the sweet corn ground, a process adapted from a neighbor. It consists of one tractor pass with a ripper and coulter, but only in a narrow 10-inch band where the corn seed will be planted. A second pass utilizes a series of cutting disc blades to chop the soil up finer. The soil is then ready to plant, saving about three tractor passes and a lot of time. Tractors are set up with GPS guidance with auto-steer systems.

"We expect to have a fuel savings with that practice," Pearmine says. Adapted from strip-till methods used in the Midwest, this means of soil prep is very efficient. Another incentive is to cut down on soil compaction and it reduces weeds, as less soil is stirred up. This results in a savings on herbicides and fertilizer throughout the season as chemicals are applied only to the 10-inch strip. This is the first year he has tried strip-till, but he anticipates an improvement in soil organics, as only 30 percent of a field’s soil is being tilled.

This landscaping grass seed, in midharvest, lowers risk through diversification and the benefits of crop rotation.

"Right now, the sweet corn is the only crop we will strip-till," he says. In the future, those cornfields may go in and out of conventional tillage as he switches crops. He also often uses a winter cover crop of vetch or oats to build soil nutrition, and that would be planted over the entire field. The equipment he uses is a copy of his neighbor’s, custom-built in the Pearmines’ own shop.

Irrigation is another area where the farm’s operations are improving. The traditional methods on the farm were sprinklers in either a hand-moved system or a traveling big gun, but the Pearmines have tried linear move overhead sprinklers—essentially center pivots that instead move along an irrigation ditch and take water from it—and now they have 300 acres under the linear moves.

"It’s more efficient, has better water coverage and uses less labor," Pearmine says. Another benefit is being able to inject liquid fertilizer such as UN32 into the water and pump it through the system. He currently has three Reinke linear move systems and is moving much of the farm toward that methodology. One drawback is that there are some small, irregularly shaped fields, which can’t be adapted to the system.

Pests are a big problem, especially in crops like cauliflower where caterpillars can get into the head. The two main worm pests are cabbage looper and diamondback moth. There are other pests such as white mold in July and August, and the Pearmines scout for pests themselves and do their own treatments. Crop rotation is a big part of the pest protection system. For crops like broccoli and cauliflower, for example, which are susceptible to club root, it will be five years before they are grown on the same ground again.

The harvest is a critical time for processed vegetables. Most of the crops are harvested by hand, with up to 80 employees needed at times. "Labor is one of our key issues, as with all business," he points out, and the farm recruits its own workers, hoping to hire the same people year after year. The harvest starts about July 15 with beans and broccoli. Most of the laborers are seasonal Hispanic workers who work for them over about an eight-week harvest season.

Some machine harvesting has lightened the labor load, however. Bush beans are gathered with a mechanical harvester, and last fall the farm experimented successfully with machine-harvesting cauliflower. Again, this was with a custom-made machine, based on a neighbor’s design for a custom Brussels sprouts harvester. "They do have grading standards," he says of the processor, but he can choose any means of harvest as long as he meets those standards.

Pearmine Farms is slowly moving into organic growing as the processors start to offer organic frozen vegetables. He has a 20-acre field currently undergoing the 36-month transition period to organic, with sweet corn one alternative as a crop choice, though that will depend on what NORPAC needs.

"There’s not too much organic in this area, so it’s new to us," Pearmine says. It’s been a good learning experience so far, and in the fall the farm will select a crop. There are also other outlets for organic ground, such as for seed or forage crops, so the farm could start another field on the certification process if their first foray is successful and the demand is there.

These bush beans are one of four veggie crops grown to be frozen or canned, with diversification helping to lower risk.

Another risk reducer of sorts is the Pearmines’ management duties. Instead of relegating one brother to one area of the farm and the other to something else, Ron and Larry can do anything on the farm. They feel it gives them full participation and expertise in all areas of the operation, and when one goes on vacation or is sick, there is no scramble to find out what is going on. Pearmine’s daughter Molly now works in the farm office with planning and harvest, and his son Ernie works in the planting, irrigation and equipment areas.

Pearmine is happy to be in the processing vegetable business, which has been declining in the region over the last 30 years. The farm also continues to grow sweet cherries, a traditional tree crop for the family.

The family is also into conservation, with 80 acres of their land in a federal Wetlands Preserve Program along the Willamette River. "It was converted back to native species," Pearmine says, with the idea of regenerating some habitat for wildlife. There is some forested land, but most of the easily flooded wetland is for waterfowl and other migratory birds. It’s nice to see the profusion of birds on the land again, he says.

In short, growing for a processor is good business if done correctly. Pearmine Farms has grown for the fresh market in the past, and might do it again, as long as it fits into their program for good returns and risk management.

Don Dale is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor. He resides in Altadena, Calif.