Farming in the Salad Bowl of the World w/ Gina Colfer

Interview with Gina Colfer, Organic Products Account Manager for Wilbur-Ellis Company

Show Notes

We unpack organic farming in the “Salad Bowl of the World” with Gina Colfer, the Organic Products Account Manager for Wilbur-Ellis Company. Gina discusses the role of Wilbur-Ellis in the growth of organic farming, as well as the adoption of a whole systems approach for organic growers. Wilbur-Ellis is the fourth largest agriculture retailer in the United States.

Learn more about Avé Organics: www.aveorganics.com

Learn more about Wilbur-Ellis: www.wilburellis.com 

Connect with our guest on LinkedIn

#agriculture #farming #organicagriculture #organicfarming #saladbowl

Podcast Transcription

INTRO: Welcome to Organics Unpacked, a podcast for the business-minded organic grower — an interview podcast where we hear from the top experts in the commercial organic industry, with a focus on the business elements of organic growing both in and out of the field. You will gain insight and grow your operation. This show is brought to you ad-free by Avé Organics, a Wilbur-Ellis company. To learn more about Avé Organics, visit our program notes. In the meantime, enjoy the show. 

TOM: Hello, everyone. Thank you for tuning in today. Welcome to a new episode of Organics Unpacked, a podcast where we discuss organic farming from a practical perspective. I’m your host, Tom Buman. Today, I’m joined with Gina Colfer. Gina is the Organic Products Account Manager for Wilbur-Ellis. Gina, welcome to Organics Unpacked.

GINA: Thank you, Tom, for having me today. I’m really excited about this.

California Farming Background

TOM: Well, we’re excited to have you, Gina. Welcome to the show. So, Gina, before we get started, I’d like a little bit of background on yourself. How did you get to where you are today, working with Wilbur-Ellis and working with organic products?

GINA: Well, I grew up on an apple farm on the central coast of California and went to college at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. I majored in crop science, always wanting to know. I wanted to be a pest control advisor. Graduated, went to work right away in the Salinas Valley as a pest control advisor on the conventional side. Then, as my experience grew, and I saw that there were different ways of doing things, I kind of morphed into being really interested in the organic sector of farming and seeing how nature worked with plants and biodiversity. Changed my direction a little bit. Went to work for a private company, a farming company, and became their in-house pest control advisor and agronomist and then became their food safety and compliance manager and worked a lot with the waterboard compliance and doing all of the GLOBALG.A.P. and certification work that it takes to comply regulatory with everything that’s mandated by the state of California and being organic. Then I had this opportunity with Wilbur-Ellis to develop their organic program and bring Wilbur-Ellis into the fold of organics. They really saw the growth potential. In the Salinas Valley, we have about 10% organics. So we’re one of the largest areas concentrated for organics, but there’s definitely a huge growth potential for organics nationwide. So I just felt like I had a good reach in the organic sector with Wilbur-Ellis. We’ve been able to develop more products and come up with the philosophy of the whole systems approach. So I’m just really happy to be able to help steer that direction of the whole systems approach within the Wilbur-Ellis family.

Geographical Reach of Wilbur-Ellis

TOM: So you mentioned Wilbur-Ellis a couple of times, the company that you’re working for, and the fact that they are in the market of helping organic farmers. Can you expand a little bit on maybe Wilbur-Ellis’s reach geographically. What kind of offerings do they have?

GINA: Yeah. So Wilbur-Ellis has a pretty broad reach within the western states, for sure, and, then, in the Midwest. And with the growth of organics, every branch that we have has been touched by a grower wanting more information on organics and what products are out there that can help them be more efficient and just better producers of organic crops. So we have, I think, 180 branches now nationwide, and all of those branches are up to speed on what we have to offer organics. And the direction that we’d really want to go is a whole systems approach. Farmers realize that they’re never going to spray their way out of a problem. Either insecticide or pathogen or weeds, it has to be a whole integrated approach of how to take care of these issues. So, with the whole systems approach, we say, You have to start with soil health, and what is soil health?’ Our definition that we really look at is there are three components to soil health. It’s the structural part of the soil, what you have. 

What is that physical structure? It’s ideally: 45% sand, silt and clay; 25% air so, then, the microbes can breathe; and 25% water so they can drink; and 5% organic matter so they have something to eat. But no soil is like that, but how can you strive to get there? Then, the biodiversity side of it, where you incorporate biodiversity onto the farm with insectary habitats, with hedge rows, with just more diverse plant species to support the biological control agents as your predators and your parasitic wasps to help control various insects and soil-dwelling insects. Then your plant protection program. You are going to have to have some type of plant protection program, but it shouldn’t be on an emergency basis. It should be where you have your soil set up to where it’s a healthy soil. You have your diverse plant species populations to support large, diverse, biological control agents. Then you have a plant protection program that is not based on emergency but more preventative.

An Organic System Plan

TOM: So one of the things, as I’ve been working in the organic space, Gina, that I recognized is that it’s not like conventional, where you can just make it up on the fly, or if you have an emergency situation, you take care of it. Organic farming takes a lot of thought and planning because you’re locked into rotations, or you can’t use certain pesticides because you are an organic farmer. There are a lot of things you can’t do. It amazes me the amount of thoughtfulness that you have to give even into your two, three and four into the future. And I assume that’s what really makes it so important, to look at things holistically, where you’re just looking at everything together, and you have this master plan. And yes, you’re always going to have to tweak and rework it, but it seems to me having that plan from the start of that holistic view, like you talk about, is so important.

GINA: Right. Well, every grower has to come up with their organic system plan, so the National Organic Program — which was a federally mandated labeling term. That means the product’s been produced through approved organic methods that integrate cultural, biological and mechanical practices to improve the biological diversity on your farm. So you have to come up with that plan and write it down and submit it to your certifier. There are 80 to 90 certifiers that I think are approved right now by the National Organic Program that are spread all throughout the United States, and they certify overseas also. But you have to have that plan, and they have to sign off on it so that they know and you know ahead of time how you are going to deal with these certain issues — fertility issues, pest issues, what your planting rotation might be. It’s really important to incorporate rotations into your system so you’re not planting back to back with the same species that has the same issues with soil diseases or insects. So you build up these high populations that never break that generation. So it’s really important to plan ahead. You have to dig deep on your agronomic skills, for sure.

Farming in the Salad Bowl of the World

TOM: The other thing I think of is that organic farmers are different everywhere. Farmers are different everywhere. But with organic farming, what might work in the Midwest is not going to work on the west coast or the east coast. There are some general things. Following organic standards is important. But let’s talk a little bit about maybe some specifics in organic farming, maybe a typical crop rotation where you’re at or a farmer that you would work with. Maybe it’s just for some of the listening audience. Highlight what you’re dealing with. And like I said, let’s just pick out an example farmer that would meet the average farmer that you work with.

GINA: Well, I work in the central coast of California. Salinas Valley, San Benito county. Very intensive agricultural farming that goes on here. Salad bowl capital of the world. We have a lot of rotations that happen. There’s not a lot of downtime. So growers here rely more on inputs than they do, say, cover cropping. Whereas, in the Midwest, the corn and the soybean growers, wheat growers, they can rely a little bit more on cover cropping and no-till or conservation tillage, which helps to really build your soil fertility. I’ve seen and I’ve read that nitrogen availability can be an issue in those conservation and no-till systems because you’ve got the cover crop incorporated in with the crops. So it’s important to manage your nitrogen input there. But on the central coast, we don’t really incorporate cover cropping that much because of the fast rotations and the very small downtime during the winter that we have when all of the vegetable production moves to the desert. So we rely on, really, the dry-pelleted type of fertilizers and, then, also liquid input organic fertilizers. That’s different than other areas where we really do rely on inputs. There are, with the ag order coming up in the state of California, they really are encouraging to reduce the amount of nitrogen inputs that are being applied. And there are more credits being applied toward scavenging for cover crops. So they’re going to give more nitrogen units for cover cropping. So, hopefully, that will incentivize growers, and they can maybe move their planting dates a little bit to work with the cover cropping. 

But, really, here, we’re pretty input intensive with the fertilizers — with the dry fertilizers and the liquid fertilizers — and then, also, just really, really careful on our pest levels. Because in these leafy green crops and broccoli and cauliflowers, there’s a very low threshold for pests, for diseases and insects. So we really have to incorporate insectary habitats into the system. So what a lot of growers will do will plant insectary habitats within their vegetable crop. The best method that I’ve seen through the years is to do the strip planting, where they dedicate like a 40-inch or an 80-inch bed to a flower crop. And the most popular at this point is alyssum — sweet alyssum — which flowers quickly and is highly attractive to syrphid fly, lacewing, parasitic wasp. And the importance of that is because the adult of, say, a syrphid fly or a lacewing or a parasitic wasp is a nectar and pollen feeder solely, and it’s their offspring that are the predators and the parasites to these insect pests that we’re targeting. So the stronger your adult is, the more viable and hungry the immature. If we don’t have an insectary habitat, we might have a syrphid fly flying around, and they target in on the aphid, and then they lay eggs. But they might lay fewer eggs because they’re not as strong. Then their larva that hatch from that egg might not be as voracious or hungry, right? You can equate it to people. Mothers have to take their vitamins and rest and eat properly to have a strong, healthy baby. It’s the same with inspects.

TOM: But it’s a little upside down from the rest of the animal world we think of, where the adults usually are the predators. And you’re saying we just really need to have that healthy percent.

GINA: It’s the babies.

TOM: It’s the larva and the younger ones, so having a really robust adult population to lay a lot of eggs is important for that ongoing. That’s really interesting. 

GINA: Exactly.

Crop Rotations in California

TOM: In a typical rotation of a farmer you work with, how many crops do they get in a year? Describe what you’re working with out there.

GINA: So a typical grower on the central coast will have two to three rotations per year, depending on, say, if they’ve planted romaine in February, and they harvest about right now. When they’re harvesting those crops that were planted in February, then they’ll incorporate that crop and maybe come back and plant broccoli or cauliflower or celery or another long-season crop. Or they’ll come in and plant a baby leaf crop — say, like, spinach or mizuna. And those are just 30-day crops. So, then, they can get two or three rotations of those in. So it’s either two longer-season crops or two to three shorter-season crops.

TOM: Do they kind of follow the same pattern every year where, then, they’ll go back next year and do the same thing? Or is it a whole different rotation?

GINA: No, they pretty much do the same thing because we are the salad bowl of the world. So we’re limited in the commodities that we do plant. Really, we’re focused on the vegetable crops. And the main drivers of those vegetable crops are the different lettuces: head, and the romaine and the leaf lettuces. Then all the baby crops, which are the spinach and the mizunas and the tatsoi and things that are grown on 80-inch beds that are harvested mechanically with the machine. Then your brassicas: broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and celery. So those are the main drivers of the central coast. Those are the main crops in the central coast. And Brussels sprouts and artichokes. Those are in there also, and those are long-season crops. But those are good rotational crops, also.

Crop Diversification

TOM: So, in a year, how many different crops do you give recommendations on? 10? 15? 20? When I say that, I mean different varieties of crops, like broccoli or cauliflower.

GINA: Probably 10 to 12. That’s about the mix of what’s being grown in this area. Yeah.

TOM: So farmers specialize in maybe two or three different crops? They’re known for maybe baby spinach or something like that, and so they have two or three crops that they rotate year in and year out. And they’ll get two or three crops?

GINA: I would say most growers in the area really do grow the broad spectrum of these crops because their shippers are shipping those different crops. So they do want the celery and the broccoli and the cauliflower and the lettuces. So most growers in the valley are growing a pretty diverse mix within that 10-to-15-crop load.

TOM: Are there areas that you work with that are specialized in celery or broccoli? Basement soil types or geographic location or water-holding capacity? Or is it just like you can plant these crops anywhere?

GINA: No. For sure, there are different soil profiles that are better suited for the longer-season crop versus a short-season crop. One of the things that really is the crux of it is the weed species that are present in that soil. So you don’t want to plant your baby leaf crops on soils that have high weed densities because it’s mechanically harvested. And to go in and try to weed those 80-inch beds that are carpets of spinach or baby leaf or mizunas, it can get really expensive. So you want to keep your baby leaves on ground that has fewer weed densities, and then your broccolis and your cauliflowers and your lettuces that are all hand-harvested can go on ground that has maybe a little bit more, higher weed density. So that’s really the big driver because it’s so expensive to put a hand crew through. And in lettuce, now, there are technologies where we’re using chemical thinning and mechanical thinning. So there are two different technologies. So, if you direct-seed your lettuce crop, you can, at thinning, go in and use these two different types of technologies to thin and weed your crops. So that’s really reduced the cost at that stage.

Romaine Lettuce

TOM: So let’s just take one of the crops — whatever one you want, what’s most common or whatever — and just walk the listeners through, like from soil prep, whenever that starts, all the way through maybe a rotation. Like all the different tillage systems you’re using and weeding and thinning, like you said, if you can just walk us through that, what does that look like in a year?

GINA: Sure. Okay, so let’s pick romaine because that’s a big one here in the valley. Romaine is a very popular lettuce. So, for the most part, most romaine now is planted on 80-inch beds. And you can either direct-seed or transplant, but let’s direct seed. So some growers will go five lines per bed. Some growers will go six lines per bed. So that’s actual seed lines per 80-inch bed. So, if you’ve got six seed lines, I couldn’t tell you the plant population at this point. So it emerges as a PCA/CCA. We’re walking to make sure we’ve got good germination. Then, at the time of thinning, we can go in with our mechanical thinner and use — right now, we’re using an herbicide called SUPPRESS, which is a burndown. It’s a caproic and caprylic acid herbicide, and the weeder will do a spot spray. And it recognizes that you dial in the measurement of your spacing that you want, and it’ll just do a rectangular spray and will kill the weeds and the baby lettuce plants that are not supposed to be there and will leave the one romaine plant within every six inches. So, then, you’ve got one seed line and one plant every six inches, and that’s all the way across the bed where you have six lines of seed. So, then, it starts to grow, and we’re walking it for lettuce aphid, which is a really big problem in our area — foxglove aphid, green peach aphid and, then, also thrips. 

The western flower thrip is a real big issue right now because what’s happening with the thrip is, by itself, it’s not a terrible pest. Because it has a rasping mouthpart, and it will scar the lettuce down deep into the core, but what’s happening right now is it’s transmitting a disease called impatiens necrotic spot virus. And it is a really devastating disease that we see picks up steam as the year goes on. So we have low populations in the spring. And then, as the thrip goes through its life cycle, it’s the immatures that can pick up the virus from weed species that are throughout the valley because it has a broad host range. Then those immatures that have been feeding on the weed species that have INSV, as adults, they can, then, take off and do their thing in the lettuce crops and spread the virus. So, as the year goes on, the pressure goes up, and we really encounter a lot of INSV as the year goes on. So we have to be really diligent in monitoring for thrip and hoping that we have good biological diversity where minute pirate bugs and swirskii mites are very effective on thrip. But we need to have the habitat in place to have the beneficials there, to keep the levels down.

Organic Fertilizers

TOM: Right. So we’ve talked about the weed control and walking through it in the spring. We’ve talked about the insects. What about the fertilizer? When you’re looking at this in a holistic view, how are you looking at the fertilizer applications? How does that happen? What type of fertilizer are they using in an organic system?

GINA: So the dry-pelleted organic fertilizers are very popular here on the central coast. They’re easy to use. They’re heat treat validated. So they have a zero day pre-harvest interval for complying with the leafy greens metric, food safety, and they’re predictable, for the most part, right? If you have soil that has good biological diversity in it, and the temperature is starting to increase, then the mineralization process of these products is more consistent. So some of the most popular dry-pelleted products are either seabird guano, which is a 662, or 851, which is a meat and bone meal. We have a couple products called DiverSentials, which is a 434 that has a broad diversity of ingredients in it. It has chicken litter, feather meal, lead meal, shrimp shell meal, alfalfa meal, sulfate of potash, gypsum and humic acid. So the idea is to feed the soil a diverse grouping of ingredients rather than just, say, meat and bone meal, where it’s just one ingredient, and you’re just feeding those microbes that one protein. So I like the idea of feeding the soil — the microbial populations — a diverse food grouping. You’re sitting down and eating your salad that has all these different things in it instead of just meat and potatoes. 

TOM: Right. 

GINA: Then, we have a 1300 that is a feather and a blood meal. So it’s very fast nitrogen. It has a low C:N ratio. So the mineralization rate is very fast. So the way growers do it is they’ll do a broadcast application prior to planting. It’s broadcast on the 80-inch bed, so it’s precision, and then they incorporate it because it’s really important for these organic fertilizers to have contact with the soil. So you do a light mulch, then incorporate it in an inch or two, and then plant directly into it. Do your irrigations, and then, at thinning, after they thin and do that, then they’ll come in and do a side-dress application. And then some growers will use liquids, and some growers will not use liquids. It just depends on the soil type and, I think, the knowledge of how liquids work with dry materials. We have a product that’s a molasses beet extract and soy protein hydrolysate. And, really, it feeds that microbial population, and especially early in the season, when you have cooler soils to give it that food source of that carbon-rich molasses. It really feeds the microbes and stimulates them to start mineralizing that dry product.

Water in the West

TOM: So we’ve got the pests, or the insects. We’ve got the weeds. We’ve got the fertility. What are other things you have to think about in the salad bowl, right? When you paint this holistic picture, what are the things you’re thinking about?

GINA: Oh, well, I think water is a huge thing here in the west. We’re really drying out. These last few years have been really dry for us, so water use and how we can use it more efficiently. It’s all about, I think, building the water-holding capacity of the soil. So that goes hand in hand with a healthy soil. We do have areas that are pretty sandy in our area, so we have low organic matter. We have low CECs. So, if there’s cover cropping, using high C:N compost, I think, are things that I really think about a lot and how to incorporate those into our system. I do spend a lot of time thinking about that and how we can improve it. Then, also, just trying to create better water waste systems, where, instead of having clean ditches, we have ditches that are planted more to grasses and habitat that can help hold those ditches in place and where there is more diversity than on the farm. Because, with the growers here on the central coast, they’re under a lot of pressure from the shippers to really comply with food safety mandates, and they have to comply with the Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement. And they haven’t really come down and said that you need to have clean landscapes, but shippers in our area have interpreted it to, We just don’t want any habitat close to the growing area.’ So we need more research on that and to see how these riparian areas affect food safety because there hasn’t been a lot of research on that end. Those are the kinds of things that I think about.

Conservation Tillage

TOM: That is a lot going on to think of. Then you’re having to plan that out before you’re just working on an emergency situation. It seems so important to me to do that and complicated. But I’ve never seen anything where you do one thing that might be good for soil health, but it doesn’t have adverse effects on something else. It’s not like everything always works together in the perfect world or the way you think it’s going to or should. So are there examples where you might do the right thing in one place, but it causes you problems somewhere else?

GINA: Well, I think, just in the working of the soil, the cultivation. NRCS and these different — RCD — they all are about minimal disturbance, right? Keeping roots in the ground and how important it is to keep roots in the ground. And for us here on the central coast, that’s very difficult because you need to have a clean seedbed when you’re direct-seeding. So I think we really are kind of cutting off our foot a little bit by all of the tillage that we do, but we haven’t figured out a way to really get around that one yet. I’ve done a little bit of research on one of our research plots that we have down in the Soledad area, where I’ve done conservation tillage. It’s what I call it because that’s what it is. We’re not tilling as much. This last year, we had broccoli and spinach in this one piece of ground. It’s a block, a 10-acre block. And after harvest, we double-flail-chopped it. So, up and back with the mower, and then the spinach was harvested. So it’s harvested. And we let it just sit for a little bit, so the spinach could die back. It didn’t take very long. Once you cut the water off, it’s going to die. Spinach is very sensitive to dry and wet. So we killed it and then did a good, deep pre-irrigation a couple weeks later after we knew that the spinach was pretty much killed back and the broccoli was, for the most part, killed back, but there was some growth coming back. And then we just direct-drilled, with a Great Plains seeder, our cover crop into the established 80-inch beds that we had the broccoli and the spinach on. And so what a lot of growers will do is, if they’re going to plant a cover crop, they’ll come in and disk and disk, right? 

TOM: Right.

GINA: They’ll disk the crop under. They’ll disk again, get it clean. Then they’ll just plant a cover crop onto a flat ground. So we planted our cover crop directly onto the 80-inch beds and, then, also in the furrow, and we had a beautiful cover crop. And, ideally, I would have loved to have come in and flail-chopped the rye that we planted and then tried to do a direct transplant into that. But the grower kind of beat me to it and disked it. So maybe we’ll try it next year. But I think there are things that growers could do to experiment on one block here, one block there, on what could we do to keep roots in the ground in a vegetable production area?

TOM: Right. It seems to me a really hard balance. When I buy baby spinach, I don’t want other weeds as a part of it, right? I went all baby spinach. And then, to say, How do you weed this effectively?’ And we’re an organic system, and we’re not using herbicides to control those weeds. A reaper is obviously very expensive. If you’ve ever weeded even your garden, it’s a daunting thing to think of all the acres of organic baby spinach that need to be weeded. So it does seem like quite a challenge to approach that from a holistic standpoint and say, Some places, I’m going to have to give and take here so I can get this over here.’

GINA: Right, right. And that’s why they really have to pick the right blocks where they’re planting their babies because, yeah, the weed issue is real. And some of the worst weeds that we have are stinging nettle and hairy nightshade, and you don’t want those in your spinach salad bag.

TOM: I hear ya. Right. So, then, you’ve got the insect pressure and the…

GINA: The pathogen. Downy mildew is one of our big issues, and it’s lower fungi. It’s very hard to control.

TOM: So, Gina, if there were two things you could snap your fingers and solve, right? In your area, what would those two or three things be?

GINA: Oh gosh, I would just love to see more cover cropping and conservation tillage to go along with it. So snap my finger. I’d love to see that. Then just one of the big issues right now that we’re having in our area is INSV, and it also kind of correlates with Pythium. So, last year, we had an INSV Pythium explosion at the end of the year. And growers were just disking crops, conventional and organic. So, if I could solve that, I’d be a hero.

TOM: You would be on your way, right? 

GINA: Yeah. 

Mission of Wilbur-Ellis

TOM: All right. Well, Gina, I want to be mindful of your time, but I do have one last question I would like to ask you. If you and a farmer had two minutes in a room together, what would you want to convey to him or her about your company, your products, your services? What do you want them to know about Wilbur-Ellis when they leave the room?

GINA: Well, I think what I would say to them is that Wilbur-Ellis is — well, we have the mindset of it is a whole systems approach. And we actually have all of the inputs for that whole systems approach. We have the organic fertilizers that are quality. We’ve based our acceptance of these products and the development of these products on research and development. And we know that they are quality organic fertilizers and soil inoculants. We have Nutrio Unlock that has just got an amazing win rate, humic acids that are the top-line humic acids. Then we have cover crop seeds that are high-quality cover crop seeds. We have insectary habitat seed, which is super important in an organic system. Then we’ve been working on developing some organic fungicides. We have Sonata. We’ve been working on Romeo, and there are some other things that we’ve been working on, and then also working in conjunction now with Trace Genomics. I’ve been working with them directly, trying to develop their microbial soil health measurements, along with their chemistry analysis. Then they’re also going to be doing a carbon calculator to develop a baseline for your soils that you can document because it’s all about documentation and knowing what you have and how you’re improving that. You need to prove it to these certifiers and all of these — now, there’s sustainability programs that are coming and GLOBALG.A.P. and GFSI. So, if you have these baselines that are measuring all the components of your soil, I think that’s super important also.

TOM: Well, Gina, it’s been fun talking to you. Obviously, you are passionate about what you do and very knowledgeable. There are things, like us, in the Midwest don’t even think about, like where do we get seed to plant for the flowering plants to attract insects? Those are really interesting things that it’s nice to know that they’re out there for people. But again, thank you for being a part of Organics Unpacked. And with that, thanks to all the listening audience, and be sure to tune in every week, when we’ll uncover another facet of organic farming. Thanks, Gina.

GINA: Great. Thank you, Tom. I had fun. Bye.

OUTRO: Thank you for listening to Organics Unpacked. If you enjoyed this episode, please consider subscribing and giving this show a five-star rating and review, so we can continue to help organic growers improve their operations.