Monday, June 23, 2014

"I Love My Truck"

I assume many of you are familiar with the country song, "I Love My Truck". If a song can be written about loving one's truck, then I believe I can write one about my job. Being in the seed business all these years certainly has returned significant rewards to me. I have been fortunate to gain many friendships throughout my tenure with Harris Seeds. I have come to personally know plant breeders, seed managers and growers large and small across this great land, and I clearly treasure these relationships. My co-workers are a mighty fine bunch of people as well.

One of my favorite responsibilities in the seed business has begun, and will continue through the summer and fall months. It is widely known as flower and vegetable trials. Occasionally I travel to California to attend the greatest flower show on earth…Spring Trials, formally known as Pack Trials. I have not attended in a couple of years, but recall that in the past it was always a spectacular event.

At our facility in Rochester, NY, we have been noting early greens and radishes. Mark Willis, our vegetable seed manager, has put together a new oriental greens mix that is outstanding for flavor and color. We have looked at new radish entries in our high tunnel, and some will most likely hit our catalog this fall. Also in our high tunnel we have our "grafted" trial for cucumbers, peppers and tomatoes. The tomatoes and peppers are setting fruit and we have picked cucumbers already. We are just finishing our plantings of annual flowers in garden beds and in containers. Photos will follow this summer.

Yes, the summer and fall months are busy times as we travel frequently to nearby Hall, New York to the Seneca Vegetable Research Farm, managed by plant breeder, Dr. Walt Whitwood and his plant breeding sons. They are super people and do a great job trialing peppers, tomatoes, sweet corn and squash for us. In late August we are off to Wisconsin to take a look at new beans and a lot of sweet corn. The trialing season comes to an abrupt end with a visit to the Bob Chase Farm in Macedon, New York. On Bob's farm is our fall ornamental trial consisting of pumpkins, gourds and winter squash. Bob is a terrific grower and does a fine job for us. There are always many new introductions that are selected and added to our product line each fall.

I do not look at my job as hard work (as it truly is), but more importantly as great fun. Yes, having a career in the vegetable and flower seed business has been truly richly rewarding. I cannot think of a better one.

Friday, October 4, 2013

It's nearly bedtime!

As we roll through the beginning of fall, it becomes quite clear to me that it is nearly time to put the garden to bed. Here in the Northeast, the cool, early morning outside air beckons the call for warmer clothing. Blackbirds flock together to perform their annual ballets in flight, and colorful fall foliage starts to make its way into the landscape.

My garden this year was a successful one indeed. It is relatively small, compared to the efforts of my departed father. Gardens of the past were always big, and so were the annual harvests. My garden consists of four raised beds and the produce I harvested was impressive. My tomato plants were very productive, and they skirted the devastation from late blight. Many fellow gardeners were not so lucky. Red Candy grape tomato was outstanding, as its texture and sweetness were at the top of the charts.

I have never attempted to raise sweet corn, as it is always commonly available around town at most farm stands, but this year was different. In an area of around 5 feet by 8 feet, I planted my favorite variety to eat - "Mr. Mini Mirai". This yellow supersweet is so tender and sweet that it is clearly classified as gourmet quality. If any of my readers grow sweet corn and have not grown this one, then I highly recommend four or five rows in your garden next season.

I also had a couple plantings of Crockett green bush bean. Given the fact that I had four small rows throughout the season, I believe I harvested a bushel of tasty, dark green beans. I picked the plants several times, and the beans kept on coming. Crockett is a slender, dark green bean that eats exceptionally well.

If any gardener is a fan of radishes like I am, then the one to grow is Red Satin. In my opinion, this is the finest radish in the marketplace. Hybrid radishes have not been around for very long, and hybridization has greatly improved the species. Red Satin is consistently clean, smooth and round, with an appetizing bright red color. In 20 days, you will harvest beautiful red radishes with a delicious mild flavor. There's probably still time to plant a few more rows before cold weather sets in.

My Kuroda carrots made excellent size, and I have left a few to sweeten up for a later fall harvest. Add a few rows of spinach, Swiss chard and lettuce and my garden was quite complete.
In a few weeks, clean-up will begin. Plants will be pulled and composted. I will top my beds with an organic fertilizer and till it in. Then I will wait. I will wait for the snow. I will wait for spring to follow. But then, my garden will begin its next life cycle.

Friday, March 29, 2013

A personal opinion…

Although there are many excellent sweet corn varieties available to the consumer today, I have my personal favorite. Our Mr. Mini Mirai is my hands down favorite and for many reasons:
  • I do not think you can find any other variety that will be sweeter and more tender than Mr. Mini Mirai, the desert corn. Sweetness, or sugar, in any vegetable is measured with the brix scale. For any sweet corn variety that approaches a 20 number on the brix scale, you will have one that has top of the chart sugars. Couple this with exceptional tenderness and you have a complete eating package.
  • The size of each ear is quite unusual. Ears average only 5.5" in length, but it is packed with tender, juicy kernels. I believe there is as much corn on each ear of Mr. Mini Mirai as there is on longer varieties. Bottom line, it fits on a plate. In my opinion, the restaurant trade should be all over this one as it has a great presentation when served, and it is truly "gourmet" quality..
  • Home gardeners who have grown and sampled this Mr. Mini Mirai have raved about its high quality. We picked, cooked and served 500 free ears of Mr. Mini Mirai at the Rochester Public Market. Just about every taste tester commented to me that it was the very best corn they had ever eaten..
  • We had a box of Mr. Mini Mirai in a cooler in Illinois for about two weeks. We shipped it to a cottage in Indiana for a summer picnic that weekend. The results were exactly the same…the very best corn they had ever eaten, and it was two weeks old!
Mr. Mini Mirai is a supersweet type, so it needs warm soil for proper germination. For professional growers, it will be important for them to sample it to their customers. For home gardeners, you will never find a sweet corn variety any better than our Mr. Mini Mirai. I personally guarantee it. Plant this one for ultimate satisfaction.

Friday, March 8, 2013

An old piece of cloth...

It is time for me to apologize again, as I have not written a blog post in quite some time. It is not because I despise the effort, it really comes down to my inability to remember to do so. Therefore, I apologize again.

When I refer to the fact that I am cut from an old piece of cloth, my heart lies with the corner grocery store, the many retail shops that used to populate Main Street where I grew up, and retail the way it used to be. It seems to me that big corporations do everything possible to push the smaller retailer out of business. I am not naive, as I truly know nothing is forever.

This subject brings me to the smaller independent garden center retailer. These are the folks in the horticulture trade who are our target customer. We do not do business with big box retailers, but choose to provide products and services to the smaller businesses in the ornamental trade. Part of the dilemma we face every year is finding means and ways to deliver these various products and services at an improved level.

It has been voiced many, many times by industry professionals and consultants that if the independent garden centers want to survive long term, they need to stay in touch with the needs of the new consumer who will populate garden centers... Generation X and Y. It seems to me that one could more easily communicate this group of buyers in society by calling them the 25 to 50 year old consumer. Now I know who he, or she, most likely is.

They will want to garden and will do it differently than mom or dad. They have little to no understanding of the demands of gardening, and it is up to the garden center to teach them. This is where I believe the independents have a leg up over the big boxes. Independents have the product knowledge and horticultural understanding to be much more competitive.

I truly want the smaller independent garden centers to survive, and I do believe they can compete. Therefore, this is where our readers can help. If you are a consumer or a garden center manager or owner, let us hear from you. As I had mentioned before, everything changes, so how does a company like Harris Seeds provide improved products and services to these independent garden centers to ensure long term profitability and staying power in the industry?

It is vital for a company like ours to understand the needs of our customer, the garden center, much like the garden center needs to understand the needs of its own customers. If you would like to share your thoughts and recommendations with me, responses are most welcome.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Lessons from the Garden

The gardening season nears the end here in Rochester, New York. In the Deep South, some gardeners are planting beans and other such things. But here, we begin the fall gardening ritual of putting it all to bed. Now is the time for us to empty the planters, yank out the annoying weeds that remain, and apply some organic fertilizer to garden areas for the spring that awaits us.

As every season closes, I like to leave the garden behind me, knowing that I am a bit wiser from the previous year. Here is what I have learned from my 2012 garden endeavors:
  • For my ornamental beds, I try to assess which annuals were most outstanding. Although my spreading petunias were excellent performers in planters and in the garden beds, I shall fondly recall my tuberous begonias as the champions of them all. I had started them in my basement (although it was not necessary) and transplanted them to one of my semi-shaded circular beds in late spring. They were absolutely breathtaking, with lush, large green foliage and extra large blooms in assorted colors. There will be more next season.
  • I had four tomato plants in my vegetable raised beds, and unfortunately, two of them turned out to be grape tomatoes. I had prolific yields of these tasty little guys, more than two people could consume. My thinking is that one grape tomato plant is enough. Solution: start 6 plants in your basement, and sell 5 to your neighbors!
  • Swiss chard is a gardener's loyal companion. I planted a 6 ft. row and harvested it three times, as it grows back time and time again. I am not done yet.
  • I am a very big fan of fresh picked beans from the garden. I had a couple plantings of Crockett beans, and I enjoyed them immensely. The slender, dark green pods were absolutely delicious.
  • If the New York Times is correct in their weather predictions for the next ten years, we'll be facing extended drought conditions around the country for some time to come. As water is essential to any successful garden and is scarce in parts of the USA, now is the time to consider drip irrigation systems. They allow you to conserve water by targeting only the roots of your plants and irrigating at the best times of day. We hope to have some new watering systems available this winter for use in spring 2013. My garden will be set up completely on an automatic watering system that will save me time and water.
  • Mulches are a great way to help maintain adequate moisture levels in your garden beds. I till and fertilize the soil, spread garden mulch, and leave openings for transplants. Mulches also improve weed control.
  • Planters need watering and fertilization on a weekly basis. Water alone will not produce the lush plants you hope for, as it will quickly leach out any fertilizer you have applied before. A weekly feeding is necessary.
There you have it. Now let's hope I can apply what I have learned to next season's garden.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Letting my hair down…

It clearly seems to me that everyone is just a little too uptight these days. Although we take business very seriously, and we do our very best to make it better, we often take time here at Harris Seeds to have a laugh or two. I have had my share over the years I have spent with Harris Seeds. I remember nailing Bonnie’s blinds to the windowsill. Oh, how she struggled that morning. Then there was the time I ground up some fiery hot peppers in the coffee grinder and it drove the marketing department out the door for hours. There are many more that I cannot share, but my point is this: do not go through life without a laugh or two. It is good for the soul and good for those that work for you.

Our company is owned by a kind and generous man, and he expects savvy business practices from the team here at Harris Seeds, and we do not let him down. I am very proud with the things that we have accomplished, but I can guarantee that we have had fun along the way. Laughter can bring one out of a sullen mood, and all of a sudden, the world around you seems to brighten.

Today, we were in the greenhouse taking cut flower supply photos. Michael Wells, our in-house sales specialist for New York and Pennsylvania, and I had the opportunity to don some new head gear. Photos included. It is good to have a sense of humor and make fun of yourself once in a while... it builds character, I think. Some may call me an old fool, but I am a happy old fool. Michael is a young fool then, I guess.


Thursday, April 5, 2012

California Dreamin’…

Our Ornamentals Manager, Vicky Rupley, and I recently returned from the California Pack Trials. You may have been reading Vicky’s Ornamentals blog about this yearly event that brings breeders and propagators together, up and down the West Coast of California. Breeders show off their plant wares, while growers and suppliers take a first look at the season’s soon-to-be trends.

Much like in the vegetable seed business, there has been quite a bit of consolidation in the ornamental marketplace. Big companies purchase smaller companies, so the pool of smaller independent breeding companies shrinks each year. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as big companies have bigger budgets and more financial resources, and it takes this kind of revenue to bring quality products to growers and consumers.

What is so special about this trip is that we get to see just about every new ornamental seed and cutting variety the world’s breeders have to offer. The plant material is grown by the best propagators in America, and it is all in full bloom at the time of our arrival. It is hard to imagine that anyone would not be awestruck by these exciting, colorful displays of plant material.

Ornamental growers today have access to just about all of this material via our Ornamental Seed Catalog and our Plug & Liner Catalog. For customers who would appreciate guidance in selecting the new material that fits their needs, we have ornamental seed and plug and liner specialists in-house to field questions year round.

We have been hearing that garden center activity in the South is shaping up nicely, and we think that trend will carry through into the North. Although growers seem to have been somewhat conservative with their purchases this season, I foresee many garden centers selling out of product this spring, and that would be a good thing.

As the stock market continues on the upswing, consumers will have money to spend. Let us hear from you about how your business is doing.

Best regards,
Dick Chamberlin - President

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Farewell, Mr. Vermont...

There are days when I can get a little melancholy, but I guess I should not have to apologize for that. You see, we have had this customer from Vermont for many, many years. For the sake of his privacy, I will call him Mr. Vermont. We‘ve got to know him pretty well over the long haul, and he’s been a wonderful man to deal with. All of the ladies in Customer Care know him by his first name, and I have spoken with him many times as well.

Well, it seems that Mr. Vermont no longer can farm, and he has been relegated to the nursing home. His wife informed us by phone this morning that he probably will not be able to leave. What a sad day it is when men like this, the true salt of the earth, have to lay down their shovels and give up the one thing that has meant the most to them… farming.

I say to Mr. Vermont... God Bless you, and to all of the other good men in our country like Mr. Vermont. Farmers are good folks and they do good things for our society. This agricultural community we are blessed to work within has brought many good people to my door. I have gotten to know many of these folks on a personal level, and when the time comes for me to lay down my shovel, I will truly be sad.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Tunnel talk today

If any of you folks out there are somehow connected to agriculture, then it is probably likely you have read or heard about high tunnels. They seem to be the rage these days, and given their value, it is unlikely they will disappear any time soon. Growers across the country are realizing that high tunnels are just what the doctor ordered for growing many vegetable crops, cut flowers and even small fruit.

High Tunnel Interior
High tunnels become a grower’s insurance policy against high winds and storms, insect infestations and countless plant diseases that can decimate field crops. Inside the high tunnel you will find a controlled environment, much like any greenhouse, except for the fact that the high tunnel is not heated. In addition to protecting plants form Mother Nature’s wrath, it also serves as a season extender, and this is probably where the greater value lies. Growers can harvest crops earlier in the spring and later in the fall, when produce prices tend to be much higher.

There are several types of high tunnels available in the marketplace. You will find high tunnel ads in most agricultural magazines, or look them up on the web. Most growers we know tend to be quite innovative, so designing and building your own high tunnel is a fairly simple task. The important element to remember is to be assured that your high tunnel is easily moved from one location to the next every couple of years in order to practice crop rotation. The Harris Seeds Company lists several models in our High Tunnel brochure... just ask for one – it’s free!

Home gardeners can practice this “season extender” technique with the use of garden tunnels. Hoops are made from heavy gauge wire and inserted in the ground every four to five feet. The height of the tunnel depends on the crop you are growing. For early tomatoes, the hoop tunnel would have to be 4 to 5 feet high. Tunnels for peppers would be much lower. One can walk inside a grower’s high tunnel to tend to his plants, but the garden rendition should allow the sides to be rolled up for easy access to the plants.

Live and learn... experimenting is the key to success. The more experience a professional grower or home gardener has with high or low tunnels will ultimately lead to greater growing success.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

That one bad apple… or melon

There is a melon crisis going on in this country, and it has hurt too many very good grower-shippers. Needless to say, the real tragedy was the loss of 29 lives to Listeria poisoning, all due to the harvesting practices of just one farm. Every produce farm - whether a big grower-shipper or a smaller, local fresh market grower - has to be very conscientious of food handling techniques. This is new to the marketplace, but rather has been an industry concern for quite some time. Quite frankly, food safety hazards can develop right in your own back yard garden.

My beef is this. One guy makes a mistake, and the entire industry takes a huge hit in prosperity due to the media coverage. This time melons were the problem, but with just one farm. One bad apple – or melon - does not necessarily ruin the whole barrel, unless you do not take it out.

But, in Florida a year or so ago, the media was spreading rumors of tainted tomato crops, when the culprit was a pepper. There was a huge loss of income for Florida tomato growers, and it was due to no fault of their own. The media did not have their facts straight.

I have a good friend in South Texas who is one of the top 5 melon growers in the USA. He’s an excellent grower who does an outstanding job of preparing produce for wholesale markets. His melon business is now in the tank because US consumers now believe that melons are dangerous. Who will be on the media’s hit list next?

The fact that poorly-handled produce can make you sick is a viable concern. Good growers with exemplary handling food techniques are able to mitigate food safety risks, and they continue to provide top quality, healthy food for the consumer.

Growers in New York have a couple of good ways to respond to consumer concerns, I believe. First, Cornell Cooperative Extension – like many other State University Extensions – offers extensive resources on growing and post-harvest practices that maximize food safety. Growers can use these Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs) to self-audit their operations, even if they don’t decide to pursue GAP certification.

Second, the New York Farmers’ Market Federation recently pulled together a consortium of growers and industry professionals to address food safety at market. They came up with a proactive series of guidelines for handling produce at Farmers’ Markets, CSA pickup sites, Farm Stands, U-Pick Operations, and more. To view these recommendations, click here.

Makes sense…doesn’t it! It’s much better to be pro-active than re-active, like the melon farm in Colorado. A lot of good growers will suffer because of this melon scare, but they can also use the opportunity to improve their own practices…and let their customers know it!