Hosts: Shiloh Avery and Jason Roehrig
Location: 841 Sand Ridge, Millers Creek, NC 28651
Description: Shiloh Avery and Jason Roehrig grow certified organic produce for two farmers' markets, the High Country CSA, area restaurants, and their own farm CSA. Growing since 2003, they settled in Wilkes County after several years leasing land in different parts of North Carolina. Tumbling Shoals views organic farming as a whole system approach to producing food. They consider the effect of their farming practices on the land, the food, the local community and the wider environment (including Tumbling Shoals Creek!). At Tumbling Shoals Farm, Shiloh and Jason focus on building healthy soils for healthy plants, encouraging biodiversity on the farm, natural plant nutrition, natural pest management through crop rotation, diversity and natural pest enemies. Join us to learn more about how Tumbling Shoals moves produce from the field to the market, reaching different customers. This workshop will include a postharvest handling demonstration and farm tour.
When Shiloh Avery and Jason Roehrig started out farming, they began on a ½ acre of rented land. Everything was portable. They both became full-time farmers in 2010, along with the addition of 2 employees. Many of their systems come from their mentors (like their tomato trellising). However, other systems have come from books and online or from meeting other farmers at the farmers’ market and conferences.
Over the last decade, their systems have evolved and rely heavily on their record keeping. Tumbling Shoals has notes about each farmers’ market for the last 7-8 years, how they did and whether or not it rained. This orients their production planning and harvest schedule. They have a good idea of how much money will be at each market on a given day, which translates into how much labor is needed to meet that demand.
This year, Tumbling Shoals sold at the Watauga County Farmers’ Market and the Hickory Farmers’ Market (Wednesday and Saturday), composing roughly 40% of their market. Their 87 person CSA composed 25-30%, and the High Country CSA and restaurant sales composed the rest. Restaurant sales have been different this year for Tumbling Shoals, with changes from their regulars. But, these restaurant sales push them to find the extra $100 in their fields that might not have otherwise been picked.
Everything that is picked comes into the packing shed. What happens next depends upon the crop. In the spring, when there are greens, everything gets washed. In the summer, there is less washing, but everything still comes into the packing shed.
Harvest days occur 2 days a week in the spring, moving to 3 to 4 days a week in the summer. The schedule changes depending upon what might wilt.
Jason usually begins the cleaning and packing process by himself. As the team finishes picking for the day, they will set up cleaning stations.
Starting the Cold Chain: The key is to get and keep your produce cool, they said, to get it into the cooler and to start the cold chain. For instance with Kale: 12 bunch boxes are packed in the field. A gator takes the boxes to the shed to move the produce as fast as possible. A ¼ or ½ inch is then taken off the stem, and the stems are placed in 55 degree water to hydrocool. Tumbling Shoals tries to cut greens early in the day and stick the produce into sinks. Ice is never used, just warm water to hydrate the plant. The produce stays in the sink longer if it’s been cut later in the day. If you don’t hydrate the greens, it will not stay as fresh and crisp, they said.
Little greens, baby lettuce mix are put into a 5 gallon plastic salad spinner and then sponge dried. Broccoli gets submerged to release any caterpillars.
Packing Shed Evolution: The Tumbling Shoals packing shed has evolved from an open storage shed built by the previous owner. For instance, there is a small concrete wall that they cut to make walking between the cleaning area and the coolers easier. It still adds time to move from one space to the other. The added steps that this wall creates adds up over time. “At one point the packing shed was built out with anything that we could find,” they said, “Now we look for efficiency.”
Their sinks are bathtubs, which are really easy to clean and cheap (~$5). Water hoses hang down, making the hose easier to handle. A magnetic knife board allows knives to be kept at hand. This has been revolutionary, they said. Some types of knives are labeled with numbers, so that they know if one is missing. This idea came from The Lean Farm by Ben Hartman. It can be hard to remember where you put something if it doesn’t have a label.
During the growing season, wax boxes are held above the packing counters. Tumbling Shoals plans to add more shelf space like this because unused vertical space is wasted space. Think of space as real estate, valuable, they said, something could be occupying space that you could better use for something else.
When cleaning produce, like beets or carrots, Tumbling Shoals spreads out tarps on the floor and sets up tables with trash bins nearby. The tarps and trash bins keep their gravel floor from getting messy and the tables occupy a flex space.
Jason and Shiloh said that many of the farmers that they know, who have been farming around 10 years, are rebuilding their packing sheds with cement slabs and drainage. Their packing shed has also evolved over time, and they hope to eventually enclose the area and maybe add a conveyor belt for their CSA packing.
TIP: Take off the CSA box label from the previous week. A Tumbling Shoals CSA box has:
Coolers: Tumbling Shoals has 2 coolers, a 8x10 and a 6x8 for tomatoes, peppers, and winter squash. The larger cooler came from another farm and had a bad compressor. They thought about getting a cool-bot for it, but went with getting a new compressor. It keeps greens at 33 degrees in the spring, so that they won’t freeze. In the summer, the temperature is changed to 40 degrees for summer squash, okra, and melons. The smaller cooler uses an air conditioning unit that is placed at 64 degrees for the tomatoes, peppers, and winter squash.
Coolers are dehydrating, so Tumbling Shoals wraps their boxes in trash bags. This can be annoying; they’re looking for other options. Some apple growers in the area have humidifiers and some people place buckets of water in their coolers.
For both coolers, Tumbling Shoals purchased metal shelving last year. Expensive, but adds space and preserves the wax boxes. They can now use the full height of the cooler, stacking 6-8 boxes high.
Potato Storage: When the coolers are too full, potatoes go on pallets under the packing shed. Sticky pest traps are placed under the pallets.
Communication Boards: Everything that goes into the cooler gets written down on large dry-erase boards. At the end of the day, Tumbling Shoals takes a photo of the board, and the information goes into an Access database for their winter record keeping work. The Tumbling Shoals team has a refrain: “It’s in the cooler, on the board.” The board is their only yield record. This also helps them meet their organic certifier’s food safety standards, showing a link from the field to the market.
Training Employees: Because the Tumbling Shoals system is specific and unique to their farm, they orient their new employees through an orientation walk-around. They also talk frequently about how little tasks fit into the big picture. There are a lot of systems, so there are a lot of reminders. Recently, they have begun printing out pick lists and giving the pick lists to each employee. This has been helpful, especially in the spring, because not everything is picked on harvest day.
For their apprentices, they share written expectations, like when/how the employee will get paid and the living rules on the farm.
Hoop Houses: Tumbling Shoals rotates their hoop houses each year with 2 for strawberries, 2 for spring crops, and 2 for tomatoes. Some also hold fall crops. A tractor and cover crops are used in the hoop houses. And, they are looking for ways to improve their hoop houses. For instance, they saw a hoop house in Pennsylvania that rolls up its rectangular ends, similar to how Tumbling Shoals rolls up their hoop houses’ sides. This would make it easier for the tractor. They have also used tarps to prep one of their houses this season, based on the Market Gardener. To keep salt down in their hoop house, every 3 years, the plastic is taken off for a winter and replaced. When asked about how they feel about plastic, they said that it’s complicated. “If you can’t make a living doing it, it’s not sustainable.” They also don’t throw away their hoop house plastic, finding other uses for it on the farm. Another future improvement to their hoop houses is thinking of ways to better ventilate the top. Instead of a small rectangular square, removing the whole upper triangle of the hoop house.
Shiloh and Jason said that they’re cover crop farmers. They get compost from their cover crops, composting in place.
Crop blocks are set up in 90’ x 100’ units. 13 of these allow for a 13 year cycle for pests, weeds. Herb beds are placed in awkward spaces on the farm that don’t allow for a unit.
Haygroves: Tomatoes, not grown in their hoop houses, are grown in a multi-bay haygrove structure. This limits blight and improves production. After installing their first set in 2011, they saw a yield 5 times the previous year, on fewer rows. For pest management, they still use oxidate/serenade, but haven’t used copper since 2013.
Paying for Infrastructure: Tumbling Shoals’s 2 new hoop houses and the haygrove were purchased with a loan. They see this as an investment, which they’re careful about, but would rather farm for a living, not save up to farm for retirement.