Next up on our summer greens series, we’re heading out west to Queen Creek, Arizona, to talk with Erich Schultz of Steadfast Farm.
Erich successfully grows greens in 100+ degree temperatures.
Anyone Else Growing?
Pretty much everyone else in Erich’s climate has completely abandoned growing greens in the summertime—and it has been that way since he started.
That’s actually the reason he avoided planting greens in the summer: the mentality of “no one’s doing it, so that means it doesn’t work.”
But when he decided to try it out himself, it turned out to be very doable. Today he’s growing 300 to 400 pounds of lettuce and salad greens weekly.
Growing Greens in the Arizona Heat
Arizona’s monsoon season, which brings afternoon storms, happens in July. During that time it can reach 114 degrees, and it barely even cools down at night. At times it does get down to the mid-80s, but by the end of July, the temperature rarely drops below 90 degrees.
Steadfast Farm approached the problem by first asking how plants go through their lifecycles and what triggers bolting. They already knew that temperatures can change the vegetable flavor and that the amount of water can play a part in triggering bolting.
So they decided to focus on two things: creating a comfortable microclimate and increasing irrigation. Erich says he owes their farm’s success to shade cloth and watering.
They also research which varieties work best in their conditions. Choosing proper varieties has helped boost their production. That said, they still grow the not-so-heat-tolerant Salanova, and they haven’t had any problems with tip burns and bitterness. They get fewer cuts than in the cooler months—just two or three instead of the winter’s usual four to six.
Bed Set Up
Steadfast Farm bases its summer greens on a two-bed system. They apply biodegradable plastic mulch over the beds; that makes it easier than weeding the beds when the low tunnels are up. They install white-on-black bio-mulch over the beds with the white side up to help reflect some light.
In between the beds, they run a micro-sprinkler line to water both beds. When that’s done, the beds are ready to be transplanted into.
The crew irrigates the beds to make sure the ground is nice and moist when they start transplanting. They transplant at the very end of the day to leverage the cooler temperature.
Varieties that Perform Well in the Arizona Heat
Apart from the Salanova that gives Erich a few decent cuts, the varieties that have performed really well are the Batavian types of lettuce like Cherokee and Muir. Tropicana and New Red Fire also do well for them, along with romaine types like Coastal Star and Salvia.
And while they have a bit of a hard time growing butterhead and little gems, they still grow these together with Newham—a variety that has performed well in their climate.
Microclimates with Shade Cloth
Steadfast Farm keeps shade cloths on their beds at all times.
They install hoop-like structures with electrical conduit piping. The structures are flat at the top and go over two beds. They then install shade cloth over the hoops, leaving about a 1-foot gap at both ends to ensure good airflow. They also don’t run the cloth all the way to the ground on the sides, which means easier harvesting because all they need to do is reach under to get to the crops.
As a general rule, Erich employs 50 percent shade cloth over the cooler season crops like the salad greens. With such intense sunlight, they never have any issues with lack of light. On the other hand, they deploy the 30 percent variant over the more heat-loving crops like their tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants.
Erich isn’t sure just how much cooler the microclimate is under the shade cloth, but he guesses that there’s about a 20-degree drop in the temperature, especially with the help of the micro-sprinklers, which come on for about five to ten minutes four to six times daily. They’ve never had issues with rot since the water evaporates quickly. They also have no real pest problems.
The only moisture issue they have is on butterhead lettuce when the heads form tightly and the moisture can’t get out. This issue arises both in the winter and in the rainy season.
Like the first two farms we discussed, Steadfast Farm harvests their greens in the morning, tossing them straight into the cooler with the lids off to bring down the temperature. After cooling, they stand in the chiller to be washed the next day. When the greens are dry, they’re popped back into the chiller to sit until they’re sold the next day.
Being the only farm that grows salad greens in the summer, Erich can definitely charge a premium price on his crops … but he doesn’t. Despite having extra work and costs that go into growing greens in the summer, he keeps his prices the same because he feels like he’s still fine-tuning his farming techniques.
Erich says that until he has summer greens all figured out, he won’t be moving the pricing around too much. But once he’s satisfied with his practices, he plans on auditing his costs and seeing which price points are fair and reasonable.
Tip burn is the most annoying issue Erich has with summer greens. He also continues to experiment with spacing in the different seasons and the best ways to germinate seeds.
You can learn more about growing greens in the summertime by checking out our podcast with grower Erich Schultz here.
In the final post in this series on growing summer greens, we’ll chat with Ray Tyler of Rose Creek Farms in Tennessee.
And you can find all our market gardening podcasts at Farm Small, Farm Smart—the longest-running podcast on market gardening in the world.