Ray Tyler Lettuce Series 04 – Protected Growing – Growing Under Cover

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Episode Summary

The Ray Tyler Lettuce Series is a new podcast mini-series hosted by Diego Footer and farmer Ray Tyler to take a deep dive into the technicalities of growing lettuce—from why lettuce is a farm staple to how to master growing the crop consistently to how to effectively market lettuce to maximize profits.

In this episode of The Lettuce Series, Ray and Diego talk about growing lettuce under cover. Ray shares his experience with his first protected growing infrastructure, as well as the benefits of protected growing and the difference in the quality of produce between growing under cover and growing out in the open.


This Episode’s Guest: Ray Tyler

Ray Tyler is the farmer and owner of Rosecreek Farms, a financially successful one-acre market garden nestled in Tennessee. Ray Tyler is also an educator who has helped many farms become more profitable through his coaching services. He also offers his services in the form of his three courses: The Living Farm Course, Caterpillar Tunnel Success, and of course, his Lettuce Masterclass.


Relevant Links

            The Farmer’s Guide To Growing Organic Lettuce by Ray Tyler

            Ray Tyler’s Lettuce Masterclass

            Paperpot Co.’s Kwik Hoops


In this episode of The Lettuce Series

      • Diego introduces the episode series on protected growing or growing under cover (00:42)
      • Grow lettuce under cover (01:48)
      • Growing lettuce unprotected in the field vs. growing lettuce under cover (02:59)
      • Why lettuce yields are better when growing under cover (04:12)
      • Are low tunnels worth the investment? (06:30)
        • Closing the growing gap with row covers (09:06)
      • Ray Tyler’s experience with caterpillar tunnels (13:09)
      • Growing lettuce in a caterpillar tunnel vs. growing lettuce in a high tunnel (18:36)
      • Extending the production window with under cover growing (20:14)
      • The aspects of growing that are force multipliers (23:37)


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Ray Tyler Lettuce Series - Episode 4 - Protected Growing - Growing Under Cover

[00:00:00] Diego Footer: Welcome to Farm Small Farm Smart. I'm your host, Diego, DIEGO. It's episode number four in the Lettuce Grower Series. This series is a deep dive into growing one crop really well: Lettuce. Our goal is to have you come out the other end of this series having a better understanding so you can be on your way to mastering lettuce growing.

[00:00:27] Why lettuce? It's a profitable crop. It's relatively easy to grow once you figure it out, which the series hopefully helps you do, and it's an easy crop to sell, making it the ideal cash flow crop for a small farm. In episode four, we're going deep on protected growing or growing undercover: what are the benefits and why you should consider covering that lettuce up. Ray's gonna discuss a variety of ways to protect your lettuce from the elements and the advantages of doing it.

[00:01:00] Ray's somebody who's had a lot of success growing lettuce over the years and growing that lettuce under some sort of cover has really helped his farm succeed. To help market gardeners maximize their farm's lettuce potential, Ray wrote the book, the Farmer's Guide to Growing Organic Lettuce.

[00:01:19] Ray�s someone who struggled with lettuce for years, but he went on to master it. In this series and in his book, he'll give you the opportunity to learn from his mistakes. He's someone who understands what you're going through, and he wants to help. You can learn more directly from Ray in his book, the Farmer's Guide to Growing Organic Lettuce, using the link below.

[00:01:41] And if you're more of a visual learner, you can sign up for Ray's Lettuce Masterclass using the link below. Since today's episode specifically relates to growing undercover, I want to introduce you to one of our newest products that we sell at Paperpot Co.: Kwik Hoop Low Tunnels. Kwik Hoops are ultra heavy duty low tunnels designed for the most extreme conditions.

[00:02:06] They come with a frame and a wire retainer. The wire retainer allows you to hold any agricultural fabric onto the frame quickly and easily. Insect net, shade cloth, plastic, frost blanket, all compatible with Kwik Hoops. If you've listened to any of my series with Jodi Roebuck, the Profitable Market Farm, you've heard Jodi talk about these hoops many times.

[00:02:33] They're manufactured in New Zealand by Red Path, and we're the only�and official�importer of Red Path Kwik Hoops in the United States. You can learn more about this quick and easy way to protect your crops, just like lettuce, from the elements using the link below. Let's jump right into it. Episode number four, protected growing, growing under cover.

[00:02:59] Today we're talking chapter four, protected growing. A lot of times when people start farming, they don't have a lot of money. They start with as least amount of infrastructure as possible. That means growing in open fields, exposed to the wind, rain, sun, hail, all the other climate factors that are out there.

[00:03:20] When you look at your career of growing lettuce, what have been the biggest difference is going from open field, meaning exposed to the elements, to undercover with your production?

[00:03:35] Ray Tyler: There's a lot, but I would say definitely the yield. There's a massive difference in yield from an open field and under cover.

[00:03:44] Also, disease and pest. The comparison between the two is so vast that it's almost laughable of like, why would I ever go back to growing out in an open field? And the only answer I have for that is because it just looks prettier.

[00:04:07] Diego Footer: In terms of yield. I like How much of a difference do you see?

[00:04:10] Ray Tyler: 50%.

[00:04:12] Diego Footer: Okay. So big. You're obviously doing a few things when under cover, right? Like you're protecting it from frost and cooling temperatures. You're holding in heat, so you have a microclimate, you're keeping rain off and snow on any of that, wind break, there's some pest exclusion depending on what type of cover you're using.

[00:04:29] What's the biggest factor you think that's affecting yield? Why does stuff just grow better under cover?

[00:04:37] Ray Tyler: I think the biggest reason is because there is a lot less extreme lows and highs in a high tunnel than there is in the open field. Our wind chill in December was negative 20, right. And our tunnels under row cover was between 30 and 40 degrees.

[00:05:01] That is a big factor in, wow, we're really controlling that. There's no wind in there. It was still. So we're talking plants here. We haven't even talked about what it's like for the people working in a tunnel versus working in the field. Like it's a big difference. So what we're doing is just, it's more of a mild, can be more of a mild climate in there. There's a lot less variables of extreme high and lows.

[00:05:33] Obviously, it can get hot in a tunnel if it's not ventilated quick, efficiently. It's not getting rain, heavy rains, so it's a lot more like we have mists in our tunnels. It's a very gentle mist, and so the rainfall is very gentle. We're watering only when the plants need it, where oftentimes in the open field, let's say if you get six hours of rain in a 24 hour time, and those roots don't have enough time to drain.

[00:06:08] That means it's locking out oxygen, and plants need oxygen. They need it to grow, and they need�microbes need oxygen. Like all those guys need oxygen to grow. That is what I found. Rain is a big one. Wind and just buffering those extreme highs and lows.

[00:06:30] Diego Footer: So there's a scale or a curve of season extension or covers that you can look at from wire hoops to form small, low tunnels that people can throw row cover over, insect cloth over, up through fully decked out high tunnels that have�they're automated with heating and cooling.

[00:06:55] If somebody's starting out without a lot of money, do you think�there's gonna be some investment here, so we're talking like relative investments. Is it worth the small cost to invest in low hoops or low tunnels?

[00:07:03] You're not walking over, they're just spanning a single bed or double bed made from wire, bent wire. Some people make them out of conduit, those types of things. So poly low tunnels is like Curtis would call 'em. Is it worth that investment? Are you gonna see enough bump from that versus open field in year one? So lower costs, but you're getting some production.

[00:07:35] Ray Tyler: 100%. Yes, absolutely. Before we had money to invest in cat tunnels and high tunnels, what we did is we started our lettuce transplants in January, and we plant them in the open field sometime in early February and�

[00:07:57] We still get our nights at teens and twenties occasionally. It wouldn't stay like that, like we're not Maine or Wisconsin. But what that did is we kept the row cover on. It was getting very warm during the day, and it was also helping diffuse the really heavy rains. It was still locking out oxygen if you get like a downpour, but it was just diffusing the hail.

[00:08:25] So we just saw, if we would plant lettuce out in the field, open field with these little quick hoops or wire hoops, row cover over that, leave it on there, we could peel it back a month later, and those lettuces were almost ready for harvest. It's pretty phenomenal. And if you're in the open field, it would've been, it'd been rough.

[00:08:47] Like most of the time when we have open field lettuce, because we get so much hail in March, like it's just decimated. It's really tough to pull it off consistently. And so, we did the same thing in the fall. So again, like what I try to do, because we start off with no money, is each year, I was trying to close this growing gap, right?

[00:09:11] It was usually in June, in October when we had no lettuce for sale �cause it was so hot. And then usually in November to early part of April. So those were our two big growing gaps that we are always trying to close. It was just too cold to grow in the wintertime. Too hot to grow in the summer. So using row cover helped us close that winter gap where we were able�

[00:09:46] I think there was essentially like two and a half, three months max that we did not have lettuce in the wintertime. So we didn't have lettuce in January and February and the first half of March. But by doing open field with these row covers, it really helped us make several extra thousand dollars through that wintertime.

[00:10:11] That really helped us a lot. So that's, again, like what I've said before, this is not a all or nothing. Like I have a high tunnel fully decked out, bells and whistles, but that's $30,000. There's no way I could have done that, but I could afford $250 in row cover at the end of my first growing season. I took that profit.

[00:10:39] This is why it's so important that you are profitable because they're always doing�you're always investing your profits to grow healthier crops more consistently and with less energy. So this was a great way for us to do this. And then we upgraded to cat tunnels. That was a massive month. Like now you can walk in them.

[00:11:01] It was great. And then of course, high tunnels is the ultimate kind of end goal for all this, just cuz it's fully automatic, all heated, rollup sides. Just very nice. Nice to have.

[00:11:16] Diego Footer: Sorry to interrupt your episode, but it's a word from our sponsor. Paperpot Co. Say goodbye to sandbags forever with Kwik Hoops, let's face it, poly low tunnels, in general, are a pain in the butt.

[00:11:31] They're hard to set up. They require several people to set up, and you need all sorts of equipment like ropes and sandbags to secure the fabric. And even then, a strong wind comes by and often takes the fabric away with the wind. Well, you can say goodbye to all that hassle forever because Kwik Hoops solve that problem.

[00:11:53] They've been used in New Zealand by farmers for over the past 20 years, and they allow one person�just one person�to set up an entire bed, including hoops and fabrics in about 10 minutes by themselves, no sandbags or ropes required. So everything you hated about poly low tunnels in the past, whether they were made from PVC or EMT, all those negatives are gone with Kwik Hoops.

[00:12:24] These have been tested in some of the windiest locations in New Zealand, being exposed to 70 plus mile per hour winds. They're made from high tensile steel, and they should last you a decade or more. That's not an estimate. That's how long some of these systems have lasted in New Zealand where they're actually made.

[00:12:47] Be aware of cheap imitations. Get the strongest, most innovative, efficient, time-saving poly low tunnel on the market. Kwik Hoops available at paperpot.co or using the link below. Check 'em out and then get back into this episode on lettuce with Ray Tyler.

[00:13:09] The nice thing about a lot of the suppliers out there now is you can baby step into this. There's a lot of options. There's way more options for cover now than there was 10 years ago. So you can start with Kwik Hoops. You can then move up to a cat tunnel. And then I think you'll always be using cat tunnels, but then you could eventually go to a high tunnel.

[00:13:31] So upgrading over time and moving up, I think cat tunnels are the first big step a lot of farms take�you look at somebody like Elliot Seldner, he's just got a ton of cat tunnels all over and that's not his first step, but also his end step in one. That's his system for what he's doing.

[00:13:51] And they're relatively inexpensive and his approach has always been, Hey, if I can pay for this piece of infrastructure in a season when I'm growing in it, it makes sense. A lot of these structures while they're, I'm not gonna say $3,000, is cheap, but in the grand scheme of things, for the amount of product you can grow on those beds, it's cheap.

[00:14:12] It's cheap at the end of the day. Cat tunnels, you can walk under 'em. You can cover multiple beds at one time. What is your experience with those? Would that be, if you could start there or is that where you'd start?

[00:14:28] Ray Tyler: Yes, and I would say there's actually two steps to this. So what we did, so in 2015 was when we nailed our 52 week a year lettuce sales production, meaning I've had lettuce since 2015 every single week of the year since.

[00:14:47] So once we dialed that in, the next year, I got my first a hundred pound a week lettuce contract with a restaurant, but I had no way of doing that with just row cover in the open field. But I didn't have enough money in cash at the time �cause it all happened so fast. I didn't save money for this project.

[00:15:12] So what ended up happening is I figured, okay, I needed seven cat tunnels to make sure that I never missed a week and to invest in early production for this grower. So I found, at that time, Craigslist was the big place to buy things. I found this tubing that was just cheap, like a dollar a piece.

[00:15:35] And so me and my wife, we bent and put together our own seven first cat tunnels. They cost us about $350 each total. I bought some used plastic from a farmer who's going outta business. Like, we bootstrapped. So basically, we built seven of these tunnels for about three, $4,000 or so. And so where I think at the time, a cat tunnel was around two grand, I think?

[00:16:05] So it was like that would be easier and faster, but at the time, it was the wintertime, so we had more time, but we didn't have the money, so we did that. I don't recommend doing that, but it's definitely a more cost of effective way to do it. Building these tunnels is a lot of work, so that really helped us, and we nailed, like 2016, we nailed every week, a hundred pounds of salad mix through the winner.

[00:16:31] So that was a real, like, we made cash flow, that was $8 a pound, so all of a sudden, that investment, it helped us hire our first full-time employee in 2016. But that was only possible with those cat tunnels. I don't�our climate, there's no way that we could pull that off �cause yeah, there's not enough stable months for us to grow in the field during the wintertime with just like wire quick hoops.

[00:17:07] So that that was a big move. So it's one of these things where once you have it, your system down, it's okay, what do I need to do to increase production consistency? And for us, it was cat tunnels. Now I like to buy 'em and build them, except I am doing this new trial where I'm building this 18-foot-wide, pretty big tunnel.

[00:17:29] �Cause we wanna have a little bit more space on the two outside edge beds, which has not been fun for us to do. But yeah, that's been a big�that's been a big part of our success is controlling the things that we have a hard time controlling.

[00:17:49] Diego Footer: Yeah, I think that's well said �cause in a world that's variable with farming, where there's so much out of your control, the more you can standardize it, if that's the right word, the more predictable it becomes and the more you can analyze results and tweak based on it. It's really hard to tweak in, say, open field conditions where temperatures are varying much more widely. Where there's big rains, it's, did the rain affect that or was that soil fertility?

[00:18:22] If you take the whole rain out and we've standardized our watering, now we know our waterings at a consistent level, we can adjust that, but if we see negative effects, we can relate it to something else.

[00:18:36] For cat tunnels, most people, the ends aren't covered. They're just open. It's just, it's covering a few beds. There's no real climate adjustment. Do you see a big difference growing in a cat tunnel versus the bells and whistle high tunnel?

[00:18:49] Ray Tyler: I don't see any difference at all. And this is why. So in 2020, that winter, we did a trial where we planted a bed. So I did this trial. I wanted to see if we heated a high tunnel, climate control to 50 degrees. Good, we shaved off a few weeks in our DTM.

[00:19:11] Now, I planted this in a bed that had low fertility. I knew it. It was on this edge bed. We had rebuilt it. We never�we didn't do a soil test or amended the soil, so I knew that it wasn't the greatest fertility, but it was still gonna be good. And so, we planted a bed there in the high tunnel, had heat, climate controlled, automatic ventilation.

[00:19:30] And then we planted a bed of lettuce in a cat tunnel. They had row cover, but there was no heat. Same day, same week, I think. Yeah. No, it was the same day. So we were tracking both. We had cat tunnel, like supercharged fertility, like on point, dialed in, and I think that was ready for harvest two weeks earlier.

[00:19:53] So in that trial, that showed us that soil fertility trumps climate, if that makes sense. Yeah. So for us it was really, hey, that soil was really healthy. It's gonna grow really good. It just needs to be protected from the elements.

[00:20:14] Diego Footer: I think these are all investments. And people need to think about where is my production and what can cover do, can it help me improve production or get more production to a higher yield during the seasons which I do grow?

[00:20:33] And/or can it help me extend my production window? Like you talked about, closing that gap because where cover really pays off is in that season extension. A lot of farms are not�I mean, not necessarily in the market farm.

[00:20:49] A lot of market farmers focus on it, but farms that market farmers compete against aren't always focused on season extension. So if you can have some of these crops like lettuce when other farmers don't, your product's just that much more in demand. It's a premium price. It keeps that person being a customer just that much longer.

[00:21:10] So one other huge benefit beyond just better infield growth, higher yield is closing that gap, like you said, getting season extension to get sales when you otherwise would not, because if year one, you sold for six months and made x, now if you can sell for nine months, assuming nothing went crazy, you're making more than X, right?

[00:21:31] Ray Tyler: That's right. That's what we've been doing ever since year one. It's we're trying to close gaps and consistent, high-quality produce for everything across the board. And we're trying to do this in a 40-hour production work week. So that's the other challenge that we have going for us. So oftentimes, when you see infrastructure on a farm, it's, maybe it's not �cause we want more production, maybe it's because it's saved us a lot of time.

[00:22:02] And back to that, one of things that tunnels give is that when we were open in the field, we were controlled by the weather. If it was raining, we couldn't plant, we couldn't turn over a bed, right? If it was pouring down rain, and we were harvesting certain kind of greens, uh, say arugula with the greens harvester there, there's no harvesting arugula in the rain with the greens harvester, that's not gonna happen.

[00:22:26] It's impossible. That tool will not work in the rain. So once we went to tunnels, not only were we getting higher yield and better looking produce, our team was a lot more comfortable, and we were never missing a planting or harvest day due to weather. So we took that problem that was out of our control, we took control of that 100%.

[00:22:55] And that was a massive move. That's why like when we cover the whole farm, the fall of 2019, the next year, I think our farm gross went up $150,000 the next year, and we took away 25 beds, so we grew on less land, but because we had control of when we were planting, when we were harvesting, and how much we were watering, just those three areas that we could not�that we now have full control over, we saw a massive increase over time of just more cash flow.

[00:23:37] Diego Footer: Yeah. Force multiplier, if you look at some things we've hit on the series so far, potting soil, fertility, cover, they're force multipliers. They're going to enable you to get better and more relative to the inputs in.

[00:23:52] Ray Tyler: And we're seeing things, you know, we're get it done now that we've been doing the last two years practices that I'm like, yeah, this is why I see a one-acre farm under cover grossing an easy million dollars a year because all these little things, when you multiply it across tunnels and sales, it's just every one of these small things that seem small to a grower, but they have multiple increases of production sales.

[00:24:24] I always tell my team, we die�it�s the death of a thousand cuts, and we're trying to heal and solve every one of those cuts. It's the little things that, like a lot of my team members, they'll be like, why are we focusing on this? Because if you solved this one problem that happens every single week on every tunnel, this is why you guys will all get pay raises and the farm will do much, much better at the end of the season.

[00:24:52] Diego Footer: And it's a lot easier to protect all those cuts that you're dying from out of the rain under cover, and also better for the employees to work in, like you said, so.

[00:25:01] Ray Tyler: And there's a lot of them. There's so many of them. Yep.

[00:25:04] Diego Footer: So protected growing. That's chapter four in your book. For people that wanna learn more, they can check out that book using the link below.

[00:25:16] There you have it, episode number four, growing under cover. Thanks for listening. If you enjoyed this episode, and you wanna learn more from Ray, there's two ways you can do that.

[00:25:26] Through his book, The Farmer's Guide to Growing Organic Lettuce and Ray's Masterclass, which is a video online learning course focusing on lettuce. Below, you'll find a way to purchase the book and sign up for the class, so check out that link.

[00:25:42] If you're looking for a way to get your lettuce out of the frost, the rain, the wind, and just get it under cover so it can grow better, consider checking out our brand new product, Kwik Hoops available at Paperpot.co. More on Kwik Hoops using the link below.

[00:26:00] Thanks for listening to this episode. I hope you enjoyed it, but more importantly, I hope you can use this information to make a major impact on your farm business and your life. We'll be back with another episode next week.

[00:26:12] Until then, thanks for listening. Be nice, be thankful, and do the work.

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