There are as many ways to farm as there are farmers. While some farmers might focus on one aspect of farming, others focus on another. But ultimately, they grow and manage their crops in a way that is most optimal to them and their conditions.
Today, we’ll talk about building soil, compost, and creating the optimal conditions to grow tomatoes. Farmer Ben Hartman joins us on the episode today to walk us through it.
Today’s Guest: Ben Hartman
Ben Hartman is the owner of Clay Bottom Farm in Indiana. He authored The Lean Farm and The Lean Farm Guide to Growing Vegetables that talks about sustainable farming built from a sustainable system. He also offers several online classes including market growing masterclass on efficient organic urban farming.
In this episode of Farm Small, Farm Smart
- Minerals and building soil for optimum tomato growth (02:30)
- Planned course of action vs. adapting based on observations (12:45)
- Grafting and substitutes for grafting (14:00)
- Soil fertility program for tomato continuity (16:05)
- Planning the density of tomato growth (21:45)
- Utilizing post-tomato soil fertility for other crops (24:05)
- Advantage of fertigation on non-tomato crops (29:45)
- The approach to moving crops (30:25)
- Low-tillage system with paperpots (34:05)
- Seeding directly on compost in a no- or low-tillage system (37:20)
- The Lean Farm: How to Minimize Waste, Increase Efficiency, and Maximize Value and Profits with Less Work by Ben Hartman
- The Lean Farm Guide to Growing Vegetables by Ben Hartman
- Ben Hartman’s Lean Market Growing Masterclass
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Diego: [00:00:00] Today, it's all about building your soil in growing tomatoes with farmer
Ben Hartman of Clay Bottom farm. Welcome to farm small, farm smart. I'm your host Diego
DIEGO. Today's episode of farm small farm smart is brought to you by PaperPot Co.
That's the company that I run, this is a company that I started with the goal of helping you
make life easier on the farm. I realize how hard business is, and I realize you need to control
the controllables. You need to take things that could be easier and make them easier and
tools like the Paperpot transplanter, and the Jang seeder and nursery flats that are going to
last you forever make your life easier.
They don't replace work. They just make work faster, easier, and maybe even a little better.
You can learn more about everything that we're doing and all the tools that we do sell at
PaperPot Co. Thank you for your support.
Today's episode focuses and soil in tomatoes with Ben Hartman, farmer at Clay Bottom
I started this episode initially thinking it was going to be about soil. But it kind of started off
going straight towards tomatoes. So the first chunk of this episode is about growing
tomatoes or creating the optimum conditions for growing tomatoes. What you're going to
hear today is Ben's take on tomatoes.
It's a little bit different than Conor Crickmore's take on growing tomatoes, which you
might've heard in an episode a few weeks ago, but there's also a lot of overlap. And given
that tomatoes are a big cash crop for a lot of small farms, I think you're going to get a lot out
of this episode. And don't worry if tomatoes aren't really your thing. We eventually get on to
talking soil and building the optimum soil.
Today, it's tomatoes and soil with farmer Ben Harmon. Let's jump right into it.
Diego: [00:02:11] Ben, last episode, we talked about building soil from the ground up and
starting out your farm. Now that that soil has been built, it comes time to farm it.
When it comes time to farming, you look at the crops that you grow in two categories,
tomatoes and everything else. Let's start with tomatoes. When it comes to building good soil
for growing tomatoes. Where do you start?
Ben Hartman: [00:02:33] Uh, yeah, sure. I, and to be honest, the way I think of it is there's
two crops. There's the tomatoes. And then there's everything else because tomatoes are
highest profit margin crop itself, a bulk of our incomes come from those. And so we're more
particular with them and they're more particular nutritionally and then everything else is
pretty easy, relatively speaking.
And so I was thinking, I'd start by talking about how we do the tomato fertility program and
then moving everything else.
So the key with tomato production is understand the carts versus horses analogy. And so let
me explain that the horses would be things like phosphorus and nitrogen. That's your what's
your tomatoes definitely need but too much, 90 10 in particular, the plant will run away
Okay. Like a horse, I call those horses and those are� So that can be too much nitrogen in
particular can act like a horse that runs away with an empty cart. Okay. So you have to weigh
down that cart so the horse has something to work with. And you weigh down that cart by
adding the mineral calcium, potassium and other minerals to make sure that you don't have
a green bushy beautiful tomato, but a small number of fruit clusters, if that makes sense.
And so what we do is we'll prepare our soil the same as for every other crop. In their
greenhouse, we have added a couple inches of compost probably three inches, we've got
two separate applications. We're probably up to about three inches, total compost, over two
growing seasons at our new farm here in our tunnel.
And so we've got nice that compost. So we've kept it pretty well on the surface and it's a bit
incorporated, but it's mostly on the surface. And then what we'll do is transplant tomatoes
directly into that. Now the key nutritionally with tomatoes is to get them off to healthy. And
so we did, we spend the money and get Vermont compost for as our container mix.
So, we'll germinate the tomatoes and the Fort light, the Vermont of for light mix. It's an
easier mix to get cross germinated. And then we pot them up a couple of times. We'll pot
them up into 50 cells flat after a couple of weeks. And there everyone about four or five
weeks old, we'll put them up again into four-inch pot.
Okay. And so in the fifties self-plug flats and in a four inch pot raising the Vermont compost,
it has a wonderful rainbow mix of trace minerals. And it's very well balanced in terms of
carts and horses and I like that product. And if I were not using that product, I would be
using Neptune's fish emulsion on a weekly basis.
We make sure we're getting the balance of minerals that are needed for tomatoes. You just
can't skimp on that. Even at a young stage with tomatoes. Yeah, you do not want to skimp.
You'll have yellowing of the leaves. You'll have red coloration under the leaves and you'll
have a weak growth. You'll have weak stems.
And if you have plenty of minerals from the get-go, you got nice thick stems, good capillary
action. And those plants are seven weeks or eight weeks old. And then the rate for
transplanting are going to take off very quickly. Okay. So when we go, when we get to
actually transplanting the tomatoes. So orange pots with nice stocky plants, we're going to
put them in.
And then we are going to use a fertigation probe, but we are supplementing our own
compost. And Neptune�s harvest now has a two-part tomato program and I recommend you
go on their webpage and you can read about the two-part program essentially for the first
half of the season, when you're trying to encourage vegetative growth. They would have a
tomato blend that has a bit more nitrogen phosphorus in it, and maybe a little lighter on the
And then once you start seeing flowers, once flowers come, then we will switch. Or in
addition to the tomato, and that comes harvest product. We'll switch to their flowering
product, the fruit and flowering product, which will also run through the drip tape and we'll
use their recommended rates that they have.
And we use this simple hose on siphon mixer. It mixes at a rate of, I think, about 16 to one
16 parts or 16 parts water and one part fish emulsion and that's going to ensure that our
plants, when fruit starts setting have, plenty of minerals. And then the other thing we'll do
toward when, especially when fruits are coming on is supplement with potassium sulfate,
and there's no tomato grower.
You've been doing this for long. Uh, for several seasons, been in the game for several
seasons that I know of. Who's not adding some form of potassium for their tomatoes
because tomatoes just sucked potassium out of the ground at a tremendous pace. Okay. So
mostly we look at the plant to determine how much potassium sulfite, or perhaps other
minerals will need.
Last year, I added an amino acid blend that was high in calcium. Some other trace minerals,
too, based mostly on visual observation of how healthy the plant looks. I'll give you just two
things to look for. And there are, we could spend a whole hour on this, but two key things to
look for. If you see a lot of dark green, like John Deere, dark green and curling of the leaves.
Then your horses run away from your car. Your leaves are curling in on themselves. Uh, and
they're large and you don't see a lot of fruit clusters. Your nitrogen is too high. You need to
balance that out with minerals and you can, especially if it's not too late in the season by
mid-season, you can balance it and still get a lot of tomatoes off your plant.
Okay. And then the second thing that you can observe in tomatoes, is to look at the
shoulders of the tomatoes and you should see a tomato ripening up all the way in and
around the shoulders, all the way to the stem of the tomato fruit.
And if you see yellowing or orange and it's hard, it seems almost calcified around that
shoulder, then you're not getting ripening all the way to the middle of the fruit. You can also
slice that fruit in half. You should see it fully ripe everywhere in the interior of that fruit.
So if you're not getting full ripening, that's often a sign of mineral shortage. Often it's
potassium that you're low on. And so they�re blossoming right, there's a lot of things that
you're talking about, but those two are some key points of observation.
And then when the plan is about knee-high, so maybe two or three weeks after transplant
team, we're going to take a petiole sample. So we're going to pull some of the fresher leaves
off the plant and send them into the lab here in Indiana and that lab test will tell us even
more accurately than soil tests what that plant is sucking up from this soil.
So the soil test within this soil, we actually want to know what the plant is uptaking. Yeah,
retrieving from this soil and the petiole samples is the best way to do that and it is more
accurate. And so we'll definitely do want it knee-high we'll sometimes do one again in about
a month to give us more precise information on what we might be short on.
Okay. And then we'll put custom blends together based on the readings of those tests. We'll
keep Neptune�s harvest going throughout the season, but then we'll supplement it as
needed with other products, most of the mineral-based products that make sure we have
healthy plants that can take us late into the season.
I would definitely like to harvest certainly through the end of September and we can get
through the end of October. That's great. But to do that, you've got to have plenty of
nutrition throughout the season.
So one myth about tomatoes is that you can give one dose of fertility at the beginning when
you transplant and that's good enough, but actually they're like human. They like to eat on a
regular basis. And so a lighter, more consistent, more drawn out feedings is the way to go
Diego: [00:12:16] Do you approach each season with this mindset, having all this experience,
growing tomatoes and knowing like this is going to be the program?
Because I can say, well, you could take a soil test at the beginning of the season, and here's
what the analysis comes back with. And then you cater your program based upon that. But it
doesn't sound like you do that. It's just like, you know how the tomatoes are going to be,
and then you observe it and then you react based upon that past experience and then
current observations, not just relying on what a soil test says there is in the soil.
Ben Hartman: [00:12:50] I do have a specific program and that we plan to stick to. And my
online course goes in detail like week by week, how that all works. However, what we do is,
throughout the season constantly make adjustments because you never know what the
weather is going to throw out.
And we're going in a different mix of tomatoes all the time. Tomato varieties are all
different, and they all require� They all have different nutritional needs, unfortunately. So
that can be another challenge. The determinants in particular are, they're generally easier to
do, easier to grow than indeterminate and especially heirlooms.
It can be very hard to predict one heirloom tomato from the next what nutritional need it
will have. So we don't zone our tomatoes. They're all on one drip tape zone. We do the best
that we can with the varieties that we have. We'll grow about 10 different tomato varieties
in one greenhouse.
Diego: [00:13:51] I know one thing you don't do from talking to you in the past, and we'll see
in tomatoes in the greenhouse, is you don't graft your tomatoes, and from a lean
perspective, that's one less thing that you have to do.
Do you feel that a grower can substitute fertigation and good soil, or those could be a
substitute for grafting? You know, a lot of people are grafting for vigor or to try and balance
growth, or because they're growing tomatoes in one spot year after year, and they need a
disease package in the rootstock, but with a procedure in good soil, is that a substitute in
your mind for grafting?
Ben Hartman: [00:14:30] I would want to be clear. I had grafted several seasons. And I'm not
currently grafting. And the reason is as you mentioned, just to lean up, it's just one last thing
to do, save $700 on seed cost. And that time of year, when you need to be on top of your...
It's the time of year we're, you know, we're busy doing other stuff and my time on an hourly
wage based on my time was worth quite a bit that time of year.
And so, stop grasping really freed my time up to, to grow other crops that I feel that's made
up for it. And then if we have a yield problem, it's easier for me to just plant more tomatoes
from a labor point of view, than go through the grafting.
So that's what has worked for me. So the disease problems that we were having were not
problems that a graph would necessary take care of. Leaf mold for instance. And so a graft is
gonna help you with soil-borne diseases, but foliar diseases, the graph isn't as predictable in
a helpful way. And so I'm not opposed to grabbing if you have these problems that I graft
will alleviate by all means you should do it. However it's the same with any process. You
should do a process because it removes the type of waste and you don't do it because
everyone else has.
Diego: [00:16:01] You know, one other thing that comes up with tomatoes is rotation.
Moving them from a different area. I've seen your farm layout. You have basically a tomato
tunnel. It's set up to grow tomatoes amongst other things, but you know, like you said,
tomatoes is your most profitable crop.
Do you think that your soil fertility program, these additions of compost will allow you to
continue to grow tomatoes year after year in that same space?
Ben Hartman: [00:16:31] No. Tomato diseases build up over time. At my previous farm, I
had farmed tomatoes, continuously for nine growing seasons in the same location. And I'll
just tell you, anecdotally, and the university research backs this up.
You've got you get a couple of free seasons. However, eventually diseases catch up with you.
And especially after the thick season, something happened, turning point was when years,
five and six, we started to see heavier disease problems with the tomatoes.
And probably because we're planting tomatoes after tomatoes, after tomatoes. Oh, so you
have a couple of options to take care of that. So one in is what we had done, which is take
this skid loader in and take out the tops six or eight inches of soil from the greenhouse. It's
you know, put some earbuds in, so you can listen to music and just spend the afternoon
And it's an afternoon well spent. And then you bring in a new compost slash topsoil that
hasn�t had tomatoes grown in it. So that's fairly low. You can also get soil steamers. Pete
Johnson at Pete�s greens sells these beautiful old-fashioned steamers that act water under
And so it's a bit like carpet steamers, just industrial-size that you would steam several inches
deep. So you heat your soil several inches deep until pathogen, and you'd also destroy other
biological life in there. I'm not suggesting that there's no downfalls to that approach.
However, with that approach, you do take care of a good bit of cell disease problems, and
you can keep tomatoes in the same place year after year.
Make sure you practice good hygiene with tomato growing from one year to the next. And
at this new farm, I want to be very careful to make sure we're practicing. And so for
instance, we bleach all the pots we're using this. 50 self-plug pots, the four-inch pots, make
sure those go through a bleach solution, wash our hands, sanitize our hands before touching
you're working with it.
Then being careful about who comes into your greenhouse if you've got other growers, even
friends of yours who are tomato producers and if they've been in their greenhouse or not.
As strict as some growers would say, no one can come into our greenhouse. However, if you
got other farmer friends, you know, they've just come out of their diseased tomato
greenhouse maybe the offering a six pack or something in lieu of a tour of your greenhouse
or having look at the side rolling walls and have a see at what's going on in there.
So practicing good hygiene is important. And then another product that we use is oxidate,
OXIDATE is from BioSafeSystems. And it's a broad spectrum bacteria, fungus, and what we'll
do is we'll spray down the entire tunnel before the tomatoes, the transplant, and then we'll
spray it down again once the fruit starts saying so, and then maybe one other time later in
So as the season goes on, it's just the way of making sure tunnel stays hygienically clean. And
then we're also using� We will do a preventative copper spray. We use a product called
badge, BADGE X2. It's a copper product and we'll do a preventative copper spray on the
tomatoes again, once fruit started setting, to help us get past that the July and August
humps so we can have the later-season tomatoes and prevent some of the blight that can
Diego: [00:21:05] You know, and sanitation is a big key to a lot of this, and when a grower
has eliminated amount of space to grow a high profit crop like tomatoes, and like, every
square foot counts. And usually there's a lot of money tied up in that infrastructure so that
square footage is really, really valuable.
When you look at how you're planting tomatoes and the density at which you can plant
them, do you approach planting them denser to get more in, knowing that you have deep
soils, you have organic matter rich soils. You�ve run things, maybe like say a chisel plow,
through there to loosen up the swells.
Does that allow you and do you approach it with, I'm going to put as many as I can in here,
or do you back off on the density, widen out the spacing to let air flow in, give the roots
more room? So disease doesn't become a problem?
Ben Hartman: [00:21:59] Sure. It's a balancing act. You want those tomatoes packed in as
tight as you can because you want the high yield you, want to maximize the square footage
of the greenhouse.
However, there's a point of no return where you can space too closely. The end
determinants. We now space every 12 inches apart a single row, 12 inches, and we'll train
with the two liter system a leaninf lower two liter system on most of the determinants. And
then on some of the determinants, we're switching to using bamboo poles and doing tall
bamboo poles, like nine, 10-foot tall poles.
You can also use. Oh, EMT, as in the EMT conduit, electrical conduit, and doing the basket
weave system, even on indeterminate. And that's sort of�we could talk for a whole session
on that. And again, my course, and I don't want to keep plugging it, but my course had a lot
of videos and talk you through the ins and outs and particulars of those types of trellising
However, what we do is 12 inches on indeterminate and then 18 inches on determinate and
then on everything, determinate and indeterminate, we're going to prove once you're about
knee-high or higher, we will prune the bottom 10 to 12 inches, just strip them, so there's air
flow circling underneath all of our plants and I found that makes a big difference.
So the early leaves on tomatoes are usually sacrificial. Anyhow, they're not providing
nutrients for either. They're just gonna encourage the bees to crawl up the plant. And so the
sooner you can get rid of those lower leaves, the better. And then we will go with the lean
and lower method on indeterminates and continue to prune and even anything we're going
to stay and leave on in determinants.
We're going to do another heavy pruning on those two, but just one additional pruning. And
then the determinant tomatoes, we're not going to prune any more than that first pruning
of ten to twelve inches.
Diego: [00:24:05] So you put a lot of work into growing these tomatoes. A lot of fertility ends
up in the soil as a result of growing these tomatoes.
Now let's say tomato season's done. It's time to move on to the category of everything that's
not a tomato. How do you utilize the fertility left in that soil for the lower feeders, like the
lettuces. Do you do anything in-between or do you just say, Hey, I'll strip out the tomatoes.
There's fertility there, let's get some plants in it.
Ben Hartman: [00:24:34] So tomato season finishes and as soon as we can, we're going to
get those plants out of the tunnel. We will get the chisel power broad fork in there if we
need to loosen things. And then I typically will add compost to the winter tunnel and
probably not more than an inch and then keep it on the surface and then seed my spinach.
I grow mostly spinach in the winter, Asian greens and some lettuces feed directly into that
compost. And that is all I need to do. And in the greenhouse, I should've said this earlier. I do
not bring animal manure-based compost into the greenhouse. And the reason is I don't want
phosphorus and nitrogen to build up.
And those you'll find high levels of those in animal manures. And so anytime I was going into
the greenhouse, it's just going to be leaf, mold-broken down grass clippings, and some
pasture cuttings. That sort of thing, but mostly leaf mold. The city of Goshen, the town we
live in, delivers leaves to us at no cost and I've got a skid loader. So I make a lot of leaf mold
compost. And that makes a wonderful way to build up the carbon and a rich, rainbow of
And the idea is that I feel like our trees are farming for our farm partners. The trees are my
farm partners. Cause the tree roots go down deep into the ground as the tree stands up high
above the ground in many cases. So tree roots are sucking out minerals from deep within
the year, and I'm broad range of minerals and they're depositing them in the leaves. And so
tree leaves are a wonderful way to get local trace minerals onto your farm in your plant.
Anyhow, so that's what I'll do as soon as tomatoes are done, compost feed directly into it.
And then that's enough. And even tomorrow's products, we're going to transplant kale into
the greenhouse or early spring under the greenhouse. And there's plenty of fertility in there.
I'm not going to do anything, which is my favorite way to farm is to know that I have plenty
of trace minerals.
Compost is a slow release source of fertility. And so if I have put a couple inches of compost,
ideally three or four inches of compost, across the growing surface, then I know that I've got
several growing seasons ahead of me for many crops that don't need to supplement with
Okay. So when that kale goes in, there�ll be plenty of nutrients in a greenhouse. I probably
won't need anything. However, I'll see what this spinach is looking like coming out. If I see
anything suggesting weak growth on the spinach, some yellowing of leaves, anything less
than fully robust growth, then I'm going to add feather mule when I transplant the kale.
So feather, you know, I think it was like a 14-0-0 as a very�it's a high nitrogen-fertility
source. And you don't need much just a pinch and then you'll get nice green growth off your
plants and you can get away with feather meal on Crosslight kale and greens and other,
what I call vegetative crops, hay, where you harvest and in green part of the crop, as you
want to push that green growth and you can almost not put too much on the outside of the
We use a lot of composted duck manure. And, the entire plot outside of the greenhouse has
that leaf mold on it and some grass clippings and pasture cutting. And then on a plant�when
we transplant, if we have vegetative crops going in, I like to add a pinch of composted duck
manure or feather mule or we get, organic chicken place up in Michigan, and they sell
pellets, the hydrated chicken, the Newark pellets. Um, we'll add those in the hole as we
transplant, Hey, just a pinch of, of those or a combination of them. And then you're
guaranteed you're going to get nice green growth from your transplants.
If you put them in the hole too, you can afford to spend that extra money on that high
nitrogen, that richer compost if he's just on the surface, then it, you don't get quite the bang
for buck. I found it's most effective.
Diego: [00:29:35] For any of those crops that aren't tomatoes, do you find any advantage to
fertigation or is it a�does the cost benefit not pay off?
Ben Hartman: [00:29:45] With our compost system, I've not found a need to do fertigation
in the field. And sometimes we'll have main lines connected to the tomato house and we'll
have. Some fertigation run through the drip tape. Um, anyhow, but I found it not to be
needed in the field as long as we're using compost on this mulching plate, I call it a mulching
plate laying compost, like as if it were a mulch, just do weed smothering, and then we're
going to plant or direct seed or transplant directly into it.
Diego: [00:30:23] Know when you say crop out spinach, you're going to move the kale. Do
you completely remove all of the plant from the ground? Some people I know will just cut it
close as they can. And let's say the green harvest or leave the roots in their plant around it.
How do you approach that?
Ben Hartman: [00:30:43] That's one of the important processes, stuff need to figure out if
you're going to do this compact farming and this thing efficiently from one crop to the next.
And so the reason we're not a strictly no-till farm or a very low till farm, however, in the
summertime I've got, you know, a hundred, 200 feet of arugula, three foot wide bed, 200
feet of arugula looking at me.
I'm just going to grab a tiller and till shallowly on the surface, even a small, small BCS. I just,
just keep it close to the surface, get the roots, the roots up in the, of the air. And that's the
fastest way to transition from one crop to the next, in the summertime and the easiest to, in
terms of work now in the winter greenhouse, like I said, we're going to plant kale tomorrow
There's a lot of spinach. I've gotten 10 harvests off of a spinach patch in the south end of the
greenhouse. We're going to pull each of those guys out by hand. It's going to be tedious. Uh,
however, that's high value space this time of year in the greenhouse. And so it'll be worth it.
And my process, like you mentioned, would sometimes be to mow it, but I actually liked on
spinach to have it not mowed co you can have a handle to grab onto.
However, what we will do is slice underneath it and there are a couple of ways to do it. I
have the under cutter behind my Komodo tractor. And that's a root digger implement and
we'll use that to slice hourly underneath crops. I can�t get the tractor in now, there's too
much ice and snow, I won't be able to do that for tomorrow afternoon's project.
What we'll do is, you can use a wheel hoe. I get a wide blade, you know, 12-inch wide blade
or so on a wheel hoe to slice underneath your crops. I found that was a bit tedious,
especially with spinach has been in the ground as long as this stuff has. I planted it in early
So where are we at? Here are six months. Yeah. About five, five months or so. Um, and so
that's, that's pretty well abolition by the wheel hoe would be pretty tedious to slice
underneath it. And so what are we going to do so well, what have found is that the most
ergonomic and it's still a pain, but most are now it would be to use a flat bladed shovel, like
a standard square, flat 10 or 12-inch wide shovel, and then I'll take an angle grinder to it to
make sure you've got a razor sharp edge.
And then we'll just use that shovel. And shovel underneath our crop that's in the ground, say
close to the surface, because we want to keep the soil in place if we can and just remove the
plant. But we found that the shovel is more ergonomic and this case was deeply rooted
crops have, and then we'll go in and we'll break. We'll get, certainly get what we can by
raking. Then what we can't rake up, we'll go through by hand and pull it and I'll take a couple
of us probably two or three hours tomorrow afternoon to get those beds cleared and
prepped, and then it'll be probably a one hour project to do the kale transplanting.
And this case, the bed prep is more work than the actual transplant day.
Diego: [00:34:04] Here's the question that comes up related to that. And I remember at
Rose Creek farms, you touched on this a little bit in the presentation you gave there. What
are your thoughts on going towards a low-tillage system with paper pot, say you had a
previous crop that had been transplanted into the ground with paper pots and either direct
seeding next to that crop, after the first crop is done, leaving the paper chains and all the
crop residue in the ground, or even running new paper chains in between the old paper
Ben Hartman: [00:34:41] And I would answer that by saying I've done all of the above and
those are all good options and it is all about conditions, local conditions.
So there's just not a one size fits all solution here. I was just at a conference out in Western
Colorado and the soil type they have, and they don't have a lot. They've had a drought for
several seasons and their paper pot chains were just not disintegrating for them. So the
frustration for those growers, whereas for me, my chains�I can lightly tilt them in and
they're gone, poof, within a month, month and a half.
You're in peak in during summertime when you have the heat build at the center very
quickly. So it depends on your conditions and ideally, what we like to do is actually pull it. If
the chain is still intact enough, we'll just pull the entire chain with radish harvest. For
instance, we got early radishes and paper chains. French breakfast in particular, we can do
this we'll just pull the chain and then you can harvest the French breakfast at a comfortable
waist-height, pull the chain, then you harvest after you pull it. And then just throw the whole
chain in your compost, and then your bed is clean for whatever goes in next.
Now let's say the chain is too broken down to do that. Then you get your radishes or turnips
harvested, and there's bits, the chain that are still left. Well, it's not a problem if we're doing
and transplanted peppers after that or cucumbers or something, or which is often the case
since we're going from spring crops, like a turnip to cucumbers. So we'll just leave the paper
in the ground and transplant, or if we're going to put plastic over say cucumbers, it's fine.
We'll just lay plastic right on the, on top of the, the residue. If we're going to direct feed
arugula or salad greens after then paper pot crop, then we're going to need to be more
meticulous to get out more of the chain. However, even then I'm not perfectionistic. We'll
take a rake, we'll get maybe 60 or 80% of the chain removed enough that it's not going to
I use a Jang single row seeder, not that it's not going to gum up the seeder. And then we'll
just get our direct seed crop in and I'm fine with leaving bits of paper out. It doesn't look the
nicest. Um, however, by September, October there'll be disintegrated.
Diego: [00:37:20] Yeah. Layering this compost on your bed, I think a lot of people have
different visions of what compost can be, you know, from compost that has a bunch of horse
apples in it to stuff that's really fine. And friable. What's been your experience using the Jang
or yang seeder directly in the compost. Cause that's one concern I hear also come up with
people is can I seed directly in the compost if I'm on a low or no-tillage system with a seeder
like the Jang or the Yang?
Ben Hartman: [00:37:50] So if you're going to direct seed the compost, then the Yang is
definitely the seeder to use. The six-row seeder, that four-row pinpoint seeder, even the
earth-row seeder will have a tougher time with the sort of chunkiness and unevenness that
can be often found in a no-till compost system.
And so it's a matter of experience to know what kind of till you need. However, that's one
reason we're not a strictly no-till farm, and we do keep a small DCS, seven, 10, the smallest
size DCS they make with a little 18-inch tiller behind it. And then if we need a bit more till for
our seeder or paper pot transplanter, we'll just grab, put it in second. I never till them first.
I'm always, I'm never patient enough to put it in second.
Just go real quick, around the surface. I keep a low throttle and then your times aren't, you
know, you don't have over-rotation of the times. Just a quick path where you just left the
top couple of inches.
I tilt their works, self-tilter tool where your screw gun would be the power source, so tilter
would do the same thing. We're using our VCs as a tilter in that sense, but it's heavier duty.
So we get more done than with, with less amount of labor than the tilter.
Diego: [00:39:16] Yeah. So some good suggestions there. One other thing that came up as a
result of last episode was compost. You use a lot of compost, and your farm now is what's
your total acreage under production that you have right now?
Ben Hartman: [00:39:29] It's about three quarters. We have a we're less than one acre.
Diego: [00:39:32] Okay. So less than one acre, three quarters of an acre. People hear a lot of
composts going onto the ground. Now that the farm has been set up, fields are established
beds are established. How much do you think you're investing annually in compost to
maintain three quarters of an acre of high intensity veg?
Ben Hartman: [00:39:51] Okay. So I'm not totally set up. Last year, I took basically the year
off to focus on building our burn house and the city of Goshen really put me under the gun. I
pulled my permits in October of 2017 and those permits cost me like 1,500 or something.
And we're, we're approaching October of 2018. And the city said, you've got to finish your
project up here, or you're going to have to take out another round of permits, fill out more
papers and go through that whole process again.
And so I really just focused and hammered hard on the house because I didn't want us to
pay for those permits again. And we didn't get the farm completely set up as I maybe would
have wanted from the land point view. Now our infrastructure is good. It's probably good to
have that pressure room, propagation room, and the processing room, the spray station
were all set out for the city, kind of made me meet the deadline on that.
Anyhow. So, what I'm still doing is adding compost and we have probably half or more
where we've got that three or so inches of compost on the surface. And then this winter, in
fact, just this morning, I called to get another round of compost delivered here.
And what I do is when it gets on the property when it's warm, and then when the ground
freezes is the best time to apply it, because then you don't have soil compaction. And so I've
got, 50 yards of compost coming. I've already put 50 yards on, got another 50 yards coming.
And when the ground, we got a warm week here, so they can, you know, trucks and deliver
And then when the ground freezes, I'll get the skid loader and we will go out and dump
compost and I'll spread it with the bucket. And maybe someone will go along behind with
the rake and halfway level it, just spread it on the surface. We're covering a blanket on the
entire growing service here. So on an initial application, we're going to put about 150 yards
total compost for the initial application.
And then what we had needed at the previous farm was another 50 yards on an annual basis
and that's an manageable amount one can make on one zone. To get 150 yards, that would
be a lot of compost for one person to make, so we're buying a lot of that in.
It's the same stuff, same leaves that the city delivers to us and that we're making our own
compost out of it. But the city has their own composting facility. And so we're paying them
to make that amount of compost, it cost $8 a yard, which is cheap. But we're fortunate to be
able to have that low-cost carbon that we can use on our farm.
And it's not potting mix level compost, I want to stress. This is one important thing to do
when you're starting a farm is be a sleuth like Sherlock Holmes and find low-cost carbon
sources close to you, and then don't be too perfectionistic.
And so with our compost, for instance, I told them we don't. I don't want, their grade-A
compost and most cobbles players will have sifting equipment. And so they'll run it through
a large industrial sifting equipment, which has half the work. So I said, what would you
charge? And they charge, you know, around $20 a yard, if it has to go through that sifting
equipment. And I said, what if you skipped the sifting equipment? And what if I said, you
could deliver me stuff? That's, you know, got some chunks in it. Maybe 80% compost and so
a B or C grade mix. And so we negotiated with them and got down to got down to $8 a yard.
Diego: [00:43:55] Yeah, no, that's a great way to save. And, you know, you make up for any
potential non -omposted material or lack of fertility by adding fertility on your end, on the
back end. And it just reminds me of something I heard JM Fortier say once, and these aren't
the exact numbers, but it was something like. I can make $1,500 a bed in crops.
I can afford to spend a hundred dollars a bed in amendments and compost to make that
$1,500. Like the investment pays off. People may think it sounds like a lot, but in the long
run, you're going to get more than your money's worth back at the end of the day.
Ben Hartman: [00:44:33] It will pay off, it will pay off eventually.
And even if we're paying twice as much, it would be paying off. I don't tell that to people
making the compost, but, yeah, I would agree with him on that. It's a worthwhile investment
because the reason I have a preference for it, as opposed to minerals and even fish
emulsions and such is that it's the slow release. They say that a compost would release
minerals nine years if measured nine years after compost application. It�s still getting
nutrients from that initial application. So it's a long-term investment. You have to prorate it
in your mind. I don't think of it as you need to get it paid, you know, paid for and for one
growing season, but definitely after three, four growing seasons, and you realize how
mellow your soil is in quality. They perhaps in a higher yield, and less work because you
don't have the same amount of weed pressure. Yeah, it pays off.
Diego: [00:45:34] We covered a lot in this one from maintaining bed fertility, between crops
through tomatoes, and maybe we'll take tomatoes on more in a future episode. But in the
meantime, if people want to learn more about your tomato growing system, how you do it,
how you make compost, you offer that all as one package at the Lean Farm School.
If people want to learn more about tomatoes, what do you have to offer within lean farm
school? When it comes to say tomatoes?
Ben Hartman: [00:46:02] Sure. I've got a whole, section, called my Tomato Masterclass and
that's masterclass. We filmed our entire tomato production process from seed to harvest
and even, you know, going on a delivery.
I, you can see exactly how we grow and package and market our whole program on
tomatoes. And you really do need to master tomatoes probably if you're going to be in this
business and it's the number one selling vegetable and you ask this consistent high demand
and in particularly local tomatoes, people want their local tomatoes and they want it for a
long growing season.
So if you can master your tomatoes and if that's the only crop you can produce, you're off to
a good start on your farm. And there are, there are a couple of free preview lessons in there
too. And so, yeah, I go in there and, click or clear around watch the free lessons in there.
So let's see, I'm really excited about the course over the winter, Rachel and I put some
finishing touches on the course and I feel really good about the content in there in that it's
stuff. I wish I had access to when I was starting my farm. And what's unique is that it blends.
It's a blended combination of lean thinking and lean management system.
With small scale market growing. So that makes the course unique. It's not just how to grow
tomatoes, how to deal with lean mindset and to use principles of mood elimination, hygiene,
Kaizen, and some of these, you know, lean pieces top of cutting edge production. And it's
very powerful lean system is most powerful production system that there is.
And we feel good and confident about where we're at as a farm. And so we feel like we've
got, I feel good about the content in terms of the production of our vegetables too. And so
I'm excited about the course. We've got students all over the world taking it, and it's been a
surprise to me that so many students from not from the US and Canada.
I have been interested in using this course. And the other thing I wanted, last thing I'll say
about it is I, that it's unique in that we're a micro farm doing us a lesson when it, with a very
slim cast of characters here, it's my wife, Rachel, and me, and then we'll have a couple of
helpers during the growing season and making a living at it.
And so if you're looking to grow on 200 acres, this is not in the course for you to go.
However, if you're looking at this stuff with a minimal capital investment and want to
actually see results on a small acreage, then this of course is the right place.
Diego: [00:48:53] There are a lot of great content in there.
You're a great teacher or somebody who people I think can learn a lot from, for people that
want to learn more, check out the link below to this one or visit the lean farm school. Dot
com to learn more from Ben and everything that they're doing at clay bottom farm. There,
you have it. Farmer Ben Hartman of Clay Bottom farm.
If you want to learn more about how Ben builds soil, how he grows tomato, check out his
online resources in his online course at theleanfarmschool.com. I've also linked to his course
in the show notes for this one. So be sure to check it out. If you enjoyed this episode, be sure
to give Ben a shout out on Instagram at Clay Bottom Farm.
I hope you enjoyed this one next week. I'll be back with another episode until then be nice.
Be thankful and do the work.
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