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Bumper crop of spinach harvested in Oklahoma

So, you planted a big vegetable garden this summer, a quarter-acre, half-acre, maybe an entire acre devoted to your favorite summer crops. How about 300 acres--and that is just the spinach.

Steve Conrad, Webbers Falls, Okla., plants a little over 500 acres to vegetables every year: 300 acres of spinach and 200 acres of turnip greens and collard greens. None of his production is for the fresh market, however. It is all grown under contract for the Allen Canning Company in Siloam Springs, Ark. The Allen Canning Company has been in business since 1926 and markets canned vegetables under 11 brand names. Among those are Popeye spinach and Sunshine Southern Style collard greens and turnip greens.

Contract

Under the terms of his contract, Conrad provides the fertilizer, land preparation, and harvest. Allen Canning Company provides the fungicides, insecticides, seed, and trucking to the processing plant. Vegetable seed is very expensive and can cost nearly $150 per acre. A fieldman from the company checks on the crops frequently during the growing season and orders aerial applications of fungicides and insecticides as needed.

Conrad farms nearly 2,000 acres and grows wheat, corn and soybeans along with his vegetable crops. He is able to irrigate 1,600 acres with 12 center pivots. Although he started growing spinach on dryland acres in 1987, irrigation is mandatory today.

"Dryland production just did not work with veggies," Conrad said.

Although Webbers Falls receives about 36 inches of annual rainfall, Conrad said most of that comes in the late fall and early spring months. They get very little rainfall in July, and August, normally. The spinach crops need 5 to 8 inches of water during the growing season.

Spinach is an intensive crop that requires a lot of soil preparation prior to planting. Conrad said they will go over a field seven to eight times before it is ready to plant. The ground is plowed, chiseled, disked, worked with a "bed knocker" or do-all, and leveled before planting. Conrad goes over the fields with a 50-foot land plane twice to make sure there are no low spots. Spinach will not tolerate standing in water for any length of time.

"We cannot have water standing on the spinach at all," Conrad said.

Finally, five-foot wide beds are made and these are rolled to firm up the soil before planting. Conrad direct seeds the spinach seed into the beds.

Planting

Conrad plants what he refers to as a "carry-over" spinach crop. This crop is planted in October and then overwinters, much like a winter wheat crop, and then is harvested in April. This type of spinach crop is typically planted from Oct. 1 to Dec. 1 and is harvested from March 25 to April 25.

In August, Conrad may plant a fall spinach crop on some land. This crop is planted from Aug. 25 to Sept. 10 and is harvested from Nov. 1 to Dec. 15. Conrad prefers to have all of his crops harvested by Thanksgiving. If it looks like the weather might cooperate, Conrad may try to get a second cutting off this crop. He will raise the cutter at harvest to leave more plant, let it overwinter, and then cut it again in the spring.

Harvest

Both of these spinach crops as well as the turnips and collard greens are harvested with a homemade cutter. Kenny Cole, who works for Conrad, built the cutter about three years ago out of a John Deere cotton picker.

"We took off all of the cotton picking parts," Conrad said.

The header and the basket were taken off and a swather head was mounted on the front. Hydraulically driven belts were added to move the crop after it is cut to a buggy that is pulled alongside the cutter at harvest, similar to the way a silage cutter throws the corn into a wagon, except that the buggy runs alongside the cutter and is not pulled behind like a silage wagon.

Conrad said there are three advantages to their homemade cutter. It allows for faster harvest since they can cut three beds at a time rather than one. The pull type cutter they used in the past could only cut one bed at a time. This limited the number of acres a producer could grow. Less dirt and grit is collected with the crop. And it saves them the cost of renting a machine from the Allen Canning Company. Conrad said it cost him about $65,000 to build his own cutter and it paid for itself in one and a half years.

It is best to cut the spinach when the temperature is 60 degrees or below. This means harvesting early in the morning or late at night. The cutter is moving all the time with four buggies hauling spinach to waiting trucks. The cannery provides all of the trucks for hauling the spinach to the processing plant, which is about 65 miles from Webbers Falls.

If they have a good crop, it takes about 30 minutes to fill a semi truck. This year Conrad had a great crop. He harvested 10 tons per acre on this years crop. Eight tons per acre is considered a good crop in Oklahoma. In a good year, Conrad will send 130 semi truckloads of spinach to the cannery.

After the spinach is harvested, Conrad will disk up the remaining crop residue and allow it to dry out. Then he will run a chisel plow through the field to bury the crop residue. This prevents a build-up of white rust in the field.

In addition to his spinach crop, Conrad planted about 230 acres of turnips and collard greens. The turnips are planted in late March and harvest begins 45 days later. Turnips are planted again in September and harvested 45 days later. Collard greens are a slower crop and take 60 days to mature. Conrad usually plants a spring and fall crop of collard greens.

On the average, Oklahoma producers grow 2,200 acres of spinach every year with a value of $1,200 per acre. Ninety-five percent of the crop is processed by the cannery and not sold fresh.

Doug Rich can be reached by phone at 785-749-5304, or by e-mail at richhpj@aol.com.



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