Organic harvest is sweet
GARDEN VALLEY – Steve Martin, the farmer not the comedian, takes harvesting his lettuce seriously.
A sign leading up to Marmot Meadows, his humble, 20-acre abode set in the pastoral hills east of Placerville off Highway 49, reads “Organic farm. Do not spray.”
The organic farmer is preparing for this summer’s farmer’s market season, including South Lake Tahoe’s at the American Legion Hall on U.S. Highway 50.
Currently, his lettuce known for its bouquet shape and long-lasting nature grows in a 20-by-60-foot greenhouse, awaiting its transplant into his field.
“I can plant 600 heads in an hour,” Martin said.
The process calls for three weeks in the greenhouse planting flats and seven weeks out in the field.
He also grows onions, peas, squash and basil. This is the first year he’ll grow and sell flowers.
But recognizing the cash cow that alone pulls in about 30 percent of his revenue, Martin wants to increase his crop of butterhead, romaine, red fire and crisphead lettuce to 900 heads.
The lettuce tends to flourish in the spring, rather than in the summer’s sweltering heat in the foothills. Even so, Martin pushes its season into September.
The trick to the lifeblood of his lettuce is the harvesting, which usually occurs two days before it goes to market.
No matter how much experience and knowledge he gains in the art of growing lettuce, Martin is pleasantly surprised by the growth and demand of his product.
“The way I see it, I do so little in comparison to how it comes out. It continues to surprise me,” he said, looking at the promising seedlings.
Of course, it helps to know what the weather has to bring to the party. But that’s not always possible in the Sierra Nevada.
“You put stuff in the ground this time of year, and you don’t know what’s going to happen,” Martin said.
It especially helps to have the right chemical-free soil mix. He uses peat moss and vermiculite.
Martin may not be the celebrity, but he’s got a background in the motion picture industry.
The former movie set designer in Los Angeles, views his harvesting success as a set of simple circumstances.
His life took a major turn, when he started farming 11 years ago
“I just wanted to live in the hills,” he said.
After making his first $90 at the market, he exclaimed: “We’re rich!”
What makes them line up for Martin’s lettuce?
“It’s all about fine-tuning. It’s an absolutely beautiful bouquet,” he said like a new father.
It also helps to have the demand.
“Everybody eats lettuce. I hear (from customers) that this is the most incredible lettuce. That’s good to hear because I work my ass off,” Martin said.
These days, Martin worries more about getting his product to harvest than getting customers.
The cooler used to chill his lettuce operates under electrical power through Pacific Gas & Electric, one of California’s two major utility companies gearing up for possible rolling blackouts this summer.
“It’s going to hurt me. Without a doubt, we’re all going to feel it,” he said, also referring to high gasoline prices and threatened water shortages.
Martin gets his water through the city and a well he may use in a crunch time.
He’ll be keeping his eye on expenses versus revenue this season.
According to a recent Washington State University study, Martin’s future in organic farming could be brighter.
The study indicated the organic farm breaks even on operating costs nine years after planting, compared to 15 years using conventional methods and 16 years for what is deemed integrated management farming.
This is a cross between farming with chemicals and pesticides and organic farming techniques, which instead of chemicals use natural fertilizers and biological pest controls.
The study adds to a small but growing body of evidence that organic farming methods can boost agricultural output while reducing damage to the environment.
The results especially apply to fruit farming, which is prevalent in the El Dorado County foothills.
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