Richard Collins began his career as a farmer in 1983 after earning a degree in Managerial Economics with an emphasis in Agricultural Economics. He started growing endives commercially in Solano County. In 2006 Richard and his wife Shelly purchased 195 acres known as The Collins Farm along interstate 80 on Kidwell Road. The couple leases all but 30 acres of their land to small-scale farmers who grow blackberries, tomatoes, and stone fruit. At The Collins Farm, Richard specializes in growing hybrid asparagus seed. Currently he has a contract to produce the seed with the owners of the varieties and genetics as well as the equipment for seed processing. This year he will retire from California Endive Farms after selling the business to the grandson of the original French partner. California Endive Farms is the only endive operation in the United States. Their product is sold to retailers and wholesalers across the country, except for their certified organic endive, they sell to Whole Foods Market.
Endive cultivation is difficult as the crop is susceptible to fungal and bacterial infections. Endive comes from the root of a chicory plant that has been cut and forced to grow a second time. The chicory root is grown outside in the field and then brought inside for supplemental cold storage, which is a delicate process. When the plant material is brought inside, the roots are placed in about an inch of water and can easily turn to mush. Subsequently, they place the chicory root in the dark humidity of a forcing room.
Yolo loam soil is lacking nutrients and it is hard to manage the excess of nitrogen from the vestige of old agriculture in the area.
SOLUTION IMPLEMENTATION AND MANAGEMENT
To ensure fungal resistance in endive, a strong, well-balanced root is crucial. The farmer must begin by carefully managing the soil moisture levels in the field. Once the root is moved into the forcing rooms a temperature control system tracks air and water temperature to achieve the correct humidity based on growth rates and the presence of diseases.
Richard addressed soil fertility and excess nitrogen by planting cover crops that keep water on the field and reduce fertilizer runoff. Cover crop selections include clovers, grasses for carbon sequestration and a 6-8 species mix for soil biodiversity. To gauge nutrient applications Richard has the soil tested annually and has foliar analysis conducted monthly. Eliminating nitrogen applications at certain stages of the plant’s growth cycle has also allowed Richard to decrease his use of nitrogen. He records data to balance the plant nutritionally and uses this data to make fertigation decisions and plan foliar spray applications. Richard turned the pump on and off when needed to develop empirical baselines for growing a higher quality crop on less water so that fewer nutrients are leave the farm.
Richard has learned that drip irrigation works best both for water efficiency and to increase yields, as less product is lost to fungal diseases. His use of cover crops has completely eliminated field runoff and minimized evaporation. He planted catch crops to prevent minerals from being flushed away from the soil. To grow a healthy asparagus crop, Richard discovered that he needed to increase micronutrients such as silica, cobalt, and molibulum that were deficient and add more potassium to avoid using nitrogen. When excess amino acids and simple sugars were balanced with fertility the disease organisms were removed, increasing endive yields.
At California Endive Farms, adjusting the temperature involves a centralized refrigeration system with four compressors temperature control pieces. As the operation has grown, refrigeration has become a key element. In order to make production more sustainable Richard is currently installing 50,000-70,000 square feet of roof-top photovoltaics.
After installing 2,000 square feet of solar panels, The Collins Farm no longer has to pay an electric bill. This system runs a five horsepower well pump at a 100 gallons per minute, as well as a small cooler on the property and a commercial kitchen and a facility for seed processing. This solar system saves Richard $5,000-$6,000 per year and allows him to irrigate during the day.
The Collins Farm has been able to cut back on nitrogen inputs. Richard adds a small amount of nitrogen via cover crops; last year he only ordered ½ of the nitrogen inputs he ordered the year before, but this year he hasn’t had to use any. The farm has become a demonstration site for healthy soil management practices.