2008-FEB > NC Specialty Crop Award

Bob Radcliffe worked closely with Will Strader, Franklin County Horticultural Extension Agent, to develop a 2008 Agent Specialty Crops Proposal to “Grow and Market Belgian Endive Chicons to the Restaurant Trade” that was awarded monies from a statewide pool of $300,000. For more about the NC Specialty Crops Program, see http://www.cals.ncsu.edu/specialty_crops/

The goal of this project is to adapt the production of this product to a small-scale farm environment, while evaluating its market potential and profitability.

Bob explains that “Belgian Endive met our farm objectives to produce a high-value, specialty product with a controllable shelf-life. U.S. consumption is largely by import from Belgium (and Western Europe) with some California production west of the Mississippi River. To my knowledge, production east of the Mississippi is limited (or non-existent)”.

The production cycle is quite unique. Belgian Endive (greens) are grown and the roots are harvested, cleaned and refrigerated. The roots may be stored from 8-days to 10-months. The roots are then placed in a growing medium as needed, and the white “chicon” is grown without sunlight for from 21 to 24 days – yielding the final product.

This crop is quite useful for restaurants and caterers as a practical “organic chip” for elegant “appetizer dips” among other possibilities.

Two Educational Field Days will be held at Lynch Creek to allow other interested farmers to see and learn how this crop is grown.

Bob had first-hand restaurant experience using this product while in-training with Jack Mc David (Jack’s Firehouse – Philadelphia, PA; Celebrity chef on TV Food Channel with Bobbie Flay – “Grillin and Chillin” Series”; cooked at the James Beard House in NYC on four occasions).

Progress updates will be provided throughout 2008 as this project evolves.

IMG_1846_revUPDATE #1:  4/11/2008

One tray (126 plugs) was seeded on February 23, 2008 to test the germination of the organic seed (1000 pack) we bought from Johnny’s Seed – about 65-70% germination within 3 days. The seeds are very small – clove shaped.

On March 3 we seeded 8 more flats – totaling over 1000 plugs. The photo shows the status of the Endive plugs on April 11, 2008 – they are ready to transplant to our Hoop House (once calving wraps up this week).

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UPDATE #2:  4/30/2008

On April 30 we finished transplanting about 600 of the plugs that will produce strong roots with a crown diameter of from 1-1/2″ to 2″. As you can see from the photo to the right, we have positioned two plants near each drip hole (at 1′ spacing) to ensure continuous root moisture (well water). We will hand water with liquid organic fertilizer (fish with kelp) weekly until harvest. The soil has been dug with a broadfork and is loose to a minimum depth of 12″. Remay cloth row covers can be added to reduce light and heat levels (if needed) and are supported by 1″ white plastic supports (partially shown in the photo). Be certain to only plant one seedling; otherwise the roots will be inter-twined when full grown and become useless for re-growing.

IMG_1866_revUPDATE #3:  5/11/2008

No seedling transplants were lost. Plant establishment is progressing nicely. New leaf development is apparent. The first weekly application of liquid Drammatic®ONE (Fish Emulsion, Kelp, Chilean Nitrate) USDA NOP Fertilizer was hand-applied on May 8th. Daily drip watering – about 30 minutes per day. No pest or disease issues. Overhead circulating fans run 24 hrs/day to minimize fungus and moderate temperature extremes. No additional Remay shielding required thusfar. Question remains whether the hoop-house will be too hot for the Endive. The east-end of the hoop-house (closest in the photos) is shaded somewhat, while the west-end get full-sun.

UPDATE #4:  5/20/2008

On Saturday, May 18, 2008 from 11:00am-1:00pm Agricultural Agent Will Strader held the first of two Field Days at Lynch Creek Farm to explain the Endive experiment underway. Scheduled to coincide with the 5th Annual Franklin County Farm, Foods & Crafts Tour weekend, numerous folks queried Will about the Endive plants being grown in the Hoop House. Surprisingly, many knew what Belgian Endive was and were familiar with how it looks in the food store, but had no idea how it was produced.

UPDATE #5:  5/29/2008

The two photos show the strong growth of the Endive plants and the development of thick root crowns. Higher Hoop House temperatures have not impacted plant development. Drip irrigation has been increased to 30 minutes drip, two times a day (12″ drip spacing rated 0.45gpm/100ft).

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UPDATE #6:  6/16/2008

The two photos below show continued strong growth of the Endive plants and the development of thick root crowns. The yardstick in the photos provides a sense of scale to the Endive plants. A minor infestation of grasshoppers has been controlled by netting and killing the invaders. No chemical sprays or pesticides can be used in the Hoop House.

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UPDATE #7:  8/1/2008

Harvesting of the Endive Roots began the week of July 28th, 2008. The Walk-in Cooler was cleaned and re-caulked and the temperature control was set to 35-deg-F. A sample “box” full of roots was harvested, cleaned, topped (at 1″ above the root crown) and refrigerated. The photos below show a harvest cart full of harvested Endive, a prime quality Endive plant, and a cut Endive Root before being cleaned and packed.

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The Endive Roots were dug and lifted out quite easily with a shovel. Extensive root development was apparent and appeared to have a very beneficial effect upon the structure of the existing soil. No apparent disease issues exist. Some minor grasshopper damage is apparent as we continue to net and kill them as a control mechanism.

Tips: When digging, handling, cleaning and packing the Endive Roots – be very gentle – they break off easily. A razor knife worked well (as shown above in the photo) – clean the crown with your thumb, hold the plant top and cut holding the stem against a firm edge (bucket) in a slow, 1-way slicing motion. Do not damage the crown of the root or tear-back the leaf stems. Mildly tap and brush the roots to clean them with a soft, long natural bristle dust brush. When digging the roots, stay 6″ away from the plant with a shovel and “lift” the root soil mass gently, then grasp the plant at the base and lift out of the soil. All Endive tops are being fed to our chickens.

Wooden, custom-made, cooler storage boxes hold about 64 roots each (two hoop house 4′ bays of roots per box). The boxes will be misted daily to maintain a high humidity index. Harvesting will continue on a daily basis to prevent the cooler from being overloaded with “hot” material. At this time we are not sorting the roots by size, but will select optimal sized roots when we replant the roots for the Endive Production Cycle. Culled roots will be re-refrigerated and saved for sale at a later time.

Tips: It is apparent that Endive can withstand full sun and the amplified heat of the hoop-house. The roots grown in the partially shaded east-end were somewhat smaller in size. Always plant Endive in full sun for maximum root development.

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