Sensitive spinach may have mucky Michigan future

Editor’s note: This article is from the archives of the MSU Crop Advisory Team Alerts. Check the label of any pesticide referenced to ensure your use is included.

Editor’s note
: This article is reprinted from Issue>Action>Impact Vol. 1, No.3, Summer 2007.

Spinach may be good for you, but Michigan State University (MSU) researchers have determined that it may not be the healthiest crop for some Michigan farmers.

Daryl Warncke, MSU professor of crop and soil sciences, and MSU Extension regional vegetable educator Jim Breinling initiated a Project GREEEN study in 2005 aimed at increasing spinach production in Michigan to meet market demand. Breinling was approached by a local food processor that had the demand for frozen spinach but not the supply—not enough growers were producing the green leafy veggie.

Fewer than 100 acres of spinach were grown in Michigan in 2003. Chase Farms, an Oceana County frozen food processor, estimated a market potential of up to 10 million pounds per year. This would have skyrocketed Michigan spinach production up to 1,000 acres and put more than $500,000 into growers’ pockets annually.

“It started in the field,” Breinling said. “The processor asked about the possibility of growing more spinach in Michigan, and we collaborated to find growers and answer some important questions about the crop’s fertility and viability.”
On the surface, spinach appeared to be ideal for Michigan. It is a short-season crop that’s in the field only 45 to 50 days. In most cases, Breinling said, growers can plant a second crop, such as snap beans, in the same field so it is a good economic choice for farmers who make the commitment.

Warncke and Breinling capitalized on their individual expertise—Warncke conducted soil management studies, and Breinling assisted Oceana County growers who were willing to plant a spinach crop but needed technical expertise to become familiar with the new crop.
“My focus was on soil fertility and nutrient management because of my expertise in balancing the nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium needs of vegetables,” Warncke said. “We determined the nutrient management needs for spinach.”

Breinling said six growers agreed to try spinach in their fields. The first growing season went well, but the second year the crop did not thrive. The issue? Water. Mason and Oceana counties’ sandy-loamy soils are not the right environment for water-needy spinach.

“You have to learn about where a new crop is best suited,” Breinling said. “Economically, growers were not getting the yields and quality they needed.”

However, the project was not over, Breinling said. Now more familiar with spinach’s need for a continuous water supply, the research team decided to plant a crop in the muck soils of Newaygo and Washtenaw counties. Muck soils naturally have a higher water table and the research showed a weekly need for an inch to an inch and a half of moisture in spinach.

“We introduced Chase Farms to two muck farmers in the Grant area and one in southeast Michigan; they have had much more success,”
Breinling said. “Combined, the three farmers grew more than 250 acres of spinach this year. It’s not thousands of acres, but there is a market and demand for the product, and it works for these individuals and the processor.”

Breinling said this is a common result of Extension field work.

“We knew that we could do it, it was just a matter of matching the right resources with the crop,” he said. “That’s what Extension is about—bringing resources together to make a project work.”

While the spinach fares much better in muck, growers continue to experience another challenge—weeds. No foreign material can be harvested with spinach leaves, making weeds of any kind unwelcome invaders in the field.

“Weed control in spinach is a challenge. Most growers don’t have the labor for hand weeding and spinach is very sensitive to chemical herbicides,” Warncke said. “One of the lessons learned is that we don’t have a suitable herbicide for spinach.”

So while 1,000 acres of spinach may not be in Michigan’s immediate future, Warncke and Breinling agreed that the industry is better off because of the research.

“One crop doesn’t make Michigan’s agriculture industry,” Breinling said. “That is what makes us the No. 2 state in crop diversity—the little pieces that make up the whole picture.”

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