My wife and I built and operated a specialty horticulture production greenhouse business. In parternishp with a Mexican specialty produce dealer, we propagated, grew, harvested, processed and packaged edible flowers. We used the propagation techniques we learned from our previous Baja farming experience to produce large healthy batches of pansy plugs and sixpacks, which became potted production plants.
The 96ft X 30ft greenhouse was a Polytex design, standing 18ft at the ridge vent peak, featuring inflatable 4ft walls that would lower and raise, under thermostat control. The ridge vent also had the same inflatable plastic tubes and thermostat control. We had a large 50% shade cloth that covered the structure during the hot
We had a cooling system, also under thermostat control, that sprayed a fine mist over the growing beds. With this greenhouse, and it’s ventilation and cooling system, we successfully grew a bumper crop of pansies and other specialties(edible flowers) all year, even during the summer with frequent hundred degree temperatures. Normally, heat sensitive plants fall out of season during our hot and dry Southern Claifornia summers, away from the coast and inland as we were in Ramona, NorthEast San Diego County..
The misting system could have been improved by substituting a Mee Fog
unit, specially designed for flash evaporation, and which wouldn’t have wet the flowers and leaves as much. The unit that came with the greenhouse was designed for poultry, and it didn’t have sufficient pressure and the right nozzles to produce true fog. I explained the requirements to the salesman at Polytex, but I should have doulble checked his choice of misting systems.
The greenhouse was a challenge to build. The man who grated and back-filled the site didn’t spray water on the soil as he was compacting it, therefore the soil was very soft. I had no clue how to put in the footings for the base ground stakes.
I contacted a soil engineer from a local business and he agreed to do some free-lancing and came over. He used a two-section auger, about 4″ in diameter, to find how deep the hard pan or bed rock was, and in places it was over 7 feet down. He scratched his head a bit, and then suggested that I too get such a tool, drill down and pour a long column of concrete, insert rebar in the center, and install the
ground stakes. Brilliant! Ten years later, the greenhouse was still perfectly plum, and easily survived yearly Santa Ana winds.
We harvested the edible flowers, including begonias, marigolds, marigold-petal confetti, and snapdragons, and after picking the required number of flowers into plastic trays, we put them into the cooler, for five minutes’ with the container lids open, to remove the field heat. A slightly moist paper backing beneath the flowers provided moisture to keep the petals hydrated and firm. We always kept the trays chilled in the cooler, or packed in styrofoam with ice packs. Our shipments always arrived fresh to the customer’s destination. We never had a complaint about our flowers.
We experimented with other crops too, like chives. We laid plastic across pallets elevated on concrete blocks, with boards nailed to the pallets to form growing beds. We filled the beds with growing mix, laid drip hose on top in four rows, and irrigated with hydroponic solution. The crop grew very well.
For pest control we used a back pack sprayer with a chain that dragged on the floor, and an electrical contact attached to the spark plug. Theoretically, the insecticide, as it was propelled past the nozzle, was induced with a large electrostatic charge, and it would be drawn to all surfaces of the leaves and stems, which had the opposite charge. Whether it worked as advertized or not, it was very effective.
Unfortunately, those good times and that good fortune, too, had to come to a premature end. I found myself physically becoming too week to carry the big bags of peat, and making the growing mix required frequent breaks. I went to a doctor, and I was misdiagnosed with a hernia. I was not allowed to lift more than 15 pounds. For years I lived like this, until one day I could no longer walk 100ft without
stopping to rest. A tightness would develop in my chest. I would go on to undergo open heart surgery and receive a new bovine tissue aortic valve, and one bypass.
At one time, the greenhouse operation paid for one worker, all expenses, and the rent on our property in Ramona. However, due to heart disease and other severe health issues, our business came to an end, and we lost our home.
Farming Baja California
My wife and I spent five years living and working in Baja California, in the Ensenada area. A relative of ours had started a produce business, and I thought it would be a good idea to start a new career in agriculture. I had always had inclinations towards farming and ranching.
What our new partner was interested in was edible flowers, so I went on the internet and learned all I could about propagating and growing them. I was guided to a book called “Plug and Transplant Production”, which was excellent. Plugs are seedlings started in “plug trays”. These plants are given limited fertilizer and water, just the minimum. They grow slowly but develop extensive root systems as they search for water and nutrients. When it’s time to transplant them, they already have several true leaves and powerful root growth.
We had several good crops come in, and I also extended my plug production to squash. We grew a couple of bumper squash fields from these plugs. The squash included yellow and green zucchini and patty pan, and gold bar succhini. We also grew an economically ill-fated Mexican squash field as a favor to a friend of our partner’s, at the expense of profitable summer patty pan squash, which we had planted under plastic row covers for growing during winter.
Some of our customers said the summer squash we grew under the plastic row covers, during the mild Baja winter, were the best they had ever seen. We were successful in keeping the rain, cold, and strong winds off the crop. The insect and fungal pests were also much more subdued during the winter months.
Since I was a beginner at farming, I availed myself of the ag engineers who worked for the ag supply store. They were happy to visit my fields and offer me chemicals and fertilizers, and whatever. Some of the local farmers were also very kind and helpful. However, I kept studying on the internet, and learned things that I shared with the others.
Particularly helpful was one of the scientists at Novartis. He shared data regarding squash grown in hot climates. He suggested that I keep the field at no less than 90% saturation during the hotter part of he day, depending on my field having good drainage, which it did. The field produced a tremendous crop under harsh inland summer conditions.
I also propagated crops from cuttings, like rosemarry, and from divisions, like mint. I used automatic misting systems to supply moisture, and regulated the temperature with shade cloth and fans. We did some experimenting with hydroponics, growing lettuce and basil in 2″ PVC tubes, with a thin trickle of nutrient solution constantly emptying into a 50 gallon drum, where a submerged fountain pump would recirculate the solution back to the intake end of the PVC. The pictures to the right are not of my modest experimental systems, but are of professional setups, which can be very lucrative.
If you are interested in hydroponics, Dr. Howard Resh’s book, “Hydroponic Food Production”, is the standard in the industry.
Hydroponic Food Production
My Navy training was perfect for me to step into buying, selling, and servicing autoperimeters, also known as visual field machines. These devices would flash lights, either from LED’s or from a projected beam, and wait for patient response. A variety of deseases that make themselvs known by affecting vision can be detected by these devices.
The Dicons were powered by an 8-bit Z80, and the Humphries were powered by an i8088. I purchased testers/emulators from the used instrument market, and I was able do whatever was needed to effect virtually any repair, and even upgrades.There was nobody else that could do what I did, and for 11 years I was the premier third party service/salesman, at least as a legend in my own mind.
For the Dicons, I found new sources for more modern replacements for the video boards and power supplies. Also, the original 40-column thermal printer was no longer being supported by the Japanese company that had manufactured it, so I designed a PCB to emulate it.
I used a Pic16c84 micro-controller connected to a Dallas FIFO chip. The serial printer data from the Dicon would enter the printer emulator, be reshuffled into parralel Centronics standard, and then sent to a regular PC compatible printer. The printer emulator would provide control signals to both the Dicon and the PC printer. I thank my Navy training, especially the experience I received during the Univac 642B self OJT(On The Job Training), that allowed me to accomplish this while working out of my garage!
I also started buying, selling, and servicing the Humphries autoperimeter. This device projected a beam of light into the hemispheric dome, under control of an i8086 motherboard, equipt with optional floppies, hard drive, and even a camera.
A series of stepper motors would move the projection turret to point to the next target destination, and several sensors would verify beam intensity and beam position. These devices were more complicated than the Z80 powered Dicons, however my Navy training was adequate to the task.
I learned a business fact during this time: technicians can earn a good living, but salesmen can earn a great living! While repairs might earn me $500, the sale of an instrument would earn me from $1,000 to $7,000.
I held a job with Adac Labs for only 6 months around 1983. I went to training in Sunnyvale, CA, and I was assigned to Albuquerque, NM. It was a great opportunity with a great company. They manufactured nuclear imaging systems that took gamma ray scatter from isotopes administered to patients, processed it, and displayed diagnostic images, including video, for doctors to use.
Unfortunately, I became involved in a party lifestyle that kept me from evolving into my new job, which included extensive school work and the application of extra time on site, neither of which I paid any attention to. It was a bad deal for Adac, and I was very fortunate they gave me $3,000 to move my family back to California. I wish I could go back and do it right.
Storage Technology Corp.
After 7 years and 13 days I was honorably discharged from the Navy in August 1980, having earned a good conduct medal, and my first job was with Storage Tech. They were a tape drive company that had been founded by renegade IBM engineers in a garage, and they were successful in making a superior reel to reel mass storage tape drive that performed better and was cheaper than the IBM model. I was sent to Boulder CO. for training and then assigned to San Diego. My accounts included General Dynamics and Home Fed Savings and Loan.
The ubiquitous Z80 was the driving force within these units, and it also powered the controller unit, which was the size of a large freezer. Each controller was hooked up to eight drives, and the reason they were so large was that each electrical point was connected with wire. These were the days before highly integrated IC’s, PCB backplanes, and miniturized componants. However, the Navy had had these features in some of their onboard electronics and avionics for some time before they became commercial items.
My Navy training prepared me well. I worked for STC for two years before I left for my ill-fated, and short, career in Albuquerque. I had decided I couldn’t afford a house in California, so I left. When I came back, Storage Tech had gone bankrupt and my former coworkers were themselves looking for work. At the time, it was the biggest bankruptcy in the electronics industry. The owners had purchased a failed printer company, as well as an entire computer design company. Then they tried to make their own mainframe computer, and failed.
After the Chapter 11, STC became StorageTek and went on to be purchased by Sun Microsystems, and then both became part of Oracle.