On the Road: Processing Snap Beans at Ulmer Farms

Ulmer Farms is a 1,200-acre farm in Clinton County where Seth and Liz Ulmer have been growing soybeans, corn, processing tomatoes, and processing snap beans since 2001.
On the Road: Processing Snap Beans at Ulmer Farms - Articles


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Ulmer Farms was started in 2001 by Seth Ulmer. Photo: Francesco Di Gioia, Penn State

We have been visiting with Seth to learn more about his processing of snap beans, which are grown on 120 acres.

Snap beans are a short season crop, reaching maturity in about 60 days. Despite the brief growing season, a lot of planning for the crop takes place. Seth works closely with Dave Bowen, a broker with D&E Farms, and before planting a seed in the ground, they have planned for the entire growing season.

Dave works with processors to determine which cultivars they are willing to buy, and those cultivars are grown on the farm. Dave also works with other farmers along the East Coast: from Homestead, Florida to Upstate New York. Planting starts in February at the most southern locations. Harvest starts in April and moves up the coast, ending in October or November. When bean harvest is not large enough to meet the demand of processors, certain farms will double plant. This year double planting is needed because beans were damaged at many farms due to excessive rain.

Snap bean seed ready to plant. Photo: Tom Butzler, Penn State

Seed are planted with 30-inch center-to-center row spacing and 1 to 2 inches between plants in a row. This results in 90,000 to 100,000 plants per acre. Seed are set 1 to 1.5 inches deep, depending on soil moisture. When it is dry, seed are planted deeper.

Snap beans being planted with a 16-row mechanical planter. Photo: Tom Butzler, Penn State

Starter fertilizer is also applied at planting: 15 gallons per acre of 30% nitrogen placed 3 inches off the planting row for this season’s crop. Seth’s goal for fertility management is to balance vegetative and reproductive plant growth. He said that it is important that plants do not get too big to maximize yield. Soil testing is an important part of his snap bean fertility program. Leaf tissue testing also occurs every two weeks throughout the growing season. Test results are studied during the winter to help develop a plan for fertilizing next season’s crop. Very little corrective fertility occurs during the growing season. Seth mentioned that a lot of money could be spent trying to correct a nutrient problem during the season. He prefers to use test results to adjust his fertilizer plan for the next year.

Liquid 8-24-8 fertilizer applied at planting. Photo: Tom Butzler, Penn State

The field is rolled after planting. Rolling firms the soil around the seed and levels the soil surface, which promotes uniform seed germination and growth. Leveling the soil surface also facilitates harvest by allowing brushes to be close to the ground.

Rolling is done after planting to level the soil. Note the smoother soil surface on the right side of the photo, where rolling already occurred, compared to the left side. Photo: Tom Butzler, Penn State

A close-up view of the roller. Photo: Tom Butzler, Penn State

Irrigation is rarely used on the crop, despite plants having very small and shallow root systems. This is largely because the crop reaches maturity quickly. In fact, Seth only recalls using an irrigation gun once in all the years he has been growing snap beans. Another reason irrigation is rarely used is that once plants start flowering, the pressure of the water from the irrigation gun removes blossoms. Seth mentioned that a center pivot irrigation system would be good for snap beans because water is emitted using less pressure and would not interfere with flowering.

A snap bean plant showing the size and depth of the root system. Photo: Francesco Di Gioia

After plants emerge, consultants, arranged through Dave, scout the crop every two weeks. We went back to the farm 40 days after planting, and the crop had just started flowering. At flowering, consultants are looking for thrips, among other issues. Dave works with Seth to determine spray thresholds, as well as, which herbicides, insecticides, and fungicides are used on the crop.

Snap beans 40 days after planting. Photo: Francesco Di Gioia, Penn State

Dave and his harvesting team determine when to harvest, and harvesting occurs about three weeks after flowering begins. Seth mentioned that one of the advantages of working with a broker is that everyone gets paid by the ton, so everyone is working for the highest yield possible. Yields are generally between 4 to 5 tons per acre, and it takes 2 to 3 days to harvest all 120 acres.

Snap beans at early flowering. Photo: Francesco Di Gioia, Penn State

Harvest occurred the second week of August. Before starting, Seth and Dave walk the field to determine bean quality. We went on the second day of harvest, during a heavy rain event. Harvest is a very coordinated – Seth’s farm is one of many that need to be harvested in a short time. The window for harvesting is only about three days. As Dave says, “the beans are the boss.” For these reasons, harvest occurs even while it is raining. If fields are too muddy and they have concerns about soil compaction, Seth or Dave halt harvesting. The crop is lost when that happens.

Snap beans ready for harvest. Photo: Tom Butzler, Penn State

Dave had arranged for four 12.5-foot head harvesters, each of which harvests five rows at a time. Dave also arranged for trailers to take the beans to canneries in New Jersey and North Carolina. Using a broker, like Dave, opens several processing markets. Ulmer Farm snap beans are sold to several processors, usually McCall Farms, Furmano’s Foods, and Hanover Foods.

Four Oxbo 5-row green bean harvesters are contracted to harvest the crop. Photo: Francesco Di Gioia, Penn State

Close-up view of the brushes and rollers in a harvester. Photo: Tom Butzler

A harvester ejecting leaves and other waste and loading snap beans in a dump box. Photo: Tom Butzler, Penn State

The main stems are left behind after harvest. Photo: Tom Butzler, Penn State

Harvesters move 1 mile/hour. Normally, the trailer is brought into the field to minimize the distance harvesters need to travel to empty beans and make for a more efficient harvest. However, with the rain, the trailer was not able to enter the field and the harvesters needed to travel to the road each time the dump box needed to be emptied.

Snap beans being loaded into a trailer. The field was too muddy for the trailer to drive to the harvesters, so instead, harvesters brought snap beans over to the trailer. Photo: Tom Butzler, Penn State

Once harvested, a window of 12 hours exists before beans need to be processed or placed in cool storage. Trailers of beans are not tarped to avoid heat build-up which decreases bean quality. On a 95°F day, up to 1000 lbs of water can be lost from the beans before reaching the processor from the heat and wind moving over the beans.

Strategic use of technology is one of the keys to success at Ulmer Farms. As an example, Seth uses Veris Technology to map soil texture throughout the farm. Soil samples are collected and analyzed based on differences in soil texture. Then, fertilizer and lime are applied at variable rates based on soil test results. We also saw this technology being used when we visited Furmano’s Eppler Farm . Seth said this technology reduces costs and inputs on his farm.

He is also currently experimenting with variable-rate seeding for his corn crop. Based on last year’s yields of different planting areas, seeding rates are determined. For example, the planter can seed at a rate of 35,000 seed per acre in high yielding areas and 30,000 seed per acre in lesser yielding areas. Once this technology is mastered on corn, the plan is to use it next on snap beans.

Pictures of Seth’s processing tomato crop are taken by satellite and airplanes periodically throughout the growing season. Pictures show where plants look good and where they look stressed. Seth told us about a time when pictures revealed strips in the field of stressed plants. After investigating, it was determined that one boom on the pesticide sprayer was underapplying. Without the aerial view of the crop, the problem was not evident.

Seth said that precision farming could be like a black hole in the sense that you can put as much money into it as you have, but he stressed the need to balance that with the payoff. His use of technology has helped to maximize the productivity of his land, while not overworking it.

Of the 1200 acres of the farm, 800 acres are owned by the Ulmers. They rent the rest. Another key to Ulmer Farm’s success is in maintaining good communication with landlords and neighbors. One of the ways Seth does this is through a quarterly newsletter. In it, he posts information to keep readers up-to-date on farm activities; it also includes a recipe, pictures, and contact information.

The front page from Ulmer Farms Spring 2018 newsletter.

As another example of fostering good relationships with the local community, sunflowers are grown on 20 acres at the farm. They are strategically planted in places on the farm so that people can take pictures of and with them. Sunflower seed are harvested and sold to a local mill be used in birdseed blends.

Thank you to Seth Ulmer for the opportunity to visit you and tour your farm!

Ulmer Family Farm, 710 Island Rd., Lock Haven, PA 17745