I’d like to sell rhubarb to a local bakery. How do I scale up my operation?
Answer: The first step is to develop an enterprise budget for rhubarb on your farm. This is where you define local markets and estimate how much you can sell. It is also important to estimate the costs involved in preparing land, planting, harvesting, and getting the rhubarb to market. This will begin to identify how much rhubarb you need to grow and the price you’ll need to charge. For more information, see the ATTRA publication Evaluating a Farming Enterprise, available at https://attra.ncat.org/attra-pub/summaries/summary.php?pub=277 For general information on commercial production of rhubarb, the publication Rhubarb Production in California, from the University of California Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources, is a great resource. It is available at http://anrcatalog.ucdavis.edu/pdf/8020.pdf.With any perennial crop like rhubarb, you ideally spend a season planting cover crops to reduce weed pressure before planting the cash crop. Once you have planted, shallow cultivation and mulch can be used to control weeds and hold in soil moisture. You should take a soil sample to see what nutrients should be used to amend the soil. ATTRA’s Alternative Soil Testing Laboratories database (https://attra.ncat.org/attra-pub/soil_testing/) identifies labs that perform soil testing. Rhubarb is a heavy feeder and responds well to applications of manure and compost. It will tolerate slightly low pH and grows well in the 6.0 to 6.5 range. Pulverized limestone, rock phosphate, greensand, and blood meal can be added to the field the year before planting to increase pH, phosphorus, potassium, and nitrogen levels respectively. If you are happy with the variety of rhubarb you grow now, and it is free of disease, you can propagate plants from the patch that you currently have. This is done by dividing the roots. Each well established plant should give at least eight root crowns for your new patch. Dividing is best done in the fall or early spring, and planting should be done as early in the spring as conditions allow. Common plant spacing for commercial production is two to three feet in row with rows six feet apart. If you locate commercial producers of rhubarb in your area, they may be willing to sell you some root crowns when they divide their plants. Dividing is part of maintaining a productive crop of rhubarb. Many seed companies and nurseries sell rhubarb crowns, and some companies also sell heirloom seed. If your new plantings grow well you can harvest a few stalks the first year, but harvest won’t truly start until the following year, when you can take a larger portion of the stocks. In three to five years you can start fully harvesting. In certain areas, rhubarb can be harvested once in the spring (April or May) and again in July. Regardless, the plants should be left to re-grow through the summer in order to feed the roots for next year’s production. Some commercial production yields show 10 pounds per plant. This may be a good starting point to determine the amount you need to plant.The price you set should be determined in part by how much you need to make a profit, and in part by how much rhubarb is selling for in local markets. Bakeries that want rhubarb for their pies seems like a good market, but how much will they need and what are they willing to pay? Will you have to sell to other markets to make the time and financial investment in starting your rhubarb patch worthwhile? These are questions that you should answer before you start this endeavor.