i-Phone Farming

Oakley E. and M. Appel.  2011.  “i-Phone Farming”.  Growing for Market, Vol. 20, No. 10.

As farmers, we sometimes feel as though we have fallen into a technological time warp each time we venture into town for the farmers’ market.  Touch-screens, smart phones, and IPads can seem like urban toys with limited practical use on the farm.  Yet after repeated prodding from several friends and customers, we splurged on an IPhone this past spring.  We were surprised by how quickly this tool became valuable to us, proving to be well worth the money.

Over the past few months of playing around with the IPhone’s uses in farming, several utilities and apps (or mobile phone applications that connect customers to internet services, for those still stuck in the smart phone dark ages) stand out as being particularly helpful for market farmers (after all, this is a business expense!).  The list below of smart phone uses and apps is merely a taste of the possibilities, and those who are technology savvy will no doubt have more to add.

The Square – For us, this tiny tool less than an inch squared in size was the main catalyst for splurging on the IPhone in the first place.  With this simple and free “square” that plugs into the headphone jack, we can now accept credit and debit card sales at the farmers’ market.  Eureka!  To get started, all we had to do was download the Square app onto our phone and set up an account.  It was very straight-forward and took only a few minutes from start to finish.  The Square device was mailed to us at no cost and arrived within a few days.  Even better, there are no monthly fees; we simply pay 2.75% of each transaction or sale.

So how does it work?  Our very first week with the IPhone, a customer came by towards the end of the farmers’ market and asked if we accept credit cards.  We looked at each other, smiled, and simultaneously said “as a matter of fact, we do”.  In this case, we sold nearly $50 worth of strawberries, a sale we would not otherwise have made as the customer had no cash and the market was quickly closing.

To operate the device, you plug the Square into your smart phone headphone jack, hit the Square app on your phone screen, and you are taken to your Square account.  A screen appears prompting you to enter in the amount of the sale.  Next, swipe the customer’s card through the slot in the Square device.  This allows the Square to read the card as any other credit or debit card machine would.  After swiping the card, the transaction is processed and a new screen appears for the customer’s signature.  The customer simply signs the screen with their finger.  They can then type in their email address if they want a receipt, and if so, one will be automatically sent to them.  The whole process takes less than a minute.  The money from each sale is deposited directly into our bank account the next day.  The Square can be researched at www.squareup.com.

This service is not something we advertise at the market as we still prefer cash sales.  Yet each week, when a customer (or several) inevitably asks if we take credit or debit cards, we can now accept their money and not lose a sale.  We have found that customers generally ask because they don’t have cash on hand, so in the past when we said “no, we don’t accept credit cards”, those customers usually didn’t purchase anything.  Now, everybody is happy.

Weather – This is probably Mike’s favorite function of the IPhone.  After moving to Oklahoma from his native New York, he became obsessed with weather and storms.  He now has access to up-to-date Doppler radar in the fields.  We can check to see if rain is coming so we know whether to plant that day without having to trek inside to the office.  It is also helpful at the farmers’ market where we use it to find out what the forecast holds in store.  We have become popular with other vendors when skies look dark.

Email – Like most small-scale growers, we spend a lot of time responding to emails.  Sometimes it is hard to squeeze that important job into spring and summer fieldwork madness.  With the IPhone, one of us can read and write emails on the way to and from market.  If a customer forgot to pick up a special order, we can send them an email while still in town to arrange delivery.  When we are out in the field working, we can quickly check emails and respond on site.  This has proven particularly handy when harvesting.  We can check incoming emails to see if we have any new orders for the items we are picking– as we harvest them.

Photos—Remembering to bring the camera and then keeping an eye on it all morning at the farmers’ market meant we rarely took photos of our market stand.  Not anymore.  Now we take photos each morning before the crowds arrive.  They can then be emailed to customers to give them a colorful and enticing reminder to get to the market and shop.

Flashlight—Tired of groping in the dark on the way to load truck before the farmers’ market or an early morning delivery because you forgot to bring a flashlight?  There’s an app for that!  The light used for the camera’s flash is ingeniously turned into a flashlight with the press of a button.

Recipes—Numerous apps exist to service all manner of gastronomic appetites.  Ever find yourself stumped with a recipe request at market?  Or maybe you want to get an inspired take on a common crop.  Or perhaps you just need a refresher as to how many cups of basil are in a standard recipe of pesto.  Having recipe apps at your fingertips can give you the information you need to make a sale during the bustle of the farmers’ market.

Google—All of these apps work because the phone is always connected to the internet.  That means, if a customer wants to know how many pounds of tomatoes are in a bushel, we can quickly connect to google and get an answer.

Facebook—Does your farm have a Facebook account?  Post up-to-the minute updates while out in the field weeding, in the shop cleaning, or setting up a CSA pick-up location.  Having the ability to post-as-you-go about your regular workday can save you time, make your posts more interesting, and can avoid making the task of hosting a facebook page just another thing you have to do at the end of a long day.

Music/Radio—You can’t even find a Walkman in the thrift store these days, but you can listen to music, news, and the radio on your smart phone.  The IPhone replaces the need for an IPod.  We find this especially useful when spending hours harvesting strawberries and other crops, and it certainly makes weeding carrots or hoeing corn much more enjoyable.

Maps—If you have ever found yourself driving around unsuccessfully looking for directions to a new restaurant or grocery store account, this is the tool for you.  The map function plots your current GPS location, and by typing in the name of the place you want to go instantly gives you step-by-step instructions for getting there.  Your progress is tracked on the map as you drive, making it virtually impossible to get lost.

Voice Memo—We live an hour from our market, and inevitably our drives into town turn into impromptu strategizing sessions.  Yet frequently we can’t recollect half of what we said or planned by the time we get home and are ready to write out our thoughts.  The Voice Memo feature allows us to record important conversations or “jot down” notes for easy recall later.

Calculator—Just can’t remember what eight times nine is during an early morning session of brain-fog?  The calculator on the IPhone is user-friendly and pulls up in a few seconds.

Although initially the IPhone felt like an unnecessary indulgence, it is now fully integrated into our business.  What started with a useful means of accepting credit cards morphed into a plethora of services and apps.  We discover new uses each week.  From an app to access our business banking account to scanning receipts into pdf documents to identifying the nearest mail collection box, the range of possibilities is vast.

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Tips for Planting with the Planet Jr.

Appel M. and E. Oakley.  2011.  “Tips for Planting with the Planet Jr.”.  Growing for Market, Vol. 20, No. 8.

Getting a uniform, healthy, and quick stand from direct-seeded crops is essential for profitable farming.  It takes money and time to prepare beds for planting, so it is important to not to waste space.  Unevenly germinated beds are an inefficient use of limited planting area.  Untimely or spotty germination affect expected harvests dates and overall yield potential.  Seeds that get a poor start can be more susceptible to disease and pest pressure.  On our four acres of annual vegetables, we find most of these problems can be avoided with a fairly simple and inexpensive tool: the Planet Jr. walk-behind push seeder.

During our initial season farming eight years ago, cash flow was tight so we opted for the cheap and seemingly simple Earthway seeder.  While this tool may work well for many farmers, we found the plastic construction too light to attain good seed-to-soil contact.  Small seeds, such as arugula and turnips, got caught behind the seed plate and the seed hopper and were ground up into tiny pieces.  The tool’s light weight makes it easy to push down a bed, but it conversely lacked the heft to drive through any residual vegetative matter.  Where the tool became clogged, we got empty patches in the row.  That translated into missed opportunity and lost income.

After becoming frustrated with meager stands, we decided to research other options.  We soon realized that precision seeders like Stanhay were too expensive for our scale.  We were looking for a versatile seeder capable of handling a wide range of seed sizes and shapes.  A walk-behind Planet Jr. became the best option as it is affordable (around $400 from Market Farm Implements), and from our past experiences working on other farms, does a great job.  We chose to get a walk-behind instead of a tractor-mounted Planet Jr. as it is more convenient for the size of our operation.  Since putting it to use, we have not looked back.  It quickly paid for itself in a matter of weeks by achieving standardized germination rates and reliable coverage.

Over the years, we have come to plant more and more crops with the Planet Jr.  We started off just planting the usual spring crops like radishes, arugula, lettuce, spinach, etc., and now we plant almost every summer crop too, except zucchini (for which we use a jab planter).  When we plant corn, melons, watermelons, winter squash, and cucumbers with the Planet Jr., we select a hole size that releases about three seeds per foot.  After the seeds have germinated and are several inches high, we thin them to their required spacing.  Although this creates a bit more work up-front, getting a perfect stand makes it worth the effort.  Ideally, we would like to plant summer squash and zucchini with the Planet Jr. as well, but the seed is too big and expensive.

The Planet Jr. is a drill-type seeder.  There are three seed plates for a total of almost 40 differently sized seed holes.   There is a ground-driven brush mechanism in the seed hopper, so when the seeder is moving on the soil the brush continuously pushes the seed into the hole.  A shoe creates a “V” channel/furrow where the seed is deposited.  This shoe can be lowered and raised depending on the size of seed that is being planted and the desired depth.  Two arms behind the shoe sweep soil to the center to cover up the seed, and a rear packing wheel firmly settles the soil.

Perhaps the trickiest key to success with the Planet Jr. is finding the right seed hole size for the crop.  The inside of the seed hopper lid comes with a list of standard crops and suggested seed hole sizes.  We have found most of these to be ball-park figures with several holes sizes of give or take.  It took help from other growers and many years of experimentation to arrive at our ideal list.  Below is a list of the seed hole sizes we use with some of the specific varieties mentioned (all with the planting shoe depth on the second notch from the bottom  – except where noted):

Spring Crops

Arugula (Astro) – 3

Mizuna (Kyona) – 3

Turnips (Hakurei)- 3

Rapini or Broccoli Rabe – 4

Kale (Red Russian or Siberian)– 4

Pac Choy – 5 (for cutting as baby greens)

Carrots (Nelson) – 9

Radish (Cherriette) – 11

Lettuce (mix) – 12 (good thick stand)

Spinach (Tyee) – 18 (good thick stand for baby)

Beets – 19

Chard – 23

Pea Shoots – 36

Summer Crops

Beans (Jade) – 36 (notch 4)

Corn (Incredible) – 36 (notch 4)

Okra (Clemson Spineless) – 21

Cucumber  – 17-18

Watermelon (Crimson Sweet or Sugar Baby) – 21-22

Melon  – 20-22

In some cases, different varieties of the same crop will call for separate seed holes due to variation in the seed shape and size.  We also adjust the hole size if the seed package indicates a low germination rate.

As with most seeders, it is important to start with a clean, smooth seed bed with little crop residue.  We till using a tractor-mounted rototiller and then make raised beds with a bed maker. The bed maker firmly packs down the soil.  We like to plant after a rain when there is residual moisture, and if possible, avoid planting just before a heavy downpour to prevent compaction.  We fit the back of our bed maker with bolts that extend an inch into the bed, marking a shallow line in the soil we use as a guide with the seeder.  We plant one, two, or four rows per bed.  Beds are on sixty inch centers, and the space between rows can be adjusted by moving the bolts.  Straight lines for planting make it possible to use a tractor-mounted cultivator later for weed control.

Planet Jr. hoppers can be mounted to a three-point hitch.  However, we decided to go with the walk-behind model for several reasons.  First, we wanted to minimize tractor passes in the field.  Second, we plant multiple crop varieties per bed.  We feel it is much easier to change plates on the walk-behind model than from the tractor.  In some cases, we may plant two different crops in a single row (half a row per crop).  It is also faster to adjust when switching between one, two, and four- row beds.

Our four hundred dollar investment turned out to be one of the best decisions we’ve made.  We find the Planet Jr. push seeder to be the ideal tool for our small scale and recommend it for growers looking to achieve productive stands at a relatively low cost.

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Fall-planted Annual Strawberries

Appel M. and E. Oakley.  2011.  “Fall-planted Annual Strawberries”.  Growing for Market, Vol. 20, No. 7.

The last several years we have planted strawberries on black plastic in the fall for harvest the following spring.  This is the standard commercial technique in California and Florida.  Recently this method has become popular in several other states.  We will discuss how we have used this practice on our farm, a six-acre certified organic vegetable and fruit farm in northeast Oklahoma (zone 6).

Why Fall-Planted Strawberries?

Fall-planted, black plastic strawberries have several benefits over the traditional, spring-planted matted row system – higher fruit yields, bigger berry size, and less weed pressure.   The latter is probably the biggest advantage to us as organic farmers.  We are a two person farm (no interns or employees), and it is important we minimize labor requirements.  Unlike the semi-perennial matted row system, we till in the fall-planted strawberries at the end of each June. The thought of weeding, watering, and maintaining yet another crop during the hot summer months is not appealing.  With annual fall-planted strawberries, we get a fresh start each season.   In addition, the black plastic greatly reduces hand weeding.

There are, however, some disadvantages associated with this system—namely, the higher annual cost of plant purchases, laying the black plastic, and labor-intensive transplanting every fall.

The Fall

We till the field several times to create a weed-free soil before we plant the strawberries.  The strawberries follow our summer cover crop of millet and cow peas.  We apply and incorporate six to eight tons per acre of chicken manure several weeks prior to planting.

We lay the plastic with a tractor-pulled mulch layer at the end of September.  It is essential to apply the plastic securely to prevent air pockets from forming. The soil in the bed should be firm, the plastic tightly stretched and smooth.  This will enable the ground to heat up faster and stay hotter longer in the cool fall weather.  This facilitates foliar and root growth before the onset of winter.  At the same time the plastic mulch layer shapes the bed and lays the plastic, it buries a line of drip tape.  We place a heavy layer of straw mulch in between the beds in order to prevent weeds from growing and soil from splashing on the plants.

In our area of the country, we plant strawberry plugs at the beginning of October.   This gives them two full months of growth before December, when we generally start experiencing consistently frosty or freezing overnight low temperatures.  We plant plugs, or well-rooted tips, instead of bare root fresh-dug crowns for a number of reasons.  Fresh-dug crowns are generally not available for planting until mid to late October.  While only a few weeks later, this time makes a crucial difference in the plant’s establishment and success later in spring.  Also, fresh-dug crowns need more babying to encourage vegetative development than do plugs.

We plant two rows of strawberries on beds that are twenty-four inches wide on the top.   The plugs are planted sixteen inches apart within the row and are offset so that they are sixteen inches apart between the rows as well.  We use a home-made planter constructed from 1 1/4” PVC that pokes a hole in the plastic.  The planter is an upside-down “U” shape, with each leg sawn off at the bottom to create a sharpened tip.  Each leg makes a hole in the plastic, and a wooden slat attached perpendicularly four inches above the bottom of the legs makes the hole only as deep as it we want it.  Each leg is spaced sixteen inches apart.  The wooden slat extends another sixteen inches and has a long screw drilled through the end.  This makes a mark in the plastic where the next hole will be located.  We then place the planter on the mark, push down with our feet on the wooden slat until it touches the plastic, remove, and begin again.  The person not making the holes follows and transplants each plug by hand.  The plug is dropped in the hole, and the soil is firmly patted down around the roots.  It is important to plant at the correct depth so that the roots are well-buried but the crown remains above the soil.

We plant two thousand plugs per year, and on our two-hundred-foot-long beds that amounts to six beds of strawberries.  We buy our plugs from G & W Nurseries in Arkansas (goodson01@windstream.net) which sells plants for around $300/1,000 plants.  There are several other places around the country that sell plug plants.  Bare root fresh-dug crowns are half the price but come with the challenges mentioned above.  It is also possible to grow your own plugs with tips.  This is a labor-intensive process as the tips require a sophisticated misting system as they get established, and for a little more money we would rather pay someone else to manage that process.

Immediately after transplanting, the plugs are irrigated until the soil beneath plastic is well saturated.  The plants are kept moist until the first hard freeze. Additionally, we foliar-feed with a fish/kelp mixture every other week until the first frost.  Both these inputs—water and nutrients—encourage healthy plants capable of surviving winter weather.

Incidentally, we find Chandler to be the most productive variety with the best flavor.  We have tried Camarosa, but the fruit must be incredibly ripe to achieve a decent flavor.

The Winter

During winter the main activity is protecting the plants from very cold temperatures.  If the temperature is forecast to drop below sixteen degrees, we cover the beds with Agribon 19.  Metal hoops cut from ten gauge fencing wire are placed every five to six feet to keep the row cover from resting directly on the plants.  The hoops create a mini-greenhouse along the top of the bed.  We use sandbags half filled with gravel to hold down the row cover.   The sandbags make it easy to cover and uncover the strawberries as needed.  When uncovering the strawberries, we remove the sandbags completely from one side of the bed.  On the other side, we tuck the row cover under every other sandbag.  When it is time to cover the beds again, one of us lifts up the tucked in row cover while the other stretches it over the hoops and re-lays the sandbags.  Row cover should only be left on when temperatures are below sixteen degrees.  Any time the weather will be warmer, the row cover should be removed to prevent plants from coming out of dormancy in the artificially warm environment under the row cover.  In practice, that can mean many days of covering and uncovering throughout the winter, but when done right this effort will pay off handsomely in the spring.  At some point in the winter (generally mid-January through mid-February), temperatures are consistently cold enough to leave the row cover on permanently.

It is important to allow the plants to experience several frosts and light freezes before covering them the first time.  This promotes hardening-off of the crowns.  However, if the weather has been unusually warm and then suddenly gets unseasonably cold, the crowns will be damaged.  In that case, it is important to cover them.  One year we lost almost all our plants because we received bad advice and didn’t cover them when temperatures dipped into the single digits.   This year they survived a record-breaking twenty-seven degrees below zero with the row cover and several inches of snow as protection.

The Spring

At the end of February, when temperatures begin to moderate, we remove the row cover.  If we leave the cover on too long, the plants are more likely to flower prematurely.  In Oklahoma blooming starts in the middle of March, so it is also important to allow the bees to pollinate the flowers to prevent cat-facing.  We leave the row cover in the field next to each row in case of a freeze.  Once the plants begin flowering, it is vital to protect the buds from frost damage.  Our motto regarding spring row cover applications is: if in doubt, roll it out.  If there is any chance in the forecast for a frost, it is prudent to cover the plants.  Even a light frost can damage open flowers.  Frost-damaged flowers will sometimes simply fall off, but not always!  Some will continue to grow and create oddly-shaped fruit.  Other fruits will appear perfect on the outside but will be rotten inside (a real challenge when harvesting).  We cannot stress enough the importance of avoiding frost on flowers and buds.  When planted, each crown contains all the flowers it will ever produce already stored inside, so any loss from frost or freeze cannot be “made up” later on with special care.  Flowers killed by frost or freeze equal lost income.

Once the plants are six to eight inches in diameter in early spring, we foliar fertilize with the fish/kelp emulsion every week to ten days.  We continue that schedule until the fruits are large and nearly ready for harvest.  Although strawberries are heavy feeders, fish and kelp provide ample nutrients for strong fruit-set.

This year we started picking strawberries the third week in April and harvested until the second week in June, for a total of eight weeks.   A general rule is to expect a pound of fruit per plant over the course of the season.  The row cover can help accelerate fruit onset, which provides a longer harvest before the summer heat sets in.

Perhaps the greatest challenge to organic strawberry production is disease control.  A heavy rain followed by cool temperatures is a sure bet for rotten fruit the subsequent week.  Air flow is the best fungicide, which is why we will space our plants a little further apart this coming fall.  We have not triedhoophouse strawberries yet but can imagine the potential for rainfall protection.

Why Black Plastic?

We tend to shy away from black plastic for philosophical reasons, but we have found there is no other viable means of growing fall-planted plugs.  We experimented with winter cultivation and no mulch or plastic, but weeds were a constant battle and the fruit was filthy after a rain.  We tried straw mulch both between the beds and within the rows, but without a miraculously seed-free straw source this method is tantamount to planting weeds.  More importantly, the straw keeps the soil cool and shaded, slowing down fall establishment and spring emergence dramatically.

Fall-planted strawberries on black plastic are successful because the plastic gives plants much-needed fall and spring heat, protects fruit from soil splashing and disease, and holds down weeds in an organic system.  And though they are labor-intensive during growth and harvest, strawberries are a customer magnet and provide a profitable and delicious start to the growing season.

Mike and Emily own Three Springs Farm in Oaks, OK and can be emailed at farmers@threespringsfarm.com.

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Cultivating Young Farmers: removing obstacles for new producers

Oakley E. and M. Appel.  2010.  Cultivating Young Farmers: removing obstacles for new producers.  Acres USA, Vol. 40, No. 12.

With the average farmer approaching sixty and the increasing demand for locally-produced food, our country needs a spike in the number of young producers starting small-scale, full-time family farms.  There are resources available to young farmers in various parts of the country.  Several deal with business planning and marketing, some link new and established growers, and a few help aspiring farmers obtain land.  These are all important assets, and yet they still do not entirely address the needs of new farmers.

Imagine you have no land, little money, and are worried about the risks, but you nevertheless have the passion, experience, and drive to be a farmer.  What is your next step?  That is a good question, and one young farmers regularly face.  At a recent tour of our farm by college students in a sustainable agriculture class, we asked the future growers about barriers to farming.  The students named access to good soil, capital, and being taken seriously as three major obstacles.  Knowing their answers and our own recent experience as new farmers, we have wondered what more can be done to smooth the path towards building a new generation of American farmers.

Our Farming Roots:

Becoming farmers seems like an improbable career choice for young people these days.  As kids, we never raised our hands in class to say we wanted to become farmers when we grew up.  If we had been asked in high school if we would end up farming in Oklahoma, the answer would have been “no”.  Yet by our mid-twenties, after studying agriculture in college and following some excellent farm internships, we decide to take the plunge.  In fall of 2003, we moved to Emily’s home state of Oklahoma to start our own farm.

We expected to encounter, if not numerous at least significant, resources for helping beginning farmers.  While institutional help provided us with valuable information on management, marketing strategies, and local agricultural conditions, we needed land, capital, and mentoring just as urgently.  Luckily, we received support from a few individuals with a desire to help our farm get off ground.  We spent our first three years leasing land and borrowing equipment from a generous family on the outskirts of Tulsa.  Without the initial stress and strain of a mortgage, we were able to purchase our own farm at the end of our third season.  We are now in our seventh year in Oklahoma, the fourth on our own farm.

We chose to farm organic vegetables in an unlikely place.  Relatively few few organic vegetable farms exist in Oklahoma, and there are even fewer for whom organic agriculture comprises the family’s sole income source.  We initially met with skepticism from those who considered the interest in local food dubious and who doubted our ability to farm for our livelihood, particularly using organic methods.  Despite these misgivings, we found that it was in fact quite possible to grow organically, that the demand for local food in Oklahoma is high, and the prospects for young growers rich.

Given the often pioneering sentiment of being young farmers in Oklahoma, we have reflected on ways to make agriculture more accessible to emerging farmers here and around the country.  We receive inquiries throughout the year from would-be growers, yet the number who move from interest to practice is comparatively small.  Barriers to starting a small business are always plentiful, but agriculture poses unique challenges.  Once a young farmer attains the necessary skills–through internships and other experiences–to forge out on their own, there remain three main challenges to entering the field of agriculture: access to 1) land, 2) money, and 3) security.

Land:

Unless you were born with a family farm, acquiring land is perhaps the most obvious hurdle facing new farmers.  In much of the country, farmable land close to urban markets has become unaffordable for that purpose due to development pressure; these are not your grandparent’s land prices!  Many land trusts are working to make land accessible to new farmers through the purchase of development rights and agricultural conservation easements.  The FarmLink and Landlink programs, connecting retiring farmers with prospective growers, sometimes acquire easements so that young growers can purchase land at its agricultural, not development, value.  The International Farm Transition Network lists 20 states with similar programs.  Some states have even legislated resources to nurture new farmers, such as the Iowa Beginning Farmer Center.  These are laudable programs and are needed nationwide.

In addition to high prices, beginning farmers face other challenges in purchasing land.  Achieving a down-payment can be problematic for young people who may still carry student loans.  Obtaining a commercial loan to buy a farm is virtually impossible.  Even government subsidized loans can be tough.  Ironically, our local Farm Service Agency (FSA) office insisted on two years of business tax returns demonstrating a profitable enterprise before it would review our application for a “beginning farmer loan”.

Loan officers from traditional banking institutions were no better; they would not even schedule an appointment with us when they heard we wanted to buy farmland.  Although lenders must understandably ascertain the risk of applicants, there should be other avenues for creating eligibility criteria that new farmers are liable to meet.  Young farmers find themselves in an awkward position: in order to generate enough revenue to demonstrate a profitable business, they typically must farm full-time.  Yet as self-employed people, they cannot meet conventional loan conditions.

That leaves aspiring farmers with limited financing options.  They might explore long-term leasing or seek funding from friends and family.  Parents able and willing to co-sponsor a loan, take out a home equity loan for their kids, or lend the money outright have given some new farmers the hand up they required to get started, but not everyone’s parents are in a position to provide such powerful assistance.  In contrast to other start-up business ventures, it is hard to find “investors” for a new farm.

One option is the creation of a revolving loan fund, with finance acquired by investments from established farmers.  The fund would operate as do most lending institutions, taking the land as collateral.  With a fixed interest rate of five or six percent, investing farmers would get a stable return on their investment while new farmers would have access to a low-interest loan.  This system would be a win-win with new farmers obtaining credit and investing growers getting a socially-responsible investment opportunity.

Money:

After land, access to money is the next challenge facing new farmers.  Unlike people who come to agriculture after retiring from a traditional job, young growers are just starting out in life and consequently have few financial assets at their disposal.  The cost of the start-up phase (during which you spend most of your time getting the business up and running but are making no income) can be a real barrier; new growers must have substantial savings to begin the process.  Lease opportunities can provide entrée without being saddled by a burdensome mortgage during the first few years of operation.  Affordable leasing can allow growers to use their profits to acquire equipment and save for a down payment, better positioning long-term achievements.

Farms with interns genuine about becoming farmers could provide training in saving for a business and help interns project start-up costs at the same time they teach tractor operation, greenhouse management, and other production-related skills.  Beginning farmers usually find it difficult to estimate amounts for equipment and supplies.  Encouraging interns to think about these variables while still in training will better prepare them once they head out on their own.

Several states have programs to walk beginning growers through the details of business ownership, launching the careers of many new growers.  They generally provide business incubation, assistance with goal-setting, market assessment, and business planning.  Thriving models like Journeyperson program with Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association and Growing Growers in Kansas are excellent examples of institutional support for beginning farmers.

As beginning farmers, we were awarded a small grant by our state department of agriculture which was indispensable for purchasing equipment to make our business more efficient and profitable.  We propose small grants of $5,000 to $10,000, a substantial contribution to a young farmer’s capital reserves.  Grants could be awarded initially as a “loan” to the grower for a three to five year term.  At the end of each year, a portion of the loan would be “forgiven”.  At the completion of the determined time period, the loan would be fully dissolved.  This system promotes committed lendees in that only new growers who sincerely expect to farm would be likely to apply.

Security:

Security is the most vague and least discussed barrier to farming.  A security deficit was a chief factor in the skepticism we initially met.  Like the college students on our farm tour, we faced doubt from friends and family who thought we were wasting our energy by becoming farmers, that we would never be able to support ourselves.  The perception of farming as a form of gambling contributes to the lack of respect the college students on our farm tour mentioned.  And yet there are relatively simple steps the small farm community can take to alleviate some of that risk and convince the nay-sayers that agriculture can be a profitable enterprise.

Committed farmers do not enter the business because they think it is a get-rich-quick scheme.  Most are satisfied with a decent living and a simple lifestyle.  Nonetheless, a farmer’s income should be comparable to that of other skilled professions.  At times, the young people with whom we have spoken have shied away from farming as a serious career choice thinking they cannot make a viable income.  In our experience, students of agriculture, people we assume would consider farming for their full-time jobs, are more likely to enter extension and other support services than to become farmers themselves simply because they perceive too many economic sacrifices.  Farmers who demonstrate strong, practical economic models can counter the assumption that farming is a form of non-profit work.

Unlike most jobs, there is no public posting of hourly wages for farmers.  Prospective farmers do not have average starting salaries they can reference when determining profit margins.  Incomes obviously fluctuate by region, marketing outlets, crops grown, and years of experience, among other variables.  Yet beginning farmers are forced to rely on academic budget projections to estimate their probable gross sales and need comparable real-world examples.  Open representations of prosperous farm enterprises in each growing region are valuable, along with access to profit and loss information—how much do growers make and on which crops?  Farmers have a right to personal financial privacy, but being willing to share some cash flow generalities can go a long way in helping a new farmer get a sense of what s/he can expect to earn.

A nationwide listing of established farmers willing to mentor beginning farmers, analogous to ATTRA’s internship listing, would unite the information of experienced growers with the questions of new farmers.  Similar concepts have already worked regionally, as with the Alabama Sustainable Agriculture Network’s Farmer-to-Farmer program and Georgia Organics’ Farmer Mentoring and Marketing program.  As we know first-hand, there is a special call for mentors in places without a dense community of growers nearby to offer support and guidance.  Mentors need not divulge intimate details but should be prepared to give new growers a sense of what they can earn off of proposed crop plans.  Mentors could share information on pricing, variety selection, planting dates.  These are some of the questions we are most frequently asked by new growers.  Obviously, new growers will have to learn on their own through trial and error, and mentors should not turn over their entire farm records, but having access to reputable knowledge can save new farmers from making avoidable mistakes and lead them to higher returns at a faster rate.  Mentors do not have to be from the same region, and should only service one new farm per season.  Their own businesses should be well established so that they do not feel compromised by sharing their practices.  Mentors are entitled to a modest stipend in appreciation of their time and expertise.

Similarly, a national listserv for new farmers would offer the chance to connect with others with related experiences.  Farmers could be networked by geographic region and crops raised.  Another security stumbling block is crop insurance.  Meaningful crop insurance for diverse farms would help new growers withstand variable seasons.  Farming is risky enough without the added burden of worrying about losing your crops to weather extremes.  Finally, farmers deserve the same benefits that many other professions enjoy, like health insurance, life insurance, and retirement options.  New farmers ought to be guided towards practical options for life planning and management.

Cultivating Tomorrow’s Farmers:

Several new farmers have started up in our area in the past few years.  Observing their experiences highlights the need for progressive assistance, especially if we hope to expand the number of sustainable family farms in underrepresented areas of the country.  A consolidated national movement promoting steps that our government, universities, and non-profit agencies can take to encourage a new generation of farmers is essential.   Our suggestions, such as a farmer-run revolving loan fund, forgivable loans in the form of grants, and farm mentoring are just some of the possibilities (see the table summarizing needs and resources).

Farming, especially organically, is both a career and cause.  Any young person dedicated to becoming a farmer needs all of the support our communities can give.  These are individuals who express a desire to live their dreams, are devoted to the lifestyle of agriculture, and are eager to take the leap into small business ownership.  And yet energy and youth will take a person only so far.

Not enough young people leave high school or college with their sights set on farming.  If we can address the larger issue of access to land, money, and security, more will consider agriculture an estimable career path.  The best way to raise more farmers is showing professional viability and easing the path towards farm ownership.

NEED CURRENT RESOURCE EXAMPLES POTENTIAL FUTURE RESOURCES
Land Land Trusts

Linking retiring farmers with new growers:

Ex: Farmlink and Landlink

Ex: Iowa Beginning Farmer Center

Long-term leases

Farmer-funded revolving loans
Money Family and friends

State Agriculture Department grants

Personal savings

Business guidance:

Ex: MOFGA Journeryperson program

Ex: Growing Growers (Kansas)

Training in saving

Help in projecting start-up costs

Forgivable loans in the form of grants

Security Farmers as mentors:

Ex: Alabama Sustainable Agricultural

Network Farmer-to-Farmer program

Ex: Georgia Organics’ Farmer Mentoring

and Marketing program

National list of farmers willing to mentor

Increased access to others farmer’s data:

Ex: Pricing

Ex: Varieties

Ex: Dates to plant

National listserve for new farmers

Crop insurance

Life and health insurance

Retirement planning

© Emily Oakley and Mike Appel 2010

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How one customer revolutionized our CSA program

Oakley, E. and M. Appel. 2008. How one customer revolutionized our CSA program. Growing for Market. Vol. 18, No 10.

Five years ago a regular farmer’s market customer shared with us his inventive spin on our Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program.  We were at our Saturday farmers’ market in Tulsa, OK and were in the process of signing people up for our CSA program when he approached us with his proposal.

At the time, our CSA was like many across the country.  Members joined in the winter and received a half bushel basket of produce for twenty weeks throughout our growing season.  Like a good number of CSAs, it gave us the benefit of up-front winter income while giving members a 10-15% discount over our farmers’ market prices.  Members picked up their baskets each week at either the Wednesday or Saturday farmers’ market.

The customer who approached us with his innovation said that he wanted to support us by becoming a CSA member, but spent some of the summer out of town.  Rather than being bothered with trying to find friends to pick up his basket in his absence or being disappointed by missing out on so much of the harvest, he instead proposed paying us money upfront in the winter for a “debit” style system.  He would have an account with us off of which he could shop throughout the season.  It was such a compelling suggestion that we were eager to experiment.

The next season we opened up the “farmers’ market CSA”, as we call it, to fifteen customers and kept our regular “basket CSA” members.  It was only our second season in operation, so we wanted to be careful about not over-committing with too many members at once.

From the beginning, people were attracted to the farmers’ market CSA.  It gave them the chance to pick out whatever they wanted from our market table.  If they didn’t want cabbage, they didn’t have to take it.  If they wanted to get ten pounds of tomatoes one week, they could.  We subtract their weekly selections from their credit balance.   CSA members can shop from either the Wednesday and/or Saturday farmers’ markets.  As with the basket CSA, they receive a weekly newsletter with stories, photos, and recipes from the farm.  They get a ten percent bonus added on to their membership amount.

We have a somewhat cautious attitude towards change, so our transition to the farmers’ market CSA was measured.  We gradually added farmers’ market CSA memberships each season.  By our fourth year farming, we reached a cross-road in our marketing plan.  With an equal number of farmers’ market and basket CSA members, we felt we needed to make a strategic decision for future growth.  A central aspect of our farm philosophy is functioning as a two-person farm.  As a result, we have an obvious labor limitation.  We could not effectively expand either program since our energy was too divided to intensify either.  We felt we needed to choose one program or the other and do that well.

We ultimately opted to eliminate the basket CSA and focus exclusively on the farmers’ market CSA.  This was an arduous decision to make.  The basket CSA was a significant part of our identity as a farm.  We commonly had a waiting list three times the size of available membership spaces.  We knew there would be some people who would be unwilling to make the switch.  Although we were clearly averse to disappointing our loyal basket members, we finally concluded that we needed to do what was best for our farm.  And we have never looked back.

The benefits of doing away with the basket CSA are many.  No more market pickups.  Assembling the baskets was frequently one person’s full-time job for an hour during market set-up.  Perhaps most liberating is not worrying about growing so many unusual crops to satisfy the need for diversity in the baskets.  Watermelon diakon, for example, are fun for a basket CSA, but they were never a big money maker at our market stand.  We are no longer obliged to pay such close attention to the contents of member’s baskets from week to week to avoid repetition and boredom.  The result is that some of our time and fields have been freed up from growing crops that were not remarkably profitable.  We still grow a wide variety of crops; we are simply not as obsessive about it as we once were.  Another significant weight off of our minds is that with the farmer’s market CSA, we bring what we have.  No scrounging for forty equally-sized celery heads to fill the baskets.  Farmers’ market CSA customers know they must come early to get the best selection.

Which is why the farmers’ market CSA is not for everyone. Several former basket members have mentioned the convenience of knowing that even if they couldn’t get to the market early, there would still be a varied basket of produce waiting for them when they arrived.  Some people preferred the surprises inherent in the basket program.  They enjoyed being pushed to try new veggies they would not otherwise be likely to select from our market stand.  Some took particular pleasure in the novelty of having a basket of produce picked especially for them.  They said it was like regularly receiving a present.  Others used the basket program to inspire them to add more veggies to their diets as they knew they had a basket of produce ready for which they had already paid.  Ultimately, about one third of our basket customers chose not to become farmers’ market CSA members.  Nearly all of them continue to shop with us, though not with the same intensity as the basket CSA promoted.  Nevertheless the majority of basket members readily made the switch to the farmers’ market CSA and now prefer its flexibility.

We gain considerably from the farmers’ market CSA.  As was also the case with our basket CSA, we have a dedicated and informed group of customers who learn about the latest news on the farm and who care about our ups and downs.  Our habitual interaction at the market makes us each an essential part of the other’s life.  No matter the weather, we know we will always have a substantial number of CSA customers at each market, giving us a core group of supporters that makes setting up on rainy days comforting.  Moreover, when a wash out is predicted we often email the CSA the night before the market to remind them of our availabilities and promote their attendance.

Our CSA is now smoothly integrated into our farmers’ market arrangement.  Rather than competing with our time for traditional market sales, it adds to them.  Our CSA members tend to come to the market early, surrounding our stand with a vibrant crowd that attracts other customers.  People seem drawn to the busyness, as though there must be something good for sale at our table if so many people are gathered there.  CSA members are liable to try unusual crops since they have read about them in the newsletter.  They tend to take home extra produce, getting a wider selection and greater volume of veggies overall than regular market customers.  We have noticed that many of our CSA customers who were former traditional market customers spend more with us now than they did previously.  Since money is absent from the transaction, some CSA customers joking say that they feel like the veggies they get each week are “free”.  All agree that not having to be troubled about bringing money to the market is a major benefit.

We now have eighty-five farmers’ market CSA customers and a healthy waiting list.  Next year we expect to raise that number to 100, where we anticipate capping it.  That gives us sufficient working capital at the beginning of the season while not overwhelming us with too many obligations.

A critical aspect of the farmers’ market CSA is keeping track of every customer’s on-going balance.  We created an Excel spreadsheet listing each person’s name and their total.  Using a simple subtraction formula, we enter their weekly purchase amount, and Excel subtracts it from their on-going balance.  Because no cash is actually changing hands, CSA members are even faster to service than traditional farmers’ market customers whose money we must deposit and for whom we generally need to make change.

Despite its major advantages, no arrangement is perfect.  With eighty-five CSA members, we must remember that a certain percentage of the produce we bring to the market is technically already sold and will be picked up by our CSA members.  CSA selections generally comprise one third of our weekly market “sales”, depending upon the time of year and the volume of produce we bring each week.  There is a certain amount of paperwork involved, namely keep a tally going of their current balance as mentioned above.  Additionally, putting a name to everyone’s face and remembering them can be a bit challenging, especially at the start of each season.  There are always a few members each year who seem to enjoy the concept more than the reality and have a hard time making a regular commitment to attending the market to use their balances.

In the first few seasons, we carried over any remaining balances to the next year.  We soon learned that this created an untenable situation for us as we were starting each new year with residual debt from the previous season.  To remedy this we adopted a use-it-or-donate it policy.  Members must consume their entire balance each season, or the remainder will be donated in produce to a local food bank.  We encourage members to regularly inquire as to their balances to help them gauge their purchase totals.  We also try to make a point of telling each member their balance on the final market of each month.  Mid-way through the season we devote a newsletter to balances.

We allow three different membership amounts so that customers can select a size that adequately reflects the amount of veggies they eat: $200, $250, and $300.  For example, in our sign-up letter we remind them that there are approximately 20 weeks in our season.  So if they purchase a $200 share that is equivalent to buying $10 a week worth of produce.  Members can always add to their balances at any point should they use it all before the end of the season.  Those who do tend to re-up in fifty or one hundred dollar increments.  Any time they augment their balances, they are given the same ten percent bonus.

The success of the farmers’ market CSA is indicated by the high percentage of repeat customers.  We have averaged a roughly ten percent attrition rate each year; some people move, others build their own gardens, and a few find it doesn’t fit their needs.  Yet they overwhelmingly remain loyal customers and supporters.  Our CSA customers have become vital fixtures in our farm lives.

Each season we find a new reason to appreciate the farmers’ market CSA, and we have come to see it as the foundation of our farm.  Since starting the farmers’ market CSA, we have heard that other farms throughout the country have similar programs.  Our experience helped us see that CSAs are wonderfully adaptable, and they can be modified to fit the farm and its customers’ needs.

© Emily Oakley and Mike Appel 2009

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Butternut Squash Soup with Red Pepper

2 pounds butternut squash, halved and seeded

2 pounds red peppers

1 pound tomatoes

¼ cup packed basil

4-5 cloves garlic, minced

4-5 cups vegetable broth

½ tsp. cayenne pepper

1 tsp. salt (more to taste)

In a medium pot, steam the squash in one inch of water for 10-15 minutes or until tender.  When done, let the squash cool and then scoop out the insides.  Place in a large pot, and mash until smooth.  Meanwhile, place the red peppers whole on a baking sheet in the broiler for 5-7 minutes, or until roasted on one side.  Remove the peppers from the broiler, cool, and seed and peel the peppers (you will only be able to peel one side).  Place the peppers, tomatoes, and basil in a food processor, and puree until smooth.  Add to the squash, add in the broth, garlic, and salt.  Bring to a boil, and gently simmer for 10 minutes.  Remove from heat and serve with a dollop of sour cream.

© Emily Oakley 2010

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Pea Shoot Frittata

1 bunch green garlic, bulbs, stems, and leaves chopped

1/2# pea shoots, roughly chopped

6 eggs

3 Tbs. butter

1 generous tsp. honey

1/2 cup milk

1/3 cup brie, cut into cubes

salt and pepper to taste

Melt the butter in a medium, non-stick, and oven-proof skillet over medium heat.  Add in the green garlic and honey, and sauté for 3 minutes.  Beat the eggs and milk in a separate bowl, and pour over the green garlic.  Immediately add the pea shoots on top of the egg mixture.  Cook for 5 minutes, or until the top sets.  Sprinkle the brie over the top, and place the entire skillet in the broiler for 1-2 minutes, or until slightly golden.  Serve warm or at room temperature.

© Emily Oakley 2010

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Candied Ginger Bok Choy

1 bunch bok choy, chopped into 1/2” strips

2 stalks green garlic, minced

2 Tbs. olive oil

2 Tbs. finely grated fresh ginger

1 Tbs. honey

1 tsp. Dijon mustard

2 Tbs. rice wine vinegar

1/2 tsp. salt

dash of toasted sesame seed oil to taste (optional)

Heat the olive oil in a medium skillet over medium heat until hot.  Add in the garlic, and sauté for 2 minutes.  Stir in the ginger and honey, and sauté for 1 minute.  Add the bok choy, and cook for 4 minutes, covered.  Mix together the mustard, rice wine vinegar, and salt in a small bowl.  Add to the bok choy, and stir well.  Cook for 2 more minutes.  If adding the sesame seed oil, turn off the heat and sprinkle it in.  Serve immediately over rice or fried tofu.

© Emily Oakley 2010

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Roasted Red Pepper Quiche

1 pie crust

1# red bell peppers- roasted, peeled, and finely chopped

1 garlic clove, crushed

1/2 cup onions, finely chopped

2 eggs, lightly beaten

1 cup milk

1 cup sharp white cheddar cheese, grated

1/2 cup sour cream

dash of cayenne pepper

pinch of dried basil

salt and pepper to taste

Preheat the oven to 450 F.  Poke holes in the bottom of the pie crust and bake for 8 minutes.  In a large bowl combine the eggs, milk, sour cream, spices, and salt and pepper.  In another bowl mix the peppers, cheese, garlic, and onions.  Fold into the egg mixture.  Pour into the piecrust and bake at 350 F for approx. 45 minutes, or until a knife inserted comes out clean and the top is slightly browned.

© Emily Oakley 2010

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Twice “Baked” Summer Squash

1 large summer squash

2 cloves of garlic, crushed

1/2 cup cheddar cheese, grated

1/2 cup sour cream

salt and pepper to taste

Mix the grated cheddar cheese with the sour cream and garlic in a bowl, and set aside.   Slice the squash lengthwise into halves, and then again into 4 halves.  Steam the quartered squash in a large covered pan with a little bit of water for 5-7 minutes, or until tender.  Remove the squash from the pan and scoop out the middle with a spoon.  Try to make a bowl-shaped space in the middle of the squash.  Place the squash, bowl-side up, in a baking dish.  Chop up the middle sections and add to the cheese filling.  Return the cheese filling to the squash centers.  “Bake” under the broiler for 5 minutes, or until the cheese filling begins to brown.

© Emily Oakley 2010

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