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Permalink What are the basic steps for oilseed production?

Answer: The basic processing steps are as follows:

Seed cleaning
Preparation of the raw material often includes removing husks or seed coats from the seeds and separating the seeds from the chaff. There are a wide variety of small- to intermediate-scale approaches to and technologies for effective seed cleaning.

Seed preparation and conditioning
For successful pressing, the seed must be:

• Clean. Fine dust in the seed may clog the oil press hardware. Chaff left in the seed will absorb some of the oil and keep it from getting squeezed out of the expeller. Sand in the seed will wear out the press. Stones damage the oil press screw or piston.

• Dry. Moist seed leads to low yields and clogs the screw or cage, a part of the press. Moist seed may also get moldy, as mold spores are present in all crops. A rule of thumb is that the moisture content of the seed should be close to 10 percent.
The number varies considerably for specific oilseeds. For example, rapeseed should be dried to a 7-percent moisture content, camelina to about 6 percent and sunflower to 8.5 percent. Safflower needs only to be dried to 11 percent and soybean is safe for storage and processing at 12 percent. There are at least two methods of testing seed moisture levels. Hand-held moisture testers allow the user to simply place the seed in the tester, turn it on and select the type of seed to test. The tester provides an instant readout. These testers cost from $400 to $700. Here is a lower-tech, low-cost way of moisture testing: Weigh a sample of seed, and then heat the sample in an oven at 300 degrees Fahrenheit for one hour. Reweigh the sample. The weight lost in the oven is equal to the moisture content of the original sample. Calculate the percentage by dividing the weight lost by the original weight and multiplying the result by 100. Even dry seed can quickly get damp by being in contact with damp earth. Once the seed is dried and bagged, it must be carefully stored to keep it from absorbing moisture.

• Warm. Warm seed will yield the most oil for the least effort. The optimum heat range for oil extraction is from 100 to 160 degrees. There are several ways to preheat the seed in advance of extraction. For very small batches, heating the seed in an oven or double boiler works, as does concentrated sunlight in a solar food dryer or some other solar collector. For larger batches, a heating element in a hopper located between the seed storage facility and the oilseed press works well.

Extraction by cold pressing
Oil can be extracted mechanically with a ram press, an expeller or even a wooden mortar and pestle, a traditional method that originated in India. Presses range from small, hand-driven models that an individual can build to power-driven commercial presses. The ram press uses a piston inside a cage to crush the seed and force out the oil. Expellers have a rotating screw inside a horizontal cylinder that is capped at one end. The screw forces the seeds or nuts through the cylinder with gradually increasing pressure. The seed is heated by friction and electric heaters or a combination of the two. Once the cap is removed, the oil escapes from the cylinder through small holes or slots and the press cake, or meal, emerges from the end of the cylinder. Both the pressure and temperature can be adjusted for different kinds of feedstock.

Clarification removes contaminants such as fine pulp, water and resins. You can clarify oil by allowing it to sit undisturbed for a few days and then removing the upper layer. If the oil needs further clarification, filter the oil through a fine filter cloth. Finally, you can heat the oil to drive off traces of water and destroy any bacteria. Very clean oil is important in all uses, including biodiesel.

Degumming is the process of removing the phospholipids from the oil. Many people advise that you allow the resulting oil to settle out the gums, or hydratables, over a period of one to two weeks. However, you need more chemical processing to make high-quality culinary oil or biodiesel feedstock.

Refining, bleaching and deodorizing
The vegetable oil produced and processed to this point does not need refining, bleaching or deodorizing as long as the natural taste, smell and color are acceptable to the user. However, getting the oil to commercial food grade may be an important step in oilseed processing if your market demands it. For example, restaurants require oils that have a relatively high smoke temperature and may or may not want the taste of the natural oil.

Oil packaging and storage
Use clean, dry containers to package and store oils. Sealed glass or plastic bottles are adequate for small quantities. Colored containers in a dark box help increase shelf life. Steel or plastic tanks work well for large quantities. The shelf life of oil is usually six to 12 months if it is properly packaged and kept away from heat and sunlight. Keeping air away from oil is perhaps the most important step to prevent rancidity. Completely fill whatever size container you chose so there is no air space and then cap the container tightly. Shelf life of oil may vary depending on the type of oil as well as the storage conditions. For example, flax and grape seed have a shorter shelf life than canola or sunflower due to the large amount of polyunsaturates present. If the stored vegetable oil does not reach sustained temperatures of 100° F or more, its vital components will be preserved. Therefore, vegetable oil is excellently suited for natural nutrition. As long as the oil is stored in a dark, cool place, it will have a long shelf life.

To learn more, consult the ATTRA publication Oilseed Processing for Small-Scale Producers. This publication describes the basic processes involved in oil processing and includes sources for more information and equipment.

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Permalink What is biochar?

Answer: Generally speaking, biochar is the product of turning biomass into gas or oil with the intention of adding it to crop and forest production systems as a soil amendment. The definition of biochar is more about its creation and intended application rather than what it is composed of. Both charcoal and biochar are produced through an energy conversion process called pyrolysis, which is essentially the heating of biomass in the complete or near absence of oxygen.

Pyrolysis of biomass produces char, oils, and gases. The amount of these materials produced depends on processing conditions. What makes biochar different from charcoal is that the biochar product is created for use as a soil amendment. Biochar can be produced from a variety of biomass feedstocks, but is generally designated as biochar only if it produces a useable co-product for soil improvement. The oils and gases from pyrolysis can be used for energy production. The biochar and energy created can provide a carbon-negative energy source and a useable co-product for soil improvement. However, not all biochars are created equal. The efficiency and effectiveness of the process of its creation and use can vary and the specific biomass sources used can affect the characterization and usability of the biochar.

Complex ongoing research is striving for a more uniform and standard biochar that will limit potential environmental problems associated with biochar production and application to soils. Creating a standardization of biochars may make it possible for people who buy biochar to depend on uniform attributes. Issues such as what should be the ideal moisture and ash content of standard biochar are relatively easy to measure and standardize, but tests for metals and alkalinity are not. Some of the attributes that might be expected from biochars can go beyond just physical characteristics to issues of whether the feedstock used in its creation was from a renewable feedstock, whether its production reduced greenhouse gas emissions and whether the biochar can improve soil quality in a reliable way.

From a practical perspective, biochar can benefit farmers and ranchers because it serves as a soil amendment that can enhance fertility and reduce the need for more costly fertilizers. It also helps retain moisture in the soil, and it may have the potential to significantly mitigate greenhouse gas emissions and slow climate change.

You can learn much more about this topic in the ATTRA publication Biochar and Sustainable Agriculture. This publication reviews the current research and issues surrounding the production and use of this emerging biomass energy technology and explore how biochar can contribute to sustainable agriculture.

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Permalink What can you tell me about feeding rabbits?

Answer: Rabbits eat only plants and are classified as non-ruminant herbivores. They recycle feed by re-ingesting the cecotropes. Cecotropes are small particles of digested food that collect in the cecum (hindgut), which the rabbit excretes once a day and then consumes. Cecatropes are sometimes called "night feces" and look softer than the round, hard pellets usually seen. Rabbits require high-fiber diets, which are bulky and low in density, unlike poultry or swine. While purchasing commercial feed is common in commercial operations, there is an increasing amount of research being conducted on forage-based rabbits and other self-sustaining means of feeding the herd.

Commercial Pellets

Rabbits are usually fed a commercial pelleted diet that is balanced in the necessary nutrients (protein, energy, vitamins, and minerals). These diets contain alfalfa, grain (barley, wheat mill byproducts), protein supplements (soybean meal), vitamins, and mineral supplements.

With a small operation, it may be economical to reduce the amount of pellets by feeding rabbits available greens. Greens and succulents include fresh legumes (alfalfa, clover), grasses, vegetables (lettuce, celery), roots and tubers (carrots, potatoes), weeds (dandelions), and comfrey. Clean table scraps that fit into these categories are also acceptable. If greens complement a pelleted diet, the amount of pellets can be reduced by 50% without lowering rabbit production. However, since fresh greens are about 80% to 90% water, it is difficult to raise rabbits solely on these materials because they are not nutrient-dense. Over-feeding of fresh greens may also cause indigestion.


Rabbits can be pastured in outdoor pens placed on the ground, which allows them to harvest their own fresh forage. Fryers can be kept in outdoor pens with wooden slats or chicken wire on the floor to prevent the rabbits from digging out of the pen. Pens are moved daily to fresh pasture, and the rabbits are provided with concentrate feed. Ideally, rabbits won’t graze the same area of pasture again for at least six months to prevent the spread of coccidiosis.

There are many different production models for raising rabbits on pasture. Some producers choose for rabbits to be born and raised to weaning indoors. The weaned rabbits are then moved to portable cages on pasture. Rabbits raised on pasture may take longer to reach slaughter weight.

Rabbits that have been bred for commercial confinement production may not perform well on pasture. You may have to spend time experimenting with breeds and breeding to find the type of animal that best fits your production system. As with any livestock, you should purchase breeding stock that has been raised in a similar manner to your production system. So if you are raising rabbits on pasture, it is in your best interest to buy stock from another pasture producer instead of stock that has been raised indoors and fed only a commercial feed ration.

Growing local feed for rabbits is also an option. Research has been conducted on using water spinach, sweet potato, cassava foliage, mulberry leaves, and other plants and found that such crops can replace or be combined with conventional feed ingredients. Another study claims that growing sweet potato forage along with a small amount of cereal grain for an energy supplement can be a self-sustaining program for a small farm.

Homemade Diets

Instead of a commercial pelleted diet, producers can mix their own feedstuffs, especially if they grow or purchase their own feed ingredients. Before commercial pellets were available, people often raised rabbits on a diet of alfalfa hay and white oats. This is an acceptable diet if salt licks are also provided.

A legume hay such as alfalfa or clover provides high protein and fiber and can be included at a level of about 50% to 60% of the total diet. A concentrate for energy (grains such as oats or barley) is needed at a level of about 20% to 30%. The grain should be rolled or ground to facilitate digestion. Feeding too much grain can cause a carbohydrate overload in the hindgut and the animal may die from enteritis (diarrhea). Grain by-products that are high in fiber, such as wheat bran or wheat mill run, are also good options.

Adding hay to increase fiber and decrease the amount of grain fed will also reduce enteritis. A small amount of protein concentrate such as soybean meal or sunflower meal at about 10% of the diet ensures adequate protein. Rabbit diets need to have about 16% to 17% crude protein, as well as mineral supplements or salt spools.

The grain and hay ingredients mentioned above are relatively dry (only about 10% moisture). Rabbits do not relish eating a powder-dry mixture. If the mixture is moistened with feed-grade molasses, it will be more palatable to the animals. If the alfalfa or other forage is in hay form, it can be offered separately.

More feed waste can occur with non-pelleted rations than with pelleted rations. The rabbits may feed selectively, and the cage bottom and ground below can become littered with hay. Keep this in mind when considering the cost-effectiveness of feeding home-mixed rations rather than commercial pellets. It may be possible to have a feed mill custom mix a pellet ration.
Having a balanced ration ensures that diets contain the proper amount of nutrients for rabbits during different stages of growth or reproduction.

To learn much more about raising rabbits, consult the ATTRA publication Small-Scale Sustainable Rabbit Production.

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Permalink What are some ideas for starting a farm to institution program?

Answer: In general, the goal of farm to institution programs is to get fresh, healthy, locally sourced foods into cafeterias in schools, colleges, hospitals, correctional facilities, and senior living centers. There are many ways to bring local food into these types of institutions. Here are a few of the most common models of farm to institution programs.

Special Events
One great way to start a farm to institution program is to offer a special event such as a "locally grown lunch" that features local food. Special events help showcase efforts around local food while allowing food-service professionals to ease into the challenges of local food procurement and preparation.

Salad Bar
Offering and labeling fresh, local items on a salad bar may increase your cafeteria sales as well as improve consumers’ health. Salad bars are an easy way to incorporate local food in cafeteria meals on a daily basis, though seasonal availability may be a limiting factor.

Incorporation into Main Meal
Once a farm to institution program has established relationships with local vendors, it will be easier to increase local purchasing and regularly feature local items on everyday menus.

Employee CSA or Farmers Market
An innovative way to support local farmers while encouraging employees to eat healthy, local food is through an employee CSA program or on-site farmers market. This model is growing in popularity as a part of farm to institution programs.

Many institutions offer catering services that boast an "all-local" meal option as a way to promote farm to institution programs. Such events are also a great place to advertise and educate about local food.

On-Site Garden
There are many educational and therapeutic benefits of gardening, making gardens an important component of many school, prison, and hospital farm to institution programs. While many institutions utilize their gardens’ food in the cafeteria, others use the produce for cooking classes, nutrition lessons, and other educational activities.

To learn more, consult the ATTRA publication Bringing Local Food to Local Institutions. This publication offers examples and insight into the farm to institution world. Farmers, food-service managers, and community members can use this publication to gain knowledge and resources about how to begin or expand a farm to institution program.

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Permalink How can I treat apple scab organically?

Answer: Apple scab, caused by the fungus Venturia inaequalis, causes grayish-brown spots on leaves and hard, rough ("scabby") lesions on fruit. As the lesions progress, they often crack, opening the fruit to other problems. Rain, duration of leaf wetness, and temperature determine infection periods. If initial infections are not controlled, they will lead to secondary infections later in the season. Secondary infections begin when summer spores (conidia) develop in lesions on leaf and bud tissues, to be released during wet periods and disseminated throughout the tree. Secondary infections blemish and deform the apples and will also weaken the tree.

The use of scab-resistant varieties is the best long-term strategy for organic growers. The number of primary and secondary infections in a year depends on the amount of rain. The warmer the weather, the more quickly conidia development follows primary infection. If the grower is relying on protective-type fungicides, including all organically acceptable fungicides, then trees should be treated whenever there is a chance of primary infection. Apple scab can be controlled on susceptible varieties by timely sprays with fungicides. For the organic apple grower, there are three commonly used materials: sulfur, lime-sulfur, and Bordeaux mixture. Potassium bicarbonate (the trade name is Armicarb) and potassium phosphonate (Resistim), in combination with sulphur, have been shown to be very effective at controlling the fungus. Trees must be sprayed or dusted diligently before, during, or immediately after a rain, from the time of bud break until all the spores are discharged. Because the scab fungus overwinters on fallen apple leaves, growers can largely eliminate the primary scab inoculum and control the disease by raking and destroying the fallen leaves. Neem has also demonstrated some efficacy in managing scab.

You can learn much more about apple diseases and pests, as well as organic production, by consulting the following ATTRA publications:

ATTRA Identification Sheet: Apple Diseases

ATTRA Identification Sheet: Apple Insects

Apples: Organic Production Guide

Mention of specific brand names is for educational purposes only and does not constitute endorsement by NCAT, ATTRA, or USDA.

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Permalink Can I use livestock manure for methane-electric generation on my farm?

Answer: Most methane-electric generation is from animal waste. If you are accepting animal waste by truck, perhaps food waste or brewery waste can be trucked in as well. This will provide the desired variety of feedstock and will greatly increase biogas production. Manure works because it is readily available and cheap, and it naturally contains the anaerobic bacteria.

Check out the ATTRA webpage, Anaerobic Digesters and Other Biomass Options, where applicable publications and other resources are listed to help you learn more on this topic.

In addition, the following ATTRA publications discuss various aspects of a using anaerobic digesters:

An Introduction to Bioenergy: Feedstocks, Processes, and Products
This publication discusses how farmers can utilize bioenergy to reduce dependency on petroleum-based energy sources.

Micro-Scale Biogas Production: A Beginners Guide
An introduction to biogas, this publication gives the basics of small-scales anaerobic digester operations.

Anaerobic Digestion of Animal Wastes: Factors to Consider
This publication discusses the benefits and constraints, as well as design considerations of methane production through anaerobic digestion of animal waste.

The effluent from the anaerobic digestion should be perceived as a resource. The liquids can be packaged and sold as liquid fertilizer, and the solids can be composted (note: un-composted solid effluent from digesters "digestate" is not a very good fertilizer). Solids can be removed with an auger conveyor and run through a belt thickener and/or screw press to remove liquids. Composted digestate can be packaged and sold as fertilizer.

Possible negative bi-products of methane production are the non-methane components of bio-gas: hydrogen sulfide, carbon dioxide, and water vapor. Removal of hydrogen sulfide is considered essential because the hydrogen sulfide will combine with products of combustion to make sulfuric acid, which will shorten the life of the generator. A thin film of aerobic bacteria can be grown on the surface of the manure inside the digester by allowing about 5% by volume of biogas of air into the headspace of the digester. This will decrease hydrogen sulfide gas significantly. The rest of it can be removed with an "iron sponge." Moisture can be removed by condensing in a conventional air cooled condensing unit or cooling tower. Carbon dioxide can stay in the gas stage; it is un-reactive and will pass through the engine and end up in the exhaust. The effect of the CO2 is to decrease the calorific value of the biogas. Apparently, this is not a big deal unless you want to store the gas for some length of time, where you will not want to invest in the capital cost of gas holding equipment for useless CO2.

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Permalink What can you tell me about growing hot peppers, such as the Scotch bonnet, in Florida?

Answer: The Scotch bonnet pepper is classified as a Capsicum chinense pepper, which is the same species as other chili peppers such as the habanero. These are some of the hottest peppers and are native to the Americas.

I did not find specific information on growing Scotch bonnet in Florida, but recommendations provided for habanero should apply to Scotch bonnet. The University of Florida’s Pepper Production guide provides planting dates for peppers in North, Central, and South Florida. The guide also provides some recommendations of other bell and chili pepper varieties that grow well in Florida. Most of the pepper production in Florida is bell peppers and it does not appear that Scotch bonnet is grown on a large commercial scale – which may be an opportunity for you to sell specialty peppers that would otherwise be imported.

Another University of Florida guide, Common Pepper Cultivars for Florida Production, provides images of common peppers grown in the state. The university also offers a guide titled Jalapeno and Other Hot Pepper Varieties in Florida, though Scotch bonnet is not listed. The Chichen Itza habanero pepper is the closest relative listed in this guide.

There are some common diseases of peppers in Florida that you should be aware of, including Bacterial Spot, Phytophthora, Wet Rot, and Southern Blight, which are detailed in the UF guide, Some Common Diseases of Pepper in Florida. Chili peppers such as the Scotch bonnet are usually more resistant to diseases, but you should still be aware of potential issues. The Pepper Production guide mentioned above includes pesticides that can be used to control insect pests and diseases. Any product that has "OMRI-listed" in the remarks can be used in organic production.

When it comes to starting a successful farm business, there are some important considerations to think about. You will need to do some market research in your area to determine what market you will be able to sell your peppers at and what the consumer demand is for the peppers you choose to grow. You may want to visit specialty grocery stores that sell hot peppers and ask if they would be interested in carrying local Scotch bonnet peppers and how many peppers they usually order per week or month. You will also want to find out what the market price is for peppers in your area to determine how much you could make growing these peppers.

Depending on your scale of production and how much land you are able to acquire, you will need to think about what kind of equipment you will need to purchase. Most of the pepper farms in Florida grow on raised beds that are hilled with a tractor and covered in plastic mulch for weed control. You will need to think about what kind of equipment will be most cost-effective for you starting out, especially for activities like soil preparation, planting, weed control and spraying. Another significant cost will be the cost of labor for hand-harvesting (even if you are the one harvesting).

The Marketing, Business & Risk Management section of the ATTRA website provides a wide variety of useful resources related to agriculture business planning, which you should find helpful, as well.

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Permalink Is treating water with lime allowed in organic production?

Answer: It is important to note that any water used in organic operations must meet standards and regulations first set forth by the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Safe Drinking Water Act. The use of lime as a water treatment in organic operations depends on the use of the water, i.e., crop production, postharvest handling, or livestock watering, as well as the type of lime used.

Lime is one of the most common methods for softening hard water. In addition, it is used to adjust the pH of water, remove solid particles to lessen the turbidity of water, remove pathogens, and remove other impurities such as silica. Depending on the type of water treatment and filtration system, different types of lime can be used. Some systems call for lime-soda ash treatment (slake lime), and dolomitic lime is often recommended as well. However, these materials can jeopardize organic certification for your farm, depending on how they are used. If organic certification is one of your goals, it is best to always contact a certifying agent and ask if a proposed water treatment would meet certification standards.

One way to evaluate this prior to checking with a certifier is to search the Organic Materials Review Institute’s (OMRI) lists of products and materials used in organic production. OMRI provides third-party verification of organic input materials. Also refer to Subpart G – The National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances – under the National Organic Program. As you will see, the use of a substance is dependent upon how it is being used in the operation.

To learn more about organic certification and related topics, check out the Organic Farming section of the ATTRA website.

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Permalink Is it possible to grow fruit trees in the Ozarks without pesticides?

Answer: As good and nutritious as apples, peaches, and seedless grapes are, they are subject to a myriad of pests and diseases in the Ozarks, and most varieties of these fruits can hardly be grown at all without regular applications of pesticides.

On the other hand, native pawpaws, persimmons, and muscadines require no pesticides at all to yield their bounty. And there are other non-native species and lesser-known varieties of well-known species that can be grown in the Ozarks naturally without pesticides. This holds broadly true for all of the upper South, especially the southern highlands from the Arkansas and Missouri Ozarks east, through the southern Appalachians, to the Virginia Piedmont.

The heat and humidity of Ozark growing seasons are especially conducive to pests and diseases of fruit trees, vines, and bushes. Unfortunately, apples, peaches, and grapes—especially varieties like Gala apple, Redhaven peach, and Flame Seedless grapes—commonly sold in local retail nurseries and big-box stores are susceptible to these local pests and diseases. Such plants cannot be grown without the help of synthetic pesticides and fungicides.

People wanting to grow organically or naturally need fruit plants that can be managed without synthetic pesticides. Even home fruit growers who may have no objections to pesticides are busy with the details of life, jobs, and families and frequently do not get around to spraying at the proper time (usually well before symptoms are seen) or simply forget to spray at all. Because of this, species and varieties that can be managed with few or no applications of pesticides are the most desirable.

You can learn much more about this topic in the ATTRA publication Fruit Trees, Bushes, and Vines for Natural Growing in the Ozarks. This publication discusses how to overcome common challenges of growing fruit trees, vines, and bushes in the Ozarks and suggests what to look for when choosing a variety that will thrive locally.

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Permalink How can I control garlic bloat?

Answer: This year, we’ve seen a tremendous increase in bloat nematode in garlic. I’ve been paying particular attention to it as some of my own garlic is infected, and unfortunately, there isn’t much that can be done to control it in the short-term, either conventionally or organically. In addition, there is a lot of misinformation being offered about control measures. This includes the idea of using a hot water treatment to sterilize seed, which more recent research has concluded does not have much of an impact on controlling infected seed. Chemical treatments are not much of an option either, as fungicides that were originally used for garlic bloat are no longer registered (in the U.S.). I have talked with some organic farmers who soak seed in Oxidate®, which is used to control several types of bacteria and diseases, prior to planting; however, I have not seen this product registered or tested anywhere for garlic bloat.

Thus, we’re left with cultural practices to overcome garlic bloat.

First and foremost, it is important to buy only certified seed for planting. If you are using your own seed stock, make sure that you don’t plant infected cloves. In addition, culling plants at first sign of infection is critical in the field. Just as important is a crop rotation with a recommended four years between crops in the Allium family. Planting biofumigant cover crops, such as mustards, can be beneficial as part of a crop rotation.

Bulb damage can be mistaken for Fusarium basal plate rot, so you may want to have your garlic tested. This being said, the nematode can spread easily in infested soil, on equipment, and in infected seed and plant debris. Keeping weed populations down and all tools and equipment clean can help in combating garlic bloat. The Garlic Seed Foundation has issued an alert for garlic bloat and is referring farmers to the Cornell University Fact Sheet Bloat and Nematode on Garlic.

The ATTRA publication Garlic: Organic Production addresses most aspects of organic garlic production, including seed sources, organic fertility management, pest management and harvesting and storage. Marketing and economic considerations, including enterprise budgets for organic garlic production, are also addressed in this publication. A resource and reference section follows the publication.

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Permalink How can I find a certifier for organic value-added products?

Answer: Products that are labeled under the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) certify that the food or other agricultural product(s) have been produced through approved methods that integrate cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. The ATTRA publication Organic Certification explains the process for transitioning to organic and includes information on the transition period, choosing a certifier, as well as the costs associated with certifying a product or operation.

There are currently 80 USDA-accredited agents authorized to certify operations to USDA organic standards; 48 of these are based in the United States. USDA provides an Organic Certifier Locator, which can help you find a certifier in your area. The tool can be searched by state/province and country. Access the tool and learn more about it here.

Each of the certifying agents is authorized to issue an organic certificate to operations that comply with the USDA organic regulations. As noted in the above-mentioned ATTRA publication on organic certification, there are several criteria that you may wish to consider when choosing a certifier, including the following:

• Fee structure
• Distance to your farm or business
• Accreditation to other standards
• Additional services, such as educational resources or member services

It is recommended to talk to a few certifiers to see which ones are a good fit for you and your operation. As you are starting to explore the possibility of transitioning to organics, now would be a good time to contact certifiers as they may have different recommendations and procedures for transitioning.

While the cost of certifying may vary between different agencies, it is important to note that the USDA offers cost-share programs to assist current certified organic operations and transitioning operations in defraying the costs associated with organic certification.

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Permalink How do I go about choosing a site for an urban high tunnel?

Answer: Choosing and properly preparing a site to install a high tunnel are among the most important factors in how well the high tunnel will perform for years to come. Most urban farms have a limited amount of space and workable soil. Although intensive high tunnel growing methods will make the most use of limited space, the lack of land base on urban farms can make it hard to find an ideal place to install a tunnel. A level (less than 5% grade), well-drained, fertile soil is preferred for high tunnel production. Soil can be prepared after the high tunnel is installed, but starting with deep, well-drained, fertile soil will make the process easier during the first year.

If the site is not well drained, it’s important to elevate the area of the tunnel slightly from the surrounding ground. This can be done with small excavating equipment or by hand if the area of the high tunnel is small enough. Soil can be taken from outside the perimeter of the high tunnel and placed where the interior of the high tunnel will be. This will create a small swale along the sides of the tunnel and a slightly raised plateau in the area that the high tunnel will cover.

Another consideration for installing a high tunnel on an urban farm is shading. High tunnels are usually unheated structures that rely on the sun and solar heat gain to raise daily temperatures and allow for growing crops for an extended season. For that reason, it is imperative that a high tunnel is not shaded by other structures, buildings, or trees for the majority of the day. This is especially important if fall, winter, and spring growing will be a focus for your farm. A good rule of thumb is that if, at a minimum, the area is completely unshaded from 9:00 a.m. until 3:00 p.m. year-round, the site will probably work well. If there is a question as to the level of shading at a certain site, it may be a good idea to have a solar site evaluation. Solar panel installers can conduct these evaluations using a Solar Pathfinder tool to determine the shading of a particular area.

Orientation—the direction the length of the tunnel runs—is another important factor to consider. Most high tunnels that are installed to grow summer crops are oriented north-to-south to limit shading from bed to bed inside the high tunnel, and to allow for airflow from a predominately west wind when the sides of the high tunnel are rolled up. North of 40° latitude, an east-to-west orientation is preferred for cool-season growing because it exposes a larger area of the high tunnel (the long southern-facing side) to the sun. This south-facing side of the high tunnel then acts as a big solar collector and allows the high tunnel to gain heat more quickly.

To learn more, consult the ATTRA publication High Tunnels in Urban Agriculture. This publication covers the basics of siting and constructing a high tunnel, as well as some of the policy and zoning challenges urban growers face when planning to erect a tunnel. It also discusses high tunnel management, including soil fertility, irrigation, and disease and pest control. Finally, it includes resources on intensive crop production and other uses for high tunnels.

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Permalink What are some organic-friendly ways I can manage the staggering weed problem in my banana crop?

Answer: Generally in organic systems, preventive weed control is the most effective method of dealing with weeds. But as for what can assist you now, I have found that a combination of approaches is necessary. I'm sure that's no surprise to you as you almost certainly have some weeds that you can control with mulches, while others probably "eat that mulch for lunch!" Various approaches include the use of geotextiles (fabric mulch), wood chip mulch, mowing, some hand weeding around young trees, flame weeding, chickens or weeder geese, and some of the organic herbicides. Try everything you can to keep from disturbing the soil with cultivation, but if you simply can’t manage that, you may find the Weed-Badger to be effective with minimal soil disturbance.

As for organic herbicides, some find a citric acid-based one to be most effective, but soap-based and vinegar (acetic acid) based ones also do the job. Of course there is no systemic organic herbicide, so all of these organic herbicides are "contact" herbicides only; i.e., they only work on what they hit. These don't work especially well on any established weeds--the sprayed part wilts, but the weed sends up new growth almost immediately. As a consequence, to really get decent weed control on established weeds can be prohibitively expensive. However, if you time the use of these organic herbicides so that they're being employed against small, young weeds, you can get some decent control from them.

See the ATTRA publication Tree Fruits: Organic Production Overview for information on weed management both prior to orchard establishment and in established orchards.

Also see ATTRA's Biorationals: Ecological Pest Management Database for more information on organic herbicides and ecological pest management.

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Permalink How can I use living fences?

Answer: Living hedges are fences made of living trees and shrubs. Their installation and use is common in many parts of the world, including Europe, Asia, and Australia. While historically used in this country as livestock fencing, living hedges are being implemented as they offer many additional benefits to sustainable agricultural systems. Living hedges are an important component to Permaculture design as their multiple functions are integrated in the planting of forest gardens.

The benefits of a living hedge include:

-Crops are protected against harmful pests.

-Provides habitat for beneficial predator animals and insect pollinators.

-The living fence can act as a windbreak.

-It can prevent soil erosion.

-Various products such as food, firewood, medicines, timber, nectar, etc can be harvested.

-It can prevent terraces from collapsing.

-It can be used where materials for fencing are difficult to obtain.

-The living fence can save money.

For more information, see the ATTRA publication Farmscaping to Enhance Biological Control. This publication contains information about increasing and managing biodiversity on a farm to favor beneficial organisms, with emphasis on beneficial insects. The types of information farmscapers need to consider is outlined and emphasized. Appendices have information about various types and examples of successful 'farmscaping' (manipulations of the agricultural ecosystem), plants that attract beneficials, pests and their predators, seed blends to attract beneficial insects, examples of farmscaping, hedgerow establishment and maintenance budgets, and a sample flowering period table.

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Permalink What are some options for managing animal waste on my farm?

Answer: Managing manure can be a challenge, especially in large-scale operations. However, if you view manure as a free, plentiful, and valuable resource, you begin to look at it as a commodity in its own right. Marketing manure can be a beneficial, low-risk way for livestock producers to manage animal waste on their farms while incorporating a value-added product into their overall business plan. The opportunity to sell a waste product and recoup an economic benefit while reducing potential environmental liability is a sought-after outcome for many farms.

Many producers raise animals for specific products (meat, milk, fiber) or purposes (recreational activities, horseback riding, youth projects). Although raising animals can become quite expensive considering the cost of feed, veterinary care, and supplies, manure is a renewable and valuable resource that can provide vital nutrients to the soil, increasing soil health and productivity in a sustainable way.

However, managing manure can often be a labor- and capital-intensive part of a livestock enterprise. Additionally, inadequate manure management can pose a potential threat to local water quality through excess runoff. With a little planning and ingenuity, however, livestock manure can become an important value-added co-product in just about any size operation. The two main goals of a successful value-added manure-marketing plan are to establish ready markets for excess manure and to keep operational costs low enough to make a profit from the sale of the manure product.

The ATTRA publication Manure Marketing: A Value-Added Product for Small Operations serves a guide for medium to small-scale livestock producers looking to incorporate the sales of manure into their farm’s business model. It discusses the benefits and considerations involved in marketing manure as a value-added product, and explores several available manure-processing, marketing, and packaging options.

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Permalink Can I use MAP or DAP Diammonium phosphate or other amendments to improve my phosphorous levels on an organic cattle ranch?

Answer: The number-one driver of getting the soil microbes to cycle nutrients is soil organic matter. Organic matter can be increased, but it will take some time. The fastest way to do so is to no-till in multi-species cover crops (six to 10 species) and to graze them off, taking about one third and trampling in two thirds. I have read of farmers increasing their soil organic matter by 0.8% (i.e., from 3.0 to 3.8%) in one season by doing so. That is a lot.

In addressing low phosphorus levels, I would start with the reported unit from your lab tests and convert it to ppm of P. Different soil testing labs report P in differing units. If your report says 16 pounds of elemental P per acre, then you would multiply the 16 by 0.5 and you have 8 ppm of P. If the reported P is in pounds of P2O5 per acre, to convert it to ppm you multiply first by 0.5 and then again by 0.4364. This would give you 16 X 0.5 X 0.4364 = 3.5 ppm. In general, you would like to see P levels up in the range of 15 to 20 ppm in your pastures.

If your organic matter is more than 3.0 percent, I would consider running a Haney test on your soils. The Haney test takes into account the ability of the soil microbes to mineralize N and P from minerals that are not in the plant available form. I would try the Haney test on a pasture that you have already sampled with the conventional test. It is possible that you have more P than you think if your microbe population is in good enough shape. Learn more about the Haney test.

The best way to improve P levels with an amendment is through the addition of composted animal manure. Manure from cattle, sheep or poultry will supply P and also afford the added benefit of microorganism culture with compost.

Secondly, you can improve your soil’s ability to cycle P, N, and other nutrients by grazing tall grass and trampling in the residual. This requires stocking densities of 100,000 pounds or more of live animal weight per acre. You can find a good discussion of this in the ATTRA Managed Grazing tutorial. Specifically, check out slides 40 through 45 in the Grazing the Mature Stand lesson.

I also recommend that you view the videos Intensive Grazing: One Farm's Set Up, as well as Gabe Brown: Farming in Nature’s Image. You might also be interested in Soil Health and Livestock: ATTRA Resources, which provides a list ATTRA publications, videos, and webinars on soil health.

I believe that these two methods are going to improve P levels and your general sol health, which will, in turn, increase pasture production and animal production over time. If you do decide to put on DAP, you will be ineligible for organic certification for three years. Also, if you do apply DAP, do so sparingly. For instance, you might apply enough to bring up the ppm of P in 5 ppm increments. This will be a little easier on your pocketbook and your soil biology.

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Permalink What soap is safe to use on organic food crops for insect control?

Answer: Organic farming requires any pest management materials used be in compliance with USDA's National Organic Program (NOP) regulations and must be used in the context of organic principles for farming and handling practices.

The Organic Materials Review Institute, OMRI, provides an independent review of products intended for use in certified organic production. After review, if substances are determined safe for organic use they are OMRI Listed.

Safer Soap is OMRI listed and can be found at most farm supply stores. It can be mixed into solution with chili peppers and sprayed on plants to safely control insects on food crops.

ATTRA's Biorationals: Ecological Pest Management Database lists different materials by brand name, distributor, and whether it is OMRI Listed. It can be searched by pest type, pest name, active ingredient/beneficial organism, or pesticide trade name.

In addition, ATTRA has produced an online learning tutorial titled Ecological Pest Management. The tutorial focuses on giving you tools to implement ecologically-based pest management strategies. The five lessons in this tutorial provide information on what ecological pest management is, how to get started, how to implement preventive strategies, biological controls, and how to use NCAT and ATTRA resources. There are also resources to help you develop your own ecological pest management strategy for your farm.

ATTRA also has several publications that should interest you, including Tipsheet: Organic Pest Management and
Biointensive Integrated Pest Management.

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Permalink As a beginning farmer with no accounting experience, how can I get on the path of good financial management?

Answer: In addition to growing great food and fiber products and taking care of the land, farmers need to be good financial stewards of their business and household. This requires being organized, keeping track of all income and expenses, and having a grasp of basic principles of accounting.

For instance, if you can predict the months when your major expenses will occur, you’ll be better able to ensure that you have the cash on hand to pay for them. This is especially important for farmers, who tend to have high costs in the spring and don’t necessarily get paid until later in the year. You can better manage your cash by creating an annual cash-flow budget. Or if you’ve spent a few years building your farm business without paying yourself for your labor, you may be wondering just what you have to show (financially) for all those hours of “sweat equity.” You can answer that question by looking at a few years of annual balance sheets for your farm placed side by side. Finally, if you have a goal for how much household income you’d like to draw from your farm operation, you need a clear picture — in the form of an income statement — of your farm’s annual expenses in relation to annual sales. This can help you determine how much more you need to sell, increase your prices, and/or reduce your expenses in order to make your desired amount of take-home pay.

Furthermore, if you are comfortable answering these questions about your financial situation for yourself, you will be able to answer the same questions for a lender. The bank will want to know that you have a realistic understanding of your financial situation, of where you’re headed, and of what it will take to pay back your expenses, including the loan, in a timely manner. While good financial management won’t make your business succeed on its own, it will help you avoid unnecessary costs, expand your business predictably, and ensure a financial cushion against unexpected events.

I recommend that you consult the ATTRA publication Basic Accounting: Guidance for Beginning Farmers. This publication makes basic accounting approachable for people with little or no accounting experience and encourages new farmers to develop good recordkeeping habits at the outset. It provides several sample templates and worksheets, along with a list of further resources for additional study.

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Permalink What can you tell me about transitioning to certified organic production?

Answer: The ATTRA website contains several online multi-lesson tutorials that allow you to work through lessons and associated worksheets at your own pace, including two that focus on getting started in commercial farming. These beginning-farmer resources discuss the importance of setting goals, creating a business plan, and understanding your markets. The first is titled Beginning Farmer Business Planning, Marketing, and Sheep, Goat & Poultry Resources and, although it is geared towards livestock, the first four lessons focus on business and financial planning.

The second tutorial is titled Getting Started in Farming: An Introduction to Farm Business Planning. This tutorial contains eight lessons and will guide you through the process of imagining and planning a successful farming enterprise. This guide was created through a project in North Carolina but the information presented is not specific to any single state.

Another useful resource is the SARE publication titled Organic Transition: A Business Planner for Farmers, Ranchers and Food Entrepreneurs (2015). SARE is a USDA-funded program and was the first Federal program to fund research in organic agriculture. Since 1988, SARE has invested in hundreds of organic research and education projects. The Organic Transition publication is considered a planning guide to assist in exploring transitioning to organics through the business planning process and in developing an Organic System Plan (OSP). The OSP is required for all organic producers and farms transitioning to organic certification. For more information, visit

It is a good idea to talk to a few organic certifiers to see which one is a good fit for you and your operation. As you are staring to explore the possibility of transitioning to organics, now would be a good time to contact certifiers as they may have different recommendations and procedures for transitioning.

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Permalink What can you tell me about producing hydroponic fodder to feed livestock?

Answer: Growing fodder for livestock using hydroponics is being used throughout the country, giving farmers in drought-prone areas the ability to grow feed for livestock and also as an alternative high-protein food source for livestock.
Hydroponics is the production of plants in a soil-less medium whereby all of the nutrients supplied to the crop are dissolved in water. Using hydroponics to grow fodder for livestock involves sprouting grains, usually using tray systems.

The hydroponic feed is comparable in protein content with commercially available feed containing animal products. This method of feed production requires less land when using vertical trays and also uses less water than most conventional irrigation systems for pasture.

Donnelly Farms in McClure, Ohio developed a hydroponic fodder system to produce feed for pigs using a SARE grant. Their goal was to produce sustainably raised hogs for a comparable price to conventionally raised pigs. The protein content in commercial feed grows pigs much faster than pigs raised on a diet of corn and hay, considered to be a more natural or sustainable method of farming. But using hydroponic feed allows farmers to grow pigs at the same rate because of the high protein content.

Donnelly Farms was able to grow high-quality fodder in 5-10 days by watering wheat trays once per day, without any special lighting or temperature controls. They were able to produce pigs ready for market in six to eight months with improved taste, reduced costs, consistent and weight gains. The trade off is increased labor for the farmer or rancher.

A YouTube video entitled Vertical farming: 60 sq meters producing 2000kg fodder a week features a vertical hydroponic farming operation produces two tons of barley grass fodder every week. The system is designed to operate 24-hours a day. The system includes a rotating tray system that sprays seed trays for 20 minutes every two hours. The fodder is high in protein and very nutritious.

To learn more, see the ATTRA publication Vertical Farming. This publication introduces commercial-scale vertical farming and discusses the recent growth of vertical farms in urban areas.

You can buy pre-built hydroponic fodder systems to begin producing or build a simple system like the one Donnelly Farms uses. An online search will present a variety of sources.

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Permalink How should I space trees in a new pecan orchard?

Answer: The establishment of a pecan orchard by planting trees in rows is how most new growers enter the pecan industry. Trees can be purchased with the cultivar already budded to the top, or planted as a seedling and grafted in the field. (To be "true to name," a cultivar must be propagated asexually, i.e., by budding or grafting rather than propagation by seed).

The spacing of pecan trees depends on geographical location. In their native and eastern ranges, pecan trees are commonly spaced on a 40 feet x 40 feet grid pattern, which is the equivalent of 27 trees per acre. After about 16.22 years, trees are thinned by half on a diagonal, thus leaving 14 trees per acre. At about 25.35 years old, the third and final thinning will leave a spacing of 80 feet x 80 feet with seven trees per acre.

For a long time, the pecan industry was based on a 35 feet x 35 feet tree spacing. However, recent economic analysis showed an initial 40 feet x 40 feet planting pattern is more profitable because the wider spacing allows the temporary trees more time to produce nuts before they are removed.

In the western range, where sunlight is more intense, trees are planted at 30 feet x 30 feet, the equivalent of 48 trees per acre. Ultra-high density western pecan orchards, spaced at 15 feet x 30 feet, are typically managed by mechanical hedging.

Establishing a Pecan Orchard, a fact sheet by Oklahoma State University Extensio, provides illustrations and details for pecan orchard layout and thinning operations.

For more information on growing pecans, consult the ATTRA publication Sustainable Pecan Production. This publication briefly introduces essential knowledge on the basics of pecan culture such as geography, native versus plantation systems, and economics. This is followed by notes on pecan farming techniques that emphasize sustainable and organic production methods: non-chemical weed control; orchard floor vegetation management using legumes; pecan nutrition with emphasis on organic fertilizer options; and recommendations for organic and least-toxic control of pecan insects and diseases. A selection of pecan literature and online resources available from the Extension Service and horticultural industry are provided as further sources of information.

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Permalink What are organic solutions for managing brown rot in peaches?

Answer: Symptoms of brown rot in peaches include the following:

• Two to three weeks before harvest, earlier infection (as early as bloom and petal fall) of the fruit by the fungus Monilinia fructicola becomes apparent as the fruit softens, approaching ripeness, causing rot both at harvest and in storage.
• Often occurs in warm, humid climates.
• More prevalent in the eastern United States than in the west.
• Blossom blight during bloom is an indicator for extensive brown rot later in the season.

Organic growers have traditionally relied on sulfur or sulfur-containing fungicides to control brown rot, and nothing better has yet been developed. The first application of sulfur should be done at the "pink" stage, just before the petals open. Applications should be repeated at seven-day intervals, especially if rain occurs, for a total of three applications. Two other applications should also be made—one at petal drop, the other at sepal drop (usually about 10 to 14 days after petal drop). The crop is still susceptible to infection later in the season, but treatments during the early "critical" stage will reduce the amount of crop loss without leaving a sulfur residue at harvest. Augmenting sulfur with Surround™ WP Crop Protectant provides better disease control than sulfur alone. Harvested fruit is also susceptible to brown rot infection. To prevent infections at harvest and during storage, peaches should be picked and handled with care to avoid punctures and skin abrasions on the fruit. Any damaged fruit should be discarded, since wounds facilitate entry of the fungus. Rapid cooling or hydrocooling to remove field heat prior to refrigeration at 0 to 3° C will also help reduce infection.

For more information, see the ATTRA publications Peach Diseases Identification Sheet and Peaches: Organic and Low-Spray Production.

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Permalink What could be causing the heads of my young white cauliflower to turn yellowish-brown?

Answer: Yellowing or browning of white cauliflower heads can be attributed to frost damage, sun damage, or boron-deficient soil.

Cauliflower is a cool-season plant belonging to the Brassica family. However, it can be damaged if the temperatures are too low or if exposed to a hard freeze. If you have experienced extremely cold night temperatures, this may be the reason for discoloration.

If you have ruled out frost, are you blanching your cauliflower heads? Blanching involves pulling the leaves up over the head of the cauliflower to shade it which ensures the cauliflower head remains a crisp, white color. The leaves can be tied together but this makes it easy for water to collect, which could rot the head of the cauliflower. A safer bet is to bend the larger outside leaves over the crown and loosely tuck the edges to hold it in place, which allows for proper air circulation. Some varieties of cauliflower are even "self-blanching."

If you have not experienced a hard freeze and you have been blanching the cauliflower heads, it is likely your problem is boron-deficient soil. This will cause the heads to turn brown and leaf tips to curl or become distorted. A soil sample could help determine if your soil is deficient. However, since the uptake of boron by the plant depends on different factors, such as the percent of organic matter in the soil, moisture levels, and the pH, a soil test that indicated sufficient boron levels would not eliminate the possibility of a boron deficiency.

Boron is one of seven essential trace minerals that plants need in very small amounts to grow well. Cole crops need higher amounts than other crops. It's easy to over-apply boron in trying to rectify a deficiency. Consider looking at other factors like soil moisture levels, good pH levels, and organic matter content of the soil before applying boron. If it has been dry, keeping the soil moist with irrigation may help the uptake of boron. Fixing the pH and building organic matter are both longer-term solutions that will help with future plantings. For subsequent crops, provide boron by adding compost to the soil, or plant fall cover crops of vetch or clover. A foliar feeding with kelp or fish emulsion could help, as these both are high in boron. If you decide to apply boron it's recommended at a rate of only .1 to .25 lb/acre as a foliar spray. The amount used depends on the percentage of boron in the product you are using.

For more information about growing cauliflower, refer to the ATTRA publication Cole Crops and Other Brassicas: Organic Production.

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Permalink What are the different types of vertical farming systems?

Answer: Vertical farms come in different shapes and sizes, from simple two-level or wall-mounted systems to large warehouses several stories tall. But all vertical farms use one of three soil-free systems for providing nutrients to plants—hydroponic, aeroponic, or aquaponic. The following information describes these three growing systems:

1. Hydroponics. The predominant growing system used in vertical farms, hydroponics involves growing plants in nutrient solutions that are free of soil. The plant roots are submerged in the nutrient solution, which is frequently monitored and circulated to ensure that the correct chemical composition is maintained.

2. Aeroponics. The National Aeronautical and Space Administration (NASA) is responsible for developing this innovative indoor growing technique. In the 1990s, NASA was interested in finding efficient ways to grow plants in space and coined the term aeroponics, defined as "growing plants in an air/mist environment with no soil and very little water."

Aeroponics systems are still an anomaly in the vertical farming world, but they are attracting significant interest. An aeroponic system is by far the most efficient plant-growing system for vertical farms, using up to 90% less water than even the most efficient hydroponic systems. Plants grown in these aeroponic systems have also been shown to uptake more minerals and vitamins, making the plants healthier and potentially more nutritious.

3. Aquaponics. An aquaponic system takes the hydroponic system one step further, combining plants and fish in the same ecosystem. Fish are grown in indoor ponds, producing nutrient-rich waste that is used as a feed source for the plants in the vertical farm. The plants, in turn, filter and purify the wastewater, which is recycled to the fish ponds.

Although aquaponics is used in smaller-scale vertical farming systems, most commercial vertical farm systems focus on producing only a few fast-growing vegetable crops and don't include an aquaponics component. This simplifies the economics and production issues and maximizes efficiency. However, new standardized aquaponic systems may help make this closed-cycle system more popular.

Vertical farming systems can be further classified by the type of structure that houses the system.

Building-based vertical farms are often housed in abandoned buildings in cities, such as Chicago's "The Plant" vertical farm that was constructed in an old pork-packing plant.

Shipping-container vertical farms are an increasingly popular option. These vertical farms use 40-foot shipping containers, normally in service carrying goods around the world. Shipping containers are being refurbished by several companies into self-contained vertical farms, complete with LED lights, drip-irrigation systems, and vertically stacked shelves for starting and growing a variety of plants. These self-contained units have computer controlled growth management systems that allow users to monitor all systems remotely from a smart phone or computer.

To learn more, consult the ATTRA publication Vertical Farming. This publication introduces commercial-scale vertical farming and discusses the recent growth of vertical farms in urban areas. It describes the major types of vertical farms and discusses environmental issues with vertical farms. The publication includes a list of the major vertical farms in the United States and lists further resources.

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Permalink What are the benefits of direct marketing?

Answer: Over the past decade, direct marketing has become highly visible and popular among consumers in the United States. Consumer campaigns such as USDA's Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food have succeeded in bringing awareness to the importance of the farmers who provide food for consumers. Such campaigns have encouraged the growth of existing direct marketing channels and created innovative new channels. It is important to note that each of these marketing channels has different guidelines, considerations, and expectations for farmers.

Some of the most significant new direct marketing channels now available for farmers include farm to school, farm to institution, community supported agriculture (CSA), and food hubs. ATTRA has excellent publications outlining these topics. For a full list of these publications, see the Direct Marketing section of the ATTRA website.

Along with these new marketing channels, there is continued growth in local consumer campaigns such as Farm to Table, Farm to Fork, Buy Fresh Buy Local, and many others. These consumer campaigns bring more attention and consumer demand for direct marketing.

Perhaps the two important benefits of direct marketing are:

• Direct marketing can improve economic viability for farmers. Farmers can capture a greater percentage of the food dollar through direct marketing, rather than going through another "middleman" such as a distributor, packing house, or processor. Farmers can set their own prices to reflect what they need to earn to be profitable. Competition exists, but it is often among farms of the same size, rather than between large-scale and small-scale farms.

• Direct markets provide opportunities for personal connections with customers. Direct markets increase visibility and sales for farm products. They are a great way to learn how to market products successfully, learn how to set prices, and get valuable customer feedback.

To learn much more about this topic, consult the ATTRA publication Direct Marketing. It discusses direct marketing and the benefits and risks associated with selling agricultural products directly to customers. Popular direct marketing strategies covered in this publication include farmers markets, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), and direct sales to restaurants, institutions, and food hubs, as well as agritourism and Internet-based direct marketing. Additionally, the publication contains information on marketing plans, pricing strategies, and creative marketing techniques. Examples illustrate how farmers are utilizing direct marketing channels to become more economically viable.

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Permalink What resources are available to help with installing an agroforestry planting?

Answer: : Integrating trees and shrubs with other enterprises on a farm can create additional sources of income, spread farm labor throughout the year, and increase the productivity of those other enterprises -- all while protecting soil, water, and wildlife. Such "agroforestry" systems include alleycropping, silvopasture, windbreaks, forest farming for nontimber forest products, and riparian buffer strips. While they clearly offer economic and ecological advantages, these agroforestry systems also involve complex interactions that complicate their management. When designing an agroforestry enterprise, you should research the marketing possibilities and include the agroforestry system in the total business plan for the farm.

First, I recommend that you review the ATTRA publication Agroforestry: An Overview. This publication presents an overview of common agroforestry practices, evaluating and planning considerations, marketing opportunities, several case studies, and an extensive list of further resources.

In addition, the following resources can help you choose plant materials for your agroforestry project. The USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) maintains an extensive database at In the column on the left, under Plants Topics, you will find several ways that you can find plants that meet different criteria. Characteristics might be a good place to start. Fact Sheets and Plant Guides also provide useful information on specific choices.

Another resource the Arbor Day Foundation’s Tree Guide, which offers many useful tools. The guide is available at

For comprehensive help planning your installation, consider reviewing the two volumes of Edible Forest Gardens, by Dave Jacke with Eric Toensmeier. These are excellent resources themselves, and they reference many other materials. In volume two, you will find nearly 200 pages of charts and tables in seven appendices. Plants are organized by many different criteria that could be helpful as you work on your design. This resource includes perennials and vegetables, as well as trees and shrubs.

The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has designed some online tools that might be useful, as well. Most of them are available on the National Agroforestry Center's websitd (under Tools).

In particular, NRCS's CanVis can help you visualize how a planting will look immediately upon planting and shows its appearance as the planting ages. It is probably best used with an NRCS professional who is familiar with the program. For more information, visit

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Permalink When should I supplement my pasture-grazed livestock?

Answer: The nutritional concern for ruminants centers around energy (i.e., carbohydrates), protein, minerals, vitamins, and water. Energy (carbohydrates) is responsible for maintenance and growth functions of the animal and for the generation of heat. Protein grows tissue and performs other vital functions. Other nutrients and minerals such as vitamins A and E, calcium, phosphorus, and selenium can be fed "free choice" as a mineral supplement.

Cattle, sheep, and goats—by nature, grazing and browsing animals—grow and reproduce well on pasture alone. However, an intensive and industrial agricultural production philosophy has dictated that crops and animals should be raised faster, larger, and more consistently than a pasture system can deliver. Thus, confinement systems with delivered forages and concentrated feeds have been the norm since the 1950s. Raising animals on grass is slower than raising animals on grain. However, a pasture-based livestock producer will, with careful planning, realize cost savings and subsequent profitability through the efficiency of relying on the natural systems of nutrient cycling, biological pest controls, and perennial pasture productivity.

The major operational expense confronting the livestock industry in most parts of the United States is for supplemental feed. In temperate regions of the country that experience adequate rainfall and a lengthy grazing season, supplementation on green, growing, vegetative, well-managed pastures should not be necessary. However, young and lactating stock require more energy and protein than mature, non-lactating animals.

Supplementing energy is helpful on vegetative, well-managed pastures for more efficient utilization of forage protein (for high-producing animals). Supplementing with protein is necessary on low-quality pasture and rangeland or when continuously grazing temperate warm-season pastures.

For more information, see the ATTRA publication Ruminant Nutrition for Graziers. This publication provides managers with tools and references to consider biological and climatological variables and make decisions that ensure the ecological and economic viability of a grass-based ruminant livestock operation.

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Permalink What is companion planting and can it really benefit my crops?

Answer: Companion planting can be described as establishing two or more plant species in close proximity for some cultural benefit (such as pest control or higher yield). The concept embraces a number of strategies that increase the biodiversity of agroecosystems.

Science has routinely provided evidence that supports some facets of sustainable agriculture, like companion planting. While the scientists may not call their work companion planting per se, the results of their work show that there is potential for home gardeners and small farms to capitalize on the natures of plants to affect each other's growth. Whether these plants harbor beneficial insects, release nutrients advantageous to another crop’s growth, or simply provide a buffer against the elements to tender seedlings, the tenets of companion planting have been shown repeatedly through rigorous scientific experimentation to be beneficial to planting systems.

For a more detailed look at companion planning and how it can be used, consult the ATTRA publication Companion Planting & Botanical Pesticides: Concepts & Resources. This newly revised publication discusses the scientific and traditional basis for companion planting associations including trap cropping, weed suppression, physical-spatial interactions, and other relationships. It provides a companion planting chart for common herbs, vegetables, and flowers, as well as a listing of literature resources. An appendix provides information on the Three Sisters, a traditional Native American companion planting practice.

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Permalink How do I go about finding customers for my custom grazing business?

Answer: As a custom grazier you will be filling an important niche as a forage-based relationship specialist. With this in mind, you can think of yourself as a niche marketer. Identify your niche, what you have to offer that is above and beyond the norm, and what you can offer that other graziers don’t, such as taking on risk that the livestock owner inherently has but can outsource to you. Your price will justify the unique services you can offer to address the risks livestock owners wish to outsource.

In this case, you’re a livestock risk-management specialist. Also, livestock owners have management constraints (like time and land availability) that can be taken on by you as the grazier. Marketing this to your customers, and backing it up with excellent management, can result in making a name for yourself as a conscientious grazier who delivers the goods, whether those goods are weight gain, animal health, percent heifers bred, etc. Also, providing services for heifers on contract is an excellent way to add value. If your cost of production is near the break-even price for grazing, then differentiation through adding more value can justify a higher price.

Getting customers is probably up there with the long list of uncertainties that come with agriculture. There’s no easy way to do it; it just takes persistence and a bit of creative thinking. In 2007, a Midwest consortium of university and nonprofit professionals conducted a contract grazing survey that provided some insight into customer acquisition and tenure. In this study, the majority of stocker operations, roughly 88 percent, had been with the same customers for three or more years. Cow-calf, summer grazing operations tended to have shorter customer histories, with about 50 percent having the same customer for just one to two years, and year-round operations tended to have longer customer tenure, with 78 percent having the same customer for three or more years. Most of the custom graziers who were surveyed acquired their clients through word of mouth, which was used by 100 percent of the graziers in stocker operations and by 76 percent in cow-calf operations. Twenty-five percent of cow-calf custom graziers also said they used referrals from agriculture professionals or past clients as a way to obtain new clients.

Given that word of mouth has been the best (if only) way to secure customers, I advise doing some marketing of your own, based on careful thought about your message — what you can offer that’s different. Consider listing with breed associations, conservation districts, your local Extension service newsletter, or local and regional sale barns. Also, a grazing land management or conservation trust workshop or conference may be a helpful way to meet prospective customers. Make a simple poster or flyer that will make cattle owners curious about your operation. Networking with farm and ranch realtors is another means of finding land owners that want their land grazed if you should end up with more livestock than your place can handle. This can also sometimes act in reverse too. A ranch realtor may know of a livestock owner wishing to contract out the grazing of his animals. And don’t forget to advertise in a regional ag newspaper.

To learn more, check out the Livestock and Pasture and Marketing, Business & Risk Management sections of the ATTRA website.

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Permalink What can you tell me about fertigation techniques for blackberry production?


Dr. Bernadine Strik and Dr. Luis Valenzuela of Oregon State University, Dr. David Bryla of USDA-ARS produced a webinar titled Organic Blackberry Production: Tips Learned from an Ongoing Research Study, which you should find useful. It covers the impacts of weeds on blackberry growth and yield; methods for weed control; fertigation for planting establishment; the effects of post-harvest irrigation on productivity, plant water status, and soil moisture; and root growth in blackberry.

There has not been a lot of research on organic fertigation schedules that are best for the crop. Each organic farm has had to do some experimenting. There are some guidelines to follow though once you determine the total amount of fertilizer you need for the season:

1) Don't apply it all at once.
2) Add 30 to 40 percent of the total amount of fertilizer needed in the beginning of the season and the rest throughout the growing season, so that the plants get nutrients as they grow, and so that you don't lose nitrogen before the plant can use it.
3) Try to time the applications so that most of the nutrients have been applied by the time fruiting begins.
4) For each fertigation session, start irrigating and make sure water has pressurized all the drip tape before starting the fertilizer injector.
5) Always flush the drip lines for about a half hour after stopping the fertilizer injection.

For more information or organic fertigation and injectors, consult the primer Fertigation in Organic Vegetable Production, produced by It includes a list of organic fertilizers for fertigation and prices per unit of nitrogen so you can compare apples to apples.

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