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Home  > Question of the Week

Question of the Week

Permalink What can you tell me about direct marketing specialty melons?

Answer: For the direct-market producer, shipping melons is probably not a good bet, as per-unit costs of production make them uncompetitive in price in small quantities. This condition, of course, is shared by producers of all stripe. It's hard for a farmer with a few acres, for example, to compete in price with someone who grows produce by the mile.

To compensate for this, direct-market producers must rely on market strategy to increase competitiveness. Specialty melons offer an avenue to compete on the turf of large-scale melon producers. If you look in any major seed-supply catalogue, you will see an assortment of melons. Naturally, the major varieties are offered—and are perfectly suited for the hobbyist wishing to grow his or her own cantaloupes or honeydews to be plucked vine-ripe from the garden, at the epitome of taste, as opposed to shipped not fully ripe days or weeks beforehand. However, to be competitive in the market, growers should seek out niches to serve. Niche markets can be accessed through a variety of means, such as farmers markets, ethnic and conventional markets, roadside sales, and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA).

Farmers markets have been steadily gaining in popularity. The USDA Agricultural Marketing Service reports that there was a 3.6% rise in the number of farmers markets from 2012 to 2014. This number is expected to continue to rise as more people start to value the benefits of local food. Farmers markets allow producers to meet with local people and build relationships with their consumers, an option not afforded in other venues.

Ethnic groceries help both recent immigrants and farmers. Many immigrants find themselves separated from the foods of their homelands. This demand becomes an opportunity for local farmers to market the vegetables, fruits, and herbs that are adaptable to their region to newcomers. It may be difficult for a local producer to sell produce directly to the people who would most benefit from it; thus, a middleman of the same culture becomes prudent. Ethnic grocery stores then become an outlet for farmers to reach audiences they didn’t have access to before. It can be particularly advantageous for farmers to time their harvests for a specific event of their target audience.

Some conventional grocery stores will purchase produce directly from producers.This gives the farmer a dedicated buyer for his or her crop and allows the store to brand itself as supportive of the local food movement.This option tends to be less attractive to farmers, as the other options usually are more profitable and less troublesome with regard to the amount of paperwork required of the farmer.

Roadside sales are another direct-marketing stratagem for producers. Farmers markets tend to have an array of many types of vendors, whereas roadside stands are a stand-alone operation.These tend to attract fewer customers, with the customers spaced over a longer period of time. These stands tend to be seasonal in nature, according to the harvest. Many factors play a part in the success of roadside stands. For example, a farm stand between Hempstead and Brenham, Texas, in the spring when the bluebonnets are flowering would have many customers who were interested in stopping on that stretch of road anyway. Differentiate that from travelers heading from Houston to Galveston, Texas, who have no intention of stopping for any reason.

Other marketing options are available to specialty melon growers. CSAs are still developing and evolving. The original concept was for the subscriber to pay at the beginning of the sea-son for a share of the produce a particular farm produced throughout that season. This model is adapting due to market forces and competition. Nevertheless, it is still an option for producers to supply their customers with high-quality produce. Home-delivery services have also arisen in the past few years as a viable outlet for producers to sell their products.

To learn more, consult the ATTRA publication Specialty Melon Production for Small and Direct-Market Growers, available at This publication provides an overview of production and marketing of numerous different species and varieties of specialty melons. It addresses production considerations including seed sources, planting needs, soil preparation, and insect pest and disease control. It also discusses marketing outlets for producers to sell their melons and summarizes results of current melon research. A resource list details sources for more information, seeds, and supplies useful for melon growing.

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Permalink Can I control goat parasites with sericea lespedeza in Washington State?

Answer: While Sericea lespedeza is not listed as a noxious weed for Washington, the state Noxious Weed Control Board does not encourage its propagation. For specific information, contact Alison Hapern directly at 360-902-2053 or

However, there are other ways that you can control goat parasites. For starters, consult the ATTRA publication Tools for Managing Internal Parasites in Small Ruminants: Sericea Lespedeza. It is available on the ATTRA website at This publication lists some other species that produce tannins, such as birdsfoot trefoil, and lists the amounts of tannins.

In all probability, the Barber Pole Worm will be your most notable parasite. FAMACHA scoring your goats is a handy way for you to assess the degree of Barber Pole infestation. Consult with your extension agent or veterinarian for a FAMACHA trainer in your area.

One of the best means of controlling parasites in your goats is to apply the correct grazing strategy. This includes a 35-day pasture rest, less than four-day paddock grazing periods, and leaving 6 to 8 inches of residual behind. For more details, consult the ATTRA publication Tools for Managing Internal Parasites in Small Ruminants: Pasture Management, available at There is also an ATTRA video describing this and many other aspects of intensive grazing, entitled Intensive Grazing, One Farm’s Set Up. Check it out at

Additional articles on grazing controls and FAMACHA can be found at the American Consortium for Small Ruminant Parasite Control website at

It is advantageous to develop diverse species of plants in your pasture sward. Other grass and legume species that you could consider in your pasture are perennial ryegrass, meadowbrome grass, orchard grass, and Garrison creeping meadow foxtail. The rye grass and meadow foxtail will establish fairly easily by tromping them in during the early spring. I would recommend a stocking density of 18 of your goats per 1/8 or less of an acre when you tromp in the seed, even if you have to move them two to three times a day. Make sure that there are hoof prints everywhere.

Legumes that you might consider are birdsfoot trefoil, red clover, white clover (Alice), and alfalfa. You might experiment with some chicory. If you could get it established, your goats would like it.

Lastly, On Pasture provides the reader with lively information on grazing. You can find it at An additional site that is always informative is the Maryland Small Ruminant Page at

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Permalink My dairy farm’s electric bill was $700 last month. Should I consider a solar energy system to reduce electric costs?

Answer: I would need to know more about your farm to give an educated opinion but, in general, if the $700 dollar electric bill was for one month, then your farm would likely be a good candidate for an energy audit. An audit would determine where most of the energy on your farm is being used and offer suggestions to reduce the usage.

The National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has a program called EQIP On-Farm Energy Initiative, which helps farmers with an energy audit and with energy retrofits like lighting changes and motor upgrades, based on the results of the audit. You can learn more at You might also contact your local NRCS office to get additional information.

I would also suggest that you contact your electric utility. They sometimes have different rates for different customers and also may offer help with reducing your energy usage.

Once you have made some inroads on reducing your energy needs, then you can look at alternative energy sources like solar to help with at least part of the rest of the job. USDA’s Rural Energy for America Program (REAP) offers cost share and grants for alternative energy system installations. You can learn more about this program and how to apply for it at

For more information, consult the following ATTRA publications:

Dairy Farm Energy Efficiency
This publication provides an overview of how dairy farms can implement efficiency improvements and energy-saving technologies that can reduce energy consumption and energy-related costs.

Renewable Energy Opportunities on the Farm
This publication introduces three renewable energy resources that can be attractive and economically feasible for the farm: solar, wind, and renewable fuels. This is not a technical guide for designing or installing renewable energy systems but, instead, an overview that provides information on wind, solar, and renewable fuel technologies, cost and savings, site planning, and financial incentives.

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Permalink Can you identify resources to help first-time farmers with financing in Maine?

Answer: First, I recommend that you consult the ATTRA publication Financing Your Farm: Guidance for Beginning Farmers. This publication talks about some of the options that are available for accessing moneys to start a farm business. It covers traditional bank loans, farm credit, family loans, and USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA) loans for beginning farmers. The FSA loan option is available to farmers who have been farming less than 10 years and who have not been able to secure a bank loan. This publication is a good starting point for some ideas of how to finance your farm. Farm Credit’s FarmStart Program focuses on supplying financing for farm businesses that look like they have good potential to succeed.

You may also find useful the ATTRA publication Finding Land to Farm: Six Ways to Secure Farm Land. While you may want to buy land outright, it is worth thinking about some of the ideas in this publication. If you can start farming with minimal debt, you will increase your chances of success. Leasing a farm initially might be an option for you, and there are different types of leasing agreements covered in this publication, including long-term leasing and leasing with the option to buy.

Maine FarmLink helps connect land owners with people looking for land to farm. Take a look at the website at to see if there are any listings of land owners in your area looking for farmers to work their land.

For any of these options, it helps to have a well-defined business plan for your farm. You can access ATTRA farm business planning tutorials on the ATTRA website at You can run through these tutorials at your own pace as time permits, and they are a great foundation for starting to write a plan for your farm. Money lenders are going to want to see a business plan in order to consider a loan for a farm start up.

Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA) is an organic certifying agency in Maine. Visit the MOFGA website at to see the educational services they offer to farmers in your state. They offer a beginning farmer course that focuses on business planning and financial side of farming, which is as important as the production side. They also offer a small loan program for organic farmers.

You can find additional resources that could help in your endeavor by visiting the Marketing, Business & Risk Management and Beginning Farmer sections of the ATTRA website.

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Permalink When moving trees from our nursery to their final locations, is it best to dig them up bare root or with a significant root ball?

Answer: Transplanting this late in the season, when trees are beginning to break dormancy, it would be best if you could take as much soil with the roots as possible (not bare root). The reason is that most of the work of water uptake is actually done by little root hairs. Transplanting inevitably destroys many of the little root hairs. When the tree comes out of dormancy, the leaves transpire moisture, and if the root hairs have been damaged in transplanting and not had time to grow back, the moisture transpired from the leaves will be taken from storage roots and other plant tissues (this is why fall planting of bare-root stock is so good--the roots have had time to re-establish). This situation is what's commonly called "transplant shock." So, don't shake the soil off of the roots--try to disturb the roots as little as possible.

To learn more, consult the ATTRA publication Sustainable Small-Scale Nursery Production. It focuses on the sustainable production of woody and herbaceous nursery plants, both in containers and in the field. It is not a primer for inexperienced growers, but a complementary source of information that concentrates on sustainable production techniques. Topics covered include integrated pest management, weed control and alternative fertilizers. The publication also introduces business management practices. It is available at

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Permalink How do I go about setting vegetable prices for restaurant and wholesale markets?

Answer: Pricing is one of the most challenging aspects of farming. Checking the regional market prices is a good place to start. Rodale Institute has a good online tool that gives conventional and certified organic prices on many crops based on the terminal markets across the country. Tomatoes are listed at $21.00 for a 20-pound box of certified organic, while conventional is listed at $14. This is a wholesale price for tomatoes. Tomatoes sold in canning quantities would generally be discounted a bit, but they can be "seconds" that would not do well at a retail market. You can find this pricing tool at

Generally, restaurants sales prices are not quite wholesale, and not quite retail. Many restaurants want great product at close to wholesale prices, but farm to table establishments will be willing to pay higher than wholesale prices. However, because of the higher quantities restaurants might commit to ordering, they deserve to pay less than what you would want to get in other direct sales outlets like farmers markets.

Ideally, you should know what your costs are to produce a unit of any given crop on your farm. This is determined by looking at all the inputs to produce a certain crop, including variable costs like seed, soil amendments, labor for planting and weeding, and harvest time, as well as fixed cost like tools and equipment, irrigation, cost of the land, etc. When you determine what it cost you to produce a unit of tomatoes, then you can add a percentage to that cost of production (20 to 30% isn't unreasonable) to come up with a price per unit. This way, you aren't pricing below cost of production and losing money.

For more information, check out the ATTRA publication Understanding Organic Pricing and Costs of Production. This publication provides resources to compare organic and conventional agricultural prices, discusses organic production costs, and offers tips on how to set organic crop prices. There are also several case studies included that summarize insights gained from successful organic farmers and ranchers. It’s available at

In addition, the ATTRA tipsheet Tips for Selling to Restaurants is a brief but informative publication that highlights the advantages, considerations, and key questions you should ask yourself when considering selling to a restaurant. You can access it at

You might also be interested in the ATTRA online tutorial Scaling Up for Regional Markets. This tutorial provides lessons and information for farmers who have success in smaller and more direct marketing channels and who are interested in expanding their operations to meet a growing demand for local food. It’s available at

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Permalink Can I substitute wet brewers grains for part of the corn-oats-barley rotation in finishing steers?

Answer: I foresee no problems with substituting wet brewers grains for one-third of the corn-oats-barley (COB) grain ration you are feeding your finishing steers. The University of Florida published an article titled “Wet Brewers’ Grains for Beef Cattle,” which you should find helpful as it provides a description of how to feed brewers grain and also its nutrient composition. You can access it at

You mentioned that you are presently feeding your 800-pound steers 20 pounds of hay and seven to eight pounds of COB. As they finish, you are feeding an 1,100-pound steer 10 pounds of COB and approximately 23 pounds of hay. This is well within the limits of a hay-grain finishing ration and it should not cause acidosis.

By substituting brewers grains for one-third of the COB ration, you would be replacing about 2.6 pounds of the COB dry matter with brewers grains. Since the brewers grains are approximately 25% dry matter, you would feed 8 pounds X1/3 X 90%/25%= 9.4 pounds of actual Brewers for an 800-pound animal. For simplicity, you could round that up to 10 pounds. This reflects the fact that brewers grains are approximately 25% dry matter as opposed to 90% dry matter for COB. However, brewers grains can vary in moisture content. It is a good idea to have your brewers grains tested by a lab to get the full nutrient analysis. Dry-matter percentage would be one of the test results. This would give you a more accurate adjustment in which to feed the brewers grains. For example, if the dry-matter percentage of brewers grains came back at 30%, you would feed three pounds of it to every one pound of COB (90%/30%=3) substituted. If this were the case, you would only feed 7.8 pounds of brewers grains to the 800-pound steer. As you can see, the amount of moisture in the brewers grains does make a difference in how much you feed.

I think that at this rate of substitution, you would not have problems with barley bloat. However, it would be a good idea to make the transition over a week or 10 days. Just add a little more brewers grains to the grain mix every feeding, subtracting out the equivalent amount of COB as you go.

To learn more about topics related to livestock production, check out ATTRA's Livestock and Pasture section at

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Permalink How can I get rid of Pleasing fungus beetles Triplax thoracica with natural predators or organic pesticides?

Answer: Common Triplax spp. feed on oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus spp.), which grow on dead logs. Chemical controls are not recommended, since mushrooms and their mycelia are very absorbent. These insects are not considered a major commercial pest, so very little research has been done on controlling their populations.

Unfortunately, if you're growing a colony of mushrooms, I think that sanitation is really your only option, unless you want to experiment with use of beneficial nematodes. I don't know what kind of situation your mushroom rearing facility is, but in a situation such as this, I think you need to make sure that any access to the outside is very well screened to prevent future infestations.

For your present crop of mushrooms, the facility needs to be cleaned out/sterilized to make sure that no larvae or pupae survive. Then you can start over with a new batch of logs or whatever substrate you're using, and clean inoculant.

In case you want to experiment with the use of beneficial (insect-eating) nematodes, I've listed some names of some formulations below, which include an insect-eating fungus, which you might wish to experiment with as well.

Trade Name: Lawn Patrol
Active Ingredient: Heterorhabditis bacteriophora
Supplier Info:
Hydro-Gardens, Inc.
P.O. Box 25845
Colorado Springs, CO 80936-5845
Phone: (719) 496-2266
OMRI Listed: No

Trade Name: Naturalis-L
Active Ingredient: Beauveria bassiana
Supplier Info:
Troy Biosciences, Inc.
113 South 47th Street
Phoenix, AZ 85043
OMRI Listed: Yes

Trade Name: Nemasys L
Active Ingredient: Steinernema kraussei
Supplier Info:
Becker Microbial Products, Inc.
11146 NW 69th Place
Parkland, FL 33076
Phone: (954) 345-9321
OMRI Listed: No

Trade Name: Nematac S
Active Ingredient: Steinernema scapterisci
Supplier Info:
Becker Underwood, Inc.
801 Dayton Avenue
Ames, IA 50010
Phone: (515) 232-5907
OMRI Listed: No

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Permalink How can I control Japanese beetle organically?

Answer: First, I encourage you to visit ATTRA's Biorational Pest Management Database. Here's the link to the entry for Japanese beetle: As you can see, there are 20 products registered for control of Japanese beetle.

As you probably already know, several of those products target the larval or grub stage in the soil, and there is a huge problem with that—the adults are quite mobile and regardless of how many grubs you kill in your soil, there can be adults flying in from as far away as five miles.

The traps are similar in that they might trap your local adult population, but new adults could still fly in. However, my experience has been that if you are diligent about cleaning out the traps every day or two, or whenever they get filled, you'll make a lot of progress in reducing beetle populations. The traps fail when they aren’t cleaned out regularly.

There also are some homemade traps that work. I know that they work because they are my main method of control for both green June beetles and Japanese beetles. Here's a simple recipe found online:

Japanese Beetle Trap and Bait
The following bait and trap method is to be used during the height of the Japanese beetle season.

1 cup water
1/4 cup sugar
1 mashed banana
1 package yeast

Dissolve sugar and yeast in the water. Mix the well-mashed banana into the sugar water. Put all ingredients in a gallon milk jug. Place the jug (with the top off) in an area where Japanese Beetles gather. The fermentation and odor of the bait attracts the beetles, which get in but not out.

But my recipe is even simpler: put a few pieces of whatever overripe fruit you have in a five-gallon bucket, fill half-way with water, and place near the crop you're trying to protect. You can throw in a little wine, too. I scoop out the beetles with a slotted kitty litter shovel and stomp on them or throw them to the ducks and chickens. The chickens don't like the green June beetles, but the ducks do.

Finally, you will probably get the best results using a "push-pull" strategy. PUSH the beetles away from your crop with a pesticide or with the pest-repellent kaolin clay (Surround™) (again, see ATTRA's Biorational Pest Control Database for organic pesticides) and PULL them into your baited traps.

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Permalink How can I propagate blackberries and figs?

Answer: Blackberries are exceedingly easy to propagate from root cuttings. First, you have to get to the roots, so you can either come out from your mother plants 12 to 18 inches or so with a shovel or tractor-driven plow and turn up some roots. Or you can dig up whole plants, which is what I prefer to do. I usually do this in late winter or early spring.

Then, select some of the larger roots (pencil diameter or larger) and cut them into pieces roughly two-inches long. I store these in plastic bags in a walk-in cooler or refrigerator until I’m ready to line them out three to four inches apart in trenches about two inches deep and then cover them with soil. About the only thing that can go wrong is allowing the root pieces to dry out, so make sure the cuttings are just a tiny bit moist if you’re storing them in plastic bags for very long, and be careful to not let the planted root pieces dry out in the field.

Figs are also quite easy to propagate. First, take pencil-diameter cuttings about three to six inches long. Make sure that the fig cuttings contain some of the wood from the previous year and are not all new wood for the best results.

Line the bottoms of trays or individual planters with newspaper. Add enough potting soil to the planters to allow the cuttings to stand upright (two to three inches). Place cuttings a few inches apart, making sure that the part of the cutting that was closest to the ground when you took the cutting goes down, and water the soil until moist.

Place the trays or planters in a bright, warm location that does not receive direct sunlight. The cuttings will root most effectively in temperatures above 70 degrees F. Water the cuttings only when the soil is completely dry.

When three to five leaves have emerged on each sprout, transplant the rooted fig cuttings directly into the ground or into larger pots. Fertilize to encourage growth.

You can learn more about blackberry production in the ATTRA publication Organic Culture of Bramble Fruits, available at

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Permalink What can you tell me about growing tart cherries in the South?

Answer: I'd say your chances for growing tart cherries successfully are good to very good. The tart cherry, Prunus cerasus, is much better adapted to the upper South than is the sweet cherry, P. avium. Note that sweets and tarts are separate and distinct species. The biggest banes of sweet cherries--brown rot and bacterial canker--are only minor problems on tart cherries.

Leaf spot and powdery mildew on the leaves will probably be your biggest problems. They usually don't appear until after harvest. They don't hurt the fruit but can weaken the tree if they get so bad that they defoliate, which, in the South, is not uncommon. Sulfur works on both and baking soda products, like Kaligreen™, are good for powdery mildew.

Regarding rootstocks, there are some newer ones that might do well for you, but the standard seedling rootstock Mahaleb will probably do fine in your sandy loam soils. If you have any doubt about the drainage at the site you choose, you might want to berm up the soil a little (just 12 to 18 inches higher than the surrounding ground should suffice). For more information on the newer rootstocks, consult the ATTRA publication Cherries: Organic Production at There is a chart summarizing their characteristics on page 5.

All soft fruits are perishable, and I'd say cherries are no better or worse as long as the stems remain on the fruits. The problem is that when picking, the stem often pulls off right where it joins with the fruit and leaves an open, juicy scar. So, first, try to pick so that the stems remain on the fruit (some will get away from you). Secondly, refrigerate as soon as possible after picking. And, lastly, have a marketing plan in place that will allow you to get them to your buyers as soon after harvest as possible.

I've fooled around with several tart cherry varieties over the years, and I have yet to find anything better than the old Montmorency. It's self-pollinating, so you don't have to get other varieties, but you'll probably want to just for fun!

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Permalink How can I find a farming internship in the Northeast?

Answer: A good place to start is ATTRA's internship database, one of the most utilized farm internship sites in the country. You can narrow a search by location or by enterprise. It is available at

It is also a good idea to check with each state's sustainable/organic farming organization. These organizations usually have listings online or in their classified newsletter sections.

Starting in Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA) hosts a jobs/internship listing at

Moving North, each individual state in New England (except Maine) has its own chapter for NOFA (Northeast Organic Farming Association). The main NOFA website is and you can access each state's website from there. In addition, NOFA publishes a fantastic journal, The Natural Farmer, and you may want to get the latest issue to search through its classified ads for internships.

Maine has its own state organization, Maine Organic Farming & Gardening Association (MOFGA), which is another great resource. To learn more, visit

Here are a few additional possibilities:

Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Working Group

Beginning Farmers

Rodale Institute

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Permalink What can you tell me about saving seed and associated disease issues?

Answer: Occasionally seed-borne diseases can be spread when saving seed. It is not very often that this occurs, however, and I wouldn’t discourage you from seed saving because of this. Two diseases that are more commonly spread via seed are black rot and Tomato Mosaic virus. It is important when saving seed to harvest seed from your healthiest plants. If there is any sign of disease, do not harvest seed from it.

The exception in seed saving that you should be mindful of is "seed" or plants that are propagated vegetatively, such as potatoes and garlic. A host of diseases (and nematodes) are unfortunately carried in the tubers and can be transmitted once they are planted in the soil. Be sure to carefully inspect tubers and garlic bulbs to ensure that they do not have any blemishes or signs of disease in their production cycle and on the tubers themselves.

I would also recommend an invaluable resource for seed saving titled Seed to Seed, by Suzanne Ashworth, if you do not have it already. It lists most types of garden seeds with specific directions for each one. Some seed saving can be complicated if the plants are cross pollinated and require isolation and hand pollination to save seed. This book outlines the best methods in doing this. It is available at It is also available at a variety of retail outlets, so you might check your local bookstore or library.

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Permalink Can you help me understand the different types of hydroponic systems?

Answer: In its most basic definition, hydroponic production is the production of plants in a nutrient solution rather than soil. Many variations on this theme exist, but most production occurs in greenhouses. The investment required for a hydroponic greenhouse is typically higher than in-ground greenhouse production, but you have more flexibility with the plants and can grow in higher density, as well as charge a premium, so the returns can be higher.

There are two basic hydroponic systems, non-recycled nutrient, where the nutrient solution is used once, and recycled nutrient systems. There are many variations within those two, but I will explain how they both work below.

Non-recycled Nutrient Solution
Perhaps the most simplified system for producing greenhouse vegetables is where the floor of the greenhouse is used as the media for growing plants. This system can be on the ground or in a bed or trough, but usually consists of sand, perlite, pine bark, or gravel approximately 10 to 12 inches deep, separated from the underlying soil by a plastic barrier. To provide adequate drainage, a drain line should be installed under each pair of rows. Drain lines should be approximately 1 ¼ inches deep for sand and 3 inches deep for bark, with a fall of 2 inches per 100 feet of row.

Irrigation water and nutrients are supplied by a drip system with enough emitters per plant to provide sufficient quantities of solution. Leachates should be monitored frequently for total dissolved solids. When levels exceed 3500 ppm, media should be leached with water until leachates are less than 1,000 ppm.

Many greenhouse vegetables can also be grown in containers using the same type of media discussed for bed and trough culture. Containers should be of sufficient size to provide good aeration and drainage. Three- to five-gallon containers appear to be best. Irrigation water and nutrient solutions are supplied by a drip-irrigation system.

Bag culture is similar to the use of containers with the only exception being that plants are grown in the bag that contains the growing media. In this growing system, plants are handled just as if they were in a container.

Recycled Nutrient Solution
This can be used with gravel as medium or in troughs and the nutrient solution is pumped through the plants no less than every 30 minutes. The tank that contains the bulk nutrient solution should be of a capacity to supply three gallons per plant. Beds are irrigated to about 1" below the surface of the gravel and the tank refilled with the premixed nutrient solution daily or at least once every third day. The nutrient solution should be monitored frequently for total solids and replaced when levels approach 3,500 ppm.

The Nutrient Film Technique was invented in Britain but is commonly used for smaller crops such as herbs and lettuce. The plants are placed in shallow plastic troughs and the nutrient solution is continually pumped over the roots without any medium to hold the plants. The troughs are on a slope, so the nutrient solution is constantly recirculating.

To learn more about hydroponics, consult the following resources:

Cornell University Controlled Environment Agriculture program
There are many manuals and resources for Controlled Environment Agriculture (hydroponics) on the program web page.

Resh, Howard. 2013. Hydroponic Food Production: A Definitive Guidebook for the Advanced Home Gardener and the Commercial Hydroponic Grower. Seventh Edition.
This is a comprehensive guide to soilless culture with extensively new and updated contents from the previous edition published in 2001.

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Permalink Can I treat a cow with frostbitten teats without drying her up?

Answer: Drying your cow up is probably the easiest and most reliable treatment. The action of the milking machine or hand milking will irritate the scab and delay its healing. However, if you do not want to dry her up, and I don't blame you, this is what I would do:

At the end of each milking, dip the teat with a non-iodine based teat dip. You need to use a teat dip that is nonirritating. Consult your dairy dealer. Take some gauze that is sized to cover the scabbed area on the teat. Put some honey on the gauze. It does not have to be a lot, just enough to cover the scabbed area. Next, get some ¾-inch cloth medical tape; cut it into two four- to five-inch pieces. Form the two pieces of tape into a "cross" and stick the gauze with honey onto the tape. Arrange this assembly on the teat so that the gauze and tape bandage covers the entire bottom of the teat and the scabbed area. Finish by cutting a six-inch piece of tape and wrapping it around the top of the teat so it secures the cross bandage to the teat. Honey is a very good antibacterial agent and also very healing. I used Vitamin E until I discovered honey.

The scabbed frostbite tissue must heal from the inside out. It will take about 60 days. So that is about 120 bandages per teat that you will have to make. Since your cow is not bred yet, I would be inclined to try this treatment. It costs a lot of money to feed a dry cow. In addition, dairy cows breed back easier if they are lactating.

Be aware that frostbit, scabbed teats make the cow very susceptible to Staphylococcus mastitis, which is a very bad condition. It remains in the cow's udder and often is incurable. That is the risk you take.

Of course, in hindsight, it is best to try and prevent frostbit teats. Check with your local dairy dealer. He will have a dip or powder that you can dip the teats in whenever it gets below 20 degrees F. They work very well. If for some reason you cannot find some frost dip, you can make some out of Vaseline and scarlet oil (get this from your vet). Put about 10 cc of scarlet oil in the small tub of Vaseline. Rub it into the Vaseline with your forefinger, incorporating only enough Vaseline to make a rose-colored mix. Apply this mix liberally to the teats after each milking. This scarlet oil/Vaseline mix is good to about 0 degrees F, including wind chill. It will soften the skin and provide a protective layer. The frost dips protect the teats to minus 30 degrees F or so.

You must be patient because healing your cow will be a long process. Strive to be very clean when you are working with the affected teats. Staphylococcus bacteria are all over the scab. When you wash with soap her before milking, get each teat very clean.

To learn more about topics related to livestock production, visit ATTRA's Livestock and Pasture section at

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Permalink What can you tell me about the use of Bradford pear as a rootstock?

Answer: Bradford pear belongs to the "wild" species Pyrus calleryana. Bradford is simply a selection from that species, chosen for ornamental purposes. Bradford is actually budded or grafted onto seedlings of P. calleryana, which may or may not (due to the genetic variability of seedlings) closely resemble Bradford.

Callery, as the nurserymen call it, is a somewhat common rootstock for pears, especially for the southern U.S. where it is well adapted to the heat and challenging soil conditions. Bradford has fallen out of favor with horticulturists in large part because of the weed-like spread of seedlings from seeds distributed by birds. But the same thing that makes those seedlings "weed trees" makes it an excellent rootstock. You almost can’t kill it!

I don't use Bradford, per se, as my pear rootstock, but I do use callery seedlings, which is almost the same. I buy the rootstocks from specialty nurseries in Oregon, but one could simply take some of the little pear fruits from the Bradford in the autumn and start plants from those. Also, if a person had a bunch of callery sprouts already on a piece of land, you could bud or graft them in place. Grafting to large Bradfords would also be possible but considerably more trouble.

To learn more about pear production, consult the ATTRA publication Pears: Organic Production. This introduction to commercial organic pear production covers pear diseases, disease-resistant cultivars, rootstocks, insect and mite pests, and their treatment, Asian pears, and marketing. Two profiles of organic pear growers are included. Electronic and print resources are provided for further research. It is available at

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Permalink What should I look for when buying a used manure spreader?

Answer: When you are purchasing a used manure spreader, look for these things:

1. General appearance. Is it beat up from misuse? Look at the sides. Are they rusted? Is the bottom made of wood with a poly cover? Avoid metal beds, even the Cor–Ten steel ones.
2. Is the frame twisted?
3. Rock the wheels. Is the bearing play correct? Not too loose?
4. Are the apron flats bent? Are they perpendicular to the box sides?
5. What type of apron chain links does the machine have? In my experience, the strongest are the square ones. Avoid the links that look like roller chain. How good of shape are the links? It is best to check and see if you can get replacement links. Confirm this by buying two to four. They are not very expensive and you may need them in the future. The same goes for the apron flats.
6. Check the lube level in the gearbox. Is it at the correct level? This can speak volumes for the care the spreader has been given.
7. Is the apron chain adjusted correctly? Are the two sides of the chain in equal tension? If they are not, it is possible for the looser chain links to skip a link as they goes over the drive cog, misaligning the accompanying apron flat and bending it as it goes over the spreader end.
8. Are the beaters all present? If one is missing, it will cause the beater cylinder to be out of balance, causing undue bearing stress.
9. Check the bearings and universal joints. Have they been greased regularly? A good way to check this is to note excess grease that has spun out. If there is no grease at all around the bearing housing, I would be wary.
10. Check PTO. Nearly all small spreaders are 540 RPM. Make sure it matches your tractor PTO RPM.
11. Slide the PTO shaft in and out. Make sure it slides easily. If the shaft has been dropped and a dimple is in the guard tube, the shaft will not slide easily. This is a real pain. Also check that the universal crosses have been greased. Does the PTO latching mechanism on the shaft work securely?
12. If there are any hydraulics, such as for an end gate, check the hoses. Are the hydraulic fittings compatible with your tractor’s? They do make different tips, so it is best to check. These tips are easily changed out.
13. If the gear box needs work, most bearings and gears should be stock. A machine shop can rebuild the gearbox for you.

To learn more about topics related to compost and manure, check out the resources on ATTRA’s Soils & Compost page at

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Permalink Can I dig up fruit trees and pot them in very early spring to sell in the fall?

Answer: You should be able to transplant the trees into pots anytime they're dormant and the ground isn't frozen. However, be aware that if temperatures plummet after they're in pots, the roots will be more subject to cold damage than if they had remained in the ground. In such a case, you might want to cluster the potted trees together and pile some sort of bulky mulch (straw or leaves should work) around and maybe even over the pots. If it were me, I'd wait a while longer to avoid having to worry about freezing, perhaps early March.

To learn more, check out the ATTRA publication Tree Fruits: Organic Production Overview. This publication provides an overview of issues relevant to commercial organic production of temperate-zone tree fruits and, to a lesser extent, tree nuts. It includes discussions of marketing and economics, orchard design, and cultural considerations, including crop varieties, site selection, site preparation, soil fertility, weed control, and pest management (insects, diseases, and vertebrates). It raises questions for the grower to consider in making decisions about orchard and enterprise design. It is available at

You might also be interested in the many resources on our Horticultural Crops webpage at

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Permalink How do I know when my lambs are correctly finished?

Answer: Harvesting your animals at exactly the right time is very important. Lambs that are over- or under-finished will produce meat that is less desirable to consumers. Mastering the ability to determine when your lambs are correctly finished at 0.20 to 0.25 inch of back fat can result in a superior product in the marketplace, one that surpasses your competitors and creates demand among consumers.

Even if you're just raising lambs for your own consumption, using this technique will create a premium meat and thus a superior dining experience. As an added bonus, you can also reduce unnecessary finishing costs.

Feeling for Twenty Hundreds
As a lamb matures, it builds muscle first and puts on fat later. The spinal and lumbar regions are two places where it is easy to gauge the amount of fat on the animal. These areas are also where the highest-quality cuts – the rack and the loin chops – are located.

During the final two months of finishing, fat is deposited along the sides and top of the spine (racks), filling in the sharp recesses. Simultaneously, fat is being deposited along the sides of the lumbar processes (loin chops) – the bony protuberances – smoothing out the ridges.

As luck would have it, we all have a convenient, built-in "gauge" for determining how much back fat is present on the animal—our hands. Make a tight fist with your right hand and then run your fingers over the set of knuckles that your fingers are attached to. It feels like the Rocky Mountains. That is what the backbone, or spine, of an unfinished lamb feels like. Now, extend the fingers of your right hand and feel across those same knuckles. Quite a difference. You have just simulated the top of a finished lamb. In a properly finished lamb, the spinal processes are covered with a layer of fat that is about 0.20 inch thick. That is a skinny quarter inch. As your finished lamb stands in the race (the chute that serves to restrain them) alongside of you, run your fingers up and down the backbone, visualizing in your mind that skinny quarter inch of fat. Does the lamb show it?

Does the Fat Slip?
When the lamb has 0.20 inch of back fat, you will also be able to feel the fat slide across the backbone in such a way that it seems to "slip" as you move your fingers over the backbone. This is characteristic of 0.20 inch of back fat. Fat covers of less than 0.20 inch will not slip, while covers of 0.30 inch or more will tend to "roll" over the spinal processes instead of slipping. Additionally, a 0.30 inch or greater thickness of back fat seems to move as one whole layer, producing a "jiggling" effect as your hand moves it rapidly.

Guard against over-finished lambs—process them before they become too fat. If you can consistently produce lamb that is properly finished, you will achieve one of your primary goals: a differentiated product. As such, your lamb will rise above others in the marketplace for its quality.

Want to see this technique in action? Check out the ATTRA video Putting a Hand on Them—How to Tell When Your Lamb is Finished, available at Also see our fact sheet by the same name at

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Permalink How can I thresh small grains by hand?

Answer: Threshing—the act of physically breaking the grain kernel out of the plants seed head—is done by some form of beating. With small amounts of grain, it can be done by beating the grain heads against the inside of a clean container such as a bucket. As the grain kernels break free, they also bring with them smaller structures of the head, such as the awns, glumes, and small pieces of the stems, which are all described as chaff. With larger amounts of grain, you can use a clean concrete surface or a blanket or tarp and use a flail.

Once the grain has been separated from the head and you have collected the grain kernels, these need to be separated from the chaff. This is done by passing air over a downward-falling grain stream through a stream of wind. That wind can be outdoors or easily created using a household electrical fan.

There is an excellent YouTube video entitled Grain Thresher Design and Winnowing-How To, which illustrates several home-designed threshing devices using an electrical drill with some pieces of chain and a five-gallon bucket for threshing and using a household fan for winnowing. It is available at

To learn more about topics related to small grains, visit the Field Crops section of ATTRA’s website at

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Permalink What can you tell me about starting an alpaca or llama farm?

Answer: Llamas or alpacas can be a good addition to a farm or ranch—alpacas as an alternative livestock enterprise and llamas as guard animals or recreational animals. They fit well into a diversified farming operation. Marginal pastureland is suitable for raising llamas and alpacas, with some supplemental feeding under certain conditions.

There are currently more than 158,000 llamas and more than 170,000 registered alpacas in North America. Both llamas and alpacas are members of the Camelidae family. The llama and alpaca have been domesticated in South America for many centuries. There the llama is used as a beast of burden, as a fiber source, and as a meat source. The alpaca is used primarily for fiber production but is also as a meat source in South America.

Llamas and alpacas are quiet, intelligent, easily trained animals that can provide fleece and potentially a variety of services to the owner. They are adaptable to different climates and terrains. Alpacas and llamas offer a comparatively low-impact livestock alternative. Their padded feet do not have the same effect on the ground as hooves. In addition, they have efficient digestive systems and tend to consolidate feces, helping to control parasites and ease manure collection.

Before starting a llama or alpaca enterprise, it is advisable to visit as many existing llama or alpaca operations as possible, to pick up ideas and learn about options. Pay particular attention to regional farms because care and feeding may vary in different parts of the country due to climate, parasites, and terrain. Each llama or alpaca operation is unique. Gathering many ideas will help in creating an operation that suits a producer’s particular situation.

Previously, when starting to raise either alpacas or llamas, the initial capital investment in breeding stock was fairly substantial. Though stock can still be expensive, since the mid-1990s the price of most llamas has been reasonable, and the price of alpacas has decreased as their numbers in the United States have grown. Raising llamas or alpacas is considered a high-risk enterprise by banks and other agencies and, consequently, a large owner investment is usually needed to obtain a loan.

As with any agricultural business, there are potential tax advantages associated with llama and alpaca production. If the animals are actively raised for profit by the owner, expenses such as food and veterinary care can be written off.

Alpacas are classed as livestock, which enables farmers to operate under agricultural business rules. According to the Alpaca Owners and Breeders Association, there may also be tax benefits for passive owners who invest in alpacas. It is important for llama and alpaca owners to stay current with tax law changes.

Before considering a camelid operation, find out whether any permits or licenses are required for raising llamas or alpacas in your state. The USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service website links to states' and U.S. territories' import regulations for animals and contact information for state veterinarians. For more information, visit

The property where llamas or alpacas will reside must be zoned for livestock. Check with your zoning authority before you purchase any animals. In addition, note that transporting llamas or alpacas across state lines can require considerable paperwork, testing, and vaccinations. Consult with your veterinarian or your state veterinary office for rules and requirements on interstate transport of llamas and alpacas.

To learn more, consult the ATTRA publication Llamas and Alpacas on the Farm, available at

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Permalink Where can I find funding for a sustainable agriculture project?

Answer: There are many different funding sources, programs, and grants for agricultural production. Finding a program that matches your project will require that you spend some time exploring the many different options.

An excellent place to start is the USDA Small Farm Funding Resources, available online at This guide contains information about funding sources for beginning farmers, training, technical assistance contacts, organizations with resources and programs for beginning and experienced farmers, and more.

USDA's Alternative Farming Systems Information Center has compiled a list of useful resources and contacts that you should explore. It is available at

Building Sustainable Farms, Ranches and Communities, available at, and NSAC's Grassroots Guide to Federal Farm and Food Programs, available at, both offer information on federal grants and programs. For most of the federal programs, women receive some priority in funding. These two guides can help you find programs that may fit your project. The FSA Microloan Program is a newer program that is typically easier to qualify for and access than some of the other grant and loan programs.

Also useful are the ATTRA publications Financing Your Farm: Guidance for Beginning Farmers, available at, and Federal Conservation Resources for Sustainable Farming and Ranching, available at

Finally, ATTRA posts funding opportunities daily on its website at

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Permalink Is feeding brewer’s grain to steers beneficial? How much should I feed per head?

Answer: I foresee no problems with substituting wet brewer’s grains for one-third of the corn-oats-barley (COB) grain ration you are feeding your finishing steers. The University of Florida produced a useful publication titled Wet Brewers’ Grains for Beef Cattle, available at This publication includes a description of how to feed brewer’s grains, as well as the nutrient composition.

You mentioned that you are presently feeding your 800-pound steers 20 pounds of hay and seven to eight pounds of COB. As they finish, you are feeding an 1,100-pound steer 10 pounds of COB and approximately 23 pounds of hay. This is well within the limits of a hay-grain finishing ration and it should not cause acidosis.

By substituting brewer’s grains for one third of the COB ration, you would be replacing about one-third of eight pounds, or 2.6 pounds of the COB dry matter with brewer’s grains. Since the brewer’s grains are approximately 25% dry matter, you would feed 8 pounds X 1/3 X 90% / 25%= 9.4 pounds of actual brewer’s grains for an 800-pound animal. For simplicity, you could round that up to 10 pounds. This reflects the fact that brewer’s grains are approximately 25% dry matter as opposed to 90% dry matter for COB.

However, brewer’s grains can vary in moisture content. It would be a good idea to have your brewer’s grains tested by a lab to get the full nutrient analysis. Dry-matter percentage would be one of the test results. This would give you a more accurate adjustment from which to feed the brewer’s grains. For example, if the dry matter percentage of brewer’s grains came back at 30% dry matter, you would feed three pounds of brewer’s grains to every one pound of COB (90%/30%=3.0) substituted. If this were the case, you would only feed 7.8 pounds of brewer’s grains to the 800-pound steer. As you can see, the amount of moisture in the brewer’s grains does make a difference in how much you feed.

I think that at this rate of substitution, you would not have problems with barley bloat. However, it would be a good idea to make the transition over a week or 10 days. Just add a little more brewer’s grains to the grain mix every feeding, subtracting out the equivalent amount of COB as you go.

To learn more about a wide array of topics related to cattle production, visit ATTRA’s Livestock and Pasture page at

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Permalink Without a spreader, could one adequately make compost by turning windrows of straw/manure, provided the C:N ratio and moisture levels are correct?

Answer: Yes, you could make the compost without a spreader by layering one and a half to two parts of straw to one part of manure and building the pile up to at least five feet high. Higher would be better—the more mass, the more habitat. You have to be conscious of aeration, though. Big piles must be watched closely to make sure you don't stall out on oxygen. If you ever turn your pile or windrow and there is a white crust or flakes spread throughout a section, that means that part of the pile ran out of oxygen and went anaerobic on you. It's easily fixed by turning, but it does slow the finished process down in order to get a uniform product.

A spreader has the advantage of cutting the material into smaller size and mixing, speeding up things a little, and perhaps making a more uniform product faster. But there is no reason why you could not make the compost with a loader.

For more information on composting, check out ATTRA’s Soils & Compost page, where you’ll find links to a host of useful information. It’s available at Also check out our new video, Composting! You Can Do It, available at

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Permalink How does soil salinity affect crop production?

Answer: Increased soil salinity levels can greatly effect plant growth and production. Some soils are naturally high in salinity but most salinity problems on farms are increased by farm practices. In arid regions of the country, irrigation water can build salinity in soils. Adding fertilizers containing salts can also built up salinity levels if there is not enough rain to flush the soils, or in high tunnel production where soils are not exposed to the weather.

Electrical conductivity of soil or irrigation water is used as a means of testing levels of salinity. This is usually measured in deciSiemens per meter (dS/m) and the higher the number, the higher the salinity. You can buy an electrical conductivity meter for about $150.

In general, levels above 1 dS/m are getting high for vegetable crops, but specific thresholds for different crops can be found in the University of Vermont Center for Sustainable Agriculture publication titled High Tunnels. It is available at Pages 56 and 57 of this publication talk about the causes of soil salinity, testing, salinity levels that effect different crops and possible solutions. The chart on page 56 lists the threshold salinity level for individual crops before production starts to drop. Salinity is talked about here in the context of high tunnel production in the east, but the thresholds are the same wherever you are growing crops.

Colorado extension also has an excellent fact sheet on soil salinity, titled Managing Saline Soils. It discusses the causes of soil salinity, its effect on plants, and how to manage soil salinity. You can access this fact sheet at

To learn more about healthy soil, check out the Soils & Compost section of the ATTRA website at

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Permalink What can you tell me about getting started with aquaponics?

Answer: In starting an aquaponic garden, one of the most important things to do is a fishless cycle with pure ammonia to build up the nitrifying bacteria. This step requires patience and should not be rushed. Some resources mention the use of feeder goldfish to start. However, unless you have a very reputable source, feeder goldfish are usually parasite-ridden, and you won’t know it until six months into production when all the fish end up dead.

At the beginning, it is also recommended to create a way to take the fish out of the system in case they need to be treated for ich, fungus, etc. This is usually called a hospital tank, and should be appropriate for the size and number of fish in the system. For example, my colleague has a 300-gallon system and his hospital tank is a 50-gallon storage tote.

The ATTRA publication Aquaponics — Integration of Hydroponics with Aquaculture provides an introduction to aquaponics with brief profiles of working units around the country. It is available at

There are lots of other good resources available that discuss all aspects of aquaponics, including the following:

The Aquaponics Association
Promotes the benefits of aquaponics through education and outreach.

Stout, Meg. 2013. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Aquaponic Gardening. Indianapolis, IN. Alpha Books. Available at:
A comprehensive guide to aquaponic gardening, from choosing a setup to selecting fish and vegetables. In addition to everything one needs to know to run a healthy aquaponics garden and care for both the vegetables and fish, there are step-by-step plans with photos for building different size systems. The author fully explains how to garden indoors and how to resize and move a garden inside or outside, depending on the season, to produce an abundant supply of edible, organically-raised vegetables and fish.

Bright Agrotech
Bright Agrotech’s Vertical Food Blog has lots of free resources and its YouTube videos do a great job explaining everything from water to nutrients, although their content is a bit light on fish.

Backyard Aquaponic Systems
An online forum for discussing aquaponics.

Growing Power
A non-profit urban farm and training program in Milwaukee and Chicago. Much of its production focuses on aquaponics. Growing Power offers trainings on aquaponics at its farm locations as well as at regional training centers. Its website also contains resources on aquaponics.

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Permalink What can you tell me about starting an organic orchard for hard cider production in Minnesota?

Answer: Commercial organic apple production is possible in Minnesota, but it is complicated compared to conventional production and compared to organic production in drier parts of the nation, like Washington state. The ATTRA publication Apples: Organic Production includes a case study of Hoch Orchards and Gardens in LeCrescent, Minnesota. The fact that the Hoch family has successfully produced organic apples in Minnesota should be encouraging to you. Besides this useful case study, this publication includes a host of information that can help you with your decision-making process. It is available at

You’ve probably already found the "sudden" nationwide enthusiasm for hard cider encouraging. Of course, there is nothing sudden about it, if you know anything about American history, but there is certainly a resurgence of interest in hard cider production, and the apple industry cannot find enough good cider apples to fuel this interest.

But simply finding enough cider apples or enough cider-type apple trees is not the only problem with growing apples for cider. In a nutshell, these old cider varieties are mostly English and French cultivars, and their adaptability to U.S. conditions vary. Some are disease susceptible, most aren't heavy producers, and many may simply not be adapted to your harsh winters. Foxwhelp, Jamaica Black, Michelin, Bulmer's Norman, Hyslop Crab, and Chisel Jersey are the names of some of the apple cultivars with the bitterness that distinguish gourmet ciders.

At this point in the growth of the apple cider industry, and because of the popularity of artisanal beers, growers seem to be going for "gourmet quality" as established by producers/history in England, France, and New England, and this seems to tie them to these old cultivars. However, as in wine, the finished flavor has as much to do with the making of the cider as it does with the varieties going into that cider. You probably could never make a gourmet-quality cider with just Red Delicious or Gala, but with some experimentation you should be able to get an excellent cider from combining the juice of several good apples in the right proportions. And if some of those apples are old heirloom cultivars with proven adaptability to cold climates, like Fireside, Haralson, and Wolf River, you will be able to use this to your advantage in marketing your final product. These heirloom cultivars evoke romance and nostalgia, and you can definitely take advantage of those traits in marketing.

In my opinion, it is more important to get apple cultivars that are adapted to Minnesota, produce in abundance, and have complementary traits for blending into a good stock juice: high sugar content, aromatic, high acids, and some bitterness. You could conceivably get all the bitter component from a crab apple that is adapted to Minnesota. I think that getting varieties that are amenable to organic production in Minnesota (high level of disease resistance) is more important than getting these old cider varieties.

Additional Resources:

Managing apple scab on ornamental trees and shrub

Cider business flourishes

Cider demand outstrips supply

The hard trials of growing cider apples

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Permalink Would woven black plastic work for suppressing weeds in an orchard?

Answer: Weed control is a huge challenge for organic growers in any system, but perennial fruits are particularly problematic because it's difficult to use weed-control techniques like rotations and smother crops without some danger of damaging roots and trees. The use of fabric mulch in high-density orchards is not unusual anymore but it's widely understood that it's only effective for two to five years. However, those first few years of a fruit tree's growth are very important, and suppressing competing weeds during that period is highly desirable. Given the price of weed control, especially organic weed control, the economics of using fabric mulch is competitive. To learn more, consult Weed Barrier Fabric Mulch for Tree & Shrub Plantings from Kansas State University.

The reason fabric mulch becomes less effective over time is that blowing mower debris and seed settle on top of the mulch. Subsequently, the weed seed germinates on top of this layer of duff and plant roots eventually penetrate between the weave and weeds become established. Covering the fabric layer with wood chips greatly extends the effectiveness of the fabric mulch.

There are different grades of fabric mulch, some seeming more fabric-like and more easily torn, and some thinner or thicker. In my nursery, I've used different grades over the years and I've come to rely most on heavy, reusable grades like Pro-5, but I pull it up, move it, and re-use it every year or every other year because of the planting cycles of the nursery. In an orchard situation, you wouldn't have to do that; it would just stay in place.

My recommendation is to use a heavy-grade fabric mulch if you're not going to cover it with wood chips. If you are going to cover with chips, it would not be as important to get the heavy grades; you could go with something cheaper.

For more information on managing weeds, check out these ATTRA publications:

Sustainable Weed management for Small and Medium-Scale Farms

Principles of Sustainable Weed Management for Croplands

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Permalink Is it better to use pelleted or loose chicken manure to fertilize Bermuda grass hay stands?

Answer: There are two issues that should help you decide which source to use. The first issue deals with the type of spreader system you have available. The pellets offer an easier and more uniform product to spread on the hay ground and a simple cyclone spreader or a Gandy-type box spreader works well. With dry broiler-house manure, the challenge is often getting the box-type manure spreaders adjusted down to a low enough rate to get coverage that doesn’t over-apply, especially with a higher nutrient analysis chicken house manure.

The second issue is cost. Are pellets or chicken-house manure cheaper? You can make an informed decision if you compare the analysis of pellets’ nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium content per pound compared to that of the chicken-house manure. Our research in the northeastern United States shows nutrient ranges between 79-62-42 to 66-63-47 (per ton) based on the weight of the broilers. That makes for a simple comparison of the value per pound of plant nutrients. There would be little difference in the relative availability of the nitrogen since both sources have some type of wood/saw dust filler included either as the bedding in the chicken house or in the ground-up pellet formulation.

To learn more, check out the resources in the Livestock & Pasture section of the ATTRA website at

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Permalink How can I determine ripeness of an unknown pear on my property?

Answer: There are several indicators of ripeness or impending ripeness, including the following:

1) The abscission "scar" on the stem breaks cleanly when you push up and away on the fruit. This is a spot on the stem that is bigger than the rest of the stem and usually shows a thin but clear line around the stem. This is where the fruit is attached to the spur on the limb, and when the fruit is "physiologically" ripe, it will break cleanly away from that spur right at the abscission scar, leaving a full stem with a little knob at the top. "Physiologically ripe" for pome fruit (pears, apples, quinces) means that the seeds are mature, and the fruit continue to ripen after it is picked. It does not mean that it will taste super ripe or sweet, just that the seeds are ripe and that the fruit will continue to ripen off the tree.

2) The seeds are brown and hard and difficult to cut with a knife.

3) The flesh will give just a little to thumb pressure near the stem.

4) There is no starchy flavor or astringency. You'll probably have to compare ripe and unripe fruits to see this, but there is actually a starch test. However, since this is an unknown variety, we can't say with too much accuracy how to interpret the test. Here is information on the starch test from the University of Kentucky:

“Starch-iodine Testing: As fruit mature, starch is converted to soluble sugars. Iodine turns starch black; therefore, an iodine solution can be used to determine the amount of starch remaining in the fruit. A solution of 10 grams of potassium iodide and 2.5 grams of iodine in 1 liter of water should be used. During mixing and use of this solution, make sure the area is well ventilated—iodine fumes are toxic. This solution should be stored in a plastic or glass container as it is corrosive to metals. Providing the container is well stoppered, the solution will keep for long periods of time. Fruit should be cut in half through the equator and the cut surface dipped or sprayed with the iodine solution from a plastic spray bottle. The starch patterns will develop in approximately 1 minute. As fruit mature, starch clears from the core first, followed by the cortex. These patterns will be slightly different for each variety. The starch index at which fruit should be harvested depends on the intended length of storage. As a guide, fruit destined for storage should be harvested at a starch-iodine index of 4 to 5, whereas fruit for immediate sale should be harvested at an index of 6 to 7. As with any indicator of fruit maturity, the starch-iodine index should be used in combination with other maturity tests.”

5) Testing soluble solids with a refractometer. Again, since we don't know the variety, this test would be somewhat useless this year, but if you have a refractometer already, you could begin to take readings on sequential days and compare the readings to your own taste test, write it down somewhere in a record book and you will have begun to provide a guideline for future harvests.

6) Taste. This isn't quite as easy as it sounds with European-type pears because so many of them reach their highest sugars and flavors after being "cured" off the tree. In fact, some of the old varieties with grit cells, like Keiffer, can barely be eaten when they're ready to come off the tree but must be cured before the grit cells disappear.

7) Number of drops around the tree. Unless there's just been a big windstorm, you can guess that fruit is ripening just by the rate of dropped fruit around the base of the tree. Obvious, perhaps, but this is still useful because some fruits just don't look ripe or, like Keiffer, don't "feel" ripe because of the grit cells. So if you see a bunch of drops, but the fruit is still hard and gritty, don't be fooled. This fruit is likely ripe and just needs curing on your table top.

For more information on all aspects of pear production, consult the ATTRA publication Pears: Organic Production, available at

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