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Answer: Farmers value the USDA Certified Organic label—and consumers are often willing to pay a premium price for products that are certified organic. But can crops grown in vertical farms qualify for this valuable certification? There’s an ongoing debate about certification between the vertical farming community and organic regulators that set the organic certification standards.
The USDA National Organic Program (NOP) sets national standards for the production, handling, and processing of organic agricultural products. In addition, the NOP oversees mandatory certification of organic production. A National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) advises USDA in setting the standards upon which the NOP is based. Producers who are certified to have met standards set by the NOP may label their products "USDA Certified Organic," as allowed by regulation.
NOSB and USDA have defined organic agriculture as more than just a lack of the use of pesticides, herbicides, and artificial fertilizers. Certified organic crops must be grown in a holistic system. Here’s a 2010 recommendation by NOSB for the definition of organic agriculture (NOSB, 2010): "Organic agriculture is an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity. It is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and on management practices that restore, maintain and enhance ecological harmony."
Because soil isn’t present in vertical farming production (which consists of hydroponic, aeroponic, or aquaponic systems), a vertical farm would have difficulty meeting this strict definition of organic agriculture, since there is no "soil biological activity." But NOP is now allowing some organic certification agencies to award organic certification to hydroponic operations if those operations can prove they use only organic inputs in their operation and meet other certification criteria.
Some national certification agencies (such as California Certified Organic Farmers) have already certified organic hydroponic operations, while other regional certification agencies are refusing to certify hydroponic and other growing systems that aren’t soil-based. The debate over whether crops grown in vertical farms can be certified organic is likely to continue.
Ready to learn more? Check out the ATTRA publication Vertical Farming, which 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. It also includes a list of the major vertical farms in the United States.
NOSB. 2010. Production Standards for Terrestrial Plants in Containers and Enclosures: Formal Recommendation by the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) to the National Organic Program (NOP). April 29.
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Answer: There are several tools one can consider for controlling weeds organically. No matter what tool(s) are used, it is important to recognize weeds as a symptom of land management. Individual weed species are indicators of specific nutrients lacking in the soil. For example, dandelions are an indicator species of low organic matter in the soil.
Organic weed management should consider both proactive and reactive strategies. Proactive approaches to weed management include mulching, crop rotations, cover crops, and the use of flame weeding in which weeds are “seared” with a flame weeder prior to planting. Flame weeding can also be considered a reactive approach as is hand or mechanical cultivation and the use of organic herbicides.
Due to the scale of your garden and the fact that you are targeting dandelions and thistle, both of which have taproots, using a spade to dig out the weeds may be a viable option. Goats will probably not have a big impact in controlling these weeds due to their taproots; however, pigs can do a great job plowing/rooting through the soil.
Another suggestion would be to cover the area with tarps – a process known as occultation. Occultation is the use of heavy tarps or black landscape fabric to cover moist soil. This process utilizes the tarps to first warm the soil in order to promote the germination of weed seeds in the soil that then die-back due to a lack of light. Removing the tarps after three to four weeks results in a bare soil that is ready for planting. While some growers use permeable black landscape fabric, others are finding great success in using heavy, UV-stabilized silage tarps. These tarps can often be reused for years but can be heavy and difficult to move around. Whatever the material may be, it is important that the cover is tightly anchored to the ground in order to prevent any light from getting through.
There are several naturally-based herbicides that are effective in managing weeds. As with any type of herbicide, the timing of the application is critical. And while all-natural herbicides are effective, the downfall is that they often require multiple applications for a sufficient kill rate. Here is a list of the active ingredients found in many common least-toxic herbicides. Please note that for use in organic certification, the active ingredients must be approved for use by the USDA National Organic Program (NOP).
• Corn gluten meal – pre-emergent herbicide that inhibits growth and root development. It is non-selective and must be applied just prior to weed-seed germination to be effective.
• Vinegar (Acetic Acid) – 5%-30% acetic acid as post-emergent herbicide. It is a post-emergent herbicide used to burn off top growth (often referred to as burndown). Acetic acid is most effective on small annual weeds and less effective on grasses than it is on broadleaf weeds. *Please note that vinegar can be corrosive to metal sprayer parts and plastic equipment is recommended.
• Herbicidal soaps are fast-acting, broad spectrum herbicides made from fatty acids. They are used as post-emergent and are most effective on annual broadleaf weeds and grasses.
• Clove oil is an active ingredient in post-emergent, non-selective organic herbicides. Research has shown that is can be as effective as acetic acid in controlling broadleaf weeds but at a lower application rate.
Once the weed situation is under control, it is highly recommend to plant cover crops, unless you are planning to plant your garden immediately. Cover crops are incorporated in to cropping systems for many reasons, one being for weed control. By covering the soil, cover crops reduce the opportunity for weeds to establish themselves. Cover crops species are selected for various attributes that they provide to the garden crops, as well as how they fit in to a crop rotation. For example, rye is a very common cover crop due to its allelopathic qualities. When rye is terminated and left on the soil surface, it releases allelopathic chemicals that inhibit the germination of small weed seeds.
I recommend that you read the ATTRA publication Sustainable Weed Management for Small and Medium-Scale Farms. This publication discusses weed-control several strategies, both proactive and reactive, as alternatives to conventional tillage systems. Options include mulching, competition, crop rotations, and low-toxicity control alternatives.
In addition, ATTRA produced a short video titled Organic Weed Removal Technique that you should find useful.
There are many great resources on cover crops, including the following:
Using Cover Crops and Green Manures in the Home Vegetable Garden, by Doug Higgins and Kristin Krokowski, UW-Extension Waukesha County, and Erin Silva, UW-Agronomy
Cover Crops in Wisconsin, by the University of Wisconsin-Extension
Midwest Cover Crops Field Guide, by Purdue University, College of Agriculture
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Answer: Garlic is propagated vegetatively from the clove. One clove produces one bulb. The size of both the clove and the bulb is an important consideration when selecting planting stock. Grade your garlic for both size and quality. Bulbs should be firm without soft spots or defects and the cloves creamy white without any discolorations. Discard anything that appears diseased, small, soft, damaged, or discolored. This is time-consuming, but important.
Crack each bulb into individual cloves (referred to as “popping”). Plant cloves with the root end down. Where winters are mild, plant cloves one inch deep; where winters are severe, put them two to four inches deep. In general, plant the biggest and best cloves from the best bulbs. They will generate the biggest bulbs. This will also build up bigger seed stock over time.
Mulch is used frequently in organic garlic production. It helps improve winter survival, suppress weeds, conserve soil moisture, and prevent soil erosion. It can also increase yields by keeping the soil cooler. Garlic stops growing when the soil temperature increases to above 90°F.
Garlic will have no trouble pushing through an inch or more of mulch. Mulch is typically used by operations without mechanical harvest, as it will make harvesting by machine difficult or impossible. Garlic is often planted in raised beds for ease of digging, good soil drainage, and reduction of soil compaction.
Clove spacing of 6 inches by 12 inches is best, except for some varieties of the Porcelain cultivars and elephant garlic, which require a spacing of 12 inches by 12 inches to produce the largest bulbs.
Ready to learn more? Check out the ATTRA publication Garlic: Organic Production. This publication 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.
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Answer: The most common diseases in greenhouse herb production are fungal diseases, including botrytis, damping-off, powdery mildew, and root rots. Vascular wilts are also common in herbs. These diseases can cause tremendous plant loss in just a few days if conditions are favorable and no control is in place. Open beds, raised beds, and temporary structures such as hoop houses can prevent disease buildup from year to year due to weather exposure, whereas greenhouses—with poor air circulation, dense plant canopies, plant crowding, and high humidity— can increase the incidence of disease.
Preventing disease buildup in greenhouses is very similar to the cultural control part of the IPM plan mentioned earlier to control pests: i.e., remove diseased plants, keep walkways and exterior areas weed-free, keep equipment clean, and maintain good air circulation through the structure. In addition to these basics, there are additional practices that may help:
• Use irrigation techniques that minimize leaf wetness. Avoid late afternoon and nighttime irrigation.
• For herbs grown in ground beds, rotate plant families.
• Use only clean stock for propagation.
• Control insects that vector disease.
You’ll benefit from reading the ATTRA publication Herbs: Organic Greenhouse Production. This publication discusses various marketing channels for organic herbs and assesses the economic factors to consider for small-scale organic greenhouse production of fresh-cut herbs. It also addresses production methods, including potential for hydroponic production.
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Answer: When selecting a commercial potting mix, it is important that you choose a mix that is appropriate or your intended use. You will be able to find commercial blends formulated for seed starting, growing transplants, and maintaining larger containerized plants, with each blend differing in significant ways.
Mixes designed specifically for seed starting are usually made from screened peat moss so that they are fine in texture and have a very low fertilizer concentration, if any. A seed-starting mix is ideal for germinating seeds in flats or plug trays, but seedlings will need to be potted up into a growing mix soon after true leaves develop. A germination mix can also be used for propagating cuttings.
Growing mixes or "all-purpose mixes" usually contain peat moss, perlite, and/or vermiculite, an organic wetting agent, a liming agent, an organic fertilizer, and an array of organic amendments including compost, worm castings, organic fertilizers, and microbial inoculants. Many growers choose to use a standard growing mix to germinate seeds. This helps reduce the need to pot up young seedlings, but it is important to note that a high fertilizer concentration in the potting mix can inhibit seed germination. If you are selecting a growing mix for germination, choose a blend with a lower fertilizer concentration and plan to add supplemental fertilizer as needed during transplant production.
Potting mixes designed for larger containerized plants are usually coarser in texture and include composted pine bark or other woody material, in addition to the standard components of a potting mix, to provide better drainage and increase porosity. These mixes can also have a higher nutrient concentration, to feed the potted plant for a longer duration than a standard growing mix for transplants. Bulk discounts are available from some suppliers, which can help you save money if you purchase a large quantity of mix in cooperation with other growers in your area. In addition, if you are buying in large quantities, you may be able to work with the manufacturer to have them create a custom blend. You may want to check with your local farming organizations, conservation district, and farming neighbors to see if any groups are already participating in a bulk-buying program.
Learn more in the newly updated ATTRA publication Potting Mixes for Certified Organic Production. This publication addresses considerations for an organic grower selecting a potting mix to use for transplant or containerized plant production or for someone wishing to blend organic media. It also discusses individual components of potting media in addition to organic and biological amendments to improve plant performance. Several organic potting mix recipes are included in the appendix, in addition to suppliers of organic media and amendments.
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Answer: June-bearing strawberries set buds for the following year’s fruit in the fall. (Most perennial fruit crops set their fruit buds in the spring or early summer.) To get a good bud set, the plants must have adequate chilling and not be nutritionally stressed. Therefore, fertilizer applications are usually warranted in the late summer, giving the organic fertilizer material enough time to break down and provide nutrients for the plants during the crucial fall bud-set.
Timing is critical in supplying nitrogen to berry crops and the nitrogen release rates for organic fertilizers may not match the nitrogen needs of the crop. A study on organic fertilizers in California found great variability in the nitrogen availability of different sources of fertilizers. These included guano, feather meal, liquid fish emulsion, fish meal, pelleted chicken manure, compost, and a green manure crop. Initially, the soil nitrate nitrogen from the green manure crop and compost kept the level of nitrogen at adequate amounts (50 to 75 ppm) for three to four weeks and then declined to background soil levels below 10 ppm.
Supplemental fertilizing is therefore necessary to carry the crop through the season. Strawberry producers using the annual plasticulture system must rely on soluble organic fertilizers applied through drip irrigation lines. Farmers using these systems must face solubility and the capacity of these products to be filtered through fine mesh without plugging drip emitters. Products injected into the system may not emerge at the same concentration. In other systems, foliar or side-dress applications will be warranted.
While all perennial fruit crops will benefit from the fertility provided by pre-plant cover-cropping and green-manuring, strawberries are so prone to weed problems that pre-plant preparations to reduce weed pressure are practically mandatory in organic production. A thick cover crop of a grass/legume mix will help to smother out many weeds and will provide important long-term improvements in soil fertility and soil organic matter. In areas such as coastal California, long growing seasons and high land rents may make the extended use of cover crops uneconomical. However, many growers believe that the long-term benefits of cover crops and rotations to soil fertility and pest and disease suppression are worth the cost.
Compost can be used as a supplement or alternative. Spreading and incorporating the compost on the beds only, avoiding the furrows, will help concentrate fertility and microorganisms where they are most needed. Compost application rates vary from 10 tons/acre to 3 tons/acre. Supplemental fertigation is necessary to carry the plants through the production season: Research from Ohio has shown that vermicompost (compost made from earthworm waste) applications increased strawberry growth and yields significantly. These responses seemed not to be dose-dependent. Strawberries at one site grew fastest and yielded most in response to the 10 ton/hectare (4.05 ton/acre) vermicompost application rate, whereas strawberries responded positively and similarly to both the 5 ton/hectare (2.02 ton/acre) and 10 ton/hectare rates of application at another site. These responses could not have been mediated by the availability of macronutrients, since all plots were supplemented with inorganic fertilizers to equalize macronutrient inputs for all treatments. Based on other research in the laboratory, however, the responses could have been due to production of plant growth regulators by microorganisms during vermicomposting.
The foliar application of aerobically-prepared compost tea increased yields in a British Columbia study. Besides reducing incidences of Botrytis, the compost tea treatment increased yields in strawberries by 20 percent compared to the control and water sprays.
You can learn much more in the ATTRA publication Strawberries: Organic Production. It provides an overview of organic strawberry production methods. It also covers integrated pest management and weed control techniques that can reduce pesticide use in strawberry production. Included are discussions of weeds, pests, diseases, greenhouse production, plasticulture, fertility, economics, and marketing.
In addition, to learn more about organic fertilizers, vermicomposting, compost and cover crops, check out these ATTRA publications:
Alternative Soil Amendments
Worms for Bait or Waste Processing (Vermicomposting)
Vermicomposting: The Basics
Overview of Cover Crops and Green Manures
ATTRA Soil Resources
Cover Crop (340) in Organic Systems
Cover Crop Options in Hot and Humid Areas
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Answer: Lavender—a small, non-hardy, perennial, evergreen shrub—is best propagated from softwood cuttings of standard types. Seed may not come true to type, and lavandin seeds are sterile.
Different cultivars are raised for different purposes. Most growers favor deep blue flowers, lush growth, and hardiness. Other types of lavender—such as ‘Spike’—are not commonly grown in the United States, except as specimen plants. White and pink forms of L. angustifolia are curiosities sometimes seen in home gardens. Although some California growers favor ‘Irene Doyle’ for its fragrance, ability to flower bi-annually in Zone 7, and its slightly darker lavender blue flowers, the most commonly grown cultivars in all parts of this country are the lavandins ‘Provence’ and ‘Grosso’. ‘Grosso’ attracts attention in tourist areas, creating a striking effect of large fields of “purple haze.” It is very hardy and grows to three feet in height. Products of acceptable quality can be made by judiciously blending ‘Grosso’ distillate with imported sweet oils.
The English lavender (L. angustifolia) cultivar ‘Munstead’ is commonly grown in New England, as is the lavandin (L. x intermedia) cultivar ‘Grosso.’ ‘Munstead’ is reportedly the only English lavender that does well at high altitudes and was recently reported doing well in Nevada. Nurseries may market cultivars of L. angustifolia and L. x intermedia (lavandin) under deceptively similar names. For example, ‘Hidcote’ is L. angustifolia, while ‘Giant Hidcote’ is L. x intermedia.
The different cultivars of lavender vary slightly in specific gravity (s.g.) and have distinct chemical profiles. Because lavender oils are lighter than water (s.g. of less than 1.0), they rise to the top. The lower the s.g., the more easily the oil is volatized. More information on distillation parameters can be found in E. Guenther’s The Essential Oils, four volumes (1948-52); Brian Lawrence’s The Essential Oils, three volumes (1976-78); the Journal of Essential Oils; and the Journal of Agricultural Food Chemistry. Chemical profile affects the olfactory properties of an essential oil and, hence, the quality.
You’ll benefit from reading ATTRA’s recently updated its publication Lavender Production, Marketing, and Agritourism. This publication discusses geographic and climatic considerations for lavender, soil-preparation and cultivation techniques, lavender propagation, and field production. It also addresses marketing options for lavender, including essential oils, essential-oil distillation, direct marketing of a variety of lavender products, and information and resources about lavender agritourism and value-added lavender products.
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Answer: There are two species of flatheaded borers that may invade apple trees. Chrysobothris femorata is the species endemic to the East. On the Pacific coast, C. mali fills a similar niche. Adults emerge from woodland trees in late April through early May and begin laying eggs beneath bark scales on the tree. The graft union is a favorite place for egg deposition.
Maintaining trees in good vigor is important first-line protection from flatheaded borers since a tree in good vigor will be able to drown an invading larva with sap. Drought-stressed trees are much more susceptible to borers; therefore, adequate water is essential. For all species of borers, the larvae can be removed from the trunk with a jackknife or piece of wire. Look for signs of borer damage, such as frass mixed with sawdust at the base of the tree and at the pest’s entry hole. Because the roundheaded borer may burrow deep into roots, it is important to check routinely (at least twice during the growing season (e.g., once in May and again in September) for borers, or they can extend beyond the range of manual removal.
Perhaps the best non-chemical protection from all species of borers is to wrap the bottom 12 to 18 inches of the trunk in window screen (metal, fiberglass, or nylon are all effective). Secure the top with a twist-tie, being certain to loosen and retie it at least once a year. The bottom should be snug against the ground or also secured with a twist-tie.
NCAT Horticulture Specialist Guy Ames recently wrote a blog post on this very topic, which includes detailed photos.
In addition, the following ATTRA publications will prove useful for further study:
Apples: Organic Production Guide
Apple Insect Pests Identification Sheet
Apple Diseases Identification Sheet
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Answer: In laying operations, most of the eggs are generally laid within five hours of the first light in the morning. Collect eggs often — twice in the morning and once in the afternoon — to help decrease the number of dirty and broken eggs and start cooling eggs. Collection should be more frequent in very hot or cold weather. Eggs should be held at 60 degrees Fahrenheit and 70 percent relative humidity before cleaning. Eggs stored at room temperature, about 75 degrees F, can drop as much as one grade per day. Embryos can start to develop in fertile eggs held at a temperature above 85 degrees F for more than a few hours. Keep egg temperature relatively constant until the eggs are washed to avoid sweating. Sweating occurs when eggs are moved from cold storage to a warm environment. Condensation on the surface of the egg facilitates the movement of microbes inside the shell due to moisture. In the past, eggs were held in plastic-coated wire baskets so that the air could circulate freely among the eggs and cool them. Now, eggs are also held in fiberboard flats that hold 30 eggs per flat. Misshapen, cracked, broken, or extremely dirty eggs should be separated from clean eggs.
Manual egg gathering is labor-intensive. An egg cart, filler flats and a nearby storage site will help reduce labor. In mechanized egg collection, a moving belt brings the eggs to a section of the house where the eggs can be packed into flats. Eggs are positioned in the flat with the small end down, the same position they should be in the carton as well. Roll-away nests simplify egg collection because the eggs can roll from the sloped floor of the nest to a collection area or belt.
Eggs are ideally packed within 24 hours after they are laid. U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) rules require that eggs be packed within 30 days of lay. In programs that assure high- quality, eggs are usually packed within three to seven days of lay. It is important to remember not to store eggs in coolers with items that give off odors, such as onions and citrus, because the eggs can pick up the odor through the shell’s pores.
You’ll benefit from reading the ATTRA publication Small-Scale Egg Handling. This publication discusses collecting, cleaning, candling, and grading eggs in small-scale production, as well as storage and distribution, site facilities, and more.
You might also be interested in these ATTRA titles:
Pastured Poultry: Egg Production
Tipsheet: Organic Poultry Production for Meat and Eggs
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Answer: Sheep are a bit different than cattle or hogs in that they have a high tolerance to pain. They bond to their shepherd and the herd, and they do not like to be left behind. You can use these aspects of their behavior to tell when they are sick.
If you are the shepherd, talk to your sheep as you walk among them. Lead them to fresh pasture. They will bond to you, as it is in their nature. When you first come into an area where they are grazing or feeding, every eye and ear should immediately turn to you. If there is a sheep that is not attentive to you, she is most likely sick. This is the most important sign of a sheep not feeling well.
As she gets even sicker, you will notice these behaviors:
1. She is not keeping up with the flock.
2. She is not eating.
3. She has droopy ears.
If you see these, you have missed the first sign. If you don’t act fast, your sheep may die. Ranchers often remark that sheep are either "alive or dead." That is not true; you just have to focus on the signals that they are sending.
Pneumonia is by far the most common cause of disease in lambs and ewes. Extreme swings in day and night temperatures can predispose any animal to pneumonia, including sheep. Look out for lambs that have pneumonia because they have lost their mother and are starving. When you are evaluating a possibly sick sheep on pasture, first FAMACHA score its eyes. If it scores a four or a five, you have a problem with the Barber Pole Worm. Then listen to its lungs with a stethoscope. Healthy lungs sound like sipping through a straw. Bad lungs sound raspy. Take the animal's rectal temperature. A sheep's temperature should normally be 102.5 degrees F. Sheep with pneumonia generally run temps of 104-106 degrees F.
Your veterinarian can help if you unfamiliar with these steps. Call and ask questions. A good vet will teach you how to take care of your sheep by taking care of the simple things that contribute to the majority of the disease issues. A veterinary call can be more than money spent on the care of an animal; consider it an opportunity for continuing education. For tips on working with your veterinarian, see the ATTRA publication Tips for: Working with a Veterinarian.
Coccidiosis is another illness to be on the watch for. For a great discussion on coccidiosis, consult the ATTRA publication Coccidiosis: Symptoms, Prevention, and Treatment in Sheep, Goats, and Calves.
ATTRA has many publications on internal parasites in sheep, which you can easily find on the ATTRA website with the search term “sheep parasites.”
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Answer: We started direct marketing our lamb nine years ago. We have made many mistakes but also learned from them. We marketed 210 lambs in 2017, and hope to market 20 more than that in 2018. Here is a summary of what we have learned.
First, you need to define your ideal customer and target your marketing efforts towards him or her. We learned after a few years that trying to provide a product for everyone out there is not a good use of your time and effort. Although yours may differ, here is our ideal farmers market customer:
Age: Over 30
Gender: Female and male, predominately female
Interests: Wholesome Food
Hobbies: Gardening, Animals, Grilling
Once you have defined your ideal customer, offer service and product that fulfills a need that they have. Don’t just offer them lamb; enter into their life as much as you can and become a friend. It is relationships that sell product. Granted, an excellent product can be the way to get into the door, but it is the relationship with your customer that keeps them coming back.
A large part of our business is serving restaurants and a few high-end stores. We try to know the lifestyles of our chefs and cater to them. For instance, chefs are up very late and are very busy people from the dining hours on. Don’t call them at 8:00 a.m. or at 6:00 p.m. and expect to get a happy response to your call. Remember, chefs need a good reason to buy from you at usually a higher price point and more paperwork than say, from ordering all of their food supplies from Sysco. Differentiate your product from others: yours is local, you raise your lamb in a very happy environment, you take special efforts to harvest your lambs when they are finished to 0.20” of backfat, (See the ATTRA video, Putting A Hand On Them: How to Tell When Your Lamb is Finished) and you can offer fast, personalized service. All of these things mean something to chefs and store department managers.
When purchasing a product, customers look for quality product, price, and service. If you drop the ball in any one of these categories, you may lose an account. My wife and I initially delivered samples to 100 restaurants in our marketing area. About 17 to 20 chefs responded positively, and 10 have been our customers for nine years. We attracted them and have kept them because of an excellent product at a price they can make money on and service that caters to their needs.
Additionally, you must be able to move the cuts that are not the most desirable. For instance, often restaurants want to serve only racks. We sell our racks to chefs that understand that we have to sell the whole animal or we will not be in business the next year. Consequently, they buy some shanks, legs, or other cuts from us, in addition to racks. You can also alter the mode of a particular cut, selling shoulder steaks instead of shoulder roasts, for example. Many of these strategies are addressed in the ATTRA publication, Direct Marketing Lamb: A Pathway.
We try our best to be friendly with our competitors. We can all learn a lot from each other. We also try to be different.
Lastly, one needs to be patient and persistent, but not pushy. This is perhaps the hardest thing to do. No one likes a pushy purveyor, yet in order to sell, you have to not give up after the first time. Some of our best accounts were established by just going back a year later and inquiring again. Things can and do change. If you are there when they do, then doors will often open.
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Answer: Prior to using gourds, they must be ripened, harvested, and properly cured. Harvesting should take place when the stem at the top turns brown and withers. This is a good indication that the rind should be hardened enough that it cannot be pierced with a thumbnail. Most gourds should be harvested before the first frost as frost can damage the rind as well as rot the interior. There are some larger gourd varieties that can withstand a light frost which will be indicated on the seed or plant packet that the gourd(s) come in. However, these gourds still cannot withstand a heavy frost.
Gourds should be cut from the vine, leaving a few inches of stem attached. Gourds can rot easily if a stem is not attached or if they are bruised, damaged, or immature. Bruising can still occur when handling after harvest.
Surface dirt can be cleaned with soap and water followed by being wiped down with a disinfectant, such as rubbing alcohol, Lysol, vinegar and water, a solution of 2 tablespoons borax in 1 quart water, or a 10% bleach solution. Once cleaned and disinfected, gourds can be stored in a dry, well-ventilated, and shaded area. They can be placed on a layer of clean newspaper of cardboard. As the gourds cure, initial drying of the outer rind takes about one to two weeks. During this time, the newspaper or cardboard will absorb some of the moisture and should be changed regularly as to not spoil the gourds if they are left on a damp surface. Gourds should also be placed for curing so that they are not touching one another.
Depending on the size of the gourd, complete drying can last an additional few weeks and up to a few months. The gourds should be rotated frequently and gourds that show any signs of spoilage should be discarded. Surface mold is normal and will not affect the gourd (as long as the rind is hard). The drying process is complete when the gourds are lightweight and the seeds rattle inside when shaken.
Once cured, gourds should be wiped again with warm water or rubbing alcohol and dried. Steel wool or fine sandpaper can be used to smooth the surface. The gourd can now be waxed to preserve the color, or painted, stained, varnished, or cut and decorated.
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Answer: While winter may be the least attractive season for your vegetable plots, there are still a lot of important things that occur during the winter months. Fall is the time to put your farm’s plots to sleep so that they may be ready to spring into motion when winter begins to thaw.
There are a number of options and, as always, they will differ depending on your own needs and the specific climate that you function within.
Winter is a time when your soil can get some necessary TLC: all vegetable plots can benefit from regular regiments of cover cropping, compost, and mulch.
There are a number of things that happen when a bed is nicely cover-cropped before the winter months:
• the soil is protected from the elements, such as wind and rain erosion and extreme temperatures • soil texture is maintained—roots aerate the soil; microorganisms find a suitable climate to live, eat, excrete, and die in; and water retention is elevated • nutrients are replenished and protected from leaching caused by winter rains (legumes in particular replenish nitrogen in the soil) • weeds are suppressed
Furthermore, when you are ready to plant in the spring, the cover crops can either be incorporated as green chop in compost or used as mulch.
In Situ Compost In Situ (in place/in bed) compost is simply building a compost pile directly on top of your vegetable plots in the fall, hoeing it under the spring, and planting directly on top of that. In situ compost follows the same theories as thermophillic compost in that it is a balance between carbon and nitrogen that is most conducive to the micro- and macro-organisms present in the pile. Bury green chop and other nitrogenous materials (such as chicken manure) under a generous layer of straw and let it sit over the winter. Covering the bed with plastic may help speed the process.
Another interesting option, especially if you are putting in new beds or a new border, is to sheet mulch. Essentially, sheet mulching is a cold composting process that builds new beds and suppresses weeds. To create a sheet mulch bed, lay cardboard over the area you wish to grow on, wet it thoroughly, and then begin to layer materials. You can be creative, but the general idea is to build compost on top of the bed. Alternate layers of green material (nitrogenous) with brown (carbonaceous) like you are making lasagna. Cap it with a layer of mulch and let it sit over the winter.
Trench Compost Trench composting is similar to in-situ and sheet mulching. To trench compost, dig a trench and fill it with compostables, before capping the trench with soil and straw. In the spring, either dig in the soil and plant directly into the new compost, or dig it out and place it on a bed next to the trench, thus utilizing the trench as a pathway.
Mulching invites some similar beneficial aspects of cover cropping—specifically, protecting the soil from the elements. Layering finished compost over a vegetable plot and then capping that with straw or decayed leaves will help maintain the tillage and nutrient integrity of your plot.
Plant or Leave Hardy Crops Depending on where you live, there are certain crops that can grow outside year round without cover. Quickly maturing plants like radish, lettuces, and spinach can be planted, grown, and harvested before killing frosts. Also, certain Brassicas like broccoli, kale, and especially Brussels sprouts prefer cooler weather. Certain root crops, such as garlic, parsnips, turnips, carrots, and onions, are planted in to the fall for spring harvest, and many of the same root crops are planted in the spring for late fall and winter harvest.
For more information on cover crops, see the ATTRA publication Overview of Cover Crops and Green Manures at . This publication summarizes the principal uses and benefits of cover crops and green manures. Brief descriptions and examples are provided for winter cover crops, summer green manures, living mulches, catch crops, and some forage crops. It also addresses management issues including vegetation management, limitations of cover crops, use in crop rotations, use in pest management, and economics of cover crops.
For more information on compost, see the ATTRA publication Compost—the Basics. This publication gives a basic overview of the benefits of building your own compost, and general instructions for doing so.
For more information on cold hardy crops, see the ATTRA publication Specialty Crops for Cold Climates. This publication discusses ways that specialty crop farmers can continue to market products into the colder months by cultivating certain hardy crops and implementing season extension techniques.
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Answer: Rotational grazing gives the livestock manager flexibility in responding to the changing forage supply. During periods of rapid plant growth, cattle are moved quickly through paddocks. Alternatively, if equipment is available or the work can be hired, excess forage can be harvested for feeding later. During periods of slow plant growth, delayed rotation allows plants in each paddock a longer time to recover after each grazing period.
Various strategies or specialized forages can delay having to feed harvested forages. In late fall, stockpiled fescue or other winter grasses can be strip-grazed. Grain and stalks left in corn or milo fields after harvest, offered as strips, provide another source of good-quality feed into the winter months. Small grains, grown alone or with brassicas, are a third option in some parts of the country for extending the grazing season.
In some regions, providing excellent grazing through the hottest summer months is the biggest challenge. Native grasses, summer annuals, and interseeded legumes can offset this slump. However, the costs of establishment — in time and money — are justified only if the resulting increase in livestock production translates into sufficient profit. A good resource for learning more about extending the grazing season with alternative forage systems is the publication Extending Grazing and Reducing Stored Feed Needs, by Don Ball, Ed Ballard, Mark Kennedy, Garry Lacefield, and Dan Undersander.
To explore this topic further, refer to the ATTRA publication Rotational Grazing.
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Answer: Making biodiesel is relatively simple; some say it is easier than making beer. However, there are caustic, toxic, volatile, and flammable chemicals involved. The potential for personal injury and property damage is very real. Neither the author nor anyone else associated with this publication is responsible for potential mistakes, injuries and damage. Do not rely solely on this publication for information about making biodiesel; carefully study other publications and start small.
Wear an appropriate respirator when making biodiesel. The only approved respirators for methanol are respirators with external air supplies. Other necessary equipment includes heavy rubber gloves, safety goggles, and clothing that will protect your skin from chemicals, especially methanol. Methanol can be absorbed through the skin and cause illness, blindness, and debilitation.
Heating the oil to remove the water and transferring the heated oil are two potentially dangerous steps
in the process of making biodiesel. When heating the used oil, be careful to keep it from spattering and
making the floor slippery. Be cautious about using burners or electric heaters, just as if you were
cooking. Hot oil will melt plastic buckets, creating a mess. Be careful to cool hot oil to below 120 degrees
before pouring it into a plastic bucket.
Do not use anything that comes in contact with biodiesel or the chemicals used to make biodiesel for food production. Making biodiesel requires a well-ventilated area to reduce the danger of fire and explosion and exposure to methanol. Methanol can vaporize and, when mixed with the proper amount of oxygen and an ignition source, can ignite with an invisible flame. When making biodiesel in larger quantities, make it outside or in a place where there is no chance of a spark or flame coming in contact with the methanol. Any wiring in indoor areas where methanol is used must be explosion-proof.
You can learn much more in the ATTRA publication Biodiesel: Do-It-Yourself Production. This
publication provides an introduction to home biodiesel production, and includes lists of equipment and
materials needed to make small batches. It describes biodiesel and includes cautionary notes and
procedures for making test batches and 5-gallon batches.
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Answer: Lablab (Lablab purpureus) is a vine native to Africa that has been used there and throughout Asia for many years. It is a monotypic genus, meaning that there is only one species within the genera: Lablab purpureus, formerly known as Dolichos lablab. While there is only one species, there are several sub-species, landraces, and cultivars due to local adaptation. The vines can either be annuals or short-lived perennials. The leaves can be eaten raw or cooked, but the seeds must be cooked to destroy cyanogenic glycosides that can cause vomiting, shortness of breath, debilitation and convulsions.
As a cover crop, it is quite effective at smothering weeds and fixing nitrogen. Due to its initial slow growth, weeds should be controlled during its establishment. Once it starts actively growing, it is an aggressive competitor and will crowd out and shade newly emerging weeds. Once cut and dried, Lablab biomass contains around 50 pounds of nitrates per acre.
Some of the climbing types can grow to be 25 feet long, but unsupported in field conditions, they usually attain 40 inches or so in height. Although it's a cover crop and food source for both humans and animals, it can also be very ornamental. Its flowers are quite showy, and then they are followed by purple seed pods. The seeds are either white or black depending on the variety, and some of the wild types have mottled seeds. The seeds have a peculiar feature: an elongated white hilum. The showy flowers attract pollinators, but the vine is subject to the same complement of insects that attack beans.
Lablab prefers acidic soils of a range from pH 4.5 up to about 7. It doesn't tolerate flooding very well and can be quite drought tolerant after establishment. It requires a minimum of about 30 inches of rainfall per year. In addition to Rhizobium, Lablab also inoculates successfully with the Vigna group of the Bradyrhizobium. Bradyrhizobium has been shown to enhance yield components of hyacinth beans, such as shoot dry weight and overall yield, without significantly influencing pod size, which means the increased yield was from a higher number of pods produced per plant.
Hyacinth bean also relieves soil compaction more quickly than grasses. Lablab roots increase interconnected pore space in compacted soils three times faster than grasses like sorghum. Lablab also reduced soil ped size, although sorghum and wheat did not. This research suggests that since Lablab increased porosity and reduced ped size in compacted soil, it would also increase the infiltration rate and reduce runoff, which would also serve to hasten the compaction repair process.
Lablab benefits from root associations with vesicular-arbuscular mycorrhiza, especially Glomus mosseae. In field studies, G. mosseae increased dry matter, rhizobial nodulation, and phosphorous uptake. The additional nodulation led to an enhanced uptake of nitrates.
Lablab requires greater amounts of heat units than crops like clover or winter peas. It should be grown in areas suitable for its production, or it will suffer yield depression. A North Carolina study showed that it wasn't an ideal location for Lablab production. First, they couldn't get good nodulation, which contributed to poor performance; this stresses the importance of inoculation. Next, the weedy control outperformed the Lablab, and indeed the weeds within the Lablab plot attained more than half of the biomass of the Lablab itself, thus stressing the necessity of early season weeding. Finally, North Carolina may just not get enough heat or UV intensity for the Lablab to thrive. Mucuna was also included in this study, and performed as poorly as Lablab.
Learn more on this topic in the ATTRA publication Cover Crop Options for Hot and Humid Areas. This publication discusses the characteristics of cover crops that are better suited for areas with hot, humid summers, like the southern portions of Texas and Florida and along the Gulf Coast, the Caribbean, Hawaii, and points beyond with similar climatic conditions. It includes a table that will allow you to make the best decision for your situation about which cover crops may suit your individual needs. It also includes a general inoculant guide for legume crops.
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Answer: Agrihoods are a type of housing subdivision design that is built around a working farm, with much of the land preserved for growing food or set aside in conservation easements.
Since most agrihoods are based around a working farm, they can also provide steady jobs to the farm managers. Given the low income typically earned by many farmers (especially beginning farmers), the benefits of working at an agrihood can be significant. USDA's 2014 agricultural census estimates that 57 percent of America's farms gross less than $10,000 a year. That means more than half of all farmers in America have to rely on second, and sometimes third, jobs off the farm to cover living expenses.
Often an agrihood will hire a farm manager and pay a much higher salary than the farmer could make managing his own land. And agrihoods can provide a great first job to beginning farmers who can't afford their own land but are willing to work on the agrihood in exchange for a steady salary and great experience. Besides the salary, the farmer and his or her family are often provided with free housing on the farm, which is a major benefit. And farmers living on-site are better able to handle farm chores and deal with farm management issues than someone living further away from the farm.
Farmers in nearby areas can also benefit from an agrihood, since agrihoods often serve as an agricultural educational center. Farmers in surrounding areas are invited to participate in workshops and field days at the agrihood, with topics ranging from beginning farmer issues to marketing organic produce. The local agricultural community may also interact with agrihood residents during these workshops. Agrihoods often serve as a nexus for weekend farmers markets, which may attract surrounding farmers who sell their local produce to agrihood residents.
You’ll benefit from reading the ATTRA publication Agrihoods: Development-Supported Agriculture. This publication introduces the concept of agrihoods, describes the different types, and discusses benefits and challenges. Case studies of U.S. agrihood developments are profiled as well.
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The most important step in organic potato production is planning a crop rotation scheme that allows a few years between potato crops on the same land. For organic production, a lengthy rotation from four to seven years generally assures good plant and soil health. A lengthy rotation also reduces long-term reliance on expensive inputs and increases the percentage of marketable potatoes.
Longer rotations can be thought of as a form of crop insurance because the rotations help prevent plant pathogens in the soil from building up to economically damaging levels. Growers must consider rotation plans with crops that are not hosts for potato pathogens or insects. The key consideration for the long-term viability of organic production is preventing problems through maintaining good soil quality.
Rotations that include cover crops have the advantage of adding organic matter and nitrogen to the soil. This generally will reduce input costs over time. Organic matter helps soils resist compact ion, al lows for better root penetration, stores more soil moisture and allows more water penetration. Cover crops and green manures may include legumes, sudangrass, and mustards.
Mustards also have been shown to play a positive role in soil pest management.
Useful characteristics for a cover crop or green manure in a potato rotation include:
• The ability to tolerate frost and grow well under cool fall conditions
• The ability to quickly produce substantial amounts of biomass as a weed suppressant
• The ability to fix nitrogen and suppress soilborne potato pests
• A compatibility with the management requirements of other crops in the rotation
• The availability of seed and a lack of planting restrictions, such as the restriction of rapeseed production in canola districts
• The ability to avoid producing and shedding seed, which leads to problems with volunteer plants.
A good rotation includes crops that are not hosts to common potato pests, as well as green manures that add nutrients and organic matter to the soil.
The ATTRA publications Overview of Cover Crops and Green Manures and Intercropping Principles and Production Practices provide more detailed information about these subjects. Small grains, corn and sorghum sudangrass may benefit a potato crop that follows. In Maine, some growers have used Japanese millet as a cover crop in the year prior to potatoes in an effort to reduce Rhizoctonia. The skin of potatoes with the Rhizoctonia fungus appears to be covered in dirt that won’t wash off. In parts of the West, producers rotate potatoes with mustard cover crops to prevent root knot nematode and Verticilium outbreaks.
It is important to note that legumes such as peas, beans, and crimson clover are hosts to some races of Rhizoctonia and can encourage scab in certain regions. Red clover may be a host of Rhizoctonia as well.
As often happens in agriculture, there is no clear-cut answer to the question of what rotation a farmer should use. It is a matter of evaluating the costs and benefits of a particular practice or combination of practices. In this case, producers must weigh the risk of these crops hosting and possibly increasing Rhizoctonia against the soil fertility advantages and other benefits of planting a legume.
The ATTRA publication Potatoes: Organic Production and Marketing includes a table that provides some examples of potato rotations used around the country. It is not meant to be exhaustive, simply because there are so many factors that influence the choice of rotations, including economics of the crops in the rotation, available land, weather and climate, farmer skills and knowledge, pest management and soil quality goals.
Since many of these factors are moving targets, implementing a good crop rotation is as much an art as a science because so much depends on the knowledge, skill and creativity of the farmer. When making rotation decisions, it is helpful to have additional information from local experts — be they farmers, extension agents or researchers — who know about the pest pressures and soil and climate considerations for your particular region.
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Answer: Most herbs will grow anywhere if you are prepared to factor artificial light and heating into your production costs. For the new producer, the best approach is to contact local restaurants, food stores, micro-breweries, and other businesses and ask which herbs they would be willing to buy, in what quantity, and for what price. In addition, explore the local community and farmers markets to see what herbs are being sold there, and which are not.
Many herbs can be grown either within a greenhouse or outside in the garden; however, tender plants such as basil, cilantro, dill, parsley, and chamomile thrive more in a controlled environment. Look for other factors, too, such as herbs that don’t require specialized lighting systems or a lot of light, such as cilantro, parsley, lemon balm, chives, ginger, and mint (Marquand, 2017).
In addition, research shows that even within rural areas of the country, the three traditional staples of U.S. ethnic cuisine—Italian, Chinese, and Mexican food—are accessible to a degree, with Japanese and Indian cuisine increasing in popularity, too. This opens up potential new markets in many areas for herbs such as turmeric, cardamom, cumin, ginger, fenugreek, and saffron. There are many good reference points and growing guides for these herbs and others too, such as Kaffir lime, Shiso herb, Thai basil, black cumin, and marjoram (Grant, 2016). Finally, with some experience and success behind you, start to look at other types of markets and the herbs to supply them. There are many different categories of herbs: fresh culinary herbs, dried culinary herbs, herb plants, decorative and fragrant herbs, medicinal herbs, and herbs for essential oils and dyes.
With the rise of mail-order certified-organic seed producers across the country, supplies of certified-organic herb seeds should be relatively easy to obtain. However, if organic seed is not available, conventionally produced, non-GMO, untreated seed may be used for an organic annual herb crop, according to section 205.204 of the National Organic Standards.
It is important to note here that the definition of "not commercially available" is summarized by a lack of organic seed form, seed quality, or seed quantity, "to fulfill an essential function in organic production." As stated previously, given that most certified-organic seed is now obtainable by mail order at a price, and that quality should not be an issue with certified-organic seed, the only factors likely to justify purchasing non-organic seed are seed form and seed quantity. This will still be subject to interpretation by the accredited certifier for a given operation.
For propagated perennial herbs, greenhouse herb producers often take cuttings from their own "mother plants." This gives producers that are already certified a decided advantage over startup businesses because they can procure organic starts at any time without a waiting period and at little cost. Growers seeking first-time organic certification or switching to a new certifier, as well as individuals planning to construct greenhouses for organic production, would do well to secure their perennial herbs early in the mandatory three-year transitional period. After certification of a greenhouse operation, any new perennial stock must come from a certified-organic source or be raised for at least one year under an approved organic management system before products derived from these plants can legally be sold as organic. This applies to foundation stock for potted-plant production, as well as perennials for fresh-cut herb production.
The newly revised ATTRA publication Herbs: Organic Greenhouse Production is a good resource for additional information. This publication discusses various marketing channels for organic herbs and assesses the economic factors to consider for small-scale organic greenhouse production of fresh-cut herbs. It also addresses production methods, including potential for hydroponic production.
Grant, Bonnie L. 2016. Asia herb garden: information on Asian herbs to grow in gardens. Gardening Know How.
Marquand, Molly. 2017. Six absolute easiest herbs to grow. Rodale’s Organic Life. January 9.
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Answer: Alleycropping involves growing crops (e.g., grains, forages, and vegetables) between trees planted in rows. The spacing between the rows is designed to accommodate the mature size of the trees while leaving room for the planned alley crops. When such sun-loving plants as corn or some herbs are alleycropped, the alleyways need to be wide enough to let in plenty of light even when the trees have matured.
Alternatively, the cropping sequence can be planned to change as the trees’ growth decreases the available light. For example, soybeans or corn could be grown when the trees are very small. Then as the tree canopy closes, forages could be harvested for hay. And finally, when the trees are fully grown and the ground is more shaded, grazing livestock or shade-tolerant crops such as mushrooms or ornamental ferns could occupy the alleyways.
Like all integrated systems, alleycropping requires skillful management and careful planning. Both the crop and the trees have requirements that sometimes necessitate trade-offs between them. The design must allow sufficient room for the equipment needed to service each enterprise, for example. If either crop requires chemical herbicides or insecticides, the other must be tolerant of these treatments. In the case of livestock, there may be periods during and after the use of chemicals when animals must be withdrawn from the area. Animal manure is a problem when fruit or nuts are harvested from the alleyway floor. Also, livestock can cause damage even when the trees are fully grown; roots injured by hooves are susceptible to disease. And soil compaction is a danger during wet weather. These examples demonstrate how crucial planning is to the ultimate success of an agroforestry system.
Trees are planted in straight rows in many alleycropping systems, sometimes with no regard for slope or contour. There are, however, advantages to planting the trees on the contour to slow surface-water movement and reduce soil erosion. The trees can be planted in single rows or in blocks of multiple rows between alleys. The first row in a block is planted on the contour line; subsequent rows are planted below the original line according to the slope of the land. The final row of trees in one block is planted parallel to the contour line on which the next block of trees will begin. The width of the tree blocks varies, but the cropping alleyways between them have parallel edges. This design avoids creating point rows within the alleys, thus simplifying the way equipment can be maneuvered among the crops. The width of the alleys is determined by the size of the equipment that will be used.
If planting on the contour is impractical, another option is to plant trees in curved zigzags so that water running downhill is captured, or at least slowed. Islands of trees can offer some of the same advantages if they don’t interfere with cropping operations
To ensure that the crop trees develop upright, unbranched trunks, fast-growing hardwoods or pines can be interplanted as trainers. Alternatively, the crop trees can be planted close together in the rows and thinned and pruned several times as they grow. Although the trees that are harvested early may have little market value, their presence during the first years of growth increases the main crop’s value. In order to maximize the profit from the final harvest, the goal is to produce long, straight sawlogs with few lower branches. Regardless of the planting design, trees on the outside edge of a group may grow more side branches, or even a lopsided trunk, resulting in lower-value sawlogs.
More information is available in 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.
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Answer: Production practices have a tremendous effect on the quality of fruit at harvest, postharvest, and during shelf life. For example, some cultivars are known to have a longer shelf life and to ship better than others. Because of this, you should consider your market before considering which varieties to plant. In addition, environmental factors such as soil type, temperature, frost, and rainy weather also have unfavorable effects on the crop’s harvest quality. For example, some tomato varieties have a tendency to crack after a rain. Therefore, choosing varieties such as Sapho and Mountain Fresh, which are resistant to cracking, may help alleviate the problem of poor fruit quality at the time of harvest. Management practices such as too little or too much water, mechanical injury, or high fertilizer rates can also affect postharvest quality.
Tomatoes should be harvested during the coolest time of the day, which is typically in the morning, and produce should be kept shaded in the field. Harvesting tomatoes requires extensive labor; harvesting may be done every day during the peak of the season along with continuous discarding of culled fruit from the field to prevent the spread of diseases and pests. Harvesting is done either by hand or with a harvesting aid; only process¬ing tomatoes are harvested by machine due to increased bruising of the produce. Produce should be graded, separating the marketable tomatoes from the cull tomatoes that show signs of bruises, cracking, spots, rots, or decay. Damage such as this can be prevented if tomatoes are handled with care at the time of harvest, harvested at proper maturity, harvested during dry weather, and handled minimally. Tomatoes should be harvested with no more than two to three stacked deep into strong cardboard or stackable flat boxes. Growers have used bread racks in the past with great success. Check with a local bakery to see if they would be willing to sell some to you.
Tomatoes are very susceptible to chilling injury; therefore, maintaining precise storage temperature is critical for postharvest storage quality. Storage temperatures differ with the maturity of the fruit. Tomatoes picked with a slight pink color all the way up to a mature red color should be stored at temperatures between 48ºF to 50ºF. These fruits will have a maximum shelf life of two weeks. Tomatoes that are picked green are best stored at temperatures between 58ºF to 60ºF and have a three- to four-week shelf life.
Proper sanitation is of great importance in preventing postharvest diseases and the spread of foodborne illnesses. Thus, strict regulations of sanitary facilities and the use of disinfectants in wash water are used to help prevent both the spread of postharvest diseases and foodborne illnesses. Disinfectants such as chlorine, at a residual of 4 ppm, or hydrogen peroxide, at a concentration of 0.5%, have been effective disinfectants in organic programs. Always check with your certifying agent to see what concentrations are allowed under the regulations.
You can learn much more on this topic in the ATTRA publication Organic Tomato Production. It focuses on the specific production challenges, including site selection (soil and climate), variety selection, sources of organic seeds and organic annual transplants, organic grafting, planting and training/staking arrangements, soil fertility and fertilization, crop rotation, and pest (insect, disease, and weed) management. Harvest and yield/productivity are closely related to marketing possibilities. While market conditions are extremely region-specific, this publication also addresses a few general principles on marketing and economics of organic tomatoes.
In addition, the ATTRA publication Postharvest Handling of Fruits and Vegetables is an excellent source for additional information on postharvest and storage considerations.
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Answer: Fall/early winter planting is recommended in all parts of the U.S. A cold period is required in order for the mother bulb to split into cloves. The bolting cultivars of garlic require a cold period to trigger cellular division. For spring planting, which is not recommended, the bulbs need to be refrigerated at 40°F for 40 days. By planting garlic in the fall, the plants obtain significant root growth before the ground freezes. Then in the spring the plant focuses its energy on sprouting, leaf growth, and ultimately bulb development. If the garlic is planted too late in the fall to obtain significant root growth, this will ultimately detract from bulb size the following summer. Fall-planted garlic grows rapidly when the weather warms in spring.
Bulb growth in garlic, like many alliums, is dependent on the lengthening of the day and the accumulation of degree days (heat units). In northern latitudes, most growers plant garlic in October before the ground freezes. This gives the plant time to make good root development but not enough time to make leaf growth. Where winter sets in earlier, growers are recommended to plant garlic two to three weeks after the first frost (below 32°F) (Rosen et al., 1999). Where winters are milder, garlic can be planted as late as mid-December. In some parts of California, it can be planted as late as February or March. ATTRA recommends talking with local producers and your county Cooperative Extension to determine the best time to plant garlic in your region.
The ATTRA publication Garlic: Organic Production offers more information on most aspects of garlic production, including seed sources, organic fertility management, pest management, and harvesting and storage.
Rosen, Carl et al. 1999. Growing Garlic in Minnesota. University of Minnesota Extension service. Regents of the University of Minnesota.
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Answer: Without rain or overhead irrigation, some bulky organic fertilizers—e.g., compost—will not readily break down and move into the soil. And because the fruit crops are usually perennials, cover crops cannot be relied upon for nutrition after the initial planting. This emphasizes the need for pre-plant consideration of nutritional needs of the plants, beginning with a soil test. For instance, adjusting soil pH with lime or sulfur should occur before the tunnel's cover goes on. Likewise, if soil organic matter needs improvement, cover crops or applications of manures or composts should happen before the high tunnel is covered. Allow time for breakdown and mechanical or natural incorporation of these into the soil.
Post-planting nutritional needs are going to be met with fertigation (running liquid fertilizers in the irrigation system), by precision hand-application of compost or pelletized organic fertilizers, or by hand-application of liquid organic fertilizers via watering buckets or hoses with fertilizer attachments. Regarding fertigation, liquid organic fertilizers, like fish emulsion or compost tea, have a reputation for clogging or gumming up the drip emitters (manufacturers of some of these products are now touting some formulations as "fertigation friendly" in order to address this problem). In such cases, proper filtration is the first line of defense. If clogging still occurs, there is an organically acceptable cleaner, Cleardrip-O.
Fertigation in Organic Vegetable Production Systems is an excellent primer on organic fertigation, as relevant to perennial fruits as it is to vegetables. It discusses the necessary equipment, fertigation products, how to calculate rates, and more.
If you're going to apply dry fertilizer materials, they will have to be placed where the soil is wet from the irrigation; otherwise, the nutrients from such materials will not move into the root zone to be available to plant roots.
Lastly, it's advisable to remove the plastic cover every winter in order to insure that the trees meet their chill requirement but also to allow rain to rinse out excess salts from the fertilizers. This is also a time when manure or compost could be applied with some confidence that it will be "washed" into the soil by rain and melting snow. Compost, especially compost made from plant matter and not animal manure, contains less salt and so should be considered a superior organic fertilizer material for most high tunnel applications.
Want to learn more? The ATTRA publication High Tunnel Tree Fruit and Grape Production for Eastern Growers. This publication identifies fruits that hold the most potential for profitable high tunnel culture. It also identifies several limitations and potential pitfalls growers must recognize if such a venture is to be profitable.
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Answer: Important considerations in site preparation include alleviating soil compaction, enhancing fertility, adjusting soil pH, and managing weeds, pests, and diseases. Attention to the details of site preparation can help reduce weed and disease problems and assure a vital planting through soil improvement. What needs to be done depends on the previous use of the land, including crops grown; current vegetation; and the presence of pests and diseases. Many growers rip or chisel the soil to loosen layers of compaction before they plant a new orchard or vineyard because deep tillage will be disruptive once the trees are established.
Before establishing an orchard or vineyard, it is important to adjust the soil pH to best suit the crop you’ve selected. Soil tests can assess current soil conditions, including pH, mineral levels, and their relative proportions. Traditionally, pH has been adjusted through applications of lime (to raise the pH) or sulfur (to lower pH). Most fruit plants perform best around pH 6.5, although they tolerate a pH range between 5.5 and 7.2. Blueberries are an exception. They require an acid soil—ideally pH 4.8 to 5.2. Soil test results help guide applications of soil amendments, such as compost, lime, gypsum, or other rock powders, to provide good soil conditions that meet the nutritional needs of the orchard.
In general, fruit crops do not require highly fertile soils for good production, though this varies with the species. Highly fertile soils, rich in nitrogen, can promote too much vegetative growth at the expense of fruiting in trees such as apples. A nutritionally balanced soil, proper soil pH, and plentiful organic matter are the fundamentals of an organic fertility-management plan for fruits. Pre-plant soil improvement for organic fruit plantings usually involves some combination of cover cropping and applications of compost, natural minerals, or other organic fertilizers.
The perennial nature of fruiting trees, bushes, and vines allows for a more permanent, sustainable agriculture based on healthy soil. The ATTRA publication Soils and Sites for Organic Orchards and Vineyards discusses site selection and soil preparation for fruit plantings. It also describes cover crop and mulching options for orchards and vineyard floors, and discusses fertilization and the role of mycorrhizae in maintaining healthy fruit plants.
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Answer: Cucumber beetle is a common name given to members of two genera of beetles, Diabrotica (spotted) and Acalymma (striped), both in the family Chrysomelidae. Cucumber beetles are present throughout the United States and cause serious damage to cucurbit crops. Overwintering adult insects feed on young plants, larvae in the soil feed on plant roots, and second-generation adults feed on plant leaves, blossoms, and fruits. Furthermore, adult cucumber beetles serve as vectors of bacterial wilt and squash mosaic virus.
Although cucumber beetles prefer flowers and leaves, they can also cause cosmetic damage to the surface of the melon that reduces the value of the crop. They are difficult to control through IPM strategies. They do have natural enemies, but introducing these is usually not enough to protect marketable yields of fruit; nor are insecticides particularly effective, as the two major beetle varieties either develop outside of the fields being treated or lay their eggs at the roots, where larvae are difficult to control.
Organic and biointensive IPM measures include delaying planting until beetles have already laid their first generation of eggs and using trap crops, floating row covers, parasitic organisms (such as the Tachinid fly Celatoria), and botanical pesticides. Field scouting or yellow sticky traps can help growers monitor insect populations. Trap crops provide attractive scents and colors for the beetles. These may include zucchini, squash, and pumpkins. Sow 5% or more of the land in strips alongside the crop or in adjacent plots with trap crops; these plants produce cucurbitacin, a feeding stimulant to cucumber beetles. The traps can either be destroyed or sprayed with a highly concentrated (30ml per gallon of water) citrus oil solution to destroy the adult cucumber beetle population.
The ATTRA publication Cucumber Beetles: Organic and Biorational Integrated Pest Management reports that some squash varieties have greater amounts of the cucumber beetle attractant cucurbaticin:
• Black Jack zucchini
• Big Max pumpkin
• Cocozelle summer squash
• Green Eclipse zucchini
• Seneca zucchini
• Senator zucchini
• Baby Boo pumpkin
• Super Select zucchini
• Ambercup buttercup squash
• Dark Green zucchini
• Embassy Dark Green zucchini
• Caserta summer squash
• Classic melon
Large-scale pest vacuums have also proven effective in removing beetles. Insecticides such as pyrethrums, which are derived from the extract of chrysanthemum flowers, can be used to help control beetle infestations. However, it should be noted that these generally not only have long residual activity but also are highly toxic to some beneficial insects. Moreover, their use may destabilize insect populations and result in outbreaks of secondary pests like aphids. Note that while pyrethrums are natural (though potent) insecticides that are generally approved for certified organic crops, pyrethroids are synthetic versions that are not approved for certified organic crops.
According to the Alabama Cooperative Extension Service, Adios (a Sevin bait) has proved moderately successful in controlling cucumber beetles. Although used as a foliar spray, Adios acts as a bait because it contains a cucumber beetle-feeding stimulant along with 13% carbaryl insecticide. When Adios is sprayed on foliage, beetles are stimulated to feed on the compound and are killed by the carbaryl. In field tests, Adios has provided cucumber beetle control ranging from less than to equal to foliar insecticides. It has no harmful effect on beneficial insects, including pollinators, because insects other than cucumber beetles are not stimulated to feed on the compound. However, Adios (Sevin) is not allowed in organic production.
Note that although Adios is a formulation of Sevin, Sevin itself should be avoided because it is toxic to earthworms, pollinators, and wasps (several of which are beneficial insects) and its use can lead to secondary insect pest infestations. Neem has been found to have little effect on beetle survival or mortality, but its anti-feedant trait significantly reduced plant damage caused by beetles. Rotenone and cryolite were both moderately effective. Entomophagous nematodes can control the larval stage in the soil. More information is available in the ATTRA publications Cucumber Beetles: Organic and Biorational Integrated Pest Management and Farmscaping to Enhance Biological Control.
Learn more in the ATTRA publication Specialty Melon Production for Small and Direct-Market Growers. 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.
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Answer: One of the oldest insect pests of grain crops is the grasshopper. This insect can be difficult to control with organic methods, because it can move from a control area to a non-control area and vice-versa. There has been some limited success with the use of Nosema locustae, a parasitic fungus that is combined with wheat bran bait for field use. Often, the results of Nosema are seen over several years of use, with mixed results when used on large areas. Several brand names of Nosema are available and information about them can be found in ATTRA's Biorationals: Ecological Pest Management Database.
Pest scouting is an essential part of using Nosema successfully. The most effective time to use it is when the grasshoppers are young (third instar stage). Usually, when you notice a large infestation, it is too late to use biological controls. Make sure you are watching for grasshoppers before they become a problem.
Mowing around grain fields may also help control grasshoppers. The shorter plants limit their food supply and make them more vulnerable to predators. The larger the field, the wider the mowed strip will need to be.
Chickens are voracious grasshopper eaters, and on smaller acreages chickens may be an effective means of grasshopper control. However, chickens do require adequate water, housing, and protection from predators. Mobile chicken coops, sometimes called "chicken tractors," provide protection and shelter, and also allow for easy movement to different parts of a field.
Learn more in these ATTRA publications:
Disease and Insect Management in Organic Small Grains
This publication outlines various strategies that make up a good organic disease and insect management plan, as well as to describe some specific diseases and insects that affect small grain crops. Although this publication pertains to various regions of the country, the main focus is on the Plains states—where most organic small grains are grown.
Grasshoppers – Botanical Control Formulations
This brief publication discusses the use of neem, garlic, mint, and eucalyptus to manage grasshoppers botanically.
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Answer: The two related fungi (Leucocytospora cincta and L. leucostoma) that incite cytospora canker are opportunists, invading sites where damage has occurred due to mechanical injury, cold, poor pruning techniques, improper pruning time, borers, or other causes. The first visible symptom is the oozing of gummy sap near the wound, beginning when temperatures warm in the spring. Since peaches exude this gummy sap in response to almost any wound (e.g., borer attack), it can be difficult to diagnose this disorder correctly. One diagnostic clue is that cytospora cankers usually have an elongated or elliptical shape because the fungus advances more rapidly up and down the branch than around the branch. The bark dries out and dies but usually remains intact the first year. In succeeding years the bark becomes broken, disfigured, and covered with a black fungus overgrowth. The disease progresses slowly, and a tree with cytospora can survive for many years past the initial infection.
While cytospora can be found in California (more commonly on European plums), it is a much more serious disease on peaches in the eastern half of the country where winter temperatures— especially fluctuating winter temperatures—often lead to tissue damage. In fact, it is probably the leading cause of peach tree death in much of the eastern United States.
Control is limited to cultural techniques. Management begins by choosing planting sites away from older peach and plum trees and eliminating wild or untended plums and peaches near the orchard. Because a cold-damage area is often the primary infection site, painting trunks with white latex paint to refl ect the winter sun can be helpful, although this practice is not allowed in organic production. Avoid planting on a southor southwest-facing slope because such a site can induce the trees to warm up too soon in the early spring or late winter, resulting in cold damage if temperatures fall.
Other management techniques likewise center around minimizing damage to the trees, thus denying infection sites to the pathogens. Such techniques include pruning only in the early spring when temperatures have warmed, avoiding leaving pruning stubs, removing dead and diseased branches, and controlling borers.
You can find much more information in the ATTRA publication Peaches: Organic and Low-Spray Production. This publication describes the major diseases and insect pests of peaches and discusses organic or least-toxic control options for each. It emphasizes the considerable climatic differences between the arid West, which is relatively amenable to organic peach production, and the humid East, where it is more difficult to grow peaches without synthetic fungicides and insecticides.
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Answer: Commercially produced bee blocks, consisting of a wood block drilled with a series of dead-end holes, are now widely available. These types of bee nests were initially developed in the 1960s by alfalfa seed producers in the western United States to attract and manage large numbers of the non-native alfalfa leafcutter bee (Megachile rotundata).
More recently they have been modified to manage the blue orchard bee (Osmia lignaria), a bee that is active only in the spring and will not pollinate later-flowering fruits and vegetables. Consequently, all of the nest tunnels are a uniform size and depth, which may be either too large or too small for many other species. Nest blocks with a greater diversity of hole sizes and depths are necessary to attract a variety of bees that are active throughout the year.
Under the best circumstances these nests can attract large numbers of cavity-nesting bees and boost their local populations. However, because these nests concentrate bee populations in unnaturally large numbers in a small space, they can become infested with parasites and disease spores after several seasons. Without regular sanitation or the phasing out of nest materials, these parasites and diseases threaten long-term pollinator health wherever they are used. Because contaminated nest blocks left unattended in the landscape continue to attract wild bees from the surrounding area, they have the potential to do harm. Only with proper management can these nests maintain healthy bee populations indefinitely.
Use preservative-free dimensional lumber to construct wooden nest blocks. A four-by-four is appropriate for blocks with smaller diameter holes. A four-by-six works for blocks with larger diameter holes.
In one side, drill a series of nest holes of appropriate sizes and depths. Nesting holes should be between 3⁄32 and 3⁄8 inch in diameter. Holes of 1⁄4 inch or less in diameter should be 3 to 5 inches deep. Holes larger than 1⁄4 inch should be 5 to 6 inches deep. The female bee controls the gender of her off spring and usually finishes the nest with a few male brood cells. A deeper hole ensures space for more female brood.
The holes should be about 3⁄4 inch from center to center and no closer than that to the edges of the block. Attach a backing board if you drill all the way through your block, because bees will not use a drilled hole that is open at both ends. With smaller diameter drill bits, you may not be able to achieve the 3-inch minimum recommended depth. If that is the case, simply drill as deep as you can; bees that use holes of smaller diameters will often nest successfully in ones that aren’t as deep.
Bees may avoid a rough interior, so your holes should be perpendicular to the wood’s grain and drilled with a sharp bit. You can buy paper straws to line the holes, although it may be hard to find straws that fit all diameters. One solution is to wrap your own paper straws out of parchment or newspaper using dowels of various diameters that match the inside diameters of your drilled holes. Paint the outer tips of the straws black to help attract bees.
The exterior of the block can be any color, although there is some anecdotal evidence that bees are most attracted to dark blocks, which can be achieved by lightly charring the front surface with a propane torch. Whatever the color, bees are likely to use the block as long as the holes are of appropriate diameters and depths, and hung in an appropriate location. As a final step, you can attach an overhanging roof to provide additional shelter from the rain.
Colonization is often more successful when blocks are attached to a large visible landmark such as a building. The actual height from the ground does not much matter, although if the nest is too low (less than a few feet), rain splash may dampen it and vegetation may cover it. Nest blocks should be hung in a protected location where they receive strong indirect sunlight. Direct sunshine in the morning will help bees warm themselves up to flight temperature, so you may wish to place nests facing east, allowing the morning sun to fall on the entrance holes. Direct sunlight later in the day can be detrimental, causing eggs or developing brood to overheat and die.
Since these types of nests mimic trees frequented by woodpeckers, do not be surprised if one finds your nest. To protect against damage, you might want to store your nests in an unheated building at the end of the season. Alternatively, you can protect nests over the winter by surrounding them with hardware cloth. Be sure to remove the cloth before nesting resumes because hardware cloth can disorient nesting bees and damage their wings.
In addition to wooden blocks, artificial nests can be constructed with bundles of reed, teasel, cup plant or bamboo cut so that a natural node forms the inner wall of the tunnel. Cut each stem below the nodes (usually indicated by a ridge) to create a handful of tubes, each with one open end. Strap the tubes together into a tight bundle with wire, string or tape, making certain that the closed ends of the stems are all at the same end of the bundle. A variation on this is to tightly pack the stems – open ends out – into a tin can, paper milk carton, square plastic buckets or short section of PVC pipe. The bundles should be placed in a sheltered location (such as the side of a barn or garden shed) with the stems horizontal to the ground.
To learn more, consult the ATTRA publication Alternative Pollinators: Native Bees, which provides information and resources on how to plan for, protect and create habitat for native bees in agricultural settings.
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Answer: Harvest and processing of your lambs are cornerstones in the successful marketing of your product. In most cases, they are also the components in the production chain over which you have the least direct control. All of your skill in producing and marketing your lamb comes to no avail if you do not succeed in securing the successful harvest of your lambs. For this reason, employing the services of a knowledgeable and reputable meat processor is of utmost importance. Remember that the processor must have appropriate inspection for the way you intend to sell your meat. For example, if you are selling to stores, restaurants, or farmers markets, State or Federal inspection is required. Federal inspection is required when selling across state lines. See the ATTRA publication Tips for Marketing Sheep and Goat Products: Meat for more information.
Ideally, the processor should be relatively close to your farm. This limits the stress of hauling, allows you to easily view the hanging carcasses, and eases your transportation costs. Often, we producers know much more about the production part of our business than the processing end. A knowledgeable butcher who is willing to teach you the value of a good carcass and how to cut it expertly is invaluable. In my own experience, my operation has profited immensely from our meat cutter and processor. For more on lamb processing and how you can foster good relations with your butcher, see the ATTRA video Creating an Excellent Relationship with Your Lamb Processor.
Meat processors are busy people. Key to their success is keeping up plant throughput over the entire year. Anything you can do to make their life easier (especially communication) will be appreciated and earn you dividends in cooperation. Good processors are very hard to find; nurture the relationship with yours.
To learn more, consult the ATTRA publication Direct Marketing Lamb: A Pathway. This publication describes an alternative to marketing lamb other than as a commodity—and capturing the economic benefits. Successful marketing techniques are described, beginning with the finished lamb and continuing through the processing, pricing, and sale of whole and boxed lamb to today's eager local foods customer.
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Answer: For any market garden, it is important to consider which market is right for you and your farm. In order to assess the types of markets it is important to ask yourself these questions:
Is my farm location conducive to direct marketing? Are you near lucrative farmers markets, restaurants, and specialty food stores? If not, you might need to consider wholesale marketing.
Do I enjoy interacting with people? If so, farmers markets might be perfect. If not, something that does not require as much personal interaction might be a better fit.
Many of the crops described here are unique and could provide a great draw to a farmers market stand throughout the season. If you are using these season-extension techniques on your farm, chances are that your harvest season extends past the season of operation for a typical farmers market or other seasonal direct market. The following discussion describes some options for marketing specialty vegetables and fruits beyond the typical farmers market.
Winter Farmers Markets
The farmers market season is extending in many locations across the U.S., with year-round markets, special winter or holiday markets, or simply a longer season that runs through December. It is important to decide to produce for these markets by late summer/early fall. The crops that you would like to market in late fall need to be planted in the field or hoop house in late July or early August in order to achieve optimum yields in the limited light and cold days of winter. If you currently sell at a farmers market, ask the market coordinator to consider extending the market into the winter months.
Many restaurants are interested in local foods and will pay a premium. They can be a lucrative market, especially if you are located in an area with several high-end restaurants. In order to receive a price premium for your product, there are a few general guidelines. Make a personal visit to the chef, and bring a sample of one of your products—something that sets you apart. Make sure that your product is clean, you are clean, and that you visit when they are not busy—at an off-time during restaurant hours. It is generally a good idea to avoid the hours during lunch and dinner and you should always call the executive chef first.
Chefs appreciate knowing what is available every week. They also appreciate knowing what is in season. Faxing or emailing a weekly availability list that includes prices will remind chefs that you have product available to sell. When you deliver, put on clean clothes and make sure your delivery boxes are clean and presentable.
Gourmet and Specialty Food Markets
Gourmet and specialty food markets will appreciate local specialty vegetables and fruits such as those described above. It is important with some of the fruits, especially the wild fruit varieties, to know the shelf life of these products and have an understanding of the post-harvest handling techniques required to keep them fresh.
These types of markets may have food safety requirements that are more stringent than farmers markets, such as a GAPs (Good Agricultural Practices) plan. They also may have standardized packing requirements that are foreign to many small growers. When approaching a specialty store, contact the produce buyer and ask what type of products the market is interested in and what the packing and food safety standards are.
For more information on GAPs, see the ATTRA publication An Illustrated Guide to Growing Safe Produce on Your Farm, as well as the ATTRA tutorial Produce Safety.
To learn more about specialty crop production, consult the ATTRA publication Specialty Crops for Cold Climates.