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Home  > Question of the Week

Question of the Week

Permalink What information can you give me on no-till gardening?

North Carolina

Thank you for contacting ATTRA for information on conservation tillage and no-till gardening.

Organic mulches — for example straw, hay, and leaves — have a long history of use in vegetable production. A common method is to till and prepare the soil as usual, followed by direct seeding and transplanting to establish vegetables, with post-plant top-dressing of organic mulches to control weeds and conserve moisture.

A no-till approach to mulching, however, is the use of permanent, deep mulches. Ruth Stout, who wrote articles for Organic Gardening magazine from 1953 to 1971, and published the classic book, The Ruth Stout No-Work Garden Book, is perhaps the best known advocate of permanent mulching systems for home gardens.

In the 1990s, permanent mulches as a no-till approach to commercial-scale vegetable production received increased attention through the work of Emilia Hazelip, a permaculture teacher and market farmer in southern France. Inspired by the work of Masanobu Fukuoka, the Japanese farmer who advocated a natural system of no-till production using undersown clovers and straw, Ms. Hazelip's "synergistic gardening" method featured the use of raised beds, plant residues, and companion planting.

About 15 years ago, Emilia Hazelip did a workshop in Arkansas. I was among those who attended and was inspired. I have not, however, managed to duplicate her system. I do continue to use permanent beds in my market garden, and mulch whenever and wherever I can manage to do so. Here are a few personal observations.

You can kill weeds and grass in the areas that you want to plant by using heavy mulch. Cardboard, landscape fabric, newspapers covered with wood chips, or a thick mat of straw are materials that will work. The mulch shades out already established plants, and prevents seeds
in the soil from germinating. Obviously, if the mulch is dense enough to prevent weed seed germination, it will also prevent other seeds from germinating. Depending on the material used, you can remove the mulch after the sod has been killed and plant into the residue. Or you can start vegetables in flats and transplant them into the dead sod. Or you can cut strips or holes through the mulch and plant seeds into those spaces.

Some large seeded vegetables, such as beans, corn, peas, or squash, can send up shoots through light straw mulch. If you plan to direct seed vegetables such as carrots, lettuce, and other small-seeded crops, a clean-tilled planting bed is more conducive to success. You may be able to mulch around these vegetables after they emerge, or depend on the growth of their leaves to shade the soil.

Raised beds provide some benefits, such as better drainage in wet areas, but I have found that permanent beds level with alternating permanent walkways work better for me. Maintenance is less labor intensive and the beds do not dry out as quickly in the summer.

I also use 3’ wide rolls of black landscape fabric to prevent weed growth. After rolling the fabric over a bed, I burn holes in it with a small propane torch. The holes are spaced according to what I am going to plant. Unlike black plastic mulch, the landscape fabric is somewhat permeable to water and air.


ATTRA Publications:
Conservation Tillage
Pursuing Conservation Tillage Systems for Organic Crop Production

Hazelip, Emilia. No date. The Synergistic Garden. 13 p.



Permalink What information can you give me on appropriate breeds for pasture-based cattle production?


Answer: I am pleased to provide you with information on appropriate breeds for grass-based beef production.

For pasture finishing, most producers select animals from herds that have mature weights under 1100 pounds, as these will most likely finish at the proper time. Pasture-finished beef cattle are usually marketed between 16 and 24 months of age. Regarding appropriate breeds, there is evidence that selecting body type, including size, is more important than breed type for pasture-based operations. “…there are important differences between domestic grazing animal species in their impact on grazed communities and …these can be related to differences in dental and digestive anatomy, but also, and probably more importantly, to differences in body size. Differences between breeds within species appear to be relatively minor and again largely related to body size” (Rook et al., 2004, emphasis mine). The six most important factors in animal selection would be to select animals from herds that exhibit these general qualities:

1. dual-purpose breed types (milk and meat producing)
2. medium frame
3. end weight 900 to 1100 lb
4. age at slaughter 16 to 24 mos.
5. early maturing
6. low maintenance requirements

English breeds usually fit best with grass operations because they often display the characteristics mentioned above. English cattle typically combine maternal traits like milking ability with growing and marbling ability. Breeds in this category include Angus, Hereford, Shorthorn, and heritage breeds such as Devon, Galloway, and Dexter. Heritage cattle are known for their foraging ability. A good overview on rare and heritage cattle breeds is the online article “A Field Guide to Heritage Cattle” in the July/August 2007 issue of Grit Magazine. It includes characteristics and photos of 18 heritage breeds. More detailed information on heritage breeds can be found at the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy website.

Grazing Behavior and Selection of Appropriate Animals

The grazing process is a very complex mechanism developed by grazing species over very long periods of time, and constantly influenced by climatic and vegetational characteristics or particular landscapes. According to Launchbaugh et al. (1999) “herbivores inherit their ability to learn” how to graze forages. Grazing herbivores have evolved the ability to select forages high in soluble carbohydrates and will change their diets when they have had enough of any nutrient or secondary plant chemical (such as toxins). This makes a great case for pasture plant species diversity. The more diverse a pasture is in plant types and species, the more opportunities the animal has to select appropriate foods. What is more, producers can use selective breeding to build a herd that exhibits maximal grazing efficiency. The ATTRA publication Ruminant Nutrition for Graziers covers in detail this concept of grazing behavior as well as maximizing pasture intake to assure nutritional needs are met by grazing livestock.

References and Resources:

Launchbaugh, K.L., J.W. Walker and C.A. Taylor. 1999. Foraging Behavior: Experience or Inheritance? Presented in “Grazing Behavior of Livestock and Wildlife.” Idaho Forest, Wildlife, & Range Experiment Station Bulletin 70, University of Idaho, Moscow, ID.

Nemec, Jennifer and Oscar H. Will III. 2007. A Field Guide to Heritage Cattle, in Grit, July/August 2007.

Rinehart, L. 2006. Cattle Production: Considerations for Pasture-Based Beef and Dairy Producers. Butte, MT: ATTRA.

Rinehart, L. 2008. Ruminant Nutrition for Graziers. Butte, MT: ATTRA.

Rook, A.J., B. Dumont, J. Isselstein, K. Osoro, M. F. Wallis DeVries, G. Parente, and J. Mills. 2004. Matching type of livestock to desired biodiversity outcomes in pastures – a review. Biological Conservation, Volume 119, Issue 2.

Thomas, Heather Smith. Selecting cattle for your small farm. Countryside and Small Stock Journal.



Permalink What information can you give me on buffer zones for organic cropland?


Answer: I am pleased to provide you with information on buffer zones for organic production.

Once a field is eligible to produce a crop sold as organic, the farmer will need to manage the borders of the fields if the neighboring field has had substances applied that are not allowed under organic regulations. The National Organic Program (NOP) Section 205.202(c) states that any field or farm parcel from which harvested crops are intended to be sold, labeled, or represented as “organic,” must have distinct, defined boundaries and buffer zones such as runoff diversions to prevent the unintended application of a prohibited substance to the crop or contact with a prohibited substance applied to adjoining land that is not under organic management [1].

A buffer zone is defined as “an area located between a certified production operation or portion of a production operation and an adjacent land area that is not maintained under organic management. A buffer zone must be sufficient in size or other features (e.g., windbreaks or a diversion ditch) to prevent the possibility of unintended contact by prohibited substances applied to adjacent land areas with an area that is part of a certified operation.” [2]

The federal rule does not specify that a buffer zone be a specific width, but it must be of sufficient size to prevent drift or runoff of non-approved substances. The size of the buffer is determined by the organic producer and approved by the certifying agent on a case-by-case basis, depending on the risk of contamination by prohibited materials used on adjoining lands. Typically, 25 to 30 feet is generally accepted by certifying agents as adequate to prevent most contamination from a neighboring field.

Buffer zones can be planted to grass, permanent trees, and/or shrubs. These plantings can provide habitat for birds, wildlife, and beneficial insects. Significant height in a buffer has the added benefit of protecting fields and organic crops from contamination by aerial movement of pesticides and from wind erosion.

Buffer zones can be planted to a crop that is managed organically but is sold as conventional. If a crop is taken from the buffer zone it will need to be harvested separately from the organic crop and documented that it was harvested, stored and sold as non-organic. If the buffer is mowed for hay, the farmer must keep a written record of the hay harvest (name, date, location of buffer and crop harvested). Certifying agents can give you examples of buffer record forms. You can also download an example of a buffer record from ATTRA’s Organic Crops Documentation Form.

Buffer zones are only needed when there is an organic crop being grown and only needed during the crop year when a prohibited product is being used by the neighbor. Certifying agents may require the farmer to have a signed statement from the neighbor when they are not using prohibited substances. Also, road crews, utilities, aerial spray companies, etc. can be notified not to spray along an organic farmer’s field. If a no-spray agreement cannot be reached, then the organic farmer can grow non-organic crops in the buffer zone, or leave it fallow.

While it is important to remember that organic standards are process-based, (rather than product-based), the regulation does contain a maximum tolerance level for residues of prohibited substances. If there is reason to suspect contamination, and tests reveal that a product contains over 5 percent of the Environmental Protection Agency’s tolerance for a particular substance, then the product can no longer be sold as “organic”.


[1]. See the National Organic Program S205.202(c). Land Requirements.

[2]. See the National Organic Program s205.2. Terms defined for buffer zones.

Midwest Organic & Sustainable Education Service. (2006). Transitioning to Organic Crop Production (FS604). Spring Valley, WI: MOSES.

Riddle, Jim. (2005). Good Buffers Make Good Neighbors. Kutztown, PA: The Rodale Institute.



Permalink What information can you give me on agricultural accounting?


Answer: Thank you for contacting ATTRA for information on the difference between business accounting and accounting for agricultural operations. There is a set of Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP) which determines how accounting is done for most enterprises. Agricultural accounting is also based on GAAP but as you note, there are some differences. According to the Farm Financial Standards Council, the "financial statements" that are being used by many agricultural producers and lenders today are, in fact, abbreviated accounting systems. They are designed to arrive at an accrual adjusted income figure for the operation by adjusting balance sheet and cash basis income information supplied by the agricultural producer. While this use of financial statements to replace accounting systems may perhaps seem like a minor distinction, it is the cause for many of the problems faced by the FFSC in dealing with consistent reporting and analysis. “

The Farm Financial Standards Council (Council) has produced a publication that provides detailed explanation of the recommendations of the Council for financial reporting and analysis. This publication also contains examples of financial statements prepared in accordance with the recommendations found in the Financial Guidelines for Agricultural Producers.

The specific example you cite, treatment of livestock, is addressed in the Guidelines. Breeding livestock is depreciated. Raised breeding livestock’s asset value can be calculated either using the full cost absorption method(producer accumulates all costs associated with raising breeding livestock and upon entry to the breeding herd, the accumulated costs of raising the animals would then be depreciated over the expected useful life of the animals. Market values of the breeding herd would be separately disclosed) or the base value method (a “base value” is established for various categories of raised breeding stock, and as livestock move through those categories in their normal life cycle, valuation is established for that particular category at the time the valuation is done. Both the change in value of raised breeding livestock--from either moving into a higher value category or an increased number of raised replacements--and income or loss from sale of those animals is counted as income. Cost of raising replacement breeding animals is included in expenses.) Note that the full cost absorption method is rarely used.

Purchased breeding livestock is treated like any other purchased capital asset –cost on the balance sheet is cost of the item less depreciation taken, and market value is established in the same way as for raised replacements. Depreciation of the livestock is included as an expense—not the actual purchase price of the livestock. Gain or loss on the sale of this livestock is the sale price less the undepreciated balance at time of sale, and this gain or loss is included as gross revenue on the income statement.

As you can see, accounting for agricultural operations can be complex. For more assistance with accounting for your specific operation, I would suggest contacting your county extension agent and the FARM Team of the University of Wisconsin Cooperative Extension. The team’s purpose is to help Wisconsin farmers improve business profitability and lifestyles through informed decision-making. Contact:

Robert K. Cropp
Pepin County - UW Extension

Phillip E. Harris
University of Wisconsin-Madison



Permalink What can you tell me about organic cantaloupe production?


Answer: I am pleased to provide you with information regarding organic melon/ cantaloupe production.

In general, melons prefer an average soil pH. of 6.0 to 7.0. It is critical that the ground be warm enough for the seeds to germinate! Plant melons 4 to 6 feet apart and sow the seeds 1 inch deep. To get the plants off to a good start, plastic mulch helps to keep the soil warm. They can either be direct seeded or transplanted, but transplanting insures you will have a stronger plant starting in the field.

Organic soil management:
Melons are heavy feeders. It is important to work plenty of compost into the soil before planting. Soil enrichment, rather than plant enrichment is a tenet of organic production. For more information on organic soil management I recommend the ATTRA publications, Sustainable Soil Management and Soil Management: National Organic Program Regulations.

General Management:

Melons need plenty of water during the growing season, so it is a good idea to use soaker hoses or a drip irrigation system. Floating row covers placed over the growing plants help deter insects and create a nice, warm micro climate. Place the row covers on new transplants or a newly seeded bed immediately after planting and remove them once flowers appear on the vines, so insects can pollinate them!

Organic Pest Management for Melons/ Cantaloupe:

The major pests of cantaloupe are the same that afflict Cucurbit crops in general. A good guide for general organic pest management in the Northeast is titled, Resource Guide for Organic Insect and Disease Management. They have a specific section on Cucurbit pest management, which I find to be quite comprehensive.

Cucumber beetle is a major pest of cucurbits in general. Please refer to the ATTRA publication, Cucumber Beetle: Organic and Biorational IPM.

A number of viruses and diseases such as cucumber mosaic (CMV), squash mosaic (SqMV), and watermelon mosaic (WMV-1,2) as well as powdery mildew, downy mildew, and gummy stem blight. These diseases can be controlled by using disease-resistant varieties, having a good crop-rotation system, growing on soils with good air and water drainage and judicious use of organically approved materials such as copper compounds.

The Kaolin Clay based product, Surround WP has show to have significant control with many cucurbit crop insect and disease pests if sprayed 2-3 times per season. The ATTRA Cucumber Beetle publication mentioned above discusses this strategy.

Weed control can be achieved with plastic mulch, which also helps warm the soil in the early summer months of the Northeast.

Marketing and Enterprise Budgets:

In your request, you mentioned the question of profitablility. The most important way of determining this would be to do an enterprise budget for your region. I would encourage you to look at the Pennsylvania State University Agriculture Alternatives Publication on Cantaloupe Production. It includes an Enterprise Budget Template. Some substitutes for extra labor in weed and pest control would need to be accounted for.

Cantaloupes have a good direct market and never seem to have a problem selling at farmers markets. The wholesale prices for cantaloupes can be obtained at the New Farm Organic Price Report section which has weekly wholesale prices. I did confirm that they have cantaloupe prices under the “Fruit” category.

Further Information:
High Mowing Organic Seeds. Melons and Watermelons. 2006 production information. From High Mowing Seeds Web site.



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