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Home  > Question of the Week

Question of the Week

Permalink What information can you give me on permanent raised bed systems?


Answer: Thank you for your recent request for information from ATTRA, the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service. I am pleased to provide you with information on permanent raised bed systems.

Permanent raised bed systems are designed to simultaneously maintain or improve crop yields while stabilizing or enhancing soil health. Information and research on these types of systems has been conducted throughout the world, especially in Australia. For example, the following link from southern Australia shows how permanent raised beds are created and managed:

Most of the more localized resources that I am familiar with are coming out of Virginia Tech and Cornell. Dr. Ron Morse, Professor Emeritus at Virginia Tech, has been involved in promoting and refining reduced-tillage systems, which he refers to as controlled-traffic permanent-zone systems. According to Dr. Morse, there are five major components that make up an ideal permanent raised bed system:
1. Grow high-biomass (3 or more tons dry residues/acre) cover crops, at least once per year.
2. Limit or reduce tillage events to three or less operations per year.
3. Divide available crop land into convenient workable field plots (1/4 to ½ acre/plot) and use highly diverse cover crop-cash crop rotations.
4. Establish controlled-traffic permanent zones throughout the field plots, creating alternating zones across the entire plot.
5. Purchase and/or build cost-effective equipment to reduce labor costs and optimize yield and profits.

Dr. Morse worked frequently with Mark Schonbeck, Organic Research Specialist with the Virginia Association for Biological Farming. Together, Dr. Morse and Schonbeck wrote several publications based on their research with permanent raised bed systems. Some of their publications focus on growing high-biomass cover crops as well as the use of various equipment and implements. They have written a publication titled “Reduced Tillage and Cover Cropping Systems for Organic Vegetable Production.”

Cornell University is also involved in extensive research on permanent bed systems. Much of their work is available on their reduced tillage web site along with a listing of additional resources: Particularly, you may want to look in to a project that was completed in 2009 titled “Comparison of Different Permanent Bed Systems for Production of Organic Vegetables. This project was headed by Anu Rangarajan, Cornell Department of Horticulture, and was funded through SARE (

Here is a list of farms that utilizes (utilized) permanent raised bed systems (1):
Potomac Vegetable Farm ( in Virginia grows rye for the purpose of rye hay mulch. They keep a square baler on hand to put up hundreds of bales of mulch needed for tomatoes, pepper, and so forth. Soil is spader prepared, followed by planting and mulching.

Eric Kindberg in Bass, AR, in the 1980s and early 90s. Used the Keyline Chisel Plow on a multi-purpose toolbar, featuring permanent ~3-foot wide raised beds with wheel tracks. These wheel tracks were not planted to sod, but the fields were intensively cover cropped.

NaturFarm in Lompoc, CA in 1980s and 90s. These were 80-inch wide permanent beds on the flat, slightly raised by action of tractors tires only. This was a fully integrated Nature Farming system that used a spading machine, EM bokashi style compost, Activated-EM injected into irrigation water, with vegetable blocks as alleyways of cropland interspersed between broad strips of insectary habitat. In California agriculture where complete field tillage is very common, these permanent wide beds were certainly unique.

Ed and Ginger Kolgelschatz at Shinbone Valley Farm in Georgia, use a spading machine that fits inside wheel tracks. Pathways are managed as hard packed soil.

Dripping Springs Farm in Huntsville, AR, combines spading with mulching. They like wheat hay mulch. This is wheat that is mowed and baled prior to maturity, not wheat straw. They had been using permanent no-till mulched beds for years at a time, mimicking Emilia Hazelip's system. But a tractor and spading machine became so appealing for efficient land preparation (and because weeds invade long-term no-till beds) they are now preparing soil with a spader, then coming back with thick mulches. They typically mulch the beds first, and then set out transplants through the mulch.


1. Diver, Steve. 2003. Permanent Beds. Biodynamic Food and Farming discussion Group. Retrieved June 17, 2010.

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Permalink What are some resources for evaluating an enterprise for my farm?

New York

Answer: Thank you for your recent request for information from ATTRA, the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service. I am pleased to provide you with information regarding evaluating an enterprise for your prospective farm operation.

Below is a direct link to the ATTRA publication titled “Evaluating a Rural Enterprise.” This publication provides an overview and an extensive resource list to spring-board you into finding more information on this topic. You can access the HTML version of this publication at:

I would advise you to assess your goals, land, and resources on your land initially, before deciding which crop to grow. Some considerations that may help direct your decision-making and save time and much needed energy when developing a farm business are as follows:

Identify your own personal values
o E.g. Do you want to have an organic farm?
o Do you want to spend more time with your family
o Do you want an enterprise that will equal your current salary,
o Is a different lifestyle your goal?

• What are your personal goals and vision for your property
o While this is closely related to the above bullet, you can create your goals for your property based on your personal values.
o This is often left out of business planning templates, but can be an important component in your assessment.
o It is something that you can, and should, come back to when there is a question about what direction you want your business to go.

• Assess your property
o Consider size, location, soils, resources on your property
o (e.g. do you have a wood lot? Juniper makes great firewood and could be sold in the winter)
o Soil is an often overlooked aspect of farming enterprises, but it is a very important one. Optimum soil will give you more production options, but certain crops or livestock give you more flexibility with soil quality.
o Water access and cost is a very important considerations. In Tennessee this may be more for insurance purposes when the region is going through a drought. Are you planning on using a pond for irrigation? If so, does it have an adequate recharge rate to get you through the driest parts of the growing season? Vegetable and fruit cropping are the more water intensive cropping systems.

• Market assessment

o Marketing is an often overlooked aspect of developing a new enterprise.
o Location, your personality, and production interests are things to consider in this assessment.
o Questions to consider when developing a marketing plan:
Are you in a rural area? Do you enjoy interacting with people? E.g. If you are close to an urban area and enjoy working with people, a Farmer’s Markets might be a good and safe venue to sell your products.
Do you have another occupation? Then wholesale marketing, which takes less time and energy might be better suited for you.

• Once you have an enterprise in mind, develop a business and production plan.
o ATTRA can help you with this, but we would need to know what types of crops you ultimately would like to grow on your land.

There are many workbooks that are very helpful in working through these myriad of considerations, which I have only briefly outlined above. I have listed below under further resources some additional information to help guide you. I have found that there are many different strategies; some being goal based and others being enterprise budget-based. The two that I have found most helpful in my own personal situations are:

The Cornell University Beginning Farmer Program has a free tutorial that will take you through goal setting and enterprise decision making. It is interactive and packed with information. The link to get started is:

The Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture has developed a goal based workbook and resource list. The workbook, titled Building a Sustainable Business: A Guide to Developing a Business Plan for Farms and Rural Businesses is quite helpful in taking the reader through the steps that I outlined above.

The University of Kentucky has developed a tool for evaluating new enterprises for a farm or family business titled “A PRIMER for Selecting New Enterprises for Your Farm.” It is a resource that works more from enterprise budgets and is based on worksheets used to evaluate the "Profitability, Resource requirements, Information needs, Marketing decisions, Enthusiasm for, and the Risk associated with a new enterprise." The link is listed below under further resources.

Further Resources:
Anon. 2003. Building a Sustainable Business: A guide to developing a business Plan for Farms and rural Businesses. Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture.
This is available to purchase for $17.00 from the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program or download for free.

Woods, Tim, Steve Isaacs. A PRIMER for Selecting New Enterprises for Your Farm. University of Kentucky. Agriculture Economic Series. 2000

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Permalink What are some resources for designing an aquaculture system?


Answer: Thank you for your recent request for information from ATTRA, the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service. I am pleased to provide you with technical information resources on aquaculture methodologies and system specific design.

NCAT does not have the expertise to plan and design aquaculture systems, but we do have contacts and resources on some of the most cutting edge systems. The following is a list of organizations and publications that offer detailed information on systems as well as design concepts and plans. I recommend a look at these to assist you in designing an appropriate aquaculture system.

Southern Regional Aquaculture Center
Delta Research and Extension Center
Mississippi State University
127 Experiment Station Road
P.O. Box 197
Stoneville, Mississippi 38776
Phone: 662-686-3285
Recirculating Aquaculture and Aquaponic Systems publications
The SRAC offers the following publications as free PDF downloads:

• SRAC 0451 Recirculating Aquaculture Tank Production Systems: An Overview of Critical Considerations
• SRAC 0452 Recirculating Aquaculture Tank Production Systems: Management of Recirculating Systems
• SRAC 0453 Recirculating Aquaculture Tank Production Systems: Component Options
• SRAC 0454 Recirculating Aquaculture Tank Production Systems: Aquaponics Integrating Fish and Plant Culture
• SRAC 0456 The Economics of Recirculating Tank Systems: A Spreadsheet for Individual Analysis
• SRAC 4500 Partitioned Aquaculture Systems

ALabama Education in aquatic sciences, Aquaculture, Recreational fisheries and Natural resource conservation (ALEARN)

Provides a highly informative, single point, user friendly information source for commercial growers and those with commercial aquabusiness interests. Includes a number subject areas useful to owners and managers of aquatic enterprises, including but not limited to:
• Species
• Aquaculture Economics/Statistics
• Permits and Regulations
• Best Management Practices
• Area, Volume, Weight and Treatment Calculators
• Fish Health and Treatments
• Water Quality Management
• Pond Design & Construction
• Cages
• Water Reuse Systems

Aquaculture Network Information Center

Extensive resource links to information on species, systems, and management, including tools and publications for designing aquaculture systems.

Growing Power

Provides technical training opportunities on intensive aquaculture and aquaponic production at regional training centers around the country.

Sweet Water Organics

Sweet Water Organics will be the first major commercial upgrading of MacArthur genius Will Allen’s aquaculture methodologies, i.e. a three-tiered, aquaponic, bio-intensive fish-vegetable garden. Sweet Water will be the anchor project in the transformation of a massive industrial building in an “industrial slum” into a show-case of the potential of living technologies and high-value added urban agriculture. Sweet Water’s sustainable aquaculture system harvests urban waste streams, e.g. wood chips, cardboard, veggie residues, coffee grounds, and brewers mash, along vermiculture lines, yielding the richest possible soil. This soil in hundreds of potted plants on the simulated wetland tiers is key to the transformation of fish wastes into natural nitrate for plant growth and water filtration.

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Permalink What information can you give me on organic strawberry production in a hoop house?


Answer: Thank you for your recent request for information from ATTRA, the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service. I am pleased to provide you with information regarding organic strawberry production in hoop houses.

Below is a great overview of greenhouse strawberry production by a horticulture specialist at Cornell University who specializes in greenhouse berry production.
Berried Treasures: Off-Season Production of Strawberries and Raspberries
By: Marvin Pritts - Department of Horticulture. Cornell University. 2000.
This publication focused primarily on off-season strawberry production in a greenhouse, which I am assuming that you might want to do, considering your location. Most of the principles of greenhouse strawberry production are outlined in this publication, however the focus of this publication is not organic.

For organic strawberry production it is important to consider fertility management. For sustained organic fertility throughout the season (most Everbearing varieties will require this) a common practice is to apply enough high-N materials, such as fish meals, seed meals or alfalfa meal, to supply 30 pounds of actual N per acre. Compost can be used as a supplement and serves well to condition the soil and balance nutrients but does not provide enough available N at the time needed. An inch of compost and the appropriate amount of a high-N organic material spread directly over the rows is recommended (Sideman 2002). Eric Sideman mentions this and other great general tips for growing organic strawberries outside. While some of this information is specific to outdoor production, I think a lot would still apply to your situation. You can access this article at the following link:

Hoop houses may help prevent some strawberry pest insects, but encourage others. While some insects may not be as much of a problem, some disease problems may increase. Drip irrigation will help prevent soil born pest disease by preventing splashing on leaves and decreasing leaf humidity. Also, for specific pest management issues that arise in your greenhouse, I would encourage you to look at the ATTRA publication, Strawberries: Organic Production, which discusses pests specific to strawberries.

Sideman, Eric. 2007. Organic Strawberry Production. Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association. The Maine Organic Farmer and Gardener Newsletter Winter 2007/2008.

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Permalink What are some resources for determining the value of various cuts of beef based on hanging weight and other factors?


Answer: Thank you for contacting ATTRA, the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service, for information on determining beef yields. Below are a few resources that should be helpful to you.

The first link is to Colorado State and can give an idea of how a carcass would cut out by grade. The link is as follows:

The second is a direct marketing tool for lockers or farmers from Kentucky Meat Science. The link is as follows:

There is also a meat yield calculator from Vermont that I have found helpful. You can find the calculator and additional information at

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