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Home  > Question of the Week

Question of the Week

Permalink As a beginning farmer, should I consider pastured poultry production?

For many beginning farmers, poultry may be the most logical livestock choice. Birds have several advantages—their small size, quick return on investment, and low start-up costs, to name a few. Poultry can be the "gateway" animal to raising larger stock like sheep, goats, hogs, or cattle.

Poultry are raised on the farm for many reasons—egg and meat production, insect and weed control, selling stock, and more. Due to the great variety of sizes, diets, foraging behaviors, and hardiness among poultry species, poultry can be advantageously incorporated into almost any existing livestock or horticultural enterprise.

The addition of poultry can diversify the farm's offerings to customers through meat and egg production. Poultry can provide insect and weed control, increase soil fertility, and serve as a marketing and educational tool for families.

Healthy Pastures, Healthy Flocks

Many producers are shocked to see just how much green forage the birds, especially chickens and turkeys, will eat when given the opportunity. Depending on its quality, pasture may replace up to 25% of the feed consumed.

Birds raised on pasture are typically quite healthy. Their immune systems are generally strong because they are exposed to sunlight, fresh air, and frequent fresh pasture in a naturally sanitary environment. The use of antibiotics and other medications is rare in pastured poultry production.

When poultry graze on healthy pastures, gobbling insects and plants, the birds produce flavorful meat. The yolks of pastured eggs are usually dark orange and the fat deposited in the meat is often yellow, evidence of the elevated vitamin, mineral, and Omega-3 content of the meat. Many customers appreciate the humane practices of farmers who raise their chickens on pasture. All these factors mean that the pastured poultry farmer can charge a premium price.

It's not all a bed of roses with pastured poultry production. Hurdles include predators, processing, marketing, complex regulations, pasture seasonality, severe weather, product storage, and transportation.

Once you get past the learning curve, though, pasturing poultry can be a great system. With a virtually untapped market and a tremendously popular product, farmers who are able to meet the challenges can profit from the emerging pastured-poultry industry.

ATTRA has extensive resources related to poultry, including Meat Chicken Breeds for Pastured Production, Pastured-Raised Poultry Nutrition, and Range Poultry Housing, to name a few. To see the full list of available resources, visit

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Permalink As a new farmer, what funding opportunities are available to me?

Answer: There are many agriculture-related funding opportunities, some of which are specifically for beginning farmers. Most funders have specific funding cycles, so it's a good idea to get familiar with various funders and their funding cycle—and with the types of projects they typically fund—so that you’re prepared when a new funding cycle is announced.

For its Beginning Farmer and Rancher Loans, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines a beginning farmer as someone who has not operated a farm or ranch for more than 10 years, does not own a ranch or farm greater than the 30% of the median size farm in the county as determined by the most current Census for Agriculture (80 acres in 2007, but a new 2012 census will be released in the near future), meets the loan eligibility requirements of specific program to which he/she is applying, and participates substantially in the operation.

There are a range of loan and grant opportunities through the USDA. A few key agencies are Farm Service Agency (FSA), Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), and Rural Development. FSA provides direct loans and loan guarantees, and it reserves a portion of its loan funds for beginning farmers. A fact sheet on FSA programs is available at NRCS provides cost-share opportunities for implementing conservation practices. Both agencies have local offices throughout the country. To find a local USDA Service Center, visit Rural Development administers the Value-Added Producer grant program, which helps farmers develop value-added projects at their operation. The grant deadline has passed this year, but this is a good resource for the future. For more information, visit

In addition to these programs, the USDA organizes information about its many programs in ways that make it more accessible to small-scale or sustainable farmers. For example, USDA Small Farm Funding Resources contains information about issues to consider before starting a farming operation with links to full-text guides on how to start a farm business, and develop business and marketing plans. It also contains information about funding sources for beginning farmers, training, technical assistance contacts, organizations with resources and programs for beginning and experienced farmers, and more. The guide is available at

Also see Where can I find agricultural funding resources?, compiled by the Alternative Farming Systems Information Center and available at

Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food is a new USDA website designed to assist farmers, communities, and organizations in accessing federal resources to build local food systems. See

In addition to the information provided by the USDA on its own programs, ATTRA offers several useful publications. Building Sustainable Farms, Ranches, and Communities: a Resource for Federal Programs is an in-depth document that explains opportunities in seeking aid from federal programs. Federal Conservation Resources for Sustainable Farming and Ranching provides an overview of USDA programs for sustainable farmers. Evaluating a Farming Enterprise discusses the initial questions to ask when starting a farm, as well as basic considerations. Lastly, Financing Your Farm: Guidance for Beginning Farmers introduces several different financing options for new farms. These publications are available on the ATTRA website at

ATTRA also posts funding opportunities on its web site at, and through an XML feed at

There are many non-USDA funding resources available, as well. For example, Funds for Farmers, compiled by the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service, identifies a wide variety of funds and resources available for beginning and established organic farmers. MOSES has organized the vast array of resources into different categories, each explained in a two-page fact sheet. Each resource contains a detailed explanation to help you quickly identify the opportunities that are appropriate. See

Michigan State University’s Beginning Farmer Project has compiled information on grants and loans available through other organizations, and also offers some help in developing a business plan. See Funding Resources at

The Center for Rural Affairs Beginning Farmers Financing Strategies fact sheet provides information about the five main funding sources: local banks, private contracts, farm credit services, Aggie Bond programs (state operated beginning farmer loans), and the USDA. The fact sheet is available at

Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) offers grants to farmers that often focus on research. Visit for more information.

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Permalink What are the different types of composting systems?

Answer: The following provides a brief overview of composting systems. Keep in mind that if your operation is certified organic, you must meet the requirements for composting set by the USDA National Organic Program so as to not jeopardize your organic certification.

1. Passive or open-pile
These systems require only a low level of management for small- to medium-sized farms. Small piles are formed from organic materials and utilize natural air flow. Larger piles are more difficult to aerate, so it is recommended to not have pile exceed four feet in height. Under proper feedstock and moisture conditions, piles can generate a lot of heat and good compost. Loaders and manure spreaders are often used in these systems.

2. Windrow using loader for turning, mixing, and handling
These systems are most common for organic on-farm composting, as windrows are turned to actively manage the process. Turning improves air exchange and allows for materials to be evenly composted. The high interior temperatures generated can break down pathogens and destroy weed seeds and pest larvae. Your front-end loader can be very efficient for this type of system.

3. Windrow using a specialized turner
Depending on size, you can invest in a small PTO-driven windrow turner, or, for larger operations (4,000+ tons per hour), a self-propelled turner can be used.

4. Aerated static pile using perforated pipes
These systems are closely managed and can be either outdoors or covered. They utilize perforated pipes for air exchange that push out hot gases that are generated inside the pile. As mentioned, a blower can be hooked up to supply the air to the bottom of the pile or windrow. Wind chips or straw are used as the base and the pile dies need to have good structure to maintain porosity throughout the process. Initial height should be around five to eight feet.

5. Contained, or in-vessel, systems
These systems involve composting within a building, container, or vessel. They can be quite expensive and require a great deal of management. As a result, there is a lot more control. They can combine certain aspects of other systems and can be insulated for winter production.

There are many variables to consider in selecting the best type of system, including characteristics of the site, cost, equipment, and speed of composting. The first three systems mentioned above usually take place outdoors. The aerated and in-vessel systems are often covered and/or enclosed for better moisture control. The key is to mix the aerated static pile only once.

For more information on composting, see the ATTRA publication Composting: The Basics, available at This publication provides a foundation of information for those interested in composting. It addresses a wide range of topics, from the materials that are needed to begin a compost pile to techniques for successfully managing the composting process. A troubleshooting list describing common problems and how to address them also is included. In addition, the basics of vermicomposting—using worms to generate compost—are described. Finally, the publication contains an introduction to composting for small agricultural operations such as market gardens.

Another useful resource is On-Farm Composting Handbook, available at:

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Permalink How can I organically treat peach leaf curl?

Answer: Peach leaf curl, caused by the fungal organism Taphrina deformans, is a common disorder in peach and nectarine orchards, especially during wet springs. Infected leaves become misshapen, deformed, and necrotic, resulting in premature defoliation with subsequent re-sprouting of new leaves. This kind of stress reduces fruit yield and predisposes the tree to pest attack.

The infection period for leaf curl is when new leaves start emerging from buds in the spring. Spraying after the buds have opened is ineffective because infection takes place as the young leaves emerge, and the fungus develops inside the leaf. Accordingly, sprays must be applied during the trees' dormant period—after the leaves have fallen and before the first budswell in the spring. Many orchardists spray just prior to budswell during February and March. Orchards with a history of severe peach leaf curl benefit from a double application: in the autumn at leaf fall and again in late winter or early spring just before budswell.

Fortunately for the organic grower, lime sulfur—one of the most effective fungicides for control of peach leaf curl—is allowed in certified organic production. Bordeaux and copper fungicides—also approved for certified organic programs—are effective as well, but not as effective as lime-sulfur.

University trials comparing Kocide™ (copper hydroxide), lime-sulfur, several synthetic fungicides, and Maxi-Crop™ seaweed for leaf curl control indicated that lime-sulfur and one of the synthetics (ziram) were best, roughly twice as effective as Kocide. Seaweed sprays, despite positive anecdotal reports, were completely ineffective.

Severe leaf curl infection can cause the tree to shed many of its leaves and to replace them with a second flush of growth. At this time, the tree will benefit from a soil application of a quickly-available soluble fertilizer such as compost tea or fish emulsion to help it recover.

There are various levels of resistance to leaf curl among varieties; however, because of the relative ease of controlling the disease, breeding for resistance has not been a priority. Redhaven, Candor, Clayton, and Frost are some of the cultivars with resistance to leaf curl, though none is immune.

For more information, see the ATTRA publication Peaches: Organic and Low-Spray Production, available at 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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