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Home  > Question of the Week

Question of the Week

Permalink I have a number of rodents living in a pipe on my property. How can I reduce their population while still maintaining grass and herb varieties nearby?

Answer: Your management of these critters will depend, in part, on the size, location and length of the pipe, as well as its use. You did not mention if the rodents were mice, rats, squirrels, gophers or other critters, but generally speaking, you might want to avoid grasses as mice and rats will feed on grass seeds.

The simplest approach is to simply try to exclude the rodents' access to the pipe by placing an appropriate sized mesh over the mouth of the pipe. This approach will depend on what the pipe is used for.

A second approach is trapping using lethal traps, such as rat traps. If you're battling mice, their reproduction rate is generally too high for trapping to make significant inroads in the population. Again, this will depend on the pipe location and also what other critters have access to the pipe and may be attracted to the bait (peanut butter works well with mice and rats).

You might consider planting native perennial forbs or shrubs in the locations around the pipe, as these would provide some habitat for native snakes and other small predators of the rodents. Aromatic herbs such as sage, rosemary and other shrubs may also be appropriate.

Also, consider installing raptor perches and/or owl boxes for barn owls around your property. These approaches will not solve the problem, but will reduce the size of the problem. The ATTRA publication Farmscaping to Enhance Biological Control outlines some of these approaches. It is available at

The general principles involved here are to reduce the habitat for the pest critters and to increase the habitat for the predators of the pests. Reducing the habitat for the pests means reducing access to food, nesting sites, and safe shelter. You want to do just the opposite for the predators of the pest. If you use lethal traps, make sure you're not impacting any endangered native mouse populations.

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Permalink I am a small egg producer. Can you give me advice on preparing my eggs for sale?

Answer: Many small-scale egg producers sell specialty eggs, such as free-range or organic eggs, to the public at farmers markets and other venues and need to wash the eggs or prepare the eggs for market. Immersing or soaking the eggs in water is not recommended, but small- and medium-scale egg washers that use brushes and sprayers are very expensive. Small producers can use low-tech methods to clean eggs, including dry cleaning, dipping and spraying, or pouring. You should also candle and grade the eggs to ensure high quality.

Keeping eggs clean is important in alternative poultry production systems because eggs often become dirtier in free-range systems than in cages. There are several things you can do to minimize dust, mud, feces, feathers, etc. on your eggs. Placing straw, gravel, or similar materials at the entrance to the poultry house can clean feet and help eliminate dust and mud. Maintaining clean nesting material is also important. When eggs are broken in the nest, all of the other eggs can get dirty. You can avoid this by collecting eggs often or using a nest with a sloping floor. Also, preventing hens from sleeping in the nesting box will reduce breakage and feces on the eggs.

You should collect eggs often—twice in the morning and once in the afternoon — to help decrease the number of dirty and broken eggs and to start cooling eggs. Eggs should be held at 60 degrees Fahrenheit and 70 percent relative humidity before cleaning. Eggs stored at room temperature, about 75 degrees, can drop as much as one grade per day. Embryos can start to develop in fertile eggs held at a temperature above 85 degrees for more than a few hours. Keep egg temperature relatively constant until the eggs are washed to avoid sweating. Condensation on the surface of the egg facilitates the movement of microbes inside the shell due to moisture.

Eggs are cleaned to remove debris and stains and reduce the microbial load. A slightly dirty egg can be brushed with an egg brush or rubbed with a sanding sponge and sandpaper. Misshapen, cracked, broken or extremely dirty eggs should always be separated out.

There are many considerations for wet cleaning. To read more about them, as well as egg candling and grading, consult the ATTRA publication Small-Scale Egg Handling, available at

For information on producing eggs in alternative and free-range poultry production systems, see ATTRA's Alternative Poultry Production Systems and Outdoor Access, available at

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Permalink I have nematodes in my pepper and tomato container soil. Is there a way to purify the soil?

Answer: The ATTRA publication Nematodes: Alternative Controls discusses many methods for managing nematodes, including using heat through steam and solarization. It is available at

Below is an excerpt from a Start Seed and Transplants in Sterilized Soil, by Laura Pottoroff, on using an oven to sterilize small amounts of soil:

"Oven Method—Spread soil not more than four inches deep in non-plastic containers, such as seed flats, clay pots and glass or metal baking pans. Cover each container tightly with aluminum foil. Insert a meat or candy thermometer through the foil into the center of the soil. Set the oven between 180° and 200° F. Heat the soil to at least 180° F; keep at this temperature for 30 minutes. Do not allow the temperature to go above 200° F. High temperatures may produce plant toxins. After heating, cool, remove containers from the oven and leave aluminum foil in place until ready to use. The heated soil will give off an odor." (1)

If you are interested in doing solarization, there are a few principles that seem to increase its effectiveness:
1. The plastic that you use should be clear.
2. You should apply the sheeting during hot weather.
3. Effective solarization requires good movement of heat into the soil. This is aided by high levels of soil moisture, so the soil should be irrigated before the plastic is laid down. Air gaps between the plastic and soil should be minimized as they inhibit heat transfer into the soil.
4. To prevent the plastic being lifted by wind, and to reduce the leakage of heat, the edges of the sheet should be buried.
5. In order to kill the organisms, and weed seeds, you may need to keep the soil covered for two weeks.

Both of these sterilization methods will kill virtually everything in the soil. In order to build up a healthy soil community again, I recommend adding Mycorrhizae inoculant after the sterilization process. Mycorrhizae are the symbiotic fungi that surround and penetrate plant roots. Studies have shown that these organisms can aid plants in conditioning the soil, as well as help in disease prevention after the sterilization is complete.

1) Pottorff, Laura. Start Seed and Transplants in Sterilized Soil. Colorado State University Extension Service.

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Permalink What effects can cover cropping and no-till practices have on pasture soil health?

Answer: Exceptional attention to soil health through the use of no-till farming, diverse cover crops, and intensive rotational cattle grazing can allow farms and ranches to become increasingly profitable. A forage-based cropping system routinely removes most plant biomass from the land by baling hay or chopping silage. This results in inadequate plant residue for healthy soil biology function and soil protection. One solution is to grow a multispecies cover crop cocktail after an early forage harvest to add needed residue, organic matter, and available soil nutrients for the subsequent cash crop.

Converting marginal cropland back to grazing land can be accomplished by planting several years of a diverse cover crop mixture containing legumes, tap roots, and more. A cover crop cocktail helps break up the old plow layer, increase nutrient cycling, and improve productivity. Additionally, some farmers are converting Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) land back to crop production with the goal to increase nutrient cycling and break down old residue while maintaining the no-till benefits gained during the CRP period. To do this, many have planted a low-carbon cover crop cocktail with no cool-season grasses.

For more information, watch the ATTRA webinar Innovative No-Till: Using Multi-Species Cover Crops to Improve Soil Health, available at This webinar addresses multi-species cover crops that can be used to improve soil health, increase biological diversity, and benefit the farm or ranch bottom line.

Additionally, check out these four ATTRA case studies of farms utilizing no-till:

No-Till Case Study, Bauer Farm: Cover Crop Cocktails on Former CRP Land
No-Till Case Study, Brown’s Ranch: Improving Soil Health Improves the Bottom Line
No-Till Case Study, Miller Farm: Restoring Grazing Land with Cover Crops
No-Till Case Study, Richter Farm: Cover Crop Cocktails in a Forage-Based System

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Permalink I’m hearing a lot about “farm to institution” programs. What are some benefits and how can I get involved?

Answer: As the local food movement has gained momentum in the past decade, the number of farm to institution programs across the nation also has grown. Though each farm to institution program is unique, they generally share similar values and goals. These programs often seek to provide fresh, nutritious, locally sourced food in cafeterias—specifically, institutions such as schools, colleges, hospitals, correctional facilities, and senior living centers.

Farm to institution programs support local economies by purchasing from regional producers and processors and by educating communities about the value of eating and growing healthy, local food. These programs also strive to create and improve relationships between institutions and the local community.

There are several potential benefits of farm to institution programs:

For farmers, ranchers, and food processors, building a relationship with an institution can diversify the customer base, create a stable market for products, and provide opportunities to engage the community in an agricultural operation.

For food-service professionals, buying fresh food from local producers can increase participation in meal programs, improve the quality of the institution’s food service and earn the institution recognition and increased business for its efforts around local food.

For parents, community organizers, and educators, helping to build a farm to institution program can increase community awareness of local farming and food systems, encourage healthy lifestyles and improve access to fresh, nutritious food, engage the community in collaborative, hands-on learning experiences, and strengthen local economies and food-based livelihoods.

For students, being involved in farm to school programs has shown improved eating habits and children beginning to opt for healthier foods at a younger age. Research has also shown that student meal participation has increased an average of 9% with farm to school programs, generating more revenue from school meal programs.

For the environment, farm to institution programs promote responsible environmental stewardship by supporting sustainable growing practices and reducing carbon emissions associated with food miles.

How can you get involved?

- Offer a "locally grown lunch" that features local food
- Add fresh, local, labeled items to your salad bar
- Suggest an employee CSA program, and on-site farmers market or on-site garden
- Contact your local institution to learn more about efforts in your area

To learn more, refer to the recently updated ATTRA publication Bringing Local Foods to Local Institutions: A Resource Guide for Farm to Institution Programs, available at Additional useful publications are listed under Local Food Systems at

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