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Home  > Question of the Week

Question of the Week

Permalink How can I control Bermudagrass organically in my apple orchard?

Answer: Bermudagrass is one of the hardest grasses to control organically. The best thing I've read about organic control of Bermudagrass is based around an intense, one-year, series of smother crops strategy worked out by George Kuepper at the Kerr Center for Sustainable Agriculture in Poteau, Oklahoma. For the details, visit

Unfortunately, this effective strategy would only work for annual vegetable crops or as a pre-plant technique for your apple orchard. Even if your trees are already planted, I recommend that you peruse this publication because it explains a lot about Bermuda's strengths and weaknesses.

I'm a Certified Naturally Grown (same rules as organic) orchardist myself, working at a similar scale as you. My basic Bermudagrass strategy after planting is to establish a thick wood chip mulch (which, by itself, does very little to control Bermuda except to make it easier to pull--if you have the time and energy) and keep knocking it back with an organically approved herbicide in conjunction with pulling up the rhizomes. I've tried flame weeding, vinegar-based herbicides, citric acid-based products, and a soap-based product. Of those, flame weeding was probably the cheapest, but not very effective and carrying around the gas tank was cumbersome. The vinegar herbicide was very ineffective. The citric acid herbicide was slightly better than the vinegar but was very expensive.

I've settled on Scythe™, which is OMRI approved and is essentially pelargonic acid from soaps. It's not cheap, but it's cheaper than the vinegar and citric acid herbicides and it does knock back the Bermuda temporarily. The Bermuda will always come roaring back, but persistent sprayings and pulling out rhizomes when you have the time and labor will help you get through the time when the trees are young and especially susceptible to competition from the Bermuda. As the trees get older, the shade inhibits the Bermuda grass slightly and the trees are better able to deal with the competition.

Remember, since there is no such thing as an organic systemic herbicide (like Roundup), all these herbicides, including flame weeding, are "contact" herbicides and will only affect the leaf surfaces that they touch (or almost touch, in the case of flame weeding). Consequently, the strategy is to force the roots to keep sending up new growth and eventually exhaust the reserves in the roots. So keep the Bermuda short with mowing or weed-eating and then apply the herbicides. This mowing first will save you money because if you let the Bermuda get too thick, the blades on top will shield those below from the herbicide. I actually use an old-fashioned scythe to accomplish the mowing. If you keep it sharp, it's an amazingly efficient tool. But a weed-eater will accomplish the same thing. Then I come behind where I've mown and spray what's left with the Scythe™ herbicide.
When I plant new orchards on a site with Bermuda present, I try to follow the series of smother crops strategy referred to above from the Kerr Center and then establish common fescue as the orchard floor cover. Fescue is easier to control organically, as it can out-compete Bermuda

For more information, consult the ATTRA publication Tree Fruits: Organic Production Overview ( This guide is an overview of issues relevant to commercial organic production of temperate zone tree fruits and, to a lesser extent, tree nuts. It includes discussions of marketing and economics, orchard design, and cultural considerations, including crop varieties, site selection, site preparation, soil fertility, weed control, and pest management (insects, diseases, and vertebrates). It raises questions for the grower to consider in making decisions about orchard and enterprise design. Lists of electronic and print resources offer further, more detailed information.

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Permalink What types of leasing or ownership arrangements exist for prospective new farmers?

Answer: Renting farmland is a common practice in U.S. agriculture, where more than 45 percent of the 917 million farmland acres are rented. According to the Agricultural Economics and Land Ownership Survey, 60 percent of farmland rent is paid in cash, 24 percent in shares of production, and 11 percent in a cash/share combination. Following are short descriptions of the various leasing and ownership options.

Cash Lease
Most cash leases are short-term, requiring little commitment from either landowner or tenant farmer. Long-term leases can be an affordable way for farmers to use more sustainable practices and to invest more in their businesses. Many leases are based on a handshake. Verbal agreements are considered legal leases for one year, but this is not recommended for either party, as conflicts can arise even among friends when terms are not clearly stated on outset. A written lease provides benefits and security for both parties.

Crop Share
In this model, rent payment consists of part of the crop, most often paid as part of the income from total crop sold. Also known as "share-crop" and "share lease," this was historically disadvantageous to tenant farmers, but can work well for beginning farmers without start-up capital. Crop-share arrangements are common in perennial crops and some commodities, for example fruit and nut operations, hay, field crops, processing tomatoes. Agreements may have maximum and minimum limits to protect the farmer and landowner, respectively.

Long-Term Lease
This model is as close to ownership as a lease can get. The term is usually 40 to 99 years depending on state law. This is longer than the average mortgage. These types of leases may even be inheritable. They are used for publicly owned land and commercial real estate, but are less common in agriculture. They are sometimes used by cities and land trusts who own the land but wish to guarantee farmers lifetime tenure. Because of their longevity, the intent and clauses of leases must be very carefully drafted so they will last as long as the lease term.

Lease with Option to Buy or Right of First Refusal
There are two ways a lease can improve ownership opportunities for a tenant farmer:

• With a "Purchase Option," the owner and tenant pre-determine the purchase price, with a date for execution of the purchase. The tenant pays for this option up front, and the rent money can count toward an initial down payment.
• With a "Right of First Refusal" clause, the owner can only sell the land to a third party after the tenant has had a chance to "refuse," by matching that third-party offer and making the purchase first. This helps ensure that an owner doesn’t sell the land "out from under" the tenant, but the tenant must be ready to act quickly.

Fee Title Purchase with Seller Financing
In this model the new buyer takes possession of the land and makes payments directly to the seller, as written in a "note." This works very well when a good relationship has been established. The landowner can see the property transferred to a promising new farmer, and the new farmer can secure that note—sometimes by virtue of his or her "character" more than conventional lending requirements. Even better, brokerage fees are avoided by both parties. Payments can be structured like a typical mortgage, or in the case of an installment or land contract sale, made periodically. This strategy is often a good way to transfer land to the next generation within a family.

Fee Title Purchase with Agricultural Conservation Easement
An agricultural conservation easement forever extinguishes development rights on that land, making it less valuable to nonfarmers. These types of easements are used if a landowner wishes to see the land remain available for agriculture: He or she donates or sells the land’s development rights in the form of an agricultural conservation easement to a nonprofit land trust or government agency, which ensures that the easement goals are upheld forever. This can drop the after-easement value, or "easement encumbered value," of the land into an affordable price range for a new farmer.

To learn more, refer to the ATTRA publication Finding Land to Farm: Six Ways to Secure Farmland, available at

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Permalink What is a food hub?

Answer: Interest in local and regional food systems is increasing as their health benefits and contributions to economic, environmental, and social sustainability are recognized. Statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) show growth in local food sales from about $4.8 billion in 2008 to $7 billion in 2011. Traditional commodity markets continue to make up the vast majority of food distribution systems. They are structured around larger-scale mechanized production.

However, new business and marketing opportunities for producers, many of whom are small and mid-size farms and ranches, are being created to enhance direct-to-consumer market outlets. Food hubs are playing a valuable role in local and regional food systems by providing small and mid-size farms and ranches with access to more mainstream and larger-volume markets through distribution support and other services.

The more than 200 food hubs currently in operation in the United States are helping to remove economic and infrastructural barriers in order to facilitate the supply of local food to larger markets. Supply chains traditionally move food from the farm to a packing and shipping facility or processor and then to a wholesale distributor. While this model once supported local businesses such as canneries, mills, grain elevators, and independently owned grocery stores, today's system focuses on economies of scale, i.e., increases in efficiencies to produce larger volumes of product allow for a decrease in consumer price. As a result, smaller producers face challenges, such as in distribution and processing, which limit their ability to supply larger markets, including institutions, restaurants, retail stores, and other commercial markets.

Food hubs operate in many forms but all serve to facilitate the sale of fresh and local food from producers to consumer markets.

The demand for local food in larger-scale markets has exposed production, economic, and logistical challenges standing between local food buyers and smaller-scale producers. Small farms having less than $250,000 in annual gross sales make up 91% of all farms in the United States. And while small farms provide over half of direct–to-consumer sales, through such outlets as farmers markets, on-farm sales, and community supported agriculture (CSA) programs, many smaller-scale producers have limited marketing opportunities. This is particularly true for mid-size producers who have annual gross sales between $50,000 and $250,000, as they frequently find themselves too large to rely solely on direct-to-consumer sales, yet too small to compete on price in larger-scale commodity markets.

The USDA currently defines a regional food hub as "a business or organization that actively manages the aggregation, distribution, and marketing of source-identified food products primarily from local and regional producers to strengthen their ability to satisfy wholesale, retail, and institutional demand." This working definition focuses on increasing small and mid-size producer access to wholesale market outlets through aggregation and distribution. Other definitions focus on economic, environmental, and social values as they relate to the mission and services a food hub provides. These can include health and social services, community development, and education. For this reason, food hubs are sometimes referred to as "values-based supply chains." Food hubs also are defined by their functions, such as selling to businesses or institutions, consumers, or both.

To learn more about this topic, consult the ATTRA publication Food Hubs: A Producer Guide, available at This publication provides information on food hubs, followed by an overview of considerations and production-oriented topics important in working with a food hub. Although many food hubs also work with meats, dairy, grains, and other products, much of this publication focuses on the food hub mainstays of fresh fruits and vegetables. Case studies and a list of further resources are included.

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Permalink What can you tell me about sheep foot rot?

Answer: Foot problems are often hard to diagnose, and sometimes they are very easy to misdiagnose. In sheep, the most common and definitely the most feared type of foot rot is sheep foot rot. This is different than cattle foot rot. Its main diagnostic feature is limping, and when you pick up the foot, it has a very putrefying smell. You cannot mistake the bad smell. Sheep footrot is extremely contagious. Consulting with your veterinarian is highly advised.

In general, foot rot problems generally show up under wet, muddy, and cold conditions. Foot rot problems are also associated with inadequate levels of zinc in the ration. Since you are using a cafeteria-style mineral feeder, it would be probably good to check that the zinc bin is always full. I would also have your soil tested for molybdenum. High levels of molybdenum limit the bio-availability of Cu, ZN, and Co, all of which are involved in the immune system. With that said, problems caused by inadequate minerals and vitamins require a period of inadequacy; it does not just happen in one day or even a week.

Oftentimes, producers use Kopertox for treating minor, noncontagious forms of foot rot and also as a liquid "bandage" for skin abrasions. As food animal husbandmen, we need to be more aware of drugs that are not labeled for animals intended for human consumption. Kopertox is one of these drugs. As such, it can only be used in equine and companion animal applications.

An alternative is a foot bath of zinc sulfate, which is not very convenient, as the sheep have to stand in it for a good amount of time.

For more information, consult the following resources. And, again, consulting with your veterinarian is highly advised.

Eliminating the effects of foot rot on sheep flocks in the Northeast

Footrot in Sheep and Goats

Guide to Footrot in Sheep

Sheep 201: A Beginner's Guide to Raising Sheep

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