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Question of the Week

Permalink What are the costs and income potential of greenhouse vegetable production per square foot?

Answer: Besides the initial investment of greenhouse construction, labor and energy are usually the two greatest ongoing greenhouse expenses. If you can find a way to decrease costs of either, or both, of these, your chances of making a profit will be strengthened.

Greenhouses are expensive to build and operate. A commercial greenhouse (30’ x 100’) with complete heating, cooling, and ventilation systems will cost between $15,000 to $30,000 to erect and equip. The annual costs of this size greenhouse would be in the range of $6,000 to $10,000.

Prior to sinking lots of money into a greenhouse venture, it is wise to examine produce prices in your region and estimate your cost of production. Historically, the break-even price for most greenhouse tomatoes has been around 75 cents per pound, with selling prices ranging from 75 cents to $1.60 per pound. The break-even price for cucumbers is similar—around 75 cents per pound.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture offers a free virtual greenhouse calculator, called Virtual Grower, that will give you annual costs of heating, cooling, and lighting for specific locations. It allows for inputs such as greenhouse materials, location, type of plants grown, amount of lighting, and size of greenhouse. This can give you a pretty accurate idea of your costs going into an operation.

For more information, consult the ATTRA publication Organic Greenhouse Vegetable Production.

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Permalink What are the different types of vertical farming systems?

Answer: Vertical farms come in different shapes and sizes, from simple two-level or wall-mounted systems to large warehouses several stories tall. But all vertical farms use one of three soil-free systems for providing nutrients to plants—hydroponic, aeroponic, or aquaponic.

1. Hydroponics. The predominant growing system used in vertical farms, hydroponics involves growing plants in nutrient solutions that are free of soil. The plant roots are submerged in the nutrient solution, which is frequently monitored and circulated to ensure that the correct chemical composition is maintained.

2. Aeroponics. The National Aeronautical and Space Administration (NASA) is responsible for developing this innovative indoor growing technique. In the 1990s, NASA was interested in finding efficient ways to grow plants in space and coined the term aeroponics, defined as "growing plants in an air/mist environment with no soil and very little water." Aeroponics systems are still an anomaly in the vertical farming world, but they are attracting significant interest. An aeroponic system is by far the most efficient plant-growing system for vertical farms, using up to 90% less water than even the most efficient hydroponic systems. Plants grown in these aeroponic systems have also been shown to uptake more minerals and vitamins, making the plants healthier and potentially more nutritious.

3. Aquaponics. An aquaponic system takes the hydroponic system one step further, combining plants and fish in the same ecosystem. Fish are grown in indoor ponds, producing nutrient-rich waste that is used as a feed source for the plants in the vertical farm. The plants, in turn, filter and purify the wastewater, which is recycled to the fish ponds. Although aquaponics is used in smaller-scale vertical farming systems, most commercial vertical farm systems focus on producing only a few fast-growing vegetable crops and don’t include an aquaponics component. This simplifies the economics and production issues and maximizes efficiency. However, new standardized aquaponic systems may help make this closed-cycle system more popular.

You can learn more about vertical farming, including the types of systems and structures, pros and cons, and organic certification in the ATTRA publication Vertical Farming. The publication also features several case studies.

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Permalink I’m about to till in sorghum-sudangrass cover crop. Will they have allelopathic effects on subsequent crops?

Answer: Sorghum-sudangrass is often grown as a cover crop to reduce erosion, increase soil organic matter, and suppress weeds, but you’re right to be concerned about its allelopathic effects on subsequent crops. These effects can include death or stunting due to the presence of a number of inhibitory compounds including sorgoleone, phenolic acids, and dhurrin, which converts to cyanide. However, the presence of these chemicals is not permanent (or else nobody would use this cover crop), and according to the University of California Davis, waiting at least six to eight weeks for these compounds to leach and degrade before transplanting into the residue is usually sufficient to avoid the allelopathic effects. Appropriate irrigation or rainfall is necessary to facilitate leaching. The 2009 UC study states:

“We studied the effects of sudex, a sorghum hybrid used as a cover crop, on subsequent crops of tomato, broccoli and lettuce started from transplants. Within 3 to 5 days of being transplanted into recently killed sudex, all three crops showed symptoms of phytotoxicity including leaf necrosis, stunting and color changes. There was 50% to 75% transplant mortality in all three species. Plant growth and development, as determined by biomass measurements, were also significantly affected. Yields of mature green tomato fruit and marketable broccoli and lettuce heads were reduced significantly. Tomato, broccoli and lettuce should not be transplanted into sudex residue for at least 6 to 8 weeks, or until the residue has been thoroughly leached.”

For more information on the issue of allelopathy in sorghum-sudangrass, read the full UC study.

For more information on cover crops, see the ATTRA publication Overview of Cover Crops and Green Manures.

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Permalink When should I supplement my pasture-grazed livestock?

Answer: The nutritional concern for ruminants centers around energy (i.e., carbohydrates), protein, minerals, vitamins, and water. Energy (carbohydrates) is responsible for maintenance and growth functions of the animal, and for the generation of heat. Protein grows tissue and performs other vital functions. Other nutrients and minerals such as vitamins A and E, calcium, phosphorus, and selenium can be fed “free choice” as a mineral supplement.

Cattle, sheep, and goats--by nature, grazing and browsing animals--grow and reproduce well on pasture alone. However, an intensive and industrial agricultural production philosophy has dictated that crops and animals should be raised faster, larger, and more consistently than a pasture system can deliver. Thus, confinement systems with delivered forages and concentrated feeds have been the norm since the 1950s. Raising animals on grass is slower than raising animals on grain. However, a pasture-based livestock producer will, with careful planning, realize cost savings and subsequent profitability through the efficiency of relying on the natural systems of nutrient cycling, biological pest controls, and perennial pasture productivity.

The major operational expense confronting the livestock industry in most parts of the United States is for supplemental feed. In temperate regions of the country that experience adequate rainfall and a lengthy grazing season, supplementation on green, growing, vegetative, well-managed pastures should not be necessary. However, young and lactating stock require more energy and protein than mature, non-lactating animals.

Supplementing energy is helpful on vegetative, well-managed pastures for more efficient utilization of forage protein (for high-producing animals). Supplementing with protein is necessary on low-quality pasture and rangeland or when continuously grazing temperate warm-season pastures.

For more information, see the ATTRA publication Ruminant Nutrition for Graziers. This publication provides managers with tools and references to consider biological and climatological variables and make decisions that ensure the ecological and economic viability of a grass-based ruminant livestock operation.

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Permalink What are the best organic methods for dealing with a blister beetle infestation?

Answer: For many market farmers, blister beetles can wreak havoc on crops in a very short time. The beetles seem to prefer tomatoes, potatoes, and chard, but easily move on to peppers and eggplants. More importantly, they infest hay and are poisonous to animals feeding on the hay, even if the beetles are no longer alive, due to the presence of a toxic chemical in their bodies called cantharidin. Handling the adults should be avoided, as cantharidin can irritate or blister skin on contact. If handled gently, this may not be a problem.

Populations tend to appear suddenly in June and July and usually will feed together in groups. Blister beetles usually overwinter as last-stage larvae and prey on either grasshopper eggs or bee eggs, so keeping grasshopper populations low is necessary to effectively reduce blister beetle populations. If grasshopper populations are high one year, there is increased likelihood that the following year will see higher than normal blister beetle populations.

Some effective options to control the adults are pyrethrum, a broad-spectrum botanical insecticide, and a kaolin clay product sold under the brand-name Surround. Surround is not directly toxic to the beetles but acts in two ways: it changes the color of the plant, thereby confusing the insect, and it also causes most insects that land on a kaolin clay-coated plant to spend much time grooming themselves to remove the clay particles. This reduces the time they spend feeding. Keep in mind that many plants can withstand considerable defoliation before there is a decrease in yield. Neem-based products (containing Azadirachtin) have also reportedly been effective against blister beetles, though if you have a large infestation of blister beetles, you might consider using a formulation of spinosad.

Other management strategies include early planting and harvest of crops to avoid the June/July peak blister beetle season. Row covers are also an option, but you must be sure that no beetles will emerge beneath (inside) the row covers. If your plot is relatively small, then the beetles, which tend to congregate in one area, can be knocked into a bucket of soapy water, which will kill them. Using a preferred crop or even a preferred wild host like passion vine as a trap crop is also an option; the trap crop can then be treated for the beetles. Lastly, creating environments attractive to blister beetle predators, including robber flies and birds such as meadowlark, bluebird, and scissor-tailed flycatcher, can help reduce the population.

See for ATTRA’s ecological pest management database and sourcing information for the above-mentioned biorationals.

For more information, consult the following ATTRA publications:

Biointensive Integrated Pest Management

Farmscaping to Enhance Biological Control

Grasshopper Management

The mention of specific brand names does not constitute an endorsement by ATTRA, NCAT, or USDA.

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Permalink How can I keep a livestock watering system from freezing in the winter?

Answer: If you plan to use a watering system when pipes and water troughs can freeze, you will need to plan ahead. If you use a solar-powered system, keep in mind the solar panels stop generating power at night, when temperatures are lowest. Also, solar electric technology is good for pumping water but not very good for electric resistance heating.

You have several options to prevent freeze-up, including using heat from the earth or sun, insulating system components, or continuously circulating water. When you install the system, you will need to reduce the chances of freeze-up of components that may be in contact with water. You will need to bury piping below the frost line. If the system includes a well, install a pitless adapter. Any above-ground sections of piping should be insulated and arranged to drain at night or when it’s cloudy and water is not being pumped. Frost-free hydrants may not work in this situation. If the handle is left up and the solar-pumped water stops running, because of lack of sunlight at night or because it’s cloudy, the hydrant will freeze.

There are several ways to keep watering tanks open and storage tanks from freezing. Each livestock watering situation is different, so you will need to create a solution for your site, weather, and terrain. The ATTRA publication Freeze Protection for Livestock Watering Systems offers a number of suggestions for keeping water open, which should be useful.

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Permalink What can you tell me about crown gall control, especially resistant varieties?

Answer: Here is an interesting item from Canada about crown gall, which includes some information on crown gall resistant rootstocks: This will be helpful if you know how to graft or if you could get them custom grafted for you. Note that towards the end of the article, the authors state that not much could be done once crown gall is established, but they do give some advice. One of the things they mention is the biological control Agrobacterium tumefaciens radiobacter.

Cornell researchers say Agrobacterium tumefaciens radiobacter is effective on most plants but not grapes. An alternative biological control bacterium, A. vitis strain F2/5 shows promising disease control and is under further investigation. Strain F2/5 is nontumorigenic and is effective in experiments when applied to grape wounds before they are inoculated with tumor-causing bacteria. F2/5 is not yet commercially available, and research is being done to determine its efficacy in field trials.

An excellent article from Oklahoma State includes a list of varieties with varying levels of susceptibility. The least susceptible are Cynthiana (Vitis aestivalis, pure American), Marechal Foch (French X American hybrid), and Concord (Vitis labrusca, pure American). All pure European wine grapes, Vitis vinifera, are very susceptible.

So, while there is not a simple answer, I hope this information provides you with some guidelines and some hope. At the very least, it looks best to stick with pure American species and to avoid European wine grapes.

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Permalink What can you tell me about growing no-till vegetables?

Answer: No-till systems are a practical way to raise vegetables and improve soil quality at the same time. No-till production involves growing and managing cover crops to provide living and killed mulches, which along with the reduction/elimination of tillage, provides numerous benefits to soil biology, soil structure, and soil health. Some benefits of no-till organic mulch include moisture conservation, weed suppression, erosion control, increased soil organic matter, food and habitat for soil organisms, and, in the case of a legume, biologically fixed nitrogen.

In conventional no-till vegetable production, herbicides are commonly used to kill cover crops in order to create mulch and for follow-up, post-emergent weed control. Herbicides do a good job of controlling vegetation and they are a major reason no-till agriculture has been so successful. However, sustainable and organic agriculture has a goal of reducing chemical inputs and instead relies on cultural practices, biological processes, and naturally-derived products. The health of the soil, location, the scale of production (i.e., tools available to manage systems), and the crop(s) being planted all play a vital role in organic no-till vegetable production.

The non-chemical management and suppression of cover crops that can be integrated with no-till vegetable production most often include mowing or rolling and crimping. With each management system and their affiliated tools, timing is a critical factor. Vegetable growers like to plant as soon as possible in the spring with an aim to harvest early. In addition, farmers that live in hot, dry regions plant early to take advantage of spring rains and cooler temperatures. However, no-till production relies on cover crop maturation to occur prior to mechanical disturbance by mowing or roller crimping. Therefore, matching a cover crop to the growing cycle of the vegetable crop is very important.

For more information about no-till, consult these ATTRA publications:

No-Till Case Study, Brown’s Ranch: Improving Soil Health Improves the Bottom Line

No-Till Case Study, Bauer Farm: Cover Crop Cocktails on Former CRP Land

No-Till Case Study, Richter Farm: Cover Crop Cocktails in a Forage-Based System

No-Till Case Study, Miller Farm: Restoring Grazing Land with Cover Crops

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Permalink Are there specific plants that can draw arsenic from chicken litter out of soil?

Answer: I would definitely recommend a soil test to determine what kind of level of arsenic is in your soils. I would suspect that most of the litter would be hauled off, but a good deal could have been used on site as well, maybe too much. Arsenic buildup would lead to a higher content in some produce. However, phytoremediation (using plants to extract heavy metals) is a way to help. Here is a link to an EPA document that outlines arsenic in the environment. On page 124 it talks about phytoremediation and the plants that may work best.

I've seen sunflowers being recommended in the past, but others include cottonwood, Indian mustard, and corn. The one consideration for this method is to make sure that the contamination is well within the root zone of the plants you are using. Other than that, it would be a viable option for your farm.

For more information, see ATTRA’s publication Arsenic in Poultry Litter: Organic Regulations. This publication looks at the amount of arsenic in poultry litter and the potential for it building up in soil and contaminating water. Poultry litter applied at agronomic levels, using good soil conservation practices, generally will not raise arsenic concentrations sufficiently over background levels to pose environmental or human heath risks. However, recent studies show that more than 70% of the arsenic in uncovered piles of poultry litter can be dissolved by rainfall and potentially leach into lakes or streams. Thus, organic producers must take care when they handle and apply poultry litter.

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Permalink What can I do to start selling my produce to restaurants and grocery stores?

Answer: A lot of the same principles that go into selling your food at farmers markets are the same for selling to grocery stores and restaurants.

Key questions to ask yourself before beginning to sell at grocery stores or restaurants include: What products do local grocery stores and restaurants want that I could supply, including specialty ethnic foods? Does a particular chain have an interest in purchasing locally? What is my plan to ensure a consistent supply of a few key products over a period of several weeks? Do I have a Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs) plan? Does this buyer require it?

If you are selling at a farmers market, you may already have met chefs or grocery store owners who want to use local produce. If not, you will have to do a little research to learn which places feature specialty salads, homemade soups, or unique cuisine. Your local phone book is a quick and easy place to start. Stop by the restaurant or grocery store to see what kind of establishment it is. If you like what you see, contact the head chef or manager in person or by phone. Bring samples of your products, recipes, or ideas of how they can be used, and a brochure that lists your products and when they are available. As with all types of marketing, building a relationship with the customer is critical.

You can also check out the following ATTRA publications, which will provide more detailed information on selling to these different venues.

Selling to Restaurants

Tips for Selling to Grocery Stores

Tips for Selling to Restaurants

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Permalink How can I halter-break a calf?

Answer: First, constrain the animal and then put the halter on. Initially, you can tie the calf low to a post to begin the halter-training process. Leave her tied up for about five minutes every day and then gradually increase the time, so that she will stand there for 30 minutes. Always have her in sight, so that if she struggles, and looks like she may hurt herself, you can let her loose. Tie the rope halter so that it will always come loose with a tug. Here is a video explaining the process:

The only thing I disagree with in this video is that they tie the calf high. I would not do that because the calf can break her neck in a freak accident.

Once she is used to the halter and somewhat respects it, you can to teach her to lead. Two people are always better than one, with one in the rear and one in the front. Watch out for kicks if you are on the rear. Watch out that she does not run over you if you are on the front. Always keep a short lead (six to 12 inches). If she tries to run over you, turn her into you sharply, so that her direction is changed by 90 degrees. It is best to do this in a corral where she cannot go far and she knows it. If you lose control, just let her go. Try to always end on a good note. At first, just do it for a few minutes, extending the time as you go along. Remember, "a little, a lot" is always better than "a lot, a little." You will teach the calf to lead in no time.

Of course, it is best to teach a calf to lead when she is just a few months old, as they are much easier to handle. For more information, here is a good video on teaching a calf to lead.

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Permalink What types of poultry housing provide protection from predators and are also compatible with a permaculture system?

Answer: The term chicken tractor is mostly used for housing meat birds; for layers, coop or egg mobile is more commonly used. Egg mobiles are different from chicken tractors in that they are designed to allow the hens to venture beyond their house, to the fence limits.

Different designs and factors to consider when choosing will be:

• Your terrain topography
• Weather (muddy conditions)
• Predators

You can adapt different designs (e.g., add hardware cloth floor) to what works better for you and your farm.

When using hardware cloth as floor for the coop, half-inch hardware cloth works well when the chickens are little but can get harder to clean with bigger droppings from older chickens. If your predator problem is weasels, they shouldn’t be able to fit through a half-inch hardware cloth.

Here are some resources on building an egg mobile:

PolyFace Egg Layers

Permaculture Research Institute: How to Make an Egg Mobile

Abundant Permaculture: Chicken Housing That Works

Designing a Mobile Chicken Coop

Also, check out ATTRA's Range Poultry Housing, which discusses housing designs for outdoor production, including daily-move pens, machine-portable housing, fixed housing, and feed shelters. Numerous examples of different types of poultry housing are pictured and described in this publication.

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Permalink I'm confused about the terms organic soil amendments and natural soil amendments. Where can I find more about each, and most importantly, lists of approved substances for each?

Answer: There are two places where you can find information about allowed (and specifically prohibited) organic soil amendments: OMRI (Organic Materials Review Institute) and the USDA National Organic Program (NOP).

OMRI’s searchable database can be accessed at If you search this database with "soil amendments," a long list will be generated that has links to more detailed information.

OMRI maintains general lists of generic allowed substances ("lime," for example), as well as lists of product trade names of allowed soil amendments. A very general rule of thumb (which has many exceptions) is that natural products are generally considered acceptable, and synthesized products are prohibited.

NOP's listing of allowed and prohibited substances can be accessed at

You can also check out the ATTRA publication, Organic Materials Compliance, which may provide some clarification to your confusion about what is allowable in organic production versus what is "natural" (which is a very generic term).

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Permalink Can you identify resources on equipment that can benefit a small vegetable farm?

Answer: The use of appropriate agricultural equipment and tools for small-scale intensive crop production contributes to the viability of the farm by enhancing production efficiency. Factors to consider when choosing appropriate agricultural equipment and tools include the location and growing conditions of the farm, the type of crops being grown, the production practices being used, and how the crops will be marketed.

I would suggest looking at the ATTRA publication, Equipment and Tools for Small-Scale Intensive Crop Production. It details equipment and hand tools for soil preparation, planting, and weed management.

ATTRA also produced a webinar on the subject titled Tools for Small-Scale Crop Production., which you should find useful. In this webinar, NCAT Agriculture Specialist Andy Pressman discusses the importance of investing in good-quality and well-designed tools, their different purposes, and how to use them to properly plant and maintain crops.

Additionally, the ATTRA tutorial Scaling Up for Regional Markets includes a narrated lesson on this topic, titled "Equipment and Infrastructure” (lesson 6). The lesson discusses equipment and infrastructure related to scaling up, planning and investment options, tractor considerations, cooling and storage, and more. As with all of ATTRA's tutorials, this lesson identifies additional resources, such as estimated equipment needs for different sizes of farm, a used tractor assessment, and an ag cost of capitol calculator.

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Permalink What can I do to control flea beetles?

Answer: Flea beetles are one of the most difficult to manage pests of eggplant and cole crops. They are also a problem on seedlings of tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, turnips, radishes, and corn. There are various genera and species of flea beetles, all members of the Chrysomelidae family. The adults are active leaf-feeders that can, in large numbers, rapidly defoliate and kill plants. Symptoms of flea beetle feeding are small, rounded, irregular holes; heavy feeding makes leaves look as if they had been peppered with fine shot. Some species also vector serious diseases such as potato blight and bacterial wilt of corn. Further damage may be done by the larvae, which feed on plant roots. Some flea beetles are considered general feeders, though many species attack only one plant or closely related kinds of plants.

Life history varies somewhat with species, but most appear to pass the winter in the adult stage, sheltering under plant debris in the field, field margins, and adjacent areas. The adults emerge in spring and may feed on weeds and less-desirable vegetation until crop plants become available. As a result, they are frequent pests in seedbeds and on new transplants. They may become especially troublesome when weedy areas begin to "dry up." Flea beetles cause the greatest damage by feeding on cotyledons, stems, and foliage.

In organic systems, the preferred approaches to pest management are those that enhance the diversity of the farm system, such as cover cropping, rotation, and interplanting; those that use special knowledge of pest biology, such as delayed planting; and those that take advantage of existing on-farm resources. These approaches are typified by cultural and biological controls. Alternative pesticides, while frequently necessary for some crop pests and conditions, can be treated as "rescue chemistry" to be used when and if other strategies fall short.

Check out the ATTRA publication Flea Beetle: Organic Control Options for a more detailed look on different cultural and biological control options, as well as alternative pesticidal materials.

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Permalink Can I use pressure-treated lumber if I'm transitioning to organic?

Answer: Lumber treated with prohibited materials is not allowed under the USDA National Organic Program (NOP) Regulations. The NOP prohibits most, but not all, synthetics. Lumber is pressure treated to resist insects and fungi, but the materials used are toxic to humans. For posts and lumber that are in contact with soil, crops, or livestock, the options include untreated lumber, alternatively treated lumber, alternative plywood products, and untreated fence posts. Producers will need to consult with their organic certifiers to determine whether an alternative product is allowed. See a list of accredited certifying agents here.

Pressure treated wood is specifically addressed in Section 205.206(f) of the NOP Regulations, which declares that "a producer must not use lumber treated with arsenate or other prohibited materials for new installations or replacement purposes in contact with soil or livestock." This restriction addresses a number of applications, including the following:

• Lumber used to build a pasture farrowing hut for hogs, a cattle feed bunk, or a shelter for sheep or calves.
• Lumber for floors, ceilings, or walls of feed or crop storage areas.
• Fence posts in livestock pastures and holding or confining areas.
• Posts, plant stakes, trellising, hoophouse baseboards, and frames of planting beds used in fruit and vegetable production.

Treated lumber that is isolated from organic production—such as wooden building materials that are not in direct contact with either livestock or crops—might not be prohibited but rather might be restricted in its applications. The NOP Production and Handling Preamble, Subpart C (7) addresses this issue as follows:

"This provision prohibits the use of lumber treated with arsenate or other prohibited materials for new installations or replacement purposes in contact with an organic production site. We included this modification to clarify that the prohibition applies to lumber used in direct contact with organically produced and handled crops and livestock and does not include uses, such as lumber for fence posts or building materials, that are isolated from production."

The National List of Allowed and Prohibited Materials for organic production may be found
in Sections §205.601 and §205.602 of the NOP Regulations.

Producers should check with their certifiers to see whether treated wood may be used for noncontact areas. Remember, it is important to document any production-isolated uses of treated lumber on the operation's Organic System Plan.

For more information, consult the ATTRA publication Pressure-Treated Wood: Organic and Natural Alternatives. This publication provides information on alternative products, especially for certified organic farming operations, and also includes products that may be of interest to home gardeners but are not approved for organic production.

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Permalink Where can I find funding sources to expand my small farm?

Answer: There are many different funding sources, programs, and grants for agricultural production. You will have to spend some time exploring the many different options and finding a program that matches what you are wanting to do.

An excellent place to start is the USDA's Small Farm Funding Resources. This guide 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 Alternative Farming Systems Information Center identifies a number of potential funding sources and contacts that you should explore.

Building Sustainable Farms, Ranches and Communities and NSAC's Grassroots Guide to Federal Farm and Food Programs offer information on federal grants and programs. These two guides can help you find programs that may fit what you plan to do. The FSA Microloan program is a newer program that is typically easier to qualify for and access than some of the other grant and loan programs.

You may also be interested in the ATTRA publications Financing Your Farm: Guidance for Beginning Farmers and Federal Resources for Sustainable Farming and Ranching.

Finally, ATTRA continually posts funding opportunities on its website. A wide variety of grants are identified, ranging from national programs to very specific local grants.

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Permalink What can you tell me about biochar?

Answer: Biochar was initially linked to the exploration and archeological study of early human settlement and soils. These early studies of soils being enriched from what appears to be the deliberate mixing of burned biomass in soils around human settlements helped spark more recent interest in biochar. These deposits of enriched soils, known as terra preta in the Amazon region of South America, have a fascinating history of scientific study of their own.

More current studies of biochar are focused on its role in a growing demand for biomass-based energy sources that can mitigate greenhouse gas emissions and slow climate change. For more information about bioenergy, see the ATTRA publication An Introduction to Bioenergy: Feedstocks, Processes and Products, available at In addition, biochar has the potential to enhance soil quality and soil carbon sequestration. For more information about carbon sequestration, see the ATTRA publication Agriculture, Climate Change and Carbon Sequestration, available at A secondary source of interest in biochar comes from the growing need to develop low-cost and healthier biomass-fueled stove technology.

So, what is biochar? The definition of biochar is more about its creation and intended application rather than what it is composed of. Both charcoal and biochar are produced through an energy conversion process called pyrolysis, which is essentially the heating of biomass in the complete or near absence of oxygen. Pyrolysis of biomass produces char, oils and gases. The amount of these materials produced depends on processing conditions. What makes biochar different from charcoal is that the biochar product is created for use as a soil amendment. Biochar can be produced from a variety of biomass feedstocks, but is generally designated as biochar only if it produces a useable co-product for soil improvement. The oils and gases from pyrolysis can be used for energy production. The biochar and energy created can provide a carbon-negative energy source and a useable co-product for soil improvement. Carbon negative renewable fuels are discussed later in this publication. However, not all biochars are created equal. The efficiency and effectiveness of the process of its creation and use can vary and the specific biomass sources used can affect the characterization and usability of the biochar.

Complex ongoing research is striving for a more uniform and standard biochar that will limit potential environmental problems associated with biochar production and application to soils. Creating a standardization of biochars may make it possible for people who buy biochar to depend on uniform attributes. Issues such as what should be the ideal moisture and ash content of standard biochar are relatively easy to measure and standardize, but tests for metals and alkalinity are not. Some of the attributes that might be expected from biochars can go beyond just physical characteristics to issues of whether the feedstock used in its creation was from a renewable feedstock, whether its production reduced greenhouse gas emissions and whether the biochar can improve soil quality in a reliable way.

Among its important benefits to farmers and ranchers, biochar can provide increased soil fertility, moisture retention, and soil pH balancing.

To learn much more about this topic, consult the ATTRA publication Biochar and Sustainable Agriculture, available at This publication reviews the current research and issues surrounding the production and use of this emerging biomass energy technology and explores how biochar can contribute to sustainable agriculture.

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Permalink How can I market the wool from my goats?

Answer: Wooled sheep, Angora goats, and cashmere goats offer another "crop" in addition to meat. The natural fibers produced by these animals can be used in a variety of ways to add income to the sheep or goat enterprise. Natural fibers are a renewable resource, long-lasting, durable, comfortable, and beautiful.

Fiber-producing animals are crowd-pleasers, and participating in fairs and festivals can draw attention to your farm and increase sales of items.

There are several possibilities for marketing wool:

In bulk: Ask your shearer for some of the possibilities in your location, which may include selling to a wool pool, warehouse, mill, or wool buyer. You can find contacts at the ASI website,
• Wool pool: producers organize to assemble a large lot of wool, enabling them to have it sorted, graded, and marketed for a better price. See for an example of how one wool pool works. You can find your local options through the ASI website listed above.
• Warehouse: the Mid-States Wool Growers Cooperative is one example of a group operating this way. See for more information on warehouse marketing.
• Mills: if you have a mill operating locally, they might be interested in purchasing fleeces. They might need a specific type of wool or only a large quantity, however.

Direct to hand spinners: Either sell the whole, unwashed fleece, or remove dirty locks and wash the fleece to add value.

Further processed: Send the fleece to a cottage mill and have the fleece made into yarn only, or made into yarn and then a finished item such as socks, hats, scarves, toys, or blankets. Items may be woven, knitted, or felted.

Processed by the farmer into any of the items listed above and sold through:

• Farm stand or farmers market
• Local Harvest (, Etsy (, or other online venue
• Craft fairs
• Local shops

To learn more, review the ATTRA tips sheet Tips for Marketing Sheep and Goat Products: Fiber, available at At the end of this tip sheet, you'll find a list of additional resources where you can learn even more.

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Permalink Our goat’s milk has a small ring of red coloring at the bottom of the jar. What is this? Is the milk safe to drink?

Answer: This red ring at the bottom of your milk jars is almost certainly blood. It comes from the slight bursting of one of the very small blood vessels (capillaries) supplying the alveolar tissues in the udder. Although not uncommon, you may go a long time before you notice this happening to one of your milking animals. Usually it occurs when the cow, goat, or sheep is recently fresh (calved, kidded, or lambed). The presence of edema can cause a blood capillary to rupture. It can also occur when the animal bangs her udder against something.

There are also some types of mastitis that are accompanied with blood in the milk. However, if there is no swelling or inflammation associated with the event, or if you see no clotting or visible abnormalities (such as watery-ness) in the milk, you can probably rule mastitis out.

In three to four days, you will probably notice that the blood is gone and the capillary is healed. You can find which goat is affected by not co-mingling the milk from a milking.

I would not recommend drinking milk with blood in it, even if you are pasteurizing it. You can give it to some goat kids if they are not weaned. Your cats or dogs will enjoy the treat, too. Shy of this, you can always pour it on your garden plot. Milk is great for the soil.

I would also take the goat’s rectal temperature. A healthy goat's body temperature should be in the range of 101.5 to 102.5 degrees. If the milk from your goat does not clear up in three to four days, I would recommend calling your veterinarian out to examine the goat.

Make sure you monitor the udder each milking for any inflammation, as well as her general appearance and behavior. If she loses her appetite, call your vet immediately.

The ATTRA website has many publications on sheep and goat farming. Check out the Livestock and Pasture section at

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Permalink How can I use livestock to control smutgrass?

Answer: The University of Florida has conducted many studies on the best ways to control smutgrass. Their recommendations can be found at

A mature forage smutgrass isn't very palatable or all that nutritious, making it a challenge to use grazing as the primary control method. Research shows that burning or mowing the smutgrass and then grazing the regrowth is more effective because the regrowth is more palatable and nutritious.

There is extensive research on using livestock to manage invasive species. The Targeted Grazing Handbook provides helpful information on how to effectively use livestock to control and eliminate problem plants. You can download and read sections of the Handbook at Section I provides the basics. Smutgrass isn't specifically mentioned in the Handbook, but the principles apply. Kathy Voth has done many studies on using livestock to manage vegetation. Her website has some great information. You may be especially interested in the "Cows Eat Weeds" section. There she describes how you can train livestock to eat certain weeds.

For a non-chemical method of control, it seems that a combination of burning/mowing and grazing will be your best option.
For more information, contact your local Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). They can be a helpful resource in managing problem plants and in setting up targeted grazing plans.

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Permalink How can I determine how many days my stockpiled winter pasture will feed my sheep?

Answer: For starters, I recommend that you view Chapter 2 of the ATTRA intensive grazing video Intensive Grazing: One Farm's Set-Up. This video talks about the circumference of the hoop (in this case, 67 inches) and also gives the formula for figuring out the dry-matter yield per acre. The scale used in the video is a simple 300-gram, hand-held spring scale with a clip. These scales are widely available online.

You can view the video at

I would take several representative hoops from your 40-acre pasture at the end of the growing season, after you have a few killing frosts. Average out the pounds of dry matter. Plan on just grazing 70% of it and on 10 to 20 percent of the dry matter being lost by February. So, let's say you have determined that you have 3,000 pounds of dry matter by October 1.

3,000 pounds/acre X 30% residual left X 80% available = 1,680 pounds of dry matter per acre
1,680 pounds per acre X 40 acres = 67,200 pounds of forage dry matter
67,200 pounds of dry matter / 150 ewes / 5 pounds per ewe per day intake = 89.6 days

So, you can safely figure that you have three months of stockpiled forage in your 40-acre field for 150 dry ewes. If you put them out in the field October 15, this stockpile would last until January 15, at which time you would need to put them on a higher plane of nutrition if you are lambing March 1. Remember, too, it is better to break up your winter pasture into three-day paddocks if you can. This will eliminate any need for additional protein fed to the ewes. If you cannot do three-day paddocks, try seven-day paddocks.

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Permalink What is the best hay for sheep?

Answer: Prairie grass hay should be fine for your sheep to eat. A few points to consider:

• The sheep will eat the hay better if it is forages they are used to. If they are grazing native prairie pastures in the growing season, then they should readily consume the prairie hay. If they aren’t used to those forages then they might be "picky" about the hay for a while.

• Hay quality has a large impact on consumption. Your local Cooperative Extension office can help you with having your hay quality tested. Knowing the quality and nutritional levels of the hay can help you meet the nutritional requirements of your animals.

• Growing lambs and lactating ewes will need higher levels of nutrition than dry ewes.

To learn more about the nutritional needs of your animals, consult the following ATTRA publications:

Sheep: Sustainable and Organic Production
This publication introduces concerns and practices specifically related to sustainable sheep production. Topics covered include breed selection, controlled grazing, pasture lambing, alternative health management, and innovative marketing of meat and wool products.

Ruminant Nutrition for Graziers
This publication provides managers with tools and references to consider biological and climatological variables and make decisions that ensure the ecological and economic viability of a grass-based ruminant livestock operation.

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Permalink Where can a beginning farmer learn more about basic accounting?

Answer: In addition to growing great food and fiber products and taking care of the land, farmers need to be good financial stewards of their business and household. This requires being organized, keeping track of all income and expenses, and having a grasp of basic principles of accounting.

For instance, if you can predict the months when your major expenses will occur, you’ll be better able to ensure that you have the cash on hand to pay for them. This is especially important for farmers, who tend to have high costs in the spring and don’t necessarily get paid until later in the year. You can better manage your cash by creating an annual cash-flow budget. Or if you’ve spent a few years building your farm business without paying yourself for your labor, you may be wondering just what you have to show (financially) for all those hours of "sweat equity." You can answer that question by looking at a few years of annual balance sheets for your farm placed side by side. Finally, if you have a goal for how much household income you’d like to draw from your farm operation, you need a clear picture — in the form of an income statement — of your farm's annual expenses in relation to annual sales. This can help you determine how much more you need to sell, increase your prices, and/or reduce your expenses in order to make your desired amount of take-home pay.

Furthermore, if you are comfortable answering these questions about your financial situation for yourself, you will be able to answer the same questions for a lender. The bank will want to know that you have a realistic understanding of your financial situation, of where you’re headed, and of what it will take to pay back your expenses, including the loan, in a timely manner. While good financial management won’t make your business succeed on its own, it will help you avoid unnecessary costs, expand your business predictably, and ensure a financial cushion against unexpected events.

For more detailed information on this topic, consult the ATTRA publication Basic Accounting: Guidance for Beginning Farmers. This publication makes basic accounting approachable for people with little or no accounting experience and encourage new farmers to develop good recordkeeping habits at the outset. It is available at

Additionally, the ATTRA online tutorial Getting Started in Farming includes eight lessons that help guide beginning farmers through the process of imagining and planning a successful farming enterprise. It is available at The webinar Farm Finances: Organizing and Understanding Your Numbers helps beginning farmers understand basic accounting principles and the forms that go along with them, and provides some easy recordkeeping tips. It is available at

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Permalink How can I control internal parasites in my sheep?

Answer: If not controlled, internal parasites can cause illness in animals. Symptoms of parasitism include weight loss, loss of appetite, depression, weakness, lagging behind or separating from the flock, and possibly anemia, bottle jaw, or diarrhea. Livestock producers want to raise healthy animals, and so they may treat the sick animals with dewormers. But that is a temporary fix at best because unless there is a management change, animals will soon be reinfected. Also, most dewormers are no longer working because the internal parasites have developed resistance to the chemicals.

A better approach than relying on dewormers is to prevent illness in the first place. A strong immune system will help an animal resist or tolerate parasites; this strong immune system stems from the following:

• Genetics. Some breeds and some individuals are better able to fight parasites.
• Age. Young animals have no immunity; with time and exposure, sheep will build immunity around 4 to 9 months of age.
• Good nutrition. A properly nourished animal will be better able to fight internal parasites. The minerals copper and zinc are important for the immune system, and extra protein also helps animals battle parasites.
• Low stress. Clean, calm environments reduce animals’ stress.

In addition to having a strong immune system, livestock need to be protected from consuming too many internal parasites. This is accomplished through sanitation (clean water tanks and feed troughs) and through pasture management.
Good pasture management can help animals stay healthy in two ways: by reducing exposure to internal parasite larvae and by supporting animal health.

Numerous strategies can reduce exposure:

• Maintain proper forage height; don’t graze shorter than four inches.
• Maintain proper stocking rate.
• Rest contaminated areas for at least 60 days if possible; longer is better.
• Give access to browse and tall-growing forbs.
• Use resistant animals and alternate grazers (cattle and equines can alternate with sheep or goats).
• Provide clean pastures for young and other susceptible stock, such as lactating animals.
• Graze animals on regrowth from silage or hay crops.
• Use annual forage crops, such as rye, turnips, or chicory (cool season) and sunn hemp, cowpeas, sorghum, or soybeans (warm season).
• Rotate animals away from larvae before they are infective, which means within four days during optimum parasite conditions, such as during a humid summer.
• Keep animals out of wet areas.

Several strategies provide support:

• Provide excellent nutrition, especially energy, protein, and minerals, to susceptible classes and during stressful times.
• Allow limited exposure to parasite larvae to maintain immune response.
• Provide diverse forages, such as browse, tannin-containing forages such as sericea lespedeza, and a wide variety of plants to encourage animals to eat more and give some medicinal benefits.

For more information, consult the ATTRA publication Tools for Managing Internal Parasites in Small Ruminants: Pasture Management. This publication offers a full discussion of pasture management and the interaction between animals and internal parasites. It includes three assessment sheets: pasture, livestock nutrition, and internal parasite management. These assessment sheets can help producers refine their management and improve the health of pastures and animals. The publication is available at

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Permalink How do commercial fertilizers impact soil biology?

Answer: The following ATTRA resources should be of interest to you:

Sustainable Soil Management

Drought Resistant Soil

Alternative Soil Amendment

Sources of Organic Fertilizer and Amendments

In the Sustainable Soil Management publication, Part I includes a section on conventional fertilizers that discusses how several types of fertilizers affect soil. This is mainly through soil compaction and increased acidity and salinity of the soil. Alternative Soil Management discusses non-chemical inputs such as plant and animal by-products, rock and mineral powders, and microbial inoculants.

In addition, the Rodale Institute conducted a 22-year experiment on Farming Systems Trial farm in Pennsylvania. The research found statistically significant differences between the organic systems and the conventional system soil carbon levels. In regards to soil biology, using arbuscular mychorrhize (AM) as an indicator of microbial activity and thus overall soil health, the study found the organic systems had a greater population of AM spores and greater colonization of plant roots than the conventional system. The charts and graphs included in the project report, while not specifically answering your question about the effect of chemical fertilizers on soil, provide good visual aids when discussing variability between conventional and organic systems. You can learn more about the project, and read the project report, at

Finally, I suggest looking into The Organic Materials Research Institute (OMRI) website at Certifiers for the National Organic Program utilize OMRI for determining allowable substances for certified organic operations. When looking for alternative products on the market that have a less harmful effect on the environment (e.g., soil biology), I suggest using those with the OMRI seal.

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Permalink How do I determine how long and how often to irrigate with a drip irrigation system?

Answer: Soil texture and available water-holding capacity determine the rate at which water moves through the soil and, therefore, how long to run a drip system per application.

The following steps will help you determine your needs.

1. Determine your water-holding capacity. For clay loam and silty clay loam, the water-holding capacity is .14-.21

2. Determine the tubing flow rate (GPM per 100 ft). This varies with the type of drip tape. An average drip flow rate is 0.45 GPM per 100 ft. You can get flow information on your specific tape by contacting the manufacturer or distributor.

3. Then, using the table from Pennsylvania State University Extension publication referenced below and the drip tube flow rate, find the maximum time in minutes to run the drip system at one time.

For our example, the available water-holding capacity is 0.17 inch of water/inch depth of soil. Using the table provide in the referenced publication, the drip system would be run for 157 minutes for each irrigation event, typically in a 24-hour period, to avoid leaching and runoff. Repeat events until the system has run for 5.8 hours in a week to apply 1 inch of water. So, you would need to water more at each time and less frequently.

The opposite is true of sandy soils where you water more frequently and for less time. This example configuration is suggesting watering for 2.5 hours two to three times per week.


Determining How Long to Run Drip Irrigation for Vegetable Crops
Pennsylvania State University Extension

Drip Irrigation for Vegetable Production
Pennsylvania State University Extension

For more information, check out ATTRA's Livestock and Pasture section at The resources offered here deal with sustainable livestock production literally from the ground up. Pasture management, feeds and forages are covered by several publications and videos, while others address care and management for specific animals and marketing of the products derived from them. Whether you're an experienced or a beginning producer, you can find useful information relating to traditional livestock such as beef and dairy cattle, sheep, hogs and poultry, as well as introductions to alternative livestock options from bees to bison.

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Permalink How can I address cedar rust disease in my apple trees?

Answer: The fungus that causes this disease moves back and forth between eastern red cedars (actually junipers, not true cedars) and apples, so it can be a major problem where eastern red cedars are endemic. In order to complete its life cycle, this fungus must spend part of its life on eastern red cedar; therefore, it is theoretically possible to eliminate the disease by eliminating the cedars within a given area. However, the spores can be windborne for over one mile, so eradication of the disease in this manner is often impossible or impractical.

Nonetheless, if cedars are not too numerous on a given site, their removal around the immediate orchard vicinity can certainly reduce the inoculum reaching the apple foliage. In addition, there are many rust-resistant apple varieties. Only a few varieties, most notably Golden Delicious and its progeny, are susceptible to the point of defoliation.

Many fungicides are effective against rust, including the sulfur-and-copper compounds, which are approved for organic production as a last resort in your organic pest-management plan. If you remain observant, you may be able to time sprays to coincide with the springtime appearance of orange gelatinous "horns" on the galls on the cedar. This bizarre-looking structure is actually the fruiting stage of the fungus. The "horns" release the spores that infect the apple trees.

To learn more, consult the following ATTRA publications:

Apples: Organic Production
Tree Fruits: Organic Production Overview

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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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