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Question of the Week

Permalink How can I use living fences?

Answer: Living hedges are fences made of living trees and shrubs. Their installation and use is common in many parts of the world, including Europe, Asia, and Australia. While historically used in this country as livestock fencing, living hedges are being implemented as they offer many additional benefits to sustainable agricultural systems. Living hedges are an important component to Permaculture design as their multiple functions are integrated in the planting of forest gardens.

The benefits of a living hedge include:

-Crops are protected against harmful pests.

-Provides habitat for beneficial predator animals and insect pollinators.

-The living fence can act as a windbreak.

-It can prevent soil erosion.

-Various products such as food, firewood, medicines, timber, nectar, etc can be harvested.

-It can prevent terraces from collapsing.

-It can be used where materials for fencing are difficult to obtain.

-The living fence can save money.

For more information, see the ATTRA publication Farmscaping to Enhance Biological Control. This publication contains information about increasing and managing biodiversity on a farm to favor beneficial organisms, with emphasis on beneficial insects. The types of information farmscapers need to consider is outlined and emphasized. Appendices have information about various types and examples of successful 'farmscaping' (manipulations of the agricultural ecosystem), plants that attract beneficials, pests and their predators, seed blends to attract beneficial insects, examples of farmscaping, hedgerow establishment and maintenance budgets, and a sample flowering period table.

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Permalink What are some options for managing animal waste on my farm?

Answer: Managing manure can be a challenge, especially in large-scale operations. However, if you view manure as a free, plentiful, and valuable resource, you begin to look at it as a commodity in its own right. Marketing manure can be a beneficial, low-risk way for livestock producers to manage animal waste on their farms while incorporating a value-added product into their overall business plan. The opportunity to sell a waste product and recoup an economic benefit while reducing potential environmental liability is a sought-after outcome for many farms.

Many producers raise animals for specific products (meat, milk, fiber) or purposes (recreational activities, horseback riding, youth projects). Although raising animals can become quite expensive considering the cost of feed, veterinary care, and supplies, manure is a renewable and valuable resource that can provide vital nutrients to the soil, increasing soil health and productivity in a sustainable way.

However, managing manure can often be a labor- and capital-intensive part of a livestock enterprise. Additionally, inadequate manure management can pose a potential threat to local water quality through excess runoff. With a little planning and ingenuity, however, livestock manure can become an important value-added co-product in just about any size operation. The two main goals of a successful value-added manure-marketing plan are to establish ready markets for excess manure and to keep operational costs low enough to make a profit from the sale of the manure product.

The ATTRA publication Manure Marketing: A Value-Added Product for Small Operations serves a guide for medium to small-scale livestock producers looking to incorporate the sales of manure into their farm’s business model. It discusses the benefits and considerations involved in marketing manure as a value-added product, and explores several available manure-processing, marketing, and packaging options.

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Permalink Can I use MAP or DAP Diammonium phosphate or other amendments to improve my phosphorous levels on an organic cattle ranch?

Answer: The number-one driver of getting the soil microbes to cycle nutrients is soil organic matter. Organic matter can be increased, but it will take some time. The fastest way to do so is to no-till in multi-species cover crops (six to 10 species) and to graze them off, taking about one third and trampling in two thirds. I have read of farmers increasing their soil organic matter by 0.8% (i.e., from 3.0 to 3.8%) in one season by doing so. That is a lot.

In addressing low phosphorus levels, I would start with the reported unit from your lab tests and convert it to ppm of P. Different soil testing labs report P in differing units. If your report says 16 pounds of elemental P per acre, then you would multiply the 16 by 0.5 and you have 8 ppm of P. If the reported P is in pounds of P2O5 per acre, to convert it to ppm you multiply first by 0.5 and then again by 0.4364. This would give you 16 X 0.5 X 0.4364 = 3.5 ppm. In general, you would like to see P levels up in the range of 15 to 20 ppm in your pastures.

If your organic matter is more than 3.0 percent, I would consider running a Haney test on your soils. The Haney test takes into account the ability of the soil microbes to mineralize N and P from minerals that are not in the plant available form. I would try the Haney test on a pasture that you have already sampled with the conventional test. It is possible that you have more P than you think if your microbe population is in good enough shape. Learn more about the Haney test.

The best way to improve P levels with an amendment is through the addition of composted animal manure. Manure from cattle, sheep or poultry will supply P and also afford the added benefit of microorganism culture with compost.

Secondly, you can improve your soil’s ability to cycle P, N, and other nutrients by grazing tall grass and trampling in the residual. This requires stocking densities of 100,000 pounds or more of live animal weight per acre. You can find a good discussion of this in the ATTRA Managed Grazing tutorial. Specifically, check out slides 40 through 45 in the Grazing the Mature Stand lesson.

I also recommend that you view the videos Intensive Grazing: One Farm's Set Up, as well as Gabe Brown: Farming in Nature’s Image. You might also be interested in Soil Health and Livestock: ATTRA Resources, which provides a list ATTRA publications, videos, and webinars on soil health.

I believe that these two methods are going to improve P levels and your general sol health, which will, in turn, increase pasture production and animal production over time. If you do decide to put on DAP, you will be ineligible for organic certification for three years. Also, if you do apply DAP, do so sparingly. For instance, you might apply enough to bring up the ppm of P in 5 ppm increments. This will be a little easier on your pocketbook and your soil biology.

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Permalink What soap is safe to use on organic food crops for insect control?

Answer: Organic farming requires any pest management materials used be in compliance with USDA's National Organic Program (NOP) regulations and must be used in the context of organic principles for farming and handling practices.

The Organic Materials Review Institute, OMRI, provides an independent review of products intended for use in certified organic production. After review, if substances are determined safe for organic use they are OMRI Listed.

Safer Soap is OMRI listed and can be found at most farm supply stores. It can be mixed into solution with chili peppers and sprayed on plants to safely control insects on food crops.

ATTRA's Biorationals: Ecological Pest Management Database lists different materials by brand name, distributor, and whether it is OMRI Listed. It can be searched by pest type, pest name, active ingredient/beneficial organism, or pesticide trade name.

In addition, ATTRA has produced an online learning tutorial titled Ecological Pest Management. The tutorial focuses on giving you tools to implement ecologically-based pest management strategies. The five lessons in this tutorial provide information on what ecological pest management is, how to get started, how to implement preventive strategies, biological controls, and how to use NCAT and ATTRA resources. There are also resources to help you develop your own ecological pest management strategy for your farm.

ATTRA also has several publications that should interest you, including Tipsheet: Organic Pest Management and
Biointensive Integrated Pest Management.

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Permalink As a beginning farmer with no accounting experience, how can I get on the path of good financial management?

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.

I recommend that you 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 encourages new farmers to develop good recordkeeping habits at the outset. It provides several sample templates and worksheets, along with a list of further resources for additional study.

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Permalink What can you tell me about transitioning to certified organic production?

Answer: The ATTRA website contains several online multi-lesson tutorials that allow you to work through lessons and associated worksheets at your own pace, including two that focus on getting started in commercial farming. These beginning-farmer resources discuss the importance of setting goals, creating a business plan, and understanding your markets. The first is titled Beginning Farmer Business Planning, Marketing, and Sheep, Goat & Poultry Resources and, although it is geared towards livestock, the first four lessons focus on business and financial planning.

The second tutorial is titled Getting Started in Farming: An Introduction to Farm Business Planning. This tutorial contains eight lessons and will guide you through the process of imagining and planning a successful farming enterprise. This guide was created through a project in North Carolina but the information presented is not specific to any single state.

Another useful resource is the SARE publication titled Organic Transition: A Business Planner for Farmers, Ranchers and Food Entrepreneurs (2015). SARE is a USDA-funded program and was the first Federal program to fund research in organic agriculture. Since 1988, SARE has invested in hundreds of organic research and education projects. The Organic Transition publication is considered a planning guide to assist in exploring transitioning to organics through the business planning process and in developing an Organic System Plan (OSP). The OSP is required for all organic producers and farms transitioning to organic certification. For more information, visit

It is a good idea to talk to a few organic certifiers to see which one is a good fit for you and your operation. As you are staring to explore the possibility of transitioning to organics, now would be a good time to contact certifiers as they may have different recommendations and procedures for transitioning.

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Permalink What can you tell me about producing hydroponic fodder to feed livestock?

Answer: Growing fodder for livestock using hydroponics is being used throughout the country, giving farmers in drought-prone areas the ability to grow feed for livestock and also as an alternative high-protein food source for livestock.
Hydroponics is the production of plants in a soil-less medium whereby all of the nutrients supplied to the crop are dissolved in water. Using hydroponics to grow fodder for livestock involves sprouting grains, usually using tray systems.

The hydroponic feed is comparable in protein content with commercially available feed containing animal products. This method of feed production requires less land when using vertical trays and also uses less water than most conventional irrigation systems for pasture.

Donnelly Farms in McClure, Ohio developed a hydroponic fodder system to produce feed for pigs using a SARE grant. Their goal was to produce sustainably raised hogs for a comparable price to conventionally raised pigs. The protein content in commercial feed grows pigs much faster than pigs raised on a diet of corn and hay, considered to be a more natural or sustainable method of farming. But using hydroponic feed allows farmers to grow pigs at the same rate because of the high protein content.

Donnelly Farms was able to grow high-quality fodder in 5-10 days by watering wheat trays once per day, without any special lighting or temperature controls. They were able to produce pigs ready for market in six to eight months with improved taste, reduced costs, consistent and weight gains. The trade off is increased labor for the farmer or rancher.

A YouTube video entitled Vertical farming: 60 sq meters producing 2000kg fodder a week features a vertical hydroponic farming operation produces two tons of barley grass fodder every week. The system is designed to operate 24-hours a day. The system includes a rotating tray system that sprays seed trays for 20 minutes every two hours. The fodder is high in protein and very nutritious.

To learn more, see the ATTRA publication Vertical Farming. This publication introduces commercial-scale vertical farming and discusses the recent growth of vertical farms in urban areas.

You can buy pre-built hydroponic fodder systems to begin producing or build a simple system like the one Donnelly Farms uses. An online search will present a variety of sources.

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Permalink How should I space trees in a new pecan orchard?

Answer: The establishment of a pecan orchard by planting trees in rows is how most new growers enter the pecan industry. Trees can be purchased with the cultivar already budded to the top, or planted as a seedling and grafted in the field. (To be "true to name," a cultivar must be propagated asexually, i.e., by budding or grafting rather than propagation by seed).

The spacing of pecan trees depends on geographical location. In their native and eastern ranges, pecan trees are commonly spaced on a 40 feet x 40 feet grid pattern, which is the equivalent of 27 trees per acre. After about 16.22 years, trees are thinned by half on a diagonal, thus leaving 14 trees per acre. At about 25.35 years old, the third and final thinning will leave a spacing of 80 feet x 80 feet with seven trees per acre.

For a long time, the pecan industry was based on a 35 feet x 35 feet tree spacing. However, recent economic analysis showed an initial 40 feet x 40 feet planting pattern is more profitable because the wider spacing allows the temporary trees more time to produce nuts before they are removed.

In the western range, where sunlight is more intense, trees are planted at 30 feet x 30 feet, the equivalent of 48 trees per acre. Ultra-high density western pecan orchards, spaced at 15 feet x 30 feet, are typically managed by mechanical hedging.

Establishing a Pecan Orchard, a fact sheet by Oklahoma State University Extensio, provides illustrations and details for pecan orchard layout and thinning operations.

For more information on growing pecans, consult the ATTRA publication Sustainable Pecan Production. This publication briefly introduces essential knowledge on the basics of pecan culture such as geography, native versus plantation systems, and economics. This is followed by notes on pecan farming techniques that emphasize sustainable and organic production methods: non-chemical weed control; orchard floor vegetation management using legumes; pecan nutrition with emphasis on organic fertilizer options; and recommendations for organic and least-toxic control of pecan insects and diseases. A selection of pecan literature and online resources available from the Extension Service and horticultural industry are provided as further sources of information.

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Permalink What are organic solutions for managing brown rot in peaches?

Answer: Symptoms of brown rot in peaches include the following:

• Two to three weeks before harvest, earlier infection (as early as bloom and petal fall) of the fruit by the fungus Monilinia fructicola becomes apparent as the fruit softens, approaching ripeness, causing rot both at harvest and in storage.
• Often occurs in warm, humid climates.
• More prevalent in the eastern United States than in the west.
• Blossom blight during bloom is an indicator for extensive brown rot later in the season.

Organic growers have traditionally relied on sulfur or sulfur-containing fungicides to control brown rot, and nothing better has yet been developed. The first application of sulfur should be done at the "pink" stage, just before the petals open. Applications should be repeated at seven-day intervals, especially if rain occurs, for a total of three applications. Two other applications should also be made—one at petal drop, the other at sepal drop (usually about 10 to 14 days after petal drop). The crop is still susceptible to infection later in the season, but treatments during the early "critical" stage will reduce the amount of crop loss without leaving a sulfur residue at harvest. Augmenting sulfur with Surround™ WP Crop Protectant provides better disease control than sulfur alone. Harvested fruit is also susceptible to brown rot infection. To prevent infections at harvest and during storage, peaches should be picked and handled with care to avoid punctures and skin abrasions on the fruit. Any damaged fruit should be discarded, since wounds facilitate entry of the fungus. Rapid cooling or hydrocooling to remove field heat prior to refrigeration at 0 to 3° C will also help reduce infection.

For more information, see the ATTRA publications Peach Diseases Identification Sheet and Peaches: Organic and Low-Spray Production.

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Permalink What could be causing the heads of my young white cauliflower to turn yellowish-brown?

Answer: Yellowing or browning of white cauliflower heads can be attributed to frost damage, sun damage, or boron-deficient soil.

Cauliflower is a cool-season plant belonging to the Brassica family. However, it can be damaged if the temperatures are too low or if exposed to a hard freeze. If you have experienced extremely cold night temperatures, this may be the reason for discoloration.

If you have ruled out frost, are you blanching your cauliflower heads? Blanching involves pulling the leaves up over the head of the cauliflower to shade it which ensures the cauliflower head remains a crisp, white color. The leaves can be tied together but this makes it easy for water to collect, which could rot the head of the cauliflower. A safer bet is to bend the larger outside leaves over the crown and loosely tuck the edges to hold it in place, which allows for proper air circulation. Some varieties of cauliflower are even "self-blanching."

If you have not experienced a hard freeze and you have been blanching the cauliflower heads, it is likely your problem is boron-deficient soil. This will cause the heads to turn brown and leaf tips to curl or become distorted. A soil sample could help determine if your soil is deficient. However, since the uptake of boron by the plant depends on different factors, such as the percent of organic matter in the soil, moisture levels, and the pH, a soil test that indicated sufficient boron levels would not eliminate the possibility of a boron deficiency.

Boron is one of seven essential trace minerals that plants need in very small amounts to grow well. Cole crops need higher amounts than other crops. It's easy to over-apply boron in trying to rectify a deficiency. Consider looking at other factors like soil moisture levels, good pH levels, and organic matter content of the soil before applying boron. If it has been dry, keeping the soil moist with irrigation may help the uptake of boron. Fixing the pH and building organic matter are both longer-term solutions that will help with future plantings. For subsequent crops, provide boron by adding compost to the soil, or plant fall cover crops of vetch or clover. A foliar feeding with kelp or fish emulsion could help, as these both are high in boron. If you decide to apply boron it's recommended at a rate of only .1 to .25 lb/acre as a foliar spray. The amount used depends on the percentage of boron in the product you are using.

For more information about growing cauliflower, refer to the ATTRA publication Cole Crops and Other Brassicas: Organic 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. The following information describes these three growing systems:

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.

Vertical farming systems can be further classified by the type of structure that houses the system.

Building-based vertical farms are often housed in abandoned buildings in cities, such as Chicago's "The Plant" vertical farm that was constructed in an old pork-packing plant.

Shipping-container vertical farms are an increasingly popular option. These vertical farms use 40-foot shipping containers, normally in service carrying goods around the world. Shipping containers are being refurbished by several companies into self-contained vertical farms, complete with LED lights, drip-irrigation systems, and vertically stacked shelves for starting and growing a variety of plants. These self-contained units have computer controlled growth management systems that allow users to monitor all systems remotely from a smart phone or computer.

To learn more, consult the ATTRA publication Vertical Farming. This publication introduces commercial-scale vertical farming and discusses the recent growth of vertical farms in urban areas. It describes the major types of vertical farms and discusses environmental issues with vertical farms. The publication includes a list of the major vertical farms in the United States and lists further resources.

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Permalink What are the benefits of direct marketing?

Answer: Over the past decade, direct marketing has become highly visible and popular among consumers in the United States. Consumer campaigns such as USDA's Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food have succeeded in bringing awareness to the importance of the farmers who provide food for consumers. Such campaigns have encouraged the growth of existing direct marketing channels and created innovative new channels. It is important to note that each of these marketing channels has different guidelines, considerations, and expectations for farmers.

Some of the most significant new direct marketing channels now available for farmers include farm to school, farm to institution, community supported agriculture (CSA), and food hubs. ATTRA has excellent publications outlining these topics. For a full list of these publications, see the Direct Marketing section of the ATTRA website.

Along with these new marketing channels, there is continued growth in local consumer campaigns such as Farm to Table, Farm to Fork, Buy Fresh Buy Local, and many others. These consumer campaigns bring more attention and consumer demand for direct marketing.

Perhaps the two important benefits of direct marketing are:

• Direct marketing can improve economic viability for farmers. Farmers can capture a greater percentage of the food dollar through direct marketing, rather than going through another "middleman" such as a distributor, packing house, or processor. Farmers can set their own prices to reflect what they need to earn to be profitable. Competition exists, but it is often among farms of the same size, rather than between large-scale and small-scale farms.

• Direct markets provide opportunities for personal connections with customers. Direct markets increase visibility and sales for farm products. They are a great way to learn how to market products successfully, learn how to set prices, and get valuable customer feedback.

To learn much more about this topic, consult the ATTRA publication Direct Marketing. It discusses direct marketing and the benefits and risks associated with selling agricultural products directly to customers. Popular direct marketing strategies covered in this publication include farmers markets, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), and direct sales to restaurants, institutions, and food hubs, as well as agritourism and Internet-based direct marketing. Additionally, the publication contains information on marketing plans, pricing strategies, and creative marketing techniques. Examples illustrate how farmers are utilizing direct marketing channels to become more economically viable.

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Permalink What resources are available to help with installing an agroforestry planting?

Answer: : Integrating trees and shrubs with other enterprises on a farm can create additional sources of income, spread farm labor throughout the year, and increase the productivity of those other enterprises -- all while protecting soil, water, and wildlife. Such "agroforestry" systems include alleycropping, silvopasture, windbreaks, forest farming for nontimber forest products, and riparian buffer strips. While they clearly offer economic and ecological advantages, these agroforestry systems also involve complex interactions that complicate their management. When designing an agroforestry enterprise, you should research the marketing possibilities and include the agroforestry system in the total business plan for the farm.

First, I recommend that you review the ATTRA publication Agroforestry: An Overview. This publication presents an overview of common agroforestry practices, evaluating and planning considerations, marketing opportunities, several case studies, and an extensive list of further resources.

In addition, the following resources can help you choose plant materials for your agroforestry project. The USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) maintains an extensive database at In the column on the left, under Plants Topics, you will find several ways that you can find plants that meet different criteria. Characteristics might be a good place to start. Fact Sheets and Plant Guides also provide useful information on specific choices.

Another resource the Arbor Day Foundation’s Tree Guide, which offers many useful tools. The guide is available at

For comprehensive help planning your installation, consider reviewing the two volumes of Edible Forest Gardens, by Dave Jacke with Eric Toensmeier. These are excellent resources themselves, and they reference many other materials. In volume two, you will find nearly 200 pages of charts and tables in seven appendices. Plants are organized by many different criteria that could be helpful as you work on your design. This resource includes perennials and vegetables, as well as trees and shrubs.

The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has designed some online tools that might be useful, as well. Most of them are available on the National Agroforestry Center's websitd (under Tools).

In particular, NRCS's CanVis can help you visualize how a planting will look immediately upon planting and shows its appearance as the planting ages. It is probably best used with an NRCS professional who is familiar with the program. For more information, visit

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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 is companion planting and can it really benefit my crops?

Answer: Companion planting can be described as establishing two or more plant species in close proximity for some cultural benefit (such as pest control or higher yield). The concept embraces a number of strategies that increase the biodiversity of agroecosystems.

Science has routinely provided evidence that supports some facets of sustainable agriculture, like companion planting. While the scientists may not call their work companion planting per se, the results of their work show that there is potential for home gardeners and small farms to capitalize on the natures of plants to affect each other's growth. Whether these plants harbor beneficial insects, release nutrients advantageous to another crop’s growth, or simply provide a buffer against the elements to tender seedlings, the tenets of companion planting have been shown repeatedly through rigorous scientific experimentation to be beneficial to planting systems.

For a more detailed look at companion planning and how it can be used, consult the ATTRA publication Companion Planting & Botanical Pesticides: Concepts & Resources. This newly revised publication discusses the scientific and traditional basis for companion planting associations including trap cropping, weed suppression, physical-spatial interactions, and other relationships. It provides a companion planting chart for common herbs, vegetables, and flowers, as well as a listing of literature resources. An appendix provides information on the Three Sisters, a traditional Native American companion planting practice.

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Permalink How do I go about finding customers for my custom grazing business?

Answer: As a custom grazier you will be filling an important niche as a forage-based relationship specialist. With this in mind, you can think of yourself as a niche marketer. Identify your niche, what you have to offer that is above and beyond the norm, and what you can offer that other graziers don’t, such as taking on risk that the livestock owner inherently has but can outsource to you. Your price will justify the unique services you can offer to address the risks livestock owners wish to outsource.

In this case, you’re a livestock risk-management specialist. Also, livestock owners have management constraints (like time and land availability) that can be taken on by you as the grazier. Marketing this to your customers, and backing it up with excellent management, can result in making a name for yourself as a conscientious grazier who delivers the goods, whether those goods are weight gain, animal health, percent heifers bred, etc. Also, providing services for heifers on contract is an excellent way to add value. If your cost of production is near the break-even price for grazing, then differentiation through adding more value can justify a higher price.

Getting customers is probably up there with the long list of uncertainties that come with agriculture. There’s no easy way to do it; it just takes persistence and a bit of creative thinking. In 2007, a Midwest consortium of university and nonprofit professionals conducted a contract grazing survey that provided some insight into customer acquisition and tenure. In this study, the majority of stocker operations, roughly 88 percent, had been with the same customers for three or more years. Cow-calf, summer grazing operations tended to have shorter customer histories, with about 50 percent having the same customer for just one to two years, and year-round operations tended to have longer customer tenure, with 78 percent having the same customer for three or more years. Most of the custom graziers who were surveyed acquired their clients through word of mouth, which was used by 100 percent of the graziers in stocker operations and by 76 percent in cow-calf operations. Twenty-five percent of cow-calf custom graziers also said they used referrals from agriculture professionals or past clients as a way to obtain new clients.

Given that word of mouth has been the best (if only) way to secure customers, I advise doing some marketing of your own, based on careful thought about your message — what you can offer that’s different. Consider listing with breed associations, conservation districts, your local Extension service newsletter, or local and regional sale barns. Also, a grazing land management or conservation trust workshop or conference may be a helpful way to meet prospective customers. Make a simple poster or flyer that will make cattle owners curious about your operation. Networking with farm and ranch realtors is another means of finding land owners that want their land grazed if you should end up with more livestock than your place can handle. This can also sometimes act in reverse too. A ranch realtor may know of a livestock owner wishing to contract out the grazing of his animals. And don’t forget to advertise in a regional ag newspaper.

To learn more, check out the Livestock and Pasture and Marketing, Business & Risk Management sections of the ATTRA website.

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Permalink What can you tell me about fertigation techniques for blackberry production?


Dr. Bernadine Strik and Dr. Luis Valenzuela of Oregon State University, Dr. David Bryla of USDA-ARS produced a webinar titled Organic Blackberry Production: Tips Learned from an Ongoing Research Study, which you should find useful. It covers the impacts of weeds on blackberry growth and yield; methods for weed control; fertigation for planting establishment; the effects of post-harvest irrigation on productivity, plant water status, and soil moisture; and root growth in blackberry.

There has not been a lot of research on organic fertigation schedules that are best for the crop. Each organic farm has had to do some experimenting. There are some guidelines to follow though once you determine the total amount of fertilizer you need for the season:

1) Don't apply it all at once.
2) Add 30 to 40 percent of the total amount of fertilizer needed in the beginning of the season and the rest throughout the growing season, so that the plants get nutrients as they grow, and so that you don't lose nitrogen before the plant can use it.
3) Try to time the applications so that most of the nutrients have been applied by the time fruiting begins.
4) For each fertigation session, start irrigating and make sure water has pressurized all the drip tape before starting the fertilizer injector.
5) Always flush the drip lines for about a half hour after stopping the fertilizer injection.

For more information or organic fertigation and injectors, consult the primer Fertigation in Organic Vegetable Production, produced by It includes a list of organic fertilizers for fertigation and prices per unit of nitrogen so you can compare apples to apples.

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Permalink Will a sorghum-sudangrass cover crop 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 UC Davis, waiting at least 6 to 8 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. Their 2009 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 here.

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

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

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

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

The addition of poultry can diversify the farm's offerings to customers through meat and egg production. Poultry can provide insect and weed control, increase soil fertility, and serve as a marketing and educational tool for families.
Healthy Pastures, Healthy Flocks
Many producers are shocked to see just how much green forage the birds, especially chickens and turkeys, will eat when given the opportunity. Depending on its quality, pasture may replace up to 25% of the feed consumed.

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

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

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

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

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

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Permalink What information can you give me on designing a solar water-pumping irrigation system?

Answer: While solar water-pumping systems are not very complicated, there are a few steps to take and some figuring that goes into choosing the right size pump and solar panels. The type of water source, the distance it is from the crops being irrigated, and the type of irrigation system all greatly influence the type and size pump you will need, which, in turn, determines the size and number of solar panels you need to do the job.

1) You need to determine how much water you will need or the flow rate. This is usually determined in gallons per minute (gpm) or gallons per hour. If you are using drip irrigation, which would use the water resource most efficiently and decrease the size of the pumping system you will need, then look at the emitter spacing and flow rate per hour per emitter to determine how much water you will need. The manufacturer of your irrigation equipment would be helpful to you in determining this number.

2) Next, determine the pressure you will need to provide the flow rate determined in step one. This number is expressed in pounds per square inch (psi), and is determined by adding up the total head (the elevation from the water source surface to the outlet), friction losses from the pipe and filters and elbows in the supply pipe, and the pressure needed to run the drip tape or sprinklers or other irrigation equipment. The friction loss is based on the size pipe being used and the flow rate in gpm.

3) With information about flow rate and the pressure, or psi, needed for the system, you can now choose a pump that will do the job. Centrifugal pumps are used a lot for irrigating. They are good at moving large amounts of water from one place to another, but not under a lot of pressure. They are not good at pulling water from a source that is lower than the pump. Positive displacement pumps can lift water much higher and under more pressure. You have to look at a pump curve for different solar pumps, which shows how many gpm of water a pump can supply at different pressures and different amounts of power. Pump manufacturers can supply you with pump curves for each pump they sell.

4) Finally, once you choose a pump that can supply the amount of water you need at the pressure you need, based on the pump curve, you can choose the size and number of solar panels you will need to supply the power that the pump requires. The number of sun hours in your area and equipment efficiency need to be considered in panel selection, so consulting the pump and panel manufacturers for sizing recommendations would be helpful. Also consider consulting a solar installer in your area. If you want to install the system yourself, you could pay for a design consultation to make sure the system will work.

For more information, consult the ATTRA publication Solar-Powered Livestock Watering Systems.

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Permalink How can I control tilapia disease in an aquaponics operation?

Answer: Tilapia have historically been considered a very disease-resistant, or resilient, species. However, researchers and practitioners are beginning to dispel this notion, as there are some diseases that occur in tilapia populations that can negatively impact production. One such disease is streptococcuss.

Streptococcus affects the nervous system and causes swirling behavior, lethargy, bent bodies, and disoriented fish. Other symptoms include eye lesions, abscesses, skin hemorrhages, and ascites, or the presence of abdominal fluid, often seen in association with a protruding anus.

Outbreaks happen when fish are exposed to stress, such as an increase in water temperature, suboptimal oxygen levels in the water or overcrowding for a long period of time. The disease is transmitted horizontally from fish to fish (via cannibalism, skin injuries, etc.), and also from the environment to the fish. It affects all fish sizes; however, bigger fish (from 100 grams to market size) are usually more susceptible to the disease.

If infection is thought to be present, a lab analysis should be done.

Treatments include decreasing feeding, decrease stocking density, maintaining optimal oxygen levels by aerating the water, lowering the water temperature, and using an antibiotic treatment. Antibiotics are only effective in treating a streptococcus outbreak if treatment is applied very early during the course of the disease, when fish are still feeding normally.

To learn more about aquaponics, consult the ATTRA publication Aquaponics — Integration of Hydroponics with Aquaculture

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Permalink Is there a low-toxicity herbicide that kills thistle as well as thistle roots?

Answer: Research has suggested that application rates of 20 to 160 gallons per acre of 20% acetic acid solution applied in combination with additives such as orange oil, non-ionic surfactant, and crop oil concentrate can be effective for controlling weeds. However, the addition of the additives were effective only in the low application rate. Higher application rates did not show improved control than lower application rates. Broadleaf weeds are controlled more easily with acetic acid than are grassy weeds.

Low-toxicity herbicides are available from several suppliers. Scythe, produced by Dow AgroSciences, is made from fatty acids. Scythe acts fast as a broad-spectrum herbicide, and results can often be seen in as little as five minutes. It is used as a post-emergent herbicide, sprayed directly on the foliage. It is primarily a burn-down herbicide, has no residual activity, and is not effective on non-green, woody portions of plants.

Vinegar is an ingredient in several new herbicides on the market today. Burnout and Bioganic are two available brands. Both of these are post-emergent burndown herbicides. They are sprayed onto the plant to burn off top growth—hence the concept "burndown." As for any root-killing activity with these two herbicides, I cannot say. The label on Burnout states that perennials like thistle may regenerate after a single application and require additional treatment.

Researchers in Maryland tested 5% and 10% acidity vinegar for effectiveness in weed control. They found that older plants required a higher concentration of vinegar to kill them. At the higher concentration, they got an 85 to 100% kill rate. A 5% solution burned off the top growth with 100% success. Household vinegar is about 5% acetic acid. Burnout is 23% acetic acid. Bioganic contains 10% acetic acid plus clove oil, thyme oil, and sodium lauryl sulfate. AllDown contains acetic acid, citric acid, garlic, and yucca extract. Matran 2 contains 50% clove oil. Vinegar is corrosive to metal sprayer parts—the higher the acidity, the more corrosive. Plastic equipment is recommended for applying vinegar.

According to a study conducted in California by the UC Statewide IPM Program comparing several non-synthetic herbicides with Roundup Pro, the following herbicides might prove effective in controlling broadleaf weeds like thistle.

Eco-Exempt is a contact, non-selective, broad spectrum, foliar-applied herbicide that will only control actively growing green vegetation. The active ingredients are 2-phenethyl propionate and eugenol (clove oil). 2-phenethyl propionate is considered a minimum risk pesticide by the EPA, is exempt from EPA pesticide registration (as are the following products, with the exception of Roundup Pro), and is in the same risk classification as cinnamon oil, citric acid, clove oil, and corn gluten meal. In a California study, Eco-Exempt was reported to have minimal effect on broadleaf weeds (including thistle).

Matran 2, like Eco-Exempt, is a contact, non-selective, broad spectrum, foliar-applied herbicide that will only control actively growing green vegetation. The active ingredients are clove leaf oil and wintergreen oil.

For more information on reducing weeds, consult the ATTRA publication Sustainable Weed Management for Small and Medium-Scale Farms. This publication discusses several strategies, both proactive and reactive, as alternatives to conventional tillage systems. Options include mulching, competition, crop rotations, and low-toxicity control alternatives.

Note: The mention of specific brand names is for educational purposes only and does not constitute endorsement by NCAT, ATTRA, or USDA.

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Permalink What can you tell me about contract grazing?

Answer: Contract grazing is a livestock-production system that decouples land ownership, livestock ownership, and land (and livestock) management. The arrangement may involve as many as three separate entities carrying out distinct roles: a landowner, a livestock owner, and a grazier (the grazing manager). There are three scenarios that contract grazing falls into. The first is when a grazier who owns pasture contracts to manage another farmer’s livestock. The second is a livestock owner leasing pasture from a landowner and managing his or her own livestock on that land. The third is a farmer contracting with a grazier to manage the farmer’s livestock on the farmer’s own land or on another party’s land.

Contract grazing can be a profitable agricultural enterprise for the custom grazier. If the grazier doesn’t own cattle, he or she does not have to pay livestock ownership expenses and manages cattle only during the grazing season. If the grazier leases land, he or she doesn’t have to pay taxes and has the flexibility to enter or leave the business more readily. Contract grazing can be a sought-after opportunity by dairy producersn especially if they do not have the ability to raise their own replacement heifers, and for beef producers who do not have the pasture for backgrounding calves.

Check out the ATTRA publication Grazing Contracts for Livestock as you research this enterprise. This publication discusses some of the issues involved with contract grazing, including various classes of livestock, equipment, sample contracts, some of the economics to consider and other resources available on the subject.

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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 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 How should horizontal airflow fans in high tunnels be set up to help prevent foliage diseases on tomato, pepper, and eggplant crops?

Answer: First, the purpose of using high-airflow fans in your tunnels is to keep the air moving mostly at night to even out the temperatures throughout the tunnel. This decreases the chance that the tomato foliage temperature will drop below the temperature of the air around it, and hit dew point temperatures, which causes condensation to form on the foliage. Moisture on the foliage is a vector for fungal and bacterial diseases.

To work well, the fans need to move the air along at between 50 and 100 feet per minute.For example, in a 30x96-foot high tunnel, four 20-inch fans rated at 1600 cfm would be more than adequate. The fans cost about $100 to $150 each.

Place two fans on one side of the tunnel and two on the other side about a quarter of the distance from the sides of the tunnel. You are trying to get the air to move down one side of the tunnel and back up the other side so the fans on the opposite sides of the tunnel should point in the opposite direction of one another.

Place the first fan about 10 to 15 feet from the end wall and the next one about 50 feet from the first fan. Do the same with the other two fans on the opposite side.

These fans should be run when the whole-tunnel ventilation fans are not running. This will usually mean from the evening, when the sun starts to go down, until the morning.

For more information, check out the ATTRA publication Organic Greenhouse Tomato Production. This publication covers some management practices to reduce foliar diseases in a tomato crop.

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Permalink How can I treat peach leaf curl organically?

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

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

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

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

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

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

For more information, see the ATTRA publication Peaches: Organic and Low-Spray Production. This publication describes the major diseases and insect pests of peaches and discusses organic or least-toxic control options for each. It emphasizes the considerable climatic differences between the arid West, which is relatively amenable to organic peach production, and the humid East, where it is more difficult to grow peaches without synthetic fungicides and insecticides.

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Permalink From a business standpoint, how can I get started in market gardening?

Answer: The amount of land that is put in to production should relate to your markets and, overall, to your targeted revenue. These components are configured in a business plan in which developing a business plan is the first big step in starting a farm operation. The plan will not only serve as a road map for managing towards your goals, but it will also guide you in making decisions. And while the business plan will help in getting you started (and possibly helping with funding from lenders and/or cost-share programs for any start-up costs), it is important to keep in mind that a business plan is something that should be monitored and evolve alongside your business.

While you may have enterprises in mind that you would like to start with, starting a farm should be market driven. This includes the need to address the following:

• What are the problems you want to address?
• For whom do the problems exist?
• How will you target those who are affected by the problems?
• Can you effectively solve the problem economically?
• How much will it cost and will the market pay that cost?

Researching the market(s) and creating a market plan can assist you in tackling these questions. The research that you do to create a market plan will help in identifying the dynamic factors that influence markets. This includes:

• Where am I going to sell/who is customer?
• Size of customer base?
• Location of customer base and influence?
• Sell directly to consumers or wholesale to commodity markets?
• Who is my competition?
• Seasonal price fluctuations to expect?
• Quality standards to meet?
• Time and fuel to reach markets?
• Legal or food safety considerations?

And while selecting which crops to grow should be market-driven, it is important to evaluate your skill level and other personal and farmland criteria, as well as your understanding of costs of production. While you may find which specific crops in your area/markets are best for you to grow, the profits won’t necessarily correlate unless the costs of production and expenses are low enough for you to achieve your targeted revenue. Understanding the true costs of production for each crop and/or enterprise can be achieved through the completion of a crop enterprise budget.

Finally, it is important to be realistic about your operation, especially in the beginning years. It is all too easy to plant more than what is needed for your identified markets; however, issues tend to arise in trying to stay on top of the weeds. In other words, your scale of production needs to relate to your management skills. So it is advised to start small, learn your markets, and gradually expand over time.

For more information, consult the following ATTRA publications:

Tips About Farm Business Structures
Market Gardening: A Start-Up Guide
Basic Accounting: Guidance for Beginning Farmers
Understanding Organic Pricing and Costs of Production

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Permalink What information can you give me on fruit and nut trees suited to central Arkansas?

Answer: A really good place to start would be the ATTRA publication Fruit Trees, Bushes, and Vines for Natural Growing in the Ozarks. Though the title refers to growing in the Ozarks, most of the publication’s information is also true for central Arkansas.

Apples, for instance, are even a little more difficult to grow organically in central Arkansas than they are in the Ozarks. Same goes for pears, peaches, plums, and seedless table grapes. The greater heat and humidity of central Arkansas is the reason. In fact, I'd say that all these are near impossible to grow organically commercially for profit. You might be able to get enough of these fruits for home use, but even that could be difficult because of devastating diseases that are difficult to control organically. If you read through the sections in Fruit Trees, Bushes, and Vines for Natural Growing in the Ozarks on these fruits, you'll understand how to best deal organically with their respective problems.

On the other hand, figs, pomegranates, muscadines, Asian persimmons, and pecans are easier to grow in central Arkansas than in the Ozarks, and all of those except the pecans, are generally quite easy to grow organically.

Species that are equally easy to grow organically in the Ozarks and central Arkansas include elderberries, tart cherries, blueberries (but rabbiteye types would be better down there), some of the Munson-type grapes, strawberries, American persimmons, mulberries, and pawpaws.

Pecans have two serious problems for organic growers. First, pecan scab can largely be avoided by only planting scab-resistant varieties like Elliot, Curtis, Gloria Grande, and Barton. The second problem is the pecan weevil, an insect pest that feeds within the shell and is pretty difficult to control organically.

For more information on organic fruit production, see the Horticultural Crops section of the ATTRA website.

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Permalink What can I do to control root knot nematode in my hoop house that grows lisianthus for a cut-flower market?

Answer: You're probably farming on sandy soil, which nematodes very much enjoy. I'm guessing that you grow lisianthus flowers pretty much year after year in your hoop house. That is also something which the nematodes would very much enjoy.

I try to stress to growers that I work with that it’s important to think about the soil as a complex ecosystem, which has certain requirements. That means rotating your crops, and it also means you should consider adding organic matter back into the soil every year.

Crop rotation diversifies the soil environment through the different chemicals that the plants exude through their roots. It also avoids growing a plant every year that is a host to a particular pest. If you’ve grown lisianthus several seasons in the hoop house, then you’ll likely have a pretty healthy population of root knot nematodes, even though lisianthus is relatively resistant to them. So, one thing I would suggest is to plant something that is not a host to root knot nematodes.

A healthy soil hosts a very diverse soil ecology. Regular additions of organic matter, through the use of compost, cover crops, and plant residues, supports a healthy soil ecology where there are many checks and balances to keep pest populations from getting out of hand. Good-quality compost is likely the most practical method of adding organic matter to your hoop house soil (I’m assuming the lisianthus are "in-ground" and not on benches). The compost will also help your sandy soil retain nutrients and water much better than sandy soil without compost.

To learn more about cut flower production, consult the ATTRA publication Specialty Cut Flower Production and Marketing. You’ll also find additional useful resources on our Soils & Compost page.

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Permalink What advice do you have for planting and growing alliums without tillage?

Answer: While it is possible to establish a no-till system for your land, it is advisable to first establish a cover crop and get the weeds under control, particularly if you are trying to establish no-till in an organic system. According to the book Building Soils for Better Crops, "Once you are committed to no-till, you’ve lost the opportunity to easily and rapidly change the soil’s fertility and physical properties. The recommendation is really the same as for someone establishing a perennial crop, such as an apple orchard. Build the soil and remedy compaction before converting to no-till." While your goal may be to use no-till as a response to your weed situation, keep in mind that organic no-till works best if you have a good handle on your weeds.This probably isn’t new to you, but alliums are particularly vulnerable to weed pressure and I would discourage a no-till system, at least initially.

The Nordells of Beech Grove Farm in Pennsylvania have a great system for managing weeds on their farm, particularly in alliums. I recommend reading their article titled "Weed the Soil, not the Crop." They have what I would call a modified tillage system. They combine fallow-season long-cover cropping, along with using winter-killed cover crops as a mulch for the following season’s vegetables.

If you have enough land, dedicate some of your production area to fallow with cover crops each year. If you have space to spare, I would suggest plowing or tilling followed by a vigorous summer cover crop, followed by a fall planted winter killed cover (if that is available in your region) to manage your current annual weed population. Establish a warm-season cover crop that will give you lots of organic matter and compete with weeds and prepare you for a perennial or annual cover crop that you can incorporate into a no-till system. Legumes such as cowpeas, soybeans, annual sweet clover, sesbania, guar, crotalaria, or velvet beans may be grown as summer green manure crops in your region to add nitrogen along with organic matter. Non-legumes such as sorghum-sudangrass, millet, forage sorghum, or buckwheat are grown to provide biomass, smother weeds, and improve soil tilth. Sorghum-sudan grass is very effective at smothering weeds and producing a lot of organic matter in a short period of time and might be a good selection for your particular situation. It is important that sorghum-sudangrass has regular water to establish a good stand and fill in enough to compete with weeds.

In the fall, this cover crop should be mowed with a rotary mower (or "brush hog") and incorporated with a tillage implement, or if you have access to some type of reduced tillage implement, you can direct seed into the sudangrass residue. At this point, it would be possible to plant a perennial cover crop mix. This could include a legume to help provide some nitrogen, such as white clover planted with a grass, such as a fescue mix. Another option would be to plant another cool-season annual that will over-winter such as a rye/ vetch combination. This will establish in the fall and go dormant through the winter. In the spring the crops will begin growing again. When they begin to establish a seed head, rotary mow or flail chop the cover crop and either plant directly into the dead standing plants or till in and plant your desired cash crop. If you have livestock, this would be the time for grazing at a high stock density. Small livestock such as sheep or goats are great for terminating cover crops and managing weeds.

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