Question of the Week

Permalink What are some ideas for marketing persimmons?

Answer: Because astringency of the fruit can be such a powerful disincentive to eating persimmons, it is important that the marketer either sell only properly ripened fruit or provide good information to the end consumer about how to ripen the fruit properly at home.

Packing is another important consideration. The fruit of the American persimmon when ripe is very soft, so extreme care must be taken when packing for market, or you will be trying to sell flats of mush. Stacking more than a few fruits on top of each other will lead to an unsalable product.

Asian persimmons should be packed for market when the cultivar’s full color has developed. The nonastringent cultivars can be shipped and eaten while still a little firm, but they are still prone to bruising. The astringent types are marketed while firm because by the time they are full-ripe and nonastringent, they often need to be eaten with a spoon. So, careful handling is the rule.

Direct Marketing Ideas
Because only folks with a rural background are likely to have had any exposure to American persimmons—and many of those will have had a bad experience (probably initiated by an older sibling or someone else “in the know” who convinced the person to bite into one as a practical joke)—the challenge and opportunity will exist to introduce a clientele to something new that can be extremely delicious and nutritious. Perhaps signage that translates the Latin genus name would be a good start: “Diospyros = Food of the Gods!”

Another marketing idea helpful for all kinds of direct-marketed crops is to provide recipes and other ideas for their use.
American persimmons, most often gathered from the wild, do sometimes show up at farmers markets in their climatic range in autumn, so persimmons do have at least some minor commercial appeal already.

Relatively small amounts of frozen and canned pulp do get sold (visit www.persimmonpudding. com for sources and ideas on processing the persimmons). Jerry Lehman and other persimmon aficionados in the Midwest are leading the way to commercialization of the American persimmon and held a conference in Terre Haute, Indiana, in 2002 to that end. The information from that conference and much more about persimmons appears at persimmonpudding.com. Another source for marketing ideas is the Mitchell Persimmon Festival () in Mitchell, Indiana, which boasts persimmon pudding contests, persimmon fruit taste competition, and more.

Commercial Possibilities for Asian Persimmon Culture Outside California
Up to the present, commercial Asian persimmon culture has been almost exclusively a California enterprise, but growing conditions in much of the Deep South should be conducive to Asian persimmons, and the widespread survival and success of Asian persimmons as dooryard trees is at least partial proof of that. The upper- and mid-South regions are probably too risky for commercial production, as the Asian persimmon can be killed to the roots by temperatures near 0˚F and suffer significant damage any time temperatures dip below 20˚F.

Another encouraging factor for potential growers outside California is the growing populations of ethnic Asians in most American towns and cities. Until apples were introduced, the Asian persimmon, with more than 1,000 named cultivars, was the most widely grown fruit in China and Japan. So, with growing populations of ethnic Asians in the U.S., there should be a parallel growth in marketing possibilities.

Learn more about persimmon astringency problems, culture, and marketing in the ATTRA publication Persimmons, Asian and American.

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Permalink What trees can be tapped to produce syrup?

Answer: Alternative saps are becoming more popular for making syrups and other value-added products. Collecting and boiling sap from trees such as black walnuts, birches, and box elders offers a niche product that can have a higher price point than maple syrup. In addition, these maple alternatives can extend the sugaring season, as the sap run from these trees tends to occur later than maples, often hitting its peak when the volume and quality of maple sap starts to diminish.

However, the sap yield and sugar content of these trees is typically lower than sugar maples, often making it challenging to have enough sap to support the enterprise economically. For example, a 60:1 sap-to-syrup ratio would not be uncommon for trees like black walnuts and box elders, and a 100:1 ratio for birch trees. The Wild Foodism website provides information on 22 species of trees that can be tapped for making syrup.

You can learn much more on this topic in the ATTRA publication Maple Sugaring: An Introduction to Small-Scale Commercial Production. It provides an overview of maple sugaring, including business planning, financial considerations, marketing, equipment and supplies, value-added products, organic certification, regulations, and quality control. It also includes resources for acquiring more knowledge on maple syrup production and determining if maple sugaring is a viable addition to a farming operation.

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Permalink How can I improve poor soil for fruit plants?

Answer: Poor soils for fruit plants can be those that are too rocky, clayey, poorly drained, too well drained (droughty), acid, and/or infertile. Luckily, there are remedies for almost all of these, and, once established, woody plants are often quite tolerant of these conditions. Read on for some simple ideas on how to deal with soil problems.

Adding organic matter helps break up clay soils, gives life to sandy and rocky soils, improves water absorption and retention, and adds nutrients. However, there can be too much of a good thing. When planting in a clay or rocky soil, for instance, if the grower fills the hole with too much organic matter, he or she can unwittingly be producing a situation like growing in a pot: the roots don't extend beyond the nice hole with all of the good soil and can even become tangled and "pot-bound." So, in a clay or rocky soil, no more than 25% of the backfill in the hole should be potting soil or compost or some other organic matter-rich material. You want to encourage the roots to extend out into the surrounding soil. Unlike a clay soil, it's hard to add too much organic matter to a sandy soil; the roots will easily extend into the sand.

You can also encourage the roots when first planting in a clay soil by making sure that the sides of the planting hole are not perfectly round and/or glazed. A typical shovel can glaze the sides of a hole dug in clay soil, but an auger is really bad for creating that condition. The simple remedy is to score or rough up the sides of the hole with your shovel and make sure you don't curl or bend the roots when placing the plant in the hole. It's better to prune back the roots a little than to bend them, but better yet would be to dig a square hole or otherwise provide channels for root extension. In other words, avoid root constriction.

Regarding drainage, there is internal drainage based on soil texture (clay, sand, and loam) and external drainage based on topography. Clay provides poor internal drainage; a very sandy soil can be too well-drained (droughty). A sandy loam soil is best for most fruit plants, though additions of organic matter make it better still. Our common red and orange clays are indicative of some soil oxygen as these colors are the result of iron oxides (rust) in the soil, so such soils can be used for planting and made better by adding organic matter and taking care during planting as described in the preceding paragraph. Black, white, and gray clays should be avoided altogether because they are usually too wet and, wet or dry, do not provide enough oxygen for plant roots; not much can be done with them for the purposes of fruit growing.

External drainage refers to the water flow over a piece of land. All fruit species adapted to the Ozarks are intolerant of standing water, so avoid boggy spots or areas where the water drains out too slowly. Stone fruits, like plums, peaches, and cherries, are especially intolerant of poorly drained conditions.

If the soil is excessively droughty because it's sandy and/or on a slope, provide a slightly raised berm on the downside of the hole to encourage the water to collect and drain out more slowly.

Acid soils (technically, anything below pH 7) are the norm in the Ozarks; in fact, undisturbed forest soils of the Ozarks are usually around pH 5.2 to 6.0. Fortunately, most fruit plants are tolerant to anything down to pH 5.7 or thereabouts. Blueberries require a highly acid soil (ideally between pH 4.8 to 5.2), so a blueberry grower might actually need to further acidify the soil with a sulfur-based product (but do it according to a soil test). Pears are generally fine with the native pH. Other fruit plants will usually do best in soils that are only slightly acidic (pH 6.0 to 6.5), but they are generally tolerant and can perform well enough in any soil from pH 5.8 to 7.2. The grower will need to have a soil test to ascertain soil pH. The remedy for an acid soil is agricultural-grade crushed limestone applied as per instructions that will come with your soil test results.

Soil samples can be submitted to your county Cooperative Extension office, or you can buy simple soil-testing kits online. Ozark soils are notoriously poor in nutrients, but most trees, including fruit trees, are not particularly demanding. Adding nutrients in elemental form, as in most commercial fertilizers, should be done in accordance with a soil test, but annual or semi-annual applications of compost and mulch on top of the soil (don't put any type of fertilizer in the planting hole) usually provide adequate fertility for home growers. Though technically not organic or "natural," products like Jobe's Tree and Fertilizer Spikes™ are safe and effective ways to provide season-long, slow-release nutrition to young fruit plants.

Past three years of age, most fruit plants do well enough on the fertility provided by decaying mulch and maybe a shovel or two of compost. If you detect nutrient deficiency symptoms like yellow leaves or stunted growth (fruit trees should put on a minimum of about 12 inches of new growth every year), increase applications of compost or winter applications of manure. If fertility issues seem pressing, consider quick-release fertilizers like compost tea or manure tea, fish emulsion, or non-organic liquid fertilizers like Miracle-Gro™.

For more information, consult the ATTRA publication Fruit Trees, Bushes, and Vines for Natural Growing in the Ozarks. This publication discusses how to overcome common challenges of growing fruit trees, vines, and bushes in the Ozarks and suggests what to look for when choosing a variety that will thrive locally.


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

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Permalink How do I plan for production if I'm working with a food hub?

Answer: Food hubs can help agricultural producers achieve and maintain profitable businesses. A 2011 survey found that a food hub working with a median of 40 suppliers has the ability to increase producer profitability by enhancing access to commercial markets, purchasing seed, scheduling planting dates, and projecting sales for the season (Barham et al., 2012). As with any farm enterprise or marketing outlet, working with a food hub requires careful planning. This includes evaluating the relationship between working with a food hub and the goals established for the farm. It requires a careful examination of current on-farm resources, such as labor, equipment, and infrastructure, as well as what is needed in order to meet the needs of the food hub. Filtering the opportunity to work with a food hub through a farm’s mission statement and business plan will help determine whether or not the food hub is a good marketing outlet to pursue.

Costs of Production
Understanding costs of production can provide a basis for determining the success of a farm enterprise. Accurate recordkeeping and cost analysis will help determine whether producing a specific product is profitable and can help in determining labor, equipment, and infrastructure needs for selling that product to a food hub. Having accurate information on farm income and expenses will also help determine the price and revenue you will need in order to make a profit by selling through a food hub. It will also allow you to review whether or not it is cost-effective to implement certain production practices that differentiate and add value to your products, such as being certified organic or GAP (Good Agricultural Practices) certified. Crop and livestock enterprise budgets are important decision-analysis tools useful for understanding costs of production and developing a whole-farm budget.

Working closely with producers is a defining characteristic of a food hub. Food hub operators not only manage the supply and demand of products between producers and buyers, but also play an important role in providing technical assistance and logistical support to their producers. By providing producers with information related to production costs, including processing, distribution, and marketing, food hubs better equip those producers to determine if a product will be profitable. This requires the producers to receive timely access to information, knowledge, and tools and materials they need to succeed. Sharing knowledge and coordinating planting dates, crop varieties, harvest dates, and quantities can result in access to higher quality and more competitive markets that deliver premium prices to the producer.

Crop Planning
Crop planning is an important component for producers in working with food hubs. In order for a food hub to manage an account, they expect a certain quantity at a specific date from a producer. From a crop-planning prospective, a producer needs to determine what crop(s) and/or variety to grow for a food hub, how much to grow, where it will be planted, and dates for starting seed and transplanting that correspond to each harvest date. Many food hubs work with producers and buyers prior to the growing season to coordinate production planning. This not only provides peace of mind for the producers in knowing that there is a market and acceptable price for their products; it also allows growers to cut costs by purchasing bulk seed, fertilizer, and other supplies together. Crop planning starts with organizing the production within a single year. It relies on matching the cultural needs of crops to your farm soil types and climate and evaluating the frequency of succession plantings for a consistent supply. Using methods for extending the season and planting extra crops can help manage supply risks. Annual crop plans then become part of a long-term rotational plan for increasing soil fertility and yields.

Variety Selection
Once a food hub has established a market for a product, it will allocate the production among producers and determine how much each will supply. Although a buyer is primarily interested in a crop in general, it is important for the producer to pay attention to variety selection. A crop variety must not only be suitable for your farm's soil and climate, but must also meet the specifications of the buyer, such as size, appearance, and shelf life. The producer has the option of choosing a variety that will offer higher yields or disease resistance, as long as that choice doesn’t jeopardize either the buyer specifications or the farm’s bottom line. Evaluating varieties for better storability may also be critical in producing for a food hub, with the understanding that as a crop’s shelf life increases, quality, including taste and appearance, decreases.

I recommend that you consult the ATTRA publication Food Hubs: A Producer Guide to learn much more on this topic. This publication focuses on providing producers with information, resources, and case studies specific to understanding how food hubs can provide new marketing outlets. In includes a list of further resources that can serve as additional avenues of study.

Reference:

Barham, James, Debra Tropp, Kathleen Enterline, Jeff Farbman, John Fisk, and Stacia Kiraly. 2012. Regional Food Hub Resource Guide. USDA-AMS, Washington, DC.

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Permalink How can I control flatweed in my pasture organically?

Answer: Flatweed, or false dandelion, can infest pastures that have been disturbed or have been overgrazed. Control is possible but takes a comprehensive, multifaceted approach including grazing management and possibly a low-toxicity herbicide. Creating a favorable environment for forage growth is important to prevent re-infestation.

I recommend a few options that can be combined for a holistic approach. First, if it's feasible, you can dig out the crowns if the infestation is sporadic, or use of low-toxicity herbicide as a spot treatment early in season (vinegar and citrus oil). Organic herbicides are less effective when the plant matures. For serious infestations, cultivation, cover cropping, and then replanting with perennial pasture will likely be in order, and may take two years of cultural management if pastures are heavily infested.

If cultivation is warranted, you could go in this spring with a disc, and turn the soil lightly to uproot the crowns. Be advised that false dandelion can still regrow from broken crowns, but you can help reduce the stand if you come in with an oat cover crop for the summer. You can graze the oats, and disc again in the fall and plant a diverse cover crop of something like annual rye, red clover, or crimson clover. Annual ryegrass also works well. The point of the cover cropping is to: (1) provide high plant competition to reduce the likelihood of false dandelion re-emergence; and (2) provide lots of soil carbon to feed soil microorganisms and add organic matter for building a healthy, resilient, fertile soil for the forages. Then, the following spring you could harvest the cover crop by mowing or grazing, and disc again if the weeds are still present. At this point, depending on the extent of the infestation, you could plant an annual once again, or plant a perennial pasture mix of grasses and legumes.

Then, in order to keep the pasture stand healthy, you could develop a rotational grazing plan to control the time the horses are on the pasture, as well as the recovery time needed for the pasture plants to re-grow after grazing. Basically, a short grazing period of less than four days is best, with a recovery period from 25 to 60 days (depending on the season and soil moisture: less in the spring and fall and more in the summer). Four days is good for a grazing period because after this time plants begin to regrow, and horses find it hard to resist the fresh vegetation that has not fully recovered from grazing. When the horses are re-grazing plants that are trying to grow back and recovery is not complete, overgrazing occurs and the forage plants cannot compete with the weeds.

I recommend splitting the pasture into several paddocks, as many as you can, with electric wire or poly tape. If you have nine paddocks and keep the animals on each paddock for four days, this allows about 30 days of rest for each of the other paddocks before they are grazed again. This is a good way to control grazing and ensure the forage plants have the recovery they need.

For further study, the Livestock and Pasture section of the ATTRA website offers a host of related resources, including publications, tutorials, videos, calculators, and more.

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Permalink How can I control bermudagrass?

Answer: Bermudagrass is one of the most challenging pests in sustainable agriculture. Use of the herbicide Sethoxydim should reduce the initial infestation, and following up with the subsequent recommendations will eliminate the need for further use of herbicides in the future. The use of an oil concentrate with the product is recommended for additional benefit. Remember to read the label and follow all recommendations. It is important that the applicator wear personal protective equipment such as goggles, rubber gloves, rubber boots, and overalls.

Follow up practices include:

• Solarization for control of seeds and heavily infested areas. Be persistent in digging up stolon and rhizomes after the control process.

• Black plastic and weed fiber can suppress surviving stolon and rhizomes.

• Cover cropping with sorghum-sudangrass and a legume like cowpea in the summer can outcompete and smother non-cropped areas.

• Plant a native hedgerow on the periphery border to deter the surrounding grass from creeping back in. A hedgerow will add diversity, increase wildlife and insect habitat to your farm or garden. Hedgerow options include:

Ageratina havanensis (Havana snakeroot) – 2 to 6 feet tall, deciduous
Callicarpa americana (American beautyberry) – 3 to 5 feet tall, deciduous
Eysenhardtia texana (Texas kidneywood) – 3 to 10 feet tall, deciduous
Ilex vomitoria (yaupon) – 12 to 25 feet tall, can be trimmed to hedge, evergreen
Leucophyllum frutescens (Texas barometer bush) – 3 to 5 feet tall, evergreen
Mahonia trifoliolata (agarita) - 3 to 8 ft., evergreen
Senna lindheimeriana (velvet leaf senna) – 3 to 6 feet tall, deciduous
Sophora secundiflora (Texas mountain-laurel) - 5 to 10 feet tall, evergreen
Morella cerifera (wax myrtle)
Rhododendron maximum (great laurel)
Ilex glabra (inkberry)
Ilex opaca (American holly)
Juniperus virginiana (eastern red cedar)

The publication Market Farming with Rotations and Cover Crops: An Organic Bio-Intensive System, from the Kerr Center for Sustainable Agriculture, includes a section on dealing with bermudagrass that you should find very informative.

Learn more in 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 or products is for educational purposes only and does not constitute endorsement by NCAT, ATTRA, or USDA.

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Permalink What equipment do I need for direct seeding and transplanting?

Answer: Direct seeding requires contact between the seed and the soil so that the crop can establish itself once it germinates. Spin seeders are used for broadcasting cover-crop seeds at a set desired rate. They can be handheld or tractor mounted. Light harrowing, raking, irrigating, or adequate rainfall will help ensure good seed-to-soil contact.

Other types of seeders should be used for crops that need to be planted in the soil at a uniform spacing and depth. These include precision seeders, pinpoint seeders, stick- or jab-type seeders, and drills. Precision seeders can be manually pushed or tractor mounted and dispense individual seeds in a furrow. Seeds can be singulated through several different mechanisms, including cups, belts, vacuums, plates, and rollers. For small-scale farms, Glaser, Earthway, and Jang are brand names of precision push seeders that use plates or rollers. The Stanhay uses belts, and the Nibex uses cups—both are available as walk-behind push seeders or toolbar-mounted seeders. Many of these single-row seeders offer attachments that can connect seeders together for seeding multiple rows, attach seeders to a wheel hoe, or mount seeders with a fertilizer attachment.

Pinpoint seeders are designed to be manually pulled and perform well for greenhouse planting. Medium- to large-sized seeds can be hand planted through a stick- or jab-type seeder that can also plant through plastic mulch. Seed drills also are available for manual or tractor-mounted seeding. Discs can be set for the size of the seed, but thinning may be necessary to achieve proper spacing between plants. Planet Jr. is a classic name associated with vegetable drills. Drills can also be used for planting grains and cover crops.

Regarding transplants, setting them out helps to extend the growing season and harvest. Many farmers transplant crops by hand using a trowel, a dibbler, or a jab-style planter, but mechanical transplanters can speed up the planting process with more accuracy and less labor. Mechanical transplanters require one person to drive the tractor while a crew of one or more people drops transplants into the soil. Many farmers have designed simple sled-type transplanters that allow the crew to sit or lie down while they transplant by hand.

Commercial transplanters have a shoe, coulter, or some other device to open the planting furrow. They also have a closing wheel that packs the seedlings, which are held on trays, in place once they are planted. Water-wheel transplanters inject water into the hole after the plant is set. Other types of transplanters include the gripper type, the carousel, the spade type, and the no-till transplanter.

Learn more in 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. The use of appropriate equipment and tools, both in terms of size and practicality, can increase production efficiency and profits while minimizing the disturbance to soil and to plant health. A list of further resources and tool and equipment suppliers is included.

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

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Permalink Can crop rotation help manage weeds?

Answer: Yes! Crop rotations limit the buildup of weed populations and prevent major weed-species shifts. Weeds tend to prosper in crops that have requirements similar to their own. Fields of annual crops favor short-lived annual weeds, whereas maintaining land in perennial crops favors perennial weed species. In a crop rotation, the timing of cultivation, mowing, fertilization, herbicide application, and harvesting changes from year to year. Rotation thus changes the growing conditions from year to year—a situation to which few weed species easily adapt. Rotations that include clean-cultivated annual crops, tightly spaced grain crops, and mowed or grazed perennial sod crops create an unstable environment for weeds. Additional weed control may be obtained by including short-season, weed-smothering cover crops such as sorghum-sudan or buckwheat. Crop rotation has long been recognized for its ability to prevent weeds from developing to serious levels.

Incorporating crops with allelopathic effects into the rotation adds another element of control. Such crops include sunflowers, sorghum, and rapeseed. Allelopathic plants are those that inhibit or slow the growth of other nearby plants by releasing natural toxins, or "allelochemicals." Weed-control ability varies among varieties and management practices. For example, sweet potatoes have been shown to inhibit the growth of yellow nutsedge, velvetleaf, and pigweed. Field trials showed a 90% reduction of yellow nutsedge over two years following sweet potatoes.

Managing croplands according to nature’s principles will reduce weed problems on horticultural crops, or row crops, in small and medium-sized operations. Creativity is key to devising sustainable cropping systems that prevent weed problems. You can learn much more in 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. A resource list provides sources of further information.

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Permalink I want to raise sheep. What is the best breed to buy?

Answer: What do you plan to do? Here you need to think about your farm goals. Do you want to sell market lambs or fi ne wool? Are you interested in conserving rare breeds or in selling meat at the farmers market? For goats, is it meat or milk that is your focus? Some breeds are better suited to a certain purpose than others. Choosing a breed that is well-adapted for the purpose will result in greater profitability and less stress.

Where do you live? Some breeds are well-adapted to a particular climate or region and will not do well elsewhere. For example, Angora goats thrive in the dry areas of the United States but may be very susceptible to parasites if moved to the humid South. Icelandic sheep are a great choice if you want to raise fiber in a cold climate, but heat stress may be a problem for them in the South. Consider the climate that will make the animals comfortable before choosing a breed.

What do other local producers raise? If no one else in your region is raising a particular breed, it may be because that breed does not thrive in your climate. It also might be true that a breed is just not well-known in your area, even though it is perfectly suited. In that case, you might fill a niche and create a demand by educating others about the breed. On the other hand, if no one else in your region is raising a breed, where will you need to go to purchase breeding stock? And who will buy the stock you raise? If you are raising Suffolk sheep and there are lots of 4-H members in your county who want market lambs to show, you have a ready market (assuming you have high-quality, healthy stock). Those same 4-H members may not be interested in Jacob sheep. Someone who wanted to draw people to the farm and also sell to handspinners would be VERY interested in those Jacob sheep, and not the Suffolks! So consider local availability and demand, along with farm goals and your interest in marketing.

What are your criteria for animals on your farm? This is related to the idea of the breed meeting your goals but takes it a little farther: let’s say I have decided my main focus is to raise lambs for meat. I will sell live lambs. And I want them to weigh 100 pounds in 120 to 150 days. A well-fed Suffolk might fit the bill; they are known for fast growth. On the other hand, let’s say I want animals that are parasite-resistant, hardy, and able to breed out of season. I also am interested in conserving a rare breed. Those criteria steer me away from the Suffolk and toward the Gulf Coast Sheep. But now we have to prioritize because they are NOT known for fast growth.

How do you plan to raise and market the off-spring? Again, this is an important factor in your decision. Using the comparison between Suffolk and Gulf Coast sheep, you might consider available feed and your personal values and decide that your farm is best-suited to raising sheep on pasture alone. The hardiness and parasite-resistance of the Gulf Coast breed then may make your decision easy. On the other hand, suppose your customer is a restaurant that wants large lamb chops: the larger breed would be preferred (unless you convince the restaurant of how "cool" it is to conserve a rare breed and encourage genetic diversity). An ethnic customer might be much happier with the smaller Gulf Coast lamb, available nearly year-round due to out-of-season breeding.

The question of which breed to buy is really impossible to answer without having all the background information. Then you must factor in personal preference; there is no sense in raising a breed you do not personally enjoy, no matter how many fi ne attributes it has. (For example, I will not raise Lamancha dairy goats because I do not like their ears.)

For many purposes, cross-bred animals will work better; they bring hybrid vigor and improved hardiness, as well as combining two sets of admirable traits. But the main thing to look for in breeding stock is not breed: it is health, local adaptation, and suitability for the market.

To learn more, consult ATTRA's Sheep and Goats: Frequently Asked Questions, which offers answers to many common questions about raising and marketing sheep and goats. You can find many more useful resources in the Livestock: Sheep and Goats section of the ATTRA website.

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Permalink What and when do I apply to crepe myrtles to prevent aphid damage?

Answer: Aphids overwinter as eggs and emerge in the spring, and continue to reproduce all season. They reach maturity in about 10 days, which makes for several generations each growing season. Because of their rapid life cycle, they are difficult to control with insecticides. Several species of predatory insects will feed on aphids, including ladybugs, green lacewings, and parasitic wasps.

Using insecticides will harm the good insects along with the bad, so spraying all season is seldom beneficial or economical. However, if you have an infestation and want to spray, I recommend a least-toxic pesticide such as insecticidal soap, horticultural oil, pyrethrins, or neem oil. A good source of information for least toxic and organic approved pesticides can be found in ATTRA's Biorationals: Ecological Pest Management Database.

Another useful resource is the ATTRA tipsheet Aphids — Botanical Control Formulations, which discusses the use of garlic, rosemary, papaya leaves, and mint to control aphids. Its references list can lead you to additional sources of information on this topic.

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Permalink What can you tell me about soil nutrition for high tunnel tree fruit production?

Answer: Without rain or overhead irrigation, some bulky organic fertilizers—e.g., compost—will not readily break down and move into the soil. And because the fruit crops we’re discussing are perennials, cover crops cannot be relied upon for nutrition after the initial planting. This emphasizes the need for pre-plant consideration of nutritional needs of the plants, beginning with a soil test. For instance, adjusting soil pH with lime or sulfur should occur before the tunnel’s cover goes on.

Likewise, if soil organic matter needs improvement, cover crops or applications of manures or composts should happen before the high tunnel is covered. Allow time for breakdown and mechanical or natural incorporation of these into the soil.

Post-planting nutritional needs are going to be met with fertigation (running liquid fertilizers in the irrigation system), by precision hand-application of compost or pelletized organic fertilizers, or by hand-application of liquid organic fertilizers via watering buckets or hoses with fertilizer attachments. Regarding fertigation, liquid organic fertilizers, like fish emulsion or compost tea, have a reputation for clogging or gumming up the drip emitters (manufacturers of some of these products are now touting some formulations as "fertigation friendly" in order to address this problem). In such cases, proper filtration is the first line of defense. If clogging still occurs, there is an organically acceptable cleaner called Cleardrip-O.

Fertigation in Organic Vegetable Production Systems is an excellent primer on organic fertigation, as relevant to perennial fruits as it is to vegetables. It discusses the necessary equipment, fertigation products, how to calculate rates, and more. If you’re going to apply dry fertilizer materials, they will have to be placed where the soil is wet from the irrigation; otherwise, the nutrients from such materials will not move into the root zone to be available to plant roots.

Lastly, its advisable to remove the plastic cover every winter in order to ensure that the trees meet their chill requirement but also to allow rain to rinse out excess salts from the fertilizers. This is also a time when manure or compost could be applied with some confidence that it will be "washed" into the soil by rain and melting snow. Compost, especially compost made from plant matter and not animal manure, contains less salt and so should be considered a superior organic fertilizer material for most high tunnel applications.

Learn much more on this topic in the ATTRA publication High Tunnel Tree Fruit and Grape Production for Eastern Growers. It identifies fruits that hold the most potential for profitable high tunnel culture, as well as several limitations and potential pitfalls growers must recognize if such a venture is to be profitable.

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

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Permalink Where can I find funding for a sustainable agriculture project?

Answer: An excellent place to start is the USDA Small Farm Funding Resources http://ric.nal.usda.gov/small-farm-funding. 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.

USDA's Alternative Farming Systems Information Center has compiled a list of useful resources and contacts that you should explore.

Building Sustainable Farms, Ranches and Communities and NSAC's Grassroots Guide to Federal Farm and Food Programs both offer information on federal grants and programs. These two guides can help you find programs that may fit your project. 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.

Also useful are the ATTRA publications Financing Your Farm: Guidance for Beginning Farmers and Federal Conservation Resources for Sustainable Farming and Ranching.

Here are some additional resources that you should investigate:

Government Grants

Value Added Producer Grants

Small Business Innovation Research Grants

Start-Up Funds

Cultivate Ventures

Ag Funder

InvestEco

Crowdsourcing

Crowdsourcing is a relatively new type of fundraising that raises money online through a large number of small donations. Some crowdsourcing websites include:

GoFundMe

Kickstarter

IndieGoGo

Barnraiser

Finally, ATTRA posts funding opportunities daily on its website, which can help you identify potential funding sources.

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Permalink Will rotating crops help reduce weeds?

Answer: Crop rotations limit the buildup of weed populations and prevent major weed-species shifts. Weeds tend to prosper in crops that have requirements similar to their own. Fields of annual crops favor short-lived annual weeds, whereas maintaining land in perennial crops favors perennial weed species. In a crop rotation, the timing of cultivation, mowing, fertilization, herbicide application, and harvesting changes from year to year. Rotation thus changes the growing conditions from year to year—a situation to which few weed species easily adapt. Rotations that include clean-cultivated annual crops, tightly spaced grain crops, and mowed or grazed perennial sod crops create an unstable environment for weeds. Additional weed control may be obtained by including short-season, weed-smothering cover crops such as sorghum-sudan or buckwheat. Crop rotation has long been recognized for its ability to prevent weeds from developing to serious levels.

Incorporating crops with allelopathic effects into the rotation adds another element of control. Such crops include sunflowers, sorghum, and rapeseed. Allelopathic plants are those that inhibit or slow the growth of other nearby plants by releasing natural toxins, or "allelochemicals." Weed control ability varies among varieties and management practices. Sweet potatoes have been shown to inhibit the growth of yellow nutsedge, velvetleaf, and pigweed. Field trials showed a 90% reduction of yellow nutsedge over two years following sweet potatoes.

There are other beneficial approaches to weed management, as well, such as mulching, competition, crop rotations, and low-toxicity control alternatives. You can learn more about these in the ATTRA publication Sustainable Weed Management for Small and Medium-Scale Farms, which discusses several strategies, both proactive and reactive, as alternatives to conventional tillage systems.

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Permalink How can I control blossom blast in pears?

Answer: A bacterial disease, blossom blast (causal organism: Pseudomonas syringae), may afflict pears, usually as a blossom blight resulting in reduced fruit set. It can also cause twig dieback and bark cankers and may lead to severe wood damage of Asian-pear cultivars in particular. Because the presence of blossom-blast bacteria allows ice crystals to form at higher-than-normal temperatures, the disease increases the incidence of freeze damage during cold, wet weather. Asian pears are especially affected because their early bloom makes them more susceptible to frost injury. Among Asian-pear cultivars, Shinko and Ya Li are moderately resistant to P. syringae.

Controlling this disease is difficult because its occurrence is widespread on many plant species and not easily predicted; once symptoms appear, control efforts are too late. Protecting orchards from frost damage can limit injury. An early application of BlightBan A506 can help reduce frost-damage potential by excluding the ice-nucleating bacteria. In California, the application of fixed copper at the green-tip stage followed by streptomycin at early bloom has provided reasonable control. This treatment has also been used in Oregon and Washington, where cool, wet weather makes blossom blast a particular problem in pear production. Streptomycin or terramycin applied at early bloom to control fire blight also helps to control blossom blast, but sprays timed for fire blight control cannot be assumed to control blossom blast because P. syringae is favored by cool, wet conditions while E. amylovora proliferates in warm, wet conditions. In other words, predictive models for fire blight could easily miss an infection period for blossom blast. There are no predictive models for blossom blast, so the prudent grower with a history of blossom blast in the orchard will apply copper at green tip and follow up with BlightBan or streptomycin at early bloom regardless of what fire blight predictive models might indicate.

For more information, consult the ATTRA publication Pears: Organic Production. It covers pear diseases, disease-resistant cultivars, rootstocks, insect and mite pests, and their treatment, Asian pears, and marketing. Two profiles of organic pear growers are included. Electronic and print resources are provided for further research.

In addition, ATTRA's Pear Diseases Identification Sheet is a handy guide that helps identify pear diseases and offers low-spray and organic solutions.

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Permalink What are the treatment options for coccidiosis in goats?

Answer: It is necessary to consult with your veterinarian is necessary to devise a coccidiosis treatment program, which may include the feeding of ionophores, treatment with sulfa drugs or amprolium, and/or using alternative treatments. Note that livestock that are treated with ionophores or other medications that are not approved for use in organic production systems cannot be certified organic. If it becomes necessary to use these medicines on a certified-organic animal to achieve effective treatment, that individual animal will lose its organic certification.

Note also that most medications are not labeled for sheep or goats and, therefore, consulting your veterinarian is essential. Be sure to follow instructions carefully when not be labeled for sheep or goats (work with your veterinarian for off-label use) and are not allowed in certified organic production.

Alternative Treatment Options

Organic producers may not use any of the treatments listed above on organic animals. Those wishing to avoid using medications have some intriguing possibilities to explore. These include the following alternatives:

• Sericea lespedeza and other condensed tannin-containing plants, such as birdsfoot trefoil, acacia, sainfoin, panicled tick clover, pine bark, and quebracho

• Oregano oil

Use of these natural compounds offers organic producers some options to mitigate the effects of coccidia. Conventional producers may also want to consider these natural alternatives because overuse of conventional compounds may lead to resistance.

Sericea lespedeza has been shown to be effective in managing the barber pole worm and coccidia. Grazing standing lespedeza works, but if baby animals are born early in the year, sericea is not growing yet. In that case, sericea pellets (similar to alfalfa pellets) can be an effective tool. Unfortunately, these pellets are not widely available yet. The manufacturer, Sims Brothers, does not have the capacity yet to fill all orders for the pellets. Sericea hay is also effective and may be more available. See the ATTRA publication Tools for Managing Internal Parasites in Sheep and Goats: Sericea Lespedeza for more information. One difference in using sericea to control cocci rather than barber pole worm is that the effects of the sericea are long-lasting for controlling coccidiosis, while the barber pole worm “recovers” after the host animal no longer has access to the sericea. Feeding of sericea lespedeza should occur approximately two weeks before weaning to four weeks post-weaning to maximize the positive effects and minimize the negative long-term effects, such as a potential mineral deficiency.

Pine bark has been ground up and added to feed supplement at the rate of 30% of the diet and fed to goats. The result was not only lowered numbers of gastrointestinal parasites and coccidia, but also increased gains and improved feed efficiency. Using pine bark in combination with sericea seems to be even more effective.

A caution for those using condensed tannin (CT)-containing plants: researchers have observed that the use of tannins may bind minerals, causing deficiencies. Dr. Joan Burke (ARS) has documented reductions in the trace minerals molybdenum, selenium, copper, zinc, and manganese. Also, perhaps because of mineral problems or lower intake or some other factor, lambs and kids do not gain as rapidly after six to eight weeks of the sericea diet. To overcome these problems, you may wish to increase mineral supplementation (being mindful, however, of possible toxicity) and offer a more diverse diet. Providing pastures that include a variety of plants will improve animal intake. However, if the amount of sericea eaten is not high enough, then anthelmintic benefits may not be realized. As with all nutrition, it is important to strike a balance.

Oregano oil may be helpful in controlling coccidiosis in some instances. Producers in Maine conducted an on-farm research project (ONE08-088) using Regano (oregano oil) on sheep and goats on four different farms. Oregano oil works by the same mechanism as ionophores, like monensin. The Maine project used young stock, beginning at four weeks of age, and fed test groups Regano with their normal ration at the rate of 2 grams/100 pounds daily. A total of 26 goats and 56 lambs were on the study. Coccidia were reduced in treated animals by 39% (sheep) and 51% (goats).

Two of the producers who participated in this study were pleased with results and planned to use the product again. The other two producers did not have such a positive experience. Note: Even though this treatment reduced coccidia in test groups, the reductions were not anywhere near the 95% level considered effective for dewormers. The report of this study is online here.

To learn more, and to access the references and studies mentioned here, consult the ATTRA publication Coccidiosis: Symptoms, Prevention, and Treatment in Sheep, Goats, and Calves.

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Permalink What type of soil is best for organic tomato production?

Answer: A wide variety of soil textures can be used for tomato production. Ideal soil textures range from sandy to fine-textured clays as long as the soil is well drained (tomato roots will not tolerate being waterlogged), has good structure, and is well aerated. Planting dates can be determined by the type of soil a grower has. For example, sandy soils are preferred for early plantings in California due to adequate drainage during wet weather and rapid increase in soil temperature in the spring, which, in turn, can lead to early growth. However, loam and clay loam soils are the most productive soils for production. A mixture of one-quarter to one-half sand, one-quarter to one-half silt, and no more than 27% clay gives loam soils the best possible properties for plant growth. These mixtures supply adequate drainage and good soil structure. Conversely, heavier clays can be a serious problem due to poor soil drainage and excess soil moisture for extended periods, making tomatoes more prone to disease.

One of the foundations of organic farming is maintaining and building a microbial-active soil enriched with organic matter and a balanced mineral diet. Humus-building practices and addition of minerals not only supply plant nutrients but also increase tolerance to insects and diseases, help control weeds, retain soil moisture, and ensure produce quality.

A typical organic fertility system revolves around a combination of practices such as using crop rotation, forage legumes, cover crops, green manures, composted livestock manures, and lime, rock phosphate, and other rock minerals, as well as supplemental organic fertilizers. Depending on the soil type, soils with no history of organic management will probably need additional fertilization to be incorporated during field preparation and bedding operations or banded to the side of the row at planting.

Soil tests provide a baseline for your soil. Most state Extension services provide tests for a nominal fee. For information that is specific to organic production, see the ATTRA database Alternative Soil Testing Laboratories. In general, tomato plants have a high requirement for the macro elements potassium (K) and calcium (Ca) and the micronutrients iron (Fe), manganese (Mn), and zinc (Zn). Without a good supply of both K and Ca for plant uptake and utilization, the fruits will lack the recommended soluble solids content (sugars) and will be more susceptible to physiological disorders such as blossom end rot. Smaller requirements of the elements nitrogen (N), magnesium (Mg), phosphorus (P), boron (B), and copper (Cu) also are needed for proper plant development.

Tomatoes need moderate to high levels of P and K. On deficient soils, most needs can be met by applying rock powders such as rock phosphate, colloidal phosphate, untreated (mined) potassium sulfate, and sulfate of potash-magnesia in advance of planting. Supplementary P and K may be added as indicated by the soil test results. Always conduct a soil test to determine the proper amount of nutrients to apply.

Depending on the soil type, fresh market tomatoes also require about 75 to 100 pounds per acre of N. Most, if not all, can be supplied by legumes in rotation; composts or manures can also fill in the balance. If manure is chosen as the supplemental fertilizer, the USDA National Organic Program (NOP) regulations require that the manure be incorporated into the soil at least 120 days prior to harvest [NOP standard 205.203 (c)1]. Some farmers provide additional supplemental N at transplanting; a mixture of animal meal by-products, rock phosphate, and kelp meal is commonly used. If reliance is based primarily on supplemental fertilizers, about 50 pounds of actual N should be applied pre-plant and the remainder side-dressed when fruits are about nickel-size.

Tomato plants grow best when the soil pH is between 6.0 and 6.5. Liming to this range improves plant growth and optimizes fertilizer efficiency. If the pH is less than 5.5, Mg availability decreases significantly. Consequently, this increases the level of available Mn and aluminum (Al). Unless a deficiency of magnesium is noted, application of high-calcium (nondolomitic without magnesium) lime is advised. In addition, when a low pH is coupled with low Ca, blossom end rot is likely to occur. However, when soil tests are high in both P and pH levels, Zn will become insoluble, resulting in deficiency symptoms such as cupped leaves and splotchy chlorosis.

The ATTRA publication Organic Tomato Production will serve as a useful resource to learn much more on this topic. This publication addresses practical questions on organic tomato production. It focuses on the specific production challenges, including site selection (soil and climate), variety selection, sources of organic seeds and organic annual transplants, organic grafting, planting and training/staking arrangements, soil fertility and fertilization, crop rotation, and pest (insect, disease, and weed) management. Harvest and yield/productivity are closely related to marketing possibilities. While market conditions are extremely region-specific, this publication also addresses a few general principles on marketing and economics of organic tomatoes.

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Permalink What are the benefits of using draft animals on the farm?

Answer: Draft animals can offer farmers the advantage of a low initial investment in farm motive power compared to the purchase of even a relatively small tractor. A prospective horse farmer can spend a great deal of money on registered stock, harness and equipment. But it's also possible to obtain perfectly serviceable trained animals, used harness and functional equipment at reasonable prices. If saving money by using draft animals is your motivation, you may be able to do so. Just don't cut corners on safety in the interest of cutting cost. For a novice operator, a well-trained animal is well worth the cost. Sturdy, complete harness is vital.

One advantage of using draft animals as farm power is that their fuel can all be generated on-farm. Opinions vary on whether working horses should be fed grass or alfalfa hay and supplemented with oats or corn. The point is that all of these feeds can be produced locally, if not on the farm itself. Unlike a tractor, draft animals fit in to the nutrient cycle of a farm, utilizing local inputs and providing an output of power with a fertilizer byproduct.

Draft animals can be exceptionally flexible in application. For example, the same team of horses can plow and plant in spring, cultivate in summer, haul in the fall harvest of crops and firewood and feed livestock and offer sleigh rides in winter. Once the team is in harness, it's as efficient to use them for a little task as a big one since they're not burning any more fuel. Maneuverable horses can turn within their own length and they’re a power unit that easily moves from one task to another and one place to another.

In the long view, some draft animals are even capable of producing their own replacements in the form of offspring, something no piece of machinery can do. However, even an enthusiast does well to consider that breeding and training animals are entirely different propositions from working with already trained stock.

The chief benefit of working with draft animals may be their sheer appeal. Some farmers find it especially fulfilling to work daily with a human-scale, living and breathing partner rather than a machine. And draft animals at work have a traffic-stopping appeal for the public that can build farm brand recognition and consumer loyalty more effectively than any paid advertising.

The ATTRA publication Draft Animal Power for Farming provides much more information on this topic, including considerations and benefits involved in using animal power, safety, equipment, and more.

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Permalink What problems can result from methionine deficiency in organic poultry production?

Answer: The protein and amino acid concentrations presented as a requirement by the NRC are to support maximum growth and production in fast-growing meat birds. Achieving maximum growth and production may not always ensure maximum economic returns, particularly when prices of protein sources are high (NRC, 1994). And maximum economic returns may not be the only goal. For some producers, product quality (flavor and nutrition) may be as significant as quantity produced. According to Sundrum (2005), there are no effects on animal health from feeding a suboptimal diet or low-nutrient diet, but the birds may not be fully realizing their genetic potential. In fact, breeding companies that sell specialty birds usually show expected growth performance on a high-nutrient diet as well as a low-nutrient diet designed for conventional and specialty production, respectively.

Low-nutrient diets or feed restrictions are often used in the starter phase to slow the growth of fast-growing birds in order to reduce metabolic disorders and lameness. Feed restrictions have also been implemented to reduce feed spillage and better document feed efficiency. Feed density can be increased later for compensatory gain (Sundrum, 2005). A bird’s ability to adapt to variations in feed supply still exists (Sundrum, 2005). However, fast-growing, high-yielding animals are more sensitive to suboptimal feed rations than slower-growing or low-yielding animals. Stress levels may increase due to sudden changes in a feed ration, leading to depressed levels of growth. U.S. organic poultry companies are concerned that fast-growing birds with reduced MET levels in their diet will not only perform poorly, but will also suffer impaired immune function, resulting in poor feathering, feather pecking, cannibalism, and mortality. The antioxidant mechanisms of sulfur amino acids and their compounds are important. Normally, cells are equipped with antioxidant mechanisms to deal with free radicals. If antioxidants are out of balance, problems can occur that cause decreased animal performance. Sulfur-containing compounds such as MET and CYS are powerful antioxidants that can prevent damage in cells (Anon, 2009). Elwinger and Tausen (2009) found that reduced MET levels reduce feather cover and egg weight, although the production of eggs was not affected. They also found that feed intake increased as feather cover deteriorated, thus reducing feed efficiency.

Ambrosen and Petersen (1997) studied the impact of protein levels in feed (11% vs. 19% crude protein) on cannibalism and plumage quality. The plumage improved with increased protein. Chickens supplemented with MET had better plumage quality and reduced feather pecking compared to the MET-deficient birds. However, Biedermann et al. (1993) did not show poor feathering with low protein levels. There are many factors involved in feather pecking beside the nutrient level, such as stress derived from living conditions. Feather pecking may occur even on farms with high levels of MET in the diet, for unrelated reasons.

To learn more, consult the ATTRA publication Organic Poultry Production: Providing Adequate Methionine, which discusses organic husbandry including living conditions, health, genetics and origin, feed and processing as specified under the livestock requirements of the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Organic Program.

References:

Ambrosen, T. and V.E. Petersen. 1997. The influence of protein level in the diets on cannibalism and quality of plumage of layers. Poultry Science. Vol. 76, No. 4. p. 559-563.

Biedermann, G. von, N. Schmiemann, and K. Lange. 1993. Investigations of the effects of plumage condition at different ages in laying hens. Archiv fur Gefl ugelkunde. Vol. 57, No. 6. p. 280-285.

Elwinger, K. and R. Tausen. 2009. Low-methionine diets are a potential health risk in organic egg production. European Symposium on Poultry Nutrition, Edinburgh, Scotland, August 23-27, 2009.

Sundrum, A. 2005. Possibilities and limitation of protein supply in organic poultry and pig production. Organic Revision: Research to support revision of the EU regulation on organic agriculture.

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Permalink How do I determine whether I'm ready to scale up my operation?

Answer: Local foods purchasing has moved beyond farmers markets to mainstream grocery stores. As consumers become more interested in purchasing local foods, chain grocery stores from Walmart to Safeway tout their support of local farmers. At the same time, many established farmers want to move out of time-consuming farmers markets into wholesale markets.

A University of Wisconsin study pointed out that with the interest in local foods, "local food systems have the potential to borrow some of the economic and logistical efficiencies of the industrial food system while retaining social and environmental priorities."

It is important to plan for the expansion of your farm. Every time you increase the scale of your operation, you will experience growing pains. Planning for improvements and growth within your operation can help alleviate these. Questions you might ask when you consider increasing your production:

• Do you have the ability to move more product through your washing and packing facility?
• Do you have enough space in your cooler, delivery truck, etc.?
• How many more people will you have to hire, and do you have the management skills to handle a larger crew?
• Do you have a good farm administration system? As your farm increases in size, this will likely become more complex, including more taxes and stricter insurance requirements.

When economic prosperity is measured in economic growth, it is hard to question the expansion your farm. However, before considering expanding your farm, it is important to ask yourself why you want to do it. What are your farm and lifestyle goals? Is it going to significantly affect your quality of life—for better or for worse?

Consider revisiting your goals. If you have not developed goals for your farm or written your goals down, see the ATTRA publication Evaluating a Farming Enterprise for help.

The question of whether to scale up is not an easy one to answer, and doing so requires a lot of thoughtful consideration and assessment of your specific situation. The ATTRA publication Scaling Up Your Vegetable Farm for Regional Markets can help you decide if you are ready to expand your operations to serve wholesale markets or produce more for direct markets. It describes how organization and planning can help a producer meet the challenges involved in scaling up. This publication addresses important considerations such as land, labor, food safety, marketing, and insurance.

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Permalink How can I control a Caseaous lymphadenitis outbreak in my sheep flock?

Answer: Caseous lymphadenitis (CL) is somewhat uncommon, but very contagious. It is caused by the bacterium, Corynebacterium pseudotuberculosis. The incidence seems to vary by region to an extent. It can lead to eventual death, and economic loss in condemned carcasses, fleece and pelts, loss of purebred stock sales, and shortened productive life. The disease has no known cure.

CL is characterized by external and internal abscesses. The disease is spread by actively draining external abscesses, and by coughing and nasal discharges. A break in the skin is prerequisite to subsequent infection. However, it can also be transmitted through pulmonary and oral mucous membranes. The incubation period varies from one to three months, and it has been known to exist in the environment for up to eight months, according to the Merck Veterinary Manual. External abscesses can be bio-assayed to determine if the disease agent is in fact C. pseudotuberculosis. Internal forms of the disease are much harder to diagnose and more open to interpretation.

Management of CL most often takes the form of culling all infected animals, which is a difficult reality. The Merck Veterinary Manual mentions the use of tulathromycin either subcutaneously or by injection into the abscesses. It noted a positive effect, at least for the short term in drying up the abscesses. However, it also noted that abscesses would normally re-occur. It’s a good idea to ask your vet about this antibiotic therapy, or any others that he might know of.

Your vet is a good source of professional advice. If she is not very familiar with CL, ask for additional help from some of her colleagues in regions of the United States where CL is common. Some additional questions for your vet include:

1. Is culling of the entire flock necessary?
2. What are appropriate treatment regimens?
3. What is an appropriate isolation and biosecurity protocol?
4. Is there a good diagnostic lab test available with few false positives or false negatives? What is the cost?
5. Can the animals be run through the sale barn if external abscesses are not present? If treated with an antibiotic, how long will it be before the abscesses involute? Since the antibiotic regimen will be with prescription and off label, what is the withholding time for slaughter?
6. How long must you wait before repopulating your farm with more sheep?
7. When purchasing sheep, are "CL-free flocks" to be trusted?

You can find much more information on topics related to sheep production in the Livestock section of the ATTRA website.

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Permalink What can you tell me about living mulches for blueberries?

Answer: There are numerous benefits to incorporating flowering cover crops into fruit production, including increased pollination, erosion control, and improved soil health. When it comes to your blueberries, I would recommend that you plant your living mulch in the 6-foot walkways between your rows. Research has shown that living mulch cover crops can actually compete with the fruit crop for water and nutrients if planted within the row. Even though legume cover crops will not demand much N from the soil system, they will still compete with the crop plant for water and other nutrients like P and K.

In order to ensure that your blueberries have all the water and nutrient resources they need to thrive, I would recommend mulching the row with pine bark or hardwood mulch and planting your living mulch between the rows in the walkways, 18 to 24 inches from the center of the row. Having flowering cover crops within the walkway would still attract pollinators to improve the pollination of your blueberries, in addition to keeping the soil in place and feeding the soil foodweb. If you mow your living mulch, you could try to direct the clippings toward the blueberry row to add to the mulch and provide some organic N through the breakdown of the clippings. This “mow-and-blow” system can help build organic matter and provide N to the crop row without directly growing the cover crops there.

When selecting cover crop species, I would recommend that you consider white clover, either Dutch White or New Zealand White. These white clovers can handle foot traffic and mowing and will bloom early in the spring, providing bee forage early on in the season. There is actually a great case study from SARE on a blueberry farmer in Michigan incorporating white clovers into his production system. You may want to select several varieties of clover and sow a cocktail to see which varieties perform best in your system. I would avoid any of the taller white clovers like Ladino, though.

You can also find information on managing living mulches on our ATTRA website in a previous Question of the Week. There are some additional sources cited there, which you may find useful.

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Permalink What can you tell me about roller-crimpers for cover crops?

Answer: The mechanical roller-crimper is a tool that "rolls down" and "crimps" the stalks of cover crops for no-till weed suppression. Mechanical suppression of cover crops for no-till production can be accomplished through various kinds of mow-down and rolling/slicing/crimping techniques. These non-chemical methods of killing cover crops are appealing as an alternative to chemical-kill methods which rely on the use of synthetic herbicides.

The roller-crimper is a water-filled, heavy, round drum with protruding blunt metal blades arranged in horizontal, angled, or spiral patterns. Roller-crimpers are most commonly rear-mounted and pulled behind a tractor or team of draft animals, but they can also be front-mounted on a tractor. When the roller-crimper is pulled or pushed through a high biomass cover crop—such as wheat, rye, oats or oilseed radish—the cover crop is flattened and “crimped” by the heavy drum with metal strips. The purpose of the metal strips is to crimp or crush the stems of the cover crop rather than cutting or chopping the stems; this simultaneously prevents re-sprouting and slows down decomposition of the no-till mulch. No-till crops are seeded or transplanted in the same direction of the flattened and crimped cover crop, which slowly senesces and dies out over the course of several weeks, leaving high residue no-till mulch.

However, weeds that emerge in the no-till mulch can be a problem. In conventional no-till production herbicides can be used as a post-emerge treatment so weed control is fairly straightforward. In organic farming special attention needs to be paid to a clean field, excellent establishment of a winter annual cover crop, and high biomass cover crop production. Spot treatment of weeds is feasible with a hand-held flame weeder or with the use of organically approved natural herbicides on small acreages, but these labor-intensive treatments aren’t practical in broadscale crop production.

The drums are designed to be filled with water for added weight. The amount of water added varies depending on the size of the roller as well as the field conditions it will be used on. In other words, different field conditions will require different amounts of added weight.

The timing of the roller-crimper field operation is critical to gain effective kill of the cover crop. Cereal-based cover crops should rolled at the “anthesis” (flowering) stage of growth or later—in the milk or soft dough stages of growth, a period which corresponds to the mid-spring planting season shortly after the last frost-free day. Growers can refer to charts published by the Extension Service on the Feekes or Zadoks scale of crop growth to gain a clear understanding when anthesis, milk, and soft dough stages occurs.

The Rodale Institute in Kutztown, PA, has spearheaded research on roller-crimper equipment designs and on-farm trials using roll-down, no-till organic production systems. Research at the Rodale Institute finds that the best results are achieved by placing the roller on the front end of the tractor while a no-till seeder is simultaneously located on the back of the tractor. This enables a “one pass” roll-down/no-till planting system. They have found that in an organic no-till system, they do actually have to till once every five to six years to reduce weed populations.

The Rodale Research Institute has published several noteworthy articles and updates on their roller-crimper research project, including photos which are all located on their website. This site also contains AutoCAD drawings of their design.

The following resources can provide additional information on this topic.

Rodale Organic No-Till Website

Michigan State University Roller/Crimper Research website

The Knife Roller (Crimper): An Alternative Kill Method for Cover Crops

New Roller Crimper Concepts for Mechanical Termination of Cover Crops in Conservation Agriculture

Roller/Crimper Guidance

Cover Crop Rollers for Northeastern Grain Production

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Permalink How should I go about preparing soil for organic fruit plantings?

Answer: Important considerations in preparing a site for an organic orchard include alleviating soil compaction, enhancing fertility, adjusting soil pH, and managing weeds, pests, and diseases. Attention to the details of site preparation can help reduce weed and disease problems and assure a vital planting through soil improvement. What needs to be done depends on the previous use of the land, including crops grown, current vegetation, and the presence of pests and diseases. Many growers rip or chisel the soil to loosen layers of compaction before they plant a new orchard or vineyard because deep tillage will be disruptive once the trees are established.

Before establishing an orchard or vineyard, it is important to adjust the soil pH to best suit the crop you’ve selected. Soil tests can assess current soil conditions, including pH, mineral levels, and their relative proportions. Traditionally, pH has been adjusted through applications of lime (to raise the pH) or sulfur (to lower pH). Most fruit plants perform best around pH 6.5, although they tolerate a pH range between 5.5 and 7.2. Blueberries are an exception. They require an acid soil—ideally pH 4.8 to 5.2. Soil test results help guide applications of soil amendments, such as compost, lime, gypsum, or other rock powders, to provide good soil conditions that meet the nutritional needs of the orchard.

In general, fruit crops do not require highly fertile soils for good production, though this varies with the species. Highly fertile soils, rich in nitrogen, can promote too much vegetative growth at the expense of fruiting in trees such as apples. A nutritionally balanced soil, proper soil pH, and plentiful organic matter are the fundamentals of an organic fertility-management plan for fruits. Pre-plant soil improvement for organic fruit plantings usually involves some combination of cover cropping and applications of compost, natural minerals, or other organic fertilizers.

The ATTRA publication Soils and Sites for Organic Orchards and Vineyards provides much more information on this topic. It discusses site selection and soil preparation for fruit plantings. It also describes cover crop and mulching options for orchards and vineyard floors, and discusses fertilization and the role of mycorrhizae in maintaining healthy fruit plants.

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Permalink What specialty crops can I grow in a cold climate without season-extension tools?

Answer: Farmers market customers, restaurants, institutions, and even grocery stores want to buy local foods. In northern latitudes and higher elevations, however, producing food locally for these kinds of markets has its challenges.

Here are a few ideas:

Specialty Vegetables
Specialty vegetables can be considered any variation from the typical market fare. This could be baby, heirloom, or ethnic products. Producing specialty vegetables is a way to set yourself apart in local markets and often command a higher price. Many upscale restaurants are also very interested in unusual and gourmet fruits and vegetables and are willing to pay a good price for these products.

Ethnic Vegetables
Ethnic vegetables are a way to set yourself apart at farmers markets, but it is important to research a market beforehand. What ethnic populations shop there? If you are already selling at a farmers market, ask your ethnic customers what kind of vegetable they would like you to produce. Many specialty ethnic vegetables happen to be warm-season crops, such as chili peppers, bitter melons, and eggplants; however, there are a host of Asian greens, ethnic herbs, and Italian vegetables that grow well without season-extension tools in cold climates.

Baby Vegetables
The baby vegetable craze began in Europe about 20 years ago. Many high-end restaurants in the United States have adopted the trend and look to local farmers to supply them. Baby vegetables are also very popular at higher-end farmers markets. The critical production strategy with baby vegetables is succession planting and timing of harvest. For lettuce and greens, you can use your hand as a measurement tool. A common measurement is to harvest baby lettuce greens smaller than your hand. Plant your produce every two to three weeks to ensure that the products stay young and succulent and the optimum size for harvest. For more information, see the ATTRA publication Scheduling Vegetable Plantings for Continuous Harvest.

You can learn much more by consulting the ATTRA publication Specialty Crops for Cold Climates. It discusses the challenges of growing specialty crops in cold climates, crops that grow well, and season-extension techniques to help mitigate the challenges of this type of production.

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Permalink How can I lease my land and retain some control of the grazing?

Answer: One way to do this is through contract grazing, which involves grazing a customer's livestock on your land for a fee. This approach allows you to control the stocking rate, recovery period, stocking density, and grazing residual.

There are different ways to charge for your service. Some graziers charge on the basis of animal gain. This is a good approach if the grazier knows the animals involved and what their potential rate of gain is. However, it can be a bad deal if the livestock don't have the genetics to gain well or if they have not been set up for compensatory gain. Other graziers charge by the day with the value of the forage, the animal's weight, and their dry matter intake being known.

To learn more, consult the ATTRA publication Grazing Contracts for Livestock. It discusses some of the issues involved with contract grazing, including pasture and grazing, the various classes of livestock, equipment, a sample contract, some of the economics to consider, and other resources available on the subject.

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Permalink How can I remediate soils contaminated with acephate?

Answer: Acephate is a pesticide in the organophosphate family that is registered for use in the United States by the EPA. It has moderate persistence and has residual activity for approximately 15 days. It is used to control insect pests in agricultural and nursery crops by direct contact or ingestion.

Acephate has a half-life of three to six days and breaks down through microbial metabolism in the soil forming mostly CO2. However, another degradate is methamidophos, an organophosphate pesticide. Methamidophos is more toxic to mammals than is acephate, and breaks down to immobile compounds in about 20 days.

Both acephate and methamidophos are taken up and translocated in plants, from leaves to roots. Half-life disappearance in tobacco leaves, citrus fruit, greenhouse tomatoes, celery, and lettuce can range from 1 to 15 days. Produce sampled for residues has historically yielded 0.85 to 5.7% of samples having acephate residues, and 1.5 to 4.5% of samples having methamidophos residues. According to the Federal Registry, the acephate residue tolerance for most produce is between 0.1 to 0.3 ppm.

Studies by Chevron have shown that 14 to 18% of acephate remained in the soil after 20 days, and 0.27% was found in the soil during the whole 46-day test period. Leaching was seen to be the primary way acephate and methamidophos were removed from soil, with degradation happening 3 times faster in soils wetted to field capacity. These pesticides are very weakly adsorbed to soil particles, and has high mobility when the soils are subjected to heavy rainfall events.

Soil testing and testing labs

Two testing labs in California were identified from the ATTRA Alternative Soil Testing Laboratories database. Both of these labs have protocols for testing for pesticides:

Control Laboratories, Inc.
42 Hangar Way
Watsonville, CA 95076
Contact: Frank Shields, Mike Galloway
Phone: 831-724-5422
Control Laboratory, accumulated five decades of experience in analyzing and solving a wide spectrum of complex soil, soil-related, compost, and waterborne or effluent problems. Equipped with the finest state-of-the-art instrumentation and laboratory facilities, the company provides analytical services across the nation. These range anywhere from measurement and test of farm amendments and wastes to analysis of potential toxic substances.

AGQ Labs USA
2451 Eastman Ave. Suite 1
Oxnard, CA 93030
Contact: Jose Antonio Gomez
805-981-2972
AGQ Labs USA is located in Oxnard California and specializes in two core sectors Agronomy and Food Safety. The lab is ISO/IEC 17025 accredited and provide following services Agronomy Services Soil Analysis Water Analysis Plant Tissue Analysis Agronomist/CCA Nutritional Monitoring GIS Mapping Golf Course Nutritional Management Food Safety Services Pesticide Residue Analysis MRL Compliance Mycotoxin Testing Heavy Metal Testing FDA Detentions Regulatory Assistance

Remediation strategies

Soils can be remediated by removing soil or adding clean soil and mixing it in with contaminated soil. This is often done on residential and industrial areas. However, for an agricultural field this is often neither feasible nor cost-effective. I recommend using an ecological method to remediate contaminated soils. Once you have a soil test and know the levels of acephate, you can plan a remediation method and monitor over time.

Bioremediation is a process of sequestering, destroying, or removing contaminants in soil using biological organisms. This can be done with plants (phytoremediation) or with microbes, or often a combination of both.

Most of the studies that have been done on specific plants and the fate of contaminants deal with heavy metals. However, some of the plants that are commonly used in phytoremediation of pesticides include annual mustards, brassicas, canola, willows, poplars, and warm season native grasses such as indiangrass. The ultimate fate of plant biomass grown on contaminated soil will depend on the mode of action (whether the contaminant is degraded or extracted into plant tissue). For instance, if contaminants are extracted, the plant biomass will need to be removed from the site.

The publication Phytoremediation: Protecting the Environment with Plants is one of the best treatments of the topic of all the resources available (see resources below). It provides information on phytoremediation and includes the various USDA-NRCS practice standards that can be used, with EQIP financial assistance, to establish plants for conservation purposes while also remediating contaminated soils. If you choose to plant a conservation cover crop or critical area planting (two of the many practice standards available), I recommend getting in contact with the NRCS conservationist in your area.
Resources for additional information

Phytoremediation: Protecting the Environment with Plants
Kansas State University

Acephate: Technical Fact Sheet
National Pesticide Information Center

Environmental Fate of Acetate
By Elizabeth Downing

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Permalink What is the environmental impact of a micro-hydro system?

Answer: The environmental impact of micro-hydro systems is usually small but by no means absent altogether. When water is diverted or dammed, or when structures installed in the stream channel interfere with the natural flow of the water, there is an environmental impact. However, compared to large hydropower dams, micro-hydro systems have a smaller footprint and generally lower environmental impacts. Even so, there are several local, state, and federal agencies that may want environmental impacts to be assessed for a micro-hydro project.

There are a number of environmental considerations for micro-hydro systems, including the following:

• Water-quality issues such as turbidity and sediment from the system’s construction and operation
• Diversion of streamflow creating lower flow conditions in the main stream channel
• Wildlife and migratory-fish impacts
• Historical significance and aesthetics
• Changes in and impacts on stream ecology (e.g., algal communities, changes in food chains, stranding of benthic invertebrates living on the bottom and banks of the stream, and loss of aquatic habitat)
• Changes in nutrient transport and cycling
• Changes in water temperature due to lower flow
• Changes in dissolved-oxygen levels

Micro-hydro systems that are nonconsumptive and "run of river"—meaning that the natural water flow and elevation drop is used to generate power and the water is directed back into the stream—generally have a small environmental impact. This is an important point to remember and communicate when local regulators ask about environmental impacts. However, diverting water out of the steam, even temporarily, affects the stream’s ecosystem. For example, diverting too much of the water for even a short distance can prevent the natural migration of aquatic organisms and raise the water temperature enough to kill aquatic life.

These effects can be compounded if other ecosystem changes also occur, such as the removal of streamside brush or timber that was providing stream shading and other ecological benefits. Not only will the immediate stream ecology be affected, but the downstream ecology is likely to change as well. This, of course, depends on your particular case—are you using a run-of-the-river system or stored pondage? Maybe your system is on a high-head stream and will have limited or no impact on fi sh or other aquatic organisms. Always carefully plan your system to prevent salamanders, snakes, crawdads, and other aquatic creatures from entering the pipeline and turbine or being otherwise harmed.

Projects should be designed to divert the minimum amount of water required. In many areas, streamflow fluctuates with drier and wetter periods of the season. Many sites will not always have a sufficient streamflow to both provide water to the turbine and maintain a low environmental impact. Therefore, the volume of water diverted to the turbine must be managed. In many areas of the U.S., including the Ozark Mountains and Appalachian Mountains, this may require that diversions and penstocks be shut off during dry periods of the year. Of course, this would affect your hydropower system's "design flow."

There are simple design considerations that can help mitigate a hydropower system’s environmental impacts. For example, an intake placed in the water channel should be located where it takes on characteristics of its environment.

To learn more about how your project will affect the environment, visit the biology department at your local university or talk to an aquatic biologist at your local fish-and-game department office. By doing such research in advance, you will be prepared to answer questions as you prepare to permit the project.

The relatively small environmental impact of a well-designed micro-hydro system means it can be a sustainable solution to energy needs. However, if your project is near public areas or a neighbor’s property, what it looks like can significantly affect the public’s opinion of that impact. In fact, thoughtfully integrating micro-hydro equipment into the natural landscape may help reduce its environmental impact. Remember, micro-hydro projects that produce renewable power and avoid visually disturbing the natural environment with the intake, pipe, cables, and other equipment demonstrate how to produce energy in a more sustainable manner.

You can learn much more about micro-hydro technology in these ATTRA publications:

Micro-Hydro Power: A Beginners Guide to Design and Installation

Micro-Hydro Power: Is It Right for My Farm?

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Permalink What herbicides are appropriate for organic small grains?

Answer: Biological and allowed synthetic substances can be used for weed control, but there must be evidence that the first- and second-tier strategies are already in place, as defined by the National Organic Program. Currently, most organic small grains producers do not use organic herbicides for field-scale weed control. However, these substances may have some application for weed control in localized areas such as along fence lines, on ditch banks, or in limited weed patches. As with any new purchased input, check with your certifier prior to using the substance.

All organic herbicides are very limited in their effectiveness. These substances are non-selective and kill only the portion of the plant they contact directly. Because they do not kill the entire plant, repeated treatments will be necessary to use up the energy reserves in the roots as the weeds re-sprout. Because they are non-selective and will also injure the cash crop, organic herbicides should not be used as a method of in-crop weed control.

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 has no residual activity and is not effective on non-green, woody portions of plants.

Vinegar is an ingredient in several organic herbicides. One example, Burnout II, is a post-emergent herbicide that is sprayed onto the plant to burn off top growth, but is not guaranteed to kill the entire plant. The label on Burnout II states that perennials may regenerate after a single application and require additional treatment. Burnout II is 23% acetic acid. In contrast, household vinegar is about 5% acetic acid. Vinegar is corrosive to metal sprayer parts—the higher the acidity, the more corrosive. Plastic equipment is recommended for applying vinegar.

AllDown is another organic herbicide containing acetic acid. It also contains citric acid, garlic, and yucca extract. One brief California study compared the effectiveness of several organic herbicides to Roundup Pro. In this instance, AllDown provided the best control of broadleaf weeds after Roundup. While Roundup controlled 100% of the broadleaf weeds, AllDown had about an 80% control rate. However, this same study estimated the cost of Roundup Pro at $81 per acre, while the cost of AllDown was $1,733 per acre. Regardless of its effectiveness, the cost of AllDown would be prohibitive except on the most difficult weed patches.

Learn more in the ATTRA publication Weed Management in Organic Small Grains. This publication introduces the multifaceted, comprehensive strategy of weed management used for organic small grain production, combining techniques including crop rotation, sanitation, cultural practices, variety and seed selection and planting, cover crops, tillage, use of organic herbicides, and others.

Mention of specific products is for educational purposes only and does not constitute endorsement by NCAT, ATTRA, or USDA.

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Permalink What are some strategies for building healthy soils?

Answer: Let's consider the agricultural practices that help build healthy soil. In essence, we want to increase aggregation, contribute soil organic matter, increase biodiversity, buffer soil temperature, and minimize soil compaction and disturbance. Sounds like a lot, right?

Well, not really, if we break them down into six basic principles. Let's take a quick look at the principles that will define our soil management practices:

1. Minimizing tillage preserves soil structure, encourages aggregation, and keeps soil carbon in the soil profile where it belongs. Tillage brings a flush of oxygen into the soil that spurs microbes into a feeding frenzy on carbon molecules, resulting in CO2 release. We reduce tillage through the use of perennial pasture and minimum or no-till of cover crops.

2. Maintaining living roots in the soil for as much of the year as possible feeds soil microorganisms all year.

3. Also, by maintaining living roots and leaving grazing residual, we are covering the soil all year, forming an "armor" to protect it from loss of moisture and nutrients.

4. Maintaining species diversity is achieved with cover crop mixes and the use of diverse perennial-pasture mixes. Try to incorporate warm-season and cool-season plants, both grasses and broadleaf plants, in the same fields.

5. Managing grazing is accomplished by planning for an appropriate grazing-recovery period on your paddocks, keeping in mind that plants need various recovery periods depending on the species, the time of year, and the soil moisture content. Overgrazing (not allowing adequate recovery) reduces root mass, photosynthesis, and the amount of carbon sequestered into the soil, decreasing soil life. Proper grazing builds soil.

6. Finally, utilizing animal impact and grazing impact provides nutrient cycling in pastures, and contributes to soil organic matter. Additionally, the grazing action on forage plants encourages root growth and root exudation of plant sugars that feed soil microorganisms.

For livestock producers, this boils down to a combination of perennial pasture, cover crops in rotation on annual fields, and good grazing management. These simple concepts are described by ranchers Allen Williams, Gabe Brown, and Neil Dennis in a short video on how grazing management and cover crops can regenerate soils. View the video Soil Carbon Cowboys to get their take on soil health practices.

Learn more in the ATTRA publication Building Healthy Pasture Soils. It introduces properties of soil, discusses evaluation and monitoring of soil quality, and introduces grazing management principles and techniques that promote healthy soil.

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Permalink What criteria should I use to evaluate tools and equipment on the farm?

Answer: It is easy to start with simple/low cost/ non-mechanized tools, but depending on your goals, efficiency and scale of production should be evaluated. This includes understanding where the weak links are in a current system, as well as how much you are willing to invest in tools and equipment, which is often related to becoming mechanized and/or scaling up in equipment in order to increase sales.

It is important to keep in mind that the goal of a tool or equipment investment is to get a return on the investment, which may require some significant investments up-front. Farmers take a lot of pride in owning equipment, but we have to be honest with ourselves in making sure that our tool and equipment choices relate to being more efficient in our operations in order to be more profitable.

Some key considerations include:
• Does the investment fit within the context of your whole-farm plan?
• Is the investment scale appropriate; both in terms of current scales of production as well as future growth?
• How does a new tool or piece of equipment impact labor costs on your farm?
• What does it cost to own and operate? Think about costs beyond just the purchasing price, such as taxes, costs related to storing equipment, and maintenance costs.
• How durable is the tool/equipment?
• Is it easy to find parts, maintain and repair?
• Is the tool ergonomically designed to fit the body or is the machinery safe to operate?
• Who will be using it and how comfortable are you or your staff using it?
• Is the tool or equipment designed for your soils and terrain?
• What are your other options?

Doing research and talking with other farmers, especially if a farmer is using a tool or implement that you are considering, is important. Be specific in learning about how well a tool works in the field and its limitations. Think about how often you will be using the tool and whether or not you need to own it. Some tools are very specialized and are used on a limited basis. Have you looked in to what tools are available to rent through local organizations or county conservation districts? If you do decide to purchase a tool, tractor, or implement, consider adding a contingency line item to the budget to cover not only routine maintenance, but especially those unexpected costs. Finally, keep in mind that if you make a purchase and are not satisfied with it, you can always sell it.

To learn more, consult the ATTRA publication Equipment & Tools for Small-Scale Intensive Crop Production. This publication details equipment and hand tools for soil preparation, planting, and weed management. The use of appropriate equipment and tools, both in terms of size and practicality, can increase production efficiency and profits while minimizing the disturbance to soil and to plant health.

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