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Archive | Farm Management

Order vs. Wildness: The Land Management Question

A member of the Virginia Monarch Butterfly Society called me: “Do you know where we can plant a pallet of milkweed seed?”

I didn’t even know Virginia had such an organization. Beyond that, I wondered where in the world they procured a pallet of milkweed seed. As I talked with the lady on the phone, I suppressed my laughter realizing that a couple of hours before I had had a totally frustrating in-the-field meeting with the landlords of one of the farms we rented.

By Joel Salatin

The landlords were more than a little dismayed at the weeds we had created with our mob grazing management. In September, right when the monarch butterfly larvae needed them, those weeds included a healthy contingent of seed-pod-bursting milkweeds. The monarchs were euphoric. The landlords weren’t. This 90-acre pasture farm had been continuously grazed for years before we rented it. The sparse grass never exceeded a couple of inches in height; clover was virtually nonexistent; thistles dominated the plant profile.

In three years, by using mob grazing and aggressive hand tools we vanquished the thistles, but a plethora of edible and often delectable weeds (like milkweed) thrived. Indeed, that afternoon at our pasture-based summit, Daniel (my son) and I exulted in the biomass volume we had stimulated. Fall panicum, milkweed, redtop, clover and some goldenrod offered color and variety to the orchard grass and dominant fescue sward. The landlords, however, did not share our euphoria. As we stood in armpit-high biomass, arguably more than had been on the farm for decades, all the landlords could utter was a contemptible and emphatic: “Look at all these weeds.” I was incredulous. Outdoor and wildlife lovers, the landlords could not make the connection between this diversified, voluminous biomass and the overall health of their pasture farm. We could scarcely walk through the biomass jungle, replete with spiders, field mice and a host of creepy-crawly insects.

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Corn Mazes as Profit Generators

“If you build it, they will come.” Several years ago, these words seemingly fell upon the ears of John Kondilis-Hashem, an ambitious young farmer whose skills have graced Bella Organic Farm since 2008. With an eye for business prosperity and a hand for organic cropping, Kondilis-Hashem keenly studied the methods through which neighboring farms were boosting profits and sales. Upon assessing the local competition, he soon realized that his Oregon-based operation was lacking one critical ingredient.

The corn maze at Sweetfields Farm in Florida is designed, cut and maintained by the owners to keep costs down.

“(Conventional) farms were all offering corn mazes — an attraction for drawing in crowds to their businesses,” he said. “We realized we were one of the only farms in the Portland area not doing one.”

But once the owners of Bella Organic built it — amid the steamy summer of 2010 — the premonition soon rang true. Today, visitors come in droves from the greater Portland region and beyond to lose themselves in the farm’s green-cropped labyrinths, a fun fall diversion from football and leaf-raking.

Although farms typically charge between $10 and $20 per visitor for a two-to three-hour meander through the pathways, the maze itself has not been the primary moneymaker in the case of many organic and sustainable farms.

“We make a little bit of money from the admission prices, but not a great deal,” said Kondilis-Hashem. “Rather, the purpose of the corn maze is to simply lure people to the farm. And boy has it ever. Once we get folks to come out, they end up spending an entire day here and purchasing many of the other things that we offer. We run the maze in conjunction with our pumpkin patch — and that’s where we really clean up. I’ve seen people come here and end up carting out six or seven pumpkins at a time. But the corn maze is what reels them in.”

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Farming Success: Salatin’s Top 10 Markers

Farming success can be measured in myriad ways, but sustainable farmer Joel Salatin shares 10 keys that can help farmers stay on the right track.

Joel Salatin shares knowledge with seminar attendees at Polyface Farm in Swoope, Virginia in July.

The market is here. The knowledge, thanks to decades of Acres U.S.A. articles, is here — all we’re doing these days is tweaking and refining. The basics are all in. The people are here. Young farmers, small farmers, localized farms — it’s a veritable tsunami. The infrastructure is here — portable electric fencing, water systems, foliars, composting, tall tunnels and greenhouses.

With all our technology, tools and knowledge, why aren’t ecological farmers more wildly successful? More to the point, what are the markers for success, the salient commonalities among the practitioners who enjoy great production, great profits, and great pleasure?

If we can tease out these elements, perhaps more of us can enjoy the fruits of righteous farming. What follows are 10 elements, in no particular order, that I think identify farms that successfully transition into and thrive in the integrity food system.

1. Develop One Enterprise Well Before Adding Others

All of us feel the push. The push to meet customer demands, the push to better utilize our infrastructure, the push to become fully employed and leave that town job. Goodness, the push to have a profitable enterprise.

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Tractor Time Episode 10: Mark Shepard and Water Control on the Farm

Phew. We can smell, hear and see how busy you guys are out there. The dust is flying. The trucks are moving. It’s just that time of year. We called a farmer this week and he told me that as he prepares for harvest by getting his workers set, his

Mark Shepard, courtesy www.forestag.com

equipment ready and his crops healthy, it barely leaves time for anything else. Just to prove the point, we had to laugh when one of our coworkers told us about their kids going off to school this week, but were worried about how much work that left their dad to do on the farm.

So if you are listening this week to our podcast, we want to say thank you. Thank you for making the time, and for helping us grow our little podcast with each post and with every download. If you feel so compelled, please spread the word about Tractor Time and Acres USA.

Which brings me to this week’s podcast.

Mark Shepard is one of Acres USA’s newest authors, whose book, Restoration Agriculture, is No. 1 on our bestselling list. Talk about getting off to a good start. Part of it is the way he deftly explains proven practices on how to holistically repair damaged and broken farmland, something he’s done in his own life.

Part of it is the way Mark advocates for the practices and methods that he has developed. He speaks and works with farmers around the country, so speaking in front of our audience is just second nature.

In this week’s podcast, we are featuring Mark Shepard’s talk from the 2016 Eco-Ag annual conference in Omaha, Nebraska, where he spoke to a very full hall on his sustainable water practices he uses on his farms. It’s also the subject of his new book that we will be releasing later this fall, so stay tuned for that. It’s under production as we speak.

What follows this is Mark’s speech, which lasts just a little more than an hour. We hope you enjoy his talk, and the discussion that occurred between him and the audience last year in Omaha.

For all of our podcasts, click here.

Restoration Agriculture, by Mark Shepard

To learn more, please buy Mark Shepard’s book, Restoration Agriculture, and stay tuned for his new book on water management to be released by Acres USA this fall.

New Livestock Integration

There is an old adage among livestock raisers that holds that blue ribbon-winning animals seldom make good parents, but generally make crackerjack grandparents. The one word answer for why this happens is, I believe, adaptation. A top Texas-bred bull, boar or ram whisked away to our Northern Missouri climes or someone else’s Maine environment is going to struggle to adapt and must go through a time of transition.

This is especially true if the move is made in a time of temperature and weather extremes. The changes an animal can face when moved from point to point on the map are many and varied, and some are too often overlooked in that flurry of activity.

The differences between a Northern Missouri and a Southern Texas winter are quite obvious, but there are also differences in soil types, water composition, ration mixtures and forms, owner temperaments and skill sets, differences in facilities, differences between gene pools, new parasite and disease challenges, different pasture varieties and a great many more.

Quite often, the animals being moved are young, inexperienced and lacking in natural immunities for their new environments. The more artifice and “push” that went into creating that animal the harder it will be for that animal to make the needed changes.

Altitude, for example is a real factor in how beef cattle perform with some lines clearly denoted as “high altitude” cattle. An old and very much kept off the books rule of thumb for swine breeders held that for every young boar going through a test station, a full or half sib should be retained at home to replace it should it fail to perform for the new owner.

The boar grown out in a very small group, fed a very complex and costly ration to accelerate growth in a limited space, living in such a stifling environment, may hang up some real performance figures but then fall apart quickly in the real world of the breeding pen.

In founding a new herd or flock or upgrading or replenishing an existing one it is necessary to look to outside sources for the needed genetic material, the genetic pieces to make corrections and accomplish desired goals. Continue Reading →

Biochar: Prepping it for Soil

Biochar can benefit your soil, but only if properly prepared prior to application. In November 2007, scientists at the USDA National Laboratory for Agricul­ture and the environment (NLAE) in Ames, Iowa, began multi-year field trials to assess the effects of biochar on crop productivity and soil quality. Scientists amended almost 8 acres with biochar made from hardwood. Twelve plots re­ceived 4 tons per acre; 12 were treated with 8 tons per acre.

Author David Yarrow helps install a biochar test plot at Subterra in Kansas.

They found no significant difference in the three-year average grain yield from either treatment. Other USDA field and laboratory studies in Idaho, Kentucky, Minnesota, South Carolina and Texas showed hardwood biochar can improve soil structure and increase sandy soils’ ability to retain water. But soil fertility response was more variable.

USDA scientists violated four key principles for biochar use: 1) bulk char, in one large load 2) raw, uncharged char 3) sterile, uninoculated char, with only a tad of microbial life 4) synthetic salt fertilizer, tillage and other antibiotic practices.

After all, soil may get 25 or more inches of rain a year, but not all at once in a single event. Biochar, like water, is best added in a series of small doses so soil has adequate time to distribute and digest it. We already know from research in the Amazon that dumping five, 10, even 20 tons of raw char all at once into poor soil retards plant growth for one year and maybe two. But after that, plants erupt in impressive, vigorous growth.

But a dip in yield isn’t acceptable for production agriculture. Farmers can’t wait a year or two to harvest a profit­able crop. Professional growers need fast response and strong stimulus to growth. Economics and handling logistics require convenience and low cost, with vigorous growth from minimal applied material.

Fortunately, we are learning how to prepare char for optimum results in soil and on crops. Biochar research in America is hardly 10 years old, but solid research shows that properly prepared, intelligently applied biochar has dramatic effects on soil structure and plant growth at as little as 500 pounds per acre.

To prepare biochar for optimum effec­tive use in soil, there are four fundamen­tal steps: moisten, mineralize, micronize and microbial inoculation. Continue Reading →