Archive | Farm Management

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 - 10 keys to farming success

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.

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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

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.

Prepping soil for biochar

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: they used 1) bulk char, in one large load; 2) raw, uncharged char; 3) sterile, uninoculated char, with only a tad of microbial life; and 4) synthetic salt fertilizer, tillage, and other antibiotic practices.

Biochar, like water, is best added in a series of small doses so soil has adequate time to distribute and digest it. After all, soil may get 25 or more inches of rain a year, but not all at once in a single event. We already know from research in the Amazon that dumping 5, 10, or even 20 tons of raw char all at once into poor soil retards plant growth for one year and maybe two. After that, though, 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.

There are four fundamental steps for optimally preparing biochar for use in soil: moisten, mineralize, micronize, and microbial inoculation. Continue Reading →

Soil Testing: The Need for Total Testing

What many farmers probably don’t know about soil testing is that most soil tests only tell us what is soluble in the soil. They do not tell us what is actually there in the soil, no matter what fertilizer salesmen might like to imply. To find out what is actually there requires a total acid digest similar to what is used for plant tissue analysis. Mining labs run these total acid di­gests on ore samples which are crushed, ground and extracted with concentrated nitric and hydrochloric acid solutions, but a mining assay does not determine total carbon, nitrogen and sulfur as a plant tissue analysis would. These ele­ments need a separate procedure essen­tial for evaluating soil humic reserves.

Total soil testing is key to understanding your soils’ needs.

Most soil tests measure total carbon, which then is multiplied by 1.72 to calcu­late soil organic matter. This assumes that most of the carbon in the soil is humus of one form or another. While this may or may not be true, determining the car­bon to nitrogen, nitrogen to sulfur, and nitrogen to phosphorus ratios is a good guide for evaluating organic matter, and this requires testing total nitrogen, sulfur and phosphorus as well as carbon.

While carbon in almost any form is a benefit to the soil, it helps enormously if it is accompanied by the right ratios of ni­trogen, sulfur and phosphorus. Though these ratios are not set in stone, a target for carbon to nitrogen is 10:1, for nitro­gen to sulfur is 5.5:1 and for nitrogen to phosphorus is 4:1. This works out to an ideal carbon to sulfur ratio of 55:1, and a carbon to phosphorus ratio of 40:1. Because soil biology is very adjustable these targets are not exact, but achieving them in soil total tests is a good indica­tion of humus reserves that will supply the required amounts of amino acids, sulfates and phosphates whenever the soil food web draws on them. Continue Reading →