Bed formers and Raised Beds – One size doesn’t fit all

Vermont springs and summers are as variable as ever. While rainy spells make raised beds a preferred option,, the growing season is just as likely to have prolonged dry hot periods where irrigation is necessary to keep plants from experiencing heat and water stress. Whether wet or dry weather, well-formed raised beds enable farmers to have more control over moisture. Benefits of raised beds:

  • Roots of your transplants won’t get wet feet in saturated soils,
  • Growing area delineated so plant damage and soil compaction avoided,
  • Elevated soils warm earlier in the spring,
  • Variety of implements can be used to make raised beds, including a walk-behind tractor.
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USDA Satellite Image

With wetter weather on average, raised beds drain more quickly after heavy rain events, which is especially useful for some Champlain Valley soils that have a high clay content. And then during extended dry hot periods, drip tape under mulch keeps soil moisture levels up.

The National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center gives three-month outlook for precipitation and temperatures. In recent years, the Northeast has been showing higher than normal temperatures, resulting in soils drying out faster so demand for irrigation is growing but farms need to make sure there is a sufficient water supply so drawdown on wells and groundwater is not a problem.  Intervale Community Farm has found that their irrigation system not only avoids crop losses of lettuce and other greens during extended dry periods, but also ensures higher quality vegetables, without signs of stunted growth (e.g. stubby carrots).

Spring soil preparation – scale makes a difference

Farming intensively on less than an acre, Shakey Ground Farm can’t justify the implements to plant and manage cover crops. In the fall, farm manager, Drew Slaubaugh, uses a 24-inch walk behind Troy tiller to make two-foot beds with a V-shape furrower, leaving a two-foot walkway and managing to keep tires in the same line. For cover to protect soils and keep weeds at bay, Shakey Ground lays down heavy reuseable plastic in the fall. Come spring, the black plastic has kept the soil dry and warmed it up more quickly so planting can begin in April for cool weather crops like kale and spinach.

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Stony Loam Farm’s Bed Former, Charlotte, VT

Cultivating about 12 acres of vegetables, Dave Quickel, owner of Stony Loam Farm, has invested in a number of implements to manage green manures and prepare his soils. Almost all his fields are cover cropped during the winter, and in the spring, several implements are used to prepare the soils including plowing in the cover crops and tilling and mixing in poultry manure. Stony Loam cover crops mostly with rye, which has a high carbon to nitrogen ratio, so poultry manure is needed to improve nitrogen levels. Once the green manure is mixed in and soil is tilled, Dave uses a dedicated bed former to shape his beds.

Other farmers use roto-tillers, spaders, and different types of discs and cultivators to work their soils. Soil preparation is different depending on the soil structure and texture, with a bed former working best for soil with uniform aggregate size and reasonable tilth.

Dave Quickel & mulch layer

Dave Quickel with his bed former, Stony Loam Farm

Stoney Loam’s mulch layer lays down four foot plastic and attached discs throw soil on the plastic edges to keep it in place. This creates a three-foot wide bed. The beds are crowned, higher in the center so water runs off more easily. The plastic mulch keeps weeds at bay and the black color absorbs heat, warming up the underlying soil. This mulch layer implement also lays the drip tape underneath.  Over recent years, Dave has been pleased with his mulch layer, which he bought second-hand for less than $1000 (new these units cost about $2000+).

Newly-formed beds need a week or two for the soil to settle before planting. The bed former and plastic mulch layers to shape and cover raised beds and down drip tape in one pass are proving popular. But compared to a bed former alone, the price tag starting new at $2000 ranging up to $5000+ can be prohibitive.

These implements can be attached to the 3-point hitch on a tractor but the size needs to be compatible with the power of the tractor. Whether purchasing this equipment is the right decision depends on a number of factors: the amount of land cultivated, the time available for soil prep, the equipment already on hand and how it can be adapted to the soil and field prep given the cover crops. Actual usage and storage and maintenance practicalities should also be considered.  It may well be more cost effective to hire a custom operator with the necessary equipment and skill to prep soils and make the beds once a year.  Ideally, you’ll want to test a bed former and mulch laying equipment before purchasing and ask:

  • Is the size compatible with your tractor and three-point hitch?
  • Can you hitch it on your tractor easily enough?
  • How adjustable is the height and width of bed former?
  • Does it make the right size beds for your row configuration?
  • How are the discs aligned? Are they throwing in enough soil for the beds?

How much time and how many passes you make in the field depends on the type of cover crop mixed in, the specific implements in use, the soil, the the operator skill, and the weather. Finding the balance between enough soil prep and too much requires a fair amount of finesse. Too many passes in the field can damage soil structure and cause compaction; too few and weeds remain and outcompete crops. Alternatively, some cover crops can be harvested and ways of protecting soil health with low tillage can be explored. For more information on cover crop management, check out UVM Extension’s Northwest Crops and Soil’s program and talk to  UVM Extension’s Crop, Soil and Pasture team..

Posted in Farm Equipment, production information, Resources for Beginning Farmers, Scaling up | Leave a comment

Why Consider Crop Insurance?

Jake Jacobs, University of Vermont Risk Management Education

The immediate answer to the question – why consider crop insurance –  is simple: agricultural production is risky business.

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In the wake of Hurricane Irene, Vermont, 2011, Photo Credit: Flickr, Carosauros

If weather were more predictable, agricultural producers would have no problem planning for difficult production years. But of course, that’s not the case. And it is not only major catastrophic events like Hurricane Irene in 2011 that cause losses.

Crop insurance provides a safety net against perils such as frost, drought, flooding and hail. The chart below illustrates the causes of agricultural losses in Vermont due to weather events since crop insurance was first available to Vermont farmers and growers in 1990.

In 2016, crop insurance protected $27 million of liability on growing crops in Vermont. There were 73,000 acres insured and more than $880,000 was paid to farmers in indemnities for production and/or revenue losses.

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Causes of Agricultural Losses in Vermont from 1990 until 2016, Source: Mary Staak, USDA RMA

Do you need crop insurance? The best way to determine your need for crop insurance coverage is to assess your level of risk, working with a USDA-licensed insurance agent. To find an agent, visit your local FSA office or go to Risk Management Agency’s agent locator.

Without a strong crop insurance program, uncontrollable weather events can undermine the financial security of individual farmers and could potentially place an enterprise or even an entire agricultural sector in jeopardy. And the business and financial impact of agriculture is important to Vermont’s economy. In 2015 Vermont’s agriculture industry contributed more than $940 million to the state’s economy.

Buying a crop insurance policy is a risk management tool available to Vermont farmers. Producers should consider how a policy will work with their other risk management strategies to insure the best possible outcome each crop year. Crop insurance agents and other agri-business specialists can assist farmers in developing good risk management plans for their unique agricultural enterprises.

USDA is an equal opportunity provider and employer.

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Posted in Financial Mgmt, Goals, Insurance, Resources for Beginning Farmers, risk management

Second Career Farmers Reveal Secrets

On average, people change careers three times in their lifetimes, and that’s not counting about ten different jobs across those careers. Whether through choice or circumstance, people are on the move to different employment opportunities, and it’s not surprising to find a number of people starting out in farming after abandoning a completely different career path. Do these new older farmers have a head start based on prior work experience?Or, do they have lots of catching up to do having spent no time on a farm and too much time in an office?

We posed these questions to several second career farmers and also asked what advice they’d give to those starting out farming later in life.

Jon Turner on farm

Jon on his farm, Wild Roots

Jon Turner started out in the military and as a marine served three tours of duty. Returning home, he first found solace and meaning in writing and then turned to farming which he describes as “more of a way of life rather than a career.”

What skills and experience from the military did Jon find helpful for his new life in farming?

A good farmer has a healthy relationship with their land and is capable of recognizing patterns both good and bad. Being in the military forced me to develop an understanding of situational awareness and attention to detail.  As a marine in combat, these two factors could save a life and are entirely translatable in the agricultural field. To be adaptable to change while knowing how to navigate difficult circumstances – a concept first introduced to me in boot camp 14 years ago – is everything we as farmers, as land stewards are currently being confronted by.

As Jon describes the challenges of farming on his farm, Wild Roots Farm, “Anyone can take a seed and place it into the ground. What happens afterwards will determine whether you eat a nourishing meal or not.  Our first garden put me on a path to understand living systems, their relationship to each other, and our relationship with them.  My desire to learn how to read the landscape and how its patterns would influence the design process followed a few years later.”

Yves Gonnet, owner of Midnight Goat Farm found himself on a different battleground. As Yves explains, “My decision to farm was by choice as a result of circumstances – my renewed sense of mortality after a bout with blindness and the new found question, ‘If not now when?’ ” Farming provided “the physical exercise of manual labor, the mental exercise of constant challenge, the depth of life and death activities, and the satisfaction of growing something delicious.”

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Yves on his farm, Midnight Goat

From a career in technology and software in the 1980s, Yves brought a number of transferable skills to farming including troubleshooting, creativity, patience, inventory management, marketing, sales, customer service, accounting, procurement, vendor relations, cash management, and knowing how to learn.

As an IT entrepreneur, Yves knew how to transform and grow businesses, “it was an amazing time moving from paper to machines.”  In farming, he’s finding the skills and knowledge he needs keeps growing including:

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Yves and a kid goat, Midnight Farm

  • How to save a life;
  • Read the weather;
  • How to grow and harvest plants;
  • Curing, fertilizing, and packaging;
  • Building with available materials;
  • Electrical work, and plumbing; and,
  • Regulatory compliance.

Terry Marron would have started her first career in farming if the conditions had been different in the 1980s. Having studied animal science in college, the career she’d imagined wasn’t there upon graduation.  “In 1983 it was either big dairy or you didn’t farm; there were no niche farms,” she says. Terry found a career with the US Postal Service, which provided job security and full-time employment. After a 20-years, she was ready for change. Brushing up on her college accounting, and building on her gardening hobby, Terry discovered that her people skills from working with the public and customers prepared her well for going out to talk to local food buyers and pitching her farm product. In addition, as a postmaster, she’d been accountable for large sums of money, balancing sums daily with a computer program so moving onto Quickbooks for her farm, Windstone Farm, was a smooth transition.

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Terry’s Windstone Farm

All three farmers have made good use of the variety of programs offered by the network of agricultural agencies and service provider organizations in Vermont. In developing the Vermont Chapter of the Farmer Veteran Coalition, Jon learned about specific programs and resources by meeting with people at state and federal organizations including the USDA, FSA and NRCSNOFA-VT, the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food & Markets (VAAFM), UVM Extension Center of Sustainable Agriculture, among others. Terry availed herself of UVM Extension’s Women in Agriculture Network (WAgN) and New Farmer program and also tapped into UVM Ext. listservs such as Veg & Berry News to build up her skills and knowledge. Starting a small goat dairy in 2012, Yves has relied on the Dairy section of VAAFM and workshops at NOFA and is now finding the listening to his customers, vendors, other farmers, and employees are teaching him the most. Jon has a favorite book – Gaia’s Garden by Toby Hemingway, his go-to guide for permaculture and regenerative agriculture.

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Terry hones her tractor skills

Since making a shift to farming, Terry, Jon, and Yves find their lives evolving. Yves was focused on business building and lifestyle and today’s he’s leaning towards self-sufficiency, sustainability and community building. Terry has recently re-evaluated the long hours she devotes to farming.

Like many jobs working at the Post Office was 9 to 5, “I closed the door, it was gone. With farming, you’re living in it, any downtime that you have it’s so easy to go out and before you know it, it’s 9 pm.” If your partner isn’t in farming, this can affect personal relationships. For me, it’s important to set up some boundaries so your partner doesn’t resent your business.”

Here are some words of wisdom which Terry, Jon, and Yves pass on for people considering a change to farming:

  • Plan as well as you can, and prepare to learn the most you can from failures.
  • Don’t be shy to ask for help.
  • Make the most of naps.  If you forgot how to nap, relearn it.
  • Don’t take on too much at once: there is a lot to learn and you need the time to absorb.
  • Find farmers — experts and old-timers — to speak with.
  • Try to learn from other people’s experience whenever possible.
  • Be safe.  There are really no sick days.
  • Work on someone else’s farm for one or two years.
  • Don’t try to do it alone.
  • Set boundaries for personal time.
  • If you don’t like doing a task (e.g. payroll), hire it out.
  • Have the numbers – farm viability is crucial
  • Work smart not hard.
  • Sing while you work.

Jon adds that for those who suffer from Post Traumatic Stress, traumatic brain injuries (TBI) or other physical disabilities, farming is one of the most valuable solutions for re-integration.  “Farming has provided meaning, worth, value and community, all things that we had in the military and lost once getting out,” he says.

Beyond “how-to” practical and farming preparation skills, some eureka moments have come from posing existential questions – many of us ask ourselves these questions at some point in our lives. But before plunging into farming, these questions can take on particular significance:

  • What do you I enjoy the most?
  • What do I need to know – or don’t I need to know?
  • How much can I manage and how much do I need to control?
  • Where do I want to go?
  • What’s important?

In listening to Terry, Jon, and Yves, it’s clear that they’ve thought about such questions. In their own words:

We are never bored and almost always working on useful satisfying tasks. What we do is real work, which feels great. I used to work 80-100 hour weeks with little time off, now I just live.

I want to stay connected with growing.

As difficult as farming can be, there is nothing more rewarding than knowing that you are taking every effort to feed your family and community.

Posted in Farm labor and human resources, Goals, Quality of Life, Resources for Beginning Farmers, Scaling up, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , ,

Safety Net Widens for the Whole Farm

Jake Jacobs, University of Vermont Risk Management Education

Whole-Farm Revenue Protection (WFRP) allows producers, who previously had limited access to a risk management safety net, to now insure all of their farm’s commodities at one time. This coverage protects crop diversity on the farm, which directly supports the production of a wider variety of food. As the first crop insurance policy available nationwide, WFRP is tailored for any farm with up to $8.5 million in insured revenue, including farms with specialty or organic commodities (both crops and livestock), or those marketing to local, regional, farm-identity preserved, specialty, or direct markets.

To make participation easier for more beginning farmers and ranchers, USDA’s Risk Management Agency (RMA) has reduced the number of required records from five to three historical years, plus farming records from the past year. Additionally, any beginning farmer and rancher may qualify by using the former farm operator’s federal farm tax records if the beginning farmer or rancher assumes at least 90 percent of the farm operation.

And to address expanding operations, RMA increased the cap on historical revenue to 35 percent from its previous 10 percent, to better allow growing farms the opportunity to cover their growth in the insurance guarantee.

RMA’s Whole-Farm Revenue Protection pilot program was introduced in the 2015 insurance year. Starting with the 2016 insurance year, the new program was expanded and became available in all counties in the United States, a first for the federal crop insurance program. For more information, see this program fact sheet and to discuss options, see a crop insurance agent.

Posted in Insurance, Resources for Beginning Farmers, risk management, Uncategorized | Tagged

Working your Way on Farms

Considering farming as a career? If you’re like a great number of aspiring farmers, you’re on the look-out for ways to build hands-on skills and knowledge about running a farm enterprise. On-the-job learning — working on a farm, especially one that’s similar to the kind of operation you’re considering — can be a great way to gain experience, expertise and insight into what it takes to succeed as a farmer.

Spring is right around the corner, and farmers are hiring. A range of jobs are available starting soon. Some positions last the length of the growing season — and sometimes beyond, while others are shorter term, for key times during planting and harvesting.

Take Westminster Organics/Harlow Farm with 150 acres under cultivation in Westminster, Vermont. Currently, the farm is looking for a specialty grower to start as soon as possible and for the spring and summer, the farm is looking for employees to join their production crew, both part-time and full-time. As farm owner Paul Harlow explains, “We usually hire temporary employees starting in May or June depending on the weather. The job generally goes through October or November. We also hire college students who are only available for the summer.”

Last Resort Family & Sign

Doyle-Burrs family, Last Resort Farm

Unsurprisingly, most farms are advertising for employees with farming experience. But other experiences, skills, and approaches to work are just as important including:

  • Leadership,
  • Organization and reliability,
  • Equipment and machinery operation,
  • Website and social media marketing.
  • Team working and positive outlook.

We are looking for people who are excited to be here, are interested in farming, can take direction as well as show initiative. Students of agriculture, botany, or soil science can add a useful perspective. And people who are able to lead small groups of workers on specific tasks are useful. – Paul Harlow, Westminster Organics

Some farms explicitly acknowledge the role they have in educating the future farmers of New England. At Last Resort Farm in Monkton, farm owners, the Doyle-Burrs, hire local students to the extent possible. As Eugenie Doyle says,

We’re committed to educating young people about farming, as so few grow up on farms these days. Some of our best all-time workers have started as high school students who have stayed with us throughout college. What’s important is a strong work ethic, positive outlook, and eagerness to learn.

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Brittany & Drew, Shakey Ground Farm

A learning environment is what many young people new to farming are looking for. Drew Slabaugh, currently co-manager with his wife Brittany at Shakey Ground Farm, looks back on his choice to take a temporary employee route at New Leaf Organics Farm in Bristol. At the time, he and Brittany weren’t completely sure about farming as a career. As Drew puts it,

There’s less time commitment than applying to an incubator program and it’s probably better if you’re still exploring what type of farming you’d like to delve into but you’re willing to work hard. It’s a good combination of gaining education and experience while living on the farm and having access to food. While there are a range of abilities and attitudes to work among employees, you’ll be fine if you work hard and can take directions.

Employee openings can be found on most farms’ websites and on NOFA-Vermont and NOFA-MA for classifieds. For positions around the country, check out ATTRA’s Internship and Apprenticeship Directory.

In deciding which farm job could be right for you, consider your interests and skills.  If it’s customer-facing work in a retail setting, you may prefer a job where help is needed at farmers’ markets or a farm store or coordinating CSA pick-up. If you prefer using equipment, you may prefer being part of a large farm’s production crew where you’ll need some proficiency with agricultural equipment including tractors and implements.

Some questions to ask yourself and potential employers:

  • Teamwork – Will I be working solo or as part of a team? Will I be directly supervised?
  • Time demands – how many hours do employees work in a typical day? Is weekend work needed? What types of tasks will need to be completed by the end of the day?
  • Physical demands – how many pounds will I need to be able to lift?
  • Room for creativity – will there be opportunities to help with marketing e.g, farm display at farmers markets, marketing leaflets, website and social media presence?
  • Opportunities for communication-oriented work – does the farm get visitors and how many on a typical work day? Are farm tours offered?
  • Opportunities to gain management experience – will I get a chance to supervise others and lead weeding and picking teams?

For more recommendations on setting up a work/learning arrangement, consider the suggestions at NOFA-VT’s “Recommendations for Farm Workers/Apprentices” webpage.

The good news for aspiring farmers with no or limited experience, is that many of the larger farmers in New England will consider hiring you. As Paul at Westminster Organics says, “We hire people with no experience every year. As long as people are motivated and willing to learn, we will train them.”

Farm worker classification

Since the classifications of workers on farms can be confusing, it’s important for jobseekers and farm owners/managers to recognize that farm workers by default are classified as employees, that is, if someone performs work for a for-profit business, the assumption is that he or she is an employee.  This means that state and federal minimum wage laws do apply. Typically, compensation for employees is advertised as an hourly rate, but perks such as fresh vegetables are available with most farms saying, “We’ll make excess produce available to all employees.” And sometimes housing is available and the use of vehicle is permitted. Farmers are allowed to pay their employees in room and board to meet any minimum wage requirements.

Posted in Farm labor and human resources, Resources for Beginning Farmers