Research in Progress: Unpacking the farm labor puzzle

Worker cutting lettuceOctober 2015.  One of the strategies new farmers often use to learn their craft is to observe and talk with other farmers that appear to be having success in similar operations. In fact, farmer-to-farmer learning has a very high preference score in nearly every aspect of farmer training.

In this research project, we are using the same principle to identify labor management practices. By interviewing experienced farmers who also appear to be effective labor managers we are learning about the process of recruiting, hiring, training and retaining the right employees.

Throughout the summer and fall our research team has been conducting interviews with farmers in Vermont, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. As we collect their stories about what works and what doesn’t we’ll be looking for themes to emerge and building our next research phase from these findings.

In the meantime, no reason not to share a few of the pearls that have emerged from these interviews. So, a few keys to successful farm labor management from the experts in the field:

  • Be clear in your own mind about your business goals before you begin hiring.
  • Detailed job descriptions are critical. It sounds so obvious but an accurate, detailed job description is no simple matter.
  • Have prospective workers visit the farm so that you can meet with them face-to-face and observe them in your farm setting.
  • Do not expect farm workers to learn every aspect of the business right away. Manage the training so that the employee has time to master one activity before taking on something new.

Woman berry pickerStay tuned for more updates on this exciting project. And if you are a farmer that has successfully navigated the farm labor maze and you’d like to share your tips and strategies with us please contact us — we’d love to talk with you!

Thanks to all the farmers who gave us their time so generously in the heat of the growing season. You Rock!!

If you’d like to participate in this research project please email

[In March 2014 UVM Extension, with several UVM research faculty and colleagues from University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension, Pennsylvania State University and the University of Wisconsin was awarded a 3-year integrated research and extension grant to look at labor management practices on small and medium-sized farms. The goal of this project is to identify clusters of labor management practices that “successful” farmers are using and develop decision tools that make these tools more available to other farms.]

The research team:

  • Mary Peabody, UVM Extension
  • Jason Parker, UVM Plant and Soil Science
  • Kathleen Liang, UVM Community Development and Applied Economics
  • Seth Wilner, UNH Cooperative Extension
  • Carolyn Sachs, Pennsylvania State University
  • John Hendrickson, University of Wisconsin Extension
  • Beth Holtzman, UVM Extension
  • Monica Petrella, UVM Graduate Student

NIFA AFRI Award #2014-68006-21873

Posted in Farm labor and human resources, Resources for Beginning Farmers | Leave a comment

Outsmarting Quackgrass


Quackgrass shoots and rhizomes. Silver dot is a quarter for size reference.

Quackgrass, Elymus repens (L.) Gould, is a major problem in cropping systems across the United States and Canada. It is a persistent, perennial, cool-season weedy grass that has the unique ability to hide below the surface and suddenly invade an area. When you least expect it, quackgrass can shoot its leaf blades, spreading its durable rhizomes into a thick mat.

Once quackgrass invades, you will have no choice but to address it. According Penn State Extension Dwight Lingenfelter and William Curran, authors of the bulletin Quackgrass Management, an Integrated Approach, “This competitive perennial grass can reduce crop yields up to 95 percent.” And… “Once introduced into a field, quackgrass is nearly impossible to eradicate.”

First and foremost advice for anyone assessing, preparing or managing land for a cropping enterprise: Know quackgrass.  And don’t get discouraged, because you can overcome it.  Read on for recommended land preparation and management practices.

It behooves you to virtually eliminate this weed before it surprises the heck out of you, before you’ve already established your crop, before it’s too late or before it can ever gain a foothold.  Taking a small amount of time now to try to i.d. this grass and educate yourself about its control might save you eons of frustration down the road.  On the other hand if you have no suspicions, quackgrass will sneak up on you like a pack of wolves on a rabbit in the middle of a clearing.

Here are the basic identification characteristics:

1. Quack has “auricles” or small protrusions of lighter color where the quackgrass_auricle2_smleaf blades meet and clasp the stem.

2. Many grasses resemble the appearance of quackgrass above ground,so the easiest way to confirm quackgrass is by its rhizome. Rhizomes are thick 1/8” diameter IMG_4985roots spread laterally. They have nodes every couple inches that send of short feeder roots. Each node on a rhizome is also a potential point to shoot a new set of leaf blades. Quackgrass rhizomes love the 3”-6” deep zone. Older rhizomes are browner in color, and newer rhizomes are bright whitish in color with a smooth gloss. Rhizomes drill through the soil (and virtually anything else) by virtue of their pin-sharp tips.

3. Quackgrass seed heads form later in the season, arequackgrass-seed-heads about 2-8 inches long with two distinct rows of seeds.

What makes this weed so difficult to control?
It is remarkable how widespread this weed is. Here are some reasons for the success it has had over the centuries on our farms and in our fields across the nation.

• Quackgrass is persistent. Rhizomes stay viable buried in undisturbed soil. Rhizomes lay dormant below the surface, making them very hard to detect and very hard to reach with surface cultivation or herbicides.

• Quackgrass is smart. When it knows you’re there, it hides. When it sees you leave the field it decides to shoot its leaf blades above ground, send its rhizomes into a lateral mat and take over an area. Note: Quackgrass’ ability to conduct a stakeout of your farm is not research based, but it’s a good hypothesis!  Also note, you are smarter than a weeds.  (If you keep reading.)

• Quackgrass is opportunistic. It is the first to take over disturbed soil and is very talented at doing this.  It is as if this is one of it’s key evolutionary traits, enabling it to outcompete other weeds by being the quickest to invade an area.

• Quackgrass multiplies like there is no tomorrow. It multiplies sexually by producing seed, and asexually by producing more rhizomes and shoots.

• Quackgrass feels no pain. Mow the grass, it shoots right up again (although theoretically when mowed very low it will have less vigor, a key concept we’ll explore in a minute) Cut the rhizome, it shoots right up again. Cut the rhizome and in fact you’ve just multiplied the plant. (Although in some cases it’s easier to combat smaller plants than larger ones, again, a concept we’ll get into shortly)

• Quackgrass is adaptable. It grows from the deep south to the far north. Quackgrass will tolerate very alkaline and very acidic soils, although its growth will slow the farther the soil pH strays from neutral 7. Generally it tolerates poor, compacted soils. Sounds like a weed, don’t it?

• Quackgrass is mean. According to some studies it has allelopathic potential or the potential to release compounds into the soil that inhibit other plant growth. It also will mine a soil very quickly, making nutrients and water unavailable for crop uptake. Quack likes the weather to be cool and moist.  On the contrary, most of your crops like the weather on the warmer side. This gives quack its advantage, with leaf blades very quickly reaching a height that smothers low or slow growing crops.

• Quackgrass is cool and cunning. It takes refuge underneath the cover of other plants or ground covers, which provide the cool, moist microclimate that it likes. Studies have found that quackgrass emergence can be higher in fields that had been previously cover cropped than in fields that had been previously fallowed. Most mulches provide cool soil underneath that keeps quackgrass rhizomes happy. Compared to a spot with no mulch, quackgrass will likely have a more fortified root system below a mulch cover, giving it the vigor it needs to push its leaf blades above the cover with ease.

What to do, what to do?

Quackgrass might seem like a superweed but don’t worry.  It has an achilles heel.  From here on this article will branch out from one very simple concept, the essential secret to controlling quackgrass. To summarize, there are a finite amount of sugar or energy stores in every quackgrass rhizome. Every time a rhizome shoots a leaf blade, it depletes some of its energy. The plant will not reach sufficient photosynthetic capacity to replace rhizome energy stores until there are three or four new leaves. Thus if the plant is allowed to shoot but tilled or mowed before it reaches three or four leaves, rhizome energy stores are at a net loss. If this process is repeated— letting it shoot leaves and knocking the plant back down – then eventually all energy stores in the rhizome become depleted and sianara quackgrass.

There is a publication by Heather Westwood, Kara Cox and Eric Gallandt from University of Maine Sustainable Agriculture Program, “Quackgrass Management on Organic Farms,” that elaborates on the above secrets beautifully. The 5-page publication provides an excellent overview of quackgrass management.

The above concept is the key to successful quackgrass control, whether it be organically or with chemical control. Quackgrass is smart but we are smarter. Just don’t let that quackgrass overhear you. Shhhhhhhhhh, wisper our secret… “We trick quack into thinking conditions are right for shooting leaves – we entice it and invite it to shoot, and then we knock it right back down again.  Remember that opportunistic evolutionary trait? — Where quackgrass rhizomes are activated when soil is disturbed?  We use this to our advantage.  For quack is stubborn when it comes to shooting new leaves from those little rhizomes, despite how depleted energy stores might be. Once we disturb the plant by chopping, cultivating, harrowing, etc., the plant keeps shooting again and again, never knowing that we’ll be plotting our next attack, knocking it back down again and again until it’s eventually down for the count!”

Sounds like a lot of work and excessive, repeated tillage, mowing or cultivation, but these methods are some of the only few proven to work.

3-pt hitch tillers are good for cultivating wide swaths or walk-behinds like the one pictured are good for tilling narrow weed-free strips beside crop rows.  Models with forward rotating tines are good for shallow, repeated cultivation.  Models with counter or reverse rotating tines are good for deeper tillage for tilling quackgrass the first couple passes.

3-pt hitch tillers are good for cultivating wide swaths or walk-behinds like the one pictured are good for tilling narrow weed-free strips beside crop rows. Models with forward rotating tines are good for shallow, repeated cultivation. Models with counter or reverse rotating tines are good for deeper tillage for tilling quackgrass the first couple passes.


Tine cultivators brought in before grass blades grow too high can knock down quackgrass and also bring rhizomes to the surface to dry out.

Rototilling works for knocking recently emerged shoots back down, but there is a danger that once rhizomes are chopped there is a chance for more multiplication of the weed. You need to stay faithful with a repeated tillage regime if you are using a rototiller. Same goes for other types of cultivation, but “S” or “C” tine tillers and cultivators will be more effective in bringing quackgrass rhizomes to the surface, achieving the double whammy of knocking back recently emerged shoots and bringing rhizomes to the surface where they desiccate and die.

Mulch or plant canopy cover, as discussed above, can be a dangerous proposition because of the cool, moist microclimate that quackgrass rhizomes love. Mulch needs to be deep, and I mean very deep. Permeable mulch such as wood chips or straw laid very thick might not smother the weed, but it will force the plant to deplete more energy reserves to push leaf blades through the cover to sunlight.  This tires out the weed somewhat.  Weeding out quackgrass from mulch or mulch-softened soil is usually much easier – you can pull out whole rhizomes — than weeding out from bare compacted soil, where it is nearly impossible to extricate all the rhizome.

Ripping out weed fabric that has been overgrown with quackgrass.  The weed has shot its rhizomes through the fabric and becomes almost impossible to separate.

Ripping out weed fabric that has been overgrown with quackgrass. The weed has shot its rhizomes through the fabric and becomes almost impossible to separate. Once quack rhizomes are woven through, the weed fabric becomes practically useless. Keeping the surface of the weed fabric free from any leaf litter or other decomposing debris helps avoid this problem.

Be careful about using synthetic mulches like weed fabric that you might think are impermeable to weeds. Quackgrass roots will poke right through them. Synthetic covers like landscape fabric can work as long as they are laid lightly on top of the surface. Quackgrass rhizomes can not weave through loosely laid fabric media because they lack the firmness they need for poking through. Never cover a weed fabric with more natural mulch or else quack will not only poke through, but also establish a mat on top of your weed fabric within the decomposing mulch.

One farmer I know has had success smothering quackgrass with weed fabric, but he lays it lightly with fabric staples, never loads anything on top and removes it or changes it around frequently enough to never let weedy grasses intermingle with the fabric and establish a foothold.

Any forked tool is a handy tool to have around for more delicate eradication of quackgrass around perennials or in close proximity to crop plants.  Tools like pitchforks or fork hoes can bring rhizomes to the surface without breaking them, making for thorough eradication. May the fork be with you.

The Chillington fork hoe.  7" prongs are perfect for uprooting quackgrass rhizomes.  Long handle is ergonimic.  All weeding can be done from a standing up position.

The Chillington fork hoe. 7″ prongs are perfect for uprooting quackgrass rhizomes. Long handle is ergonomic. All weeding can be done from a standing up position. Once the tool pulls out rhizomes, they can be laid out to dry in the sun or gathered to be disposed of and never to return.

When hand weeding quackgrass, pull firm but pull slowly, the goal always being to pull out as much rhizome as possible. They should pull out like strands of spaghetti if you’re good at it.

Glyphosate-based herbicides (e.g. Roundup) are suggested for chemical control. But application rates need to be adjusted to account for the need to access the crown and rhizome of the plant. See this short video for a quick summary. Glufosinate-ammonium-based herbicides (e.g., Finale) is another approach. Careful with either of these approaches as these herbicides are non-selective and they will injure the plants you want to protect as well as the ones you wish to eradicate. Contact your local agricultural Extension service for more ideas on selective herbicides that provide protection for the crop you are growing.

It is much easier to eradicate quackgrass from a field before you plant a crop, so be patient and leave yourself an extra year in your crop rotation or soil conditioning phase to practice a repeated tillage fallow. Short season cover crops like buckwheat can be planted in between the times you till. Pigs can be rotated in, they are excellent tillage machines, stomping out quackgrass and even eating it when they are trained to do so.

In closing, a weed is only a plant growing in the wrong place right? Quackgrass has a nice place in pastures, with an average value as a forage for grazing livestock. It is an excellent erosion control, lavishing at the opportunity to take over and stabilize any disturbed soil no matter what the slope. And I haven’t tried this yet, but in case you find yourself a bit sweaty and stinky coming in from the field from battling all that quackgrass, apparently you can burn the rhizomes as incense.



Posted in Land access, production information, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Online: Agriview, Reports from the Field, Crop Weather Report

High tunnel, photo courtesy of USDA-NRCS, NY

High tunnel, photo courtesy of USDA-NRCS, NY

It’s a busy time of year. But now, at the beginning of June, with a couple of really wet days, you might be having just a bit of a breather.  Here are a couple of interesting resources online that you may not be aware of.

  1. Vern Grubinger, UVM Extension, compiles ‘Reports from the Field.’ This appears in each issue of the VT Agency of Ag’s “Agriview.” Growers send in comments from Vermont and now from around New England. Topics include: winter kill, insects, frost damage, what varieties are performing well and poorly, and other observations. On Vern’s website, he also has a listing of Selected Newsletter for Vegetable and Berry Producers.
  2. USDA’s National Ag Statistics Service has Crop Weather Reports from around New England. While quite a few of the reports focus on forages and pasture, there are veg and berry reports. These are compiled every Monday morning through the growing season, and appear late on Monday or on Tuesday. You can ask for the report to be sent to you as a pdf file. The report includes temperature ranges, rainfall, and unusual situations and observations.
  3. Speaking of National Ag Stats in New England, their New England Fruits and Veg Report for 2014 includes acreage, yield and price information by state.

Hope you find something here useful, and that 2015 is a great growing year for you and your farm.

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Last Chance to NAP!

But there is no time to nap!  It’s time to inquire about NAP, the Noninsured Crop Disaster Assistance Program.  USDA Farm Service Agency offers this insurance program to producers of specialty crops.  Diffwake-up-748163erent coverage levels are available that cover certain portions of crop loss or prevented planting due to natural disasters.

And did I mention that if you are a beginning farmer this insurance might be FREE!

Changes to the 2014 Farm Bill make this program’s baseline coverage free for beginning farmers.  The “service fee” is also waived if the producer is classified as “limited resource” or “socially disadvantaged” by FSA.    All you need to do is contact your local FSA office to confirm whether or not you fall into one of these categories and obtain application details.

Time is running out to sign up for this program for 2015.   I had a recent conversation with Eric Winchester of the White River Junction FSA office.  There was a mid March deadline, but this might be extended.  According to Eric, ” because FSA is attempting to increase participation levels in this program for certain underserved groups, there may be opportunities for some farmers in Vermont to still enroll applicable crops in this program.  The underserved groups are, specifically, Socially Disadvantaged, Limited Resource and Beginning Farmers.  Socially Disadvantaged includes women, American Indian or Alaskan Native, Asian or Asian American, Blacks or African American, Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander, and Hispanic farmers and ranchers.  Beginning Farmers are those who actively operate/manage a farm or ranch, but have not operated their farm or ranch for more than 10 years.  Limited Resource participants are defined by both their level of gross farm sales and their personal income. ”

So despite late nights boiling sap or getting tired from crop planning, now is not the time to nap.  But it might be the exact right time to sign up for NAP.  For more information contact your local FSA office.  Don’t wait to inquire about this potentially low-cost strategy to buffer against production risk.

Here is a map of Vermont county FSA offices with links to contact information:

Here is a basic fact sheet about the NAP program:

And for those of you who really enjoy drilling down into detail, here is the Interim Rule that discusses changes to NAP resulting from the 2014 farm bill.

Posted in General info, production information, Resources for Beginning Farmers

Crop Diversification…How many varities should I grow?

Jen Miller RAFFL New Farmer Program Coordinator

Jen Miller
RAFFL New Farmer Program Coordinator

Small farms, and new farms, tend to be extremely diverse in their enterprises, market outlets, and crop selections.  The number of different crops and the number of different varieties of each individual crop grown on any given farm can reach an impressive total.  And sure, crop diversity is necessary for ensuring that no matter what pressure is put on your plants by pests, diseases, and extreme weather events that you still have a harvest that season.  It may not be the exact crop mix, yield, or ready at the time that you had planned, but crop diversification helps ensure that farm income will be generated.

In these winter months, during time spent perusing the seed catalogues and talking about varieties with other farmers, it can be hard to exercise self-restraint when choosing your crops and varieties for the upcoming season.  Even if your seed order is already in, it may only take one discussion on the VVBGA listserv to generate excitement about a new variety of pepper, fueling a desire to add more diversity to your crop mix.  Right now growing 40 varieties of heirloom tomatoes for display at the farmers market may seem like a fantastic (and completely manageable) idea for drawing in customers; this same idea may lose its appeal when you are sorting and labeling your harvest in August.

Here are some key things to consider as you are finalizing your seed order and crop plan Jen Miller blog photofor the season:

  • Your Market: Do your customers, whether direct or wholesale, care about choosing between varieties or just about you growing the tastiest option? Do you have to grow every single crop you offer your CSA members or can you buy a few in?
  • Your Farm Systems: What inefficiencies will an increase in the number of crops or varieties you grow create in your system? Are the associated costs offset by the sales generated by your crop diversity?  What systems (i.e. record-keeping or employee management) can you put in place to minimize the impact of these inefficiencies?
  • Your Time: Is there an opportunity cost associated with growing a large number of different crops?  Is there an opportunity cost associated with NOT growing a large number of different crops on your farm?  How can you spend your time most productively (and profitably)?
  • Your Crop Mix: Are you satisfied with the crops and varieties you are currently growing?
  • Your Interest: To what extent does having a high crop diversity or trialing different crop varieties peak your interest and count as a value of your farm business?

If that last point rings true to you, check out this article by farmer Becky Maden to learn more about best practices for trialing new crop varieties on your farm!   Trial by Farmer

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