My daughter Sarah & I at the Taste of Arkansas Dinner
This last weekend was spent in Little Rock at the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Groups' annual conference "Practical Tools & Solutions for Sustaining Small Farms". I look forward to the SSAWG conference each year not just because the curriculum is always fantastic, but because the opportunity to meet in person and build relationships with other southern growers is rare and always a priority with our farm. I have compiled my notes about the conference in this VERY LONG POST and while many parts of it may not have much value if your not a farmer, If you make it all the way through, I hope you think the ending was worth it.
I was invited to participate in a specialty crop colloquium put on by the Southern Risk Management Education Center Thursday. The group consisted of southern state farmers from Florida to Texas. You might think talking about all the challenges in agriculture from a risk perspective is not a great way to start off a conference, but not for this risk management junkie. I am a firm believer in forewarned is forearmed. When the facilitators publish the results I will be updating the farms formal Risk Assessment. Understanding risks involved in agriculture helps ensure better decisions and 'should' help prevent being blind sided by an issue. My least favorite thing to say is "I never thought that could happen". The group followed a prescribed bar camp method to create a list of key risks. The focus was not so much on mitigation stratagies, but just identifiny the risks.
At the end of Thursday I caught the last few minutes of a cut flowers mini-course. Needless to say I know nothing about cut flowers but do plan on growing some to form 10 foot letters on my farm spelling out our website address. All I brimmed from the end of it was that my tunnels would probably do well with flower production and it seems that Whoopi Goldberg may have a twin sister who grows flowers and is just as entertaining.
My first Friday session started with a favorite topic of mine, marketing. Bridget Kennedy from NC is the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Projects’s (ASAP) farm outreach coordinator and talked about ideas for direct marketing. While her presentation was '30 Ideas for Direct Marketing' she lead off with the fact that there are 100's. She talked about the value of marketing to a more narrow audience instead of the masses. She recommended a multi-prong and repeated approach (something my marketing guru brother Jules said months ago too). Whether it be add buys on TV/Radio, rack card brochures, reaching out to HR resources at hospitals, the key is to use different methods repeatedly so customers will connect the dots. They are far more likely to visit you if they heard about you on the radio, picked up a brochure at a fitness center and surfed your website. This old dog picked up on some good marketing ideas and will be incorporating them this year.
Next on my agenda was CSAs 2.0. Since we are offering our first CSA this year I had been looking forward to this session in particular. Most of the producers attending this class already managed CSA's and it was very informative to listen to their input. We shared the pros/cons of different types of containers used from bushel baskets, cloth bags, cardboard boxes to the plastic crates we plan on using. Most of the folks tried to have at least 6-9 different varieties of produce each week for each share. They recommended having at least a green, some kind of starch and fruit if possible in each share. Most of the producers had value adds available including eggs, meat, flowers and recipe information (something we may do in the future). They talked about customer retention with the larger CSA's considering 30% retention to be good and the smaller CSA's reporting a 50-100% customer retention rate. 100% retention is the goal for North Pulaski Farms. One of the items that was concerning in this session was that it seems in more competitive markets, the farmers are doing a lot more for their CSA customers in order to compete. From an a la cart approach to point systems to secondary pickup options, the complexity of the distribution certainly adds value to the end customer, but it goes against my Keep It Simple Stupid standard. There were several multi-farm coop CSA's represented. One coop worked with a set list of farmers and charged 25% for distribution and packaging. With the growing number of CSA's available in central Arkansas, I am proud that we are working with other farmers on our CSA and not against them.
Next up was The Good, The Bad & The Bugly presented by Robert McDonald from Symbiont Biological Pest Management and Patryk Battle form Living Web Farms. These North Carolina gentlemen had a well rehearsed presentation Roland & Martin would have been proud to have on their show. When you can entertain as well as teach, your audience is far more likely to be engaged.. They discussed a broad range of IPM strategies and focused more on a systemic approach than just a spray regiment. Some of the topics discussed were controlling Blister Beetles by managing grasshoppers since the beetles lay their eggs on grasshopper eggs. The seem to have more success with insecticidal soap as a knock down agent than I have. They mentioned that 1/2% soap is not an instant kill agent, it may take several days before the insect dies but they reported it does kill stink bugs (we shall see). Along with the websites above they recommended Great Lakes IPM and Stop Brown Marmorated Stink Bug . What I liked best about this session was that these guys were from the south, where our mild winters let insects regroup instead of die off.
IPM is one of the most critical elements for a SOUTHERN organic farmer. If you have bug opportunities check out their websites!
The last session of the day was about another of my favorite topics, dirt. Managing Plant-Soil-Microbe Relationships for Better Soil Fertility was hosted by Julie Grossman of NC State and The Grossman Lab.
This session primarily was about the benefits of cover cropping in soil health. She discussed the different varieties of crops (legumes, vetches and grasses). She demonstrated how to approximate the amount of nitrogen a crop will add by calculating the dry weight of the plant above the root, times 3-4% to calculate the nitrogen per acre. One thing she said about legumes, is that the part of the plant that adds the most nitrogen was the leaves and not the roots like I had previously thought. If your a soil junkie like me you should check out her lab's website. At last years conference I first heard the quote "your farms soil is its wealth", organic farmers build this wealth every year if we are doing it right.
The last item on Fridays agenda was the state wide networking sessions. These sessions facilitate a dialogue for attendees from each state to network. Another chance to meet and discuss topics with Arkansas agriculture folks is always welcome. ARCH's Delta Garden group talked about their farm2school initiative, NRCS mentioned that there STILL is some grant money available and several farmers asked questions about drip tube , markets, and plastic mulch disposal. The UA Horticulture Department setup a list serve for this group a few years ago and todate, it has been underutilized. Any AR farmers not on this list, email me and I will send you the info. Having a list with this kind of expertise available ranging from farmers, to state officials to academia is a great value and we should put it to better use. I advised the group that there are no dumb questions and that we would never make fun of them in front of them.
Saturday morning started with another show from the duet from NC. This mornings topic was Producing and Using Compost Teas. They started their routine talking about making compost for teas and how to manage a worm bin. The audience was full of questions and it was obvious that this session could have been cut into two different ones. With the challenge to compost on a scale needed for our farm and the easy availability of compost from local sources (American Composting of NLR) NPF does not have an official compost process but do recycle nutrients to our soil using other methods. They talked about the difference between leached tea and brewed tea and the different inputs used to feed the teas microbes. I had not heard of using fish emulsion in the tea and am thrilled to pick up this tidbit. We did get a chance to discuss the issue with the NOP treating earth worm casting teas as raw manure and therefore falling under the 120 days before you can harvest rule. They accepted that they lost the fight with the NOP on it, but insisted that if it was true castings that the worms digestive system breaks down any harmful pathogens. After the meeting a farmer from OK shared that he had heard that it depends on the diet of the worms. He said that if we could prove the worms did not consume any animal waste as part of their feeding system , it would not fall under the 120 rule. You can bet I will follow up on this, the teas I brew now are good, but worm tea is the best because it's not only a fantastic fertigater, the microbes in the tea are a great insecticide and foliar feeder. They recommend a few books,On Farm Compost Handbook and Compost Tea Brewing Manual. Again check out their websites Living Web Farms and Symbiont - Biological Pest Management Co.
Sell More! Increasing Farmers Market Sales had me at Sell More. Hank Delvin Jr with Delvin Farms from TN and Tersa Mauer of Round Mountain Farms and the market manager of the Fayetteville Farmers Market shared tips on market setup. Delvin farms operates a several hundred member Certified Organic CSA in Nashville and is known for their eye catching CSA produce boxes. Both stressed the importance of selling in producer only markets. Both mentioned the value of events tied to the market as an affordable way to build customers and I have to agree. We always have more customers when something extra is happening at the markets. Hank Jr. said (always wanted to type that) to keep your tables full because the last few items always take the longest to sell, full tables mean more sales. Farmers Market Vendor Evaluation , New Farmer’s Guide: Cultivating Success at Farmers Markets , Farmers Market Coalition Farmers Markets and Local Food Marketing are all good links I encourage any farmer or market manager to surf.
After lunch I attended an Innovations in High Tunnel Production session that reviewed several new features in high tunnels and detailed high tunnel production in China I was not taking notes during this session because my enthusiasm was weakening and I had seen a similar presentation on China before. One impressive stat is that China has more vegetable production in high tunnels than we have vegetable production period.
Keith & Jill ForresterThe last session was my favorite and gives me hope and inspiration. SSWAG has a long history of "Our Story" sessions where farmers share the personal history of their farm. Last year I regretted missing out on Rusty & Sue Nufer of Armstead Mountain Farms story and having heard about Whitton Farms and having met Keith a few times prior I was not going to miss out on this session. Jill & Keith Forrester of Whitton Farms, Trolly Stop Market and The Whitton Farms Cannery shared their story of farming in north east Arkansas and how they have seemed to always catch the right waive in their endeavours. First let me say I had met Keith on a few previous occasions and this was the first time I have seen him in something other than overalls. Keith & Jill shared the story of how they met, how they have worked together for the last 10 years building their farm, branching out into other businesses and finding a balance as a couple sharring a passion. They shared how they started with a small budget and land Keith inherited. How they grew the farm, help start several farmers markets and managed a CSA. How they built a very successful market restaurant and a made a cannery available to local farmers for processing. How they are new parents of a baby boy. But they kept it real during their presentation with Jill or Keith often challenging each other like typical couples do and it was just adorable. I am pretty sure most every heart in the session was melting watching them interact and share stories of their life as a farming couple. They are provideing fresh food for their customers, jobs for their employees and canning and distrabution resrouces for farmers, that is what I call making a difference.
This conference is titled "Solutions for Sustaining Small Farmers" , Keith & Jill prove that a shared love and passion can be the best solution to meet that goal.