Monday, February 9, 2015


Sue Baird with the Missouri Organic Association invited yours truly to lead a few sessions at their annual conference in Springfield MO (yes MO has group with a sole focus on Organics).  With fond memories of this conference in 2009, I jumped at the opportunity.
I polished up my online Organic record keeping presentation and created a new  "What's the real cost?" of organic production presentation based some recent experiences and a semi-formal Risk Assessment the farm keeps.  While the sessions were fairly small, the folks in them seemed to appreciate the perspective and ideas.   My notes from the sessions I attended can be found here.  A few unique features of this conference were the Organic commodity growers and  the advocacy tracts for the sessions.  Yes, there are certified organic row crop farmers.  They use cultivating techniques tuned for this century and it's impressive.
Why is it we hear "it can't be done" while others are doing it elsewhere?

One of the best part of any farm conference is the food and MOA did not disappoint. The photo below was just one example (including the Cabernet).  

Friday evening brought a Top Chef Challenge between two local chefs demonstrating their best "cochon" skills. 

Each started with a pastured non-gmo fed heritage breed hog.

I have attended hundreds of conferences along my career path
 and this hands down was the coolest event ever.

The best part was yet to come.
In 2009 when the conference's silent auction bid sheets were barren, one of the Mennonites offered his services as an auctioneer to help with the fund raiser.
Up until that point in my life, my dealings with these folks had been minimal.  The mennonites are known for their farming prowess. It's not as well known that they have produce auctions to sell their products.   After witnessing him work the crowd like an old pro, all my preconceived notions of this group went out the window.   When Sue contacted me about this conference, that auction was the first memory that came to mind.  Well it seems this has been part of the conference ever since.  I wish I could have recorded the whole auction because this was not the first time these pro's auctioned off a hog and it was SO evident.  I did not take any photos of the small children they brought with them, but let me tell ya on the cute and well behaved scale,  their kids top  the charts.  They must be doing something right. 

Check out Mennonites selling off a few slabs of pork-> MOA 2015 Fund Raiser

Farming conferences always get me motivated for the year and MOA delivered.  I hope they ask me back.

MOA Farm Notes

Here are my notes from some of the sessions I attended at the 2015 Missouri Organic Conference in Springfield MO.

The conference had several different tracks; Grain & Forage Production, Livestock, High Tunnel, Vegetable, Culinary & Medicinal Plants and Aquaponics.  The topics I was interested in were mainly in the Vegetable production track.

The first few sessions I attended were about Rooftop Farming, Best Crops and How to Grow Them. Ben Flanner from Brooklyn Garage Farms of NY was the presenter and these guys seem to have certainly found their niche.  He shared growing techniques for micro-greens and building their rooftop beds.  He stressed the importance of soil tests to keep the correct nutrient balance.
They use a 4 row seeder from Johnnys on a bed that has had a roller compact the dirt so the seeder will work properly (something this farmer will try when I find the seeder i bought and could never get to work for me).  They use Quickbooks for record keeping and use it's sales tracking features for analytics.  He recommended The Organic Farmer's Business Handbook for new and old farmers.
"Off season is the time to make money" was my favorite quote, meaning its the plan you make in the winter that will determine your revenue in the summer.

My next sessions were Economics & the Sustainable Manual and Organic Pest Management of brambles and berries in High Tunnels. They were hosted by Dr. Jeannie Propp and Dr. Donn Johnson from the University of Arkansas.    If anyone reading this is interested in growing Apples, berries or brambles the UofA folks have some very cool financial tools you can use for FREE.  Email for a copy of them.  They require MS Excel, but they have put some time into these templates and are worth getting.   They talked about MyIPM a smart phone app that helps with disease and pest management.   The talked about the Spotted Wing Drosophila fly that has found its way in AR.  The said it started showing up mid-July and affected more of the later season berry crop than the early one.  They said Entrust (spanosid) was the only organic control that showed and efficacy.  The SWD only lays its eggs on the most ripe fruit when the skin of the berry is stretched thin with ripeness.   The stressed the importance of storing the berries in <40 degree refrigeration to prevent the spread.  Some growers are covering their crop with a mesh screen for protection, Proteknet 80 was one brand.

I popped in on a weed management session long enough to here about a technique where carrot growers flame their beds a few days before their carrots emerge from the soil.  The cover a part of the bed with glass creating a small hot spot.  When the carrots emerge in the hot spot they know they have a few days before the rest of the row will pop up and they flame the row at that time.  Gonna try this one fer sure.

My favorite session was hosted by a real life organic row crop farmer who also sold fruits and vegetables. The session was Marketing Your Products: It's All About Confidence.  Rodney Heinen of Heinen Organics asked all the right questions and said very little and still managed to make some excellent points.  He carries a refractometer to measure the sugar content of his fruit with him at all times.   He cautioned against too many samples because customers buy more when they are hungry. He shared how one vendor can hurt the market if they don't add value and only alienate customers (memory of a former HC vendor the first year yelling at a customer who passed his tent "What am I? Chopped Liver?").  He recommended that when a customer shares a recipe, instead of a foodies normal reaction to share a recipe as well, that you should commit to trying the recipe the customer shared.  He shared a story on how he got .13 more per bushel of corn just by knowing the current trading rate and having the confidence to tell the buyer this is what I am selling at X .  "Farmers should be price Makers instead of price Takers" Ron Heinen.

The Keynote address was by Joseph Simcox, The Botanical Explorer.  This guy is a cross between Richard Simons and Ule Givens.   He talked about traveling the world to find diverse local edible plant species that could possible help feed the world. He was very entertaining and made the point that it does not have to be GMO to be able to feed future generations.

The last session I took notes for was Managing Diseases in Organic Vegetables Before and After symptoms are found.  Margarete McGrath from Cornell reviewed several strategies for combating plant diseases.   Using Amaranth as a trap crop has shown better than blue hubbard squash.  Many fungi attach the bloom un-noticed and then show up in the fruit.   The time to manage is prior to symptoms for know issues.  Carry a pocket knife to cut into plants to check for symptoms, not all are visible.  Mentioned a "Downy Mildew Forecast" that is published for sensitive areas of the country. Use spray nozzles specific for fungicide used (wide dispersal area).   Mentioned Serenade as an effect biological treatment.

A large seed seeder that is supposed to punch thru mulch and deposit the seed.

Went to a farm conference hoping to find a bride and I brought this back instead.....

Monday, May 20, 2013

2013 Summer CSA Pick-up's start this week!

Our CSA's Pick Up's start this week!
Here is what the crates will have inside.

Sylvesta Butterhead Lettuce

Merlot Red Leaf Lettuce

Chandler Strawberries 

Sweet Pea Shoots

Snow Peas


 We are excited to start fulfilling our shares to our most valued customers.  Additionally, these items will be for for sale at the Westover Hills Farmers Market on Tuesday and the Villiage Market at Whole Foods on Wednesdays from 4-7pm.     

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Extra Pay Days and New Relationships!

 This past weekend our farm was setup at the Arkansas Flower and Garden Show.  They invited farmers this year to participate and gave us a discount on the registration fee.   While our farm did not have a large variety of fresh food available, we did have lettuce, greens, broccolini, salsa, pickled sweet peppers, our new rack card CSA brochure and yours truly.

The 3 day show along with the Hillcrest Farmers Market provided something our farm has not had since last summer, a 4 pay day weekend!  Market money this time of year is rare and appreciated especially with the extra expenses of starting our spring crops and bringing on a new growing system.
Introducing our farm and new varieties of food is one of my passions.  The broccolini was a hit and we look forward sharing more of it with our market and online customers in the coming weeks.

Our spring tomato seedlings will be ready for transplanting next week, let's hope our 20 degree nights are behind us.  

As a small market farmer, half of my passion is starting seeds, watching them grow and bear fruit for our customers.  The other half is to share the processes and build a food relationship with those same people.   The flower and garden show provided an opportunity to meet new people,  introduce our farm and plant a relationship seed.  Let's hope that seed germinates and grows organically into lifetime opportunity to share good food, friendship and a passion for making a difference by buying local AND organic.

Monday, January 28, 2013

ARKANSSAWG! Wooo Pig Sustainable!

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 Forrester
The 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 FarmsTrolly 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.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Starting Summer Seeds!

This time of year we convert the old computer cabinet used to store non-refrigerated produce to a germination closet.  We have a thermostat hooked to a space heater that keeps the closet at whatever desired temp needed to sprout the seeds.
It's not exactly up to code, but since it will only be used for a few months and then removed , we just live with the risk.   

We started our Heirloom Grape ("Crack-berries") and Early Girl tomato seeds a few days after Christmas.

On January 3rd the seedlings started sprouting.

On January 5th, mice found the closet and feasted on Organic Tomato seedlings.
This is one of the lessons I always share with beginning farmers, it's a rare event 
when things go as planned if your an organic farmer.  As a consummate planner, this
 was and still is by far is the most difficult lesson to learn. 
 What you do to mitigate the unknown is to plan for an early start, so if you have to re-do things there is time (usually).
After a week of trapping mice with old fashioned mouse traps and extra crunchy peanut
 butter (7 confirmed KILLS!!), more seeds were started.

On January 15th round two of the Heirloom Grape  ("Crack-berries") and Early Girl tomato
 seedlings start sprouting.

Moving these seedlings to the 50 cell flats they will spend the next 5 weeks is probably
 the easiest thing we do.  

One of the tools we use to for our seedlings is our ebb & flow water tables.  These tables are flooded from the bottom up so only the roots of the plants get a drink and the plant itself stays dry.  Keeping water off these young sprouts goes a long way towards giving them a good start.  THE MOST IMPORTANT protection against the pests that our state serves up is a HEALTHY plant.  Managing the water is a key element we focus on.

Sarah helping transplant the tomatoes.  

These 1200 tomato seedlings are 'planned' to be in the ground in early March.

The first stage of yellow straight-neck summer squash , dill , parsley and Tyria Cucumbers.  This early stage will be grown inside Wilma.
We 'plan' to open the markets in April with the fruits from these plants.
Producing year round means we always are starting seeds, but starting seeds for the first summer crops is special.  It gives me hope that our 2013 PLAN has the flexibility needed to ensure another record year.
It all starts with a seed.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

New for 2013 Broccolini!

In the next few weeks my Broccolini will be ready to harvest and it cant get here soon enough! 
Broccolini is is a cross between broccoli and Kai-lan (Chinese Broccoli).
This is just one of the many new items  we are growing this year.