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Increased farm viability and diversification through value added forest products.

By Rich Taber

Steve Childs of the Cornell Maple Program discussed sugarbush evaluation with Rich Taber of CCE Chenango.
CCE Chenango / Small Farm Quarterly

Many farmers and rural property owners have woodlands as part of their land ownership portfolio, and we oftentimes receive inquiries as to how this land might be developed in order to generate some sources of income. Most landowners own their woodlands for a variety of purposes, such as wildlife viewing, hunting, outdoor recreation, firewood cutting, or maybe because the woods were just there, as part of the property.  However, some of these landowners’ livelihoods, and the integrity of the woodlands themselves are at peril due to the recent economic crisis in the dairy industry.  CCE Chenango has been working on a grant received from the New York Farm Viability Institute titled “Increased Farm Viability and Diversification through Value Added Forest Products”.  The impetus for this project was due to the fact that 66% of New York Farms (23,576) have large amounts of forest lands which add significantly to the purchase prices and tax burdens, and yet less than 2,000 farms use their forest land to generate significant income.  62% of New York’s 30 million acres, about 18 million acres, are covered with forests, and most of this land is owned by private forest landowners, and a good share of that by farmers.  Much of this land has the potential to generate income, but is currently underutilized.  The purpose of this project is to help farmers and landowners become more profitable and diversified by developing a value-added forest (woodland) enterprise that compliments existing farm operations and which can generate more than $10,000 per year.

One of our original goals in this project was to provide some alternative sources of income to dairy farmers in particular and rural woodland owners in general. The dairy industry has been hit with extremely low farm gate prices for fluid milk of late, with not too rosy a picture in the near future either. Farmers have been receiving prices below the cost of production, and quite simply put a “crisis on the farm exists”!

When prices are as low as they have been, sometimes landowners resort to “selling off the woodlot” for whatever prices they can get for their timber in order to pay their bills. If done incorrectly, the woodlands can be set back for generations before being able to generate any income again. Even if done with correct and sustainable silvicultural practices in place, a woodland can only grow a certain amount of timber, and can only be harvested every 20 years or so.  This Extension/Farm Viability project shows that with proper planning a viable woodland oriented income stream can be generated that will provide yearly farm income, and ensure the sustainability of New York’s forests for many years.

The value added products that we have encouraging are maple sap and maple syrup products, firewood and sawtimber production, woodland cultivated mushrooms, campgrounds and rental cabins, and hunting leases. To achieve the goals of this project the following activities have been occurring so far:

  1. Presentations have been given to farmers across the state to introduce them to farm-compatible forest enterprises that can gross more than $10,000 a year. $10,000 is the minimum gross income level that is required to be generated per year in order for farms to be eligible for property tax reductions.
  2. Several videos have been produced on forest income producing enterprises and posted to internet and social media sites such as YouTube, Facebook, and Cornell Cooperative Extension Websites. These YouTube videos can be seen at the Cornell Cooperative Extension Chenango County site, as well as at the Cornell Small Farms site with more information about these videos at the end of this article. A few more videos will be added as time allows.
  3. The project has developed a “Forest Value Added Business Plan Template”, which provides one-on-one help for farmers/landowners developing plans for a value-added forest product enterprise. Several woodland owners have developed viable businesses for their properties with this assistance.

New York State’s forest resources are always at the risk of being sold and subdivided for development. This project aims to keep the landscape in forests by providing farmers and landowners with viable income generating possibilities.

Rich Taber is Grazing, Forestry, and Ag Economic Development Development Specialist with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Chenango County and can be reached at 607-334-5841 ext. 21 or email: rbt44@cornell.edu.

For anyone seeking assistance in developing a forest oriented business contact the following at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Chenango County:

Rich Taber, 607-334-5841, extension 21, email: rbt44@cornell.edu

Ken Smith, 607-334-5841, extension 19, email: kas294@cornell.edu

Initial research focused on management of white mold disease in snap beans, one of the most difficult diseases to manage.

By Julie Kikkert

Çornell Vegetable Processing Vegetable Specialist Julie Kikkert joins scientists from the Rochester Institute of Technology Center for Imaging Sciences in utilizing aerial imagery to analyze snap bean fields at Cornell Agritech’s Geneva, NY campus.
R.J. Anderson / Cornell Cooperative Extension

Large acreage vegetable fields lend themselves readily to remote sensing technologies. Çornell Vegetable Processing Vegetable Specialist Julie Kikkert and Cornell University Vegetable Pathologist, Sarah Pethybridge have continued a three-year partnership with scientists from the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) Center for Imaging Sciences.

Initial investigations, funded by a grant from the USDA CARE Program have focused on management of white mold disease in snap beans, one of the most difficult diseases to manage. The project focuses on risk modeling and detection of crop flowering.

When favorable environmental conditions exist, spores of the fungus infect bean flowers and the infection later spreads to the pods making them unmarketable. So far, the project has narrowed down the useful spectral wavelengths, which will make the technology more affordable to the industry. Additionally, the technology has been highly accurate at detecting flowering in snap beans, critical knowledge for the timing of fungicide sprays.

In 2018, the group has expanded their work to table beets, where imaging of crop emergence and growth is being correlated with beet root quality and yield. This project was initially funded by Love Beets USA. The group was also recently funded by a large NSF grant to RIT (subcontract to Cornell) and will provide student training, as well as focus on disease risk modeling, harvest scheduling, and yield modeling. The project is also supported by advisory team members from Seneca Foods, Farm Fresh First, Love Beets, Agrinetix, Harris Corporation, and Headwall Photonics.

Julie Kikkert is a vegetable specialist with CCE’s Cornell Vegetable Program, and can be contacted at jrk2@cornell.edu.

Small, diverse livestock operation committed to implementing environmental stewardship practices.

By Judy Littrell

A covered barnyard was designed and cost shared through AEM implementation allows for a clean area for livestock while reducing runoff into nearby waterways.
Judy Littrell / Small Farm Quarterly

Nestled in the countryside near Cooperstown, Poplar Hedge Farm is a producer and direct marketer of goat milk products, poultry, beef and pork.    Farm owners Tim and Cindy Powers are implementing New York’s Agricultural Environmental Management (AEM) program, which allows them to incorporate Best Management Practices that help protect water quality and grow their direct marketing farm business.

The Powers purchased their property in 1995 and slowly began to build facilities to house their livestock and eventually their on-farm milk processing plant for their goat milk.   They currently maintain a herd of 32 goats, 24 milking age, and raise six replacements each year.  The goats are milked in a parlor and the milk is processed on site in their NYS licensed cheese plant.  The goat milk is made into chevre, feta, and havarti cheeses, with goat’s milk fudge being a recent addition to Poplar Hedge’s product line.  Products are marketed and sold at farmers’ markets, regional events, and on the farm.   In addition to goats, the Powers also raise beef cattle, pigs, laying and meat chickens as well as turkeys for the Thanksgiving season.

In the process of building their business, Tim and Cindy have not overlooked their responsibilities of environmental stewardship on the 35 acres they farm; in fact, they have paid extra care to implement environmental practices to preserve their nearby waterways.  In 2010, Tim contacted the Herkimer County Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD), who performed a whole-farm evaluation through the AEM program.  AEM is a voluntary, incentive-based program that helps farmers make common sense, cost-effective, and science-based decisions to help meet business objectives while protecting natural resources.    It allows farmers to work with AEM professionals to develop comprehensive farm plans using a tiered process.   At that time, the Herkimer County SWCD completed an AEM Tier 1 and 2 evaluation of the Powers’ farm, examining future plans of the farm, documenting current land stewardship activities, and assessing and prioritizing areas of concern.   Based on the proximity of the farmstead to the Unadilla River and nearby designated wetlands, Tim and Cindy decided to have a Certified Nutrient Management Plan (CNMP) developed for their farm.

A covered manure pad/storage, designed and implemented through AEM and the Herkimer County SWCD allows the Powers to spread manure when field and weather conditions are optimal. The cover reduces nutrient runoff, protecting water quality into laneway and nearby waterways.
Judy Littrell / Small Farm Quarterly

The CNMP identified several priorities, including the need to implement proper manure management practices, create a barnyard system that would reduce runoff, and build a milk house waste system. These actions would all help preserve water quality of the stream and wetlands adjacent to the farm.   Tim worked with the SWCD to use a portion of AEM funding and the District designed a manure compost facility. The structure reduces nutrient runoff, in comparison to the exposure of an uncovered manure pile, to precipitation events.  It also allows Tim to store the manure, avoiding winter spreading, and to apply the manure on fields when conditions are optimum.  This benefits the soil to more efficiently use the nutrients in the manure.   To compliment the compost facility, a covered barnyard with cement curbs was constructed the following year.  It now provides a stable and cleaner surface for the livestock, keeping the animals out of mud and reducing erosion, which helps to improve herd health and milk quality.  In addition, the curbs eliminate waste and keep it from running off into waterways.

As part of their whole-farm plan, the Powers have used the services of an animal nutritionist to balance a ration using their homegrown forages.  This has helped them to cut costs on purchased feed and maintain milk production.  Tim explained that the nutrient-dense composted manure plays a significant role in optimizing their hay crop since they are able to topdress their hay fields for optimum quality and yields.

Gerry Smithson, Herkimer Co. SWCD Manager, with Cindy and Tim Powers, receiving the Herkimer County AEM Farm of the Year award for 2018.
Image courtesy of Herkimer Co. SWCD

When asked what drives them to implement BMPs, Tim and Cindy each agree that all farms and landowners need to think about water quality in the future.  According to Cindy, “We have to do the right thing for water quality now and in the years to come.  It’s our responsibility to consider environmental practices within our farmsteads and encourage all farmers to examine the environmental impacts of their operations.”

Tim credits the Herkimer SWCD and the AEM program as the key to assessing their needs and getting BMPs into place.  In 2018, Poplar Hedge Farm was named the Herkimer County AEM Farm of the Year. Tim and Cindy both agree that the AEM program has not only assisted them in protecting natural resources but has also improved the health of their animals and the farm’s productivity.  Their future project plans include roof water drainage, a concrete laneway, and the milk house waste system. On the marketing side of the business, they intend to increase the varieties of cheeses they produce.

AEM is a program that is not size or commodity specific and can work on any farmstead in New York to assist farmers in being proactive environmental stewards, benefiting an entire farming operation and New York’s natural resources.  AEM is also the environmental stewardship standard, required by producers, to enroll in the New York State Grown and Certified program.

Judy Littrell can be contacted at Judy.littrell@agriculture.ny.gov.

For more information:

The New York State Grown and Certified program launched in 2016 to help meet the growing consumer demand for high quality foods grown or produced to a higher standard within New York State.  To be a part of the of New York State Grown and Certified program, participating farmers and processors, must meet food safety standards that pertain to specific commodities, while also meeting the required environmental standard by participating in an AEM assessment which can be completed by a local SWCD, at no cost.  The New York State Grown and Certified seal, indicates that the products carrying the seal, have been inspected for safe food handling and environmental stewardship. For more information about the NYS Grown and Certified program, visit https://certified.ny.gov.

To learn more about AEM, contact your local SWCD, or go to https://www.nys-soilandwater.org/aem/index.html.  Soil and Water Conservation Districts continue their long record of leading and implementing AEM with farmers at the county level, supported by statewide leadership from the Department of Agriculture and Markets and the NYS Soil and Water Conservation Committee

Many urban growers have questions about food safety requirements.

By Yolanda Gonzalez and Samuel Anderson

As part of Cornell Cooperative Extension’s Harvest NY agricultural economic development team, urban agriculture specialist Yolanda Gonzelez provides one-on-one technical assistance to soil-based and controlled environment agriculture producers in New York City on GAP certification requirements and food safety plans.
R.J. Anderson / Cornell Cooperative Extension

Commercial urban farmers in New York City, similar to producers upstate, sell through an array of marketing outlets, from restaurants and grocery stores to farm stands and CSAs. Unlike their rural counterparts, commercial urban farmers rarely generate the sales that mandate them to comply with the requirements of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). Despite being qualified exempt from FSMA, many urban growers have questions about food safety requirements for different marketing channels and in terms of general best practices.

Cornell Cooperative Extension’s Harvest New York Urban Agriculture Program has launched food safety programming in New York City. Initial work has focused on general food safety best practices and clarifying confusion around food safety rules, such as differences between buyer-imposed programs, especially GAP certification (Good Agricultural Practices), and government-enforced food safety regulations, such as FSMA.

Urban Agriculture Specialist Yolanda Gonzalez presented an “Urban Ag Food Safety” workshop for farmers-in-training in June at The Youth Farm in Brooklyn and in September at Kingsborough Community College Urban Farm. The training provided a practical guide to food safety for apprentices and interns working on urban farms.

Along with basic training, Yolanda has also provided one-on-one technical assistance to both soil-based and controlled environment agriculture producers on GAP certification requirements and food safety plans, as most producers do not have a written food safety plan. The ability to consult larger-scale farms on their options for obtaining food safety certifications leads to increase farm viability as it opens the door to selling produce directly to distributors and retail outlets, such as Whole Foods Market and the new Wegmans supermarket slated to open in Brooklyn next year.

Yolanda Gonzalez and Samuel Anderson are urban agriculture specialists with CCE’s Harvest NY agricultural economic development team. Yolanda can be contacted at yg88@cornell.edu. Samuel can be contacted at swa39@cornell.edu.

Grapevine grower finds conservation success with high tunnels, irrigation, and cover crops.

By Amy Overstreet

In an industry where winemakers are celebrated, their names etched upon the bottles of wine, it’s the farmers who nurture and grow the contents in that bottle who are the real heroes. And, the Farmer family of Vermont is committed to caring for and protecting the natural resources on and around their farm.  

A Pioneer in His Field

The Farmers worked with USDA-NRCS Soil Conservation Technician Alexis Clune (right) to develop a conservation plan which included a high tunnel that prevents direct rainfall from reaching plants, and drip irrigation for precise delivery of water and nutrients to plants.
Amy Overstreet / Small Farm Quarterly

You could say Andy Farmer was born to make a living from the land. Ironically, he says inexperience gave him the edge he needed. “Having a little ignorance served me well because I didn’t know how big of a thing I was getting into,” he chuckles. Seventeen years ago, the 23-year-old was a beginning farmer. Today, he’s established himself in a niche market that specifically serves cold climate grape growers in the northern United States. He and his wife India operate a nursery in Pawlet, Vermont, where they cultivate these specialized vines. They also grow table grapes for local markets on their small farm in Vermont’s Mettowee Valley, along the Mettowee River.

In 2002, Andy and India created Northeastern Vine Supply, Inc,. It grew quickly, and they realized they needed their own land to really make their business succeed. “When we purchased this farm in 2009, we knew we needed a combination of well-drained soils and an abundant irrigation supply,” explains Andy. The Mettowee Valley has naturally fertile soils and their farm is suited for their unique grapevine production because of its deep sandy loam soil, a favorable northern climate, and of course, the adjacent river. The Farmer’s purchased their land with the help of the Vermont Land Trust and in 2010 secured a conservation easement that limits development and subdivision and protects natural resources. Andy says that without this assistance they would not have been able to afford the land. “I was very interested in farming, but I knew I also had to make a living, and that isn’t always easy,” he admits.

The industry of cold climate grapevines, of which Andy was an early adopter, didn’t exist two decades ago when he got started. Recent development of cold-hardy hybrid grape varieties has given new life to a blossoming market.  He spends a good bit of time on the road at conferences, sharing his experience with other growers. People are getting excited about what he’s doing. When the Farmer’s embarked on their business in 2000, northern grape growing was a novel concept. Now, they are a trusted provider of high-quality grapevines to growers in cold climate areas, from Maine to Montana.

Soil: The Foundation of the Vine

Andy and NRCS Soil Conservation Technician Alexis Clune survey the grapevines in the field.
Amy Overstreet / Small Farm Quarterly

When asked about the secret to success, he says, “You figure out how to grow something, and then you have to do it a lot.” The Farmer’s started with 1,500 grapevines. Today, they grow a quarter million vines. Their farm consists of 188 acres, 35 which are cropped. “We try to use the best viticultural practices possible while managing our nursery and vineyard.” Viticulture is the science of growing grapevines. New viticulture technology in the form of cold-hardy and disease-resistant hybrid grape varieties has made it possible to grow in cool and cold areas that were previously thought to be impossible. And, the Farmer’s know it’s important to have a solid foundation upon which to cultivate their vines.

They began working with their local USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS)  office as soon as they broke ground on their operation to ensure their farming practices protected and improved soil and water quality. Utilizing Farm Bill programs, the Farmer’s secured technical and financial assistance to install a number of conservation practices. With help from the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and Agricultural Management Assistance (AMA), they installed a pipeline to get water from the river to an efficient drip irrigation system, thereby replacing a less efficient one. The new irrigation system helps conserve water and improves vine health by directing water straight to the plant. Crop rotation and multi-species cover crops protect against soil erosion, regulate vine growth, and improve soil fertility and water holding capacity.

The Farmer’s also grow table grapes for the local market. These are thriving in a controlled environment thanks to an EQIP-funded high tunnel. These plastic-covered structures protect plants from severe weather and allow farmers to extend their growing seasons. And because high tunnels prevent direct rainfall from reaching plants (which also helps reduce the risks of fungal diseases), the structures utilize drip irrigation for precise delivery of water and nutrients to plants. “Ultimately, the high tunnels are providing us with an opportunity to try growing table grapes organically,” says Andy.

These structures are working so well, they are in the process of constructing an additional two this year with NRCS assistance. “Growing grapes and grapevines is extremely intensive work per acre,” he explained. “It takes me eighteen months to produce one saleable unit of grapevines.” There are also lots of risk involved including finding labor, preventing pest damage, weather extremes, increasing energy costs, market variability and natural disasters. These factors make the controlled environment of the high tunnel even more valuable for the table grape business.

From the Garden State to the Green Mountain State

The Farmers started with 1,500 grapevines. Today, they grow a quarter million vines. Their farm consists of 188 acres, 35 which are cropped.
Amy Overstreet / Small Farm Quarterly

In 1996, Andy left his home state of suburban New Jersey to attend Green Mountain College in Vermont. He never left. It was there that he met his wife and earned a degree in environmental studies. The school is rated first in the nation for its environmental, social and economic sustainability curriculum. With a solid foundation and passion for stewardship under his belt, he began working at local farms and his interest in making a living off the land blossomed. “My mom’s family is Italian, so we always had big gardens growing up,” says Andy. “I have a strong work ethic, and my dad raised my brother, sister and I to embrace an entrepreneurial spirit.”

Despite his Farmer namesake, he’s the first in his family to pursue the profession full-time. He admits it has been a bit of a roller coaster ride. “In 2007, when the housing market collapsed, our phone stopped ringing,” he recalls. “But, 2010 was one of our best years.”  Andy and India have two children–a seven-year old son and three-year old daughter. He says that his son is already taking an active interest in the grapes, and soon enough, as he grows taller, will be able to pick them. But for now, he’s delighted to deliver the grapes in his wagon to local neighbors who buy them. “It’s his summer job,” says Andy. When asked about hopes to expand, Andy says that he and his wife don’t want to grow too large. “We can do a lot with this minimal acreage.”

The Farmer Behind the Vine

High tunnels have enabled the farm to pursue organic grape production.
Amy Overstreet / Small Farm Quarterly

Andy is honest when he speaks about the realities of his profession as a supplier of cold hardy vines. “The nursery industry is not really sought after. Nobody in their right mind would do this. I don’t work with grapes. I don’t work with wine. We work with sticks, we are covered with dirt, we are bent over, and we are in a facet of this industry that no wine drinker every considers,” explained Andy. Yet, he loves what he does and is committed to conservation for the protection and improvement of the resources on and around his farm. When asked about his vision for the future, he says, “I hope we can keep doing this and take care of the land. It grows on you. You make everything from dirt, and you get attached to it.”

Farmers like Andy and India, who plant, nurture, protect, and grow the vine, are shaping the future of this important agricultural industry. So, next time you raise a glass don’t forget to thank the farmer behind the vine.

Amy Overstreet is a public affairs specialist with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service in Vermont. A native of South Carolina, she is learning to drive in the snow, but hasn’t yet taken up winter sports. She lives with her husband Tim and two dogs, Gus and Newton, in Williston, Vermont. She can be contacted via email at amy.overstreet@usda.gov.

For more information about conservation technical and financial assistance, contact your local USDA Service Center or visit www.nrcs.udsa.gov.

With help from the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and Agricultural Management Assistance (AMA), the Farmer’s installed a pipeline to get water from the river to an efficient drip irrigation system, thereby replacing a less efficient irrigation system. The new irrigation system helps conserve water and can improve vine health by directing water straight to the plant.

Research on the potential of tarps to reduce or even replace tillage by controlling weeds and decomposing crop residue.

By Haley Rylander

Introduction

A black plastic tarp laid over full-length crop beds.
Haley Rylander / Small Farm Quarterly

Organic vegetable farmers rely heavily on intensive soil tillage to control weeds, incorporate amendments and cover crop residue, and prepare clean seedbeds. Intensive tillage, however, can decrease long-term soil health by causing compaction and loss of soil structure, organic matter, and moisture. Tillage can also be costly to farmers by consuming time, fuel, and labor. Reduced tillage is particularly difficult to incorporate into organic systems because farmers cannot use herbicides to control weeds. The use of black, impermeable, plastic tarps placed on the soil surface prior to planting could reduce weed pressure, decompose crop residue, and preserve prepared soil for several weeks. This article assesses the potential uses of tarps in organic vegetable systems to reduce or even replace tillage by controlling weeds and decomposing crop residue.

Use of Plastic in Farming

The use of synthetic soil covers, including plastic, is already a common, long-studied practice in both organic and conventional production. Transparent plastic sheets are widely used in times of bright sunlight as temporary soil covers for solarizing soils—a physical method that raises surface temperature to extremes that kill weeds and pests (Abu-Gharbieh et al., 1988; Link, 1994). Soil solarization, however, needs extreme heat in order to be effective at weed suppression, thus limiting this approach as a viable option in the Northeastern United States.

Black plastic mulch and landscape fabric are also well-known synthetic covers for suppressing weeds, conserving soil moisture, raising soil temperatures, and increasing crop productivity (Kasirajan and Ngouajio, 2012). Unlike mulches and landscape fabrics, tarps do not remain in place for planting, but are used for short periods throughout the seasons between plantings. Similar to mulches, plastic tarps impact the temperature, moisture, and nutrient profile of the soil as well as weeds and residue.

Why not simply use landscape fabric for pre-planting tarping? Landscape fabric may provide some of the same benefits as thicker, impermeable tarps, but it does not create the same soil environment nor does it affect weeds in the same way. Weeds can root down into landscape fabric if seeds land on its surface, and some weeds can even break through the fabric from underneath. Landscape fabric also allows water and airflow to the soil surface, enabling leaching and taking longer to kill weeds that have already emerged.

Tarp Logistics and Benefits

An overwinter tarp pulled up in early spring shows no residue decomposition—some of the residue is still green.
Haley Rylander / Small Farm Quarterly

One of the most common questions we receive from farmers is “what exactly is a tarp?” A tarp in this context is a large, moveable sheet of thick black plastic that is impermeable to water. It can be rolled or folded and stored when not in use, and lasts many years if handled with care. Tarps can be cut to any size, but are typically around 100 ft long and wide enough to cover one or multiple beds in a field (from 10–30 ft) (Fig. 1). Available labor should be considered when choosing a tarp size, as very large tarps can weigh up to 50—75 lbs and may be difficult to maneuver with just one or two people. On the whole, however, tarps do not require a significant number of people to lay on the soil or store, do not take long to apply, and are relatively cheap ($100 for a 100 x 24 ft tarp). Choosing days with minimal wind is helpful when laying tarps.

Tarps are secured with heavy objects such as sandbags or stones placed around the edges. There is no need to form a seal on the edges. Tarps can be applied to fully-prepared soil (lightly tilled, amendments added, residue incorporated, etc.), or laid directly over a mowed cover crop or weeds, and can be left in place for any length of time, though most beneficial effects need at least three weeks.

Unlike tillage, tarp application is not dependent on weather or soil conditions. Using tarps conserves fuel use, labor hours, and soil compaction from heavy machinery. Soil is left undisturbed and is able to conserve moisture, organic matter, and structure. Leaching and waterlogging from rain and snowmelt are also prevented.

Effects of Tarps

We have spoken with farmers and conducted experimental trials to assess the effects of tarps left on the soil for different lengths of time (from three weeks to overwinter) and in combination with no-till, shallow-till (1 in), and rototill (4 in) treatments after tarp removal.

Cover Crop Residue

It should be noted that tarps are not meant as a replacement for cover crops, as they do not add nutrients or organic matter to the soil. Many growers already using tarps have reported that cover crop residue completely decomposes when left underneath tarps for several weeks. We did not observe this in our trials. In fact, crop residue seemed to be almost preserved under our overwinter tarps (Fig. 2). This may be due to decreased surface temperatures throughout the winter. Many farmers who report residue decomposition also irrigate, add organic amendments, and/or finely chop or incorporate residue into the soil just before laying tarps, whereas our experiments left crop residue exactly as it was on the soil surface. It is likely that using water and amendments and incorporating crop residue prior to tarping increases soil microbial activity under the tarp, causing a more rapid decomposition of residue.

Weeds

Four plots with different tarp treatments right after tarp removal in late spring. Clockwise: Tarp applied 3 weeks prior to planting, 24 weeks prior to planting (overwinter), no tarp applied, and 6 weeks prior to planting.
Haley Rylander / Small Farm Quarterly

Arguably the most important benefit of tarps is suppressing weeds prior to planting a crop. No weeds can germinate and survive underneath an opaque tarp, and any emerged weeds prior to tarp application are killed within three weeks due to light suppression. In our trials, there were no weeds present in tarped plots at the time of removal (Fig. 3), and 10 days after planting there was an average of 96% less weed biomass in tarped plots than untarped weedy control plots.

By the time of harvest in our experiment, there was no significant difference in weed biomass between tarp treatments. The same experiment in Monmouth, Maine and Riverhead, New York did show significantly lower weed biomass in tarped plots at the end of the season. Season-long weed suppression by tarps is still unclear, and may depend upon individual weed communities. It is clear, however, that tarping gives a beneficial head start to crop seeds or transplants.

Regardless of weed biomass, beet yield did increase with tarp use. Average beet yield in our early planting was 43-82% higher with use of tarps in shallow-till plots, and 7-26% higher with use of tarps in rototill plots. There was no marketable yield without tarps in shallow-till plots of our late planting, but with tarps, yield was comparable to that of rototill plots. Average yield in rototill plots was 59-98% higher with use of tarps in the late planting. These increases, despite comparable weed biomass across treatments, may be due to the early-season head start with decreased weed competition, or increased nitrogen concentrations in tarped plots.

A common question from farmers is whether tarps create a stale seedbed in which weed seeds are stimulated to germinate and then killed. It is clear that some weed seeds are in fact germinating underneath tarps because we have found small, stunted weed seedlings on the soil surface after tarp removal (Fig. 4). It is possible that increased temperatures and preserved moisture under tarps stimulates seed germination. However, the extent of this effect is not known. Tarps are often applied in early or late spring when the soil has not warmed and weed seeds have not begun to germinate. Tarps applied later in season, especially after light soil disturbance or watering, could potentially be used as a stale seedbed method. We did not experiment with this, but we did lay our 3-week late-planting tarp over already emerged weeds, and no living weeds were present at the time of tarp removal.

In our research trials, there was never a significant difference between tarp durations when it came to weed suppression or crop yield increase. From this, it can be assumed that laying a tarp just three weeks prior to planting should be enough to see the desired effects of weed suppression. We also found that using tarps for three or more weeks greatly reduced the difference in weed biomass and crop yield between shallow-tilled and rototilled plots. Using tarps, in other words, made shallow-tilling at 1 inch about as effective as rototilling at 4 inches, whereas non-tarped plots often had significantly fewer weeds and higher yield in rototilled plots than shallow-tilled plots.

Soil Environment

tunted weed seedlings on the soil surface under tarps. All seedlings were dead after a few hours of exposure.
Haley Rylander / Small Farm Quarterly

Water can flow under the edges of tarps to an extent, but rain infiltration and pooling or waterlogging by rain and snowmelt is prevented. Tarps hold soil moisture relatively constant throughout their duration. These effects may differ with sandier soil types, but in the gravelly loam of our experiment, soil moisture under tarps was retained throughout the season. Water will flow off of tarps, however, and where it flows should be considered. If possible, water should be directed towards perennial alleyways.

Soil temperature does not rise to extremely high temperatures under tarps, such as with soil solarization, but temperatures do rise a few degrees. This could potentially stimulate fatal weed seed germination and increase soil microbial activity.

Nitrogen Management

Plant-available nitrogen (NO3 and NH4) in the soil is extremely important to crop growth. With no amendments added, soil nitrate (ppm) increased significantly with tarp duration. Plots in Freeville, NY with a tarp duration of three weeks had an average of four times more nitrate than plots with no tarp, and an average of five times and nine times more nitrate with a duration of six weeks and ten weeks respectively (Fig. 5). Ammonium was not significantly affected, but nitrate is the primary form of nitrogen used by plants.

Concentration (ppm) of average soil nitrate (NO3) and ammonium (NH4) at the time of tarp removal in plots with tarp durations of 0-24 weeks prior to crop planting. Data taken in Freeville, NY.

There are many possible explanations for this increase in nitrate. First, tarps prevent leaching. Nitrate is very soluble in water and leaches easily from the soil if not taken up by plants. Second, tarps prevent waterlogging of soil. Anaerobic environments can promote denitrification, in which soil microorganisms take oxygen from nitrate and convert it back to gaseous N2. Third, even slightly increased soil temperature may be enough to promote microbial activity and mineralization/nitrification (conversion of atmospheric and organic nitrogen into a plant available form).

Still To Learn

There is still a lot to learn about using tarps in farming systems. For example, we do not know how tarps may affect worms, microorganisms, fungi, or soilborne diseases. Does preparing the seedbed before tarp application provide more benefits than preparing it after tarp removal? Despite these unknowns, there are clear benefits to incorporating tarps into organic vegetable systems. Hopefully, further farmer experience and research can unlock the potential of this innovative tool.

This article was originally published in eOrganic and was reviewed for compliance with National Organic Program regulations by members of the eOrganic community. Always check with your organic certification agency before adopting new practices or using new materials. For more information, refer to eOrganic’s articles on organic certification.

Funding

NIFA-OREI and TSF grants

References and Citations

Abu-Gharbieh, W. I., H. Saleh, and H. Abu-Blan. 1988. Use of black plastic for soil solarization and post-plant mulching [Online]. Plant Protection Department, Faculty of Agriculture, University of Jordan, Amman, Jordan. Available at: www.fao.org/docrep/t0455e/T0455E0j.htm (verified 22 Aug 2018).

Kasirajan, S., and M. Ngouajio. 2012. Polyethylene and biodegradable mulches for agricultural applications: A review. Agronomy for Sustainable Development 32:501–529. Available online at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s13593-011-0068-3 (verified 22 Aug 2018).

Linke, K. H. 1994. Effects of soil solarization on arable weeds under Mediterranean conditions: Control, lack of response or stimulation. Crop Protection 13:115–120. Available online at: https://doi.org/10.1016/0261-2194(94)90161-9 (verified 22 Aug 2018).

It is generally accepted that anaerobic digesters (AD) are efficient technologies for reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from livestock operations. In addition, AD technology has a number of other potential benefits including: energy production for use on the farm and for sale, separation of manure solids for ease of use or export off farm, pathogen reduction leading to healthier labor and herd outcomes and odor control.

It is also clear that in the United States, research and extension efforts, including public financing of AD technology installations, have disproportionally been focused on larger farms- e.g., dairy farms with at least 500 milking cows. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, land grant universities as well as private sector firms have tended to ignore smaller scale livestock farms in regards to the development of appropriate AD technology interventions.

However, there seems to be a growing recognition that smaller farms maintain a large amount of animals in total; and that GHG policy should encompass the methane and other gases produced by livestock on smaller farms- e.g., in the United States 34% of all milk cows reside on farms with less than 200 cows.  In addition, social equity arguments concerning the need to spend public dollars on a broad constituency have proven effective- 90% of all dairy farms in the U.S. are smaller than 200 milking cows.

A team of researchers from Clarkson and Syracuse University together with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Saint Lawrence County have been studying AD technologies to be applied to smaller dairy operations for several years.  The team has focused on technologies that could be readily integrated in small farm operations evaluating several beneficial AD products (e.g. energy use, solids, fertilizer use) and contrasting them to needs for AD operation.

With funding from USDA the researchers are offering workshops on the opportunities and viability of AD for dairy operations or smaller organic waste producers.  The goal of the workshops is to educate farm producers about the technology and how it could be integrated into a diversified farm business.  Workshops will make use of a scaled digester system to illustrate modes of operation.

The three workshops at Cornell Cooperative Extension Learning Farm (2043 State Highway 68, Canton, NY) are scheduled for December 5 – 10 am-2 pm, February 7 – 10 am-2 pm and March 6 – 6 pm -9 pm. For more information about the details of the workshops please contact the project’s Principal Investigator Stefan Grimberg at Clarkson University (315-268-6490; grimberg@clarkson.edu) or Patrick Ames, Executive Director, Cornell Cooperative Extension of Saint Lawrence County (315-379-9192; pta2@cornell.edu). All workshops will provide a catered meal and that participants coming from within the six-county North Country Region will receive a $25 stipend in support of their travel.  Participants from outside the North Country will receive a $50 stipend.

Much has been written on diversity of crops, forages, and soil biology but the diversity of grazing species is just as important.

By Lee Rinehart

Cattle and sheep are natural complementary grazers.
Linda Coffey / NCAT

“The presence of multiple species of large herbivores is the typical condition of grassland and savanna ecosystems,” says John Walker, a range ecologist who wrote on the subject more than two decades ago (Walker, 1994).  By contrast, I was taught in college to plant one or two species of pasture forages and graze them continuously with a single livestock species. If you drive around the countryside this is generally what you still see: a closely grazed pasture with leggy tufts of mature stalks from less-palatable plants, and cattle or sheep scattered over the area, repeatedly selecting the newest growth and bringing selection pressure to bear in causing the eventual demise of the best forages.  This paradigm, though prevalent, is changing.

Multispecies grazing takes full advantage of biological diversity.  Farmers who work hard to increase pasture-plant diversity will also see an even greater ecological and financial advantage by adding diversity of livestock to the mix.

Ecological Resiliency and Better Pasture Health

Multispecies grazing works best when a multitude of forage species comprise the pasture.  “Vegetation can maintain a stable composition under higher foraging pressure when two herbivores rather than one are used to stock a pasture” write Anderson et al. (2012).  As vegetation of pastures becomes more diverse, multispecies grazing tends to improve composition and utilization.  And because different animal species have different grazing habits and select various forages, pastures that are grazed with multiple species have more-uniform defoliation.  This uniformity of grazing contributes greatly to forage quality and resiliency by keeping forage growth constant; resetting the plants to the same stage of growth with each grazing event and preventing unpalatable plants from taking over.

Multispecies Grazing Increases Carrying Capacity

Anderson et al. (2012) note that this management practice “may be one of the most biologically and economically viable systems available to producers, especially on landscapes that support heterogeneous plant communities.”

Studies have shown that when you add sheep to a cattle herd, you get 20 to 25% greater productivity and carrying capacity over cattle alone, and 8 to 9% greater productivity and carrying capacity over sheep alone (Walker, 1994).

Your stocking rate will likely vary from season to season.  It will change depending on temperature, rainfall, pasture composition, animal growth rates, and many other factors.  Greg Brann, a multispecies grazier in Tennessee and a retired NRCS professional, suggests matching the livestock stocking ratio to the vegetation that livestock prefer.  He’s found that a 1:1 or 1:2 ratio of sheep to cattle works well (Brann, 2018).  Also, remember that sheep and goat herds grow more quickly than cattle herds.  Within a few months you can easily go from 50 sheep to 150 sheep, and this will place added pressure on your pastures.  Be sure to take this increasing herd size into account when you are planning your grazing.

Parasite Control

Guardian dogs may be an essential part of your farm if you have small ruminants.
Image courtesy of NCAT

Combined with an integrated parasite-management plan, grazing multiple species together or in sequence can reduce parasite populations, due to timing of grazing and the characteristics of the parasites that infect each species of livestock. Given that sheep parasites do not usually affect cattle, cattle can be used to break the life cycle of sheep and goat parasites (and vice versa, generally).

Managing sward height is key to controlling internal parasites.  As worm larvae emerge, they travel up the leaf blades of grasses to position themselves right in the way of a grazing animal as it eats, but they usually don’t climb higher than four inches.  As long as you keep grazing to the top leaves of the sward, and move the animals before they graze too low, you can significantly reduce infection.  Try to maintain at least a 6-inch residual after grazing.  Also, give the paddocks a nice long recovery period.  This is not only good for pasture health and resiliency; it also allows parasites to die off in the pasture before they can be consumed by a grazing animal.  Use a 40-day recovery period— at the very least—in pastures you know to be infected by parasite larvae.

In addition, you can also use a shorter grazing period.  This works to break the parasite’s life cycle.  If you keep your grazing period at less than four days, your animals will be moved off the paddock before the larvae can move up into the sward to be consumed by animals.

You’ll never be able to completely eradicate internal parasites in livestock.  However, an integrated management system with combined livestock species can certainly make a dent in their populations.  There will always be some parasites in a herd or flock, and otherwise-healthy animals can deal with a slight parasite load. Additionally, cattle can usually handle parasites much better than small ruminants.  The goal is to manage the parasites that remain in a herd such that treatments can be effective against them.

Predator Control

USDA researchers have noticed that when small ruminants are bonded to cattle to form one herd they tend to remain together, which provides safety from predators and results in less time required to check on livestock.  Bonding species imparts many more benefits, as well.  Cattle fencing can work very well for sheep when the sheep are bonded to cattle, and grazing distribution is enhanced, as sheep and goats tend to “spread themselves more evenly over the landscape during foraging compared with non-bonded flocks,” (Anderson et al., 2012).

Fencing is probably the most critical and challenging component of multispecies grazing from a practical standpoint, and is a crucial question given the size and behavioral differences between livestock species.  Your fencing should serve multiple purposes.  It should deter predators and keep your animals off the highway or out of the neighbor’s garden.  And you’ll be using your fencing as a tool to control grazing in specific areas for specific animals.

Multispecies grazing takes full advantage of biological diversity.
Linda Coffey / NCAT

The ability to exclude predators with fencing depends upon the predator species and the intensity of predatory attempts on the herd.  If predator pressure is low, a woven fix-knotted wire fence will suffice.  The fixed knots on the wire prevent slippage when a predator (or a sheep) tries to push through.  However, with more predator pressure, a fix-knotted high-tensile woven-wire fence with fiberglass posts should be used and powered with a high-joule charger.  A 30- to 50-joule charger is not unwarranted, because you want to instill fear of the fence in any predator that encounters it.  Dave Scott, an ATTRA specialist and sheep rancher in Montana, recommends that producers with high predator pressure buy a charger that is twice the joule rating of what they initially think they need.  A really hot wire fence is sometimes is the only way to deter predators like coyotes and bears.

There is safety in numbers, and an intensively managed multispecies herd will be less bothered by predation.  However, this depends in part on the type and number of predators.  Where predatory pressure is high, it may be necessary to use guardian dogs.  Livestock guardian dogs must be bonded with the livestock they are guarding.  If you have multiple species and are running a very diverse operation, it is important that the dogs are bonded with each one of the species.  Your “sheep” dog should be calm around cattle, and not chase the chickens or harass the pigs.

Before acquiring a livestock guardian dog, do some research to decide what breeds will work best for you.  Do not be tempted to pick up a “free” dog of mixed breed, if some of that “mix” is a guardian dog breed.  Mixing the instincts of guarding with herding will usually be a problem.  However, it’s fine to mix two or more guardian breeds (such as Anatolian Shepherd and Great Pyrenees).  Having guardian dogs adds cost to the operation, but in some situations, it would be impossible to raise livestock without these protectors.

Multispecies grazing requires matching animals to the landscape and having the right fencing and working facilities.  You’ll need to manage parasites and predation, and determine an accurate stocking rate to use the pasture resource efficiently.  With these principles in mind, combining multiple species on pasture can be successful, profitable, and fun.

This article has been adapted from the ATTRA publication Multispecies Grazing: A Primer on Diversity (2018), by Lee Rinehart.  Download the publication at https://attra.ncat.org/attra-pub-summaries/?pub=244

Lee Rinehart has been writing and educating on sustainable agriculture for over 20 years.  A graduate of Texas A&M University and a Program Specialist for NCAT’s ATTRA Sustainable Agriculture program, his work focuses on agronomy, livestock, and grazing.  Lee can be reached at 479-587-3474 or lee@ncat.org.

References:

Anderson, Dean, E. L. Fredrickson, and Rick Estell.  2012.  Managing livestock using animal behavior: Mixed-species stocking and flerds.  Animal. Vol. 6, No. 8.

Brann, Greg.  2018.  Email communication.

Hart, Steve.  2014.  Parasite Control with Multispecies and Rotational Grazing.  Langston University.

Walker, John.  1994.  Multispecies grazing: The ecological advantage.  Sheep Research Journal, Special Issue.  

For more information:

The ATTRA Sustainable Agriculture Program has served as the premier source of information about sustainable agriculture for U.S. farmers and other agriculturists for more than thirty years.  Visit the ATTRA website at https://attra.ncat.org/.

Interested in finding out more about grazing management?  ATTRA features publications, grazing calculators, and managed grazing tutorials at https://attra.ncat.org/pasture-rangeland-and-grazing-management/.  You can also speak to an ATTRA Agriculture Specialist to discuss your grazing, pasture management, and livestock questions by calling the ATTRA hotline at 800-346-9140.

Farmers who have used bedded packs were featured at the NY Certified Organic (NYCO) meeting on January 8, 2019.

By Fay Benson

Bedded pack barns are one of the topics for presentation and discussion at the January 9, 2019 NY Certified Organic meeting in Geneva, N.Y.
Fay Benson / Small Farm Quarterly

Small dairy farm operators in New York may soon be faced with the prohibition of winter spreading of manure by the State Department of Environmental Conservation. As an option to winter spreading, farmers considering updating barns or building new facilities can consider a bedded pack barn system for manure storage and animal comfort. There may also be government assistance to help build such a barn.

Farmers who have used bedded packs will be featured at the NY Certified Organic (NYCO) meeting on January 8, 2019, beginning at 10 AM, in Jordan Hall, 630 West North Street, Cornell AgriTech, Geneva, NY. There is no cost or need to register to attend the NYCO winter meetings in January, February, and March. Participants are asked to bring a dish to pass at the potluck lunch.

NYCO Winter Meeting Organizer and Cornell Cooperative Extension Small Dairy Specialist A. Fay Benson provides the following information on the two types of bedded pack systems, with some pros and cons of each type and examples of one system in Vermont and one in New York.

The Deep Bedded Pack (DBP) uses fresh bedding daily to keep the pack dry and clean. The pack grows to a depth of 5-6 feet by the end of one winter.

The Composted Bedded Pack (CBP) requires the farmer to stirring once or twice a day with a tractor tractor-mounted rototiller. This system works best with wood shavings or chopped straw.

The choice of pack depends upon each individual farm’s needs. Both systems have been used by confinement and grazing operations and with beef and dairy cows. Benson has seen CBPs mostly on grazing dairy operations using the barn only during the 150 days or so of the winter.

A DBP system generally consists of a foundation of concrete or hard clay. Most DBPs use straw which is more absorbent than hay. DBP systems use more bedding, for example, one farm used 20 lbs. of straw/day/animal. As more manure and bedding are added daily, the pack grows deeper and requires strong retaining walls. DBP cleaning is more difficult due to the wetter, compressed material.

CBPs have a foundation of concrete covered by a layer of thick wood chips to allow moisture and air movement at the base. Composting in the pack happens just as in a compost pile. When the pack has the correct carbon-nitrogen ratio and air is regularly introduced to the pack by stirring, microorganisms flourish and break down the carbon structures of bedding and manure.

The main drawback to a CBP is the requirement of an expensive piece of rototilling equipment and the daily labor to run it. The bedding requirement for a CBP is less since stirring releases moisture to the air and the bedding is drier. Some CBP barns direct fans at the packs to increase drying.

The CBP’s main benefits are less material to be spread and nutrients (N, P, & K) that are more stable in the compost and will not run off with water when applied to the land.

Microbial activity in the CBP provides heat throughout the bedding for animal comfort through the winter. A farmer with a CBP barn in Vermont measured 60-80 degrees F up to 12 inches into the pack.

For both types of bedded packs, side-retaining walls need to be strong enough to contain 4-6 feet of the pack and stand up to cleaning. As with any type of housing management, using adequate bedding, properly maintaining the bedding system, and consistently applying good milking and animal hygiene help manage the pathogens naturally found in a bedded pack system. Cow access, animal grouping, and travel-to-the-feed-alley patterns can be managed by electric fences. Cows make more manure in eating areas so daily scraping those areas will also help reduce manure in bedded areas.

Good ventilation, whether the pack barn is positioned for natural wind ventilation or uses mechanical assistance with fans, helps keep cows healthy, the pack dry, and odors down.

The open barn area of a bedded pack system allows for natural animal movement which will become increasingly important as animal care standards are implemented. Opinions differ on how much room should be allowed per cow; 85 to 100 sq. ft. per animal is usually the recommendation and is higher than for a freestall system. Breed, age, and animal condition impact that decision when planning a new barn. The general consensus is the more room, the better. The extra housing cost per animal is one reason BP barn structures are used more on smaller dairies.

The comfortable environment of a BP system reduces lameness and provides for cows’ deep and restful sleep that in turn positively impacts milk production. A report at the 5th National Small Farm Conference in 2009 noted that a 2000-lb. increase in milk sales/cow was attributed in part to use of a bedded pack management system (http://www.allacademic.com/meta/p373821_index.html). That same year a study by the Cornell University Department of Applied Economics and Life Sciences concluded that the bedded pack management system was “an excellent environment for cattle and provided the intended environmental benefits.”

The Benefits of a Bedded Pack Barn

  • Increases cow comfort
  • Can increase milk production
  • Manure storage with less capital investment and less labor requirement than liquid storage
  • Pack manure mixed with extra carbon is a better soil nutrient then raw manure from typical manure storage.
  • Particularly adapted to grazing dairies since barns are used only 6 months and allow plenty of time to clean
  • An option for out-dated dairies looking for build a combined housing-feeding barn with manure storage
  • Enhances dairy farm conservation practices

Vermont Pack Barn Shows Innovation

Bedded pack barns have been used in Vermont as a way for a smaller operation to build manure storage since the state prohibited winter spreading of manure in 1995.  At his organic Butterworks Farm in Westfield, Jack Lazor used a DBP with three animal groups in a 60X120-foot barn. He separated them with electric fences suspended from the ceiling and raised as the pack grew. A 6-foot coil of water line inside water troughs unwound as the waterers rose with the pack.  Jack used bale rings to feed baleage on the pack.

Jack noted that the return for the significant expense of straw for the pack: $40-$45 every other day plus the labor of composting the pack, was in the positive effect on the soil and soil nutrients. Once the cows went out to pasture, Jack would usually remove the pack after first cutting. He left it in long, 6-foot-high windrows on a nearby field until after the last harvest. By leaving it for 3 months, the pack composted to reduce the amount to haul to fields for spreading. Jack reasoned that applying the aged manure in the fall mimicked nature applying carbon to the soil in the fall with dead leaves and grass.

“Raw manure is hard on the soil and the environment; many of the nutrients are volatile or water soluble. By adding the extra carbon through the straw more of the volatile nutrients are captured and stored. Allowing them to go through the biological activity of composting, the nutrients are stabilized and won’t run off with significant rainfalls,” Jack said.

NY Farm Adds Pack Barn, Then Free Stalls

In 2010, Super Milk producers Ben and Kate Whittemore of Dead End Farm, an 80-cow organic dairy in Candor, NY, built a 70×120-foot bedded pack barn with a 16-foot feed alley and 16-foot scrape alley.

“Our cows loved the bedded pack barn with its thick, cushy bedding and wide open space to kick up their heels,” Kate Whittemore wrote in her farm blog, noting that most of the cows chose the bedded pack at night over the pasture.

The Whittemores first used chopped hay in the pack since it was less expensive, but found it more labor intensive and not as dry. They switched to sawdust as easier to apply and easier to stir with their rotovator. Stirring three times a day improved the composting efficiency. and they could go more than a year between barn cleanouts.

The Whittemores decided to add more animals and felt the best way to expand was to replace the bedded pack with free stalls. In 2014, they increased from 85 milkers to 120 milkers in the same barn.

Resources and Funding Assistance

Because of the environmental benefits of a bedded pack system, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) may offer funding incentives for designs that pass their engineering specifications. Learn more by contacting your local NRCS office.

The NRCS also has a 5-page Compost Bedded Pack Dairy Barns fact sheet, published in 2007, that is still relevant, as is an 18-page Bedded Pack Management System Case Study resource published in 2009 by a team with the Cornell University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Department of Applied Economics and Management.

For more information, Benson with Cornell University’s South Central NY Regional Team can be reached at 607-391-2660, afb3@cornell.edu.

Working with wholesale customers can increase a farms bottom line, but communication and thoughtful bookkeeping procedures are key.

By Morgan Houk

This sample invoice from QuickBooks Online Test Drive shows all of the components necessary for a clear and accurate invoice.; Intuit, QuickBooks Online Test Drive Sample Company.

As traditional direct to consumer markets, like farmers markets and CSAs, continue to saturate, many small farmers are looking for new sales channels for their products. Wholesale opportunities with restaurants, co-ops or institutions are becoming a larger part of many small farm’s profits.  There are numerous questions to answer when considering a move into business sales, like new regulations you may fall under or what the change means for your crop mix. Often not considered, are the effects on your bookkeeping procedures. You may have customers willing to pay on delivery, but in order to expand your wholesale channels you need to set up invoicing procedures that allows customers to pay at a future date.

An efficient bookkeeping system, that supports your wholesale business, is an important step in ensuring you receive accurate, timely payment. You will rarely find a wholesale customer who sets out intending not to pay, but without consistent communication and follow up, invoices get missed, your all-important cash flow is impacted, and positive business relationships can sour.

Everything I discuss below works with both a by-hand bookkeeping system, in Excel or a physical ledger, and software like QuickBooks. However, a system like QuickBooks, makes these processes much more efficient and offers deeper insight into your finances. If you are hesitant to work with a program like QuickBooks, I highly recommend seeking out a professional bookkeeper to help you navigate the setup and learning process. You can also reach out to your local Small Business Administration (SBA) for assistance or find excellent DIY information and online courses tailored for farmers through Julia Shanks Food Consulting.

When communicating with wholesale customers you must be prepared with consistent information presented in a professional way. There are three major points of contact with a wholesale customer throughout a single sales transaction.

  1. An email or phone call with your customer to discuss your product availability or “fresh sheet”
  2. Product delivery, where you present your customer with an invoice
  3. Follow up (typically monthly) with a statement outlining the deliveries you made in a specific time period

There will be other times you are communicating with wholesale customers, like the time you take to develop a new relationship. I want to focus on these three interactions because they have a huge impact on how accurately and timely you receive payment.

Availability — Although the first step of this process, the “fresh sheet,” will never make it into your bookkeeping software, this initial communication allows you to set expectations for ordering, delivery, and payment. I will not go into detail here, but as a part of a weekly email informing your customers of your product availability, or as a onetime sales agreement, it is important to clearly layout you and your customer’s responsibilities. It is not necessary to fill this communication with formal legal language, but it is essential to have all expectations in writing and easily accessible for your customers. I highly recommend a free online resource from Farm Commons (http://farmcommons.org/) called “Writing a Basic Sales Agreement for the Direct Market Farm” for more detail on how to best set up this communication.

Invoice — Once an order is received, picked, and packed you need to create an invoice. An invoice must include a few key pieces of information. In the header of the invoice you must include the following.

Your business name and contact information – This should be an address where payment is sent if different from your businesses physical location.

Your customers name and contact information – Your customer may have both a mailing address and a delivery address. Both need to be indicated for your delivery driver and your bookkeeper (even if both of those people are you).

Invoice number – These are pre-established in the invoice booklets you can purchase or generated by your bookkeeping software. I recommend sticking with a simple numerical system that allows you and your customers to quickly see if any invoices are missing or need revision.

Date of delivery – Orders are often made several days in advance. On an invoice, include the date you delivered the product to the customer. This way, if there is an issue with the quality of the product, for example, it is simple to see when it was received by the customer.

Payment due date and terms of payment – Terms of payment indicate how long a customer has until they must pay for a product you delivered, the payment due date. Terms of payment are often shown as “Net 30.” In this example, the customer has 30 days from delivery to send payment. You may set your terms however you like, but it’s important to note, that established businesses often have a billing cycle they will not stray from. If you decide you would like to receive payment twice per month but the local coop only sends out checks at the end of each month, you may have to accept their payment terms or choose not to work with them.

Within the body of the invoice, you must include a list of products delivered, in what quantity, for how much, and a total dollar value. When making a delivery, this portion of the invoice should be double checked by your delivery person and the employee receiving the delivery. This is when you can communicate any changes to the order (if you did not have enough carrot bunches to fulfill the order, or the beets did not make it on the truck) and double check the quality of the product. The employee receiving the order should initial two copies of the invoice, one for their records and one for yours. If there are any changes to the invoice, notes should be made and initialed on each copy. This way, you can make the necessary changes to a digital version of the invoice in your bookkeeping system.

In this sample statement from QuickBooks Online Test drive, you can see that Amy’s Bird Sanctuary has made some partial payments on invoices that are currently overdue.; Intuit, QuickBooks Online Test Drive Sample Company.

Statement — Often forgotten, statements are a critical part of ensuring timely payment from wholesale customers. The difference between an invoice and a statement is important to note. An invoice represents one order and includes detailed information about what was delivered and the amount owed for that specific delivery. A statement is a list of all invoices from a certain time period. It does not go into detail about each invoice, but communicates to a customer the invoices they have yet to pay. A statement includes the following, as well as the same customer and vendor contact information as an invoice.

Invoice number – The invoice number lets you and your customer easily identify which invoice is being referenced.

Invoice delivery date – Another good identifier, it lets you and your customer know who to speak with if there are questions about the order.

Amount due – This indicates the original total for the invoice, not including any partial payments.

Amount received/payment – This shows if there was a partial payment for an invoice. If product was turned away, for example, but you weren’t made aware of the change your customer would have only paid for what they received. Better to see this error in your bookkeeping right away, rather than have a conversation with your customer months later when no one quite remembers what happened.

Total Amount Due – The total balance owed from open invoices.

When you send statements, typically at the end of each month, you should include all “open invoices.” An “open invoice” is an invoice that you have delivered but have not received payment for. I recommend including payments that are both overdue and not yet overdue. This is a great way to show your customer what their total balance owed is, and encourages quick payment of those invoices.

Sending monthly statements also gives you a chance to see trends in your customers payments. Maybe a local restaurant is consistently missing invoices. Through a quick email to the chef you discover that invoices are constantly getting lost. You decide to start emailing a copy of each invoice directly to their bookkeeper. Or in an unfortunate circumstance, a local business has consistently missed due dates for some time. After speaking with management, you may choose to only accept payment on delivery or not work with this customer at all. Without consistent check-ins with your bookkeeping by preparing monthly statements these unpaid invoices could have built up for some time.

The most important take away from this discussion is communication. A well thought out bookkeeping system is simply providing you the opportunity to clearly communicate with your wholesale customers. By using these documents and interactions with your customers to clearly explain expectations for everyone involved you are setting your business up to receive payment for your products on time and in the correct amount. All while building positive, professional, and profitable relationships with your wholesale customers.

Morgan Houk is the founder of Fishing Dog Consulting, and provides bookkeeping and QuickBooks support to farmers, food businesses and nonprofits. A farmer herself, Morgan works on a diversified vegetable farm on Bainbridge Island, WA. You can reach Morgan on her website, www.fishingdogconsulting.com or by email at morgan@fishingdogconsulting.com.

For more information:

Farm Commons – “Writing a Basic Sales Agreement for the Direct Market Farm,” https://farmcommons.org/sites/default/files/resources/Writing%20a%20Basic%20Sales%20Agreement%20v.2_0.pdf

Julia Shanks Food Consulting – http://juliashanks.com/

Small Business Administration – Local Offices, https://www.sba.gov/tools/local-assistance

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