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Your employees are your most valuable resource. Wages, salaries, and contract labor expenses represent more than 40 percent of the cost of production in labor intensive crops like fruits, vegetables, and nursery products. These four workshops will help you become better at managing your farm’s employees.

The Cornell Small Farms Program will provide scholarships for NYS Veterans to attend this program. To learn more about this opportunity, and determine if you are eligible for a scholarship, please contact Kat McCarthy at kmm485@cornell.edu or 607-255-9911. Check out the Ag Labor Management flier for more detailed information.

Workshop 1 – Marketing your farm as a great place to work
Do you have a lot of staff turnover? Do you want to improve your communication skills with your employees? This workshop is for you. Learn to create a work environment that attracts and retains quality employees. You will leave with an assessment of your current employee management strengths and weaknesses, and an outline of an employee handbook that will help you articulate your farm’s values to your employees.

Workshop 2 – What is my job? Hiring, training and evaluating employees effectively
Everyone wants to have employees who know what needs to be done without being told. But getting your employees to this point is the hard part. We will help you develop a process to move your employees to this point more quickly. You will develop clear job descriptions, learn techniques in hiring, and training new staff and using just in time feedback and performance appraisal to both correct problems and motivate your staff.

Workshop 3 – Keeping good staff when money is tight & managing conflict in the workplace
Although everyone likes to be paid, money is not the only, or even most important, motivator for staff retention and performance. This workshop will cover research on rewards and incentives in the workplace to learn tools to attract and retain staff and reduce staff turn-over. Workplace conflict can be very demotivating for everyone. We will discuss and role-play managing conflict on the farm, terminating employees and managing employee departures.

Workshop 4 – The compliance and safety workshop. Are you managing your risks as an employer?
This is the workshop that covers the nuts and bolts of risk management as an employer. This workshop will give you resources to help you comply with labor laws and regulations as well as mandated and recommended worker safety training. Representatives from the NYS DOL Ag Labor Program will be invited to present as well as NYCAMH. Participants will leave with an assessment of their farm’s exposure to risk from having employees and strategies for reducing that risk.

The Cornell Small Farms Program and the New York Farmer Veteran Coalition, Inc, will be hosting a celebration of our state’s farmer veterans on Nov 29thThe conference is scheduled to take place from 9:00 am to 4:30 pm in Syracuse, with a networking reception afterwards from 4:30 to 6 pm.

At this conference, participants will have an opportunity to:

  • Network with other veterans who share an interest in agriculture
  • Connect with service providers committed to the success of farmer veteran agri-entrepreneurs
  • Attend targeted technical training sessions on business and ag enterprise management
  • Celebrate what NY agriculture has to offer for grounding, healing and connecting with local communities

The day will include opening remarks from Commissioner Ball and Senator Ritchie, a special announcement from the New York Farmer Veteran Coalition, Inc, and networking and training sessions for both veterans and service providers. Join us in a celebration of our farmers-veterans and of all of you who serve military veterans and beginning farmers in New York State.

Registration is now closed. For more information, please visit the event page. 

This event is hosted by the Cornell Small Farms Program and the New York Farmer Veteran Coalition, Inc, and co-sponsored by Farm Credit East, the New York State Department of Agriculture & Markets, the New York Farm Bureau, and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, U.S. Department of Agriculture, under award number 2015-70017-22882.

 

Minority Landowner Magazine is a national publication that highlights the stories of minority, limited resource, and social disadvantaged farmers, ranchers, and forest landowners. The mission of the magazine is to support landowners to improve productivity, increase profitability, and maintain ownership of their land.

The magazine was founded in 2005 by Victor Harris, a forester with previous appointments in North Carolina and Virginia. In addition to the magazine, he helps organize conferences and educational events in various locations, often in partnership with NRCS and extension offices.

Victor encourages those who work with farmers and landowners to think outside in the box. In a 2016 interview with the National Association of Conservation Districts, he said, “If the landowners you reach are not a diverse representation of your district, then ask the question, “Why?” Often the simple but not always accurate answer is, “There are no minority landowners in my district.” Dig a little deeper into the question and ask: Do I send out press releases to the same newspaper and radio outlets I’ve always used? Do I hold landowner meetings at the same restaurants, churches, and community centers that I’ve always used? … Seek to expand your outreach efforts and once you connect with minority landowners, both in rural and urban settings, you’ll find they seek the same technical and financial assistance and guidance as non-minority landowners.”

In addition to regular issues there is an annual “Farmers of the Year” issue where features are requested from state and federal forestry and agriculture agencies, community-based organizations, universities, non-profits, and others who work with farmers and landowners. This is an opportunity to showcase farmers who are doing great things in their community by representing good agriculture and land stewardship.

For more information, visit http://www.minoritylandowner.com or contact the paper at Minority Landowner Magazine P. O. Box 97033 Raleigh, NC 27624
Email: ccpublishing@earthlink.net
Phone: (919) 215-1632

by R.J. Anderson

Growing grapes in northeastern New York and Vermont requires a hardy vine and a committed hand. Researchers and extension educators from Cornell and the University of Vermont are offering wineries a helping hand with the agriculture, viticulture, and commercial challenges of growing grapes in a rugged climate.

Vineyard and winery owners from Northeastern New York and Vermont trained their noses to identify wine traits and faults that affect product quality.

The green and red partnership was on display at the 2017 Northeastern New York and Vermont Grape School, held on March 9 in Lake George, New York. Co-hosted by Cornell Cooperative Extension’s (CCE) Eastern NY Commercial Horticulture (ENYCH) program and the University of Vermont Grape Program, the one-day workshop brought together 47 current and potential vineyard and winery owners from the region.

“Cornell’s role is an important one in this region because the cold climate grape and wine industry in the North Country of New York and Vermont is very young,” said Anna Wallis, grape and tree fruit specialist with ENYCH who also oversees planting of cold-hardy grape varieties at Cornell’s Willsboro Research Farm. “And it is undergoing significant growth in terms of the number of producers, acreage planted, employment, and development of growers’ expertise.

“The community aspect is also still a work in progress,” she continued. “We’re working to develop relationships between all the industry players.”

Lindsay Campagna, a winery owner in New York’s Champlain Valley, appreciated the broad variety of topics covered, as well as the opportunity to connect with experts and peers. “We look forward to networking with individuals who ‘have been there and done that’ to get some firsthand knowledge of specific hurdles we are facing,” she said. “The vineyards in the Champlain Valley recognize that we need to work together to grow our industry and increase tourism. Since the Champlain Valley hasn’t been formally seen as a wine region, we are the pioneers in this voyage and have to work especially hard to brand our wines.”

Supplying expertise at the Grape School were CCE business management, fruit, and viticulture specialists, along with a UVM fruit specialist and officials from the New York Grape and Wine Association.

Many of the presenters are members of the Northern Grapes Project, a multistate team providing viticulture, enology, and marketing guidance to rural vineyards and wineries in the Northeast and Upper Midwest. Plants developed through the Northern Grape Project inhabit many of the North Country vineyards and can withstand temperatures as low as minus 30° Fahrenheit.

Lindsey Pashow, agriculture business development and marketing specialist for Cornell Cooperative Extension, pours wine for attendees at the 2017 Northeastern New York and Vermont Grape School.

Tim Martinson, Cornell viticulture specialist and senior extension associate, is the team’s project director. Specializing in crop-load management and training systems in commercial vineyards in northern New York, Martinson’s Grape School presentation updated attendees on weed and floor management best practices.

Anna Katharine Mansfield, Cornell associate professor of enology, and extension associate Chris Gerling were a highlight of the event, presenting an afternoon program on using olfactory receptors to identify wine faults. Both are members of the Northern Grape Project and under their tutelage attendees used their noses to identify wine traits consumers find favorable and flaws that rate as unfavorable.

“Based on the post-event feedback, attendees appreciated learning about elements that affect wine quality,” said Lindsey Pashow, agriculture business development and marketing specialist with CCE’s Harvest New York regional agriculture team. “In order for the cold-climate wine industry to have an economic impact, gain recognition and expand, our wineries need to continually strive to improve wine quality – just like our counterparts in more established regions such as the Finger Lakes and Long Island have done.”

Campagna said the Grape School epitomizes CCE’s commitment to that growth – both regionally and with her operation. “Extension has been such a huge help in getting us where we are today and they are always our first call when we encounter a problem or have questions,” she said. “Anna and Lindsey have been great at guiding us through things or steering us in the right direction on who to ask. I think the North Country is truly an exciting place right now, just being recognized as a wine region, and I’m excited about seeing our region grow in the coming years.”

R.J. Anderson is a writer/communications specialist with Cornell Cooperative Extension. He can be reached at rja239@cornell.edu.

Veterans in New York participate in agricultural training opportunities across the state, growing skills and strengthening community connections.

by Kat McCarthy

Walking into classroom 167 at SUNY Adirondack on July 31, the average person wouldn’t know from a quick visual observation that there were two unifying features of the 2017 Armed to Farm cohort. Twenty-five individuals from across New York filled the classroom, each with a one-foot high stack of books in front of them on the table, and many with steaming cups of coffee. From a quick glance, it would seem more likely that this group was attending a crash course in statistics than a week-long intensive designed for veterans interested in farming.

Harvesting carrots with veterans and the Slack Hollow Farm crew (Photo by Kat McCarthy).

As the initial conversation circled the room, with individuals making introductions and sharing background information, the energy and enthusiasm for growing food and giving back to the community was unmistakable. Each year draws a unique cohort of dedicated individuals seeking to learn more about farming, and as usual, the 2017 cohort represents a range of experiences – from those beginning to explore their options, to employees on farms interested in becoming owners, to beginning and more advanced farmers. And as expected from a group of twenty-five, a wide range of interests was also represented: hydroponics, aquaponics, Christmas tree production, dairy management, grazing and pasture management, market gardening, agrotoursim, mushroom cultivation, livestock management, beekeeping, fruit tree cultivation, and more.

This year marks the third consecutive year in which New York State veterans have had the opportunity to attend Armed to Farm business and entrepreneurship training. Over the course of the week, participants interacted with educators from the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT), staff from the Cornell Small Farms Program, regional service providers, and local producers. Developed by NCAT, and brought to New York with support from the Cornell Small Farms Program, the program offers the opportunity to learn constantly – during classroom presentations, through conversations with peers, and while engaging in hands on activities during farm visits.

Intended to offer an introduction to many areas of agriculture, the 2017 program featured visits to six area farms. Starting at Sunset Farm, attendees got a taste for managing vegetable crops and operating a roadside stand. On day two, participants took a pasture walk at Mack Brook Farm and learned about tools to improve efficiency in vegetable production at Slack Hollow Farm, seeing a

Group photo at SUNY Adirondack of Armed to Farm participants
(Photo by Elizabeth Goodwin).

flame weeder, mechanized high tunnel ventilation, and numerous cultivating tools. Day three included an overview of hops production and processing at Argyle Craft Malts and Hops, an overview of diary operations at Clover Bliss Farm, and a visit to Moxie Ridge Farm & Creamery, which highlighted agritourism opportunities – raising goats, sheep & chickens, making cheese, all while running a bed and breakfast. Closing out the farm visits, attendees met with Paul Arnold at Pleasant Valley Farm on day four, demonstrating a model for continual improvement in diversified vegetable production.

Considering the wide range of interests represented throughout the training, this broad focus was beneficial. “This program allows someone to see a lot of options that are available to them and decide what may or may not be a good fit,” notes Dean Koyanagi, the Veterans Program Associate at the Cornell Small Farms Program. “For example, at the end of the week, one couple left the training with the take-away that they would rather focus on livestock and not get involved with growing veggies. These lessons are invaluable in helping people save time and money while focusing on what is most important to them.” At the end of the week, participants left having gained new resources to tap into, new ideas for enterprises, and new community connections as they continue to pursue their aspirations for farming.

Armed to Farm participants tour Pleasant Valley Farm
(Photo by Kat McCarthy).

Opportunities for veterans interested in farming are not limited to this week-long training. In August, the Farmer Veteran Coalition of New York, in partnership with the Cornell Small Farms Program, offered two additional events – one in New York City, and another on Long Island. On August 9, 11 veterans gathered to tour the rooftop farm at the Brooklyn Grange and the Union Square farmer’s market, ending with a networking lunch coordinated by GrowNYC. Individuals interested in oyster farming were provided with a hands-on opportunity to learn on fishing boats at a workshop held August 12th.

Looking ahead, Farm Ops partners across the state will continue to offer training opportunities on a rolling basis. Cornell Cooperative Extension offices in Jefferson County, Broom County, and Allegany County, as well as the Farmer Veteran Coalition, Heroic Foods, and Equicenter all have educational events scheduled in the coming months. The Cornell Small Farms Program also offers online courses on a wide variety of topics and registration is currently open its website. Funding for these initiatives is provided though support from the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets and by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, U.S. Department of Agriculture, under award number 2015-70017-22882.

Kat McCarthy is the Beginning Farmer Project Coordinator at the Cornell Small Farms Program. She can be reached at kmm485@cornell.edu.

 

For more information about available programs, please visit the Farm Ops webpage, http://smallfarms.cornell.edu/projects/farm-ops/. To learn more about NCAT and the Armed to Farm training, please go to: https://www.ncat.org/armedtofarm/. Information about the Farmer Veteran Coalition can be found: http://www.farmvetco.org/.

by Rich Taber

Most farmers and rural landowners own chainsaws for a variety of purposes, the majority of which involve the cutting of trees and firewood.  Chainsaws, in the hands of the untrained or those who do not follow common safety rules, are in danger of causing serious injury or death to themselves. This year alone, I have seen chainsaws used in reckless, hazardous manners on a number of “homesteading” oriented television shows. I cringe when I see chainsaws operated by people with no personal protective equipment at all, who are using the chainsaws recklessly. These shows are a disservice to those watching, who may then seek to emulate the heroes they see on television by adopting unsafe, dangerous practices.  If you are an employer, and have employees using chainsaws for any reason, it is incumbent upon you to provide the correct safety equipment and training for your employees.

“Game of Logging’s” Bill Lindloff shows participants at a workshop proper tree felling techniques.

The chainsaw is one of the most efficient and productive portable power tools in use today.  It can also be one of the most dangerous. If you learn to operate it properly and maintain the saw in good working order, you can avoid injury in addition to achieving higher productivity.

I speak from experience; in the early 1980’s I was cutting firewood in my farmyard when I was involved in a serious kickback injury with the bar of the chainsaw ripping through the left side of my face and left upper shoulder. After healing from this ordeal I knew enough to purchase a chainsaw that has kickback protection built into the saw.

No better source of information can be found than the U.S. Department of Labor’s OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) “Working Safely with Chainsaws” fact sheet, available here.

I will paraphrase and summarize much of this information here, in the interest of brevity.

More information than can be included in this article will follow in the future on pre-operational chainsaw maintenance checks, what to do while running the chainsaw, and training requirements for employers.

Personal Protective Equipment Requirements:

  • Personal protective equipment (PPE) for the head, ears, eyes, face, hands, and legs are designed to prevent or lessen the severity of injuries for workers using chainsaws.
  • PPE must be inspected prior to use on each work shift to ensure it is in serviceable condition
  • The following PPE MUST be used when using chainsaws:
    • Head protection
    • Hearing protection
    • Eye face protection
    • Leg protection
    • Foot protection
    • Hand protection

An excellent training vehicle available to loggers, farmers, homeowners, and anyone regularly using chainsaws is available from “The Game of Logging”, a program which has its roots in Sweden and which has been regularly used here in the United States. Different levels of training are available, and are often cost-shared by the NY State Center for Agriculture Medicine and Health in Cooperstown. Information on the Game of Logging and the New York Logger Training program can be found at: http://www.newyorkloggertraining.org/.

Rich Taber, M.S., M.S.F., is Grazing, Forestry, and Ag Economic Development Specialist with CCE Chenango.  He lives on a farm in Madison County with his wife Wendy where they enjoy a variety of amenities from their 100 acre woodlot.  607-334-5841 ext. 21 or email: rbt44@cornell.edu.

A primer for working with an impact investor focused on farmland access.

by Kevin Egolf

Small farmers and small farm advocates have probably heard statistics about average farmer age (nearly 60 years according to the USDA) and young farmer land access issues (68% of farmers cite land access as the biggest obstacle for young and beginning farmers according to the National Younger Farmers Coalition). In response to these problems you may have also seen a rise in the number of “impact investors” focused on helping farmers with land access.

The goal of this article is to provide a basic background on these investors and prepare farmers for interactions with these groups. Please be aware that the services or products offered by these investor groups may not be helpful or the best option for many farmers. Contrastingly, it may also be the perfect situation for another farmer.  I view understanding these options as having another arrow in the quiver (or seed in the ground) to be used if needed, and when appropriate.

Full disclosure: I manage one of these entities, called Local Farms Fund, a community investment fund that pools individual investors together to provide lease-to-own arrangements to early stage farmers in the NY Foodshed. In this article, I am speaking from my personal experience in this field. In this context, I am also trying to represent the impact investor universe as whole, but cannot speak specifically on behalf of the other people or organizations providing similar land access opportunities.

Featherbed Farm (Saratoga County, NY), Local Farms Fund’s first investment (photo provided by Local Farms Fund)

Let’s start with a basic primer. What is “impact investing?”  According to a simple Google search, impact investing refers to investments made into companies, organizations, and funds with the intention to generate a measurable, beneficial social or environmental impact alongside a financial return. I would add that impact investing generally also means investing in private entities that have a targeted positive social or environmental impact. This difference is exemplified by a hypothetical, publically traded solar panel company. That solar company’s output may have a measurable environmental impact, but it is not necessarily formed or operated for the purpose of reducing greenhouse gases. Intention takes impact a step beyond the positive outcomes. I also think it is important to note the word “investing” is in the title and “financial return” is in the definition. Impact investing is very different from philanthropy. Folks working with an impact investor should fully understand impact investing is not charity. Investors are expecting to receive money back and make money from the investment. This return may not always be significant, but the intention is to make money while creating the positive impacts.

Another common term you will hear is “Due Diligence.” According to the Merriam family and Mr. Webster, due diligence is research and analysis of a company or organization done in preparation for a business transaction. Due diligence is really a fancy word for research.

A final primer item to note is that impact investors can take all sorts of shapes and sizes.  Impact investors may include an individual, multiple individuals, a family, multiple families, angel investors, an angel network, a fund, a company, a non-profit, the government or any other legal formation / identity under the sun. Unfortunately, we do not have time to go into the specific details on each type of structure, but, as will be noted later, knowing who or what you are dealing with is extremely important.

In trying to summarize how to work with impact investors, I boiled my thoughts down to five basic guidelines: know yourself, create a business plan, review your options, assess the fit and reverse the due diligence.

Know Yourself.
If you cannot articulate what you want, another person is not going to be able help. Any farmer should assess his or her own personal goals as well as his or her own personal situation. Understanding “Where am I now?” and “Where do I want to be?” is a critical first step. Going down this path will quickly lead into a personal plan to get from A to B. Throughout this process it is important to be thinking about optimal versus acceptable and desires versus needs. When reviewing farmland access options, it is unlikely that an optimal situation will arise. Maybe a farmer wants a business focused 50/50 on vegetable production and pastured meat production. What if the farm is better suited for a 30/70 split? Is that still acceptable? This thought process and evaluation should expand one’s horizons and ultimately help lead to a satisfactory outcome.

Chad Williams talking about his pastures at HoneyMade Farm (Columbia County, NY), Local Farms Fund’s second investment (photo provided by Local Farms Fund).

The first step in working with an impact investor is generally going to be verbally articulating your plans. This is how I initially differentiate between Local Farms Fund farmer candidates. I can usually tell from the first conversation whether there is potential with a farmer. Knowing yourself will make you prepared for this first conversation.

Create a Business Plan.
I cannot stress this enough. Farming is an occupation and a farm is a business. It is unlikely that impact investors will be interested in working with a person that does not take that perspective. A business plan should demonstrate the qualities of the business you want to run, you as a person and the financial merits of the operation. Even if you do not know exactly what the farm will look like, creating a business plan will assist the process of “knowing yourself.” Creating a business plan forces the writer to think about oneself as both a person and an entrepreneur.  I also note it is much easier to alter a business plan than it is to create one from scratch. If you have a plan modeled on an enterprise that is producing vegetables on 2 acres and raising 300 layer hens it should be fairly quick to expand that to production on 4 acres and 600 hens. Having the plan established ahead of time will allow you to be better informed and react quicker to unplanned opportunities that may arise. I can almost guarantee an impact investor will ask for your business plan. If they do not ask for a business plan, I would actually be a little suspect of their motives. Being ready ahead of time will help you pass this essential due diligence hurdle—business review. About 50% of the due diligence process with Local Farms Fund focuses on understanding the business plan and assessing the farmer’s understanding of his or her plan.

Review Your Options.
Ultimately the right path for any farmer is going to be driven by both the personal situation and business goals. Generally this takes one of two options—buy or lease—although frequently with impact investors these options are interconnected via a purchase option or lease-to-own arrangement.  Every option has both positive and negative factors and, unfortunately, some of the decision process may be dictated by one’s financial situation. Knowing your numbers will make this process easier since it will help you understand whether your goals are financially feasible. This concept also pertains to seeking and asking about alternative options. Do not assume that you cannot own a farm right away or that leasing is the best option, unless you have actually reviewed what is available. This means talking to all the different investment groups.  Each investment group is going to have small (and sometimes significant) variations in how it operates.  In certain situations, I know that Local Farms Fund will not be the right fit for a given farmer even if I would be interested in working with the farmer

Local Farms Fund

Local Farms Fund is a community impact farmland investment fund that supports young and early-stage farmers in the NY Foodshed with secure land access. The Fund provides sustainable farmers with lease-to-own arrangements on farm properties in the states connected to the NYC metropolitan area, the NY Foodshed—with a focus on the Hudson Valley. This model, using Slow Money principles, delivers positive social (farm business & community development) and environmental (sustainable agriculture) impacts while generating modest financial returns for the investors. Local Farms Fund is open to all investors in the NYC tri-state area (NY, NJ, CT) looking to have a positive impact on the local farming community and beginning farmers, while also achieving a modest investment return.

Assess the Fit.
As noted earlier, every party will have different goals, processes and structures. Understanding these variances can be the difference between a successful, happy relationship and an unsuccessful, unhappy relationship. What is the process of working with a land access partner (steps, timing, costs)? What is the philosophy or motivation of the impact investing entity? Where is the money coming from? Could the source of funding impact the relationship? Does the model offered fit your plans? Can it be altered?

Note that farmland access may not always equal affordability. Understanding this trade-off may be helpful in your decision process. Does the group provide other services? If you require or desire other services it will be important to know from where those are going to come. Ultimately a large part of figuring out if the partner is good is going to be one’s gut reaction. Do you get the “right feeling” from this potential partner?

Reverse the Due Diligence.
I can almost say with 100% certainty that any impact investor is going ask a lot questions. They are doing due diligence on their potential investment. Any farmer going through this process has the right to ask as many questions in return as he or she deems appropriate.  This is the main way you are going to be able to properly and fully assess the fit of a potential partner. I note that this section could also be titled “Ask Questions,” as more broadly a farmer should realize that nearly everything is negotiable in some way shape or form. Ask if they can change the deal to make it work better for you. After all if they truly are an impact investor, their goal should be to make something work for you within a reasonable set of boundaries.

When I get these kinds of questions on Local Farms Fund, it actually creates more reassurance that this is the right farmer. I know that farmers asking the tough questions are thinking about all the options and carefully reviewing the situation. I want to partner with somebody focusing on all the details.

I completely realize this adds additional complexity into an already complex, risky and time-consuming process. The good news is much of the work needed for working with impact investors is part of being a good business manager. I generally find that the farmers that can answer all my questions well, and in a timely manner, are the ones that I think have the best chance for success, with or without an impact investment group providing land access.

Kevin Egolf is an impact investing professional focusing his efforts on socially responsible farmland investing. He can be reached at LFF@localfarmsfund.com.

For more information about Kevin Egolf or Local Farms Fund, please visit www.localfarmsfund.com.

Focus on biology to build resilient soils that sustain production and deliver profitable yields with reduced inputs.

by Lee Rinehart

Soil fertility in pastures goes well beyond a simple discussion of soil samples, fertilizers, and the nutrients needed to produce high yields.  Rather, soil health is an ecosystem concept: it is holistic and complex, and involves regenerative, adaptive management.  Managing grazing and harnessing the inherent abilities of living, healthy soil can promote productive pastures and animals.

With this type of management, we are observational and not reactive: we are looking at soil indicators such as aggregation, species diversity, and cover.  We are looking for telltale signs of soil ill-health, such as run-off, compaction, and bare ground.  Within a regenerative system, we are interested in the fundamentals: what drives the whole system.  Soil microorganisms need to be fed with a constant diet of carbon from the sun.  These microbes need habitat and a balanced diet, and this is accomplished through plant diversity, living roots, and soil cover all year.  The saying ‘build it and they will come’ applies here, and if we make sure the microbes are fed, they will do the work of building soil health and fertility for us.

Let’s consider the farming practices that feed soil microbes and help build healthy soil.  In essence, we want to increase aggregation, contribute soil organic matter, increase biodiversity, buffer soil temperature, and minimize soil compaction and disturbance.  Sounds like a lot, right?  Well, not really, if we break these objectives down into some basic principles.  Let’s take a quick look at the principles that will define our pasture soil management practices.

Soils that are well aggregated with adequate organic matter are resilient and can sustain crops with minimal input. Credit – Robyn Metzger, NCAT

Minimizing tillage preserves soil structure, encourages aggregation, and keeps soil carbon in the soil profile where it belongs.  Tillage brings a flush of oxygen into the soil that spurs microbes into a feeding frenzy on carbon molecules, resulting in carbon dioxide release.  We reduce tillage through the use of perennial pasture and minimum-tillage, or no-till, cover crops.

Maintaining living roots in the soil for as much of the year as possible feeds soil microorganisms all year.  Also, by maintaining living roots and leaving grazing residual, we cover the soil all year long, forming an “armor” to protect the soil from moisture and nutrient loss.

Maintaining species diversity is achieved with cover crop mixes and the use of diverse perennial pasture mixes.  Try to incorporate warm season and cool season plants; it is a good idea to plant both grasses and broadleaf plants in the same fields.

Manage grazing by planning for an appropriate grazing recovery period on your paddocks, keeping in mind that plants need various recovery periods depending on the species, the time of year, and the soil moisture content.  Overgrazing (not allowing adequate recovery) reduces root mass, photosynthesis, and sequestered carbon in the soil, thereby decreasing soil life.  Proper grazing builds soil.

Finally, put animal and grazing impact to work for you.  Livestock provides nutrient cycling in pastures, contributing to soil organic matter, and the grazing action on forage plants encourages root growth and root exudation of plant sugars that feed soil microorganisms.

For livestock producers, this boils down to a combination of perennial pasture, cover crops in rotation, and good grazing management.  Perennial pastures, because of the lack of soil disturbance and permanent cover, are higher in carbon and organic matter than tilled crop fields.  This biological system has a stable habitat to conduct business, and the nutrient cycles can sustain themselves.  However, by adding livestock, we get a multiplier effect on soil health, even in systems that are cropped with a cash crop as part of the rotation.

Grazing is known to increase soil carbon and nitrogen in the soil.  As an animal grazes, it sends a signal to the plant to pump out sugars through its roots into the surrounding soil.  These root exudates, sugars developed by the plant through photosynthesis, are food sources for the microorganisms in the soil.  The action of grazing jump-starts the soil food web and increases nutrient cycling, making nutrients available to plants.

Diverse cover crops build soil health while providing high quality forage for grazing livestock. Credit – Lee Rinehart, NCAT

Cover crops are known to benefit the soil by feeding soil life, buffering temperatures, and increasing water efficiency.  Many crop farmers are familiar with cover crops, but with livestock and cover crops in combination, you have all the tools you need to build soil health.  Grazing is often the missing link for crop farmers.  By putting animals on cover crops you can close the loop and develop a more resilient system.

Think of livestock as biological “roller-crimpers,” or cover crop terminators.  Combining the below-ground effects of grazing on root exudates with the biological contribution from animals far exceeds the benefits of cover crops alone.  Because the microbes in the rumen are similar to the microbes in the soil, ruminant animals prime the soil with biological life, contributing to the health of the soil.

If you’re a farmer who has a predominately cash-crop-oriented income, it may be attractive to graze cover crops in rotation with cash crops.  Annual crops can be rotated to perennial pasture every few years.  You can also incorporate grazing of cover crops in a strictly cash crop system, as Gabe Brown has demonstrated.  His fall biennial crop > warm season cover crop > fall biennial crop > cash crop rotation works well in his system.  In this system, you only have one year off from cash crop, but you get three cover crops incorporated, all grazed.  This cover crop sequence works very well to “prime” depleted soils.

Managed Grazing Tutorial

Interested in finding out more about how managing your livestock can improve your soil health, your pasture condition, and your bottom line? The ATTRA Managed Grazing tutorial features sessions taught by ATTRA specialists who are also livestock producers. They share years of experience managing their own pastures to inspire you to start wherever you are and build or refine your own managed grazing systems. The tutorial includes detailed presentations and real-world examples including conducting a forage inventory, fencing and water, managing the mature stand, intensifying managed grazing, stockpiling grass, managing fertility, and monitoring. Access the Managed Grazing tutorial free online at https://attra.ncat.org/tutorials/
grazing/index.php
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It seems like there is a lot involved in managing pasture fertility holistically… and there is.  The biological processes are complex and they interrelate with weather, moisture, season, crop selection, and livestock.  Even soil scientists do not understand everything that goes on in the soil, but we do have a pretty good idea of the processes, and we know that biology is the basis for soil function.  We also know that energy drives the whole system.

Transitioning to a biological system from a chemical system is a slow process, and it’s important to recognize that it will take several years for soils to turn around.  Be patient, and as Ray Archuleta, a soils conservationist with NRCS, says, “Have the integrity to believe that nature will work with you over time, that it’s going to work.”  This is important, because there are going to be some problems that crop up.  It could be anything from decreased weaning weights on calves, to weed problems, to livestock parasites.  Expect these problems to occur, because you’re dealing with a biological system that is trying to get back into balance.  Don’t jump ship at the first obstacle and succumb to the temptation to revert to an input-based system.  Resilience and the integrity to stay focused will pay off in the years to come as the biology builds to the point of sustainability.

So, how do you get started?  Remember the three practices we spoke of earlier: perennial pasture, cover crops, and grazing management.  These practices build soil carbon, which is the key to fostering soil health and plant fertility.  Making the transition takes time and attention, but the benefits are long term.  Think of it as an investment in your soil, just like you invest in livestock and equipment.  And as you begin this journey of renewal, remember that it’s a biological system that is fully dependent on the almost incomprehensible diversity of life and life processes that happen unseen, among the roots just under the soil surface.

It took decades for your soil to degenerate, so expect several years for your farm to recover.  Don’t make the mistake of expecting to reverse the tide in one year.  As you transition, keep in mind the following concepts: when you feed soil microbes, you feed the plant—productivity is based on the relationships between plants, soil, and animals.  The process of nutrient transfer is kept strong by adding organic matter.  Reduce your off-farm inputs to reduce cost, and transition slowly.  Have integrity that it will work by staying the course even when the system seems to crash.  Observe and adapt.  And if your soil is low in carbon, don’t expect it to work.  To fix it, start by putting in one or two years of cover crops and graze it appropriately to get the system primed.  You might be surprised by the results.

Managing for carbon by keeping soils covered with growing plants and with managed defoliation through grazing, builds the organic matter that provides the fertility pastures need to be productive.

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.

 

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

This article has been adapted from a forthcoming ATTRA publication entitled Building Healthy Pasture Soils, by Lee Rinehart.

by Johann Strube

“Pheasants? I love pheasants!” This was just one of many disbelieving reactions I got when I told people I was trying to find traces of a peasant culture around Ithaca, NY.

As a student at the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, Vienna (Austria), I was able to visit many small mountain farms in the Alps of Austria and Italy. Many of these farmers proudly referred to themselves as peasants, partly out of tradition, partly to express their opposition to more industrialized farms in the valleys and plains. Back at the university, I learned that sociologists like Alexander Chayanov or Jan Douwe Van der Ploeg defined peasant farming as a sustainable, community-oriented way of farming that was distinctively different from capitalistic as well as socialist agriculture. While that culture seemed to be thriving and alive in the highly developed countries of Austria and Italy, the peasant study literature seemed to be silent about a different one: The United States of America.

While often awkward to make use of, many farmers around Ithaca value the old barns on their farmsteads. (photo: Johann Strube)

In the spring and summer of 2015, I partnered with the Department of Development Sociology at Cornell University to conduct a study to see whether I could find any similarities between the alpine peasant farms that I knew, and the farms around Ithaca, NY. I found many. All farmers that I talked to worked the land because of their love for that lifestyle. For some, having access to

fresh and delicious food was a main driver to become a farmer. Others valued the possibility to work outside, alongside the people they loved. Providing for others was also mentioned as a motivation. Many regarded the agrarian lifestyle as the “good life.” In fact, most farms grew food for themselves and their families, and additionally sold or traded food, goods and services.

In contrast to the idea of self-sufficiency, the interviewed farmers valued the possibility to meet each other’s needs collectively instead of individually (this concept has been called co-sufficiency). For example, the farmers’ markets in the area abound with trading among the vendors, beyond the sale of farm products. Vegetable farms trade produce for meat, or a prepared meal for some fruit. A grain farm traded cover crop seeds for a CSA-share with a vegetable farm. It is common for farmers around Ithaca to help each other out when they can. Often, older and more experienced farmers share their knowledge with new farmers. Many farmers try to use cropping systems that conserve the soil and water to preserve it for future generations.

This strong orientation towards the well-being of the community and nature are characteristics that social scientists associate with peasant farming. Yet, while most interviewees of the study respected peasants and their ways of farming, they did not see how their modern cultivation practices could have anything to do with peasant farming. The farmers highlighted the need to make money and to engage in the capitalist economy as reasons why they did not have anything to do with peasant agriculture. For many, the term peasant has a derogatory ring to it, which seems to be the common understanding in modern English.

This situation left me with a dilemma. On the one hand, I saw these farms doing very similar things that peasant farms in other parts of the world were doing and that social theory would classify as peasant economy. On the other hand, I wanted to respect the will of my research participants to not be identified as peasant farmers. And it is true, most farmers that I visited also produce commodities to sell in exchange for money, often using the latest technologies on an industrial scale that is quite different from peasant farming.

Pockets of peasantness might look very different than cliché postcards of peasant villages and farms across the world. (photo: Johann Strube)

Here is the solution to my predicament: None of the farms engaged in industrial farming and money-based commodity markets because that is what they ultimately wanted to do. In the United States (as well as in Europe), financial capital is needed in order to gain access to the means necessary for farming: land, seeds, fertilizer, fuel, buildings, equipment, and labor. Even a fully self-contained farm that produces its own seeds and fertilizer, owns all its farmland, and runs entirely on family labor has to make a profit to pay property taxes, education for their children, and other expanses. Under these conditions, making money is not an expression of narrow self-interest and growth-orientation, but a necessity imposed by the capitalist economic environment.

Many farmers try to resist this dependency on the market by establishing an alternative economy that is focused on satisfying people’s real needs, including the need to be able to continue to farm in the future. This alternative economy comprises the aforementioned informal trading economy, the reciprocal help, the mentoring, and soil-improving cultivation practices that build up the resource base for more independent farming. The sociologist Jan Douwe van der Ploeg calls this process repeasantization. From his perspective, peasantness does not mean poverty and drudgery, but self-determination and independence. Despite contradictions that evolve from having to operate in the capitalist economy, the farming community around Ithaca abounds in these pockets of peasantness, even though they might look very different from the cliché postcards of peasant villages and farms across the world.

Consequently, none of the farmers around Ithaca may be a peasant, but neither are they fully capitalist entrepreneurs. Instead, they are farmers who juggle their operations between peasant values of equality, community, reciprocity, and sustainability on the one hand and the constraints of the capitalist environment on the other. Instead of accusing farmers of any scale for unsustainable farming practices, we should try to understand what economic constrains force them to operate in ways that are often in conflict with their inner goals.

Johann Strube graduated in landscape planning and landscape architecture from the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, Vienna (Austria). Now, he is a PhD student in Rural Sociology at Pennsylvania State University. His research focuses on subsistence-oriented livelihoods like peasant farming or indigenous land-use practices in developed countries in Europe and North America. He is also a passionate bread baker, yogurt maker, and musician. He can be reached at jcs80@psu.edu.

 

Full study available at:
https://zidapps.boku.ac.at/abstracts/download.php?dataset_id=13172&property_id=107&role_id=NON

by Stephen Childs

One of the biggest drawbacks of making maple syrup for a back yarder or small maple producer is the time it takes to boil the sap into syrup.  The idea of using a small reverse osmosis unit to assist with the syrup making is very interesting to many small maple producers.  There are many little reverse osmosis systems available for water purification in households or for small commercial applications.  These can be purchased from a number of big box stores, home improvement stores, or online.  These RO units can be used to remove water from sap to speed up the concentration and syrup boiling process.  To make a small RO unit work you must first get the sap under pressure using a pump, typically a shallow well pump.

RO assembled and used by a small or backyard maple producer.

About 9 years ago, I started experimenting with small reverse osmosis units to try and cut down on the amount of boiling time needed to make my family maple syrup.  I started with a GE Merlin that was rated to deliver 30 gallons of pure water per hour when operated at about 60 psi.  That rating is for when purifying permeate from water.  When you are removing water from maple sap the permeate removal rate is reduced by 6x or I was removing between 4.5 and 5 gallons per hour.  This was still a huge benefit for reducing the time of boiling my 25 taps on my 2’ x 4’ wood fired flat pan from about 8 hours per run to 4 hours.  It would sweeten the sap from about 2% up to between 4 and 5%.  The investment was about $360 for the RO unit and I already had a shallow well pump that I used to pressurize the sap to about 55 psi and had to purchase a pre-filter canister.   Though this system reduced my wood use by about 50%, the primary benefit was the reduction in boiling time with no identifiable change in the taste or quality of maple syrup.

In the off-season, the membranes were stored in the unit with permeate created by the unit.  I used this unit for 4 years and by the fourth year noticed a slight reduction in performance.  To keep the pump from continually turning on and off while feeding the membrane and to maximize the pressure the pressure switch on the pump had to be set at maximum.  The 6x reduction in capacity seems to be universal when processing sap vs. processing water with any unit set up and rated for water purification.  So a home RO rated for 50 gallons per day would remove about 2 gallons per hour with water or would take about 1/3 of a gallon of water out of your sap per hour.  That would be fine for someone with 2 or 3 taps.  A larger unit that claims 240 gallons of water purified per day should take out about 10 gallons per hour from water but only about one and a half gallon of water from sap.  That should be good for someone with up to 5 to 12 taps. With these water purification units you must remove the carbon filter as it will remove sugar and many other things you normally want in syrup.

Like any normal maple producer, once the small RO was working well and syrup was more efficient to make, I annually added more taps so after using the Merlin for four years it was time to go bigger.  I had a larger RO unit come available that had a higher pressure option using a small Procon pump on a half horse power electric motor and one 2.5” by 21” membrane.  To this unit I added two more 2.5 by 21” membranes to boost the capacity to handle my now 70 taps.  This unit operated at 250 psi, would remove about 15 gallons of permeate per hour and could bring the sap up to 12% sugar if given enough time. So boiling for 70 taps was still taking about 4 hours of boiling time per run only with much greater yield.  I continued to use the shallow well pump to feed this unit.  As the sap became sweeter, the water removal rate would gradually be reduced.

I found the best way to keep the production high was to process the sap in 15 gallon batches.  So, I would hook the RO to a 15 gallon jug of sap and run the concentrate back into the sap jug until the sap reached 10 to 12% at which time the permeate removal would be down to about 8 gallons per hour.  The concentrated sap would then head to the boiler.  As soon as we started on the next jug of 2% sap, it would rinse out sugar build up in the membrane and go back to the full capacity of 15 gallons per hour.  Both of the units above were used in the USDA Forest Farming youtube videos.

RO assembled and used by a small or backyard maple producer.

Unfortunately, the three membrane RO made the middle sized RO in the videos look much more complicated than it needs to be, creating lots of inquiries.  It was nice that the shorter membranes were easier to transport to maple programs for demonstrations.  It seems the 40” membranes and pressure vessels are more standard production than the 14” or 21” alternatives so they are much more economical to purchase for the amount of output.  I had the three membranes hooked up in parallel to get the most water removed per hour.  If they were hooked in series less water would be removed per hour but the sap could be much sweeter in one pass.  For the off season, I would store these membranes in holders made from PVC pipe that would be filled with permeate and a screw tight lid sealing the liquid and membrane in.

It was at this point that I began to gain friends.  Friends who would show up at my garage with a 50 gallon barrel of sap or more and we would RO that down to about 15 gallons in about 2 and a half hours but these visits would save them between 8 and 20 hours of boiling time each time the sap ran.  But the desire for something bigger was growing.  The question of how to make a simple RO that would be most useful for maple operations of 300 to 500 taps lead to the next experiment.  The fact that each year in the maple industry some percentage of maple producers are updating their 8” by 40” membranes that have lost some percentage of capacity seemed like it could be a low cost source for operations that don’t need that maximum capacity.

Breezy Maple Farm was updating some of their membranes and provided one for our testing.  An 8” by 40” Codeline fiberglass pressure vessel was purchased on line along with a 330 gallon per hour Procon pump.  This pump was connected using a cone connection to a standard shaft 1 horse motor that I already owned.  This system operated at 250 psi, and would remove about 300 gallons of permeate per hour.  Total cost of materials was about $1150.  This performed with great efficiency but had a couple of unexpected issues.

At first the pump would run but nothing happened, even when well primed.  It turned out that the motor was running backwards, and needed to be rewired.  The bolts in the motor were too short to connect to the cone, so they had to be replaced with threaded rod and there was enough vibration in the cone to pump connection that it would wear out the rubber in the motor to pump coupling every couple of weeks.  The clamp style connection between a motor and pump seems like a much better system.  Here again, I used the feed pump in addition to the higher pressure pump.  Some are not using the feed pump, especially if the sap is slightly elevated over the pump so that it can help with priming.  This eliminates the cost of the feed pump.  I’ve run them both ways but I get less chatter in the high-pressure pump when I use the feed pump but performance seems equal.  This system had more capacity than I need and sometimes I had trouble having enough permeate to give the 8” membrane the rinsing it should have following use.

The next year, I tried a 4” by 21” membrane with the 330 gallon Procon pump.  This unit did not put out as much as I expected.  I had heard that it could do about 60 gallons per hour at 250 psi but I was usually getting about 45 of permeate per hour.  Still great for my 70 taps and friends but when you look at the price of the 21” membrane and pressure vessel it is not that much less than a 4” by 40” which will have twice the performance.  So, the last year of making maple syrup at home, we tried a 4” by 40” with the 330 gallons per hour pump and it performed very well, delivering 80 to 100 gallons per hour of permeate.

RO assembled and used by a small or backyard maple producer.

The reason I felt it necessary to put this information together is the over whelming response we have had to the little RO youtube videos.  The USDA wanted some Forest Farming Videos, so they sent a crew to tape and record some presentations, which went online a little over two years ago.  I figured there were likely a couple of hundred people who would be interested in making their own little RO.  There are five videos on youtube talking about RO and covering the three different sizes I had experimented with at that time.  As I checked last week, they combined had over 60,000 views and hundreds of people have emailed questions about some aspect about building a little RO.

I hope this information will help answer many of people’s questions so they don’t have to try to track me down.  If you are not at all mechanically inclined making your own RO is probably not the best idea.  They are becoming more available at more reasonable prices than ever before.  Buying one can save significant aggravation.  If you are a do it yourselfer, this is a reasonable project to put one together.   Some of little ROs from this project are now assisting with concentration of sap at the Cornell Arnot Forest.

Here are a few details that should help:
The Merlin is no longer available.

Flush the RO filters with all the permeate you can save after every use.  Do not use chlorinated water in your RO at any time.  Store the membranes in pure permeate in the off-season in your pressure vessel or make an airtight holder out of PVC pipe.  There are preservatives and soap available for membranes if you need them.  Follow suppliers’ instructions and store where children cannot access.

The pressure in the RO is controlled by a valve on the exit end of the membrane on the concentrate line.  Permeate comes out of the center of the membrane on both ends, you can block one end so all the water come out one line.  The concentrate goes in one end and out the other at the outside fittings by the rings of the membrane.  Most small ROs without internal recirculation should send the concentrate back to the sap tank.  Concentrate in batches.

Flow meters can be handy, but you can get a quick measure by just putting the permeate line in a 5 gallon bucket and measuring how long it takes to fill it.  After a few times, you get pretty good at seeing when you are getting a great flow and when it is slowing down. I get excellent results with my 4×40 with a 3/4 hp pump and a 330 gallons per hour pump.  If you get a much smaller pump, say a 150 gph, you get less flow over the membrane at a given pressure which allows the sugar to build up on the membrane and reduce its capacity.  The membrane is like a fine screen and the more flow pushing the sugar along the longer it stays clean and functioning. You want a pump that has at least 50% more capacity than the rated capacity of the membrane and more is not a problem.

Change or clean your pre-filter often
Supplies are available in many places.  I have used maple dealers, amazon.com, ebay.com, americanro.com, altanticro.com, freshwatersystems.com, nextgenmaple.com and Deer Run Maple plus there are many more.

RO assembled and used by a small or backyard maple producer.

A sap refractometer is very helpful when working with an RO, as it can give you sugar contents in seconds and harder to break than a hydrometer.

There are many membranes available; I tend to pick the ones with the highest rating for the price.

Starting at the sap tank, here the suggested parts in order:  A foot valve, a line to either the feed pump (a valve just after the feed pump can cut down on the need to re-prime the pump so often, shut it when moving the line from one tank to another) or the pre-filter, from the pre-filter a line to the high pressure pump, a line from the high pressure pump to the outside fitting of the pressure vessel, a pressure vessel with a membrane inside, a concentrate line from the outside fitting on the exit end of the membrane that goes back to the sap tank or to a tank suppling the boiler, and a line from the center fitting on the pressure vessel to a tank for storing permeate.

End of season cleaning:  For most of the years, I have just run permeate water through the membrane at low pressure, lots of permeate water, and then save the permeate from the water rinsing to store the membrane in.  I made a storage chamber out of pvc pipe with a solid bottom and screw on top.  Fill the pvc cylinder with the pure water and put the membrane in there completely submerged and put on the top.  With our commercial membranes here at the forest, we run a wash using membrane soap from one of the maple supply companies, rinse and do a second soap wash, followed by lots of rinse with permeate – about 350 gallons per 8” membrane.  Then store it in a pvc can, like above with membrane preservative added.  I have not had trouble just rinsing and storing the membranes in the very pure water but I’ve heard of some who did not rinse enough or get clean enough water for the storage and it smelled bad after storing.  I don’t like using the preservative as it takes a lot of rinsing the following season to get the off odor and taste back out of the membrane.  I’ve avoided using the soap wash at home as the soap is very caustic (NaOH) and I didn’t want to have it around in case the grand kids happened to get into it.  At the forest we have a good cabinet for storing these things.

A special thanks to Next Generation Maple and Deer Run Maple for all the help and encouragement with this project. View the videos at: http://bit.ly/2wTy8qi.

Steve Childs is a New York State Maple Specialist and can be reached at slc18@cornell.edu.

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