Cornell Small Farms Program Serving small farmers in NY and the Northeast Tue, 29 Jul 2014 21:27:35 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Market Your Products on Wed, 09 Jul 2014 18:49:05 +0000 Read More]]> was started this spring to assist local farmers and producers with marketing their products online to their own local community. The website is a central posting board where farmers and producers are able to post, update and control their own advertisements, giving even the smallest producer a presence on the internet and allowing them to reach the largest number of customers possible right in their own community. Customers are able to find what is available in their area, when it is available, and where to find the local products they are seeking. For more information, visit

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Profitable Broiler Enterprises in New England Tue, 08 Jul 2014 14:45:14 +0000 Read More]]> By Sam Anderson


Slow and fast-growing varieties of broilers raised together in a mobile coop.

It has been many decades since broilers (chickens bred and raised specifically for meat) were a big business in New England. Broiler enterprises have started making a comeback in the region in recent years, but they tend to look very different from the standard broiler operations you’d find in Maryland or Georgia. Scale is the most obvious difference: A typical broiler producer in New England might market somewhere between 500 and 5,000 chickens per year, whereas a middle-of-the-road Southern broiler operation may grow upwards of half a million birds. Large-scale Southern and Midwestern operations raise batches of thousands of broilers in long metal broiler houses, while in the Northeast you’re more likely to find farmers moving groups of 50 to 100 broilers across fields in open-bottomed mobile coops or “chicken tractors.”

Despite these differences – or, perhaps more accurately, because of them – it is possible for a Massachusetts farmer to make more money raising 1,000 broilers on pasture than what a conventional broiler grower nets for 50,000 broilers. There is a strong market in New England for locally raised meat, and pasture-raised broilers commonly demand $4 to $7 per pound at farmers markets. While very few producers are able to grow and market enough pasture-raised broilers to make a full-time living at it, with niche marketing and smart management, a few pens of broilers can be a profitable enterprise with minimal startup cost as part of a diversified farm operation or as a supplement for off-farm income.

So, why isn’t everyone already doing this? With support from a Northeast SARE Partnership Grant, we worked with several small-scale poultry growers to track best practices and build enterprise budgets for alternative poultry enterprises in New England. Compiled from producer experiences, here are some of the common challenges for small-scale broiler enterprises in New England:


Profitable- bagging birds

Bagging and weighing the final product, whole roasting chickens.

This could be a whole article in itself, but in short, the recommendation is: Before you start sinking too much money and time into starting a small-scale broiler enterprise, figure out how you’re going to get the birds processed. Legal, affordable slaughter and processing options are limited for many New England producers. There are a few USDA-inspected poultry processors in the region, and for those living within driving distance of one of these, it is probably the simplest option: Schedule with the slaughterhouse, drop off the birds, and pick up bagged, ready-to-sell product. However, the cost of processing can be an issue – the going rate is around $5 per chicken, not including the cost of making two trips to the slaughterhouse – and for some growers, hauling live birds to the nearest USDA-inspected facility just isn’t feasible. For those growers, and for those looking to reduce processing expenses and to have more control over the quality of their final product, there are special USDA exemptions that allow farmers to process their own poultry using a mobile poultry processing unit or by building their own licensed on-farm facility. This can save the producer a significant amount of money, and can even be a great marketing tool, but it can also open a regulatory can of worms (depending in large part on your state’s laws). It also means quite a bit of additional work, especially in the first year. Understanding the available processing options and which one is the best fit for you is an essential part – according to some of the producers we spoke with, the most essential part – of running a successful small-scale broiler enterprise in New England.

Managing Production Risks

The process of actually raising the birds isn’t a cakewalk, but the learning curve isn’t particularly steep – at least in terms of keeping most of the birds alive and bringing them to market at a reasonable size in a reasonable amount of time (depending on genetics, preferences, and production approach, usually somewhere between 4 to 7 pounds in 6 to 11 weeks). The most-cited production challenges relate to preventing catastrophe, particularly in the form of predators and disease losses. For non-vaccinated birds, coccidiosis was the most noticeable disease problem. Growers also observed a general tendency for fast-growing “Cornish Cross” broilers to have health problems as they approached a market weight of 7 pounds – or, especially, if they surpassed it – including a higher rate of mortality compared to slower-growing broiler varieties (e.g. “Freedom Rangers”). However, all growers agreed that the Cornish Cross birds lived up to their billing as efficient converters of feed to meat, dwarfing other varieties (literally, in some cases). Which brings us to the next challenge…

Feed Costs


Two types of “chicken tractor” for pasture-raised poultry, part of a pilot project at New Entry Sustainable Farming Project’s training farms.

For all of the broiler enterprises in this project, feed was the biggest cost. For those buying organic grain, feed costs are especially steep. Depending on a wide range of factors, producers purchased 3 to 6 lbs of feed for every 1 lb of meat marketed. Some feed was lost to spillage around feeders, and nutritional value can be lost when feed is kept for too long or not stored properly, but a large part of reducing feed costs appears to revolve around improving feed conversion rates – that is, the efficiency at which the birds convert feed into meat. Genetics plays a large role in feed efficiency; for example, a Cornish Cross and a slower-growing broiler can both be raised to produce a 5 lb roasting bird, but the slower-growing broiler will probably need an additional 1-4 weeks – and, in the process, several more pounds of feed – to get there. Management factors also play an important role; for example, in cold temperatures, feed efficiency may be reduced because more feed is being used for body heat rather than growth.

These certainly aren’t the only challenges, of course, just the ones we heard most often. Keep an eye out later in June for a guide which will cover the results of this Northeast SARE grant, including more keys to small-scale poultry profitability. The guide will be published, among other places, on New Entry Sustainable Farming Project’s website (

Sam Anderson is the Livestock Program Coordinator and Outreach Coordinator at New Entry Sustainable Farming Project in Lowell, Massachusetts.

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Where to Sell: CSA, Farmer’s Markets, or Wholesale? Tue, 08 Jul 2014 14:21:25 +0000 Read More]]> On July 31st at 8 pm Cornell Cooperative Extension of Erie County (CCE) will host the second discussion in a series of new farmer workshops.  If you are a beginning farmer, come join us to learn about marketing options for your new farm business. CCE Erie Farm Business Management Educator, and beginning farmer, Megan Burley, along with Dennis Brawdy, owner of D&J Brawdy Farms, Karyn Agle, owner of Agle’s Farm Market, and a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) farmer,  will be on hand for a discussion and question and answer session about where and how to sell your farm product.

The discussion group is informal and will meet in the CCE Erie Auditorium

For more information go to  or contact Megan Burley, Farm Business Management Educator at (716) 652-5400 x138 or

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Ovines in the Vines? Tue, 08 Jul 2014 14:05:45 +0000 Read More]]> A New Idea for the Finger Lakes Region of New York

By Nancy Glazier

Grazing sheep in vineyards has been an idea we have tossed around for a while. This spring Hans Walter-Peterson and Mike Colizzi with the Finger Lakes Grape Program and I sat down to actually talk about it. This practice is done on the West Coast with baby doll sheep, but none of us has ever heard of it in the Finger Lakes region or New York. We had an interesting discussion mingling grape and grass lingo.

Since this was a new idea to the region, we needed a guinea pig vineyard to test the idea. It needed to be someone that had their vineyard fenced in, or partially fenced and lots of temporary fencing. The next step was locating someone that had sheep, ideally with no lambs, to keep it simple.

5-12-14 Ovines Vines

Sheep grazing in the vineyard

Mike volunteered his own vineyard, Kashong Glen Vineyards in Bellona, Yates County. He has energized deer fence on three sides with temporary fence along the road. The sheep came from some of his wife’s aunt flock. They were a group of ten ewes that had lambed early for Easter. Water tubs were set out on the headlands near the road for easy filling.

The ideal time to start spring grazing of sheep in the vineyards is prior to bud break. We had concerns about the sheep biting off the tender buds and leaves, especially after the hard winter we had just finished. The vines couldn’t withstand any further damage from bud loss. I had estimated there was plenty of ‘pasture’ available for the ewes for more than a month on the small acreage. We were hesitant to get too many sheep since we didn’t know if they would destroy the vines.

The sheep were delivered to the vineyard on Mother’s Day. The ewes hit the ground running since it was their first opportunity to get out on pasture this spring. Pastures had gotten off to a slow start so moving them to the vineyard was a great opportunity. Mike was hoping the ewes would graze in some targeted areas – the areas at the base of the vines, and the grassy rows in between the rows of vines, thus reducing the need for mowing. Plant growth at the vine bases can compete for water in dry years. There were some weeds but since they were flush with spring growth it was very palatable. Mike spent quite a bit of time watching the sheep that first day making sure they weren’t destructive.

Ovines- Sheep Grazing

Sheep grazing weeds at the bases of the grape vines

Some work has been done to train sheep to graze vineyard floors and not grape leaves. To deter sheep from grazing the grape leaves, they were fed grape leaves then administered a small dose of lithium chloride. The sheep got a bit of an upset stomach and associated the discomfort with the grape leaves. We couldn’t start with that practice since the vines hadn’t yet leafed out and the sheep might possibly be used for leaf pull later in the season. This practice removes a few leaves in the grape zone to allow for more air circulation. This can help reduce disease risk.

The sheep had a short stay within the vines. Bud break occurred quickly with the warm temperatures in mid-May. They were moved to the headlands where there was plenty of grazing for a few weeks. The goal is to put them back in the vineyard possibly after harvest to graze the grassy areas down before winter.

Nancy Glazier is the Small Farms Specialist with Cornell Cooperative Extension’s Northwest New York Dairy, Livestock and Field Crops Team. Her office is in Penn Yan and can be reached at 585.536.5123 and

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Small Livestock Farm Reaches Big Market Tue, 08 Jul 2014 14:04:56 +0000 Read More]]> Lucki 7 Farms in Rodman, NY

By Rachel Whiteheart

small livestock cow and calf

The Winklers sell 35 head of beef per year

With its rich loamy soil, plentiful water, and flat basin land, it’s unsurprising that Stephen Winkler and his family settled down in Jefferson County, New York. The Winklers purchased the original 100 acres, house, and barn of what would soon become Lucki 7 Farms in 1997, becoming the third family to farm the land. Their primary predecessor, the Gates family, was well known for their generosity with land and resources and their dedication to employing local farmers. Each Gates property had beautiful rustic farmhouses, several of which the Winklers have refurbished since purchasing the land.

The Winkler family started off from much humbler beginnings than their forebearers. The Winklers began with a single flock of laying hens to sustain the homestead, but in the years to come they would build the foundation for a multi-species livestock farm, adding pigs, chickens, turkeys, and beef cows.

small livestock pie chart

Graph reflects current marketing channel mix

In 2000, Lucki 7 Farms began selling to neighbors and through local farmers markets, grossing a little over $20,000 annually. The Winkler family purchased another farm the same year, adding 220 acres to their property and enabling them to keep up with the heightened demand for their products.

Then, in the mid-2000s, Stephen Winkler says consumers began to desire “farm products with a story and closer to their home.” The rising demand for locally produced food enabled Lucki 7 Farms to start selling to white tablecloth distributors in 2007. Soon after, they expanded their market channels to include direct marketing to retailers. They sold their first livestock to Whole Foods in 2008 and began selling to Wegmans just two years later.

Breakdown of the Winklers’ Expenditures

  • Feed purchases – $85,000
  • Seed/Fert – $55,000
  • Machinery upgrades – $36,000
  • Building Supplies (new barn) – $120,000
  • Livestock purchases (cows, sows, feeder pigs) – $210,000
  • Hired labor – $285,000
  • Processing – $73,000
  • Trucking – $54,000

Today Lucki 7 Farms is a full-time enterprise that grosses over $1.5 million. The Winkler family currently owns 320 acres and hopes to purchase another 280 acres, effectively doubling the size of their farm. Annually, the farm now sells 800-1000 hogs, 35 head of beef, 700 meat chickens, and 7000 dozen eggs a year and Stephen now has plans to expand into high tunnels for vegetable production. To accommodate these livestock additions, the Winklers have built 2 sustainable hog farms and a laying farm for hens. The family aims to build their own beef facility in the near future. Although the Winkler family has shifted from using local chop shops to USDA processors for the majority of their meat cutting needs, they still use local feed dealers, local equipment dealers, and even a local trucking service based out of Ithaca, NY called Regional Access. See the sidebar for a full list of Stephen’s local expenditures.

Stephen Winkler would still consider Lucki 7 Farms a small livestock farm because, in his words, “if we use only dollar amounts to define the size of farms it is misleading.” Lucki 7 Farms, despite the huge success that it has seen, is still owned and primarily operated by Stephen, his wife Lisa, and their five children. Lucki 7 Farms is a family farm that uses local inputs to feed a regional community which, to Stephen, is what really defines a small farm.

small livestock timeline

This timeline shows that transitioning to wholesale markets has enabled the Winklers to expand production and increase revenue

For information on Lucki 7 Farms, visit their website:

Rachel Whiteheart was a student intern with the Cornell Small Farms Program from 2012 – 2014. She recently graduated with an environmental engineering degree.


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Manage Your Risk with Crop Insurance Tue, 08 Jul 2014 14:03:26 +0000 Read More]]> A visit with Chris Simons reveals how crop insurance can protect your farm not only from big disasters, but also from small losses over time.

By Elizabeth Burrichter 

One young farmer who has benefited from crop insurance is Chris Simons in Oneida County, New York. He began farming on his family’s dairy growing up, and has since begun his own grain enterprise. When the dairy transitioned to organic, the Simons decided to begin growing their own grains instead of purchasing organic corn from off the farm. Chris showed an interest in growing field crops, and applied for a first time farmer loan from FSA to get started on his own. His banker recommended crop insurance, so he contacted his local agent to begin the process.

Chris Simon Crop Insurance

Crop insurance has helped Chris Simon mitigate risks of production loss

Chris said, “My area in Remsen, NY was devastated last year. From May until mid-June we got 40 inches of rain, and I planted one field three times before it got established because of the rain. If it wasn’t for the crop insurance, I would have had to just cut my losses and give up. When all was said and done, it was probably the best investment I’ve made.”

All farms take on the risk of failure due to unexpected weather events and natural disasters, and farmers have an interest in managing their risk in any way possible. They can diversify their farm enterprises or modes of income, and plan for the most resilient cropping systems, but crop insurance is another available layer of protection. Farms can increase their resilience with crop insurance not only in the rare disaster year when there is total yield loss, but also on small losses that occur more frequently.

Crop insurance policies are risk management tools that many agricultural producers can purchase from private insurance companies. The Risk Management Agency (RMA), part of the USDA, works with these private insurance agencies to create and subsidize the programs for American farmers. They offer several different types of policies for over 100 crops, including different types of insurance coverage for specific commodities, as well as increased options for organic and transitional acreage.

So What is Involved for the Producer?

Producers can be protected from yield loss due to natural causes such as drought, excessive moisture, hail, wind, frost, insects, and disease under most policies. The producer selects a percent of a predicted price/yield to insure (50-85%), and if the return on the harvested crop is less than what was insured, then the producer will receive an indemnity payment based on the difference. Other plans insure historical revenues instead of yields, or revenues of the whole farm instead of an individual crop. The producer works with an agent from a private insurance company to decide what policy will work best for their farm. The key to positive outcomes from your insurance is good communication with your agent.

Help for New and Beginning Farmers

The 2014 farm bill has provisions that will help new and beginning farmers purchase crop insurance and enhance the crop insurance that beginning farmers already have. A beginning farmer will be exempt from paying the $300 administrative fee for catastrophic coverage policies, and receive premium subsidy assistance for certain coverage policies. When establishing the Actual Production History (APH), beginning farmers can use the county base yields at higher rates than other farmers. Additionally, in certain instances, a beginning farmer may use the production history of another farm operation they were previously involved with for his/her own policy, if their involvement was substantial.

Chris Simon Crop Insurance 2

The 2014 farm bill has provisions that will help new and beginning farmers purchase crop insurance

Chris Simons had the advantage of being able to base his policy on the county yield average for organic soybeans, which was 40 bushels/acre. Organic farmers often experience lower yields when they first transition from conventional forms of weed control and fertilization. The opportunity to use conventional yields to create his Actual Production History (APH) increased Simon’s chance for indemnity payments. This is likely to change, as there will likely be separate T-yields (transition yields) for organic crops starting in 2015. Organic corn, soy, wheat, and some other vegetables can now be insured at actual organic pricing.

Although there is a lot of paper work, Chris worked with his agent and found the process easier than he expected. For established grain farmers that have track records from past seasons, RMA will take your yield record average from the past three seasons as your APH. From there, you can buy coverage for whatever percentage you and your agent figure will be appropriate for your farm. Chris has more fallow land he plans on cropping and insuring, and his APH will now be based on not only county averages but also his own production history. “As I plan for the future, I will definitely cover my yields with crop insurance.”

Elizabeth Burrichter works for Cornell Cooperative Extension of Cortland County as the Program Assistant for the Organic Dairy Initiative. She can be reached by email at

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Keeping Farming Practices in Sync with Natural Systems Will Always Keep You in the Green Tue, 08 Jul 2014 14:02:09 +0000 Read More]]> By Kimberly Hagen

Sharing is almost always a good practice. It’s just not cool to take the last cookie on the plate, or the last beer in the six-pack (especially after a day of haying) without offering to share it with others. The generosity of the gesture will often return tenfold. And that is the general rule of those systems in place outside the door of the house and the barn too. Ignore the rules of those systems and you will pay – someday, somehow, somewhere.

Far too many folks have the mindset of taking all that nature has to offer in how they manage their farm, without a thought about sharing. And then it comes back to bite them.

It’s such a simple rule, yet so difficult a concept to accept, and so absolutely necessary to keep a farm successful. So, on a practical level, what do we mean when we say farming needs to be in sync with natural systems and mindful of sharing the bounty? Here are two great examples of how and why it works to the betterment of both the farm, and the world outside the farm.

Example One: Grazing

I wish I had a nickel for every time a farmer told me the animals were staying out on the pasture until it was “all cleaned up” meaning, of course, that it was all eaten down to a uniform 2 or 3 inches. Most likely many of the plants in that pasture were munched, not just once, or twice, but three, or even more times. It’s a mindset of taking it all, because it’s what’s needed in the immediate. Instead, ideally what should happen is, the plant is grazed once, and more than half of it left remaining there on the pasture floor, the residue left to photosynthesize and feed the plant roots for it to regrow, and then slowly decompose, and add organic matter to the soil.

“But I can’t do that. It’s too expensive I have to get all the feed I can off that ground,” is what I typically hear. Overgrazing leaves the plant with no option for regrowth, but to draw on reserves in its roots, for the energy it needs to get going again. There is a cost to that and it is expensive. Once the reserves are all used up, there isn’t anything to draw from, and the plant pulls into itself and literally shrinks.

Keeping farm practices pasture photo 1

Overgrazing of plants leads to unhealthy plants, poor productivity and a degraded ecosystem.

Walk into an overgrazed pasture and you find miniature versions of plants, and not much available for a mouthful. With consistent over-grazing, the bounce back and regrowth become more and more feeble, turning the pasture into nothing more than a holding pen or exercise yard. The animals find a nibble here and there, but for all practical purposes, the pasture is not a viable functioning food source and continues to decline. Even worse, the soil becomes a compacted, impermeable piece of adobe hardpan, directing all rain and nutrients elsewhere, starving the plants on top of overgrazing them. The costs grow exponentially, to the soil, the water, the air, the animal health, the financial health and the whole farm and its community. And the expense to renovate grows exponentially as well.

The greater the natural fertility in your soil, the longer you can continue with this disregard for the natural systems on your farm, but eventually the plants will give up and, lacking the energy or reserves to replenish, remain stunted in their growth. Eventually the only viable grazing period is May and June, the first flush of the year. You could bring in purchased feed – for a price. Or pasture can be rented at another farm – for a price. Plus the inconvenience of transporting the animals either by walking, or trucking them.

Pushing to the edge and taking all there is, will only leave less and less for the farm’s future wealth. With incremental additions, i.e., leaving plenty of residue for feeding the plant and the soil, the general health and wealth of the farm grows too, with soil that can feed the forage, and forage that can feed the livestock, and livestock that can feed us. Farm management really is all about sharing – taking only just enough to keep the farm healthy and productive, and leaving the rest for replenishing the systems that supply the farm. But it also means feeding – which is a form of giving back or sharing the nutrients. Like all living things, soil and plants need food if they are to grow. Animals can provide these nutrients in the form of their manure when they graze in the pastures, but they can also provide this manure to hayfields, if those are worked into the grazing management system, to be grazed at some point after a hay crop has been removed.

Keeping farm practices pasture photo 2

No golf course here! Just thick lush pasture forage -the goal

In nature, everything strives for equilibrium, so that within an ecosystem, somebody’s junk is treasure for another – the waste product from one species is the food of another, and everyone shares. When something moves out of balance, a correctional shift will evolve. Here in the northeast, we need only think of the inter-related boom and bust cycles of pine cones, squirrels and coyotes. The pines have a boom production in cone production, and in the following year, the squirrel population explodes with the plentiful supply of good food. The year after that, the coyote population explodes with the plentiful supply of a furry hot breakfast every day. And all of the scat and urine dropped on the ground feeds the roots of the pine trees. There’s a lot of sharing going on as the system fluctuates, stretches out, and pulls back in to keep it healthy and functioning.

All of this requires lots and lots of observation, and getting to know your farm’s ecosystem in the deepest sense, from the soil and microbes therein, to the animals and their yields in terms of milk production, or pounds of weight, and what it takes from the farm to get that yield. The rules are the same, but because the variables of soil, temperature, water supply, etc. can be so radically different, every farmer really must find his/her own way and every farm will be different.

Example Two: Internal Parasites

They aren’t going away. In the world of small ruminants, internal parasites tend to play a role larger than the Abominable Snowman or even the Cookie Monster. After several decades of rigorous, full-on attack with chemical dewormers, we are back to square one, or even further back in some cases, since many animals now have little, if any, resistance, and our pockets are empty. It’s been an expensive effort.

The first step in this issue is to admit the internal parasites are here to stay. Eradication through chemical dewormers is not going to happen. We can’t beat the natural ecological systems, and as in the case with grazing, working with the natural systems might get us ahead. So how does this look on a practical level? Good management practices.

At one time these animals were always on the move, and early shepherds kept a nomadic existence, following their food and fiber on the hoof. By confining them to the same ground/pasture, we’ve brought on these parasite issues and the animals can’t get away from them. Instead we should move them – they need intensive rotational grazing since the larval stage of these internal parasites live in the water droplets close to the ground – so moving the animals once they have grazed the top few inches, keeps them from the likelihood of ingesting these larvae.

Ruminants also need forage variety, and not a monoculture pasture. Different plants have a variety of nutrients and minerals. When these animals had a nomadic existence, they nibbled on all kinds of green living tissue, acquiring what they needed through the different plants. Some of these plants contain substances that are toxic and naturally repel these internal parasites – most noticeably higher levels of tannins. By giving the grazing animal periodic access to plants that have these high levels of tannins, research has shown that these parasites tend to not stick around and exit fairly quickly – right out the back end.

keeping farm practices pasture photo 3

Multiple levels of species for brief grazing

Spending hours and hours running mechanical equipment, and using fuel to eradicate pastures of “undesirable” forage species, makes very little sense – nutritionally, economically or for the environment. By taking the time to observe the interactions of the plants and animals on your farm, and the response of the local environment to them, and then changing management practices to work within and/or complementary to those systems, everything comes out ahead. The farmer spends less time “in battle” using fuel and labor to beat “back the jungle” that will most likely reappear as it wants, the animals graze and balance out the plants’ needs for being pruned for healthy regrowth, and the animals acquire the nutrients and energy they need to grow and produce.

So, make a plan of action. For example, schedule a time – perhaps one or two mornings a week – when you visit the pasture with your animals, or walk your fields, hedgerows and woods and really spend the time to observe. What do the animals eat, and how do they eat? Do they take one bite and move on, or do they stay in one place and eat everything around them? Do they concentrate on one plant species, or nibble a mixture? What plants are growing on your farm? What keeps coming back and seems to like it there? Is there a good mixture of plants in your pasture? How do the plants respond to being grazed? Is that response different in the early part of the season versus mid-season or late in the season? What insects are flying around or scuttling along in the forage? Do their numbers change with the grazing regimen?

You get the idea, pay attention to what systems are already in place and working on your farm, and work with them the best you can. It is probably the wisest investment you can make.

Kimberly Hagen is the Grazing Outreach Specialist at UVM Extension. She can be reached at

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Investigating the Profitability of the Paper Pot Transplanter on a Small Scale Vegetable Farm Tue, 08 Jul 2014 14:01:00 +0000 Read More]]> By Liz Martin

Paper pot July 2012 008

Poorly planted greens that did not “seat” well into the soi

The spring of 2011 was extremely wet in New York State. Local farmers shared stories of being delayed by five weeks in getting out to prepare the soil for planting. A sense of desperation filled the air- don’t try to keep farmer’s from their fields when the normally appointed time for planting arrives! The first plantings of many of our early spring crops such as beets, spinach or lettuce got skipped because of the constant rain. As we start to realize the effects of climate change, extreme weather patterns like this are anticipated to become more common. As the rain was falling and falling, we were busily seeding crops into trays in the greenhouse and wishing that we could be planting our early crops in there, as well. General knowledge says that it is not cost effective to fill many trays with those crops and then spend hours transplanting them. If a simple cost effective way could be found to do it, there would be many benefits to starting traditionally direct seeded crops in pots and then planting them out as small plants, rather than as seeds.

Having seen videos of this cool tool called the Japanese paperpot transplanter that puts plants in the ground jaw droppingly fast, we wondered if a tool like that could have saved spring 2011 for us. We wrote a SARE farmer grant to study if the paper pot transplanter (lets call it the PPT, for brevity’s sake) could be a profitable way to transplant traditionally direct seeded crops while also mitigating the risks of wet weather that makes working the soil impossible. We anticipated that there also could be a reduction in labor and cultivation associated with these crops as the transplanted seedlings will have a head start on the weeds. As an added bonus, the PPT is used standing up, so wear and tear could be reduced on the transplanter’s body.

Videos of the PPT at work on Muddy Fingers Farm can be seen at

Who We Are

Muddy Fingers Farm is a two-person small-scale vegetable farm. The farmers are Liz Martin and Matthew Glenn. We raise over 100 different varieties of vegetables on our 3 acre farm. We focus on fertility by creating a healthy soil ecosystem through crop rotation, cover cropping, the use of compost, and a reduced tillage system that uses permanent growing beds and permanent sod paths between them. While we are not certified organic, we do not use any herbicides. On the rare occasion when we have needed to use a pesticide, we only use products approved for use by certified organic growers. All of this helps us to grow healthy, vibrant crops. Produce is marketed through an 80 member Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program, three weekly farmers’ markets and sales to fine local restaurants. 2014 will be our twelth season growing vegetables. We are glad that our small farm provides full time employment for both of us.

Our farm is well suited to doing research on the profitability of different cropping methods because we have spent the last four seasons tracking the relative profitability of our forty-some crops. We have developed an efficient system for recording labor and harvest data for separate crops and analyzing that data when we have time in the fall and winter. (Our record keeping system was covered in an article in Growing for Market in February 2011.)

How did the study work?

Paper pot July 010

Well planted lettuce mix, properly seated into the soil, spacing of six inches

Our farm is small and land-limited, so we carefully consider which crops will return us a certain minimum amount per bed of growing space ($400 per 100 foot bed) while also balancing a diverse crop base to satisfy our CSA members. In our studies of crop profitability, we have noticed a trend that crops that are direct-seeded tend to take more labor to keep them weed free than transplanted crops, and thus direct-seeded crops on average have been less profitable for us than crops that we transplant. (Because of this, we try to transplant as many crops as possible and we hoped the PPT would allow us to expand our transplantable crop list.) We regularly direct seed 12 crops on our farm: beets, carrots, cilantro, radishes, turnips, lettuce mix, parsnips, arugula, spicy greens mix, spinach, rutabagas, and beans. We transplant head lettuce, but we thought it would be a candidate for use with the paper pot transplanter. The paper pots come in linked chains at 2, 4, or 6 inch spacing which makes them suited only for fairly closely spaced crops. Head lettuce is normally transplanted at one foot spacing, but for the study we used the PPT 6 inch spacing. Our plan was to harvest every other one as small heads.

For ease of record-keeping, we chose 5 crops that were representative of the types of direct-seeded crops based on the spacing and harvest patterns. They were: beets, spinach, lettuce heads, lettuce mix, and beans. Because the majority of farms are not already transplanting beets, spinach and other greens using the PPT for them is actually creating more work- the PPT must give some big advantages to earn its keep.

One flaw in our study is that we did not study the profitability of onions, scallions or leeks with the PPT. These are the vegetables most commonly associated with the PPT as people are already transplanting them at a close spacing, so the PPT could reduce transplanting labor on these. We have found that we are not good at tractor cultivation on our farm, and therefore use a lot of mulch (hay, weed mat, and biodegradible). In trying to avoid growing on bare soil, we found a method of growing alliums- transplanted into weed mat, that gets reused- that has worked very well for us. Hand weeding is needed once or twice just in the holes around the onions. Since we are very happy with this method, we did not include any alliums as study crops.

We chose not to do any tap rooted crops such as parsnips, carrots and daikon radishes which have been reported to be unsaleable as they have too many forked roots as a result of being started in the small paper pots. Cilantro was also not chosen, as it resents being transplanted, and so is not a good candidate.

We did three planting times for each crop that we studied. With the exception of head lettuce which we already transplant, for each planting we compared the direct seeded bed to PPT bed. We recorded how much we earned and how much time spent on producing each crop. In the first planting of the year, we also compared earliness – would the PPT allow for earlier harvest?

How did the PPT do at giving earlier spring harvests?

By transplanting 2-3 week old plants as soon as the ground can be worked could we harvest earlier in the spring?

The only problem with this is that we are still guessing when it is 2-3 weeks before the ground can be worked! This seems like it would be the biggest help in a late, wet spring, because it would allow seeds to be started even while the ground is wet. Then 2-3 week old plants will be ready to be transplanted when the soil dries.

paper pot july 2012 029

Germination of PPT trays rear with perlite covering, front with pott

Neither 2012 or 2013 was a wet spring. In fact 2012 was an extremely early, dry spring, with plants going in the ground 5 weeks earlier than we might have expected! It was hard to realize that we needed to start our earliest plants, because it is not a time we nomally would be getting ready for field work!

The results from these two springs showed beans were one week earlier, but due to the plants lacking vigor, we did get less yield overall. (We have had excellent success transplanting our first beans from 50s.)

Spinach was also earlier – 1 week earlier the first year and 12 days earlier the second year. Beets were not earlier in these two trial years, though in 2012, due to not being soothsayers, we did not start plants early enough to beat the outside planting window which was exremely early! And in 2013 the earliest planting failed to germinate well and was unusable. We believe earlier harvests should be attainable with the PPT, especially in a wet spring.

Lettuce heads were not earlier, as both were transplanted. Lettuce mix was not earlier, but we strongly suspect it could be! The earliest plantings both years failed, showing how dicey it can be to get early plantings just right! One year the trays didn’t germinate; one year the direct seeded comparison bed was lost to weeds, but looked like it would have been ready several days later.

On the side, we tried several other crops with the PPT. While records were not kept for the trial for these crops, we had good success with the following: Parsley, Spicy Greens mix, Arugula, Chard (harvested for baby leaves), Rutabagas, and Mustard Greens.

This study showed that despite the initial cost of the PPT and the on going cost of buying paper pots each year, it is possible that on certain small farms the PPT would be a worthwhile tool. Farms that could exploit the PPT best are businesses that grow lots of cut and come again greens, have finely textured, non-rocky soil, grow greens in hoophouses, and/or already transplant beets, spinach, lettuce mix or other greens.

So what did we learn?


  • Earned the same $/bed, same $/min
  • PPT – $355/bed, $1.44/min
  • Hand-transplant – $352/bed, $1.39/min
  • Conclusion: no significant difference, though it was a difficult to measure because there was a fair amount of bolting. PPT lettuce had more bolting.

Lettuce Mix:

  • Produced more lbs/bed with PPT
  • Took more mins/bed for the PPT, so earned less per minute
  • PPT: $631/bed, $1.93/min
  • DS: $308/bed, $2.64/min
  • Conclusion: PPT worthwhile for lettuce mix due to increased yield, even though it was less efficient to produce.


  • Produced more lbs per bed with PPT
  • Less time spent harvesting on PPT beds (perhaps bigger plants due to the wider spacing)
  • PPT: $230/bed, $1.43/min
  • DS: $234/bed, $1.37/min
  • Conclusion: PPT spinach faster to harvest, and in 2013 more productive (102 vs 77 lbs) so it seems worthwhile for spinach


  • Produced more lbs per bed with PPT
  • Each bed grew more in the space with PPT
  • PPT: $338/bed, $1.23/min
  • DS: $176/bed, $1.43/min
  • PPT Beets had more tapered tap roots coming off the bulb, were aesthetically less pleasing Conclusion: PPT beets slightly faster to harvest, and in 2013 more productive (204 bunches vs 167 bunches) so it seems worthwhile for beets


  • Performed poorly with PPT, cells too small- poor plant vigor. Tall plants did not seat into soil well with PPT.
  • The PPT plants were poorly rooted and not as productive.
  • PPT: $154/bed, $.52/min
  • DS: $196/bed, $.53/min
  • Conclusion: PPT beans were slightly faster to harvest, but less productive (154 lbs vs 196 lbs). The PPT is not worthwhile for beans.

Drawbacks to the PPT

Consider carefully before deciding to buy one. Here are some things that we found problematic.

  • Soil conditions are key. The PPT does not work well in rocky or “trashy” soil. Soil must be well prepared, dry, with no “trash” and minimal rocks. This was our biggest problem!
  • We found in-row cultivation to be impossible due to the close spacing and the paper chains between the plants.
  • There are small bits of paper left in the field which take a while to decompose.
  • If trays germinate poorly, there is money wasted. Trays cost between $2.40-$3.80 each; losing a ten tray planting is a loss of $24-$38. Excellent potting mix is essential. The trays take up valuable greenhouse space in the spring.
  • Because good quality potting mix is needed, either time to mix or money to buy is needed to have a good supply of finely screened potting mix.
  • There can be a re-establishment period for after transplanting with the PPT. Direct-seeded crops may actually grow faster, depending on the weather, since they do not experience a transplant set back.
  • PPT trays are not a standard 10×20 size. They are a standard rice tray size (12 by 24 inches) so greenhouse tables must be sized to fit a true two foot tray.
  • The PPT does not work well when plants are overgrown in the cells, and roots are growing together at the bottom of the tray. Also if plants are too top-heavy (bean plants were too tall and tipped over as they were planted), they do not plant out nicely with the PPT. After about 3 weeks, paper chains begin to decompose in the trays. The small cell size means that the plants can begin to start to run out of nutrients after a few weeks.
  • Another drawback is that there are not many crops on our farm currently that are already being transplanted at 2, 4, or 6 inch spacing. This limits the usefullness of the tool. (Again alliums are the exception and where this tool seems likely to most quickly pay for its keep.)
  • In hot, dry weather PPT plants need to be watered every day after transplant until their roots are well established. This is especially true of any plants that are poorly seated in the soil.

Benefits to the PPT

The ability to get a head start on weeds by cultivating just prior to planting the small plants, not having to stoop or bend to transplant, and ability to closely schedule plantings.


Here are the questions we wanted to have answered:

Does the tool pay for itself? It depends on the crops that it is used for, on the growing conditions, and the soil type and cleanliness. In our study, we found its most likely to pay for itself in growing cut and come again greens.

Does it save cultivating/weeding time and labor? If bed is empty for several weeks before planting, it provides more time for stale seed-bedding.It is easier to hoe or tractor cultivate an empty bed than to work around small plants.

Does the PPT increase earliness? Timing is tricky. It can provide earlier harvests, but there is a guessing element to when the earliest planting date will be for the year.

Did it allow us to grow more in the same space? This can also be tricky to accomplish. Beds must be very tightly managed. Farms that already do this well should find that the PPT helps do it better.

Does it reduce labor for transplanting? Well, not really. It takes time (not a lot, but some) to fill the trays, then seed them with the greens and beets. Then it takes time to transplant the trays. If the same crop was just direct seeded, it would take less time to put the seed in the ground. That said, the tool does seem like it could pay for itself on the following types of small-scale vegetable farms:

  • An “Elliot Coleman style” farm where every inch is always tightly managed.
  • Any farm that is already paying people to transplant closely spaced crops (beets, spinach).
  • A farm that has soil that is neither “trashy” or very rocky.
  • A farm that grows greens in hoophouses.

Even after two seasons of using the system, it still feels like there is lots of tweaking that could be done to make it an even more useful tool on our small vegetable farm. Farms who choose to try this tool should be prepared to experiment with different spacing, seed sizes, and planting timeframes before they feel that the PPT has been mastered.

Here are a few tips and techniques we picked up in using the system.

  • For head lettuce use pelleted seed, but for lettuce mix use non- pelleted seed with several seeds/cell.
  • Cover small seeds with perlite for better germination.
  • By running the wheel in the wheel track from the previous row, we were able to get rows spaced six inches apart. This was the closest we found we were able to transplant.
  • Small brassicas seeds can get stuck between the two layers of plexiglass due to static electricity, especially in the spring when cold air can be dry.
  • Assembly instructions are in Japanese, follow pictures carefully!
  • Teeny plants need well prepared soil and very shallow planting.
  • Quality of potting media makes a big difference. Use good quality, finely sifted mix!
  • Good germination is key. If a tray is only half full of plants, it is a poor filler of greenhouse space, and will be a waste of field space, too

Funding for this project was provided by NE SARE. A full write up of the report is at the website. project number is FNE12-758

Liz Martin and her husband Matthew Glenn own and operate Muddy Fingers Farm, a two person vegetable farm in Hector NY. They can be reached at 607-546-4535 or

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Switch the Boots, Wash the Hands, and Keep Farm Records Tue, 08 Jul 2014 13:59:41 +0000 Read More]]> Food safety planning tips from Vermont for new farmers and a refresher for all

By Rachel Carter

Water supply, soil quality, harvesting procedures, and adding livestock are early stage considerations in developing a small farm. Often some of the most appealing in agricultural planning due to the concrete nature of their applications can cause food contamination and other health hazards when met with the lack of incorporating food safety into these and other areas of farming – even at a small scale.

Foggy Brook Farm hoop houseFood safety refers to preventing foodborne illness through a set of procedures to handle, prepare, and store food. Safe preparation of food for market and from market to consumer are both included in food safety practices, and small farmers also must consider farm to consumer direct.

Food contamination can happen when disease producing pathogens spread from people, animals, and insects. Bacteria found in raw food can contaminate cooked foods and other surfaces and can remain active if not cooked or prepared properly. Storage temperature, water, soil, and materials can also be causes for contaminating food.

Hand washing may be one of the simplest yet most important facets of good food safety protocol. “Have a separate place to wash hands that is not the same sink or tank where you wash produce, but where you and workers will remember to use it. Preferably in the washing and packing area and if not, where you will pass by it frequently while working. The farmhouse bathroom is too far away!” shares Ginger Nickerson, GAPs (USDA Good Agricultural Practices) outreach coordinator at the University of Vermont Center for Sustainable Agriculture, part of UVM Extension.

Learn More and Connect

UVM Extension,
Foggy Brook Farm,
Vermont Farm to Plate,

Christine Kubacz, a new farmer/owner of Foggy Brook Farm in Fairfield, Vermont found the abundance of information regarding food safety to be overwhelming at first. “Take your time with decisions, work with a mentor, ask questions, and do your research,” she advises other new farmers. “Be prepared to make mistakes and that is part of learning. I found having the support of other farmers and working with a larger, more experienced farm to be crucial. Rolling with what Mother Nature hands us is a humbling experience.

Foggy Brook Farm grows greens through an extended growing season, raises eggs, and supports a growing assortment of value-added products for market-direct sales. Kubacz found the logistics around washing produce and solely preparing one value-added product at a time to be first areas of research and learning to implement on her farm.

foggy brook farm greens

Bagged greens from Foggy Brook Farm are sold at the local farmers’ market, at area stores and restaurants, and at the farmstand

“I also didn’t think about all of the different reasoning behind proper labeling – for safety, allergies, tracking and being able to think about the whole picture – from farm to plate in essence – has allowed me to understand how to implement,” shares Kubacz.

Like many new farmers, the to-do list requirements and reality of finances tug on the purse strings and can be inhibiting to growth. “Learning I needed different boots for the greenhouse from the chicken coop – now that was a quick fix!”

State Extension offices like those at the University of Vermont, provide the resources, details, and support as well as training and practical education for farmers at many stages. Online resources like those on food safety are available for download and are some of the materials farmers like Christine Kubacz can use to conduct research as a new farmer. Staying current with food safety procedures is also important, as changes are made as new research and laws come into effect.

foggy brook farm greenhouse

An assortment of spicy greens are Foggy Brook Farm’s specialty, grown in their greenhouse in Fairfield, Vermont

The Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) is a federal food safety law that currently has two sets of proposed rules that authorize new regulations for produce production and food safety measures for facilities that process food for human consumption. “FSMA grants the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) broad new power to enforce food safety standards on farms. The draft proposed rules lacked flexibility and scale- and supply- appropriate regulations, and could negatively impact produce growers, farms that aggregate product with other farms, and farms that even minimally process what they produce,” comments Erica Campbell, program director of Vermont’s Farm to Plate Initiative. We are hoping that FDA’s final rules will be more flexible to small and medium sized farmers so it won’t financially overburden them.”


Key Food Safety Considerations, According to the UVM Practical Produce Safety Model:foggy brook farm chickens

  • Conduct a risk assessment of your farm’s land history to identify potential sources of contamination.
  • Take proper precautions when using manure and compost to avoid produce contamination. A four month rotation is suggested between raw manure or livestock and produce fields/harvest. If making your own compost, keep at 131 degrees for at least 3 days as well as turning. The FDA is considering revisions to this, so stay informed.
  • Mitigate the potential for pathogens in your water supply by planning out the irrigation system, beginning with water quality testing, which should be done before the start of each season. Use drip irrigation if pulling from surface water to reduce potential for microbial contamination – especially on leafy greens.
  • Plan for reducing potential field contamination such as wild animals, flooding, farm equipment spills, domestic animals and livestock.
  •  Develop policies for sick and injured workers as well as protocol for hygiene. Convenient hand washing stations are a must!
  • Consider precautions when harvesting produce as activity can stir up pathogens. Implement good hygiene and cleaning produce practices which can improve quality and shelf life, as well as safety. Triple wash those greens!
  • Keep storage surfaces and facilities clean, organized, and use proper temperatures for storage procedures.
  • Label produce so it can be tracked backwards in cases of recalls and prepare invoices and harvest logs.
  • If engaging in agritourism, or on-farm visits, additional precautions are needed to reduce pathogens spread between animals and humans.

Farm to Plate is Vermont’s statewide initiative to increase economic development and jobs in Vermont’s farm and food sector and improve access to healthy local food for all Vermonters.

Dozens of UVM Extension and other University professionals and researchers as well as Vermont farmers are actively engaged in Farm to Plate’s work to strengthen the working landscape, build the resilience of farms and food enterprises, improve environmental quality, and increase local food access for all Vermonters.

Rachel Carter is the communications director at the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund, a non-profit organization created by the State of Vermont to help develop Vermont’s sustainable agriculture, renewable energy, and forest product businesses. She can be reached at 802-318-5527 or

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Greasing the Farm Wheels: Tips From a Former First-Year Farmer Tue, 08 Jul 2014 13:58:42 +0000 Read More]]> The day-to-days of farm life are decorated with strings of lessons, just waiting to be pulled to see the mystery that lies on the other end.

By Alicia Anderson

To me, farming is about leaving the security of the 9-5 structure, the comfort of specialized tasks, completed over and over again, to push limits, to put to use all information ever learned in order to try and understand the best way to work with the land. New challenges arise daily, presenting opportunities to craftily figure out a way to overcome, a renewal of the life of ancestors where work and gratification went hand-in-hand.

I didn’t grow up on a farm. I grew up in an old General Motors manufacturing city in Michigan. I was the kid who changed what they wanted to be every other week, which was consistent through grad school completion. An internship in Northeastern Pennsylvania drastically altered my worldview and kept me at that same farm for another season, then, running my own operation through a land-lease in the same county this past year.

Grease the farm- shared farm lunch

Appreciating the growth together

It was incredible; the freedom that it presented for expression through work while learning from many fields of thought, which enabled a deeper relationship with the land and people. It was a moment-to-moment journey requiring self-application, pulling from where I’d been in order to move forward. The result: beautiful vegetables to share with new and old friends and a wheelbarrow full of lessons to help guide in the future.

My business background prior to farming kept me open minded to comparing the suit-and-heel structures with the overalls-and-barefoot ones. This brought to mind the similarity of a corporation’s needs with those of a small farm, with corporate back-of-the-house operations placing emphasis on having the right thing, at the right time, and at the right place. This mantra, along with continual improvement and flexibility leads the way to ensuring supply meets demand. The processes in their operations can be applied and put to good use on a small scale, where seeds, soil, and labor all need to connect.

A procedure that I uphold highly is that of regular review. It ensures that self-reflection occurs on a regular basis. Keeping up with the fast pace of nature in the spring and summer months can set-in place a forward thinking mindset where the time isn’t taken to truly learn from past decisions. Having scheduled review, at least once a year, can keep a truthful and holistic understanding of the operation’s current state. An exercise to help includes writing out on paper where you are, including the strengths and weaknesses of the different functions of your operation. This can lead into where you want to improve, broken down in different areas, and simple improvement steps that can be taken each day.

Grease the farm- indoor seed starting

The beginning of the seed starting operation

Farm life is laced with fast decision-making: whether to plant before the rain since it’s forecasted to continue for the next week, to transplant a week later or to follow the biodynamic calendar, or even how you will start your seedlings. All of these questions need to be answered by you, working in an overarching direction towards your goal. It helps to have what you’re working towards viewable every day. Fortune 500 companies do this by displaying their mission statement and objectives. There is power in being reminded every day the reasons behind what you are doing. That top of mind awareness can ease the stress of quick adjustments in routines, staying firm in the roots of the farm.

Then there’s the matter of balance. Long nights and early mornings in the late spring and summer, plus a continually refreshing list of to-do’s that, even if you never took a break to sleep, would still multiply, create a combination of juggling and tight rope walking that would make even a senior acrobat do a double-take. This challenge, recognized by a wise woman who was raised in the lifestyle, advised me, “break or be broken”. It’s so important to take care of your body, to do what you can and then step away, and to ask for help when needed. Your body is your tool, the best one that can be applied to the fields, which requires physical, mental, and emotional health. Working the land offers renewal of all three of these states in return.

After the season and some cold winter nights to review, I’ve picked out some advice I’d like to offer for those just getting involved, a few tools to ease stress plus general tips.

Some Toolbox Essentials

The Wave accounting app is great. Their basic free service makes it easy to track the money coming in and leaving your operation. You can create invoices from a standard template and send professional looking receipts through email.

Grease the farm- planting research

Getting ready for the season

Johnny’s seed starting date calendar, available on their website in the Interactive Tools section, gives you a customizable spreadsheet. You can put your last frost date in and it automatically calculates when you should start different seedlings.

Dr. Andrew Weil’s 4-7-8 breathing technique, it’s a way, through deep breathing, to calm your nervous system. Say it’s pouring and you didn’t get the carrots directed seeded, 4-7-8, you’ll figure out a way to make it work.

Some Farming Tips….

It really helps if you make it as easy as possible to stay organized. This might mean creating a system to separate papers as you pile them up in the “to-be-dealt-with-later” section.

Energy output is also required for hiring help. It’s one of the hats to be worn that needs your attention.

Slow growth. Slow growth. Slow growth. I’ve heard this from so many farmers and only now am starting to get it. You’re working towards your goals a little bit everyday.

Through reading this, I hope you were able to grab some information that will help spring your operation forward. This season I’m actually taking a step back. I realized that the farmers that I look up to, the Jerry Brunetti’s and the Arden Anderson’s, have steadily learned and grown over time. That slow continuous growth presents a pace that is sustainable to achieve life goals, it doesn’t all have to happen over night. I’m taking what I learned and applying it on a smaller scale to connect with the soil, the plants, and the people in my community.

Alicia Anderson has an M.B.A. from Eastern Michigan University and ran a 25-person CSA at Journey’s End Farm in Sterling, PA. She is now working on community gardening initiatives. Alicia can be contacted at

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