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This “How To” was prepared by Peter Smallidge, NYS Extension Forester and Director, Arnot Teaching and Research Forest, Department of Natural Resources, Cornell University Cooperative Extension, Ithaca, NY 14853. Support for ForestConnect is provided by the Cornell University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and USDA NIFA.

Fall and winter are great seasons to learn about the needle-bearing trees that most people call “pines.” These trees have needles, and may also be called evergreen. Most are within the pine family (Pinaceae), but not all. These types of trees have several common features, but not all species easily fall under these labels. These species can be separated into groups and fairly easily described, but first let’s discuss some of the commonly used labels.

Evergreen is commonly used to describe these trees. This label generally applies because most of the species have green foliage throughout the year. An exception is the eastern larch, or tamarack (Larix laricina). In the context of “evergreen”, it is worth noting that although some needles are green throughout the year, all species will slough or drop some needles each year. At some point you will see brown and dying needles. This is to be expected.

Conifer is another common label for these trees. Here again this usually applies because the fruit for most of these species is a cone. However, two species in the cedar family (Cupressaceae) have a fruit that to most people looks like a berry. The fruit of eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana) and pasture juniper (J. communis) is technically a berry-like cone, with fleshy scales that have grown together.

These needle-bearing trees are within the pine and cedar families. All plants are classified by genus and species within a family. In NY and most of the Northeast, the genera within the pine family include: pine (Pinus spp.), spruce (Picea spp.), fir (Abies spp.), hemlock (Tsuga spp.), and larch or tamarack (Larix spp.). Similarly, the genera within the cedar family include: cedar (Thuja) and juniper (Juniperus). Each of these genera have distinguishing characteristics. All the species of these genera typically have more than one common name. Any good tree identification book will list the variety of common names. Similarly, full details of identification to the species level are left to a good book, such as referenced below.


Figure 1. Red pine has two needles per fascicle, a persistent fascicle sheath, and a bulbous bud.

The most definitive feature of pines is that the needles occur in clusters of 2, 3 or 5. A cluster of pine needles is called a fascicle. One subgroup of pines are the hard pines and include Scotch pine (Pinus sylvestris), jack pine (P. banksiana), black pine (P. nigra), and red pine (P. resinousa) with 2 needles per fascicle (Figure 1) and pitch pine (P. rigida) with 3 needles per fascicle. The fascicle of the hard pines is wrapped at the base with a paper-thin layer that persists for the life of the fascicle.

Figure 2. Eastern white pine, a soft pine, has a deciduous fascicle sheath which gives the tree a soft appearance.

The only soft pine in the Northeast is eastern white pine (P. strobus). The soft pines have a fascicle sheath, but it is deciduous so it sloughs off during the first growing season of the fascicle (Figure 2). Pine cones have relatively few scales when compared to other genera of Pinaceae. All of the pines are intolerant or mid-tolerant of shade, so will typically require moderate to high levels of sunlight to survive.






Figure 3. The foliage of red spruce (pictured) and all spruce are connected to the twig on a sterigmata. The sterigmata persist after needles drop and appear as peg-like projectcions

The distinguishing feature of all spruce is the presence of sterigmata. Sterigmata are post-like structures or projections on the stem to which the needles attach (Figure 3). These structures are most easily seen on sections of twigs closest to the main stem, after the needles have dropped. They are visible with the naked eye at approximately 1 mm (1/32”) long. Spruce are also identified by have a four-sided needle, and needles that occur singly on the sterigmata (not clusters as do the pines). Spruce have a greater density of scales on the cone than do pine, and cone length helps differentiate among the species. From smallest to largest cones, native spruce include: black spruce (Picea mariana), red spruce (P. rubens), and white spruce (P. glauca). From other areas and common in yards are blue (P. pungens) and Norway (P. abies). The odor of spruce is commonly described as pungent to fetid. The spruces tend to be more tolerant of shade than the pines, though they grow well in sunlight.




Figure 4. The cones of balsam fir are erect, and at maturity the scales break away and leave a central stalk. Photo #1218002 courtesy of Bill Cook, Michigan State University,


The needles of fir are similar to spruce in their singular attachment, not clustered, to the twig. One distinguishing feature of fir is that the needles are attached directly to the twig, and when they drop they leave behind a slightly raised circular pad. Another feature of the genus, and thus of New York’s one native and common fir, balsam fir, (Abies balsamea), is the 3 inch upright cone with deciduous scales (Figure 4). As the cones mature they are apparent in an upright or erect position on the branches, but when mature, the scales drop away leaving a naked cone stalk. The needles are flat, and typically two-ranked or attached on the sides of the twig as wings on a plane. The odor of firs is often that of citrus, though the odor of balsam has a less pronounced citric component that others species in the genus. Balsam fir up to a few inches in stem diameter will have resin blisters on the stem that contain a sticky and aromatic pitch. Balsam fir is tolerant of shade and often grows in the understory.



Figure 5. The two-ranked foliage of eastern hemlock includes dwarfed needles arranged on the upper side of the twig.

Eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) is common in much of New York and occurs in all parts of the state. Hemlock will resemble balsam fir except for three distinguishing characteristics. First, the cones of hemlock are marble-sized, pendant, and the scales remain attached. Second, the foliage has a “piney” (actually “hemlocky”) odor, but not any hint of citrus. Third, the needles, especially on eastern hemlock, are two-ranked, but also include miniature-sized needles that are attached sporadically on the upper side of the twig (Figure 5). The central leader often droops, and a purplish zone separates the layers of bark. Much notoriety surrounds hemlock because of the introduced hemlock woolly adelgid. Hemlock, like balsam fir, is tolerant of the shade.




Figure 6. Eastern larch with foliage on spur shoots. Photo courtesy of Joseph O’Brien, USDA Forest Service,

As mentioned, eastern larch (Larix laricina) is distinctive by its deciduous foliage. Like black spruce it may be found growing in the saturated soils of bogs. The foliage may appear to be clustered on stubs, known as spur shoots (Figure 6). However, the clustered foliage is a result of a branch that does not extend; the foliage that would be otherwise arranged singly on the stem are compressed into a cluster on the spur. The cones are approximately the size of those on eastern hemlock, but are held erect. Many plantations of larch occur on former farms throughout New York, but those plantations are most commonly European larch (L. decidua) or Japanese larch (L. kaempferi), both having much larger cones than the native species.





Figure 7. Foliage of northern white cedar is glossy and succulent in appearance.

Northern white-cedar (Thuja occidentalis), as all members of the cedar family, are distinguished from the pine family by the modified needles. The modified needles are described as keeled, meaning the needle is flatten and folded to create an edge along the center of the needle (Figure 7). A written description that provides visualization is challenging; perhaps consider a dense strand of green waxy beads, melted and pressed flat. The cones are distinctive, and to some appear as miniature wooden roses. Northern white-cedar is common in bogs and on dry ground, and is tolerant of shade. It may grow in dense stands that provide winter cover for deer, and is browsed heavily by deer. The wood is light and the most rot resistant of the conifers. Atlantic white-cedar (Chamaecyparis thyoides) is restricted to coastal areas of the state.



Figure 8. The foliage of redcedar may be scale-like as the upper-end of the left branch, or awl-like.

The junipers have two types of needle structures, one is linear and awl-like and the other is scale-like (Figure 8). Juvenile and vigorous shoots tend to have awl-like foliage. Eastern redcedar (Juniperus virginiana) will attain tree size and occurs in most counties of the eastern United States. Pasture juniper (J. communis) only occurs as a shrub, usually on infertile soils, and only has the awl-like foliage and in whorls of three. The berry-like cone of pasture juniper may be twice the size of that of eastern redcedar.





Tree identification can provide countless hours of fun, and maybe a bit of frustration. Start with a good book, practice on specimens you know, and make a collection of numbered twigs to test yourself and friends that come to visit.

Other resources

  1. Numerous publications are available via A social network is also accessible for owners at and includes an events page, blogs, questions and answers, and a place to post pictures of what you are doing in your woods.
  2. Archives of tree identification webinars are available at Search for “identification.”
  3. A free online book “Know Your Trees” published by Cornell Cooperative Extension is at or an update version may be purchased at
  4. Donald J. Leopold. Trees of New York State: Native and Naturalized.  2003. Syracuse University Press. 322 pages.

Honey bees pollinate flowering plants at Cornell Orchards.
Jason Koski / Cornell University

New research has found that orchards in natural habitats draw bee diversity which improves apple production.

The Cornell University-led study, published recently in the journal Science, shows that apple orchards surrounded by agricultural lands are visited by a less diverse collection of bee species than orchards surrounded by natural habitats. When fewer, more closely-related species of bees pollinate an orchard, apple production suffers.

“Orchards that have bee communities that are more closely related to each other did worse in terms of their fruit production, and the communities that are more broad across the phylogeny did much better,” Heather Grab, Cornell University Ph.D. ’17, the paper’s first author, said in a press release.

The researchers examined 10 years of data from 27 apple orchards in New York state. They noted the types of landscapes that surround these orchards, measured apple production and surveyed the species of bees that visited each orchard.

Read more about the research on the Cornell Chronicle.

Our Small Farms newsletter brings you farm announcements, events, job and internship opportunities, grant and loan opportunities, and other farming resources. It is intended for farmers and agricultural service providers in New York and the Northeast. The newsletter reaches more than 10,000 farmers, aspiring farmers, and agricultural service providers. Of those recipients, 41% of these recipients are located in New York.2017 Small Farm Updates

2018 Small Farm Newsletter Issues

Looking for a grant opportunity or resource that appeared a few issues back? To view previous 2018 issues, click on the links below.

Issue 1  Issue 2
December December 3rd December 19th
November November 5th November 19th
October October 1st October 15th
September September 4th September 17th
August August 1st August 15th
July July 2nd July 17th
June June 1st  June 15th
May May 1st May 15th
April April 1st April 15th
March March 1st March 15th
February February 1st February 15th
January No Issue January 15th

Register now to learn about business management, soil health, specialty mushrooms, beekeeping, business plans, high tunnels, and grazing. Courses fill up quickly and registration closes for block four in just one month.

Block Four Courses Start the Week of February 25

Registration closes for block four on Sunday, February 17 at 11:59 p.m. EST.
We strongly encourage you to register early to avoid being shut out of courses.

Taking Care of Business
This course helps aspiring and beginning farmers assess and manage a variety of risks that a farmer will face as they operate their enterprise. Throughout the six-week period, topics essential for operating a viable farm business will be discussed, including insurance coverage, types of business structures, and tax information.


Soil Health
The health and productivity of the soil forms the basis for any farm’s success, profitability, and ecological sustainability. Successful farmers need to develop a holistic approach to preserving and building soil health and fertility. Stewardship of the soil is arguably the most important job of any farmer or gardener.



Indoor Specialty Mushroom Cultivation
Mushrooms are an emerging niche crop with many benefits and offer a unique and highly desired product. This course trains new and experienced farmers in the background, techniques, and economics of farm scale indoor commercial production.



Introduction to Beekeeping
Whether you are currently keeping honey bees, or are considering adding them to your farm, a basic understanding of bee biology, diseases, pests and setting up your colony for success are essential. This course is taught by experienced beekeepers and will give you real-world experiences paired with academic concepts.


Writing a Business Plan
Whether you intend to borrow money or not, heading into a farm venture without a business plan is like setting out on a long-distance journey without a map. Arm yourself with a business plan to aid your farm decision-making and demonstrate to yourself and your family that your ideas are feasible.



Season Extension with High Tunnelshigh tunnel soil
Adding weeks to either end of your growing season can mean attaining a premium for having products available well before (or long after) other local growers. The unheated plastic-covered “high tunnels” can cost a lot of money, and they bring special management considerations that need to be understood in order to be profitable additions to your farm.


Grazing Management
With sound grazing management, you can reduce your workload, keep your animals happier and healthier, and improve the overall productivity and profitability of your farm. Well-managed grazing systems also provide greater environmental benefits and enhance habitat for many wildlife species.



The Small Farms Program offers more than 20 courses to help farmers improve their technical and business skills. Most courses are six weeks long, and each week features an evening webinar with follow-up readings, videos, and activities. Students and their instructors connect through online forums and live chat. If you aren’t able to attend the webinars in real-time, they are always recorded for later viewing.

You can check out the listings on our site for more information on a particular course and the instructors. Course tuition entitles two people from a farm to attend. Learn more about registration, payment, computer requirements, and more on our Frequently Asked Questions page.

If you still have questions, you can contact our online course managers:

Erica Frenay at
Steve Gabriel at

Time is valuable. Time is money. And time is of the essence at the height of the busy season! We know that the ability to manage people effectively is a critical skill for a successful farm business. An efficient crew can make or break the bottom line during harvest. So why not invest in your most valuable resource? Your employees (including yourself!) are essential to your farm’s ultimate success!

Owners, managers, employees and the overall farm business all benefit from professionalism and productive working environments.

Being prepared to hire and manage employees will save you time, money and headaches! Whether you are looking to hire employees for the very first time or adding additional staff, human resource and managerial skill are crucial. With the ultimate goal of minimizing workforce related issues on new farms in New York State, the Cornell Small Farms Program through the Labor Ready Farmer Program has grant funding available through 2020 to offer one-on-one technical assistance to beginning farmers, including next generation farmers on family farms. Funding is available, but not limited to, the following four focus areas for up to 20 eligible farms.

Level 1 assistance is for beginning farmers with very limited experience in hiring or training workers. It is intended to help get a good system going on your farm.

  1. Farmers who have never formally hired or managed employees: If you have relied on family and volunteer workers for your farm, but would like to begin to hire employees for the first time, we can assist you with setting up a process that will help you get off to a great start and minimize problems down the road. We provide help with compliance and paperwork, policy development, training and management resources and connections to agencies and support networks.

Level 2 is intended for beginning farmers who have employees, but who have a more targeted need.

  1. Hiring and Training New Staff: If you have employees already but feel like you could use assistance, we can help in streamlining your hiring and training process for new staff to get them up to speed and working independently more quickly. Areas for assistance could include: help with streamlining paperwork and recordkeeping for new hires, assistance in maintaining good records to reduce compliance issues, developing a schedule and set of new hire trainings for your farm to help get workers up to speed more quickly. We can help you pull together videos, handouts, and hands-on demonstrations, and develop a set of Standard Operating Procedures.
  2. Employee Manuals, Policy Development and Employee Feedback: If you have employees already but would like more focused help, we can work with you to develop employee manuals, offer feedback and assistance with developing farm employee policies and/or help in providing better feedback to employees to help reduce problems. We can provide help with the process, legal guidance and assistance with final product development.
  3. H2A Guidance and Readiness: If you are considering hiring foreign guest workers but are not sure what it would take to get your farm ready, we can provide one on one assistance in assessing costs, housing, paperwork and compliance and managing cultural issues.

Farmers selected for assistance will work with the Labor Ready Farmer Program to develop a specific scope of work in their selected focus area using with one-on-one guidance and business consulting from agricultural labor specialists. They will also join a cohort of other farmers who are working in the same focus area to share ideas and build a support network.

We anticipate that projects will be completed near the end of 2019 or early 2020. If you are interested in receiving this assistance, please see the application for full details:

If there is an area, related to employee management and training, that is not included in this list that you need help with on your farm please include this information on your application.

If you have any questions, please feel free to contact:

Nicole M. Waters

Beginning Farmer Project Coordinator

Small Farms Program – Labor Ready Farmer Project | (607) 255-7115

The free workshops to help new and beginning farmers recognize and understand safety issues on their farms.

By Karen Anderson

Are you a new or beginning farmer? It’s a broader definition than you might think. A New and Beginning Farmers (NBF) is one who has operated a farm or ranch for no more than 10 consecutive years; has a minimum income of $10,000 in farm income; is a NY state resident; is at least 18 years of age; and materially and substantially participates in day-to-day agricultural production.

USDA and various New York State agencies are providing assistance and incentives for New and Beginning Farmers, but funds from these sources are not enough to support growth of a sustainable farm operation. To save money, new and beginning farmers may be more likely to purchase older, potentially unsafe machinery and take potentially dangerous shortcuts. Additionally, many farms are incorporating elements of agri-tourism, which presents more challenges than running a private farm. Many NBFs have little or no farm experience and don’t know about the many occupational health and safety issues they face.

Everyone knows and recognizes that safety is important, but slim profit margins can make it hard to do more than what is needed to just keep the farm running. Tractors without rollover protection (ROPS), ill-fitting or worn-out personal protective equipment (PPE), power take-offs (PTOs) without shields, unsafe wiring and lighting are common safety issues that are easier to fix than NBF may realize. The New York Center for Agricultural Medicine and Health (NYCAMH) is a one-stop source for accessing farm safety information. NYCAMH offers free farm hazard identification walkthroughs, bilingual safety training, and technical assistance to any farm in New York. NYCAMH’s on-farm work is non-regulatory and results are not provided to anyone other than the farmer.

This year NYCAMH has received funding from the NYS Department of Labor Hazard Abatement Board to offer free workshops to help new and beginning farmers recognize and understand safety issues on their farms. The trainings consist of two-hour workshops, in which participants learn what to expect from an on-farm safety walk-through, receive a brief overview of the most common agricultural safety concerns, and are provided with resources that they can access online. Farmers who take part in these workshops have the immediate opportunity to sign up for free NYCAMH walk-throughs and trainings on their farms at times that are convenient for them.

NYCAMH will also provide customized workshops for NBF military veterans because having groups with some similarities in background and experience is helpful in hands-on and discussion-focused training.

NBF workshops will be held at upcoming conferences – look for announcements in newsletters. NYCAMH is still accepting inquiries from potential host farms and other training locations, which could include elements of a live walk-through. The only requirements for hosting are the ability to provide comfortable indoor seating for up to 20 participants and space for setting up a projector and screen. Please call NYCAMH at (607) 547-6023 or email for more information about hosting or participating in New and Beginning Farmer Training. NYCAMH’s work is funded in part by the NY State Department of Labor Hazard Abatement Board and the NY State Department of Health.

Karen Anderson is the Supervisor of Education and Outreach at NYCAMH. She leads a team of ag safety specialists who work with producers all over NY to provide free training to employers, agribusiness, and farm workers. 

For more information about NYCAMH’s free safety training program and online training resources are located at

Regardless of farm size, age, or commodity, NYCAMH can help you and your workers stay safer on the farm this year. Our on-farm safety surveys use a checklist to look at potential hazards around the farmstead, as well as tractors and machinery, and evaluate use of PPE. NYCAMH is not a regulatory agency and does not report walkthrough results to any agency. We offer on-farm training sessions to any agricultural operation in English and Spanish on a variety of topics including WPS, Hazard Communication, packing house safety, personal hygiene, forklift, ladder safety, tractor and machinery, and mechanical hazards. We also have a variety of bilingual safety posters available at no cost. NYCAMH offers unique resources to producers including the National ROPS Rebate Program (;  the John May Farm Safety Fund; a catalog of PPE including respirators, hearing and eye protection; respirator fit testing; occupational health clinics; chainsaw safety; and CPR and first-aid training. Call 607-547-6023 any time for assistance with farm safety issues, including OSHA compliance. Look for us at farm shows throughout the state. Visit NYCAMH’s exhibit at the NY Farm Show in February 2019 to participate in a tractor rollover simulator!

News from the Cornell Small Farm Program

By Kacey Deamer and Anu Rangarajan

A Growing Team

The Cornell Small Farms Program has experienced incredible growth in the last year, including the addition of three new team members. Over the summer we welcomed Nicole Waters and Kacey Deamer. Nicole joined us as the Beginning Farmer Coordinator, which has her working on our “Labor Ready Farmer” project and our work supporting veterans in agriculture. Kacey is our first Communications Specialist, and has been working on our storytelling and outreach strategy across the website, social media, newsletter, and more. Then this fall we welcomed another new team member, Shaun Bluethenthal, as our new Veteran Program Associate. Shaun is helping to broaden our work with farmer-veterans.

Expanding Our Reach

With the growth of our team, we have launched pilot programming to further support farmers in New York. Under the Labor Ready Project, we opened the “Master Class for Bilingual Crew Members” in partnership with the CCE Lake Ontario Fruit Program, GrowNYC’s FARMroots, and ESL Works. This series of seven classes is designed as a professional development and communication training course for bilingual orchard crew members. Training outcomes include increased confidence in English-language communication, people skills and overall business acumen. Benefits to growers is an essential component of the Labor Ready project. As such, owners play an integral role in the program, helping to shape training outcomes and providing feedback throughout the program. The Master Class series helps growers increase on-farm efficiency, save money and retain their very best employees. The first Master Class series was held through November and December 2018, with eight participating farms.

We continue to help farmers improve their technical and business skills by offering more than 20 online courses. Most courses are six weeks long, and each week features an evening webinar with follow-up readings, videos, and activities. Students and their instructors connect through online forums and live chat. More than 300 students have enrolled in the 2018-2019 course season thus far.

Our next block of courses starts the week of February 25:

  • BF 103: Taking Care of Business
  • BF 110: Soil Health
  • BF 153: Indoor Specialty Mushroom Cultivation
  • BF 160: Introduction to Beekeeping
  • BF 202: Writing a Business Plan
  • BF 220: Season Extension with High Tunnels
  • BF 231: Grazing Management

Course tuition entitles two people from a farm to attend, and discounts are available for early registration and registering for multiple courses. The registration deadline is Sunday, February 17 at 11:59 p.m. Check out the listings at for more information on a particular course and the instructors.

With the expansion of the Cornell Small Farms Program, we have also grown our list of advisors. In the fall we brought together a group of farmers, educators, ag service providers and others from around the state for a day of discussions about small farm viability in New York. A few key trends emerged from these conversations, which will help direct some of our program’s efforts in the coming year.

One main topic of conversation was developing business skills, both for small farm owners and farm employees. Professional development helps new and established farm owners become better managers and gives farm workers the skills they need to advance in management or prepare for farm ownership. Our program will work to strengthen the agriculture workforce through programming like the Master Class mentioned above.

New technologies and “digital ag” were also discussed. This ranged from better utilization of the technology available on a cell phone, to the potential of sensors and robotics to support small farm management. Building a successful small farm business involves innovating to streamline labor, improve productivity and increase access to markets. We want to promote entrepreneurship and innovation in small-scale farming.

Diversity was also a key topic, as our group discussed that the next generation of farmers is younger, more diverse in gender, ethnicity and race, and focused on resilient farming practices. Our program will continue to work to foster diversity among our New York farmers to new types of training programs.

We here at the Cornell Small Farms Program try to anticipate and respond to these and other emerging needs. Working closely with our Cornell Cooperative Extension educators and other partners, we will continue providing farmers across sectors and enterprises with quality educational resources, training and decision-making tools.

Local Farms Test Tarping

In this issue you’ll find the published research of Haley Rylander, a masters student working with the reduced tillage project of the Cornell Small Farms Program. Haley has also been visiting with farmers who have taken an active role in her research. Three of these farms are local to the Cornell campus in Ithaca, NY: Centurion Farm, Muddy Fingers Farm, and Ploughbreak Farm.

These farmers used tarps for different lengths of time and on different crops, with whatever pre- or post-treatment of the soil they chose.  They used a tarp over a number of beds and compared weed pressure and yield to that of un-tarped beds nearby.

From talking with these farmers about their experience with the trials, we have found some common themes. One of which is that tarps hold soil moisture at an ideal level. Another benefit of tarps is their ability to suppress weeds. Nina Saeli from Centurion Farm said that the weed suppression alone makes the tarps worth using.

“I timed myself when I weeded, on the tarped beans, it literally took me more time to walk the beds to look for weeds than it took me to actually weed,” Nina said. “On the un-tarped side with the beans, it was much more difficult, and I spent a lot more time weeding … once I let that side get a little away from me, I was on my hands and knees pulling those weeds up when I was not doing that on the tarped side.”

The farmers say there is definitely a learning curve in terms of figuring out how to incorporate tarps into their cropping plans and determining which crops and timings work best on their farms. In general, prepping beds before tarping seems to have the most positive effects, as tilling after tarping brings up more weed seeds.

Tarps are no miracle solution to eliminate tillage and weeds, but growers seem excited about using them and learning more about the benefits they can provide in a small farming system.

You can contact Haley for more information about her research at

Securing the Future of the Livestock Industry

The Cornell Small Farms Program and Cornell Cooperative Extension hosted its biennial NY Small Farm Summits in March 2017, with a focus on the opportunities to grow the New York livestock industry.

Livestock production in NY contributes $893 million in sales to the rural New York economy, and most animals are raised on small farms. Demand far outstrips supply for NY meat and livestock, so there is room for growth, but there are a number of hurdles to livestock farmers’ success.

The goal of the statewide Summit was to prioritize research, education or other investments needed to support the viability of livestock producers in New York. Over 85% of the farmers involved in this Summit believe the New York livestock sector has potential for growth, and most farms (73%) have seen gross revenue from sales of livestock products increase over the last five years. With this optimism and growth, the farmers also noted specific research and extension needs that would address constraints to scaling up production.

Information gathered from the Summit, surveys, and further research on the livestock industry is now available as a full report, “Securing the Future of the New York State Livestock Industry.” The report focuses on the investments in research, education and marketing infrastructure that are needed if New York is to take advantage of its resources to expand the livestock sector. The full report can be viewed online or downloaded as a PDF from the Cornell Small Farms Program website:

The demand for reasonably sized sweet potatoes has grown well beyond supply.

By Robert Hadad

Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) Cornell Vegetable Program Specialist Robert Hadad is assisting a local farmer with a project to create a sweet potato slip production operation to provide locally grown transplants.
R.J. Anderson / Cornell Cooperative Extension

In September, Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) Cornell Vegetable Program Specialist Robert Hadad, together with CCE Wayne County Executive Director Beth Claypoole, visited a small, mixed vegetable farmer in Wayne County that grows sweet potatoes. He has focused production on four varieties that do very well for him. Many sweet potatoes grown in western New York are of one variety: Beauregard, out of North Carolina. Beauregard generally produces one very large tuber and a number of small ones. The big tuber is usually too big for many consumers (as well as chefs) and the small tubers are not that impressive. The farmer that we visited has plants that grow consistently intermediate sized tubers that are ideal for chefs and his roadside stand customers love them!

What’s so exciting about this? The demand for reasonably sized sweet potatoes has grown well beyond supply. The sources for sweet potato transplants (also called “slips”) are from the south mostly North Carolina, Georgia, and Louisiana. Many times, the transplants are sent up to northern growers in April or early May. When we have an early spring that is fine. When we have a cold wet spring, the transplants can’t be planted and farmers lose many of the slips before they ever hit the field. The farmer in Wayne County has developed a successful operation to produce his own transplants.

After meeting with the farmer, it was clear he enjoyed challenges. The question was poised to him about expanding transplant production in order to help supply western New York growers with sweet potato variety slips that have become acclimated to our shorter-than-the-south season and have them ready when our growers need them, mid to late May. He has agreed to work on a project to create a sweet potato slip production operation to provide locally grown transplants.

Together, with the CVP being an advisor, a NESARE farmer grant will be applied for this fall. The goals are to compare two transplant production practices to determine the best to use to ramp up the number of slips that can be grown in his greenhouse. The resulting transplants then would be made available to other growers to expand the amount of sweet potatoes grown in the region. Besides fresh market sales, there is a great interest from farm-to-school programs in having fresh sweet potatoes on the cafeterias’ menus.

Robert Hadad is a vegetable specialist with CCE’s Cornell Vegetable Program. He can be contacted at

Strategies applied at Climbing Tree Farm can be applied to other farm businesses to enhance operations.

Colby and Schuyler Gail didn’t realize that when they acquired their first eight sheep in 2007 that they would eventually become farmers. Schuyler viewed the sheep as a way to manage grass on her grandmother’s property and provide meat for the family. The couple slowly expanded their herd of sheep and began raising chickens, starting with 50, growing to 125 in the next year and scaling up to 1,300 birds in their third year. By 2010, they had a mix of 300 laying hens, 1,000 meat birds, and sheep to sell. Pigs were added to the farm that year as well. Today, pork is their primary product.
The land that hosts Climbing Tree Farm has also evolved over time. Between 2012 and 2015, they leased a large piece of land that enabled them to rapidly grow the business. In 2015, however, they decided to not renew the land lease due to a tenuous relationship with the landlord. They returned to farming a smaller property which also meant reducing the number of animals in their herds. Today, they still farm the same smaller property but market their pork to high-end outlets. With no employees, no permanent fencing, and no tractor, the farmers rely on their own labor, a truck and trailer, an eight by ten foot shed, Port-a-hut shelters, and two tarp sheds made out of old billboards to raise their pigs.

Profit Team Project Overview

The Gails first learned about the profit team project in 2015 from the Columbia Land Conservancy. They were searching for the right property for the farm. Considering the existing challenges in finding and financing new land and the need for a veterinarian for the pigs, Climbing Tree Farm applied to and was accepted for a profit team project.

Similar to many other profit team participants, their priorities evolved over time. With their project, the Gails conducted a financial analysis to evaluate farm operations on a smaller piece of land and consulted with individuals to optimize land management, attended a financial management class for women in farming, met with consultants to evaluate business structures and to find new markets and customers, established the farm as an LLC, met with a veterinarian, and worked with an engineer to design equipment to increase labor efficiency for feeding pigs. Additionally, through the Van Noble Farm profit team project, a swine specialist from Iowa offered a workshop in Enfield, NY, which Colby was able to attend to learn more about herd health.


Pigs at Climbing Tree farm.
Small Farm Quarterly

Despite the fact that the project initiated from Climbing Tree Farm’s search for land, conducting a financial analysis helped Colby and Schuyler realize that it was possible to operate on their current property if they developed new markets and grew their pasture management skills. Schuyler notes that working with Steve Hadcock from Cornell Cooperative Extension was incredibly valuable. Through the financial analysis with Hadcock, they realized that farmer’s markets were not as lucrative as wholesale but also not as personally fulfilling. As a result, the farmers began shifting their marketing priorities and brought in a professional to help them network with new customers. Schuyler reflects, “having our business adviser has helped us …forge our way into a tight-knit community, so I think that connection will help us continue to grow,” as word of mouth amongst customers carries.

From a farm management standpoint, there were numerous additional benefits from the project. Climbing Tree Farm is more aware of the needs of the animals, especially when operating on a smaller piece of land. Now that the pigs are getting more forage, less money is spent procuring grain or milk as feed. Small tips for improving farm management is coupled with better record keeping. Data is now available in a more timely fashion to help guide decisions. Forming an LLC also mitigates personal risk associated with raising livestock, which had become a concern with the rise in lawsuits against regional farms with livestock. In considering profitability, Schuyler also notes that since the beginning of the project, their ratio between gross and net profit has improved with these changes.

Bearing in mind the limited amount of equipment that Colby and Schuyler use in raising pigs, ergonomics and efficiency are also very important to them. The engineer focused on designing a “milk jug squisher” to enable them to quickly empty bottles of unsalable milk as feed for the pigs. This machine is anticipated to significantly improve quality of life as well. Schuyler explains, “every bottle that we open is poured out … by hand, and then you have to squish the bottle and replace the cap, so it takes a really long time.” The resulting machine will therefore not only save time in emptying product but also will reduce the physical stress from the repetitive motion of twisting off the cap of individual milk jugs.
If the farm were given the opportunity to participate in the project again, Schuyler states “I might have a party at my house.” Elaborating on this idea, she explains that the way in which their animals are raised is an important component of differentiating their business. Being able to show potential customers the conditions in which the animals are raised and offering samples of the meat prepared by a caterer can go a long way in cultivating and inspiring new customers. Additionally, they are still currently seeking a veterinarian with expertise in preventative healthcare for their pigs.

Reducing Exposure to Risk

As advanced beginning farmers, Colby and Schuyler were at a point in their farm operation where they needed to analyze the risk management strategies for their farm. The USDA defines five categories of risk that farmers can face. Production risk results from the variable conditions encountered by farms in growing crops and livestock. Price or market risk occurs due to the variable prices received by farmers, especially in commodity markets. Financial risk is created when a farm borrows money and then has to repay on that obligation. Availability of credit is an additional type of financial risk faced by beginning farmers. Institutional risk is the uncertainty of government regulation and enforcement. The final category is human resource risk, which occurs when personal relationships or health impact the performance of the farm business.

Climbing Tree Farm decided to review their business structure to decrease their exposure to risk. They formed a limited liability company to protect their personal assists and to have additional protection from litigation. A limited liability company is relatively simple to set-up and provides a legal means for separating and personal and business assets. The LLC structure gives additional protection to farm business owners by separating personal assets from business assets, and therefore reducing personal risk from a legal proceeding, business dissolution, etc. The chart below summarizes three common type of farm business ownership structures and some of their features.

Strategies for Success

Strategies that Colby and Schuyler applied at Climbing Tree Farm can be applied to other farm businesses to enhance operations.

  • Network and learn what resources may be available to you. Several components of Climbing Tree Farm’s project were cost free, like consulting with a local CCE agent. By meeting new people and asking questions about potential resources, Climbing Tree Farm was able to take advantage existing resources that had been available to them even before the profit team project.
  • Base decisions on solid numbers. By working with a consultant to conduct a financial analysis, Colby and Schuyler were able to understand the costs and potential benefits of pursuing various farm improvement strategies. This information helped them choose the best course of action that met both personal and farm needs.
  • Consider quality of life in business decisions. The “milk jug squisher” will improve ergonomics and efficiency on the farm, and the decision not to sell at farmers markets reduces the stress and long hours spent in a busy market booth. These changes will improve quality of life on the farm, and in turn, improve operational longevity.

Information for this case study was collected in August 2017. For more information about the Profit Team Project, please visit  This project was a collaboration of the Cornell Small Farms Program, NY Farm Viability Institute, and NY FarmNet, and made possible with funding from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, U.S. Department of Agriculture, under award number 2015-70017-22882.

This excerpt is from Fred Provenza’s book Nourishment: What Animals Can Teach Us About Rediscovering Our Nutritional Wisdom (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2018) and is reprinted with permission from the publisher.

By Fred Provenza

Feedback from the Gut Microbiome

In 1968, near the Department of Defense’s Dugway Proving Grounds in Utah, 6,400 sheep were killed instantly by aerially applied nerve gas that drifted in the wrong direction due to a sudden shift in winds. In January 1971, over half of the sheep in a herd of 2,400 died of unknown causes in less than 24 hours near Garrison on the Utah-Nevada border. In that instance, though, nerve gas wasn’t the cause. What happened near Garrison was due to a phenomenon that had been explained in an article that had been published twenty years prior. Photos in that article showed sheep carcasses strewn across the salt desert. A dead ewe lay in the foreground while another ewe nibbled an herb with bluish green leaves. That herb was halogeton (Halogeton glomeratus), which thrives in salt desert soil that is high in sodium and chlorine. Sodium in halogeton forms salts of oxalic acid, which is exuded as residue on leaves. That residue can be toxic to herbivores.

Ironically, sheep who have experience eating halogeton can eat up to 36 percent of their diet as halogeton without any ill effects. Poisoning occurs when hungry sheep who have never eaten the plant before (researchers use the term “naive” sheep) are forced to eat too much halogeton too quickly. Historically, that occurred when sheep were trucked long distances and put in areas dominated by halogeton.

Intoxication ensues when oxalate is absorbed faster than it can be detoxified by rumen microorganisms that degrade oxalates. Sheep adapted to eating halogeton have much higher rates of oxalate degradation than do naive sheep. Successful transitions to a halogeton diet are accompanied by a ten-fold increase in the rate of oxalate metabolism by rumen microbes. Sheep need three to four days to build up an aptly large microbial population to rapidly degrade oxalate. Adapted sheep can tolerate two and a half times more oxalate than nonadapted sheep.

Scientists who study wild and domestic herbivores have long valued how diet affects the microbiome, which in turn affects the diet, as microbial ecologist Robert Hungate highlights in his classic book The Rumen and Its Microbes, published over fifty years ago. Ruminants and hindgut fermenters such as horses rely on bacteria to provide them with energy, protein, and vitamins. Bacteria digest the cell walls (cellulose) that give structure to plants. Volatile fatty acids such as propionate, butyrate, and acetate are produced from microbial fermentation of cellulose. They are absorbed directly through the rumen wall and provide most of the energy these animals require for activity and growth. The bodies of dead microbes provide 80 percent of the protein needs of ruminants. Bacteria in the rumen also synthesize B vitamins for ruminants.

Thus, the plants herbivores eat provide food for rumen microbes, which in turn feed herbivores. High-forage diets select for bacteria that digest cellulose, while high-grain feedlot diets select for bacteria that digest starch. Diets rich in secondary compounds select for microbes that enable herbivores to eat many otherwise potentially toxic plants such as halogeton. The more diverse the diet, the greater the number of different microbial species that can thrive in the gut.

A positive feedback loop also exists between a person’s food preferences, the species of microbes in their gut, and the preferences of those gut microbes for different dietary items. Microbes provide feedback to the brain through nerves, neurotransmitters, peptides (short-chain amino acids), and hormones. The same is true for rodents. Studies of rats show that certain species of gut bacteria affect the levels of the appetite-stimulating hormone ghrelin, and studies of mice show that other species of gut bacteria affect the appetite-suppressing hormone leptin.

The microbiome also affects gut motility and gut feelings through the hormone serotonin. Serotonin regulates intestinal movements and influences appetite, sleep, and mood contributing to feelings of well-being and happiness. Serotonin is primarily found in the gastrointestinal tract (95 percent),
blood platelets, and the central nervous system (5 percent) of animals, including humans. Specialized cells (enterochromaffin cells) in the gastrointestinal tract form synapses that link directly with neurons in the brain, which allows cross talk between the gut and the brain to occur in milliseconds rather than minutes. To protect the body from toxins, these cells immediately send signals to induce vomiting and diarrhea. Enterochromaffin cells express chemosensory receptors for specific compounds, they are electrically excitable, and they modulate serotonin-sensitive afferent nerve fibers through synaptic connections. That enables enterochromaffin cells to detect and transduce environmental, metabolic, and homeostatic information (gut feelings) from the gut directly to the brain.

Microbes also affect emotions. For example, gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is a key neurotransmitter that dampens the fear and anxiety that mammals experience when neurons in the central nervous system are overexcited. Species of gut bacteria such as Lactobacillus rhamnosus alter expression of GABA messenger RNA in various parts of the brain via the vagus nerve, which connects the gut with the brain. Importantly, L. rhamnosus reduced stress-induced corticosterone and anxiety- and depression-related behavior. These findings highlight the key role of gut bacteria in communication of the gut with the brain and suggest gut bacteria may be useful therapeutic aides in stress-related disorders such as anxiety and depression.

Learned Preferences in Herbivores

By guiding animals to eat a variety of foods, cells and organ systems in the body ensure nutritional needs are met. The body, however, can withstand departures in intake of nutrients, and thus it’s not necessary to adjust intake of every nutrient at every meal. Homeostatic regulation needs only an increasing tendency, due to a steadily worsening imbalance, to generate behavior to correct a disorder. As nutritional state becomes inadequate, animals (including humans) sample novel foods readily—familiarity breeds contempt and novelty breeds contentedness. Once nutritional needs are again met, animals don’t experience cravings from deficits or malaise from excesses. When nutritional state is adequate, animals sample novel foods cautiously—familiarity breeds contentedness and novelty breeds contempt.

Animals prefer foods high in energy and protein, because their bodies need large amounts of energy and protein. These nutrients strongly influence food selection when animals are given choices of foods that differ in energy and protein. Lambs select diets with a higher ratio of protein to energy to meet their needs for growth, but they eat less protein as they age and their need for protein declines. Ewes increase intake of protein relative to energy as their needs for protein increase with the growth of the fetus during the last trimester of gestation, or when they are infected with parasites. When fed a diet with an imbalance between protein and energy, sheep choose to forage in locations with foods that rectify the imbalance. Dairy cows fed protein supplements during lactation avoid eating plants (for example, legumes) and plant parts (for example, new growth) that are high in protein when they forage on grass-legume pastures. They select plants and plant parts high in protein when they are fed energy-rich concentrates, such as corn grain during lactation. Lambs even become averse to diets deficient in specific amino acids and they choose to eat foods that rectify the deficit.

How do livestock maintain a balance of energy and protein in their diets? They associate the flavors of foods with nutrient-specific feedbacks. When lambs are fed a meal that consists of an “appetizer” and a “main course,” they make choices that balance the ratio of energy to protein within a meal. For example, when lambs are fed a high-energy appetizer and then offered various main course choices, they prefer the flavor previously paired with protein. Conversely, lambs fed a high-protein appetizer prefer the flavor previously paired with energy for the main course. They are even sensitive to the rates at which different sources of energy and protein ferment in the gut, as imbalances result in digestive and metabolic upsets.

The foods that animals consume to meet their needs for energy and protein usually contain vitamins and minerals, too. If animals become deficient in vitamins or minerals, however, they will select foods to rectify the deficit. Sheep deficient in vitamin E prefer food higher in vitamin E, for example. Sheep can make multiple flavor-feedback associations with minerals. We designed a study in which we made lambs deficient in one of three minerals—phosphorus, calcium, or sodium—and gave them a choice of the three differently flavored foods. The lambs had previously ingested these flavored foods with one of the three minerals. Lambs preferred the flavor previously paired with repletion of the mineral—phosphorus, calcium, or sodium—they were lacking. These findings support the practice of offering a selection of individual minerals free-choice so animals can select the particular mineral(s) that are low in the forages they are consuming. The same is true in principle and practice with medicines as I discuss in chapter 7.

Unusual foraging behaviors arise as animals sample new and often strange foods in an attempt to rectify nutritional imbalances. In the wild, sheep, caribou, and red deer rectify deficits by eating lemmings, rabbits, and birds—live or dead; sheep eat arctic terns and ptarmigan eggs; white-tailed deer dine on fish; and deer gnaw on antlers. Bighorn sheep use rodent middens as mineral licks. Cattle deficient in phosphorus eat bones, and they stop eating bones when inorganic phosphate levels in their blood rise to normal ranges. Cattle and sheep rectify mineral deficits by eating soil, licking urine patches, and eating fecal pellets and dead rabbits.

In over forty years of working with sheep, I had never seen one eat soil or feces or lick urine patches. But when I was part of a group studying sheep fed a phosphorus-deficient diet, we observed all of those behaviors. We were feeding sheep a phosphorus-deficient diet to see if they would select a food that would rectify the deficiency. However, even after a couple weeks of feeding the phosphorus-deficient diet, we couldn’t get blood phosphorus levels in the “deficient” sheep to drop. Why? They were sticking their heads through the wire panels to eat the feces of sheep in adjacent pens that were being fed a diet that was adequate in phosphorus. When we moved the phosphorus-deficient sheep into new pens, away from the phosphorus-replete sheep, they immediately began to eat the feces on the ground from a previous study. We eventually made them deficient, and they selected the food with phosphorus. Such perverted appetites or picas are adaptive behaviors that commence as animals begin to experience deficits.

This phenomenon also explains what happened when Angora goats of my early research study learned to eat woodrat houses. Inside those houses was densely packed vegetation soaked in urine, which is high in nitrogen in the form of urea. The goats had discovered that source of nonprotein nitrogen, which rumen microbes use to synthesize aminogenic (protein) and glucogenic (energy) nutrients, and they took advantage of it to help meet their needs. But as I noted, only one group of goats ate woodrat houses the first winter, and over the ensuing two winters, out of eighteen groups of goats of different breeds and from different locations, only that one group of goats ever learned to use woodrat houses as a source of nutrition. These findings illustrate the peculiar ways herbivores can discover foods that meet their nutritional needs. By learning from mother and peers, each generation benefits, and such behaviors become part of the foraging culture—the collective nutritional wisdom—of the group.

Fred Provenza is professor emeritus of Behavioral Ecology in the Department of Wildland Resources at Utah State University, where he directed an award-winning research group that pioneered an understanding of how learning influences foraging behavior and how behavior links soils and plants with herbivores and humans. Provenza is one of the founders of BEHAVE, an international network of scientists and land managers committed to integrating behavioral principles with local knowledge to enhance environmental, economic, and cultural values of rural and urban communities. His latest book Nourishment: What Animals Can Teach Us About Rediscovering Our Nutritional Wisdom will be published in November 2018.

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