Rediscovering the Lost Art of Saving Seeds


Whether growing corn for the cows, grains for the bin or veggies for the table and market, farmer’s use a lot of seed. Yet, when it comes to mapping out the annual farm plan each season, too few farmers pencil in a plan to grow seed for their own use even though saving seed is one of the simplest and most cost-effective tools in the barn. Not only can growing your own seed can save you a bundle of money, it could possibly make you a lot of money to add to your bottom line.

History Repeats Itself

It wasn’t that long ago that the majority of American farmers saved seed from the annual crops they grew most often. They learned early on to appreciate the nuances of breeding their crops to have certain traits like higher yield, cold and heat tolerance, disease and pest resistance and adaptability to local growing conditions. These days, few farmers save seed. This trend began after the introduction of genetically modified seeds and the heavy-handed control over patents by the companies that produced them. Farmers and independent seed cleaners were slowly bullied out of breeding and cleaning their own seed. Today, the market is saturated with GMO and hybrid agricultural seeds that are easy to obtain in bulk locally and come with a much simpler bag-tag legal contract. However, if you are an independent farmer looking for a different variety that is open-pollinated or organic and non-GMO, then adding seed saving to your to-do list makes sense.

Additionally, growing your own seed can negate at least some of a farmer’s dependence on outside sources and provide a plentiful supply of high-quality, locally adapted, genetically diverse seeds that cost next to nothing to produce. And with all the uncertainty surrounding climate change and the pervasive genetic modification and patenting of seed stock, anyone who grows anything for a living should seriously consider adding growing seed to their routine.

Simple seed screens help clean and sort seeds of all types.

A Growing Business

All of the seed that farmers, gardeners and market producers buy each year is grown on a farm by someone — and that someone is usually not the seed company. They may grow a portion of the seed they sell, but most is produced by independent farmers and growers. There are many ways to get into the seed growing business and whether you have a big farm or a small one, you can either save money, make money, or both, by growing seed.

The first way to start growing seed for profit is by saving your own seed for on-farm use. Even if you don’t sell the seed, you are saving money in the long run. This is a no-brainer for those already growing crops that are naturally harvested for their seed. Wheat, corn, sunflowers, beans, rice, oats, buckwheat and many others fall into this category. You are already bringing a crop to seed for the mill or for livestock feed, so why not save some of it for sowing the next crop, too?

As for market gardeners, taking a certain crops from the market stage to the seed stage often requires very little extra room and effort. For example, you can save two or three year’s worth of lettuce seed in one season using less than four feet of garden row and still harvest all the fresh lettuce you need from those plants before they bolt to seed. To top that off, lettuce seed will germinate immediately after being harvested, so you not only get spring seed and a crop, but fall seed and a crop, too. What’s not to like about that? And while growers should never sell seed to anyone without going through the proper legal channels, most states allow the barter and trade of seed without restriction. In fact, the two biggest hurdles in saving seed for personal use are learning to protect variety purity, avoiding patent-protected seed stock, and providing adequate storage conditions.

In addition to growing seed for your own use, farmers can grow seed as a contract wholesale producer, as a stand-alone retail business, or as a part of a market garden enterprise. Contracting your growing services to a seed company is probably the most straightforward of the three and anyone with a basic understanding of seed saving and a willingness to learn can do it. Seed companies are always looking for new, motivated growers and are often willing to work with growers of all experience levels.

Growing seed can be a profitable business. A rough estimate of income for a dedicated contract seed grower can range from $10,000 to $80,000 per acre, depending on the amount and type of crops grown. Just one-tenth of an acre could theoretically fetch $4,000 under contract, or approximately $27,000 as part of a retail seed business. For example, a contract seed grower might earn $170/lb for jalapeño seed and a small contract along these lines might call for 15 lbs. of seed, which adds up to $2,550 for the grower. Of course, it doesn’t take hundreds of acres to grow 15 lbs of jalapeño seed. That quantity and then some can be grown on roughly 900 row feet depending on the variety. This makes single-variety contracts very doable even for small operations. The nice thing about growing seed on contract is that you only have to worry about bringing in and processing a quality crop of seed. The seed companies do the rest.

Another way farmers can make growing seed a profitable enterprise is by starting a retail seed business in which you are both the grower and the retailer. Keep in mind that seed companies have additional overhead and risks that contract growers do not, including testing, certification, packaging, labor, distribution, advertising and sales. Additionally, retailers rarely sell 100% of their seed stock each year, so there is always a certain level of loss. But like any business, a projected annual income based on production should always include potential losses. Likewise, there can be beneficial tax deductions for seed companies that choose to donate last season’s seed to charities and other good causes, so no seed need go to waste. For those who like the retail potential of growing seed, the best advice is to start small. If you have a market stall or farm store, either physical or online, these are perfect places to learn the trade by selling just a few of your favorite varieties each season and building up selection and scope as your seed saving skills and retail experience are honed. On a more conventional farming scale, producers can specialize in seed for specialty grains like buckwheat, landrace wheat or rye, cover crop and specialty grazing mixtures.

When it comes to growing seed of fruits and vegetables, keep in mind that buyers only want the seed. This means that you have an added opportunity to either use the flesh of those fruits for animal feed or process and market it as a human food product. For example, when extracting the seeds of tomatoes, tomato juice or sauce could be produced and sold as a prepared food item. Again, saving money and making money are the benefits of growing seed.

Another example of layering income producing aspects of seed growing might include the production of seedlings, which many seed growers need to get a jump on the season. This scenario naturally leads to another income producing opportunity. Growers can pick out the best of the best seedling from mother flats for seed or vegetable production and sell the rest as retail starts at the market or farm stand. If you want to make a real business out of it, you can ramp up your operation and sell starts through your local grocery or feed stores or through an online or mail order catalog. When it comes to growing seed, the sky is the limit.

Cucumbers have wet seeds that need special attention when processing.

Commercial Seed Contracts

Before becoming a contract grower, it is important to consider the economic and agronomic risks of your venture. Do your homework before you start. Learn how to grow and save seed so that no cross-pollination between similar varieties occurs. The good news on this front is that most farms have fields separated by distance and often bordered by windbreaks, which provide excellent natural isolation barriers that help prevent cross-pollination. For first-time seed growers, start with crops that you grow or use on your farm, as well as those that are naturally suited to your climate and skill level. This means that you should select crops that have low or manageable levels of pest and disease risks and those that don’t require inputs that you don’t normally need to use for other crops. Also, beginners should start with annual crops that have perfect self-pollinating flowers such as lettuce, endive, sunflower, carrots, melons, cucumber and legumes as well as field crops such as clover, oats, millet, barley, oats, rice, rye, sorghum, wheat, corn and hundreds of forage grasses. Simply move up the difficulty scale as your experience grows.

To begin a contract seed growing enterprise, start by building relationships with buyers. Keep in mind that certified organic seed fetches much higher prices than non-organic seed of any kind. So, while organic certification might add initial costs to your operation, it might be worth it if you are committed to growing seed. Call around to several seed companies and introduce yourself. Find out what types of seeds they need and what they expect of you as a grower and eventually, it will lead to a contract. Be sure to read any contract offer carefully before signing. It might be a good idea to have a lawyer take a look at it, too, just to make sure you understand all the nuances. Once you know what to expect from a seed contract, you probably won’t need to take this precaution again.

Whatever you do, never grow a seed crop on your own without a signed contract expecting to find a buyer later. That rarely works out to the grower’s advantage. Once you’ve gained experience and have developed a solid relationship with a company, cold call seed sales for popular and favored varieties are not only possible, but often welcomed by buyers who may have come up short for the season. Just remember that when the seed finally hits the dirt, it’s usually up to the grower to start enough plants or sow enough seed to produce the amount of seed the contract calls for. The good news is that buyers are usually more than willing to help new growers work out these types of details and supply the grower with more than enough seed to fulfill the contract. Just be sure to get all the details before you sign on.

Buyer Expectations

With that in mind, know that you are not the only one who loses if a contract goes awry, which is why buyers favor growers they have worked with before and have proven that they can deliver on time, every time. But above all, buyers insist that seeds be of the highest quality, which means they are pure to the traits of that variety and have a high germination rate. Customer’s don’t like to be surprised by “mystery” plants in their gardens and seed companies are required to test germination rates before the seeds can be sold to the public. This is why experienced and proven seed growers always get the biggest and most valuable contracts.

Some of the highest paying contracts are for biennial seed production, which requires more time and skill to bring to market, but that seed also fetches more per pound. Grow-outs are another example of a profitable venture for growers. Sometimes grow outs are needed to evaluate a new variety, but most often are used to “clean up” a variety that has become genetically corrupted in one way or another. Grow outs like this require more time and higher standards to achieve varietal improvements and overall seed quality and therefore, the grower is paid more.

Additional Considerations

When considering adding growing seed to your farm business, start by learning a few things about how seeds are saved. There are a number of excellent books that can teach you the fundamentals and I highly recommend Seed to Seed by Susan Ashworth and The Seed Garden: The Art and Practice of Seed Saving published by Seed Savers Exchange.

One of the first mistakes that most start-up businesses make is over-capitalization. The equipment needed by seed growers varies and is determined by the size and type of the operation, what crops they are growing, and what they are going to do with it once it is harvested. Just keep in mind that you may need to purchase equipment or install irrigation or fencing. You will also likely need to buy or hobble together tools for extracting, cleaning, sorting, and drying seeds.

It’s one thing to thresh a dry seed crop like wheat with a combine that you already have and another thing entirely to extract wet seeds from fleshy fruits like tomatoes and squash or harvest and winnow tiny dry seeds like lettuce and carrots. Do your homework, find out what types of equipment you will need for the crops you want to grow. Ask yourself if you can rig up your own equipment or if you need to make a new purchase or two. If you’re heading into the retail seed space, items like measuring tools, seed packaging and retail display racks are on the table. Just keep it simple and upgrade to more sophisticated equipment as the operation grows.

Whether you want to grow a few seed varieties for your market garden, or start a full-blown retail operation, seed is a growing business that farmers of any size can profit from in terms of diversity, sustainability, security and added income. Start with the basics, learn as you go, and above all, have fun. Growing seed will take your farm to a whole new level.

Tractor Time Episode 35: Marty Travis, A Chef’s Farmer

If you’ve seen the documentary Sustainable, you know that Spence Farm is a special place. It’s owned and operated by Marty Travis, along with his wife, Kris and son, Will. Their farm supplies organic vegetables and heritage meats to some of the top kitchens in the City of Chicago — Frontera Grill, Girl and the Goat and Publican Quality Bread, to name a few. But that might undersell what Marty and his family have built.

The way that they’ve developed relationships, not just with chefs, but also with a network of small farmers, is nothing shorting of astounding. To our mind, Spence Farm is a vision for the future of food. Marty has a new book out titled, My Farmer, My Customer (Acres U.S.A., 2019). It’s currently available for pre-order at the bookstore. Marty is also a featured speaker at the Acres U.S.A. Eco-Ag Conference in Minneapolis, Minnesota in December.

— Ben Trollinger

Investing in Regenerative Agriculture

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published by Regenerative Food Systems Investment

When Danforth, Illinois, farmer Harold Wilken’s father was dying, Wilken told his dad he was going “100 percent organic.”

“Why would you do that when we struggled for years to keep weeds down and it’s so much easier with herbicides?” his father asked. Wilken’s dad had been using herbicides since 1964, and his skin had become pigmented and would blister whenever he was in the sun.

“Why would you want to continue that way?” Wilken asked his father, in the context of what the chemicals had done to his health.

Harold Wilken himself was familiar with the effects of herbicides, having been drenched in them, having had cancer and survived.

“I didn’t like Roundup, and I figured out in my budgets for 2004 that Monsanto was going to make more per acre on licensing fees than I was going to make on my soybean crop,” he says. “Another factor was my 12-year-old son told me he thought he would like to farm when he grew up and I knew we couldn’t do it on a conventional farm. I thought to myself, ‘If Ross doesn’t have to handle herbicides, pesticides or insecticides, that would be more than worth going organic.’”

But in the 1990s, when Wilken first considered transitioning, the landowners he worked with weren’t hip to it — and neither were banks. Only in 2003 did the transition begin, on about 30 acres owned by Herman Brockman, who’d asked Wilken to convert production to organic methods.

Five years later, Wilken connected with David Miller, a cousin of Brockman’s and co-founder of Evanston, Illinois–based Iroquois Valley Farmland Real Estate Investment Trust (REIT), which invests in land on behalf of farmers who agree to transition it to organic or who agree to continue farming it organically. Miller had another seven acres, part of a family farm, that he wanted Wilken to work organically. Wilken became the first farmer in Iroquois Valley’s portfolio. From 700 conventionally farmed acres in 2003 to 2,900 acres all organic or in transition today, Wilken has since brought his son and nephew into the business and has opened a mill for corn and small grains, selling cornmeal and flour to Chicago-area bakers.

Farmers using conventional methods who want to transition into organic still find it hard to get financing from conventional commercial lenders. But burgeoning numbers of alternative sources, such as Iroquois Valley REIT, are popping up around the United States to step in when and where it makes sense — not only financially, but with the goal of supporting efforts to regenerate soil, conserve land, protect air and water, and boost health by eschewing chemicals and providing nutrient-dense food.

A research project sponsored with an innovation grant from USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service — and conducted by Croatan Institute, Delta Institute, and the Organic Agriculture Revitalization Strategy — found that there are 127 investment strategies, with assets of $321.1 billion under management, in the U.S. that integrate sustainable food and agriculture either wholesale or as criteria in their investment process. Of those, 70 strategies, with assets of $47.5 billion, include one or more criteria that relate to regenerative agriculture, according to the July 2019 report, Soil Wealth: Investing in Regenerative Agriculture across Asset Classes ( Estimates in the report are conservative, meaning there are probably other investments not included in the growing field of regenerative-ag investing.

Of the different asset classes, farmland, cash and fixed income are the “ripest for rapid development in part because bank financing remains the leading form of financing farms and businesses in rural communities,” said Dr. David LeZaks, one of the report’s authors and a lead for Regenerative Food Systems at Delta Institute. Although innovation might happen in those asset classes in an isolated way, “government and philanthropic capital can play a catalytic role in the development of new mechanisms, instruments, and approaches within these asset classes that align the appropriately structured, patient, and biomimetic capital needed to grow the regenerative agriculture sector,” he said.

What’s needed, of course, is no less than a culture change around food, in terms of quality and cost. “In reality, cheap food is very expensive,” said LeZaks, who recently spoke about “soil wealth” and increasing opportunities for investment in regenerative agriculture at the Regenerative Food Systems Investment Forum in Oakland, California. Macro-balance sheets don’t account for soil and human-health degradation, and those costs show up as healthcare expenses, ag subsidies and lost biodiversity.

“We need new accounting standards, financial decision-making tools, policies, and awareness that more fully account for the true costs and benefits of our food systems,” LeZaks said.

He thinks of the report as “an open invitation to the community to think creatively about how the many forms of capital, whether financial or non-financial, can be used to invest in regenerative food systems that build soil health and community wealth.”

LeZaks expects that, even if the circumstances may not be “market ready” — as the investment atmosphere still tends to direct itself toward extraction — there are enough sources of “catalytic capital” to demonstrate proof-of-concept, mitigate risk and help move investments toward an economy that regenerates more and extracts less.

In fact, some in the regenerative-ag investing arena see the biggest barrier to increased investment there as conventional thinking about investments.

“I honestly think in the work we’re doing and what we’ve found, we need to stop prioritizing return, because, frankly, farming operations don’t make a big return,” said Esther Park of Cienega Capital. Cienega’s goal is to regenerate the agricultural soils of North America.

“We need to invest in people and livelihood on the land and rethink the parameters of investment,” she said. “There’s a perception of how hard and risky it is. It is. It doesn’t look like traditional investing. It does take work up front and it does produce lower returns. It can generate healthy returns on a loan portfolio — market-rate returns. That’s not our goal or what we’re trying to go for. It’s easier to rationalize loans. On equity in this space, it’s really hard.”

Alex Mackay, the director of business development and investor relations for Iroquois Valley REIT, said chasing the “next big thing” in agriculture, whether it’s hemp or grassfed beef, creates problems. Rather, the REIT looks for long-term, incremental growth. Iroquois Valley, which never buys land without a farmer and has no interest in competing with farmers who may buy land for themselves, does not tell farmers what they should grow. But it does consider how diversified farms are a way to manage risk. Since its founding in 2007, Iroquois Valley has steered more than $50 million in organic agriculture investments. As of 2017, it had more than 8,000 acres financed or leased across 47 farms, roughly half organic and half transitional.

Unlike Cienega, whose portfolio includes a variety of investments, from land and equipment to recapitalization of existing food businesses deeply connected with their local communities, Iroquois Valley focuses on land and tends to look for second- and third-generation farmers through word of mouth or via conferences like Maine Organic Farming and Gardening Association’s. Iroquois Valley is not the place for farmers to look for financing as a last resort and, in fact, Mackay says they encourage farmers to seek the least expensive source of capital available — and that may not be Iroquois Valley.

Farmers who lease land through Iroquois Valley have the option of buying the land after seven years. For those who obtain a mortgage, they offer a fixed term, interest-only for five years. Farmers can do another five years with principal beginning to amortize, and there’s no prepayment penalty. So if farmers find another source of capital, Iroquois Valley may serve as a bridge. Farmers pay roughly 4.5 to 5 percent.

On the investment side, impact investing within agriculture is new, although investing in farmland is not, as institutional investors look to it for preservation of capital. However, viewed over the long term — 30 years or more — farmland can make a good investment, said Mackay, because there will be more people, and those people eat; why not invest in agricultural lands whose farmers eschew chemicals, work to protect and enhance the health of soil and water, support biodiversity and grow nutritious food?

Iroquois Valley aims for 5 to 9 percent annualized returns, said Mackay. This past summer, the farmland REIT launched a direct public offering for investors with $100,000 in net worth — who could invest $10,000 — as opposed to the usual U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission stipulation that investors must have $1 million in net worth to invest in private equity stock because of the risk involved. Iroquois Valley worked with the SEC to open up to a broader base of investors. Already they’ve had a farmer sign on as an investor.

The success of Iroquois Valley and similar alternative sources of capital is a bright spot for Harold Wilken, who is disturbed by fraudulent “organic” grain imports and hair-splitting over what constitutes “regenerative” when any move away from chemical ag should be celebrated, he said. Although Wilken has inspired others to change, a lot of farmers and commercial lenders are resistant to shifting, he said.

“You’re not going to get every 65-year-old or 75-year-old farmer to change, but the people who are going to make the difference are the landowners, who will say to tenant-farmers, ‘This is what I want done. If you don’t, I’ll find somebody who will.’”

The 22 landowners Wilken and his family work with “believe in what we’re doing, and that’s why we’re farming for them.”

Learn Permaculture Techniques Online!

Mark Shepard’s intensive course “Practical Permaculture and Agroforestry for Farmers” is now available on Eco-Ag U Online. Real-world permaculture is an approach to designing perennial agricultural systems that mimic the complex interrelationships found in nature. Many of the concepts were practiced by native people and early civilizations before agriculture discovered and became addicted to cheap fossil fuels. In this detailed, instructional online workshop, you will learn from Wisconsin farmer and best-selling author Mark Shepard how to build proven permaculture systems that improve soil health, crop yield, field biodiversity and natural pest and weed suppression. View course details and free preview here.

What makes a good website?

By Cory Dambach, Sponsored by Back Forty Creative

Today, a website is one of the most important forms of communication a business can implement. In fact, nearly two-thirds of small businesses rely on websites to connect with customers.1 However, a bad website is like a cranky salesperson who hasn’t had their caffeine yet.

Would you want to deal with that?

Assuming your answer is no, we agree! In today’s ever-growing online world, it’s not just about having a website, but having a good website (and in our preference, a really, really good website).

farmer on computer

But what makes a website good? Great question, because it has an easy answer. A good website achieves its goals. The real art to website development is in how you get from a blank page to a strategically thought-out website designed to realize those goals. Any successful web project is going to go through pretty much the same process, but we like to start off by finding answers to the following questions. 

Why do you want a website? 

Who is your target audience?

What do you want from that audience?

How much are you willing to invest to get your audience to do the thing you want them to do?

The better answers we can get to these questions, the better the end product will be. From there, designers and developers take that information, run with it and construct an experience tailored to achieve the identified goals. 

How do we do that? It really depends on what the goals are, but usually we’ll keep the following ideas in mind. 

Back Forty Creative contest

User Experience

A good website should be easy to use. In almost every case, you are asking your visitors to do something. It might be to buy a product, visit your store or engage with your content, but in every case, it’s the job of a high-quality website to make that engagement as easy as possible. Your site should be understandable to the user, even at a glance; this usually falls into place once a clear navigation is developed and calls to actions are placed throughout the site. Your customers won’t spend time hunting around for the things they need. If good user experience is not considered, the user will simply move on to the next site in their search results that can better help them achieve their end goal. 

Appealing Design

A good website should be attractive and professional looking. Have you ever judged a book by its cover? Same thing applies here.

A well-considered, tailored design communicates confidence to the user and heightens a brand’s credibility. If you were to put two websites with similar content next to each other, the better-looking site will grab the conversion every time. Even if the products on the less attractive site are of higher quality, the more professional looking site will be more successful simply due to user indifference. They don’t know what makes your product better than the competition — you have to tell them, and, in most cases, you don’t have much time to convey this. This is what good design does. It helps make your case to the user about why your product or service is worth your audience’s time. Often, web design is about projecting clarity. This is who we are, this is what we do, this is why you should care about it. 

Search Engine Optimization (SEO)

SEO must also be considered in well-thought-out websites. SEO allows a website owner to understand how consumers are searching and finding information about their own brand and their competitors online. Good websites incorporate SEO practices to help increase visibility, visits and rankings. Fresh and engaging content also helps with this. Updating your site with featured news, a weekly blog or connecting social media channels can also help enhance your SEO efforts.

Efficient Development

Last, but definitely not least, a website needs to work correctly. That seems obvious, but you would be surprised how often this gets overlooked. This is the part where attention to detail matters. Does the site load well on mobile, even when you are out in the field? Do all of the buttons work well on your device? Is the information clean, clear and understandable? Every detail is important. Good websites do this well.

No matter what, everything comes back to the same concept in the end. Good websites achieve their goals.



Are you looking for a good website? We would love to assist you in growing your brand. To help simplify the process, we have a variety of web design and development packages to choose from, but also offer customization if you’re looking for something fantastically unique. So, give us a call today! (This is a call to action — something else all good websites need to have.)

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What is sponsored content?

This article is sponsored content, also known as native advertising. That means that a sponsoring company wrote the article and paid for placement. However, instead of the information in a traditional ad, the information in a sponsored article is relevant to a specific topic, in which the sponsoring company is an expert. If you’d like to learn more about Acres U.S.A. and native advertising, visit our advertising page here, or call us at 1-800-355-5313.

Equipment that Works for Organic Graziers


I have to be honest — I struggled mightily to write this article. I just felt like there was very little I could do to make the tools I use on a daily basis “sexy.” I mean … who really cares about posts, twine, and reels?! Nothing I have is fancy. I am a simple man at heart and the equipment I use day-to-day reflects that.

As I lost a few nights’ sleep over the lack of libido in my grazing operation, I had an epiphany: the sexy is in the simplicity itself. In a world where technology is booming and new gadgets are released every week, the tools and equipment I use every day shine because they are based on a set of tried and true concepts. At their core, they are:

  • Multipurpose in nature
  • Effective and efficient
  • Robust (a.k.a.: farmer proof)

I hope that in these next few minutes I can share some insight into the sexy that exists on my farm, scantily disguised as simplicity.

You could even graze your front lawn using temporary fencing… if for some reason anyone would actually want to do that. Photo by Paul Dorrance.

Fencing Has Come A Long Way

James Anderson wrote in his Essays Relating to Agriculture and Rural Affairs, that “A farmer who has a large pasture should have it divided into 15 or 20 divisions, nearly of equal value: it would please the animal palate to induce them to eat it greedily, and fill their bellies before they thought of roaming about, and thus destroying it with their feet … I am satisfied that in some cases, the actual produce of the same field, by a judicious management in this respect, compared with bad management, may be augmented fourfold in the same season.”

The most important part about that essay is the date. Mr. Anderson penned that essay in 1797! Clearly rotational grazing is not a new concept, but what has changed is the technology that allows us to “induce them to eat it greedily” through pasture division. It has never been easier to practice the art of rotational grazing on our farms. In fact, I would be so bold as to say that most people have no excuse not to adopt some form of rotational grazing. At the basic level, all you need are some step-in posts, electrified twine, a reel for said twine and a connection to an electric shock.

There are a multitude of posts out there, including step-ins, pigtails, stirrups and ring tops, to name just a few. Most are plastic, poly or fiberglass. After trying several brands, including those worthless ones at your big-box “farm” store, I have found that I really like the PowerPost from Premier 1 Supplies. I buy the 48” posts instead of the 35” because you can always use a shorter connection on the taller post, but you can’t create an extra connection out of thin air if you need a taller option for some reason. Early on I bought green posts, which in hindsight was one of the stupidest things I’ve ever done … think about it. Nowadays, Premier 1 has adjusted their product for geniuses like me and only sells a gray option, which will at least stand out a little better against the grass when you drop one. Or in my case, when they start bouncing out of the back of my RTV as I race across my pastures at breakneck speed!

The key with posts is that they have to be multi-purpose. Avoid pigtails, which are only good for one species (cow), and go with something that has multiple options for fence height. Even if you only have cows now, you never know what the future holds. The vertical adjustment allows me to use the exact same equipment to contain hogs, cows, sheep, and livestock guardian animals. Chickens I’m still working on … they have proven a little more difficult! The vertical adjustment also allows you to vary the fence height as you move over terrain, bringing it lower as you dip into a valley or higher as you crest a hill.

Now that the posts are in place, what do you string along them to actually make your fence? Fortunately, there are relatively fewer options for the actual fencing compared to the posts. Whether you choose twine, rope or tape, the concept is pretty much the same: a visual barrier of poly material intertwined with flexible wire filament that carries a shock to your animal. Most products are a mixed dark/light color pattern to allow maximum visibility in most conditions. I often need long runs of twine, and so I use the poly twine for my fence; it has served me well.

One way to delineate products is to check for number of filament lines in any given product. For example, Gallagher’s “Turbo Wire” has nine conductive lines running through it, and is therefore able to carry more electricity and make better contact than a competitor’s twine that only has six filaments.

Whatever product you choose, you’ll need a way to carry it around your farm and deploy it for containment. For this purpose, you need a reel. Again, not too much in the way of innovation here. The biggest thing I can say is that you MUST have a geared reel. Normal gearing is 3:1, meaning that each turn of the handle results in 3 revolutions of the reel, which is absolutely necessary to have any shred of efficiency. I typically roll up and unroll an entire section of fence every day during my rotations, and I truly can’t imagine trying to do that with an un-geared reel!

There are some reel options that have knuckle protectors, which are totally unnecessary. You can also purchase them pre-wound with twine, which is fine I suppose. “Loading” your own doesn’t take that long though, and is only done once. Otherwise, as far as I’m concerned, a reel is a reel. Do pay attention to how much it holds, as you don’t want to buy a ton of twine and a reel that won’t hold it all. My reels hold 1,650 feet of twine, which is heavy enough that I don’t really want to carry more than that on a daily basis. There are plenty of times that I only need 300 feet, but that works fine and the rest is there waiting for the occasion that you’ll need the entire reel’s worth of fence. Unless your middle name is “Beefcake” or you are into self-punishment, avoid the “Mega” versions that carry 2,600+ feet of twine.

The final step in the process is connecting your fence to the shock that it is designed to carry. For this purpose, you use a very simple alligator clip concept, which has a different name depending on the company you choose. Longer is better … I’ve never been out in the field and said to myself, “shoot, this connection is just a little too long.”

One last word of wisdom on these links: buy twice as many as you think you’ll need. They are relatively inexpensive, and it always seems like I’ve got everything I need to build fence except the part to actually electrify it!

Want to Practice Your Cursing?

If you are familiar with portable fencing options, you are probably starting to ask yourself “well, what about …?” I know, I know. I’m getting there. There is another option besides twine that I have to mention, but cannot recommend: electrified netting. If you don’t curse now, you will. If you already curse occasionally, then you’ll practically be a professional by the time you get done messing with this stuff. If I had to choose between setting up and taking down netting every day or stabbing myself in the eye with an ice pick … I’d need a minute to weigh the pros and cons. I believe that electrified netting was conjured up by the devil himself in an effort to make us lose our religion. It gets caught on everything, is bulky and cumbersome, and seems to have a mind of its own.

The real problem with the netting is that it is so darn … effective. It contains poultry and sheep, protects stock against ground predators, and even comes in an option that theoretically prevents hogs from rooting dirt over it and shorting it out (false advertising by the way — don’t waste your money). The truth of the matter is that netting works, but it is an absolute bear to move around. If you need a semi-permanent solution, are in a high-threat predator scenario or just want the chance to throw out a few f-bombs, then consider netting. Otherwise, join me in keeping your religion and let someone else buy that stuff.

A trend that I’m seeing more and more in rotational grazing circles is the “all-in-one” option. In theory, these systems combine up to four reels, twine, posts and support in a single easy-to-use solution. That said, my epiphany says otherwise. If the sexy is in the simple, then these things are anything but. In the hands of a practiced salesman demonstrating it at your local farm show they may seem easy, but in reality you completely lose the flexibility and multi-purpose benefits that we’ve discussed so far. Will they work in a very specific scenario for a very specific species? Sure, but step outside that narrow view and they become practically useless. Plus they are much flimsier than any brand’s equivalent products; they almost have to be in order to remain semi-portable by an adult.

Electrifying Your Farm Life

All of this effort in building a fence does nothing if it doesn’t ultimately connect to a fencer that will knock the socks off of anything that touches it. Remember, these fences are a psychological barrier only; anything contained within could walk under/over/through it whenever they want! The trick in this game is to make it clear that they don’t want to. I screamed like a little girl the first time I accidentally touched my fence. My dad looked like he was gonna pass out after he brushed against it, resting his hands on his knees as he tried to catch his breath. That’s what you want in a fencer. Name brand really doesn’t matter — just go big. As big as you can afford.

It used to be that a plug-in fencer was the only way you could get that kind of punch, but technology has changed for the better over the past few years. Solar has really come into its own and you can get a strong fencer powered only by our closest star. This has even opened up rotational grazing options to the Plain People, as many Bishops in Plain communities have permitted the use of solar power in specific instances.

Regardless of which type of fencer you use, you will probably need a tester of some sort … unless you have a 10-year-old son around the house who still takes your dare every time you offer it. My advice, in keeping with the trend of this article, is to go simple here. Does it benefit you to know which way a short is in the line? Maybe. Do you need a remote that turns the fencer on and off from anywhere in your field? As cool as that is, not likely. In the spirit of maintaining a psychological barrier to contain my animals, I really just want to know the amount of voltage carried on the line. If the number is 0.0, then I have a problem. Portability is key for me, which is why I avoid the testers that have a bunch of wires and a ground probe; that is a tangled rat’s nest just waiting to happen.

Don’t Underestimate Rotational Grazing

Just like that I find myself at 2,200+ words talking about rotational grazing tools. Maybe this subject was sexier than I originally thought! I do want to take the chance to mention that I am not a paid spokesman for any company, and any recommendations of name brands come from my personal experiences only. That said, there are few companies that absolutely deserve mention if you happen to find yourself looking for tools and supplies. I personally use:

  • Premier 1 Supplies ( 48” PowerPost line post, 48” FiberTuff for ends/90 degree turns, solar energizer kits, 48” PowerLinks, portable, f-bomb-inducing netting of all types
  • Kencove Farm Fence ( Stafix geared reel
  • Gallagher Fence ( Turbo Wire

All of the tools and equipment listed pass the most important test on my farm: plain, simple and sexy … because they work. They serve me well in a multi-purpose capacity across multiple species, they have taken every bit of the beating that I have put them through, and they are effective at containing my animals on a daily basis. I’m certain that there are other products that will do the same for you. Regardless of which color, brand or name we use, we should take pleasure in the fact that, now more than ever, we have the technology to recognize John Anderson’s wisdom from 1797 and “please the animal palate” on our farms — for the betterment of our land, our livestock and our bottom line!

Paul Dorrance owns and operates a pasture-based livestock operation in Ohio, marketing 100 percent grass-fed beef and lamb, as well as pastured non-GMO pork, poultry and eggs directly to consumers. Previously an active duty Air Force officer, Paul still serves as a pilot in the Air Force Reserves.

What Does Certified Organic Mean?


A friend told me how upset she was to discover that when she buys Certified Organic foods, the quality (or authenticity) isn’t always the same as our (no longer Certified) product. In essence, I told her that not all organics are created equal due to variables at many levels.

Farms are as individualized as people. In the arena of natural farming systems, people’s personal beliefs influence how operations are run. Some farmers avoid the use of plastic mulch, greenhouses and plug trays in their system because they wish to use as little plastic as possible on principle.

Although all organic growers seek to reduce reliance on fossil fuels, some practice a complete avoidance, using no-till practices and relying on hand tools. While open-pollinated and heirloom plant varieties have a place in almost all gardens, some choose to limit themselves to such varieties exclusively, while others may include some hybrids.

A final example of differing opinions in the organic ranks is the paper pot debate. Over the past year their acceptability has been questioned. The paper pots (produced by Small Farm Works) are made out of recycled, biodegradable paper, but are held together by a synthetic binder, a polymer. Although their use was scheduled to be prohibited beginning in 2019, it may be permitted in cases where growers feel they need them. However, some growers will not use them no matter the official ruling. All of these options are within the limits of “Certified Organic.”


In the U.S., Certified Organic isn’t what it used to be. Organic certification used to be dealt with on a state-by-state (or certifier-by-certifier) basis. The basic concept was common to all, but depending on where a farm was seeking certification, rules could be somewhat different. Due to possible difficulties in transporting product across state lines or using it in processed foods destined for anywhere, standardization is given as the reason for the creation of the U.S. Department of Agriculture-sanctioned set of rules that are uniform across the country.

Some suspect the rules were developed to offer an advantage to larger industrial farms. Suspicions seem to have been confirmed. Organic mega-farms, previously unheard of, are now prevalent. We now see huge “organic” monocultures, factory farms milking 10,000-20,000 head and organic eggs and poultry coming out of confinement operations and organic CAFOs.


Even with rules in place, wiggle room seems to allow for un-organic behavior. In factory milking operations, conventional cattle can be continuously “transitioned” to organic production when the operations do not raise their own calves for milk production. Instead, they purchase cheaper, conventional cattle raised on medicated milk replacer, which commonly includes antibiotics and other banned substances. Once weaned, these calves are fed GMO grains and non-organic hay. Approximately one year before freshening, they are switched to organic practices. This is despite there being Origin of Livestock Standards in place. And this is not the only setback for true organic animal husbandry. The removal of the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices — which outlined rules for the living conditions/care, transportation and slaughtering of Certified Organic animals — means, for example, that organic poultry no longer require access to the outdoors. This would have seemed fairly elemental at one time.

Another strongly protested amendment to the National Organic Program that recently came to pass is the use of hydroponics. Growth in isolation in massive hydroponic operations means no enhancing of the natural environment through soil building, carbon sequestering or other elements held dear by many in organic agriculture. In fact, as of 2021, the European Union will no longer accept produce labeled “organic” that has been produced hydroponically. However, European hydroponic producers who use approved organic inputs will still be able to export their produce to the U.S. labeled as organic.

This all spells incredible competition and extreme disadvantages for small-scale organic operations whose certification, in theory, has the same weight as that of “big organic.”


Are all of these seemingly incongruous “organic” practices really permissible according to the certification rules? Maybe yes, maybe no. Not all organic certifiers have the same motives, values or aims. In some cases, multi-million-dollar business enterprises (the certifiers) are now certifying multi-billion-dollar corporate agribusinesses (the farms). And the USDA has allowed the interpretation of organic regulations to be left to the certifier, some of whom are very understanding about the difficulties of maintaining an organic operation on such a large scale.

The Cornucopia Institute, an agricultural watchdog, will soon put out another of its “report and scorecard” assessments — this time concerning organic certifiers. They aim to tell us which organizations are certifying operations that are authentically organic and which are giving true organic farmers unfair competition (and organic consumers essentially fraudulent products) by certifying agribusiness operations and enabling them to possess the Certified Organic label.

Additionally, the Organic Farmers Association (OFA, membership of Certified Organic farmers only) and the National Organic Coalition (NOC) are both voicing the concerns, on a national level, of those involved in organic agriculture — concerns ranging from organic integrity to the ability of farmers to maintain their livelihoods. And the Real Organic Project, whose mission is to inform the public on true organic farming values and practices, is working to create an add-on label for Certified Organic to help with transparency.


These days, there is an ever-growing number of certification programs available to farmers. With a seal of certification, your customers can know at once what your brand of farming stands for. But first you must know: What are the standards, values and requirements of the principle “natural” farming systems out there today that offer certification?

USDA National Organic Program (Certified Organic)

For a farm operation to be Certified Organic, it must avoid synthetic chemical inputs (such as synthetic fertilizers and synthetic pesticides), sewage sludge as a fertilizer and genetically modified (GMO) seed. Farmland must have been free of these synthetic chemicals for (generally) three years prior to certification.

There are a number of practices advocated in organic farming, including crop rotation and the accompanying use of farm maps, the use of cover crops and green manures, intercropping and companion planting, management that decreases the use of and dependence on fossil fuels, the fostering of natural predators to control insect populations, and more. Soil and water quality have always been important in organic agriculture, and its practitioners stress soil-building practices, erosion prevention and well-timed fertilization.

There has also been an increasing emphasis on carbon sequestration and the farming practices that encourage this, especially since 2000, as these mechanisms are becoming better understood. Beyond crop production, the care of livestock is also clearly defined regarding housing space, appropriate feed and the avoidance of antibiotics and growth agents, among other things. Yearly certification renewal and farm visits are part of certification. It is a third-party certification system and certification rates are sufficiently high to maintain such a system.

Many believe that the ethos of organics has changed and continues to change since the establishment of the NOP/NOSB. There have been attempts to water down the rules of organics from the very beginning of the NOP. Some attempts have been successfully rejected, such as the inclusion of “the Big Three” in Certified Organic farming practices — GMOs, sewage sludge and irradiation, which were included in the standards published in 1997.

Other truly non-organic practices that are now permitted in Certified Organic operations are the use of hydroponics (not much soil building or carbon sequestering happening there) and the removal of the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices (OLPP) from the rules for organic certification. The OLPP outlined rules for the living conditions/care, transportation and slaughter of Certified Organic animals. For example, they specified that organic poultry must have access to the outdoors.

Certified Naturally Grown

The Certified Naturally Grown (CNG) program was founded in 2002 in response to the creation of the NOP. It is very much a grassroots program; its creation was due to dissatisfaction with the appropriation of the Certified Organic label by the USDA. CNG certification is sought by a number of farmers who previously had been Certified Organic. The CNG program offers a growing system with production standards based on the NOP standards but with simpler, less costly administration (and that old, holistic feel). It is especially attractive to farmers who sell locally and focus on direct-to-consumer sales. Yearly inspections for certification can be conducted by CNG or non-CNG farmers, extension agents, master gardeners or even customers (though other CNG farmers are considered ideal). This program certifies produce and livestock operations, as well as apiaries, and CNG farms are subject to random pesticide residue testing.

Regenerative Organic Certified (ROC)

Regenerative Organic agriculture is what one might call uber-organics. While many of the natural farming practices hope to work with nature or employ some of nature’s tactics in farming, Regenerative Organics designs its systems to mimic nature heavily. It aims to improve the resources it relies on (soil, water, air) rather than to deplete them. Increasing soil fertility and farm biodiversity (with an increase in the reliance on perennials over annuals), as well as seed and crop vitality, are amon the objectives. It seeks to keep farming and farming solutions low-cost.

However, Regenerative Organics really stands apart from other certifications in that it seems to be equally about food production and carbon sequestration; it aims to reverse climate change by transforming agriculture into a carbon sink instead of a source of carbon in the environment. Regenerative Organics is often seen as borrowing from/integrating agroecology, agroforestry, permaculture, holistic management and other ecological agriculture practices.
The term “Regenerative Organic agriculture” was coined by Robert Rodale in the ’80s, and the Rodale Institute (headquartered in Pennsylvania) is known as a pioneer of regenerative practices. There are many other organizations at its forefront, including Kiss the Ground (California), the Ecological Farming Association (EcoFarm, California), the Land Institute (Kansas), and the Soil Foodweb Institute (Australia), to name a few, as well as many advocates, including Dan Kittredge of the Bionutrient Food Association (Massachusetts) and Mark Shepard of New Forest Farms (Wisconsin).

A certification program for Regenerative Organics was introduced in 2018. Its “three pillars” for certifiable systems are soil health, animal welfare and social fairness. The USDA Certified Organic Standard is the baseline for the certification standards; additionally, it is required that those seeking certification first work with various existing certifiers in the arena of all three pillars. Then, once ROC-specific guidelines for each pillar are also met, farms are eligible for ROC Bronze, Silver or Gold certification. ROC is overseen by the Regenerative Organic Alliance.

Demeter Biodynamic Certification (Demeter USA)

Demeter USA is the only certifier for biodynamic farms/products in the United States, with produce labeled simply “Biodynamic” or “Demeter.” It is part of Demeter International, which was formed in 1928 and is the oldest ecological certification organization in the world. It requires all of its members to follow NOP standards, but has additional qualifications that make its program much more extensive and stringent. Demeter Certification has stricter requirements regarding imported fertility on farms; a greater emphasis for on-farm solutions of disease, pest, and weed problems; and also has more stringent requirements regarding on-farm water conservation and biodiversity. Biodynamics has always stressed the importance of local food production and distribution systems. Regarding animal breeds and plant varieties, it demands greater use of traditional strains and the development of regional types. Other hallmarks of biodynamic farming are the use of an astrological sowing/planting calendar and specific herbal and mineral additives for compost and field preparations.

Fair for Life Certified (Fair Trade Certified by IMO)

In the past, Fair Trade certification was available only to farmers in certain geographic locations and for limited farm products; no U.S. grower would have been eligible for certification. This changed with the creation of the Fair for Life Certified program, conducted by the Institute for Marketecology (IMO). Developed in 2006, it expanded the Fair Trade system to include a greater number of products for certification, production types, and countries. It is concerned with domestic and regional trade.

Unlike traditional Fair Trade systems, the IMO Fair Trade system believes that even in “developed countries” there can be labor laws that offer only limited protection to farm workers, that institutional and governmental support to maintain local agriculture/industry may be unbalanced or insufficient, and that some marginalized communities may need support in the face of concentration and internationalization. In other words, farmers within any country may be at a socio-economic disadvantage. IMO (founded in 1989) joined with Ecocert Organic Certifiers of France in 1991. “Fair for Life” works through cooperatives and develops community betterment projects as part of their system (trademarks of Fair Trade).

Furthermore, IMO places particular emphasis on organic production, making their partnership with Ecocert all the more significat. Though they do accept and begin certification with all systems of production, their yearly improvements and recommendations are to continually move all non-organic producers towards organics.

Non-GMO Project Verified

Non-GMO Project verification is just as simple as it sounds. Products labeled as such do not contain genetically modified organisms. This means they do not contain plants whose genetic makeup could not occur naturally. Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have a genetic code that has had some amount of DNA inserted into it that could not occur there by normal plant reproductive means (a combination of genes that could not occur in nature). In addition to processed products, farmers can have produce certified, as well as animal products such as eggs and meat, which would be a certification of non-GMO feed. It provides third-party verification, of course.

Leah Smith works on Nodding Thistle, her family’s organic farm in mid-Michigan. After graduating from Michigan State University, she returned to the farm to continue with the farming life and to devote time to writing.