The Soil-Life Connection

Welcome to Book of the Week – a weekly feature of an Acres U.S.A. published title offering you a glimpse between the pages! Get the Book of the Week email newsletter delivered directly to your in box! This week’s Book of the Week feature is Eco-Farm, by Charles Walters. 

Few people use the fingerprint left in the soil to identify the drum rolls of history, and yet the connection is so obvious that only the simple-minded, the boasting dishonest or the rank opportunist can manage to ignore it. Goethe touched on the genius of Joseph, who saved Egypt from starvation by foresight and wisdom, at the same time putting the Pharaoh Mephistopheles do the opposite, creating inflation rule, as have government economists in centuries 20 and 21.

We were told that the Xhosa and Zulu of the African continent once enjoyed the lush savannahs of the area now known as the carbon-less Sahara. The bottom line that adjusts history is always the food supply and man’s witless destruction thereof.

Even without recent studies, USDA cannot pretend ignorance of this fact. In 1938-1939, Walter Lowdermilk, formerly assistant chief of the Soil Conservation Service, toured the Middle East, North Africa, Cyprus and Europe to study food production and discern what separated desert from fertile soil. The lands he inspected had been cultivated hundreds and thousands of years. He wrote that “in the last reckoning all things are purchased with food.” He went on to propose that food buys the division of labor that begets civilization. He discerned land and farmer and soil life as the work foundation of our complex social structure.

The Seattle Indian with that same name may have been the first to make clear what we do to the earth, we do to ourselves.

The farmers of 7,000 years ago could not have known what we know now. But they must have had some appreciation of fertility. Ancient artifacts reveal slaves wringing the sweat from their garments for a soil amendment. In Egypt as well as Mesopotamia, Telus learned how to grow wheat and barley, giving rise to a renewable civilization. Flood irrigation and silt from the Nile charged and recharged the soil, giving a fix of nutrients for prolific soil life, year after year. It was perhaps in the Valley of the Nile that a genius of a farmer learned how to disturb the soil with a yoke of oxen and a plow, unwittingly re-establishing nature as a mandated balance between bacteria and fungi.

Bible students will recall that King Solomon nearly 3,000 years ago made an agreement with Hiram of Tyre to furnish cypress and cedars for the construction of Tyre’s temple. We are told that Solomon supplied 80,000 lumberjacks to work in the forest and to skid the logs to the sea. Only about 40 acres remain of a forest that was once 2,000 miles square. Obviously, clear-cutting annihilated the microbial population, especially the mycorrhizal. Apologists for man’s debauchery cite climate change, intervention of the gods, the cycles of life and death, whatever.

Lowdermilk’s message was clear. Man’s intervention prevailed. In Babylon he pondered the ruins of Nebuchadnezzar’s canals. At the ruins of Jerash, one of the ten cities of Decapolis—once populated by 250,000 people, now 3,000—he wondered aloud about cities under erosion and silt. He was told that the French archeologist Father Mattern counted at least 100 dead cities in Syria alone.

The Sahara is expanding in excess of 30 to 40 miles a year. The Aswan Dam, a mechanical marvel and an ecological disaster, will silt over in 500 years. The common denominator everywhere is the death of life in the soil. Man proposes, but God disposes.

Often, analysts became lost in their metaphors. The Seattle Indian with that same name may have been the first to make clear what we do to the earth, we do to ourselves. In fact, there is no food chain; rather there is a food web, a mesh of life in the soil, this according to Elain Ingham, Ph.D. of Soil Food Web, Inc., formerly with Oregon State University, Corvallis. Ingham wrote a sizeable chunk of Soil Biology Primer, the most useful booklet published by USDA since that agency gave its imprimatur to Walter Lowdermilk’s Conquest of the Land Through 7,000 Years well over half a century ago.

1. A connection

When life in the soil becomes a consideration, it is no longer time to indulge in single-factor thinking. The irrigation pump may deliver fluid, but the impact on root organisms could be devastating. Microorganisms that live rent free in nature’s settings often die or leave the scene not only when the weather changes, but also when salt fertilizers or rescue chemistry put into the pet the land. Only recently has university science assembled the data base and the insight necessary to identify Ingham’s food web. Hints for the direction trail back to the beginning of the last century—as illustrated in previous chapter—but definitive answers are as new as the present edition of Acres U.S.A. Primer.
What then are the right food webs needed to support wholesome field-ripened crops without reliance on inorganic fertilizers and/or toxic rescue chemistry? How can the grower identify the organisms that power crop production?
Poverty acres support weeds, as Albrecht pointed out, because the bacteria dominate, the way mycorrhizae dominate woodlands. Grass systems seem to have two times more bacteria than forage. Row crops, in turn, require an eight to one ratio, forage to bacteria. The Wisconsin ginseng grower who expects open prairie under wooden slats to approximate the environment of shaded woods is either ignoring Ingham’s food web or is still ignorant of the concept.

Perennial crops, vines, blueberries, blackberries, strawberries—all require more fungi than bacteria. The ratios vary. Indeed, the grand mosaic of nature’s whole is an exponential infinity of variations. Deciduous trees demand at least ten times more fungi than bacteria. Without the ratio, growers are forever spraying and waxing fruit to preserve a cosmetic look. Conifers simply won’t survive without 1,000 more fungal life forms than bacteria, all according to Elaine Ingham’s research.

Investigators have categorized the twenty or so microorganisms we refer to as soil life. Their names—genus and species—are of interest in the same way postage stamps are of interest to collectors. The names create arrays under heads such as algae, fungi, protozoa, nematodes, micro anthropods, earthworms, vertabraes and, not least, plant roots. All of the above eat. All move through the soil. They filter water, decompose organic matter, sequester nitrogen, fix nitrogen, preside over aggregation and porosity. They prepare nutrients for assimilation, they battle crop pests, and, with biblical dedication, present themselves as food for above-ground animals.

About the Author:

Charles Walters founded Acres U.S.A. and completed more than a dozen books as he edited the Acres U.S.A. magazine, while co-authoring several more. A tireless traveler, Walters journeyed around the world to research sustainable agriculture, and his trip to China in 1976 inspired others. By the time of his death in 2009, Charles Walters could honestly say he changed the world for the better.

More By Charles Walters:

Browse the Charles Walters Collection for all of his titles and works.

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The Master Line System

Welcome to Book of the Week – a weekly feature offering you a glimpse between the pages of an Acres U.S.A. published title. Get the Book of the Week email newsletter delivered directly to your in box! This week’s Book of the Week feature is Water for Any Farm, by Mark Shepard.

In attempting to design a Keyline system on this property I discovered all kinds of things that just didn’t make sense. It all started with the basic vocabulary describing land shape. It was fairly easy to define the “hills” on this farm. There were four low “knuckles” rising out of the general lay of the landscape, the highest in elevation abutting property owned by none other than Bud and Dee Hill. The Hills on the hill. It was fairly simple also to find the primary valleys. They were the valleys that cut into the sides of the main ridge where water first began to collect and flow in flash-flood events. But that is where a dogmatic adherence to the Yeomans’s plan began to unravel. For one thing, there were some primary valleys on the farm that had no clear keypoint. There were other primary valleys that appeared to have multiple keypoints cascading down the primary valley like a series of pools in a mountain stream. Which one was the “true” keypoint? Where do I start?

The next puzzler for me was the fact that yes, the main ridge was cut into by primary valleys, but in our case the primary valleys didn’t feed a “main valley” but joined another primary valley to form a secondary valley. The secondary valley joined with another to form a third that joined a fourth, then finally a fifth (with the named Camp Creek in the bottom) before it reached what would have qualified as a main valley in Yeomans’s terminology. But even that continued on… What I considered the main valley—Camp Creek—joined with the east branch of the Kickapoo, which joined the west branch of the Kickapoo, which joined the Wisconsin River, which joined the Mississippi before returning to the ocean. Nine valleys?

What I had discovered was that the Yeomans terminology completely failed to describe the landscape that I was working in. What I had discovered on the ground (and not from a book, a satellite, or a GPS unit) was what is known as the Strahler, or Horton-Strahler, stream order classification system used by ecologists and hydrologists worldwide. In the Strahler system, a Yeomans “primary valley” is called a first-order stream. When two of these first-order streams come together, they form a second-order stream. If the second-order stream is fed by primary valleys only, it still remains a second-order stream, but when a second-order stream meets with another second-order stream, they become a third-order stream. This combining of stream orders continues until, as in the case of the Mississippi River, you get a tenthorder stream.

The Horton-Strahler stream order classification system. “Primary valleys” in Keyline design vocabulary are “first order streams” according to the rest of the world.

The majority of streams in the world have a stream order of three or less, and it is within that context that the Yeomans plan was developed. I was attempting to take a simple water management system developed in a geographically simple landscape and apply it to one of the more complex watersheds in all of North America. As a matter of fact, I was attempting to apply it to the most complex watershed on the planet! Although 3+5=8 is beautiful, accurate and true and perfect every time, the mathematics that second grader uses to solve that problem are not adequate for solving.

Why did it matter that the Mississippi River watershed is so complex? First, the complexity of the water system made it difficult to find the keypoint. It appeared to me that this farm’s primary valleys had several keypoints, but according to page 13 of Water for Every Farm: “ONLY A PRIMARY VALLEY HAS A KEYLINE” (caps original). If only a primary valley has a Keyline according to Yeomans, then it follows that only a primary valley has a keypoint from which it is derived. Simple! But wait a minute…. A few pages later (page 32), Yeomans writes:

The Secondary Valley

On occasions a series of primary valleys on the one side of a main ridge will join up with a larger valley, which does not contain a channeled water course in the bottom of it. Such is named a “Secondary” valley, and it will have at its commencement its own keypoint and Keyline.

Now I was really confused. First, Yeoman’s says that only a primary valley has a keypoint, yet at least one primary valley on this farm had what appeared to be several keypoints. Then I read that not only do primary valleys have keypoints but secondary valleys do as well? How can both be true?

Although the principles of Keyline geometry are simple, most land forms are NOT! This photo shows the
infamous “starting point” on New Forest Farm where multiple, unclear, “apparent keypoints” were maybe somewhat visible.

I staked out and flagged many of the other apparent keypoints to see how the geometry would work, and none of them really did. Again I was confused. It turns out that while actually attempting to design a system on the ground, I had discovered something Yeomans only once barely mentions. On page 47 of Water for Every Farm, he writes, “some steep primary valleys cannot be cultivated as described, because the shape of the valley contours may make turns in the valley floor impossible.”

Now, not only was I attempting to use first-grade math to send a spacecraft to Jupiter, I was attempting to take a simple water management technique designed in simple land forms, and apply it to a complex landscape, and not only did I have primary valleys, secondary valleys, and third-order valleys to deal with, I had multiple keypoints and contradictory information about them. I was setting out to do what the master himself claimed was “impossible.”
Yeomans’s recommendation on how to deal with such tight primary valleys did come to inform my designs later on, however. Later, when describing tight primary valleys, he describes in one brief sentence a technique which I have come to learn is as revolutionary as the Keyline pattern cultivation itself. “These valleys are most suitably worked in a herringbone pattern with a tractor-attached rather than trailing implements.”

My biggest frustration in attempting to apply the Yeomans plan to this farm was the Keyline pattern cultivation itself. As mentioned above, Yeomans himself realized that it didn’t work in every primary valley. Whether it did or did not work, what Yeomans failed to mention was that one of the benefits of Keyline design—making regular, machine-friendly patterns on the ground—actually backfires in a complex landscape. If each primary valley gets its own cultivation pattern derived from its own Keyline (some of which won’t work and will require a herringbone pattern), and if each primary ridge gets its own cultivation pattern derived from its own unique contour reference line, then this farm would have no less than eight separate ridge cultivation patterns. It would have seven or more valley cultivation patterns depending on whether the Keyline geometry actually worked in that particular valley, whether you classified one “sort-of-kind-of-possibly-a primary valley” as one primary valley or two primary valleys, and whether the herring-bone pattern needed to be applied.

About the Author:

Mark Shepard heads Forest Agriculture Enterprises and runs New Forest Farm, an 106-acre commercial-scale perennial agricultural ecosystem that was converted from a row-crop grain farm. Trained in mechanical engineering and ecology, Mark has combined these two passions to develop equipment and processes for the cultivation, harvesting and processing of forest-derived agricultural products for human foods and biofuel production. Mark is a certified permaculture designer and teaches agroforestry and permaculture around the world. 

Also by Mark Shepard:

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Benefits of Small Grains in an Organic Crop Rotation

Photo courtesy of Rodale Institute.

By Nic Podoll

Small grains provide great value in a grain rotation, especially in an organic system. They break up weed, pest, and disease cycles in row crops, as well as open opportunities for cover crops before planting and after harvest.

Unfortunately, lower crop prices and economic incentives for small grains, compared to corn and soybeans, have resulted in a large decrease of small grain acreage across the United States. As a result, many farmers are missing out on the benefits and the potential of increased profitability over their rotations that small grains and cover crops can provide. The short-term outlook (yield x price – expenses) for a given year does not tell the whole story. When profitability is viewed over the entire course of a rotation, advantages that small grains and cover crops provide can be recognized as savings and unrealized gains that are cashed in by subsequent crops in the rotation.

Most small grains have much more fibrous and often deeper root systems than row crops like corn and soybeans. The shorter growing season from planting to harvest also gives farmers an opportunity to plant cover crops, significantly increasing the length of time that living roots are in the soil. Through this diversity of plants, the increased depth and breadth of living roots in the soil, and the length of time they are present, the abundance and diversity of the soil microbial community is also enhanced each growing season.

As this occurs over time, the roots of crops release more exudates into the expanded rhizosphere that encourage the soil microbial community and allow the plants to mine soil organic nitrogen (N), which reduces the need for added N. Research has demonstrated that when corn is grown in a more diverse rotation, a “rotation effect” of 3-5% increase in yield is observed. Especially at organic premium prices, this is significant.

In addition, research has also shown that adding just one small grain and a following cover crop to a corn-soybean rotation can prevent the loss of up to 30 pounds per acre of N through leaching. The cover crop also provides an N credit of its own (which varies with species) to the subsequent crop. These effects together in an organic rotation often mean that some small grains and soybeans may require very little or even zero added N while the added N requirements of corn or other heavier feeders are significantly reduced. This increase in soil health and resulting nutrient use efficiency contributes to the increased profit potential over the course of a rotation.

Small grains in conjunction with cover crops also provide advantages in weed control that extend across the whole rotation and continue to improve over time. The planting and harvesting windows of small grains that differ from row crops suppress growth and eliminate many weeds from the seed bank. Fall planted cereals that overwinter, such as rye and winter wheat, or the early spring planting of other small grains, such as oats or spring wheat, suppress both early cool season and warm season weeds. Extra opportunities for spring tillage with later planting of small grains, such as millet and buckwheat, allow for elimination of early cool season and warm season weeds while continuing to suppress other warm season weeds through the growing season. A cover crop planted after harvest of a small grain continues to suppress and eliminate late season weeds. This continually reduces on-farm weed populations over time and the more small grains and cover crops added to the rotation, the greater the effect.

With the addition of two or more small grains to a rotation with differing planting windows (early and late) and cover crops, it is possible to achieve essentially year-round soil coverage with both continuous weed suppression and reductions in the weed seed bank for at least two years before and after row crops. This results in less weed pressure in both small grains and row crops, which reduces the intensity of tillage and cultivation operations over time, increasing soil health as well. It’s easy to see how increased weed control saves time and money while increasing yields and contributing to increased profits.

The addition of small grains in the rotation also allows for more efficient use of equipment and labor while further spreading out risk. They have differing planting and harvesting windows compared to the similar timing of corn and soybeans. This allows farmers to spread labor of field operations out compared to growing only corn and soybeans.

This also provides a better opportunity to expand acreage on the farm. It makes it possible to plant and harvest additional acres without having to upgrade or increase equipment size. Alternatively, planting and harvesting operations could all be fit into smaller windows when there is less acreage in any one crop. These ideas extend to other aspects of farming operations as well, such as storage and drying capacity. Additionally, small grains can be used as nurse crops to produce more vigorous stands of hay and forages in an organic system that also provide weed suppression over multiple growing seasons, diversify income and spread risk, and introduce the possibility of grazing animals into the system.

Finally, depending on the region and the marketing opportunities available, some of the more specialty small grains such as millet or buckwheat can produce very strong revenues, especially when organic premiums are being earned. For many small grains, it is also beneficial to clean and save your own seed. Not only is this a cost savings from year to year, but it allows farmers to adapt varieties of grain to their farm over time, increasing their performance and resiliency under stress. This provides enormous economic benefit over the long term. As the effects of climate change are increasingly felt, small grain crops that are regionally adapted ultimately give grain farmers the best chance to maintain profitability when other crops fail to produce.

Through the achievement of greater biodiversity and soil health, small grains in conjunction with cover crops unlock long term advantages in a crop rotation including nutrient use efficiency, better weed control, labor and equipment efficiency, diversifying farm income, spreading risk, and increasing resiliency of farming systems under adverse conditions. These advantages significantly increase profit potential over the course of a rotation as well as solidify the long-term sustainability and resiliency of organic farming systems. If you are interested in building your rotation by adding small grains and need some guidance on where to start, contact your closest Rodale Institute Organic Consultant today!

Nic Podoll is the Midwest Organic Consultant for Rodale Institute. He is based in Nevis, Minnesota. Farmers interested in transitioning their land to organic and participating in one or more of these opportunities can contact Rodale Institute’s Organic Crop Consulting Services to get started. Reach out at or 610-683-1416.

Tractor Time Episode 64: Defending Beef with Nicolette Hahn Niman

On this episode we welcome Nicolette Hahn Niman.

The name might sound familiar to some of you. She’s married to the pioneering California rancher Bill Niman, for one, but you might also know her as the author of two seminal works on ethical meat production, Righteous Porkchop and Defending Beef.

Over the years, the former vegetarian and environmental attorney has become a passionate and outspoken advocate for sustainable food production and improved animal welfare. She’s published pieces on those topics in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, HuffPost, and The Atlantic.

And Chelsea Green has just published a new and expanded edition of Defending Beef: The Ecological and Nutritional Case for Meat. A lot has happened since the first edition of the book was published back in 2007. Since then, cattle have become nearly synonymous with human-caused climate change and environmental destruction. But are cattle inherently bad? Or … is there another side to the argument?

In this conversation, you’ll hear why she believes cattle, and other grazing animals, can be used as tools for restoring both human health and ecological balance. Beef, Niman argues, doesn’t have to remain an environmental villain. She believes that wisely managed livestock can help repair ecosystems, fight climate change and improve human health — all at the same time.

Purchase Defending Beef: The Ecological and Nutritional Case for Meat at the Acres U.S.A. bookstore.

Discovering the Birds and the Bees

Welcome to Book of the Week – a weekly feature offering you a glimpse between the pages of an Acres U.S.A. published title. Get the Book of the Week email newsletter delivered directly to your in box! This week’s Book of the Week feature is A New Farm Language, by W. Joe Lewis.

Etched forever in my memory is the first time I observed a bat up close and personal. I was six. One evening after dark, my parents and Patsy and I were at Uncle Lonnie’s grocery store. While my cousin Paul and I were inside and the others were on the porch, a bat flew into the store. Paul and I began swatting at it with brooms, eventually knocking it to the floor. When I pounced down and grabbed it, I was stunned by a piercing bite between my thumb and index finger. To this day I feel fortunate to have somehow avoided rabies. I saw for the first time that this creature was not like the other flying creatures I had seen in my six years. This was no bird. This had the face of a rodent, with hair and ears and teeth. Sharp teeth, as a matter of fact.

One reason I might have been surprised is that the actions of the bats I had seen to that time had been mimicked by a bird known as a nighthawk. The nighthawk is a bird that feeds at night and flies erratically, like a bat, making long dives and just as quickly putting on the brakes and pulling up and darting in another direction, its wings making bull-like sounds. We knew them as bull-bats, in fact, so it’s easy to see what I had in my mind when I first approached the bat that night in Uncle Lonnie’s store. But the creature I encountered had neither feathers nor a beak.

What it did have, as I would learn, was something called radar. Until then, I assumed that, like a bird of prey, a bat would visually spot its target. We often used to throw little pebbles up the air at dusk to watch bats dive for them, only to veer off once they realized the pebbles were not insects. It was stunning to learn that a bat actually picked up the motion of the pebble from an internal radar system. Nature just kept getting more and more interesting.

I kept learning about insects, too. There was another kind of doodlebug I learned to catch, another member of what I would one day understand was part of the Neuroptera insect order. This doodlebug was called an antlion, part of the family Myrmeleontidae of the order Neuroptera (big names I would learn much more about, much later in life). In the larval stage, the antlion has a plump little body with long mandibles. In sandy soil, they build little pits that trap passing ants or other prey. The antlion feels the vibration of the ant sliding into the pit and is ready to grab it with his mandibles. If you know what you’re looking for, you can spot these little cone-shaped traps, tap on the side of one with a piece of straw to mimic a fallen, trapped ant and snatch the antlion right out of the pit just as he closes his mandibles on the straw.

I also began to observe and learn about different types of “hunting wasps” that catch various insects and spiders and take them back to their nests for their larvae to feed on. These wasps included dirt daubers, a type of wasp that builds its nests out of mud; the paper wasps that build their gray paper-like nests in sheltered places such as under the eaves of houses, the underside of tree branches, or the open end of pipes; and the yellowjackets that also build similar papery nests in protected structures like tree stumps and cavities in the ground. On numerous occasions, due to my unrelenting curiosity, I discovered in a very real way that the paper wasps and yellowjackets can be quite aggressive if disturbed, and both pack a painful sting. Later I would learn that the dirt daubers are classed in the family Sphecidae and the paper wasps and yellowjackets are in the family Vespidae. All of the wasps and bees are part of the order Hymenoptera (other big words I would eventually learn).

Of course there were the lightning bugs, perhaps the insect that intrigued me the earliest in life because of its natural magic lamp. I would go on to learn how efficient these insects are, generating light while losing very little energy to heat, something we humans could never do with our own incandescent lighting and something we’re only now beginning to approach with LED lighting. Lightning bugs are still a subject of study as nature’s unmatched model, guiding pursuits of even more efficient energy usage.

Larger wildlife that grabbed my interest included foxes. Daddy hunted foxes and we always had fox-hunting dogs, along with dogs for hunting quail and squirrels. The fox hunting was mostly a social event with cousins and other people from the community, everyone more enamored by the chase than anything else, and mostly content to sit around an evening bonfire listening to the dogs. The men all knew their dogs by the sounds of their barks and could tell which one, having come across the scent of a fox, might be yelping, which ones were participating, and which one was leading the chase. Once a dog got on the trail, there was no stopping him.

I saw this kind of stubborn determination with our dog Bobo when I’d go out hunting squirrels with him. He’d find the scent and chase a squirrel up a tree and stay there, looking upwards and barking until he knew you understood exactly what it was he’d found for you. Sometimes a squirrel would be smart enough to leap to the branch of another tree without Bobo noticing and make its escape. For their part, the foxes had their own tricks when being chased through the woods. They’d often run through water to mask their scent or sometimes loop around just to confuse the dog.

Squirrel, quail, or fox, it was the hunted and the hunter, perhaps the most basic of all natural relationships, next to mating. What I learned with all of my observing and discovering was that when it came to hunting, there were really only two ways for a creature to proceed: ambush or search and find. The antlion uses the ambush technique. Dirt daubers use search and find. As humans, we copy these animal techniques, building a bird or mink trap or using a turkey call as an ambush, or setting the dogs free to search and find a fox. We’ve never done anything that nature didn’t do first. Maybe this is what interested me in nature in the first place, even at such a young age. Nature was infinitely wise and I couldn’t help but feel overwhelmed with admiration and respect. Everything was so efficient and every animal so resourceful. My insatiable thirst for learning about the environment around me continued and, as I grew older, I got it in my head, somewhere along the line, that no matter what I was going to do or be as a grownup, it was going to have to include continued study of the natural treasures of my world.

About the Author:

Dr. W. Joe Lewis is an award winning scientist, recognized worldwide for major crosscutting discoveries in the fundamental science of pest management. The models for his studies have been behavioral and chemical interactions of parasitoids, insect herbivores, and plants, along with ecosystem principles. The impact of his research is evidenced by over 200 refereed scientific publications and book chapters, including five papers in prestigious journals of Nature and Science, and three in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and an invitational paper in Scientific American. His work has been highlighted extensively in the popular press, including CNN Science and Technology, BBC/ Discovery Channel, Business Week, National Public Radio and BBC Wildlife, Fortune Magazine, and NBC Today Show.

Learn from Joe in person this December!

Join Joe and other incredible speakers at our annual Acres U.S.A. Eco-Ag Conference and Tradeshow! Learn more about the upcoming conference and tradeshow and see our line-up of experts on eco-agriculture here.

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Tractor Time Episode 63: Beth Hoffman, author of ‘Bet the Farm: Dollars and Sense of Growing Food in America’

For the last twenty years, Beth Hoffman has worked as a journalist covering food and farming. Her work has been featured on NPR’s Morning Edition, The Guardian, Latino USA, and the News Hour. She’s also taught journalism at university. And now she considers herself a full-time farmer. Although she lived much of her life on the west coast, in the San Francisco area specifically, she and her husband moved to rural Iowa a few years ago with the dream of taking over his family’s 530-acre farm.

She tells that story in her new book, Bet the Farm: The Dollars and Sense of Growing Food in America, out now from Island Press. The book is part memoir and part exploration of the current state of the family farm.

Use the coupon code NOVPOD at the bookstore for 10 % off on all titles.

A Call for an Ecological Approach to Pest Management

By Joe Lewis

Editor’s note: This article is an excerpt from A New Farm Language: How a Sharecropper’s Son Discovered a World of Talking Plants, Smart Insects, and Natural Solutions.

“You can’t have any good guys without a few bad guys. That’s fact.”

So says Alton Walker. Alton and I have been friends since our days at Mississippi State where we went through our master’s degree program at the same time. Also a native of Mississippi, Alton continued his education at Clemson University, obtaining a Ph.D. in entomology prior to his career in agricultural consulting and farming in Georgia. He and I came to have a shared interest in ecologically sound farming, and in the mid ’90s we collaborated with a team of scientists on sustainable cotton production following the boll weevil eradication. Alton is a scientist with some skin in the game. He’s pursued the application of his conservation/ecologically based ideas with cotton production on a 600-acre portion of his own farm.

As Alton will tell you, the common practice of cleaning a field down to bare soil after harvest and leaving it barren over the winter is a harmful practice for multiple reasons.

“Farming’s been the victim of the advances of highly mechanized ‘big farming’ approaches,” he says. “Through the use of large equipment like harrows, plows, and mowers, enormous portions of biomass are removed from countless stretches of land. The land is then tilled and planted into monocultures from ditch bank to ditch bank. Then, mechanical cultivation and chemical pesticides are used to restrict diversity, while fertilizers and irrigation foster a lush growth of crops. Every year, the process starts over, meaning there’s never an opportunity for a true, natural ecosystem to develop and remain in place for the length of time it takes for it to become balanced and efficient. It’s no wonder pest outbreaks occur. On the other hand, perennializing the field—growing something year-round—helps promote a much more stable and balanced environment. We have to find our way back to approaching farming, including pest management, with an understanding of how to manage the ecosystem in which we live.”

The team Alton and I collaborated with in the ’90s was an interdisciplinary group of researchers that included Sharad Phatak, Rick Reed, John Ruberson, and Jim Hook, and Glenn Harris with the University of Georgia, and Philip Haney with my laboratory in Tifton. Eradication of the boll weevil, which had been completed in Georgia in 1990, and, later, essentially all of the United States, presented the cotton industry with a unique opportunity to advance sustainable agriculture. The eradication had been one of the greatest technical successes in agricultural history, with immense potentials in economic and environmental benefits. In Georgia, insecticide use was already dropping sharply, with average crop revenues increasing markedly. By 1995, the use of fifteen to twenty treatments per year had been reduced to three to five treatments. Grower interest in biological control and sustainable agriculture had never been higher, but a shift in thinking on when and how to give nature more time was going to be needed. The boll weevil had been an invasive pest without any effective natural enemies. Quick to reach damaging levels in early season, it was an especially devastating primary pest because the necessary insecticidal treatment for its control regularly spurred a sequence of secondary pest outbreaks. But now, for the first time, we could put in place an ecologically based management system without the disruptive influence of the early season boll weevil treatments.

In this new era, we could promote the adoption of cotton production as part of a healthy year-round landscape system, with approaches to pest management that deal with the natural enemy/pest complex being a vital part of that overall system. But to take advantage of this new era, we knew there needed to be a lot of educational outreach to the grower community, including on-farm demonstrations with associated data. Otherwise, we could miss the opportunity and drift back to pesticides as the dominant pest-management practice. 

The conventional, high-intervention approach has predominated cotton production and pest management for years, particularly since the advent in the 1950s of big farming. After harvest, the field is mowed and harrowed, rendered barren until spring when the process starts over. Because of this winter and early spring “wipeout” of everything prior to planting, the ecosystem—as represented by the typical “ecological growth curve”—is never able to achieve equilibrium status. So, there are no relays of natural enemy/pest balances into the following season. As one consequence, the pests show up first with a lag time before the natural enemies can be expected.

During the growing season, the crop is kept clean of pests such as weeds, insects, and other undesired variables by thorough cleaning, pre-planting tillage, and other soil preparation and operations, and by diligent mechanical and chemical interventions during the growth and fruiting phase. Use of fertilizers, irrigation, and other inputs are used to ensure a lush, mono-cultural growth of cotton plants from one end of the field to the other. Other plants are considered undesirable and out of place. So, this lush abundance of cotton plants, without alternate vegetation as food sources and shelter for the natural enemies of pests, along with high frequency of mechanical and chemical intervention, creates an environment prone to disruption and resistance, ultimately leading to the pesticide treadmill. This is why, prior to the boll weevil eradication, the number of pesticide treatments for cotton production would sometimes approach twenty per season.

Moreover, the lack of winter cover and the high-intervention approach with substantial removal of the biomass, along with frequent harrowing and tilling, contribute to heavy depletion of organic matter and soil microbial quality, plus extensive water and wind erosion. All of this leads to a host of other issues including lower air and water quality; higher use of fuel, labor, and machinery wear; soil compaction; and the loss of associated wildlife.

Yes, after the boll weevil eradication, we had the opportunity to shift to a less disruptive, environmentally sound, sustainable approach, but it was going to take some time and outreach to bring about such a change in practice. We were up against methods of farming that had dominated pest management in every cropping system for over sixty years. Rachel Carson’s call for concern had brought about change, but the change was to move to softer, less toxic pesticides. Still treating the symptoms, in other words. But we had come to understand that the real issue stemmed largely from a lack of understanding of how and why external interventions are disruptive and unsustainable, in contrast with sustainable “built-in” mechanisms, which we had concluded should always be the first line of defense.

 I began having discussions about this lack of understanding with Sharad Phatak, a respected pioneer on the subject, and from whom I had gained much insight. We decided to present our case as a profession-wide argument in a highly respected publication. In 1997, he and I, along with Joop van Lenteren and Jim Tumlinson, published a paper in the esteemed journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA). Our paper, “A Total Systems Approach to Sustainable Pest Management,” stressed the urgent necessity for a fundamental shift in how we think about and approach agricultural pest management to resolve escalating economic and environmental problems. We drew on our discoveries to show that an ecosystem is just that—a system, with interactive parts that behaves not like a collection of unrelated pieces, but more like a living organism. We emphasized what we’d learned about the remarkable built-in mechanisms that agricultural ecosystems have, mechanisms that act through a set of feedback loops to maintain balance and to protect against herbivore feeding, diseases, climatic stress, chemical imbalances, and other similar attacks or interventions. To our great satisfaction, the paper turned out to be a major factor in reshaping foundations around sustainable agriculture at grower, research/education, and policy levels. The USDA Sustainable Agriculture and Education Agency adopted the paper for nationwide use as a standard in guiding constituents toward grant proposals, and used it as a standard in developing a sustainable pest management brochure.

The gist of our argument then (as now) centers on the obvious contrast between our sustainable approach making use of the built-in defenses, and the interventionist “treadmill” approach. The built-in defenses respond only when, where, and at the level needed. They are need-induced and target specific. The chemical SOS signals sent by plants under attack are a perfect example of this. Parasitic wasps searching for these plant feeders, thereby rescuing the plants in distress, create pest control only in fields and around plants with actively feeding populations of caterpillar pests, thus avoiding non-target collateral damage and disruptions.

Furthermore, these parasite-host/predator-prey interactions are free of resistance and maintain balance, within fluctuating bounds, through a density-dependent phenomenon, meaning that levels of attack are determined by the availability of hosts or prey. On the other hand is external therapeutic interventions, such as applications of pesticides, act continuously at full level throughout the field without regard to need or target. The consequence is high collateral damage and disruption, and maximum selection for resistance. Next stop: the pesticide treadmill.   

The interventionist approach is engrained deeply into not just the agricultural mentality, but in the way we, as a society, think about corrective actions in any system. You can observe the same treadmill effect in how we approach the health of the human body. On the surface, it seems that the proper corrective action for an undesired entity is to apply a direct external counter force, hence a “healthy” dose of antibiotics for infections or painkillers for pain. But there’s now a long history in medicine where it can be demonstrated that such interventionist actions never produce sustainable desired effects. They always become less effective, requiring more and more to get results. The attempted solution eventually becomes the problem. You can find vivid examples with the growing resistance to antibiotics, and problems of addiction stemming from drugs for treatment of pain or mental distress. Black-market crime is on the rise as people seek illegal sources of drugs, just as it rose during the days of prohibition as an intended solution for alcoholism.

As a matter of fundamental principle, the application of external corrective actions into a system can be effective only for short-term relief. Long-term, sustainable solutions can only be achieved through a shoring up or restructuring of the natural system—in the case of the body, through nutrition, sleep, exercise, etc.—so that natural built-in forces, such as the immune system and other regulators that function on an as-needed basis, act effectively.

The same thing is clear with pest control strategies centered on toxic chemicals and other therapeutic interventions, such as prophylactic treatments. New and “better” pesticides are continually required, just as new and “better” antibiotics are continually required in the field of medicine. It’s a constant footrace with nature. The use of pesticides and other treat-the-symptoms approaches are unsustainable and should be the last, rather than the first, line of defense. A pest management strategy should always start with the question, “Why is the pest a pest?” and seek to address underlying weaknesses in ecosystems or agronomic practices that have allowed organisms to reach pest status.

Back in 1990s, with all this in mind, we set out to demonstrate and promote the adoption of pest management in cotton as a part of a year-round landscape management system. This included the use of cover crops. Cover crops had often been used for soil conservation benefits, but their value for enhancing natural enemy/pest balances and relaying them into the cropping system as part of whole-systems pest management and, further, into a year-round agroecology program, had received scant attention. By choosing the appropriate combinations of cover crops with the correct mix of attributes, interplanted with cotton through the use of minimum-till, strip-till, or no-till methods, such an ecosystem pest management approach with cotton production could be piloted.

With the guidance of the University of Georgia Extension Service, and local extension agents, a combination of progressive growers in four Georgia counties were enlisted. By mutually agreed upon guidelines, these growers produced cotton in both conventional and year-round ecosystems on ten- to thirty-acre fields for comparative study and demonstration. The Georgia Cotton Commission and USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service participated in the collaboration as well. Each grower chose the cover crops—wheat, cahava vetch, crimson clover, or crimson clover and rye—depending on their preference.

Philip Haney of my laboratory coordinated the monitoring of the fields and assimilated the data. We knew that by the nature of a single-season arrangement, only some of the potential benefits of the year-round ecosystem could be expected to be realized. The benefits would be much stronger if the perennialized system was established over multiple seasons. Yet, the biological and economic benefits in our single-year demonstration were dramatic and encouraging. The densities of nearly every predator group were significantly higher in cotton crops interplanted in the fields with cover crops as compared to the cotton planted in barren clean-tilled fields. In other words, the cover crops were, indeed, relaying natural enemy populations through to the subsequently planted cotton.

Further, the average yield obtained from these year-round management fields was 100 pounds of lint per acre higher than the conventionally managed fields, and the net return after costs was $60 per acre higher. Another benefit for these year-round fields, not calculated in these figures, was that 1.6 fewer per-acre tractor trips, and the accompanying time and fuel costs, were required because of less cultivation and harrowing.

These findings helped expand the acreage of cotton under sustainable practice in Georgia and other areas of the region. Data from the demonstrations were widely distributed by cooperating agencies and stakeholders, including four presentations at the 1997 Beltwide Cotton Conferences. We continued for several years to cooperate directly with local agents in grower group exchanges to advance such practices. And advance we did. Sustainable practices in Coffee County, Georgia, for example, under the seasoned leadership of agent Rick Reed, shot up from 200 acres in 1990 to over 30,000 acres by 2000. One beneficial step utilized was that rotating farmers, including Max Carter, Donnie Smith, and Wayne Fussell would host on-farm “Shade Tree” meetings to discuss their practices and results.

Alton Walker put his money where his mouth was. During all these years, he’s pursued the application of these ideas on his own farm. Over the last six years, he’s made major progress toward his objectives. His central goals have been to develop a perennial, vegetation/landscape system that:

• Is largely self-sustaining with minimal input and upkeep requirements;

• Provides for all-around soil and water quality including in the areas of nutrients, moisture, residue, structure, microbial make-up, leaching, wind, and water erosion;

• Provides for good year-round natural enemy/pest balances in all the pest areas of arthropods, diseases, and weeds; 

• Provides plants with the right structure, height, and thickness level to accommodate inter-planting of cotton with very limited requirements of mechanical and herbicide interventions.

Alton has advanced all of these objectives. He’s established a mix of plants that are largely self-renewing including several clovers, rye grass, rape seed, wild mustard, and others. His soil and water health are rapidly improving.  He’s able to interplant cotton each spring with a need for minimal strips of herbicide intervention, and with minimal need for mechanical intervention with his own customized equipment. He’s had no need to intervene with insecticides in the last three years. He’s able to produce his cotton crop with one half the number of tractor trips and less than half the fuel costs as compared to the conventional system. And his yield is averaging one-hundred pounds per acre, beyond the average of the surrounding area.

Alton is now in the process of adding rotations of corn and soybean crops into this system. He has just completed his first year with corn and with excellent results. Historically, reasonable corn production in his location would require irrigation. However, due to the improved water holding capacity and other high quality attributes of the soil, Alton’s corn yield averaged ninety-three bushels per acre with only six and one-half inches of rain, and minimal need for other inputs, a very solid yield for the area and conditions. His net profit was approximately $300 per acre.

These real-world practices by Alton show the advantages of the year-round ecosystem management approach. So why, after years of data and demonstration, starting with those early successes in the ’90s and continuing to this day on farms like Alton’s—why isn’t every grower on board with these practices?

Lewis spent his career in entomology with the USDA-Agricultural Research Service at the Tifton Campus of the University of Georgia. It was there that he worked to unlock the secrets of how plants and insects communicate with one another, particularly how plants use SOS signals to recruit beneficial insects to their defense. Based on those groundbreaking insights, Lewis and his colleagues developed holistic and sustainable approaches to pest management within agricultural systems. In 2008, along with his colleagues John A, Pickett and James H. Tumlinson, Lewis received the prestigious Wolf Prize in Agriculture.

The Importance of Balancing Metal Ions

Calcium (Ca), Potassium (K), Magnesium (Mg) balancing is crucial for the health of your plants and soil

Sponsored by Ferticell®

Understanding how nutrients cycle through the soil and become availability to the plant is critical to achieving physical harmony and nutritional balance in your farming system. 

Today, many growers face the challenges of balancing metal ions due to the accumulation of salts, including sodium, which can be a hidden ingredient lurking in a farm’s water sources. When found in the correct ratios or in manageable levels, salts can be low impact or beneficial. When building a soil balancing approach, it is also important to consider soil physical properties and how nutrient balance, such as calcium, potassium, and magnesium, affects overall crop yield.

Most crop plants grow in environments that are suboptimal, which prevents the plants from attaining their full genetic potential for growth and reproduction (bray et al, 2000)

Testing of soils at periodic intervals is necessary due to soil-level fluctuations throughout the growing cycle. When it comes to assessing and managing the levels and ratios of Ca:Mg and K in soil, soil tests are crucial. Whenever soil reports are run, all micronutrients should be analyzed.

Managing the Ca:Mg Ratio

In the absence of a calcium supply outside the root system, root extension ceases within a few hours. (Marschner, 1986) 

Calcium is a powerful ally in the fight against salinity and is thought by many to be a macronutrient. Plants require generous levels of calcium to manage many other ions in the colloid. In the rooting zone, calcium will moderate the harmful effects of sodium, chlorides, and other salts. There are well more than 1,000 genes that are activated and deactivated in response to salinity. Under conditions of extreme salinity, proteins are precipitated. Together with magnesium and potassium, calcium helps neutralize organic acids formed during plant metabolism.


In plant tissue, magnesium and potassium are responsible for regulating chlorophyll production. Thus, if Mg or K is deficient, the shortage of chlorophyll can’t capture sunlight needed for photosynthesis. Magnesium also helps to activate specific enzyme systems.

To keep ratios intact, knowing the nutritional influences is paramount to keeping them available. Calcium is directly affected by phosphorus, zinc, magnesium, and manganese and has an effect of its own on magnesium. Low calcium and magnesium levels are generally defined as less than 300 parts per million (ppm) and 35 parts per million (ppm). Each crop has its own tolerances and references should be made on a case-by-case basis with up-to-date and historical soil reports.

Increasing the Ca:Mg ratio will require more time and additional amendments on soils with a higher cation exchange capacity (CEC). The cost of soil balancing may be prohibitive depending on how much change is needed and the value of the crop.

Consider calcium sources when looking for a calcium product to moderate salts and improve the uptake of plant nutrients. It is possible that calcium nitrates and other sources of calcium could contain limiting factors, along with a higher salt index component or associated chemistries that may decrease their effectiveness. A concentrate of highly processed calcium will allow you to increase surface area without overloading the soil with large amounts of fertilizer.  

Calcium also helps the plant adapt to stress by influencing the signal-chain reaction when stress occurs. It has a key role in regulating the active transport of K for stomatal opening and is particularly effective at helping reduce summer heat stress, minimizing wilting and leaf damage. (Harris, 1992)

Potassium (K) Availability Concerns

As the pH of soils drop below 6, potassium availability becomes a concern and potassium absorption can be seriously affected. If the CEC is below 10 meq/100 g, a K deficiency may develop. It is possible to develop deficiencies of potassium and magnesium quickly if cations have a low holding capacity.

For balancing acidic soils around or below 6, always monitor with regular soil tests. Choosing a plant-derived potassium at this stage, with an easier uptake, can be a go-to source for low pH soils. In vines, by keeping Brix levels monitored, we can add either soil calcium or foliar calcium if they’re not around the 18 to 20 numbers. By adding a calcium shot to your late-season applications, will help with both overall vine health and plant tissue rigidity.

Sodium can inhibit the assimilation of several nutrients, including potassium. Plant cells will begin “leaking” potassium as they assimilate sodium. Metals like manganese, iron, and aluminum all influence potassium. A plant’s signaling, osmoregulation, and balance of cations and anions are dependent on K. The availability and mobility of K are important for starch synthesis, enzyme activation, and cytoplasmic pH regulation.


Nutrient and ion availability and how they work with each other determines not just soil health, but can hurt yields in certain calculations. By developing a program and monitoring system to periodically monitor all metal and nutrient levels in both soil and tissue throughout the season, nutrient use efficiency can be expanded through a balanced, healthy soil profile.

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A Foundation for Balancing Nutrition and Soil Health

Soil health is a function of soil physics, chemistry, and biology

Sponsored by Ferticell®

The properties of soil often determine the balance and nature of vegetation, and indirectly, the population of inhabitants that can be supported. The above-ground portion of plants is most generally equally balanced with the sub-soil mass of roots in area. Most of the communicated directions we receive for nurturing plants have focused on water and raw material fertilizers. But today’s operations manager has been exposed to tactical ideas such as no-till, synthetic fertilizers, pest control products, bio solids, and a myriad of bio-stimulants.

Soil must provide an anchoring system for plants, nutrient storage, water reserves and a habitat for biomass that are the cyclers and re-cyclers. This will require a stable soil matrix and balanced porosity. Soil physical specifications must have properties that hold capillary water, gravitational water and will also inherently hold unavailable water (hygroscopic). Soil must also protect water by filtering water to ensure quality. Clay particles and the organic component of soils are the nutrient reservoirs that also make up a component of soil physics.

Soil physical components are described as a balanced mix of sand, silt, and clay. This balanced distribution of particle sizes is the direct influence for water holding, oxygen capacity, and stored nutrient reserves.

Soil physics will provide water infiltration at the soil interface or surface percolation, or movement through soil porosity and finally drainage. As water moves down through soil, air is pulled into large pores for storage. This activity will also remove gasses that can build up and have a negative influence on root activity.

Physical properties of soil must provide for the ability of oxygen, water, and roots to move freely through macro pores. Porosity is divided in two sizes: capillary that are the micro pores that hold water and non-capillary that are the larger macro-pores that will store air and promote rooting.

How important are the physical specifications for soil performance?

Approximately 45% of the dry matter analysis of plants is  comprised of oxygen. Almost 88% of all plants examined are dominated by only two of the essential elements: oxygen and carbon. That leaves about 6% for hydrogen and 6% for all the fertilizer elements we sometimes consider the most important.

Deficient physical properties will greatly impact plant rooting performance and limit top growth eventually. Soils without oxygen are described as anaerobic and will alter biology as well as limit root  growth and no longer suppress pests. The greatest impact is cell division that will cease, and essential “ions” are no longer being transported in the soil solution. Plants will display symptoms that indicate a need for either fertilizers or water.

Nutrients that have a beneficial direct impact on soil physics are a very short list. Calcium is the most misunderstood nutrient of the 17 essentials due to the impact on soil physics. Calcium simply pushes clay particles apart and creates porosity.

The critical point to remember about Calcium nutrition is that it is “phloem immobile” or needs to move upward through the roots to the upper plant  parts. (Marschner, 1983)

It is also noteworthy to remember that calcium is our most insoluble and immobile of all the elements.

Salts including sodium and bicarbonates that will be a component in most all water sources in the Sunbelt, directly impact soil physical properties. Even your favorite organic fertilizer comes with a salt impact. A question we never hear is in reference to salt index of a product such as Urea. Salts and bicarbonates will act as a       cementing agent for soil particles and reduce porosity.

Once physical properties are lost, we suffer greater risks from  heavy rainfall, salts from irrigation water, surface germination of “misplaced plants” (weeds) and restricted growth response on selected plants.

Soil physical properties will influence chemical performance especially control products. Several studies have indicated that chemical degradation can be slow or disturbed when aerobic (with    oxygen) and anaerobic (no oxygen) micro sites are not fully functioning. These micro sites must be in proximity or other failures will occur. Corrective measures are simple if we use frequency as a key component for all cultural practices. A list of    beneficial practices is as follows:

Watering properly by frequency and delivery rate. If soils will   not accept the water source due to hardness of water or hardpan, simply reduce application times and provide time allowances for a soaking-in cycle between total irrigation events.


  • Apply calcium on a regular basis and rotate sources. Water in  thoroughly.
  • Monitor “salts” that you control in all products used.
  • Manures will have a greater efficiency than conventional composts and municipal waste. Poultry manure will have lower  salt risks and reduced inorganic ash content. Compost from site should be first choice.
  • Rotate sources of fertilizers, such as use of nitrogen from  nitrate, ammoniacal, urea, and protein.

Cultural practices listed above are not complete without assigning a  responsibility of stewardship activities, which ask us to increase our knowledge of soils beyond the conventional soil chemical test.

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Where Does it all Go?

Welcome to Book of the Week – a weekly feature offering you a glimpse between the pages of an Acres U.S.A. published title. Get the Book of the Week email newsletter delivered directly to your in box! This week’s Book of the Week feature is My Farmer, My Customer, by Marty Travis.

Sometimes there are opportunities for interaction at events designed to connect with either chefs or CSA members. We have seen not-for-profits or other organizations host meet-the-farmer or meet-the-buyer events. These can be great door openers. If you have that opportunity and can showcase some samples, do so. Many times your product will speak volumes about your farm and sometimes more so than you. If you can even get one person hooked, that is where to begin. Then, with continued relationship development, you can sometimes ask if they know anyone else that would be interested in what you have to offer. I believe many times it is better for someone else to recommend you than for you to try to press your case. To me, it means more to hear someone else is happy with a product than to hear a sales pitch from the one trying to sell it. Don’t get me wrong— it is important for you to believe and represent yourself and your farm well; just continue to get as many advocates as you can along the way. They become your unpaid sales force!

We never really sold at farmers’ markets, but I do believe farmers’ markets are a fairly easy way to enter into the arena of local food. You can connect with local shoppers and develop many of the same relationships that we are talking about. Depending on the market, some can be expensive to get a booth while others may be nearly free. In recent years, we hear more and more of the experienced farmers say they are beginning to see their sales drop at their farmers’ markets. This is a bit concerning and sometimes confusing. Consumers are in general looking for more local choices and looking to connect a face to their food for their families. Farmers’ markets allow that kind of interaction. Some communities do offer late-season special holiday markets. This helps, as many of us still have a lot of product after the regular markets end. I think it is important to have as much cash flow coming in for as much of the year as you can.

Some of the downsides to markets are the uncertainties, such as weather, consumer schedules, consumer spending, and other farmer competition. We know one farmer who said it was their intention to have the cheapest sweet corn at the market. That really helps no one. We are all trying to make a living at this, and racing to the bottom does not help. It doesn’t help the consumer understand the true meaning of producing something great. It demeans other farmers, and it also demeans that particular farmer’s reputation. So think carefully about how you price your product. Think carefully about how people will perceive you and your farm. You are worth a fair price.

During the last several years, we have sold literally tons of products to our chef community. In that same time, we have had numerous folks ask us where they can buy our produce for their own use. We began with a volume/scale we could handle, which was selling to restaurants; as we have continued to expand our production, we have been able to offer more and more to the general public. One way that I have thought about this is that we as farmers should be selling our food through the places where people buy their food, regularly and conveniently. Grocery stores are that place for the vast majority of the population.

Many times your product will speak volumes about your farm and sometimes more so than you.

As we began thinking about that opportunity and how we could access the grocery store market, we initiated a conversation with our local grocery store family. We have a family-owned grocery store that is really quite nice, large, and accommodating. We spoke with the owners and came to an agreement that they would be happy to provide a certain amount of cooler/shelf space for local product. Instead of the store buying the product, we offered to set up the space with our product, to manage it every day or two to make sure it was still looking good, and to see if it needed restocking. In return, the store would give the farmers 80 percent of the sale price and hold back 20 percent for the space. They had little investment into the shelf area and we could work to keep it filled with items that we thought or knew would sell.

It was a good starting point. The store could use it as a promotion that they were carrying local produce and we could use it as promotion that we had our product in a local grocery store. We received a fair price for our work and were able to set the price for our own produce. The percentage the store kept was built into our retail price.

Moving forward a couple of years, the grocery store saw the benefit of working with the farming community and began purchasing the product outright. They had made it through the risky startup phase and had some sense of what was available during each season and also what folks were willing to purchase from local sources. We continued to do some meet-the-farmer events at the store; these are always a good way to connect with your customers. We were supplying local food to a place where people buy food! We now had begun to close that loop of food miles and accessibility.

Next, we had another larger family grocery store contact us to discuss a project. The new concept was to have a large store that made the connection with the farmers an important, integral, and visible part of their business. This project did not go as well. We came to understand that if we don’t have everyone on the same page, working to develop the relationship extremely well, there is a real chance that not everyone is going to buy in. It looks and sounds good, but when it comes to the point of numbers, the margins often mean more than the relationship and the product.

I think there is still a lot of work to be done with grocers. Everyone needs to make it work, I get that. But, we need to have conversations about the whole experience. If a store wants to showcase verbiage and signage promoting local farms and their products, we all need to make sure that everyone realizes what that means. How is our product different than what is purchased from the warehouse or from a farmer’s auction house? How is one farm’s product different from another’s? What about different prices paid to the farms? I will explore and share some other ideas coming up, but just know for now that we all have a lot of work to do in order to make local food more mainstream.

As we begin to think about how to make connections, consider who you know and who they know. References and referrals are super important. If you are faced with someone who says they are not interested, don’t let the opportunity pass. Ask them if they know of someone else who might be interested in what you have to offer. Never take a “no” without asking another question. Sometimes it is good to start by saying, “I’m not here to sell you anything. I just need your opinion or advice. What do you think of this product, and do you know anyone that might be interested?” That takes the pressure off of Farming with a Purpose 73 the person in front of you. It also makes them feel important as you are asking for their advice. Sometimes it works out that they are definitely interested; plus, you might get another referral, or more.

Another successful tactic we employ is at the end of the year we ask several of the seed companies we deal with if we can purchase or acquire a box of their seed catalogs to hand out to our chefs. Many of the highly visual catalogs are super exciting to look through. Chefs are visual characters, and looking at a seed catalog does a couple of things. First, it allows them a window into the farmer’s world. They get to see what we have access to, and this can create a lot of excitement for them. Second, they can begin to visualize specific varieties from the catalog being on their plates. This also gives them an opportunity to have something totally unique on the menu. Additionally, it helps you, the farmer, know what to grow. If you ask how much they would use per week during the season, it will give you an idea of how much to produce. This is a great way to understand how much and what items you should grow. Then if you have an abundance and can offer it to other folks or, again, ask who else would be interested in it, you have a supply and demand issue that could be nearly well matched. We always like to have the demand for any product just barely ahead of the supply, and it is okay if we run out. Better that than to have so much extra that it goes to waste. We just try to be close.

About the Author:

Marty Travis is the proud owner of Spence Farm, which he runs 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. In 2019, Spence Farm was highlighted in the documentary, SustainableMarty is also a speaker at the upcoming 2021 Eco-Ag Conference and Trade Show.

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