Real-World Validation of Holistic Systems for Stockmen

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 Ranching Full-Time on Three Hours a Day, by Cody Holmes.

In the early years of my ranching experience I began to watch one particular farm neighbor. He raised his family on a small cow/calf ranch with what income the ranch could provide. They appeared to have an average lifestyle from an economic stand­point, that is they lived like most the other families around except he did not have to go to work each day to support the ranch. The ranch supported the family. Bob had no farm machinery and spent no time during the busy hay time in May like everyone else working 16-hour days baling up hay to feed in winter. What little hay he fed in the winter was custom baled. I farmed next to Bob for only about seven years, and it was only the last few years that I began to see that he did not do what everyone else was doing. I moved on to a larger farm and began leasing larger and larger farms.

I began doing the things that I saw Bob doing on his farm in my operation. Learning came very slow to me and I have no problem admitting my reluctance to education. But I was certain that machinery was a great evil and had no place in a livestock operation. I began grazing further and further into the winter without feeding hay. I also found that if I could allow the grass to grow kind of wild it would produce more forage in the long haul. This was hard for most people to accept. With the belief that our farms should resemble golf courses, this became a prob­lem for most of my landlords.

I remember one particular landlord who was in his 90s and was very set in his ways. I was leasing about 1,600 acres from him at the time for my cow herd. He had sold all of his equipment except his 15-foot brush hog and 150-horsepower tractor. About the time I would get a few paddocks of grass knee high, he would chop it down to lawn height. I could not convince him of my need for that tall forage this winter. His holistic goal of his ranch was not the same as mine. My goal for that ranch was for it to produce as much forage as possible. He wanted it to look freshly mowed most of the time. He had made a lot of money from buy­ing and selling farms and little to none from livestock produc­tion. He was good at what he was doing, but it was not really ranching. He also did a good job of keeping the tractor suppliers, feedstores, vets, and other input salesmen in business.

All of these challenges helped educate me in the holistic sys­tem of farming. Through my experiences, continued reading, and talking to good farm managers I began to formulate this system that once and for all could make livestock ranching prof­itable. By using the holistic systems approach, and not simply looking at production as an isolated event, my ranch began to turn around. After looking more closely through the holistic point of view, I realized I could not make this work the way I wanted it to on rented farms. In order for me to function holisti­cally I would have to have complete control over all aspects of the ranch. This can only be done through ownership of the land. Holistic land planning is a multi-year program and short-term leases lead only to frustration and disappointment. This does not mean that farm leasing is not practical and necessary for the cash-limited farmer in the early stages of growth. But the long-term plan must include land ownership for success. With holis­tic systems in place, profits from a productive livestock opera­tion can pay for the principle and interest costs of purchasing that ranch.

In order for me to function holisti­cally I would have to have complete control over all aspects of the ranch.

I designed the Ten Steps to Holistic Systems with ranch profit in mind. It encompasses over 35 years of personal, practi­cal experience meshed with the insights and contributions from many different authors and farmers I have come across in as many years. As I list these steps try and visualize how you can incorporate these steps into your holistic plan on your farm or ranch.

Step 1

Determine who the decision makers are in the organization and utilize all their efforts to compile the group’s holistic goals. This is a written document of one to three paragraphs stating the purpose and desires of the decision makers. This short letter format should be posted where it can be observed daily, such as on the door of the refrigerator with the valuable pictures of the decision maker’s family. I believe Allan Savory best describes this by categorizing these goals into three distinct areas: quality of life, forms of production, and future resource base. You can break down your holistic goals into these three areas of how you see the future arriving. Remember to keep the lists short and precise. And only the decision makers make contributions in this area.

Under the heading of Quality of Life write out in just one or two sentences what you would like to get from the organization. That is list how you see the farm contributing to your quality of life. This is not a list of weaning weights or cow numbers, but a list closely related to personal benefits.

Under the heading Forms of Production write out in what form you see the organization or farm producing revenue, if revenue is part of the quality of life you seek. Again do not limit yourself to a certain breed of cow or chicken, but more gener­ally species or types.

Under the heading Future Resource Base write out how you see your organization or farm taking shape in the future. More specifically, describe where you would like to see it go or look like and what the resources or farmland may look like once you get closer to where you want to be.

One of the main reasons I use this list of holistic goals is to verify that for each movement I make each day that that move­ment, decision or project is moving in the direction stated in these goals. If I have this list posted on the wall or the refrigera­tor I can easily question my task at hand to determine if what I am going to do today specifically gets me closer to where I want to be. The listed holistic goals are like a beacon in the night.

Step 2

Develop a methodology to help make informed decisions in the operation by starting with time management.

Many of us have the misconception that if we are not busy all the time at a high rate of speed that our time is being wasted. I urge you to conserve your time and eliminate all “busy time.” We must have extended periods of the day to reflect on and observe the operation in order to make decisions which will lead us to our goals…If you start many days running around the ranch putting out fires and it’s noontime before you can really get started on real projects, you are at the top of the pyramid with too much of your time. Or maybe you are spend­ing enormous amounts of time riding around the ranch on the tractor compared to the time spent moving cattle from pasture to pasture, which will always be more productive and less expen­sive. It helps to remember that livestock have the ability to be productive on their own, that is they can graze, drink and move from one place to the next without your labor. We have to learn to get out of the way and let them do what they do best.

Step 3

Implement a system that can help you compare the econom­ic viability of one enterprise on the farm to another enterprise, whether one already in existence or one that is being considered. This is to help provide information so we can discern which enterprise is most likely to earn the greatest profit. Use the Enterprise Worksheet Forms (See appendix) to evaluate and monitor success. This is not to imply that all success comes from business profits, but one primary objective of most farm opera­tions should be net profit from operations.

These worksheets can be created using simple multi-column accountant’s lined paper or with a computer program or spread­sheet. The concept is to isolate the income from each enterprise and allocate the expenses that apply to that enterprise. Generally we are talking about separation of animal species to determine if, for example, the beef cows are really making any money or whether it is the laying hens that are the most profitable. Isolat­ing income sources and providing a check register system that categorizes expenses into enterprises or animal species is the best approach I have found to accomplish enterprise analysis.

Once we set aside fixed costs, which are the costs we have no matter what animals we choose to earn income from, we compare the variable costs associated to that income enterprise. In this analysis the fixed costs are generally first covered by the primary enterprise before any direct costs are compared. We then are able to attach the direct costs that actually apply to the specific species of animals or enterprise. This can also be a time to reflect on whether or not the chosen primary enterprise should remain or be discontinued. We must learn to be very objective during this phase. Our favorite animal or enterprise may have to be altered significantly or even dropped from the farm altogether.

Step 4

Develop an understanding of the absolute necessity of solar collection and how it relates to farm profitability. The only prod­uct a farm really has to market is solar power. The tangible part that is transformed and provided to the customer is only the result of our efficiency at solar collection. Unlock this very sim­ple process.

For most livestock businesses it is forage, or grass in general terms, that we are actually producing. We may be marketing our grasses through the sale of T-bones or cheese slices, but it is the quantity and quality of forages produced on the farm that mainly determine our profitability. The production of forages on our farm is directly dependent upon our efficiency at solar collection. The better we are at solar collection the higher our success will be.

I like to use the example of having a small 6-inch by 6-inch solar collector on top of your house and expecting to collect enough sunlight for everyone in the household to take a shower. The results would be improved tremendously if we replaced that little 6-inch by 6-inch solar collector with a solar panel that took up the entire rooftop. When we allow our grasses to grow to tall heights, rather than keeping them eaten down to the ground, our solar collector – forages — are multiplied in effectiveness manyfold. Just the same, when we fill in the empty spaces between plants and increase the density of our stands of forage in each paddock by high-stock-density grazing and animal impact, our solar collectors are increased. Creating a litterbank on top of the soil and a massive root system of healthy plants and organic matter below the surface, we are better able to col­lect the rainfall that once ran down the cattle trails into the creek and off the farm. We can grow more forage when our neighbors are complaining about drought. We are actually harvesting sun­light, not forage or livestock.

Step 5

Unlock the hidden tools every stockman possesses on every farm that will improve efficiencies and is absolutely critical for sustainability:

  • Grazing
  • Animal Impact
  • Rest
  • Soil Biology

We know that the more time a cow spends grazing and the less time she eats at the hay bunk, the lower our costs will be. As she grazes she expels about 27,000 lbs. of grass-growing nutri­ents each year directly on the paddock where it can be best uti­lized. All of this fertility is added at the cost of zero inputs.

The stomping of the litter from tall grasses into the top layer of soil — what we call animal impact — is part of the nutrient buildup done by the hooves of the bovine. From this point for­ward we can leave behind the concept of a fertilizer buggy. We can be more concerned with having 90 or more paddocks across the ranch so that we can get long rotations and long periods of rest between the times cattle enter those paddocks. It is these long periods of rest that are critical in producing tall forages that the grazing animal can work with to produce the desired ani­mal-impact results.

Now the soil biology, our workers beneath the surface, can multiply and break down the fibrous material we call carbon first into organic matter, then humus, and provide the means to help sequester the nutrients plants require for even better solar collection. In considering the sun, rainfall and the atmosphere, it appears we have an almost perpetual motion machine on the ranch.

Step 6

Determine where the weakest link is in your operation and divert energy, money and effort to this problem first. Once this break in the chain is fixed, then and only then should we direct our efforts elsewhere. There is always just one weakest link at a time. This weakest link is the direct aspect of our operation that is keeping us from obtaining our listed holistic goals.

We may wrongly blame the small amount of rainfall as the reason we run out of grass each summer and have been forced to purchase expensive supplements for the livestock. In fact, the weak link lies in the fact we have not spent enough money on fencing so that we can do a better job of rotating cattle across the ranch allowing long periods of rest for each paddock. When the typical hot, dry summers arrive, our bare soils, short-rooted plants, and low organic matter in our soil thirst more than nec­essary. This reduces the soil’s ability to hold moisture. It is clear that our lack of fencing in this case is our weakest link in this example. In this case, it may be easy to assume that all we need to do to get more grass is to spend more money on forage seed for the bare areas between plants. In fact we do not even have enough moisture in our soils to support what roots exist now. A common mistake is to spend money, resources and labor on areas not the weakest link. It is more prudent to take the time and identify the single weakest link of today, make the correc­tions, and then when tomorrow arrives look for the weakest link for that specific time.

Step 7

Create a Financial Planning Model specifically for the opera­tion. Utilize worksheets for entering data into a system that allows for monthly monitoring to compare planned objectives to actual activity.

Just as when we were using individual enterprise worksheets for analysis, we will have a recording system in place that encom­passes the entire operation. This is best done using now afford­able computer software with a little bit of training or can be done manually on handwritten spreadsheets. This year’s results must be compared with last year’s results as well as projections made before the season begins.

Step 8

Prepare a written plan to manage the land in a manner that does not contradict the holistic goals. This should be a one-page document that emphasizes the goals and practices referred to in the holistic goals.

By taking the time to describe, in light detail, our overall strat­egy, will help us better achieve our goals. Sometimes the actual words being written down and looked at closely will bring our shortfalls to the surface. This is no time for unbalanced egos.

Step 9

Prepare a total land grazing program covering January through December. This is a system of handling each and every square foot of land mass for each and every day of the year. Implement a fence and water design that utilizes:

  • Herd impact
  • Forward speed grazing
  • Rest

The herd impact of moving cattle from one paddock to the next on a daily basis will create a rest period of 90 days on each paddock once we have at least 91 individual paddocks in place. During the fast-growing times of the season like April and May for those of us in North America, we move cattle very quickly through as many paddocks as we can to get the benefits of for­ward speed grazing. If we wait until the forage is 6-inches tall in the early part of the growing season, the growth will overtake us too soon. These are some of the grazing practices that will allow us to eventually add more livestock to our operation without increasing costs.

Step 10

Implement a program designed to monitor both financial and land responses over time. Compare results frequently with the holistic goals and planning process and initiate a process for correction and re-planning.

A digital camera positioned within the same transects every year or every month for ecological planning can give us an idea of how our progress is working, for example, plant spacing.

Financial records comparing year-to-year results are critical for economics. Accurately kept records in binders representing each year of operation that are easily accessible will prove to be excellent resources for finding places in our operation that need correction.

These ten steps for initiating the holistic system on a livestock operation will require the continued use of advancement in edu­cation. You will recall this was on the large base and most impor­tant part of the time pyramid. As we increase our education in all that makes up this simple-to-manage but complex-by-design field called agriculture, our success will be enlightening. But studying and reading books such as this one, visiting other live­stock operations, and attending progressive seminars and holis­tic system courses like I offer at my ranch each year are only part of this continued education which I am referring. These ideas can only come to fruition by spending the critical observation time down to the soil level, to implement changes where chang­es are demanded for better profits on the ranch. None of this can occur by remote control. And only those who properly respect ecology, animal behavior, and human interaction — particularly adaptation, soil biology, and the benefits of financial planning — will derive real satisfaction from the farm or ranch.

About the Author:

Cody Holmes left home at age 17 with his high school 4-H project of seven cows. That project grew into the Rockin’ H Ranch, a diversified ranch, on-farm market, and agri-tourism business. The ranch has supported as many as 900 head on 3,400 acres. Cody, his wife, Dawnell, and daughter, Taylor, opened up their ranch to the public and also run Real Farm Foods Farm Market, an on-farm store offering retail sales of beef, pork, lamb, chicken, eggs, milk, and seasonal produce.

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Those Variable Soils

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 Ask the Plant, by Charles Walters and Esper K. Chandler.

“If you discuss soil,” says Chandler, “you have to put ‘variable’ on the other side of the equals sign.” During his days at research stations, small 7 x 14-foot plots had a go at forage soil and plant testing. The size of those plots was governed by the availability of space as well as by the requirement for alleyways. The goal was to maintain as many as 120 of these randomized, replicated, and repeated multiple-year studies. The usual procedure was to test soil 6” deep in each replication and plant test each cutting. There might be 21 different treatments in a test with four or five replications. Looking over the plots you could see variations in the way the plants would grow, even though there wasn’t a difference in treatment. Chandler recalled the scene this way. “The superintendent, Dawson Johns, insisted that we sample each individual plot separately. We’d take, say, seven cores throughout that 7 x 14-foot plot. We’d test these representative composites from each plot. So here you had quite a bit of variation in a very small area. On that Louisiana State University North Hill Farm Experiment Station, calculations would be based on replicated variations between plots. Dr. Darrell Russell, soil and plant chemist analyzed each sample. Years later, that valuable data was still wallowing in the bowels of University bureaucracy.”

Healing Wounded Soil

When Chandler returned from combat in Korea in the early 1950s, he encountered more than a cotton allotment. President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s administration set up a Soil Bank, which seemed to comply with the Committee for Economic Development’s mandate to consolidate farms into big units and close down the type of agriculture that existed during the Depression ’30s and wartime parity ’40s. The erosion left over from ravaged soil invited correction. This meant factual research, aimed at replacing the cotton farmers, turning Kansas wheat plots into mega-fields, and complying with Ezra Taft Benson’s injunction to “quit mollycoddling the farmers.” Conservation programs planted millions of acres of trees across the South, often on eroded hill land, to build back the soil. Many of those forests are still productive today.

The range of work on that postwar station involved crops, pasture, pine tree fertility, dairy, peach production, beef cattle work, poultry broilers and layers, clearing land and forage production of coastal Bermudagrass hay, which was shipped to the main campus. The farm’s diversity goals included silage production, row crops — cotton, corn and milo, as well as grass and legume test crops that seemed to pose questions. There were no bureaucratic limits on what could be researched, and there were no caveats tied to industrial grant money. Chandler was allowed to put in all the test plots he desired, including his own food patch.

Coastal Bermudagrass, developed by Dr. Glenn Burton of Georgia, rated front burner attention because of its potential for closing those soil wounds that wind and water erosion had accounted for. Coastal Bermuda is a prolific grass, one capable of taking hold with deep anchoring roots in places like eroding gullies. The state of the art decrees one treatment regardless of variations spreading across either plots or row acres.

“We would take manure from the dairy and poultry operations and straddle those gullies, usually dumping the manure rather than slinging it to the bottom. With that fertility, the Bermudagrass would grab hold and stop the erosion,” Chandler recalls.

“Variable soil profiles are the norm,” says Chandler, “even under the best of circumstances.” Old red subsoil often canceled out the small amount of organic matter discerned now and then. Very acid soils have little or no nutrition in escrow.

Circa 1950, “we introduced grain sorghum to that parish,” remembers Chandler. Every innovation seems to invite an unsought counterdevelopment. In the case of milo, it was birds. The feast of small grains for creatures that like grain made the station look like something out of an Alfred Hitchcock movie. Propane guns with timers failed to stop the birds. “We used firecrackers spaced on lengths of cotton ropes tied to trees so that fire smoldering up the rope would explode the firecrackers at intervals. Next we had to get retired folks to fend off the winged predators with shotgun pellets interspersed with the firecrackers or the birds, mainly crows, would take everything.”

The soil proposed and the crows disposed because the environment around Homer, Louisiana made it tough on wildlife. There was a time when it was impossible to lose sight of a nearby cotton field in that environment. By the end of the 1940s, King Cotton was not even a poor pretender to royalty — research on cotton, fumigation, and fertility studies notwithstanding. Small farms became social, political and research anathema. “Don’t do research on small plots,” the sotto voce admonition. “Use commercial farms. That’s where the need is.” Chandler and his associates found three commercial farmers still in the cotton business. Today that parish has not one. The soil-mining era having spent itself, the soil would no longer permit it.

Chandler calls his and the grower’s nemesis “bad cultural practices.” These include excess tillage, wasteful fertilizer and water use, bulk soil treatment when spoon-feeding is indicated, and virtually complete ignorance of foliar nutrients and natural adjuvant application.

Looking at Soil Sampling Differently

The paradigm changed the day Esper K. Chandler moved into the Rio Grande Valley because the soils had changed. Gone were the hills and sand, now replaced by a flood plain in an arid subtropical climate. The Rio Grande originates in the mountains of Colorado, meanders through New Mexico, passes El Paso, and then turns toward the Gulf of Mexico. It is one of the historical rivers of the world in terms of the land nearby and the irrigation systems it supplies. Here, as in present-day Egypt, the plains are spared the inconvenience of floods with a dam, canceling out the nutrient fix and salt leaching that every flood accomplished. With irrigation the salts build up. In Egypt cotton, once a famous staple crop, is almost nonexistent because the builders of the Aswan Dam’s irrigation system failed to plan for internal drainage for salt to facilitate leaching.

A soil chemist named Schultz started the laboratory in 1938 that Chandler later made his own. It was the first soil lab in the state of Texas. Schultz developed the four-foot-in-one-foot increment profile. This technique had its faults, the main one being the prevailing concept of the hour. The soil was rich in minerals and equipped with the full pantheon of micronutrients. Everyone believed that all you needed was nitrogen. If you leveled the land, controlled salts, irrigated and used nitrogen, you painted the landscape green. That, points out Chandler, is what we’re still doing seven decades later. “We’re mining our soils, particularly of organic matter and minerals.”

The standard procedure is to take several randomized core samples, then mix the samples to achieve a representative composite. Yet even plot experiments reveal a significant difference within a few feet. Uncommon good sense analysis told Chandler that precision farming was indicated. In time, global positioning systems enabled a precision never envisioned when Chandler was simply observing as a researcher, not a pioneer and visionary.

In Chandler’s view, the methods of the natural/organic folks demanded that conventional agriculture pay attention to claims about organic matter, humus, soil microorganisms, and the conversion of inorganic minerals to soluble organic for root uptake. But it was the recognition of variations between side-by-side trees or row crops that exhibited a difference and invited the farmer to address those differences with the use of plant nutrients. Citrus trees were usually 10 to 24 feet apart. A soil sample on one side of the row often varied greatly from a similar sample on the other side. This prompted the marking of trees so that subsequent samples could validate findings and measure the character of every response where sampling variations did not influence the evaluations. The bottom line information revealed that there were more inherent differences in the soil than in the treatments. The uncomfortable conclusion was that most of the earlier basic research was badly flawed because it was not calibrated to plant uptake.

Some of Chandler’s mentors wanted to remove many of those inherent variations. Immediately, certain appropriate conclusions started closing the gap between organic folklore and so-called settled science. It was a small step to repair the soil with humic acids or soil inoculants, eschewing the NPK code.

“We came to an inescapable conclusion,” Chandler conceded. “We were introducing more variations via our testing procedures than were imposed by the differences we were trying to measure.” Statistics don’t lie, but they don’t digest facts very well either. Peer review somehow failed to square with reality. It was an awesome discovery, this business of methods and materials introducing more variables than were the goal of increased production. Then, as now, “too much of our work was and is theoretical and formula founded, and too much of the practical farm-applied research is funded by people and firms with a product to sell, products that they can protect with a patent or copyright.”

The situation has taken more alarming turns than a Roman taxi. Witness Monsanto and its relentless effort to develop and sell Roundup Ready soybeans, glyphosate, GMO canola, and all the rest. It makes dealing with nature seem less than scientific by comparison. To regenerate the soils that have been mined out, “we have first to understand that it is recoverable. It forgives many of our transgressions, but to recapture the values both research and practical agriculture have to obey nature, not the laboratory approximation thereof,” says Chandler.

About the Authors

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

Esper K. Chandler was a professional agronomist and soil scientist who traveled the country consulting with growers in a quest to improve yields, quality, and profits. He was the owner of TPS Lab for more than 27 years. K. Chandler was a founding member of the National Organic Standards Board and a Certified Professional Agronomist (CPAg) by the American Society of Agronomy. He has been proclaimed as a leader in the soil fertility and plant nutrition field. Chandler passed away in 2008.

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Tractor Time Episode 66: Louis Bromfield and the Most Famous Farm in the World

On this episode we welcome Anneliese Abbott.

Her name may be familiar to Acres U.S.A. readers. She writes a monthly column called History of Organic Agriculture in America. It’s a must read that’s always full of surprises — and so is her first book, Malabar Farm: Louis Bromfield, Friends of the Land, and the Rise of Sustainable Agriculture.

The book explores the life and legacy of a famous, Pulitzer Prize-wining novelist who became an Ohio-based, hard-partying prophet of a new kind of agriculture in the post-war era. It’s fascinating story that involves everything from Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall to wild parties, boxer dogs and techniques that now make up the foundation of sustainable agriculture.

Abbott studied plant and soil science at The Ohio State University. She ran a Michigan CSA for four years. She’s now a graduate student in the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Seeds of the Future

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 The Organic Seed Grower, by John Navazio. This book is produced by Chelsea Green Publishing and is reprinted with permission from the publisher.

Over the past decade it has become apparent that there’s a real need for a comprehensive guide to growing organic vegetable seed. For some time now it has been obvious to dedicated practitioners of organic farming that, to be in harmony with the philosophical underpinnings of organic agriculture, it’s important to use seed produced using organic practices. This same dedication to organic principles is integral to the mind-set of a number of worldwide organic certification agencies’ governing bodies, all of which have added an organically grown seed requirement since 2002. Of course such regulations can’t be implemented overnight, but the very existence of the rules has dramatically increased the market for, and use of, certified organically grown seed. Several other important factors are also creating the increased interest in growing seed among organic farmers, though, and these are based on more than just the economics of supply and demand.

What the Growers Need

For instance, there is a growing awareness among many organic vegetable farmers that we need a reliable supply of high-quality organic seed that’s truly adapted to the challenges found on organic farms. What’s more, astute farmers—those with years of experience under their belts—are increasingly realizing that the number of vegetable varieties suited to their operations is diminishing. Growers are seeing a real narrowing of the vegetable varieties that are commercially available, due in large part to the consolidation that has taken place within the seed industry.

A series of corporate mergers among the most important seed companies has been ongoing since the 1970s, and the trend has only accelerated in the past decade. Whole market classes of vegetable varieties are being lost as an inevitable result of this. Many varieties that have a certain specific climatic or cultural adaptation, or perhaps have specific market traits that are considered limited in their sales potential for the new corporate owners, are cut from a company’s sales list and replaced with varieties that have more universal appeal.

In almost all cases, the varieties that remain are those exceptionally well suited to high-input production systems and geographic areas with ideal climates. The varieties that are dropped are the ones less well suited to large-scale centralized agricultural areas. It goes without saying that a large percentage of diversified organic growers are producing vegetables regionally, across the many and varied climates of North America, and not under the ideal cropping conditions nor with the high external inputs that are taken as a given by large-scale conventional farmers.

Amid this climate of consolidation and diminishing choices, there is also the fact that varieties in many crops have been reduced almost exclusively to F1 hybrids. While it’s true that most commercial organic vegetable growers have been using a good number of F1 hybrid varieties for their market production, the standard open-pollinated (OP) varieties that have been around for years have also played an important role in many of the planting slots that make organic cropping successful. Many of these successful OP vegetable varieties were bred during a prolific era of plant breeding that extended from the late 1940s through the 1970s. And many of the best varieties from this era were carefully maintained by seed companies, becoming reliable workhorses for organic farmers—notable for their ability to produce good crops in less-than-ideal situations.

Unfortunately, a major trend in the seed industry since the 1980s has been a gradual abandonment of these varieties, leaving us with a syndrome I call “hybriditis,” where virtually every variety available in certain crop types is a hybrid. The common refrain repeated by large seed companies has been, “Hybrids are much better than open-pollinated varieties.” This has certainly become a self-fulfilling prophecy, as many of the OP varieties haven’t been adequately maintained through selection and proper varietal upkeep for many years.

Over the past decade it has become apparent that there’s a real need for a comprehensive guide to growing organic vegetable seed.

With all these factors contributing to the loss of crop diversity and crop choices, the idea of organic farmers producing vegetable seed began to gain traction in the 1990s. For some growers it was purely an act of necessity: Seed of an OP variety important for their production was no longer commercially available. For others, growing for a nascent organic seed market seemed a potential moneymaking opportunity. Still others simply felt that the seed industry was going to hell in a handbag, and it was time to take back the seed.

Many of these vegetable farmers had never considered producing their own seed before. They might have saved some of their own pea or bean seed, yes, and many were already saving seed from certain heirloom tomatoes or peppers for their markets, but growing seed of the more difficult dry-seeded crops was a different kettle of fish. Much of this process seemed to depend on technical know-how and fancy threshing and cleaning equipment, all of which made the prospect of seed growing seem completely out of reach. But necessity once again proved the mother of invention, and a number of pioneering farmers started to find ways to grow, harvest, thresh, and clean seed.

Until very recently the growing of seed was an integral part of all agricultural practice, in all agricultural societies. Growing, harvesting, cleaning, and storing seed was simply something farmers did to ensure that they could plant the same crop the following year. Keeping an eye on a crop’s performance and selecting seed from the best plants was a vital part of the process. Indeed, a farmer’s ability to maintain a good seedstock was—and still is in many parts of the world—one of the key elements in determining his or her prosperity. Maintaining a good seedstock has many parallels with maintaining good breeding stock in livestock, and both have always been good indicators of the overall health and well-being of a farm.

The model of vegetable seed companies being the exclusive purveyors of seed has really only existed for roughly the past 50 to 100 years. This model developed in the global north due to many of the same forces that were at play in the industrialization of agriculture. Growing vegetable seed commercially has become an increasingly specialized skill—one most farmers have little knowledge of—handled by large specialized companies that both do the research involved in breeding vegetable varieties and produce large quantities of seed. This seed is then disseminated through smaller distribution and retail companies that generally have little or no involvement with seed growing.

As the production of vegetable seed has become concentrated into the hands of these very few, large “production research” companies, as they are commonly known, it’s left fewer and fewer people in agriculture who possess the skills to produce high-quality vegetable seed. In a very real sense we have lost the diversity of people who know how to perform all the steps in this process, which isn’t about just growing the seed but also maintaining the variety, keeping it free of seedborne diseases, and harvesting and milling it to the point where it’s suitable for commercial use. Also, because seed companies often only breed and produce any given seed crop in one or two of its most ideal climates, few new vegetable crop varieties are adapted to a wide array of conditions—something that was once an important part of the picture when there were many more regional seed companies distributed around the world.

About the Author

John Navazio, PhD, is the senior scientist and a plant breed with the Organic Seed Alliance. He also serves as the organic seed research and extension specialist for Washington State University. John lives in Port Townsend, Washington, on the Salish Sea.

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The rEvolution of Agrimarketing

By Jorge Abrego
Advertising Director of Acres U.S.A.

It seems increasingly certain that we are currently in the greatest state of evolution – maybe even revolution – that agriculture has ever experienced. Change has become the status quo beginning with industry-wide consolidation, to increasing numbers of start-ups and agtech innovations, as companies of all sizes are responding to the needs of evolving consumers, markets and grower demands.

And it follows that agrimarketing, which is the business discipline of creating, positioning, promoting, selling and fulfilling brand, product or service offerings is necessarily also being impacted by this evolution. As the world and our industry continue to change ever more rapidly, new ideas and talent are pouring into agriculture that beckons us forward to elevate the game and the industry.

For too long, companies in the ag industry have suffered the consequences of working primarily with “ag specialists” and consultants that have limited our industry to a lack of outside influence that can stymie success and impede healthy growth. This may seem counter-intuitive but missing out on the tremendous talent and thinking that exists beyond the ag industry has caused ag to lag behind other industries in key factors related to brand development, corporate culture and digital marketing.

Building Better Brands

When your culture isn’t as “friendly” as your brand says it is. Today, end users can see into an organization more easily than ever before.  If your brand and culture don’t align, there is a dissonance between what your company says and what it does which customers can see in action, and even call out the brand promises that your culture can’t keep. Trying to build a brand on a weak cultural foundation is a recipe for failure, not just in ag, but industries across the board. Today’s consumers are already skeptical and as agrimarketers – and as consumers ourselves – we know just how cautious we can be of the messages we’re served and whether they are living up to their brand promises.

In past posts on this forum we’ve talked about building the foundation of a strong culture and if you don’t have that, what you’re presenting as a brand can be very fragile. That being said, your brand is very important and as agrimarketers, there’s definitely room for improvement regarding one of the main tenants of branding: differentiation.

Unfortunately, this is not the norm in agriculture, as the vast majority of product and company brands tend to get lost in a sea of sameness due to poor differentiation and brand strategy. Some say that in commoditized markets like ag, the need, ability and benefit of differentiating are all reduced, and therefore less important. This couldn’t be further from the truth, as shown by the many other industries that have proven the power of brand even in the most highly commoditized of environments.

Companies in other industries have constructed their brands to enable end users to experience a premium position — and ag companies and their brands can do the same. This requires finding what is sometimes called your “Onlyness” — that true point of differentiation. However, your Onlyness can’t, and shouldn’t, describe everything you do as a business. But think of it as a calling card of sorts: that element that is authentic, relevant and most importantly, and actually different. What makes you different from your competition can oftentimes be difficult to find, but it does exist. It’s easy to call out your differentiation based on innovation and growth, feeding the world, sustainability and other typical catch-all terms, but when all others are doing the same, you and your brand stand nothing to gain.

Brand Positioning vs. Brand Strategy

Agrimarketers need to understand and embrace the difference between brand positioning and brand strategy. The former is where your brand ranks relative to its competitors in the market, but the latter can ultimately determine the success or failure of even the most differentiated of brands. For the most part, agriculture has been in the habit of creating brand soup when it comes to their brand strategy. We manage more brands than we should and come up with new ones much too frequently. As a rule of thumb, if you think you need to create a new brand, 9 times out of 10, you don’t.

In ag, a branded house model beats a house of brands any day of the week. Why? Because new brands take a lot of time and investment, and they don’t come to life and create equity quickly. This is by far the costliest and least efficient way of managing brands because a number of brands requires the investment of time and effort to grow awareness and equity independently of each other. Plus, introducing a new brand to the market will fragment both your budget and your focus of attention. To this day, there are only a few organizations in the entire world who possess the marketing budgets and wherewithal to manage it properly (P&G, Nestle, Coca-Cola, etc.,) and even they are moving towards brand consolidation. 

Crop protection companies, for example, to tend run as a house of brands. This was originally done to mitigate risk if there was a failure in a newly introduced product, because it would not drag down other brands in the portfolio, including the corporate “parent” brand. While this was a strategic way to mitigate risk, it mitigated rewards as well. By contrast, in branded houses if one product does well, it reflects well on products in the portfolio and the corporate brand through association.

Another reason ag organizations typically act as a house of brands is to provide flexibility: you don’t have to come up with difficult naming architectures that work for multiple products if these products don’t need to relate to one another. But, unfortunately, a house of brands also tends to be the worst strategy for driving brand loyalty — something many in ag struggle with.

Thankfully, there is brand loyalty to be had in agriculture, but your model may not be built to generate it. Once again crop protection companies adopting a house of brands model struggle with generally lower-than-average brand loyalty which is a weakness of the model. Whereas equipment manufacturers have for the most part adopted a branded house strategy and benefit from substantially higher-than-average brand loyalty, a long-acknowledged benefit of this model. As agrimarketers, we can’t blame the customer for not being loyal if we’ve built the wrong model!

Don’t Settle for Best in Ag

By now everyone has heard of ride sharing’s wreaking havoc on the taxi industry and how “status quo thinking” cemented its place in the pantheon of cautionary tales. But the reality is that we in ag need to think about how we can progress our abilities at a rate greater than the challenges we’re facing and push our thinking beyond the status quo.

Running a business can be stressful and agriculture is fraught with uncontrollable ups and downs, but none of them are as dangerous or unsettling as falling into the trap of living the status quo. Thinking that I’ve got the answers, that I can rest on my laurels and simply do what I do is perilous to me and indeed to the entire ag industry. We know how to compete against each other but have no idea how to embrace change that can and will eventually be thrust upon us from outside of our industry as technology, consumer behavior and new business models continue to impact agriculture in dramatic ways. It’s not hard to imagine that agriculture is going to be thrown a competitive curveball by an outside industry like big tech at some point in the near future.

So, how can we equip ourselves with new and better solutions to solve problems we’ve never had to solve before?  I believe that the means by which we do so begins with looking beyond our own backyard. More specifically, while we must understand and monitor our industry partners and direct competitors, we must not consider them our primary source of learning and inspiration. If we only learned from and mimicked other agrimarketers who, in turn, are doing the same, we will inevitably find ourselves in a vicious cycle of regurgitated best practices and myopic “best in ag” thinking that only serves to protect the status quo. This isn’t to say that we can’t learn from each other, but that truly transformative innovation comes from stepping outside of our proverbial “comfort zone”.

This means constantly exploring worlds outside of ag to seek out and adopt more new practices, ideas and offerings. Offerings that can leap-frog existing and competitor best practices in areas like digital marketing, behavioral targeting, brand differentiation and cultural leadership. Offerings that improve not just our income statements but also our understanding of disruptive changes. Offerings that have already helped businesses in other industries face and overcome the challenges ag faces today and may face tomorrow.

Jorge Abrego is the Advertising Director for Acres U.S.A. and has 26 years of advertising agency and B2B media experience in the agriculture, energy and technology sectors. To get Marketing Matters articles delivered directly to your inbox on a regular basis, sign up here.

Using Weeds to Build Fertility

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 Fertility Pastures, by Newman Turner.

The best way to deal with a nuisance is to turn it to good use, especially if it is not easy or economical to get rid of it. As a student of herbs for animal health and soil fertility, I am sure this is the right approach to weeds. Consequently, for some years I have used much of my land and time in experiments on the utilization and control of the common weeds of the farm. Such experiments meant first encouraging the weeds to grow in sufficient numbers to different stages of maturity, then using them, and later controlling them in various ways. In spite of some rude comments from my neighbours, I have been able to learn that practically every weed which we regard as a pest, can be managed in such a way as to make use of it at certain stages of the rotation and to eliminate it at others.

Couch is about the only exception. For, though it has valuable medicinal properties, being a tonic to kidneys, bladder and reproductive system, with anti-sterility powers, it doesn’t readily share a field with other crops. It prefers a virtual monopoly of the soil, and therefore if ever it is to be used it will probably only be as a separate permanent crop and not in conjunction with other domestic crops; and that may quite well be a possibility, for I believe the most persistent things in nature are persistent for a good purpose if only we can find it. But our task at present is to be rid of it, and the only really effective way to do that is to have a summer fallow—a practice which lost favour during and since the war. But if couch has no other purpose than to make us take a summer fallow now and then, it has a value. I still believe the biblical sabbath year is an essential of good husbandry.

The nettle, Urtica dioica, with green leaves grows in natural thickets.

Creeping Thistles, the next most troublesome weed, can be used and at the same time eliminated in a silage crop. A lucerne mixture is the best for this purpose. Thistles are a good source of protein and also have a beneficial effect on the breeding capacity of animals. A district officer of the Agricultural Committee told me that the highest protein silage he had seen was made from a mixture predominantly of thistles. A lucerne mixture sown on a thistly field will eliminate the thistles in three years of cutting for silage two or three times a year. But the thistles should be allowed to grow nearly to maturity each time before they’re cut, for the destruction to be complete. Thistles in grassland can also be cleared by allowing them fully to grow and mowing in July. Most of us encourage our grassland thistles by cutting them too soon and so encouraging the root development.

Nettles are one of the richest known sources of protein in nature, and for this reason of all weeds the nettle offers probably the best possibilities for development as a commercial crop. Comfrey, the greatest yielder of protein, is already accepted as a farm crop, thanks to the recent researches of Mr. Lawrence D. Hills and the Henry Doubleday Research Association. Nettle hay is well known as a food for goats, and I have made excellent silage for cows from a mixture of nettles and comfrey. As with thistles, nettles may also be destroyed when and where necessary by repeated cutting at maturity—not during the earlier growing stages which, as with thistles, strengthens the root system.

Comfrey is a subject in itself. It is now being used increasingly for pig and poultry feeding and as silage for cattle, being perhaps the heaviest yielding ‘weed’ in existence when properly cultivated. My present farm is infested with the Russian variety which was used extensively here, during the 1890’s, to feed a large stud of horses. I am developing it now for cattle silage and compost material.

Comfrey (Symphytum spp.) is a herb, which has been used as a folk remedy for many years.

Docks are valuable as deep-rooting suppliers of minerals and trace elements, but in very limited numbers: for docks so quickly get out of hand. Again, they can be eliminated by cutting at maturity—just before they go to seed. And, believe it or not, even the disc harrow can destroy both docks and thistles if it is used thoroughly enough. The discs must be used alone and not in conjunction with the plough. I have destroyed a complete carpet of thistles by repeated discing until the young thistles were reduced each time almost to pulp. Docks can similarly be destroyed by cutting up the growing crown, while it still grows, leaving the root to decay in the ground. It is when the dock is brought to the surface by ploughing and then cut into pieces with the disc harrow that it is multiplied. Of course, the safest and surest way with docks is the sheer hard labour of pulling or digging—a costly job these days.

Persicaria or Red-Shank is another weed that makes good silage— and mowing once before it seeds will get rid of it. I have used and eliminated persicaria in two ways: by sowing oats and vetches and cutting the mixture of oats, vetches and persicaria for silage, just before the persicaria seeds; and by using the persicaria as a green manure on an unsown field— i.e. allowing it to grow to a leafy stage then discing it in as a green manure—repeating the operation three times between April and September. The same treatment is effective with Fat Hen.

Charlock, though it is a nuisance in a corn crop, makes good silage for milk cows—especially mixed with lucerne or vetches; and it can easily be controlled by taking a silage crop. I have even rid a field of charlock, which swamped out a crop of kale, by cutting it and carting it to the cows in place of kale. In autumn, before they have tasted the real kale, they will eat it wilted—though they won’t readily come back to it after kale.

Weeds, like Chickweed and Groundsel, have provided me with thousands of tons of green manure for discing in between crops, and being annuals they rarely become a nuisance.

The tendency to destroy all weeds indiscriminately, especially by means of poison sprays, is a policy of despair now that the buckrake and green crop loader have made silage-making—a sure method of controlling weeds—so easy. Good husbandry surely demands a more intelligent study of the utilization and control of these sources of fertility and health. I am continuing on my present farm experiments on weed utilization and control begun at Goosegreen—and I may say that I start with a wonderful array of well-established crops of many varieties!

About the Author:

Frank Newman Turner was a visionary. He founded The Farmer, the first organic quarterly magazine “published and edited from the farm,” won the Great Comfrey Race, initiated by Lawrence D. Hills in 1953, was a founder member of the Soil Association, and became the first president of the Henry Doubleday Research Association (HDRA), now the world’s largest organic horticultural association. He later became a leading medical herbalist and naturopath and published magazines promoting natural health care and organic principles.

More By This Author:

Herdsmanshipan in-depth look at the cornerstones of cattle longevity, which could be the key to success in breeding and reproduction in cattle.

Cure Your Own Cattlea how-to guide for holistic and natural cattle care.

Also be sure to check out Newman Turner’s Classics Collectionfeaturing all four of his timeless books.

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