One-Day University at S&S Homestead on Lopez Island, WA in May “Our specialty is health; our product is people.” With these words, Henning Sehmsdorf opened the One-Day University held at S&S Homestead on Lopez Island. Sixteen farmers gathered from … Continue reading
Skagit Flats Farm
Mount Vernon, WA
September 9, 2015
The Skagit Valley provided a blue-bird day as 31 farmers descended upon Skagit Flats Farm to spend a day with farmer Andy Ross. Attendees came to learn how he has grown his successful farm business, covering all aspects of his operation. Andy has been in production for 14 years and only sells wholesale to produce distributors and directly to local grocery stores. He estimates that 70% of what he produces on his 20 acres goes to a distributor based in Seattle. He will also complete deliveries to the Skagit Valley Co-op. Andy’s basic philosophy is that farming isn’t all about profitability, but it has to be profitable to continue. If there is to be a future for farms that operate on less than 20 acres, then they need to be making a decent living.
Skagit Flats is a certified organic farm that focuses on growing lettuce and squash as well as some bush beans, broccoli, cabbage and cucumbers. Since he began farming at his current location, Andy steadily increased the amount of acreage he had in production – doubling it about every 2-3 years. At this point in time, he feels like he’s at the scale that he wants to be. He attempts to have long rotations that include a year of fallow to reduce disease pressure. Ideally, he’d love to have longer rotations and be able to keep portions of acreage in long term cover crop. Andy also spent time with attendees going over his choice of tractors and implements. He also strongly vouched for diamond hoes from Earth Tools and their great ergonomics for weeding. As for irrigation, Andy uses microsprinklers (from Hamilton Sprinklers in Omak, WA), as well as a reel system.
Besides the beans, everything is transplanted by hand. Harvest is also completed by hand with most produce field packed if possible. Andy has two full-time employees that have worked with him for 7 years and he hires on 5 full-time workers during peak season. Andy shared that if a farmer has good employees, the goal-wage should be greater than $9 per hour.
The whole production process for Skagit Flats begins with seeding trays. For lettuce, Andy demonstrated his use of a vacuum seeder, which greatly improves efficiencies considering he will plant 60, 160 cell trays a week (that’s approximately 10,000 seeds!). These flats then spend a week in a heated greenhouse followed by 2-3 weeks in one of three hoop houses. After a one week hardening off period, the lettuce starts are then transplanted into the field. Andy heavily tills his beds in order to create a loose soil structure for easy transplanting. This is a “hands-and-knees” process with lettuce plants spaced 14 inches by 14 inches. Andy estimates that it requires 20 hours a week for transplanting. Overall the whole process for lettuce takes two months from the time of seeding to the time of harvest. Andy has a goal to harvest at a rate of at least $100 per hour and if it’s less than $50 per hour, he is not being profitable.
To plan out his production year, Andy will make verbal agreements with distributors during the winter months. The agreements that Andy makes determine a target number of cases of produce that he can provide per week. He builds in a loss factor of 20% with the transplanted crops. He admits that a farmer doesn’t have much negotiating power starting out, but overtime as they prove themselves and the quality of their product, a farmer is better able to negotiate price points. That being said, even after 14 years, Andy says he is still mostly a “price-taker”, with the goal to get at least 40% of the retail price (wholesale distributor) and at minimum 50% of the retail price (if he delivers locally, 65% of retail being his ideal). Price points fluctuate during the season and are definitely affected by production in California. Andy notices that usually his prices are higher in the spring and fall, and lower in the summer when the market is a bit more flooded – but it all depends on the crop.
Overall, this workshop provided a wonderful opportunity to pick the brain of a profitable organic farm that focuses solely on wholesale markets. Andy Ross was a knowledgeable host and we hope to make a return visit soon!
Summary by Angela Anegon.
This workshop funded in part by the WSDA Specialty Crop Block Program.
WSU Eggert Organic Farm and the WSU Composting Facility, Pullman, WA
Amongst the beautiful Palouse hills in Eastern Washington, thirty farmers, agricultural professionals, and community members gathered at the WSU Eggert Family Organic Farm to learn about soil fertility and composting. This all-day workshop covered a wide range of topics to help growers assess and improve the health of their soil. Presentations by WSU research faculty and graduate students addressed biologically improving soil and assessing soil in the field, crop rotations with quinoa, soil biotic activity measures, soil mycorrhizae, and compost teas.
Dr. Lynne Carpenter-Boggs (Associate Professor of Organic and Sustainable Agriculture) began the day by demonstrating different types of soil assessments farmers can complete in their fields. Referred to as ‘shovelnomics’ in the soils world, Dr. Carpenter-Boggs explained that the best way to get to know your soil is to grab shovel and simply dig. Through digging a farmer can look at infiltration and soil texture to begin to understand what plant roots are experiencing. Soil texture is a characteristic of soil that is something a farmer inherits, and can’t easily modify through management. Aspects of soil structure can be managed and improved through practices such as growing deep root plants (to break up hard pans), cover cropping, and adding compost.
Adding to the conversation of soil assessments, Brad Jaeckel (manager of the WSU Eggert Family Organic Farm) spoke to the soil management strategies that they employ at the Eggert Farm. Primarily a teaching farm, Eggert Farm also operates a CSA program with the 2015 season being its first productive year since moving to its current (new) site. To build soil fertility, Brad explained their use of green manures and some cover crops. Since they site is relatively new, he says they plan to experiment more with summer cover crops and other cover cropping rotations and strategies. Bodh Paudel (Ph.D. candidate in Soil Science) was also on-hand to share information about the use of green manures, which at the end of the day increase soil biological activity leading to increased soil health.
The workshop group then toured the nearby WSU Composting Facility. As the facility buzzed with activity, Dr. Carpenter-Boggs explained the composting process and the use of compost as a slow release fertilizer. The compost facility produces compost at a large scale with their feed stocks coming from campus landscape services, the animal sciences department, and campus dining. She explained that since they have such large windrows, the compost gets hot enough to kill pathogens and weed seeds. The facility also solarizes the compost and allows to cure for six months to allow the compost to go thru an “acid phase” and return to a neutral pH. Dr. Carpenter-Boggs cautioned that farmers who do not compost at a very large scale need to be aware that they will likely not get a “hot” pile to kill sufficiently kill pathogens and weed seeds.
After seeing composting in action, everyone carpooled to the Zakarison Partnership, where Rachel Wieme (Ph.D. candidate in Soil Science) presented her test plots of quinoa. She is researching the potential use of quinoa in rotation with winter wheat and garbanzo, and how it affects soil biology, pest pressures, and yields. The workshop group then spent the afternoon at the WSU Vogel Science center to listen to presentations on the use of compost tea from CeCe Crosby (Ph.D. candidate in Soil Science), soil mycorrhizae from Rachel, and soil biological activity from Bodh. Time was also spent looking at various examples of mycorrhizae under the microscope as well as the microbes that are active in compost teas. From field to compost to microscope, attendees of this workshop certainly received information regarding soil fertility and biology at all levels!
To view upcoming workshops and read other workshop summaries, visit our workshop homepage.
Summary by Angela Anegon
This workshop funded in part by a grant from the WSDA Specialty Crop Block Grant Program.
Cloud Mountain Farm Center, Everson, WA
Eleven farmers and farm interns gathered at Cloud Mountain Farm Center’s incubator farm site to learn about plant breeding and seed production. The all-day workshop played host to three fantastic experts in the field. Louisa Winkler (PhD graduate student, Washington State University) spoke about the basics of plant breeding and her work with breeding oats for the Pacific Northwest. Tom Wagner (independent plant breeder) awed everyone with his immense knowledge of breeding thousands of varieties of potato and tomato. Finally, Jessica Babcock (Greenbank Farm Training Center) shared information regarding the basic process of growing vegetable seed and the use of different seed cleaning equipment.
Louisa started the day by explaining common plant breeding terms and techniques. Though she works with oat breeding (she has a variety trial at the Cloud Mountain site), the principles of working with plant genetics to create new plant varieties with desirable traits are translatable across all cultivated crops. Tom then lent his experience as a private of “free breeder”, of which he is in his 62nd year of plant breeding. Tom showed attendees the dozens of potato varieties he had growing on site – varieties that he has developed himself. He explained the process of collecting potato seed – whether from the tuber or from the potato berry (though 85% of potatoes don’t set a seed berry). It was fascinating to see all the different morphologies of the humble potato plant and having an expert describe the breeding process right in the field!
Later in the day, Tom also shared his experience with tomato breeding and gave attendees seeds to plant themselves. Tom believes in holding on to and creating plant diversity as a means to acquire a variety of desirable characteristics. He also works to ensure diversity to promote sustainable production systems. Tom is currently working with growers in Bhutan to help them breed plants for a 100% organic production system. Jessica presented on the different variety trials and seed growing contracts that Greenbank Farm complete. She spoke to the basics of growing vegetable plants for seed and the various tools and resources available to growers interested in this avenue.
At the end of the day, attendees went back into the field to learn from a current farmer at Cloud Mountain’s incubator on methods for pollinating heirloom corn. It was great to end the day in the field, in a hands-on way!
To view upcoming workshops and read other workshop summaries, visit our workshop homepage.
Summary by Angela Anegon
This workshop funded in part by a grant from the WSDA Specialty Crop Block Grant Program.
Plowsong Farm, Sequim WA
It was a blustery day near Sequim, WA as 15 farmers gathered at Plowsong Farm to learn about draft horse power for crop production from expert, John Erskine. Together with his wife, Heather, John sustainably farms the 30 acres of Plowsong with their horses. The farm is currently home to seven Shires, two Percherons, six head of beef cattle, a dozen chickens and a grumpy old barn cat. For over 40 years, John has been training, breeding and working with draft horses. He considers himself fortunate to have been mentored by several of the legendary teamsters of the draft horse world. Attendees of the workshop were definitely in the presence of invaluable knowledge! Plus, two farmers and students of John’s, Chandler Briggs (Hayshaker Farm) and Betsey Wittick (Bainbridge Vineyards), were in attendance to share their experience in using draft horses and to help teach people the basics of driving horses in the field.
John began the workshop with a common question: should I use a tractor or a horse? Though it may seem like the obvious question a farmer should ask when considering using workhorses, John explained that it is the wrong one. The true question that needs to be answered is “how do I want to live my life?” Horses are a livelihood more than a simple production tool that requires care and a relationship with the farmer outside of the field. John pointed out that horses have a 360-degree awareness, which is how a person must live and work with them. He shared that the relationship with a horse is a rewarding one – something no tractor or rototiller will ever provide. Building that relationship is something that starts day-one of interacting with your workhorse. When finding a workhorse, John explained that the most important thing to pay attention to is the horse’s temperament because that defines everything about the workability of the horse. Of course it’s important to find a healthy horse as well, but it’s not important to pay attention to the breed or color. At the end of the day, a farmer should find a horse that has a willing temperament that wants to do the work you have for it.
Not surprisingly, horses require care much different than a tractor. John went over the basics of feeding a draft horse, housing, health, and general maintenance. He also touched on the economics of using draft horse power, which boils down to scale. A person could pay thousands of dollars to outfit themselves with top-of-the-line everything, but John explained that there is no need for that. There are plenty of places to find decently priced new or used equipment and implements. Further, there is a great community of teamsters in the Northwest to get opinions regarding options for a farms particular need – whether the homestead or production scale.
Before everyone had the opportunity to practice driving horses, John explained the basics of the teamster-horse connection. The farmer is there to provide the support the horse needs to get the job done, which is accomplished by controlling the horse’s brain. A horse will respond to the farmer’s mood and emotions, so John said it’s important for a person to be aware of “the little guy behind the belly button”. If a farmer is not in the right state of mind to work with their horse, the horse will respond to the hesitation or mood, potentially making a difficult working situation. John went on to explain that horses learn by repetition and respond to a pressure-release. The pressure-release is physical, mental, and verbal. For a horse, the reward is the release of the pressure. However, you first have to ask the horse to do the task and it should never be something that they cannot accomplish. With that, if you ask them to do something you must make sure that they do it.
After breaking for lunch, attendees joined John outside to learn how to properly harness a horse, hooking equipment to insure proper draft, and finally how to drive a single horse. Attendees were first able to practice with a horse with no equipment hooked, then with a horse pulling a sled, and finally practice in the field with a plow. It was fascinating to understand a bit of the relationship and connection that must be developed to work with a draft horse. John iterated that no person can learn all there is to know about working with horses in one-day or in a lifetime for that matter. Nevertheless, John gave excellent insight in to the dynamic nature of using draft horses in farming and the bright future there is for their use on farms.
This workshop summary written by Angela Anegon, Education Coordinator. To view upcoming workshops and read other workshop summaries, visit tilthproducers.org/programs/workshops.
This workshop funded in part by a grant from the WSDA Specialty Crop Block Grant Program.
Cedar River Watershed Education Center, North Bend, WA
March 20, 2015
Over the course of a day, 15 farmers learned about successful management of both farm interns and farm employees. Five knowledgeable presenters shared tips, ideas, and resources for farmers that both currently employ interns and workers, or are exploring new ways to staff their farm. These presenters were Arwen Norman (Sky Root Farm), Tisa Soeteber (Washington State Labor and Industries), Tim Terpstra (Ralph’s Greenhouse), Doug Collins (WSU Small Farms Team), and Laura Lewis (WSU Jefferson County Extension).
Arwen Norman kicked off the day with a thoughtful presentation regarding on-farm education and internship programs. She started her farming career as an intern and subsequently had three different internship experiences. Currently a farmer at Sky Root Farm, Arwen expressed how the internship experiences were invaluable to her own education and had given her a general perspective on structuring internship opportunities. Her tips included adding formality to the process of hiring interns, having a clear balance between labor and providing education, setting goals for the interns, and giving consistent feedback based on those set goals. Since the farming season is so dynamic, Arwen suggested setting up structures for managing interns and their time well in advance of the growing season. This lessens the risk of interns having a poor experience and/or costing the farmer in terms of time or money (for instance, if they weeded up an entire bed of lettuce because the farmer didn’t set aside time to show them how to properly weed).
Four questions that Arwen left everyone in attendance to ponder when considering hiring interns were quite poignant: 1. Why do you want interns? 2. What do you expect from your interns? 3. How flexible are you in how your interns will learn (e.g. learn by making mistakes vs. being taught up front)?
4. Does your internship structure reflect your values and goals? Arwen explained that there is no one right way to run an internship program, but if a farmer is honest about answering those types of questions for themselves, they are on the right track to success.
The second presentation of the day came from Tisa Soeteber, Agricultural Employment Standards Specialist, from the Department of Labor and Industries. Tisa went over the employment standards needed for hiring interns, employees, and contractors such as wage requirements, deductions, recordkeeping, and the small farm internship project. The presentation was certainly enlightening to the requirements of L&I. Tisa was very interested in making sure all farmers understand the processes involved with agriculture employment and that the department is there to answer any and all questions. Her main concern is that farmers are in compliance with their hiring and management practices.
To begin the afternoon, Tim Terpstra, farm manager of Ralph’s Greenhouse, gave a presentation on Ralph’s hiring practices and employee management. Ralph’s Greenhouse has anywhere between 55-110 employees over the course of a year, and this season, Tim expects they’ll be at around 75 employees during the growing season. He went through the process that he and owner, Ray deVries, uses when hiring and managing farm labor. For Ralph’s Greenhouse, respect is the basis for all their hiring practices. Tim explained that the interview process looks for aspects of a person that you can’t teach. These things are character traits such as trustworthiness, honesty, and reliability. A question that Ray will ask when hiring is “if you could do anything you want, what would it be?” A person’s answer to this question often uncovers values and skills that will be useful to the farm operation in some way. Another trait you can’t teach is work ethic, and all new hires at Ralph’s Greenhouse receive a three day trial period for Tim and Ray to judge their character. It also gives the new hire an opportunity to quit the job if they feel it’s not a good fit without much consequence to the operation as a whole.
Tim gave four general guidelines that he and Ray use when hiring and managing employees. First, it is necessary to set employees up for success by plugging people into jobs or tasks that fit their strengths. Second, is being willing to let people make mistakes, because that is the best sort of on the job training. Mistakes have limits of course, but it’s the best way that they have found to truly train people. With that, he also gave the tip that teaching new skills is often easier than correcting old habits. Third, is the need to instill self-confidence in people so that they feel proud of their work and feel capable to tackle new tasks. To further aid the success of employees, Tim said it’s good to give people specific jobs that they feel some level of ownership towards. Fourth, Tim suggested preventing employees from becoming too territorial about their work, as it can cause problems within large crews. Further, it allows for flexibility within the crew. Tim shared that being an employer can often feel like being a social worker. That being said, Tim explained that the reward to being available to one’s employees is their loyalty to the farm and to the work.
Further apart of the work structure at Ralph’s Greenhouse are morning meetings. Each meeting starts with employees washing their hands and doing a few quick stretching exercises. Tim explained that the topics they cover often include the plan for the day including special projects, the weather forecast, the current state of the farm’s economics (helping employees connect their labor into the overall costs of the farm), any food safety reminders, and any pertinent current events with agricultural policies. The meeting also leaves time for employees to voice questions and concerns before they start the day. Tim noted that the first four hours of the day are usually the most productive. He explained their break policy and structure, and also explained that it’s advisable to cap the work day at 10 hours. After that, efficiency and overall morale tends to decrease, making the extra hours not really worth it to the operation.
The last presentations of the afternoon were given by Laura Lewis, (Jefferson County Director – WSU Extension), and Doug Collins, (WSU Small Farms Program). Laura presented about the FIELD (Farm Innovation, Education & Leadership Development) Program offered in Jefferson County. This multidisciplinary education program combines formal instruction on sustainable agriculture paired with field-based internships on farms within the county. This program allows individuals to receive both hands-on experience and formalized study. Laura explained that the program involved units of study including integrated farm production systems, soils and nutrition, crop production, livestock production, adding value in farm production systems, marketing and business planning, food systems, and farm infrastructure systems. Generally, all participants in the program follow the same weekly schedule which includes two days off a week, formal instruction at least once a week, and hands-on learning with the host farm on the remaining days. The program can be tailored to the needs of an individual, with the additional opportunity to earn CEUs (Continuing Education Units), or academic credit. The FIELD Program is advantageous for farms that would like to host farm interns but need the extra structure to make the experience educational. To some extent, the farm mentors act as an educational cooperative as interns across all the farm hosts will come together for workshop intensives presented by WSU or other host farms.
A similar educational opportunity to the FIELD Program is Washington State University’s Cultivating Success, a statewide program with set curriculum and a network of farm mentors. Doug explained that this program also offers the opportunity for CEUs through its various classes held at extension centers and approved on-farm internships with Cultivating Success mentor farms. In both the FIELD and Cultivating Success programs, farms are required to apply to be mentors, ensuring that participants in the programs receive a good on-farm experience. In the coming years, Doug shared that Cultivating Success will be looking to expand its online class offerings and resources for both farm interns and mentor farms.
This workshop summary written by Angela Anegon, Education Coordinator.
This workshop supported in part by the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, USDA, Grant # 2012-49400-19575. For more resources and programs for beginning farmers and ranchers please visit www.Start2Farm.gov.
A small, highly interested group gathered at Bainbridge Vineyards to sharpen their grape pruning techniques and learn about overall vine management in Western Washington. The workshop was facilitated by both Betsey Wittick (Bainbridge Vineyards) and Mike Lempriere (Perennial Vintners). For the first half the day, Betsey and Mike gave a general overview of grape growing in Western Washington and explained the overall pruning process from the equipment through where to make the cuts. They discussed the wine grape varieties which work well in Western Washington, such as ‘Madeleine Angevine’ and ‘Siegerrebe’ – both early ripening whites. Red varieties included ‘Dunkenfelder’, ‘Agria’, and ‘Pinot Noir,’ though both Betsey and Mike remarked that ‘Pinot Noir’ tends to require attention and extra care to thrive. The basic tip provided was to pick varieties that ripen well in your climate, whether for making wine or eating fresh (in the case of table grapes).
Betsey and Mike explained the different types of wine growing climates, sourcing grapes, and how to calculate Growing Degree Days (GDD) for determining the best suited varieties. Along with GDD, getting to know your site is an important first step for planting grape vines. South facing slopes are the best scenario for maximizing growth in the Western Washington climate. Betsey explained the process of preparing the soil for planting grapes and for sourcing plant material.
Grape vines that have been grafted on to phylloxera resistant rootstocks are always a good idea. It is also possible to root cuttings from pruned, one-year old wood. Betsey showed examples of one-year wood versus two-year old wood and explained the process of growing grape plants from cuttings. Once cuttings have rooted and moved to their site, the first two years you allow the small plants to develop their root system. Mike suggested irrigating for the first year, but after that allowing the grapes to find their own water. At the end of the third year, the grape plants can be put onto a trellising system and in year four, one can allow the plants to fruit. At the end of year four, the plants can be cane pruned: a technique used for early ripening varieties. This is different from spur pruning, which is common in the warmer growing regions such as Washington’s Columbia Basin and Yakima Valley. In cane pruning, the trunk is the only part of the plant that stays from year to year whereas with spur pruning, the “arms” that extend from the trunk are left on the trellising wire.
Betsey illustrated cane pruning before everyone went out to the vineyard for hands-on practice. She showed the group a grape growing poster which depicted all the tasks needed to maintain grape vines over one season – there was 27 different tasks! Betsey shared what she tells all her interns: “After you’ve grown grapes for a year, you’ll never look at a glass of wine the same way.”
Attendees spent the afternoon in the vineyards, practicing cane pruning on ‘Madeleine Angevine’ grapes – a variety that Betsey assured everyone was very forgiving. The plants had already been rough pruned (the process of pruning out extra fruiting canes from the previous season) to four, one-year old canes from which the new “arms” would be narrowed down. Both Betsey and Mike guided participants in choosing the two, one-year old canes from which the fruiting canes will grow in the coming season. These canes are bent down from the trunk, wrapped around the trellising wire, and secured with a twist tie. Sometimes canes break during this process, which is why four canes are kept during rough pruning to make sure there are back-ups. After practicing pruning, Betsey took attendees around the vineyard showing the 20+ year old block of ‘Siegerebbe’ grapes that she herself prunes. She also maintains soil fertility by using cover crops in the alley-ways between rows. The group then walked next door to Mike’s vineyard, where he explained the decisions he made in utilizing his site (a former Christmas tree farm). Mike also maintains a small nursery of grape plants.
Back at Bainbridge Vineyards the group tasted a few of the wines – a great way to end a wonderful hands-on experience! After having a glimpse of what it takes to maintain a vineyard, everyone sure appreciated the complexities of these Western Washington grown wines even more. Cheers!
This workshop summary written by Angela Anegon, Education Coordinator. Angela is excited to be planning more hands-on workshop opportunities. To view upcoming workshops and read other workshop summaries, visit tilthproducers.org/programs/workshops.
Three dozen specialty crop farmers, both beginning and experienced, gathered at Mount Vernon NWREC on January 20, 2015, to gain crop planning knowledge from facilitator Frederic Theriault, co-author of Crop Planning for Organic Vegetable Growers. Theriault farms and teaches in Les Cedres, Quebec, Canada where he is a founding member of Tourne-Sol Cooperative Farm, a 17-acre organic farm that produces vegetables, flowers, seeds, seedlings and herbal teas. It was great for Tilth Producers to make a connection within the sustainable agriculture community on an international level. Theriault not only had plenty to share from the perspective of a farmer, but he also has advanced degrees in plant sciences and agriculture and has taught at the university level. This teaching experience was apparent as he took attendees through his 11 steps to efficient crop planning, both in discussion and hands-on applications.
The entire morning was devoted to Theriault’s first 6 steps of crop planning. These included: 1) setting financial goals, 2) developing a marketing plan, 3) creating field planting schedules, 4) generating crop maps, 5) choosing varieties, and 6) generating greenhouse schedules. These steps are important as they help create expectations for the season, and allow farmers to use their profit goals as a basis for how to set up their crop plan. With each step, there was a calculation that farmers could use to set numbers to their goals and crop plan. For example, Theriault shared formulas to help farmers determine seeding rates in the greenhouse and to calculate seed needs for when they fill out their seed order (step 7). During the workshop Theriault thoroughly explained every formula and allowed time for attendees to work through examples of crop plans themselves.
The afternoon of the workshop was spent learning Theriault’s remaining 4 steps of crop planning, all of which emphasized record keeping. For instance, though step 8 is basically planting crops, Theriault stressed printing out schedules, maps, and record sheets that are organized into binders for use out in the field and in greenhouses. This way, both farmer and their employees can have access to the crop plan and be able to monitor its progress and any changes. Having field binders also makes it easy to keep notes on pest management, weather events, irrigation scheduling, and other records that will be useful for planning in the future. This led into step 9, which addresses keeping records regarding the implementation of the crop plan as well as compiling harvest and sale records. Documenting these items well allows for successful implementation of step 10: analyzing crop profitability (or gross sales analyses). Theriault spoke about calculating profitability in space (which crops are most profitable per bed foot) and profitability in time (total hours spent versus return in sales or harvest efficient crops). Calculating which crops were most profitable in space, time, both, or neither helps to determine the adjustments needed for next season.
The last step to crop planning, step 11, is making a plan for next year based on the outcome of the previous year’s crop plan. Theriault noted that excellent planning and record keeping from year to year allows a farmer to make more informed decisions when it comes to trying new crops, expanding into more acreage, or trying new marketing plans. Though farming comes with plenty of unknowns, a solid crop plan can help mitigate some risk by helping to set realistic goals.
Summary by Angela Anegon, Tilth Producers Education Coordinator. Members of Tilth Producers have online access to the formulas and handouts used in this workshop. Simply sign-in at tilthproducers.org and view on the Workshop Summary page.
This workshop funded in part by a grant from the WSDA Specialty Crop Block Grant Program.
Growers from across Washington State gathered in North Bend on January 15, 2014 to learn from fellow farmers about various types of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) operations with a focus on successful practices and marketing techniques. The presenters’ and organizers’ goal for this one-day workshop was to assist growers currently offering a CSA option to their customer base, and how to maximize their CSA’s success. Workshop attendees have been running CSA programs for many years, with weekly box counts ranging from 30 to 450 or more. Some newer, small farmers from both rural and urban landscapes are managing shares for 20 to 80 members. All of them seek to hone their skills in order to succeed in the marketplace. Farmers took the opportunity to network, ask questions, and share techniques with others in the crowded room.
Presenter Claire Thomas from the Root Connection, a veteran of the CSA model, started her CSA 28 years ago in King County near the urban centers. Now feeding 450 members, Claire shared her story, spread sheets, techniques, and farm maps. She explained why tracking information is key, and revealed summary charts that showed how each of her farm crops’ net production and costs compare to one another. The Root Connection utilizes U-pick for members to harvest some crops out of the field, reducing labor costs, and providing member customers a sense of belonging to the farm. Claire’s leadership and wisdom were evident in her successes beyond the CSA: she established community ownership of farm land, protected farm land in her region, and collaborates with others to provide an ongoing source of fresh produce for people in need.
Zestful Gardens operates a 100 to 120 member CSA in the Puyallup valley. Co-owner Holly Foster has been farming for twelve years, testing and trying many situations. She presented lessons learned, proven efficiencies, and information about machinery. Little marketing effort has been needed for Zestful Gardens to reach and maintain their customer base, which fits their farm’s overall plans. This size works well for their efforts and expected return, sustaining her family and farm. Holly noted that you don’t want everyone: you want those customers that fit with your farm. Customers pack their own box in a designated “market booth” area set up by Holly, which allows her more time and ease to connect with customers while they do the labor of handling and packing. Holistic financial planning is integral to farm management and Holly revisits the plan regularly throughout the year and in-depth annually. Commitment to the plan and discipline in revisiting its goals is key to providing Zestful Gardens a stable base for financial returns.
The third presenter, Annie Salafsky of Helsing Junction Farm, was ill and could not attend. Workshop organizers instead convened a panel of experienced farmers from those in the room to answer audience questions. Each shared experiences on a range of topics including insurance policies, which they all have shopped around for after changes were imposed. A thoughtful discussion considered how to serve low income communities. Serving poses challenges, and many farmers find solutions in connecting with local food banks. For instance, Oxbow Farm coordinates with a food bank to have gleaners come to the fields. An alternate solution was shared by Growing Things Farm, which in addition to other efforts has filled bags with produce at a farmers market and discreetly passed them to those who appear to need. They all learned from each other.
Participants provided workshop evaluations and strong feedback. Attendees reported learning from both the details and overview data, and were inspired to continue their CSA work. The connection with other farmers was valuable, and many left the workshop feeling there was more to talk about. Participants are now communicating through emails as farmers aggregate their knowledge and products and learn from each other. For workshop organizers, it was an honor to be with so many dedicated farmers.
Annie Salafsky Interview
Tilth Producers spoke after the CSA Workshop with Annie Salafsky, co-owner of Helsing Junction Farm. As a scheduled presenter, Salafsky had been ill during the workshop and could not attend as a presenter. This interview was an opportunity to capture the perspective and experience from a farmer-owner who operates a 900-member CSA across Washington state and to answer some of the questions that were most frequently asked by those in attendance.
TP: What is your approach to member retention?
Annie: We use various marketing and outreach strategies, but in the end it’s truly word of mouth. Initially we lost name recognition by not being at the Olympia farmer’s market; but now it feels like that also works to our advantage as CSA members can’t compare what’s on the farmer’s market stall versus what’s in their box. We try to focus on growing the vegetables that people really want. Also making it as easy as possible for people to pick up, use and enjoy their CSA box. Filling in with the farm’s backstory is important; many people are members because they believe in what you do and they want to feel like they are a part of it. We try to include them in every way that we can.
TP: How do you value your shares?
Annie: Pricing is a real struggle to this day. It’s hard to get comparison pricing since we don’t go to markets. We pay attention to prices when we are out in town and try to price accordingly. For many years we gave way too much food. It cost us a lot of money and in the end though it probably did help retain some members, it frightened others away. We use Farmigo, which is cloud based data management designed specifically for CSAs. We use it to build a packing list for each delivery day. It saves prices and it automatically totals the box up for you and stores the info. You can then access it in English and Spanish as both a harvest list and a packing list for your CSA boxes. We find that carefully tracking what we put in the boxes is important in order to make sure that what we grow is distributed evenly to all CSA members.
TP: What is your labor situation?
Annie: We try to make sure we’re paying our managers a good wage and that all workers are making enough that they stay. If you pay too low then turnover is high. We brought in an efficiency expert to do an analysis, which was very helpful. Pairing down to only the CSA gave us a savings in labor since we could streamline the one operation: we could add CSA members and not add a lot of additional labor. Of all the issues facing small organic farms, labor wages is one of the biggest. Since we are forced to compete in a heavily subsidized marketplace, it feels like we are unable to charge what it truly costs to produce our product.
TP: What other efficiencies did you implement?
Annie: There was one particular “Aha!” moment that led to greater efficiency: we paid attention to the miles we were driving around the farm and realized they stacked up quickly and trash our farm trucks to boot. We plan to buy a new cooler for our barn, as the savings in labor, mileage, andgas will quickly amortize. We are trying to refocus on post harvest handling, as moving forward we are going to be selling ourselves as a nutrient rich product and less as a bulk product.
We always try to make sure the delivery truck leaves the farm full.
TP: How do you manage your orders?
Annie: Since we only do CSA, our reefer and dock are very streamlined. With Farmigo, we print labels that state the CSA member’s name, the size of their share, their drop site, the date and the contents of the box if other then their basic CSA share. So that we don’t have to read each label as we deliver, each drop off location label has a unique color. Because Farmigo is cloud based (not software) all data is current in real time and can be accessed through the computer and now a cell phone app! We started farming 23 years ago (pre cell phone), so it makes us really appreciate the fact that we can call in changes via phone and not by running or riding our bike out to the field, though it sure did hone the accuracy of our orders and/or harvest list!
TP: What is your approach to share packaging?
Annie: We found a supplier in Oregon for reusable CSA boxes that are used like a corrugated cardboard box and are lightweight. This will be our fourth or fifth season using them and they have held up really well. They are pretty expensive, about $8 – $10 a box (and you need 3 – 4 boxes per customer) but they seemed to have paid off. We started charging the CSA a box fee the year we bought them (which we still do) and that really helped defray the cost.
TP: How do you handle perishables?
Annie: Post harvest handling is very important. Starting early in the morning, cutting greens and the most perishable items first. Getting what you’ve harvested into boxes and into the shade quickly. Letting greens soak. Getting everything into the reefer quickly and giving it time to cool down before shipping it out. Make sure to give your CSA members instructions on how to rehydrate the vegetables if they are wilted. We harvest fresh for each day’s CSA delivery. We deliver three days a week.
TP: Do you offer optional items to members?
Annie: We do, and we manage add-on items pretty easily with the CSA cloudware, which makes it easy to track orders. It’s not high volume, but we do purchase significant stock from our suppliers and for many we are a big account. We’ve connected with other local farms and now offer some of their complementary products too, though we grow everything that goes into our vegetable CSA boxes.
TP: How does your CSA serve low income members?
Annie: We give away a certain number of shares each year through a food bank. Also, we donate shares through an organization that provides support to foster kids and their families. Our farm stand is a really good deal. We take WIC and food stamps. We work closely with the Thurston County Gleaners who come out every Thursday after we are done harvesting for the week and take away everything salvageable. They are amazing.
TP: What issues are important to you?
Annie: Nutrient density is the next ‘local’. We need to have our produce sampled so we have hard evidence proving that local produce is more nutritious for you. Soil fertility is key. Through our own research and in conjunction with the NRCS and have learned more about compaction, cover cropping, side dressing with amendments, soil testing, trace minerals and pH. Another important issue for us is that farm owners and workers be paid fair wages for their labor. My husband is a carpenter and the starting wage in his field is $15 – $17, something we can only dream of at this point in farming.
TP: How does the future look for you?
Annie: I feel more passionate and engaged than ever. Every year seems more interesting as I delve deeper in. Currently we’re focused on learning to care better for our soil. Farming is actually a form of mining and as stewards of some of the limited amount of arable land in our county, we feel responsible to not just sustain our fertility but to build upon it. What is farming, if not a symbiosis between people, plants, soil organisms, wildlife and all the other myriad factors that intertwine to feed us.
A small band of able and strong attendees gathered at Persephone Farm for a hands-on “crop mob” on June 16, 2013. Sponsored by Tilth Producers of Washington and the Washington Young Farmers Coalition, farmers Louisa Brown and Rebecca Slattery, along with their crew, led this all-day workshop with the goal of bringing experienced and beginning growers together to learn and accomplish some of the many tasks essential for success. Attendees were guided through a rotation of stations, each focused on one of the activities involved in Persephone Farm’s vegetable production. Great swaths of beds were cleared of weeds large and small, garlic harvested, new beds were planted, and potato rows were mulched with fortifying decaying leaves.
It was all-hands-on-the-crops, as the farmers described weeding methods while the group cleaned the beds. While hands were kept busy, their owners were absorbing new information while they worked. The variety of activities provided an array of learning experiences; everyone left with new skills and knowledge. One participant noted that the most significant thing he gained was “the confidence to dig into weeding with Louisa.” Others noted they learned about harvesting edible weeds and careful weeding practices.
This farm’s detailed management and intensive cultivation methods produce abundant local food sold at farmers markets, restaurants, to CSA members, and on-farm pick-ups. The group worked in rows which revealed a multitude of greens used in the colorful Persephone salad mix, sold to area restaurants and included in CSA boxes. Participants helped plant seedlings within a staggered regime for continuous harvest. Low tunnels are utilized to provide a good return and early harvest opportunity.
The farmers answered questions about watering and their irrigation system, seedling management, soil fertility, and sales. They described the stacking functions of the flower crop – including robust sales for weddings – and benefits for the farm by attracting pollinators and creating habitat for beneficial insects. The Persephone growers talked about the need to adapt continuously and find what works for each crop, market, season and area of the farm.
In the last minutes of the day, the group kicked into high gear and “mobbed” and powered through mulching the potato crop. At the end the results were noticeable and Louisa turned on the watering system to settle it all in. Everyone gathered on blankets to enjoy an evening potluck feast, featuring a giant, green salad from Persephone’s fields and a farm-grown egg and leek bread pudding. Rebecca really meant it when she said she loves to cook with food from the fields! The crew and farmers marveled at the accomplishments and thanked the participants for their helping hands. They noted and appreciated that many of the workers were farm hands themselves, sharing their services on a “day off.”
More than 20 people came together at Skipley Farm in Snohomish for a Tilth Producers and Washington Young Farmers Coalition–sponsored, hands-on, all day workshop on May 11, 2013. Billed as a “crop mob” event, attendees were drawn to the event to learn farming techniques and to collaborate with other farmers.
On a warm day, a variety of folks joined the Skipley farmers to learn about perennial and annual food production while putting their hands in the soil. In the spirit of helping fellow farmers, participants expressed a keen desire to help out the Skipley crew.
Introductions confirmed we were a diverse group, with some coming from as far away as Royal City and Everson, and others having not yet farmed. The experienced and new farmers joined in for a ‘mob walk’, during which Skipley farmer Gil Schieber described notable aspects of the farm and which areas needed attention. Then we dropped to our hands and knees to weed as a ‘mob.’ In short time great swaths were liberated, allowing perennial berries and rhubarb breathing room from the rapidly approaching May weeds. Gil demonstrated that leaving pulled weeds (without seed heads) around the plant bases serves as mulch to slow down weed growth and trap in moisture. Intern Tesla Gift shared his appreciation and exclaimed a number of times throughout the day, “Thank you guys; this is SO helpful!”
The farm lay-out is varied and diverse. An irrigation pond is centrally located on a rise. Nearby, Gil explained an ongoing Hugglekulture project, laying down great amounts of wood debris to create more habitat, receive on-farm organic debris, affect the terrain, and create a future planting area that will be nourished by the decaying matter beneath.
Skipley Farm is host to numerous innovative techniques: propagating practices that graft fruit trees for performance; planting multiple varieties for resilience to varying conditions; utilizing space among young orchard trees for heat-sensitive crops; raising fish in an aquaponics set-up, and more. Gil’s many years of experience as an educator, landscaper, horticulturist and permaculturist are evident in his mere five years of building Skipley Farm.
For the bulk of the day, participants were divided into smaller groups to rotate among ‘action stations’. Activities included working in the nursery, managing strawberry beds, prepping planting areas for vegetable production, and tying up apples. Farmers Vince Caruso and Chris Homanics provided expertise and inspiration. Gil explained that the dwarf varieties of apples are ready to produce a crop for a good return on capital. Tying their branches into a horizontal position encourages more fruit production, utilizing the phenomenon of apical dominance.
While ‘potting on’ blueberries, currants and jostaberries, participants learned Gil’s potting soil recipe and techniques to care for the roots of blueberries: in the Ericacea family, they do not like to be disturbed, and he advised not tugging on roots when re-potting. We shared ideas while keeping our hands busy.
Strawberry farmer Deborah Lubbe came from Everson to see how Gil grows his berry varieties, and shared information on her crops and techniques. Petrina Fisher, a newer farmer from Snohomish, came ready to learn about fruit production as she’s moving her farm into more perennial crops. Despite the heat, people plugged on and accomplished a great deal of work while learning. When we finished our work and settled into a delicious pot of soup cooked by Tea Lopez, farmer Gil was still climbing around his green house rafters. When I asked his intern Sam what Gil was doing, he said that Gil was so excited by the productivity of the day that he just had to keep on going. We shared stories over dinner around a bonfire and the falling darkness of night.
Evaluations revealed that people felt great camaraderie and learned a variety of techniques to handle perennial crops.