Author: Maud Powell, Small Farms Program, Oregon State University & Andrew Rodman, Oregon Tilth
Publish Date: Spring 2015
The annual Northwest Farmer to Farmer Conference is an opportunity for organic producers to convene at Breitenbush hotsprings and share hard-won knowledge and experience about farming. Following are some highlights from the conference in note form.
During the “Aha’ session, farmers shared revelations and innovations from the past season. These include:
- One farm adopted a flex crew for extra work. They placed an ad on a website and claimed that it was the best thing they ever did. All human drama was squashed, and the “city people” were great at doing physical labor. Many of them are desk-bound and really enjoy getting outside and working.
- Another farmer discussed the value of confronting and dealing with problems as they come up. While he found it challenging to have hard conversations, direct communication helped the farm in general.
- One farmer commented on her success with beneficial insects, including lacewings and ladybugs, and commented that they are just as efficient as broad-spectrum insecticide.
- Another farmer who had used a shovel hoe for many years switched to a colinial hoe. He found that he could work the top micro layer more than with the shovel hoe and also work closer to plants. The colinial hoe can be ordered in the Johnny’s catalog.
- One farmer discovered wearing latex gloves under work gloves for warmth. Someone else suggested using nitrile gloves instead to avoid an allergic reaction.
- A farmer described his success in selling weeds at market. Chickweed and miner’s lettuce are novel and nutritious offerings. He also sold mullein to herbalists.
- One farm put a bounty on gophers as an incentive to get the crew trapping gophers.
- Someone else found that remay kept thrips off of their onions
- A farmer explained that using a CoolBot (walk-in cooler controller) in her tomato storage area kept fruit flies down and tomatoes storing longer.
- An older farmer cautioned the group to include quality of life in long-term decision making and encouraged others to take care of their bodies
- Another farmer keeps a note on her desk to remind herself to praise her staff regularly. She stressed the importance of giving positive affirmations to her workers.
Some key points discussed at the session on Crop Rotation include:
- When dealing with the pathogen “club root”, note that pH is a big factor. Lime to 6 or 7 will help suppress it.
- A successful rotation for one farm is Year 1: brassicas; Year 2: cucurbits/potatoes/onions/leeks; Year 3: Greens; Year 4: Cover crop (red clover/grass) or chickens, buckwheat or Sudan grass.
- Never plant strawberries where you had solanaceae (nightshades) the year before.
- Potatoes and winter squash intercrop well with vetch or Austrian peas.
- To avoid blight in potatoes, choose varieties, like a 65 day variety.
- Non-irrigated crops have less weed pressure with a shorter length of time to harvest.
Labor and Crew Harmony Highlights
- Deal with uncomfortable situations directly. Be blunt with people, even if this is not your personal style.
- Farmers are generally not natural people managers. Don’t take it personally when people are under stress. That’s the nature of low-wage jobs. Be clear and firm with directions.
- Perseverance is important.
- Many younger farmers will want to leave to start their own operations. Be transparent about your farm’s finances. Offer profit sharing.
- Valuable insights on employee management can be accessed via www.projects.nytimes.com/corner-office and www.manager-tools.com
- Offer staff meeting times that are regular. Even a five minute check-in can be invaluable. Since not everyone has access to email to review notes, post paper copies in an accessible location.
- Regarding farm worker cohesiveness: offer a time and place for crew events and gatherings. Be aware of cultural sensitivities. Building staff cohesion may be difficult across ethnic lines. Daily check ins can help.
- One farm reported that they offer half hour meetings on the clock. It pays off in the long run.
- Some good resources to find workers are www.goodfoodjobs.com for employees and www.wwoof.net/ for interns. Working interviews are the most effective.
Tips for Attracting Workers
- Seek workers with demonstrated resiliency and positive attitude. One person can drag down the rest.
- During the interview, ask if the applicant has played team sports or been in a musical band. These are indicators that they have the ability to get along with other/ Have they done physical activity that demonstrates endurance?
Dealing With Cultural Differences on the Farm
- Some women farmers report problems obtaining respect as people managers with all-male farm crews.
- One woman suggested that during worker orientation, female managers should be shown respect and deference in front of entire crew.
- Recognize that many Latino are less assertive. This can be an obstacle in building crew cohesiveness.
- One farmer noted a difficulty getting Latino worker to enter their house, even if they were bleeding.
- Regarding the language barrier, foster greater understanding to make sure that directions are clearly understood, and to avoid the perception that blame is being assigned.