Publish Date: Spring 2013

In February, over 75 organic farmers gathered at Brietenbush hot springs for the 11th annual Farmer to Farmer Exchange. The gathering provides a relaxing and inspiring venue for farmers to share tips and travails from another year of organic production and direct marketing.

Oregon Tilth and Organically Grown Company supported the two-day Exchange, keeping the price down for attendees. Following are some of the insights and practical tips shared.

Seeds

During the session on seed saving, some of the more experienced seed growers and breeders argued that open-pollinated varieties have the potential to compete with hybrids but that most research and development funding is spent on hybrids.

Growers discussed some challenges of saving seed in commercial rotations. Seed crops must stay in the ground longer and can interrupt rotation planning

Overhead irrigation can cause problems as many seed crops won’t dry down well, or develop diseases if they continue to receive overhead irrigation.

Farmers must also consider cross-pollination. Pinning maps can help seed growers maintain varietal integrity by ensuring that different varieties of the same species will not outcross.

To avoid in-breeding depression, growers recommended saving seed from at least 100 good plants for out-breeding crops like broccoli, spinach and onions and at least 20 good plants for in-breeding crops like peas, beans, tomatoes and peppers.

One grower showed a simple seed cleaning setup for small dry. Seeds were cleaned by rubbing them on a variety of rough surfaces, then winnowed using a box fan and staggered containers to catch seed and chaff. Fan speed was adjusted according to seed size. A variety of seed screens were used for final cleaning.

Growers discussed the Northern Organic Vegetable Improvement Collaborative (NOVIC - http://eorganic.info/novic/), which is working with growers to collaboratively breed broccoli, snap peas, winter squash, carrots, sweet corn and peppers in organic systems. Organic Seed Alliance (www.seedalliance.org/), is working to re-invigorate locally adapted seed systems.

Aha’s!

One producer formed a multi producer CSA model,adding bread and eggs to her veggie boxes. CSA recipients loved the additions.

Another producer reported successfully spraying cucumber beetles with a kale clay used for coddling moth. He used one pound per gallon with a backpack sprayer.

A farmer’s market veteran reported that more tastings increased sales, while another producer explained that their best source of farm labor came from an influx of on-call educators, DIY’ers and volunteers through Friends of Family Famers. Another grower cautioned that non-family members must have certification to drive many kinds of on-farm equipment.

Farming with your partner

Many farmers manage their business with their partners. Most successful partnerships identify clear roles for each.

Small farms are uniquely all-encompassing businesses. Growers agreed that as farm work is never finished, the relationship must be prioritized in order to maintain it.

Equipment

Farmers compared notes on a wide range of tools . One grower passed around a short hand hoe made from scrap wood, scrap inner tube and scrap metal flashing from pallets. Japanese Ko gama hand hoes are also inexpensive and popular. Some farmers joked that their favorite tools for very fine weeding are still old spoons from the thrift store.

Steel in the Field, A Farmer’s Guide to Weed Management Tools, edited by Greg Bowman was recommended as a timeless read. This is free from www.SARE.org.

SpeedglasTM on a welding mask helped one farmer improve his welding skills. The same grower increased efficiency hooking up equipment by installing a hydraulic top link on the tractor 3-point and is considering a top and tilt system that also has a hydraulic leveler.

A garlic grower and breeder demonstrated a hand-held garlic dibbler, which makes holes for five rows in a 36” bed and is made out of scrap walnut.

A couple farmers praised the strawberry harvesting carts from Glacier Valley. For harvesting greens someone attached two pieces of 11” PVC for wheels to a seat, so they can scuttle along cutting greens without crouching.

Electric Allis Chalmer G tractors remain popular. One farmer envisioned developing something like the old GE Elek-Trak tractors from the early 1970’s with an extra bank of batteries for operating power accessories He thought that with a 36 or 48 volt motor it might be possible to belly mount a 38” BCS tiller on an electric AC-G.

One grower recently bought an inexpensive potato “middle buster” for hilling and undercutting potatoes. Another more experienced grower recently upgraded to a Checchi and Magli potato digger.

In the packing shed, one young farmer pointed out that the more farmers can group individual items (i.e. wash and wrap 6 bunches of carrots at a time, rather than one) the quicker their work will be.

One grower was frustrated carrying tools, supplies or crops when driving the tractor. He welded some all thread onto the tractor and bolted on a vegetable crate for storage, and also bolted an old ammo box onto the fender to carry wrenches and hand tools.

Another farmer praised the specialized tools available at Buckeye Tractor Co. in Ohio and Market Farm Implements in Pennsylvania. Another made a bed shaper, which operates like a metal sled attached to their 3-point hitch. It creates a 48” bed top after tilling with their 58” tiller. One equipment enthusiasts recommended using cone wheels to guide aggressive cultivation equipment during the season.

Pack-out

Growers discussed efficiency, infrastructure, water and food safety, consistency and quality control during a session on pack-out.

The concept that “the more you pick it up, the more expensive it becomes” came up a number of times. Packing straight from field to market is highly efficient, but may not meet food safety recommendations. Growers debated the pros and cons of whether to bunch root vegetables and greens in the field or in the packing house.

Growers also talked about how to keep things cool on the farm. A new pack house and long narrow cooler with doors on each end have helped with efficiency on one farm. One farm stand has an enclosed, insulated room that is cooled with an air conditioner. Another farm uses a cool 3,000 gallon water tank in an insulated building that maintains an air temperature of 55 °F year round for storing crops. Many growers expressed interest in root cellars for storage. One farm uses a cargo container with a dehumidifier for storage. Another uses bulk crates in a basement with fans and a dehumidifier. The proper temperature and humidity for storing squash can be found in an article by WSU’s Carol Miles (csanr.wsu.edu/publications/SPNW/SPNW-v5-n3.pdf).

Moveable table and packing equipment provide more room and flexibility for one farm. As labor is so expensive, purchasing a machine for the packing line can sometimes pay for itself within a year.

A big topic of discussion was what to do about wash water for food safety and GAP certification. Tsunami® 100 parasitic acid and Sanidate 5 are two products growers are using in their dip tanks. Big concerns are worker protection when handling these products and correct dilutions.

Farmers spent a lot of time discussing bunch sizes and how to keep them consistent during pack-out. Farmers use either weight, count or twist ties to ensure consistency.

Growers talked about CSA pack line efficiency and quality control. Many farms bunch greens to avoid plastic bags and weighing time. To minimize the amount of lifting and twisting during pack out some lines have stock bins on the back of tables that are tilted towards the worker, others have stock bins on top of pallets. To avoid mistakes and missing items one farm standardizes the position of every item in the box and the last person makes sure everything is there. One farmer weighs as few items as possible to increase efficiency and uses an assembly line with skate tables.

Labor

Most growers agree that putting a lot of energy into the hiring process pays off. Some farms invest in comprehensive trainings that convey specific expectations of the job, while another farm conducts a “show and tell session” at the interview where they assess a potential employee’s knowledge of equipment and tools. One farmer uses a three-day training period. Another suggested asking employees about their entire skill set to see how else they can help on the farm.

Farmers grappled with the question of how to find and retain middle managers. A few long-term farm managers at the session explained that they have stayed because they feel respected, enjoy a degree of independence, and continue to learn and grow. Better pay, medical and educational benefits are other ways to retain managers.

A couple of farms participate in the Agricultural Justice Project (AJP), a non-profit initiative to create fairness and equity in our food system through the development of social justice standards for organic and sustainable agriculture. These farmers developed a wage system and chart to give employees information on opportunities for advancement.

Incentives that farms offer beyond pay include produce, no interest loans, books, knives, wine and chocolate and rain gear. Farm lunches foster camaraderie and help with retention and morale.