Thursday, November 19, 2009

Indiana farmer devises innovative field to market method for small produce farms

After working nights in a factory job, Kevin Cooley is realizing his dream and creating new field to market methods for small produce farms at Cooley Family Farms in Lafayette, IN.

Several years ago Cooley and his wife, Tracy, realized that his manufacturing management job was taking him away from their family and their dream to keep close to the soil and his roots. They decided to expand their gardens to a scale large enough to become Cooley’s full-time occupation.

Through the help of a 2005 Farmer Rancher grant from NCR-SARE, Cooley is designing, building, and testing a washing system, including machines and plastic crates, to reduce the labor requirements needed to harvest, prepare, package, and transport various kinds of fresh produce.

“Using this machine, reductions can be made in the time needed to wash produce that had to be harvested in less than ideal conditions, like green beans covered with dirt from a recent downpour,” said Cooley.

“While attending the Purdue University Horticultural Congress a few years ago, I heard a gentleman talk about how he had received a SARE grant to do some research on season extension,” explained Cooley. “I had the idea, but we lacked the funds that would be needed to try these ideas. I visited the SARE website and learned about how SARE could make it possible to bring the ideas to life.”

Making small produce farming more effective was a primary goal of Cooley’s project. “It was important to me in the concept of this project to reduce labor needs, which would allow for a single operator to accomplish more by doing multiple tasks -- this is being realized. I have learned that our crate based system can save time and money by reducing redundant handling of produce between the field and the marketplace.” said Cooley.

Cooley used the obstacles that accompanied his research and experimentation as learning experiences. “When you hit a road block or difficult period you should stop and look at the purpose of the project and what it will improve for your farm. This will help to refocus and rethink what needs to be done and how to restart.”

Cooley's Project was recently featured in Vegetable Grower's News. Read the piece here.

To read more about the SARE project involved, visit the SARE reporting website at

KSU Students Practice Sustainable Agriculture Techniques at Student Farm

Source: High Plains/Midwest Ag Journal


Growing oyster mushrooms in recycled dorm lofts is one way that Kansas State University students are learning about sustainable farming practices through hands-on work and research projects at a K-State student farm.

Rhonda Janke, K-State associate professor of horticulture, teaches a course on sustainable agriculture and worked with students to start the Willow Lake Student Farm in fall 2007. She said the two-acre farm, which is at the Forestry Research Farm near Tuttle Creek Dam, is a place for students to develop skills and an understanding of sustainable farming practices through hands-on learning.

"This really all began with student initiative," Janke said. "They wanted a place to practice and to really do all the things we talk about in class. I just facilitate getting the grants and the logistics set up, and the students become the managers and decision-makers in terms of what we grow, how we sell it and other details."

The farm produces a variety of vegetables, fruit, mushrooms and honey and is run by students. Besides crop production, students also conduct independent research projects.

The co-managers of the farm are: Keith Unruh-Carey, senior in horticulture, 2005 graduate of Washington High School, Kansas City, Kan.; and Brandon Gonzalez, senior in horticulture, 2003 graduate of Wichita High School East. They are doing research on oyster and shiitake mushrooms for a project funded through a Kansas Department of Agriculture mushroom grant they wrote with Janke.

Gonzalez said mushrooms typically are grown in sterile conditions, but the students are working on growing the mushrooms outdoors at the student farm by using a more sustainable approach.

"Our approach is more sustainable than having to keep the mushrooms in an area that is sterile and temperature-set," he said. "It's also a lot cheaper. Someone that might want to add extra income for themselves can do it at home and not have to purchase a lot of extra items."

Unruh-Carey said the shiitake mushrooms are grown on logs; for the oyster mushrooms, the students have created a boxed structure from recycled dorm lofts with screens to keep bugs out.

"Most outdoor grows have pest problems during certain parts of the season, so we are physically excluding them," Unruh-Carey said. "It has worked pretty well so far, and it's a good setup for people who can't justify the expense of an indoor grow room."

Gonzalez said the students are studying the best variety and the best process to grow the mushrooms. Once it is established, they will teach others their growing process.

"The idea is that we are trying to grow mushrooms in a way that we can teach the community and anyone who wants to learn, to increase the overall mushroom production in the Manhattan area," Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez said many people start at the farm as volunteers with the Willow Lake Farm Club, which has people from several academic departments who supplement the farm labor.

"You get a lot of people out there working with various levels of experience," Gonzalez said. "It involves a lot of teaching one another. People come work together and learn from each other."

He said the farm's produce is sold through several outlets, including farmers' markets, local businesses and on campus at noon Tuesdays from a kiosk east of Seaton Hall. The club also has events to educate the community about sustainable farming.

"When you're growing local food, it becomes a community venture where you're investing in community development, health and well-being," Gonzalez said. "It builds the community in every way."

Gonzalez said student research projects often stem from grants. The farm isn't financially self-sufficient yet, and the students rely on grant money and donations.

One of these projects involves Jacob Chapman, freshman in agronomy, Olathe, and Aaron Yoder, junior in horticulture, Bluffton, Ohio. They are studying tomato production with and without mulches and irrigation. They're trying to see if tomato production could be sustainable in a low-rainfall region. They wrote and received a U.S. Department of Agriculture Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education grant. Chapman is a 2008 graduate of Olathe South High School, and Yoder is a 2005 graduate of Newton High School, Pleasant Hill, Ohio.

Yoder also is assisting May Altamimi, graduate student in horticulture, Manhattan, with a project that involves comparing pac choi and tomatoes that are grown either organically or conventionally and in high tunnels or in open field conditions.

To read more about the SARE project involved, visit the SARE reporting website at

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Extension Educator Helps Hispanics

SOURCE: Yankton Press and Dakotan
Published: Saturday, November 14, 2009 12:21 AM CST


Sharon Guthmiller traveled to Mexico earlier this year, but she wasn’t a tourist.

Instead, the Yankton County Extension educator spent 12 days with a Michigan State University program learning about Latino culture. Last week, she gave a presentation to a Michigan State conference.

“My topic was understanding culture,” she said. “Understanding a person’s tradition and background is all part of the process of having them trust you.”

Guthmiller will put her experiences to use in assisting the growing Hispanic population in Yankton County.

“The Hispanics are here, and their numbers have been rising,” Guthmiller said. “I’m not sure if the numbers will keep going up, but they should at least remain stable. The Latinos are here for the long term.”

According to U.S. Census estimates, Yankton County had 524 Hispanics in 2008, accounting for 2.4 percent of the population. That compares to 395 Hispanics in 2000.

Based on the 2008 estimates, Yankton County has the fourth-largest number of Hispanics in the state and ranks among the top 10 counties for percentage of its population. Hispanics have surpassed American Indians — who stood at 480 — as the largest minority in Yankton County.

“For our community, we need to be ahead of the curve,” Guthmiller said. “We need to put away our cultural stereotypes and take a fresh perspective.”

Many people are surprised that more than 500 Latinos live in Yankton County, Guthmiller said. For the most part, the area Latinos tend to keep a low profile on the job and around the community, she said.

“In Yankton, the Latinos often live in the shadows and aren’t real visible, as far as their tendency to network,” she said. “They tend to be wary of authority and are often afraid of the police, even if they are legal immigrants.”

Hispanics play an important role in the community, and an effort needs to be made to reach out to them, Guthmiller said.

“They want to better themselves and receive the respect they deserve as individuals,” she said. “They are concerned about their economic well-being. They need access to education, health care, housing and transportation.”

The Hispanic children are part of the local school system, Guthmiller said.

“The children are resilient. They come to the United States and make the transition,” she said. “But when families move here, or the children are born here, they become Americanized and often don’t want to go back home. The families become a combination, between the children who are Americans and the parents who are here but not necessarily permanent residents.”

When it comes to health care, Latinos could be affected more than other segments by the H1N1 outbreak, Guthmiller said.

“Hispanics tend to live in large households, and there are H1N1 concerns with the common living arrangements,” she said. “In Michigan, they would have 10 to 12 people living in a small confined area, that could help spread the flu and other health problems.”

Hispanics consider themselves part of the local fabric, Guthmiller said.

“Hispanics are saying they are as American as you or I. They see one ‘America’ for the whole continent,” she said. “Latinos are starting their own oral histories and recording their own stories.”

Latinos need acceptance into the community, Guthmiller said. “We need to be consistent with our message,” she said.

South of the Border

The trip to Mexico helped Guthmiller put a face on Hispanics and their needs. Her participation in the Michigan State trip grew out of classes she has taken at Iowa State University.

“The classes deal with the international perspective on poverty,” she said.

Guthmiller found a common denominator regardless of nation or race. “The face of poverty is the same in all cultures,” she said.

Guthmiller learned of the Mexican trip through the North Central Region of the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE).

“The trip was open to farmers, educators and others,” she said. “We were immersed in the Hispanic culture for 12 days.”

Guthmiller received culture shock upon landing in Mexico City. She didn’t speak Spanish and immediately found herself at a loss at communicating with others and using the local currency.

“We were suddenly removed from a culture that we were comfortable with and that was familiar to us,” she said. “Now, we knew what immigrants felt like.”

Guthmiller found poverty upon entering Mexico City, with shacks built on hillsides.

The group spent part of its time in rural areas, learning about indigenous people and an archaeological site with ancient Mexican history. An interpreter helped with the 60 dialects of indigenous languages.

Guthmiller quickly found similarities between rural Mexico and the rural Midwest.

The rural areas are suffering from an out-migration of young people to the cities, she said. The rural areas are seeking to create jobs and start industries that will keep young people or attract those who move away, she said.

In the villages, families ran sustainable businesses such as rug making using simplistic looms. Other villagers created toys.

“Private companies were offering $100 loans to start them off,” Guthmiller said. “If they could prove they were making good, they would receive up to $1,000 in loans.”

Even with such efforts, villagers still find it difficult to make a living, Guthmiller said.

“Many Mexicans come to the United States so they can earn dollars and send money home, so they can build their mom and dad a brick home,” she said.

Besides dealing with unemployment, some rural areas of Mexico find difficulty maintaining an infrastructure, Guthmiller said.

“Their source of spring water was piped to holding tanks,” she said. “They were allowed to use water two hours a day.”

Guthmiller noted cultural values while in Mexico. Traditional family roles remained prominent, particularly in the villages.

“Men were hunters and gatherers, and the women’s role was more for family stability and going to the marketplace,” she said.

Women often remained in the home, Guthmiller said. That trait was noticeable at a large meal served at an outdoors tent.

“The women who fixed the meal stayed in a house, away from the crowd,” she said. “We had to go inside to see them and thank them for the meal.”

The Hispanic culture is very family-oriented, Guthmiller said. “The first thing the leader of our group asked was ‘How’s your mother?’ It’s all part of their emphasis on family,” she said.

One morning, Guthmiller noticed children walking hand in hand to school.

“They were dressed very neatly. They were just clean and impeccable,” she said. “They were walking to school with their grandparents, their siblings and older persons. It was inter-generational, with respect for all ages. In Mexico, the young show respect for the older generation. The older care for the very young.”

Mexicans also honor their guests, Guthmiller said. She noticed the streets were lined with triangle flags and was told the display was in her group’s honor.

“The village was welcoming us with flags,” she said. “It was unbelievable.”

Religion also plays a major role in Mexican life, she said. Most of the population is Catholic, and Mexico City had a big cathedral located in a government square. On St. Valentine’s Day, bands and orchestras played, and people crowded the marketplace.

And plenty of people could be found in Mexico City, one of the largest cities in the world, Guthmiller said. Despite the traffic congestion, Mexican drivers took it in stride, she said.

“Mexicans are not as uptight. They are more laid back,” she said. “In traffic, they honk and don’t use turn signals. They just wave to each other. They have a more tolerant system. There definitely isn’t road rage.”

The Mexican desire to please was also found at mealtime, Guthmiller said. The hosts put out their best, with food ranging from fresh fruit, vegetables and salads to rice, wild rabbit, tortillas and even the inside of cactus with a sauce and scrambled with eggs.

The Mexicans also showed a tremendous pride in their jobs, Guthmiller said.

“When they worked at the hotels, they were dressed with a spit shine. It was their profession, and they were proud of it,” she said. “The same way, the bus driver was very proud that he had followed his profession. To him, it wasn’t just a job.”

That strong work ethic, and the struggling economy, has driven more Mexicans to the United States, including Yankton, Guthmiller said.

“At Michigan State, we learned the land owners and producers were aging, and the Latinos provided the labor that was needed in Michigan,” she said. “The proprietors and land owners needed them, and they needed laborers to fill their meat plants. They are doing things that the other main population wasn’t doing.”

Studying The Figures

Guthmiller said she has been working with Mike McCurry, a South Dakota State University Extension rural sociologist who helped author the analysis, “Hispanics in South Dakota.”

“Between the 1990 and 2000 census, Hispanics were the fastest growing group in South Dakota,” McCurry told the Press & Dakotan. “Census estimates in 2005 showed a 30 percent growth since 2000. The trend obviously continued, even increased, through the first five years of the 21st century.”

The SDSU study notes that Hispanic immigrants often work at meat packing and food processing plants, which explains why Yankton County has seen an influx of Hispanics.

The analysis says Hispanic immigrants rarely take jobs from local residents. Instead, they accept lower-sector jobs that local residents do not want.

The study says Hispanics migrate to places where they know others. A network of relatives and friends shares news about jobs.

The 2010 census will provide definite figures, he said, but he noted some factors.

“Raids on meat packers in the Midwest during the last several years have affected the migration in and out of the Midwest, which would include South Dakota,” he said.

Also, Yankton’s 2000 census data included Gurney’s horticulture plant, which no longer operates in the community, McCurry said.

“That single employer change probably changed the profile in Yankton County for several years,” he said.

On the other hand, the dairy industry along I-29 employs many Latino workers, McCurry said.

Hispanic immigration may not be able to maintain its past pace, McCurry said.

“Despite Hispanics being the largest-growing minority over the past 15 years, the 2005 population estimate was 14,140,” he said. “Maintaining that 6 percent growth per year would have required about 850 more Hispanics each year.

“If the economy and more pressure on employers increased out-migration and reduced in-migration even a little, we could be seeing a slowed population growth.”

On a strictly limited anecdotal basis, McCurry said he has heard less Spanish spoken in his Brookings hometown, particularly by groups of three to five young men.

“That suggests fewer immigrants,” he said. “On the other hand, I’m noticing a bit more Spanish from family groups, which suggests that the Hispanics who have made a home in South Dakota aren’t leaving.”

Hispanics have much to offer the region, Guthmiller said.

“They treasure their culture,” she said. “They have human needs the same as any culture. They value relationships, family and respect.”

Guthmiller said she grew up on an American Indian reservation and was reminded of a Lakota phrase — “Mitakuye Oyasin,” or “We are all related.”

“Hispanics are welcoming, sincere people who want to sit at the table,” she said. “We all have positive hopes for the future. We need an understanding of those positive hopes if we want to work together.”

To read more about the SARE project involved, visit the SARE reporting website at

Yankton Press & Dakotan Archives Community Extension Educator Helps Hispanics

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Grantsmanship Workshop - Systems Research

In the 17th century, philosophers debated whether scientific inquiry should be based on a reductionist approach, in which complex processes and systems are viewed as the sum of their parts, or on a systems approach, in which all the components of processes and systems are studied in relation to each other.

For over 300 years, the reductionist approach dominated with remarkable results. With our current ability to manage large and complex data sets, there is renewed interest in adapting a systems science approach to modern challenges in agricultural and food science to uncover solutions at the speed of modern life.

The Sustainable Agriculture and Education program (SARE), the Integrated Organic Program (IOP) and the Specialty Crop Research Initiative (SCRI) within the National Institute of Food and Agriculture require that applicants use a systems approach to meet challenges faced by producers and consumers. The directors of these programs, in partnership with Cornell University, are offering a one-day, national workshop on the preparation and management of competitively awarded, systems-based grant applications.

Information for the workshop and registration information can be found at

Please pass this information to anyone who is interested in applying to these programs. There will be web access to the workshop so travel is not necessary. Please note that the deadline for registration is Dec 3, 2009.

Sean McGovern
Outreach Specialist, SARE Outreach

Building Sustainable Farms, Ranches and Communities Guide Now Available

Source: ATTRA

ATTRA is pleased to announce that a long awaited updated publication, 'Building Sustainable Farms, Ranches and Communities: Federal Programs for Sustainable Agriculture, Forestry, Entrepreneurship, Conservation, and Community Development,' is now available on the ATTRA website at

This guide is an updated version of a previous publication called 'Building Better Rural Places' and is written for anyone seeking help from federal programs to foster innovative enterprises in agriculture and forestry in the United States. Specifically, the guide addresses program resources in community development, sustainable land management, and value-added and diversified agriculture and forestry.

It is designed to help farmers, entrepreneurs, community developers, conservationists, and many other individuals, as well as private and public organizations, to locate information about relevant federal programs.

The 'Building Sustainable Farms, Ranches and Communities: Federal Programs for Sustainable Agriculture, Forestry, Entrepreneurship, Conservation, and Community Development' guide is a collaborative publication of the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute, the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT), and several USDA agencies, and includes content based on work by the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. USDA agencies and programs providing support for this publication include the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (SARE) program, U.S. Forest Service, and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA, formerly Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service).

A Mid-Missouri gardener gets back to farming roots — and greens — in the cold season

Source: Columbia Tribune
Story by Marcia Vanderlip
Wednesday, November 11, 2009


Jennifer Grabner slogged through mud recently en route to the site of her future livelihood: more than half a dozen hoop houses behind her Ashland home. The wind was brisk, but sun warmed the greenhouse plastic covering her young lettuces, spinach, chard, carrots, beets and other cool-weather vegetables. In all, she plans to grow 20 to 25 various cool-season crops this year.

“This is fun when the sun is shining,” she said as she walked through one of her 20-foot-long tunnels. She pulled a plump golden beet from rich, composted soil. The cool weather improves the flavor and brightens the color of many of the vegetables, she explained as she plucked baby carrots and deep purple beets. She pointed to tiny potato sprouts, optimistic that she could have potatoes in January.

Although many farmers were wrapping up their CSA season last week, late October marked the beginning of Grabner’s budding winter CSA, which will extend into April. This year, Grabner already is harvesting cool-weather crops for 18 families. CSA, or community-supported agriculture, is like subscription farming. The consumer pays for a weekly allotment of a farm’s produce during the growing season. Grabner’s customers pay week to week, she said, so if she has no produce, she doesn’t get paid. “I feel more comfortable with that — for now,” she said.

This year Grabner increased her CSA shares after adding five more passive-solar hoop houses on a small portion of her family’s 5-acre plot. A year and a half ago, this area held only “a ratty shed, sheep, goats and some chickens.” After clearing out the shed and the animals last fall, she was able to provide winter produce for eight families from October to April.

“We would have gone in debt,” she said, if she hadn’t received a $5,588 two-year U.S. Department of Agriculture grant through the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program. The USDA gives SARE grants to farmers who do not use chemicals and who reduce harmful impact on the environment in their farming practices. The SARE grant allowed Grabner to jump-start her business without breaking the family bank. “When we talk about sustainability at our house, we also mean economic sustainability,” she said.

These same grants have helped other families live their hoop dreams — which are not always uniformly sweet.

Walker Claridge received a SARE grant three years ago to build a third hoop house at his 4-acre farm near Fulton.

“There’s a lot of work involved” with hoop houses, he said recently. “You have to baby-sit them, keep an eye on the seven-day forecast so you don’t see the winds pulling off the covers.” And even under plastic cover, some crops still require floating row covers — or plant blankets — when temperatures freeze.

Still, year-round farming is catching on in Mid-Missouri as consumers demand more local produce.

When Grabner advertised her winter CSA at the farmers markets in the spring, she was flooded with takers. “I had to turn a lot of people away.”

“A lot of farmers at the market invested in hoop houses this past year,” said Rex Roberts, a farmer and board president for the Columbia Farmers Market.

Roberts, who offered a “small winter CSA” this year to 11 families, is growing lettuce, arugula and kale in his hoop house in Marshall.

“There is a huge learning curve,” involved in hoop-house growing, he said. “My first hoop house was wiped out by a tornado.” In addition, “you get less light in the winter, so growth can be slower.”

Grabner, who is 40 and currently a stay-at-home farmer, is in the thick of that learning curve. Her husband, Keith, an ecologist for the U.S. Geological Survey, helped her construct the unheated hoop-style houses, and their three children, ages 5, 7 and 10, all help out in the garden. But mostly “this is a one-woman operation,” Grabner said. “I’m glad I don’t have to depend on this for my livelihood.”

This fall was so wet and cool she faced some trouble germinating seed and starting plants. She is now building a small, heated greenhouse for that purpose. Grabner hasn’t had a problem with the wind yet and speculated that it might help to set up the structures running east-west. Her newest addition — a larger hoop house from a kit — faces north-south. “We’ll see how it does this year.”

The Grabners constructed six of the eight hoop houses behind their Ashland home from welded-wire cattle panels wired together and bent into tunnels. Five panels make a greenhouse that is 20 feet long and 7 feet wide. The outer opening is lined with used garden hoses to keep the sharp metal from tearing the greenhouse plastic. Most are anchored on long baseboards, which they salvaged from the old shed. The boards are anchored with long stakes.

“You could put one of these together for about $200,” Grabner said.

Grabner, who is a trained botanist, began her plans to extend the season about five years ago after watching a presentation at the National Small Farm Trade Show in Columbia. An extension specialist explained how sunlight could heat a tank of water in a hoop house during the day, which would then emit enough heat to raise the interior temperature at night.

Then she read Eliot Coleman’s books about gardening in cold weather. Coleman, an organic farmer and researcher, is known for his cold-weather growing techniques. “He was doing this without tanks of water. I thought: If he can do it in Maine, I can do it in Missouri.”

“The key to growing in the winter is timing,” she explained, “so I have things to harvest in the dead of winter, when the days are short” and plants grow slowly. Grabner is recording what she learns about growing in Central Missouri because locals currently have no manual. As part of the grant, she will record her experiences to share with home gardeners and farmers. On Friday, Grabner passed on what she has learned about cool season growing at the 17th National Small Farm Trade Show & Conference.

“There is not a lot of information on how long it takes things to germinate in December. Or how fast a spinach plant will grow in February in Central Missouri. No one writes about that; we are figuring that out.” She has delighted in the hardiness of some vegetables. Last year, she learned that bok choy grows during the coldest and shortest days of the year. The real advantage to growing in winter is “you don’t have the bugs and disease” that plague summer growers.

“We could all do this,” she said, realizing she was building on a long tradition. “My great-grandmother had a cold frame in her garden.”

Grabner still keeps a couple of cold frames, but she also has gleaned ideas from more modern urban farmers. After attending a workshop by Will Allen, the founder of the Milwaukee-based Growing Power, which promotes inner-city gardens, she realized she didn’t need a tractor to till the soil under her hoop houses.

Allen “was building raised beds on paved, abandoned lots” because the soil beneath was contaminated. “He just covered the pavement with a 6-inch layer of wood chips and put a layer of compost and soil over it,” she said. “I realized that we don’t have to have a tractor, we can do this by hand,” she said. She tried the Allen approach when she erected her latest hoop house. “We mowed the grass, put down landscape fabric, a layer of wood chips and 8 inches of compost and soil. It worked fine, and we don’t stir up weed seed.”

She also has extended her hoop knowledge to Southern Boone Elementary School, where she helped create a school garden three years ago. The school now has a hoop house, and she will help build a second one there next week. The hoop houses will be used as part of the popular garden programs at the school.

“This is what I want to do,” she said that chilly afternoon, holding up a bouquet of freshly picked root vegetables. “I love this.”

Read the first part of this series here:

Jennifer Grabner looks over her greens and root vegetables in one of her eight hoop houses. - Photo by Marcia Vanderclip, Source: Columbia Tribune