Small Scale/Youth Organic Gardening Project Continuation

Final Report for FNC02-432

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2002: $18,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2004
Region: North Central
State: Michigan
Project Coordinator:
Leroy Ray, Jr.
The Farm School Cooperative
Expand All

Project Information


The project is head quartered at The Farm Research Cooperative (FRC) a non-profit 501 3 group with a motto “We grow scientists.” Our major purpose is to test and evaluate the effectiveness of hands on science programs for youth in agriculture. The FRC originated from work at the university since 1973.
The Bloomingdale FRC facility contains 40 acres, old farm house with two lab science kitchens, library, tool rooms, offices and 4 computer work sites, a big science lab facility, bunkhouse sleeping quarters, large field house, a pond, apple, cherry and walnut trees, 10 acres garden spots, 4 compost sites, 4 wells, assorted tractors, trucks, farming equipment and horses.
Covert site contains three acres garden, fence, water supply, walnut and pear trees, tool shed and farming equipment.
Cassopolis site contains ½ acre garden spot, water supply, fence, tool storage room, small greenhouse, cultivator, tiller and tools. Garden spot is situated to receive full sun and a large compost area.
Muskegon site is made up of several small home gardens average size 10ft by 20 ft, nearby water supply for all spots, tool storage in garage, compost spots and all have great sun exposure.
South Haven – the Learning Farm – is 2 acre garden spots, water, compost place, tool shed, full sun and bordered on two sides by trees and brush. The Learning Farm is foster home for 9 boys and girls.
Vandalia site is 2 acre garden spot, fence, water supply, two compost sites, tool shed and a tiller.
Before receiving this grant we engaged in “organic” practices on a limited test basis. We composted table vegetables, reduced the use of manmade chemicals for pest control, mulched the rows to reduce weed growth and tested applications spelled out in the certification application paperwork. Our organic efforts started in 1973 but attempts stopped in 1996 and we started again in 1999. Crops produced: beans, greens, corn, cabbage, tomatoes, peppers, squash, and okra.
The questions other producers would ask:
1) What crops did your sites produce? Crops from these scattered sites carrots, cabbage, cantaloupe, cow peas, cucumbers, black beans, green beans, corn, okra, peppers, squash, tomatoes, melons, turnips, and zucchini.
2) Why did you select these crops? We used an anecdotal general survey of consumers and buying patterns to indicate which crops to produce.
3) What kind of compost? Compost used was local horse and cow manure from feed enabling a select paper trail of how feed was produced and treated.
4) What did you do with the produce? The produce was harvested, distributed, tested for taste and table use and some was sold locally and distributed to interested consumers.
5) Where did you sell the vegetables? Produce from gardens was sold at farmer’s market locally and door to door sales.
6) How did buyers respond to the children growers? Buyers were positively supportive and engaging with our youth. Buyers were frequently talking to others and telling about quality of vegetables and offering tips to the children about gardening.
7) What is the certification process? What are certification benefits and costs? The certification process is a mixture of Tennessee and Michigan policies, rules and laws that are designed to ensure toxic free vegetables and meet government standards. The criteria are complex and require intensity, a paper trail of confirmation and evidence of care and materials free of toxins. The benefits suit a growing number of consumers who want “health foods.” The cost of production, care and security are higher than normal because of loss and damage due to infestation and microbial behavior. A rapid learning curb is most valuable to the beginning grower.
Project Goals:
The production of crops free of man made harmful toxic chemicals and pesticides by young growers who are learning, reseraching and testing organic certification process. The second project goal is to protect the soil and water in the area from excessive harmful chemicals. The process is designed to draw attention to environmenatl issues and challenges on the part of the local consumers. A thrid project goal was to work with the local government agencies and experienced produers in the teaching and learning sustainable agricultural experiment.
Planning and conducting the research:
The steps in planning began with the setting of practical goals, obtainable measurable, objectives and the formation of a working committee of reserachers. The project goals were taken with care from the criteria in the certification process. The discussion and design construction process included:
- Set up garden committees complete with record keepers
- Set garden project goals and objectives
- Design garden experiment, crops and tasks
- Select garden sites, security, and cultivatoin plans
o Greenhouse design and construction to start plants in greenhouse, remove 4-7 weeks or when suitable for growth outside
- Transplant the seedlings to garden sites
- Care: weed, water, and work
- Harvest the crops
- Market to locals and door to door consumer club members
Organizational sessions, setting tasks and follow up consumed more time than our plans anticipated. The design and implementation of the research experiement involved setting up a realistic plan of action/scheme.
We took soil and water tests to determine what was present in them before, during and afterwards. These tests often indicate where to start and what steps are important to provide a suitable soil growing medium. The results of the test indicate how well the soil is holding up during the experimentation. Garden plots were selected, tested, and greenhouses constructed.
Seeds purchased from certified suppliers were secured and termination initiation. Temperature and moisture in the greenhouse were determined.
The technical people included: (not limited to)
- Leroy Ray, farmer, project head
- Janet Walker, Assistant Coordinator and Accounts
- Janie Brooks, Dean of Students Muskegon Community College site coordinator
- Mildred Johnson, Elemetary Science Teacher, Muskegon Public Schools
- Spencer Norman, Jr. Accounant , Muskegon site coordinator
- George Heffner, Kalamazoo County Disctict Conservationist, technical support
- Leslie Hainey, Berrien County District Conservationist, technical support
- Bruce Green, NRCS Berrien County, Technical support
- Jeff Douglas, Van Buren District Conservationist, technical support
- Randall and Beth James, Vandalia local growers site coordinators
- Barbara James Norman, Covert farmer, technial support
- Lillie Wroten, farmer, the Learning Farm, Covert
- Doc Anderson, Covert farmer, Technical support
- Clifford McKnight and Carol Cradolph, Cassopolis gardeners, workers
We had better than anticipated crop production yields and the soils were relatively free of pests. We set in motion a consumer mix buying club. Consumers at the local farmer’s markets were excited and impressed with out youth growers. The greenhouse was especially valuable in starting plants for the growing season and providing healthy plants for a good start in Vandalia. Vandalia crop yields were earlier than Bloomingdale. Bloomingdale used seeds and plants from that greenhouse.
Yields: large tomatoes yielded 6-10 fruits per plant. Small cherry sized tomatoes yielded 10-20 fruits per plant, corn two ears per plant, beans 10 -25 per plant, and squash 4-8 per plant. Hot peppers yielded 6-12 parts per plant, large green sweet peppers 4-9 parts per plant, cabbage 1 small head per plant, and okra 4-7 parts per plant, cucumbers 4-10 per plant, zucchini 4-9 per plant field soil pH analysis indicated growing medium was not significantly altered during the growing season. The best soil treatment producing greater number parts per plant was found from horse compost tea. The Vandalia weed control was good with black plastic down the middle of the rows. Straw was also used to reduce unwanted weeds in Vandalia and Bloomingdale. The news spread fast to all of our sites “mulch” and reduce weed growth and infestation.
Small scale organic crops production is here to stay. Consumers are demanding healthy vegetables. The big grocers are following the market requirements and thus improving the numbers who select organic food items. Small growers must meet this competition and provide a better quality product. Consumer buying clubs are being used to overcome big business promotions. Youth are needed to meet demands.
Project Impacts:
The garden project had a positive impact on local consumers, agency heads, government technical staff, growers and farmer organizations. The MSU county extension was involved as technical support and learned that our project had an influence on meal planning for domestic use.
The process had an unexpected positive impact on local community leaders who spoke excitedly about what the garden produce meant. Membership increased in the consumer buying clubs to a point where this farmer cautioned a meal planner not to pay excessively for the vegetables and thus give the children an unrealistic notion about the cost value of homegrown gardens. We priced beans and tomatoes 10% higher than last season. Most produce sold 4-8% higher than last year.
The economic impact is mixed. Certified organic seeds have a slightly higher price than locals are accustomed to paying. Keeping pests and weeds out of the crop garden takes creative designs and testing the efficiency of the scheme attention. Tedious details take time hence costs more money. Consumers are aware that “organic production” is costly, but they may be willing to pay the extra cost because of the involvement of the youth.
From this grant we learned:
- That the organic certification process is tedious, complex and time consuming in the transition from usual stage.
- That care, creativity and thought are necessary to grow crops free of toxic chemicals.
- That there are simple, creative weeds reduction approaches that work.
- That soils at sites are different, offer unique challenges that can be solved.
- That government technical staff is willing to help and to learn from the efforts.
If asked for information about organic gardening, I would say: be open, be willing to try, use a variety of exploratory schemes, be patient, and don’t jump to conclusions before tests are completed and you have the actual hard data to support findings.
The project information outreach methods used were many, varied and included: personal contacts, phone calls, attendance and presentations at clubs and churches, parent phone networks, science teachers and science groups, MSU extension staff, local producers organizations, harvest field days events, and field trips to farms that are meeting goals. We take pictures and use them in promotional exhibits. We plant continued project (camp outs, field trips, games as tests) operations to excite young growers. Our 2 annual field days draw 75-100 attendees per event each year.


Participation Summary
Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.