Updating and Correcting the Roxbury Farm Vegetable Crop and Harvest Manual with Other Growers and Extension Specialists’ Feedback for Wider Adoption

Final report for FNE20-950

Project Type: Farmer
Funds awarded in 2020: $14,970.00
Projected End Date: 02/28/2022
Grant Recipient: Roxbury Agriculture Institute at Philia Farm
Region: Northeast
State: New York
Project Leader:
Jean-Paul Courtens
Roxbury Agriculture Institute at Philia Farm
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Project Information

Summary:

This grant is to support the author and its collaborators to rewrite the existing and outdated Roxbury Farm Manuals to reflect practices from a broader community of farmers and to include the latest research and guidelines for safe production, harvest, and post-harvest procedures.

This was done by seeking input on specific production, harvest, and post-harvest procedures from other successful and exemplary vegetable growers and by conducting online research of material currently available from reliable sources like land grant universities.  The new information offered on insect, disease and weed control will reflect the most recent research on efficacy of products and materials, and the harvest and post-harvest procedures will correspond with the most recent FSMA guidelines.  Finally,  Cornell Cooperative Extension specialists reviewed the manuals for accuracy.   

The new manuals have been submitted to SARE for wide distribution to the Organic Northeast (and possibly Midwest) Vegetable Growers.

Project Objectives:

This project seeks to update and correct the Roxbury Farm Manuals using more universal production parameters by reaching out to other growers and receiving feedback from extension specialists to appeal to an even larger audience of farmer/gardeners that work at a scale between 2 and 50 acres.  The manual is to be used as a quick reference material to help to beginning farmers in creating a crop plan, help estimate what resources are needed, and to develop better and more efficient harvest and post-harvest procedures and to assess what prices many growers receive in a retail or wholesale market.  

Introduction:

While there are many emerging voices helping farmers understand how to "lean" their production practices (Hartman), maximize efficiency of small spaces (Fortier), and become a better businessperson (Wiswall, Shank), many books lack the simple parameters like yields to expect, what value to expect in the marketplace, harvest standards, row and plant distance, commonly used varieties, number of successions, what cultivation practices to use, what the best tray to use in the greenhouse, what the transplant or harvest readiness signs are, what bio-control to use for what particular issue and at what rate, what seed plate to use for what seed, etc.  Existing manuals as we find at the Johnny Selected Seeds website and catalog are useful resources for the home gardener and while many of the parameters offered can be applied to a commercial scale, they lack the information that apply to the commercial vegetable farmer and completely lack harvest or post-harvest information.  Other sources by predominately the Universities and their Extension Service include much information, but much of this is either hidden in between other information or is not directed to small organic farmers.   When these farmers create their crop plan, calculate their fertilizer application rate, project their labor budget, design a spray plan, and many other tasks, they want access to the main parameters of one crop in once place.  The fertility, production, harvest, and post-harvest instructions in the manuals available on the Roxbury Agriculture Institute website have provided just that.   Thousands of individuals have accessed printed or downloaded them (e.g., reprints by Organic Valley for their Amish member farmers).   People approach me all the time at conferences with testimonials on how instrumental the manuals were when they got started farming or thank me by email. 

The manuals were never written to be a universal reference sheet but was written initially as an internal document designed to teach the staff at Roxbury Farm.   After many requests from our local CRAFT (Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training) I made them available through our website.   I guess the rest is history.   But since the manuals have not been updated since 2012, some information (like spraying recommendations or post-harvest procedures) is outdated or simply incorrect.  Also, the production and harvest information are based on the use of parameters and practices specific to Roxbury Farm.  I want to make sure the procedures laid out in the manual reflect the latest FSMA regulations.   To make the manuals a more universal resource, I intend to poll a variety of successful market farms to gain their input on the most used row spacings, the average yields of the different vegetables, the common disease and insect pressures, and what prices they receive at farmers markets, mini-wholesale, and wholesale markets. To ensure the manuals are following current Federal and State regulations, and to reflect the latest research on the efficacy of the methods described in these manuals, I intend to have them reviewed by Cornell Cooperative Extension Vegetable Specialists.

Description of farm operation:

I have been farming for over 40 years and founded Roxbury Farm in 1990 which turned from a five acre market garden into a 425 acre integrated biodynamic operation serving 1100 CSA shareholders with vegetables, beef, pork, lamb and chicken. Today, my wife Crystal and I operate the much smaller Philia Farm where we focus on research and the production of seed and vegetables for a local market. Today Crystal and I are part time farmers. The manuals were originally part of a production manual to help educate the employees and apprentices at Roxbury Farm. The first edition was available in 1998 and have been expanded and rewritten until 2012.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Ethan Grundberg - Technical Advisor (Educator)
  • Crystal Stewart-Courtens - Technical Advisor (Educator)

Research

Materials and methods:

A Qualtrics survey was created with the help of Cornell Associates and was supposed to be sent out to 50-60 experienced organic vegetable growers in the spring of 2020 (Qualtrics Survey as pdf) .  Due to Covid-19 and the changes many growers were forced to make in selling their produce sending out the survey was delayed to the fall.   The survey was sent out in October allowing growers to take advantage of another season of maintaining records.  The results of the survey provided information on the most commonly used row spacings of vegetables, what average yields to expect, what common disease and insect pressures growers experience, and what prices farmers receive at farmers markets, mini-wholesale and wholesale markets.     22 growers completed a questionnaire and while they were asked to provide data on at least three crops, some exceeded this number.   We are grateful for their time and input and they have received a $50.00 remuneration as a way to express our appreciation (two of the 20 respondents refused a stipend).   The Qualtrix results were developed into a spreadsheet by Natasha Field (a technician working for CCE Eastern NY Commercial Horticulture Program) to help us interpret the data.

Tabulated Questions  and Crop Difficulty (sample Qualtrics report)

The manuals were edited and recommendations for biocontrol on insect and disease pressure, fertilizer were updated based on the latest research and input from participating growers and by incorporating the latest research or recommendations provided by land grant universities.   Post-harvest procedures reflect the latest FSMA (Food Safety and Modernization Act) regulations as recommended by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration). After all the changes were made both manuals were reviewed by Cornell Cooperative Extension Vegetable Specialist Crystal Stewart-Courtens.   

Research results and discussion:

Natasha Field (a technical assistant working for Cornell Cooperative Extension) helped us to interpret the results by putting them in a spreadsheet. Given the many questions that were asked it was helpful to have them sorted. In reviewing the Qualtrix results filled out by farmers, it was interesting to see that the  provided answers had a wide range on yield and the time it takes to harvest a crop.  We have not been able to assess where the range came from but we assume that there are no conform methods for harvesting a product and that different crews have different abilities.  

Yields also ranged between growers which might be a reflection of soil quality and nutrient and water availability.  

There was much greater agreement on what the most pressing disease and insect problems are with specific vegetable crops helping us determine what the manuals needed to focus on in the recommendations.  The remedies that farmers provided in the survey was not included.  For this university studies were relied on for possible efficacy (as not every study supports efficacy of organic materials).  

Varieties that growers use was incorporated to an extent but variety trials conducted by extension and universities were added to provide a more neutral recommendation.  

Prices received had a range based on where the products were marketed and what time of the year they were sold.  At times the answers growers provided were completely out of range with our own experience which could be a numerical error in submitting the answers or could have been a result of the context.  For example spinach in the winter months can receive up to $15.00 a lb but this is rarely received by growers when it is in season.  Having had access to a larger sampling would have provided results with a more meaningful average.  The recommendations provided in the final edition of the crop and harvest manual were therefore checked on how we perceived the existing landscape of the Northeast vegetable grower.   To make the numbers more meaningful on pricing, price reports from a number of organic wholesalers were obtained as well to give a more meaningful and realistic average return to the grower for the products.  

In addition to soliciting information from growers I reviewed existing university resources that might be helpful to growers and inserted links to these resources into the manual for easy access. This was especially helpful with food safety, variety trial information, and organic pest and disease control resources.

Research conclusions:

The objective of the grant was to help the organic vegetable growers with a trustworthy manual that provides succinct information when planning, planting, harvesting, and packing a common vegetable crop.   The existing manuals as available on the Roxbury Farm website reflected the practices of one farm and were outdated specifically regarding post-harvest practices but also missed information reflecting the diversity of farms in the Northeast.   A survey sent out to farmers was one of the research components to discover to what extent the growing practices at Roxbury Farm reflected the practices at other exemplary farms.   Farmers provided us with records of three of the crops they felt most comfortable with.   The results provided by growers were either very useful or led to confusion when the numbers appeared out of range of what is possible.   The survey did not allow us to confirm if the answers were filled out by memory or were based on years of keeping careful records.     The context of the numbers was missing.  While a healthy range or prices received or yield per row foot was to be expected, numbers that were out of range have been excluded in the manuals.

Much information provided in the manuals was sourced by testing the existing information to current standards or practices.  For example, post-harvest recommendation was tested against the FSMA (Food Safety Modernization Act) and links were provided to connect growers directly to more information.  Insect and disease information (provided primarily on crops that proved to be an issue for the growers that took part in the survey) is tested against the latest recommendation of universities and links were inserted to steer growers to reliable sources for more information.  In the research, the focus was to utilize sources by universities and other well respected institutions.   Given that growers today source YouTube and Instagram, I think the manuals are nudging growers to depend on more reliable channels for information.        

Participation Summary
22 Farmers participating in research

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

2 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools

Participation Summary:

2 Number of agricultural educator or service providers reached through education and outreach activities

Learning Outcomes

1 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation
Key areas in which farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitude, skills and/or awareness:

In rewriting the manuals I was able to research the latest recommendations regarding pest control and food safety measures and blend them with what growers are actually doing and using.

Project Outcomes

1 Farmers changed or adopted a practice
Project outcomes:

A choice was made to make the existing manuals available in the public domain and whereby a virtual format facilitated it to be a resource as well.  The latter was accomplished by inserting a great number of links where the information was sourced or to bring the reader to resources not mentioned in the manuals.  For example instead of providing the reader with recommendations for varieties if possible, a link was provided to results of variety trials.  Writing the manuals did not increase my quality of life but it feels rewarding that they are made available in a format whereby I trust the content.  The outdated 2012 manual that existed online was literally a liability but it was utilized by many beginning farmers who trusted the content.  The hope is that these manuals will continue to serve the beginning commercial farmer with the information they need to have at their finger tips until their own records and research provides them with better place based information. 

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

In rewriting the manuals I was able to research the latest recommendations regarding pest control and food safety measures and blend them with what growers are actually doing and using.  It was fascinating to see the diversity of approaches.  In the Netherlands, where I am from, there are no different ways of doing things, there is literally one procedure to say harvest lettuce, and every grower follows the tradition that has been firmly established.  Those traditions change as new research proves there is a better way and then it is quickly adopted by most growers often to increase efficiency and profitability or simply for food safety reasons.  This process is non existent amongst small organic growers in the Northeast, as many are self taught, and there is no vocational educational system established to teach procedures or standards.   

Secondly, I think the manuals being made available in a virtual manner will allow us to update them as needed.  My hope is that SARE will recognize the need for this to become a living document and ideally become an open source resource.  While I spent countless hours researching and while it was reviewed by Crystal Stewart-Courtens, the manuals can increase in quality with further input and possible corrections of other participants.  

Information Products

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.