The project was created to fill the need for information about up-to-date practices in organic farming and to help the organic farming movement “bootstrap” itself further in the Northeast. Our region lacks high levels of farmer-to-son/daughter knowledge transition, intense tax, real estate and urbanization pressures bear down on farmers—and best practices have changed, in any case. For all these reasons, the Manuals Project Committee believed clearly-presented, best cultural (and business) practices and principles would benefit the adaptation, growth and health of farmers and farming in our region.
The project grew out of an earlier endeavor of the Massachusetts chapter, the beginning of a smaller series of organic practices manuals. Two were published—one on weeds and another on soil fertility—when the Interstate Council took over the series.
This later phase brought together a team of 31 farmers and scientists with skills in writing, art, and manuscript review and editing and produced eight new Handbooks in eight additional aspects of farming. Each book runs approximately 100 pages and includes illustrations and informational graphics, resources and references and a complete table of contents. The books are sold at conferences and, both retail and wholesale, through the NOFA websites.
Members of the project team came from seven Northeast states, from Pennsylvania to Maine. They included the farmers and scientists who are some of the key players in the development of organic farming in the region.
The eight titles produced, and their authors:
Vegetable Crop Health
Helping Nature Control Diseases and Pests Organically
Whole Farm Planning
Ecological Imperatives, Personal Values and Economics
Elizabeth Henderson and Karl North
Soil Resiliency and Health
Crop Rotation and Cover Cropping on the Organic Farm
Compost, Vermicompost & Compost Tea
Feeding the Soil on the Organic Farm
The Organic Farmer’s Guide to
Marketing and Community Relations
Humane and Healthy Poultry Production
A Manual for Organic Growers
Organic Dairy Production
The Wisdom of Plant Heritage:
Organic Seed Production and Saving
Through the focus and quality of the information in the books, the project’s designers desired to offer farmers best cultural practices and help with the planning and business side of farming. We also realized that many of the Handbooks would be well suited to the needs of experienced gardeners and of those in ancillary organic enterprises.
The information in the eight volumes is of course vast. Here are four brief excerpts to get a sense of what some of it is and how it’s presented:
In the early part of Whole Farm Planning, Liz Henderson and Karl North lay out the “four fundamental ecosystem processes” that function on a farm: 1) The water cycle, 2) The mineral cycle, 3) The dynamics of the biological community, 4) The energy flow. “These processes,” they write, “are all at work on your farm either for or against each other, depending on how you manage them. The weakest one will be the limiting factor that determines the health of the whole ecosystem. We discuss them separately here only to help you learn them as windows into the system.”
In Organic Farmer’s Guide to Marketing and Community Relations, Rebecca Bosch says about effective communications with staff and customers: “To some or extent we all fall into the trap of assuming that ‘everyone is like me’; it is easy to develop an image of a ‘right’ or ‘normal’ way of being as we rely on our own experience to understand others and their motivations. The hard truth is that people really are different; wearing different filters of experience and armed with different tools of assessment. We do not see the world as the world is, but as we are—while believing we see things objectively. Embracing the limits of our own views requires modesty. It is the radical first step in successful communication and conflict negotiation [with employees and customers].”
In writing about properly fermented compost tea in Compost, Vermicompost and Compost Tea, Grace Gershuny explains: “The concept behind compost tea and other beneficial microbial cultures is to provide a high level of these organisms directly to plant leaves and roots, where they will colonize and not allow pathogens to gain a foothold. [Dr. Elaine] Ingham states that, when the tea has a sufficient concentration of diverse microbial species, ‘the disease organisms have no place to grow, no way to infect the plant, no foods to eat because the beneficials already ate them before the disease had a chance, and you build soil structure so that anaerobic conditions do not occur in your soils’.”
Finally, in Organic Dairy Production, Sarah Flack writes on the matter of feeding cows forage: “Forages offer the cheapest form of nutrients available to feed dairy cows. In organic dairy production, generally the most expensive purchased concentrate is protein (often in the form of soybeans or another legume grain). Energy concentrates tend to be less expensive (corn, barley). Thus it pays to grow high-protein forages, but with attention to the quality, not just the quantity, of protein in the plants. Too much protein in the ration, particularly highly soluble or ‘nonprotein nitrogen,’ can be a problem, particularly in forages grown in soils fertilized with liquid manure or other soluble fertilizers. Low-quality forages due to late harvest or poor weather conditions are another potential feed quality problem, resulting in a high-fiber forage that is not easily digested.”
Besides improving farming practices, getting these Handbooks into circulation would, the Project Committee thought, strengthen the spirit, connectedness and sense of identity of the region’s organic farming community. That effect began even during the work on the project. The Manuals Project Committee reached out to farmers in seven states and drew reviewers from eight. In most cases the authors in their research, besides using printed resources, tapped other farmers—further extending the network and the project’s communal effect. The project certainly strengthened connections between the participants as familiarity grew.
The targets set at the beginning of this project were: “Of the 35 farmers directly involved in creation of the manuals series, 25 will report a change in their farming/business practice after a year as a result of their involvement” and “Of the 1,000 farmers who bought a copy of one or more of the manuals within two years, the NOFA project coordinator will establish contact with 150 a year after publication is complete, and 80 of those will report that reading the manual made a change in their farming/business practice.”
A questionnaire was sent out to project participants and to purchasers as contacts became available over the past five or six months. It asked:
As a [purchaser of] [participant in creating] one or more NOFA Handbooks, would you please help complete the project by briefly answering the following questions for SARE? (Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education is the federal program that helped fund the Handbook project).
Has reading a NOFA Handbook made a change in your method of farming, your way of doing business, your pleasure in farming, or affected your participation in the community? Yes No Not sure. If so, how? Any further comments?
Of the 31 participants (writers, reviewers, etc.) in the project, 20 responded. Of the roughly 150 readers (buyers) I was able to obtain addresses for, 69 responded. The results are as follows:
Project participants — 20 responses
Yes: 15 (75%)
No: 4 (20%)
Not sure: 1 (5%)
Readers — 69 responses
Yes: 49 (71%)
No: 6 (9%)
Not Sure: 14 (20%)
OVERALL — 89 responses
Yes: 64 (72%)
No: 10 (11%)
Not Sure: 15 (17%)
In the end, 72% of project participants reported a change in their way of farming, doing business or their participation in the community as a result of the Handbooks project—a bit higher than the 71% I had set as a performance target. (Of those who indicated “not sure,” several hadn’t had a chance to read the books yet). Similarly, 71% of readers, not all of them farmers but all involved deeply in agriculture, reported a change in their way of growing or participating in the community, versus the 53% I had set as my target. The sample came in about 15% smaller than I had hoped despite the good sales, due to unexpected difficulty obtaining contact information for buyers along with a low return rate for questionnaires inserted into the Handbooks. Perhaps it’s a function of book-buying: reading a new book is sometimes delayed. Some of the comments of both participants and readers are reported below under “Outcomes and Impacts.”
A six-member Manuals Project Committee was created at a NOFA Interstate Council retreat. Initially, members e-mailed among each other, then “met” by conference call to settle the list of titles and the order in which they would be published, as well to design the subcommittee structure (author, artist, coordinator/editor and reviewers) that would create, illustrate and vet each manual. I then made a schedule and advertised, mainly on agricultural listservs and The Natural Farmer, NOFA’s interstate newsletter, for authors for each manual as its turn came. We hired an artist for the whole project, then conferenced by phone before each manual to choose the farmer/author from among the applicants and agree on the specialized reviewers.
Though the pay was low by U.S. standards and the demands high, we were fortunate to get excellent writers with strong farming backgrounds to present all eight topics. Our reviewers, well known in their field, mostly worked very hard to improve the manuscripts.
Along with the farmer/reviewers and scientist/reviewers, the members of the Manuals Project Committee received each manuscript for review. As editor, I would transmit the comments of all the reviewers to the author for consideration. The final manuscript draft went to all involved for a last read, and the writer and I considered their comments for the final, pre-publication editing. When folks didn’t keep deadlines, I adopted a sort of benevolent taskmaster approach to try to keep us all on schedule. The transactions were civil, but I may have shed a bit more hair than normal during this period!
The books came through the process two at a time, staggered by ten days. I found it a challenge to keep track of the schedules, no matter how well I penciled in my calendar. In the future, it might be better to stagger them further than ten days, to have more of a sense of working on one book at a time.
Twice, as four Handbooks were printed and ready to sell, I notified seed companies, catalog companies, universities, periodical publishers and others of the latest wave of manuals with titles, authors, and brief descriptions, as well as an offer of free review copies. I handled the mailing of most of the review copies myself. Perhaps a couple dozen were requested.
Due mainly to a late start because of Chelsea Green’s departure, we reached the project’s milestones a couple of months late, but that didn’t seem to negatively affect the project.
It was fairly easy finding willing writers and artists. Now that the job is finished, many of the writers have expressed pride in the result. For me the work was a crucible of coordinating and editing under deadline. Working with the participants required me sometimes to prod them, and always to encourage them. Frankly, it gave me a sense of helping bring out the best in them. The experience sharpened and toughened me as an editor and gave me more of a sense of participation and belonging in the community of agricultural activists.
The product has proven to be popular, by the assessment of long-time NOFA figures, who have seen how NOFA-produced literature has sold in the past. I myself am reasonably happy with the quality of the books, and with the thought that they are giving ideas to veteran farmers and confidence to new ones.
Books and literature being one of the preferred ways for farmers and others to fine-tune their methods, this set of ten books (eight through SARE) will likely add momentum to the process of getting sustainable and organic agricultural practices on the ground for years to come. They have the advantage of being handy, concise and farmer-friendly, due to their having been written by farmers rather than theoretician or academicians and reviewed and edited with clarity of presentation in mind.
It would be a real service if the popular first two books, Organic Weed Management and Organic Soil Fertility Management, could be expanded by the author, Steve Gilman, to the length and treatment depth of the most recent eight. There has also been a request for several other titles, including orchard management, “whole farm research,” and raising meat animals. If sales for the current Handbooks justify it by continuing well, I would hope SARE would consider funding these projects.
Impacts of Results/Outcomes
State Total # Sold
New Hampshire 72
New Jersey 27
New Mexico 2
New York 792
North Carolina 11
Rhode Island 4
Whole Farm Planning, part of the first wave published, has already had a second printing. It and three other books were promoted in late summer, 2004. The last four titles were published and promoted in March and April of this year. It is impossible to know how many of the buyers were farmers as opposed to ag teachers, librarians, homesteaders, etc.
An idea of the impact of the books is available from reviews like the one from HortIdeas (“Destined to become classics”) and from the comments and reaction internally in NOFA. In 2004 they named the project editor & coordinator NOFA Person of the Year and gave him an inscribed gold shovel!
The really key feedback comes from the survey questionnaire. Here are some of the comments returned by the project participants (authors, reviewers, artist, etc.):
“In writing the Handbook I examined cover cropping and rotations from many different scales of production. This wider viewpoint has allowed me to incorporate more planning options and field techniques. I drill cover crops into the field one bed at a time as cash crops come out. I use more flexible grouping of my cash crops in rotation planning. I feel much more confident to take chances and explore greater options.”
“I seem to be speaking more at conferences on how to convert a diary farm to organic.”
“I learned a lot from each book about how to be a better farmer. It was a delightful experience to be part of a project where I was working with really top notch farmers and also top notch editors. I learned a lot about writing styles too.”
“Don’t really see a difference [in my farming, involvement in the community, etc.], so I guess the answer is no. My questions about ecology of pest management continue to evolve, but not specifically because of the nofa handbook work. Nice job with the handbooks!”
“Writing the handbook on Marketing and Community Relations I began thinking about commerce in a whole new way: imagining a model where even profit goals have parameters that recognize the shared nature of market resources. A profound difference from corporate model profit initiatives that bind businesses to the responsibility of making money (as much as possible, at any cost?) for shareholders. It is a constant thought for me now, making decisions that make sense, take care of all involved, and reflect our commitment to share the harvest.”
“Writing the manual got my thinking clearer on the subject. By providing practice in expressing the central ideas it improved how I teach the subject in workshops and in other writing. People in the community have more respect for the ideas of holistic management now that they see them in print, and my participation in the community has more visibility and impact than before.”
Here are some of the comments received from the reader-buyers surveyed:
“It has helped me become a more sure composter, and re-awakened my interest in vermicomposting.”
“Changed my way of making compost tea.”
“Improved [my] tilling & composting methods.”
“I now refer to the charts on cover crop varieties for ideas about the one that, in timing and considering next crops, will work best for the situation.”
“Crop rotations are always problematic what with succession planting, drainage issues, shade, etc. when you don’t have big square fields where all conditions are similar. Book gave me more tips about how to more appropriately manage my rotations.”
“Clear direction about how to run a pasture-based system for the overall health of the land and for the animals.
Now I have a very good broad spectrum resource book to refer people to when they call with questions about organic dairy farming.”
“Changed my perspective from marketing being a necessary evil to one of marketing being an opportunity.”
“A great tool in regards to feed options & guidelines, bedding, brooding, etc.”
“Very helpful. I’m a poultry raiser and was quite excited to learn new tips: I’ve used the vinegar in the water and did not lose a single baby chick this year.”
“Not sure; haven’t had time to look at them in any detail yet. Basically got them for our office library and will use as needed reference material. They look very good; we got the whole set, and I anticipate that they will definitely affect the way I personally farm, and hopefully we can translate some of that to our local partner orgs.”
“The information will make changes and improvements in the way I save seed in particular.”
“This book helped me step back and think about our farm operation and how all the stakeholders in it are feeling. I’m pretty clear about my goals, but this book helped me think about how other people’s needs are being met and how I can better involve them in the process [so they] become more invested in the farm.”
“I present information on soils & fertilizers to homeowners and master gardener volunteers. I have found the information in your handbooks to be quite educational & useful & often recommend these guides to my classes. “
“The handbooks we received from NOFA were tremendously helpful for improving our produce production methods.”