Developing On-Farm Research Expertise Among Farmers in Vermont

Final Report for ONE08-084

Project Type: Partnership
Funds awarded in 2008: $9,997.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2009
Region: Northeast
State: Vermont
Project Leader:
Dr. Wendy Sue Harper
Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont
Expand All

Project Information

Summary:

Sixty-two growers, and eight agricultural service providers came from six New England states to hear five farmer speakers and three agricultural service providers talk about how to keep good records to evaluate production practices, the value of on-farm research growers had conducted, and resources for conducting research at the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont’s (NOFA-VT) two-day farmer-to-farmer conference: Answering Questions on the Farm: Conducting Research, Maintaining Records, and Evaluating Production Practices in January, 2009.

Growers at the conference were asked to write at least three on-farm research priorities. We outlined these research priorities and distributed the document titled: New England Farmers’ On Farm Research Priorities 2009 to 108 university researchers, extension personnel, state agencies of agriculture, farm bureaus, and organic agricultural service providers in nine states in the Northeast region who work with vegetable and fruit farmers.

Our project was approved for a modification of the on-farm research to specifically target season extension, winter growing and storage. Winter growing generated the most on-farm research priorities than any other topic at our conference. One of the benefits for growers is that the research can be conducted at a time of year when growers have more time available.

Ten growers developed proposals and set up research projects to conduct on-farm research on season extension, winter growing and storage. Ten farmers conducted their research; we provided support through email and phone communication and on-farm visits. Four farmers spoke about their on-farm research results to 66 attendees at the NOFA Vermont Winter Conference Advanced Track on Season Extension, Storage and Winter Growing: On-Farm Research and Practices on Saturday, February 13th, 2010. Eight farmers completed their on-farm research projects and project reports. Research results were summarized and posted on the NOFA-VT website. This research was highlighted with a link back to the website in the fall issue of NOFA Notes, which has a circulation of 1350, 60% of whom are farmers. It was also highlighted and linked in NOFA-VT’s e-newsletter, which has a circulation of 3000.

Introduction:

Vegetable growers need farm-specific solutions to address production challenges that impact the viability of their farming operations. In Vermont, organic farming has grown, in part, due to the support network among organic producers. Farmer learning has been informal, anecdotal, and through trial and error. However, growers often lack the knowledge necessary on how to conduct on-farm research that can provide farm-specific answers. A 2006 survey of organic farmers in Vermont, found that a majority of the respondents (86%) indicated that “Helping farmers develop and fund on-farm research” was the highest priority technical assistance need. Our project was designed to respond to that need Based on our needs assessment, the farmers indicating the greatest demand for technical assistance were those who identify themselves as intermediate to advanced commercial growers. These farmers seek farm-specific solutions to the problems that they encounter on their farms to both improve their production practices and increase their capacity to meet the growth in demand for locally produced fruits and vegetables. This project helped farmers improve their winter growing production and storage skills thereby increasing their capacity to meet the growing winter market demand and improve the viability of their farms.

The goal of this project was to increase the viability of organic and sustainable farms in the Northeast by creating a mechanism for farmers to identify their research priorities and conduct on-farm research. At the farmer-to-farmer exchange held on January 5th and 6th 2009, they learned how other farmers keep records and conduct on-farm research as a part of their farming operation. Growers developed priorities for research on their farms which were then shared with agricultural service providers throughout the northeast. Farmers designed experiments and conducted on-farm research to answer specific questions on season extension, winter growing and storage. The participating farmers shared insights into conducting research on farms and practical results of their experiments at the February, 2010 NOFA-VT Winter Conference, and a summary report of their research results was posted on NOFA-VT’s Website.

Project Objectives:

Performance targets:
1. 60 farmers will attend the farmer-to-farmer conference,
2. A document that summarizes farmers’ on-farm research priorities will be shared with University of Vermont Center for Sustainable Agriculture, Extension System, and College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets.
3. 10 farmers will develop research plans,
4. 8 farmers will set up research projects,
5. 6 farmers will complete their research,
6. 3 farmers will disseminate their results at the NOFA-VT Annual Winter Conference or other Northeast conferences, and
7. Results will be published in Vermont newsletters.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Peter Griffin
  • John Hayden
  • Andy Jones
  • Tom Streans
  • Richard Wiswall

Research

Materials and methods:

The on-farm research projects were developed by farmers to meet their specific needs. Because farmers were concerned about having enough time to conduct quality research during the summer months, we sought a project modification to focus on season extension, winter growing and storage. These priority research topics were identified by farmers attending a NOFA-VT conference held in January, 2009 entitled Answering Questions on the Farm: Conducting Research, Maintaining Records, and Evaluating Production Practices. In addition, we sent information about the project to farmers who did not attend the conference, but who grow and sell winter greens and storage crops to solicit their interest in conducting on-farm research. We identified a total of 10 farmers interested in participating in the project.

Farmers were contacted by e-mail and phone throughout the fall and winter to set up on-farm research projects. The paperwork requirements were designed to be simple for growers to fill out, while also capturing important information about the research project. Follow-up phone calls were made to clarify project design, answer questions about project modifications, and discuss results. Four of the 10 farmers wanted technical assistant visits; 1 visit was made to 3 farmers and 2 visits were made to 1 farmer. Most farmers did not seek on-site assistance.

Eight farmers completed their research and research reports. A summary document can be found at: http://nofavt.org/programs/technical-assistance-education-vegetables/winter-growing-research-results

Research results and discussion:

Although we met all of our stated objectives/performance targets 1-7., we experienced the following challenges.

• Some farmers felt unprepared to undertake on-farm research, even with our support. Others said they were concerned about conducting on-farm research during their busy summer growing season. Based on these responses, we concluded that the busy summer season may not be the best time for farmers to conduct on-farm research. We asked that our project be modified to conduct on-farm research on season extension, winter growing and storage. Winter growing research was identified as a high priority for growers, and can be conducted at a time of year when growers have more time available.

• Of the ten farmer-collaborators, two were unable to complete their research. Two farmers trying to extend the season by growing outside under row covers lost their crops due to cold and wind. Additionally, one other grower lost a hoop house when 97 mph winds hit their farm, but completed the project with the data they had collected up until that time. Farm visits by the project coordinator were very helpful and important to some growers; others completed their research without them. Growers do have more time for on-farm research during the fall and winter seasons, but still need reminders to maintain focus on the research projects.

• Farmers are excited about on-farm research that is driven by ideas. They wrote up their project ideas with support of the project coordinator, and then designed projects that had randomization and replication built into them. Farmers then used these project designs in ways that were most practical for them. They made project changes mid-stream as they developed new and better ideas, and some did not adhere to the original design of randomization or replication. One participating farm had a completed research project that met design, replication and randomization requirements, but these farmers had an educational background in science. No projects were analyzed using statistics, even though support was available. All farmers learned a lot about conducting on-farm research; they all recognized the value of site-specific information that comes from on-farm research.

Summary of On-Farm Research Reports on Winter Growing and Storage

Intermediate to advanced organic growers in Vermont report that they want farm-specific solutions to increase the sustainability of techniques used on their farms and the viability of their farming operations. A 2006 survey of organic farmers in Vermont found that a majority of the respondents (86%) indicated that “Helping farmers develop and fund on-farm research” was the highest-priority technical assistance need. On-farm research on winter growing, season extension and storage was chosen because a 2009 On-Farm Research Priorities document generated by this project found that farmers identified research in winter growing as their highest on-farm research priority. In addition, farmers requested a comprehensive research program on winter growing, which does not currently exist.

Eight farmers completed research projects on winter growing and storage. A summary of their on-farm research and results follows.

Winter Growing
Five farmers conducted research on growing winter crops in unheated hoop-houses, as follows:

1. Champlain Orchards: Broccoli under Row Covers
Champlain Orchards examined transplanted broccoli under one or two row covers in a hoop-house. They were interested in this experiment because of the NE-SARE funded work University of New Hampshire Extension Professor Becky Grube-Sideman has done on winter sprouting broccoli as an alternative tunnel crop. Broccoli transplanted into pots at the end of October and transplanted into the ground in mid December was grown under one or two row covers. Plants were evaluated for size and quality through mid-January.

Results showed that the number of row covers was less important than varietal differences. Champlain Orchards plans to experiment with more cold-hardy crops like spinach, kale and other greens next year.

2. Luna Bleu Farm: Watering Impacts on Soil Temperature
Luna Bleu Farm wanted to determine how watering at different times of day impacted soil temperature and thus, spinach growth. They were concerned that cold water would chill soil and reduce growth. They compared the temperature of watered to un-watered greenhouse soil in their experiment. Their findings are summarized below:

• Watering time: They had to water for 90 minutes to put a sufficient amount of water on their spinach. This was longer than the 20-minute watering they had initially intended. By watering for 90 minutes at a time they found they decreased the overall labor required to water plants over the season.
• Temperature results showed that their water temperature was warmer than expected and that watering actually warmed the soil by 5 degrees Fahrenheit on average. By watering as early in the day as they could, usually by 9:00am, the water darkened the soil and enabled it to absorb more solar rays, gaining up to another 5 degrees of warmth by the time the row covers needed to be put back on the spinach later in the day.
• Water only on sunny days during the coldest part of the winter.

Luna Bleu will continue to use these three watering management techniques in their winter growing.

3. Screamin’ Ridge Farm: Examining Bed Pitch Impact on Soil Temperature
Screamin’ Ridge Farm compared the soil temperature of two flat beds to two beds with a southern slope by taking 4 temperatures in each bed over the season. The temperature inside the high tunnel and the outside air temperature were also recorded.

Results showed no difference in soil temperature based on the bed pitch during the coldest part of the winter; however, as the sun moved higher in the horizon after February 4, the pitched beds warmed more quickly. Many variables in this study impacted getting clear results, including variable bed height, snow pile shading of greenhouse beds, and beds containing different types of winter crops. It was noted that the one bed that was raised to16 inches, which was twice the height of all the other beds at 8 inches high, attained ambient air temperatures more quickly.

Screamin’ Ridge Farm plans to further examine higher beds, and possibly subsoil heating, in the future.

4. Valley Dream Farm: Row Cover Comparisons
Valley Dream Farm conducted a row cover comparison in unheated hoop-houses to determine the best way to extend their growing season. In one hoop-house, they compared no row cover, one row cover and two row covers on Magenta lettuce. The growth rate was measured by comparing size from October 1st to November 28th. In another hoop-house, they examined one layer of row cover with and without hoops to two layers of row covers with and without hoops on Space and Remington spinach. Growth rate was measured in terms of pounds of product from October 1st to December 20th. December 20th was their last harvest because this greenhouse was destroyed by 100 mph winds.

Valley Dream Farm found that lettuce grown with two row covers was 1/3 larger than that grown with one row cover. Lettuce grown with no row covers had no growth. They also found that spinach grown without hoops was similar to baby spinach: shorter, thinner, and less appealing. The number of covers did not matter. In the trials without support hoops, all test areas had similar weights of about 6.5 pounds, while spinach grown with hoops had approximately 2 pounds of additional weight and was of higher quality.

Valley Dream Farm plans to use these results to grow their next winter crops.

5. Walker Farm: Row Cover Height
Walker Farm examined the height of row covers over greens. Winter growers know that high tunnels hold more volume of air to the tunnel skin and are thus more resistant to heat loss and temperature changes. Does this hold true for row covers within the hoop-house? Walker Farm used various heights of row covers to determine how increasing the volume of air under row covers influenced the temperature. They compared three heights of row cover: 1) directly on the crop, 2) with hoops one foot above the crop, and 3) with hoops two feet above the crop.

Results showed that while temperatures varied from relatively mild in January to moderately cold in February, the differences among the various heights remained fairly constant. The two-foot high cover consistently provided warmer temperatures during the night.

A second important management task they learned from their observation was the importance of taking off all the row covers each sunny morning to allow the crop direct light. While temperature is important for growth and protection, light is at a premium from mid-December to mid-February and management of the covers for optimum growth is essential.

Walker Farm will continue to grow winter greens; they would like to develop an easy and convenient method to cover and uncover the crops with the two-foot high row covers.

Winter Storage
Three farmers conducted research on best crop storage practices, summarized below:

1. Jericho Settlers Farm: Winter Carrot Storage to Maintain Quality and Minimize Staining
Jericho Settlers Farm wanted to determine the best storage system to produce high quality carrots. They evaluated 4-pound bags of harvested Napoli carrots under four different treatments: 1) washed, bagged in perforated plastic bags and put into cold storage; 2) cold storage unwashed for one week, and then washed and put back into cold storage (delayed washing while stored under high humidity); 3) barn storage for one week and then washed and put into storage (delayed washing while stored under low humidity); and 4) stored unwashed and washed just before evaluation. Half the carrots were evaluated in February and half in April for staining, flavor with a Brix meter, and crunchiness.

Jericho Settlers Farm found that the carrots washed immediately post-harvest (treatment 1) were still of marketable quality in respect to all three attributes (staining, flavor, and crunchiness) at the end of winter storage (harvested November 2009 and stored until April 2010). Although they had expected some lost crunchiness or sweetness (Brix) as compared to the other treatment groups, they did not find this to be the case. Treatment 1 had the lowest staining of any treatment. Crunchiness was only reduced in the group which was stored for 2 weeks post-harvest in a dry (open barn) environment (treatment 3). Brix levels were lower for all the groups in the April evaluation and the February Brix readings were lower than the November readings taken immediately post-harvest (averaged 10.2 Brix). Treatment 4 Brix readings were higher in April than others, but these carrots were not marketable due to staining.

Jericho Settlers Farm also noticed that the carrots stored in clean nylon-weave grain bags (as compared to perforated plastic bags) were of substantially better quality than all 4 treatment groups in the experiment. These carrots were not part of the initial experiment, so there was neither official replication nor evaluation in November or February. They did take Brix readings, crunchiness, and staining evaluations of them in April. These carrots had 1% staining, with most carrots not being stained at all, and they had Brix readings of 6.0 on average and were very crunchy. All of the many bags like this in storage were of excellent quality in April.

Based on this research, Jericho Settlers Farm will wash all carrots post-harvest in the fall when they still have plenty of staff, and then they will be stored until needed for the winter CSA. The farm does not need to invest in a winterized washing station. They plan to store the majority of their carrots in clean nylon-weave grain bags as opposed to plastic bags and will examine purchasing these bags with their logo on them to facilitate wholesaling winter root crops.

2. New Leaf Organics: Carrot Storage Systems
New Leaf Organics researched storage methods for carrots in their new root cellar. All carrots were cooled from field heat for 3-4 hours, washed, and packed. There were four packing treatments: 1) 25 lb. plastic ventilated bags; 2) waxed boxes packed with dried maple leaves; 3) waxed boxes packed with sawdust; and 4) green harvest totes. The harvest totes were packed with 50 lbs of carrots; all three other methods each held 25-35 lbs. The carrot area in the root cellar was kept at 34-36 degrees with a relative humidity of 90-95 percent.

New Leaf Organics found that all methods of storage seemed to be successful on all three levels: appearance, flavor, and waste. The green totes (method 4) faired the best with flavor being excellent, the appearance being unchanged, and the waste being less than 1 lb. The plastic bags (method 1) seemed to have the least favorable appearance results, with root growth and sprouting all along the carrot. This required increased cleaning before giving product to CSA customers. While the flavor was fine, waste was 12 lbs, and overall time required was significantly more. Both sawdust and leaf mulch did not hold flavor well; the appearance was acceptable overall but did involve cloth wiping to remove the mulch residue. Although there was sprouting and root growth, it was less than with plastic bags.

For carrot storage New Leaf Organics will use green totes next year, but maybe smaller ones for easier stackability and movement. They will definitely repeat post-harvest methods of spray washing and drying carrots thoroughly before storage.

3. Rockville Market Farm: Post-Harvest Winter Squash Treatments
Rockville Market Farm researched post-harvest treatments for winter squash to increase storage ability and length of sales. Field-washed pie pumpkins, delicata squash, acorn squash and butternut squash were 1) untreated, 2) treated with Clorox bleach solution or 3) treated with StorOX, an approved hydrogen peroxide solution.

Results from this study were inconclusive. The wet 2009 season impacted the overall storability of some of Rockville Market Farm’s winter squash. Untreated delicata squash had the highest percent salable squash. A delay in weighing squash prevented determining salable weights of other squash types. Rockville Market Farm plans to continue this research to extend their sales of winter squash.

These eight farmers have found farm-specific solutions that will impact their management practices and the viability of their winter growing operations. Some participants will continue research on winter growing, season extension and winter storage to answer more questions on their farms.

Research conclusions:

Answering Questions on the Farm: Conducting Research, Maintaining Records, and Evaluating Production Practices Conference

This two day farmer-to-farmer conference held in January, 2009 was an overwhelming success. Five farmer-speakers discussed 1) their farm system (planning, management, and record-keeping; crop plans: planting schedules and timing; soil fertility management, cover crops, and rotations; pest management: weeds, insects, and diseases; post harvest handling and storage; and marketing and markets), and 2) the on-farm research they have conducted, including details on how they did the research, what challenges arose, what they would do differently, and how they used the information to improve their farming systems. Farmer participants were provided with time and a structured exercise to develop their own on-farm research priorities at the conference. Provided in the farmers’ conference notebook was the SARE bulletin, “How to Conduct Research on Your Farm or Ranch,” as well as a resource guide to the document created for the conference to help farmers conduct on-farm research. Growers liked the presentation and handouts and enjoyed the informative lunchtime discussions; all growers said they would make changes to their farm planning, record keeping or production practices as a result of attending the conference.

New England Farmers’ On-Farm Research Priorities 2009

A document entitled New England Farmers’ On-Farm Research Priorities 2009 was sent to 108 university researchers, extension personnel, state agencies of agriculture, farm bureaus, and organic agricultural service providers in nine states in the Northeast region who work with vegetable and fruit farmers. It was well received; some comments are listed below.

• Cornell University: Thanks so much for sending this report! Last week at our Northeast Vegetable IPM Working Group meeting, members decided to respond to organic growers’ concerns, possibly by writing a grant proposal to address specific issues, so this report is very timely. I will make sure they see it.

• Cornell University Extension: Thanks so much for doing this great work! This is a really nice, specific list of priorities, something we have struggled with getting in NY. We were just about to put together an online survey to update our research and extension priorities for NY organic growers, and now we don’t need to! We plan to share your results with our group and see if anything else comes up in discussion….

• Cornell University Extension: Thank you for this valuable information. An item that is requested more frequently in proposal writing is documentation that the proposed work is an industry priority. This document will be useful for that process. Also, I am copying this reply to the NE IPM Center. They maintain a repository of these types of priorities on their website in order to assist in proposal preparation. I would suggest that the two of you consider inclusion of your document in that repository. (This was done.)

• NOFA- MASS: Thanks, Wendy, Good stuff here. Do you have a planned next step? It would be great to do some regional work on many of these topics. I am copying our extension minded staff and friends in NOFA/Mass.

• Rutgers Experiment Station: It amazes me how…A) Most wish list items were asked and answered long ago, and/or results, technologies, or economic data are available. The problem is inexperienced, new, poorly capitalized farms can’t afford adoption, not that the answer does not exist or needs research. This goes for items like washing delicate greens, economic benefits of irrigation, boron on beets, managing weeds in beds which vary according to amendment sources, etc. It’s all known. B) Most list items are the same whether new/small/inexperienced farmer was using organic practices or not. The difference is inability of organic farmers to effectively combat weeds, or rather the excessive management hours and intensity to combat weeds, which diverts attention from sales or other farm management goals. C) Defining sustainability markers remains elusive. A famous New Mexico State Ag economist once quipped to me, “If you can write a check for it, you don’t have a problem.” Since resources have prices, ALL sustainability is economic. Most U.S. sustainable Ag policies (short of Dust Bowl) emerged from some farmers’ inability (differential ability) responding to technology advances; leading to “Economic Dislocation” of less competitive, less efficient, less well-capitalized, poorly managed farms. Not about resource input measures, nor distorted, biased resource prices because of policies, but rather the economic dislocation from endless economic competition; which will never, ever go away. It can’t go away. If you want to measure sustainability progress, measure inputs and costs per unit of output (sales revenues), measure cash flow, and account for everything. Hard to do! Most of us are not management economists.

• UVM – Extension: This was interesting. Wish we had a huge team of researchers to do a lot of the work! There were some great ideas there.

Season Extension, Storage and Winter Growing: On-Farm Research and Practices Workshop

This workshop, held at the NOFA-VT Winter Conference in February, 2010 had the best attendance of all sessions in the vegetable and fruit advanced track with 66 growers attending. Four on-farm researchers participating in this project spoke, and we invited additional farmer speakers from New York to share information on winter growing and on-farm hoop-house temperature research they conducted.. The workshop session was highly rated. On a 1-5 scale, with 5 being best, this workshop was rated as a 4.56. Comments were incredibly positive and included:

• These (Season Extension) were the kind of practical sessions I was looking for.

• Season Extension: good information; good topic. Knowledgeable presenters (Arnolds).

• The Season Extension workshop was really effective in having so many people researching a similar topic.

• Season Extension: Excellent, useful info from real growers.

• Season Extension was extremely useful, well presented, dense with information.

• Very informative, lots of specific information, research-based.

Farmers were also asked how they would make use of the information they learned:

• Yes – tight spacing, interplanting, multiple row covers.

• I think I have a better idea of what is still uncertain about winter growing and where there is room to continue experimenting and researching.

• Yes some good points: timing on 2nd row cover removal, height on second row cover, sidewall height difference.

• How to grow in high tunnels, varieties to grow will be used.

• We are expanding our hoop houses and plan to work on extending seasons—the Arnolds gave excellent information.

• Lots –tunnels.

• Yes, we are planning on starting a farm specializing in winter growing, storage crops, and high tunnel crops.

On- Farm Research

Eight farmers completed on-farm research projects on season extension, winter growing and storage. These farmers found farm-specific solutions that will impact their management practices and the viability of their winter growing and storage operations.
On-farm research results were summarized and put on the NOFA-VT website at: http://nofavt.org/programs/technical-assistance-education-vegetables/winter-growing-research-results
This on-farm research was highlighted in the fall issue of NOFA Notes, which has a circulation of 1350; 60% of whom are farmers. This on-farm research was also highlighted in NOFA-VT’s September E-newsletter, which has a circulation of 3000 people.

Participation Summary

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

Participation Summary

Education/outreach description:

Outreach was done to promote the two-day farmer-to-farmer conference: Answering Questions on the Farm: Conducting Research, Maintaining Records, and Evaluating Production Practices. “Save-The-Date” Cards and the brochure were sent to 275 growers in Vermont. An electronic version was sent to 100 university researchers, extension personnel, state agencies of agriculture, farm bureaus, and organic agricultural service providers in nine states in the Northeast region who work with vegetable and fruit farmers. Conference materials were highlighted on NOFA-VT’s web site. The conference was listed monthly in NOFA-VT’s fall e-newsletters with a circulation of 3000 people, and on the Vermont Vegetable and Berry Growers e-news, which is printed in Ag Review, the Vermont Department of Agriculture Food and Markets Newspaper, which has a circulation of 2,600 paid subscribers.

The document titled: New England Farmers’ On Farm Research Priorities 2009 was distributed to 108 university researchers, extension personnel, state agencies of agriculture, farm bureaus, and organic agricultural service providers in nine states in the Northeast region who work with vegetable and fruit farmers.

The NOFA-VT Winter Conference Advanced Track held on Saturday, February 13th 2010 included outreach for on-farm research titled: Season Extension, Storage and Winter Growing: On-Farm Research and Practices. It had the highest attendance at the advance track with 66 growers attending. Outreach included: 4,150 Winter Conference brochures were sent to people, 60% of whom were growers. The conference was highlighted monthly in NOFA-VT’s e-newsletter which has a circulation of 3000 people, and was posted on the NOFA-VT website (www.nofavt.org).

Eight farmers completed their on-farm research projects and project reports. Research results were summarized and posted on the NOFA-VT website. They were highlighted with a link back to the website in the fall issue of NOFA Notes, which has a circulation of 1350, 60% of whom are farmers. It was also highlighted and linked in NOFA-VT’s September e-newsletter, which has a circulation of 3000.

Project Outcomes

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

Areas needing additional study

There needs to be a comprehensive research program evaluated by knowledgeable growers on winter growing in the Northeast.

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.