Merrimack County New Hampshire Cover Crop Seed Production Feasibility Project

Progress report for ONE21-401

Project Type: Partnership
Funds awarded in 2021: $11,339.00
Projected End Date: 08/31/2022
Grant Recipient: Merrimack County Conservation District
Region: Northeast
State: New Hampshire
Project Leader:
Jessica Newnan
Merrimack County Conservation District
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Project Information

Project Objectives:
  1. This project seeks to assess the feasibility of growing cover crop seeds on municipal lands and establishing infrastructure to process, store, and distribute the seeds to local farmers.  The assessment will uncover the potential success of the endeavor by looking at the costs, the capacity of the land, and the resources that would be necessary to continue the project.
  2. This project seeks to create a plan of action to proceed with the endeavor based on the findings of the feasibility assessment.  The benefits associated with this plan are anticipated to be reduced costs to farmers utilizing the practice of cover cropping, improved access to cover crop seeds, and new market opportunities with the establishment of processing facilities.
Introduction:

Cover cropping is a widely accepted fertility management practice farmers utilize to maintain soil health.  There are barriers, however, to implementing this practice depending on where the farm is located.  According to a 2012 SARE survey found that 20% of farmers cited lack of access to cover crop seeds as the barrier which kept them from utilizing this practice (White, 2014).  Currently, there is no local source of cover crop seeds in New Hampshire.  Farmers have to order seeds from out-of-state companies in order to utilize the beneficial practice of cover cropping their land for fertility management.  An article from Penn State Extension indicates that cover crop seeds come from all over the world, but the majority that are grown in the United States come from Oregon, with some grown in Texas and North Dakota (Larson, 2019).  Because of the broad geographic scope from which the seed is sourced, cover cropping is not only expensive to do, but also requires the seeds to be shipped in, creating its own environmental impacts.  Growing cover crop seeds comes with considerations too.  Steve Groff, a cover crop consultant, points out that different kinds of cover crop seeds require different machinery to harvest and clean (Groff, 2018).  The cost of this equipment is often a barrier to entry for farmers looking to grow their own seed.

Merrimack County has the opportunity to bring municipal lands which are currently unutilized into production.  In considering the possible uses for this land, it was identified that the issue of local cover crop seed production could be addressed, and ultimately benefit local farmers.  Besides providing a local source of seed and reducing the environmental impacts of cover cropping for farmers, the facilities needed to process the seed would serve as a community resource.  Much of the equipment would be multifunctional in that it would be able to process both seeds and grains.  Grain processing facilities are not available in New Hampshire unless they are privately owned, and are expensive to get started.  By providing this resource, farmers would have the ability to expand into new markets.

Through this project, the Merrimack County Conservation District (MCCD) and its partners will conduct a feasibility assessment of setting up the infrastructure to make cover crop seed production on municipal lands possible.   The team will include farmers, MCCD staff, and technical advisors experienced with cover crops and seed production in order to assess the feasibility of this endeavor and create a plan on how to proceed.  Should the project be feasible, the municipal production of cover crop seeds would make cover cropping more affordable to farmers who already utilize the practice, and also open up the opportunity for farmers to implement it where it had previously been cost prohibitive.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Laura French - Producer
  • Tracey Lesser (Educator)
  • Chris Peterson - Producer
  • Ray Ramsey - Producer
  • Si Robertson - Producer
  • Carl Majewski (Educator)

Research

Materials and methods:

To conduct the feasibility assessment as described in the first objective, the team will meet on a monthly basis.  Each meeting will have a specific topic or section of the feasibility assessment to be addressed, and MCCD staff will record meeting minutes to capture the discussed information.  In the first meeting, the team will discuss the logistics of growing cover crops on municipal lands as well as the potential production capacity.  This will include creating a list of necessary equipment, addressing soil fertility management, and exploring best practices for weed and pest management.  Either at or before this meeting, the approximate acreage being brought into production will be calculated, and the approximate yield of different cover crop seed varieties will be discussed.   All data will be recorded in a production capacity spreadsheet.  As time and weather allow, 14 soil samples will be taken including 6 from municipal lands, 5 from agricultural parcels managed by Meadowsend Consulting Co., and 3 from Sanborn Mills Farm.  They will be sent to both the University of New Hampshire and Cornell for testing.  The data from the tests will be used to determine the amendments needed to begin cover crop seed production and thus will inform the list of startup costs.

At the second meeting, the team will discuss what infrastructure is needed for a processing facility.  They will address what infrastructure already exists and what would need to be purchased if the endeavor proceeds.  In doing so, a list of what needs to be purchased will be created for MCCD staff to research between the second and third meeting.  MCCD staff will research costs from at least 3 vendors where it is possible, and create a spreadsheet to be distributed to the team.  At the third meeting, the cost sheet provided by MCCD staff will be reviewed, and the discussion will center around resources for meeting the startup costs.   

During the fourth meeting, the team will consider the possibility of renting processing facilities out to farmers looking to grow either seed or grain.  They will assess whether or not the equipment would be sufficient for various types of seed and grain processing as well as how renting the facilities would work from a logistics standpoint.  After discussing the rental potential of the facilities, MCCD staff will put together a projected income statement based on multiple scenarios.  These scenarios will include varying rental fee rates as well as varying rental interest from farmers and various prices for selling the cover crop seeds to local farmers.  

At the fifth meeting, the team will discuss the parameters of a market survey.  They will design questions which will illicit data regarding the sale of cover crop seeds to farmers, the potential increase in use of cover crops based on lower cost of buying seeds, the existing need for seed/grain processing facilities, and the interest in growing seed/grain should processing facilities be made available.  Data will be recorded in a spreadsheet and charts will be generated off of this data.  MCCD staff will distribute the survey through the existing newsletter with Merrimack County farmers as well as other community partners who will be discussed at the fifth meeting.  They will also record the data in the spreadsheet and create the charts which will be shared back with the team at the seventh meeting.

The organization and operation of both growing cover crop seeds on municipal lands and the rental of processing facilities will be the topic of conversation at the sixth meeting of the team.  The details determined in this meeting will include who is responsible for each step of production, who will oversee the facility rentals, how to organize facility rentals to be most efficient, and any other factors that the team determines to be necessary.  These details will be recorded in the meeting notes and MCCD staff will summarize the organization and operation of each aspect of the endeavor for final review at the eighth meeting.  

The seventh meeting will be set aside as a time to review the data gleaned from the market survey results.  At this time the team will discuss what the market survey says about each part of the endeavor and make an initial determination of whether there is a demand to be met.  In this meeting, the team will prepare an opening day balance sheet which will include all of the assets associated with each part of the endeavor and the liabilities that will be due in the subsequent 12 months.  At this time the team will also discuss the logistics of the financial aspect of the endeavor.  Those details will include who receives the money from cover crop seed sales and facility rentals, as well as how it is distributed to cover operating costs.  The information discussed in this meeting will be recorded in meeting notes and summarized for the final report.

At the eighth meeting, the team will review all data including the production capacity spreadsheet, the cost sheet, the projected income statement which is deemed most likely based on the market survey results, and the opening day balance sheet.  During the discussion, the team will consider the feasibility of the organization and operation processes determined for each cover crop seed production and facility rental.  The meeting will end with a go or no-go decision regarding whether the endeavor should proceed.  This will be the conclusion of the feasibility assessment.  All the data and information discussed in this meeting will be summarized for the final project report.

In order to fulfill the second objective for the project, the ninth meeting will be held to discuss next steps for the endeavor as a whole.  Should the feasibility assessment determine that the endeavor is in fact feasible, the conversation will center around what needs to be done to get things up and running.  The resources needed to purchase equipment and proceed with the next steps will be discussed at the tenth meeting in this case.  The predominant resources discussed will be funding sources.  Should it be determined that the endeavor is not feasible, however, the conversation in the ninth meeting will focus on what the problems were.  Between the ninth and tenth meetings, the team will discuss possible scenarios to find solutions to these problems if they are available.  

For the eleventh meeting, the team will prepare a final plan.  This will include reviewing the next steps along with the resources or solutions that accompany each one and beginning to put together a final report.  MCCD staff will work on this final report between the eleventh meeting and the twelfth.  The report will be edited and finalized by the team at the twelfth and final meeting of the project.

Research results and discussion:

MCCD staff announced the project to farmers in Merrimack County in December 2021 by distributing an e-newsletter with information on what is being studied and how to get involved. The project experienced some delays in getting started due to paperwork and scheduling conflicts, so the work on the project was not able to begin until this point. In December 2021 MCCD staff also met with a local cooperative that is working on creating an artisanal grain market in New Hampshire who may be able to provide some insight to the project since many grains are used as cover crops. Members of the cooperative have been invited to the meetings for this project. Unfortunately, the ground froze before the soil samples could be taken, so this task will be completed in March or April 2022 depending on when the ground thaws.

Because of the delay in starting the project, the series of meetings laid out in the materials and methods section has been condensed so that they are held every 3 weeks or so rather than monthly, and topics are being paired as it is appropriate to make sure they are all covered in the remaining time. The first meeting was held in January 2022, at which point the team discussed the project as a whole, identified additional partners to include, determined key logistics for both growing cover crop seeds and creating a shared-use facility for processing seeds and grains, and discussed current production capacity as well as the possibility of future expansion. The result of this meeting was a spreadsheet with cover crop seed varieties, their growing requirements, and their potential yield as well as a list of equipment that would be needed for general use and specialized equipment for specific crops. This spreadsheet is near completion and is being finalized by MCCD staff.

A second meeting was held in February 2022 at which the processing infrastructure was discussed. The conversation began with the organization and operation of the processing facility, as this would determine which pieces of equipment would be needed in order to establish the facility. The potential of equipment being mobile so that farmers who wish to rent it could process seeds or grains on their property was brought up, and seemed to be an agreeable and feasible solution. MCCD already runs an equipment rental program, making the addition of processing equipment a natural expansion. The next step in considering this possibility is looking at the food safety requirements and legal aspects of this solution. Jessica Newnan attended a food safety workshop for grain producers in order to inform the project, and will follow up with the resources provided. At this meeting the possibility of the New Hampshire Technical Institute performing the laboratory testing required to sell seed and grain was considered. Having a local testing facility would be vital to the feasibility of this project. Before the next meeting, MCCD staff will look into the requirements of such a facility so that they may be discussed by the group.

Participation Summary
2 Farmers participating in research

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

1 Published press articles, newsletters

Participation Summary:

163 Farmers
Education/outreach description:

As the beneficiaries of the endeavor, the farmers in Merrimack County will be the key audience of outreach efforts.  Merrimack County Conservation District (MCCD) has an established network of farms throughout the county.  The primary way that MCCD distributes information to this network is through MailChimp newsletters, to which there are currently 243 subscribers.  Throughout the project, MCCD will send out updates to the farmer newsletter list.  At the beginning of the project, a newsletter will be sent out inviting farmers who are interested in participating in the feasibility assessment to get involved.  Although there are already farms partnering in this project, sending out this invitation will allow for more open participation from the community.  It will also create awareness of the project among the farms in Merrimack County.  This newsletter will be drafted on the start date of the project and sent out within the first week. 

In the process of the feasibility study, the team will be conducting a market survey, which will also require community outreach.  MCCD staff will distribute the survey through the newsletter, social media, and other channels deemed appropriate by the team.  The anticipated timeframe of the market survey is between December 2021 and January 2022.  The goal of the survey will be to provide as many farms as possible to contribute their answers to the data set.  As such, community partners including other county conservation districts may be asked to help distribute the survey to farms in their area.

Once the feasibility assessment has been conducted, a newsletter will be sent out distributing the results.  In addition to the 243 subscribers in the farmer newsletter list, MCCD will share the findings of the feasibility assessment with the 1,112 subscribers on the community newsletter list.  This list includes not only community members, but people from local organizations who may have an interest in the endeavor.  The results should be sent out to the community in March 2022. 

As a follow-up to the feasibility study, the team will be putting together next steps for the endeavor.  These will be distributed to both the farmer and community newsletter lists in the form of a final report on the project.  This last newsletter will be drafted in June 2022, reviewed by the team, and sent out in July 2022.

Project Outcomes

1 New working collaboration
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.