Assessing Productivity and Profitability of Vegetable Production in the Central Missouri River Bottomlands: Tools for Farm Transitions
The Mid-MO Growers Group formed as a partnership with the vision of growing vegetables collaboratively in central Missouri. Our SARE project assesses the productivity and profitability of low-input crop systems on a property recently transitioned from commodity crop production in the Missouri River bottomlands.
Our 2015 site was a rich, sandy bottomland field adjacent to conventional corn and soybean production. The 6 acre field was shaped as a triangle and proved difficult for the farm owner to use his large equipment because of the numerous turns required to plant, tend and harvest. Thus, the farm owner was willing to let us lease this small patch. In 2014, parts of the site were in potato and cover crops (3 acres). The remainder had been planted in sweet corn (3 acres). Prior to 2014, the entire field was in commodity crop production.
The team did extensive research on varieties, methods for planting, weeding, harvesting, post-harvest handling, and marketing prior to the final crop selection and layout. We selected potatoes, sweet potatoes, butternut squash and dry black beans for our assessment. We planted potatoes in late March and sweet potatoes, butternut squash, and black beans during the first weeks of June. Over the course of the season, the team kept close records of all farming expenses, time spent on specific tasks, yields, and market sales. We also worked to identify and establish markets and distribution networks. Initially, we focused on Boone and Cole counties in Mid-Missouri. Later in the season, we expanded our marketing to the St. Louis area.
Funds from the SARE program to-date have been used to assist with costs of our hand tools, drip irrigation, pest control, seed, travel, land lease, and our time conducting research and collecting data. Additionally, funds were used to host a website for Mid-MO Growers Group (www.midmogrowers.org) and provide food for field days that showcased the progress mid-season.
Results and Lessons Learned:
Commodity croplands present a unique set of benefits and challenges for specialty vegetable producers. On the positive side, landscapes in which large swaths of corn and soybeans are planted tend to be flat, previously worked, sod-free river or creek bottom fields that are inherently fertile. Some of the challenges presented by these lands, however, are difficult to manage.
In a low-lying valley dominated by conventional production methods, the strong possibility of herbicide drift puts vegetable crops at risk of spray damage. Whereas there exist methods to mitigate spray drift, there is no way to grow vegetables in these landscapes with 100% certainty that they will not be damaged. This was proven when our entire black bean crop sustained major herbicide damage and had to be culled.
Pesticide spraying in the area also interrupted our work routine. On several occasions, we opted to vacate our vegetable patch while spraying was conducted on a nearby soybean field, presumably to combat the abundant population of Japanese beetles.
Weeds posed a major challenge to production. This is common to all agricultural production systems, of course, but our site was home to a hearty population of the fabled “superweeds” – varieties of giant spiny amaranth that can grow to be 10 – 12 feet tall, with four-inch diameter trunks and six foot branch spreads, producing what must be millions of seeds per plant. Uncertainties about past land management and the existing weed seed bank are a challenge when attempting to transition lands to low-input production systems. Well-planned row spacing that allows for mechanical cultivation can be helpful for weed control.
Harvest, Post-Harvest, Storage
Whereas we successfully estimated the size of a farm that can reasonably be run by four people working collaboratively part-time (with minimal use of a tractor), we underestimated post-harvest and storage aspects of our operation. Potatoes were harvested on a weekly basis as new potatoes. This eliminated the need for storage and resulted in minimal spoilage, but it also made washing and air-drying a regular post-harvest task. Thus, potato harvest was a drawn-out affair that lasted until after dark on many occasions. Sweet potato harvesting was an intensive process – done by hand to ensure minimal bruising of the tubers. This required a large investment of labor but resulted in a high quality product and minimal crop loss. With sweet potatoes, we encountered major storage challenges initially. We needed a large, pest-proof, temperature and humidity-controlled environment to effectively cure and store sweet potatoes for quality concerns. To solve this, we rented an 8’ x 20’ shipping container that we insulated and outfitted with a heater and humidifier. It worked wonderfully, but cost time and money to solve last-minute. Butternut squash were field-graded and crated at the end of the season. In hindsight, the crop was graded too strictly, and a fair percentage of the total yield was not brought in for sale.
Finding an appropriate niche in the market is among the most important jobs of a small farmer. The vast majority of our produce was sold wholesale to grocery stores and restaurants who were pleased to have reliable supplies of local produce. They represent a new wave of restaurants and groceries that have no problem paying a higher price for local produce because its quality and freshness sets them apart from other businesses. Also, many successful restaurants and specialty grocers we encountered agree that sourcing locally is an ideal way of doing business because it keeps money in the local economy, provides income for honest producers and strengthens community.
There are a number of benefits to dealing directly with a variety of local wholesale buyers. First, producers can avoid middlemen and aggregators to collect the full price for their goods. Direct marketing is no small task for produces who are already stretched on time and resources. In order to compete in the wholesale market, the mid-size producer must develop the professionalism, customer service, reliability and consistency that buyers expect from existing aggregators and distributors. This is challenging, but in our observation it is a worthwhile endeavor for building a functional, sustainable and profitable local vegetable enterprise.
Second, producers can gain an understanding of the quantitative and temporal aspects of market demand that are indispensable in planning future farming activities. By understanding who wants which products and when they want them, producers can effectively plan their farming operations to be efficient, effective and targeted to the demands of the local food system. This cuts down on wasted space in the field, wasted time and wasted food.
Third, when a producer develops a working relationship with local restaurants, they can reduce waste and find good markets for second-quality produce. For instance, a significant number of our potatoes, butternut squash and sweet potatoes were of good eating quality but were unusually shaped or superficially blemished from pest damage – traits that might cause them to be culled in standard commercial grading systems. Our restaurant customers were glad to buy wrinkly butternut squash, potatoes with wireworm holes, and sweet potatoes with cut and cured ends for a slightly discounted price. Consequently, our operation was able to sell many hundreds of pounds of produce that would normally be cast aside.
No discussion of marketing would be complete without addressing the inevitable waste stream from a vegetable farm. Many times throughout the year we took boxes full of #2 and #3 vegetables to the Central Missouri Food Pantry, some of which were saleable and some of which were just below our #2 standard but still of acceptable eating quality. They weigh the produce and keep a running total of our donations. We are glad to be part of the food pantry’s impressive contributions to those people in our community who need access to food. Over time we have developed a very friendly relationship with the staff at the food pantry, and we plan to make donations to the food pantry in the future as part of our operation.
Work Plan for Next Year:
We are concluding our 2015 farm season and tallying the final numbers as the last of our winter storage crops leave the shelves. In 2016, we will focus on outreach and education. In the upcoming months, we will work to develop the crop enterprise budgets for our selected crops. Our budgets will use cost-benefit analyses for each successful crop (potatoes, butternut squash, sweet potatoes) to build locally-relevant, customizable enterprise models that can function as shared planning and financing tools for low-input production. These will be shared publicly online, and we will schedule and host a community-wide event to present our budgets and lessons learned. In addition, we will seek out opportunities to share our research at local and regional educational events such as conferences and workshops. Our hope is that our experience can serve as a resource for other farmers as they consider diversifying operations or scaling up vegetable production. We will partner with local extension offices, the Missouri Young Farmers Coalition, and the Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture in 2016.
- One field day was held at the farm to tour interested parties around the operation. We had representatives from Lincoln University Cooperative Extension and the Columbia Farmers Market as well as interested beginning farmers in attendance. In total, 13 people joined our group for the field day. Great discussion was held on best practices and issues of plant health.
- We had several workdays at the farm where young farmers lent a hand with the operation. This served a double benefit – we had extra help and an outreach opportunity. The Columbia Center For Urban Agriculture introduced us to a crew of 10 from the Americorps National Civilian Community Corps that helped us harvest sweet potatoes on multiple occasions. The corps members were from mostly urban areas all over the United States and many of them had never been on a farm. In exchange for the help, the Americorps group then donated a percentage of the day’s harvest to the Central Missouri Food Pantry on CCUA’s behalf. The whole experience was overwhelmingly positive and helped build relationships in the community.
- Meetings with growers on and off site were held informally at several points through the season. These meetings were helpful at diagnosing plant health issues, comparing weed control strategies, and making plans for harvesting and crop storage.
- We established an online presence with website and Facebook group. As of February 1st, Mid-MO Growers Group has 60+ likes. Our website has 242 unique visitors and 930 page views.
- Over the coming year we will be presenting our enterprise budget findings and other reflections on best practices to groups in formal venues like growers’ conferences and informally at young farmer gatherings.
1157 E Nashville Church Road
Ashland, MO 65010
Office Phone: 6362196336
Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture
1007 N College Ave, Suite #1
Columbia, MO 65203
Office Phone: 5735144174
1157 E Nashville Church Road
Ashland, MO 65010
Office Phone: 4146141383
214 Saint Joseph
Coumbia, MO 65203
Office Phone: 5733569392
Missouri Young Farmers Coalition
Missouri Young Farmers Coalition
704 Clinkscales Ave
Columbia, MO 65203
Office Phone: 8165228001