Our Lyndsay Ploehn and Sarah Highlen took part in a Purdue Beginning Farmer field trip earlier this month with the Purdue Extension, funded by a USDA Beginning Farmer Rancher Development Grant and North Central Region SARE. The whirlwind trip across Vermont and Maine included 14 sustainable farm tours over 7 days, with 24 participants.
🌱 We discovered innovative solutions like Jasper Hill Farm's high-tech hay drying system (partially solar-powered); Cate Farm’s greenhouse trolley and greenhouse configuration; Four Season Farm/Eliot Coleman’s rolling hoop house and never-ending development of new tools; and Crystal Spring Community Farm’s use of saw horses to make easily disassembled seed-starting tables. Plus, there was Frith Farm’s color-coded visual crop plan, use of second-hand billboard vinyl as a solarization tool for to weed control, and homemade drum dibbler.
🌱 We studied how Richard Wiswall grows organic seedlings that are cheaper, healthier, and better-looking than the seedlings available at the big box store. Likewise, Eliot Coleman observed that organic farming obviously works with the right approach — there was plenty of evidence in his healthy, productive fields. Several farmers told us that much of the conventional produce in the grocery store is more expensive than their own locally grown organic produce.
🌱 We got practical tips such as horse manure as a multi-year solution to prevent cabbage worms; watering seedlings deeply and less frequently; the huge payoff of preventing seed rain; and the importance of farm location (near population center) for new farmers who have that choice. We gathered in-depth info about the characteristics of a successful apprenticeship program; models for land trusts; the value of farm business planning and viability coaching; and how to grow beautiful leeks without hilling by dropping 10” seedlings into 9” holes made with a simple tool. We also learned from University of Maine researchers that organic mulch and seed bank management are the most profitable weed control strategies, even after accounting for labor. Their studies showed that these labor-intensive strategies had the best payoff, even in the first year. Also in the practical tip category, one farmer advised us to start using QuickBooks asap, and to make sure that products are catalogued and organized by crop to enable profitability calculations.
🌱 We learned from farmers with different perspectives. We heard about the value of tilling at Four Season Farm and the success of a no-till approach at Frith Farm. Likewise, some stay focused on a handful of items that can be produced super-efficiently in order to be profitable, while others believe the integration of livestock and crops is critical to developing a "self-fed”, efficient, self-reliant farm. We also benefited tremendously from the camaraderie of the group and had the opportunity to learn so much the other trip participants.
...and that was just a glimpse of what we learned. We have a combined 30 or so pages of notes! Thank you to Tamara and Marion of Purdue Extension’s Diversified Food and Farming Systems program for putting together this incredible educational experience! And thank you to all the amazing farmers and others who took the time to talk to us: Intervale Center, Jasper Hill Farm, Pete's Greens, High Mowing Organic Seeds, The Center for an Agricultural Economy, Cate Farm, Frith Farm, Crystal Spring Community Farm, Dandelion Spring Farm, Four Season Farm, UMaine Sustainable Agriculture Program, Johnny's Selected Seeds, Maine Organic Farmers And Gardeners Association (MOFGA), and Belfast Co-op!
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