I was raised on a 45-acre
family vegetable and poultry farm in Freehold, New Jersey.
Today I operate my own 17-acre certified organic vegetable,
flower and herb farm in Gainesville, Florida. I'm often asked
how a Jersey girl wound up farming organically in Florida.
Like many farm children, my parents encouraged me to find
an easier and more financially rewarding profession. My solution
was to study agriculture—I attended Rutgers University's
Cook College and majored in agricultural science. Later I
worked as an assistant plant breeder for Northrup King, in
Homestead, Florida, and then pursued a master's degree in
international agricultural development at the University of
California-Davis followed by a doctoral degree in plant pathology
at the University of Florida. I also worked on a short-term
agricultural development project in Senegal, West Africa.
It was while I was completing my Ph.D. in Florida that my
husband and I decided to buy land and start farming part-time.
I missed farming—every summer since college, I tried
to spend a few weeks helping my dad at home—but buying
my own land was a big decision. I told myself it was going
to be fun and strictly part-time. I set a conservative dollar
goal for a spring vegetable crop and decided if I reached
it I would be satisfied. We exceeded my target by 100 percent
in the first year, and that was when I realized there could
be a future for me in agriculture.
||Everyone had the same product and
prices were low—sometimes you got less than the
price of the box you packed your vegetables in. It made
me sick to think of all of the sweat and care that had
gone into those crops. I knew I didn't want to repeat
I chose to farm organically for a number of reasons. The
first came from memories of our family farm in New Jersey.
In the late 1970s, our best farmers' market at the Jersey
Shore folded because of a lack of growers. We had little choice
but to sell more wholesale, primarily through an auction-style
growers’ cooperative. Everyone had the same product
and prices were low—sometimes you got less than the
price of the box you packed your vegetables in. It made me
sick to think of all of the sweat and care that had gone into
those crops. I knew I didn't want to repeat that experience.
The organic marketplace was growing and I knew I could offer
a unique product at our local farmers' market.
The second reason was to avoid exposing my family, workers,
neighbors and customers to pesticides. After working on large
conventional farms in California and south Florida, where
pesticide applications were frequent—often a couple
of times a week—I decided there had to be a better way.
I knew there were alternatives to the dominant, mono-crop
style of American agriculture and that crop diversity was
one of the keys to reducing risk in farming. I was convinced
that organic farming was worth a try.
The third factor was my determination to prove that it could
be done in Florida. After deciding to farm organically, I
knocked on a lot of doors at the university to get advice.
I was told that within three years I would return to conventional
farming. It made me want to succeed just to prove them wrong.
Fortunately, I had many friends in California who were involved
in organic agriculture; some had even started their own organic
farms. Having a network of people I respected, who believed
in and practiced organic agriculture, helped me recognize
the opportunities that existed.
The first thing I did was to get my land certified. Choosing
a certifier was easy because Florida
Organic Growers and Consumers, Inc., the only established
agency in the state, was headquartered in Gainesville. I requested
the paperwork and began filling out the application. Because
we were certifying land we had owned for less than three years
we had to get a letter from the previous owner documenting
her management practices.
||For me, farming is a continuous learning
process, and the creation and maintenance of an organic
farm plan is an integral part of that.
The next step was to develop a farm plan. I am person who
carries a lot of information around in my head and rarely
writes things down, but drawing up a farm plan proved invaluable.
The foundation of my plan was crop and cultivar diversity,
rotations, good sanitation practices and avoidance of pests.
I planned to use summer cover crops during our fallow period
and drip irrigation to conserve water and reduce moisture
in the plant canopy. Off-farm inputs would be limited to composted
poultry manure, seeds and growing supplies. I was committed
to controlling pests through farming system management, not
Over the years I've learned that documenting my practices
enables me to evaluate my operation based on reality—not
memory. I look at our annual organic inspections as an opportunity
to reflect on our operation and to explain when and why we
have implemented new production strategies. For me, farming
is a continuous learning process, and the creation and maintenance
of an organic farm plan is an integral part of that.
Social history of transition
Living and studying in California in the mid-1980s was what
got me started thinking about becoming an organic farmer.
At the busy farmers' market in Davis on Saturdays there were
many young farmers with thriving, innovative organic operations.
A number of my friends and fellow students became organic
inspectors, attended the annual Eco-Farm
Conference at Asilomar or were involved in shaping what
became the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990. Organic farming
was an exciting new idea back then and the enthusiasm of those
involved drew me in.
||I soon realized that our family farm
had more in common with a medium-sized organic operation
than with the large-scale conventional operations prevalent
in Florida and California.
But I did not embrace organic farming hook, line and sinker.
I began by trying to understand the differences between the
practices of the new organic farmers and the methods my dad
used to grow vegetables in New Jersey. I soon realized that
our family farm had more in common with a medium-sized organic
operation than with the large-scale conventional operations
prevalent in Florida and California. My dad was born in 1917
and grew up prior to the agriculture's chemical revolution.
On our farm we kept layer hens, so poultry manure was our
primary source of fertility. We cultivated a wide range of
different crops, followed a rotation and grew cover crops
every winter and spring. Dad occasionally controlled insects
with Sevin dust, but he never had a pesticide applicator's
license and didn't own a sprayer. He had learned how to farm
without a lot of inputs and he never abandoned that knowledge.
My parents were more skeptical about organic agriculture
from a marketing perspective than from a growing perspective.
They had a hard time understanding why people would pay such
high prices for organic produce. I think after so many years
of struggling to get a minimum return for all their hard work
they thought there was something wrong with earning a decent
living from farming. My dad sometimes asked me why I didn’t
add a little ammonium nitrate to my crops to help them along,
but he was impressed by the quality of my crops. Today, my
parents have a better understanding of the organic marketplace
and have come to recognize the value of organic farming in
both environmental and economic terms.
When I started my farm in Gainesville, Florida Organic Growers
was a big help in sourcing inputs or answering other questions—at
that time, your certifier was virtually your only information
source on organic materials and practices. I also got involved
with the Southern
Sustainable Agriculture Working Group, attending their
annual conference to network with other growers in the southeastern
United States. In the off season, I visited other farms and
farmers' market to gather new ideas.
Cropping cycle by season
Crop diversity is the foundation of our farming system. Through
diversification we have been able to improve our soil, minimize
pest damage and reduce risk. We grow approximately 50 different
crops each year, including vegetables, cut flowers and herbs.
The limiting resources on our farm are land and labor, so
we strive to reduce labor needs and increase our land-use
In northern Florida you can theoretically farm year-round.
Our cropping cycle begins in late August, when we incorporate
summer cover crops and prepare the fields for fall-season
cash crops. In September we seed onions, cucumbers, basil
and cold-weather greens in the greenhouse for transplants
and start strawberry plugs in the shade house. At the same
time we seed our late winter/early spring cut flowers, including
snapdragons, dianthus, bells of Ireland, Queen Anne’s
lace, calendula, statice, stock, larkspur and delphinium.
We direct seed beans, turnip, radish, arugula, beets, carrots
and spinach, sometimes having to re-seed a number of times
if soil temperatures are too high.
Fall is the most challenging season for production. The insect
pressures are high because they have had all summer to build
up. Especially difficult are grasshoppers, aphids, lepidoptera
species and whiteflies. The insect populations begin to fall
once the weather gets cooler, usually sometime in October.
We also can get some severe weather at this time of the year,
including hurricanes and torrential downpours.
I grow most crops from transplants because
they can compete better with weeds, tolerate
drought better thanks to more robust root system,
and result in a more uniform stand.
We begin transplanting to the field in October. By this time,
the weather is usually moderating—the humidity drops,
the rainy season ends and temperatures are in the high 70s
to mid 80s. The days are still fairly long and things grow
fast—many of the greens planted in the beginning of
October can be harvested by the first week in November. We
usually start our CSA and two local farmers' markets at that
time. The customers get a mixture of warm-season crops like
basil, beans, okra and cucumbers and cool-season crops like
kale, salad mix, arugula, turnips, radishes and bok choi.
Sometimes we also grow day-neutral sunflowers for sale at
the farmers' market.
Our first frost usually occurs by the end of November or
beginning of December. This marks the transition from fall
to winter production. Our warm-season crops succumb to the
frost and we transition to a wider variety of cool-season
vegetables including broccoli, parsley, Swiss chard, beets,
carrots, collards, kohlrabi and cabbage. The winter season
lasts until the beginning of March. Traditionally the last-frost
date for northern Florida is March 15, but frequently our
final frost comes as early as mid-February. We try to do sequential
plantings of squash and cucumbers, one at the end of February
and a second in mid-March. This gives us a jump on the wholesale
and retail markets if we're spared a late frost and extends
our season for these quick-cycling crops. Around February
14 we plant potatoes to harvest the second week in May. Usually,
our spring flowers are beginning to bloom by late February
and peaking by early April.
In mid to late January we are still seeding greens for a
late spring crop while also seeding summer transplants including
tomatoes, melons, peppers, eggplant, sunflowers, sweet Annie,
celosia, zinnias and gomphrena. All of these are transplanted
to the field after March 15 and harvested between mid May
and late June.
As crops are harvested throughout the spring and summer we
pull up the irrigation tape and plastic mulch, disk and broadcast
our cover crops—typically cowpeas, sorghum or a mixture
of both. The cover crop is left to grow until late summer
when it is mowed and tilled under again in preparation for
Seed and variety selection
We are in the process of sourcing organic seed for each variety
we grow. After 12 years of growing we have narrowed down our
crop range to those that perform the best within our management
system and that are tolerant of or resistant to diseases.
Each year we try a few new varieties; if they perform well
or offer unique characteristics we may add them to our mix.
We have stopped growing some crops—dandelion, escarole,
non-specialty melons and large tomatoes, for example—due
to a lack of market demand or difficulty in consistently growing
a marketable crop.
I grow most crops from transplants because they can compete
better with weeds, tolerate drought better thanks to more
robust root system, and result in a more uniform stand. Two
investments I regard as essential to growing from transplants
are a hand-held vacuum seeder and a waterwheel transplanter.
The vacuum seeder has removable plates for different-sized
seeds and makes it possible to seed many trays of transplants
per hour. The waterwheel transplanter accomplishes the same
thing in the field when planting the crops. It is a time and
Weed control is primarily a challenge during our early fall
and summer season. Once the cool weather sets in, the weeds
grow more slowly and do not compete well with crops that are
transplanted. The warm-weather weeds grow fast and are very
aggressive. We use cultivation, hoeing and plastic mulch to
control weeds. We have a Farmall Super A tractor with cultivators
that allows us to control the weeds while they are small.
We may follow this with hand weeding or hoeing to get the
remaining weeds. The key to weed control is to address the
problem early and not let the weeds take over.
We use black plastic mulch sparingly for weed control, water
conservation and to warm soils during the cool season. The
rule we follow is that only long-season crops that need a
boost of higher soil temperatures to get them started—such
as onions, cut flowers, strawberries, tomatoes, eggplant and
melons—are grown on plastic mulch. The mulch also helps
control fruit-rot diseases (in strawberries, melons and tomatoes)
by creating a barrier between the harvestable portion of the
plant and the soil where the organism resides. We have a mulch
lifter that makes it possible to remove the mulch from the
field quickly and efficiently.
We also seek to manage weeds through intercropping. For example,
we transplant lettuce into a six-foot bed, planting two rows
per bed with plants 18 inches apart within the rows. Ten days
later we seed arugula down the middle of the beds. We can
then harvest lettuce and arugula together for salad mix, increasing
our efficiency. After we harvest the lettuce heads, we allow
the arugula to continuing growing, harvesting it at a more
mature stage to sell in bunches. Weeds are limited because
bare soil is minimized when the crops are young.
The two primary ways we improve our soils are through summer
cover cropping with crops that fix nitrogen (cowpeas) or increase
organic matter (sorghum) and by incorporating composted chicken
manure and other composted material.
Over the last couple of years we've experimented with a variety
of locally available manures (cow, poultry) and organic matter
sources (spent mushroom compost, sawdust, woodchips and straw)
to formulate composts that meet the time, temperature and
carbon:nitrogen ratio requirements specified
by the USDA National Organic Program standards (205.203).
We use a tractor with a front-end loader to turn the compost
piles and apply the compost with a manure spreader.
We test our soils every one to two years. One of the challenges
of growing crops in a subtropical environment is building
organic matter—high ambient temperatures tend to promote
rapid breakdown of organic matter so that even with cover
crops and compost it is difficult to build organic matter
For tillage we have a plow and a disk harrow with a board
on the back. In the beginning of the season, we mow down the
cover crops and plow them under. Next we apply compost, disk
the soil and then form beds by dropping the board on the back
of the disk and allowing it to smooth over the disked soil.
If a field is planted to a second crop in the same year, it
is usually mowed and disked, compost is applied and the beds
are shaped again.
For our drip irrigation system, we roll out the drip tape
using a homemade drip tape attachment hooked to the back of
the tractor. We have found that we can re-use the tape once.
We pull up the drip tape and re-spool it out using a wire
spooling reel sourced from an electrical supply company. We
do not inject anything into our irrigation system because
we want to avoid clogging the equipment. The drip system is
effective in reducing the amount of free moisture in the crop
canopy and thus minimizing foliar diseases. The biggest challenge
with drip irrigation is that it's hard to supply enough moisture
to direct-seeded crops. To ensure good germination we have
to rely on rain to pre-moisten the bed before we direct seed.
||Mixed cropping helps reduce the spread
of diseases and insects within the farm. This slows the
movement of a given disease or insect from one susceptible
host crop to another.
Diseases, weeds and insects are controlled through cultural,
biological and mechanical methods. Crop diversity promotes
a balanced agroecosystem that suppresses diseases and insect
pest outbreaks. Growing flowers provides habitat for beneficial
insects. Mixed cropping helps reduce the spread of diseases
and insects within the farm. I try to have a maximum of two
adjacent rows of the same crop in a given area—typically
our rows alternate crop species. This slows the movement of
a given disease or insect from one susceptible host crop to
A couple of years ago we learned how significant a diverse
bird population can be. A graduate student in wildlife studies
at the University of Florida conducted a bird survey of a
number of organic and conventional farms in our area, and
found that our farm had the greatest number of bird species
of any in the study. The researcher concluded that bird diversity
was linked to plant and insect diversity. Tall flowers like
sunflowers make ideal perches, while flowers and many other
crops provide food for birds or attract insects that serve
as food. We have since placed a number of bird houses in the
fields to encourage bluebirds and other insect-eating species
to nest. Although we have not quantified their contribution,
we firmly believe the birds play an important role in stabilizing
insect populations throughout the cropping season.
Another management practice we rely on is good sanitation.
Our greenhouses are located some distance from the fields,
and we always work in the greenhouses first, before entering
the fields each day. This reduces the chances of bringing
pests into the greenhouse environment. We buy clean, disease-free
seed and disinfect greenhouse equipment and supplies when
we recycle them. We try to produce all of our own transplants
on our farm. The only exception to this rule has been the
purchase of strawberry plugs, and we are experimenting with
starting our own plugs. We also buy seed potatoes, but we
carefully wash them and disinfect the pieces in a dilute chlorine
solution before planting. We neither borrow nor loan equipment
because we don't believe we can disinfect it sufficiently
to prevent the transfer of soil particles. If we know visitors
are coming from other farms we ask them to spray their shoes
with rubbing alcohol. All this may seem extreme, but it's
much easier to prevent soil-borne pathogens from arriving
on your farm than to get rid of them once they've been introduced.
Our plant spacing and irrigation practices seek to minimize
moisture and promote good aeration within the plant canopy,
creating a microclimate less favorable to fungal and bacterial
plant diseases. We try to water early in the day and allow
the plants to dry off before we enter the fields. This reduces
the chance of spreading diseases from plant to plant.
Finally, we follow a crop rotation that tries to avoid planting
the same species or genus on the same land within a given
three-year period. This can be challenging because many of
the vegetable crops we grow are closely related. We also try
to choose varieties that show good resistance to the major
diseases in our area.
Harvest and post-harvest storage,
handling and transport
About 90 percent of our crop output is sold at local farmers'
markets or through our CSA. During the growing season we attend
markets every Wednesday and Saturday—occasionally two
on Saturday. All our crops are harvested by hand the day before
the market and transported to our six-bay pole barn by truck
or wheelbarrow. Two of the barn's bays are used primarily
for washing, packing and storing our crops. We have a three-basin
commercial sink where we wash salad mix, leaf spinach and
arugula, passing them through all three basins to remove all
the sand and soil. At the end of the last sink, we have a
work area where we load laundry baskets with approximately
5 pounds of washed leaves. The leaves are allowed to drain
for a few minutes and then loaded into a household clothes
washer and spun for 1-2 minutes to remove the excess water.
After spinning they are unloaded onto a plastic mesh table,
mixed and bagged in half-pound portions for sale at the market.
Most of the other crops are washed in one sink to remove sand
and other debris. All crops are boxed and placed in the cooler
until they are either packed into bags for the CSA members
or taken to the farmers' market.
We grow a few crops for the wholesale market—typically
sweet onions, cucumbers and summer squash. Occasionally we
will sell extra lettuce and kale. Since such a small portion
of our sales are to wholesale distributors, it's important
to choose crops that are harvested around the same time. Crops
for the wholesale market are packed in new boxes and transported
to a central location in Gainesville. The wholesaler does
not come directly to our farm because access to our cooler
Marketing and distribution
In my experience, the difference between a successful and
a failing farm operation usually comes down to the farmer’s
marketing skills. As a farm kid in New Jersey, I learned a
great deal about what sells and how important it is to serve
consumers with top-quality vegetables and a friendly disposition.
I've tried to transfer that knowledge to my current operation
||In my experience, the difference between
a successful and a failing farm operation usually comes
down to the farmer’s marketing skills.
When we started our farm in 1993, about 60 percent of our
crop was sold retail, 40 percent wholesale through a broker
specializing in organic produce. There was only one farmers'
market in Gainesville at the time and other retail marketing
opportunities were limited. Some of the vendors—including
myself—argued that the market should permit beverages
and bakery items as a way of attracting more customers. A
division emerged between growers who wanted to expand the
product base and those who wanted to limit it to produce and
In 1995, after much discussion, a group of us decided to
start another week-day market in Gainesville. We formed a
non-profit corporation called Community Green Markets of North
Florida, Inc., and worked with a downtown developer to find
a site in a historic commercial district. We started with
six vendors, and in the first year we were happy if we each
made $100/week. The next year we started a third market in
another section of Gainesville, a planned urban development
with a new commercial center. The developer provided canopies
and signs and we recruited 12 farmers to sell on Thursdays.
After the second season, we shifted this market to Saturday.
Both markets proved to be very successful and they are now
our farm's primary markets. Helping to get these new venues
established enabled us to increase the percentage of our produce
that we sell retail and thus become more profitable.
Another important step was the CSA we started in 1996. The
idea came from a couple in our community who had been following
the nationwide CSA movement and wanted to get a CSA started
in the Gainesville area. They approached a number of established
producers, but no one was interested. When I met the couple
I was impressed by their commitment to supporting local agriculture.
We agreed to do a trial season with 35 families, and I immediately
saw how the CSA helped expand my local marketing efforts.
An active membership with a core group to manage the CSA was
a real plus. We now have about 90 families in the CSA and
hope to bring the number up to 100.
I immediately saw how the CSA helped expand
my local marketing efforts. An active membership
with a core group to manage the CSA was a real
Our CSA core group produces a newsletter, organizes farm
and market volunteers and hosts an annual on-farm CSA potluck.
We also have a needy family program, in which members donate
shares or portions of shares which I match so we can offer
full shares to families in our community who have an interest
in the CSA but cannot afford the share price. Typically we
have five families receiving free full shares. Our CSA has
www.PlowsharesCSA.org, and many new members find us through
Our wholesale business now amounts to about 10 percent of
our annual farm income. We have worked with the same Florida-based
organic distributor for many years. The salesperson knows
the quality of our product and our marketing objectives, and
he accommodates us by buying from us when we have produce
available. We feel very fortunate in this relationship and
appreciate his loyalty. Wholesale organic prices fluctuate
but tend to be significantly higher than conventional prices.
Our location in north Florida gives us a seasonal advantage
over most of the United States, and usually we have little
trouble selling our produce. The only time it can be difficult
is when there's a lot of organic produce arriving on the market
from Mexico, which drives down prices and reduces demand.
We try to time our wholesale crops to avoid these periods.
Good recordkeeping is essential to the process of organic
certification. Documenting inputs is fairly easy for our operation
because we don't bring in that much—we purchase seeds,
soil mix for greenhouse production, aged manure and other
compost materials such as wood chips or sawdust. For our seed
purchases, we start by looking for organic seeds of the varieties
we want to grow. If we cannot find organic seeds, we document
our efforts and purchase untreated, conventionally produced
seeds. We log our field applications of aged manure, making
sure at least 120 days elapse between application and harvest.
If we make compost from the manure, we log the number of times
we turn the piles and the temperatures achieved between turnings.
To do this we use Watch Dog temperature probes, which record
the temperatures digitally for later downloading to the computer.
We keep harvest records by field and by date and assign simple
lot numbers for wholesale orders. (For example, the first
lot of 2005 is 01-05.) Each week we enter our sales figures
for the farmers' market in a computer spreadsheet. Receipts
for purchases are kept on file for tax purposes and presented
to our inspector for review. We use the Organic
Materials Review Institute's Brand Name Product List to
find permitted inputs. Unfortunately, few of the companies
are based in the Southeast and shipping fees can be prohibitive,
limiting the products available to us.
Overall, we're pleased with the economic stability of our
business and with the quality and yields of our crops. Our
biggest ongoing challenge is probably the weather—severe
winter weather can damage crops in the middle of our growing
season; erratic temperatures in the spring can cause crops
to bolt prematurely; in the early summer, heavy rains can
damage crops and promote fungal and bacterial diseases.
Another looming challenge is the pressure of farming on the
urban fringe. Our farm was zoned for agriculture when we purchased
it, but it now lies within the municipal service boundaries
of Gainesville. The biggest cash crop for the remaining farms
around us appears to be new subdivisions, and soaring land
values have made it impossible for us to purchase adjoining
land in order to create a more holistic farm system.
||I love what I do, I'm proud to be
growing food sustainably, and I know my customers appreciate
what I and my fellow organic farmers contribute to their
individual lives and to our community as a whole.
I would not hesitate to say that the rise of organics has
made it possible for me to farm as a career. As the daughter
of conventional farmers, I once believed my parents when they
said there was no future in agriculture and that I should
do something else with my life. The success of my farm has
renewed not only my belief in the future of farming but also
my parents'. I love what I do, I'm proud to be growing food
sustainably, and I know my customers appreciate what I and
my fellow organic farmers contribute to their individual lives
and to our community as a whole.
Organic farming has also led me to participate actively in
that community and to get more involved in political issues
affecting farmers. Working with other people in the organic
movement has inspired me to become both a better farmer and
a better citizen. I believe that the network of individuals
involved in the organic movement is unparalleled, and their
perseverance and dedication is slowly transforming American