CASE STUDY: Transitioning to organic
Rosie's Organic Farm/Plowshares CSA

From the Garden State to the Sunshine State
A New Jersey farm girl discovers there is a future for farming after all.

By Rosie Koenig
Posted


photos by Andrea Blum

Early benefit:
Farms up close and personal

Editor’s note: Staff from several departments at The Rodale Institute have been engaged in creating an online course to summarize the process of transitioning to USDA certified organic farming. We will be wrapping things up toward the end of this year.

Included in this endeavor is a series of in-depth farmer case studies that cover farms of many sizes, types and enterprises. Our goal with these extensive narratives is to show in detail how organic principles are applied by specific farmers to their specific situations.

Production, pest management, harvest, handling and marketing are always parts of the big picture. These case studies show how different farmers put these critical pieces together. Our first case study on Tierra Wools described a sheep producers’ cooperative in Los Ojos, New Mexico.

Watch for more stories in the months ahead.

--NF

Farm at a glance

Rosie's Organic Farm/Plowshares CSA
Rosie Koenig and Tom Mirti
Gainesville, Florida

Established: 1993

Size: 17 acres

Crops: Mixed vegetables, strawberries, cut flowers, herbs

Markets: 90-member CSA, two farmers' markets, limited wholesaling

Women of the Harvest

Rosie Koenig is featured in a new book by Holly Bollinger entitled Women of the Harvest: Inspiring Stories of Contemporary Farmers.

The book profiles women farmers from across the country and celebrates their unique contribution to our food community.

Click here to view the title in our online bookstore.

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 that experience.

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.

Certification

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 inputs.

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 efficiency.

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 fall planting.

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 back saver.

Weed management

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.

Soil management

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 (OM) significantly.

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.

Pest management

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 another.

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 is limited.

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 Florida.

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 plants.

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.


Annual CSA potluck

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.

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 a website, www.PlowsharesCSA.org, and many new members find us through the Internet.

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.

Recordkeeping

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.

Conclusion

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 agriculture.