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.
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
||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,
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
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
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
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 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
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
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.
||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
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
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
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 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
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
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
||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.