George DeVault was editor of New Farm® magazine
from 1981 through 1991 -- and a long-time champion
of local food systems and innovative direct marketing
approaches to high-value farming.
He, his wife Mel and 23-year-old son Don farm
near the village of Vera Cruz, PA, a little over
an hour north of Philadelphia. They've been farming
there organically since 1985. They extend their
growing season with 6000 square feet of greenhouses,
and sell cut flowers, herbs, fruits and vegetables
through farmers' markets and directly to customers
on their farm through a subscription service.
George continues to edit the Russian language
version of New Farm® magazine, and in their spare
time, he and Mel have edited and published six
books on farming and market gardening.
Almost immediately after I was hired to create
the New Farm® web site, I called George for ideas
and help ... and he responded.
He showered me with articles he'd written for
the Russian New Farm® which had never been printed
in the U.S.: a
two-part series on Joe Salatin's
poultry operation, and a great profile of Steve
greenhouse operation. And he snagged
us a translation of a fascinating story about
one woman's successful effort to homestead
He also passed on many helpful observations,
including a recent email note: "Looking quickly
at NF web site, struck me that maybe it's a little
on traditional crops, livestock and marketing."
"You're right," I answered, "we
haven't gotten up to speed on high-value crops,
direct marketing. Want to help us get started
with a monthly column?" And so was born this
Letter from Pheasant Hill.
George and Mel will also be working with us on
developing a series of articles on the basics
of sustainable farming to help beginning farmers
get a leg up. Many of you asked for this in email
notes, and we'll get it up and running as soon
as we can.
A final note: Earlier this
year George was selected as a Food and Society
Policy Fellow. This fellows program brings together
leaders in health, consumer education, aquaculture,
local food policy, nutrition, sustainable agriculture
and organic farming. Fellows use the media, scholarship,
public education and outreach to promote food
systems change through the creation and expansion
of community-based food systems that are locally
owned and controlled, produce goods and services
needed by residents, exercise environmental stewardship,
and provide quality jobs. Click
here for more on the fellows program.
For more on Pheasant Hill Farm,
Not all corn
and beans were created equal.
In the fall of 2001, for example, conventional corn in southeastern
Pennsylvania where I farm sold for $2.10 a bushel, delivered
to the mill. At the same time certified organic corn sold
for $4.70, picked up at the farm. Conventional soybeans sold
for $3.80 a bushel, while certified organic beans for livestock
feed sold for $10.50 and food grade beans sold for $15, picked
up at the farm.
Now, I realize that corn and beans may seem like a strange
place to start talking about diversification, but I think
it’s the most natural and logical place to start because
corn and beans are what most of us are growing. We have the
knowledge, experience and equipment to grow corn and beans
-- by the boatload! And that’s a big part of the problem.
We’re so good at what we do and grow such huge amounts
of corn and beans that they’re not really worth much.
The other reason to start with corn and beans is that there
seems to be an awful lot of fuzzy thinking these days about
what diversification really means. A lot of folks have the
mistaken notion that to diversify they have to jump right
into large-scale production of weird vegetables like Belgian
endive and everything from arugula to baby zucchini with blossoms,
or exotic -- and expensive -- livestock like Emus or Llamas.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Take corn, for instance. There is run-of-the-mill field corn,
which we already discussed with disgust. Then there are the
- Sweet corn (fresh or frozen, on or off the cob).
- Popcorn (shelled or on the cob for microwave popping).
- Indian corn.
- Corn on the cob for squirrel feeders. (Yes, some people
actually feed squirrels. Not all squirrels live in trees.)
- Cracked corn for bird feed.
- Corn nuts.
- Cornmeal for cornpone or mush.
- Broom corn.
- Corn stalks or shocks for fall decorations.
- Corn mazes, although that changes things drastically by
dragging you into the twilight zone of “entertainment
farming.” (More about that in a future column.)
It’s all corn. It’s all planted with pretty much
the same equipment, and grown with about the same fertility,
disease, pest and weed control techniques that you may already
be using. (Sure, sweet corn requires more attention than field
corn. You have to monitor and treat it for corn earworm, keep
the coons and deer out and pick it at just the right time.
But with a dozen ears of sweet corn selling for maybe twice
the price of a bushel of shelled corn, it makes planting a
few acres of sweet corn worth the extra effort.) Get even
part of your farm certified organic and a whole new world
of new, more lucrative markets opens up to you.
You get the idea.
Same holds true for soybeans, whether they’re food
grade beans for tofu or soy milk, or the so-called “vegetable
soybeans” that are eaten fresh or frozen. The Japanese
call them “Edamame” and they throw them back like
peanuts with beer in Japan. Edamame have been all the rage
on the West Coast for a few years. Thanks to the likes of
Martha Stewart and foodtv.com, they’re rapidly catching
on now throughout the rest of the country. Demand is so strong
that most of the frozen Edamame in the United States and Canada
these days comes from halfway around the world -- from China.
That’s why consumers are amazed -- and delighted --
when they unexpectedly see fresh Edamame. At our on-farm market
and a nearby farmers’ market on Saturday mornings, we
sell Edamame for $4.50 -- a quart. That’s more than
a bushel of conventional beans usually brings.
Of course, for best sales at a farmers’ market, you
have to strip the pods off of the stalks. We now do that for
our modest market by hand. On a large scale, Edamame is harvested
in Asia with an FMC green bean harvester and then run through
a mechanical sheller. For more details, check out the Washington
State University and University of Kentucky web pages on Edamame
There is a lot to consider when thinking about diversification,
even with just corn and beans. That’s why, all the experts
agree, it’s best to really do your homework and know
full well what you’re getting into before you leap into
a new enterprise. The biggest trouble with diversification
is that there are so many exciting possibilities out there
that it’s easy to end up with too much of a good thing.
Remember, the whole idea is to reduce your risk and increase
your income, not create more work and more expense.
Here are some common sense rules to keep in mind when evaluating
any new enterprise.
- If it sounds too good to be true, it usually
is. There is a good reason why raspberries sell
for $4 a half-pint in New York City. Just ask anyone who
has tried to ship them any distance or hold them even overnight
in perfect condition. They are, in a word, perishable.
- Adapt, don’t adopt. Take a basic
idea and customize it to fit your particular circumstances,
your location, equipment, financial and other resources,
personal likes and dislikes and income needs. One size definitely
does not fit all. Dr. Booker T. Whatley’s words from
the mid-1980s still ring true: “If everybody started
doing just what I say, it would mean that they’re
not using their heads and coming up with enough ideas of
their own. They’d be relying too much on someone else’s
formula or recipe. That’s just what got farmers into
a lot of trouble in the first place.”
- Don’t bite off more than you can chew. “The
key is top management. People either have it or they don’t,”
George McConnell told me back in 1987. Besides farming 200
acres northwest of Mt. Vernon, Ohio, he used to write regularly
about growing blueberries, strawberries and other U-pick
crops. But then he quit writing. “I felt I was getting
some people into trouble. If a person doesn’t have
the specific talents and resources from the start, he’s
- Sell yourself and what you produce. “One
of the difficulties of agriculture is that farmers have
had little to do with the sales process. They have produced
abundantly and stopped at that. Few industries flourish
that have no control over the course of their output after
the production process is finished,” long-time Farm
Journal Editor Wheeler McMillen wrote in a book titled “Too
Many Farmers” in 1929.
- Start small. Go slow. “Truck farming
is a business to grow into, not simply ‘go into,’”
Wisconsin farmer Delbert Uber wrote in 1913 in “Making
Special Crops Pay.” “The truck farmer, growing
his great variety of garden crops, must acquire more knowledge
and give his crops more care and attention than does the
general farmer who plants only staple crops. Success depends
primarily upon location. The profitable truck farm must
be near a good market, or where the best shipping facilities
can be secured.”
- Study, study, study. Read more than just
the usual farm publications that everyone else in your area
reads. Many of today’s information sources tend to
cater to the status quo. They perpetuate the way things
are, not the way they could or should be. Coverage is limited,
sometimes quite severely, by the special interests of advertisers
and others who support that publication financially. The
fact that you are on this web site is a good indication
that you’re already reaching out beyond the usual
sources of information. NewFarm.org is a good start, but
it will never have all of the answers.
- Seek out back issues of various farm publications,
including the print version of The New Farm® magazine (1979-1995).
Expand your regenerative farming library with the older
yearbooks of agriculture from the United States Department
of Agriculture and older Extension bulletins that were full
of non-chemical, sustainable practices. They are everywhere,
in used bookstores, at garage sales and even farm auctions.
For hard to find items, one excellent source is American
Botanist Booksellers, P.O. Box 532, Chillicothe, IL 61523.
Phone: (309) 274-5254, or on the web at www.amerbot.com.
- Trust the voice of experience. Every
chance you get, talk often and freely with other growers
who have tried an enterprise or practice that you may be
considering. Ask them what worked, what didn’t and
why. Then put a sharp pencil to the numbers before you do
In this column and elsewhere throughout NewFarm.org we will
bring you the practical experiences of successful farmers
in a similar fashion. Feel free to ask us tough question,
too. We’ll give you the answers -- straight from farmers
and others who know what they’re talking about.