REAL TALES OF HIGH VALUE FARMING
Letter from Pheasant Hill Farm, #1, DECEMBER 3, 2002

Why diversify?
Simple. It can help pay the bills when traditional crops don’t earn their keep. And it’s not nearly as difficult and expensive as you might think.

By George DeVault

Editor's NOTE

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 Moore's innovative greenhouse operation. And he snagged us a translation of a fascinating story about one woman's successful effort to homestead in Russia.

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 heavy
on traditional crops, livestock and marketing." "You're right," I answered, "we haven't gotten up to speed on high-value crops, diversification and
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, click here.

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 other corns:

  • 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 at agsyst.wsu.edu/edamhome.htm and www.uky.edu/Ag/HortBiz/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 in trouble.”
  • 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 anything.

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.