Letter from Pheasant Hill Farm, #7, June 27, 2003

Dump dept and diversify!
Growing less corn is not a bad idea, either.

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.



Diversifying Resources

"Farmers for the Future"
by Dan Looker
ISBN #081382383 8
$21.99, plus $6 shipping. Visa, MasterCard and American Express accepted.
Iowa State Press
2121 State Ave.
Ames, Iowa 50014

USDA Agritourism Website

Midwest Small Fruit and Grape Network

North American Farmers Direct Marketing Assocation

Northeast Workers on Organic Farms

Organic Farmers Agency for Relationship Marketing

Beginning Farmer Center
Iowa State University













Lend me your ear...

Other mini corn varieties and suppliers include:

“Baby Corn” (65 days) from Nichols Garden Nursery

“Bonus” from Vermont Bean Seed Co. and The Cook's Garden

“Plants will grow 4 1/2 to 5 feet, but baby ears are ready to pick when plants are only 18 inches tall. For heaviest yield, plant seeds 1 inch apart and harvest early,” according to Cook’s, which rates Bonus as a 32-day corn.

WASHINGTON, D.C. “Dump debt!” U.S. Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) told farm writers at a press briefing in Washington a few weeks ago. “Dump debt, and become politically active to insist that government dump debt as well. This is the worst possible time to add to debt.”

He was talking about the big picture in Washington, of course, the soaring federal budget deficit, the possible impact of President Bush’s proposed tax cuts and mounting problems paying for Social Security and Medicare.

As a result, traditional commodity programs are at risk. Taxpayers are getting sick of farm subsidies. “It’s clear to me that the pressure on support for agriculture is going to be intense,” the senator added.

What’s a farmer to do?

“Diversify!” urged Tom Dorr, USDA undersectary for rural development, at the same farm writers' press briefing.

“The farm of the early 21st century will look nothing like the farm of the early 20th century,” said Dorr, who also farms in Iowa. “American agriculture is at a crucial crossroad. New strategies and new ideas are needed. It’s time we paint a new American Gothic for the 21st century.

“I’m not encouraging farmers to take senseless risks, but I would say that farmers have not used their asset base -- their land -- to its maximum return.”

Trading in corn for raspberries

Dorr is not alone. “We need to look at living and working on farms in the broadest possible ways. Land can be used for more than producing food,” Successful Farming Business Editor, Dan Looker, said this spring in his keynote address -- titled “Why you don’t need to grow corn to get started in farming” -- at a beginning farmer workshop in Pennsylvania.

Even though corn can net Midwestern producers roughly $200 an acre, that pales in comparison to what an acre of established raspberries might produce in Pennsylvania, Looker said.

“The title of my talk today was inspired by my experience at The New Farm,” said Looker, who was managing editor of the magazine in the early 1980s.

“One of the people on the Rodale Press staff owned a small raspberry farm that was profitable. It provided some part-time income that supplemented his salary at Rodale. But what he really wanted to do was to someday have enough land and the machinery to grow a crop of corn. Even in those days, it didn’t seem like you were a real farmer unless you could grow corn.”

Nothing could be further from the truth.

“According to Dick Funt, a small fruit specialist at Ohio State University, established raspberries can return $1,000 an acre or more over costs. His numbers make you wonder why anyone would want to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in machinery to grow corn that might net you $200 in one of those rare years when you have a good crop and most of the world doesn’t. According to Funt, raspberry farms have the potential to return about 12 percent on your investment. That’s a lot more than the three to five percent that investors in Midwest corn ground might expect these days,” Looker said.

Of course, it takes a few years and maybe $6,000 to establish an acre of raspberries with trickle irrigation. So, raspberries may not be for everyone, but there are plenty of other profitable crops you can produce.

“If you can rent a small plot of land, you may be able to sell vegetables in the summer and pumpkins on the fall,” Looker said. “If that goes well and if you have long-term access to land, then Dick Funt suggests moving into pick-your-own strawberries, which reach full production in three years. And, eventually, raspberries or blueberries may fit in.”

Mix and match diversifying options

Today, Looker and other workshop speakers said, getting started in farming -- and staying in farming -- requires flexibility and a diverse mix of high-value crops that may include:

  • Pastured poultry, for both meat and eggs.
  • Controlled grazing of any kind of livestock to help keep capital investment and production costs low.
  • Organic production.
  • Vegetables.
  • Dairy goats.
  • Farmstead cheese.
  • Agritourism. Entertainment farming, some call it. That can include everything from corn mazes and hayrides through you-pick pumpkin patches to free fishing and hunting and even running a bed and breakfast on your farm.

Having a good website for your farm is essential to success in any kind of agritourism, since so many city people plan their vacations with the help of the world wide web, Looker said. Two-thirds of Americans now have web access. They spend an average of 10 hours a week on line, and only two hours a week reading the newspaper.

While crop and enterprise mix can and will vary greatly from farm to farm and region to region, all of the speakers said there are timeless “guiding principles” that can help any beginning farmer. Here is a sampling:

Start small and go slow. “By starting slowly, I mean doing your homework before you ever put a seed in the ground. Chip Planck, a college professor who became a vegetable farmer outside of Washington, D.C., has put how you should do this in the right order,” Looker said, quoting Planck from “Farmers for the Future,” a book Looker wrote on beginning farmers:

“The best ag school of all is your own farm. The next best, working at another farm for money. The next, working at another farm for no money. The worst, an ag school where you must pay them.”

Make sure your first customers are satisfied. There is no better advertising than word-of-mouth.

Don’t try to do everything. “A lot of these agritourism businesses are very time consuming, just as is a lot of direct marketing,” Looker cautioned. “I’ve visited some CSA farms that raise and market 40 or 50 different vegetables. That variety is part of the appeal over the blandness of supermarkets. But I can’t imagine doing that and then having to cook breakfast and wash bedding for tourists every day on top of that.

“Agriculture is becoming more specialized but also a lot more diverse these days. Our system of food production includes Joel Salatin’s system of pasture poultry production and Tyson Foods. No facet of this is simple. Some of it, including pasture farrowing and organic vegetable production, is far from simple. There are good reasons why many farmers would never try either one.”

Sell everything directly to consumers. Eliminate middlemen.

Find a mentor.

Build a high tunnel (also known as a hoophouse) to extend your growing season in spring, fall and even winter.

Join a trade group like the North American Farmers Direct Marketing Association ( to meet people in the same type of farming and exchange ideas.

Don’t rush out and buy land. “Buying land these days would be economic suicide for many young farmers,” Looker said. “Land prices have hit all-time highs in many areas. It’s probably best to start out renting.”

Use credit sparingly -- and wisely.

Save your money.

Add value to what you produce. One gallon of goat milk, for example, yields one pound of goat cheese, which sells for $14. That’s more than most dairy producers receive for milk by the hundredweight.

“Value-added is where farmers here in Pennsylvania and the rest of the Northeast can beat the socks off of those of us in the Midwest who raise corn,” said Looker. “We may have some of the best soils and flattest fields on earth, but you’ve got millions of potential customers.”

Buy crop insurance.

Explore the financial, land, housing and other resources of your extended family before turning to lenders and real estate agents.

Stop digging your own hole

Former Texas Agriculture Commissioner Jim Hightower often suggests a good place to start: “When you find that you’ve dug yourself into a hole, the first thing to do is stop digging.”

Whatever you do, advised USDA’s Dorr, don’t be in a big hurry to build an expensive new barn and fill it with a few thousand sows. Hog prices are already low enough. Increasing production is only going to drive prices even lower.

And this isn’t a Sears barn from the turn of the last century that will remain in service for up to 75 years, added Dorr. The life span of a new livestock confinement facility, he said, is five years. What do you do then?

Many farmers around the country are finding a less expensive options with quicker, higher returns in pastured poultry, chickens and even ducks for meat.

Yes, once you stop digging that hole and take a good look around, you’ll quickly discover a lot of new, profitable possibilities in just about every direction.

Okay, if you have to grow corn...

But if you do decide that you absolutely, positively have to grow at least a little bit of corn this year to be a real farmer, try a corn that takes up a lot less land -- and is worth something.

Grow baby or miniature corn

“We grew Chires Baby corn from in Santa Fe, NM., last season,” writes reader Ken Hargesheimer from Texas. "It produces 3-5 stalks with 8-12 ears per stalk and will not get bigger than 3-4 inches long when mature.”

Seeds of Change says “Chires Baby” yields “up to 30 ears per multi-stalked plant. Harvest five days after silks appear for fresh stir-fry, or dry for popcorn (75-85 days).”

It’s a perfect crop for organic growers. “Ear worm is not a problem, since you harvest before damage would be done. For the same reason, smut is rarely a problem,” advises the “Specialty and Minor Crops Handbook” from the University of California. “Baby corn can be grown fairly easily without chemicals. By incorporating residue soon after you harvest, you can add significant organic matter that will decay much more quickly than if you were to let plants get old and dry down.”

Our son, Don, grew eight, 75-foot rows of Chires Baby in 2000. The dozen tiny ears he could hold in one hand were worth nearly two bushels of shelled corn.

Granted, baby corn is a specialty item best to dress up a farmers’ market display or a fancy salad bar. With the corn in tassle and all of that pollen, it’s a pain to pick. But with such a good return from a little bit of ground, who cares?