the wealth: Paul Arnold, at right, discusses the
$10,000-per-acre rule with a conference-goer.
The Arnolds apply the $10,000 per acre rule to
their pea crops.
Sugar snap peas:
• The family sells an average
of 538 pints at $3 per pint. Total: $1,614.
• Field space was 2,700 sq. feet. Since
1 acre equals 43,560 = .062 acre.
• Value per acre: $26,032.
• Value per acre: $48,214
• Value per acre: $8,614 (at
What had to go? Would you believe the shell peas?
UMOC Draws Big Crowd
Over 1,400 participants
For some farmers, it’s typical to lament
about how hard—but how essential—it
is to keep getting bigger and expand to thousands
But at the Upper Midwest Organic Farming Conference
more than one person said they want to get smaller.
Many of the producers who attended the conference
in LaCrosse, WI, raise row crops, forage, fruits,
vegetables and livestock on farms with 700 acres
or less. Many had operations ranging from five
to 50 acres.
The conference, which ran from Feb. 27 to March
1, featured nearly 50 workshops that attracted
almost 1,400 participants. Part of the event included
Organic University, where nearly 200 people participated
in six-hour intensive seminars on composting,
grain and livestock marketing, transitioning to
organic production, soil health, organic livestock
health and organic market gardening.
Conference leaders say the event was a huge
success. “This year’s conference theme,
‘Keeping the Circle Unbroken,’ reflected
on the connections between all things in life
and in agriculture,” said Faye Jones, executive
director of the Midwest Organic and Sustainable
Education Service (MOSES). “Our workshop
presenters have extensive and practical experience,
and their generous sharing of hard-earned knowledge
lies at the heart of the conference.”
Popular sessions included biological weed control,
soil improvement, grain marketing and fruit and
vegetable production. Many seminars attracted
more than 100 people. Rooms were filled to capacity;
people sat on the floor or stood along the walls
to hear the presentations.
The conference attracted people of all ages,
from families with babies and toddlers to college
students to long-time farmers. They came from
across the Midwest and beyond, including Wisconsin,
Iowa, Minnesota, Illinois and Michigan. While
some producers have farmed for years, many others
work at an off-farm job and were interested in
transitioning into small-scale farming.
At each session, presenters answered a multitude
of questions both during and after their presentations.
The wealth of practical experience from both the
presenters and the participants allowed participants
to learn from both the lecturer and each other.
March 31, 2003: If you raise fruits and
vegetables, wouldn’t you like to extend your growing
season and boost your sales by 25 percent?
Paul and Sandy Arnold of Argyle, N.Y. prove it can be done.
“While everyone else is waiting for the snow to melt,
we’re planting and growing crops. This gives you an
edge,” Paul Arnold told the crowd during his presentation
“Profitability Through Season Extension” at the
Upper Midwest Organic Farming Conference in late February.
A standing-room-only crowd of nearly 200 people gathered
for the presentation in LaCrosse, Wis. They learned that the
Arnolds, who have raised organic fruits and vegetables on
their Pleasant Valley Farm since 1988, have extended their
season from early May through late November.
What are their secrets to success?
“We use floating row covers, season extension houses
and some frost irrigation. This has made certain crops more
profitable for us and has increased our income about 25 percent,”
Arnold said. In their region of New York, the local farmers’
markets start in May. Season extension techniques have allowed
the Arnolds to provide customers with an abundance of fresh
produce right from the start.
“Fresh produce is in high demand after a long winter.
Selling early crops also gives us some much-needed spring
income. Having produce for the first markets gives us the
advantage of getting customers in the habit of coming to our
table first, and hopefully sticking with us all season long,”
Creating a colorful display with a diverse supply of abundant,
fresh, high-quality produce from May through November draws
customers every week. “This is especially true when
we can offer lots of bright red rhubarb early in the spring,”
Row covers make a difference
The Arnolds own 60 acres of land at Pleasant Valley Farm
and rent 120 acres. They use five acres for vegetable production,
one acre for large fruits and half an acre for small fruits.
The family uses row covers extensively on their land. “The
covers enhance growth and protect crops in the spring and
the fall from light frosts. The crops that benefit a lot from
row covers include peas, radishes, basil, beets, spinach,
lettuce, carrots, potatoes, swiss chard, beans, cucumbers,
squash, turnips, herbs and rhubarb,” Arnold said.
By placing row covers above their rhubarb as soon as the
snow melts, the Arnolds can start their production one to
two weeks earlier than normal. Small fruits like strawberries
and fall raspberries also work well with spring row covers,
“You can improve June-bearing strawberry production
for both matted row and annual bed systems by applying row
covers as soon as the winter straw can be removed. This row
cover will stay on until 10 percent bloom is achieved and
pollination is necessary,” Arnold said.
Row covers come in several thicknesses. “We use P-19
extensively on our produce, but we have also tried the heavier
P-30. The P-30 works well in the wide widths (30 feet), but
P-19 is adequate in the smaller widths (15 to 20 feet), because
there is no need for the added strength for handling. You
don’t want the row covers really tight, because you
have to create room to breathe,” Arnold said.
Using P-19 for crop protection against very cold temperatures
(below 29°F) works well if you use multiple layers, Arnold
noted. Row covers last about two years, he added. “During
that time, we use it on at least two spring and two fall crops.
It’s important to roll it up, label it and store it
under cover, out of the sun and out of the reach of mice,
when you aren’t using it. This will lengthen its life.”
Building portable field houses
Since 1992, the Arnolds have also built season extension
houses on their farm to increase their profitability. “We
have termed these structures ‘field houses,’ because
they are temporary, sit directly on our growing fields, and
lend themselves easily to rotations. We have used two homemade
designs that have worked well for us,” Arnold said.
The field houses are 14 feet wide by 96 feet long with a
six to seven foot height in the center. “We have built
two plastic-piped field houses with an approximate cost of
$600 each and two metal-piped ones with an approximate cost
of $800 each. This includes materials only for both of these,”
Both designs use 110-foot by 24-foot greenhouse plastic, which
lasts at least five or six years. The two metal-piped houses
are built in the fall and remain standing all winter, since
they can withstand snow loads. The two plastic-piped houses
are built in the early spring, around March. “All four
houses are dismantled by approximately June 1, when all danger
of frost has passed. Each house takes two people about eight
hours to construct,” Arnold said.
Many different vegetables can benefit from being grown in
a field house. The Arnolds have tried lettuce, spinach, peppers,
tomatoes, beets, swiss chard and interplanted radishes and
scallions. “We choose to extend the season on a particular
vegetable due to the fact it is in high demand by customers,
it is a high value crop and we would not be able to have it
at that time of the year if it were not grown in field houses,”
For example, the Arnolds seed their lettuce crop weekly in
200-cell seedling trays in a greenhouse starting in February.
In March, they transplant 600 lettuce plants each week for
three consecutive weeks into one field house. “Planting
them 12 inches between rows and eight inches in a row gives
us a total of 1,800 early, marketable heads of lettuce. This
one field house provides us with lettuce for the month of
May, and the lettuce has a value of about $3,100,” Arnold
The field houses are usually unheated, except when they contain
tomatoes and peppers. “In those cases, the plants were
started in the greenhouse in February and planted into the
field house about May 1, when they were in four-inch soil
blocks and were flowering. When necessary, we have used a
portable, propane-fired heater when the temperature drops
Since the field houses can be reused many times, the structures
have provided a great financial return, Arnold added. “One
year we grew lettuce and then interplanted tomatoes. Those
two crops grossed $5,300,” he said.
Interested atendees take a peek at the Arnold's
clean record-keeping -- a habit Paul and Sandy consider
essential to the success of their farm.
Managing the finances
It takes more than field houses and row covers to maximize
profits from a fruit and vegetable farm. The Arnolds also
use a formula they call the “$10,000-per-acre rule.”
This means each crop is expected to have a minimum gross value
of $10,000 when its value is extrapolated. “This calculation
is determined by using our records to show the square footage
that each crop is grown on and the actual dollar value that
each crop produced for the entire year. The extrapolation
is necessary because we don’t grow an acre of most crops,
and we need to have a system to compare them evenly,”
To show how this works, consider the Arnolds’ pea crop.
With sugar snap peas, the family sells an average of 538 pints
at $3 per pint for a total of $1,614. The field space for
the sugar snap peas totals 2,700 square feet. Since one acre
equals 43,560 square feet, the actual acreage planted is 2,700/43,460
= .062 acre. To extrapolate the value the crop for one acre,
divide $1,614 by .062 acre to get $26,032 per acre. Using
the same formula and the Arnolds’ production records,
the family determined that the value of their shell pea crop
totaled $8,614 per acre (at $2.50 per quart). Their snow pea
crop totaled $48,214 per acre (at $3 per pint).
“Thus, we decided to stop growing shell peas, because
the market would not bear a high enough price to make it profitable
to grow according to our $10,000-per-acre rule. We increased
our plantings of sugar snap peas and snow peas to accommodate
the quantities that the market would bear.”
The Arnolds discovered a similar pattern with their pepper
crop. “Our records showed that our large bell peppers
had a value of about $13,500 per acre, but our small, red
Jingle Bell peppers were $48,000 per acres. Once we learned
these little peppers were so valuable, we decided to extend
their season in the spring by transplanting them into a field
house in May.” This technique helped the Arnolds produce
red peppers by the third week of June. They sold these peppers
for 25 cents each. “This gave us a value of about $64,000
per acre that year for the peppers,” Arnold said.
In addition to the $10,000-per-acre rule, the Arnolds employ
a “$30-per-hour rule.” “An average worker
can pick 25 pounds of beans in an hour. For us, that’s
a value of $50, since we retail the beans at $2.50 per pound.
So beans meet our criteria and are profitable enough to grow,”
More insight from UMOC
Darcy Maulsby attended a variety of workshops
at the Upper Midwest Organic Conference, and will
be reporting back to New Farm™ readers what
she learned during the next several weeks.
basics of biological weed control
egg production seminar proves popular
To come in the near future:
• Week of
April 6: Building soils and maintaining
• Week of
April 11: Organic grain marketing
options, plus a little on producing top quality
food grade beans and grain.
Raspberries are a different story. “An average worker
can maybe only pick 13 half pints in an hour. We sell the
berries for $2 per half pint. Thus, the value was only $26
per hour at best. But our customers love organic berries.
Since the raspberries are a low-value crop when compared to
all others we produce, we leave them to harvest last each
market harvest day. Then we pick as many as time allows before
the truck pulls out for the market,” Arnold said.
The Arnolds agree that many factors contribute to their successful
fruit and vegetable farm, but the results are worth the effort.
“Since the start of our farming career, our goal was
to make farming a full-time venture and raise our two young
children. We were able to accomplish our goals in four years
through a combination of season extension, good record keeping
and good business management. Profitability to us means each
year being able to pay all of our bills, maintain what we
have, invest money back into the farm, put money away for
retirement and have a comfortable lifestyle,” Arnold