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 (at
• 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 of acres.
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
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
“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,” Arnold said.
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,” Arnold said.
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, Arnold said.
“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,”
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,”
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,” Arnold said.
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,” Arnold says.
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,”
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 below 40°F.”
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.
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,” Arnold said.
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,”
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,” Arnold said.
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 fertility
• 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,”
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,”