TALKING SHOP: WISCONSIN
Upper Midwest Organic Conference, Feb. 27-Mar. 1

How to improve profitability through season extension

We’re not talking greenhouses here. We’re talking row covers, temporary season extension houses and frost irrigation, and it works. Paul and Sandy Arnold of Argyle, NY have done the math on it.

By Darcy Maulsby

The Arnold's
$10,000-per-acre Rule

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.

Snow peas:
Value per acre: $48,214 (at $3/pint).

Shell peas:
Value per acre: $8,614 (at $2.50/quart)

What had to go? Would you believe the shell peas?




SETTING THE SCENE:
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 (www.mosesorganic.org), 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,” 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,” 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,” 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,” Arnold said.

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.

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,” 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,” 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,” Arnold said.

Coming soon:
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.

Available Now:
The basics of biological weed control
Organic 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,” 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 said.