NORTH CENTRAL REGION
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|Researchers studying Amish farmers in Ohio point to their farm diversity as a key factor in their economic success. |
Photo by Richard Moore.
When he heard about a neighbor's plans to build a new house abutting his farm's "back 40," Amish farmer Leroy Kuhns underwent some real soul-searching. He loved the view of the eastern Ohio woods his back field provided and the quiet respite from his daily labors. The prospect of a new house alarmed him enough to make him consider uprooting his family from their Amish homestead.
In the end, Kuhns decided he would have to live with the new house encroaching on his property. The land where he lived and worked had been "too good to him" for him to leave it, privacy or no privacy.
The house was never built. But the anecdote illustrates the tie most Amish farmers feel to the land that sustains them. Kuhns and other Amish farmers "have a sense of connection with their place and the land that supports them that really seems to be an ingredient in sustainability," says Deborah Stinner, an Ohio State University researcher studying the Amish community.
Under the auspices of a SARE grant, Stinner and colleague Richard Moore are analyzing the farming systems of the Holmes County Amish--the world's largest such group--to find concepts and practices relevant to mainstream farmers. The holistic view incorporated by Amish farmers include economic well-being, use of environmentally sound farming practices and, above all, a healthy, happy and productive quality of life that integrates family and community.
"We want to find out what we can learn that might help others not of this culture," says Stinner, an agro-ecologist who has worked with Amish families since the mid-1980s. "In many ways, these people are living as our ancestors lived by fostering community cooperation, which we left behind as we moved into more industrialized agriculture. This is an opportunity to look back and evaluate how sustainable that is."
Stinner and Moore have homed in on three Amish farms that, typically, integrate a mixture of crops with a dairy operation. The largest field is 12 acres, the smallest, contour strips of 1.5 acres. The researchers have immersed themselves in the Amish farming life, working alongside the men and women to pick up clues to the farms' successes.
Already, the study has turned up some intriguing lessons for farmers seeking to make their operations more sustainable. Economic studies indicate high levels of efficiency for the Amish farms. The three Amish families kept an average of 47 percent of their gross income as profit over the two years of the study, compared to 23 percent for a group of five non-Amish grazing dairies with herds ranging from 39 to 175 cows.
The Amish farmers use low levels of purchased fertilizer, yet regularly test at desirable soil fertility levels. Finally, a shared labor ethic among Amish farmers creates strong bonds between extended families, church groups and community lines drawn along physical boundaries such as watersheds.
The Klein family, for example, milks 27 cows, yet produces as much profit as a 150-cow operation in an average year by processing and selling cheese. The Kleins use just the herbicide atrazine in their corn crop, with no purchased fertilizers, yet produce yields that shocked the research team.
"The families we're working with have small herds, but make as much money in some years as non-Amish farmers milking large herds," Stinner says. "These are very important results; it tells us there can be real efficiency in the smaller scale."
The Amish retain a sense of closeness to the land that begins in childhood. Schoolchildren recite butterfly names as easily as the alphabet. As farmers, the Amish divide their land into "environmental zones" to manage the plots as natural resources and soil types dictate. A study analyzing the ratio of applied purchased fertilizer to chemical runoff showed all three farms are close to a balance, operating at high levels of nutrient efficiency. The farmers also try to retain land best suited for wildlife.
"To be on one of the farms in the middle of the summer is to see the number of species that really exist out there in nature," says Moore, an anthropologist. "Their farms are not dull, dry places."
Extended families, which usually live together, share the farm work. Most families plant crops to guarantee an even work flow throughout the year, such as following field corn with sweet corn to prolong the harvest season.
What really sets Amish farming communities apart is how neighbors will pitch in as needed to get a job done.
To keep farms viable across generational lines, most Amish designate a single heir to inherit the operation. This approach retains full-size farms, even though it singles out one child to carry on the tradition. Farm transfers generally are handled within a family with trust and love, Moore says.
"Quality of life is based on the values of a community," he says. "In their case, they balance community and family and the economic situation within the family. They are successful at transferring farms because they think through how changing the size of the farm will impact that transfer."
Interest in the project abounds. The United Nations invited Stinner and Moore to contribute a piece about Amish sustainability for a book on biodiversity, and the team is considering writing a book on Amish agriculture.
In the meantime, they hope the study will encourage people to think about how they might create a more integrated system on their farms and ranches. "These are not low-production farms," Stinner says. "But they work much more within nature's ecological principles and practices." -- Valerie Berton
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|A dairy producer who replaced insecticides with beneficial predators dramatically cut back on face flies. |
Photo by Valerie Berton.
The last decade has seen phenomenal growth in Vermont's organic dairy farming industry. The timing couldn't have been better for Enid Wonnacott of the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont to help farmers who wanted to convert to a system that could offer profits while reducing impacts on the environment.
So little research had gone into organic dairying and the industry was so new, farmers who wanted to convert to organic had many questions.
"I could see it coming, and could see that [farmers] needed answers," Wonnacott says. "No one had put funding into any of the questions on organic dairying before. Organic has changed the way people think about farming.
"Conventional farming in general says, 'There's a problem; let's fix it.' But there is no quick fix."
Instead of providing just hard-and-fast data, Wonnacott wanted to convince each farmer to develop his or her own solution to the most perplexing problem on the farm.
When she and her collaborators began their research in 1993, with the help of a SARE grant, there were only four certified organic dairy farmers in Vermont. Just five years later, largely due to the start-up of The Organic Cow, a successful organic dairy processor, there were 40 certified organic dairy farms in the state. They earn more than $18 for 100 pounds of milk, nearly $6 more than for conventionally produced milk.
As a result of some of that research, Wonnacott and her team have helped participating dairy producers lower their costs and improve their profits. A primary project recommendation that organic dairy farmers use intensive pasture management to grow and utilize more high-quality forage helped several Vermont farm families.
At Taconic End Farm in Brandon, the net farm profit for Annie Claghorn and Caitlin Fox climbed 40 percent over the three years of the project as they improved their management and reduced expenses. For long-time organic farmers Nancy Everhart and her husband, Peter Young, of Plainfield, the cost of producing milk dropped by $5,000 over the three years.
Those impressive findings came from a project that features case studies of four organic dairy farms, three farms in transition to organic and one conventional dairy. Wonnacott used a systems approach because farms differ markedly from one another and because production factors are so interrelated. Thinking about those factors as discrete components doesn't work for organic dairying, she says.
Because the project emphasized getting information out to the farmers, many others benefited as on-farm technical meetings were opened up to anyone. A wave of soon-to-be-organic farmers, eager to ship milk to The Organic Cow and hungry for knowledge, flocked to the meetings.
"What was as beneficial as anything else was the networking and to get farmers talking and helping each other," Wonnacott says.
Researchers gathered three years of data on everything from economics to milk quality to herd health, allowing them to get off the university campus and into the fields to work more closely with the farmers. Both the researchers and farmers enjoyed the collaboration.
"One of the best things about it was that it allowed us as a farm to tap into the empirical resources of the university--soil testing and feed testing," says Jack Lazor of Westfield, Vt.
As part of the SARE study, Dr. Joseph "Woody" Pankey of the University of Vermont Quality Mile Research Lab examined how organic practices affected the incidence of mastitis, an infection of the udder. Most organic livestock farmers use homeopathy, a system of medicine that uses plant-derived natural substances to strengthen and stimulate an animal's immune system. He found that treating mastitis homeopathically cost between $1 and $2 per cow, far less than conventional antibiotics.
Many of the farmers adopted new practices based on information they gleaned during the project. For instance, the Lazors, the first organic dairy farmers in Vermont, learned they could grow all their own grains more profitably than purchasing feed. Another farm dramatically cut back on face flies after switching from synthetic insecticides to natural alternatives such as beneficial predators and parasite-munching poultry.
Eric Clifford of Starksboro, the study's conventional farmer, discovered a nosode -- a homeopathic approach-- could successfully treat hairy heel wart and calf scours. Vince Foy and Debbie Yonkers of North Danville stopped using synthetic herbicides on their corn and cultivated for weed control, as they transitioned to organic in 1995. They also replaced chemical fertilizers with organic fertilizers, manure and green manure crops.
Foy has contracted with a conventional farmer to grow their organic high-moisture corn. "It's made it possible for me to encourage a conventional farmer and pass information along to him," Foy says. "Because it's a local supply, it keeps the money in a smaller area, cuts out the middleman and makes it more profitable for us."
Quantifying the social effects of organic dairying must still be gleaned from the project data; pinpointing environmental effects will be harder yet. But one of the important results of the study has been to prove that soil fertility can be maintained with manure, crop rotation and natural soil amendments, Wonnacott says.
Converting their 70-head Jersey farm to organic, although it decreased milk production by 10 to 15 percent, increased Foy and Yonkers' gross income from $125,000 to $165,000, and cut their debt to cow ratio in half.
"It's not just Easy Street," admits Foy. "It's tough, dealing with people who don't understand organic and don't believe what you're doing is viable. But overall, the business has done much better. The telling thing will be in 20 years: If our business is still here, it will sink in with people." -- Susan Harlow
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|Researchers Joseph Fontenot and Rachael Shanklin examine cattle raised on alfalfa and corn in the project's "sustainable" system. |
Photo courtesy of Virginia Tech.
One of the oldest waterways in the world, the New River has become the focus of intense interest among mid-Atlantic environmental groups, politicians, researchers and residents in recent years.
Fewer resulting "downstream" impacts from growing a mix of grass and legumes instead of row-cropped grain for animal feed is but one environmental benefit of grazing systems over raising grain crops and feeding cattle in confinement. Grazing systems also can reduce erosion, provide more wildlife habitat and utilize fewer purchased inputs such as pesticides and fertilizer.
Measuring a grazing system's impact on nutrient loading in a New River tributary was but one part of a multi-year, multi-faceted project conducted by a group of SARE-funded researchers at Virginia Tech. Researchers also wanted to determine if such systems are profitable.
In order to test whether management-intensive grazing systems can produce cattle of equal weight and grade to conventional livestock systems that rely on supplemental feed, the Virginia Tech group compared integrated crop/livestock systems they labeled "sustainable" and "conventional."
Data from four years of experiments showed better weight gains for steers raised within a sustainable system that included well-managed grazing integrated with low-input crop systems. The jump in weight gains corresponded with management improvements, such as portable fences, which allowed researchers to move the steers within the system to feed on high-quality forages in both pasture and a crop field designed for grazing. The cattle grazed annual crops such as rye and a fescue-alfalfa mix
.The sustainable system would save producers money in input costs by reducing the need for purchased fertilizers and pesticides. Overall, however, costs and returns between the two systems came out about equal because of the need to run extra machinery in the sustainable system.
"There is little difference in the returns, but the sustainable system cut input costs," says Joseph Fontenot, a Virginia Tech researcher. "We never really thought the sustainable system would increase profits, but we wanted to at least maintain animal productivity and cut down chemicals such as nitrogen and pesticides."
The project, which began in 1992, compares 48 steers per year and 80 acres of crop and pasture land. In the conventional system, researchers grazed Angus cattle on fescue and red clover and raised corn for silage and alfalfa for hay. The steers were finished in a feedlot. The conventional system was set up under "best management practice" guidelines recommended by the Cooperative Extension Service and utilized by many Virginia farmers.
The sustainable system built in more flexibility because it used crops for the steers to graze as well as a pasture of fescue and alfalfa. The crops -- corn, wheat, millet, alfalfa and rye -- were grown using rotations. The system incorporated winter cover crops, conservation tillage and integrated pest management. The Angus steers grazed stockpiled fescue/alfalfa, plus hay in the winter, and were let into the cropping system to graze wheat or millet when available.
The project's sustainable system used fewer agrichemicals. Researchers found the system cut pesticides from 23 different applications in the conventional to 14 in the sustainable system. The crops portion of the project compared a conventional 10-year rotation -- corn for five years followed by alfalfa for five -- with a four-year system including corn, wheat, millet, alfalfa and rye. The sustainable system produced more total forage in alfalfa hay and used far fewer insecticides and herbicides. Nitrogen fertilizer needs in the sustainable cropping system were reduced because alfalfa, a legume, helps fix nitrogen in the soil.
Encouraging the cattle to harvest their own feed, whether in pasture or off crops, would help farmers and ranchers avoid the time and expense of harvesting their own grain. Many graziers have spoken of a better quality of life associated with less time in the fields.
"In the other system, we have to feed them fescue until it runs out," Fontenot says. "A typical farmer would have to buy hay to supplement. The sustainable system gives a lot of options."
In an effort to minimize animal agriculture's impact on the New River watershed, the researchers evaluated ways to discourage grazing cattle from entering a New River tributary. As part of the complex project that quantified the myriad benefits of grazing systems compared to conventional livestock systems, researchers homed in on River Ridge Farm on the banks of the New River to test a cattle watering system that could attract grazing cattle -- which naturally seek cool streams during summer -- away from the river.
Virginia Tech's Ron Sheffield, David Vaughan, Saied Mostaghimi and Viven Allen, now with Texas Tech, set up spring-fed watering troughs in strategic areas in the pasture. They wanted to see if they could keep cattle -- and their manure, which contains nitrogen and phosphorus -- out of the river without using expensive fencing. The group measured nitrogen and phosphorus in the stream after cattle drank from it, then compared it to a later measurement taken after the livestock were given a choice of drinking from the troughs.
The impact, Allen says, was dramatic. "The cattle clearly preferred to go to the troughs, and we saw much decreased nutrient loading and sedimentation in the stream," she says.
Stream bank erosion was reduced by 77 percent after they installed the alternative water source, and concentrations of suspended solids, nitrogen and phosphorus were reduced by 90 percent, 54 percent and 81 percent, respectively. -- Valerie Berton
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|Sheep introduced into stone-fruit orchards did a thorough job of cleaning tree understories, reducing the need to mow and spray herbicides. |
Photo courtesy of Western Region SARE.
In a small fruit orchard like Bill Howell's, time is of the essence. Holding down an off-farm job, raising a family and managing an eight-acre stone fruit orchard makes it imperative for Howell to manage his time wisely.
That's why when Washington State University researcher Linda Hardesty came to him with a novel idea to save time managing vegetation in his cherry and plum orchards, he was more than willing to give it a try.
Hardesty, a WSU ecologist, had spent four years working in a Brazil sheep and goat research center. Intrigued by the common Brazilian practice of introducing sheep into fruit orchards to graze tree understories, she began speculating about how U.S. orchardists could integrate livestock into their fruit operations. The sheep grazed unwanted vegetation below and between trees, eliminating the need for chemical weed control.
"We have our land so separated, we don't look at multiple uses or complementary uses of the same parcel of land," says Hardesty, who obtained a SARE grant to test the potential of sheep to manage vegetation in Washington and Idaho fruit orchards.
"Ecologists look at the flow of energy through a system -- from sunlight, to trees, to foliage, to animals, to people. In our agricultural systems, we focus on energy going into a particular product, and anything else is considered waste."
Hardesty wanted to test how to convert the "waste" under fruit trees that orchardists commonly control with herbicides to sheep forage. She hoped to discover if the practice would save farmers money and protect natural resources by reducing or eliminating herbicides and cutting fossil fuel used in multiple tractor passes.
After initial rebuffs when she sought potential cooperators, Hardesty connected with Howell. Howell not only grows cherries and plums on eight acres in Washington's Yakima River Valley, but he also raises sheep.
Perhaps most important, Howell was interested in ways to reduce his time in the field.
"In a small orchard like mine, an awful lot of the inputs are my own time," Howell says. "The time constraints of mowing and herbicide application were the major reasons for my wanting to look at sheep to do the job when I'm not around."
An economic analysis undertaken at the end of Hardesty's trial found that when orchardists used sheep -- either raising livestock year-round or buying and selling feeder sheep each season -- to manage vegetation, they realized greater profits. When lamb prices equaled at least $1.05 per pound, and with labor priced at $8 an hour, the sheep system proved more profitable than traditional orchard management.
Thick tree understories can hamper fruit production, partly because they provide shelter for rodents that eat fruit and damage trees. Creating an integrated farming system utilizing both sheep and fruit could allow Howell to increase his flock and take advantage of good wool prices while also boosting tree health in the orchard.
Hardesty introduced sheep into test plots on Howell's four-acre sweet cherry orchard. At any given time, she would allow up to 20 sheep in the orchard. She studied what forage was available in cherry tree understories and measured the amount the sheep consumed. She compared those figures to control plots of ungrazed trees to determine the amount the animals were grazing over five years. She also ran a similar study at a one-acre mixed fruit orchard in Latah County, Idaho.
At both sites, Hardesty found the sheep did a thorough job of cleaning orchard tree understories, reducing the need to mow and spray herbicides. The practice significantly reduced input costs while providing an additional source of revenue.
"I reduced the number of times I mowed the orchard by 100 percent," Howell says. "I used to mow six times a year, and then I didn't mow at all."
The system was not without pitfalls, however. In addition to grazing the understories, the sheep were attracted to the succulent cherry leaves hanging overhead.
Although Hardesty and Howell tried to train the animals to leave the foliage alone -- consulting with animal trainers and applying bad-tasting, non-toxic sprays to the leaves -- the best solution only worked for six weeks.
"It's like having a kid in a candy store. There are too many good things close to them," says Howell, who has reduced his animals' time in the orchard because of the damage.
Adding livestock to the fruit system also required some time management and know-how many orchardists do not have. Howell moved the animals from the orchard each time he sprayed insecticides, about three times a season. The animals grazed in an adjacent pasture until re-entry after spraying was considered safe.
"Because cherries are harvested in June, everything goes on from April to July," Hardesty says. "Farmers are in and out, continually managing the orchard. In this system, you're moving animals back and forth a lot."
Other producers attending field days and other presentations have since adopted the integrated system idea, Hardesty says, although none use livestock in orchards full time.
Howell continues to use sheep part time to clean up the foliage that falls each autumn. But until he learns a way to entice them away from the trees themselves, he hesitates to incorporate them full time.
"Until you can train animals not to eat a particular piece of vegetation in an orchard setting, I don't think it will be completely utilized," says Howell, who longs to increase his flock size. "I'd have more wool and meat, along with the cherries, plus the economic benefit of losing input costs. Anytime someone says he knows how to train sheep, I perk up."-- Valerie Berton