The Solid Ground Farmer Training program kicks off its second season this month. This program will deliver over 30 trainings designed for new and beginning farmers from December 2017 to March 2018. Current and aspiring farmers are welcome to attend as many free trainings as they like, many of which are led by Connecticut farmers. Training topics include Financial Record Keeping for Farm Businesses, Vegetable Production for Small Farms, Growing Crops in Low and High Tunnels, Finding Your Market, Eco-Focused Farming Practices, Cover Cropping, and many more. Last year the program reached over 300 new growers in the state!
Funded through the USDA Beginning Farmer & Rancher Development Program, these trainings are coordinated by UConn Extension and are designed to provide a solid foundation of knowledge on which new farmers can establish and grow their farm businesses. Come learn about tried and true methods as well as brand-new techniques from seasoned farmers, Extension specialists, and professional consultants.
Trainings are free and take place around the state at agriculture partner organizations in Bridgeport, Hartford, Killingly, Windham, Bethel, New Haven, and Simsbury, making them accessible to farmers state-wide.
In addition to winter trainings, the Solid Ground Program also offers one-on-one consultations with
specialists in the areas of Farm Finance, Soil Health, and Vegetable Production. The Agricultural Re$ource Fair, another piece of the program, takes place in early February and brings together Farmers and agricultural service providers for meaningful presentations around funding for farmers on both the state and national level.
Renewable energy has a lower environmental impact than energy generated by burning fossil fuels. Connecticut has a goal to secure 27% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020.
Recently, four videos on farm energy were produced to showcase different options available to Connecticut Farmers. Ace Begonias in Bethany has an energy-efficient lighting project. Full Bloom Apiaries in Franklin installed solar panels and an energy-efficient project. Oakridge Farms in Ellington installed solar panels on their dairy barn. Paley’s Farm Market in Sharon also installed solar panels.
Farmers considering improving energy efficiency or generating renewable energy on the farm should first address current equipment performance. The highest cost savings comes from energy efficiency: the cheapest power is power not used. A farm energy audit can help a farm determine if equipment upgrades will save energy and money through greater energy efficiency.
However, investment in reducing energy use or converting to renewable sources can often be costly. Maintenance, repairs, and costs to replace components such as the inverters should be estimated. Producers need to work through the income tax deductions, depreciation benefits, and the sale of renewable energy credits to determine if the investment is financially feasible. There are several funding sources for audits, feasibility studies, loans, and grants for energy efficiency and renewable energy projects on Connecticut farms.
The Connecticut Farm Energy Program (CFEP) serves as a resource for information about funding, incentives and financing on-farm energy projects. CFEP provides technical assistance to eligible Connecticut producers in applying for USDA Rural Development Rural Energy for America Program (REAP) grants. REAP is a federal program to foster economic development and growth through grants and guaranteed loans.
UConn Extension funded production of the videos in partnership with Connecticut Farm Energy Program, USDA Rural Development, and Energize CT. The videos can be viewed online at http://s.uconn.edu/farmenergy.
In the simplest form a Nutrient Management Plan is an inventory of the nutrients produced on the farm or needed by crops that are, or will be, produced, and a list of planned applications needed to distribute those nutrients to individual crop fields to support the growth of the desired crop, for all fields on the farm. Historically these plans were pretty simple. A farm would apply manure by spreading it on the fields until they ran out, then they would apply fertilizer where they thought they would need it with little regard for how an individual application would affect the field, the crop or the environment. Today fertilizer is too expensive to waste and excess nutrients in a field are more likely to run off to contaminate ground or surface water. The goal of the Extension Nutrient Management Planning Program is to help famers target their nutrients to the portions of the fields that need them.
The key to accomplish this is knowing what is there already. Remote sensing technology is the tool that can provide that information to farmers for each individual field at a cost they can afford. UConn Extension’s Nutrient Management Planning team is using this technology (aircraft mounted camera-like sensors) to help farmers use manure and fertilizer more effectively. Eleven farms across Connecticut are cooperating in this project to show farmers how remotely sensed imagery could be used to guide future manure and fertilizer applications. Farms agreed to allow UConn faculty access to 35 fields to take soil and crop samples and to allow their fields to be photographed during the growing season. Farms receive copies of all of the sample results during the growing season to make management decisions. During the winter farms come together as a group to see the imagery, discuss the results for their fields and to plan the next year’s manure and/or fertilizer applications using the analysis results and imagery to guide their decisions.
The photo above is an example of the aerial imagery used in this process, in this case an NDVI image. NDVI stands for Normalized Difference Vegetative Index. NDVI was originally developed to determine land cover differences in vegetation from space. However by bringing the sensors closer to earth and targeting individual crop fields the technology can pinpoint areas in the field that are stressed and likely to yield less crop. NDVI basically calculates a ratio of the amount of light reflected in various wavelengths. This ratio number is the mathematical value of the “greenness” of the plant. Darker green color is indicative of healthier plants. This ratio is calculated for each pixel present in the images, as shown by the enlarged section of the photo. Each pixel or square visible in the enlarged section represents a 50 X 50 cm (19.6 X 19.6 inch) potion of the field surface. The resulting values are then color coded into ranges so the well fertilized healthy vegetation in the field appears as dark green, the less well fertilized or less healthy regions vary from light green through yellow and the worst vegetation in the field shows as orange. Areas with little or no vegetation appear red. This color-coding makes it easy for the farmer to understand where the best areas of the field are located.
Capturing the imagery and calculating the NDVI is the easy part. Commercial companies provide imagery for millions of acres of farmland across North America each year. The challenging part of this project is answering the question, “So now what?” This is where Extension is focusing its attention. There are 4 labelled locations in the field image. These are the points in the field chosen by Extension faculty to represent the poor, better and best regions in the field. Using hand held GPS devices faculty and students visit each location and mark out a 5 X 10 foot region for detailed sampling and data collection. Plant population is counted, soil samples are taken, and plants are harvested, weighed, ground and analyzed for dry matter and nutrient content.
When all of the laboratory work, and other data is collected and collated we calculate the overall yield information for the various colored regions in each field. Since we have data on the yield and the soil we can make recommendations that give farmers a more accurate estimate of the nutrients that should be applied to the various regions of the field. Having identified areas of the field that don’t need fertilizer as well as those areas that may need more nutrients the farmer can better target the areas that need additional fertilizer and save on areas that need less. Some farms use the information to maximize production per acre so they can farm fewer acres. The point is that having accurate information allows each farm to manage the field in a way that best fits their need without guessing and without over applying nutrients and having them be lost and possibly cause pollution.
Currently this program is effective, but not affordable without grant funds from off-farm sources. There is insufficient demand from farmers in New England, so the cost for imagery is too high for an individual farm to justify. The grant project is paying to obtain the imagery, and introduce the technology to the farms. UConn Extension’s work allows us to understand the various costs and obstacles involved in adapting this process to New England farms, which tend to be much smaller and more widely scattered than Midwest farms. The team has purchased a drone and is working on programming hardware and training a pilot to fly the drone and turn photos into usable images. There is a significant amount of computer processing of imagery needed to create a field map usable for nutrient applications. This will be a large portion of the effort of the team for the 2017 crop season.
While Connecticut residents live in a state with ample water resources, we are beginning to notice some changes in precipitation trends.
“Connecticut is very fortunate as we’re actually quite water rich,” says Angie Harris, research assistant in UConn Extension. “We are getting rainfall, but there’s a shift in what we are beginning to experience, and what scientists expect to continue, which is more intense rain events less frequently. This type of rainfall can lead to drought conditions for agricultural producers.”
In 2015, Connecticut requested over $8 million dollars in federal emergency loans to be made available for crop losses due to moderate drought conditions across the state.
Mike O’Neill, associate dean and associate director of UConn Extension, and Harris are working on a two-year water conservation project funded through the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Regional Conservation Partnership Program. Funding is provided through a $400,000 NRCS grant matched one to one by the College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources.
The UConn team is partnering with NRCS to promote conservation assistance to agricultural producers. The project goal focuses on agricultural water security by helping farmers prepare for drought, improve their irrigation efficiency and establish water conservation practices.
“In the past, NRCS did everything themselves,” O’Neill explains. “But now they are outsourcing some of that work because they realize we have partnerships in the community that can be effective in helping people implement agricultural conservation practices. I think this is a very innovative act on the part of the NRCS.”
Twelve pilot sites across the state have been identified to include a variety of agricultural operations including greenhouses, nurseries, vegetable growers and dairy and livestock farms.
“We’re really trying to target new and beginning agricultural operations because we feel they run the greatest risk of failure as a result of drought,” O’Neill says. “We look at what these operations can do in advance to make them more secure when a drought hits. If you can prepare farmers in advance, then when drought occurs, they’re not dealing with mitigation or lost crops, they will be able to weather the drought and be successful.”
The first step in the project involved review of the operations, followed by a site visit. Then the team installed a water meter at each site. The meter information is easily managed by farmers through an innovative text messaging data collection method developed by Nicholas Hanna, computer programmer with the College’s Office of Communications. The program allows operators to check their meter reading once weekly, quickly send the results via text messaging and receive a confirmation of their submission.
The readings are entered into a database associated with their number and farm name. By season’s end, the team will chart water usage tied to climate variables such as precipitation and wind, and will then review current watering practices and help owners develop strategies that manage water usage and prepare for drought conditions.
The NRCS will also use this data to help farmers access water saving strategies and equipment.
“In the end, we will be directing them to NRCS for financial assistance to implement conservation practices,” says Harris. The NRCS financial assistance programs are designed to help agricultural producers maintain and improve their water program in areas such as soil management and irrigation efficiency.
Some seventy-five agricultural producers have expressed interest in the program thus far, with the number growing weekly. To join the program, farmers complete a water use survey available online. A member of the team will conduct a field site visit. “If farmers are interested in getting a meter, we want to hear from them,” says O’Neill.
“We have a really great team working on this project,” he says. The group includes Rosa Raudales, assistant professor and horticulture extension specialist in the Department of Plant Science and Landscape Architecture; Mike Dietz, extension educator in water resources, low impact development and storm water management; and Ben Campbell, former assistant professor in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics, currently an assistant professor and extension economist at the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.
In another aspect of the project, the team is partnering with the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and the Office of Policy and Management to explore water needs for agriculture in Connecticut. This understanding could inform policy decisions for future agricultural development within the state.
“This is a teachable moment for us,” O’Neill says. “We feel like these agricultural producers are scientists. We have an opportunity to help farmers conserve water, increase profitability and preserve the environment. They treat their business as a science, and we are trying to work with them to help them enhance their science capabilities and make better choices.”
There are more than one hundred UConn Extension specialists working throughout Connecticut. These educators are teaching and training in local communities, sharing their experience and knowledge with residents through a variety of programs. These instructional activities now will be easily accessible with the creation of an online extension course catalog.
Extension classes address a wide range of topics, including issues related to agriculture and food systems, the green industry, families and community development, land use and water, nutrition and wellness as well as numerous 4-H and youth activities. The website uses these groupings and an A to Z index so finding offerings is simple and straightforward. Each program links to a page with information on the objectives, goals, components, intended audience, the time of year and how often programs run and a link to the program’s website, that provides additional information.
As part of a nationwide network through the University of Connecticut College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources, Extension professionals and trained volunteers engage the state’s diverse population to make informed choices and better decisions. The partnerships enrich our lives and our environment.
How would a dairy or livestock business survive if a Foreign Animal Disease arrived in the United States? Using Foot and Mouth Disease as an example, participants of UConn Extension’s Biosecurity Workshop heard from Dr. Richard Horwitz about the New England Secure Milk Supply’s steps to maintain a permit to ship milk when the disease has not reached your farm: Secure the Perimeter, Clean and Disinfect sources of the virus, and daily Monitor for the disease. Dr. Cantor, New England Emergency Coordinator for USDA APHIS, related the threat that other countries have experienced and how a two week delay in notification increased the severity of the control measures drastically.
It is not if, but when the disease is transported into our country again. The last occurrence was in 1929 in San Francisco, but world travel by farm visitors and importation of animals is so much more common now. Dr. Andrew, UConn Dairy Specialist, presented the map of the UConn dairy and livestock barns, and the many visitors and vehicles travel between barns and from the community. The group provided their recommendations for the Line of Separation to establish the safe zone on the farm, and the outside to keep out sources of infection. And finally, Dr. Lis, CT Department of Agriculture, requested that all dairy farms submit to her department a self-assessment of their farm readiness to remain disease free in the case of an outbreak. Knowing the commitment of each farm to disease prevention will help in the decision to allow milk pick up during the outbreak. The farmers and the staff from the University, state departments of agriculture, and USDA APHIS left the workshop ready to continue this discussion at local farm meetings, more aware of the challenges that will be faced by our important food producers and government decision makers when a foreign animal disease arrives uninvited.
UConn Extension was pleased to host Mr. Nick Edgar, distinguished Winston Churchill Fellow and Chief Executive of New Zealand Landcare Trust, exploring innovative local food and sustainable agriculture initiatives in the U.S. Thank you to the farmers who hosted us!