agriculture

Risk Management Technology: Drones in Agriculture?

Risk Management Technology: Drones in Agriculture?

Article by Evan Lentz

Drones have had a long-standing history in the both the military and hobbyist circles. Recently, there has been a resurgence of drones into general consumer markets which has stimulated an interest in their utility in a range of applications. As such, it should be no surprise that drones have found their way into the world of agriculture. At this year’s annual USDA iPiPE Summit, four undergraduate students from Rutgers University presented their findings on three separate summer long studies, each demonstrating an application for the use of drones in agriculture. All four students work under the guidance of Dr. Peter Oudemans and focused on small fruit crops such as blueberries and cranberries. Below you will find a synopsis of each of the studies and a link to their full findings.

 

Use of Drone Imaging for Assessing Weed Control and Disease Pressure in Highbush Blueberry

Objective:

  • This study was conducted to evaluate the efficacy of drone imagery for weed detection in highbush blueberry crops.

Conclusions:

  • Multiple sensor types can be utilized with drones to detect and monitor weed growth effectively.
  • The drone technology can cover more ground faster than any of the other weed detection methods tested.

 

Use of Drone Imaging for Detecting Fairy Ring Disease in New Jersey Cranberry Beds

Objective:

  • This study was conducted to evaluate the efficacy of drone imagery for fairy ring detection in New Jersey Cranberry beds. Another goal for this study was determining the smallest recognizable fairy ring detectable with the technology.

Conclusions:

  • The drones provided viable, reliable, and highly cost-effective means to assess the degree of fairy ring growth inside cranberry beds.
  • The system is especially cost-effective when compared to the cost of other available options, namely, helicopter flights and satellite images.
  • Shows promise for detection and monitoring of other diseases as well.

Use of Drone Imaging for Detecting Stem Blight in Highbush Blueberries

Objective:

  • This study was conducted to evaluate the efficacy of drone imagery for detecting potential causes of yield loss in highbush blueberry crops. The imagery captured was analyzed for unusual patterns within the rows.

Conclusions:

  • Autonomous flight planning and image software allow the drones to cove large areas quickly and produce high resolution maps
  • RGB sensors on the drones can be utilized to detect problematic areas within the field. Other sensors provided a more defined classification.

 

Although these three drone applications were specific to small fruit crops, the results show that these methods may prove useful in detecting and monitoring pests and diseases in a range of other crop groups. For more information on the studies themselves, follow the links to the full study presentations at http://ed.ipipe.org/publications. Special thanks to USDA iPiPE and the students who conducted the research: D. Jones, D. Nuhn, M. Mars, and J. Armitage.

Spotlight – Farm Labor Shortages: Years in the Making

Spotlight – Farm Labor Shortages: Years in the Making

Article by Evan Lentz

For some time, concerns regarding the availability of reliable farm labor have reached the ears of UConn’s Risk Management team. When considering the vast range of risks that agricultural stakeholders face throughout the year, labor shortages may very well be the most detrimental to the industry in the long term. Even weather, which presents itself as a risk without any control measures, cannot compare to the impacts that large-scale labor shortages would have on agriculture and in turn the rest of the country. But how did we get to this point? Many people may wish to blame certain policies, citing the need for labor reform, others may point to the modernization of society and a general trend away from agrarian living. To understand how American agriculture has arrived at this juncture, one must examine the basic nature of the farming process, labor trends over the past 50 years, and challenges faced by the current farm labor force.

Farming at its most basic level is a biological process, more specifically a diverse group of biological processes with human and other influences (UC Davis). Whether the products of an operation are fruits and vegetables harvested from plants or the meat of animals, all agriculture is at the mercy of the biological processes that have evolved over time. These processes, such as growth and development, abide mainly by the rules encoded in their DNA. Many of these processes are slow, intricate, and beyond the scope of everyday farmers. When combined with other highly variable factors such as weather, these processes become somewhat cumbersome to predict or manage. The high variability and seasonality of agricultural operations present a fundamental issue in finding reliable labor. Set schedules are often nonexistent. Workload and the duration of jobs is determined not by farmers/employers but rather the above-mentioned biological factors. This is what distinguishes farm labor from most other sectors and vocations. The very nature of the business is highly variable, volatile, and require a particular type of worker – one who not only understands the job and its limitations, but one who incorporates the job into the entirety of their everyday lives. Therefore, the first limitation on farm labor is that there are only certain types of individuals who want to perform such work.

The second limitation on farm labor has come through the development and diversification of modern job markets. When looking at low-income or developing countries, the majority of their labor force is agricultural (UC Davis). As nations progress and developed technology, other types of jobs become available and draw workers away from agriculture. High-income countries not only have a more diverse job market, but many of these jobs now require more human investment to perform (UC Davis). Jobs in medicine or technology often require schooling or training which is up to the potential laborer to pursue. In contrast, 43% of the farm workforce lack high school diplomas or equivalencies (USDA, 2017). This need for more human investment in the job is often accompanied by increased wages. This is the incentive. People are willing to invest more of their time and money in a job that requires a different set of skills because they will in turn be able to earn more. As job markets continue to expand and progress, there are more options for those seeking employment. Where farming used to occupy the majority of our nation’s labor force, now only 11% of jobs reside in agriculture and related fields (USDA, 2017). There are simply more jobs that need doing.

Employment in Agriculture (Left); Age of Farm Laborers (Right) – USDA ERS

 

Due to the first two limitations which greatly influence those willing to pursue jobs in agriculture – first by appealing only to a certain type of individual and second by creating a wide range of job alternatives – most of the farm labor force has occupied a relatively narrow demographic for quite some time and this demographic is aging. The median age of the farm workforce is now at 40, up from 36 only ten years ago. Only 16% of farm workers are under the age of 25, suggesting a general disinterest in the industry by young people (USDA, 2017). Still, history demonstrates that where there is work that Americans won’t perform, immigrants will. Looking at the current farm workforce in America, 50% are unauthorized foreign-born individuals, mainly hailing from Mexico. These individuals have historically fallen under the migrant work category, with influxes during the growing season. However, this trend is also changing. The migrant farm workforce has now shifted to a semi-settled workforce (USDA, 2017). It appears that the need for more reliable farm labor has appealed to the migrant workforce enough that they are willing to seek permanent residences in the US. And yet, this demographic faces its own set of concerning limitations that continues to threaten the stability of farm labor in America. 

Without getting into the politics of immigration and labor, it is safe to say there are a number of barriers facing our farm workforce, which seems counter intuitive considering how much American agriculture relies on these individuals. To stabilize the farm workforce and stave off further labor shortages, there are three possible arenas to focus attention. The first would be to remove barriers that face the current migrant workforce, taking advantage of the fact that there are people willing to do the jobs that most Americans no longer wish to do. The second would be to incentivize younger Americans to participate in agriculture, through increased minimum wages and other benefits. The third option, which is not so far off, is eliminating the need for a farm workforce by automating agriculture on a large scale. Below are some links to more information on the farm labor issue. You may also contact your local Extension office.

https://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/farm-economy/farm-labor/#laborcostshare

https://arefiles.ucdavis.edu/uploads/filer_public/ad/74/ad7450e7-80ab-4cf7-a147-6b80c2e614a7/chapter_1_the_farm_labor_problem_4-4-17.pdf

Join UConn for a Panel Presentation on GMOs

UConn’s College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources is offering two events on the science of GMOs next week that we welcome you to attend.

GMO 2.0: Science, Society and the Future is on Wednesday, April 24th in the UConn Student Union Theater on the Storrs Campus at 7 PM.

The panel features four experts that have research connections to GMOs, and will be moderated by Dean Indrajeet Chaubey from the UConn College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources. Panel topics include the risks and benefits of genetically engineered crops; ethical, legal, and social implications of GMOs; CRISPR and other GMO technologies; and the future of GMOs and big agriculture. It’s open to anyone interested in attending.

The goal of the panel presentation is to provide science-based, and unbiased information on GMOs, and the misinformation around them. The panelists will present information in a non-science format for those unfamiliar with the terminology and nuances of the subjects.

GMOs: Answering Difficult Questions from your Customers is being held on Thursday, April 25th at 7 PM at the Tolland County Extension Center, 24 Hyde Avenue, in Vernon.

This presentation is specifically for farmers, but all are welcome to attend. Dr. Paul Vincelli from the University of Kentucky will give a presentation on the risks and benefits of GMOs, and answering questions about GMOs. His presentation will be followed by a question and answer session.

Both events are free for anyone to attend, but registration is requested for planning purposes. For more information on the events, or to register please visit https://gmo.uconn.edu/events/ or call 860-486-9228.

Real Farmers, Real Risks: Interview with Preston Ridge Vineyards

Article by Evan Lentz

Preston Ridge Vineyard is a beautiful vineyard and winery located in Preston, Connecticut. The owners and team members at Preston Ridge work hard to produce a wide variety of grapes and have an impressive line of local Connecticut wines. Their tasting room and outdoor wedding venue immerse guests in the prestige of the Connecticut countryside. And an extensive events schedule including live music, food trucks, and yoga assure there is something for everyone to enjoy. Because of the highly curated atmosphere and pristine vineyard, it may be hard for guests to imagine the difficulties and risks associated with grape production in Connecticut.

Over the years, Preston Ridge has taken advantage of the resources provided by UConn’s Extension center. Annual nutrient and soils tests have allowed them to make more informed decisions about fertilization while scouting services provided by the extension office help determine the level of risk posed by a range of plant pests. UConn Extension spoke with Sean Kelley of Preston Ridge recently about an unforeseen risk they faced this year and the role that crop insurance played for them.

The Story:

Earlier this summer UConn Extension was contacted by Sean Kelley who said that multiple rows of a particular grape variety were displaying some very concerning symptoms. After review by extension specialists, it was determined that the symptoms were characteristic of herbicide damage, specifically 2,4-D. This was puzzling because herbicides had not been used on the vineyard and the localized damage was not consistent with drift from neighboring farms. The damaged vines were located around the venue’s wedding ceremony area which gave the only clue to the cause of the issue.

 

Preston Ridge does their own ornamental landscape and lawncare, except for the area used for wedding ceremonies. A private lawncare company is charged with keeping this area in pristine condition. Before visiting to Preston Ridge, the lawncare company had used their equipment on another client’s lawn. This other client had applied the herbicide 2,4-D prior and therefore contaminated the equipment. With the grass clippings and equipment still wet and contaminated with 2,4-D, the company tended to Preston Ridge Vineyard where the herbicide was spray with clippings towards grape vines. Here the herbicide was able to volatilize and damage the incredibly sensitive crop. Timing and weather conditions created a perfect storm of conditions allowing a localized herbicide drift situation.

Preston Ridge contacted their crop insurance provider to have the damage assessed. The fruit was removed from the vines in an effort to conserve the vigor of the perennial crop. Months later, the vines seem to be bouncing back and they hope that the vines will make it through the winter. Preston Ridge opted not to file an insurance claim in this situation but stated that they have had crop insurance sine they opened and will continue to do so. Sean Kelley asserts that, “you never know what could happen in this business”, referencing an article he read about a vineyard down south who had all their grapes stolen days before harvest, and suggests that crop insurance is a vital part of all agricultural operations.

Risk Management Technology: Robotic Milking Machine

Article by Evan Lentz

On October 26, 2017, UConn Extension and CT Farm Risk Management program teamed up to host the Robotic Milking Conference at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, CT. The conference program boasted an impressive lineup of farmers, researchers, and industry professionals. All seemed to advocate highly for the incorporation of the technology into the dairy industry. The event was attended by a range of local CT dairy farmers, most of whom who have already employed the technology in their dairy farming operations.

Robotic milking machines are hardly a novel technology, being commercially available since the early 1990’s. Since then, the technology has evolved to include a range of benefits to both the farmers and cows alike. The robotic milking machines are voluntary meaning that the cows only get milked when they are ready. Upon entering the system cows are weighed and the teats are cleaned. The systems utilize a quarter-milking strategy, allowing for each teat to be milked individually. After the milk has been extracted cows return to the herd.

 

Much data is provided during the milking process that gives farmers a better idea on the health of the cows as well as the quality of milk collected. This information allows farmers to make more informed decisions about the herd and provides for the early detection of health problems. Measurements such as somatic cell count, total plate count, and milk fat percentage determine the quality of milk. Farms which have adopted the use of robotic milking machines tend to see an increase in both somatic and total plate count within the first year. This is especially important for larger farms where somatic cell count tends to be lower than in smaller operations.

 

As times change, it is important for businesses to evolve. Robotic milking machines are playing an integral role in the evolution of this industry. The availability of reliable labor in agriculture is becoming incredibly pressing issue. This technology provides for the adaptation to a changing environment and allows farmers to spend their time doing more important things such as marketing and developing plans for the ever-growing agrotourism industry. For more information on this technology please visit the UConn Extension or CT Farm Risk Management website.

Spotlight – Soil Degradation

One of the most pressing resource related issues around the world is the continual reduction in the percentage of arable land. Currently, 37% of land worldwide is considered agricultural, only 10% is deemed arable, or plowable, and suitable for crop production (World Bank Group, 2015). The shrinking percentage of suitable farm land is a direct result of soil degradation, which is attributed to tillage practices and the use of agrochemicals in intensive agriculture. Overgrazing of rangelands, natural occurrences such as wildfires, and non-agricultural human activities such as road salt applications also contribute to the degradation of soils, making mediation efforts cumbersome. Although the degradation of soils is a multifaceted process with a range of negative effects, effects tend to be closely tied with one another making the process as a whole degenerative.
 

The current intensive agricultural systems in place throughout the world aim to maximize production through increased inputs, such as labor and agrochemicals, while reducing waiting periods between crops. Large-scale annual crop production relies primarily on conventional tillage methods such as the moldboard plow, an implement that cuts a furrow slice of soil (around 8 inches in depth). The furrow slice is lifted, flipped, and dropped back down, inverting the soil profile. Simultaneously, this implement forms a hardpan layer of compacted soil beneath the disturbed portion. Both the inversions and hardpans negatively impact the soil’s structure. A compromised soil structure carries its own concerns and at the same time predicates multiple downstream effects.

A soil’s structure refers to the arrangement of fine soil articles into groups called aggregates. Many soil activities such as water movement, heat transfer, and aeration are directly impacted by the formation and arrangement of aggregates which results from a range of slow biological, physical and chemical processes. Aggregates are delicate and become destroyed in frequently disturbed soils such as those in annual cropping systems. Destruction of aggregates increases the bulk density of a soil. As bulk density increases water infiltration, water holding capacity, aeration, and root penetration decrease, making it more difficult for crops to access resources essential for growth.

The regular application of agrochemicals in cropping systems further diminishes the health of soil. Agrochemicals include herbicides, pesticides, fertilizers, and other soil amendments. One of the main concerns with the addition of these chemicals is their interaction with soil organisms. Soil macro- and microorganisms include bacteria, fungi, and earthworms; all contribute to a healthy plant rhizosphere and provide a range of benefits within cropping systems. These organisms are very sensitive to variation in their environment such as changes in pH, salinity, and the carbon:nitrogen ratio. These inputs represent rapid cyclic environmental shifts to which soil organisms cannot acclimate or adapt to. Instead, the diversity of soil organism diversity is diminished.

Soil organisms play a range of roles in the development and maintenance of a healthy soil profile, which in turn affects the growth and development of crops. Microorganisms such as bacteria fix nitrogen, making the largely inaccessible pool of atmospheric nitrogen available for plant uptake. Fungi, like mycorrhizae, form mutualistic associations with plant roots, extending their network of nutrient and water uptake. Larger organisms such as earthworms help to form soil aggregates by creating macropores and producing worm castings. Many insects also contribute to the formation of soil aggregates as well as help reduce the weed seedbank via predation. Healthy, natural soil systems are engineered by a consortium of organisms and by design are able to provide the needs of plants. However, in some cropping systems, this level of provision is deemed inadequate, prompting the need for agrochemicals and at the same time impacting the functionality of the soil.

Soil degradation is not limited to artificial systems. There are several factors, both natural and human induced, contributing to the percentage of degraded land around the world, outside of agricultural systems. Wild fires, which occur regularly in arid regions, burn vegetation which help to hold soils in place. Climate change, combined with lack of management in fire-prone areas, has dramatically increased the frequency and intensity of these fires, increasing the potential erosion. Mismanagement and overgrazing of rangelands in dry regions also diminishes soil-stabilizing vegetation, creating the same potential for erosion. In more temperate regions, road salt application during the winter months has become cause for concern as these salts become distributed into the ecosystems affecting both soil structure and soil organisms.

The effects of soil degradation are not discrete, often tied to each other in a continuum in which some agricultural practices initiate a predictable sequence of events that ultimately leads to diminished soil health. Conventional tillage methods and the use of agrochemicals seem to be the catalytic events for such series of events in annual cropping systems; affecting soil structure, organic matter content, and the health of soil organisms. These in turn compromise the functionality of soils as the medium for crop growth and development. There is wealth of information on alternative practices that aim to reduce the impact of agriculture on soil health. For more information on soil conservation and alternative agricultural practices please visit the UConn Extension website or contact your local extension office.

Despite the evidence supporting the continual degradation of soils due to agricultural activities, there is little consideration for the viability of suggested remediation practices in regard to the effects on food production, farmers and the agriculture industry as a whole. Reducing tillage and agrochemical input is not a solution for many agricultural systems as some crops simply do not perform well in no till systems, while reduced agrochemical input would greatly compromise crop yields. Considering the importance of agriculture to society at large, farmers, who may be the most hardworking and underpaid individuals in the world, utilize available options to maintain soil health while still maintaining a productive and economically feasible operation.

From the farmers perspective, this is often represented by tradeoffs. Farmers are not ignorant to the concept of soil degradation or the importance of soil health. In fact, they understand the impact of these much better than anyone else. Operations which use agrochemicals and employ conventional tillage methods still take steps to maintain soil health. Many of these cropping systems utilize conservation practices such as the incorporation of cover crops or selection of organic agrochemical alternatives. Elizabeth Creech of NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service) wrote an informative piece entitled “The Dollars and Cents of Soil Health: A Farmer’s Perspective” which depicts many of the challenges farmers face when it comes to maintaining soil health. For more information please follow this link: https://www.usda.gov/media/blog/2018/03/12/dollars-and-cents-soil-health-farmers-perspective.

Real Farmers, Real Risks: Sentiments from Freund’s Farm

Tucked away in the northwestern most corner of the state, Freund’s Farm sits on 600 beautiful acres, proudly serving as one of Connecticut’s most notable and progressive dairy farms. The farm was started in 1949 by Eugene and Esther Freund. The operation has grown over the past 70 years and now boasts a herd of nearly 300 happy, healthy Holsteins. The family has done well to evolve with changing times, outfitting their operation with solar power to help reduce costs and their impact on the local environment. Freund’s Farm also employs the use of robotic milking machines which greatly improves the efficiency of the milking process while keeping their cows content and productive.

In 1970, the Freunds took advantage of a surplus of an unlikely resource, cow manure, with the invention of Cow Pots. These thoughtful and eco-friendly pots have become a favorite of gardeners from all walks due to their biodegradability, making seed starting a breeze. The resourcefulness of the family over the years has made them a leader in sustainability, receiving the US Dairy Sustainability Award of Outstanding Resource Stewardship. Freund’s Farm has also established a successful bakery and farmer’s market, providing their local community with fresh local food. Despite the often-risky nature of dairy farming in CT, the Freund family continues to solidify their position as an industry leader due to their ingenuity and dedication.

UConn Extension had an opportunity to talk with Ben Freund of Freund’s Farm about some of the risks associated with dairy farming in Connecticut and the role that insurance plays to alleviate some of the associated stressors. The biggest risk to dairy farming is often the weather, a factor that can hardly be controlled. However, market variability is a risk to which there are a range of mitigation strategies. Both the costs of inputs and the market price of milk fluctuate often. The Freunds work closely with insurance agents to customize government subsidized insurance plans to meet the farms needs and guarantee the price of milk for a certain period of time. The flexibility of the plans allows the farm to maintain operations even when the market price of milk does not meet expectations. Ben Freund asserts the insurance is “an important tool” and that “having some sort of risk mitigation on the farm is worthwhile to understand and use”. You can watch Ben Freund’s entire video at the CT Risk Management website under the “Resource Library” tab.

Real Farmers; Real Risks: Interview with Norton Brothers Farm

 

Norton Brother’s Farm is a seventh-generation family-owned fruit farm located in Cheshire, Connecticut. The farm has been owned and operated by the Norton family since the mid-1700s and boasts a long-standing, proud history with the town of Cheshire. Bridsey Norton, father of the Norton Brothers (Judson and Donald) who operated the farm until 2001, also served the town of Cheshire as first selectmen. The farm now rests in the capable hands of Tim Perry. Together, with help from the family, Tim continues the tradition of providing the local community with fresh fruit, vegetables, and an impressive range of homemade farm-market goodies.

This proud Connecticut farming family currently operates on about 107 acres of land, producing everything from apples, peaches, and pears to blueberries, raspberries, and strawberries. Their expansive pick-your-own operation begins in June with their various berry crops and runs through to the fall, where locals can choose from an overwhelming 34 varieties of apples. Hayrides, pumpkins, and scarecrows offer families a fun and immersive experience during the harvest season. When the Christmas trees and holiday decorations arrive, patrons can find their way to the family’s dairy barn farm stand for the perfect holiday gift, whether it’s local cider, jams, and farm-fresh pies or one of their carefully curated seasonal gifts. The Norton Brother’s farm has something for everyone throughout the year. They invite you and your family to come join them for a wholesome, local experience: farm tours, birthday parties, or even just a family picnic.

Farming is a risky business and even a farm as historically successful and well-loved as the Norton Brother’s farm faces its share of challenges. To find out a bit more about the Norton Brother’s farm, UConn Extension reached out to Tim Perry to see what happens behind the scenes. When asked about some of the biggest risks that he faces, Tim sings the same tune as many other Connecticut farmers: weather, weather, weather. “The weather is hard to predict and out of your control. And it’s becoming more unpredictable – from 22 inches of rain in a month to frost before bloom. It used to be that we had a frost every 10 years, that’s not the case anymore”, says Tim. When asked about risk management he says it’s really a toss-up, “You can try frost protection. Depending on your operation it can cost up to $100,000. I know people who get the fans, get the heaters, and still lose everything. Plus, oil is at about $4 per gallon now.” A lot of times it’s about doing the best you can and rolling with it. But what about when preventative measures aren’t enough?

We asked Tim about crop insurance as well. We wanted to know if he utilizes crop insurance, the role it’s played in mediating farm risks and if he would suggest it to other people. It turns out he is a huge proponent of crop insurance. He stated that they now have every crop insured, “Peaches are the largest users of crop insurance. It’s almost a yearly thing now. Not that we’re getting rich from it, but it helps to offset costs.” This is also the first year that they are trying out insurance for blueberries, “As far as we know, we’re the first ones to have blueberry crop insurance, at least with the company we use.” He says that crop insurance is a tool for farmers, just like a tractor or the sprayers. They utilize it to the best of their ability. But what about the costs, difficulties, or aversions to crop insurance?

He says, “You have to spend to benefit”. Saying that most people will always try to shoot for the lower end of the scale for premiums, “…but you’re not going to start seeing benefits till you spend a bit more on the premiums.” As far as the aversions to crop insurance, what have you heard? Again, he says it’s all part of the business, “It may be more paperwork, but take the time. No one has a better idea of what’s going on on your farm than you. You know what you pick, you know what you produce. Spend the time with the companies and make sure you pick the plan that right for you.” All in all, it seems that Tim has taken the time to educate himself on crop insurance. It’s also apparent that crop insurance plays a recurring role in mediating risks at the Norton Brother’s farm. To hear more about Tim Perry’s take on crop insurance, check out his video on the UConn Risk Management’s website under the resources tab. And to learn more about the Norton Brother’s farm itself, you can visit their website at www.nortonbrothersfruitfarm.com, or check them out in person at 466 Academy Road, Cheshire, CT.

Real Farmers – Real Risks: Interview with Raspberry Knoll Farms

Raspberry Knoll Farm in North Windham is one of Connecticut’s premier pick-your-own operations, featuring a wide variety of berries, herbs, veggies, and flowers. Located in the Northeastern region of the state, this family owned farm attracts droves of patrons throughout the growing season, starting in June with strawberries and going all the way through till fall with their winter veggies. The farm is owned and operated by Mary and Pete Concklin who started their business in 2011 with just raspberries and then diversified each year after. Mary Concklin plays a dual role in the world of agriculture; she is also the Fruit and IPM Extension Specialist at the University of Connecticut. UConn’s Risk Management team sat down with Mary this month to discuss some the risks associated with pick-your-own operations, some mediation and prevention strategies, and the role that crop insurance plays in the operation at Raspberry Knoll.

Even though pick-your-own operations carry with them a particular set of risks, Mary Concklin decided that these risks were greatly outweighed by the main benefit of being pick-your-own: not having to have to acquire or pay for harvest labor. By streamlining and specializing their operation, Raspberry Knoll has effectively eliminated one of the largest growing issues in agriculture. However, this isn’t to say they do not face risks. When asked about the largest risk of having large numbers of people on the farm, Mary stated that many people are inclined to eat while they pick, which in turn means that there are berries that are not being paid for. “We don’t mind if you try a few and figure out which varieties you like, just don’t make a meal out of it”, she says. “Other than that, there’s really been no issues, we attract a really nice crowd. We haven’t seen any damage to plants or equipment from customers”.

rows of raspberry bushes in North Windham
Rows of raspberries at the farm.

Although Raspberry Knoll seems to have a handle on the ins and outs or pick-your-own, we wanted to know what advice Mary would give to other pick-your-own operations. The first piece of advice was to not allow pets within the pick your own fields, “We are producing food and people may not be picking up after their pets”. The second piece of advice was aimed at preventing loss. “You need to be set up for pick-your-own to do this properly. We knew that we were going to be pick your own from the beginning and we planned our operation around it. The fields are completely fenced in to prevent animals (humans included) from eating the crops. Everyone must pass through the farm stand to leave, ensuring everything gets paid for. You need to control the flow, otherwise you’ll have a hard time trying to keep track of things”.

And how about other risks, ones not associated with pick-your-own? Mary shared a story about an ongoing battle with some local wildlife. Apparently, beavers were repeatedly flooding some of the fields at Raspberry Knoll, making it difficult to get out into the fields and plant. Mary and Pete had to people to trap and move the beavers so they could make use of the acreage that they had. Mary says that raccoons have also been an issue in the past, eating sweet corn even when protected by fences. Wildlife is something that you have to live with and it’s often times hard to control for.

So, what about crop insurance? Mary is a huge proponent of crop insurance as a part of an effective risk management plan, but she stated that she did not have crop insurance on her farm, “We’re so diversified, it’s hard to justify the expense”. They have a wide variety of berries and other crops that carry them through the entire season, including a vegetable CSA and pick-your-own flower and herb gardens. By being so diversified, if there is a loss in one crop or variety the others help to mediate that loss. “We had one variety of raspberries that we lost to winter injury two years in a row. So, we just dug those up and planted new varieties”, Mary says. The diversity at Raspberry Knoll helped them mediate that loss and Mary assures that this is a great way to mediate many risks. However, Mary admitted that even though diversifying may help to mediate the loss of a crop you are still losing revenue and considering a whole-farm revenue insurance plan is a great option, even for those farms who are well-diversified.

view of raspberry farm in North Windham
A view of Raspberry Knoll Farm.

What advice would you give farmers, either new or established, regarding risk management or crop insurance? “Be smart”, she says. This is in regard to workflow. This year Mary is employing the use of high tunnels in her blackberry crop where winter hardiness is an issue. This way the canes won’t have to be laid down every year to protect them and can instead grow straight up without the threat of injury. Next, “Diversify”. She suggests covering all your bases and not relying too much on any one thing. As we all know, it’s hard to control for the unknown and being diverse can help to prevent unnecessary headaches. Finally, “Take a look at the crop insurance policies. If there’s not a policy that fits your operation, contact an agent and talk with them. There may be something you are missing, a plan that could benefit your operation immensely”.

Article by Evan Lentz

GMO Working Group Hosting April Events

GMO panel flyerThe CAHNR GMO Working Group is hosting GMO 2.0: Science, Society and the Future, a panel presentation on Wednesday, April 24th at 7 PM in the Student Union Theater. Please save the date and make plans to join us. The event is free and anyone is welcome to attend.

The panel is moderated by Dean Indrajeet Chaubey. Speakers include: Paul Vincelli from the University of Kentucky, Robert C. Bird from the School of Business, Yi Li from the Department of Plant Science and Landscape Architecture, and Gerry Berkowitz from the Department of Plant Science and Landscape Architecture. 

A second event, GMOs: Answering Difficult Questions from your Customers is specifically for farmers, but all are welcome to attend. Dr. Paul Vincelli from the University of Kentucky will give a presentation, followed by a question and answer session. The event is Thursday, April 25th at 7 PM at the Tolland County Extension Center in Vernon.

More information on both events is available at https://gmo.uconn.edu/events/.