agriculture

Risk Management Tools: Helping Connecticut Farms Grow

Horsebarn Hill at UConn
A view of Horsebarn Hill at sunrise on July 20, 2017. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

“Agriculture is inherently a risk filled profession,” says Associate Extension Educator Joseph Bonelli. “Utilizing risk management is a tool for farmers to minimize the impacts of threats they can’t completely control by reducing the impact of certain dangers on their farm business.”

UConn Extension has a United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Risk Management Association (RMA) grant for farmers and growers, specifically focusing on crop insurance and its options. USDA offers fewer disaster assistance funds, and wants farmers to take a greater interest in managing their risks and related financial impacts. The program is designed to create a safety net for operations through insurance for weather incidents, pests, or a lack of market.

The beauty of the programming is that Extension educators can weave in other topics of interest in areas of risk management for farmers. Examples include production risk, plant diseases, or labor. RMA covers any practice that mitigates risk on a farm operation.

“I enjoy helping farmers develop solutions to problems,” Bonelli states. “I ask them what keeps them up at night. For many farmers its problems that risk management can help them mitigate. Extension helps farmers understand the tools that are available, and grow the farm for the next generation.”

Mary Concklin, Visiting Associate Extension Educator for Fruit Production and IPM, is the co- principal investigator on the RMA grant with Bonelli. An advisory board of 12 people meets annually to provide input on programming. Members of the committee include Extension educators, Farm Bureau, the Department of Agriculture, and industry organizations.

Programs offered include workshops and one-on-one sessions with technical advisors. The RMA program has a suite of educational resources. A video series was created featuring farmers from different sectors of agriculture discussing how crop insurance has helped their operation. A monthly e-newsletter was recently introduced. Each issue showcases a farmer, and provides tips that farmers can immediately put into practice.

Agricultural producers appreciate that RMA programs have an impartial approach, and are not trying to sell anything. Program instructors serve as technical advisors and a sounding board.

UConn Extension is part of a network of information through our association with other land grant universities and Extension systems, and brings in outside expertise as it’s needed by our farmers. Risk management is also incorporated into other UConn Extension programs for agricultural producers.

Connecticut farmers have experienced a tremendous shift from wholesale to retail marketing. The demands on farmers and growers to understand how to promote and market value added crops has added another level of responsibility, where before farmers only focused on production. Direct marketing brings another whole area of risk through product liability and competition.

Not all national crop insurance programs fit Connecticut agriculture. Farmers need to make an informed decision
based on the facts as to whether or not a policy fits their business, and should be purchased. Bonelli and Concklin provide feedback to USDA on the reasons why Connecticut farmers choose not to purchase insurance, with the goal of improv- ing federal programs available.

“We try to be on the leading edge of what’s new to help farmers be more productive and financially viable,” Bonelli concludes. “It’s rewarding that UConn Extension is part of the success and resiliency of farmers in our state. No one organization is responsible, we’re part of a team working with the farmers to grow their businesses.”

Article by Stacey Stearns

Connecticut Grown Strawberries Ripe for Picking

Connecticut grown strawberries in cartonsFresh from the field, Connecticut Grown strawberries are now ripening and ready to eat. Strawberries are the first fruit available in Connecticut and signal the arrival of summer for many residents who look forward to visiting one of the state’s pick-your-own farms.

“Visiting a Connecticut strawberry patch to pick your own is a wholesome, family fun activity,” said Bryan P. Hurlburt, Connecticut Department of Agriculture Commissioner. “This type of activity supports local farms and farm families while generating millions of dollars in agritourism for the state’s economy. And, the best part of it all is that you get fresh Connecticut Grown strawberries to eat at home.” 

While it’s early in the season, producers are reporting that picking is quite good. “Despite the amount of record breaking rain in April and early May, the strawberries crop is now experiencing excellent weather for maturing to ripening. The season is off to a great start and it appears that the production will be right in line for a successful strawberry season,” said Nancy Barrett, owner of Scantic Valley Farm in Somers, CT.

It’s a good idea to call ahead, or check the farms website, for daily updates as weather conditions impact availability. Sweet and juicy strawberries are also available now at farmers’ markets and farm stands throughout the state. Find one near you at www.CTGrown.gov/strawberry.

When ripe, strawberries smell wonderful and taste even better. As members of the rose family, this perennial plant is a good source of vitamin C, manganese, folate, and potassium. They are also loaded with antioxidants.

Strawberries should be plump and firm with a bright red color and natural shine. The color and fragrance of the berry, not size, are the best indicators of flavor. Once you get your strawberries home, wash them and cut the stem away to store in a cool place. If you plan to keep them in the fridge for a few days, wait to clean them until you plan to eat them. Rinsing them speeds up spoiling.

Strawberries can be used to make jams, jellies, shortcake, pie and more. They can also be pickled, especially when picked green or unripe, or frozen to use later in smoothies. Find more recipe ideas to create your own delicious dishes by visiting our Pinterest page at https://www.pinterest.com/GrowCTAg/.

Make plans to visit a Connecticut strawberry patch this weekend to create lasting memories and delicious, healthy dishes.

Article by Connecticut Department of Agriculture

Evan Lentz: Intern Spotlight

Evan Lentz and Casey Lambert spent the summer of 2018 as undergraduate interns scouting for diseases and insects at vineyards and small fruit farms throughout the state with the iPiPE grant through the National Institute for Food and Agriculture.

iPIPE is the Integrated Pest Information Platform for Extension and Education. It’s a weather and pest-tracking tool for growers to use. The program uses technology to categorize endemic pests, users, and data. Extension Educator Mary Concklin has a two-year iPiPe grant.

“We collected information on farms, uploaded it to iPiPE, and shared our results with the growers,” Evan says. “I got to know many of the farmers and

their day-to-day routines. Some of them really cared that we were at the farm, and we were a resource to help with their problems.”

Evan graduated in May of 2019 with a major in Sustainable Plant and Soil Systems, and a minor in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. He starts graduate school in the fall. “I highly recommend Extension internships to anyone, in any major,” he concludes.

Article by Stacey Stearns

Welcome Abby Beissinger to UConn Extension!

Abby BeissingerUConn Extension and the Department of Plant Science and Landscape Architecture are proud to announce our newest team member, Abby Beissinger. Abby has accepted the position of Plant Diagnostician in the UConn Plant Diagnostic Laboratory. Her first official day was May 28, 2019.

Abby attended the University of Wisconsin and received a B.A. in Anthropology in 2011. During her undergraduate studies, she focused on agriculture and sustainable development, and implemented development projects in Costa Rica, Mexico, and Uganda. Abby spent two years as an AmeriCorps volunteer teaching urban agriculture and gardening to youth in Massachusetts, and a summer with the Student Conservation Association leading trail crews in Chicago. From her work, she realized she was drawn to plant pathology and how plant diseases impact human livelihoods.

In 2016, Abby graduated from Washington State University with a M.S. in Plant Pathology. Her research focused on how management decisions of Potato virus Y impact the epidemiology and etiology of the virus. She then relocated to University of Connecticut to run the Conservation Ambassador Program in the Department of Natural Resources & the Environment. She fostered a statewide volunteer network of 90+ community partners including schools, non-profits, and government agencies to mentor high school students conducting long-term conservation projects. She enjoyed helping students make an environmental impact, and was drawn back to plant pathology to support growers and agricultural networks.

Abby is an example of the winding path people take to discover plant pathology, and is excited to serve as UConn’s Plant Diagnostician. In her spare time, Abby can be found in her garden growing food and flowers, painting, dancing, or exploring cities and their greens spaces.

Please join us in welcoming Abby to UConn Extension! Please visit our website for more information on the Plant Diagnostic Laboratory.

Authors: Karen Snover-Clift and Abby Beissinger

When did GMO become a dirty word?

man shopping in a grocery store aisle
Companies place the non-GMO label on their product as a marketing tool, either feeding off the fear generated by misinformation, or the demands of their consumers. (Stock photo via Anthony Albright, Flickr/Creative Commons)

Do you know someone with diabetes? While most people may associate GMOs with food products, their use actually began in the medical field with insulin.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved GMO insulin for use in October of 1982 after rigorous testing, clinical trials, and review. Prior to that, diabetics used insulin obtained from the pancreas of cattle or swine. Supplies were dwindling, and there was fear that the insulin shortage would result in negative health ramifications for patients. The recombinant DNA technology used, that we now refer to as GMOs, provided a safe and effective alternative. In fact, GMO insulin is a closer match to human insulin, and patients who could not tolerate insulin from a cow or pig can utilize GMO insulin without negative side effects.

Despite the benefits of GMOs, 80% of respondents to the 2018 Food and Health Survey Report from the International Food Information Council Foundation are confused about food or doubt their choices because of conflicting information. The report found that context of GMOs influenced consumer judgment. The Pew Research Center found that 49% of Americans think genetically modified foods are worse for one’s health. In short, many people may fear or be suspicious of GMOs, but there is a history of important effects that most people would applaud. Insulin is such a case.

Scientists create GMOs by changing the genetic code of a living being in some way. Plant and animal genetics have been altered for thousands of years through breeding. New technology lets scientists select a specific trait, instead of changing the entire genetic makeup. The medical, agricultural, and environmental fields all have GMO products.

Accepting or rejecting GMOs is an individual decision. However, all decisions consumers make should be based on facts. An overwhelming majority of scientists believe that GMOs are safe, according to the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine. Information from science-based sources can be hard to find in the flood of information available on the Internet.

With that in mind, experts in agriculture, health and natural resources at the University of Connecticut (UConn) have established a web site (https://gmo.uconn.edu/) providing science-based information to help consumers make their own decisions about GMOs.

A handful of food products have approved GMO versions sold in the United States. These include: apples, canola, corn, papaya, pineapple, potatoes, salmon, soybeans, squash, and sugar beets. Insect resistant and herbicide tolerant crops are the two most common features in GMO varieties. Only specific varieties have a GMO version in many of these products, for example, the Arctic apple. The Flavr Savr tomato was introduced in 1994 as the first GMO food product, but is no longer sold because it lacked flavor.

Consumers benefit from GMOs. Although the benefits aren’t always noticeable when you’re browsing the grocery store, they include:

  • Improving food safety of products,
  • Lowering consumer food prices,
  • Protecting food supplies from insects,
  • Limiting food waste on the farm and in your fridge,
  • Reducing the carbon footprint needed for food production, and
  • Keeping the environment healthy.

Despite the benefits, negative perceptions about GMOs are wide-spread. Consumer knowledge and acceptance of GMOs has not matched the pace of adoption by the agricultural community. Experts in the field concur that GMO communication campaigns have failed to answer the “what’s in it for me” question for the public. The majority of campaigns only cite the benefits to farmers, and feeding a growing global population. Consumers commonly reference changes to nutritional content, or the creation of allergens as concerns with GMOs, although there is no evidence of either.

I notice negative perceptions about GMOs in the supermarket, when foods are labeled as non-GMO even though it’s impossible for them to contain GMOs. Salt doesn’t have any genetics to modify, although you’ll find some salt labeled as non-GMO. Cat litter is another example of a product that can’t have GMOs, but is labeled non-GMO.

Companies place the non-GMO label on their product as a marketing tool, either feeding off the fear generated by misinformation, or the demands of their consumers. People without a clear understanding of GMOs spread misinformation on the Internet. Much of what is shared lacks science-based facts and the rigors of peer review. A common tactic is connecting scientists to biotechnology corporations. Ironically, many of the campaigners in the anti-GMO movement are paid to share these messages.

Consumers should form their own opinions about GMOs from the wealth of available science-based information and experts. Instead of accepting and spreading misinformation, shouldn’t we ask more questions, and turn to reliable sources instead?

Article by Stacey Stearns

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.