risk management

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

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.