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Produce management is focus of working group

By Staff | Dec 1, 2008

Farm News staff writerAMES – Members of the Iowa-based Fruit and Vegetable Working Group met last week at the Memorial Union building on the Iowa State University campus to learn from industry leaders and share and discuss ideas each had to help improve their businesses.According to the group, a survey of Iowa fruit and vegetable growers showed that the major challenges are marketing, labor and post-harvest handling. Other pressing issues include finding ways to increase profitability by extending the growing season with technologies such as high tunnels and storage facilities.Those issues and more were discussed during the meeting. Chris Blanchard, Rock Spring Farm from Decorah provided for a group a history of his family’s vegetable and herb farm, answering questions and offering advice.Blanchard, whose main markets are near Decorah, Rochester and the Twin Cities, explained that market farming isn’t, and never has been, the traditional model of a family farm.It was during the extensive history telling of his family’s business where he explained to the attendees about his extended season and post-harvest handling. Blanchard worked with the FVWG to develop a post-harvest handling decision tool that will be used to aid new and existing vegetable growers. “It can be difficult to find how to make decisions,” Blanchard said. “The intended audience will be producers just getting started and expanding producers.”It will also most likely be for small- and medium-sized vegetable farmers.“The decision tool will provide a cost analysis for system upgrades, Blanchard said, and help users to adapt new developments. The tool may also include a model spreadsheet that will aid in determining the volume and labor productivity breakpoints for purchasing new equipment, the estimated time saved by upgrading, and the maximum recommended volume for specific pieces of equipment.In order to make the tool suitable for most vegetable growers, said Margaret Smith, FVWG coordinator, and program specialist in Value Added Agriculture Extension at ISU, organizers are designing a summary of eight producers. In the summary they are finding out what their capital start up costs were, the variable costs of production each year, labor inputs and yield and income levels from the last eight years.It is expected the tool may become available within the next few years. Laura Frerichs, of Loon Organics Farm in Hutchinson, Minn., shared how she and her husband have become successful in growing organic foods.Frerichs said they have just finished their fourth season and are currently upgrading to more acres after purchasing their own farm.The couple each got their start and some experience from working on various different vegetable farms.When they decided to start their own business, they rented land and living space and took things slow by borrowing equipment from an established vegetable farm and previous employer.They continued to work part-time at the established farm which allowed for them to continue learning and get off-farm income. The off-farm income, she said made it possible for the farm income to go back into supporting the farm.It was this low-risk financial situation, she said that allowed them to make mistakes, get feedback, and improve in the crucial first couple years.The slow beginning also gave them the chance to decide if farming is something they wanted to pursue.”It gave us a place for us to get our legs,” said Frerichs.Other strategies Frerichs mentioned included joining a farmer-based agricultural organization, and engage in farmer-to-farmer learning opportunities such as tours, field days, conference and workshops.One particular move the couple has made that she suggests all farmers look into is enrolling in farm financial planning and analysis with a farm business management instructor. By doing this, they have not only been given expert advice, but they have gained knowledge of how bank loans are conducted and farm programs are handled.Sally Worley, communications and horticulture project manager for Practical Farmers of Iowa offered a brief overview of PFI’s new Season Extension Project.”The No. 1 priority with fruit and vegetable growers for extending their season is for more income for themselves and more produce for consumers,” Worley said.The project includes all aspects it takes to extend a grower’s season and their main focus for this year is to do some on-farm cooperation with the testing of a corn-furnace supplying heat to a greenhouse and the economics, planting schedules and labor involved.Worley said the upcoming year would also bring field days and workshops specializing in the Season Extension Project.Linda Naeve presented production research for fruits and vegetables in high tunnels in Iowa, with the ISU Value Added Agriculture Program and Extension horticulturalist.The “tunnels to tables” project is now in its second year, according to Naeve. The project is exploring the opportunities for fruit and vegetable producers to extend their growing season by using high tunnels.High tunnels resemble greenhouses but are much cheaper to erect and maintain. The unheated, plastic-covered structures are being used to grow higher value crops for an extended number of months out of the year by protecting crops from killing frosts and allowing for them to be planted earlier.Other subjects for discussions included post-harvest handling, marketing, labor, season extension and start up operations.Contact Kriss Nelson at jknelson@frontiernet.net.

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