Organic Broadcaster

To maintain a resilient farm, Clare Hintz not only has diverse enterprises, but also builds in varietal diversity. She has selected fruits so that there will always be something ripe for her CSA members. Photo by Clare Hintz

Farmers take multi-pronged approach to build resilient specialty crop farms

By Tony Ends

All too often in the 24 years my wife, Dela, and I have practiced Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), we heard sad tales of specialty crop newcomers succumbing to farming risks. Like the time a shocking deluge sent melons floating out of a field all the way to the Mississippi River; and, the time a beginning farmer, excited by a string of 70-degree days in April, transplanted thousands of bedding plants that turned to blackened goo in early May with a plummet to 28 degrees and killing frost. Losses like these are heart-breaking.

In the early years of a farm, as you’re busy accumulating equipment and building infrastructure, there’s often nothing left to set aside to hedge against risk and ruin. Farming is, without doubt, risky business.

Little wonder America’s agricultural policymakers and private industry formulated crop insurance 81 years ago. Crop insurance has become an increasing focus of national farm policy in the past 20 years, according to the National Crop Insurance Services, which represents all 15 companies writing policies for U.S. agricultural producers. Last year, the Federal Crop Insurance Program covered 335 million acres—that’s 90% of the nation’s farmers, purchasing 1.1 million policies.

However, many specialty crop farmers—especially those farming organically—aren’t taking advantage of this protection. Part of the reason is that traditional insurance options don’t recognize the price premiums of organic production.

The USDA’s Risk Management Agency (RMA) introduced Whole Farm Revenue Protection (WFRP) several years ago to help remedy this.

“RMA recognizes organic farming practices as good farming practices and continues to move forward in improving crop insurance coverage for organic producers and producers transitioning to organic production,” said Duane Voy, Director of RMA’s regional office in St. Paul, Minn. “We want farmers to be able to take advantage of the safety net that WFRP offers for organic producers, including price protection.”

RMA rolled out a dozen revisions and clarifications to WFRP this year based on feedback from stakeholders, including organic producers. One of the major changes to the policy includes revised eligibility requirements for first-year insureds with less than five years of tax records who qualified as a Beginning Farmer and Rancher in the previous year.

“Talk to your local crop insurance agent for more details to see if WFRP will work for your operation,” Voy added.

Farm financial adviser Paul Dietmann said, “Risk management a la crop insurance for specialty crops is tough.” Dietmann is a co-author of the MOSES book Fearless Farm Finances and a senior lending officer at Compeer Financial, a member-owned, Farm Credit cooperative serving rural communities in Illinois, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.

“The new Whole Farm Revenue crop insurance policy is better than the AGR-Lite policy that it replaced, but it still hasn’t been widely used,” he acknowledged. “The challenge is that the program requires a cropping history that doesn’t match the way many small, diversified farms operate.” As alternatives, he suggests growers take Noninsured Crop Disaster Assistance Program (NAP) coverage through USDA-FSA.

When he’s advising specialty crop farmers, Dietmann recommends additional risk management strategies such as adding a hoop house for a protected growing environment, adding irrigation and soil amendments, getting health insurance coverage through an ACA exchange, and sharing equipment with neighbors instead of personally taking on large capital investments.

Clare Hintz raises hogs and laying hens in addition to vegetables and fruit. The livestock contribute to soil fertility and pest control. Photo submitted.

Farmer Clare Hintz has practiced similar strategies to maximize gains and minimize losses on her farm in Herbster, Wis., near the southern shore of Lake Superior. She established Elsewhere Farm in 2001, after working full-time to save money to buy land. She earned a Ph.D. in sustainability education to give herself a “fallback” career in case she gets injured or needs to get out of labor-intensive farming at some point.

“I was fortunate in my Ph.D. dissertation to interview 14 experienced women farmers in Wisconsin and Minnesota about their persistence strategies in farming,” Hintz said. “Their advice also informed my financial risk management strategies.”

Most of these women said it took about 10 years for their farms to “gel,” growing from lots of experimentation to a greater focus on what worked. During that time, they had off-farm income, a partner with off-farm income, or a backer who owned the farm, Hintz explained. She appreciated it when one woman told her, “Don’t expect your farm to carry you when you are just developing it. Give it room to grow first.”

Hintz followed a similar 10-year timeline, working full time off the farm until 2011 to finance the farm’s infrastructure. She now works part-time in the winter editing an open-source academic journal and mentoring graduate students through distance learning.

“These jobs provide about half of my basic living expenses for the year,” she explained. “They provide a level of financial resiliency as well as a change of pace and skills.

Hintz also likes having a mix of enterprises on her farm. Her diversified operation includes market gardens, perennial fruits, laying hens, and pork, marketed through winter and summer CSAs, a local farmers market, and some wholesale accounts.

“One of my overarching design strategies on the farm is to have enough enterprises that my risk from any of them is cushioned by the others, whether it’s in the context of crop failure, slower markets, or monthly cash flow needs,” she explained. “For instance, having pork for sale gives me some cushion against flooding damage in my market gardens—something that I now have to manage with climate change.”

She also has developed a business plan that spreads her workload throughout the year with a winter CSA out of her greenhouse and storage.

“The wholesale markets give me consistent cash through the main growing season while the CSA shares give me a cash influx at otherwise slow times of the year,” she said. When she started farming, she researched what she wanted to grow, what it would cost to produce, and what she would need to charge.

“Even though all these numbers have changed with experience, my up-front legwork gave me a solid place to start,” she added. Hintz noted that better tools have been developed in recent years to help with these decisions, such as the “Fruit and Nut Compass” and the “Veggie Compass” from the University of Wisconsin Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems.

“All of my enterprises and markets support each other biologically as well as financially, and it’s important to make sure they are doing both.” When she expanded her laying hen flock to sell more eggs, she found it wasn’t economical. However, she wanted to keep the chickens since they provide important fertility and pest control in her orchards. Her solution was to scale back the flock to provide enough eggs just for her CSA members, “which gives me an important niche in the competitive CSA market here,” she added.

She was able to cut back on her egg enterprise without financial loss because she had made a conscious decision to only have a minimal amount of equipment.

“My remaining chickens have a very comfy winter coop, but I wasn’t stuck having to sell elaborate watering systems, an egg turner, automatic egg washer, etc. when I downsized.”

While her overall risk strategies have insulated her business, she has made her own share of “newbie mistakes,” Hintz admitted.

“I planted 350 dwarf apple trees (16 varieties) one spring early in my career to get the volume tree discount,” she recalled. “In the next 10 years, I learned that larger-sized, more hardy trees make more sense for my system and that not all varieties I planted work well on my land. If I were to do it over, I might first plant a quarter as many trees and four times as many varieties to test out what would work the best.

“I’ve employed this lesson with all the subsequent shrub fruit I’ve added to my system: buying as many different varieties as I can get my hands on, testing them out, and then propagating them to scale up.”

Glen Kadelbach, who farms with his wife, Stephanie, near Hutchinson, Minn., takes a similar approach to manage risk—diversification. They also protect their operation with crop insurance.

The Kadelbachs turned to organic farming in 2008 after watching a loved one who had practiced conventional production die of cancer. They shifted the 300-acre farm away from commodity crops to canning crops, such as sweet corn and sweet peas; seed production of small grains like rye; and, food-grade soybeans and edible beans.

Learning, experimenting, tinkering, and strategizing suit Kadelbach. He experimented with hemp production last year but said it didn’t do well so he won’t grow it this year.

“You can’t be afraid to try new enterprises,” Kadelbach explained. “You have to take some risks; you’ve got to think outside the barn.”

A trial that did go well on his farm last season was mushroom production, which Kadelbach managed in a barn he’d not been utilizing. He transformed the barn into an efficient production space and produced several mushroom varieties that he sold mainly in farmers markets, but also to a couple of restaurants.

“It went really well,” he said. He stopped production for the winter to avoid the need to heat the barn with propane over the winter.

“I think If I could have focused completely on mushrooms, I could have continued over winter,” he said. “The building was about a third full; if it had been full, it probably would have been profitable over winter.”

Kadelbach also tried dried beans and managed again with study and investment of time and effort to produce well in volume, yet he found most markets he approached were already loyal to established producers. He’s since located a prospect and will resume dried bean production this year.

He’s also trying his hand at specialized, multi-row flamer fabrication, building one off a neighbor’s model, but designing his own burners. He has Computer Assisted Design skills and a neighbor who is a helpful, retired engineer. Kadelbach hopes to put his first design to the test flaming weeds this growing season.

“You’ve got to go through some learning with any crop or enterprise, and it’s going to cost a little bit getting started, but you have to try,” he said of his multi-pronged approach to farming. “There are a lot of niche markets out there. You’ve just got to figure out what you would like to try and work toward it.”

Tony Ends and his wife, Dela, own Scotch Hill Farm, a certified organic specialty crop farm near Janesville, Wis.

 

From the May | June 2019 Issue

 

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