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PERDUE’S PRIORITIES Health of rural America on the list

ON THE FARM Smart tech, tools growing industry

SEEDS OF CHANGE Cultivating the next generation

AGTECH LEADERS Minority women powerhouses in innovation

COLLEGE & CAREERS Degrees, skill sets in demand











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PERDUE’S AMBITIONS Agriculture secretary talks about his rural America tour collecting farmer feedback

YOU NAME IT Dairy producers want nondairy drinks to stop using “milk” label





20 22 26 30

HARVESTING SUCCESS Farmers markets give producers financial boost

FUNDING THE FUTURE As markets change, new agribanking programs meet financial needs

CULTIVATING COMMUNITY One determined urban farmer is changing the local foodscape in Des Moines, Iowa

THE ROAD BACK After devastating losses from natural disasters, farmers and producers work to rebuild




NEXT GEN For younger farmers and ranchers, opportunities await




BREAKING GROUND Three minority women in the agtech sector pursue entrepreneurial advances to help growers excel

FLOWER POWER U.S. growers, large and small, fight to regain market share





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ON THE COVER A farmer prepares land using a seedbed cultivator. PHOTO BY GETTY IMAGES


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THE INCREDIBLE, EDIBLE BUG Business is hopping at Montana’s sole cricket farm



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LONG ROW TO HOE Despite technical advances, autonomous tractors not quite a reality


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FROM BATTLEFIELD TO FARM FIELD Veterans find solace, substance in agricultural jobs

PLANTING SEEDS Sustainable programs produce global problem-solvers



NO MORE TEARS Researchers create Sunions, a mild onion that won’t make you cry

EYES IN THE SKY Rural North Dakota is leading the pack in an emerging area — agricultural drones







A Conversation with Sonny Perdue Agriculture secretary has a lot to say on trade, labor and a president he believes is deeply in tune with rural America By Brian Barth



USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue chats with Mississippi Valley Fair attendees Aug. 6 in Davenport, Iowa, during his “Back to Our Roots” RV tour. He met with multiple producers and consumers he said are “on the front lines of American agriculture.”


took office April 25 as the 31st secretary of agriculture. Born into a farming family in Bonaire, Ga., Perdue is the first Southerner in the post in more than two decades. As agriculture secretary, he’s in charge of about 100,000 employees and the nation’s food and farm programs, including agricultural subsidies, conservation efforts, rural development programs, food safety and nutrition programs such as food stamps and federally subsidized school meals. In early August, Perdue, 71, kicked off his term with an old-fashioned summer road trip. He boarded an RV and departed on a meandering tour of American farm country — the “Back to Our Roots” tour. He made stops in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois and Indiana and then later in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire hoping to become better acquainted with those who produce our nation’s food and keep the rural economy humming. Perdue made many new friends and also heard of the many hardships facing rural America. Between his multistate RV tour and other trips over the course of his first year in office, Perdue visited 30 states, gathering information and insight that he’s now translating into strategy for the agency he leads, and into policy recommendations for federal lawmakers. Specifically, he’s generated a list of 42 principles to guide the national conversation on the upcoming farm bill. And in early-January, he delivered on a promise to President Donald Trump: the Interagency Task Force on Agriculture and Rural Prosperity report, comprised of more than 100 recommendations for the administration to work toward, which Perdue ceremonially presented to Trump at the American Farm Bureau Federation convention in Nashville, Tenn. Shortly afterward, the secretary shared with USA TODAY his thoughts on Trump’s speech, his priorities for the U.S Department of Agriculture in 2018 and more.







LONGEST-SERVING AGRICULTURE SECRETARIES Tom Vilsack preceded Sonny Perdue as agriculture secretary and one of the five longest-serving since the position was created on April 3, 1885, when Norman Jay Coleman became commissioner of agriculture. Coleman served as the first agriculture secretary from Feb. 15, 1889, to March 6, 1889.

JAMES WILSON Born in Ayrshire, Scotland Served March 6, 1897, to March 5, 1913 16 years


EZRA TAFT BENSON Born in Whitney, Franklin County, Idaho Served Jan. 21, 1953, to Jan. 20, 1961 8 years

Perdue visited the Mississippi Valley Fair in Davenport, Iowa, during his “Back to Our Roots” tour. At the fair, Perdue posed for photos, held rabbits and pigs, and geared up as a firefighter. His two tours covered almost 2,200 miles in the Midwest and New England.

What was the idea behind your RV tour last year? PERDUE: There was reasonable anxiety about how much a person from Georgia would know about the state of agriculture across the country. So this was an opportunity for me to learn, and for people to learn about me. It was important to me to hear directly from people all across rural America about what’s working, what’s not and what the USDA can do better. People hosted us on their farms, in their barns, in their farm sheds — the turnout was spectacular. I was shocked at the degree of interest we had. It was akin to the president’s understanding that these people were hungry to be heard and were thrilled that someone was actually coming to ask their opinion.


Did you have a favorite stop? You’re going to get me into trouble if I have to choose a favorite (laughs)! I had many favorite stops, though some stand out. Visiting with the FFA (Future Farmers of America) kids was a hit. Kevin Paap, the president of the

Minnesota Farm Bureau (Federation), also did a wonderful job hosting us in a machine shed on his farm. He gathered people from different segments of the agricultural industry to be there prepared with talking points about things that were important to them. They were very articulate and very pointed in what they think is working and what is not. Though I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised — there’s that old saying: If you want to know what is on a farmer’s mind, just ask him; and if you don’t want to know what is on their mind, he’ll still tell you. Trump’s address to farmers at the 2018 Farm Bureau convention was the first by a sitting president in decades. What did you think of his speech? I thought it was right on target. While many people in the press don’t think so, the president listens well. He understood his audience and what their concerns were — from a regulatory standpoint, from a trade perspective as well as from a labor perspective. Those are the three main issues that we heard about from farmers on our tour. Most farmers regard

ORVILLE FREEMAN Born in Minneapolis Served Jan. 21, 1961, to Jan. 20, 1969 8 years

the EPA’s rule deeming low areas in their field that collect standing water to be “waters of the U.S.” as unfair. So he addressed that. His speech went over well. At the Farm Bureau convention, you presented Trump with your rural prosperity task force report. What is the significance of that in terms of your mission at the USDA? He challenged me on the day that he swore me in to be the chair of (the CO NTI NUED

TOM VILSACK Born in Pittsburgh Served Jan. 20, 2009, to Jan. 13, 2017 8 years

HENRY A. WALLACE Born near Orient, Iowa Served March 4, 1933, to Sept. 4, 1940 7 years, 6 months LIBRARY OF CONGRESS; USDA (2); GETTY IMAGES; HARRIS & EWING/LIBRARY OF CONGRESS





POLICY Interagency Task Force on Agriculture and Rural Prosperity), comprised of 22 departments and federal agencies. One of the major issues of that report — which he talked about loudly and strongly, and then signed to memorandums to facilitate — was broadband connectivity. We believe better e-connectivity will have a transformative effect over the United States as a whole, and particularly in rural America.

this summer. What else does the next farm bill need to accomplish? While it’s not our responsibility to craft or to write the farm bill, we have a very active consultative role to Congress in providing the facts and data that we have gathered, and recommending policies that we believe will create a more effective safety net for farmers. We need a safety net that provides incentives to farm based on market signals, rather than farm programs. We will also have to address a few things didn’t fare very well in the 2014 Farm Bill, including dairy and cotton. The good news is that I think this farm bill will be more evolutionary in nature, rather than revolutionary in nature.

You recently launched an initiative called One USDA. What is that about? It is a team concept. Many people don’t understand how vast and broad the USDA is in terms of how many areas it operates in: from research and development to food safety and nutrition to forestry and marketing and regulatory programs. Sometimes we can get isolated in our mission areas, while losing sight of the forest, so to speak. One USDA is an effort to rally all the members of the agency to view themselves as part of one team, with one singular motion and one singular message and motive, which is simply to be the most efficient, effective and customer-focused agency in the federal government. What are your other top priorities for 2018? There are about 100 action items in the rural prosperity task force, so we will be focusing on implementing many of those, beginning with rural broadband and econnectivity. The issue of stabilizing the farm workforce is something we want to be very serious about. Biotechnology and technological advancement in agriculture will continue to be promoted. We will also be flushing out and executing on our reorganization with FPAC — Farm Production and Conservation — which involves the consolidation of FSA (Farm Service Agency), NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service), RMA (Risk Management Agency) and crop insurance offices into a one-stop shop for our farmers, where they can be better served. You mentioned stabilizing the farm workforce. What does that look like? We have to find a solution for the agricultural labor issue that is workable, both for farmers and for national security. President Trump understands that there are long-term immigrants, sometimes not legally present, doing the work and contributing to agriculture and the entire United States economy. Those people are different than the criminal immigrants preying on the United States of America.


Longley Farm co-owner Kate Danner and Perdue tour one of her soybean fields Aug. 6 in Aledo, Ill. Danner was one of many farmers Perdue consulted with during his trip.

I’m hoping this administration can understand this difference and acknowledge the immigrants that contribute to American society, putting food on the table all across the country.

Much of what you’ve shared is touched on in a list of 42 principles you recently published for the upcoming 2018 Farm Bill, which is one of the major agenda items in Congress

Another pressing agenda item of great interest to the agricultural community is the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). At times, Trump has threatened to “rip up” the treaty, drawing concern from some farm groups. How are you working with the White House on that issue, and what do you hope to get out of the NAFTA negotiations for American farmers? Certainly there has been some anxiety regarding trade, and specifically NAFTA, based on some of the president’s comments. I think the president understands that trade is a huge factor in the ag economy, and thus the American economy. He wants a fair deal for American producers, as well as for the American economy overall, and he has to balance that. The president is a tough negotiator, and he believes that we have to be willing to walk away from an unfair deal. He looks at the data since NAFTA was signed and sees a growing trade deficit between Mexico and the United States, as well as with Canada in some areas. He also sees that Canada has not opened its market to dairy or poultry products, and believes that if we are going to have a free-trade agreement, then let’s have a free-trade agreement. We’ve put some strong proposals on the table, and while I think Canada thought that they could stonewall initially, we believe they are coming to the realization that the president is serious about a fair trade deal. I think there has been some favorable movement recently and I am hoping that continues. I think it will be in the best interests of Canada, Mexico and the United States to strike a continued NAFTA deal. I know that agricultural producers are betting on that.






You Name It Some dairy farmers want certain drinks to stop using ‘milk’ label By Gina Harkins



plant-based milk labels, and dairy farmers say it’s not a fair fight. Consumers are seeing more options than ever when they hit their grocer’s dairy case. It’s no longer about whole, low-fat or skim. Now there are nondairy beverages made from cashews, coconuts, almonds, rice, oats — even hemp and peas. The products are also used to make coffee creamers, cheeses, ice creams and yogurts — and the uptick in sales in the last five years shows Americans appreciate the choices. But seeing these products labeled “milk” has some seeing red. Cow’s milk must meet a host of federal regulations. When the word “milk” is used on products that don’t meet those same standards, it discounts dairy farmers who are adhering to the government mandates, said Sen. Tammy Baldwin, a Wisconsin Democrat representing the state with the most dairy farms. To ensure product labels are more accurate, Baldwin introduced the “Defending Against Imitations and Replacements of Yogurt, Milk, and Cheese To Promote Regular Intake of Dairy Everyday Act,” or Dairy Pride Act, in the Senate last year. “(Dairy farmers) already face the uncertainties of Mother Nature and the challenges of low crop and milk prices,” Baldwin said. “The last thing

they should see in the grocery store is a product labeled ‘milk’ that doesn’t include the product they work so hard to produce.” Jessica Almy, director of policy at the Good Food Institute, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit that promotes plant-based options, disagreed, saying that consumers understand the difference. While the government has the authority to enforce labeling rules when consumers are confused or being misled, she said, that’s not the case with plant- and nut-based products. “With products like soy milk, almond milk and coconut-milk ice cream, consumers are intentionally choosing those products (for themselves and their families) because they understand what they are,” Almy said. “Consumers aren’t confused. Nobody thinks that soy milk comes from soy cows or almond milk comes from almond cows.”







WHAT’S IN A NAME? The Food and Drug Administration has a regulation establishing a standard of identity for milk: “The lacteal secretion, practically free from colostrum, obtained by the complete milking of one or more healthy cows.” That definition is at odds with products that don’t come from cows but are sold as a form of milk, said Rep. Peter Welch, a Democrat from Vermont who introduced the Dairy Pride Act in the House of RepresentaCO N T I N U E D








Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., visits the Five Star Dairy Farm in Elk Mound, Wis. The Dairy Pride Act, backed by Baldwin and dairy industry representatives, aims to remove the term “milk” from the packaging of products not derived from animals.

tives last year. The House and Senate versions of the bill have bipartisan support. “This is not a big lift for the FDA,” Welch said. “It’s just taking action to enforce what is their existing rule.” The FDA takes enforcement action “in accordance with public health priorities and agency resources,” said Deborah Kotz, an agency spokeswoman. She declined to comment on whether the FDA was considering updates to its definition of milk to include plant- or nut-based products. “As a general rule, we don’t … discuss any plans to issue new regulations,” she said. “Creating new standards of identity for milk and plant products would require new rule-making.” If passed, the Dairy Pride Act would give the FDA 90 days to issue nationwide guidance about how it would enforce proper labeling on products that don’t come from cows, but use the word milk. The FDA would also be required to update Congress on the status of those enforcement measures two years after

“(Dairy farmers) already face the uncertainties of Mother Nature and the challenges of low crop and milk prices. The last thing they should see in the grocery store is a product labeled ‘milk’ that doesn’t include the product they work so hard to produce.” — TAMMY BALDWIN, Wisconsin senator the Dairy Pride Act went into place, Baldwin said. Labels are important business when it comes to plant-based foods, Almy said. A product like soy milk has been around for decades, she explained, and consumers easily recognize it. That wouldn’t be the case if new rules meant it suddenly had to be labeled “bean-derived beverage.” “We want a free market and free speech approach to labeling,” Almy added. “As long as consumers are not confused, we think that producers have a right under the Constitution to communicate with consumers on their labels.”

DanoneWave, which owns dairysubstitute brands like Silk and So Delicious, uses names like “soymilk,” “almondmilk” and “coconutmilk” on its products. Consumers recognize the differences between dairy and nondairy products and deserve the chance to make informed decisions about what they buy, said Michael Neuwirth, senior director of DanoneWave’s external communication. “(Those) are the common and usual names for these products under the meaning of FDA regulations,” he said. “We communicate on our products in a way that avoids confusion between dairy

and plant-based, making clear references to ‘dairy,’ ‘dairy free’ or alternatives as appropriate.” Janet Clark, a fifth-generation dairy farmer who — along with her family — runs Vision Aire Farms, in Eldorado, Wis., about 80 miles northwest of Milwaukee, said the government’s guidelines are clear. Companies such as Silk and So Delicious shouldn’t be allowed to call their products milk for that reason. “The FDA has already defined that milk comes from a dairy animal,” Clark said. “I would like them to enforce this definition and not allow them to use the word milk or cheese for their products.” Clark said she’s glad that Baldwin, Welch and other lawmakers are pressing for that enforcement. Dairy farmers work tirelessly to produce quality products that are subject to tight regulations and inspections, she added. Someone making cashew milk doesn’t play by the same rules. While Welch said he respects a consumer’s right to choose, it’s vital that labels differentiate between products that come from animals and plants. Europe and Canada have cracked down on what he calls the misbranding of nondairy milks, he said, and the FDA owes it to U.S. dairy farmers to do the same: “It’s really important to the dairy industry to have integrity in labeling.”

IT DOES A BODY GOOD Dairy sales have been on the decline for decades. Clark said the effects were first seen on family farms in the 1970s. Because that milk is mostly used for cheese production, though, they haven’t slowed down. “That demand continues to grow as more consumers seek out protein snacks and ingredients, like cheese, and healthy sources of probiotics, such as yogurt,” she noted. Some nondairy products tout higher protein levels or less sugar than dairy. Almy said the products are just as delicious, affordable and convenient as animal-based products. She sees more Americans wanting to incorporate plant-based options into their diets as a positive step toward healthy lifestyles. Neuwirth agrees. Plant- and nut-based milks have continued to dramatically improve, he said. “Dairy alternatives have continued to dramatically improve and provide real taste appeal that is often more interesting and delicious, in addition to offering a range of health and nutritional benefits,” CO N T I N U E D





POLICY Neuwirth said. Silk’s latest product, Protein Nutmilk, is a mix of almond- and cashew-milk that packs 10 grams of soy-free protein from peas and comes in chocolate or vanilla flavor. “Consumers have been excited about the taste and texture of this product.” Nondairy milk labels can be inconsistent, though, and often vary by brand, said Chris Galen with the National Milk Producers Federation, acknowledging the interest in new products. Dairy farmers welcome the competition, he said, but they want the other producers to play fair. Nondairy milk labels are inconsistent and often vary by brand. Milk from a cow offers nine essential nutrients: calcium, potassium, phosphorus, protein, riboflavin, niacin and vitamins A, D and B12. Galen said he worries about people giving their babies plant- or nut-based products thinking they’re providing the same essential nutrients because “milk” is in the name. With more options in the dairy aisle, it can be tough to know which is healthiest. Registered dietitian Kim Larson, a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, said that cow’s milk is “the gold standard” when it comes to naturally occurring vitamins compared with other options. Dairy farming aside, Clark said milk is at the center of her family’s table because it remains the healthiest choice. “When comparing the nutritional value of the plant-based products to dairy, dairy wins,” she said. Those nutritional values are a top reason that Baldwin said it’s important for Congress to pass the Dairy Pride Act. “Dairy farmers work every day to ensure that their milk meets high standards for nutritional value and quality, represented in FDA’s existing standards of identity for dairy products,” she said. “Unfortunately, imitation products have gotten away with using dairy’s good name for their own benefit, taking advantage of the effort our farmers put in with none of the same work.”






CHOICES, CHOICES Diversity in the modern milk market makes choosing a half-gallon a bit more complicated. Kim Larson, a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, and Angela Lemond, a Texas-based registered dietitian nutritionist, break down some of the most popular types of milk. “Consumers are always looking for what’s new and also demand more choices in the marketplace. Never before have we seen an increase like this in alternative milks,” said Larson. “The nutritional profile of these will vary, especially in the protein area, but also in terms of vitamins and minerals.”

DAIRY Cow’s milk, both Lemond and Larson point out, is the healthiest option because of its naturally occurring vitamins, which include vitamin D, potassium and calcium, phosphorous, vitamin B12 and even melatonin. It’s the “gold standard,” Larson said. Lemond recommends 1 percent and skim milk. However, she added that whole milk, which contains more calories, will work for people who are very active and lack cholesterol issues.

SOY For those who have difficulty digesting dairy, Lemond and Larson look to soy milk. The liquid is the closest consumers can get to a naturally occurring milk, Lemond said, adding it’s “nutritionally equivalent.” It includes vitamin B12, calcium and vitamin D. It’s high in healthy polyunsaturated fats, compared with the saturated fats in cow’s milk, and contains more of its main ingredient — soybeans — than almond milk contains almonds, Lemond said.



Larson said almond milk is the No. 1 selling plant-based milk, despite having little of one key ingredient: almonds. It contains only about four to six almonds per 8-ounce glass. The rest is water and added vitamins. Sweeteners also need to be added to make it palatable. If consumers want the benefits of almonds, eat almonds, Lemond said, calling the nuts a “nutrition powerhouse” high in vitamin E, calcium, fiber, magnesium and omega-3 fatty acids.

For those who can’t have dairy or nuts, Lemond recommends rice milk, which has added vitamins, though she ranked it lower than almond milk for nutrition, citing its lack of protein, typical in many alternative milks. “Often consumers mistakenly believe (plant-based milks) are healthier, which is not true,” Larson said. “This ‘health halo’ has blurred the lines so much that other plant-based milks jumped on the wave and are enjoying the ride.” — Sean Rossman







LOCAL FLAVOR Farmers markets evolve into business partners and valuable community resources The 2015* National Farmers Market Manager Survey, which attempts to identify trends and developments among the farmers markets listed in the USDA National Farmers Market Directory, asked 1,396 farmers market managers to share their experiences. Here are a few key findings:


had farmers who transitioned to organic


had farmers who increased acreage





of markets opened a commercial kitchen

Harvesting Success Farmers markets give producers extra financial boost By Rhonda Abrams



term “small business,” the first image to come to mind is not likely a farm. But just like niche retailers, small farms (those that gross sales less than $250,000 annually) rely on the sale of goods to cover operating costs. One way that farmers can find a boost

of financial support is through farmers markets. Take it from Nick Prevedelli of Prevedelli Farms in Watsonville, Calif. “Farmers markets totally saved our farm,” he said of the small, family-run apple, pear and berry operation. The farm started more than 70 years ago, and for much of its existence, sold to wholesale retailers. But wholesale prices can make it difficult for farmers to survive because they get a smaller cut of the overall profit

— only about 15.6 cents of every dollar Americans spend on food, according to the Farmers Market Coalition (FMC). At farmers markets, however, producers receive 90 cents or more of every dollar of the proceeds, according to a 2015 survey by the FMC. “We started in farmers markets about 25 or 30 years ago,” Prevedelli said. “It just grew. We got to the point we didn’t need to do wholesale.”


of markets contracted with local restaurants


of markets increased product variety *Most recent data available. Because this is a voluntary list where managers input their own data, this is only a snapshot of markets across the country.







Funding the Future As agricultural markets change, new banking programs emerge to finance farming By Deanna Fox



weakened more than a decade ago, Ruth Ready knew that she and her husband, Sid, would have to take drastic measures to keep their 500-acre farm in Scribner, Neb. To convert the farm from hog to mostly corn and soybean production, the Readys took out extended operational notes and equipment loans to accommodate the changes in production — a huge economic factor to keep the farm successful. “We have worked with local bank lend-

ers and the Farm Service Agency (FSA),” Ruth said. As an office of the USDA, the FSA provides loans with government standardized interest rates. Ruth also found funding from her regional cooperative, but added that lending also came from the financial arms of equipment companies. “Name a manufacturer and it’s got a lending arm,” advised Ruth, who took advantage of low interest rates offered by CNH Capital and John Deere Financial to purchase farming equipment. Although these emerging funding sources are increasingly popular, farms are still utilizing traditional lending

sources. “Most farms are still being financed by small, local, rural community banks,” said Brady Brewer, a professor in the agriculture and applied economics department at the University of Georgia, adding that one noticeable change has come from vendor financing programs. Over the past 10 years, Brewer said that at least 20 percent of all agricultural loans issued in the U.S. come from vendor financing, whether equipment, infrastructure or other material vendors. By volume, Brewer said those loans account for 15 percent of the $388.9 billion in farm CONTINUE D






BUSINESS debt predicted by the USDA for 2018. Ruth equated these vendor programs to financing and leasing offers from car manufacturers, each trying to incentivize consumers to select a given company or brand with low interest rates, extended no-interest payment offers or upgraded product features at little to no cost. Brewer said that vendors are inclined to be competitive with financing offers because it builds customer loyalty and helps drive company sales. These programs are a reflection of the changing landscape of the farm economy: As agricultural markets shift and net farm incomes decline, cash flow to repay loans can be difficult to acquire. According to the USDA 2018 Farm Income Forecast, net farm income, a broad measure of profits that includes inventory and noncash items, is predicted to decrease $4.3 billion (6.7 percent) from 2017 to $59.5 billion in 2018, the lowest amount since 2006. Net cash farm income, which includes cash receipts, government payments and other farm income (minus cash expenses), is forecast to total $91.9 billion in 2018, a 5.1 percent decrease from 2017 completely understand their position.” and the lowest level since 2009. His predictions may be correct, as the Meanwhile, most farming expenses are Farm Income Forecast expects the dairy projected to increase. Total production industry to experience a double-digit expenses are expected to climb by 1 drop in net cash farm income in 2018 as percent due to the rising costs of fuel dairy farms become more centralized. and oil, increased interest rates on loans Long is hoping to side-step a similar and leasing programs and mandatory outcome for his farm by building a wage increases for labor. processing facility for As a silver lining, feed value-added dairy expenses are expected to products like cheese and The Farm Service drop. yogurt. He went through Agency has Brooks Long, a multiple banks that seventh-generation dairy back the expansion features that many would farmer who owns Long and ultimately secured Delite Farm in Wila loan through his local lending sources liamsport, Md., with his community bank with don’t offer, such wife, Katie, is witnessing additional funding from these income-to-debt the FSA. as technical asdiscrepancies in his Brewer said that banks farming community. keep an eye on market sistance, progress “Some of these farms and work assessments, plain- fluctuations have no cash flow. They to extend loans to have can’t pay back their longer repayment terms language guides operational loans from or collateralize the loan to funding and 2017 so they can’t get and tie it to equity and loans for 2018.” The dairy assets in hopes that financial training. industry is shifting away the cyclical nature of from small family farms agriculture will amount and toward corporate conglomerates to more working capital in the future. that can produce, process and sell its “They realize bad years happen, but own milk for better control of pricing and depressed commodity prices are like a profit, he said, leaving traditional farms snowball rolling down a hill,” he said. He without a place, like a cooperative, to sell predicts 2018 will be a tougher financial milk. It has become an industry problem year for most farms than 2017, but still that has trickled its impact to banking, workable. The tipping point will be when he said. “Banks are a business, too. I equity positions can’t cover last year’s

Dairy farmer Brooks Long and his wife, Katie, secured a loan through his local community bank with additional funding from the FSA to build a processing facility. PROVIDED BY BROOKS LONG

operational note. “We keep expecting banks to tighten the belt on farms, but it hasn’t happened yet,” Long said, implying that the fluctuations in the dairy industry are interpreted as high-risk investments by financing outlets, leading to a decrease in available funding for dairy farmers. Part of that might be because of the distinct organization of the FSA. James Radintz, the deputy administrator for FSA farm loans programs, said that funding by the agency, which receives annual appropriations from Congress, is offered through direct loans to farmers (like a traditional lending source or bank) or through a loan guarantee program that backs the principal of the loan in case the lendee defaults and can’t make repayments. In the first case, farmers must show difficulty in procuring traditional loans from banks, and in the second, the “lender has to certify to FSA that they couldn’t make the loan without the guarantee,” said Radintz. FSA loans are often made in collaboration with other lending sources (such as nongovernment groups that provide funds or grants and traditional bank products). But Radintz noted that, unlike banks and other lenders, FSA approaches funding as temporary, and once a farmer has the equity and assets to be funded by a typical lender, “we expect them to leave our portfolio,” Radintz said. He added that FSA does have features that many lending sources don’t offer,

such as technical assistance, progress assessments, plain-language guides to funding and financial training. Overall, more than 25,000 loans were either directly given or guaranteed by FSA in 2017, including FSA microloans. Introduced in 2013, this program provides up to $50,000 in funding with reduced documentation requirements. Radintz says that three-quarters of these microloan users are farmers who are just getting started or those working with smaller farms that do not typically engage in conventional commodity farming. Specifically, 4,900 of the 6,500 microloans made in the 2017 fiscal year went to beginning farmers, according to a USDA news release. Traditional banking systems are more concerned with farming margins and the effect on loan repayment or default. “Margins have deteriorated, to a point of being at breakeven or a loss. Four years ago, we came out of the 10 most profitable years we’ve had in agriculture. We’re in this painful sideways transition,” said Amy Gales, executive vice president for regional agribusiness banking at CoBank, a national cooperative bank. CoBank is a member of Farm Credit, a nationwide network of banks and retail lending groups that provides credit to farmers, agricultural concerns and related businesses. “But overall, when I look at it, the Farm Credit system is here for our customers for good times and bad,” Gales added.






Cultivating Community Urban farmer changing local foodscape in Iowa


By Brian Taylor Carlson



giant tarps to check the various types of fragile lettuces growing in her high tunnel greenhouse. Rows of perky green leaves sprout from the ground. She recovers them, then steps outside to check on the cover crops in the fields that protect and enrich the soil. The scene looks like most any other vegetable farm you would see across Iowa. But there’s one significant difference: It’s in the middle of a residential neighborhood in Des Moines, Iowa. Dogpatch Urban Gardens is the only

for-profit farm in the city — the realization of one of Quiner’s dreams. “It sounds kind of silly to say I took this online course (in urban farming) and it started my career, but this course was monumental,” Quiner said. “It’s all just very serendipitous how it all worked out. I feel like everything that has happened at this farm has unfolded in the right way.” The area restaurants that utilize her organic produce are a who’s who of the area culinary scene. You can find her pea sprouts at Baru 66, an eatery serving French farm-to-table fare; her salad greens at Table 128, a bistro and bar featuring a seasonal menu of modern American cuisine; and her microgreen

mix at Harbinger, which touts local vegetable-focused small plates. “I see her becoming a household Des Moines name and Dogpatch Urban Gardens becoming synonymous with Jenny Quiner,” said Lynn Pritchard, Table 128 co-owner and executive chef. “She’s embedded in the (local food) culture, and I think that’s to her benefit. The message to her branding is ‘cultivating community.’ ” The urban farm even has community roots — “Dogpatch” comes from an old Des Moines nickname for the neighborhood. Quiner already has a steady flow of business and is looking to turn the house on her farmstead into an Airbnb, teach



BUSINESS urban farming classes and hold events such as festivals, concerts and weddings. And she dreams of opening a restaurant, too. Given the long and idealistic wish list, her role as a local community food leader wasn’t at all planned.

Lettuce plants at Dogpatch Urban Gardens

they were excited about bringing back the farmland.” From the street, the property looks like any other residence. But a closer look reveals a farm stand, a high tunnel greenhouse, signage and meticulous garden plots with rows of produce. HOW IT SPROUTED It’s easy to see that this is not an Farming wasn’t on Quiner’s radar. Born ordinary hobby farm. and raised in Des Moines, she was an Within weeks of purchasing the propathlete, playing basketball through high erty in early 2015, Quiner was on her way school and in college, where she earned a to growing produce for her first season. degree in health promotions But the couple struggled from the University of Iowa to remove the sod from Jenny Quiner in 2007. the first garden plot. (After Soon after, she moved to outsourcing the removal, hopes the idea Fort Collins, Colo., so her they were able to provide husband, Eric, could pursue of urban farming the leftover sod to neighbors his passion for music. Faced for free.) Then, more than a will catch on and third of the original garden with a meager job market in 2008, Quiner headed was flooded. A new drainage other people back to school, earning a system was installed. master’s degree in educaQuiner handled the will recognize tion from Colorado State setbacks with finesse. this is a feasible University. While in school, “It’s been a thorn, and she worked on a local farm we’re working through it,” and sustainable in Greeley, Iowa, picking Quiner said. “We had a sitsquash and watermelon at 5 business model. down, heart-to-heart at the a.m., and also at the farm’s end of last season and asked stand. ourselves if it was worth it “Never once did I think this was going to put all this money into the farm and to be a career,” Quiner said. “That set a continue on. And we said yes, so we’re foundation, unknowingly, for what I’m getting through it and we’re doing it.” doing today.” SETTING UP FOR SUCCESS A teaching job at her high school In just two years, Quiner has become brought the Quiner family back to Iowa a leader in the Des Moines food scene, in 2010. She taught biology at first but says Jordan Clasen, owner of Grade A moved on to environmental science. Gardens, a small farm that grows organic It was while teaching that class that it fruits and vegetables on a little more than clicked — she was determined to develop 5 acres in Johnston, Iowa. a vegetable garden on a property three Her produce was instantly recognized blocks from where they lived. for its quality, which opened the door to it “Teaching this class got me motivated,” being served in local restaurants. In May, Quiner said, adding that it emboldened Quiner opened a retail space on the farm, her to tell Eric she wanted to start homewhich includes her produce and products steading and growing in their own yard. from other farms. She’s also launching Eric, who keeps their home’s landscape a community-supported agriculture meticulous, quickly shot that idea down, program that gives subscribers access to Quiner said, laughing. weekly produce. But that didn’t mean he wasn’t behind “There are not a lot of farmers, let supporting her dream. After she enrolled alone female farmers, and I think she will in an online urban farming course taught encourage a new generation of female by her mentor, Curtis Stone, an urban farmers to get back to and want to make a farmer and educator in Canada, the living off the land,” said Clasen. property three blocks away came up for Along with a quality product, a huge sale. Quiner persuaded her husband to part of Quiner’s success comes from jump on board. Dogpatch was about to her educational background — learning become a reality. quickly and then being able to com“We met the owners, and I discovered municate well, said Stacy Moeller, owner I had taught one of her granddaughters of Des Moines-based Tiny Acre Farms, at Dowling (Catholic High School),” which grows organic flowers. Quiner said. “We told them what we Moeller began volunteering at Dogwanted to do, and that really excited them because someone who used to live in this home farmed this land as well. So CO N T I N U E D





Quiner picks tomatoes in July in a hoop house at Dogpatch Urban Gardens. “We are setting a neat model to show people how local food can impact your community,” she said.

patch in 2016 and has watched the farm grow over the past year. “Since then, the knowledge base of what she’s doing out at Dogpatch has increased dramatically, and she’s become very much, for me, a teacher,” she said. What Quiner has accomplished at Dogpatch has helped her inspire innovation and capture the imagination of other area farmers. She has become an integral part of Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI), an organization with a focus on horticulture, livestock and row crops. She gave

a speech at PFI’s annual conference in January about how to best access farm financing and has plans for more educational opportunities. “She really brought the community into her urban farm,” said Greg Padget, beginning farmer manager at PFI. “She’s reached out to other people creating amazing products, foods and arts and brought them into her farm stand. And she’s shared her farm with others who are aspiring farmers as well — even just people that want to know more about their food.”

This year will be an exercise in diversifying revenue streams. But, ultimately, it’s about the product. Quiner is going to experiment with growing different produce varieties, following the 85 percent rule: 85 percent will be varietals she has grown before, but 15 percent will be experimental, such as adding heirloom tomatoes and growing gem lettuce instead of kale. To do this, she plans to incorporate a new greenhouse into the fold this summer and has already started working with new techniques to enhance soil

quality using cover crops and worm castings. But Dogpatch’s expansion isn’t just physical. Quiner hopes the idea of urban farming will catch on and other people will recognize this is a feasible and sustainable business model. And for that, she has some simple advice. “Connect with as many people as you can, get a good support system and do your research,” Quiner said. Brian Taylor Carlson is the food and dining reporter for The Des Moines Register.





BUSINESS XXXXX Hurricane Harvey destroyed much of Four String Farm in Rockport, Texas. “We lost everything we need to farm,” said owner Justin Butts.



before they can build the soil — and business — back up. But some necessities will take years: The storm downed multiple trees that provided shade for the livestock. If necessary, he said he’ll relocate to another state. “In order for us to go back into farming, we have to rebuild everything,” Butts said. “We have to rebuild it all from scratch, and it’s a slow process.”



The Road Back

Farmers work to rebuild after experiencing devastating natural disasters By Mary Helen Berg



ricane Harvey hit Rockport, Texas, in August, winds snatched the barn, fences and hundred-year-old oak trees at Four String Farm and scattered them like toothpicks. Equipment that wasn’t carried away by the storm was crushed by falling debris or later rusted by floodwaters. Owner Justin Butts, his wife, Kayla, and their two young daughters waited

out the storm in San Antonio at a hotel and returned two days later. Although the family’s pigs, goats and chickens had survived, the 23 acres were an unrecognizable mess. “We lost everything we need to farm,” said Butts, 47, who had spent years coaxing crops and livestock to thrive on a sandy spit of coastal wilderness off the Texas Gulf Coast. “We actually lost the soil from our garden that we had spent 10 years building,” said Butts. “The hurricane just picked it up and blew it away and left the beach

sand that we originally started with.” Prior to the storm, the small, sustainable farm had partnered with seven other growers in a subscription business that provided pastured beef, pork and poultry, produce and baked goods to 50 families. When the hurricane hit, Butts was farming full time, but today he doubts that he’ll ever make a living by farming again. Kayla, 33, has returned to her former occupation as a dietitian, and Butts is seeking a job outside the farm while they try to recover. He estimated that it would take anywhere from 10 months to a year

Four String Farm is hardly alone. The hurricanes, wildfires and other catastrophes that ravaged farmland across the country in 2017 were the costliest in U.S. history, totaling $306.2 billion, according to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. Agricultural losses are still being tallied, but the nonprofit news website New Food Economy estimated damages to the industry to be more than $5.7 billion as of February. By then, the USDA’s Farm Services Agency (FSA) had already dispersed hundreds of millions in aid to farmers and ranchers, according to Steven Peterson, FSA acting administrator. (In February, Congress approved $90 billion in additional recovery aid, including $2.3 billion for the agriculture industry.) As the primary federal source of disaster relief for farmers, the FSA offers a “Swiss Army knife of resources,” said Aubrey Bettencourt, who is FSA state executive director for California and a third-generation farmer. In 2017, agency programs helped farmers and ranchers feed animals, replace equipment, fences and livestock, rebuild infrastructure and pay for other damage. “One of the reasons FSA is there, is to try to make sure that producers can stay in business,” Peterson said. “Obviously, some of the assistance we provide doesn’t go far enough because we can’t pay for 100 percent of the loss in many cases because it’s just too costly. But the payments that we do provide hopefully provide a buffer to pay some of those bills they need to take care of.”

HELP FROM ALL CORNERS Other USDA agencies also offer assistance like crop and livestock insurance, loans and reimbursement programs to aid farmers after disasters. For example, CO N T I N U E D





BUSINESS Texas, the largest U.S. cotton producer, was hit especially hard by Hurricane Harvey. Rain and wind tore open large blocks of unprocessed cotton, strewing it across fields.


when Hurricane Maria drenched Puerto Rico with 3 feet of rain, the FSA administered a $12 million Commodity Credit Corporation (CCC) emergency effort to help the island’s 253 dairy farmers buy feed for 94,000 cows. After Hurricane Harvey, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service assisted in a hay drop to livestock stranded by floodwaters in Texas and Florida. The Natural Resources Conservation Service provided millions of dollars in assistance to ranchers and farmers recovering from wildfires that scorched hundreds of thousands of acres in California and the Midwest. For Butts, most support came from neighbors and strangers who showed up to clear trees, build animal pens and host fundraisers. Four String Farm wasn’t eligible for crop insurance nor for a loan from the Small Business Association,



Butts said, adding that the farmshare business falls through the cracks of the programs that SBA covers. Crop insurance doesn’t fit their business model either because they grow so many differ-

ent types of produce at once and change their crops often. Nearly six months after the hurricane, he was awaiting funds from the FSA’s Emergency Conservation Program to repair fences and the irrigation system. “Our experience is that if you are hit by a disaster, don’t expect help from the government — your help will come from your neighbors,” Butts said, adding, “We could not have possibly made it this far without such amazing help.” Farmers across the country received disaster assistance from individuals, nonprofits, corporations and local organizations in addition to government agencies. For example: uDozens of online fundraising efforts collected donations for stricken farms. uThe nonprofit Farm Aid raised more than $144,000 for family farmers.

uThe National Honey Board and The Pollinator Partnership replaced beehives that were destroyed in the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. uThe freight company, CSX Corp., carried cattle feed by rail when South Florida roads were blocked after Hurricane Irma. uThe Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association created an ongoing relief fund to assist ranchers affected by Hurricane Harvey and “inevitable future natural disasters.”

FINDING THEIR WAY, AGAIN Despite the outpouring of assistance, for Butts and others who lost animals, crops and grazing land in the natural disasters of 2017, the road back to farming can be long and sometimes, uncertain. CON TI NUED






WHERE TO FIND HELP uAnimal and Plant Health Inspection Service Provides emergency assistance feeding stranded livestock and removing carcasses after disasters. uEmergency Assistance for Livestock, Honeybees and Farm-raised Fish Program Compensates producers for losses due to certain types of severe weather, natural disasters and disease. uEmergency Conservation Program Covers fence replacement and damage to property caused by natural disasters; provides support for emergency water conservation during extreme drought.


Hurricane Maria devastated 80 to 100 percent of Puerto Rico’s agriculture. Workers at a poultry facility in Comerio, in the center of the island, used bulldozers to move chicken carcasses. It will take years for the island to rebound.

After the California wildfires, some ranchers began laying new irrigation lines as soon as the ground cooled, said FSA’s Bettencourt, and within weeks, shoots of grass tempted cattle to graze. But crop farms would take longer to recover, she said, and if a California “rancher or row crop farmer can’t return to farming for 90 days, that’s a quarter of their crop year, and that’s a huge loss for them.” In Florida, where Hurricane Irma caused $624 million in losses to the nursery industry, many speciality flower growers were unable to meet the sales window for Valentine’s Day, according to Ben Bolusky, CEO of the Florida Nursery, Growers and Landscape Association. The storm also shredded thousands of acres of shade cloth, a critical covering used to protect plants from sunburn, said Charles LaPradd, agricultural manager for Miami-Dade County. The cloth, which comes from providers across the country and is essential for many plants to survive the Florida sun, has been back ordered for months. “Some of our smaller growers that are maybe not as affluent, we’ve seen them stitching together old pieces,” LaPradd said.

New farmers are most vulnerable when disaster strikes, said Russell Boening, president of the Texas Farm Bureau. Recovery can take a season, a year — or more. “If you’ve been doing it long enough and you have a little equity built up, you can probably go get a loan,” but new producers often lease land and have no equity, he said. “A lot of it is having an understanding banker, that’s for sure.” In Puerto Rico, where Hurricane Maria’s relentless high winds devastated 80 to 100 percent of the island’s agriculture, farms will need to restructure, downsize or innovate to survive, said Carlos Suarez, USDA lead for disaster recovery in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. Plantains, bananas and coffee will need up to two years to rebound, he said. Dairy operations, which rely on electricity to cool milk, may not return to prehurricane conditions for up to three years because of damage to the island’s electrical infrastructure. “Unfortunately, you’re going to see some that won’t be able to survive this,” Suarez said. But Yanice Deynes, president of Granja Avícola Pujols (Pujols Poultry Farm) in San Sebastian, Puerto Rico,

is hopeful. One of a handful of poultry producers on the island, Deynes lost 25 percent of her laying hens in Hurricane Maria. Even worse, the facility in Comerio she relies on for raising chicks lost 60,000 birds to hypothermia, leaving her without the next generation of layers and threatening the future of her business. She has applied for aid through FSA’s Livestock Indemnity Program and will try to import chicks from the mainland. “We’re very optimistic, and we know we’re going to be better after this,” said Deynes, who was recently appointed to an FSA state committee representing Puerto Rico. “We are the type of people that know that bad things happen because there are opportunities that are coming.” Most farmers accept unpredictability as part of their business, said FSA’s Bettencourt, whose family farm faced years of catastrophic drought in California’s San Joaquin Valley. But when dealing with extreme disasters, farmers need to tap into every type of available assistance, she said. Most importantly, “When you’re dealing with the long road of recovery, keep your head up,” she said, “We need to do that as a community: Try to keep our heads up together. Morale is key.”

uEnvironmental Quality Incentives Program Provides support to wildfire burn areas and funds to prevent soil erosion and invasive plants, protect water quality and restore infrastructure for livestock. uLivestock Forage Disaster Program Provides compensation to cover damaged grazing land after drought or fire on federally managed land. uLivestock Indemnity Program Provides aid in the event of livestock deaths caused by extreme weather or attacks by animals that are federally protected, or that have been re-established in the wild by the federal government. uNoninsured Crop Disaster Assistance Program Offers financial assistance for noninsurable crops when natural disasters prevent planting or cause loss of crops. uTree Assistance Program Assists nurseries, orchards and farms to rehabilitate and replant when 15 percent or more is lost after natural disasters. uEmergency Loan Program The Farm Services Agency provides loans to cover losses due to fire, hurricane, floods, drought, earthquakes and other natural disasters. uUSDA Risk Management Agency Insures coverage on more than 100 crops in the event of natural disasters. — Mary Helen Berg







Breaking Ground Minority women in the agtech sector pursue entrepreneurial advances to help growers excel By Amy Wu


ARMING, AN INDUSTRY THAT has been around for

generations, is finding a comple mentary pairing in technology. The merging of the two, agtech, is a relatively niche but fast-growing sector that is helping growers cut costs and increase efficiencies. Solutions include mobile apps that analyze produce quality, drones to keep tabs on grazing land, automation and robotics to assist with planting and harvesting and sophisticated soil testing methods to improve crop yields. Beneficial evidence of the pairing is especially ripe in California — where agriculture is a key economic driver and the technology sector has led innovation. The state has also experienced a severe agriculture labor shortage, which has led growers to turn, in part, to technology to help with the work and efficiency. “The big message is (that) all industries will be competing for tech talent,” said Dennis Donohue, the former mayor of Salinas, Calif., a longtime grower and head of the Western Growers Center for Innovation & Technology, an agtech incubator based in Salinas. “You have


to build the pipeline and get young people to be interested in ag and STEM and robotics.” Currently, both industries skew toward older, white men. But there is a sea change happening. A small, but growing number of minority women, are shaping the agtech sector. Many have immigrant parents and in some cases, are the first in their families to go beyond an undergraduate degree.

Diversity — whether in gender or ethnicity — is a natural part of the future workforce. And many are from the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and math. Pam Marrone, CEO and founder of Marrone Bio Innovations Inc., a company based in Davis, Calif., that produces biologically based products for pest management and plants, has been a mentor and adviser for several women-launched agtech startups in California. Marrone said she’s been encouraged by the increase in women-led agtech companies. “That’s the good news: There’s so many now that we need a network.”

She added that universities, including the University of California, Davis, and New Mexico State University, have helped fuel innovation by creating agtech incubators that provide space and resources to startup companies, and by offering an additional professional channel outside of the traditional academic route. Municipalities in California are working with these academic institutions and communities to build a pipeline of talent, with a hope of creating a more diverse knowledge-based workforce. In Salinas Valley, just 60 miles from Silicon Valley and where agriculture is a $9 billion industry, educational programs are helping to create a local talent base. Donohue observed that diversity — whether in gender or ethnicity — is a natural part of the future workforce. “The trick is to make sure the diverse workforce you want has as much technical and STEM-based education in the mix,” Donohue said. “Ag will compete in the tech world for that same talent.” Meet three trailblazers who are laying the groundwork for minority women in agtech: CO N T I N U E D




Breaking Ground


Product management software PastureMap helps ranchers increase efficiency


hile attending Stanford University, Christine Su often found herself covered in hives after eating. Tests indicated that a handful of allergens, including dairy and red meat, were causing the reactions — and it pushed her to find a solution. The native Californian went on a full elimination diet, sourcing and cooking all of her food from scratch. She combed through farmers markets, specialty stores and even cattle ranches to find “food that wouldn’t make me break out in hives.” She found that meat and cheese bought from farmers didn’t cause outbreaks like grocery store food items did, leading her to have conversations with farmers about the differences in their products. Although she graduated in 2008 with a degree in political science and moved to Hong Kong to be closer to her parents, food safety and production remained passionate topics for her.

She returned to California in 2012 because she wanted “to make positive contributions in the food system,” enrolling in Stanford to earn her MBA and a joint master’s degree in land use and agriculture, making time to work on farms on four continents and attend agriculture conferences. After interning as a ranch hand for several years, she “fell in love” with the integrity of raising food locally. While she didn’t know where she wanted to work in the food industry, she says her passion for agriculture was certain: “I think farmers are owed a great deal of gratitude from city people like me who don’t really think about where our food came from.” In 2014, with her MBA and several internships under her belt, she co-founded PastureMap (pasturemap. com), a subscription-based ranch management software tool that allows ranchers to plan and manage grazing from their smartphones. She wanted a

tool that could solve common problems that many ranchers faced: “I kept seeing these huge paper charts and maps stapled to the barn wall, and stacks of notebooks, and realized that ranchers run their entire business on pen and paper.” Su, 31, is somewhat of an anomaly in the agtech sector. She is relatively young, the daughter of Taiwanese immigrants, a firstgeneration Chinese American, a woman and doesn’t come from a long line of farmers. At industry gatherings, Su observed that “everyone on stage looks a certain way, and it’s not like me.” Given the predominantly older, white, male makeup of ranchers, “I am often the only minority and young woman under 40 at a conference of over 1,000,” she said. Given this, she has a passion for diversifying the workplace. She cites Google’s annual diversity report, which shows progress in hiring women, but little change with offering positions to people of color. Su strongly believes that differences in culture, gender, class, education, race and ethnicity offer a “diversity of perspectives.” While PastureMap’s workforce includes women and people of color, Su acknowledged there’s room for improvement: “We look at the diversity metrics and think how we want to do better.” To help in that directive, she tapped Code 2040, a nonprofit that promotes black and Latino engineers to recruit developers who are people of color. Su also scours agricultural graduate programs with a focus on ranching and stays closely connected with her alma mater Stanford University; several PastureMap staffers are grads. The San Francisco-based agtech startup recently expanded its full-time team from four to 10 and moved to the Impact Hub, a spacious shared workplace in the heart of the city’s Mission

While Su didn’t know where she wanted to work in the food industry, she says her passion for agriculture was certain. District that houses socially conscious companies. Since 2017, PastureMap has more than doubled its investments, raising $2.3 million from Eric Chen of Ovo Fund in a seed round. That added to the estimated $1 million previously raised through friends, family and grants. The company has more than 8,000 customers in 40 countries. “We are very excited about the international expansion,” said Su. Over the past year, she has traveled to mega cattle confabs in the Midwest, and has spoken at a dozen agtech and industry conferences, including the Grassfed Exchange, Edmonton BeefTech and the 2017 Skoll World Forum. With the injection of funding, PastureMap is seeking talent in engineering and development, in line with Su’s steadfast belief that diversity and inclusion are critical to the bottom line and she is cautiously optimistic that change is happening. With minorities already the majority in California, Su calls inclusiveness an “inevitable shift.” In the meantime, she takes pride in knowing that she is working to promote diversity and offer opportunities to women and people of color who share her passion for the cattle ranch and food production. “Representation just by being who we are is already an important message,” she said. “I hope that we are able to cultivate the next generation of minority female leaders in ag and in tech.” CO N T I N U E D






Breaking Ground


Trace Genomics helps farmers know the health of their soil before planting begins


n a recent weekday, Poornima Parameswaran parked herself at a café at the Asilomar Conference Center in Monterey County, Calif., where the EcoFarm Conference was held. She dialed into a conference call, listening intently through earbuds while juggling a light lunch — a rare pause between two of her speaking sessions. Parameswaran, 34, and Diane Wu, 30, are the co-founders of Trace Genomics (tracegenomics. com), an agtech company that created a system to detect diseases in soil. The kit indicates whether soil for high-value crops, like lettuce or strawberries, contains harmful bacteria or fungi. This helps farmers understand what’s in the soil and if there could be issues down the road, saving time and money. The company’s target consumers are growers primarily in California’s Salinas Valley — the salad bowl of

the world — where an estimated 80 percent of leafy greens consumed in the U.S. are grown. The concept for Trace Genomics started in 2009 while the women were completing their doctorate degrees at Stanford University and met in the lab of Andrew Fire, their dissertation adviser and a Nobel laureate. Wu earned her Ph.D. in genetics while Parameswaran earned hers in microbiology and immunology. With their shared passions for entrepreneurship (both attended Stanford’s Entrepreneurial Summer Program) and leveraging genomics to tackle soil health, they launched Trace Genomics in 2015. Rather than take a traditional route into academia, they were inspired by their passion and curiosity for making a difference with soil testing to forge their own path. They are both children of immigrants and the first in their families to earn

advanced degrees in the U.S. A scientist by training, Parameswaran said the transition from lab to startup has been simple. “Being an entrepreneur fires every neuron in my brain — from numerous science, business, product, customer, personnel, corporate and legal perspectives,” said Parameswaran, an immigrant from India who grew up in Bahrain. “I really enjoy the fun and challenge associated with thinking across these dimensions.” Nearly three years after its inception, the company, with headquarters in Burlingame, Calif., has gained momentum in profile and fundraising. It has raised $6 million from venture capitalists and angel investors and is now in Series A funding, the first significant round of venture capital funding. The boost resulted in outgrowing their satellite office at the Western Growers Center for Innovation & Technology in Salinas Valley and moving in 2017 to downtown Salinas. The full-time staff has nearly doubled to 15. The technology digitizes soil samples and creates a digital fingerprint of disease-causing and beneficial organisms in the soil. Recently the company automated its in-house technology stack to generate reports for growers with the push of a button. And Trace stays closely connected with growers to better meet their needs. Parameswaran’s voice perked up when she talked about a test to detect Fusarium wilt, a lettuce disease that has broken out in the U.K. and hit some areas in Yuma, Ariz. The concept for the test surfaced after the Trace team talked to lettuce growers in Yuma. “They said the disease was major and said it would be extremely helpful as a diagnostic for their planting schedules,” recalled Parameswaran. “If they do have the disease, it will cost

Trace Genomic’s technology digitizes soil samples and creates a digital fingerprint of diseasecausing and beneficial organisms in the soil. thousands of dollars in acres.” They are also following the effects that growers experience, including drought and heavy rainfall, and how it affects soil biology. For Trace Genomics, this can mean expansion. “We want what we are building to be somewhat timeless,” said Parameswaran. “Diseases are constantly changing because seeds are being shipped in and all that changes the soil biology layer.” The company’s milestones have been adding up since its launch. In 2016, it won the THRIVE Accelerator competition, a Salinas-based agtech startup program, topping 200 applicants from 36 countries. Wu was also named to a Forbes 30 under 30 list of scientists in 2017. The duo continues to raise funds and speak at industry conferences while splitting work: Wu focuses on engineering and operations while Parameswaran handles consumer and product development. The company declines to say how many growers or acres it is working with, but Parameswaran said its success is based on grower productivity. “Moving the land from low to high productivity area — that’s what the grower cares about: How productive is this acre?” And then there is recruiting talent: “You can tackle a bigger and bigger portion of the pie just through the way people think about problems in a different way,” Parameswaran said. CO NT IN UED






Breaking Ground


One-woman startup Redmelon extracts nutrient-high oil from an uncommon fruit


ots of green plants are spread over 5 acres of Le Vuong’s backyard in suburban Sacramento, Calif. She hopes they will lead to Gac melons, or red melons — a coralhued, thickly skinned fruit not typically grown in the U.S. that is the size of a bocce ball. Vuong, 52, is the founder and CEO of The Redmelon Co. (theredmeloncompany.com). The fruit is grown throughout Southeast Asia and China and is high in beta-carotene, lycopene (70 times more than in tomatoes) and zeaxanthin, an antioxidant good for the eyes. The produce thrives in warm weather, which makes southern California an ideal growing locale. They are also grown in Texas and Florida. With the health aspect of red melons as her focus, Vuong invented a process that extracts the nutrient-rich oil from the fruit to create an edible oil, powder and concentrate that can be added to food and beverages for added health benefits. Taking this twist on traditional ag, she launched her company in 2011 as Fishrock

Laboratories Inc. She was soon able to produce small quantities of the oil in 2012. The company also produced a blend of red melons and olive oil called Rosolive, and in 2015, it created Redmelon capsules and moisturizing cream. In 2017, the company rebranded as Redmelon, with the motto, “Nature at Its Best.” Vuong loves to talk about food culture, food sensory and ways to improve health and combat disease. Her philosophy as a scientist and entrepreneur is “let food be your medicine.” A native of Vietnam, Vuong came to the United States in 1975, just after the Vietnam War. She says her father tried to persuade her to attend medical school, and she completed a degree at Saigon University’s School of Pharmacy, but after she arrived in the U.S., she changed course. In 1979, she earned her bachelor’s degree in computer science from California Polytechnic University and later an MBA from California Lutheran University. She worked as a computer technology consultant for about 15 years before earning her Ph.D. in nutrition science at the University of California, Davis. She continued

on as a post-doctorate researcher at the USDA’s Western Human Nutrition Research Center at UC Davis. This all led to her taking the plunge into the startup world. Redmelon grew from her quest to find a food-based solution for vitamin A deficiency in children and young mothers in Vietnam, where she recalls being surrounded by fruits and vegetables, but where she also witnessed malnutrition. She imports frozen, processed or whole fruit from southern California, Costa Rica and Vietnam. An olive oil producer in California processes the oil. Vuong said when she began working on her dissertation in 1992, the fruit was virtually unknown in the U.S., but awareness increased after she began publishing research in academic journals in 1999. “Agriculture and agtech are fields where I can apply my knowledge ... and perhaps make a difference,” she said. Vuong was also inspired by Pam Marrone, the CEO and founder of Marrone Bio Innovations Inc., and a pioneer in agtech entrepreneurship. The two connected when Marrone’s business office was located next door to an earlier startup of Vuong’s, Vitalea Science. “We shared a lot of ups and downs being a woman in related fields,” said Vuong. In addition to being a founding investor for Redmelon, Marrone’s network of investors and connections helped get the company started, Vuong said. “I really believe Redmelon is the next super fruit,” Marrone added. Vuong singlehandedly raised funds for the shoestring company, speaking at panels and conferences and growing the melons for oil extraction. “You have to wear many hats,” said Vuong, for whom mentorship, especially from women in agtech, has been a lifeline. In 2017, the company joined the Fourth Wave accelerator program, whose members include women of color from many sectors. Next steps include

Vuong’s philosophy as a scientist and entrepreneur is “let food be your medicine.” expansion, Marrone said. “Le’s done a great job building strong intellectual property and products, but what she still needs is a team,” she advised. “She really needs a CEO or COO to take it to the next level. I think that’s really important, otherwise it’s just you and the technology.” Vuong agreed: “There’s a switch into looking at the whole problem of how to bring the company to the next stage.” Although she’s met with venture capitalists, and food industry Fortune 500 executives who listened to her pitch with interest, fundraising has been a major roadblock, she said. Those potential investors ultimately decided to not move ahead. Among the companies that have responded positively are Hampton Creek Foods in San Francisco, Califia Farms in Bakersfield and Mars Incorporated’s Innovative Institute of Food and Health at the UC Davis. Of her success, Vuong said she switched her thinking and began reaching out to other groups. “I realized there’s other ways that I can raise funds.” Each of her 5 acres holds about 250 plants; the goal is to grow 10,000 plants and find farmers interested in helping her expand production. An application for a block grant from the USDA to commercialize red melon production is in the works. In 2017, Amy Wu, an investigative journalist for the USA TODAY Network, created From Farms to Incubators, which profiles women in agtech. In December, she received a grant from the International Women’s Journalism Foundation to expand the series. Learn more at farmstoincubators.com.






Flower Power

U.S. growers, large and small, fight to regain market share over imports By Patricia Kime


DRIVE THROUGH SAN DIEGO’S North County region is one of Southern California’s most scenic, with dramatic mountains, broad swaths of desert and mile upon mile of cultivated land. Numerous greenhouses and flower farms dot large swaths of land, making it difficult to comprehend that the U.S. floriculture industry is struggling, nearly wiped out in the past 20 years by CO N T I N U E D






Flower Power imported blooms. In 1991, before the U.S. entered the Andean Trade Preference Act agreement that eliminated import duties on products from Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru as part of an effort to promote economic alternatives to the drug trade and coca production, domestic flowers accounted for 65 percent of all U.S. flower sales. Now, imports make up roughly 80 percent of U.S. flower sales — and 94 percent and 98 percent of all roses and carnations sold, respectively. It’s a trend that many U.S. flower farmers, from large California growers like Fox Point Farms in Encinitas to boutique grower Bailey Hale, co-owner of Ardelia Farm & Co. in Irasburg, Vt., want to reverse — one acre at time. “People have started considering where other agricultural products come from, besides just their food,” said Hale, who left a floral design business in Philadelphia in 2011 to start a farm. “It will be interesting to see where this goes.” Across the country, established flower farmers — and a new crop of specialty growers — are planting more varieties, expanding their businesses, drumming up interest in domestically grown flowers and using social media to capture it all, to include marketing directly to consumers. Growth in the market has been slow, but it is happening, said Kasey Cronquist, CEO of the California Cut Flower Commission, which represents more than 225 cut flower and greens farmers in the state. “We are seeing a good trend line in small-acre farms — an increase in the USDA data showing the number of farms returning to floriculture,” Cronquist said. “Flowers are the No. 1 crop for small-acre farms in value. The numbers show what we already know — and why developing countries gravitate toward cut flowers — there’s a lot of per-square-foot profitability and revenue.” According to census data released in 2015 by the USDA, the wholesale value of domestic cut flowers for large farms was $374 million in 2014, the last year the department published the figures, up 3 percent from the previous year, with the top crops being tulips, gerbera daisies and lilies. The number of producers was up as well, by 5 percent in the top 15 states monitored by the USDA, including farmers who grossed less than $50,000 a year — their numbers increased by 1 percent. The increases are small but significant as U.S. flower farms try to take back market share from countries that can grow flowers at a lower cost, relying on

Bailey Hale, co-owner of Ardelia Farm & Co.




Design mockup for Tiny Acre Farms’ mobile flower truck.

American Grown Field to Vase Dinner in Napa Valley.


cheap labor and government incentives. “It’s tough on our domestic farms. In the state of California, we are marching toward a $15 minimum wage, and it’s not just those making the minimum who need to be paid,” Cronquist said. “The person making $15 is going to want $20, and it just rolls uphill from there. We need to address the imbalance of these trade relationships and the challenges we face.” Seven years ago, Hale left Philadelphia, intending to raise livestock on a farm with his now husband, Thomas McCurdy. After arriving in the northeast corner of Vermont, Hale, who had earned best in show several times at the prestigious Philadelphia Flower Show, continued planting flowers in his new location. He quickly figured out that popular blooms like peonies and sweet peas come into flower in the state well after their season is over in most of the U.S. They fetch a great price and are far less demanding than chickens, heritage pigs and goats. “Flowers weren’t a big part of our original plan,” Hale said. “Still, I decided to go to an Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers (ASCFG) meeting, an amazing organization, and realized I might be on to something. No one else has peonies in July and August.” Hale, 41, now has three greenhouses and an acre of peonies, ranunculus and 60 other varieties. He started a floral design studio to support local events and weddings and recently launched a company that sells starter plants to new growers. He plans to add 2 acres of shrubs for greenery and flowering branches this year. Combined with a bakery business run by McCurdy, the two cover their bills and then some, spending a couple of weeks a year in the Canary Islands. “For the first two years, I would take a winter job and Thomas worked at a kitchen of a general store. But we’ve rounded that corner,” Hale said. “We paid off the farm and are in a position to hire some employees.” ASCFG, the group that inspired Hale, represents more than 1,000 members and provides education and support for commercial cut growers. Members have access to the association’s magazine, conferences, online forums and the ASCFG Facebook page, which, for flower farmer Stacy Moeller, has proved invaluable. In 2016, Moeller abandoned her career as a digital marketing professional and launched Tiny Acre Farms in her Des Moines, Iowa, backyard. She rented CON TI NUED








Flower Power additional land from an area vegetable “Flowers are trending upwards and more are grower to plant more peonies, dahlias and going to be grown, cut and sold. I’d like to see Queen Anne’s lace, and this year plans to more support for the local growers, in terms expand to a plot on her parents’ farm an hour of grants and research.” from the city. A challenge for the industry is educating As a new grower, the challenges lay in the consumers on the merits of domestically unknowns: what demand would be, when grown flowers, Cronquist said. Seventy-four flowers would be available, what her yield percent of U.S. consumers don’t know would be. The ASCFG community helped, as where their purchased flowers were grown, did YouTube videos and online courses, but according to a survey conducted by the mostly, she learned from trial and error, sellCertified American Grown campaign, an ing first at farmers markets and farm stands initiative launched in 2014 by a coalition of before offering direct-to-consumer sales. U.S. flower farms. But 58 percent said they “Instagram really helped my business take would prefer to buy American if given a off,” Moeller said. “But one of my biggest choice. To identify and market U.S.-grown challenges was meeting market demand flowers, the farmers partnered with Made last year. I was cutting everything I possibly in USA Certified. Consumers now can could and driving to my parents’ farm and find Certified American Grown labels on cutting out their perennials as well.” some supermarket bouquet flower sleeves. Moeller recently bought a former ice Cronquist said the effort has resulted in an cream truck to convert into a mobile flower uptick in sales. shop, which she plans to use to carry her “We have seen great success. When dahlias, carnations and black consumers understand the and white anemones to sell source of the flowers, the downtown and at special transparency of the supply, events. they pick our flowers,” “I love food trucks, so Cronquist said. a flower truck made total One effort to broaden sense,” Moeller said. “There’s consumer awareness includes nothing like it in Des Moines.” the American Grown Field BILLION According to ASCFG, to Vase Dinner Tour, a series The number of flowers flowers grown in the U.S. of national artisan-style Colombia exported have several advantages over dinner gatherings that to the U.S. in 2017 imports. First, they include feature seasonal, local and rare, delicate varieties that sustainable American Grown would be hard-pressed to flowers at the center of the survive the 1,500-mile trip from Colombia to tables. Additional efforts include grower Miami — the top entry point for cut flowers. cooperatives that promote sound business Second, the flowers grown in the U.S. practices, marketing and lobbying — lots of often last longer and smell better because lobbying. In February, Cronquist was schedthey have been cut just before purchase, uled to fly to Washington, D.C., to press the rather than weeks ahead. And they tend White House to decorate exclusively with to be grown responsibly, using low-input domestically grown flowers and encourage fertilization programs and integrated pest lawmakers to support trade protections. management. “We are excited about the opportunity “The most popular varieties — ranunculus, to work with the new administration that sunflowers, dahlias — lend themselves to understands the trade imbalances and the seasonal bouquets or more whimsical natural challenges we have created for our domestic groupings that look decidedly different producers and manufacturers,” Cronquist than an imported supermarket bouquet,” said. Cronquist said. Cronquist represents California’s largest Lennie Larkin lives in Sonoma County, growers, so imports are a major concern. Calif., in the shadows of several large flower But even Hale, on his Vermont farm, thinks farms. A former teacher and social worker about foreign flowers. who started out raising vegetables, she “It’s a business,” he said. “I can’t badswitched to flowers two years ago after mouth what’s going on in the rest of the realizing the profit margins were higher. world. People are almost apologetic (to me) Now, she has carved out a niche in the when they tell me they bought flowers at a local wedding market with B-Side Farm, grocery store. Don’t apologize. I want people growing blooms on half an acre and crafting to buy flowers, and in the U.S., we don’t bouquets, centerpieces and aisle markers have the ability to grow them in winter — a for about 25 weddings a year. She also holds few do, in California, but it’s not many. So, workshops on floral design and gardening. buy flowers where you can get them in the “Local flowers are just a few years behind winter, and when you have the option to buy the local food movement,” Larkin said. local, choose those.”

When it comes to farming, most people tend to envision corn, wheat or soybeans. But food crops aren’t the only ones produced in the United States; in 2014, more than 23,000 horticulture operations specialized in growing $13.8 billion worth of decorative plants and trees. In fact, many food farmers also discover that flowers can provide a surprising, untapped stream of income — and satisfaction. “There’s a desire to spread more joy, and I think flowers are a great way to do that,” said Stacy Moeller, owner of Tiny Acre Farms in Des Moines, Iowa. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has been keeping tabs on horticulture since 1889. Here’s a snapshot of what was sold in 2014, according to the USDA’s 10th and most recent horticultural specialties census, released in December 2015:


CUT FLOWERS SOLD (wholesale and retail combined) Tulip $65.3 million Lily $65.3 million Gerbera daisy $35.2 million Gladioili $25.1 million Rose $22.2 million Chrysanthemum $15.1 million Iris $13.8 million Sunflower $13.8 million Snapdragon $12.2 million Dahlia $10.4 million ARDELIA FARM & CO.





USDA, organizations provide learning opportunities for new farmers and ranchers By Jodi Stemler



finishing her undergraduate degree in natural resource conservation at the

University of Florida in 2013, she wasn’t sure whether returning to her family’s Longleaf Ridge Farms in Camilla, Ga., was the life path she should follow. Cox, now 26, is an only child who grew up learning about growing corn and peanuts from her

father, whose family had farmed along Georgia’s Flint River for generations. She eventually decided that, even with the complexities of running a large operation in a rural community, she CONT I NUED

Casey Cox and her father, Glenn NATIONAL PEANUT BOARD





could find a rewarding life in agriculture. “I’m not the typical demographic for a farmer, and making the choice to live in an isolated area in order to run my family’s farm was a leap of faith,” Cox said. Today, running her family’s operation and serving as executive director of the Flint River Soil and Water Conservation District, Cox is taking her college lessons about sustainability and applying them to agriculture in the region. Her family has always been progressive about farming methods, and she is continuing that by integrating precision irrigation. In her dual roles, she’s able to talk knowledgeably about conservation practices, while also understanding the challenges faced by farmers. “The field of agriculture has endless opportunities for a new generation of farmers and ranchers,” she noted. “As a nation, there’s increasing social focus on agriculture and yet at the same time so many people are much more disconnected from where their food comes from. My generation can bridge that gap — we need to remember our roots, to ground ourselves on sustainable food production, while thinking outside the box and bringing fresh ideas to the table.”






SOURCE National Young Farmers Coalition

The 2012 Census of Agriculture led by the USDA, found that farmers under the age of 35 make up only 6 percent of the total number of farmers. However, for only the second time in a century, the number of young farmers saw a slight increase; a notable statistic given that the average age of farmers is older than 58. According to a survey by the National Young Farmers Coalition (NYFC), the next generation of America’s farmers is changing. The organization worked with partners to interview more than 3,500 aspiring, current and former farmers under age 40 and found that young farmers are highly educated — with 69 percent having completed degrees beyond a high school education. At the same time, 75 percent of the respondents did not grow up on a farm. And they are increasingly diverse — 60 percent of respondents were women, and the number of farmers of color or indigenous farmers was roughly twice the national average identified in the USDA Census. The findings also indicated that many of these young farmers were embracing a different model by offering community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs, selling at farmers markets or working directly with local retailers and restaurants to provide produce and products. As a result, their operations are diversified, with 81 percent growing two or more products. And while only 25 percent cited livestock as the largest part of their sales, many included animals as part of that diversified operation. Environmental stewardship was also important, with 75 percent describing their practices as sustainable and 63 percent describing them as organic.


Casey Cox and her father, Glenn, raise multiple crops, including peanuts on their farm in Georgia.

The NYFC findings suggest a trend that’s fueled in part by members of society who increasingly want to know where their food comes from, and by a generation that wants to make a positive impact on the community. Lindsey Lusher Shute, NYFC executive director and co-founder, and a new farmer herself, sees a shift in philosophy. CO NT IN UED






Nate Looney took what he learned through Veterans to Farmers and launched Westside Urban Gardens.

“Many of these new farmers are coming in without a background in farming,” Shute said. “However, they are excited about being able to contribute to the land and to their community.” For Emily Mickley-Doyle, 31, agriculture is about providing healthy, locally grown food, even in the heart of a city. Although her grandparents had farmed in Ohio, neither of her parents followed suit, and she left Ohio to earn a degree in sociology from Loyola University in 2008. Working in the human services industry in New Orleans, Emily saw the disconnect between local food systems and the vast food deserts in parts of the city. She started SPROUT (Sustainable Produce Reaching Our Urban Table) NOLA in 2011 to bridge the gap. The organization provides technical and social support for farmers in the community. Mickley-Doyle grows food on the outskirts of town, has a teaching

site in the city, and hosts a farmers market where smaller-scale producers who might not have enough resources or goods for a standalone booth can share tables. Nate Looney, 33, represents another aspect of the changing face of agriculture. He took a course on sustainability in college that opened his eyes to the challenges of feeding the nation: “People will always need food — we just need to figure out innovative ways to provide it to them.” A military veteran, Looney participated in a six-week course through Veterans to Farmers, a Denver-based program providing intensive, hands-on agricultural training to those who’ve served in the military. Recognizing the persistent water issues California faces, as well as the lack of available land in Anaheim where he lived, he completed a veteran internship at Ouroboros Farms Aquaponics and Education Center in Half

Moon Bay, Calif., which presents a water- and space-saving method for raising food. Looney now grows microgreens for his urban aquaponics-based agribusiness, Westside Urban Gardens, in Los Angeles.

PREPARING FOR THE TRANSITION Despite the guarded optimism about the increase in young farmers, the number of beginning farmers in operation less than 10 years dropped 20 percent between the 2007 and 2012 Census of Agriculture. Access to farm land is noted as the No. 1 challenge by the respondents to the NYFC survey. Other issues include access to capital for new farmers, health care and student loan costs, and the need for training on the technical aspects of food production and business management. CO NT IN UED






Ironically, the issue of access to land comes at a time when agricultural experts are anticipating a dramatic shift in land ownership. Pulling numbers from the USDA’s 2014 Tenure, Ownership and Transition of Agricultural Land Survey, the American Farmland Trust estimates that at least 371 million acres — 40 percent of the land used for agriculture in 2014 — is owned by principal operators or nonoperator landlords who are older than 60. Pat O’Toole, president of the Family Farm Alliance and a Wyoming rancher, said that cultivating new farmers and the pending transition of so much agricultural land has been an organizational priority for a number of years. “I’m not sure people understand that we are on the edge of a crisis. When farmers and ranchers get out of the business, land transition can go a couple ways — that land could be sold for development or it could be transitioned to someone who wants to start a new operation,” he said. “Our country needs to make it a priority to ensure that the next generation of producers has the opportunity to farm. The enthusiasm is there; we just need to provide the resources.” Julia Freedgood, American Farmland Trust’s assistant vice president of programs noted, “Traditionally, land transitioned in one of three ways: cradle, altar or grave. That’s not always the way things work now. There are a lot of people that care about this issue, and they are coming up with innovative ways to keep land in agriculture. Yes, there are challenges, but they are not insurmountable.” A number of local land trusts are getting creative. Programs like Maine Farmland Trust’s “Buy, Protect, Sell” are allowing land trusts to buy farms outright, place a conservation easement on them and then sell or lease them to new farmers. “I grew up on a family farm, and at that time most people were only one generation removed from the farm,” said Wendy Jackson, executive vice president for the Land Trust Alliance. “Today’s child often doesn’t know where their food and water come from. They don’t have that connection. But this is our heritage as Americans, and we must maintain that connection.”

Meadowlark Organics farm in Wisconsin

John Wepking with son, Henry, and his boss, Paul Bickford

In Minnesota, the advocacy work of the Central Minnesota chapter of the National Young Farmers Coalition helped land transition efforts in a different way. When organic grain and bean farmer Matthew Fitzgerald started his local chapter, he was primarily searching for a social network. “I moved back to my family’s farm, and I was wondering who my friends were going to be,” said Fitzgerald, 26. “I started the Central Minnesota chapter as a way to get together with other young farmers to share experiences, but we started brainstorming ideas on how to make things easier for young farmers.” Working with his NYFC chapter, Fitzgerald helped organize a legislative push in Minnesota to provide a 5 percent tax credit to retiring farmer landowners who sell their land to new farmers. The financial incentive, which was enacted during the 2017 legislative session, is intended to make it easier for young farmers to get access to farm land.

MEETING A MENTOR John Wepking’s family farmed in central Wisconsin, but he pursued a different path, earning a liberal arts degree from Grinnell College in Iowa. He later earned a master’s degree in urban planning, but shifted gears and started cooking in a trendy restaurant in New York City, where he met his wife, Halee. After a few years of connecting city dwellers with local food, John, 34, and Halee, 32, decided to move back to Wisconsin to farm. “Access to land is certainly an issue,” noted Wepking, who found the 700-acre organic farm he operates in Ridgeway, Wis., in an unusual way. Through a serendipitous Craigslist search, he connected with Paul Bickford, a retiring farmer, who was looking to share his land and knowledge. The Wepkings now work for Bickford and have an agreement in principle to buy Meadowlark Organics farm after they learn how to run the operation and be profitable. “For most young farmers, it takes some somersaults to find an economic path forward. It’s important for anyone without family land to connect with an experienced farmer,” Wepking said. “These mentors can give new farmers the skills and knowledge they need to fully understand what it takes to be a successful farmer before they get into debt.” For those from a nonagricultural background, it’s important to develop skill sets in the areas where they have no experience. CONT I NUED






This includes some of those seemingly “simple” things like operating a tractor, welding or mechanical knowledge — technical skills that aren’t taught in the traditional academic process. As Wepking noted, identifying a mentor and finding training is essential. Increasingly, organizations are recognizing that, in addition to helping new farmers find land, they also have to help them develop the necessary skills. The Center for Land-Based Learning started the California Farm Academy in 2011. Their flagship program involves seven months of intensive training. The course focuses on the business side of farming, teaching marketing and financial management, among other subjects. The next phase is an “incubator” program that offers participants a chance to lease an existing farm owned by the center and get mentorship from experienced farmers. This setup allows new farmers to have a place to farm without significant startup costs, and to have three years of profit and loss statements that are The O’Toole ranch in Wyoming critical when they apply for their first business loan. The apprentice program received accreditation earlier this year from the California Division of Apprenticeship Standards, whose requirements are among the most rigorous for trade apprenticeships in the country. Other groups are also trying to fill the gap. In 2015, the American Farmland Trust (AFT) received a grant from the USDA Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program to develop a curriculum that can be used to teach young farmers the skills needed to run their own operations. This year, AFT’s Farmland for the Next Generation project trained a pilot group of 25 future farmers who will test the curriculum in their communities. The goal is to create a network of practitioners using the curriculum to help new farmers find the right path forward.

PASSING DOWN THE PASSION A big part of the next generation is those who are transitioning into leadership on farms or ranches that have been in their families for years. Like Cox’s farm in Georgia, O’Toole is in the process of transitioning management of his Wyoming ranch to his children, Meghan, 39, and Ea’mon, 32. Meghan manages 7,000 head of sheep while Ea’mon oversees the cow/calf operation of 1,000 head of cows; the family also puts up 2,000 tons of hay and alfalfa each year. Even with his family’s experience, Ea’mon worked for another rancher near Laramie, Wyo., while he was studying at the University of Wyoming. Other ranchers have provided mentorship and advice along the way: “In agriculture, people are willing to help — they know how tough it is to get started.” Like his father, Ea’mon is looking to pass on the love of agriculture. He is on the AFT board of leadership, serves on the Region 5 Young Beef Leader Advisory Group for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and helped form the Young Producers Assembly for the Wyoming Stock Growers Association. The American Farm Bureau, the national organization representing the country’s farmers and ranchers, is also working to help agriculture’s next generation. Kalena Bruce is a fifth-generation farmer in southwest Missouri. Her family raises cattle and runs a pick-your-own berry farm and pumpkin patch. She’s also the chairwoman of the bureau’s Young Farmers and Ranchers program, which works to usher in the new faces of agriculture. “I’ve seen the growth and excitement of our young farmers who are waiting for their chance to step up to the plate and support agriculture,” she said. “I see bright things for the future of ag.”

Taking the Leap


or most young farmers, a career in agriculture can be daunting. Here are four resources that offer support:

USDA NEW FARMERS RESOURCE SITE This interactive site provides important considerations for those interested in becoming farmers, a checklist for new farms, recommendations for writing a business plan and a “Discovery Tool” that pulls together links to resources. unewfarmers.usda.gov/new-farmers

NATIONAL YOUNG FARMERS COALITION Includes information on training and apprenticeships, and resources for accessing credit and capital. In addition, the coalition’s growing network of chapters across the country can provide local support and inspiration for new farmers. uyoungfarmers.org

AMERICAN FARMLAND TRUST FARMLAND INFORMATION CENTER Especially geared toward new and beginning farmers, this site includes information about access to land and capital, as well as a variety of resources from technical information for business development to farm incubator programs. ufarmlandinfo.org/beginningfarmers

CENTER FOR LAND-BASED LEARNING — CALIFORNIA FARM ACADEMY The academy’s site provides a sevenmonth training program and apprenticeships to an incubator program that offers new farmers access to land and equipment. ulandbasedlearning.org/farm-academy







Take a Seat

Nourishment comes in multiple forms in farming communities

By Sara Schwartz


N THE FARM, YOUR closest

neighbors can be miles away, so when there’s time to break away and break bread, it’s made all the more special with dishes made to share. Brent Ridge and Josh Kilmer-Purcell found this out quickly. After the two lost their jobs in the 2008 recession, they left New York City and decamped to the small farming area of Sharon Springs, N.Y., moving permanently into the Beekman

mansion, a historic estate and farm they had purchased as a weekend respite the previous year. Ridge, who worked as a physician at Mount Sinai Hospital and later as vice president of healthy living at Martha Stewart Omnimedia, and now-husband Kilmer-Purcell, an author and advertising exec, quickly found success as goat farmers and cookbook authors. Their Beekman 1802 brand now includes an arsenal of artisanal products, including apparel, beauty products and home goods.

All along the way, the couple found the swap from urban to country life was made easier with the help of their new neighbors. One in particular, Rose Marie Trapani, shared meals and memories of growing up in Sicily, where she learned how to cook from the women in her family. Ridge and Kilmer-Purcell often found themselves sharing a meal with Trapani and her husband. Her generosity of spirit inspired them to work with her on their fourth cookbook: Beekman 1802: A Seat at the Table: Recipes to Nourish Your Family, Friends, and Community





Find inspiration in these farm-inspired cookbooks: The Farm Cooking School: Techniques and Recipes That Celebrate the Seasons by Ian Knauer and Shelley Wiseman In 2014, chef and former Gourmet magazine food editor Ian Knauer founded The Farm Cooking School in Titusville, N.J. Cookbook author and former Gourmet editor Shelley Wiseman joined him later. The duo has created a formidable community of teachers and their cookbook embraces that same sense of community and creativity. u$35, quartoknows.com

Heartland: Farm-Forward Dishes from the Great Midwest by Lenny Russo Relentless locavore and chef Lenny Russo’s book tips a hat to a region rich in agricultural might. His St. Paul, Minn., restaurant, Heartland, was a farm-to-table pioneer and that idealism continued into his cookbook. Although Heartland closed in 2016, Russo took the reins of The Commodore Bar & Restaurant in St. Paul in 2017 and continues to ensure that local and sustainable ingredients are centric. u$28, quartoknows.com

Family Table: Farm Cooking from the Elliott Homestead by Shaye Elliott Shaye Elliott spends her days wrangling her four children, gardening, tending to farm animals and writing on her family’s farm in Washington state. Time-stretched cooks will appreciate Family Table’s focus on easy, traditional food prep that relies heavily on sustainable farming and stewardship. Elliott has also written Welcome to the Farm and From Scratch and blogs at theelliotthomestead.com. u$24.95, rowman.com


($30, hmhco.com). The book includes more than 100 recipes that honor their neighbors and embraces the spirit of sharing. “Every recipe, every story and every page is flavored with the seasoning and spice that only a diverse community can bring,” Ridge said. A Seat at the Table is the most personal book yet, he added. Organized by seasons, it bursts with a conversational tone that beckons, “Come on in, sit for a while and have something to eat.” And in a nod to their charitable neighbors, the

book includes profiles of the people who make Sharon Springs so special. “In a time of digitally imposed isolation and unprecedented fractures in our national view of the American dream, what we need now more than ever is to find ways to lift everyone up — to find opportunities for everyone to succeed,” Ridge said. “We want to help pass the bread and not the buck. In this spirit, we want to invite everyone to have a seat at the table and encourage communities to come together and make amazing things happen.”

Full Moon Suppers at Salt Water Farm: Recipes From Land and Sea by Annemarie Ahearn Annemarie Ahearn left New York City with one dream: to open a cooking school at her family’s farm in Maine, nestled between the mountains and the sea. Years later, she opened the Salt Water Farm cooking school in 2009, and started hosting “full moon” suppers that provide native and seasonal fare that highlighted the might of Maine’s hearty provisions. Full Moon features 12 menus from those meals. u$35, roostbooks.com






Guardian Animals

Dogs, donkeys and llamas key to keeping farms safe By Amy Grisak



protecting your animals from opportunistic predators is a constant concern. And while fencing and other nonlethal measures are effective in many situations, livestock guardian animals have been a first line of defense for eons. With dogs, llamas and even donkeys used to watch over vulnerable animals,

choosing the right guardian for your situation depends on the livestock, the predators in the area and the terrain.

THE ICONIC SHEEP DOG Dogs have been the iconic symbol of protection for thousands of years in Europe, but have only been used in the U.S. for less than a half a century, mostly to protect sheep from coyotes. With the increase in large predators, such as grizzlies and wolves in many parts of the West, producers have often wondered

whether particular breeds performed better at keeping their wards safe. Understanding the behavioral characteristics that make guardian dogs effective against large predators — essentially looking for the “silver bullet” breed — was a key aspect that Utah State University student Daniel Kinka covered in his doctoral dissertation in ecology, which he defended in December. Kinka, who also works as a wildlife CON T I NUED






The bottom line is livestock guard dogs do help make sheep and other livestock less vulnerable to predators. restoration specialist at the conservation nonprofit American Prairie Reserve and at the Wild Sky Beef company, both in Bozeman, Mont., collected data between 2013 and 2016 and plans to publish at least four scientific papers. According to Kinka’s research, dogs with white coats, such as Great Pyrenees, Akbash, Maremmas and Anatolian shepherds, are the predominant breed choices for most American producers. Yet, because animal caretakers throughout the world have dealt with protecting their herds from wolves and other large predators for as long as there have been sheep and goats, more obscure breeds were introduced to the United States, including the Turkish Kangal, Karakachans from Bulgaria and the Cão de Gado Transmontano from Portugal. Working with producers throughout Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Oregon and Washington, Kinka devised a series of tests to determine whether these European dog breeds worked more effectively against large predators, as well as gain a general understanding about how guardian dogs worked. “The overarching theme is there’s not a silver-bullet dog that we found,” he said. While this wasn’t a surprise, he discovered differences in the dogs’ behavior that are useful for producers who use them for protection. Because the interaction between guardian dogs and predators is extremely difficult to observe, often happening at night, Kinka created decoys using a PVC skeleton covered with either a wolf hide (threatening animal) or deer hide (a nonthreatening animal) complete with sounds of wolves howling or elk bugling. The simulation used both examples to test whether a Bulgarian Karakachan and a Kangal responded the same way to an animal that is nonthreatening the same as they would to the threatening wolf decoy. “Largely, behaviorally speaking, they seem to be very similar,” he said, adding that both of the dogs barked and went


Daniel Kinka’s doctoral dissertation studied guard animals, including Kangals, and their effectiveness in protecting herds. Kinka, at right, embraces Oso, a Kangal, a breed that exhibits impressive athletic and livestock protection abilities.

on the defensive but handled the threat differently. “But we found the Bulgarian Karakachan breed was more vigilant when faced with the decoy. The Kangal was a lot more likely to investigate.” It is wise to have dogs of each tendency because it is not as effective if a dog runs after every predator, leaving the sheep vulnerable, nor is it as useful when a dog stays only with the sheep, and is less likely to confront potential danger. His study demonstrated that for maximum effectiveness, producers should get a type of dog that stays with the flock, along with another breed with the tendency to move forward to investigate and possibly engage a threat. This balance proves to be the best way to thoroughly protect the livestock. “You really want both,” Kinka said. A second key question in Kinka’s study involved learning how and why

dogs work as a deterrent in the first place. They wanted to learn what behavior dogs exhibited to ward off y threats, including whether they actively engaged predators or if their mere presence was enough to deter them. “A sheep by itself is pretty defenseless,” he said. “Adding the guard dogs turns it into a highly defended prey.” Using cameras, Kinka found that when the sheep were paired with dog bands, which are typically three dogs per about 1,000 sheep, “We found they significantly displaced the wolves.” During the time the sheep and dogs were in the area, which was typically seven to 10 days, they were less likely to see wolves. Kinka believes one reason is that the risk-to-benefit factor is great enough that instead of tangling with the dogs, the wolves opted instead to move to

another part of their home range — giving the band a wider berth. Wolves have a very large home range, sometimes upwards of 30 miles, so when the dogs are present, often, they simply choose to move to another area to avoid potential conflict. Conversely, when the wolves moved away, coyotes, foxes and bobcats were observed more frequently. There was no difference found in the behavior of bears. The increase in mesopredator, or medium-size predator, observations might be because the smaller predators took advantage of the wolves being gone, and moved into the area, albeit CO N T I N U E D





ON THE FARM temporarily, or it might be they were simply more visible in the absence of wolves. “Wolves are a keystone predator,” explained Kinka. “They’re keeping the coyote and smaller animals in check. They regulate the ecosystem from the top down.” This is critical information for livestock producers since coyotes are the primary cause of depredation on sheep. “For a guard dog, you have to physically guard against a coyote,” he said. The bottom line is guard dogs do help make sheep and other livestock less vulnerable to predators. Although a silver-bullet breed wasn’t identified, Kinka’s study revealed how balancing the traits of dogs with their natural tendencies to stand guard and assess potential threats, produces a better chance of keeping animals safe.

DONKEY POWER For Kristin and Matthew Jensen of Fort Shaw in Cascade County, Mont., living in a coyote-rich environment meant they needed protection for their goat herd. The couple opted to bring donkeys onto their farm as guardians. “We didn’t want to do dogs because of the food,” said Kristin, adding that the two donkeys, Mae and June, eat what the goats eat and are more selfsufficient. “We have lots of coyotes up here, but they never come through. If a donkey sees one, they’ll bray,” she said. “No goats have been killed by coyotes.” This primal emergency response catches the attention of everyone within earshot and is often enough to cause predators to continue moving. Keeping donkeys as part of the herd has been a smooth first-time experience for the Jensens. “They’re probably easier than horses — and smarter,” she said. “Sometimes the donkeys have an attitude ... but I haven’t had any issues.” They separate their herd into two groups with a donkey watching over each. “We have 52 breeders, so there will be lots of babies,” Kristin said. Because kidding is a busy time, it’s helpful to have an extra set of eyes and ears in the herd. “Mae stands by the mama and baby until I get out to them,” she added. And last year, when a kid died in the shed, Mae stood by it until Kristin took it away. Their other donkey, June, had been around goats before and is very nurturing. “June brays and tells me when there’s a new baby,” Kristin said. “And


Donkeys can be effective at guarding goats against predators, though farmer Kristin Jensen recommends only using jennies.

when one of the babies was wandering off, she nudged it back to mama.” For anyone interested in using donkeys as livestock guardians, Kristin recommended using only jennies, not jacks, because they can be too aggressive. Donkeys require the basic care of any equine, including hoof trimmings several times per year, as well as regular vaccinations and wormings, but for the most part they are gentle, vigilant and excellent protectors for goats.

NO DRAMA WITH LLAMAS Lisa Wilson of Great Falls, Mont., loves her llamas for their fiber but can appreciate their value as guardian animals in certain situations. “Llamas appear to be more effective when they are in areas closer to home and not too spacious,” she said. “I’ve seen mine approach a single dog, coyote or fox, and the predators turn tail and run.” One benefit of llamas is their docile disposition. Wilson said they don’t tend to bolt and are generally calm. Plus,

Llamas can protect smaller herds. JASON WACHTER/ST. CLOUD (MINN.) TIMES

they are champions when it comes to clearing weeds. “Mine have eliminated my Canadian thistle problem, and they can wipe out cockleburs like nobody’s business,” she said. They are naturally curious and like to explore, which can be a drawback, according to Wilson. “The only real

issue is if you have a fence crawler or a jumper,” she said. “I have one who will wander, but not far, and being a chow hound, she’s easy to catch.” Llamas may not be the answer to all predator issues, but they do have a place on some farms. “Predators tend not to take a great deal of risk unless they are desperate, starving or have babies to protect, so just having large animals moving toward them is a deterrent,” Wilson said. “But, in my opinion, llamas really don’t have the size or the ferocity to be greatly effective except in limited circumstances.” For a small herd close to the house, llamas could be a good option to dissuade smaller predators. Choosing a guardian animal for your flock is almost as personal as the animals you raise for production. Pair the best option for your operation, and you should experience less predator issues in the long run. Amy Grisak is a freelance writer for the Great Falls (Mont.) Tribune.


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Hopping Good Sales jumping at Montana’s Cowboy Cricket Farms By Karl Puckett


HEY’RE CRUNCHY, HEALTHY AND easier on the environ-

ment. You can breed hundreds in a small area, keeping your costs low — and they can be flavored to your liking. Cowboy Cricket Farms in Belgrade, Mont., transforms its insects into edible delicacies, including lollipops, Chocolate Chirp Cookie, and cricket powder — which can be added to smoothies and baked goods. The venture was founded in November

2016 and is Montana’s first and only cricket farm. Nationwide, there are about a dozen. “It’s a true farm,” said James Rolin, who owns the business with his wife, Kathy. “We breed ’em and everything,” The couple and their three young children live in Bozeman, Mont., about 11 miles from the farm. Acheta domesticus, or the common house cricket, is raised for its uncommon nutritional value — crickets naturally contain high protein, iron and amino acids. At Cowboy Cricket Farms, eggs are laid and eight weeks later, the adults


Liam Rolin snacks on a Cowboy Cricket Farms Chocolate Chirp Cookie.

are harvested. They are dehydrated and milled into powder for use in the company’s food products. Cricket protein powder is a high-value nutrition source, so it’s healthy, James said. Compared with beef, it has two times the iron and produces 80 percent CON TI NUED




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ON THE FARM less methane. And business is hopping. In mid-January, Cowboy Cricket expanded, adding a 1,500-square-foot commercial kitchen next to the farm and now produces 4,000 pounds of crickets per month. The couple also works with a chef and food scientist. Inside the facility, the insects are raised in 2-by-4-foot plastic bins where they get water from a sponge and eat certified organic Montana-grown feed. The facility is a constant 85 degrees with 40 percent humidity — conditions that are ideal for the insects to thrive, reproduce and grow quickly. If it’s too humid, they will die. And more expansion is happening. The company has seven letters of intent to purchase from larger corporations that use cricket powder in their products, Kathy said. To meet the demand, Cowboy Cricket Farms is in the process of creating a network of cricket farmers who will utilize the farm’s automated bin systems to raise crickets to sell. The idea for Cowboy Cricket Farms came to Kathy in the spring of 2016 while she was studying nutrition at Montana State University (MSU) in Bozeman. She attended a “bug buffet,” a long-running event put on by MSU entomologist Florence Dunkel to increase awareness about the benefits of eating insects. Kathy learned that crickets are a top source of protein and a logical alternative to beef. “I just thought it was a great idea,” she said. “I was amazed to see people being excited about eating bugs. I thought it was something I wanted to be a part of ... especially learning about the environmental benefits of it.” She did some research and discovered there were very few cricket farms in the United States, and those that did exist were always sold out. She was ready to jump at the idea, but James needed convincing. “At first, he thought I was crazy,” Kathy said. After researching the economic model for cricket farming, he agreed it was a good business opportunity. But the couple would have to be trailblazers — there are economic models that farmers and producers can follow for many other agricultural products, such as wheat and corn, but not for raising crickets, he said.

They also liked that cricket farming is easier on the environment because it utilizes less land, water and feed. The Rolinses view the insects as a sustainable alternative to many other animal products, such as beef and chicken. In January 2017, the farm officially launched with 20,000 crickets living in 13-foot-high wooden racks for vertical farming. In the early stages, James worked closely with 406 Labs and Blackstone LaunchPad, which are business support centers at MSU that offer mentors and advisers and serve as sounding boards for new and existing businesses. More recently, student graphic designers at Blackstone developed new packaging art that Cowboy Cricket Farms will debut later this year. Prior to building their own commercial kitchen facility, the Rolinses relied on the Livingston Food Resource Center in Livingston, Mont., to make their products and develop their brand. The center allows farmers, caterers and entrepreneurs to use the community kitchen on a timeshare basis. “They designed their kitchen for a co-working space,” Kathy said. “So we have that implemented in ours.” More than 80 percent of the world already eats insects as a regular part of their culture and diet, James said, though the practice has been slow to catch on in the United States. But Cowboy Cricket Farms is making inroads. “We’re constantly sold out,” James said. So far, the company sells whole roasted crickets, cookies and cricket powder, which is often sold to food manufacturers. They also sell frass, or cricket poop, which works as a plant fertilizer to naturally ward off destructive insects. Although the powder is sold to food manufacturers, people can also buy smaller portions for home use for $45 a bag. The powder can be used as a protein supplement or substituted for 20 percent of the flour in baked goods, Kathy said. Companies in the state are also experimenting with incorporating the products into their inventory. One uses the powder to make dog treats, while a medical marijuana producer in Livingston, Mont., is selling a “chronic cricket cookie.” A Bozeman-based company is using the


Ground cricket powder can be added to a number of foods for an added protein boost.

powder for high-protein pierogies. In 2017, Cowboy Cricket Farms was awarded a $57,384 research grant by the Montana Board of Research and Commercialization Technology to create a “super cricket” with enhanced nutritional value. The company also was awarded a $20,000 grant in August 2017 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to conduct a feasibility study, which the Montana Manufacturing Extension Center conducted. In late February, Kathy said they were also awarded a Growth Through Agriculture grant from the Montana Department of Agriculture, which offers investments for new and innovative agribusiness developments or agriculture marketing programs. The grants will help the Rolinses cover costs

of experimenting with selective breeding, essentially creating an insect with higher levels of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Omega-3 assists in proper brain, heart and body function and omega-6 is tied to lower levels of inflammation. Consumers can eat grass-fed meat and oily fish to meet their omega-3 needs, but some fish species also carry high levels of mercury. Crickets can be a solution. “We are a family farm,” James told the MSU news service in August. “We care about the health and nutrition of families in an affordable fashion. We think that these super crickets are the answer.” Karl Puckett is a natural resources and weather reporter at the Great Falls (Mont.) Tribune.



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TECHNOLOGY Case IH unveiled its autonomous tractor prototype at the 2016 Farm Progress Show in Boone, Iowa, to gauge interest.

Long Row to Hoe Despite technical advances, autonomous tractors not a full reality By Adam Stone



County, Ark., Nathan Reed said he loves the idea of tractor autonomy — up to a point. Like the majority of farmers, he plows neat rows on his 6,000 acres using a GPS-based automatic steering capability that has been a standard feature on tractors for most of the decade. “You are getting up to 20 percent better efficiency just because you have zero overlap. Everything is perfectly straight as an arrow,” he said. “I can operate it longer, too. It used to be hard to operate

after dark, but when you take steering out of the equation, you can run longer hours.” But Reed is less enthusiastic about the promised next wave in tractor technology: the fully autonomous, driverless machine. “How do you go around a mud hole? What happens when the plow breaks? Maybe it works in a laboratory setting, but I have a few reservations,” he said. He’s not alone in his concerns. Tractor autonomy has been proved viable, but even its proponents say it is not yet ready for prime time. Driverless tractors are coming, yes, but the revolution will come with caveats.

STATE OF THE ART Farmers foresee a range of practical reasons why a fully autonomous tractor would be a boon to their efforts. “We could run them longer hours, maybe even 24 hours a day. So that’s 100 percent asset utilization,” said Steve Martori III, who farms 20,000 acres in Aguila, Ariz. This would be in addition to the existing benefits of self-steering. “Our rows are perfectly straight. Our irrigation lines are perfectly straight, so the seeds line up with the irrigation lines,” he said. “If we had more accurate rows, we would CO N T I NUED








The Autonomous Tractor Corporation’s eDrive system converts older farm equipment, such as sprayers, to electric drives.

get even more productivity out of the ground.” With autonomy, farmers could run more, smaller machines instead of fewer, bigger tractors. At present, farmers use bigger tractors to cover more of the field “(An) implement in fewer passes. Because autonomous tractors can can break or get stay out in the field longer plugged. ... You without concern for driver fatigue or waning daylight, can’t just walk farmers could switch to away from it. Even smaller tractors, which may be more fuel efficient. if you have sensors The lighter machines also are gentler on the monitoring the soil, which means higher yields, and it also offers a thing, you still way to increase productivhave to have a ity without increasing headcount, said Brad human go and Lukac, product manager at rescue it.” tractor manufacturer Case IH. The company unveiled — BRUCE TIFFANY, a working prototype of a Redwood Falls, Minn., farmer fully autonomous tractor at the 2016 Farm Progress Show in Boone, Iowa, and said such a vehicle could move from the lab bench to production relatively soon, if there was a demand. “A fully autonomous tractor is

Years earlier, agricultural equipment company Kinze Manufacturing announced its creation of the Kinze Autonomy project and a row crop prototype designed to “reduce the need for skilled operators by taking the human element out of the tractor cab.” Testing in the lab and in the field ensured the equipment would detect fence posts, pipes, vehicles and even animals. “This technology could be used to do a variety of tasks, including planting, nourishing, maintaining and harvesting crops,” said Susanne Kinzenbaw Veatch, former vice president and chief marketing officer at Kinze. When it comes to add-ons for existing equipment, most John Deere machines can run without a human operator, using a combination of GPS and radio guidance. “The jobs we are executing in the field are getting more and more complex. Farmers are struggling to find labor that is capable of operating the machine and executing those tasks. As highly skilled farm labor gets harder to come by, there is a need for more automation,” said Deanna Kovar, John Deere’s director of production and precision ag marketing. Additionally, in September 2017, the company bought Blue River Technology, a developer of crop-spraying equipment that relies on machine learning. Similarly, the Autonomous Tractor Corporation (ATC) is working to develop technology designed specifically to work with its eDrive system, which converts older farm equipment, such as self-propelled sprayers, to electric drives, similar to today’s hybrid cars but without the use of batteries. Despite such advances, a fully driverless tractor has yet to enter the market. A number of hurdles stand in the way.


John Deere’s AutoTrac Vision system helps steer tractors without a driver.

really dependent on when the customer is ready for it. We will be ready when the customer is ready,” he said. It’s a concept vehicle, at this point, but the company wanted consumer feedback. Nearly half of the farmers surveyed at the show said they would consider using an autonomous tractor if the technology is proved. “From an early adoption standpoint, that was a staggering response,” said Robert Zemenchik, Case IH Advanced Farming Systems’ global products manager.

Since launching their autonomy push, Kinze engineers have been trying to make the numbers line up. So far, the economics of agriculture are pushing back against full autonomy, said Phil Jennings, a service manager at Kinze. How much value could a driverless tractor add to an operation, versus how much it costs? It’s a delicate balancing act with a lot of variables. Is the farmer tilling or planting, watering or spraying pesticides? Different activities come with their own cost and benefit analyses, Jennings noted. Sometimes the math is easy: “The combine is the largest overhead expense in a harvest, and any time it’s not moving, CO N T I N U E D







Kinze Manufacturing’s autonomy project aims to make driverless tractors a reality, and give farmers more time to do other work.

it is costing you money,” he said. “So we want to keep that thing moving as much as we can.” With autonomy, Jennings added, “you can unload the combine on the go, everything can moving, and that Manufacturers say keep can significantly improve they’re looking to harvest efficiency.” Maybe so, but others ease the expense say the true economics of autonomy are more of upgrading to complex. Six years after founding autonomous tracATC, CEO Kraig Schulz tors by creating no longer believes his product is what farmers autonomy as an need because tractors add-on for existing don’t matter, or at least they don’t matter much, he machines. said, adding that making a tractor go in a straight line is good but not great. All the important action goes on behind it: the watering, seeding and tilling machines that do the real work, and even with a smart tractor hoeing dead-on rows, “that implement is just like a drunken sailor rattling along

behind you, taking the path of least resistance,” Schulz said. A smart tractor might be rigged with sensors to avoid mud holes. It might even be able to drive around healthy crops, rather than through them. But if it’s dragging “dumb” implements, such as seeders or sprayers, all that productivity is in peril. “Let’s say you are planting and just one seed chute gets plugged. Now you are driving around the field for the next four hours missing one row. You’re going to be pretty upset about that when fall comes around,” Schulz said. Manufacturers say they can resolve such issues with smart, autonomous implements. John Deere, for example, recently unveiled a combine equipped with the intelligence to adjust its operations based on changing field conditions. “Today, the farmer is the sensor in a lot of cases,” Kovar said. “We’ve got to build in that ‘farmer intuition.’ ”

INCHING TOWARD AUTONOMY Even with the implements getting smarter, tractor makers say they still

need to work out some of the kinks around autonomy. “There is technical work that has to be done,” Lukac said. “For example, there is the local telecommunications network that is needed on the farm (to enable sensor data). There needs to be industry support to sell and service that, and that industry is still growing.” Assuming that such hurdles can be overcome, farmers still face potential sticker shock. Manufacturers say they’re looking to ease the expense of upgrading to autonomous tractors by creating autonomy as an add-on for existing machines, like ATC’s auto-drive system with GPS and radio guidance. Kinze is taking a similar approach, looking to leverage the existing base of GPS-enabled technologies already installed in most modern tractors as a jumping-off point for future autonomy. This would make the technology more affordable, while also ensuring an autonomous tractor could still be used in tasks where a driver is needed. “We want to use what we have available to us and not have to start completely over,” Jennings said. “We look at it as an add-on to an existing unit, so that you still have dual use of that machine.” In addition to driverless capabilities, various manufacturers are already delivering a range of value-adds, including onboard video cameras, preprogrammable operations and automatic gear shifting for fuel efficiency, some of which can potentially be delivered as upgrades to existing tractors. John Deere has pursued a similar course, developing a range of add-ons that, while not offering full tractor autonomy, do help automate the farming process. The Machine Sync software system allows a tractor to “communicate” with combines and other systems for enhanced efficiency and accuracy. The AutoTrac Vision guidance system uses a front-mounted camera to help steer a tractor safely through growing plants without the need for a human operator. Even if the technical kinks of autonomy can be ironed out and the numbers adequately crunched, that still leaves one big hurdle unresolved. In a nutshell, folks don’t trust autonomy — at least not yet. “It’s easy to get caught up in the gee-whiz gadgetry,” said Bruce Tiffany, a farmer in Redwood Falls, Minn. “Say you are pulling something as basic as tillage equipment. That implement can break or get plugged with plant material. You can’t just walk away from it. Even if you have sensors monitoring the thing, you still have to have a human go and rescue it.”






Eyes in the Sky

North Dakota’s rural landscape leading the way in an emerging field — drone experts


By Trevor Hughes



are turning out an unusual crop: drones. One of the nation’s most rural states, North Dakota has quickly become one of the leading regions for drone research, experimentation and testing. Space, of course, is the keyword, because the sparsely populated state (population 755,000) has plenty of room to fly. When drones crash, it’s more likely

they’ll do so in a wide-open field, rather than a populated neighborhood. These drones are far more sophisticated and expensive than the ones available at Best Buy. In some areas of the state, federal waivers allow commercial pilots to fly drones at night, often beyond their line of sight. The sensors “see” in the infrared spectrum and have far greater flight times and maneuverability. Farmers, in particular, see the drones as valuable tools to monitor the state’s more than 39 million acres of agricultural land spread across 30,000 farms. The sensors are so precise that farmers can

count exactly how many cornstalks are growing in a single acre, allowing them to save money on fertilizer and fuel, which keeps food costs low. It’s a far cry from the kinds of scenic shots that hobbyists take. “You don’t just get a pretty picture,” said Kaci Lemler, CEO of Grand Forks, N.D., agricultural drone company Field of View. “You get a pretty picture of an exact place on Earth.” Goldman Sachs estimates the worldwide drone industry could be worth $100 billion by 2020 as consumers, governments and businesses adopt and adapt.

There are seven drone test sites nationwide, and Grand Forks is home to the nation’s first commercial unmanned aircraft systems business park, Grand Sky, where Northrop Grumman opened its Grand Sky Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) Business and Aviation Park in April 2017. The park hosts companies ranging from one-pilot operations up to giants, like Northrop Grumman. “This industry is moving at the speed of technology, not bureaucracy,” said Nick Flom, director of the Northern Plains UAS CO N T I N U E D






FLY YOUR OWN Three agriculture drones to consider:

The Parrot Bluegrass is a multipurpose quadcopter that helps farmers improve their return on investment (ROI) using its two embedded cameras, video camera and multispectral sensor. The high-definition front camera provides visual monitoring of land, herd and infrastructure. Software gives a quick and easy analysis on crop health. u$5,000, parrot.com

Test Site in Grand Forks. films aerial videos for commercials. The state also benefits from military College students in the state are use of drones deployed around the world learning how to use electromagnets to but remotely controlled by National help drones “perch” on bridges so they Guard pilots and sensor operators in can save battery power and help farmers Fargo and Grand Forks. monitor crop health. The same pilots and At times, even the drone Farmers in North sensor operators who fly experts setting the pace unmanned military opthemselves shaking Dakota see drones find erations with Reapers and their heads. Global Hawks are helping “It’s weird to think we as valuable tools develop civilian applicaare the experts in this to monitor the tions to plan automated field — we are all so young flights and make batteries have so much of the state’s more than and last longer. expertise,” said Lemler, 27, But much of the who started flying drones 39 million acres technology is homegrown while at the University of of agricultural in North Dakota, from the North Dakota. companies inspecting “We want to get to a land spread across point wind turbines (faster than where a farmer 30,000 farms. sending someone to climb wakes up, pushes a button, the towers and cheaper and by the time he’s than helicopters ) to the drinking his coffee, knows surveyors who monitor power lines in the exactly what areas he needs to fertilize,” dark during floods. Among the compaFlom said. nies are SkySkopes and Midwest Drone Trevor Hughes covers the West Group, both of which perform utility inspections, and D&N Cinematics, which for USA TODAY.

Another option from Parrot is the Disco-Pro AG, a multipurpose drone that helps producers improve the ROI of their crops. This end-to-end solution allows farmers and small agriculture cooperatives to quickly get insight on the health of their crops, because of visual scouting and specialized Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) maps. u$4,499, parrot.com

The entry-level agriculture mapping drone Field Hawk Ag+ has four cameras, including an NDVI that can differentiate between healthy and unhealthy crops. The drone’s lightweight frame makes it efficient and an intelligent flight system makes it easy to fly. Upgrades include a tablet with pilot software, laptop with Aero Hawk Maps software and onsite training. u$3,795, aero-hawk.com

Parrot Bluegrass

FARMER’S FRIEND Drones provide producers with unwavering aid Agriculture drones are advanced, data-gathering tools typically used by farmers who want to fly their own imaging missions and agriculture service providers who fly drones for them. Brian Opp, manager of the North Dakota Department of Commerce Aerospace Business Development, said that unmanned aircraft systems, also called drones, can evaluate pesticide spraying, track livestock and provide yield estimations and crop harvesting. It can also alert producers to insect threats or depleting water and nutrient level problems before they become detrimental to crop growth. “Unmanned aircraft systems reduce the time and manpower needed to perform essential agricultural-related tasks,” Opp noted. “Interest and excitement continues to grow around the potential uses for unmanned aerial systems in agriculture.” But professionals only, please. The Federal Aviation Administration considers all agricultural drone activity as commercial use, which means operators must have a Remote Pilot Certificate to fly. To learn more, visit faa.gov/uas. — Sara Schwartz



A drone takes flight at North Dakota State University’s Carrington Research Extension Center. The flight crew included a pilot, a sensor operator and a visual observer.




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From Battlefield to Farm Field



Veterans find solace, substance in agricultural jobs

Terrell Spencer CARLA SPENCER

said Terrell Spencer, sounding slightly out of breath, as he answers the phone while pounding in fence posts at his farm in northern Arkansas. “Let me just get this last one in.” Several moments of loud clanking pass as he drives one more into the stony earth of the Ozarks. Satisfied, he sits down to tell me his story. The tale began with his visit to a U.S. Army recruitment office just after 9/11, and it ended with the post he just pounded in at Across the Creek Farm. In between were some difficult times. Spencer was deployed to Iraq in 2004 as a machine gunner with the Army’s 392nd Chemical Company. He returned home to Arkansas in 2005 with a fractured neck and post-traumatic stress disorder. Recovery proved to be a long journey. Healing, when it finally arrived, came in the form of a flock of chickens and 34 acres of rocky, overgrown land. “There is something really therapeutic about clearing land and taking care of animals,” Spencer said. “It was powerful to go from such a destructive place to something restorative.” He and his wife, Carla, have three children and run Across the Creek Farm as a successful family affair. They lease 20 acres and also run a U.S. Department of Agriculture-inspected processing facility for poultry. The agricultural enterprise has made Spencer a pillar of his community. Now in his 10th season as a farmer, Spencer has several employees, raises nearly 13,000 birds a year and has developed a large client base of chefs and shoppers who value his humane, allnatural approach to livestock husbandry. He also keeps busy mentoring other veterans along their healing path, using a combination of peer-to-peer support and the grueling, yet rewarding, work of running a farm. Spencer has hosted more than 100 veterans at Across the Creek, some who stay for months at a time in informal or paid internships, and some who have even gone on to run their own farms. Spencer also helped to create Armed to Farm (ncat.org/armedtofarm), a weeklong boot camp that teaches farmers and ranchers about sustainable and organic agriculture, how to get started in farming and how to qualify for government programs. “It was something that would have really helped me out,” Spencer said.






EDUCATION & CAREERS Terrell Spencer moves a broiler pen to ensure his chickens get fresh pasture daily and eliminating the need for antibiotics.


“There is something really therapeutic about clearing land and taking care of animals. It was powerful to go from such a destructive place to something restorative.” — TERRELL SPENCER, farmer

The Spencer family

He developed the program through the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT), a nonprofit that promotes sustainable living. While he is no longer involved in the day-to-day operations, having left the program in the care of NCAT to pursue his farm full time, Spencer continues to work closely with Armed to Farm’s trainees, often hosting workshops at Across the Creek Farm. “I’ve had a lot of guys end up here after coming back from Afghanistan who were on their last legs,” Spencer said. “Farming

helped keep me from going over the edge into a really dark place, so it’s been good to pay it back with other vets — it’s like one brother helping another to not fall over the cliff.” Working the land may have a restorative effect on wounded souls, but it comes with an equally important practical benefit: workforce training. The combination of the two — and the fact that veterans come from rural areas at a CO N T I N U E D





EDUCATION & CAREERS within the USDA, which offers lowinterest loans to veterans interested in agriculture. Given the steep costs associated with getting started in agriculture — figures ranging from $2 million to $5 million are often cited — support from government agencies and nongovernment organizations is crucial. O’Gorman said a high percentage of aspiring veteran farmers start small organic farms, in part because the high-value market for organic and sustainable products makes it easier for new farmers to get established. Conventional farms generally need to be quite large to be profitable, because profit margins are so low — you need a lot of land and big, expensive equipment. Organic agriculture generally has a much higher return per acre, so it’s conceivable to make a decent living with 10 or 20 acres and a basic tractor. “Organic is a way to differentiate yourself in the marketplace,” O’Gorman said. “But military people are extremely Tony Weber health conscious, so that’s a part of it, too.” PROVIDED BY TONY WEBER FVC offers financial assistance and technical advice to veterans seeking to far higher rate than the general populaestablish farms, as well as conferences, tion — has made agriculture a top career workshops and job and apprenticeship choice among those returning to civilian placement. The organization also life. administers the Homegrown By Heroes When Spencer started farming in (HBH) certification program, which 2008, he was at the forefront of what is allows farmers, ranchers and fishermen now a national trend. That same year, who have served in the military to use a Michael O’Gorman left a 40-year career special emblem on agricultural products in agriculture and they sell as a way to founded the Farmer boost awareness of the Veteran Coalition contributions veterans “We fought for the (FVC), which now are making to the has more than 10,000 nation’s food supply. country and now members. Today, the program we get to feed the “When we started surpassed 1,200 certiout, there were thoufied producers. In total, country — so we’re sands of groups in the Homegrown by Heroescountry organized to certified farms boast still serving.” help vets, but zero that between $50 million and — TONY WEBER, farmer were connecting vets $60 million in annual to ag; nor was there a sales. If the HBH label single group focused is any indication, the on veterans from rural communities,” farmer veteran movement appears to be O’Gorman said. growing exponentially. Fortunately, that is no longer the case. Tony Weber, an HBH-certified farmer Among the many organizations that have who raises chickens, turkeys and hogs recently emerged to support veterans at Weber Ranch in Wayne, Ohio, says transitioning to agriculture (see sidebar) the label helps to attract the attention is the USDA, which gives special considof customers, but he believes it is also eration to vets in its lending programs helping to change the perception of and has established a special position veterans at large. — the military veterans agricultural “(HBH) has helped veterans be recogliaison — charged with coordinating the nized as a reliable part of the economy,” agency’s veteran-oriented initiatives. he said. “We fought for the country and To help facilitate operations, the 2014 now we get to feed the country — so Farm Bill established the liaison position we’re still serving. I get a lot out of that.”

FIND YOUR FIELD Resources to help vets start an agriculture career In 2007, after 40 years as a successful organic farmer in California, Michael O’Gorman learned that a disproportionate number of veterans are from and return to rural areas. This struck him extra close to home because his son, Gregory, was serving in Kuwait at the time. He wanted to help returning veterans, but didn’t find a sole organization dedicated to helping vets enter a career in agriculture. He reached out to his fellow California farmer friends to see what could be done. In 2008, the Farmer Veteran Coalition was created with O’Gorman at its helm. Since then, the group has given $1.5 million in grants to veterans and boasts big-name support — including Newman’s Own Foundation, Farm Credit Council, Prudential Financial and Kubota Tractor Corporation. “I wanted to do something to help new farmers, and I thought who better to help than men and women coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan,” said O’Gorman, noting that numerous other groups with a similar mission have since sprung up. “Now the idea has caught fire.” Thinking about farming as your next move? Here are 10 resources:

Farmer Veteran Coalition Provides technical and financial assistance to aspiring veteran farmers and administers the Homegrown By Heroes label program. farmvetco.org

Delaware Valley University A “Yellow Ribbon” school in Doylestown, Pa., that offers an organic farming certificate program geared toward returning veterans. delval.edu

U.S. Department of Agriculture Offers a range of veteran-centric programs, from financial assistance to employment opportunities at USDA agencies. usda.gov/veterans

Vets to Ag Program A Michigan State University program that trains homeless veterans to work in agriculture. msustatewide.msu.edu

Veteran Farmers of America Connects veterans with agricultural training opportunities in California, providing two-week paid internships at select farms. vetfarm.org Veterans in Agriculture An information resource for veterans in Iowa that offers career development resources and a database for consumers to find veteran-grown products. veteransinagriculture.org Veterans to Farmers A program affiliated with Colorado State University that offers training in organic production, with a special emphasis in hydroponics. veteranstofarmers.org

Santa Cruz Veterans Alliance A California group that employs veterans to grow medical-grade marijuana, which they provide free to other veterans. scveteransalliance.com Veteran Farmer Program An initiative of the Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food and Agriculture (based in Alexandria, Va.) that assists aspiring veteran farmers with training and land access. arcadiafood.org F.A.R.M. (Farmers Assisting Returning Military) A Dallas-based group that offers a variety of training programs, with a particular emphasis on urban agriculture. farmvet.org — Brian Barth





EDUCATION & CAREERS By Kristen A. Schmitt

Planting Seeds


Sustainable agriculture programs produce global problem-solvers Clemson University student Meredith McSwain plants pansies to attract pollinator species.


N A FEBRUARY AFTERNOON, students at Wash-

ington State University’s (WSU) 30-acre Eggert Family Organic Farm stand under the billowing roof of a hoop house busily filling trays with rich brown soil. Soon, organic vegetables will be watered, cared for and harvested to donate to food banks and nonprofits in the area. The college-based farm is one of about 60 nationwide that teach students how to apply classroom knowledge in real time — an opportunity to grow crops, understand the impact of food and learn how to market and sell produce. These methods are a boon for those interested in improving sustainable-farming practices, or “agroecology,” the practice of designing and implementing long-term solutions to feeding the world with limited resources while addressing environmental concerns such as climate change, greenhouse gas emissions and soil erosion. Interest in the field is booming. Dr. Sonny Ramaswamy, director of the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), said that this focus on problem-solving is propelling more students into the sustainable agriculture field. “These students come in and say that they want to solve the problems of society,” Ramaswamy said. “We’ve got diminishing land and water resources and increasing population. ... What do we do about it?” A 2015 report compiled by the USDA’s NIFA and Purdue University predicts an annual average of 35,400 new U.S. graduates with a bachelor’s degree or higher in agriculture-related fields and jobs within this sector to grow by 5 percent through 2020. Colleges have responded to the demand by offering more agriculture programs. According to the USDA, in 1988, there was only one degree program in sustainable agriculture; now there are more than 250, with dozens more springing up every year. Ramaswamy added that colleges began offering degrees in sustainable agriculture in the 1990s when institutions that include Michigan State University, the University of Wisconsin, Cornell University and others started creating certificate and other transdisciplinary educational programs for students who were deeply interested in sustainability. Indeed, the number of farmers with degrees has increased. Fifty-four percent CO N T I N U E D







Conor McCabe was the first Cornell University student to become president of the American Dairy Science Association’s Student Affiliate Division. He’s assessed multiple dairy farms to give managers solutions for better production.

of U.S. farmers have completed at least some college-level classes and, of those, 28 percent are college graduates, according to the 2016 Agricultural Resource Management survey, which is conducted by the USDA’s Economic Research Service and National Agriculture Statistics Service.

THE BIG PICTURE At WSU, “We not only teach students majoring in Organic Agriculture Systems (OAS) the principles and practices of growing food sustainably, but also the science behind farm management, soil conservation and fertility, plant nutrition, and pest, weed and disease management, including integrated pest management,” said John Reganold, director of WSU’s OAS program and regents professor of soil science and agroecology. WSU was one of the first schools to focus on organic research and currently offers 14 agriculture-based degrees. Students majoring in this degree field typically study organic farming, sustainable food systems, agroecology, plant science, nutrition and animal health. These courses teach students the nuances behind where food comes from and how to ensure that bountiful harvests continue for future generations. “Today’s students are more idealistic and want to change the world for the better,” said Marvin Pritts, a professor


University of Wyoming student Bobby Dorvall helps to install an irrigation pipe for hay and barley fields.

of plant science at Cornell University. For McCabe, class work also “What better way to positively impact means field work. He has assessed the world than to address issues of food multiple dairy farms for class projects security, water availability, environmenand prepared case studies to evaluate tal pollution and energy consumption? the sustainability, economics and overall Agriculture plays a significant role in performance of the individual farms, each of these, consuming huge amounts and then presented the information of energy, water and land resources while to the operation managers to improve generating off-site pollution from runoff.” production. McCabe has learned that Conor McCabe, a senior solutions for dairy farms majoring in animal scimust include three angles: “We have to ence at Cornell, is focusbusiness perspective, milk ing on nutrition, with a production and practical preserve the concentration in dairy application. cattle. “We have to think “I may have a great idea land to keep it that food isn’t just about of how the farm can be protected and calories. It’s more about improved from an outside the nutrients associated but if it doesn’t healthy enough to setting, with it,” he said. “We need meet those three criteria to innovate and improve or the goals of the farmer, continue to feed efficiencies throughout the likelihood it will be the world.” the system. If we don’t do adopted is very low,” said that, then we’re set up to — BOBBY DORVALL, McCabe, who hopes to basically fail.” agribusiness student continue the work after McCabe’s coursework graduation. “Most of the includes time in Cornell’s time, they implement state-of-the-art Teaching Dairy Barn, the changes we suggest. These research which currently houses 94 cows and projects allow us to look at further soluincludes a milking center, special tions and opportunities to implement on procedures area (where students can farms to keep milk yield going up while assist with sick cows), a classroom and reducing the size of the dairy herd.” an observation area. It is designed to be Antonio DiTommaso, professor of representative of a typical dairy farm soil and crop sciences at Cornell, touts in New York — the third-largest milk approaching issues from different angles. producing state in the U.S. “All of our courses focus on exposing our

students to science-driven knowledge in these fields of study complemented by hands-on laboratory or field components,” he said. “We make a strong effort to emphasize and expose our students to the interdisciplinary nature of agriculture and the need to be well trained and versed in multiple topic areas.”

HOMEGROWN HOMEWORK “I saw an ad for the Clemson University Student Organic Farm at the end of my sophomore year and decided to try it,” said Meredith McSwain, a senior at the South Carolina University. McSwain switched to agriculture during her junior year, swapping an engineering major for plant and environmental science with a concentration in agricultural biotechnology, which allowed her to use her problem-solving skills to improve food production. “I really fell in love, and the farm ended up being the only thing I looked forward to all week.” Clemson’s 6-acre student farm, which was certified organic in 2005, raises seasonal fruit and vegetables for a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program where faculty, staff, students and local community members can pay a fee at the start of each growing season in exchange for weekly produce boxes. Students work the land, either as part CO N T I N U E D






SUSTAINABLE STUDIES Many universities around the country offer master’s or doctorate degrees in sustainable agriculture or related fields. These eight are part of a comprehensive list of academic degree programs compiled by the Sustainable Agriculture Education Association. To view the full list, visit sustainableaged.org.


Purdue University students tend to the campus farm, which grows vegetables, herbs, and cut flowers. Students apply sustainable methods they learn in class to gardening.

of a course or as volunteers, and tackle seeding, transplanting, weeding, picking, bundling, selling and marketing. The farm also serves as an experimental research facility, and McSwain is currently assisting in lentil and pea-breeding programs to improve nutrient quality. “I really loved problem-solving — hands-on and in real time,” said McSwain, who has used her engineering prowess to help craft a thermal heating system for the university’s hoop houses. “I felt like that’s what I was doing on the farm.” Marly Beck agreed, acknowledging that working on Purdue University’s student farm, first as part of the Small Farms Experience course and, later, as a member of the Purdue Student Farm Organization, has been a highlight of her undergraduate career. Her studies have included a variety of classes that mix theoretical with hands-on, planting ideas and testing them both in the classroom and between the vegetable rows. “We have a farm manager, but other than that, we make a lot of determinations and choices,” said Beck, who chose Purdue because of its ability to show both sides of agricultural production: small and sustainable versus commercial. Beck spends time tending tomatoes — the farm’s largest crop — and working in the carrot beds where student workers have assisted with research projects based on carrot production. “It’s really student-centered and we’re successful,” she said, adding that produce is sold through a farm share program (similar to a traditional CSA) and to Purdue’s dining halls and caterers as well as several small local grocers. “(The farm is) a great opportunity to make mistakes and make decisions in real life.”

CREATING A PATH FORWARD With sustainable agriculture continuing to be a global focus, students within these degree programs are combining practical field work with other concentrations. Kathryn Doonan, a sophomore at WSU, is a 13th-generation farmer with a double major in OAS and pre-med. She looks at her studies as a way to prepare her to help her family’s farm prosper and become a medical practitioner who can view health and disease through the same lens. “It’s a really different pairing, but I believe we need health of the whole system and more preventative medicine,” she said. Bobby Dorvall, a fourth-generation farmer from Montana and a senior majoring in agribusiness and agroecology at the University of Wyoming, believes that agricultural studies complement a lot of majors. “Livestock and crops go hand in hand,” Dorvall said. “You can’t have one without the other, and my family raises both.” Dorvall sees both sides of the agricultural industry through her studies, as well as her continued involvement with her family farm. “Producers face a lot of issues,” Dorvall noted. “While agriculture is progressing a lot, some of that progression gets limited by some of the regulations. We’re stuck between a rock and a hard place, trying to discover a way to feed more people on even less land. We have to preserve the land to keep it protected and healthy enough to continue to feed the world.” For Dorvall, this means approaching sustainable agriculture from a business perspective: “We need to get everyone on the same page so that we can advance even more.”

Chatham University (Pennsylvania) This university was the first to offer a Master of Arts in food studies (MAFS) and now offers a dual degree: MAFS and Master of Business Administration. This program combines sustainable business strategy classes with food production courses and aims to prepare graduates for leadership and entrepreneurship roles. falk.chatham.edu Green Mountain College (Vermont) The online Master of Science in sustainable food systems degree includes coursework that utilizes leaders within the food industry, and students must complete a capstone project that applies directly to their communities to graduate. greenmtn.edu/academics/ graduate/msfs Iowa State University Iowa State University is the first in the U.S. to offer both a Master of Science and doctorate degree in sustainable agriculture. The program merges several areas of study, including agronomy, food science, nutrition, mechanical engineering and plant pathology to create in-depth study. susag.iastate.edu Kansas State University Urban food systems are an important part of sustainable agriculture, and Kansas State University’s Master of Science in horticulture includes youth outreach, project management and grant writing for solid foundational skills within the urban food arena. hnr.k-state.edu/graduate/ degrees Tufts University (Massachusetts) The Master of Science or doctor-

ate degree in agriculture, food and the environment combines nutrition, agricultural science, environmental studies and public policy analysis into coursework that examines the many layers of food production and distribution. nutrition.tufts.edu/academics/ degree-programs University of California Santa Cruz Within the environmental studies department, students can work toward a doctorate degree in agroecology and sustainable agriculture. Students complete lab and field-based research work and typically focus on agroecology, entomology, soil nutrient dynamics and international agricultural systems. casfs.ucsc.edu University of Montana The university offers several focus areas that fall under environmental studies, one of which is sustainable food and farming. This degree mixes classroom learning with hands-on experience as students are expected to grow food for low-income people on the college farm and participate in community-based action research. hs.umt.edu/evst University of Wisconsin-Madison The Master of Science degree is offered for two tracks: research and public practice. The research track is geared toward those interested in pursuing scholarship via academia, while the public practice track is for those who plan to work within the public and private agricultural sectors in outreach, education and project management. agroecology.wisc.edu — Kristen A. Schmitt






No More Tears

Researchers create milder onions that won’t make you cry By Sara Schwartz

Washington and Nevada and sold in 20 states, including Texas, California and New York. Lyndon Johnson, senior crop F YOU’VE EVER WONDERED how sales manager for Bayer Vegetable Seed to avoid tearing up while chopping said the company has signed a three-year onions, you’re not alone. “How can I reduce tearing when cutting an agreement with its current partners that onion?” is one of the most commonly will extend into the 2020 season. (Farmasked questions posed to the National ers interested in growing Sunions can visit iheartsunions.com for more information.) Onion Association. (How to alleviate “We are assessing “onion breath” is also on the current potential of the list, too, for interSunions in the U.S. If, ested parties.) T TRY TO RY SUN NIONSS, after this time, we see a When cut, onions reVISIT IH HEA ART RTSUNI NION ONS. S CO C M need for more acres than lease syn-Propanethial TO O FIND D A RE RETA T ILER our current partners are -S-oxide, a nearly unNEAR R YOU. pronounceable chemical able to grow, then we will expand,” Johnson said. irritant that causes our To ensure Sunions are eyes to water. Researchtearless and sweet when they hit grocery ers were looking to create a milder onion, one that wasn’t as tear-inducing, and stores, the variety goes through rigorous testing. The current crop will be available debuted Sunions late last year, touted as through April and then you’ll see them “America’s first tearless and sweet onion.” again in the fall. Sunions stay fresh up to The name is reflective of the long-day onion varieties, which grow through the late spring and summer months, and receive the most sunlight. Sunions, (rhymes with Funyuns, the puffy processed onion-flavored snack), were created by Bayer Crop Science, a division of parent company Bayer, that focuses on creating innovative agricultural solutions. For more than three decades, teams there used good old-fashioned crossbreeding to produce a less-pungent onion variety that is sweet and mild. And the longer you keep Sunions, the sweeter and milder they’ll become; they were bred so that volatile compounds decrease over time — the opposite of what happens with most onions. Kim Reddin, director of public and industry relations at the National Onion Association, noted that the increasing mild taste was “unique” — and newsworthy. “The industry has been looking for something like this for quite some time.” Sunions are grown by three growers in


six weeks if stored properly in a cold, dark place. For Reddin, the tearless factor wasn’t a selling point: “I like the idea of chopping onions and crying,” she said, laughing. “It’s sort of therapeutic. There is no other vegetable that makes me cry — and they’re happy tears.”

In January, Bayer introduced 2.4 million pounds of Sunions. In five years, the company hopes to expand production to 200 million pounds. SOURCE Bayer