June 1, 2015
Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of blog posts highlighting Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) projects that support the next generation of farmers. Check out our first blog here, which features two innovative women farmers who used SARE to increase profitability on their farms.
The SARE program is a farmer driven research, education and extension grants program designed to help advance sustainable agriculture across the country. Over the past 25 years, SARE has been on the cutting edge, supporting on-farm research that has allowed farmers of all kinds to experiment and innovate on their farms in order to solve pressing challenges facing their farm businesses.
Beginning farmers face unique challenges when entering into sustainable agriculture production. While they can get the advice of local mentors and rely on tried and true methods and crop varieties, most beginning farmers do not have the financial resources to experiment with on-farm research projects that may improve methods or diversify their operation.
The SARE success stories below feature beginning farmers working to address common challenges faced by organic farms by researching innovative strategies on their farms. Through their SARE grants, these new farmers have established collaborative local and regional partnerships, and share what they have learned with other farmers in their area. This is an important and often overlooked function of SARE producer grants.
Experimenting with Hoop House Fig Production
Bill and Lauren Errickson own and operate Singing Nettle Farm, an off-grid, fully horse-powered, certified organic farm near the Central Coast of Maine. Singing Nettle provides vegetables, fruits, herbs, and flowers to about 40 families in its county through a summer CSA, and also sells produce to the local co-op’s two restaurants. The Erricksons additionally offer permaculture and sustainable landscape design and consultation services to homeowners, schools, and nonprofit organizations in the region.
As beginning farmers with academic backgrounds in natural resources and ecology, the Erricksons found SARE grants to be a way to productively engage with on-farm experimentation and innovation to find the right mix of crops and the most effective production systems that will ultimately increase their bottom line. The farm has received two Northeast SARE grants — the first SARE grant focused on improving the composition of their pasture and hay fields, and their current grant is testing the viability of growing fig trees in hoophouses in their northern growing region.
“With SARE, one of the big advantages we have seen is that the program lets us take the research risks or steps that we may not otherwise take. Managing a farm as a business, it is important to consider each piece of land as valuable real estate — we need each given field or hoophouse to produce a certain amount to keep the whole operation viable. SARE funding has let us use some parts of our farm for research, making it possible to explore innovation, without worrying about having to meet a bottom line with regard to production and costs.” –Lauren Errickson, Singing Nettle Farm
The Erricksons first SARE grant focused on pasture improvement, in order to increase soil health and fertility, foster pollinator habitat needed for their vegetable crops, and boost overall forage quality — all critical components for their diversified farming operation. The Erricksons presented their findings to a diverse range of regional farmers and found much interest in replicating their research from both conventional and organic dairy and livestock operations.
Their current project testing hearty fig varieties is a way to address the demand for local fruit in the Northeast and provide other local farmers with research on alternative methods of growing fruit in the region, given the short growing season of central Maine.
“Funding for these projects is what communities want to see. In the Northeast, small farms are valuable to communities; people want to see farmers succeed and they want them to provide diverse products in their community… Innovation comes to agriculture precisely through opportunities such as those SARE grant funding has afforded to us at Singing Nettle Farm.” –Lauren Errickson
Managing Weeds Organically with Cover Crops
Jennifer Taylor is another beginning farmer success story from a very different growing climate with a whole host of very different challenges. Taylor is continuing the vision of her grandmother on Lola’s Organic Farm, a 32.5 acre family farm in Glenwood, Georgia. The certified organic farm is named for Taylor’s grandmother, Lola, who is remembered for her care for community and the land. She was well known as a fantastic small farmer who raised vegetables, fruit, and animals, and was known to freely give food to families in need or to travelers passing through.
Taylor came back to the family land with the intent to continue this legacy and commitment to the land and surrounding community in a region where Lola’s was the first (and only) organic farm in their county. She and her husband knew they wanted to have an organic farm and grow organic food. To do this, they knew they would need help to re-establish an economically and environmentally sustainable business on land that had been neglected for years, and wanted to share the learning process with others.
“We looked at the SARE grant because we thought it might be a good opportunity for us as small, beginning, minority farmers. We were looking to find a place in the organic market and we wanted to learn what would be most beneficial for us and the farm. We decided on weed management, which is a common problem for organic farmers and farmers interested in growing food using sustainable agriculture strategies. We have had really bad, invasive, and as I like to call them, ‘courageous’ weeds.” –Jennifer Taylor, Lola’s Organic Farm
The Southern SARE network advised Taylor to apply as a collaboration of partners, including NSAC member organizations Georgia Organics and the Virginia Association for Biological Farming. The SARE project they devised for Lola’s tests two on-farm strategies on two separate plots of land. One method tests controlling weeds using biological processes and intensive cover crop management. The other method tests a non-intensive multiple tillage system, conserving soil health while disrupting weed root systems.
“We are looking at the impact of these systems on soil and the vegetable production that follows. This project is important because organic farmers are looking for alternatives to chemicals for weed management, and because the benefits of cover crops are relevant to all agricultural systems. Conventional and organic farmers can benefit from this lesson in intensive cover crop management.” –Jennifer Taylor
Since the SARE grant and involvement with other NRCS programs, Lola’s Organic Farm has hosted workshops to teach the local agricultural community about sustainable agriculture practices, with topics ranging from pruning to high tunnel construction to producer grant programs. These workshops have brought in a variety of folks in the agriculture industry in Georgia, including farmers, extension, and NRCS employees. The next organic farm SARE field day is planned for June 11, 2015.
“Without the SARE grant we would not have been doing this kind of collaboration with our partners, or learning from the findings of our on-farm SARE research– and discovering the organic benefits. Thank you. We appreciate the research and intend to use the results of the two year study as a model for weed suppression and soil management on the whole farm… SARE collaboration grants help build sustainable farm communities.” –Jennifer Taylor
SARE’s Impact in Supporting New Farmers
Over the past 25 years, the research funded through the SARE program has helped the thousands of other beginning farmers like the Erricksons and the Taylors design profitable, productive, and sustainable farming systems. New farmers face very significant challenges in building their farming operations, including access to suitable farmland and capital to finance up-front start-up costs. Figuring out which crops to grow that will do best in their soils and growing regions, and what management systems to use that will increase their farm profitability and sustainability are production challenges that every farmer faces.
SARE research takes advantage of farmer innovation by allowing new farmers to experiment on their farms with practical, hands-on research, and design production and management systems that are tailored specifically to their farms. There is no translation of research that is needed from university lab or controlled test plot.
Farmers thus help steer and inform SARE research and as such, this program will remain one of the most invaluable programs needed to grow the next generation of farmers. To date, however, it remains sorely underfunded, at just a third of the goal Congress set for program funding several decades ago. To grow a new generation of sustainable farmers and revitalized communities, that is something that must change.
For more information about the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program and its regional councils, check out NSAC’s Grassroots Guide to Federal Farm and Food Programs.