Tilth conference looks to boost different voices in ag

The Tilth Alliance wants to help more voices be heard in agriculture.

The Tilth Conference is Nov. 9-11 at the Davenport Grand Hotel in Spokane.

California grain farmer Mai Nguyen will deliver the keynote address.

The conference committee wanted to bring out the farmer perspective, but make space for new voices to share their experiences, said Erin Murphy, education coordinator for the Alliance.

“People wanted a farmer,” Murphy said. “Folks are really interested in having a keynote speaker that tells a different story. Mai is an activist for racial equity, a female and a person of color.”

Audra Mulkern, executive producer and host of the in-development documentary, “Women’s Work: the untold story of America’s female farmers” and founder of the documentary project, “The Female Farmer Project,” will deliver the capnote address.

“She’s local, she’s from Washington state,” Murphy said. “It’s a really cool way to have someone that’s super-involved in agriculture and very well-known nationally. Just the work she’s doing is really awesome.”

The conference includes sessions for various aspects of farming: production, marketing, finances, regulations and certifications and increasing diversity in farming.

“We’re really trying to make space to have that storytelling and have folks say, ‘Hey, we’re all farmers,’ but no two farmers’ experience is exactly the same,” Murphy said. “So really having those opportunities to converse and for people to network and learn from one another.”

Many farmers are considering seeds as a way to diversify their farms and markets, she said. The conference offers several topics about seed production.

A session on farming and mental health has also generated some excitement, Murphy said.

“Mental health is so important … when you’re farming and so focused on getting things done, your overwhelming to-do list, it’s just really important to remember to practice self-care both physically and mentally,” she said.

The alliance’s new executive director, Melissa Spear, will be at the conference. She officially begins in her new position at the end of November.

Murphy expects 350 people to attend.

The conference includes a tour Friday of the LINC Foods cooperative in Spokane, including several member farms.

Murphy hopes farmers leave the conference with a sense of “togetherness,” pointing to the vast diversity of crops Washington offers.

“Not to be super-kumbaya-y, but a little bit of (recognition) that there are people across Washington state that they can relate to,” she said. “Farming can be isolating at times, especially if you have your head down and are focused on your farm. One of the strengths of Tilth Conference is it really does bring together a statewide audience.”


Good records are a key to successful farming

TWIN FALLS, Idaho — Keeping accurate and timely financial records is a key characteristic of successful farms, and using a cash flow spreadsheet is a helpful tool in farm financial management, according to speakers at this year’s Women in Agriculture conference sponsored by Washington State University Extension.

The conference took place Saturday in 35 locations across the Northwest and Alaska, combining simultaneous broadcasts and onsite sessions to pump up the financial success of women in agriculture.

“Farm financial management really doesn’t mean anything without keeping records,” Robin Reid, an extension farm economist with Kansas State University, said.

Some people just throw receipts in a shoebox to take to an accountant to file their taxes. Instead, they need to develop a habit of keeping up to date, she said.

That means routine record keeping, reconciling records with bank statements, having appropriate accounts for the farm business and personal activities and having sufficient details to understand and analyze their business.

“Record keeping takes time and effort. Once a year won’t get it done effectively,” she said.

While a balance sheet shows net worth and an income statement shows profitability, a cash flow spreadsheet evaluates feasibility. It’s the recording of actual dollars coming in and going out of the business, and it can be used to project inflows and outflows on a monthly basis, she said.

The importance is in being prepared for what’s coming throughout the year, and the projections are valuable in managing the business, she said.

“Cash flow gives you a picture of your yearly budgeted expenses and income. It evaluates feasibility and indicates if, when and how much you will need to borrow,” she said.

Having cash flow projections can help producers adapt as changes occur during the year. Farm managers can also use it to compare actual expenses and income with projections and monitor discrepancies, she said.

Good farm records are critical to build cash flow projections. For someone who has never done it, a good place to start is with the line items on the Internal Revenue Service’s Schedule F form. But it is important to add in family living expenses, she said.

A lot of times, struggling farms are just spending too much on family living expenses, she said.

LaVell Winsor, extension farm analyst at Kansas State University, agreed, saying living expenses often catch farm families off guard.

“This is a place we see folks getting into trouble with cash flow,” she said.

She recommends making a family budget and sticking to it.

Cash flow is a working document that can be used to anticipate shortages, and family living is one place to decrease expenses, she said.

Other ways to cover a shortfall could be savings, borrowing from another business the farm owns, microloans through the Farm Service Agency or a bank or selling unused or underutilized assets, she said.

Another method is using a credit card, although it’s not preferred and often comes with a high interest rate, she said.

In addition to keeping good records, she recommends meeting with an accountant regularly and keeping key people such as lenders in the loop for overall financial health.

UI classes focus on financial management

University of Idaho Extension is offering a six-week course in farm and ranch management in Burley and Jerome beginning in January.

The course will focus on financial statements, financial analysis, enterprise budgets, strategic goals, mission statements and six factors affecting profitability.

The classes will be held from 1 to 4 p.m. on Wednesdays beginning Jan. 9 in Burley and Thursdays beginning Jan. 10 in Jerome.

Cost is $100 per farm or ranch. Registration is required by Dec. 21. To register, contact the Cassia County Extension office at (208) 878-9461.

Urban farmers make it work in residential neighborhood

LONGVIEW, Wash. — For more than 25 years, Scott and Dixie Edwards have farmed where you don’t expect a farm.

They have 7 acres two blocks outside Longview in a residential neighborhood at the foot of a big hill named Mount Solo. There’s a church up the street, and Wal-Mart and McDonald’s are close.

In this case, the farm benefits by being near people. Scott Edwards, 64, and Dixie Edwards, 66, are tapping into the desire that some consumers have to buy local and eyeball their farmer and the farm.

Beginning after the Fourth of July and continuing into mid-fall, the Edwardses deliver boxes of fruits and vegetables to customers each week. In the box is a letter written by Dixie Edwards with cooking tips. “If you have never roasted zucchini, it is worth a try,” she advised in July.

Other customers come to the farm to pick up produce. They are young and old and in between. A requirement appears to be willing to try different vegetables.

“We do a little bit of everything,” Scott Edwards said. “You have to be into eating healthy.”

They started the farm and a native-plant nursery in 1993. The nursery brings in more money, always has. The couple reports, however, that after a quarter of a century, the food thing is catching on.

“Farming was always more of a lifestyle than a business, and now it’s becoming more of a business,” he said. “It’s finally becoming profitable.”

For years, they sold produce and plants at weekend farmers’ markets in Longview and Astoria, Ore. Loading and unloading goods was physically hard, and working the markets left no time to rest from the week’s labors. “It was a killer,” Scott Edwards said.

Five years ago, they started selling food to members of an Episcopal church who signed up to receive weekly boxes of fruits and vegetables. After two years of that, they looked to expand into community supported agriculture.

The business didn’t grow; it exploded. Organizations in the private and public sectors got interested. More than 50 employees at the local community college signed up for shares.

“It was too much,” Scott Edwards said. “Everything was good. It was just stressful as heck.”

The interest by institutions in participating in community sustained agriculture waxes and wanes, making planning difficult, they said. The past two years have been smoother. More customers are coming to the farm to buy produce, and it’s best when the shoppers come to them, they said.

Scott Edwards grew up in Longview. He and his wife farm land that has been in the family since 1962. His parents bought it to farm, raise cattle and rent out the house on the property. Scott Edwards said it was his second home growing up and calls it a “rural Eden on the outskirts of town.”

Dixie Edwards also lived in Longview as a girl until her family bought a farm near Stella along the Lower Columbia River and not far from Longview. They went to the same high school, two grades apart, and were married in 1988. Scott was working for a conservation district in Kitsap County, while Dixie worked in water-quality programs for the county and later a public utility district.

In 1989, they rented land in Kitsap County for a native-plant nursery and a few years later moved to Longview and opened their business, Watershed Garden Works, which combined the nursery with an organic farm. “This was our way back to the farm,” Dixie Edwards said.

Scott Edwards studied organic agriculture in the 1970s at The Evergreen State College in Olympia. “Doing something organic was almost like crackpot back in the day,” he said.

The Edwardses say they’re following organic practices, but haven’t paid the fees and filed the paperwork to obtain certification. They said if they were marketing to a broader population they would, but their customers can see what they’re doing.

For the farm and nursery, they employ two full-time and two part-time workers year-round, along with a couple of seasonal workers. Good help is hard to find, they said.

Many of their customers are new to the area, they said.

“I think Longview and (neighboring city) Kelso are going through a big change, like a lot of communities are,” Scott Edwards said. “There are a lot of possibilities for farmers.”


Feared plant pathogens pop up in Western Washington

Black leg and black rot, plant diseases that Washington agricultural officials have long been on-guard for to protect the vegetable and oil seed industries, appeared this month in Western Washington in separate incidents.

Seeds from an organic radish farm in Island County tested positive for black leg, according to the state Department of Agriculture. Meanwhile, black rot appeared on leaves of a brassica crop in Skagit County.

It’s unknown how either disease was introduced, Washington State University plant pathologist Lindsey du Toit said. Growers in both places reported the pathogens, helping efforts to contain them, she said.

“Both have the same repercussions for the seed industry,” du Toit said. “I was pleased to see there wasn’t an attempt to cover it up.”

Black leg is a fungal disease that infects cruciferous crops such as canola, broccoli and cabbage. An outbreak of black leg in the Midwest and eastern U.S. in the 1970s was traced to Northwest-produced seeds, devastating Western Washington’s vegetable seed industry. It had not been detected in Western Washington in recent years, according to the agriculture department.

Black rot is a bacterial disease. According to the American Phytopathological Society, black rot “must be considered the most important disease worldwide of vegetable brassicas.”

To guard against both, the agriculture department requires crucifer seeds planted in Island County and five other Western Washington counties to be tested and treated for black leg and black rot. The department extended the requirement to 20 Eastern Washington counties in 2015 after black leg was found in canola fields in Oregon and Northern Idaho.

In Island and Skagit counties, the farmers planted seeds that had been tested, du Toit said. Seeds, however, are destroyed during the test, so samples from seed lots are screened.

Du Toit said she examined plant matter that she collected from the field in Island County, but did not find black leg. The seeds had been harvested about a month earlier, and the disease was discovered in testing at Iowa State University.

Black leg and black rot can be spread in the rain or by wind. The crop in Skagit County will have to be destroyed, du Toit said.

The Oregon Department of Agriculture mandated statewide testing for black leg in 2015 after an outbreak in the Willamette Valley.

The five other Western Washington counties in the quarantine area are Clallam, Lewis, Skagit, Snohomish and Whatcom. The quarantine also covers all of Eastern Washington.

UI celebrates new Sandpoint organic agriculture center

SANDPOINT, Idaho — A new University of Idaho center devoted to organic agriculture is a new “gem” within the UI’s statewide network, the agricultural dean says.

The university held an open house Oct. 23 at the Sandpoint Organic Agriculture Center. The center is the first in the UI system to focus on organic farming.

Michael Parrella, dean of UI’s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, said the center will address organic agriculture, bring back “the wonder and variety” of heirloom apples and educate students and offer outreach to the community.

“Overnight, the Sandpoint organic agricultural center became a gem in our college’s statewide network when we took possession of this property on Aug. 1,” Parrella said.

The center has 640 apple, pear, cherry and plum trees and 1,000 feet of raspberry canes, said orchard operations manager Kyle Nagy. The property is 66 acres.

A dormitory will house 36 students.

Dennis Pence, who donated the Sandpoint Orchard land and buildings, said the center provides the university with a bigger presence in the Sandpoint area.

The orchard grows 68 varieties of apples, most of them heirloom varieties.

“I read that there was once in colonial times 2,000 varieties of apples grown in what is now the U.S.,” Pence said. “And a little over 100 years ago, there were 300 varieties of apples grown in the U.S. What happened?”

Pence began planting heirloom varieties to see what would happen.

“I’m starting to look around and all this organic agriculture, there’s a lot of things you could learn from this,” he said, recalling the germination of the idea.

Pence said Parrella welcomed his ideas for the space, and he credited it to Parrella’s Ph.D., in entomology. Pence and Parrella both cited recent concerns over a study that indicated a 75 percent decline in insects in parts of Germany.

“That is something Michael understood because he is a bug guy. If you’re an entomologist, you know what’s going on,” Pence said. “Something is going on that’s really not healthy.”

The center will research more sustainable approaches to farming, Pence said.

“You have a facility that will be full of energy, intelligence and caring about the kinds of foods we all need for our health, welfare and (to) sustain our society,” Pence said.

Oregon ‘cottage food’ law showing benefits

A new study based on dozens of interviews at farmers’ markets across Oregon finds the state’s Farm Direct Marketing Law, which took effect in 2012, is working as advocates hoped, providing new revenue streams for small farms while reducing food waste.

The law sought to clarify licensing and food safety requirements for direct-to-consumer sales at venues such as farmers’ markets and farm stands. In Oregon, about 12 percent of farms engage in direct-to-consumer marketing — more than double the national rate — with $53 million in sales from an estimated 4,252 farms in 2015, according to the USDA.

Part of the law establishes provisions for “cottage foods,” or homemade value-added products such as jellies, canned fruit, pickled vegetables and relishes, using farm-grown produce. Under the rules, farmers can sell these goods direct-to-consumer without a food processor’s license so long as they meet certain labeling requirements and sales don’t exceed $20,000 per year.

Every state except Hawaii and New Jersey has some sort of cottage food laws on the books. Opponents argue that reduced regulatory scrutiny may lead to unsanitary practices that increase foodborne illnesses, though researchers with Oregon State University found no foodborne illness linked to the Farm Direct Marketing Law after its first five years.

Rather, the study, published Sept. 12 in the Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems and Community Development, concluded the law has seemingly accomplished exactly what it was designed to do, and “we expect more farmers will take advantage of this opportunity.”

The study was funded in part by a grant from the USDA National Institute for Food and Agriculture, and led by Lauren Gwin, associate director of the Center for Small Farms & Community Food Systems at OSU.

Researchers visited 20 farmers’ markets during the 2016 season, interviewing 18 farmers and 24 market managers about the Farm Direct Marketing Law. The top two benefits they mentioned were creating new, supplemental income streams and using excess produce to make valuable products such as salsa and preserves, turning potential waste into profit.

One Southern Oregon farmer interviewed for the study said the law was “a huge boon to our farm,” providing an additional $10,000 per year in sales — not enough to afford the flat infrastructure cost it would take to have a facility, “but you know a small amount like $10,000 really helps out our farm for the year.”

Other benefits discussed in the study include the ability for farmers to provide more healthy food choices in isolated, rural communities, and increasing food security in those areas. As one market manager said, “Every product that can be created in a community and sold at the market or a farmstand or CSA is one more thing that can actually be bought there, in rural communities that lack grocery stores.”

When asked how to improve the Farm Direct Marketing Law, farmers mentioned a few barriers mostly around improving public awareness and education about the rules. Others suggested expanding the cottage food exemption to include more products, or increasing the sales cap, and while researchers acknowledged more than half of states with cottage food laws have no limit on sales, “the political feasibility of this in Oregon is uncertain, due to ongoing concern about foodborne illness.”

“Licensed food processors might also object to increased competition from businesses that would be less regulated and have lower compliance costs,” they added.

Chris Schreiner leads organic certification nonprofit

When Chris Schreiner was first hired at Oregon Tilth in 1998, the organic food sector had only just begun its meteoric rise, with sales pegged around $3.4 billion nationwide.

Twenty years later, organic sales have grown nearly 15 times over, to $45 billion in 2017.

Oregon Tilth, a nonprofit organization that certifies organic farms and businesses in 49 states, continues to grow along with the market, with Schreiner as executive director.

“Today, you can find organic produce and organic products on the shelves of pretty much all the major supermarkets and big box stores,” Schreiner said. “It’s shifted from kind of a niche market more to the mainstream.”

A pioneer

Founded in 1974, Oregon Tilth was a pioneer in creating the standards and regulatory framework now used by the USDA National Organic Program to certify organic farms. The organization worked closely with Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., who introduced the Organic Foods Production Act as an amendment to the 1990 Farm Bill. It led to implementing the National Organic Program in 2002.

The USDA accredits organizations like Oregon Tilth to certify organic operations under a single set of criteria. Prior to the federal law, Schreiner said the definition of “organic” was based on a patchwork of state rules without any real regulatory enforcement.

“Part of the impetus for creating the national organic standard was to facilitate trade across states and have a common definition,” Schreiner said. “That was kind of a limiting factor.”

Schreiner joined Oregon Tilth as the farm program coordinator, managing the certification process for farms, ranches, wholesalers and food processors. He also spent time as quality control director before being promoted to executive director in 2009.

Oregon Tilth is headquartered in Corvallis, Ore., though the organization serves more than 2,000 clients in every state except Rhode Island. Schreiner said that when he started, they had seven full-time staff and an annual budget of $700,000. Now they have 70 full-time employees working around the country, and a budget of $7.8 million.

“There’s been tremendous growth,” Schreiner said, pointing to the increasing consumer interest in knowing where their food comes from.

‘Ag in my blood’

Schreiner grew up working summers at his family’s 200-acre nursery, Schreiner’s Iris Gardens, north of Salem. Even after earning his bachelor’s degree in English literature from the University of Oregon, Schreiner gravitated back to agriculture, working at Sweetwater Nursery, an organic vegetable farm south of Eugene.

“I just think agriculture is in my blood,” he said.

Schreiner spent one year overseas in Belgium before returning to Oregon, beginning his career at Oregon Tilth. Organic agriculture is appealing, Schreiner said, because it focuses on protecting natural resources.

Changing discussion

At the same time, however, Schreiner said he is wary of talking down to conventional farmers. So much of the discussion about organic farming, Schreiner said, seems to dwell on what is not allowed — no chemicals, no hormones, no antibiotics — instead of highlighting benefits such as improving health, biodiversity and nutrient cycling.

“I really wanted to change the conversation and have it be more inclusive,” Schreiner said.

One way Oregon Tilth is reaching out to non-organic farmers is by establishing partnerships with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service and Oregon State University Extension Service, which Schreiner said can provide additional on-the-ground support.

Transitioning to organic is no easy feat. Growers must demonstrate organic practices on the land or in their animals for at least three years. The financial strain is only getting tougher for small and mid-size growers, as more larger farms certify organic acres, which in turn has started to push down the value of some price premiums.

“For the longest time, organic agriculture was kind of this refuge for the small and midscale operations to remain economically viable,” Schreiner said. “As the marketplace has grown and these bigger players are coming in, that’s creating price pressure.”

Despite the challenges, Schreiner said organic agriculture continues to see steady growth in sales, including a rate of 6.4 percent in 2017.

“I still think there’s a lot of opportunity for organic agriculture, and farmers who are interested in organic agriculture,” he said.

OSU plans 2019 Small Farms Conference

The 2019 OSU  Small Farms Conference will be Feb. 23 at Oregon State University.

The Oregon Small Farms Conference is a daylong event geared toward farmers, agricultural professionals, food policy advocates, students and managers of farmers markets. Speakers include farmers, OSU Extension faculty, agribusiness, and more.

Featured speakers for the 2019 event include:

• Karen “Mimo” Davis and Miranda Duschack – Urban Buds, City Grown Flowers.

• Ellen Polishuk – Farmer, consultant and author of Start Your Farm.

• Josh Volk – Farmer, consultant and author of Compact Farms.

The day-long conference will also feature educational sessions on farming and food systems, a trade show and networking opportunities.

Session descriptions, registration, and more information will be available in late December. For more information, go to the event’s website.

More than 40 classes for small farmers at Farm & Food Expo

Small-scale farmers around the Spokane area can learn about wide range of topics at the upcoming Farm & Food Expo planned for Nov. 2-3 at Spokane Community College.

The event provides resources for small-acreage farmers, garden enthusiasts and “foodies,” said Hilary Sepulveda, outreach specialist for the Spokane Conservation District.

“It’s pretty unique in terms of the topics and demographic that we go for,” she said.

Keynote speakers are Ben Hartman, author of “The Lean Farm,” about eliminating waste and improving efficiency; Chris Trump, who uses and advocates for Korean Natural Farming; and Brad Lancaster, author of “Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond.”

The event has more than 40 classes, Sepulveda said. Topics include backyard chickens, local grain malting, marketing products, rural property management and a vendor fair.

Sepulveda expects 300-400 people during the two-day event.

The Washington State Conservation Commission’s Office of Farmland Preservation is a title sponsor for the event.