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Transitioning existing family farm business to be more sustainable (title edit)

 
Ben Van Der Kar
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Location: S. California Zone 10
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Having gained much insight from browsing permies.com over the past year or so, I am excited to be posting for the first time.

My name is Ben, I’m 22 years of age and my family grows avocados, lemons, and cherimoyas commercially here in Southern California. A few years ago I had the realization that if I did not step up to the plate to manage the family business (upon my uncle’s retirement), that it might dissipate or who knows what. This realization felt burdensome and limiting for some time. Then I found out about permaculture through permies.com. Learning of permaculture and thinking about how its principles could be applied to my situation completely turned the tables and enabled me to think with enthusiasm about my opportunity to manage the family business. For this I owe great thanks to Paul and permies.com for having broadcasted permaculture to people like myself. Who knows where I’d be now had I not learned of permaculture and all it has to offer.

Anywho, I am now in observation mode, trying to learn as much as I can before actually implementing changes. One change that is sure to come is the conversion from commercial style management (i.e. roundup for weed control, application of N,P,K artificial fertilizer) to a more holistic, ‘organic’ style of management. There are a number of ways I could go about this through applying soil amendments and planting polycultures. Just recently however, I heard of SALT (Sloping Agriculture Land Technology) and Alley Cropping. This is a practice that was designed as an alternative to slash and burn agriculture which entails the cultivation of rows of easily coppiced nitrogen fixing trees planted between rows of the ‘cash crop.’ Each year the row of NFT’s are coppiced (chop and drop style) providing water retention and nutrients for the surrounding cultivars. So while you must sacrifice space for the NFTs, you are generating your fertilizer and mulch on site.

This practice seems to have been a great success in tropical environments and I am curious if anyone on here is familiar with this practice. Essentially, I see this practice as possibly one of the most effective strategies I could implement in the avocado, lemon, and cherimoya orchards. Any thoughts on why this might be a good/bad idea? Any thoughts as to other ways to convert a commercial scale orchard to something more permie-esque?

Thanks,
-Ben
 
Dale Hodgins
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Welcome Ben. I've heard of alley cropping but never looked it up. With your first posting, you've sparked a new interest. Now I'm running off to check it out.
-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
I see the title has changed. May I suggest. --- My first permie post! Transitioning existing family farm business to be more sustainable.
 
Miles Flansburg
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Howdy Ben, welcome to permies!
One of the on going discussions here is about how commercial or large scale growers, can go about changing over to permaculture. So your journey will be watched by many. Please keep writing and post some pictures of your progress.
 
R Scott
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I am curious of the payback of coppicing trees versus cover cropping with perennial legumes and dynamic accumulators like clovers, comfreys, etc. One could "hay" the clover by cutting it with a side-discharge mower and basically mulch it in place. That would be fast and easy, but probably have to be done several times a year. Coppice is a lot of manual labor, but only once a year or less (only cut 1/2 or 1/3 each year).

Consider me a cheerleader, I want to see more commercial growers switch over to more permie ways but I don't know how to get from here to there without going broke in-between.
 
Dale Hodgins
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R Scott wrote:I am curious of the payback of coppicing trees versus cover cropping with perennial legumes and dynamic accumulators like clovers, comfreys, etc. One could "hay" the clover by cutting it with a side-discharge mower and basically mulch it in place. That would be fast and easy, but probably have to be done several times a year. Coppice is a lot of manual labor, but only once a year or less (only cut 1/2 or 1/3 each year).

Consider me a cheerleader, I want to see more commercial growers switch over to more permie ways but I don't know how to get from here to there without going broke in-between.


I think the choice between coppice and cover crops is mostly based on whether one has a use for the coppice wood or for the forage that cover crops provide. I'm surrounded by a free supply of firewood and can be paid to cut down useful poles. I only have 4 acres that are flat enough to farm easily. Therefore, I won't be doing an acre of coppice.

If I had 200 acres of windswept prairie and a need for firewood and poles, I would probably grow several acres of coppice. I'd need shelter belts around the house and garden. The wood and leaf fall would be a welcome byproduct of creating a more comfortable micro climate.

Some of the best examples of coppice can be found around older homes on the cold prairies and in European hedgerows. The hedgerow is a wind break, firewood and fencing supply store, fertilizer factory, wildlife corridor, home for benificial insects, dumping ground for rocks, stumps etc. Cover crops are great, but they can't begin to compete with the miltifunctionality of a hedgerow. My gradparents had long strips about 20 ft. wide which divided fields on their farm in Ontario. In the 1970s, these areas were cleared to allow larger equipment to compact the soil. Many British hedgerows were cleared for the same reasons and some are now being replaced. Hedgerows often occupied rocky ground and odd corners. This left the most desirable terrain available for cropping.

If you can spare the room, a coppice hedgerow is bound to increase your biodiversity and general enjoyment of the property. Cover crops can still serve their function alongside crops. So, there is no need to make a clear choice between cover crops and coppice. They can coexist nicely.
 
Rufus Laggren
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Ben

I think you have decided on a great challenge! And over the next few years you no doubt will discover just how great (large)... <G>

Don't know what twigged you to the business "facts of life" but it's good see it's possible for young folks at your tender and callow age <GG> to wrap their head around stuff like that. There are a few successful "full size" commercial entities represented here, though not all members post actively all the time; you may find pointers on attitude and approach are as valuable as technical details.

For example, one thing I think of immediately when I hear/see a "takeover" situation: Go very slowly to start with and as a general rule, especially if the organism (the farm) is running in a more or less healthy functional manner. This is not a "roll your own"; your business already has life, culture, history - ie. momentum and rules and habits. This implies several points I can mention right off: 1) You have others involved in many critical places and they are only human; don't freak them out and shake them up or confuse them when it's not totally necessary - bad karma. 2) Not having dealt with the weight and uncertainty of the "buck stops here" position of your particular organism (in any large way) you need a season or three to find out what issues are critical and what to worry about (and why) and which side of who/what your bread gets buttered on (in many ways) and where your "sweet spots" are to be found. IOW, having final responsibility makes things look _way_ different from any other place you've been standing before; you can't know what matters, even though you are right in the middle of it, until you really have to make it work for yourself for a few years. In that situation, provided it's more or less functional, "TRADITION" (cymbals, chords) and monkey-see-monkey-do can be _very_ wise policy. Tweek your procedures only slightly and find out how your "resources" (employees, partners, markets etc) respond and what is the best way to move the whole thing forward. Make radical departures on a very small scale at first to limit the "shock and consternation" <g> and so you can make necessary intense efforts at way less cost (because you kept the size of the experiment small).

And Welcome! Great to have you posting.


Rufus
 
Adam Klaus
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welcome Ben, sounds like a really fun opportunity you have! chirimoya and avacado is about as good as it gets in my world. glad you stopped by.

I think the three big questions/thoughts I have are-

1) How much control will you have over the farm? Is it going to be your farm, or are you going to be a cog in the machinery? The difference will be huge, especially if you have aspirations of changing the operation in any significant way.

2) Is the farm profitable right now? Can it afford to add you as an employee at a living wage? If the farm is running a reasonable profit, then I agree with the advice to not change anything right away. Work within the system and learn what its strengths and weaknesses are. A profitable farm is no small feat.

3) Marketing is almost certainly your biggest opportunity. The gap between wholesale prices and consumer direct is a factor of multiplication, not decimals. This might be your best opportunity to show your relatives that you are a really valuable asset, and a guy-with-good-ideas. If the farm is making a profit now, polyculture isnt going to increase it anytime soon. Marketing will. If the farm isnt running a profit, then marketing again will be your fastest route to success.

If you can give a little more info on the above points, then I think I could help give some ideas on permacultural farming as it relates to your situation. I am guessing you are near Fallbrook/Escondido? Or some other little slice of paradise?

good luck! and again, welcome!
 
Ben Van Der Kar
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Location: S. California Zone 10
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Thank you all for your responses and warm welcomes!

Dale – I hadn’t heard of alley cropping until recently and it has really sparked my curiosity. As far as I can tell it has mostly been implemented in the tropics so there is plenty more room for experimentation in other climates. I like your title suggestion but am not sure how I would go about changing the title.

Miles – Certainly a discussion-worthy topic. I’ve been disappointed in the past reading or hearing that permaculture is just for small scale operations. I think this has been assumed because there are so few examples of permaculture on a large scale. I intend to post pictures as progress is made but for now I’m mostly observing and trying to figure the best way to go about tackling my situation.

R Scott – You have a good point, coppicing would probably entail more inputs. Another thing with the alley cropping is that you’re devoting a significant amount of space to something other than your cash crop. While I think it important to note that the NFTs used for alley cropping are mainly designated for chop and drop mulch to feed surrounding plantings, in some places, NFTs such as Inga Edulis (ice cream bean) are used in alley cropping and provide valuable resources (such as ice cream bean or firewood) on top of being used just for mulch.

Rufus – I appreciate your precautions. I am doing my best to not get carried away and to develop a plan that other stakeholders in the family business can agree with.

Adam – Important questions indeed.
1) It’s hard to say exactly how much control I will have as management of the family biz/farm will be switching from my parents generation to mine in the coming years. Currently things are run by my uncle who is the farm manager and who has done a great job building the family farm into a successful business. His four siblings serve with him as the board of directors, but as none of them work on the farm, they mostly listen to reports from my uncle on how things are going. I am the only family member in my generation to have voiced any significant interest in the business and as such feel it safe to say that I will be in the driver’s seat on this one, so long as I build and maintain a good track record.
2) Yes it is profitable although the operation is vulnerable to a number of things such as pests, disease, water availability, etc which is why I would like to develop some more resiliency. I am being cautious in not changing anything right away while all the way making it clear that I have certain ideas for the future.
3) Marketing is sure to be crucial and I am confident that I’ll be able to use mktg to my advantage. With all of our crops currently sold to larger, non-local markets, the proposition I’m developing is to introduce a new chapter of the business which will focus on local markets and bridging that gap between wholesale and consumer direct.

One of my complications in trying to reduce our outside inputs is that I’m working with properties that have mature plantings with little space for new implementations. Needless to say I am not going to suggest that my family cut down every other row of trees so we can plant some nitrogen fixers. I think the inclusion of polycultures and/or alley cropping will come slowly as old trees die out. But for now if I am to introduce new plants to the existing orchards, they’ll have to be understory, shade-tolerant plants such as coffee or cilantro, which would certainly be a step in the right direction as far as I can tell.

I would be very interested to hear accounts of others converting monocultures into polycultures.
 
Rufus Laggren
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> marketing...

+3. Adam nailed it. I read somewhere that sales is the highest paid profession in the world (for those good at it, of course).

It might help to consciously approach marketing as a pure bean counter problem - most money back for low-investment/small-changes of available resources. This will help avoid rosy glasses syndrome while encouraging a very broad minded look at many/all possibilities. Both are Good Things that set you up for moving in _your_ direction.

> uncle

If your uncle grew the business, there is something there really, really worthy of learning, full respect, all that, regardless of where your individual heads are at now. "Grasshopper" can be a very valuable position. <g>


Rufus
 
Ben Van Der Kar
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Location: S. California Zone 10
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Yes, marketing is sure to be either a great friend or foe in this transition towards a more sustainable operation. With the local avocado, lemon and cherimoya market pretty flooded already, I am looking to the incorporation of things that would make for easy marketing. I think the inclusion of a perennial understory of plants that can be dried for use in loose-leaf teas (roman chamomile, mints, lemon balm, lemon verbena, anise hyssop, etc) would make for a good use of space and a profitable/marketable product as there are no local tea sources currently in my area. The other venture I foresee as being potentially viable is a goat milk/cheese operation. I already have several dairy goats for personal consumption and when we've had excess milk/cheese in the past, we've never had trouble finding a home for it. This potential venture appeals to me because it would bring quick, consistent returns and there is little competition for this market in my area.

I certainly am the grasshopper and have been for a while now as I've spent the past few summers assisting my uncle with the farm operations. My hope is to learn as much as possible about what he has done to make for a successful farm, all the while conveying my sentiments that I won't be content on the farm without a little room to wiggle and introduce some low-risk additions (i.e. what I mentioned in the previous paragraph).

With one semester of school left (this spring, studying Spanish and AgBusiness) my goal is to continue in observation mode, particularly researching how we can best slowly but surely convert orchards away from industrial style management towards a more organic, sustainable management style.

On another note, anyone know how to change thread titles? I would like to take Dale's suggestion as, "Thoughts on alley cropping" seems a bit misleading for where this thread is going.
 
R Scott
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I am looking to the incorporation of things that would make for easy marketing. I think the inclusion of a perennial understory of plants that can be dried for use in loose-leaf teas (roman chamomile, mints, lemon balm, lemon verbena, anise hyssop, etc) would make for a good use of space and a profitable/marketable product as there are no local tea sources currently in my area. The other venture I foresee as being potentially viable is a goat milk/cheese operation. I already have several dairy goats for personal consumption and when we've had excess milk/cheese in the past, we've never had trouble finding a home for it. This potential venture appeals to me because it would bring quick, consistent returns and there is little competition for this market in my area.


I like your train of thought. Both are great ideas.

 
Matu Collins
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There, I left off the bit about it being the first post as that would be getting pretty long and is not key to the topic at hand.

I am interested in this topic because my little farm has a lot of mature blueberry bushes that were planted up to thirty years ago in a grid/monoculture way. For now we just mulch the bushes and mow the area between which has a nice mix of grasses, clover, and other plants like wild strawberry and yarrow. As blueberry gardens go it's pretty nice but as a multi story polyculture it leaves something to be desired.I'm still in the observation and planning stages. I don't want to give myself more work than I can manage and I don't want to mess up something that works pretty well.

It didn't sound like your farm is organic, is that true? Organic foods command a higher price but the certification might be more hoops than you want to jump through. Do you have a good idea of what the specific inputs are? (Fertilizer, pesticide, herbicide, fungicide etc)

What do you use for labor? Is it a many person operation? Hired help, independent contractors, family, that sort of thing?p
 
Ben Van Der Kar
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Much appreciated Matu! And I'm glad you left that part out.

Your farm sounds fun, I would love to see such mature blueberry bushes! My neighbors have rented land to Driscolls for a while now and at first they planted it all with strawberries, then raspberries, but a few years ago they put in blueberries and I've been surprised by how thick some of the trunks have gotten already. It sounds as if nature has already bestowed you with a nice polyculture between the wild strawberries, yarrow and clovers but I'll bet you could do even better with an intentional polyculture. Definitely in the same boat as you as far as not wanting to bite off too big a chunk and also not wanting to mess up a good thing. I guess some say, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." But then again, there's always room for improvement.

Just put my 'google goggles' on to check out blueberry guilds and this permies thread was the first hit, maybe you've seen it already: http://www.permies.com/t/14249/plants/guild-ideas-blueberries

As for your question, by and large we are not (yet) organic. To elaborate, there are eight properties that make up the family business, ranging from just a few acres to 200 acres. One of the smaller properties is a bit of an island in that it is sandwiched between a creek and two highways, with several homes nearby. As such, the use of certain pesticides and fertilizers is already quite limited so a few years back my uncle decided to make an experiment out of it and convert it to an organic, spreading manure as fertilizer and using a weedwacker for weeds instead of roundup. This property is mostly planted to avocados and as we sell our avos to Calavo, my uncle had to deal with the organic certification process in order to receive the premium price that organic avos command.

I would like to interrupt myself here to mention that one driving reason that I would like to see us utilizing direct marketing channels (farmer market, CSA, wholesale to restaurants, mail order, etc) is so that I won't have to put up with all the regulation that goes along with selling our produce to a big middleman such as Calavo or Sunkist. The organic certification process and the GAP program (good agricultural practices) are just several examples of many regulations that you must abide by in order to market crops through middlemen. I would much prefer to directly market produce at organic prices without having to deal with the expenditures that come with organic certification. And if a customer wanted to verify that the product they're purchasing is indeed organic, I would invite them for a farm tour to see for themselves. While the price for organic avos does justify having to put up with the organic certification, it's something I'd rather not have to deal with.

Back to the question on inputs: Our plant food (fertilizer) consists of an N, P, K salt & pepper mix (they call it this because it looks like large granules of salt and pepper) which we spread by hand around the trees once a year, generally after the harvest. The way I see it, this diet we have our orchards on is like fast food McDonalds. And I must say I am surprised at how healthy most of the orchards look with this in consideration. I am certain however, that a more wholesome, 'organic' diet would be much better. Roundup is what we use for herbicide which really sucks as I would not like to think of myself or the family business supporting anything monsanto in any way. Fortunately not much is used because most of the orchards are so mature that not enough sunlight gets through for weeds, but that is no excuse. I'd have to double check the specifics on pesticide and fungicide. I want to say we do not use any fungicide but like I said, I'll have to double check. As for pesticide, AgriMek is one we use. Our main pests are Thripps and Perseamite. The Light Brown Apple Moth and especially the Asian Citrus Psyllid which carries a disease called Huanglongbing (HLB) are of future concern.

We have a very fortunate labor situation. Despite most growers in our area using labor crews for picking and pruning (which has been very stressful for some as labor crews have become increasingly scarce), my family has been successful in employing roughly a dozen full time Mexican laborers (hence the previous mentioning that I'm studying Spanish in school). While we will employ additional people as needed during harvest, pruning, etc, our full time employees all live on one of the family ranches. This adds security as there is nearly always someone on the property when otherwise there wouldn't be but it also makes for more of a connection between the employee and the orchard they care for. To contrast, contracted labor crews are notorious for doing lesser quality work as they have no personal ties to the property, trees, aesthetics, etc. Our production of cherimoyas is essential in our ability to employ a year-round workforce. Cherimoyas are harvested in the winter months when otherwise we would not have enough work to justify maintaining such a workforce. Hand-pollination of the cherimoyas also necessitates such a workforce.

So that should give you a bit of an idea as to what I'm working with. I'm happy to answer any other questions and would also love any thoughts or advice.

Thanks,
Ben
 
Rufus Laggren
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> goats... milk... cheese...

There is a small outfit in Pescadero CA doing exactly that and running a boutique market in one of their barns; the woman has been at it for 10 years I think. I don't know if it's a profit center or not but believe it likely is since she has employees. Don't recall the name but if you can't find it I'll be back that way in a month or so and can go get some of her stuff... Just to help out a good Permie, you understand. <g>

> wiggle room... projects

Pushing a bit is always good. My personal thumb rule is ask 3 times, then if no positive response move on.

> regulations...

All well to avoid extra expense, but: Those regs provide to some extent a CYA blanket. You don't have to be the actual cause to get wiped out by a near miss from a massive publicity bomb if something bad happens in your food channel. If you are the only non-compliant supplier guess who is going to take most of the heat? Assuming your total goodness, still, the forum of public opinion is only peripherally swayed by facts and truth. I believe there is a tradeoff between the restrictions of compliance and the (fragile and expensive but valuable) legitimacy it provides. Kinda like high deductible medical insurance. Pay and hope you never need it.

There is another aspect to compliance which I'm not so sure about, but here it is: Those rules are not going away, but rather the opposite. If you maintain "good official standing" all the way you may find it much easier to deal with the bureaucracy when you find you suddenly have no other choice. You will have a (good, we assume) track record, you will know people in the system and you will have a certain "grandfathered in" value. Don't know what it's all worth but I'm real certain the rulebook will continue to grow.

> full time labor...

Wow! That's _very_ nice. I bet their situation is no accident. Maybe _they_ might have ideas about how to make more money, too.


Cheers

Rufus
 
I agree. Here's the link: http://richsoil.com/email
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