From the Executive Director: Adjust 2015 Coming to MN Organic Conference

John Mesko

John Mesko

By John Mesko • SFA Executive Director

Winter is here. Earlier than most of us would like, but it’s here, and that means conference season. Hopefully, you’ve already registered for the Midwest Soil Health Summit on Feb. 18-19, 2015, as those seats will sell fast. And I know you wouldn’t let SFA’s Annual Conference on Feb. 14 pass you by. It’s the perfect winter-time warm up!

NFRC_Adjust2015_RGBHowever, there’s another conference you really should be thinking about: the MN Department of Agriculture’s Minnesota Organic Conference.  I just got my registration packet in the mail recently, and I’m going to be there.

SFA will have a booth, and SFA will be offering our very first Adjust 2015 Workshop! Yes, you’ve heard about Adjust 2015 for the past two years now, and we are ready (almost) to launch the curriculum!

As a reminder, Adjust 2015’s “New Farm Reality Check” Curriculum is designed to offer beginning farmers that one final run through of their plans before they embark on an important farm business. We’ve asked hundreds of farmers to tell what the initial hurdles were in their businesses, and what they would do over again to avoid them. We’ve identified key components of flexibility and planning success that will help beginning farmers to avoid potentially disastrous situations.  Come early to the MN Organic Conference, and sign up for the “Reality Checking Your Farm Plan” Winter Workshop.  It’s FREE for SFA members!

The MN Organic Conference, easy to get to in St. Cloud, loaded with information, and SFA will be there too! Don’t miss it.

Update: Additional Deep Winter Greenhouse Class Added

Dr. Sue Wika’s deep winter greenhouse at Paradox Farm utilizes passive solar energy with underground heat storage and provides winter greens for local consumers. Photo by Ann Arbor Miller/MPR News.

Dr. Sue Wika’s deep winter greenhouse at Paradox Farm utilizes passive solar energy with underground heat storage and provides winter greens for local consumers. Photo by Ann Arbor Miller/MPR News.

After the first two sold out, we’ve added another SFA Sustainable Food Production Program “Deep Winter Production of Greens and Livestock Fodder Utilizing Passive Solar Energy” class: from 10:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 1, 2015, in Ashby, Minn.

NOTE: This class is in addition to the sold-out Deep Winter classes already scheduled for Jan. 31 and Feb. 13. If you already registered for those courses, be assured they will take place as scheduled. 

During the class, farm owners Sue Wika and Tom Prieve will provide a detailed overview of the construction and operation of their deep-winter greenhouse, which utilizes passive solar energy with underground heat storage. The greenhouse provides greens for local consumers. In addition, the structure is utilized to produce fodder for the farm livestock. Students will be in the greenhouse to see how greens and fodder are planted and harvested.

This particular Deep Winter class is more in-depth and will provide opportunity for students to “get their hands dirty” in the greenhouse by planting and harvesting greens. It will also cover greenhouse construction in a more detailed manner. Registrants: Don’t forget to bring a sack lunch. Beverage and fresh winter salad (grown on site) provided.

The class will be held at Paradox Farm, 11643 State Hwy 78, Ashby, MN 56309 (Directions: 7 miles north of Ashby; 10 miles south of Battle Lake). Storm date is Feb. 8, 2015.

Executive Director’s Note

John Mesko

John Mesko

By John Mesko • SFA Executive Director

Recently, I was invited to attend the 2014 Seedstock Conference in Los Angeles, an annual event that highlights innovations in agriculture, beginning farming, and local food issues. Being set in California means an emphasis on solutions for the massive drought affecting the state, as well as urban farming. Seedstock organizers recognize SFA’s leadership in farmer-to-farmer networking, and the need for better connections between West Coast and Midwestern agriculture.

This year, I was discussing, among other things, the importance of good business planning for beginning farmers. Because of our work on Adjust 2015, I was asked for my thoughts on what are the most important aspects of a good business plan. From what we’ve learned and from the collective wisdom of the Sustainable Agriculture movement, those keys are: Flexibility, Benchmarks, Exit Strategy, Sensitivity Analysis, and Professional Development. Over the next few issues of SFA Connect, I’ll share a bit more on some of these concepts.

NFRC_Adjust2015_RGBFlexibility. In food and farming, there are so many variables: supply and regulatory issues, weather effects, labor issues, and family concerns. Farms, even large ones are typically classified as small businesses and as such face an uphill struggle from the start. These are often growing businesses, in a competence market requiring unique relationships with suppliers, customers and other producers. This interdependence creates great opportunity as well as great risk. The more dependent a business is on these connections, the greater chance problems can arise, requiring the business to respond with flexibility. According to the Purdue University Agriculture Economics Department: “Strategic risk management requires the capability to be flexible. Flexibility is the managerial/organizational capacity to change in response to changing circumstances. To be flexible, a farm must have the resources and skills to successfully change strategies regarding key strategic business choices, such as business enterprise focus, financial/organizational structure, marketing and channel linkages, growth/downsizing, etc. “

This is what Adjust 2015 has researched, and a good bit of the New Farm Reality Check curriculum we are developing will focus on building flexibility into business plans. Look for this to become available at the 2015 SFA Annual Conference, set for Feb. 14, 2015, at the College of Saint Benedict in St. Joseph.


SFA Field Day: 30 Inches of Roots & Soil Health

KCIM Keep Cattle in MinnesotaBy Kent Solberg • SFA Livestock & Grazing Coordinator

A crowd huddled against the brisk November wind during a Nov. 1 SFA Keep Cattle in Minnesota Field Day in Verndale. They were gathered around a freshly dug trench. All eyes were fixed on the man in the trench.

No, this wasn’t a funeral. The trench was dug to look at what the roots of a complex cover crop mix could do in sandy, compacted soils. Root hairs had penetrated the compaction layer and were going down at least 30 inches – Kent and Linda Solberg had planted the 12 species blend of cover crops on July 3.

As cattle grazed on the covers in the background, Kent; Jeff Duchene, NRCS Grazing Specialist; and James Schroepfer, agronomist with Ag Resources Consulting, Inc., discussed soil health, cover crops and managed grazing with a group of attentive producers from as far away as Bagley and Mountain Lake.

Earlier that afternoon, the group toured cover crops and managed grazing on Larry Heitkamp’s farm near Sebeka. Larry shared his crop rotation, cover cropping, fertility program, and how he integrates grazing dairy heifers to build soil health.

These farm tours were part of SFA’s Keep Cattle In Minnesota (KCIM) program and an MDA Energy and Sustainable Agriculture Grant. Based on evaluations from earlier KCIM events, we learned that there was a strong interest in cover crops and how to integrate livestock into cropping operations, so keep an eye on SFA Connect for future events focused on these topics.

‘Building Farm to Institution Markets’ Survey Now Open

2014_11_06_ProducerSurvey_web (1)A survey for Minnesota producers, “Building Farm to Institution Markets,” is now available at: through the end of November.

For Minnesota farmers, ranchers and producers currently selling to – or interested in selling to – schools, child care centers, hospitals or other institutions, this survey focuses on identifying the information and tools that producers need to build successful, profitable sales with these buyers.

This comprehensive survey has been developed by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, SFA and Renewing the Countryside – with additional input from over 20 farmers, state agencies, experts and non-profit organizations. SFA members will be especially valuable for this survey, as your answers and feedback will help build a better, more profitable farm-to-insitution system in Minnesota.

Our collaborative project group also held a webinar in early November that featured SFA member Greg Reynolds, Ryan Pesch from the University of Minnesota and Andrea Northup from Minneapolis Public Schools. You can download each presenter’s slides in the right-hand column of this page.

Questions? Contact project partners Pete Huff, Jason Walker or Grace Brogan.

Support SFA on Give to the Max Day

Help advance farmer networking and education in Minnesota and the Upper Midwest – donate to SFA on Give to the Max Day on Nov. 13, 2014.

Click here to view SFA’s Give to the Max Day homepage.

SFA supports sustainable farmers with our networking opportunities, field days, Annual Conference, Midwest Soil Health Summit, and other educational events. SFA has built a crucial network where farmers can rely on support from like-minded individuals as well as tap the wisdom of our community.

We help farmers be more sustainable, productive and profitable, thereby helping build soil health and water quality while putting healthy, ethical food on the plates of people throughout Minnesota and beyond.

If you believe in the importance of family farms, clean water, healthy food and preserving natural splendor and wildlife habitat, then make a tax-deductible donation to SFA today. 

RSDP Seeking Input on Deep Winter Greenhouse Project

RSDPThe Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships are working with the University of Minnesota Dept. of Horticulture on a research project that will analyze several issues related to growing crops in the winter in Minnesota. RSDP is working with ‘Deep Winter Greenhouse’ operators as well as conventional greenhouses to test the conditions under which their crops are grown. Crops will also be grown in growth chambers at the U to identify conditions under which the crops grow best with controlled light, temperatures, and carbon dioxide.

Crops grown in the study will include kale, spinach, strawberries, cucumbers, and a mesclun mix. We will also be conducting economic analyses of the Deep Winter Greenhouses to determine startup costs, breakeven analyses, and examine the potential market for Deep Winter crops.

Following the conclusion of these studies, short courses will be offered around the state to provide opportunities for growers to learn about the results and techniques of the various production models.

If you are interested in receiving periodic updates on the progress of this study and have the ability to ask questions and provide feedback please contact Greg Schweser at ude.n1422801717mu@3314228017172ewhc1422801717s1422801717 or 612-625-9706. To learn more about RSDP, visit its homepage.

Executive Director’s Note: Learning Environmental Accountability

John Mesko

John Mesko

By John Mesko • SFA Executive Director

Agricultural practitioners have known forever that everything in the environment is connected with every human being on the planet. Nothing new to us. SFA was started 25 years ago in part because of that very idea, that what we do on our farms affects the environment and the community and the food we produce as a nation.

Actually, we’ve become known for our coordinated approach to sustainability. So much so, I’ve been invited by Conservation International to talk about what we are doing to promote sustainable agriculture in general and soil health in particular. As I write this, I am in Washington, D.C., with other sustainability leaders to attend Conservation International’s Ocean Health Index Roundtable. Conservation International has developed an Ocean Health Index, and the idea here is that everything on the planet contributes to the overall outcomes in terms of ocean health.

The first global rating of ocean health is not exactly stellar. Businesses, including farms, and countries individually contribute to our earth’s ocean health. Something I hope to bring to Conservation International is the understanding that ocean health is rooted in soil health (pun intended).

This is actually a part of a larger effort in global sustainability circles to assign a credit or a debit to a company’s books or a country’s economic ledger based on the contribution each entity makes to environmental health. It’s gotten me thinking about the assessment of our own farms and how they contribute to overall soil health and water quality. We know certain farming practices work for the benefit of the environment. It’s hard to miss with the soil health building practices such as cover crops and grazing, and the intense combination of those, that we will be highlighting at the 2015 Midwest Soil Health Summit.

But what do those practices actually contribute to the bottom line of the environment? And as a part of financial sustainability, what do they contribute to the bottom line of the farm’s economy, the community’s economy and our societies social health? I’ll let you know what I learn from this trip and what other sectors of our economy are doing to integrate environmental accounting into their outcomes.

Remember SFA on Give to the Max Day Nov. 13

GTM Day 2014Once again, SFA is asking for your support on Give to the Max Day, which this year is Nov. 13.

Click here to visit SFA’s page.

Feel good about donating to SFA – we do not have costly overhead expenses, so your dollars go directly into helping us provide more farmer networking and educational events. Our programs are making a difference, and with your help we can make an even larger impact on agriculture in the Upper Midwest.

Give to the Max Day has moved to a new site after last year’s five-hour blackout, so hopefully those issues will not return. Some SFA folks were unable to donate because of the blackout, but remember that you can always donate 24/7/365 on our homepage.

All donations to SFA, whether on our homepage or the GiveMN Give to the Max Day site, are fully tax-deductible.

Free SFA Soil Health Webinar Set for Nov. 21

KCIMRegistration is now open for a free SFA Keep Cattle in Minnesota webinar featuring soil health experts Michael Lehman and Wendy Taheri of the USDA North Central Agricultural Research Lab in Brookings, S.D. The webinar, set for 1-2:30 p.m. Fri., Nov. 21, is part of our Keep Cattle In Minnesota project and functions as a bridge to our upcoming Midwest Soil Health Summit, where both Lehman and Taheri are scheduled to present.

Presentations include:

Cover Cropping: A Great Tool for Building Soils That Work – Lehman will consider the invisible world of soil microorganisms, what they do that is helpful to producers, and how cover cropping is one management tool that promotes soil microorganisms and their beneficial activities.

Understanding the Importance of Diversity in Cropping Systems – Taheri’s presentation will help farmers understand the importance of diversity in their cropping systems and the role cover crops play in creating and maintaining diversity.

To register, click here. This webinar is sponsored by The Pasture Project.