Tag Archives: Conventional farming

December Farming in Focus: Christmas Trees

This month’s Farming in Focus is an obvious one, and I’m publishing this story today with the hopes that you’ll read it while you’re winding down from your Christmas morning extravaganza. Kids are playing with new toys and you’re sitting there drinking your coffee next to your Christmas tree. I thought I’d take this prime opportunity to talk about where those Christmas trees come from and the work that goes into getting them from the farm to your festive family room.

Oregon grows more Christmas trees than any other state in the United States: in 2013 Oregon harvested 6.4 million Christmas trees, almost double the second runner up, North Carolina. In fact, in 2013 greenhouse and nursery crops, which includes Christmas trees, was Oregon’s most valuable commodity. This should really come as no surprise to those of us who live in Oregon, where the Douglas fir is a native species and is almost ubiquitous. So it was an easy decision to talk with Christmas tree grower Joel Rohde in Amity, Oregon about how he grows Christmas trees.

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Rohde, a second generation farmer, does more than just grow Christmas trees. He also owns a small grocery store/coffee house and has a straw export business. In fact, Rohde was quick to tell me that he’s getting out of the Christmas tree business because it’s just not lucrative enough and the export hay business makes more money. He keeps the grocery store simply because he likes being part of the community. “Half the high school is in  here in the afternoons. You can’t be in it to make money, but it’s a good community thing.” Rohde primarily bought the store (in partnership with another owner) so the local kids working there could keep their jobs. His wife mostly runs it now.
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Rohde got into the Christmas tree business in 2001 when it was booming and trees were selling for $3.50 to $4.00 per foot wholesale. He started planting trees, but so did everyone else. By about 2007 there was too much supply and the market tanked. Prices dropped to $1.00 per foot. It’s rebounding a bit now, back to about $2.50 per foot, but he’s down to his last 20 acres of Noble firs now (which is still a lot of trees – he told me he grows 1,752 trees on an acre.) He used to grow Noble fir, Grand fir and Douglas fir on about 100 acres. When he decided to scale back, the Douglas and Grands went first because they grow faster (it takes about seven years for a Douglas fir to grow six feet versus nine years for a Noble.) He’s just waiting for the last of the Nobles to reach the right height and he’ll be done in about two more harvests.

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Rohde told me growing Christmas trees is very heavy on labor and he doesn’t love the physical work. He starts planting seedlings from nurseries in April and after three years he starts basal pruning (cutting limbs from the bottom up so they can eventually get the chain saw in to cut it down.) Shearing alone costs about $.30 per tree. He also has to manage for weeds between the rows so the weeds don’t compete for resources and get in the way of shearing. In the summer he sprays for insects and fungus. He fights aphids that turn the inner part of the tree black and cause the needles to fall off, and fights needle necrosis which could be caused by a fungus and causes needles to turn brown. Sometimes he can sell trees with needle necrosis as flocked (sprayed white) Christmas trees. After the fourth year he starts to shear the trees into the classic Christmas tree inverted “V” shape. Ninety percent of trees sold are between six and seven feet, so for a Noble fir that’s about nine years worth of management before harvest.

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Rohde also told me he does a lot of tip pruning and leader work. Sometimes the leader (that characteristic tip you put your star on) will die off and he’ll have to train a new leader with a stick like he’s doing in the image above.

xmas trees-12In July and August the trees get tagged by color based on height. Then in November they start harvesting. On Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays Rohdes has 12 to 15 high school guys working eight hours a day. I had a heck of a time even catching up to this guy and his chainsaw. He and another guy moved so fast through the rows that I had to run to keep up. They had those trees down in a blink of an eye. It was awe inspiring.

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Following the two guys with chainsaws was a group picking up the trees and hauling them to the edge of the field. Rohdes told me his favorite part about growing Christmas trees is working with the high school and college kids. He spends a lot of time coaching and counseling the kids. “This job defines a kid, physically,”  he told me. “After two to three weeks you’ll have the desire to go back to school and get good grades.”
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The rest of the process would seem familiar to anyone who’s been to a U-cut Christmas tree farm, only on steroids. Another crew picks up the trees from the edge of the field and first puts them on a machine that shakes them to remove loose needles …

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… then the trees are run through a netting device …

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… and piled up by size.

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Then the crew hauls the shaking/baling machine up the hill to the next pile of cut trees. One difficulty in the whole process, as you can see in these pictures, is trying to keep the trees out of the mud (who wants to buy a Christmas tree caked in mud?) Anyone who’s ever lived in Oregon in November and December can understand what a difficult task that can be, especially when you’re driving a heavy baling machine and trucks up a down a hilly terrain (where Christmas trees grow best) in the rain.

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Afterwards the trees are piled on to a truck and taken down the  hill.

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Eventually the trees are taken to McKenzie Farms, a Christmas tree yard that ships the trees world-wide. Upwards of 90 percent of Christmas trees grown in the Pacific Northwest are shipped outside the region, with California being the largest market. Rohdes told me his trees have also been shipped to Hawaii and Mexico.

And, obviously, the final destination is your family room where many of us are sitting today, enjoying our festive tree with our families on Christmas day. Remember today, as we sit by the fire and enjoy the fresh Christmas tree smell and all the memories that come with this day, that there’s a farmer out there who put up to nine years of hard work into your tree. He’s thanking you for enjoying his hard work and we’re thanking him for making our Christmas that much more enjoyable.

Merry Christmas.

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October Farming in Focus: Wine – Another Favorite Thing

A few months ago I did a Farming in Focus on hops, so I felt it was only fair to also pay homage to an equally worthy beverage, especially since I live in a region of the country very well known for its production of Pinot Noir. While I really enjoy the craft brew culture Portland provides, I do drink my fair share of wine and find wine production intriguing. In our early married years my husband and I dabbled in home beer brewing, but wine always seemed a little too scary to take on, so I was really interested to visit with Dave Coelho at Coelho Winery in Amity when they were processing Pinot Noir grapes last month.

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Dave Coelho is a first generation grape grower who moved to the Willamette Valley 25 years ago from California with his wife and four kids. While he’s the first in his family to start a winery, Coelho’s family has history  in agriculture. His father was a dairy farmer, and before he moved to Oregon, Coelho farmed tomatoes, sugar beets, corn, alfalfa and dried beans in the San Joaquin Valley, about 60 miles east of San Francisco. When I asked him what he liked better, he told me he likes making wine better because he gets to interact with the end user. He currently farms 40 acres of grapes with his wife and sons David and Samuel. They primarily grow Pinot Noir but they also grow some Chardonnay and Pinot Gris. His son experiments with Riesling and botrytized wines, a method of allowing a fungus to infect the grapes to a point before making them into a desert wine.

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Aside from growing their own grapes and creating estate wines (which I learned means wine made from grapes grown by the winemaker), Coelho also incorporates his Portuguese heritage by making a number of Portuguese-style wines with grapes he drives to California in a refrigerated truck to buy. The winery also provides warehouse storage and custom grape crushing for other winemakers. The day I visited they were making a Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, which is a blend of Pinot Noir grapes from several vineyards, including Pinot Noir grapes from Scharf Farms nearby. I tagged along with Jason Scharf back to his vineyard after he delivered grapes to Coelho to take the above picture because Coelho had already harvested all the grapes off the vine. Pinot Noir grapes can be very fickle, they like a cool climate with well-drained soil making the Willamette Valley a superb region for growing them. They’re also prone to rot because the grapes are so tightly clustered and their preferred cool, wet growing conditions are ideal for bacterial growth. Pinot Noir from the Willamette Valley is considered some of the best in the Americas.

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Scharf told me that grapes can be harvested by hand, or by machine, but Pinot Noir is difficult to harvest. That might be because of their tightly clustered pine cone shape – the name Pinot Noir actually comes from the french words for “pine” and “black.” A machine can do the harvesting work of 40 men, but the grapes have to be processed right away, unlike when they’re hand picked, which is what Coelho prefers and uses for his wines. Either way, the first step in the process is to crush the grapes through this machine that separates the grapes from the stems.

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See that ladder there? Yeah, I climbed that ladder to take the previous photograph. Then I actually got up on a cherry picker to take this picture, which is saying a lot because I’m kind of squeamish about heights. But, it was worth it because you can see a really good overview of the crushing process, from the dumping of the grapes all the way through to the leftover stems. The crusher removes the stems but it also releases juices and leaves the juice in contact with the skins where it travels out through that white tube at the bottom.

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We have Concord grapes growing in our backyard, so I know just how difficult it is to separate the grapes from the stems by hand. You can’t really make good wine from Concord grapes, but if I could, I’d seriously consider taking my grapes to Coelho to use that efficient crusher! Just look at all those stems! Coelho told me they compost the stems and skins (called pumice) and spread it back on the fields as fertilizer.

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The main reason I got up on the cherry picker was to look in this vat. After the grapes are crushed they’re funneled into this vat where they add wine making yeast. The vat can hold 20 tons of juice, which translates to 3,000 gallons of wine!

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Next the juice is chilled or “cold soaked” for several days if time allows to get the color out of the skins and add complexity and flavor to the wine. This is particularly  important for Pinot Noir because the grapes are thin skinned and don’t provide a lot of color to the wine. A cold soak does increase the risk of spoilage and spontaneous fermentation, so to avoid that, Coelho adds sulfur to prevent unwanted microbial activity. Cold soaking also provides an opportunity to get a good base reading on the sugar content of the juice. After that the juice is heated to ferment.

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During the fermentation process the skins float to the top and eventually the wine is drained off and the skins are gently pressed over two and a half hours to release all remaining juice which is added back to the wine.

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After the yeast has converted all the sugar to alcohol, the wine is aged in barrels for 11 months before it is bottled. Then it lives in a bottle for six to eight months before being sold. In his first year, Coelho produced about 4-500 cases of wine. Now in his 11th vintage (which I learned means he’s been making wine for 11 years) he produces about 20,000 cases of wine.

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Of course I couldn’t leave without sampling! Obviously. 🙂 I asked Coelho why he likes Pinot Noir and he said it’s because it’s versatile and pairs well with so many meals. He views wine as a food, and drinks it to compliment other flavors in the meal. I sheepishly admitted to him that I don’t actually like Pinot Noir (shhh, don’t tell anyone) because I think it tastes kind of thin. I like the fuller-bodied reds and red blends. So I am happy to report that I found a wine that I really enjoyed in his tasting room – the traditional Portuguese red wine blend. I ran out of time at the end of my visit because I had to dash back to get my kids off the bus, but next time my husband and I are in Amity I’m planning to stop by and get a bottle. I learned a lot about wine production, and I hope you did, too. Leave a comment if you learned something new!

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Are Conventional Farmers Doing it Wrong? 2 of 2

Yesterday I talked about why the organic label isn’t an indication of “rightness” when it comes to farming practices. As I mentioned, in order to provide some specific examples of how conventional farmers are also using some of the same practices that many believe define organic production, I surveyed a group of conventional growers. I asked seven questions and got responses from 11 conventional farmers from across the US. Verbatim answers are below (not all, because some had similar answers.) Caveat: this is in no way meant to be a study, I understand it’s a small, volunteer-based sample, but I hope it helps some people understand that organic production is not the only way to farm sustainably.

conv farm QA (1 of 3)Before we get into those examples, though, let’s talk a little about one thing that will come up in their answers: tillage. Tilling (literally digging and turning over the ground) is one way that farmers prepare the soil for crops. It does a number of things, one of which is to mechanically destroy weeds – and killing weeds is important because they steal resources (like water and nutrients) from crops and reduce efficiency. There are many benefits to tilling like incorporating nutrients into the soil, but there are also disadvantages such as release of carbon into the atmosphere and increased erosion.  No-till and reduced-till agriculture has become increasingly popular in conventional farming as it saves time, money and fuel, sequesters carbon, and maintains soil structure.  Conventional farmers use herbicides to kill weeds instead of tilling, which is something that organic farmers can’t do. (To be clear, tilling does not eliminate the need for herbicides, many farmers who till still use herbicides.) One of the farmers I reached out to said, “On a national level, the switch to no-till is huge in terms of environmental benefits. Carbon is stored in the ground and not released into the atmosphere, and secondly, erosion is drastically reduced. These two things alone makes conventional farming (with the use of no-till) superior environmentally to organic – at least on a large scale, as it is very difficult to farm organically without relying on cultivation for weed management.”

Ok, the Q&A. It’s long, but worth the read.

Question #1: Do you use cover crops? (Note for readers: Things that are grown when a farmer is not growing a crop to sell. Advantages: reduced soil erosion, weed suppression, soil amendment.)

  • Yes, we use cereal rye, hairy vetch, or tillage radish for cover crops
  • We have done both cover and not. We prefer cover crops out of convenience. Who wants their seeds blown away with all of your top soil?
  • We have just planted oats as a cover crop. We harvested peas in the field this year and are planning on putting in radishes in the spring. By planting the oats, we capture any remaining nutrients, which will be held by the oat crop. When we spray out the oats in the spring those nutrients will then be released back into the soil and will be available to the radish crop. Furthermore, having a crop growing keeps the soil “alive.” There is another whole layer of life in the soil in form of various microbes, and they are kept healthy by having a growing crop at all times.
  • We use cover crops and use soil samples to see what the soil and crop needs
  • No. There are not many/any economically viable cover crop options in our area. We do “rest” ground by putting it through a three year alfalfa rotation.
  • Sometimes. Everything we do is about conserving moisture – cover crops use moisture. It takes six inches of water to get wheat to a point it will help as a cover crop.

Question #2: Do you use crop rotation? (Note for readers: this is the opposite of a mono-crop – not growing the same thing on the same field year after year. Advantages: keeping pests and disease in check, reduced need for synthetic fertilizer, soil health)

  • conv farm QA (2 of 3)Yes, we rotate crops. We’re in a ten year battle over raising canola because we’re looking for crop rotations that are good fits
  • Don’t most people? Grow too much of the same thing, and it is like watching inbreeding!
  • Oh yes. We grow ten different crops. We rotate according to market demands, crop history, weed history, soil needs. Our soils are in excellent condition.
  • Yes, we rotate our corn and soybeans every year, and we no-till.
  • Yes, intensively. Typically winter wheat, corn, safflower or sunflowers, malt barley. If needed we’ll then go to summer fallow or back to wheat. Also this would be when we’d put ground in alfalfa and leave it for a few years.

Question #3: Do you use Integrated Pest Management (IPM)? (Note for readers: the strategy behind IPM is to try to control pests before they become a problem using things like beneficial insect populations and judicious use of pesticides.)

  • On our farm we hardly use insecticides because of crop rotation and the use of GMO crops.
  • We keep beneficial insect habitats in place
  • Yes, we use a variety of chemicals from different groups to avoid resistance issues, including organic options if that is the best fit, soil tillage or lack thereof (no-till). Several oat varieties we grow naturally suppress nematode activity, and we pay attention to protecting/enhancing beneficial insect populations.
  • To an extent. Not very formally, but we have a crop consultant who advises us, and we never blindly spray, just because we are told. We often weigh the cost/benefit of spraying. We don’t release natural predators, but we do consider carefully if it is worth spraying.
  • I have used IPM for decades. That is one thing that drives me up a wall about internet farmers. They come up these ideas that farmers have done for decades

Question #4: How do you limit pesticide use?

  • conv farm QA (3 of 3)First off, pesticides are expensive, so we don’t want to use any more than we have to from a financial perspective. Furthermore, when we chose which crop to grow, we take into account the history of the field, and if we can predict a weed or insect problem, we may chose not to grow that crop, or to grow it in a different location. Also, by planting wheat later in the year, we can avoid aphids. We may choose to plant a variety that we know has better disease resistance thereby potentially eliminating a fungicide spray.
  • We never use more then we should on herbicides, it’s not beneficial to the crop, soil, environment, and it’s expensive! When we spray we always choose a day with little wind and cooler weather. We are always mindful of where it may drift.
  • We grow non-organic oats and alfalfa, which get sprayed with nothing. Our Roundup ready corn and soy get sprayed as minimally as possible.
  • We raise GMO crops, scout fields, apply as needed – for insecticide when the count per plant reaches a specific threshold, and for herbicides we use the maximum rate (really cuts down on the need for additional applications which in the end is less pesticide) and time it so that other methods (canopy of rows) controls weeds.
  • Scout fields – especially when looking for pests to see if they meet at economic threshold for applying pesticides
  • GMOs
  • We use bt corn and cotton. When we don’t have to spray for worms we don’t kill off beneficial insects and then we don’t have to spray for secondary pests such as spider mites.

Question #5: Do you reuse by-products or take advantage of other farms’ by-products?

  • We run cattle too, so after we combine our grass seed, we bale straw for winter feed/bedding, and also bale wheat straw for bedding. Once straw is gone and fields start to re-grow, we use them as summer pasture. Also, a silly example – we got five goats to eat brush. When we bale alfalfa, I pick up the alfalfa the rake missed into a garbage can and take one to the goats every night until the alfalfa gets too big to drive on.
  • We try to keep our straw on the farm and just chop the straw finely. In the end of the hot summer it shades the soil, keeping it a little cooler and helps retain a little moisture and protects the plants and soil a little from the intense late summer heat. As it breaks down it adds organic matter and nutrients back into the soil.
  • I graze all of my grain crops. Reduces tillage.
  • Examples from farms I’ve visited for my Farming in Focus series:
    • by products (1 of 1)Lynn Trupp (March – sheep farmer) uses spent brewers’ grain that he gets for free from a local brewery.
    • Brenda Frketich (April – nine different crops) has an arrangement with a nearby cattle farmer where he cleans up her field by baling leftover plant material from the pea harvest and feeds it to his cows.
    • Marie Bowers Stagg (July – wheat) bales up leftover wheat stubble and sends it to a mushroom farm to become a home for baby mushrooms.
    • Ben Coleman (August – hops) composts leftover plant material and spreads it back on the fields.

Question #6: If you use irrigation, are there ways you’ve made it more efficient? (And other thoughts on water)

  • We adopt new technologies and are constantly looking for ways to conserve water. We’ve gone from flood irrigation to sprinklers to sprinklers heads in bubble modes. Those sprinklers are 97 percent efficient. This year I am installing drip irrigation. Very expensive but it is almost 100 percent efficient.
  • We have done drip, sprinkler, and flood. We now have 100 acres on the underground drip that uses the same amount of water that used to only flood about 40 acres. Using the low drops on the sprinkler has been an excellent upgrade for our 160 acres of alfalfa. As far as water efficiency, the drip is better than the pivot sprinkler and a bizillion times better than flood.
  • water (1 of 1)We have linears with low flow, drop tubes if possible rather than hard hose big guns as they are much more efficient (Sara’s note for the reader: “linears” are big spraying metal arms held between two wheels that slowly rolls across a field and waters from above. “Big guns” are stationary single pivots that water in a circle like you might do in your lawn.) We also have a field in wheat that has a few gently, rolling hills in it and must be worked before planting green beans, so in that field we are leaving all the wheat residue. When we work the soil in the spring, that wheat residue will provide a nice amount of mulch around the surface, which will help prevent the water from running down the hills.
  • We use drip irrigation. We manage storm water through installing roof run off management, critical area stabilization, a heavy use area, woodland management, and structures for water control, including a sediment control pond that has been in use for over 60 years. We use stream fencing to exclude livestock from accessing local streams. Our detailed Nutrient Management Plan is evaluated and updated every three years to address the nitrogen and phosphorous loading into local groundwater that feeds into Chesapeake Bay tributaries. We continue to remain vigilant and do our best to monitor and improve the watershed and soil health of our property.

Question #7: How do you preserve soil quality?

  • We soil test before making fertilizer blends.
  • We currently hold the award for farmers of the year in soil and water conservation for our region in Iowa and enroll in as many conservation stewardship programs as possible to preserve soil quality and minimize pesticide use. By lowering boom height on sprayers, having wider buffer zones from waterways, using no-till methods and cover crops, keeping beneficial insect habitats in place, etc. we are pretty proud of our farm practices.
  • Over the last 30 years our conventional farm has been inducted into our state Ag Hall of Fame and been awarded our county Soil Conservation Farm of the year (twice!) and Small Business of the Year, partially for our work in improving our farm to be as environmentally friendly as possible.
  • We use a variety of methods for soil quality – soil testing, amendments, micronutrient application, minimum and no-till when applicable.
  • This is huge to us. Our farm was not in great shape when we bought it, and we have put so much into improving the soil. The biggest issue to us was low pH, so we have put on lots of lime and our pH levels are now perfect for what we grow. This is important as nutrients in the soil are more available to the plant when you have the right pH. Furthermore, we switched to mostly no-till. This turned out to have huge, unexpected benefits to the soil. Increased earth worm activity, increased organic matter which improves water holding capacity and makes the soil more “mellow.”
  • We do conventional tillage but our equipment leaves a lot of plant material on the surface to control erosion (54 mph winds yesterday and the soil wasn’t blowing), we use field tile to control surface runoff, we have buffer strips along waterways. We also don’t remove plant matter (corn and soybean stalks) but till it in.
  • We are exclusively no-till and have been for 15 years. We keep water ways and highly erodible land in grass. We soil test and apply nutrients accordingly. We also use a stripper header for our cereal grains which leaves 99 percent of the crop residue in the field.
  • No-til when possible which greatly reduces soil erosion. We soil tests every year and put on compost and manure.

That’s all for the Q&A – I hope you learned a few cool things. I’ll leave you with a final thought on sustainable farming from one of the farmers who responded, “Personally, I’m in favor of taking the very best out of all management systems and combining them to suit your own farm. We can do best for our farms and soils if we adapt our management based on our own situation, and not get tied into a set of inflexible rules. I have nothing against organic agriculture. In a lot of ways, organic farmers have done a better job of nourishing and protecting their soil than conventional farmers, but I think conventional farmers are catching up. We can always learn to do better, and that is one of the things that is really exciting about being a farmer.”

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