Farming in the Foothills
Mandarins are considered the signature crop of the foothills. Foothill growers are challenged by poor soils, limited water, increasing pest pressure, and production costs. Many of us are employing non-traditional techniques to counter these challenges. Two of these practices, pruning and mulching, are currently being studied by UCCE Placer/Nevada in collaboration with five local growers.
In the past, citrus growers were warned not to prune. We were told that pruning would harm the trees, reduce yields, and be detrimental to our bottom lines. We attended UCCE workshops and learned differently. Many of us took the plunge and have been pruning our citrus for years. We have seen improvements in the orchard. Pruning citrus is believed to improve tree health, decrease pest populations, reduce pesticide use, and improve fruit yields and quality.
Mulching has not been a practice in most orchards. Fertilizer and herbicides were not very expensive, water was plentiful. Mulch increases soil water-holding capacity, reduces surface evaporation, and adds organic matter to soil while increasing microbial activity. This study will evaluate the impact that mulching has on the soil, trees, and herbicide use. Wood chips, horse manure, and other sources of organic materials are readily available and inexpensive. In our orchard, we started mulching when the drought began. Our water use didn't increase and more importantly our trees didn't suffer from stress. We think that the mulch provided us with some drought resilience. The study will evaluate this.
UCCE is at the beginning of this project. Research trials have been established in five commercial mandarin orchards. All five have mulching trials and three of the orchards have pruning trials. Horse manure and wood chips have been identified as a readily available, inexpensive source of mulching material. Mulching parameters, such as composition, depth, area, and application timing were discussed and determined by the participants. Samples of the mulch being used in each orchard are being analyzed. Pruning guidelines have also been set. Growers were trained to ensure that pruning is performed consistently across the study orchards. Baseline data on soil parameters, such as water holding capacity, texture, nutrients, organic matter and microbial activity, has been completed for the first year and will be performed each year. Soil analysis results were reviewed with the growers and fertilization plans discussed. Soils moisture is being monitored with soil tensiometers. Data loggers capable of tracking temperature and relative humidity are installed at each trial location. Data on physical tree parameters, such as canopy volume and density, tree trunk diameter, and other characteristics is also being gathered. In August each year, leaves from each orchard will be tested for nutrient composition. In October, we will harvest individual trees in the experiment and collect yield, fruit quality and color data.
As the trial progresses, results will be reported at grower meetings and UCCE-hosted workshops. UCCE will also hold workshops to teach producers the pruning and mulching techniques used in the trials. Completion of the research will result in a detailed analysis of the impact of pruning and mulching on commercial mandarin orchards. The desired result is the widespread adoption of pruning and/or mulching practices among citrus and other specialty crop producers.
During this angst, two successful businessmen, whom I knew and respected, explained that I was not understanding the art of the sale. I wasn't clear about who I was, what I was selling, and why they needed my product. I was expecting my product to speak for and sell itself. When I did engage, my sales pitch wasn't clear, direct, and persuasive. I tended to let the prospective buyer dictate terms because I needed to make the sale. As bills piled up, I began to work on a more refined sales pitch or elevator speech. With work, that speech resulted in sales. Profits increased and business stabilized.
Many years later, I have transitioned from manufacturing a product to growing a product. I have learned to tailor my presentation to the audience. Along the way, I developed a few key rules that I follow when delivering an elevator speech.
1) Who are you? – Identify yourself, your position, and your farm or business clearly. Have a business card and attach it to marketing and sales material.
2) What are you offering? – Clearly identify what you are offering for sale. “I have citrus” is a generic statement that I try not to use. A clearer statement would be, “today I am here to talk to you about our mandarin oranges and Meyer lemons”.
3) What makes you and your product unique or better than your competitors? – Prior to the pitch you need to have done your homework so that you can answer this question. Be clear and succinct. State facts.
4) What can you offer besides the product? – Merchandising materials, demo or sampling programs, listings on your website, product education to staff or customers, brand loyalty and recognition, custom or unique packaging. In essence, anything that will help the buyer (reseller) make the sale to their customer.
5) What is your price and what are your terms? – Again research. What are your costs in growing and delivering the product? What is your standard packaging? What are the wholesale and retail prices for your product? Can you deliver the product? What is the delivery cost for you? When and how do you expect to be paid? Know if you have room to negotiate going in, but don't state that you are negotiable up front. Let the buyer ask.
6) Why do they need you and your product? – This is your closing and the impression that you will leave with your buyer. Summarize clearly and concisely rules 2, 3, and 4. Be positive. I like to close with “I know that our products would be a great addition to your line, and I look forward to working with you”.
Developing an elevator speech takes time, research and commitment. You need to know your product and your business. You need to know your competition. Above all you need to know the customer and marketplace. I cannot emphasis enough the research that is needed to deliver a successful and positive pitch. The elevator speech is your commercial!
This is the time of the year to check your irrigation system. Does it need repairs, modifications, or improvements? Are there leaks? Does it need to be set up or cleaned out? Is it turned off when it's raining? Do you have the proper frequency and duration for watering your pastures and crops?
Pastures may not need irrigation yet – check to be sure you are not watering unnecessarily. Look at your soil and don't start watering until your soil needs it. Evaluate soil moisture in your crops.
As the season progresses, keep a close eye on your perennial and tree crops. Both drought stress and excess water can cause root damage.
Below are resources to help you set up, evaluate and improve your irrigation system.
BMPs for Water Quality http://ucanr.edu/sites/placernevadasmallfarms/files/170697.pdf
Center for Irrigation Technology http://www.wateright.org/
California Irrigation Management Information System (CIMIS) http://www.tid.org/water/water-management/california-irrigation-management-information-system-cimis
NRCS Estimating Soil Moisture by Appearance and Feel https://nutrientmanagement.tamu.edu/content/tools/estimatingsoilmoisture.pdf
UC Drought Management http://ucmanagedrought.ucdavis.edu/
ATTRA Irrigation Efficiency https://attra.ncat.org/attra-pub/farm_energy/irrigation.html
Resources for pasture irrigation:
Drought Tip: Managing Irrigated Pasture during Drought http://anrcatalog.ucanr.edu/Details.aspx?itemNo=8537
Establishing and Managing Irrigated Pasture for Horses (and other pastured animals) http://anrcatalog.ucanr.edu/Details.aspx?itemNo=8486
Management Options to Reduce Pollutants in Runoff from Irrigated Pastures http://anrcatalog.ucanr.edu/Details.aspx?itemNo=6590D
In my first Starting Smarter blog post, I talked about hands-on education, business planning, market research, and crop selection (Starting Smarter Part 1). I could write a book on what I didn't know when I started farming. In Part 2, I will summarize key considerations for a successful start-up and things I would do in the first years.
If I had it all to do over again, what would I do differently in my vegetable operation?
Land: A few things I would check when choosing land:
• Zoning and restrictions
• Flat/sloped and direction/aspect
• Water source and reliability
• Soil quality
• Drainage – how does the land behave during the dry AND rainy seasons?
• Delivery truck accessibility
• Prior use and potential for organic certification
• Surrounding property use – is there anything around you that may require barriers or cause conflict? (e.g. noise or odor restrictions)
• Is there adequate fencing? If not add that expense into your start up budget.
Farmers' Markets: I would stick with one farmers' market until I was consistently making a profit before expanding to more.
Organic Certification: I would have become Certified Organic sooner. It really was not hard, the certifier was very helpful and guided me through the process. It would have helped me keep better records from the beginning.
Labor: I would estimate my annual labor budget and add in employees only when I had enough cash flow. I would calculate the full cost (loaded labor rate, including taxes and workers compensation insurance) of an employee before hiring. I would consider how much time I could afford to spend as a manager rather than a worker on my farm. I would hire people only for the time I was available to manage them.
Financing & Savings: I did know a few things in the beginning because I had managed and owned other businesses in the past and benefited from having a savings account and family backing. I knew that the business would not turn a profit for at least three years and I needed enough savings to live off during that time.
There are some things you just have to learn by doing. For me, I'm better at fielding questions from farmers' market customers now. I remember how to harvest, what temperature, and how long to store various types of produce. In the beginning, I had to constantly check a book or go online for this information. There are many things I am still learning and I'm sure there always will be.
Your unique situation will require your own solutions and methods. I hope these tips help you become a profitable farmer more quickly and efficiently. May you have a bountiful and successful farm!
Check out the New Farmers and Resources tabs on our Foothill Farming website: http://ucanr.edu/sites/placernevadasmallfarms/
If I had it all to do over again, what would I do differently?
Practice: To start, I would educate myself by doing – work or intern on a profitable farm for at least one season. I can't tell you how many hours I wasted on inefficient harvesting when an experienced farmer could have trained me to do it a better, faster way.
Education: While I was learning how to do the hands-on work, I would take classes – farm business, farm management, farm marketing, etc. Taking classes taught by people with experience in the field gives a new farmer the opportunity to ask questions and have access to more information and resources. Farming is a unique business with its own language and challenges. Farm business classes can help a new farmer develop a realistic and informed business plan.
Business Perspective: I would not start with a homesteader perspective like the one I did. I had too many enterprises from the get go – chickens, goats, and 40+ vegetables. For a farm to be financially successful, it needs to be treated as a business, not a hobby.
Business Plan: I would focus more on marketing and financial goals. I would include the word “profit” in my mission statement. My original business plan focused too specifically on land use and crop production, environmental impact, and social involvement.
Banking: I did pretty well in this area. The following tips saved me a lot of stress during a financially dry period:
• Start with a separate farm business checking and personal checking account
• Do not take on debt
• Keep track of everything on some version of accounting software.
Market Research: I would do market research on what to grow. I would takes notes on price and what products were in demand at farmers' markets and other outlets where I intended to sell. I would contact produce managers and farmers' market managers and ask them what they wanted. I would watch market customers to see where they shopped. I would note which products sold out by the end of the market. As it was, I started out growing what I liked to eat – and more! If I had done my market research, I could have wasted less time on crops that were not in demand or were too inexpensive for me to be competitive on pricing.
See Starting Smarter Part 2: Lessons I Learned Along the Way next week to read about Land, Equipment, Labor and more.
Check out the New Farmers and Resources tabs on this website information and some useful information:
Foothill Farming: http://ucanr.edu/sites/placernevadasmallfarms/