SA Newsletter Summer 2012

Sustainable Agriculture Newsletter

Sustainable Agriculture Newsletter Header

Sustainable Agriculture Newsletters Archive

College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences
Volume 20, Issue 3 — Summer 2012

Do you have a story you would like featured in the Sustainable Agriculture newsletter? Send your submission to and we’ll consider adding it to an upcoming newsletter.


The MISA board of directors and staff are deeply saddened the recent death of Dr. Bud Markhart, faculty member for 31 years in the University of Minnesota’s Department of Horticultural Science. Bud served on the MISA board and was instrumental in the formation of the “Cornercopia” Student Organic Farm on the St. Paul Campus, as well as in developing University courses in organic agriculture. He also served on the boards of the Minnesota Food Association the Minnesota State Horticultural Society, and was generous in outreach and advising to other groups including the Dream of Wild Health farm and the U of MN Extension Master Gardeners.

Brian Devore of the Land Stewardship Project wrote this excellent blog post about Bud Markhart’s legacy. It includes portions of a detailed interview with Bud that took place in fall 2011, which describes much of his philosophy, work, and hopes for the future of organic agriculture teaching and research.

The Markhart Organics Endowment Fund has been established at the University of Minnesota. The fund will support student experiential learning in organic and sustainable food systems through work on the Student Organic Farm, as well as students working with horticultural crops in engagement with traditionally underserved neighborhoods in the Minneapolis/Saint Paul metropolitan area. Memorials may be sent to CFANS Development Office, University of Minnesota, 235 Skok Hall, 2003 Upper Buford Circle, St. Paul, MN 55108.


Have you ever asked yourself, “How do I figure out my Return on Investment (ROI) for my pastured poultry enterprise?” Or how about, “What’s the difference between cash flow and profitability, and which one is more important for my farm right now?”

If you’ve never applied for a farm loan before – or even if you have—you may wonder what numbers loan officers look for to decide whether your enterprise is worthy of credit. This book lays out all of the typical farm financial calculations and ratios in an accessible format, and explains how to collect the information that goes into those calculations. It fleshes out the numbers with examples drawn from real farms that represent a variety of enterprises – from CSAs to sheep farms and from British Columbia to Wisconsin.

Few farm finance publications are written with small-scale, specialty-crop, diversified, and beginning farms in mind. If that sounds like your kind of farm, then this is your kind of farm finance book. A particular strength of this book is its emphasis on planning for resilience of your farm. The authors recognize that unexpected things happen – sometimes several at once – and encourage readers to develop a game plan for worst-case scenarios. Fearless Farm Finances is available from the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service (MOSES).


The Minnesota Department of Agriculture has compiled resources for farmers who are dealing with drought. Farmers not currently dealing with drought may want to file these resources away for the future. The resource list includes information about financial assistance; resources for tracking weather, monitoring drought conditions, and finding crop condition reports; and other items such as Extension information about caring for livestock in heat and drought, emergency hay lists, and information about emergency haying and grazing on CRP or other public lands.

Drought Resources Website


(submitted by Tim King, Whole Farm Co-op member)

Some people want to know how their food was grown and who grew it. That was true in the 1990s, when farmers from the Central chapter of the Sustainable Farming Association formed Whole Farm Cooperative in Long Prairie. The number of those people has increased since then.

Most of those people live in, or near, urban areas. Whole Farm Cooperative members are exclusively rural. We met face to face with our customers as often as time and expense permitted, but our major vehicle of communication was a monthly email listing our available products. At the time, that was a novel idea. Customers ordered, via email, and we drove a truck full of farm products to an agreed-upon drop site. Today, email continues to serve that purpose.

Sometime around 2000, a series of volunteers and professionals began developing our web site. It was a somewhat lurching effort with a goal of having an online ordering site. It was also intended to provide customers with meaningful information about Cooperative members and their farming practices.

That was the 20th century. Now, thanks to a grant from the North Central Region Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (NCR-SARE), we are adapting the 21st century’s virtual communication technologies. We hope that will help us further develop our ability to provide solid information to customers and, ultimately, improve our sales.

With our grant we have established a Facebook account, added educational information to our website’s home page, and have begun creating farmer profiles based on interviews with cooperative members. In the few months we’ve worked on the project we’ve learned that although many customers like our Facebook page, some customers do not and will not use Facebook. We’ve also learned that many customers like the information on the website but that some don’t look at it. During the two years of grant funding, the honor of learning about our customers, and how they perceive our products, and us, will be as valuable as learning how to use new communications media. We will continue to do both.

Whole Farm Cooperative


North Central SARE’s Graduate Student grant program aims to help develop researchers and fund innovative sustainable agriculture projects associated with a graduate student’s program of study.

In 2012, four awards were made to students in Minnesota:

  • Elizabeth Bjorklund, a graduate student in Animal Science at the UMN’s Twin Cities campus will be working with her advisor, Dr. Bradley Heins to compare the growth, meat quality, consumer acceptability and profitability of organically raised dairy-beef steers to conventionally raised animals. The research is being done with the UM’s organic dairy herd at the West Central Research and Outreach Center in Morris.

  • Renata Borba, UMN-Twin Cities, will be working with advisor Dr. Marla Spivak to determine the benefits of propolis to honey bee health and immunity.

  • Brian Bluhm, a graduate student in Education at UMN-Duluth will be working with Dr. Cindy Hale to provide education students training in sustainable agriculture principles and experience student teaching with a mentor who can model use of school gardens or orchards to teach K-12 students.

  • Eric Koeritz, Horticultural Science, UMN-Twin Cities will be working with advisor Dr. Eric Watkins to develop a method for rapid, and accurate selection for resistance to rust pathogens in perennial ryegrass germplasm based on plant chemical compounds associated with rust resistance.

NCR-SARE has changed the timeline for the graduate student grant program, and will release a call for proposals for 2013 projects in March, with proposals due in May.

North Central SARE also funds Minnesota sustainable agriculture research through its R&E program. In 2012, John Mesko and the Sustainable Farming Association of Minnesota were awarded funding for their project “Adjust 2015: When Farming Reality Doesn’t Match the Business Plan.” They will survey farmers and develop case studies from farms that have not met their initial goals for various reasons. They will seek to identify some key factors that have prevented operations from reaching goals, identify adjustment strategies, and develop support mechanisms and tools for farmers who are not reaching their initial goals. The tools will be used to help farmers implement positive changes to the operation, assist in adjusting farm goals, or if necessary, assist farmers to exit farming successfully.

NCR-SARE is releasing the Call for Pre-proposals for the 2013 R&E project cycle in August. Pre-proposals will be due early November.


Specialty crops such as apples, pumpkins, sweet corn, berries, and a variety of vegetables are staples of farmers’ markets and pick-your-own places across Minnesota. Their high dollar value per acre and smaller acreage requirement than conventional row crops makes them look like an attractive option for beginning farmers, farmers with limited tillable land resources, or farmers close to the large customer base of an urban area. But how do they really stack up in terms of profitability? Answers can be found in this new report, “Minnesota Specialty Crops: An Analysis of Profitability and Performance 2008-2011.” The report summarizes the financial performance of specialty crop enterprises on 47 farms that participated in the Farm Business Management course between 2008 and 2011.

Gross returns per acre ranged from under $2000 per acre for crops such as pumpkins and sweet corn; and above $8000 per acre for crops such as strawberries and assorted vegetables. While gross returns were fairly high, direct and overhead expenses were also very high for many of these crops. Strawberries and assorted vegetables consistently showed a net profit, after covering all expenses plus a labor & management charge. Raspberries also showed a net profit on average over the years of the study. Sweet corn for direct-market came close to breaking even on direct and overhead expenses, but consistently showed a net loss once labor and management was accounted for. In other words, farmers raising sweet corn were donating their time in order to approximately break even. Several fruit crops also came close to breaking even on direct and overhead costs, but did not cover labor and management costs. Pumpkins showed a net profit in some years but a loss in others after accounting for labor and management; and the average over the years 2009 - 2011 was a net loss.

This report tracks a limited number of farms and does not capture all of the diversity of Minnesota’s specialty crop farms. The report does give other specialty crop growers the opportunity to see how their enterprises stack up against the reported averages; and also gives farmers who are considering trying these crops some information to go by regarding potential expenses and profitability.

Find the report online. To request a print copy, call: 651-201-6012


Farm-to-School initiatives in Minnesota have been very successful over the past few years in getting locally grown produce, meats, and specialty food products such as honey into school cafeterias in 145 school districts. Now, the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) is launching a Farm-to-Childcare initiative to begin the process of bringing fresh, local food to the kitchens and tables of daycare providers. “The Freshest for the Youngest” is the tagline of this new initiative, and it is off to a promising beginning with 13 pilot locations in the Twin Cities metro area, St. Cloud, and Rochester selected for the 2012 season.

As with Farm-to-School, this Farm-to-Childcare pilot program has great potential to grow to many more locations and to involve more farmers from all over Minnesota. Farmers who grow their own fruits and vegetables on land they control can legally sell those products to any buyer – including food services at schools, nursing homes, and daycare centers. Farmers who are some distance from major urban centers in Minnesota could still approach food services in their own areas to talk about supplying fresh, local food to their local institutions. The Farm-to-Childcare initiative will also raise the profile of this marketing option for our Minnesota fruit and vegetable growers.

More information is available online about the IATP Farm-to-Childcare initiative.

The MISA website has more information about regulations for marketing locally grown produce.


Jim Van Der Pol is a longtime advocate of sustainable farming. His family’s farm, Pastures A’ Plenty, is well-known in Minnesota as a supplier of sustainably-raised pork, and the farm and its associated meat business is regularly, and rightly, held up as a model of successful multi-generation, value-added agriculture. Now Jim has finally written the book that his family and friends always told him he should write. Conversations With The Land is a selection of 59 essays about neighbors, land, weather and seasons, customers, economics, government, loss of the landscape of family-sized farms, and hope for the future of agriculture on a human scale.

The book is published by No Bull Press, which also publishes Graze magazine. Read more about the book on the publisher’s website.


This newsletter is supported by the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture (MISA) - a partnership between the Sustainer's Coalition and the University of Minnesota College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences (CFANS); the University of Minnesota Extension Service; the North Central Region Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (NCRSARE) Professional Development Program (PDP); and the Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA).

Send story ideas to MISA, 411 Borlaug Hall, 1991 Upper Buford Circle. St. Paul, MN 55108, 612- 625-8235, fax (612) 625-1268, e-mail: Editorial board members: Helene Murray, 612-625-0220,; Beth Nelson, 612-625-8217,; Jane Jewett,; and Kate Seager, (612) 625-8235, Please send address changes directly to: Kate Seager,, MISA, 411 Borlaug Hall, 1991 Buford Circle, St. Paul, MN 55108. You can find more University of Minnesota Extension Service educational information at Also check MISA's home page.

Our mission statement: To help bring people together to influence the future of agriculture and rural communities to achieve socially, environmentally, and economically sustainable farms and communities.To stimulate thinking and discussion about sustainability, we try to present items that reflect different points of view. This being the case, we aren't promoting and don't necessarily agree with everything we publish.