By Margo Hale, NCAT Southeast Regional Director, Armed to Farm Program Director, and Agriculture Specialist

My day begins with a hot cup of coffee and a quick check of our farm. What a thrill to find a new baby calf from our Belted Galloways, to watch the antics of our pig, to have my girls gather farm-fresh eggs, and to watch the goats grazing. Livestock bring life to the farm!

Then again, livestock can bring difficulty. The bull escaped; we need to return him to the pasture and fix the fence. The processor doesn’t have a slot for the pig, the price of chicken feed rises, and the goats get into mischief.

While I can’t imagine life without livestock, I recognize that they don’t fit on every farm or for every farm family. Let’s consider the benefits and some of the challenges of living with livestock.

 Benefits of Livestock

Goats and pigs eating discarded pumpkins.

Livestock can turn your over-ripe or excess vegetables into meat. On the Hale farm, goats and pigs take care of the discarded Halloween pumpkins. Photo: Margo Hale, NCAT.

On our farm, and yours, livestock turn pasture and browse into healthy meat. Pasture-raised hogs and poultry need other feed as well, but the meat and eggs produced on pasture are healthier for our family and community. Those grazing animals improve the fertility of our land and boost soil health. And during the garden season our livestock “recycle” excess or over-ripe vegetables, turning waste into meat or eggs. Farms that already have a customer base will find that adding farm-raised meat or eggs can really boost sales and bring in new customers.

There are also many intangible, but real, benefits, as we have learned. Livestock are fun to watch and interesting to raise. They’re valuable for teaching children to be responsible, observant, and curious. They teach kids how science and nature work and how food is grown. These life-long lessons were given to me as a child, and it is satisfying to pass them on to my children, as well.

Assessing Resources

For our family, livestock are a perfect fit. Are they for you?

Before getting started with any enterprise, it is important to consider the goals you have for your farm, family, and lifestyle. How will livestock help you meet your farm goals? Your farm goals, including financial goals, will impact the livestock species you choose, your scale of production, and marketing streams.

A black chicken exits a wire enclosure.

Chickens are easier to contain and need much less space than cattle, so they can be a good fit on small acreage. Photo: Robyn Metzger, NCAT.

Next, what are your available resources? Consider land, money, infrastructure, and time. Some enterprises lend themselves best to smaller acreages: poultry, rabbits, and bees take little space. Grazing livestock need more area so that you can protect soil and pastures and keep livestock healthy.   If you have sufficient acreage to raise larger livestock, then the type of forages may influence your decisions. Woodlots are a good fit for hogs and goats, whereas farms with mostly grass pastures best suit sheep and cattle.

Another factor that influences your choice of enterprise is the money you have available to invest in livestock and infrastructure. You can start small with any enterprise, but some are easier and cheaper to contain, such as poultry and rabbits. Grazing livestock need a larger enclosure and are therefore more expensive to start. If there is existing infrastructure, that is very helpful. If not, you will need to budget funds for fence, water, and needed equipment. These up-front costs can be significant, but they are vital. You don’t want an angry phone call from your neighbor about your goats killing their fruit trees!

Having a way to deliver adequate quantities of water to your livestock is also imperative and can be tricky to figure out. In addition, livestock usually need supplementary feed. Poultry, rabbits, and hogs need grain, while grazing animals need hay in winter. Where can you source feed, for what price?  Where can you store feed to keep it dry and protected from livestock and rodents? Feed goes into the budget, as all feed costs are paid before you get meat to sell.

Shelter may be an issue. In our moderate climate and with our choice of hardy cattle and goats, we rarely need shelter. However, baby goats born in a cold rain will suffer. If they get too chilled to nurse, they will die. Therefore, we need a plan for circumstances where the livestock do need shelter.

Local markets and processing may also influence your choice. Pasture-raised eggs are always popular, but what is the selling price for a dozen in your area? Can you make money selling at that price, given your feed cost? Similarly, meat enterprises may be feasible or not, depending on the local prices, processing, and feed costs. You will need to do some homework, investigating the local situation and plugging the numbers into a budget to see if the enterprise makes sense. The sample budgets in ATTRA’s Small Scale Livestock Production publication can serve as a starting point. Also see publications on the ATTRA livestock page about whatever enterprise you are considering. Know before you begin what you can produce and for what cost—this knowledge can help guide your choice of livestock enterprise and save your family from a costly mistake.

Time is a precious resource and your farm setup and the enterprises you choose must take this into consideration. Our family includes two children and two full-time, off-farm jobs; therefore, one of our goals is to have easy-to-manage enterprises that don’t take much time. That is important when we need to leave the farm; also, our farm sitter needs the chores to be low-stress and easy to complete. We accomplish that by being intentional in our enterprise selection, infrastructure setup, and our management. Don’t set yourself up for disappointment by taking on more than you can easily manage in the time you have available.

In next week’s blog, I will share some of the strategies and infrastructure we use on our farm to save time and money. Stay tuned!

Learning More

No matter what livestock you choose, it is best to start small. Learn with a few animals so your mistakes—and you will make mistakes—won’t be as costly. Continuously monitor your enterprise and adjust as needed. Remember to keep your farm and family or lifestyle goals in mind. Is this livestock enterprise helping you meet those goals? For example, while our sheep were profitable, we found that we didn’t enjoy raising them and they took too much time. In contrast, my coworker, NCAT Livestock Specialist Linda Coffey, found that sheep worked better than meat goats on their farm. Their customers wanted lamb and the sheep made best use of the pastures. We sold our sheep, and Linda sold the meat goats. Both of us are happier.

There is much to learn about raising and marketing livestock. I would suggest finding a mentor who you can learn from and lean on for advice. Connecting with local producer or grazing groups is a great way to find a mentor. ATTRA has many resources (linked below), and our Livestock Specialists are available to answer questions and talk with you about these considerations. Linda and I will be discussing species specific considerations in an upcoming podcast. Send your questions to us at  margoh@ncat.org and lindac@ncat.org.

ATTRA Resources

Getting Started with Livestock Podcast

Small Scale Livestock Production

ATTRA Livestock and Pasture resources

Livestock as a Tool: Improving Soil Health, Boosting Crops

Integrating Livestock and Crops

Managed Grazing Tutorial

Healthy Animals, Happy Farm

Working With Your Meat Processor

By Jamie Fanous, Sustainable Agriculture Specialist

Like many, during these challenging times, I’ve turned to home gardening! I’ve used gardening as an opportunity to reconnect with nature and clear my head, all while staying close to home during the quarantine.

Interested in home gardening? Need to build a raised garden bed frame? Check out this amazing video on the NCAT Youtube page with Jeremy Prater!

Over the course of these summer months, I’ve grown a variety of fruits and vegetables, including eggplant, tomatoes, melons, summer squash, zucchini, peppers, tomatillos, and even herbs and flowers. Since home gardening is often at a very small scale, it can allow for more time to dedicate to monitoring and tending. I’ve been able to carefully monitor my garden’s water moisture, soil quality, and plant health, as well as identify plant diseases, pests, and beneficial insects.

I’ve also maintained a variety of beautiful native plants such as ceanothus or California Lilacs, which serve as a valuable habitat for beneficial insects! Having various native plants, flowers, and herbs has been instrumental for the garden particularly for pest suppression and pollination. Insects like native bees, honeybees, butterflies, ladybird beetles, lacewings, and spiders are vibrant additions to the garden which have encouraged the fruits and vegetables to flourish and reduce pressure from damaging pests like aphids.

Interested in more information on Beneficial Insects? See this ATTRA Publication: A Pictorial Guide to Hedgerow Plants for Beneficial Insects

Since I began gardening I’ve seen so many exciting beneficial insects with one, in particular, standing out –  the Praying Mantis (Tenodera aridifloia sinesis)! Known for its bulging eyes and head that can spin 180 degrees, the praying mantis is a valuable predator to have in the garden. The praying mantis has earned its name by the way in which it waits for prey, by folding its front legs inward, which appear as praying hands. The praying mantises are stunning predators and are valuable to the garden, however, they do not pick and choose their prey and have been known to consume both pests and beneficial insects.

It has been an exciting journey tending to the garden and I look forward to continuing it. The fall is just around the corner which means new vegetables to grow and new beneficial insects to discover!

 

Relevant Resources:

Build a Basic Wooden Raised-Garden Bed Frame –  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ScuK2Ktp2FA

A Pictorial Guide to Hedgerow Plants for Beneficial Insects – https://attra.ncat.org/product/a-pictorial-guide-to-hedgerow-plants-for-beneficial-insects/

Beneficial Insects You Want in your Garden – California Gardening https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YkMaZqfHMHc

CNN Article about Mental Health & Gardening – https://www.cnn.com/2020/05/03/health/how-to-start-gardening-coronavirus-wellness/index.html

 

By Guy K. Ames, NCAT Horticulture Specialist

It’s the time of year when apple and pear growers are watching their trees like hawks. . .because the crows are watching the trees, too—like, well, crows.

Ripening fruit becomes attractive to crows and many other critters. The fruit sugars are just too much to resist. And beating the other critters to the fruit is one of the reasons you need to know when to pick. This is not always as clear as you’d think because, when it comes to apples and pears, there is ripe and there is “ripe.”

Ripe for the Picking

Pome fruits, apples, pears and quince, are “physiologically ripe” (the seeds are mature) sometime before they are their sweetest and before they begin falling from their parent trees. This is important because as soon as they are physiologically ripe they can be picked and expected to finish ripening off the tree! Fruit left on the tree past this first stage of ripening will continue to sweeten and change color and texture. There is nothing wrong with letting an apple reach peak sweetness on the tree. But doing so could compromise its firmness and storability. . .and it remains on the tree for the crows to find.

Pears, at least the European types, are a somewhat different story. European-type pears—like the familiar Bartlett and Comice—ripen best off the tree. This is not true for Asian pears, which ripen fine on the tree. If left to ripen on the tree, European pears generally start ripening from the inside out and can be grainy or mushy. These pears are best picked just shy of full ripe (but physiologically ripe) then chilled and “cured.”

Curing is simply a matter of allowing the pear to reach perfection at room temperature on your kitchen counter or table. If you’re in a hurry you can put the pears in a paper bag. Bag with a banana to further hasten the process. To check for perfect ripeness, hold the pear in your hand and push on the fruit near the stem area with your thumb. When the pear gives just a little to your thumb pressure it is ready to eat.

Follow the Signs to Ripe Fruit

But back to physiological ripeness and other indicators of ripeness. Here are some important indicators:

  1. The hanging fruit begins to change color. Even green apples like Granny Smith and most pears have a subtle color shift when ripening begins in earnest, but the untrained eye might not see it. But red apples will show a more obvious color shift from green toward red as they approach ripeness.
  2. Some fruit begins to fall. This is usually a solid giveaway, but it doesn’t mean that every fruit on the tree is at exactly the same stage. As fruit approaches maturity, a layer of tissue on the stem accumulates abscisic acid in preparation to drop the apple or pear. The grower can exploit this phenomenon to determine ripeness. Gently lift a fruit from the vertical hanging position to something approaching horizontal. If the fruit is ready, the abscission layer will break cleanly where it joins the twig or spur it is attached to.
  3. The seeds are hard and brown or black. This is the surest indicator of physiological ripeness because, after all, that’s what this whole thing is all about. The fruit gets sweet to attract creatures like us to eat it and spread the seeds. If the fruit gets eaten too early, before the seeds are ready, then the whole thing was for naught! Seeds that are soft and white are not ready and the fruit isn’t ripe. If you were to pick the fruit before the seed is mature, the fruit will not continue to ripen.
  4. The fruit pleases your palate. Hey, there’s no substitute for your taste. If you like it, then it’s ready!

There are four key indicators of ripeness in apples and pears.The professionals have other tools, like a starch test and a refractometer for measuring sugars, but even the pros will use the four other indicators listed above.

Storing Apples and Pears

If your intent is to store your apples or pears, then catching them right when they are first physiologically ripe will allow you to take these fruit while still firm and store them. Sometimes they will last for months depending on what you might have to keep them cool.

Interestingly, it could be argued that pome fruits are still very much alive after picking. They are still respiring (exchanging gases like oxygen and ethylene) and starches are continuing to convert to sugars. We’ve already mentioned that European pears reach their highest flavors after storage and curing. Similarly, many apple varieties don’t achieve their finest, most complex flavors until they’ve been stored for a while.

Happy eating!

Additional Information on Apples and Pears

For more on apple and pear production, see the ATTRA Sustainable Agriculture publications Apples: Organic Production Guide and Pears: Organic Production. You’ll find many other resources on fruit production on the ATTRA website’s Fruits page, including publications, podcasts, and videos.

Guy has written several blog posts on the joys and challenges of fruit production. His previous posts include Pear Trees Exemplify Resilience, Restorative Pruning, Dwarfing Apple Rootstocks: Pros and Cons, Fall Planting Fruit Trees, and Battling Borers in Organic Apple Production.

You can contact Guy or other NCAT agriculture specialists by email at askanag@ncat.org or 800-346-9140.

By Ann Baier, NCAT Sustainable Agriculture Specialist

Foreword: After the recent passing of her mother, Ann reflects on some valuable lessons and preparations, especially relevant in the time of a pandemic.

Building resilience in agriculture and communities is at the heart of our work at the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT). For over 40 years and continuing in this time of the pandemic, we persist in agricultural endeavors that support just and ecological food and farming systems in the midst of racial and economic inequalities and the public health implications of COVID-19.

Unexpected things happen all the time, in food and farming businesses, and in life. For a farm business to be resilient amid the unpredictable, we develop risk management plans and integrated pest management strategies to minimize loss and weather adversity. We create standard operating procedures, food safety plans, quality control measures. We analyze hazards and address critical control points and develop recall plans. We buy insurance. We set emergency preparedness plans in place, considering regional probabilities of a wildfire, flood, earthquake, hurricane or tornado, illness, or death.

Each of us has some capacity to prepare, prevent, or mitigate unpredictable events that may or may not happen in life and business. We also need to prepare for the inevitable (death)—that which will happen; we just don’t know how or when. During a pandemic, we are slightly more aware of our mortality, that any one of us could suddenly reach the end of our life. Our lives, no matter how long they may be, are finite. Even though talking about death may seem difficult at first, preparing for its eventuality won’t cause it!

Last year, my women’s group began discussing aging. (We are all aging, no matter how old we are!) We committed to meeting regularly to support and inspire each other to prepare for life’s eventual end. Each month we address a topic, such as Health and Medical Care, Legal Arrangements, Information for Survivors, Legacy / Succession, and Death Cleaning. We share meaningful reflections, practical help, and even laughter as we work toward clarity and organization. Our experience may be helpful to others.

The best time to make emergency preparedness plans is before the emergency begins. I’ll gather my important papers, map out an escape route, decide on an out-of-state contact and a family gathering place before a disaster looms and communications are lost. The best time to prepare to die is while we are healthy and of sound mind. When the possibility of illness and the eventuality of death seem far-off in the future rather than imminent, I can work with a clearer mind, and ground my decisions in carefully considered and dearly held values. It is quite all right to set arrangements in writing and not need them; it is more costly, legally complex, and emotionally exhausting to need, and not have them. Putting my affairs in order can give me peace of mind while I’m alive, especially understanding how I can minimize the legal, financial and emotional burdens on my loved ones–or business partners–when I cross life’s finish line.

Part I: Health and Medical Care: Advance Health Care Directives

My Mom used to joke, “None of us is going to get out of here alive!” Indeed, she made a timely exit from her life’s journey earlier this year. Her passing was peaceful and consistent with her values, thanks to her preparations. Mom completed both an Advance Health Care Directive (AHCD) and Physicians Orders on Life-Sustaining Treatment (POLST) form, I had copies, and both documents were on file with her health care system. Mindful that someday she would take “that journey that needs no baggage,” my Mom had put her wishes in writing years prior when thoughts of physical frailty or mental incompetence were merely hypothetical.

No matter my age or current health status, I can consider various scenarios and write down my wishes. What if I get into an accident or fall suddenly ill, get a brain tumor, or lose my memory? There are times when discussing the real possibility–or probability– of disability or death might feel like taking away someone’s hope. It is best to prepare now, while I can still reason clearly and speak for myself. Knowing I have discussed my values and criteria for decision-making with my family and my doctor and filed my advance health care directive with my health care system, I can be at ease.

My Mom had a fall. At age 95, it was not her first, but this one was different. The doctor who assessed her condition asked if we wanted to honor my mother’s POLST. “Yes,” I said, knowing we’d had the necessary conversations ahead of time. “Then we are providing comfort measures.” I clarified, “This may lead to the end of her life?” “Yes.” Having Mom’s wishes in writing gave me peace of mind. I did not need to second-guess, or worry that a family member would question her end-of-life care. It also allowed her a natural death, free of invasive medical interventions. She was able to die as simply as she lived, with modest use of finite medical resources.

Advance Health Care Directive templates are easy to find; many health care systems provide them. Physicians Orders on Life-Sustaining Treatment, or POLST, is described in https://polst.org/: “All adults should have an advance directive to help identify a surrogate decision-maker and provide information about what treatments they want for an unknown medical emergency. A POLST form is for when you become seriously ill or frail and toward the end of life. A POLST form does not replace an advance directive — they work together.” The POLST form has three sections with checkboxes to express your wishes with respect to: A) Resuscitation (Attempt or Not); B) Medical Interventions (Full, Selective or Comfort-Focused Care); C) Artificially Administered Nutrition (Long-term, Trial or None), followed by D) Information and Signatures—yours and your doctor’s. That’s all. Together, the AHCD and POLST can save costly confusion for family members and care providers when life hangs in the balance. It is reassuring to have written guidance about when to try what kinds of interventions, and when to accept death when it is time.

Part II: Legal Affairs

Making legal arrangements, appropriate to one’s family composition and farm business, is a worthy investment of time and money. Get reliable legal advice! Key documents often include a Will, General Durable Power of Attorney, and a Living or Revocable Trust. A Trust complements the Will, and allows the property to be transferred to beneficiaries without the expense and delay of probate court proceedings. A Trust is “funded” by titling items of value (such as bank accounts and real property) in the name of the Trust, and recording deeds with the county.

A Trust names beneficiaries and Successor and/or Co-Trustees. “We wouldn’t want to declare you incompetent!” explained my Mom’s estate attorney, as she drew up the Trust.  And explained the key distinction between Co-Trustee and Successor Trustee. Being named Co-Trustee gave me the legal authority to take care of Mom’s affairs as her energy waned, her eyesight faded, and her hand grew increasingly unsteady over several years. The latter would have allowed me to act only if and when the primary Trustee was declared physically or mentally incapable by a medical professional. Because life provides no guarantees about a person’s longevity or the order of death (one of my mom’s children died before she did), it is good to name more than one Co-Trustee, and the order in which they would serve.

Making necessary legal arrangements does not mean giving up or losing hope. It’s simply a good idea. At any moment, I may find myself needing to act, in some legal capacity, on behalf of my spouse, sibling or business partner—or one of them for me! Some people lose capacity gradually, with age or dementia; others more suddenly, due to an accident, stroke, heart attack, or some rapidly progressing illness. Human beings may find it increasingly embarrassing, frightening, or uncomfortable to speak of getting one’s affairs in order when failing health or death become real possibilities. Anyone’s judgment can be clouded by emotion, fear, or stress when the balance of life itself or the future of business seem to hang on some critical decision. Why not set things in order now?

Further Reading:

  • Being Mortal: Illness, Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande
  • Get It Together: Organize Your Records So Your Family Won’t Have To by Melanie Cullen, September 2018, 8th Edition, NOLO Pres
By Luke Freeman, NCAT Horticulture Specialist

We are excited to announce that we have two new incubator farmers participating in the Woolsey Incubator Farm program in Fayetteville, AR! Their names are Lucy Capelle and Sandra Wesson, and they have both begun work on their quarter-acre farm plots.

We had a slow start to the season with disruptions from COVID-19 and Cobblestone Farms hiring a new farm manager. However, we have been able to onboard our new farmers in time for them to plant their fall-season crops.

Incubator farm project participant in greenhouse

Incubator farmer Lucy Capelle, at right, with friend Shailer Balton and their little farm helpers.

Lucy Capelle is a gardener who works in Northwest Arkansas’s Marshallese community to encourage health and wellness through gardening, good nutrition, and active lifestyles. She wants to develop her farm business to serve the Marshallese community. She hopes they can buy fresh fruits and vegetables from their own local farmers and revive traditional farming practices from the Marshall Islands.

Lucy grew up helping her father on their coconut, banana, and pumpkin plantations on the Marshall Islands. She helped plant and harvest their crops and also tended to the chickens and pigs they raised.

Lucy has already started her late-season summer crops and fall-season crops in the greenhouse. She will be growing corn, okra, squash, pumpkins, broccoli, cabbage, and fall root crops this year.

Sandra Wesson also has a background in gardening. She is interested in growing her skills to supply organic produce to local restaurants and farmers markets in Northwest Arkansas. She is from Central Arkansas, but recently moved to Fayetteville for work and to be close to her grandchild. In Central Arkansas she was close to market farmers Mary and Rickey Bone of Lighthouse Farms and was inspired by their successful farm business.

Incubator farm project participant stands in field.

Incubator farmer Sandra Wesson preps her plot for fall crops.

Sandra is currently working on preparing her plot for planting, removing the plastic mulch and crop residues from last year.

Events this Fall

We have plans to host two more workshops at Cobblestone on organic vegetable production. We also plan to have project partners lead field trips to the farm this fall. However, our staff are monitoring the COVID-19 situation to determine the most responsible way to use the incubator farm as an educational resource. At this point we are considering the option of allowing farmers to participate in the workshops remotely through video, but we have yet to make the call.

Incubator farm plot

Lucy’s farm plot, getting ready for planting.

Stay tuned on our Facebook page to find out when our workshops will take place and how you can participate.

Project Background and Overview

The Woolsey Incubator Farm Project is complex and ambitious. It wouldn’t be possible without our great partners and supportive community. Our mission is to educate K-12 students and adults of all ages in Northwest Arkansas about sustainable agriculture and environmental conservation. We want to demonstrate how local food systems affect the environment. We also want to highlight the role that sustainable agriculture can play in environmental stewardship. Following is a list of goals we hope to accomplish with the help of our partners.

  • Train and support five incubator farmers as they start and grow their farm businesses.
  • Train farmers and prospective farmers on sustainable agriculture practices. We’ll host a series of four practical skills trainings led by NCAT agriculture specialists at Cobblestone Farms.
  • Educate members of the community on the environmental benefits of wetland prairie and native plants. Illinois River Watershed Partnership (IRWP) will lead a passive restoration of two acres of wetland prairie at the Woolsey Farm. IRWP will then lead a prairie walk at the property. They will also create and post signage on the property to educate the community about how wetland prairie and native plants affect the ecosystem.
  • Educate primary-level students about local agriculture, environmental stewardship, and local food systems through field trips to Cobblestone Farms and the Woolsey Incubator Farm.
  • Educate high school students through field trips to Cobblestone Farms and the Woolsey Incubator Farm.

Creating an incubator farm is key to accomplishing our goals. It will be the home base for our educational activities. We are working closely with the City of Fayetteville to prepare the city-owned historic Woolsey Farm site to house the incubator farm. Once it’s established, we expect the Woolsey Incubator Farm to educate hundreds of farmers, students, and adults for years to come. Cobblestone Farms generously provided plots for our first incubator farmers until the Woolsey Farm property is ready. For more on our activities for this project, see our previous blog post Incubator Farm Project Cultivates Farmers and Community.

More Information

Whether you’re a beginning farmer or have years of experience, check out the ATTRA Sustainable Agriculture website! There are hundreds of resources on sustainable agriculture topics, including publications, videos, online courses, webinars, podcasts, and more. And if you’d like an agriculture specialist to provide a one-on-one consultation, call 1-800-346-9140 or email your questions to askanag@ncat.org.

By Victorian Tilley, Energy Programs Assistant

The COVID-19 pandemic has had deep impacts upon Americans. Mandatory closures and physical distancing put many people out of work and required them to stay home. The bills do not stop coming in though. And in the case of energy bills, staying home means using more energy, which results in higher bills. Because many Americans were furloughed or terminated from their jobs, paying those bills became a challenge, if not impossible. In some areas, threats of shutoffs were looming over many families, as well. This created an urgent need for assistance.

Two important sources of such assistance stood ready to help: the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) and the National Energy Assistance Referral (NEAR) service, which connects people to their local LIHEAP office. The program experienced a massive influx of assistance requests since the pandemic began.

In April, NEAR received a total of 173,829 assistance requests, a 72.4% increase over the same month in 2019. The LIHEAP Clearinghouse website saw an astounding 651.9% increase in site users from April of 2019 and another 458% increase from May of 2019.

LIHEAP is a federal program that offers energy assistance to households in every state and in most tribal reservations and territories by assisting households with heating and cooling needs. Those in need of assistance may dial the NEAR hotline and receive information on their state’s available programs. The LIHEAP Clearinghouse website also serves as a network of information and resources on low-income energy issues and delivers this information to grantees, which are the state-specific programs that operate under the block grant, subgrantees like local government and community action agencies, and energy service organizations.

NCAT has operated the LIHEAP Clearinghouse and NEAR for some 30 years, assisting 703,241 households and providing referrals to over 1.2 million visitors of the NEAR directory. The common annual trend is that directory contact volume usually increases in the peak seasons, since some need heating assistance in cold climates and others need cooling assistance in warm climates. Since transition between seasons brings milder weather and subsequent reduction in energy bill costs, the first week of April is typically when calls begin to decrease. This year, the program experienced something quite different.

Specialists at NCAT are responsible for taking calls from the NEAR hotline and referring households from all over the country to their respective state programs. One of our specialists reports that many of the calls right now are coming from residents in the southern states, potentially in response to increased cooling needs, but can also be related to socioeconomic factors. Researchers have monitored trends between low-income households and high energy burden, stating that “[e]nergy burden for low-income households is not declining, and it remains persistently high, particularly in the South, in rural America, among minority households, and those with children and elderly residents” (Brown, et al., 2020). Currently, those seeking assistance are seeking relief for accounts currently in arrears and at risk for shut-off, as many still owe on bills from before the extended utility relief provided under the Corona Virus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) Act.

Under the CARES Act, put in place to address the economic emergency the pandemic brought on, LIHEAP was provided with $900 million in additional funding that will extend the assistance season through August 2020. States now have more resources and a broader scope of how they can assist people. Those seeking assistance can do so quicker and easier than in previous years that had not seen a pandemic. Additionally, utility companies have put moratoriums on disconnections in place, so that a household’s utilities will not be shut off for overdue bills. However, even though their service cannot be shut off, the residents’ accounts are still accruing charges. When the moratoriums eventually end, the program predicts another spike in calls once households are hit with cumulative bills for all their heating or cooling usage.

Visit the LIHEAP Clearinghouse website to learn more about its focus and goals. LIHEAP’s programming operates on a state-by-state basis in order to be specific and uniquely responsive to the needs in each state. Visit the state snapshots to learn more about specific programming. Additionally, you can view the research on trends of low-income energy affordability and opportunities for future policy and programming.

Reference:
Brown, Marilyn Ann, Anmol Soni, Melissa Voss Lapsa, and Katie Southworth. 2020. Low-Income Energy Affordability: Conclusions From A Literature Review. Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Report No. ORNL/TM-2019/1150. March 31. https://www.osti.gov/servlets/purl/1607178.

By Martin Guerena, Sustainable Agriculture Specialist

During these challenging times, home gardening has become one of the more popular past times for many people. But what about those of us who don’t want to be at the beck and call of an intensive garden while simultaneously wanting to enjoy the beauty and benefits of a beautiful garden?

While gardening vegetables allows some independence from local supermarkets and the extra expense of organic produce, some of us have the convenience of local farmers’ markets and stores that supply healthy organic food even during these times of COVID-19.  I am the type of gardener who appreciates a low garden management/hammock time ratio,  the amount of work it takes to care for vegetables makes me inclined to invest my labor strategically and support my local farmers. Additionally, California has been in a drought for the past 20 years and with climate change, there will be a significant challenge to the future water supply.  Instead of giving up on gardening, I decided to plant native and drought-tolerant plants creating a xeriscape of flowering plants for pollinators and other beneficial insects.

The beauty of the flowering plants is inspiring and contributes to our family’s quality of life, and knowing that they are providing habitat for beneficial insects is satisfying as well.  The plants in my garden are a mixture of resilient perennials and annuals which include: Verbena, Yarrow, various Sages, Blue Flax, Lavender, Telegraph Weed, Gumweed, Ceanothus, Flannel Bush, Penstemon, Sedum, Buckwheat, California fuchsia, California Poppy, Love in a Mist, and native grasses such as deer grass, creeping wild rye, California melic, and purple needlegrass. If you live outside of California you can check resources like the Sunset Western Garden Book and local native plants websites that describe plants suited for your conditions. They may also be a good source for seeds and seedlings.  You may also want to check ATTRA’s A Pictorial Guide to Hedgerow Plants for Beneficial Insects, which characterizes several of the most beneficial hedgerow plant species used in farmscaping for native pollinators, and insect predators and parasites in California. It provides plant names, bloom times, heights, and descriptions that note considerations for selection and establishment.

A layer of woodchip mulch placed around the plants keeps the soil covered and moist reducing the need to weed and irrigate frequently. I start irrigating about a month after the last significant rain in the spring and then every 3 to 4 weeks (with careful species selection, irrigation can be reduced further) until the beginning of the rainy season in late fall.

The insects I see on these flowers include bees, wasps, flies, butterflies, moths, beetles and very tiny wasps that I see swarming and hovering above the flowers. Besides pollinators, many of these insects are predators and parasites of pests. Predatory species include praying mantids, ladybugs, green and brown lacewings, assassin bugs, soldier beetles, minute pirate bug, big-eyed bug, syrphid flies, tachinid flies, parasitic wasps, and spiders.

These beneficial insects require refuge plus a pollen and nectar source to feed and provide the ecosystem services of pest control on various insect pests. My stone fruits and pear trees rarely have any aphids or other insect pests through the season.

In summary, the benefits of drought-tolerant gardens are:

  1. Harnessing of pollinators and beneficial insects.
  2. Attracts other wildlife such as birds and reptiles.
  3. Reduced water use and water bill.
  4. Less maintenance.
  5. Beautiful landscape.

ATTRA Resources

A Message From Steve Thompson, Executive Director

Layered upon the pandemic and a national economic freefall, the murder of George Floyd and so many other Black Americans has sparked frustration, anger and sorrow across the country, not least here at NCAT. The convergence of crises has prompted us to examine our internal culture and the work we do in the world to help build resilient communities that can survive and thrive despite hard times.

We acknowledge that NCAT needs to do more to address the root causes of racial injustice. We stand with those who peacefully protest the continuing American legacy of racism and institutional violence. We pledge to do more to embrace diversity, equity and inclusion in our offices across America.

We are proud that much of our work focuses on serving Black, Native, Latino and Hispanic, Asian-American and refugee communities as well as impoverished Americans of all races. And we will redouble our efforts to serve vulnerable communities so they can strengthen local self-reliance through sustainable food and energy solutions.

Our Gulf States staff is working with diverse partners through the Mississippi Food Justice Collaborative to bring systemic change to the state’s food system.

We recognize that people of color often are those most directly harmed by environmental degradation and by the accelerating disruptions of climate and weather extremes. We will intensify our efforts to build a clean energy economy while helping communities adapt to changes that are baked into the world’s future.

We see that Native and African Americans are especially devastated by COVID-19. We will expand our work to strengthen equitable public health solutions, especially within our areas of strength: Expanding access to healthy food, supporting farmers of color, providing low-income energy assistance, designing healthy and efficient homes, and restoring ecosystems.

Now is a time of social reckoning. We all must heed the call, led by an immense chorus of multi-racial voices, to wake up and adjust course.

The conversations will continue. They may often be tinged with raw emotion. It will not be easy to resist the path of recrimination, resentment and fury. To build a bridge to a better future, we each and together must invest ourselves in kindness and compassion.

Meantime, it’s time to act with a greater commitment to racial, environmental and economic justice. This we pledge to do at NCAT.

By Margo Hale, NCAT Southeast Regional Director and NCAT Livestock Specialist

When the COVID-19 pandemic started, I, like many of you, was focused on working from home while also homeschooling my daughters. I was busy postponing and rescheduling several NCAT training events and figuring out how to best serve our ATTRA Sustainable Agriculture clients. As the pandemic continued to spread, we saw various impacts in all aspects of our life. Across the country, we saw our traditional supply chains falter, and consumer buying habits changed overnight. Thankfully, our household never ran out of toilet paper, but it was several weeks before I could find rice and beans to buy!

Because we raise our own beef, pork, and eggs, I rarely pay attention to those areas of the grocery store, but it was shocking to see empty shelves. We sell only a few beeves and hogs each year, mainly to friends and coworkers. You can learn more about how we sell our beef and pork from this short video https://attra.ncat.org/small-scale-meat-sales/. While we never have a problem selling what we have available, we also don’t usually have an overwhelming demand. As soon as COVID-19 hit, though, people who have never bought meat from us before began reaching out to see if we were selling meat. They wanted to stock their freezers! I heard from farmers all over the country that this was happening to them, too. This demand is great for producers, but it also comes with some challenges.

Meeting Increased Demand for Local Meat

You might be able to gain new customers during this time, as people are wanting to stock their freezers and prepare for supply-chain disruptions. You want to ensure that these new customers continue purchasing from you even after the grocery stores are restocked. In order to do this, you must provide an excellent product and good customer service. It is tempting to quickly scale up production to take advantage of the demand, but don’t do so at the cost of quality. Don’t process and sell animals that don’t meet your highest quality standards. Providing great customer service is another way to keep customers coming back. NCAT Specialist Dave Scott and his wife Jenny shared some really great tips on providing excellent customer service to their meat customers in the “Direct Marketing Meat” podcast series.

Episode 128. Direct Marketing Meat with Dave and Jenny Scott. Part 1

Episode 129. Direct Marketing Meat with Dave and Jenny Scott. Part 2: Processing

Episode 136. Direct Marketing Meat with Dave and Jenny Scott. Part 3: Relationships

Episode 137. Direct Marketing Meat with Dave and Jenny Scott. Part 4: FAQs

In the ATTRA video COVID-19 Market Adjustments, you can also hear how COVID-19 has affected Dave’s and Jenny’s business, Montana Highland Lamb.

Plan for Processing

Selling meat can be a challenge when processors are overwhelmed by demand.Another challenge many livestock producers are facing is the lack of processing. Access to meat processing facilities has always been a challenge for small-scale livestock producers. The problem has been exacerbated during the pandemic. Producers are increasing production in response to increased demand for direct-to-consumer meat sales—which means there are more animals to process in facilities that already have limited availability. For example, I can usually call just a couple of months in advance to schedule a processing date for our animals; I called our processor in May and the earliest dates they had were in January 2021! Our hog will be awfully big by then. If you are a livestock producer and haven’t already booked your processing appointments for the coming year, I encourage you to call your processor today. I had a great conversation with Rebecca Thistlethwaite with the Niche Meat Processors Assistance Network about these challenges with processing, especially during this time. You can listen to that podcast here.

If you are a livestock producer, there is a great opportunity to meet the demands for locally produced meat, though there will likely be some challenges. If you are selling meat directly to consumers for the first time, expanding production, or have questions related to processing, please know our NCAT Livestock Specialists are here to help. You can contact us by calling 800-346-9140 or emailing askanag@ncat.org.

Related ATTRA Resources

Organic and Grass-finished Beef Cattle Production

Direct Marketing Lamb: A Pathway

Direct Marketing

Working with Your Meat Processor

ATTRA COVID-19 Resources

Other Resources on Selling Meat

Niche Meat Processor Assistance Network

NMPAN COVID-19 Resources

Farm to Freezer: The Logistics of Online Sales & Shipping Meat Webinar

The New Livestock Farmer: The Business of Raising and Selling Ethical Meat

Direct to Consumer Beef Webinar Series

Get Ready to Apply for CFAP

The Farm Service Agency (FSA) will begin taking applications for CFAP on May 26. Processing and payments will be made on a first come first served basis, so it will benefit you to do as much preparation as you can!

As a reminder, the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP) has $16 billion to help farmers who have lost revenue because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Application starts with Form AD-3114, which may not be even available until May 26. You can keep checking the USDA CFPA Page and/or check with your local FSA Office.

Filing Form AD-3114 starts the process. Once obtained you can file it:

  • In person, when/if available
  • By mail (although this probably puts you further back in line)
  • Electronically by FAX to your local FSA office
  • Electronically by email with scanned or photo-copy of signed form AD-3114
  • On-line directly with a possible computer-fillable Form AD-3114, BUT this method will require an FSA Level 2-eAuthentication account. Many farmers have such accounts, but if you don’t, you can get one at this link: http://www.eauth.usda.gov/ (and you should do so ASAP).

Finally, there will be a payment calculator tool available soon that can help you assess if the CFAP makes sense to you. A video demonstration of the tool is available at this link: video of CFAP payment Calculator.

We are here to help

It’s looking as if this process could be paperwork-heavy, so NCAT ag specialists are here to help. You can always reach out to us for assistance by calling 1-800-346-9140, e-mailing askanag@ncat.org, or by writing in on the live chat at attra.ncat.org.