Photos and text by Nina Prater, NCAT Sustainable Agriculture Specialist

Image at right: Jeremy Prater practicing his shiitake mushroom inoculation skills at the mushroom workshop in Fayetteville, AR.

Last year, the NCAT Southeast office partnered with the University of Missouri’s Agroforestry Center to host a one-day mushroom cultivation workshop in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Gregory Ormsby Mori with the Agroforestry Center provided hands-on instruction, showing multiple ways of growing mushrooms. These included shiitake mushrooms in logs, oyster mushrooms grown on log totems, and wine cap mushrooms grown in a straw/woodchip bed. (Read a re-cap of the event here: https://www.ncat.org/growing-edible-mushrooms-workshop-recap-and-resources/). My husband Jeremy and I attended the workshop and were inspired to get started right away. We have a livestock farm in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas, but we’re always looking for ways to diversify our operation. Mushrooms seemed like a good fit. We manage over 100 acres of forest, a ready source of both material and shady land for mushroom production.

Making a Wine Cap Mushroom Bed

There’s nothing quite like a hands-on workshop to inspire you to dive right into a new project. After the workshop, we went home and ordered spawn for oyster mushrooms, shiitakes, and wine caps. We got the oyster mushroom totems and shiitake logs inoculated last spring, but ran out of time to do the wine caps. We stored the wine cap spawn in the back of the fridge for a year (farmers’ fridges are such interesting places—we also have animal vaccines and pawpaw seeds tucked in the back at the moment).  In early April of this year, we were able to establish a wine cap mushroom bed.

You can watch this short video to see exactly how we made our wine cap mushroom bed. If you prefer a very brief written version, it’s easy: you find a shady spot either within your garden under tall plants, or in a wooded area. First, clear the surface to expose the soil and sprinkle some spawn. Next, start layering your wood chips (hardwood preferably), spawn, fresh straw, then spawn again. Continue that lasagna-like pattern (chips, spawn, straw, spawn) until you run out of spawn. Finally, top it off with wood chips to hold it all down. Soaking your wood chips and straw ahead of time is ideal.

In our video, you can see that we watered the materials as we went, since we were not able to pre-soak. We have followed up on this by making sure we watered the bed well on days it didn’t rain. It’s too early yet to say if we were successful, but I’m already optimistically researching wine cap mushroom recipes.

More on Mushrooms

Mushrooms are a great way to add diversity to your farm operation. On our farm, we’re doing it primarily for our own consumption. But our secondary purpose is as a trial-run to see if it is something we would enjoy doing commercially. To learn more about mushroom cultivation, check out these resources:

ATTRA Publication:

Mushroom Cultivation and Marketing: https://attra.ncat.org/product/mushroom-cultivation-and-marketing/

ATTRA Podcast:

Introduction to Mycology: https://attra.ncat.org/introduction-to-mycology-podcast/

University of Missouri:

Cultivation and Cuisine: Getting Started with Wine Cap Mushrooms, By Hannah Hemmelgarn, University of Missouri Center for Agroforestry: http://agebb.missouri.edu/agforest/archives/v23n2/gh4.php

Call or contact your local Farm Service Agency today!

No, the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP) is not food for the nation’s hungry, but rather assistance for the nation’s food producers. Details of how U.S. farmers can apply for this assistance are still scarce, but the most important message is to begin the process ASAP if you are a farmer who has experienced a loss due to the Coronavirus pandemic. Here is a way to contact your local Farm Service Agency (FSA) office which will be implementing this program:

Find your Farm Service Agency office

You must make a phone call to your local FSA office to start the process.

Direct support for farmers and ranchers available via CFAP will include:

  • Direct support based on actual losses because of price and disrupted supply chains.
  • Assist with adjustment and added marketing costs resulting from lost demand and short-term oversupply in the 2020 marketing year.

CFAP is available to farmers regardless of size and market outlet, if they suffered an eligible loss. Disruption to markets and demand may be significant and the USDA is already warning that these payments may only cover a portion of the impacts on farmers and ranchers.

PARTICULARLY IF YOU HAVE NOT USED FSA PROGRAMS IN THE PAST, GET READY BY COLLECTING:

  1. Tax Identification Number: TAX ID
  2. Farming Operating Structure: TYPES
  3. Adjusted Gross Income

BE PREPARED TO FILL OUT POSSIBLY THE FOLLOWING SIX (6) FORMS.
DO NOT SEND FORMS WITHOUT FIRST CONTACTING YOUR LOCAL FSA OFFICE

  • CCC-901 (Español) If applicable, this certification reports income from farming, ranching, and forestry, for those exceeding the adjusted gross income limitation ($900,000)
  • CCC-941 (Español) Reports your average adjusted gross income for programs where income restrictions apply.
  • CCC-942 If applicable, this certification reports income from farming, ranching, and forestry, for those exceeding the adjusted gross income limitation ($900,000)
  • AD1026 (Español) Ensures compliance with highly erodible land conservation and wetland conservation
  • AD2047 Provides basic customer contact information
  • SF3881 Collects your banking information to allow USDA to make payments to you via direct deposit

As with all emergency assistance, there will be those that are more prepared then others and getting in line as early as possible is to your advantage.

Contact ATTRA for Help

If you need help contact us here at ATTRA as we are always ready to help.

  1. Call our toll-free ATTRA helpline (U.S. only)
    800-346-9140 (English) 8 a.m. to 5 p.m Central Time
    800-411-3222 (Español) 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Pacific Time
  2. Ask online, using the green chat box at the bottom of the ATTRA webpage.
  3. Via email to askanag@ncat.org

 

By Guy K. Ames, NCAT Horticulture Specialist

In Northwest Arkansas I’m seeing peach leaf curl in my orchard. It’s April, but the calendar date is not as important as the growth stage of the peaches. The professionals call this time “shuck split.” The “shuck,” or the last remnant of the flower, is splitting and falling from the growing young fruit. This is a crucial time for the developing fruit as it is growing rapidly, and this is not a good time for the tree to be stressed. This disease, incited by the fungus Taphrina deformans, causes the leaf to deform and swell irregularly (see photo). As you can imagine, leaf function—primarily photosynthesis and respiration—suffers and the tree is stressed. The more severe the curl (the more leaves are affected), the more stressful it is to the tree.

Managing Peach Leaf Curl

You’re going to want to do something about it, but there’s not much you can do once you see it on your trees other than to remember to spray next year during dormancy. Here’s why. The fungus overwinters in the tiny crevices around the leaf scale (or leaf bud). As soon as the leaf bud begins to swell in the early spring the fungus invades the leaf tissue. That’s right, the fungus is inside the leaf and thus protected from normal fungicide sprays! You should apply sprays of lime-sulfur (the best organic fungicide for this disease) sometime in March before the leaf buds begin to swell. If the trees have gone through severe infection, you can apply once in November when the leaves have fallen and then again in the spring before the new leaves emerge.

Helping an Infected Tree

A tree with a severe infection will sometimes drop all its infected leaves and try to push a new crop of leaves. This is understandably stressful for the tree, so if it happens, the grower could help the tree out by applying a quick release fertilizer of some sort. Organic growers could choose compost tea or fish emulsion. If the infection wasn’t severe (only a small percentage of leaves were infected), then you may need to do nothing. There is only the single infection period, so newly emerging leaves will be safe from T. deformans.

There are a few somewhat resistant varieties, including Clayton, Candor, and Frost, but this resistance is only relative to other more susceptible varieties and often can’t be relied upon for control.

Here’s hoping your leaves aren’t curly!

More Information

Guy shows examples of peach leaf curl and the leaf buds where the fungus overwinters in his video What is Peach Leaf Curl? on ATTRA Sustainable Agriculture’s YouTube channel.

For more on peach diseases, see the ATTRA Sustainable Agriculture publications Peach Diseases Identification Sheet and Peaches: Organic and Low-Spray Production.

Contact Guy and NCAT’s other agriculture specialists by emailing askanag@ncat.org or calling 800-346-9140.

As we celebrate Earth Day 2020, the Earth looks and feels quite different than it normally does. This year marks the 50th celebration of Earth Day and the COVID-19 pandemic, has drastically impacted our physical, social, and economic worlds. Even so, people are banding together and finding a “new normal,” — one that demonstrates resilience. We can still pursue our projects and initiatives, though; we just need to do it differently. And, at least for now, our communication must be virtual.

Energy Corps AmeriCorps members have quickly adapted their service, exemplifying this resilience. Earth Day is an important event, one than typically involves a wide range of events and activities planned and carried out by members. In the face of physical distancing and shelter-in-place orders, members have refocused their efforts to embrace creative virtual opportunities.

For example, Alli Kane, Energy and Climate Educator in Missoula, has taken an artistic approach to increasing awareness and getting people excited about Earth Day. Earth Day Art 4 All is a community art project led by Climate Smart Missoula and Families for a Livable Climate, and anyone with a creative itch can join. Alli encourages people to create Earth Day-related art to display outside their home, such as banners, window art, or sidewalk chalk drawings. Participants can send a photo of their art to alli@climatesmartmissoula.org and those submissions will be used to produce a virtual art show. The broad theme of this art project is “Healthy People, Healthy Community, Healthy Plant,” but get creative and show your love for our planet in any way you choose. Visit their website for more information.

Robin Adams, Sustainability Coordinator for the City of Red Lodge, is dedicating an entire week to celebrate Earth Day by hosting daily virtual activities and tours. The week’s activities include a Solar Q&A with experts Henry Dykema of Sundance Solar Systems and Andrew Valainis of the Montana Renewable Energy Association; a Critter and Plant Hunt using iNaturalist social networking site; a Beartooth Passive Home Live Tour; and a Community Movie Night. Visit their website to learn how you can get involved.

Red Lodge Schedule

The event schedule for Earth Week in Red Lodge.

Maia Madrid, Electric Vehicle Outreach Coordinator for the Department of Environmental Quality, has created a visual interview graphic series that displays feedback from Electric Vehicle (EV) owners. A part of Maia’s service is to develop this project and provide insight into driving and buying EVs. There are only four car dealerships in Montana that sell EVs and she is working to expand awareness of this sustainable transportation technology. The visual interview project will be launched in honor of Earth Day, and you can check it out on their website.​

charge ahead

An excerpt from the interview graphic series.

Check out these and other virtual events and get involved!

We want to thank Energy Corps and their host-site organizations for so eloquently transitioning regular programming to an online outlet. The motivation, dedication, and creativity displayed by this group is inspirational during these uncertain times. Other organizations are providing opportunities to be involved in the festivities, like the National Park Foundation providing virtual park tours, as well as Earth Day Live events found on the official Earth Day website. What better way to recognize that we, as a collective, can be resilient to hardship and therefore able to collectively revive the health of our planet and its people.

By Jeff Schahczenski, NCAT Agricultural and Natural Resource Economist

I have been awakened to a re-evaluation of risk and uncertainty. Going to the grocery store has – hopefully only for a short time – become more risky.  I also have been thinking more and more about how are personal and societal understanding and measurement of uncertainty is changing. It is more risky to go to the grocery store because of the increased level of uncertainty that we will arrive home healthy. Have these changes in risk and uncertainty brought on by this pandemic impacted the need and desire to re-examine crop insurance?

Federally subsidized crop insurance fundamentally address two categories of risk. First, there is production risk, which derives from the uncertainty of yield related to the disruption of the normal growth of crops and livestock as affected by weather, disease, pests and other factors. This is the historic and most common form of crop insurance referred to generally as “multi-peril” insurance. This risk does not seem likely to be largely impacted by the pandemic.

The other major risk category is called price or market risk and is caused by the uncertainty of what the price of the product will be at the time it is produced and ready for sale. This risk also sometimes includes the uncertainty of the costs of the inputs needed to produce the product since this risk is also market-based. These risks will likely be impacted significantly by the pandemic.

Fortunately, at least for a major proportion of agriculture producing major commodity crops such as corn, soybeans, wheat, and cotton, there is widely available revenue protection which covers both production (yield) and market (price) risks. Unfortunately, there are also many types of crops and livestock products for which revenue insurance is not available at all or not available in the county in which the farmer farms. For example, in California in 2019 only about 1,600 of a total of 32,590 policies sold were revenue-based, leaving much of California agriculture without protection related to market or price risk.[1]

The exception to this case is the unique policy known as Whole-Farm Revenue Protection (WFRP), which does provide revenue protection based on the historic revenue history of a whole farm rather than a specific crop or livestock product. Though available nationwide, this policy has not been widely utilized because of several factors which NCAT and others have been working to improve. Nonetheless, if price or market risks continue to rise over the next few years, WFRP may become an option to consider for the many producers of crop or livestock products for which revenue insurance is not available.

Quarantine

Another word that has entered our lives forcefully is quarantine. In federal crop insurance the definition of quarantine is very specific and in most cases unless specifically added to a policy (called an endorsement) it is not an insurable cause of loss and thus generally not covered under most policies. RMA defines[2] quarantine as specific action taken by a public authority for a specific pest that:

  • Requires the destruction of your insured crop or the plants on which your insured crop is growing; or
  • Does not permit the insured crop to be harvested, sold, transported, transferred, or otherwise restricts it from movement from the location where it was produced to the location of any buyer.

Fortunately COVID-19 virus is not a pest that has led to crop or livestock related quarantines, but the consideration of this topic is becoming more important for future public policy consideration.

Adjustments to Date

As of the date of writing, the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture Risk Management Agency (RMA) has made some adjustments to the normal process of acquiring crop insurance for the 2020 production year. For the most part these adjustments have been to encourage movement toward avoiding actually meeting with your crop insurance agent. Since the closing sales dates for most crop insurance products has passed, the adjustments are being made to delay the delivery of important paper work such as filing of documents such as production reporting requirements, written agreements (a special policy option), and, importantly, payment of premiums. For details see the RMA website under the What’s New link (https://www.rma.usda.gov/News-Room/Whats-New) or call or email your crop insurance agent.

Stay Tuned for a Different Future

When life changes rapidly we have hopes to return to a sense of stability but we also usually learn new ways to adapt and even change the structure of our lives. Crop insurance, like all insurance, is a function of our personal and public common risk aversions. Some of us are gamblers, some of us are not. And the general idea of pooling our resources to protect against risk is in part the essence of insurance, if not of government in general.

Visit our ATTRA website for some resources to explore or re-explore the risky business of farming and ranching and the role crop insurance might play in your future success.

[1] Source: Risk Management Agency, Summary of Business accessed on March 30, 2020.

[2] Source: RMA, Quarantine Endorsement Pilot  at https://legacy.rma.usda.gov/policies/2011/11-qe.pdf

Our Energy Engineer, Danielle, using a thermal camera to assess the building envelope of an office. Photo: NCAT

This past year, many commercial buildings across Montana were positively impacted by the team’s energy efficiency efforts, resulting in significant savings. In Red Lodge, Montana, we asked the City’s Wastewater Treatment Facility to show us their energy bills to see just what kind of impact the installation of two Variable Frequency Drives (VFDs) had on their energy consumption and, equally as important, their monetary savings. A VFD is used with AC electric motors that run pumps, water heaters, and other equipment in many different applications. They adjust the frequency of the motor to run at different speeds, allowing the motor to run as efficiently as possible. A very common application of VFDs is actually in water treatment facilities. In April of 2018, one month after the installation, the facility’s energy bill was $4,104, and in April of 2019, the bill had lowered to $3,355, a savings of about $750.

Oftentimes, including this VFD project, efforts towards energy efficiency and conservation are carried out in a concerted effort by Energy Services and members of Energy Corps, an AmeriCorps program run in collaboration with NCAT. Energy Corps operates within the overall Energy Program. Members of national service are hosted across the state of Montana by environmental organizations, government agencies, institutes of higher education, and other nonprofits. Members spend their service term planning, implementing, and supporting projects that are geared towards sustainable solutions for communities across the state, as well as providing “boots on the ground” to improve efforts and bring ideas to reality. Members of Energy Corps hosted in Red Lodge over the past few years have been hard at work with energy-saving installation, retrofitting, and helping to keep the motivation elevated for sustainability projects, and they’ve enjoyed considerable success. Red Lodge’s Carnegie library saw major energy savings after the installation of a solar array, a project carried out by Energy Corps members. As a result of this project, the library’s energy consumption dropped from 1,677 kWh in October 2018, to 548 kWh in October 2019, for a monthly savings of $111.51. In this community, Energy Corps has successfully implemented several other efforts, including installation of water bottle-filling stations around town, organizing rain barrel workshops, implementing the city’s Energy Conservation Plan, and continuing to put on the popular Earth Day Block Party. Read more in the 2020 report , created by Energy Corps member Robin Adams, summarizing the impact Energy Corps has made in Red Lodge.

Here you can see the difference in energy usage before and after the solar array at Carnegie Library was installed. Used with permission.

As technology continues to advance and interests to conserve energy and create more sustainable infrastructure increase, our program’s goal is to tackle today’s concerns with holistic approaches to solutions. With interdepartmental collaboration, we can continue to build capacity and bolster our efforts. When customers show us their bills, we see concrete results from our efforts, but we also see how it affects the people of the community and the environment they live in, and that makes the work all worth it. Please click around on the Energy Tree to learn more about our work and visit our blog page for more stories and highlights!

By Luke Freeman, NCAT Horticulture Specialist

Photo at right: Kenny Simon presenting at NCAT’s Deer Fence Workshop on October 15, 2019. Photo by Colin Massey, Arkansas Extension.

Last November we hosted a workshop in Fayetteville, Arkansas, on constructing a low-cost, solar-powered electric deer fence for a farm, garden, or food plot. Since people are planting their gardens now and the growing season is getting started, we wanted to provide a recap of the workshop with tips on constructing an electric deer fence. You can also find a video of the workshop on our YouTube channel here.

Kenny Simon, Luke Freeman, and Jenni Vaughan set up an electric deer fence.

Kenny Simon, Luke Freeman, and Jenni Vaughan after finishing setting up the electric deer fence in September. Photo by Colin Massey, Arkansas Extension.

We hosted the workshop at Cobblestone Farms in Fayetteville. We had set up a solar-powered deer fence around incubator farm plots to help limit the deer damage to the incubator farmers’ crops. Many thanks to all of the individuals and small businesses who pitched in to help us purchase the fencing supplies for our incubator farmers. If you’re interested in reading more about the Woolsey Incubator Farm Project, you can find our blog post about it here.

Kenny Simon from the Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service traveled up from Little Rock to help us construct the fence in September. Our local county extension agents Ryan Neal (Benton County) and Colin Massey (Washington County) came to help, too. One of the incubator farmers, Jenni Vaughan, also helped out and learned first-hand how to construct an electric deer fence. In the weeks after the fence was put up Jenni noticed a dramatic reduction in the amount of deer damage on her okra and other vegetable crops.

Electric Deer Fence Elements

During the November workshop Kenny described the essential components of an electric deer fence. He showed participants how to set one up and check for charge. The fence design we demonstrated is a three-strand fence developed by Gallagher specifically for deer exclusion. You can see a diagram of the fence design at the end of this post. The three-dimensional element of the fence plays against a deer’s depth perception, making them reluctant to jump over. This allows the fence to effectively exclude deer even though it’s only 24 inches tall.

Energizer

We used a Gallagher S40 solar charger for our deer fence at Cobblestone Farm. Photo by Luke Freeman, NCAT.

The first component of an electric deer fence is the energizer, which creates the electric current. An energizer can be battery-powered, solar-powered, or made to plug in to a 110 volt outlet. We chose a solar-powered charger for our deer fence because we did not have access to a nearby electrical outlet. Our charger is a Gallagher S40 rated at 0.4 stored joules. A rule of thumb is that every output joule can run 3 miles of electric fence. The charger we used also has a wildlife setting that pulses more rapidly at night when wildlife are active.

Grounding

Along with your energizer you’ll need a grounding system. A good ground is essential to delivering a shock when a deer encounters your fence. Most problems with electric fences stem from poor grounding. Another rule of thumb is that for every output joule of the energizer you need three feet of buried ground rod. Install the ground rods in soil that stays moist year-round or that you can easily water. Be sure to space ground rods at least 10 feet apart.

Volt Meter

A volt meter will allow you to test your electric fence and ensure it is working properly. Generally speaking your fence will need to run at 5,000-6,000 volts for deer, which you can check using your volt meter. Best results will come from a volt meter made by the same manufacturer as the energizer.

Wire

There are many options when it comes to the wire you use for your electric deer fence. Kenny Simon recommends using a white turbo-braid or turbo-wire for this type of deer fence configuration because of the visibility and durability. Tying colorful survey ribbon to the fence also helps improve its visibility to wildlife and humans. In general you’ll find that “poly” strands contain six or less wire filaments and “turbo” strands contain nine. The more wire filaments in the strand the greater the voltage and the greater distance the strand can carry the voltage.

Posts

Luke Freeman and Ryan Neal pound in fiberglass in-line posts. Photo by Colin Massey, Arkansas Extension.

When it comes to posts Kenny recommends self-insulated line posts. We ended up using a combination of steel t-posts for the corners and fiberglass step-in posts for in-line. Self-insulated line posts will be flexible and support the fence in between the corner posts. Fence posts made from fiberglass, composite material, or plastic don’t carry an electric charge, so you don’t have to worry about adding insulators. You also won’t have the issue of a failed insulator causing a short in your fence. This can compensate for the added expense of self-insulated posts.

If you’re using metal posts like t-posts for your fence you must use high-quality insulators like a bull-nose insulator. The insulator will ensure the electric wire does not come into contact with the metal post, which would cause a short in the fence. In Kenny’s experience many problems with electric fences shorting out come from old insulators that break down. Grass or debris can also cause an electric fence to short out. It is important to keep the area under an electric deer fence mowed.

More Information

To learn more about setting up an electric deer fence for your farm or garden, watch the video recording from our workshop here. You can also find ATTRA Sustainable Agriculture publications on electric fencing for livestock at https://attra.ncat.org/topics/fencing-watering-systems/, including the publication “Paddock Design, Fencing, and Water Systems for Controlled Grazing.”

You can always call ATTRA’s helpline at 800-346-9140 or email askanag@ncat.org if you have questions about deer fencing, other garden pests, or any agriculture topic!

The electric deer fence configuration and supplies list we used at Cobblestone Farm:

NCAT has released  a five-part video series called “Maintaining Your Tractor” on YouTube. This series walks viewers through the three main factors that keep a diesel engine running smoothly:

  • clean air
  • clean fuel
  • lubrication

Farm and equipment educator Shane LaBrake joins NCAT Northeast Regional Director Andy Pressman (author of Equipment and Tools for Small-Scale Intensive Crop Production) at the Inn at East Hill Farm. They work on a Ford 1910 tractor from 1985. The 35-horsepower machine needed a new air filter, oil filter, and fuel filter.

Building Your Toolbox

The oil drain plug from a Branson tractor.

The oil drain plug from a Branson tractor being cleaned off.

The first video in the series focuses on the tools necessary to maintain your tractor at home. Shane first reviews necessary safety measures folks should take. Then, he gets into a variety of tools including:

  • socket wrenches,
  • flat wrenches,
  • filter wrenches,
  • air compressors,
  • grease guns, and
  • drop pans.

Preparing to Do Maintenance

A small group stands around a blue, Ford tractor.

A group of students gets to know a Ford 1910 tractor, 35 horsepower, from 1985.

The second video covers the steps folks should take to get to know their machine. It covers checking the fan belt, oil, cooling system, and filters.

Changing the Air Filter

The Ford 1910 that Shane and Andy work on has a canister-type air filter, but the two also discuss different kind of air filters and how to replace them with new ones.

Changing the Oil and Oil Filter

Putting clean oil into the tractor was not a difficult job for Shane and Andy, but it did take a little thinking. Shane shares many tips and tricks in this video that can make the job easier.

Replacing the Fuel Filter

A closeup of a few drops of fresh oil being poured on an oil filter.

Before installing a new oil filter, apply a thin film of oil to the contact points to make a better seal.

In order to swap out the fuel filter on this Ford, Shane and Andy had to avoid spilling diesel fuel everywhere. This was a more complicated job, but Shane walks through the whole process. After swapping out the filter, the video covers how to bleed the air out of a diesel fuel line.

Budgeting for Maintenance

Throughout the video series, Shane and Andy discuss the cost of doing tractor maintenance at home. It isn’t cheap to buy tools, learn the skills, and budget the time to perform these services. However, it’s a lot cheaper than paying for dealer hauling fees and labor hours. Plus, the two explore ways around the costs, such as teaming up with neighbors, sharing tools, and working together.

If you ever have questions about your equipment and how to keep it running in the long term, reach out to our agriculture specialists at askanag@ncat.org, or by calling 800-346-9140.

Two men on either side of a tractor with its hood open remove the air filter.

The air filter on this Branson tractor can be easily pulled out and replaced.

By Jeff Schahczenski, NCAT Agricultural and Natural Resource Economist


American farmers are stepping up to demonstrate that agriculture can be an important part of the climate solution by improving the resilience of America’s food system, reducing emissions, and facilitating on-farm production of renewable energy. Now, thousands of U.S. farmers and ranchers have signed a joint letter calling on partners in the private and public sector to help advance these solutions and invest in our rural and agricultural communities.

One farmer who signed onto the letter is Nina Prater, a soil health specialist for the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT) and a farmer in Cedarville, Arkansas. “As a farmer, I understand first-hand how intricately my livelihood—and the entire system of food production—is tied in with nature. Climate change is throwing all natural patterns out of order, and this disrupts our ability to produce food in an economically viable way. Farmers are uniquely positioned to help solve the problem of climate change through soil carbon sequestration,” Prater said.

NCAT encourages other farmers and ranchers to add your name to the letter. There is a version in English and a version in Spanish. You can read the letter at these links and add your name.

Montana farmers Doug and Anna Crabtree. Photo: Courtesy of Vilicus Farms

Montana farmers Doug Crabtree and Anna Jones-Crabtree. Photo: Courtesy of Vilicus Farms

In November 2019, NCAT agriculture economist Jeff Schahczenski co-authored a major report on agriculture and climate change that identified federal policy initiatives that would support farmers who are committed to being part of the climate solution. The report, published by the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, identifies policy opportunities to:

• build soil organic matter, soil health, and agricultural resilience;

• sequester C in soil and above-ground biomass;

• reduce greenhouse gas emissions;

• use resources sustainably; and

• maximize energy conservation.

NCAT is working with NSAC and its 116 member groups to make sure farmers have a direct voice in the national conversation about climate solutions in agriculture. In just a few months, more than 2000 farmers and ranchers from nearly every state have signed the letter. We have been overwhelmed with the response and want to build on this momentum!

If you are a food producer, please add your voice by April 15. Email addresses and contact information captured through the Google forms document will not be shared, sold, or retained by NSAC or any other party. Click here to read the letter and add your name.

Later this spring, NCAT, NSAC and partner groups will share this Farmer Letter on Climate Change in meetings with members of Congress, USDA program leaders, and other key decision-makers to urge effective policy action to combat climate change, and especially to help farmers and ranchers weather the storm and lead the way towards a more resilient future.

If you have any questions about the letter, contact Jeff Schahczenski at jeffs@ncat.org.

It Takes More Than a Nip and a Tuck, but You Can Bring Those Old Trees Back Into Production

By Guy K. Ames, NCAT Horticulture Specialist

Long-neglected fruit trees quite often simply die of disease or trunk borer damage, especially in the South where I live.  But if they don’t die, one of the two most common problems with aging fruit trees is growth so tall that the thought of pruning and harvesting them just seems impractical and intimidating.  The second most common problem is that old, overgrown trees tend to become unproductive, especially of good quality fruit.  “Restorative pruning” or “rejuvenative pruning” are terms used to describe techniques to bring old, too tall, and unproductive trees back to a manageable and productive state.

A Central Principle

Ideal central leader form. Illustration courtesy Guy Ames.

Starting with the tree that is simply too tall to efficiently manage, we must first determine what the natural growth habit of that tree is.  Apples, pears, and—to a slightly lesser degree—sweet cherries naturally assume a more-or-less pyramidal form, with one so-called “central leader” taller and stouter than any other upright growing shoot.  Such trees are described by horticulturists as exhibiting “apical dominance,” meaning the apex or top of the tree dominates the growth pattern of the overall tree.  When this natural growth habit is violated—that is, when the central leader is cut back to any significant degree—the tree will likely respond by sending up many, many candidates to be the new leader.  It’s like a king or queen that dies without heirs.  Many pretenders to the throne will arise!

And the further down the trunk you cut the central leader, the more these vertical shoots proliferate and the more vigorous these shoots will be.  They will crowd the center of the tree, blocking sunlight and air. Such vertical shoots tend not to be fruitful.  So, then, the first principle to respect in bringing down the height of a central leader-type tree (apples, pears, and sweet cherries) is to not try to cut out too much at once.  Don’t try to cut a 30-foot tall apple tree down to 12 feet in one fell swoop!  Plan for a two, three, or four year process, depending on the size of the tree currently.

The Modified Central Leader System

Modified central leader cut. Illustration courtesy Guy Ames.

At the same time and just as important, when you’re cutting back the central leader, pick another more-or-less upright growing shoot to become the new central leader.  This new central leader will probably arise from the same main trunk. It should be a few feet shorter than the leader you cut out.  Once you’ve chosen the new central leader, other serious contenders for tallest shoot should be cut back, preferably to a more horizontal growing limb.  This pruning/training system is called “the modified central leader” system. That, or the “multiple central leader” system (see below), should be the way you maintain the desired height of a fruit tree once it first reaches the desired height.  In other words, you will probably be choosing a new leader each year after the tree reaches the height you want.

The Multiple Leader System

When you’re faced with a very large, old tree, a new central leader may not be enough.  In such cases, choosing multiple leaders might be the best choice.  In essence what this will look like is three or four “secondary trees,” all growing and contained in the canopy space of the original, single tree.  Instead of having one big pyramidal tree on one big trunk, you’ll have two, three, or more secondary trunks branching off of the main trunk.

Each of these secondary trunks, then, will have its own central leader, resulting in multiple leaders for the tree as a whole.  To be honest, it’s probably rare that such a tree ever looks perfectly balanced among the several secondary trees. That is not important.  What’s important is that you maintain the trees “need” for apical dominance among these several secondary trunks. If you don’t choose a leader or leaders yourself, the tree will waste energy and crowd the interior of the tree with multiple wannabe leaders.

Big Thinning Cuts

The sheer amount of wood in an old tree can be intimidating!  For this reason alone, after choosing the new leader(s), you will serve your purposes best if you focus on removing a few big branches.  An important—maybe the most important—purpose of pruning is to thin out the interior of the canopy for sunlight and wind penetration.   An old rule of thumb is that a full-grown robin should be able to fly through the tree’s canopy.  Removing any large branches that are growing straight up (not including the central leader!) or back into the center of the tree is a good place to start.  And making thinning cuts rather than heading cuts will make your work lighter next year and the year after that.

To fully understand the distinction, especially the tree’s response to these different types of cuts, refer to ATTRA’s Pruning for Organic Management of Fruit Tree Diseases.  But basically a thinning cut is cutting a branch or shoot back to where it joins with another branch or the trunk.  In other words, where a branch forks, take off one fork, usually the one growing the most upright or back into the interior of the tree.  To repeat, restorative pruning relies on opening up that tree, so stand back and look at the tree. See if you can choose a few—three or four—large branches that will open up the tree but still leave the tree looking balanced.

Patience and Persistence 

The author points to a profusion of “water sprouts,” new, upright-growing sprouts caused by cutting back the central leader.

Patience and persistence are the next things you will need to bring these old trees back to a manageable and productive state.  Even if you do a good job picking a new central leader or multiple leaders, in the first year and with the first main cut(s), the old tree is almost certain to produce an abundance of upright growing shoots sometimes called “water sprouts.”  You will have to be patient and persist in pruning out those upright growing sprouts. Manage this tree to satisfy the criteria leading to good fruit:  thin out the interior of the tree for sunlight and air penetration, favor outward-growing limbs and shoots, and always remove diseased wood and branches that are rubbing against each other.

It might take three or even four years before the tree is in a more manageable state and back to producing large, quality fruit. But once and well done, the tree will be back to something much more easily managed and almost certainly more productive.

Find Out More

To learn more about pruning, see the ATTRA Sustainable Agriculture videos Pruning Fruit Trees: Tools and Tips and Pruning Fruit Trees: An Introduction. Feel free to contact the ATTRA help line at 800-346-9140 or email askanag@ncat.org if you have questions. We’re here to help!