Buying local and organic does not have to mean buying fresh. And in fact, whole fruits and vegetables often bring higher profit margins to the farm when they are chopped, frozen, dehydrated, or put into a jar or pouch. Launched at the request of central Texas farmers, NCAT's project Beyond Fresh aims to change grower and retailer perceptions, expanding opportunities to create and market profitable "value-added" food products from local and sustainably-grown ingredients.
After almost a year of interviews with farmers and food entrepreneurs, Robert Maggiani and our contractor Sue Beckwith have identified eleven promising value-added products that can be made on-farm, from common produce items in central Texas. The contenders? Fermented sauerkraut, salsas, and ketchup; dehydrated vegetable snacks and soup mix; freeze-dried vegetables and fruit; vacuum-fried vegetables; frozen ready-to-eat meals; and relishes, fruit jams, and jellies.
In the second year of our project we will now intensively study these products for potential commercial development, identifying the scale of production that is most profitable for farmers. We are also holding workshops on food safety and rural economic development, including a recent meeting on "Local Food Economic as a Driver of Economic Development," attended by political officials from small towns throughout central Texas. Beyond Fresh is funded through a grant from the Southern SARE Research & Education program.
Beginning Farmer Training for Veterans
Expanding on our successful Armed to Farm training last spring, Justin Duncan has begun a three-year effort to introduce military veterans to the idea of a career in farming or ranching. Himself a veteran of the United States Army, Justin is traveling to military bases and career fairs around Texas. He will soon begin offering "how to" workshops, farm visits, and e-learning opportunities giving veterans a wide range of options—whether they are merely curious or seriously planning a farm business and seeking to learn the finer points of farming in Texas. If you are a veteran or soon-to-be veteran who is looking to learn more about a career in agriculture, contact our office to speak with Justin. His work is supported by the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley's Southwest Texas StrikeForce Initiative for Beginning Farmers, funded through USDA's Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development program.
Soil for Water
NCAT's long-term Soil for Water initiative is all about storing more rainwater in the soil. Last fall our lead trainer Peggy Sechrist held focus groups and five workshops in the Pedernales River basin in the Texas Hill Country, attended by 120 local residents who learned how to monitor the ecological health of their grazing lands and how to use livestock as a tool to build up healthy soils with greater water-holding capacity. The workshops included pasture walks, outdoor field exercises, and presentations by Walt Davis, Steve Nelle, Dr. Richard Teague, and Dr. Tim Steffens. The project is now moving into its second phase. Four landowners in the Pedernales Basin have volunteered for long-term monitoring as we track the ecological impacts of adaptive and multi-paddock grazing systems on their properties for at least the next five years, in collaboration with Texas State University, Texas A&M, the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment, and the Hill Country Alliance. We have also begun work in the Blanco River watershed, where we will be conducting focus groups, holding workshops, getting to know local conservation and agricultural stakeholders, and identifying additional sites for long-term monitoring. Soil for Water is directed by Mike Morris and funded by Dixon Water Foundation and the Meadows Foundation.
Is Organic Farming (Really) Risky?
Historically organic farms have had limited crop insurance options, reducing their access to loans and their ability to survive disasters. This situation improved greatly in 2016 when the USDA began offering Whole Farm Revenue Protection—a new kind of crop insurance tailored to the needs of diversified and organic farms—in every county in America. Mike Morris is directing a four–year USDA–funded project called "Is Organic Farming Risky?" that is studying crop insurance options for organic growers. In January Mike traveled to Davis, California for the annual project meeting, attended by organic farming advocates from around the country. We encourage all farms, however small or diversified, to check out this new insurance product. Information is available on the website of USDA's Risk Management Agency, or by contacting our office.
The SOAR Partnership
The third annual meeting of the Subtropical Organic Agriculture Research (SOAR) Project took place November 6 on the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV) campus, bringing together 90 stakeholders to celebrate the accomplishments of the past year. Since it began two years ago, the SOAR project has worked with over 20 farms in the Rio Grande Valley, being directly involved in the creation of six new certified organic enterprises or facilities as well as an innovative new Farm to Health program that is delivering 50 boxes of farm fresh produce each week to the Doctors' Hospital at Renaissance, in Edinburg, Texas. We've also been heavily involved in launching a new Agroecology Program at UTRGV, under the direction of our friend and colleague Dr. Alex Racelis. NCAT staff are giving class presentations, working with the campus Environmental Awareness Club, and helping 18 students learn more about sustainable agriculture. We've put together nine short videos featuring organic farming and local food, showing students and farmers at work in the Rio Grande Valley. Check them out here.
In November our poultry specialist Kevin Ellis traveled to Des Moines, Iowa, to attend the International Organic Inspectors' Association training. This intensive, week-long class takes an in-depth look at the theory, practice, and enforcement of organic livestock standards and prepares attendees to seek work as professional organic inspectors. At the end of this demanding course Kevin was required to conduct a mock inspection and endure a grueling three-hour written exam. We are happy to report that he passed with flying colors and is now eager to help livestock producers understand the National Organic Program, prepare for inspections, or transition to organic production. Contact our office to talk to Kevin and get help with anything related to organic livestock.
Plants Need Companionship Too
Justin Duncan has recently completed a major update of the ATTRA Publication Companion Planting and Botanical Pesticides. Companion planting means growing in close proximity crops that provide benefits to each other, such as driving off pests or stimulating each other's growth. The publication includes a section on perhaps the most famous example of companion planting, the Native American planting practice known as the "Three Sisters," where corn, beans, and squash are grown together in a symbiotic relationship. The publication includes tables and instructions for making botanical pesticides from plant materials that can be grown on the farm. Check out the publication out here. Several tip sheets with instructions for making botanical pesticides to deal with specific insect pests are scheduled to be released later this year.
Out and About
- Natural Products Expo East (Baltimore, MD): Robert Maggiani attended
- Texas Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association Annual Conference (Rockwall, TX): Mike Morris, Robert Maggiani, Justin Duncan and Kevin Ellis all presented.
- The Natural Gardener (Austin, TX): Justin Duncan spoke on "African American Gardening"
- Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group Annual Conference (Lexington, KY): Justin Duncan gave a presentation on organic strawberry production.
- Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service Annual Conference (La Crosse, WI): Kevin Ellis presented "Growing Poultry Feed with Methionine"
- National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (Davis, CA): Mike Morris attended.
- New Food Safety Rules for Farmers (Elgin, TX): Robert Maggiani organized and presented.
- National Good Food Network Food Hub Conference (Atlanta, GA): Robert Maggiani attended.
- San Antonio Urban Farming Summit (San Antonio, TX): Mike Morris, Robert Maggiani and Kevin Ellis attended.
- Food Security Summit-University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley (Edinburg, TX): Mike Morris attended.
- San Antonio Food Policy Council (San Antonio, TX): Mike Morris presented on urban agriculture and water issues.
- University of Texas-Arlington (Arlington, TX): Justin Duncan spoke at "Careers for Heroes".