Friday, April 17, 2009

A-Rollin' and A-Crimpin'

We got it!! We got it!! We got the grant!!

Back in November, my friend (and partner in crime) Andrea and I applied for a North Central Region SARE Farmer Rancher Grant. SARE stands for Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education and is an organization that supports and promotes sustainable farming and ranching. According to their website, they offer competitive grants and educational opportunities for producers, scientists, educators, institutions, organizations and others exploring sustainable agriculture. The title of our grant application was Roller-crimper Construction and No-till Organic Weed Control Trials.

You see, weed control is an organic farmers #1 problem. Organic farmers can't spray their crops with herbicides, and so have to rely upon heavy tillage for weed control, which can lead to soil erosion and a continued dependence on fossil fuels. Conventional farmers have their no-till, where they don't till the soil at all and just drill next season's crop into the left-over stubble from the previous season. This technique does a great job of controlling soil erosion, but unfortunately depends upon heavy herbicide applications to kill the weeds.

Andrea, however, read one day about a roller-crimper being used for organic no-till agriculture at The Rodale Institute in Pennsylvania. She told me about it and we ooh-ed and aah-ed over it for days. I may have even drooled a little. You see, I haven't been able to convert to organics as fast as I'd like because we don't have much farm equipment. It costs lots of money (literally hundreds of thousands of dollars) to buy the various plows, cultivators, and planters needed for an organic crop farm. If we could do no-till organic, then we'd only need to buy a roller-crimper and a planter. But the question remains, how well does it work? I mean, sure, it works on Rodale's farm because they've been organic for over 25 years. But would it work in the Midwest, in our climate, on our tired, overworked soils?

Quickly thereafter, we received an email from our friend Margie at Extension about an opportunity to apply for a Farmer Rancher grant through SARE. In typical Andrea and Jackie fashion, we thought about it for maybe 2 minutes and said, "Let's go for it!" Did I mention we had 10 days until the grant application deadline? We put our heads together and worked like mad women literally all day, every day, for every one of those 10 days--writing, editing, budgeting, editing, finding collaborators, editing, etc. etc.--until we finished. The grant was due at 4 PM Nebraska time and I pushed the 'send' button at 2 PM.

The remarkable thing is that neither of us are experienced grant writers. But our enthusiasm built steadily throughout the 10 day process and we knew that when we had sent that application we had done a pretty darn good job.

Even so, I didn't really think we'd get the grant. (I have this thing about second-guessing myself.) So you can imagine my surprise when we arrived from Panama to a message on my answering machine from Margie, "Congratulations. You got the grant!"

To which I eloquently exclaimed, "Holy Sh*t! We got the grant!"

Anyways, here's a picture of a roller-crimper in action:

To utilize a roller crimper, you plant a fall-seeded cover crop on your land. By the time you're ready to plant your field to a cash crop the following spring, be it corn, vegetables or what have you, the cover crop is mature. You mount the roller-crimper onto the front of your tractor which will, as the name suggests, roll and crimp the cover crop, killing it and creating a weed-suppressing mat. At the same time, you pull a weighted planter behind the tractor that will cut a path in the thick mat and plant your seeds. Only one pass through your field to roll, crimp and plant, which saves time and diesel fuel. Brilliant!

We proposed three demonstration plots at three separate farms. At Irish Grove Farms, I will compare weed pressure in my no-till organic corn plot (using the crimper and cover crops) to the weed pressure in my non-GMO no-till conventional corn fields that will get sprayed with an herbicide for weed control. Andrea, at Hazard Free Farms, will compare weed pressure between her no-till organic melons and her organic melons that rely on heavy tillage/hand weeding. Another farmer, Kathryn, will compare her organic no-till sunflower field with a field where she interseeds a companion crop into her sunflowers for weed control. All 3 of us will also do cost comparisons, keep weather journals, the whole 9 yards. We will also hold field days where people can come out to see what we're doing.

Three different farms. Three different crops. All using the roller crimper. Pretty exciting.

Our hope is that the roller crimper will be an effective weed suppression tool for organic fields. But we realize that our one-year trials will face some major obstacles (weeds). Especially since our land has only been recently taken out of chemical-intensive agriculture. It takes years to rebuild the soil. As Midwestern Bio-Ag's founder Gary Zimmer says, "You've gotta earn the right." Meaning you have to do the long, hard work of rebuilding the soil before you can expect great yield results from organic no-till.

Honestly, we haven't earned the right to expect great yields from our organic no-till plots. But we know for a fact that we can still learn a great deal about weed control in organic agriculture. We want to test how well the roller crimper works, and how much time it will buy us in weed control. Even if the cover crop mat is effective through June, that is long enough to reduce herbicide use by 50% in conventional fields. Which to me is huge.

Anyways, I'm super excited and a lot nervous about this opportunity. I'll be sure to keep you posted as we get started.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Why So Expensive?

Many people have asked me why grass-finished beef is so expensive. They don't understand how a cow, eating grass, could be more expensive than one that eats grains. I mean, it's just grass, right? Everyone can grow (and does grow) grass, so therefore grass-finished beef should be cheaper.

Me being me, I do a rather bad job of explaining the costs involved in raising grass-fed beef, mostly because it's pretty darn difficult to recite a cost-benefit analysis in anything less than a 10-minute, one-sided and extremely boring "talk-at-you-not-with-you" conversation. Snore.

It is at this point that my friend and marketing consultant, Angela, would wag her finger at me and tell me to not focus on production costs because people buy with their emotions, not their knowledge.

Well, I see her point. But it also makes me seem a little shifty and a lot shiesty when I answer the "I don't understand why it's so expensive" question with an "Ours cows are happy. Our land is happy. The environment is happy. We farmers are happy. That 12 oz. steak will cost you $25, thank you."

For the record, Angela did not advise me to say that. I came up with that hair-brained answer on my own.

But in all seriousness, I believe that people who truly want to know the "why" should get an honest answer, so I'm gonna try and list some of the costs involved in raising grass-finished beef. This list is surely not complete and only corresponds to the costs incurred in Irish Grove. Costs will be different for different farms.

Grass-fed beef cannot be confined to a small barnyard. They need pasture, and lots of it. The general rule of thumb is 1 acre of pasture per cow-calf pair (mama and babe) per year. Got 40 cows with calves? You'll need 40 acres of pasture, which means 40 acres of land that won't be planted to a cash crop.

Animals require two things that cash crops don't: fences and water. The investment we've made, so far, in fencing and water systems has cost us about $15,000. And that's after receiving an EQIP grant from the government. The beef cattle have to pay for this. And it shows up in your meat costs.

Quality beef requires high-quality pasture. Which means expensive seeds and fertilizer, specialized farm equipment, and lots of skill to properly manage the land. We also buy more-expensive organic seeds and organic-approved fertilizers to improve the health of our land. Imagine a good $10,000 to get a 40-acre field started. Then add $2000/year for fertilizers and reseed costs, if necessary. (Winter happens.)

You can't use just any old cow in a grass-fed beef operation. The cows must be medium-framed and finish well on grass, meaning they'll reach market weight by 20-22 months and marble well . This limits our sources of eligible calves, which makes it more practical to raise our own. Unfortunately, raising our own is more expensive because we not only have to feed the calf, but we have to maintain the mother and a bull as well.

Winter is the most expensive time of year to have cattle. We must have plenty of high-quality hay on hand during the winter because we can't supplement our cows' diets with grain. This means more land in hayground or it means we purchase hay from a local grower at market prices plus transport costs.

I'm sure there are a myriad of other things I've forgotten here, and by this time tomorrow I'll be kicking myself about another inefficient conversation, but you get the point. Grassfed beef is expensive to raise.

So why do it?

Cows raised on pasture are healthier, requiring less medication and veterinary calls. Cows are ruminants and are designed to eat grass only. Feeding cows grain is like feeding your children a diet of fruit snacks and Snicker bars. Sure, they'll grow and they'll certainly fatten up. But is it good for them?

We live in the Prairie State. Our natural landscape is prairie, otherwise known as grasslands. Grasslands are the natural habitat for large ruminants. Grass-fed beef is farming that mimicks nature--it improves and restores the land to its natural state, which in turn restores habitat for many threatened prairie animal and bird species.

While grassfed beef operations seem quite inefficient at first glance, in fact our land is sequestering carbon (grasses sequester more carbon dioxide than trees) and saving gallons and gallons of fossil fuels. Our cows harvest their own food, for goodness sakes, which translates to fewer tractors planting, spraying, harvesting, hauling and grinding feed. The cows even spread their own manure!

While our happiness may seem like our own responsibility, I would argue that it behooves all of us to have happy farmers who make a healthy living off of their farms as our neighbors. Happy farmers are more likely to preserve green space, care for their land and welcome you onto their farm in the spirit of transparency and community. They will show you what they produce, how they produce it, and then you can decide for yourself if that's a product you would buy. Try visiting a CAFO and see what reaction you'll get. (One that likely results in an escort service, if you know what I mean.) Most importantly in this day and age of sprawl, loss of open space, and a degradation of our rural culture and farming knowledge base, happy farmers are more likely to live on, work on and pass their farm on and into the hands of the next generation, not into the hands of that developer.

Hmmn. It looks like my happy cow sentence might not be that ridiculous afterall. I'll have to ask Angela what she thinks about it. In the meantime, do the costs of grass-fed beef still seem ridiculous? Hope not, 'cause I didn't even touch on the health benefits for eating grassfed meats.

Thankfully, some else has done that homework. For information regarding the health benefits of eating grass-fed versus grain-fed, check out Jo Robinson's website:

And if that's not enough for you, well then I give up already.

Friday, April 10, 2009


Your seriously inexperienced, underpaid and over-appreciated rookie Irish Grove farmers have returned from their much needed vacation. Not to say that we don't love it here in Irish Grove, we do. But the last 3 years have been exasperatingly full of non-stop change. Change of the life-altering type.

Dad died. Marcel and I had a momentary brain fart and took over the farm. I developed stress-related Rosacea. (So in addition to grief and stress I got to look like a frickin' bumpy red tomato face.) Grandma Ruthie died. We bought out Aunt Nancy and Uncle Jim's share of the farm for a pretty penny. I use the word 'we' here in a most general fashion, if you know what I mean. Marcel and I bought the house and 5 acres from the newly established Irish Grove Acres, LLC (namely, Mom, Laura Matt and I). We also established the farm's business entity, called Irish Grove Farms, Inc. We paid our attorney and accountant some serious cash. And then we decided to go organic, much to the chagrin of our most beloved local farmers.

Now I've got a question. Don't they say that ignorance is bliss?

'Cause somehow in my case, ignorance has been a stressful, Rosacea-inducin', sleep-preventin', head-scratchin', mind-boglin', marriage-testin', steep uphill-battle.

Of course I should add that I decided to go back to work part-time just 3 months after Dad passed, my kids have stubbornly refused to stop growing up and involving themselves in normal kid stuff, and Mom decided to go and get married, of all things. That's right, she's planning on merging a whole new family into this craziness!

To the Dirkson family, I have only one thing to say. "Run For The Hills While You Still Can!" There. Don't say we didn't warn you.

So when you heard the "Calgone Take Me Away" screams echoing through the neighborhood, I really meant it. And luckily someone did take me away. (Although it wasn't Calgone....Marcel wouldn't have approved.)

Someone named Marcel took me away to Panama for a whole 2.3 weeks. And it was lovely. Divine. Peaceful and serene.

We spent 2 weeks surrounded by Panamanian family and friends whom we love and who love us right back. 2 weeks of 90 degree sunshine bliss. 2 weeks of not knowing anything about world economics, Korean test missiles, or mass shootings. 2 weeks of Spanish speaking. 2 weeks of playtime heaven for the kids, who literally ran wild with their cousins from sun-up to sun-down. 2 weeks of home-picked oranges, grapefruits, coconuts, and other local fruits found on their farm.

2 weeks away from the stresses of Irish Grove. Just what the doctor ordered.

"Irish Grove, I love ya. But sometimes too much togetherness can lead to problems. Hope you don't take it personally."

Happy to be back and at it once more. Your favorite rookie farmer,