Volume 6 Issue 3
Dr. Susan Kerr, WSU Regional Livestock and Dairy Extension Specialist
The 2014-2016 cadre of SARE Fellows visited numerous farms in Arkansas, Nebraska, Idaho, and West Virginia to study sustainable agricultural practices. The Fellows themselves were from Florida, Maine, Missouri, and Washington (see www.sare.org/Professional-Development/Fellows-Program/About-the-Fellows for more info); they overlapped with eight other Fellows who were either starting or ending their two-year study period.
The various locations visited, diverse enterprises studied, and range of farming practices employed ensured exposure to a cross section of agricultural business with varying degrees of sustainability. The Fellows learned to use the “Reading the Farm” assessment tool, which provides a framework for holistic evaluation of farms using the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats (SWOT) approach.
Sharing some of the lessons learned from farms visited during the SARE Fellows program in this article may be useful to prospective small-scale producers, beginners, and even experienced producers who are considering making changes to their enterprise(s). These reflections will be shared using the categories of the Reading the Farm process: production and processing; social and quality of life; environmental; and marketing and economics. Major take-away messages and a farm example will be included for each.
Production and Processing
By far, the most important lesson learned regarding production and processing was how important it was for farms to focus on profit centers and what they did well. Although diversification is wise and can help reduce risk of the loss of single crops, many farms overdiversified and ended up doing few things well (or even profitably). For long-term success, enterprises that are sustainable environmentally, socially, and economically are a must.
Regardless of the crop produced, farmers must be knowledgeable about and employ best management practices (BMPs) for that crop. Irrigation, pest control, fertilization, season extension, and harvesting practices used should be state-of-the-art for that crop, applying the results of relevant research for optimal production efficiency. The differing levels of efficiency between farms was remarkable and mostly depended on the operator’s knowledge and use of BMPs.