Workshop offers tips for organic farming

Bruce Schultz  |  7/30/2018 3:10:39 PM

(07/30/18) CADE, La. — More than 80 people turned out for a two-day workshop aimed at helping novice and advanced organic farmers.

The workshop presented by the LSU AgCenter and the Louisiana Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Professional Development Program brought in nationally recognized organic farming expert Alex Hitt, of Graham, North Carolina, who has run a commercial vegetable and cut-flower operation, Peregrine Farm, for more than 37 years with his wife, Betsy.

The event was held at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette Experimental Research Farm near Cade.

Carl Motsenbocker, LSU AgCenter horticulture professor, said Hitt’s successful operation on a 2-acre farm demonstrates that a small farm can be profitable. “We wanted to show that this can be done in Louisiana,” he said.

As consumers are demanding more local food, opportunities are growing for new farmers.

Motsenbocker said the farm-to-school program will require locally sourced food.

“It’s all about good horticultural practices,” he said

On the first day, Hitt gave an overview of the keys to a successful farm. On the second day, individuals were able to ask Hitt about help with their specific problems.

Hitt, who has a master’s degree in soil science, said he and his wife wanted to make a living in the country when they moved to North Carolina. They grew their first crop in 1982 after starting with no money, no land and no farming background.

They sacrificed comfort and convenience to put their profits back into the farm. He said he and his wife lived in a tent for eight months, and they had no running water for more than a year.

Farming is an exercise in delayed gratification. “It’s brutally constant. There is no break,” Hitt said.

A component of the Hitts’ success was good record keeping, writing daily what they did on the farm and sales they made at local farmers markets.

Being able to deliver a consistent, high-quality product is the best way to keep buyers happy, he said, and most consumers prefer quality over a lower price.

Hitt said the first lesson they had to learn was to grow a crop to meet consumer demand. They started with a pick-your-own operation with thornless blackberries and raspberries. But they quickly learned that customers preferred the taste of regular blackberries, and North Carolina was too hot for raspberries.

“We were producing 30,000 pounds of berries an acre that nobody wanted,” he said.

Selling a product, handling payroll, making customer contacts, carrying out chores and maintenance are all important for a successful operation. “You have to know there’s more than just putting plants in the ground,” he said.

Hitt and his wife raised turkeys that would be sold in advance of Thanksgiving. To let customers know how the turkeys were doing through the year, he sent out a newsletter, and that helped connect customers to the farm.

Maintaining soil organic matter is critical, and a diverse selection of vegetables along with crop rotation prevents many insect and disease problems. Organic matter can be increased with cover crops, crop residue, manure and compost, he said.

Irrigation is needed for most farms. “Water is the single most limiting factor in growing a crop,” he said.

It is important to learn how to grow vegetables in the usual growing season before attempting to lengthen the growing season with high-tunnel greenhouses, Hitt said.

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