Author Archives: laurab08

Meet Piedmont Hops in their Fourth Season

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Piedmont Hops is run by business partners David Goode and Steve Brown. Our 2013 story tracked Piedmont Hops in its second season and we followed its third harvest with another story in 2014. Click on those stories to learn more about David and Steve’s background and their experiences building a role a new industry.

All of the photos for this story were provided by Steve’s wife, Kathryn Brown.

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When David Goode and Steve Brown began growing hops, it was just a hobby, but by 2012 they found themselves growing commercially to meet the needs of the rapidly-growing Virginia craft beer industry. Today, the business consists of 800 plants grown at Piedmont Hops’ two sites in Chesterfield County, Virginia and North Carolina. David and Steve are active in the industry on several fronts and both serve as generous sources of knowledge and experience to fellow growers.

We are fortunate to be able to track this operation into its fourth year. We recently met with David Goode to discuss this year’s progress at Piedmont Hops.

How is the 2015 season going?
So far so good. We have a crop that is all over the place. Our 2014 expansion is not quite acclimated just yet due to our young plants. Our oldest yard is looking great. Next season we expect a more uniform harvest between both VA yards.

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Tell us about the varieties you are growing. Did you add any new ones this year?
Currently we are growing Cascade, Chinook and Nugget in NC and VA. Last season we added CTZ in Virginia. Midnight Brewery asked us to grow some Mt. Hood. They look good, so we shall see. We grow more Cascade than any variety. We have a few others we are trying out, but not ready to let the cat out the bag quite yet.

It seems like many of our Virginia growers produce at least several varieties to diversify their offerings, but everyone has a favorite. What’s yours?
Chinook by far. The leaves are huge and very dark green. Even the leaf stems smell of hops when we strip them. You get a nice lupulin tease early in the season before the bines even have cones. The cones are the most fragrant of what we grow. Our Chinook have a nice grapefruit aroma. We have one customer in particular that requests as much Chinook as possible. The guys from Stone Brewing loved the aroma from our Chinook.

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Are you trying anything new in 2015?
We completely tore down our 2013 fall trellis and expanded. A grid trellis that uses more spacing and less poles was constructed. The plan is to cut these bines down and take them to Huguenot Hops for processing. Our original yard still lowers for hand picking. We have not changed any marketing techniques. We still make phone calls and send emails to our customers as usual. This spring, we added one variety that we hope will do well and a handful of crowns to trial. Five very healthy wild hops plants we germinated from seed are doing great. We are hoping at least one is a female for cone production. We have two brewers already anxious to brew with them as a test in 2016.

After three years in this business, what is the biggest challenge that you have encountered along the way?
We started in 2012, so this will be our fourth season. Our biggest challenge has been fighting hops downy mildew. However, we have some solid extension agents who have coached us along the way. At one point we wanted to completely dig up a section of yard. Today, that section shows no signs of DM and is fully loaded with cones. We are happy we have such wonderful agents within driving distance of our yard in Virginia.

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Each hop cone, or female flower, prepares for a career in beer by progressing from a burr (top image) to a cone (bottom image).

Interest in the industry has grown steadily in the past few years and as a result we have seen many people join the Old Dominion Hops Cooperative. You have been an active member of this grower group for several years now. What is your outlook on ODHC and the changes you have seen as interest in hops has grown?
I love the folks within the Old Dominion Hops Cooperative. It has changed drastically since my first meeting in an old barn. We now have large meetings with video and conference call-ins, a new logo, and a solid team of folks leading various departments. We are a rapidly growing growers organization. The ODHC represents many states along the east coast. I would encourage anyone growing hops in the Southeast to consider joining the ODHC. Devon Kistler, our chairman, has done a wonderful job expanding the functionality of the cooperative.

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You have a strong online presence, particularly on social media. Tell us more about how you use this kind of outreach.
We use social media all the time. We love sharing our passion with folks. Whether they are craft beer drinkers, home brewers, family, friends, breweries and brewery owners, we love to show everyone what we are up to. Social media is a great way for folks to actually meet the farmer and see the farm without having to visit. I always tell folks, check out our social accounts for more info on who we are. Your social presence ultimately represents who you are. You can find us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Vimeo.

Do you have any advice for others who are interested in growing hops?
My advice is to start small and expand small. Visit and volunteer at other hops farms if possible. Learn as much by doing online research. NC State has a lot of good research. Start with quality rhizomes or Virus Free plant material. There are many great vendors out there and many not so great. Know your plant growers. We made some mistakes and bought poor quality material. It came back to bite us. Start with some Cascade if not all Cascade. Not only does it sell, but it grows well and will give you an idea of how this crop grows. You will set yourself up for success in year one. Then expand with others. There is so much advice I could be giving right now. This is one of the most difficult crops to grow. Lastly, please do not buy into the hype of hops being a cash crop. It is not.

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Do you have any successes you would like to share from this season?
Piedmont Hops has grown quite a bit over the years. In 2012 we started with about 70 or 80 plants. We now have over 800. The bulk of the crop is grown in Virginia, but we will be expanding a bit in North Carolina this fall. Between the two farms, we should have over 1,000 crowns. Steve represents the North Carolina growers within the ODHC. I have taken a volunteer spot within the Hops Growers of America. There is a small growers section developed and we will be collecting national data. I have been chosen to represent our region, mainly North Carolina and Virginia.

Your hops are showing up in local beers—would you like to share where some of them might be headed this year?
Our hops will show up locally in the RVA IPA by Hardywood Park Craft Brewery. This will be our third year working with them. Many of our hops are picked and delivered to North Carolina for fresh hopped ales. Our Nugget is heading way down south to Florida. From the several farm tours we have done and hops we have delivered, our customers and future customers love our product. With repeat customers in Virginia and North Carolina over the last three seasons, that is a great testament to the quality of our cones.

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Additional Resources for Readers:

Piedmont Hops website and Facebook page

Old Dominion Hops Cooperative

Virginia Cooperative Extension’s Hops Page

North Carolina Hops Project

Meet Glascock Orchard.

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Anyone who asks Berryman Glascock how he got his start in the fruit tree business is bound to appreciate his longstanding dedication to the art. “I was born in a peach orchard, basically,” he says. Peaches have been grown in the area for a number of years, even going back as far as World War II when Glascock Brothers managed the orchard adjoining Berryman’s operation.

Though Berryman himself got an early start learning the industry, he was not always certain that it would be his career path. “I was eighteen when I left home, and I swore I’d never go into the peach business,” he says. About seven years later he returned to the farm and within the past four years has gone back into the business of raising fruit trees.

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Glascock Orchard sells most of the peach crop wholesale to produce stands. Berryman is also expecting to sell some apples and pears in the next year or two, although he admits that part of the draw of growing those additional fruits is his young grandson’s interest in them.

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Most of the work at the orchard is concentrated into several very busy months. “It’s a January through June operation,” Berryman says. He cites freezing weather in February and March as the most challenging part of managing the trees. “That’s the worst part of the whole deal—watching them all night,” he says. Some years are more worrisome than others, and Berryman is at the mercy of the weather every spring. This year, his trees were still at the bud stage around Easter when they took a hit during a cold snap.

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Berryman starts pruning in the first week or two of January, and in March he initiates his fertilizer program and his spray schedule to stave off diseases and pests like destructive peach tree borers. He also thins the fruit early in the season in hopes of reaching a target yield from each tree. If frost becomes a danger, he uses overhead irrigation as a protective measure.

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Weed control is another matter which requires constant attention. Overgrown grasses and plants surrounding the trees compete for water and nutrients and can make chores cumbersome. Berryman maintains a weekly regimen of weed control, disease management, and pest monitoring up until harvest time in June through July. Afterwards, he and his workers catch a breather. “Once the peaches are gone, we don’t do anything until January,” he says.

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Berryman may have a short break after the harvest season, but when he is not pruning or picking he is likely to be spotted taking advantages of educational opportunities. In fact, because of his interest in learning more about his craft, he has engaged with Virginia Cooperative Extension agents to host two fruit production workshops right at his orchard this year.

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Prior to 2013, few orchard workshops were held in the counties of Southside Virginia for growers like Berryman. Agriculture and Natural Resources Extension agents Katy Overby in Prince Edward County, Haley Norton in Nottoway County, and Lindy Tucker in Lunenburg County were inspired by client requests to develop a regional fruit tree conference for commercial growers—the first of its kind in many years—in December of 2013. Berryman was one of several dozen producers who attended, and it quickly became obvious that participating growers wanted more learning opportunities. In the following months, many homeowners also sought information about fruit tree care and management. “Probably forty or fifty percent of questions from homeowners are about fruit trees, so that was definitely a need. Ever since we started fruit trees, people want more,” says agent Katy Overby of her Extension work in Prince Edward County.

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Spurred by more interest from growers and particularly from homeowners and beginners seeking information, agents in the region held another fruit tree workshop in February of 2015, this time focusing on basic fruit production principles. Berryman graciously offered up his orchard for an on-farm pruning demonstration for the class of thirty. Participants discussed everything from diseases, integrated pest management, and pruning to tree selection and planting. Nelson County agent Michael Lachance walked the crowd through the orchard with Berryman, discussing tree troubleshooting and showing the audience how to make pruning cuts and properly shape trees.

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Nelson County Extension agent Michael Lachance teaches pruning cuts at the June 2015 summer orchard workshop.

This second winter workshop of 2015 begat yet another class several months later at Berryman Glascock’s orchard. This time, the agents chose to focus on summer pruning. “No one I know in this area has done summer pruning—we saw a need there,” says Nottoway agent Haley Norton. “We needed education on summer pruning cuts to increase yield and productivity.” Once again, Nelson agent Michael Lachance joined the group of fifteen homeowners and fruit producers on June 15th at Glascock Orchard to demonstrate pruning cuts out in the field.

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Prince Edward Extension agent Katy Overby and Berryman Glascock demonstrate summer pruning cuts during an orchard workshop.

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While commercial operations like Glascock Orchard are relatively few in number in Southside Virginia, interest in small-scale production continues to increase. “I do feel like on the homeowner side, with the movement towards growing your own food, we are going to see more people who want to grow small orchards. People are going to become educated one way or another. That education needs to come from Extension,” notes Haley Norton. She and several other agents plan to offer more tree fruit classes in the future and expand programming into the increasingly popular arena of small fruit production.

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Nottoway County Extension agent Haley Norton (top) and Charlotte County agent Bob Jones (above) discuss tree care with orchard workshop attendees.

What does all this mean for Berryman? Local Extension agents, commercial growers, and beginners alike may very well be back at his orchard soon for yet another afternoon of hands-on learning, should the need arise, and it appears that Berryman and his fellow commercial growers will have more opportunities to attend educational Extension conferences held in future years. Meanwhile, Berryman plans to continue doing what he does best—growing fruit, trying new things, learning as much as he can, and offering up peaches that nobody in their right mind could turn down.

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Additional Resources for Readers:

Virginia Cooperative Extension Tree Fruit Page

The Virginia Fruit Page

Virginia Tech Tree Fruit Extension and Outreach Facebook Page

 

 

 

Meet Ameva Farm.

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Jimmy and Donna Kerr stand in their freestall barn where the milking herd lives. The barn is built for cow comfort: fans and sprinklers keep cows cool, and the cows can rest on sand bedding, socialize, or get up to eat as they please.

Jimmy and Donna Kerr run the Amelia County dairy operation today, but it was originally established several generations ago as a crop and tobacco farm. In 1948, Jimmy’s grandfather drove to Wisconsin and returned with thirteen registered Guernseys, the start of the first dairy herd at the operation. The herd soon moved across the road, where a milking facility and barns were constructed.

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The dairy herd at Ameva Farm was founded with Guernseys, but today it consists of black-and-white Holsteins. Holsteins are a highly productive dairy breed and are used on most milking herds in the U.S.

Several decades after his grandfather set the foundation for the dairy farm and the herd eventually shifted in favor of Holsteins, Jimmy went to study at Virginia Tech and met his wife Donna in the Dairy Science program. After graduating in 1982 and returning to the farm to start a family, they helped their son Alex and their daughter Jamie develop a passion for showing dairy animals at a young age. Donna recounts the story of Jamie watching her big brother prepare calves for shows and earnestly anticipating her turn to be old enough to participate, only to fall off of a gate the day before the show. She was determined to have her turn in the show ring despite the setback. “She broke her arm, but the next day she was showing!” Donna and Jimmy remark. Both Jamie and Alex continued to raise and show cattle throughout their youth and remained active in the Virginia Junior Holstein Association for a number of years. Today, Alex helps manage the operation alongside his father.

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Ameva Farm operates much like other family dairy farms in the state. The 200-head milking herd goes to the parlor twice each day, once at 3:30 in the morning and again at 2:00 in the afternoon. Farm employees Homer Neese and Lane Staten help Jimmy with milking. When they are not being milked, the cows live in a freestall barn where they can come and go from feed to sand bedding as they please. Keeping the cows content and comfortable requires someone willing to mix feed, bed up the barn, and scrape manure out of the aisles daily. “These cows are our livelihood,” Donna says, noting that cow welfare directly affects the farm’s bottom line. “If they are not in good health and well fed, we don’t make money.” To help with the chores, Jimmy and Donna enlist the help of assistant herdsman Chief Moore, Joel Linthicum and part-time help John Sloan and Tommy Glover. Chief’s wife Donna also helps feed calves. “It takes a village to raise a cow,” Donna jokes.

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The calves on the farm require special care of their own. Like any newborns, they can become sick if they are stressed or malnourished, so they are fed four doses of colostrum in the first two days after birth to ensure good transfer of disease immunity from their dams. The calves are then fed a milk replacer which functions akin to baby formula to provide calves with the nutrition they need. Calves are kept in a special barn to protect them from contact with diseases, and as they grow older, they are put in a larger group to help them learn to socialize with a herd.

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Calves at Ameva Farm receive special care after birth to ensure a good start. As they grow older, they learn to eat pelleted feed and hay.

Throughout their time in the calf barn, calves have access to a pelleted feed. As calves grow, they choose to consume more of this feed in preparation for weaning at seven weeks of age. Older calves become heifers—the teenagers of the cattle world—and when they approach maturity, they are bred and eventually enter the milking herd. Cows in the milking herd give birth to calves, produce milk for several months, and enjoy a “dry period” of rest before the next calf arrives.

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Like most dairy farmers, the Kerrs grow much of their feed right on the farm including small grains and corn for silage and grain. They also grow brown midrib sudangrass which turns into an easily-digestible silage for the cows after it is chopped and stored. Jimmy uses modern soil conservation practices on his farm for his crop production program. “My grandfather was big into soil conservation. We carried those practices on,” he says. “Conservation is a big thing for us.” On Ameva, improved practices include contour strips and no-till farming to promote healthy soil. “You can’t buy topsoil at Wal-Mart,” Donna notes.

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The Kerrs grow most of their feed right on the farm. Some of their crops are grown for silage and some are used for grain. Small grains grow in the fall through spring. Corn and sudgangrass grow during the spring and summer. Both can be chopped and ensiled at harvest time and fed to the milking herd.

Jimmy’s son Alex helps with the field work and crop management, which occurs year-round since small grains grow in the fall through spring and corn grows in the summer. And, of course, the cows need to be milked and fed year-round.

The Kerr family dedicates a considerable amount of each day to farm work. “We have 9-10 hour days, and that’s typical,” Donna says. “Milking cows is almost an 8-hour day, and that’s just milking.” Nonetheless, Jimmy and Donna place a high value on taking time to educate others about agriculture. Donna recounts one particular youth education program years ago that motivated her to take action. “My first question to the kids was, ‘Where does milk come from?’ I kept hearing, ‘The grocery store! The grocery store!’” she says. “I came home and said, ‘We have to do something!’ These are our future regulators and legislators.”

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Agricultural education has been a keystone of the farm since the day the Kerrs first hosted schoolchildren on a field trip when their son Alex entered kindergarten. “We’ve had lots of different tour groups from boy scouts to school children,” Jimmy says. In recent years, schools like Spring Run Elementary have chosen to return annually. Donna notes that well over half of the U.S. population is three or more generations removed from farming, so naturally many children and adults have misunderstandings about how their food is produced. The tours and question-and-answer sessions seem to have made an impact over the years. “Sometimes there’s a lightbulb moment for them,” Jimmy says.

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Cows are brought to the milking parlor twice each day. Each cow is milked for several minutes, and afterwards, she is able to return to the barn to eat, rest, or socialize. Meanwhile, the Kerrs and their employees clean and sanitize the parlor equipment after every milking.

Donna and Jimmy’s roles in the community have given them ample opportunities to share their farm with adults, too. They have given dairy tours to representatives of several government agencies. Donna also believes that the teachers who tour the farm with their classes can go home armed with knowledge to teach many more children about farming.

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Not all students and adults have the opportunity to visit the operation in Amelia, but that does not deter Donna from sharing her message outside of the farm, especially to the state’s decision-makers. In her role as past President of Amelia County Farm Bureau and her time serving on the state Forestry and Natural Resources Committee, Donna has developed rapport with legislators and their aides who sometimes contact her to ask questions about agricultural issues raised by the public. “You never know who you can affect,” Donna says.

When they are not busy on the farm or performing agricultural outreach, Jimmy and Donna still find time to engage with industry groups. Donna is on the board of the Piedmont Soil and Water Conservation District and was an advisor to the Virginia Junior Holstein Association for too many years to count. Meanwhile, Jimmy is the president of Cooperative Milk Producers and was also involved with the Virginia Holstein Association.

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Back at Ameva Farm, Jimmy and Donna want consumers to know that they raise a product that they believe in. Even though farm life is busy, they are happy to help others learn about their occupation. To instill confidence in the dairy industry as she tells her farm story, Donna relates that her family is committed to their own product. “We’re consumers too. I think people forget that perspective. We believe in dealing with our customers,” she says. To the Kerrs, producing a good product and sharing it with others is not simply a business—it is a lifelong passion.

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Additional Resources for Readers:

Learn about Dairy Farming from Virginia Cooperative Extension

National Dairy Council

Virginia State Dairymen’s Association

Virginia Holstein Association

 

 

Meet a Virginia Cooperative Extension Soybean Test Plot

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Cover photo credit-Lindy Tucker; above-Taylor Clarke

Instead of our usual narrative, this month we are sharing a video documenting our on-farm soybean test plots and explaining how we use these plots to generate decision-making tools for crop farmers in Virginia. As you will learn, developing test plots requires careful pre-planning and calculations, good management throughout the season, and special data collection at harvest time. This crop performance data becomes available to farmers each year, fueling agricultural progress and profitability. In the video, we explain the whole process from start to finish while tracking one of our plots which was planted in Southside Virginia in 2014. Click the play button to begin watching. 

Want to learn more? Read our previous story here about Extension agent Taylor Clarke and his on-farm soybean plot. 

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Photo credit (here and images below)-Lindy Tucker

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Additional Resources for Readers:

2014 Virginia On-Farm Soybean Test Plots

Virginia Soybean Update

Virginia Soybean Board

Meet Bluestem Farms.

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While in past years the Amelia County operation has been home to a herd of Kiko goats and several outstanding performance-tested bucks, Robie and Angie Robinson and their children have spent the past twelve years shifting their focus towards growing and improving their sheep and cattle herds.

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Like many farmers, the Robinsons raise a little bit of everything to sustain their family—chickens, meat from their livestock, and a large garden with everything from asparagus to onions. While they also finish, harvest, and sell some meat to a group of local customers, they market most of their animals including their weaned feeder calves conventionally on the livestock market as most local cattlemen do.

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However, their cowherd is rather unique—it consists primarily of Devons, not to be confused with Milking Devons which are also rare in this area. Devons are a hardy, red-coated breed from England and they come in the relatively small to moderate frame size that Robie maintains as a goal for his breeding program. He pays particular attention to the genetics of his herd through bull selection and culling. Because he relies on a forage-based production system, he wants cows that are programmed to efficiently convert grass to milk for their calves and he wants beef calves that grow well on a grass-based diet. Like the many other cow-calf operations in the region, most of the calves will be weaned and sold as “feeder calves” to buyers who will take them elsewhere for more growth and “finishing” prior to harvest. However, since Robie finishes some of his own animals on grass and harvests them for customers, he pays particular attention to carcass quality traits when he selects bulls for his program.

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While driving past Bluestem, it is hard to miss the Robinsons’ herd of sheep. After all, relatively few people in Southside Virginia still raise sizable herds of sheep. Robie made the transition after he noticed more desirable marketing opportunities for his sheep than for his goats, and today he raises them primarily for the Easter market, a prime window for selling lambs.

Like his beef herd, Robie’s sheep are also unique. His ewes are mostly Katahdins, a breed of hair sheep that requires no shearing because the animals shed their coats in the spring. Katahdins have been recognized for their success on grass, high fertility, and adaptability to a variety of conditions, making them an excellent fit for the Robinsons and their forage-based grazing management program. While some breeds traditionally lamb indoors and require special care to ensure good mothering and survival immediately after lambing, Katahdins are well-suited for “pasture lambing,” and Robie notes that he rarely has to provide any assistance to his ewes at lambing time.

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As with his cattle, he uses careful culling as a tool to reach towards his goals for herd genetics. Ewes that fail to produce and raise twins are generally removed in favor of ewes who are predisposed to prolific lambing and good mothering traits. He also culls in favor of sound feet and easy shedding. The Robinsons have managed to import desirable genetics into the herd via purchasing performance-tested rams from University of Maryland and Virginia Tech.

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Sheep are notorious for wearing out pastures and cattle can be equally hard on forages if producers do not manage their grazing systems carefully. Since the Robinsons rely on grass to do all the legwork for growth and milk production for both species, they have prioritized pasture care on the operation to meet their needs. Robie has a few goats in every field with the sheep because they tend to graze onions and some of the other hard-to-control broadleaf weeds that sheep may pass over.

While he used to apply conventional fertilizer regularly, Robie’s philosophy on fertility management has shifted over the years and today he prefers to rely mostly on chicken litter when it is needed. However, when using litter, he notes that he must take care not to overload the field with certain nutrients, especially phosphorous. Like all farmers, he occasionally needs to lime his fields to adjust the soil pH. He manages his grazing strategy according to conditions—in some cases, he chooses to “flash graze” his fields to manage bouts of rapid spring top growth.

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A visit to the Robinson farm yields a blue-green view of plentiful orchardgrass throughout the sheep pastures. Orchardgrass is a high-quality, highly-palatable species that also makes excellent hay. However, if it is mowed or grazed repeatedly close to the ground, it does not tend to persist. Robie uses a haybine instead of a disc mower when he cuts his fields for hay, and over the years he has seen that his orchardgrass has thrived and persisted for much longer than expected.

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Mixed with the orchardgrass is some hairy vetch and plentiful clover, much of which turned up in the pasture on its own. Robie planted some stands of hybrid Bermuda grass experimentally in past years and those stands remain productive each summer. He has also planted Red River and Quick and Big crabgrass, both of which make excellent forage and seem to reseed themselves readily.

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Bluestem has changed considerably over the past twelve years, as have Robie and Angie’s production strategies. Robie used to engage in row crop production before favoring livestock—the farm as it stands today was started with twelve registered angus cattle. Around the same time that Robie gained an interest in Devons and Katahdins, he also shifted his paradigm surrounding farm management in favor of grass ecology and robust soil microorganisms. “I was a cattleman, then I was a grass farmer, now I’m a mycologist,” he jokes. Nonetheless, his goals for building healthy land and soil are serious, and the proof is in the results—healthy lambs and calves, green pastures, and happy customers.

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Additional Resources for Readers:

Sheep and Goat publications from Virginia Cooperative Extension

Beef cattle publications from Virginia Cooperative Extension

Pasture and forage publications from Virginia Cooperative Extension

Breed profile: Katahdin sheep

Breed profile: Devon cattle

Bluestem Farms

 

Meet Whit and Jennifer Morris.

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Their farm business took shape in 2003 when they bought land in Blackstone to support their cowherd. Around this time, Jennifer was an Extension agent in Nottoway and Whit also had a career in agriculture. As the business grew, Jennifer made the transition to caring for the farm full-time, and Whit joins her to manage the farm outside of his job.

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Today, the family runs a commercial herd comprised mostly of Angus and Gelbvieh crosses. The farm is primarily a cow-calf operation, meaning that Whit and Jennifer breed their cows and heifers each year, raise the nursing calves to weaning age, and sell the calves after weaning time. They choose some of their heifer calves to stay in their breeding herd. They also send some of their animals to annual Virginia Premium Assured Heifer sales and Virginia Quality Assured feeder calf sales in conjunction with the Amelia Area Cattlemen, a local producer group.

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While the calves born on the Morris farm may eventually go on to a feedlot for the last few months before harvest, these calves and their dams spend a considerable portion of their lives out on grass. In fact, the many cattlemen who run cow-calf operations in Virginia know that the most efficient and economical way to manage cows and their offspring from calving time to weaning time is on pasture—pasture which, Whit and Jennifer have learned firsthand, requires strategic management if it is to meet the demands of lactating cows and large, growing calves.
Cattle producers can feed hay to meet the animals’ forage requirements when grass is not growing in the summer or when it goes dormant in the winter, but the cost of making or buying hay can far exceed the cost of maintaining a good stand of grass. To minimize the number of days that they must feed hay and to maximize the health, efficiency, and productivity of their pastures, Whit and Jennifer have spent the last several years building and improving a controlled grazing system to take full advantage of the tall fescue, clover, Bermuda grass, and other species growing on their land.

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Their grazing plan changes throughout the year according to conditions and forage growth habits. In the summer, the cattle follow a “rotational grazing” system. In this system, the pastures are subdivided and animals are given access to one area at a time. Jennifer moves the cattle to a new area when the grass is grazed to a critical height. If cattle stay in one place too long and graze forages too closely, grasses lose nearly all of their leaf area. They then have to expend their root reserves to supply energy for sending out more leafy growth, and they tend to bounce back slowly even when given a rest period. If Jennifer pulls the cattle off of each paddock before the cattle overgraze it, the grasses have enough leaf area left behind to fuel fast regrowth through photosynthesis.

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In the cold months, the farm switches to a “strip grazing” system to make use of the tall fescue which was grown in the fall months and saved or “stockpiled” for the winter. Strip grazing offers benefits similar to rotational grazing, but unlike a rotation in which animals are moved from fenced paddock to paddock, strip grazing entails setting up a temporary fenceline and moving the animals’ fenceline further and further down the paddock as the animals consume what is offered to them. Each time Whit and Jennifer move the fence and provide access to a fresh part of the pasture, the animals consume the available forage far more evenly and efficiently than they would if they had simply been turned out continuously on the entire area at once.

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In a continuous grazing system, animals access the entire available pasture at all times, and, due to behavior and preferences, end up overgrazing some areas and underutilizing others, resulting in changes to both the health and the quality of the forages. Animals also tend to congregate and loaf in the same areas each day, concentrating nutrients from manure in these areas. To complicate matters, many parts of the pasture can never adequately rest from overgrazing and the stand of grass eventually becomes weak.

Both of the grazing strategies that Whit and Jennifer employ—rotation and strip grazing—have well-documented advantages over continuous grazing including more even nutrient distribution, higher pasture utilization, and more efficient use of available forages. Whit and Jennifer have also seen a significant downsize in hay feeding requirements because their management strategies create highly productive pastures and lengthen the number of days that forage remains available during the winter.

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A cattle producer who does not have enough available pasture or who does not use a controlled grazing plan may end up feeding hay to pick up the slack during the summer, in the late fall, and all throughout the winter if the pastures become weak or overgrazed. This can quickly become expensive, and Whit and Jennifer have been grateful that their pasture management plan has brought relief from a portion of their hay costs. “We didn’t feed hay til the snow this year,” Jennifer notes. In a typical year, she also feeds some hay in the fall so that pastures can build some growth and later be used for winter grazing. “We might feed hay around the end of October or first of November while the stockpiled fescue is growing,” she says.

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Enacting rotational grazing or strip grazing may sound like plenty of work on its own, but to Jennifer, it beats the labor and fuel associated with making hay. “We cut hay when absolutely necessary, and if we don’t need to cut it, we bush hog the extra to save the nutrients for later,” she says. In the business of raising cattle, “there’s enough work in it already with maintaining fences,” says Jennifer.

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A good grazing plan may save on hay, but some people worry that adopting an intensive plan may rack up fencing costs in the short-term, trading away the economic benefits of reducing labor, fuel, and fertilizer for haymaking. However, Jennifer has advice for graziers who wish to adopt a sensible controlled grazing plan for the sake of reaping the long-term benefits. “Keep fencing simple,” she offers. “Use good outside perimeter fencing and cross-fence with a simple single wire—a few T-posts, a few wooden posts, and your wire. The worst that can happen is mostly some calves might get into the next paddock and graze more. It doesn’t have to be built to government specs.”

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People who have limited time or who are not yet ready to jump on board with strip grazing can benefit even from simply dividing a pasture in half and rotating cows between halves—many who start this way later choose to subdivide pastures further, including the Morris family. “We went from one paddock to seven in Blackstone using the available water,” Jennifer says in reference to the developments she and Whit made on the farm soon after they purchased it.

What is next for the Morris farm? Whit and Jennifer hope to address some challenges plaguing herds in Southside Virginia including their troubles with fescue toxicosis, a problem caused by a symbiotic organism living in tall fescue grass which can cause physiological stress on cattle. For now, they provide as much shade as possible to relieve some of this stress in the summertime. In the future, Jennifer and Whit also would like to incorporate more clover into their pastures for both its nutritional benefits and its nitrogen-fixing abilities. Frost seeding may be on the agenda when winter comes back around.

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For now, the farm is thriving and the care and attention spent on grazing management is paying off. The farm has even recently been used as an educational resource during grazing schools offered by the Virginia Forage and Grassland Council and Virginia Cooperative Extension. The grass may have just begun to green up thanks to a cold, sluggish March, but come spring and summer, the pasture rotation will be in full swing, and the Morris family eagerly awaits the chance to get their cattle back on some good grass. To the animals, who have learned that the grass really is greener on the far side of the polywire, the presence of Whit or Jennifer coming to open the gate to the next field elicits equal excitement.

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Additional Resources for Readers:

Pasture and Forage Publications from Virginia Cooperative Extension

Planning Fencing Systems for Controlled Grazing

Controlled Grazing of Virginia’s Pastures

Amelia Area Cattlemen

VA Beef Cattle Programs

Meet Zephyr’s Way Stable.

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Photo credit: Sandy McDermott

Owned and managed by Amelia County native Caitlin Ashton, the operation is housed at the Sappony Creek Farm property in Chesterfield. Students and boarders at the facility enjoy riding and training in an indoor arena, an outdoor ring, and plenty of nearby trails.

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Photo credit (top and bottom): Ali Cerkez

Virginia is home to approximately 215,000 horses valued at $1.2 billion and about 41,000 horse operations which each specialize in services ranging from breeding and boarding to training and trail rides. Zephyr’s Way Stable’s focus is horseback riding lessons for children and adults, and the farm has grown and diversified to include summer camps, trail rides, boarding, and leasing.

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Today, the barn’s instructors and staff are busy teaching lessons on most days of the week. However, as is done with any new agricultural enterprise which relies on direct business with customers, Caitlin Ashton built her client base from the ground up when she started the operation in May of 2009. At that time, her focus was training and sales and she spent much of her time starting horses under saddle to prepare them for clients.

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However, she saw a greater opportunity for long-term business viability in lessons and began to engage with more customers through her website and online marketing tools. “Groupon and Living Social have been great advertisement for us. We have also used local companies like Flier for Hire, radio advertisement, and word of mouth,” she says. Because different customers have goals varying from becoming more active to learning to compete in shows, Caitlin has benefitted from offering an array of horses, instructors, and disciplines to her clients. “We try to be diverse in what we offer so that we can attract a larger number of students. We have flexible lesson times with trainers of different disciplines. We also have horses for small children, all the way up to adults,” she notes.

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Photo credit (top and bottom): Ali Cerkez

Working in the field she loves had its initial challenges, particularly in the realm of finances. “I had to start off small and work my way up. Everything about horses is expensive and it takes a tremendous amount of extra work, quick thinking, time management, and marketing skills to make this work!” she says. As the owner and operator, the ball was in her court for most of the initial labor. “My typical day used to be wake up, feed, clean the barn, teach lessons, return phone calls in between lessons, feed, turn horses back out, and go to sleep,” she says.

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Photo credit (top and bottom): Sandy McDermott

Now that the business has grown, she has been able to hire labor and focus her time on paperwork, marketing, and other crucial details. More time for management also means more time for her to step back, enjoy what she has built, and appreciate the progress her clients have made. “Horses are very relaxing to be around in general, and it’s great to see the transformation that they can make in other people as well,” she says. Since Caitlin broke, trained, and finished most of the twenty horses that are used today for lessons at the barn, she also enjoys watching each horse build strengths in a certain discipline area. Throughout the summer, she takes some of her horses to local shows so that her students of all skill levels can ride and compete.

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Some of her students participate in 4-H clubs and compete with fellow 4-H members in shows. Caitlin herself grew up in the 4-H horse program in Amelia. She recalls participating in clinics, shows, and horse judging teams, all of which helped set the tone for her career path. She remains supportive of educational industry, 4-H, and Extension programs. In fact, last July she hosted a hay quality workshop at the barn taught by local agricultural Extension agents.

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Although the horse industry may not always have the look and feel of traditional agriculture, it is a strong contributor to Virginia’s agricultural sector and many horse farms undergo challenges typical of any farm operation. Lesson and boarding barns like Zephyr’s Way Stable experience the client acquisition and product diversification challenges that agritourism and direct-marketing farm enterprises face, but they also experience labor, land management, and animal management challenges that would match those seen on any livestock operation.

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Photo credit (top and bottom): Ali Cerkez

Despite this unique set of challenges, Caitlin believes that people with a similar passion can learn to navigate these obstacles in order to run a successful operation. “It’s something that anyone can do if they are willing to put in the time. I’ve worked since I was 14 years old and have had up to three jobs at times. There is nothing wrong with a good work ethic, and it makes you stronger in the end!” she says. “I think most people hope for a career doing what they love. I went into this with the idea that starting and maintaining a business can be stressful, but having a job that meant something to me was worth the extra work.”

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Photo credit (top, middle, bottom): Ali Cerkez

Additional Resources for Readers:

Zephyr’s Way Stable

Virginia Cooperative Extension horse resources here

Virginia 4-H Horse Program

eXtension Online Horse Resources

Virginia Horse Council

Virginia Horse Industry Board

Meet Maple Dell Farm.

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Introduction: We normally feature Virginia farms, but rules can be broken! I recently visited my hometown and met with the Patrick family at their nearby farm. I also have a bit of a personal connection to their story—Caitlin and Derek Patrick were in the same 4-H program that I was, and I saw the family at the Howard County Fair each year where we all exhibited our livestock.–Laura Siegle

The 160-cow dairy, a fixture in the Howard County farm landscape, is one of the last of its kind in Howard County, Maryland. Nonetheless, a typical day on the farm for the Patrick family at Maple Dell is much like life on any of the many family-run dairies scattered across the state. The cows walk to the milking parlor twice each day, and each cow’s udder is cleaned and milked over the course of several minutes.

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Unlike cows, who eat a mixed ration, calves on dairies like Maple Dell drink milk or milk replacer and are slowly transitioned to a diet of “calf starter” and hay as they grow so that they can develop healthy rumens.

In between trips to the parlor and judicious equipment cleanup after each milking, there is no shortage of chores. Each day, the family must blend a ration consisting of farm-grown silage, hay, grain, and minerals and deliver it to the barns. This dairy ration, calculated with precision according to the needs of the cows and the nutrient makeup of each ingredient, consists largely of forages like hay and silage to keep each cow’s digestive tract and rumen microbes healthy.

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Manure is cleaned out of the barn regularly to create a clean, comfortable environment for the milking herd. In fact, in one barn, the cows have free access to enter and leave a set of “free stalls” bedded deeply with sand. In another barn, the “pack barn,” cows can lie down as they please on a thick layer of shavings. The Patrick family knows that good housing that enhances “cow comfort,” as the industry calls it, leads to happy, healthy, and productive cows.

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Like most dairies, the Patrick family raises their calves in hutches that provide shelter and enable individualized feeding and monitoring of each animal. Heifer calves which have been weaned live together as they grow to breeding and calving age. Aside from caring for the animals, the family also must manage the crops they grow which include corn, soybeans, barley, wheat, triticale, alfalfa, timothy hay, and orchard grass hay.

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Maple Dell certainly looks a typical dairy in its day-to-day functions, but its tradition of exhibiting top-notch cattle and supporting the Howard County 4-H program is rather extraordinary. Although most of the herd consists of Holsteins, one of the most common dairy breeds, one third of the cattle are red-and-white Ayrshires. The family exhibits both breeds. In fact, the Patrick family has been showing cattle for the past seventy years ever since David and James Patrick began taking their Ayrshires to fairs. Most recently, Maple Dell cattle have gone locally to the Howard County Fair, the Maryland Spring Show, and the Maryland State Fair. At the State Fair, the family has brought the Holstein Senior Best Three Females for two years in a row.

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The Patricks have also traveled to the prestigious All-American Dairy Show and the World Dairy Expo. Their cattle have undergone the “classification” process which objectively appraises animals for a variety of traits on a 1-100 point scale. The outstanding EX-95 classification that has been assigned to three Holsteins and one Ayrshire bred by Maple Dell is a testament to the quality of the cattle the family produces.

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Calf hutches provide shelter during cold winter weather.

It would be remiss to look at the farm’s breeding and showing achievements without acknowledging its contribution to the county’s 4-H program. The 4-H program in Howard County has long been a standout opportunity for youth to gain skills ranging from robotics to livestock judging. Farms in the county have dwindled and dairy farms are far more rare, but thanks to the Patrick family, youth with or without farming backgrounds have the opportunity to lease dairy heifers and exhibit them in the Howard County Fair, an event where the 4-H program shines and youth showcase their skills and projects over the course of a week in front of thousands of attendees from the community.

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This cow and her herd mates are lying down on a bed of sand. Cows can enter and exit these bedded “free stalls” as they please to go eat, drink, or socialize.

For many years the Patricks have organized a dairy club education and showing program. Youth who join can keep their leased heifer at the farm if they do not have their own facilities. Twenty or thirty heifers from Maple Dell are leased out to children through this program each year. 4-H members who lease a heifer must keep detailed “project records” on their animal, including notes on care and reports on expenditures, and preparing the heifers for the fair is certainly is nothing short of a project. Heifers must first learn to be handled and walk quietly when led. They must also be brushed, bathed, and clipped, among other tasks. The process instills responsibility, confidence, and character in youth who participate in the process from start to finish.

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The Patrick family is deeply rooted in their passion for excelling in their business, serving the industry, and engaging youth in agricultural production. This tradition was built by the dedication of parents and grandparents who had high expectations for their cattle and appreciated the value of 4-H programs, and today, the Patrick children and grandchildren carry on the tradition. Walk through the Howard County Fair in August, and you just might spot a barn aisle full of Maple Dell calves napping in the straw after a bath and waiting on their turn in the show ring.

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Additional Resources for Readers:

Article about the 4-H leasing program at Maple Dell here

Article about Ayrshires at Maple Dell here

Dairy cattle resource from Virginia Cooperative Extension here

University of Maryland 4-H Program here

 

Meet Nuckols Christmas Tree Plantation.

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Richard Nuckols has memories tracing back to several decades ago when he, his father, and his two brothers spent summers shaping Scotch Pines with hand shears. “I like shaping trees, but I’ll tell you, that was drudgery right there,” he says. The tree farm has grown and changed since his father established it in 1966 on a properly in Cumberland County bordering Route 60. Richard took over the operation in 1994 after his dad passed away and, for one thing, he now uses a gas-powered yule trimmer to make tree shaping a more manageable summertime task.

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The farm used to be a wholesale operation when Richard was young, but choose-and-cut later became the better option for keeping the farm in business. The transition was a sensible one, according to David Smith, the Agriculture and Natural Resources Extension agent for Cumberland County who provides information and support to Richard and other farm producers in the county. “Nuckols Christmas Tree Plantation is one of our oldest wholesale-turned-retail operations. Making the transition from wholesale to retail was a natural occurrence given the fact that tree prices basically have remained the same over the past decade,” he says.

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Richard Nuckols (left) and Extension agent David Smith (right), standing in a planting of Blue Ice Cyrpress, discuss soil fertility and soil testing on the farm.

Growers who switch to retail production find that marketing trees is a task of its own. “One of the biggest challenges with local agricultural retail businesses is the transition to websites to capture on-line sales and shoppers,” says David Smith. Richard successfully navigated this transition recently, creating a website with photos and information about the trees to reach more customers searching for the farm online. The farm also takes advantage of the visibility offered by the “Virginia Grown” marketing program coordinated by the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Richard is also supported through his membership in the Virginia Christmas Tree Growers Association. “Producers affiliating with associations such as Christmas tree associations receive the benefit of additional public exposure. Because associations have the support of multiple producers they should take the lead to help producers capture on-line traffic,” adds Smith.

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During Richard’s childhood, the plantation grew White Pines and Scotch Pines. Today, offerings include Leyland Cypress, Canaan Fir, Norway Spruce, Douglas Fir, Scotch Pine, White Pine, Colorado Blue Spruce, Blue Ice Cypress, and fresh-cut Fraser Fir. When it comes to needle size, needle retention, fragrance, size, shape, and feel, the farm has a tree for every taste and need. “If you have an obnoxious cat, that’s a good tree,” he jokes in reference to his Blue Spruce.

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Some trees are more sensitive to warm soil temperatures than others, so Richard strategically takes advantage of the shade offered by the woods bordering the farm. Others, like the cypress, prefer a more basic soil than other trees, so Richard plants them in an area that has been amended with lime. He has found that the trees need no irrigation and little to no fertilizer.

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Fertilizing trees may not be a high priority, but make no mistake about the maintenance requirements for a Christmas tree farm. Growing trees is year-round job with extra time demands not just during the holiday season but also during the summer. Tree shearing dates vary by tree because each type has different growth habits, but once shearing begins, it is a seven-day-per-week, eight-hour-per-day commitment.

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When he is not shaping trees, Richard must scout for pests like bagworms and scale which can be destructive on any kind of tree farm. By using predator insects to control scale in recent years, he has noticed a deep reduction in his need to spray trees, and lately he has been able to keep the bagworms in check by removing them as he sees them. The deer are another more difficult story. They can kill two dozen of his trees in a year just by rubbing them, but thankfully most of his larger trees recover from the damage or can be salvaged for wreath material if they become unfit for sale. In fact, wreaths form another portion of the farm’s revenue stream.

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Planting is another time-consuming annual farm chore. Richard has to plant nearly two thousand trees each year so that several hundred trees per year will be ready for sale further down the road. Of the two thousand initially planted, only a portion ultimately survives from seedling to sale due to environmental conditions, pests, and other stressors. Some, like White Pine, may show nearly 95% percent survival, while other more difficult trees may have a 25% survival rate. To further complicate planning the planting, some trees such as the Cypress may grow far more quickly than their peers, and Richard must account for the fact that all trees take several years to reach a saleable size.

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When he approaches the Christmas season, he projects his inventory by counting the number of trees that meet his standards for quality. Those which are too large, too small, have bare spots, or look stressed do not make his count for potential saleable trees, but he has found that customers sometimes surprise him with their choices. One time, a customer chose a tree which was yellowing on the bottom and green at the top. He cautioned the buyer that a different tree would look healthier and last longer, but this person insisted that he had found the perfect Green Bay Packers-themed tree.

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The operation opens for sales each year the day after Thanksgiving, and Richard says that opening weekend was the busiest weekend of the holiday season at the farm last year. What does the future hold for the Nuckols Christmas Tree Plantation? Hopefully plenty of healthy new trees and fewer deer are on the horizon. 2014 is already shaping up to be a good sales season so long as the rain holds off on the busy weekends. Richard also has tradition his side—as long as families continue to choose fresh-cut, Virginia Grown trees during the holidays, his farm full of carefully-tended, beautifully-shaped trees will remain a fixture in Central Virginia’s landscape.

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Additional Resources for Readers:

Nuckols Christmas Tree Plantation webpage

Virginia Grown searchable directory

Virginia Christmas Tree Growers Association webpage

Introduction to Growing Christmas Trees in Virginia publication

Meet the Amelia County Extension Demonstration Garden.

Instead of our usual written story, this week we are sharing a video documenting the progress of our 2014 Extension Demonstration Garden in Amelia County. Click the play button to begin watching.

In 2013, the Virginia Cooperative Extension agents in Amelia County created a 1,200 square Demonstration Garden. It was used for a series of summer workshop on topics ranging from food preservation to disease control. The Amelia agents decided to expand the garden in 2014 and continue using it for agriculture, healthy lifestyle, and youth development workshops and events.

Photo highlights from the 2014 garden:

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Snap bean seedlings emerged quickly after germinating in the warm, moist spring soil.

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Herbs like lavender, oregano, fennel, and dill grew in our garden.

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We planted our sweet corn as soon as spring soil temperatures reached the mid-60s.

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Our collards preferred the cooler temperatures of early spring. Collards, like kale, can also grow in a fall garden.

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We grew a handful of tomato varieties including Supersweet 100, Early Girl, Better Boy, Mr Stripey, Amelia, Lemon Boy, and Beefsteak.

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