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Wrapping Things Up

My last week of work gave me the chance to learn one last crop consulting skill–estimating corn yields.  This information can be very important for farmers, especially for those growing corn for grain.  For some farmers, if yields are low enough they may decide to use the corn for silage instead of grain or they may take out crop insurance.  This year in particular brought with it some extra challenges.  Lancaster had a very wet spring and a dry summer.  All the moisture in the spring made it difficult for some corn to become established and the lack of moisture in the summer caused the corn a great deal of stress which in turn caused many ears to abort kernels.

This is a set of ears I pulled.  This is a fairly good representation of what a lot of them looked like this year.

This is a set of ears I pulled. This is a fairly good representation of what a lot of them looked like this year.

I enjoyed learning how to take yields.  It’s a fairly simple process.  You measure 17’5” along a row of corn and then pull every fifth ear.  You then husk the ears and estimate the number of kernels per ear.  This information is then plugged into an equation that determines bushels per acre.  This process is repeated 3-5 times throughout the field depending on the size of the field.  Ideally, more reps would be taken but time-wise that wouldn’t be very practical (it took me about 15 minutes per rep).  My boss told me that our estimates may not be extremely accurate but they usually are enough to pick out fields with unusually low yields.  I realized how accurate this was when I got a yield of 144 bu/acre in one field and a yield of 96 bu/acre in a field directly across the lane.

On the last day of my internship my boss and I sat down and discussed how the summer went.  He asked me what I had enjoyed and what I hadn’t.  The first month or so of the job was a bit tough.  The days were really long with a 12 hour day being the norm.  That said, it was a fun challenge.  There were a lot of weeds to memorize and it was definitely rewarding once I got them all down.  One of the hardest parts of the job, in my opinion, was determining weed severity, especially when a field appeared to be borderline between needing treatment and not needing treatment.  I tended to be a little overly cautious, rating weed pressure a little on the high side.

This experience as a whole gave me a new appreciation for crop consultants and the work they do.  Just the sheer amount of information they are responsible for impressed me.  Their job demands that they understand farming methods, keep track of fields’ weed histories and stay up to date on all the latest pesticides and application rates.  Now that agriculture is becoming bigger and more intensified it is becoming more and more necessary for farmers to hire a crop consultant.  There wouldn’t be enough hours in a day for a farmer to do his work and the work now being taken over by crop consultants.  Overall, this summer was a great experience for me.  I don’t think I’ve found a future job in crop consulting but I am definitely grateful to have been exposed to such a fantastic learning opportunity.

So Long Seattle

After about a month and a half of working with the Seattle Urban Farm Company, I have to say I’ve fallen in love with Seattle, from its inhabitants to its quaint neighborhoods to its dazzling mountain landscapes… but the thing I learned that I would most love to experience is the year-round fresh local produce. New York of course lacks this in its rotation of the four seasons and harsh winters. These urban farmers can enjoy a blossoming garden all year, something I hadn’t been able to imagine besides down in the tropic regions that I got to experience last winter/spring while studying abroad. Instead of the heat and humidity of down there though, Seattle enjoys some warm days, some borderline hot days, and some periods of crisp, moist weather to keep things interesting (some call it gloomy but I can’t say that until I’ve experienced it).

Enough about the weather though. I’ve gained a lot through the days working in the sun and rain with Brad, Colin, and Hilary. My last day was spent with all three of them doing the Mercer Island run, which I can imagine being cumbersome for just one or two people as there are six gardens, most of which require quite a bit of training. It was a warm day, up in the 80s I would guess, and we hustled through all of them. Hilary has been working tirelessly on the photos for the book that Brad and Colin just finished another revision stage for. It will be all about the ins and outs of urban farming and should be ready sometime around the end of this year. She took a bunch of pictures while we harvested, pulled, weeded, planted, munched on, fought with, tousled, teased, and fell into rhythm with each garden. It’s becomes kind of meditative, kind of therapeutic when we work together, weeding especially. And it feels healthy just being surrounded by growth and urging on productivity with our hands and some tools, sweating and using muscles that lie dormant otherwise. I enjoyed going from working in a fast paced restaurant environment to doing maintenance runs with the company, discussing plans and memories, observing and working together. It was incredible to observe the differences in the attitudes and pace just from the difference in context, and it helped to reaffirm why I want to go into agriculture as opposed to corporate business.

I think I achieved most of my goals, from plant identification to learning about the organization of the company. There is a lot of planning that goes into it. I’m glad that I got to attend one of their staff meetings and a consultation to see exactly what those would entail. Having as many clients as they do requires a lot of record-keeping, from hours to produce, and it is improving all the time as they gain more experience. Future plans include having a storefront to sell seedlings and such, adding a whole other aspect to the company. I can’t wait to go back whenever I get a chance and see how they progress.

But onto the next adventure I suppose, with more skills and tools to bring to whatever other situation I am put into. Thank you so so SO much Seattle Urban Farm Company and all the great people I met there! I’ll be back to visit soon I hope….

Keep on growing, Seattle!

Field Day

Recently, my boss and I took a day off and traveled to Penn State’s Agronomy Research Farm for a field day.  These field days serve as opportunities for crop consultants to get CCA (certified crop advisor) hours.  According to my boss, to obtain your CCA you have to pass a standard test and attend 40 hours of CCA training every 2 years.  I decided to go along because it seemed like a good learning opportunity.  That, and it got me out of work for a day…

The research farm at Penn State.

The research farm at Penn State.

The day consisted of five one hour presentations.  The presentations were as follows:  Crop characteristics and high yields, Vertical tillage in PA, Sprayer nozzles, Stink bugs and other insect pests in crop production, and exploring herbicide differences.  The presentations were interesting but a lot of the presentations were a bit above my head as most of the crop consultants attending the field day possessed a great deal of background knowledge that I lacked.

In the first presentation, crop characteristics and high yields, we were taken to a corn test plot and asked to examine the different trials.  The purpose of this presentation was to address some of the challenges farmers in Pennsylvania face as they attempt to produce high yielding corn, particularly issues regarding early season management of fertility.  This one was hard to follow for me as there were a lot of figures presented that I didn’t entirely understand.

The next presentation, vertical tillage in Pennsylvania, gave a balanced view on the new trend of vertical tillage.  The instructor gave examples of the pros and cons of the practice and then showed us three different pieces of equipment from different manufacturers.  This presentation was interesting as I had a very limited knowledge of what vertical tillage was and why farmers have started using it.

Vertical tillage demonstration.

Vertical tillage demonstration.

The sprayer nozzle presentation was fascinating in the sense that I had no idea how complicated applying pesticides can be.  We were given a book that contained nothing but pages and pages of different sprayer nozzles.  The instructor, Bob Klein, a pesticide application specialist from the University of Nebraska, gave a short presentation on how to calculate application rate (also more difficult than I would have thought).  He then demonstrated the usage of different nozzles and delved into what he did and didn’t like about each.

The stink bug presentation was by far my favorite.  We were asked to take sweep nets and go through a soybean field and collect whatever bugs we could find.  The instructor then spent the rest of the time explaining what bugs seem to be a problem this year, how they can be spotted, and how weather conditions and other insects effect the severity of particular bug problems.  I found it interesting how the smallest weather changes or bug interactions could have such a large impact on field insect problems.

The herbicide presentation was interesting but it required a much greater understanding of herbicides and their effects than I have.  There were several test plots set up to demonstrate the different effects of common pesticides and then we were asked to go through and identify which pesticide had been used on which plot.  Needless to say, I was completely lost but my boss helped me out.

There was a lot of information presented that day and I can’t say that I retained most of it but it did give me a great appreciation for crop consultants.  It’s really quite impressive how much information a crop consultant must know and understand in order to be an asset to a farmer.

When Bad Things Happen to Good Plants

The other day, in the on-and-off pouring rain, I learned how very essential it is to stay on top of maintenance. Clients have the option of taking on the responsibility of maintaining their urban farms themselves for the most part with only monthly maintenance or however often they prefer. The time saved by not coming each week saves money but if the garden is not looked after by someone, issues can and do arise, costing more time and energy later on. Pest problems get out of control, weeds get out of control, produce goes past its prime and time, effort, and plants put into it go to waste. Here are just a couple of the things we saw that can be avoided just by spending a healthy serving of time each week in the garden:

Bolted LettuceThis is an unharvested, bolted lettuce plant, meaning that it has developed one large stem and is growing up instead of producing tasty salad green leaves. After they bolt, they turn bitter and much less appetizing so they should be harvested before this point. Sometimes it can’t be helped that they bolt before we can harvest them when there is too much lettuce at one time- hence the need for successional plantings.


Peas are also all ready to harvest and some that we saw had turned inedible from being left on the vine too long. These become bulky and leathery, also making them unfortunately bitter.

We ended up spending over double the time we would normally spend in a garden and had to pull and replant a lot of things which was unfortunate. Gardening is good exercise for the body, rest for the mind, and nourishment for the soul. I feel lucky to get to spend that much time in a garden (even in the rain) and I don’t even get to enjoy all the goodies that come from it with a little encouragement and support. Some gardens we visit are unable to produce from lack of light or unfitting soil so some clients who check multiple times during the week cannot enjoy everything that they wanted… and then there are some that have flourishing gardens but choose not to look after them. There is an interesting range of involvement. When we work for the garden, it works for us; when we don’t, we lose out on perfectly good treats… bummer. Let’s not let bad things happen to good plants!

Life on the Roof- Visiting the Bastille’s rooftop garden

Seattle Urban Farm Company installed a productive green roof on the roof of the Bastille Restaurant in the beautiful Ballard district in 2009 and it has gotten tons of media and public attention since its creation. They created an organized array of custom-made raised beds and kiddie-pool-sized containers with all kinds of complex little systems, including drip irrigation, ground heating, and season-fitting shading. This of course took a lot of planning and detailed work, including selecting and finding specific varieties at their request, but the rewards are bountiful and can be reaped year after year, with many added benefits. The company continues to maintain the garden and I contributed a lot of lettuce seeding as it needs to be replenished much more often than a household’s stock. Lucky for me, I got to visit the garden while some more media attention was being attained: a man was taking a series of photographs that would be featured in a video he was making on sustainable efforts going on throughout the country. I hope I can find the finished product. One can arrange to take a tour of this inspirational installation simply by contacting the SUFCo or the Bastille restaurant:

SUFCo Rooftop Gardens

The Bastille Restaurant

Five Reasons Why a Rooftop Garden is a Good Idea:
1. Insulation: Plants keep the planet temperate by absorbing the suns heat and serving as a blanket in cooler weather, and on a roof can do the same for the building. Sounds cozy to me. Added bonus: they can reduce costs of heating and air conditioning.
2. Rain catchment: Rooftop gardens snatch up all the precipitation they can get (which is why they would be so happy in Rain City). They allow the water cycle to flow naturally as they slowly release the water back into the atmosphere through condensation and evaporation while the soil serves as a natural filter.
3. Productive use of open space: While space is becoming more and more limited on this planet, the new direction we are taking for building is up. In the city especially, as discussed a little bit in the previous post, unused ground is hard to find. Building up + Container gardening = Rooftop container garden!
4. Positive attention-grabber: The restaurant came to the company looking for something marketable and innovative, and this certainly fulfilled that. They are now able to put salad on their menu with produce right from their roof. Local is in these days, and how much more local can you get than that?
5. Delicious veggies for the hungry bellies! No explanation needed for that one.

The End of an Era

Congressman Amberg???

Well my reign in Washington has ended. I am back in Stanley N.Y. working at the family business and waiting for Cornell to inevitably resume. The positive is that I seem to have brought the rain back to NY, which I can see we needed badly since my lawn is brown.  In returning, I realize the hype and nonstop action of D.C. has ended for now. I no longer have a constantly changing to do list. I got my hands on so many different issues, talked to farmers from all over my district,  sat in on meetings with everything from the Farm Bureau to a meeting with Speaker Boehner. I had a great time in D.C. and realized it is a path that may not be a lost cause for me. I enjoyed it and could see myself taking a small part in it in the future. However I think the small part is key. The senators and congressman on either side of the aisle need to realize that this is a service, not a career choice. At some point, all you start worrying about is re-election. Sometimes you need to stick to you platform and take the popularity hit, otherwise as you have seen in the past weeks, nothing gets done because everyone is trying to grab a piece of positive press.

I believe that District 29, whose backbone is in agriculture, has a strong supporter in Tom Reed. Working in his office, I saw he never stopped moving, has a strong head on his shoulders, and listens; taking opinions into account. I think we need to be informed as a populace and not always take shots at our representatives if we haven’t taken the time to actually look into the problem ourselves. I think if we do this, we can play a much bigger role in political decision-making. With more and more people in every district and state in America, we need to realize that elections will play a key role. With more people, it is harder to hear everyone’s opinion, so we need to ask questions early, and often, to elect the right representative.

Working on a number of sides in the agricultural circle now, I see a clear picture of how things fit together and what can be done better on all sides. I have worked in small agribusiness with my parents, Amberg’s Nursery. I’ve also worked in agriculture research with in the grape breeding department at NYSAES in Geneva. There I  meet researchers from around the world. Being part of the Farm Bureau, I’ve seen the communal fellowship between farmers needed to create change.  Working in D.C., I got a full view of  the challenges and their effects.

Seeing all these sides has taught me more than I could learn in a class discussion. I not only have a clearer picture of the pieces, but also ideas of how I could contribute to their change and improvement.

Putting the Seeds to Bed, an excerpt from week 1

Day three of the internship and I finally remembered to bring my camera and snap some photos to better explain things. When I arrived around 8am, my first duty was to seed several flats according to the seeding schedule, which is maintained to ensure that there is a sufficient number of plants to distribute to the gardens at the right times. Seeding is done every week as plants need to be replaced, replanted, or when the optimal time arises for new plants to start their growing season.

Here are the steps we took to seeding the lettuce. Quite tedious, but pretty simple. This efficient method is not something I would have known intuitively.


I’m not too good at piano, but sometimes small fingers can come in handy when handling seeds this tiny….

1.    Fill seed bed with moist soil: SUFCo uses germination mix, which is a blend of peat moss, perlite, and dolomite lime. Balanced fertilizer is also added along with some water before filling the trays, making a welcomingly nutritious and moist bed for the seeds to germinate in.

2.  Push another similar tray down on top of that one to push the soil down, making a cozy niche for the seed to lay in

3.  Place one of the teeny-tiny seeds in each cup, keeping track of which varieties are in which row using tags. By limiting the number of seeds in each, we limit competition for light and nutrients between them. If too many seeds grow close together, the plants get “leggy”, meaning they grow up instead of flourishing out as they should.

4.   Cover with a thick, fluffy layer of soil

5.   Press the fluff down to compact the soil to hold the seeds in place (it’s like tucking them into their little beds!)

6.  Brush excess off, careful not to remove the soil in the cup

7.   Water the bed. Usually after watering, the beds would go straight to the comfy greenhouse, but since it’s now above 50 degrees at night, we can leave them outside to germinate! Hooray for warm weather!


And so it begins. After two flats of that, we had 256 lettuces all set to grow. In a few weeks, these little fellers will be ready to move to their new urban farm homes to mature to their full, healthy, leafy potential, perhaps eventually ending up in a refreshing summer salad.


“The word “miracle” aptly describes a seed.”

–       Jack Kramer

“Though I do not believe that a plant will spring up where no seed has been, I have great faith in a seed.  Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders.”

–       Henry David Thoreau

IMG_5622Seedlings almost ready to be transplanted!

Weeks Eight/Nine: Call me on the line, Call me call me anytime!

These past two weeks I have been doing all of my interviews over the phone. It is much more challenging. First just getting people on the phone is very hard. I am making calls in the morning, afternoon, and evenings, and some times of day are better for some farmers than others. Some people I have not gotten through to at all yet over the phone! I have a well rehearsed message about the survey that I can leave on a machine. Another challenge is the actual surveying process over the phone. Many people never opened the letters we sent out, so most people do not have the survey in front of them as we go through. Going through the more complicated questions is hard because they cannot see the tables and actual questions, I can only do my best to describe them. Sometimes I wish I could do skpye interviews too so that I could see the people I am talking to and show them the survey. The first page has general questions about the farm operation and also asks for some indicators of farm size. The next three pages are much more complicated with two part table questions asking very specific things about their marking channels, products, and operating expenses and additionally assessing the areas where these inputs and outputs are going to and from, this is where things get complicated. It has definitely taken longer to do surveys over the phone in general, instead of 15 or 20 minutes, its more like 20 to 25 minutes or so to get it all done. I have also started calling people who were not on our mailing list, and have not heard about the survey at all. Surprisingly, a good number of people have been receptive to the cold call approach. Another approach that has been working well is the online version of the survey. Many people have requested to get the survey done this way, so they can work on it on their own time. I have gotten a good 13 responses to the survey in this way. There are an additional 10 people who started the online survey, but left it incomplete so we must unfortunately discount those responses. I have learned a lot in these past weeks of surveying about interviewing people, about farming, about the challenges many of these people are facing, about the growth and wonderful new endevours that many farmers are undertaking, and also that this is really most definitely the worst time of year to be doing this sort of work. I have also been surprised at the high percentages of products people are selling with in the Capital District Region! It was much more than I anticipated. One more week left, and I need 17 more surveys done to get to that goal of 100! Oh goodness!

Making Transitions

Now that corn has become too tall to drive through with a sprayer I have transitioned to soybeans, alfalfa and soil sampling.  This transition occurred slowly and for a week or two I was doing a little bit of everything.

The corn fields I had to walk through during these weeks were fields that had been sprayed.  My job was to confirm that they had been sprayed and that there were no spray skippers.  This wasn’t my favorite part of my job since the corn in July is usually 4 feet or taller and not all that enjoyable to walk through.  I actually lost a contact one day after a particularly nasty run in with a corn plant.

My boss likes to have a field’s soil analyzed every three years.  Normally, it’s easiest to take soil cores in the spring when the soil is moist but because he covers so much acreage he had me take soil samples from about 40 fields after the wheat was harvested in July.  For soil sampling I had to walk an entire field and attempt to take 10-15 samples that I felt averaged out to a good representation of the entire field.  For taking samples I used a soil probe and attempted to obtain 6-8 inches of soil in each sample.  I found it quite interesting and gained a new appreciation for how much differentiation there is between soil compositions even just throughout Lancaster county.  Some fields I had no problem taking 8 inch soil cores and others I had to work at for up to 40 minutes trying to find 10 spots without rocks.

I’ve been checking soybeans for a variety of pests.  As the soybeans started to emerge I walked the fields, took populations and took note of what weeds were present.  I then went back to each of these fields about two weeks later to confirm that they had been treated.  Right now I am scouting these same soybean fields for bugs, particularly spider mites.  Spider mites can be detected by a yellow speckling of the soybean leaves.  Usually, when you flip those leave over you can find the spider mites.  They’re very difficult to see because of their small size but if you look hard enough you can usually find them.  When looking for bugs I usually try to check each edge, since that’s where they usually start effecting the plants first, and then do a quick run through the field.  If I do find spider mites my boss usually recommends the farmer spray the outer edges of the field and this is usually enough to suppress them.

One of the soybean fields I scout.

One of the soybean fields I scout.

This photo shows and example of what a soybean leaf looks like when spider mites begin munching on it.  This image was obtained from

This photo shows and example of what a soybean leaf looks like when spider mites begin munching on it. This image was obtained from

Alfalfa is my new favorite crop to scout.  I search for weeds as I walk through the field but my main priority is searching for leafhoppers.  To do this I use a sweep net and sweep through the field seven or eight times, count the number of leafhoppers I find and then take the average of those numbers.  This is pretty important because leafhoppers can do significant damage to a stand of alfalfa.

This is a photo of a leafhopper.  Image obtained from

This is a photo of a leafhopper. Image obtained from

That’s what I’m up to right now.  I’m looking forward to learning how to take corn yields in the next week or two and I recently attended a field day at Penn State but I’m going to save that and include it in my next post.

Beans, beans, the magical fruit!

At times, my cohort and I intern at the wonderful Freeville Organic Research Farm in Ithaca. These days are far and too few, but truly wonderful! Admittedly, Freeville is great because it is much closer to campus than Geneva is, but it’s also great for several other reasons.

Specifically, we’re running about three experiments in Freeville. However, today, we concentrated on one key experiment involving string beans (did you know there are actually strings in string beans? Because I didn’t). Liz, Joe and I collected data involving how tillage affects amount of weeding. Earlier on in the summer, we collected some interesting data on how long it took us to hand weed a few of the plots. It was definitely hard work, but we learned a some cool things about how spring versus fall tillage makes a difference in how many weeds spring up and how fast or slow hand weeding is in reference to that.

String bean plants:


Today, Liz and I pulled some of the bean plants for biomass data while our boss rated the plants for presence of root rot and white mold. There was no white mold, but according to Joe, beans plants never really have great roots, so they didn’t score very high on the awesome root scale. Either way, some of the bean plants definitely had better roots than others. On a few of them, you could see nodules, which mean that they were probably fixing nitrogen. Factoid: you can tell if a bean plant is actively fixing nitrogen and you see pink inside. Cool!

We couldn’t tell differences in the tillage systems from today’s data, but I’ll keep you updated! Tomorrow is sadly my last day of work, but it should be pretty neat because we’re harvesting beets. Dear captive audience, I will definitely keep you in the loop for more exciting adventures!

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