This Lady Is Biting Off More than She Can Chew . . . .
Sue Borton, with contributions from NRCS District Conservationist Steve Hall
Background: Sue Borton is a self-proclaimed city girl who always wanted to farm, even when she was a little girl. In 2001, Sue began to volunteer at the Cox Arboretum in Dayton. This 189-acre MetroPark offers visitors an escape among trees, shrubs, specialty gardens, mature forests, and prairies and is home to a native-Ohio Butterfly House. The arboretum hosts year-round educational programs that teach children and adults about sustainable horticulture, plant science, and conservation. In 2005, Sue became a certified master organic gardener, and in 2006 she decided to buy a farm, with the goal of doing so in 5 years. One farm she was interested in was sold when she went to see it but that broker referred her to another farm in a community she imagined was too far away from where she lived and where her family lived. It wasn’t though. Four months after setting her goal, Sue was a farm owner and now is the principal operator of Brickel Creek Organic Farm in Southwest Central OH!
This interview is about Sue’s entry into farmland conservation and her 2012 start-up in season extension production. Co-contributors are Sue and District Conservationist Steve Hall at USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in Greene County.
The Greene County NRCS Office gets service requests from a broad range of Ohio citizens, from first time property owners who now own 5 – 10 rural acres to lifelong farmers with a specific problem and extensive land management skill. Typically that service seeker is a man.
In April 2007, Sue Borton went to Steve Hall because I heard about these conservation programs and I had land on my property that I couldn’t farm (by the creek and usually wet). Steve recalls Sue as outgoing, bubbly, all smiles, and just plain happy, all behaviors that Steve associated with, well, ditziness. Steve learned that Sue was a beginning farmer who wanted to start organic production. Steve also learned that Sue was a real estate broker, people who in Steve’s experience are not the best land managers. Steve doesn’t recall that Sue mentioned she was a certified master organic gardener, a fact that would have balanced the impression he was developing. When Sue left Steve thought this is not going to go very far.
Sue returned in May 2007 to sign papers declaring her intention to apply to the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) for a 10-year period. CRP provides funds for installation and rental payments to producers who convert sensitive lands (such as Highly Erodible Land) to long-term cover (trees; cool and warm season grasses). Cost share for establishing conservation cover is about 90%. CRP has a General Sign-up for projects related to entire fields (during a pre-announced 3- to 4-week period) and a Continuous Sign-up for projects related to areas smaller than an entire field. Applicants to the Continuous CRP are guaranteed funding, if they are eligible and the conservation measure is feasible.
Sue’s signature empowered the NRCS staff and their technical assistance partners at the Greene County Soil and Water Conservation District to begin their work. Steve estimates that in 20 – 24 hours over a several week period we did the field engineering and design responsive to owner preferences, prepared cost estimates, and detailed the logistics required to establish and maintain warm season grasses and wildflowers (about 3 acres), a field border for quail habitat (about 4 acres), a wetlands area (about 4 acres), and a woodland area (about 1 acre) where 650 trees would be planted. These are all acceptable practices within CRP. It was during his work on Sue’s farm that Steve not only confirmed that the land was appropriate for CRP but he also developed a more accurate picture of Sue Borton as a hard working farmer whose confidence was based on solid knowledge and good management skills.
By June 2007 Sue was back in the office for Steve’s review of the cost-share program package, explaining what costs could be funded and which would be her responsibility. Steve approaches such meetings 95% certain that the package will be acceptable to the owner because of all the in-field work and prior communication. This meeting is designed to summarize what the owner should already know; there are no surprises. As is typically the case, Sue signed her contract.
The Farm Service Agency (FSA) actually administers the program funds, and the local Soil and Water Conservation District Board of Supervisors reviews and approves the plan. Supervisors are public officials elected for a three-year term. The role of the Conservation District Supervisor requires the person to be a leader by being aware of the different resource conservation needs within the district. They are to be an example of conservation management by practicing applicable conservation methods, and by promoting the ethics of good resource stewardship. At the time of this interview there are five men serving as Supervisors in Greene County. For Sue, this process took about two weeks.
Sue’s conservation efforts required significant labor. Owners have the option of performing this work themselves or hiring private vendors. Sue decided to do some of the work and also to hire conservation contractors affiliated with Ohio Pheasants & Quail Forever, an organization that works cooperatively with Ohio NRCS.
About four years later Sue applied to another NRCS Program, EQIP (Environmental Quality Incentives Program), a program that provides total resource management system planning on the whole farm and offers a cost share of at least 50% for installation of approved conservation practices (pasture or manure management, erosion control, nutrient and pest management). EQIP has continuous sign-up; however, applications are ranked and funded once per year. Sue wanted to start season extension production and sought funding for a seasonal high tunnel. EQIP offered high tunnels (or hoop houses) as part of a pilot project to see if high tunnels are effective in reducing pesticide use, keeping vital nutrients in the soil, extending the growing season, increasing yields, and providing other benefits to growers.
By 2011, Steve easily recognized that Sue would be very competitive. First, funds were specifically allocated for organic production in high tunnels and Sue was on top of it. Not only was she certified organic but she practically had a name for every one of her plants and her production and marketing plans were detailed and realistic. Second, EQIP allocates funds sub-divided by populations (for 2012, beginning farmers; specialty crop growers, high tunnel users; socially disadvantaged) and Sue was representative of more than one category. Third, Steve knew the national, state, and local criteria used to rank applications. Sue’s land would contribute to national goals (reduce erosion) and to state goals (seasonal high tunnels) and to local priorities. At each level, the criteria are re-evaluated on an annual basis and changes. Steve works to give each applicant a realistic picture of their chances to be approved for funding, but never discourages an owner from applying.
Sue received EQIP funding for a high tunnel to be installed May 2012 in which she will grow tomatoes, peppers, herbs, and cut flowers. She immediately decided to do a second tunnel!
So, do you think Sue Borton bit off more than she can chew?
Sue’s experience of Steve from day one: He was and is super cooperative.
Steve’s advice to colleagues: You always learn new things from everyone who walks in your door. Our job is to serve the public. While each of us has biases, as a public servant it is our responsibility to control those biases sufficient to deliver the services.
Steve’s advice to women farmers: Often there is only one person who manages the service you seek. Be persistent. Sometimes there may be another person to contact; go ahead and try that person. The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), Civil Rights Division (CRD) places emphasis on Equal Opportunity for the Agency’s employees and program customers. The Program Compliance Team is responsible for law interpretation and discrimination complaint processing.
Sue’s advice to women farmers: For me the conservation programs have been a wonderful addition to the farm, they attract wildlife and bring balance to the land. The best way to learn to farm is by finding a mentor (by definition, someone with experience), reading everything you can get your hands on, and networking through workshops and organizations. Taking action is absolutely critical, because it creates an expectation, and you will find you can make your dreams come true!
Sue says I am in the right place, doing the right thing. This beginning farmer has 2.1 acres certified organic (1.5 acres are in fruit, vegetable, flower and herb production; 0.6 acres just completed the third year resting period and will be an experimental plot for no-till vegetable production). If the pilot is successful, Sue will expand no-till methods to the 60+ acres currently leased for conventional production. Her goal is to have the entire 69.5 acres in organic production and to grow year-round in several unheated high tunnels. Sue is conducting a pilot of 1,000 lineal feet of blackberries using an adjustable trellis system. If this pilot is successful, Sue will consider expanding it. Sue currently has fall red raspberries in a 30 x 100 high tunnel which allows her to deliver local organic berries to restaurants and grocers through mid-November.
Sue selected her tunnels for their unique design elements. First, they are moveable, eliminating salt built up by allowing relocation which gives the land access to rain and snow. Second, a completely retractable end maximizes air ventilation, giving ease of access for a small tractor and also, when in the down position, providing 150 square feet of additional growing space. Third, the dome shape provides better wind shedding. Finally, a gutter system allows the capture and recycling of rain water.
Select Referenced Resources
- Ohio NRCS, EQIP, Organic Initiative, High Tunnels
- Ohio Pheasants & Quail Forever, Conservation Contractors (by Ohio county)
- Tunnel Vision Hoops
- USDA NRCS Civil Rights Program Compliance Team
- USDA Service Centers (Ohio interactive map by county)
Interviewer, Sharon Sachs