Growers, industry save specialty crops learning program

Minnesota growers, educators and private industry have joined forces to preserve a program that helps farmers receive in-depth technical and management instruction essential to producing and marketing higher-quality produce.

Formerly housed at a community college in East Grand Forks, the Specialty Crops Management program was discontinued in 2012 before the Minnesota Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association (MFVGA) spearheaded an effort to revive and relocate it to Central Lakes College (CLC), based in Brainerd.

Dell Christianson, a retired instructor who remains active with the program, pointed to intense grower efforts to keep the program in operation after it was shut down in 2012.

“We knew that in order to continue the program, it would need to be relocated, and essentially start-up funds would need to be generated to cover the initial re-development costs and expenses associated with getting another college to accept the program,” Christianson said.

MFVGA secured a USDA Specialty Crops Block Grant through the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. The Minnesota Ag Education Leadership Council provided additional funding. Minneapolis-based Agro-K Corp. offered grant support of $10,000 per year for two years to help the program get re-established at Central Lakes College.

“We fought like crazy to keep this program,” said Cindy Felming, MFVGA’s president. “It’s very important to us as growers, especially having the instructor available to come out to our farms and look at the crops, talk about specific problems and answer our questions. When we found out Northland Community & Technical College would discontinue specialty crops, we got together and scrambled to find out what we could do to move it to another college, fund it, get it up and going and keep it intact.

“The traditional USDA farm programs are geared to large farms and don’t benefit small operations,” Felming said. “Extension programs in Minnesota have been cut back, with some specialty crops assistance falling by the wayside. With this program, we have an instructor who is concerned that we have a good crop, knows pricing around the state, how and where to market our crops and the latest crop management techniques.

“The Specialty Crops Management program is designed to provide training in management skills needed to achieve success in the commercial production and sale of fruits, vegetables, ornamentals and other specialty crops,” said Christianson. “It provides training in subjects beginning with the planning phase of the business on through to the establishment and management of a successful business operation. These include market evaluation, crop selection and market development, as well as the production technologies required for successful crop production.”

Christianson was a program instructor from 1975 until his retirement in 2000. During that time, numerous adjustments were made to the program as grower needs changed, funding levels adjusted and structural modifications were implemented. When it became a credit-based program under the Minnesota State Colleges and University System, Christianson wrote the curriculum and adjusted the delivery methods to fit the system’s guidelines and fulfill grower needs and interests.
 
“Most of the growers’ enterprises included a small fruit component,” Christianson said. “In the later years, the program included a combination of weekend classroom opportunities and field days in addition to the individual on-farm instruction sessions. Since this was the only Specialty Crops Management Program in Minnesota, travel requirements were quite extensive.”

Thaddeus McCamant succeeded Christianson as instructor.

“My biggest role is information transfer: I see what people are doing in their fields, and I tell others about what is working and what is not working,” McCamant said.  “Other times, my role is to assess applied research that is being conducted at different universities. With the research and production information, I can tailor the education to each grower, taking into account their educational background and experience.

“Beginning growers often underestimate the complexity of fruits and vegetables,” McCamant related. “Many experienced growers will gladly tell others that they still feel like beginners, because many of these plants are so unpredictable. A second obstacle is that we have a very low knowledge base on the minor crops grown here, and there is less applied research being conducted by the universities every year.”

Another concern is “finding ways to grow crops in this area profitably, so we can compete with products shipped in from other states.”

Specialty crop markets in Minnesota are in somewhat of a development stage, McCamant believes.

“The majority of fruits and vegetables I work with are sold directly to the consumer at farmers’ markets, CSAs or on the farm,” he said. “Apart from some vegetable processors in southern Minnesota, there are not a lot of acres in many of the crops I work with. In spite of low acreages, there are hundreds of thousands of consumers in this state who make yearly trips to the strawberry farm, apple orchard or pumpkin patch. Direct-market farms have become part of the culture here.

“Interest in locally grown fruits and vegetables is rapidly increasing,” the educator said. “We are now seeing young families coming to the pick-your-own strawberry fields, farmers’ markets and apple orchards. In some cases, customers are even willing to work at the farms.”

McCamant noted that CLC’s Specialty Crops Management program is administered separately from University of Minnesota Extension.

“Our work traditionally has separate goals from Extension,” he said. “I work more closely with the growers, and the growers have to pay for my services.”

Christianson anticipates that the Specialty Crops Management program at CLC, now part of the school’s Agriculture and Energy Center in Staples, Minn., will expand to provide additional educational and demonstration opportunities to growers in the region.

“The growers consider the program to be very important to their successful specialty crops business,” he said. “Thaddeus visits their farm at critical times during the summer to review their crop progress and reinforce the technical aspects presented in class. Training in pest management is reinforced when the problems are likely to be occurring in the field. Thaddeus also writes the weekly IPM bulletin for the Minnesota Department of Agriculture and presents classes for the University of Minnesota as well, so his involvement is quite extensive.”

Gary Pullano

Originally posted Thursday, Sep. 19, 2013