GAINESVILLE, Fla. – John Bitter and Amy Van Scoik are a new breed of young, first-generation farmers who practice organic, small-scale, sustainable growing practices and distribute directly to their customers. City kids who attended the University of Florida College of Agriculture, they shared a dream of growing food and making it their livelihood.
The couple founded Frog Song Organics on six acres 15 miles east of Gainesville, Fla. in 2011. Family, friends and neighbors helped, working in trade for food. Today they grow over 80 varieties of fruits, vegetables and herbs on 60-plus acres and offerpasture- raised pork and eggs from free-range chickens.
Frog Song supplied four farmers markets, local restaurants and grocers, as well as over 100 Community Supported Agriculture group members before the COVID-19 virus. Since Alachua County stay-at-home orders closed farmers markets and restaurants in March, Frog Song has transitioned to selling directly to customers through pickup and delivery.
The farm is aptly named. In the summer, after it rains, the sound of the frogs is deafening.
“We shape our business to reflect our values,” said Amy. “It’s why we named the farm after an indicator species. If you have a lot of happy frogs, it’s a sign you are taking good care of the land,” she said.
John said they started with nothing. “First, we made an investment in soil health,” he said. They planted cover crops, added organic matter and tilled it back into the soil. They practice rotational grazing.
In the field, pigs forage for sweet potatoes left after a harvest and fertilize the soil for the next crop. Moving 150 chickens and their coops rids fields of pests and fertilizes the ground before planting. “We have healthy chickens that make good-tasting eggs,” John said.
Rows of blossoming peach trees alternate with rows of vegetables, forming terraces up and down small hills that prevent erosion. Thick mats of Spanish needle hug the tree trunks and attract honeybees, wasps and ladybugs that pollinate the crops and kill pests. Strawberry plants nestle in straw mulch instead of plastic to keep weeds down, protect the berries from sand, reduce fungus and improve soil quality as it decomposes.
Their crew of 12 field workers and four farm managers perform most of the labor by hand. John begins workdays with 7:30 a.m. staff meetings to go over the day’s goals. Everyone keeps records, entering data on their phones and tablets hourly on everything they do, recording where, when, what and how much is planted and harvested, pruned and thinned. Notes are taken about the condition of the plants, the appearance of spots or disease.
Workers swiftly move up and down rows harvesting carrots, radishes or turnips and artfully arrange them into small attractive bundles. In an adjacent field, hundreds of tiny red-topped lettuce seedlings form long rows that snake behind the men planting them one-by-one by hand. Lettuces and greens are picked and meticulously trimmed to be later thoroughly washed in large bins.
Amy wishes more people appreciated agricultural workers. “It takes an eye and fine motor skills and coordination. It takes mental fortitude and a positive attitude to do physically hard and repetitive work all day long,” Amy said. Frog Song offers their employees paid sick leave, life insurance, prepared meals and a profit-sharing plan for their full-time employees. “We need each other—one doesn’t succeed without the other,” she said.
“We adapt all our farming practices to maintain and improve the soil quality,” said John. “This is done with cover crops for biomass, weed control, erosion control, disease control, applications of manure, pelleted manure, terracing, drainage, and irrigation methods. Potatoes and other crops respond positively to applications of compost and other semi-soluble forms of carbon, so we also add carbon to the soil on a regular basis, annually at the very least,” he said.
Not only has the couple gone through the certification process in 2012, John works as an International Organic Inspectors Association (IOIA) trained independent organic inspector in his off-farm job. He advises farmers who want to become certified to design their record keeping to make money. “My records are a cost-tracking system and work for USDA audits. They show a historical sequence,” he said.
USDA helps cost share the initial certification. After producers are certified, they must pay fees for assessments and to maintain the certification, which varies state-to-state. You can find a list of USDA certifiers here.
“Know your market, do your research, and transition your farm in workable portions, not all at the same time,” said John. Since organic markets are different than conventional in quantities, specification, and availability, he advises to start small and build up what works and discontinue what doesn’t. Your goal should be to find organic crops that make a better margin for your farm than conventional.
“The first few years on your land, learn your crops, varieties, planting time, cultivation methods, inputs, and harvest yields. Then once you’ve learned the production you can start training others on the techniques, specifications, quality, and cadence you need to succeed professionally,” John said. He stressed the importance of learning your sales channels and keeping track of time spent on farmers markets, deliveries and wholesale to factor into the profitability of the product before scaling up.
John and Amy found financing to buy additional land through the USDA Beginning Farmer and Rancher Loans. Keeping records was critical to qualifying for this loan, producers must have three years of production records before they can qualify.
The couple first applied for financial and technical assistance from Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) through the Organic Initiative to install two high tunnels.
“The shade cloths have extended growing into the hot season and the plastic has protected crops during heavy storms,” said Amy.
NRCS helped them pay for an irrigation reservoir, grassed waterway, managing nutrients, managing pests, and planting cover crops. Their applications received higher priority for funding because they are new and beginning farmers, which USDA defines as having no more than 10 years’ experience farming.
NRCS District Conservationist Monica Jones began working with the couple in 2013. “I believe in what they are doing. I’ve seen how much they care about providing the best produce that is chemical free,” she said. “Their record keeping is phenomenal. And their hard work! It is just amazing to see John and Amy—the work they put into their farm,” Monica said.
Florida is fifth nationally with the highest percentage of beginning producers in the state, according to the 2017 National Agricultural Statistics Survey. The average farm size with a new and beginning principal producer is approximately 107 acres. Beginning farms tend to be smaller than established farms, and their operators are often younger and more likely to work off the farm. (Amber Waves)
USDA offers a variety of farm loan, risk management, disaster assistance, and conservation programs to support farmers and ranchers. Additionally, a number of these programs have provisions specifically for beginning farmers, including targeted funding for loans and conservation programs as well as waivers and exemptions. To learn more about USDA’s resources for beginning farmers visit here.
–Renee Bodine, USDA, NRCS