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Diversification strategy for small and medium-sized farms

Farms that achieve economies of scale by specializing and growing in size are common in US agriculture. Small and mid-sized farms, however, need a different kind of economy.  Economies of scope rely on managing diverse enterprises, to access more profitable markets and reduce the cost of off-farm inputs.  Research has demonstrated that diversified production systems have ecological and economic benefits, but research on the process of diversification in US agriculture is needed.  Funded by USDA and NIFA, the Agroecosystems Management Program (AMP), in The Ohio State University, investigated the effects of diversification on a model farm (Mellinger farm) that had been producing primarily no-till corn and soybeans for the past few decades.

Mellinger homestead and farm area
View of the Mellinger homestead and farm area from south end.

The overall goal was to develop a decision-making framework for the transition from specialized commodity production systems to diversified crops and livestock production. The diversified system targets local and regional markets where small and midsized farms compete more effectively, taking advantage of economies of scope.

We expect the advantages of diversification to include:

  1. Greater output in new value chains;
  2. Entry into new markets that bring new revenues;
  3. Lower costs of production due to ecosystem services that derive from synergies between crop, animal, and farm energy enterprises;
  4. Lower cost of capital because human, social, built, and natural capitals can be used as substitutes for more expensive financial capital in diversifying small and medium sized farms; and
  5. Greater net revenue and return on investment for the farm. 

Establish A Designed Experiment To Study Diversification

Mellinger plots
Mellinger farm research plots during August 2018

The total acreage of the Mellinger farm is 324 with 270 being tillable land. The replicated area of this diversification research project consisted of 2.63 acres, located just west of the farmstead. The research design replicates relatively common diversification scenarios. Experimental plots were established in 2016 with four replicates (individual plot size is 0.09ac). The treatments are designed to mimic a five-year rotation within the four years of the grant.  The rotation includes a small grain crop (hulless/naked oats) followed by an oilseed crop (sunflowers), then three years of pasture. The rotation sequence was: Naked oats > Sunflower > 1st Year Pasture > 2nd Year Pasture > 3rd Year Pasture. The naked oats, sunflower and 1st year pasture plots were established in year one. By adding 1st year pasture plots in years 2 and 3, the 2nd and 3rd year pasture plots were established by year 3. Half plots of the 3rd year pasture plots were planted in vegetables.  Half plots of the 1st and 2nd year pastures were grazed by chickens during August and September each year.

Four Year Rotation Of The Treatments

Data Collected During 2016 - 2019

  • Poultry - Processed carcass Weights; Feed Consumption; Ingestive Pecking; Biomass Removal by Chickens; Cost & Revenue Data
  • Vegetables - Harvest Yield; Pests and Diseases; Qualitative and Quantitative Data; Cost and Revenue Data
  • Pasture - Diversity indices; Biomass Production
  • Sunflower - Harvest Yield; Pests and Diseases; Oil Production; Cost and Revenue Data
  • Oats - Harvest Yield; Pests and Diseases; Chicken Feed Production; Cost and Revenue data
  • Arthropods and other invertebrates collected 3 times during the growing season each year.
  • Photographs of all the activities in each year

Careful accounting of all inputs, outputs and costs will add to the understanding of diversification paybacks and benefits, as well as reveal challenges faced when transitioning agricultural lands to diverse agricultural systems.

Mellinger Farm in fall
Mellinger farm west end wooded area during fall

Research Outcome

Research outcome will be published, once the data are analyzed and finalized

Research Activity Photo Galleries

Diverse Vegetable Production

Plot preparation
Each growing season, we had 4 vegetable plots. Plot preparation started during late Spring.
Vegetable plots
One of the vegetable plots after planting in early June
Vegetation rows
Maintaining vegetation rows in between the vegetable rows encouraged natural enemies of vegetable pests.
Bush beans
Bush beans in 2017 growing season.
Toscano kale
Toscano kale in 2017 growing season
Mariachi peppers
Mariachi is one of the five pepper varieties grown in the 2017 growing season.
Cafe Carmen at ATI
Mellinger farm vegetable sales to Cafe Carmen at ATI generated additional revenue.
Vegetable harvest
Marketable vegetable harvests were weighed to calculate the average yield in each growing season.
Vegetable variety
Carmen peppers, Hungarian hot wax peppers, Carmine Splendor okra, Orient Charm/Orient Express eggplants and Genovese basil.
ATI dining services
Locally grown Mellinger farm vegetables in the salad bar at ATI dining services, OSU Wooster campus.

Diverse Arthropods

Pitfall traps
Preparing pitfall traps.
Pitfall traps installed
Holes were dug using a golf hole cutter to install pitfall traps.
Collected insects
Some of the collected insects in 2017 ready to be documented.
Ground beetles
Large numbers of ground beetles (Family: Carabidae) were collected during the 2017 insect collection survey.
Wolf spiders
Large numbers of wolf spiders (Family: Lycosidae) were collected during the 2017 insect collection survey.
Tiny mite (less than 0.2mm in diameter) species also were collected in almost every plot during the 2017 insect collection survey.
Sunflower floral heads
Sunflower floral heads were visited by a diverse group of insects.

Vegetable and Other Pests

Cross Striped Cabbageworm
Cross-striped cabbageworm (XSCW) (Evergestis rimosalis) on kale.
Tobacco Hornworm damage
Tobacco Hornworm damage to tomatoes and peppers during the 2018 growing season was much lower than 2017.
False potato beetle
False potato beetle, Leptinotarsa juncta, adult, larvae and eggs.
Japanese beetles
Japanese beetles (Papillia japonica) feeding on an eggplant.
American Gold Finch
American Gold Finch, Spinus tristis, reportedly consumed a considerable amount of sunflower seeds in 2018.
Flea beetles
Flea beetles damaged a few eggplants during the 2018 growing season.

Ecosystems Services by Parasites, Parasitoids and Predators

Parasitic pupal cases
Parasitic pupal cases were observed on almost every Toscano Kale plant during the 2017 growing season.
Braconid wasp
Pupal cases of a Braconid wasp on Tobacco Hornworm, Manduca sexta.
Cotesia glomerata pupal case
Cotesia glomerata pupal cases on kale.
Giant Araneus spp.
Giant Araneus spp. (Cross-spider) on kale.

Growing Season Diseases

Downey mildew
Downey mildew on Cucumber plants was common during summer 2017.
Zucchini plants died
A few Zucchini plants died, probably due to Ca intake problem, during the 2017 and 2018 growing seasons
Fusarium head blight
Fusarium head blight on Naked oats during the 2018 growing season.
Ervinia root rot
Some carrots suffered Ervinia root rot during the 2017 growing season.
Erwinia soft rot
Erwinia soft rot in Carmen pepper in 2018.
Onion downy mildew
Few onion plants showed downy mildew symptoms during 2017 and were not serious.
Bacterial wilt on Okra
Bacterial wilt on Okra seedlings in 2018.

Sunflowers as an Oil Crop

Sunflower plots 2 weeks after planting
One of the 2018 sunflower plots 2 weeks after planting.
Sunflowers were planted on the previous years oats plots.
Interseeded clover
Clover can be used as a cover crop that provides many benefits such as fixing nitrogen to meet the needs of the following crop.
Insects provide pollination services
Many insects provide pollination services for sunflowers and vegetables.
Sunflower harvest
Sunflower harvest in 2017.
Sunflower oil taste testing
Sunflower oil extracted from 2017 seeds were presented to the AMP staff for tasting.
Biggest sunflower
The biggest sunflower head in 2018 was 25 cm in diameter.

Naked/Hulless Oats

Naked oats drilled
Naked oats were drilled into the soil along with white clover.
Oats planted
Oats planted on the previous years vegetable/pasture plots.
Naked oats harvest
Naked oats harvest at Mellinger Farm in 2017.

Pasture Raised Chickens

Disinfecting chicken tractors
Disinfecting chicken tractors during mid-August, prior to introduction of chickens to the field.
Day old chicks
Chicks were kept at OARDC poultry unit until they could go out to pasture.
Three week old chickens
Chickens were dropped off at Mellinger Farm when they were 3 weeks old.
Chickens in tractors
Chickens in "tractors" provide pasture grazing, insect control, weed control, and fertilization services to the Mellinger farm ecosystem.
Pasture raised chickens
Two hundred chickens were pasture raised in 8 tractors from mid-August until the third week of September each year, with tractors moving to fresh pastures daily.
Seeds being shelled
Mellinger sunflower seeds being shelled to feed chicken as a supplementary diet.
Chicken pasture
The difference between pre and post serviced pasture.
Loading frozen chickens
Loading frozen chickens after processing at Pleasant Valley Poultry in Baltic, OH.

Diverse Pasture Plots

Collecting biomass samples
Student assistant collecting biomass samples using Rising Plate Meter (RPM).
Identifying and quantifying different weed species
Identifying and quantifying different weed species in research plots to help understand the ecosystem richness, evenness, and diversity indexes of the Mellinger Farm pasture plots.
Pasture sample data
Sample data were used to calculate Kilo Gram Dry Matter (KGDM) production in each pasture plot and to measure biomass removal by chicken during the chicken grazing season.
Mowing pasture plots
Mowing pasture plots regularly can encourage more growth thereby increasing the dry matter production later in the season.

Other Fauna at Mellinger Farm

Flock of wild geese
A flock of wild geese picking grains from one of Mellinger's fields during October 2017.
Deer at Mellinger Farm
Deer are a common sight on Mellinger Farm.
Swarm of midges
A large swarm of midges (Suborder: Nematocera) emerged on the morning of September 26th, 2017.

Mellinger Farm Field Day

Mellinger Farm Field Day
Mellinger Farm field day on August 17th, 2017
Mellinger Farm Field Day discussion
Discussion inside the barn just before the field walk.
Value-added products
Value-added products were on display during the field day in 2017.
Chutney and salsa
Chutney and salsa created from Mellinger Farm grown vegetables.

Bee Hives

Bee Hives 01
Bee hives were installed just behind the Mellinger farmstead in spring 2018.
Bee Hives 02
Bees provide pollination services to vegetables, sunflowers and many other crops.