Volume 12, Number 13                                                            November 10, 2009

The Farmer


The Science and Business of Farming vs. the Art and Hobby of Gardening: Part I

By Dr. Ridgely Abdul Mu’min Muhammad

It is customary for me to write articles to be no longer than 600 words or two typed pages so that they could fit into a newspaper column. However, this time I am not trying to bring a bit of news or a warning about the food system or a growing tip for your garden. Now I must get down to the business of teaching which will take more time and space. Now it is time to teach you how to think like a farmer, so please be patient with me as I try to grow this crop. (smile)

In the Spring of 2006 I was blessed to visit Cuba as a guest of The Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan. While there I noticed the many gardens throughout Havana along with produce stands next to these gardens. The city residents would go down to their local garden produce stand and pick up the day’s vegetables to fill out their menus for their daily meals that they cooked at home.

When I got back to the states in 2006 I encouraged the members of the Ministry of Agriculture to promote home and urban gardening projects across the country. This effort had three purposes. One was to provide fresh produce to our city cousins across the country. Another was to give our people a taste of how nature worked since most of us have been spoiled by city life, junk food and fast food restaurants. As the people attempted gardening they would have a better appreciation of what it takes to produce food and thereby be more willing to support our efforts in the Ministry of Agriculture by increasing their donations to the Three Year Economic Savings Program.

We are quite pleased with the success of our gardening program and will take some credit for the national resurgence of home and urban gardening. We are also quite grateful for the increase in the monthly donations to the Three Year. But now it is time to shift gears and move towards the third reason for instituting the gardening program. We plan to grow some farmers from our many gardeners.

We are not forsaking our gardening program, however we have to select a few of our gardeners and prepare them to be farmers. At our 2009 Saviours’ Day Convention held in Chicago, Minister Farrakhan announced his desire for the Nation of Islam to obtain 2 million acres of farmland. A friend of mine made a little joke which got my attention. She said that a group of believers from Atlanta were discussing the Minister’s plans and said, “Who is going to farm that 2 million acres of land? Oh, Dr. Ridgely, all by himself.” Ha, Ha, that ain’t funny (smile). I have a hard enough time farming 1600 acres of land, much less 2 million. Therefore, I would be wise to find or grow some help.

I used to make this statement, “It would be easier to make some black farmers Muslims, than to make some city Muslims into farmers.” Well, I am probably not qualified to do either, but I must attempt both. As vice-president of the Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association (BFAA) and fighting for justice for the black farmers in their class-action lawsuit against the USDA, I discovered that most of the black farmers are way beyond their prime and many have died in the 10 year period of the lawsuit. This fact was really bothering me until I took another look at who was actually doing the farming on the large commercial farms in Southwest Georgia.

Yes, most of the commercial farms are owned by white people. However, many of the skilled labor and production management is done by the black hired hands. On top of this fact is the situation that most of the white commercial farmers are also getting older and because of the reduced profitability in farming, many of their children will not take over the farming operations, but will probably sell the land after their parents die. This means that a lot of very skilled black farm labor and black farm managers will be looking for new opportunities once ‘massa’ is dead. So this is one pool of farmers that we can draw from to help farm 2 million acres. I estimate that we would conservatively need about 500 good farm managers and 10,000 skilled workers to successfully utilize 2 million acres of farmland. Of course these are just estimates. But even to make such estimates requires a lot of understanding of the science and business of farming, which is a lion’s step away from the art and hobby of gardening.

So now I must begin to teach the science and business of farming to those of us who have made the first step into gardening. What one must first realize is that you can grow almost anything in a controlled environment on a small strip of land. Successful gardening requires a lot of time, attention and care per square foot of your garden bed. Gardening is very labor intensive, but can yield high quantities of produce or beauty per square foot because of the amount of care and attention to details that a hobby gardener can devote. However, when one stretches out to acres instead of square feet, the game changes significantly.

When you grow vegetables in your home garden for your own consumption, you do not have to worry about making a profit or covering the payments on land and equipment. However, when you start growing acres of crops, costs and returns per acre and returns on investment become major factors. To start us off I will use navy beans as an example of a crop that can be grown in a garden almost anywhere, but is commercially grown in only a few areas of the United States.

As I was thinking about how to start training farmers and farm managers, I thought about and dusted off my Ph.D. dissertation that I completed in 1987 at Michigan State. The title of the manuscript is “Evaluating Decision Rules and Planning Tools in Farm Decision Making: A Conceptual Framework.” My advisor and head of my dissertation committee at Michigan State, Dr. Hepp, told me on completion of my dissertation that I had actually accomplished three dissertations in one. My main objective was to develop a framework for evaluating the benefits of computer aided planning tools in farm management. However, this task required that I had to develop conceptual frameworks that did not exist just to do my primary analysis. The development of these frameworks or models that I pioneered could have been another dissertation all by itself. One day I hope to publish this dissertation as a book and make it required reading for my students.

I learned many things about how good farm managers think during this study and I use that frame of mind and scientific analysis in tackling the real world problems that I face as the farm manager for Muhammad Farms. While finishing my dissertation, I took a teaching and research position at my Alma Mata, North Carolina A&T State University. In the beginning of my “Computer Applications in Agricultural Economics” course I would tell my students that, “In the past you have been taught what to think. But in this class I will teach you how to think.” It was fun to see those bewildered faces trying to figure out what I was talking about. However, many got it by the end of the semester and learned how to think in the process.

This reminds me of what I heard the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan say, “There is no such thing as a dumb farmer.” That is right. If you are dumb, you had better learn fast or you will not be farming long. Farmers have to handle a lot of information and make a lot of decisions. I like to say at Muhammad Farms, that I solve more real problems in a day than most people face in a year. I say “real” problems because they affect the bottom line of how the farm will fare financially and the safety of the workers. However, for most hourly workers, they get paid the same amount of money each week regardless of their performance. But the farmer only gets paid after a good performance of his crop. A farmer must do everything correctly and then he will have a fifty percent chance of making a profit. White farmers have been able to cover some of their risks by government subsidized crop insurance programs or direct payments from the government. The black farmers’ lawsuit was to address the fact that these programs were not made available to black farmers.

Of course non-farmers have a lot of problems too, but many of them are self-inflicted and made out of mole-hills that they grew into mountains because of boredom. My talk may seem boastful, but believe me I do not consider myself much smarter than a wild deer, a fact that I will explain latter as we talk about growing navy beans commercially. Deer and navy beans don’t mix (smile).

Navy beans grow quite similar to green beans or snap beans. In fact they look very similar and if you pick navy beans in their green succulent stage, they taste quite like green beans accept they are a little stringier.

You can grow navy beans in gardens located in any of the fifty states as long as you have 100 days of frost free weather. The pods are fully matured after 75 to 90 days and even if you get a heavy frost after the pods have filled out, you can still have a crop of beans.

Be sure to plant the beans in a sunny spot and water your plants twice a week unless you have a rain that week. One of our beginning gardeners asked us whether she should continue to pinch off the yellowing navy bean pods from her plants that she was growing in her backyard. We had to tell her not to pick off the yellowing bean pods, because you want all of your bean pods to turn from green to yellow to brown before you harvest them. In fact you want the beans to rattle in their hulls before you pick them. Navy beans should be picked dry.

You should look out for insects and critter damage. Wild animals love navy beans, therefore to protect them you can put up a small fence around your garden.

The Ministry of Agriculture included navy beans among the 13 crop varieties that we made available in our garden seed package for a 50 by 50 foot garden plot. We knew that one 50 foot row of navy beans would not produce enough dried beans for two bowls of navy bean soup, but we wanted them to learn about the process of growing navy beans.

Navy beans prefer a mild climate with ample rain during the growing season but not at harvest. Michigan is number one in navy bean production. Other major producers of navy beans and other dry edible beans include North Dakota, Nebraska, Colorado, California and Idaho. Very little if any navy beans are grown in Georgia due to a hot dry climate during the early summer and a moist climate in the late summer and fall.

Since we purchased our 1600 acre farm in Georgia and because the South is where the majority of black people live, we wanted to grow some major staples for our Nation. Although South Georgia is well suited for many vegetables and even soft wheat, no one grew navy beans commercially in this area when we arrived. So naturally all of the farmers and farm experts thought that we were crazy for trying to grow navy beans here. After contacting the University of Georgia to find out that no one there knew anything about growing this crop, a good farm manager would simply leave it at that and not try to grow navy beans until the University of Georgia had done some research and come out with recommendations on how to proceed. Of course we could not wait that long with the fall of America at our door.

When doing scientific analysis of a problem, scientists try to eliminate as many variables as possible to concentrate on a particular variable to see how it affects the performance of the item under investigation. However, a farmer has many variables that he can not control or cannot afford to control. To experiment he must determine that the value of that knowledge far outweighs its cost and those returns or profits must show up before he runs out of time and money. Scientific research is usually publicly financed or subsidized because no one farmer can afford to do so. Another way to research is to produce enough data points to cover the number of variables that you may have, then do a multivariate analysis to pin point the probable factors that have the most influence. Of course each year you experiment costs time and money and again you can go broke in the process.

To grow beans a farmer in Southwest Georgia must choose a proper seed variety and must contend with early and late frosts, drought conditions, heat, weeds, insects, disease and wild animals. After 13 seasons of experimenting, we think that we have learned when best to grow the beans and how to control for disease weeds and insects. However, after controlling all of these factors we have discovered that the deer trump the deck. In fact many of the problems that we were having were caused directly by the deer or the deer were a contributing factor to other problems that reduced yields.

We have tried many different methods to control the deer, many of which were recommended by the Agricultural Extension service. However, none of them were effective and one county extension agent laughing opined that if I were to discover a fool-proof method of keeping deer out of beans, we both could get rich.

For 13 seasons we have attempted to grow and harvest navy beans with varying degrees of success. We had to determine how weather affected the crop, so different times of planting were tried. We observed that navy beans grew like green beans and all commercial green bean growers chose only irrigated cropland to grow beans on. However, we did not have ample irrigation until 2005 and Southwest Georgia was in a drought from 1997 to 2004, so the blistering heat burnt up many of our bean fields.

The irrigation system that we installed consisted of 6,800 feet of 8 inch pvc pipe sunk 36 inches deep costing $27,000. This provided water outlets for 205 crop acres. The water is pumped by a 140 hp John Deere motor. The water is put on the crop by a hard hose traveling gun system for which we paid $30,000. The irrigation pond had to be dug which cost $10,000 and the 6 inch well which feeds the pond cost $14,000. Therefore the total irrigation system totaled $81,000 or $395 per irrigated acre.

When we were successful at getting some beans to harvest, some of them would have little brown spots caused by insect bites. Since we did not want to use insecticides, this caused major quality issues. Of course there is a machine with a laser eye that can pick out the bad beans and spit them out with a burst of air. Large pecan farmers here in Georgia use this machine in their grading operations and they cost about $2 million. We have sorted out these spotted beans by hand, but the labor costs would force us to sell the beans at a price above what the white man charges in his stores. And although our Muslim family asks us to grow the beans without chemicals, they have not been willing to pay for “organic”. I guess they just pray for “organic” or pray over the white man’s beans that do not even claim to be “organic”.

Weeds have been a major factor against us in growing beans. Although we did not want to use strong chemicals to fight weeds in our beans, there were not many chemicals available on the market even recommended to use on our beans anyway. Therefore, we were left with mechanical control or cultivation. We had to insure a weed free planting zone and cultivate tight and often. However, even after we had done a good job of fighting the weeds up until the drying stage of the bean pods; it was in those last 20 to 30 days that a whole new set of weeds would grow in among our beans. And because the pods were drying and easy to be knocked off of the vines, we could not get close enough with our machines to destroy the weeds without destroying our crop. This meant that by the time we mechanically harvested the beans, weeds would either choke up the harvester, scratch and discolor our pretty white beans or cause them to spoil because of the moisture content of the green weeds chopped up among the beans.

In 2008 we decided to plant our beans, not in the spring, but in the middle of summer so that they would mature later in the season. We could afford to plant them in late August when it usually very hot and dry, because we now had irrigation. We planted them in late August because the beans set their pods in 60 to 75 days after planting. Therefore the pods would be set by the beginning of November. First frost generally occurs in the middle of November, so we felt that our beans would have matured by then and any late weeds would be killed by the frost, and by the time we were ready to harvest the beans, the weeds would be dead and dry.

However, Southwest Georgia had the earliest hard freeze ever on October 23, 2008. All of our beans were destroyed, but we felt confident that we were on the right path, because up until this killing frost the beans were looking good and the weeds were few. So, we decided to move our planting dates back to the first and middle of August for 2009. As I write this article (November 10, 2009), the beans are doing quite well on about 40 of our 75 acres that we planted. However, the deer have ravaged at least 35 acres of our beans, eating them down to the ground. We know that it’s them because we see their tracks and we run them out of our fields, sometimes four times per day, but they come back in the middle of the night and continue feasting.

From looking at the damaged beans we see that they look like beans in other seasons that we thought were damaged by the drought or insects or bad soil. It was the deer, the deer, Bamby and friends all along. Bamby and friends would go down each row and chew our bean plants from a height of 12 to 18 inches down to a height of 3 inches. These last three inches of plant would still put on from two to four pods of beans by harvest time, but our combine cannot get down to them without plowing into the ground digging up dirt. The dirt would then stain and scratch the beans causing them to be poor of grade.

This year we will machine harvest the tall beans and hopefully get volunteers and pick your own customers to hand pick the rest. Of course it might take eight hours per person to pick one 50 lb bag of dried navy beans.

Back to those deer; of course there is one sure fired way to keep the deer out. Put up a 12 foot fence around the perimeter of your bean field. Oh, did I mention that to keep disease out of your beans, you have to rotate navy bean production so that you grow beans once every three years in the same field. The two other years you must grow something else. Therefore, if I want to grow 100 acres of navy beans, I would have to set aside 300 acres for their production. If I want to fence in this area, I would have to fence in 300 acres and not 100 acres. The perimeter of a 300 acre field is 2.4 miles. Therefore, we would need to put up and maintain 2.4 miles of 12 foot fencing to keep the deer out.

When I told my brother about our deer problem, he said, “Just stop growing what they like.” That’s pretty smart except, we like what the deer like. Have they studied “How to Eat to Live”? (smile)

Someone else suggested that we grow a crop of beans as a sacrifice to the deer. We did, about 35 of our total of 75 acres that we planted, they ate. (smile again)

As a scientist I have noticed something about deer behavior that gives me hope that one day we can adequately control them. We noticed that as you walk through a navy bean field if you can see our house, and you look down, you will see beans. However, when you move to a position in the field where you can not see our house, and you look down, you will probably see that all of the beans have been chewed down. Evidently, the deer believe that if they can’t see us, then we can’t see them; smart deer. From our house we can see about 60 acres. Therefore considering the three year rotation plan needed to keep the disease out of navy beans; we could successfully grow 20 acres per year.

However we have 900 acres of cropland on our 1600 acre farm. Well, I have solution for that. We simply have to develop a community as I have outlined in my book “Commonomics: Developing a Post Yakub Economy.” Every 60 acres or so should have a house strategically located so that the deer can see it. Therefore, 15 houses with families in them could solve our problem. And especially if they have loud and playful children, a natural scare crow to every wild animal, we can be assured that the deer will be few and far between. (smile) Now the humans can grow and eat navy beans in Southwest Georgia in peace and ship them to other regions.