A strawberry field sits dormant off West Main Street in lest Medford.. Local farmers heard last week that efficiency from harvest to record-keeping is critical to operating profitably. - Jamie Lusch

Trouble in the fields?

Mishandling freshly harvested produce or failing to establish the right relationships can stop a farmer from cashing in on a bumper crop.

Drought and a plethora of other ills that plague farmers and ranchers are just part of the equation.

Atina Diffley, an organic farmer and author from Minnesota, told a gathering of farmers and producers Thursday that efficiency — from harvest to record-keeping — is a critical element in operating profitably.

"Think about making your farms as efficient as possible if you are going to make a living from it," Diffley told her "Wholesaling Success" audience at Oregon State University's Southern Oregon Experiment Station.

Diffley told local farmers to consider who is consuming the food from their fields.

"When you think about it as their food, then safety makes all the sense in the world," said Diffley, who spent as much time discussing post-harvest cleaning and temperature control as she did marketing ideas.

Her listeners arrived with an array of agendas.

Many wanted to figure out how best to move the coming year's crops and produce, some looked for ways to overcome past difficulties, others were evaluating what kinds of relationships to nurture in planting future crops.

Jeff and Elise Higley grow 2 acres of vegetables and 14 acres of medicinal herbs on their 113-acre Oshala Farm in the Applegate.

They discovered great demand for basil and other herbs, but producing expected quantities for commercial buyers is no easy thing. They were looking for ways to better the odds of grabbing a piece of an exploding market.

"We realized 70 percent of the herbs in the U.S. are imported," Elise Higley said. "Wholesalers are wanting to buy U.S.-grown, certified organic herbs. But there just aren't enough people growing here. We're importing stuff. It's crazy that we're importing basil when it can be grown here."

She said the biggest obstacle is getting the permits to harvest herbs and dry them efficiently and safely. It also becomes a matter of scale.

"We have a drying facility where you stack herbs," Higley said. "Then you get orders for 500 to 1,000 pounds of dried herbs, that's like 4,000 pounds of basil or nettles."

While the local market is the first order of business, ultimately, she said, "Our goal is to stop importation of herbs. Let's supply what we can."

Capital for equipment and enough hands at harvest are the biggest barriers.

"It also involves drying during the fall season, which is the hardest time because it's getting cold," Higley said. "In the summer it's easy to dry leafy crops, because it's warmer. To be able to sustain ourselves financially we have to have facilities allowing us to dry enough of the crops at once."

During the day-long seminar, she picked up a lot about systems.

"To really look at your own production with a fine eye," Higley said. "You start to do things because that's the way you started them. Then you go, 'Wait, why are we doing this dysfunctionally?' "

Diffley's focus on temperature and post-harvest handling issues caught the attention of Suzanne Willow, a co-owner of Willow Witt Ranch in the mountains outside of Ashland. At 5,000 feet, Willow Witt soil easily produces greens for the Grower's Market, but there are problems.

"We haven't been cooling them as well as we could; they don't look as good as some of the bigger farmers," Willow said. "Consistently marketed greens that really look good is something we haven't been doing well, and I'm encouraged we will do a lot better."

Colorado transplant Scott Goode, who farms 17 acres off Scenic Avenue in Central Point, is planning to grow peppers, tomatoes and basil.

The path he's taking in the Rogue Valley is much different than the pinto bean and wheat farm where he grew up. Looking for practical advice, he said, he learned the distinction between the markets — retailers, distributors, schools and institutions — in preparing to begin growing in 2016.

He said his takeaway was "the incredible importance of really good recordkeeping."

John Martin, who lives on 17 acres off Thompson Creek in the Applegate Valley, grows chickens and pigs, producing about 60 dozen eggs a week.

"We're projecting to have about 150 chickens, and we don't eat that many eggs," Martin said. "I'm thinking about wholesaling through farmers markets."

Diffley extolled the virtue of long-term relationships with buyers.

"You want your customer to believe they can't live without you," Diffley said. "Sometimes you have to prove yourself, that takes time. You want to eventually get them to where they feel they need you, they have a loyalty and treat you right. You can count on them, grow some crops and know they will be there for you."

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or Follow him on Twitter @GregMTBusiness, friend him on Facebook and read his blog at Edge.

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