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Low inputs and direct sales mean higher profits for vegetable farmers

A vegetable farmer like John Billman of Donna, Texas, has to find ways to cut costs or profits would disappear like moisture in a South Texas wind.

“There aren't any subsidies for vegetable farmers like there are for cotton. We're on our own,” Billman says.

Being on his own means that, except for one or two pickers hired during harvest, he and his wife Fran make up the Billman Farms work force. With a couple of tractors, the newest 25 years old, he makes do. His rows may not be as perfect as they would be if he were using a tractor with a GPS system, but they get the job done.

His proven production practices make a difference, too.

Billman is a firm believer in crop rotation. He relies on legumes to replace nitrogen in the soil. “I rotate my crops with peas so much I can get away with a minimum amount of fertilizer,” he said.

He plants many of his fields to cilantro because it naturally repels insects. “Even the crops we plant around cilantro benefit from this natural insecticide,” he says.

He hasn't done away with fertilizer or chemicals on his 40 acres. “I just use as little as I can.” He admits that his fields are not weedless and some vegetables are blemished.

Though insects mostly go after the leaf of a plant and tend to leave the root and the fruit alone, he still plans on 20 percent of his crop being culls.

There are some crops where a few weeds don't really matter. Pickles, for instance, require only 36 days from planting to harvest for maturation. “They're too quick to grow to be bothered by weeds,” Billman notes.

Billman owns his own beehives, almost one hive per each of his 40 acres. “Often on windy days we can't get the bees out to do their jobs, and a crop like pickles will become misshapen,” he says.

The wind in the Rio Grande Valley, he added, causes other problems. “It sucks out the moisture from the soil. It seems like I'm always watering something.”

The wind is not the only thing a farmer copes with in the Valley. Sometimes an unexpected freeze will wipe out a crop.

Billman will have 3,000 tomato plants starting in his greenhouse for transplant around the middle of February. He takes a chance that the Valley weather will be mild. “I can flood irrigate and put sheets of plastic to save a crop, but a heavy freeze will still devastate my tomatoes,” he says.

He's found direct selling an ideal way for a small farmer to make a profit. Most days he and his wife greet the customers at the Billman Vegetable Stand. He often has 23 varieties of vegetables growing at one time so that customers have a wide choice.

His vegetable stand is in competition with many stands on street corners in the Rio Grande Valley. But there's a difference. “We don't sell culls,” he says. He knows customers buy with their eyes, so he makes sure his produce is high quality and pleasing to the eye. He grows most of the produce on his farm, but will sometimes buy high-grade melons and citrus from farmers out of the area to sell.

But he assures customers that what they buy from Billman Farms has been grown in the United States under strict USDA rules and not in a country with no rules and where farmers need no training to use chemicals.

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