Lola’s Organic Farm

Dr. Jennifer Taylor and her husband started Lola’s Organic Farm in 2009, but Taylor’s family has been working the land there for much longer. Her grandmother, Lola, who the farm is named after, was a sharecropper in rural Georgia who was given the opportunity to buy her own farmland. She became a successful independent farmer, on the land where Lola’s Organic Farm (LOF) is located today. 

“We grow many of the same crops my grandmother grew, such as unique varieties of delicious colorful vegetables, fruit, and herbs,” says Taylor. And while today the farming practices at LOF differentiate it from nearby farms (LOF is one of the only certified organic farms in the surrounding counties), growing organically is not new to the family’s farming practices. “When my grandmother was farming,” explains Taylor, “she used organic farming practices before organic certification even existed. For us, organic farming and agroecology not only builds healthy soil and healthy environments, but also supports access to healthy foods in our communities. I believe organic farming systems can, and should, be enjoyed by all farmers and consumers – in all communities.” LOF has been certified organic since 2011, and the label has helped them access markets. “It speaks to the customers,” Taylor says. 

For us, organic farming and agroecology not only builds healthy soil and healthy environments, but also supports access to healthy foods in our communities. – Dr. Jennifer Taylor

In addition to providing organic food for local markets, Taylor and LOF recognize that small and BIPOC farmers have something else of value that benefits local communities: knowledge, or, as Taylor calls it, more specifically, traditional agroecology knowledge. LOF has been described as a kind of “mecca” for people learning about organic agriculture and furthering the organic movement. The farm hosts many types of educational tours and events, and Dr. Taylor, through her work at Florida A&M University, is a celebrated small farm specialist who connects farmers to researchers and vice versa. Winner of the Florida Department of Agriculture’s Woman of the Year in Agriculture Award in 2019, Taylor is head of a farmer-led research project (partially supported by OFRF) designed to identify needs, hindrances, and barriers of small and BIPOC farmers and works with farmers to develop solutions and resources through relevant learning sessions that provide education, hands-on training, and technical assistance. 

Taylor’s work engages researchers with farmers on the ground and works to amplify farmers’ voices and knowledge. “This project, and on-farm research in general, enables relationship-building with the farmer, the community, and researchers. It builds a unique opportunity to support the specific needs of that farmer and says to the world that farmers have important knowledge to share,” said Taylor. “This is particularly true for BIPOC farmers and communities because it gives us hope and empowerment that our voice matters. It brings our voices to the forefront of this movement.”

Small and traditionally-underrepresented farmers make up a farming majority in this (and other) areas of the country. As President of Florida A&M University, Larry Robinson, PhD, points out, “Somewhere around 90% of the farms are small farms, right? So although you might drive through these vast acreages of farmland in Florida, the vast majority of farmers (the people) are small farmers, underrepresented farmers, low-resource farmers, etc. But as a nation and as a state, we really have to be concerned about their existence, because it’s really those small farmers that make us whole.” 

To learn more about Dr. Taylor and her work, watch this video by the Florida Department of Agriculture from 2019, when Dr. Taylor was awarded “Woman of the Year in Agriculture”. 

By |2023-01-09T15:01:03+00:00December 13th, 2022|Farmer Stories|

Ole Brook Organics

The Organic Farming Research Foundation is honored to share this farmer story, featuring Jesse Buie, president of Ole Brook Organics. The following article is based off of an interview with Jesse that was conducted earlier this year by Thelma Velez, OFRF’s Research and Education Program Manager. You can also press play below to listen to an edited version of the interview, or click this link to download it to listen later! 

Jesse Buie, president Ole Brook Organics

Jesse Buie is one of those farmers who has been farming most of his life. “People always say ‘all their life’,” he jokes, “but yeah, that’s basically it.” Jesse grew up exposed to farming, with a father and grandfather who farmed. He explains that his interest in organic farming stemmed from his family’s history with farming, because “organic farming today is so similar to the farming practices they used back then. It was a continuation of the way I farmed my entire life,” he says.

Now Jesse is the president of Ole Brook Organics, a three acre mixed vegetable farm, situated within a larger 64 acre property in Lincoln County, Mississippi. The farm focuses on growing radishes, melons, ginger, turmeric, wheatgrass, and microgreens, and Jesse also has a handling license which allows him to process private label products, such as turmeric powder. In addition to growing food, Jesse works hard to help other farmers learn about what it means to be certified organic. He has served on the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), and regularly teams up with the local agricultural Extension Service, National Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), and Farm Services Agency (FSA) to offer info sessions about becoming organic. “For the past five years I’ve hosted workshops on the farm,” Jesse says. “We’d had as many as 100 participants,” he explains, of these sessions where farm support agencies gave presentations on the services that they have available for farmers. 

Jesse Buie enjoys teaching other farmers about the benefits of organic agriculture

Farming is “tremendously rewarding,” Jesse says. “We in the business need to be all about getting others involved. I don’t know how it’s going to happen, but we need to figure it out.” That’s part of why Jesse is so committed to helping educate other farmers about what it means to be organic. To this end, in addition to hosting workshops Jesse has also assisted in getting the word out to other farmers across the south about what support may be available for them from these organizations.

Climate & Soil Health

As a farmer in the southern region, one of the main environmental factors that Jesse deals with is a lot of rain. Excessive rain can cause leaching of nutrients from the soil, and specifically loss of nitrogen which is critical for plant growth. Jesse relies on soil tests to help him understand and monitor his soil health. “Each year I start with a soil test of the whole area,” he explains. The farm is divided up into 8 separate square areas, each with a different field name. “Even though it’s a small farm there are different soils throughout those areas,” he says. He collects a representative sample from each area to send in for analysis, then uses the results to see how best to improve the soil in a specific area, depending on what crops he is planning to grow there that season. The soil testing laboratories provide specific recommendations for amendments depending on crop.

Adding amendments to the whole farm for a crop could be very expensive, but by testing smaller plots, Jesse can add amendments to smaller areas specific to what they are going to grow there. With organic agriculture he explains that it’s common for soil health to stabilize over time, so that fewer amendments are necessary. “I’ll still have to add some,” he says, “but it won’t be as much.” He is looking forward to reaching that point with his fields. As he works towards that, one of the main ways that Jesse focuses on building healthy soil is by making sure that he is constantly adding organic matter to the soil. At Ole Brook Organics they do this primarily by incorporating all the plant matter back into the soil. It’s extra important to keep everything in the field that he can. Any grasses or crop residue are chopped up and tilled back into the fields after a crop is finished.

But high soil organic matter can be a double-edged sword in a wet region. “Soil with high organic matter content holds moisture,” Jesse says, “which is what it’s supposed to do. But then  I get bogged down and can’t get out there with the big equipment.” When fields are too wet to work with a tractor Jesse adapts by switching to using hand tillers, or other lighter weight soil cultivation tools. These let him work the soil when it might be too wet to access with heavier equipment. 

The heat is also an issue for farmers in the south. Jesse uses a drip irrigation system, and has come to understand that if he can manage the irrigation properly, most crops are happy with the warmer weather. “The heat is just bad on me,” he says, chuckling. The crops are most sensitive at the time that they are transplanted out, so Jesse focuses on growing strong transplants, and hardening them off so they’re adjusted to the heat, and then keeping the soil moist until the plant roots can get established in the ground. 

Season Extension

Turmeric grown at Ole Brook

Ole Brook Organics utilizes a 30 x 100’ high tunnel. Jesse primarily uses the high tunnel for his ginger and turmeric production, which take 9 months to reach maturity. Each year half of the high tunnel is planted in ginger and turmeric, and the other half is a mix of shorter season annual vegetables like tomatoes, that benefit from the extra heat and season extension of a high tunnel. The following year, those crops switch sides. “It’s not the most efficient,” Jesse admits, “because with ginger and turmeric, when you harvest, you could just be breaking off a piece and dropping it back in the same place to replant as you go. But if you need to rotate, you can’t do that, you have to pull everything and replant on the other side.” 

With the abundant rains in their region, an unexpected side effect of the high tunnel has been that they get a lot of rain running off the sides of the tunnel. That moisture travels laterally through the soil, and ends up saturating the inside of the tunnel. To address this issue, Jesse is considering finding a way to divert the water off the tunnel, such as creating a drainage ditch around the perimeter of the tunnel. Generally though, he is able to manage the conditions inside the tunnel just by airing things out. Both sides of the high tunnel roll all the way up, which allows Jesse to manage both the temperature inside the tunnel as well as the soil moisture. “You can open it up really well,” Jesse says, “and it will dry out in there, as long as it’s not raining.” 

Pest Management

One of the crops that Jesse enjoys growing at Ole Brook is straight neck organic squash. “They’re beautiful,” he says.” But he’s not the only one who appreciates them. “I guarantee that squash bugs will find it,” he says, shaking his head. The key to pest control that he’s found is to not let it get out of hand. “There are some organic approved substances for pest control,” Jesse explains, “but it’s not effective on the squash bugs.” Instead, the method he prefers is to physically patrol for the bugs by inspecting the plants for the first few days after they get transplanted out. “I walk those rows and look under the plants for any eggs and kill them right away,” he says. This is one example of how organic farming can be a labor intensive process. “But if you keep up with it from the start,” he says, “that’s the best.” Other organic methods for pest management include row cover to exclude bugs from a crop that they like to eat, or introducing beneficial insects who predate on the pest bug.

That’s the thing about organic, it complements diversity, and that’s what we need to make this whole process successful.

Jesse also grows edible flowers which attract beneficial insects and pollinators to the farm. He has observed a difference in pollination rates when he has flowers in bloom on the property. ”Production drops when the flowers aren’t present and the pollinators aren’t present,” he says, which is another reason to diversify the crops he grows, and to try to have something blooming on the farm at all times. “That’s the thing about organic,” he says. “It complements diversity, and that’s what we need to make this whole process successful.”

Microgreens from Ole Brook

Why Organic?

It really came down to three things for Jesse, when deciding to become certified organic. For one, he says “it really was a continuation of the way I’d been farming most of my life.” Second, Jesse has a background in hospice work, and through his experience in that field he knew that the physicians he worked with were often “very serious about no pesticides, and no synthetics in the foods for the patients, because of their compromised immune systems.” He understands that there is a health benefit. “Being in healthcare,” he says, “so much is about prevention, and that’s what organic is. You eat quality food and you may prevent some health problems.” And the third reason, he says, “was a numbers thing.” The price was higher for organic produce than conventional, so there was an economic incentive to farm that way.

In Jesse’s experience most customers who want organic are willing to pay the price for it, because they understand what went into it. “They see that USDA organic symbol,” Jesse explains, “I’m proud to put that on my products… It shows adherence to standards.” 

Jesse Buie, farming

When he was starting Ole Brook Organics, Jesse was able to choose a site that had been dormant for the past 15-20 years, which allowed him to work with California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) to become certified organic “right out of the gate.”

The area surrounding the farm includes timber, ponds, and other wildlife and pollinator habitat, which he had worked with the extension service and NRCS to develop and manage. “I’m gonna be honest,” he says, “environmental concerns were not part of the reason [for organic certification] at the beginning.” But, he explains, Ole Brook had been “all about the environment all the way,” in terms of the management of the timberland, ponds, and wildlife habitat surrounding the organic farm plot. He saw the organic certification as a continuation of that holistic way of taking care of the land. The organic label is a quality standard that Jesse appreciates because it is a way to prove that the food you’re producing is clean and coming out of healthy soils. “I’m so confident with the radish I grow that I will go out in the field and pull it up and just eat it right there, because I know the standards that I grow by” he says, proudly. 

. . . 

Links for further reading:

Ole Brook Organics

Video of Jesse Buie from Real Organics Project

National Organic Standards Board

National Resource Conservation Service

Farm Services Agency

California Certified Organic Farmers

NRCS high tunnel initiative

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By |2022-12-07T22:39:17+00:00November 22nd, 2022|Farmer Stories|

Mayday Farm

Approaching the Starting Line

There’s always been something romantic about a farm in New England, through colorful images of red barns, silos, and grazing cows against a quintessential autumnal landscape. Yet, over the past 50 years, the region has lost more than 10,000 dairy farms. Less than 2,000 remain; and Mayday Farm is one of the fortunate few.  

Located in Leeds, Maine, Mayday Farm owners Katie Gualtieri and Haden Gooch are part of a young farmers’ movement to regenerate what was once conventional farmland with the goal of building a sustainable, community-based business. They are not from farming families, but they share a love for agriculture. Katie left a 10-year career in international development, working on issues ranging from land rights to food security in Africa. Instead of making funding decisions from an office desk in Washington, DC, she decided to become directly involved in farming as a living in order to preserve the land and build back small farming communities here at home. 

After working together on a direct-market livestock farm in Virginia, they moved to Maine, where Haden worked for two years in a Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship (DGA) with the Wolfe’s Neck Center for Agriculture and the Environment in Freeport, a non-profit organic dairy program that provides immersive training in regenerative practices and farm management. Meanwhile, Katie worked on small organic dairies with  value-added operations. After years of hands-on learning, Katie and Haden were ready to start their own farming operation.

Land Access and Farm Transfer

Accessibility of land and financial resources present challenges for young farmers. “Finding a farm and land that was suitable for dairy was really challenging,” says Katie. “So much land is commercialized at this point that farmland is dwindling and what does exist is really, really expensive.” Especially in Virginia, which is why they set their sights on Maine where land is more affordable. Fortunately, by completing the DGA program, Haden automatically met the qualifications for a USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA) loan.  

Formerly Sander-Lou Farm, Mayday had previously been a 350-acre conventional dairy farm in the same family since the 1940s. By the turn of the century, the owners were looking to retire, and they began leasing about 100 acres of open land on the old farm to neighboring farmers. Then, in 2020, the non-profit Maine Farmland Trust purchased the property. Haden and Katie were able to lease a portion of the farm for a year while they were going through the FSA loan process. They closed on their dream purchase in 2021. By the end of the year, Maine Farmland Trust had protected at least 20 farms, preserving more than 2,000 acres as “forever farmland.” Mayday Farm was a part of that.

Dairy Farm Transfers: click to listen to this 3 minute audio clip where Katie speaks to OFRF about experiences with farm transfer as young dairy farmers.

Pasture and Soil Restoration

One of the priorities for Haden and Katie was to restore nutrients to the land to enhance the soil on their farm. “The land had sat fallow for a period of time and also had been rented off and on for about a decade. A hay crop was taken off, for example, and no nutrients were put back. A couple of parcels had been farmed in corn continuously for five or six years, and we were having trouble with those areas. We wanted to get it back into perennial grass and grazing annual production in other areas,” says Katie.

Haden had already launched a pasture-raised poultry operation in 2020 on leased land. Through a contract with a New England based meat company, the chickens consume only non-GMO feed and are antibiotic free. Mayday Farm now does about 24,000 broiler chickens from April through November. “They are great little fertilizer tools,” Katie says. “We rotate them once a day to a different pasture on the farm that we thought really needed help. Now we get the benefit of all of the poultry manure going right onto the fields, and we’re really excited to see the impact of that.”  

Even though this portion of Mayday’s farm operation is not certified organic, this management-intensive approach to grazing helps to restore microbiota in the soil and reflects Mayday’s commitment to environmental stewardship best practices.   

Organic Certification

The poultry operation adds diversity to Mayday’s revenue stream, and alongside the certified organic dairy operation, helped secure the FSA loan. After the farm purchase was finalized, Haden immediately had the land certified in mid-2021 and applied for a provisional application to certify the cows through the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA), which is Maine’s USDA Accredited Organic Certifier. The cows arrived in January 2022, and they began shipping organic milk that month.  

Fortunately, there were very few bumps in the road to certification because Haden had made contacts during the DGA program that connected him to Stonyfield Organic. Katie also credits MOFGA for being a helpful and supportive certifier, which enabled Haden and Katie to recertify dairy cows they were purchasing from a New Hampshire organic dairy farmer who needed to liquidate because he had reenlisted for active duty in the military. The cows were already producers for Stonyfield. Still, to ease the purchasing and transition process, Katie advises others to get to know the land and its history concretely in the transition from conventional to organic farmland.  

Monitoring Pasture Management with Apps

A little more than a year later, Mayday enjoys a thriving wholesale certified organic dairy enterprise through the direct supply program with Stonyfield Organic. And now that Haden and Katie are doing rotational grazing with poultry and close to 40 cows, they’re using tech to help them stay on top of things.  

“We do all of our grazing management in an app called Pasture Maps. We can track all of our moves in real time and how long we were on a specific piece of pasture,” says Katie. “And that’s really great for recordkeeping. We rotate the cows every 12 hours and really want to pay attention to how we graze the land, how much residue we leave, and how much rest we give to each pasture.”  

Mayday’s intention is to build back the soil and forage species and to find balance in their conservation practices. “We did a whole batch of soil samples just to get a baseline for where we’re at with organic matter and to get an idea of where there might be mineral deficiencies on the farm,” says Katie. “We spread our stored manure from the cows on our hay fields, but we’ve also been using organic wood ash as a minimal supplement where we need to change the soil pH.” They are also in the early phases of working with the USDA National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and submitted an application in 2022 for infrastructure to help mitigate manure run-off and provide better outdoor access for the dairy herd during the winter months.

Diversifying Markets and Local Community Food Security

In the future, they would love to add some balance to how they sell their products. Right now, they’re appreciative of the steady wholesale market that the poultry and organic milk contracts provide. But Haden and Katie hope to try a little bit of direct marketing of some of their chicken and maybe some raw milk so that they can interface more with their local community. 

“We’d like to maybe set up a little farm store here or tag along with some friends who are already in farmers markets so that we can sell some chicken there,” says Katie. “It bothers us that everything we grow is leaving the farm for the most part.”

Part of the reason Haden and Katie both love farming is for the community impact and effect they can have on the local economy. “We have a milk truck driver that’s keeping their job; and we have our grain supplier, and we have a local mechanic, and we have a Maine-based company that does all of our servicing for our milking equipment. This is why it’s so important to keep farms in business,” Katie says. “Aside from the direct impact we can have with our own products, we are also supporting other activity within the community that strengthens our local economy.”

 “When you have a highly industrialized food system, you can see what happens when something comes along like COVID, which took out a major meat slaughtering facility and then the system starts to fall apart. This needs to be addressed, and we need to start moving toward growing a more equitable and safe food system with a multi-faceted approach.”

“Leeds is a strong farming community,” says Katie, “but there are pockets of food insecurity. You have to drive out of Leeds in order to get anything. There is no downtown area, no grocery store, no gas station.”  

A new generation of farmers wants to make organic food access much more community-centric. Mayday has long-term goals, for example, of providing community-based meals for locals. “We need to change accessibility so that food is a more democratic thing than it is right now,” says Katie. “I think it’s important what the future generation of farmers looks like and how we make food more resilient within communities.”

Moving Forward into the Future

If this is what the young farming movement is all about, then the future of food and farming in this country is in good hands. In Maine, and elsewhere in the country, there are farmers who are aging out of the system and young people who are stepping in to take over those roles. The transition isn’t always easy when it comes to giving up something a farming family has done for generations. Like Haden and Katie, many people in this fresh generation of farmers did not grow up on farms. Yet they see themselves as stewards of the land and of the animals.

Through their intentional approach to grazing, Mayday hopes it can become part of the solution rather than the problem when it comes to issues like food security and climate change. “We are conscious of how we as small farmers have the opportunity to make choices in terms of soil building and carbon sequestration, and we want to be aware of our overall impact when it comes to climate change,” says Katie. “We want to approach farming in the most responsible way possible within the organic framework. But even if there wasn’t an organic label, this is the way we would choose to farm anyway.” 

. . . 

Links for further reading:

Wolfe’s Neck Center for Agriculture and the Environment

Maine Farmland Trust

Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association

Pasture Maps

National Resources Conservation Service

Environmental Quality Incentives Program

BACK to Farmer Stories
By |2022-11-22T17:06:38+00:00November 22nd, 2022|Farmer Stories, News|

Sumpter Cooperative Farms

The Organic Farming Research Foundation is honored to share this farmer story, featuring Shaheed Harris, farm manager at Sumpter Cooperative Farms. The following article is based off of an interview with Shaheed that was conducted earlier this year by OFRF’s staff. You can also press play below to hear Shaheed Harris tell the story of Sumpter Cooperative Farm in his own words, or click here to download it and listen later.

SCF founders, Fathiyyah and Azeez Mustafa

Based in Sumter, South Carolina, Sumpter Cooperative Farms (SCF) is a cooperative of organic farmers founded by Azeez and Fathiyyah Mustafa who, in 2003, became the first certified organic farmers in the state.  At a time when Black people represent only 1.4% of farmers in the United States and make up just half of a percent of certified organic producers, the SCF-Organic Farms LTD are trail blazers among these “one percenters.”

In addition to growing kale, asparagus, sweet potatoes, and even lemongrass tea, to name just a few of their crops, SCF’s mission is to mentor farmers and educate consumers about the benefits of vegetables and fruits grown with organic and heritage dry-farming methods and also to address food deserts (or areas suffering from food apartheid) in South Carolina and beyond. At a time when most farming focus group participants report that certified organic farmers are the most valuable resource for information, SCF provides a critical service and helps BIPOC producers to transition into the organic sector.

Shaheed Harris, the farming manager for SCF, describes the 60-member cooperative of organic farmers as an incubator for bringing people, young and old, back into farming. The roots and challenges of farming run deep in Harris’ ancestry and, he says, are part of the history in this country.   

“Specifically with black people, they have a history of relating farming to slavery. But in this current time, farming should be related to freedom.”

At the beginning of the 20th century there was a vibrant Black farmers movement that emphasized organic and sustainable methods, as well as democratically managed farming cooperatives (National Organic Research Agenda, 2022). The movement was so empowering that the percentage of farms and farm acreage in Black management roughly reflected the percentage of Black people in the U.S. population (White, M. 2018. Freedom Farmers: agricultural resistance and the Black freedom movement. University of North Carolina Press, 189 pp.) These farmers practiced many of the organic farming principles that align with today’s National Organic Program (NOP) standards. “They were organic before the word organic was ever used,” says Harris.

But Jim Crow era dispossession of Black-owned farmland and structural racism in U.S. agriculture set Black farmers back by a century, making it difficult for them to secure the capital and financial resources necessary to support a successful farming operation.

“They couldn’t afford irrigation. They couldn’t afford the big equipment,” says Harris when talking about previous generations of farmers in his family. “So, they had to rely on nature to survive. You have to adjust to nature and what nature offers.” In the process, Harris says, “You’re also adjusting your plants to be better, and you’ll be healthier for it.” 

“Farming is an ongoing learning experience”

Shaheed Harris

One approach toward helping disadvantaged farmers deal with challenges may be through SCF’s vision for transforming communities into self-sustaining micro food economies by using low cost, forgotten skills practiced by previous generations in order to thrive.

Then and now, Harris describes farming as a community building tool. To that end, SCF Cooperative conducts educational workshops, seminars, and presentations about sustainable agriculture and organic farming for the benefit of farmers and their families in the community. They even offer YouTube training videos to help farmers, for example, become certified organic producers. 

SCF has participated in Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) programs such as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), using the program to extend their growing season. A high tunnel and a hoop house allow SCF to start plants early for transplants and to provide protection over the winter for certain crops. SCF also helps new farmers navigate NRCS conservation programs—helping them find the right program and guiding them through the application process. 

“People come through, they learn, and they go on to greatness. That’s what we want them to do.”

Still, affordability problems, in the way of operational costs and lack of capital, continue to challenge BIPOC farmers like Harris even now. Half of those surveyed for the 2022 National Organic Research Agenda (NORA) report indicated that access to financing to support their farming operation is an institutional obstacle, which is why cost-share programs such as EQIP are particularly helpful in aiding transitions to organic farming.  

One of the most significant SCF initiatives is the Midlands Organic Mobile Markets, vans that directly distribute locally grown organic foods to the food deserts and other communities in the Midlands region of South Carolina. Established in 2012 through the Agricultural Marketing Service and the Farmers’ Market Promotional Program, the project aims to address the interrelated problems of limited access to healthy foods and diet-related disease.

Harris says the mobile markets serve the “in between” and beyond the metro areas, such as Columbia, South Carolina, which is 45 minutes from the 22-acre farm he manages.

“Those places are areas like Eastover and Rembert, for example, where they don’t have a grocery store. A lot of people don’t have vehicles to drive and they’re basically living on the nearest equivalent of a gas station. So they’re eating out of a gas station and getting chips and all types of processed foods that don’t really have a lot of nutrition.” Through the Midlands program, Harris says SCF aims to serve the people in these areas who would not otherwise have access to fresh healthy foods.

Clover cover crop at SCF

As part of its conservation efforts, SCF works with the soil to build a natural ecology. Through cover crops, such as peas, legumes, oats, and winter rye, SCF helps build organic matter in the soil. “Some people use chicken manure or fertilizers, but we try to build our soil the natural way—through crops that absorb nitrogen from the atmosphere,” says Harris. “We do a lot of companion planting and crop rotation, and very little tilling.”

SCF also practices and teaches the art of Heritage Organic Dry Farming, described as a way to grow food in a manner that does not have an adverse effect on the environment and is better for the land by utilizing residual moisture in the soil from the rainy season. On its 10 acres that are dedicated to certified organic produce, SCF grows melons and squash, for example, during the dry season with no supplemental irrigation in the heat of the South Carolina summers. This method offers a promising alternative in times of uncertain water resources.

Dry farmed melons and squash at SCF

So how does dry farming work?  In short, the farmer or gardener starts to work the soil soon after the last rain of the season. By disking and using a roller, the goal is to create three to four inches of dry, even soil when cultivation is done. This “dust mulch” or “dust blanket” traps the moisture in the soil. This technique requires a minimum of 10-12 inches of rain during the rainy season, and the soil must have good water holding capability for this technique to work. Sandy soils don’t qualify.

Organic farming and organic practices, according to Harris, are basically “old school,” valuable hand-me-downs from his farming heritage. That’s why, he says, the water-conserving practice during the dry season is called “Heritage Organic Dry Farming.” 

Dry Farming helps to address a problem that three-fourths of the BIPOC survey respondents in the 2022 NORA report identified as the most pressing challenge for organic farmers: weeds. Dry Farming produces very few of them because the “dust mulch” layer is dry enough to prevent weed growth, which makes herbicides unnecessary. 

Fields of veggies at Sumpter Cooperative Farm

To Shaheed Harris and his daughter Asya, farming represents freedom. “If you can get a piece of land or even if you have a yard, a backyard, or just a balcony, everybody should be doing farming whatever your profession or passion may be whether you’re an actor, a rapper, singer, doctor, plumber, or janitor,” says Harris. “Farming should be a part of your life, just like eating or cooking a meal. That’s how we look at farming. It’s a way of life for survival and for community stability.”

Just as it was with his ancestors. 

. . . 

Learn more:

SCF Organic Farms

Understanding Food Deserts and Food Apartheid

Freedom Farmers: agricultural resistance and the Black freedom movement

How the Government Helped White Americans Steal Black Farmland 

Natural Resources Conservation Service

Environmental Quality Incentives Program

National Organic Research Agenda report 

What is Dry Farming? The Dry Farming Institute

Agricultural Marketing Service, Sound and Sensible Program

. . . 

OFRF would like to thank Shaheed Harris and everyone at SCF for sharing their story. This interview was created with funding from the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, Organic Valley’s “Farmers Advocating for Organics” program, and the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. OFRF thanks these and other funders for their support. 

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By |2023-01-18T17:02:03+00:00October 26th, 2022|Farmer Stories|

Vilicus Farms

Impacts of Climate Disruption on a Diversified Organic Dryland Farm

Interview by Mark Schonbeck, Research Associate, Organic Farming Research Foundation

While scientists, policy makers, and carbon marketeers debate the best agricultural practices for absorbing excess atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) into the soil, farmers need tools and strategies now to help them meet the day-to-day challenges posed by climate change. Contemplating this challenge, I thought immediately of Doug and Anna Jones-Crabtree of Vilicus Farms (whose name means “stewards of the land”) and wanted to learn more about how their uniquely diversified system – 27 crop species with livestock integrated into the rotation – has helped them cope with the crazy weather and keep their 12,566-acre operation economically viable. So, I contacted Doug and he graciously offered more than an hour of his time on July 9 of this year to share his climate observations.

Weather timing is critical

“We got some rain recently,” he began. “We have had a storm every evening for several days, about 2½ inches this past week. It is too late for the fall-seeded crops but will help the spring plantings.” The rain temporarily eased the impact of a prolonged and severe drought, with just 3.7 inches of moisture from June 1, 2021 to June 1, 2022, compared to the long term average annual total of 11.7 inches. “There is no normal anymore,” Doug observed. “We just cannot predict what will happen.”

Historically, the region’s four wettest months have been June, May, September, and April, which provide about 80 percent of the year’s usable moisture. Winter snows are very dry (low moisture) and mostly evaporate rather than melting into the soil. The region’s cropping systems ranging from wheat-fallow to the diverse rotation at Vilicus Farms, have been designed for this seasonal pattern. However, “that is all out the window now. Changes in annual averages, such as becoming a degree or two hotter, or annual moisture 20% less, don’t tell the whole story. It is not only how hot and dry it is, but when it is hot and dry, and when the rain comes.”

For example, when I asked Doug whether the freak Pacific Northwest heat wave in 2021 reached his farm, he said, “yes, the middle of June was our hot spell. At that time of year, our cool season crops are in their critical stage of late vegetative growth when their yield potential is determined. Usually, June is the wettest part of the year, but June 2021 brought a week of 100°F+ temperatures. Crops looked great until then but gave poor yields. Normally, we get a week or 10 days of that kind of heat in late July, when it is actually good for grain ripening.”

A diverse farming system designed for soil health and resilience

In an earlier interview, Doug outlined their diversified cropping system, which stands in stark contrast to the region’s common wheat-fallow system, consisting of winter or spring wheat followed by 18 months of chemical no-till fallow which is intended to store up an extra year’s rainfall, but deprives the soil of cover and living roots for that time. One effect of climate change is that some farmers have taken advantage of milder winters to grow more winter wheat, which has a longer growing season but still leaves soil bare and lifeless for about 14 months.

Vilicus Farms uses the following flexible seven-year rotation on most of its acreage:

  • Year 1 Light feeding grain: spelt, emmer, einkorn, barley or soft wheat with lower demands for nutrients and moisture are planted April 15 – May 15. Grains are harvested in late July or August, leaving 4 – 8” stubble and straw spread across the field.
  • Year 2 Green fallow: annual legume or cocktail mix planted late March or early April, or biennial sweet clover interseeded with the preceding grain crop. In June, beef manure + bedding is applied just before terminating the green fallow with shallow tillage.
  • Year 3 Heavy feeding grain: hard red winter or spring wheat, or durum wheat, their highest-value crops, are planted after manure application to ensure sufficient nutrients.
  • Year 4 Broadleaf crop or oats: safflower, flax, mustard, camelina, buckwheat, or oats are planted in April – May and harvested in September. Oats are included in this block because “they have a beneficial effect on the soil ecosystem, very different from other cereals.”
  • Year 5 Pulse crop: pea, lentil, or chickling vetch for seed, sown in April – May and harvested in August.
  • Year 6 Oats, broadleaf, or light-feeding grain: A crop not grown in the field earlier in the rotation cycle is planted in spring and harvested in August or September.
  • Year 7 Green Fallow: sweet clover interseeded into the Year 6 crop (if annual covers in Year 2), or annual legumes or mix (if sweet clover in Year 2), terminated in June.

This rotation, combined with prairie strips (20-30 feet wide) for every 240 feet of cropped land, keep the soil covered year-round with living root for as much of the year as practical (Figure 1A and 1B: Unlike the region’s dominant wheat-herbicide fallow system, Vilicus Farms keeps all their acreage covered by living vegetation or residues year-round).

Augmenting soil health with mindful tillage, livestock integration, and compost

Doug and Anna have developed a tillage strategy to manage weeds and cover crops and prepare seedbeds, while protecting soil health. “I have seen a tremendous advantage to rotating type and depth of tillage,” he said. “We never use the same tool in the same field two years in a row.” Stubble and residues are left in place and are tilled just 7-10 days before planting the next crop. Their seeders are equipped with sweeps to take out small weeds that emerge during this interval. For each operation, tools are chosen based on soil conditions and the needs of the crop to be sown:

  • Blade plow, which shallowly undercuts cover crops and weeds (Figure 2A and 2B).
  • Speed disk, which works the top 2-3 inches of soil without inversion.
  • Chisel plow with wide sweeps to lift and loosen the top 3-4 inches, followed by a coil packer to firm the soil and make weeds emerge so that planter sweeps can take them out.
  • Moldboard plow 6-8 inches to bury weed seeds, then speed disk a week later. This is done for the least weed-competitive crops (flax and lentils), and only once per rotation cycle.

Additional steps to build healthy, resilient soils that the farm has undertaken in recent years include composting manure before application and integrating livestock grazing into the rotation. “Our operations foreman, Paul Neubauer, has a custom grazing business, and began grazing beef cattle on our land three years ago,” Doug said. “He developed a method to utilize grazing in lieu of tillage to terminate the green fallow. Cover crops are cut with a swather, then grazed for two or three days. I really like this system, as it effectively terminates the cover crop, and the manure stimulates soil biology.” Inspired by this success, Doug, Anna and Paul jointly acquired 12 head of Scottish Highland cattle, which they plan to breed for a future enterprise in grass-fed beef.

New climate challenges and adaptive strategies

When I asked Doug which of his crops performed best in all of the adverse weather of the past few years, he said frankly, “we don’t have any.” Fall of 2021 was so dry that fall planted grains either did not germinate or were too weak to winter over. All winter wheat and half of the rye failed, and fields were replanted with spring grains. Where rye did establish, stands are “thin and short – we’ll see what we can harvest.”

Part of the farm’s diversity and resilience strategy is increased emphasis on broadleaf and oilseed crops including mustard, camelina, and flax, as well as buckwheat for grain. Because the oilseed crops have very small seeds, the prescription for success is to till, allow weeds to emerge, then take them out with shallow sweeps mounted on the planter to provide a clean seedbed. However, the brutally dry spring of 2022 thwarted this strategy as well, as the first tillage did not stimulate weed emergence. Then, “we seeded into dust and the crop did not emerge until rain finally came in early June. The weeds came up then as well and grew faster than the crops.”

“We have asked ourselves whether we need to diversify into more warm season crops, such as millet or buckwheat,” Doug noted, adding that “we never had much success with warm season crops because July and August are usually super-dry, and we can have cold weather in June Climate change is bringing more variability, not a consistent change toward a new pattern” to which farmers might adapt by changing their crop mix or rotation. Thus, Doug and Anna face the as-yet unanswered question, “is the diversified annual cropping system we have built still viable in this ecosystem.?”

Another challenge has been the direct impact of climate disruption on soil health itself. Four out of the past five years (2017-2021) have had significantly below-average precipitation, which restricted plant growth, crop production, and net return of organic residues to the soil, making it more difficult for farmers to maintain SOM.

The Vilicus team have explored two additional approaches to diversification for climate resilience: crop-livestock integration and more perennial vegetation. “We have had times when we could grow forage but not grain, and thus we could raise meat,” Doug noted. While the green fallows provide grazing and fencing is do-able, providing water poses the steepest hurdle and greatest costs. “Livestock need to access water within a mile for the grazing system to work at all, and surface waters are scarce here, so we must truck or pipe it in.”

For grazing, Vilicus Farms prioritizes fields in which cattle have access to an installed “dugout” (pond) or other seasonal surface water feature within a half mile, or where water can be trucked from the pond to the grazing paddock. Buying and trucking-in water from the community water system is the backup plan, but it is not economically viable in the long run. Drilling new wells is risky, as groundwater is 500 to 700 feet deep, and drilling costs $30-40,000 per well regardless of whether the well provides water – which it may or may not.

While Doug does not see abandoning annual crop production as an economically viable option, he saw something this year that piqued his interest in integrating more perennials into the farm ecosystem. “In two fields with well-established shelterbelts of Russian olive (Elaeagnus angustifolius) and Russian pea shrug (Caragana frutex), the crops are noticeably healthier and more vigorous than crops elsewhere. The shelterbelts are 15-30 feet wide and occur every 200-300 feet across the field.” In contrast with low-growing prairie strips in other fields (Figure 1 right), the shrubs stand about 20 feet tall and greatly reduce wind speeds over a distance five times their height, thereby protecting the crops from drying damage by winds which can reach 50-70 mph in unprotected fields.

His observations of the shelterbelt benefits led Doug to ask, “how can we increase the proportion of perennials in our system? I like the idea of perennial grains, but they work better in Minnesota which receives more rain than Montana. Trees don’t grow here, so the next frontier may be to diversify into shrubby perennials. So often, farmers in our region are ripping out shelterbelts to increase efficiency of wheat production but getting more perennial shrub species into our system would increase resilience.” Practical hurdles to implementation include the initial cost of planting the shelterbelts and the added cost and labor to keep the plantings weeded and watered until they are well established.

As Doug contemplates options for responding to the climate challenges, he believes that we need both crops and animals, and a greater diversity of both. “I see little soil loss from native rangeland unless it is overgrazed. Look at nature – everything is polyculture. The more plant and wildlife species, the healthier and more resilient the system, so how can we emulate this?”

Rethinking farm policy and programming

For many decades, mainstream agriculture has increasingly relied on subsidies and crop insurance to remain economically viable, and these financial supports have focused on a short list of the most productive crops: wheat in Montana and other low-rainfall regions, corn and soy in the Midwest, and cotton in the South. As increasingly erratic weather has made yields more unpredictable and crop failures more frequent, crop insurance has become a vital component of climate resilience strategies for all farms. Vilicus Farms carries crop insurance, and in bad years, the indemnity payments have helped keep the farm afloat. He especially appreciated the supplemental check that arrived this spring as part of the Emergency Relief Program (ERP).

At the same time, Doug is extremely concerned that USDA programs and policies are designed to discourage the kind of agroecosystem and enterprise diversity that is so urgently needed for true resilience. “There are such excellent subsidies for wheat now that the intelligent economic response to the climate crisis at this time is – just grow wheat. The crop insurance is cheap, and it provides a tight safety net. It makes no sense not to carry multiperil insurance for primary crops like wheat – it is too good not to have. But it reinforces the lack of crop diversity.”

I asked, “what about the Whole Farm Revenue Program (WFRP) – isn’t that one designed for diversified systems, and to reward increased diversity?” In response, Doug noted that Vilicus Farm has carried WFRP for the past four or five years, as well as multiperil insurance for wheat and flax. However, WFRP coverage is not nearly as robust as the single-crop multiperil policies. In addition, while USDA rules allow farmers to carry both, the value of single-crop insurance coverage and any indemnity payments therefrom are deducted from WFRP, so that the latter rarely yields any benefit. Thus, Vilicus Farms will drop WFRP and seek crop-by-crop policies for all their crops.

While NRCS programs can support diversity (for example, the prairie strips and diverse rotation, which are part of Vilicus Farms’ CSP contract), “most of what the Farm Services Agency (FSA) offers works best for the least diverse farming systems.” For example, FSA requires semiannual, field-by-field reporting of crop plantings. This works OK for a wheat-only system, but “we grow 27 crops in small strips, so we have to track, in effect, 385 separate fields, a task that took three people two full days to complete.”

Citing an urgent need to decouple the long-term service work of land stewardship from the year-to-year income stream from farm production, Doug and Anna launched a new program in 2022: Community Supported Stewardship Agriculture (CSSA). While growing climate instability causes yields and income to vary wildly from year to year, Vilicus Farms remains committed to building the health of their soils and agroecosystem 365 days of every year and incurs the costs regardless of return. The new CSSA program offers people an opportunity for people who care about land stewardship, agriculture and food to have a direct connection to Vilicus and each other.

In conclusion, Doug notes that “We are trying to build climate resilience by doubling down on crop diversity, but this is counter to current policy and programs, which are based on assumptions widely held by society at large and are reflected in USDA programs.” In order to truly meet the challenges of the climate crisis, “we need a robust conversation at the highest levels of decision-makers on what kind of agricultural system we want to support.”

For me, these conversations with Doug also underlined the importance of research into truly climate resilient and climate-mitigating agricultural systems, with emphasis on functionally diverse agroecosystems including crop-livestock integrated, perennial-annual integrated, and agroforestry systems. USDA research should prioritize organic farming, which protects the soil life by avoiding synthetic agrochemicals and can build soil organic carbon and improve nutrient cycling through advanced soil health practices. Farmers must take their proper place as leaders and equal partners with university scientists to ensure that practical solutions emerge. Finally, it of utmost urgency that the US and the world cut greenhouse gas emissions sufficiently and soon enough to stop further climate disruption to save farmer livelihoods, food security, and the future of human civilization.

This story is based on telephone interviews with Doug Crabtree on March 23 and July 9, 2022.

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By |2022-07-26T18:49:50+00:00July 26th, 2022|Farmer Stories, News|

Mendocino Wine Company

Mendocino Wine Company is located 125 miles north of San Francisco in Ukiah, where extremely hot temperatures and minimal rain make conservation techniques like cover cropping and efficient water management imperative.

Established in 1932, Parducci Wine Cellars is the longest running winery in Mendocino County.

The home estate has about 90 acres under vine. Just south lies La Ribera with about 150 acres under vine. Both properties were certified organic in 2007 by CCOF. While La Ribera has a portion that is still in transition, the vineyards will be fully certified in 2024.

The wines are sold through distributors in all 50 states and can be found in grocery stores and restaurants. They also sell direct from their website in states where it is legal to do so. Parducci is the largest brand. Paul Dolan is the 100 % organic brand. Moniker is the wine brand that will convert in 2024.

The winery is well integrated with the community and supports their employees with fresh produce and eggs from their 15-acre organic orchard/farm and several hundred chickens. Employees may farm up to two rows themselves. In addition to the tasting room, they invite visitors to come in and look at the property, especially their efficient gray water recycling system.

Soil health on the vineyard

Chase Thornhill, Owner and General Manager, oversees soil health on the farm—anything that’s not directly connected to the vine. While it’s a whole different ball game farming row crops versus grape vines, Chase says he’s learned a lot about soil health by talking to other farmers. “This movement relies on farmers sharing information and people paying attention to what farmers are doing across crops, across the world. That is where this gets exciting and it has inspired us to go as far as we can with it.”

Traditionally, they would cover crop with a plow down in every other row. Another vineyard on the property might be no-till, but they wouldn’t plant anything there. Whatever vegetation was there would be mowed. These tillage methods were combined with some use of compost.

Composting is difficult in a vineyard though says Chase because it requires very narrow equipment, lots of trips, labor hours, and diesel. That’s why he’s putting more of the focus on getting nutrients through cover cropping and no-till by cover cropping every row every year. “If we want to build up the organic material and carbon, and we know that tilling dramatically reduces both of those things very quickly, then we really need to be looking at eliminating it.”

This year, they used a no-till drill on both properties, on all rows, planting a 12 species annual cover crop mix of legumes, grasses, brassicas, and some broad leaf. They’ve also been experimenting with flax.

The property, which was formed by flood plains, extends a mile a and a half along the Russian River. Chase says it’s been interesting to see how the different cover crops have responded in each area. “You could go block by block and swear we planted different mixes. But it is the same mix, and it is all responding differently. Some areas might be just the legumes, some just the grasses and brassicas, and some everything—which is ideal. The fields are self-regulating to the plants that grow well and give them what they need.”

The goal is to keep growing their own nitrogen by adhering to the four soil health principles as stated by the National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS): keep the ground covered, minimize disturbance, use plant diversity, and always have something green growing. Chase thinks vineyards offer a good opportunity for farmers to maximize the use of cover crops because so much of the infrastructure is already there and doesn’t move, and the vines grow at roughly the same time every year. “If we can use summer cover crops and grow 5,000 lbs/acre through the summer plus the 4-5,000 lbs. we grew through the winter, that’s where it starts to get really interesting.”

“The fun thing about a vineyard is that it’s a perennial deciduous crop. It’s only growing through this one period,” says Chase. “If we think about it like a relay race, the vines are going to hold the baton from bud break through leaf fall. Then, we can have the cover crop take that baton all the way through the winter and explode about a month or two before bud break. There is always going be this other part of the season where you can be maximizing the photosynthesis while the vines are dormant.”

The cover crop is typically terminated by mowing. “Occasionally, we have to apply some tillage but we try to minimize it,” explains Chase. “This year, we’re going to experiment with growing summer covers in the tractor row after we shape the field. A month after we mow the fall planted cover crop, we’ll do a light discing pass and go right back into a summer cover crop including sorghum sudangrass, safflower, sunflower, cow peas, and buckwheat.”

He doesn’t expect those crops to do much in the summer, except for the sorghum sudangrass, which is very water efficient. “We’ve had fields where the sorghum sudangrass has grown overhead with basically no water because these plants are so drought-tolerant. It’s going to add a lot more carbon to our fields.”

Like most farmers, Chase is thinking about disruptions related to climate change. “Evaporative demand has hit unprecedented levels, the highest ever recorded was last year. On the one hand we have this drought, so we don’t have enough precipitation. On the other hand, we’ve got this very high evaporative demand from wind, low humidity, and high temperatures.” In July, when it’s over 100 degrees and the afternoon winds pick up, he says it’s like standing in front of a hair dryer.

Planting a cover that can sustain the summer and keep the field green will lower the field temperature. “There’s a risk and concern that it is going to cause too much competition for the vines but I’m very hopeful that the benefit we will get from adding all that biomass to the field will outweigh the competition we experience.” And, while it remains to be seen whether it will reduce the need for water, Chase is expecting good results.

Chase says last year was a terrible year in general for the region, which made it a great year to be all in on the new practices because they weren’t any worse off than anybody else. “I’m really hopeful that as we move on, we’ll see the type of resilience that organic farmers see with other crops, so when we do have serious climatic events like we did last year, we won’t see massive yield reduction because we’ll have a more resilient system.”

Everything is on drip irrigation. Overheads are used in the vineyards only for frost protection. They have ponds on both properties for storing water from winter rains, using that water to run through the drip irrigation in the hot summer months. All gray water is processed onsite through a low-energy natural system that includes settling tanks, trickle towers, and man-made wetlands. Chase’s uncle, Tim Thornhill, designed the system more than a decade ago, describing it as a living green dialysis machine that cleans the water and puts it put into one of the irrigation ponds where it can be used the following season for drip irrigation.

They process 5,000-7,000 tons of grapes every year and all of the skins, seeds, and stems stay on the farm. “So, we’re carbon amending directly from the processing facilities into the vineyards. That material never leaves the property again except as wine.”

Support from NRCS & a Wish List

Participating in the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) from NRCS provides support for cover cropping all rows every year. “There’s no question that the EQIP program, in providing financial assistance, is a huge help in getting over the hump of not doing these things. Plus, it got us committed to it.”

Chase adds that working with the local NRCS office is extremely easy. “Everyone has been super responsive and it has been a very easy program to get involved with. There are many other things I’d like to do with the property around conservation, so we’d like to participate in other programs as it makes sense.”

One example is composting. “Compost is wonderful if you have it and you have the ability to spread it. Having help from NRCS for composting, cover cropping and residue and tillage management is really helpful.”

Chase’s wish list as he works toward achieving the goal of soil health and being an organic system? “I’d like to see innovation in under vine vegetation control, something that’s faster and cheaper to move through the field, uses less diesel, and less labor. If we were going to be conventional, we would manage weeds and growth under the vines with glyphosate. What we are doing now works but it is much more expensive. To be an organic grower probably costs 20% more per acre than a conventional grape grower. A lot of that is from the ground cover management. It’s not even planting or moving the cover crop, it’s the under-vine growth.”

“The mowing equipment needs to be more like hay mowing equipment that’s compact enough to work in a vineyard. That equipment is designed to cut fast and it leaves the material more intact. Whereas, if you go through with a flail or rotary mover, you’re going to chop it all up and that material is going to start decomposing faster, volatizing the nitrogen faster. If it was more intact, we’d be able to achieve the lasting residue “soil armor” principle a little more effectively. You might say, why not just roller crimp? But it’s very difficult in a vineyard because you’re dealing with an area that’s not flat and is only five feet wide. There’s so much undulation to it that makes it really hard to terminate. Another challenge is that we’re trying to terminate before the reproduction stage.”

The alternative is to not have anything growing under the vine, but that’s where the irrigation is. Sub-surface irrigation in the vine row is would work because vine roots extend far enough to get that water. However, there are other challenges and Chase says they don’t yet have the right tools to make it work.

Lastly, Chase says some very simple documentation on how to use conservation techniques like cover cropping—in the context of a vineyard—would help folks understand how to convert to an organic system. “My experience level has been a double-edged sword. On the one hand, I haven’t been doing this long enough to make these decisions; on the other hand, I don’t know any better. We’ve done it the other way for so long and change requires a lot of knowledge and communication. Resources like Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) and NRCS have been very helpful.”

In closing, Chase says farming organically is important because it’s doing things the way nature does. “There’s so much opportunity for us to do harm to the soil ecosystem with what we add to it, so I feel the most comfortable adding just what nature would have added. I know that farming is inherently extractive and exploitive of the land and if we weren’t there the land would be healthier. So, if we are going to be there, I want to work to fit into that system in the least destructive way we can—and that is being organic and regenerative.”

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By |2022-08-24T16:30:35+00:00June 29th, 2022|Farmer Stories, News|

Crager Hager Farm: Sharing Insight on USDA Organic Certification Cost Share Program

Bryan Hager with CollardsOrganic farmer and OFRF Board Chair Bryan Hager knows about organic farming and the process it takes to get certified. Hager and his wife Wendy own Crager Hager Farm, a diversified fruit and vegetable farm in Carroll County, Georgia. Their farm is a year-round operation that grows salad and cooking greens such as lettuce and spinach, and popular market items such as tomatoes, beans, squash, and cucumbers. Crager Hager Farm also grows apples, pears, and heirloom strawberries and blueberries. In total, the farm grows 120 varieties of vegetable and fruit crops.

Hager has been involved in farming most of his life, using organic practices since he was 16 years old. He started growing and selling for market in 2001 and certified organic in 2017. It was at this time that Hager first participated in the USDA’s Organic Certification Cost Share Program (OCCSP). This important program provides reimbursement for agricultural producers and handlers who are obtaining or renewing their organic certification under the National Organic Program (NOP).

Bryan Hager eating corn.To participate in the program, eligible operations must submit their OCCSP applications to State agencies or to their local Farm Service Agency (FSA) county offices. Crager Hager Farms took the latter approach and was the first operation in their county to apply for this program. Together, Crager Hager Farm and FSA navigated the application. The subsequent two years went well, but since then, the process has taken longer and longer to complete with reimbursement payments extremely delayed.

When Crager Hager Farms first applied to the cost share program, the USDA provided up to $750 in reimbursements which covered roughly 75% of the farm’s certification fees. Since then, the amount for Crager Hager Farm to certify organic has nearly doubled, though the OCCSP has reduced their cost share to $500.

For Crager Hager Farm, the financial and time costs of organic certification keep rising while the farm is getting smaller. The farm previously offered an internship program and employed five full-time employees in peak season. Over the last two years, the farm has scaled back their operations. Currently, they attend one farmers market and employee one part-time farm employee. The burdensome cost of certification and reduced funding from the cost share program has had its effect on Crager Hager Farm.

Bryan Hager with mushroom logThough the operational decision to downsize reflects a personal interest for Hager and his wife to invest their time elsewhere, Hager admits that running a farm has become increasingly more stressful. “Every year, there seems to be a new requirement to get certification,” says Hager. “The ‘time-cost’ and financial cost continues to go up on top of the problems with climate and changing markets. The increasing complexity of certification adds a lot of stress to being a farmer.”

Crager Hager Farm has dropped their USDA organic certification, though they still practice the same techniques that help improve soil fertility and grow nutritious produce free of synthetic inputs. “We’ve been committed to growing organically for 40 years, well before we got certified,” says Hager. They are an organic pioneer in their state and have a strong reputation at farmers markets that’s been cultivated over the years.

Today, Hager plans to rejoin the Certified Naturally Grown (CNG) program, an independent grassroots initiative offering peer-review certification to farmers. More than 750 farmers and beekeepers participate in the CNG certification throughout the United States and Canada, though the USDA does not offer any cost share incentives for this process.

And although Crager Hager Farm has encountered issues with the Organic Certification Cost Share Program, Hager says, “If someone is considering getting certified, they should definitely look into the program as it can reduce some of the financial burden.”

By |2022-11-22T18:50:30+00:00February 4th, 2022|Farmer Stories, News|

Farmwella

March 5, 2021 – Cornelius Adewale founded Farmwella to help reduce poverty in his native Africa by empowering and supporting the next generation of farmers. The organization is based on an investment model that matches sponsors with farmers to make sustainable farming attractive and profitable. Investors provide financing for farmers to implement sustainable agricultural practices and get profits in return. Farmers receive access to all the support services they need to implement sustainable agricultural practices.

Cornelius got the seed for the idea when he started his own small organic farm in Nigeria after receiving his undergraduate degree in Agricultural Economics at Obafemi Awolowo University. He grew vegetables that Nigerians eat every day, such as okra, amaranth, tomatoes, and peppers. Within six months he was farming about one acre, and within two years he had five acres of land. So, he knew that education made success possible and he was troubled by the fact that his neighbors were living in poverty because they did not have the same knowledge.

“I would see farmers growing the same crop over and over, things like cassava and corn that their grandparents grew,” Cornelius explains. “But that is not necessarily the most profitable crops they could be growing.” He also saw that knowledge on sustainable farming practices such as building soil health was not getting to farmers. “There is no understanding of farming as a business and it is difficult to improve what you don’t know. Farmers don’t see university research as a resource and the institutions don’t see their job as improving the life of farmers.”

That’s when he started thinking about ways to extend his knowledge to help struggling farmers become both ecologically and economically sustainable. The first step was to continue his own education. He was accepted to the masters program at Washington State University. With mentor Lynne Carpenter-Boggs and others, Cornelius developed OFoot, an Internet-based tool to help organic farmers mitigate the environmental impacts of their farms and estimate the impacts of organic farming methods on soil organic matter and greenhouse gases over time.

April Jones Thatcher of April Joy Farm jumped at the opportunity to participate in the project. Located near Ridgefield, Washington, her 24-acre diversified farm is 100% certified organic. Working with Cornelius and the team at WSU, April was able to accurately measure the carbon footprint of her farm and create a science-based plan for reducing that footprint and building soil health.

“Keeping good data is fundamental,” says April. “Research is a risk reduction strategy for farmers. I can’t possibly do all the replications on my farm or take the risk.” Armed with the information she got from OFoot, April learned how to adapt her management decisions for equipment and tillage, and leverage her limited resources to get the most bang for her buck.

Cornelius went on to earn his PhD in Natural Resources and Environmental Science at WSU. Around that time, he received a $100,000 grant from the Bullitt Foundation to start what metamorphosed into Farmwella. The program matches a farmer with a sponsor who provides the financial resources to lease land and build the farm infrastructure. Farmwella oversees the implementation, monitoring the farmer’s progress daily through the app and video conferencing. “We give farmers everything they need,” says Cornelius. “All they need to bring is their hard work and integrity.”

The concept is aimed at unleashing the value of the land so that it becomes an investable asset. “It’s an investment in people but the sponsors make back their money,” explains Cornelius. “It’s more sustainable than relying on a donation model.”

April comments on the community-building aspect of the program. “These farms create community among neighbors and provide a place to learn and share. When others can see the success, it makes the research and science tangible in ways it wasn’t before.”

“Working with Cornelius is an incredible example of how innovation supported by data-driven decision-making is a win-win,” April adds. “When farmers and researchers form strong partnerships, the impact ripples beyond a single project. All these years after that first OFoot project, we continue to support and inform each other’s work. He inspires me and I encourage him. Ours is a partnership of mutual reciprocity. It’s how we are working to move the organic farming community and widespread adoption of organic farming practices forward.”

In closing, Cornelius says it’s important to not see farming as a competition with others but rather a competition with yourself—with sustainability at the core. “You have to see it not as a destination but as a journey and how you can improve over time. I’ve never met a farmer who said I don’t want my farm to be sustainable—for our children and future generations. The question is, are we directing that energy on the right path?”

Check out April’s “5 Great Reasons to Create a Soil Health Map for Your Diversified Farm”.

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By |2022-11-22T18:47:59+00:00March 5th, 2021|Farmer Stories, News|

Gray Organic Farms

January 19, 2021 – Stephen Gray and his family are the third generation to farm their land in Ashkum, Illinois, and just a couple of years away from becoming a centennial farm. Stephen recalls an idyllic time as a young child when his dad raised dairy and he could catch fish in the freshwater ditches. Things changed when they stopped raising livestock and began farming corn and soybeans fence post to fence post. “My dad was competing against farmers who were getting payments from the government and eventually he had to jump in with everybody else to make it financially,” explains Stephen. “He waited as long as he could.” Pretty soon, Roundup made its way onto the farm and the once-clear ditches became coated with green film.

When his dad passed and Stephen took over the farm he decided that he didn’t want to be constantly spraying chemicals and putting on fertilizers, and he wanted livestock on the farm again. In one year, he switched everything, beginning the transition of the 600-acre farm to certified organic production.

It was a whole different concept, not only for the farm but for Stephen’s research subsidiary, Gray Research Production, which had contracts with several large companies to research herbicide traits, test for chemical efficacy and yield, and breed corn. In fact, Stephen says working in the corn breeding nurseries was one of his favorite things before a severe pollen reaction led him to reevaluate. “I’d never had a reaction to any type of pollen before and I went out to work in the nursery and got rashes all over my arms from the pollen,” says Stephen. “There were eight different experimental traits in the corn I was working with. So, that was it. I said no more traits and chemical studies and all those contracts dried up.” It was a stressful time for the family because they were going into unchartered territory by transitioning to organic and losing the research income at the same time.

Things are going pretty well though. With one-third of the farm currently certified organic and two-thirds in T1 or T2 transition, 100% of the operation will be certified organic by 2023. They sell direct-to-consumer through another subsidiary, Harvest Table Foods, and have a loyal customer base which they’re hoping to expand.  This will be their first year selling certified organic corn and Stephen is in talks with his certifier to learn what he has to do to get his cattle and poultry operations working in sync with his organic ground. “Until now we haven’t had enough organic ground to sustain feeding my animals with all organic product. Now, for the first time, we have enough hay and grain for the poultry to do organic for everything.”

The Grays grow red clover, organic corn, organic and conventional soybeans, pasture mix for their cattle, oats for feed, and millet. They are also experimenting with growing sunflowers for feed. They raise black angus, laying hens, broiler chickens, and holiday turkeys. In addition to their CSA, they do two farmers’ markets.

Their organic ground is far surpassing their transitional ground in both gross revenue and yield, achieving about a third higher yield. Stephen attributes this to a rotation of red clover, which provides a slow release of nutrients back into the soil. The root system that develops provides better root penetration and a steady supply of nutrient value that will carry the crop through severe weather events. “We can ride the storm. It’s more than just that one year’s crop though, you have to be looking two years or so down the road at what that crop is contributing or taking out of your soil.”

Stephen also practices minimal tillage to build the soil and reduce disruption to soil life. “We only till six- to seven-inch wide strips in the fields of white clover where we plant our row crops, corn, and soybeans,” he explains. “We mow in between the rows instead of cultivating. Every time a row of white clover is cut or grazed a portion of the root system dies and releases nitrogen and stimulates more growth.”

Stephen doesn’t see any benefit in terminating perennial cover crops like clover that grow four or five years, building soil health and providing the mulch he needs around the plants to retain moisture and control weeds. “I’ll have my six-inch strips, plant my crop, and do rotary hoeing and weeding only in those six-inch strips. When the crop gets big enough to mulch I’ll set my mower so it sprays out the sides instead of the back to mulch around my plants. Once I see the white clover being overtaken by grass, I will do an inter seeding again in the early spring and let the white clover or other species that I want to incorporate take over naturally. I’m not looking to work the whole field up and start from scratch. I’d much rather keep a green field as much as I can.”

“The first year after the red clover, we grew organic seed corn and while we still had wet areas, we did not lose the crop. That was when we knew we were on to something. In some of those years we received seven or eight inches of rain during these weird weather events and we would have lakes across our fields. We found that on the organic ground we didn’t have standing water, while I was still waiting for the tiles to pull on the conventional acres. I didn’t have any replants on my organic acres; I did have replants on my conventional tile acres. I used to have heavy slabs of dark soil and it was hard for me to work that ground into a really nice seed bed. I found just the opposite with the organic acres and that is why I am so encouraged.  We also had some really good plant standability. We had good yields. I was very satisfied.”

Stephen says one of the biggest challenges of the transition to organic is the learning curve. “I come from a background of traits, chemicals, and row crops, and thinking everything is its own single year entity. Realizing that the crop you plant this year will have an impact on your following crop and so on is a big shift. It’s a lot more detailed than just deciding how many acres of corn and beans you want to plant and placing an order. And, once you’ve set your plan, it isn’t as easy to change it.” Stephen is fortunate to have a neighbor that has been farming organically for a number of years. “They gave me some really good advice and definitely saved me from making some really foolish mistakes.”

Stephen compares farming conventionally to how he does things now. “When I farmed conventionally, I would have the co-op come spray herbicide before I even planted. They’d come back and spray once or twice after the crop was out of the ground. I watched it grow and I would harvest it and they would come out and do soil testing, apply my fall fertilizer, and the next year, I’d go out and plant again. So, all of the scouting, all of the crop nutrient needs in relationship from one year to the next was done with that one year in mind. They’d spray fungicides and herbicides depending on what they saw. There was no reason for me to be in the field, everything was done. That’s not the case anymore. We monitor our own, we plant our own, we do our own weed control or hire someone to come in and burn. It’s much more hands-on individualized decision making so we know exactly what happened.”

There’s also a financial impact since there is little to no markup for transitional crops. “When we began the transition, we were in a financial crunch so I was simply doing maintenance and looking to maintain the soil fertility to where it was when I started that year. Banks that haven’t had a lot of experience with organic’s three-year transition process don’t understand that there are going to be a couple of tough years.”

Stephen is making some long-term investments that also put pressure on his bottom line. Some of the things he wants to do, like starting an apple orchard, will take five years before there is a cash payout. “It’s beyond my farming years,” he says. “I told my kids everything we start better not stop while I’m still alive. I want to see it continue through my farming years. I want this to be something they respect and keep going so it is passed on. That’s my hope.”

Why does Stephen think research is important? “It’s very important to make that bridge. I’ve been telling everybody that wants to do organic research that it doesn’t work to go to a conventional farmer and just present one side. Everything I do here on a performance level, I do on my organic ground and then I mirror that in a conventional study on someone else’s ground. We keep track of costs, inputs, everything that we have to do to make that crop happen. Then, we compare that at the end of the year so we can show the value. A lot of people think organic farmers are going backward and that they don’t use technology or science, and that couldn’t be farther from the truth. If nothing else, organic farmers have to be so much more well versed in what affects their crops. You really quickly have to become an expert on pest control and everything that goes into your crops and how they interrelate. There’s a mountain of information that organic farmers have to think about that most farmers don’t have to consider.”

When asked about how organic farming can help mitigate climate change, Stephen admits it will be difficult to move things on a global scale since organic is such a small percentage of agriculture, but he says it’s important to do what you can on an individual level. “I grew up on this farm and we used to have the cleanest water. Now we have to drink bottled water. It’s only been thirty years since I went fishing in the ditches. We don’t have any of that anymore. Now we have green film, we are oxygen-deprived and have too much nitrogen in our ditches. When farmers go out and put down 250 pounds of nitrogen in one growing season per acre, that is insane. So, there are lots of things individuals can do.”

The goal for Stephen is to be as self-sustainable as possible. “We want a family-run operation that provides a living if you are willing to do the work. You have to be all in, you have to be a believer and know what you’re doing and not just be in it for the financial end of it. If there’s one thing I haven’t emphasized enough it is the support of my whole family. My wife Patricia has been so supportive even though there’s been financial stress. My four kids have worked with me in the fields since they could follow me down the rows. I’d never be able to do any of this without their help.”

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By |2022-11-04T17:38:02+00:00January 19th, 2021|Farmer Stories, News|

A-Frame Farm

August 6, 2020 – Luke and Ali Peterson became partners in A-Frame Farm in 2016 with farming mentors, Carmen and Sally Fernholz in Madison, Minnesota. Today they farm 500 certified organic acres employing practices such as cover cropping, minimal tillage, and crop livestock rotation with the goal of becoming self-sustaining and truly regenerative.

Prior to farming, Luke spent several years working with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. After the birth of their first daughter, Luke wanted to find a way to spend less time on the road and more time at home with the family. Both Luke and Ali shared a growing desire to restore the environment, help mend a broken food system, and build strong community. Ali continues to work full-time as a nurse practitioner.

While at the Department of Natural Resources doing prairie restoration, Luke says he worked with a pretty unique group of people with backgrounds in environmental science and related fields. “Working with them, my eyes were opened to how destructive agriculture can be. I learned a lot and did research on how our natural ecosystem used to function on its own. I got really interested in it when I started learning about how that ecosystem actually created more meat protein when nobody was farming. Things like that made me very curious.”

“We started buying old machinery, got a small fleet of equipment and began farming conventionally. Two years into it, I began selling seed for a local co-op for Monsanto and some of the big companies. Being involved with that business really opened my eyes to agriculture as get big or get out. I started thinking about how I could fit into this world of two extremes—one is trying to produce as much food as possible no matter what the cost and the other (from the DNR) is preserving land and not letting anybody use it. They were two opposites. I decided organic farming would be the best solution. I still wanted to grow food and I loved farming. I learned that corn and soybeans weren’t necessarily even food and that was kind of personal to me and bugged me quite a bit. So that pushed me into organic farming.”

The farm was transitioned to organic in 2014. “Ever since then we’ve been educating ourselves more and more and we have a very diverse crop rotation,” says Luke. They’re planting more perennials and introducing a grass-fed beef herd. “We’re taking some row crops out of production, introducing grass-fed beef and then rotating that throughout the farm for our fertility source. So, we went from conventional to organic, and now that we’re organic, we want to become truly regenerative.”

Luke says the transition to organic isn’t easy. “Money is always a challenge when you’re starting a new enterprise and three years out from seeing any return. My wife’s job as a nurse practitioner allowed us to pay the bills.” What’s his best advice for new farmers? “Find a mentor and connect on social media with other farmers.”

Luke was lucky because his neighbor has been farming organically for forty years. “Any time I had a question I could ask him and he had all this experience that he was willing to share. That’s another reason I was successful. I never really had any crop failures like a lot of beginning organic farmers have because I was given all that information right off the bat.” Going to MOSES made a big difference as well and youtube has been really helpful. There’s a lot of pretty incredible farmers out there says Luke and they are willing to share both their successes and failures to help others learn.

What does Luke mean when he says truly regenerative. “We use a lot of regenerative practices but I still wouldn’t say we are regenerative because we import fertility from off the farm. I think the main thing is supplying your own fertility. It forces you to do a lot more intense soil health practices that you don’t have to do if you just bring in your nutrients.”

Diversification is the name of the game for Luke and he’s constantly on the lookout for new opportunities. The relationships he’s set up with local bakers to sell his small grains provide the income that allows him to incorporate soil health practices like cover cropping and diverse crop rotations, introducing perennials like Kernza and alfalfa. “We’re selling all of our small grains locally and working to build a marketplace where we can have long-term relationships with people,” Luke explains. “We’re new at this so we’re negotiating a price that works for everyone.”

“We sell our corn to a local organic hog farmer and our soybeans to Blue River Hybrids as seed. Seven Sundays is a new company in Minneapolis that I’m growing buckwheat forthis year. There’s only so much you can do with the main staple crops, and they’re long season. I’m working on finding businesses that want a unique crop other than what the general market wants. That’s the lever I need to move my farm towards being regenerative because every time I can add a unique crop, I can be a lot more creative. The buckwheat is short season, which means I can plant cover crops prior to the buckwheat in the fall, graze that for fertility, and then plant winter wheat. It’s kind of the opposite of corn, which takes a lot of fertility, and makes it hard to get a cover crop in and graze it. Corn also involves more tillage, which the buckwheat doesn’t.”

“We eliminated all tillage in the fall and the only tillage we do is to terminate a perennial that’s been in the soil for three years or more because we either have to use tillage or a chemical. And we don’t do any fall tillage on our corn, soybeans, or small grains in the fall. In the spring we do a light pass with a field cultivator, two inches deep, to prepare a seed bed. Once our row crops are up, we do have to cultivate as well. It’s tillage, but very shallow, minimal disturbance.”

When it comes to building soil health, Luke says the changes they’ve made have yielded impressive results. “We stopped the deep tillage four years ago and two years into it, it was starting to blow our minds the soil textures we have on our farm compared to before. We’ve also been pretty aggressive on the cover crops and between the two of those things, our soil has become much more alive and much more forgiving. It’s amazing the mentality we used to have about tillage, that it would warm up and dry out your soils faster in the spring. Honestly, nothing could be further from the truth. We get out in the fields as soon as our neighbors who are doing the deep fall tillage. Our soil temperatures are the same temperature if not higher. We think it might have something to do with the microbial life, that it is actually heating things up. There is more activity and more air in between the soil particles. When we do have a 70-degree day, it captures that heat better.”

Luke says these practices, along with the livestock benefits and really pushing the rotation by marketing as best he can to find alternative crops will allow him to become more flexible, self-sustaining, and truly regenerative. “We are very disconnected from our food system and the pandemic has brought this to light. I’m creating my own branding and using social media to tell people what I’m doing every day and why I’m doing it. Consumers buy what’s available at the grocery store and it’s up to us to put something different in front of them.”

You can learn more about A-Frame Farm on their website and follow them on Instagram at @aframefarm.

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By |2022-11-04T17:38:33+00:00August 6th, 2020|Farmer Stories, News|
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