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’s 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 |2022-02-04T21:09:00+00:00February 4th, 2022|Farmer Stories, News|

Fresh From the Fields: 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 |2021-03-05T19:57:45+00:00March 5th, 2021|Farmer Stories, News|

Fresh From the Fields: 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 |2021-02-16T18:03:55+00:00January 19th, 2021|Farmer Stories, News|

Fresh From the Fields: 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 |2021-01-19T20:53:49+00:00August 6th, 2020|Farmer Stories, News|

Fresh From the Fields: Barr Farms

June 3, 2020 – Barr Farms is a seventh-generation family farm in Rhodelia, Kentucky. Adam and Rae Strobel Barr raise organic vegetables, pastured chicken and pork, and grass-fed beef. They farm with the intention of taking care of the land by growing healthy soil, healthy plants, healthy animals, and healthy people.

Although Adam didn’t grow up working on what was his grandparents’ farm when he was a child, he visited often in the summer. “I was the city cousin,” he explains. “My father left the farm to become an attorney, but having succession on this land was really important to him so he was able to buy back in. I moved back to the farm in 2006, bought my grandparents’ house in 2007, and started a CSA that same year.”

It wasn’t easy though. Adam says he didn’t realize all it would entail in terms of creating a business and doing all the things that he and Rae wanted to do. “It’s way more complicated than I realized,” he explains. “The people I know who went to school, studied sustainable and organic farming and were employed on organic farms for a significant amount of time—they really did it the right way. I came into it with some smarts but not really understanding the business.”

The farm was certified organic in 2014 and Adam says it was a question of scale more than anything that drove their decision to become certified organic. “As we grew, it was getting harder to have in-depth conversations with every customer when they picked up their shares. We had plans to double our growth in 2015 and were at a point where we wouldn’t be having that face-to-face contact so we felt like it was the right time to get certified. We’d already been using organic practices and doing the record keeping so the transition wasn’t really difficult because we already had that mindset.”

In addition to the CSA business, Adam and Rae sell to a Whole Foods in Louisville and participate in Louisville’s robust farmers’ market scene. They also sell through New Roots, which is based on a model of equitable food justice CSA distribution, providing a sliding scale to people who can’t afford organic produce. There are three or four farms that participate and it’s organized as a non-profit.

“We grow 40 different vegetables,” says Adam. “We have 25 acres certified and have about half of that in production at any one time. Some of it is perennials that are not producing yet but hopefully next year we’ll have our first organic asparagus crop for sale. We’re on a much bigger family farm but it isn’t all certified for a number of reasons. The livestock is not certified organic. There’s no issue certifying the farm ground but sourcing organic feed is difficult and I’m not sure the demand is there.”

Adam is a big proponent of using biochar for building their soil. “There’s been an explosion of the science around it in the last ten years. “I really think the biochar is creating more of a permanent microbial habitat that will help us bring back that life pretty quickly after tillage or if we have a saturation event. It’s a foundational piece of the carbon cycling on our farm. We’re using that carbon matrix to store nutrients, water,  and air—while still focusing on cover cropping and cycling annual carbon. When we do them both, we are creating synergy. It’s still early but we’re seeing great results. Over time, I hope it will increase and give us a longer period where we’re keeping that soil alive instead of mining it.”

“We’re starting to work more on the biological availability of nutrients, using plant health as an indicator to measure that in the plants rather than the soil.” Adam is particularly interested in the work being done by John Kempf at Advancing Eco Agriculture to develop custom plant nutrition programs. “They’re doing amazing work with plant sap analysis rather than soil health testing. But there’s a significant cost associated with it that’s not justifiable for our scale.”

Annual rye grass is used for cover cropping, which Adam says helps because the farm is on fragipan (a dense subsurface soil layer that severely restricts water flow and root penetration) and far from ideal for growing vegetables. “There’s some research that has come out of the University of Kentucky showing that annual rye grass is chemically breaking down the fragipan as much as an inch or two a year and that’s really exciting. The University of Kentucky and Kentucky State University have organic programs and I use them both as a resource. We also plant summertime annuals, some hemp, and buckwheat. We use very high raised beds and drainage tile.”

Adam says the research on biochar and cover cropping with rye grass has fundamentally informed the way they’re managing fertility on the farm. “Once you put it in the ground, it’s going to be there for a long time. Not that we should be burning up all our woody material, there needs to more research. There are different ways to manage it and you don’t have to cut a whole tree down to build biomass.”

As far as the future goes, Adam sees microfarming or having a lot of small lots where people can build up their soil, grow nutrient rich food, and grow more locally as a viable solution. “On our scale of 20+ acres, I want to transition as much as I can over to perennial production because it is more carbon sustainable in the long run. We have an acre and a half of asparagus and it’s surrounded by a half-acre of hazelnut and chestnut tree plantings. We have over 1,000 trees in that half acre and we’re trying to graze around some of those.”

Over the long term, the Barrs think they probably will end up managing the larger 200-acre farm that is producing beef cattle. “My uncle and dad do that now. As we transition into more management of that we want to see more perennials and intensive grazing. Replicating the Savannah is going to have the highest impact on sequestering carbon. Those soils have the highest organic carbon content of any soil and that’s where we’re headed. The vegetables are an important step for us along the way.”

What do they want people to understand about why it’s important to support organic? “I would like people to think more about two things—the health of the farm workers and the overall environmental benefits when you are not using harmful pesticides,” says Rae. “If you’re thinking about food justice and farm justice, organic is a huge part of that. I think that’s a piece of the discussion that is slowly coming online that has been left out until recently. The other piece I think consumers haven’t thought about is the effect on the lands and the waters. That’s what we’d like people to know more about.”

In wrapping up, Rae says, “To make that connection, you need to expand your self-identity beyond your body to include your environment and your community. You are part of the earth and the earth is part of you. If you’re putting poisons in the water, that water is going to come back to you and your descendants.”

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By |2020-06-16T19:49:55+00:00June 3rd, 2020|Farmer Stories, News|

Wild Hope Farm

April 3, 2020 – Wild Hope Farm is a certified organic farm owned by the Belk family and located in Chester, South Carolina. The Belk’s have been transitioning their land over the past few decades from forest to dairy farmland, and from corn intensive production to hay. Their focus is on replenishing the eroded soils to transform it into an organic operation collectively benefiting the community and the surrounding ecosystem.

As stated on their website, they are working to go beyond organic to enable a more nutrient rich soil which in turn nourishes the plants they grow and the bodies of those who eat their produce. The practices they use are simultaneously decreasing off-farm inputs (e.g., pesticides, fertilizers) and increasing the health of their ecosystem through a polyculture of crops, a diverse insect ecology, and enhanced soil microbiology. With intentional planning of their land and infrastructure, they hope within the next few years to use zero net energy.

We recently interviewed Shawn Jadrnicek, who manages the farm and has been working with the Belk family for about three years. We were also joined by Katherine Belk, who works on the administrative and marketing side. Katherine takes beautiful photos of the farm, a few of which are featured here.

They currently farm about 12 acres but have 220 acres overall, much of it forested. They employ 9-12 staff, depending on the time of the year, and have been doubling production annually.

Much of their business comes from their CSA program and farmers’ markets. They also sell to a few restaurants. This year, they’re dedicating an acre and half to wholesale as a trial. Among other regenerative organic practices they are using to build soil health, they’ve had a great deal of success with a no-till approach to prepping their fields, which minimizes disturbance and protects the living organisms that feed their soil.

Katherine says they are working to share their practices with the larger community to increase understanding of the importance of no-till techniques for the future of agriculture and sustainability. “We’re trying to help people get on board and better understand why it matters for them,” she explains. “We’re farmers in the watershed they use and our farming practices do impact our neighbors even if they don’t feel it directly.”

They’ve been able to consistently produce 50% of their crop in a no-till system through the use of cover crops such as cereal rye and crimson clover, adding mulch to extend the benefits. “Once the cover crop is mature, we terminate it with the roller-crimper and transplant through it,” explains Shawn. “It does have a limited planting window, so we’ve developed techniques to extend the amount of no-till and cover cropping you can do. The main thing we do is use wood chips in no-till areas. So, we’ll crimp the cover crop and if we have a long season crop like eggplant or peppers, we put wood chips down. The cover crop helps with weeds, but if you add the mulch you get six months or more. We also use shredded leaves when we can. We do all of our winter squash that way, as well as our eggplant, peppers, tomatoes, cantaloupe, watermelons, summer scallions, and some lettuce, as well as some successions of cucumbers, summer squash, and garlic.”

“We’ve been working the past three or four years to develop a summer mix we can crimp and then plant our fall crops through. This year, we got a SARE grant to expand our work in that. We’ve got four different mixes we’re going to try. Then we can plant our fall vegetables into cover crops, which will allow us to expand our no-till work pretty drastically. You can save so much time when you do no-till. You don’t have to do the weeding and it’s probably about fifteen less passes with the tractor. That saves labor and fuel costs as well as wear and tear on the equipment.”

The main challenge according to Shawn is keeping weeds out of the cover crop. “We’ve developed a technique where we do a lot of stale seed bedding before we plant the cover crop. Basically, we’re weeding the weeds that would be in the cover crop and the no-till mulch a year before we plant the cover crops. That helps. This year, we had three months without rain so that was an issue. There was no stale seed bedding so it will be interesting to see what happens this year since we weren’t able to use that technique. We just got a hose reel sprinkler, which allows us to irrigate an acre and a half a day. So, if we get another drought, we should be able to mitigate that to do the stale seed bedding as well as get our cover crops seeds up in time.”

Shawn says another challenge is the timing. “If you don’t plant your cover crops at the right time, they’re not going to be dense and lush and mature early enough to do well. Cover crops need tending to and fertilizer just like cash crops. I’ll usually precede the no-till cover crop with a nitrogen fixing cover crop such as cow pea to add fertility. That’s critical. Right now, I have a field where I did that and a field where I didn’t do that, and it wasn’t dense and lush. If you don’t have a big enough biomass to suppress the weeds, it’s not going to work.”

“Once you do that initial prep to get rid of the weeds, you can put it into your rotations easier. For example, we’ll do a spring crop of brassicas and those come out pretty early. We’ll follow that with a cover crop of cow peas and millet or cow peas and sudex. We try not to do a lot of double cropping, it helps with the weeds and helps build soil. It also helps reduce the use of inputs. You have to have the land to do that so it can be difficult for smaller farmers.”

They also use manure from a neighboring horse farm to add fertility and that’s been working well says Shawn. “We can extract the heat from the manure for our greenhouses and add it to the fields in the fall before we cover crop. The horse manure has a lot of phosphorous and potassium in it, but the nitrogen isn’t really available until the second year because of the wood shavings in the bedding. We’ve been applying the manure around 20 tons per acre. This was the first year, so we’ll have to wait to see the results.”

Shawn says recent soil tests show promise. “We had a field that tested low for phosphorous and potassium and we were looking at spending four or five thousand dollars to bring that up. We tested it again after the manure application and everything is right where it needs to be. It’s already paying for itself.”

The no-till and other regenerative organic practices they are implementing on the farm are helping them manage a rapidly changing climate with rain events that are either feast or famine. In the past four years, they had a five-hundred-year rain event one year and two 100-year rain events the next year. Just last year they had another hundred-year rain event. They also had three months of drought last year and the year before. That’s why they are so motivated to teach others about what they have done to help manage climate change.

Katherine says they are working to insure themselves the same as they would during the hurricane season by making sure they have cover crops in the ground. “We have overhead irrigation systems that water our cover crops during the drought and then we go straight from drought to hurricanes,” she explains. “You feel it every day on the farm and that’s why it’s really important to get to know your farmers and the ways they’re farming so we can make our whole ecosystem more resilient in the future.”

“This is one of the wettest springs in recorded history here in our region,” Shawn adds. “We’ve had a very difficult time prepping the fields. The window has been narrowed. This year it was almost impossible. So, we’re looking at getting silage tarps, which is what a lot of smaller farmers are using. We’re trying to develop a system where we can do that on a larger scale in our fields. We’ll apply those tarps to the fall cover crops to keep the soil dry in the wintertime.”

Another technique they’re using is to make sure the beds are sloped properly.” I try to slope the beds at a quarter percent to one percent because if they’re too steep, you have erosion, but if it’s not continuous then you have puddling. It’s a long-term process doing that field grading. Every year, we’re trying to do a little more.”

To bring in beneficial insects, the Belks grow a lot of wildflowers. They have a 60-person flower CSA, sell wholesale to florists, and provide flowers for weddings and other events. They’ve also been planting perennials such as fruit trees and have a large cactus fence surrounding the farm. Katherine’s father, Tim, is very passionate about native plants and he’s doing a seed and grass restoration project on the farm that includes about 12 acres of native grasses and wildflowers. Katherine says, “It’s amazing to go out there in June or July as the different flowers come into bloom and see how our land is transformed and the different animals that are coming back. We’re trying to do regenerative land management beyond just the ways that we’re farming. It’s about how we take care of the property.”

“One thing I really enjoy about the CSA model and farmers’ markets,” adds Katherine, “is being able to interface with people. There’s a lot that goes into being an organic farmer. As soon as people start to learn, they realize how little they knew and they want to learn more. It’s just a matter of being able to communicate with people in a way they can understand.” Katherine uses social media and email to give people an idea of a day in the life on the farm. “The more we communicate with people, the more they begin to realize that all of these things are interconnected.”

“I want to eat clean food that wasn’t coated with any synthetic chemicals for my own personal health. I think consumers are beginning to catch on because we’re starting to see all of these autoimmune diseases and allergies and other sorts of physical reactions to our environment, and I think glyphosate has played a big role in that. I know they are still trying to draw those connections there. Also, from a sustainability perspective, by purchasing organic, consumers can invest in farms rather than chemical companies. Yes, growing organically is slightly more expensive up-front but I think that we’ll be able to have better yields in the long-run.”

“We’re taking a long-term approach to farming and we’re relying more on natural ecosystems by creating retention ponds that attract beneficial animals like frogs and toads and increasing our organic matter, which also helps with pest prevention in addition to erosion and other related challenges. We’re essentially creating an environment where we can be more resilient in the future. As the person who pays the bills, the fewer inputs we can have, the happier I am.”

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Photos by Katherine Belk

By |2020-04-17T22:03:29+00:00April 3rd, 2020|Farmer Stories, News|

Crager Hager Farm

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October 23, 2019 – Crager Hager Farm is located in Northern Carroll County, Georgia, a community on the periphery of metro Atlanta. Bryan and his wife Wendy grow over 100 different varieties of fruits and vegetables on the 123-year old farm that Wendy originally purchased as a rural retreat in the 1980’s. They soon expanded their large organic garden into a small diversified organic farm to help serve a community that had lost many of its farmers in the 1960’s.

“We decided in 2006 to try making a living by farming and jumped in. It was a wonderful experience and the most challenging thing I have ever done. I had no idea what I was getting into. It’s totally different when you scale up. I had to figure that out and this was early in the urban/small farm movement and there wasn’t much support out there.”

An avid gardener and outdoor enthusiast since childhood, Bryan adopted organic practices early. “My grandmother got me gardening when I was eight. When I was a teenager, I was spraying malathion for pests when the wind changed and blew it right back in my face. I started coughing and thought this can’t be good for me, I wonder what it’s doing to the environment. I started reading about what it does to bees and other living things. This was known back in the 70’s.”

Wendy and Bryan did not go through the organic certification process right away. “We didn’t feel like we needed it from a marketing perspective because we were selling at the farmers’ market and to a local co-op. After a while though, we decided we needed to put our money where our mouths were. We were very fortunate to have the cost share program to help pay the fees.”

Bryan says to be a successful farmer, you’ve got to keep good detailed records. You have to know what’s worked and what hasn’t and you can’t do that just by watching. “The certification process has pushed me to be more consistent. You have to have the input records, what you’ve put on the land and your plants throughout the year. It actually helped me improve my productivity and how I do my farming.”

Their “crop insurance” program is based on diversification, which helps them manage the challenges of changing weather patterns, pests, and diseases. “The weather is so variable here. Right now, we’re entering a moderate drought stage and different crops do better or worse in different environments. So, given the variability, we grow at least two to three different varieties of any particular crop, whether it’s green beans, tomatoes, or corn. I’ll go through 15 varieties of lettuce over the course of the year because there are cool season lettuces, summer lettuces, and lettuces I start in the fall. If we get a particular pest, disease, or weather-related issue, some of those varieties will do better than others.

One change Bryan has seen over the last 15 years is a warmer winter. “We still get some cold snaps but the average for December, January, and February is getting warmer. Spring is starting earlier and the fall is continuing longer. The impact is that we have to shift our planting schedule. And some of our perennial crops, such as apples and berries, are more likely to get hit by a late freeze when we’ve had a warm winter, which can affect production. We have huge frost blankets that we spread over the berries and we may have to run heaters.”

Another strategy they’re using is growing more crops in hoop houses and greenhouses. “We’re working to manage environments so we can manage the amount of rain and solar heat. With a lot of the crops we grow like tomatoes and peppers, it gets too hot in July and August if you don’t have some kind of shade over them. We’re doing a lot to create microclimates that are conducive to our crops.”

There’s also been a shift in rainfall patterns. “We’re getting less rain during the growing season—May through September—and more in the fall and winter. That means you have to have everything on irrigation and can’t rely on natural rainfall. Even the perennial crops need to be irrigated to prevent drying out in the summer.”

Bryan says right now, as far as they can tell, they are climate neutral if not somewhat climate restorative, primarily because the young forest they’re managing is still sequestering carbon. About a third of the electricity on the farm is provided by their solar electric system and they’re looking to expand that. “Every year we look at trying to do things more efficiently so we can get off the dead dinosaur diet.”

That means managing soil health. “We’re working to build the soil organic matter. We run a small landscaping service in the fall and collect leaves and spread them over about a ½ acre of the farm as mulch. We buy a lot of hay from growers in the area who produce spray-free hay for us. We also do a lot of cover cropping. We’ve been able to build the soil organic matter from the 1-2 percent range, which is typical for pasture soils around here, up to about 4-5 percent. We’re very proud of that and it’s actually higher in our hoop houses.”

Their tillage practices have been evolving as well. “We were tilling a couple of times a year and using plastic mulch to control weeds and hold the moisture in the ground. But we were becoming more concerned about the plastic waste we were generating and it made it very hard for us to keep up the soil organic level. So, we started working on some other systems. A grower in North Carolina named Alex Hitt started using landscaping fabric instead of plastic mulch, which allowed him to mulch his crop without having to do the heavy tilling because you can lay it over the top of the land and you don’t have to bury the edges. Then we developed a system where we don’t have to do any tillage. We grow the cover crop, mow it short, add some nutrients, lay the landscape fabric over it, and plant through the landscape fabric. That allows us to cut the tilling down to once every two or three years for most of our field area.”

They also do a lot of trials. “I’m in search of the perfect red tomato for Georgia. We’ve also been doing our own breeding program for tomatoes, beans, kale, and broccoli. We select for crops that work best in our environment. One of the problems organic farmers face is that there are few breeding programs for vegetable crops that are targeted at organic, so it’s been left to the farmers to do their own.”

Why is it important to breed specifically for organic? Because it’s a totally different growing system says Bryan. “We are not using the water-soluble fertilizers. We need crops that have a more robust root system to break down and use the organic nutrients we are providing. We need crops that are more resilient to various pests because we are not going to be using fungicides and insecticides.”

And, there’s the changing weather, which demands a high level of adaptability. “In the southeast, the climate zones are shifting north an average of 15 miles per year. In the last two decades, we’ve shifted almost a full climate zone. That’s like moving us 200 miles south, so we are constantly having to trial different crops. We’re facing two things, the challenge of farming organically and the shifting climate. The work that we are doing as organic farmers to build the health of our soil gives us some protection. We are not as prone to disease outbreaks that you’ll see on conventional farms. But we do have the continual pressure, and as that shifts due to climate change, we have to constantly recreate and fine-tune our systems.”

In closing, Bryan offers this. “In my opinion, organic agriculture is the foundation for developing a sustainable food system, one that is both good for the environment and good for people. Right now, that means you’ve got to spend more on labor to manage things. If you do have a pest problem, you’re going to be using more expensive inputs to control it. You’ll probably have a yield loss because in order to have the good bugs around you’ve got to have some of the parasitic bugs they feed on. You’ve got to be willing to accept some damage to your crops in order to maintain that diverse ecosystem. By building a diverse ecosystem instead of killing everything with pesticides, you’re not in a continual arms race with pests that adapt to the pesticides. You sacrifice a small percentage but you keep the beneficials around. All of those things add to the cost of producing but they provide these huge community benefits.”

By |2020-03-26T19:30:36+00:00October 23rd, 2019|Farmer Stories, News|

Beyercrest, LLC

June 19, 2019 – Rory Beyer was raised on the dairy farm his parents have owned since 1973. After graduating from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls with a degree in Animal Science, he returned to the farm and several years later, made the transition to organic production. Today, the Beyers farm 385 acres, raising dairy, beef, corn, and small grains. Since going organic, Rory says the cows are healthier and producing more and, in seven years, they’ve seen their soil organic matter (SOM) go from 1.7% to 4.4% as a result of soil building practices such as cover cropping, managed rotational grazing, diverse rotations, and the use of organic soil amendments.

We caught up with Rory during a hectic spring due to early snow last fall and way too much rain this spring. He’d been up most of the night for weeks working to catch up. I asked him why they decided to transition the farm to organic in 2006 and he said even though they had a really good herd of cows at the time, it was difficult to turn a profit. Health was also a concern. After dealing with health issues all his life, he said it made sense to stop using chemicals.

A devastating flood in 2008—17 inches in 24 hours—also provided impetus for doing things differently. Rory realized he needed to build the organic matter in his soil to help control erosion, retain moisture and nutrients, and manage weeds. After cover cropping, he found the soil was holding better, the biological life was returning, and he was controlling weeds without chemicals.

It wasn’t easy though, he says. “When we were transitioning, the milk price was the lowest it had ever been in recorded history, and 2009 was the worst farming year on the planet. We ended up making it through and successfully transitioning to organic because we had a contract. The banks were willing to back us based on that contract but our production dropped after that. It was tough.”

Rory says they wanted to be with Organic Valley initially but the coop wasn’t taking any milk on at the time. “So, we went on contract with Kemp, and that contract was bought by H.P. HoodThe day we got the okay from the organic certifier, Hood shut down their program and Organic Valley picked up all the milk that Hood dropped. That was a stroke of luck. We forewent the last year of the contract just to be in the Organic Valley cooperative, so we made some sacrifices starting out, but it’s been a long-term good fit for us.”

What advice would he give to other farmers thinking about transitioning to organic production? “Take it easy, don’t rush to get there. It’s a long road, just let it happen naturally. Don’t transition all your land at once, do it in stages. We went full bore and probably could have done it a little easier.”

There was a real bright spot when it came to the cows though Rory says. “We wanted to transition all the cows right away too because we were going to have to know how to take care of them all without drugs to fall back on. The irony is, it ended up being easier. The drugs we were using were just costing us money. I had a $17,000 vet bill that went away in short order just by transitioning to organic and getting the cows into pasture. That’s what made the biggest difference for us. Once you get the cows out, it’s almost like the grass is healing.”

What helped during the transition? “Our biggest resource was the MOSES conference. It was forty miles away and that’s where everyone went. We had some neighbors that had been organic since about 2000 and we were getting advice from them too.”

And now? “The soil health guidebooks from OFRF have been really helpful since my focus is on building soil health. The research is important because It gives us a bridge to greater success in the future, having the understanding and knowledge of how things work can only benefit us.”

The good news is that Rory says he sees a lot of interest from other farmers in transitioning to organic. “I talked to our soil agronomist and he’s been on some farms in Iowa where they’ve been working on transitioning 300 or 400 acres at a time, and they’re having extreme success with tine weeders (a cultivation method that only disturbs the top inch of soil). They’re going out every three or four days and their fields are clean, almost as if they had sprayed. It’s impressive. So, the potential is there for larger farms to make the transition.”

“It’s important for us to know what’s in our food and that we’re doing the best we possibly can for future generations,” says Rory in closing. “We can’t keep using chemicals the way we have the last 70 years or so.”

Listen to the Land Stewardship Project’s podcast to hear Rory talk about building soil health on his organic farm.

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By |2020-01-08T18:13:19+00:00June 19th, 2019|Farmer Stories, News|
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