Farmer Stories

Common Wealth Seed Growers

In 2018, OFRF awarded a grant to Edmund Frost of Common Wealth Seed Growers in Virginia to assess resistance to both Bacterial Wilt and Cucurbit Downy Mildew among selected cucumber and muskmelon seed stocks, and to continue with the development of a pickling cucumber that is resistant to both diseases.

Edmund’s first exposure to agriculture was a farm truck that came to his neighborhood on Saturdays from an organic farm called New Morning Farm in Pennsylvania, where he eventually did a short apprenticeship. He gained more experience working at Waltons Orchard in Northern Michigan, a certified organic and biodynamic farm that also grew vegetables. He continued his on-farm education by working at Food Bank Farm in Western Massachusetts, a very large, very efficient farm that ran a CSA for 600 people and supplied the food bank with produce.

Then, his interest in seed breeding took hold. Edmund began working with seeds at Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. He started doing contract seed crops for Southern Exposure and a few other seed companies, beginning with a ½ acre of seed crops and expanding to about six acres when he began getting contracts from more places.

His inspiration for thinking about bigger seed system issues came in 2012 after attending an Organic Seed Alliance conference. “I began thinking about how I could make organic seed systems in our region more functional. As a seed grower, I had been doing stock seed selection. I got more serious about that and started focusing on the varieties that stood out. I also started growing produce crops because I thought that would help make me a better seed grower.”

In 2014, he received a SARE (Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education) grant to do research on Curcubit Downy Mildew with cucumbers, melon, and winter squash. At the same time, he began collaborating with Michael Mazourek at Cornell University to try out some of the stuff he was developing. “Michael was a really good resource to have when I had questions about how to evaluate the crops and how to do the selection and lay out the trials. So, I kept on doing a lot of seed production but also a lot of research and breeding.”

He started Common Wealth Seed Growers to reach people more directly with the trialing and selection work he was doing. “When we were just growing crops for other seed companies, the value of the selection wouldn’t get transmitted to the customer,” he explains. “You put in a lot of work to do a really good job selecting something and then you get less money from the seed company because you were more selective about what plants you saved seeds from.”

He also wanted to have a project that would help bring needed energy and change to the state of Southeast seed systems. “We saw a big unmet need in the Southeast where a lot of organic growers who want organic seeds are purchasing mostly from Northeast seed companies. A lot of the seeds out there aren’t really addressing our needs in the Southeast. Downy Mildew for instance, has been less of a concern in the Northeast, although now it’s becoming more of a concern.” (see related blog, Of Mildews and Men by OFRF Board President Jeremy Barker-Plotkin of Simple Gifts Farm).

“As a seed grower and plant breeder, I focus on the power of varietal choice and varietal development to address disease and pest problems. That’s part of the research I’m doing this year funded by OFRF.”

Common Wealth Seed Growers sells directly to farmers online and at farm conferences. “We’re starting to meet some bigger farmers now and see interest from larger seed distributors. We have a few unique varieties that stand out for Downy Mildew resistance, and people are interested in those. I think that’s the direction we’re headed in, not being a one-stop-shop for seeds but a supplier of a handful of good disease resistant varieties.”

“If I develop a variety that has really good disease resistance, it’s going to result in farmers spraying a lot less herbicides and it will be a lot healthier for the farmers, farmworkers, land and waterways, as well as the people eating the food. Food should be something that increases our health not diminishes it. I think it’s essential that we find ways of farming that are good for the land and good for our health.”

By |2020-03-26T18:57:30+00:00August 28th, 2018|Farmer Stories, News|

Simple Gifts Farm

May 15, 2018 – We recently had the opportunity to talk with OFRF Board President Jeremy Barker Plotkin of Simple Gifts Farm in Amherst, Massachusetts. Jeremy and his team are stewards of the North Amherst Community Farm (NACF), community-owned land preserved in perpetuity for farming. They are working to ensure the land remains an organic community farm, a wildlife corridor, and a place for local residents to enjoy nature and walking trails. They run the farm as an ecological unit, integrating vegetable crops and livestock, and connecting the community with their food supply. They also run an apprenticeship program to train the next generation of organic farmers.

Have you always farmed organically? Why?

Right from the start. Moving towards more sustainable food production was the appeal. I don’t think I ever considered doing anything different. For me, farming is a way to embody my political ideals, do something positive, and provide a real tangible alternative.

How big is your farm?

It’s about 30 acres and we manage a neighboring farm that’s about 20 acres. We’re growing about 12 acres of vegetables. We’ve cut back from 18 to try to focus our efforts a little more, and we get as much out of 12 acres as we do out of 18 by taking better take of it.

What do you grow?

Quite a bit of lettuce, tomatoes, a fairly broad spectrum of seasonal vegetables, kale, chard. We have a whole pick-your-own garden that’s part of the CSA share that includes flowers, herbs, veggies, and about an acre and a half of strawberries.

We have about 250 laying hens, and pasture-raised eggs are available for most of the year. Pasture-raised pork and grassfed beef is always available for purchase by the cut.

Where do you sell your products?

We stopped going to farmers’ market after we opened our farm store last July. The store, CSA, and pick-your-own garden are all integrated now. People pick up their share at the store and the pick-your-own is part of the share.

I like the integrated experience. People participating in the CSA also get to spend time on the farm.

Especially during strawberry season, people love to bring their kids.

What do you you want people to know about why it’s important to support organic agriculture?

It’s just healthier. One of the objections I have to the way people talk about organic is that it’s all very focused on is it healthier? Is it free of pesticides? I think it’s also important to recognize the indirect benefits—knowing your water is cleaner and that there’s less chemicals in the environment because you’re buying organic food. Also, studies are finding that organic farming sequesters more carbon than non-organic farming and can be instrumental in reversing climate change.

What was your most valuable resource for information when you were a beginner farmer?

It was other farmers and that is still the case. I worked for other farmers before I started farming myself. I went to graduate school in Maine and visited a lot of farmers before I started farming myself.

I’m thinking about some of the next generation that want to farm organically or non-organic farmers that want to transition to organic that aren’t in areas where there are a lot of organic farmers. What do you think would be a good way to help?

We have an apprenticeship program that helps people that want to become organic farmers. Mentorship programs are great, especially for people transitioning to organic.

What is your most valuable resource now?

I get a lot of information from UMass Extension and the other Extension services in New England. Some of their expertise is exclusively organic focused and some of it is applicable to organic. There’s a lot of good information out there. Talking to other farmers, my neighbors, is still helpful. Actually, not going to farmers’ market has meant that I have less connection with other farmers. Part of what goes on at farmer’s market is talking to other farmers.

Switching gears a little bit, why do you think organic farming research is important?

Organic farming is a more knowledge- and science-based way of doing things. You need to understand the lifecycles of pests and the biological interactions. You need to know how soil works. There’s so much more you need to know to farm organically. Research focused on organic is much more valuable because the system is so different.

Organic farming, especially as it relates to certification, is about what you can’t do, what you can’t spray, what fertilizers you can’t use. When you take all of those things out of your toolbox, you have to use different tools. How do you control pests? There’s organic sprays out there but they don’t work as well. You get to a point where you need more knowledge in order to generate soil fertility without just getting it out of a bag.

Organic research can be good for any type of farmer, maybe some that are thinking about incorporating more sustainable practices. I think organic research benefits more than organic farmers.


Do you have a story about how research helped you and your farm?

Right now, at the University of Massachusetts, they’re trying to figure out how to control cabbage aphids organically. This is a pest that has become a big problem with kale and all the fall brassicas. They’re doing some good work there figuring out how to deal with it.

I’ve done some research on my farm too. When we first started, I applied for SARE grants, which provided another source of income for me. We did two projects on disease resistance in tomatoes. Two seasons ago we were looking at different ways of fertilizing potatoes. There are growers who use a much more complicated intensive strategy that isn’t as focused on the macronutrients in the soil. It involves a lot of spraying of liquid nutrients and is supposed to maximize the health of your plants. While that way of fertilizing does work, we’ve achieved equivalent yields and disease pressure just by providing organic nitrogen based on our soil tests. This was a system I was interested in and had been playing around with—getting the SARE grant allowed me to look at it in a more rigorous way.

Do you think the demand for organic food will continue to grow?

Yes, it’s a consistent trend.

The organic label has come under attack in the media lately. Some people question whether the price differential is worth it, and whether products labeled organic are really following the organic guidelines. Also, with so many labels, things seem to be getting really confusing for consumers. What do think we need to do to preserve the integrity of the organic label?

Those issues have always been there. There may be a little more intensity right now, but they’ve always been there. As soon as we got under federal control it made the label subject to the political process and vulnerable to people messing with it. Organic is providing a minimum standard that says you can’t do certain things. There may be more, there may be further you can go, but that minimum standard means something to people. That’s why organic has been successful.

What do think of the movement to a regenerative certification?

I’m not 100 percent sure how it’s going to go. I can see the appeal of trying to put something forward that’s kind of more true to the original vision. I can also see the danger in fracturing and diluting the message a bit. I see how organic is the minimum standard and now people want to push it a little further. The thing I’m not sure about is it seems difficult to regulate, to come up with a unified standard for what regenerative agriculture means. That’s exactly why organic has come to mean what it has—you don’t use chemicals because that’s something you can take on in a regulatory way. You can’t take on biological soil fertility and crop rotations and all the kinds of positives of organic in a regulatory way. It’s not impossible, but I’m a little skeptical.

What are the top three reasons you think people should purchase organic whenever possible?

The environmental benefits, the soil carbon sequestration benefits, and the benefits to their personal health.

By |2020-03-26T18:56:51+00:00May 15th, 2018|Farmer Stories, News|

Soper Farms

February 15, 2018 – OFRF board member Harn Soper is part of a four-generation Iowa farming family based in Emmetsburg, Iowa. Soper Farms is a century farm, having been in the family for more than 100 years. The Soper family voted to transition the farms, which comprise about 800 acres, to organic, starting in 2010.

When I was eleven and working on my family farms in Emmetsburg, our license plate proudly stated “Iowa, A Place To Grow”. That has never been more true than today. What has changed for my family is how we farm, moving from conventional chemical-based farming to organic.

Today our organic crop rotations include corn, oats, soybeans, alfalfa and other small grains, all in support of feeding a hungry world. Each year our soil yields more information about our fields and as we learn, each year we adapt our rotations to support nature’s amazing ability to balance and produce. Little did I know back when I was eleven that farming could yield so much more.

Carbon Farming – Today, our organic farms also grow carbon in our soil by sequestering CO2, drawing it out of the atmosphere and storing in the ground. Listening to ESA, Ecological Society of America, “Over the past 150 years, the amount of carbon in the atmosphere has increased 30%. Most scientists believe there is a direct relationship between increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and rising global temperatures”.

As reported in Science Magazine (in scientific detail), “The soil organic carbon (SOC) pool represents a dynamic equilibrium of gains and losses. Conversion of natural to chemical-based agricultural ecosystems causes depletion of the SOC pool by as much as 60% in soils …. mostly emitted into the atmosphere. Severe depletion of the SOC pool degrades soil quality, reduces biomass productivity, adversely impacts water quality, and the depletion may be exacerbated by projected global warming”.

Our organic farms follow the USDA organic standards as set forth by the National Organic Program (NOP) reversing the negative impact of chemical-based farming by increasing soil health, improving water quality while farming carbon back into the soil.

Energy Farming – In Iowa, we also grow energy, wind energy, that frees the world from a diminishing and polluting supply of fossil fuels. The power company MidAmerican Energy, recently announced that it has opened two huge wind farms in Iowa as reported by Climate Action, a UK-based non-profit. The two projects, called Beaver Creek and Prairie, total 169 turbines and have a combined capacity of 338 megawatts (MW), enough to meet the annual electricity needs of 140,000 homes in the state.

Climate Action goes on to report “Iowa is something of a hidden powerhouse in American wind energy. The technology provides an astonishing 36.6 percent of the state’s entire electricity generation, according to the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA). It also has the second largest amount of installed capacity in the nation at 6917MW; Texas is first with over 21,000MW. The wind farms form part of MidAmerican Energy’s major Wind XI project, which will see an extra 2,000MW of wind power built, and $3.6 billion invested, by the end of 2019. The company estimates it is the largest economic development project in Iowa’s history”.

Antibiotic Farming – As reported in The Scientist, dedicated to exploring life inspiring innovation, “Many of the most widely used antibiotics have come out of the dirt. Penicillin came from Penicillium, a fungus found in soil, and vancomycin came from a bacterium found in dirt. Now, researchers from Northeastern University and NovoBiotic Pharmaceuticals and their colleagues have identified a new Gram-positive bacteria-targeting antibiotic from a soil sample collected in Maine that can kill species including methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and Mycobacterium tuberculosis. Moreover, the researchers have not yet found any bacteria that are resistant to the antibiotic, called teixobactin.”

For this new bacteria-targeting antibiotic to thrive and save lives, it requires healthy soil that is not contaminated by chemicals designed to kill plants and diminish the soil biome.

Every dollar we spend anywhere is tightly connected to agriculture. Because if it weren’t for a six-inch layer of healthy topsoil and the fact that it rains … we would have nothing. Iowa organic farming is indeed, “A Place To Grow”.

Funding organic research restores our environment, literally energizes our communities and saves lives. What better way to support yourself and your family than to support organic research, education, and advocacy.

Thank you for supporting OFRF.

By |2020-01-08T18:14:34+00:00February 15th, 2018|Farmer Stories, News|
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