Beginning Farmer Training Program Now Available

June 2, 2020 – OFRF’s free beginning farmer training program for organic specialty crop farmers in California is now available. This online training program is for beginning farmers, existing organic farmers, and farmers in transition to organic production. While it was developed for California specialty crop farmers, the content is based on foundational principles that are relevant to all organic farmers and our hope is that growers across the U.S. find it to be a useful resource. The self-guided nature of the training program allows you to move through the readings and resources, visual and written content, and demonstration videos at your own pace.

Two modules are currently available. In total, the online training program will contain six learning modules: 1) soil health, 2) weed management, 3) irrigation and water management, 4) insect and mite management, 5) disease management, and 6) business management and marketing.

Please help us get the word out on this new resource. We are looking for feedback and ask that anyone who takes the program also completes the brief surveys at the end.

This open educational resource is a joint effort between OFRF, the University of California Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (UC SAREP), and California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, with funding from the California Department of Food and Agriculture. The self-paced program combines descriptive essays, video lectures from university faculty, and virtual field trips to demonstrate organic principles and practices.

View the training program.

This open educational resource is a joint effort between OFRF, the University of California Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (UC SAREP), and California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, with funding from the California Department of Food and Agriculture.



















By |2020-07-01T15:46:16+00:00May 29th, 2020|News|

Agriculture’s Role in Addressing Climate Change

farmers working on cropsMay 19, 2020 – This blog post was originally published on the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition’s (NSAC) website on November 8, 2019. The post has been updated and modified by Cristel Zoebisch, Climate Policy Associate for NSAC and OFRF, to reflect OFRF’s recommendations submitted to the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis. Exploring Agriculture’s Role in Addressing Climate Change

The House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis (Select Committee) held a hearing in Fall 2019 to discuss the role of agriculture in identifying and implementing solutions to the climate crisis. It was the first time the Select Committee focused on the potential for America’s farmers and ranchers to be a positive force in the nation’s efforts to combat climate change. Hearing witnesses included Dr. Jennifer Moore-Kucera, Climate Initiative Director at American Farmland Trust; Fred Yoder, farmer and Co-Chair of Solutions from the Land; Tina Owens, Senior Director of Agricultural Funding and Communications at Danone North America; and Viral Amin, Vice President of Commercial Development & Strategy at DTE Energy’s Power & Industrial Group.

Hearing Highlights

At the hearing, the Select Committee explored ways to help the agricultural sector increase carbon storage in farms, while also improving farm resiliency against severe weather events and increasing farm profitability. Key topics of discussion included the following. 

  • Increasing adoption of climate-smart agricultural practices, with special emphasis on cover crops, conservation tillage, and diversified crop rotations
  • Boosting research funding around climate adaptation and mitigation
  • Enhancing technical and financial assistance to increase conservation activities
  • Rewarding farmers for delivering ecosystem services

Both the witnesses and members of the Select Committee spoke at length about the different farm bill programs helping farmers adopt climate-smart agricultural practices. Many of those discussed included conservation programs that NSAC and its members, including OFRF, helped develop and/or have been instrumental in protecting over the last 30 years. Farm bill programs highlighted during the hearing included: the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program, and the Regional Conservation Partnership Program. The Rural Energy for America Program and the Rural Energy Savings Program were also mentioned as programs through which the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has already seen successes implementing on-farm sustainability and efficiency activities.

Dr. Moore-Kucera explained to the Committee that there are already low-cost and proven methods through which farmers can sequester carbon and reduce greenhouse gas emissions on crop and ranchlands—many of which are supported by federal programs. In her testimony, she stated that the use of cover crops on 25 percent of cropland and conservation tillage on 100 percent of tillable acres in the U.S. could reduce agricultural emissions by a quarter.

Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle were interested in metrics and quantifying the impact of various climate-smart agricultural practices (e.g., cover crops, conservation tillage). Witnesses agreed that more research is needed around the metrics and reminded the Select Committee that there is no “one-size-fits-all” solution to the climate crisis. Democrats had questions about carbon markets and carbon taxes, and both Republicans and Democrats acknowledged the need for increased broadband across rural communities to engage more effectively with precision agriculture techniques and enable the collection of data that could then inform metrics around various agricultural practices. Regarding carbon markets and carbon taxes, Yoder explained that a tax credit would be helpful to get buy-in from landowners, which is important given that more than 50 percent of farmland is rented.

Many of the witnesses encouraged the Select Committee to make agriculture a key partner in fighting climate change, and they suggested that a comprehensive climate bill and/or a climate-focused farm bill would be the best vehicle for such changes to be implemented. Witnesses were also adamant that legislators ensure a prime seat at the table for farmers and ranchers when climate discussions and policy debates take place.

OFRF on Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation

Research demonstrates that organic systems can help reduce agriculture’s contribution to climate change. Organic farmers and ranchers use regenerative organic practices that build soil health, store carbon, release fewer greenhouse gases, and build resilience to the effects of climate change. In our comments, OFRF urged the Select Committee to fully recognize the capacity of organic farming and ranching systems to build agricultural resilience to extreme weather events and make a significant contribution to carbon sequestration and mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions arising from agricultural production.

Expand funding for research and prioritize climate change mitigation and organic agriculture research

OFRF called for expanded funding for the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program and for permanent funding authorization for the 19 sites in the nationwide Long Term Agroecosystem Research (LTAR) Network. Additionally, OFRF urged the prioritization of climate change mitigation and climate-resilience research for both SARE and LTAR. 

OFRF also called for organic agriculture to be a priority for research since organic systems show considerable potential in enhancing resilience to drought and other extreme weather events. USDA’s spending on organic research should be at least commensurate with the market share for organic foods, meaning that USDA should triple its current investment in organic research from 2% to at least 6%. LTAR research and any Requests for Applications for SARE and other competitive research grant programs should prioritize further development and refinement of organic systems’ potential in mitigating climate change.

Advanced organic systems that integrate best crop genetics with best soil health and nutrient management practices can make a significant contribution toward slowing climate change. OFRF urged the Select Committee to establish organic systems that integrate crop genetics with soil health and nutrient management as a research priority for USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS) and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) competitive grant programs.

Establish a national goal to make U.S. agriculture climate-neutral or climate-positive and provide a path forward to achieve this goal

In order to make agriculture climate-neutral or climate-positive, OFRF urged the Select Committee to establish climate as a resource concern for the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and to modify conservation programs and standards accordingly. Furthermore, OFRF called for funding for the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) to be fully restored, for strengthening conservation compliance and sodsaver provisions in USDA programs, and for support for livestock producers to adopt management-intensive rotational grazing (MIG) and other advanced grazing management systems.

OFRF recommended policy and programmatic provisions across all USDA agencies that support livestock producers to make the transition from confinement to MIG livestock systems, and urged the Select Committee to emphasize in its final report the critical importance of the National Organic Program’s (NOP) support for organic livestock producers to implement best advanced grazing management systems. NOP’s additional guidance for organic livestock and pasture management is critical to realize the full potential of grass-based organic livestock systems to sequester carbon, enhance climate resilience, and improve food security.

Prioritize robust USDA funding for public cultivar development

Genetic diversity plays a key role in the capacity of U.S. agriculture and food systems to withstand the impacts of climate change and maintain the nation’s food security. There is an urgent need to develop regionally adapted cultivars that perform well in organically managed soils that receive fewer inputs and provide for crop nutrition through biological processes.

In the past 15 years, many farmer-participatory plant breeding networks have developed and released new public cultivars of vegetable, grain, and dry bean crops that are especially suited to organic and low-input farming systems. However, available funding for these and other public plant breeding efforts amounts to only a small fraction of the current need and interest. OFRF urged the Select Committee to place a high priority on robust USDA funding for the development of public cultivars, with an emphasis on regionally adapted cultivars suited to organic production systems that optimize soil health for crop nutrition and crop protection.

Opt for organic and sustainable farming and ranching over “high tech” approaches

OFRF recommended that the Select Committee prioritize practices such as organic and sustainable farming and ranching, reforestation, agroforestry, and silvopasture under MIG management instead of “high tech” attempts to remove carbon by storing it deep underground. The most practical and cost-effective way to remove excess carbon from the atmosphere is through living plants and soils. The proposed “Carbon Capture and Storage” high tech approach may be more costly per ton of carbon stored, and may not stabilize the carbon as effectively as plant root-deposited carbon that has been microbially processed into stable soil organic carbon.

Ensure farmers and communities of color and economically disadvantaged producers and communities receive the support they need to overcome climate change impacts

OFRF recognizes that racial equity and mutual respect amongst racial and ethnic groups is an essential component to any climate mitigation and resilience strategy. All federal policies and programs must ensure that farmers and communities of color and economically disadvantaged producers and communities receive the support they need and deserve to overcome the disproportionately severe impacts of climate change they experience. 

Furthermore, OFRF recognizes the invaluable contributions of indigenous and other ethnic minorities to sustainable and organic agriculture and food systems and urges the Select Committee to fully acknowledge and utilize these contributions toward the goal of society-wide climate adaptation—with the contributions being respectfully utilized in a manner that benefits all, particularly those who contributed the knowledge and wisdom in the first place.

Final Thoughts

To cope with climate change that is expected to be both rapid and unpredictable, and for farmers to remain economically viable in the face of these challenges, agricultural systems must be resilient and able to adapt.

We believe that federal policies that include the recommendations outlined above will be those best positioned to support our farmers and ranchers in proactively addressing the climate crisis, as well as their own resilience and profitability. These recommendations can be applied to existing farm bill programs that directly address farm production and land stewardship issues; however, policy work beyond the farm bill is also needed.

The current COVID-19 pandemic has further highlighted the need for more resilient food and farming systems. While the final report from the Select Committee has been delayed indefinitely due to the pandemic, OFRF urges the Select Committee to resume its important work regarding climate change and recognize the potential of organic agriculture in mitigating climate change in its final report. OFRF calls upon federal policymakers to prioritize support for federal policies and programs that enable farmers and ranchers to adopt sustainable and organic agricultural production systems to address the challenges posed by a rapidly changing and disruptive global climate and increasing extreme weather events. 


















By |2020-05-19T21:19:16+00:00May 19th, 2020|News|

Strawberry Transplants for Organic Producers

hands holding strawberry plant rootsMay 15, 2020 – Due to a lack of commercially available organic strawberry transplants, organic producers have traditionally had to use conventional strawberry transplants. While organic strawberry producers have expressed dissatisfaction with this method, it has been difficult to transition away from conventional transplants in part because there is little data on their performance relative to conventional transplants. To address this critical question, Dr. Lisa Bunin, Director of Organic Advocacy, and Stefanie Bourcier, CEO of Farm Fuel Inc., led a research trial on five organic strawberry farms on the Central Coast of California to test the success of public varieties of organic versus conventional transplants.

Specifically, the goals of this OFRF-funded project were to compare disease susceptibility (leaf wilting) and crop productivity of organic and conventional transplants. Overall, the results clearly demonstrate that organic strawberry transplants performed comparably to conventional transplants with respect to plant growth, disease occurrence, and yield. Based on these findings, farmers participating in the study expressed complete satisfaction with the performance of organic strawberry transplants and plan to continue growing them. In turn, the nursery participating in the trial began producing over one million organic strawberry transplants for the 2019/2020 season in response to positive farmer feedback and increased market demand.

A detailed report of the project is available here.

















By |2020-05-19T21:23:54+00:00May 15th, 2020|News|

Creating a Soil Health Roadmap for Your Farm

May 8, 2020 – April Thatcher, OFRF board member and farmer/owner of April Joy Farm, is passionate about research and, like us, believes that creating farmer-scientist partnerships is crucial to making practical management decisions. Together with the Clark Conservation District, she was awarded a three-year grant from the Washington State Soil Health Committee to study soil health on her farm. The team is working to understand how diversified farmers can both protect and improve soil health while reducing costly, unsustainable and potentially contaminated off-farm inputs.

They have developed a Soil Health Roadmap (SHR) that provides a framework and set of tools for systematically evaluating the health of your operation’s foundational asset: the living soil, and creating an integrated set of strategies for enhanced stewardship.

In a recent interview with April, she explained how the SHR has enabled her to make immediate, impactful changes and better manage nitrogen loss. “I found out the biggest nutrient losses weren’t coming from produce sales, but rather leeching from heavy winter rains. I’m armed with more knowledge now and feel as if I have real research partners who care about the success of my farm. My goal for the next two years of the grant is to help other diversified farmers create soil health roadmaps that are specific to their farms. Meanwhile, my interns get the benefit of everything I’ve learned so they don’t make the same mistakes I have.”

Visit April’s website to learn more about the project, including the five reasons for developing a soil health roadmap and a case study on the project.

















By |2020-06-09T19:28:22+00:00May 8th, 2020|News|

New Economic Injury Disaster Loan and Advance for Ag

May 6, 2020 – The U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) has just opened the Economic Injury Disaster Loan EIDL program to farms and ranches that were previously unable to apply. SBA released the following information on May 4, 2020.


In response to the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, small business owners in all U.S. states, Washington D.C., and territories were able to apply for an Economic Injury Disaster Loan advance of up to $10,000. This advance is designed to provide economic relief to businesses that are currently experiencing a temporary loss of revenue. This loan advance will not have to be repaid.

SBA has resumed processing EIDL applications that were submitted before the portal stopped accepting new applications on April 15 and will be processing these applications on a first-come, first-served basis. SBA will begin accepting new Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) and EIDL Advance applications on a limited basis only to provide relief to U.S. agricultural businesses.

The new eligibility is made possible as a result of the latest round of funds appropriated by Congress in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

  • Agricultural businesses include those businesses engaged in the production of food and fiber, ranching, and raising of livestock, aquaculture, and all other farming and agricultural related industries (as defined by section 18(b) of the Small Business Act (15 U.S.C. 647(b)).
  • SBA is encouraging all eligible agricultural businesses with 500 or fewer employees wishing to apply to begin preparing their business financial information needed for their application.

At this time, only agricultural business applications will be accepted due to limitations in funding availability and the unprecedented submission of applications already received. Applicants who have already submitted their applications will continue to be processed on a first-come, first-served basis. For agricultural businesses that submitted an EIDL application through the streamlined application portal prior to the legislative change, SBA will process these applications without the need for re-applying.

Eligible agricultural businesses may apply for the Loan Advance here.

To apply for a disaster loan unrelated to COVID-19, click here.


















By |2020-05-06T20:30:28+00:00May 6th, 2020|News|

Today You Can Support Organic Farmers

Bryan working in the greenhouseApril 29, 2020 – When I was eight years old my grandmother introduced me to the seeming magic of being able to push a corn seed into the ground, and three months later getting to eat a whole ear of corn. She showed me that while it was awe-inspiring, it was not magic. How a plant grows is something we can understand and nurture. My grandmother believed fervently in the power of science and learning to improve our lives.

I think you believe in the power of science and learning too and that is why I am asking you to support the work of the Organic Farming Research Foundation today.

I became an organic grower in my teens due to a personal experience of pesticide blowing back into my face when the wind shifted. I coughed and felt awful for several hours. The next day I went into the school library to research the pesticide and found a copy of Rachel Carson’s “A Silent Spring”. I learned how much damage conventional farming was doing to our environment and decided to change how I gardened. I became a voracious consumer of information on how to grow with nature, a process of learning that continues to this day. 

Love of learning is why I was intrigued when I got a call to discuss joining the Board of OFRF. My intrigue turned to excitement because I realized OFRF was promoting research on the type of farming I believe in, the type of farming that will make this world a better place. When I started farming full time, I quickly learned that I needed good science-based information that I could trust, and OFRF was the place I could get that information. I also quickly learned research that builds a resilient future doesn’t happen overnight and requires our collective investment. Will you join me in helping OFRF continue this important work? 

After three years on the Board of OFRF, I am more excited than ever about what we are doing, which is why I agreed to become President of the Board of Directors. The record number of research grant proposals we funded this year highlights the exploding interest in growing organically to regenerate our environment and society. The policy and education work by our staff ensures science-based information not only reaches farmers and ranchers but also tackles their priority issues. Our Soil Health Guides are being used by USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service to promote soil conservation practices, and our new Climate Toolkit shows how best organic farming practices help mitigate climate change and build climate resilience. These are just a few examples of how OFRF is working to make the world a better place, a healthier place. 

Our current struggle with COVID-19 highlights the need to have good information when we make decisions. Now, more than ever, we need OFRF working to help farmers grow food that is healthy for people and our environment. But we can’t do it without your support. I strongly encourage you to join me today by making a donation to keep this vital organization up and running.





Bryan Hager, Crager Hager Farm
President of the OFRF Board of Directors

















By |2020-04-29T22:00:29+00:00April 29th, 2020|News|

New Digital Toolkit for Climate Advocacy

April 23, 2020 – We’ve been working on a virtual campaign to inspireeducate, and inform people on how best organic practices help mitigate climate change and build resilience—leading to healthy people, ecosystems, and economies. Our goal is to encourage more consumers to purchase organic food and increase demand so that together we can expand organic acres to:

  • Capture and store more carbon in the soil for longer.
  • Release fewer greenhouse gases.
  • Help farmers and ranchers increase resilience to rising temperatures and intensified droughts and rain events that make it more challenging to grow crops and raise livestock.

The campaign, A Path to Resilience, launched with the hashtag #OrganicforClimate. It features a series of posts across social media presenting farmer stories, educational content, and compelling data points.

Today, we introduce a new digital toolkit on our website that provides another opportunity to learn, share, and help build the movement!

graphic showing four NRCS principles

Lots of people want to help make a difference and we think that providing this information in a shareable toolkit provides an easy and fun way to get involved. As a science-based, research organization, we’re in the weeds most of the time, so this has been a particularly exciting project for us.

We hope you will engage in the campaign and help us share it far and wide. The initial calls-to-action are to share the toolkit and buy organic. In the coming months, we will be offering opportunities to join us as an advocate for programs and policies that encourage the growth of the organic industry on a federal level.

We’re incredibly grateful to all the organic farmers and ranchers
that provide healthy food for us.

Stay safe and healthy!

Please support our work.















By |2020-05-20T17:11:32+00:00April 23rd, 2020|News|

Please Support Our Work

brise and her daughter watering seedlings in the greenhouseApril 23, 2020 – Dear friends, I sincerely hope this message finds you and your family healthy and safe in the midst of this pandemic. As I juggle working from home, homeschooling my two kids, and ensuring our family has healthy food to eat, I am reflecting on the challenges each of us are facing now and am reminded of how central food and farming is to all of our well-being. Despite how dependent we all are on farmers, they are struggling in unique ways that we are still trying to understand. They’re dealing with unprecedented market and supply chain impediments, labor concerns, new challenges in accessing key support programs from USDA—all while providing essential services and striving to maintain a steady and healthy food supply in their own communities and across the nation.

We know that not everyone can give during these uncertain times, but we hope you will continue to support our work. OFRF remains committed to advocating for organic farmers, working to ensure they have the tools they need to be successful, and helping support a resilient and regenerative agricultural system, including:

  1. Communicating to policymakers in Congress and USDA about immediate aid needed to support farmers, particularly those that rely on local and regional markets.
  2. Finding, funding, and fostering research that supports resilient and regenerative farming practices (we are in the process of awarding 13 new grants, the most in our 30 year history!).
  3. Providing free educational resources to farmers and ranchers across North America and beyond.
  4. Advocating for strong national policies and programs to ensure organic farmers have the support, resources, and technical assistance they need to be successful.
  5. Promoting climate-friendly agricultural practices, including robust science on best soil health practices that help store more carbon for longer, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and build resilience to future changes to our climate.

Imagine if we as a community could support diverse, stable, and environmentally sustainable food systems.

I believe we can. Working together, we can create food systems that nourish our communities and our planet during these uncertain times.

Warm regards,




Brise Tencer
Executive Director, OFRF

Please support our work.
















By |2020-04-23T19:49:54+00:00April 23rd, 2020|News|

Research Forum Scholarship Recipients Share Feedback

conference attendees listen to a presentationApril 10, 2020 – In January, OFRF and Tuskegee University in partnership with the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group (SSAWG) presented the 2020 Organic Agriculture Research Forum (OARF) in Little Rock, Arkansas on the day prior to the 2020 SSAWG Conference.

With generous support from Ceres Trust, OFRF was able to provide scholarships to 15 students, farmers, and researchers to help with conference and travel expenses. We are truly grateful to Ceres Trust for working to ensure everyone who wanted to attend was able to do so. The feedback we received from scholarship participants was so positive, we wanted to share a few highlights.

Greg and Carole Lolley, Mayim Farm, Alabama

“What can we say … we didn’t think the SSAWG Conference could get any better but that was before the OFRF Organic Agriculture Research Forum and SSAWG Conference combined for a mind-blowing three days of discussion and learning. We have always enjoyed our yearly SSAWG conference, but having round table discussions with other growers and organic researchers has really broadened our perspectives. Personal stories told by other farmers at the forum have already proven to be helpful. We discussed actual real-world situations and problems that we had experienced. This was the first time I have been able to present an issue I was having on the farm and have a group of farmer peers hear and give advice on how they have dealt with similar issues. I believe this is a great channel for information to flow to the farmer from researchers. OFRF is doing a great service to the farmers by providing this venue for the exchange of information both ways. By that I mean farmers hear new ideas from the researchers and researchers hear firsthand what things the farmers need help with.”

Dr. Clement Akotsen-Mensah, State IPM Specialist, Lincoln University Cooperative Extension, Missouri

“I had the privilege to participate in this workshop through the generous provision of a scholarship I received from OFRF. The group discussion in my opinion was an excellent idea since it allowed participants to talk about issues confronting southern organic agriculture. The information I gained at the workshop will enhance my work as the State IPM specialist at Lincoln University because I will be able to extend research-based information to Lincoln University clientele who are mainly socially disadvantaged and minorities.”

Luke Yoder, Shiloh Farm, Tennessee

“At my table I connected with a colleague I haven’t seen in years, a NRCS agent who is going to come visit our farm and help connect with resources to produce some specialty crops, and a new friend who runs a small farm like mine.”

 Carlos Alonso Maldonado, Universidad Autonoma de Sinaloa and Ecoagro,Sinaloa, Mexico

“Ever since the date when I was notified by OFRF that the abstract on my investigation had been accepted for a poster presentation, I was very excited about attending the 2020 OARF. Overall, because this meant a turning point in my 18-month research effort, for I had been given the chance to share findings with other US researchers and industry stakeholders, with whom I could network and possibly leverage to take my work from theory into practice.”

Southern SAWG facilitates the development of a more sustainable food and agriculture systems across 13 states in the Southern U.S. Since 1992 they have provided high quality educational materials and training opportunities on sustainable and organic production, marketing strategies, farm management, and community food systems development. Each year the Southern SAWG Conference brings together over 1,000 farmers, researchers, educators, and others in the sustainable agriculture field to share practical tools and information and strengthen their working relationships.

Tuskegee University has initiated an organic farming program for over 10 years to educate Alabama residents on the health benefits of organic vegetables. The program has grown in recent years to include site specific organic farming research on various vegetable crop varieties and integrated pest management throughout the Southern United States to provide recommendations to organic growers. Dr. Kpomblekou-A has served as director of the program at Tuskegee University since 2016.

The conference was supported by the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative (OREI) grant no. 2019-51300-30250 from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

sign at registration welcomes all

All photos by Shirah Dedman












By |2020-04-15T19:45:39+00:00April 10th, 2020|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.”

Photos by Katherine Belk

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