Farmer Stories

Farmer Led Trials Program Spotlight: Green Things Farm Collective

Written by Jose Perez, OFRF’s Research & Education Engagement Coordinator

Nathan Lada is one of the four co-owners of Green Things Farm Collective, a diversified vegetable farm located in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The farmers produce an array of fresh market vegetables and cut flowers for CSA memberships, farmers’ markets, small grocery and small wholesale markets. The bulk of the production takes place in five acres of permanent no till/low till, deep mulch bed system from early April to October. The farmers also raise beef cattle and manage 40 acres of woods.

Nathan and his wife Jill started farming in this farm location in 2011, but the farm became what it is now when a longtime employee and two other independent farmers joined them in 2020. Since then, they have managed the farm as a single-unit LLC. The farm has been certified organic under the USDA since 2015, and has been Real Organic Project certified since 2020.

At right: Collective Farmers in 2020: Eric Kampe (left the farm in 2022), Hannah Weber, Jill Lada, Nate Lada, Michelle Brosius.

Figuring out plant spacing and densities

“Our primary focus is producing high-yielding species and varieties with lots of hand labor,” said Nathan. The farm operation employs between 15 to 20 people in the main season with the goal of maximizing production. “It’s hard to find information from other growers about their trials on spacing and plant densities, especially for high organic matter, high fertility, and fast turnover bed systems,” continued Nathan. When he heard about OFRF’s Farmer-Led Trial program from one of his employees, it immediately piqued his interest. 

While the farm has done some limited experiments, they do not have comprehensive data to help them determine which row spacings are best for their production practices. Nathan and his colleagues hope that maximizing yield per bed will help the farm increase production without needing to develop new growing spaces. Nathan is excited to see the results and share the outcome of this trial with other growers looking for similar information.

“I think it is important that farms can conduct their own trials and research in a practical way to figure out what will work best under their cultivation systems.  Our opportunity to work with OFRF will not only inform us about specific densities to improve production on our farm, but will also hopefully inform a repeatable pathway for us and others to make small improvements to our production based on practical farm-based trials that are simple and bring value to the farm.” – Nathan Lada

Farm trial plan

Beets and radishes are the focus of the farm trial because they are among the most produced crops at the farm, being planted in succession every week or every other week during the season. Although the farm already collects yield and some crop quality data per bed, conducting the on-farm trial with OFRF will provide the direct technical support to be more methodical and comprehensive in designing the farm trial, conducting data collection, and drawing trustworthy results. 

Preliminary farm trial plans include comparing two crop configurations for one beet variety and two crop configurations for two varieties of radishes for yield and crop marketability. Potential measurements identified include overall yield (bunches per bed, pounds per bed), losses due to undersized or oversized crops, losses to disease, days to maturity, and crop quality.

The farmers have participated in on-farm research in the past, but felt that those trials did not reflect farm working conditions. One goal Nathan expressed was to integrate the trial into their existing production plan, so OFRF is working with Nathan and his team to design an on-farm trial that is both useful and practical for the farm without disrupting their seasonal production. At OFRF, we are excited to be a part of Green Things Farm Collective’s journey, and hope that their work will inspire more farmers to conduct research trials on their farms.

This story is part of a series profiling farmers who are taking part in OFRF’s Farmer Led Trials (FLT) program. Farmers receive technical support from OFRF to address their challenges through structured on-farm trials. To learn more about OFRF Farmer Led Trials Program, visit our website page at https://ofrf.org/research/farmer-led-research-trials/

By |2024-05-13T14:01:12+00:00May 10th, 2024|Farmer Stories, News|

Farmer Led Trials Program Spotlight: Colby Farms

Written by Jose Perez, OFRF’s Research & Education Engagement Coordinator

Tim and Becky Colby own Colby Farms, a 14 acre farm in Papillion, Nebraska, where they produce vegetables, fruits and some livestock products for their community. As beginner and veteran farmers, they are in their second year of transitioning a historically conventional farm to organic production. Having previously farmed in Arizona for 3 years, they came back to Nebraska to tend the land where Becky’s grandfather once farmed.

Tim and Becky have exciting plans for their farm. They hope, in time, to create a farm-to-school program, offer value-added food classes, and build a commercial kitchen. They hope to establish a fruit orchard with apples, peaches and other stone fruits to offer u-pick, as well as raise chickens, goats, bees, and perhaps cows. 

Dealing with soil compaction

The farm is located in a floodplain with clay heavy soil vulnerable to compaction. Decades of conventional corn and soybean rotations have contributed to this problem. Tim and Becky knew from the beginning that they needed to improve soil structure to produce quality crops. A USDA representative also noticed soil compaction and recommended using deep taproot cover crops to address this challenge. 

In their first year at their Nebraska farm, they planted a sorghum sudangrass cover crop, which resulted in a lot of organic matter produced. However, they quickly noticed that the cover crop roots had failed to penetrate the soil beyond the hardpan. 

Tim and Becky had a lot of questions to address regarding the use of cover crops to reduce soil compaction: What cover crop species should they use? How many cover crop cycles are needed? And, would there be any potential weed or pest concerns? Weed pressure is very high due to continuous use of the same crop rotation in the land for over 30 years. Sorghum sudan appeared to provide very good weed suppression but only after mowing three times. On the other hand, they are concerned about possible infestations of Japanese beetles, which have occurred in the past on soybeans. How would the cover crop respond to such an infestation?  This is where their interest in OFRF’s Farmer Led Trials (FLT) Program came in.

Q: What motivated you to apply for the FLT program?

“Being part of the FLT program was a no-brainer for us on our farm. The land on our farm is in desperate need of rejuvenation and planting cover crops is the obvious solution. By partnering with OFRF, not only do we get some funding but we get to create a project that will help us determine the very best cover crops to solve some of our soil health issues. We get expert advice and feedback through all stages of the project from planning, implementing, data collection, and interpreting results. Then, at the end, not only does our Farm get answers to legitimate questions that will improve our soil, but we get to share this data with others that might be asking the same question. FLT’s are a win-win-win scenario for the farmer, the research group, and future farmers that will be able to learn from the data.”   Tim Colby

Farm trial plan

OFRF staff is currently working with Tim and Becky to figure out the best way to establish a cover crop comparison trial that can point towards the best cover crop options for reducing soil compaction at the farm. Using a 2 acre area, preliminary plans are to plant a mix of peas, oats and vetch during spring and make the comparison for the fall season using daikon radish, tillage radish, rye and canola cover crops. Preliminary measures include soil compaction, weed suppression, and soil nutrient levels through lab analysis.

Tim and Becky know that dealing with soil compaction goes beyond just planting deep-rooted cover crops. They have plans to use reduced tillage practices, and create permanent beds and living walkways in order to minimize soil compaction. All these measures will contribute to a healthier soil structure. At OFRF, we are excited to be a part of the Colby’s learning journey, and hope that their work will inspire more farmers to conduct research trials on their farms. 

This story is part of a series profiling farmers who are taking part in OFRF’s Farmer Led Trials (FLT) program. Farmers receive technical support from OFRF to address their challenges through structured on-farm trials. To learn more about OFRF Farmer Led Trials Program, visit our website page at https://ofrf.org/research/farmer-led-research-trials/

By |2024-05-10T12:33:56+00:00April 8th, 2024|Farmer Stories, News|

NRCS Programs on an Organic Farm

How Animal Integration and Crop Rotations Help Sustain Generations of Farmers at Elmwood Stock Farm

Written by Brian Geier

Elmwood Stock Farm is a diversified organic farm in Georgetown, Kentucky, producing mixed vegetables, fruits, beef, chicken, turkey, lamb, pork and value-added products. As a sixth-generation farm, Elmwood has learned to adapt to changing times, shifts in market opportunities, and modifications in state and Federal support programs over the generations. For farmer John Bell, a key to Elmwood’s success has been an ongoing fertility program based on crop-livestock integration and long crop rotations. For the Bell family, the presence of livestock and the practice of crop rotations are part of a family-farm heritage, one that has long been supported by programs like those offered by the National Resource Conservation Service (NRCS).

At Elmwood, land remains in perennial pasture with multi-species grazing for 4-5 years before being opened up for intensive vegetable or grain production for 3 years. This type of fertility program, with a focus on long rest periods and grazing, is not new to the farm. Even before organic certification, John Bell’s parents and grandparents farmed tobacco with a similar rotation, raising hay and cattle on lands for four or more years before switching to tobacco for a few seasons. Utilizing programs like those offered by NRCS is not new to the farm, either. Decades ago the Bell family used programs of the Soil Conservation Service, the precursor to the NRCS, to develop a spring on the farm into a system of gravity-fed tanks for livestock water, a system that is still in use today.

“Long-term, it’s the fertility program that usually determines whether somebody is successful with organic.”
-John Bell

Early and late-season tomatoes are being produced in 300′ high tunnels at Elmwood Stock Farm.

More recently, Elmwood has utilized the NRCS High Tunnel Initiative three separate times for season extension of high-value, high-demand crops like tomatoes. For years, Elmwood had three, 300’ Haygrove high tunnels, but they wanted to increase production. They also recognized a need for rest periods for their existing tunnels, to mitigate problems with continuous production like salt buildup and nematodes. The first time they used the NRCS initiative to install a 100’ tunnel (the maximum length for that initiative) next to the existing tunnels. Their second year using the initiative, they added another 100’ to that new tunnel, plus they installed another 100’ themselves to bring it to 300’ to match the Haygroves.

Now, at least one tunnel is rested each year, with the plastic off so that rain and weather interact with the soil, which helps mitigate the buildup of salt and nematodes. The third year using the initiative they installed 100’ of what will become the fifth tunnel, so that two tunnels are rested each year.

John has also utilized incentives like NRCS-EQIP (Environmental Quality Incentives Program) to plant overwintering cover crops and to help establish diverse pastures when rotating fields out of their 3 years of vegetable and grain production. In the future, Elmwood may look toward using the CSP (Conservation Stewardship Program) or related programs for support with pasture and forage diversification. In order to maintain organic certification, all requirements of any program must be allowable under the National Organic Program. The NRCS, along with organizations like OFRF, are working to ensure that programs and support are suitable for organic systems.

Click below to listen to a short audio clip where John speaks about the importance of a fertility program to the success of an organic farm. This clip is from a farm visit conducted by OFRF in August, 2023. 

To learn more about NRCS programs and resources for organic farmers, visit the Organic Agriculture page. For more information on Elmwood Stock Farm, visit their website and stay tuned to OFRF for our upcoming release of Tillage Tools and Practices in Organic Farming Systems in cooperation with the NRCS, a resource full of farmer features, including Elmwood Stock Farm.

At right: Farmer John Bell discusses pasture diversification at a production field that was recently planted with multi-species pasture mixes. August, 2023.

By |2023-12-06T20:52:16+00:00September 11th, 2023|Farmer Stories, News|

Wilson Organic Farms, Chris Wilson

The Organic Farming Research Foundation is honored to share this farmer story, featuring Chris Wilson, business manager and farmer at Wilson Organic Farms. The following article is based off of an interview with Chris that was conducted earlier this year. You can press play below to listen to an edited version of the interview, or click this link to download it and listen later!

Written by Elizabeth Tobey

Chris Wilson remembers the day that the first load of milk from his family’s farm was picked up by the Organic Valley cooperative. The Wilson farm, which has been in the family for seven generations, began the transition to organic in the mid 90s, inspired by a neighbor who was making the switch as well. The certification process takes three years on land that has been receiving inputs that are prohibited under the organic program, and the Wilson family farm also needed to transition their herd of dairy cows. They started the process in 1996 and by 1999 all their crop land was certified organic. January 2nd, 2000 the Organic Valley truck pulled away from the farm for the first time, full of certified organic milk.

Chris Wilson (right) walks the farm with his partner and their child.

Chris Wilson is the business manager, and seasonal labor. The farm, which is located in the driftless region of Wisconsin, has been passed down in his father’s side of the family since it was first homesteaded in 1848. Now it is managed by a network of extended family including several of Chris’s cousins, with seven different families participating in total. Although transitioning the farmland through the generations hasn’t always been easy, it’s something that the Wilson’s don’t take for granted. In a world where access to farmland is one of the biggest barriers of entry into agriculture, inheriting a family farm is a huge advantage. They have worked hard to find ways to ensure that anyone in the next generation who wants to be involved will be able to participate in the farm business, and that older family members who are retiring are also provided for.

Transitioning to Organic

The family originally had some hesitations about making the change to organic production. They started with just a small portion of their farm the first year, but soon went all in, transitioning the full 1000 acres that they were farming at the time. “We had concerns about losing some tools for antibiotics in the livestock,” Chris explains. “But that ultimately ended up being a non-issue as we got into (it), and really the animals, they build up better immune systems and we have less problems today than we ever did when we had those tools.”

“We had concerns about losing some tools for antibiotics in the livestock, but that ultimately ended up being a non-issue as we got into [it], and really the animals, they build up better immune systems and we have less problems today than we ever did when we had those tools.”

Wilson Organic Farms now manages 3500 acres total. Of that, about 2600 acres are in crops, with a mix of alfalfa, forage mixes, corn for silage and snaplage, and grain, wheat, barley, soybeans, yellow peas and occasional other food grade crops. The remaining 900 acres is in pasture, 250 of which supports their dairy herd, and the remainder which is used for heifers and beef cattle.

Wilson Organic Farms began their transition to organics in the mid 90s.

Looking at their farming practices now, Chris says that organic standards reflect the way that they approach farming with the inclusion of livestock. They utilize resources in a “circular motion,” as he says. Livestock fertilize the ground, crops grown in the ground feed the livestock, and all of it contributes to feeding life in the soil. They intensively graze the milk cows, which means they move them daily during the grazing season. As they eat, they leave behind their manure and also trample the ground, the combination of which provides tremendous eco benefits to the soil.

Organic farming principles “lined up with things we were already doing and things that we already believed in,” Chris says. “…and that made it a really easy transition for us, philosophically.” And he adds, “We got the premium for the crop, so we were rewarded for that effort.”

NRCS Partnerships

The Wilson farm has also partnered with their local USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to design and implement a variety of conservation practices and to support their transition to organic. They have received support for farm infrastructure and implementation of different farming practices through NRCS’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP). Projects that the Wilson farm has implemented have ranged from implementing cover cropping and intensive rotational grazing, installing improved fencing and watering systems, livestock corridors, and creating season-long forage for pollinators. Chris was quick to point out that in addition to the financial support, another aspect of what NRCS has to offer “is the expertise that’s brought to the table.”

“The other aspect of this that doesn’t show up in the dollars and cents is just the expertise that was brought to the table on laying that stuff out and thinking about it holistically. Our NRCS rep happened to be an expert in setting up water infrastructure, so he was able to think about some of the detailed engineering questions.”

Pasture Infrastructure Programs

NRCS cost-share programs assisted Wilson Organics with improved pasture infrastructure.

Through a cost share program, Wilson Organic Farms received financial support for improved pasture  infrastructure and installation costs. They installed a six-strand barbed wire fence around the whole perimeter, and hired someone to install it. Chris points out that they had the option to install it themselves, which could save labor costs. They also installed underground water lines throughout the pasture. The NRCS program offered a cost share per linear foot, which Chris says “covered 50-60% of total cost.” This was similar to the support they received for the cow lanes they installed, where the cost share was based on square feet of cow lane. Their local agent was able to help them think through the details and layout of the systems they wanted to install. This financial and logistical support helped the farm transition from large paddocks to a rotational system that improves pasture and soil health.

Cow lanes in action at Wilson Organic Farms.

Cover Cropping

Another project that Wilson Organic Farms implemented with NRCS support was integrating cover cropping into their crop plan. Chris explains that “you sign up the number of acres you want to cover crop” and then there’s a list of cover crops you can use. “It’s been super successful,” he adds. They now have a system in place that includes cover cropping at three different times in the year. The cost share support for this project spans five years.

Wisconsin Honey Bee Pollinator Initiative

The farm also hosts Field Days with their partners, such as NRCS and Organic Valley, to share what they are doing with others.

Wilson Organic Farms has also participated in the Wisconsin Honey Bee Pollinator Initiative, a statewide project to increase pollinator habitat in the grazing landscape. By incorporating a variety of different plants, and shifting the grazing schedule, the farm is able to create an environment where pollinators had continuous access to flowering plants. The seed mix includes lots of clovers and other plants that result in a long season of blooms. This program also required that they only graze each section of pasture every 30 days. That is a core principle of intensive grazing anyway, which was already something that Wilson Organic Farms was practicing. They often wait 40-45 days to rotate cattle back onto the same pasture during the driest parts of the season. This allows the pasture to regrow between grazing. “It’s pretty incredible to see,” Chris says. “I come out to the farm in late April, early May when the dandelions are blooming all the way into the fall when the burdock plants are starting to bloom. And there’s flowers, you can find tons of flowers any day of the year, and there’s tons of bees, tons of pollinators.”

As well as implementing these programs, the farm strives to share what they’re doing and what they’ve learned with others. They typically host at least one field day each year, either in partnership with the NRCS, their local Extension Service, or Organic Valley. Their focus is often on natural resource management on farms. For instance they recently hosted a field day on organic cropping systems and water resource management for farms. Last year their topic was grazing systems. These events invite farmers in the region to come tour Wilson Organic Farms and learn more about the farm programs that are available. For farmers who are curious about what’s available, Chris’s advice is to “meet with your local NRCS agent and start a conversation.” Then, he adds, “Start small. Maybe cover crop a few acres, see how it goes. You can expand if you want or try something else if it’s not for you.”

Distribution

Organic Valley is a farmer-owned cooperative that aggregates and distributes milk products from coast to coast.

Wilson Organic Farms milk continues to be sold to Organic Valley and made into cheese and butter for distribution nationwide. Their milk is also used in many Stonyfield products as well as other store brand products. Organic Valley is a farmer owned cooperative with around 1600 participating farms located across the country. “It is unique,” Chris says, “because it evolved from a group of farmers who wanted to farm using organic principles and reach a consumer who valued those things.” To this day the cooperative is committed to supporting small farms, and member farmers have a strong voice in decision-making.

In addition to the dairy products, Wilson Organic Farms also grows hard red winter wheat, which is sold to a mill 10 miles away. It is ground into flour for Meadowlark Organics, and distributed nationally. They also sell corn and soybeans to local farmers who are raising livestock. And they sell beef cattle off the farm, most of which is processed locally and sold in the local or regional area.

Farming in a Changing Climate

A young calf will grow up on pasture in an organic, rotational grazing system at Wilson Organic Farms.

Like many farmers, the Wilson family has not been immune to the effects of intensified weather patterns. In 2018 and 2019 the region they’re in received unusually high rainfall, sometimes getting several inches in a day, for weeks on end. This kind of weather pattern can make a farm particularly susceptible to runoff and erosion, especially in a region with more sloping terrain like where the Wilson farm is located. Now they’ve had two years of drier than normal weather in 2021 and 2022. Chris describes the recent rain pattern as “scarce but timely,” with the area receiving rain only about once every three weeks. Chris attributes the resiliency of their farm in the face of both extreme rain and drought to the diversity of crops and to the prevalence of perennials in their farm system. They strive to have a living root in the ground as many days of the year as possible. They are able to do this using long and diversified crop rotations, including perennial crop production like alfalfa and grass mixtures. Their crop rotation and cover cropping means that they always follow a crop immediately after it comes out of the field, either with the next cash crop or a cover crop.

You have eco benefits, where you have perennials and cover crops and different things that are grabbing rainfall and filtering it. It’s incredible to see the differences in how that soil can absorb rainfall when it does come and then also weather long periods without rainfall and still stay productive.

The nearly year-round soil cover, and the soil-holding and water-holding capacity of the root systems protects against erosion and helps the soil to absorb water when it does come and then withstand the periods of dryness without losing productivity. Also, because the farm has several different enterprises they are not relying on the success of just one or two crops in order for the farm to have a successful year. This doesn’t make it easy, but it does mean that they’ve been able to watch their fields maintain productivity during adverse weather events.

Here are a sampling of photos from Wilson Organic Farms of the work they have done in partnership with NRCS.

By |2023-12-06T23:03:43+00:00April 4th, 2023|Farmer Stories, News|

Cheetah Tchudi talks USDA farmer support services

Cheetah Tchudi & Samantha Zangrilli

Cheetah Tchudi is the Program Director at Butte Remediation and a farmer at TurkeyTail Farm, a small diversified farm serving Butte, County California. Cheetah is a mycologist by training, and at TurkeyTail Farm grows gourmet and medicinal mushrooms as well as manages a diversity of projects including lamb, pork, fowl, fertility management, construction and heavy machinery operation. His wife, Samantha Zangrilli is also a full time farmer. She tends a flock of 100 ducks for eggs and pasture management, helps maintain the pigs and sheep, and manages a 1 acre garden for the production of cut flowers, dried floral arrangements, value added herb products and plant distillates like hydrosols and essential oils.

OFRF staff recently connected with Cheetah at the EcoFarm Conference, and invited him to share a guest farmer blog post with us. In this post, Cheetah talks about how USDA farmer support programs have benefited TurkeyTail Farm, and offers advice on how to approach working with these national support organizations to generate financial support and incentivize your farm projects.

The Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS, a branch of the USDA) provides farmers, ranchers and timberland owners with funding to employ best management practices. The program is called EQIP: Environmental Quality Incentives Program. This cost-share program provides funding for a diversity of wildlife habitat improvement, soil, and water conservation practices on functional farms. This program is not a grant based system, but is intended to support growers in their efforts, and as such is termed a “cost-share” program. The distinction is significant because it is understood that the USDA funding may not always completely cover the full cost of the work. Nonetheless NRCS support may take you a few steps closer to your ultimate goals.

On our farm we have been working with NRCS for over 10 years. On our land we have completed cost-shares that encompass brush clearing, targeted grazing, erosion control, pasture seeding, and development of bird and bat habitat. Most recently we have drilled an additional water-well for livestock. As part of this cost-share we have a network of gravity fed livestock wells and added water storage capacity, a definite boon in the era of megafires and climate chaos.

The NRCS EQIP has been a great resource for us as ecologically conscious agrarians. It has helped us to incentivize doing what we want to be doing. My advice is to set concise goals, give yourself plenty of time to accomplish the conservation practice, and most of all follow through. It is a process, you have to be committed and know what you’re doing. Agriculture is challenging… You got this.

Let’s talk about the USDA SARE program. SARE stands for Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education. Food, farming and innovation. Let’s unbox it: It’s a program to conduct research and educate farmers, extension agents, and ag professionals. SARE operates in different regions: North Central, North East, South and the West. There are a host of different programs ranging from on-farm research to education. As a farmer, you will want to look into the Farmer/Rancher Grants. If you can work with an educational institution a Producer/Professional grant is also an option.

If you are considering authoring a SARE grant, I encourage you to start early. Their application time is in November and you want to be way ahead of that. I feel the need to emphasize this. You need to be planning two years ahead. Make sure your operational budget for the grant is totally separate from your farm, and plan ahead for tax time.

Grant writing is difficult. You have to apply yourself, and there is no guarantee that your work will pay off. The flip side of that is you can do something radical. You can get the fiscal support you need to answer your questions, something that is important to your career and field of work. And at the same time you can do something nobody has ever done before. Let me reiterate that; you are capable of doing something nobody has ever done before!

As a farmer, you fulfill a fundamental need. You feed people. And sometimes the work we do is overlooked. Federal funding is a way to develop your farm, your career, and get some much needed support. It takes work, but can be hugely rewarding. After all, you’re a farmer. You got this.

By guest author, Cheetah Tchudi

Learn more:

Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS)

Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP)

Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE)

SARE North Central

SARE Southern

SARE Northeast

SARE Western

By |2023-04-17T21:31:25+00:00February 8th, 2023|Farmer Stories, News|

Lola’s Organic Farm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By |2023-04-17T21:41:53+00:00December 13th, 2022|Farmer Stories, News|

Ole Brook Organics

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

Jesse Buie, president Ole Brook Organics

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

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

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

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

Climate & Soil Health

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

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

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

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

Season Extension

Turmeric grown at Ole Brook

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

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

Pest Management

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

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

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

Microgreens from Ole Brook

Why Organic?

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

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

Jesse Buie, farming

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

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

. . . 

Links for further reading:

Ole Brook Organics

Video of Jesse Buie from Real Organics Project

National Organic Standards Board

National Resource Conservation Service

Farm Services Agency

California Certified Organic Farmers

NRCS high tunnel initiative

By |2023-04-17T21:42:37+00:00November 22nd, 2022|Farmer Stories, News|

Mayday Farm

Approaching the Starting Line

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

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

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

Land Access and Farm Transfer

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

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

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

Pasture and Soil Restoration

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

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

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

Organic Certification

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

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

Monitoring Pasture Management with Apps

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

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

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

Diversifying Markets and Local Community Food Security

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moving Forward into the Future

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

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

. . . 

Links for further reading:

Wolfe’s Neck Center for Agriculture and the Environment

Maine Farmland Trust

Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association

Pasture Maps

National Resources Conservation Service

Environmental Quality Incentives Program

By |2023-04-17T21:43:01+00:00November 22nd, 2022|Farmer Stories, News|

Sumpter Cooperative Farms

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

SCF founders, Fathiyyah and Azeez Mustafa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Farming is an ongoing learning experience”

Shaheed Harris

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clover cover crop at SCF

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

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

Dry farmed melons and squash at SCF

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

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

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

Fields of veggies at Sumpter Cooperative Farm

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

Just as it was with his ancestors. 

. . . 

Learn more:

SCF Organic Farms

Understanding Food Deserts and Food Apartheid

Freedom Farmers: agricultural resistance and the Black freedom movement

How the Government Helped White Americans Steal Black Farmland 

Natural Resources Conservation Service

Environmental Quality Incentives Program

National Organic Research Agenda report 

What is Dry Farming? The Dry Farming Institute

Agricultural Marketing Service, Sound and Sensible Program

. . . 

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

By |2023-04-17T21:43:23+00:00October 26th, 2022|Farmer Stories, News|

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.

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