When you drive past our farm, you’ll probably notice some funny little brightly painted, fiberglass buildings nestled in a small market garden and a few high tunnels. You may stop in our market and see some of our organic produce for sale amongst the heady smells of freshly baked cinnamon rolls. Many of you are likely curious about what’s going on out in that field. What strange mysteries await underneath the translucent plastic of our tunnels?
Our 100-acre farm is not only a working farm but is also what we call a “living classroom” for our Junior Crew, where our dedicated farmers love to teach and experiment. We’ve got just about four acres under intensive management, including two 156-foot high tunnels and a 120-foot greenhouse. We became Certified Naturally Grown in 2018 and were certified organic in 2019. We grow many varieties of produce for our CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), market, and bakery. We also raise our own flock of free-range chickens, with the hopes that soon they’ll start producing enough eggs to sell in our market. They’re currently fighting the winter blues, but keep an eye out for these eggs in the future! We have plans to expand even more for value-added products and additional farmers markets in 2021.
We grow close to 50 different crops in varying quantities, and harvest produce for sale every week of the year (except for the week between Christmas and New Years since we’re closed so the entire crew can take an additional paid week off).
So, how do we decide what to grow? How do we choose when, where, and how much? How do we determine the best way to grow a particular crop and where it fits into our crop rotation?
Before we explain how we do things, it’s worth it to talk about why we produce food the way we do. It’s always helpful to understand larger patterns before jumping into details.
When considering questions about how we interact with the land, we begin with two (perhaps controversial/slightly radical) propositions:
1. Annual vegetable production at market scale, as we know it, is inherently extractive– it’s tenuously sustainable at best.
2. The ecosystem is indifferent to our intentions, it’s the effects of our actions that count.
Now that’s a fair chunk of words to say that we have a very real capacity to harm our environment as well as improve it and that the best intentions don’t necessarily lead to beneficial outcomes.
Though these propositions lead us to approach appropriate land-use questions from a place of humility and respect, they don’t hinder action. Rather, they inspire a set of premises and processes that ultimately, hopefully, lead us to some form of wisdom-through-action.
They lead us to learn from Nature, to look for inspiration and insight from Indigenous peoples and Black farmers (past and present), and to be cognizant of unintended consequences as well as emergent properties. We are led into an iterative process that cycles through phases of observation and interaction and back again. We are encouraged to slow down and take in the beauty and complexity with which we engage. These fundamental propositions lead us to ask which endeavors could benefit the broader environment– which actions would best serve our human and non-human community?
Practices that enhance the environment are prioritized, like minimizing bare soil, conserving water, and integrating (rather than excluding) perennial plant and animal allies. We are encouraged to produce more vegetables in less space so that more of our land can be managed to serve other goals, such as conservation and remediation.
We know we don’t understand the full intricate web of relationships upon which we rely, but we can choose some representative indicators that help us determine whether our approach is successful or not. For these kinds of metrics, we use soil health and biodiversity indicators. We can observe trends over time and alter our management practices accordingly to help steer the farm in the right direction.
In our intensive production spaces, we test our soil annually. We look at organic matter content and the quantity and balance of minerals. We don’t fertilize, per se; we remineralize, add compost, and cover crop to feed the soil. Healthy soil grows healthy plants, and healthy plants grow healthy humans, so the theory goes. We’ve also tested for active organic matter which essentially monitors microbial activity in the soil. We plan to perform those tests again next season to see how our management practices have affected soil life over the past two years.
Measuring biodiversity is a bit trickier without performing full species indexes. While we hope to partner with someone to help us take a baseline species index in the near future (Seriously, message us if you’re interested!). In the meantime, we do our best to observe and augment biodiversity. We have a ten-year crop rotation in our main market garden. Fruit trees and insectary plantings are integrated into our annual production spaces. Each year, we increase the edge habitat on the farm by planting trees along the riparian buffer along the Cacapon River. Our semi-regular long farm walks take us to spots we wouldn’t normally go to if we were just here to grow vegetables. In those sacred spaces, we notice an abundance of wild foods and medicinal plants. Wood turtles, ospreys, kestrels, hawks, and eagles are spotted regularly. Occasionally a great horned owl eats a few chickens, so it goes. There are currently about 30-acres included in the Potomac Valley Audubon Society’s Grassland Birds Initiative. That field hosts an abundance of ground-nesting migratory birds each year; we hope you can come check it out next summer.
We are far from perfect, but we do our absolute best to respect and cherish this land. Each year, we grow more and more food using fewer inputs. Each season, we get a little better at minimizing soil disturbance and controlling pests using ecosystem services. We will always strive to improve our production model, but each season we also get a little better at really seeing this land, at hearing its song, at connecting with this particular place in the world.
We’re in a very privileged position. From the delicate waves of spring ephemerals to the giant oaks and cottonwoods (that have likely been growing since the time our state was completely deforested in the early 20th century) to the walnuts and hickories and wingstem fields, there is so much promise here. We’re honored to be entrusted with tending this land, and therein lies the fundamental premise upon which we make our decisions:
We stand on the shoulders of so many. We owe so much to those who came before and to those yet to come. How do our actions today contribute to a lush and verdant future for us all?
Fixer of broken toys and ripped pages. Tree-gazer + land lover. Shut up the wind is talking.
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