HOT SPRINGS, VA — In January, the 18th annual conference of the Virginia Association for Biological Farming (VABF) attracted 400 people from across the Old Dominion and beyond to Bath County’s historic The Homestead Resort.
The keynote speaker, Maurice Small, is a food landscape strategist known for promoting regional food systems and developing food production networks in urban and underserved areas. His work has taken him from Ohio to North Carolina and many places in between.
Farmers are alchemists, Small said. “They take something and turn it into something else.” In that way, farmers perform the same function as any number of natural processes found in agriculture. Take, for example, a worm, which consumes organic matter and leaves behind castings and creates pores in the soil for water and air.
Respecting the functions of nature, Small said, is the key to being a successful farmer. “If there is only one thing we can do,” he said, “it’s to pass on what nature teaches. Nature is the best teacher.”
“When we drove here,” he continued, “many of us on icy roads, we had to respect nature to safely travel the roads. You must respect nature or you won’t get to the other side of the mountain.”
One of the alchemists present at the conference was Edmund Frost, a grower of seeds, produce, and herbs at Sycamore Farm in Botetourt County, as well as the founder of Common Wealth Seed Growers (CWSG).
Frost started CWSG because, as he put it, he saw “a real need for plant breeding, selection, and trialing” to create varieties that were adapted to commercial organic vegetable production in the mid-Atlantic and southeast.
Specifically, Frost has been researching downy mildew resistance (DMR) in cucurbits. For several years Frost has field tested DMR cucumber lines developed by Cornell University researchers (including Dr. Michael Mazourek). Their DMR 264 (released in 2015) and DMR 401 (available this year) cucumbers are only available through CWSG.
The DMR 264 variety is best adapted for the middle of summer, when the weather is hottest, as it fruits late and produces small slicing cucumbers. DMR 401 has an earlier maturity and higher yields, but seed availability is limited this year.
In 2016, Frost received a SARE grant to further his research into DMR and fruit quality in winter squash. One of his long-standing projects is the cross of the Waltham butternut variety to the Seminole pumpkin variety to create a DMR butternut for the East Coast. The trial is not complete but Frost is already selling seed from the F6 population. When released, it will be called the South Anna butternut, after the river in Central Virginia, which is situated near where Frost started work on the cross. Frost hopes it will become a staple production butternut variety for the region.
CWSG, which is a cooperative of farmers selling farmer-direct seeds, also has DMR melon and DMR gourd seed.
At the conference, Frost hosted a tasting where participants got to sample a variety of winter squash and evaluate their taste and other eating qualities. The tasting attracted a lot of attendees to hear Frost talk about his DMR research.
It’s informative presentations such as Frost’s that got Marlin Burkholder of Glen Eco Farm to the event. “I like the educational value of what goes on here,” he said.
Burkholder, who lives and farms in Rockingham County, is just one participant in the conference who is part of a multi-generational farming family that has found a way to survive by focusing on selling to local markets.
Chris Trice, a fourth generation farmer from Goochland County, is another example. Keeping his progenitors’ land in production hasn’t been easy, he said.
“Two things we’ve held onto are the land and my grandfather’s tractor and I’m proud to say I work both today.”