WEYERS CAVE, VA — The farm to table movement has arisen out of consumers’ growing interest in the provenance of their food, as well as the desire of farmers and producers to build and contribute to a new, more locally based food system.
The roots of this phenomenon go back decades, but there is no doubt the trend has reached a new kind of prominence in the last few years.
In Virginia, one way the energies behind this movement has been focused is the annual Farm to Table Conference, held in December, which brings together interested parties — from producers to researchers to private sector, such as a food buyer for a Virginia retirement community — together in one place.
That place is the Blue Ridge Community College Pecker Workforce Center, and the organizing force behind the conference since before its first annual occurrence has been Eric Bendfeldt. He’s had help over the years planning and organizing the conferences, but without him the event would not be what it is today.
This year’s event, as usual, had a mix of panel discussions, seminars, networking opportunities, and good food from Harrisonburg’s A Bowl of Good. The opening day’s featured speaker was Dr. Ricardo Salvador of the Union of Concerned Scientists. Other featured participants came from as far away as Vermont and Florida.
Alex Hitt, who together with his wife Betsy founded and operate a vegetable and cut flower operation outside of Chapel Hill, NC — Peregrine Farm — was on hand to share some of his accumulated wisdom with conference attendees.
Hitt direct markets about 70 percent of his farm’s production, largely through a local farmers market. Production takes place on just over three acres. Including the Hitts, the operation supports three people full-time.
One of Hitt’s seminars covered soil health. The highlights of that presentation will follow here.
“Farming is so complicated, has so many moving parts,” Hitt said. “I’m all about keeping it simple, keeping it close to home.”
With that in mind, when it comes to building and maintaining soil health, Hitt aims to maximize his sources of on-site fertility and soil-building factors, while being careful to evaluate the costs of corresponding off-site sources.
Soil can be thought of as a three-part system, with a physical component, a chemical component, and a biological component. What Hitt has focused on most of all is the biological component of his soils — building the soil food web on his farm.
If you are a new farmer, Hitt advised, “buy the best soil you can.” When you have a farm selected, use its best soils.
“The ideal soil,” Hitt said, “depends on the crop and the production system.” For example, in his part of North Carolina’s Piedmont, he finds sandy loam soils to be best for early season production, loam or silt loam the best for general horticulture, and clay loam the best for row crops, especially those grown without irrigation.
A farmer can greatly impact soil texture by tilling. Though Hitt does some no-till farming, such as for his peppers, “when raising vegetables,” he said, “you pretty much have to till,” to get good seed-to-soil contact.
His advice for tilling is to till when the soil is moist but not too dry. Also, to control compaction, he suggests varying your tillage pattern — sometimes deep, sometimes shallow — and vary the type of equipment you use. Also, use travelling lanes. That way the compaction that does occur is limited to certain areas.
In terms of supporting the biological life of your soils, Hitt said, organic matter is key. Because he believes that diversity leads to balance and thus to sustainability, he tries to have a diversity of sources for organic matter on his farm. That includes crop residue, cover crops, as well as compost and manure.
For 20 years the Hitts were able to provide organic matter to their soils primarily from vegetable sources on their farm, along with litter from turkeys which they raised for a few years. They do mix in 10 percent vermicompost into their transplant mix — “It gives us the most bang for the buck,” Hitt said — but during that interval they did not otherwise use imported manure or compost. This past year they did buy compost, in part because there is more commercially available compost, and in part to help maintain the organic matter of his farm’s soils.
“To me, the highest and best use of manure and compost is as an inoculant to soil life,” he said. In other words, instead of seeing manure and compost as a source of fertility for your crops, see it as food for the soil food web that will enrich the soil, which in turn will make nutrients available for your crops. Feeding your soil in this way may be advantageous, Hitt suggested, after you have solarized a patch of ground, as solarization can be “hard on soil life.”
One thing to keep in mind, Hitt said, is that during the peak growing season, your soil’s biological network can use a lot of organic matter, particularly if your soil has a near neutral pH and the soil is aerated, warm, and moist.
When those conditions are present, Hitt said, “It’ll release a lot of nutrients but it’ll also burn up the organic matter.”
To control the burn of organic matter, Hitt suggested tilling as little as possible, and when you do till, do so primarily when the soil temperature is cool (e.g., when possible, wait until after the heat of the summer months).
To keep track of your soil organic matter, note the CEC (cation exchange capacity) figure on your soil test results. As the CEC number goes up, organic matter is going up (and vice versa).
When it comes to taking soil test samples, always do so at the same time every year, so you can have consistency of data and thus see a meaningful pattern.
The goal in managing your soil’s organic matter, Hitt said, “is to attain a slow burn, a constant release of nutrients throughout the season.”
Cover crops are an integral part of Hitt’s operation. Not only do they provide organic matter to the soil, they also provide other environmental services, such as providing habitat for beneficial insects, weed suppression, reducing soil erosion, and providing free nitrogen.
To maximize the amount of nitrogen provided by legume cover crops, till when the crop is at half bloom, Hitt said. “After that, the crop is putting its nitrogen into seed.”
Using a mix of legumes and grasses in cover crops is something Hitt strongly recommends. “It’s really the roots of grass which build soil,” he said. For example, compare the size of the roots of oats to the size of the roots of clover.
When Hitt intends to use a plot for early planting, he uses a cover crop mix of oats and crimson clover. For later spring planting, he uses rye and hairy vetch. For summer cover crops that will be followed by a fall cash crop, he uses millet and soybeans. For a summer cover crop that will be followed by a winter cover crop, he uses sudangrass and cowpeas.