Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Organic Production Training

I am in Chapel Hill (hold your groans Wolfpack) for an advanced organic production training for extension agents. This is a unique program that has brought together agents and educators from Alabama, Arkansas, South Carolina and North Carolina with the goal of creating a network of agriculture professionals with expertise in organic production. The training is funded by a Southern SARE grant that was put together by Dr. Elena Garcia (U. Arkansas), Dr. Jeanine Davis (NC State) and specialists at Clemson and Auburn.

On Tuesday, we spent time in the classroom learning about the following topics:
  • A brief overview of organic certification, including National Organic Program Standards, transition time and the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI) - Taught by Tony Kleese of the Earthwise Company in Wake Forest, NC
  • How to answer questions about controlling disease and insect problems organically - Taught by Debbie Roos, agriculture agent in Chatham County, NC and creator of the Growing Small Farms website, which many of us use regularly (I know I do!)
  • How to help a grower design a crop, cover crop, and crop rotation plan - Taught by Richard Boylan, area specialized agent in Watauga and Ashe Counties, NC
  • Successful extension programs in organics, with examples from Debbie and Richard
The topics and speakers were outstanding! Debbie and Richard are great examples of successful agents with successful programs. They are inspiring and energizing. It was great to hear about these agents' programs and to get ideas for programs we can do in WNC.

Today we spent all day touring farms in Chatham County and learning from successful, sustainable growers about their techniques and opinions.

The first farm we visited was Timberwood Organics in Efland.

Here we met Ray Christopher, an impressive and experienced farmer who was happy to see us, but definitely had his mind on surfing.

Ray showed us his chard production...

Lettuce transplant production...

Bok choy production...

and squash production, which was remarkably disease free for a fall planting.

Next, we were off to Peregrine Farm in Graham, NC. An intensive vegetable and cut flower operation, which utilizes high tunnels.

Here we met the man, the legend, Alex Hitt and his equally impressive wife, Betsy. These two are rock stars in the world of organic production. They have been growing for more than 25 years and are extremely knowledgeable and excellent teachers. Below Alex is explaining his motto of "Farm Smarter Not Harder" and the interesting structure of Peregrine Farm, which started as a corporation funded by members of the community. Today, Alex and Betsy are the sole shareholders of Peregrine Farm and have diverse marketing avenues including local tailgate markets, Weaver St. Market, and local restaurants.

Here we saw Zinnias and other cut flowers. I learned about the soldier beetle, seen below. Debbie taught me that soldier beetle adults feed on soft-bodied insects like aphids and the soldier bug larvae feeds on grasshopper eggs. Cool!

The Hitts have a passive solar greenhouse where they start better than 250,000 transplants per year!

Alex explained that the insect balance on Peregrine Farm is amazing.
He also stated that other than a few foliar diseases on tomato and Zinnias, one of the biggest disease problems they struggle with is Southern Stem Blight (Sclerotium rolfsii) on tomato and pepper. To control it, sanitation is key. Diseased plants are culled as early and carefully as possible and burned. Irrigation is buried deeply in areas with problems in order to discourage water from the area where mycelium is actively growing. This helps to retard fungal growth and discourage the spread of the fungus.

Alex also described weed management on Peregrine Farms. He stressed that weed management really is crop dependent. Here are some of the techniques they use:
  1. Dense planting, to shade out weeds. Ex. lettuce is grown on 3 rows/bed and cultivated only once
  2. Landscaping mulch,
  3. No-till,
  4. Mowing,
  5. Cultivation and wheel hoeing, and
  6. Flame weeding (beets and flowers that take a long time to germinate)
Here is peppers grown using no-till.

Finally, Alex showed us his coolers. He stressed that no matter how great a job you do prior to harvest, if you do not handle that produce properly post-harvest, all of your hard work was wasted. They have 2 coolers, one for cool season flowers and vegetables (32 degrees F) and one for warmer season crops (45-50 degrees F).

Read more about Peregrine Farm at Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group's website.

Next, we moved onto Benjamin Vineyards in Graham, NC.

Here we met Nancy Zeman, who treated us to wine samples...

and her husband Andy who showed us around the vineyard where they practice "sustainable winegrowing".

It was a great treat to taste the different varieties of muscadines, especially coming from WNC where muscadines are harder to find.

Next, we were off to Central Carolina Community College (CCCC) in Pittsboro, where they have a Sustainable Agriculture Program (2 year associates degree, 1 year certificate or continuing education classes). At CCCC we met the Land Lab (student farm) manager, Hillary, a graduate of the program. Hillary explained that they have 1 acre in production that is split into 8 production blocks.

About half f the blocks are in produce and the other half are in cover crops. Below is some buckwheat.

Hillary was particularly proud of the tomatoes that she was cultivating from suckers. Her third generation planted in the high tunnel. She explained that she simply took suckers a few inches in length, stripped any flowers, placed them in a vase with willow cuttings (known to have rooting properties) and in 7-10 days she had plants ready to be transplanted. Very impressive!

We got to see the BCS rototiller and hand tools that are used on the farm. All the beds were made by hand. Tony Kleese explained that the BCS is a great/essential tool for small scale (less than 2 acres) agriculture. It has a PTO shaft and you can easily mount other equipment on it, like a mower.

The CCCC Land Lab was truly an impressive site. The farm is expanding to twice its size in the next year. There are also plans to make the program even more holistic, bringing in a culinary program and new crops, like southern apple varieties and other perennial crops. They even have a pizza oven!

Our final stop for the day was at Eastern Carolina Organics (ECO) where Sandy Kronik and Todd Dunke explained how they market and distribute organically grown produce in the Carolinas. ECO is farmer owned; 80% of the sales go back to the farmers!

At ECO products are pooled from diverse growing regions throughout the Carolinas in order to meet a demand for a steady stream of high-quality, seasonal produce year round.

As you can tell, it was a busy day. But, I certainly learned a great deal - much more than I could fit here!

One of the most impressive things about today was that every farmer we met was not only focused on organic and sustainable production practices and high-quality produce, but also on a high-quality of life. Each grower stressed the importance of taking time to take care of themselves, because, afterall their hard work and energy must also be sustainable.

Special thanks to all the farmers, agents and specialists involved in this training.

If you want to learn more about organic production of vegetables, please consider taking the Transitioning to Organics nine-week course this fall starting on 22 Sept.

No comments: