2003 Virginia Biological Farming Conference

Virginia small-farm group welcomes conventional growers to conference.

By Mark Schonbeck

For more on the Virginia Association for Biological Farming (VABF). . .

Check out their website at

While you're there, take a look at their upcoming activities and events by clicking on "calendar".




About 130 people attended the conference, including a number of conventional farmers new to the organization, who found the conference exciting and highly informative.























Breakouts on Agronomics

Of particular interest to the conventional growers were breakout sessions on agronomic crops and pastured livestock:

Kathleen Delate and Curtis Bennett of Clarkson Grain in Illinois, describing how to grow and market organic corn, soybean and other grains successfully.

Texas farmer John Evridge, who produces 500 acres of certified-organic cotton, and encouraged larger-scale Virginia farmers to consider organic cotton.

John Burns, an independent organic inspector in Virginia, and Bob Clark, who operates an organic feed mill in North Carolina, discussed opportunities in organic feed production and contract production of certified organic eggs.

Sandy Fisher described his system for raising pastured beef and poultry on 1,200 acres in central Virginia.

Paul Willis, whose Niman Ranch Pork Company in Iowa markets pastured pork for some 250 producers, outlined production and marketing of pastured hogs.












For more information on ISU's organic transition research contact:
Kathleen Delate
Assistant Professor
106 Horticulture Hall
Iowa State University
Ames, IA 50011

To order:
Biointensive Insect Management in Sweet Corn, by Ruth Hazzard and Pam Westgate
UMass Extension
Bookstore at 413-545-2716



Mark Schonbeck is editor of VABF’s quarterly 12-page newsletter, The Virginia Biological Farmer.

For details:
P.O. Box 1003
Lexington, VA 24450
(540) 463-6363

From State to State: Dr. Kathleen Delate, Extension Organic Crop Specialist at Iowa State University, shares promising Iowa organic study with Virginia farmers.

February 14, 2003
Is it possible to make a living on the family farm anymore? Can sustainable practices improve the farm’s bottom line? What are the market opportunities for organic produce, eggs, dairy, meat, or grains? With farm commodity prices falling to historic lows, more farmers are asking these questions. In planning the 2003 Virginia Biological Farming Conference, co-sponsors Virginia Association for Biological Farming (VABF) and Virginia Cooperative Extension sought to help growers find answers and explore alternatives.

VABF has historically been an organization of market gardeners, small-scale farmers, homesteaders and health-conscious consumers. The group now recognizes a need to reach out to larger-scale conventional farmers struggling to make a living on livestock, grains and row crops.

Conference coordinator Andy Hankins—VABF Board member and an Extension Specialist in Sustainable Agriculture— recommended that we hold this year’s event in the Tidewater area of southeast Virginia, where grain, cotton and peanut growers have been hard-hit by low commodity prices. Our aim was to introduce growers to opportunities for larger-scale sustainable enterprises that could improve financial returns while enhancing soil and environmental health.

Speakers from Iowa, Illinois, Texas, New York and Massachusetts, as well as Virginia and neighboring states, covered production and marketing of organic grains and row crops; pastured beef, pork and poultry; and horticultural crops, sharing information that could be adapted to Virginia’s climates and soils. About 130 people attended the conference, including a number of conventional farmers new to our organization, who found the conference exciting and highly informative.

The Iowa story of going organic
Dr. Kathleen Delate, Extension Organic Crop Specialist at Iowa State University (ISU), discussed the rapidly growing organic farming movement in Iowa, and offered suggestions and encouragement for Virginia farmers. About 500 Iowa farms now grow organic corn, soybeans, small grains and forages on a total of 120,000 acres. Some farms also produce organic vegetables, berries, apples, grapes and medicinal herbs.

Farmers’ focus groups met in 1998 to identify organic growers’ research needs, which have guided the ISU organic research agenda. Topics include organic vs. conventional rotations, soil amendments and cover crops for organic vegetables, sustainable tillage, selected pest and disease problems, and organic fruit production in southwest Iowa.

Delate is comparing a conventional two-year rotation of corn-soybean with organically managed rotations of corn-soybean, and corn-soybean-oats/alfalfa (3 or 4 years). Over the last five years, corn and soybean yields from the 4-year organic rotation have equaled conventional yields, with net economic returns of $290 per acre, compared to $73 per acre for conventional corn-soybean. The organic system also improved soil quality, with increased aggregate stability (a measure of soil tilth), lower leachable nitrate levels, higher organic matter, fewer soybean cyst nematodes, and a 128 percent increase in soil microbial biomass.

In horticultural trials, scab-resistant apple varieties such as ‘Jonafree’, ‘Redfree’ and ‘Liberty’ did well in organic production. The new clay-based pest control Surround® effectively controlled codling moth and apple maggot. For grapes, Kathleen suggested regionally adapted varieties, rather than drought-adapted French or California varieties, which succumb to disease in the more humid climates of Iowa and Virginia.

Workshop Highlights
One of the most popular speakers was David Stern, manager of Rose Valley Farm in Rose, NY and director of the Garlic Seed Foundation. He offered a 3-hour pre-conference workshop and slide show on garlic production and marketing to a crowd of 50 people.

He covered selecting and planting seed, soil fertility, weed control, harvest and post-harvest handling. After the slide show, he demonstrated a fast, simple way to make handsome “string braids” of hardneck-garlic, which can be difficult to braid in the usual manner.

David also gave an excellent session on weed control without chemicals, based on his 30 years experience as an organic vegetable producer, using crop rotation, cover crops, mulches, and ingenious cultivation strategies. For more information on garlic, visit

Sybil Mays of Paradise Nursery in Virginia Beach gave two excellent and well-attended workshops on production of small fruits such as blueberries, raspberries and figs. She covered variety choices, production methods, site selection, soil and pest management, and economic aspects, and offered handouts with lots of resources to help the new grower get started. For more info, visit

Marketable organic sweet corn – impossible? Not so, says Pam Westgate of the U. Mass. Vegetable Extension Program, who has had promising results on bio-control of caterpillar pests on sweet corn. One breakthrough was to treat the tips of ears with a vegetable oil-Bt mixture, about six days after the silks emerge, to control corn earworm. Materials and labor cost $91/acre, which is comparable to conventional pesticides for this pest.

Tom Christenberry described Vermicycle Organics, his vermicomposting operation in North Carolina, in which red worms process hog waste solids from a 600-sow operation. This reduces odors by 80 percent and removes most of the phosphorus from the waste stream.

Christenberry sells both worms and bagged worm castings. Some 75 percent of the 400 amateur and professional gardeners who use the castings report improved plant growth.

Panel discusses family farms and the NOP
Friday evening’s panel on sustaining family farms generated the most energetic audience participation. The panel consisted of: Margaret Merrill, agricultural librarian at Virginia Tech; Tom Slate, head of the Marketing Division of the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS); David Stern of Rose Valley Farm, New York; and John Burns, certification inspector and former VABF Board president.

Questions quickly zeroed in on the National Organic Program (NOP), and its impact on smaller farms and the organic movement as a whole. Burns and Stern observed that “organic” has become big business, and has lost touch with some of its original ideals.

One hog farmer in the audience noted that Smithfield, the nation’s largest corporate pork producer, is developing an antibiotic/hormone-free line. She asked, “How can the small farmer compete?” Burns and Merrill urged small producers to focus on local markets, where the farmer-customer connection provides the “inspection.” Yet Merrill noted that the NOP label allows inner-city folks to know what is organic.

When asked what the State of Virginia can do to help, Tom Slate noted that Virginia has accessed Federal funds for organic certification cost-share at 75 percent up to $500. However, only $30,000 is available to Virginia farmers this year on a first come first served basis. Stern noted that New York faces a similar situation.

Slate emphasized that the VDACS marketing division wants to help Virginia’s small and organic farms, and has initiated several programs to promote Virginia-grown foods. Several farmers voiced frustration over VDACS regulations that are costly and burdensome for small farms who direct-market meat and dairy products. Slate acknowledged their concerns, but noted that these regulations are outside the purview of the VDACS marketing division.

VABF President Katherine Smith spoke appreciatively of Slate and other allies within VDACS, and said “let’s focus on local, and let’s create the scene we want.”

Burns noted that the costs of organic certification are not limited to direct fees, but includes the work of maintaining an audit trail for each crop, which can create a strong disincentive to diversify. Charlie Maloney, a VABF board member, added that he does not plan to certify his CSA farm, on which he produces 40 different vegetables, several fruit and eggs.

“People out there want our stuff, and the personal connection,” Maloney said. “I tell new customers that I am not certified organic, but I grow in accord with organic principles. I answer any question and invite them to visit the farm. Customers are pleased and they join up.”

In their concluding remarks, Merrill and Slate urged growers to contact Virginia Tech, Virginia State University and VDACS to ask questions and let them know their needs. Stern urged organic and conventional farmers to work together to transform the food system into something more sustainable for everybody.

Several local chapters of VABF met over breakfast to discuss the coming season. Local chapters host many of VABF’s farm field days, workshops, and consumer education events; and will also staff a VABF display at several agricultural fairs this season.