State to State: Dr. Kathleen Delate, Extension
Organic Crop Specialist at Iowa State University,
shares promising Iowa organic study with Virginia
February 14, 2003
WAKEFIELD, VA: 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.
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 www.garlicseedfoundation.info.
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 www.paradisenursery.com.
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
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
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
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
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.