p o n s o r B o x
Founded in 1998, Future Harvest-CASA is a non-profit
network of farmers, researchers, landowners, consumers,
and activists in the Chesapeake region. Future
Harvest-CASA works to promote profitable and sustainable
food and farming systems by exploring new crops
and new markets for farmers, stimulating consumer
demand for locally grown food, and promoting conservation
P.O. Box 337
106 Market Court
Stevensville, MD 21666
from the Future Harvest-CASA Conference
For more profiles from the Future Harvest-CASA
Conference, see Stars
of the Chesapeake, featuring a few
of the inspiring farmers who presented.
13, 2004: Future Harvest-Chesapeake Alliance for Sustainable
Agriculture celebrated its fifth birthday in 2003, but judging
from their annual conference in Hagerstown last month, you'd
think the group had years of organizing and community building
under its belt. This year's program brought together a remarkable
collection of talented and passionate farmers from throughout
the Mid-Atlantic region.
Fittingly, one of the best things about the conference was
the food. The CASA-Future Harvest organizers made an outstanding
effort to put regionally grown foods on the menu for every
meal, including: grass-fed beef raised by Don and Jose Delp
of Deep Creek Farm in Whiteford, Md.; organic chicken from
Eberly Poultry in Stevens, Pa.; rabbit from Springfield Farm
in Sparks, Md.; shiitake and maitake mushrooms grown by Paul
Goland of Hardscrabble Enterprises in Franklin, W. Va.; mesclun
and arugula salads from Brett Grosghal and Christine Bergmark
of Even' Star Organic Farm in Lexington Park, Md.; free-range
eggs from Alison Putnam and Luke Howard of Homestead Farm
in Centreville, Md.; goats' milk cheeses made by Mike Koch
and Pablo Solonet at FireFly Farms Organic in Bittinger, Md.;
sheeps' milk cheeses made by Everona Dairy in Rapidan, Va.;
cheeses, yogurts, and ice cream from South Mountain Creamery
in Middletown, Md.; and last but certainly not least, Maryland
wines from Fiori Winery and Boordy Vineyards. After dinner
on Friday evening, the Sheraton Four Points chef, Scott Stouffer,
was invited out from the kitchen for a round of applause.
Here's hoping that all sustainable farming conferences can
put their money where their mouths are—er, their mouths
where their monies are?—when it comes to planning meals.
is meant to be covered"
The conference kicked off with a keynote presentation by Pennsylvania
farmer and no-till champion Steve Groff. Groff's Cedar Meadow
Farm, in Lancaster County, has 225 acres in production, of which
80 are devoted to tomatoes, sweet corn, and pumpkins. The operation
is 100 percent no till and averages 80 percent residue cover
Groff describes his method of farming as a "permanent
cover cropping system," featuring a wide variety of cover
crops, crop rotations, and permanent mulches. Groff got started
with no till in the early 1980s because he just couldn't live
with the gullies he found on his farm.
"A lot of times as farmers we turn our backs on soil
erosion," Groff noted. "But that's not good enough—you
can't have that on your conscience." "Go out in
a heavy rain and see what happens on your farm," he said.
"You should know."
Today, Groff's mantra is "soil is meant to be covered."
"My goal is to have something growing in all my fields
at all times. I like to plant a crop a half an hour after
I've taken the previous crop off."
||Groff reports that for him, converting
to no till has gone hand in hand with a reduction in chemical
inputs. "Since we started doing vegetable crops no
till in 1996, pest and disease pressures have dropped
Cedar Meadow Farm is not certified organic, and Groff does
make limited use of chemical pesticides and herbicides. He
generally knocks down his cover crops, for instance, with
a small amount of glyphosate (Roundup®) followed by a
pass a couple days later with a modified Buffalo stalk-chopper.
Groff reports that for him, converting to no till has gone
hand in hand with a reduction in chemical inputs.
"Since we started doing vegetable crops no till in 1996,
pest and disease pressures have dropped dramatically,"
Groff said. "No-till pumpkins are getting a lot of interest
now, because there's less soil splash and so less cosmetic
damage, which is a real bonus."
Like other practitioners of no-till, Groff says the two greatest
challenges are limited equipment availability and relatively
cold and wet soils. For Groff, however, the first of these
is in truth part of no till's appeal. "Innovating is
what drives me as a farmer," he explained. "I love
to be out there tinkering with things, trying to figure out
how to do something better." After several years of experimentation,
he had a no-till vegetable planter custom-built by RJ Equipment.
There's also a lot more ready-made no-till equipment on the
market now than there was even just a few years ago. Last
year, Groff acquired a no-till plastic layer from Ireland,
designed to lay down a thin, clear, photodegradable plastic
to warm up the soil for an earlier crop. After "about
50 hours of tinkering," Groff succeeded in laying the
film over double rows of newly-planted corn. When the corn
is a couple inches tall, Groff explained, you slice the plastic
down the middle with a single disk coulter.
When Groff speaks, you hear the fervor of a true pioneer.
"For 150 years, farmers have been using steel to move
from grass cover to bare soil. No till turns that around,
tries to move from bare soil to grass cover." No till
is a young science, Groff noted, and there's still not that
much knowledge about how and why the system works.
||"Innovating is what drives me
as a farmer," [Groff] explained. "I love to
be out there tinkering with things, trying to figure out
how to do something better."
For that reason among others, Groff is a strong advocate
of on-farm research. He credits University of Maryland soil
scientist Ray Weil with "lighting my fire to learn about
the soil." Since 1996, a series of Weil's graduate students
have monitored test plots at Cedar Meadow Farm, examining
the effects of no-till on various soil characteristics. (He
has also done some collaborative research with The Rodale
Institute® on no-till management of food-grade soybeans.)
"I learn so much from having these people around on the
farm," Groff said. "It's like still being in college—it's
But the real key to no till, Groff emphasized, is thoughtful
and attentive management. "Put more time in planning
than in labor and tillage. Scout the fields. Learn all you
can about the soil." "It's art and technique. There's
a sixth sense to farming—sometimes you just know what
The conference keynotes continued on Saturday with a pair
of presentations by Maine sustainable farming gurus Eliot
Coleman and Barbara Damrosch.
The author of The
New Organic Grower, Four
Season Harvest, and other books, Coleman bought the land
that is now Four Season Farm from Helen and Scott Nearing
in 1968, and cleared it with the help of "various hippie
apprentices." After farming there for about a decade,
he left to work as a farm manager and consultant for another
ten years or so, but held on to the property. When Coleman
and Damrosch were married in 1991, they moved back to Maine
and began developing an organic season-extension system inspired
by traditional European market gardening practices.
People often ask them why they choose to farm in such an
apparently inhospitable environment, said Damrosch: in addition
to enduring long, cold winters, the farm sits on a sandy,
shallow soil with a natural pH of around 4.3. Their response
is twofold: in the first place, they argue that there should
be local farms everywhere, not just in the most favorable
climates. In the second place, even in what she calls "turquoise
rectangle country"—where you can count scores of
backyard swimming pools from your airplane window—in
climates where you can grow veggies outside year round, most
The Four Season system began with Dutch-style cold frames,
evolved to a small, hoop-style greenhouse mounted on ball
bearings and angle iron so that it could be pushed back and
forth over the growing areas, and eventually developed into
their existing arrangement, in which the greenhouses are built
on aluminum skids and pulled back and forth by tractor. Moveable
greenhouses make it possible to start fall crops outdoors
and then cover them as temperatures fall; biannual outdoor
exposure of the growing areas also helps control pests and
disease. The houses' end walls are built with flaps along
their lower edge that can be lifted over the standing crops
when the structures are moved.
||...there should be local farms everywhere,
not just in the most favorable climates.
Within the greenhouses—which are generally only heated
on harvest days—the beds can be covered with remay for
additional frost protection. Each layer of cover, Barbara
explained, is roughly equivalent to one and a half plant hardiness
zones, so with two layers of cover in Maine, it's like the
plants are spending the winter in Georgia. (Full details on
the Four Season Farm growing system can be found in Coleman
and Damrosch's self-published Winter Harvest Manual,
available for $15.00 via www.fourseasonfarm.com.)
"Someone compared our farm to a giant crisper drawer,"
said Barbara. "The plants are almost in suspended animation,"
as growth slows in response to shorter days and cooler temperatures.
This means much less labor in the winter: few weeds, few pests,
and very little watering.
Damrosch and Coleman have done extensive trialing of different
crops and varieties to discover what works best under these
conditions. They do lots of lettuces and other baby greens,
including tatsoi, mizuna, an open-leafed Chinese cabbage,
a narrow-stemmed chard, and buckshorn plantain. But they also
grow carrots, potatoes, radishes, squashes, and much more.
They harvest twice a week and make deliveries to a local food
co-op, a few 'Mom & Pop' grocery stores, and a number
of area restaurants.
"Every year the farm gets
more and more intensively cultivated," Damrosch
said... "We have found that investments in efficiency
are always worth the expense," observed Coleman.
"Every year the farm gets more and more intensively
cultivated," Damrosch said; "we now do up to six
crops per year in a single bed." "Eliot's tools
are becoming more and more like surgical instruments,"
as their techniques are perfected and the regimen grows more
"We have found that investments in efficiency are always
worth the expense," observed Coleman. These can be simple
things—like increasing the diameter of the pipes supplying
water to and draining it from the sinks, which cut produce
washing time in half.
That kind of painstaking attention to detail has paid off.
In 2003, Four Season Farm grossed $100,000 on just an acre
and a half of ground, including 12,500 sq ft under cover.
Now both in their sixties, every year Coleman and Damrosch
reevaluate "each crop's profit and pain factor,"
as Damrosch puts it. As a rule of thumb, they say each crop
has to return $1.50/sq ft for two months to be worth growing.
They also consider the larger questions: should they adjust
the percentage of sales to restaurants versus sales to retail
stores? Should they go back to taking a season off? Which
one? (They used to take the summer off, when Maine fills with
tourists and second-homers and most farmers do most of their
Despite their differences in scale and approach, Coleman
and Damrosch have a number of things in common with the Groff
family operation. Like Groff, Coleman and Damrosch are completely
open about their practices and techniques and are eager to
convert other farmers to their methods. A few years ago, Four
Season Farm hosted a season extension workshop in conjunction
with the Maine Organic Farmers and Growers Association (www.mofga.org);
there are now eight season-extension farms in Maine, and every
year the group gets together at a different farm to share
||"Pests and disease are not enemies,
they are indicators. I can either pay attention to their
message, or I can kill the messenger."
In their own ways, too, Coleman and Groff are both gearheads.
Coleman shared with the audience his vision of a series of
hand tools powered by the type of rechargeable battery used
for cordless drills. One could be a hand-held scoop, somewhat
like a low-bush blueberry scoop, with a tiny sickle-bar for
harvesting baby greens. "That could be the tool of the
century for market gardeners," Coleman whistled. Just
as practitioners of no-till must constantly research and innovate
to find the tools they need, small-acreage market gardeners
face a gap between tools designed for the home gardener and
tools designed for the small farmer.
All three keynote speakers, finally, sounded a theme familiar
to advocates of sustainable agriculture: the importance of
understanding the farm environment as an ecological system
and listening to the feedback that system provides. As Coleman
put it, "The goal is to create a plant positive, rather
than a pest negative environment." "Pests and disease
are not enemies, they are indicators. I can either pay attention
to their message, or I can kill the messenger."