TALKING SHOP: Future Harvest-CASA, Hagerstown, MD, Jan. 16 - 17, 2004

Nothing middling about the Mid-Atlantic
Inspiring keynotes, inventive farmer members, local & organic foods make Future Harvest-CASA conference a big success.

By Laura Sayre

S p o n s o r B o x
Future Harvest-CASA

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 and stewardship.

Contact info:
Future Harvest-CASA
P.O. Box 337
106 Market Court
Stevensville, MD 21666

More 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.


Posted February 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.

"Soil 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 year-round.

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 dramatically."

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 great."

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 to do."

Four Season farming

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 people don't.

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

"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 precise.

"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 farming.)

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 (; there are now eight season-extension farms in Maine, and every year the group gets together at a different farm to share ideas.

"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."