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 and stewardship.
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,
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 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
"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
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
||"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
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 to do."
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 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 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 (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 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."