TALKING SHOP: Virginia Biological Farming Conference, January 30-31, 2004
Growing our own
Predominate theme of “healthy soil, healthy farms, healthy people” is intertwined with hot topics of on-farm self-sufficiency and community building.

By Mark Schonbeck
“How can we turn the tide?”   keynote speaker and local food activist Elizabeth Henderson asked the audience rhetorically after describing the corporatization of agriculture and its devastating impact on family farms. Her answer? “Create liberated zones,” where farmers make a decent living providing quality food to meet local needs, and where organizations like the Virginia Association for Biological Farming (VABF) and the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA) offer alternatives to the dominant system. “Organic farms play a special role,” she continued, “as laboratories where people can learn sustainable living.”

Henderson illustrated her main points with an inspiring account of her own 23-year odyssey as an organic grower, author and tireless advocate for a sustainable and socially just food system. She manages Peacework Farm, which provides top-quality organic produce for a community supported agriculture (CSA) membership of 270 families in upstate New York. Her CSA is a tight-knit community in which members honor their farm work commitments regardless of the weather, and a core group of 25 manages all the administrative and financial aspects of the operation. After sharing a wonderful slide show of her farm, Henderson concluded by envisioning a world in which food sovereignty – the right to grow, buy and eat local food – is respected, and “instead of bombs and missiles, people will exchange seeds and recipes.”

These inspiring words and images opened the 5th Annual Virginia Biological Farming Conference at the Southeast Virginia 4-H Center near Wakefield, Va. The gathering included roughly 150 growers, aspiring farmers, and agricultural professionals, about half of whom attended a pre-conference seed-saving workshop while Henderson—who is now revising her classic CSA treatise Sharing the Harvest—met with several Virginia CSA managers to learn about their successes, problems and innovations.

Breakout sessions covered organic production of horticultural crops, organic certification, sources of organic seed, CSAs, biological pest management, cover-crop-based organic no-till systems, pastured pork, ruminant health and nutrition, and various ways of utilizing beneficial soil microorganisms. In addition to the conference’s dominant theme of promoting “healthy soils, farms and people,” many sessions shared a second theme of “growing what you need to farm on the farm.”

Grow your own seeds

Ira Wallace and Cricket Rakitta of Southern Exposure Seed Exchange (SESE,

Sponsor Box:

The Virginia Biological Farming Conference is jointly sponsored by the Virginia Association for Biological Farming (VABF, P.O. Box 1003, Lexington, VA 24450; and Virginia Cooperative Extension. Andy Hankins, Extension Specialist in Sustainable Agriculture ( has coordinated this event for the past five years, and will do so again for the 2005 event, which will take place in central Virginia. Plans for the 2005 Virginia Biological Farming Conference will be posted on the VABF webSsite as they unfold.

VABF is Virginia's premier, non-profit, educational organization, dedicated to the vision of a sustainable food and fiber system that will maintain healthy soil, clean water and thriving ecosystems, while providing quality products for consumers and economic security for farmers and rural communities. in Louisa, Va. offered a pre-conference workshop on seed saving and organic seed production. SESE is one of nine partner organizations working with the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association on a SARE-funded project, Saving Our Seeds, with a long-term goal of creating an organic seed producers’ network and a secure regional seed supply. Throughout 2004, the project will offer free workshops entitled Whole Farm Planning for Organic Seed Crop Production and will support 30 growers producing organic seed for three priority vegetable crops. For more on Saving Our Seeds, contact Ellen Gray at 919-542-2402;

Wallace noted that small seed suppliers like Fedco, Abundant Life Seed Foundation and SESE are bucking the trend toward corporate consolidation of crop seeds by creating a partnership of regional suppliers offering locally-adapted seeds, rather than competing for wider markets. Their germplasm is in the hands of farmers, not locked up in high-tech facilities; this fortunate reality saved the day when Abundant Life suffered a devastating warehouse fire in 2003. The nonprofit recovered all of its most important crop varieties by contacting farmers who were growing them.

Using tomatoes and beans as examples, Rakitta and Wallace covered seed production basics. “Good seed production requires better soil nutrition than [does] good vegetable yields,” Rakitta said, listing off as essentials adequate phosphorus (P), calcium (Ca), magnesium (Mg) and micronutrient levels as well as proper soil pH (6.6 to 6.9). The pair also stressed good pest control through to seed maturation, which, relative to beans for example, extends a whopping 45 days beyond the “snap bean” or ideal food harvesting stage. They counseled that seeds should be dried as quickly as possible after harvest in a cool, dry, well-ventilated room with a wooden (not cement) floor. The presenters also covered isolation distances and minimum populations for various crops, roguing, seed harvesting, cleaning and storage, and provided written materials on vegetable seed production, seed cleaning equipment, and buyers of organic seed. For more information, contact Ira Wallace,; 540-894-0595, or visit

Grow your own bugs: beneficial insects and microbes

Insect biocontrol consultant Dr. Richard McDonald’s main message was that, through good farmscaping, a farmer can “grow” much of his or her own pest control. Farmscaping is the practice of planting mixtures of annual and perennial flowering plants around or within production fields to provide food (nectar and pollen) and year-round habitat for natural enemies of major crop pests. Dr. McDonald discussed biological pest management for field corn and broccoli, emphasizing that “the key component is the food plant. A well-fed parasitic wasp may lay 500 eggs, while a poorly fed one lays only 50.”

In addition to feeding and sheltering beneficials, Dr. McDonald explained, some farmscape plants attract certain pests as well, serving as a trap crop. For example, he said, when mustard in the farmscape mix attracts harlequin bugs or flea beetles, the grower can spot the pests and soap-spray or remove them before they invade the cash crop. When early spring clover or vetch attracts aphids, however, McDonald says “don’t spray! The aphids will support the ladybugs you’ll need later on in your crops.” For larger fields, McDonald recommended farmscaping the perimeter and planting narrow strips across the field at intervals determined by the dispersal range of the key beneficial insects you want to attract. Ground beetles and lady beetles do not move very far, he said, so require strips at only every 50 feet or so, whereas some parasitic wasps and flies utilize up to a quarter-mile foraging territory. McDonald maintains an excellent web site at with pest bio-control information for many crops.

On the microscopic level, Dr. Jerzy Nowak of Virginia Tech described the role of rhizosphere microorganisms in plant health (see “Practical tools and solutions for sustaining family farms” for details). Steve Diver of ATTRA discussed compost teas and other biologically active extracts that contain soluble nutrients, bioactive substances that promote crop growth or prevent disease, and beneficial microbes. Many of these materials can be made from on-farm resources, he explained, and can be used directly on crop foliage, on the soil, or on manure or other organic residues to promote beneficial decomposition and control odors.

Diver described two kinds of compost tea: non-aerated (fermented), and aerated (brewed in a homemade or commercial brewer with constant aeration). While compost teas have been shown to improve crop yields, reduce disease, and restore worn-out soils, current USDA organic standards regulate them as “raw manure,” unless derived from all-vegetable matter or tested to be E. coli-free (tests available from Industrial Microbial Labs For more on compost teas, visit

Diver also discussed effective microorganisms (EM)—a formula of fermentative-anaerobic bacteria, actinomycetes and yeasts developed in Japan—and indigenous microorganisms (IM), a method of propagating beneficial microflora from on-farm sources. “Don’t let the word ‘anaerobic’ scare you,” he emphasized. Fermentative anaerobic systems like EM and fermented foods contain beneficial substances and organisms, he said; it is only the putrefactive anaerobic processes that yield pathogens, other harmful substances and bad odors. Commercially available EM concentrates are activated and diluted at the farm, Diver said, then used as foliar feed, livestock probiotic, compost inoculant, or odor-control treatment for manure or food wastes. Significant benefits to both crops and livestock have been observed, he said. For information and sources of EM, see,, or

Korean natural farmers have cultured and used indigenous microorganisms (IM) from their soil since the 1960s, Diver said, describing how boiled rice is placed in contact with forest soil or leaf mold (very rich in mycorrhizae) for one week, after which time the inoculated rice is mixed 1:1 with molasses, diluted 20-fold and fermented an additional week. Various recipes call for additional plant-derived materials, Diver said, and final products are applied to plant foliage, soil or composting materials. Diver also discussed biodynamic preparations, fermented nettle and comfrey teas, and a series of complex recipes developed in Auroville, India to treat 64 different crop diseases and pests. For more information, contact Steve Diver at, or visit

Grow your own beauty

Alex and Betsy Hitt, who support themselves entirely by producing organic flowers and vegetables on about 4 acres, described their system for raising and selling cut flowers. “We live by cover crops,” Alex Hitt began, “and we soil test each section annually to track P, K [potassium] and lime, adding amendments in September if needed.” Flower crops, grouped by season of planting and harvest, are integrated into an eight-year rotation with vegetables and cover crops. The three main groups are: winter hardy (to USDA Cold Hardiness Zone 7a; 0-5°F), half-hardy (to 20°F) and tender. The Hitts plant hardy species in September for early, vigorous and long-stemmed blooms in spring. Some flowers are direct seeded and others are started in the greenhouse in 128-cell trays. In the field, the flowers have few insect pests; weeds are controlled by flame weeding before emergence and by wheel hoe thereafter; fences exclude deer and varmints.

Their flower-growing venture began one season with a few rows of zinnias to add a little beauty to their vegetable fields. When these sold like hotcakes through their farmstand, the Hitts added other flowers and began making bouquets for grocery stores. Within three years of soaring demand, they expanded their flowers to two acres with 160 different varieties, which they bring to farmer’s market and a grocery store. In addition to providing spectacular three-tiered displays at their farmers’ market booth and generating about half the farm’s income, the flowering crops make effective farmscape, attracting beneficial insects to their fields.

“Harvest and post-harvest handling are the most important parts of the flower operation,” Hitt noted. Flowers must be harvested at the right stage for maximum vase life. Immediately after harvest, cut stems are placed in the shade in a bucket of water (ideally with a floral preservative), then stored in coolers at 32°F for cool-season flowers and 45°F for tender species. The Hitts are now looking into floral preservatives allowable under the federal Organic Rule.

Cover crops in full bloom also add beauty and beneficial habitat to the farm and can be managed without tillage for maximum benefits. Dr. Ron Morse and I gave a presentation on cover crop based organic no-till vegetable production systems. For more on this research, see Organic No-Till for Vegetable Production? (

Growing Together

Community building became yet another common theme of this gathering. In addition to presentations, the conference offered a trade show, country dancing, several farm videos, and opportunities for informal discussions and networking. Fourteen children attended a youth program with workshops on healthful cooking, folk medicine, wilderness skills, exploring soils, and nature-inspired art. VABF held its annual membership meeting, fundraising raffle, and informal regional chapter meetings. On Friday evening, Steve Diver, Jerzy Nowak, farmer and organic certifier Marty Mesh, and pastured hog producer Emile DeFelice led a wide-ranging discussion attempting to answer the question “where are we headed in organic farming?” Several people noted that the future lies in building partnerships among growers, consumers, researchers, breeders and other stakeholders.

At the closing circle, participants said that, in addition to the valuable information shared, they really appreciated the sense of community and interconnectedness among a diverse group. Many felt that the conference went beyond “organic” and “making a living” to true sustainability, of which the connections among each and all of us are an essential part. One participant contrasted the spirit of the event to the competitive nature of business relationships in the “real world,” while another simply affirmed that “this is the real world.”

A longer version of this report may be viewed at the VABF website.