Posted February 16, 2006: Donnie Fulks was
13 when his family moved in 1972 from rapidly urbanizing Montgomery
County, Maryland, where his grandfather and father operated
a poultry farm, to a new 1,000 acre farm in Spotsylvania County,
Virginia--Belvedere Plantation (www.belvedereplantation.com).
At the time, the county was very rural; now, it is one of
the most rapidly growing areas in the country.
The current strong demand for organic feed in the East allows
the farm to add value to crops. Its location in the midst
of a suburbanizing region could be a problem, but the entrepreneurial
family capitalizes on the popularity of people-friendly agriculture
by marketing authentic on-farm learning and fun experiences.
Though he left the farm to go to college (“It was my
sabbatical,” he says) Donnie has been farming all of
his life. He and his father, M.R., operate Belvedere Plantation
as a corporation with a division of labor that puts the father
in charge of the row crops and the son responsible for producing
all the farm’s direct-market crops and managing the
farm’s extensive consumer-oriented activities.
The family farmed conventionally, raising row crops and as
many as 20 acres of strawberries, until the early 1990s.
Then “I became ill from the chemicals,” explains
Donnie, “and even had to leave the farm for a couple
of weeks. Though we were very progressive conventionally and
were successful, every year there was a new disease or a new
bug, and even with fumigation we couldn’t control black
root rot in strawberries. Spider mites were an annual epidemic.
We were creating an environment for pathogens, and the whole
soil biology was out of whack. We had all kinds of soil-related
problems experts wouldn’t give us an answer for.”
M. R. Fulks agrees: “We had irrigated corn that 90
percent of it would be lying flat on the ground. The experts
kept saying we needed more potash, but it didn’t help.”
“We were creating an environment
for pathogens, and the whole soil biology was out of whack.”
“We decided there had to be a better way,” says
Donnie. He and his father began researching alternatives.
When they attended a Renewable Farms conference in the Midwest,
they felt they were finally beginning to understand, and they
plugged into a network of consultants and farmers who could
help them. “We realized that our real problem was that
use of some fertilizers and crop chemicals had destroyed soil
health and nutrient balance,” says M.R.
The Fulkses stopped using muriate of potash and dolomitic
(high-magnesium) limestone, switched to high-calcium limestone,
introduced beneficial microorganisms, increased their use
of cover crops and rotations, and reduced overall use of fertilizers
They began a large-scale composting operation and started
bringing in chicken litter. Their corn and strawberry problems
disappeared and the farm’s soil became more healthy
and balanced. “It’s been a ten-year process,”
says Donnie. By 2004, the farm devoted about 500 acres to
raising certified organic corn, soybeans, and small grains.
Working with consultants, M.R. adopted in-the-field sheet
composting of crop residues and cover crops, since removing
residues for composting and reapplying compost is prohibitively
expensive in row crops. His goal was to break down residues
completely and quickly, so whenever crops were disked or cut,
he sprayed on a microbial starter along with a sugar-based
“energy package” to give the microbes a boost.
The goal was to build humus, not just increase raw organic
Weed control at Belvedere includes carefully timed pre-emergence
tillage with specialized coil-tine, spring-tooth cultivators,
and flame weeding. “Organic production takes a lot more
management and the weather is a lot more critical,”
Passing on the torch for organic grain
M.R. Fulks is in the process of retiring, and will do just
a little organic grain this year. However, most of the farm’s
certified organic land will remain in organic production,
as organic grower Jimmy Wilkerson will rent about 400 acres
this season to grow organic corn, wheat, barley and soybeans.
M.R. is confident that Wilkerson will continue his tradition
of good land stewardship.
“I first got him interested in organic production about
seven to eight years ago,” says MR. “I have worked
with him for the past several years, and he has been doing
a good job, using my techniques and biological package for
residue digestion to form humus.” Wilkerson already
has other land under organic commodity grain production, and
will be farming well over 1,000 certified acres in 2006, thus
succeeding M.R. Fulks as Virginia’s largest organic
M.R. used to sell organic soybeans to Japanese markets for
human consumption as fermented soy products. That route has
its challenges. “Those varieties are more prone to weather
and give lower yields,” Donnie says. “Also, the
buyers can be picky.” He adds that for domestic feed
grain markets, “you need good weather and tremendous
acreage to be profitable.”
“If you just give the soil time
to rest, it’s beneficial.”
Yet M.R. considers today’s market and economic potential
for organic commodity grains better than ever across the US,
especially with rising health concerns about genetically engineered
crops. “Demand is significantly greater now than it
was five years ago,” notes M.R. “There is quite
a bit of interest in organic milk. I have gotten calls this
past year from Horizon and Organic Valley. They are active
in the Shenandoah Valley, getting dairy farmers to start the
process of switching to organic production.” Wilkerson
plans to continue growing organic grains for this regional
market in the coming season.
Growing for on-farm markets
Donnie’s main focus these days is entertainment farming
or agritainment. “What we are selling are experiences,”
says Donnie. He grows some direct-market crops to support
these activities, including U-pick strawberries, pumpkins
and ornamental gourds, for which he uses cover crops and high-quality
compost to build soil quality. About 200 acres of the farm
are devoted to the agritainment and direct-marketing operations
including production and rotation crops, parking lot, hayride
wagon paths and festival grounds.
“The pumpkins are mostly conventional,” Donnie
admits. “We simply have to spray for fungal diseases
in order to get a consistent crop.” Pumpkins are difficult
to grow in this location, especially with air pollution from
nearby urban areas, which seems to promote downy mildew outbreaks.
The farm sells more pumpkins than it grows, so Donnie buys
additional pumpkins, usually from farms in Ohio.
Pumpkins are grown on a three-year rotation, and are planted
no-till into a killed cover crop of winter rye planted the
preceding fall. When the rye heads out and sheds pollen in
May, Donnie rolls it down with a cultipacker. In mid-June,
just before planting the pumpkins, he makes one application
of Roundup® to control weeds and rye regrowth. Turkey
litter and a top dressing of nitrogen provide fertility for
the pumpkins, and compost is added during the rotation to
build soil quality. In past years, fields were rotated into
cash grain production for two years after a pumpkin harvest.
However, with M.R. retiring from grain farming, Donnie plans
to rotate his pumpkins with perennial cover crops.
Biologically grown strawberries
The strawberry production system is biologically based.
Belvedere Plantation was one of the first in Virginia to switch
from matted row to plasticulture (with drip irrigation under
the plastic) for strawberries. Pre-plant applications of about
five to six cubic yards of compost per acre, foliar compost
tea applications to reduce fungal diseases, and a three year
crop rotation with a series of cover crops during the rotation
years, have allowed a dramatic reduction in synthetic inputs.
“We have not fumigated in over 10 years,” Donnie
says. “We apply a little calcium nitrate via the drip
tape, and depending on the weather we might use 10% of the
fungicides recommended in a conventional program, somewhat
more in wet years.” The strawberries are not fully organic
because “the risk is just too high. Perhaps it could
be done in high tunnels, but would the economics work out?”
Donnie grows two strawberry varieties – the annual
Chandler and the perennial Darselect. In
late spring, he mows and bales the winter rye cover crop,
using the straw for hayrides or to mulch alleys between plastic-covered
strawberry beds. He then spreads compost over the stubble,
spades it in with a spading machine, forms beds, lays plastic
and drip tape, and plants Darselect starts in June,
or Chandler in September. Together, the two varieties
produce strawberries the next season from early May through
Memorial Day weekend.
The winter annual weed henbit (deadnettle) (click
here for photo) presents the biggest headache, coming
up through planting holes and threatening to choke out the
strawberries unless hand pulled or sprayed with an oxyfluorfen
herbicide (to which the crop is tolerant).
After strawberry production is finished (one year for Chandler,
two for Darselect), fields are rotated back into
cover crops for one to two years. In order to make the best
use of the plastic, Donnie sometimes sows ornamental gourds
and pumpkins in planting holes after removing strawberry plants.
These include white pumpkins, mini-pumpkins and “anything
weird I can find in the catalogue – customers love it.”
Summer, winter covers
In the fall, Donnie removes plastic and sows winter rye.
He tried growing vetch with the rye, but the vetch went to
seed, causing a bad weed problem. In late spring, the rye
is incorporated and followed with a summer cover crop mix
of buckwheat, Japanese millet and sometimes forage soybean,
which is in turn followed by rye again, then back to strawberries
the next season. He notes that “the weather has been
crazy in the past few years, and drought makes it hard to
grow summer cover crops. Last year (2005), we had spring in
February and winter in March, which confused the strawberries,
but luckily a cool May gave us a good crop in early June.”
Donnie monitors the course of soil improvement through informal
evaluation of tilth, conventional soil testing, and biological
tests every few years. Overall, he is pleased with the ongoing
trend of gradual improvement, and notices the soil “is
in nice shape” after two years in strawberries.
“Farmers tend to use tillage too much,” he observes.
“They are in a rush because of economic realities, can’t
use time as a tool. If you just give the soil time to rest,
it’s beneficial. Ideally, I would like to grow a perennial
cover crop for two years, as tilling in the annual cover crops
slows down soil building processes, especially in our hot
climate.” His main tillage tool is the rotary spader,
which does less damage to soil structure than other implements.
Selling the farm experience
Agritainment activities now bring in more income than the
crops themselves. “My biggest crop now is cars in the
parking lot,” says Donnie. Close to 60,000 people visit
the farm each year, including 20,000 children on school tours.
The main season is the Fall Harvest Festival during late
September and October, when the farm offers a “Great
Adventure Maize Maze” (designed by international maze
designer Adrian Fisher), a “Great Pumpkin Patch,”
bonfires, hayrides, a “fun barn” with ropes, swings
and a big slide, lots of hay to climb in, and more.
From spring through fall the farm hosts educational field
trips for preschoolers through high school, “Virginia
has a set of ‘Standards
of Learning' for each grade level that is posted on the
web,” says Donnie. “We try to hard to make our
field trips as educational as possible. The teachers need
to justify every trip they take.”
The farm also hosts birthday parties, company picnics, parties,
and church and scout groups. In spring of 2004, the farm hosted
a major Civil War reenactment, which, says Donnie, turned
out to be a lot more work than he thought it would be, though
it brought lots of publicity.
Donnie estimates that most consumers in strawberry season
come from within 30 miles of the farm, but in the much bigger
fall season, customers come from as far away as Washington,
DC and Richmond, VA. School groups will drive more than an
hour by bus for field trips.
For Donnie and others with the willingness to work with the
public in this rapidly developing area, entertainment farming
is clearly a big part of the future of agriculture. “In
order to be profitable, the farmer must add value to his product,”
he says. “We do that primarily by selling an experience.”