Historic Tidewater plantation sustains farming through organic grains and turning crowds into customers
Regional demand for organic grains and local interest in on-farm experiences keep large acreage farm active.

Original article by Deborah Wechsler
Updated by Mark Schonbeck

Farm at a glance

Belvedere Plantation
Fredericksburg, VA

Location: Northern Virginia, near Fredericksburg, between Richmond, VA and Washington, DC

Climate zone: 7

Soil type: Sandy loam to clay loam

Years in commercial production: 34

Acreage: 1,000, including land rented out to organic grain farmer

Crops/livestock: Certified organic corn, soybeans, and small grain. Strawberries (4-5 acres); pumpkins (30 acres); gourds and ornamental corn; 1,500 chrysanthemum plants

Value-added products & activities: 14-acre corn maze, school tours, company picnics, other agritainment; crafts, pies, and private-label jams and jellies

Notable facilities and equipment: Seasonal on-farm retail market with small bakery; 25 acres parking (more as needed); 8 custom hay wagons for transporting customers; specialized European compost/cultivation equipment

Weeks in production: Open to public during spring strawberry season and for 5-week “Fall Harvest Festival”; groups by reservation other times.

Markets: Direct to consumers at the farm; strawberries and pumpkins are both pick-your-own and pre-pick.

Labor: Donnie Fulks full time; two full-time employees plus 4 H2A workers April-November; 40-60 part-time/seasonal workers during spring and fall, when open to the public. Donnie’s wife, Donna, works full-time off-farm, but helps on weekends. Donnie and Donna also have 5 boys that help on the farm.

Photos courtesy of Belvedere Plantation

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 and pesticides.

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 matter.

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,” observes M.R.

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 grain producer.

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.”