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
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
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
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,”
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
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,” 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
“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 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
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.”