We are pursuing organic certification of our crops for 2016. Below is the background essay, which is a small part of the application process, outlining a few features of our farm.
Adapted from PoleStar’s Background Essay for Organic Certification 2016
This essay serves as a brief introduction to the history, philosophy, practices and challenges to our farm. We are a new farm on newly worked land in one case but with access to historic farmland in a lease agreement with our neighbors in another case.
We purchased 4895 Williamee road (called our “homestead”) in the winter of 2011 but did not take up habitation until Spring 2012. We call the land surrounding our home our “homestead site” in our application. In 2013 we cleared a quarter acre to grow a garden and put up a small high tunnel. Subsequently in 2015 we’ve built a small shop with a porch for farmstand sales and CSA distribution. We also put up a movable seeding house in 2015 on our homestead’s cleared land, although we do not have plans to move it until we have significant growth. The seeding house is not on permanent foundations and has only t-posts anchoring the structure with landscape fabric on the inside affixed to the ground. Our seeding house uses a woodstove to keep the ambient air temperature high enough for propagation. We also have table top heat in the form of electrical cables providing bottom heat to our seedlings. This is our first season using the seeding house and in parts of it we may remove the landscape fabric in order todirectly grow in the ground.
At the time of purchase, there was no evidence that any agriculture, or even gardening, had been done on the premises for many years. The plot where most of our crops are grown was under significant brush which had to be cleared. Once cleared we have not used any non-OMRI (organic materials review institute) compliant materials or non-organic fertilizer.
The long term goal for the homestead site fields is to have the crops portion mainly in perennial crops which can be maintained through sustainable mulches (hay, straw grass clippings, etc). We hope to garner additional revenues coming from our newly started microgreens and shoots operation located in our seeding house.
We’ve been very fortunate to have eager and encouraging neighbors, Arlen Acres Farm. Arlen Acres in 2015 let us sign a five year lease agreement for their already certified organic fields. The lease augments and formalizes the growing we were already doing at Arlen Acres before 2015, both in joint ventures and singly on our own for our own business. Signing the lease has opened up PoleStar’s ability to look for additional funding from outside sources (grants, loans, etc) and more effectively do long term crop planning for our main cash crops.
Our ideal is to have an environmentally and economically sustainable farm which does not just sell to the general public but serves it as well. From our farm mission statement:
We strive for environmental sustainability by following certified organic standards and incorporating methods of growth which go “beyond organic.”
By “beyond organic” we simply mean we do try not use any synthetic chemicals, even though there may be some allowable under certification.
Practices and Challenges
Some of the practices we follow include growing our own organic seedlings, cover cropping, fertilizer application, compost applications, and mulching.
We grow our own organic seedlings for transplant in our 20’x24’ seeding house located at our homestead. Whenever possible we buy certified organic seed and the soil we grow our seedlings in comes from GreenTree near Ithaca, Ny. The growing medium has been approved by the North East Organic Farmers Association for use in organic agriculture. Green Tree has worked with NOFA certifiers on behalf of the farmers using their product.
In the seeding house we also have a new enterprise growing out microgreens and shoots for restaurant and wholesale orders. As such the quality and organic nature of our potting/seeding mix is vital to feeling like we are growing responsibly.
In the past the only inputs we’ve used on our seedlings for transplant include Fertrell’s Formula number 2 liquid fish emulsion. Generally this is only for slow growing crops which must stay in their trays for longer times.
There are several major challenges to our farm. Many of our practices are designed to meet those particular challenges. At other times the practices just stem from trying to not only be a skilled farmer but also responsible farmers.
Weed pressure at both the homestead site and leased land at Arlen Acres is considerable. One long term approach for controlling weeds at Arlen Acres is to, whenever possible, minimize the time that land lays bare by continually keeping the land in a cover crop between cash crops. The main cover crops PoleStar utilizes at Arlen Acres include oats and peas for winterkill cover and Rye for general uses.
At both sites PoleStar also uses a variety of mulches. Organic mulches include straw, grass clippings, and leaf debris. We’ve also extensively use re-usable heavy duty landscape fabric for high tunnel and field production. Finally, plasticulture has been used minimally in the past with the plastic being taken up in late fall after harvest(PoleStar’s first use was in 2015). In 2016, we will be relying more heavily on plasticulture for particular long term field crops including onions, celeriac, tomatoes, eggplant, and peppers.
In 2016, again at both Arlen Acres plot B and C and the homesite, Polestar will also use a combination of mechanical and hand cultivation to control weeds.
Fertility has also been a challenge. To address this we use a combination of compost applications, OMRI approved fertilizer, and green manures. At this time PoleStar is at the very beginning of building an on-farm composting system. Sourcing responsible ingredients has been difficult. PoleStar also uses NOFA approved Fertrell fish emulsion products as foliar sprays for regular maintenance through the season.
Pests have been a major challenge as well. Major pest infestations which have caused the most economic harm include: Swede Midge, Striped cucumber beetle, flea beetle, slugs and deer. Swede Midge, Striped cucumber beetle, and Flea Beetle PoleStar has attempted to control through exclusion by use of floating row cover. Dovetailing with that we’ve also used Surround with the inert ingredient, kaolin clay. Barring that working we’ve minimally used OMRI approved insecticides containing pyrethrins. This is a last resort and to minimize danger to pollinators we try to only spray at dawn or dusk. Slugs have mainly been an issue at the homestead site. We have not found a good remedy for this issue yet. For deer pressure we use portable, electric exclusion fencing.
The homestead site is very waterlogged. So much so that we are going to investigate tiling and sluice work to protect the long term perennial crops already planted and to be planted in 2016.
Drainage at Arlen Acres is an issue. Arlen Acres has the advantage of being used for agronomic crops on and off for the past half a century. This shows up in much better tilth and overall better water drainage (through the use of tiles and regularly being worked). Still, regarding both fertility and water erosion and control, there are significant challenges. In 2015 to combat poor drainage I put many of my cash crops in raised beds formed by a walk behind tractor with rotary plow. In 2016, I plan to use a three point hitch raised bed maker.
In part to combat some of the challenges listed above, but mainly to stay competitive in a highly competitive economic environment, high tunnel use has become essential. High tunnels allow early pre-CSA crops (salad and lettuce mixes) to go to market and restaurant sales and then allow higher yields of particular hot crops for both the CSA and other markets throughout the rest of the growing season. High tunnels also allow some limited winter season gardening for home use and sales. To that end PoleStar Farm erected several high tunnels on Plot B at Arlen acres and a caterpillar tunnel (converted to more traditional high tunnel style) at our homestead. All of our tunnels are movable. At Arlen Acres the current plan is to move both of our tunnels in 2016 in mid-April. Both tunnels currently have salad mix and spinach for early sales. The tunnels will be moved to a new site within Plot B which currently has winterkilled oats and peas and which were limed in 2015. PoleStar Farm has also received news from the Natural Resources Conservation Service that we have been approved for grant money to purchase another high tunnel. This high tunnel will also be placed in Plot B at Arlen Acres Farm over winterkilled oats and peas.
There is still much work to be done. But the main challenge is to work smarter not harder.