Lise and David Abazs are co-owners of Round River Farm. They’re organic farmers, who live off the grid and have been practicing a sustainable lifestlye for more than 20 years. Lise’s thoughtful post first appeared in the Wolf Ridge Almanac, Volume 23, No. 2, May 2009. We’re honored to have Lise (and soon David) join us as a contributing writer at Blue Planet Green Living. Find out more about their organic farm and environmental services on their website at — Julia Wasson, Publisher
Walk down any aisle in the grocery store and you are faced with an astonishing choice of items to purchase. You may have apples on your shopping list, but do you want the red ones or the green ones, the big beautiful ones or the little pre-bagged ones, the ones from New Zealand or Washington State? More and more, we are now also being given the choice between conventional and organic food.
Ask people what organic means, and you’ll get words like expensive, natural, healthy, local, safe and no chemicals. Most people are thinking as consumers, but I am a farmer, so I think as a producer. I believe that knowing the more complete story behind the organic labels on the grocery shelves can help us be more aware of what we are choosing and why it matters.
British agronomist Sir Albert Howard was the first to define the philosophy of organic agriculture. He worked in India during the 1920-30s and applied scientific measures to traditional methods of farming, focusing on the importance of maintaining the fertility of the soil. The practical reason for this is that he realized that small isolated farmers couldn’t afford to rely on outside resources for their land’s fertility. There was also a scientific reason behind his ideology.
One hundred years earlier, the German chemist Justus von Liebig had identified the main components of plants by burning plant material and analyzing the ash. His measurements of nitrogen (N), phosphorous (P), and potassium (K) became the foundation of our understanding of fertilizers. This methodology, however, effectively ignored the carbon (C) component that was burned away.
Howard questioned the effect of this on the future of farming. What happens when you use up the bank of carbon (also know as organic matter) in the soil? The NPK you apply as fertilizer becomes less and less available to plants when not in the proper ratio to C. Although his ideas were acknowledged as respectable, they were largely ignored.
Following World War II, war industries slid seamlessly into agricultural industries. Many modern pesticides and fertilizers trace their origins to the chemistry that created the poisonous gases and explosives of modern warfare. Organic ideology continued to spread quietly until the 1980s, when numerous pesticide scares caused a surge in public demand for healthy alternatives. Organics were pulled in from the fringe, and the popular movement became an economic one. This is where the story hits the grocery shelves.
The Organic Foods Production Act was passed by Congress in 1990 and called for enforcement and uniform standards of organic food. The USDA was given the primary role, balanced by recommendations from farmers, processors and scientists on the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB). The first proposed organic rule issued by the USDA in 1997 virtually ignored the NOSB input and allowed practices such as biotechnology, irradiation, animal confinement, and sewage sludge application. The public outcry forced a withdrawal and, in 2001, a new national standard was finalized covering the production, handling, and processing of foods produced using organic methods. The end result is that the word organic now has a legal definition.
There are many pages of regulations that determine what are allowable materials and methods for organically labeled products. The uniqueness and value of organic agriculture, however, is not really found in the list of prohibited substances or record-keeping requirements. The mantra of an organic farmer is soil management. It could be said that conventional agriculture focuses on feeding the plant, while organic agriculture focuses on feeding the soil.
The most common methods organic farmers use to maintain their soil fertility are composting and cover cropping. Composting speeds up decomposition to recycle nutrients, and cover crops are grown specifically to be plowed under. Both practices increase organic matter in the soil, putting the C back into the NPK fertilizer equation and providing the biological niche where nutrients are processed and stored. Naturally based fertilizers in the form of concentrated animal waste or rock minerals can be used in organic production, but they are only supplemental to the creation of a healthy soil structure to maintain those nutrients. The ultimate idea is that a healthy soil produces healthy plants.
An inch of soil that took thousands of years to form can be washed away in a single rainstorm. Water-soluble nutrients can be leached away and lost to the system. Organic practices focus on protecting the soil from the elements. Mulches, cover crops, and carefully timed planting and harvesting schedules are some of the things organic farmers do to protect the soil that they spend so much time nurturing.
Another important concept in organic agriculture is diversity. Natural ecosystems have a collage of plant and animal organisms working together to form a healthy and stable community. Farming ecosystems must balance crops’ needs with the needs of the natural community supporting them. Encouraging habitat for beneficial insects, rotating crops to avoid nutrient depletion, and alternating crops to confuse and disrupt pest populations are some ways that organic farmers use diversity to benefit their production.
A good organic farmer can create an amazing ecological economy. The tighter the system, the fewer valuable nutrients are lost and the fewer expensive inputs are required. Deep roots draw nutrients from subsoil savings banks, which are reinvested when cover crops are turned under or compost is spread. Beneficial insects willingly volunteer their services, and a flexible community and diverse portfolio of crops help to withstand the vagaries of weather and climate. It’s a stable long-term economic plan.
Public demand has even made organic farming profitable in the cash sense, not just ecologically. A new dynamic has developed where money is as much the motivator for organic growers as the underlying philosophy. Organics have made it to the mainstream.
I entered the organic agriculture scene when it was still considered naïve to think that farming productively on a large scale was possible without the use of chemicals. Much has been learned in the past two decades about the unintended environmental and health impacts of conventional farming practices. And much has been learned about the potential productivity of organic practices.
Growers such as myself who gross more than $5000 per year can no longer call ourselves organic unless we are certified by a governmentally approved agency, a costly and time-consuming task. I find this ironically annoying, considering that I have been an organic grower for over 20 years, but it really has little effect on how I farm. My customers are local, and I don’t rely on the word organic to sell my products. The certified organic label serves the important purpose, however, of providing a standard for all those products that sit without a farmer’s face on the grocery shelf.
Perhaps the next choice consumers will be given will go beyond organic and will measure the miles the food has traveled, the energy it took to produce, or the cost of disposing of its packaging. There are many, many angles that could be considered with every purchase. I can see the day when we’ll need a guidebook for grocery shopping.
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Lise Abazs has a degree in Environmental Studies from Warren Wilson College. She has traveled the world, working and studying on farms before settling down on her own piece of land in 1987. She and her husband, David, developed Round River Farm, a vegetable and small livestock operation tucked into the rocky hills of the North Shore on Lake Superior.
When Wolf Ridge store became a neighbor, Lise found a niche, first as an intern naturalist, and now as the manager of Wolf Ridge store. She enjoys being connected to the northern elements, both through farming and by living off the grid. In addition to her work at the store, Lise is an accomplished organic farmer.
Lise and her family sell a variety of products and services through their Round River Farm website.
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You’re out to dinner with friends, ready to order a glass of wine with your meal. You look over the wine list, considering your options: White or red? Dry or sweet? Domestic or imported? Organically grown or not? And on and on… But it’s a good bet that you never stop to wonder whether the wine you will choose was produced with energy-savings in mind. For most of us, energy savings don’t spring readily to mind when we’re sitting in a restaurant. But starting today, there’s another factor to consider when choosing a wine. — Julia Wasson, Publisher
HALL Wines announced today that its St. Helena winery is the first in California to receive the prestigious Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED®) Gold Certification.
LEED certification measures all environmental metrics for a building or a community, including indoor air quality, water efficiency, energy savings, reductions in CO2 emissions, resource stewardship, and sensitivity to environmental impacts.
“The certification of HALL Wines not only marks a momentous occasion for the wine industry of California, but demonstrates how all industries can choose to be solvers of our collective environmental challenges,” said Rick Fedrizzi, CEO & Founding Chair, U.S. Green Building Council. “The HALL Wines project efficiently uses natural resources, makes an immediate positive impact on our planet and as a business leader, can expect to reap financial benefits over the lifecycle of the building.”
Kathryn Hall, owner and vintner of HALL Wines, and President Mike Reynolds have made it their long-term mission to become the leader in earth-friendly California wine growing. Accordingly, they designed the new HALL St. Helena facility to meet the rigorous standards of the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED certification system.
- Radiant Floors – By using radiant flooring, HALL precisely controls the facility’s temperature while conserving energy. The wine-making team specifies the exact temperature needed, then cold or warm water is pumped through tubing within the floor slab, to create an energy-efficient and stable storage and production environment.
- Solar Energy – More than 35 percent of the electricity needed to power HALL St. Helena comes directly from the sun using solar photovoltaic cells (solar panels) on the rooftops of the barrel cellar and fermentation building. Approximately 42,000 square feet of solar panels span the St. Helena winery roofs.
- Local Building Materials – To reduce the CO2 generated in materials transportation, more than 10 percent of the building materials were extracted, harvested, recovered, or manufactured within 500 miles of the project site.
- Recycled Building Materials – More than 10 percent of the materials used were made with recycled content.
- Water Conservation – Drought-tolerant plants were selected for the winery landscaping, which will reduce the demand for irrigation by more than 50 percent. In conjunction with this, all of the landscaping and vineyards are irrigated with recycled water. A 40-percent reduction of building water has also been achieved through the use of low-flow water outlets, without compromising performance.
HALL extends their environmental responsibilities to their general operations by recycling and by using recycled materials whenever possible in their offices, as well as by shipping direct-to-consumer wine in recyclable packaging.
“Visitors come to HALL to experience hand-crafted Cabernet Sauvignon and are excited to learn about our vineyards, buildings, and operations, which result in a minimal carbon footprint,” says Kathryn Hall. “At HALL Wines, we grow our own grapes and craft our wines, and so we are obligated to ensure the health of the land, as well as that of the greater Napa Valley ecosystem.” The Halls own nearly 500 organically farmed acres in Napa and Sonoma counties. These acres are expected to be certified organic within a year.
From July through the end of August, HALL St. Helena is offering complimentary LEED tours daily at 11 AM. For reservations, please call 707.967.2626.
HALL wines are distributed in major markets throughout the U.S. The Halls have a second wine-making facility in Napa Valley, HALL Rutherford, which was completed in 2005. Additional information is available on the Hall Wines website .
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The Washington, D.C.-based U.S. Green Building Council is committed to a prosperous and sustainable future for our nation through cost-efficient and energy-saving green buildings.
With a community comprising 78 local affiliates, more than 20,000 member companies and organizations, and more than 100,000 LEED Accredited Professionals, USGBC is the driving force of an industry that is projected to soar to $60 billion by 2010. The USGBC leads an unlikely diverse constituency of builders and environmentalists, corporations and nonprofit organizations, elected officials and concerned citizens, and teachers and students.
Buildings in the United States are responsible for 39% of CO2 emissions, 40% of energy consumption, 13% water consumption and 15% of GDP per year, making green building a source of significant economic and environmental opportunity. Greater building efficiency can meet 85% of future U.S. demand for energy, and a national commitment to green building has the potential to generate 2.5 million American jobs.
Courtesy of HALL Winery
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Are you a farmer who’s been thinking about going organic, but you’re just not sure if it’s for you? Then check out these workshop offerings from Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Services (MOSES). We heard about MOSES from our friends at the Barr Mansion, and just learned about the following events. (We apologize for the late notice on Friday’s workshop, but there’s plenty of time to get registered for the April event.) Find out more details at the MOSES field days/training page of their website.
For more information about getting started with organic farming, download the MOSES info card.
Organic Farming Workshop with MOSES
March 13, 2009 | Galesville, WI
This workshop is geared to help farmers who want to learn more about organic production systems for producing small grains, forages, corn and beans for the organic market. A panel of experienced organic farmers will end the afternoon, explaining their specific organic production systems. Soil fertility management, use of cover crops, purchasing organic seeds, developing record-keeping systems that are practical and efficient, harvesting and marketing organic crops will all be covered, offering attendees the opportunity to learn about these aspects of successful organic production. Free resources on organic production will be available to all attendees. Organic snacks will be served. Preregistration is not necessary, but highly encouraged!
Write: MOSES PO Box 339 Spring Valley, WI 54767
Location/Time: Galesville Public Library meeting room from 1-4 PM.
SAVE THE DATE!
Organic Farming Workshop with MOSES
April 22, 2009 | Lansing, IA
This organic field day on the Welsh Family Farm will focus on organic soil management, including soil nutrient balance and use of a variety of green manures. Participants will have the opportunity to see land that has been under active organic management for 30+ years, and land that has been recently converted from CRP land.
The Welsh family farm is located in the hilly driftless area of Northeastern Iowa, and the use of various contour strips, buffer zones and water ways along with cultivation and tillage illustrates how organic management can compete with no-till conventional systems to prevent soil erosion on this highly erodible landscape.
Free resources on organic production will be available to all attendees. Organic refreshments will be served. Preregistration is not necessary, but highly encouraged!
Write: MOSES PO Box 339 Spring Valley, WI 54767
Time: 1-4 PM. We will be going from field to field starting around 1:30 PM after some introductions and basic history of the farm. If you want to get on the tour wagon, please arrive before 1:30 PM.
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Thousands of wild Coho and Chinook salmon once swam with steelhead trout in the waters of Sonoma County’s Dry Creek. For a time, the common use of pesticides had all but wiped out the salmon. Today, Dry Creek is a protected stream. Nearby farmers now understand the dangers of applying chemicals to their vineyards and their crops — dangers not only to the fish in the creek but also to the people who will drink the wine and eat the produce grown on their land.
At Truett Hurst Winery, a new addition to the fine wineries of Sonoma County, we not only have decided to forgo pesticides and herbicides, we also have begun to farm biodynamically. Simply put, biodynamics is a form of farming that strives to be self-sustained, self-contained, and harmonious with nature.
We have embarked on a three-year program to adhere to the rigid standards set by Demeter, an international certifying body, whose standards are said to exceed those of the National Organic Program. We are confident that the winery we are creating will be sustainable both in farming practices and economically, and will produce world-class wines.
I invite you to come along with me as I walk through the property and point out the progress we’re making on this biodynamic farming adventure. We’ll start on the banks of Dry Creek, which runs through the heart of the valley. Despite its name, Dry Creek is never dry; Warm Springs Dam feeds it throughout the dry months. The creek forms the western boundary of our property, and Dry Creek Road borders us on the east. Truett Hurst Winery is located on the land between the two.
Dry Creek is my favorite place at the winery. In the five years I have been on the property, I have seen a steady increase in the number of fish running in the stream. During the rainy season, I can walk down to the creek and observe salmon migrating, and even spawning, in the shallow pools on our stretch of the creek. We are working in conjunction with the Department of Fish and Game and with Trouts Unlimited to create an observation area and a release point for wild salmon. Viewing the salmon is one of the many rewards of our project.
Walking from the creek toward the vineyards, we first have to go through the sheep pasture. We are in the process of building our sheep fencing, as sheep will become a vital part of the ecosystem. They will roam throughout the vineyards, serving as our lawn mowers and our fertilizers. We will also incorporate chicken coops to provide nitrogen-rich fertilizer and weed abatement. We’ll especially appreciate their help with scratching crab grass, a huge nuisance in Dry Creek Valley. The middle five acres are dedicated to open sheep pasture.
More than 15,000 newly planted vines spread across 18 acres on the property. It looks a bit like a milk carton vineyard at the moment. In the springtime, we will be grafting more than 10 acres to Zinfandel and 7 acres to Petite Sirah.
The creation of elaborate compost piles is also underway, and we’ll build them up over the coming years. We are, in essence, farming the soils, creating powerfully alive soils that will allow for true “wines of place.” In biodynamic farming, everything we need to farm the property is created on the property. By doing this, the grapes are truly representative of the land we farm. This terrior will become the hallmark of our wines.
We are also working with a sharecropper, who will be planting three acres of biodynamic gardens to bring to market. He is planning out areas of fruits, vegetables, and a small orchard that will allow us to farm diverse crops on our land. Some of our produce will be sold to organic restaurants, and some will be given to local food banks.
One fascinating aspect of biodynamics is the practice of farming by lunar cycles. Summer and winter solstices are very important in the preparation of our organic compounds. I call it “Farmer’s Almanac farming,” and it simply is a very hands-on, practical way to farm.
Everything we do is clean, pure and, wherever possible, done by hand. It is a very pure way to farm and truly become one with your land.
Ginny Lambrix, our amazingly talented winemaker and head of viticulture, walks the vineyards often to see how the rootstock is doing and how the soils are progressing, as well as to get a personal feel for our vineyards. I kid her that she has probably named each one of the 15,000 vines.
A little over a year ago, a team of three wine-industry pioneers took ownership of this land:
• Paul Dolan, one of the most respected names in the wine business and godfather of biodynamic farming practices where wineries are concerned. He led the efforts of organic pioneer Fetzer Winery for almost three decades.
• Heath Dolan, scion of Paul and 5th generation grape grower. He is the developer of one of the most famous biodynamic vineyards in the world, Dark Horse Vineyards in Hopland.
• Phil Hurst, founder of Winery Exchange and one of the former winemakers at Fetzer in their early years. Winery Exchange is one of the largest private label wine companies in the world.
One of the most refreshing things about what we are doing is the fact that the owners say we must become financially sustainable, as well as a sustainable farm. Financial sustainability is key to this venture; otherwise wineries that still farm with conventional methods (herbicide, pesticide, machine farming) will have no incentive to convert. At the end of the day, profitability is a key part of sustainability.
The owners’ collective vision was to create a beautiful destination and a biodynamic winery in the heart of Dry Creek Valley. They wanted to show how world-class wines can be created from strict biodynamic practices. The truer we are to our core farming values, the better Truett Hurst Wines will taste.
There is something truly special about this place, and in the coming months and years, I will share with you what is happening as we move ahead with our biodynamic farm. If you find your way to Sonoma County, come see for yourself. We love showing the place off. And you might just see a migrating salmon or two while enjoying a glass of our wines.
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Walk through the garden gate at C. Donatiello Winery, and aromas of raspberries, peaches, and fragrant flowers waft to your nose. Take your time. Stroll along, sipping from a glass of Maddie’s Vineyard Pinot Noir, made with organic grapes grown nearby. Savor the experience. You’ll soon understand why owner Chris Donatiello treats the land and the grapes in his vineyards with the care of a loving parent.
Blue Planet Green Living (BPGL) interviewed Donatiello from his office near Healdsburg, California. We wanted to learn about the sustainable and organic farming practices that are integral to the production of C. Donatiello’s fine wines. — Julia Wasson, Publisher
BPGL: How do you differentiate your winery from anything else in the Russian River Valley?
DONATIELLO: There are two parts of who we are. Actually neither of them is about being “green” and “organic”; that’s something we do because it’s important to us, and we think it helps make better wine. From a wine profile perspective, we want the wines to show where they’re coming from.
The Russian River Valley is a special place with a lot of varied areas, different soils and vegetation; there’s no point in making a single vineyard if it doesn’t show the valley’s diversity. We look for balanced wines, food-friendly wines. From a wine-making and taste-profile perspective, that’s what’s important. The second part is that when people come here and picnic, we want them to feel our hospitality. We want them to stay as long as they want, to go to our garden and pick raspberries and peaches. Hospitality is a large part of what we do.
BPGL: What are you doing to be organic and natural?
DONATIELLO: It’s more what we’re not doing. We’re not putting Roundup on our fields. We don’t use any pesticides or herbicides that are not organic. We use a lot of organic oils to discourage insects. We’re not using rat poison. You may kill the rat, but then the cat that eats the rat dies, and then the vulture that eats the cat dies. It keeps going and going and going. It’s not healthy for the environment. As much as what we are doing, we pay attention to what we’re not doing. That’s a big component of our CCOF certified organic vineyards.
BPGL: So, are C. Donatiello wines considered “organic wines?”
DONATIELLO: There’s a difference between organically farmed grapes and organic wine. Organic wine requires organic grapes, but you can have organic grapes without making organic wine. It comes down to a winemaking decision. It’s more important from a global, environmental perspective to grow organic grapes. And from a taste perspective, it’s also important. If you don’t take care of the grape on the vine, in process, or in the barrel or the bottle, it will affect the taste of the wine.
None of our wines are technically “organic,” but we use organically grown grapes. Because there are sulfides used in the winery process, we can’t say the wine is organic. For example, Maddie’s Vineyard Pinot Noir is made with certified organic grapes. Even though we can’t advertise it as “organic wine,” using organically grown grapes to make it is important to us — and it improves the wine. Our Bradford Mountain Grist Vineyard Zinfandel and Syrah are also made from organically grown grapes.
BPGL: You mentioned that your vineyards are sustainably farmed. What does that mean in terms of how you tend the land and care for the grapes?
DONATIELLO: It means we’re tending the vineyards in a way that they aren’t going to run out of nutrients and harm the environment. Whatever we take out, we’re going to put back in. It’s not like in the past; when it got to the point that there weren’t enough nutrients, you moved to the next spot. We saw that before farmers started rotating crops. That’s not great for the environment, and not what we want to do. This land is here for a long time and it will continue to provide for us; we need to provide for it. We want to make sure the fertilizers we use and the cover crops we grow will improve the land. That’s not just for the grapevines, but for the land itself.
BPGL: What extra effort does it take to organically farm grapes?
DONATIELLO: The extra effort isn’t substantial. Some of the things we use to be certified organic — such as organic oils for pest control — cost a little more, but it shows. Whatever you do to the earth, it shows through. That’s especially true with the Pinot Noir grape; it makes such a light, elegant wine. We choose our cover crops carefully and want to be as green as possible. We take about 8 to 10 tons off the land each year, and we plant about that much cover crop — New Zealand clover to peas, to yellow and white mustard. We plant between the vines, so that makes a home for the insects. We plant in October, and it grows through the winter. Then it decomposes and adds nutrients to the soil. It’s good for the earth.
BPGL: You mentioned earlier that you plant cover crops partly for the insects. Explain what you mean by that.
DONATIELLO: We plant certain crops to attract beneficial bugs, whether it’s the worms that are helping to aerate the ground or spiders. We love spiders! They spin their webs and catch the smaller insects that otherwise would be trying to feed off the grapevines. We’re in a pretty rural area, and we attract everything from field mice to spiders. We’ll be bringing in bees in another month or two. We don’t need bees for the grapes, as they’re self-pollinating; we want them for the garden. And we’ll sell the honey in the tasting room. We have the space and the facility to do it; it’s beneficial to us and to them, so why not do our part?
BPGL: Are most vineyards in your area using sustainable farming methods?
DONATIELLO: A lot of the vineyards are farmed sustainably. And, if they’re not fully sustainable, they’re working toward it. Vineyard owners tend to have a keen understanding of the need to take care of the environment and balance that with actually doing business. If you’re a vineyard owner and have a serious infestation, you might break down and use pesticides. That doesn’t mean you’re not looking after your grapes in every other way. But you need those grapes to pay the bills. I can’t blame someone who does use a pesticide to treat an infestation. All grape growers care about the environment. They want to see it maintained so generations to come can partake in their profession and not worry about what the generations before did.
BPGL: Is the drought affecting your wines?
DONATIELLO: Not really. The drought has become a problem for a lot of people, and we do need some rain. But we put very little water on the vines. We don’t dry farm, but we come pretty close. We want to stress the vines a little. We can always buy water if we need to. We have enough to grow good grapes. What we need it for is cleaning, sterilizing, and processing when we’re making the wine.
BPGL: I’ve been told that the best wines are produced when you stress the grapes. Is that consistent with your experience?
DONATIELLO: I think that’s especially true when you’re talking about some of the Italian or Bordeaux varietals. But the Pinot Noir is a very delicate grape. I say this all the time, “Pinot remembers everything you do to it, and holds a grudge.” It’s one of the reasons why some of our vineyards are organic, and the rest are sustainably farmed.
BPGL: You talk about wine like it has a human personality.
DONATIELLO: Each wine has its own character. We have expectations for our wines, just as I do for my daughter. I have an understanding of my wines, just as I do of my daughter. I watch them evolve from grape to wine to aged wine. They change and grow. There’s a parallel for sure.
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“Worm castings are the ultimate fertilizer,” Kevin Somerville says. With a flat-end shovel, he carefully turns the compost pile in a shallow, wooden bin to reveal a squirming ball of red earthworms. Kevin’s wife, Mary, shows us the tiny, white babies, not much wider than a piece of thread. The biggest of the worms is only a couple of inches long.
Joe digs his hands into the rich soil. “It’s warmer than room temperature,” he reports, “and slightly moist.” I’m too busy taking notes to stick my fingers in, but the soil looks soft, inviting, and well aerated.
Vermiculture, or worm farming, is an important element in the Somervilles’ plan for their 140 acres in Johnson County, Iowa. Just this year, they received certification as an organic farm. The compost they’re making will enrich the soil for next spring’s crops of organic hops, sweet potatoes, and alfalfa, as well as their family garden.
Taking a Scientific Approach
“If you have healthy soil,” Mary adds, “you’ll have healthy plants; they won’t be as susceptible to disease or bugs.”
The Somervilles take a scientific approach to creating healthy soil. “We had comprehensive soil testing done to measure the minerals in the soil,” Mary says. By learning which nutrients were needed, they could determine exactly what they should put into their compost pile to provide a healthy living environment for the worms as well as the best nutrient mix for their fields.
“It’s similar to human health,” Kevin says. “The land needs certain nutrients.” Some of those nutrients, the Somervilles purchase from Humus Health Organics in Kalona. “The rest,” he says, “we add as vegetative matter.”
About 12 months ago, the Somervilles constructed a large, flat bin in one of their outbuildings, then layered it with torn cardboard, shredded newspaper, grasses, and piles of pre-composted fall leaves. “We used a recipe,” Mary says, “to get the nutrients we needed.” When the bin was ready, they purchased 30 pounds of red wiggler earthworms from an organic worm farmer.
In optimal conditions, red wigglers will double their population in four months. In the past year, the Somervilles calculate, their 30 pounds of worms have become 240 pounds. “We call it ‘ranching underground livestock,’ ” Kevin says with a laugh.
They’ve built several additional bins to accommodate the expanding worm population. Three are currently in use, containing about a foot-deep mixture of red wigglers, black worm castings, yellow pieces of chopped organic hay, decomposed brown leaves, brown cinnamon sticks, and a variety of other herbs and spices. Sounds like an odd mixture, until the couple explains.
Earthworm Haute Cuisine
It takes a huge amount of plant matter to sustain a compost operation this big. The Somervilles have been highly resourceful in finding just the right materials to give the worms an ideal home. After all, the earthworms are the “machines” that process plant matter into rich castings (worm manure) for farming. It’s critical to keep these critters well fed and happily reproducing.
Stacked in the Somervilles’ barn are several pallets of 50-pound bags. At first glance, they look like sacks of animal feed or seed for the next year’s crops, but Kevin tells us it’s 100 tons of worm food. “We got a mother lode from Frontier Herbs in Norway, Iowa. I picked up two truckloads of herbs and spices from them just today. And there’s more waiting for me.” One hundred tons of herbs and spices? That seems like an expensive diet for earthworms.
“I got them through an exclusive agreement with Frontier Herbs,” he says. “It all started with a timely phone call. We needed more plant material, and Frontier Herbs needed a place to get rid of all the stuff they couldn’t sell. The spices might be outdated, or the bag might be torn open, or there might be material in the bag that makes it unusable. Our agreement with them is that this will only be used in our compost, not for anyone to eat.” It’s as good a deal for Frontier as it is for the Somervilles, as it keeps them from paying to dump the unusable food in the landfill.
We drive to another part of the farm and see two huge piles of decaying leaves. We see yet another example of resourcefulness. When nearby cities collected fall leaves, they needed a place to dump them. Again, the Somervilles were willing recipients of someone else’s vegetative waste. Here on their farm, Nature is recycling herself. Deep inside the piles, leaves are beginning to decompose. They’ll be used as pre-compost in the new bins the couple will start when the earthworms have finished the job in the current bins.
When the Somervilles determine that a bin of soil has been fully composted, they’ll sift out the worms using a “worm tumbler.” As the tumbler is turned, nutritious castings will fall out, and the worms will be gently captured in another container. The screen size optimizes collecting the smaller worms and eggs so little “livestock” are not lost. The collected worms are then redistributed into newly prepared bins, to start the composting process all over again.
The Somervilles will mound some of the new soil from their bins around the base of the organic hops plants their 24-year old son, Seth, farms on a portion of their acres. They’ll spread the rest on land for their root crops. Their goal is to sell all of their crops locally, to keep the carbon footprint of their farming operation low in yet another way.
Asked whether “anyone” can try vermiculture, even in a small yard, or if it’s just for farmers, Mary says, “There are composting kits of various sizes available on the market. We have a friend in Tempe, AZ who is feeding his worms on table scraps and vegetation from his yard. The worms are quiet little workers who need no care when you leave town for the weekend. It’s a great way to capture the household waste stream and reduce your trips to the lawn and garden centers for nutrients for your landscape or houseplants.”
“Big Ag has a ‘conservation ethic’ of planting fence row to fence row,” Mary says. “I wish they’d work toward a balanced landscape. If farmers would devote even five percent of their acres to conservation practices, such as adding buffer strips to keep water from running off, that would make a big difference in the stability of the soil.
“I compare it to tithing at a church,” she adds. “You set aside a small percentage for the greater good. But too many land owners choose not to farm in a conservation-minded way.”
Iowa farmers typically have limited biodiversity in their plantings, alternating crops from feed corn to soybeans in a regular rotation. Every few years, some farmers do another crop rotation and grow an alfalfa/grass mix to restore the nutrients. This family farm operates on a completely different philosophy. The Somervilles are conservationists who live their beliefs. The evidence is everywhere we look.
Essential Grant Support
When we first arrived, the Somervilles’ daughter, Kristi, showed us a restored a wetland area that had been drained off for farming. “Some farmers plant their wetlands, which end up being flooded year after year, anyway. They don’t get any crops to speak of, but they keep trying,” Mary says.
The Somervilles decided that allowing the land to return to its natural purpose and stay that way made better ecological sense. Restoring the wetland was partially made possible through a whole-farm conservation plan that included waterways and contour buffer strips. The land is a home for wildlife now, where once it had scant crops that used more in energy than it produced in food. From their house, they can see pelicans, wild turkeys, ducks and other water birds.
In two sections of their fields, the family has reestablished native prairies and used native species in their buffer plantings. They received some financial assistance through the Johnson County Soil and Water Conservation District. “With good burns, we’ll have a beautiful prairie,” Mary says. “We want to make pathways so people can enjoy it.”
With a Trees Forever grant, they brought in skid loader with a tree shearer attachment to battle back invasive species. Their goal was to start an oak savanna and allow the native prairie to flourish. “It takes a lot of time and effort to battle back invasive species. Once you get the native plants established, you just need to be patient, and eventually they’ll take over again. Our children and grandchildren will really enjoy what we are doing in our lifetime,” Mary explains.
Growing a “living snow fence” is another part of the couple’s plan. They planted three rows of various types of trees and shrubs to keep snow from drifting over the county road they use to access their farm. The row closest to the field alternates red osier and nine bark. The middle row is white pines. And the row closest to the road is two varieties of spruce. The project has yet to be evaluated for effectiveness, as it will take years for the trees to reach sufficient size to provide the needed barrier. “The tall prairie grasses between the trees and the road might be just as effective at capturing the blowing snow,” Mary says.
The grants and financial incentives the Somervilles have received come with strings attached. They require a tremendous amount of dedication, time, and hard work. But, along with the couple’s own resourcefulness, the funds provided are making their dream of sustainable agriculture a reality, leaving the world a healthier place for all of us.
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