Sustainable Farming is for you too!

In Farming, Gardening on October 26, 2010 at 5:41 pm

Hill Top Farms Produce StandMaybe it’s because of the economic downturn. Perhaps it’s the increased publicity about local foods. For whatever reason, more people are realizing the joy of picking a freshly grown tomato or cucumber from their own garden. They know where it’s been, they knew it when it was a tiny seedling, and they especially relish its tastiness, still warm from the garden.

If keeping a small garden is not possible, a family can participate in a CSA or community supported agriculture, in which a local grower agrees to provide fresh produce throughout the growing season.

CSA members can opt to trade labor for food at Hill Top Farms, where Fred Miller, his wife Virginia, and black-Labrador Boomer, farm about 15 acres for community agriculture. They provide fresh, USDA certified organic vegetables to a 175-member CSA, farmers markets and local restaurants. Fred was not always a farmer; previously he managed sales for an office equipment company. He left his white-collar job to become a full-time farmer 6 years ago. Hilltop also supports a herd of goats, a flock of chickens, and horse boarding on land originally given to the family through a grant from King George II in 1740. This sandy-loam soil has sustained tobacco and other crops for much of these 270 years.

About 1500 people visited Hill Top and other homegrown farms during the Eastern Triangle Farm tour, held the last weekend of this past summer. Some brought their children to enjoy seeing livestock. Others were curious about perhaps starting their own farms.

A few of these visitors may choose to follow the path of Fred Miller at Hill Top Farms, leaving traffic-congested commutes to run specialty farms. It is possible to make a living on a small 2-acre farm, says Sun Butler, manager of the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle Farm. Evan Folds, with Progressive Gardens, verified that one could net $30,000 to $60,000 per year on an efficiently run, diversely planted, organic vegetable farm.

Planting diversity is important for making a profit. Yields depend on the weather. For example, the summer of 2010 in North Carolina broke heat records. Some crops thrived, like the southern delicacies purple hull peas and okra. Southerners clamor for these vegetables, and a good season means good profits to the farmer.

The Interfaith food Shuttle Farm is a teaching farm, in addition to its major role of providing fresh produce to the needy. It is located in south Raleigh, convenient to NC State University, which provides interns and brings classes to learn about the operation of the specialty farm.

During the Farm Tour, Sun Butler lead visitors down weed free rows of pungent smelling pepper plants, fruit laden tomato plants, and flowers covered in butterflies and bees. In the distance, a group of teenagers in a community service program prepared ground for future crops by digging compost into the already loose soil. For some of these city youth, this may be their only chance to commune with nature, and get community service credit to boot!

Sun was in his teaching mode as he pointed out methods used at the Shuttle Farm that lead to profit on only 1 to 2 acres. An unheated hoop-house and row covers, push the growing season to 9 to 10 months out of the year. Gourmet lettuce and herbs can continue to be grown in a hoop house after a frost, when the price of basil shoots up. Drip irrigation and the use of compost minimize fertilizer and water costs.

As he showed us the Shuttle Farm’s vermicomposting systems, Sun also discussed former basketball player turned urban farmer, Will Allen. Allen converted a derelict former nursery in urban Milwaukee into a profitable organic farming business. He received a MacArthur Foundation genius grant in 2008 because he trained and mentored inner city youth in the art of urban agriculture.

Many others and I left the farm tour feeling inspired. I saw that small farms provide quality food in a way that sustains the life of the farmer, customers, and the land. The market for locally grown organic food is far from being saturated. Perhaps more of us should consider making it a go.

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