Conserving water, soil and farmland in the Chesapeake Bay watershed were all part of the discussion at the second annual Virginia Farm-to-Table conference in December.
The conference focused on growing the local “foodshed” — a term coined in 1916 by a New Yorker encouraging residents to protect their food resources and infrastructure like they would access to clean water.
Based on surveys taken after the first conference in 2012, Eric Bendfeldt with the Virginia Cooperative Extension said attendees “wanted to hear more about soil health and its impact on human health.”
The conference, which is part of a statewide Farm-to-Table Plan to improve local food systems, drew nearly 300 people to rural Wyers Cave, VA, Dec. 4–5. If surveys from the previous year and conversations at the conference were an indication, more than half of those attending were food producers, with staff from agricultural agencies and food-minded nonprofits well-represented.
Bendfeldt, an Extension specialist, said the overarching theme of the conference — to promote better physical and economic health in Virginia’s food system — naturally progresses into conversations about soil, water and human health.
Rick Felker, who grows organic vegetables on Virginia’s Eastern Shore and clams in Mattawoman Creek, saw this progression on his land as well.
“Since raising clams requires good water,” Felker said, “we’re not doing anything on the land that harms the clams.”
Felker, 57, had been farming clams for a few years when he decided to start an organic vegetable farm in 2005. The creekside land he’s
owned since the late 80s already featured natural wooded buffers that prevent pesticide drift from other farms and filter the water as it leaves the property.
Felker was reminded why water quality matters to his operation when red tide, a phenomenon of shellfish-killing algal blooms, came within 6 miles of his clam beds this summer.
“We feel very passionate that what we do doesn’t affect the Bay,” he said during a panel discussion on “Innovative and Practical Conservation” at the conference.
Other farmers who shared their perspectives at the conference said a new awareness of how their practices impact the water and soil led
them to embrace more biological farming methods.
For decades, Paul Davis’ family used conventional farming methods on the 1,200 acres it has owned since the 1940s. But, after Davis was exposed to soil-building practices like no-till and cover crops while working at the Virginia Cooperative Extension 15 years ago, he returned to the farm with changes.
“We stopped tilling back in 1999. That was pretty early to be a grain farmer and put that away,” Davis said.
The two-day conference held up several farmers like Felker and Davis as examples of early adapters to the practices scientists now believe are better for growing food, building soil and improving water quality.
The event brought in a farmer from North Dakota who spoke about the mob-grazing methods he uses to hoof organic matter into the soil on his 5,000-acre farm, which is covered with snow up to four months of the year.
To mimic the movement of natural herds across the prairies, Gabe Brown puts “about 680,000 pounds of beef” on an acre at a time, moving the cows up to six times a day with automatic gates. The cows tamp down the stalks as they graze, doing the job of a no-till tractor as they leave behind fertilizer in the form of manure.
“To us, livestock are a tool — a tool to improve the resources and to convert our resources into dollars,” he said.
Over 20 years, Brown and his son have added sheep, chickens and other livestock to the farm to diversify their inputs. He’s experimented with multi-species cover crops that he said strengthens the plants’ defenses against pests and diseases. He even planted his version of a diverse garden last year by mixing vegetable seeds before machine planting them into a field — which made the harvest plentiful, but hard to pick.
The combination of practices has increased the organic matter in his soils, which had been degraded by years of crop farming, from less than 2 percent u p to 6 percent. Scientists said the natural range would be 7.5–8 percent.
“When I purchased that farm in 1991, I could never go fishing because I couldn’t find an earthworm,” Brown told the audience with a chuckle. “This past year, we found 60 per square foot.”
Attendees of the conference seemed to marvel at what a farmer could accomplish on a farm that, at this time of year, regularly features minus 30-degree temperatures and several inches of snow.
When asked why more farmers don’t apply the practices he uses and which he says have been successful, Brown said many still find it hard to believe that a more natural way of farming could be more profitable.
“I haven’t come across any farm where this won’t work,” Brown said during a conversation about cover crops and other soil-building methods. “So often, as producers, we think we can’t change, so we don’t. It’s easy to do if we put our mind to it.”