Attila Agoston high-steps through the foliage that’s reached knee-tickling heights near a small cluster of apple and peach trees on his organic farm. By early August in most years, goats or a mower would have made a run at these grasses, cutting a pathway to the fruit for picking.
But they — along with the farmers — are taking the year off. Well, sort of.
“To be honest, mostly it’s like a full-time job just keeping nature from taking over,” Agoston said, surveying vines that have crept up the deer fence surrounding the vegetable farm, now planted in little more than cover crops.
On a typical Friday morning in the summer, Agoston and his wife Shawna DeWitt would be tending to their four acres of vegetables at Mountain View Farm in Purcellville, VA. They’d be harvesting dozens of pounds for the three weekly farmers markets in Washington, DC, where they sell certified-organic produce as a main source of income.
Instead, it’s late morning and Agoston’s sleepy-eyed 3-year-old, Emmet, is still in his pajamas, peach juice dripping down his chin and onto his father’s back as he gets a piggyback ride to the house. DeWitt, a trained midwife, is off the farm tending to a woman in labor. It’s a side job that has grown during this year of pulling back from farm work.
“We have two young children, a 6-year-old and a 3-year-old, and we never go camping or anything like that,” DeWitt said over the phone in June during an uncharacteristic summer walk through the woods with her kids. “We’re being thrifty and feel like, whatever we lose this year (financially), we will recoup because the land will be more productive.”
Agoston and DeWitt invested in their bet — and ensured they’d actually take a break — by taking the family on an Alaskan vacation for the month of July, something they’ve often dreamed of while weeding vegetable beds in the summer heat.
The concept of resting a farm isn’t new. It first came to their attention from one of the oldest farming guides— the Bible — via an Israeli couple in Baltimore that applied the seventh-year rest at their own farm.
“We thought that was a great idea in year four,” DeWitt said with a chuckle. “After 10 years, we were like, ‘Remember that thing we were going to do?’ ”
Now, after a decade of working year-round, seven of those years at this farm, Agoston and DeWitt decided they needed to take their own advice.
The couple started out their off-season by taking soil samples, which they sent to Logan Labs for a baseline look and to see what could be improved over the off-season.
“We’re really curious to see what a year fallow will do,” said DeWitt, whose off-farm job and their unique relationship with the nonprofit landowners help make the arrangement possible.
The couple leases land at the Blue Ridge Center for Environmental Stewardship (www.blueridgecenter.org) in Loudon County through a partnership that also entails managing non-farm portions of the 900-acre park.
The Robert and Dee Leggett Foundation purchased the land more than a dozen years ago, establishing the center and placing the land under conservation easements to ensure its natural and agricultural assets wouldn’t be turned into subdivisions. The land is in the process of becoming a state park, and Mountain View Farm’s owners hope they will be asked to stay beyond the five-year lease they just signed.
Portions of the land had historically been home to a dairy farm and then leased to grow crops like soybeans and corn. The center’s board wanted to keep agriculture active on the land, but the vision for an organic farm came when Agoston and DeWitt, who’d been farming in the Seattle area, answered an online ad from “a nature preserve seeking farmers.”
The family lives in a small home on the property. Agoston works about 20 hours a month keeping the park’s campgrounds mowed and 10 miles of trails maintained. DeWitt is also paid to manage a historic home at the park that sleeps about 15 people and is rented by families or Boy Scout groups through airbnb.com, all of which helps to supplement their farm income.
“They do a really nice job of stewarding the land, taking care of it, especially since they’re an organic farm,” said Joe Coleman, a member of the Blue Ridge Center’s board and chair of its conservation and land use committee. “They’re located close to a stream on the property, but because of the way they’re managing the farm…they actually end up benefitting the land.”
Hikers and wildlife watchers that visit the center often stop by the farm to ask questions and learn about their practices — and to pet the animals. Agoston and DeWitt raise a small number of pigs, chickens and goats on hillier portions of the property, a pursuit they said, “is really for the kids.” They sell some of the animals whole to other farms or friends, but pulled back from selling eggs at the market because it was too expensive.
They rotate their animals across the landscape and compost their waste as added nutrients for the vegetable farm. Agoston plans to add pasture-based cattle on a 20-acre portion of the property next year. He recently signed up for the funding that’s available from the state this year to build fences around the property’s streams, ensuring that the cattle will be a boon for soil fertility and not a problem for water quality.
“The land will be put first. Then whatever it can raise in the most sensible manner, we’ll do,” Agoston said.
Though the family set out to rest both the soils and themselves this year, Agoston said that building good organic matter requires more active work than he expected.
“Normally, we’d hire three people for the season. It takes one person just to kind of maintain the balance and then everyone else helps it move forward,” he said.
Agoston said the biggest break for their family has been not attending three weekly farmers markets, which they were only able to do because organizers like FreshFarm Markets in DC pledged to save their spot for the following year.
Still, Agoston returned from the family vacation to a long list of off-year projects, like building a new high tunnel, a greenhouse-like structure for starting plants and extending the growing season, and fixing a tractor — and to the results of his soil tests.
“That land had been farmed pretty intensively and, as a result, the soil — while it had the potential to be good for ag, really needed a lot of replenishment,” Coleman said. “What they’re doing this year is enhancing the soils so they’ll be better for those things.”
Mountain View Farm isn’t the only one focused on building soil fertility these days. The Virginia office of the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service has a particular focus on building soil health with its Gaining Ground (www.gaininggroundvirginia.org) outreach programs this year, encouraging farmers to use cover crops and no-till practices to make nutrients available to plants — and to keep excess nutrients out of the Chesapeake Bay.
While Mountain View Farm’s soil biology has remained strong over the years, benefitting from organic farming methods, Agoston said he’s using the off-year to take things a step further and improve the soil’s mineral profile.
After rotating cover crops like buckwheat, winter rye and field peas into the soil — instead of nutrient-hungry vegetables — Agoston is zeroing in on specific deficiencies in minerals. The soil is low on calcium and phosphorous, for example, so he’ll be adding amendments to “get the chemistry right.”
“That’s what will grow the best food — soils that are properly balanced,” he said.
The family is eager to see what their experimental off-year will reap, and is toying with the idea of making it a regular occurrence.
“Ideally, it would be awesome to do two years fallow and really lay it out,” DeWitt said with a slight sigh. “Maybe on the next round we might do that.”