We are a small, diverse, organic farm located in Northeast Knox County, TN. We currently cultivate fourteen acres each season, seven of those acres are fruit and vegetable crops and seven of those acres are in cover crop. We also have a young apple orchard, 2 woodland acres, and 4 acres in pasture. There are a lot of catch words out there that are used to describe how a crop is grown or a product is produced: natural, naturally grown, organic, beyond organic, sustainable, ecological. They have been used so extensively (especially in advertising) that they have lost meaning. If you asked most people to distinguish between these terms and to explain what it really means about their food, most of us would find ourselves stumbling over words. Our farm philosophy is based on the concept of organic farming as originally defined by Lord Northbourne in Look to the Land in 1940: we think of the farm as a “organism” where each part plays an important role in the whole, one part supporting another part to create a functioning whole. On our farm, it looks like a cycle (although it is not yet a perfect cycle).The foundation of our farm is our soil. We like to think of it as a pro-active approach, nurturing the soil to avoid having to use fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, or fungicides. Each year we only cultivate crops on half of our cultivatable acres. The other half is in cover crop. A cover crop is a crop (typically a combination of a grass and a legume) planted to improve or maintain soil fertility and pH, improve soil tilth or quality, reduce erosion suppress weeds, control pests, provide nectar for bees, and increase biodiversity.
We seed cover crops as our fruit and vegetable crops finish to maintain soil health and prevent erosion. This rotation also allows us to break weed, pest, and pathogen cycles, which makes it easier for us to grow without the use of any herbicides, fungicides, or pesticides (organic or conventional). As part of the cycle, our cover crops act as food for our chickens, pigs, and goats, who free range on our cover-cropped land like pasture crop. Their manure, along with the nutrients provided by our cover crops at till-in (largely nitrogen, although also potassium, phosphorus, and other micro-nutrients) allows us to rely very minimally on external fertility.
In certain fields where we are still improving fertility, we use certified organic fertilizer on our broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, and brussels sprouts. Together our cover crops and our animals feed our soil and thus in turn feed our crops. We then harvest our crops to feed our shareholders, our community, and ourselves. Our animals (particularly the goats and the pigs) then feed on the crop-residue, reducing our tractor-use dramatically. We then integrate what is left of the crop-residue with a rototiller to prevent the spread of disease pathogens before reseeding it into a cover crop.
We have seen dramatic improvement in our soil since starting our farm here in 2009 with this system. There are still some areas that need significant improvement (it is a slow process), but we are very pleased with the current results. This philosophy implies environmental and human (farmer) sustainability as well as self-sufficiency, and we try to address each of these in all the decisions we make on the farm.
That said, complete self-sufficiency is not one of our goals, as we want to be part of a larger community where we are able to both purchase locally and sell locally. Currently, there are several limitations that make environmental and human sustainability (and even economic sustainability…they are intricately tied together, and the balance is difficult) challenging. Can you call us sustainable, self-sufficient, or truly organic (as Lord Northbourne defined it)? I do not always have an answer to that question. I think we should be constantly trying to improve our methods within our means.
We try to be as responsible as we can be to our land, ourselves, our shareholders and our community, adhering as much as possible to the principles and ideals that underly our farm. We also try to be as open and honest about it as we can.
We are now certified organic through Oregon Tilth. All of our seed is certified organic except for some rare heirlooms that are not be available as such because they are maintained by gardeners, seed savers, or families. We do not grow any GMO crops and follow EU standards for brassica crops (which are stricter than US standards). Our potting soil and fertilizer are certified organic, as is the supplemental feed that we feed our chickens and goats.