Our farming methods prioritize ecological diversity and improving soil quality through intensive cover cropping, crop rotation, natural fertilizers, promoting beneficial insects, trap cropping, and only using natural pesticides that are not synthetic, not persistent, and do not have unpreventable high toxicity to non-target organisms.
As organic farmers, our view of soil is much different than conventional agriculture. Instead of seeing it as a media, capable of retaining fertilizer and water inputs, that requires chemical fumigation each season to sterilize it of any microbial life, we see soil as a living, complex, microscopic ecosystem of which our crop's health is entirely dependent on. Plants depend on microbes to access nutrients and to convert them into a usable form as well as for combating disease, so we strive to support soil microbial populations that are healthy and diverse.
We work to always have our fields in cover crops whenever they are not planted in a main (or "cash") crop. Cover crops can reduce weed pressure, fix atmospheric nitrogen into soil nitrogen to reduce fertilizer requirements, add organic matter to soil, relieve soil compaction, reduce erosion, improve nutrient cycling, and host beneficial microbes, insects, and nematodes. Although not required by NOP regulations, we only use certified organic cover crop seed (unless not available like for sunn hemp) in order to support growth of the organic seed industry and sustainable seed production in general.
We rotate each field into a different crop family every year to break life-cycles of soil-borne pathogens - the conventional alternative to rotation is fumigation of the soil with non-selectively toxic gas.
In addition to legume cover crops, we use composted, pelletized chicken litter from certified organic laying hens. This is a slow-release fertilizer that has a much lower risk of polluting surface and ground waters than conventional synthetic fertilizers. We also use a fish-based fertilizer (made from the by-product after the filleting process) from a rainbow trout farm in Western NC.
We use flowering cover crops like buckwheat and vetch to attract and provide habitat for beneficial insects which pollinate our crops and can also prey on crop pests. We do not use any pesticides that are persistent enough to harm pollinators from lasting residues. We do use natural insecticides like neem and spinosad (a plant extract from the neem tree and a metabolite from a soil bacterium, respectively) that can be harmful to pollinators if sprayed directly, but these are only applied in evening hours when pollinators have already left the fields for the day.
We only use natural, bio-rational pesticides that are OMRI-approved. By bio-rational we mean that they're effective towards the target pests while relatively non-toxic to other organisms (including humans, birds, fish, frogs, ect.) and thereby have little to no environmental impact. We believe that the responsible use of natural, bio-rational pesticides is essential to minimizing food waste caused by pest/disease damage and thereby increasing affordability of organic produce - for example, using BT on a brassica crop like kale or cabbage can roughly double the marketable yield compared to a "no spray" control. Our natural pesticides fall into 3 categories:
Mineral - e.g., kaolin clay, a white naturally-occurring mineral that we use especially on brassicas to deter pests like flea and cucumber beetles. The kaolin forms a temporary white film on the leaves that 1. acts as a sunscreen to reduce heat stress, 2. makes the foliage less recognizable and attractive to pests looking to eat or lay eggs, 3. acts as a physical irritant to pests causing them to groom excessively instead of eating.
Botanical - e.g., neem oil, a plant extract from the neem tree that has insecticidal and fungicical activity. Botanical pesticides degrade rapidly in sunlight and water to benign constituents. Another example is regalia, a plant extract from the giant knotweed, which is an indirect biofungicide by activating a crop's natural immune response, increasing production of hydrolytic enzymes which can combat fungal pathogens, and strengthens plant cell walls through increased lignification.
Microbial - e.g., BT, a protein produced by the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis which has insecticidal activity against caterpillars (and other insects depending on the bacterial subspecies). Aside from the target pest species, BT is non-toxic to wildlife and humans, and like botanicals it degrades rapidly in sunlight and water. Other examples include biofungicides containing beneficial bacteria especially from the Bacillus and Streptomyces genera which can colonize a crop's leaves before pathogens arrive effectively outcompeting them for space and nutrients. They can also fight off pathogens though antibiosis, predation, and inducing the plant's immune system. Weirded out about applying beneficial microbes to food crops? ... Remember this is how beer and everyday foods like bread, cheese, yogurt, pickles and more are made.
Bare soil production:
In Summer of 2019, we stopped using plastic mulch on our farm (except for strawberries for now) and have instead transitioned crops like squash, tomatoes, melons, eggplant, ect. to bare soil production. Plastic mulch results in an enormous amount of non-recyclable waste (at least in our region) at the end of each season. While plasticulture does offer potential yield and early maturity benefits, we've decided these are outweighed by the unsustainable waste. We've also invested in 50% thicker drip tape to allow for multi-year reuse, instead of following the conventional standard practice of disposing of drip tape after single-use.
If you have any questions about our organic growing practices, feel free to email us any time. We want our practices to be fully transparent to our customers - plus we are nerds and really enjoy "getting in the weeds" on organic agriculture.