Leaving the cool and breezy Allegheny Mountain to visit Radical Roots Farm in Keezletown, Virginia, I’d have to say I was somewhat dreading a hotter day in the Shenandoah Valley (which generally tends to be at least 10 degrees warmer than here on the mountain). However, as we arrived Tuesday morning around 10:00, the air was cool and it was pleasantly overcast. I was familiar with Radical Roots Farm, and knew of its reputation as one of the best examples in the area of a small scale, sustainable, and yet also extremely productive and healthy farm system.
In 2000, husband and wife team, Dave and Lee O’Neill started farming on their own, slowly building into the successful business they have now become; selling at Wednesday and Saturday farmers markets, as well as running a 35 share CSA. Starting on a half acre of rented land, they now farm a 5 acre holistic system that is complete with crucial elements of permaculture, such as plantings on contour with swales and perennial berms, cover cropping, crop rotations, and compost tea fertilizing through drip tape irrigation.
We were greeted by Dave and led to a cozy front yard near the apprentice cabin. What was once a small patch of grass a few years ago, was now an inviting gathering space with overarching mulberry trees, chokeberries, hazelnuts, vitex, joe pie weed, and a few ornamentals; viburnum, smokebush, and yarrow with a creeping ground cover of strawberries. Dave explained the mission of Radical Roots Farm as “catalyzing positive change by growing high quality, ecologically grown vegetables, educating about permaculture and sustainable agriculture and living the vision.”
Dave stressed the importance of having a diversity of crops. That way if one thing does not do well, you always have another crop to fall back on. The beginning of most plants at the farm happens in the greenhouse nursery, where the first plants are seeded in late December. Today, the nursery was full of many tomatoes and herbs, chokeberry cuttings, as well as some nitrogen fixing plants, such as Lespedeza, Baptisa, and Indigofera pseudo which play an important part in their system of alley and cover cropping. Alley cropping is when annual crops are planted along side rows of perennial trees and shrubs. For example, in between annual rows of okra, were beautiful perennial rows of dwarf apple trees and comfrey.
In order to maximize their market, the farm now has a 5,000 sq. foot “High Tunnel” hoophouse, built with a single layer of plastic, operating off no heat source. With the plastic tarp doors fully closed, the house can grow tomatoes and basil in March, ready to be sold in April. In the winter, the tunnel is “unskinned”, allowing hard freezing to kill pests in the soil as well as precipitation to flush out accumulated salts. The tunnel was teaming with vigorously growing tomatoes, followed by a row of dwarf cherry trees, with strawberries growing underneath them. Using space to its fullest potential, beneath the tomatoes were about 400 heads of lettuce.
An integral part of working with the land, rather than against it, is rebuilding and nurturing the soil. While soil in the US is being washed away by erosion at a rate of 10 times faster than it is being replenished, I couldn’t avoid remembering how it takes 1,000 years for the earth to create an inch of soil. One way to preserve the soil, and prevent erosion, is to keep your soil covered at all times. In between crop rotations, the farm will sometimes have a summer annual cover crop growing, whose function is to also fix nitrogen in the soil. Plants such as the Austrian winter pea or vetch have the ability to gather nitrogen from the air and fix it in the soil, eliminating the need to apply synthetic fertilizer.
The more the tour progressed, it was inevitable to not see the immense thought that went into designing the area. One example of this was the explanation of the tomato rotational system. The family plants five rotations of tomatoes, which all overlap in production, each rotation being around 500 plants. One common rotation is between the plants of the Solanacea, Brassica, and Cucurbitacaea families. Moreover, the land was altered in accordance with the natural layout and how the earth’s elements impact it. Instead of straight monocultured rows, there is a diverse flow to the land, each area teeming with its own individuality. In between the pattern of annual and perennial plants, there is an area of the farm with swales that serve to catch water and more evenly distribute it. Fast growing trees, such as Locusts, planted on the burms, can be coppiced in the future to add organic matter to the soil, without having to buy an input source of fertilizer.
Towards the end of the tour we learned about the importance of water catchment and creating wildlife habitat on the farm. A 10,000 gallon cistern was in the process of construction, to be used to collect rainwater from the house roof. A pond had also been constructed to catch runoff rain as well as create habitat.
After the tour, it was amazing to reflect on the amount of food that can come out of just five acres. Not only that, it just felt right. It felt good to see conventional aisles of peppers followed by rows of Asian pears with understories of elderberries. So, is it possible to survive in today’s economy, raise a family, and even take winters off, by growing five acres of organic food? Yes, of course it is! Remembering to observe the land, diversify, nurture the soil, set and prioritize your goals, and find your niche market, it can be done!