Switching from conventional farming to using no pesticides or chemical fertilizers—why small farms are not certified organic—how large agricultural corporations try to gain advantages over small independent farms.
Carriage House Farm: farm manager Richard Stewart, garden manager Kate Cook, and native plant specialist Abby Artemisia.
Just outside of North Bend, Ohio, lies Carriage House Farm which has taken a bold move from GMO mono-crop farming to growing a diverse range of produce using sustainable farming practices. This sixth generation family farm contributes to its bioregional foodshed by providing produce, honey and grain—which is milled on site—to local markets, restaurants, and a variety of other retailers. The farm also offers educational farm tours and plant walks to reconnect people with the land that feeds them.
By selling their produce locally, Carriage House Farm reduces the amount of fuel spent in the transportation of food. Selling locally also bolsters the region’s food security by decreasing reliance on imported foods, and supports the local economy by keeping money within the community so that farmer and consumer sustain one another.
What motivated you to switch from commodity crops and conventional farming practices towards a more sustainable form of farming?
Richard: With the trend in demand for local food and the radical swings in the commodities market, it was clear that the business side of the farm would benefit from shifting from conventional grains to a more diverse source of income. I was also in the mindset, now that I am raising two children, that I wanted to become a better steward of our small piece of this planet and to make it better, environmentally, for when I pass it on to the next generation.
What kinds of challenges have you come across in the transition phase?
Richard: I think that we are unique among many farms in that we are growing mostly on flood plain. All the really cool sustainable farm projects that groups like Rodale are doing are not subject to flooding and the weed pressure of river bottoms. It’s been difficult moving from conventional crops and living with the river. While it helps us out in droughts because of the high water table, it makes herbicide-free farming expensive and organic pasture costly.
We are managing though, having reduced the amount of conventional land from over 200 acres to about 152 and reducing off-farm amendments to zero (no chemical fertilizers), as well as reducing pesticide use to zero and herbicide sprays to a single application in a fashion that reduces exposure to pollinators to almost zero. I think even the conventional side of our farm is a good example of making changes that could be beneficial if they were adopted by a majority of agriculture out there.
What kind of alternatives have you found to using chemical fungicides, herbicides, and pesticides?
Kate: We use companion planting, intercropping and crop rotations to fight pests and diseases. We have found that introducing diversity helps to keep crop problems to a minimum. Companion planting and intercropping requires a bit more planning than traditional plantings, but is easily scaleable, and can boost the number of marketable crops from a plot. This diversity, coupled with proper rotations, maintains soil health and structure, which decreases the likelihood of disease.
You’ve decided against being certified organic.
Richard: The demand for anything local has surpassed the need for organic labeling. We are very transparent, both in letting people onto our farm as well as through daily information via social media that details what we are doing. We have earned our customers’ trust. If labeling our product “organic” gained us an additional 10–15% revenue, then it might be justified.
In the end organic is just a labeling tool to describe a product. Our product, harvested the day it is sold to the customer, stands out against a certified organic product that was harvested seven to eleven days prior to reaching the customer’s hand.
Why did Carriage House decide to start milling and selling its own flour?
Richard: The goal initially was to prove that we can grow less corn and make more money by converting it into an edible form. Lots of farms do this, but it usually means feeding it to an animal and converting it into meat or dairy.
We started experimenting with older cultivars of dent corn, like Krugs Yellow and Boone County White. We began by making cornmeal and polenta. Three acres of this type of corn, sold the way we do, has a cash value of fifteen acres of conventionally grown corn.
Have you found it difficult to compete with conventionally farmed produce and grain products?
Richard: No. Our competition is the national food distribution network. Companies like U.S. Foods and Sysco are our competition.
As we supply produce and milled grains that are more fresh (defined by the amount of time from milling or harvest ‘till it reaches the hands of the customer) than a national distributor, we start to impact their local sales. When I say “we” I do not mean Carriage House Farm as an individual farm but all small local farms outside the conventional food chain.
We’ve already seen small amounts of push back from these companies, in the form of support for laws and marketing agreements disguised as food safety, that are very constricting for small producers but can be weathered by large corporations.
In the end I find it all very ironic that my competition is a corporate middle man, not another family farmer.
I understand that Carriage House Farm participates in the Ohio Ecological Food & Farm Association’s farm tour. What other kinds of educational tours or classes do you offer?
Abby: Plant walks are tours of the farm that empower people by teaching them what’s growing around them, so they know how to use it as food or therapeutically. Part of my mission is to get people into or back into nature. This is a way to restore ourselves as a culture—physically, emotionally, and psychologically. As the book Last Child in the Woods explains—we will not conserve what we cannot name. I want to restore or create that connection for people, in order to protect the green spaces that are left.
I also offer herbalism classes to empower people with control of their own health. I teach people how to make remedies from what is growing around them.
What can we look forward to in the future from Carriage House Farm?
Richard: The diamond in the rough is going to be our 40 acre sustainable agriculture site. We are going to show everyone that you can take an old gravel pit with poor quality soil and turn it into a massive, diverse, food production site.
Abby: We are also constantly adding more foraged native edibles to our availability list. This is a way for us to be incredibly sustainable because we don’t have to alter the land at all to produce them. Last year we made the exciting discovery of about half an acre of native elderberries in our river bottomland! We sold some of these to a local small business, Fabulous Ferments, which made kombucha out of them.
Another local business, Chocolats Latour, also uses our foraged crops in their products. So it’s a win-win for everyone.
If you could change one thing that would make local food more accessible, what would it be?
Abby: First we need to get more programs like WIC [a US government food subsidy for women with infant children] and Food Stamps into our farmers markets and think of other more creative ways to get fresh foods into food deserts (or low-income neighborhoods), like mobile markets, to make good food more accessible to everyone. Then, we need more programs to teach people how to cook. It’s very sad that many people today do not know how to cook fresh food or think they don’t have the time.
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Photo credit: Carriage House Farm