I asked Farmer Dave Roos who grows all of the amazing vegetables that you find on my weekly organic produce post to share with us this week!
Tell us a little bit about yourself and Left Bower Farm.
I am very new to farming and new to growing food in general. I'm a freelance writer by trade, which is still my main source of income. My wife and I began daydreaming about moving to a small farm after we had our first two kids. Mandy grew up on a farm in Idaho and it seemed like the ideal environment to raise children. We're also semi-obsessed (OK, fully obsessed) with food, so growing our own vegetables seemed like an appetizing idea. Unfortunately, we quickly discovered that buying land in Western PA is expensive. But then we heard about another, more manageable type of farm enterprise: the CSA. Community Supported Agriculture allows for small-scale growing, which can happen just as easily in an urban setting or a large backyard garden. To figure out if we had the basic skills to grow food, Mandy and I volunteered as part-time interns at Blackberry Meadows Farm, an organic CSA farm north of Pittsburgh. I'll continue the story in my answer to the next question...
What inspired you to start Left Bower Farm?
We had an incredible time working at Blackberry Meadows. The people were great, the work was satisfying and the food was incredible. I learned what all gardeners learn: food you grow yourself just tastes better. As much as we loved helping on the farm, Mandy and I still weren't ready to buy land and launch our own farm. It was too much of a financial risk riding on so little experience. But sometimes life presents you with opportunities whether you think you're ready or not. Months earlier, when we were still in the farm daydream phase, I had applied to a program called Pennsylvania FarmLink that connects landowners with young farmers. Out of the blue, I got a call from PA FarmLink asking if I was still interested in land. Figuring I had nothing to lose, I said "sure." That's when I first heard about Margie and Joe Pagliarulo, owners of the Manchester-Farms organic dairy in Avella, PA. Margie and Joe were looking for someone to grow organic vegetables in the one-acre garden plot behind their historic home. Once Mandy and I met the Pagliarulos and saw their beautiful farm, we knew that we couldn't pass up such a perfect opportunity. We moved down to Washington County and launched Left Bower Farm in the spring of 2010.
What is the difference between organic farming and conventional farming?
The "rules" of organic farming are simple: no synthetic chemical fertilizer, pesticide, fungicide or herbicide. That's the easy part. The harder task is living up to the "philosophy" of organic growing: feed the soil, not the plant. In conventional farming, there is an emphasis on supplying the right soil nutrient levels for the crop. To achieve this, most growers add synthetic fertilizers to beef up the ready supply of nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium and other minerals. By artificially boosting soil nutrient levels, conventional growers pay less attention the long-term health of the soil. Worse, some large conventional farms grow the same crops year after year, depleting the soil of its natural nutrient supply and requiring more and more synthetic fertilizer to reach the right levels. Synthetic fertilizer, particularly nitrogen, requires lots of fossil fuel energy to produce, and fertilizer run-off from large farms has lead to problems like the "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico.
The goal of organic farming is to create a closed system that doesn't require a lot of outside inputs to maintain soil health and fertility. The soil is enriched primarily by using cover crops as a "green manure." When food crops aren't in the ground, the farmer seeds a cover crop, maybe a nitrogen-fixing legume like clover or a hardy grass like rye. The roots of the cover crop penetrate deeply, aerating the soil and preventing erosion. When the cover crop is turned back into the soil, it provides a rich source of organic matter to feed the worms, bacteria, fungi and other microorganisms that convert the organic matter into the soil nutrients that make plants thrive. Other nutrient sources might be a well-maintained compost pile, and when necessary, bagged organic fertilizers derived from plants and manure sources.
I say that the "rules" are the easy part, because feeding the soil is much more complicated in practice. Since I'm working with a very small plot (less than an acre), I don't have room to keep half of my field in cover crops for the whole season. Instead, I have to seed cover crops section by section as the space becomes available, putting an emphasis on winter and early spring cover crops when the field is mostly fallow. I've also struggled with composting, because although I generate plenty of plant scraps during the season, I don't have the time or the right equipment to turn such a large compost pile. Luckily, an organic farming neighbor has launched a productive composting operation complete with a tractor-pulled turner.
Another challenge of feeding the soil is to avoid unnecessary tilling. Every time you break up the soil, you disrupt the fragile soil ecosystem of microorganisms that are breaking down organic matter and cycling nutrients. Unfortunately, the weed pressure in my field is so great that I end up tilling more than I'd like simply to clear out the weeds to make room for my vegetables. Conventional farmers might employ herbicides to quickly clear a field for planting. Organic growers try to use cover crops to smother invasive weed species. I'm still working out the kinks in my system.
What is your typical work day like on the farm?
It depends greatly on the time of year. Since farming is a part-time job for me, I can only spend around 20 hours a week at the farm. In the early spring, there is a lot of seeding in the greenhouse and preparing the field for spring planting. As spring progresses, it's all about transplanting seedlings from the greenhouse into the field, which is slow and labor-intensive. By the summer, it's most harvesting and fighting back the weeds, which are exploding by June. Up until mid-summer, I'm still seeding new plants in the greenhouse and transplanting into the field to keep a steady stream of new varieties and flavors for my customers. By the early fall, the transplanting stops, but it's time to plow in the empty portions of the field and seed them with cover crops. By late fall, everything needs to be cleared from the field, the ground tilled and planted with a winter cover crop. The only food crop that stays in the field over the winter is garlic, which we plant in late October and harvest the following July.
What are your suggestions for eating organically and sustainably?
There is a heated debate right now about the benefits of eating organic food, and I think it's a valid one to have. The organic label has become so ubiquitous that it's fair to ask, how much of this is just marketing hype? I am not an expert, but I think there are some simple rules to live by. Whether you buy organic or not, all of us should try to eat more whole, unprocessed foods. That means more fresh fruits, vegetables and unprocessed whole grains (beans, brown rice, etc.) and less food that comes out of a box. If you have access to local, organic vegetables, that's great. If you buy conventional produce from a store or farmer's market, that's great, too. If we all cooked more and ate more whole foods, I think we would see a tremendous decrease in obesity, diabetes, heart disease and many cancers. Again, that's easier said than done. All of us are crunched for time and money, and it isn't always possible to put a healthy home-cooked meal on the table three times a day. But if we're more conscious of our food choices, I know we can all take small steps in the right direction.
What is your favorite part of being a farmer?
I still get tremendous satisfaction when eating a delicious meal made from my veggies. Knowing where my food comes from, and that I played a role in its creation, makes the simple act of eating take on a greater significance. And I love that my kids are having the same experience. I love that they get excited when they know that this ear of corn or these broccoli florets came from the farm. And I love to see them clean their plates and ask for seconds. My hope is that my customers and their families are having the same experience in their homes. With their support, we can give the gift of fresh, healthy, delicious food to more families in our small corner of the world.