Abanitu Organics

Abanitu Organics

C. Bernard Obie, Abinatu Organgics. Credit: marleymarles

I can say that for us, the main ingredient is being connected to the Earth and the forces, angelic and otherwise, that govern the growth of plants. We will accept what nature gives us and we’ll be grateful. We’ll do our part to try to keep it in balance and healthy. I think in the long term, that’s really all we can do as Mother Nature will have the first and the last word about our existence here.

C. Bernard Obie

Abanitu Organics

Southeast Region | Roxboro, NC

Main Product: Vegetables

Scale: 12 acres under management

Featured Resilience Behaviors:

Add no-till raised beds/heat tolerant crops, shift growing season.

C. Bernard Obie, known as “Obie” to his family and friends, grows certified organic vegetables, fruits and herbs on his family farm in north central North Carolina near Roxboro. Obie founded Abanitu Organics on the land that has nourished his family since his great grandmother, Ms. Lucy Obie, purchased the farm in 1906. Lucy’s son, John, was a widely respected farmer in the area. Obie’s father, Bernard, continued the family’s farming legacy, even as all of his siblings left the farm for city jobs. “His was a really pivotal decision,” says Obie, referring to his father’s decision to become a farmer, “because he could have very well done the same thing. For a lot of folks, that’s the time when the connection to the land was broken.”

Obie’s earliest memories include helping out with farm chores along with his six brothers and sisters. “I call Person County ‘the land that time forgot for a while,’” says Obie, “because we were still doing things in the 1950s the way folks had done them a generation earlier. We did not have a tractor, we still ploughed with mules. Our cash crop was flue-cured tobacco. We kept hogs and chickens, had a milk cow and grew corn and wheat for our own food and to feed our animals. That’s how we came up.” Most of the farm’s produce was for family use, but the tobacco and hogs were sold for cash income. Obie values the unique perspective on life gained by growing up on his family’s farmstead.

Want to read more? You can find the full version of this story in the Second Edition of Resilient Agriculture, available for purchase here.

Acorn Community

Acorn Community

Ira Wallace and Mary Berry, Acorn Community. Credit: Acorn Community

We’ve had more crop failures in the last few years due to heavy rains and flooding than we’ve had in all of the last 20. It’s the biggest thing we hear from our growers and it’s the biggest pain here at Acorn as well. Many of our growers have had complete crop failures from flooding in two out of the last three years. – Ira Wallace

Ira Wallace & Mary Berry

Acorn Community & Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Southeast Region | Mineral, VA

Main Product: Vegetables

Scale: 50 acres under management

Featured Resilience Behaviors:

Add protected space, no-till raised beds, growers’ network.

The Acorn Community is an egalitarian, income-sharing, farm-based community located in south central Virginia near the town of Mineral. The community’s 20 members collectively own 72 acres of farmland, woodlands and wetlands including 50 certified organic acres that produce food for the community and vegetable seeds for the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, the community’s nationally-recognized cooperative seed business.

All Acorn community members work part-time on the farm and in the seed business. Ira Wallace has coordinated seed production and processing at Southern Exposure for about 27 years. Mary Berry joined the community in 2018. She works with Southern Exposure’s customers and co-manages seed and food production for the community. She has about three years of growing experience.

Southern Exposure direct markets more than 800 varieties of vegetable, flower, herb, grain and cover crop seeds produced at Acorn and by a network of more than 70 small and mid-scale farmers located mostly in the Southeast. The company’s co-owners also produce educational materials and support a diversity of programs to further the company’s mission to democratize the seed supply, promote organic agriculture and gardens, and preserve the genetic heritage and diversity of southern food and farming. “Our marketing strategy is more about education,” Ira explains. “Over the years, rather than have a lot of ads, we write stories, and blogs, and white papers, and work with other organizations to educate people, with the aim that, as people learn more about organics and heirloom plants, they will try our seeds and become customers.”

Want to read more? You can find the full version of this story in the Second Edition of Resilient Agriculture, available for purchase here.

Peregrine Farm

Peregrine Farm

Alex and Betsy Hitt, Peregrine Farm, Graham, North Carolina. Credit: Kate Medley, Southern Foodways Alliance.

We have a creek that runs by our property. Back in the 1700’s, they built two mills and mill dams on this creek. You don’t put that kind of effort and energy into a creek unless it is a perennial stream that runs all the time, so it seems likely that the creek has always had pretty good flow all through the summer. We have seen it run dry in some historic droughts, like in 2002, but that was a very rare occasion and the old-timers said they had never seen it run dry. But in the last 6 years, it has run dry every year at some time in the summer between June and September.

Alex & Betsy Hitt

Peregrine Farm

Southeast Region | Graham, NC

Main Product: Vegetables

Scale: 5 acres under management

Featured Resilience Behaviors:

Improve water capture, shift growing season, shift to heat tolerant cultivars, drop sensitive species.

This story is based on a 2014 interview.

Alex and Betsy Hitt established Peregrine Farm on 26 acres of pastures and woodlands in the Piedmont region of central North Carolina in 1981. Although the Hitts initially started a pick-your-own berry enterprise, they eventually moved into five acres of mixed vegetables and cut flowers to improve profitability and meet local market demands. Since 1991, the farm has supported them without the need for off-farm employment, and they also bring in two full-time employees during the growing season. They have never participated in any government program supporting agricultural producers. 

Today, Alex and Betsy grow about four acres of vegetables and cut flowers in rotation with a diverse mix of warm- and cool-season cover crops. Production takes place on drip-irrigated raised beds in the open or under about an acre of high tunnels and hoophouses. Extremely diverse crop rotations and intensive cover cropping are key management strategies at Peregrine Farm, with more than two hundred crop varieties grown in a given year, plus about half an acre of blueberries. For more than a decade, Alex and Betsy also rotationally-grazed about a hundred turkeys through the croplands each year, but they stopped in 2014 when a local processing plant closed. The Hitts sell most of their produce at a twice-weekly farmers’ market in Carrboro, about fifteen miles from the farm, and to local restaurants and a co-op grocery store.

In the thirty-three years he has been in the farm, Alex says that changing weather patterns have caused some major shifts in crop management. “Back in the late ’80s and early ’90s,” he recalls, “we had a number of years when it rained like hell, particularly in early spring, and we many times wondered if we were ever going to get anything planted or weeded. This is when we developed our system of raising our beds up in the fall, so they would drain and warm up fast the following spring when the heavy rains would come. We had so many floods in our creek-bottom fields that we finally had to stop using those fields, even though they have the best soil on the farm, because we couldn’t afford to lose the crops. But after Hurricane Fran in 1996, the tap turned off.”

Since then, weather patterns seem to have shifted significantly, while extremes have become more intense, creating new challenges and some new opportunities. “In the last fifteen years or so, springs have become much drier and there are more dry periods and longer periods of drought in the summer,” according to Alex. “Summer high temperatures now seem to extend into the late summer and fall, so summer is longer than it used to be and much drier. But fall weather is also extending longer and is better for growing.”

Alex started noticing a decline in production of some crops, particularly tomatoes, as summer temperatures increased and drought became more common. He explains, “In 2012, high temperatures were near 100 [degrees Fahrenheit] for more than two weeks in early June. We’ve had some heat-related pollination problems in tomatoes, squash, beans and cucumbers. Temperatures were just too hot for fruit set.”

High fall temperatures as the crops mature have also caused some problems, sometimes actually cooking the fruits on the vine. Drought has also interfered with normal plant development, causing time to maturity to become more irregular in growing seasons with more frequent dry periods and droughts.

Water availability for crop irrigation is now at the top of the list of weather-related concerns at Peregrine. Water comes from two ponds on the farm, both of which are spring fed. But the springs have not run much for some years now, so Alex pumps water out of the creek and into the ponds as a backup. He says that the creek running dry in summer has raised concerns about having enough water to continue to grow crops in the summertime. As he puts it, “If we don’t have the water, we can’t grow vegetables in summer.”

Peregrine is not in a rapidly growing area, so increased competition for groundwater does not seem a likely explanation for the reduction in summer creek flows. “There are no subdivisions or industrial uses, and, thank god, no fracking or anything yet,” says Alex, “so I don’t see any large users of water. The area is still mostly in woods.” He thinks the summer dry-up may be related to a decline in winter precipitation, which has reduced groundwater levels. “We used to get really good, regular, steady winter rains which kept things moist and green,” Alex explains, “but for a number of winters now, you can go out and till soil almost anytime you want. It’s not soppy wet. Once the trees leaf out and start drawing down the soil moisture, the creek flow really starts to drop.” Two or three summers ago, the creek went dry so quickly that Alex walked its length to the headwaters to see if someone was actually pulling water out, but all he found was that none of the springs that feed the creek were running.

The changes in water supply, coupled with higher summer temperatures and more frequent drought, have got Alex and Betsy thinking about ways, both old and new, to reduce summer crop production risks. For example, soil management, always a priority on the farm, has taken on new importance. “Because we are so conscious of ground water and the creek,” says Alex, “we’re trying as best as we can to build soil organic matter levels in order to improve soil water-holding capacity. We have a sandy loam, so it dries out pretty quickly.”

They have also begun to reduce production during peak summer heat (late June to early August) and focus on production during the cooler fall, winter and spring seasons. This shift away from mid-summer production offers a number of advantages, including reduced water needs, less field work in high temperatures and the production of cool-season crops well-adapted to the longer falls and warmer winters. “From 2000 to 2010, we marketed produce from April through about mid-October,” Alex explains. “In 2011, we tried some winter marketing and that worked well enough that we planted a full array of fall and winter vegetables and some flowers to bring to market in 2012 and 2013. It’s an exciting new direction for us.”

Warmer winters and a lengthening fall season made the shift in production pattern easier, but brought some challenges too. “As we were trying to get fall crops established last year,” Alex says, “I realized why we stopped doing that so long ago. The insect pressures and disease pressures are so high in the fall. It is a struggle. But if we can get to October, we’re okay as far as the establishment of crops…. After that, we can go all the way to Christmas easily, without any real additional work. And January and February are much easier than they used to be, because it is warmer.”

Another new weather-related challenge is changing crop disease pressures. Downy mildew and powdery mildew seem to be coming in earlier in the year than they used to and more novel diseases are challenging production. “This year [2014],” Alex says, “I’ve talked to a number of growers who planted winter squash at the normal time but because the mildews came in so early they did not get a crop. We fortunately planted ours really early and we got a good harvest, but if we had waited any later, I’m not sure we would have gotten much. So part of it is earlier arrival of some old diseases and part if it is new diseases. For instance, this year the downy mildew that has been infecting basil, which we have never had any trouble with — it finally got into our place somehow, and we lost all of our late basil.” Alex adds that some diseases that used to cause losses, like bacterial leaf spot on peppers, have not been a problem over the last few years at Peregrine.

More intense extreme weather, in particular more intense wind, has caused significant damage to the farm. “The intensity of the storms is getting bigger,” says Alex. “Snow is more, wind is bigger and weather comes all at once instead of being spread out.” One extreme wind event in July of 2012 damaged 90 percent of the high tunnels on the farm. “In the ranking of storms we have weathered over the last three decades this relatively small thunderstorm stands at number two in intensity and number one in monetary damage,” Alex explains. “Of course, Hurricane Fran will (or hopefully will) hold the top spot forever in wind speed, flooding, trees down and length of power outage, but we had no serious damage to any building or equipment from Fran and not too much crop loss. We have seen record rainfall events [ten inches in an hour and subsequent flooding], we have seen the record snowfall [twenty-plus inches], huge ice storms and hailstorms but most of those just resulted in loss of power. This storm was fast and hard. The big straight line winds came screaming from the west and from our experiences in Fran [80-mph winds for hours] and other hurricanes like Isabel [60-mph winds for a long time] we estimate these winds at 65–75 mph, but for only about ten minutes. The rain lasted maybe forty-five minutes, then it was over.” Six of the eight high tunnels on the farm sustained major damage because the winds exceeded their design limits and the suddenness of the storm caught the Hitts unprepared. The losses from this storm have got Alex and Betsy looking into how they can manage tree lines for improved wind protection in the future.

Even though summers in the Piedmont have been a bit cooler since 2012, Alex and Betsy plan to continue their efforts to enhance the adaptive capacity of their farm to changing climate conditions. “I think we have been lulled into a little calmness here these last two years,” says Alex, “at least on the heat end. I keep waiting for it to come screaming back.” Even with the retreat from mid-summer production, securing water for crop production remains a top priority. “We continue to go back to thinking about water capture,” says Alex. “Are there any other ways that we can control water before it leaves the farm so that we can have it to use? Some of that has to do with windbreaks so we have lower evapotranspiration. We also have places for more ponds so that we can store all the water that does fall on our farm.” They also continue to select for crop cultivars that are well adapted to their farm conditions and believe that protected growing space — under row covers and in hoophouses and high tunnels — will become even more important for successful production as climate change effects intensify in coming years.

In 2019, Alex and Betsy scaled down their operation to just one half an acre – they were looking for more time off and less time in the heat – and finally closed their business in 2021 after 36 years in farming.  Today, they grow for themselves and simply enjoy living in the beauty of Peregrine Farm.

Both Alex and Betsy are longtime, active participants in their community and regularly participate in and lead workshops at sustainable agriculture and regional food conferences and events throughout the Southeast. Both have served on the board of the Carrboro Farmers’ Market. Peregrine Farm was profiled as one of sixty model U.S. sustainable farms and ranches in the USDA-SARE publication The New American Farmer: Profiles of Agricultural Innovation, and Alex and Betsy were nationally recognized for their innovative sustainable management with the 2006 Patrick Madden Award from the USDA Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program. In 2010, Peregrine Farm was profiled in the NAS publication Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century.  

Perry-winkle Farm

Perry-winkle Farm

perry-winkle Farm

Mike Perry and Cathy Jones, Perry-Winkle Farm. Credit: Local Harvest

Cathy Jones & Michael Perry

Perry-Winkle Farm

Southeast Region | Chapel Hill, NC

Main Product: Vegetables

Scale: 10 acres under management

Featured Resilience Behaviors:

Intensive cover cropping.

STORY COMING SOON

Maple Spring Gardens

Maple Spring Gardens

Maple Spring Gardens

Ken Dawson and Libby Outlaw, Maple Springs Gardens, Cedar Grove, North Carolina. Credit: Debbie Roos.

The frequency and intensity of extreme weather seems to be increasing, which presents all sorts of challenges, the unpredictability of it. The last year that I remember as what I would consider a really good growing season was 2001. Since then, we’ve seen it all. We’ve had the driest years ever and the wettest years ever and the coldest winter in decades and the hottest summer in 100 years. The extremes are just becoming more extreme.

Ken Dawson

Maple Spring Gardens

Southeast Region | Cedar Grove, NC

Main Product: Vegetables

Scale: 14 acres under management

Featured Resilience Behaviors:

Shift growing season, drop sensitive species, shift to heat tolerant cultivars, add protected space.

This story is based on a 2014 interview.

Ken Dawson has raised organically grown vegetables for more than forty years in the community of Cedar Grove, North Carolina, located about twenty five miles north of Chapel Hill. Ken and his wife, Libby Outlaw, established Maple Spring Gardens in 1983 on leased land and moved their farm business to a worn-out tobacco farm in Cedar Grove that they purchased in 1990. Their long experience growing for high-value markets and using sustainable practices like composting and cover crops to build and maintain soil quality swiftly transformed the badly neglected land into a productive and profitable farm.

Today, Ken uses crop diversity, crop rotation and cover crops to maintain soil quality and reduce pest pressures and insectary plantings and OMRI-approved pesticides, when needed, to manage pests and diseases. Maple Springs Garden has a 5-kW photovoltaic array tied to the grid and ample water for irrigation from a pond and a well on the farm. With the help of a seasonal crew of six to eight fieldworkers, Ken and Libby grow more than eighty different varieties of vegetables, cut flowers, small fruits and medicinal and culinary herb starts on 6 acres of seasonal production rotated through 14 acres of cropland. They market their produce through direct sales to a 200 plus member CSA and at farmer’s markets in nearby Durham and Carrboro, and to local businesses.

The Southeast has always been a difficult place to grow vegetables. Poor-quality soils, fluctuating winter temperatures and hot, humid summers encourage pests and diseases and reduce crop yields.“It’s my perception, and I certainly don’t have the weather records to document it, but my perception is that the variability is becoming greater both in temperature and precipitation. Obviously the variability in precipitation is always a challenge, but the more extreme it gets the more of a challenge it is. For, example, in 2002, we had the driest year in a hundred years in central North Carolina. In 2003, we had the wettest year in a hundred years in central North Carolina. In 2007, we had the driest year ever recorded in central North Carolina. This year, we had the coolest, wettest season anybody living can remember.”

“Likewise in temperatures. The winter of 2010 was the coldest year in thirty years here and that summer was the hottest summer ever, with July and August just constantly setting temperature records for most days … hitting 105 for days on end here and the most 90-degree days ever recorded. Variability is always a challenge, that is a given in farming. It’s not like we’re seeing things we haven’t seen before, just more so. The high temperatures, the heat waves, it’s all just seems to be becoming more extreme. The extremes are just becoming more extreme.”

Hotter temperatures and more frequent heat waves have begun to interfere with crop production on Ken’s farm and others in the region. “Flowering, pollination and fruit set had never been an issue for us prior to 2010. In the 2010, ’11 and ’12 growing seasons we had very poor fruit set on our late tomatoes due to excessive heat in July. That’s something I had never encountered before. Early September, when we normally have a lot of late tomatoes, there just weren’t any. They were great-looking plants with nothing on them.” The late crop of tomatoes is an important crop for many growers in the region, including Ken, but many have now given up on the crop. Ken is thinking about trying some heat-tolerant cultivars for the late planting.

The increased summer heat may be the reason Ken has had to adjust the seasonal planting schedule for tomatoes. “I have worked for years with essentially the same timing of my tomato plantings. We do one hoophouse planting and then four in the field. That’s intended to give us tomatoes to harvest from June until mid-October. What I’ve noticed in the last four or five years is our late planted tomatoes that we have for years targeted with putting in the field around the twentieth of June, that planting is too early. Those tomatoes seem to be growing faster and ripening earlier, whereas we always wanted that last planting in tomatoes to begin being ready for harvest in early September. So we’re starting to plant them later than we ever have before.”

Like many other growers around the country, Ken has had to adjust his crop mix and planting plans to adapt to warmer and more variable spring and fall temperatures, though the length of the growing season does not seem to have changed in his area. He has found opportunity in season extension and has been successful in increasing cool-season crop production on the farm by expanding greenhouse and hoophouse space. But more variable temperatures in spring and fall, plus falling market prices led him to drop one of his major crops. “For about twenty years lettuce was our main crop. We used to grow it for the wholesale market. We don’t grow much lettuce anymore. It was always susceptible to hot spells early in the spring season, or too much rain, or too early a cold spell in the fall and so forth, whereas other crops are not nearly as sensitive to that kind of variability.”

The well-documented earlier arrival of downy mildew, a devastating disease of melons and cucurbits, has required Ken to adjust his plantings of crops like cantaloupe and winter squash. Downy mildew spends the winter down south in Florida and moves up the east coast as summer temperatures increase. “It used to be that downy mildew would appear in eastern North Carolina in early August and then move westward. We could safely grow susceptible crops up until sometime in August and then those diseases would come. In the last three or four years, downy mildew has started appearing in North Carolina in June. In response to that, we shifted our plantings of susceptible crops earlier by at least a month because if we plant it later, it all dies before it matures.”

Ken is fairly confident that under current climate conditions, he has the resources he needs to continue to farm successfully. “There’s really a lot of variability here in central North Carolina, probably more so than in a lot of other parts of the country. We kind of take it for granted that there’s going to be wet periods and dry periods and unusual hot and cold here. We’re kind of used to it already. It just seems like climate change will require us, at least in this part of the country, to kind of up our game of adaptability and diversity and so forth. I think the reality is we’ve got to recognize changes are happening and adapt to them. It’s high time that we take that seriously and get on with it.”

Ken has served the Southeast for many years as a respected leader in sustainable agriculture and local food systems. In 1993 he was named Carolina Farmer of the Year by the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association, a regional sustainable agriculture organization serving North and South Carolina.