Acorn Community

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.

Abanitu Organics

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.

Peregrine Farm

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.  

White Oak Pastures

White Oak Pastures

White Oak Pastures

Will Harris, White Oak Pastures, Bluffton, Georgia. Credit: White Oak Pastures.

Certainly drought is the most difficult for us to deal with.  My father was still talking about the drought of 1954 when he died in 2000. Drought is not new here, but I do think that the variability of precipitation and temperature is increasing. I don’t have a lot of irrigation, and I’m sorry I don’t. We just don’t and probably won’t have it, because we don’t have a lot of ground water here.

Will Harris

White Oak Pastures

Southeast Region | Bluffton, GA

Main Product: Livestock

Scale: 2500 acres under management

Featured Resilience Behaviors:

Shift to regenerative grazing multispecies pastured livestock production, add on-farm processing, direct marketing, agrotourism, solar farm, carbon farming.

This story is based on a 2014 interview.

Will Harris owns and operates White Oak Pastures located about ninety miles from the Gulf of Mexico in southwest Georgia near Bluffton.  Established by Will’s great-grandfather in 1866, Will is the fourth generation to own and manage the farm.  After World War II, Will’s father, ran the farm using the industrial model. Will helped his father with the farm when he was growing up and then came back to the farm to take on full-time management after graduating from college in 1976.  For the next fifteen years, Will continued raising calves and operating a feedlot using industrial practices, but declining profitability through the 1980s caused him to begin exploring higher-value alternative markets. In the mid-1990s he began to transition the farm from industrial to grass-finished beef production using management intensive grazing practices.

Today, White Oak Pastures produces a diversity of livestock and other products on about 2,500 acres. All the livestock produced at White Oak Pastures are pasture-raised and processed on farm in state-of-the-art USDA-inspected beef and poultry processing plants. The plants were designed by Dr. Temple Grandin, the animal scientist renowned for her pioneering work in the humane handling of livestock.  The whole farm is designed as a zero-waste system and the inedible materials and wastewater from the processing plants is recycled back to the farmland through composting and irrigation systems. The farm is powered by a large solar array that provides about 30 percent of power needs. 

With the help of his daughters Jenni and Jodi, and Jodi’s husband John, Will manages the one hundred and twenty employees needed to make this diverse farming system work. Together they use multispecies rotational grazing practices to manage the production of red meats from a 700-cow beef herd, 1100 nanny goats, a 1000-ewe flock, 150 doe rabbits, and 30 sows, and poultry meats from the 320,000 chickens, turkeys, geese, ducks and guinea hens raised on the farm each year. The farm also produces organic vegetables on five acres, offers education tours of the farm, and recently added on-farm dining and lodging facilities. 

White Oak Pastures sells its products through wholesale and direct markets. The farm has a CSA and an on-farm store and restaurant and distributes fresh meats to grocery stores and specialty markets throughout the Southeast. All of White Oak Pasture’s employees make above the minimum wage, have health insurance and get a yearly bonus.

Drought and heat have long played an important role in shaping the potential productivity at White Oak Pastures.  Will thinks that temperature and precipitation have grown more variable during his lifetime at the farm, but not to such an extent that he has had to adjust any production. Part of this may be due to his long experience raising livestock and to the flexibility of raising livestock on pasture. “If I do say so myself, we’re pretty good cattle people,” says Will. “We’ve been doing it for a long, long time on the same farm. We haven’t made a lot of terrible mistakes in recent years, because we learned how to do it. Our success is mostly at the mercies of the market and the weather and this gets into some of the changes we’ve made.” Will goes on to explain that improved soil quality on the farm has increased forage production and lowered production costs. “When I started changing the way I farm,” he says, “the organic matter in my soil was less than one-half of one percent. Today it’s over five percent. We’re able to grow our own forage and that takes a lot of the cost out of this compared to buying and bringing forage in.” 

Will uses a no-till over-seeding system to produce high-quality forages for his livestock throughout the year on non-irrigated, warm season perennial pastures. For winter grazing, Will overseeds the pastures with annual cool-season forages such as cereal rye, ryegrass and clover. “I either mow or graze very short ahead of the seeding and then broadcast annual forage seed over the pasture with a truck,” he explains. “After the pasture is seeded, I come behind with a harrow that I’ve modified so I do not disturb the soil too much and then an aggressive drag behind the harrow to put the seed in good contact with the soil surface. Then I put the animals through the pasture to walk the seed into the ground. We don’t disturb the turf much this way and I always get a stand. I probably put a little too much seed in there, but I get a stand.”

The ability to control processing on-farm and sell into high-value markets has also made the farming system more stable despite increased weather variability and extremes. “We’ve gone from selling live cattle to pasture-raising and on-farm processing five red meat species and five poultry species as well as organic vegetables and eggs. What we think is probably the coolest part of our story is the way the farm has come full circle in the century and a half we’ve had it. What we do today is so remarkably similar to what my great-grandfather and grandfather did, except we’ve got refrigeration, internal combustion engines and regulations. It’s very similar to what they did, much more similar than what my father did and I did when I was a young man.” 

Will says that other farmers in his region have also noticed more variable precipitation and higher temperatures and most have adapted by increasing their use of irrigation. “There is far more irrigation in my area than there ever used to be. Way more. The only reason I don’t have it is because I’m not on a good aquifer.” Will goes on to share his concern about the waste of water he has seen in his region. “Forever I’ve heard about water wars in the West.  I don’t know too much about them. In the East, there’s always been plenty of water for everybody, and water here is free. There’s some very token permitting that’s required, but there is not much to it. Once you get that, you can dig as big a hole as you want and pump as much water out as you want, and the only costs to you are the energy costs to doing the pumping and also digging the well. As a result, we grossly waste water.” 

Will has seen farmers in his area irrigate in order to moisten the soil to prepare for planting, then irrigate again to water in fertilizers and pesticides, and then water a third time after seeding the crop. “That happens a lot,” says Will, “not occasionally … a lot. We’re now starting to feel a little bit of competition for water with environmentalists and urban communities. I think that if things continue, and they usually do, there’ll be some sort of regulation put on water use in agriculture and that will dramatically affect what we can grow. My system of farming struggles to compete with irrigated cotton and peanut farms, because they are growing subsidized crops and they gross a lot of money per acre compared to my grazing operation. It is very difficult to pay one hundred, two hundred, three hundred dollars an acre annual rent with a grazing operation, but if water becomes scarce, land rents will come down and we could afford to expand what we do.”

As weather variability and extremes have increased, Will says that he has put more time and effort into looking for new opportunities that might come with the changes.  “I’ve read a little bit about climate change,” Will explains. “I don’t know much about it, but it seems that for me, the bad part is more extremes in terms of temperature and rainfall, but the good news is it’s generally warmer and wetter, and warmer and wetter grows stuff. If it’s going to be warmer and wetter, that will benefit some of our species more than others. I have goats, sheep and cattle, and I don’t know that I know what works best, but I’m going to be sensitive to it, to see what does the best. I do know that geese, guineas and ducks handle heat and cold better than the chickens. If the weather becomes warmer and there is more moisture on an annual basis, but it is more erratic, I might change the species that I grow in the pastures, both the crops as well as the livestock. I’m at least taking some notes. I’m still growing more what the market wants than what is adapting well, but I’m sensitive to that. I’ll get the boot on climate change. It’s either happening or it’s not, but I will be watching closely to see if there are advantages we can take of it.”

Will says that if the changes in weather variability increase in coming years, he will have to make some changes, particularly if dry periods and droughts intensify. “Sooner or later, I’ll have to find some way to irrigate,” he says. Will thinks that soil quality will continue to increase on the farm and that will help to buffer more variable rainfall. “The 5 percent organic matter of the soil will keep building,” Will explains.  “It already helps make the land somewhat drought tolerant, not drought proof, but drought tolerant. If the variability stays about like this, we’ll be okay. If it gets a little worse, we’ll have to irrigate. If it’s a lot worse, even irrigation won’t help.” 

Will Harris is active in community and agricultural organizations and has been widely recognized for his innovative production system and marketing practices. He was named the Georgia Small Businessman of the Year in 2011 by the U.S. Small Business Administration.  The Georgia Conservancy named him 2012 Conservationist of the Year. Will was named the Georgia Farmer of the Year in 2012 and in 2014, Will was nationally recognized by the Natural Resources Defense Council as a recipient of the Sustainable Livestock Producer Growing Green Award.

 

Twin Oaks Community

Twin Oaks Community

Twin Oaks Community

Pam Dawling, Twin Oaks Community. Credit: Twin Oaks Community

We’ve tried leaving more things to overwinter because it doesn’t get as cold as it used to, but it’s a bit trial and error because we just never quite know what’s going to happen. Winter weather in Virginia is all over the place. It just seems more that way recently.

Pam Dawling

Twin Oaks Community

Southeast Region | Louisa, VA

Main Product: Vegetables

Scale: 4 acres under management

Featured Resilience Behaviors:

Add protected growing space, monitoring.

For more than half of her nearly 50 years of farming, Pam Dawling has grown food at Twin Oaks, an intentional community and ecovillage of about a hundred people located in central Virginia near Louisa. Pam managed vegetables and fruit production on the community’s organic farm, which also produces dairy, beef, poultry, honey, herbs, tree fruit, mushrooms, seeds, ornamental flowers and forestry products. The garden produces a diverse mix of vegetables and berries on about 3.5 acres of cultivated fields, raised beds and undercover in a high tunnel. Crop rotation, cover crops, and the application of compost, plus careful attention to season extension have been key production practices in the market garden. In 2017, Pam’s role shifted from manager to support staff at the garden, but she brings her full range of experience at Twin Oaks to this story.

Pam’s early experiences as a member of World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms introduced her to organic farming as a healthy way to live — as well as to the difficulties of solo farming — and sparked her interest in living and working collectively. Growing for a community food supply allowed Pam to center vegetable production on crops with high food value, rather than high market value. She also managed production to include specific crops favored by community members and to meet community needs for vegetables throughout the year. To achieve these goals, Pam focused production on a select group of crops: leafy greens like lettuce, chard and kale that can be grown year-round using some combination of field and protected growing space; summer crops that are equally tasty fresh or processed such as tomatoes, squash, cucumbers and peppers; and root crops like sweet potatoes that are easy to store with minimal processing for use throughout the year.

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