Sunday, May 1, 2011

The Curious Paradox of Diversified Farming

Last Tuesday, we had our second CRAFT* tour - this time to Radical Roots, a farm in the Shenandoah Valley that focuses on organic vegetable production. They also do a lot of permacultural design on the farm, from water catchment to companion planting.

If you'd like to read about our farm visit, check out the Piedmont CRAFT blog. It's updated by yours truly - I volunteered for the job after our first CRAFT visit back in March.** So I'm not going to re-hash it here. Instead, I want to talk about a few thoughts I've been having since seeing how Radical Roots operates.

I'm coming to realize just how unique Brightwood Farm is. Being a small organic farm makes one pretty unique by definition. When someone is talking about "conventional farming," they sure as heck aren't talking about organic, sustainable agriculture. But even for organic farming, Brightwood is outside the norm.

One of the main reasons I was so interested in this farm from the beginning was due to its diversity. In order to succeed, every small family farm needs to be somewhat diversified. A farm can't survive if it only grows one crop. Just one bad year, and that farm is completely screwed... not to mention the terrible effects that type of farming has on soil health.

And yet, most small farms that I've seen aren't nearly as diverse as Brightwood. Radical Roots, for example, focuses almost exclusively on vegetable production. Within the world of produce, they are all over the board. And they do keep chickens in a mobile chicken unit, as well as bees, but that's it for livestock.

Compare them to Brightwood: this farm has donkeys, goats, sheep, chickens, ducks and guinea fowl. They grow and sell organic vegetables and berries. They have a vineyard. They make wine, jams and jellies. They operate a small B&B. Is there anything they don't do?

Diversity is a good and a necessary quality, but I'm realizing that it can be a double-edged sword. Dean and Susan have their fingers in so many pies that I can barely keep count. They're like a pair of Energizer bunnies that drink espresso. And while it somehow works for them, I don't think I could manage their lifestyle.

So how can a small family farm make a living without running themselves into the ground?

I think the secret is finding your niche, whether that is wine or chicken eggs or heirloom veggies. No farm has just one niche, though... and Susan and Dean have, like, fifteen. The trick is matching your interests and what you can manage with your time and resources to fill gaps in your local food community.

For example: Virginia has hundreds of wineries all over. Good ones. So instead of trying to compete with them, Dean makes traditional farm wines. They're good quality, and they offer the value of novelty. If a small farm can do that with just a few of their endeavors, their battle is half-won.

*CRAFT, or the Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training. It's a group of local farms that bring their apprentices together once a month to tour farms and expose them to different methods of small-scale organic farming.
**Before I did my first update for the CRAFT blog, they're last (and only) blog update had been on March 16, 2009.

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