Sometimes it takes a disaster to change the way people think. For Adam Brown, it was Hurricane Katrina. “It changed my whole outlook on how humans reacted with the environment,” said Adam, who was living in New Orleans when Katrina struck. “I moved to Michigan and got a degree in environmental studies and biology. The biology degree led me deeper into thinking about soil.” Adam and his wife Haley Breniser moved to Washington state with the idea of obtaining masters degrees, but discovered a farm training program at Greenbank Farm on Whidbey Island. “It was a 10-month program with classroom training and a 50-member CSA program,” said Adam. “I fell in love with farming.” After a stint working at Chinook Farms in Snohomish, WA, the couple realized that they wanted to farm for themselves. They returned to northern Michigan, purchased land in 2013 and established UnderToe Farm.
Adam says he and Haley overplanted in 2014 because they weren’t familiar with the production capability of the farm. And although a CSA wasn’t part of the business plan the first year, the gamble paid off. “We grew more than 50 vegetables and established strawberries,” said Adam. “We had 17 farm shares, sold at a farmers’ market, sold some direct to retail and also sold some peppers and onions wholesale.”
UnderToe Farm in now one full year into the three-year, all-organic practices requirement for OMRI certification, although Adam says his customers tend to choose local over organic. “If they want to know, they ask,” he said. “They know me and trust me, and that was good to see at the farmers’ market last year.”
As growers moving toward certification, Adam and Haley pay close attention to IPM. “We rely heavily on the row covers,” said Adam. “Our last resort is using any chemicals, whether or not they’re on the OMRI list. Row covers are our main combatants.”
As for pests that show up during the season, Adam likes to define and work within a threshold — determining acceptable populations through scouting — then spray accordingly. “If we monitor enough,” he said, “we can track the natives versus the pests. “If we’ve passed the threshold, we have to spray.”
Another IPM measure will be pollinator beds. “For every nine beds we plant, one bed will be a flowering native plant to attract native pollinators,” said Adam. “We’ve done some restoration projects in southern Michigan, so we know which species will work.”
Irrigation is essential for growing strong crops that are resilient against pests and disease. The property had a well that had been used for water tanks during cherry harvest, but that well was unsuitable. “We dug a new well,” said Adam. “We have a lay flat system that runs parallel to beds and perpendicular at the head of the beds. From there, we have risers every 50 feet with double head spigots that run to garden hoses connected to overhead or drip lines.” Drip irrigation is used on the solanaceous plants such as tomato, pepper and eggplant that are susceptible to foliar fungal diseases.
Last year, UnderToe Farm grew 300 bed feet of tomatoes. All of the slicing varieties were determinate, and for cherry tomatoes, Adam used 10’ T-posts with heavy wire, trellised with clips and poly twine. Squash are popular among customers, so Adam and Haley selected disease-resistant varieties. “The most important thing is disease resistance, especially to powdery mildew,” said Adam. “I also select for yield and flavor.”
Adam and Haley will soon be erecting a 30 x 96’ high tunnel partially funded with grant money from NRCS. The structure will be used for tomatoes and for early-season beets and carrots. “Last year we grew an early maturing carrot last year that sold well at market,” said Adam. “We may cure our onions in there.”
Last year was a good year for onions, with mostly sweet varieties, including cipollini, along with storage onions. Mixed Asian greens are also popular, but prove to be somewhat challenging. “Early in the season we have flea beetles,” said Adam, “then later the problem is changing day length and bolting. It’s a matter of finding balance and harvesting before they’re overmature.”
Adam and Haley have a distinct goal in mind, and that’s to provide options for a diverse diet. “Ultimately, we are in the business of preventative health,” said Adam. “We strive to diversify the shares, and try to balance with staples such as lettuce, carrots, tomatoes. We also like to introduce vegetables such as kohlrabi and Asian greens, we’ve had good success adding those to the boxes when we provide a good recipe.”
In addition to annual vegetables, UnderToe Farm is home to 65 apple trees that came with the property. Varieties include Cortland, Golden Delicious, Red Delicious and Mackintosh. Adam says the demand for Cortland is high because not many growers have that variety, but he will probably eliminate the Red Delicious and add pears in the future. “The apple trees are about 30 years old, neglected and with four-year old suckers,” he said. “We didn’t do anything last year with fungal control last year, but we had a little bit of scab so we’ll probably have to use some copper sulfate to control the spores.”
Cover crops are an important part of maintaining good soil health. “We’ll harvest a bed in spring or summer and I’ll plant a quick-flowering plant like crimson clover, which attracts bees,” said Adam, adding that he likes to have a root system present in the ground throughout the year. “If that matures, I incorporate it, then lay on the cover crop in fall.” Adam also established rye with legumes – either winter peas or vetch – on unused land. “Rye is cold hardy so we got good germination. It’s great for weed suppression. We try to plant it in October or earlier, then mow it down after flowering and incorporate.”
At the end of each growing season, Adam and Haley will poll customers to find out what they like and didn’t like. Adam believes that he will be able to determine, and grow, what customers want through trials, small plots and extensive notes. They plan to offer 30 shares in 2015 and expand as they gain customers. “We think we can gain enough farm share members and enough farm to retail business that we can support ourselves,” said Adam. “There’s more and more demand for local and organic produce.”