by Sally Colby
Cameron Pedersen was working on a PhD, but decided it wasn’t the direction he wanted to go. “I apprenticed on an nearby organic vegetable farm,” he said. “It was good training, and I met my wife Audrey there.”
In 2009, the couple started growing vegetables on a one-half acre plot on Pedersen’s parents’ farm, as they looked for land of their own. They grew a variety of vegetable crops, and helped to start a farmers market in a small nearby town. Although that market didn’t last, the Pedersens already had bigger plans that included farmers markets in the Washington D.C. area.
After several years of farming and learning more about the market for fresh, organic produce, the Pedersens started to look for a larger property. They purchased a 55-acre farm in Fort Louden, PA and started the transition to organic growing. “The land was being used to grow corn and soybeans and it was in poor shape, so we started to plant cover crops immediately,” said Pedersen. “During the three-year transition to organic, we were constantly cover-cropping to build up the soil that was hard and compacted.”
The Pedersens grew cash crops along with cover crops as they transitioned Bending Bridge Farm to organic production. “We tried Sunn Hemp last summer,” said Pedersen. “It’s a tropical legume and seed is only available from Hawaii. The advantage is that it’s a legume that grows in the summer. It grows about seven feet tall, and provides a lot of nitrogen and organic matter. We also rotate crop families among fields, mainly for disease control.”
Another crop in the rotation is winter rye, and Pedersen often establishes a rye-vetch mix in fall. Fall oats is another good cover crop option because it dies off in winter and the ground is ready to use in early spring. Buckwheat is used as a short-season summer cover for ground that’s between crops. When he’s ready to plant a cash crop, Pedersen chops the cover crop and incorporates the organic matter into the soil. Since the Pedersens are still learning about the farm, they soil test most fields annually but expect that as the soil becomes balanced, it won’t be necessary to test soil as often.
The spring season begins the previous fall when Pedersen lays plastic for early season crops. “The first transplants will go in in late March, depending on soil conditions,” he said. “Planting is always a risk in spring. If it’s too wet and we can’t work the soil, we’ll have a lot of transplants that are ready to go – they get leggy in the greenhouse.”
Pedersen used the two high tunnels to grow greens through winter. One was sown with spinach in fall and harvested as needed. The other tunnel was filled with a braising mix including tatsoi, mustard, frisee and spinach. This year, Pedersen plans to erect a 250’ long high tunnel for growing winter greens.
Early selections sown in the high tunnels include greens such as lettuce, beets, parsley and chard. Some spring crops, including radishes, spinach and hakurei turnips are among the first crops that are direct seeded.
“Almost everything is grown in succession because we’re going to farmers’ markets every week,” said Pedersen. “We’re constantly sowing and harvesting throughout the year. We’ll put spinach in about four times and turnips five times. We’ll grow lettuce for about 22 weeks, transplanting it out every week all summer, then we take a break in August because of the heat.”
The Pedersens grow five varieties of cherry tomatoes, which are big sellers, and five varieties of heirlooms along with some red slicing tomatoes. “All the varieties we grow have good flavor,” he said. “We go by what customers want. Each year we try a few new varieties.”
Every vegetable grower deals with insects and diseases, both of which can be challenging for the organic grower. “There are certain diseases and insects that are always going to be a problem, but we have strategies to manage them,” said Pedersen. “We use row covers on all of our new transplants in the field to keep cucumber beetles out. That gives the plants a chance to grow for a while before they’re attacked, then we take the row cover off when they blossom.” Pedersen noted that keeping cucumber beetles off the plants for as long as possible helps limit the spread of bacterial and viral diseases that affect curcurbit crops.
Another disease management strategy is to split crops among fields. “We’ll have several generations of tomatoes in one field, and other generations in different fields,” said Pedersen. “That lowers the risk that if something wasn’t quite right – fertility, soil or disease – we have more in another field.”
To ensure an adequate water supply for crops, an irrigation system is in place. While most crops have drip irrigation under the plastic, Pedersen grows fall brassica crops on bare ground without plastic with drip tape directly on the soil. “With such high value crops, if the crop doesn’t get the water when it needs it, that’s a lot of money that has gone into the crop,” he said. “If we don’t get a harvest, it’s all down the drain.”
Bending Bridge markets produce through farmers markets in Bethesda and Rockville, MD, and also sells wholesale to an organic co-op. Pedersen is currently working on GAP certification. “It’s a matter of writing a food safety plan and having the inspection,” he said.
The farm also offers a member choice CSA that allows people to put a certain amount of money toward a CSA share. “We call it the farmers choice box,” said Pedersen. “Everything has a dollar value. We put together a box that’s worth $25, but people can take out or add items. The CSA market in D.C. is crowded, so we decided to do it that way to distinguish ourselves. People can skip as many weeks as they want because they have the entire season to use up the dollar amount of their share.”
As for presenting produce at a farmers’ market, Pedersen says that he and Audrey work hard to create an attractive display. “The crops we’re growing are expensive, and for the customer, part of purchasing produce is going to the market and seeing everything laid out in a beautiful display. It’s part of the experience for the customer, and they’re willing to pay a higher price to have that interaction with the farmer.”
Apprenticeship leads to new organic farm
by Sally Colby