It’s definitely not your typical farming operation. From the technique of permanent raised bed row cropping to the strategic placement of natural areas for beneficial species, Liz and Corey Aquino of Lane’s End Farm exemplify what can be done using growing practices they describe as “beyond organic.”
When they first began farming 30 years ago, the Aquinos knew that they wanted to focus on soil health, avoiding the use of chemical inputs to control pests and disease. However, there weren’t many resources on natural growing methods at the time. They researched the internet, books and talked to other farmers as they began their agriculture journey.
Today, they continue to do so and consider the research for best growing practices a continuous process. “That’s kind of how it works,” said Corey. “It’s always an experiment and it’s always evolving.”
Located 60 miles south of Chicago, the 20-acre Indiana farm currently has seven acres in production. Besides permanent raised beds, their operation includes fully climate-controlled greenhouses, unheated greenhouse structures and caterpillar tunnels. Crop production includes a wide range of heirloom tomatoes, carrots, potatoes and other vegetables. They also grow potted flowers and recently added microgreens to their product mix.
Focus on Soil Health
While growers agree that soil health is important, Lane’s End Farm has taken the concept to the next level. “We are just now discovering how important soil is,” said Corey.
He explained the connection between soil health and composted raised bed production. “The beds are permanent, so the machinery never drives on it again. We are never getting compaction and, for the soil biology, that was key. We spend so much less time on our heavy clay soils and going to raised bed agriculture has helped us keep that soil biology intact. It has reduced our tillage by at least 60%.”
Several large compost piles are continuously worked on the farm and are incorporated into their planting areas.
The Aquinos started their raised bed program seven years ago. “When you start farming you try to learn all of these efficiencies,” Corey said. “The bed is up six inches. When the crew is harvesting, that six inches is actually easier on your back.”
Liz explained the benefits when it came to weather events. “Since we started doing the raised beds, we have lost very few crops because of torrential rains,” she said, adding that their part of the country seems to be getting the heavy 100-year rains twice a year now. Their fields can be accessed much quicker for harvest after a heavy rainfall.
She also pointed out that because the soil biology in a raised bed does not get disturbed, moisture is held better during dry spells.
The farm does not use any applications for disease or insect control. “In the insect world, 80% of the insects are beneficials and just 20% are the bad guys,” said Liz. “When you use an insecticide spray, it’s mostly broad spectrum and you’re killing the beneficials too.”
Selected non-production areas of the farm are not mowed and provide a habitat for more than just beneficial insects. “It’s frogs, it’s toads, it’s snakes, it’s birds,” Corey explained. “Pretty much anything that is going to help you in the farming venture needs a place to overwinter and it can’t be on disturbed soil. If you don’t spray, you give your beneficials a chance to come into balance and bring those other things into check.”
An example of how beneficials help was discovered in their potato crop this past summer. One of the ongoing maintenance activities during the growing season is scouting for Colorado potato beetles and removing them by hand. While photographing the crop this past summer, they found an assassin beetle attacking one of the potato beetles. They later discovered that when they were removing egg clusters from the backs of potato leaves, the two insects were very similar. There is, however, a slight color difference between them and they are now careful to leave behind the darker orange larvae of the assassin beetle.
The farm has seven poly houses in production with a total of 8,000 square feet of climate-controlled growing space. Besides 2,500 square feet of unheated houses, they grow in 4,500 square feet of caterpillar tunnels. Corey explained that they plan to add more “cat” tunnels each year. The tunnels are open at each end and sides can be pulled up for additional ventilation. He said that they can typically put a tunnel up in a weekend.
Like many small farms, Lane’s End has hired seasonal staff as well as family helping during the busy season. Staff includes three to five full-time adults and several more summer hires. High school students, often referred to as their “clean-up crew,” help with the processing area at the end of the day. “A few of our long-term employees started out as part of the high school crew,” Corey said.
Family helps out too. Liz’s brother, an elementary school teacher, helps during summer and their daughter often attends farmers markets. Their son helps on the farm and Liz’s mother lives on the farm and still bunches lettuce and garlic for market.
Lane’s End Farm uses social media and also promotes its business on its website, including an online store. Their Facebook and Instagram posts list weekly updates of product availability and offer a behind the scenes glimpse of farm activity throughout the year. The website’s Virtual Farm Stand store showcases available items in season that can be ordered online, then picked up at the farm or delivered within the local area.
Their product is also sold at farmers markets and through their CSA share program. A dedicated page of their website simplifies registration for any of their CSA programs. Weekly shares can be picked up at the farm, a farmers market in Chicago or a third location in Indiana. Customers can also opt to add floral bouquets and/or microgreens on a weekly or biweekly basis.
If you are considering transitioning your farm to natural growing methods, Corey’s advice was simple: “Just go out and get started. Pay attention and utilize whatever resources you may have.”
He stressed the importance of being passionate about what you’re doing and the quality of what you sell. “Once you convey your passion to your customers, you’re going to have a customer for life. Make sure your product is of the utmost highest quality and charge what you need to charge in order to make a living off of it, not what someone else is charging.”
He also recognized that this way of farming isn’t for everyone. “Every farm is different, like snowflakes. Everyone has a different philosophy, a different way of going about farming,” he concluded.
While it may not be for everyone, Lane’s End Farm’s self-described growing methods have proven to be “beyond organic.”
by Gail March Yerke