by Sally Colby
Although Drew Norman wasn’t raised in a farming family, his high school aptitude test indicated that he should be a farmer. More importantly, that’s what he wanted to do. Drew started working on farms as soon as he was old enough to work and eventually studied agronomy at the University of Maryland. One of the professors who influenced Drew was Dr. Ray Weil, a well-known soil researcher and professor of soils.
Drew says while he was learning about the importance of soil biology in one course, other courses presented information that didn’t quite match up. That’s when he decided to pursue organic production. In 1985, he and his wife Joan purchased their Whitehall, MD farm and began to grow vegetables. The farm had been in general production, planted mostly in corn, and at the time, there was no 3-year requirement for organic certification. “It took us a few years to find a certifier,” said Joan. “There was no internet. We became certified with OCIA (Organic Crop Improvement Association in 1986.” One Straw Farm was eventually certified through Maryland’s state program, but has recently dropped their organic certification in favor of organic practices.
The One Straw Farm home property includes 105 acres and 190 additional rented acres; 65 of which are used for vegetable production. Some of the ground is used for hay, primarily to remove nutrients from the farm. Hay that is rained on and unsuitable for livestock is returned to the farm as a compost component. Compost is kept in a covered shed, turned regularly and tested as part of the farm’s nutrient management plan. Compost materials include leaves, spoiled hay, horse manure with shavings and chicken manure. Drew says that the compost is applied fairly lightly, about 2500 pounds to the acre, as an inoculant rather than a fertility source.
Drew believes that cover crops are an important part of a crop rotation plan. Cover crops include tillage radish along with a mix of wheat, vetch, crimson clover and winter peas. Last season Drew planted eight acres in tillage radishes, and the remaining acreage with the mix. “Cover crops are a nutrient scavenger,” said Drew. “As they break down, they take up over one hundred pounds of nitrogen in the growth cycle. I also use feather meal (13-0-0) applied in April on either a cover crop or when a crop is planted. It’s blended with sulfur, boron and humate.”
About one-third of the crops are direct seeded, the rest are transplanted after being started in the five greenhouses on the farm. The greenhouses are heated with propane and one has radiant heat for starting cold-sensitive crops. Drew selects vegetables based on a combination of what customers want and disease-resistant varieties. He noted that downy mildew has become more of a problem over the past ten years. “One of our big wholesale crops was September cucumbers,” he said. “Cucumber beetle was way down at that time of year and powdery mildew is easy to control. Then we started to get devastating downy mildew. Now I grow cucumbers early to try to beat it. The first cucurbit we transplant out is cucumbers, and we have them in late June/early July. It doesn’t matter how much I spray, we can’t keep it at bay.”
Vegetable crops are managed in a rotational system by family: solanaceous, curcurbit, brassica, alum and chards. “We rotate through the vegetable families, then periodically, we’ll take a chunk of ground out of vegetable production and put it in hay,” said Drew. “That’s partially to take it out of annual row crop production and also to remove phosphorus from the farm.” Crops are grown on raised beds with drip irrigation, which helps conserve water. Drew says that although there are four ponds on the farm, there isn’t a lot of water. “The weakness is that there are multiple small water sources and small irrigation systems,” said Drew. “We have to turn a lot of pumps on. If it’s dry, that’s what I do all day.” Drew fertigates with dissolved sodium nitrate or fish emulsion (which tends to clog the system because it’s oily), and this year he’ll be using liquid poultry manure.
Although the Normans use all organic practices, their choice to use Bio360 on the raised beds is the reason they withdrew their organic certification. “I chose to use it because I didn’t like spending money for the dumpster and I didn’t like putting plastic in the landfill,” said Drew. “It’s time-consuming to lift plastic, and it (Bio360) enables me to get my cover crop in in a more timely manner because I can run a disk through the field and plant the cover crop the same day. I don’t have to send four men out there to spend two or three hours/acre to lift and remove it.”
Two years ago, the Normans testified in front of the NOSB and it (the use of Bio360) was passed with a vote of 12 to 3 to allow its use. “The law was written, and it seemed as if organic farmers would be able to use it in 2015,” said Drew. “But when the final hard copy came out, there was a line that stated that the product had to be 100 percent biobased. No one knows where that line came from.” Drew noted that the material is allowed in Europe and Canada for organic production, and those countries can sell certified organic products in the United States as organic, but United States growers can’t use it in certified organic production. Joan says that their decision means that they can no longer sell produce to organic wholesalers, but farmers’ market customers and CSA shareholders remain supportive. “The only way to be certified again would be to give up using it for three years,” she said, “which means we’d be putting several dumpsters full of plastic into landfills.”
With the support of thousands of customers, including 1,800 CSA shareholders, the Normans plan to continue using organic materials and sustainable farming practices.
Twenty years of experience selling to the organic wholesale market has given them insight into selling to individual consumers. “When you pick up a bunch of chard from us, it looks exactly like the one you’d find in the grocery store,” said Joan. “We’re consistent.” But One Straw Farm didn’t start with close to two thousand CSA shares – they started with eight at the beginning of their first season and grew to 45 by the end of the season. The following year, they sold 100 shares, then 300, and shares have multiplied nearly every year since. The farm delivers shares at forty-five sites including five farmers’ markets in the Baltimore area.
Despite the busy growing schedule at One Straw Farm, Joan attends farmers’ markets to visit with customers and share tips for using vegetables that are included in CSA shares. When people claim to not like a certain vegetable, Joan says that it’s usually the recipe and not the vegetable itself. She provides recipes and preparation tips such as grating raw beets on a salad, roasting them or including them in a chocolate cake. She also explains the reason for growing several varieties of less popular vegetables such as eggplant. “If we give everyone a big eggplant every week, they feel like they have to plan on eating eggplant every week,” she said. “If they get a skinny eggplant, they can grill it. It isn’t overwhelming.”
Sustainable produce through healthy soil
by Sally Colby