Watch as Farmers Grow

A Sample of NOFA-NJ Winter Conference 2013

January 30th, 2013 | Posted by miker in Events and Workshops

A Sampling of the NOFA-NJ Winter Conference

January 26 and 27, 2013

Brookdale College, Lincroft, NJ

By Mike Rassweiler,

Jan 30, 2013

NOFA-NJ did us all a favor by bringing Eliot Coleman, Author of The New Organic Grower, to speak as our Keynote.  His focus on “Anything is Possible” was inspirational and photos of his operation profound in their simplicity and beauty.  Eliot grounds the organic community in the power of principle, that building healthy soil, and minimizing stress to our crops, will yield bounteous crops over the long haul, without expensive off farm inputs or environmental degradation.  According to Eliot’s example, small land holdings not only can feed our communities, but they should be our Societies Primary (food) Focus.

I was honored to be a presenter at this Conference, speaking both Sat and Sunday.  I was joined in the discussion of Mentoring Apprentices by Judy VonHandorf of Genesis Farm, Eve Minson of NOFA-NJ and Christy Asbee of Law for Food, LLC.  Legal issues were laid out for future discussion and review, and North Slope Farm’s and Genesis’s Training programs were presented in detail.

 In order of their scheduling,  I also attended the following workshops:

Growing Healthy Fruit – Michael Phillips

I was struck by the awareness of how much Michael was prepared to share of his experience and wisdom, and that the hour was not enough to get but a taste.  My take home impression was the importance of building a ‘fungal soil’.  Organic farmers as a rule are invested in building the organic matter in the soil, which in turn feeds and sustains the Fungal Life, which in turn serves the health of crops.  He recommended liberal, annual applications of small piles of (hardwood) wood chips to the orchard, piles that add fungal vigor to the soil.  Likewise the management of diverse species of grass and broadleaf plants below the trees to promote a nutrient replenished soil within the top 10” (monocrop grass leads to nutrient poor surface soil).  He recommends scything the undergrowth down, when farms are cutting their first hay, leaving the organic matter on the soil surface as mulch.  Michael also recommended cutting prunings into small pieces under the tree to be broken down naturally.  Apparently the small branch tips have the most benefit for sustaining fungal properties of the soil due to their high percentage of juicy buds to woody core, and don’t need to be removed unless severely diseased.


Management and Utilization of Arbuscular Mycorrrhizal Fungi – David Douds USDA

David educated me about how the whole Fungi being good for plant growth works.  He described the process by which sustaining a healthy, vigorous, fungal soil actually works with plants.  The Fungi develop “microscopic tree like structures in the plant root cells (arbuscules)” that grow out into the soil farther than root hairs.  These fungal branches (hyphae), into the soil, can hugely increase the potential of plants to take up nutrients and water, especially in adverse conditions.  The good news is that standard Organic Management practices are perfect for protecting the Fungal vigor of soils.  The one exception is tillage, and repeated tillage, especially “stale seed bed techniques” can kill off the fungi in our cropping areas.  To address problem areas (lack of fungal population), David is focused on a simple process any grower can manage – though of course there are details to consider.  Once you know what type of AM Fungi is native to your soils, and establish that they are beneficial for the crops you plan to grow, we can foster their growth in controlled settings (grow bags planted with an annual grass), then mix the resulting fungal rich media into our potting soil for transplants.  The AM Fungi will quickly reestablish its beneficial effects in the field, growing out from the transplants.  These interactions between Fungi and soil foster the development of “glomalins” (glycoproteins), the magic of decomposed organic matter, that holds our soil texture together.

Designing Regional Foodsheds and Farms – Ecological Models for Development – Andrew Faust

Andrew is clearly a man driven by his awareness of the world around him.  Knowledgeable about the harm that humans have done, he is an inspirational speaker about examples and potentials for humankind to do a whole lot better.  He had a lot of information to share and ended the talk with some great examples of his main point – We need to design our Development, and redevelopment, to capture the real value of living systems.  Biological filtration of waste and ecologically sound utilization of nutrients and energy.  The power of compost to regionally manage what otherwise is treated as Waste.  The potential for Urban settings to capture and utilize rainwater and waste to sustainable foster human settlement.  The take home message – don’t wait for someone else to come up with the solution, put common sense practices to work in your home and communities.  Capture rainwater, grow food, compost, use plants to filter air/water, reduce heat and cooling extremes and then separate grey and black water and handle them as resources not waste!

 Advanced Growers Seminar – facilitated by Jess Niederer

This was a testament to the growing commitment of Government Resources to address the topics that Organic Farmers have been talking about for generations.  My thanks and appreciation to the following folks who contributed their time and expertise to the Panel; Karen Kritz – NJDA, Erich Bremer- NJDA, Matthew Pavone-FSA, Jack Rabin-NJAES, Justine Cook-NJDA and Gail Bartok-NRCS.  Jack Rabin pointed out that he is frustrated by Organic Farmers not taking advantage of the wealth of accumulated knowledge of conventional agriculture.  Two resources he touted were The Rutgers Commercial Vegetable Production Recommendations, and an On-Farm Composting web resource on the Rutgers- NJ Agricultural Experiment Station website.  In general, these agencies will respond to the expressed needs of regional Agriculture, breaking down the barriers between serving Conventional Agriculture and Ecological Agriculture will only lead us to a better place.  Karen has been working for years, trying to make the recycling of waste agricultural plastic a reality in NJ.  The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has been a leader in adopting the principles of Organic Management and offers programs designed to incentivize Transition to Organic Practices, Nutrient Management and Cover Cropping.  As always, Erich of the NJ Organic Certification Program offered real time understanding of the challenges facing Organic Farmers and serves as our advocate in the NJDA (poor guy, it’s lonely in there).  The NJDA has yet to include the Organic Certification Logo on their website home page, embarrassed I guess, to be associated with a bunch of counterculture hippies.

Pruning and Training Fruit Trees – Pete Tischler and Mark Canright

North Slope has invested a lot, recently, in fruit trees, and getting advice about their pruning and management is greatly appreciated.  It is always nice to have an expert bring the task to life.  These guys brought multiple samples of branch and trunk development on which to demonstrate pruning techniques.  It was the end of the weekend yet they still were able to get me excited about going out and getting started on the Pruning!


Another excellent Winter Conference, attended by a great crowd, with many more workshops than I was able to attend.

Thank You NOFA-NJ for the commitment and time it takes to make this come together!

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