When we started out in 1973 we were pretty green. We were more prepared for dairy farming with our limited backgrounds, and we worked day jobs. Anne taught elementary school, I worked as a day laborer and played music nights and weekends. The template for small diversified agricultural farms was long lost as a result of the 1960’s USDA programs for commodity agriculture. So we networked with other farmers who seemed to be trying to do the same thing as we were. We badgered the county extension agents and specialists. We subscribed to related periodicals and went to every farm-related meeting that we could (we still try to do this today, along with our employees).
When we started farming I wanted to farm organically. I soon realized that I couldn’t profitably farm strictly organically for two reasons. First, I didn’t know enough about organic practices and systems or have any experience or guidance in that area. Second, most American consumers have demanding expectations about their food. They want their food at an inexpensive price and want their food cosmetically perfect. We needed to be on a level playing field with other American farmers that ship food into our markets. All things being equal we strive to be profitable although are more successful at it in some years than others. And finally, in the early days our main crop was strawberries which did not perform well with the current organic methods and technologies. So we found some success in moderate use of some conventional practices – (agribusiness gibberish for using some chemicals), which allows us to be able to produce our key crops with some consistent quality.
Where We are Today
Now we are a somewhat larger enterprise than when we started out in 1973. There are 6 decision makers instead of 2- Michael Harrington, (a veteran of 36 years on this farm), Anne, myself and our two children Ray and Sarah, (veterans of a lifetime of this farming folly) and Jenny, our daughter-in-law and 11 year farming rookie. Our shared philosophy is that good land stewardship has a direct relationship with profitability. The farm’s ability to sustain its membership-workforce is less likely to end up on the auction block or in developed house-lots if we can remain profitable. Many of the preferred organic practices are oftentimes more costly to institute, and yet it remains our commitment to farm in such a way that we can continue into the future, as well as the farm be retained in sustainable production for future generations. I think that for Anne and myself one might say that farming “beyond the grave” is certainly taking the long view about what we do!
Despite the fact that we are a conventional farm (by USDA definition), we have utilized techniques and strategies that are definitely sustainable and organic in nature. Below are some points of view that may be of interest.
Today we know a lot more about organic systems and production. We are constantly working to find new techniques that make us better land stewards. Yes, we still spray certain crops with conventional chemicals to reduce weeds, control fungus and insect pests, but we always opt for materials that are biologically more compatible with the natural systems, the practice has been labeled Integrated Pest Management. Many of the systems are actually certified for use on organic farms. We are not a USDA certified Organic farm, and as such cannot use organic in any description of what our farm is about. We will continue to seek to incorporate every sustainable/organic practice that makes sense to this farm. Despite the fact that we grow every vegetable and small fruit in a typical seed catalog, we have reduced our herbicide dramatically. We continue to try to fine tune our cultivation techniques and hardware to further reduce our use of herbicides.
We were one of the first commercial greenhouse operations in New England to pioneer the use of beneficial predatory insects within our greenhouses. Control of pest by prophylactic releases of predatory wasps, mites, beetles and midges as well the use of biorational pesticides is very expensive, but has allowed us to eliminate the use of hard chemical sprays (carbamates, chlorinated hydrocarbons and organophosphates) while allowing us to achieve acceptable levels of pest control. In the future we hope to eliminate the use of biorational sprays altogether and have absolute control of insect problems through knowledge and release of beneficial insects. That goal is a moving target as is much of what we shoot for in production techniques, but we still foster the commitment to farming in an appropriately sustainable fashion. Furthermore, as information becomes available, we hope to extend our knowledge and use of beneficials into the field production of our fruits and vegetables.
We have invested heavily in mechanical cultivation (but we haven’t figured out yet how to eliminate hand hoeing…) and have been featured contributors to USDA teaching videos showing innovative mechanical cultivating techniques. We will be investing in the latest European cultivation equipment in order to upgrade our cultivation techniques and further the reduce the amount of herbicides on the farm.
We have been IPM (Integrated Pest Management) practitioners for over twenty years – monitoring pest populations in crops, learning insect pest life-cycles and thresholds so that pesticide applications are reduced and prophylactic spraying is eliminated.
We have been long time practitioners of the use of green manures and cover cropping to help with soil management, and have been included in USDA Extension teaching videos on these practices. The use of cover crops improves soil quality, both in the physical as well as biologic sense and traps nutrients in the soil structure, reducing nutrient leaching into the groundwater. I (Pooh Sprague) was a participating member of a statewide cover cropping team in 2017 and 2018, and this past year we did our initial experimentation with no till planting. As capital and cost sharing is available, we will be investing in no till planters and a no till seed drill to further our commitment to soil health practices.
We are constantly trying to reduce our use of plastics and manage the waste stream that is generated on this farm. We always recycled cardboard packaging. We offer at no charge to customers greenhouse plastic sheeting for the myriad of uses homeowners can find it in an effort to recycle it. We pioneered the use of corn starch based agricultural field plastic mulch by jointly importing the european product into New England through Canada, and after many year of use, use we feel that despite it’s high initial cost, that it works very well and is a preferable alternative to landfilling used petroleum based black plastic mulches. We compost and reuse our vegetable waste stream. Appropriately recycling the different waste streams of the farm is a real ongoing challenge, especially with the elimination of Zero-Sort.
We pioneered the use of biofuels. Initially we imported waste vegetable oil (and burned up the rings on a new tractor in doing so) but eventually went to diesel with 20% biodiesel added. Recently we have been less committed and less enamored of biodiesel and ethanol because we feel the biofuels industry is being used to subsidize American commodity agriculture with no real environmental savings in fossil fuels or reduction in the carbon footprint. Our current approach is more home directed with conservation practices such as looking at no-till planting, turning off lights and electric motors and shutting off idling tractor engines.
Our practices here at Edgewater Farm are based not just on efficiency and profitability (although those are important), but also on long term sustainability and compatibility with the natural biodynamics of our environment. We believe that Edgewater Farm is in business for the long haul, and that means making the correct business and environmental decisions. Do we think we know everything and are a cutting edge farming enterprise? Nope. Do we have a lot yet to learn about our craft? Absolutely. We are constantly trying to become better farmers and better land stewards. In so doing we ultimately become better neighbors.
- Pooh Sprague