Thursday, October 28, 2010

Stratford Hall Sustainable Agriculture Blog is moving

We are merging our two blogs. Please check-out Stratford Hall Projects to stay updated on all our interpretation, preservation, and agriculture projects.

Friday, May 22, 2009

The Process Begins

The first stage of our organic farming program began on April 8 with the treatment of a 24 acre field and two 10 acre fenced pastures. One of the two pastures is home to several horses and the other to a small herd of Devon cattle.

Under the guidance of our consultants, the initial effort will be directed to restoring fertility to the field and pastures. Like non-organic farming methods, this means applying additives that address deficiencies in soil chemistry. In our case, the principal deficiencies are in boron and potassium.

In this first treatment, we spread a special red and green clover that was inoculated to fix nitrogen in the soil. One of our consultants, Luke Howard, is shown holding a handful of these seeds. A seed drill was required to spread the clover and we purchased a new rotary spreader for the boron. It would have been ideal to apply both simultaneously, but we are not equipped to do this. This is an unfortunate addition to our carbon footprint we will need to address in the future. We also don’t own a seed drill but were able to rent one from the Rappahannock Soil and Water Conservation District.

The initial challenge was applying the clover and additives at the proper rate. It took our farm crew several passes to get everything adjusted properly. The Boron also contained an inert additive that helped to regulate the application rate. We are still seeking funds to get five tons of sulfate of potash from Utah to Stratford Hall. The application of this material will occur at a later date. The two pictures below show the seed drill at work and our farm manager, Tommy Moles, and Luke Howard discussing the process.

Friday, April 17, 2009

The first stage in our conversion to creating a sustainable agricultural system began on Wednesday April 8. Before describing what happened on April 8, it may be useful to explain how we developed the implementation plan.

The planning process began in December 2007 when I attended the ACRES organic farming conference in Louisville, KY with Robert E. Lee Memorial Association board member, Franny Kansteiner. Franny and her husband Walter have an organic farm at their Upperville, VA home. In addition to the conference, Franny also arranged visits to several other organic farms in Fauquier and Loudoun County, Virginia. We also met with Amish farmers in Pennsylvania. One of the many things I learned from these conferences and visits, aside from the conviction that this was something that Stratford needed to do, was that it was also highly complex and that there were many different ways to create and manage a sustainable and organic farm. I also concluded with our limited staff, sorting out all the details would be difficult and time-consuming. This makes us similar to the millions of Americans who flock to Whole Foods and local farm markets in search of organic vegetables, fruits and meats and probably don’t entirely understand what makes organic different from non-organic produced food – only that it is somehow “better.” If this describes you, we hope that this new program will provide some answers.

After the overwhelming experience with conferences, books and farm visits we were encouraged by a meeting with Reuben Stoltzfus in Ronks, PA in May 2008. Reuben is Amish, but operates a business that caters to his Amish neighbors and others that want to manage their farms sustainably. His company, Lancaster Agricultural Products (Lancaster Ag), provides both advice and a variety of organic fertilizers, additives and medicines that can resolve everything from soil fertility to dry cow disease. For those who think of the Amish only in terms of their plain dress and avoidance of modern amenities, think again. Reuben has developed a reputation as one of the principal advocates of organic farming and has the business to prove it.

We met with Reuben in his office. The office bore an unsettling similarity to something you might see in any modern corporation: big mahogany desk with a large bookcase to match along with richly upholstered furniture. His modern building was part salesroom, part warehouse and part office space. Since I grew up and attended college in southeastern Pennsylvania, I had some experience with the Amish. This is not what I imagined. There was even a telephone on his desk. There was also a computer, but secured out of site in a separate room. I was afraid to ask if they took credit cards. Franny Kansteiner joined me at this meeting, but Reuben spoke mostly with me. There are some aspects of Amish culture that will not be so easily changed.

Reuben introduced us to two scholars well known for their expertise in soil fertility and livestock management: Dan Skow and Paul Detloff. They were both from the Midwest, but have been long-time associates or Reuben and were in town to participate in a free conference Reuben was sponsoring the next day. They made a strong case for how their organic management philosophy could benefit us and suggested I stay for the conferecne where I could learn about it. Franny had to go back to Virginia, but I agreed to stay and participate. When I arrived back at Lancaster Ag the next morning, it was joined by about 150 Amishmen. The meeting included a number of interesting sessions, and I got a lot out of all of them but especially the talk by Dan and Paul. It also provided for some interesting interactions with the Amish. A lunch was served, very much in the traditional Pennsylvania style. Among the non-Amish in attendance, Reuben introduced me to two people: Bill Wolf and Luke Howard who he felt could be most helpful in enabling us to create and implement a plan. Bill is the principal of Wolf DiMatteo & Associates; a firm that specializes in helping people like Stratford Hall develop sustainable farm management plans, among many other things. Luke is one of Bill’s associates and manages a very successful 77 acre sustainable farm on the Eastern Shore.

Stratford Hall has retained Wolf DiMatteo to assist us with this project and it is with their expertise and advice that enabled us to advance this program.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Historical Background

As part of the background for this project, we thought it may be useful to comment on the history that provides the narrative for our sustainable agriculture program.

During the colonial period, Virginia agriculture was dominated by tobacco. The enormous wealth created by the production of tobacco made it possible for the Lees and other Virginia planters to build their magnificent homes, create a social system that encouraged progressive political ideas, and live a life of rural gentility and relative independence.

While tobacco created great wealth and is what made Virginia an economically successful colony, its cultivation had other, less desirable, outcomes. Tobacco production favored large scale production and required large quantities of labor. Its cultivation was dominated by an elite planter class who controlled vast amounts of land and labor, to the exclusion of smaller farmers. The challenge of securing an adequate labor force was solved by creating a system of chattel slavery where people of African descent were brought to Virginia against their will.

Cultivation of tobacco also encouraged the adoption of wasteful agricultural practices. Land was abundant, so there was little incentive to pursue progressive agricultural practices. The struggle of Virginia’s planters to master their environment, labor and economic systems is a constant theme of period diaries and letters. The historian Lynn Nelson, in her recent book Pharsalia, provides a useful perspective on this theme. Nelson’s agroecological history describes the Massie family’s ultimately unsuccessful over 100 year effort to master indifferent soil and a slave labor force in order to realize the Jeffersonian ideal of becoming independent gentry farmers. These efforts never strayed far from techniques first practiced in the 17th century Virginia.

The Civil War finally ended the south’s over two century reliance on slave labor. It did not resolve the struggle with the southern environment or correct years of failing agricultural practices. While there were efforts at reform, it took the depression to create the impetus for real change. Lewis Cecil Gray’s, History of Agriculture in the Southern United States to 1860, published in 1933, was the result of increased attention directed at the problems of southern agriculture, especially in Virginia. Gray’s long view of the development of southern agricultural tradition explained how management practices dating back to the 17th and 18th century resulted in the ruinous problems that developed in the late 19th and early 20th century. The ultimate solutions to these problems were the adoption of scientific techniques that included mono-crop farms that rely on the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. These scientific techniques have enabled modern American farmers to increase productivity and yields and reduce costs.

In recent years, there has been a renewed interest in the intersection of agriculture and the environment. There has been a realization that the evolution of agriculture practices from Native Americans to the more intensive practices brought by European settlers have left their marks on the land and effected water resources. The introduction of new plant and animal species brought by European settlers, and other impacts on the biodiversity of North America, has attracted renewed attention. Of particular importance has been the consideration of how modern agricultural practice affects the human diet.

One of the earliest critics of modern agricultural practices is Wendell Berry. In a series of publications, Berry criticized the government and corporate interests who have destroyed small family farms by promoting the use of chemical fertilizers and farming practices that encourage wasteful and soil destroying cultivation practices. More recently, the writer Michael Pollan has extended Berry’s arguments by examining the operation of the modern agriculture and food processing system. Pollan focuses primarily on the role of corn, once the sacred crop of the Incas, which has now become the principal ingredient in modern processed food and the component that makes the operation of industrial meat processing plants possible. Pollan argues these practices, at the heart of modern system of efficient food production, have numerous adverse impacts. Chief among them is the production of food that is unhealthy for humans. It is also unhealthy for many animals. Cattle, for example, are not designed to digest corn and need to be treated with antibiotics and other drugs to assure their continued health prior to slaughter. The entire food production system has become globalized, creating expenses in transport and uncertainty over food quality standards.

Much of the focus of scholarship on 18th century Virginia agriculture has been on the economics and challenges of staple export crop production, principally tobacco and wheat. However, the production of food for export, local or household consumption is also of great importance. Unlike the modern American consumer, an 18th century Virginian would have relied almost entirely on food he either grew himself or bought from a neighbor. A recent study on the provisioning of colonial towns produced by Lorena Walsh and other members of the Colonial Williamsburg Research Department has been very useful in describing the sophisticated system developed to produce and supply foodstuffs to colonial Virginians. Drawing on evidence from the account books of local planters, Walsh and her colleagues depict a system of local production that supplied everything from vegetables and meats to firewood and represented a significant source of revenue for many planters. There are many aspects of the colonial food production system that are similar to what modern advocates like Michael Pollan suggest should become part of the modern organic farm.

Most Americans are unaware of the historical developments that have created our present agriculture and food production network. The principal purpose of Stratford Hall’s sustainable farming program is to address this important issue, enabling our visitors to fully understand this complex historical relationship between agriculture, the environment, the economy and diet. This will be accomplished by both demonstrating and contrasting colonial and modern organic agricultural techniques, creating a connection between the past and the present, an awareness of how our agricultural practices have changed, and their impact on our lives and future.

Introduction to Stratford Hall's Sustainable Agriculture Blog

As the first post on this blog, I thought it would be helpful to explain Stratford Hall’s educational objectives for our sustainable agriculture program.

The principal focus of this program will be to contrast 18th and 21st century organic farming techniques. The Lee family and other 18th century farmers were organic by necessity. In the 21st century organic farming is again resurgent, driven by contemporary concerns over the impact of modern agricultural practices on human and animal health and the environment. By contrasting the evolution of organic farming technology, Stratford Hall will be able to make a significant contribution to understanding the role of agriculture in history and the contemporary debates over the impact of agriculture on the environment and diet. Furthermore, Stratford Hall sees this program as a cornerstone of its effort to attract new audiences and develop new and innovative educational programs.

The purpose of this blog is to provide information on the development of the program and our efforts to adopt a sustainable agriculture management system. This will be a learning processs for us and one of our objectives is to make it a learning process for the general public, too. In future posts, we will update you on our transition efforts, provide commentary on challenges, problems and successes. We also hope it will encourage some of you to visit.