You hear me talking all the time about our local farmer Amy from Amy’s Garden. She’s our resident organic farming expert here in Richmond, VA and the farmer I trust most with my food. There are a few other really amazing farms in the area too, but Amy’s is my favorite for a few reasons:
- She is always 100% Organic, guaranteed. She uses zero pesticides and organic, natural fertilizers for her plants.
- Her food tastes the best. If you’ve never had food from a natural farm like Amy’s then you haven’t really tasted what veggies and fruits should taste like.
- Amy and her staff are some of the kindest people you will ever meet. I’ve never seen any of them without a smile on their face and a free tomato, cuke or flower to hand to Charlie.
- Amy is an amazing lady boss. Although she works side by side with her farmer husband George, she has chosen to be the face of her company and she does it so well in an industry dominated by men.
Recently, I got a chance to visit Amy’s Organic Farm out in Charles City, VA to get my burning organic farming questions answered. I brought Charlie with me to learn as well, and to see where her food comes from all summer long. We had so much fun walking around her beautiful garden (it feels a bit more like a giant garden than a farm anyway), saying hi to all her roaming chickens and her adorable dog, Little Bit.
Amy has rows and rows of vegetables, flowers and fruits. Unlike a conventional farm where you would see giant fields filled with one crop; she has kale, swiss chard, turnips, eggplant, tomatoes, and carrots all in one place. It’s a multicolored paradise of real food. Her chickens and turkeys roam around wherever they please and she’s got a handful of workers harvesting while she and George plant new crops. It’s a relatively small operation but that’s a big piece of why you can trust the food from their garden. Amy and George have a hand in what happens to every single plant and they have high standards for their produce.
How did Amy become a farmer?
Amy and her husband George used to live in the Forest Hill area and started as an “ambitious backyard hobby garden”. They actually started selling veggies and flowers to locals and grocery stores in the area from their large backyard garden in south side before they decided to make the move to Charles City, VA to expand their garden to what it is now.
What Does Certified Organic Mean?
To be certified organic there’s a variety of different rules and regulations farmers must follow. Each farm who wants to be able to advertise their produce as organic must submit an application to the USDA detailing:
- a description of the farming operation
- what substances have been used on the land in the last 3 years
- products being grown
- a plan describing the substances and practices to be used
The farm must be free of all prohibited substances for 3 years before they can be fully certified and label their produce organic. Here is the full breakdown of allowed and prohibited substances from the USDA.
What do Organic Farmers Use for Fertilizer?
Organic farms like Amy’s have to use fertilizers from natural, renewable sources. Usually this means animal manure dried into pellets. Amy uses mostly organic chicken manure or mined rock powder. Conventional farms will use synthetic fertilizers usually derived from petroleum.
How do Organic Farmers Deal with Pests and Weeds?
Amy and George deal with pests just like any other farmer. They use various strategies to keep the cucumber beetle off of their cucumbers and the flea beetles off of their eggplant. They use row covers for new crops. The covers are made from spun polyester which allows rain and sun to penetrate, but not bugs. Once the crop has grown large enough they remove the covers. According to Amy, once the plant is a certain size, the pests can’t kill the plant. They may eat through a few leaves, but she still gets plenty of output.
You may already know that there are also certain flowers that can be planted that pests tend to stay away from, but did you know that there are bugs that are great for your garden as well? Amy has Queen Anne’s Lace all over her garden because it actually brings in insects that help the farm and its organic ecosystem. She also plants buckwheat because it adds phosphorus to the soil and has a flower that attracts good bugs.
Her chickens have purpose too. Aside from providing delicious fresh eggs, they also eat bugs around the garden and act as a natural pest repellent. Wasps have been known to eat some of the damaging bugs as well.
All of these are just pieces of the diverse ecosystem needed to be a good organic farmer. It’s about keeping that ecological balance between pests, insects, and animals that eat those pests.
Rotating the crops is incredibly important. Every organic farmer should rotate their crops every three years. This means they can’t grow the same crop in the same spot for more than three years in a row. Each plant draws different nutrients from the soil. Rotating the crops gives the soil a break from the nutrients that specific plant drew from the soil. It is crucial for keeping the soil healthy for stronger plants. Rotating the crops can also confuse pests from locating the plants they like to eat.
Pests are actually a much bigger problem for conventional farmers because their soil isn’t as healthy as an organic farmer’s. Conventional farmers add a ton of synthetic ingredients to their soil to keep the plants alive because they just don’t have healthy soil. Any particular pest at any time may be able to kill their crop easily. When the soil is healthy the plants can withstand pest pressure. Adding organic fertilizers, other organic matter (from composting), rotating the crops every three years and providing a diverse ecosystem keeps the soil healthy and rich with nutrients to provide to the plants.
Amy’s Advice for Organic Farming At Home
- Have a compost and add it to your garden
- Add other organic matter to your garden such as mulched leaves and straw
- Add organic fertilizer to your soil (You can buy it in big bags at the home improvement store, you don’t have to own chickens)
- Plant flowers and plants that attract good bugs and add nutrients to the soil
- If you have a plant getting hammered by pests, stop growing it for a while and grow something else. Try again in a few years and you will probably have better luck. Sometimes you have to wait for that pest to move on.
Eating healthy, many times, means branching out and trying new things, eating what will grow well and what’s in season. It can be a difficult transition when we are used to eating whatever we want, whenever we want. However I believe your body and mind will thank you for it and you will find that things just taste better when they come from a healthy plant and are fresh from the garden.