2.1.2015 VABF Conference

For the last three days, I’ve been at the annual conference of the Virginia Association for Biological Farmers. (VABF) The first day was all about Jean-Martin Fortier and his method of market gardening that yields $140K in sales with 4 adults working 8-5 for 9 months out of the year. The guy has some good ideas. Like standardizing your grow beds at 30”x100’ so all your row covers, tarps etc., fit any row on the farm. The 30” is used because it’s a comfortable width for stepping over and a lot of the hand tools are being made for that width.  He uses tarps strategically to warm soils or kill weeds. And he avoids deep tillage and uses a walking tractor to surface till the top inch of soil just enough to create a seed bed. Other ideas of his:  Use a broad fork. Use compost. Get good interns. Stop work at 5.

He’s a got a book out call The Market Gardener. Good stuff. Definitely worth a read, especially if you are just getting started in gardening, (even if you are just running a kitchen garden.) His ideas can save you a lot of money, though a six figure income may prove elusive.

I also heard Michael Phillips speak. He’s the guy who wrote The Apple Grower and The Holistic Orchard. The Apple Grower is chock full of information on growing apples, but it’s dry, dull and more complex than an encyclopedia. Hard to read more than one page in a single sitting.  The Holistic Orchard is much more readable. Both books talk a lot about fungal duff which is good stuff. Phillips isn’t the most dynamic of speakers (or writers), but he knows how to grow apples without dousing them in toxic goo. His presentation offered up a lot on what you can do to raise tree fruit without pesticides and fungicides – all detailed in his books, of course.

Then there was the Bug Guy, Dr. Richard McDonald. He’s of the idea that if you provide the right habitat for predatory insects, then things like cabbage worm and squash bugs just don’t become a problem. The key is knowing what preys on the problem insect at every stage of its life and then having the necessary plants in the ground when the predators need them for shelter, food, mating, egg laying and pupating. His motto is: “If you plant it they will come. Or, I will buy them (beneficials) and then have them here forever after . . .” – Yes. Well. It all sounds good, but actually getting the beneficial plants to grow in order to have the beneficial insects – that’s the challenge isn’t it?

Renard Turner gave a really interesting talk on livestock guardian dogs. He told a very sad story about a guy with a lot of money who bought a farm, paid an obscene amount of money to fence the farm and then bought a herd of 400 goats. Despite his expensive fence, he began to have predator problems. The neighbors complained because there were always buzzards around. So he went to New York and bought two very expensive dogs from a show breeder. I don’t remember the breed name. (It was one of the newer ones from Turkey. He wanted the biggest and the best.) He took the dogs back to his farm, released them into the pasture with the goats expecting them to solve his predation problem. No introductions. No training. The dogs killed what was left of his goats. He ended up losing all his animals and committing suicide.

His point was you must be able to be alpha all the time. Everyone on your farm must be alpha, all the time, including your children. You must never, ever think of an LGD as a pet. Visitors to your farm who bring their dog need to understand that once their dog gets out of the car, your LGD’s will consider it as a threat and treat it accordingly. An LGD is a working animal capable of independent thought and extreme violence. The Great Pyrenees has been in the west the longest and has been bred “down” a bit and, of all the LGD breeds, it’s now the least people aggressive. But honestly, I left that session wanting a nice little terrier – a varmint dog. My farm isn’t isolated enough, well fenced enough, or insured enough to warrant an LGD to protect my chickens.

If you feel the need for an LGD, then please, acquire one from a breeder with working dogs. If your LGD breeder is putting his dogs in the show ring, you’re in the wrong place.

Those are the highlights for me from the 2015. I don’t go every year because it’s so expensive. But it was really wonderful to see and hear so many people focused on growing without Monsanto. I am almost eager for warmer weather and the spring growing season. But the list of winter chores is long and spring will be hammering on my door, long before the list is done.

For everything there is a season . . .


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