Perennial Challenges: It Isn’t Easy Being Green
All field-based farming includes a challenge found in few other businesses: the volatility of nature. Growing perennial fruits and berries of adds another layer of complexity, because these trees, plants and bushes require dedicated space, specific climate conditions, and year-round care.
While berries are able to set a succession of blooms–which helps reduce the risk of total crop loss–tree fruits have only one crop per season, though planting different varieties with different bloom and ripening periods can help diffuse the risk. Late frosts, a hail storm or myriad other challenges can eliminate the entire harvest for the season. And, making the dance even more complex, the harvest window and “shelf life” of berries can be measured in hours, not the days or weeks of other crops.
Anne and Chuck Geyer are experienced, knowledgable farmers, who understand the responsibility they carry for providing healthy and nutritious food for their community, a safe workplace for their employees, and caring custodians of their land and the diverse community of pollinators and resident wildlife with which they share their fields.
Whether Farmer Chuck is protecting his beloved trees from blooming too early by applying a coat of white latex paint (it helps reflect the sun and keeps the trunks from warming) or spraying with to prevent the growth of molds and mildew after a rainy spell, the mindset for the farm is that healthy, natural soils grow healthy plants which require the minimum amount of intervention.
One of the most frequently asked questions at our markets is, “How long will you have strawberries?” Among farmers, strawberries are considered to be one of the most “finicky” fruits to grow, partially because they are so sensitive to temperature variations. Among customers, strawberries are considered by many area fans to be their absolute favorite of the year, and lines are never longer at our tables than when strawberries are in. Everyone wants to know how long they will last, but strawberry-growing is all but impossible to predict.
One thing we can say is that Memorial Day weekend is the traditional peak of the Central Virginia strawberry harvest. The other advice we can offer is that if you see (and smell) good-looking strawberries at market, grab them, because you never just never know how many more weeks are ahead.
As examples of how widely the seasonal norms can swing, in 2017 we brought our first strawberries to market in late March and were still going strong deep into July. An unusual combination of record-mild January and February temperatures, followed by a cooler-than-usual spring made for the longest strawberry harvest in Anne and Chuck’s 30+ years of growing experience. In contrast, during the “Polar Vortex” season of 2015, we didn’t even begin our harvest until May, and we were done harvesting in mid-June, thanks to several days of high heat in early May that stopped the plants from blooming.
That said, you CAN count on Agriberry Farm to start bringing strawberries to market earlier and keep them coming longer than most other farms in the area, which causes some to wonder if the strawberries we bring to market are “legit.” Absolutely, they are. Without giving away the family’s Secret Sauce, we can share a few of the investments that Anne and Chuck have made over the years to help extend their ability to deliver of America’s favorite berry for as many weeks as possible each season:
- Like many growers, they plant in the fall, allowing the plants to become well established before spring.
- Unlike many growers, they take the expensive and challenging step of covering the rows of plants during the deep cold of winter, keeping them healthy and protected, and allowing the plants to bud, begin blooming and setting fruit ahead of seasonal norms. We remove the row covers when we hope the worst of the cold is behind us, and even have been known to put them back on again in the event of unexpected returns to cold temperatures.
- In consultation with Partner Farmer Aaron Goode of Chesterfield Berry Farm, they constantly evaluate the varieties to plant each season. They look for varieties that thrive in different conditions, which helps to hedge our bets to the greatest degree possible. They also work closely with the nurseries to keep tabs on promising new varieties being developed.
- During the off-season they invest in attending key conferences and grower’s meetings to keep up-to-date about new growing practices.
We hope you enjoy the fruits of their labor!
Where Would We Bee Without Our Pollinators?
We hope we never find out, that’s for sure. In addition to the lively hives of European honeybees, expertly maintained for us by Robert Cunningham of Goldenrod Farm, our fields are home to myriad native pollinators, including many other types of bees, butterflies, moths, birds, bats, beetles and other insects. One factor that makes the Agriberry Farm fields such a haven for pollinators is the diversity of plantings, surrounded by native woodlands: the blooms start in early spring with the peaches, and don’t stop until the red raspberries are done with the first hard frost, typically in October or November.
Filling the GAP
In 2016 Agriberry Farm was awarded full accreditation in accordance with the USDA’s new Good Agricultural Practices program, developed to help ensure that food produced on U.S. farms is safely handled and traceable from the farm of origin all the way to the consumer. The farm was re-certified during the 2017 audit, and similar success is anticipated in 2018.
As part of continuing efforts to improve farm practices and to ensure that we adhere to the highest possible standards for food safety, Agriberry Farm has chosen to not to re-use pulp or plastic containers during the 2018 season. The farm will, however, continue to collect and re-use cardboard “flats” and other cardboard boxes of various sizes used to hold individual fruit containers throughout the harvest season.
Is Agriberry Farm “Organic?”
While Agriberry Farm is not Certified Organic, it uses many “organic” practices, and all their field practices meet or exceed guidelines for safety, both in the fields and on the table. Their approach focuses on working with nature’s resources and balances, instead of seeking to control every aspect of the field environment, and their use highly targeted Integrated Pest Management (IPM) practices help achieve healthful multi-year plantings with the minimum intervention, and all their Partner Farmers feel the same.
You are encouraged to visit the farm and fields during the Open Farm Visits during harvest season to see the vibrant community of flora and fauna at work making your beautiful fruit.
What Does “Organic” Certification Actually Means?
There’s a lot of information, and mis-information, out there about what “Certified Organic” actually means. Many consumers believe that “Organic” means the same as “No Spray,” but that isn’t remotely true. While some synthetic substances are prohibited for use by Organic guidelines, many are actually permitted, along with a host of “natural” substances that are available for use by Organic farms.
While we’re not knocking anyone’s practices or buying choices, we feel that the question, “Are you Organic?” requires more than just a one word answer. The Geyers have decided they are more comfortable choosing the safest, most effective tools for the job of protecting their nutritious food, whether or not it comes with the most popular label. And, they aren’t in any hurry to switch to using less effective–in some cases flat-out harmful “natural” chemicals–in order to attain an Organic stamp of approval.
Want to learn a little more about what the Organic label really means? Here’s a great article from back in 2011 in Scientific American that still holds true today. Thanks for taking the time out to read this, and for being willing to think a little more deeply about the complexities of our food systems.
Ready for a little more information? Check out this article from the Alliance for Food Safety, offering “A Dozen More Reasons to Eat Fruits and Veggies.” We love that their bottom line is that whether conventionally grown or Certified Organic, the fruits and vegetables available to U.S. consumers today is safe. Further, the article confirms the mounting research that shows eating four or more servings of berries, fruits and vegetables per day is proven to help you live a longer, healthier and happier life, and that seven or more servings is closer to the optimum. Why not make life just a little sweeter by making three or four of those serving your favorite berries and fruit from Agriberry Farm?