August 6th, 2017
For August’s CRAFT Farm Tour we gathered at Green Toe Ground just outside of Burnsville to learn about Biodynamic Farming. Gaelan Corozine and Nicole DelCogliano have been farming there along the South Toe river since 2001, first renting and eventually buying their land in 2006. They currently lease additional land from a neighbor’s farm. Of the 16 acres they manage, they are double cropping vegetables on 5.5 acres – their primary farm enterprise. Today they attend two Asheville tailgate markets, and sell to restaurants. For home use, they raise 3 dairy cows, a small sheep herd, and a horse. Gaelan began farming in high school and apprenticed on biodynamic farms across New York, Switzerland, and Ireland. It was a system he knew well, so when they started their own farm together, biodynamic farming was a natural fit.
So, what is Biodynamic Farming? Gaelan explained that “In the world of farming there is a lot of uncertainty. As a farmer trying to build a system of numerous systems we are often searching for an all encompassing philosophy.” And, Biodynamic farming has provided that guidance at Green Toe Ground. Based on principles laid out by Dr. Rudolf Steiner in the 1920s, biodynamic farming draws on natural farming systems that have been in use around the world for centuries. The farm is viewed as a whole organism, and biodynamics offers a healing and production-oriented process that strives to create a balance between the natural processes we can’t see in the soil and what manifests above ground. As a farmer, you are working with diverse ecosystems and natural systems trying to assist and manage them, not control or dominate.
It’s only been in the past few years that Nicole & Gaelan have started to use biodynamics to market their farm. It was difficult to explain, but now that there is a growing awareness nationally it’s becoming easier. While Green Toe Ground is not currently Demeter certified (the international biodynamic certification) they are considering it.
Essential ideas to biodynamic farming include:
- Viewing the farm as a whole: To become Demeter certified they certify the entire farm including wild areas, edges, etc. not just the spaces where crops are produced or animals are raised. And, you are required to have untended areas reserved for biodiversity.
- Reducing off-farm inputs: You are striving to produce as much health and fertility from within the farm, closing the loop. Composting all your waste streams and generating your own fertility is a big part of that. Animals are traditionally a vital part of a biodynamic vegetable operation and they have been an integral part of Green Toe since the beginning when they started with sheep and pigs. Now they raise 3 dairy cows, sheep, and a horse for their personal household that provide fertility for the farm. For production farms, it is difficult to completely eliminate off-farm inputs, because your farm products are leaving your farm taking away nutrients, minerals, etc that can’t be returned to the soil. The biggest off-farm inputs Nicole and Gaelan deal with are animal feed, diesel, and potting mix.
- In addition to the fertility they bring, cows hold a special place in biodynamic practices and philosophy because they represent the ultimate in animal metabolism and digestion. The ultimate purpose of a farm is to metabolize carbon into edible products. “Cows create a transformation through their metabolism and digestion,” Gaelan said.
- Building soil health: The taste and quality of your farm product is a direct reflection of your soil. By improving your soil you’ll, in turn, have better tasting, more nutritious crops. So there is a strong focus on building up the organic matter and microbial life in your soil as a part of biodynamics. One way that Gaelan and Nicole are trying to do that is by reducing tillage – only using the spader to break up beds, and experimenting with some no-till techniques. Healthier soil also means better water retention. At Green Toe Ground they are shifting to dry farming for many crops where they simply water them in once they are seeded or planted and then trust that the plants will seek the moisture they need in the soil. Gaelan isn’t afraid to leave plants without watering them for 3 weeks because, as he said, “Plants aren’t wimps!”
- Preparations: These are three field sprays and six compost inoculants made from a variety of herbs, flowers, and minerals. In the same way that people can use homeopathic remedies, farmers use small doses of the preparations over large areas as a healing remedy for the soil and plants. There are different processes for making each preparation. Read more about what the preparations are used for from the Josephine Porter Institute. Nicole explained that they make the three field sprays themselves, and buy the compost preparations because they need so little of them. As Nicole put it, by adding the preparations they are trying to make the soil intelligent so that it can give the plants what they need to thrive.
For Nicole and Gaelan, using biodynamics on their farm is an ethical decision, and promotes the idea that we can create a system on the farm that can feed itself. And, they have seen that begin to happen on their farm over the past 16 years, and it’s an ongoing process. Their end goal, Gaelan explained is not to create the most beautiful product, but rather the most nutritious one that has the weight of healthy soil behind it. Before they came to the farm it was a conventional cattle operation, and since then they’ve seen an increase in moisture retention and soil vitality, and a decrease in pest pressure. At the very least following biodynamic principles forces you to examine your own practices, really see the farm for what it is, and not just throw a solution at it when something is going wrong.
After visiting their main two vegetable fields we got a chance to apply the preparations to their newest compost pile. We made 5 holes in the pile, inserted a small amount of each preparation, and covered it. Meanwhile, we took turns stirring the final compost preparation of Valerian in water for 20 minutes, then broadcasted it over the compost pile.
We capped things off with an abundant potluck and continued the insightful and contemplative conversations sparked by the tour. We are grateful to Nicole and Gaelan for inviting us to their farm, and sharing their story and experiences. See you next time!
WNC CRAFT is a year-round farmer training collaborative that offers farmers, farm workers, and aspiring farmers networking and learning opportunities. For more information or to join, click here.
Cameron Farlow is the Farmer Programs Director.She grew up in Greensboro, NC with dairy farming in her blood, and has made her home in Western North Carolina. After earning her undergraduate degrees from UNC – Chapel Hill in Anthropology and Geography in 2006, Cameron dove headfirst into the realm of sustainable agriculture and local food systems, and later completed her Master’s Degree in Appalachian Studies and Sustainable Development from Appalachian State University in May 2011. Gaining as much experience as she could she worked with several other regional nonprofits in the realms of farmland preservation, food security, farm to university, and land access for farmers. She came on board with OGS in April 2012. When she isn’t visiting farms all around this end of the state as Farmer Programs coordinator you can usually find her digging in her garden or adventuring alongside her husband Walker, the farm manager at Hickory Nut Gap Farm.