Gaining Ground Farm – May 10th
For our May CRAFT tour, we had our first visit to Gaining Ground Farm! Anne and Aaron Grier and their apprentice crew grow a slew of annual produce, graze a happy herd of 25+ Red Devon beef cattle, and one hundred chickens on family land in Leicester. They are in their fifth season on this land, Anne previously farmed on leased land, and Aaron worked construction. For this tour we focused on greenhouse & growing improvements the Grier’s made to increase their onion and allium production.
Aaron took the lead for the first part of the tour. He explained that they grow 10 acres of produce, and have 60 acres of pasture for their livestock. They market their products through three tailgate markets, a CSA, local restaurants, and a small amount of wholesale. While they aren’t certified organic they do use organic practices and find the certification isn’t as necessary since the majority of their products are direct marketed so they can explain their practices to their customers. Then, we all loaded in the back of a truck, and an awesome playhouse they built for their kids to hang out in while they worked in the fields, for a short trip to check out their onion plantings – working backwards in the life of an onion on Gaining Ground Farm.
Anne and Aaron planted 40,000 onion transplants with a mix of varieties including Ailsa Craig, Torpedo, Copra, Rosa di Milano, and Candy – preferring storage onions. Onion maggots have been cause for concern the past two seasons and they try to control their population by spraying MoltX every 7 days with a boom sprayer hooked to the tractor. To prep the field for planting, first they chisel plow (a new favorite), disc once or twice, rotovate, and finally spread Harmony fertilizer before planting. Aaron explained that their equipment & techniques have been an evolution as they try to figure out what scale their farm is, and what is available for them. When planting they’ll cluster 3 onion plants together in rows. After planting, they fertilize with fish emulsion applied with an orchard sprayer throughout the season, and will begin to start managing for disease in June. Their overhead watering system can water 12 beds at a time. Favorite tools for weeding the onions are a basket weeder (shaped like an egg beater on its side), and a stirrup hoe. For harvest they had an undercutter built that lifts the onions to the surface, and then they gather them by hand. The undercutter can be used for carrots, beets, shallots and garlic, too! Next they hang the onions in the barn with fans running for about 3 weeks to cure. They stay in the barn until it’s too cold, and are moved to the cooler to be sold into the winter.
So why the big focus on onions? Well, for Gaining Ground it’s become a niche market, and has the benefits of a long selling season! After checking out the fields and the Red Devon herd we moved on to the greenhouse, and Anne took over. She explained that this year they did an overhaul of their table heating process replacing heated mats with a water heated bench system throughout the greenhouse. It works similarly to radiant floor heating with tubing laced under the flats heated by water. The water heater is controlled by probes in the soil connected to thermostats monitoring soil temperatures and kick on the water heater when they get too low. To up their energy efficiency they built mini greenhouses over the tables and can pull a plastic cover across to keep in the heat and cut costs. Onions quickly germinate at 70°F and the thermostats are turned down to 60°F for a month, before turning off the heat entirely. The biggest incentive for this new addition to the greenhouse is that they can now start all their onion transplants at once and not step them up. This year they started the onions in plug trays in February. A job that took 2 people 40 hours/week for a month to seed and step-up the plants as they grew now takes 3 people seeding only 3 days, and reduces their electric bill. Sounds like a win-win!
We gathered by the greenhouse for yet another fantastic potluck dinner to end the evening. We’d like to send a big thank you to Anne and Aaron for inviting us to their farm and sharing their unique perspectives and expertise!
CRAFT is a year-round farmer training collaborative that offers farmers, farm interns, farm employees and aspiring farmers networking and learning opportunities. Membership is rolling, so join anytime! For more information or to join, click here. Or contact Cameron Farlow, Organic Growers School Farmer Programs Assistant at 828.338.9465 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.