Sara Jane and Jamie Davis, with A Way of Life Farm in Rutherford County, were our gracious hosts for our seventh CRAFT tour this year on Sunday September 9th. It was a beautiful day and we had a great turn out for the tour which focused on “Alternative Approaches to Soil Fertility.” Big thanks go out to the Davis family for sharing their farm and the clever combination of techniques they employ to build soil fertility with us.

A Way of Life Farm began in 2009, as the manifestation of Jamie and Sara Jane’s desire to care for the land and grow good food. They’ve put a lot of thought, hard work, and a healthy dose of trial and error into developing a set of farming systems that suits their lifestyle, beliefs, and landscape. The Davis’ and their two interns grow a variety of vegetables intensively on 1 ½ acres; tend a hill-side blueberry patch with several fruit trees; and rotate pigs through scrubby woodland paddocks. To market their vegetables they travel to the Charlotte Regional Farmers Market, manage an Asheville-based two season CSA, and are a member farm in Plateful Multi-Farm CSA.

The tour began as we settled down under a shade tree and Jamie gave us the rundown of their alternative methods for soil fertility. Jamie explained that soil fertility is determined by the balance between the chemical make-up, physical structure, and biological nature of the soil. But, none of these aspects exist in isolation. Since, all three are connected if you change one component you change the others. To achieve true soil fertility we must approach each aspect understanding its influence on the whole and chose farming methods that support one another for building, managing, and balancing soil.

For the chemical make-up of their soil Jamie and Sara Jane are utilizing the Kinsey-Albrecht Method. Based on the scientific research of Dr. William Albrecht this method involves conducting a soil audit that determines soil chemistry and recommends what is needed to reach a balanced chemistry for your particular soil. Once a year, Jamie and Sara Jane send in soil samples to Kinsey Agricultural Systems to determine their course of action for soil amendments. Jamie explained that while this soil analysis is more costly than an analysis from NC State, he is willing to pay the extra cost because the Kinsey-Albrecht method aligns with his belief in approaching soil fertility as a way to balance the soil and not simply to feed the plant. The best soil will grow the best plants. Jamie suggests attending a workshop with Neal Kinsey, as he did, or reading his books. Then, start by taking soil samples from the worst part of your field, test it, do the recommended amendments, and see how it plays out.

The second alternative approach to soil fertility Jamie and Sara Jane shared with us was cultivating Indigenous Micro Organisms (IMO) to get at the biological side of their soil fertility program. IMO is an idea developed in Korean Natural Farming. The basic idea is that you cultivate micro-biology best suited to your farm by using micro organisms uniquely found on your own property. The technique is an inexpensive one to begin on your farm since it mainly involves a pot of rice set in the wildest part of your farm, but it does take some investment of time. Once you have cultivated your local aerobic beneficial microbes you then start a process of expanding their numbers. Jamie suggested using the Hawaii Cooperative Extenstion for the most comprehensive set of resources on cultivating IMO. The end goal is a biological soil amendment that will augment the active microorganisms in your soil. The Davis’s prefer this to making compost because it only takes 4-5 weeks from start to finish, and can be completed in the winter.

The third tool in their arsenal for soil fertility is the Yeoman’s Keyline Plow – rounding out the physical element for balanced soil composition. P.A. Yeoman’s Keyline Design system was developed in Australia to build topsoil and manage large acreage in dry landscapes, and is similar to permaculture. We took a short walk down to see their Keyline plow attachment. Similar to a modified chisel plowoutfitted with two hillers, the Keyline plow shapes and raises the vegetable beds 6 in, and aerates the bed 20 inches down without inverting the soil.

While, Jamie and Sara Jane are excited about the methods they use they recognize they are still missing some pieces to the cultivation puzzle. They hope to eventually incorporate a small tractor with a Rotary PTO tiller, because now after the initial bed shaping with the Keyline they must clean the shoulders and flatten the bed by hand before planting can begin.

They irrigate with drip irrigation fed by a reliable creek on the property, and have had great success using a fine mist irrigation for 20 minutes twice a day on beds where they direct seed. As we walked around to the side field, we saw their stand of Bloody Butcher dent corn, a remnant of their foray into growing grains. Now, they grind the dent corn into cornmeal and grits as a special treat in their CSA shares. Next, to the corn Sara Jane told us about the 16 different varieties of sweet potatoes acquired from a local woman who cultivates hundreds of varieties of sweet potatoes in Rutherford County. They’ll cure the sweet potatoes in their basement which they’ve set up to function as a root cellar.

Finally, we trekked up to the woodland pig paddocks. Originally, they began with just 3 pigs but expanded once they got the hang of it, and currently have 12. They are only able to process 4 at a time with May’s Meats due to limited freezer space. Just this year they switched to having automatic waterers and self-feeders. Jamie said they’ve found the pigs actually eat less when the food is always available, and it saves them time since they only have to refill every 2-3 days instead of twice a day like before. Ultimately, the pigs’ purpose on the farm is to clean out the underbrush in the scrubby second-growth woods on the farm. They will clean things out but won’t strip it bare, so eventually with some selective cutting and time the farm will have sparsely treed pastures to move animals through.

Once again, we capped off the tour with an abundant potluck and plenty of lively conversation. We are so grateful to Sara Jane and Jamie for their hospitality and willingness to share their farming secrets!

Our next CRAFT tour will be Sunday October 7th at Green Toe Ground Farm. The tour topic will be “Introduction to Biodynamics”. Join us!!

CRAFT is a year-round farmer training collaborative that offers farmers and their interns networking and learning opportunities. Membership is rolling, so join anytime! For more information or to join, click here.

Author: Agatha

Agatha Hannah holds a degree in Environmental Studies — Sustainable Agriculture from Warren Wilson College. She has more than twenty years of experience working with non-profits focused on farmer education and sustainable and regenerative agriculture at the local and national levels. As a farmer, mother, and community activist with an off-grid homestead in Floyd, Virginia, Agatha has a deep commitment to cultivating a vibrant agriculture system based on thriving family farms.