Ivy Creek Family Farm Tour

Soil Science Workshop

May 18th, 2013


Despite rainy weather on May 18th, our CRAFT members made the trek to Barnardsville for a Soil DSC_0085Science Workshop at Ivy Creek Family Farm. Our hosts Paul & Anna Littman teamed up with Alex Hessler their former intern (and CRAFT apprentice!) and a current graduate student the University of Kentucky to give us a crash course in the basics of soil science and its influences farm production and choices. Thank you to the Littmans, Alex and farm crew for putting together such a great, informative, and fun tour!

Luck was on our side, and the rain let up right as the tour began. Coming from non-farming backgrounds, Anna explained that it has taken every skill they learned in their previous careers to build their farm. They started growing for themselves and then began to sell the excess at a road side stand. They saw firsthand how local agriculture builds community as their neighbors visited the stand and then began to visit with one another, and their dream to grow their own food expanded to full out farming. So a four year land search began.

The Littmans settled on a tract with 3 ½ acres of cultivatable land along the north fork of the Ivy River, but they soon learned they needed more land. They now rent an additional four adjoining acres from neighbors. They grow A-Z vegetables on five acres and a 1/10th of an acre of shitake mushrooms, and they market their produce via a CSA, farmers markets, and restaurants. Their main plowing implement is an Imants rotary spader because it does not damage the soil structure as much as traditional tilling. Transplanting and cultivating is primarily done by hand.

DSC_0112Earlier in the year, the Littmans happened to dig a deep trench along the edge of a field that served as a perfect teaching space for Alex to jump into his Soil Science workshop and show us the different horizons or layers of soil. He explained that soil is decomposed rock, and there are five factors that contribute to soil formation that is unique to every farm:

  • parent material
  • organisms
  • climate
  • topography
  • time

The most prevalent soil formation in Appalachian bottom land is an alluvial deposit created by eroded bedrock from mountainsides that collects, leaving a spectrum of soil age across a single field since they have only had a short time to develop.

Alex then went on to explain that soil is roughly composed of 50% mineral, 3-5% organic matter (living, decomposing, & decomposed), and 45% pore space. The components of the mineral fraction determine the texture of the soil which is a combination of sand, silt, and clay particles with sand being the largest with the smallest surface area and clay being the smallest with the largest amount of surface area. As particle size increases pore space also increases while surface area decreases. Surface area influences how soil holds on to nutrients and moisture; therefore, clay is able to hold more nutrients and water than sand.

The formation factors & composition of a particular soil, in turn, influence the quality of the soil and the methods for how farmers can work with the soil effectively and efficiently to grow their crops. For farmers, soil quality is the capacity for that soil to sustain plant growth, and each type of soil presents different challenges and opportunities. Sandy soil drains well and is easy to work but dries out quickly and leeches nutrients. Clayey soils can be hard to work, are not well aerated, and poorly drain but are nutrient rich. Silty soils fall in between clay and sandy soils, moderately retaining moisture and nutrients.

The living & decomposing organic matter present in soil also plays a major role in soil structure and properties. Living plants aerate soil, hold nutrients, and provide organic carbon and food for microbial life while earthworms, insects, fungi, and bacteria are actively decomposing, aiding the cycle of nutrients, and creating natural tilth in the soil. We also learned that carbon is the fundamental building block of soil, binding soil particles together and creating good soil structure, or natural tilth. When we till fields, we are attempting to mimic this natural soil building process that physically aggregates clusters of soil particles stratifying soil. But, unlike natural processes, tilling is a homogenizing process, and after tilling, the soil will eventually settle and can lead to erosion & reduce soil quality since the carbon-based aggregates that create structure are absent.

We could go on and on since the practical application of soil science is one of those topics we could spend days discussing! Alex, Paul & Anna were a treasure trove of soil knowledge and experiences, and once again, we thank them for hosting such a great tour and for sharing their expertise with us. Hope to see you at the next tour!


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. Or contact Cameron Farlow, OGS Farmer Programs Coordinator at 828.338.9465or cameron@organicgrowersschool.org.


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Author: Cameron Farlow

Cameron Farlow is the Executive Director of Organic Growers School. Hailing from Greensboro, NC with dairy farming in her blood, she has now made her home in Western NC. After earning her undergraduate degrees from UNC-Chapel Hill, 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. She also brings experience 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. In addition to her work with OGS, Cameron is a dancer, baker and avid adventurer.