CRAFT Farm Tour Summary
Diverse Vegetable Production on a Hilly WNC Farm
April 19th, 2014
Despite some really rainy weather our CRAFT members came out in force to our April CRAFT farm tour at Thatchmore Farm. For our first tour of the year, we focused on “Diverse Vegetable Production on a Hilly WNC Farm.” We owe a huge thanks to Tom and Karen for gracefully going on with the tour, adapting to the weather, and welcoming us onto their farm and into their home.
Tom and Karen moved to Leicester in 1987, after working on farms in Colorado and NC. Tom’s experiences interning on a farm near Boone growing on sloped land greatly influenced the land they looked for here in WNC. And, the land has since influenced what and how they grow. Although, Tom did admit if he could go back he’d try to get a little more flat land in the deal.
Tom and Karen’s production methods have been heavily influenced by the small market farm that Eliot Coleman laid out in his book The New Organic Grower . Coleman recommends having 5 acres in production, cultivated with a walk behind tractor instead of a riding tractor, and relying solely on family labor. At Thatchmore Farm, they are cultivating about 5 acres of annuals and perennials, one heated greenhouse, two high tunnels with their favorite walk-behind BCS, hire 6-8 part time apprentices each year, and are certified USDA Organic.
Since their flat land is limited, Tom explained, they have to maximize that space growing their highest value crops – salad mix and tomatoes top the list. To make use of the more sloped portions of the farm they have planted and experimented with a variety of perennial crops such as nursery plants, apple trees, and Christmas trees which require limited cultivation. Tom is also a big proponent of landscape fabric for weed suppression in his fields, they’ve even come to call it the “Marriage Saver” and they’ve been using the same fabric for 25 years!
In order to have healthy productive plants, they rely heavily on transplanting in an effort to maximize their land as well. Tom then took us through the life of a tomato on the farm. The soil is the most logical place to start. And, at Thatchmore farm that means the soil mix and soil blocks. Soil block makers come in a few different sizes and can be found locally at Villagers, or at Johnny’s Selected Seeds. They allow you to make your own seed starting cubes instead of using plastic planting cells. Once you’ve made the blocks, you sow the seed in the top, then you have soil blocks that are durable, and air prune the roots discouraging the starts from becoming root bound. But, you must get your soil mix right. Tom combines peat moss, perlite, limestone, and Harmony fertilizer, then adds enough water to get a thick oatmeal consistency to press the block maker into. But, you can’t have any clay in your soil or else when they dry out some you’ll end up with little adobe blocks! They have several sizes of blockers but use the stand-up 20 cell blocker the most.
The next step for sown soil blocks is an out-of-commission refrigerator. Tom, is the master of making use of everyday items on the farm. They started using the refrigerators as a way to keep the mice from making a free lunch out of the freshly planted seeds. But, they found the fridge also allows them to maintain consistent temperatures and humidity. Typically, they start the tomatoes around Thanksgiving each year, using heat mats in their walk-in cooler to warm the soil. As the tomato grows, the little blocks are inserted in larger blocks, until they are ready to be grafted.
What is grafting you ask? It’s a way to get the best of both worlds by combining disease resistant rootstock with another better tasting and better looking tomato variety. All the tomatoes at Thatchmore farm are grafted. Then, the grafted tomato plants get some recovery time in high humidity plastic tubs before being brought back out to the greenhouse, and then planted in raised beds.
For planting, they lay down two irrigation systems – tapes for water and large diameter orchard emitters for liquid fertilizer, and then cover the beds in white on black plastic for insulation. Once the tomatoes grow to 3 feet they are trellised using a Dutch method of vine clips, string and wire hooks. As the plants grow they are systematically lowered and moved over throughout the season, aiming for continuous production from May to Thanksgiving.
In addition, to the annual fruits and vegetables, they’ve got a slew of side projects tucked in the slopes and corners of the farm. Shitake mushroom logs are a good winter project for the apprentices and promise production for 5-10 years from one log. Their organic Christmas Trees also help extend the season and target a niche market, as well as other nursery plants. They sweeten the deal with a small apple orchard, berries, and a few different fruit experiments like Asian pears and hardy kiwis. One of their biggest experiments is with growing their own caffeine tea from a holly called Ilex vomitoria (EYE-lecks vom-ih-TOR-ee-uh.) which is a relative of maté!
Finally, we sought refuge from the unrelenting rain inside their cozy home for a great potluck. Thatchmore Farm is an excellent example of working with the land and maximizing its strengths to create a productive farm business. We are grateful to Tom and Karen, and their apprentices for sharing their lessons learned from many years of farming and for opening their farm to us!
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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.