October 15, 2017
The last CRAFT farm tour of the year was a beautiful one, bringing us to Goldfinch Gardens, a Certified Naturally Grown farm outside of Burnsville, NC. Cedar and Ben have been farming small-scale vegetables in the South Toe Valley since 2010. Since their farming journey began, Cedar and Ben have scaled up significantly and then retreated to what they describe as “a perfectly manageable size” for their labor force (which consists of Cedar, Ben, two interns, and seasonal vegetable work traders.) They lease 2.5 acres for their main garden site which we visited. They also rent 13 acres, ½ mile away, where they rotationally pasture meat sheep and cultivate crops with more space needs such as potatoes, sweet potatoes, and winter squash.
Last year, Goldfinch received a TVA Energy for Farms grant to build a passive solar propagation house, which is currently being used to cure their sweet potatoes and start winter transplants. They keep the humidity up for the curing sweet potatoes by watering the floor; “Generally, sweet potatoes like it at 80 degrees, with high humidity. You can tell they’re done curing when you rub them together and their skins stay on, usually after a couple of weeks,” explains Ben.
Thermal mass provided to keep the greenhouse warm comes from 4 plastic IBC cube tanks (275 gallons each) painted black and filled with water pumped from the river in addition to the cement block wall and ten 55 gallon barrels of water. Ben estimates there are 1800 gallons of water stored in the 12 x 30 solar propagation house. Since there is no well on the farm, water collected in the tanks make watering the transplants easy, and that along with adequate insulation seems to keep the propagation house plenty warm. In the future, they plan on adding roll down night insulation curtains inspired by Tom Elmore of Thatchmore Farm.
Within the propagation house they have a repurposed commercial refrigerator-turned-germination-chamber that they set at 75-80 degrees. After germination, the transplants get moved to the ‘warm table’ that is heated using an electric heating cable embedded in a layer of sand and ceramic tile; “We found the starts would grow into the sand,” Cedar says, explaining the use of tile as a protective barrier. The plants final days indoors are spent on pallets on the other side of the propagation house, for their first round of hardening off. Goldfinch uses Fort Vee potting soil from Vermont Compost Company, which they highly recommend. The on-site propagation house makes having ground-ready transplants much easier, which is an important thing as the farm moves towards less direct seeding and more transplants, important for their push towards less tillage.
Due to their new interest in no-till, Cedar and Ben recently attended a No-Till Workshop put on by Singing Frogs Farm in California sponsored by a Continuing Farmer Education Grant from OGS. “We really love tarps and landscape fabric,” says Ben as he reveals a portion of a plot that has been tarped for about a month. General practice at Goldfinch is to flail mow any organic matter on the surface, cover with a tarp and let it decompose for a while before preparing the soil and planting a new crop. This, along with more transplanting is helping limit the need to mechanically till the soil; the organic matter from the cover crop Ben shows us is largely decomposed, with just a few unhappy looking plants growing underneath. From here, they will remove the tarp, pick up any excessive organic matter obvious on the surface, broadfork or chisel plow, fertilize the bed with compost and chicken manure, and replant. They currently purchase compost from Danny’s Dumpster, and are beginning to experiment with making their own compost again.
Goldfinch sports three greenhouses, named A, B, and C respectively. Greenhouse A is a heated, fixed greenhouse purchased from Atlas Greenhouse and sitting on a 30 ft. x 100 ft. footprint. B & C are both movable greenhouses bought by Rimol Greenhouses, with a footprint of 24 ft. x 48 ft. The jury seems to be out on whether or not they actually like the movable nature of the structures. On one hand, the structures are cumbersome to move and have a need to be very well anchored in order to minimize the risk of them getting damaged in the wind. On the other hand, the greenhouses allow for much more flexibility in crop rotation as well as allowing the land to be exposed to rain and fresh air when the greenhouses are rotated, which seems to help with pest and disease resistance overall.
Goldfinch has a unique approach to the classic CSA. Instead of providing a box every week, customers pay a yearly (minimal) membership fee to have an account on their online marketplace, where folks can deposit money and tailor their orders each week. Cedar and Ben simply post their availability to the website, and the inventory dwindles as customers add things to their shopping cart. The ‘store’ is only open from Tuesday evening through Thursday night. Orders are compiled and harvested on Friday morning. Their customers are mostly within the South Toe Valley, where they have a vegetable pick up stand that allows for flexible pick-up times for the customer’s order and purchasing of any ‘extra’ produce that was harvested. This type of direct marketing along with sales to restaurants in Asheville and Spruce Pine have allowed Cedar and Ben to eliminate farmers markets from their schedule. This allows for their very important family time, and to only ask weekday hours from their farm apprentices.
Along with No-Till practices, Cedar and Ben are also actively using ideas from The Lean Farm by Ben Hartman, which stresses efficiency on the farm. Lean practices have encouraged Cedar and Ben to set up a tool wall in a central location on the farm to avoid multiple trips to the shed at the edge of the property, purchase matching multi-function hot pink totes that can be found in any corner of the farm, and purge tools and equipment that are not effective for their needs.
Thanks so much to Goldfinch Gardens for hosting us on our final farm tour of the year! We so look forward to seeing everyone at the winter roundtables and thank you for another excellent year of growing and learning together!
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.
Author: Sera Deva
Sera Deva has a B.S. in Microbiology & Agroecology from The Evergreen State College. She works with OGS as the Farmer Programs Associate and Conference Curriculum Coordinator, serves on the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group (SSAWG) Board of Directors, and is the Administrative Director for The Firefly Gathering. When she’s not geeking out over genetics, systems theory or soil hydrology, she spends her time growing and eating food in the South Toe Valley in Burnsville, NC.