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Growers Transition to Organic in New York’s Black Dirt Region

Posted by Suzanne Pender on May 03, 2016 at 11:40 AM
This greenhouse is shared by five farmers who collaborate and share information and resources in the Black Dirt Region of New York.

This greenhouse is shared by five farmers who collaborate and share information and resources in the Black Dirt Region of New York.

Beginning a farm can be challenging, especially if transitioning depleted land to an organic system. A new crop of farmers in the famous black dirt region of Chester, New York, are enthusiastically taking on that challenge.

Some of these new farmers lease farmland through a Chester Agricultural Center project managed by Northeast Farm Access. This project provides farmers with affordable leases and requires them to use organic practices. The result is conserved farmland that grows healthy, local organic food in an environmentally sustainable way. 

These farmers also get help from USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). Simon Ziegler of Sun Sprout Farms; Shayna Lewis and Matt Hunger of Dirty Boots Farm; and Travis Jones of Verdant Common Growers heard about NRCS’ High Tunnel Initiative and went together to their local NRCS service center to ask about it.

A high tunnel is a tall, plastic-covered structure that protects in-ground plants from harsh weather and cold temperatures thereby extending the growing season and making locally-grown food readily available most of the year. The tunnels also reduce pest and weed problems, and trap moisture, which benefits the plants and reduces water use. All of these benefits are great for farmers who provide locally-grown food and use organic systems.  

“You can never have enough high tunnels,” says Travis Jones. “The plants grow better, everything is easier to control, and moisture is kept inside so you use less water. Plus, it expands the growing season. Fresh, local vegetables are available even in winter.”

The farms sell through farmers markets, directly to restaurants, and through community supported agriculture, or CSA. Members of a Community Supported Agriculture pay local farmers in advance for a season of fresh vegetables, receiving a weekly share of the harvest directly from the farmer at a convenient drop-off location. The customers enjoy it, Jones added, “When you have local lettuce and peas in early spring, people get really excited about it.” 

It was the high tunnels that originally piqued their interest, but the farmers enrolled in other NRCS conservation assistance once they learned about the agency’s expertise and offerings. NRCS offers free conservation planning and technical assistance to all farmers, and can often provide financial assistance as well.

NRCS Resource Conservationist Joe Heller, worked with each farmer, evaluating their soil types, environmental challenges, common pest presence, and other things. He then developed a conservation plan for each farm. He considered each farmer’s goals, such as the transition to organic, increasing soil health, and using cover cropping and crop rotations. NRCS provided financial assistance on these practices through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program Organic Initiative. Farmers can use their NRCS conservation plan as part of their organic systems plan required for organic certification.

What is most striking is the collaboration and generosity between the farmers. Together, five farms all share a walk-in cooler for their vegetables, a greenhouse, and a barn for packing and planting. They share knowledge and best practices, which saves them time and makes them more successful.

Learn more about NRCS assistance for high tunnels and for organic producers.

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Tags: organic, high tunnels, greenhouse, soils, locally-grown food, New York

categories Farmer & Rancher Stories , Communities, Conservation Programs

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