Aug. 5, 2013
OK, let’s get this out front and center: I had a blast at the Florida Small Farms and Alternative Enterprises Conference this past week.
It was supposed to be business for me, and it was, in that I had a booth there for the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT) and was informing people about ATTRA (National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service) info. But, to be honest, I had so much fun talking with people who were small farmers and interested ecofarming that it was hardly “work.”
Here’s a photo essay of the conference, which ran Aug. 2-4 in Kissimmee, Fla.
It was a matter of pride to see fellow NCAT worker Dave Ryan, an energy engineer, fill up one of the conference rooms with his talk “Powering Your Greenhouse with Renewable Energy.” Solar, compost and geothermal options were explored. For more, see ncat.org
Then, there were awards given….
Margie and Nick Pikarsky of Bee Heaven Farm in Homestead, Fla., won the Innovative Farmers Award (third place). They are longtime friends and it was a delight to see them! An organic farmer of many years, Margie is an encyclopedia of wisdom in ways to grow abundantly organically even in the demanding conditions of South Florida. Their farm is located near the Everglades in an area that has lost much of its farmland to residential growth. (See American Farmland Trust for more about that! http://www.farmland.org/)
Bee Heaven Farm, in my opinion, should be a national model for organic growing. The soil conditions there are only about 8 inches of “topsoil” consisting of sand, some vegetative matter, and porous limestone rock is a challenge for consistent growing. Conventional growers essentially are depleting the few nutrients in the soil and collapsing the structure so that it only hold what’s put into it.
Organic growers, like Margie, however, are building up the soil structure, building soil nutrients in the soil, encouraging microbial life and thereby actually adding to the soil medium as they grow, rather than depleting it.
The result is that organic growers like Margie and Nick are seeing positive yields and tasty crops while conventional growers are seeing ever worsening and more expensive growing conditions.
Farmers who are not taking the extra effort to rotate crops, build structure that helps hold moisture that otherwise would pass through the porous sand and limestone are seeing more expensive inputs and having to add biological agents and fight desertification (salt build up and nutrient loss through over use of irrigation).
The Bee Heaven model is one that should be seen as meaningful for sustainable farming as climate change intensifies, in my opinion.
Since I’m a former board member of Certified Naturally Grown (and still an advisor on fruit and vegetable growing using organic methods), I was delighted to see CNG member SB Farms of Malone, Fla., also win the Innovative Farmers Award (second place). Joseph Ballard and Paul Speros offered good advice, as well, for beginning farmers. Congratulations!
Natalie Parkell and Kevin Osburn of Vertical Horizon Farm won the award (first place), also. Parkell gave an excellent talk on hyroponics for backyard or small or beginning farmers. They started out growing in their parents’ backyard, since they lived in a condo with no ground for growing — that is, until their parents told them to move, since they had dug up all the grass! So, they found a local business that would let them operate on a corner of their property. It became a big hit, especially marketing to the neighborhood. A small scale truly local success story!
I was intrigued by the prospects of hydroponics and aquaponics as potential sustainable growing methods (especially since both are considered “iffy” when it comes to being certified organic – see earlier blog: “Organic Hydroponics: The Future of Farming?”). So, the bulk of my time when not manning the NCAT booth was attending seminars on these topics.
In pursuit of that, I went on the farm tour that included The Land exhibit at Disney World’s Epcot Center. Here are some photos:
The Epcot demonstration is fascinating, but I’m not sure it’s very “sustainable,” at least not commercially as a farming method. The cost of the facilities and mechanical devices seems out of kilter with the potential sales of crops. But that may not be the point of the exhibit. Rather, the center shows how it can be done, and that it can be done. I’m going to have to think more about it before I’m convinced it’s a sustainable growing method. It certainly offers possibilities.
One of the concerns I have with hydroponics is that what you get from the produce is limited to what you give. By that, it’s like so-called “conventional” agriculture, in that the major nutrients are supplied. In such industrial agriculture models, NPK or the ingredients for synthetic fertilizer are present; but missing are the trace elements that a healthy organic soil provides. Better fertilizers would remedy that; ensuring it, of course, is the goal of organic certification. It’s an issue consumers should be aware of in making hydroponic purchases.
Regarding aquaponics, a key issue preventing organic certification, according to the farmers I talked to in Florida who practice it, is that the effluent from the fish is considered a “manure” by the National Organic Program. But, as Orange County Extension Director Richard Tyson explained, that is an inappropriate designation. First, regarding health concerns, neither E coli nor salmonella are — or even can be — present in such effluent because those only occur in warm-blooded animals; secondly, beneficial bacteria convert the ammonia waste into nitrates which are only then absorbed by the plants; so, a more appropriate designation would be classifying the effluent as nutrients, rather than manure.
In my opinion, especially when coupled with other energy saving methods such as using solar and wind for electrical needs, raising fish for animal protein and using the byproduct of that for fruit and vegetable food production in hydroponic vats is the type of sustainable methods that organic supporters should embrace.
We’ll consider more of this later.
But not all of the conference was “work.”
No, I wasn’t looking for beautiful young women to hang out with while in Florida, but I found them! It was most enjoyable visiting with Nick and Margie’s daughter Rachel Pikarsky (right) and her friend (and now my friend) Nicole Fiori. They were a total delight!
The fifth annual event was hosted by the University of Florida and Florida A&M.
I can’t wait to attend again next year!
For a good example of a successful, local hydroponics operation, see the Farmweek episode on St. Bethany Fresh Tomatoes on Pontotoc, MS:
Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, writer, editor, organic farmer and blogger. His latest book titled Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press) is in bookstores now. Find Jim on Facebook, follow him @edibleprayers or visit blueskywaters.com.