Va. Farm Builds Business by Building Trust

9/29/2012 7:00 AM
By Jane W. Graham Virginia Correspondent

BLACKSBURG, Va. — Direct marketing is the foundation of Glade Road Growing, located just outside this university town.

Jason “J.P.” Pall and his wife, Sally Walker, grow more than 40 different vegetable varieties, which they sell locally, on their sustainable farming operation. They also raise free-range chickens, primarily for the nutrient benefits to their pastures but also for food.

They use organic practices at the farm, but are not certified organic.

Both Pall and Walker said they have no intention of seeking certification. They prefer to invite customers to visit the farm and learn how they grow the food they sell in the community. They say earning the trust of customers that know them and how they grow food works better than an organic stamp.

The time and paperwork involved with acquiring and keeping certification is another factor that makes them avoid it, they said. The time saved can be used more effectively working, and it allows them to keep costs down for their customers.

The couple recently hosted a tour of their farm as one way of helping people in the community learn about their operation and their practices.

The majority of the produce from Glade Road Growing is sold at the Blacksburg Farmers Market, which is open Wednesdays and Saturdays. In addition to selling their own vegetables at the market, they also supply Jessie St. John, a hot-food vendor whose Fare Palate booth is next to theirs at the market. St. John has a garden space at the Glade Road farm surrounded by deer fence.

About 20 percent of Glade Road Growing’s produce is sold through a CSA. Once a month they deliver the produce to people working at Blacksburg businesses, using a truck that has been converted by their mechanics to run totally on electricity.

This means one trip rather than 50, Pall said, because customers can take their groceries home from work rather than having them delivered to their homes.

On a recent Tuesday, the couple, their landlord and regular Tuesday volunteer Pat Bixler, two interns and several other volunteers were busy harvesting and preparing vegetables and herbs for sale at the market the next day. They had been greeted by the first frost of the season. Although some plants had been killed, most were green and productive.

After the produce is harvested, it is loaded on a small utility trailer and transported behind an ATV to the processing shed where it is prepared for sale. This includes washing in a three-basin sink using their own clean well water.

Some neighbors who have become interested in the process volunteer, providing the farmers another way to show people how they do things and earn trust in the community.

Pall said he and Walker are in their third year of growing food crops, but only the second year of selling them. The first year, he said, was a time of learning how to do things correctly.

The farm grew from his experiences at two very different Montgomery County vegetable growing operations. He served as an intern at a sustainable organic farm, Greenstar Farm, and then worked at Virginia Tech’s Kentland Farm, where he managed the university’s dining services farm for a year.

At Greenstar, Pall said, he began learning how to grow organically. He continues to learn by reading, visiting other farms and through his own experience. At Kentland, he learned about technology, such as irrigation, and machinery that makes farming more efficient.

Pall and Walker now have four acres of vegetables and an acre of perennial fruit trees. One of the acres of vegetables is very intensively managed, they said. During the first year of growing, they began working beds and adding organic materials to the growing area.

Their beds are the same length and built from lots of organic matter. Pall said all the organic matter had been broken down over two years before being added to the beds. Their organic matter is now leaf mold and pasture grass.

Chickens feed on the grass in the orchards which is mowed with a sickle bar mower. The pasture is stealing fertilizer from the grounds, but the chickens provide high nutrition. They used horse manure in their first efforts, but found it came with too much bedding to be effective.

Pall said all the beds are now in their second, third or fourth rotation. Crop rotation is based on timing because they are adding so much organic matter to the soil, he said. They like to keep it full and productive.

Viney crops, including strawberries and raspberries, are grown under the fruit trees. As the summer crops fade away, the fall rotation of cool-weather crops come into production. Those include winter squash, sweet potatoes, onions, broccoli and cabbage.

They buy Freedom Ranger baby chicks in 150 batches to use on their farm, and then sell them for meat.

The farm is also home to 13 colonies of honey bees. Walker says she keeps the bees primarily to sell the honey they make, but they also provide pollination for their crops. She is putting off the job of harvesting honey until the fall work slows down a bit.

The couple uses an irrigation system that is fed by a well on the farm.

Pall said their lease agreement with Bixler is unique in that it requires them to oversee and manage the whole 50-acre property.

That includes fencing cattle out of the stream on the farm, a tributary of Tom’s Creek, and using well water for the cattle. Another management practice is planting 1,000 forestry trees on the land.

As Pall and Walker move into another year at Glade Road Growing, they are looking forward to studying seed catalogs, learning more about their business and trying new things on their farm.

Do the deer cause a lot of damage to the fruit and vegetable crops in your area?

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