Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Where It All Begins

At Ringer Farms, the land is where it all begins. The soil is the base for everything grown here. Before you can tend a sprout, feed the herd, or till seeds, there has to be a starting point. Soil is always changing, making it an ongoing challenge to maintain. When people ask what I grow, it’s easy to say “veggies for restaurants,” but in truth it’s soil.

Four years after first planting a few thousand tomatoes on the land I farm, the soil is the crop I’m most proud of. Some growers measure exactly what they put into each field and what they take out, down to the ounce. At Ringer Farms, things are a bit more fluid. When a field is fallow, or in between plantings, the goats roam onto it. There are chickens who refuse to do anything but free-range. Though they don’t always live to enjoy their freedom, while they’re here they are welcome to eat pests and poop as they please. It’s all part of the cycle.

The science of soil is based on a principle called the cation exchange rate. This is the rate that soil can give, receive and hold nutrients. Think about a plant as though it’s a wool coat, and think about soil as if it was a pet that coat comes into contact with. There are three types of soil—sandy (like a long-hair pet), loom (short-hair) and clay (no hair). Sandy soil, much like a long-hair pet, sheds everything. Whatever comes into it is quickly shed into the plant, just like your coat is covered in pet hair after a quick interaction. This sounds great for the plants, but there’s a downside. Plant roots can only absorb so much at a time. Plants grown strictly in sandy soil have to be watered and fed often due to the soil’s inability to retain the water and nutrients the plants need. Loom (the short-hair wool in the example) is a solid, organic soil that gives a steady flow of nutrients, but it sometimes holds so much water that it can cause fungus to grow on the plant’s roots. Clay contains plenty of nutrients, but is unable to shed any onto the plants roots, just like your coat remains fur-free when you hold a hairless pet. In addition, once clay absorbs water, it is reluctant to release it, which can cause plants to become water-logged and drown.

Soil isn’t usually pure sand, loom or clay, and the ideal mix for most farmers is sandy loom. In Richmond, sandy loom is found mostly east of I-95. It’s the soil that produces the famous Hanover tomato. Clay, which also exists around Richmond, also has its positives, but the key is in breaking it up enough so the plants can access and absorb the nutrients hidden in the soil. Plant roots move easily through sandy loom, and even more easily through straight sand. But clay is tougher, and if it dries out, it can strangle young roots, making it impossible for them to feed the rest of the plant. Compost and other organic matter helps the clay to breathe and allows water to flow through it. The better the water flows, the more the roots can spread, and the better the plant grows.

Because Ringer Farms has plenty of red Virginia clay in the soil, we work to break it up. Some farmers get bent out of shape when you call their fields clay, but we accept it for what it is. In the fall of 2011, we began incorporating beer grains from Hardywood Craft Brewery into the soil. The high nitrogen levels in the beer grains combined with composted leaves are producing the healthiest soil yet. On average, we add two tons of beer grains and 15 tons of composted leaf matter per acre.

Our goal is to work with local restaurants and businesses to create a full cycle for local food. This past fall during Richmond Restaurant Week at Secco, a few fortunate foodies had a chance to enjoy a bowl of soup made from spinach grown in soil that was nourished with the spent grains from the same beer they could have been drinking. It was an amazing example of the culinary experiences we hope to contribute to at Ringer Farms. This was only possible by collaborating with others and having the ability to put the fruits of their labor into the farm to grow a healthier soil. It creates a healthy source—this is what we bring to the table.

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