The Farm at Sunnyside: organic farming + eating with the environment in mind
by Kara Elder
June 15, 2020
As part of the pivot to delivery and bringing you produce and products from local farmers and makers, Caitlin, Yi Wah + the Number 1 Sons team are using this space to dive deeper into the local food system, getting to the roots and nitty gritty details about what it takes to build a strong, resilient food systems. Consider this part one of many discussions that we hope not only help you learn more about the food you eat, but also the people and systems that got it to your plate.
The Farm at Sunnyside is about 70 miles west of Washington, D.C., in Rappahannock County, Virginia, bordering the Shenandoah National Park. It's managed by farmers Stacey Carlberg and Casey Gustowarow, who Caitlin and Yi Wah first met at the Arlington Farmers Market in 2013.
To become certified organic, a farm must meet a series of rules made by the USDA's National Organic Program, mostly pertaining to fertilizer, pesticides, herbicides, etc. There are many certifying agents around the country who then go to farms for inspection each year; Sunnyside is certified through PCO (Pennsylvania Certified Organic). PCO has their own forms and standards that must be followed — they look at field, seeding, and crop records, too. During an audit, for example, they'll look at a crop and ask to trace its whole lifespan, from seed to planting to harvesting and sending the product to market. The audit itself takes about four hours for Sunnyside; the time leading up to it is an ongoing, season-long, team effort: they keep records that show crop rotation, fertilizer applications, seed purchases, plus transplanting records, and then organize all those records for inspection. (The cost of certification is proportionate to farm size, so larger farms pay more than smaller farms.)
Having the label means you, the customer, immediately know that the farm doesn't spray synthetic pesticides or herbicides in their growing fields. But it means a lot of other things too, says Stacey: "We cannot apply excessive fertilizers to our fields that could pollute neighboring waterways. It also means that we can't be buying in produce + reselling from other growers. And, that we try our best to use organic seed. During our annual audit, we have to track crops from seed to market for our inspectors to show them that we are not selling more than we could possibly grow on our allotted acreage per crop."
Many people still trust the organic label, and customers do seek out Sunnyside's produce because of their organic certification. But spend any amount of time reading up on organic labeling news and you may develop skepticism about its efficacy. Instead of putting all of your trust in a label, look to the farmers and producers behind the products. Read about their growing practices and if you have questions, ask, listen, and learn.
"We don’t just stop at the organic requirements," says Stacey. "We’re thinking a lot about how we’re treating our soil, our labor, the impact we’re having on the environment. Those are things we care about."
Organic food from farms like Sunnyside will cost more than organic food from a grocery store. As Stacey explains:
"When you buy organic in a grocery store, you are probably buying organic onions from one farm, organic carrots from another farm, organic apples from another farm. Well, we're producing it all! That means we know how to manage a diverse array of crops and we've needed to invest in the appropriate machinery, tools, knowledge to produce each crop. In the past, when we set up our stand at market, I would always be blown away by our selection — and think, if you went to a grocery store, this same selection could come from 60+ farms. But, under our tents — it is all produced by us. Diversity makes our farm more interesting, but also more resilient. If we have a crop failure, we have 59 other crops to fall back on. We are always pivoting and adjusting to get the crops to the customers based on what's happening with weather + labor."
Farms like Sunnyside also illustrate the adaptability of local food systems, especially in light of the huge strains on supply chains during COVID. A strong local food system is really built on local connections, says Stacey. When you’re operating in a smaller region, on a smaller scale, you can more quickly make changes and reach consumers. You've seen this in action through some of your favorite producers working with Number 1 Sons to distribute their goods to you!
"We basically changed our whole business model in 10 days and are still growing a lot of food for people," says Stacey. Plus, farmers are kind of built for problem solving. To be a farmer is to constantly adapt and adjust to all the possible variables that come along with the business. Yes, COVID brought its own set of demands and problems. But what's harder to adapt to, says Stacey, is constantly changing weather conditions. Going from two nights of freezing temperatures to 84 degrees within the span of a week — in May — is wild.
This year's wacky weather and cooler-than-normal temperatures affected other farms in the region, too, negatively impacting some farmer's strawberry crops on the one hand and extending the ramp and, likely, the asparagus season on the other. You won't see as many peonies in bouquets from Greenstone Fields because they were damaged in the cold, diminishing their quality. Inconsistent weather and certain crops failing is a fact of life, to a degree, but the extremes that we see now are out of realm of what should be considered normal.
"I think it’s really important for people to be thinking about what’s happening in the climate around us and how that affects food production, and which growers are growing in a way that is going to mitigate climate change rather than add to climate change," says Stacey.
She's hopeful that the produce and plant seedlings that many folks are purchasing now — which might not be something they'd usually pick out — will help people connect more with what's in season, cooking from scratch, and trying to grow things on their own. Being more connected to those steps will help them understand why you could have a corp failure, or why some things are available now versus later, adds Stacey. "That’s an understanding that we’ve lost as our food system got more complex."
Which brings us to plants. Whether its your first year growing your own food or you're a seasoned veteran, things are bound to go differently than you'd like.
A few tips:
- Don't keep the plants in the small containers they arrive in; transfer your seedlings into a large pot or a garden. The plants are not going to look happy for about a week, says Stacey. That happens on the farm, too! It’s just a transplant shock: their roots are adjusting, but it should take to the soil and eventually like where it is.
- Take this opportunity to learn more about soil. Is your plant going in a compacted soil, or a wet area? Should you add compost? (The answer there is almost always yes.) How's the drainage? There are many variables specific to your situation, so do a little digging to learn what will work best for you. (I also recommend checking out the DC Urban Gardener's Network for more resources, tools, workshops, and learning opportunities.)
- Don't be afraid that you're going to kill something, because chances are...you will! Stacey says that every year, even for them, sometimes a plant will do well and sometimes it won't. The beauty of it is that we get to try it all next year. Adjust, tinker and hope you have a better outcome. This is how it works, folks. :) Plus you’ll learn what you really love to grow and what you can grow well and what you can’t.
If planting your own food wasn't in the cards this year, you've got plenty to look forward to in the weekly produce bags. Every few week you'll notice a subtle shift in what's available. Embrace the seasonality! And if this post prompted more questions, let us know. For starters, Stacey hopes more consumers ask:
- Why is other food so cheap?
- Who picked it? What were their living conditions?
- What is the farmer doing for soil health? Are they sequestering carbon? Providing habitat for beneficial insects + birds? Trying to minimize off-farm inputs? Trying to minimize farm waste + fuel + electricity usage?
- What kind of fertilizers were used to grow this food? Where did they come from?
- Was this food picked when ripe? How many resources went into refrigerating, storing + transporting this food? Were those costs subsidized?
A few parting words from Stacey: "We are just really appreciative of the customers that are choosing to support local farms and asking the questions about how the food is grown. I do really believe that agriculture has a lot of power now, and how we are going to shape the future in terms of climate change. As farmers we can have a big impact on that. Our success is also dependent on our customers choosing this kind of food and wanting to support how we grow."
There is always something to examine and learn (or unlearn) — we'll continue to dig into these issues and more in future posts. What questions do you have about organic certification, local farming + beyond?