Successful organic farmers feed soil, not plant, says Isaac Oliver

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K. Isaac Oliver (’06) is managing partner of Harmony Ridge Farms, an organic vegetable farm and co-op in Tobaccoville, N.C. His father, Kevin, is the other half of the farm.

“Harmony Ridge has been, I believe, a leap of faith for my father, entrusting me with not only the running of the farm and business (neither of which I had experience) but also with the rather dizzying task of growing about 35 varieties of vegetables and herbs, having only grown 10 or 12 of them in my previous home garden,” says Isaac. “I am still amazed at his enormous faith in me, and also by what we have accomplished thus far, through by what seems to be sheer determination and the belief that we could not fail.”

You were an English major at Wake Forest. How did you transition into running a successful farm and co-op?

Part of my amazement stems from my rather meandering career path. Since I have graduated from university, I have been a shoe salesman, construction worker, courier, part-time librarian, plant vendor and greenhouse technician. Anything to pay the bills in-between hiking and exploring nature. As is clear, I spent about zero time in the career center at Wake Forest. I owe my current success and the success of Harmony Ridge Farms to my father’s recognition of my potential.

Tell us about Harmony Ridge Farms.

Harmony Ridge Farms is an organic (though non-certified) vegetable and herb farm, now with 22 acres. Thus far we have supported a farm CSA (community supported agriculture) with added weekly restaurant sales having only cultivated less than two and a half acres. Our productivity in such a small space has been, in large part, the result of investing in and enriching our soil. The topography is variable, being hilly, with woods and two creeks. The soil types are variable as well and the topography allows for microclimates to exist, two factors that support diversity of plant life.

I returned here after having spent some time roaming the great north woods of Washington State. When I wasn’t working at one of my odd jobs, I was observing nature, much of it within pristine, untamed wilderness. Watching and listening for so many hours I believe enhanced my connection to nature’s processes.

Once my wife and I moved back to Winston-Salem, my father and I got more serious about starting an organic farm. We began looking for the right property and almost instantly, a horse farm in Tobaccoville went on the market. Still unsure it was the right place, on our third visit we witnessed a wild turkey poult hatch, accepted this as a sign, bought the place, and went to work.

All crops we grow are raised organically and include spinach, arugula, mesclun, carrots, leeks, lettuce, pac choi, Chinese cabbage, radishes, snap peas, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, cabbage, Swiss chard, beets, cucumbers, summer squash, potatoes, cherry tomatoes, heirloom and hybrid tomatoes, onions, shallots, garlic, fennel, green beans, sweet corn, peppers, okra, cowpeas, eggplant, winter squash, cantaloupe, watermelon, sweet potatoes, collards, other greens and assorted herbs, harvested in roughly that order (with much overlapping) starting in April and running until December.

How does the co-op work?

The farm co-op concept is simple. A family or individual purchases a share of the farm in early spring. In exchange they receive fresh harvested vegetables on a weekly basis for the remainder of the harvest season. Our main season runs 20 weeks from around mid May until mid September. The vegetables are variable and reflect the progression of the seasons. There are many variations but this is the basic idea.

Obviously sustainability is important on your farm. How do you manage it?

Sustainability is as vital as the soil to an organic farmer. A vegetable farm is only as sustainable as its soil. A good grower aims to feed not the plant, but the soil. Every time some quantity of nutrient or mineral is removed through plant metabolism it must be replenished. The two most effective ways to accomplish this are to add compost or grow cover crops (or both). Compost can be of animal origin (as long as it is broken down) or of mixed plant origin (vegetable scraps, grass clippings, straw, etc.) We use both, and cover crop wherever we have fallow ground, planting legumes or some kind of grass/legume blend (such as rye and vetch in the winter).

Another way we manage the soil is to rotate crops. No one crop in the same family (tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant, and peppers are in the same family, for example) should be grown in the same plot twice for a four year period to reduce the risk of spreading plant disease and to manage available nutrients effectively.

In addition to ensuring the sustainability of our soil, we produce the energy to heat our greenhouse, house and barn with wood harvested on our property from unhealthy trees or delivered by tree companies. We cut up the trees and feed them to a wood burning water stove that distributes the hot water underground to wherever we need heat.

Do you ever wonder if there will be a day when there are children who haven’t tasted a home-grown tomato or experienced the joy of planting a seed and watching it grow?

I do not worry about such a day ever arriving, en masse; the gardening tradition is too strong in agrarian areas and has been gaining in popularity amongst crafty young adults for some time. Gardening is such a basic way for people to connect to nature, even if it’s just a tomato plant on a windowsill.

Even so, the removal of urban children (and adults) from such an opportunity and natural connection is, I believe, condition for any number of things to go awry. Many cities, Detroit comes to mind, are reclaiming abandoned lots and starting community gardens. They are springing up all over, as are farmer’s markets, but it will take concerted effort to engage young people in this way, and I believe incorporating gardening into public schools, as some districts have, would be a step in the right direction.

Were there people or classes at Wake Forest that influenced your life’s path?

When I hear this question I can’t help but think of Michele Gillespie. Her History of the New South rekindled my connection to this region and its history, its people and agrarian tradition. This feeling I held onto during my time on the West Coast, and it ever-tugged at my soles. Her spirit and passion for her craft was an inspiration to me. There were many others who helped shape me, particularly the faculty of the English department, and I am grateful.

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