Blair Bloxom took a tour through Mattawoman Creek Farms to see how Janice and Rick Felker are leading the way in organic farming.
Nestled behind the small town of Eastville on Virginia’s Eastern Shore sits Mattawoman Creek Farms. Owned and operated by Janice and Rick Felker, the thirty-acre organic farm overlooks its namesake body of water that empties into the Chesapeake Bay. On an unusually warm day this December, the Felkers generously invited me to their farm for a tour of the land and operations.
The Felkers have owned the land since the 1980s, but only began farming in 2005. From the beginning, they knew they wanted to maintain the natural richness of the land. To do this, they decided to be an organic farm, and organic in the purest sense of the word. They use no herbicides, pesticides or chemical fertilizers. Instead, they let their produce thrive in the natural ecosystem, skillfully researching natural solutions to problems they may encounter, such as encouraging friendly insects to fight any unwanted pests. “We like to say we grow our own fertilizer,” Janice Felker remarked as she showed me the rye and hairy vetch they planted for the winter cover.
For many years the term “organic” had a smorgasbord of meanings. Starting in 2002, federal law required that farms be certified in order to use the word “organic” to describe their produce. The Felkers pursued and obtained this certification in their first year of farming. When I asked them about the process for becoming certified, they explained that the first of many qualifications is proof that no prohibited substance had been on the land in the past three years. Since they had owned the farm for the past two decades, that part was easy. The tricky part, they explained, is maintaining all of the many records. To be organic you have to be able to track all of your food from the point of sale all the way back to the purchase of the seed. “It intimidates a lot of farmers,” Janice explained. Once a year, an organic inspection agent comes around to see the farm and check the records. “For us the visit usually occurs in the early fall, right around the start of school,” Janice laughed. When she’s not on the farm, she is the librarian at Broadwater Academy, a local private school on the Eastern Shore.
As we walked around the farm, Rick pointed out that they have five high tunnels full now, and over eleven acres under cultivation. They decided a few years ago to maintain production all year round. Janice added, “It was not only good for our employees and our customers, it was good for us. It saved us from having to train an entirely new group of workers every spring.” Looking around the farm I could see many people hard at work. Mattawoman Creek Farms employs seven people in the winter, and about twice that amount at its busiest peak during harvest and seeding time.
As Rick bent down to show me some of the kale varieties that are thriving in the greenhouse, he added that over ninety percent of the produce they sell goes directly to consumers. This is through farmers’ markets, restaurants, their online store, and Community Supported Agriculture packages (CSAs). Since many of the farmers’ markets are closed in the winter, much of what is being grown now goes to the CSA deliveries. Customers can subscribe to a CSA for a season, and receive a box of fresh produce every week from the farm. “The CSA packages will be available for forty weeks in 2014. And we are unique in this area in that everything in our CSA boxes is USDA certified organic and grown by us,” Rick told me as he closed the door of the greenhouse. They now have ten different CSA pick up locations in Norfolk, Chesapeake, Virginia Beach, and the Eastern Shore.
Looking down the colorful rows of lettuce, kale, and broccoli, I quickly noticed that all of the produce was grown on raised beds. The Felkers explained that they grow all of their produce on permanently raised beds, which protects against the flooding that the low-lying Eastern Shore is particularly prone to. Rick reached down into a row of greens and cut off a full head of broccoli. He then handed me the knife and showed me where I could cut my own piece, before tossing the greens into a basket.
When I asked them about state agricultural initiatives like Virginia’s Finestand Virginia Grown, they explained that Virginia’s Finest, in their experience, is usually used for processed foods. Since they do not process any of their produce, they do not use the label. Rick explained that they are, however, listed on the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services list of organic farms.
Something you will not find online is Rick’s impressive list of accolades. He currently serves as the president of Buy Fresh, Buy Local and is on the Board of Directors of the Virginia Association of Biological Farming. He was also one of the founding directors of the Virginia Food System Council, a statewide resource for sharing ideas.
As we finished our tour of the farm, the Felkers handed me the basket full of the fresh produce we had been cutting along the way. They would not accept any payment, but agreed to pose for a photograph before I left. Then I brushed the soil off my boots, and started down the long dirt road into town.
For more information about Mattawoman Creek Farms, please visit http://www.mattawomancreekfarms.com/index.htm