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Sustainable Agriculture Research Stations

Continuing our summer road trip adventures! Besides seed growers, we also visited with many vegetable breeders and researchers on our trip.  Here we’ll profile four organic and sustainable agriculture research stations.

North Carolina State University’s Mountain Research Station in Waynesville, NC (near Asheville) is up in the hills, and cooler and wetter than most of NC – a great place for tomato disease trials! Here, Luping Qu, Reuben Travis, and Jeanine Davis discuss how to measure the effects of diseases for their trial notes.

There’s a lot going at the Mountain Research Station. Besides tomato trials, we got to see melon and squash trials, stevia trials, hops trials, organic broccoli variety trials, and much more – here’s an overview of this year’s research projects. And that’s just the Alternative Crops and Organics part of the farm – elsewhere on the farm, there’s a big broccoli varieties trial that’s part of a multi-state project that aims, among other things, to find broccoli varieties that hold up well in the heat of the Southeast.

A great practice at the Mountain Research Station farm (and at many other farms we visited) is to plant strips of flowers and herbs — usually on the edges of fields, but sometimes in the middle as well. These flowers and herbs help attract pollinators and bug predators.

Jeanine is the co-author of Growing and Marketing Ginseng, Goldenseal and Other Woodland Medicinals. Her blog about the work at the Mountain Research Station is a great read. She’s a dedicated outreach person, and besides giving talks at the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association’s Sustainable Agriculture Conference, she regularly speaks at many conferences, including this year’s Heritage Harvest Festival at Monticello, September 11-12.

A quick stop was the University of Tennessee’s East Tennessee Research and Education Center in Knoxville. We were already visiting three different Tennessee farms that day, but there it was, only a couple miles away from Jonathan Buchanan’s Crooked Road Farm, so we dropped in for a quick look. Much of the farm’s work is giving young beginning farmers experience growing market crops, but we also got to see pepper trials, stevia trials, and – a great new vocabulary word – ratooning trials for kale and other crops in the brassica family. Ratooning is the practice of severely cutting back plants to stimulate new growth for later production. Okra growers in the Deep South often do it, so as to keep okra plants from getting 10 feet tall or more! Here’s a ratooned kale crop at the East TN Research and Education Center.

Next was the USDA’s U.S. Vegetable Laboratory in Charleston, South Carolina, with Clemson University’s Coastal Research and Education Center (CREC) nearby. Mark Farnham and Richard Fery with the USVL, and Brian Ward (at left below) with the CREC, showed us around. Here Mark talks about his work with breeding summer broccoli that holds up in July heat. Vegetable breeding is patient work – it can take planting out big fields of dozens of different breeding lines to find the best traits. This was July, swelteringly hot in Charleston, but there was some great looking broccoli out there – Mark’s hoping to release some of the breeding lines in the next few years!

Mark (at right below) is a brassicas guy; another recent project of his and Pat Wechter’s, Carolina Broadleaf mustard, is a leafy green bred for resistance to a bacterial leaf blight that’s become a problem in the Deep South. The USVL makes small amounts of breeding stock available to seed producers, so we’re hoping to line up some of our own seed growers for this one and have it in the SESE catalog in the next few years.

Richard Fery is emeritus plant geneticist at the USVL. He’s worked on many different seed crops over the years, mostly peppers and southern peas. He and his colleagues bred the nematode-resistant Carolina Wonder sweet pepper, Charleston Hot hot pepper, and many others, and he’s shared seedstock with us of southern peas releases that we’re hoping to be able to offer in the next few years.  He’s in the picture below at right, with colleague Floyd P. Maguire at left.

Across the street, Brian Ward gave us a fast tour of the organics section of Clemson’s Coastal Research and Education Center. Interesting projects included watermelon seedlings grafted onto gourd rootstock for greater disease resistance and vigor, a study of alternative pollinators for watermelons, rice trials, and seed increases for heirloom varieties of peanuts, southern peas, and corn. Alas, so much to see, but so little time!

Our final stop in the research portion of this trip was the Cherry Farm facility in Goldsboro, NC, for the Central for Environmental Farming Systems (CEFS), a collaboration between several NC ag departments. With 2,245 acres available, CEFS has a huge area to do all kinds of big studies, with long term studies of soil nutrition, tree alley crops, forest succession, animal husbandry, and many others. Research Operations Manager Andy Meier generously took time on a Sunday afternoon to show us around. CEFS helps provide the space and support for many NC ag folks and groups to do trials.  Their variety trials this year include wheat, barley, soybeans, and this southern peas trial with four repetitions. Again, so much to see, and so little time!

Next week we’ll spotlight two individuals who we visited who breed exciting new varieties.

Seed Growers Large and Small

Ken and I recently returned from a 2-week road trip, which we took primarily to visit farms that grow seed for Southern Exposure.  We work with about 60 farms that produce seed for us, which we then freeze, test for good germination, weigh out, and sell.  We took this trip to meet some of the farmers face to face, see their land, and get a better sense of how they farm, in hopes of collaborating better in the future.  We’re also glad that we can share some of their experiences with you.  Southwestern Virginia has one of the highest concentrations of farms growing seed for us, including two diversified family homesteads, which we’ll profile first.


The Moyer family has been growing vegetable seeds for us for seven years.  They also grow an impressive range of their own food, sell vegetables at a local farmers market, and raise cows, goats, and several kinds of poultry.

We pulled some weeds in their garden and collected harlequin bugs off of a kale seed crop; they served us fresh cornbread with fresh butter, squash that they had traded with another farmer, and pork, and the next morning, a delicious breakfast of fresh eggs, oatmeal, butter, and sorghum syrup. Several of the Moyer children have raised seed crops of their own, keeping the proceeds and calculating their dollar per hour as part of their math class.  This year seed crops they’re growing for us include Selma Suns sunflower, German Johnson tomato, Burpee’s Butterbush squash, Egyptian Walking Onions, Sugar Drip Sorghum, Painted Mountain flour corn, and Floriani flint corn.


Later we visited the Smythes, an extended family with a large vegetable garden, a cowshare dairy, and a young orchard.  To get to their property, we crossed a wooden bridge with low sides, and then entered a large family homestead, where we didn’t see any house numbers.  The door we knocked happened to be the right one.

Charlotte Smythe, who initially organized the family’s seed growing, has now married and moved up the hill to a new house on the family’s land, so more recently her younger sister Lydia has been heading up the seed growing.  The family decided to take a break from seeds this year so as to focus more on infrastructure development and perennials, but we hope they will grow for us again next year.


On our way into Southwest Virginia we stopped to see Beth Shelley in Bent Mountain, VA She and her family grow a wide range of vegetables in two huge old greenhouses.  They are further diversifying their farm to include Chinese medicinal herbs.


One of the biggest farms we visited just started growing seeds for us this year.  Fassifern Farm, in Bath County, VA, is managed by Mark Scott and includes 12 acres of cultivated land on various parts of a 2400 acre property.  Currently their biggest crops are vegetables that Cavalier Produce picks up twice a week for sale in nearby Charlottesville, after Cavalier unloads other produce for the local restaurants.  This year Mark and his crew are growing seed crops of Chires baby sweet corn, Black Amber Cane sorghum, Liana asparagus beans, Grady Bailley Greasy snap beans, Carwile’s Virginia Peanuts, and Orange Bell sweet peppers for seed.  Looking forward, Mark is excited to make seed growing a bigger part of his operation, and his farm’s large acreage, surrounded largely by forest, will give him the opportunity to isolate and grow seed crops of several varieties of corn per year.


Near the other end of the spectrum of scale, Ann Shrader, in Floyd, Virginia, grows a home garden of no more than a quarter acre where her biggest crops are the seed crops she grows for us – this year, Appalachian Red garlic, Charleston Belle sweet peppers, and Peking Black southern peas.  She also grows a few fruits and vegetables for her own consumption, and lets a wide range of flowers self-sow.


Monica Williams, Bill Whipple, and their young son Gabriel divide their time between Asheville, NC, and the remote West Virginia farm a ways down a one-lane road where they hosted us on the first night of our trip.

Their vegetable gardens include crops for home use as well as seed, but they find that on their rocky mountain land, berries and trees tend to do much better than annuals.  They are fortunate to have not only a very young orchard but also an older orchard that Bill planted at a time when farmers markets were much less common, with little idea of how they would sell the fruit it produced.  Now fruit is most of what they bring to market.



Troy Teets and his family hosted us for a night in Riceville, Tennessee.  The evening we arrived, they showed us their garden and their new goats and pigs, and in the morning we harvested tomatoes and blackberries for their farmers’ market.  This year they’re growing a seed crop of Grandma Nellie’s Yellow Mushroom bean.  They’re also growing a few short rows of Parker Half-Runner bean, a favorite in Troy’s area that’s more tender than the standard Half-Runner beans on the market.  They expect to harvest a few pounds of seeds from this year’s Parker Half-Runner so that they can plant a much larger crop next year.  We plan to offer the seeds from their 2016 crop in our 2017 catalog.


In South Carolina, we were hosted by seed growers Rodger and Karen Winn, who I profiled last year.  All in all we had a busy trip, visting about three farms a day on most days.  In upcoming blog posts, I plan to profile plant breeders, university research farms, and a bakery that mills its own grain.

Summer Sowings: Continuous Harvests all Summer and into Fall

With summer’s intense heat in full swing, it can be hard to remember to sow cool season crops, but some fall crops need to be started as early as June, and many need to be started in July.

On our farm in central Virginia our average first fall frost falls in late October, but even where frosts come later or not at all you should start fall crops during the summer. Later plantings will struggle with fall’s low light levels, and won’t produce before growth slows to a near standstill in early winter (the “Persephone Days,” November 21-January 21).

To make sense of all the seeds we’re sowing during the summer months, I divide our summer plantings into three types:

1. Warm-season, slow growing summer successions: these are the bonus crops that many gardeners forget. A second round of tomatoes, summer squash, sweet corn, or cucumbers can keep you harvesting all summer long without interruption.

2. Fast growing summer successions: these crops require frequent, regular sowing all through summer. Because we’re sowing so often, these can be easier to remember. We sow beans, carrots, salad greens, beets, and radish seeds weekly. Be ready to baby your summer sowings: we water daily to keep them from drying out before sprouting. Lettuce needs the soil temperature to be below 80 degrees F, so you may need to sow in flats indoors, or even in the refrigerator, or sow in the evening and cool the soil with crushed ice.

3. Cool season, slow growing crops for fall harvest. We sow the Brassicas first: Brussels sprouts in June, and then broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower in July. By mid-July we’re sowing fall greens: collards, Swiss chard, leaf beet, and kale, plus winter radishes. We sow Chinese cabbage in late July. Sow thickly in nursery beds and keep up with your watering; we protect these young plants from summer’s insects with spun polyester row cover or the new more durable and temperature neutral “proteknet.”

For further resources on planning your summer sowings, check out: Brett Grohsgal’s article Simple Winter Gardening, our article on Summer Succession Plantings, and our Fall and Winter Planting Guide.

Successions can be overwhelming, so we have some tricks that help extend harvests with fewer plantings:

1. Plant indeterminate varieties of tomatoes and cucumbers, and pole-type beans and peas. We still find we need a late tomato planting, because our earliest plantings taper down toward the end of summer (and our Heritage Harvest Festival at Monticello needs lots of tomatoes for the Tasting Tent).

2. Select heirlooms bred to provide extended harvests: many modern farms want concentrated harvests that can be harvested with one or two passes; but for more traditional growers an extended harvest was the ideal way to manage the bounty. Look for roots that hold well in the ground. Lutz beets are one of our favorites: they can be spring planted and will hold all summer without turning woody. However, they will be very large, so this only works if you’re happy cooking with multi-pound beets (try slicing cross-wise for beet burgers). Open-pollinated broccoli provides extended side-shoot harvests. Choose bolt-resistant greens and harvest by the leaf before before taking whole plants.

3. Choose seasonally appropriate salad greens: we want salads all year-round, but this can be tricky both when it’s hot and when it’s cold! Mustards and brassicas are more mild in cold weather, so get adventurous by adding young kale and tatsoi to winter and early spring salads. Choose cold-tolerant lettuce: red varieties tend to hold up better in frost. For hot weather, choose fast-growing summer crisphead lettuce like Sierra, or heat-ready greens like Red Malabar spinach or Golden purslane.

4. Set up a root cellar or similar storage system. Ultimately, some of your crops will ripen all at once, or you’ll be faced with a glut of produce when frosts threaten. Be prepared: have a proper storage area ready to go for your carrots, parsnips, turnips, cabbages, winter squash, and more. Be ready to finish ripening the last fresh tomatoes indoors. For fresh produce through till spring, we need good systems for storing and slowly working through the harvest. Nancy Bubel’s Root Cellaring is an invaluable resource if you’re looking to improve your winter storage system, and has lots of low-cost and little-time options, if you haven’t blocked off your whole summer to dig a cellar.