Sustainable – and happy growth
Posted 2:52 p.m. on Wednesday, October 26, 2022
Suffolk organic farmer realizes his Manning Road dream
Story of Phyllis Speidell
Photos of John H. Sheally II
As summer slides into fall, farmers markets continue to attract shoppers looking for the perfect tomato, the freshest berries, the best potatoes and armfuls of greens. Among the producers who display their fruits and vegetables, there may be one or two who advertise “organic” or “sustainable” cultivation.
Sounds good, sounds healthy, but what exactly does it mean?
David Carter, now in his third season of growing sustainably grown vegetables and herbs at his Fritillary farm on Manning Road in Suffolk, has spent the past 10 years learning and working with growing practices organic and sustainable. He is one of many farmers helping to make organic farming one of the fastest growing segments of agriculture across the country, according to the Organic Trade Association.
Organic farming, Carter said, “is all about farm health and maintaining environmental, social and economic sustainability.”
Often, “organic” refers to produce raised on farms that use biological or cultural controls to protect their crops from harmful diseases and pests.
Elizabeth Pittman, agricultural extension and natural resources officer with the Virginia Cooperative Extension in Suffolk, added more detail, saying definitions may vary, but the US Department of Agriculture National Organic Program notes, “Organic is a term labeling system for food or other agricultural products that have been produced using cultural, biological and mechanical practices that support on-farm resource cycling, promote ecological balance and preserve biodiversity.
According to Pittman, approved organic and cultural methods include, among others, tillage and pruning practices, spraying with non-synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, creating favorable environments for predatory insects that control other insects that can damage crops and the planting of disease-resistant varieties.
With few exceptions, farmers, such as Carter, who grow sustainably, following organic practices, must always be certified by a USDA-accredited agency to label their products as “organic” with the USDA organic seal. USDA. The extensive certification process can take up to a year or more.
“The certification process is long and expensive,” Carter said. “It would be worth it if I had 20 or 50 acres, but not for my 4 1/2 acres. Over the past three years, I have learned that there is a fine balance between improving the overall health of the farm and making a profit. Becoming economically sustainable can be trial and error.
Without official certification, however, he can and does sell his products as “sustainably produced”. According to Pittman, Carter has “a wealth of knowledge about organic production.”
So how does a man who grew up in Virginia Beach, surfing and enjoying the beach, become a Suffolk farmer who hasn’t been to a beach in years?
Carter said when he graduated from First Colonial High School, he knew he wasn’t ready for college. He enrolled in a few classes at Tidewater Community College and, perhaps thinking something in the medical field might be a career possibility, he worked as a patient care representative at Sentara. When that didn’t suit him, he found employment on a farm in Pungo owned by JD Wilson, a sustainable farmer who grew and sold vegetables, flowers, fruits and herbs.
Carter enjoyed the job so much that he started looking for ways to learn more about organic farming. He discovered that Central Carolina Community College offered an associate degree program in agroecology and sustainable agriculture. The program combined classroom instruction in soil science, animal husbandry, and more, with hands-on experience in sustainable agriculture, sustainable fuels, and farm-to-table culinary programs.
There were many small farms in the area and students interned there, learning from the farmers.
“Central Carolina gave me a good start, but I learned the most on the farms,” Carter said. “Everyone does things differently and they’re always trying new things.”
When he graduated in 2014, he spent five months hiking the Appalachian Trail before working as a horticulturist at Norfolk Botanical Gardens. He then became production manager at New Earth Farm, a 21-acre all-natural teaching and working farm in Pungo. As his dream of owning his own farm grew, he took a job on shipyard scaffolding, 200 to 300 feet in the air, to earn enough money to make his dream a reality.
It was a tight real estate market, but in November 2019 Carter bought the Manning Road property and started creating his dream. He expanded and transformed a shed into a cold room and preparation area. He turned over the land, built a propagation greenhouse and tunnel greenhouses.
“People stopped to ask what was going on and seemed happy to know the farm would be here,” he said.
He hopes the region can attract more sustainable producers and develop a network within the farming community.
“I got a lot of help, advice and second-hand equipment from other farmers,” he said. “The more farmers you have, the better.”
Carter’s farm produces a variety of crops – heirloom tomatoes, arugula, lettuce, elephant garlic, onions, potatoes, lemon mint, lemon thyme, sage – while his flock of chickens produces 50 eggs a day. Rows of buckwheat, fennel and yarrow attract bees and wasps which help deter a major enemy, the cross-striped cabbage worm. Writer spiders weave webs over rows of sun-golden tomatoes, catching pests that might feed on the fruit.
A small flock of giant Pekin ducks help the chickens fertilize the soil, supplementing a large compost pile. Carter is always on the lookout for a local horse or beef farm that could become a source of manure.
After three seasons, he has three part-time employees and hopes to find someone who would intern at Fritillary Farm and learn as he did through hands-on experience.
At 34, Carter is well on her way to creating her dream career. The farm is thriving but, he says, remains relatively low-tech and difficult to leave indefinitely, even for a few days of mountain fly fishing. He sells most of his harvest to restaurants, especially farm-to-table specialists, on Hampton Roads and at farmers’ markets in Norfolk Botanical Gardens, Ghent and Old Beach Market in Virginia Beach.
Why did Carter name his farm Fritillary Farm? Unique names were hard to come by and he recalls that when he started studying organic farming the first caterpillar he identified was the one that would develop into a Fritillary butterfly, a beautiful orange butterfly with black markings that happens to be an excellent pollinator and an appropriate name for a sustainable farm.