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Companies: Cricket’s Cove Farm & Forge (working biodynamic farm) in Victoria, VA; Twigs & Berries (organic grocery store) in Kenbridge, VA
Follow on social media at: Twigs & Berries (Facebook) and Cricket’s Cove Farm & Forge (Facebook)
Fast facts: Cricket’s Cove not only offers regular permaculture workshops, but also serves as the studio of artist and blacksmith Jim Cooper (who also happens to be Marianne’s husband).
Patricia M. | Kenbridge, VA
Joyce J. | Palmer Springs, VA
When did you first become interested in organic farming and clean eating?
In college, I rented an old sharecropper house on a working farm. The caretakers were an elderly couple, born at the turn of the last century and raised during a time when self-sufficiency and true homesteading were the norm.
Mrs. Skinner (the farmer’s wife) couldn’t comprehend that I grew up without a home garden, and my knowledge of canning involved buying them at the grocery store. I became her project and mission.
Mrs. Skinner read the night sky as the basis for everything that happened in her kitchen garden, referred to a silver maple as her “rain tree,” split open persimmon seeds in the early fall, and looked at corn silks and the undercoat of her beloved donkey’s rump for the winter forecast.
She taught me how to can, make jam, and pickle everything from squash to pole beans. It was literally a brand new world which grabbed me in a way that nothing else ever has or will. Mrs. Skinner introduced me to the importance of observation and being a partner with nature. Those memories underscore how much knowledge we’ve lost in an age when the ease of buying bottles and bags from garden centers has replaced a millennium of skills.
What path led you to the countryside of southern Virginia?
I was reared in Memphis, Tennessee, then got out of school and pursued a corporate career. I escaped that world as often as possible to go hang out in the country or woods.
My career took me to North Carolina, and my escape act continued—whether it was in my garden or the forest. My husband, Coop, had the same passion about the peace of the country, but, as an artist, residing in a large city also had professional benefits.
While living in Raleigh, we began looking for land with a short punch list in hand: not farmed for at least 50 years; running water via a river, creek, etc.; rolling hills; and loads of wildlife. We were lucky enough to eventually find our “home.” As we bushwhacked our way around this land, we instantly knew it was perfect.
We spent the next 10 years buzzing back and forth between our city life and our future life, and we’ve now lived here full time for 10 years.
How did your passions grow into what is today Cricket’s Cove Farm & Forge and your Twigs & Berries organic grocery store?
I didn’t intend to be a farmer; I only wanted a personal garden. But I was completely sucker punched by the lack of good food available living deep in the country. I had naively assumed that by being in an agriculture-based community, I would have access to an abundance of mouthwatering, clean, fresh produce. I had a lot learn.
Unbeknownst to me, the stars began lining up for my future. While a local man helped me install a small orchard, I also faced the challenge of planting a proper kitchen garden. Since I was dealing with compacted clay for the first time, I began educating myself by listening to Dr. Elaine Ingham’s podcasts about soil. However, not only was the closest garden center almost an hour away, but it was also a big-box store. I was frustrated by the selection and was forced to blindly purchase via the Internet.
Out of the blue, the same man who had helped with my orchard called to let me know that a dilapidated building and bit of land on Main Street in nearby Kenbridge were for sale—and they would make a great garden center.
My future began to unfold. Twigs & Berries would come to specialize in young fruit trees, berries, and other edibles, hence its name. We also invited local truck farmers to sell their produce inside, since there was only one area chain grocery store and no farmers market in this county.
As I began getting to know the local growers and their practices, though, I realized the common approach was to pelt the crops with Sevin® Dust regularly and use Roundup® between seasonal plantings. I also realized that my edible plant customers weren’t buying the local produce, but were driving over an hour to get clean, fresh food.
It was inexcusable to me that so many locals like us, people who had left city life for the peace of country living, were heading back to the city every week to buy food.
I contacted the USDA and, since our homestead was untouched by “modern” farming practices, we got certified organic quickly—and my kitchen garden grew into Cricket’s Cove Organic Farm (my last name translates to cricket). Twigs & Berries then shifted our edibles to only organics. (The local grocery store didn’t offer any organic goods at the time.)
How did you earn the title of first certified biodynamic produce farm in Virginia? What differentiates biodynamic from organic?
We’ve been certified organic for seven years and certified biodynamic for three years. In the United States, you must be certified organic for a number of years before applying for biodynamic certification—and you must maintain both.
Biodynamic is an internationally recognized certification that is actually older than USDA Organic Certification. I learned of biodynamics a few years after we had been certified organic—and as I watched the constraints of organic certification ease to allow synthetic amendments and accommodations for industrial farms. I became disenchanted to a degree and asked around for direction to a cleaner alternative. What I got was an avalanche of responses pointing to biodynamics.
It’s a holistic approach that I prefer to coin as “wholistic.” It is heritage growing, right up there with what Mrs. Skinner educated me about all those decades ago.
Our farm is basically a closed system with next to nothing coming in, and almost everything coming from within. I use no mechanical equipment on any of our gardens today and no fertilizers, herbicides, or pesticides.
Planting, transplanting, and harvesting follow the biodynamic calendar, which maps moon phases and more. Our beds are permanent (no till), we plant intensively, and we companion plant like mad. We have massive compost piles that we empty and start up again throughout the year.
There are so many practices common to permaculture, sustainable growing, and biodynamics—like our orchards serving as food forests, complete with herbs, berries, perennial flowers, annual crops, etc.—that the transition was virtually seamless. This is the basis of the entire farm’s design.
You’ve earned both Permaculture Design Certification and your Advanced Permaculture Practicum. How do you balance the “bookish” side of your expertise with your love for the “down-and-dirty” aspects of daily farm life?
I see them as one thing.
How can you be really good at anything without constantly learning, especially with something so fluid and ever-changing as farming?
I know that I have so much more to learn, and the deeper I dig into this life and passion, the more questions I have about it. The beauty of this exploration today is the open dialogue on an international basis. People like me are so ready to share their practices, their successes, and their failures and questions. The massive number of global comrades in this quest for deeper discovery is truly awesome and so important given the current challenges.
You’ve said that your farm experiments extensively, resulting in both successes and what you describe as “epic failures.” Can you cite an example of one of your victories?
An example of a success beyond my hopes happened this past fall. Our challenge was impressive heat and 10 weeks without more than .10” of rainfall. In early August, I began to hear a lot of chatter about a possible fall drought and began reading about growing practices in desert areas.
We grow rice in conventional rice paddies; the base of these beds is below ground level. We harvested our rice in late August, which left several unoccupied below-grade beds. In deserts, sunken beds are a common approach, since their soil temperature and evaporation rate are lower (i.e., they hold water longer). We carved out narrow walking paths and used that soil to build up beds within the paddies.
I’m kind of a maniac about water retention and movement, so we also sculpted waterways so that we could simply flood the paddy, allowing the water to move around the raised beds. This resulted in easy and quick watering (since by dropping a hose at one end, the water would meander throughout) and deep, root-soaking penetration (since this approach works much like a swale and berm, which it is).
We planted the same crops in these beds as in our other above-ground gardens. There were marked differences. We watered the paddy gardens much less, and they boasted bigger, healthier plants and an earlier harvest. We even got a second fall crop planting in a couple of these beds.
Here’s the surprise—the plants in the sunken beds did just fine when we dipped to temps in the low 20s; plants in our other beds got smoked.
How about an example of a failure?
An epic financial failure was our foray into aquaponics. I loved the idea, especially since it is a closed system for the most part, with fish-fertilized water pumped throughout the grow beds and plant roots supplying some shelter and food for the fish.
We dedicated half of a greenhouse (normally used during the winter for veggie and herb propagation) and three 650-gallon drums for the fish. We cut the tops off the drums for grow beds and invested in pumps, pipes, heaters, and pea gravel; pipes for crawfish homes; baby tilapia; and, of course, fish food.
The first mental failure on my part was assuming that the submerged heaters would be enough to allow this tropical fish to thrive in an unheated greenhouse. They survived, but were incredibly slow to grow.
Technically, the experiment worked—and we enjoy some of the sweetest strawberries, peas, etc.—but from a financial standpoint, it was folly.
It was too small to produce anything other than for personal consumption, but we still had to power the pumps and heater. It was a great novelty, and had it been a much larger system and our primary focus, it would have worked. Instead, it was simply a distraction. Lesson learned—keep your eye on the ball and don’t spread yourself too thin.
Of the many hats you wear (among them farmer, educator, and business owner), do you have a favorite?
I’m always happiest when I’m knee deep in and covered with soil, but I think presenting workshops is probably my favorite aspect of what we do.
It’s easy to sometimes get overwhelmed with the day to day of farming, so it’s important to me to surround myself with new faces and like-minded people. Spending the day with others interested in the moving parts of how we do things and happy to share what they’re doing as well is important. It’s an incredible mental break and reaffirmation when I see our farm through the eyes of our guests. It just does my soul good.
How do you and your husband partner in the workings of your businesses?
We share the same passions about life and, luckily, are incredibly different in our approach to it. I’m a bit of a taskmaster, while he’s laid back, usually rolling with the flow. We mutually admire what the other is doing, and I think that ensures a great partnership.
Plus, since we have separate businesses on the same piece of land, there is automatic interaction throughout the day. My college major was metals, so I have a bit of knowledge about what he does, and he is constantly reading up and watching the happenings on the farm, so he has a bit of knowledge about what I do. Coop is my sounding board, and his areas of expertise are invaluable to me and the farm’s success.
We’re also fortunate that Twigs & Berries is run by a few dedicated people, but Coop heads there once a week, and I’m there two and a half days—just to keep in touch with our customers. It’s a good break for both of us to be in town, see people, and keep up with the community.
What advice would you offer our TGN community?
At least a couple times a week, I schedule time to just walk about. I do this alone, so there are no distractions … no tasks other than observation. We have spots to sit and rest at throughout the farm and, after such a walk, I’ll pick one and just be. I think it’s important to make sure there are places to sit, take it all in, and just breathe for a moment.
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