The Wisdom of Wood Prairie Family Farm
[This article was previously published in the spring issue of the Cultivator, Cornucopia’s quarterly newsletter.]
by Rachel Zegerius, Co-Director of Development and Communications at The Cornucopia Institute
Hardcover books, almanacs, seed catalogs, and three-ring binders spilling loose leaf papers reach skyward behind Cornucopia advisor Jim Gerritsen as he Zooms in from a dimly lit office in Bridgewater, Maine.
It’s been a long and transformative month since our conversation just days before the MOSES Organic Farming Conference in late February. It feels like a year.
Spring is always busy at Wood Prairie Family Farm. But this year, the Gerritsens have been swamped with a nearly unmanageable surge of orders. Like so many things these days, this is “unprecedented.”
The Gerritsens raise and sell organic seeds for growing vegetables, herbs, and grains. Foremost, they provide customers with some of the highest-quality seed potatoes in North America, shipping to farmers and gardeners in all 50 states.
Several years ago, researchers at North Dakota State University compared organic seed potatoes from a number of different suppliers. Wood Prairie’s seed came out on top in a three-year trial, a goal hard won through 44 years of observation, reflection, experimentation, and cultivation.
Ask Gerritsen why their potatoes are superior, and the conversation quickly turns to soil, which he and his family have been thoughtfully stewarding on the edge of Maine’s North Woods for decades. Gerritsen proudly points out that the farm’s soil is currently composed of 6% organic matter, compared to 1-2% of that of his neighbors.
Organic farming systems (with and without integrated livestock) tend to foster higher percentages of organic matter in the soil when compared to their conventional counterparts. Organic matter provides nutrients and habitat to organisms living in the soil, while also improving water-holding capacity and sequestering carbon.
This type of careful land stewardship requires complex decision-making, based on long-term planning perspectives and a deep understanding of natural systems. Jim and his wife Megan are in the midst of transitioning this knowledge and the farming operation to their son Caleb, itself a 10-year process.
Organic agriculture cannot be rushed; potatoes are in a four-year rotation at Wood Prairie. Out of 56 acres in production, only 12 are producing potatoes at any one time. The other 44 acres are in rotation to build soil: 12 in grain, 24 in other cover crops, and the rest in pasture.
Typical on any organic farm, two-thirds to three-quarters of the ground is cover crop. Organic farming—by law and by nature—is committed to “continuous improvement.”
In their pursuit to understand and promote whole ecosystem health, organic farmers shine a light and help us consider the impact of our actions on multiple interconnected systems. In this way, authentic organic farmers pay a great service to the Earth, to our communities, and to future generations.
Their value stands in stark contrast to an increasingly centralized and industrialized food system, characterized by interrupted supply chains, food waste, food scarcity, and other flaws.
Gerritsen says, “More than 75% of the calls these days are from customers starting and/or expanding home gardens, expressing a lack of confidence in the food supply.”
As more and more people seek solutions in local food systems, authentic organic producers steady the scaffolding. They have been readying the soil for decades, independently and cooperatively, cultivating regionally specific varieties, regionally adapted markets, and diverse economies rooted in, and sustained by, relationship.
As we boldly imagine a more hopeful future and collaborate toward community resilience, we honor the bioregional wisdom, quest for understanding, and pursuit of the common good embodied by authentic organic farmers like the Gerritsens—our most valuable national treasures.