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Help going organic

A growing number of California farmers are considering a switch to organic production, if you are one, check with your NRCS office. The Natural Resources Conservation Service, obligated $3.3 million in Environmental Quality Incentive Program cost-share funds last year to help 158 farmers on 13,000 acres in California who are organic or transitioning to organic farming.

One of the 158 is Nigel Walker of Eatwell Farms, about 20 miles west of Sacramento in Solano County. Walker has farmed the 65 acres he owns organically from day one, but is now transitioning an adjoining 40 acres he’s leasing.

“You need to build the soil for several years when you begin farming organically, so the USDA cost-share is important and appreciated,” Walker says.

Key Points

• NRCS offers a cost-share program to ease the transition to organic farming.

• Inviting consumers to the farm gives them a food connection.

• Nigel Walker has a plan to supply most of the nitrogen needed on his farm.

“We’re stoking up the soil with rotations, compost from restaurant scraps, and manure for five years, and then we should be at full speed,” Walker says.

An EQIP contract with NRCS is helping cover the costs of pest control, nutrient management, crop rotation and cover crops that result from Walker’s transition to organic farming. All those practices are cost-shared.

On his own land, Walker had chickens concentrated on alfalfa fields all last summer, then moved them to strawberry beds in the winter. Most of the chickens roam parts of an alfalfa field with access to movable laying houses, but some are in “chicken tractors” –– bottomless small wire pens that are moved once or twice each day to fresh alfalfa.

“Mob stacking” the chickens on alfalfa, which is what Walker calls it, supplies fertility for the next two years’ crops. He gave turkens, a Hungarian mixed breed, a brief try recently, but will give that up. “We were looking to supply eggs from the hens and sell meat from the males, but we haven’t had the market we need for them,” he says.

Growing nitrogen

Walker has 3,000 layer chickens on the farm. He pastures them on alfalfa, rye and clover. “Alfalfa and chickens combined are great for soil fertility,” he says. He’s been experimenting with cropping patterns. “The number of chickens we have drives our cropping patterns and rotations,” Walker says.

“We’d like to grow all our own nitrogen. Right now, on the land we own, we’re working towards a three-year rotation on three 20-acre plots. The first year of chickens and alfalfa supplies nutrients for the next two years.”

Walker follows that first year with vegetables and other crops that have the highest nutrient needs. In the third year of the rotation, he grows crops with reduced nutrient needs. Then it’s back to chickens and alfalfa as the first year of the rotation starts again.

Walker grows about 100 crops on the 65 acres he owns –– everything from herbs to vegetables to grains to beans –– along with fruit trees and lavender, among other things.

He runs a community-supported agriculture, or CSA, program, supplying 800 to 900 boxes of food a week, 50 weeks of the year, to subscribing families. He says his customers strongly support his organic efforts.

Farm sleepovers

“People pitch tents here for sleepovers when we have special occasions like Strawberry Days — or for picking tomatoes,” Walker says.

“When they spend the night and wake up on the farm the next morning, they make a stronger connection with where their food comes from. I don’t have to worry about what they might pick to eat because it’s all chemical-free and safe to eat.

“People are happy for the experience, and we become friends,” he says. “I think they realize that environmentally, we’re on a sustainable journey––they often ask what they can do to help.”

A legacy statement

Walker is in his third year of transition to organic on the 40 acres he leases. The fact that he would farm it organically gave Walker the opportunity to farm it in the first place.

“An elderly woman owns the land, but I work through her son. He wanted me to farm it, because his mother specifically wanted it farmed organically. That was a legacy statement,” Walker says.

Working with NRCS and the EQIP program has been a plus, Walker says. “I think they’re excited about what we’re doing and how we can make a difference in the world.”

Brown is the public affairs director for NRCS in California.

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FOOD AND FERTILIZER: Nigel Walker’s chickens roam alfalfa fields for food — and to fertilize for upcoming crops.

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PASTURED POULTRY: Moveable laying houses are trucked in on alfalfa to build Eatwell Farms’ soil fertility fast. Some poultry is housed in portable “chicken tractors.”

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CHICKENS TO CABBAGE: Cabbage follows chickens on alfalfa in Nigel Walker’s organic rotation. Cabbage is one of his many crops with high nitrogen requirements. NRCS helped Walker, shown here with an unidentified NRCS employee, and 157 other California farmers transition land to organic methods last year.

This article published in the April, 2010 edition of CALIFORNIA FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2010.