Joan Norman

Tender, One Straw Farm

Biographical Sketch
Joan Norman and husband Drew have tended One Straw Farm since 1983. It is the largest Food Alliance Certified vegetable farm in Maryland. It supplies families, restaurants and wholesalers with the finest certified produce. Joan and Drew’s goal is more than simply growing a satiable crop. They also are dedicated to safeguarding the integrity of the land they cultivate. They extend their value base into the creation of a strong relationship with their market customers and members of their Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) plan through constant interaction and communication.

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Presentation Summary
One Straw Farm: Providing Healthy Food through Community-Supported Agriculture
One Straw Farm consists of 175 acres, half of which is hay and half in vegetables. We have farmed this land since 1983 using organic methods. Organic means the crops are grown using no synthetic chemicals or fertilizers, no genetically modified seeds and no sewage sludge. However, due to a technicality, we are temporarily not certified organic….but will likely be in the future. This is because we use black mulch called biotello. It is made of modified corn starch from corn grown organically and it breaks down due to exposure to the elements over the course of the season. While the law governing organic certification says biodegradable mulch is allowed, it also says that all mulches must be removed at the end of the season. Because small pieces of biotello remain in the fields the following season, even though they eventually biodegrade, we were deemed out of compliance with organic certification. This has not bothered our customers in the least. We trust this flaw in the law will be remedied since organic farmers in other countries, including Canada, are permitted to use biotello and to export their produce to the U.S. under the organic label. We consider biotello a much more environmentally responsible way to mulch than black plastic. When we used back plastic in previous seasons, we would fill four dumpsters full of the used mulch at the end of each season. This, of course, had to go to a landfill.

Because we are organic farmers, we make our own compost. It is made from hay, rotten vegetables, and spent mushroom soil, all of which are mixed, placed in windrows, covered and turned regularly. We can make compost from start to finish in three months. Over the years, compost puts too much potassium and phosphorus in the soil. Our solution to this is to plant tillage radishes which are long white daichon. Over the winter they freeze and form a mat into which we plant in the spring. We also use cover crops such as vetch which contribute nitrogen to the crops planted after the cover crop is turned under. We strive for soil balance thru the use of cover crops, compost, and microbial soil stimulants. We believe that a balanced soil creates a balanced plant so that the food derived from the plant is nutrient dense.

Of course, insects are a problem for organic farmers. We grow corn because our customers want it but beginning in August, the bugs infest the corn and we have to give it up for the rest of the year. The reason that organic farming is harder than conventional farming is there is so much hand labor involved. In any given year we have as much as 75 acres in vegetables and all of it is weeded by hoe at least once a season. The advantage of organic food production is we do not have to worry about what we are eating. I believe much of the sickness we see in society can be remedied by eating a healthy diet of organic fruit and vegetables.

We have a community-supported agriculture (CSA) plan on our farm. That is where a family or organization buys a share for the growing season and receives our produce each week. Our CSA has 1,900 members including five farmers’ markets and ten restaurants. We do not have the members drive to the farm but instead we take it to pick-up points. This is much more fuel-efficient because some of our members are as far as 50 miles away. Each year we have all the members come to our farm for a tour so they know where their food comes from. We also produce value-added products, sell to institutions and sell the remainder wholesale. We are also beginning to supply hospitals. This farm to table movement, exemplified by CSA is becoming transformative for agriculture. Many struggling farmers have moved toward CSAs. When we started our CSA in 1999, there were two in Maryland. Today, there are 50 CSAs in the state.

We do a program called Days of Taste which Julia Childs started. This is an interactive program for fourth and fifth grade students that helps them build a food and nutrition vocabulary. We bring the kids to the farm to see what it looks like and where food comes from. We make value-added products such as ice cream, canned tomatoes, Bloody Mary mix and jelly. We call that “stalling the harvest” because these items can be sold throughout the year. Recently we have begun raising Berkshire pigs and marketing One Straw Farm pork. They are grown on organic pasture and fed non-genetically-modified feed and vegetables. The pigs are fun to watch and provide comic relief on a stressful day in the busy season. At One Straw Farm we love what we do — being involved in agriculture and helping people live better lives by providing a healthier diet.

In an effort to provide wide-ranging views and perspectives regarding the practice of and issues surrounding agriculture, the Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture (PSPA) seeks speakers representing a variety of perspectives. The statements and opinions they present are strictly their own and do not necessarily represent the views of PSPA.