Environment, Organic Policy and Regulations, Social Implications in Agriculture, What is Organic

A Tale of Ten Acres – UNFI’s Agrarian Journey of Soil health

Rain on plantThey say a journey begins with just one single step. UNFI has taken a ten-acre step in Sturtevant , Wisconsin to further a vision for increasing access to fresh local organic food. Our CEO, Steven Spinner, has long held an agrarian dream of preserving farmland near our distribution facilities. This dream grew into a vision in which UNFI would engage the communities where we have facilities not only through employment, but also with access to well-priced organic food. 

The visioning process is powerful; you can create what you believe in.

Steve’s vision of conserving land and creating certified organic parcels near existing distribution centers serves many goals. The ambition is to promote awareness of organic farming practices and preserve farmland for organic production while supporting the development of more organic farmers. The ultimate intention is to create local community CSA’s that nourish UNFI associates and neighbors.

This journey began with ten humble acres surrounded by conventional corn and soy production adjacent to our Sturtevant , Wisconsin distribution center (DC).

As it turns out, Racine has a small parcel of idle land just begging for a chance to grow organic food. The first step was to get a soil assessment in order to understand if the idea would bear fruit. A consulting firm was employed, and the results were promising. The Varna silt loam was graced with deep black topsoil and some fertile organic matter. Phosphorus and micronutrient levels were high. Organic materials, manures, compost and cover crops would need to be applied to supply all the nitrogen and potassium to feed nutrient-hungry vegetables.

The discouraging news was that since the land had been left to its own wanton ways, Canadian thistle and other invasive perennial weeds were now having their way taking over the plot. Canadian thistle is in itself pernicious and tenacious sporting underground rhizomes that flourish and spread with tillage. Mowing controls reseeding, but it will never oust these pesky subterranean neighbors from the land.

What to do?

A recommendation was set forth that Roundup®, yes the probably carcinogen glyphosate, should be applied in quantities sufficient to bombard the weeds into submission. After this suggested warfare, the three-year organic certification process could begin. This prescription came much to everyone’s horror! Since the land had lain fallow for over three years, it could immediately be certified to USDA organic standards. But the Roundup® recommendation would set the project back in a serious untimely manner! And the ultimate reason—spraying glyphosate is against our company’s religion.

Another solution had to be found!

After much ado, another proposal was routed out: Cover the land with an ocean of black plastic and smother the entire thistlian village with heat and lack of oxygen. Now that presented an entirely new dilemma of wasteful and distasteful proportions. Which gauge plastic would do the job? How would these gargantuan ribbons of polyethylene resins get laid down in this windy corner of Wisconsin? When would pieces deteriorate, become unhitched and fly and flap during Midwestern storms? In the end, the entire petroleum-based mess would end up clogging a landfill taking eons to break down.

Wasn’t there a more holistic approach to this organic vision?

As providence would have it, a chance email introduction was made with a Midwest rancher. He helped lead me to an answer: Remediate the soil!

This archangel of information was a fellow named Paul Maggio, a born-again neophyte who had been down this road himself. He helped me to understand that plastic doesn’t address what is really going on which is a basic lack of soil health. He told me, “If you address poor soil health, your weed problems will go away, you will end up with a robust and vigorous environment to work with as you choose.”

So how do you do that?

2015 Year of Soil 2You plant a variety of seeds known as green manure. With a small amount of tillage and a season or two of crop rotations, you can change the environment of the soil. In this slow, calculated way, you build organic matter in the soil, adding minerals from the plant rotation, loosening up the soils with earthworms, roots and fungi, all the while feeding the microbial life that is the building block of healthy soils.

I quote Mr. Maggio: “Organic farmers do this all the time,  they can’t use chemicals and need to use nature’s tools to make these beneficial changes happen in a shorter time than nature does it.”

He soon introduced me to an organic farmer just 20 minutes away from campus. This master of soil sorcery, Altfrid Krusenbaum, is a long time Organic Valley farmer who understands the land and can read soil like a book.

His prescription was much more aligned with the soul of the project. He proposed planting a diverse cover crop of sorghum, sudangrass, buckwheat, alsike, berseem clover, cowpeas, deep till radish and Japanese millet. He even ordered the seedy concoction to be delivered right to our door.

IMG_0569After locating a farmer (no easy task) to do the work on such a small area, the cover was finally planted in June. Now a ten-acre ocean of green manure will sprout and rise tall, waving in the Wisconsin winds through the summer and next winter. Pollinators will possess the blossoms. Associates and neighbors will drive by and relish the ordered chaos of the emerald and olive colored fields.

Most importantly, the cover crops will elegantly suppress weeds, build subterranean organic matter and soil structure, leaving the fields ready to start organic vegetable production as early as next spring!

Our weed issues will disappear by tackling the root (no pun intended) cause, not just the symptom.

The ten-acre step has been taken in harmony with Mother Nature, preserving the biodiversity and fertility of the land.

Stay tuned for more on this agrarian journey next spring.

15 thoughts on “A Tale of Ten Acres – UNFI’s Agrarian Journey of Soil health”

  1. Melody we here in Gilroy we are surrounded with uncultivated land. In fact on the south border of our DC there is a huge plot of land in weedsville. If we ever wanted to take the next bigger step following the Wisconsin example, possibly here is an opportunity. Also, what would be your thoughts on employee organic food gardens at our facilities where space permitted? Thanks again for your very interesting and informed posts.
    Richard Craig
    UNFI, Gilroy

    1. Hi Craig,
      I really love your ideas! Let’s see how we do in Wisconsin and I will circle back with you all in Gilroy this winter!
      Thanks for the comments. Melody

  2. Wow! What a fun post/story!!

    I have this same issue with my vegetable garden hosting weeds galore. Sounds like I need to swap out to some new crops next year to heal the soil! Good to know!

  3. Hi Melody! I just saw this blog post (I believe on LinkedIn). I’m a filmmaker local to the area and would like to connect if UNFI would like promo video shot of the farming area. You can connect with me via LinkedIn. Love to see how UNFI thought through the process of plastics, herbicides, etc. to come up with a NATURAL solution to a pest problem. Take care!

  4. Hi Melody, this is Eddie from Singapore. I want to start my Organic for Charity project…grow organic food to give away. Some to feed myself and family. I just met a young graduate whose parents live on Jeju Island, that beautiful sun-kissed island in the Pacific Ocean, in Korea. It is volcanic, fertile and has many farms. I hope to JV with someone to do something. I am an engineer and will need a farmer.

    Will monitor your blogs and be inspired by what you and your team are doing.

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