Farm To Table

Starting a Farm – Oak Hill Cafe, Farm To Table

Starting a Farm - Oak Hill Cafe, Farm To Table   thumbnail

We’ve been doing intensive small-scale permaculture on our half acre yard for about 8 years now. We’ve learned a ton about plants, soil ecology, and insects over that period of time.

We’ve tried our best to share interesting things we’ve learned along the way via this blog and also through our seed company, GrowJourney.

Well, we’re about to stretch our brains and learn a whole lot more – and we’ll be sharing what we learn with you along the way. Whether you’re a serious gardener or someone interested in starting a non-traditional farm, we hope the information we share will be helpful.

Starting a No-Till Farm

We’ve written quite a bit about the many benefits of no-till organic farming, and we feel like our message will have a broader reach if we demonstrate those approaches on an actual farm. As Buckminster Fuller said, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

So with the help of our friend Chris Miller from That Garden Guy, we’re starting a farm. This won’t be just any old farm, mind you. There won’t be tractors. There won’t be synthetic pesticides. No synthetic fertilizers either. The diversity of plants and mushrooms grown will be off the charts. And the farm will be right out the back door of a new restaurant owned by a brilliant Furman University chemist (Lori Nelsen) and run by a truly world-class chef, David Porras. This setup will provide a uniquely “farm to table” experience for patrons.

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Our friend and farming comrade, Chris Miller. If you want an amazing garden or microfarm in the Greenville area, Chris is the guy you need to talk with.

Our friend and farming comrade, Chris Miller. If you want an amazing garden or microfarm in the Greenville area, Chris is the guy you need to talk with.

As soon as the restaurant opens, the food we grow at the farm will be utilized in the restaurant’s kitchen (hopefully late summer-early fall of 2018). In the meantime, we’ll be getting the farm up and running: building the soil, establishing permanent raised beds, putting in annual and perennial food crops… and fending off voracious groundhogs.

Let: First few rows planted with Napa cabbges, kohlrabi, and kale. Right: A few days later, this shows the same rows after the groundhogs had discovered their new salad bar.

Let: First few rows planted with Napa cabbges, kohlrabi, and kale. Right: A few days later, this shows the same rows after the groundhogs had discovered their new salad bar.

We planted three quick test plots a few weeks back, and the resident groundhogs quickly ravaged them. Welcome to farming! Since there’s no way to coexist, we’ve started trapping the critters, then relocating them to a rural kudzu patch a few miles away.

Yes, you're an adorable little groundhog, but you ate all of our plants in two days. We have a nice kudzu patch with your name on it.

Yes, you’re an adorable little groundhog, but you ate all of our plants in two days. We have a nice kudzu patch with your name on it.

How are we going to transform an open field of grass and weeds growing on compacted red clay soil into a no-till farm without using a tractor? With biology.

We’re putting a thick layer of leaves down on top of the grass. This will serve two primary functions: 1) block sunlight to the plants underneath thus killing them, and 2) decompose into soil while creating habitat for worms and other beneficial soil organisms.

On top of the leaves we’re installing permanent raised beds (50′ long by 36″ wide) using composted leaves (aka “leaf mold”). Leaves and wood chips will be used to fill in the small paths between rows. We’re not sure if this has ever been done before, which either makes us very smart of very stupid. Time will tell.

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Oak Hill Cafe - Farm to Table. 1. Piles of leaf mold/compost that will be put into rows on top of a layer of leaves. 2. Trees had to be removed to widen the single car driveway, so we're turning the logs into a mushroom farm and using the wood chips for walking paths which will also be inoculated with edible mushrooms 3. First rows going in - hard work! 4. Plenty of room to expand throughout the spring and summer. It will be neat to see what this place looks like in a couple of years. We'll also have "before" soil samples that we can use to see what kind of impact our activities have on soil organic matter and soil carbon.

1. Piles of leaf mold/compost that will be put into rows on top of a layer of leaves. 2. Trees had to be removed to widen the single car driveway, so we’re turning the logs into a mushroom farm and using the wood chips for walking paths which will also be inoculated with edible mushrooms 3. First rows going in – hard work! 4. Plenty of room to expand throughout the spring and summer. It will be neat to see what this place looks like in a couple of years. We’ll also have “before” soil samples that we can use to see what kind of impact our activities have on soil organic matter and soil carbon.

The only risk we can foresee is that the carbon-rich leaves might temporarily lock up a high amount of nitrogen from the compost, but it’s a risk we’re willing to take in the long-run.

All of the leaf materials we’re using would otherwise go into a municipal landfill, so it’s nice using it to grow hyper-local food instead of treating it like garbage.

In addition to starting with a field of poor soil and weeds plus sharing the space with groundhogs, we currently have no irrigation until the restaurant construction starts. Yes, that’s a very big problem for a farmer.

What to do? This is where relationships help. The restaurant’s next door neighbor is Ken’s Plumbing. It just so happens that Ken is a super nice guy who I’ve been friends with for about a decade (he’s especially fond of The Tyrant). He’s going to let us rent his irrigation tap, which costs less than a standard city tap because there are no water reclamation costs.

We’re also going to be putting in a veggie garden on his property for him and his employees to enjoy. Maybe we’ll even convert his land into farmland once we get our farm humming along!

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There’s a ton of hard work ahead. Some of the things we do won’t work. Some of the things we grow will fail. Bring it on. No matter what setbacks come up, we’re confident that we can learn and keep growing. And we can’t wait to help bring Greenville’s restaurant scene to the next level, allowing people to take a few steps from the dinner table to see where their food came from and why it tastes so dang good.

Stay tuned for more news from The Farm at Oak Hill Cafe!

KIGI,

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  • Douglas R

    Very interested in keeping tabs on this project. Moving to Greenville at the end of the year and will have to deal with all that red clay. Looking forward to the restaurant though. Keep us in the loop!

    • https://www.growjourney.com Aaron von Frank

      Welcome (almost) to Greenville, Douglas! We started with red clay in our garden and after years of top-dressing with compost and mulching using no-till methods, the soil in our beds is rich, black, and filled with worms and other good soil critters. The fastest and easiest thing to do is just bring in some good compost to jumpstart the whole process.