In this interview, Kayleigh Heather, senior at Virginia Tech and Intern with the Coalition and 4 The Soil Awareness Initiative, spoke with Jim Hankins, Executive Director of the Fauquier Education Farm, a 501(c)(3) and working farm that "exists to advance agriculture and agriculture-related education through best-method demonstrations, classroom instruction, on-farm workshops, and hands-on learning." Read more about the Fauquier Education Farm at their website.
Photo provided by Jim Hankins.
KH: How did the Fauquier Education Farm get started?
JH: The Education Farm was started in 2010. Jim Hilleary, who is now the extension agent in Loudon County and is a Fauquier County resident was thinking of starting an educational farm on his own property in Fauquier County and came into the Fauquier Extension office to meet with Tim Mize, the county agent in Fauquier, and Tim said, "Let's think bigger." The county had some land that was available and they started a new non-profit.
KH: Do you still work closely with the extension office?
JH: I literally have an office at the extension office. We work very closely not only with extension in Fauquier County, but across the state.
KH: How did you find your way into agriculture?
JH: Often when I am asked this question, I will say that I am the youngest of four brothers and I have one younger sister. One of the ways our parents kept us fed was through big gardens. It’s a long, convoluted story- a lot of it has to do with my brother Andy Hankins who was a state specialist in alternative agriculture for Virginia State University. Back in 2006, he came to visit me in Loudoun County where I was living at the time. He was starting to work with a couple of new cut flower growers in Loudoun County and told me at the time that I should look into cut flowers and that I could make a little bit of money. He came up and saw that I had a great big garden where I was just giving stuff away all of the time. That really got my start in commercial agriculture. I often say that cut flowers are the gateway drug to commercial agriculture.
At that time, I was a custom furniture maker. In 2007 and 2008, it was a really hard time to be a self-employed artist. At that same time, good friends of mine were buying an orchard in Western Massachusetts. I kept on telling them all of my great ideas: “Oh you should diversify, you should grow cut flowers, you should have vegetables, you should do farmer’s markets, and you should have an on-farm farm stand” and when they had a party to celebrate closing the deal, my friend Elaine said, “It would be so great if you could come up and help us get started.” The truth was that saved me in a lot of ways. I have been a farmer ever since.
KH: What does soil health mean to you? Why do you find it important?
JH: Soil health just makes good common sense. I am a really avid outdoorsman; I love to fish and I am outside a lot. That environmental consciousness of the former dependency on chemical fertilizer and tillage just isn't a sustainable model. Now they both work, I use fertilizer and I use tillage. But reducing tillage and reducing fertilizer is a good thing. As I experimented, I spoke several different times about being a very lazy farmer. I want to do things the easiest way possible. You don’t get extra credit for doing things the hardest way possible. I used to go up and down, between rows of vegetables with a rototiller to control weeds. I have found that the no-till practices are actually a lot easier. Instead of working hard at a system that does not work well, let’s work harder at a system that does work well.
KH: What soil health indicators or results have you seen in your operation since implementing soil health practices?
JH: In 2019, we donated 50,250 pounds of produce. This year we donated 111,000 pounds. A deer fence had a significant part in that, but we have seen a steady increase in yield since I have started at the Education Farm in 2014. Even my volunteers who are not farmers can visibly see a difference in the soil. We are in the Northern Piedmont area, so it is heavy red clay that is very rocky. When I till, I am not getting the heavy clods of dirt, the soil is breaking up very nicely. I have significantly changed the tilth of the soil. The reduction in labor, for what I am primarily doing is, rolling down cover crops with a roller-crimper and covering them with reusable plastic landscape fabric. That reduces my weeding by about 90%. Any time I am reducing weeding by 90%, I have done something good. In those years when I am using those no-till practices and I have regularly tested the soil, I am not adding anything to the soil and I do not need to. I often say that I am inordinately fond of large vegetables. I want it to look really impressive on Facebook. If you go to our Facebook page and look at our photos you can see big, impressive, piles of produce.
KH: How did your operation start teaching classes and mentoring other farmers?
JH: That was the intention from the very start. That was why the non-profit was started. Jim Hilleary wanted to establish credentials for himself, and the extension office wanted to have a demonstration farm. Having a place where people cannot just read about or hear about agricultural practices but can see them in place- it just is so much more effective. That was the original core mission of the farm.
KH: What encouraged your operation to take the first step to implement soil health practices? What advice or words of encouragement to other farmers wanting to take that first step?
A really significant first step was the grant that Eric Bendfeldt and Chris Lawrence got a few years ago. Even before I was hired, in 2012 or 13, the grant started, so the Education Farm signed on for doing demonstrations. Within the first week of me being hired in 2014, Tim Mize gave me 200 pounds of spring oats and field peas and said “Hey we want you to do a cover crop demonstration”. I came back pretty quickly and said I wanted another 400 pounds. Let’s not just do the cover crops, let's try planting no-till into it.
As far as words of encouragement, it’s worth saying that a lot of my early efforts didn’t work well. Give yourself permission to try different things and fail, then keep trying. Find something that works for you. I really really love a lot of the literature, but yet I find that in practice what I am doing and some of the th2ings that I am reading about in books, some things like terminating the cover crop, are more difficult than they might seem when reading about it. If you don’t terminate the cover crop the right way, it won’t work well for you. Give yourself permission to play, give yourself permission to do things like taking advantage of what’s being offered by this grant. We live in a beautiful, beautiful time when there are a lot of farmers who are willing to share their information. It’s pretty easy to get onto other people’s farms, if nothing else you can come to the Fauquier Education Farm to see how we are doing it in practice and try it. I am a lazy farmer, I want it to be the easiest way possible. You don’t get extra credit for doing it the hardest way possible.
KH: Do you have any recommended resources or organizations for other farmers?
JH: Managing Cover Crops Profitably and Building Soils for Better Crops are both available for free as pdf’s from SARE, Sustainable Agriculture Research, and Education. Almost anything from the ATTRA website for anybody interested in organic farming. In full disclosure, we are not an organic farm, but an awful lot of those practices work so well that I use them. Extension, getting on other people’s farms, and stuff like 4 The Soil. The information is out there! Once you find one video on a YouTube Channel, you can find 200 of them. So you are going to find something that fits well for you….There is a lot of information out there.