Future Farmer Part II: A Grand Enterprise!

October 7, 2020

Dear readers,

Writing this second blog, I am a full month into my internship at GRAND FARM. I have learned a lot about the practical aspects of farming, and put in some hard hours of weeding, too! Before I describe my day to day life here (teaser for the next blog), with this post, I will expand a bit on the insights I have gained about the lighthouse farm itself. Situated in the Donau valley in the north-east of Austria (Nieder-Österreich), GRANDFARM consists of three separate components, cleverly feeding into each other at a system level.

Alfred Grand, demonstrating soil quality.

The first component is the actual farm, with 90 ha of arable land, varying from silty to sandy loam on a pebble bedding. After taking over the farm from his father in 2000, Alfred had serious doubts about the environmental, social and economic sustainability of conventional management practices. Coupled with a crash in the sugar beet price that year, this provided the necessary incentive for a swift transition to organic farming. From that moment on there has always been a strong focus on the soil. The farm carefully manages practices such as crop rotations, green manures and no-tillage in order to achieve an optimum balance between yield and soil health. As an aspiring ‘research-farmer’, I am impressed to see the multitude of on-farm research collaborations, ranging from arable no-till methods, the use of biochar in composting, the effect of wind hedges on yield, and even bat monitoring!

Vermicompost in GRAND FARM

The second element of the system  is earthworm composting (vermiculture), which may be a trendy theme now in the field of circularity,  but Alfred actually started with this idea in 1999!! I thought I knew all about earthworms and composting because at the Student Farm in Wageningen, in our miniature set-up, we feed food rests directly to the worms to create compost. It surprised me, however, to learn that the GRAND worms do not actually create the compost, but upgrade it.

Thermophilic compost is added at the top of a basin containing epigeic earthworms. These worms eat the compost and then poop out a compost with an even higher nutrient availability. The basin has a fine, wire mesh floor and periodically the worm-processed compost is scraped (harvested) off the bottom of this mesh for an average yearly yield of 500 m3 of high quality vermicompost! Fun fact: if it gets uncomfortable in the basin, or the feed is not to the worms liking, they actually will climb out and set off in search of better soils!!

After experiencing the difficulties of having fresh produce from my own vegetable garden during the late winter and early spring, it has been very fascinating to learn about the third component of the enterprise, GRAND GARTEN. Alfred and his team (worms included) grow 60 different varieties on 1.2 ha. The challenge is to profitably supply 150 subscribers with vegetables throughout the year. The winter vegetables, such as cabbages, onions, leeks and spinach, are growing as I write this blog, so I’ve picked up on some clever tricks: for example, planting swiss chard in October, allows the plants to go dormant during the winter, so as the days begin to lengthen they start to grow again, providing harvestable leaves as early as March.

As a supporter of system-thinking, it is inspiring to discover the synergies between these components: The nitrogen fixer alfalfa (Medicago sativa) is grown on the arable land and used to bring down the Carbon/Nitrogen (C/N) ratio in the compost before it is fed to the worms; the market garden uses the pre-worm compost on the vegetable beds, while the higher quality vermicompost creates the right microbiome for the seedlings to flourish; and then closing this circle, the organic material of damaged market garden plants is returned to the composting process, while carefully monitoring temperatures to ensure that all spores and disease carriers are terminated.

Pretty Grand huh?

Howard, seeding in the fresh vermicompost.

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