Fridays on the Farm: Healthy land, happy frogs
Meet John Bitter and Amy Van Scoik, first-generation farmers in Hawthorne, Fla., who practice organic, small-scale, sustainable growing practices and sell directly to their customers. John and Amy both attended the University of Florida College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, where they shared a dream of growing food and making it their livelihood.
The couple founded Frog Song Organics on six acres in 2011. Family, friends, and neighbors helped by trading work for food. Today they grow over 80 varieties of fruits, vegetables, and herbs on 60-plus acres and offer pasture-raised pork and eggs from free-range chickens.
Frog Song Organics supplied four farmers markets, local restaurants, and grocers, as well as over 100 Community Supported Agriculture group members, before the coronavirus pandemic. When Alachua County stay-at-home orders closed farmers markets and restaurants in March, Frog Song started selling directly to customers through pickup and delivery.
“We shape our business to reflect our values,” said Amy. “It’s why we named the farm after an indicator species. If you have a lot of happy frogs, it’s a sign you are taking good care of the land.”
The farm is aptly named. In the summer, after it rains, the sound of the frogs is deafening.
Improving land and crop quality
John and Amy first invested in soil health by planting cover crops, adding organic matter, and tilling it back into the soil. They also practice rotational grazing.
Rows of blossoming peach trees alternate with rows of vegetables, forming terraces up and down small hills that prevent erosion. Thick mats of Spanish needle hug the tree trunks and attract honeybees, wasps and ladybugs that pollinate the crops and kill pests. Strawberry plants nestle in straw mulch instead of plastic to keep weeds down, protect the berries from sand, reduce fungus, and improve soil quality as it decomposes.
John begins workdays with 7:30 a.m. staff meetings to go over the day’s goals. Everyone keeps hourly records on phones and tablets on everything they do. Notes are taken about plant conditions and spot or disease appearance.
Workers swiftly move up and down rows harvesting carrots, radishes, or turnips and artfully arrange them into small, attractive bundles. In an adjacent field, hundreds of tiny, red-topped lettuce seedlings form long rows that snake behind the men planting them one-by-one by hand. Lettuces and greens are picked and meticulously trimmed and later thoroughly washed in large bins.
“We adapt all our farming practices to maintain and improve the soil quality,” said John. “This is done with cover crops for biomass, weed control, erosion control, disease control, applications of manure, pelleted manure, terracing, drainage, and irrigation methods. Potatoes and other crops respond positively to applications of compost and other semi-soluble forms of carbon, so we also add carbon to the soil on a regular basis, annually at the very least.”
Working with USDA
John and Amy found financing to buy additional land through Beginning Farmer and Rancher Loans from USDA’s Farm Service Agency. From additional land and equipment to operating costs, USDA offers a variety of loan options to support America’s next generation of farmers and ranchers.
The couple also installed two high tunnels with assistance from USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. High tunnels protect plants from severe weather and allow farmers to extend growing seasons growing earlier in the spring, growing later into the fall, and sometimes, year-round.
“The shade cloths have extended growing into the hot season and the plastic has protected crops during heavy storms,” said Amy
John and Amy worked with NRCS to add an irrigation reservoir and grassed waterway, while also receiving technical assistance to manage nutrients and pests, and plant cover crops.
NRCS District Conservationist Monica Jones began working with the couple in 2013.
“I believe in what they are doing. I’ve seen how much they care about providing the best produce that is chemical free,” she said. “Their record keeping is phenomenal. It is just amazing to see the work John and Amy put into their farm.”
Each Friday visit local farms, ranches, forests, and resource areas through our #FridaysOnTheFarm stories. Meet farmers, producers, and landowners who are working to improve their operations with USDA programs.
USDA offers a variety of risk management, disaster assistance, loan, and conservation programs to help agricultural producers in the United States weather ups and downs in the market and recover from natural disasters as well as invest in improvements to their operations.
Renee Bodine is the public affairs specialist for NRCS in Florida.