Client Spotlight: Bell’s Farm
Meet Kyle Flack
Meet Kyle Flack of Bell’s Farm! We were able to borrow a few minutes of his time to highlight his (and his family’s) years of hard work. Bell’s Farm is a testing and product client of ours – but they are so much more than that! They have made that transition from conventional inputs to biological amendments and practices, and they have a story that will move you. For one thing, they were able to reduce their input costs by at least $15k a year when they transitioned to biological amendments!
We definitely recommend giving these folks a follow on Instagram, checking out their website, and in case you’re ever in the Whidbey Island Area in June… stopping by for some fresh strawberries! 🍓🍓🍓
The Fruits of Their Labor
$15,000 per year
Read the full interview here:
When did you start the farm?
The farm was originally started in 1946 by my wife’s family, and then my wife and I stepped in and took over in 2016. Bells farm is currently growing 6.5 acres of strawberries – our staple crop. We have been growing strawberries since 1948!
Which kinds of crops/livestock do you have?
While the strawberries are our primary crop, we also grow 4 acres of garlic, squash, potatoes, sweet corn, and have a 2 acre market garden. In the past, we’ve also been a commercial grain production farm, and sold commercial eggs, where the farm was home to 10,000 chickens!
We recognized the need to be diversified – especially from a soil health standpoint – so we began focusing on a holistic, biological approach where we raise cattle, sheep, and pigs to help care for the soil long-term, and take all aspects of the farm into consideration when making management decisions. We are now up to about 125 sheep, 35 head of cattle, and about 65 market hogs per year.
What are some interesting facts about strawberries that we may not know?
Generally, people don’t know that strawberries are primarily wind pollinated. Many small fruit producers utilize contract bee-boxes, but we really focus on the natural way strawberries grow (wind pollination) so they can grow the absolute best fruit.
How do you manage your farm? Any insider tips for us?
Holistically! Context is incredibly important to what we do. The context being: what we are trying to achieve, what our fertility levels are, what our animals need, the weather. We try to make all of our decisions from a high level of focus, and use that knowledge in our decision making process. We have also just purchased 130 neighboring acres with plans to replicate the current system.
We have international and national readers who grow many different things, and may not be familiar with your area. What is the soil like where you are? What thrives?
We are in a maritime temperate climate, technically USDA Zone 8b, which is in the same growing zone as Houston, Texas – but with flipped seasons. Here we have well over 200 frost-free days, with only a few snowy days. In the summer, it is rare to get over 80 degrees.
On the islands, we have a “Glacial till” soil type, which is a rocky, clay loam. (For our curious readers at home, Glacial Till is an unsorted mix of silt, clay, gravel, sand and boulders created by erosion caused by the movement of glaciers. Cool!) Fertility is not generally an issue here, but the soil type tends to be easily compacted, and dry out later in the season when we have more heat. This is a great grass growing place – perennials do well! Our hay fields will be grazed 3-4 times/year before being able to get 2-3 cuttings for feed.
What was the transition from conventional practices to using biologicals like for you?
When we took over, we went cold turkey fully organic. It was terrible. This is probably not the smartest way to do it – basically, we were pumping it with synthetics, and then we just… stopped. We didn’t have a berry crop for about 2 years. At that point, we didn’t yet have the experience to know that there should’ve been a transition period.
Our first inclination was to simply swap inputs to use certified organic products, and farm conventionally, using those organic products. We didn’t realize this would just increase our costs 5x, and really, it wouldn’t be in our best interest for long term crop care because there were other factors we needed to keep in mind while we were transitioning to protect our crops, and play the long-game.
Do you have any advice you’d share with someone who was just beginning their biological journey away from conventional practices/expensive fertilizers/herbicide products?
Work with a company like Earthfort if possible, to slowly transition away from conventional methods. I wish I would’ve found a soil consultant like them earlier on – instead of pulling the rug out from under myself how I did.
When you have a biological system as your goal, I think the animal impact on your farm is a game-changer. This will significantly reduce your input costs. If you have animals (which of course, requires thoughtful and intensive animal management) I’ve found that you can significantly reduce (or entirely remove!) your herbicide inputs. We don’t use any herbicides or pesticides at all anymore. Using natural fertility sources, like manure, I have almost no noxious weeds on this farm. I credit this to the grazing practices and thoughtful crop rotation – So, as soon as the harvest is done, I put animals on it.
We also tested our soils throughout the transition, NPK, organic matter, pH, and nutrient levels, as well as biological testing. Having more information is really just giving yourself knowledge to make your decisions easy.
What would you say is your biggest success on the farm?
Besides my family, honestly… our biggest success is the connection we’ve fostered with our community. Of course, I’m proud of what we’ve done on the farm with our practices, amendments, animals, etc., but the connection with our local people is really what we’ve worked to re-establish and build on for the future.
What are you most proud of?
I’m really proud that we’re a profitable farm. A big reason for that is that we’ve tried to take input streams (in a conventional system, this would be a cost) and recycled them somewhere else in our system.
In terms of holistic management, it requires that we incorporate everything – including business management. We still have a good way to go, but I’m really proud of what we’ve built thus far.
What have been some of your challenges along the way?
Aside from the input-based farm changes, it’s tempting to just buy a product – because it’s simple. It’s been a big challenge trying to figure out how to help reduce the inputs – to change the soil management and raise crops and incorporate animals. Management challenges – we try to take it one at a time, we’ve retrofitted a lot of old machinery to be mobile water tanks.
You have to be adaptable to circumstances in your situation. You have to figure out what works for you specifically, using your resources and tools.
How has Earthfort helped your farm? Do you use any Earthfort products?
Yes! Testing and amendments. You’ve given me a more complete picture of what is happening in my soil – of course, chemical testing is important and helpful too, but the biological perspective has really helped me tune in to my management decisions.
We use both Soil ProVide and Soil ReVive. As strawberries are a row-crop still for now, and as it’s a really heavy feeding crop, there won’t be much change in this practice for a while. The berries last 5 years and then we pull them all out, so it’s really important that we manage our inputs wisely so as to get the most of those 5 years, but without damaging the soils, so we can continue to grow other crops.
Our input costs have been reduced by at least $15,000k a year since we transitioned to biological amendments. We spend less than $5000 a year now, and get the same, or a better, yield. These products have been very helpful to cut down my input costs.
Are there any practices you’ve changed (because of Earthfort or otherwise) in the last 10-15 years that made a large impact on your success?
Yes. Go regenerative! (See above.)
Anything to add?
Everything that is new seems strange to people, so a lot of people that are considering going down the regenerative path or are looking at holistic management, they maybe have not yet bought into it. It’s just how our society sees new things. The results speak for themselves. Trying to find people that did this transition, to verify for yourself that it’s possible, and have those important conversations learning how and why they did it is crucial.
Especially with fertilizer prices going way up – considering change is necessary. This holistic system creates resiliency in your soils, so that you can continue operating, with a functional soil, in the face of the incoming, variable challenges.
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If You Can Measure It, You Can Manage It
This two day Biologically-Based Soil Management Workshop is a cost effective option designed for businesses, schools and other organizations who would like to train groups of 10 people or more. An Earthfort instructor will come to your location and provide an in-depth overview of soil biology, testing, and remediation. Your team will learn about the interrelationships between soil biology and soil nutrient chemistry, so you can better manage the soil system, improving your crops and soil remediation practices.
In this workshop, you will explore the physical, chemical, and biological processes of the soil. Your own soil’s history, chemistry and biological makeup has unique management implications. We’ll give you the tools that work with your system rather than against it, saving you time and money. You are encouraged to send in a soil sample to our laboratory to have the soil biology and chemistry tested prior to the workshop so we can take a more in-depth look at a soil biology report. This will help us customize the lecture to better reach your goals and needs. Click here for an example of topics we offer you!
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