Alternative Farming is Up the Creek
As the sustainability of traditional agriculture and the mass
production of genetically modified foods fall under rising scrutiny and skepticism, a new way of
growing is taking root at the Up the Creek Farm in Creston.
By experimenting with alternative agriculture, the small, Ashe County farm is showcasing emerging forms of cultivating vegetables and raising livestock that has, so far, raised a few eyebrows in a hamlet long enamored with the old way of doing things.
Joe Boccardy, who runs the day-to-day operations of the farm, said Up the Creek is a glimpse of what agriculture could look like in America, where commercial farming’s reputation has taken a hard hit with health experts questioning the long-term effects of genetically modified foods.
Perhaps the farm’s proudest endeavor is a sophisticated aquaponic system that combines conventional agriculture with aquatic animals, in this case tilapia.
In this system, excretions from the fish are broken down by nitrogen-fixing bacteria into nitrates and then used as the leafy greens for nutrients, Boccardy explained.
No soil is used by the system, which re-circulates the water back through.
In two nearby trays, Boccardy has fashioned burlap sacks to capture the nutrients from the aquaponic system as the soil structure for pea tendrils that are used as tender garnishes at upscale restaurants.
While Boccardy admits the farm’s aquaponic setup is small scale and more closely resembles a hobbyist system, he is confident it could be replicated for commercially sized systems that could help feed large municipalities.
“This is alternative agriculture,” Boccardy said as he inspected the system to make sure water levels were balanced. “Agriculture and growing has to change. This is just a model, but it could be built in a warehouse.”
Systems like Boccardy’s could give new meaning to the “grow local” movement if managed correctly.
“Our food network (in America) has become so big because we are shipping so much,” Boccardy said. “It might be organic, but we are still shipping it thousands of miles. I’m interested in people thinking outside the box.”
Up the Creek is more than just veggies, as Boccardy also pointed to the farm’s chicken tractor in the lower meadow.
A chicken tractor is a movable chicken coop that sits on skis and allows the birds to concentrate on one specific square of grazing land where they decimate the vegetation and insects before moving to fresh grass.
A similar grazing practice has been set up for the farm’s gobblers, which prefer the higher grasses.
“The turkeys are foragers,” Boccardy said. “They like the tall stuff and to get in there and trample and look around.”
Adding to the versatility of the farm’s services, as well as its own example of self-reliance, Up the Creek has also worked in a mobile chicken-processing unit so the farm can raise and harvest the birds from start to finish. All of the chickens are then frozen and sold on site. Boccardy hopes to soon take the unit on the road to serve other local growers.
On the ridge overlooking the farm, Boccardy is raising his first herd of Scottish Highland cattle, debunking the locally conceived myth that Black Angus is the only way to go in the High Country.
“I’m convinced this is all anyone should grow up here,” Boccardy said. “They are very hearty and will eat things a typical Angus would not eat.”
Their long and stringy coats make the cattle a suitable breed for harsh High Country winters, he said.
As Boccardy points out, it is not one single method of alternative agriculture that will help alleviate food concerns as populations swell. It is a myriad of techniques and willingness to be innovative that will change growing and harvesting for the better.
“Food has become more important than ever before, because food security is becoming such a big deal,” Boccardy said. “People care about what they eat.”
Up the Creek Farm is located at 19201-B N.C. 88 West in Creston. For more information, call (828) 773-2589.