NOXEN TWP. — Organic farming is all about soil fertility, according to Deb Shoval, Fertile Grounds owner.
“You are trying to build the fertility of the soil with the idea being that healthy soil creates healthy plants,” explained Shoval, of Harveys Lake.
When she was 19 years old, Shoval worked on an organic farm in Maine and then earned a bachelor’s degree in Sustainable Agriculture from Hampshire College, Amherst, Massachusetts. It was those experiences, she said, that prepared her to run Fertile Grounds.
“They (at the farm in Maine) actually farmed with horses there and not tractors, so they taught us about making compost, growing seeds in the greenhouse and transplanting,” she said. “They were also certified organic.”
Only a stone’s throw from Bowman’s Creek in Noxen Township, Wyoming County, Shoval transplanted her knowledge of organic farming into a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) business.
She currently leases two fields that total 37 acres of farmland where she provides members in Luzerne, Lackawanna and Wyoming counties with a box of produce each week.
“The way our CSA works is that people become members of our farm and then every week we harvest, pack and wash six to eight crops for them. We offer several pickup locations and payment plans in an effort to make organic produce available to people of many locations and many incomes,” she said. An abundance of greens, peppers and tomatoes are among the 45 varieties of vegetables grown at Fertile Grounds.
“It’s almost all vegetables and occasionally they’ll receive rhubarb or strawberries,” Shoval said.
Drop off locations are The Lands at Hillside Farms in Shavertown, the YMCA in downtown Wilkes-Barre, VIVE Health & Fitness in Kingston, Zummo’s Cafe in Scranton and Jaya Yoga in Clarks Summit. Pickups may be made from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. on Fridays through Oct. 30.
Jaya Yoga owner Hilary Steinberg is a Fertile Grounds CSA member and offered her yoga studio as a distribution point.
“Using Jaya as a pickup location made sense because yoga encourages a healthy mind, body and spirit and Fertile Grounds speaks directly to a healthy body. Yoga doesn’t just happen on your mat; it goes with you into your life. Supporting your community and promoting local organic farmers falls under that umbrella,” she said.
The farm is certified by Midwest Organic Services Association (MOSA) and knowledge of the history of the land is part of the process of becoming certified organic. Shoval said the land that’s home to Fertile Grounds’ crops was a hay field for 25 years.
“Chemically speaking,” Shoval said, “we know that nothing was being used.”
When people hear organic, they talk about what an organic farmer is not doing.
“It’s true. We are not using pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers, but it’s really about what we are doing,” said Shoval.
To promote soil fertility, Fertile Grounds uses practices including cover cropping, meaning that oats, clover and rye grow between beds of produce.
“We don’t harvest the oats or clover. We grow them as cover crops, meaning we turn them (the oats and clover) into the soil, which adds organic matter. This organic attracts worms to the surface, and they end up aerating the soil for us,” Shoval said. “We also practice crop rotation. We try not to plant the same crop in the same place more than one year in a row. The idea is to stay ahead of the pests. Also, if there is disease residue left from one plant family, it likely won’t affect another.”
Mulching with hay or leaves also helps to add organic matter, deter weeds, regulate soil temperatures and maintain a level of moisture.
“The mulch breaks down and becomes soil. Mulch is pretty magical,” she added.
Head farmer Amy Butler, harvest manager Debbie Steltz, greenhouse manager Belle Boice and other seasonal workers assist Shoval to prepare boxes for more than 200 members weekly.
“I enjoy coming to work every day. I like working with the plants and I especially like working with the seedlings. Seeing and developing the seeds is exciting,” Boice said of her work on the farm.
While farming is intensely hard work, Shoval said she enjoys the act of helping the community. “All in all, I think all of us who are involved feel like we are giving more to the community and the land than we are taking away. When you get to this time of year when things are finally growing, it also a sigh of relief,” she said.