By Christine E. Black, contributor
“Soil is meant to be covered,” reads the stitching on Rockingham County farmer Mike Phillips’ hat.
Along with his wife, Susan, Phillips owns Valley View Farm, where they raise cattle, sheep, goats, and pigs and pay special mind to soil heath through the use of cover crops, rotational grazing, and no-till planting techniques. For four years, the farm has partnered with Rockingham County Public Schools (RCPS) and Massanutten Technical Center’s (MTC) Agriculture Program. The growing program currently enrolls 26 students in the 10th through 12th grades from RCPS, Eastern Mennonite School, Harrisonburg City Schools as well as homeschooled students. The farm has been in Phillips’ family for well over a century.
“Agriculture is a huge part of education here,” said Eric L. Fitzgerald, director of career and technical education for RCPS. “Rockingham County is number 1 in agriculture in the state. The Phillips’ progressive farming techniques offer good lessons for students.”
The county chose Valley View Farm because the Phillips use innovative practices – in some cases, reviving techniques widely used prior to World War II – that promote better soil, cleaner water, healthier livestock, and ultimately, healthier food for consumers.
“Remember the smell of a plowed field?” said Phillips, who has farmed in this area since the late ’70s and seen many farmers using traditional plowing practices and continuously grazing animals in open pastures. “I miss that smell, but I don’t, because I know I am losing something. Plowed soil is more open for erosion.”
Invoking the idea of Mother Earth, Phillips points out, “You wouldn’t want to throw your mother out naked, would you? Well, you wouldn’t want to do that to the soil.”
That’s because, he continued, an enormous number of microorganisms are found in every teaspoon of healthy soil that’s protected by growing plants. They are essential to soil health, which is why winter cover crops and no-till farming (where seeds are planted without ever plowing the soil) are major points of emphasis at Valley View Farm.
“With bare ground, bacteria are going to either retreat or die,” said Phillips, who also works as a Soil Conservation Technician with the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).
Phillips also practices rotational grazing, moving animals to different sections of pasture to allow the ground to rest, and the forage crops’ roots to deepen and feed the soil. It also spreads as much manure – which he calls “black gold” – as possible across the fields.
“What dies makes life,” Phillips said. “The old timers knew this, and I am just trying to replicate what they did.”
By opening the farm to local students, Phillips hopes to help these techniques become more widespread. The MTC Agriculture Production Class, for example, prepares students to become farmers and farm managers who someday may employ the practices they’re studying at Valley View Farm.
At the farm, these students’ tasks include building fences, feeding and watering livestock, installing and moving gates, and vaccinating animals. Students also help plan rotational grazing systems, and raise cattle that is then processed and sold at MTC as Massanutten Valley Meats. Students also study marketing, farm management, and farm sales.
Twins Grace and Peyton Fravel, seniors at Broadway High School, said they like the hands-on work and like being outside instead of exclusively in the classroom.
“The kids will stay well beyond class time,” said Fitzgerald, the RCPS technical education director. “They even come in on the weekends to take care of the animals.”
Phillips says he is grateful for the chance to teach and influence students. He remembers a father with tears in his eyes, describing his daughter’s 180-degree turn once she became deeply involved in Future Farmers of America and found her passion in agriculture. MTC Agriculture Production Teacher Eric Stogdale tells a similar story of a student now attending college because of the class. She is pursuing an environmental science degree and wants to work for the NRCS in soil conservation.
“She now owns her own herd of goats, and she and her mother bought a 25-acre farm,” Stogdale said.
Phillips said his farming practices harken back to traditional methods, many of them largely forgotten or neglected in the decades since World War II. After the war, surplus ammonia nitrate for munitions production was used by farmers as cheap fertilizer. While useful at the time, the long-term effect has been bad for soil, animal, and plant health, said Phillips, whose goal is to farm without any chemicals.
Earlier in his career, his own mentors encouraged him to follow his perceptions, instincts and his heart, regardless of what the majority of his peers were doing – something Phillips now emphasizes in his lessons.
“When people laugh at you, you’re on the right path,” he said. “It’s when they pat you on the back that you may need to start worrying.”
In addition to the MTC program, Valley View Farm is also being used for education for students from elementary to graduate school.
“If a 2nd grade teacher wants to take her class to the farm to learn about pepper production, for instance, she can,” Fitzgerald said.
On the first day of school last year, he added, USDA agents from 16 countries visited Valley View Farm to learn about agribusiness, soil science, and agriculture management. Later, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation held its annual educator in-service at Valley View Farm.
“The students in our ag program taught them how to work with cattle,” Fitzgerald said.
Susan Phillips said that it is important for new farmers to employ regenerative practices piece by piece and project by project, and that there will be challenges and setbacks, but farmers can learn as they go, as she and her husband have. They continue to have the vision to see what can happen next. They strive to teach the benefits of soil health, adding that a good healthy farm also supports wildlife. With wide-reaching education programs, more people are seeing the financial benefits of regenerative and sustainable agricultural practices. “It’s all about balance,” Mike Phillips said.
“The biggest hurdle is getting people to see the benefits of farming this way,” he continued. “The key is making things better in the soil, then everything will fall into place.”
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