A Sustainable Way of Life: Snead’s Farm

A Sustainable Way of Life: Snead's Farm

Emmett Snead is tall as a tree, generous with a cup of coffee, and always ready with a story. I called him last week to talk about sustainability on the farm and the first words out his mouth were – Save the Bay. The catchy mission motto of The Chesapeake Bay Foundation continues to motivate regional industry and farm folk alike to control, monitor and mitigate their effluent and runoff to help preserve regional wildlife and the watershed at large. As a farmer for life and long term planner, Emmett utilizes low impact methods as his agricultural mantra on his family farm just outside of Fredericksburg, Virginia.

While sustainability may be on the tip of everybody’s tongue today, Emmett’s been talking the talk long before sustainable agriculture techniques were widely accepted. In fact, his more conventional neighbors raised a skeptical brow and first called him a liberal, hippie-dippie farmer over thirty years ago for his alternative growing methods. Call him what you will, but farming is a business with razor thin margins in a high cost industry where ingenuity can be the difference between sink or swim.

During my last visit, he described — with enthusiastic detail — how he’s able to return nutrients to the soil, protect local waterways and harvest at a profit through a clever rotation of cover crops and cash crops using a No-Till style of agriculture. To keep the land healthy and productive, it takes two years of rotating cover and cash crops for his no-till cycle to realize its full effect. In so doing, he uses one crop to essentially feed another because, “…if you pay attention, Nature will give you a lot for free.” When I asked him to elaborate, this is what he told me,

“After my big melon crop come mid August, I plant thousands of daikon radish and spring oats that, at full maturity, are lush and about knee high. The leaves of the radish are real verdant and work to shade out the competition like unwanted weeds, they absorb leftover fertilizer from the previous crop by storing up excess nutrients in the plant bodies and break up the soil with its tuberous end. Then, as it dies, it acts as a natural time-release fertilizer for the cash crop that’s coming on like sugar snap peas. The peas feed on the nutrients from the decaying plant bodies which provide a natural straw-like covering that acts as a mulch, but still drains good and when the radishes die there’s an awful stink like manure that has a naturally occurring chemical in it that acts a as natural weed killer.”

By using Nature’s free weed prevention services to keep the land healthy and crops fertilized, farmers like Emmett are able to skip purchasing synthetic herbicides and pesticides almost entirely. This in turn also saves him yet another trip across the field (which also costs money) meaning, he achieves a smaller carbon footprint and minimizes the likelihood of greater soil compaction. But the work doesn’t stop there,

“Come June, I plant my pumpkins in the place of the no till sugar snaps peas after harvest and this marks two cash crops back to back. Pumpkins are still one of the most profitable crops for the farm all because of decorations, pumpkin patch sales, and halloween. After the pumpkins, I plant Austrian winter peas, canola and wheat good and thick for a few reasons: one, they’re competition for the weeds and two, they will over winter which means they won’t wash away. Come spring, I plant buckwheat and sunflowers. The buckwheat lifecycle is a short one and will be in, up, flowered, and have gone to seed long before the sunflower comes up later. The buckwheat attracts wildlife as its flowers are the prize stuff of bees and the seeds get devoured by birds like the partridge and customers well, they just love the sunflowers because they’re pretty and also good for the birds and bees.”

Come August, the cycle repeats itself yielding five crops in two years: two cash crops and three cover crops with no fertilizer and virtually no run off. To take it one step further, Emmett planted filter strips full of fescue and orchardgrass around the perimeter of the cropland near his woodlots so when it does rain, any potential runoff is captured by the sod and the grass roots act as a natural filter for the surface water before it enters nearby waterways or continues on into our water table. A process that keeps all the nutrients and topsoil on the farm where it belongs and out of nearby waterways to help save the bay.

While Emmett has spent his whole life on this multi-generational family farm, he believes he’s only on the farm for a short while and wants to leave it better than he found it. In addition to the sustainable agricultural techniques described above, Emmett – along with his wife Ellen – have placed 290 acres of the farm under conservation easement with Fort A.P. Hill along with the help of the Conservation Fund and the Virginia Outdoors Foundation. This means their land is protected from future development in perpetuity, and should be able to continue on as a working farm long after the Sneads have left. If that isn’t sustainability that I’m not sure what is. With more farmers doing good work like the Snead family, our food future looks to be in good hands.

Head of Sourcing