Helen Atthowe, Biodesign Farm
Alex Stone, Oregon State University
Farmer: Helen Atthowe
Location: Stevensville, in western Montana (Fig. 1: Area Map)
Crops: Mixed vegetables. Main crops are tomatoes, bell peppers, eggplant, broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, and winter squash.
Markets: Regional farmers markets (75%) and wholesale to organic supermarkets and restaurants (25%)
Years in organic management: Biodesign began in 1993 and was certified organic with the Montana Department of Agriculture Organic Certification Program until 2008, when the farm joined with other small, local organic producers to form the Western Montana Sustainable Grower's Union. The farm was sold in 2010.
Total farm acreage: 30 acres
Cropped acreage: 8 acres
Landscape design: Two fields—one 6 acres and the other 2 acres. Fields were surrounded by native grassland–sagebrush steppe habitat, several pasture-based cattle operations, and some large-scale potato and small grain producers (Fig. 2: Farm Fields Map). "Old field" (2 acres) was cultivated from 1994 through 2005. In 2006, production moved to "New field" (6 acres).
Regional agricultural production: Ravalli County's 2012 gross agricultural production was $34,725,000, with 70% from livestock production and 30% from crops, mostly grains.
Climate and soils: Semiarid (13 to 16 inches of annual precipitation) with a frost-free growing season of 100 to 115 days. Average last frost is 30 May, and average first frost is 10 September. Spring is the wettest period of the year, with about 25% of annual precipitation falling in May and June. Summer temperatures reach the high 90s, and winter lows are regularly below zero. Soils are classified as capability class VI by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service and rated as "poor" for agricultural use (Fig. 2: Farm Fields Map).
Awards: Alternative Energy Resource Organization Sustainable Farm Award, 2000
Rather than treating specific crops, problems, or pests, Biodesign focused on supporting natural nutrient and biological control cycles and on managing ecological relationships.
Biodesign's goals were to optimize soil organic matter, reduce tillage, support a diverse soil microbial community, and provide year-round soil cover for natural enemies. The soil management system (Soil Table 1) included:
The reduced tillage/living mulch system resulted in good yields of high-quality, flavorful crops and high levels of soil organic matter and soil nutrients. Soil health indicators generally showed positive trends (Soil Table 2).
Read more about the Biodesign soil management system here.
Biodesign's goal was to build and manage habitat for biological control organisms (e.g., insect predators and parasites, birds, bats, soil and foliar microorganisms) and to apply insecticides only when a pest was not sufficiently controlled by the system. Pests were sprayed only when absolutely necessary. The insect pest management system included both systemic practices (Insect Table 1) and pest-specific strategies (Insect Table 2):
Crop yield and quality losses to insects decreased from 1993 through 2010, according to Helen. This observation is supported by reduced insecticide use (Insect Fig. 1), crop monitoring records (1993–2010), and on-farm research (2006). Farm records document good yields, less than 3% average crop damage across all crops (Insect Fig. 2 and Insect Fig. 5), and high predator/parasite populations (Insect Fig. 3 and Insect Fig. 4). Aphids on peppers and cabbageworms on brassicas were the main insect pests at Biodesign.
Read more about the Biodesign insect pest management system here.
Biodesign's goal was to prevent disease incidence by managing for balanced crop growth and healthy soil, while utilizing good cultural practices such as rotation and irrigation management. The disease management system included both systemic practices (Disease Table 1) and disease-specific strategies (Disease Table 4):
Diseases, primarily bacterial speck of tomato (Pseudomonas syringae pv. tomato) and cucumber mosaic virus of pepper (Bromoviridae:Cucumovirus) were never highly damaging due in part to the dry climate. However, losses did occur. Over time, losses declined, especially those caused by bacterial speck as documented by crop quality monitoring records (1993–2010), possibly due to Biodesign Farm's design and soil- and habitat-building practices. Cucumber mosaic virus was observed at low levels on peppers in the early 2000s, but did not become more severe over time or affect crop yield.
Read more about the Biodesign disease management system here.
This article was developed with support from USDA's National Institute of Food and Agriculture through the Western Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program under grant number SW13-017.
This article is part of the Biodesign Farm Organic Systems Description.
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This is an eOrganic article and was reviewed for compliance with National Organic Program regulations by members of the eOrganic community. Always check with your organic certification agency before adopting new practices or using new materials. For more information, refer to eOrganic's articles on organic certification.