If you’re a student of sustainable agriculture or just a fan of the local growers who sell their organic produce at the farmers’ markets in Carrboro, Fearrington and Pittsboro, there’s great news this spring: The fifth annual Piedmont Farm Tour this weekend will offer twice as many farms to visit as last year.

Twenty-five local growers in Orange, Alamance and Chatham counties will open their fields, barns and greenhouses to visitors for the tour. In addition to the local legends–Ken Dawson and Libby Outlaw at Maple Spring Garden, the Nutter family at Maple View Farm & Milk Co., Alex and Betsy Hitt at Peregrine Farm, and Fleming and Britt Pfann at Celebrity Goat Dairy–you’ll have the chance to meet some folks who are new to the tour and talk with them about how they make the family farm a viable option in today’s economy.

The tour is sponsored by Weaver Street Market, The Independent and the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association (CFSA) to raise awareness of local food systems and the part they play in creating a sustainable agriculture here in the Piedmont. Sustainable agriculture, says CFSA Executive Director Tony Kleese, is a philosophy of growing that helps build living soils that are not depleted, eroded and poisoned with chemical fertilizers. The farmers supporting these ideals use practices that protect water resources and clean air, recycle wastes, encourage biodiversity and help depleted land regain its productivity.

The Farm Tour is also intended to convince you to buy locally produced foods, which are increasingly available to consumers on the shelves of stores like Weaver Street Market, Wellspring Grocery and Harris Teeter, largely through the efforts of CFSA and local farming cooperatives. Buying locally, says Kleese, means buying food that has been through less travel, less storage, less processing and fewer markets. “Most of the food in our markets is imported from the other side of the country, or even other countries,” he says, “and food can spend days to weeks in the transport process.” Imported produce can’t compare, says Kleese, with locally produced foods that reach the market only hours after the harvest. Buying locally also helps the consumer avoid post-harvest contamination, and it strengthens the local economy, reduces transportation and storage costs, encourages a self-sufficient community and preserves the rural character of the land.

And it’s that incomparable rural character that is available in all its beauty and diversity during the Farm Tour each spring. Pick up a map at one of many locations around the area, pack up the family and head on out from 1 to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, April 29 and 30, and you can hear the story direct from the farmers themselves.

You might stop in at Wild Wood Farm in Saxapahaw for a chat with Kevin Meehan and Kim Colvin, who have eight acres of blueberry fields, an old orchard and 40 different organically grown crops next to their spring-fed pond and old settler’s log cabin restoration project. Meehan and Colvin will tell you how they preserve the quality of their soil by using the “scratch till” method. They till as shallowly as possible to encourage their burgeoning population of earthworms.

“Earthworms are great soil builders,” Meehan said in a recent interview, “and they provide good aeration of the soil.” He has two secrets: till shallowly and mulch thickly. “We use a walk-behind tractor for less soil compaction,” he says. “We disturb only the top weed-root system or the winter cover crops. Till deeper and it’s a slippery slope to a hard-pan soil.” Hard-pan is created when tiller blades go 10 inches beneath the surface to do what many gardeners think of as “fluffing up” the soil. But such tilling only pushes the soil down on the downward stroke of the blade, says Meehan, compacting it and making it hard, with little or no drainage. “A lot of North Carolina soil,” says Meehan, “has been turned into hard-pan by years of tobacco and cotton farming. Scratch tilling only disturbs the ground up near the surface.”

His second secret is laying down a 6-inch-thick layer of hay mulch around his seedlings, providing water retention in hot weather, blocking weed growth and leaving no exposed soil to splash up on the plants and contaminate then with soil-borne diseases. “Then the mulch starts to decompose,” he says, “and turns into humus to feed the earthworms. They come up to feed on the underside of the mulch, fluffing the soil and leaving their ‘castings.’” Mulch is the key to the health and sustainability of their fields, says Meehan. “In our fields you’re not going to see any dirt, just mulch.”

Red clay is a familiar sight to anybody who tries to garden in the Piedmont, and turning clay to arable soil is the first task of the new organic farmer. “The clay in Alamance County is a better grade of clay than Chatham,” says Joe Kramer, who with Carmen Clark runs Rainbow Organic Farm near Silk Hope in central Chatham County. Kramer is slowly reclaiming an old cow pasture, building raised beds for his four acres of lettuces and flowers. He started three years ago by laying raised beds over “thick clay mush,” using the best organic matter he could come by–his neighbors’ cow, chicken and horse manure–then composting it and adding worm castings. “It’s a slow process, it takes three years to build a good soil,” says Kramer.

Kramer produces a mix of baby lettuces, looking for variety in textures and sizes, sometimes with a little mizuna or red kale, and sells the mix to local markets and restaurants. “I want to be the Carolina Lettuce King,” he says, “not a lettuce serf.” He wants to teach others how to grow the mix of lettuces he is producing, and eventually “push California lettuce mix out of the Carolinas.” Tour visitors to Rainbow Organic Farm will get a demonstration on how to produce lettuce like Kramer’s, and how to make raised beds and protect them with an electric deer fence, subverting a great bane of local gardens.

If you’ve been curious about free-range chickens, visit Promise Land Farm, also near Silk Hope, home to Terry and Greg Vares. You’ll see not only chickens, but free-range ducks, turkeys and pheasants roaming the Vareses’ 60 acres. It wasn’t always this way, says Terry Vares. “We worked for growers like Purdue and Gold Kist for seven years, and finally had to quit because we just couldn’t do it anymore.” These corporate chicken growers promoted poor farming practices–overcrowding and overmedicating the chickens and keeping the contract farmers deep in debt and under the growers’ control. “They shove the chickens into a three-quarter-square-foot space, really tight,” says Vares. “The feed was so full of medication it would burn our hands. The chickens would die from stress. The smell was atrocious.”

The Vareses did research and decided to start a free-range farm, converting their chicken houses, cutting grazing doors and creating pasture lanes. “It’s wild to see it,” says Terry Vares, “they start ranging all over the fields. Grasses are a natural deterrent to most prevalent diseases. We change their lanes so they’re never in the dirt. They have a high temperature–106 degrees–so when they’re hot they go back inside the houses where there are fans, water and food, then they go back out in the afternoon when it’s cooler.” The Vareses have a processing deal with Andy Youngblood at Hickory Springs Poultry (also on the tour), and they market through the N.C. Department of Agriculture’s “Goodness Grows in North Carolina,” which sets up four trade shows a year to link local growers and buyers.

“It was a struggle the first year,” says Terry Vares, “what with buying our own refrigerated truck, chicken-house conversion, feed and processing. But we want to get back to where animals and crops can sustain each other. It does work.” Vares hopes to get lucky and have chicks hatching out on Farm Tour day.

Thoroughbred Welsh ponies will be on hand for visitors to Finnabar Farm at Dodson’s Crossroads in western Orange County, where Patricia Kiffney will trot out her pony Buddy and his daughters Rosie and Julia for kids to ride. Kiffney operates a garden-design business from her farm, and in the summer she offers a riding and art camp for children ages 6 to 9. Camp kids learn to tack and ride the ponies and to create pottery with ceramist David Gould.

Finnabar Farm is on Watery Fork, a tributary to New Hope Creek, and Kiffney’s students learn to respect the forest and river environment among her vegetable, ornamental and woodland gardens, all created with plants native to the Piedmont. “These plants are suitable to this environment, they don’t take a lot of water or require a lot of pesticides,” she says. Kiffney is excited about sharing her garden-planning techniques with visitors. “You know, we’re given this incredible gift, and we have to give something back–every day.” This year for the Farm Tour, local herbalist Will Enders will lead tours of the forest gardens on Kiffney’s 25 acres. Kiffney will demonstrate her method of growing and saving her own seed, “so you know it’s really organically produced. There’s nothing greater than a seed. It gives you so much.”

Kiffney’s Welsh ponies come from a breed original to Wales, and popular in Europe as children’s mounts. They stand 10 to 15 hands high (about 64 inches), and are incredibly strong, says Kiffney. “They used to pull the trams out of the mines in Wales. They are so strong, I’ve never even put shoes on them. They live on grass, and don’t take a lot of vetting.”

On other farms new to the Farm Tour, you can visit an apiary (bee farm), learn about local compost sources, see herbal medicines for dogs produced, sample hydroponically grown tomatoes, and visit 500 rabbits. EndBlock

Maps are available at Weaver Street Market, Wellspring Grocery, Durham Food Co-op, Carolina Inn, Alchemy, Grass Roots Press, Remy’s Corner Market, Carrboro Farmers Market and other farmers’ markets in the area. For more information call CFSA at 542-2402 or visit the group’s Web site at www.carolinafarmstewards.org.