Farming’s Future

Alicia Leone takes on Organic Farming
Wed, 04/25/2018 - 10:00am

“Through organic leadership we improve the health and well-being of people and the planet.” J.I. Rodale

Alicia Leone grew up on her great grandparent’s small farm on the West Side of Block Island — her deep family roots date back to the 1700s — and farming was an essential part of everyday life. Owned by her great-great uncle Leroy Dunn and his relations before that, her great-grandparents Everett and Barbara (Wescott) Brown lived on the farm raising chickens and rabbits. They also had a vegetable garden with lots of corn and potatoes, and a small herb garden. Alicia loved raising the fluffy little chicks into hens — her favorite chore was collecting the eggs in the coop. Looking back on that time, her favorite memories include summer days and time spent with her great-grandmother Barbara in the gardens where she helped, and learned about growing fresh garden-to-table vegetables and herbs. Alicia attributes this upbringing to her love and intrigue of horticulture, organic agriculture and integrative nutrition.
Scratching the surface
Alicia first heard about the Organic Farming Certificate Program in early 2015, in Rodale’s Organic Gardening magazine and after reading about J.I. Rodale, the Organic Farming Certificate Program (OFCP) and The Rodale Institute, she knew she had to be a part of the program. The Rodale Institute is located in Kutztown, PA and was founded in 1947 by organic pioneer J.I. Rodale to study the link between healthy soil, healthy food, and healthy people. The Rodale Institute pursues a sustainable “Greener Revolution” — defined as meeting universal needs of proper nutrition, famine prevention, and biologically sustainable solutions to climate change.
Alicia applied and was accepted to start in the Fall of 2015, but then found out she was pregnant — she put her education on hold until she would be able to fully commit to the program. While she was pregnant, she began noticing organic food that was geared towards babies and moms was readily available. This made choosing to eat organic food and to feed her child only organic food, the first two years of his life, a top priority. This only validated what she already believed and her reason for wanting to attend the O.F.C.P.
After high school, most of Alicia’s education revolved around food. Starting out in culinary school, she became fascinated with nutrition and nutrients. This evolved into studying integrative nutrition — where she first heard that food grown organically may be nutritionally denser than conventionally grown food. “It was from that point I knew I wanted to be a part of growing and raising organic food,” Alicia points out. “Ultimately, I was grasping at becoming a part of “the food movement” in any way possible.”  
Alicia started the O.F.C.P in the 2017 summer semester — commuting between Pennsylvania and Rhode Island — from her short-term apartment, her son Axel’s daycare, The Rodale Institute and back to her home on Block Island to work on the weekends. She is a full-time mom and student, juggling her time between an active two-year-old and organic farming study. To say her life is busy, is an understatement, but she still considers all of the sacrifices worth it.
“Now I know what I’m really capable of,” says Alicia, and when taking up farming as your career, that’s a good thing to know.
This past fall, she jumped into the university side of organic agriculture at Delaware Valley University in Doylestown, PA, where she will be until early May, finishing the spring semester of the certificate program.
Rolling up her sleeves
Part of Alicia’s studies include working on the farms associated with The Rodale Institute and DVU — this teaches the students hands-on skills while giving them real life experience. Last summer on Rodale Institute’s 333-acre organic farm, Alicia worked cultivating fields, harvesting and packaging vegetables for their CSA (Community Supported Agriculture co-op), livestock chores, inoculating beds and logs with mushroom spores, building compost piles, pruning in the apple orchard, and working in the apiary.
At DVU’s Roth Farm Center for Sustainable Agriculture, a 100-acre farm, Alicia is working with layer hens and dairy cattle. Chores include moving the animals to fresh pasture or feeding them in their over-wintering pens, while keeping their stalls and pens clean. This past fall she helped tag, band, dehorn and vaccinate the new bull calves on the farm. Right now, Alicia is working on creating an organic turkey production plan, some plantings in the organic high tunnel greenhouse, plus soil testing the fields prior to this year’s planting. In addition, Alicia just recently started working on a 10-acre botanical and herb farm in Doylestown, PA, called Barefoot Botanicals — a certified organic farm that mainly grows herbs, medicinal herbs, and edible flowers. At this job she is seeding trays, cleaning out the greenhouses, and learning tree propagation. This “farmer training” has taught Alicia how to produce food in a way that restores, maintains and enhances the natural world. Students who complete the Organic Farming Certificate Program leave with the knowledge and experience necessary to start a small-scale organic farm or work for an organic operation.
Digging Deeper
Alicia is married to Abel Sprague and together with their son Axel, they live year-round on the West Side on Sprague Farm, owned by her father-in-law, Joe Sprague. This multi-generational farmland has a total of 44 acres — part of which was the original family farm — and part of which Sprague purchased from his neighbor, Otto Mitchell. Alicia will use an acre of the land for vegetable production. Learning about the key role the soil plays in all agriculture — especially in organic agriculture — was vital to helping her assess the land she plans to farm. She plans to start small-scale this season, due to getting a late start after finishing school, and sees this summer as a “test” year.
Alicia and Axel drove home for Easter weekend so that she (with help from Joe and Abel) could plow and disc the area where she plans to plant a cover crop — commonly used to suppress weeds, manage soil erosion, help build and improve soil fertility and quality, and control diseases and pests for the protection and enrichment of the soil.
“There’s a lot that needs to be done; we need to finish plowing, put the deer fencing up, make the beds to plant into — I’m going to start with just half an acre for now for vegetable production, and see where I want to go from there,” reports Alicia.
After spending last summer on the farm at The Rodale Institute, Alicia has even more ideas for her farm that she would like to incorporate here on the island. Eventually, she would like to add layer hens, some small livestock, and a high tunnel greenhouse to harvest more and extend her growing season. “I like the idea of using agriculture to regenerate the land and soil. I’m very interested in growing a more nutrient-dense crop that tastes better — and even raising livestock that are happier and healthier,” she explained. Alicia sees the importance of learning the full breadth of organic agriculture — to fully educate and embrace being an organic farmer. Being able to learn about the business of organic agriculture — and turn it into a lifestyle that she can raise her family in — is the ultimate goal.
“In the big picture, I want to be a part in the change we need to see with our food system,” she explains, and believes that industrialized agriculture is a broken system. “People should go back to growing some of their own food — or at least have the option to eat fresh, locally.”
With the knowledge, resources and technical training Alicia has received in the Organic Farming Certificate Program, she feels ready to step into her next role of organic farmer.