This season was full of some of the best experiences we could've asked for, our local supporters really came through to help make our 2019 season awesome.
We were as prepared as we could be, and it definitely paid off in minimizing the amount of obstacles we had to face. Farming isn't a straight path, with just one direction and timeline forward. There are a lot of twists and turns, ups and downs, and every season brings it's own diverse set of challenges and rewards. We hope this post gives you a look into the background and overview on what we have been working on building here, some of our specific challenges, plus our overall goals and vision as a regenerative farm.
Farming is hard work but it doesn't have to be impossible. Anything can be accomplished with the right mindset, work ethic, and knowledge. Every farm has different overall goals + timelines and very different ways to get there, which makes each farm completely unique and individual in both it's values and farming methods. Our farm has a main goal of improving the land and making it better each year plus giving back as much as we can to the environment in a positive way.
There are many steps it takes us to keep doing this each year by: deep mulching our fields with organic straw / composted wood chips, intensive companion planting and spacing of annual crops, sowing cover crop seeds, establishing perennials, building infrastructure, and much more. Over the last two seasons already we have made lots of positive forward progress that we're proud of.
It was a little cool and wet in the spring, but that wasn't an issue for us and actually benefitted our cool weather spring crops. Regenerative farming with our permaculture no-till methods helps to protect us from the extreme weather fluctuations and brings balance back to the local ecosystem.
By keeping the soil covered at all times with either plants or mulch, it eliminates any soil erosion and keeps our growing area able to be accessed and maintained in any weather conditions. Even when it's rainy and wet it's still easy to plant in and maintain our fields. These regenerative methods also help the soil to retain moisture in times of drought. We saw a great improvement in the soil structure and microbe life from this season to last, after two full season of mass deep mulching.
Mulching with natural and organic materials costs us more each season than it would to use other mulching methods that aren't as eco-friendly like plastic or bio-film, but it is worth it for the soil to be able to breath, plus the fertility and organic matter that is added as the organic straw mulch and wood chips break down. Because we plant and grow our annual and perennial crops by hand there is no reliance on the tractor or fossil fuels for tilling, plowing, cultivating, transplanting, etc. So when it was very wet for a large number of weeks this past spring which isn't untypical weather for that season, we were still able to get into our fields and plant by hand. Another huge benefit of the way we farm is the ongoing carbon sequestration that is occurring from keeping our soil continuously planted with annual + perennial clover cover crops combined with our annual + perennial production crops.
Now to rewind to get a little background on the 2018 season and also the 2017 season when the old farm was still here and we were able to witness first hand how they farmed, since we grew their vegetables with them that entire season.
Prior to us stewarding this land, the fields weren't managed in a way that encouraged healthy soil and increased fertility, which affected our overall productivity when transitioning these fields to permaculture no-till in 2018. It's interesting and necessary to reflect on this, in order to fully understand how the farming practices that any farm chooses to use will affect the surrounding environment and ecosystem, both short and long term. And to also compare and contrast farming methods to see the different effects they have when applied in nature. It is important to look back and assess the shortcomings of certain growing methods, in order to implement real ways that farms can improve and enter into a more holistic future.
Observationally in 2017 when we worked alongside the organic farm that retired from this location, all summer long especially on the driest and windiest days, we would visually see their topsoil blowing away in the wind off the acres they had tilled and planted with annual crops for their CSA during the summer months. They would do mass plantings of one crop setup like an organic monoculture, and there was no interplanting of diverse crops to increase biodiversity and soil health. Where those monoculture crops were grown would be rotated seasonally, but how the soil was cared for in between those rotations wasn't being done to the highest standard. The crop fields and beds were 8-12 inches lower than the surrounding grass pathways, from the loss of topsoil due to it being worked repeatedly over a long number of years. If you would go out and grab a handful of "soil" it was actually like grabbing a handful of dust. Falling through your fingers with no organic matter, aggregates, microbes, or earthworms unless you went deeper than the top foot of soil what was being worked repeatedly. Considering a majority of the most important microbe and soil life activities are happening in the top 6-12 inches, that was very concerning to us. This was after they had been using these practices that they were dedicated to for 17 years, so these farming methods definitely hadn't improved the landscape in that amount of time.
We are just stating this from an observational standpoint, and noticing how the practices that farm used over the entire time they existed weren't uncommon or out of the box growing methods for the agricultural industry. The simple fact is that they were just maintaining the status quo, and not innovating or leading in production methods that are better for the environment.
The majority of ground cover and roots that would eventually come back and hold the old farm's topsoil together was from weeds that would grow back after the fields were tilled and planted with annual crops. We calculated the amount of times that the old farm would drive the tractor through the field, to mow, till, transplant, cultivate (2-3 times or more), till again, and it would total at least 5-7 passes, and in some areas we counted up to 10 passes. All while using fossil fuels, compacting the soil, and destroying the life in the soil.
We used our tractor ONE single time in our the fields for 2018 to disc and break up the hard surface (then clover cover crops were sown and mulch was put down immediately after), and ZERO times in our main production fields for 2019. We have already seen vast improvement in the soil structure in just two seasons of implementing our permaculture no-till methods.
Even in the more recent Regenerative Organic Certification that is currently in it's pilot program, their required framework on their website lists that the highest Gold Standard operations are still allowed to till no deeper than 10", once every 3 years for annual crops. Every time this tilling (even with a 3 year gap) is done, it is upsetting the delicate balance of life within the soil and starting the cycle of disease and disrupted soil health all over again.
Discing the way we had ours set to use in this initial pass that was done in 2018 was very minimally invasive, we adjusted our discs to run straight and basically just cut straight lines into the soil not even turning the soil over at all, just cutting lines into it an inch or two deep. This type of light discing actually mimics the action of ruminant animal's hooves on the top layer of soil. It was just enough to break the hard surface up that had been created, since none the used fields were cover cropped by the previous farm throughout 2017. So we knew we would have an uphill battle with not knowing how many consecutive seasons the fields weren’t annually cover cropped (since the old farmers had stated they felt cover crop seed was too expensive and didn’t necessarily use it every year to save on costs), and what type of fertility issues that we were facing because of that. Discing gave us a jumpstart on being able to plant and grow into the ground for our 2018 season, in order to start to repair the previous damage immediately.
After this process all growing areas were planted by hand and fertilized with (OMRI approved materials safe for use in organic production) organic fish and seaweed fertilizer, soil amendments (a blend of mycorrhizal fungi, bone meal, feather meal, fish meal, humic acid, bat guano), select areas were sown with more clover, then deep mulched with organic straw and/or composted wood chips.
Every year our fields will continue to be mulched even more and specific areas continued to be planted with permanent clover cover crops so we can keep building back up the soil to increase the organic matter, nutrient cycling, increase soil carbon sequestration, and water holding capacity of the soil. Each year we farm here we refine our practices even further but our goals remain constant: grow and produce more nutrient dense healthy food, in less space, all with as little of a negative environmental impact as possible. While also encouraging native and local biodiversity and beneficial habitat for insects, pollinators, and wildlife.
Establishing and growing large areas of both annual (crimson) and perennial (medium red, dutch white, yellow) clover cover crops interplanted within our annual and perennial crop production areas, has provided great ground cover and nitrogen fixation to the soil. It has also provided forage for bees, and completely eliminated any previous soil erosion that was happening due to bare soil.
Also by using an intensive interplanting system of different crops it minimizes the potential of ever depleting our soil of any one (or multiple) specific nutrient(s) that would be leached out by doing large plantings of one crop in a large area, which is traditional practice for most small to large scale vegetable farms.
Hopefully in the next season or two we can gradually add ruminant animals such as cows, sheep, and goats into our other fields to convert the grasses and weeds growing there into carbon, so that we can add fertility + diversity back into our landscape and into the soil through intensively managed rotational grazing. Livestock when managed properly is of great benefit to the environment through consuming all those little grass solar panels and recycling them back into beneficial carbon for the land, they are literally grass powered lawn mowers that will sequester carbon.
We do produce on site compost currently with on farm produced inputs, but we need to expand into having even more holistically managed livestock on the farm to keep building healthy soil, and restoring balance to our local ecosystem on a larger scale. Creating closed loop systems on our farm is very important to be able to produce fertility right on site, and not have to source it from outside the farm unless absolutely necessary. A true regenerative system.
Our focus with livestock has always been geared towards preserving and raising heritage breeds that are slower growing and more adapted to living a natural outdoor life, as opposed to hybrids that are bred mainly for fast production and growth. Heritage breed livestock are becoming rare and some are even going extinct or at risk to become extinct very soon, as factory farms and even many small local farms are focused more on production + output and less on preserving species biodiversity + raising livestock in a natural way that works with and benefits nature.
There is still a long road ahead and as we transition from Summer to Fall it has us thinking about where we've been and where we're going. There has been a serious amount of transformation that has happened here in the past couple years. We moved and organized so much random farm debris that was piled and stored everywhere by the last farm, and transformed these areas into spaces that are now both aesthetically pleasing and functional.
We have dozens (possibly even hundreds) of photos documenting the transformation that has been happening here over the last few years, below are a couple before and after pics to show how we have positively transformed areas around our barns into thriving flower gardens. We took these previously underutilized spaces and selectively cultivated them, in order to provide a lot of beneficial space for pollinators. Our diverse gardens also serve as production areas for cut flowers, culinary herbs, and flower seed production.
There's a lot to running a farm, and sometimes just clearing out the old vibes and getting a clean slate is one of the most important parts. We understand that farmers and farms can at times be messy, but with what we want to accomplish in the future by adding farm to table dinners and on farm agri-tourism events we will not invite people into our space if it's not perfect (or as close to it as we can come) since we know our farm will be a getaway and retreat from the outside world. We are so excited to invite people here when it has finally reached it's peak of welcoming beauty.
We had hoped to be able to throw some on farm events this season, but with the serious amount of cleanup both in the fields and barnyard area that needed to happen it was not possible this year to do any events in a way that made sense for us. But with that said, we are going into 2020 with a much better start.
There are so many people worldwide that need to eat, and if anything, there is currently a shortage of farms growing all the food required to meet the demand for the amount of people that need it. We understand that our way of doing things is harder and not maybe the most lucrative when first implementing these methods.
Even though over time once land is transitioned into full scale high production regenerative agriculture, other farms already successfully mastering these methods have shown it to be even more profitable and productive per acre than the farms that choose to till and plow. This is because the soil on a regenerative farm is more fertile, and the fungi to bacterial balance is proper within the soil so there is a lack of disease or severe pest problems. There is no denying that the methods we use and encourage are hands down better for the environment.
Every farm has a different path, and we know ours differs greatly from a lot of other local farms. We willingly embrace startup and short term growing pains that a lot of farms probably aren't necessarily equipped or prepared to handle, since we are focused on a slow and controlled growth both as a business and as a farm. Patience is required for regenerative agriculture methods to be successful, because they take time to build on any piece of land. Even more so for land that is very depleted or has been overworked, but it can be done successfully over time with a lot of effort no matter what type of land it is that is being farmed or the condition it is in. The more depleted the area is, the more time and work it may take to begin to see a positive turn around.
A lot of farms (especially new first year farms) need to invest in necessary infrastructure which can become expensive causing them to take out loans, seek investors, family donations, or work full time side jobs. Things such as new tractors, farm equipment and tools, irrigation, heated greenhouses, etc. can all become expensive and force farms into having to rely on mechanized agriculture for large scale production and profit because that is the cycle they have entered and will be trapped into.
We are proud to be completely self funded through our own hard work, having previously worked off what we started with here from the last farm through sweat equity. Approaching our farming methods with a completely clean slate allows us the freedom to fully invest into our regenerative farming methods. We are able to put our practices and giving back to the environment as priority goals that come before profits. This allows us to focus completely on doing what is best for the land, while also prioritizing growing flavorful and diverse produce for our farm supporters.
Each season the improvements we are making here are living proof that regenerative agriculture is better and can heal the land and ecosystem. You can grow and produce more crops in less space, while also improving the environment and ecosystem both locally and globally. Over two seasons of intensively focusing on these practices we have already seen a greater diversity and quantity of beneficial insects, birds, butterflies, dragonflies, and wildlife. We are witnessing the local ecosystem return to a healthy balance.
We are already making large achievements each season and exceeding what we thought was possible considering the condition of the land we are working with, the current marketplace, and our farm's community outreach + connections. We are proud of where we are at because we've worked super hard to get here, and we're also excited for the future.
We know that any endeavor, especially farming, has to be financially viable both short and long term in order to be successful. But we also believe there is a way to achieve this without completely destroying the planet through repeatedly tilling and releasing large amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere.
It may mean scaling back at first and building slowly as a new farm, instead of trying to feed hundreds or thousands of families in your first couple seasons. A slow build that is healthier for the environment is better than a large spurt of financial growth and farm output all at the cost of damaging soil health and biodiversity. It's a trade off, and you can't really have both at the same time because even if you have unlimited resources and no financial limitations regenerative farming methods will naturally take time to start seeing the positive results, there is a building and implementation process and it does not happen overnight or even in one season.
Even established farms should assess how they can pull back on their production and profits short term, in order to completely restructure their practices in a way that benefits the environment instead of working against it. Putting in the effort necessary to reposition their farm into a more healthy productive future, once the regenerative growing techniques are implemented and managed.
Most farms are not regenerative (even if they are organic), and regenerative is what we need in order to sequester carbon, increase global biodiversity, and rebuild lost habitat for beneficial insects and wildlife. There are some really awesome regenerative agriculture focused farms worldwide leading the way for this industry, producing in a way that is completely in line with nature.
It's obvious that the majority of farms out there do not typically choose the path of regenerative agriculture for multiple reasons, even though it has shown to have the most benefits to the land. This could be because it is challenging at first and you could potentially sacrifice profits when transitioning your land, or maybe it is based on a lack of knowledge and confidence in applying specific techniques. Family farms using methods that were passed down generationally may not be interested in changing and progressing their practices. Plus it takes a large amount of manual labor to establish the necessary practices in the first few years and these methods aren't generally tractor based, but instead human powered, so it takes a lot of good old fashioned hard work to make it happen.
But as time goes on and the soil improves, so does the ease of maintaining and expanding regenerative practices. Which we witnessed firsthand when expanding our permaculture no-till homestead every season from around 2012 to late 2017 (when we transitioned to starting our farm here). We steadily saw our soil health and the production capacity of our growing areas increase, along with our need for inputs and hours of work decrease.
The only way we can improve as a worldwide community is to really assess and implement growing and production methods that are the most beneficial to the environment, and move completely away from widely using farming practices that are damaging the soil and our ecosystems.
Sustainable isn't cutting it anymore, regenerative farming is what's necessary for truly healthy and balanced ecosystems.
If your farming methods are based solely around profit, then you aren't interested in healing the planet and giving back to the environment with the way you farm. When you see organic farms patting themselves on the back about growing cover crops to add and create soil organic matter, that is because at a bare minimum they absolutely must do that to offset the damage they are already causing through mass tilling. And most likely those cover crops will eventually be tilled in to add that organic matter (temporarily) back into the soil before it is used up by the next rotation of crops. Continuing on a cycle that is impossible to win, since this cover crop / till process is necessary for farms that till to not completely deplete their soil over time. The "old way" of doing things, which are fully dependent on a tractor and fuel.
What was learned from the dust bowl is that if you don't put something back into the soil to restore what was taken out after planting crops, you will end up with soil that is completely depleted with no life in it over time. Eventually that type of farming will lead to the desertification of the planet.
Tilling and plowing also oxidizes soil, encourages a higher concentration of bacteria in the soil and less fungi (because it decimates mycorrhizal networks) which are necessary to balance things out (and this upset balance results in endless disease season after season), and also by creating bare ground this encourages weed seeds and detrimental plant species to germinate and exist. For however long you use those practices you will be running on a treadmill in a never ending vicious cycle. It doesn't make any logical sense to choose those farming methods as your primary way of doing things, especially considering that all of the after effects are negative.
Industrial and mechanized farming practices are a major contributing factor to the ecological disasters we are seeing in the midwest from mass flooding occurring. When you over work soil and use tractor based farming practices on a large scale for a number of decades, these growing methods of tilling the soil repeatedly cause soil compaction that will diminish the soil's natural ability to retain and absorb water. Once the soil has lost most of it's ability to absorb and hold water (from also having a lack of perennial grasses with deep roots), it just runs off causing mass flooding.
A lot of these production methods that are being used by large scale conventional and organic farms are done so with the intention to provide food for a large amount of people in our country, and exported to feed others around the world as well. But these practices are proven to have negative environmental impacts, even when they are organic (which is slightly better, but still damaging) and these farms must implement more ecologically sound ways of growing and producing food for the future safety and security of our planet.
Crops that are conventionally mass produced nationwide for either human or livestock consumption aren't the most nutritious and best options for either one to eat. The government also pays out subsidies to farms to grow crops like corn, wheat, and soy which incentivizes farms to grow these particular crops whether the growing practices being used are environmentally beneficial or not.
As of 2018, New York State has over 6 million acres of total farmland in the state with over 1 million acres in corn, over 300,000 acres in soybeans, and over 100,000 acres in wheat, which is not great for the health of our local statewide ecosystem and can also be a contributing factor to local flooding and drought issues that we have experienced here. This is because the practices being used by each farm will always affect and have an impact on all the surrounding farms, especially pesticide / fertilizer runoff and also the water holding capacity of the soil. An important reason why even small local farms growing on anywhere from a few acres to a few hundred should all be working to progress their practices, and use methods that are in balance with the environment.
Farms and farmers should take full ownership and responsibility to establish concrete plans and courses of action as to how and why their farm needs to move away from detrimental and harmful growing practices.
No-till as a method of farming can also be done in multiple ways. Typically no-till means that the mass spraying of chemicals will replace the act of tilling in order to kill off all weeds, and this practice is widely used today. Not a good trade off in our opinion as both tilling and chemicals do a serious amount of damage to our overall environment and soil health.
How we do no-till is completely different, because we use permaculture no-till methods that work with the environment in a way that complements and enhances already existing natural systems. Through using companion planting, deep mulching, permanent cover crops, and other beneficial methods we are able to work with natural systems to create productive growing areas.
There are also many ways to look at permaculture as well. Some look at it from the aspect of adding no inputs into your soil whatsoever and letting nature take it's course with no interference. While this is a more idealistic way to implement permaculture, it may not necessarily be the most productive in the short or long term.
We believe that with some slight adjustments that work with nature, you can create natural balanced systems that are both beneficial to the surrounding environment and also highly productive. Through soil tests and seasonal observations, we are able to adjust which methods to use that will work best with the specific area they are implemented.
From watching our local surrounding environment and seeing life thriving everywhere on our farm, this season has been living proof of what has already improved here in just two seasons of hard work. By increasing our cut flower production it has been beneficial for pollinators, while also providing a great farm product. We also invested a lot of time and energy into establishing a significant amount of different tree species and perennial crop plantings that will provide long term benefits to the land. As those trees and perennials that we planted keep growing each year, their root systems will continue to improve the surrounding soil structure.
There are multiple ways that we can all contribute towards helping to bring both the (local + global) environment and it's diverse ecosystems back into balance. There is hope as regenerative agriculture practices are slowly being implemented by farms worldwide, and the information on how to use these practices successfully is becoming more accessible.
We look forward to doing more of this necessary work, along with the support of our local community who we have so much gratitude and appreciation for! We all have to start acting now, because it begins and ends with each of us (especially farmers) putting forth an honest effort to collectively make a difference in our own futures.
Through individual empowerment and focused actions, each of us can make more of a positive difference in this world. Start small and local, then expand out from there. Even if it's just by supporting a farm like ours, that is focused on using regenerative farming methods locally. Or by opening the door to start learning more about what exactly regenerative agriculture is, and how it has the ability to make a significantly positive impact on all of our lives.