The Hudson Valley is remarkable for the number of large farms dotting its productive landscape. Some of the region’s best known biodynamic farms are there, as are a number owned by non-profit organizations. One of the largest that is still privately owned is Stone House Farm in Hudson. Put together in the 1980s by the purchase of 6 local struggling dairy operations, the farm is now composed of some 2500 acres on various soils – some heavy clay, others loam, still others gravel — as the area’s ancient geology dictates.
The prime mover for the farm was Peggy McGrath Rockefeller, an activist in the cause of preserving farmland. Besides helping start the American Farmland Trust and the use of agricultural easements as a way of keeping land in agriculture, she engineered the purchases that put together Stone House Farm.
Now owned by her children Abby, David and Peggy, the goal is to make a viable farm-based business that can serve as a model for the region. Activities to date have largely focused on transitioning from 40 years of conventional livestock, corn and soy production to becoming more of a diversified organic farm.
About 900 acres of the total are in hay and pasture, primarily for a herd of Black Angus cattle and some additional forage sales. Holistic Management principles and the ideas of Alan Savory for mimicking nature in managing grazing herds by moving them more often are central to the animal operation, both for better utilization of the available forage and for building soil carbon and greater resilience. One big improvement on the books is for a proper perimeter fence to enable fencing off paddocks throughout the 900 acres.
One exciting possibility for this land is creating a cohabitation or several year rotation between grazers and cropland. One possible idea would be four years on in a very rigorous cropping rotation and four years off to rebuild the soil by keeping livestock on it. Part of the pasture might be annual grasses, planted every year, along with perennials. It would have a heavy root structure, but not like a sod. So after the livestock period they might be able to plant it with a cover crop, roll and crimp that, and plant right into it. Gabe Brown is one well known farmer doing this out in North Dakota.
The remaining 1600 or so acres are currently devoted to non-GMO grain, primarily corn and soy but also wheat, barley, oats, rye, vetch, peas and buckwheat.
As the new Rockefeller generation took over the farm from the older one, they didn’t agree on many common goals. Two they did all support, however, were that they didn’t want toxic chemicals on the farm, that it should be organic, and that they wanted it to at least pay for itself, to have some profit so that it would represent a model for how such farming can be done.
They looked around for someone who had the right mix of experience to run the farm and settled on a local, Ben Banks Dobson. Ben, the 30-something son of organic greens grower Ted Dobson, owner of the 15 acre Sheffield, Massachusetts Equinox Farm, had a lot of agricultural experience.
“I was born on a small organic farm in this county,” Ben recalls. “But I didn’t really like school growing up so I dropped out after 9th grade and went to early college. But I didn’t really like that either, so I dropped out of that and started a farm. When I was 16 I did a little CSA and vegetable garden on my grandfather’s land. Then I went and managed my dad’s salad farm in Sheffield for three years while I was still a teenager and into my early 20s.”
In 2007 Dobson got the opportunity to take over a 170 acre organic greens operation in Bowdoinham, Maine.
“A guy from California had brought a lot of his equipment east,” he explains, “and set up an east coast operation similar to what they do with greens in California. My dad used to buy salad greens from his farm in the winter. He wanted to sell and gave me a lease/purchase agreement on it.”
With some partners Ben secured a quarter million dollar loan, found investors, and started Atlantic Organics. The company, under the Locally Known label, sold salad greens to 60 Whole Foods and 40 Trader Joes stores, much of it packaged in clamshells for immediate take home.
“It was the biggest organic greens operation east of Colorado,” says Dobson. “It was MOFGA certified. We had big harvesters, a big packing house with automatic clamshell packing. I had to come up with 30 tons a week. So I really had to push it – get everything just right. Our quality standards got harder and harder to meet — if you had one yellow leaf on a pallet you could get that whole pallet kicked. With a wholesale operation you can just pick one leaf out. But with a Whole Foods, or a Trader Joe’s or a Hannafords, we could get docked for any little issue. We had to have much higher quality.
“I finally got burned out,” he continues. “I was working 100 hours a week for four years during the season. I made some money, but not enough to justify what I was doing. I got tired of it. I didn’t want to farm that way anymore. It didn’t feel very organic – the soil conditions and to farm greens on that scale. It was pretty nasty on the soil, the tillage. We could cycle from one planting to another in 30 days!”
Ben ended up selling the company in Maine. He worked in Haiti trying to rebuild an irrigation structure on a 20,000 hectare scale and then was asked by the grandfather of one of his friends to help with the transition to organic of a big organic banana and mango and coffee enterprise in the Dominican Republic.
“But my wife is from Haiti,” he says, “and we didn’t like the Dominican culture very much so we just lasted six months there. The Dominicans are extremely racist, even though they are black themselves. It’s a tough culture to deal with. Not many intellectual people you can find there. Trujillo killed all the intellectuals – two generations of them. A lot of the Haitian intellectuals escaped a similar fate under Papa Doc!”
Dobson’s understanding of soil carbon came early. He was at Simon’s Rock College of Bard taking an environmental studies course with Professor Don Roeder, who he credits with having a big influence on his thinking.
“As a teenager,” he says, “I realized that photosynthesis was the only thing that could mitigate atmospheric carbon dioxide. I learned about photosynthesis in the fourth grade, like most people, but really it hit home to me in that class that one of the major solutions to climate change would be reviving the ecosystems that all land surfaces use. All the people in charge can only think about cutting emissions. But cutting emissions alone won’t be nearly enough. I think a lot of scientists know this – we have to sequester our carbon and the only way to do it is through CO2 and plants.
“I learned all that at Simon’s Rock,” he continues, “but I never really made the huge connection between how bad tillage was (even though I do till sometimes now!) until I got to Maine. By the end of my time in Maine I realized that I have to stop tilling. Then I went and worked on that biodynamic banana and mango farm where they didn’t till at all. They had crops that had been in for 20 years, the same ones. That really struck me as what we need to be striving for.”
The owners of Stone House Farm are very interested in building soil carbon there.
“They come here regularly to visit the farm,” he reports, “and see how it is doing. They have quarterly meetings, but often one or two will stop by in between. They are very receptive to the whole soil carbon issue. They have land elsewhere as well, and are using grazing along the Savory lines to use livestock to rebuild soil.”
In fact, one of the projects Ben directs is to measure the farm’s existing soil carbon profile. His longtime friend and farming partner David Goldstein manages that on a day to day basis.
But for now, Dobson’s primary work is trying to get the farm’s grain operation on a solid footing: making sure their product and what they buy in is of high quality, that markets are ready for it, shipments are timely, and the farm is financially viable.
He also oversees the farm’s imminent certification as an organic producer. Stone House is currently smaller than Lakeview Grain, the largest regional organic feed supplier, but Ben figures they will be Lakeview’s size in 2 or 3 years. Other active competitors are Cold Springs Farm in New York, and Green Mountain Feeds and Morrison’s Feed in Vermont. But Dobson is confident there is room for one more dealer.
“I’ve been here three years now,” he says, “working with grain. Since I came here we have had a huge job just trying to build up the infrastructure to keep up with the demand from the market. We knew that we were going to have a big presence in organic feed and we already did well in non-GMO feed. It’s a big enough farm that we have to do enough things that it was sort of sink or swim. So far I’m swimming! As it is now, we are buying in some product. But we have plans to expand. There is so much work in getting the infrastructure in place to hold the grain, clean it, process it, mix it and market it appropriately! That is the biggest part of my work.
“We’re not in the black yet on a cash basis,” he continues, “but I think next year we will be. America at the consumer level is a $40 billion organic market. But that grows about 12% a year. And organic land increases only about 1% or 2% per year. So we import all the extra grain we need. It all comes from overseas. Right now it is not a good time for growth because the dollar is strong which makes it attractive to buy grain abroad. But when the dollar is weak organic prices here are going to have to climb.”
One of the realities of a grain operation, particularly one mixing grains to animal feed specifications, is the importance of large equipment. Grain trucked in from the field is contaminated with stones, chaff, bug parts and many other things. It must be cleaned. Then it must be stored, kept dry and mold-free, and then moved to various containers as needed for mixing, bagging, and shipping.
The first thing you see approaching Stone House Farm, rising high over the buildings, is the grain elevator. The elevator is a tower of pipes for accessing all the various grain storage facilities — it feeds the right grain through the right tubes to fill the appropriate bin. Emptying the bins is done with separate augers and pipes from the base of the bins. The grain mixing building is next to the elevator.
Ben supervised a whole rework of the equipment and how the bins are set up in order to get places for all the ingredients that aren’t grown on-farm – things like alfalfa meal and sunflower meal. The farm produces all their own soy meal from their own beans, and has an extruder for soy oil as well as a roaster.
When I arrived at the farm Ben was 100 feet in the air sealing the joints of an old Harvestor silo before the predicted rain. It was on the dairy farm when they bought it and would make a great place to store grain — except it leaks.
“They are thick steel and maintain a vacuum,” he says, “but for me I don’t need that. I just want them water-tight. Any Harvestor before 1979 needs sealant on the seams. We re-sleeved the old auger tube and now we have a vacuum system that sucks the grain in. I actually put air through this one to keep mold from forming. We blow air into the floor the grain sits on and have vents at the top to take it out. It keeps the moisture level down.
“But these silos were just a stupid idea,” he continues. “It’s a really expensive tube for storing silage, which ferments just as well in a big bunker on the ground that is much easier to get at. The silo unloader is really slow, so it’s much easier to just scoop it out of a bunker with a tractor. But banks got farmers to spend a huge amount of money to build these things. It was a badge of honor to have one on your farm, but ultimately it was really stupid because it didn’t work as well as a bunker and they were ten times the cost. Many farmers went bankrupt because of the extra financial burden of the Harvestors. I call them ‘Bankrupstors’.”
The farm’s business plan involves a two-fold marketing strategy. David Goldstein explains it to me as we tour the fields.
“One is the organics,” he says, “which we are building towards. There’s a good opportunity when it comes to organic feed around here. People have been begging for sources. We’re just now getting our operation certified. But beside that we want to offer grain that can be used by those on the transition to organic. So we need to establish and maintain a market for what we call non-GMO grain. It is a label that we are putting on product that is using all the organic methods and practices but is not certifiable organic because it is grown on land that does not meet the 3-years free of chemicals test.
“Most farmers would agree,” he continues, “that organics is more profitable, but not a lot of them want to take that 3-year hit with all the added input costs of organic but not getting the premium price yet. We’re trying to find ways to make that land break even. If we can show some sort of metrics, if you will, and a prescription of: ‘Hey, you can grow rye very inexpensively and get a return on it even at conventional pricing.’ That is some money to earn while you are conditioning the ground for when organic certification happens and you can have a high value crop in there.”
One of the practices which Stone House Farm is working on is to minimize the tillage they use so that they can improve soil structure and sequester carbon. Ben thinks that they can reduce it to every two or three years to kill weeds in annual grain cropping, and probably once every five years for seeding hay and pasture.
One key to this reduction is the farm’s roller-crimper, which is rolled over a cover crop just before it sets seed to knock it down and crimp the stems, effectively killing it. David took me to two of their cornfields, one planted into a crimped cover crop, the other after tilling.
“This is not a perfect side-by–side,” he admits, “because the soil profiles are quite different, but it is an idea to show that our roller-crimped corn is better than our tilled corn. It seems like the plants are a foot or more shorter in the tilled field, with a poorer frame. It is definitely not as well established in the center of the field. You can see soil everywhere. This tilled corn went in a little earlier than the no-till corn. There was a rye-vetch in here earlier as well, but it wasn’t established as much. And it was plowed down. There is clover and vetch still here, coming back.”
Ben showed me another cornfield that had been out of tillage for 4 years until 2016. They were able to manage it that way as a result of having very little weed pressure because of planting a heavy vetch/rye cover crop cocktail on it. Then last fall it had oats and peas and radishes as well. It had been rolled and crimped for two years and planted to small grains. After four years they decided they had to till to get the vetch and some weeds under control, and they did end up with a very clean crop this year. But they are creatively using cover crops to minimize that tillage.
“We’re now underseeding clover a year before cropping,” Ben says. “That way we leave soil resting for quite a long time. Like we’re planting winter wheat now, in the fall of 2016. In the spring of 2017 we’ll mix clover seed into the composted poultry manure that we spread and then when we harvest the wheat in July or August we don’t have to till and there is clover already there. So we keep a living root and no tillage for about 18 months. In May of 2018 we’ll plant the corn.”
Stone house Farm has just added some new land that was farmed conventionally until last week and has a serious weed problem. They have a plan to avoid tillage, but will have to see how it works out.
“They just pulled the corn off of it,” says David. “This fall we will no-till drill rye directly into the corn stubble, and that rye will be harvested next spring as a seed crop. If there is not heavy weed pressure then we will put in a fall biomass cover crop and that will stand through the winter. The next spring we might roller-crimp that or till, depending on what happens, and plant corn. The control for weeds is either time – in a stale seed bed or cover crop — or tillage.”
The farm has a 31-foot wide crimper to use on cover crops. Ben reports that he is happy with it, but has had to learn just how to use it.
“To make it work,” he sighs, “you have to do a lot of thinking and planning. They often are not heavy enough and you have to get the cover crop at the right stage. I’ve learned how to kill it – after you roll and crimp and plant you just go over it with an empty no-till grain drill. That re-crimps it and you kill the shit out of it. But you have to get it just right.”
David shows me a 70 acre field in corn which was done properly. The first thing you notice when you walk through it is a thick mat of cover crop residue and litter on the ground. The corn was planted in early June, but before that they had rye and vetch growing that had been planted last fall. It was a thick stand and David was concerned that it was going to be too thick to roll. Essentially it was a full 5 feet of biomass but they rolled and crimped it down to a mat of about three inches of thickness.
“After we rolled and crimped,” he recalls, “we ran our drill empty – a John Deere 1590. It’s a standard drill but it has relatively tight spacing – about seven and a half inches. We ran that crosshatched to our roller crimper and our planter and got ample kill. But the timing was crucial. We did it just past the milk stage for the rye and vetch. As you start seeing those seeds starting to set you want to kill it. A lot of people say you can go prior to the milk stage, but I like to see it with seeds starting. Then I know, as an annual, it is not going to continue to grow. You want to get all the energy out, expel all that, and then hit it.”
“This is the first time we have had this thick a biomass,” he continues. “The corn was slow to come up this summer – we didn’t have enough rain. There were some issues with ‘pinning’ as they call it. If you don’t have enough down pressure on your seeder to cut through the whole thatch, what happens is this ‘pinning’ effect where the thatch is just pressed down into the planting crease, the corn seed sits in that thatch, and then it rots.”
“Our roller crimping works best,” he concludes, “in our lighter soils. If we start getting into heavy clay we start having issues – it doesn’t crimp properly, the growth doesn’t come as quickly, the weeds have established that much more, oftentimes it is either too wet or too dry. We haven’t found crimping to be the answer to all, but it definitely is the direction we are trying to move in. I don’t like to say that we are no-till. I say we are minimum till.”
We stop at a field in which soybeans are being harvested. It, too, has a good mat of cover crops on the ground, crimped in May with soy then planted right into the mulch. Sometimes, however, they have so many weeds they have to give the field a ‘hard restart’ or plowing. David believes that plowing is actually better for the soil and weeds than disking.
“You bury those weed seeds when you turn the soil over,” he asserts. “If plowed appropriately, it is better than disking for weeds. When you plow you maintain a lot of the structure. When you disk you spread everything apart, all your roots are chopped up.”
Sometimes the cover crop can actually become a cash crop.
“If you are able to walk in a field and see any vetch right now,” David says, “you are going to have a field of purple flowers come July first! Vetch is one of our favorite cover crops. It can be a pain, for sure, and take over. But every year we have one field that we give to the vetch. We harvest it and mix it in with the rye to sell as a cover crop mixture. It’s a great value-added product. It can turn a ton of rye, which might go for $400, into about a thousand dollars just by adding 20% vetch. It can add a lot of value. You might only get 10 or 15 bushels an acre, but it is well worth it.”
One of the most interesting aspects of Stone House Farm is that they are deeply involved in trying to measure the carbon in their soil and how it changes. While Ben is the designer of the systems, David does a lot of the actual hands on work dealing with data.
“Our basic message on this project,” David says, “is that since the industrial revolution over 40% of the active carbon released to the atmosphere has come from the soil. Consciousness of this is just beginning to filter out and we need to learn how to get agriculture to sequester carbon, not release it. Here at the farm we want to get good data on the carbon in our soils so that when the time comes that people want to know how to build it we have good information. We want to find out what our net carbon is right now, and want to monitor it over time. The luxury of this project is that we have so much acreage and so much diversity. Even if you were to give a prescription on one field, the next field would be totally different.”
One of the first steps in soil testing is to identify soil types and horizons. David says he has tons of soil maps and data from online and does a lot of work on Google Earth with keyhole markup language (kml) programs that represent all the soil types.
To get carbon metrics they run a standard test called a ‘loss on ignition’ test. A furnace burns a soil sample at about 600 Celsius. Anything that is lost by oxidation at temperatures below 600 degrees is considered organic (58% of which is carbon) and anything above that is considered mineral. You weight the sample before and after ignition and the difference is the net loss.
Such a test does not distinguish between various forms of carbon such as recent plant residue vs. humus or liquid carbon plant exudates vs. microbial biomass. Nevertheless it is a starting point.
The farm is working with a number of laboratories – Woods End, Cornell, Way Point (the old A & L Labs) to run such tests. They send portions of the same samples to various labs and note whether the results are redundant or differ. They work with Boston University to measure various stable isotopes and analyze the carbon and nitrogen in each sample.
A microbiologist is the farm’s in-house lab tech and they have a panel of other advisors, including Chris Nichols from Rodale, who look at their experimental design.
David says Stone House just bought a coring machine that can sample soil as far as a meter under the surface. They divide a one meter core into 5 depth subdivisions and send out soil from each subdivision to the labs.
Ben also has have submitted a request in next year’s budget for a unit they call an elemental analyzer. It uses high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC), an analytical chemistry technique, to separate, identify, and quantify each component in a soil sample.
Such resources being poured into soil carbon measurements may seem unusual at a private farm, but of course there is a potential return of significance. Depending on how the climate change issue proceeds, there may well be payments made for documented sequestration of carbon.
“Ultimately,” says Dobson, “we would like to sell carbon credits, too, as an extra source of income. You can factor that into the economic equation.”