Homing in on the Harvest: Casting About for Priority

Photo by Marvin Recino

Photo by Marvin Recinos, provided by author.

Social justice and attending to the planet proceed in parallel; the abuse of one entails the exploitation of the other. – Paul Hawken, “Blessed Unrest”

In a new year, a world stunned by crises remains shaken, its systems undone and notes scattered. It’s a time ripe for the reorganization of rooms and a rewriting of narratives.

Climate and migration: our treatment of the planet is linked to our treatment of the people, and to burn one is to scar the other. While doomsday scenarios are little help, biting depictions may be the jolt we need to snap out of our trance. So let’s drop one hand from our eyes, and fully realize the might of that big, burning star.

Looking out our window and opening the door.

The U.S.-Mexico border continues to coldly determine the fates of hundreds of thousands. While many cite violence as ignition for the migrations north, the one dictating who stays and goes may in fact be climate.

Extreme weather events are diminishing yields, livelihoods and food access throughout Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, where such scenarios breed poverty and tempt corruption. Approaches like the “Remain in Mexico” policy abandon asylum-seekers to true vulnerability.
Refugees fleeing these crises ought to be as prioritized and protected as political asylum seekers, as “these phenomena interact and tend to exacerbate each other.” (Miranda Cady Hallett, The Conversation)

Exposed en route, exploited upon arrival.

The journey, the unlikeliness of a warm welcome and the conditions once settled are all ridden with threats to the health and safety of migrant families. Those trekking north travel light, insufficiently shielded from the elements. Others, who have managed to find work on U.S. farms, are subjected to the same.

The average agricultural worker experiences nearly a month’s worth of working amid unsafe temperatures per year. In the face of COVID-19 and wildfires, the fields this past summer were more menacing than ever before.

Global warming won’t be quelled within the week, but policy makers, commercial growers and pesticide companies can be held to greater scrutiny in the meantime. As consumers, we have power to question, hold accountable, and demand transparency.

Our treatment of the planet is linked to our treatment of the people, and to burn one is
to scar the other.

We have our own problems to deal with.
Don’t we?

The U.S. already has its own climate migrants – those uprooted as a result of natural disasters or unforgiving weather patterns. Along our coasts, communities are chased from their homes by relentless hurricanes, floods and fires.

By recognizing climate migration alongside climate variability – and furthermore its shared path with zoonotic diseases like COVID-19 – as causes for concern, we can begin to alter the algorithms of our deeply-rooted systems.

A pioneering piece of legislation, the pending Climate Displaced Persons Act, explicitly defines climate migrants and acknowledges our country’s legal responsibility to welcome them. This could mean up to 50,000 environmentally displaced people taken in by the U.S. each year.

Intriguingly, the bill also acknowledges the U.S.’s role in worsening the climate crisis. It aims to develop a resiliency strategy to help improve environments in other countries, thereby preventing mass migration.

This would set a significant example, offering up the baton to other wealthy countries.

“The land is turning against them.”

For those who struggle to accept weather crises as threats to be taken as seriously as gang violence, or who downplay the role farming has in making or breaking a region, we may need more instances of imperiled communities to be brought into light.

In Alta Verapaz, Guatemala, the rising frequency of El Niños are running families and livelihoods into the ground with an onslaught of drought and flooding, making it impossible to bring any crops to yield and rapidly draining finances. Half the children in this region are chronically malnourished; Indigenous peoples, largely dependent on the land, are thrust into poverty.

“Maybe a family member is sick. Maybe they are trying to make up for losses from the previous year. But in every situation,” insists Guatemalan forestry expert Yarsinio Palacios, “it has something to do with climate change.”

Unfurling a new map to chart our future.

In a novel, collaborative effort to model how migrations occur across borders, The New York Times Magazine, ProPublica and the Pulitzer Center were able to better observe the scale of and forces driving climate migration.

Reporter Abrahm Lustgarten emphasizes the need for food and the role of governments in shaping the outcomes of these movements. He echoes warnings by the UN that the nations being hit hardest by climate change “could topple as whole regions devolve into war.”

If governments respond even modestly in reducing emissions, the number of climate migrants between now and 2050 would be nearly halved. “The model shows that the political responses to both climate change and migration can lead to drastically different futures.”
Here’s hoping that more data, coupled with more first-hand accounts, help us to realize the links to be made between people, planet and the promise of better – if warmer – days ahead.

This is the third in an ongoing series by Bec Sloane, spotlighting experiences of migrant farmworkers in the U.S. amid the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond; restlessleg.medium.com

Bec is a visual media professional and educator, bridging awareness gaps between the agricultural sector and general public through content creation and cross-sector collaboration. She is a contributing writer for IMM-Print, host to shareable resource hub botheredearth.com and can be reached at 0.becsloane@gmail.com

Resources and Links
Study: Rising temperatures will double the risk to farmworkers in the coming decades: grist.org
How Climate Change Is Fuelling the U.S. Border Crisis: newyorker.com
Migrant Workers Restricted to Farms Under OneGrower’s Virus Lockdown: nytimes.com

Curious Cultivars: New Cherry Ember tomato reveals striped charm, bright flavor

Cherry Ember tomatoes dazzle growers with their
metallic gold stripes and thick, crack-resistant
skin. Photo provided by Fruition Seeds.

Cherry tomatoes are a staple in home gardens, farm fields and local food markets, but growing them can be a challenging undertaking. Now, a new variety from Cornell AgriTech provides improved yield and shelf-life while enhancing both visual and culinary appeal.

A cross between heirloom tomato varieties, Cherry Ember was developed by Phillip Griffiths, associate professor of horticulture in the School of Integrative Plant Science, part of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. The new tomato is now on sale through Fruition Seeds, an organic seed company based in Naples, New York.

“One of the problems with cherry tomatoes is that they tend to have thin skins, and so half of them crack on the plant, and the half that you pick crack after a few days,” Griffiths said. “Cherry Ember is a little firmer, with more of the post-harvest characteristics of a grape tomato”.

Its thicker skin and meatier flesh helps keep the fruit from cracking both in the field and after being harvested — even during high rainfall seasons, which pose problems for thinner skins.

“The increased shelf stability is a very important attribute of this variety,” Griffiths added, “especially when combined with high yield, desirable aesthetics and a smaller, single-bite size.” When Petra Page-Mann saw Cherry Ember at one Curious Cultivars: New Cherry Ember tomato reveals striped charm, bright flavor of Griffiths’ field trials in 2019, it stood out like a “luminescent gem.” As the co-owner of Fruition Seeds, she has seen increased grower interest in unique color and flavor combinations. With its metallic gold stripes, rich taste and ease to grow, Page-Mann was eager to add the new variety to their sales portfolio, but it still needed a name.

Last fall, she launched a naming contest on Fruition Seeds’ Instagram account with Griffiths’ support. They sorted through more than a thousand suggestions before holding the final runoff vote, where Cherry Ember emerged as a clear winner. “It’s a great introduction to life beyond the red tomato,” Page-Mann said. “It’s like a classic red tomato in terms of flavor, but there are brighter notes, especially if you let it sit on the vine. Then you get bright fruit flavors.”

Cherry Ember also gives growers something to look forward to as early as mid-July since it ripens just 65 days after being planted and continues to grow until the first frost. “We love Griff’s creativity with visuals and flavors, as well as his focus on regional adaptation,” Page- Mann said. “We’ve trialed dozens of his tomatoes over the past few years, and they are a dream to grow and sell in New York.” Erin Rodger is the senior manager of marketing and communications for Cornell AgriTech.

This article originally appeared in the Cornell Chronicle 1.26. 2021 and was reprinted with persmission. Curious Cultivars is a new section of TNF, written in partnership with Fruition Seeds, highlights new seeds or forgotten heirloom and heritage varieties. In the heart of the Finger Lakes of western New York, Fruition Seeds shares organic, regionally adapted seeds as well as the tools, inspiration & insight for us all to thrive.
Links: Fruition Seeds: fruitionseeds.com

Unto Thyself Be True – A Whole Life Approach to Resilience at Rock Steady Farm

Rock Steady DRural areas in this country are not always welcoming of newcomers, especially if they are LGBTQIA or people of color. Salespeople at farm supply stores may greet feminine-presenting shoppers with demeaning questions like “what did he send you to buy?”

Defying deeply ingrained prejudices as well as the economic assumption that to pay the bills organic farms have to sell to high-end markets, Rock Steady has been able to create a successful farm and welcoming community space with over half of its sales going to low-income households. By responding to the pandemic quickly and skillfully, the Rock Steady farmers have even been able to increase community support. Let’s take a look at this remarkable farm to see what lessons about adaptation and resilience we can learn from the Rock Steady story.

Late in 2015, Maggie Cheney and D Rooney established Rock Steady Farm on twelve acres of leased open valley land next to the Watershed Center, “a retreat center for changemakers,” in Millerton, NY, a two hour drive north of NYC. From the start, Maggie and D and Angela DeFelice (a third partner who has since shifted roles to be a financial advisor to the farm) set out a complex social mission for Rock Steady as “an LGBTQIArun cooperative, rooted in social justice, growing sustainable vegetables and flowers.” People care is at the top of the Rock Steady priority list right next to soil health. Rather than hiding who they are, the partners proudly declare that they are “endlessly grateful to be who we are, and engaging in farming with both care for each other and the earth as best we can.” Creating a space where they themselves are comfortable and providing that sense of openness and acceptance to others is central to their effort. As D puts it, “Rock Steady is at a point where we are catching a groove of who we are that we never had before. There is a lot of knowledge that we believe we have that we can share about how to make it work.”

Attending Farm School NYC turned D onto farming. Experienced in carpentry and restaurant work, D speaks humbly about lacking a farming background, though by now, they have had a decade of experience working with youth at the Bushwick Campus Farm, with community gardeners, and a season as an apprentice at Sister’s Hill Farm, where Dave Hambleton provides some of the most solid training in organic CSA farming available anywhere on the planet. Maggie has spent their whole life in food and farming. They grew up on the Food Project Farm in Boston run by their dad, ran school gardens in Oakland, CA, and attended the UC Santa Cruz Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Farming Systems. Maggie’s dad is still farming full time and is a wonderful thought partner when talking about avoiding burn out or trouble shooting daily tractor work.

Before branching off to start Rock Steady, D and Maggie were among the founders of Rise and Root Farm with Lorrie Clevenger, Jane Hodge, Michaela Hayes and Karen Washington, and ties remain close. I made the acquaintance of this incredible group of movers and shakers when I slept on the bottom bunk of a double decker bed with Karen and Jane on top at the first Growing Power conference in Milwaukee in 2012. At that time, I wrote “The Color of Organic – Is Changing,” for the NOFA-NY newsletter – opening with these reflections – “If the “National and International Urban and Small Farm Conference – Growing the Good Food Movement” had been the first sustainable agriculture conference I ever attended, I would have a very different impression of the movement. At least half of the 1500 participants at the Wisconsin State Fair Park, September 7 – 9, 2012, were under 30 and more than half were people of color – African Americans, Central and South Americans, Asians, Native Americans.” I look forward to the day when everyone will take that diversity for granted.

“We want to tap into more diverse groups of people who are located within the local food movement.”

To get back to Rock Steady, their approach to creating a farm is the very opposite of the John Wayne go-it-aloners. D and Maggie are methodical planners who take advantage of their own years of experience, the wisdom of farming elders, and the counseling and advice available through their connections with the cooperative and social service communities. D and Maggie’s initial marketing plan was to develop a CSA with share payments on a sliding scale so that lower-income people could afford them, and to offset the lower prices of vegetables with sales of flowers that generate higher revenues. Rock Steady grew flowers for the first two years, but has put them on pause due to the rapid growth of the CSA propelled by the pandemic. Their Facebook page for April 7, 2021, declared, “CSA, we have actually SOLD Out! 500 members strong, it’s our largest CSA to date! Woah!”

To access the capital to start up Rock Steady, the partners were able to take out a loan of over a hundred thousand dollars from The Working World, which continues to provide them with a line of credit for working capital. The Working World practices “non-extractive finance,” distinguishing its operating principles from conventional lenders: “we never take a single dime from the people we work with that doesn’t come from income we’ve helped generate. No community will ever be made poorer by working with us.” Their website clarifies: “a business loan should be a tool to help you grow, not to rob you blind.” In its list of projects, The Working World gives a vote of confidence to Rock Steady, “Projections are lean but appear feasible, especially as the changes instituted during conversion take hold in the coming years.” Rock Steady has also received funding and business advice from Seed Commons, the Cooperative Development Initiative, Community Food Funders and the 2020 Food Movement Support Fund, with the Watershed Center acting as their fiscal sponsor along with a dozen other grants and private foundations. Each year, Rock Steady has been able to increase the percentage of their food that goes to low-income people from an initial 40% to 57% of the CSA shares in 2020. “We want to be able to feed people who don’t usually have the access to local, organic and nutritious food. That’s at the heart of what we do,” in D’s words. Funding for the lowest payments and free shares does not come out of the farmers’ pockets. The farm has a Food Access Fund and appeals repeatedly for contributions. In addition, the CSA uses a sliding scale modeled after Soul Fire Farm’s, but very similar to the scale my farm adopted as early as 1990. About 30% of their CSA members pay the baseline or market price point for shares. Another 18% pay at the top end of the sliding scale, thus subsidizing those who pay less. Many members pay with SNAP/EBT. CSAs have tended to cater to the white, middle-upper class and “we want to tap into more diverse groups of people who are located within the local food movement,” Cheney says. “Queer folks are often facing health problems like diabetes, obesity and other dietrelated illnesses which means their health is compromised. We want to see how we can bring healthy food into the queer-identified community in New York City.”

“Queer folks are often facing health problems like diabetes, obesity and other dietrelated illnesses which means their health is compromised. We want to see how we can bring healthy food into the queer-identified community.”

Community partnerships and energetic fundraising are key to share distribution. Maggie devotes a lot of time and energy to figuring out the mission alignment, share size and content or bulk order that best fit each partner program. An important connection for relations with Millerton locals has been providing shares for the North East Community Center that services low-income people in several towns near the farm. The farm has working relationships with programs that cater to the needs of low-income families and especially LGBTQIA people with health problems including Callen-Lorde, which serves 10,000 patients, Community Access, a NYC housing non-profit, and The Free People’s Market, serving low-income Latinx and people from the African diaspora. Callen-Lorde provides free shares to their most at-risk patients with HIV and other chronic illnesses. Each arrangement is individualized. In 2020, the farm raised enough to donate 90 free shares. Maggie gives generously of her time to collaborating with and building networks that provide support – the Queer Money Project, the Queer Farmer Network, the NE Queer Farmer Alliance, and the Sexual and Gender Diversity cohort of Via Campesina. Both Maggie and D present on their work at conferences around the country and abroad.

Rock Steady also provides incubation space for another remarkable project – Jalal Sabur’s Sweet Freedom Farm, which grows food for incarcerated people, their families and other food insecure people in the Hudson Valley. Sabur, a prison abolitionist, racial justice leader and member of the Soul Fire Farm Board, takes aim at the shamefully inadequate food in NY prisons, and raises funds to rent buses to bring families on prison visits.

To counter what Rock Steady calls “the intensity of capitalism, colonialism and the dehumanization of farm workers,” the farm classifies everyone who works there as farmers and potential members of their farmer-owned cooperative. Within a month, four more of the farmers will join Maggie and D as owners. A farm goal is to pay everyone a living wage – each year they get closer, sharing improved revenues among the whole crew. Everyone is on payroll, including Maggie and D, so that they get Workers Comp and Paid Family Leave, and if the farm makes a profit, owners will get to take a portion of it. They also get a CSA share and the farm provides a minimum of five days of paid vacation and five days of paid sick leave. The farm is applying for Food Justice Certification as a way to verify publicly that they are meeting their commitment to farmworker justice.

As the child of a farmer, Maggie is sensitive to the many ways that growing healthy vegetables can damage the health, both physical and mental, of those doing the growing. While intensely involved in the farm, she says she can walk away from it to get some work-life balance. The farm is scaled to allow for diversified work each day. Workers are trained in food and farm safety and urged to learn new skills. The employee handbook stresses building “efficiency, speed and quality” in the work, but limits the work day to eight hours. An hour lunch break and two mandatory 15-minute rest breaks. There are morning check-ins, three employee evaluations a season, and the whole crew makes the time to dedicate regular sessions to peer review and work with outside facilitators from Relational Uprising, which focus on building trusting relationships and honest communication. The farm also has a detailed grievance process that explicitly states that retaliation for bringing up a complaint is prohibited.

An extra benefit for Rock Steady farmers comes in the form of healthcare advice and treatments from some of the many healers who are supporters of the farm. This turned out to be especially important in 2017 when a surprise storm whipped through the farm injuring Maggie severely. They have spoken and written eloquently about how her community showed up for her with care and support that allowed her to recover from a brain injury.

Less unusual than the time Rock Steady devotes to social practices, but just as central to their goals, is their approach to soil care. Year by year, they are finding ways to disturb the soil less and cover crop more, with 90% of their land cover cropped in 2020. The website explains: “While not “Certified Organic”, we use only organic, holistic practices. These practices include IPM, using row-cover instead of spraying, organic low-spray techniques (a last resort), cover cropping, organic compost, organic greenhouse soil, organic granular fertilizer, increasing pollinators through planting natives and diverse plants and much more!” In 2021, they will plant flowering perennials to support pollination. Facebook photos of fields after an inundative rain show no standing water or signs of erosion.

In her book Resilient Agriculture, Laura Lengnick helps us understand the complexities of resilience and how to design farms that have the capacity to recover from setbacks, to respond quickly and bounce forward while contributing to the transformation of agriculture. She writes that “Diverse networks of equitable relationships build the foundation of resilience including all possible relationships – in soil, between soil, plants, animals and people, between people in community, and between communities within a region and beyond.” Rock Steady Farm is an outstanding example of a resilient farm, a farm with a vision for creating “a new paradigm in a deeply unjust food system.”

Black Farmers Embrace Practices of Climate Resiliency

SFF mulching

At Soul Fire Farm, a BIPOC-centered community farm, farmers learn regenerative methods such as heavy mulching and intercropping. Photo provided by Soul Fire Farm.

Chief Zogli looked weary as he scratched a notch in his doorpost to record the weather. “Still no rain,” he says with resignation. The chickens pecked lazily in the dust and the goats foraged for the last of the dropped grains. In this rural community outside of Odumase-Krobo, Ghana, the farmers depend on rainfall as their only source of agricultural water. Zogli explains that the rainy season has been arriving later each year and ending sooner—and the thirsty crops struggle to mature.

From the African continent to the Americas and across the Caribbean, communities of color are on the front lines of and disproportionately harmed by climate change. Record heat waves have caused injury and death among Latinx farmworkers and devastating hurricanes have become regular annual visitors in the Caribbean islands and coastal areas of the U.S.

Meanwhile, several Alaskan Native communities struggle to hunt and fish in their traditional ways because rising temperatures are ravaging the wildlife. And sub-Saharan Africa, where Ghana is located, is among the regions projected to experience the harshest impacts of climate change. “If you’re not affected by climate change today, that itself is a privilege,” climate activist Andrea Manning says.

Communities of color are on the front lines of and disproportionately harmed by climate change

But the same communities on the frontlines of climate impact are also on the frontlines of climate solutions. A new generation of Black farmers is using heritage farming practices to undo some of the damage brought on by decades of intense tillage by early European settlers.

Their practices drove around 50% of the original organic matter from the soil into the sky as carbon dioxide. Agriculture continues to have a profound impact on the climate, contributing 23% of total greenhouse gas emissions.

Now Black farmers are finding ways to capture that carbon from the air and trap it in the soil. They are employing strategies included in Paul Hawken’s Drawdown, a guide to the 100 most substantive solutions to global warming.

One practice, silvopasture, is an indigenous system that integrates nut and fruit trees, forage, and grasses to feed grazing livestock. Another, regenerative ag- riculture, a methodology first described by agricul- tural scientist and inventor Dr. George Washington Carver, involves minimal soil disturbance, the use of cover crops, and crop rotation. Both systems har- ness plants to capture greenhouse gases. “No other mechanism known to humankind is as effective in addressing global warming as the capturing of car- bon dioxide from the air through photosynthesis,” Hawken says.

Here are examples of how farmers are putting these practices to work.

Leonard Diggs, Pie Ranch Farm, Pescadero, California

After working in an auto parts store during high school, Leonard Diggs swore, “I will never have another job working inside.” True to his word, Diggs went on to manage sustainable farms in northern California for over 30 years.

Diggs is developing a 418-acre incubator farm at Pie Ranch, where beginning farmers will establish their own regenerative enterprises. In collaboration with the Amah Mutsun tribal band and nearby farmers, he is creating a landscape-level ecosystem plan that integrates forest, riparian corridor, native grasslands, and perennial and annual crops. The management practices that emit carbon, such as some annual crops, will be balanced out with perennial areas that sequester carbon, achieving carbon neutrality overall.

“We need to realize that working landscapes pro- vide not just products but also ecosystem services like carbon sinks, water recharge, and evolutionary potential,” Diggs explains. He envisions a food system where farmers derive 30% to 40% of their income from the value of ecosystem services and do not have to “mine” the soil to make a living. He is working with researchers to establish baseline data for the amount of carbon in the soil, and the com- position of bacterial and fungal communities. The goal is for the farm to capture more carbon than it releases over time.

Unlike many incubator farms that emphasize annual crops and allow farmers to stay for just a few years, Diggs is working with a longer horizon. “We need to plant orchards and perennials, get them established over 10 years, and hand new farmers a working landscape. Instead of making them leave as soon as their businesses get established, we will move the incubator to a new area, and the farmers can stay.”

“We need agriculture that does not lose our carbon, and does not deplete our people,” Diggs concluded.

Keisha Cameron, High Hog Farm, Grayson, Georgia

Not everyone in the Black farming community is as excited about fiber as Keisha Cameron. Given the prominent role of the cotton industry in the enslavement of African Americans, many farmers eschew cultivation of textiles. “We are largely absent from the industry on every scale,” she explains. “Yet these agrarian artways and lifeways are part of our heritage.”

At High Hog Farm, Cameron and her family raise heritage breeds of sheep, goats, rabbits, horses and chickens in an integrated silvopasture system and sell fiber and meat. One of her favorite varieties is American Chinchillas, rabbits that consume a wider diversity of forage than goats and fertilize the pasture with their manure.

The family is also working to establish tree guilds, a system where fruit trees are surrounded by a variety of fiber crops such as indigo, cotton, and flax. Their goal is a “closed loop” where all the fertility the farm needs is created in place. They pack a lot of enterprises into a small space. “We have 5 acres,” she says playfully. “Just enough to be dangerous.”

In his book, the Carbon Farming Solution, Eric Toensmeier writes that silvopasture traps 42 tons of carbon per acre every year. This is because pasture stores carbon in the above- and below- ground biomass of grasses, shrubs, and trees. Also, animals that are raised on pasture have healthier digestive systems than those raised in confinement, and emit lower amounts of methane.

In addition to healing the climate, silvopasture is a joyful practice. “I get to play with sheep and bunnies. What could be better?” Cameron poses.

Germaine Jenkins, Fresh Future Farm, North Charleston, South Carolina

When Germaine Jenkins first moved to Charleston, she relied on SNAP and food pantries to feed her children. “I did not like that we couldn’t choose what we wanted to eat, and there were few healthy options. I was sick of standing in line and decided to grow my own stuff.”

Jenkins learned how to cultivate her own food through a master gardening course, a certificate program at Growing Power, and online videos. She promptly started growing food in her yard and teaching her food-insecure clients to do the same through her work at the Lowcountry Food Bank. In 2014, Jenkins won an innovation competition and earned seed money to create a community farm.

Today, Fresh Future Farm grows on 0.8 acres in the Chicora neighborhood and runs a full-service grocery store right on site. “We are living under food apartheid,” explains Jenkins. “So all of the food is distributed right here in the neighborhood on a sliding scale pay system.”
Jenkins relies on what she calls “ancestral muscle memory” to guide her regenerative farming practices. Fresh Future Farm integrates perennial crops such as banana, oregano, satsuma, and loquat together with annuals like collards and peanuts. The farm produces copious amounts of compost on site using waste products like crab shell, and they apply cardboard and wood chips in a thick layer of mulch. “We repurpose everything — old Christmas trees as trellises and branches as breathable cloche for frost-sensitive crops.” Jenkins explains. They even have grapes growing up the fence of the chicken yard so that the “chickens fertilize their own shade.”

“Our duty as earthkeepers is to call the exiled carbon back into the land and to bring the soil life home.”

Jenkins’ farming methods have been so successful at increasing the organic matter in the soil that they no longer need irrigation. They are also less vulnerable to flooding. “Two winters ago, we had 4 feet of snow. Our soil absorbed all of it,” Jenkins says.

Toensmeier writes that for every 1% increase in soil organic matter, we sequester 8.5 tons per acre of atmospheric carbon. If all of us were to farm like Jenkins, Diggs, and Cameron, we could put 322 billion tons of carbon back in the soil where it belongs. That’s half of the carbon we need to capture to stabilize the climate.

As Larisa Jacobson, co-director of Soul Fire Farm explains, “Our duty as earthkeepers is to call the exiled carbon back into the land and to bring the soil life home.”

Leah Penniman is a farmer, educator, soil steward, and food justice activist. She is the co-director and program manager of Soul Fire Farm in Grafton, New York, and the author of Farming While Black: Soul Fire Farm’s Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land. This article originally appeared in Yes! Magazine 12.18.2019 and was reprinted with persmission.

Resources & Links
To see photos of all the farmers listed in this article, visit yesmagazine.org.
Soul Fire Farm: soulfirefarm.org
Pie Ranch: pieranch.org
High Hog Farm: highhog.farm
Book: Farming While Black, by Leah Penniman
Book: Carbon Farming Solution, by Eric Toensmeier
Book: My Work Is That of Conservation
An Environmental Biography of George Washington Carver, by Mark D. Hersey

Feed Supplements, Food Quality and Softening the Footprint of Agriculture

Methane produced by ruminants including cows, sheep and buffalo is responsible for approximately 3% of recent global warming, while agriculture as a whole is responsible for 11% of greenhouse gas emissions. There are promising solutions on the horizon to the methane problem that are likely to be available by the end of the decade. These solutions include changing both the practices and theories of food production. Going forward,the problem of food on Earth is about quality, not quantity.

I grew up on the coast of New England, and have many familiar thoughts of the seaweed that season- ally washes up by the ton on our beaches each year. The smells, and slimes, the red and green and brown algal free-floating nomads, and the others holding

on tight to rocks and shells, staking out their posi- tions in the tidal flows. I don’t remember thinking of these aquatic plants as potential food for people or cows. However, there is a long history of New Eng- land farmers using seaweeds as fertilizer and live- stock fodder, and an even longer history on Earth of people eating the greens of the seas ourselves.

In January of 2016, Australian researchers reported on some in vitro experiments with the red alga, Asparagopsis taxiformis, that showed that as a supplement accounting for 2% by weight of a cow’s diet, the algae could reduce ruminant methane emissions by up to 99%. This exciting finding was followed up by reports coming out in September

that year, that in vivo, live sheep experiments showed similar promise, with up to 80% reductions in methane emissions in animals. The latest research published just this year again shows that 80% of methane emissions can similarly be eliminated from healthy beef steer in real farm settings, and that the steaks taste great.

What is the exact enzymatic mechanism inhibiting methane formation?

Bromoform (like chloroform, but with bromine in place of chlorine) produced by the alga inhibits methane formation in the ruminant gut. As a result, the cows produce more propionate, a larger mole- cule than methane, which animals can further digest and get more energy from. Some evidence suggests that cows can potentially grow more and faster on the same amount of feed when the alga is used as a supplement.

Over the past 20 years an explosion of research into enteric methane inhibition has included trials of vac- cines to eliminate methanogens from the gut, and

the development of food supplements that contain chemical inhibitors of methanogenesis that prevent methane formation even when methanogenic organ- isms are present.

The idea of a medicine, vaccine or food supplement that can lower or even eliminate methane production from ruminants is rapidly becoming a reality. For organic farmers, there is the possibility that wild harvested and farmed organic food supplements made from Asparagopsis taxiformis and other macro algae with natural antimicrobial properties and the ability to inhibit methane generation will soon be available to provide the same benefits.

Why is this big news?

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the World Resources Institute, agriculture is responsible for 11 percent of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the U.S. and around the globe. The methane released by ruminants including cows, sheep and buffalo is responsible for about a third of all of these agricultural GHG emissions, meaning that the methane from our animals is ultimately responsible for three to four percent of all global warming.

Your average cow belches 220 lb of methane into the atmosphere each year

To put things in perspective, your average cow belches 220 lb of methane into the atmosphere each year. Since methane is 25 to 28 times more potent at trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, this is the global warming equivalent of pumping

3 tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere per head per year. When you add it all up, you’re talking about gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent.

What ends up in the atmosphere also can’t become meat. If cows could digest that extra amount of energy instead of releasing it to the atmosphere, mass balance calculations suggest it could also mean gigatons of extra food produced each year – just by adding algae to animal feed.

Depending on who’s counting, there are something like one or one and a half billion cows on this planet, and a billion or so sheep. Further, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, there are 570 million farms in the world, most of them small family operations.

So, the ruminant methane issue is not a point-source pollution problem, and it is not an easy one to solve. If there is any solution to the problem of methane from animals on this planet, it is going to take a huge communications strategy among the world’s farmers. We would need to sell each other on this – try it out, share stories – and look for long-term health impacts in our herds.

My farm is on Tug Hill in Oneida County NY. I raise a small flock of sheep that I use for meat and wool. I also grow potatoes and garlic, and make cheese using milk from local organic dairy farms that raise cows. For Creative Shepherd Farm, and other farms of the Northeast, perhaps some global warming is actually a good thing. My fields are snow covered from mid November through the end of March, and I can easily store water for summer irrigation. As the years go by, productivity for us will likely go up as our Earth warms.

However, I also work with organic farmers in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas and growers in Ecuador in South America where the changing weather patterns precipitated by climate change are anything but helpful to them. As hurricanes strengthen, droughts lengthen and intensify and as seasonal rainfall patterns are becoming less predictable, farmers in these regions are having a harder time maintaining organic agricultural systems. It is clear that we can’t continue to do things in the manner of the past 100 years, driving global weather patterns to greater extremes, and expect national and global stability to result.

Many people have suggested that eating less meat, or no meat is the direction we need to go on this planet. Practically speaking this is neither a dominant consumer perspective, nor is it the direction the world is headed in terms of consumer demand. We are eating more animal protein on this planet than ever, with the gain coming mostly from an increase in poultry production and consumption.

However, the world is still asking valid questions: “Should we even be eating meat?”

“How is it ethical to raise animals for food?” “Can we grow meat in laboratories instead?” “How can we justify the continued use and expansion of live animals in our food system that causes so much harm to our ecosystems?”

Livestock farmers who love their herds and their way of life need answers to these questions that validate their continued existence. Organic farm- ers are particularly in need of solutions, because it

is grass-fed cows and sheep that produce the most methane. By some estimates, grass-fed animals on pasture and range can produce up to three times the methane of cows fed optimized corn and soy based diets in controlled feed systems.

For me, as a livestock farmer in particular, the responsibility to change my farming practice is one I can not overlook. A lot of us have gotten into the idea that local food systems can help us in this challenge; that if we just buy food from farms that are close to where we live, we can solve a big part of the problem with the food system, but it’s just not that simple.

Half of the Earth’s usable land is in agriculture right now, more than ever before, and it is mostly being used to grow animals. We use only 19% of our agricultural land to grow the vegetables and grains that people eat. The rest is grassland, and fodder crop land to support animal production, which you can see in figure 1. Not indicated in this diagram are the approximately 1% of the 12.6 billion total acres of land used for agriculture currently in production of biofuels.

Consider also, that only about eight percent of all the energy used to produce food and get it to consumers is in the transportation. Almost all of the energy and even more critically, the carbon footprint of agriculture is in the production. It

is in the fuel for tractors, the energy used to produce petrochemical herbicides and pesticides and synthetic fertilizers for use in conventional production systems, and in the methane coming from our ruminants as they eat and grow. So being a local food farmer who raises organic livestock doesn’t help solve the problem of global warming at all.

Peripherally, but important to think about at the same time, is that for 50 years the problem of hun- ger on Earth has been one of politics, not produc- tion. In 1999, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, in a paper called World Food Trends and Prospects to 2025, Tim Dyson worried hard that food might potentially be scarce on Earth by now. Granted, he came to the conclusion that we’d probably be ok, but look at what actually hap- pened. Less people on the planet are hungry today than in 1999, even though we have 1.6 billion more people than we did at the turn of the century.

What local and organic food does bring us is the opportunity to eat healthier, fresher, more flavorful foods and to build communities and circular economies. These things will help us be economically and socially sustainable going forward, but they will not bring us environmental sustainability.

Many organic farmers and their customers value the leaner meats, more healthy animals, and natural rotational grazing systems of our operations for their aesthetic and human health benefits, but we have to be honest about the external impacts of the decision to raise grass-fed animals on pasture and range. This organic practice, as it is now, is far from environ- mentally sustainable.

The dirty secret is that grass-fed cows produce more methane than cows eating corn and soy meal at feedlots. For all the instinctual revulsion we organic farmers have to those industrial processes and sys- tems, they are, just like when humans concentrate in cities and have smaller carbon footprints, more efficient, and better for the global carbon budget.

So what are we doing about the methane problem?

Well, the race is on in Australia, California, Vietnam and Portugal to find the best way to farm Aspara- gopsis taxiformis. It can be grown on ropes floating on the surface of open lagoons, but the alga requires a rapid flushing rate, so these lagoons need to be in the ocean, where tidal currents bathe the plant in constantly refreshed water. Ponds on land will not work. It can be grown in the lab, or industrially controlled facilities, but the expense of doing so is much greater than the potential value of the feedstock, even if there is a world price on carbon production, as there may be someday.

Perhaps the most promising source of the potential feed supplement will turn out to be the ocean itself. It was the worldwide weedy behavior of Asparagopsis taxiformis that first caught the world’s attention in the 1970’s, as warming oceans helped the red algae expand out of its historical tropical range north into the Mediterranean, and other waters where it had been a minor ecological player previously.

The dirty secret is that grass-fed cows produce more methane than cows eating corn and soy meal at feedlots

Earlier research into Asparagopsis taxiformis was focussed primarily on its role as an invasive species. But, in the 1990s, several different classes of active biochemical compounds produced by the alga were identified, and since then, the potential applications of this marine plant have been at the center of research on the organism.

There are three big questions when it comes to using natural nutritional food supplements like macroalgae with livestock. First, how will it be grown and harvested sustainably, economically (and organically)? Second, how can it be fed to grazing livestock in a way that makes it work effectively? Third, are these supplements safe for the long-term health of ruminants? If researchers work fast enough to answer these questions, it is likely that we will have broad access to these supplements for use by the end of the decade.

Over the coming decades, farmers have to figure out how to eliminate GHG emissions from their systems. This means we need to find alternative energy sources for fossil fuels and eliminate methane emissions from our livestock systems. Continued improvements in global farm productivity and shifts toward poultry and away from red meat mean that we are likely to never have to use more land on this planet for agriculture than we do today. From a geographic perspective, agriculture on Earth never has to be a net growth industry again. We could grow enough food calories and nutrients for 100 billion people on the agricultural lands we have now with current technologies and quantities of energy inputs.

So now, for all of us, the problem of food is not quantity but quality and distribution.

Once we recognize that food quantity is not the problem, we are left with nutrition and flavor to deal with, and making sure the practices are not adversely affecting our environment. In Maslow’s thinking, we have solved the problem of need, at least on a mass balance basis, so now we need to fulfill our wants.

What do we want? Food that prevents us from having to go to the doctor. Food that tastes good. Food that’s easy to cook. Variety. Rich countries have way more variety in their diets than impoverished nations. The next era in food will be about these things. Look at research over the last decade into tomatoes. The growth in research is off the charts. And it’s all about nutrition and flavor.

Sebastian Interlandi is an organic farmer who is interested in seeing the creation of a sustainable food system. He works with farmers all over the western hemisphere, and wants to be doing his own work without heating up and polluting the planet. He works in many ag sectors including business, not for profit and education. He is currently a Visiting Associate Professor Sustainable Agriculture at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. He owns his own 85 acre farm in Oneida County, NY where he mainly raise sheep and grows potatoes.

Resource: Growing Seaweed Offers Opportunities, and Challenges for Coastal Growers, The Natural Farmer,

Organic farming does fight climate change — and more

In 2019, the journal Nature Communications published a study then shared widely with titles designed for shock factor, such as MIT Technology Review’s: “Sorry, organic farming is actually worse for climate change.” The study’s authors concluded that, “Organic practices … require more land to produce the same amount of food,” and that “Clearing additional grasslands or forests to grow enough food to make up for that difference would release

far more greenhouse gas than the practices initially reduce.” Articles about this study have been shared widely, and a good friend wrote to me plaintively, “Can this really be true?!”

As a farmer and organic farming advocate, I dove into the research, curious for unexpected facts or something that might actually challenge my direct experience and research. I found none. Instead, what surprised me most was the shockingly simplistic metrics the study employed, coupled with a lack of whole systems thinking, which underpins organic farming.

The study sought to answer the question, “Is organic farming worse or better for climate change?” with a single metric: the amount of food produced per acre in England and Wales. Despite acknowledging that organic production systems had higher yields

of crops such as potatoes, carrots and onions, and ignoring long-term research centers like Rodale Institute that show organic methods can match conventional grain yields, The Nature Communications study estimated that organic production produces 40% less food per acre on average. The study also assumed that consumers would demand the same agricultural commodity products produced currently, and that one-third to one-half of food produced globally would continue to be wasted in perpetuity.

The study acknowledged many ways in which organic practices reduce greenhouse gas emissions, citing that “Organic pig production results in lower Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions per unit of production […] organic dairy, beef and sheep production results in lower total GHG emissions per unit of production […] the direct emissions associated with organic crop and livestock production are smaller for organic farming compared with conventional.” It is only when the estimates of the amount of land that might be converted to crop production overseas were included that the scales began to tip. But this is not an inevitable outcome of converting more production to organic.

Why would we stick with the exact same crops, diets and distribution models? Why not explore the question of what makes most sense for farmers to grow in their region? Are these machinery, land, fossil-fuel-based, and resource- intensive commodity crops that are steadily more consolidated and corporately owned the most sensible choice for the future?

If there has been a clear pattern in consumer preferences over the past few decades, it has been away from conventionally produced commodity products and towards locally produced, organic products, as evidenced by the annual growth in organic product sales, the proliferation of farmers markets and the success of myriad “buy local” campaigns. Perhaps eaters are hungry for the interwoven benefits of organic agriculture: biodiversity supported, topsoil grown, water cleaned, communities made more resilient.

I find it quite possible to imagine my diet in the future being different from the one that I eat today.

When Cuba lost access to global food markets, their food production radically shifted to be one of and for the people of the land of Cuba, and regardless of how you might feel about the political reasons underlying that shift, the country demonstrated an illuminating example of a hyper-local food system. While the average Cuban did lose weight during that period, the country also pioneered innovative urban farming, soil-intensive practices, and regenerative agricultural practices that did not rely heavily on expensive, imported and polluting synthetic chemicals. In a future with less access to cheap (read: subsidized) fossil fuels to power up large

machines, and less desire to truck them thousands of miles, our consumption will shift to more regionally appropriate, seasonally available crops.

These crops don’t often grow in monoculture. An acre growing nuts, with an understory of vining berries, mushrooms, and ruminants, would not only provide more calories, but more nutrition than an acre of a single crop. The details of what a place- specific, seasonal diet would provide will vary

from region to region, based on climate, land base, population, and soil types. Staple foods could be sweet potatoes, pigs, and collards in the southeast, and sheep, apples, and squash in New England. Indigenous communities, who thrived for thousands of years until colonization forced them off their lands, all had regional, seasonal diets.

The study also completely overlooks the (delightfully tidy!) fact that even if the findings are correct, and organic agriculture produces 40% fewer calories per acre, that difference in production is equal to the percentage of food wasted annually in the U.S. This food waste hits again as a methane producer, adding to the climate crisis. Where I live in Vermont, Salvation Farms found that the major gleaning operations gleaned a combined 617,696 pounds of produce in 2015, and organizations of their ilk continue to work with farmers of all types to find ways to reduce food loss. Reducing food waste would nullify the need for more land, allowing us to reap all of the environmental benefits of organic farming.

As a mother of two small children, I imagine future possibilities all the time. Climate crisis is just one component of an ecological system in massive decline that threatens our food supply. Pollinator die-off, toxic waterways, lifeless oceans, depleted soils, nutrient-poor foods, a consolidated, and corporate-controlled food system all present major challenges to my toddler thriving into her old age. Simplifying the question to a measure of calories per acre represents a serious lack of understanding

about the ecological healing that is possible through the work of a farmer steward — or the complexities facing our food system today. While there are real inequalities to address in regards to who has access to land and resources – a topic for another essay – for those that do, organic farming presents a solution to all these threats, and a path to a viable, healed food system.

When we imagine a food system that will nourish our children for decades to come, we seek to understand the vastly complicated web of relationships that whole-systems farming supports. Organic farming can provide food while sponging up atmospheric carbon, reducing food waste, supporting biodiversity, and building relationships. Commodity calories produced at massive scale and owned with corporate profit will never build a healthy food system. Let’s work together for an organic, regenerative agriculture that can heal the earth and nourish people — our children’s lives depend on it.

Grace Oedel is an organic farmer and Executive

Director of NOFA-VT.



Sorry—organic farming is actually worse for climate change, technologyreview.com/2019/10/22



No-till in Practice: Four Years’ Experience at Lovin’ Mama Farm

Photo provided by Lovin’ Mama.

When Corinne Hansch and her family were ready to start a new farm in upstate New York, they were also ready to try a new approach to farming. They arrived with five years of tillage farming under their belts, on four acres in Mendocino County, in California, but they had learned the hard way that that approach came with a major trade-off. “It was kind of a miracle, to be able to go out with the tiller and prepare an entire acre for planting,” Corinne says, no small benefit with three young children to care for. But the weed pressure kept getting worse and worse, and in our final year there, we lost many rounds of carrots, baby lettuce, and beets, because we couldn’t keep up with the weeds.”

So as they planned their new two-acre, intensive vegetable and cut-flower farm in Amsterdam, about 40 miles northwest of Albany, they resolved to try another way. “There was so little information on no-till farming five years ago,” she says, but she and her husband, Matthew, had seen online videos by Paul and Elizabeth Kaiser from Singing Frogs Farm, and met them at the NOFA/Mass winter conference in 2017. After that, “we decided to go for it.”

The system they decided on involves laying a thick layer of compost on growing beds to build soil life and bury weed seeds, and mulching paths with rye straw. “In the first year, we didn’t lay the compost on thick enough,” Corinne notes ruefully. “It was horrible—horrible weeds, horrible plant growth.”

They quickly increased the thickness of the compost layer, and added some organic fertilizer as well. “Suddenly we had a formula that was working wonders, and every year we are amazed at how great our crops are. We are constantly exclaiming, ‘We’ve never grown onions like these before!’”

Not tilling also reduced their need for irrigation. “Soil aggregates soak up insane amounts of water, so that it’s really only in the first few weeks that we need to irrigate to get the crop up and going. Once they send their roots down to the native soil layer, they seem to do really well.”

They mix their compost half and half with peat moss, ordered by the truckload from a company in Maine. The compost is made by the county where they live, “and is very woody and low in nutrition, but it is good for the fungal community, and is pretty affordable.” The underlying soil is quite clayish, and it benefits from the large input of organic matter.

The peat and compost are mixed with a skid steer. They also have a Kubota, which straddles their growing beds and makes easy work of spreading the mix by the bucketload. “We avoid wheelbarrow- ing at all costs!” Corinne says. New beds get four to six inches of the mix, older beds somewhat less; new compost is added at each replanting for most crops on most beds, but for beds that have been in production the longest, a once-a-year application is adequate. They also add some poultry compost from Kreher’s, which provides nitrogen, potassium, phosphorus, and calcium.

In the paths, they lay down a thick layer of May-cut rye straw, “the most beautiful straw I’ve ever seen, cut by an old farmer near here,” Corinne exclaims. They also use the straw to mulch the garlic patch, “where there is not a single weed. This is a miracle to me, compared to tillage farming.”

All that organic material can be expensive, Corinne notes. In 2019, they had gross sales of $200,000, and spent about $15,000 on the peat/compost. “Some people might consider that expense really high, but I think it’s great. In the early years of building our farm, we have been spending every last dollar we can on our soil, and it has come back to us tenfold. It’s our investment. It can be terrifying at first, but when you see the result—when you see no weeds, and the labor savings and the yield increase, all of a sudden you see it is so worth it—every penny.”

A key advantage of converting to no-till is that, with less need to get a tractor through the field, there is less waiting for fields to dry in the spring before planting. And if you aren’t turning under a crop and waiting for it to decompose before replanting, beds can be replanted as soon as the first crop is done. “We can tear the old crop out and put the new one in the same day, and that really helps with production.” Roots from the old crop are left in the soil to feed the soil microbes.

There are some trade-offs, Corinne notes. When crops like brassicas are done, the large and woo roots interfere with a precision seeding system. Their Jang seeder and paperpot transplanter also get tangled up in any straw used on the bed as mulch. In response, they have devoted different sections of the farm to different types of rotations. Precision-seeded crops like salad greens are seeded after carrots or beets, for instance, which leave no root behind after harvest. “When the entire plant comes out, you are left with a clean bed, and it is very easy to flip!”

One question that every no-till, high-compost farm must eventually face is, “How much is too much?” When does the increase in organic matter stop increasing plant health and farm success? Lovin’ Mama isn’t there yet, Corinne says, but they have been making some adjustments as their soils im- prove. At Singing Frogs, the Kaisers found dimin- ishing returns on their own farm above about 12%, although they also recognize that on other farms higher might be even better.

Corinne hasn’t measured the organic content of their soil, preferring to rely on observation to determine management changes. “We are being intuitive about it, watching the weed pressure, and how the plants are doing. In our oldest beds, we are laying down compost only once or twice a year.”

The system on Lovin’ Mama Farm does require a lot of labor, “but that can be good, as long as the labor is efficient, and we are doing profitable jobs with the labor. Our labor is mostly spent on building beds, planting and harvesting. And we are providing jobs for community members. When people say, ‘But your system is so labor intensive,’ I say, ‘Yes, and that’s great!’”

Resources & Links

Lovin’ Mama Farm: lovinmamafarm.com

Paul and Elizabeth Kaiser keynote speech, 2017
NOFA/Mass winter conference

The Ecologist, “The Truth About Peat Moss” theecologist.org/2013/jan/25/truth-about-peat- moss

Richard Robinson practices no-till farming at Hopestill Farm in Sherborn, Massachusetts. You can reach him at farm@hopestill.com

The Rewording + Rewilding of Our Farms & Yards

In the past decade The Northeast Organic Farming Association of Connecticut has worked toward building a regional food system built on knowing where your food comes, supporting your local farms and knowing your farmers. CT NOFA is now championing the same principle in a new arena: knowing where your landscape plants come from and supporting your local seed savers and nursery growers. The rise of enthusiasm for native plants and pollinators has swept our state in the last few years, thanks to the hard work of organizations like The Pollinator Pathway Northeast and Aspetuck Land Trust. Rewilding our landscapes with native plants enhances our regional biodiversity in ways that make it possible for us all to thrive. What we have learned, however, is that to do this properly – to put the right plants in the right place – we collectively need to understand the language of provenance: where native seed is sourced and where it is being grown. In an effort to renew our commitment to the principles of regenerative conservation agriculture, a few concepts around seed need to be clarified and defined.

We collectively need to understand the language of provenance: where native seed is sourced and where it is being grown.

Ecoregions: When we plant native plants, it is important for us to put our bug eyes on and view the landscape the way our local pollinators see it. They do not see the man-made delineations of where one backyard, town or state ends, but rather interact within the boundaries of different types of habitats. In an effort to create a shared framework by scientists, farmers, conservationists and homeowners addressing the various facets of ecosystem health, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) created Ecoregions of the Continental United States maps (Figure 1). For our purposes in this article we will look at the Level III map that illustrates a broad-strokes mosaic of habitats and communities comprising Ecoregion 59, which covers most of Connecticut.

What Ecoregion 59 illustrates to us in terms of the native plant populations is, the genetics of the seed collected anywhere within Ecoregion 59 can be distributed throughout this area, with the confidence of knowing we are indeed putting the right plants in the right place. We do this in an effort to imbue our living seed banks, a.k.a our soils, with locally adapted species to fortify our wildlife corridors with the food sources and habitats our pollinators need to be successful.

Ecoregions of the Northeast

Figure 1: U.S. Environ- mental Protection Agency,
2013, Level III ecoregions of the continental United States: Corvallis, Oregon, U.S. EPA – National Health and Environmental Effects Research Laboratory, map scale 1:7,500,000, https:// www.epa.gov/eco-research/ level-iii-and-iv-ecoregions- continental-united-states..

Ochory: Seeds are dispersed in a number of ways known as “ochories”. The wind does it – anemochory; water does it – hydrochory, the birds assist with it – ornithochory; and even ants help do it – myrmecochory. When native plants are present on the landscape, nature is able to play its role by proliferating them and effectively rewilding the lands around us.

Wild Types: The regionally specific native plants that occur naturally on the landscape which are also known as straight species or ecotypes.
Ecotypes: Ecotypic plant material is genetically specific and co-evolved in the region in which it was grown. The collection of these truly local wild seeds or ecotypes is done by trained botanists who adhere to strict protocols to ensure that we are sustainably stewarding the natural populations. When we gather these placed-based genetics, we are aiding in the proliferation of these arcs of regionally adapted biodiversity. These entomological heirlooms are locally adapted to our climate, soils, and pollinators preferences and are also best adapted to deal with local pests and microclimate variances. As the author Doug Tallamy aptly titled his book, these are “Nature’s Best Hope”!

Most native seed utilized in the Connecticut (and other NOFA states) nursery trade today is sourced from seed growers in the Midwest. The challenge is that the plants grown from this stock may exhibit phenological variation such as bloom times that are maladapted to our pollinators migration, feeding and nesting timelines here in the Northeast. Another consideration is that a great number of native plants sold here are, in fact, native plant cultivars or nativars. Nativars are clonally propagated native

Seed collection of an Asclepias (milkweed)

Seed collection of an Asclepias (milkweed) ecotype with the fluffy “pappus” that aides in wind dispersal (anemochory). Image provided by author. plants selected for uniformity of various aspects of their visual appeal. These plants are often propagated from cuttings, which in essence, creates a monoculture on the landscape. The genetic diversity inherent to wild and truly native species can be lost as a result of native plant cultivars – a loss which lead them to be susceptible to changes in climate and new pest pressures.

When planting a native habitat, it is important to include species that have successional bloom times to ensure we are providing food throughout the sea- sons. For example, the inclusion of different trophic layers of an ecosystem guild (ground covers, shrubs, canopy trees, etc.) is a vital design element to pro- vide habitat for diverse fauna when biomimicking the pattern language of a forest. You will marvel at the entomological diversity you will observe on your landscape when incorporating an array of ecotypic species. Together we can help to safeguard and steward the wild genetics that have been adapting to our shared landscapes since time immemorial.

The Ecotype Project: This program at CT NOFA aims to increase the availability of ecotypic plant material for habitat restoration in the Northeast.

The Project is the table at which botanists, farmers, nursery growers, land trusts, landscapers, and gardeners come together to provide mutual support and education around the provenance and production of native plants for rewilding our landscapes. We work with organic farmers to amplify the production of local native seeds as the demand for this spe cialty crop far outweighs the supply. After we grow, collect, and clean the seeds, we distribute them to local nurseries who then make these plugs available to landscapers, municipalities and homeowners through local plant sales. With the help of all our stakeholders – and you – these plants can make their way back into the landscape where they belong.

Founders Plots
In an effort to amplify the amount of truly local native seed in our region in CT, we are working with organic farmers (as differentiated from “pollinator habitats,” on the home garden or homestead scale) to plant rows of 200 plants of at least three species to harvest the speciality crop – the seeds. As farmers, we only create a reciprocal relationship with our local pollinators when we, as caretakers of the land, provide the food and habitat they need. These actions contribute to ensuring local food security and ecosystem health for the landscapes we cultivate. The Ecotype Project has created a “Getting Started Toolkit,” to help educate and mentor founder plot farmers through the nuance of working with these perennials.

In Conclusion: The provenance of place in regards to seed becomes more and more important as natural wild landscapes are rapidly decreasing and becoming depauperate due to anthropocentric development. We are not just homeowners but also land stewards and as such, we must protect these place-based natural resources. When we collectively reword, reseed and rewild our shared living seed banks on an ecoregional scale with ecotypes, we are supporting regenerative restoration of living landscapes in the Northeast.

When you buy native plants, ask the questions: Where did the seeds of these plants originate from? What ecoregion are they best suited to grow in? Were they grown out locally?

Whichever ecoregion you find yourself in and whatever site you select to plant, implementing just a few of these ecotypic native plants will bring these landscapes back into symphonic resonance with the great ecologies that are humming all around us!

Sefra Alexandra is the Ecotype Project Coordinator + Seed Gatherer for CT NOFA. She can be reached at sefra@ctnofa.org.

This article first appeared in Connecticut Gardener Magazine May/June 2021 and was reprinted with permission.

Links & Resources:

The BOATanical Expedition
Join Sefra on a canoe journey to plant hundreds of native plants from the top of the Mass. border to the mouth of the Long Island Sound, September 2021: www.boatanical.org

The Ecotype Project: ctnofa.org/ecotypeproject/ The Wild Seed Project wildseedproject.net
The Native Plant Trust nativeplanttrust.org Planters’ Choice Nursery Gilbertie’s Organics Nursery

Grow More, Grow Better with No-Till

No-till is better for the soil, better for production, and better for the farmer. That was the message from three experienced no-till farmers who came together to share experiences and advice at the Farmer-to-Farmer intensive workshop, part of the NOFA-Mass Winter Conference held virtually in January.

Gaining pounds (and pounds and pounds) at Gaining Ground

The birthplace of Henry David Thoreau, in Concord, Mass., is the site of Gaining Ground, a three- acre nonprofit farm dedicated to feeding the hungry. Doug Wolcik managed Gaining Ground from 2013 to 2020, during which he spearheaded the farm’s transition to no-till, beginning in 2016. After five complete seasons of not tilling the soil, Doug’s conclusion: “No-till works!”

The first inkling that no-till could revolutionize production came when Doug stopped tilling in their hoop house. “It is scary to jump in, but we saw a big increase in production in the hoop house from just that change,” Doug said. “From there, it was a no-brainer, and we decided we had to roll this out to the fields,” which they did, converting one acre per year, parking the tractor and switching to hand work.

“Each year got significantly better,” he said, and the cumulative effect was nothing short of astonishing. Total farm production more than doubled, from 30 tons in 2016 to 65 tons in 2020. Part of that increase came from planting on more of their fields—with- out the large headlands for turning the tractor, they could use space much more efficiently—but most of it came from higher production within existing beds.

“We discovered the importance of working with living soil,” Doug said.

“Tilling is a like a giant eraser. It is all the natural disasters at once.”

“Tilling is a like a giant eraser,” he said, in that it can make problems, like overgrown beds of weeds, quickly disappear. But it creates many more prob- lems than it solves, bringing up new weed seeds and burning up organic matter—by some estimates, 2% of soil organic matter per tillage event. “It’s all the natural disasters for soil at once.”

Tilling “is all the natural disasters at once.”

“No till aligns with our farm goals—to grow healthy food for our community, and to expose our volunteers to what growing healthy food looks like. We show them that anyone can go home, without expensive tools, and grow in the back yard. You can make a difference in growing your own food.”

All of Gaining Ground’s production is donated to meal programs and food pantries around eastern Massachusetts. Most seasons, they put over 2500 volunteers of all ages and abilities to work composting, harvesting, and weeding their three acres of fields and hoop houses. “With COVID, that couldn’t happen,” Doug noted, so instead they hired three additional full-time farm staff, for a total of seven workers. “We didn’t skip a beat. Because we were in year five, we had our systems worked out and our soil functioning at a high level.”

Key features of the Gaining Ground no-till approach:

• Address soil structure, primarily through compost addition. They have added one to three inches to each bed every year, though the need is decreasing yearly.
• Disturb the soil as little as possible. They use a broadfork, but the tool “makes itself obsolete,” Doug said. “The more you use it, the less you need to,” and it is now used primarily before deep-rooted crops like carrots. “The soil performs as if it was tilled—it is light and airy, and holds water.”
• Use amendments to correct mineral imbalances, and fertilize to provide plants with proper nutrition through the season. Gaining Ground has benefited from adding potassium, manganese and sulfur, based on soil testing.
• Develop weed control strategies. “These are as important as your crop plan,” Doug said. Avoid just reacting to weed problems. Plan ahead. That includes tight succession planting, with one to seven days between harvest and replanting.
• “No bare soil, ever,” to keep weeds away and to keep life in the soil fed and healthy. For this, “cash crops are just as good as cover crops,” Doug noted.

Doug has moved on to start his own farm, in Craftsbury, Vermont. Breadseed Farm will begin with a half-acre of no-till vegetables.

Continuous improvements from no-till on Woven Roots Farm

Jen Salanetti and her partner have been farming Woven Roots Farm in Tyringham, Mass., for the past 15 years. They cultivate one and one-third acres, and have grown their CSA to 200 shares. Over the past five years, they have transitioned to no-till, “hand-scale” farming, while increasing their soil organic matter from its original 2% to close to 10%.

The difference in the soil has been striking, she said. Rainfall once collected in the aisles of her fields, unable to percolate in. Recently, a day-long downpour brought six inches of rain to her farm in less than 24 hours, two inches alone during a lunchbreak. “We went out after lunch and saw no water pooling in the fields at all—it had all been absorbed,” she said. By the same token, they use irrigation only at transplant time to help the seedlings get established. The prodigious water-holding capacity of the soil provides what they need after that.

“We are seeing continuing improvements as we continue with no-till,” Jen said, improvements that have made expanding their production possible. “We charge more than any farm in our area for wholesale, and we have customers who will pay it, because the shrinkage and loss is less, and they know it. People want to buy our food, because it is beautiful and long-lasting.”

Fundamental no-till principles for the farm include disturbing the soil as little as possible, and keeping the soil covered as much as possible. That means having new crops ready to transplant as soon as the old one is harvested, with only a few days’ turn- around between. “The more intensively we grow, the less weeding we need to do, and we also aren’t disturbing the soil and bringing up seed.”

Woven Roots encourages biodiversity on the farm, both on the field scale and the bed scale. Their rotation is based on plant families, with at least 4 cycles before the same family returns to the same bed. “We are also creating habitat for pollinators, and spaces for native animals. We are attracting more native wildlife to the farm.” Jen has also seen a reduction in pest and disease pressure over time, although flea beetles persist.

Check it out – Jen Salenetti will be leading a workshop at the NOFA Summer Conference this July! nofasummerconference.org

Draft animals power Alprilla Farm’s no-till approach

Noah and Sophie Courser-Kellerman grow hay, grains, and beef, along with four acres of winter- storage vegetables for the winter CSA, on Alprilla Farm in Essex, Mass.

“Our soil health has been a priority from the start,” Noah said. “That led us to draft power. A lot of the work I was doing with tractor was to undo the damage I was doing with the tractor, and that seemed pretty dumb.”

They still use a tractor, including for managing cover crops in their no-till vegetable fields. “We use biology to increase fertility rather than compost.” They practice a three-year rotation, with two years in vegetables followed by one in grain.

Time spent on cover crops in fall and winter saves a lot of time in summer Winter rye and Austrian winter pea is their go-to combination, planted by the third week of September. The peas fix nitrogen before dying off, which the rye can scavenge for its growth through the winter. The rye is rolled and crimped with a crimper Noah made in college. It is mounted on the front of the tractor, to allow the bucket hydraulics to in- crease down pressure for more effective crimping. Squash can be planted directly into the dead rye. Winter barley follows the squash.

“We put a lot of effort into establishing the cover crop, and spreading seaweed in the winter,” Noah said, “and that leads to needing a lot less time for summer maintenance. We do essentially nothing for our squashes from the middle June to harvest, except remove row cover. The same is true for our onions—except from a few sprays and a minimal amount of hand-weeding, we do almost nothing. With our no-till system, we front-load the work, which really spreads it out over the year.”

Resources and Links

  • Gaining Ground gainingground.org/
  • Breadseed Farm breadseedfarm.com/
  • Woven Roots Farm wovenrootsfarm.com/
  • Alprilla Farm alprillafarm.com/

Regreening an Earth on Hospice: Climate Care On-farm, Right Here

“Oh, the Amazon!” we say, when thinking of eco- systems and climate mitigation. 2020 was our 5th drought in 6 years in Belfast, Maine, with cumula- tive damage to soil fungi, who are now less able to retain moisture when rain does come. I am up in foliage to cut livestock fodder, and see that even the trees are losing health. How can I awaken people
in the Northeast to join with farmers and tend the living earth?

The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is sifting new information on the full climate effects of plants and forests, yet this work is complex and slow, and “the window of opportunity, the period when significant change can be made, for limiting climate change within tolerable boundaries, is rapidly narrowing”. “A growing number of studies suggested that many processes important for interactions between land and climate were missing in the [Ecological Systems Models].”

The new science requires policy-makers to do a 180 degree turn from previous understandings, that:

• Atmospheric CO2 is the dominant causal factor of climate change (false). Anthropogenic land surface changes that reduce or remove plant life have had, and continue to have, a greater magnitude of effect
• Solar energy absorbed versus reflected by green leaves and needles primarily becomes heat, such that temperate and boreal forests make a neutral or negative contribution (by preventing reflectivity of bare snow) (false). We now know that plants with sufficient moisture use up to 70% of incoming solar infra-red energy to evaporate water, and transport most of that energy up and away, locked in the chemical bonds of the vapor – sometimes exporting over 400 watts per square meter. Such cooling transpiration of the boreal and temperate (our) forests more than compensates for the conifers’ warming winter green-ness (low albedo) – and other lifeforms may need that bit of carefully-timed winter warming.

• Trees and plants remove water making soil drier (false). Tree roots, with fungal associates, bring deeper moisture up with minerals and nutrients, benefiting top soil and ground plants. Plant-covered soil retains more water after a rain than bare soil, and water vapor from land-based evapotranspiration (evaporation plus transpiration) provides 60% of rain on terrestrial surfaces, rain that is especially important to continental interiors.
• Cooling effects of plants are locally limited (false). New studies are finding a global net of cross-continental evapotranspiration-related climate effects, a unified live system for global climate regulation.

Farming brings us in close contact with ecosystems; we have intuitive confirmation of the new science: Our farms and forests here in the Northeast matter, far above and beyond their carbon sequestration potential. Plants evaporate hundreds of kilograms of water to produce each kilogram of biomass (averaging 0.4 kg. carbon sequestered per 1 kg. biomass); such evaporative cooling has what the IPCC terms direct, biophysical climate effects, simultaneous to the indirect, biogeochemical effects of carbon sequestration.

John Norman, environmental biophysicist and ex- pert on broad remote monitoring of evapotranspira- tion, helped Walter Jehne, Australian soil microbiol- ogist, to compute an estimate of how much increase in plant and forest evapotranspiration is needed to
re-stabilize a livable climate: 11.6 % increase in plant evapotranspiration is needed on all livable land surfaces worldwide, or 23 % increase on just agricultural lands.

The Amazon jungle and every other green place, including right here, that we can protect, restore, moisten, make fertile, stimulate through rotational pruning and grazing, un-pave, shade with trees, cover-crop, or in any way foster soil/plant health and deepen foliage, are all needed.

Walter Jehne asserts that lifeforms (we) need this restoration of plant and tree cover in order to last beyond this decade, regardless of emissions reductions. Already in his Australian homeland farmers are having 4 out of every 5 crops fail.

Here in Maine farmers are immigrating as refugees from Africa and the Mid-East, where ecological and political conditions interact and are worse than here. Our woods and fields still look okay from a distance, excepting constant losses to “development.”

We don’t think very deeply about other ways we are decreasing plant growth and health locally:

• Gravel on winter roads comes from ever-widening pits for each snow storm. (Does anyone remember when snow on roads was rolled to pack it? Or when we all used studded tires or tire chains?) Even our lime and other mineral soil amendments leave a hole somewhere.
• Selling loam before selling real estate gives a double profit (I hope that folks in other states are seeing less of this than I am seeing). Purchase of such loam is an easy fix when we fail to retain the soil we had before (a common mistake when using large equipment).
• Bush-hogging fields once per season does not keep them in green growth, as does farmer attention through intensive grazing or haying, nor does it let trees and bushes move in, to increase leaf surface and evapotranspiration.
• Solar panels emit 90% of incoming infra-red sun energy as heat (pavement offers a similar 80 to
95%). Panels typically run 36F hotter than sur- rounding air.

Sheep can keep solar fields in green growth and enjoy shade and shelter, but evapotranspirational cooling (especially under cement anchors), remains diminished.

Putting solar panels on roofs, which are already heat emissive, reduces negative impact. Biomass harvest of woodlands leaves less mulch, less wildlife cover, more bare soil and hotter temperatures than logging that leaves branch wood to rot. Selective harvest of farm woodlots can leave more climate-resilient continuous-cover and multi-aged growth, with sig- nificant cooling effects.

Pollarding (drastically pruning then resting) woodlands for livestock fodder and branchwood adds storm resilience to tree forms, and canopy recovery is quicker than from log harvest. This pruning en- courages evapotranspiring browsable and grazable layers beneath; such increased foliage height diver- sity is often measured as a biodiversity indicator.

Heavily logged areas behind my farm seem to keep small rainstorms away; large areas of gravel, solar panels, bare soil, clearcut woodland, or other heat-emissive dryness can cause a high pressure ‘heat- dome’ effect which stops moist air from entering.

My goats initially led me to pollard edge trees, then woodlands. Pollarding makes trees greener, leafier, and tastier (versus coppiced trees, which use more antifeedant browse defenses). An archeological sign of similar Neolithic tree-based animal husbandry is the absence of soil erosion. This is a labor-intensive but climate-positive (and healthy!) way to eat.

Orchards, agroforestry, and silvopasture similarly benefit climate and soil. “Carbon farming” strategies that reduce bare soil, improve soil moisture retention, and integrate woody plants all increase plant evapotranspiration along with soil carbon. Farmers can intercrop vegetables with different heights and root habits, under-seed to overlap establishment of a cover-crop, and seed a new crop into previously crimped or tarped cover crops (crimping can be done with two people and a board that you step on with handles added).

We can retain hedgerows, tree lines and other messy edges, or go even further to add pollarded trees (with small moving shadows) into every field for soil and moisture benefit, as was done all over Europe for centuries. Grape arbors, by the way, used to be live pollarded trees.

Humans like open vistas, and our language reflects this bias: we “clear” a forest, or undergrowth, versus “remove” or “kill” it. Yet “overgrown” (another biased word) plant life may be our route back to environmental stability. Linaeus created our Latin plant classification system in Sweden in the 1700s; his list of plant species in a hay meadow included many trees and bushes, because these were pruned for fodder rather than removed, and were considered a primary source of fertility. Even “invasive” plants often participate positively in biodiverse communities; observation is important to our interactions with plants, as with our animals.

My goats started training me in 2010 (well, that’s when I noticed) by pointing their noses up toward aromatic white cedar trees. Now they have me with ropes in 60 foot high red maples, for a winter staple of blossom buds, twigs and bark. Our cow Tulip, newer here, has finally learned the command “Watch Out!,” and foregoes the sweet buds briefly to avoid the falling tree limb.

The trees re-sprout, rejuvenated. The roots die back, offering matter to the soil, then regrow; this has been called “pioneer” fertilization. The root turn- over improves soil resilience to both water-logging and drought.

Livestock poop leafy soil contributions, and I drink leafy milk, making my small contribution of MOFGA Fair-Grounds-style humanure, which cycles back to trees – we humans are becoming too numerous of a livestock group to be withholding soil-circle participation. We have lost 50% of the world’s topsoil since 1950, and currently “soil is be- ing lost from agricultural areas 10 to 40 times faster than the rate of soil formation”.

Our linear food system displaces consumers’ wastes away from the farm, and most local organic produc- ers (myself included) then receive fertility from some other farm. The disconnect between people and the environments from which we eat also de- prives us of a direct feedback loop of our impact, nor are we close enough nor involved enough to respond to the needs of other life-forms upon which we depend. I the farmer can only do so much, while providing for 11 milk-drinking families. The Circle of Life is not just conceptual – it is vital. Our attendance is now needed.

Also we must consider how much more land can be roofed, covered with solar panels, or gravel and tar for our cars, or even trampled by our feet. We can at least plant trees to shade our hot roofs and gravel yards in hope that we will achieve sufficient regreening for the trees to grow beyond 2030. We can also creatively divert water that runs off these less-than-ideal surfaces, for plants, livestock, and wildlife (including human children) to enjoy.

Light-heartedness is helpful when faced with the heavy work of something so challenging as weather out of kilter and the retreat of plant life on a planet. The new information requires us to re-think and re-design our culture, agriculture, and plant-scapes. Assertive clarity of mind is needed, to support policy-makers’ shifts toward global changes. Fresh perspective from young people, and experiencefrom old people will help us choose real tasks mean- ingfully (plus let’s pause and listen to our livestock).

Shana, of 3 Streams Farm, studies and practices pollarding of trees to feed livestock, and gets vicari- ous pleasure from their munching year-round. She has taken on climate concerns for the sake of her local ecosystem, studying and writing on long goat (and sometimes cow) wanders.