A Pathway To Viability Through Regenerative Agriculture
This article is the first in a series of stories highlighting awardees of AFT’s New England Farmer Microgrants Program from 2020. The Program provides grants up to $5,000 to farmers seeking to expand productivity on new or existing land; increase their access to land, or plan for the future of their land. Each article will touch on a different theme impacting New England agriculture and will showcase the innovative ways that our local farmers are using their funds to improve their farms and businesses, the environment, and their communities.
New England farmers are experiencing the impacts of climate change at a dramatic rate. The loss of predictability around temperature, precipitation, and seasonality, increased precipitation concentrated into fewer, heavier rainfall events with longer dry periods between them, and an increase in temperature extremes leading to a higher risk of heat stress for crops and workers. Farmers are often the first to experience the effects of climate change and have to be the first to respond to the changes. Many are turning to regenerative agriculture as a way to mitigate and adapt to the new climate future.
The main components of regenerative agriculture can include building soil health by minimizing tillage (e.g., “no-till” or low-till systems), increasing days in living plant cover (through the use of perennial plants and cover crops), avoiding chemical pesticides, certain crop and livestock rotation practices, and promoting biodiversity. When put into practice, these can minimize and mitigate a farmer’s direct effect on climate change and create a more viable and sustainable farm economy.
Understood as a holistic, systems approach to farming and the food system, regenerative agriculture practices can result in improved ecological, social, and economic conditions. Though the term itself is relatively new (The Rodale Institute started using it in the early 1980s), many of the elements originated as Indigenous land management practices and skills derived from African farming knowledge that existed for centuries (Civil Eats). For many farmers, rebuilding soil health has become a call to action for improving climate resiliency. Healthy soils can absorb more water during heavy rains and retain more water during periods of drought. They also improve yield stability and long-term farm productivity. According to AFT’s Farms Under Threat: A New England Perspective, “if New England farmers adopted just three NRCS conservation practices—planting cover crops, practicing no-till or strip-till, and replacing inorganic fertilizer with dairy manure or compost—they could remove over 1.65 million MTCO2e annually from the atmosphere.”
Improved soil health practices can eliminate the need for fertilizer and pesticides, which are often one of the highest costs for farms. Shifting to regenerative practices requires an upfront investment in infrastructure and equipment. Due to the thin margins faced by the majority of small farmers, adopting these practices can be difficult. In many cases, this is where service providers or other support systems can step in. Grant programs like the New England Farmer Microgrants Program (NEFMP) and The Brighter Future Fund can provide farmers with the resources needed to cover the often prohibitive upfront costs.
Building Long-Term Viability
For Abby Clarke and her partner, Jonathan Hayden who run Winter Street Farm in New Hampshire, building lasting systems has always been at the forefront of their farming ethos.
They settled on their property in 2019 after working on farms for a combined 13 years. Abby managed Simple Gifts Farm, a leader in the farmer-driven soil health movement (learn more about their work here), in Amherst, MA, before moving to Lindentree Farm, an organic CSA farm in Lincoln, MA entering its 19th year of production. A driving force behind the purchase of their 38-acre property in Claremont, New Hampshire Abby and Jonathan wanted to utilize all of the skills and systems they had learned and build a new operation from the ground up in a county with no active organic CSA option available, and so Winter Street Farm was founded. They started small, with an acre of active production, but are building a no-till system that they hope to expand to year-round production.
Winter Street Farm is focused on growing at a pace that is sustainable to them both financially and practically. They are also committed to no-till and other regenerative practices while maintaining a CSA model that is approachable and affordable to their community. Through their NEFMP grant award, Abby and Jonathan were able to purchase a flail mower, a tractor implement that can mow very close to the soil surface, terminating the prior crop or cover crop and chopping up the biomass into a mulch layer on the surface of the soil. This new, key piece of equipment allowed them to reach new goals in production and decreased the often labor-intensive nature of no-till operations.
“The flail mower we needed would have been too expensive for us to invest in our first year (or second or third…) but was pivotal to our goals. We created 3/4 acres of permanent, no-till beds that were manageable with two people and some volunteers. The flail-type mower was used to terminate cover crops/production crop to utilize the crop as a mulch, and immediately put the bed back into production, effectively creating a more mechanized, less labor-intense no-till system.” Abby Clarke, Winter Street Farm.
Horse-Powered Soil Health
For many farmers, incorporating soil health practices into their operations is often a process of trial and error. This is the case for Sawyer Farm, an organic, horse-powered no-till farm in Worthington, MA. Sawyer Farm is owned and operated by Lincoln Fishman and his partner Hilary Costa who have been farming together for years. They purchased their farm in 2010, where their trusty steeds Polly and Trixie have helped them cultivate 3 acres of storage crops, while simultaneously cultivating a deeper connection between Lincoln and Hillary to the labor and processes of their farming practice.
Lincoln and Hilary were trained on both horse and tractor-powered farms throughout Pennsylvania and New England. They were driven by a desire to produce food ethically and sustainably, with an emphasis on reducing fossil fuels. When they purchased their property and began farming organically, but not fully no-till, they noticed a plateau in the quality of their crop yields which pushed them to complete the shift to no-till practices. However, finding the time and the resources to invest in no-till equipment that also worked for their horse-powered tractor, became increasingly more challenging. The funds provided to them through the NEFMP program allowed them to purchase new equipment to expand and extend their farming operation.
“This grant money allowed us to purchase equipment that we would have either done without or sacrificed something else significant. We believe that shifting to no-till is the right thing to do for our soil and our plants, but the new systems we’re developing on the farm require experimentation and time. It is hard to justify experimental equipment purchases. This grant allowed us to speed up our process and move towards efficiency in our no-till system.” Lincoln Fishman, Sawyer Farm.
Sawyer Farm is currently in its second year of no-till practices. They currently utilize a transferred mulch system, focusing on transplanting directly into the hay windrow (check out this video to see the process in action), and using an intercropping system of planting directly into Dutch white clover. Both of these practices are still a work in progress, requiring some adaptation of tools and equipment, and a few additional solutions for successfully transplanting into the chopped mulch. However, Lincoln is optimistic that this investment will benefit both the Earth and the local community in the future.
Sustainability for Land and People
Owner and operator of Song Sparrow Farm, Diego Irizarry-Gerould, describes his relationship with his farmland as symbiotic.
He began farming in 2014 at Red Fire Farm in Granby, MA, followed by a variety of other operations, including maple sugaring at Justamere Tree Farm, berries, and value-added production at Bug Hill Farm in Ashfield, and managing the volunteer Giving Garden in Northampton, MA. Diego started Song Sparrow Farm in 2019, a half-acre plot that he leases from Grow Food Northampton in Florence, MA.
Song Sparrow Farm focuses on growing salad greens and other vegetables bio-intensively and without tillage. He currently uses composting, mulching, intensive cover cropping, and no-till termination practices to build his soil’s resiliency. These practices have led to an increase in water retention in the soil, which helps with heavy rain seasons like we are seeing this year and with drought conditions, which we have seen over the last few years.
However, Diego was still struggling without a consistent irrigation setup on-site. After learning about NEFMP, he pursued funding for a full irrigation system as well as a small shed to store his tools. Once up and running, the irrigation allowed him to step away from the farm for longer periods of time, or focus on elements of his soil health or farming business that he wanted to expand. Striking a work-life balance is often the most difficult task for farmers, often working long hours without time to care for themselves or other elements of their business. For Diego, the investment in infrastructure to help him step away, allowed him to strike that balance as well as the ecosystem balance of his farm.
“The funds allowed me to step away from the farm for longer periods (in the case of the water timers), which was critical for keeping me motivated on the farm and able to achieve everything I want to without working overlong hours. It felt great.” Diego Irizarry-Gerould, Song Sparrow Farm.
Song Sparrow Farm is currently entering its third season, with a strong CSA and wholesale operation. Diego hopes to continue to expand his operation, keeping soil health and sustainability at the center of his focus.
Building Better Soils For The Future
Supporting farmers in implementing regenerative agriculture practices can directly impact the future of our climate and our farms. American Farmland Trust is committed to building resilient farming practices in New England and beyond. Currently, AFT is offering free soil tests for all interested producers in Massachusetts through the Massachusetts Coordinated Soil Health Program. We are also embarking on a five-year $15Million grant to advance and support the implementation of regenerative agriculture practices in dairy and livestock producers throughout Western New England (Read more about that here).
If you are a producer in Massachusetts interested in learning more about soil health practices, consider filling out our producer survey so we can learn more about your practices: www.surveymonkey.com/r/MASoilHealth or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
To learn more about the farms featured visit:
This article was written in collaboration with Caro Roszell, Emily Cole, and Jamie Pottern. Thank you to the farmers for sharing their stories.