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A Visit To Simple Gifts Farm, Innovators In The Soil Health Movement

How do you identify healthy soil? This is a question I’d never asked myself before, despite being raised by an avid gardener and permaculture enthusiast. Maybe it was the unfortunate incident with my shovel and a nest of ground bees when I was ten years old that turned me away from examining soil too closely, or maybe it was the lack of a garden of my own. Whatever the reason, the question “what makes healthy soil?” had never crossed my mind until I watched Emily Cole, our New England deputy director, pick up a handful of the darkest, softest, most fragrant soil I’d ever seen from a field at Simple Gifts Farm in Amherst, Massachusetts. 

The AFT team gathered at Simple Gifts Farm

The field in question had just been freshly mulched through a process called transferred mulching, also known as “cut and carry.” Put simply, the process involves flail mowing and collecting a cover crop, then transferring the collected greens onto another row that has been mowed, but not collected. This creates a double layer of mulch, which helps to suppress weeds and improve soil moisture retention. It was invented by German agronomist Jan Hendrik Cropp, whose focus has been on no-till systems for organic vegetable producers. 

To see the process in action, check out a video below.

A handful of soil from the field at Simple Gifts Farm

Beyond being rich, dark, and soft, healthy soil can also often resemble curds of cottage cheese. The scientific name for this structure is “granular”(though I think not using “cheesy” was a missed opportunity.) This structure indicates that all the living bacteria, fungi, nematodes, worms, and other organisms have worked together to glue the soil particles into “aggregates”– the curds of said cheesy structure. A structure like this indicates that there has been a minimal disturbance to the upper layer of the soil.

Jeremy Barker Plotkin and Dave Tepfer have been stewarding the land of Simple Gifts Farm for over 15 years. They didn’t always have such beautiful soil. The land had previously been farmed conventionally for over 80 years. The soil was also heavily compacted– a process where the particles are pressed together, reducing the amount of air or space between them. This makes it difficult for the soil to retain water, for roots to penetrate, and for living organisms like those mentioned above to find habitats. Making the commitment to rebuild the soil was a large undertaking, but Jeremy and Dave felt strongly about providing their community with organic produce and pasture-raised animals that were grown and raised sustainably. To reach this goal, they use a variety of farming practices that are both climate adaptive, adjusting practices to current or expected climate changes, and climate mitigating, efforts to reduce or prevent emissions of greenhouse gases. Some of these practices include energy efficiency and renewable power, composting, mulching, and minimum tillage.  

Emily Cole taking a soil sample.

The focus of our visit was to learn about their intensive mulching system and take some soil samples from various rows of the beds where this new practice is being utilized. Our team took samples of the soil from five different locations in the field, cutting into the soil vertically to create a “loaf” of soil, or a roughly 2” by 6” by 4” slice to ensure a representative sample of the top 6 inches of soil.

In addition to collecting samples of the soil, we also took readings of the soil’s hardness (measured in pounds per square inch) using a soil penetrometer. A penetrometer measures compaction, helping to determine how deep the roots of a plant can penetrate the soil. These samples will be mailed to the Cornell Soil Health Lab and added to the statewide soils database to help Tepfer and Barker Plotkin track the benefits of their reduced tillage practices on their overall soil health. 

The farm sits on about 50 acres of tree-lined fields, just a few miles outside of downtown Amherst, some of which is owned by the North Amherst Community Farm, or NACF, and some which is leased by Barker Plotkin and Tepfer directly. The land has been in production for centuries. The Dziekanowski Family bought the land in the 1920s, and then, when the property went up for sale, a collaborative of Amherst neighbors who didn’t want to see the property fall into the hands of developers stepped in to take over ownership. This group formed the community-owned NACF in 2005 and purchased the property shortly thereafter.

Caro Roszell using a penetrometer to measure the compaction of the soil.

That same year, Barker Plotkin and Tepfer were searching for land to farm together. Barker Plotkin had started Simple Gifts Farm on leased land in Belchertown but was looking to expand to more acres and a more diversified operation. While driving down Pine Street in North Amherst, he noticed a member of the North Amherst Community Farm posting a “Farmers Needed” sign. He pulled over and offered to farm the land. Within the year, Barker Plotkin and Tepfer moved Simple Gifts Farm onto the NACF land where they have farmed together for over 15 years. 

For Jeremy and Dave, the most challenging aspect of implementing this new system is figuring out the optimal timing for termination, mulch application, and planting. They are trying to maximize their days in living cover for the carbon-sequestering and soil health benefits to soil, but when planting young crop seedlings into cover crop roots that are freshly terminated, they have found that a lot of nutrients are still tied up in the cover crop—leaving little for the transplants and causing major crop growth delays. Another challenge has been modifying their water wheel transplanter to effectively cut through the mulch layer and provide the right kind of hole for the crop transplants. There are no-till transplanters available for commercial purchase, but they cost tens of thousands of dollars—which can be a hard investment to make for smaller-scale farms. Support from the MDAR Climate Smart Agriculture Program has been instrumental for them to begin their needed equipment upgrades. 

As farmers in New England continue to explore reduced tillage options, Simple Gifts Farm remains at the front of the soil health movement. American Farmland Trust is currently offering free soil tests and soil health assessments. To learn more about how you can get access to these opportunities and to see the systems being used at Simple Gifts Farm, check out the Massachusetts Coordinated Soil Health Program website. 

For more information on transferred mulching systems (also called cut and carry), visit https://eorganic.org/node/12857    

Follow Simple Gifts Farm on Facebook and Instagram

The Massachusetts Coordinated Soil Health Program will be demonstrating the newly purchased no-till transplanter in action on July 27th from 3-6 pm at the UMass Research Farm. Find out more and RSVP here. 

Thank you to Caro Roszell, Soil Health Specialist, for helping to write this story.

About the Author
Emeran Irby

New England Communication & Outreach Coordinator

eirby@farmland.org

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