New England Farmer-led Innovators: Can Peer-To-Peer Learning Increase Adoption of Regenerative Agriculture?
On a warm July day in 2022, AFT New England’s Soil Health and Climate and Agriculture Specialists Caro Roszell and Julie Fine traveled to visit a farmer attempting to create a new approach to reduced-till planting. The farmer, who had been experimenting with this approach without any help or input, was thrilled to have someone to talk to about it. Trying to figure out how to farm differently, he told them, “can be really lonely.” He asked if they would organize a group of other farmers to come to his farm to see what he was trying out and exchange advice. The request turned into several field walks on different farms. At each walk, farmers gathered around modified equipment, talked coulter and shank types, inspected weed pressure, and swapped advice. Farmers told AFT staff that meetings like these were essential to helping them problem-solve their way toward new ways of farming that build, rather than degrade, soil health.
The feedback farmers tell our team is also reflected in AFT’s New England farmer soil health survey (325 responses). More than half of responding farmers say they don’t have enough technical support to implement healthy soil practices, identify other farmers as their main source of technical support, and place on-farm visits and equipment information at the top of the list of most-needed forms of technical assistance. Most organic farmers responding to this survey cited a lack of knowledge of equipment options as a barrier to implementing soil health practices.
Organic farmers rely more heavily than conventional producers on mechanical methods like tillage for weed and residue management, so organic no-till farms are extremely rare. This makes the market for equipment designed for organic no-till vanishingly small, and so very little commercially available equipment meets the needs of tractor-scale organic producers trying to minimize soil disturbance. Compounding matters, New England producers farm smaller, rockier, more fragmented, colder, and hillier parcels of land than farmers in other regions, which narrows down equipment options still further. Similarly, there is little research or technical support available for the very small vanguard of producers attempting organic minimum tillage.
In the absence of equipment designed for their operations, farmers need to design, custom-build, hack and modify farming equipment. Without technical support, research, and other investments enjoyed by producers in other agricultural sectors, creative organic produce farmers are inventing new crop rotations and finding new ways to manage weeds, cover crops, and mulches that better align with the principles of soil health.
To help accelerate this innovation, AFT’s New England Climate and Agriculture team (AFT NECAT) has organized funding and peer support for farmer innovators. With grant support from anonymous donors and Organic Valley, AFT designed a 2-year program for organic tillage reduction innovators. Meeting regularly to share ideas, the farmers will form a working group, sharing their successes and failures, workshopping ideas, and helping each other problem-solve toward efficient and effective tillage-reduced vegetable production systems. Each producer will receive $5,000 towards their tillage reduction project, helping to defray the cost of increased labor, risk, and equipment associated with trying something new.
The learning that results from these new approaches will then be broadcast to other farmers through field days, articles, and videos. As in every sector, innovation requires ‘failing forward,’ or trying out approaches that just don’t work until the experimenter hits on one that does work. But the seasonal nature of farming presents a check on iterations; a farmer with ten years of experience, so the saying goes, has had exactly ten tries at farming. While it can be tempting to focus only on success stories, the farming community needs to also pool its knowledge of what hasn’t worked in order to save farmers time trying dead-end approaches. The final cohort features 8 New England farmers—four in Maine, and four in Massachusetts. They represent a diversity of scale, soil type, and experience practicing reduced tillage skills. Over the next year, the farmers will work together to create a series of field walks showcasing their work. These will be open to other local farmers, or anyone interested in reduced tillage practices. They will also create videos and stories about their reduced tillage journeys that can be shared with anyone interested in learning more about the benefits of the practices.
To learn more about the first cohort of Farmer Innovators, check out this interactive map.
Introducing the 2023 cohort
- Hall Brook Farm, Thorndike, ME: Established in 2014 by Megan and Pheonix O’Brien. They started using draft horses (Ben and Bob) and grew to farm using tractors growing to 20 acres of certified organic produce for wholesale markets. Their mission is to create a farm business that prioritizes a healthy and sustainable environment for people, places and crops.
- Goranson Farm, Dresden, ME: Goranson Farm cultivates fresh nutritious organic veggies, berries, and maple syrup on 72 acres in beautiful Dresden, Maine. Jan Goranson, Rob Johanson, and sons Carl and Göran farm the land that has been in their family, feeding the community, since the 1960s. They offer products through their farm stand, mail order, area farmers’ markets, and a free choice CSA program.
- Andrews Farm, Gardiner, ME: Mike Perisho began growing vegetables on his wife Jess’s family land in 2014. The pastures and hay fields had been continuously farmed by the Andrews side of her family since the late 1800s and this 5th generation effort is keeping the land in agriculture and cultivating community. Mike has been experimenting with reducing tillage, including roller crimping, in his vegetable production.
- Crystal Spring Farm, Brunswick, ME: Seth Kroeck has been growing vegetables organically for 25 years on farms in California, Massachusetts, and New York before settling at Crystal Spring Farm in 2004. Seth and Maura lease the farm from Brunswick-Topsham Land Trust and run the farm business independently. Marketing to wholesale the farm produces certified organic carrots, Brussels sprouts, heritage grains, specialty peppers and wild blueberries. As growers their focus is on reducing their carbon footprint, enhancing biodiversity and nurturing soil health through organic management.
- Freedom Food Farm, Raynham, MA: Freedom Food Farm is a certified organic farm in Raynham, MA growing a sustainable, full-diet year-round since 2012. They produce vegetables, small grains, greenhouse crops, pastured-raised livestock, and hay. Chuck Currie has been innovating ways to use regenerative and no-till farming methods, striving to mimic natural ecological systems on the farm.
- Atlas Farm, Deerfield, MA: Founded in 2004, Atlas Farm is a 120-acre certified organic, diversified family farm with its roots in the fertile soil of the Connecticut River Valley. Atlas Farm strives to be a model of ecological food production, engaging in organic farming practices, and renewable energy, and striving to minimize resource consumption and environmental impact.
- Island Grown Initiative Farm, Vineyard Haven, MA: Island Grown Initiative, a non-profit organization that works to build a regenerative and equitable food system on Martha’s Vineyard, stewards a 40-acre farm at the heart of our island. Since 2018, under the guidance of veteran island farmer Andrew Woodruff, we have been transitioning the farm to low- and no-tillage regenerative agricultural practices, utilizing tarps, landscape fabric, year-round, diverse cover crops, and multi-species rotational grazing. The farm also includes a 30,000 square-foot glass greenhouse, a year-round CSA, a robust gleaning program, and hosts frequent and year-round field trips from our local schools. Approximately 1/3 of what we grow is donated to islanders in need through our own food equity programs and through partners in our Island Food Equity Network.
- Crimson & Clover Farm, Florence, MA: Nate Frigard has owned and operated Crimson and Clover Farm since 2011. He has a passion for growing great vegetables, building healthy soils, and building a vibrant community farm. Nate loves the opportunity that farming provides to connect with the land, the farm crew, and the community as a whole.