Farming From the Heart

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Tompkins Weekly 4-28-21

By Mothers out Front

We have learned much in the last year about the importance of our health, our community and our environment. We are more keenly aware of the availability of food and unequal access to it. As we take in the big picture, the magnitude of the climate change crisis is also finally becoming clearer.

There are many ways to address this problem, and each of the solutions has its challenges. Perhaps the one with the most staying power in our region is small-scale regenerative farming, whose practices increase organic matter in the soil, drawing down and sequestering carbon in the process.

This rich soil, in turn, produces healthy food, which makes for healthy people and, ultimately, a healthy planet. These small farming businesses also strengthen the local economy. What more could you ask of a solution?

We in the Tompkins County area are fortunate to have a growing number of farmers who are part of a movement toward farming regeneratively. Members of our local chapter of Mothers Out Front, whose mission is to find ways to avert climate catastrophe, interviewed a number of these farmers, three of whom we feature in this article, while others will figure in a second article to come.

Christa Nuñez of The Learning Farm. Photo provided.

Karma and Michael Glos are the owners of Kingbird Farm, a 100-acre farm in Berkshire, New York, 20 acres of which are devoted to pasture for their beef cattle. One acre is devoted to their market garden — vegetables and herbs — and the rest is woods with perennial borders to attract pollinators. They sell their produce at their self-serve store on the farm and at the Ithaca Farmers Market.

Christa Nuñez is the owner of The Learning Farm, a 15.5-acre farm in Ithaca. Nuñez is a self-described African American woman farmer and wants the public to understand how diverse farming in general has been throughout history. She and her husband grow vegetables, table grapes, bush and tree fruits and raise chickens and goats. They donate their produce to Quarter Acre for the People and sell their organic juice blends at Greenstar.

Wendy and Bill Williams of the Gather Together Farm have an 11-acre farm in Trumansburg where they grow vegetables and are planning to expand to grow blueberries, raspberries and ultimately apple trees to produce what “people really use.” Their sales approach is a ‘pay as you go’ method in which customers can order and pay online on a weekly basis.

Whereas these farmers do not declare themselves to be full-fledged regenerative farmers, they all have a key approach in common — soil-nourishing practices, which are the heart of regenerative farming. They also have chosen to conduct small-scale, labor-intensive, Earth- and climate-mindful ways of farming.

Organic farming practices overlap with regenerative practices. Wendy, from Gather Together Farm, makes this distinction: “Being called ‘organic’ isn’t enough [for us].”

“The quality, flavor and nutritional value of the food you grow has more to do with the quality of, and how you treat, your soil,” she said.

And these farmers’ high-quality food, enriched by micronutrients available in soil that is alive, is a key contribution of these and similar farms.

Both organic and regenerative farmers place a premium on quality of the soil. These farmers avoid the soil degradation that results from using synthetic fertilizers and environmentally damaging herbicides and pesticides. Their farming practices make for a restoration of the complex, varied microbial life in the soil that is crucial for growing healthy, nutrient-rich plants and animals.

Regenerative farmers minimize soil disturbance to maintain soil vitality. This practice has the added benefit of keeping carbon in the ground rather than releasing it into the air as CO2, a greenhouse gas. Some do not till at all, and others use as little tilling as possible. For example, Kingbird farm uses minimal tilling in its market garden using plow horses, which reduces the impact on the land and avoids fossil fuel use.

They all use cover crops to keep the soil from being exposed to wind and excessive amounts of rainwater. The Learning Farm and Gather Together Farm use mounding to reduce the erosion effects of flooding. These practices also slow rainfall flow to streams and the lake.

The Harmful Algal Blooms we have seen in Cayuga Lake are caused in part by runoff carrying excess nutrients from farms and lawns.

Special methods are also used in raising grazing animals. Karma of Kingbird Farm also notes that one of the most important things she and Michael have done to keep their farm healthy is the rotational grazing of their carefully selected Scottish Highland and Irish Dexter cattle.

As the cattle are moved from place to place, they leave their manure behind, enriching the native grasses, which provide both healthy nourishment for the cows and a thriving habitat for birds and insects.

Faced with extreme and highly variable weather due to climate change, regenerative farmers employ practices to enhance their ability to be resilient to these changes. The small size of these farms and the diversity of their produce make them more nimble in adapting to the challenges of climate change since they spread the risk across several kinds of produce.

As Nuñez said, “Biodiversity is key.”

“We are intentional about growing lots of things together, as close and interdependent neighbors, so that they can support one another in beautiful and beneficial ways,” she said.

Conventional, large-scale, industrial farmers who produce a single crop (i.e., corn or soybeans) can lose most or all of it to an extreme weather event. This focus on soil, rather than scale of production, helps farmers to adapt.

As Wendy of Gather Together points out, “healthy soil is more resilient to heat and excess water.” Covered soil does not dry out the way tilled, naked soil does, and soil inhabited by healthy, deep-rooted plants absorbs and retains water rather than allowing runoff and consequent soil erosion.

These farmers speak of their nurturing the soil to produce highly nutritious food as being a labor of love with the goal of promoting health and well-being through nutritious food. Wendy hopes that people will recognize that their way of farming is a labor of love and that they will “feel that though what we are doing.”

As Nuñez put it, “This is the most important work we could be doing — feeding people, families, children [and helping them] understand how precious their health and wellness is.”

And Wendy is so devoted to her way of farming that she declared, “Small farms can save the world.”

But this approach brings with it special financial and commercial challenges to farmers who engage in these practices. A look at these aspects of this kind of farming will be the focus of a second article that will also bring in material gleaned from interviews with other similar farmers.

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