Our farm is strongly committed to sustainability and uses a locally focused strategy to combat global climate change, enhance biodiversity, and protect our watershed. We use regenerative organic techniques to manage our farm. At its heart, regenerative organic farming is essentially restoration ecology that feeds people.
Our Sustainability Goals:
1. Grow carbon negative food.
2. Minimize the use of fossil fuel energy, and track greenhouse gas emissions.
3. Protect herps by enhancing habitat. Conserve or create habitat for Pennsylvania endangered or extirpated species like pine martens, rusty patch bumblebees, northern flying squirrels, bats, blackpoll warblers and others.
4. Remove invasive species and restore native plants.
5. Protect the watershed through improved riparian buffer management, use organic inputs, and eliminate—as much as possible—erodible, bare soil.
6. Remove trash and maintain coarse woody debris along Pine Creek, a Class A trout stream running through our farm.
7. Brook trout are much more abundant under hemlock than hardwood draining streams. Subsequently, we will: A. Establish an insectary using North American natives to control hemlock woolly adelgid—an invasive insect that devastates hemlocks. B. Plant a hemlock understory to ensure the next generation of trees and trout can continue to thrive.
8. Install an integrated pest management system which includes a beneficial insect insectary, conservation strips, insect netting, pheromone disruptors, and other PAMS techniques to reduce or eliminate the use of biocides.
9. Manage belowground and aboveground microbial diversity to reduce plant diseases and use of biocides.
10. Compare our regenerative organic yields to other Pennsylvania farms that use toxic biocides to ensure we are developing scalable, agroecological solutions that avoid triggering habitat destruction and land use change.
To achieve these goals, we use a three-pronged approach based on: I) farming practices, II) restoration ecology, and III) supporting local conservation organizations.
I. Farming Practices
Soil is the soul of any farm.
Our silt-loam soils were lovingly managed in a biodynamic tradition for decades before coming under our stewardship. We use no-till agriculture, with an occasional subsoiling to prevent silt compaction. This maintains a healthy soil texture; vibrant, strong roots; enriches soil life; and sequesters carbon. We aim to increase soil organic carbon by 0.4% per year, consistent with the 4 per Mille initiative first launched at COP21. This is essentially an aspirational goal, but if achieved in the future across global agricultural soils, 4 per Mille has the potential to offset all annual emissions from fossil fuels. Historically, in the US, soils have lost about 4 gigatons of carbon, mostly through erosion and decomposition associated with plowing. Similarly, globally, about 78 gigatons of carbon have been lost from agricultural soils. These historic losses are 8x greater than the annual CO2 emissions from global fossil fuel burning.
To regenerate soil carbon, we apply specific types of silicate and carbonate rock minerals to the soil in a process known as enhanced rock weathering. Weathering of these minerals sequesters carbon into the soil and has the added benefit of improving soil fertility. Carbon dioxide is absorbed in rain water, this forms carbonic acid which weathers the rock minerals. During the weathering process, the carbon is transformed into a carbonate mineral that stays in the soil, or, is leached into the water eventually being transferred into the ocean where it can help reduce ocean acidification. Silicates sequester carbon at a higher rate than carbonates, but do not decrease ocean acidification. Collectively, enhanced rock weathering increases soil inorganic carbon content.
We are designing a top-lit updraft gasifier to produce biochar from crop wastes and other on-site plant materials. Biochar has tremendous potential to increase soil carbon because it stabilizes the carbon into an exceptionally long lived, charcoal-like form that improves fertility and water infiltration. By being 'locked' into the soil as a charcoal-like material, the carbon is unavailable to microbial decomposition and can't be lost as carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide can be lost through microbial respiration if plants were flail mowed and allowed to decompose directly in the field, or, were composted.
We also do the 'usual' cover cropping, compost amendments, green manures, and other organic practices to improve soil health. These are typically flail mowed, then sheet composted in the field using occultation. About 45% of plant biomass is carbon, and about 18 - 20% of this remains in the soil after several cycles of microbial decomposition. This means about 8 - 10% of plant biomass carbon remains in the soil after microbial decomposition of cover crops and green manures. Collectively, both biochar and these other practices increase soil organic carbon content.
These practices are designed to actively draw down or sequester atmospheric carbon into our soils, and increase soil carbon over 2020 baseline conditions. This gives us a carbon 'credit' which can then be weighed against our greenhouse emission 'debts'.
In terms of energy, we have shifted our electricity to 100% renewables, leaving propane for greenhouse heating and gasoline for transportation and tractor work. Of these three, gasoline for transportation is by far our greatest source of energy emissions. Farm fertilizer use can also be an important emission source, especially volatilization of nitrogen from ammonium (NH4+) or nitrate (NO3-) into nitrous oxide (N2O). Currently, we use slow release distillers dry grains (DDGS) and soybean meal as our fertilizer sources. By tracking our energy use and fertilizer application/volatilization rates, we know the lion's share of our farm's greenhouse gas emissions. Methane from ponding in fields or through other biogeochemical processes should also be considered in the future. By monitoring changes in soil carbon in our fields, we can compare our emission rates to our sequestration rates and estimate the net carbon content of the food we produce. Our goal is to sequester more carbon than we emit, and produce carbon negative food. (We use a CO2e basis whereby N2O, CH4, or other greenhouse gases are converted to CO2 equivalents based on their global warming potential over a 100 year time scale.)
An oft cited criticism of organic production is that it has lower yields. This is generally true, but with notable exceptions. This is important because if organic farming has lower yields, and in theory was scaled-up to replace industrial, chemically intensive agriculture, more land would be required to grow an equivalent amount of food. Subsequently, land-use change such as deforestation or grassland habitat destruction would ensue, releasing carbon and decreasing biodiversity. This has led some to posit organic farming or agroecology is fundamentally unsustainable. There are many reasons organic tends to yield less than chemically intensive agriculture. First, organic receives less than 2% of Federal research funding, meaning 98% of funding goes to improve chemically intensive agriculture rather than agroecological approaches. This is a severely uneven playing field, and no doubt slows innovation and progress. Second, organic farming often takes years for strategies to improve the soil and reduce pest or disease pressure--meaning yields may be temporarily lower while the soil is restored. Lastly, organic farmers often do not singularly pursue yield, frequently fields are allowed to fallow between cultivations, or land is set aside for habitat.
Put another way, organic farming often tries to use a land-sharing approach to maintain biodiversity as opposed to a land-sparing approach that necessitates maximizing yield. Regardless of the mechanism, if true, reduced yields are an important issue organic farmers need to address. To ensure our production is sustainable, we compare our yields to county or national averages. This helps us assess our competitiveness, while also allowing us to evaluate the scalable sustainability of our practices in terms of land-use and habitat destruction.
After focusing on building six greenhouses in our first two years, installing a GAP certified pack-house, and other hard infrastructure, in year three, we are concentrating on biological infrastructure and working toward our sustainability goals. This includes installing an integrated pest management system, permanent conservation strips, and customized biological treatments to enhance soil microbial populations.
We manage our conservation strips for the endangered rusty patch bumblebee and monarch butterflies. We also attract beneficial insects specific to the insect pests feeding on our crops. In general, we have about 30 species of beneficial insects we use to target about 15 main types of pest insects. We have identified 65 native plants to attract these 30 beneficials in order to reduce pest insects. Beneficial habitat needs to equal at least 20% of the harvested area to cause a noticeable decline (~35%) in pest populations. Our design plants natural habitat within the field, along field edges, and fence rows, to equal at least 35% of the planted area. This not only improves yield and food quality, but also beautifies our farm while enhancing biodiversity.
We also monitor soil microbial diversity and earthworm populations. For microbes, we use filtered, compost teas that are applied through a biogation system we’ve developed. Instead of fertigation, where fertilizers are applied while irrigating, we apply biological treatments using drip or overhead irrigation. This keeps soils and plants healthy, reducing the need for fertilizers and biocides. Any remaining need for fertilizers and plant protection are organic amendments—this reduces eutrophication or toxicity in our food, fields, and watershed.
II. Restoration Ecology Our ~15 acre property borders ~300,000 acres of state forest, and is bisected by Pine Creek, a Class A trout stream home to turtles, wild brook trout, green frogs and other healthy indicator species. We have a mature hemlock-white pine forest, and some mixed hardwoods. The riparian forest is managed to maintain in-stream coarse woody debris (CWD)—key habitat for turtles and trout. Here, we are defining CWD as greater than 6 inches in diameter and 3 feet in length—though entire logs and fallen trees are particularly important.
CWD traps organic matter and provides habitat for insects and other invertebrates fed upon by smaller fish, trout, and turtles. CWD also creates deeper pools, provides shade and cover from predators, or can be used for basking by turtles. Restoration and maintenance of CWD has been shown to improve the abundance and size of trout. As temperatures and drought continue to worsen from climate change, shading from overstory trees and CWD is increasingly important to maintain cooler water temperatures favored by trout. CWD also improves stream morphology and alters streamflow; this reduces channelization and provides resilience to flooding by slowing down peak water events. Generally, we aim to maintain the equivalent of 200 pieces of CWD/mile of stream.
In addition to CWD, we sample for crayfish and insects to monitor water quality and stream biodiversity. We are actively working to reduce sedimentation from our fields, use organic amendments rather than toxic chemicals, and use slow release fertilizers to decrease potential eutrophication. Sedimentation negatively impacts in-stream habitat and smaller organisms, this can can result in a bottom-up trophic cascade in the food web that decreases food availability. Sedimentation can also suffocate fish and amphibian eggs decreasing reproductive success. Eutrophication and 'death zones' or anoxic conditions found in large bays and deltas can be traced back to fertilizer run-off further upstream, including first and second order streams like Pine Creek. Our farming practices and riparian buffer are designed to minimize these types of impacts.
Our riparian buffer is also managed to create a diversity of riparian habitats for turtles, trout, and other species. Turtles prefer early successional forest with canopy gaps, edge habitats, mixed forb and graminoid meadows, and south-facing exposure. For turtles, we have part of our stream in early successional open forest interspersed by forbs and graminoids, with some elevated gravel and sandy nesting areas. We are installing out-of-stream turtle nesting habitat while maintaining existing in- and out-of-stream nesting areas. We have set up cameras to protect and monitor turtle nesting sites to achieve reproductive success.
For trout, we keep a mature closed canopy of hemlock and white pines. Trout have been found to be 300 – 500% more abundant in streams with hemlocks rather than hardwoods. This could be because hemlocks are associated with greater numbers of piscivorous fish rather than insectivorous fish. Alternatively, hemlocks may alter stream biogeochemistry. The mechanism is still unclear and actively being researched.
Maintaining large diameter hemlock and white pines, including standing snags, is also important for the endangered blackpoll warbler, northern flying squirrel, and pine marten. Although pine marten were native to Pennsylvania, they were extirpated following extensive logging. Similarly, blackpoll warblers and northern flying squirrels declined. Some foresters, though not all, advised us to remove large, older, hemlocks and white pines, however, we declined to maintain food sources, nesting sites, and other key forest structure needed by these animal species.
We have seen mink running along our stream, and have spotted fisher in state forest land. Although pine martens are thought to be extirpated from Pennsylvania, we saw a dark, rusty orange mustelid-like animal crossing the upper canopy of our larger, mature hemlocks and white pines, navigating from tree to tree across branch tips--without touching the ground. The color was unmistakable, and behaviorally, the animal was clearly targeting squirrel nests, a food source preferred by pine martens. We cannot speak with certainty that we have a confirmed pine marten sighting, but the color and behavior is consistent with a pine marten. Regardless, we are maintaining a diversity of habitats to conserve existing species like herps and brook trout, and to encourage potential recolonization of once extant species like martens and warblers.
To keep our hemlocks healthy, we are installing an insectary of beneficial insects that prey upon hemlock woolly adelgid (HWA)—an invasive insect from Japan that is devastating Pennsylvania hemlock forests. Our beneficial insects are native to North America. This type of restoration will reduce HWA populations to a level that can be tolerated by hemlocks, and is preferable to repeated chemical controls. Main invasive plant species include barberry, multi-flora rose, celandine, garlic mustard, privet, stiltgrass, Japanese and bush honeysuckles, burdock, and autumn olive. Celandine and garlic mustard have established themselves as a major understory component and displace native spring ephemerals. Larger shrubs and trees crowd out natives shrubs and keep native trees from regenerating. Invasive understory plants will be replaced with witch hazel, blue and black cohosh, Indian cucumber-root, Canada mayflower, wintergreen, partridge berry, bluebeard (or bluebead) lily, wild claytonia, ferns, and other natives. Pawpaw, elderberry, red osier dogwood, high bush cranberries, shadblow serviceberry, black chokeberry, honeyberry, angelica, boneset, meadowsweet, skullcap, and mountain mint will be planted in a multifunctional riparian buffer. This buffer uses native plants to provide food, habitat, and medicine, while improving stream structure and water quality.