Have you ever wondered what us farmers at Third Way Farm (TWF) mean when we describe our practices as “regenerative agriculture?” Well, it's actually a vital aspect of many farms around the world today as we recognize the negative consequences that derive from conventional agriculture techniques. In fact, according to Kiss The Ground, modern methods cause a “loss of topsoil, loss of biodiversity, desertification, habitat destruction, and air and water pollution.” These effects severely impact the state of our planet and contribute to the global climate crisis we face today. Due to the increasing awareness of agriculture’s impact on climate change, the urgency to adopt regenerative systems is evermore apparent. Interestingly enough, “regenerative” is just a new buzz word describing age-old farming methods indigenous cultures have been practicing for millenia. To solve the issues with conventional farming practices we must look back on ancient wisdom to secure a safe future for future generations to come.
The main objective of regenerative agriculture is improving soil health. It may not seem crucial, but soil is our life force. Without healthy soil we cannot grow nutritious food to feed ourselves and our communities. To achieve this goal of soil health, soil organic matter must increase. How is this done here at TWF and other regenerative farms around the globe? Regenerative farmers follow some basic principles: disturb the soil as minimally as possible (employ a no-till system); keep the soil covered as much as possible, keep living roots in the soil, grow a diversity of crops, and incorporate animals in a rotational grazing system.
Tilling is not ideal because it disrupts and may even destroy soil microorganisms, breaks up soil aggregates, and releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. We need microorganisms because they are what bring life to the soil and feed plant roots. Soil aggregates are a representation of the balance of all the right components in a healthy soil. Finally, when the soil is flipped over, all the carbon dioxide that was stored underground is released. This contributes to the build up of greenhouse gasses present in the atmosphere today that trap heat and warm the climate.
Keeping soil covered as often as possible is key for protecting it and holding carbon in the ground. Think about land that has not been developed by humans, a forest perhaps. Are there many bare areas not covered by plant material, living or dead? Not really. Why is this? Mother Nature does not want to be naked; she must protect herself. Exposed soil leads to erosion because water and wind blow and wash it away. The ground must be covered to avoid the loss of topsoil because plants create a buffer against the wind and also help absorb water. Plant matter above the soil also photosynthesizes and feeds the microbes below the ground through roots exudates. Elizabeth and Paul Kaiser at Singing Frogs Farm in California perfectly describe these fluids as “liquid sun.” In exchange for this “liquid sun,” microorganisms feed plants nutrients from the soil they cannot obtain on their own. However, if the soil is not covered and there are no living roots in the ground, microorganisms would not receive the nutrients they need to thrive. In the context of farming, this has a cascade of negative effects. If the soil is left fallow for too long it will become void of nutrients. When crops are sown or planted there will not be a thriving population of microorganisms to nourish them. This then creates the need to spray synthetic fertilizers, which is another topic for another post. Larger organisms such as worms would also lose their food source with the loss of microorganisms. Worms are vital for aerating the soil which helps with water drainage and absorption. Additionally, worms are decomposers and break down organic matter into natural fertilizer. All in all, keeping the soil covered and full of living roots is imperative for the life of soil.
Knowing how important the microorganisms are to healthy soil, it is clear that there needs to be a biodiverse population of them. This is done by growing a diversity of crops. Although all farms have their own context for employing regenerative practices, diversity is an underlying factor for all. When many different types of crops are grown together they support a rich tapestry of biology. Creating a diverse ecosystem helps prevent crop loss caused by pathogens or disease as some microorganisms help plants ward off these problems. Additionally, diversifying the vegetable portfolio on just one farm helps farmers stay economically successful. Regenerative agriculture is not only about soil resilience, but also the resilience of farmers and their communities. This way of farming supports farmers in such a way that they can still prosper even in the face of obstacles. For instance, if one crop succumbs to disease or gets destroyed in a bad storm, there are other products to sell and sustain the business. Some of the veggies we grow at TWF to reap this benefit are basil, beans, broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, cilantro, corn, cucumbers, fennel, kale, kohlrabi, onions, parsley, potatoes, swiss chard, radishes, tomatoes, turnips, and zucchini.
Not only is diversity important in the vegetable field, it is also important to diversify the farm operation by including livestock. Now, not all farms require your typical livestock such as cattle, chickens, pigs, and sheep to be considered regenerative. Many regenerative market gardens are popping up around the world that only tend to veggies. However, this does not mean they do not have livestock. Regenerative practices promote soil health, which is the backbone for an entire ecosystems' health. With healthy soil comes all kinds of life such as bees, frogs, snakes, spiders, worms, and more. All this life is a sign of a thriving environment. Here at TWF we have all these animals and more. A major component of regenerative agriculture for us is rotational grazing for our cattle, sheep, and chickens. This practice includes creating many small paddocks or sections within a larger pasture using movable electric fencing. The animals are kept there for a short duration of time, one day is standard at TWF for our ruminants (cattle and sheep), and they eat the forage, poop, pee, distribute seeds, and break up the crust of the soil. All of these help support healthy soil… are you seeing the pattern? Then, once they have spent their time in one paddock, they get moved to the next one and continue the process. They will not return to any given paddock for a bit, 60 days is ideal, so that the pasture can regrow and the animals are less likely to come in contact with parasites.
Other benefits of a rotational grazing system include a higher volume of perennials because the livestock are not given the opportunity to eat them down to the point where the plants will not grow back. With more perennials comes more green forage during dry seasons. Finally, this system increases the ability for pastures to sequester carbon from the atmosphere back into the soil. This is because there is a thriving community of plants to pull this carbon into the ground. On a side note, raising animals in this way needs to be a part of a cultural shift in farming practices in order to protect our planet. Many people understand meat consumption to be evil because animals, mainly cows, emit greenhouse gasses. However, this is a problem for factory farms where animals are raised indoors on corn and soy. When animals are raised as we raise them at TWF, they can actually be a solution to climate change.
There are so many more aspects of regenerative farming that I could get into, but these are just some of the basics. If you want to learn more, join our viewing of the film, Kiss The Ground. It is a great overview of all the things I discussed here and it will help you understand why we do what we do. One of the focal points of the movie is how us farmers are on the front lines of the climate crisis. In fact, this emphasis is what captivated my attention and lit the fire in my belly that drove me to become a farmer. Watching Kiss The Ground and learning about regenerative agriculture changed my life! It encouraged me to read as many farming books as I could get my hands on, watch endless Youtube videos of farmers around the world, and most importantly start working on a regenerative farm myself. So I moved to Lopez Island, Washington in February 2021 to embark on my journey. I was a climate farm intern at Midnight’s Farm where I took an online course on climate change through Terra.do, an online platform working to get more people involved in mitigating the effects of climate change. I spent my days in the veggie garden learning the ins and outs of growing delicious and nutritious produce, in the pastures setting up electric fencing for the grazing cattle, and in the on-site compost facility seeing a behind the scene look at how that beautiful, rich, organic material is made. I could not quench my thirst for learning all I could about this way of farming and would spend my evenings with my nose buried in a book, doing my online courses, talking to the farmers I worked for, or cooking with the wonderful food I helped grow.
I am continuing to deepen my knowledge at TWF by working alongside Tommy and Michelle and other awesome farmers! It's great to learn from Tommy and Michelle's experience and also understand how they make decisions based on regenerative practices. But it's not just healthy soil we focus on here. Our mission is faith, community, and justice. We recognize that this life is a gift from God that we must cherish it, and we do so by taking care of this land, growing and raising healthy food in healthy soil, and cultivating community. If you want to join us in our mission please come take a tour, participate in an event we host, stop by our Barn Store on Tuesdays and Fridays, join our CSA, volunteer on the farm, and encourage all your friends to do the same. We could not do what we do without your support. So thank you all! Now I’ve got to wrap this up because our sheep just escaped. But hey, I didn’t say we are perfect, just doing the best we can to cultivate a healthy and thriving farm.
Until next time,
The Return of Robinhood
Nestled into a hidden woods on Robinhood Road, in Havre de Grace Maryland, exists a picturesque farm community; a place of green pastures, beautiful woodlands, and colorful fruits and vegetables. And in this thriving place, a place called Third Way Farm, there is also a community on a mission to build a better world through a holistic and regenerative approach to agriculture; a mission grounded in our faith and our belief in a world where all have a place at the table. Where, when we give back to the land, and to one another, all of creation thrives.
We are farming on land that was once inhabited by the indigenous peoples of the Piscataway and Susquehannock tribes. We recognize that this land was unjustly taken from them without their permission. We hope our lives upon and care for this land will honor their legacy and wisdom in living harmoniously with this place.
Third Way Farm
Barn Store Hours
601 Robinhood Road
Havre de Grace, Maryland 21078
Barn Store Hours
601 Robinhood Road
Havre de Grace, Maryland 21078