Heart and soil

Two Island farms go no-till or low-till, laying the groundwork for a regenerative future on Martha’s Vineyard.

Regenerative farming at Bettlebung Farm. —Randi Baird

Like any industry in the modern world, farming and agriculture embraced technology like a long-lost friend. Suddenly, tilling — a centuries-old practice of loosening plant soil — could be done in a matter of minutes. No shovels, hoes, or hours of manpower. Engine-operated tractors with calibrated wheels and blades could cut through rows of land, increasing yields, and changing the way fields were farmed for the next 50 years.

Today, farmers aren’t as wide-eyed and bushy-tailed over high-tech tilling — or tilling at all. While tractors get the job done fast, it comes at the expense of soil biodiversity, crop nutrients, and the balance of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. What was once considered efficient is now known as degenerative — farming that takes from the land and gives nothing back. 

But there’s a wave of farmers ready to reverse this trend, and over the past five years, regenerative agriculture has quickly gained momentum. Regenerative agriculture puts life back into the soil through low-till or no-till practices, bringing the land to its natural balance, and over time, attains self-sustainability. 

Many Island farmers have jumped on the regenerative bandwagon, but there are some new key players in the game this season, and they’re entering it with the big picture in mind — to assume the risk of what works and what doesn’t, and create a framework for other Martha’s Vineyard farms to follow. 

First, I met with Andrew Woodruff, Matthew Dix, and Noli Taylor of Island Grown Initiative (IGI)’s Thimble Farm in Vineyard Haven. Next, I spoke with Krishana Collins and Amy Shepherd, members of the Farm Group, the new stewards of Beetlebung Farm in Chilmark.

Thimble Farm, Vineyard Haven 

Andrew Woodruff — also known as “Woody” — has had an eye on regenerative agriculture for about three years. “I’ve been solidly embracing transitioning all the land I farm to regenerative,” Andrew said.

Andrew is a longtime Vineyard farmer, and the former owner of Whippoorwill Farm, which recently closed, but the farm jumped from location to location for over 30 years. “I farmed this soil for eight years,” Andrew said of Thimble Farm. “I know it well.” 

In late 2016, IGI formulated a new strategic plan with regenerative agriculture at its core. “It’s where we see the future of agriculture going,” said Noli Taylor, community food education director at IGI. “We remodeled our whole mission to be around a regenerative and equitable food system … We’re beating the regenerative drum really loud.” 

With the help of farm manager Matthew Dix, Noli conceptualized a project that focused on eight acres of Thimble Farm where a series of regenerative experiments could take place — and they knew just the farmer for the job. 

“It seemed like a good time in my life, and a good time for their organization, to do something like this,” Andrew said. 

“It was a great marriage of what we both do,” Matthew added. 

Before showing me around the west side of Thimble Farm, Andew briefed me on the five core principles of regenerative agriculture:

Always keep the soil covered with some kind of organic matter — for example, cover crops, wood chips, mulch, tarps. “It protects the soil from the sun, and helps stimulate the biology of the soil,” Andrew said.

Add diversity in your cover crops and in the plants you grow. “You’re always trying to have a wide range of plants in the soil. That could be just moving different vegetables around and adding cover crops between them. The more diversity, the more dynamic the biology in the soil, and the more great things it can do for your production.”

Keep living roots in the soil. “That’s the part I really didn’t understand until recently. Now one of our focuses is we don’t want bare ground.”

Integrate animals, which can help fertilize, root, and graze the land. “That’s really important to do if you can.” 

Minimize disturbance. “No machines. We’re trying to wean ourselves off.”

For now, Andrew and Matthew call it “minimal tillage.” “We have to bring in a pinch-hitter every so often if we’re losing the game,” Matthew said. For example, Andrew still uses his tractor to roll down cover crops, seed beds, and transfer plants. “But it’s important to note that what’s happening this year, compared with next year, compared with five years from now, will change a lot. We’re in the very beginning stages of transition,” Andrew said. “If I had to take a guess, we will reduce our tractor time as much as 70 percent when we get the soil in the right condition in five years.”

“He’s very careful when he brings a machine on here,” Matthew added, “Tractor compression from weight is always displaced in the same location.” 

As we walked toward one of the experimental plots — there are 12 total — Andrew and Matthew pointed out some “basically” retired players.

“So this machine here is a rototiller, and that’s one of the most destructive tools you can use on the soil,” Andrew said. “We’re basically done with that.” He pointed to another rusty piece of equipment lying idle in the dirt. “And this is a harrow — another tool that’s pretty much shamed on in the no-till, low-till world.” 

The farm is up against decades of intensive farming and Martha’s Vineyard’s naturally silky, clay soil. 

The clay soil at Thimble Farm is tightly packed. —Randi Baird

“When it rains, the ground dries out and tends to compact and get hard, and that’s mainly because it’s been exposed through tillage,” Andrew said. “There are a lot of compaction, drainage, and soil biology issues.” 

Andrew reached down and picked up a block of earth just outside the transition zone. “You can see it’s tightly packed,” he said, breaking apart the asphalt-like dirt. “There’s no air space. There’s no porosity. No earthworms. This is what we’re fighting.” 

Tarps and landscape fabrics are a critical transition tool at Thimble Farm. “There are a lot of different experiments we’re doing with the tarps,” Andrew said. “They’re moving around all the time.” Tarps can choke out unwanted weeds, terminate a cover crop, and protect and condition the soil beneath it. 

“We don’t want to be plastic farmers forever, but we’re using plastic to help transition the system,” Andrew said. 

Polycropping — planting a variety of roots in the ground — is another method of transitioning the system. “We’re trying to do a ‘three sisters’ experiment with corn, beans, and squash,” Andrew said. In one plot, Andrew planted beans and buckwheat down the middle as a cover crop (the squash rotted), and heirloom flint corn as the cash crop. 

“That’s another piece of this Noli is stressing,” Matthew said. “Bringing back an old tradition. This is pre-1800s corn.” Glenn Roberts of Anson Mills also donated the buckwheat seeds.“He’s a guru for heirloom grains,” Matt said. “We work with Glenn a lot.”

We walked toward another plot, covered by a thin blanket of wood chips, or what Andrew calls “grow-in-place mulch.” 

“We want to see how decomposing wood chips affect the soil conditions,” Andrew said. 

Andrew estimates the Island uses about 100,000 yards of wood chips for mulch per year. “That’s an incredible amount of carbon coming out of our forests and backyards getting processed for landscaping mulch,” Andrew said. “We want to figure out if there’s a way that some small percentage could get back on ag land and be effective in putting carbon back into the soil.” 

Regenerative farming is all about reducing fossil fuels, and balancing carbon emissions. This is a component of the farming brand that has the ability to help reverse climate change. “The point is to sequester carbon — to bring in more than we use,” Andrew said. “The plant uses carbon, and it respires carbon dioxide. We try to not have it respire more than it’s taking in.”

Nitrogen is another key player in this balancing act. Andrew planted a legume underneath the wood chips; the wood chips will extract nitrogen and retain moisture as the legumes simultaneously feed nitrogen back into the soil.

Andrew is also experimenting with compost. “It’s a really good inoculator and helps keep diseases down,” Matthew said. “It’s sort of the cureall for soil.” Andrew applied one round of compost this year, spreading about 20 to 30 yards per acre. “They don’t recommend putting more than that,” Matt said.

IGI’s compost program goes hand in hand with the regenerative project. “Over half of the compost we generate we’re keeping here,” Matthew said. “Some we need to sell to encourage people to use compost, and also fund the program a little.”

“So this was a crop of something called foraged peas,” Andrew said as we walked toward another plot of tall, knocked-over, legume cover crop. “We just rolled this all down with a rolling tool.” The cover crop will eventually dry and turn to straw, protecting the soil like a grow-in-place mulch. 

Andrew carved a 12-inch trench into the soil underneath the cover crop, going the length of the plot, “We’re trying to find different ways to plant through the [cover crop],” said Andrew. For now, they’re planting transplants in the trench from IGI’s greenhouse.

The cover crop “will smother all the weeds, and the transplants will grow,” Matthew said. 

Andrew shuffled aside a patch of the knocked-down cover crop, and reached for the soil underneath. “The soil is starting to do what we want it to do,” he said. “See how moist this is? After all our June rain.”

He broke apart the soil — it crumbled in his hands. “The soil is beginning to aggregate,” Andrew said. We saw wormholes and small clumps called colloids.

“All the biology in the soil is subaquatic,” Matthew said. “It only lives in the film of water around the soil colloids … the bigger the colloid, the more surface area you have, and the more room for biology to take place.”

“This is on its way to a regenerative type of soil,” Andrew said. “Five years from now, we’ll be amazed.” 

IGI monitors each plot of land through a farm-planning software called Tend, a 3D mapping program that helps farmers track where their crops are and what they’re doing. The program will be especially useful as Andrew begins rotating crops from plot to plot. Noli and Andrew meet every week to document trials. “I feel like the regenerative secretary,” Noli said. 

“In the end, we want to be able to transfer this to other farms, and make sure we know what worked and what didn’t,” Matthew said. “Make sure we’re always moving forward.” 

IGI hopes to rouse the whole community around soil potential, and as a nonprofit, they’re in a good place to do so. “This is one of the greatest things about being a nonprofit,” Noli said. “We can really go for it, and implement all these practices we’ve been learning about, and help spread information to farmers who can’t take the risk.”

Beetlebung Farm, Chilmark

Further up the Island, there’s 6.3-acre Beetlebung Farm, in the heart of Chilmark. Its new stewards, the Farm Group, took over in December. 

“This whole place is about regenerative living,” said owner Amy Shepherd. We sat inside one of the old, weathered, red-trimmed farmhouses. “It’s about craft, and by that I mean doing things by hand. Whether it’s farming, making food, or hosting makers — everything is done slowly, artfully, and intentionally — an approach to living from the bottom up. I see all these things happening in the same space.” 

Amy calls the farm “the heart and soul” of the land, so in their first season as stewards, the Farm Group is focused on slowly applying regenerative practices. That’s where farm directors Krishana Collins and Alisa Javits offer their expertise. 

“It’s kind of like how the Mennonites don’t put tires on their cars,” Krishana said. Krishana is also the owner of Tea Lane Farm, and has been practicing organic farming for over 20 years. “They only use wooden tires because they don’t want to move any faster than the way they’ve been moving.” 

Alex O’Brian weeds at Beetlebung Farm on a July afternoon. —Randi Baird

Like IGI, the Farm Group plans to experiment, discover, and learn from and share their mistakes. They’re also applying for nonprofit status. And above all, they’re taking things slow. “We’ve got wooden wheels on our car,” Krishana said. 

The Farm Group, made up of a core group of eight, has experimented with compost, hand tools, cover crops, and crop diversity. Once things are systemized, they’ll work in crop rotations and animal rotations as they see fit. 

“The infrastructure is going to slowly change, but we’re more focused on the soil for now,” Amy said. 

“I think it’s really important we spend a little time here before we change stuff,” Krishana said. “It’s nice to take it all in.” 

Krishana walked me around the farm — I’d never been before. We walked through lush rows of beet greens, lettuce, ‘Beauregard’ sweet potatoes, peas, onions, tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant, and peppers. We saw bees and butterflies, heard birds and the hissing of overhead sprinklers. Both the Farm Group and IGI use drip and overhead irrigation. 

“Can you see how healthy these plants are?” Krishana said. Everything smelled euphorically fresh. The soil was soft like velvet. 

“A lot went into the farm before we got here,” Krishana said. The Fischers were longtime stewards of the land. “We inherited good soil, good bones, and good karma,” Amy said. 

Another attribute of their already impressive yield is compost. 

Theo Gallagher at Beetlebung Farm. —Randi Baird

“We put really good compost down,” Krishana said. “It’s from off-Island, unfortunately, but we knew it was weed-free, and that was really important. It’s working really well.” 

The Farm Group uses low-till hand tools to weed, seed, and aerate each 30-inch bed, uniform across the farm. They’re trialing varieties, planting cover crops, reviving plots overrun by mugwort, and preparing land that hasn’t been farmed on before. 

Krishana led me to a plot of tall cover crops — oats, vetch, and field peas planted in early April. “This was land we opened up,” Krishana said. “It’s really important to give the soil a break, and just do a cover crop.” These particular cover crops are nitrogen-fixing, and the Farm Group knows they need more nitrogen in their soil.

Soil tests came back over the winter; results were high in phosphorus and low in nitrogen. “Chilmark soils are already pretty high in phosphorus,” Amy said. “Chicken manure produces a lot of phosphorus — there’s a reason we don’t have chickens right now. Depending on what’s happening on the farm, you’d use different approaches.”

Amy and Krishana make a good team. While Krishana’s managed farms for over 20 years, Amy, who’s always had a passion for craft, is just getting started. They’re learning, and relearning, together. Over the winter, they attended a weeklong intensive farm training at the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in New York. 

“Farmers and chefs and bakers all came together to deep-dive into regenerative farming,” Amy said. “I’m now obsessed with subsoil. There’s more life in one tablespoon of subsoil than there are people on this earth.” 

“I needed this so badly,” Krishana said. “I’ve learned so much in the past six months. Every farmer I talk to is overworked and underpaid. To have a system that makes life a little easier would be really great for everyone — and that’s the goal.” 

The other overarching goal is to reverse climate change. Regenerative agriculture offers a real way for people to bring life back into depleted land, and balance carbon dioxide and fossil fuel emissions. Whether you have a farm, a garden, or a backyard, anyone can integrate regenerative practices. 

Theo Gallagher stands with a collection of no-till, low-till tools. —Randi Baird

“By shifting our agriculture practices, we can actually draw down the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, and stop emitting fossil fuels,” IGI’s Noli Taylor said. “I feel really hopeful. This is happening all over the world, and it’s spreading quickly because it works … It makes me feel like an evangelist.”

Noted environmental activist and Chilmark resident Laurie David produced the 2018 documentary “The Biggest Little Farm,” which follows a couple through their successes and failures as they transition 200 acres of farm to regenerative practices. “We just experienced the warmest June in recorded history, so business as usual is unacceptable,” she said. “On Martha’s Vineyard, we seem to have the will, the education, and the role models, so this beautiful Island should be leading the way. In addition, the Island needs to aggressively and dramatically increase its use of renewable energy, wind and solar. Solar farming is now a thing! Let’s do more of that too.”

“This is the most exciting undertaking in my 40 years of farming,” Andrew said. “Regenerative agriculture can heal both the soul and the earth and will bring humans closer together as we redefine our purpose of life in this complex world.”