Some science behind sustainable farming

Lately I have been reading about certain small-scale farmers who have demonstrated ways of growing food without the use of a a single chemical fertilizer, animal inputs, and with minimal use of fossil fuels. What I find most interesting about some of these farmers is the amount of knowledge and resourcefulness they demonstrate by spending less money, yet still producing large and diverse quantities of produce for themselves, and in some cases, a smaller surrounding community.

When I compare our CSA to some of these small scale farms, I realize how difficult it would be for larger operations to prevent crop loss — due to disease, pests, weather conditions — without burning any fuel. When weeding one acre of land, or applying organic pesticides to such a small area, it is certainly possible to do this without the need of tractors or large basket weeders (machines that Ward’s Berry Farm uses to weed some of our 400 feet rows of corn when their young). This could be done by hand and with few laborers, therefore more “eco-efficient” since less money is spent and less fuel is burned compared to a larger CSA. Yet some of the most important aspects of organic farming, and some of the key similarities between smaller sustainable operations and larger organic farms, are the way that soil and the abundant minerals within it are recycled and managed.

Healthy and arable soil (soil which can be used to grow crops) is ultimately what the human population depends on for it’s survival. We breathe from the trees and eat from the crops that come from well developed soil. In fact, roughly 10% of the world’s landmass is considered arable, yet much of this arable land is dedicated to animal pasture and growing food for livestock. Because our planet is inhabited by almost 8 billion people, more and more land suitable for growing is instead being developed on.

On a positive note, the more awareness we have about the affects of carbon emission and climate change, the more likely people will change the way they live and eat. A common phrase I like very much: vote with your fork! Yet in speaking from experience, this phrase seems to resonate with me a little more after learning about and directly witnessing the effects of sustainable farming on the surrounding community. The questions I receive from shareholders about how our compost is made, or the eagerness of some to hold a cooking and canning class, are all based (in my opinion) on a collective appreciation for organic food and the way it is grown.

So it all comes back to soil. Or dirt if you prefer, which is made up of a mixture of rocks, sand, clay, and organic matter – all of which are composed of different kinds of minerals. Geologically speaking, these minerals originate from different types of igneous rocks – rocks that are formed from the cooling and solidification of magma and lava –  which break down overtime due to chemical erosion and the extremely slow and gradual movement of glaciers (glaciation). Overtime these primary rocks  become sedimentary rocks, such as sandstone and limestone which contain essential minerals that soil requires to support growth. When an area of soil lacks certain minerals, or if vegetable plants cannot access them, it is most often not because this soil is devoid of nutrients, rather these minerals lay deep below the soil surface, or they exist in more concentrated forms – needing to be “digested” and dissolved in order for the roots of vegetables to access them. The mineral silica for example, is the most abundant element in the earth’s crust, and many plant species use it as a defense against pests and disease. Yet because silica is one of the least soluble minerals, many plants need it to be “pre-digested” for them. Ferns and sedges are succulent plants that are able to do this. In terms of “bringing up” some of those latent minerals located deep below topsoil, trees are able to do this the best, yet so can various green manure crops such as winter pea, which we actually plant in our upper field! By not planting any vegetables in this designated area of our field, we allow the soil to “replenish” itself through the help of this cover crop.


Though difficult to see, winter peas are abundant in this area of our field.  A large compost pile lays here as well, which is continuously breaking down into more “accessible” forms of nutrients for vegetables to benefit from.


Our spaghetti squash as well as our tomatoes, are able to grow and access the nutrients from a much “rougher” form of young compost. Other crops such as carrots or beets for example, require a finer form of soil.

Some other methods that we use to replenish our soil without having to buy additional minerals, are by harrowing, or “blending” up dead and decaying crops into the soil. By attaching drag harrows to the back of their tractors, Ward’s Berry farm is able to churn up our soil, thus recycling the nutrients that originated from it. Though our methods are not “100% green,” it is nonetheless worth noting how our soil is formed and developed from a series of natural events. From the surrounding trees that bring up valuable minerals deep below the surface, to the recycling of nutrients into the soil via harrowing and composting…a co-dependent Eco-system. Considering the manner in which larger corporations produce and ship food by the masses, I can’t think of a better cause to support than something that recycles the resources it produces instead of solely consuming it.


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This post is by Matt Eiland who is in his first year as one of the Farm Apprentices at Moose Hill. In addition to the weekly pick-up posts, Matt has been sharing stories from the fields, ways to care and store for the crops, and other helpful insights.

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