The farmer and author of ‘The Living Soil Handbook’ talks about reducing labor, repairing ecosystems, and boosting photosynthesis by leaving the soil intact.
The farmer and author of ‘The Living Soil Handbook’ talks about reducing labor, repairing ecosystems, and boosting photosynthesis by leaving the soil intact.
July 22, 2021
Jesse Frost and his wife Hannah Crabtree have been farming together since 2011, when they met working as apprentices on a small organic farm in southern Kentucky. Eventually, they started their own small market garden operation nearby, Rough Draft Farm, where they started experimenting with cutting down on tillage a few years later. By 2017, they had gone completely no-till.
Today, the couple grows an impressive array of year-round vegetables on three-quarters of an acre using an intercropping system that utilizes four types of compost and several types of mulch while leaving the soil as intact as possible.
Now, Frost, who also hosts the No-Till Market Garden Podcast, has written a book about the science and practice of reducing tillage on small- and medium-scale produce operations. Crabtree provided illustrations. The Living Soil Handbook: The No-Till Growers Guide to Ecological Market Gardening, released this month, dives deep into the how, the why, and the philosophy behind their farm. In the introduction, he writes:
Confession: I have never actually grown anything in my life . . . In the 11 years I have been farming, all I can claim credit for is making the conditions right (and sometimes, admittedly, very wrong) for food and flowers to grow . . . . My job—indeed, the job of any grower—is not to grow food but rather to facilitate that growth. Something else entirely does the growing. That “something” is a complex community of living organisms—both macro and micro—that work in conjunction with air, water, sunlight, carbon, and nutrients to grow plants. Humans aren’t the creators here. I repeat: We simply make the conditions right for crops to grow and make food—this is the literal definition of cultivation.
At the core of their approach, adds Frost, are three principles: Disturb the soil as little as possible, keep it covered as much as possible, and keep it planted as much as possible.
We spoke with Frost, who has also contributed to Civil Eats in the past, about the book and the work it documents from the farm in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky.
One of the incentives in transitioning your own farm to no-till was the hope that it would cut down on labor. Has it actually turned out to be the case?
Yes, there are actually a couple different ways but one of them is cultivation. Weeds can swallow your crops, fight with your crops for moisture and nutrients, and also possibly add diseases. So, you have to constantly cultivate to keep those weeds down after every rain. And since we’re in a very rainy climate, weeding season lasts from April all the way through October. So, it’s a very long season of dealing with grasses and various other competitors. But once we started investing in mulches that work, we noticed a massive reduction in our labor. Our weeks used to be, primarily, cultivation. Now, they’re primarily harvesting and planting and doing very little cultivation.
Most no-till farmers are farming at much larger-scale than you are. They tend to grow commodity crops like corn and soybeans and it’s often done in concert with herbicide use, as well as other practices such as planting cover crops. Why did you invest in and fine-tune this very technical approach for such a small operation?
In addition to the labor reduction, we do it for the biodiversity, and to help increase photosynthetic activity. Photosynthesis is important for cooling our planet, for giving us oxygen to breathe, and for sequestering carbon— and maximizing that effort is really important.
There’s the larger scale no-till, which on the organic side is a lot of cover cropping and roller crimping. And then there’s the really small-scale backyard approach. I hope with the book and the podcast, we can bring out some ideas for that middle ground—people [growing food] on acreage ranging from an eighth of an acre up to 10 or even 20 acres. Managing soil is a way to help sequester carbon but it’s also a way to hold moisture, which is really important. Drought isn’t a problem in Kentucky, but I know much of the world increasingly suffers from lack of moisture. We need growing methods that retain moisture and part of that is growing our soil organic matter. When you till [the soil] you puts a lot of that organic matter on the surface, and it burns up. And even on a small scale, if you’re doing that multiple times a year, you’re losing a lot of moisture, you’re losing a lot of carbon dioxide, and you may be losing a lot of soil. Topsoil is really an extraordinary habitat for microorganisms needed for sequestering carbon for all of the things that we need. But if we don’t use it, we lose it. It blows away or it washes away in heavy rainfalls.
How much food do you produce and sell on that three-quarters of an acre?
We recently moved to a new piece of land, so our current farm is only six months old. But we’re grossing about $60,000 to $70,000 and we’re not growing super high-profit microgreens. This is almost exclusively soil-grown crops using these production methods. We have one full-time employee and myself and then my wife works part-time. We feel really good about those numbers and being able to flip sod into production that quickly has been very hard, but it has also been very rewarding to see a lot of the ideas take root in a totally different situation.
And like many writers, I’ve always wanted to write a book, but the rigor of farming often eliminated any chance of “free time.” With these ecological growing methods, I was not only able to manage my farm business and enjoy my family life, but host a podcast and write a book at the same time.
You’ve taken it upon yourself to translate quite a lot of science for your reader. Do you have a scientific background?
I don’t, but I’ve always loved science. And I’ve always been really interested in fact that there is a significant gap—especially in agronomy—between the people who can benefit from the research and the researchers. If you look at medical research, it’s written in a way that doctors can understand. It’s the same with astronomy, chemistry, and many other fields. But research in agronomy and horticulture often doesn’t make it to the farmer. I think that’s a really unfortunate reality and it has encouraged me to dive in and see if I can do a little bit of the science communication work to help people understand. Because there’s just an enormous amount of brilliant information hidden in the gobbledygook that is scientific jargon and research on agronomy and horticulture often just gets passed back and forth between researchers and agronomists and horticulturalists and ecologist. There’s great growing information out there! There are hundred-page papers on, says, vermiculture foliar sprays, but you have to seek them out and do a lot of work to understand them. So, I’m hoping to provide a bit of a bridge with this book.
This is a side note, but it seems like so much of the of the practical, on-the-ground research in agronomy seems to reach people via fertilizer salespeople. Or that’s often the only resource farmers feel like they have access to.
I think that’s an important side note. The people who are translating this information have a motive and they’re often cherry-picking the information that’s beneficial to their product. And that creates this bizarre feedback loop where you’re talking to people about the science of growing food and they’re telling you how many pounds per acre of chemical fertilizer they need to put on to grow corn. But there are plenty of studies at this point that show how detrimental things like chemical applications of fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides can be to microbial populations and hence, how they are going to negatively affect the soil. And I make the argument in the book that anything that negatively impacts the soil can [be seen as] a form of tillage. Chemicals can be a form of tillage, and anything that has long-term negative effect on this soil has to be grouped into that category.
You write that keeping roots in the ground at all times essentially prepares the soil for more roots in the ground. Do you want to talk a little bit about that?
What happens a lot of times in small-scale agriculture is the root and the whole plant get ripped out of the ground, when they’re done producing. With the plant goes a lot of carbon, and a lot of microbes. So, what the no-till community has developed as a whole, and I credit Singing Frogs Farm for pointing this out, is the importance of leaving the roots in the soil after the crop is finished. Certain crops have to be cut below the surface just slightly and some crops can be cut right at surface-level but the idea is that you leave those long form roots in the soil and what that does is it slowly breaks down and acts as a very slow-release form of carbon for its soil microbes to consume and release the nutrients that are inside of it. If you leave those roots in the soil then you’ve sequestered a small amount of carbon, at least for a small amount of time. But you have to get it replanted quickly because the microbes are going to slowly start moving in and consuming it and they need plants above the soil surface to capture that carbon dioxide and put it back in the soil.
The carbon cycle is an important part of the book. What do you think about the current push by Congress and the Biden Administration to enable carbon markets and essentially make it easier to pay farmers for practices that could sequester carbon in the soil?
The carbon cycle is so important! What happens is essentially plants use some carbon to build their leaf structure and stuff, but they’re also putting some into the soil through [compounds called] exudates. Microbes are consuming those exudates then they are being consumed by slightly larger microorganisms. And then those slightly larger microorganisms are consumed by earthworms [and other organisms] and on up the ladder. So it is being released and it’s also storing little bits of carbon all the time. But the soil has to remain relatively undisturbed and the process has got to happen constantly. You can’t just do it [for part of] the year, and then leave your beds fallow over the winter. You want that photosynthesis to be happening as much as possible.
With that in mind, when it comes what the Biden administration is proposing, I am a little anxious about the idea of paying farmers to sequester carbon. I worry about the loopholes and the fact that some farmers could take advantage of these rules to maybe plow down a forest to plant cover crops because they know they’re going to get more carbon credits that way.
At the same time, I would love to see more incentivizing for farmers who are on a larger scale to actually make the leap and start using things like cover crops, to reduce their tillage, and reduce their chemical inputs because forcing them isn’t going to work and it wouldn’t be the right thing to do. But I think encouraging them and incentivizing them could have a massive effect on our climate and on our crop production and also on the viability of our farms.
We recently reported on the fact that the vast majority of farmers identifying as “no-till” growers are still tilling their soil some of the time. What’s your take on the growing popularity of that term?
We really need a clearer definition of tillage and [an agreed upon understanding of] the difference between tillage and disturbance because I think those two things get conflated a lot of the time. Not all disturbance is bad. I make the point in the book that the soil is in a constant state of disturbance. The roots, bacteria, and earthworms are all moving it around constantly. I think that the intention has to be clear, as in, “We’re specifically doing this disturbance to reduce compaction or to get around stratification”—which happens on a lot of no-till farms because they’re not mixing in amendments. Will the disturbance improve the soil? Are you using something like a broadfork or a subsoiler that is just gently opening up the soil and breaking up compaction that you may have to use for a few years but in the end it will make itself obsolete?
I think the most important thing is to think about tillage as anything that causes long-term negative effects to the soil. So that would be heavy things that cause compaction, things that cause erosion, and things that leach out into the environment.
I’ve never heard of chemicals being described as tillage before.
Yeah, well it’s unfair for me to say which agricultural chemicals are forms of tillage because that’s not a form of agriculture that I’ve ever practiced. But we know that nitrates and phosphates are leaching into waterways and communities. I’ve seen herbicide drift from a half a mile away on to organic farms and those sorts of [effects] can have long-term negative effects on the soil. They’re devastating to microbial populations as well as above ground.
You spend time in the book acknowledging the fact that many of the organic and regenerative practices used by today’s white farmers originated with Indigenous communities. You write, “Agriculture that focuses on living soil, is not an innovation. It’s an apologetic response to the many wrongs forced upon the land and for the attendant harm and loss suffered by many people.” Say more about that.
These practices we’re talking about often get spun in a way that makes it sounds like the person writing about it was the one who invented it. And yet often times we are utilizing practices that were passed down from formerly enslaved people and Indigenous people and we owe it to them at the very least to not claim these as our own. But we also need to look to these Indigenous practices and think about what Mesoamerica and [the area now known as] the United States was like when settlers arrived. They found this really bountiful, country rich with [unbelievable biodiversity and rich soil]. And in addition to the genocide of the Indigenous people there was just an absolute devastation of the land. And the product of that was that we lost an enormous amount of diversity. Native Americans had a huge part in creating that biodiversity—they were the stewards [of those ecosystems] and instead of recognizing that, we (I have colonizers in my family) tried to take advantage of it and we didn’t see that what we were doing was ultimately consuming all the work that the Native people had put in by living with nature. It wasn’t about forcing nature to do one thing or another, it was about becoming part of nature.
I’ve argued that if tillage is long-term harm to the soil then the removal of Native Americans from the land was the first form of tillage on this land. And the first apology [white farmers can make] is to start thinking of ourselves as a part of nature, not as a separate from it. And then doing what we can to repair those relationships with the Indigenous communities and formerly enslaved communities who suffered from that hubris—that idea that we could just take from nature indefinitely and never give back.
What is your ultimate hope for how this book will impact your audience?
I hope that it will save people time and energy in the garden as they stop fighting against nature. Working with nature is less work, and it’s ultimately more rewarding and you have time to give more back to your community and grow better, healthier food and have a more viable farm business in every sense of the word.
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