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Not breaking ground for groundbreaking drought resilience, profitability & agroecological health: a Winter Conference Preview

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This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2016 November Issue Newsletter

By Caro Roszell

Paul and Elizabeth Kaiser of Singing Frogs Farm in Sebastapol, CA have been called "drought fighters,[i]" and "leading innovators,[ii]" in the field of regenerative agriculture. Their agro-ecological growing practices (and the results thereof) have commended as "sustainability on steroids, [iii]"’ and "transformative.[iv]"

Rapidly growing in renown to near Elliot Coleman levels, the Kaisers have recently attracted national attention from soil scientists, government agencies, agricultural organizations, journalists and the farming community for their unconventional farming practices. Their methods allow them to grow up to seven crops per year per bed, gross $100,000 per acre, raise soil organic matter 400% in six years, achieve Bee Friendly Certification, offer year-round positions to several employees at $15/hour, and use absolutely no sprays, even organic ones.

While Singing Frogs Farm is certainly in a warmer climate (the farm falls into USDA zone 9a, where temps can fall to 20 in the winter) the high productivity of this farm cannot be entirely attributed to the longer growing season – New Englanders can certainly still relate to their conditions, in which frosts may occur regularly from October through May.

How, then, has this ambitious farming couple accomplished such groundbreaking feats of fertility and viability? Largely, by not breaking ground at all – no-till practices are at the heart of the farm’s successes. A simple sketch of the Kaisers’ practices would include building pollinator habitat, using large amounts of local waste (municipal compost) and nearly continuous plant-cover to conserve water, maintain high levels of soil life, and produce a constant outflow of high-quality produce so that they can afford to attract and retain good employees.

A more detailed description of their methods would take at least a day to elaborate. Fortunately our community of growers here in the Northeast will have the opportunity this coming January, to hear from these innovative West-coast growers at the NOFA/Mass Winter Conference (January 14th). In addition to the keynote address, Paul and Elizabeth will be presenting a full day intensive detailing their methods.

Attendees who do not choose to register for the intensive can still learn about the topics and approaches that have informed the Kaiser’s model. We have taken the basic components of the Kaisers’ model and have developed tracks for each one, taught by local presenters.

Water Conservation & Drought Resistance

Despite California’s ongoing drought, Paul and Elizabeth water their crops for only an hour every five or six days, using a drip irrigation system which achieves about a 90% efficiency (meaning 10% or less water is lost to evaporation, leakage or other waste).[v]

You can learn about conserving water and mitigating the effects of drought on the farm and landscape by following the Water Conservation Track at the Winter Conference, which includes:

  • Solutions in Plain Sight: Water & Regenerative Land Management, with Judith Schwartz
  • Resilient Water Systems For Drought and Flood, with Jono Neiger
  • Stand-alone Solar-Powered Automated Drip Irrigation System, with David Schmidt
  • Growing Drought Resistant Vegetables, with Derek Christianson

Of course, a major factor to the Kaisers’ reduction in water needs is their soil management practices, which have raised organic matter dramatically. "For every 1 percent increase in SOM, an acre of topsoil can hold an additional 16,000 gallons of plant-available water," Kaiser told Olivia Maki of the blog ‘Civil Eats’. Living soil is the most effective and dynamic water retention system available, so restoring and improving soil is crucial to drought resilience.

Regenerative Land Management & Soil Carbon Sequestration

An oft-reported statistic about Singing Frogs Farm is that the Kaisers have increased their soil organic matter dramatically, raising it from 2.3% to 6% at depths of 6-12 inches into the soil.[vi] The Kaisers attribute this increase to their particular set of no-till practices, which involve leaving roots in the soil, layering compost on top of crop residue, and planting transplants (grown in compost) directly into that layer of crop residue and compost.

To learn more about building soil fertility, sequestering carbon in soil, and restoring degraded lands, follow the Regenerative Land Management & Soil Carbon Sequestration Track, which includes:

  • Increasing Profit Through Regenerative Grazing, with Ridge Shinn
  • Assessing & Improving Soil Health, with Maggie Payne
  • Cover Crop Mixtures for Soil Health, with Julie Fine
  • No-Till Crop Production with Biochar Blends, with Dan Pratt
  • Microorganisms: the Unseen Workers of the World, with Didi Pershouse
  • On-Farm Compost Pile for Effective Green Waste ‘Disposal, with Andrew Broussard
  • Practical Ways of Building Soil Carbon & Farm Viability, with Julie Rawson and Jack Kittredge  

Beneficial Insects & Pollinator Habitat           

Before starting Singing Frogs Farm, Paul spent time in Costa Rica working on a graduate degree, when "a colleague, who was studying two citrus orchards, noticed… [that] the first orchard, planted on the edge of a forest that was dense with trees, bushes and wild vines, had more than 90 percent fewer pests, which was in an open plain."[vii] Kaiser realized that natural habitat is essential to providing a proximate incubator for native beneficial insects and other animals that prey on pest species. So Paul took this lesson with him to his own farm, "planting a diversity of native perennial plants in corners and placing hedgerows throughout the productive farmland, or creating a ‘multi-dimensional ecosystem.’"[viii]

You can learn about local methods and efforts to create and conserve pollinator habitat on farms, landscapes and municipalities in the Northeast by following our Beneficial Insects & Pollinator Track:

  • Landscaping to Support Beneficial Insects in New England, with Ellen Sousa
  • Farming with Beneficial Insects, with Jarrod Fowler
  • Action for Pollinator Legislation, with Rep. Carolyn Dykema and Marty Dagoberto

Farm Profitability

In 2015, the Kaisers grossed 100,000 per acre, which is "10 times the average per-acre income of comparable California farms."[ix] This level of profitability has allowed the Kaisers to retain committed and experienced employees year after year, reducing management and re-training costs.

The Winter Conference will offer a track on Farm Profitability, including (but not limited to) the following workshops:

  • Is it Worth it to Grow Green Beans? Farm Enterprise Analysis, with Derek Christianson
  • Magic Numbers: Arithmetic for Farm Viability, with Chris Yoder
  • Scaling Up for Intermediated Markets, with Andy Pressman   
  • Can Farms Afford the Rising Minimum Wage, a Farmer Roundtable with Jen Salinetti and Louis Battalen

We hope you will join us on January 14th to learn how to improve your soil health, become more drought-resilient, increase the ecological diversity of your land, and be more productive and profitable. Register for the Conference and the Intensive: www.nofamass.org/events/wc.

Resources/ Further Reading          

[i] Oppenheimer

[ii] Mamen

[iii] Oppenheimer

[iv] Mamen

[v] Fullmer and Greenberg

[vi] Oppenheimer

[vii] Oppenheimer

[viii] Watts

[ix] Oppenheimer

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