Island Grown Initiative (IGI) uses a farming method known as regenerative farming to fight climate change and enrich the soil. These methods were displayed during a recent tour of IGI’s 40-acre Tisbury farm, as a part of Climate Action Week.
“From a climate perspective, regenerative agriculture is one of these amazing things that is a huge global solution to one of the biggest drivers of climate change, which has been the way we have been growing and shipping and eating and wasting our food. It’s also a really tangible, immediate solution we can apply from our backyards to our local farms,” IGI senior programs director Noli Taylor said.
Taylor said the farm is one of IGI’s programs supporting lower-income Islanders and making food “accessible to all.” Most of the farm’s crops go to the Island Food Pantry or to IGI’s mobile farmers market.
IGI’s regenerative farming consultant Andrew Woodruff and soil health researcher Alli Fish led the tour. “Forty percent of the world’s surface is in agriculture, and that’s a huge responsibility, how we use that 40 percent,” Woodruff said. “The vast majority of that is not being managed well, and this movement is imperative for our existence on the planet.”
Woodruff admits he was guilty of soil-damaging farming during his decades as an Island farmer. Four years ago, when Woodruff was planning to retire, IGI reached out to him to work together, since he was using regenerative farming techniques on some plots of land he was leasing.
“It seemed like the right thing to do,” Woodruff said. “Four years later, the fields are recovering from too much tillage, which I was a big part of, and other destructive farming practices over the last 30 years or 40 years.”
After leading the group to a plot of plant-filled land, Woodruff said he first “wanted to acknowledge the native people” who practiced sustainable agriculture before modern farming techniques were introduced. Woodruff continued by explaining the regenerative farming technique IGI uses, which implements cover crops.
According to the UMass Extension Center for Agriculture, cover crops are plants “grown for the purpose of preventing erosion, improving soil structure, maintaining or improving soil fertility, and suppressing weed growth and certain soil-borne plant diseases.” IGI’s farm uses plants such as field peas and winter rye. Once the planting season arrives, the cover crops, alongside any weeds, are killed by breaking the stem. A sharp, nontilling machine is used to “dig little trenches into the soil” for cash-crop planting. Woodruff said adding a little mulch or other organic matter, like chopped oak leaves, can help provide the seeds nutrients and protection. A covering, such as a tarp, can be used to help in killing weeds to make room for the cash crops.
“Think about making lasagna. You want to keep layering the system, and you want to keep adding layers,” Woodruff said. He added that a subterranean network of fungi, bacteria, and roots is formed in the process, improving the relationship between crops and soil.
Fish told The Times that IGI follows the main principles of regenerative farming to help the crops and soil to thrive: maximizing soil cover, minimizing disturbance, maximizing biodiversity, and maximizing the presence of living roots. One more principle that Fish uses to maximize biodiversity is implementing livestock in growing vegetables.
Another reason to keep the soil healthy was the production of nitrogen, according to Fish. “On these roots, there are some tiny little nodules,” Fish said, pointing at the field peas. “These nodules are what fix nitrogen for legumes, and the bacteria hosts that live in them are what fixes the nitrogen and exudes it to the soil around it, and uses a bit for itself, because all plants need nitrogen.”
Additionally, nitrogen retention can minimize the use of synthetic fertilizers. Tilling the soil removes “pounds and pounds” of nitrogen, and the nutrient stays in the leaves and fruits at many farms, according to Fish.
“It’s also why animal rotation is so important,” Fish said, listing chickens’ nitrogen-rich droppings and pigs’ “natural rototiller” roles as examples.
Woodworth said the benefits of doing regenerative farming include the mitigation of pollutants in water, carbon sequestering, and soil rejuvenation. Farmers also save money on expensive equipment.
“I have not ever heard of a farmer that was not loving it and farming more than they ever had before,” Woodruff said. However, he acknowledged there can be challenges to converting, whether that be financial or a lack of information.
“[We’ve] got to vote for candidates that want to put taxpayer dollars behind regenerative farming. We already pay billions of taxpayer dollars to the wrong kind of farming, but if we can just redirect that funding to farmers doing this transition, it would be a huge win,” Taylor said.