Farming with heart
Heartseed Community Farm focuses on sustainable farming methods
Max Kee, a farmer at the brand-new Heartseed Community Farm, pointed beyond a set of long, extra-high raised beds—black with compost—to a tiny tractor. “We would be glad to trade in the little tractor that we’ve got for a front loader,” he said.
Most farmers tending to a multi-acre farm would balk at giving up their only tractor. But the Heartseed farmers—Kee, Ron Toppi and Elliott Proffitt—have dedicated themselves to a no-till, compost-heavy method that would make a front loader pretty handy for moving around their biggest input: compost.
The farmers do not use a tractor to build new rows after every season; they simply reuse their raised beds, adding more compost on top, and plant again. (While they do weed between the beds with a wheelhoe, they never use the wheelhoe on the raised beds.)
Kee said that Heartseed’s farming technique is “based [on] compost. For every crop, [we] add one to three inches of compost to the top of the soil. So far this year, in four months, we’ve bought 120 yards of compost—that’s three double-semi truckloads.”
“We’re building more permanent beds by mounding up the existing soil and then adding compost, so every planting will add another fresh layer of compost. What we’re already experiencing … is that the soil beneath the compost is becoming more loamy,” said Toppi.
Soil inputs beyond compost have been minimal: so far, just oyster-shell and chicken-manure amendments. But high within-row diversity, as well as mixes of perennials and annuals, are also key elements to their style of farming. “I think the long-term validity of this style of farming comes from supporting the diversity of life in the soil and trusting its ability to support an abundant ecosystem,” Kee said.
Heartseed is the newest incarnation of the farmland adjacent to the GRUB Cooperative on Dayton Road, which was formerly the home of GRUB CSA Farm until it moved to West Sacramento Avenue at the end of last year. One of the primary reasons for the move was the unclear status of the lease for the cooperative and the surrounding farmland, which will be up for renewal again in October 2014.
Despite the insecurity, the three Heartseed farmers are planting new trees, investing their own money, and talking of expanding, including creating a rotational grazing system with sheep and chickens, and a pond fed by graywater from a new vegetable-washing station.
“I think the mindset [for us] has been, ‘Live as though we’re going to be here forever,’” said Toppi on a recent warm day in the field.
The farmers’ unique style of ecological farming is inspired by Paul Kaiser at Singing Frogs Farm, a family farm in Kee’s hometown of Sebastopol. Kaiser’s no-till methods, influenced in part by the permaculture movement, have increased his soil’s organic matter and prevented emissions of potentially harmful nitrogen compounds released into the atmosphere by tilling.
“The U.S. agriculture system … could combat global warming if, on average, farms across the United States could increase their soil[’s] organic matter by 1 percent,” said Kee. “That would pretty much mitigate the global-warming effects,” but many scientists and farmers find the percentage increase to be unattainable. And yet, Singing Frogs has increased its organic matter by 4.2 percent largely by adding compost and not tilling, Kee noted.
The mission of the Heartseed farm is more than just soil fertility, though. “There’s a global food-fight going on, and I want to be a part of it,” declared Toppi, as he planted butternut and kabocha squash seeds underneath a young apricot tree.
Toppi connects the farm’s diverse fields and low-impact no-till methods with the healthful-food movement’s fight against such things as monoculture farming and GMOs, and is keen to provide alternative food choices for local consumers.
The three farmers were busy getting seeds into the ground before the full moon, as they also incorporate the lunar calendar, an important aspect of biodynamic farming, which Proffitt has studied and Heartseed incorporates along with its no-till method.
Biodynamics, created in 1924, was the brainchild of Rudolf Steiner, perhaps best known as the inventor of the Waldorf teaching method. Biodynamic farming takes a holistic approach to agriculture, focusing on the relationships between the animals, plants and soil in a given area.
Proffitt is growing herbs for biodynamic “preparations”—special mixes often made from herbs like stinging nettle and yarrow, and manure, bones or other parts of domesticated farm animals, which are purported to increase soil fertility.
Heartseed’s first CSA box, at $25, featured “carrots, beets, potatoes, onions, eggs, grapefruit, arugula, lettuce, fava beans, chard, cilantro and kohlrabi,” said Kee. He explains the breakdown goal for each box: “Thirteen dollars worth of vegetables, four dollars worth of eggs, four dollars worth of herbs, four dollars worth of fruit.”
At this point, Heartseed has just one CSA member, but the farmers hope to eventually cover the costs of the lease for the cooperative and farmland with profits from the farm.
“The common vision that Ron, Elliott and I share is that we would [have] a 40- or 50-member CSA, and with that, be able to pay the lease of the property,” Kee said. “Then, anyone who is living here, rather than having a job somewhere else and making money to pay rent, can just put time in toward the CSA to cover their rent.” In other words, GRUB Cooperative members could sign up to work for a certain number of hours on the farm instead of paying rent, as the rent will be paid for by the profits from Heartseed.
Members of GRUB are already offering to help. One of them, Susie McAllister, is proud of the work the farmers have done, and is committed to helping them in any way necessary.
“I think that the name Heartseed is really indicative of what this project is all about,” she said. “It’s a farm, and there are the annual row crops, but there’s so much more happening here. … It’s really a project of the heart.”