Things are busy at Many Hands Organic Farm in Barre, Massachusetts. Not only are farmers Julie Rawson and Jack Kittredge running a 70-person CSA and a sustainability non-profit; they also educators, organizers, and active advocates of carbon farming — or regenerative agriculture — in their state. They are in a good position to do this work: Julie is the Executive Director of NOFA Mass (Northeast Organic Farming Association/Massachusetts Chapter), and Jack is also on NOFA staff as the carbon analyst and the editor of The Natural Farmer.
Julie recalls the moment when carbon farming became her mission. At NOFA/Mass and Bionutrient Food Association’s Soil and Nutrition annual conference in 2014, she listened to the Australian soil consultant Graeme Sait give an impassioned speech about how farmers hold the key to one of the most promising climate change solutions: by using farming practices that build soil, they can draw excess carbon out of the atmosphere and store it in the soil.
“It was a turning point for me – as the executive director of NOFA Mass, and also as a farmer. […] I had been feeling bad about climate change, and wishing there was something I could do about it. For me it was like, ‘Well, this is what we can do.’ And I have the capacity in my role as the executive director of NOFA and my capability as an organizer to really spread the word about it.”
And spread the word they did. Over the last few years, NOFA Mass has made a special effort to educate farmers about carbon farming. Its annual conferences – the latest of which occurred just last week – have lately featured a dedicated “Regenerative Track.” The keynote speakers at the conferences have been leaders in the regenerative movement: Christine Jones, Greg Judy, Eric Toensmeier, and most recently Paul and Elizabeth Kaiser, the successful regenerative vegetable farmers of Singing Frogs Farm in Sebastopol, CA. A couple of years ago, Jack wrote the white paper “Soil Carbon Restoration: Can Biology Do the Job?” that you may have seen if you’ve been following the regenerative movement for a while: Regeneration International has had it translated into 10 languages, and it remains one of the most accessible explanations out there of how farming could mitigate the changing climate.
Through their work at NOFA, Jack and Julie have their finger on the pulse of the organic farmer population in Massachusetts, most of whom are now at least familiar with carbon farming. “By now, it’s a part of people’s vocabulary,” Julie says. Even if some are resistant to adopting any new techniques, they are conscious of carbon farming. Many are trying to figure out how to change their tilling practices.
One of Jack and Julie’s goals has been to figure out how to make it relatively feasible for annual vegetable farmers in the Northeast to adopt these practices in a way that’s also economically viable. And what better way to do so than to experiment on their own farm?
Started in 1982, Many Hands Organic Farm was certified organic in 1987. Currently, Jack Kittredge and Julie Rawson run a 70 person CSA and raise and sell pasture-raised eggs, broiler chickens, turkeys, beef, and pork. In the last couple of years, Julie has experimented with various ways of practicing little or no tillage, from sheet mulching to cover cropping, green pathways, and heavy mulching. She had already started building carbon in the pastures through mob-stocking pasture management earlier.
At the beginning of this year, Jack and Julie sold their rototiller. At this point, the farm is completely no-till.
And there’s been a corresponding rise in the quality of their produce, and the consistency of production—even though 2016 saw the region’s worst drought since the couple started their farm. The flavor, the texture, and colors of the vegetables did not go unnoticed by customers, who couldn’t get enough of them.
This should give a pause to those farmers who are reluctant to transition to carbon-restoring farming practices “because we need to make a living.” Many Hands is one of many cases demonstrating that building soil makes economical, not just ecological, sense: healthier soil means healthier crops, which means better profits.
As if this wasn’t enough work, Rawson and Kittredge are also involved in what might be called social regeneration. Through the Many Hands Sustainability Center, their non-profit partner organization, they offer a year-round employment opportunity for recovering addicts and former prisoners. The work on the farm aids these men on their path to recovery and independence, as they get to apply their skills in a meaningful way, and work outside with plants and animals. Some young men from a nearby institutional home also come to volunteer or occasionally work for a summer. Jack and Julie describe this as “high risk, high gain work,” but their commitment and heartfelt desire to help is evident in the way they speak about it. Truly, there are many hands at work at Many Hands Organic Farm – and a lot of care not just for the biology and fertility of the soil, but for the people treading upon it.