When I moved to Asheville, NC at the beginning of the year, I was excited to start getting to know the area’s farms. I’d been working on Project Grounded’s Carbon Farm Map long enough to take special notice when farms express a commitment to something beyond organic methods — specifically, to building healthy soil.
Chrysalis Earth Farm, owned by farmers Candace Anthony and Justin Ellis, stood out from the crowd because of their no-till farming practices. All summer long, my family and I have been enjoying their weekly CSA box of fresh, flavorful veggies. During this time, I’ve also gained something else that should be the birthright of everyone who eats food: getting to know the people who grow my food.
Justin and Candace moved to their farm three years ago, after many years of apprenticing on other farms and extensive study of herbalism. Everyone knows that starting a farm is incredibly hard work, but for this couple, there was the added intensity of a newborn: their son, Sequoia, was born on their second night on the farm, and has been present every day of the farm’s journey.
If you go to the Chrysalis Earth Farm website, you’ll see that they describe their farming methods as “ecological agriculture.” As Candace explains, “When people at the farmers’ market ask us about our growing practices, I usually say, ‘We’re not certified, but we don’t even use the pesticides that the organic certification allows.’ I often want to add ‘We don’t even till!’ but most people don’t seem to really know why that would matter.”
Justin adds that the decision to go no-till arose from “working on organic farms and seeing the problems with it – specifically problems with tilling and the erosion it causes.” Heavy tilling kills the beneficial microbial life in the soil, degrades the soil’s structure, and causes the valuable topsoil to erode. This is not merely an ecological concern, but an economic one: many conventional farmers realize that they are simply not seeing the yields they were seeing a generation ago. They find that herbicides and pesticides not only don’t work, but that they are killing soil fertility.
At this point, Candace and Justin feel that they could not farm in any other way: “It’s out of necessity,” Justin says. “There’s no real other choice if you actually want to have a farm that’s going to be around in 20 years.”
What does “no-till” then mean, in terms of their farming practices?
The first few beds Candace and Justin dug by hand. As the farm has grown, they have discovered more effective techniques. They use goats and solarizing to help clear the land for new beds, then use a walk-behind tractor to break the ground and shape the bed. In other words, they do plow to initially shape the beds; but unlike the rototiller, which tills the soil deeply, the rotary plow turns it over and helps to shape the bed without destroying the soil structure.
But no-till alone is not sufficient to make a farm’s soil building program successful. Mulching the beds has turned out to be a second, and equally necessary, step. Candace and Justin use no-spray hay and wood chips to keep the beds deeply mulched.
“Mulching has great benefits because you can keep carbon in the soil. You have active composting happening. If you add microbes or nutrients to your soil, they’re not going to dry out or run out,” Justin says. “And then you produce healthier, more abundant plants,” Candace adds.
Going forward, they also want to grow cover crops, then roll and crimp them to use the cover crop itself as mulch.
Hemp: Healing and Beyond
This year, Chrysalis Earth Farm has begun a new endeavor: growing hemp for CBD oil. Justin and Candace are excited about hemp, and not simply because it is a cash crop — which brings more stability to the seasonal farmer finances — and not even because of its medicinal qualities. Hemp is making a serious comeback as one of the most multi-purpose plants that exists. You can make medicine out of it, you can make clothing out of it, you can build houses out of it, you can make fuel and oil out of it. In a world polluted by petroleum-derived products and overrun by plastic waste, hemp is a promising alternative, and Justin and Candace are excited to be a part of that revolution.
In the future, they also want to incorporate more perennials in their growing systems: they already have hazelnuts and rhubarb growing, and want to add more. Being trained in herbalism and natural health, they are also growing medicinal herbs such as Ashwagandha, elecampane, and Echinacea, and would like to find a way to offer them to their customers that makes sense at a small scale.
As someone who has been eating from this land for months now, I can say that whether it’s food or medicine, whatever comes from this land is healing. And it’s most likely because the farmers have been doing the hard work of healing the soil first.