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AJP/NOFA Field Day at Soul Fire Farm

AJP/NOFA Field Day at Soul Fire Farm

“If I’m not attending to the unhealthy in my relations, I’m contributing to the unhealth of the soil.” - Damaris Miller

 

“Building your Farm Team to Build Healthier Soil,” the field day at Soul Fire Farm, focused on communication strategies on the farm, building healthy soil, and the mutual support between the two. The Northeast Organic Farming Association of NY (NOFA-NY), Soul Fire Farm and the Agricultural Justice Project (AJP) teamed up to conduct this well-attended and successful field day on October 21 at the farm in Grafton, New York. 

 

Andrianna Natsoulas, Executive Director of NOFA-NY, welcomed everyone to the field day.  Introductions all around revealed that most of the 25 participants were farmers, some rural, some urban.

Larisa Jacobson, Co-Director and Farm Manager, reminded everyone that Soul Fire Farm is on twice stolen land – Stockbridge-Munsee Mohican Nation land - and that the history of racism is all too relevant. “Land,” she explained, “is not a material good to be owned. The land is our respected elder, our ancestor.” Larisa spoke about Soul Fire Farm’s appreciation that the Agriculture Justice Project recognized this in certifying the farm under the Food Justice label. The role of farmers, Larisa said, is as “earth keepers,” “mediators between earth and sky enabling the capture of carbon.”

In the first section of the program, Elizabeth Henderson gave an introduction to the Agricultural Justice Project and its Food Justice standards for domestic fair trade. Louis Battalen reported on the joint NOFA-AJP project to provide technical assistance to farms on their labor and pricing policies and talked about the significance of Soul Fire Farm engaging in Food Justice Certification. SFF’s practices that impressed AJP include its general treatment of workers; the safe working & living conditions; and a demonstration of the kind of environmental stewardship exhibited through their farm management practices. Its active culture of collaboration exemplified by its internal communications techniques—its Real Talk & Courageous Conversation—within and among the staff is one expression of how an entity deals with the issue of social relations generally and conflict resolution in particular.

Upon receiving news of its certification, the Soul Fire Farm team responded:  “Soul Fire Farm proudly sought the Agricultural Justice Project's Food Justice Certification, recognizing that to date, it is the only farm certification that commits to an unequivocal focus on the rights of food systems and food chain workers, centers farm worker-led organizations, and was developed primarily by farmworkers and farmers in a participatory stakeholder process. As collaborators in a movement that honors the people whose labor has built the food system in this country, we pursued FJC in recognition of the striking significance of a certification that amplifies farmworkers’ voices while supporting their lives and livelihoods, valu(ing) FJC's insistence on fair pricing and fair labor practices.”

The Soul Fire Farm team, Larisa Jacobson, Damaris Miller and Lytisha Wyatt, talked about the importance for the farm of nurturing community and staff relationships, and about how the quality of human relations reflects on relations with other beings. Larisa pointed out the value of engaging in Food Justice Certification and how it helped the farm systematize its social policies.

Damaris Miller, Assistant Farm Manager, asked if anyone present had experienced conflict with employers or fellow workers. Most people raised their hands. Then they introduced Real Talk and Courageous Conversations, the communication and feedback tools they use at SFF. Real Talk provides an opportunity for farm staff “to give and receive honest feedback on the work they’ve done individually and organizationally…in reference to the agreed upon expectations.” The contract that Soul Fire Farm workers sign sets out the expectation that everyone will participate and is responsible to bring things up in a timely fashion. At the annual staff retreat in March, they train in using these tools.

Once a month, SFF devotes an hour to allow everyone to check-in with one another and with the whole team through Real Talk. It takes 6 to 10 minutes per couple, not enough time to really dig deep. That is where Courageous Conversations come in, Damaris explained, when specific harm has been done: “The biggest challenge is making the time when things are busy and tensions are high. If I’m not attending to the unhealthy in my relations, I’m contributing to the unhealth of the soil. Moving through tenderness and trigger points in a way that is generative rather than destructive. These are not muscles that our culture trains us to use.” Should a session of Courageous Conversations not resolve a serious issue, the farm’s conflict resolution policy calls for professional mediation as a backstop measure.

In response to a question about power relations, Damaris acknowledged that these practices are harder when one of the people is an employee and the other a boss and landlord and the boss is also a friend. Having a witness (a member of the farm board or another employee) is helpful, and recording the session to go back over it together ensures that participants choose their words thoughtfully.

Damaris handed out short role plays so that field day participants could try them out. There was only time for one round of role-playing. Everyone would have liked to do more.

Next on the agenda, the farm team led a quick tour of the farm highlighting the Afro-Indigenous regenerative farming practices that have restored rocky land with depleted topsoil allowing Soul Fire Farm to provide vegetables, fruit, and eggs for a sliding scale CSA that delivers weekly to farm share members' doorsteps and a few group drop-off points in Albany and Troy.

To begin the tour, Larisa gave thanks to the members of the Stockbridge-Munsee Mohican Nation and asked their and the land's permission to touch the soil, inviting all of us to join her in this ritual. She passed around native corn seeds as an offering to the land and its original stewards. Each person took a few and placed one in the ground. Larisa explained that making land acknowledgements or talking with sadness about the history of the land is not enough – action is needed to begin to make reparations. Soul Fire Farm has created a land trust to hold the farm’s land so that it is no longer under the white man’s private property law. The land trust agreement may eventually include cultural easements that support members of the Stockbridge-Munsee Mohican Nation in accessing the land for ceremonies, planting, hunting, and recreation.

Larisa had prepared four buckets of soil – a sample of the original heavy clay soil, and three samples from different fields to show the changes that have taken place due to the farm’s practices over ten years. She invited us to touch, feel, smell, taste the soil. The three samples from cultivated areas had healthy soil aggregates and residues of compost and crops or cover crops.  They smelled of active microorganisms. We visited two fields – one where chickens roamed in an area fenced in with movable fencing. They move the chickens regularly. 

Neither field was flat – the land slopes and dips. The farmers have done some terracing to move soil back uphill from where it washed down over many years before this was Soul Fire Farm. During Soul Fire Farm's earlier years, though the farm began with a permanent bed system, previous farmers rototilled aggressively, creating a pan, and in some places compost was also applied at high rates. We saw beds that had been planted in daikon radishes to break up the pan. The transition away from tillage has been difficult. Most of the vegetable beds were not tilled in 2019, and were covered with straw mulch or black plastic. Larisa explained their rotations and their efforts to keep the soil covered-cropped or mulched at the end of the season. In some places, they used tarps over the winter of 2018. On some beds, the result was to give a big jump to perennial weeds, nut sedge and thistle.

She shared their intention to transition to more perennial crops, a planning process they will engage in over the late fall and winter and which may result in a reorientation of the farm’s marketing as well. There are big changes ahead.

Over a tasty lunch made from SFF vegetables, participants then engaged in a round table exchange about their soil building practices where they discussed these questions:

  1. What are the main practices that you are using to build healthy soils?
  2. What additional research is needed to identify and demonstrate the effectiveness of healthy soils practices?
  3. What would be the best incentives or support mechanisms that would help you and those you know accelerate adoption of these practices? 

These contributions were collected for the NOFA Farm Aid project. All seven NOFA chapters are holding similar Soil Health events and there will be a final report summarizing the findings from the seven states.

Several farmers at the round table spoke in favor of farmer observations over time as an effective way to measure the efficacy of practices. An herbalist mentioned that organoleptic testing has been accepted as a valid test method by the FDA. A permaculturist and an urban farmer reported that building berms and swales has been an effective way to improve drainage and water retention. To keep the soil covered around perennial plantings, they use sheet mulching, wood chips and leaf mulches. A farmer who cultivates 1.5 acres has reduced tillage by using a raised bed system, a power harrow, broad forking and deep compost in the beds that has resulted in looser soil allowing carrots to grow longer and straighter. Other improvements reported include an increase in bird diversity and longer shelf life for produce grown in healthier soil. The Soul Fire farmers mentioned that overwinter tarping has led to less runoff and improved soil texture with better aggregates, but the tarps have also had some negative impacts, especially with weeds like nut sedge. 

In discussing incentives, farmers spoke in favor of payments for practices such as planting cover crops and buffer strips, and also for measured results like increases in carbon. A multi-year program with a guaranteed funding stream was recommended, including education in the off-season, financial incentives to adopt soil health practices and business assistance in marketing new crops, especially if an element of the soil health practices is crop diversification. Farmers would like to see more research on systems and life cycles for carbon in the soil.

Related Resources:

This blog post is the fourth in our blog series highlighting NOFA-NY’s on-farm field days. A big thank you to all our field day host farmers and organizers!

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