The initial video shares how the soil science series was inspired by “farmers who do things . . . well . . . differently.” These farmers, you see:
don’t focus on tilling
consider cover crops an integral part of farming, not an afterthought
You can, the narrator says, call these farmers crazy (and we’ve been called that before!)—but their regenerative farming practices are creating a true focus on soil health—and improving the soil of health is so crucial for our food system and the planet overall that it inspired the USDA to create this series of 30 videos on the subject.
Farms that focus on soil health may look like anomalies, the narrator also shares, but they’re the ones that actually recognize how 90% of soil function is mediated by microbes. In other words, soil is not a pile of inert dirt. Instead, it’s a world of “living mutualistic ecosystems.”
Soil Health Philosophy at The Chef’s Garden
Bob, Jr. describes that same concept in the following short and simple way. “Soil,” he says, “is another crop for us.”
At The Chef’s Garden, we tend to each of our crops with plenty of time, attention, and love—and the soil is no different.
In fact, “soil is no different than you and I are,” said Bob Jr. has said. “Soil is a living, breathing organism just like we are, and you have to treat it as such. It needs food, air and water to be able to be productive. And, if you really want it to be productive, you’ve got to give it rest. The same things we need.”
That philosophy is the type that’s being encouraged in the USDA series, with the second video sharing how we’ve ignored the role of microbes for far too long, with not enough testing being done.
Research and Development—and Testing—at The Chef’s Garden
Research assistant Sarah Hinman plays a key role in the farm’s research and development. “I help to do before and after soil testing, for example, meaning before the crops go in and then afterwards. We pay close attention to the minerals in the soil so we can keep the ideal balance for the best nutrition in plants, to keep them healthy.”
“Healthy soil = healthy plants = healthy people” (an aside from Farmer Lee Jones)
“I grew up on a dairy farm,” Sarah continues, “and I appreciate how my father’s philosophy and that of The Chef’s Garden are so similar. The reality is that there is a lack of nutrition in so much of our food but, when the soil is rebuilt, the result is nutrient dense crops. This is exciting to me because I know how much people have depleted the soil, and now I get to be part of the solution. I can be part of fixing things.”
She shares how she constantly learns new things in her diverse job. Topics she’s learning more about include how to increase organic matter in the soil to better hold onto nutrients. “It’s not just about building up the soil’s health,” she says. “It’s also about seeing that the nutrients are maintained, not leached through.”
In other words, this isn’t a one-and-done solution. It’s an ongoing practice.
Sarah brings up another important point—that not all bacteria is bad. Not at all.
“It’s all about the balance,” she explains.
Challenges With a Germophobic Mindset
In the third USDA video, the expert being quoted shares how, today, we often think that the only good microorganism—or “bug”—is a dead one. But, she says, we need to change our thinking because most microorganisms have a positive role in our ecosystem. These microbes typically become “bad” when they’re out of proportion and soil balance therefore gets out of control. What really needs to happen, then, is that soil microbes are managed appropriately.
One key way that can happen, this expert says, is near and dear to our hearts: crop diversity.
Different types of above ground crops, for example, provide different types of food matter—which naturally feeds different types of microorganisms in the soil. More specifically, varying types of organic matter have different ratios of carbon and nitrogen, and so they appeal to different types of microbes. Makes sense, right?
The woman quoted by USDA then shares that, when the same crop repeatedly gets planted in a field, it’s like the doughnut diet where a living organism eats the same thing over and over and over again. The only organisms that would grow, repopulate, and thrive on this diet, then, would be those that appreciate those doughnuts. If, on the other hand, you want balance in your soil, then you need a variety of microorganisms in it, which means you need to provide them with different types of crops as their food sources.
Cover Crops at The Chef’s Garden
We’ve been talking about and using cover crops for a long time at the farm—and, at The Chef’s Garden, we’re lifelong learners, always wanting to continue to improve.
First, a cover crop definition: At its simplest, a cover crop is one that isn’t being grown for the purposes of human or animal consumption. It’s a crop being grown to feed, protect, and enrich the soil. The reality is that soil is its own ecosystem and, the healthier that you can help to make and keep your soil, the more vibrant and alive the soil is—and this helps to foretell how healthy your crops will be.
“Right now,” Bob, Jr. says, “we’re learning more and more about the importance of having multi-species cover crops to create even more diversity in soil. Each plant connects differently to a differing range of bacteria, fungi, and more, contributing to the soil ecosystem in a unique way.”
He applauds the efforts of researchers and scientists who are investigating what’s optimal for soil health, specifically pointing out Dr. Christine Jones from Australia.
It’s encouraging to read how Dr. Jones is seeing a huge increase in the number of people interested in improving soil health, especially when contrasting that to what has been considered acceptable practices. She notes, in an 2018 interview, that one aspect of modern-day agriculture—“frequently bare soil between crops”—has been too commonly practiced, and that has played a key role in the lack of healthy microbes in the soil.
That “low bio-availability of nutrients” led many farmers to apply fertilizers and mineral applications—which, in turn, Dr. Jones explained, “discouraged microbes from living in the soil.” It’s been a real catch 22.
In response, Bob, Jr. points out that, while he doesn’t want to disparage any farmers, it’s true that many modern practices have killed good bacteria along with the targeted pathogens, which ultimately leads to inert soil.
That’s not how we do it at The Chef’s Garden. Instead, we strategically plant diverse cover crops for three different types of soil health:
You can read more about what Bob, Jr. has to say about these three legs of the soil health stool here. Each is important but, when all three are in balance with one another, soil is exponentially improved.
Steve Giles from The Chef’s Garden points out am easy, sensory-based way to suspect that the soil is healthy. When soil is inert, it’s pretty sterile. Therefore, there is no smell. But, rich, healthy soil, he shares, provides a wonderful earthy smell—the perfume of Mother Nature.
In Harmony With Mother Nature
“You can’t outsmart Mother Nature. You’d better just let her dictate.” (another aside by Farmer Lee Jones)
Steve also talks about what fields look like when they haven’t been disturbed for quite some time—and the reality is that nature fills it in with a wide variety of plant life.
“And, when there is diversity, rather than a mono-culture,” Steve says, “plants will actually communicate with one another, transferring nutrients and creating bio-diverse, healthy soil. It’s amazing how they can communicate. Different plants have different root systems. Some have bigger roots. Others have ones that spread out more fully. And yet, they all work together to share nutrients.”
He points out how, the more diverse the soil is, the more quickly we can benefit from that healthier soil. The earthworms, he says, gravitate to that kind of soil, along with helpful bacteria, fungi and more. As just one example, Steve says, mycorrhizal fungi can thrive in a healthy ecosystem. This type of fungi extends the root area of plants, facilitating the transfer of nutrients to those roots. This is another type of catch 22, but in a positive way.
When tilling, the mycorrhizal fungi system can get disturbed, which is one reason why tilling is minimized in farms that focus on soil health.
If the concept of mycorrhizal fungi seems confusing, Steve shares an easy way to think about it. Imagine pulling up a plant, including its roots. Picture the soil that clings to the bottom and that’s a function of the mycorrhizal fungi and its ability to extend the roots of a plant.
He also notes the delicate balance needed to determine how long cover crops should remain planted. “The longer a cover crop is left in without being disturbed, the more it helps the root systems. If left in a longer time, though, the cover crop can become quite lush. And, when that lush cover crop is finally turned into the soil, the roots receive sudden bursts of nutrients, ones that don’t necessary last too long. When turning in decaying matter, what we call ‘browns,’ there is a slower release and, ultimately, more carbon. So it’s a real balancing act.”
Benefits Beyond Growing This Year’s Crops
As Steve noted, some cover crops offer up quicker nutritional fixes, while others provide slower yet longer benefits. Both can have a role in regenerative farming practices.
A hugely significant overall benefit of regenerative farming practices (when compared to non-regenerative ones, that is) is how these practices benefit people today—as well as in the future. One technique often embraced in non-regenerative farming is the use of pesticides. That may solve a problem for today, fixing a short-term challenge—but it’s creating new challenges for tomorrow.
Regenerative agriculture, meanwhile, addresses today’s challenges in a beautifully healthy way, while also creating a healthier world for the next generation—and the one after that. These farming practices go beyond soil health, serving to heal the planet, overall.
We’ll provide just two examples. One is the role that cover crops play in the planet’s water management. We’ll start with a quote from a book (Farmer Lee promises this is his last aside—and it’s that he loves the title!) and then we’ll share what the USDA has to say about cover crops and water management.
“In fact, healthy soil that’s rich in microorganisms and heavily studded with their aggregates holds water like a sponge, slowly releasing it to plants as well as to rivers and streams. Healthy soil is the best protection for crops during a drought, as well as the best protection against floods anywhere. The soil is the earth’s first water purification system, too. The microorganisms will attach and purge water of its pollutants, eventually draining it into a stream or aquifer in a pure form.” (The Soil Will Save Us: How Scientists, Farmers, and Foodies Are Healing the Soil to Save the Planet)
As far as the USDA videos, they point out how there is no such thing as a drought-proof system. But, cover crops, they continue, can help farmers to manage movement of water across the fields—which is why they should be an integral part of agriculture, not an afterthought. In the rainy spring, for example, cover crops can drink up the excess. During the drier summer, when rain perhaps comes in more occasional bursts, cover crops slow the movement of the rainwater, allowing more to soak into the soil for plant usage.
As a second, reason, you can just look at the butterflies on our farm!
Honeybees are happy with our cover crops, too, and all of these pollinators are a marvelous part of our regenerative system at the farm. We call them the hardest worker members of our farm team. And, they deserve the compliment.
More About The Chef’s Garden Philosophy
At The Chef’s Garden, we are committed to practicing regenerative farming techniques. The foundation of this philosophy is our soil, which we are continually replenishing with nutrients that are depleted over time in order to produce the most nutritionally dense fresh vegetables possible. By replenishing our soil naturally and giving it the time it needs to do so, it delivers to us products of unrivaled quality and flavor.
We recognize and embrace traditional farming philosophies and techniques that have sustained our farmers for generations and, since we recognize the profound importance of growing crops through a natural, environmentally friendly way, we are deeply committed to “growing vegetables slowly and gently, in full accord with nature.”
If you’re looking for a personal farmer for your restaurant or home, we invite you to contact us today to become a customer. Welcome!