“Wow. Even the tire tracks are soft!”
These were among the first words Aimee and I uttered when we came
to check out 8 acres of cropland for lease at The Rodale Institute’s
research farm near Kutztown, Pennsylvania. We were looking for a
new place to operate our CSA and market farm operations. Like any
good farmers considering a new piece of land, first on our agenda
was to get out on the farm and take a walk around.
We were immediately struck by the health and resilience of soil
that has been managed organically for 30 years. It was while walking
the rows of soybeans that Aimee and I first noticed the springy,
sponge-like feel to what should have been the most compacted part
of the field, the tractor tire tracks between the rows.
We smiled at one another, realizing we were going to have the opportunity
to work in some really nice ground.
We came to the Institute after four years of farming at the Charlestown
Cooperative Farm CSA in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania. During our tenure
there, we worked with the landowners to develop a model CSA on land
that had been conventionally managed by a local custom farmer.
In our first season there, the CSA served 40 members on about 1.5
acres. By our fourth year, we were tilling 7 acres to supply a 150-member
CSA, a thriving farmers’ market, and selling to a local restaurant.
We started out our first season plowing down the hayfields on the
land, while cover cropping the acreage that had been managed in
a corn/soybean rotation. In our fourth and final season at Charlestown,
we had every available piece of flat—or even somewhat flat—land
We moved to the Rodale Institute for the 2006 season in order to
start our own farm business and move closer to Emmaus, where we
both grew up. We dove in headfirst, starting up a 130-member CSA.
We leased the land as well as greenhouse space and barn space for
vegetable packing and distribution from the Institute.
News on our knees
Our first season operating Quiet Creek Farm CSA was a challenging
one, as all first seasons are, but we successfully got the farm
up and running thanks in no small part to the excellent soil we
have the privilege of farming.
We first had our hands and knees in the dirt in November 2005,
when we planted our garlic seed at the new farm. We had the Rodale
field operations crew till and mark four, 250-foot beds for garlic
planting. We brought our seed garlic and trowels, ready for a long
day planting in cold, wet, late-fall soil conditions.
Immediately we were struck by the fact that we were not working
in tired, worn-out soil. This dirt was rich and soft, more like
a garden than typical farm soil. We tossed our trowels and continued
to plant several thousand garlic cloves in half a day, pressing
the seed 4 inches deep using only our hands.
While we have always fertility tested our farm soil and done our
best to balance nutrient levels accordingly, we also farm with the
belief that in the end, biological activity is the best measure
of soil fertility. Aimee and I studied environmental science in
college, and have worked hard to apply our belief in the resilience
and fortitude of healthy ecosystems to farming. At Rodale, we have
first-hand experience in the long-term benefits of building a healthy
So what does biologically healthy soil look and function like,
from a farmers’ point of view? As small-scale vegetable farmers,
we have an intimacy with our soil born of long hours on hands and
knees planting, harvesting and lots and lots of hand weeding. While
we do most of our cultivation with tractors, we have not found a
way to grow clean greens, alliums and carrots without getting our
butts off the tractor and down to the soil’s plane.
The earthworm factor
Back to the garlic. In March we went to check out how the seedlings
were emerging beneath the blanket of straw mulch we had put down
in early winter. We pulled back the straw and saw that the plants
were coming up nicely, and then noticed the soil surface was riddled
with worm holes. We were excited; worms are, after all, the chisel
plows of the subterranean biological community.
I’m not good on measurements and don’t recall the exact
spatial density of those worm burrows. What I do recall is the sound
of those earthworms. As we walked along the mulched rows, or even
the grass roadway adjacent to them, we could actually hear the earthworms.
More accurately, we could hear the slurping sound as they slickly
retreated into their burrows as we approached.
I have heard the same sound from night crawlers skittishly submerging
at night on a farm where Aimee and I apprenticed. At first we were
unsure of the origin of the sound. Then we caught the shine of the
slithering forms in our lanterns. The farm was laden with earthworms,
and coincidentally had also been managed organically for 30 years.
That brings us to . . .
1: You know you have a biologically active soil when
you can hear your earthworms.
In April we began setting out the onion transplants we had started
in soil-filled benches in the greenhouse. We planted out around
6,000 onion, leek, and scallion transplants by hand, once again
enjoying lots of quality time down at soil level. With every stab
of the trowel we were greeted with more worms. Two or three worms
emerged in a panic nearly every time we plunged the plants into
the ground. This was a truly amazing worm density we had not expected.
Our previous farm had a similar loamy soil and comparable nutrient
and organic matter levels after amending, but we had nowhere near
this level of biological density.
There is a downside to having an abundance of earthworms. We found
that the small redworms in the soil also judged some of our crops
to be excellent burrowing habitat. We sustained heavy damage to
our hakurei turnips—and to a lesser degree to the fall rutabaga—from
small worms tunneling through the skin. The damage was primarily
aesthetic, but did render the turnips unmarketable even for our
CSA customers. Perhaps the worm damage was due to this season’s
drastically wet conditions, or maybe we have a little too much of
a good thing here.
Give ’em shelter
One of the most important aspects of building biologically healthy
soil is habitat creation. The key to being hospitable to earthworms
and other macro- and micro-biotic creatures that help build soil
is providing shelter and food. Our primary means of doing this is
The Rodale field crew seeded the ground we were going to farm in
a rye and hairy vetch cover crop in November 2005. This was very
late to get the cover crop established in our area, but to our surprise
the stand establishment was excellent. One of the great benefits
of having a living soil is the forgiveness factor.
We have found through direct comparison with our previous farm
that cover crops establish better and are more vigorous in biologically
active soil. When we first seeded the conventionally cropped acreage
to cover crops at the Charlestown CSA, we found we had to seed at
high rates to get good stands. We also discovered that in this tired,
compacted dirt our cover crops grew poorly, rarely reaching more
than a foot in height before going to seed in our first years there.
At Rodale this has not been the case. After last fall’s late
seeding of rye and vetch, our over-wintering stand was less than
2 inches tall, and, to our eyes, not worth a nickel. Then came spring,
and the cover crops went crazy. The rye grew to nearly 4-feet tall,
and the vetch formed an impenetrable thicket. There is no walking
through a mature stand of hairy vetch at the Rodale Institute, lest
the hydra-like vines entrap you and you end up becoming food for
the robust population of decomposers in the soil ecosystem.
That is . . .
2: When you are afraid of your hairy vetch, you know
you have a biologically healthy soil.
After 30 years of organic management including heavy use of cover
crops, the soils at the Institute have become prime habitat for
the myriad organisms that make up a healthy, living soil. Through
remembering our experience of rehabilitating tired dirt into living
soil, we can attest to the benefits of good, long-term soil management.
Forgiveness factor fantastic
This brings us back to the forgiveness factor. Biologically active
soil is easier to work and more resilient when conditions are less
than ideal. The loose, crumbly structure of soil that has been well
managed over a long period of time holds up better during drought
and deluge. For market farmers doing a lot of work by hand, it’s
easier on the old hands and knees.
At our previous farm, we had a lot of trouble with erosion in wet
weather and hard crusty soil in dry periods. In prolonged dry spells,
we were simply unable to dig our carrots with a fork. We wore out
our feet and knees, even jumping on the digging fork, until we finally
decided we had to wait to dig our carrots until it rained. And this
was in a silt/loam soil!
The soil also developed a hard, platy crust in dry weather, baked
to the consistency of concrete in the summer sun. As you can imagine,
this was a chore to cultivate. The sweeps and tines on our tractor-mounted
cultivators had to be set very aggressively to penetrate the soil
crust, and once they did they threw clods and soil bricks onto the
tender plants we were trying to clean up. Hand weeding was similarly
frustrating. Not only was it nearly impossible to pull the roots
of weeds out of the tight soil, but the hard crust did a number
on your hands, knees and elbows. Imagine crawling for a couple of
hours on road gravel and you will get the idea.
And then it would rain. In a good downpour our soil would make
a break for the nearest low spot on its way down to the creek. We
would get bad ruts cut by the rushing water-borne soil and sometimes
even lose significant amounts of our crops. This was definitely
not sustainable. As mentioned before, this was loamy soil with around
3-percent organic matter and good nutrient composition. The problem
was the soil was devoid of life. It lacked any of the structure
or aggregation that a healthy population of soil organisms will
This past spring our onions suffered through an unusual drought
period in April and May, followed by incessant, heavy rain throughout
late June and July. We were irrigating our alliums in April and
wading through ankle-deep water to weed them in early summer. At
times this summer, the rain would spawn creeks and ponds in the
onion field, leaving it looking like a rice paddy.
At harvest times we brought in the nicest onions and leeks we have
ever had. Our onions were consistently the size of baseballs, and
the leeks were so tall we had to bend them to fit in our CSA boxes.
We had similar good fortune with other typically difficult-to-grow
crops. Our spring and fall broccoli, often tough to grow here, was
incredible. At the height of the harvest we gave our CSA members
three to five broccoli heads a week. And these were big heads weighing
in at around a pound each.
That brings us to . . .
3: When conditions are far less than ideal, and you
are still reaping a good harvest, you know you have a biologically
The good news is that you do not have to have soil that has been
managed organically for three decades to see results. We saw dramatic
improvements at the Charlestown Farm in our four years there. In
our final season we never had trouble digging carrots, and our cover
crops were starting to approach the fearsome rye and vetch jungles
we have encountered here.
The other good news of long-term organic management is that the
results are cumulative. As you continue to create good habitat to
foster a healthy soil ecosystem, the benefits grow exponentially.
Improved soil gives you a better forest of cover crops, which creates
fresh habitat for worms, beetles, bugs and other organisms. Each
new layer of biological activity improves the soil so that it can
stand up better to the elements and consistently yield healthy crops
and heavy yields.
That’s the kind of soil that feels good and teaches young