“Though the problems of the world are increasingly complex, the solutions remain embarrassingly simple.” These words from permaculture co-founder Bill Mollison rang in my ears recently as I toured Singing Frogs Farm near my home in Sebastopol, California. Owners Paul and Elizabeth Kaiser may have found solutions for some of the planet’s most urgent and intractable problems on their eight-acre, beyond-organic, permaculture-inspired no-till farm. In just over four years, they’ve increased their soil’s organic matter content almost 400%, boosted biodiversity on their land, are grossing $100,000 per year on each of three acres of vegetables, and have won numerous awards for conservation and stewardship.
What’s their secret? “You have to have a system,” Paul says. This system starts with generous amounts of compost—about 60 tons per acre per year—which is far more than organic standards recommend. In fact, it’s so much more that some USDA Extension agents told Paul that because of it, he must be polluting the water table with nitrates and phosphates. So Kaiser did the science: He measured the nitrate and other contaminant levels in the rain and soil water entering their farm, in the soil itself, and in the water leaving the farm. It turned out that the water exiting the farm was cleaner than the water coming in. So with their methods, we can put a check in the box labeled “creates clean water.”
All that organic matter holds water in the soil, too. Kaiser says that every increase in organic matter of one percent lets each acre of soil hold 16,500 gallons more water. His soil has leapt from less than two percent organic matter to more than eight percent, which means each acre can store about 100,000 gallons more water than before. Thus the farm is far more drought-proof than a typical operation. On our tour, in the heat of early September and after months of no rain, I saw that the grass in the paths and roadways was still green. “We don’t irrigate our roads, obviously,” Paul reminded us. Another point for their methods: drought is much less of a problem for them.
All that compost stimulates tremendous growth in their crops, helping them out-compete weeds that are not as well adapted to such high fertility levels. Thus, weeding costs are low. Another checkmark for their techniques.
The Kaisers have also added over 3000 native plants to their farm, in hedgerows and edge plantings. This, plus the immense range of vegetables and flowers at the site, has stimulated incredible biodiversity: roughly double the number of bird species have been counted on the farm than in a comparable nearby area of native plants. I’ve often been tempted to say, in spite of the hubris this may hint at, that good design can help us do “better than nature.” Singing Frogs Farm suggests that this can be true.
The biggest triumph of the farm to my mind is carbon sequestering. The Kaisers do this very permaculturally: in multiple ways, with multiple benefits. First is composting, done by recycling farm waste and by importing material from the county composting program. The second is by not tilling. Paul is adamantly against tilling, which he likens to blasting the soil life with an earthquake, forest fire, hurricane, and tornado all at once. Tilling burns up organic matter, dries the soil and ruins its texture, kills soil life, and lets soil blow away, among other evils. In their system, rather than till they keep plants in the soil continuously. Here they are blessed by Sonoma County’s year-round growing climate but, in their microclimate, they get serious hard frosts. Paul explains that the rich organic matter and soil life protect their plants from the cold. “My neighbors have a milder microclimate,” Paul says, “But their plants turn to mush in cold weather that mine survive with no problems.”
To keep the soil constantly filled with plants, most of their vegetables are transplanted from starts. This is the heart of the “system” that Paul talks about—a meticulously planned seeding and planting schedule for thousands of plants. As one crop matures the farm workers poke young starts underneath. When the plants are spent, they cut them off at the stem, leaving the roots to rot in the soil. This adds still more carbon (and suppresses weeds, too). Data from Rattan Lal, professor of soil physics at Ohio State and a well-known expert on carbon sequestering, suggests that if the carbon content of most of the world’s farmland could be raised by two percentage points, we could sequester all the carbon pumped into the atmosphere during the industrial era. The Kaisers have raised their SOM not by two but by six percent. Imagine if half the world’s farmers used their methods! So we can add “mitigates anthropogenic global warming” to the benefits of the Kaisers’ methods.
Though I could go on extolling the virtues of Singing Frogs Farm for pages more, I’ll add just one more important point: Because their system generates $100,000 per acre per year, they pay their workers nearly double the average farm wage for the county. Also, unlike nearly every other CSA in the county, they grow year round, allowing them to keep most of their staff employed all year. So we can check the box “social justice” along with all the others.
The solutions to the world’s problems really are embarrassingly simple. The Kaisers’ no-till system boosts biodiversity; mitigates drought; cleans groundwater; protects plants from frost, disease, and bugs; sequesters staggering amounts of carbon; and pays a fair wage. If most farms used the Kaisers’ methods, we’d go a long way toward solving some of the most urgent challenges facing humanity. Imagine that.
You can learn more about Singing Frogs Farm at www.singingfrogsfarm.com
Liam Vogel says
Wow! I want to work there to learn how it’s done. Fabulous! Congratulations on figuring it all out and making it happen. You’re my heroes!
Sheila ackers says
Thanks Toby for All you do and for all the information you give us to pass on.
Chris Johnson says
This sounds amazing. Just wondering, if most farms used their methods, would there be enough compost available to supply 60 tons/acre to all the farms? That sounds like a lot!
Toby Hemenway says
They started out importing about 75% of their compost, but now produce about 75% of their own on site. Our local county compost program produces a vast excess of compost, as do many municipal programs, and we’re still not using much of the biomass (and almost no humanure) that’s available. So I think that if we used compost programs and better efficiency as a way of making the transition, we could supply large numbers of farms with enough compost to get them to the point where they could generate their own. That’s just my sense of it; I haven’t tried to run the actual numbers.