ACLT kept Double Oak Farm as a working farm to protect it from development, and it now serves as a community resource. Photo Credit: ALowe

On a glorious October day a few weeks ago, I found myself among rows of cabbage, peppers and kale; fingernails caked with dirt as farm manager Mary Hoover (a fellow Chesapeake Conservation Corps Member) and I planted a row of garlic at the American Chestnut Land Trust’s (ACLT) Double Oak Farm. October is the quintessential autumnal month that brings back the popularity of pumpkin patches, warm apple cider, hayrides and an abundance of farm visits. So, it seemed fitting to share my experience at Double Oak Farm and the plethora of knowledge I gained about sustainable and regenerative agriculture.

Although both are important, there is a key distinction between sustainable and regenerative agricultural practices. Sustainable agriculture means implementing practices that do not degrade the land, but rather sustain its properties. Regenerative agriculture takes sustainable practices a step further by actively working to improve the land, leaving it even better. Common regenerative agricultural practices include no-till, use of cover crops, composting, elimination of synthetic chemicals and varied crop rotations.

Double Oak Farm, the ACLT’s one-acre farm, is an example of a location in the Chesapeake Watershed where regenerative practices are being implemented. One acre does not seem like an adequate amount of space to have a successful and varied farm, but the volunteers and workers at Double Oak have proven otherwise. The farm transitioned from a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm to an Agriculture Supporting Community farm by switching to a food donation operation several years ago. To give you a sense of the variety and scale of this small farm, I am providing a comprehensive list of the different sections, the regenerative practices that are utilized and the farm-wide, environmental benefits of these practices as shared by Mary and her advisor Greg Bowen, the executive director of ACLT.

The Educational Demonstration Garden Experiment (EDGE)

This portion of the farm includes several gardening experiments and projects that are maintained year-round. A few of the notable projects include the following:

  • Hugel Mounds stem from Hugelkultur, which means hill culture. The practice involves piling organic materials, covering the pile with soil, and then planting seeds. Benefits of a Hugel mound include rainwater storage; soil carbon sequestration; and soil aeration, long-term nutrients for the plants and a warm soil environment as materials decay.
  • The Vertical Garden, occupying a small portion of the EDGE garden, is typically comprised of herbs, lettuce, strawberries and nasturtium. Instrumental in saving space, a vertical garden allows for more produce to be grown in a smaller area. This gardening style is increasingly popular in urban settings where space is limited, but greenery is desired. Vertical gardens require less maintenance as they have fewer weeds, and there is no need to mow. They are a more accessible method of gardening for those who do not have the ability to bend over or kneel.
  • The Three Sisters Garden, or in this case a Four Sisters Garden, is an area that includes a combination of corn, beans, squash and cleome with each plant providing benefits, resulting in a harmonious and thriving coexistence. This type of garden is more traditionally known as the three sisters garden with corn, beans and squash, but the inclusion of a fourth plant, such as cleome, can reap additional benefits. This method of farming introduces biodiversity through interplanting, resulting in nutrient-rich soil and an increased presence of pollinators. Each of the three or four plants brings a flavorful benefit to the garden potluck. The corn is the older sister that provides the support that beans need to grow. The beans pull nitrogen from the air into the soil benefitting all of the sisters and hold the plants together by winding through the vegetation toward sunlight. The squash plant has large, prickly leaves that preserve soil moisture, provide shade, and prevent pests. The cleome attracts pollinators while warding off deer and rodents with its strong scent and thorns.
  • The Medicinal Herb Wheel is, as the name suggests, a garden of medicinal herbs. Plants grown in the wheel include violets, lavender, mint, witch hazel and mountain sage. Examples of medicinal qualities of the named plants include improved sleep from violet and lavender, digestive aid from mint and mountain sage and skin irritation and inflammation relief from witch hazel and violets. This garden style is a tribute to a traditional Native American medicine wheel, serving as a meditative site in addition to its medicinal offerings.

The Row Crops

This time of year, the row crops include cabbage, basil, peppers, broccoli, kale, collard greens and garlic. The rows are planted with different kinds of crops depending on the season, and certain rows are planted with cover crops in the off-season to enhance the soil health. The cover crop mix that was planted prior to my visit includes 50 percent winter rye, 30 percent Austrian winter pea, 12.5 percent cayuse oats and 7.5 percent hairy vetch. Each component of the mix provides a benefit to the soil or support for the other cover crops in their soil-enhancing properties. For example, winter rye reduces erosion, recycles nutrients, increases soil organic matter, removes excess soil moisture and suppresses weeds. Austrian winter pea and cayuse oats are companion crops that aid the winter rye and hairy vetch in performing their role.

Keyhole Compost Raised Bed

This gardening technique stems from a method developed in southern Africa in the early 1990s to more efficiently conserve water and compost food scraps in the farming process. The circular raised bed resembles a keyhole with an opening in the middle for compost and a slice cut out of the circle for easy access. Positioning the compost in the center of the raised bed allows for the efficient decomposition of natural materials in a manner that promotes the spread of nutrients and moisture to plant roots.

The Wonderful Water Garden

The water garden incorporates a balance of water with plant and animal life in a way that regulates the mosquito population. Double Oak’s garden includes a fiberglass pond that provides a home for a green frog, turtles and cattails. Cattails are beneficial as bioremediation agents, meaning that they can remove toxins from the water in which they grow.

Compost Beds

Double Oak Farm has several open-top compost beds where workers can dispose of organic matter from across the ACLT property to be used in future plantings. In addition to reducing waste, composting provides organic material that has significant benefits to a garden or field once applied, including prevention of soil erosion, conservation of water and provision of nutrients to plants.

The Pizza Garden

This circular garden was started by a volunteer who divided the area into slices growing typical pizza herbs. An outdoor pizza oven is in the process of being constructed; they hope to grow all of the ingredients needed to make a pizza from scratch and then cook it right there in true farm-to-table style.

The Flower Girls’ Pollinator Cottage Garden

This portion of the farm is maintained by master gardener volunteers and incorporates plants to attract pollinators, including bees, birds, bats and butterflies. These species, among others, travel between vegetation, transporting pollen that is critical to the success of most flowering plants.

The High Tunnel

Extending the growing season into the colder months, the high tunnel resembles a traditional greenhouse, but functions in a slightly different manner. Greenhouses are typically constructed using glass and metal with plants grown in pots above ground. High tunnels are constructed using hoops covered in fabric or polyethylene, and the crops are planted directly in the ground or in raised beds. In addition to extending the growing season, high tunnels protect crops from severe weather and pests.

The Gourd Tunnel

Similar to the pizza garden, the gourd tunnel was started by a volunteer. The gourds are harvested and then turned into all-natural birdhouses.

The Cutting Garden

The cutting garden is another product of the master gardener volunteers and consists of a variety of flowers that are used in floral arrangements for fundraising purposes and contribute to the attraction of pollinators.

Food Forest

In addition to the one-acre farm, ACLT also manages a food forest. Started by volunteer Birgit Sharp in 2016, the food forest grows fruit, vegetables and nuts in a manner that resembles a natural and healthy forest ecosystem. Incorporating plants of different types and heights allow for a range of benefits to the entire forest. There are seven layers that comprise the ACLT’s food forest: the canopy (large trees, such as walnut or chestnut), the understory (smaller trees, such as plum or pear), the shrubs (bushes, such as blackberry or blueberry), the herbaceous layer (non-woody plants, such as herbs, vegetables, or wildflowers), the rhizosphere (root plants, such as onions), the ground layer (plants, such as strawberries and creeping thyme) and the vertical layer (vine plants, such as grapes). With the wide variety of crops and vegetation, the forest is able to support an abundance of wildlife and provide ecosystem services, including carbon sequestration, water retention, erosion control and natural fertilization through healthier soils and the attraction of pollinators. A food forest is a low-maintenance, ecosystem-enhancing method to increase biodiversity and grow produce.

Challenges of Regenerative Agriculture

Upon learning about the variety of regenerative practices and benefits, I wondered why such practices are not more widely adopted. There are two primary reasons: budget and size constraints. First and foremost, with the elimination of synthetic chemicals on the farm, there are increased weeds and pests that need to be controlled. Regenerative weed and pest management involve an increased need for farm labor, which is one of the costliest expenses for farmers.1 Double Oak Farm thrives on the dedication and hard work of its numerous volunteers. Although Mary is extremely capable and diligent in her farm duties, she could not keep up with the demands of the one-acre regenerative farm by herself. Around eight volunteers join Mary each week to help maintain the area. Some of the challenges that Mary and the volunteers face include naturally combating weeds and pests, such as the harlequin bug. With its ability to rapidly reproduce, the harlequin bug has an affinity for cabbage and any remotely related plants on the farm. Without the use of synthetic pesticides, it takes close monitoring by farmworkers to keep the bug population in check. The same method is needed for controlling weeds. In addition to the beneficial work of volunteers, Double Oak’s smaller size is an advantage when implementing regenerative practices. A copious amount of organic material is needed to not only sustain, but improve soil and plant health. Without major collective composting reform across municipalities, large agricultural operations would struggle to maintain enough organic material to nourish a regenerative agriculture farm.

Reflections

My visit to Double Oak Farm was an enjoyable and informative experience. In joining my fellow CCC member Mary on her daily farm management tasks, I learned about the effort and knowledge needed to successfully maintain a regenerative agriculture operation, as well as the seemingly countless benefits of engaging in such practices. Mary shared her enjoyment of working on the farm, expressing her newfound love of working outdoors and her appreciation for the volunteers and the knowledge and innovation they bring.

As I embark on my autumnal farm visits this season and start planning my Thanksgiving menu, I have more appreciation for the local farms making the effort to implement sustainable and eventually fully regenerative practices. My experience also makes me think about the large-scale agriculture that dominates the U.S. food industry and grocery stores, and the lack of detail regarding farming practices and their impact on the food we consume. Although it might be more costly, I find shopping at farmers’ markets to be a manageable investment I can make to support local farms engaging in the effort to transition to environmentally-enhancing practices.

I would like to give special thanks to Mary Hoover and Greg Bowen at the American Chestnut Land Trust for providing an enjoyable visit and sharing their wealth of farming knowledge.

1“U.S. Farm Production Expenditures, 2019,” USDA.

Images taken by Amelia Lowe

Don’t forget to send us your 2020 land conservation success stories as they develop. They’ll land in the new and growing collection at success.chesapeakeconservation.org, a tool we can all use to show collective impact. See the checklist below for easy-to-follow, simple guidelines.