In a chilly December sunset at Wild Hope Farm, the chickens are nice and warm, bobbing around inside an enclosed pen while a pair of China geese float in a small pond just outside. Stretching out to their right are long strips of green cover cops and similarly long strips of garlic.
It might not look it to the casual eye, but these birds and plants are all here to do a job, and an elegantly coordinated one at that. The geese chase away the hawks that prey on the chickens that eat the cover crops that draw greenhouse gases from the air. The garlic does that too, except it will end up in people bellies later this year, and not chicken bellies.
What you won’t see at Wild Hope, an organic co-op farm just off State Highway 9 in Chester, is a lot of bare ground. Even a few hundred yards away, past some trees, where horses and a donkey do their own share of lawn mowing, there’s not much bald earth exposed to the sky.
That’s actually pretty unusual for a December day on a farm. Drive around farm country in winter and you’ll see actual miles of bare earth lying fallow. For Shawn Jadrnicek (pronounced: YOD-nih-check), the manager of Wild Hope Farm, that’s a wasted opportunity to make a dent in climate change.
“If nothing’s growing, there’s nothing sucking CO2 out of the air,” Jadrnicek says. “If you have a plant growing there, then that plant is going to be absorbing carbon dioxide from the air and then putting it back into the ground.”
And in that little transaction is something that could help the increasingly urgent fight to mitigate the increasingly ominous effects of global climate change. It’s not that anyone, even the proprietors of this farm, expect a mid-sized organic co-op to save the planet. Not on its own, of course.
But Wild Hope Farm is indeed an interesting microcosm; an example of the potential to combat climate issues, not by individual effort, but as part of a larger system of more conscientious farming.
The American Farm Bureau Federation – certainly no enemy to Big Ag – reported that in 2017, agriculture operations worldwide contributed to 9 percent of overall greenhouse gas emissions by industry that year. If you think 9 percent doesn’t sound like much, consider that all the blood in your body only comprises 7 percent of your bodyweight, and if it wasn’t there, you would notice.
So Wild Hope Farm, with 12 working acres of fruits, vegetables, and flowers can’t fix everything on its own, but if the farming industry as a whole can adjust to the types of practices Wild Hope uses, that 9 percent could, theoretically drop.
What makes the idea palatable is, Wild Hope Farm is actually profitable. The farm’s operations director, Tim Belk, says Wild Hope has shown a profit for three straight years. While Belk says it’s too soon to call the farm a model profitable business over the long haul, it is encouraging to know that an operation without pesticides and tillers can make money.
Pesticides, apart from any environmental safety concerns, cost a lot of money to store and use. Machinery that delivers pesticides costs money to operate, fuel, and maintain. Tillers are also costly, but their bigger drawback is that, well, they till.
“When you till the ground, you’re oxidizing a lot of the carbon that’s in the soil by stimulating bacteria that decompose organic matter more quickly,” Jadrnicek says. “Then they basically are breathing and putting that carbon that’s in the ground into the air.”
In other words, if you gouge out lines in soil, you churn up a lot of trapped carbon and send it straight into the air. Tilling is the most common method used by large farms around the world to create good beds for crops. It aerates ground and makes it easier to plant things, but the cumulative effect of decades of mass-scale tilling hasn’t helped air quality.
Wild Hope Farm doesn’t have to worry about either of those things. It runs light on the machinery for the most part, but one machine it does run is a roller crimper.
“That basically rolls a cover crop down, lays it flat on the ground and kills it,” Jadrnicek says. “It leaves it on the soil surface as a mulch and that mulch suppresses weeds, so then we don’t have to bring the tractor out and do any weeding.”
About those cover crops – they’re what keep that bare ground from being bare. They’re not a food crop or a
commodity; cover crops exist to breathe carbon in and exhale it into the dirt below (which is why tilling it up releases so much carbon). A lot of farms do use cover crops, Jadrnicek says, but they also tend to churn them over when it’s time to plant cash crops – something he says defeats the benefit that cover crops can bring.
So Wild Hope Farm doesn’t so much mow cover crops down. It’s more like steamrolling. And for those areas not roller-crimped, the chickens have at.
One of the other techniques Wild Hope Farm uses is a kind of injection planting that drives crops directly into the soil without having to dig up any ground. The long rows of garlic coming in for next season were planted that way, and it’s fairly unique to this particular farm.
Jadrnicek and Belk say they want to refine their techniques a little more and have a couple more years in the black before they start preaching any gospels of sustainable, profitable, carbon-capturing farms. But they are optimistic that their techniques could be adapted by large-scale ag operations and that a larger effort in the right direction could have an actual positive effect.
“I do think there’s the potential, if 12 acres works, to do a larger size,” Belk says.