Humans have been farming for thousands of years, but “industrial” agriculture, a modern form of agriculture that produces the majority of our current food supply, gained traction only during our industrial revolution. Unfortunately, this form of agriculture contributes to poorer food quality and makes the health of our air, soil, and water worse.
“I remember as a kid on my dad and uncle’s farm that, if it didn’t rain every couple of days, the crops suffered,” said Jay Yankey, owner of Yankey Farms in Nokesville, VA. “The soil was just so overworked from tilling and fertilizers. Now, on my farm, our corn and soybeans can go a few weeks without water and we barely notice a difference in crop yield.”
That’s because Jay’s farm is leveraging sustainable farming techniques, often referred to as Regenerative Agriculture, exemplifying this year’s International Compost Awareness Week theme: “A Recipe for Regeneration: Compost!” Instead of driving lower food nutrition levels and climate change, farming and our everyday gardens can be part of the solution.
“The main thing [in Regenerative Agriculture] is prioritizing soil health,” said Jay. “A healthy, biologically active soil does a better job converting the minerals in the soil to nutrients that are available for plants. You end up lowering your need for fertilizers and your plants are healthier. A healthy soil leads to a healthy farm ecosystem.”
There are four main things that Yankey Farms did to improve their soil health. First, they have reduced how much they disturb the soil. Their corn and soybean rows haven’t been tilled for 20-30 years, and they till the soil where other produce is grown much less than they used to. “It’s a no-brainer since it’s a cheaper way of farming and has better outcomes. I have a smaller tractor, burn less fuel, and it’s faster. I make 1-2 [tilling] passes whereas it was previously 5 or 6. We see all of these longer-term benefits, too, like being more resilient to drought because water goes right into the soil [instead of running off when the soil is tilled].”
Second, Yankey Farms has added compost to their soil for years. Plants need organic matter to grow; compost adds organic matter to the soil for near-term use as well as important microorganisms that contribute to long-term health. A five-year agricultural study recently published in Food Research International showed higher yields and more nutritional value for vegetables grown in soil that adds compost each year.
Third, Yankey Farms has rotated their crops each year to help reduce plant disease and control pests that could harm their crops. Lastly, they have used cover crops whenever possible, a practice that adds a temporary plant to the soil. This reduces soil runoff, increases the soil’s organic matter, and improves the soil’s moisture- and nutrient-holding capacity for future plant growth.
These four practices—no (or reduced) tilling, adding compost, crop rotation, and cover crops—have improved Yankey Farm’s soil health. They are also key to Regenerative Agriculture, a movement that can help improve the quality and quantity of food for local residents while combating climate change.
To help celebrate this year’s International Compost Awareness Week and answer questions about how you can incorporate elements of Regenerative Agriculture into your gardens, the VA Cooperative Extension Master Gardeners, Prince William County (PWC) Solid Waste Division, and Freestate Farms will host a small event on Saturday, May 7 from 10:00 am to 1:00 pm at Freestate Farms (13012 Balls Ford Road, Manassas). Volunteers from the Master Gardeners will share materials on the benefits and use of compost. In addition, event visitors can drop off food scraps and receive a free compost sample in their own bucket, compliments of Freestate Farms. Additional (discounted) compost and compost bins will be available for purchase. Facility tours will begin at 10:30 am and 12:00 pm.