Transitioning to Organic? You Don’t Have to Do It Alone

A tour of the Rodale Institute Midwest Organic Center showcases a trial of corn planted in 30” vs. 60” rows. Rodale research director Carl Rosier (pictured at right) leads the tour.


Over the past several months, I have had the honor of visiting a wide variety of farms across Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois, Nebraska and Missouri. I have observed a common thread among the farmers that I meet that is characterized by a passion for their land, creativity and a willingness to try something different. What I have also observed is that these same farms each look very different from one another. The combination of a farmer’s local knowledge and a farm that is unique in time and space is what makes each day exciting for me as an Extension Scientist. With this diversity of farms and unique needs in mind, Rodale Institute has built an organic crop consulting model that is flexible to fit the unique needs of every farm.

Typically, my first interaction with farmers is through an email or a phone call after they have found us through the website, a webinar, or after reading the latest Acres U.S.A. column. Recently, I met a potential client while walking along my local nature trail. In true Midwest fashion, I found myself visiting with a random bicyclist along the trail. As we talked, I learned that this person had recently purchased a nearby farm, and the light bulb went off for both of us — we scheduled a time for me to visit their soon-to-be organic vegetable farm. If chance meetings in the countryside were my primary means of meeting potential clients, I realize that I would have to log many more walking miles, but my point is this: I never know where the next farmer conversation will come from, but I’m always grateful when it happens.

After the initial contact, I always schedule a phone or video call with each person as soon as possible. My goal during this first visit is to do minimal talking and maximum listening — I want to understand what motivates a farmer to transition to organic or improve their current organic farm. I’ve heard responses ranging from deep-seeded passion for soil health, the desire to create a more economically viable farm for children to stay on the land, or the insightful response, “I realized that my potential customer is my wife and her friends — and they all care about the health of their families.” The discussion always dives deep into the details of the farm operation, including crop rotation, equipment, market opportunities … the list goes on, but I find it’s important for me to understand the drivers for transition to organic so I can provide assistance that is in line with their values and helps them to meet their farm goals.

The listening session I just described kicks off an ongoing conversation about their farm — that continues, based on the farmer’s needs and preferences, through phone calls, texts, emails and on-farm visits. Every farmer I work with is the expert on their farm, and my goal is to provide an alternative perspective based on my own experiences and the findings of the scientific community, including Rodale Institute’s excellent research team. For example, if a farmer is looking to implement no-till soybean production, I usually ask if they have considered how to change their crop rotation so that cereal rye can be established earlier in the fall to optimize tillering. I often find that when folks are frustrated with cereal rye establishment it can be tied back to when it was planted.

In my work, I also emphasize the importance of formulating a Plan A, Plan B and Plan C; especially when it comes to planting cover crops or addressing weed management. We may make a flawless Plan A, but Mother Nature could decide to give us non-stop rain or withhold moisture altogether — now what? Thank goodness we discussed having those alternative tools and plans at the ready! As an applied scientist, I also encourage on-farm experimentation that can help improve the farm’s operation. For example, I realize that organic seed sources may be new to people, and I always encourage farmers to try multiple organic seed sources and track performance during the transition years so that they can start to identify their “go-to sources” as they ramp up organic production. And, if we come up with novel research questions, I am always eager to ask our research team to help answer them while assuming the risk on one of Rodale Institute’s farms.

Making the choice to transition to organic production can feel overwhelming, and in the Midwest, it may also feel very lonely. It can be many miles between organic farms, and I personally understand the social pressure that coffee-shop talk can hold. The goal of my consulting approach goes beyond answering phone calls or walking through fields with a farmer. I want to ensure that they are truly welcomed into the vibrant, supportive network that is the organic community by making sure they have multiple mentors, organizations and an organic champion they can turn to to for ideas and support. There are many Midwest organic farmers and countless organizations to provide support to a farmer during their organic farming career, and I am grateful that our Rodale Institute team can work alongside these community members to support farmers on their organic journey.

If you are curious about how certified organic production would fit into your farm system, please contact us at or (610) 683-1416. Currently our services are FREE to Pennsylvania and Midwest farmers. Pricing for all other out-of-state clients is available upon request. More information about the Rodale Institute OCC Program is available at

Kristine Lang has served as an Extension Scientist at Rodale Institute’s Midwest Organic Center. Rodale Institute is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit headquartered in Kutztown, Pennsylvania dedicated to pioneering organic farming through research and outreach. Rodale Institute’s mission states that, through organic leadership, we improve the health and well-being of people and the planet. Rodale Institute is growing the organic movement through rigorous, solutions-based research, farmer training, and consumer education. Learn more at

Animals and Your Land: Homesteads Need the Presence of Livestock


When many people envision a homestead, they have included animals somewhere in the picture. Ducks, goats, geese, or honey bees. Beef cattle, horses, chickens… There are many intriguing options, and though it may seem challenging and intimidating at times, it would be beneficial if every homestead considered some variety of animals. What can be even more exciting than deciding what animals you wish to have on your homestead is how you are going to use them. Odd statement? Let’s see.

First Things First

The primary attraction of any animal, from hog to turkey, is the basic product it will provide you with. Meat, eggs, milk, honey, your first interest in an animal is the product you want. Is it to be goat milk or cow milk, chicken egg or duck egg, beef or pork?  Another question — duck eggs, duck meat, or both? Yet another — a lot of cream with your cow milk (Jersey) or do you simply want milk and are not as concerned with cream (Milking Shorthorn)? The amount of space you are dealing with will come into play, with larger animals naturally requiring more space. Breed selection is important here as well as the type of animal. There are many miniature breeds of cows and goats, for example, that have product to offer and require less food and space to produce it than their standard-sized brethren.

Reciprocal Effects

For homesteaders, maintaining both a garden and animals will have reciprocal benefits.  Think of chickens. Many of our customers have asserted that our eggs are especially good. Our chickens have a lot of garden scraps as a part of their diets. Trimmings from preparing produce for sale as well as damaged and unsold product, when fed to chickens or hogs or cattle, etc., leads to a superior product.  Having animals can give you ready access to resources that you might otherwise not have in such quantity or would have to pay for. Many people use crushed egg shells to provide calcium to their tomato plants.  Advice from Eliot Coleman tells us that “trash” eggs (overly small, misshapen, cracked or broken during processing) used as an amendment for your homegrown celery gives you exceptional texture and taste in the crop, and I can verify that assertion.

Next, the Perks

When selecting animal breeds, you will also see that they offer secondary benefits that you should be able to take advantage of. Of course, honey bees will provide you with pollination in addition to honey and pollen; this is a well know example. And all animals are happy to supply you with manure in addition to their principal products. But there are other traits of animals, many breed-specific, that will make them a further help on your homestead. = For example, some goose breeds (such as African and Chinese) are very effective foragers and therefore weeders, via removing young, tender weeds and also weed seeds off older plants. Ducks have their preferences for diets of weed seed (Ancona, Cayuga) or insects (Indian Runner, Khaki Campbell) as well. And there are cattle that can serve as draft animals in addition to food sources (American Milking Devon, Dexter).

However, there are benefits that can be gotten from animals that aren’t necessarily breed-specific, but rather are dependent on the “human element” and have to do with animal management. In many ways, animals are working components on the farm that are not always fully utilized. Consider chickens. I have read articles written by unsuccessful composters who saved themselves the hassle of trying to manage a compost pile (and actually got quality compost, guaranteed weed seed free) by letting their chickens work the pile.  I have seen people have a caged garden/chicken system in which they release their chickens into recently emptied garden beds to remove pests and garden litter and “till” the soil, readying it for the next planting.

Eggs—a chicken’s only use?

I have plenty of personal experience as well. After rhubarb curculio appeared in our rhubarb patch (and began to seriously affect the quality of the entire second half of the harvest year after year), we found that the volunteer efforts of a trio of Buff Orpingtons who daily declared themselves free-range by flying out of the pen essentially eliminated the problem.  Every morning they would head to the rhubarb patch and scratch. The mulch they disturbed had to be raked up periodically, but the removal of the insects was well worth the hassle. Are your chickens simply going to provide you with eggs and fertilizer?  Can you concentrate their energies to help you battle the plumb curculio in your apple trees?

Animals as cleanup crew has been done for a long time and is often done on quite a large scale. Pastured poultry and cattle are often moved into vegetable plots or crop fields whose production has just ended to “clean up.” Additionally, cattle can be used to maintain the quality of the hay fields from which they get bales to eat; after doing some cuttings of hay, the farmer can move their animals to be pastured in the hay field, and they will fertilize and improve it in other ways (see below). 

There are further examples. I remember reading a statement from a permaculture practitioner years ago that slugs in her garden is a sure sign that she has a duck shortage; when she ran the ducks in, they “ran” the slugs out! A neighbor of mine decided to keep goats as a way of relieving him of the tricky job of mowing around his ponds, and a different neighbor got goats because he wanted to clear some forest of his of shrubs and open it up a for easier walking without having to mow it.  The Spanish is a particularly low-maintenance breed of goat and can provide you with meat and clear ground for you without the need of much supplemental food stuffs at all.

Greater Management, Less Work

It is already apparent, even if the story were to end here, that animals are a valuable resource on a homestead. They do take work, though. Cleaning out the chicken coop, cleaning out the cattle shed, these are not small tasks. Perhaps the fact that farming is work is why opportunities are occasionally overlooked to make even greater use of your animals and reduce the need to perform these sorts of chores. The idea of doing less work and getting more out of it seems counterintuitive, but it works. This concept was alluded to earlier. Having ducks and geese doing your weeding and de-bugging is not going to happen by having them penned in an area and simply waiting for food to be tossed to them. They must be in the areas that require attention and be allowed to work. They must also be contained in these areas, not just given access to them, and be moved to new ground when they have accomplished their (your) objective. 

For those who pasture the more typical grazing animals, management has always been important and has taken many forms, each of which has its own advantages. Short-term, intense grazing is a practice advocated as animals will be less selective due to the competition to eat. Multi- or mixed-species grazing contributes well to achieving the same thing, as different animals have different dietary preferences. This is often done with a flerd (flock + herd) of sheep and cattle. Additionally, the differing compositions of their manures and the diversity provided for the marketing portion of the farm equation contributes to soil and financial resilience. I previously mentioned running cattle into crop space on a rotational basis with said crops to improve production. Alternatively, they could be bale grazed on poor pasture, thereby attracting animals with the promise of readily available hay to poor pasture land, which they improve with their manure, urine, and hooves. And furthermore, moving cattle through a green manure prior to incorporating it will speed up nutrient cycling, making it less subject to the weather as the cattle contribute to the breakdown of plant material and don’t leave all of the work to the weather-dependent soil biology.

Did I say hooves? Yes, grazing by hooved animals stimulates both root growth and root exudation due to the tug of their grazing on plants. The exudates feed and foster soil biology, biology that mineralizes nutrients in the soil and makes them bioavailable to the plants. Both the root growth and the exudation/nutrient availability trigger leafy growth in the plants, improving your crop.  So though you can still reap the benefits of manure by transporting it to your desired location, the improvements initiated by the animal hooves will be lost to you; and, to a great extent, so will the urine they supply.  Not to mention the fact that manure handling can take many hours, is wear and tear on tractors, and consumes fossil fuel.

We know that having living roots in the soil all year is the best way to maintain soil quality.  And studies are beginning to show that grasslands can, in fact, act as more reliable carbon sinks than trees, and thereby mitigate climate change.  But only when properly managed.  Animals help with this enormously.  In fact, nothing is better for the soil than to have animals on it.  Because root exudation from plants triggers shoot growth (which means more photosynthesis), animals lead to more photosynthesis. They benefit the soil in other ways as well. As they fertilize with manure and urine, they also clear away older foliage and create plant litter on the soil surface with their activities, which will compost in place to the benefit of nutrient density/cycling. In other words, livestock do not destroy soil; when properly managed they enhance it.

Now, instead of in terms of energy, let’s think of this same chain of activities in terms of water. Hoof trampling means greater germination of plants (no soil crusting), but it also means greater penetration by water.  All of this organic matter improvement will mean better moisture retention. The plant litter on the soil, as well as the thriving plants themselves, shelter and protect the soil and keep the soil temperature down to the benefit of the soil moisture, all making it more resilient to drought. So it appears that it is not only keeping living roots in the soil all of the year, but also keeping live animals on the soil part of the year that leads to the best soil quality.

Plant and Animals in All of Their Functions

This sort of integrated thinking is key to many of the eco-farming systems that are increasing in popularity. Or are they simply gaining recognition? There is permaculture, for one. Permaculture is all about whole systems thinking and using ecosystem designs from the natural world. Its agricultural principles include producing no waste, to integrate rather than segregate, and to use and value diversity. Holistic management, called by some permaculture for rangeland, focuses on the management of water and mineral cycles, energy flow, and ecosystem relationships; and the mutualistic relationship between animals and the land.

Both systems recognize the interrelatedness between animals and land, and therefore the negative outcomes that result when one is removed from the other.  Understanding all of the ramifications when agriculture, striving to mimic natural systems, becomes unbalanced means having to recognize the value of plants and animals in all of their functions. Observation and management is needed, rather than laboring to try to correct a symptom of this unbalancing without recognizing the root cause.

Animals are not a single-product proposition. As permaculture and holistic management observes, no agricultural entity should be considered a single-product system. Because animals and land are (naturally) interrelated, they should be managed as a whole. When animals are removed from the land, important cycles develop gaps and it is necessary for humans to step in and attempt to close the gaps, often at the cost of time, money, efficiency, and physical condition.  Select animals for your homestead based on the food product you want and the other serves they will provide. Animals are, in fact, very rewarding land management tools, and even if it takes some time to get everything in place, remember it is a great end result to strive for!

Leah Smith works on her family’s organic farm in mid-Michigan, called Nodding Thistle.  She is a home and market gardener, reader and writer, and editor of the Michigan Organic Food and Farm Alliance (MOFFA) quarterly newsletter.

Nets and Glues: How Microbes Build Soil Structure

Sponsored by Heliae® Agriculture

Does your soil sometimes seem more likely to make pottery than grow crops? Or does it feel like trying to build a sandcastle out of dry sand? If so, you may need to pay more attention to the fungi and bacteria living below the surface. These microorganisms release substances which act as nets or glues, building soil structure by forming and stabilizing soil aggregates.

Aggregates are the Foundation of Soil Structure

An aggregate, in technical terms, is “a group of primary soil particles that cohere to each other more strongly than to other surrounding particles.” But what does this mean in the field? Depending on your soil’s texture, fertility, and carbon content, soil particles and microbes mesh together to form 3 dimensional shapes, primarily determined by the products of living and dead bacteria and fungi in the soil.

Aggregates are essential to many basic functions of soil, from holding on to nutrients and preventing erosion, to supporting root systems and avoiding water stress. These functions are strongly tied to the soil microbiome, where a healthy community of bacteria and fungi provide support for optimized crop growth. The sticky qualities of many microbe products can directly hold on to nutrients and soil particles. Indirectly, through creating aggregates, improved soil structure encourages root development and moderates water content.

An aggregate, in technical terms, is “a group of primary soil particles that cohere to each other more strongly than to other surrounding particles.”

Bacteria and Fungi in the Soil

Bacteria in soil tend to live in aqueous environments, moving with water in the soil. They can be single cells, moderate groups, or most important for aggregation, large populations living in biofilms. Bacterial cells attach to and digest pieces of organic matter, producing weak glues in the process that attach to a few surrounding soil particles. Over time and around larger pieces of organic matter, some bacteria will form biofilms or secrete sticky and slimy polymers called EPS (extracellular polymeric substances). These can act as stronger glues in the soil, attaching soil particles together to form aggregates and maintain water content in the soil.

Beneficial fungi have a slightly different role in building aggregates, acting more as nets than glues. Fungal mycelia (the vegetative parts of the organism), consisting of a complex network of branching hyphae, act as a major decomposer in the soil ecosystem. These networks also help to physically attach small aggregates, wrapping them up to form larger aggregates in the soil. Even when a branch of fungal hyphae is severed or otherwise begins to decay, this supports aggregate formation. During decomposition, biomolecules such as glomalin[KW1]  and mucilages are released from the cell walls. These substances are resistant to decomposition and can remain in soil for up to 50 years. Due to the nature of fungal hydrophobicity, fungi help aggregates stay together during rewetting by preventing water from penetrating deep into the aggregate. This reduces stress and swelling forces within small and large aggregates and lends stability to soil structure.

Microbes and Soils – Partners in Field Quality

Soil structure in agricultural soils is degrading at an alarming rate, with up to 30% of cultivated soils around the world considered degraded or eroded land in 2020[KW2] . Intensive agricultural practices can negatively affect microorganisms that do work in your field to create and stabilize soil aggregates. By improving the below-ground ecosystem, bacteria and fungi can rebuild their communities and build your soil’s structure along the way

Soil acts as the foundation for your crops, but the microbes in that soil are essential to keeping it well-structured and healthy[KW3] . The biological ecosystems beneath the surface work with your soil to provide structure and promote the health of your crops. Regardless of your soil type or organic matter content, bacteria and fungi are an essential building block in your field’s structure and the health of your crops. And working to strengthen them will improve your soil’s structure and overall field health.

For more on EPS and soil health, join authors, Lindsay Vicars, Dr. Karl Wyant and other leadership from the Heliae® Agriculture team, at “Rethinking Soil Productivity”.

The 2-day webinar event kicks-off November 17 at 10 a.m.-11:00 a.m. CDT with a conversation on the Rhizophagy Cycle with Rutgers University’s Dr. James White. Day 2, November 18, 10:00-11:00 a.m. CDT offers practical application opportunities for soil health practices. Following the main session each day, regional, crop-specific breakout sessions will be offered.

The event will also offer 4 Certified Crop Advisor CEUs in the following certification areas:

Nutrient Management: 1
Soil & Water Management: 1
Crop Management: 1
Professional Development: 1

For more information and to register for sessions, visit:



 [KW1]I added a USDA glomain link here

 [KW2]I added the FAO erosion page link here

 [KW3]Well said

Farmer Puts Social Justice, Land Access at the Center of Operation

photo by samantha everette / courtesy of sankofa farm


“The best way to predict the future is to have an understanding of your past.” Kamal Bell, a middle school teacher and farmer, stands on a TEDx stage at North Carolina State University. “Sankofa is a term that comes out of the Akan language in West Africa that translates, ‘to go back and get.’”

Rooted in a mindfulness of Black history, as well as a desire to nurture and grow the Black community in Durham and Orange Counties, Bell and his team at Sankofa Farms are on a dual mission. The 2.5 acres of vegetable production and 35 beehives provide nutrition to food-insecure communities, while the operations provide a setting for Kamal to teach five Black students leadership, teamwork and personal development as they learn how to farm.

“We’ve been growing very quickly,” Bell says. “We’re just trying to keep up!” January marked Sankofa’s first year supplying food to local individuals as well as contributing to other CSAs in the area. Lettuce, kale, collard greens, squash, okra, watermelon, peppers, mustard greens and navy beans make up some of the produce the farm is growing. Through connections with the Rural Land Advancement Foundation, Communities in Partnership and Rise Up North Carolina, these veggies will go to the people who need them most.

According to the South Eastern Consortium on Hunger, Food and Nutrition, 20 percent of children in Durham County and 18 percent in Orange County live in food-insecure homes, meaning that one in five children do not know where their next meal is coming from.

“A lot of farm accounts post pictures of food, and I think about all my students who may not have access to healthy food,” Bell says. “I don’t post pretty pictures of the food because I have to remember that the people following the page might be hungry.”

While racial justice and food insecurity are massive issues, Bell not only offers a resource to his community; he also brings five Black students along with him. “When people hear ‘the Black community’ they think of every Black person on the earth, but we’ve honed in on working with the youth in our community and then we partner with organizations in our community that can distribute the food to the populations we’ve targeted.” By the end of the summer, it’s Bell’s intent that these students will be more than just farmers, but confident young Black leaders.

“We’re just here for the people,” Bell says.

For the Love of Nature

Farming is an extension of Bell’s love of natural science and simply being outside. “If anyone ever meets my sons they’ll see right away their affinity for being outdoors and being in nature — they get it from me. When I was their age I was the same way — I loved being outdoors.” Bell remembers the impact of a teacher in his elementary school days who first encouraged him to appreciate nature. “I went to a Title I school where a teacher would take a group of Black boys out to a pond in the back of the school to catch Marble Salamanders. Being involved with activities like that my whole life, I grew really closed to nature and came to love animals. When I went to college I chose animal science as my career path.”

Bell started his degree with the intent to become a veterinarian, but as he grew closer to the content, he began to feel like he could serve the Black community better working outside the lab. “I did a lot of reading at that time, and I asked myself how I could give back to the Black community, and I came around to farming.” Shifting his studies to gain exposure to the agricultural industry, Bell gained experience through working with farmers in Greensborough as well as internships and jobs at the university farm. After graduating with a masters in agricultural education, his professors encouraged him to pursue a farm purchase.

Justice Starts with Access

When Bell graduated from college in 2016 he applied for a USDA Farm Service Agency Direct Farm Ownership loan, but he quickly noticed that the process was not treating him fairly. “I think this is one of those moments that defines what racism is.” The USDA’s Census of Agriculture found in 2012 that only 1.6 percent of all farmers are Black, compared to 14 percent in 1910. The Center for American Progress notes in its 2019 report that this shrink is the result of decreased access to loans and insurance. The report found that between 1910 and 2007, Black farmers lost 80 percent of their land.

After Bell’s first application was denied, he discovered that the agent he had been working with hadn’t given him all the information he needed to create a successful application. With the help of a more thorough FSA agent, Bell had no trouble building an application that met the FSA’s specifications. “He looked me in my eyes and said, ‘this is one of the best put-together applications to come across my desk.’” While Bell waited for his application to be processed, he observed that the FSA department was awarding his white peers more quickly. “My application ended up taking almost eight or nine months, while typically it should take three or four months. I remember doing an office visit where [my agent] was talking to another farmer about giving him $300,000 for a fallow field, while they didn’t want to give me $70,000 with a $10,000 operating loan to buy a 12-acre farm.”

Even with the full confidence of Bell’s second FSA agent, he found himself with another denied application. But even as a USDA Civil Rights attorney got involved in Bell’s case, the prejudicial treatment continued. When the FSA agent failed to return his calls, making it unclear when Bell was supposed to arrive for this critical meeting, instinct told Bell to arrive early to the office so that the proceedings wouldn’t happen without him. “Sure enough, I walked in the door and the meeting was starting right then.” Bell says that this meeting brought up so many examples of prejudice in the department’s handling of the application that the civil rights attorney representing the FSA had to agree. “I was providing points to him that he didn’t have a rebuttal on.” Several weeks later, the denial was overturned, but again the final award letter stalled. “I had to talk to the director and to push this farm through.”

On the day Bell closed on his farm purchase, he had made all the arrangements on top of his full-time teaching job to be present and prepared for the transaction, but the same couldn’t be said for the Farm Service Agency. “They had forgotten my check at the closing,” Bell remembers, pointing out that each difficulty was another obstacle keeping him from getting the farm. “You can see this repeated behavior.”

Both the Farm Service Agency in Greensborough and the state office declined to comment on these events.

The Agricultural Academy

Bell brought his vision of an integrated, farm-to-school program to the school’s administration where he taught environmental and earth science. “At the time, I was teaching agriculture and the students were gravitating toward my program. We started a little garden at the school; it was a perfect setup. The students were changing their behavior and responding to me and the program I was running.” Even though Bell’s approach was clearly getting results, the principal and administration weren’t ready to create a program. “I didn’t want to wait until they figured it out; I had a student who graduated that year get caught up in a murder — he’s doing jail time right now. I wanted to change these kids’ lives now.” Driven by this mission, Bell created the Agricultural Academy as its own nonprofit, and brought students onto his farm with no funding or tools ready. They got to work.

“Sankofa was literally built from the ground up,” Bell recalls. In the stiff, unyielding clay soil, he and his team worked to manually remove the forest to make arable land. “I don’t come from a network of people in agriculture, so we were figuring it out as we go,” Bell says. After renting bulldozers, hiring people and getting help from neighbors and local community service projects, there was finally enough land cleared to begin production. “We didn’t have a well the first three years, so we were dry farming.” It wasn’t easy, but Bell is proud of what they were able to accomplish. “We just had to put our nose to the ground and teach the students not to get deterred. All the things they were learning through it were really special: if you want to do something for your community, you’ve got to push at the beginning.”

The Agricultural Academy runs as a STEM program, introducing students to farming skills, as well as leadership and personal development. The students who join the program do so based on their own volition. “They all have their own reasons for being there, but it gets down to a desire to help the Black community” Graduates of the Agricultural Academy have become certified beekeepers, improved their scholastic performance and even become long-term employees of Sankofa Farms. “Of the original four students from that first year of the program, two are still with Sankofa Farms now and they’re doing amazing,” Bell says

At the 2019 Atlantic Festival in Washington D.C., two Agricultural Academy students joined Bell on stage for a live panel describing their work and outcomes in the program. When the moderator asked student Kamoni King about the future of farming, King responded, “I think the future of farming holds us bringing more people onto the farm and breaking generational poverty in the African American community.” King’s statements exemplify the vision and mindset graduates of the Agricultural Academy take with them.

Connecting with Partners

“Anyone who understands farming knows that it can be a money hole if things don’t click for you,” Bell remarks. In their first years, the Agricultural Academy raised its money through speaking engagements, sales and grant funding. “We got a grant to start the Agricultural Academy with an Ag In the Classroom grant from the Farm Bureau. That allowed us to get tools and some materials to raise chickens our first year.”

Partnerships have helped the farm pour its resources into mentoring the students in the Agricultural Academy. “We have a really good relationship with Bayer Crop Science. They donated some beekeeping equipment to us, so we’ve been able to develop an apiary.” In a combined partnership with Bayer Crop Science and the Durham County Beekeepers association, Sankofa Farms was able to offer beekeeping mentorships which resulted in four out of the five students becoming certified beekeepers in its first year.

While Bayer Crop Science is behind many of the agricultural practices criticized by the small farms movement, Bell points out that their willingness to offer capital and tools to Sankofa Farms has enabled his program to flourish. “There’s no friction in that relationship because there’s no pressure there,” Bell explains. “Anytime that we need help, I can reach out and they’ll provide assistance. I recognize that they’re trying to help and that’s what we needed to go forward.” Bell suggests that the question shouldn’t really be about whether justice-focused nonprofits should accept money from agribusiness, but why other organizations aren’t supporting more programs like the Agricultural Academy. “Out of everybody else that has seen the farm, Bayer is the group that reached out and that means a lot to me.”

For Bell, serving food-insecure populations displaces any impetus to make Sankofa drive a profit. “If somebody pays Sankofa $20 for food, I want them to be able to eat from that for a couple of days. I will farm for as long as I can just so my people have access to healthy food.” The legacy of being a change-maker for the Black community is what drives Bell. “My great-great grandkids a hundred years from now are going to read about me — it matters to me what they read, more than how much money I had.”

Kids are the Future

In living out the mission of Sankofa — “to go back and get” or, “to predict the future by understanding the past” — Bell is confident he’s spending his time wisely by focusing on Black kids.

Bell feels that terms like ‘food justice’ can often be distracting. “I’m just thinking about how I can help Black people, how I can help solve issues in the Black community.” Bell points out that the issues of food security span race, class and economic structures that undergird our society; it can be frustrating to throw around words that make the issues seem clear-cut. He’s always trying to think expansively about how to directly impact the Black families in his neighborhood and the students who attend his school. “It’s about being adaptable and being genuine in trying to help my people — that’s what food justice would mean to me.”

“I don’t really see agriculture changing, based on what it was designed to do and who is in power there. The stolen labor is what drives it. I definitely believe that we need more African American farmers,” Bell says, “but the food system is so vast that everybody will have to pitch in, in some form or fashion.” Bell is appreciative of organizations trying to hold themselves accountable and exact change, but he’s skeptical that a system that continues to operate on the backs of underprivileged workers can change without a dramatic restructuring. “I’m not necessarily advocating for a specific system because I’ve seen Black people suffer in all of them,” he says. “I’m just interested in things that work.”

Bell wants to see Black youth highlighted and heard in this cultural moment. “The kids are the future of everything; they’re the ones that can change. Working with them gives me the opportunity to see where our future is going, and honestly I think it’s going to a good place.” Bell continues to sow into that future through his work at Sankofa Farm. they’ve continued to operate while following social distancing guidelines. He’s hopeful that the cultural dialogue surrounding race can lead to more open hearts joining Sankofa’s mission. “We haven’t had the normal things that distract us, and hopefully we can continue this conversation,” Bell says. “We’ll see. I’m just going to keep doing the work and keep pushing forward.”

Learn more about Sankofa Farms and Kamal Bell at, Instagram @sankofafarms and Facebook @sankofafarmsllc.

Tractor Time Episode 46: Ken Roseboro on GMOs

Ken Roseboro, the editor and publisher of The Organic and Non-GMO Report, has been called “the nation’s reporter on all issues surrounding genetically modified foods” by Acres USA magazine.

Ken’s articles have appeared in leading food and agriculture publications and websites such as Civil Eats, Sustainable Food NewsPrepared Foods, Natural Foods MerchandiserFood Processing, and World Grain as well as Harvest Public MediaThe Huffington Post, Yahoo NewsMother Earth News, and others. He is a contributing editor to EcoWatch, Organic Connections and New Hope 360.

Ken is author of Genetically Altered Foods and Your Health and The Organic Food Handbook, both published by Basic Health Publications. He has spoken at many conferences including Natural Products Expo West, All Things Organic, Acres USA Conference, The Organic Farming Conference, National Heirloom Seed Expo, and others.

Ken is a member of the design team of the Non-GMO Supply Working Group and a founding member of the board of directors of the Iowa Organic Association. Ken also serves on the board of directors of Soil Technologies Corporation. He appears in the award-winning documentary film, GMO OMG. In 2006, Ken received an Award of Merit from Seed Savers Exchange for his efforts to preserve genetic diversity through his publications.

Preparing Land for No-Till Farming

The following excerpt is adapted from Bryan O’Hara’s new book No-Till Intensive Vegetable Culture: Pesticide-Free Methods for Restoring Soil and Growing Nutrient-Rich, High-Yielding Crops (Chelsea Green Publishing, February 2020) and is reprinted with permission from the publisher.


Converting the vegetation of an area of land from the more natural conditions of perennial plant coverage to that of selected annual crops is often a necessary part of starting a new vegetable farm or garden, or expanding an existing one. This process, and the continuing work of maintaining production areas from year to year, has often employed extensive tillage in order to fit the land into a state that is acceptable for seeding and planting. Tillage has become both excessively utilized and extreme in its damage to soil functions, especially with the development of more powerful equipment. Many growers are now seeking to limit this damage by being much more careful and judicious in their use of tillage equipment. This is often referred to as reduced tillage. When systems are developed that require essentially no disturbance of the soil, no-till has been achieved.

In terms of soil health, it is best to reduce tillage as much as possible, but conditions may dictate the need for occasional tillage, as in the case of initial conversion of an area to vegetable growing, or to incorporate soil amendments thoroughly into severely depleted soils, or to control particularly noxious perennial weeds. For purposes of my book No-Till Intensive Vegetable Culture, no-till means that tillage is not utilized for seedbed preparation. However, soils may still be slightly disturbed at some times, such as when opening a furrow to set transplants in, hoeing to cut weed roots, or harvesting root vegetables.

Vegetables growing in no-till garden.
An example of a no-till growing system.

Pros and Cons of Tillage

Tillage, though inherently detrimental, can also provide some benefits to the vegetable grower. The natural state of agriculturally suitable land is a cover of perennial vegetation such as grasses, shrubs, and trees. Tillage is the traditional method to convert such land to vegetable production. Most vegetables are fast-growing annuals, and annual plants are nature’s response to disturbance.

Thus vegetables, to some degree, are a reasonable plant to cover a tilled soil. Tilling not only quickly converts land out of its natural perennial growth but also creates a surface that is appropriate for seeding or planting. Tillage destroys weeds and mixes fertilizers and organic materials into the soil profile and can break up plow pans and surface crusts. Thus tillage may have beneficial results in terms of air and water movement, soil temperature, and residue decay. The need for many of these improvements, however, may actually arise from inappropriate past tillage events. To some degree tillage may lead to conditions where more tillage is needed, a sort of tillage treadmill effect.

For growers to best utilize tillage for potential benefits and avoid perpetuating the need for tillage, they must first identify a clear purpose for tilling and understand the damage that tillage events may cause. This provides the best chance that they will achieve their goal and inflict the least possible damage. Though nature is forgiving, over time repeated disturbance by tillage can wear down a soil’s ability to effectively recover. The deterioration of soil structure leading to soil crusting and subsurface plow pans, increased erosion of soil, destruction of soil life, and the dramatic impact on the soil temperature and imbalance of soil air:water biology and nutrients are just a short list of the detrimental impacts of tillage. The ramifications of these conditions on crop health can be extensive. Weeds respond to the disturbance with rampant growth. Damage and imbalance to the soil biology lead to nutrient imbalances that if unmanaged by growers quickly lead to disease and insect assault as well as poor growth with all manner of production difficulties, leading to lack of profitability. Fortunately, there is a better way.

The transition from tillage systems to reduced tillage and finally to no-till is often gradual. As well, no-till may not be a permanent field condition, and some form of tillage may be reintroduced in order to achieve a specific goal such as eliminating an infestation of aggressive perennial weeds, with an eventual return to no-till when that goal is achieved.

Growers whose systems presently incorporate tillage may need to approach the conversion to reduced and no-tillage carefully, because it may take time to learn the intricacies of a new system. Experimentation with various methods on smaller areas as opposed to going cold turkey with tillage may well be more financially stable.

Below is a brief overview of field conversion methods and choices of tillage equipment, but these techniques and equipment are presented primarily as the means to achieve an eventual no-till system.

Clearing Woody Growth

Clearing existing perennial vegetation is an essential first step in preparing a field for annual vegetable production of any sort. This may be as simple as plowing in a sod, but in many regions, sod is mixed with scrub and tree regrowth. Some growers even face the daunting task of converting forest to cropland. When clearing trees and other woody vegetation, the general formula is chainsaw, remove the firewood, and haul off the tops and brush. Piled brush can be crushed with a tractor after a few years; this process greatly enhances the soil underneath. A heavy-duty mower serves well to reduce any residual vegetation after the clearing. If there is time to spare before the area must be brought into production, it’s beneficial to then seed a cover crop of a perennial nature and mow it for a period of time; this allows stumps to begin to decay. A partially decayed stump pulls out with much less disturbance and more ease than a fresh-cut live stump.

Destumping can be very disturbing to the soil profile, so it is best to approach it as carefully as possible. Backhoes, excavators, tractors and chain, or ax and mattock can be used to remove stumps. Moldboard plowing of root-ridden, stumpy soil is very difficult. In fields with only small stumps, we have had success with not destumping upon clearing. Instead we used a combination of chisel plow and disk harrow to fit the field for vegetable crop seeding for a few years. Over time, the chisel plowing acted to pull out the roots and stumps. Of course there’s the stones and boulders that needed to be removed, too . . .

When land is being converted to field for vegetable production, it is also the opportune time to address any major drainage projects. Before beginning the conversion process, it’s ideal to observe the general water condition of a future growing area over a period of time—the longer the better, because groundwater characteristics can change dramatically over the course of a year. Drainage characteristics of a soil do improve in tandem with the general soil improvement, such as soil aggregation that the grower will facilitate. With careful observations, though, it often becomes obvious that a soil will need additional drainage efforts—for instance, soils in areas with seasonal high water tables. Drainage can be in the form of surface ditches or swales around the field area or subsurface drainage via stone-filled French drains or perforated pipe buried with stone. All drainage channels must discharge outside the field area, of course. When a backhoe or excavator is in the field digging drainage ditches, it is a prime time for a little careful destumping and boulder removal as well, if needed.

Tillage Tools and Techniques

Tillage tools range from plows and harrows down to hand shovels. Some are meant to work the soil very deeply, others to work only the surface. Tools that work the soil below a depth of about 10 inches (25 cm) are often called subsoiling tools. Tools for working the soil from a depth of a few inches to about 10 inches are primary tillage tools. Tools that penetrate the surface only a few inches are the secondary tillage tools. A traditional tillage routine is subsoiling and primary tillage in the fall if necessary, followed by spring secondary tillage. This allows the soil to recover its structure and biology to some degree through the winter months, with only surface disturbance occurring during spring seedbed preparation. Regardless of time of year, tillage is best done when soils are relatively dry; this lessens compaction and soil structure deterioration in comparison with working wet soil. It is often said that when tilling, seeing a little dust flying off the soil surface is a desirable sign. This is especially the case with subsoiling and primary tillage and thus an additional reason to take advantage of any fall dry periods for primary tillage. Spring may not offer any such conditions in a timely manner.

Bryan O’Hara has been growing vegetables for a livelihood since 1990 at Tobacco Road Farm in Lebanon, Connecticut. He works with natural systems to build complex and balanced soil life, resulting in a highly productive, vibrant growing system. Bryan was named NOFA’s Farmer of the Year in 2016. He is the author of No-Till Intensive Vegetable Culture (Chelsea Green Publishing, February 2020)

Improve Your Post-Harvest Fertilization Program Results with Modern Biological Applications

The time after we harvest our fruit trees, row crops or vegetables is often when soil is most disturbed, due to the use of heavy machinery, or in the case of root crops, due to large-scale physical soil disturbance. In recent decades, convention has taught us to use a defensive approach with our field management, including spraying herbicides and tilling heavily. In this white paper, we explore proven ways farmers inside the industry are rebuilding soil health after harvest to ensure:

  • there is no net loss of vital nutrients for next year’s crop;
  • micronutrients are available in the right balance;
  • weeds are not allowed to dominate;
  • yield potential expands for all crops; and
  • your system is building yields and soil health congruently.

Download this white paper from our partners, Pacific Gro, and learn all this and more.  Download it here.