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Digging into regenerative farming in the Berkshires

The practice is the focus of the documentary "Common Ground" screening in Lenox on March 22.

Visitors to The Farm at April Hill in South Egremont don’t hear the loud whirr of tractors or machinery. About an acre in size, April Hill is a hand-scale farm, meaning its crew doesn’t use any mechanized equipment—hand tools only so the soil structure remains intact and healthy, as Farm Director Sarah Monteiro explained.

The practice is the subject of “Common Ground,” a documentary selected by the Berkshire International Film Festival as part of its year-round Environmental Film Focus series that will show at 7 p.m. on March 22 at Lenox Town Hall, 6 Walker Street. Lenox-based Roaring Brook Family Foundation is sponsoring the 90-minute film that features big-name stars including Rosario Dawson, Laura Dern, Donald Glover, Woody Harrelson, Jason Momoa, and Ian Somerhalder. It is an award-winning sequel to “Kiss the Ground,” a documentary from the same producers, Josh and Rebecca Tickell.

In its seventh year, the series chose “Common Ground” for its focus on regenerative agricultural practices, efforts to improve the health of the soil housing the country’s crops, reduce erosion, and implement carbon sequestration (the act of removing carbon from the atmosphere and storing it in an attempt to reduce greenhouse gases), said Lillian Lennox, international programmer for BIFF and member of the Roaring Brook Family Foundation’s Board of Trustees. “Regenerative farming practices stand in opposition to industrial farming,” she said.

Industrial farming involves the use of chemical fertilizers, laboratory genetic modification, and monocropping (growing the same crop year after year on the same land), with the latter exhausting the soil, turning it into “a dustbowl,” Lennox said.

“Regenerative agriculture is a response to that, to keep the soil incredibly healthy, and this [practice] is very deeply explored in ‘Common Ground,’” she said. “It’s an important story. We need to keep telling this story.”

Regenerative farming: What’s in a name?

Monteiro, who will be a panelist discussing farming practices at the conclusion of the Lenox screening of “Common Ground,” has spent 20 years farming. She objects to using the term “regenerative” to describe April Hill’s process, a word popularized in the last five to seven years. “There’s not a clear definition yet of what ‘regenerative’ means,” Monteiro said.

The Farm at April Hill in South Egremont sits on a 100-plus acre property owned by Greenagers, with its novice teen farmers able to use the hand tools with ease, requiring no extensive training. The farm grows annual vegetables, fruits, flowers, and herbs while the tract includes youth education and trades program facilities, trails, a community firewood bank, and sawmill for lumber to construct community garden beds. Photo by Leslee Bassman.

April Hill sits on a 100-plus-acre property owned by Greenagers, with its novice teen farmers able to use the hand tools with ease, requiring no extensive training. The farm grows annual vegetables, fruits, flowers, and herbs, while the tract includes youth education and trades program facilities, trails, a community firewood bank, and sawmill for lumber to construct community garden beds.

Hand tools are used in the crop growing process at The Farm at April Hill. Photo by Leslee Bassman.

Although many of April Hill’s practices would fall under the term “regenerative,” Monteiro said the nomenclature is sometimes used too broadly, as “organic” is often misused. “There’s more behind those terms,” she said. “There are some farms that call themselves ‘regenerative’ that still use a ton of pesticides or herbicides but don’t till their soils. There’s just not a clear definition.”

Berkshire Grown Food Access and Communications Coordinator Martha Suquet works with many farmers who produce varying types of crops at different scales and land arrangements. The organization supports Berkshire County farmers through direct technical assistance, workshops, a winter farmers market, food access programs, and advocacy. “I look at it as a bit of a spectrum,” Suquet said of local regenerative practices. “There are some farms that have as a goal that all of their practices are trying to be regenerative, and there are other farms that are incorporating practices and working toward incorporating more practices.”

Jim Schultz, co-farmer at Lanesborough’s Red Shirt Farm, owns 10 acres and leases another three acres to farm. Together with partner Sarah French, he uses farming methods that produce two or three rounds of crops from each bed during the growing season, with the farm’s vegetables consuming only two acres. The product of Schultz’s 13 total acres feeds 150 families in Red Shirt’s Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program, supports two farmers’ markets, and supplies commodities to restaurants. Schultz credits the large amount of food produced to “the regenerative techniques we are using,” including a “no-till” process, meaning the soil isn’t turned, plowed, or cultivated as with conventional farming and using compost and mulch as cover. Schultz calls those conventional methods “invasive,” with the goal for his farm’s environment being “to mimic nature.”

Although Red Shirt isn’t certified as “organic,” the farm’s soil is void of chemicals and pesticides, expensive additives he said damage the system a farmer depends on for soil health, with the harm extending to the earthworms, flora, and fauna that lie beneath, supplying nutrients to crops. “Our goal is to nourish our community and to feed people the best possible food for as long as possible,” Schultz said.

To Schultz, intentional grazing—bringing animals back onto the growing soil—works. He said he has seen the regenerative practice increase fertility and improve soil structure even though logic indicates an opposite result by risking a trampling of the soil. At Red Shirt, he employs chickens, turkeys, and pigs for this purpose. “Regenerative principles are to have as much diversity [in crops] as possible, keep the soil covered at all times, reintroduce animals into the system, and minimize soil disturbance,” Schultz said.

However, regenerative farming has become the new “greenwashing,” he said, implying the vagueness of the term’s definition, similar to when the label “organic” was rolled out, with that term applying to hydroponics that use fluids with chemicals as well as a no-pesticide bed. “That’s the downside to regenerative, as a word and as a concept, that there’s no standard for it,” Schultz said.

The Regenerative Organic Alliance and its ally, The Rodale Institute, are working on a “Regenerative Organic Certified” label that validates and classifies the quality of the organic crop soil.

While most people can’t tell what “organic” means other than “it’s better” or “it’s more expensive,” adding the term “‘regenerative’ to the list of natural-type labels just makes the waters murkier,” Schultz said. “Because of the buzz that it’s getting, everyone says they’re ‘regenerative,’”

Roots Rising Farm Manager Lauren Piotrowski, who will join Monteiro as a “Common Ground” discussion panelist, spent years in agriculture and farming throughout the Bay State. Now a crew member at the Pittsfield nonprofit that aims to empower local youth and communities through food and farming, she is helping build its new farm on Barker Road, a food resource for the community and work site for teens and young adults.

As with others in the farming field, regenerative farming “means something different to everybody,” Piotrowski said. She began farming to “partner with the Earth to make a meaningful impact on the climate crisis and to do something useful for [her] community.” As Piotrowski learned more about the process, she said she began to view a farm as “an ecosystem in which farmer’s choices play a guiding role,” with the farmer never in control of nature but in partnership with the surroundings.

For Piotrowski, in practical terms, regenerative farming depends on the farmer. “To me, it means being in a reciprocal relationship with the Earth, with the land, with the native flora and fauna, and taking into consideration the wellbeing of every element of my farm, from the microorganisms living in my soil to the coyote walking across the pasture to the staff weeding in the hot sun in August to the customers [and] the vegetables they will be eating with their family,” she said.

Taking that mantra to heart, Piotrowski said the need for even organic herbicides or pesticides in her farm is severely diminished. “When it comes to the chance of making a choice to use those, I’ve often walked away from using even organic products because they would upset the balance of everybody else living in my garden,” she said. For example, Piotrowski uses leaf mulch made from leaves to protect her farm’s soil and retain moisture, sourcing what many individuals rake up and discard or burn. She said other alternatives would likely harm the garden frogs, “a signal from the planet that we are providing a vibrant ecosystem.”

“Even though, perhaps using those products would increase my yield, I don’t want to harm those frogs, so I choose not to,” Piotrowski said. “So, to me, that’s what regenerative farming is.”

Relying on the cycle of nature to keep predators out, she said she had an abundance of groundhogs and voles in her garden for some time, consuming the growing plants. One summer, those critters were few, and Piotrowski noticed more coyote scat, or droppings, in the garden. “Making choices to encourage predators, not always keeping them out, seems to have had a positive impact on my groundhog and vole problem,” she said.

For Schultz, the future of farming means incorporating true regenerative practices and getting away from chemical use. “Why, as a farmer, would you grow food that, one, you wouldn’t eat yourself, or two, is going to poison essentially the people that you are feeding it to?” he asked. “Our mission is to nourish our community and to educate the people that we feed through what we do.”

Sustainability and the bottom line

Funded by grants as a nonprofit entity and in an effort to avoid competing with the area’s smaller farms, Monteiro said April Hill doesn’t sell its agriculture to the public but distributes most of its produce through groups that assist food-insecure communities in Berkshire County and to crew members who take a share.

The Farm at April Hill’s Farm Director Sarah Monteiro shows off the one-acre plot that is farmed using regenerative methods. Photo by Leslee Bassman.

April Hill isn’t unique in its small, hand-scale practices in the Berkshires, she said, with other similar-style farms active from Berkshire County to the Pioneer Valley. But Monteiro admits there are challenges to the regenerative style. “If you’re trying to farm five acres, 10 acres, 20 acres, it’s pretty tricky to do by hand,” she said. “One acre is manageable by hand. We’re a nonprofit whose main purpose is to pay youth to work with us. That is not the main purpose of many farms. We are not a production farm; that’s really different. We still produce a lot of food that’s really great, but it’s a different driving force behind the farm.”

Monteiro said there is a reason farmers use mechanized methods: It warrants less labor and “you can do a lot more with less.” “Do I think not tilling is better for the Earth? Absolutely,” she said. “Do I understand why some farmers who are trying to produce food in order to make a living are using a tractor? I do understand that.”

With the cost of labor, food prices, and accessibility, the issue is multi-layered, Monteiro explained. “There are people in Berkshire County who are in enough of a position of privilege to be able to choose where they buy their food from, to be able to choose what farms they are supporting, who have time to make food,” she said. “For those of us in that position, give some thought to where our food comes from and give some thought to these labels. More than ‘regenerative’ or ‘organic’ is who are your local farms. You need to know your community, and I think that is more important than the specific label of the farm practice.”

Although Schultz agrees that regenerative farming is more labor intensive, he has found a hidden benefit. “When Roots Rising comes here, the kids who have never farmed before, the most common [phrases] they use to describe their experiences is ‘This is so satisfying,’” he said. “It’s authentic. You are out in nature. You are out in the sunshine. You’re working with people. You’re working with your hands, and there’s no better work.”

Suquet said some regenerative farmers have found creative and clever ways to deal with challenges presented by climate change: installing climate battery greenhouses to extend their growing season without fossil fuels, practicing different degrees of not tilling their crops, and applying rotational grazing with livestock to regenerate their pastures.

Sometimes, a farmer’s goals of sustainability and good ecological practices conflict with the business’s bottom line, Suquet said. “In those cases, I think that is a balance farmers have to address in every decision that they make,” Suquet said, adding the purpose of Berkshire Grown is to support farmers. She distinguished between farmers implementing strategies on land they own as opposed to farmers who lease their land, with the former having more leeway in their practices when adding infrastructure or a “no-till” effort over several seasons. “There’s a lot of farmers that don’t have permanent land tenure, that don’t own their farmland,” she said.

Elizabeth Weeks is the produce manager at the New Lebanon Farmers Market and Grocery, open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day of the week. The store pulls its products from local farms situated as close to the market as possible, going further out geographically as needed. “Our environment positively impacts our health,” said Weeks, who is also a registered nurse. “The more local you can purchase things, then there’s not a carbon footprint in the movement of those items from Mexico or Peru or California.”

When stocking the grocery’s shelves, she said her team first looks at the proximity of the farm or product to the store or community. Next, they factor in how the item is produced. Finally, price is considered. “We want it to be sustainable for our community, but we also need to make sure our organization is financially healthy as well,” Weeks said.

She questioned whether “regenerative” is a classification of farming or a movement. “When I’m thinking about regenerative agriculture, we make a commitment to purchase the bulk of our local produce from three local farms that we know are committed to limiting heavy machinery, fertilizers, and pesticides,” Weeks said of Abode Farm, New Leaf Farm, and Gentle Time Farm. The group also purchases from a cluster of smaller, local farms, making those products available to the community, she said.

Piotrowski said all of Roots Rising’s partner farms implement some element of a regenerative process. “A large part of where I feel like we are at right now with the climate crisis stems from a lack of personal connection with the natural world and a lack of a relationship of true reciprocity—that we can’t just take an act without understanding that our actions and what we take have real consequences,” she said.

Piotrowski acknowledges the ease of using chemicals to kill the living organisms that threaten crops. She explained that cheap food has “a high cost but not a high money cost,” referring to the toll industrial farming practices have on the planet’s welfare and low wages paid to some laborers. “Regenerative solutions aren’t fast; sometimes they take many years to see the effects, and they take patience,” Piotrowski said.

According to Schultz, some farmers might say the call for them to transition from chemical to regenerative farming is idealistic, but the farmers he has spoken with who switched are happy. “I do think that the way forward is by every community having a number of small farms, keeping food local, minimizing distribution costs [and] the carbon miles that come with our food system, and having more farms farming this [regenerative] way,” Schultz said.

Regenerative farming and indigenous land practices

Regenerative farming honors those methods used by the original land stewards in the area, including the Stockbridge-Munsee Community Band of Mohicans. “It brings to light the history of Indigenous farming practices,” Lennox said.

Monteiro said the term “regenerative” is “super white-centered,” tending to overlook and dismiss many original Indigenous agricultural and Black cultural farming practices—mindful farming methods of not harming the ground, growing crops close to each other, and eradicating erosion. She said that farmers who are not Black, Indigenous, or people of color, or non-BIPOC, commercialize the label without giving credit to those original practices “or even inviting those people into the conversation.”

For Monteiro, the term represents an effort to combat the Earth’s foes—including climate catastrophe—and the excitement surrounding “the possibility of having practices that benefit the Earth, practices that can help us.” “But in that excitement, there is the absence of the social justice lens,” she said.

Monteiro hasn’t seen “Common Ground,” but said she is “curious” to see the documentary, including how it addresses this narrative.

Although a crew member of Soul Fire Farm in Petersburg, N.Y. couldn’t meet with The Berkshire Edge for an interview prior to publishing, Director of Operations Hillary Gaeta provided materials about the venue in an email, including its mission as an Afro-Indigenous nonprofit community farm seeking to combat historic systemic racism in farm ownership and operations. It is a member of the Northeast Farmers of Color Land Trust, a group formed in 2017 by Soul Fire team members and other northeastern BIPOC farmers to rematriate, or restore their relationship as original land stewards.

Soul Fire was created by Leah and Jonah Penniman, a Black-Jewish family in Albany, as a solution to their search for fresh food to put on the table. They found the answer on 80 acres of Mohican land in Grafton, N.Y. From its initial small family farm in 2010 that incorporated a vegetable- and egg-delivery program for low-income residents, Soul Fire emerged as a farm-fresh distribution system serving more than 2,500 food insecure neighbors, its materials state.

The methods that Soul Fire’s 17 employees and additional volunteers implore to grow the farm’s foods include the ancestral Afro Indigenous practices that regenerate the land.

The farm also provides training to more than 16,000 individuals in an effort to increase the numbers of landowning farmers of color. According to Soul Fire, Black farmers currently operate around 1.2 percent of U.S. farms, a decline from 14 percent in 1920. Three percent of the nation’s farms are owned and operated by individuals identifying as Latino, Latina, or Latinx, despite 78 percent of those working the land being Latino, Latina, or Latinx migrant workers.

In response, Soul Fire “work[s] to reverse the dangerously low percentage of farms being owned and operated by people of color and increase the leadership of people of color in the food justice movement,” a push to ensure equitable access to healthy, nutritious food for all. “Soul Fire Farm is ahead of the curve in regenerative farming practices,” Lennox said of the farming community. “They’re doing an incredible job.”

Tickets to the showing of “Common Ground” at 7 p.m. on March 22 at Lenox Town Hall can be purchased here.

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