Jody Bolluyt and Jean-Paul Courtens of Roxbury Farm operate a 400 acre integrated family farm in the North Hudson Valley, NY. Each year they grow 30 acres of vegetables and 30 acres of cover crops and practice rotational grazing with their livestock. Through skilled management they have doubled the organic matter in the soil and minimized the use of off-farm inputs by growing their own fertility. Jean-Paul is optimistic about our future in the face of climate change. The changes observed on their own land due to their thoughtful production practices are evidence that “the soil is going to save us.” Read the full transcript below.
Jean-Paul Courtens, Roxbury Farm, New York
Vegetable crop production, organically – the way that we’ve been doing it, is not sustainable. This is not working. It’s all nice and well, it’s better than using chemicals, and it’s a good alternative, but in the context of global warming, in the context of where we are as a planet, we have to do things radically different.
Integrated Family Farms Thrive On Diversity
I’m Jean-Paul Courtens. I’m one of the farmers here at Roxbury Farm in Kinderhook New York. Roxbury Farm is an integrated family farm. We grow vegetables, but we also have livestock. We raise beef, pork, and lamb on our farm.
And most of it goes to a community supported group in New York City and in Westchester County, also here in Columbia County, and in the capital district.
This farm was all in potatoes for 40 years. The land had very high weed populations, very low organic matter, and very low pH. We had a lot of work to do to bring this soil back to life again.
Learning How To Farm While Protecting the Soil
All the techniques that I learned in Holland, when I came to the US – I actually had to start all over again. We have severe weather here, which we don’t have in Holland. We have very cold winters here and very hot summers. There, they moldboard plow in the fall and leave their ground open all winter long. There it is not an issue; it’s flat. You don’t do that here!
I haven’t used the moldboard plow for 30 years. I mean, it’s something that, we just don’t invert the soil. We don’t turn the soil over. It just doesn’t happen.
When we came here, we went out with a soil penetrometer, which is a tool that you test where the compaction of the soil is. And we went seven inches down and it was rock hard. So then we had to use the subsoiler to break that. And so now we, once in awhile, need a subsoiler to break up a plow pan or something that is compacted deeper down.
But generally all we do is what we call vertical tillage where a tine goes into the soil and basically works the soil loose. But the idea is that you go shallower and shallower and shallower, so as not bring up new weeds. That’s the idea.
Rotating Crops and Growing Soil Fertility
The rotations are generally 50/50, whereby we take half of our land at any given time out of production.
If we grow vegetables every year, we learned that we are depleting the soil. And we cannot offset that by inputs of compost, especially not animal-based compost.
Our animal-based compost comes from our own cowherd. And then what we are short, what doesn’t come from cows comes from composted poultry manure, which is very high in phosphorus.
And so we’re very concerned about using that as an input because we don’t want too much phosphorus (which can cause damage in local waterways), but we do want to offset all the organic matter losses that we have in our field from the vegetable cultivation. And also, the incredible exports of minerals from our fields, minerals which leave the property when we harvest and export our vegetables off the farm.
We like to minimize our inputs on this farm as much as we can. Nitrogen is an important input with vegetables. And we like to get at least half of our nitrogen needs out of our green manure crops.
Integrated Farming, Cover Crops and Rising Soil Organic Matter
We’re quite tickled to see the organic matter go up from one 1.2% – 1.4% to 2% – 2.4% over 15 years and to most people that doesn’t sound like a lot, but it’s actually a lot. We doubled the organic matter with just the green manure crops.
Right behind me here, you’re looking at a mix of sorghum, crotalaria, which is also called sun hemp, sunflowers and cowpeas. Normally we let this crop just grow until the frost and then we chop it, then we leave it over the winter.
We can then no-till drill forage peas and that is then followed by cabbage and broccoli and cauliflower. And that’s one of the ways in which we rotate our crops. We’ve gotten more involved in rolling and crimping whereby we take a cover crop, rye or triticale and vetch and we roll the crop and plant directly into that.
We don’t want to see any erosion on our farm. That’s our hope. And the only way we can accomplish that is by keeping the soil covered at all times.
In the past, we made straw and deposited the straw in between the plastic and actually we’re now more interested in using a hay crop and putting it directly from the field into vegetables as mulch.
Regenerative Farming Can Reverse Climate Change
For me, the real challenge is to come up with some answers about how we can farm differently. That’s why I love collaborating with researchers – collaborating with other like-minded people.
There’s no way we can ever replace what the soil does for us. In the end, we come from soil and we become soil. This is the living medium that makes us.
We are nature. I don’t think that has really sunk in yet to most people that if we continue to separate ourselves from it, it’s going to make this place uninhabitable for all of us.
Agriculture has such an interface with the natural world. What better place to be than in a profession that interfaces with feeding people in the context of these incredibly big challenges that are ahead of us that have to do with global warming and climatic change. Some people say it’s already too late.
I am not like that, I continue to be an optimist. I think I have seen changes in land in three years – a turnaround of not seeing a single earth worm, to the soil thriving again and so I think it is possible, if you really put a tremendous effort in it. If you really put all your will behind it – it is possible to make a change.
I think we can do it. We’re going to have to find answers here if we want to be around here as a species. Plus the soil is so important in general, a healthy soil will be able to absorb rain. It will be able to absorb carbon. These things are not just about food. The soil is going to save us.