Jesse Frost Wants to Help Produce Farmers Stop Tilling Their Soil

Jesse Frost and his wife Hannah Crabtree have been farming together since 2011, when they met working as apprentices on a small organic farm in southern Kentucky. Eventually, they started their own small market garden operation nearby, Rough Draft Farm, where they started experimenting with cutting down on tillage a few years later. By 2017, they had gone completely no-till.

Today, the couple grows an impressive array of year-round vegetables on three-quarters of an acre using an intercropping system that utilizes four types of compost and several types of mulch while leaving the soil as intact as possible.

Now, Frost, who also hosts the No-Till Market Garden Podcast, has written a book about the science and practice of reducing tillage on small- and medium-scale produce operations. Crabtree provided illustrations. The Living Soil Handbook: The No-Till Growers Guide to Ecological Market Gardening, released this month, dives deep into the how, the why, and the philosophy behind their farm. In the introduction, he writes:

Confession: I have never actually grown anything in my life . . . In the 11 years I have been farming, all I can claim credit for is making the conditions right (and sometimes, admittedly, very wrong) for food and flowers to grow . . . . My job—indeed, the job of any grower—is not to grow food but rather to facilitate that growth. Something else entirely does the growing. That “something” is a complex community of living organisms—both macro and micro—that work in conjunction with air, water, sunlight, carbon, and nutrients to grow plants. Humans aren’t the creators here. I repeat: We simply make the conditions right for crops to grow and make food—this is the literal definition of cultivation.

At the core of their approach, adds Frost, are three principles: Disturb the soil as little as possible, keep it covered as much as possible, and keep it planted as much as possible.

We spoke with Frost, who has also contributed to Civil Eats in the past, about the book and the work it documents from the farm in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky.

One of the incentives in transitioning your own farm to no-till was the hope that it would cut down on labor. Has it actually turned out to be the case?

Yes, there are actually a couple different ways but one of them is cultivation. Weeds can swallow your crops, fight with your crops for moisture and nutrients, and also possibly add diseases. So, you have to constantly cultivate to keep those weeds down after every rain. And since we’re in a very rainy climate, weeding season lasts from April all the way through October. So, it’s a very long season of dealing with grasses and various other competitors. But once we started investing in mulches that work, we noticed a massive reduction in our labor. Our weeks used to be, primarily, cultivation. Now, they’re primarily harvesting and planting and doing very little cultivation.

Most no-till farmers are farming at much larger-scale than you are. They tend to grow commodity crops like corn and soybeans and it’s often done in concert with herbicide use, as well as other practices such as planting cover crops. Why did you invest in and fine-tune this very technical approach for such a small operation?

In addition to the labor reduction, we do it for the biodiversity, and to help increase photosynthetic activity. Photosynthesis is important for cooling our planet, for giving us oxygen to breathe, and for sequestering carbon and maximizing that effort is really important.

There’s the larger scale no-till, which on the organic side is a lot of cover cropping and roller crimping. And then there’s the really small-scale backyard approach. I hope with the book and the podcast, we can bring out some ideas for that middle ground—people [growing food] on acreage ranging  from an eighth of an acre up to 10 or even 20 acres. Managing soil is a way to help sequester carbon but it’s also a way to hold moisture, which is really important. Drought isn’t a problem in Kentucky, but I know much of the world increasingly suffers from lack of moisture. We need growing methods that retain moisture and part of that is growing our soil organic matter. When you till [the soil] you puts a lot of that organic matter on the surface, and it burns up. And even on a small scale, if you’re doing that multiple times a year, you’re losing a lot of moisture, you’re losing a lot of carbon dioxide, and you may be losing a lot of soil. Topsoil is really an extraordinary habitat for microorganisms needed for sequestering carbon for all of the things that we need. But if we don’t use it, we lose it. It blows away or it washes away in heavy rainfalls.

How much food do you produce and sell on that three-quarters of an acre?

We recently moved to a new piece of land, so our current farm is only six months old. But we’re grossing about $60,000 to $70,000 and we’re not growing super high-profit microgreens. This is almost exclusively soil-grown crops using these production methods. We have one full-time employee and myself and then my wife works part-time. We feel really good about those numbers and being able to flip sod into production that quickly has been very hard, but it has also been very rewarding to see a lot of the ideas take root in a totally different situation.

And like many writers, I’ve always wanted to write a book, but the rigor of farming often eliminated any chance of “free time.” With these ecological growing methods, I was not only able to manage my farm business and enjoy my family life, but host a podcast and write a book at the same time.

You’ve taken it upon yourself to translate quite a lot of science for your reader. Do you have a scientific background?

I don’t, but I’ve always loved science. And I’ve always been really interested in fact that there is a significant gap—especially in agronomy—between the people who can benefit from the research and the researchers. If you look at medical research, it’s written in a way that doctors can understand. It’s the same with astronomy, chemistry, and many other fields. But research in agronomy and horticulture often doesn’t make it to the farmer. I think that’s a really unfortunate reality and it has encouraged me to dive in and see if I can do a little bit of the science communication work to help people understand. Because there’s just an enormous amount of brilliant information hidden in the gobbledygook that is scientific jargon and research on agronomy and horticulture often just gets passed back and forth between researchers and agronomists and horticulturalists and ecologist. There’s great growing information out there! There are hundred-page papers on, says, vermiculture foliar sprays, but you have to seek them out and do a lot of work to understand them. So, I’m hoping to provide a bit of a bridge with this book.

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