A closer look at revolutionary ideas that will shape the future of farming.
A no-tilled field near Brookings, South Dakota.
On a fine August day, I flew to New England in search of abundance, but all I saw initially was devastation.
I arrived 24 hours after the region had been pummeled by Hurricane Irene, and the land looked like it had been stomped on by giants—entire cornfields had been flattened, trees were broken at crazy angles, and ominous-looking debris gathered along roadsides and at stream crossings. Adding to the unsettling imagery was a bright blue sky overhead and heavy traffic on the highway as I drove north, suggesting that all was well and normal—except for the mysterious roving band of giants out there someplace.
I was on the road to visit Dorn Cox, a young farmer who lives and works on his family’s 250-acre organic farm, called Tuckaway, near Lee, New Hampshire. Dorn calls himself a “carbon farmer,” meaning he thinks about carbon in everything he does. Confronting agriculture’s addiction to hydrocarbons, for example, Tuckaway produces a significant amount of the energy it needs on-farm. Dorn does it with biodiesel—canola, specifically—which he and his family grow on only 10 percent of the farm’s land. This was big news, so I thought a visit would be worthwhile.
I had learned about Dorn from the Greenhorns, the nontraditional grassroots organization dedicated to recruiting and supporting a new generation of farmers. They do this via social media, videos, podcasts, art projects, and activism, of course, but they also engage in old-fashioned networking—including mixers, barn dances, and an on-farm singles event called “weed dating.”
The young farmers in the Greenhorns are nontraditional practitioners as well, in the sense that while their tomatoes, lettuce, broccoli, dairy products, and meat look the same as the produce from farms run by their parents’ generation, the methods by which they achieve their harvests and the goals that motivate their work are very different. It’s called “beyond organic,” and it includes new ideas about no-till seeding, cover cropping, animal power, bioenergy production, carbon sequestration, open-source networking, and entrepreneurial business models aimed at creating local food systems. If that weren’t enough, these young people are also defined by the substantial challenges they face, including the difficulty in finding affordable farmland, making a living in a world dominated by corporate agriculture, navigating a dense labyrinth of regulations, and adapting to the intensifying effects of climate change.
Such as roving bands of giants spawned by hurricanes.
Had the giants spared Tuckaway? Apparently they had, because when I met Dorn a few days later, he was standing in a hayfield behind a home belonging to a University of New Hampshire professor, spreading wood ash carefully among a grid of study plots. He gave me a wave as I parked the car, putting the ash can on the ground. Farmer-thin, wearing muddy jeans, a yellow shirt, and a floppy straw hat that shaded intense blue eyes, Dorn extended a hand and gave me an energetic grin. “Everything alright back at the farm?” I asked. He reassured me that all was well—lots of rain, but no damage. “What’s going on here?” I asked, nodding at the gridded plots, though I knew it was part of his PhD research. “Just trying to figure out the best way to turn a hayfield into a farm without tilling it,” he replied. “And create a food and energy system that puts more carbon into the soil than comes out.” Was the professor OK with this? I asked. He’s fine with it, Dorn reassured me. “There are a lot of these little fields behind people’s houses. With some work they could be growing a great deal of produce,” he said. “We just need to figure out a way to do it without using a plow.”
As we walked across his study plots, Dorn explained his thinking. Conventionally, a modern farm requires a tractor and a plow in order to turn over the soil and furrow the land in preparation for seeding and fertilizing. In contrast, a no-till approach means a farmer can plant the seed directly into the soil, usually with a mechanical drill pulled behind a tractor or a horse. A thin slice is made in the soil by the drill as it moves along, but nothing resembling a furrow. The soil is not turned over, and whatever is growing on the surface is largely left intact. In fact, many no-till farmers plant a cover crop in the fall so that the soil will be kept cool, moist, and protected from the elements as the cash crop emerges from the ground in the spring or early summer. Dorn pointed at the hayfield as an example, indicating that the cover crop here was grass. He wants to know under what no-till conditions the cash crop—grains in this case—will grow best.
All of this was unconventional thinking, to put it mildly.
As a practice, plowing goes back at least 5,000 years, evidenced by a famous hieroglyphic image of a plow on a wall in an ancient Egyptian temple. When agriculture first came into existence 10,000 years ago, the handheld hoe was the main means of cultivating the soil, along with a digging stick for planting seeds. Four thousand years later, everything changed when oxen were domesticated in Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley, spurring the invention of the plow. This combination of animal power and human ingenuity has had a profound impact on the planet, allowing, for example, the global population to zoom from less than 1 million people to over 7 billion today. Plowing was here to stay. As a technology, the plow has continued to be refined and adapted over the centuries in a textbook case of human creativity. As a science, however, plowing has had a rougher ride. Standing in the middle of his study plots, Dorn quoted the father of no-till agriculture, American agronomist and experimental farmer Edward Faulkner, who once said, “The truth is that nobody has ever exposed a scientific reason to till.”
In 1943, Faulkner attempted to rock the farming establishment with his book Plowman’s Folly, which challenged the orthodox view that the plow was as necessary to food production as breathing air is to life. He believed the exact opposite to be true. The plow, he argued from his experience, was an enemy of farmers. Loosening the soil by moldboard plow led to erosion, turning the soil over killed essential soil microbes by exposing them to heat and light, and the destruction of crop residues on the soil surface robbed plants of critical nutrients, organic matter, and shade. The answer, he insisted, was to toss the plow away. The response from the farming community was a deafening silence. Faulkner shouted into the void. He was considered mad by some and dismissed by the rest. Slowly, however, his radical idea took hold, especially as scientists backed up his observations with data on the alarming rates of soil erosion in farm fields. In the 1960s, his idea of no-till agriculture gained a foothold among a new generation of farmers focused on organic (nature-based) food production. By the 1980s it earned further support, as microbiologists explored the mysterious universe of life in the soil, quantifying Faulkner’s hunch about the damage done to microbes by plowing. Meanwhile, no-till rose in popularity among hard-nosed corn and soybean farmers in the Midwest as they discovered its cost advantages over conventional plowing. In the end, profits and protozoa proved that Faulkner wasn’t so mad after all.
Both profits and microbial soil life were very much on Dorn’s mind there in the hayfield behind the professor’s house, where he is attempting to combine his knowledge of organic farming with his training in high finance. I knew that Dorn had left Tuckaway after college for a job on Wall Street and then moved on to a private company in the high-tech sector. What I didn’t know was that, like a good businessman, Dorn is trying to increase the return on his investment in the hayfield—the investment in this case being carbon, in the form of wood ash. Over the decades, carbon had drained away from New Hampshire’s soils, largely as a result of plowing and erosion, and Dorn is trying to figure out what amounts are necessary, and in what proportion to other elements (such as nitrogen), to revitalize the soil’s fertility once again.
“The soil here is like a bank to which I’m making a deposit of carbon that will create a natural form of compound interest,” he explained. “Invest one seed, get 100 back, return the carbon residue to the soil, and invest seed once again next season, and get 120 back. This absolute return is the real discount rate, and the carbon the real collateral. Any economic returns achieved above the real biological rate of return are by definition extractive and, therefore, unearned.”
And it’s earned income that Dorn is after; he calls it the basis for real wealth.
The true costs of conventional agriculture, which must include a full accounting of fossil fuel extraction and pollution, Dorn said, far exceed the biological rate of return. These costs deplete bank accounts by removing their carbon deposits. No-till, in contrast, builds compound interest and creates real wealth because it builds life in the soil. Life creates life, and with it, abundance. And abundance is what Dorn is after ultimately, not simply for himself and his family, but for his community, his home state, and the nation as well.
In America, as in most nations, economic theory and practice is dominated by scarcity thinking, which is the belief that there’s not enough of something to go around. Oil is a classic example. As oil becomes scarcer and more difficult to extract from underground, it becomes more valuable, and thus more profitable to those who supply it—and more expensive to those who need it. This creates an important social impact to go along with the economic one. When a commodity becomes scarce, we as a society start thinking about it obsessively—Where is it? How do we get at it? Why does it cost so damn much?—instead of investigating more abundant alternatives, such as solar energy. Psychologically, scarcity thinking is fear-based; it compels us to do things like hoard, compete, fight—and act greedily, selfishly, and dishonestly. It creates winners and losers. In contrast, abundance thinking is the belief that there’s plenty for everyone. Soil is a classic example. There’s a lot of good, rich soil in the nation, Dorn pointed out. It could be doing so much more for us if we would only look at it through the lens of abundance, not scarcity.
This is by no means a new idea, Dorn explained. In the 1700s, a group of French economists who called themselves physiocrats (“government by nature”) argued that all wealth originates from the land, making farming the only truly productive enterprise. All other work was seen as extractive or transformational of the original value created by farmers. All agricultural products, they believed, circulated through an economy like blood through a body and were just as essential for well-being and long life. Physiocratic thought influenced Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and Adam Smith—whose seminal work, The Wealth of Nations, reads like an agrarian manifesto, Dorn said. However, physiocracy failed to take hold, mostly because the bounty of natural resources newly discovered in Asia, Africa, and the Americas appeared to be unlimited. Careful stewardship of the land took a distant backseat to rapid and dramatic resource exploitation, leading eventually to scarcity anxiety as supposedly bottomless wells of resources began to run dry.
It’s only now, Dorn believes, as we bump up against significant and unbending environmental limits, that the advantages of a physiocratic-style economy are becoming evident again. By employing the lens of abundance thinking, we can suddenly see the world as bountiful and hopeful. Take Dorn’s home.
Once upon a time, New Hampshire grew much of its own food. In the 1830s, Dorn said, two towns raised more sheep than are raised in all of New England today, and for many decades New Hampshire farmers grew thousands of acres of wheat, more than enough to feed its citizens. Unfortunately, shortsighted management created a legacy of overgrazing and overlogging in the state, resulting in depleted soils and eroded land—a story common throughout the region (and elsewhere). Over time, nearly all the grain and dairy farmers trickled away to greener pastures, and New Hampshire’s ability to feed and heat itself steadily declined. The collapse of the state’s industrial economy in the late-19th century led to a general exodus of population, a trend reversed only recently as high-tech companies, telecommuters, and wealthy second-home owners began to move in. Today, only 5 percent of New Hampshire is farmland, which means agriculture is essentially a cottage industry.
“New Hampshire is the ‘Live Free or Die’ state, known for the independent spirit of its citizens,” Dorn said. “But despite this heritage, it is now one of the most dependent states in the union, relying almost wholly on imported food and fuel.”
New Hampshire has a population of 1.3 million people. If only 13,000 of them (1 percent) became new farmers the state could feed itself, Dorn said. This is possible because New Hampshire has (1) lots of rain and snow, (2) good agricultural soils, (3) plenty of market potential, (4) a strong educational system, and (5) wealth—i.e., capital—which is necessary to invest in new food systems. In other words, the state has an abundance of possibility. What it lacks, he said, is knowledge and a willingness to change its ways of thinking. Over 40 percent of New Hampshire’s soils are rich enough to be producing food, and yet only a tiny fraction of the population is engaged in farming. It’s the same situation with fuel. The majority of homes in the state are heated with oil, Dorn told me, and yet two of the most common complaints he hears are about the high cost of oil and the low price for wood—in one of the most heavily forested states in the nation.
Scarcity in a land of plenty.
“It’s a cultural paradox,” said Dorn. “With lots of fertile soil, forests, water, and capable people, why can’t we make an independent, abundant living once more?”
This is a question Dorn asked himself 10 years ago when he returned to his family’s farm after a personal exodus that took him first to Wall Street and then into corporate work in Buenos Aires, Hong Kong, and other exotic locations around the planet. He left home thinking about scarcity and came back thinking about abundance—a voyage of discovery that says a lot about our times and Dorn’s generation.
Growing up, Dorn had heard repeatedly from friends and neighbors that farming was something to get away from, so after studying international agriculture and rural development at Cornell University, Dorn moved to New York City, where he worked in finance as a certified securities broker (in a suit and tie), in an office overlooking the Hudson River. The future of family farming was bleak for a young person, he thought. Profits, security, and personal growth were scarce, which is why the siren call of Wall Street was hard to resist. However, after 12 months the song turned sour, so Dorn quit his job, joined a technology company, and moved to Buenos Aires—where he began to think hard about renewable energy, a topic that had intrigued him from a young age. As he traveled for the software firm, burning lots of jet fuel, Dorn turned over in his mind the challenge of replacing fossil fuels with biologically renewable sources, such as the biofuels being developed in Brazil from its abundant sugarcane fields. Making the switch wasn’t simply about technology, Dorn suspected. It had more to do with how we thought, the way we looked at the world, the things we chose to see as valuable and what we chose to ignore as “uneconomic,” such as sunlight and soil. And the more he thought about all these things, the more Dorn wanted to go home. While on a hydrofoil on a business trip to Macau he wrote this note to himself: “I deeply miss my farm and my family.”
“It turned out that the farm had never stopped being part of me,” Dorn explained, “so I left the cities, met my wife, and returned to the land where four generations of my family now live and work.”
His exodus had come full circle.
Leaving the professor’s hayfield, I followed Dorn in my car down a leafy road near the university. We made a sharp turn onto a narrow lane, past a small sign posted on a tree that said simply Tuckaway Farm. Dorn’s parents, Charles and Laurel, bought the property in the 1970s as part of their generation’s back-to-the-land movement, with the radical goal of growing veggies, blueberries, and hay—radical because they were the first farmers in the area to go organic. The farm had been in agriculture for many decades, but it was on a downward slide as it lost soil fertility due to relentless plowing and annual applications of chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides. By going organic—that is, by ceasing every agricultural practice that ended with the killing suffix “-cide”—Dorn’s parents checked the downward trend in land health. Under their stewardship, the land was given a chance to recover and grow again as the microbial life in the soil bounced back. The land’s fertility stabilized and life was good. Dorn, however, had come back to the farm with new ideas, including a nascent theory of abundance that he wanted to try out. At heart was a guiding question: Could the fertility of the land be restored to what it was long ago using only regenerative, natural processes?
And a second one: Could New Hampshire also be restored so that it could feed itself again?
Dorn decided to test these questions by focusing first on energy. For decades, his parents had relied on fossil fuels to power their tractors and other equipment, but Dorn decided to convert as much of the farm’s energy use to biodiesel as possible. He knew that the process of producing biofuels could be scaled to a single farm, which meant that if he could find the right feedstock they would be able to bypass big parts of the petroleum supply chain. His first thought involved sunflowers, which Dorn had observed growing under similar conditions in Argentina. In 2002, after getting a “thumbs-up” from experts at the University of New Hampshire, sunflowers were planted at Tuckaway and an oil press was purchased. When the harvest came in, it produced 60 to 80 gallons of oil per acre, Dorn said, as well as a 30 percent protein meal as a by-product of the pressing, which could be used as feed for the animals. This was exciting news.
It also meant that small cracks in New Hampshire’s cultural paradox could potentially be widened into bigger ones.
After introductions to his family, Dorn and I walked a short distance down the road to what looked to me like a Coca-Cola truck. It was a Coca-Cola truck—a used one. As we reached it, Dorn pushed up a panel in a section, revealing not boxes of sodas, but a large container with various hoses coming and going. It was a part of the biodiesel production process, Dorn said as he pushed up other panels. Each big step in production had its own compartment, which not only made things tidy but meant the process could be easily replicated by other farmers (provided they had their own Coca-Cola truck). Even though making biodiesel involves what Dorn called “off-the-shelf technology,” it took some time and a lot of tinkering before Dorn and a few buddies, through a nonprofit called GreenStart, created a biodiesel prototype to their satisfaction. It can make 200 gallons of fuel in an afternoon, Dorn said, depending on the feedstock. And housed in a Coca-Cola truck, it can travel from farm to farm, to teach or make fuel. As for the sunflowers, Dorn eventually added canola, an oilseed plant developed in Canada from rapeseed, an ancient source of oil for food.
Dorn explained that there were other benefits to biodiesel besides its ability to be produced on the farm: It can be used in a conventional diesel engine very easily; it is cleaner burning than petroleum-based diesel; it’s a natural lubricant, which makes engine parts last longer; it doesn’t pose a threat to human health; it’s 100 percent biodegradable; it is safe to store, transport, and clean up; and, critically, it has a positive energy balance, meaning for every unit of energy used to make a gallon of biodiesel, as many as three units of energy are gained. This is important to Dorn because his goal for the entire farm is a net carbon energy balance—that is, the farm creates more energy (as output) than it consumes (as input). It’s the real wealth thing again: He’s earning interest from his investment, not depleting accounts. Creating a net energy balance is a tall order, of course, but Dorn thinks it is achievable—no, it must be achievable if we’re going to live sustainably on this planet for the long run.
Biodiesel isn’t the only path to this goal, Dorn said, which is why he led me next to the barn, instead of heading out to the fields. He wanted me to see the horses. Dorn’s sister and brother-in-law share his concern about energy and sustainability, but they don’t like anything that puffs diesel smoke, whether bio-based or not. That’s why they turned to a power source nearly as old as agriculture: draft horses. In fact, they’ve become just as passionate about old-fashioned horse power as Dorn is about biodiesel, and their respective passions sometimes become spirited debates at the supper table. It’s all good, Dorn said with a smile: same goal, different methods. Unfortunately, the horses weren’t in the barn. Apparently, the team was out working on the farm someplace, likely under the stewardship of Dorn’s dad, who, Dorn said, has become smitten with the powerful animals. I ask Dorn how his parents feel about all these newfangled ideas and practices that their children have brought back to the farm. “They’re intrigued,” he said, with a smile that suggested he and his sister aren’t the only ones engaged in spirited debates over supper.
On the walk to the farm field, Dorn said Tuckaway is a member of a CSA program and recently added biodiesel to its diverse produce, which includes grains, berries, hay, timber, firewood, maple syrup, meat, and vegetables. For the first two seasons he grew the biodiesel-destined sunflowers the old-fashioned way—with a plow. It wasn’t until he analyzed the energy costs associated with dragging a heavy iron plow across New Hampshire’s rocky soil that he realized the costs of tilling were too high from an energy balance perspective. Dorn decided to look around for an alternative. He knew about no-till farming, but he also knew that one of its disadvantages was its lack of weed control. To check weeds in a no-till system, many farmers apply synthetic herbicides to their fields. They’ll also spray pesticides to keep the bugs in check. Additionally, many conventional no-till farmers will use genetically modified seeds, often in combination with chemical herbicides. All of this is verboten in an organic farming system, of course. As a certified organic farm, Tuckaway found itself between a rock and a hard plow, so to speak.
Fortunately, Dorn discovered an answer to his dilemma at the Rodale Institute, located north of Philadelphia. Named for J. I. Rodale, the founder of organic agriculture in America, the institute has been a leader in research and education in organic farming systems since 1948. That’s the year when Rodale penned his famous equation: Healthy Soil = Healthy Food = Healthy People. This declaration might seem clichéd now, but in its day it was as radical as Edward Faulkner’s demand that we ditch the plow and was received by farmers just as enthusiastically. The chemical fertilizer, pesticide, and insecticide industry was about to take off in 1948—transforming our soil, food, and health in very profound ways—and it steadfastly refused to hear Rodale’s message. So, Rodale did the only sensible things open to him at the time: start a publishing business, found a research institute, and wait. Sooner or later, he surmised correctly, organic farming would catch on.
What Dorn discovered at Rodale was a way to do organic no-till agriculture. The practice was developed by Jeff Moyer, the institute’s longtime farm director, who came up with an innovative way to combine the two farming systems. It began as many good ideas do—by accident. One day, Moyer noticed that as he drove in and out of a farm field on his tractor, the wheels had crushed and killed a plant called hairy vetch, which grew along the field’s edges. Vetch is a winter-tolerant, nitrogen-fixing legume that organic farmers often plant as a cover crop in their fields. Seeing that the vetch was still alive where he had not driven over it, Moyer realized he had “crimped” the plants with the tractor’s wheels, causing them to die without causing them to detach from the soil, as cutting or harvesting would do. This intrigued Moyer because, by remaining attached to the soil, the dead vetch could become a type of in situ mulch for the soil. Normally, cover crops are harvested, composted, and returned later to the field as mulch. Moyer’s accidental discovery changed this equation dramatically: He could now crimp the cover crop instead!
However, no mechanical piece of equipment existed to do this job specifically, so Moyer decided to invent one. After a great deal of trial and error, he and a colleague settled on a design for what they call a “roller-crimper”—a hollow metal cylinder to which shallow metal ribs have been welded in a chevron design (like tractor tires). The roller-crimper is mounted in front of a tractor or behind a horse, and as it rolls along through a field it crimps the cover crop, breaking the plant stalks and killing them. The weight of the crimper can be adjusted by either adding water to the cylinder or removing it in order to achieve the desired effect. In other words, the roller-crimper merged no-till with organic farming: no synthetic “-cides,” no transgenic seeds, and no plow. Voilà!
As developed by Moyer and colleagues, there are four basic steps to organic no-till:
1. Protect the soil and keep down the weeds in a farm field by planting a winter-hardy cover crop in the fall, such as vetch, barley, wheat, rye, or oats.
2. When the cover crop reaches maturity in the spring, the farmer knocks it down with a roller-crimper.
3. The farmer plants a cash crop into the crimped cover crop with a no-till drill, usually at the same time as crimping (crimper in front of the tractor, drill pulled behind), and then the cash crop grows up through the crimped cover crop.
4. After harvest in the fall, the organic residue of both crops can be disked into the soil, if the farmer wants, as next year’s cover crop is planted. All together, the use of a cover crop and a roller-crimper creates a dense mat of organic material on the soil surface that smothers weeds while providing nutrients, shade, and moisture to the cash crop.
Dorn jumped at the idea. He thought it literally rolled the best ideas in agriculture together: organic production, no-till, and a positive energy balance (this method requires only two passes with a tractor in contrast to the ten or twelve needed in a conventional system). He put it to work on Tuckaway as soon as he could.
As we walked to the edge of a field that Dorn had cover-cropped and crimped the previous spring, he listed the various benefits of the Rodale process: Soil is built by the decomposing cover crop; erosion is reduced substantially; nearly all annual weeds are smothered; cover crop roots increase nutrient cycling in the soil, including carbon and nitrogen; carbon dioxide is sequestered in the soil; greenhouse gas emissions are reduced; costs are low; and the roller-crimper is easy to use and maintain. To this list, Dorn added his own contribution: a positive energy balance, because he ran the tractor with farm-made biodiesel. Taken all together, it was a big step toward answering his question about restoring the fertility of the land using only regenerative processes.
“Organic no-till,” he said, “means you can eliminate three things from your to-do list: increase biodiversity, reduce erosion, and manage organic matter in the field. To a farm like Tuckaway, these are huge.”
There are downsides, however, as Dorn noted: Cover crops are extra work and add extra costs; they require water, sometimes a lot of it (which can make the practice problematic in arid environments); perennial weeds can still be a nuisance, especially if the cover crop is thin or didn’t “take” properly across the farm field; choosing the correct cover crop for your land and matching it to the needs of the cash crop can be tricky, requiring experimentation; rolling the crimper too early in the season can be a costly mistake because if the cover crop doesn’t die completely it will compete with the cash crop for water and nutrients; and, like anything new, success requires a great deal of patience. For Dorn, however, the positives far outweigh the negatives, which is why he calls organic no-till the “holy grail” of organic farming, crediting Moyer and Rodale for a major development.
It got better.
As Dorn explored this new method, he made an unexpected discovery: He was building abundant life in the soil. Research at Rodale and other places showed that traditional plowing practices destroy the microbial universe underground, mostly by exposing beneficial protozoa, nematodes, fungi, and other forms of life to the killing effects of sunlight, wind, and heat. The plow itself also tore delicate fungi to pieces. These micro-critters are the key to soil fertility, which is why synthetic fertilizers are required in conventional systems—to replace the fertility lost by their mass slaughter. Dorn also learned that plowing releases large amounts of stored carbon into the atmosphere, adding to the planet’s greenhouse gas problem. When soil is turned over, the sudden access to oxygen speeds up the biological decomposition process, by which microbes (before they die) eat up organic matter and “burp” carbon dioxide into the air. Repeated plowing eventually depletes the soil of its carbon stocks. Plowing also encourages erosion, which means carbon literally washes or blows away. Lastly, synthetic fertilizers burn up carbon chemically, releasing it into the air.
All these facts came as revelations to Dorn, who had not focused on the role that micro-critters, carbon, and other elements played in the health of Tuckaway’s soil.
“I realized that everything that we grew on the surface was peripheral to preserving and building healthy soil,” he explained. “In order to remain viable into the next century and beyond, a new, soil-centric approach had to emerge here. I saw that we had to deposit more carbon than we took out, so the soil will be more resilient and provide a more regular return on our investment, no matter what the crop.”
This led to another realization: To achieve his goal of true abundance, Dorn was going to need help.
“It got overwhelming pretty quickly,” he said with a smile. “There was clearly too much trial and error for one farm to bear. It became important to find other farmers willing to share the risk in developing new growing techniques.”
This realization first dawned when Dorn decided to add grains into Tuckaway’s crop rotation. Asking around, he discovered that no one in New Hampshire had actually grown grains organically since the Civil War! Fortunately, Dorn found help from the U.S. Department of Agriculture as well as a few growers scattered in other states. Eventually, he and several local farmers organized the Great Bay Grain Cooperative with the goal of sharing knowledge and working collaboratively to build a local grain market via direct sales to customers. Following Dorn’s lead, many of the members in the cooperative also aimed to produce as much of their inputs on-farm as possible, such as biodiesel, rather than buying retail. They also share their experiences, problem-solve together, and help at harvesttime. All of these things, Dorn told me, have contributed to the cooperative’s success: The original five farms have doubled to ten farms in four years, sales are strong, and the future is bright.
After a 150-year absence, organic grains had returned to New Hampshire.
This was just the start, however. To demonstrate what happened next, Dorn and I left the fields behind, crossed the farm, and climbed into my rental car. Dorn wanted me to visit two neighboring farms, both run by Greenhorns. As we drove, Dorn explained that “getting help” these days, especially among young farmers, meant more than cooperatives and mutual assistance at harvesttime. It also meant the internet—specifically a philosophy called open-source networking. For Dorn, this network has become as important to the success of Tuckaway and his theory of abundance as carbon management in the soil.
In his old job for the high-tech company, Dorn explained, he became a specialist in systems analysis, which he used to build networked enterprises based on open-source software—meaning software that was freely available to anyone who had access to the internet. This software allowed him to manage complexity—orders, contracts, projects in diverse locations around the planet—as well as teach others how to manage similar amounts of complexity in their specific business environment. The key was information sharing and computing power. Dorn compares it to trying to understand a specific DNA sequence in a plant or animal. No single person can comprehend an entire sequence, but with lots of networked computers and data sharing it’s possible to see the whole DNA picture. It’s how complex systems can be managed—such as running a 250-acre organic farm.
Thanks to technology, farmers today have an unprecedented ability to document, analyze, and understand what’s happening on their land. This knowledge is then made available to other farmers through the “creative commons” provided by open-source software, Dorn said, rather than being buried in academic journals, locked up in patents and licenses, or tucked away in a corner of a farmer’s brain. Dorn likens it to the technology used by doctors to diagnosis a patient’s complaint and prescribe an effective course of action. It’s the same on a farm, though instead of curing an illness Dorn employs sophisticated monitoring and feedback systems to increase the land’s “biological velocity,” as he puts it, in order to create abundance and real wealth.
As we drove through a large town, Dorn quoted Adam Smith from The Wealth of Nations: “To improve land with profit, like all other commercial projects, requires an exact attention to small savings and small gains.” On a farm these small savings include soil moisture levels, nutrient indicators, microbial activity, carbon content, and plant and animal interactions. However, for most of farming’s history, the ability to observe these details has been limited to what we can detect with our senses—sight, smell, touch, taste—and how our brain, via experience, interprets this narrow range of data. Modern technology has expanded this range exponentially, and thanks to the internet the data is democratically available to anyone who seeks it, without the mitigation of an expert, academic researcher, or paid consultant.
As we pulled away from the town, Dorn explained that he had tested his open-source philosophy on the biodiesel Coca-Cola truck he and his friends constructed. Everything they did, all the designs and adjustments, were made freely available via the web. Nothing was proprietary. No one filed a patent, no one hoarded secret formulas, no one hired a lawyer to sue a competitor or demand compensation. The give-and-take that resulted helped them build a better biodiesel processor. It’s been the same with the grain cooperative and even his PhD research, Dorn said. Ditto with his farming peers. Free-flowing dialogue and unobstructed access to knowledge, innovation, and data are keystones to the young farmers movement today—as are the advanced technology and social media they regularly employ (naturally).
Courtney White is a former archaeologist and Sierra Club activist who co-founded the Quivira Coalition, a non-profit dedicated to building bridges between ranchers, conservationists, public land managers, scientists, and others around the idea of land health. Excerpted from his book Grass, Soil, Hope: A Journey through Carbon county (Chelsea Green, 2014).