The farming practices most large-scale farms use today degrade soil health, require a tremendous amount of water, harm the environment, rely on GMOs and toxic chemicals, contribute to climate change, and work against Mother Nature, not with her. If there is an antidote to these farming practices, Singing Frogs Farm in Sebastopol, California is it. Together, Paul and Elizabeth Kaiser tackle some of the most complex and difficult issues facing farmers today, and they do it with unprecedented success.
Slideshow photos courtesy of Singing Frogs Farm and Michael Woolsey Photography.
What makes Paul and Elizabeth Kaiser, the owners of Singing Frogs Farm, so unique is not that Paul has a master’s degree in Sustainable Development from American University and another in Natural Resources Management from the United Nations University for Peace, or that Elizabeth has a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) and another in Public Health from Johns Hopkins University, or that they met while serving in the Peace Corps in West Africa. What makes this married couple so special is that they are shattering all the stereotypes about conventional farming:
They don’t spray herbicides or pesticides.
They don’t have a weed problem.
They use less water than other farms their size.
They claim to produce over six times the state average of harvest revenue per acre, per year.
They don’t till.
Their farming practices make the soil healthier.
They don’t plant rows and rows of the same crops.
They don’t have bare, uncovered soil.
They are highly profitable.
IT ALL STARTS IN THE DIRT
Soil may sound like a boring topic, but if you care about nutritious food, climate change, and water conservation, it all starts in the dirt. Soil isn’t just dead dirt; it’s actually a thriving ecosystem that scientists are only beginning to understand. There’s a mysterious world under our feet and it’s more diverse than a tropical rainforest.
“There are more microbes in a teaspoon of soil than there are people on earth.” – Ohioline, Ohio State University Extension, “Understanding Soil Microbes and Nutrient Recycling.”
Discovering how this ecosystem functions is critical to the health of the soil and nutritional content of our food. Healthy soil equals healthy food. But decades of tilling, spraying toxic chemicals, and planting rows and rows of the same crop has depleted our soil. The Kaisers are on a mission to regenerate it.
NO TILL, NO TILL, NO TILL
Singing Frogs Farm Lesson #1: Disrupt the soil as little as possible.
The picture of a farmer on a tractor represents one of the most iconic impressions of farming we have today. Plowing or tilling the soil to kill weeds and pests is an entrenched method of farming that some farmers can’t shake, despite its many negative consequences.
TILLING CAUSES SOIL EROSION
Today, tilling on a conventional farm looks like this. Tilling loosens the soil and makes it more susceptible to erosion. A strong gust of wind or a heavy rain can blow or wash the top layer of soil away. When soil erodes, it takes with it pesticides, fertilizers, and manure and carries them into bodies of water, which can harm aquatic life or make water unfit to drink.
TILLING CONTRIBUTES TO CLIMATE CHANGE
Soil holds about 3 trillion metric tons of organic carbon more than three times the amount in the Earth’s atmosphere. When farmers till the soil, it takes carbon a vital component of soil health out of the soil and releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
Carbon dioxide is one of the leading greenhouse gases contributing to climate change. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 5 billion tons of carbon dioxide were released globally due to crop and livestock production between 2001-2010. Farmers truly are in a unique position to protect the environment and mitigate the effects of climate change.
TILLING REQUIRES MORE WATER
When a farmer tills, green plant life gets churned up and dies. Without it, the soil loses some of its ability to hold water. Left bare, the top layer of soil can dry out and become hard, which makes it more impervious to water.
TILLING KILLS MICORORGANISMS
When soil has no protection from the elements, the microorganisms that help break down dead matter and create new life die. Soil needs green plants to provide a steady supply of nutrients, and plants also shield soil from the elements.
If a farm doesn’t have healthy soil, it doesn’t have healthy plants. And if it doesn’t have healthy plants, it doesn’t grow nutritious food.
A CONVERSATION WITH PAUL AND ELIZABETH KAISER
KEEP IT GREEN
Singing Frogs Farm Lesson #2: Keep a diversity of green plants in the soil
You won’t see much exposed soil on the Singing Frogs Farm. They keep it green. Very green. As the Kaiser’s explain, growing a variety of crops keeps a steady stream of nutrients going back into the soil.
Singing Frogs Farm Lesson #3.
Weeds can cut a farmer’s yield in half. They are a huge problem for farmers. Yet the Kaiser’s don’t have many weeds. How do that achieve that? Hint: it has something to do with cover crops.
Most conventional and even some organic farmers spray pesticides to kill bugs. Not the Kaisers. They use Mother Nature to keep their bug population in balance.
ORGANIC VS. CONVENTIONAL
There have been a few studies (Paul Kaiser refers to a Time Magazine story from 2012. “Is It Worth Buying Organic? Maybe Not”) that claim there’s no nutritional difference between organic and conventional food. Paul explains why that’s not accurate.
The Kaisers’ farming practices have more than quadrupled the organic matter in their soil.
Since that 2012 story was published, Time Magazine seems to have come to a different conclusion about organic food: “Why Organic Food Might Be Worth the High Price.”
SOIL HEALTH AND GUT HEALTH: IS THERE A CONNECTION?
If soil is unhealthy and lacking microorganisms, does that mean we aren’t getting the beneficial bacteria we need to digest our food?
Have you ever wondered how much money the farmers at the farmers market make? Singing Frogs Farm’s bottom line may surprise you. They are a very profitable farm.
IS ORGANIC OR EVEN BIODYNAMIC FARMING THE BEST WE CAN DO?
Is the conversation about organic and biodynamic farming versus conventional farming missing an important point?
Singing Frogs Farm so completely reflects our idyllic notion of a happy, healthy working farm that it sometimes attracts visitors who want to capitalize on its appeal.
[Disclaimer: 5th Branch did not substantiate whether Whole Foods contacted Singing Frogs Farm.]
DOING IT RIGHT SUPPORTS POLLINATORS
While most conventional farms and even some organic farms use pesticides that harm bees, Singing Frogs Farm has increased their native bee populations.
Singing Frogs Farm has solved nearly all the major problems of modern agriculture. It’s proven that farmers can be highly profitable and productive without relying on GMOs and toxic chemicals, tilling, and using copious amounts of water. And in the end, the Singing Frogs Farm’s success is our success because it provides us with a farming model that generates pure, clean, and highly nutritious food while protecting and regenerating the ecosystem around it. Shouldn’t all our farms function like this one?
The Singing Frogs Farm
YouTube – “Farming for Mother Nature lecture by Paul Kaiser of Singing Frogs Farm”
Nature – “Soil ecology: What lies beneath”
The Environmental Literacy Council – “Soil Ecosystems”
Science News – “Warming soils may belch much more carbon”
Phys.Org – “Healthy soil is the real key to feeding the world”
USDA – “Soil Health”
USDA – “Soil Tillage and Crop Rotation”
New York Times – “Breeding the Nutrition Out of Our Food”
New York Times – “Too Clean for Our Children’s Good?”
Feature image courtesy of Michael Woolsey photography.