No Tractor, No-Till, Human-Powered, Regenerative Agriculture
From 2013 to 2015, Julie and I served as U.S. Peace Corps Volunteers in Paraguay. While working in the Environmental Conservation sector, I discovered a huge love of gardening and farming. Paraguayans have a deep connection to their land and are also some of the happiest people I have ever met.
One sweltering Paraguayan summer night, I stashed my 3G hotspot up in the rafters over my bed. It was the only internet signal I could get. Sweating in bed, I found an article about Singing Frogs Farm in California and how they were still thriving despite being in the peak of the drought in 2014. Most other big farms were at risk of crop failure, but Singing Frogs argued that removing tillage from the farm drastically improves a farm's resilience against drought and climate change. They believed that no-till farming dramatically improves soil health with the added benefits that it also sequesters atmospheric carbon in the soil, brings bees back to the landscape, and leads to bigger and more nutrient-dense vegetables. They were proving in real time that small farms could do pretty much everything better than large-scale farms.
In 2016, Julie and I interned on two West Coast farms. The first was the Kern Family Farm in the mountains near Yosemite. The second was Mountain Cloud Farm in Clark Fork, Idaho. We then moved to Shanghai to live near Julie's extended family and to work as teachers. Our goal was to save enough money teaching to buy land and start a farm somewhere in the states. We taught in Shanghai for four years before finally meeting that savings goal.
In 2018, I learned about Neversink Farm in upstate New York. Conor Crickmore had taken small-farm efficiency to a whole new level. I immediately signed up for the Neversink Farm online course and began studying every single detail of Conor's greenhouses and his efficient management systems.
In the summer of 2020, we just barely caught a flight out of China and moved to California. I worked at Singing Frogs Farm in Sebastopol while Julie attended grad school at Stanford. We almost settled down on the West Coast, but the tragic loss of my very close friend brought us back to Illinois. We were visiting properties in Oregon the day I got the phone call about his accident. After 10 years traveling the world, I was abruptly done. I finally realized what should have been obvious all along: that my farm should be located close to my oldest friends and family in Illinois where I come from. The West Coast has all the national parks and mountains I had been chasing for years, but if you've ever looked at an old travel photo of a landscape without people in it, the photo isn't worth looking at for very long. I'm grateful to my friend Carl for showing me how precious and scarce our time together on this planet really is.
In January of 2022, we found nine acres on Banford Road in Woodstock, IL. We will farm two acres and restore the other seven acres to native forest and the original prairie Illinois is famous for.
Our Growing Methods
Our management practices significantlyexceed USDA organic standards. Tillage-based agriculture such as conventional industrial farming (and even most organic farms), that optimize for a low "sticker price," rely on methods that create the need for potent synthetic fertilizers. Repeated tillage not only prevents accumulation of organic matter, but disrupts the entire subsurface ecosystem of microbes, insects, worms, and ground dwelling bees. We farm with hand tools and prioritize soil health to mitigate pest problems without the use of pesticides, hence our slogan: hand grown in living soil. Even beautiful-looking organic produce at the grocery store may not be as nutrient-dense as vegetables are supposed to be. Grocery store vegetables all come from large tillage-based farms — in soil that is barely alive. Our mission at Banford Road Farm is to maximize nutrient-density per acre, and that starts with the soil.
Banford Road Farm is a regenerative, no-till, human-powered farm. We are laser-focused on soil health and work to maintain ecological balance all across the property. We have one acre of vegetable production carved out inside of eight acres of woods. Lab data drives our soil regeneration through the use of a Haney soil test that verifies that we are in fact increasing subsurface carbon and building organic matter over time.
Disturb the soil as little as possible
Every good no-till farm starts with some initial tillage in the early years. There is a delicate process to successfully transition from conventional tillage to no-till. After breaking new ground with a tractor in year 1, we will never use a tractor tiller again. In year 2, we will use a small walk-behind power harrow with vertical tines to stir the soil, but not invert the soil layers. This type of soil disturbance is much less severe than a horizontal tine tractor tiller. In year 3, we plan to remove the power harrow and use a broadfork alone to aerate the soil before each planting. In year 4 we hope to remove the broadfork as well and rely solely on plant roots for soil aeration.
Bare soil quickly dries out and the soil microbiome declines. The native soil needs to be covered with either a plant canopy or a blanket of mulch. We apply finished, certified organic compost to the soil surface as a mulch layer before each planting. In year 1, we applied 4" of compost to the soil surface, and in year 2 we plan to only apply 1". In year 3, only a light dusting with compost will be necessary. This compost mulch layer also acts as a critical weed suppressant as it smothers many early stage weeds.
Plant a wide variety of crops in continuous succession
As soon as the soil thaws in spring, we use vegetables to feed the soil through their root exudates. At harvest time, we cut off the stalk of the crop at the soil surface and leave the root system in place. This practice both feeds the soil biology and holds the soil in place during heavy rain events. We then replant a new crop in the same bed where the old crop was harvested to restart the cycle.