A farmer’s entire success depends on many factors, but always starts with one thing: our dirt.

The soil on the Island can vary dramatically. Many up-Island farmers struggle with heavy clay that hardens with rainfall and can become impossible to work. Other fields are covered in rocks, from big boulders to thousands of smaller pebbles. My first tractor job involved driving a machine through a Morning Glory Farm field while a crew of field hands walked ahead of me, tossing rocks into the bucket of the tractor in an endless effort to clear the field of stones.

“Picking rocks,” we called it.

Our soils on Chappy are so sandy I often compare growing here to trying to produce vegetables on the beach. It is nutrient-poor land with a low pH and very little organic matter. On these soils, water is quick to dissipate, and it can be challenging to meet the food and irrigation needs of hungry crops. The vegetables stay relatively small, struggling to out-compete the weeds, and can be more vulnerable to pests and disease.

The three-acre parcel we are currently growing on is a vast improvement from our original leasehold, a hilly piece of land down the road. On these fields, any amendments we add, such as compost and fertilizers, simply wash downhill. The crops at the top of the slope are stunted, pale and spindly, while those at the bottom grow lush and vibrant.

Jim Athearn, owner of Morning Glory Farm, once told me that when he began farming his fields looked similar to mine. He plowed his first rows amidst the poison ivy and blackberry brambles, and with hope planted his first seeds. He, too, struggled to keep his plants healthy. But with years of added amendments and layers of compost, Jim has slowly built up his land. His crops are now robust, with heavy fruit sets and sturdy stalks. From them, he is able to feed the Island.

In recent years, agronomists have begun to understand the rich and complex ecosystems of soils and the importance of maintaining healthy soils to sustain vital plant and animal life. Soils are alive. There are fungi and microorganisms that help build root structures and feed plants. It is an ecological community that can easily be disrupted.

Agriculture is by and large fundamentally harmful to the environment. As crop farmers, we are constantly working against nature. We are growing non-native plants in fields that were once meadows. We are importing fertilizers and seeds and irrigating from wells. We are constantly disturbing the soil, tilling and plowing and tilling again, in order to establish our crops and fight back weeds. This tillage disturbs the soil ecosystem and leads to problems with erosion and compaction.

On a recent rainy afternoon, I found myself standing amid the crops at Thimble Farm with Andrew Woodruff of Whippoorwill Farm. Andrew, a longtime farmer on the Vineyard, has partnered this year with Island Grown Initiative, the nonprofit that owns Thimble Farm, to grow crops using regenerative agricultural practices. Regenerative agriculture is a system of farming that builds soils and enriches biodiversity, creating nutrient-dense crops and a well-balanced ecosystem. It is farming with nature rather than against nature.

Andrew is working the same land he farmed for years, but with an entirely new approach. He is utilizing no-tillage practices to keep his soils intact and is planting numerous cover crops to build his organic matter and increase biodiversity. He is currently using compost created on site, and eventually will incorporate animals into the system to close the fertility loop. He plans on measuring the nutrient-density of his crops over time and hopes to see dramatic improvement as his soils build.

We know that tillage is harmful, but it can be challenging to move away from practices that have worked for years. Time and resources are simply too short, and the risk of failure too high. We can become so focused on the task at hand, that we neglect the impact we will have on the future. It takes brave farmers like Andrew to pave the way and to inspire the rest of us into action.

Because plants are able to convert sunlight to food more rapidly in high temperatures, the heat over this past weekend meant peak growth for field crops. Island farmers are heavy into squash, cucumber, carrot and beet harvests, and we should start to see the first of the field tomatoes within the next week or so.

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