A recipe for regeneration: compost!

Supplied by Freestate Farms

Humans have been farming for thousands of years, but “industrial” farming, a modern form of farming that produces the majority of our current food supply, only gained traction during the Industrial Revolution. Unfortunately, this form of agriculture contributes to poor food quality and worsens the health of our air, soil and water.

“I remember when I was a kid on my dad and uncle’s farm that if it didn’t rain every other day, the crops would suffer,” said Jay Yankey, owner of Yankey Farms in Nokesville. “The soil was so overworked from plowing and fertilizers. Now, on my farm, our corn and soybeans can go a few weeks without water and we barely notice a difference in crop yield.

That’s because Jay’s farm relies on sustainable farming techniques, often referred to as regenerative agriculture, illustrating this year’s success International Compost Awareness Week theme: “A recipe for regeneration: compost!” Instead of driving down food nutrition levels and climate change, everyday farming and gardens can be part of the solution.

“The main thing [in Regenerative Agriculture]prioritizes soil health,” Jay said. “Healthy, biologically active soil converts soil minerals better into nutrients available to plants. You end up reducing your fertilizer needs and your plants are healthier. Healthy soil leads to a healthy agricultural ecosystem.

Yankey Farms has done four main things to improve the health of their soil. First, they reduced their degree of soil disturbance. Their rows of corn and soybeans have not been plowed for 20 to 30 years, and they cultivate the ground where other crops are grown much less than before. “It’s a no-brainer, because it’s a cheaper method of farming that gives better results. I have a smaller tractor, I use less fuel and it’s faster. I do 1-2 [tilling]goes where it used to be 5 or 6. We’re also seeing all of these longer term benefits like being more drought tolerant because the water goes right into the soil [instead of running off when the soil is tilled].”

Second, Yankey Farms has been adding compost to its soil for years. Plants need organic matter to grow; compost adds organic matter to the soil for short-term use as well as important microorganisms that contribute to long-term health. A five-year agricultural study recently published in International food research showed higher yields and greater nutritional value for vegetables grown in soil that adds compost every year.

Third, Yankey Farms rotated their crops each year to help reduce plant diseases and control pests that could harm their crops. Finally, they used cover crops whenever possible, a practice that adds a temporary plant to the soil. This reduces soil runoff, increases soil organic matter, and improves the soil’s moisture and nutrient holding capacity for future plant growth.

These four practices (no (or reduced) tillage, adding compost, crop rotation and cover crops) have improved the soil health of Yankey Farm. They are also essential to regenerative agriculture, a movement that can help improve the quality and quantity of food for local residents while fighting climate change.

To help celebrate this year’s International Compost Awareness Week and answer questions about how you can incorporate elements of regenerative agriculture into your gardens, the master gardeners at Virginia Cooperative Extension, the solid waste division of Prince William County and Freestate Farms will be hosting a small event on Saturday, May 7 from 10:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. at Freestate Farms (13012 Balls Ford Road, Manassas). Volunteers from the Master Gardeners will share material on the benefits and use of compost. Plus, event visitors can drop off food scraps and receive a free compost sample in their own bucket, courtesy of Freestate Farms. Additional compost and compost bins (at a reduced price) will be available for purchase. Tours of the facilities will begin at 10:30 a.m. and 12:00 p.m.