In response to global soil shortages, war, and climate change, regenerative farming techniques are becoming more common in small scale farming operations around the world. This diversified, holistic approach to farming and soil health management is cropping up in Pennsylvanian farms, too, including a small, five-acre apple orchard just north of Pittsburgh, Timberwolf Orchard.
The orchard’s owner, Chris Kubiak, leases property from the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, which, among many conservation efforts, also rents unused farmland to would-be farmers looking for affordable land.
Kubiak started farming three years ago because, like many farmers, he felt drawn to work the land and grow high-quality food for his community. He also just really loves apples.
“I think that stuff’s kind of cool, and just like there’s fashion and clothes or music, there’s … apples!” Kubiak said.
Kubiak uses regenerative farming techniques to help his apples grow, like cover cropping, to keep trees pollinated and soil healthy. His apple trees are surrounded by what looks like weeds.
“When you come up here and look at my orchard, a lot of people just see what looks like an overgrown field, right,” Kubiak said. “So what I’m doing as I grow and produce a lot of apples here that are starting to come in now, I’m trying to rebuild the soil health and in a lot of ways mimicking what nature does already.”
Regenerative practices holistically approach soil fertility management. For example: Kubiak also uses manure from goats grazing at the neighboring Somali goat farm to fertilize his orchard.
“It’s a great way to sort of recycle nutrients, get rid of some of the issues with manure,” Kubiak said. “But it is really just great stuff that helps my trees grow.”
Dan Dalton, the associate director for farmer training and development at Pasa Farming, says tending to soil health is key to regenerative farming practices.
“In the last 25, 30 years, the emerging science is just so exciting about how dynamic the soil environment is in terms of, you know, storing carbon and cycling carbon in and out of the atmosphere. We think it has a strong role to play in climate change. As we track organic matter increasing in the soil, your soil becomes both more healthy and functional, it also has a lot more capacity to buffer and weather change.”
According to the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, healthy soil is the foundation of productive, sustainable agriculture and not only allows farmers to reduce erosion but also allows them to improve the resiliency of working land and nutrient cycling.
Dalton explains, there’s no cookie-cutter approach to regenerative farming. Techniques also include cover cropping, mulching, holistic grazing, and composting. Dalton says you have to be adaptable and responsive to your land’s individual needs and characteristics.
“And so just being observant and being responsive to your observations is probably the best single thing that any farmer could be doing,” Dalton said “And, you know, challenging the assumptions underlying your system.”