Heart and Soil, a North Dakota vegetable farm, started in 2013. Since then, the farm has grown significantly. Ross and Amber Lockhart, the farms co-owners, got into the farming business for different but incredibly earnest reasons. Ross grew up on a farm and missed the daily grind, while Amber had become aggravated by our nation’s food system.
Organic Authority recently reached out to the farmers to find out how Heart and Soil is doing now, what sustainable farming practices the farm uses, and how the farmers hope their farm affects the Earth.
Organic Authority: Tell us about how you founded your farm. What made you want to farm?
Amber Lockhart: We started out growing food for a local farmers market and once we felt we had our feet under us in 2014, the CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) started. We were fortunate enough to have land available, which helped us with the largest hurdle for most farmers starting out – access to affordable land. Access to affordable land is crucial to getting more young people involved in farming. Ross [the farm’s other owner] had grown up on a farm family and missed working with his hands. I had no background in farming, but had always been interested in food and was dissatisfied with the ever-increasing selection of food products, and the seemingly endless recalls of unsafe food that was shipped to our grocery stores and then brought into our homes.
The farm was born, like so many other small-scale farms, out of a desire to be a part of the solution in our broken food system. It was easy to talk about problems but we decided to get our hands dirty and try farming sustainably for ourselves. In a way, this is our own quiet activism. For Ross, it was a return to what his family has done for generations and for me it is a way to ensure our daughter grows up knowing a lot about food, nature, hard work, and the importance of community. The first time she pulled a carrot out of the ground, dirt still clinging to it, tasted it and smiled we knew we were on the right path. If you ask her what her favorite vegetable is she will tell you – carrots, right from the ground on our farm. Our chief taste-tester knows her veggies.
OA: How did you form your farming philosophy?
AL: First and foremost is the focus on community, land stewardship, and ecological diversity. We get to help feed our neighbors, take care of the soil, grow a variety of foods, and help keep all those wonderful seed varieties around. Our great love of food is another motivation. Food is such an important part of the human experience – it is the centerpiece of our celebrations as well as the focal point of our everyday lives. It was important to us to try and reconnect ourselves with what we eat and along the way we thought, 'hey, why not connect ourselves and our food with those around us as well?', and thus began Heart and Soil Farm.
OA: What else do you do at your farm…education, CSAs, etc.?
AL: Our farm is in its second year operating a CSA. We are lucky to be located between two of the largest cities in North Dakota and offer our CSA to those larger areas as well as our local communities. Much to our surprise, most of our CSA membership in these first years has come from our local communities, which is so amazing. Being able to provide healthy foods to our friends and neighbors is exactly what we had set out to do and we feel so welcomed in this endeavor.
This year we were fortunate to participate in a program that offers stipends to young people interested in interning for a season. Labor is another challenge to small farms. It is often difficult to make a living off of a small-scale farm and even more difficult to pay someone to work on the farm. Like many small businesses, you struggle with needing more help in order to expand but not having the capital to pay anyone until you expand. Having an intern on the farm not only helped us ramp up our operation but, more importantly, enabled us to pass on farming knowledge and provide an opportunity for a young person to really try their hand at farming. We hope to continue to host interns at our farm as well as expand into more learning opportunities for people interested in sustainable agriculture.
We also formed the Northern Small Farm Alliance this year. Instead of working in direct competition with other small-scale growers in our area, we are attempting to harken back to the farming communities of the past and work together to broaden the appeal of local foods in our communities, support new and emerging farmers, work together to educate one another, and share resources. We meet to talk about challenges and successes, discuss strategies to raise awareness around local foods, aggregate selling and host farm tours, and educational opportunities. We also want to provide support to new and emerging farmers. Our country needs more farmers and more needs to be done to create a situation that not only attracts new farmers, but also helps them to be successful. The Alliance has been a great opportunity for farms that had once felt like they were swimming upstream alone to come together and support one another.
OA: Where do you see your farm in five years?
AL: Starting a small farm is an evolutionary process. Each year we learn more about our own strengths and weaknesses, and also about the local market needs. After three seasons, we are just now starting to feel confident with our ability to grow high-quality, nutrient-dense, chemical-free food. As we look toward the future, opportunities for expansion seem likely. Our goal is to continue to grow our farm responsibly in order to maintain our commitment to local, small-scale growing. We are excited about the future and the growing appreciation people are showing about what is in our food, on our food and how it is grown and processed.
OA: Do others in your family farm?
AL: Yes, Ross’ family has been farming in the Red River Valley of North Dakota since they emigrated from Scotland in the late nineteenth century. When we decided to move back to North Dakota in 2012 and give organic market gardening a try, we were fortunate to have relatively easy access to land and some farm machinery. However, since Ross’ dad and brother both operate conventional farms, it was initially challenging to convince them that the small-scale market gardening concept was a viable business model. Although not all members of the family have been won over by the success and steady growth trajectory of Heart and Soil Farm, most of the family has been very supportive of the concept and appreciative of all the wonderful produce we share with them.
OA: How did you form your farm philosophy?
AL: Heart and Soil Farm: A Whole Lot of Heart (and Heaping Respect For the Earth) It’s easy to forget that organic farming was simply called farming just one or two generations ago. Synthetic pesticides and petroleum-based fertilizers were largely introduced after World War II and quickly became the norm for most farmers. Unfortunately, most farmers today are thus completely dependent on these inputs and would have a very difficult time raising crops without them. Our goal is to enhance soil fertility through time-honored cultural practices successfully employed for centuries prior to the introduction of chemical agriculture. In other words, we strive to tread lightly and make sure we are putting back into the soil as much or more than we are taking out.
OA: What sustainable farming practices do you use at your farm?
AL: When we talk about sustainability, we try our best to let others know that sustainability is the destination and we are on a journey to reach that destination…someday. It’s important to keep in mind, however, that sustainability has three interdependent pillars: social, environmental, and economic. When you operate a farm, you quickly realize that these pillars are, at times, competing with one another and require you to prioritize in order to ensure the farm continues to operate. For us, the financial viability of the farm is always at the forefront of our decision-making. Unfortunately, those decisions can put you into a situation where you are not giving enough attention to the other two pillars, which are all equally important at the end of the day. That being said, we do not use synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, even those deemed safe under organic standards; we do use compost, cover crop, and crop rotation to amend the soil. We also do what we can to reduce compaction of the soil and to attract beneficial insects. Our planning each year includes understanding that we will lose a certain percentage of crops to pests and/or extreme weather events. We can live with that; what is hard to watch is when our neighbors spray their fields when the wind is blowing the wrong direction. Seeing our plants die an unnatural death is probably the hardest challenge we have faced as farmers and reminds us that we cannot always control outcomes.
OA: What concerns you most about farming practices that don’t keep the environment in mind?
AL: We’re concerned about future generations that are going to have to pick up the pieces once the whole chemical agriculture apparatus collapses. While that may sound overly hyperbolic, the current trend in agriculture continues to slant in favor of large consolidated farming operations that are more interested in squeezing a few extra dollars out of each acre under production than preserving land for future generations. With fewer farmers serving as stewards of the land, there is a snowball affect that forces the remaining farmers to consolidate and get bigger in order to survive. With more acres to cover, further reliance on chemicals to manage pests is required. With more chemicals being used, further soil degradation will inevitably occur. Once the soil is destroyed or washed away due to erosion, it becomes extremely difficult to grow food. This is, however, a trend that could be slowed and possibly even reversed. Our planet is remarkable in its ability to heal itself if given the opportunity and we feel that using more environmentally responsible practices could lead to not only healing of the soil but healthier people and communities. That is the kind of world we would like to pass on to our child.
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