Earlier this year, we met Austin Michel, a farming intern at Wheelbarrow Farm – Austin spoke to us about how his early years were spent growing food with his grandfather and father for our Father’s Day feature. As it turns out, Austin is also an excellent spokesperson for the farm, and a well-spoken advocate for sustainable farming methods.
Austin spent a few hours of his valuable time speaking to us about organic farming and the progressive, earth-friendly growing techniques they use at Wheelbarrow Farm, and took us on a tour of its fields and greenhouses.
Watch the video below to discover what we learned about how to farm sustainably, and then read on for a little more information, if you’re curious (and we hope you are).
Solar-powered everything (almost)
In 2018, Tony Neale, the owner of Wheelbarrow Farm, converted his farm to run on solar energy, and its two strikingly enormous solar panels do the job of powering almost everything on the property. From its irrigation systems to the seedling greenhouse to their solar-powered tractor to Austin’s small cabin, nearly everything that would previously have needed to be plugged into the grid is now (in essence) plugged into the panels.
And in a video shared on the Wheelbarrow Farm website, we learned that becoming uncoupled from the province’s power source not only conserves energy – it also meets an innate need in a farmer’s spirit to be independent.
Groundwater irrigation pond
The vegetables, fruit and nut trees, and companion-planted/pollinator flowers at the farm are irrigated with water from a large, groundwater-filled pond on the farm property.
How do irrigation ponds help the earth? Studies have shown that irrigation ponds enable the storage of rainwater and can contribute to the conservation of groundwater as they reduce the amount of water that’s extracted from other sources (for example, rivers and other waterways).
Such ponds aren’t just good for crops, they’re helpful for plants, animals and humans, too. They can support a range of species in local ecosystems, from insects to animals that can drink from them. And these irrigation ponds have also been shown to help mitigate climate change as regulators of greenhouse gases.
Cover crops and low-till farming
Wheelbarrow Farm goes beyond sustainable farming to use regenerative, climate-friendly practices on their land.
For example, when the farm harvests a vegetable planting, they plant a cover crop. Cover crops are usually planted in the fall, and they help to retain moisture in soil, capture C02, hold soil in place, and even act as a slow-release fertilizer for the next season of growing.
In addition to cover-cropping, the farm leaves a fair quantity of organic matter on the fields after their harvesting. This form of on-field composting is a natural resource that helps improve soil quality, retain water in soil, and feed the fields for the next season. Also of note in the regenerative methods they use, Wheelbarrow Farm practices low-till farming — their fields are worked just once per season to keep organic matter and moisture in the soil and to reduce soil erosion.
Hand tools, an electric tractor and harmony with nature
Human power and solar power are the farm’s primary sources of energy. In this kind of sustainable farming system, much of the cultivating, weeding and maintenance of the seven acres of planted land are done by hand (something that will be well-appreciated by the average backyard vegetable farmer or anyone who’s participated in urban agriculture), and their Solectrac electric tractor is powered by the farm’s solar panels.
The farm’s fields are seeded using row seeders that are person-powered — they’re walked back and forth along the rows. Because the farm doesn’t spray herbicide or lay black plastic mulch (typically used to control weeds), all of the weeding is done with stirrup hoes, wheel hoes, basket weeders and finger weeders.
Farming for the long term
One of the goals of Wheelbarrow Farm is a big one – they’re always looking for ways to expand their impact in the world and make it a healthier, more beautiful and just place to live. The sustainable and regenerative methods used at the farm will help preserve the land, and the ability of future generations to grow a variety of crops for food systems in years to come.
When we asked Austin what climate-friendly, regenerative farming was to him, he answered us by saying, “I think it’s more about working with nature than fighting against nature.” We think they’re certainly practicing what he speaks of at Wheelbarrow Farm.