Located on the historic Hadley common, Astarte Farm is a 100 percent no-till, no-spray, certified organic, market garden. Since 2000, we've prioritized soil health and sustainability in our mission to deliver tasty, high-quality, fruits and vegetables.
In 1999, Dan Pratt, an experienced organic farmer, bought the 6.6 acres of rich Hadley loam that is now Astarte Farm. In 2004, the farm officially became certified organic, and Dan became known around the Valley for his high-quality, delicious tasting heirlooms. In 2014, Dan and his family decided it was time to sell, and the farm changed ownership to Jim Mead, a local electrical engineer.
Dan continued to be involved on the farm, and alongside Jim and field manager Annalise Clausen, the three decided to further their commitment to sustainability. This meant not only being certified organic, but also actively implementing alternative growing practices that were more concerned with long-term soil health and holistic farm management.
In 2014, Astarte began transitioning to become one of the first 100 percent no-till commercial farms in the area, and since then, has continued to explore what it means to "grow sustainably". Astarte now uses occultation, pollinator habitats, crop rotation, companion planting, cover crop “cocktails”, grown-in-place mulches, and more, in its inclusive approach to organic farming. The farm continues to gain recognition for its high-quality produce, which can be found at various markets and restaurants throughout the Pioneer Valley.
Prior to Astarte's transition to no-till, despite years of cover cropping, compost applications, and incorporating crop residues back into the soil, we could see that soil organic matter levels were not as high as they should be. While production beds would fluff up after spading, with just a few hard rains the soil would become compact and settle back below the level of our grass paths. Beds were liable to crack on the surface after dry spells, and the absence of earthworms and beetles were a clear red flag--our soil health was being threatened! At the same time, however, we noticed that crops that stayed in the ground for three months or longer had an abundance of earthworm activity. Mushrooms could be found throughout our perennials, and undisturbed grass paths were higher than production beds, which were continually being tilled. Something wasn't right, and it was clear that if we wished to continue reaping the benefits of our beautiful Hadley loam, we needed to find a more sustainable way of farming it.
Many of Astarte's soil building failures were brought into focus at the summer NOFA conference in 2015, when Dr. Elaine Ingham gave a one-day intensive on the Soil Food Web. It was after this talk that we began to consider the possibility that the techniques we thought were helping our soil were ultimately harming it—that tilling, rather than encouraging plant growth, was actually stripping the soil of biological activity.
After the NOFA conference, we began experimenting with various no-till practices. That fall, we started with a garlic planting that was quickly followed by a lettuce planting in the same bed. Both yielded a very good crop, and displayed superior growth to that which we had seen in the past. Slowly, we began to realize the potential of this alternative growing practice, not just for us, but for the future of sustainable farming in the Pioneer Valley.
Rattan Lal of Ohio State University estimates that our earth's agricultural soils have lost 50% to 70% of their original carbon stock, much of which has simply oxidized during the annual cycles of plowing, harrowing and weed elimination as practiced on the vast majority of farms worldwide. Most of that lost carbon has escaped into our atmosphere as carbon dioxide, a powerful greenhouse gas. Therefore, by simply not tilling the soil, farmers can drastically improve their carbon sequestration.
Moreover, no-till farming encourages biological activity that acts as a carbon sink. Research shows that plants with strong mycorrhizal soil-to-root connections can transfer up to 15% more carbon to the soil than non-connected plants. In order to minimize labor intensive bed-prep and maintenance, no-till farming encourages the planting of perennials and other soil connected plants, furthering carbon sequestration and minimizing the amount of carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere.
By 2015, Astarte Farm was 100 percent no-till. When the no-till techniques work, they really work, and often set the stage for the following years' successes. When they fail, or are poorly executed, it can mean reduced yields and sometimes a loss of profits. However, even those reduced yields may be offset in the long run by increased biological activity that these attempts create. It is often that which we cannot see or touch that is so important in this world, and any way that we can enhance and protect the hidden work within our soil, will be of great benefit to our entire planet.
Where we sell
Now Doubt — now Pain
Come never again,
For her soul gives me sigh for sigh,
And all day long
Shines bright and strong
Astarté within the sky,
And ever to it dear Eulalie upturns her matron eye —
And ever to it young Eulalie upturns her violet eye.
Edgar Allen Poe, 1845
Astarte was the ancient Phoenician goddess of fertility. Oh my Goddess!