Astarte Farm: A Better Way to Grow
A poet once said, “variety’s the spice of life that gives it all its flavor.” This expression rings true in many aspects, from trying unfamiliar things and connecting with different people to having new experiences. It can also apply to the food we eat! At the co-op, we choose to seek out this sense of fulfillment from the perspective of an entire community, which means much to consider: is the food environmentally sound? Was it grown for quality or quantity? For us, stocking displays and shelves with many varieties of fresh, vibrant produce is about more than selling products. It’s about providing better food for everyone. Reaching such a goal can be hard work; but together, we accept that challenge.
Thankfully, lots of local farmers in our area also believe in food for a greater purpose; a unifying force that should be respected and created with an eye toward sustainability. By coming together to create a supportive and just system of production and distribution, we can provide more good food to more people. We can also ensure our food is grown in ways that are sustainable for the earth and thus more beneficial for everyone.
Astarte Farm represents the pinnacle of these ideals. They grow a wide range of nutritious vegetables while also working to keep the land (and food) as close as possible to how the Earth intended. Their practices are rooted, literally, in leaving the roots alone and letting things ‘go their own way’ with no-till—a forward-thinking farming philosophy that intriguingly reverts back to the natural order. They let the existing ecosystems dictate the conditions for everything they grow, resulting in higher quality, better flavor, the preservation of heirlooms, and greater resilience, rather than incorporating artificial processes that interfere with almost everything besides yields. Their no-till methodology also protects the environment by keeping carbon locked in the soil. This minimalistic approach avoids persistently stirring up the molecules and ejecting them as CO2 into the atmosphere, which increases global greenhouse gases.
We toured Astarte Farm at the start of summer and met with the general manager, Ellen Drews. She explained the importance of no-till, sustainability, and farm diversity for the protection of overall food security and the global climate. Ellen also revealed why they decided to make Astarte Farm a no-till, organic operation, emphasizing the importance of making no-till an accessible means of food production for farmers everywhere and underscoring why it is necessary for building a better food future.
Click play to watch the video tour or read the full interview below!
Q: Can you tell us why you became a farmer?
A: I went to college in a rural area of Minnesota much like the Pioneer Valley and worked on my college’s campus farm. That’s where I fell in love with farming and the outdoors! I tried other jobs after graduation but kept returning to that last time I couldn’t wait to get out of bed and get to work: the summer I worked on the farm. So, after a couple of years, I started farming full-time and after a few seasons, came to the Valley. I love farming here. It’s such a supportive place to learn to farm, to serve community, and be surrounded by so many people who love farm-fresh food.
Pictured: Staff prep the new no-till beds with fresh mulch
Q: When was Astarte Farm founded and how did it get where it is today?
A: It was founded in 1999 by Dan Pratt, a local veggie farmer who farmed all around the country before coming here to Hadley to grow new beds and fields. He started Astarte as an organic vegetable farm and became well known at the Amherst Farmers Market for his tomatoes and braided garlic. In 2014, he sold the business to Jim Mead, who still owns the farm. After the sale, Dan suggested to Jim that he should go no-till. He had just discovered the benefits of no-till during a talk by soil web life scientist Elaine Ingham—one of the earliest to suggest that not disturbing the soil would increase the biodiversity of soil life. So, Dan stayed on as a consultant and helped established our first no-till garlic beds!
Pictured: Rows upon rows of fresh organic garlic are looking bright and amazing!
Q: Your farm is incredibly diverse. Can you tell us about what you grow here?
A: We grow four or five varieties of garlic, all chosen for flavor and size. We’re known for our beautiful heirloom lettuce, and we try to have that year-round for you. We grow a few varieties of eggplant. Tomatoes come in around August, with 10 to 15 varieties of heirloom slicing tomatoes and 10 varieties of cherry tomatoes. Those come in a variety pack with different sizes, colors, textures, and flavors. We have the advantage of growing on a small scale, which lets us focus on flavor. We believe soil life contributes to the mineral and nutrient content of food, and you can really taste that. When we pick our produce, we take it to the market that same day so we don’t have to worry about travel or cross-country shipping.
Astarte Farm grows everything in small batches with organic, non-tilled soil
Q: What is "no-till" farming and how do you implement those practices?
A: Tillage means “stirring the soil” in any kind of way: plowing up last year’s crop or a cover crop, or harrowing to mix up the texture so the soil is even at the top of the bed. Farmers like tilling because it warms up the soil in spring and creates a consistent texture at the top where seeds are planted. Unfortunately, there are downsides like compaction from being walked on or exposure to rain. Once that “fluff” at the top of the soil compacts, it makes it harder to retain water in a drought or absorb water in a flood. With extreme weather, it’s important to strengthen the water-carrying capacity of our soil, and we do that by preserving its natural texture. We leave roots in the ground to create air channels. We don’t plow, we don’t harrow. We do minimal stirring with hoes and rakes. We allow the life in the soil to break down organic material and stir nutrients. As a result, we have soil much more like a sponge, which is ideal for extreme climate events.
By not tilling the soil, we are also sequestering carbon. Stirring up the soil turns stored carbon into carbon dioxide that gets sent into the atmosphere. Growing cover crops and vegetables all pull carbon into the soil, so keeping it in place actually gives us a net-sync of carbon. We hope if more agriculture is done this way, we can fight excess CO2 and counter the effects of climate change.
Pictured: Astarte's minimalist approach to tending the soil is visible on the rows
Q: Can you describe your work with River Valley Co-op and how the relationship has supported Astarte?
A: Our relationship with the co-op is really *the* reason we can exist as a farm and business. Dan established a great working relationship with the co-op’s produce buyer, Henry, and we have continued that partnership since. The entire co-op team takes their role in helping to support local agriculture seriously. We meet with them every spring to work out our pricing and crop plans, and twice a week we bring produce to you. That is a big part of what keeps us afloat.
Pictured: Lush green leaves and healthy red stalks adorn the new beets
Q: What do you enjoy most about daily life on the farm?
A: We have an amazing crew of workers, many of whom have worked here for several seasons and stay year after year. They all bring their talents to the farm, and all leave their mark. We hope to provide a work experience that feeds their souls and helps their livelihoods. We want the people who work here to feel they are contributing, respected, safe, and eating well. Our staff really matter to us, and we feel those bonds grow stronger and stronger each year.
Pictured: Only a small amount of organic material is added to the top for the new seeds
Q: What are some challenges of farming and staying committed to organic and no-till?
A: Our biggest challenge is how much labor goes into farming this way, so we have to exist on a small scale. We have to do a lot by hand—shoveling, planting, harvesting—so we need to be a close-knit team. We can’t really mechanize what we do yet. A lot of cool no-till farm tools have been invented recently, but on our scale, we want to keep things small, efficient, and productive. We need attention to detail and a lot of energy. The season is long and hot, and we have to make sacrifices with other things we want to do with our summers, but having trust in each other can help us get through moments where we’re worn out and obstacles arise.
Pictured: Astarte's long pie pumpkins are a big hit each fall at the co-op!
Q: How do you envision the future of sustainable, small-scale agriculture?
A: We haven’t broken even yet. My vision is that we shore that up and figure out what tools, how many people, and what our markets need to make this work financially. Until then, we can’t expect others to invest without a clear path to making a profit—and from there, we can start to help other farms do no-till as well.
With regards to agriculture in general, I feel more farms will do much more ecologically focused farming, growing food resilient to climate change. Whenever I get worried about climate change, I find relief in knowing this is how our future food will be made. I think the sooner we can make the changes necessary to get on this path, the better. In the meantime, we’re doing our best to experiment with this technology and share what we’re learning, how much it costs, and how to make it work.
Find Astarte Farm's diverse variety of organic, no-till-grown vegetables all spring, summer, and fall at River Valley Co-op!
*Please note we cannot always guarantee availability due to the unique conditions of each harvest season.