hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News & Issues February-March 2021


Finding the future in healthy soil

In the Berkshires, a small farm shows the benefits of no-till agriculture



Jim Schultz retired early from a career in public education to pursue his dream of farming full time. At Red Shirt Farm in the Berkshires, he follows the principles of organic and regenerative agriculture. Courtesy photo by Annie Schultz


Contributing writer


Jim Schultz runs a small-scale farm that’s demonstrating how agriculture can contribute to solving the climate crisis.

Raising healthy food is a central goal at Schultz’s Red Shirt Farm. But so is restoring and enhancing the health of the soil. And it’s a healthy soil microbiome, Schultz and others say, that’s key to putting carbon back into the soil and keeping it there – rather than releasing it into the air, where it contributes to planetary warming.

In his quest for healthier soil, Schultz has gradually converted Red Shirt Farm over the past decade into a no-till operation -- one that aims to keep disruption of the soil to a minimum, thereby helping it to retain and increase its organic content.

The results of his work were on display in late 2019, when more than 50 people toured the farm on a soil health field day sponsored by the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Massachusetts. The event was part of the group’s soil carbon initiative, which aims to highlight how land management practices can help to boost the health of the soil and the planet.

Red Shirt Farm operates on 13 acres of hilly land on the east side of U.S. Route 7 in the Berkshires, not quite halfway from Pittsfield to Williamstown. Schultz grows vegetables on just 1.8 acres, yet he has ample production to supply the farm’s booths at two busy farmers markets -- and to feed the hundred households in the farm’s community-supported agriculture, or CSA, program, in which customers pay in advance for shares of each year’s harvest.

Schultz strives to produce nutrient-dense vegetables and fruits. He abstains from using insecticides, fungicides, herbicides and synthetic fertilizers. Although the farm adheres to organic principles and practices, Schultz has chosen not to pursue formal organic certification.

In addition to growing vegetables, he also has installed a small orchard on a hill that’s too steep for vegetable production. And the farm also raises a small number of pastured pigs and keeps flocks of heritage-breed turkeys, laying hens and chickens for meat.


From pre-med to farming
Although Schultz is a second-career farmer, he does have a long history in agriculture. In his late teens and 20s, he immersed himself in organic agriculture before turning his attention to making a living and raising his family.

In early 2015, Schultz retired at 53, and he and his wife, Annie Smith, who works full time as a registered nurse, launched Red Shirt Farm as a full-fledged business. This year will be their seventh of commercial production.

The farm’s name is a somewhat obscure reference to Schultz’s long hiatus from farming. Schultz, who has a background coaching sports, explained that “red shirt” is used as a verb that refers to the sidelining of an athlete with lots of potential so that he or she can learn more and make a bigger impact upon returning to the field.

“We red-shirted for 20 years,” he explained. “The kids were growing. We were paying off the land, and reading and learning.”

Schultz became interested in farming after high school, but he started at Williams College as a pre-med major. His life took a turn when he answered an ad to housesit and care for livestock for Sam and Elizabeth Smith, the founders of Caretaker Farm. The Williamstown farm is one of the longest-running organic operations in the state.

The Smiths were leading a college study trip to Sri Lanka. Their daughter Annie was home on winter break, and a romance ensued.

Schultz soon took a leave from Williams to learn to farm. At Sterling College in Vermont, he studied sustainable agriculture and worked with draft horses. He also did apprenticeships on several small farms in New England and enrolled in the New Alchemy Institute on Cape Cod to study renewable energy systems, sustainable agriculture and bioshelter technologies.

Schultz and Smith then went west to complete their undergraduate degrees at The Evergreen State College in Washington, where he managed the student organic farm and double-majored in education and ecological agriculture.

The couple returned to Massachusetts for graduate school. After earning a master’s degree in education at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Schultz worked for 26 years as a public school teacher, coach and administrator.

In 2000, the couple bought the open land in Lanesborough on which they would build their home and later their farm. Schultz continued his agricultural education, attending two or three organic and eco-agriculture conferences annually, and reading voraciously, while keeping alive his dream of farming.

In the early 2010s, Schultz and Smith started a very small community-supported agriculture operation to test the waters. Interest was strong, and initially their CSA doubled in size every year. In the years leading up to launching Red Shirt Farm, Schultz had been slowly working and restoring the land and opening up more and more garden beds.

“We were farming before work and after work and on weekends,” Schultz recalled.
By the middle of the decade, he decided it was worth sacrificing his pension to pursue his passion full time.

“I retired early because I wanted to farm before it was too late,” Schultz explained. “This is what I really wanted to do all my life.”

Although Schultz is the principal farmer, Smith fills various roles on the farm. Often she is the farm’s public face, greeting CSA members on Tuesdays and Saturdays when they come for their vegetables, and helping to orient new members. She also does the farm’s bookkeeping, runs the household and comes up with the annual growing plan for herbs and flowers, which Schultz implements.


Beyond the status quo
Red Shirt Farm practices regenerative agriculture. That’s the new buzzword for farming systems that go beyond merely sustaining the status quo of soil health.

In regenerative agriculture, farmers use practices that restore and enhance soil health and the diversity of the soil microbiome. The goal is to encourage beneficial fungi and bacteria and other microbial life forms, and to support beneficial insects including pollinators.

Critics of industrial-scale conventional agriculture say its methods effectively strip-mine the soil by burning up its organic matter with mechanical tillage, chemical fertilizers and microbe-killing herbicides and fungicides. These practices rob soil of its organic matter and destroy its soil aggregates, disrupting essential ecological functions such as allowing water to infiltrate the soil and be retained and made available over time.

The destruction of soil organic matter also diminishes the nutrient-holding capacity of the soil and thus its fertility. To counteract this deteriorated condition, farmers have to put their crops and their livestock on life supports, with costly inputs of fertilizers and biocides.

In contrast, regenerative agriculture aims to work with nature and to avoid extractive processes.
Last year marked 11 years since Red Shirt Farm began its transition to no-till agriculture. Schultz said he made the change gradually, a few garden beds at a time. He no longer plows the soil, nor does he use other methods to turn it over. Rather, he only uses shallow tillage in the top 2 inches of the soil to mix in soil amendments and prepare a fine seed bed for planting.

Gardeners and farmers like Schultz are moving to no-till because of its practical benefits for growing crops. By not churning up the soil, no-till practitioners help to prevent erosion, but the approach has other important benefits, especially when it is used without chemical fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides. Soil that hasn’t been tilled retains more organic matter – carbon -- and acts as a sponge, retaining more moisture. This makes it more resilient in drought but also helps it to withstand extreme precipitation events without flooding.

“We saw for ourselves how bad tillage was for the soil and how much better it was where we didn’t till,” Schultz said, explaining why he made the change at Red Shirt Farm.

The farm, he said, now has fewer problems with insect pests and weeds, while the population of earthworms, which boost soil health, has increased dramatically.

Agriculture is one of the top drivers of climate change globally, and that’s not primarily because of the fossil fuels used to power tractors and machinery or to make chemical fertilizers and pesticides, though those are factors. Rather, agriculture contributes most to global warming and climate disruption by releasing the carbon in soil organic matter into the atmosphere.

Soil stripped of its organic material becomes dead dirt that doesn’t retain moisture, is more prone to flooding and erodes easily when it rains or the wind blows. And dirt, as opposed to healthy soil, is inhospitable to microbial life and a poor medium for growing plants. Its temperature fluctuates rapidly between extreme heat and cold, and its moisture levels are unstable.

In the fight against climate change, green plants are the most efficient way to draw down atmospheric carbon. In the photosynthetic process, plants take in carbon dioxide from the air and use its carbon atoms to make sugars, which serve as the building blocks for plant life. And they put atmospheric carbon back into the soil by excreting sugars through their roots to feed fungi and microbial life. And plants transpire, releasing water vapor into the air, which has a cooling effect on the climate and promotes precipitation.


Protecting the soil
Besides moving away from tilling, Red Shirt Farm uses a number of other regenerative agriculture practices, such as mulching and cover cropping.

To protect the soil, Schultz doesn’t like to leave any bare ground, even between beds. To prevent weeds from taking hold and soil quality from deteriorating, walkways get heavily mulched with old hay or composted wood chips. When the garden beds are not producing crops for the CSA and farmers markets, he grows cover crops to revitalize the soil, puts down straw or hay as mulch, or temporarily covers the soil with plastic silage tarps, which he reuses.

Schultz sees the use of tarps as a less disruptive way to convert a field from grass to vegetables than making multiple passes with a plow, disk and other heavy equipment that kills fungal life, earthworms and other beneficial organisms. Using tarps also requires a lot less labor than tilling, and tilling also has the unintended effect of stimulating weed seed germination.

Red Shirt Farm shies away from disturbing the soil except when there is no alternative, such as for harvesting carrots and other root vegetables.

When other crops are ready for harvest, Schultz and his crew generally mow down or cut off the tops, leaving the roots in the ground as food for the microbes. A single pass of the flail mower is enough to chop up the residues of the crop into mulch, and often they plant directly into this mulch. In other cases, they will use hand tools to prepare the bed for planting. Or if winter is coming, they might mulch the bed with hay until spring.

Another strategy the farm uses to break down residues from past crops, particularly if the growing season is under way, is to harness solar heat by spreading a clear plastic tarp over an area. Called solarization, this process, at 75 degrees, only takes 24 hours to kill nascent weeds and accelerate the breakdown of the residue.

At other times, Schultz will use a piece of tractor-powered equipment called a power harrow to make a bed for mechanical seeding. The power harrow stirs the soil but does not invert it like a rototiller would. Schultz sets his harrow to go down to a soil depth of only 2 inches.

Most of Red Shirt Farm’s production goes directly to customers without intermediary – through its CSA program and at farmers markets. The Covid-19 pandemic actually has opened up opportunities for the farm.

Until last year, Schultz was reluctant to add a second farmers market. Because the best area markets take place on Saturday afternoons, the farm would have needed another truck, more canopies and additional employees to take part in a second market.

But as farmers market customers shifted to online transactions during the pandemic, those obstacles disappeared, and Red Shirt Farm easily added another market, substantially increasing its sales.

“You don’t have to stand there for four hours,” Schultz explained. “Nothing’s wasted, because everything is pre-ordered.”



Despite its small land area, animals are central to the mission of Red Shirt Farm. Courtesy photo by Jim Schultz


Livestock and pasture
Relatively few vegetable growers integrate livestock into their operations. But for Red Shirt Farm, despite its small land area, the animals it raises on pasture are central to its mission of regenerative agriculture.

“One of our main goals is animal welfare,” Schultz said. “We breed and hatch our own birds and process them here.”

The farm also raises feeder pigs, which likewise are slaughtered on the farm.
For the last six years, Red Shirt Farm has also been doing its part to preserve several heritage poultry breeds. Rather than ordering newly hatched chicks as replacements for their layers and for the next round of meat birds, the farm maintains year-round populations of two breeds of chicken and one turkey breed.

Each year, the farm raises about 100 turkeys and keeps another 15 or 20 as breeding stock. It also typically raises 700 or 800 meat chickens and keeps a flock of 100 to 200 laying hens.
Farmers market customers and CSA members count on being able to get their eggs from Red Shirt Farm, but eggs are not one of the farm’s “main profit centers,” Schultz said.

In the winter, he and Smith use a kind of temporary plastic greenhouse, called a caterpillar tunnel, to house their flock.

“In the winter we bring the birds up closer to the house, where we have electricity,” he said. “The chickens have a day-run in the caterpillars. We compost their manure.”

Red Shirt Farm is licensed by the state to slaughter poultry on the farm. It works with a custom butcher to get pigs killed and processed, and it sells its homegrown pork by the half and whole pig.

Thanks to a combination of grazing livestock and mowing, the lower fields at Red Shirt Farm have been transformed from weedy brambles into pasture. Often the farm uses an early cutting from those fields to use as mulch, because poultry do better on 8-inch pasture than on taller grass.


A quest for compost
Red Shirt Farm buys about 45 cubic yards of commercial compost annually from area farms. The compost available for purchase is usually made from municipal leaves, wastes from commercial landscapers, and other plant materials, as well as food waste, smaller amounts of animal manure and sometimes offal from on-farm poultry processing.

But Schultz said he is not fully satisfied with the quality of locally available compost. He also worries that the purchased compost could contain persistent herbicides, such as glyphosate, the weed killer in Roundup.

“It’s hard to find good compost,” he said.
He gets around the shortcomings of purchased compost by reserving it for certain situations, such as mulching, where “it’s less important that it’s coarse and unfinished.”

Long term, Schultz said he would like to set up an aerated static pile composting system. Such a system uses a fan and perforated pipes to blow air throughout compost windrows in lieu of mechanical turning.

For now, he makes some compost of his own from a mixture of animal bedding and vegetable scraps laid down in a large windrow, with new materials always added at one end. He refrains from turning his compost because “we don’t want to disrupt the fungal hyphae.”

In the quest for better compost, Red Shirt Farm also moved in 2018 to assemble a “bioreactor” that creates compost using what’s known as the Johnson-Su system. The system produces fungal-dominant compost with a much wider diversity of microorganisms than conventional, quick-turnaround compost. It also requires far less labor and is odor-free.

The Johnson-Su system is named for its developers, David Johnson, a molecular microbiologist at New Mexico State University, and his wife, Hui-Chu Su. In the desert Southwest, where they designed and tested it, regular irrigation is required to support fungal activity.

Schultz imagined that the temperate Northeast would have adequate rainfall to keep the composting material moist, and he was right. Most of the Johnson-Su bioreactor compost is a very fine, pasty material that turns into slurry when mixed with water. Schultz makes it into a spray that serves to inoculate the soil.


Planting an orchard
Schultz was looking for ecologically sound uses for all of the land at Red Shirt Farm when he decided to terrace a hillside that is too steep for vegetable production and plant a small orchard.
Trees don’t like to be planted smack in the middle of a field, Schultz said. They prefer what’s known as a fungal-dominant soil, like that found in a forest. So he set out to create their favored growing environment using a system called “hugelkultur” that was popularized Sepp Holzer, an Austrian practitioner of permaculture, a system of land management that relies on ecological design of long-term plantings.

Hugelkultur involves burying woody material. Fungi colonize the buried wood, and the decomposing wood acts as a sponge, retaining moisture and slowly releasing nutrients for tree growth.

With many trees and limbs downed by storms and a need to quickly improve the land, Schultz said hugelkultur seemed like an obvious strategy for Red Shirt Farm.

For this project, he brought in an excavator to dig trenches 3 to 4 feet deep on the contour of the land. Though the soil itself is not stony, there were huge rocks to remove. They filled the trenches with dead trees and limbs and piled the excavated soil on top of each trench to build a berm. The berms provide a flat space to plant the trees in. Then above the berm, they dug a trench 2 feet deep to create a swale that would capture runoff.

“We want to catch every drop of water that falls,” Schultz stressed.
They planted the orchard with heirloom varieties of apple, peach and pear trees, as well as Asian pears and chestnuts. All of the fruit trees are grafted onto standard-size seedling rootstocks, so it will take 20 years for them to reach maturity.

Standard trees live longer and are more resilient to climate stresses like drought. Full-size trees are also more compatible with grazing animals.

Schultz, who foresees living at the homestead with his wife even after they retire from farming, sees the trees as a longer-term project.

“When we’re done with commercial farming, we’ll still be harvesting our orchard,” he explained.
Schultz started the orchard with 50 trees. Many of the trees have started to bear, providing Red Shirt Farm with several new products for its farmers markets.


Ever an educator
Schultz spent half his life teaching and coaching students in public schools, and as a farmer he has been able to continue to educate young people.

Every year, Red Shirt Farm selects four apprentices, who normally start work in April and stay on through November. They generally live on the farm unless they are from the local area. Few are currently enrolled in college, as college calendars tend not to be compatible with the farm’s needs.

Apprentices receive room and board plus $900 per month and access to food grown on the farm. The Red Shirt Farm apprenticeship program focuses on education, as the apprentices learn much more than how to do their daily tasks.

Schultz said he strives to expose his apprentices to the knowledge and skills they would need to start their own farm or to work as a farm manager or another non-entry-level position. One former apprentice, a chef with no prior farming experience who spent two years on the farm, is now running a farm on Martha’s Vineyard.

Red Shirt Farm also partners with Roots Rising, a Pittsfield nonprofit with a mission of empowering high-school-age youth while building community through food and farming. Many of the program’s participants are high-risk kids. Roots Rising employs young people on farm crews and to run the Pittsfield farmers market. This year, it plans to launch a youth-run food truck program.

A Roots Rising crew of a dozen young people comes to Red Shirt Farm one day a week in the summer and one afternoon weekly after school in the spring and fall.

“It’s nice for us to have 12 willing hands for big weeding, composting and tarping projects,” Schultz said.

Roots Rising pays an hourly wage to the young people it employs. They spend a half-day working on a farm, and for the rest of the day they take part in programming that emphasizes self-development, group development, and interpersonal and life skills. The curriculum includes educational workshops and culinary and financial literacy.

Schultz spoke with excitement about the culture that Roots Rising is building. He described how an educator with the organization teaches young people traditional and indigenous songs, and they then create their own songs. Through feedback circles called “group talk,” the young people participating in Roots Rising receive feedback from their peers and adult mentors, and they also evaluate the adults.

“This is how I wanted school to be when I was a teacher,” Schultz commented.
As a biology teacher, he said he would have loved to have a farm as a learning lab.
In addition to apprentices and the Roots Rising crew, the farm employs four to six part-time hourly workers. Two of these workers are Roots Rising graduates, so they already were familiar with the farm and its practices. That’s been a significant advantage.

“Regenerative agriculture holds the key to resolving our health crisis and our planetary crisis,” Schultz said. “To share this is so rewarding and essential, for there are so few resources to train young people.”


Visit www.redshirtfarm.com for more information about Red Shirt Farm and its community-supported agriculture program.