Courtney White

Dorn Cox’s goal is as audacious as it is visionary: reignite New Hampshire’s local farm economy.

When I first met Dorn, he stood in a hayfield behind a University of New Hampshire professor’s house, spreading wood ash carefully among a grid of study plots. His research (for a Ph.D.) is aimed at figuring out the best way to turn the hayfield into a vegetable farm without tilling it. Normally, in order to convert a grass field into a farm, the farmer would bring out the plow and a tractor and go to work furrowing the land in preparation for seeding and fertilizing. Dorn wants to do no such thing. He wants nothing to do with tilling because it is destructive to soil health, releases stored carbon into the air as a greenhouse gas, requires synthetic fertilizer to grow crops, and contributes to soil erosion, further reducing the land’s fertility.

That’s the story of New Hampshire’s agriculture in a nutshell, he said. The loss of soil fertility is a main reason why farming declined in the state over the years, to the point where it is essentially a cottage industry today.

Dorn wants to reverse these trends. Like a growing number of young farmers, Dorn practices a form of agriculture called no-till,which involves “drilling” seeds into the soil (by a machine) without turning any dirt over. But he goes one step further, implementing a new idea call organic no-till, which involves growing a cover crop (rye or hairy vetch), crimping it with a heavy roller so that it forms a mulch over the soil, and then drilling the soil with the cash crop (grains, for example). This way, no herbicides or pesticides are needed to control bugs and weeds – which means it can be an organic process for growing food. Organic no-till was developed by the Rodale Institute in Pennsylvania, and has been spreading rapidly around the country. It combines the best of two worlds: the soil-building practices of mulching and no-till with the myriad benefits of organic agriculture.

It sounds great – and it is – but Dorn wants to go a step further. He calls it “Beyond Organic No-Till.” It involves all aspects of farming, including its role in climate change.

In addition to his study plots, Dorn is putting this idea into practice on his family’s 250-acre farm, called Tuckaway, located near Lee, NH. Dorn’s parents homesteaded the farm decades earlier as part of their generation’s back-to-the-land movement. They were the first farmers in the area to go organic – growing fruit, hay and vegetables. The farm had been in agriculture for decades, but it also had been losing soil fertility as a consequence of tilling, erosion, fertilizer and pesticides. Dorn’s parents checked the downward slide of the land’s fertility with their organic production. Dorn and his sister decided to take the farm one step further: turn the arrow of soil fertility back upward.

Dorn came to these ideas not through thinking about agriculture, but by thinking about energy. He has been attracted to renewable energy since he was a kid, to the point of leaving the farm for a while in order to pursue developments in the renewable energy field. When he returned to the farm he was determined to produce as much energy on-farm as possible. He succeeded. Today, Tuckaway generates 100% of the energy needed to produce food from only 10% of its land. They do it with biodiesel –powered by canola – which they grow on the farm. They make the biodiesel on the farm as well. Additionally, Dorn’s sister and her husband are avid horse farmers, which is their way of moving away from machinery as much as possible.

That’s why I think of them as re-homesteaders; they are reinventing their farm from the ground up.

Dorn views much of what he does with an eye to climate change. It’s not just the biodiesel. By purposefully increasing the organic content of the farm’s soil (from 1% to 4% today – and hopefully 8% in the future), Dorn and his family are sequestering additional carbon dioxide, thus helping to mitigate, in their small way, the carbon dioxide overload in our atmosphere. Improving the organic content of the soil is also good for their bottom line, because they can grow more crops. In fact, there are many reasons to improve soil fertility; the climate connection is just one!

Tuckaway is involved in a Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. It coordinates its work with other farms nearby, it shares its knowledge and success with other farmers, and Dorn’s research will continue to be implemented in on-the-ground ways. It’s exciting to see, daunting to imagine, and hopeful in so many ways. We all need to become re-homesteaders, in a sense. And thanks to young agrarians like Dorn Cox, leaders are emerging to show us the way.

Dorn is a young agrarian speaker at the Quivira conference this year.