Think farm-to-table and you likely picture farmland with rows upon rows of corn or maybe a favorite dish at your neighborhood restaurant. Chances are you’re not thinking rows of parking lots and strip malls. Yet, for farmer Tom Hart, who grew up the Long Island suburbs, farm-to-table was a way of life for his family, one that eventually led him to start Deep Roots Farm with his mother, Michelle.
“My mom has always been a fantastic chef and growing up in Kings Park we always had an amazing garden with a pet pig and chickens,” Tom says.
But it wasn’t until he was at college in Boston that Hart became interested in food. “I started going to a farmers market and I realized cooking with ingredients from the farmers market resulted in better food than from the grocery store,” Tom says. “I took some environmental science classes and I was blown away about how destructive some of the farming practices were [to the soil]. But then I learned about this whole other side of farming, that’s not only profitable for farmers, but is also beneficial for the environment.”
Soon Tom was apprenticing for a few farmers, eventually starting Deep Roots Farm on the North Fork of Long Island with his mother, who recently retired to work full-time on the farm.
“My biggest problem working with my mom is I don’t know how she has so much energy. I’m 34 and I can’t keep up with her” Tom says.
Access to land is a major barrier to new farmers, like the Harts, and especially in a place like Long Island where land is limited and expensive due to developmental pressures. About half of their 12-acre farm is rented through Peconic Land Trust’s ‘Farms for the Future’ initiative, which provides beginning farmers with access to affordable farmland on Long Island, in addition to guidance and educational opportunities to assist them in getting their business off the ground.
Now in their 8th season, the farm grows fruits and vegetables alongside pasture raised animals including pigs and chickens.
“I love being able to work in my backyard,” Tom says. “I’m producing something real, creating something that is helping to feed my community.”
Farming on small acreage is a challenge when you want to raise livestock on pasture. Tom started managing for this intensive land use with a rotation between pigs, chickens and vegetable crops with cover crops and forage crops in between, which can help maintain and regenerate healthy soils.
Tom is one of American Farmland Trust’s Long Island Soil Health Champions. Since 2011, American Farmland Trust, in partnership with Cornell Cooperative Extension and other local organizations, has worked with Long Island farms, including Deep Roots Farm, Schmitt Family Farm, MKZ Farms, and others to implement soil conservation practices to protect the soil, while also combating climate change and keeping the local waterways clean.
Read more about the American Farmland Trust in our archives here.
Maintaining healthy soils is about building the capacity of the soil to achieve all the functions it was intended to perform such as providing a habitat for soil organisms, storing and releasing nutrients and holding and regulating water flow in the landscape. By rotating his vegetables Tom is increasing plant diversity aboveground, which allows for a more diverse underground community of soil microbes and helps minimize synthetic inputs while building soil resiliency. By using cover crops he is providing living root activity throughout the year which protects the soil from water and wind erosion, improves fertility, alleviates compaction and sequesters carbon. By integrating his livestock Tom recycles nutrients through improved manure distribution, reduces plant selectivity and increases plant diversity.
“Our main goal right now is to use the land only for vegetable crops once every 2 years, and in between there are several different types of cover crops and forage crops and I have my different animals run across it at different times,” Tom explains. “It gives them free feed and helps out the soil as they eat a lot of the bugs and the weed seeds and they do a lot of the tillage for me.”
Tom credits his willingness to experiment with how little he knew about farming to begin with. “I didn’t come into it with any preconceived notions of how things should be done.”
As the farm continues to grow, Tom plans to continue to focus on diversification, a strategy that helps farmers adapt to a changing climate. “I don’t want to put all of my eggs in one basket,” Tom says. “We grow so many different things something’s always going to be a little unhappy, and something’s always going to be happy.”
Learn more about Deep Roots Farm and other farmers working to improve soil health and protect water quality in the Long Island Soil Health Champions video. To see practical, field-tested demonstrations of soil health practices for yourself, stay tuned for more information about the two Soil Health Field days that will take place in the region this August and September.
Join us in saving the land that sustains us. Get your free No Farms No Food bumper sticker and learn what you can do to help protect farmland and support environmentally sound farming practices in your community.