Photo courtesy of Kranz Hill Farm
Several Delaware farmers are returning to regenerative agriculture to mitigate climate change and reconnect people with nature.
The 40-acre sweep of land comprising most of Dittmar Family Farms in Felton is almost unrecognizable after several years in the hands of its new owners, husband-and-wife duo Jenny and Zach Dittmar. Where once the fields were nothing but soybean and corn crops, today the land is abuzz with pollinators like bees, dragonflies and butterflies flitting from the wildflower meadow to the towering sunflower stalks. Insects toil in the ground, too, thriving in the 2-acre vegetable garden that produces some 80 different varieties each year—lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, berries—you name it.
These idyllic pasturelands, where cattle, sheep, goats, chicken and geese graze, looked much different four years ago. Stretching from the family home to the land where the fields were over-ploughed for decades, there was a 6-to 8-inch drop-off demarcating the spaces and showing the physical imprint of years of heavy machinery.
The couple learned about regenerative farming in 2014, so when they bought the farm a few years later—a sizable upgrade from the quarter-acre lot at their former home in Magnolia, where they grew produce and set up a neighborhood CSA— they knew this was the right option.
“We [took] several soil samples when we first purchased the property, and it was pretty much dead,” Jenny says. “When it’s been conventionally farmed, all the chemicals that get put into the ground leach out any of the nutritional value and the elements that should be in the soil.”
Alternatively, regenerative agriculture focuses on soil health, eschewing many traditional practices like tilling, machinery, and applying synthetic pesticides and herbicides. This more holistic approach takes into account “what the plant needs are, the health and the life that’s in the soil, the ecosystem, and all the bacteria and many different living organisms in there,” Jenny explains. “We focus on providing food sources and health for those creatures because they will take care of the plant.”
A lesser-known concept than organic farming, regenerative farming is a sort of stewardship of the land that is as much about the ecology as it is understanding earth’s natural processes, creating a symbiosis between land, creatures, soil and farmer.
“To the best of our ability, we humbly try to mimic it so that our practices are restorative and reparative, as opposed to destructive,” explains Michele Wales, farm manager at Coverdale Farm Preserve in Greenville. “We see nature as a partner, not a foe that we are trying to dominate and conquer.”
Open to the public for more than two decades, Coverdale has transformed and grown considerably. A fallow farm when it was entrusted to the Delaware Nature Society, it now encompasses a sprawling 377 acres. Its latest transformations included a move to regenerative agriculture.
“With an environmental organization owning and operating a farm, we really needed to think about not only what models would be best to represent our mission but also what way would be best to educate our public about growing food, its incredible impact, and that it is possible to do it with environmental integrity,” Wales says.
While they’re learning at every turn, DelNature hopes that Coverdale will serve as a model for other farms, whatever their unique requirements. “I believe that a regenerative system is not a one-size-fits-all approach,” Wales points out. “These are very place-based, customized systems.”
Among the cornerstones of regenerative agriculture is a lack of heavy machinery and tilling of the soil. “A rototiller goes deep into the soil—it turns up and churns up the soil, it breaks apart the soil food web down to fine particles, so you lose all the pockets for water and earthworms and nutrient exchange,” Wales explains. Instead, the work is done largely by hand, gently working the top few inches of soil to loosen it. Sometimes smaller machinery becomes necessary, as is the case for the Dittmars, who use it sparingly to help break up hard, compacted earth.
Cover crops are equally important. Creating a living root system in the soil, when carefully selected, these crops can help repair damage and even manage weeds or other noxious plants. Cover crops range broadly, but the concept is simple—no soil left bare. For the Dittmars, that means things like grasses, wildflowers, radishes and even legumes. Wales loves a daikon radish for especially compacted soil. Growing the size of a person’s arm, the plant breaks up the soil before dying off in winter, leaving behind its organic material. “Plants are healers of the soil, and their living root systems underground are doing miraculous things,” she says.
Cover crops can also be beneficial in combating soil erosion and may even have climate benefits, helping trap carbon in the soil. Currently the science on scaled regenerative agriculture as a significant tool for carbon capture and mitigation remains mixed, if optimistic. One study published in Science found that if cover crops were deployed across 85 percent of U.S. croplands, 100 million tons of carbon dioxide could be sequestered each year, offsetting roughly 18 percent of U.S. agricultural emissions. Presently, just 4 percent of U.S. cropland deploys cover cropping. Still, the lack of tilling in regenerative farming means carbon isn’t put into the atmosphere, as it is with conventional farming.
Livestock treading on the land is yet another form of natural tilling and an important component in reversative agriculture. Cows, goats, sheep and laying hens, “keep the field mowed, they keep the plants in balance through eating them so that one plant species doesn’t dominate the other,” Wales explains.
They also provide compost. “In nature, animals and plant communities are not separate,” so the methodology seeks to mimic that.
By thoughtfully planting pastureland and meadows, farmers can also attract native species and pollinators. “Our bird population has probably tripled since we’ve been here,” Jenny estimates, crediting their meadows with ample blooms. “None of those things were around when it was farmed conventionally. They had no habitat here. They had no food source. Now they’re coming back and they’re sticking around.” The tree swallows they’ve attracted eat thousands of insects each day, making them a natural insecticide.
For all their value to the farm, animals, like the land, serve as a living classroom at Coverdale. Animal education is an equally important part of Newark’s Kranz Hill Farm, where the focus is on organic agriculture. Like Coverdale and Dittmar, the 13.3 acres nestled within the confines of White Clay Creek State Park were conventionally farmed. For years, hay fields took up much of the land, which had previously served as a Christmas tree and garden farm by the Kranz family. When they sold the property to the park, they hoped it would one day serve as an educational center focused on large animals.
Established in 2010, Kranz Hill Farm is the brainchild of the late Thera and John Detwiler and a part of nonprofit Omnia Humanitas, whose mission is “all that is good for mankind,” says Melanie Hiner, who works with the animals at Kranz Hill.
Newark native Thera (who passed away in 2019) wanted to preserve and make productive green spaces. “There are so few farms left in New Castle,” Hiner notes. Just 4 percent of Delaware’s 530,000 acres of farmland can be found in New Castle County, according to a 2017 census report from the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service. With such concentration, the connection between food grower and consumer is often severed. “So few of us have any contact anymore with actual productive farming,” Hiner adds. They sought to change that.
After procuring the land, currently available on a year-to-year lease, the Detwilers and Hiner got to work transforming and reconditioning it. “The ground was pretty heavy clay,” recalls John Detwiler, noting it was sufficiently fertile for growing. “Over the years, we’ve been adding mushroom soil and compost, we’ve been using green manure, and the soil just gets better and better.”
At the time, John didn’t have any real experience with farming. “It was a learning experience,” he says, noting his wife’s desire for a small-scale and organically focused operation. “Having people who are approaching farming in that way is really good for the whole community, because then you don’t have all your eggs in one basket,” he says.
Among Krantz’s residents are Nigerian dwarf goats, donkeys, chickens and sheep that support efforts to educate the community about animals. “People are surprised by how competent they actually are after they’ve spent time with us,” Hiner says. “In working with the animals, you [see people] gain confidence to be able to work with something that they don’t have any experience with.”
In the garden are thriving vegetable garden crops. “Corn needed too much water and watermelons were very hard to grow without synthetically produced pesticides,” Detwiler explains. “We’ve discovered that certain vegetables, like broccoli and cabbage, don’t grow well here.” So those they source from other local farms to round out their CSA.
Such diversified CSAs also help with profit margins. While small-scale and regenerative farming is a long game, according to a study of U.S. croplands conducted by the Ecdysis Foundation, regenerative farming crop yields may be about 29 percent less than its conventional farming counterpart, but it commands an astounding 78 percent greater profitability.
Though they’re only several years into their endeavor, the Dittmars are seeing this play out. “Farmers are lucky to break even,” says Jenny. But in their nearly four years in Felton, they’ve seen a 30 percent profit increase year over year.
With a CSA that launched about 10 years ago, Coverdale overhauled its model, which relaunched this May. “The diversity of products is as important as the diversity of the environment that we’re farming in,” says Wales. Instead of a traditional share, CSA members can put money upfront toward purchases throughout the season, like a debit card. Coverdale also launched a new farm market in May, letting shoppers buy without being a member, as well as introducing additional food-related items.
“It’s still a challenge,” admits Jenny, but they’re in it for the long haul. And every year, like that dip in their property, under their careful ministrations the land heals a bit more.