Paul & Elizabeth Kaiser: Sustainable Farming 2.0

May 27, 2015

Here at Peak Prosperity, we’re continuously on the hunt for new models that offer promise for a better future. These tend to be models of stewardship and sustainability, which contrast starkly with society’s current focus on resource consumption and exploitation.

The farming model being pioneered at Singing Frogs Farm, a small micro-farm in northern California is one such example of doing things "right". Developed over years of combining bio-intensive land/forestry management theory with empirical trial & error, the farming practices at Singing Frogs have produced astounding results.

First off and most important, no tilling of any kind is done to the soil. No pesticide/herbicide/fungicide sprays (organic or otherwise) are used. And the only fertilizer used is natural compost.

These practices result in a build-up of nutrient-dense, highly bio-rich topsoil. Where most farms have less than 12 inches of ‘alive’ topsoil in which they can grow things, Singing Frogs’ extends to a depth over 4 feet(!).

This high-carbon layer of soil retains much more water than conventional topsoil, requiring much less irrigation than used at most farms (a very important factor given the historic drought the West is suffering).

All these advantages combine to enable Singing Frogs Farm to produce 5-7 harvests per year on their land, vs the 1-2 harvest average of other farms. And since the annual crop yield is so much higher, so is the revenue. Most other farms in northern California average $14,000 in gross revenue per acre. Singing Frogs grosses nearly $100,000 per acre — a stunning 5x more.

On this week’s podcast, we’re joined by the husband-and-wife team behind Singing Frogs Farm, Paul and Elizabeth Kaiser, who are eager to help other food producers understand the science behind their success, and to replicate and improve upon it wherever possible.

Click the play button below to listen to my interview with Paul & Elizabeth Kaiser (52m:00s):


Adam Taggart: Hello and welcome to the Resilient Life Podcast. Resilient Life is part of It’s where we focus on practical and actionable knowledge for building a better future and I’m your host Adam Taggart.

A few months back a Peak Prosperity reader on the East coast wrote to me asking if I was familiar with a small organic farming operation located near me in Northern California called Singing Frogs Farm. He had written an article extolling remarkably high yields this farm produces both in terms of crop yield and in terms of revenue per acre using nothing but sustainable farming practices free of pesticides, chemical fertilizers, conventional tilling and even using less water, which is a big deal given the historic drought in the west these days. "You should consider looking these guys up," the reader suggested. "They’d be a good interview guest." Well I couldn’t agree more. Little did this reader know that my family has been a subscriber to the Singing Frogs CSA program for the past few years. The farm, run by Paul and Elizabeth Kaiser, is located just over a mile from house as the crow flies. So I’ve invited Paul and Elizabeth on the program to discuss the success behind their microfarm. Many of the practices they employ at Singing Frogs go beyond the standard ones used by traditional organic farmers, leading some to refer to their approach as organic farming 2.0. We’ll find out what best practices this new approach entails.

Paul and Elizabeth, thank you so much for making the time to join us today.

Elizabeth Kaiser: Thank you for having us.

Paul Kaiser: Thank you very much.

Adam Taggart: Oh it’s a real pleasure. Give us your brief story guys. How did you decide to become small scale farmers in the first place?

Paul Kaiser: Well we actually met in Peace Corp. in West Africa in Gambia. I was doing agroforestry and environmental health.

Elizabeth Kaiser: And I was doing public health.

Paul Kaiser: …and so that human environmental combination of focus we brought here to our property in Sebastopol and we knew that we wanted to keep working with the soil and working with communities and make the community healthier, both the environmental, ecological, as well as human community and it was a matter of finding what avenue was best to do that with and we knew that food production—and food is obviously something we eat three times a day, every single day, our entire life and that it is the basis of our health and who we are. So we figured food was definitely our area of focus even though our background really is in ecology and human health as well. So…

Elizabeth Kaiser: I think actually that background is very important in what brought us where we are because we didn’t go to school in agriculture and we weren’t trained in what agriculture should be.

Adam Taggart: You weren’t indoctrinated?

Elizabeth Kaiser: Exactly. So we started a small farm and we started it traditionally as you are “supposed to” with tillage and so forth and it just didn’t seem right, and we were able to step back and evaluate and try a lot of different things and really use observation in what is working, what is not working, and that was…

Paul Kaiser: You put that really nicely. Those were a miserable first couple of years trying to use tillage and tractors and disks and plows and breaking our backs to get…

Elizabeth Kaiser: Yes.

Paul Kaiser: …one crop per season followed by a cover crop in the winter and then all that tillage all over again in the spring for one more crop for the summer and then till it all under in the fall and do another cover crop—that was break backing work with such low productivity and the soil was just getting worse and worse the more we did that.

Elizabeth Kaiser: Yes. We were noticing that the soil was getting worse, we were noticing that there were a lot less animals—both the large scale animals as well as the small scale animals—we would notice that we would till a field and afterwards our dog, our barn cats, the birds, all these animals would just line up around the edge of the field waiting for the feast that we had just killed it in this field and they would dig in a find it. And it just felt wrong.

Paul Kaiser: Yeah tillage wipes out snakes, wipes out gophers, wipes out ground nesting birds, wipes out the native bees, which are almost all ground nesting, tillage physically destroys macroorganisms, as well as the microorganisms, fungus, bacteria, protostomes and that’s only half of why tillage is bad.

Adam Taggart: Wow. We’ll get into some of the specific practices you shifted to, but what helped you—what were your influences when you picked your head up and said there’s got to be a better way to do this. How did you guys begin to discover—was it trial and error or were there influences? You mentioned observation, which I know is a big part of permaculture, but were there practices out there that you then began looking at more closely?

Elizabeth Kaiser: Well Paul’s background, as he just mentioned, was agroforestry and agroforestry is actually the precursor to permaculture. So I think that allowed us to look at it differently.

Paul Kaiser: So by virtue of really having a focus on the ecology and agroforestry and putting in perennial hedge rows we wanted to encourage our beneficial insects, the pollinators, etcetera, as well as songbirds and snakes to have habitat and food resources year round so that we would have our pest control taken care of for us.

We put in these perennial hedge rows—small shrubs and plants that would be there around the perimeters of the fields. And the more we began putting in perennial hedge rows, the less room there was for tractor turnarounds and tractor plowing and tractor disking. Plus with the active encouraging wildlife with hedge rows and then killing wildlife with the tractor, it just seemed so bassackwards that we had to shift how we were doing things. We were very fortunate to get, still currently our longest employee, Marty, has been with us now five or six years. He’s on paternity leave right now, which is wonderful, taking care of his newborn son, but Marty was a phenomenal employee and he came to us from the UC Santa Cruz CASFS program, which is the farming/gardening sustainable agriculture program and his Ph.D. actually was in the history of organic Ag and…

Elizabeth Kaiser: Nutrition.

Paul Kaiser: Nutrition and human nutrition. So his Ph.D. work, not to mention all the other prior work, really got him in tune on the same level as us with ecological principles, soil principles and beneficial management practices for farming. When we hired him for that summer, as winter approached we realized we don’t want to lose this guy. We have to figure out how to grow food year round to keep Marty on our farm. He is a priceless employee to have. Priceless ally and friend to have on our farm. So we began going year round as soon as we hired him, and it was this combination of trial and error between him and us that allowed us to figure out methods to manage soil and manage continuous crop production year round while building soil fertility and also having the revenue to pay him. So it was really finding an amazing person and realizing the ecological destruction going on through tillage.

Adam Taggart: Great. Well let’s get into the details then about what practices you actually started employing there. Tell us about the practices that are having the greatest success on your farm. Here’s what I’ve heard about it: that Singing Frogs Farm has over four feet of fertile top soil and that compares with most other Northern California farms, which have less than one. Second, as you mentioned, you don’t till or disk, and you water it less than other farms and yet productivity is much higher than other farms including other organic farms. I’ve read that you get 5-7 harvest a year, versus the standard, sort of, 1-2. And then I’ve also read that you’re grossing over a hundred thousand dollars per acre, which not only dwarfs other small organic farms that we’ve heard of, but it exceeds the yields that vineyards—which your farm is surrounded by—enjoy. So first off, are all those stats true? And if so, what specific practices do you attribute your success to?

Paul Kaiser: Yes they’re true, and I certainly need to qualify those but yes they are true. We are producing about ninety-five to a hundred thousand dollars in gross revenue per crop acre, per year. The vineyards around us are only doing about eleven thousand per crop acre, per year—that’s the Sonoma County average. And that’s actually the California State average for small scale, diversified, direct market family farms like ours. It’s also about eleven to twelve thousand dollars per crop, per year as the average. Good farmers, friends of ours, neighbors, other people in the county are doing more like fourteen to twenty two thousand dollars per crop acre, per year, but it’s still far below our 5-7 sequential crops in any given square foot of bed space that totals ninety-five to a hundred thousand dollars in sales per crop acre, per year.

Adam Taggart: Wow.

Paul Kaiser: Now in terms of top soil, I’ve been to farms that have 30, 60, 90 feet of topsoil for sure. It depends on where you go and yes many farms only have a foot of topsoil. The difference really comes down to how deep is the healthy plant-available soil that is full of the nutrients that your plants want. How deep is that layer and where do you have a hardpan, if any at all? Because tillage produces a hardpan, and so you have deep ripper teeth that can help break up a hardpan and allow for a little bit deeper drainage of your soils but we had a fellow working on the farm…

Elizabeth Kaiser: Well just to go back on that, so generally when you’re tilling your disks or whatever you’re tilling with, they will only go a certain depth…

Adam Taggart: Right.

Elizabeth Kaiser: …and they will always go that depth so you’re only tilling a certain section of that soil and then the rest does not get tilled and so it becomes compacted and…

Adam Taggart: You get that hardpan? Yeah.

Elizabeth Kaiser: Yes exactly. So that’s what happening there. We think about it, I think, very much in terms of soil carbon. Soil carbon is a lot of what composes the topsoil. It’s what we need for the soil structure. We also think about it in terms of nitrogen, and the carbon and nitrogen…

Paul Kaiser: Well briefly, the soil is really composed of air, water, and mineral.

Elizabeth Kaiser: Yep.

Paul Kaiser: And a little bit of organic matter. Air, water, and mineral alone is basically a beach or sand dune because mineral is just rock.

Adam Taggart: Yep.

Paul Kaiser: It’s the organic matter that you add into soil that makes it soil…

Elizabeth Kaiser: Yes.

Paul Kaiser: …as opposed to sand or a beach or a sand dune. So that organic matter— when you pick up a handful of dirt and you smell it, what you’re smelling is the organic matter. That’s the life in the soil. Otherwise, soil is just air, water, and mineral. That organic matter typically only composed about 6-10% of soil around the planet and that’s in agriculture lands.

Elizabeth Kaiser: Well that’s pre-agricultural lands.

Paul Kaiser: Pre-human-cultivation, but that’s agricultural lands around the planet used to have 6-10% organic matter. With the advent of cultivation and tillage and plowing and disking, humans rapidly bring that organic matter levels in the agriculture soils down to 2%, 1%, 0.5%, 0.25% etcetera. So the very act of tillage is removing the very thing that makes it soil and makes it alive and helps our plants survive.

Elizabeth Kaiser: The part that I think is important is where is that carbon going? That carbon is going right up in the air and that is a major contributor to greenhouse gases. 11-14% of greenhouse gases come from agriculture—and that is not the diesel in tractors, that is not trucking things across the country, that is by the act of tillage breaking up the soil, bringing oxygen in there, sort of like a turbo charger on an engine volatizing the carbon but also the nitrogen and putting it up in the air. Those are the two things that farmers need most in their soil and by the act of tillage we’re putting it back up.

Adam Taggart: Wow and you said about 11-14%?

Paul Kaiser: 14%.

Elizabeth Kaiser: Yeah.

Paul Kaiser: Of global greenhouse gas emissions are from agriculture.

Adam Taggart: Wow.

Elizabeth Kaiser: Isn’t that incredible? People don’t talk about that…

Adam Taggart: No they don’t.

Elizabeth Kaiser: …and it frustrates me. They talk about transportation, they talk about industry, all of that but they don’t talk about agriculture.

Adam Taggart: Interesting. I mean our listeners know from past discussions a lot the evils of modern Big Ag farming but we’ve now found another important one to add to the list.

Paul Kaiser: To add to that, two-thirds of planetary soil carbon has already been lost through tillage and cultivation and farming, through creating food for humans. Over 10,000 years we’ve already lost two-thirds of planetary soil carbon, most of it in the atmosphere. We only have a third left. That’s it.

Elizabeth Kaiser: Okay now let me the hopeful one: You can put it back.

Paul Kaiser: You can put it back and that’s part of what being no-till is about.

Elizabeth Kaiser: Yes. The way that you put back is via photosynthesis. Because when you have photosynthesis, what you’re doing, the plants are taking sunlight and they’re taking carbon dioxide, they’re bringing it in and they’re creating glucose then they’re resynthesizing that into all sorts of other carbon based products. Plants then push out through their roots as an exudate 30-40% of the carbon based-products that they make from Co2. Not for their own use. They’re feeding the soil. They’re feeding the microorganisms that are down there in the soil and that is how we can get that carbon back out of the air and into the soil, and that’s what really excites me.

Paul Kaiser: So if you have a picture of a tilled field in your mind and think about the fields that you’ve driven by on a highway and you see all the plowing and tilling going on and the result is a bare blank slate. It’s just bare earth exposed to sun, exposed to wind, and no plants in it. Well photosynthesis is the one single factor that feeds our soil organismic and sequesters carbon back in the soil, and then you have tillage creating bare soil with no photosynthesis happening, no plants on it, what do you have? You have dying soil.

Adam Taggart: Right.

Paul Kaiser: That’s releasing greenhouse gas emissions and creating pollution, depleting the soil, and dying. It’s very simple.

Adam Taggart: All right. So we understand sort of how modern standard farming practices kill the soils, as you just mentioned. We understand that your farm has a much deeper level of micronutrient rich, carbon rich soil; how are you getting it?

Paul Kaiser: A lot of people, especially with some of the articles that are written about us like to focus on the compost aspect. We like to focus on the no-till and soil management practices. There are many tools in the tool bag that allow us to improve our soil management for much better outcomes. We’ll talk about those tools first and then the results.

So one is we definitely—there is no-till. I want to specify no-till right now. There are two kinds of no-till out there. If were to do a Google search for "no-till" you would find the mechanized version of no-till and mechanized no-till is still tractor based, it’s usually used for corn, soy, wheat, all those big monocrops in the Midwest.

Elizabeth Kaiser: This is actually a really positive thing. In the United States over the past few years a huge percentage of our grain production is no-till, anywhere from 10-60% depending upon the product like he just named.

Adam Taggart: Is that a change from how it was before or?

Elizabeth Kaiser: Yes very much so…

Adam Taggart: Okay.

Elizabeth Kaiser: I’ve talked to farmers who farm in Kansas farming wheat and sorghum and they say that they are having the climatic conditions as their grandparents had in the dustbowl…

Adam Taggart: Dustbowl?

Elizabeth Kaiser: …era but that it’s holding the soil together, which that’s fantastic news. The negative side to that…

Paul Kaiser: Of the mechanized no-till.

Elizabeth Kaiser: …of the mechanized—and we want to differentiate the two, is that one of the main ways that people—or one of the main reasons for tillage is to deal with weeds. So these farmers, those conventional farmers when they’re not using tillage to deal with weeds you can guess what they’re using. They’re using…

Adam Taggart: Pesticides.

Elizabeth Kaiser: …well herbicides.

Paul Kaiser: Herbicides.

Elizabeth Kaiser: So much higher usage of herbicides and that’s usually glyphosates, which is very unfortunate. Also, their version of no-till means only tilling every second year or every third, fourth, or fifth year. They’re still doing tillage in there, so they’re creating…

Adam Taggart: It’s not no-till then, it’s kind of less till?

Elizabeth Kaiser: …yes.

Paul Kaiser: Well yeah the good part is they’ve really changed how they approach soil management and they’ve really changed their thinking and they’ve made a huge leap in that regard and that’s excellent. Unfortunately, it has brought along baggage like glyphosate, Roundup.

Adam Taggart: Yeah.

Paul Kaiser: And that has actually drastically increased in its usage the herbicides because of the no-till movement.

Elizabeth Kaiser: Yeah.

Paul Kaiser: But that’s mechanized no-till.

Elizabeth Kaiser: Yes and we are different.

Paul Kaiser: We are non-mechanized no-till. We do not use a tractor at all. We don’t use any kind of mechanization process for our no-till management. We’re people based.

Elizabeth Kaiser: No rototillers, no…

Paul Kaiser: We’re labor based.

Elizabeth Kaiser: …yep.

Paul Kaiser: We have an exceptional crew of employees who do a really amazing, highly skilled job of managing our soil on our farm. How do we manage soil? Well there are three ways that the USDA talks about repeatedly, as do all soil scientists, are three main factors to focus on for better soil. One, is disturb the soil as little as possible and the obvious answer to that is go no-till. The next two are to keep a diversity of living plants in the ground as often as possible and keep the soil covered and protected as often as possible. Well the second one, keep a diversity of living plants in the ground, that’s all about photosynthesis. If you have photosynthesis and you have a diversity of plants they are constantly feeding the soil and building back the carbon and nitrogen and the organism health in the soil so that you have the basic building blocks of nutrients for the plants to resist viruses, to resist disease, to resists pests, to grow better, to have more nutrient density.

We’ve all heard the numerous studies in Europe and the U.S. that have shown about a one-third decrease in nutrient density of our vegetables over the past half century. That’s because our organic matter has been declining rapidly over the past half century and we simply don’t have healthy enough soil to feed our plants so they can be nutrient dense.

Adam Taggart: So that’s like when you go into a major grocery store, you get a tomato, you eat it, it tastes like cardboard.

Elizabeth Kaiser: Cardboard.

Paul Kaiser: Cardboard.

Elizabeth Kaiser: Yes.

Adam Taggart: Got it.

Paul Kaiser: That third part was keeping the soil protected and covered at all times. That goes back to how sun and wind not only volatize nutrients out of the soil creating greenhouse gases and depleting soil, but it also creates greater temperature fluctuations in the soil by having it bare and exposed. Those temperature fluctuations are not preferred by soil organisms so it drives them deeper in the soil where their populations can be fewer because there are not as many resources for them to consume down there. So by having unprotected soil that is bare and exposed, like tillage creates, you are not only depleting soil but killing off organisms, reducing their habitat, reducing their food sources and volatizing nutrients, it’s just all negative.

Adam Taggart: Okay. So help me picture this in my mind then. So you’ve got a crop…

Paul Kaiser: Yep.

Adam Taggart: …that you’ve grown, it’s harvest time…

Elizabeth Kaiser: Sure.

Adam Taggart: …you come and you harvest it.

Elizabeth Kaiser: Sure. Broccoli.

Adam Taggart: Broccoli. Great. What happens to that patch where you grew the broccoli or whichever plant we’re talking about here?

Paul Kaiser: So typically, oh go for it.

Elizabeth Kaiser: Well we will first harvest out the broccoli and…

Adam Taggart: So you have all these…

Elizabeth Kaiser: …we have all…

Adam Taggart: …stalks without broccoli anymore because…

Elizabeth Kaiser: …we have all the stalks with leaves and stems but no broccoli. We are going to cut out the plants, we’re not going to pull them out by the root, we’re going to cut at the surface level or slightly below the surface level, leave that root structure in the ground because that is phenomenal food for the organisms in the soil, and also by tearing it up we’re really opening up that soil a lot. Then we’re going to take that organic matter from the broccoli plant, it’s quite a lot. It’s a really hefty stalk, all these leaves, and we’re going to put it in our compost piles. We make and use quite a bit of compost. Then…

Paul Kaiser: After the plants are cut and removed, then we go back and put down a fresh layer of compost and transplant the next crop in. So, I’ll use cauliflower, if we harvest a cauliflower Wednesday morning for our CSA, by Wednesday late morning cut the plants out, throw them in the compost pile, put down fresh compost and Wednesday afternoon transplant the next round of mini romaine lettuces or bulb fennel or leaks into the same bed.

Adam Taggart: And you’re just planting them directly into that fresh layer of compost?

Paul Kaiser: Yes.

Adam Taggart: You put over the roots of the old cauliflower?

Paul Kaiser: That means that same afternoon you have newly deceased cauliflower roots beginning to die and decompose, to feed the decomposers in the soil; simultaneously you just put in brand new roots of brand new transplants that are already beginning to photosynthesize and feed the soil organisms so the soil organisms never have a window where there’s no food for them. They always have a constant food source going into their soil.

I want to throw a comparison by, which is if we using tillage to transfer one crop to the next crop that cauliflower would be done on Wednesday morning and we might do that afternoon or the next day or the next week—we might plow it all under and then you have to wait a few weeks for decomposition to begin and then you go back with a tiller and till it up to chop it more finely to help that decomposition process more rapidly, then you wait a few weeks for decomposition to really kick in and get towards the end, at which point you can do a final pass of the tiller and then you might do a tilther and then you’ll plant your seed bed. You’ll sow your seeds, wait a week for germination and then wait three more weeks until you have a plant that’s the size of a transplant. That whole process from one standing crop to the next transplant-size standing crop, on a typical tillage based farm, is 7-11 weeks. That’s 7-11 weeks with multiple passes of tillage and bare soil the whole time. In our system it’s about four or five hours without any tillage.

Adam Taggart: Yeah.

Paul Kaiser: We constantly have photosynthesis, constantly have food production. Those 7-11 weeks I could have had two crops of mini romaine lettuces producing economic returns for me.

Adam Taggart: Right so…

Paul Kaiser: While building soil.

Adam Taggart: You’ve collapsed the weeks to hours, which is…

Paul Kaiser: Yes.

Adam Taggart: …amazing in itself. You’ve reduced the environmental degradation that all…

Paul Kaiser: Yes.

Adam Taggart: …those tilling practices would do to the soil, which you detailed earlier how injurious they can be to the land, and economically you’re given yourself basically two months to grow more crop in. Correct?

Paul Kaiser: Exactly.

Adam Taggart: Yeah.

Paul Kaiser: Hence we’re doing the 5-7 or 4-7 sequential crops in the same bed over a 12 month cycle, whereas most farms do one, maybe two crops sequentially in their fields for a year.

Adam Taggart: Okay. Wow so it sounds simple and seems like it makes a lot of sense.

Elizabeth Kaiser: I think all natural systems are very simple but yet very complex.

Paul Kaiser: Easy and complex. When people ask us about it there’s a three step process. Pull the old crop out, put on compost, put a new crop in. It’s that simple, but if it were that simple everyone would have already been doing it. It is incredibly complex and it requires a whole lot of very holistic thinking and holistic management and observation and presence on the farm. You’ve got to be walking your farm every day. You’ve got to keep track of things. Part of that makes it successful is that we don’t leave an old crop that’s been harvested for three or four days or another week and let the weeds begin to come in. Once you have the weeds coming in, it makes a no-till system very challenging. But if as soon as you harvest that crop, pull it out and get the next crop in, you’ve not allowed the weeds a chance to grow bigger than the expired crop and, therefore, produce flowers and seeds. And by putting on surface applied compost repeatedly you are suppressing any weed seeds—so you’re actually putting on a mulch layer with that surface applied compost before each crop.

Adam Taggart: Okay.

Elizabeth Kaiser: So we have weeds but we basically do not weed because the weeds are always going to be below the canopy of those plants. The plants are always ahead of them. They’re healthy, they’re going in as transplants and the weeds have a mulch covering them so they’ve got to break through that and they’re far behind the plants. So we will deal with them once we’ve harvested out the crop. We always have weeds but they are small, they are minor, and we don’t bother with them.

Adam Taggart: Okay. So if it gets to the point in a certain area where you have a weed problem, where the weeds have gotten too big or whatever…

Elizabeth Kaiser: Sure.

Adam Taggart: …is it the manual process of okay everybody we’re spending the next couple of hours, just everybody walking and grabbing—is it manual hand…

Paul Kaiser: It is.

Adam Taggart: …type of process?

Paul Kaiser: If the weeds get out of control it is really challenging to regain control. We have tried the horticultural sheet composting and sheet cardboard method to cover a bed. We’ve also used some black filter fabrics and black masking fabrics so we can cover a bed without solarizing it. The fabrics are always breathable, so in fact you have increased soil biology and insect decomposer activity under those black fabrics while the weeds are being killed and decomposed. That’s usually used to reclaim new land or if we do get behind and a bed gets a little bit weedy on us we can cover it with a black fabric for a few weeks or a month and that helps us to reclaim the bed without having to do the manual labor of weeding.

Elizabeth Kaiser: We’ll also use that if we’re not ready for the next crop quite yet, which is very rare, but say at a certain time in the season we’ll want to put out all of our pepper and eggplant plants all at once so we’ll need quite a few beds all at once. So in preparation for that we’ll cover some so that, like these three rules that he was telling you, the soil is still being covered and you’re not allowing the weeds to grow and you’ve got active organisms working under there but when you open it up it’s like chocolate cake under there. It’s lovely.

Paul Kaiser: Okay. So one thing I’d love to mention is about the soil biology. We have tested our total soil biology and also done a PLFA test, phospholipid fatty acid test and we’d like to do other tests as well. On the chart for that test, if you have a 500 nanograms per gram unit return you have poor soil biology. If you have 1,500 units you have average soil biology and if you have 3,500 units you have excellent soil biology. Our tests have repeatedly come back between 3,800 and 6,000.

Adam Taggart: Wow.

Paul Kaiser: So almost double the category excellent for total soil biology.

Elizabeth Kaiser: In terms of just health there are a lot of correlations being done right now between the probiotics and the positive biology that we have in our own system that we’re learning so much about, being part of our immune system and helping us. We don’t even understand it. There is very much a similar situation happening in the soil and people don’t understand. We go to UC Davis and ask researchers there and "oh, we don’t know and well, it looks like and well but maybe, but we can’t," those are the answers we’re getting. It seems as if, you know…

Adam Taggart: Well it makes a certain logic, right, I mean the higher the micronutrients of the soil and the higher the biotic content of the soil the higher the biotic content of the fruit, right?

Elizabeth Kaiser: Yes.

Paul Kaiser: Exactly. There have been a few organizations and non-profits that are beginning to study soil nutrient density and crop nutrient density and they’re finding absolute strong direct correlations between those. They’ll take the same seed packet, divide them amongst 14 farms and measure the soil quality on the 14 farms and measure the nutrient density on the 14 carrots and they find absolute correlation between nutrient density of the soil definitely affects the nutrient density of the crop. We’re thrilled by that.

Adam Taggart: Great. Well kind of in my earlier point, I said it seems simple, clearly it’s not that simple, but it seems like what you’re doing could be done by others who…

Elizabeth Kaiser: Yes please.

Adam Taggart: …go up the same learning curve as you guys. So are people beginning to take notes? What is keeping the rest of the, at least organic farming industry from just marching in lock step right behind you and what you’re doing? And I’m going to sneak one more question in there too, which is I mentioned earlier people have called your approach, sort of organic farming 2.0, meaning it adds a twist, some certain improvements on the standard organic farming beyond the no-till part; are there any other parts of it too that you would say, hey, here’s what we’re doing that we wish other people would copy too?

Paul Kaiser: I’ll answer the second one first because it’s a quick one.

Adam Taggart: Okay.

Paul Kaiser: We don’t even use organic pesticides or organic herbicides or organic fungicides; we don’t use any organic sprays. We don’t use any conventional sprays. Most organic farmers in our community they still use one, two, or three different organic pesticides, and those pesticides still—they don’t read name tags to find out if you’re a good bug or bad bug, they still kill indiscriminately. As soon as you begin to use an organic or a conventional pesticide once, you’ll wipe out both your predators and your pest insects. So your beneficials and your pests. And if you wipe out the beneficials and pests, guess which ones come back faster: the pests do. They’re like the cockroaches and the rabbits and the deer, they populate faster. So as soon as you use a pesticide once, you have to keep using it. It’s a pesticide treadmill. We talked about it a lot and that’s the same in organic. I really wish all organic farms could get back to the real founding principles of organic agriculture, which was not to use those kinds of off-farm resources but to really focus on creating a healthy, resilient, viable, mother nature ecosystem on your farm and around your farm to do all that pest control for you. We have not had any aphids this entire spring or winter despite the fact that half of our acreage is covered in brassica’s and fava beans that are magnets for aphids. We just haven’t had aphids.

Elizabeth Kaiser: In addition to that there is very well-known rules, like you don’t plant tomatoes in the same place year after year. You don’t cucurbits, like pumpkins, and cucumbers in the same place because you get buildup of viruses. We haven’t found that to be true at all. We’ve got our tomatoes in the same place, year after—well not exactly the same place but similar places.

Paul Kaiser: But we haven’t had any viruses or diseases…

Elizabeth Kaiser: We have not.

Paul Kaiser: …of any kind and so the crop rotation for us is not about insuring that certain crops don’t fallow themselves in the same spot; for us the crop rotation is all about just drawing down different nurtrients in the soil.

Elizabeth Kaiser: Right.

Adam Taggart: Right. Making sure…

Elizabeth Kaiser: And utilizing different ones.

Paul Kaiser: And having just diversity of things in the field constantly. So we grow 140 different crops but a crop rotation for us is more about just diversity and beauty and drawing down different nutrients.

Adam Taggart: And just to be clear, that’s 140 different crops on three active acres? Right is that true?

Paul Kaiser: Yes.

Elizabeth Kaiser: Correct.

Paul Kaiser: You got it.

Adam Taggart: Wow. That’s super impressive.

Elizabeth Kaiser: I’ll talk a little bit to your question about other farmers. I think it’s really hard to change, especially if you’ve been told one thing and this is how we farm and this is how we farm and you see everybody else farming that way and you have John Deere selling you tractors to do just this and you’ve workshops on what kind of implements you need as a small farmer or a large farmer and that sort of thing. I think it’s really scary to look at doing it differently. How would you do that? We often have two different responses when we tell people about our farming system and one of them is, "well, you couldn’t do that on a large scale," or "how would you scale up?" Usually that’s the first question and I think that’s, you know, "if it’s good, make it bigger and better or make it bigger, bigger, bigger, bigger, bigger," right? For us I think the point is—well first of all that is actually why we started talking about our revenue. It’s not that I want to boast and no, no, no, no, it’s to say wait, don’t put us down because we’re a tiny… you know, you know, "oh, they’re just a backyard garden basically."

Adam Taggart: Well it opens ears.

Elizabeth Kaiser: We’re not a backyard…

Adam Taggart: It’s hard to dismiss when you have, you know…

Elizabeth Kaiser: …right.

Adam Taggart: …results like that.

Elizabeth Kaiser: When we have three acres that we’re doing ninety-five to a hundred thousand per acre, we’re not producing what a normal three acre farm produces. We’re producing more like what a 20 acre farm or 25 acre farm does. So we’ve used that number more to show this is important. And then on the other side wouldn’t it be phenomenal to have a 100 three acre farms closer to city centers, rather than three 100-acre farms 200 miles away?

Adam Taggart: Right.

Paul Kaiser: So we really want to focus on scaling up the number of small farms…

Elizabeth Kaiser: Yes.

Paul Kaiser: …near population centers.

Elizabeth Kaiser: Yes.

Paul Kaiser: That’s the way we can scale this up. Yes I could also do this on ten acres or 20 acres, we could, no question about it. It just takes a lot of management and a lot of awesome employees, but we could easily scale this up, we just don’t want to. We want to keep it at this three acre level. It really works well for us and it’s generating tons of revenue. So yeah, when farmers come to us and hear us speak at different presentations, one response is about scaling up and another one is they often say "that will never work on my farm. You can’t do it. I’ve got clay, I’ve got rock, I’ve got snow, I’ve got whatever" and I’ll get back to that response in a second, because the other response is "that’s awesome and I’m thrilled and I want to try it on my farm."

Honestly, she mentioned change is hard—for new farmers, people who have not yet actually broken ground on their own farm, they’ve just worked on other people’s farms, just getting ready to begin their own farm, if they come across what we’re doing and they come on a farm tour and hear us speak, they go back to their farm and they sell the plow, they sell the disks, they sell the tillers and they go straight to no-till and they’re thrilled by it. That actually goes to the example of you can do it on other soil types in other climates not just sandy loam in Sebastopol.

Elizabeth Kaiser: Right and there are three other farms in Sonoma County, our county here, that are starting these practices. We also have met a young farmer who was just starting up a couple of years ago, came from a different career down in Southern California and said "I want to try farming" and he started Googling soil health and farming and no-till kept coming up, he said, "great, I’d like to go find some no-till farms" and he couldn’t find any.

Adam Taggart: Couldn’t find any huh?

Elizabeth Kaiser: He visited 40 different farms in California and then he met us presenting at a California small conference and was just thrilled, but still at the same time then when he started up that season he said "everybody’s doing this tillage thing, you’re the only people—I don’t know if I can put all my eggs in that basket." So he split it 50/50. He did half of his farm in tillage and half of his farm in no-till. This is Michael Wearman [PH] and he and…

Adam Taggart: Hillview Farms in Auburn.

Elizabeth Kaiser: …his girlfriend Shannon are up in Auburn and they have very poor soil, it’s rock and it’s clay. Halfway through their first season they just looked at the differences between the two fields and…

Paul Kaiser: He was already making by September, October he had made about thirty-three thousand dollars in revenue on his no-till field and on his same size tillage field he made about four thousand five hundred dollars.

Adam Taggart: Wow.

Elizabeth Kaiser: Right.

Paul Kaiser: So an eighth of the revenue on the tillage field and then you look at the soil on the two fields and the field that had tillage, the soil was becoming concrete, it was crackling and drying, it wasn’t holding water, you couldn’t smell the earth, he couldn’t put his fingers in it.

Elizabeth Kaiser: Yep.

Paul Kaiser: And the no-till fields: Dig down deep with his bare fingers pulling up this deep, rich, black earth with earth worms breaking down the clay. It’s like the like the clay and rock didn’t stop the no-till. It was phenomenal. And so now this year he has converted everything over to no-till.

Adam Taggart: Wow that’s a great story. For those listening, Auburn is located what, probably about three hours away from us in California. It’s a lot dryer up there, it gets a lot hotter.

Paul Kaiser: And snow.

Adam Taggart: Yeah and colder too in the winter too.

Paul Kaiser: Yeah.

Adam Taggart: So you can easily see how tillage can kind of bake there in the sun and it’s great to hear that the no-till was unaffected by that.

Paul Kaiser: Yeah.

Adam Taggart: It is interesting. I don’t think he uses exactly the same practices you do but I’ve interviewed Jean-Martin Fortier, the market gardener, and I was amazed at what he’s able to do up in Quebec, because I’m from New England and Quebec was the place where we knew it was incredibly cold, our hardy New Englanders.

Paul Kaiser: Yes.

Adam Taggart: Short growing seasons…

Paul Kaiser: Yeah.

Adam Taggart: …harsh conditions and I think he was able to something like one hundred fifty thousand Canadian on an acre and a half or whatever, which is sort of roughly the same economics as you guys but it’s a testament to if you use these practices, they really can be applied in many different types of growing zones. You don’t have to be in Sebastopol.

Paul Kaiser: Right.

Adam Taggart: We do have a little bit of an embarrassment of growing climate here, good soil but…

Paul Kaiser: True.

Adam Taggart: Clearly you guys are out performing other farms in the area so.

Paul Kaiser: And another example is Elliott Coleman in Maine. Elliott Coleman with Four Seasons Farm, he’s doing the same kind of hundred thousand dollars in sales per crop acre, per year…

Elizabeth Kaiser: Yeah.

Paul Kaiser: …but he’s in his 70’s now, he’s looking towards retirement so he’s going to begin cutting back on his farming so he doesn’t work as hard, and what he’s cutting back on, he’s going to cut back on his summer crops. He’s going to focus on his fall, winter, and spring crops in Maine, on rock, in the freezing cold.

Elliott Coleman and Jean-Martin Fortier, both of them have very similar farming practices to themselves, to each other, as well as fairly similar to us but we have a very strong, heavy focus on soil and soil management and no-till and there are a few things that two of those heroes of organic, small scale Ag., there’s a few things that they could do to reduce the tillage for sure or even get rid of it entirely but we’re also sort of talking about the same kind of increasing productivity, increasing employment opportunities, skilled employment opportunities and trying to make it year round. It doesn’t matter the climate, it doesn’t matter the soil, it doesn’t matter the community—getting year round permanent employment, year round permanent food production for us humans who have to eat 12 months of the year and then doing it all in a way that could actually benefit the environment you’re growing your food in. Increasing the ecological returns, increasing the resiliency, therefore, decreasing water needs because your soil’s healthier.

Adam Taggart: Right. That just all sounds so great and it’s such an exciting time I think in this field because there are emerging models of success that are beginning to become apparent that you guys are right at the vanguard with along with some of the folks that you mentioned. For those folks that are listening to this, inspired by what you’re saying, what can people be doing to support this movement in their local areas? Not everybody’s going to run off and create their own microfarm, though some may want to, but is it joining the CSA’s that these companies might be running? Is it…

Elizabeth Kaiser: Certainly.

Adam Taggart: …yeah, what else can they do to basically be agitating for your vision of more small farms like this, doing the no-till practice?

Paul Kaiser: Every time you have a middle person, the story of how things get produced gets lost and the consumer of that product doesn’t know how it’s produced and can’t really give feedback to how they want it produced when you have middle people. So buying direct from your farmer, whether it’s a CSA or farmers market, is one great option, no question about it.

Elizabeth Kaiser: It’s becoming a little cliché but know your farmer.

Paul Kaiser: But the other…

Adam Taggart: It works is what you’re saying?

Elizabeth Kaiser: Yes.

Adam Taggart: Yeah.

Paul Kaiser: So in addition to not having that middle person between the producer and the consumer it’s sort of the same idea as the absentee landlord and they’re not going to have as much of a focus on the three legs of sustainability if they’re not at their farm managing it. So if you’re buying local food from a local farmer you know that they are not an absentee landlord, they are on their property, they are taking care of the farm, they’re growing it themselves, they’re aware of the ecological conditions on and around their farm. So you can have that discussion with them, saying "well, what are you doing for the beneficial insects on your farm? What are you doing for the native bees on your farm? What are you doing for the other songbirds and snakes and other wildlife that inhabit your farm? What kinds of hedge rows have you been putting in? How are you managing the soil?" So by having that direct conversation with the farmers themselves who are living on the land and growing that food you can elevate the level of conversation away from just the economics of toil and labor on a farm that’s based on tillage and everyone’s breaking their backs to do it, into a level of farming can be prosperous and it can be beneficial to the farmer, to the employees, and to the environment that it’s grown in, as well as the community that consumes the food. We can get that discussion elevated to new levels of a virtuous cycle where things all benefit from our actions and not get degraded from our actions.

Adam Taggart: Great, so not only know your farmer but get engaged, ask questions, ask which of these policies and practices they’re thinking of and if they’re not doing it then why not and all that stuff.

Elizabeth Kaiser: And we also realize that here in California we’re very lucky in having so many small farmers and the availability of organic produce. We’ve heard recently from a lot of people from other parts of the country where their only option is growing their own food. They can’t find any fresh vegetables that they really believe in or, yeah I’ll leave it at that.

Adam Taggart: Well yeah, but you know, even some of the people listening to this may actually have a couple of acres that they’re not using and may be able to attract some farmers that want to try their hand at three acres and this type of method.

Elizabeth Kaiser: That would be great because getting access to land for farmers is very challenging so helping young farmers access land is fantastic and a lot of the young farmers we know that is—they have that some sort situation like that where they’re getting very low rent or _____[00:42:46 over talking]

Adam Taggart: Right and then the capital hurdles for a young person to enter farming is really tough so anything that, you know.

Elizabeth Kaiser: Any small business. Yeah.

Paul Kaiser: Back to that focus on how to have that conversation with your local farmer: I love supporting backyard gardeners, I love encouraging backyard gardeners to view their backyard gardening management system differently, but we really have to change how agriculture works on this planet. 70% of the land area in the United States is managed by farmers or ranchers. That 70% of the land area is what we need to change. Backyard gardens, that’s a strong force of people but it means tens of millions of people to affect acreage, not hundreds of thousands of acres but just backyards. We need to change the few tens of thousands of farmers and ranchers who are managing hundreds of millions of acres across our country and the world so that we can get them to adopt better soil management practices, better ecological practices, to really elevate things so that our process by which we produce food also benefits positively the ecology that the food is grown in. We can’t just have a system that breaks even or deteriorates the system. We have to be regenerating the system through the very act of using that system.

Adam Taggart: Well said and I couldn’t agree more. Sadly I think few of us will hold our breath that the USDA and the Big Ag. consortium is going to mobilize on this in the time line that we’d love for them to but very important for us to be agitating for this change and doing all we can to promote it.

I want to segue to something you mentioned earlier because it’s based on a similar sense of frustration with sort of how the decision making works in the conventional Ag industry—you mentioned pollinators briefly. We’ve just had a very active discussion on the site around the plight of the pollinator, you know specifically the collapse of the honeybee population and, of course, we just know them as a signal species here, there are many other wild bees and wild pollinators that are just equally as important but we’re able to track the collapse of the honeybee population much more directly. A lot of that seems to be due to pesticides specifically a called neonicotinoids and…

Paul Kaiser: Yes absolutely.

Adam Taggart: …there seems to be a preponderance of data that—if it doesn’t prove—it strongly suggests that those pesticides are directly linked to the collapse of the pollinators and yet we are not taking the types of defensive measures you would expect for something as important as this, right? I mean we’re really sort of—we’re putting our ecosystems at risk and you would think at a minimum we might say look, why don’t we just not use that class of pesticides for a year or two until we have some conclusive data one way or the other.

Elizabeth Kaiser: You would think.

Adam Taggart: Instead we’re just saying, well, we don’t do more than what we’re doing but we’re going to continue what we’re doing until we know more. It’s kind of innocent until proven guilty where in a case like this you’d think it might be a little bit more wise to approach it from the reverse. Any comments on that and anything to talk about what you’re doing in your style of farming that is pollinator supportive, encouraging?

Paul Kaiser: The neonicotinoids are certainly one of many problems. It’s always complex. You never have a single black and white answer to a complex problem like this but if you look at the habitat and food and fodder resources for native bees and honeybees alike, we have dramatically reduced wild areas and we have increased monocrops and asphalt. So we have left our native bees and the domesticated honeybees with a challenge of no food and no shelter for them. When you take away their food and you add in the neonicotinoids, all of a sudden you’ve taken a very challenged population that’s already on the brink and not finding the right amounts of amino acids and proteins and vitamins to keep their own immune systems healthy and then you add in a toxin, a toxin like the neonics that obviously exacerbates the other problems created by loss of habitat and loss of food resources. You think about domesticated honeybees and just a few months ago in February and March when our almond crop was flowering in California, about 95, roughly 95% of all the domesticated honeybee hives in the entire country were here in California to pollinate our almonds.

Adam Taggart: That’s crazy.

Paul Kaiser: So what happens for five weeks? 95% of our honeybees in the country get one food source for five weeks. That’s like you or I eating a bowl of rice for breakfast, lunch, and dinner for five weeks.

Adam Taggart: Well it’s like you and I and everyone else in America crammed into one state eating just…

Paul Kaiser: That too.

Elizabeth Kaiser: That also.

Adam Taggart: …that rice.

Paul Kaiser: But if you think about, what would your immune system look like if you had rice three meals a day…

Adam Taggart: Right.

Paul Kaiser: …for five weeks and nothing else? Just one food source? It reduces their immune systems, it reduces their overall resiliency so that when you add in neonics and other environmental toxins of course it wipes them out. They’re weak. They’re not getting the food they need. So on our farm, we’re actually a certified bee friendly farm. We are a certified bee friendly farm. Not all organic farms can even be certified bee friendly because being bee friendly means you’re going a step above and beyond to ensure that you are not applying pesticides, not applying insecticides, making sure you’re not even putting herbicides down, because herbicides can negatively affect them, and making sure that you don’t do tillage because tillage—70 or 75% of native bees are ground nesting. What does tillage do? It destroys the entire top six to ten inches of soil so you’re simply wiping our native bees through tillage. There has been some great research out the University of California in Santa Cruz looking at domesticated honeybees and native bees and they found, at least here in the U.S., our native bees co-evolve with cucurbits like cucumbers, melons, squash etcetera and because of that co-evolution our native bees are far superior at pollinating cucurbits. In fact it only takes a few dozen native bees to pollinate an acre of cucurbits as effectively as an entire hive of 30,000 honeybees, domesticated honeybees. So not only are they more efficient, but domesticated honeybees it turns out are incredibly lazy. They don’t pollinate very well, they tend to fly in straight lines, they don’t zigzag around and they’re lazy and slow about it until you introduce competition in the form of native bees. Once native bees are present with domesticated honeybees, the domesticated honeybees actually triple the efficacy at which they begin pollinating.

Adam Taggart: Oh wow.

Paul Kaiser: So to have native bees in conjunction with domesticated honeybees is a boon to a farmer. Our cucumber production, we’re getting 800 pounds of cucumbers off of 250 bed feet, doing only 20 minutes of drip irrigation twice a week. We’re getting huge productivity.

Adam Taggart: Wow wait a minute you grow cucumbers and you do only drip irrigation twice a week?

Paul Kaiser: 20 minutes each on those cucs.

Adam Taggart: That is unbelievable.

Elizabeth Kaiser: That’s…

Paul Kaiser: Yeah.

Elizabeth Kaiser: …pretty normal for all of our crops.

Adam Taggart: Wow.

Elizabeth Kaiser: Yeah.

Paul Kaiser: And we never got to the water part.

Elizabeth Kaiser: No we didn’t.

Paul Kaiser: But when we started out farming and we were doing full organic tillage we were usually irrigating two or three hours of drip every other day or every third day. Now that we’ve gone no-till and brought our organic matter—we didn’t even mention organic matter numbers—now that we brought organic matter back up by 300%, we’re no longer irrigating two or three hours of drip every other day or every third, we’re irrigating about 50 minutes of drip once a week.

Adam Taggart: Wow that’s crazy. I sense that there’s whole other podcast there in terms of the whole water management aspect of this.

Paul Kaiser: There’s oodles of numbers.

Adam Taggart: Go ahead and finish that.

Paul Kaiser: And the number, we mentioned that soil organic matter starts at 6-10% and through tillage we bring it down to below 2%. There’s an important number here.

Elizabeth Kaiser: We as a society.

Paul Kaiser: We as a society. Every one percentage point of soil organic matter allows an acre of soil to hold an additional 16,500 gallons of plant available water in the top 12 inches. So if you go from 8% organic matter down to 1% organic matter, you have just lost the capacity to hold 100,000 gallons of water per acre in the top 12 inches. That’s where our drought resiliency has gone. We are suffering drought conditions not because of lack of rainfall entirely, but also because of a lack of soil…

Adam Taggart: We’ve stripped our topsoil.

Paul Kaiser: …ability to hold the water. So that’s part of why irrigate so little is because the water that we put into our soil stays right there and becomes available to plants really efficiently. So our soil organic matter used to be 2.4% at the beginning of our no-till experiment. Now we’ve been doing no-till five, six years, our 2.4% organic matter is back up to 8 and 9 and 10% soil organic matter.

Adam Taggart: Wow.

Paul Kaiser: We’ve brought it back to where it was natively before cultivation ever happened.

Elizabeth Kaiser: So that’s why we…

Paul Kaiser: In a short five years.

Elizabeth Kaiser: …can water so little.

Adam Taggart: Ah, that’s fantastic. It’s almost like your personal wetlands in the top of your soil there.

Paul Kaiser: Yes.

Adam Taggart: Fantastic. Well look it’s a great conversation. I know there are several topics that we’d love to have more time to go into deeply. Hopefully that just means we can have you guys back at some point in the future and delve into those.

Paul Kaiser: That would be great.

Adam Taggart: But very inspiring, and I’m sure people that have been listening are similarly inspired. For those that are, where can they go to learn more about your guys’ work?

Elizabeth Kaiser: You can go to our website, which is

Paul Kaiser: Frogs plural, farm singular.

Elizabeth Kaiser: …correct.

Paul Kaiser: Singing Frogs Farm.

Elizabeth Kaiser: And we are trying to get more information out there. We are also running a farm and have a family with small children, so that is challenging. We have all sorts of dreams about different ways to get this out there.

Adam Taggart: Okay great, but basically…

Elizabeth Kaiser: We’re working on it.

Adam Taggart: …go to your site and I know if you Google Singing Frog Farm…

Elizabeth Kaiser: Yeah.

Adam Taggart: …Singing Frogs Farm there’s actually a lot of previous interviews that you guys have given.

Paul Kaiser: And we post a lot to our Facebook page and we also offer a lot farm tours. We had about 900 people come on farm tours last year.

Elizabeth Kaiser: Right.

Paul Kaiser: So we’d love to invite you to check out our events page on the website to look for when we have public tours happening or you can schedule your own farm tour if you want as well. We do a lot of consulting based tours and other education.

Adam Taggart: Great. So people listening or find themselves in Sonoma County and want to swing by it’s a possibility?

Paul Kaiser: Yes absolutely.

Elizabeth Kaiser: It is a possibility.

Paul Kaiser: Call first or schedule through email. We definitely are very busy and have lots of interests.

Adam Taggart: Fantastic. Well thank you guys so much for coming here today. It’s been a great conversation.

Paul Kaiser: Thank you very much.

Elizabeth Kaiser: Thank you very much.

Tags: biointensive farming, rebuilding resilient food systems, sustainable farming