The Littleton Food Co-op and the Vermont Healthy Soils Coalition (VHSC) are inviting North Country and Northeast Kingdom residents to attend a free series of six webinars, “Building Soil Health and Community Resilience." Starting Wednesday, Feb. 10, the series will feature two webinars a month, through April, with a focus on building resilience in soils and communities.
Webinars will highlight the power of soil health to support health and vigor in plants and people, while also supporting flourishing forests and agriculture, and building resilience in response to the challenges of climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic. Regenerative land stewardship, social justice, and land and food sovereignty will be discussed and recognized as integral to building community resilience.
Becky Colpitts, the community outreach coordinator at the Littleton Food Co-op, said she became interested in a soil health series when 2020 brought COVID challenges that demanded a community response.
After winning a grant to fund the series from the Cooperative Education Fund, Colpitts created community survey forms inviting people to say what they’d like to learn. The cut-off date for submitting surveys was mid-December. By that date, Colpitts said, “Over 70 people had gone online to register for the series, and people are still sending in completed surveys.”
Series participants will share ideas, identify resources, and collaborate to create soil health projects in their communities, Colpitts said. To register for the series, go to https://www.vermonthealthysoilscoalition.org/stories-from-the-north
“The winds of change have blown down our ‘houses of straw,’” said Cat Buxton of central Vermont, a compost educator, and VHSC co-founder. “I’m excited about the series, but what’s most exciting to me is the survey seeking information on what people are interested in learning.” Webinars will bring together speakers with the background and experience to respond to these interests, with “a strong focus” she noted, “on climate change and the effects of the pandemic on our communities.”
The power of soil health—produced by microbial communities feeding plant roots—to support health and vigor in plants and people, Buxton noted, also supports flourishing forests and agriculture, which both increase resilience during climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Opening the series will be Grace Gershuny of Barnet, a VHSC board member, and author of “The Soul of Soil,” now in its fourth edition, to discuss “Connections between Soil, Climate, Food, and Resilience” on a panel with two other women at the opening webinar, set for 6:30-8:30 p.m. on Feb. 10.
Joining her on the panel will be Stacey Doll, a permaculture educator, and designer from Littleton, N.H., and Kenya Lazuli of Every Town, a BIPOC-led project working in collaboration with the Northeast Farmers of Color Land Trust to ensure that at least one quality parcel of land in every town in Vermont will be held in trust permanently for BIPOC stewardship and access. BIPOC stands for “black, indigenous and people of color.”
Heidi Choate and Evan Perkins of Small Axe Farm, in Barnet, and Nancy and Michael Phillips of Heartsong Farm in Groveton, N.H., will present their work with soil in the second webinar, Feb. 24.
Michael Phillips, author of “The Apple Grower: A Guide for the Organic Orchardist,” has managed Lost Nation Apple Orchard for over 30 years. Nancy Phillips, an herbalist, grows and wildcrafts medicinal herbs and leads programs for adults and children.
At Small Axe Farm, high on a Barnet hillside, Choate and Perkins produce salad and cooking greens during the summer and sunflower shoots, pea shoots, and microgreens during the winter. In spring, they sow greens on a terraced hillside. Having built soil health by working in compost in their first years on the land, Perkins said, their terraced field now needs only minimal applications of compost to produce abundant crops.
A bright, multi-colored woodcut by Mary Azarian on the Small Axe label makes their bags of greens stand out on produce counters at the Littleton Food Co-op, the White Market in St. Johnsbury, and other area grocery stores. Asked about the “Small Axe” name, Choate said it comes from an African proverb: “If you are a big tree, we are a small axe,” asserting the power of ordinary people, and affirming that “any one person can make a difference.”
“My mom,” she said, “grew up on a dairy farm near Middletown, in western Massachusetts. I grew up in the woods, in a very low-income home, with gardens. Evan grew up on a homestead, the son of back-to-the-land people.”
Homesteading is a passion for them. “We’re hoping to leave the planet better than we found it,” they said. “Our goal for the farm is to be part of other people living their values. People have realized that when they buy produce they can promote their environmental values.”
Perkins learned about climate and carbon in the 1990s, and he now feels that theirs is one of many farms being managed to pull carbon into the soil and produce highly nourishing foods, practicing what’s called regenerative agriculture.
While Michael and Nancy Phillips have been on their farm for decades, they have much in common with these younger farmers. They met while working at a home for abused and abandoned children in New Hampshire.
“I became a gardener when I recognized my soul affinity for working with green plants and building healthy soil,” said Michael. He and Nancy moved onto land which had been farmed since the late 1800s in Groveton and started out raising vegetables and starting the first CSA (community supported agriculture) project in New Hampshire.
There were only a few wild apple trees on this old farm, which they named “Heartsong Farm,” where today Michael harvests abundant crops from the trees he has planted and tended over the past 30 years. They sell apples on fall weekends and deliver to The Root Cellar in Lancaster, the North Country Marketplace in Colebrook, and in Vermont, at Sweet Seasons in St. Johnsbury.
Michael has written four books, including “The Holistic Orchard,” which he says, clearly establishes the importance of health for all species. While Michael reaches people through writing and consults, Nancy appreciates working with people in groups, especially women’s groups, and celebrates the power of wild plants to work with human body systems.
The couple has a joint book project in the works, in which they will present ways to build healthy soil, and offer instruction in practical skills. On their websites, they present Michael’s books and Nancy’s programs.
Like so many others, whether they're backyard gardeners or dairy farmers, vegetable growers, herbalists or orchardists, Heidi Choate, Evan Perkins, and Nancy and Michael Phillip have rooted their lives in the life of the soil. Others who work to build resilient soils and communities, partnering with nature, will present their stories in March and April. Names were not available by press time.
For more information, visit www.vermonthealthysoilscoalition.org/stories-from-the-north