Farming for the Long Term

By Ellen S. Gibson

Jason Russell: Farming for the long term

Farmer harvesting greens

Jason Russell and his wife, Jenny, own Stoic Oak Farm in Amherst, Maine. They moved here in 2017, after Jason separated from the Army. Jason is particularly interested in sustainable agriculture, a whole-systems approach to farming that mimics the productivity and resiliency of natural systems.

Jason contacted Maine AgrAbility because he was experiencing chronic pain from degenerative disc disease in his neck and lower back.

Certain types of farm work increase his pain substantially. He worked with Kelley Spencer, who is an Assistive Technology Professional (ATP) —that is, she specializes in recommending the tools that can overcome human limitations and enhance capabilities.

Jason’s farming philosophy is to create whole-farm systems that are diverse, resilient, and self-sustaining. Kelley’s work with Jason is similar: she wants him to be able to farm for the long term without compromising his health. Together, they looked at Jason’s farm tasks to decide:

  • Which to continue, which to drop?
  • If continuing with a task, how to do so safely?
  • What accommodations/AT tools are needed?

This is the work of Maine AgrAbility.

I recently asked Jason about his farming experience and working with Maine AgrAbility.

EG: What drew you and your wife to Maine?

JR: We were drawn to Maine by the beautiful landscapes and varying weather. I grew up in northern Pennsylvania. After living in the south for 15 years, I missed having four seasons and a real winter. We vacationed up here a few times and when I separated from the Army, we decided to move as far north as we could and give farming a go.

EG: What challenges have you encountered in your farming enterprises that you didn’t expect?

JR: The biggest challenge for me has been accepting that I am not as young as I used to be and I have disabilities that limit what I can do. I’ve learned that I have to pace myself and change activities when my body starts to protest. Trying to push through like I used to ends up limiting what I will be able to accomplish later. By pacing myself and varying activities, I can avoid downtime because of a beat-up body.

EG: You worked with Kelley from the Maine AgrAbility staff. She made suggestions about tools to try and ways to modify your work routines. Did this help address your challenges? Are there particular tools that you have found especially helpful? 

JR: Working with Kelley helped me realize that I don’t have to kill myself to get things done around the farm. There are techniques and equipment out there that can increase my working efficiency and decrease the stress on my injuries.

The two particular tools that have helped achieve this are a three-row seeder and a greens harvester. Both limit having to bend over to plant seeds or cut greens by hand and greatly reduce the time needed to perform these tasks. I can now plant or harvest a 30” wide by 50’ long row in a couple of minutes.

EG: Have you changed your farm routines to make the work easier on your body? 

JR: I have absolutely changed my work routines to make things easier. As much as possible, I let the tools do the work for me. For tasks that I know are going to flare my injuries, I pace myself and try to change positions as much as possible. I also take breaks. If none of that is working, I go do something else and come back to the original task when I’m able.

EG: How do you define sustainable agriculture?

JR: Sustainable agriculture is a way of farming that puts in more than it takes out. The goal on our farm is to create a regenerative and resilient landscape that will eventually take care of itself with minimal inputs from us.

EG: You have a degree in environmental science. Where did you go to school? When did you become interested in permaculture? 

JR: I received my degree from American Military University. I completed it online while I was still in the Army.

I discovered permaculture rather by accident. While I was still in the Army I was attending a 5- month-long school and living in a hotel room. I happened across a YouTube video on permaculture by Ben Falk. That led me to his book, The Resilient Farm and Homestead. After that, I changed my major from History to Environmental Science because it was the closest thing to Ecology the University offered. Later, I attended Falk’s Permaculture Design Course at Whole Systems Design in Vermont.

EG: What techniques do you use on your farm to promote sustainability?

farmer harvesting in gardenJR: We try to use minimal till techniques to promote sustainability on our farm. When we first break a plot we do an intensive till to disrupt the grasses and weeds that are in place. We plow to a depth of about 12” to turn everything over. Then we break up the sod with the tiller to create a soft, non-compacted bed. We cover the fresh till with black plastic to choke out the weeds and grasses for a few weeks or over the winter.

When it is time to plant, we create 30” wide beds that will become permanent. After that we only break up the top few inches to mix in organic amendments to create a seed bed. We rotate what we plant in each bed year-to-year. We hand-weed our beds and use uncolored cardboard and hardwood chips in the paths between the beds to further suppress weeds. The wood chips and cardboard decompose over time and build soil.

EG: What crops do you grow on your farm?

JR: We are in the process of working through what grows best and what sells. We sold starters early in the season, mostly tomatoes. In the field, we currently hit the market favorites like salad greens, spinach, kale, tomatoes, carrots, cucumbers, and such. We also had some success with okra. We have talked about doing some cut and potted flowers, but haven’t really gotten into it yet. We are also going to do Jack-O-Lanterns for the first time this year. We are trying to diversify to have lots of options on the table.

EG: What are your markets?

JR: We are currently exploring market options. Last year we stayed small. We had a roadside stand, made weekly deliveries to a local restaurant, and set up two small markets with local farmers and crafters. We would like to just keep expanding where there are opportunities.

EG: What are your 3-year, 5-year goals? 

JR: Our 3- and 5-year goals are to develop the farm into a self-sustaining and, ultimately, profitable venture. As long as it’s enjoyable we will keep expanding and growing. I think that has always been the goal.

EG: How would you sum up your experience with Maine AgrAbility?

JR: Maine AgrAbility has helped me keep farming enjoyable by teaching me it doesn’t have to be painful. How about, “Less pain, more gain”?

Thanks, Jason! Have a great season.-EG