Roots Return Heritage Farm
Lori Cox owns and operates Roots Return Heritage Farm in Carver, Minn. Cox, who was born and raised in Minnesota, returned to the state to pursue farming after 12 years of living in Washington state. She and her family work with their local conservation district – Carver County Soil and Water Conservation District – frequently. “I’ve always been interested in how things grow (and) always had a garden, but I’ve become more curious about what’s going on below the soil’s surface,” Cox told NACD. “Now I can’t imagine making a living outside of farming.”
The Roots Return Heritage Farm produces vegetables, herbs and fruit and uses cover crops the season prior to planting and rotating each year. “We are eligible for organic certification,” Cox explained. “We have a fruit tree orchard, berry orchard and table grapes on top of annual vegetables and herbs. We have dedicated 10 percent of our main field to provide CRP-supported forage for pollinators, and have planted fruit into pasture and sloping fields, keeping the aisles in grass or planted with perennial cover. We have also planted a native pollinator strip into our fruit tree orchard, as well as lilac and dogwood buffers around edges of the property for wildlife benefits. As part of our integrated pest management system, we keep hedgerows with woody-stemmed bushes for digging and burrowing pollinators, beneficial insects and spiders.”
Straw and grass hay is spread in between grape vines on sloped ground. The aisles are planted with rye and white clover.
Cox annually rotates cover crops on her main field and uses reduced till or ‘”alt-row till” by planting produce and cover in alternative rows.
“So far it’s working,” she said. “In late 2016, we were awarded the Minnesota Ag Water Quality certificate. We are on HEL soil and in our first year increased our organic matter by 0.5 percent with three species of covers. We had rill erosion, plus a large area washed out before we moved in, which is where we needed help from the Carver County Soil and Water Conservation District. They took baseline measurements of our soil profile to enable us to make more efficient decisions.”
The benefits of using soil health practices were immediate, Cox said. Soil erosion has decreased at the same time its water and moisture retention has increased. Nutrient retention has also improved, she said.
To better suppress weeds, Cox uses straw mulch between the grape vines, elderberries and some larger annual plantings. “We know it will improve our soil structure, organic matter and worm compost. Our rolling slopes saw immediate benefit from keeping it covered, and we know it also helps downhill and downstream.”
With predominantly sandy loam soils and rolling topography, it’s been challenging to keep things covered, Cox said. “I tend to not see wildflowers around here, so I pick covers that benefit pollinators. I also let some covers go perennial, as I’d rather have covers return over weeds.”
“The power of observation lets us know which areas aren’t optimal for growth, and we take care of it by not using it, applying more cover, or taking it out of production altogether. We trust the land to tell us the story of how unwell, or prosperous it is, just like our ancestors saw too.”
Updated July 2018.