I arrived at Frith Farm on a crisp and sunny October morning, the land all sparkling and misty following a much-needed day of rain. I immediately noticed the long beautifully aligned beds, covered in lush green vegetation, some of them vegetables, some of them a vibrant mix of rye grasses and other cover crops. At Frith Farm, growing cover crops to feed the soil takes on as much importance as growing vegetables to feed the humans. Both are given equal care and attention.
Stepping between the beds as I film farm owner Daniel Mays harvesting the ingredients for his roasted root vegetable recipe, I notice I’m almost bouncing from the soft squishiness of the soil underfoot. And when we get to the carrot beds, instead of using a digging fork to first loosen the soil as is usually done, Daniel simply grabs a handful of carrot tops, gives a light tug, and plump carrots slip effortlessly out of the ground. When you practice no-till farming, he explains, over time the soil becomes so deep and fluffy that a digging fork is no longer necessary to harvest certain crops. Soil health, you see, is the very heart and essence of Daniel’s work. It’s also a central topic in his new book, The No-Till Organic Vegetable Farm.
Daniel founded Frith Farm in 2010 just outside the town of Scarborough in Southern Maine. Armed with a graduate degree in environmental engineering and some farm work experience, he dove into his own farming venture headfirst. He describes his first years as being “filled with experimentation, countless mistakes, and the many joys of learning by doing.” Now, ten years later, the farm is the picture of abundance, efficiency, and beauty, feeding over a hundred local families and providing meaningful employment to a dedicated team of farm workers.
Frith Farm’s mission it to build soil, increase biodiversity, and strengthen community through the growing of wholesome food. Daniel’s farming practices are not only certified organic, but also guided by the principles of no-till farming, an agricultural technique for growing crops that avoids disturbing the soil through tillage, and fosters soils that are teeming with life. In order to achieve this, permanent beds are established and then disturbed as minimally as possible. At Frith Farm, use of farm machinery is kept to a bare minimum and almost everything is done by hand. Tractors are never driven over the beds and as in nature, the soil is almost never left bare, covered at all times by either living or dead plant matter.
According to the farm’s website, the benefits of this no-till system include:
- Less dependance on expensive machinery
- Less pollution from tractors and runoff caused by tillage
- Improved soil structure and reduced compaction
- More soil life and natural resistance to pests and disease
- Increased water holding capacity and resistance to drought
- More workers employed and a higher human to land ratio
No-till farming and regenerative agriculture has been gaining a lot of attention lately as a potential way to mitigate climate change (including in the new film Kiss The Ground.) This type of farming not only keeps carbon in the ground by avoiding tillage, but also draws existing carbon from the air and sequesters it into the ground through plant photosynthesis.
Daniel is quick to point out that although there is a lot of buzz around regenerative agriculture, we shouldn’t forget that this is a type of farming that has been practiced for thousands of year by Indigenous Peoples. In fact, many of the principles of regenerative agriculture have their origins in Indigenous agricultural methods. It’s not a new invention.
Daniel’s farm uses human labor rather than relying heavily on machinery. In other words, his farm prioritizes the creation of meaningful employment rather than buying a lot of expensive farm equipment. He explains that if he could push agriculture in one direction, it would be to increase the number of small farms, putting into application Gandhi’s words of ‘production by the masses’ instead of ‘mass production.’ As we know from the past 40 years, agricultural policy has done exactly the opposite as millions of small family farms have been driven out of business by policies that forced farms to “get big or get out.” I couldn’t agree more that what our food system needs is a small farm revolution, where small farms are fully valued for their role not only as food producers and job creators in our communities, but also for their environmental stewardship.
Daniel’s recipe for roasted root vegetables is simple: start with good quality organic root vegetables grown as locally as you can find them. You can use carrots, potatoes, turnip, rutabaga, parsnip, radishes, beets, celeriac, sweet potato. Chop them all up to similar size. Coat them with olive oil, salt, and pepper. Roast for 30 minutes at 425F. At the 30 minute mark, take them out, stir them around, add chopped herbs and garlic, and return to the oven for another 15 minutes or so, until they are nicely roasted and the garlic is fragrant and a little crispy but not burned.
I loved that Daniel served his roasted roots with deer meat burgers (from a deer that had been grazing in one of their fields) and a salad of just-harvested greens from the farm. As he says: “I really appreciate being able to eat from the land where I am, and become one with the eco-system. It’s such a connection to this place.”
I came home from my trip to Frith Farm feeling inspired. I pre-ordered Daniel’s book, planned for a whole lot more cover cropping in my garden next spring, and prepared a giant pan of roasted root vegetables, which I’ll be making again and again all winter long.
Daniel Mays’ Roasted Root Vegetable Medley
No-till farmer Daniel Mays prepares his Roasted Root Vegetable Medley, a delicious fall comfort dish that's easy to make and nutritious. Read more about this recipe in this Kitchen Vignettes post.
- Approximately 5 pounds of root vegetables (choose from an assortment of carrots, potatoes, turnip, rutabaga, parsnip, radishes, beets, celeriac, sweet potato)
- 2 onions (optional) peeled and chopped into medium pieces
- About 1/4 cup olive oil
- 8 cloves garlic, finely chopped
- 1/4 cup chopped fresh herbs such as a mix of thyme, sage, rosemary, or parsley (or 2 tbsp dried herbs)
- Preheat the oven to 425 F.
- Wash the vegetables.
- Chop them all to roughly the same size. Denser vegetables can be chopped a little smaller as they take longer to cook.
- Toss them with the olive oil, add salt and pepper to taste, and mix well to ensure the vegetable pieces are all coated with a bit of the oil. Add an extra glug of oil as needed.
- Arrange the vegetables in one or two large roasting pans, being careful not to layer the chopped vegetables on top of each other in the pan (otherwise they will steam and won’t get those nice crispy edges that roasting provides).
- Roast the vegetables for about 30 minutes.
- Remove and add the chopped garlic and fresh chopped herbs.
- Stir well.
- Return to the oven for another 15 minutes.
Cook Time: 45 Minutes
Yield: 4 servings
Aube Giroux is a food writer, a James Beard award-winning documentary filmmaker and a passionate organic gardener and home cook, who shares her love of cooking on her farm-to-table blog, Kitchen Vignettes.