From Soil to Table - Skip Paul '68

Close your eyes and think of a farm. Perhaps a red barn comes to mind. Straight rows of corn stand at attention. A plow cuts through acres of soil, creating a clean slate for the next cycle of crops. This kind of farm – civilized, mechanized, regimented – makes Norman (Skip) Paul ’68 cringe.

Skip is a farmer. And by farmer, we mean scientist, teacher, innovator, and businessman. He’s also on the cutting edge of one of the most important movements in farming today, one that has the potential to transform the agriculture industry and – we venture to say – help save the world.

But we’re jumping ahead.

As you might guess, Skip wasn’t born into the farming profession (not many Potomac parents are in that field – pun intended). His father worked for the Kennedy administration as assistant to the undersecretary of defense under Robert McNamara, and Skip grew up in Northwest DC, in, he says, “a lovely house with a bomb shelter.”

Skip loved Potomac and credits the school with encouraging his curious, entrepreneurial spirit. At 67 years old, he still has vivid memories of the legendary John Langstaff. Skip was in the first class of students to partake in the now-familiar traditions – May Day, Morris Dancing, holiday Revels – that the young and energetic teacher celebrated at the school.

Passion for music stayed with Skip through college; he was a classical guitar major at American University. After a move to the Centennial State and realizing that he wasn’t going to be a Beatle, he opened health food stores in Colorado Springs and Boulder. When life and marriage moved him back to the East Coast, Skip decided to take his interest in healthy eating to the next level. So he and his wife, Elizabeth Peckham, bought a farm – the property now known as Wishing Stone Farms in Little Compton, Rhode Island.

Skip explains that, in Native American tradition, a wishing stone is a black pebble with a white stripe, found in Eastern coastal waters. The name, you might say, was both a tribute and a prophecy.

Wishing Stone was an organic farm from the start, but this was 1981. While ideas about organics had been percolating in counter-culture conversations for close to two decades, they were far from being mainstream. Books like Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring were cluing consumers into the dangers that pesticides presented to the natural world and human health. Whole Foods had just been founded by a college dropout named John Mackey. Michael Pollen had recently received his B.A. from Columbia and was 25 years away from writing The Omnivore’s Dilemma. In other words, Skip and Liz were ahead of their time.

Over the years, Wishing Stone Farms grew from a fourth of an acre to 55 acres. A roadside stand turned into regular appearances at regional farmers markets and direct sales to Whole Foods. Today, Skip, Liz and their son Silas – who is poised to take over Wishing Stone when his parents retire – sell to 28 restaurants in Providence and Newport. In addition, they have a popular CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program, through which customers receive regular deliveries of seasonal produce, with more than 400 members enrolled. Award-winning chefs also host dinners on the property, showcasing Wishing Stone’s latest harvest (heirloom tomatoes in July, for example, or celeriac in October).

Skip and Liz helped to define what “organic” meant to farmers and communities like theirs, translating what had been a lofty philosophy into a practical agricultural blueprint. “Skip Paul was a forefather of the organic farming movement in Rhode Island,” says Dan Lawton, former president of the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Rhode Island, which Skip helped found. Like any budding field, organic farming went through plenty of trial and error, resulting in some experiences that cause Skip to chuckle. He recalls, “When organic farmers were just getting started, we were swapping out commercial fertilizer for chicken manure. But we had no idea where that manure was coming from, or what those chickens were eating. If the manure came from a big commercial facility, you can bet it was full of hormones – not exactly all natural! These were the kinds of issues we had to figure out via trial and error as we went along.”

Skip’s commitment to pushing boundaries made him a respected leader in organics, a reputation that’s still going strong today. And at an age where many are considering retirement, Skip is in the middle of what he considers his most exciting and important movement to date: no-till farming.

In its simplest form, no-till farming is exactly what it sounds like: a method of planting and growing crops that doesn’t, at any point, include tilling the soil. To the uninitiated, this may sounds bizarre. After all, a plow and a farm seem as interlinked as Old MacDonald and his cow. And turning the earth between crops has long been standard practice for ridding the soil of harvest residue and weeds. Still, farmers have known for some time that this practice is deeply flawed.

Skip explains, “When you over-oxygenate the earth by plowing, you undo the glue that keeps the soil together. That’s what happened with the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.” Dust bowls – which still happen in places like Texas – are just a part of the problem. Poor soil health also leads to lower crop yields, reduced water retention, and a variety of other vexations.

So what is the glue, the magic, earthy cocktail needed to maintain soil health? To answer this question, scientists looked to an ecosystem that, unlike farms, requires little to no maintenance: the forest. “We started to ask ourselves, how come the trees in the forest stay green, have all of the nutrients they need, and take care of themselves with no interference from humans?” Skip says. This question led to the greatest revolution in organic farming since the birth of the movement. Instead of thinking of soil in terms of chemistry and geology, soil scientists began focusing on its ecology and biology. In other words, they started thinking of soil as a living thing. “Soil is full of microbes,” says Skip, “and each layer has its own ecosystem.”

Now, here’s where you’ll want to channel your inner scientist, perhaps last tapped in Miss Cahill’s lab in seventh grade: When soil experts examined the layers of earth around tree roots, they discovered that microbes are buttressed by a fungal-dominant system that, in turn, supports trees. These fungi (mycorrhizae, to be precise) link up with tree roots, spread a web of sorts, and essentially extend a tree’s underground capabilities tenfold. “The fungi and the tree have a symbiotic relationship,” Skip explains. “The tree essentially talks to the fungi and says, ‘I need some potassium,’ and the fungi finds it in the soil and channels it to the tree’s roots. In exchange, the tree produces sugars that feed the fungi’s biology.” The fungi not only reserve water for the tree, they also mine minerals that the tree needs and attract bio-chemicals that stimulate the tree’s immune system, protecting it from insects and disease.

These revelations prompted scientists to ask: If soils 10 and 20 feet underground have these intricate microbial networks, do the top 12 inches of soil – the farmer’s universe – have the same? The answer, says Skip, is yes. And plowing disturbs, if not destroys, these microbial colonies.

Recognizing this as a light-years leap in the understanding of what no-till could mean to organic farming, Skip stays on the cutting edge of the no-till revolution. Instead of plowing through corn stubble after a harvest, he uses a flail mower, which essentially turns plant remains into a tasty microbial coleslaw on the surface of the earth. “The earthworms love that stuff,” Skip says. He’s also working with soil scientists on ways to inter-seed cover crops in fields already established with vegetable crops. In other words, when a cash crop like broccoli is pulled from the ground, a cover crop like clover is already growing in its place. This not only prevents weed competition, but also ensures that the ground is always green and nutrient rich. In addition, Skip is working to mimic the diversity of a forest on his farm. For Skip, this means mixing a variety of beans and grains (Japanese millet and forage soybeans, for example) between cash crop plantings.

So let’s get back to saving the world. What would it mean for us non-farmers if no-till farming takes off on a large scale? Consider this: Agriculture is responsible for the release of catastrophic amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere – 25 percent of global CO2 emissions, or 476 billion tons over the last 150 years, according to leading soil scientists. A large-scale move from plow farming to no-till could sequester game-changing amounts of the greenhouse gas. Skip says, “If all farmers in the world switched to no-till farming, the soil could consume 110 years worth of CO2 in a matter of 70 or 80 years. We could put carbon back into the ground, where it belongs.” While that goal is lofty, things are moving in the right direction as commercial farms adopt the practice. Every year, millions of acres of farms are turning to no-till farming because of the results it yields, says Skip.

Along with its ability to fight greenhouse gases, no-till farming also brings us back to the old expression “you are what you eat.” When fruits and vegetables can use the soil’s natural communication lines to call in more nutrients, the foods are better for us. “When things like beets and carrots grow in a more biologically complex soil, they become more nutrient dense, with the selenium, zinc, and manganese that we need in our diets.” And if living soil has the potential to make plants healthier and more robust, there will be less need for pesticides to fight off bugs and infections.

Then there’s taste. While Skip is reluctant to link his farming methods to the taste of his food, others aren’t as shy in singing his praises. “Skip and his family run one of the most beautiful farms in our region,” says James Mark, chef and owner of the critically acclaimed Big King restaurant in downtown Providence. “They make our jobs much easier by growing some of the best-tasting and most distinctive produce available. We plan every menu around what they are growing. We are lucky to have them!”

So the next time you think of a farm, instead of visualizing neat rows of identical crops, or plows charging through old stubble, envision the farm of the future. A farm that’s complex and diverse, growing and decomposing, and as beautiful beneath the ground as it is above. At its very best, it might even evoke a era when the earth was a little bit more wild, undisturbed, and protected by people who believed in wishing stones.