In a town less than an hour from the Rodale Institute Southeast Organic Center, organic no-till is finding a foothold in a the heart of a city.
The City of Alpharetta, Georgia isn’t large. With a population of just over 65,000 and lying just north of the major metropolis of Atlanta, the city didn’t let its size stop its commitment to improving its food system.
Small scale is something that Amanda Musilli knows all about. The Manager of the Community Agriculture Program for the City of Alpharetta, Georgia, Musilli also manages the Alpharetta Farm at the city’s Old Rucker Park.
This 2.5-acre farm, with half an acre in vegetable production, was built as an educational space for the local community to reconnect a new generation with organic agriculture. The farm follows organic and no-till management practices, forgoing the use of chemicals or heavy tilling of the soil.
Here, Musilli is able to bring organic farming to a whole new audience right in the heart of the city’s green space.
From Farm to Park to Farm
Before starting her job with the City of Alpharetta, Musilli worked for Whole Foods Market for 13 years, managing their educational farm. When Alpharetta purchased a piece of farmland that they wanted to turn into a park, Musilli knew that the spirit of farming had to stay alive for the community.
“This was an agricultural community up until about 50 years ago,” said Musilli. “Alpharetta is the fastest-growing city in Georgia, so farms are being sold every day…they’re being gobbled up by developers and being turned into residential areas.”
The city government agreed with Musilli that the community should have a way to connect to their agricultural roots and the food system.
“The farm will be an opportunity for the community to learn about the history of agriculture in the community and reconnect to that history,” explained Musilli. “I really believe that everyone has agriculture in their history, in their DNA, because otherwise they wouldn’t be alive.”
A key demographic audience for the farm to educate about the community’s agricultural past and future? Teenagers.
The Farm at Old Rucker Park partners with the local high school FFA program to demonstrate organic no-till strategies, CSA business models, and other hands-on activities to students.
The high school developed an agriculture business course for graduating seniors in which students can learn from farmers like Musilli how to operate a farm and begin a farming career. And from the outset, they’ll be learning organic no-till farming methods.
“We talk a lot about why we don’t till, why we leave roots in the ground,” shared Musilli. “For many of them, this is their first exposure [to growing food].”
As part of that business training, students will grow, package, and sell a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm share to teachers at their school. The money raised from the CSA program will be used for a student FFA scholarship.
For Musilli, it’s critical that the next generation focus on soil health.
“We have to bring that concept [of soil health] back and to teach people that that’s where it starts,” she explained. “It doesn’t start with your seeds or whatever inputs you’re putting on top or how much water. It starts from the soil.”
Many farms, conventional and organic, utilize tillage (the process of digging up and turning over the soil) to break up compaction, eliminate weeds, and incorporate cover crops and their nutrients into the soil.
However, this process also releases carbon into the atmosphere and breaks up crucial fungal networks. Because of this, some farms have decided to pursue no-till management, using cover crops to fix nitrogen in the soil and suppress weeds.
Eventually those cover crops must be removed to make way for the cash crop. No-till can be practiced conventionally, utilizing herbicides to terminate cover crops instead of tillage. However, organic no-till doesn’t use chemicals or tillage. Instead, special tractor implements like the roller crimper terminate the cover crop.
The roller crimper, first developed by Rodale Institute, have comprised a major part of Musilli’s curriculum. As a Whole Foods Market employee, Musilli followed the work of Rodale Institute closely.
The roller crimper is comprised of a steel drum fitted with chevron blades, meant to kill a cover crop by “crimping” its stem, without pulling it out of the ground and without chemicals. By using the roller crimper, farmers can create a cover crop mat on their beds, protecting the soil against sunlight, water, and suppressing weeds.
“I think the concept of soil health has been lost,” explained Musilli. “We have to work to bring that concept back and to teach people that that’s where it starts. And that’s what we demonstrate. That’s why we brought the roller crimper in.”
While many large-scale roller crimpers measure at about 8 feet, Musilli uses a small-scale version that attaches to the front of her BCS two-wheel tractor.
Convincing others of the benefits of the roller crimper, and other organic strategies that go above and beyond the norm, hasn’t always been easy.
“The biggest question I get is ‘Why?’” laughed Musilli. “I welcome that question and I think it’s an important question for people to ask.”
After explaining the benefits of organic no-till to human and soil health, Musilli says that everyone understands the draw.
A Community of Growers
Eventually, the City of Alpharetta hopes to have at least 6 parks in their community agriculture program.
Until they get the educational CSA set up, the Farm at Old Rucker Park has been donating the produce they grow to local food banks. Musilli hopes that no matter what form the farm ends up taking, it will always be a force of good for the city.
One day, the city hopes the community agriculture program can be a model of not only a sustainable food system, but sustainable living.
“We’ll teach people sustainable growing techniques,” said Musilli. “But the farm offers us a space to demonstrate other sustainable choices people can make at home. We want people to see that sustainability can be beautiful and healing, because a lot of people don’t think the two can go hand in hand.”
This curriculum could take the form of topics on sustainable lawn management, rainwater collection, native pollinator gardens, and more.
Musilli has high hopes for the farm and its potential to educate the next generation about the food system in a new way.
Her goal is to show students and the community that small-scale regenerative agriculture “is a viable business, it is profitable, and it is possible to make it work.”
And so far? Her students give her hope for the future.
“When I explain organic no-till to kids, they get it. The kids can see it,” Musilli laughed. “I have an 8-year-old. Sometimes she’s the one giving me my teaching analogies.”
Want to learn more about the roller crimper, and even make your own? Rodale Institute offers free downloadable blueprints of the roller crimper design.