One tank trip: See the down and dirty on regenerative farming at Whippoorwill Farms

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It's 5:30 p.m. mid-July, 95 degrees with a heat index of 102. Four motorhomes have already arrived, parked in shady spots, with four more expected at Whippoorwill Farms in Ridgeland, S.C., a small working homestead just 30 minutes from Savannah.

I’ve set up my tent within a cool, cleared out grove of pines where a nearby, newly constructed picnic table supports my flashlight, cooler, and water bottles. The nightly tour begins at 6:30 p.m.

Near the farm’s entrance we assemble, a group of agri-curious tourists from Boston, various parts Florida, and the Midwest all traveling the I-95 corridor eager to learn about what farmers Marissa Paykos and James Young are up to.

Chickens dart and cluck within large, shaded corrals. In the distance deeper in the forest, pigs squeal and grunt intermittently.

“How’s everybody doing this evening, hot enough?” Paykos asks. She smiles widely, her young daughter, Ellie, and German shepherd puppy, Bolt, at her side.  “Are you ready to learn about our humble operation here?”

We nod, smile, drink from our water bottles, and set out on a path around the farm.

Paykos and Young, a wife and husband team, began growing vegetables about five years ago on two acres in Jasper County, S.C. They enjoyed it and had success enough that the pair wanted to expand and raise livestock. Nearly two years ago they purchased 40 acres of overgrown, abandoned timberland in Ridgeland and began making their dream of Whippoorwill Farms a reality. Their mission — to build a healthy, sustainable ecosystem through regenerative agriculture.

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We head further into the trees where a healthy canopy rises above a noticeably cleared out understory. Here, chanterelle mushrooms punctuate the forest floor in dotted orange splendor.

Paykos points to the side of the path.

“Do you see the leaf litter there?” she asks. “When we purchased the land, it had been clear-cut 20 years ago and then not cared for. Without any management invasive trees like sweet gum and Chinaberry grew fast, and everything grew like toothpicks. James came in with heavy equipment and thinned the trees — we want some pines, oaks, and pecans to grow. That leaf litter was 18 inches thick all over and nothing could really grow. We brought the pigs into this area to root and work the ground, and now we have mushrooms growing, the pigs helped do that. The mushrooms are signs of a working, healthy system.”

Regenerative agriculture is not new. In fact, Indigenous cultures worldwide have practiced different forms for millennia, rotating animals through forests and open spaces and growing certain plants together so that one will replenish the soil that the other depletes.

In part, it works like this: a domesticated species, pigs for example, work a specific, fenced area for about a week, foraging and rooting, their inherent behavior mixing, fertilizing, improving the soil. Then the pigs are moved to a different location, and the area rests. A few weeks later, chickens are introduced, and they work it, eating different plants and insects, again fertilizing the soil with their excrement. At some point a cover crop is planted, and that helps maintain soil moisture and nutrients. The rotation, then, begins all over again.

Regenerative agriculture is 180 degrees opposite of large-scale, present day farming where monoculture is hard law of the land. Monoculture — growing a high concentration of one species in one space — is enemy of regenerative agriculture.

The tour concludes at the vegetable garden where tomatoes, beans, and okra are popping.

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“We don’t use any pesticides, herbicides, antibiotics or wormers,” said Paykos, as she points to a row of tomatoes. “You can see insects are munching on some of them, but that’s OK. Some insects on the vines are way better than dealing with chemicals.”

Paykos pauses, and then continues in a thoughtful, emphatic voice. “We’re doing this for our daughter so she can understand all of our actions matter. Everything we do has consequences. How we choose to live matters. If we can be a part of making the world healthier and more just, that matters most to me, to us.”

You can visit Whippoorwill Farms by registering online at Camp on the Farm—RVs and tent campers both welcome. You can also purchase their tasty meats and vegetables every Saturday at the Forsyth Farmers Market, every Sunday at the Root and Bloom Market in Bluffton, every Tuesday at the Hilton Head Coastal Discovery Museum Farmers Market, every Wednesday on Edisto Island.

Explorehttps://whippoorwillfarmssc.com/about/

Forsyth Farmers Market

https://forsythfarmersmarket.com/

Hilton Head Coastal Discovery Museum Farmers Market

https://www.coastaldiscovery.org/explore/events/farmers-market/

Root and Bloom Market

https://www.discoverrootandbloommarket.com/about

This article originally appeared on Savannah Morning News: One tank trip: See the down and dirty on regenerative farming at Whippoorwill Farms