Mt. Folly Farm partners on the Ohio River Valley Climate-Smart Markets grant from USDA starting summer 2023

We are excited to announce that we are part of a collaboration to offer cost-share and training for farmers who are adopting climate-smart practices like cover cropping and rotational grazing, and then to market the products through our online and main street stores. Learn more at

USDA climate-smart commodities

How We Got Here

In 2007-2008, as we were selling Laura’s Lean Beef and I was recovering from a horseback riding smash-up, a Donella Meadows Fellowship focused my attention on climate change.I had entered the program thinking the biggest environmental problems confronting agriculture had to do with the use of chemicals in farming, and, in economics, externalities, and, related to this, industry concentration.What I learned changed my mind. The facts are there – climate change is the whopper of a systems problem, the one on which the instructors at the fellowship focused. Since I had made a little money and had the inclination to work on complex problems, after the fellowship, my husband and I gathered up our possessions, sold our retirement place, and moved back to our farm in Kentucky. It took several more years and several iterations of our plan to get things moving forward again. We realized we were not spring chickens, so to make sure this project would outlive us, we recruited a team of young leaders to learn, take ownership, and carry on when we collapse.In the decade since the fellowship, my strategy crystallized.  Most climate activists are intent on stopping the burning of fossil fuels…shutting down the carbon pumps…and we are doing this too. We have installed solar panels, do our best to conserve, drive less, and so on. But the instructors at Meadows and their early models of climate change left out/didn’t emphasize using biological systems to drawdown carbon.  This is what we are doing.Our approach is multi-pronged and local. Here, in small-town Winchester, Kentucky, we have increased our commitment to the food system, starting a farm-to-table restaurant and a farm-to-bottle craft distillery, growing green employment while decreasing food miles.Simultaneously, we are developing our land as a carbon sink. The Rodale Institute and others say that it is possible to sequester all…let me say that again…all 52 gigatons of CO2 and CO2 equivalents emitted annually… by switching to farming practices which maximize carbon fixation while minimizing the loss of carbon returned to the soil.

Soil Samples

Then, there are trees. In Kentucky, Green Forest Works, a non-profit we support, has figured out how to plant trees on coal mine land.  With 400,000 acres of strip-mined land available, and at a planting rate of 680 trees per acre, quick math shows that 272 million trees could conceivably be planted, bringing more green employment and sequestering carbon.

We are planting trees on our poorer land, maintaining large woodlots, and instituting forestry practices which lead to mixed-species stands of hardwoods. 

Laura has Devil Cows…or not?

At the Meadows Fellowship, I felt like I had three eyes and horns because I was in the cattle business…yes, the “good” cattle business, working against CAFOs and factory farms…but the cattle business, nonetheless. Cows belch methane, a potent greenhouse gas. All ruminants do. No way around it. Taking this seriously, after the fellowship I reduced the size of my cow herd and increased my crop acreage. My actions demonstrated one cardinal rule of sustainability: the farm had to stay in business, had to be “economically” sustainable, and without cattle, I needed the crop income to make payroll.

One Christmas after we’d been at this a couple of years, a highly respected scientist and sustainable farming proponent came to visit. As we were walking the farm road and talking about climate, she pointed to group of cows gleaning an organic corn field, and said, “I don’t see how you can do it without animals.”

“What? Cows weren’t so bad?, “ I thought.  I was familiar with Allan Savory, but didn’t know enough … so off I went reading and attending field days, until I became pretty sure that pastured cattle, rotated correctly (and I had a good rotational system, set up in the mid-1980s) with their hooves and manure were part of the solution. 

Cover Crops and Photosynthesis

We’ve been working with cover crops on crop land for more than a decade. John Graham, an NRCS agent, convinced me to use covers when he was assessing a tobacco farm I ultimately purchased. The pH was 5.6 ,  years of salt fertilizers had done their jobs, and the soil porosity was non-existent.  I started with fall covers, learned to use tillage radishes, learned to use spring oats and winter peas in the spring if I was too late for rye, and discovered buckwheat for summer cover and smother crop.

In addition to the incredible contribution to soil health, cover crops in the late fall, winter and early spring are still green, which means they are photosynthesizing. Photosynthesis sequesters carbon, in one of nature’s miracles. This is how you pull carbon out of the atmosphere year-round.


Laura Photosynthesis

I like to give talks with this poster at my side, showing the most important chemical equation ever, as far as I’m concerned.



We fight the weather always, but get most of our crop fields covered in the fall, for this sort of biomass before planting

With all this need to sequester carbon, haven’t most crop farms taken up cover crops? While cover crop acreage has increased, according to the 2017 Agricultural Census cover crop acres equaled only 3.9% of U.S. cropland. The upside of this number is the upside…We’ve got 96% of the farms to go. Forget geo-engineering, expensive and dangerous. Farmers should plant cover crops. They are safe, proven, and cost-effective.

Organic or No-Till?

During the Laura’s Lean Beef years, I toured scores of organic farms. I knew the “sin” of organic was excessive tillage. Weed control was necessarily mechanical, and soil structure suffered badly. Thus, for my carbon experiment, some fields were organic and some fields were non-gmo no-till, which means they were never plowed or even harrowed, but had herbicides applied.

As I write this, I plan to convert more of my no-till crop land to organic, a three-year process with short-term negative implications for farm income. Right now, my hay and crop acreage is about 70% certified organic and 30% non-gmo no-till.

Here is my conclusion: we can improve organic matter, soil carbon, with certified-organic farming, and profit from an activated soil biology. Indeed, our organic corn crop this year proves to me that activating soil biology works! We are going to yield more grain than our cover crop plus compost applications indicate.

So onward with organics for Mt. Folly. The next stop is using a roller crimper, which we’ve bought, to avoid tillage on organic crop ground.

Plugging Sustainable Mt. Folly into the Industrial Food System Doesn’t Work

Mt. Folly is a tiny bit of the food system. Our goal is to develop a model of the whole, which can be localized, tinkered with, replicated and quickly scaled. We are as transparent as possible, and have an air B&B where visitors can come see for themselves, talk to Laura, and get the inside story on what worked, what didn’t. 

The Systems Challenge

The current food system involves driving from the farmstead to an aggregation center,  driving then to huge plants, sorting the commodity in in various ways during different phases of processing, achieving an end product, driving  the product on trucks to far flung warehouses coast to coast, loading the end product on yet another delivery truck to an individual store or restaurant, and finally selling to a “consumer,”  who eats the food there and drives home, or puts the food in a car and drives it home.  This is part of the systems challenge.

Our System

Our solution thus far has been to distribute Homestead Alternatives hemp products regionally to brick and mortar stores and nationally by mail. We also are selling heritage grains we grow and mill through our online store, We are marketing small regional brands there, too. 

Mt. Folly is a champion of diversity, and our perishables such as beef, chicken and vegetables are sold locally at Wildcat Willy’s farm-to-table restaurant and to our Air B&B customers.  

Our heritage corn and rye varieties such as Bloody Butcher, Hickory King, Hazlitt and Pembroke are distilled, though of course our customers can bake with them, too. Make sure you LIKE Mt. Folly Farm on Facebook so you’ll know how we are doing. We welcome your support. 

Building a Learning Community in a Coal State

The President of our distillery several years ago asked me if he had to give up his” Friends of Coal” license plate.  In August, we hired someone who’d worked for 7 years at a coal company. Both didn’t quite know what to make of me and this project.  My great-grandfather started a lumber mill here in Winchester, sawing trees during the mountain timber bonanza that fed the building and car making boom in the rest of the nation. I “get” mountain industry and know that we all have to eat. Kentuckians deserve to prosper.

Our job is to create jobs: good ones, green ones, here in east-central Kentucky. This is a different system challenge than my friends confront in San Francisco, New York or London. It is different than the one in Cambodia or Brazil, too. But the steps — reducing carbon pumps and expanding carbon sinks; staying afloat financially; learning from others, sharing successes – are the same.

The work needs to be local and international all at once. It needs to be data driven and people driven. We cannot fail.

Truth in Labeling

When I was in the beef business, it became obvious that much of the organic beef was imported, particularly from Uruguay. The industry ran circles around Country of Origin labeling, so customers never knew the truth.  Here is a good news clip from PBS about the scandal of imported beef, and legislative attempts to get control of labeling. Something similar is happening with soy, used for “meatless” hamburgers, which people wrongly think are better for the environment.