Quotable Sunday 5-27-2012
I Stopped Fighting Nature.
Our farm is an interesting organism. The soil drives everything we do and everything that nature creates for us. When we started in this business I took advantage of our soil and treated it in a conventionally poor way. Every Spring when it was time to get the seedlings planted I'd strap on the ole rototiller to the back of the tractor and proceed to beat the soil into submission. Submission meant a fine light fluffy seed bed, apply some conventional fertilizer, lay the drip tape and plant. I did this for the first 6-7 years and what I noticed is that each year the quality of our soil was declining. Its productivity was dropping and it was getting harder and harder to get our clay soil dry enough without the tiller creating huge chunks that never broke up.
Philosophically speaking we had to change our entire mindset. We had to stop trying to dominate and control our soil, but respect its nature and find a natural way to heal the damage we had done over the years. After reading Masanobu Fukuoka's "The One-Straw Revolution" I realized a that it was quite possible to work within the nature of our farm, to feed the soil, to feed our flowers, to feed ourselves and to do so eventually without huge inputs of fertility having to be purchased from outside our farm.
This last summer I decided to take a journey into the land of "No-Till" I had been following the experiments that Jeff Moyer at Rodale Institute's New Farm for several years. Jeff and other farmers had been using a combination of cereal rye with a legume like hairy vetch and mechanically knocking it down creating a No-Till mulch that has successfully been used to raise corn and soybeans. The mulch did an outstanding job of weed suppression and moisture conservation as well as providing large amounts of biomass back to the soil. This idea seemed like a perfect fit for what we were attempting to do here on the farm.
Since we had the space we used the tiller and tractor one last time and created a series of permanent raised beds that are 4' wide and 100' long. We made these beds into groups of 3 with a 8' wide buffer between each group. The pathways between the individual bed within each group is approximately 2'. This design is so that in the future we can put temporary hoop houses over the beds and rotate these hoop houses to a new 3 bed group every 4 years.
We then top dressed the beds with 1-2" of local urban compost. We did not work this compost in but left it on top of the beds for the worms to feed on and pull down into the soil. In mid-September we planted each bed with 60% cereal rye and 40% hairy vetch. Between the beds and in the 8' buffer we planted Oregon annual rye-grass to provide next season weed suppression and additional biomass.
By early this May we had a fair stand of rye and vetch on each of the beds. The Rye reached an average height of about 4-5' with the vetch climbing up the rye.
Once the rye had reached pollination stage we then manually crimped down the rye/vetch mixture. It took about 10 minutes to knock down each bed. If this no-till experiment is a success we would make a roller crimper attachment for the tractor to automate this process.
The finished product looked nice and smooth and was ready to cure in the sun. Note ,we also knocked down the Oregon annual rye in between the rows. The annual rye will die down and provide a weed suppression mulch in between the beds. Cereal rye has alleopathic properties inhibiting a lot of weed germination in the first 30-60 days. This gives our transplants a good head start.
Technically we could plant this row right away with transplants but due to timing we won't be able to get to this for about 7-10 days. During this time the vetch and rye will die back and the roots of this cover crop will begin to loosen in our tough clay soil. We did one additional processing step in this first year we used a broad-fork on the bed to loosen any compaction that may have occurred during winter. We think the need to fork our beds will lessen as the soil tilth recovers in 1-3 years.
This is another view of one of the recently crimped & forked 100' beds. Note that the rye/vetch cover yields a good 1-2" mulch coverage.
Checking the soil underneath we noted that the earthworm population was definitely up and the soil tilth was beginning to improve.
Our soil type is called a Dayton Silt Loam. This soil tends to have a high percentage of clay and silt together that when we worked this conventionally it was near impossible to get a smooth tilled bed. The clay also was extremely slow to drain in our wet Willamette Valley Springs particularly the last two years we couldn't even begin to till this ground until late June, let alone plant anything until almost the 4th of July!
The vetch was not inoculated before planting in this rotation so nitrogen fixation is a little less but, you can see this nitrogen nodule by my thumb and if you look closely you can see others in this clump of soil. A very good sign that we may be on the right track!
This is a multi-season experiment to be able to judge the effectiveness of this technique. We thought we'd share this first year's journey through our process. The things we will be looking at are:
- Soil tilth improvement & fertility improvement year to year.
- Soil organisms, good and bad, slug control in particular.
- Rodents, voles could be an issue.
- Soil Temperature....even though tilth improves does the mulch cover keep the soil too cool, too long for some of our flower varieties?
- How do we reseed the next years cover? what to do about late maturing crops and the need to reseed the cover?
- What do we do about crop residue from the prior cash crop?
There are lots of things to still work on but we think this was worth exploring and sharing with others. As we move forward through the season we'll keep this updated with the good and the things that still need more work.
Any thoughts or ideas you would care to share, are encouraged.
"I am happy simply to work joyfully on my farm, which to me is the garden of Eden. The way of natural farming is forever uncompleted. Nature can never be understood or improved upon by human effort." -Masanobu Fukuoka- 1986