How does one small farm do it’s part to combat climate change, while increasing soil productivity and adding resilience to extreme weather? Many farms are turning to reduced- and no-tillage systems to accomplish the job. In 2020, we decided to take the plunge and go all in on no-till in sections of the farm.
No-till systems that we have seen tend to skew in two directions: On the one hand, there are very small producers who are making no-till work on their postage-stamp sized farms of 1-5 acres. On the other, there are big commodity crop growers who invest in expensive and heavy-duty equipment to grow large acreages of single crops, and use herbicide to control weeds (in Massachusetts, this would often happen for a large sweet corn grower.) We are at an in-between scale; too big for the intensive plantings, but too small to justify the big heavy equipment. As we investigated, and watched other farmers, it has occurred to us that there are some crops where we can intensify our production and grow like the postage-stamp growers. And this shrinking of our land base for some crops will allow us to grow some crops on a more extensive system, and maybe we can grow mulch to use for weed control in those crops. We tried it out these two systems out last year on about 2 and half acres of land, and are very pleased with our progress! We loved the results we got for the intensive system, and the extensive cropping system was a prodcutive learning experience that we think we can improve on for next year.
System 1: Intensive no-till system
In this system, we put down a heavy layer of compost on top of sections that had either oats/peas cover crop or late salad crops. We started out doing this and then realized that our manure spreader was putting down too much compost in the wheel tracks, and not enough in the beds, so Dave thought quick, and with the help of Amherst Welding, we modified our manure spreader to put compost more directly behind it. We tarped these beds for at least 3 weeks to get weeds to germinate and then die, and then seeded directly into that compost. We grew all of our salad mix this year from one 9-bed (a little over a third of an acre) block where we moved those tarps around; after the salad was harvested, we killed the spent crop with a tarp, and then seeded again into that dead plant residue! We ended up planting most of those sections 3 times. The weed pressure was minimal in these undisturbed plots, and we felt like the crops were juicier, tastier and more productive. Our little Jang seeder is not made to plant into heavy residue, but it worked just fine in the light residue left behind. We planted the rows twice as close together, and so we successfully shrank our production of these crops into approximately one-sixth the area that it would otherwise take. And since we were using the tractor just to spread compost in one pass, rather than three passes to till and prepare beds, we had one-eighteenth the tractor usage for these crops!
We also grew carrots and beets in a similar system. Since they grow more slowly, we were only able to grow one crop there. And planting carrots and especially beets closer together led to less air circulation, and so we got some foliar diseases in there. In the carrots, we got a reasonable yield but the tops didn’t like it; in the beets, the yield really suffered. We’ll do this again next year, but with a little more space between the rows.
System 2: Transplanting lettuce and other greens into compost beds
There are also greens that we grow that need to get transplanted: lettuce, chard, scallions, kale, and others. For these crops we did a similar thing to the seeded salad, where we put down compost, and then tarped, and then transplanted right into the compost beds. We were able to tarp and then replant and get a second crop after the head lettuce. We initially used our transplanter and just planted right into these beds, but then we decided to modify it (again with some help from the nice guys over at Amherst Welding) into a super-scary spiky transplanter! That did an even better job. My big worry with going no-till has always been the weeds (in theory, less disturbance of the
soil–>lower weed pressure, but taking away the ability to use cultivation for weed control is scary,) but this combination of compost mulch and tarping seems to be doing the trick for us.
System 3: Transplanting into mow-killed mulch on wide rows and then raking the mulch into the rows.
Mulching can be a great way to control weeds in a no-till system, but all of the research we have seen indicates that you can’t grow enough mulch from cover crops to control the weeds in that spot; you need to be able to grow the mulch and then move it to the crop. We had the idea that we could mow a spring rye cover crop, and then plant tomatoes in with extra spacing between the rows and then rake the mulch into the rows after we planted. There were a few problems with this system. First, our first planting of tomatoes needed to get planted in mid-May, and the rye wasn’t really full grown and ready to get mowed yet. Second, we didn’t have a great stand of rye in that whole field, so we didn’t get enough mulch everywhere in spite of the double-wide planting. Third, I researched and tried to find a hay rake that could rake the rye into the row, and the perfect 6-foot wide unit that I found online turned out to be a toylike mini-rake. We ended up putting down weed mat in between the rows, and the weed control was just fine. It actually worked out just fine, though I have to admit I had to leave when the crew was planting tomatoes because it really didn’t seem like it was going well. The PYO tomato, herb, and flower patch was done similarly, and again turned out fine, but we ran through with these cultivator shanks to kind of rip a little trench for planting into, and it got very lumpy there; sorry if any of you had trouble getting around in the PYO section this season!
Coming up in 2021: More no-till, carbon action plan, and maybe planting some trees!
We feel like we got a great start in transitioning to no-till systems in 2020 and are excited to take it even further in 2021! We are set up better, with nice stands of rye in many of our fields, and several spots that were planted to oats and peas that will be ready to go for spring planting. We got a grant from MDAR for a no-till grain drill that will hopefully give us even better stands of cover crop, and that will definitely allow us to get cover crops established without tillage, saving 2-4 tractor passes after the crop is out. We have a little room in that grant to work on our mulch-movement system, and have a few different ideas about that.
This week I am participating in a Climate Action Fellowship with Caro Rozell, former employee and current NOFA/Mass Carbon Farming champion. We are learning all kinds of things about climate change and it’s effects on farming, now and into the future. We will be working over the year to work on how Simple Gifts Farm can adapt to and mitigate climate. I hope use this experience to produce a plan and share it with you all about how we can continue to reduce our emissions and increase the rate at which we capture carbon into our soil.
We also got some funding in 2020 from USDA to develop a pollinator habitat plan, which we have just received from the consultant. We are still looking at the plan, but we may be starting to establish perennial strips through the farm this year, including both polinators and some woody fruit crops. These strips should help us with managing insect pests, along with being another engine of carbon sequestration, and possibly producing some delicious fruit in the future. We will keep you all posted as things develop, so stay tuned!