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Experimenting with no-till at Natick Community Organic Farm

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This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2015 December Issue Newsletter

By Julie Rawson

Dark soil profile

I had the pleasure recently of doing a phone interview with Casey Townsend to discuss the success of his first year using “no-till” at Natick Community Organic Farm (NCOF). Here below are his words.

I went to The Soil and Nutrition Conference in February. It was an overview of some of the work Bryan O’Hara has done at his farm. As he was talking about his compost, I realized that this might be a great option for the compost we make. I realized we could benefit if we were to use some of Bryan’s methods. We just filled all of our compost bins with a compost of manure, wood chips and leaves, a recipe with a C:N ratio of 30:1. Our newest mixture is 10 parts leaves, six parts wood chips, one part turkey manure – measured in tractor bucket loads. We turn it once and it comes out chunky.

No-till beet bedMost of our beds are a standard 100’ long by 3’ wide. Early in the spring we did one 100’ bed of beets no-till. Eight inches away, we did a conventional bed of three rows of beets with 6” between. We tilled that bed with a BCS walk behind tiller, flame weeded, and planted it a day later.

We mowed the no-till bed, and then solarized it for a day or two with greenhouse plastic. We put on compost – 4” thick (though Bryan recommends 2-3” the first year). We broadcast seed into it. We used the back of the leaf rake to rake the seed in. Bryan uses a bale of shredded hay for the mulch that he layers on top. We used our free leaves – using a Toro leaf chipper to shred the leaves, dime to ½ dime in size, and spread it on top. We saw beautiful germination covering the majority of the bed.

Compared to the three rows of conventionally grown beets, the no-till soil was a lot wetter, the beets were bigger, and we could see a lot of worm activity. Every single beet we pulled was beautiful with no insect damage though we had maggots next door. We had to thin out plants in the conventional row. With the no-till test plot, we pulled the bigger beets first and let the others size up.

From that we expanded the no-till experiment to six beds measuring 100’ x 30’. We cut out the weeds with knives as Bryan suggested. With the other five beds there was more weed pressure than with the first, but not as much as with the conventional beds. The second succession of our root crops are carrying us now.

One of our radish populations was too thick, but we had beautiful red ace, chioggia, and touchstone gold beets. There were two carrots – yaya, and bolero. You could see this awesome population of worms with a dark soil profile. We could use the entire bed and clear every beet from the bed, utilizing more space. The soil in the no-till beds has been totally amazing with great foliage.

Beautiful crop of no-till beetsThe conventional bed management system is a system that I took over from other farmers here at NCOF – Jean Claude and Lynda. We typically apply compost ahead of garlic and tomatoes – a year or two away from when the root crops are planted in a given bed. Jean Claude believed that because there isn’t enough compost for the entire garden, the most that we could do is 75-100 cubic yards and we should use the compost in front of garlic and tomatoes.

On the conventional bed no compost was applied – that was done one or two seasons before. I used the BCS tiller – a walk behind. I tilled minimally and for most root crops I flame weeded, and seeded after 24 hours, covered the bed with row covers and then cultivated when appropriate. Our conventional system is heavy on galinsoga, purslane, and pockets of nutsedge – big ones.

No-till is more labor intensive up front, but it works for us. Spreading the compost takes a lot of time. But I would rather spend that time than weeding time. We spent so much less time weeding when we switched to no-till.

We don’t do drip irrigation because we flip the beds over quickly. Bryan says that when you use drip, you activate only one part of the bed, so instead we do overhead watering and apply fish emulsion. We also use the bionutrient stuff as we are low on boron, manganese, and shy on calcium. We are working that into our fertility plan. We switched to Logan Labs because their soil test uses a more biological approach than UMass. We will add the minerals to our compost when we turn it.

The tricky part is that we have fields and quadrants. How can I work no-till into it? The compost situation I have worked out. Certain times we are deficient in quantity of compost. Now I have three times as many leaves as before. Bryan says you should always have the raw materials to make compost. The landscapers have to pay dumping fees. We have to do a back story to find out what is going on with respect to chemical use from where the leaves were gathered. We have so many leaves that I think we will be able to keep up next year. Compost is really fun. I love making it. It is half art, half science a fun system to play with. Though I went to the Korean Natural Farming workshop, I don’t do any yet. I think it is an interesting idea. I might get there next season.

I am struggling with how to transition into more sustainable systems. How do we couple that with what has been historically done? Then I can show Lynda the no-till vs. the tillage results. I am working one quadrant. I will have two next year. It is always scary trying something new – I think people will be amazed. Some of my friends have larger areas than our 1.18 acres. I am thankful that we are small. I think larger growers can try something small. I am curious what Dan Kittredge is doing with nutrient density. I would like to do testing of the mineral quality. I have been curious. Anecdotally, our chefs have commented that the no-till produce’s shelf life, quality, and flavor are higher and they have the ability to store for much longer periods.

I like the idea of spending more time harvesting and making money. You put your faith into it… and it can work.

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