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Organic no till: A monthly series of conversations with practitioners

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This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2016 March Issue Newsletter

By Julie Rawson

Comfrey on field edges to keep out perennial weeds. Photo by Brian Caldwell

This month’s interview is with Jay Armour, co-owner (with wife Polly) of Four Winds Farm, an organically certified no till farm in the Hudson Valley in next-door New York State.

I asked Jay why he started to farm using no till a lot earlier than most organic farmers, who are now just coming around to it. Here’s what he has to say:

Basically, we started doing no till 20 years ago because Lee Reich said we would have fewer weeds. I was crazy with weeds and the ground was getting harder as the season would go on. It was like night and day to make the switch. We never went back to tilling. We started seeing other benefits happening that we weren’t really counting on. As we learned about carbon sequestration we realized it is a good thing for the earth. We get soil tests done because our inspectors like to see fairly regular tests. One thing that we have seen over the years was the organic matter going up. It was around 2.5%. It is gravelly and in places there is sand. Gravelly silt, very well drained. When we built the house, everything that came out of the hole was sand.

It is kind of interesting looking at what we are doing, seeing the relevance in terms of storing carbon in the soil. I am sure you have read how the great prairies of the Midwest were storing great quantities of carbon. Agriculture in the future needs to find a way of breaking its present pattern and go back to a system that puts the carbon in the soil. It is doable. It just requires farmers to change their approach. It is also difficult to get farmers to change. When you have made your investment to do it in a certain way, you can’t really throw away that investment.

I next asked Jay what he sees as his next innovation.

I don’t really know. I have a system that works really well. I don’t want to change it. I am going to experiment with the use of tarps. I liked Ryan Maher’s (Cornell) information - the idea of laying tarps out on the field a month before you plant to smother any kind of weeds and also to warm the soil. People ask about using tarps when putting the compost on the soil: “Does it make things later?” I don’t really know because I am putting the compost down as a weed barrier. I know that if I don’t put it down, I am going to have weed pressure. I have already ordered the tarps. I am going to try beds where some have tarps and some not, but with all having compost (under the tarp).

Ryan showed on a graph that there was some temperature benefit with having the tarps on the ground. They experimented with using them on some beds with compost, some with no treatment and some with straw. There seemed to be a heat retention benefit on the compost-applied beds. With the straw, no benefit. It cooled things down. As soon as the tarp was removed from the no treatment bed, the temperature went down. The compost seemed to insulate the ground so it didn’t cool off right away.

I won’t use black plastic. I am against the use of it because it will be thrown away.

As I am experimenting with permanent green pathways on our farm I asked Jay about his experience with pathway management.

The Armours' 4 acres of vegetables are grown using no-till methods. Photo by MOFGAThe pathways contain bare dirt. Sometimes we do have some weeds that will come up, primarily in all the pathways. I use a wheel hoe like the ones Johnny’s sells. When we first started, we figured that for the pathways it doesn’t matter what is growing. But you are creating the nice growing area in the bed, and the weeds will grow into them. We found that anywhere you have weeds, in pathways, or edges it just ended up being a lot more work for us to allow their presence.

I was going to do some clover in the pathways this past summer. Some friends of mine, old employees, have been playing around with growing cover crops in the pathways to keep the weeds from growing and also to grow organic matter. I was going to try some of that this summer but we had super drought conditions. I did plant some oat, vetch, pea mix in early August, or mid-July – but it never germinated. Anyhow, I didn’t want to waste my water resources on cover crops that were not making money. I am curious to see if it germinates this spring.

I had heard about Jay and Polly’s use of comfrey around their 4 acres of vegetable growing beds. As a real fan of comfrey myself I was intrigued by their practice, and plan to copy this on our 2 ½ acres of vegetable fields this spring.

We use comfrey as a border around the growing areas. We have large rectangular spaces and then gardens. Grass was growing into the garden areas. By accident Ethan Roland, who lives near me and teaches permaculture, called me up. He wanted to bring his class to the farm to see a commercial scale no till producer. In late April I am not pulling my hair out and I welcome visitors. He said that he doesn’t want them to just visit, but to do a project. I was not sure what kind of a project. He asked if we had any comfrey. The nature of comfrey is that when you put it in the ground it will be there forever. We had a patch that was in an old organic garden space. It was a convenient place to park things. The comfrey was still there. Ethan asked if the class could plant a comfrey border. He explained the idea to me. What a wonderful idea. Quack grass and other weeds were growing into the garden area. The comfrey has a nice wide leaf and the leaves grow pretty thick on the plant. That creates a shady environment and the grass won’t grow through. It creates an efficient border. It doesn’t spread. As of now the whole garden has the comfrey border, with a couple areas that need it and another where I realize I shouldn’t have done it. The potato digger rips it up and replants the comfrey in the garden. I need to move the edges of the potato area away from the comfrey.

I find when I cut it and use it for mulch, it disappears quickly when it dries out. I found that I could cut comfrey down and rake it up and spread it as mulch. I understand it has a high percentage of calcium. It is mining stuff from way down. I don’t really notice any difference in plant health near the comfrey. I am thinking with the tomatoes, although, that they are growing taller on the edge than in the middle. Generally I don’t really see a difference between plants growing near the comfrey or further away.

The organic matter is up to between 8-10% now. By increasing the organic matter in the soil, the soil is softer. It is hard to describe exactly. If your organic matter is really low, the soil develops a crust in August. If you have a really heavy rain, the water is not going to go into the soil. With a higher organic matter, you don’t have as much runoff - also true with irrigating. There is better water retention in the higher organic matter soil. According to a recent soil test a lot of things are high, like phosphorous. What I don’t know is whether the phosphorous is water soluble and could be a potential problem to waterways. The other interesting thing is the soil pH. We have not had to lime since we stopped tilling. Yes, in 20 years we have not spread lime.

We discussed diseases and insect pressure.

The only real insect pressure we have is flea beetles. I don’t think it is any better or worse than it was. We use row cover to deal with that. We are seeing diseases now that we didn’t used to see. With powdery mildew in basil we get it just as badly as everybody else, and powdery mildew on cucumbers later in the season. For these diseases there is no real benefit with our practices. In 2015 we didn’t have late blight until early October; I think that was because we had a drought. I know that Ithaca had it. Buffalo had it. It was around. Late blight was spotted on a farm in Kingston. Cornell Coop Ext. sounded the alarm. My workers asked what we would do. Should we spray with copper? I made sure I had copper but we never saw it (late blight). Dealing with the copper is a pain in the neck. It will keep the plants alive, but if you don’t have late blight, it is expensive and you have to wash off the tomatoes. Six or seven years ago I started spraying copper. I realized washing cherry tomatoes did not work. We just waited this year.

We use no other fertility besides compost. Well, I do some foliar feeding with Neptune’s harvest though no irrigation with drip tape. The only thing that I foliar feed is the tomatoes. Sometimes I will give the cucumbers a little extra if I have some left over.

I asked Jay about their cows, whose manure is the basis for their compost operation.

I like to tell people that we have the cows for the manure and the meat is like a waste product. If the meat industry would look at cows that way we would not have the problems that we do in terms of manure handling. Us acquiring cows was kind of an accident. We had a friend who had cows as pets and he needed a place to keep them. We offered to take his pets for the winter. During the winter I realized how wonderful they are. I am not from a farming background and I was always afraid of them. I had images of bulls chasing people. The cows we kept were tame as could be – wonderful to have around. We started out with sheep, accidentally. A friend said we needed to have sheep. We had them for quite a while. Once I realized how nice the cows were we got rid of the sheep. Sheep run away and cows come up to you.

During the summer they are all out on pasture – rotationally grazed. Any manure on the pasture stays there. During the winter they are in a section of the barn that is open on the south. They come and go and we feed them in that area. They eat, hang out and lie down. I dig out the manure with the tractor and mix it with horse manure that we bring in. All the manure gets composted using a static aerated system I designed myself.”

Jay concluded…

I think no till is a really great way to farm, and I want to see more people experimenting with it. When we set out to do it we didn’t know what we were doing. As more people get involved moving in this direction, maybe they will come up with things that I never thought of doing.

For more information and some nice pictures, you can read more about Four Winds Farm and the mechanics of their no till practices in this MOFGA article No-Till Certified Organic Vegetable Production, and one from Cornell NO TILL, PERMANENT BEDS FOR ORGANIC VEGETABLES.

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