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No-till on Many Hands Organic Farm

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

By Julie Rawson

Harvest of Copra Onions - August 24

Over the past several months I’ve been profiling no-till farmers. I thought that for this issue I would write up where we are in our progress on the topic at Many Hands Organic Farm. We are a family farm in Barre, MA in the middle of what would like to be woods. 14 acres of our rocks, trees and swamp are open and mostly tillable. (Interestingly, I guess I need to change that reference to no-tillable.) We are certified organic and have been since 1987. Here I’ll describe each aspect of our no-till system to give you a sense of our practices and philosophies.

Livestock

On the edge of and into the woods we raise our pigs – nine feeder Tamworth hogs from Misty Brook Farm – whose main purpose, besides providing very tasty pork, is to keep the woods out of the fields and provide some fertility to the edges of the fields so that we have more grass for the cows to eat.

We raise two beef cows each year. Their purpose is to do the major work of building carbon in our grassy areas – which are sources of pasture for the cows and birds, and also are available for hay for mulching and chicken bedding. As Allan Savory, the Soil Carbon Coalition, and Holistic Management International folks will tell you, and I see this from my experience, properly grazed ruminants (those moved very regularly to graze from small paddocks not returned to until the grass has recovered and grown back) provide some of the most long term soil carbon storage of any agricultural practices. Sometimes our cows graze over our vegetable fields when these are resting for a year or at the end of the vegetable season.

We raise 500 layer and meat birds and 100 turkeys per year. The seasonal birds generally follow the cows in the pasture rotation to clean up after them, or work a grassy area that has been cut for hay once that season and needs a new fertility boost. This fall, where possible, we will be more intentional about running our turkey and chicken movable houses over vegetable beds at the end of the season. Timing this carefully with cover crop growth (and the desire to not kill them, but just graze them) all goes into the mix of planning. The layers are free range five or so months of the year and work over the garden areas and in the perennials during the off season.

Fruit

We raise an acre of fruit trees which reside in areas that are hayed and are a part of the cow and chicken rotation. And we raise a number of small fruits that reside mostly contiguously to the vegetables.

Miscellaneous

We raise shiitakes and are moving into reishi and winecaps in the woods. And this year we started with one beehive (just harvested our first 10 lbs. of honey yesterday!) and will be growing this enterprise next year.

Vegetables

This year we are raising three acres of vegetables, and that is about all we can raise on our land due to the aforementioned characteristics. Our terrain has in large part influenced our selection of agricultural enterprises, that and an appetite for all sorts of tasty food that we can grow ourselves. We feed ourselves first and then sell.

Cover Crops

Three years ago I got serious about the use of cocktail cover crops and started the process by intersowing them right around September 1 into whatever was big enough to tolerate some neighborliness until the end of the growing season. We use oats, rye, wheat, barley, various clovers, tillage radish, sunflowers, buckwheat, sorghum Sudan grass, and hairy vetch. This is a great practice if you have a plan for how to manage the rye, vetch and some of the clovers the next spring. But three years ago we were still prepping our 4-foot-wide beds with a rototiller in the spring. Here’s one lesson learned for next year: We will use a cocktail of winter kill covers on the fields where we plan to plant early – before June 1. For crops that will go in June 1 or later our plan will be to use the perennial covers that are more easily killed by crimping or mowing around or after that date.

This year we started the process of cocktail cover cropping earlier and have already planted into our taller plants a lot of winter-kill cover crops to get them a head start. This works for potatoes, tomatoes, older brassicas and squash. We broadcast them in early August.

Dutch White Clover and Green Pathways

Jack and I visited Eliot Coleman at the Mountain School back in the 80s and he had Dutch white clover pathways between all of his beds. I brought that idea home here and have been planting pathways in a more or less organized fashion for almost 30 years, but tilling it all up each year. I need to digress for a minute and talk about green pathways. I have Christine Jones’s words ringing in my head that we must keep as much green growing as long as possible all year round in order to sequester the most carbon – because green plants do that through photosynthesis better than any other method or practice.

We stopped raising our beds with a bed former (for the most part) and instead pulled out the sticks and strings in some of our beds to keep the 4-foot bed and the 20-inch pathway (excellent for a push lawn mower). We have a nice establishment of Dutch white in some of these pathways, but others have grown up to something else, or a mix. We mow these regularly and it works pretty well for most of the year. Sometimes we harvest the lambs quarters or dandelions or comfrey that are growing in those pathways and feed them to ourselves, our CSA members or our livestock before we hit them with the mower. In this drought year I noticed that these green pathways kept moisture in the system such that we did not suffer drought damage – crops were just slow to mature and fill out.

Crimson Red Clover

For two seasons we have had very good success with undersowing crimson red clover in our brassicas and our chard when the plants are about 6-inches high. We hand weed what is there right before broadcasting. Brassicas and chard thrive with the beautiful blanket below them, keeping the roots moist and also feeding them gently. The crops last longer and perform more beautifully with less insect or disease pressure than bare cultivation, hay or chip mulch. This year we undersowed our basil and it is still cranking along without disease. The Japanese beetles attacked it early, but are causing very little damage now as the plants continue to grow back and flourish. We actually planted the crimson clover on top of a partially decomposed wood chip mulch.

Addressing Perennial Cover Crops Before Planting

Due to some relatively poor planning last season, we had some perennial covers – dominantly rye and hairy vetch – in an area where we wanted to plant lettuce. We are very new at this style of management and don’t have a roller crimper – which is used right at the milk stage for rye or when the vetch is forming seed heads but before they have matured. So around June 15 we cut down the 6-foot-tall cover, hauled it away to use as mulch elsewhere, solarized the plot, and then found the soil to be very hard underneath (probably from so much tractor work). We formed the beds again with the bed former and used up the last of our last year’s compost (chips, leaves, some poultry entrails), spreading it on top of the beds. We then planted into it – three beds of lettuce and two beds of kale. We planted the pathways in clover, but due to the hot droughty summer here in Central Mass it didn’t take until the third broadcast. The first planting of lettuce – about 1800 heads provided us with the best and largest lettuce of the season – right through the 100 degree weather with no rain (we do use drip irrigation and watered it once per week for two hours). We have subsequently planted another succession of lettuce there which is growing nicely. The kale was slow to take off and had a fair amount of pig weed competition – the nicest pure stand of pigweed that I have seen. We easily weeded that out, undersowed with crimson clover, and now have a very nice stand of kale.

After returning from the NOFA Summer Conference where we attended Bryan O’Hara’s workshop, we have decided to make more of our own compost for next year with wood chips, leaves (from local DPWs) and cow manure (from our certified organic dairy neighbors’ farm – Robinson Farm). This compost we will use in the beds after a winterkill cover crop next year. We also hope to build or acquire a hay chopper to chop our hay for use in planting into a compost/chopped hay bed system. Bryan suggests leaving the mowed cover right on the bed when solarizing instead of hauling it away, which we will trial next year. We will also tinker with broadcasting seed a la Bryan (and Masanobu Fukuoka) of crops like carrots, beets, radishes, turnips, cilantro and arugula into these beds. Presently we still use rows for our small seeded crops. The transition is slow, only as we can wrap our heads around new practices and see positive results.

Planting Into Winter Kill Cover Crop Residue

We had some very good success with this strategy for our onions and spinach this year. We raked off the beds for the onions and made rows and put in the seedlings or sets. In both cases we then gave them a quick weed and mulched the beds as heavily as possible with chips. Our crop of early spring onions from the sets was about 98% successful with very healthy onions – better than I have ever seen. Equally exciting have been the long season onions. We finished harvesting our most spectacular crop of onions on August 24. The weed pressure has been very minimal – weeds have been one of the major problems for us in growing onions – and the health of the plants is better than ever before. With the spinach we used a dibble after some broadforking and planted the plants 12” on center in early spring. Again, we had a very strong crop. As a side note, we never got around to chipping half of the spinach. The half that was chipped grew greener, stronger and bolted later than the unchipped bed.

Growing in winter kill residue works too. We planted winter kill into our strawberries last year which grew up and died back to become mulch for the strawberries that came through the mulch in the spring.

Lessons learned going into the future include the following:

  • The bottom line on cover crops for us is to use as many as possible altogether. This allows for more photosynthesis, the most important driver of the system. We use them as often and as soon as possible in the season. Finally, we use as many perennials as we can while considering how to “tame” them next spring for planting of annuals. It is a moment of great experimentation and there is stuff all over the internet to watch and digest.
  • Don’t plant cover crops with your crops – we had a fiasco with buckwheat and potatoes last year - but after your veg crop has had a chance to be established. They quickly can turn from mentors to murderers if they are allowed to get too big and bossy.
  • Discard the notion of the clean bed. Ray Archuleta from NRCS, who co-led a NOFA/Mass cover crop workshop at our farm on July 25, brought this home to me that the soil wants to be covered. When the covering is dead, as in winter killed cover crops, just make some space to either plant the plant, devise a broadcast system as Bryan O’Hara does, or be gentle with your rows, leaving the detritus between them. This is a cultural change for me. I have to unlearn a lifetime of tillage. Being a bit of a messy person naturally, it won’t be hard for me to move in this direction, but there was a real lightbulb experience for all of us on the farm this year as we experimented with this principle.
  • Leave – especially the perennial – plants in your growing areas, in the pathways, on the edge of the field when they aren’t competing for sunlight with your wimpy annuals. These plants, previously considered neighborhood thugs, will become guardians for the annual crops that don’t have as many resources (root capacity) when it comes to survival. If the perennials get too zealous, harvest them for animal feed, tea, salve, tinctures and mulch. They go deep and bring untold goodness to the rhizosphere of the crops we are tending – not to mention their biodiversity services above ground.
  • Keep as much of the farm or garden growing all winter long as possible. Bare soil means dead or starving microbes and worms. We want them working for us all the time – so be careful about too much use of annual cover crops, keep your pathways in perennials at a minimum. The health of spring crops will be proportional to how much we can promote photosynthesis in the winter and off-season.

This article has gotten too long and I want to cover cardboard and turning sod back to annual vegetable production, the use of chips, hay, leaves, and what we have learned this season regarding these topics. I will go into this next month because our results vary. One of our “cardboard” fields has the best vigor and production I have ever seen and the other is struggling and comes in fifth out of five. I will also cover some of our pre-planting fertility, our foliars and drenches in our system. 

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