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Doug Wolcik’s fertility enhancement at Gaining Ground Farm in Concord

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This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2017 March Issue Newsletter

By Julie Rawson

Doug Wolcik studied farming in the Sustainable Ag program at UMass with John Gerber. After that he went to Northern California for two seasons and to gain practical experience with the scientific practices that he learned in college. He learned a basic knowledge about farm layout, planting techniques, greenhouse management, cover cropping – but nothing extremely cutting edge. He came back East pretty poor, and with college loans. He had farmed full time for $100/week in CA along with room and board. He then worked for the Department of Conservation and Recreation on the invasive species team searching out the Asian Longhorned Beetle. He saved enough money to be able to take a huge pay cut and get back into farming. He started working with Gaining Ground and is now in his fifth year there. He was the assistant manager under Kayleigh Boyle and was then promoted to co-manager for the 2014 season. They invited him on year round, in part to help with the small sugaring operation. He had been co-managing ever since. This year he is taking on the leadership solo as Kayleigh has moved on.

In the time Doug has been at Gaining Ground they moved from harvesting 27,000 lbs. of food in 2012, then up to 34,000 lbs. in 2013, and have averaged 60,000 lbs. a year since then. They farm on three acres. He has been working with the Bionutrient Food Association (BFA) – using their practices and principles of amending the soil with a holistic and symbiotic approach. That gave them a big increase right away and they have been able to maintain it since. Gaining Ground utilizes 400 raised beds, each 80 feet long and 30 inches wide. Last year they left 200 beds in a permanent raised bed state – and this year they will use tarps, broad forks, and compost, and with proper management and focusing on soil biology they hope to see higher yields. He took Paul and Elizabeth Kaiser’s course at the NOFA/Mass Winter Conference and will be trialing their method of planting a crop, removing the crop, and planting another crop the day or two following the previous crop. The Kaisers’ day long intensive inspired him to challenge his management practices. Doug is working on increasing his efficiency and intensive management capability in an intentional way. His is a high input and high return system.

Last fall they took the leap to leave those 200 beds for no-till this coming spring, although he has been a little hesitant. They were initially really inspired to move in this direction after building their first hoop house in 2014. They couldn’t bring a tractor in there. They brought in the roto-tiller and that was a nightmare with the fumes. They now manage it with an Eliot Coleman design: they shoveled out the pathways to build the beds. They amended according to soil test results. He has seen the results improve so dramatically. Weeds have significantly decreased, almost to none.  And it has brought the highest production per square foot they have seen on the farm. The soil has drastically improved compared to the tractor-based field management. From there on out they only used the broad fork in the hoop house. Broad forks are really simple ergonomic tools that any volunteer can use, according to Doug.

At Gaining Ground they take 3,000 volunteers per year; on their mission statement they invite all ages and all abilities.  People sign up for blocks of time, with groups of 15 adults or 30 children tops per group, per session. Kayleigh was doing the coordination, scheduling folks several weeks in advance. At the farm they work with volunteers on Tuesday – Saturday schedule. On Monday they make the schedule for the week’s work. They plan around the volunteers – be it a corporate group or 6th graders. They mix and match the work appropriately. Their goal is that everybody does meaningful work on the job. There is no busy work. They are able to get a lot of energy out of their volunteers. They all work hard and have a lot of fun. Their four farmers break up into groups of four so that everyone is working with a farmer. People learn as they work. The farmers verbally explain the task, and then give a physical tutorial on how to use a specific tool and their body. One of the farmers is always there to answer questions, advise or direct. Doug feels it has made him a better farmer – causing him to have to think introspectively about each task; the how and why of what he does and how to be able to better at explaining tasks to volunteers.

Gaining Ground’s fertility plan

Doug has been working with David Forster of the BFA. He first attended the co-sponsored BFA – NOFA/Mass Soil and Nutrition Conference at First Churches in Northampton and left completely inspired. He started looking at the soil chemical properties as a whole – in contrast to what he had learned at university. He started to understand that everything is interrelated and started reading books by William Albrecht.  He realized right away that this was the direction he wanted to take their soil fertility plan.  Dan Kittredge, founder of the BFA, used an analogy of a plant showing signs of calcium deficiency, but according to the soil test, calcium levels were optimal, however boron levels were extremely low thus making it the limiting factor. What we now know is that calcium and boron are working hand in hand, and if one is deficient the plant can exhibit symptoms of calcium deficiency even when it needs the boron. Doug wanted to explore this and was fairly encouraged. He reached out to everyone and anyone at the BFA. He read The Ideal Soil by Michael Astera and felt like it would be easy to make a mistake while analyzing soil tests and wanted some guidance. He came up with a fertility plan after reading too many fertility management books and then finally hired David Forster last year to be their soil consultant to give the support he needed. “He took me to that next level. He made me feel confident and was able to guide me so I could really hone in my focus” related Doug.

This past fall he used a Hi-Cal lime, a Manganese, Boron, Sulfur mix that the BFA makes, and small amounts of zinc and copper, as well as a trace element with compost blend they make which includes Selenium, Cobalt, and Molybdenum. Increasing Sulfur and Manganese levels at this point is very important as these are his biggest limiting factor, along with working to keep increasing levels of Zinc and Copper in better balance with each other and Phosphorous, which is so high because of the amount of chicken manure used for many years by the prior farmers. He is trying to bring down Phosphorous levels to get his soils in better balance and to not contribute to pollutants through runoff in the local environment.  He and his crew spread everything down in the fall to let it weather in. And then they do maintenance fertility applications in the spring. Sul-po-mag goes on four times per year for fruiting, long season crops, as well as enough Boron, Sulfur, and Manganese as needed to get through the season.

Immediately when stuff goes to transplant Doug uses Neptune’s Harvest, which is high in P, as a soil drench, diluting it and then dunking the roots in the mixture. He wants a nice flush of P to give the plant a good start and to develop good root growth, then slow release N to get good vegetative growth and then finishes with foliar sprays of K, Ca and traces to finish the crop.  These steps have produced healthier plants, higher yields, better taste, and a more nutrient dense crop. He uses a product from Organic Approach called Carbogrow – a 3-0-3 product that is a carbon based soil building nitrogen fertilizer, high in carbon and raw leonardite and soluble humates to feed soil microorganisms and mycelia. They also have a 5-2-4 starter fertilizer called Finesse made up of humic acids, raw leonardite, and a blend of “meals” that works as a bio-stimulant. He has seen great results with that, including explosions of masses of fungal activity around the root systems of the plants. He feels that with his intensive plant spacing he can create a canopy that will shade the soil under the plants very quickly, decreasing weed pressure and stimulating fungal activity.  He attributes that to the no till system and the humic based fertilizer.

Doug waxes eloquently: “Now we are starting to grow larger, more vigorous, healthier plants that photosynthesize more effectively.  The plants then push down excess carbohydrates and sugars into the roots which then exudate them into the soil for the mycelia to feed on. Symbiotically the mycelia then are helping feed the roots more water and minerals for the plant to consume.  And the process just keeps repeating itself.  And I don't want to disturb that with tillage.  Two things: I focus on being a great greenhouse grower, and feeding the soil. If we are planting extremely healthy starts in the ground at the right time (and timing is everything), they just take right off. I can’t wait until 2019 and 2020 to see the farm with this no-till system. The future can’t come fast enough.”

“If we are transplanting before the soil is warmed up,” Doug goes on to explain, “before P is readily available for plant uptake, we do use crab shell meal (4-3-0) as a supplement to Carbogrow. With the crab shell meal you are also getting a dual purpose fertilizer whose attributes I am just starting to dive into.  The crab shell meal will promote chitin eating bacteria in the soil while also providing the N and the P needed early on. The crab meal has been most successful for using on root crops – it is great for potatoes, beets, carrots, onions, garlic – a slow release fertilizer, high in calcium that has nematocidal effects. The theory of dual purpose fertilizers is very interesting to me. I think we will go with Progressive and or the BFA to access these products this year.”

Says Doug: “The plants are capturing free solar energy and they are doing a wonderful job of it. What I am trying to do is get the healthiest plants into the ground that will then put carbon back in the soil and feed the soil. The plant only uses a certain percent of the total energy captured and then puts 40% back into the roots for storage. The roots take what they need and then release it freely into the soil and the mycelia gobble that up and at the same time they are feeding the roots more water, and minerals. The plant is happier and able to take in more sunlight.  It’s a closed loop and all that fertility and life is being done for us, all we have to do is have living growing plants and keep the soil covered.  It’s amazing!

What we are trying to do with the no-till system is increase our soil organic matter. We are trying to use less fossil fuels, do more things by hand and capture more CO2 from the atmosphere. The plants are taking in carbon and putting it back into soil.”

This year they are starting some new projects that he learned about from Paul and Elizabeth – polyculture hedge rows – six throughout the farm. He ordered many varieties of plants – fruit trees and N fixing trees – like apples, peaches, plums, pears, honey locusts, hawthorn, crabapples, and lilacs – from East Hill Tree Farm in Plainfield VT. Doug met Nicko Rubin at the BFA. From Nourse he is getting 75 blueberries and 100 raspberries. And from the Herb Farmacy in Salisbury, MA, he ordered 200 perennials. The orchard will be laid out thus: Every 15 feet there will be first an apple tree, then a N fixing tree, then a peach, plum or pear. In between the trees there will be two blueberry plants five feet apart. Any corner, triangle, or available spot will be used. The farm was nicely laid out with 16 foot buffers on all the field edges.  Under the apple trees they will plant aromatics like chives, oregano, thyme, sage, and mint, and plant yarrow and echinacea to attract beneficials, and also use dynamic accumulators like comfrey, dandelion, nettles, and bergamot. This year they are adding about 300 new species of perennials to the farm; this will increase diversity and create many habitats for beneficial insects, including bees, butterflies, beetles, and more.

At Gaining Ground the farm donates 100% of their food to 12 different hunger relief organizations within 20 miles of farm. Four different organizations come three days per week to pick up food. On harvest mornings, the farmers, with the help of volunteers, go out and harvest what’s ready. They wash, pack, weigh and divide it up according to the size of each pantry and shelter. Pine Street Inn, Rosie’s place, Open table, and the Sudbury and Westford food pantries are among the local recipients. In Lowell they work with Project Bread where they donate 30 shares to a Head Start School and when the parents come to pick up their children they can as a family come to “shop” at their free farmers market. A chef, provided by Project Bread, makes simple meals on the fly with the available vegetables and hands out samples and the recipe for the recipients to take home.

At some point I needed to end my one-hour-long interview with Doug, who had been talking a mile a minute the entire time. He ended with this comment: “We started growing increased quality, and yields followed.  There’s so much more I want to get into including the decrease in insect and disease pressures, and drought resistance last season and so much more that we are learning.” Would that all of us farmers and gardeners were on the learning and innovation fast track that seems to be the modus operandi of Doug Wolcik of Gaining Ground Farm in Concord!

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