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Mulching at Pleasant Valley Farm

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This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2012 October Issue Newsletter

By Jack Kittredge Reprinted, courtesy of The Natural Farmer, Winter 2008

Mulching at Pleasant Valley Farm

The strip of Eastern New York that lies between the Hudson River and Vermont and runs just north of Albany for 50 or 60 miles has always struck me as idyllic. Small farming communities still dot the rolling landscape, there is reasonable proximity to good markets – Albany, Saratoga Springs, Glens Falls – but little apparent development pressure. The landscape still looks more like New England than New York, while the antique houses have a little touch of Holland in them.

It was in this part of New York, in the town of Argyle, that Paul and Sandy Arnold began farming 20 years ago after purchasing 60 acres of land. Paul had already been farming nearby in his parent’s backyard when he met Sandy, who was working at a garden center. The early years were challenging as they balanced outside jobs and got the farm up and going. For four years Paul farmed during the season and worked construction in the wintertime, while Sandy kept her fulltime job and also farmed 20 to 30 hours each week. After two years of living in a pop-up camper summers, they were ready to build a house. In their fourth year, they both became full-time farmers and discontinued all off-farm jobs, and started to raise a family. Pleasant Valley Farm has given them their sole source of income for the past [20] years.

“We raise over 35 different types of fruits and vegetables with about 5 acres under production,” Paul says. “We have 10 acres suitable for vegetable production, so we rotate the extra 5 acres with cover crops. Much of the additional acreage is leased out for hay production.” Pleasant Valley Farm uses the Certified Naturally Grown program to certify all their crops and also signs the NOFA-NY Farmers’ Pledge. “We also have a flock of about 40 laying hens, raise one batch of meat birds (Rock Cornish) and 2 pigs each year, all raised on organic grain from Lakeview Organic Grain in central New York. Some of the meat is sold, but most of the animals are for our family’s own use and the workers for group meals.”

Paul and Sandy were among the pioneers in the organic movement who experimented with growing in protected enclosures. They went to Europe in the early 1990s and saw what they were doing with greenhouses there, where land is very expensive and every square meter must pay for itself. In 1992 the Arnolds started growing spinach in the wintertime in small hoop houses which they designed (14’ by 100’), which they moved around the farm. Over the past [few] years, they have purchased and constructed two Rimol ( permanent high tunnels (30’ by 150’) which have automatic high roll-up sides. “These tunnels will give us the space we need to grow fresh greens all winter and keep up with our rotations,” he says.

Paul mows and chops his hay with a flail chopper that then blows the hay into a hay wagon to be taken to the field for use as mulch. “We’re used to the smaller tunnels,” says Sandy, “but the warmth in the high tunnels really makes a difference. In the smaller tunnels you can seed the spinach September first and start picking it in December. But if we seed it in the high tunnels September first it will be ready in October! Both are without heat. It’s just a lot warmer in a high tunnel. It both heats up more and holds the heat longer.”

Of course with the high tunnels, there was a lot of work and money in the site – excavation, leveling, bringing in power and water – so they can’t be moved. “It helps to be perfectly level for the automatic roll-up sides to work well,” explains Paul. “The sides constantly adjust the opening size to control the temperature inside the tunnels. There are five height settings. You can set a temperature and it will open to the first of its settings. In five minutes it will make a decision – is it warmer or is it colder than you want? If it’s warmer, it goes up to stage two. In another five minutes it makes another decision. If it gets colder, it goes back to stage one. It does that all day long. That keeps the temperature even at all times where we want it, which delivers so much value because we get optimum crop growth for each tunnel. The roll-curtain system cost just $1500 per tunnel and if you calculate man-hours to open/close them manually each day, the payback is within months. It frees you from fussing with manual curtains all day so you can do more important things that make you money.”

The high tunnels are just single skinned. When you’re talking about winter growing, Paul feels maximum light is everything. Since he is not going to the expense of heating the tunnel, and the site is protected from high winds by trees, there is no need for two layers of plastic. Rigid foam 2” insulation was installed around the perimeter of the tunnels, which went twelve inches into the ground; the insulation helps maintain even soil temperatures inside. Four keeps the soil moisture level about the same throughout the tunnel. The two tunnels are about 20 feet apart, and Paul has a grassy swale between the two tunnels so he can get in there and move snow away with a bucket loader if necessary. The innards of the flail chopper involve flail knives to cut and chop the hay and toss it to an auger that feeds it into the blower. “The important thing in a high tunnel,” he asserts, “is humidity. You don’t want high humidity since it creates the optimum environment for fungus and diseases. You want to open it up if humidity builds up. We use mostly drip irrigation in the summer and also straw or hay mulch, which helps to keep the moisture in the soil.”

“The demand is there,” says Paul, “and people want greens in the winter. We can grow in them for a low cost and the tunnels pay for themselves very quickly! That first house cost $20,000. This second one cost us $30,000. Even with that, both will have paid for themselves within a year. Having income year round makes it interesting, compared to what we used to have – 7 months of income and 5 months of none!” Having work year-round also enables the Arnolds to keep a few workers on full-time, year-round, so there is less training each spring and it allows them the freedom to leave in the winter for conferences and vacations. They employ a diverse group of workers including home-schooled teenagers, adults, college students, and interns which live at the farm and learn how to become farmers.

Paul and Sandy also constructed another well thought-out item on their farm: a Rimol polycarbonate 30’ x 48’ greenhouse. It was constructed in 2002 with an automatic ridge and automatic roll-up sides for ventilation. The greenhouse is also equipped with rolling benches which slide so that only one 2-foot wide aisle exists at a time, allowing almost total utilization of the entire greenhouse space. “All the benches have radiant heat and we grow on them with row cover on top of the plants,” says Sandy. “It saves tremendously on fuel since we are only heating the few inches above the benches where the plants are. We do all our own starts here in the late winter/spring as well, and grow our own strawberry plugs.” Also, in the winter, trays of mesclun, Asian greens, arugula, and herbs are grown on the radiant-heated benches and they are sold at the winter farmers’ markets. The greenhouse water is preheated by the radiant heat system, thus they’re watering with 60 to 70 degree water, instead of 40-degree water, which grows better plants. The small barn attached to the greenhouse is heated and serves as a potting/seeding shed, and also as their washing station in the winter.

“We’ve learned how to spend money to save money,” says Paul. “When you put in an expensive investment, you sometimes end up just working to pay for the equipment. We decided to put in a really efficient heating system in the greenhouse and ended up saving money in the long run because it was so much more efficient. Now we use the heat system from November until May, but we’re still not using that much propane since we just heat the bench tops as opposed to the air space, and the on-demand hot water heater has a variable flame for more efficiency. It’s more than paid for itself in a matter of years because we only use about 900 gallons of propane each year now as opposed to thousands with other typical greenhouse systems.”

“Our goal is to slow down in the summer,” says Sandy. “The winter markets are just dynamite! If you add your greens and root crops together you can easily do well over $1000 each week. We have a big (20’ x 30’) root cellar beneath the barn which has a special cooling system designed for root cellars. It stores about 24 tons of storage crops, such as beets, carrots, potatoes, rutabagas, celeriac, cabbage, leeks, radishes, kohlrabi, turnips, Brussels sprouts, and celery, which we figure is worth about $85,000 in gross sales. We start putting fall vegetables in it in September and cooling it right down, then sell them all winter and spring, usually until the new crops come in the following summer.”

As with all farming, growing for the winter involves both new opportunities and new management challenges, says Paul. “With a lot of this season extension stuff it’s figuring out how to have a product when no one else does. You can grow Swiss chard in the summer but lots of people have it and you have a hundred other things to do. If you grow it in April and May, however, when there is little else to buy that is green, you can sell a hundred bunches at one market. If you plant swiss chard too early in the spring, though, they vernalize. They get enough cold days and that’s their signal to go to seed!”

Perhaps the biggest challenge the farm has faced is the lack of rain. Paul and Sandy figure they need an inch of rain a week, and they often don’t get it because they’re in a rain shadow on the leeward side of a mountain at an altitude of 250 feet, and the wind either carries the clouds over them or up the Hudson Valley where other farms get a lot of rain. “We’ll sometimes get 4 tenths, or 2 tenths of an inch, when everyone else around us is getting 1 or 2 inches,” sighs Paul. “We have gotten as little as one inch from April until September! inch drain tile lines were also installed around the perimeter. They were buried in stone and carry the rainwater away from the tunnels, which 

To deal with this issue, the Arnolds have put in a sophisticated irrigation system. They dug a pond in a lower field on their land that collects snowmelt and ground water. In the summer if the pond gets low they can pump water from a nearby stream into it, so they have unlimited water. An electric deep well submersible pump hangs off a dock in the middle of the pond, which runs about 60 gallons a minute at 60 psi, enough to supply 3 semi-permanent sprinklers at a time -- each of which will throw water for a diameter of 120 feet. They run three sprinklers for two or three hours, turn on the next three, and so forth. Turning the pump on just means going to the barn and throwing a switch.

Paul estimates that the pumping costs the farm somewhere in the neighborhood of 50¢ to 60¢ an hour, which totals about $24 to irrigate all the crops on the main farm once. Paul thinks that’s a pittance when you consider the value in produce they get for it. Additionally, the Arnolds have installed a 10 kilowatt photovoltaic array with the help of grants that absorbed 71% of the costs. On a good day that system generates enough power to spin their meter backwards and somewhat offset the cost of pumping water.

“We’re pretty dry here as we’re in a rain shadow,” he says, “so if we don’t have full irrigation with unlimited water, we’re sunk. But I would choose irrigation any day over just rain, because I can control it; I can schedule it just when I need it. Also, sometimes in those big storms you get too much. On this hilly land erosion could be a worry, so I can avoid that.” Paul prefers overhead irrigation to drip for most situations. “Drip is nice with perennials, like blueberries and asparagus, but when it comes to transplants I’m putting out every week, and seeded crops like carrots I need to keep the soil moist. We have drip irrigation in our high tunnels and on our blueberries.

“When we first started,” he continues, “we didn’t have the money to dig ponds. We were doing drip irrigation. We thought we were losing about $10,000 a year because seeds weren’t coming up when they should. In our fifth year, we installed a pond and irrigation piping system for about $15,000 for 5 acres. Well, that first year we had irrigation up and going the farm jumped $30,000 in gross. We didn’t realize that it’s not just seeds not coming up, but yields being down, too. We couldn’t quantify that. You don’t realize how much water you really need! One inch a week is a bare minimum. With our soils we need water about every 5 days or the plants will suffer. Water is the main thing that is a risk here, and irrigation takes that away.”

For fertility, the Arnolds rotate their diverse crops and try to keep open land in cover crops – usually clover and rye – that gets turned under several weeks before planting cash crops. They use some Fertrell custom fertilizer and peanut meal or soybean meal for extra nitrogen when needed. One aspect the Arnolds pay attention to on their farm is using various types of mulches. Some of the benefits of mulches are: weed control, maintaining soil moisture, increasing organic matter, soil building, and disease control. Paul feels that the farm has benefited greatly as the result of good mulching habits.

Originally, the couple spread a thick six-inch layer of mulch hay in the fall over their fields to increase organic matter. The land had been depleted of organic matter at the time of purchase and by applying the hay mulch annually, the Arnolds raised the organic matter from 2.1% to 4.1% after several years. Hay mulch was gathered (and still is) with the use of a Gehl flail chopper. The chopper has knives to chop the hay that is then thrown into an auger that brings it to a blower; the chop is blown into a trailing hay wagon or a self-unloading forage wagon. Once a wagonload of hay was chopped, they brought it right to the fields without drying it, and pitched it onto the land as mulch, then went back for another wagonload. You need 9 horsepower per foot of mower to run it. The Arnold’s is a six-foot mower, so it requires a 54 horsepower tractor.

Flail choppers were a big deal back in the seventies, according to Paul. It was considered good practice to find the best grass and cut it and bring it to your cows to eat. Of course that meant a lot of labor because you weren’t cutting hay and storing it, but cutting green meals every day. They quickly became defunct in a few years and have been sitting in people’s hedgerows ever since. The Arnolds have owned theirs for 18 years, paying $400 for it because flail choppers were so out of style. Now vegetable farmers are looking at them for mulching purposes.

Most of the mulch comes from the Arnold’s own hay fields, which must be chopped at specific times so as not to gather weed or grass seeds. The best time is usually in May or June prior to any seed formation, and again in late September after the grass seeds have dropped. In addition to hay chop, often some cover crops are chopped in the spring, such as winter rye before it goes to pollen. Another source of mulch is to buy in straw, which is specifically grown for them and cut prior to pollination. If the straw has seed in it, it can be a real weed problem. Sometimes their own fields of hay or rye are baled in large round bales for later use as well.

For many years, the couple spread out mulch over the fields during the growing season, rows being marked with string and stakes, then plants being transplanted right into the mulch. The crops that mulch was used on were typically long-season crops like cucumbers, summer and winter squash, peppers, tomatoes, herbs, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, swiss chard, garlic, strawberries, etc. “The idea was to plant them and walk away, then come back to harvest,” says Paul. Weed control has always been important to the Arnolds, especially not allowing them to go to seed. “We just can’t afford to let the weeds go,” he says. “The crops harvest so much easier in weed-free fields, and you get higher yields if you keep them clean with no weed competition for soil nutrients.” The mulch not only keeps the vegetables clean for harvest, but also prevents soil-borne pathogens from being splashed onto the plants. When the crops are finished for the year, everything is tilled or disked in, leaving a rich, mellow soil to work with the following year. “Care should be given,” cautions Paul, “when planting crops directly into shiny straw mulch to not put rowcovers directly over the crop because of the extreme heat buildup when the sun is shining which will fry the plants! Hay chop is fine with rowcovers.”

Paul had worked at other farms that used black plastic mulch, even the supposedly photodegradable type, and wanted no part of picking that up at the end of the season and dealing with the environmental waste created by it. However, when a new material came out several years ago that claimed to be biodegradable in soil, the Arnolds gave it a try. It is called ‘Biotello’ and is an Italian product made from cornstarch which is approved for organic production in all European countries (and hopefully soon in the United States). In tests it seems to fully degrade in less than a season. It is available from either Dubois Agrinovation in Canada (, or Nolts in Pennsylvania (phone: 717-656-9764), but it is not cheap. A 48-inch wide .6 mil film in a 5,000-foot roll cost about $350. The Arnolds use less than two rolls for the entire farm each year, so the expense is minimal compared to the benefits.

“This stuff is really biodegradable.” Paul says, “So it breaks down from the soil up. I can tell you that anything that is underground now is pretty well gone. This is the second year we’ve used this -- I can show you where it was used last year and you can’t find it! It really breaks down quickly in soil contact. The more active your soil is, the faster it will break down. We’re always trying to do stuff that works now but gets us ahead for the long term, too.”

The Arnolds fertilize the land, then form a bed and cover it with Biotello with bed-forming equipment on their tractor. The top of the bed is only 3 feet wide, and depending on the crop, the beds are spaced differently. Plants are transplanted into holes in the Biotello either by hand or with a waterwheel transplanter. One thing the Arnolds found is that when you transplant a tiny plant you must make the hole in the Biotello big enough so that the irrigation/rain water can get down into it unless you run drip tape underneath. The crops in the high tunnels have drip tape, but all outside crops depend on overhead irrigation and/or rain on their farm. The larger holes also allow for growth of the plants. To control erosion, maintain weed control, and add organic matter, 6 inches or so of chopped hay or straw is pitched into the paths between the beds. Minor weeding is needed where a few weeds may come up in the holes and along the edges of the plastic.

Of course, timing is crucial in this process of mulch and bed-forming. “It would be nice,” Paul says, “if, as soon as we lay the Biotello, there was mulch ready to cut and spread. But as you know, there are too many things that have to be done at once and we don’t always get to do what we want. There’s only so much time I have to stop and cut hay, and we’re always weather dependent. We get to it as fast as we can.”

Mulching has always been an integral part of Pleasant Valley Farm and the Arnolds feel it is a necessary ingredient to successful farming. The addition of the organic matter that the mulching provides is the key to long term maintenance of strong, biologically active soils. “The mulching materials readily available for us are hay and straw,” Paul points out, “but each farm needs to determine what works for them. Town leaves and pond weeds are used by farmer friends of ours.” The important thing is to keep finding ways to keep soil organic matter up, manage crops and weeds wisely, and be market savvy so that farming becomes a profitable venture so we can all enjoy the great lifestyle it has to offer!

“Since the start of our farming career over 20 years ago,” he continues, “our goal was to make farming a full-time venture, to not work off the farm, and to raise a family with a good quality of life. Starting with just land, we were able to accomplish our goals in a matter of 4 years and become profitable by using a combination of good business management techniques, good record keeping, season extension, mulching/soil management and creative marketing. Profitability to us means each year being able to pay all of our bills, pay for health insurance, maintain what we have, invest money back into the farm, invest in IRA’s for us and the kids each year, put money away for retirement, and have a comfortable lifestyle with yearly vacations.”

The Arnolds are not afraid to spend money to make money and some of their financing is done through 0% credit cards. Sometimes 0% balance transfers are utilized over several years if necessary for the larger capital improvements such as the high tunnels and the equipment shed. “Our farm is treated as a business which helps it be profitable, Sandy states. “It’s great running our own business and being able to change with the times to do fun and exciting new ventures like winter growing! We love what farming has to offer our family.”

Sandy and Paul Arnold will be the featured presenters at the NOFA/Mass Advanced Growers Fall Seminar. The seminar, entitled Profitable Year-Round Farming and Marketing, will take place on Monday, November 5th from 8:30 AM -5:30 PM at Stonehill College, the Martin Institute, in Easton, MA. The seminar is presented in collaboration with SEMAP. You can register online HERE. For more information, contact Ben Grosscup –


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