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Wood chips in annual vegetable cropping & regional currency musings

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

By Julie Rawson

Wood chips on Food Project’s Beverly farm

As part of our carbon restoration work, we are featuring practitioners who are trying innovative practices that build soil structure, growing capacity and quality, while carefully protecting and building underground carbon storage. We are collecting a sharable body of knowledge of practices that are effective at lowering atmospheric carbon dioxide while raising high quality organic food. This month’s feature is on Ben Zoba, Food Project farmer in Beverly and Wenham. 

Farmers are scroungers by nature, most of us anyway, and using materials that are free or abundant and close at hand is an age old practice used by the frugal farmer to enhance production. Wood chips are definitely high in carbon, and more and more on farmer research shows that they can be of great use in the growing system – not only as mulch around woody perennials, but also in annual systems. Ben muses on his experience with wood chips here below.

Often attending the Summer Conference, Ben has attended Soil and Nutrition conferences and has worked with Dan Kittredge via his nutrient density classes. Ben also has strong support and collaboration from his Food Project Executive Director, Jay Harrison, for this work.

Here is what Ben had to say:

“I tried out wood chipping on our Beverly farm. We had success over all and I learned a lot. It is a good application for certain venues. I did a big portion of the farm with a co-worker at the time who was into it. For two years we chipped, and now we’re putting it back into cover crops. This spring we will move away from chips, it was not as hard to go back to cover cropping as I thought it would be.

Ultimately I ended up not keeping our farm chipped because I was unable to keep up with my source; I bit off more than I could chew. We got many chips from the town, and they started to have trash in them. If I can figure out getting the chips and checking for trash, I would like to manage a quarter to half acre of land with chips. It is great to have it.

I am keeping my eye on what other people are doing and doing what I can to care for the microbes in the soil. I’ll share a bit about how I worked with wood chips at our site for those interested in trying it out.

Spreading chips on a fresh bedFirst I lay down 2” of compost and added a little bit of organic fertilizer. Adding 4” of chips is the ideal.  If you don’t put enough, the risks of grass growing in are higher. For things that are planted densely, I used 2-4” compost and 4” of chips. Fall/winter is the best time to apply compost and chips, but we did it in the summer. Once you have your bed, you can use a regular hoe and slowly pull the chips away (2-3” wide furrow), clear it out and expose the soil below. Transplant into that. The chips do naturally flow back into the furrow. And if it is not a dry year, that is it. No weeding, no watering. I think that a lot of people are afraid of chipping, with a fear of having all that carbon competing for nitrogen. I didn’t have problems with that.

The application of chips is best for a school garden. Basically plug in the plants and go harvest them. You might need to water a little bit. If you dig down, it is moist. I work with volunteers and kids. In this system unskilled laborers can easily see where to step. The first year was awesome; the beets, tomatoes and onions (more fertilizer used) did really well - I used transplants. I also grew carrots, and when I got the germination right it was good. Sometimes the chips flowed back Beets planted in chipsonto the part that I seeded and the seeds could get smothered. I ended up making the trenches thicker for carrots. 

The cucumbers were the most noticeably different. That first year I did one bed of cukes in chips and one in a tilled bed – the chips bed did six times better. That was the high point of enthusiasm for wood chips. It is very fun to dig around and see the fungi. But there is nothing I like more than seeing a field planted in winter rye - having some sort of perennial to continually feed the microbes.

Next year I will solarize some and till some. In the Food Project’s new Wenham land I ran a subsoiler through the cover crop. I made a single trench and then filled it with compost and planted winter squash and potatoes. There is no irrigation in Wenham so I am careful not to dry out the soil. It is one technique. In Beverly I will probably do solarizing and minimal shallow tilling there.

I am still figuring it out and time will tell. I learned about Bryan O’Hara last summer at the Summer Conference. It seems like he has it dialed in. I am not 100% sure. Keeping half of the field in cover is a priority for me.

I know that health is on the way when we fix the money system. Monetary system stuff has also gotten my focus. They say chopping wood heats you twice. Growing food feeds you twice. If we can figure out how to invite as many people as possible into that process there is no reason that farmers need to be working that many hours. We are deep into the industrial revolution and we are working as hard as ever. Peasant farmers in England worked 15 weeks per year. I am going to the Netherlands to work with a guy who is working with a regional currency. We can’t think inside the dollar and care for our soils while paying people an unfair wage. Many people all over the place are doing good stuff. I am excited about the power of farmers and farms in the reformation of the monetary system. Food - everyone needs it. I see farms and potentially NOFA playing a critical role in this - the race is on to find the best regional currency. Then we need to have a spiritual awakening to put our free time to good ends.


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