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No-till with biochar and compost at Astarte Farm

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

By Julie Rawson

Garlic harvest

This article is part of a monthly series where I am interviewing farmers on their no-till practices. Energized by our work at NOFA/Mass to sequester carbon into soil as quickly and effectively as we can, I have chosen to interview annual vegetable producing farmers around the Northeast, because no-till with succession production is not easy, nor are there many models.

Dan Pratt is an old NOFA friend from Hadley of a few decades. I was delighted to hear that he is applying for an Organic Farming Research Foundation grant to further develop his no-till system using compost and biochar on Astarte Farm that he once owned, but now has sold and where he remains as farm manager. Of course he will go ahead with it anyway, whether or not he gets some grant help.

Julie Rawson: What pushed you to take the no-till plunge?

Dan Pratt: It has been a checkered career. I have been doing a bit of poking around and I came up with a remarkable statistic from the University of Ohio that world soils have lost 50 to 70% of their original carbon stocks and just oxidized into CO2. I owned Astarte Farm for 14 years. We quickly abandoned tilling entire sections of the ground when I realized that with any kind of a heavy rain on a 1-2% slope, we were getting soil washing down hill. We eliminated whole plot tilling in 2002 or 2003. We went to system of permanent grass paths in between our beds.

We got rid of the moldboard plow and went to a fancy Italian spading machine that would only do a 3-foot bed. It doesn’t churn, but picks up the soil with a shovel, and slams it into a metal plate. We did that for 10 years. It was obvious that the ground in the pathways was more resilient, rising up while the beds were slowly sinking. I tried switching the beds with the paths. I thought I was doing a really great thing by keeping a refuge for the earthworms and fungal matter. But after 10 years of a lot of finished compost, I was not gaining ground on organic matter (I started at 2.9 and might have gotten it to 3.4) even when spading instead of plowing. I was putting on very generous amount of compost very regularly – a couple of yards of compost per bed every 3 years in rotation – 3 feet by 150 feet long – on 120 beds.

Currently I buy all our compost from Martin’s Farm in Greenfield. Adam Martin just bought the operation from his dad Bob and it has been on the Baystate Organic Certifiers’ approved list for a long time. It is a great product, but we weren’t getting the bang for the buck that we should have for building fertility and organic matter. Then I started using blended organic fertilizers – I love sweet corn and cauliflower which are very heavy feeders. I started with CPS 7-2-4 and then went to 5-4-8. I was not happy with that direction. When NOFA had Elaine Ingham give her talk on the soil food web (Summer Conference 2014), it ignited a series of thoughts about how many mistakes I was making. I talked to Jim Mead, the new owner of Astarte Farm about some dramatic changes that I thought could really improve the farm’s productivity. Jim has been very supportive of the new methods of no-till we are trying out and sees that there is a lot of potential in these methods. Breaking ground or tilling the soil is so ingrained in our agricultural heritage that it really goes against our common sense as farmers to put the plow away.

Julie: What were your first steps?

Dan: In the fall of 2014 and after some correspondence with Elaine, I decided to attempt planting no-till garlic. We had the future garlic production beds sowed in buckwheat and rye grass. When the cover was ready to die, we ran the mower over the beds and chopped up the green material. It lay in a layer 2-inches deep. At that time we were trying several different brands of bagged biochar – from Vermont and Washington State. It was pretty expensive and we put it on sparingly – we added a 40 lb. bag for three beds (150’ x 3’). After putting the biochar down, then we put down a 2-inch layer of compost.

Being new to the methods, we purchased Weed Guard paper mulch, which is available in a pre-punched formulation. We planted the garlic 7 ½ inches apart each way in three rows on the beds. We laid the paper mulch directly on the compost, and hand poked the garlic cloves through the pre-punched holes. To hold the paper down we used raw wood chips in the paths to hold down the edges of the paper, and then added another 2 inches of Martin’s Farm compost mulch – soft wood chips and compost. We buried everything.

We came up in 2015 with a really very strong garlic crop – excellent clove size. We never needed to weed those 5-6 beds of garlic. Normally we would have to weed 2-3 times when using straw mulch on top of standard soil planted garlic. There was no need to weed and it was quite remarkable. We got the garlic out and found another piece of the puzzle. In past years we dug garlic with a garden fork. This year we didn’t want to disturb the soil so we got a bed under-cutter on a three-point hitch. You dig a trench, drop the under-cutter, and drive slowly down the bed. The garlic would pop up four inches and drop back down. We went pretty slowly. We could get to a level of accuracy where we were cutting the plants with 4 inches of root. There was minimal soil disturbance and the compost mulch stayed as a layer on top. Then we planted summer lettuce as transplants. It was some of the nicest lettuce I have ever grown. We had six weeks of no precipitation and the plants prospered. We did a second succession of lettuce into those beds and it also grew like gangbusters. That was the 2015 experience: good garlic crop and two nice crops of lettuce.

Julie: Tell us more about journey.

Dan: We decided to retire the spader. We only tilled a half dozen beds after that. We stuck with the plan of mowing or rolling rye, applying 2 inches of compost, or parting the rye and transplanting right into the dirt. We seeded starting mid-August through November; we crimped before it set seed and then planted into it.

We have also been investigating the use of low growing perennial cover crops – Roman Chamomile under tomatoes and also Greek Oregano under tomatoes. It is pretty interesting – Roman Chamomile is supposed to be perennial; right now in early March it looks like it will come back on strong. Using those undersown covers, we saw a marked difference in disease pressure. Those with Roman Chamomile went three weeks longer without early blight.

I found a page on Elaine Ingham’s site that has a list of plants to start from seed. Clover can be too aggressive – well, I don’t know if you can plant into it. We are trying a bunch of different stuff. Stone crops – sedum is the family – low growing, fleshy, red, blue, and silver; we pick the plants that are only 6 inches tall and are letting stuff spread over the soil. They are all basically shallow rooted perennial covers that grow less than 6 inches. Roman Chamomile doesn’t compete well with grass. When we put it on compost it made great big mats. It totally suppressed the weeds and prevented splash on the crops

Julie: How about the biochar?

Dan: We are trying a bunch of different stuff. The biochar is just like a piece of the puzzle. We applied for a grant with the Organic Farming Research Foundation to compare moisture retention and fertility – 20% biochar and 80% compost. We will do 12 production beds and check yields, moisture retention, and soil organic matter. If what we are seeing continues to happen, it has the potential for a real benefit. Biochar has an amazing physical structure; just one gram of biochar – about the size of a pack of gum – has the same surface area as three football fields. Earthworms like it a lot. I am counting on them to bring it down deep into the soil. I keep everything as a surface application. There is a lot of cool activity that is happening in there.

The fact that we can bolster our soil microbiology is very exciting to me. It is kind of cutting edge stuff. Plants that have the mycorrhizal fungi connections can transfer more carbon. I don’t see it as an amendment but good housing for mycorhizzal fungi and beneficial bacteria. In the past, by stirring, plowing or cultivating we have eliminated most of the fungal activity. We want to find the balance again. We need a more vital mixture of soil micro-organisms.

Julie: Where do you source your biochar?

Dan: We tried to make it. It is a really great way to roast marshmallows! It took us some hours but we got 10 lbs. of variable quality. We tried buying from a bigger commercial source but could not get a consistent quality from batch to batch. 

Hugh McLaughlin from NextChar has a pyrolizer and they are just about to introduce their big machine. They have test models that produce a fine granular material that is very black, doesn’t have a lot of ash, and when we mix it with the compost, it becomes part of the compost.

Julie: How big is the area that you are managing no-till?

Dan: We have 6.6 acres for the farm and are growing on 4 ½ acres. We are also having Mike Lombard at the Ideal Compost Company incorporate biochar at 10% into their potting soil. We need more and more transplants. The amount of time it took to keep the plants damp was phenomenal in the past and we are hoping we can eliminate one whole watering per day with the addition of biochar.

Julie: Tell me about the grant application.

Dan: In one test area we will use just a 2-inch layer of compost with biochar. We will do one test area with just straight compost on the beds. We will then investigate the differences between the two trial areas over a period of two years.

Julie: Do you use wood chips in your operation?

Dan: I am probably using way too many wood chips. We can get them for free. We have a couple of tree trimming places that drop them off.  The only thing we do to ameliorate their effect is to lay corrugated cardboard first and put the chips on top. It can be amazing with one winter – cardboard and raw wood chips on top. We use them almost exclusively where we used to have grass paths so there is way less mowing and way less potential for damage from mowing. The problem is that as it breaks down, it releases carbon dioxide. But we are burning a lot less gas, and the soil biota really enjoy the feast.

What we are trying to do, if we can get these perennial cover crops to work for us, is to have a green top on each bed year round. The pathways will get narrower and narrower as the soil improves and our systems develop. A lot of times we have 3-foot bed and 4-foot paths. How much room do you need to harvest? I loved the green paths. There were earthworms, and mushrooms, and you could harvest on a wet day without getting all muddy. The original idea of the grass pathways was to maximize the edge effect. People would have a better crop next to undisturbed soil. By having these grass pathways, I thought I was providing the edge effect; but maintenance was hard. We were mowing often more frequently than every 10 days. If I can give the soil microbiology true happiness under the cardboard and chips, and then move the happiness into the beds, then. I think we will all be happy.

I don’t know how this is going to pan out. Any farmer in Hadley would just laugh at us taking 3-4 hours to plant six beds. But the River Valley Coop buys whatever we can grow. There is no more standing in a hot parking lot. We are pretty happy and want to share the joy.

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