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No-till at Heifer Farm: An interview with Elizabeth Joseph

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

By Julie Rawson

Cabbages the size of basketballs at Heifer Farm

I met Elizabeth Joseph, or “Liz Jo” as we fondly refer to her, soon after she showed up on the scene in 2009 at Heifer Farm (then Overlook Farm) in Rutland. In NOFA/Mass there was a lot of talk and education around nutrient density in those days, and she and I found ourselves at the same workshops and conferences. She started at Heifer in 2009 as a volunteer and in 2010 she was hired as the Garden Coordinator. In 2016 she will be coming into her 8th season at the farm. Prior to Heifer she worked for a season at Mandala Farm, a diversified family farm and CSA in Maine. Liz studied English and Philosophy at the University of New Hampshire. It was in college that she was introduced to agriculture at the student-run organic garden. Most of her farming experience has happened at Heifer Farm, and she has learned a lot at NOFA conferences, by reading, through mentors, and with trial and error.

Liz feels that she was really lucky as a beginning farmer because the first thing that she learned about at conferences was soil fertility. Immediately prior to that, she was learning the basics – like identifying weeds from vegetables, spacing of crops, harvesting techniques… even what certain vegetables looked like! As a person who grew up outside of Providence, RI, farming was all completely new to her. There were tomato plants and flowers in her family’s small backyard, and she remembers the excitement of going to a pumpkin patch as a kid. Otherwise, Liz did not have much exposure to rural areas or agriculture.  

While at UNH, her brother Mark took Liz along for a garlic planting day at the student-run garden. She enjoyed the experience. Mark then went on to found the Durham Community Dinners, using produce from the student garden to feed people in the community. Liz took over these dinners when Mark graduated. They were able to feed organic, vegetarian meals to 150-200 people spending only $1-$2 per person. These experiences made Liz want to learn how to grow food herself. She felt that hard skills like growing food were a gap in her education, and felt it important to learn these skills so she could then help other people.

Liz explained the providential beginnings to her agricultural education:

“I had so many basics to learn. When I had an opportunity to take a course through Heifer with Dan (Kittredge) and NOFA, I felt that that was what I was missing. I didn’t know about the eco-system of soil. I was lucky that the course coincided with my beginnings as a farmer. It was the first information that I had. I didn’t have to transition from anything or unlearn anything. My foundation started out in a good place. Everything Dan was saying made so much sense. Plants above ground can only be as healthy as what is going on below ground.”

As she continued to learn, she encountered other influential people:

“Simultaneously through the years, I felt very influenced by Ricky Baruc at Seeds of Solidarity. I took a class with him, and really loved what he was saying about no-till, earthworms, and cardboard. I went to a NOFA class by Lee Reich as well. The people I was learning from were pointing in the same direction – taking care of the soil. Wendell Berry was also important – his ideology of local food systems, organic farming mimicking nature, working in harmony with nature. It is about the natural world and trying to copy it in the world of the garden. I felt that all of my newly gained knowledge was being corroborated – everything pointed to the soil.”

Liz went on to discuss her continuing evolution as a farmer:

“Since then my focus has increased to include microbes as well as minerals. I am still putting in the minerals, but I gained a better understanding of the microbial world by attending the NOFA Summer Conference pre-conference with Elaine Ingham. I was sitting there (in the workshop) and I felt her focus on microbes was the centerpiece – I understood the importance of getting the microbial community in place. Soil is alive, dynamic, and so much more than just a growing medium. We really feed the microbes before we feed ourselves.

There were other influential people for me – Leslie Kelly, Dale Perkins, you (Julie), other folks like John Kempf, Jerry Brunetti, Will Bonsall, Derek Christianson, Bryan O’Hara. And definitely my first teachers at UNH, Lauren and Bill Erikson, Diana Laurenitis, Cormac Griffin, Larry Brickner-Wood. And of course Sara Faull, Genio Bertin, and Sophia Bates at Mandala Farm.”

Liz remembered sitting with Bryan O’Hara during lunch at the Soil and Nutrition Conference a few years back:

“I was pretty new to farming, and trying to figure out my growing methods. He was so generous with his time. I was asking him about implements – tillage implements and subsoiling. Just this past fall he did a no-till workshop at Heifer Farm. It was ironic that when we first met we were discussing tillage, and when we met again we had both gotten into no till separately.”

A key method that Liz has introduced in the no-till system is to have permanent beds in place in an acre field. When she started, she was doing more traditional tillage – disking, plowing, and rototilling.  She hearkened back to an early management decision. She had thought that she had a great idea for keeping grass from creeping into the garden by rototilling once a month around the perimeter of the garden.

“The season after I did that, I came down in the spring and there was a chasm, a gully of soil eroding. I was horrified. I was young and idealistic, and this was a very humbling moment and wake up call. I had to think about my role as a steward of the land, how my actions can have such an impact. I could not let that happen again.

That experience and also what I was learning from others led me to transition from using the implements. It wasn’t a decision to stop tilling all at once; it was a gradual and organic process of trying to figure out how to care for the soil, which then led to not tilling.  I didn’t even know of the terminology (no-till). I am not a machine inclined person anyway so it was attractive.  It took us a few years to get systems in place.

We built about 50 beds on an acre by hand. In the past, we would till and then shape the beds by hand. It was an incredibly time intensive method – tilling and putting site lines up to keep the rows straight. I didn’t know about a bed shaper. The beds were 3-feet wide with 1.5ft walking rows. We squared them off to 140-feet long since the beds at the top of the garden were different lengths than those at the bottom.

Sometimes I would use the rototiller furrower to dig potato trenches. We dug out the walking row to give it some identification from the beds. We weren’t mulching. It was bare soil.

Gradually we started integrating mulching – beginning with the walking rows. We also planted Dutch white clover in the pathways. It was gorgeous. We loved it. But then the galinsoga crept up through it. We used to have a ton of galinsoga, now I never see it. The clover started spreading into the beds.  It was becoming difficult to plant so we took it out. But I want to revisit it again in the future.”

Liz continued to document her efforts to move more toward no-till:

“We were tilling primarily to get rid of the weeds. So we started transitioning from a system of relying on cultivation and hand tools for weeds to weed prevention through using mulch hay. Because in the past even with our best intentions, things got busy and the weeds eventually took over… meaning we had to till them in at the end of the season.

We were also remineralizing, and we were inoculating seeds. We didn’t have drip irrigation until 2 years ago – right around the time we when didn’t need it anymore as the mulch has been so successful in keeping the soil moist. Drip is still helpful to establish seeds though. We were doing standard organic techniques row cover, crop rotations, etc.

Figuring out our crop rotation was also a big part of it. We used Elliot Coleman’s eight-year crop rotation from the ‘New Organic Grower’. What made it work really well was having units and dimensions of equal size.

As we started having more success with mulching, we would leave the beds intact. So we could keep those going, and get another 10 or so in place. We got better at it. We were mulching thick enough to make sure the weeds didn’t get through it – using mulch hay as our mulch product.

Once I went to Ricky’s class, I tried using cardboard instead of tilling to remove weeds. We would cardboard large swaths, then add compost, and then spread mulch hay on top. We also experimented with leaving a section fallow and letting whatever was there come up. Someone mentioned that weeds are nature’s balancer. Then we would mow it down and use cardboard, pigs, or chicken tractors. The chickens mat down the weeds with their manure —so it works if you can follow them right away with mulch. We have established new garden spaces with pigs and cardboard, though we haven’t used livestock in the past 2 seasons.”

Using cardboardLiz went on to explain her practices in the present:

“Now I am scaling back each year as fertility has increased, so has the health of our plants and the yield. Each year we have gotten rid of 3-6 beds. We are now at 35 beds. I did a NOFA class on financial management and did some math. Not including my first 2 seasons, since 2010 we’ve decreased acreage by 13% and increased production by 10%. For potatoes, I used to rototill the furrows and plant in them. Now I plant shallowly with mulch and some hilling. In 2013, we increased production of potatoes by 800lbs.”

Liz explained their potato system in the present:

“With potatoes there is some disturbance of the soil involved. The bed is already in place as a permanent bed. In the spring, there are winter-killed oats and field peas or mulch hay on all of the beds from the fall before. We push aside enough of the cover crop residue or mulch hay to and plant the potato – 1.5-2’ spacing, about 4” deep. We have used both whole and cut pieces. We use the whole potato more often than not. We put it in, and then hoe the holes weekly to remove any micro weeds until the plants emerge. Then once the plant is big enough to hill, we rake any remaining hay into the walking row, hill the potatoes, and then mulch the hill. We have tried not hilling, and planting really deep instead, which made harvesting difficult. We have tried not hilling and mulching thickly instead, which gave us green potatoes. So now we hill, which makes harvesting easy. We reshape the bed after harvest. Using oats as a cover crop works well, but only with an early enough seeding in late summer/early fall, because otherwise if you plant them too late, they put on very little growth, and the weeds come through it in the spring. I’m interested in under sowing crops to work around this.”

Liz spent a minute on tomatoes:

“For tomatoes, we have moved from 200 to 50 plants with the same yield. For fertility we use compost, mulch, and drip irrigation with the liquid feeds that Dan Kittredge sells. We didn’t use minerals this year, but they have helped things tremendously. With our traces some have improved but not all of them, so we’re continuing to build soil structure and build up the microbes to help with this.”

Because I learned how to make the Korean Natural Farming Indigenous Microorganism compost at a workshop at Heifer Farm, I asked Liz how that was going for her.

“I have done very little with Korean Natural Farming. I haven’t had the time to pursue it but I am really interested in it, especially the IMO (indigenous microorganisms). We currently make compost from animal manure and kitchen scraps, garden debris, hay, etc.  I believe it to be too bacterially dominant. While we’ve got a great earthworm population (they explode under the cardboard), I want to use leaves and ramial wood chips along with the mulching and cardboard to further feed the soil food web and encourage more fungal species. I’d like to switch from using mulch hay to using leaves to help with this as well, plus they’re free!”

I asked her about her supply of wood chips, and did give her a tip. The Rutland DPW has a very large pile of chips and will give the chips to any takers. (Update: she’s already taken me up on this and has large piles waiting to be made into compost by the garden.)

Regarding disease and insect pressure, Liz proudly reported that one of her biggest accomplishments in 2015 was to have tomatoes die from the frost instead of diseases. They still have potato beetles, but a lot less. The galinsoga has gone away. She did complain of thistle coming in with the mulch hay. They used to have a lot of flea beetle pressure and lost a lot of kale that way. She still sees a few flea beetles but they are not decimating the entire crop. They don’t see tomato hornworms, and the onions, garlic, leeks and lettuces are quite good.  

“I also just want to pay even more attention to the individual crops. Someone once observed that in farming, you don’t have a lot of data points – one experience each year. So I’ve only have eight experiences with these crops… there’s still plenty to learn! I am more intuitive, so I find a lot of farming for me is trying to feel through it – observing, listening and feeling. And again always using nature as the ultimate guide.”

Liz uses Logan Labs for her soil tests. She does a standard fall test, and a mid-season saturated paste test. She used a lot of foliars this past season with Dan’s products as well as compost tea using the compost at Heifer Farm and made with the day campers at the farm.

I asked Liz to philosophize at the end of our conversation. Here are her closing thoughts.

Lush garden“I’m excited to talk about what we are doing, but we certainly still have issues to work out and room to grow. I think we all do the best we can with where we are in the hopes of caring for the land and people around us. Someone once told me that every farm and farmer are like snowflakes – no one exactly the same – conditions, budget, staff. That is part of what I really love about the organic community. Everyone has different situations, but is so willing to help each other. It was a stroke of luck that I fell into Dan’s class right away.

I do have a couple of favorite quotes, the first from one of my favorite poems, the Mad Farmer’s Liberation Front: ‘Go with your love to the field.’ The other comes from Wendell Berry: ‘You cannot save the land apart from the people, or the people apart from the land. To save either, you must save both.’ And lastly, from my brother who was the one who got me into farming. He is a teacher, and at his school they have a motto of what type of person they are looking for to be a teacher: ‘humble and hungry.’ I love that, and try to be like that.”


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