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Soil carbon improvement techniques on Brittany Overshiner’s farm

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

By Julie Rawson

After silage tarps and close up of soil

This article is part of a series that I have been doing on reduced tillage, no tillage, and other methods that focus on the importance of carbon in agricultural soils, particularly with annual vegetable growers.   I interviewed Brittany Overshiner, who is our NOFA/Mass Beginning Farmer Program Coordinator, and a now nine-year Beginning Farmer herself, who has had comprehensive experience working on a number of vegetable farms in Eastern Massachusetts. 

Below is what Brittany had to say:

I started experimenting with reduced tillage because I was aware that tillage was breaking up the eco-system and making it harder for me to raise healthy crops.   I think a lot of it came about as I was visiting other farms that were already trying to reduce tillage and hearing firsthand the progress in their crops, and from reading and paying attention to different publications and online resources. It was culturally becoming more relevant, and I was hearing more and more about it. It was in a very early stage of my farming career that I started this journey.

I am coming to the end of my ninth year. I started managing a farm at my fourth year that had no money for infrastructure. We got a 4-year loan for an old tractor and a rototiller. I had experienced bed formation at previous farms, where I had used a bed former. At this location I overused the rototiller because I didn’t have an effective disc harrow. I got away with it at first because I had turned over a hay field that had been in sod for 50 years. The organic matter was high and it had stuff to burn up. I was trying to use cover crops, but was doing triple and quadruple cropping. I didn’t have the time or space on the land to allow the cover crops to mature while also fitting my crops in. So I thought I needed more land and got two additional properties. Of the six acres that I ended up with, I could get a full year fallow for one acre. As you move toward healthier soil, you can put more land into fallow and have better cover cropping.

My real experiment happened because I was on a community farm. There were 80 volunteers on the farm and we would use them to do work. We had to get people working. We had two acres where we couldn’t raise any vegetable crops, as it was a riparian area. We could cut hay which was never perfect. Sometimes it would be seedy. We used it to mulch the ¼ acre of pick-your-own. In the spring we would prep beds with a corporate group. We would do peas or beans. We could lay down hay or straw. We had to have to have really wide paths because of all of the volunteers who were helping.   On the rest of the farm I kept the paths narrow. We used a smaller tractor, with wheel space 48” on center. Smaller tractors have smaller tires. We found that the 4’ bed space really worked for us. In the pick-your-own area the pathways were wider, and there was a large amount of space that was not growing live plants. Even within one year of no tillage I noticed a dramatic increase in soil tilth and crop health. Worms were everywhere, there was a darker color, better texture, and the soil was more friable.   It was like a cookie – not sand or clay; you can sense the complexity of the organic matter where the living processes happen. There was a little bit of ‘glue,’ and I had an intuitive sense that the soil was better. I think everybody has that intuitive awareness. The soil type is Paxton Fine Sandy Loam, but it is very, very sandy. Where we were using the tiller, it was like sand; five days after prep it looked like a sand box.

I didn’t take the pick-your-own experiment seriously enough to write down the details. The question is whether the upfront investment of mulches and labor reduces the labor needed later to do cultivation and practice weed management.   Is there less need for irrigation, are yields improving such that my net would be equal? If so, it would be worth it. Unfortunately I am no longer at the property, but my gut sense was that it was better. The hardest part for me was where to get mulching materials. We don’t have great access to straw mulch, and it is hard to get it affordably. At horse farms there is no waste.

I went to Bryan O’Hara’s talk in October 2015, and, previously, to his talk at the NOFA Summer Conference. He was using ramial branches from the highway, chipped. As long as you are not turning those materials into the soil, there is more net benefit to the microbes that you are getting from the hay or the leaves, according to him. I have not experimented with this. Everyone has warned against tilling them in because of the nitrogen tie-up. That would be the next step. Are there waste green materials, or could I grow my own?

Preparing pathways with spader behind girl tractor for seeding cover crop (which didn't take)In 2016 I was on a brand new piece of property.   I was in partnership with White Barn Farm in Wrentham.   They are interested in Jean Martin Fortier methods. At their farm we had some of the tools.   They haven’t gone straight down to hand tools, but they don’t have a tiller; they have a bed shaper and a perfecta. We would hill and mound, and disrupt in a vertical nature. The way the perfecta works is thus: it is tractor mounted with a series of S shanks – a little bit like springy tines -going into the soil at 8” of depth.More silage tarps At the very end there are tiny rotating choppers that chop up debris on the bed surface.   White Barns’ beds are five feet wide, and there are 10 shanks on the perfecta. It emulates a broadfork at a slightly larger scale. The other piece that we tried that I think we only fully understood at the end was the black and dark tarps. That doesn’t tie into carbon sequestration. You leave them on for two weeks, the soil warms up, the weeds germinate and then die, and you pull the tarp off and then plant. I think the way in which it was effective was with winter rye.  At the end of February, when we got the tarps, we were able to kill the rye. It took six weeks. It prevented the rye from picking up vigor in the springtime. The worm activity was very impressive. That was an appropriate use of that tool while using cover crops.

In that bed we planted parsnips, celeriac [celery root], carrots, celery, fennel – all in that family. The celery root was the best I have seen in a long time. There was no soil movement aside from the perfecta and the bed former. There were three rows for celery root, and there was some problem with density in the heat of the summer. The pathways we cultivated with a wheel hoe, a hand hoe, and some hand weeding.

I think the bed shaper is better than the rototiller, for a sandy soil. With the tiller, you add a lot of air and put stress on the roots. The bed shaper is pressing down, and there is less transplant shock.   I think that the machinery that aerates is inappropriate. Because there is also so much more pore space, preventing the addition of air early on is better for moisture retention. It is true that we grew a lot of weeds in the bed-shaped paths.

You have to be really on top of cultivating or putting a mulch down in pathways. I struggle with partially mulched areas, as you are committing yourself to hand weeding. In the traditional system I was trying to avoid the hand weeding. My theory was that you should be on top of early cultivation of new weeds, that hand weeding is expensive – a big investment in labor. With mulch, we want to have minimum weed pressure.

I am also leasing land for another property that I started working this year. There was a whole stand of rye. There were 10 acres available, but I didn’t have financial resources to start a farm and no tools. I did just plow over the rye that I was going to be using. I couldn’t think of a better way to kill it. I used the traditional plow disc, as a tiller was not option. The land has a few giant boulders. I didn’t want to borrow someone’s tiller and ruin it. I do own a little cub tractor. What I did after plowing, and then discing twice, was to make the beds.   I drove with the cub and had two hiller discs belly-mounted to throw it to the center. I added some Kreher’s composted chicken manure, which has an organic matter content of 10%. The rate I was applying for nitrogen was less than 50 pounds per acre. I put some down early on and assumed I would side dress. I had incredibly healthy crops. For management I did basic tractor cultivation and hoeing. I was doing only single row crops because I didn’t think I would have labor. Once I cultivated a couple of times, I could put down cover crops, but there was no rain. For the last round of brassicas I got a stand of oats and peas that are now doing very well. I have since mowed the broccoli and cabbage, and the oats and peas have come up nicely. There were four acres on which I never got around to plowing the rye. The rye had reached maturity. I know that you can mow this to kill it, if you catch it at the milk stage, which is right around June 10 – you just have to watch it.   On that four-acre section I just left it. I will frost seed clover. There was another section where the mower broke. I was not able to mow it before it set seed. If I mow it in, will I get a stand of rye? There were two acres in the fall of 2015, where I mowed it, and it self-seeded. My goal there is to be better about timing and if I can, mow it to kill.

We have a single shank chisel called a sod buster, which you can get for $150 at Tractor Supply. It has a 3-point hitch mount. You can get to a 1½ foot depth if you have at least a 27-horsepower tractor. If you hit a rock, you can stop. It cuts a really nice strip. I am mostly using that implement for winter squash and fall brassicas.

I have planted potatoes on April 21, and I have heard about planting them late to miss the pest cycle. With some early varieties you can’t do that. I planted late because of rye issues. The early varieties were piddling. The later varieties are better adapted to planting later. One of the hard things with the rye business is that I am waiting until mid-June. I have 2/3 to 3/4 of my farm planted in spring crops. I will have to learn how to manage the fields differently. I am not sure about going to no till permanently.

I was mowing the field edges and there was thistle creeping in. It is hard to manage by hand. I worked on a farm where we had to weed thistle out of rhubarb. My mentality is that instead of saying “I am never going to till again,” my goal is to add extra months or years between disruptive tillage. If I get to that point of a long distance between tillage, I will put even more energy into being creative for how to manage.

Another thing I am interested in is cocktail cover cropping. I haven’t had much of a chance to try this, but the idea makes a lot of sense to me. I wonder what other crops I can use as cover crops, and how will they fit in. I had an area of lambs quarters, velvet weed, and pig weed, with lots of insects living there. Those do not provide a very diverse habitat.   I need to incorporate more perennials to diversify habitat and attract more beneficial insects, while also increasing carbon sequestration.

I am definitely observing different things – or, I should say, observing for different things. I used to question whether a crop needed water, needed to be weeded, or needed more fertilizer. I was looking at it for the short term. Now after having observed the benefits of these practices, I want to maintain a profitable business, but I want to have both. I have the goal of the healthiest soil possible, and also to remain profitable. I don’t think I am going to be the person who comes up with the techniques, but will be trying what others are doing and incorporating it. It makes it fun.

I will actually say that part of why I got into farming, was when I realized that I care about the environment and nutrition, which everyone engages with every day. I was interested in policy, and I did a study abroad in Costa Rica. My number one takeaway was that we should not go down there and tell them what to do. Folks there let us know that we should fix things where we are so that our culture won’t be destroying them. That made sense to me. I decided to be part of the alternative.

Climate change is a real thing and people feel helpless.   They put up solar panels, and drive cars less, but changing the way we grow food is really important. I want to be the source of information and to encourage people to make purchasing choices that are healthier both ecologically and for their own bodies.


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