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No-till at Woven Roots Farm: an interview with co-owner Jen Salinetti

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This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2017 April Issue Newsletter

By Julie Rawson

Jen Salinetti farms with her husband Pete in Tyringham, MA in the Berkshires. They have been farming for 16 years together, the four years spent on their almost 5-acre farm. In recent years they have not been using tillage to grow their vegetables. Jen feels that by not disturbing the soil they have a considerable positive impact on carbon sequestration on their land. They have experienced a significant increase in quality and yields which has enabled them to create a viable business on a small amount of land.

“Pete and I started experimenting with no-till 13 years ago, and we are now going into year 11. Our initial experimenting began when we were looking to increase greenhouse production. We started looking into ways to do prep without the tiller. We saw some really great results after the first season. And then we expanded it out to our market garden. Through the process, we were able to set up permanent beds and maximize our earnings and outputs through proper spacing of plants. It was right around when our son Diego was born. We wanted to commit to farming, to be available for family life and to be home.”

They read of French bio-intensive methods in books. Pete took off with that and Jen has supported him on some level. In the early 2000s they took an intensive with Eliot Coleman at a NOFA Summer Conference. Jen remembers being in that workshop and Pete looking at her and giving her an “I told you so” look. Jen thought this system was nice for a backyard gardener, but was unsure of the scalability for market growing for profit.

Some authors whose works were important in their conversion to no-till and soil buiding were Lee Reich, author of The Weed Free Gardener, and Grace Gershuny’s The Soul of Soil. Jerry Brunetti’s book Farm as Ecosystem was also valuable. Now they feel that they are living proof that no till can be accomplished on scale. Jen remembered Eliot’s class giving her a whir of emotions. “There is someone who is doing this, has success, hard numbers, and success further north than us. It came at a critical time. We were having our second child. We were committing to being home and to being a family unit and to being in a position to provide high quality food to our community,” said Jen.

Every year they make some adjustments to their system. They push their season extension, have more constant soil coverage and provide more mulching. They find it fun to have this foundation and be able to build off of it, grow their business and teach others about their findings.

Jen states: “I would actually encourage somebody to not do it all at once. I think for two reasons – it could be incredibly overwhelming and a huge risk. I can say with complete confidence that we have better yield and quality, but it would have been too much of a risk all at once. Transitioning over a couple of years helped us to be able to see that one field over there was doing better than the other – carrots, for example were not growing as well over there as here. The longer transition helped to solidify it in front of our eyes and in our mouths. Within the first year we were able to bear witness to the overall positive changes we were making. By the end of year two, it was a significant shift for us.”

Though it was hard for Jen to embrace no-till farming at first, she did have some amazing mentors – she interned with Deb Habib and Ricky Baruc of Seeds of Solidarity Farm. She was their first intern. She saw that they were a number of years ahead of them and having success with what they were doing. After she left college and apprenticed on a farm that was not operating in that way, she was able to see on so many different levels that no-till made sense. Nonetheless, it was harder for her to take any really big steps. Pete is always willing to push the envelope further than she is through new applications and trials. “We had a few books on hand and some good inspiration. The Soul of Soil was a huge one for us. It gave us a clear perspective of our soil as a living environment. Having a better understanding of soil building was the foundation of that book. It helped us to see how comprehensive the system could be. I could see that we were not growing plants anymore. More so, we are here to support an ecosystem.”

Jen suggests that folks start by defining the bed spaces within their garden with permanent walking spaces and beds. Commit to having the bed spaces as weed free as possible. Their beds are very systematic – 30” wide with 12” pathways and beds 50’ long. With that system, they can set up their quick hoops easily and always use the same materials. It also makes it easier to calculate yields when there is uniformity.

Organic matter is a really important component. Having a good source of compost and being generous with it is essential for them. When they first started, they just put the compost in the planting hole. Now they do the whole bed. It is a hard thing to swallow at first, but the layering of compost mimics what the earth naturally does on its own. Observing what surrounds them and putting it into practice in the field continues to help their production thrive.

They are not making enough of their own compost. They buy it in from Harvest New England. Jen hopes to make more of their own compost but they don’t have adequate land yet. They would like to be able to close the loop and not buy amendments. Jen thinks there is a way to do it if they were collaborating with neighbors who are raising animals. Another method would also be to grow more cover crops to potentially harvest for the purpose of making compost as well as alfalfa for fertilizer.

They test their soil spring and fall and use alfalfa meal, crab shells and compost as their main amendments. Bed prep is done carefully. They leave as much organic matter as they can from the previous crop. They leave the root mass in the soil. They twist the lettuce heads out. They try to keep the organic matter in the soil so that it can decompose and add more nutrients back into the soil. They are only altering the top inch or, at most, two inches of soil so as to keep most of the structure in place.

They use a broad fork to aerate the soil – not turning the soil. Then they apply generous layer of compost using a 5-gallon bucket for 6-8 feet. They smooth out that layer, and if adding alfalfa meal or crab shells they will incorporate them. Usually there is a 24-hour period between removing one crop and putting in another one. Their experience has been that there is a threshold for compost. They have found excess potassium in their soil and have pulled back on compost use. They notice they reach a compost threshold around year seven, seeing it specifically in our Swiss chard and beets – spots started to form on them (Cercospora leaf spot). Last year after their soil test came in during spring, they pulled back specifically on those crops and provided mineralization including a boron application. They have started to see a difference.

Over 80 percent of their crops are going in as transplants. For direct seeding, the beds are usually stale bedded, irrigated and flame weeded before seeding. They use a 6-row seeder for their seeding. It needs a clean and even bed. That took them some time to learn and have the patience for, but it has helped their business grow tremendously.

Jen feels that cover crop integration is their weakest link. They do a significant amount of season extension and are harvesting crops from the field until the end of December. But they are left with a lull period where they can’t get cover crops in. There is more bare soil than they are comfortable with. They do have some crops that overwinter. They have crops that they will seed in a quick hoop environment if the weather permits. For example, they will seed their first carrots in early January and they germinate in six weeks.

Says Jen: “I really like using oats as a cover crop. We will actually seed oats and then plant right through that for our garlic. We have done inter-planting around our tomatoes – lettuce heads, radish and spinach. Sometimes we will grow a crop of buckwheat. Buckwheat and oats are our main cover crops. We grow lettuce, radishes or turnips before tomatoes. We harvest the middle row of lettuce and then plant the tomatoes in. Once those lettuce heads come out, we can sneak another crop of radishes or a seeding of buckwheat under that. Then the buckwheat has to be cut by hand. We are working around the tomatoes. It provides a nice green manure. Pete and I have been specifically saying cover cropping is an area that we need to expand.”

Jen sums up: “This idea of having full soil coverage is important. The times of the year that we are doing this you can hardly see any soil. There is stark contrast in the winter. Fields are more open than I like. We collect leaves and use them for covering the soil – we are increasing that. More people now know they can come and drop off their leaves here. This year we hope to focus more on cover crops and being able to have less exposed soil throughout the year. We are working on increasing our mulching capacity. We have struggled with finding good mulching products at reasonable prices.

We are also establishing more perennial crops in our fields – raspberries, strawberries, rhubarb, and asparagus for permanent permaculture vegetable production. There will be more of that this year. We are looking forward to having more people on the farm to show them what we are doing and having more conversations about how this can be successful. We are working on fine-tuning our work environment. We want to create superior working conditions with excellent wages. We have been farming for many years, but we are still settling in on this new land – it’s been four years. We are working on developing a master plan for the farm and for more efficient working spaces. We are excited to be working with the Conway School of Ecological Design this spring to help us actualize that goal.

We are ready to settle into the land better than we have thus far. We have a better understanding of where water flows and springs flow and how to position our beds. We have been doing this for a long time, but in so many ways we feel that we are just beginning to learn and that there are more connections to be made. We have an openness to learning and experimenting while committing to be a source of nutrient dense and beautiful produce to our community. It takes a certain amount of faith and trust. We are always coming from a place of wanting to do greater good for the community – just as much the plants and soil as the people. We seek to refine that and to continue to make that better for everyone.”


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