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Crop Density Math: Negligible Acres Probably Produce Noticeable Yields, and More Profit per Acre

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This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2018 December Issue Newsletter

By Caro Roszell, NOFA/Mass Education Director

While the amount of acres in organic no-till acreage is a currently a decimal point on the number of acres in mainstream organic farming, many small-scale no-till farms can produce an enormous amount of food per acre. I’d like to touch on mini-farm crop density math. Many organic no-till farms are three acres or smaller, and use land that is near densely populated areas-- shortening food miles and giving peri-urban folks access to growing food and agricultural knowledge.

But the truly powerful thing about no-till small farms is their capacity to grow a lot more food on less acres than mechanized farms.

For instance, JM Fortier writes in The Market Gardener that he plants 7 rows of carrots on an Elliot Coleman-style 30-inch bed, while the mechanized organic farm standard is 5 rows of carrots on a 6-foot (72 inch) mechanically cultivated bed.

With 15 carrots per row food (as recommended by the UMass Vegetable Management Guide), that gives you 12.5 carrots per square bed foot (excluding pathways)in traditional mechanical cultivation while a no-till carrot bed using the Coleman/ Fortier recommended bed spacing gives you 42 carrots per square bed foot (not including pathways). And, of course in a field block that’s 90 feet wide, you can fit about 12 beds and pathways (assuming 12” tire tread path) or about 25 beds (12” pathways again).

So, say your carrot field is 90’ x 150,’ or 13,500 square feet. In the mechanized tillage system with 5 rows on 6 foot beds with one foot pathways, you have the potential to grow about 135,000 carrots. Using 7 rows on 30 inch spacing with one foot pathways, you could potentially grow 393,750 carrots. You’ve almost tripled your yield without increasing your cultivated land.

Some large-scale mechanized farms grow 3 rows of carrots (81,000 carrots in our hypothetical carrot field) and Ben Hartman, reduced-till farmer and author of The Lean Farm, writes that he grows 12 rows of carrots in a 30 inch bed (675,000 carrots in our carrot field).

If there are eight carrots in a bunch and a bunch goes for $2 wholesale, here is the value in each scenario of our 90’ x 150’ carrot field:

3 rows 6’ beds

5 rows 6’ beds

7 rows, 30” beds

12 rows, 30” beds

$20,250

$33,750

$98,437

$168,750

 

So, while you’ve been busy maximizing production and increasing your farm profitability, you’ve also multiplied the roots in the ground, the carbon being transferred from the air to the rhizosphere, the foliage shading and protecting the soil.

Ready to ditch your tractor and your 5-row cultivator? Come learn from your no-till neighbors. Read more about the No-Till Track at the Winter Conference, and register now for the NOFA/Mass Winter Conference at https://www.nofamass.org/content/2019-registration. Register before December 15th to get the early bird discount.

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