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Interview with Wenona Racicott of Chockalog Farm

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This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2019 September Issue Newsletter

By Caro Roszell, NOFA/Mass Education Director

Chockalog Farm is a 36-acre farm in Uxbridge, MA offering vegetables and meat grown in a regenerative, integrated farm system that includes a market garden, high tunnel, food forest, pastures and woods.

How did you get interested in no till?

I don’t really remember! It was about 10 years ago, we would have read a book about it and decided to start out that way—but we read so many books that I am not sure what the first one was. Two early influences on our no-till thinking were Fukuoka’s One Straw Revolution and Ruth Stout’s No Work Garden Book, which focused on a permanent mulch system. 

What was one thing you tried new this year?

We were more on top of removing crops as they were waning and replacing them quickly with something else. As part of that strategy we started more transplants indoors to shorten field time and increase our production without increasing the garden space. We did add new CSA members this year, so we needed to turn over our beds faster. It seemed to work, because the only things we didn’t have enough of were broccoli and corn. Our successions were better than ever.

We are also trying new cover crops this year, like barley and sunflower. One thing I did this year when putting a bed into a cover crop of oats and radish was to just dump all my old seeds – stuff I was going to throw away that had collected over the years—into that same bed to increase the diversity. It’s full of stuff now, like winter squash and crop radishes and brassicas.

We did choose to grow the radishes for the bio-drilling effect, because our NOFA soil test report recommended trying to open up the deeper layers of the soil, though our soil is more gravelly than compacted. We’re a little gun shy about a lot of the cover crops that are supposed to winterkill, like crimson clover, because they’re not winterkilling around here. So, the barley is something new that will give the mix a little diversity.

We are also working this year on narrowing down varieties to ones that really work for us. For instance, we really like this cabbage variety called Tiara that makes good small heads that are all ready at exactly the same time, so we can give it all out to the CSA members and everyone gets one.

Did you learn anything so far from the NOFA Soil Technical Assistance program?

It was interesting to read about how far down our topsoil goes. It’s really excessively well-drained with gravel below a foot, and we have been working to create topsoil on top of the gravel layer. It’s amazing that we can grow so much in such shallow soil. We actually did it without irrigation up until this year, and it has been amazing to see that even when the fields all around our farm are dry and burnt our crops still look fine. That tells you how much the mulches and organic matter help.

What inspired you to plant your food forest?

Mark Shepherd inspired me to plant trees in my pasture. Then I read Paradise Lot and Farming the Woods and it inspired me to plant perennials. I’m not into everything about permaculture-- for instance, the hugelkultur and swales seem like more work than they’re worth – but some of the other practices make a lot of sense. We put our beds on contour. Spreading and slowing water down make a lot a sense.

Wenona reflects on the chicken's preference to return to home base rather than remain further out on pastureHow do you see your animals relating to your other crops in your farm system?

Sometimes I think about how I want to give one of our enterprises up because of the time commitment, but the way that the nutrients cycle through the farm through the animal enterprises is my favorite thing about farming. Honestly it gives me chills – there’s no waste! When we take out the broccoli plants they go to the cows, plus any waste from the CSA—it goes to support the animals who create our compost for us.

After building up the soil in the market garden we finally got a manure spreader to apply some of the additional composed manure to our fields to improve our pasture.

The one thing we have struggled with is following the cattle with chickens. We tried, but they wouldn’t follow the cows! They kept coming home to scratch in the perennial garden beds. Not that I wouldn’t try it again, but I think it’s hard to get them not to come home. I think they would have to be much farther away than things are on our farm. Also, I am not into moving all that poultry netting—it’s so much heavier than cattle netting!

What we do with the chickens is that we move the broiler cage through the food forest. I pull it down the rows to fertilize the perennial crops. When the perennials mature and start producing, the broilers will gather dropped food from the food forest. Those kinds of circles are so important—if you don’t have those cycles and those diversified products, you have to look for inputs and crops from farther away, whether it’s fruits and vegetables or hay or feed or manure.

To register for a tour of Wenona’s farm and to learn about soil health assessment, check out What’s Going on Down There? Soil Health & Fertility Assessment at Chockalog Farm from 4-6pm on September 16, 2019. For all other soil health events in September, visit www. nofamass.org/events.

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