The Massachusetts chapter of the Northeast Organic Farming Association. NOFA/Mass welcomes everyone who cares about food, where it comes from and how it’s grown

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Farming

One of the central tenets of no-till organic gardening and farming is to never leave soil bare, especially through the winter. Planting a cover crop at the end of the season is one way to do that, but it can be challenging in the fall to get a good crop started before the cold weather sets in, and challenging again in the spring while you wait for it to size up before planting your main crop.

On my farm, I address these challenges by mostly avoiding seeded cover crops, and instead applying lots of what I call “nature’s cover crop”: leaves, and lots of ‘em. I aim to put about 4” of leaves on all my garden beds beginning as soon as I can get them, usually late October through November.

Worms love leaves and the soil environment that they provide, and the worms do most of the work of breaking them down over time, leaving me with a rich, loose, fertile soil the following spring, still covered with a nice layer of mulch. At planting time I usually rake the leaves on the beds into the paths, allowing the soil to warm quickly, and then add it back by the handful or forkful as the season progresses. Unlike hay mulch, you won’t get stray weed seeds in your leaf mulch, except maybe an acorn or two.

This September we are focusing on Soil Health, with statewide events focusing on healthy soils practices and indicators taking place on the first and last days of the month and many days in between.

Julie Rawson and Jack Kittredge will kick off the month on September 1st with a detailed farm tour emphasizing their methods for increasing the productivity and resilience of their farm through stacked enterprises and farming practices centered on enhancing soil health and building soil carbon.

For the middle of the month, we will offer a free series across the state entitled “What’s Going on Down There? Soil Health & Fertility Assessment for Growers.” The focus of these short, on-site workshops is to help gardeners and farmers understand how to utilize different tests to determine the health and fertility of their soil environment, how to inform their input and management decisions, and how to start understanding the ways that management practices, inputs, and soil biology intersect. Participants will go home with a Soil Health Field Test Manual (instructions and data sheets) and a handout of resources for labs where you can send samples of your soil.

High Tunnel Hacks

Now that we are in the hottest part of the summer, it’s tempting to start thinking ahead to the cold days of winter when the sweat and excessive growth and barely-managed chaos of summer fecundity has given way to sweaters, thermoses, and the constrained and ordered growth of high tunnel production.

NOFA/Mass has just completed a three-year project funded by the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources (MDAR) in which we identified a cohort of experienced farmers, each of whom had a very different but innovative approach to high tunnel management and winter growing. The farmers who contributed to this project included Jeremy Barker-Plotkin (Simple Gifts Farm), Skip Paul (Wishing Stone Farm), Steve Chiazario and Laura Tangerini (Tangerini’s Spring Street Farm), Daniel Botkin (Laughing Dog Farm) Derek Christianson (Brix Bounty Farm), Jim Schultz (Red Shirt Farm) and Bill Braun (Ivory Silo Farm). The farmers in the project contributed in a variety of ways: mentoring beginning farmers, giving seminars and on-farm workshops, teaching at our Winter Conference and Summer Conference, and working with NOFA/Mass technical writer Allison Houghton on a set publications that detail their innovative approaches to high tunnel growing and season extension.

Increasing Production by reducing tillage

On July 14, NOFA/Mass held a Soil Health Field Day in collaboration with Gaining Ground in Concord Mass. It was the first of six on-farm workshops to be held over the next three years as part of a project entitled “Organic No-Till on Northeast Farms: A Practical Exploration of Successful Methods.” This project is funded by a grant from the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Conservation Innovation Grant Project. Led by NOFA/Mass in partnership with CT NOFA and NOFA-NJ, the project involves 9 farmer-innovators in three states who are working assiduously to trial and establish effective, scale-appropriate tillage reduction methods on their certified organic farms. (For more information about the project and the other farmers involved, check out the Project Webpage).

Radishes Push out

We get this question a lot, or some version of it, such as the comment “My radish roots hit the hardpan and instead of going through it they pushed up and out of the ground.” Why does this happen?

The explanation lies in understanding how compaction limits root growth and understanding why radish so often works so well to alleviate compaction. The limiting factor to root penetration is not so much the hardness of soil, but the oxygen content of soil. Roots must have at least 10% oxygen in order to grow. Since oxygen comes from the soil surface and diffuses down through the pore spaces in the soil, the oxygen content is highest near the surface and decreases with increasing distance from the surface. Any layer of soil with limited pore space will act as a barrier to movement of soil oxygen, and thus as a barrier to root growth.

Farm Manager Steve Munno explains his BCS-mounted implements for tillage-reduced farming

Farm Manager Steve Munno explains his BCS-mounted implements for tillage-reduced farming

Last month, CT NOFA held the first in a series of Soil Health Field Days to be held during the growing season of 2019 by NOFA Chapters across the Northeast. These on-farm events feature farmers who are innovating in organic approaches to increasing soil health and fertility.

Steve Munno, Farm Manager at Massaro Farm and Board member of CT NOFA, led participants on a tour of the farm, providing detailed descriptions of his cover cropping experiments and challenges. He also discussed and showed off his fields where he is trialing the use of silage tarps as a stale-seed bedding method and showed each piece of equipment used in his reduced-till fields, and explained the rationale behind a switch from plastic to the many-times-more expensive Weed Guard Plus for his tractor-mounted mulch layer.

Happy Hemp

Hemp History Week (June 3-9) celebrates agricultural hemp with nationwide education, advocacy and grassroots events. This year, NOFA/Mass is celebrating this especially exciting 10th annual Hemp History Week.

This year is special because the 2018 Farm Bill, passed in December, included the legislation S. 2667, The Hemp Farming Act. With its passage, hemp production was officially legalized in the United States. So this year’s Hemp History Week is the first in this new landscape of federally-legal agricultural hemp! The Act defined hemp as cannabis sativa containing no more than 0.3% teatrahydrocannabinol (THC) by dry weight and redefined hemp from a Controlled Substance to an agricultural commodity, removing it from the jurisdiction of the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Soil Science

In the previous installment, we delved into what nitrogen is, why plants need it and how plants, bacteria and humans get it. Today we will delve into how it moves through our farms and interacts with global systems. The concept of a biogeochemical cycle is useful in thinking about how elements behave on a micro and global scale. As can be seen in the roots of the word, a biogeochemical cycle involves biological, from organism to ecosystem, and abiotic systems such as the atmosphere. It makes sense, on a planet whose continents appear green from photosynthetic organisms from space, that life is a driving force inextricable from chemical and geological processes. Humans, of course, need to come to terms with this reality. We cannot live on the planet without changing the planet, and the kind of planet we will have to live on will be the direct result of our actions. Other examples of biogeochemical cycles are those for water, carbon and sulfur.

Nitrogen is one of the most important elements in agriculture, a kind of chemical Jekyll and Hyde, an element of twists and turns and contradictions. It is usually the most limiting nutrient for plant growth in soils, and yet is one of the most abundant elements in the atmosphere. Nothing is more responsible for the problems and successes of industrial agriculture than Nitrogen. How to responsibly manage Nitrogen is a topic that causes many organic farmers to become philosophical, opinionated and at times self-righteous. Friendly arguments on the subject have been known to become as heated as an unturned pile of manure and straw. And with good reason!

What other substance has such a profound impact on the health of our soil, the nutrition of our food, our financial bottom line, purity of our groundwater, the formation of dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico and beyond, use of fossil fuels, climate change, global inequality and corporate colonialism? In short, the way we understand and use Nitrogen is important not just to the success of this year’s crop but also to our farms’ relationship to the broader environment. Regenerative agriculture hinges on the responsible management of Nitrogen.

Made for Making Cheese

Cliff Hatch never intended to become a strawberry farmer—that was just one of his more successful strategies to figuring out how make a living farming—but he “always wanted to be a cheesemaker.” Growing up on a dairy farm in Granby, MA, he says he was fascinated by the process of turning milk into cheese. “It always seemed to be one of the more mysterious products ,” he told me in an interview on March 25, 2019 at his office at Upinngil Farm (Gill, MA).

Even when he was a pre-law student at Eisenhower University studying Germanic languages and comparative literature, he found himself helplessly fascinated by dairy products. “I remember working in the school kitchens, spooning buckets of sour cream into steel serving bowls and thinking—this is what I want to do.” Given an opportunity at that time (while working his way through college in the kitchen) to begin making yoghurt for the dining service, he jumped at the chance. Soon, compelled, Cliff switched from literature, law and language to culinary school and had a successful career in the restaurant industry.

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