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Farming

As NOFA followers know, the future of healthy food and climate stability depends on the life below our feet. The seven state NOFA Chapters have been working with farmer leaders in our states to educate the farming community about innovations in tillage reduction for organic farms.

If you’re looking to learn more about tillage-reduction and other healthy soils practices in organic farming, NOFA has a lot to offer this fall. Here’s a roundup of the new season’s tillage reduction events across the northeast— most are online (a great opportunity to find out what growers in other states are up to) but some chapters will be allowing a small number of people to register for in-person field days.

 

If you had looked for my onion patch a few years back, it would have been hard to find at this time of year—overgrown with endless amounts of pigweed, crabgrass, and all manner of other weeds, lording over and crowding out my onions. Last year I radically changed my approach to onions, and this year extended that approach to most of my gardens. This year, just before harvest, you can see every onion flopped over in the row, and the weeds in a 100-foot bed number in the low dozens.

I did three main things to effect this transformation, all designed to deeply bury my prodigious bank of weed seeds.  First, I stopped tilling the garden. Second, I laid several inches of new compost on each bed. Third, I mulched everything deeply with leaves, covering beds and paths alike, only pulling the leaves off the beds at planting time.

Last month you learned about Abby and Jonathan’s experience starting a first year CSA during a pandemic. This month, we’ll talk about the farming practices that Abby and Jonathan have used to get their farm started with limited time and with soil health and weed management as central goals.   

The Winter Street Farmers came up apprenticing and managing on organic farms just as the contemporary healthy soils movement was rising, benefiting from receiving a training in standard tillage practices while also having access to education about alternative, tillage-reduced systems. “We were really influenced by seeing examples of how much you can actually grow in a small area,” Abby explained, “and we learned a lot between NOFA workshops and reading farming books.” They decided early in their conversations about their own future farm that it would be no-till.  

Nestled in the Upper Connecticut River Valley of New Hampshire, in former Pennacook and Sokoki lands, is a town called Claremont, which just got its first organic CSA farm.

Jonathan Hayden and Abby Clarke, a combined 13 years of farming experience between them, trained mostly on Massachusetts farms. But their common experience goes beyond farming, making them uniquely suited for any challenge.

In the fall of 2019, they began the process of purchasing their 28-acre historic farm property while simultaneously preparing to leave to spend five months in Antarctica.   There they worked at separate camps providing logistical support for scientific expeditions. They slept in tents outside on the open ice, cleared snow and carried heavy loads from supply flights, and dealt with a range of logistical challenges in rugged terrain.

As more and more people discover the importance of healthy soil in relation to healthy plants, pastures and gardens, many are also discovering that manure is one of a farm’s most valuable resources.  Cows, in particular, are extremely efficient converters of mature plant matter into nutrient-rich, highly degradable organic material.  

While the percentage of nutrients found in manure can vary greatly from animal to animal due to differences in diet, cow manure is known to be a good source of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, all of which are important minerals for future plant growth.  While synthetic fertilizers may be more concentrated forms of these minerals, manure includes a high percentage of solid matter, which provides vital carbon compounds that build soil structure.  

In celebration of the Massachusetts dairy farmers who dedicate their early mornings to milking, spend the hottest days of the year in the hay field, and slip their mud boots on at midnight to deliver new calves, we’d like to thank them for their tireless efforts. 

If you have cow fever too, and are thinking about improving upon your existing dairy operation, trying your hand at cheesemaking, or are simply curious about what our local dairy farmers are doing to care for the earth while feeding our community, we have some exciting educational opportunities coming up for you. 

For the ambitious gardener, there is nothing quite as frustrating as planting seeds that never come up. You watch and wait, and wait some more, and wait some more, and…nothing. Precious weeks can slip away before you accept that you’re going to have to replant. For any crop, this is a nuisance; for some, like long-season tomatoes or late-season broccoli, it’s a disaster.  

There are three keys to avoiding this disaster:  

  • Store your seeds properly 

  • Test their viability   

  • Replace them when its time 

For me, the arrival of the NOFA bulk order is, like the arrival of the seed catalogs, a harbinger of spring, and an opportunity to stock up on things I know I will use all season long. The bulk order also appeals to the Yankee in me, because I know I will get great prices, especially with the member discount, and loading up my pick-up with a season’s worth of soil amendments feels like thrift rewarded. There are hundreds of items to choose from, for the back yard or the back 40. Here are some favorites of NOFA farmers this year:

A farm worker sprays a foliar application on a freshly hoed bed

A farm worker sprays a foliar application on a freshly hoed bed

No matter how early I think about adding fall amendments, this job always falls to the bottom of the to-do list below some bigger priorities. Harvesting crops remaining in the field prior to frost, bagging up all the row covers, and removing all the poles and trellises, for example, all take precedence over the spreading of fall amendments.

Fortunately, this year I sent my soil test into Logan Labs in October, so after receiving the results, all I had to do was calculate the amendments I needed to order, order them, pick them up, and broadcast them on the fields.  If you have a Logan Labs soil test result, NOFA/Mass will analyze it and give you soil recommendations. You can see the details of that program here or check out this article to calculate your own amendment needs.  You can order a variety of soil amendments through the annual NOFA Bulk Order.

 

 

weed large garden bed

Soil test results are the key to planning your soil fertility program. Adding the right amendments in the right amount can dramatically improve your plants’ health and your garden’s productivity. But once you have your test results, it can sometimes feel daunting to figure out how much of a particular amendment you need to add to get to your goal--and I say that as a former math and chemistry teacher!

In this article, I will try to greatly simplify that process with a few conversion factors and formulas. With these, you should be able to use your results to easily figure out what you need to order—from the NOFA bulk order or elsewhere—and apply your findings to fine tune your garden’s fertility.

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