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Tomato and pepper trays under south window

Here it is mid October and we are surrounded by beauty and abundance! Two nights ago (October 14) it was predicted we’d have our first killing frost. Pru and I spent the day harvesting and hauling all the tender fruits. The kitchen and basement are overflowing with baskets and crates of ripe and almost ripe tomatoes, sweet and hot peppers, tomatillos, and winter and summer squash. Now the task will be to preserve the bounty: the tomatillos and jalapenos plus our previously harvested garlic and onions will become a spicy hot green salsa. As I write this, the delicious, aroma of green tomato, tomatillo and immature butternut squash curry is wafting my way as Pru is simmering it on the wood cook-stove.

After silage tarps and close up of soil

This article is part of a series that I have been doing on reduced tillage, no tillage, and other methods that focus on the importance of carbon in agricultural soils, particularly with annual vegetable growers. I interviewed Brittany Overshiner, who is our NOFA/Mass Beginning Farmer Program Coordinator, and a now nine-year Beginning Farmer herself, who has had comprehensive experience working on a number of vegetable farms in Eastern Massachusetts.

Elizabeth and Paul Kaiser (Photo by Saxton Holt)

Don’t miss the upcoming NOFA/Mass Winter Conference on January 14th, 2017. Our full program of adult, teen and children’s courses will fill your winter study sessions with energy and enthusiasm.

Speaking of study... what can degrees in nursing, public health, agroforestry, sustainable development and natural resources management get you? Answer: Two expert farmers and one NOFA/Mass Winter Conference keynote speaker - Paul Kaiser.

Paul and his wife Elizabeth own and operate Singing Frogs Farm, where they also raise their two children. This vegetable farm is not just sustainable - it’s also regenerative. Based in Sonoma County, California, it is a living experiment in no-till, ecologically beneficial, and highly profitable farm - producing 5-7 harvest per year.

At Gray Dog’s Farm in Huntington, MA, Ross Hackerson is exploring a novel question: how can livestock, forage grasses, and nut, fruit, and other useful trees all be integrated together for maximum ecosystem benefit while also producing high-quality food? This integrated system, called silvopasture, is modeled after a savannah ecosystem where large ruminants and predators roam through grasslands dotted with trees. Each element (ruminant, predator, understory grasses, trees) is integral to the functioning of the system as a whole.

It is hard to hear the news today without some aspect of climate change and carbon policy being discussed.

For many years “global warming” had been an issue barely on the horizon for most people. But the stronger and stronger weather events we have witnessed over the planet the last few years have given many thoughtful people pause. More and more now believe that without strong concerted action we may be facing climate problems we have never before experienced as a species. It has been hard, however, getting governments to adopt the strong positions on limiting fossil fuel use that most feel would be required to adequately reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the core cause of climate change.

Carbon expert and author, rancher and activist, Courtney White will be joining us this winter from New Mexico for an exciting conference on practical steps one can take to make big impacts to restore soil carbon and be a part of the climate solution. His most recent book, Two Percent Solutions for the Planet: 50 Low-Cost, Low-Tech, Nature-Based Practices for Combatting Hunger, Drought, and Climate Change is full of innovative ideas to heal degraded landscapes. Courtney has also written Grass, Soil, Hope: A Journey Through Carbon Country, which has inspired many with its wealth of innovative solutions, stories, and leaders in this movement – see the review below by Julie Rawson.

The conference will take place at UMass Amherst campus and will feature a wide variety of land care practitioners including land managers, farmers, researchers, and conservationists. They will speak about what is possible for soil carbon and landscape restoration. Speakers also include Eric Toensmeier with his new book The Carbon Farming Solution, Eric Fleisher and the organic land care team at Harvard University, as well as Bruce Fulford, Bryan O'Hara, Paul Wagner and Charles Osborne. This conference is made possible through a collaboration between NOFA/Mass, the Ecological Landscape Alliance (ELA), Biodiversity for a Livable Climate (BLC) and NOFA's Organic Landcare Carbon Program (OLCP).

Tomato plants- note green leaves all way to ground

Tomato plants- note green leaves all way to ground

It's the third week in September and we've been lucky that frost hasn't struck yet. It has been a hard growing year, with the drought and hotter than usual weather. As I mentioned last month, we had to resort to watering. We soaked each growing area with about an inch of water each week to augment the sparse rain. It seems that they really needed that boost to get through the stress until they could adapt. After about a month, we stopped watering, even though the drought continues. Now, the plants are thriving and still producing abundantly.

Healthy monster tomatoes

Healthy monster tomatoes

I write this on September 26, the day after a pretty serious frost on at least half of our farm. Today I want to talk about the use of wood chips in beds as mulch. We had some stunning successes with the method that we devised to plant, do an initial weeding and then mulch with wood chips that were partially decomposed, acquired from our local DPW. We had best ever crops of onions, both long season and spring green onions, lettuce in wood chip mulch, spinach, carrots, parsley, basil, Swiss chard, kale, and tomatoes. Beets, which generally were not as beautiful as I would like them to be, and cucumbers did not fare as well. Winter squash did fairly well. The chips that we used around the cucumbers and winter squash were fresh last fall, and I think that it was a mistake to use them, perhaps because of too much mineral tie up.

In some of our chard and basil beds we sowed crimson clover on top of the chips, which germinated nicely, and seemed to provide great ground cover and a constant fertility drip to the crops. I look forward to how crops grow in these beds next year.

Maggie Payne, Anna Gilbert-Muhammed and Bettye Frederick

On July 25, community gardeners from Springfield’s Mason Square Library Community Garden and Ibrahim Ali from Gardening the Community attended NOFA/Mass’s cocktail cover cropping workshop at Many Hands Organic Farm in Barre, MA.

UMass team runs several tests at Many Hands Organic Farm, digging, sifting, sampling and measuring our soil for water infiltration, earthworm counts, microbial mass and active carbon. The infiltration rate was good, the earthworms and microbes were lower than expected (perhaps because of the extended heat and drought during July), and the active carbon was off the charts!

Many growers who have adopted soil carbon restoration methods (minimal tillage, cover crop cocktails, rotations with animals, green plants growing year-round, etc.) have expressed a desire for feedback on whether or not they are doing a good job. While arguably the best feedback is looking at and tasting the crops which are the result of your efforts, such a metric does introduce an element of subjectivity into the process and many folks would like a more objective and even numerical way to measure their progress.

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