Intensive No-Till at Woven Roots Farm
The Berkshires, formed as they were some 300 million years ago by the collision of the supercontinents containing North America and Africa, have had time to adjust. The intense pressure of the tectonic forces that buckled and folded bedrock into fused slabs has dissipated. Millions of years of rain and wind have eroded the jagged peaks that were forced up. Freezing and thawing have cracked and splintered their surfaces. Slowly life has arrived, with its microbial acids and enzymes, and further degraded the rock until now a thin coating of soil covers it and what were mountains are now not much more than steep hills.
The collision has left its mark, however, in exposed geological formations everywhere. Some have attracted the attention of commercial developers and become quarries and mines, especially the deposits of marble and the mile-wide belts of dolomitic limestone present in 500 to 800 foot thick layers. It was the former of these that brought Pete Salinetti’s family to the area over a hundred years ago.
“They were all from Northern Italy,” he explains, “and were fine stone cutters. They ended up in Lee, Massachusetts, cutting slabs of marble. Nobody sells marble there anymore, though. Now they just blow it up and sell it as limestone!”
Pete grew up in Lee, next door to his grandfather, where his family had an extensive garden. He never thought he would farm for a profession, but he loved to garden and grew ornamentals and perennials, including orchard fruit.
Pete and Jen met at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, where Jen was in the nutrition program. She had grown up in New Jersey, was a vegetarian since she was twelve, and was dealing with some personal health issues. One summer she interned with Seeds of Solidarity Farm in Orange, Massachusetts and had her eyes opened to the truth about food being our best medicine. She also learned that how that food is grown matters very much.
“Getting that hands on experience in where food comes from,” she recalls, “hit a place in my soul that I’d never felt before. I decided this was of utmost importance and I wanted to pursue it. I decided to design my own major around agriculture at UMass. At the time the only ag program there was very conventional, primarily industry-driven. Or you could study turf grass management!” (she laughs)
Pete and Jen met in college and he took her home to his family’s garden. She’d never experienced anything like that before. The most she had seen was an aunt and uncle in Brooklyn who grew tomatoes. So they began to inspire each other about growing.
Upon graduation the couple rented Pete’s grandfather’s old house in Lee and began looking for land to farm. Jen did design installation and maintenance for her own landscaping company, and Pete worked at a local nursery and orchard. While they were looking, however, they figured they might as well farm where they were in Lee. Pretty soon they had two kids, a small CSA, and were full time farmers!
“We were reluctant to start a CSA in Lee,” says Jen, “because we knew that was a temporary living situation for us, and while we wanted to be nearby we weren’t sure that we would be able to find land nearby. But we had ten really dedicated households that were good customers at our honor box farm stand. They were nudging us to go to a CSA. We told them our goal was to get really good at growing and then move into a CSA model. They said: ‘we’re ready, we’re ready. We’ll sign up and move with you to where you end up.’ “
Where they ended up turned out to be in Tyringham, just 7 miles from Lee. Four years ago they found land there they were able to buy and build a house on, next to a field they could lease. Of those ten original CSA families, nine are still with them and just one moved away. They now have 75 households as members. About 50 percent of their food goes to the CSA, and 50 percent is sold wholesale.
“The Berkshire Coop Market,” Jen says, “is our primary wholesale account, and we also sell to Guido’s Fresh Marketplace in Pittsfield, and to a friend with a restaurant in Lenox.”
The biggest constraint on the Salinettis’ farming operation has been their lack of enough land. Pete’s family land in Lee allowed them to have only about an acre and a half in production with nowhere to expand.
“Besides,” says Pete, “it was right next to the turnpike and the back border was a lime quarry which is still active. Then right up the street is a rifle range. So it was hard to even think there!”
They still farm it now, however. Although it is a hassle to farm in two locations, there are reasons to do so. For one, they’ve been working the soil for 16 years now and have really built it up. In addition, being right next to Lee Lime they never had to add limestone to make the land less acidic. The land there was heavily clay, initially, and the only thing that would germinate for them was beans. But by the time they moved away they were growing carrots in Lee.
On their Tyringham land there is a clay component, but there is also sand, depending on where you are in the field — the lower parts have heavier soil, the upper parts are sandier.
“We think it has to do with glaciers,” explains Pete. “There is a giant rock that might have been left by glaciers, but then something dropped a lot of topsoil right here. Anywhere else in the valley it is nothing but rocks, except here! It is very unique. We dug our cellar hole and there was one rock! But at the same time it is a very heavily mineralized soil.”
Right now all told the couple has about 5 and a half acres under cultivation. But even though they are at 1700 feet of elevation, however, they try to extend that acreage by a rapid succession of crops. Jen figures that five and a half acres is equal to about 17 acres when you calculate the multiple successions they take pains to maintain throughout the season.
“Much of our state agriculture is now on smaller, more productive areas,” says Pete. “Unfortunately state program’s haven’t kept up with that change. We can’t put our land in the APR program (Massachusetts farmland property tax relief program), for instance, because it is 4.9 acres and the program requires 5.0 acres!”
The couple hopes eventually to be able to lease or buy more land, however.
“It is a beautiful farm,” Pete sighs, “a nice place to grow up. The people who own the land we lease also own a private pond up the road where we can swim. This summer that made a big difference!”
Both Pete and Jen share the concern about raising the highest quality vegetables possible. To them, a key part of that is to raise their crops without tillage.
“When we were at UMass,” Jen points out, “they didn’t really teach about no till. We had to figure out how to do it ourselves — we’ve been doing it for ten years now. Pete was experimenting with it in smaller beds at first to see if it was something we could use in larger scale production.”
“We found that it was really clumsy to use our walk behind rototiller in greenhouse production,” he explains. “So we did a lot of experimenting in the greenhouse doing winter growing of greens without tillage, for ourselves. We also did a lot of fooling around with different dates for season extensions of different crops.”
Jen adds: “We struggled with the general idea of using a tiller. We didn’t like the reliance on fuel, didn’t like the environmental impact of using fuel, and also didn’t like the way the soil became powder every time we would till.”
“I was starting to see improvements in the greenhouse with no till,” Pete says, “but outside, with a heavy clay soil, I felt I was coming back to square one every time I would till, in terms of compaction and no structure, aggregation, porosity, or movement of water through the soil. Over a season of mulching and not tilling you could see the results of microbes and earthworms doing the work — how beautiful the soil surface would become and how nice the porosity was. Then to go in with a tiller and see it all get destroyed, it felt like starting over again rather than increasing what we already had going on.”
Eliot Coleman helped encourage them in this direction. They took an intensive course with him at a NOFA conference a while back.
“That was a couple of years after we started playing with it ourselves,” Peter remembers. “Just to hear that you can make a living on a very small farm, can build your soil without rototilling and without plowing, just to see the hard numbers and realize that it is possible was great. We were still working the other jobs and just had a market garden and people who were encouraging us to get into farming. We were selling the few crops we could grow wholesale.”
Instead of tilling, the Salinettis have found other solutions for the problems tillage is supposed to solve.
“We deal with weeds strictly by hand cultivation,” Pete asserts, “mainly stirrup hoes and wire weeding. But basically we get weeds before they become an issue. We like to get seeds in the ground by April 1, so I will use solarization to warm up the soil in the spring. Mostly we use it for carrots, Japanese turnips, radishes, salad greens, spinach, arugula, broccoli raab – the same crops we have been planting now for the last three weeks! We’ve come full circle!”
The solarization is done with greenhouse plastic. Pete monitors the top 4 inches of the soil for temperature. How long he leaves the plastic down depends on the weather, sometimes snow is an issue. He likes to achieve at least 45˚F soil temperature at 4 inches down before putting seeds in the ground. That way he can get those seeds to germinate. It may take a week to ten days to bring it up to that, but once they germinate he figures they are going to go on growing when they are ready to. He doesn’t do anything after that.
“The other thing that we do,” Pete says, “in terms of weeds, is stale bedding. We’ll prep beds and irrigate them to get the weeds to germinate. Then we go through with a flame weeder to flame those off, seed our crop (something like carrots will take 5 to 8 days) and go through with a flame weeder again to eliminate the weed problem just before the crop starts to grow. This is hard in the spring because the soil temperature is low, but in summer months we do it a lot.
“We sometimes then have to still do one hand weeding,” adds Jen, “but after that the crop has grown tight enough to create its own shade. The walkways and surrounding areas we try to get to before the weeds are a few inches tall. We don’t want them to flower and go to seed. They provide a green manure – it is minimal but helps over time.”
“Timing,” Pete insists, “is everything! If you do weeds when they are small it is not a lot of effort. It is like just dancing through the field! If you can keep those top three inches clean, anything underneath there is not going to germinate anyway. So if you’re not tilling and bringing those seeds back up, you are letting sleeping weed seeds lie. We do a lot of transplanting. So that means hand seeding and plug trays in the greenhouse. The trays go to an 806 flat, then get planted out in the field.”
The couple often kills sod and opens up a field to vegetables by laying down cardboard and mulch and applying compost to the cardboard area. The following year that field will be workable.
Jen gave Pete a broad fork as a gift when they were in their twenties. They have four of them now and only use them to aerate, never turn the soil. But they do that aeration religiously, before every planting. They use an 18 inch model and go up one side of the 30-inch row and down the other, every six inches.
“You stand in the aisles,” Jen instructs, “and do it angled on each side, walking backwards from the aisle. We try never to step in the beds. We got it from Peace Valley Tools. We haven’t found a 30 inch one that is strong enough. It would take a lot of strength to use it, too! This one is heavy at 18 inches It is all-steel construction.”
Jen wants to increase their efforts to build soil carbon in the future. Once they have more land she would love to establish a collaborative effort with an animal farmer, for instance, and points out they bring manure in right now to make compost and being able to get into more of a rotational system with animals would be great for everyone.
“In the last 3 to 5 years,” she says, “I’ve been seeing a real shift in the interest level of people in alternatives to tilling. We have people reaching out to us from all over, asking us to let them come and see the farm and what we do. We’re the only farm in this area that is practicing these methods. The nice thing about our farm practices is that they are applicable to a home gardener – not relying on large, expensive equipment. When we were feeling our way through this 15 years ago the resources weren’t there the way they are now. I see the interest in NOFA – NOFA is doing a fantastic job of bringing together more resources around this – because the drive to do it is out there.”
One of the ways the Salinettis seem most Eliot Coleman-like is their thoughtful planning of intensive rotations and successions.
“Every spring,” explains Pete, “I plan out where the crops will be and the successions. Of course things move and it depends on the weather and other things. But roughly we have the plan. There are tricky ones, like the tomatoes. All you can really get in before tomatoes is a bunch of radishes or some lettuce. You have a June planting and a week to prep it, so there are tricky ones. It also depends on how long you want to keep existing crops in the ground. We ripped out eggplant three weeks ago so I could get fall seeds in the ground and a new crop out of that piece of soil. We could have kept the eggplants going, but it wasn’t really worth the dollar value for what was in there. A better use of space is to rip them out, give whatever is left to the CSA, and plant it with a fall crop that will produce us some more income.
“I will roughly put it all down,” he continues. “Like, I need this land for storage carrots on June 15, what can I do before that? Something that will be out of the ground in time for us to re-prep for the carrots. It is all fluid. We try to think of it as taking care of your land as best you can. Therefore we are getting that much more production out of it. We’re not letting the weeds come in, for instance. We don’t have the down time between harvest and next year. I’m carefully calculating how long a crop needs to be in the soil and being prepared for that soil to receive a transplant or seeds as soon as a crop is done.
“We focus very highly on plant spacing,” Pete concludes, “and how close you can plant and still maintain optimal health. So that and we are getting 2, 3 maybe 4 crops per bed per season. That was the only reason we were able to make anything off a piece of land as small as we had in Lee. Ideally, I feel that where we are now, which is about 5 acres open in field production, supporting a crew of four full time people plus the two of us, working throughout the season just at that size can work. We try to grow just a little bit each year because we like to maintain an intense, weed-free operation. It is hard to say how much land would be ideal, or if that would change the way we do things if we got much bigger.
When it comes to bed preparation the couple tries to leave as much root matter in the ground as possible. When they harvest lettuce, for instance, they twist them out just enough to get the knuckle so it doesn’t regrow and leave as many plant roots in the soil to decompose as possible. They figure that’s better than putting them in the compost and then putting them back in the ground.
“We do as much bed prep as possible in the fall, ahead of time,” says Pete, “with soil aeration via the broad fork, applying compost, and lightly incorporating that into the surface with a rake or tilther. A tilther is a mini tiller powered by an electric drill that tills about an inch deep. By using that we’re not messing with any of the soil aggregation further down but we are able to incorporate organic matter into that top inch of soil. Or you can just use a rake. We also spread an organic alfalfa powder for nitrogen and a little crab and lobster waste for calcium and magnesium.”
They get compost from New England Harvest as well as making some. The recipe is to use a 5 gallon bucket every 8 running feet of bed, just shaken on by hand. That amounts to 5 gallons of compost every 20 square feet, applied every time a bed is planted. So it can be once, twice, three of even four times a year.
“I think we lose a little carbon to volatilization on the surface,” Pete says. “But I think the compost that gets involved with the aggregates under the surface is captured. So we are losing some carbon but if you incorporate it deeper you could destroy some of the aggregates and could potentially release more stored carbon than your surface application includes.”
The one thing Pete is passionate about is that to have consistent germination you have to have flat beds.
“We spend a long time doing that,” sighs Jen. “He used to lay out newspaper and practice on this dining room table! Pete has the final say when it is done. Think flat like a pool table”
Pete says: “I tell my employees: ‘You do me a favor and make that bed almost perfect. Then I’ll come in and make it absolutely perfect.’
The reason Pete stresses the bed’s flatness is that he uses a hand seeder – his is a 6-row one – which makes for really tight spacing. For that 6-hopper setup he feels you really need a clean, smooth surface. The seeder drops the seed at the proper depth but if you have humps or dips it will bury it too deep or not at all.
The seeder itself was designed by Eliot Coleman and is distributed through Johnny’s Selected Seeds. It is about 15 inches wide and has front and rear rollers which flatten the bed before and after the seed is planted. The rear roller also, through a belt, drives a shaft with holes in it of 4 different sizes. The shaft can be moved sideways so that 6 holes of any particular size can line up with and take a seed from 6 seed hoppers. Any number of hoppers can be used to plant a bed, up to six.
“Sometimes I’ll do 3 rows in a bed,” explains Pete, “sometimes 1 or even all 6. It took me a couple of years to learn how to really use that seeder, but once I did I find it is really effective at spacing. There are a couple of knobs on the side that adjust the front roller, which makes the hoppers go deeper. It is all driven with a belt from ground friction. This belt can be put on these wheels in three different ways to deliver 1 inch, 2 inch, and 4 inch spacing between plantings. It just turns the shaft slower or faster. It’s called a six-row seeder and takes time to learn to use it, just like any good tool.”
When raising seedlings each spring in Lee, Jen and Pete had a greenhouse with a hotbox in it.
“That is a trench that is 4 feet deep into the ground by 32 feet long,” Jen says, “and we’d bring in fresh manure and lay it 18 inches deep. We’d let it break down for a couple of weeks and generate heat. Then we’d put pallets over that, and all of our plug trays. After the seedlings germinated indoors, we’d bring them into the hotbox and put insulation over the whole box at night. It would maintain a temperature of 60 to 65 degrees when it was zero outside.
“We would come into the greenhouse in the morning,” says Pete, “turn the heat on to get it up to temperature, and uncover the seedlings. We started it in mid to late February. We plan on building that again, here. It was amazing. It cut back our use of heat tenfold.
When planting seedlings, the couple finds that usually the soil is soft enough that they can just use a marking rake to set up a grid system and then make holes at the intersections with a finger or hand.
“The marking rake lets us set our teeth at the right distance apart,” says Pete, “so we can be consistent with our placements. We string lines to make sure the grid is straight. In some of our newer soil we may have to use a trowel, and for something like leeks we use a dibble to make sure we can bury them further into the soil.
“We don’t broadcast seed,” he continues. We focus so much on optimal spacing that if we broadcast we would end up spending a lot of time on thinning, which could be a waste of labor. So I try to keep the precision of the seeder.”
I wondered about exposing so much soil and compost to the air and asked if the pair ever used mulch.
“We used to use mulch a lot,” Pete answers, “and on bigger crops we are getting back into that. But once we switched to tighter spacing and more succession in a season we found mulch to be almost a hindrance. You are constantly having to remove the mulch to re-prep the bed. We use it on tomatoes to some degree just to keep down the soil splash. But it is hard to find good mulch at a reasonable cost. And it is hard to find mulch materials that are seed free. I bought some last season that the guy swore was weed free. You should see the stand of weeds we have there now!
“I’ve been using straw,” he continues. “Leaves are good, too — they are ideal. We chop them up with a mower of some sort, or compost them a little first until they are broken up. Mulch can be challenging because of our seeding system, but I’d really like to reincorporate more in our system again. It’s amazing to see what is going on right under that mulch as opposed to in bare soil — microbes and earthworms, tons of porosity, free fertilizer from the worms!
When it comes to using cover crops, the couple struggles with trying to incorporate more cover crops into their practices. They haven’t figured out yet how to do that and still maintain their permanent bed system without using a tiller. They are adding a lot of compost, though, and feel that adds organic matter without cover cropping.
“The reason we haven’t gotten there yet with cover crops,” Pete admits, “is that we need to have a little wiggle room with the amount of space we have and what we need to produce. Then we can put fields and beds into fallow and cover crop them for several seeding periods. But we haven’t worked this in because we are using land so intensively.
“Cover crops are one thing when you are talking broccoli and cabbages,” he continues, “which you can undersow. But if you see a field when it is finished there is no room for anything else, including weeds. We’re talking about clover in the walkways, but you have to beat back the clover that begins to creep into your bed each time you replant. How do you do that? Do you do it with a roller? Do you need to replant? Do you cut it with a shovel? I’m scared to create more labor.
“Our fields are pretty full late into the fall,” adds Jen, “and we overwinter many crops in low, quick hoops which will wake up in the spring for an early harvest of onions or spinach. So we can’t cover crop much for the winter, even.”
Both Jen and Pete feel that their growing practices have helped them considerably this year with the drought. They have more moisture in the soil than many area farmers because of their lack of tillage. The farm in Lee has been under no till for longer than the land in Tyringham and they can see the difference. But it is not as though they were able to ignore the lack of water!
“Out of 15 years in farming,” says Jen, “this is the most we have ever watered. We usually water when we put transplants in. But generally we don’t water them again. When we seed a bed, we will keep the soil moisture as consistent as possible until the seeds germinate, and then we don’t water again. We’re not looking to have a permanent irrigation system because generally we don’t need it.”
“But this year was different,” says Pete. “We had to move irrigation hoses around all the time. We do some drip, but it doesn’t really work that well for us because we grow so many lettuces and other short season crops that it isn’t always worth it to set the irrigation lines up and then have to take them down again so quickly. If we are growing carrots they are in 12 rows, but if we move lettuce in next it will be in three rows, broccoli in one. . And we want to keep up with our rotations.”
This year the irrigation water came from their strong well which has a 27 gallons a minute supply of water, but of course the pump was running most of the time and that is expensive. The couple has a border along a brook, but that was bone dry. They also have permission to draw water from a spring high on a nearby hill, which was running this summer, so perhaps that will be their irrigation in the future — gravity fed!
Flea beetles are major pests for the Salinettis, who use low tunnels to protect their brassicas from the insects.
“We have collards, bok choi, mustards, arugula, and broccoli raab under tunnels right now,” says Pete. “It is more a precaution. We don’t know for sure they are going to be attacked, but if they are it’s hard to get the flea beetles off. They grow just as well under row cover as not. We often get foliar damage on their leaves when they are young, otherwise. Usually when they get to a certain size the growth chemicals change and we can uncover them. But at the beginning for a transplant of arugula, for instance, if we don’t cover them for the first 2 weeks they almost all get killed, they are so heavily fed on.
“We also,” he continues, “have to cover our cucurbits for 2 weeks after transplant for cucumber beetles. After that we let them go. Cabbage maggot was devastating last year, too. It will kill a seedling or a full size plant in one day. With a broccoli you have a 30 inch spacing for enough room, so it’s been in the ground for 90 days, and then the whole plant goes down! Right now our broccoli is at the other farm. We lost 50% to 70% of every brassica on the farm to the maggots. Besides kale we didn’t grow any brassicas on this farm all summer long. We grew them on the other farm. We’re lucky to have that other location.”
One of the crops that have personal significance for Jen and Pete is beans. They raise some Italian pole beans that Pete’s great grandfather brought over from Italy and the family has been growing ever since. And they also have some Rwandan beans they brought back from a trip there 4 years ago.
“These Rwandan ones are delicious at any age, fresh or dry as a storage bean,” Jen says. “They are called ‘Land of a Thousand Hills’, which is also a name for the country. We were invited over there to work with a non-profit called Gardens For Health that was working with people coming out of critical malnutrition situations. It helps them learn how to grow their own food and create nutrient rich meals. Our participation was to help them create a composting system. Since they have a wet and a dry season a big issue was how to compost during the wet season. It turns out that banana leaves are a good covering to shed rain. They require reapplication, but there is an abundance of banana leaves everywhere.”
“These Italian ones,” she adds, “are white until they get exposed to the sun and dry down. They get red then. The CSA picks them and you can eat them raw when young or as a dried bean when older. They’re delicious.”
Sharing the farm work with the family are four employees, three of whom who worked there last year as well.
“Most take on other work during the winter,” Jen says. “One does substitute teaching, another was a private tutor for a student in the school system so also was employed by the school, another picked up a job at the local package store. They find various things. Our youngest is an 18 year old and the oldest is in the mid 30s. We start them off at $10 an hour and our highest paid employee is at $14.
“We try to provide other perks,” she continues. “They get as much food as they like, we have farm meals for them every day, we do a coffee break and then we provide lunch. We’ll send them to conferences – the NOFA conference or the Bionutrient one.”
Anticipating the next issue of The Natural Farmer which will feature stories about farm labor and a living wage I asked them how they felt about the idea of paying a $15 an hour wage.
“None of us get paid that much,” Jen replied, “and we’ll be shut down if that is the law! It is terrifying, to tell you the truth. We have been trying to figure out, if there isn’t an exemption for farms, how we are going to stay in business?
“A big part of why we chose to go to full time farming,” she continues, “was because we wanted to be with our family – present and available and engaged in family life. To take that away and say the best choice for you is to go off and work at McDonalds or elsewhere for a higher wage – is that up to the government?”
“I think there should be some exemptions,” Pete added. “Either exemptions for farms, or we need to have people really willing to pay what the true cost of food is.”
One of the real rewards that both Jen and Pete mention about their farming experience is the enthusiasm of their customers for their food.
“Having people reach out to us and tell us how good our product is,” Pete says, “and that we should be proud to be sharing that with our community – it’s an amazing and good feeling to know that you are providing food for other people.”
Jen adds: “People tell us: ‘I remember when I was growing up I would taste food like this!’ The rise in industrial agriculture has totally shifted the way food tastes. Having something taste the way it did several generations back is really significant! We have parents who tell us: ‘I never thought my kids would eat vegetables. Now there is this huge palette that they are asking for!’ It is really touching, that kind of feedback. It feels like we can make a difference in the world.”
The Salinettis are planning a lot more improvements in their farming infrastructure as soon as they can afford them.
“We have a sunroom that someone was getting rid of from their house,” Jen says, “which we are planning to add to the east side of our house for propagating seedlings. Our home is already passive solar, which is remarkable, but one of the other next steps we want to take is to build some infrastructure around solar power. Also, we’d love to have a winter CSA, but we need a root cellar and more greenhouse space.”
One of the innovations they employ is making tents of sections of cattle fencing for beans and cherry tomatoes and climbing crops.
“They’re galvanized so they don’t rust,” Pete notes. “Compared to stakes, with the price of new ones and the labor of taking them out and storing them, these are more efficient. One of these trellises can house 6 plants, so that is the same as six $3 stakes which last only a few years.
“Cherry tomatoes are the only problem,” he continues, “because they grow so rapidly that you have to be on them every other day so they don’t grow through the other side. Once they do that it’s hard to get them back. With the beans when they are a foot tall I put a piece of string along the fence to pull them towards it and then once they grab it they go.”
On the program front, Jen and Pete are interested in doing more educating around their growing practices and how their choices around food have social impacts. They’d like their space to be a more welcoming one and to share it with artists, musicians, nutritionists, and other educators. They already conduct workshops and their CSA has events twice a month for children. Off farm they run a garden program at the Montessori school as well as an intensive at the local high school.
“In the long run we’d also like a barn housing an educational center, a commercial kitchen, a bakery for Noelia (who makes delicious pastries) and a farm stand. We have lots of ideas! It’s all fresh right now!