Carbon, Climate, and Soil Biology

NRCS Soil Scientist Ray Archuleta admires the soil aggregates present in a vegetable crop field during a workshop at Many Hands Organic Farm on July 25, 2016

photo by Jack Kittredge
NRCS Soil Scientist Ray Archuleta admires the soil aggregates present in a vegetable crop field during a workshop at Many Hands Organic Farm on July 25, 2016

“For most of history, few things have mattered more to human communities than their relations with soil…For the past century or two, nothing has mattered more for soils than their relations with human communities, because human action inadvertently ratcheted up rates of soil erosion and, both intentionally and unintentionally, rerouted nutrient flows.” — Breaking the Sod: Humankind, History and Soil, J. R. McNeill and Verena Winiwarter

Importance of Carbon to Soil

The primary human activity impacting soils is agriculture, and the soil nutrient most severely depleted in quantity by agriculture has been carbon. Conversion from natural to agricultural ecosystems has depleted the soil organic carbon (SOC) pool by as much as 60% in temperate regions, and 75% or more in tropical ones. Such conversion has resulted in losses of 8 to 32 tons of carbon per acre from some soils, mostly oxidized and emitted into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide.

But depleting sinks of soil carbon is harmful in two ways.
Adding carbon dioxide — the primary greenhouse gas — to the atmosphere increases retained solar heat in the planetary system and results in disruptive weather extremes such as we have been experiencing. Since 1975 the global level of greenhouse gases has been rising and average temperature has been increasing at a rate of 0.3˚F to 0.4˚F per decade.

Organic carbon is a primary component of soil fertility, contributing to tilth, resilience, and crop production. Losing soil carbon decreases crop yields in at least three important ways: 1) it diminishes available water capacity, 2) it slows the supply of nutrients available to crops, and 3) it degrades soil structure and physical soil properties.

Soil moisture content increases by 1 to 10 grams for every 1 gram increase in soil organic matter, which is 58% carbon. This increase can contribute to sustaining crop growth for 5 to 10 days between periods of rainfall – often a crucial period in areas of moderate precipitation.

Preservation and enhancement of SOC also enhances cation exchange capacity and improves biotic activity of micro-organisms, facilitating the supply of nutrients available to crops. SOC is the primary source of energy and nutrients for the soil biota, who are system engineers and whose importance to ecosystem restoration cannot be overemphasized.

Increases in SOC have also been found to enhance soil structure, making it less prone to crusting and compaction and aggregation — formation of the small raisin-sized clumps of soil in which many crucial biochemical functions can take place because they enable protection from excess oxygen or contain needed moisture.

Productivity gains with increasing SOC are large, especially when combined with inputs of other nutrients and irrigation, in soils with a clay content lower than 20% or in soils of sandy-loam or loamy-sand textures.

Much Current Organic Annual Vegetable Cropping is Destructive of Soil Carbon

Bare Soil

Carbon, which is fundamental to climate stability as well as to soil quality and productivity, continues to be lost by many current methods of raising annual vegetable crops. This is particularly distressing in the northeastern United States, where soils are thin and 70% of cropland is rated as highly erodible, twice as much as in the rest of the country.
Bare soil is perhaps the most obvious sign of these soil depleting practices. Such soil is exposed to wind and water erosion, provides no barrier to direct atmospheric oxidation of soil carbon, accumulates no biomass, and contributes to the breakdown of soil aggregates.

Tillage

Bare soil is common on organic farms because tillage is our primary method for controlling weeds and preparing beds for planting. But tillage has many negative side effects. From the farmer’s point of view it dries the soil, brings up and encourages the germination of dormant weed seeds, creates compaction at the bottom of the tilled layer, and sets back the growth of fungi and the soil aggregation they facilitate. From the climate perspective even occasional tillage is also directly associated with significant greenhouse gas emissions and soil carbon loss from soils with high organic matter content.

Many northeastern organic farmers have already adopted no till methods for better soil resiliency and reduced weed germination. They use diverse methods to avoid bare soil including extending cropping duration, cover crops, and various mulches and composts. In support of these methods, various appropriate bed formation and planting approaches have been developed including specialized dibbles and planters, broadcast systems, and transplant devices.

Cover Crops

For farmers, use of cover crops is a fundamental tool for building a healthy soil while raising crops. Cover crops can be temporary crops planted between the cash crops, crops to fix, catch or “lift” extra nutrients to the crop root zone, or permanent mulches. They increase soil aggregation, reduce nitrogen leaching, discourage wind and water erosion, decrease weed pressure, sustain microbial life, and elevate the microbial community’s fungal/bacterial ratio which aids plant vigor.

From the point of view of a sustainable climate, cover crops not only pump carbon into the soil like all plants but provide green and, after death, brown soil cover to minimize oxidation from atmospheric exposure. When they contain a mixture of varieties including legumes they reduce losses not only from carbon dioxide but also nitrous oxide, a particularly potent greenhouse gas.

The National Resource Conservation Service has done excellent work focusing on the benefits brought to soil by cover crops. Their booklets, lectures, videos, etc, have been important resources educating farmers about these contributions and how to manage cover crops in various cropping systems.

Biodiversity

The importance of a diverse soil biology can hardly be overstated for good farming. Plants thrive when part of a symbiotic underground community or ecosystem to which they supply carbon compounds that sustain microbial metabolic functions and from which they receive minerals, water, and an array of compounds synthesized by bacteria specifically to help them resist disease, repel predation, encourage pollination, and accomplish dozens of other biological functions.

Earthworms, termites, ants, insect larvae, nematodes, bacteria, fungi and others all also play a role in creating good soil structure, providing nutrient cycling, and creating the porosity, aeration and soil drainage which enable good water infiltration and storage.

Crop rotation is also important for biodiversity. Studies have shown that crops in rotation show increased soil enzyme activity and, if containing legumes, increased microbial biomass. Plant biodiversity also enhances soil carbon dynamics and increases the level of soil organic matter, while attracting a corresponding diversity of insects, pollinators, and other largely beneficial organisms.

Toxins and Fertilizers

For organic farmers, the absence of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers is basic. In much of US agriculture, however, chemicals are omnipresent. When perusing articles and studies about farming methods, one must be cautious. Reports of “no-till” practices often fail to mention concurrent herbicide use to control weeds. Yet toxins and synthetic fertilizers decimate the gains of biodiversity by either directly destroying microbial life or starving it by undercutting the symbiosis driving soil ecology. So students of soil science need to be clear whether or not synthetic chemicals were involved in the activities studied. When that data is available, the results for soil health can be surprising.

In reporting results from the Morrow Plots, the University of Illinois experimental fields continuously studied since 1953, for instance, Christine Jones reports: “They discovered that the fields that had received the highest applications of nitrogen fertilizer had ended up with less soil carbon – and ironically less nitrogen – than the other fields. The researchers concluded that adding nitrogen fertilizer stimulated the kind of bacteria that break down the carbon in the soil.”

Yet natural ecosystems such as pastures and forests that do not involve synthetic chemical inputs build, rather than reduce, soil carbon. Even ecosystems managed for human food production can sustain regular annual increases in soil carbon if following the above simple principles.




Why “Carbon Farming”

Collard greens in mown living legume mulch. This is a great way to build carbon while growing annual vegetable crops.

This issue of The Natural Farmer focuses on the question of how organic farmers in the northeast can adopt methods that build soil carbon. This is a pressing question, as readers of this journal know, because greenhouse gases, primarily carbon dioxide, have been building up in our atmosphere from burning fossil fuels and uncovering soil. Those gases trap solar heat and warm the globe, causing extreme weather events, melting polar ice, and making the planet more and more uninhabitable.

Reversing global warming will require drastic reductions in emissions, which will be a challenge to our consumptive way of life. But reductions will not be enough. Greenhouse gases have long half-lives and will remain active, unless removed, trapping and building atmospheric heat for another century.

To avoid that we need to return much of the carbon that we have taken from the soil. The only feasible method to use for this is the biological process of photosynthesis by which plants use sunlight to break apart carbon dioxide and water, recombining them to form carbohydrates and oxygen. Some of those carbohydrates are exuded by plant roots into the soil and drive an underground ecology that both strengthens plants and sequesters some of that carbon.

Farmers are the primary people who manage soil and plants on this planet, and we are in the best position to return that soil carbon. There are three reasons why we might want to do this. First, it is our best hope to survive on a habitable planet. Second, governments are going to get involved in requiring soil practice changes, and they are likely to do so by setting up incentive programs that can benefit farmers who adopt these changes. Third, carbon in soil means bigger, stronger, healthier crops.

The biggest change we must make involves not exposing bare soil to the air. Every time that happens, soil carbon is oxidized and becomes carbon dioxide. Tillage is a primary offender in exposing soil. Organic farmers, particularly, use tillage to control weeds and prepare beds for planting. We need to find better ways of doing these, and to harvest so that soil continues to be covered after a crop is taken off.

Another way to destroy soil carbon is by farming with synthetic toxins, chemicals and fertilizers which either kill or shut down the underground organisms that feed plants and store carbon. Organic farmers have wisely rejected such chemicals, and have found natural materials and processes that encourage, rather than undermine, this soil ecology.

Farming in ways which will build more soil carbon won’t be easy. But farmers have always been tinkerers and innovators. Some are already experimenting with methods to keep soil covered with green plants: using cover crops, extending the season, raising more perennials. Others are trying to manage weeds by solarizing them, shading them out, or using cover crops and mulches. Some use nutrients from rock powders, brown and green manures, fermented fungal products, and inoculants that enable biological solubilization and fixation.

This issue of The Natural Farmer explores early steps in this direction. We interview farmers experimenting with these practices, read some science on the problem, view a presentation by a pasture expert on sequestering carbon, learn about a few practical testing protocols to measure carbon’s impact in soil, and see what is being tried at one of the region’s premier agricultural companies.

From what we are learning, raising organic annual vegetable crops is one of the more challenging kinds of carbon-friendly agriculture. A lot more needs to be learned, and we hope this issue prompts you to get interested and try out a few things that make sense in your operation. The more of us who are involved and gaining experience, the clearer our path will be!




Intensive No-Till at Woven Roots Farm

photo by Jack Kittredge
Pete Salinetti stands in front of some of the beautiful crops he is growing by precise successions in Western Massachusetts on October 2.

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.’ “

photo by Jack Kittredge
The farm’s carrot beds show off the beauty and productivity of
Woven Roots precision methods.

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.

photo by Jack Kittredge
Jen stands by pole beans which are climbing sections of cattle fencing tied together to make a tent-like growing frame. This is also used for cherry tomatoes and other climbing crops.

“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.”

photo by Jack Kittredge
Diego uses scuffle hoe on newly seeded bed. Note how flat and perfect the bed is. In a month a new, 20 by 50 foot greenhouse will go up here.

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.

photo by Jack Kittredge
Pete shows his six-row seeder. It can plant from one to six rows at a time, at four different speeds and with 4 options as to seed size, The seeder itself is about 15 inches wide and has front and rear rollers which flatten the bed before and after the seed is planted. In this shot the hopper cover is removed to see the inner works better.

“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.

photo by Jack Kittredge
Lettuces in center of field are a major crop for Woven Roots, and show the care with which they lay out their beds and plantings.

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.

photo by Jack Kittredge
Diego (12 ½ years old) and Noelia (10 ½ years old) hold radishes they have just picked. Both go to a Montessori school in Lenox and after 8th grade will go to the local high school. photo by Jack Kittredge

“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.”

photo by Jack Kittredge
Jen holds a bouquet of radishes. In the background are farm beds with a crop of kale. In the far background are Jersey cows belonging to the neighbor running a dairy on land the Salinetti’s hope they might farm one day.

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.

photo by Jack Kittredge
One of the CSA members carved this 2-sided sign for the farm. It is made of cherry taken from the Salinetti’s land. It turned out to be so heavy that Pete and Jen are keeping it on their porch until they devise a sturdy way to hang it.

“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!




Cover Cropping at Stone House Farm

photo by Jack Kittredge
Ben Dobson, farm manager of Stone House Farm, in a field of no-till corn

The Hudson Valley is remarkable for the number of large farms dotting its productive landscape. Some of the region’s best known biodynamic farms are there, as are a number owned by non-profit organizations. One of the largest that is still privately owned is Stone House Farm in Hudson. Put together in the 1980s by the purchase of 6 local struggling dairy operations, the farm is now composed of some 2500 acres on various soils – some heavy clay, others loam, still others gravel — as the area’s ancient geology dictates.

The prime mover for the farm was Peggy McGrath Rockefeller, an activist in the cause of preserving farmland. Besides helping start the American Farmland Trust and the use of agricultural easements as a way of keeping land in agriculture, she engineered the purchases that put together Stone House Farm.

Now owned by her children Abby, David and Peggy, the goal is to make a viable farm-based business that can serve as a model for the region. Activities to date have largely focused on transitioning from 40 years of conventional livestock, corn and soy production to becoming more of a diversified organic farm.

About 900 acres of the total are in hay and pasture, primarily for a herd of Black Angus cattle and some additional forage sales. Holistic Management principles and the ideas of Alan Savory for mimicking nature in managing grazing herds by moving them more often are central to the animal operation, both for better utilization of the available forage and for building soil carbon and greater resilience. One big improvement on the books is for a proper perimeter fence to enable fencing off paddocks throughout the 900 acres.

One exciting possibility for this land is creating a cohabitation or several year rotation between grazers and cropland. One possible idea would be four years on in a very rigorous cropping rotation and four years off to rebuild the soil by keeping livestock on it. Part of the pasture might be annual grasses, planted every year, along with perennials. It would have a heavy root structure, but not like a sod. So after the livestock period they might be able to plant it with a cover crop, roll and crimp that, and plant right into it. Gabe Brown is one well known farmer doing this out in North Dakota.

This grain elevator dominates the sky at Stone House Farm. It lifts grain, through augers in the tubes, to the peak and sends it to the proper bin for storage or for mixing for feed.

The remaining 1600 or so acres are currently devoted to non-GMO grain, primarily corn and soy but also wheat, barley, oats, rye, vetch, peas and buckwheat.

As the new Rockefeller generation took over the farm from the older one, they didn’t agree on many common goals. Two they did all support, however, were that they didn’t want toxic chemicals on the farm, that it should be organic, and that they wanted it to at least pay for itself, to have some profit so that it would represent a model for how such farming can be done.

They looked around for someone who had the right mix of experience to run the farm and settled on a local, Ben Banks Dobson. Ben, the 30-something son of organic greens grower Ted Dobson, owner of the 15 acre Sheffield, Massachusetts Equinox Farm, had a lot of agricultural experience.

“I was born on a small organic farm in this county,” Ben recalls. “But I didn’t really like school growing up so I dropped out after 9th grade and went to early college. But I didn’t really like that either, so I dropped out of that and started a farm. When I was 16 I did a little CSA and vegetable garden on my grandfather’s land. Then I went and managed my dad’s salad farm in Sheffield for three years while I was still a teenager and into my early 20s.”

In 2007 Dobson got the opportunity to take over a 170 acre organic greens operation in Bowdoinham, Maine.

“A guy from California had brought a lot of his equipment east,” he explains, “and set up an east coast operation similar to what they do with greens in California. My dad used to buy salad greens from his farm in the winter. He wanted to sell and gave me a lease/purchase agreement on it.”

With some partners Ben secured a quarter million dollar loan, found investors, and started Atlantic Organics. The company, under the Locally Known label, sold salad greens to 60 Whole Foods and 40 Trader Joes stores, much of it packaged in clamshells for immediate take home.

“It was the biggest organic greens operation east of Colorado,” says Dobson. “It was MOFGA certified. We had big harvesters, a big packing house with automatic clamshell packing. I had to come up with 30 tons a week. So I really had to push it – get everything just right. Our quality standards got harder and harder to meet — if you had one yellow leaf on a pallet you could get that whole pallet kicked. With a wholesale operation you can just pick one leaf out. But with a Whole Foods, or a Trader Joe’s or a Hannafords, we could get docked for any little issue. We had to have much higher quality.

photo by Jack Kittredge
David inspects the half-inch mat of cover crop debris remaining from the Spring crimping where no-till corn was planted.

“I finally got burned out,” he continues. “I was working 100 hours a week for four years during the season. I made some money, but not enough to justify what I was doing. I got tired of it. I didn’t want to farm that way anymore. It didn’t feel very organic – the soil conditions and to farm greens on that scale. It was pretty nasty on the soil, the tillage. We could cycle from one planting to another in 30 days!”

Ben ended up selling the company in Maine. He worked in Haiti trying to rebuild an irrigation structure on a 20,000 hectare scale and then was asked by the grandfather of one of his friends to help with the transition to organic of a big organic banana and mango and coffee enterprise in the Dominican Republic.

“But my wife is from Haiti,” he says, “and we didn’t like the Dominican culture very much so we just lasted six months there. The Dominicans are extremely racist, even though they are black themselves. It’s a tough culture to deal with. Not many intellectual people you can find there. Trujillo killed all the intellectuals – two generations of them. A lot of the Haitian intellectuals escaped a similar fate under Papa Doc!”

Dobson’s understanding of soil carbon came early. He was at Simon’s Rock College of Bard taking an environmental studies course with Professor Don Roeder, who he credits with having a big influence on his thinking.

“As a teenager,” he says, “I realized that photosynthesis was the only thing that could mitigate atmospheric carbon dioxide. I learned about photosynthesis in the fourth grade, like most people, but really it hit home to me in that class that one of the major solutions to climate change would be reviving the ecosystems that all land surfaces use. All the people in charge can only think about cutting emissions. But cutting emissions alone won’t be nearly enough. I think a lot of scientists know this – we have to sequester our carbon and the only way to do it is through CO2 and plants.

“I learned all that at Simon’s Rock,” he continues, “but I never really made the huge connection between how bad tillage was (even though I do till sometimes now!) until I got to Maine. By the end of my time in Maine I realized that I have to stop tilling. Then I went and worked on that biodynamic banana and mango farm where they didn’t till at all. They had crops that had been in for 20 years, the same ones. That really struck me as what we need to be striving for.”

The owners of Stone House Farm are very interested in building soil carbon there.

“They come here regularly to visit the farm,” he reports, “and see how it is doing. They have quarterly meetings, but often one or two will stop by in between. They are very receptive to the whole soil carbon issue. They have land elsewhere as well, and are using grazing along the Savory lines to use livestock to rebuild soil.”

In fact, one of the projects Ben directs is to measure the farm’s existing soil carbon profile. His longtime friend and farming partner David Goldstein manages that on a day to day basis.

But for now, Dobson’s primary work is trying to get the farm’s grain operation on a solid footing: making sure their product and what they buy in is of high quality, that markets are ready for it, shipments are timely, and the farm is financially viable.

He also oversees the farm’s imminent certification as an organic producer. Stone House is currently smaller than Lakeview Grain, the largest regional organic feed supplier, but Ben figures they will be Lakeview’s size in 2 or 3 years. Other active competitors are Cold Springs Farm in New York, and Green Mountain Feeds and Morrison’s Feed in Vermont. But Dobson is confident there is room for one more dealer.

“I’ve been here three years now,” he says, “working with grain. Since I came here we have had a huge job just trying to build up the infrastructure to keep up with the demand from the market. We knew that we were going to have a big presence in organic feed and we already did well in non-GMO feed. It’s a big enough farm that we have to do enough things that it was sort of sink or swim. So far I’m swimming! As it is now, we are buying in some product. But we have plans to expand. There is so much work in getting the infrastructure in place to hold the grain, clean it, process it, mix it and market it appropriately! That is the biggest part of my work.

photo by Jack Kittredge
A combine harvests the soy crop. It mows and swallows whatever it encounters, then spits out stalks, pods, chaff — everything but the beans.

“We’re not in the black yet on a cash basis,” he continues, “but I think next year we will be. America at the consumer level is a $40 billion organic market. But that grows about 12% a year. And organic land increases only about 1% or 2% per year. So we import all the extra grain we need. It all comes from overseas. Right now it is not a good time for growth because the dollar is strong which makes it attractive to buy grain abroad. But when the dollar is weak organic prices here are going to have to climb.”

One of the realities of a grain operation, particularly one mixing grains to animal feed specifications, is the importance of large equipment. Grain trucked in from the field is contaminated with stones, chaff, bug parts and many other things. It must be cleaned. Then it must be stored, kept dry and mold-free, and then moved to various containers as needed for mixing, bagging, and shipping.

The first thing you see approaching Stone House Farm, rising high over the buildings, is the grain elevator. The elevator is a tower of pipes for accessing all the various grain storage facilities — it feeds the right grain through the right tubes to fill the appropriate bin. Emptying the bins is done with separate augers and pipes from the base of the bins. The grain mixing building is next to the elevator.

Ben supervised a whole rework of the equipment and how the bins are set up in order to get places for all the ingredients that aren’t grown on-farm – things like alfalfa meal and sunflower meal. The farm produces all their own soy meal from their own beans, and has an extruder for soy oil as well as a roaster.

When I arrived at the farm Ben was 100 feet in the air sealing the joints of an old Harvestor silo before the predicted rain. It was on the dairy farm when they bought it and would make a great place to store grain — except it leaks.

“They are thick steel and maintain a vacuum,” he says, “but for me I don’t need that. I just want them water-tight. Any Harvestor before 1979 needs sealant on the seams. We re-sleeved the old auger tube and now we have a vacuum system that sucks the grain in. I actually put air through this one to keep mold from forming. We blow air into the floor the grain sits on and have vents at the top to take it out. It keeps the moisture level down.

photo by Jack Kittredge
Soil under tilled corn, as opposed to the field which was cover cropped, then rolled and crimped, is exposed and dry.

“But these silos were just a stupid idea,” he continues. “It’s a really expensive tube for storing silage, which ferments just as well in a big bunker on the ground that is much easier to get at. The silo unloader is really slow, so it’s much easier to just scoop it out of a bunker with a tractor. But banks got farmers to spend a huge amount of money to build these things. It was a badge of honor to have one on your farm, but ultimately it was really stupid because it didn’t work as well as a bunker and they were ten times the cost. Many farmers went bankrupt because of the extra financial burden of the Harvestors. I call them ‘Bankrupstors’.”

The farm’s business plan involves a two-fold marketing strategy. David Goldstein explains it to me as we tour the fields.

“One is the organics,” he says, “which we are building towards. There’s a good opportunity when it comes to organic feed around here. People have been begging for sources. We’re just now getting our operation certified. But beside that we want to offer grain that can be used by those on the transition to organic. So we need to establish and maintain a market for what we call non-GMO grain. It is a label that we are putting on product that is using all the organic methods and practices but is not certifiable organic because it is grown on land that does not meet the 3-years free of chemicals test.

“Most farmers would agree,” he continues, “that organics is more profitable, but not a lot of them want to take that 3-year hit with all the added input costs of organic but not getting the premium price yet. We’re trying to find ways to make that land break even. If we can show some sort of metrics, if you will, and a prescription of: ‘Hey, you can grow rye very inexpensively and get a return on it even at conventional pricing.’ That is some money to earn while you are conditioning the ground for when organic certification happens and you can have a high value crop in there.”

One of the practices which Stone House Farm is working on is to minimize the tillage they use so that they can improve soil structure and sequester carbon. Ben thinks that they can reduce it to every two or three years to kill weeds in annual grain cropping, and probably once every five years for seeding hay and pasture.

photo by Jack Kittredge
A roller crimper, smaller than the one used by Stone House Farm, in use. The device rolls over a stand of cover crops and the chevroned edges on the heavy drum cut into the stalks, crimping them so they cannot conduct sap. This effectively kills them without removing them from the soil.

One key to this reduction is the farm’s roller-crimper, which is rolled over a cover crop just before it sets seed to knock it down and crimp the stems, effectively killing it. David took me to two of their cornfields, one planted into a crimped cover crop, the other after tilling.

“This is not a perfect side-by–side,” he admits, “because the soil profiles are quite different, but it is an idea to show that our roller-crimped corn is better than our tilled corn. It seems like the plants are a foot or more shorter in the tilled field, with a poorer frame. It is definitely not as well established in the center of the field. You can see soil everywhere. This tilled corn went in a little earlier than the no-till corn. There was a rye-vetch in here earlier as well, but it wasn’t established as much. And it was plowed down. There is clover and vetch still here, coming back.”

Ben showed me another cornfield that had been out of tillage for 4 years until 2016. They were able to manage it that way as a result of having very little weed pressure because of planting a heavy vetch/rye cover crop cocktail on it. Then last fall it had oats and peas and radishes as well. It had been rolled and crimped for two years and planted to small grains. After four years they decided they had to till to get the vetch and some weeds under control, and they did end up with a very clean crop this year. But they are creatively using cover crops to minimize that tillage.

“We’re now underseeding clover a year before cropping,” Ben says. “That way we leave soil resting for quite a long time. Like we’re planting winter wheat now, in the fall of 2016. In the spring of 2017 we’ll mix clover seed into the composted poultry manure that we spread and then when we harvest the wheat in July or August we don’t have to till and there is clover already there. So we keep a living root and no tillage for about 18 months. In May of 2018 we’ll plant the corn.”

Stone house Farm has just added some new land that was farmed conventionally until last week and has a serious weed problem. They have a plan to avoid tillage, but will have to see how it works out.

“They just pulled the corn off of it,” says David. “This fall we will no-till drill rye directly into the corn stubble, and that rye will be harvested next spring as a seed crop. If there is not heavy weed pressure then we will put in a fall biomass cover crop and that will stand through the winter. The next spring we might roller-crimp that or till, depending on what happens, and plant corn. The control for weeds is either time – in a stale seed bed or cover crop — or tillage.”

The farm has a 31-foot wide crimper to use on cover crops. Ben reports that he is happy with it, but has had to learn just how to use it.

“To make it work,” he sighs, “you have to do a lot of thinking and planning. They often are not heavy enough and you have to get the cover crop at the right stage. I’ve learned how to kill it – after you roll and crimp and plant you just go over it with an empty no-till grain drill. That re-crimps it and you kill the shit out of it. But you have to get it just right.”

David shows me a 70 acre field in corn which was done properly. The first thing you notice when you walk through it is a thick mat of cover crop residue and litter on the ground. The corn was planted in early June, but before that they had rye and vetch growing that had been planted last fall. It was a thick stand and David was concerned that it was going to be too thick to roll. Essentially it was a full 5 feet of biomass but they rolled and crimped it down to a mat of about three inches of thickness.

“After we rolled and crimped,” he recalls, “we ran our drill empty – a John Deere 1590. It’s a standard drill but it has relatively tight spacing – about seven and a half inches. We ran that crosshatched to our roller crimper and our planter and got ample kill. But the timing was crucial. We did it just past the milk stage for the rye and vetch. As you start seeing those seeds starting to set you want to kill it. A lot of people say you can go prior to the milk stage, but I like to see it with seeds starting. Then I know, as an annual, it is not going to continue to grow. You want to get all the energy out, expel all that, and then hit it.”

“This is the first time we have had this thick a biomass,” he continues. “The corn was slow to come up this summer – we didn’t have enough rain. There were some issues with ‘pinning’ as they call it. If you don’t have enough down pressure on your seeder to cut through the whole thatch, what happens is this ‘pinning’ effect where the thatch is just pressed down into the planting crease, the corn seed sits in that thatch, and then it rots.”

“Our roller crimping works best,” he concludes, “in our lighter soils. If we start getting into heavy clay we start having issues – it doesn’t crimp properly, the growth doesn’t come as quickly, the weeds have established that much more, oftentimes it is either too wet or too dry. We haven’t found crimping to be the answer to all, but it definitely is the direction we are trying to move in. I don’t like to say that we are no-till. I say we are minimum till.”

We stop at a field in which soybeans are being harvested. It, too, has a good mat of cover crops on the ground, crimped in May with soy then planted right into the mulch. Sometimes, however, they have so many weeds they have to give the field a ‘hard restart’ or plowing. David believes that plowing is actually better for the soil and weeds than disking.

“You bury those weed seeds when you turn the soil over,” he asserts. “If plowed appropriately, it is better than disking for weeds. When you plow you maintain a lot of the structure. When you disk you spread everything apart, all your roots are chopped up.”

Sometimes the cover crop can actually become a cash crop.

photo by Jack Kittredge
Stone House Farm sign and house at main entrance to the farm.

“If you are able to walk in a field and see any vetch right now,” David says, “you are going to have a field of purple flowers come July first! Vetch is one of our favorite cover crops. It can be a pain, for sure, and take over. But every year we have one field that we give to the vetch. We harvest it and mix it in with the rye to sell as a cover crop mixture. It’s a great value-added product. It can turn a ton of rye, which might go for $400, into about a thousand dollars just by adding 20% vetch. It can add a lot of value. You might only get 10 or 15 bushels an acre, but it is well worth it.”

One of the most interesting aspects of Stone House Farm is that they are deeply involved in trying to measure the carbon in their soil and how it changes. While Ben is the designer of the systems, David does a lot of the actual hands on work dealing with data.

“Our basic message on this project,” David says, “is that since the industrial revolution over 40% of the active carbon released to the atmosphere has come from the soil. Consciousness of this is just beginning to filter out and we need to learn how to get agriculture to sequester carbon, not release it. Here at the farm we want to get good data on the carbon in our soils so that when the time comes that people want to know how to build it we have good information. We want to find out what our net carbon is right now, and want to monitor it over time. The luxury of this project is that we have so much acreage and so much diversity. Even if you were to give a prescription on one field, the next field would be totally different.”

One of the first steps in soil testing is to identify soil types and horizons. David says he has tons of soil maps and data from online and does a lot of work on Google Earth with keyhole markup language (kml) programs that represent all the soil types.

To get carbon metrics they run a standard test called a ‘loss on ignition’ test. A furnace burns a soil sample at about 600 Celsius. Anything that is lost by oxidation at temperatures below 600 degrees is considered organic (58% of which is carbon) and anything above that is considered mineral. You weight the sample before and after ignition and the difference is the net loss.

Such a test does not distinguish between various forms of carbon such as recent plant residue vs. humus or liquid carbon plant exudates vs. microbial biomass. Nevertheless it is a starting point.

The farm is working with a number of laboratories – Woods End, Cornell, Way Point (the old A & L Labs) to run such tests. They send portions of the same samples to various labs and note whether the results are redundant or differ. They work with Boston University to measure various stable isotopes and analyze the carbon and nitrogen in each sample.

A microbiologist is the farm’s in-house lab tech and they have a panel of other advisors, including Chris Nichols from Rodale, who look at their experimental design.

David says Stone House just bought a coring machine that can sample soil as far as a meter under the surface. They divide a one meter core into 5 depth subdivisions and send out soil from each subdivision to the labs.

Ben also has have submitted a request in next year’s budget for a unit they call an elemental analyzer. It uses high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC), an analytical chemistry technique, to separate, identify, and quantify each component in a soil sample.

Such resources being poured into soil carbon measurements may seem unusual at a private farm, but of course there is a potential return of significance. Depending on how the climate change issue proceeds, there may well be payments made for documented sequestration of carbon.

“Ultimately,” says Dobson, “we would like to sell carbon credits, too, as an extra source of income. You can factor that into the economic equation.”




The Truth About Ruminants and Methane

The role of ruminants in reducing agriculture’s carbon footprint in North America

This 9-page paper by W. Richard Teague, Steve Apfelbaum, Rattan Lal, Urs P. Kreuter, Jason Rowntree, Christian A. Davies, Russ Conser, Mark Rasmussen, Jerry Hatfield, Tong Wang, Fugul Wang, and Peter Byck was published in the March/April 2016 Journal of Soil and Water Conserva-tion, vol. 70, no. 2, page 156

Summary: This scientific paper argues that the co-evolution of grass and ruminant grazers over the last 40 million years resulted in organisms capable of sequestering large amounts of atmospheric carbon in grassland soils. When measured in greenhouse gas (GHG) units, their sequestration exceeded GHG emissions (including emissions of methane) caused by these grazers, resulting in net soil carbon gains.

Argument: The authors collected data from peer-reviewed studies to compare global GHG emissions from the 3 main agricultural sources: raising domes-tic livestock (primarily ruminants), crop production (including tillage, fertilization, harvest and transport) and soil erosion (from both livestock and crop operations). They also evaluated methods of managing ruminants to increase carbon sequestration in soil.

The authors found that, properly managed, ruminant grazing can sequester more GHGs than it emits. Such good management, here referred to as regen-erative adaptive multipaddock (AMP) conservation grazing, uses short periods of grazing in an area before the animals move to new feeding grounds, leaving old areas to experience extended periods of recovery after being grazed.

In prehistoric times before conscious human management, such short grazing periods were enforced on large migratory ruminant herds by their desire to avoid heavily fouled grazing sites and to respond to predation, fire, herding and hunting. Today, the AMP rancher constantly and proactively adjusts the grazing period to the amount of forage remaining, calculating the needed recovery period given the season, rainfall and other conditions.
When properly managed, this system results in soil microbes rapidly recycling nutrients and enhancing the soil structure to result in increased soil carbon levels.

The below figure shows the authors’ calculations of net North American greenhouse gas emissions for 5 agricultural scenarios. All 5 scenarios assume cur-rent conventional crop production methods and yields, resulting in the annual emission of 0.083 gigatons of carbon (Gt/C — blue component of each bar in graph).

The livestock-raising components of each scenario differ, however. Scenario 1 shows current quantities of animals and methods. Scenario 2 cuts animal quantities by 50%, but assumes current production methods. Scenarios 3 through 5 involve current animal quantities, but assume increasing percentages of those animals are raised using AMP grazing: 25% in scenario 3, 50% in scenario 4, and 100% in scenario 5. Thus emissions from soil erosion (red por-tion of each bar) decrease as AMP methods are increasingly used (scenarios 3 to 5). The final component of GHG emissions (green portion of each bar) is those from the livestock themselves. Without AMP grazing, GHG emissions (primarily methane) are positive, although scenario 2 results in half the emis-sions of scenario 1 since livestock numbers are cut by 50%. As AMP grazing is increased (scenarios 3 to 5), however, carbon becomes sequestered in soil and net livestock GHG emissions (green portion of bar) go negative. In scenarios 4 and 5 overall emissions are negative because more greenhouse gases are sequestered than emitted.




Testing Proxies for Soil Carbon

Carbon is notoriously labile, one even might say it is promiscuous. That is, it forms and breaks bonds with other elements constantly. That ability, actually, is why carbon is such a good building block for life.

But it also makes it difficult to isolate and measure very well. Carbon in soil, unless fossilized somehow, is constantly changing: being deposited or exuded by organisms, being metabolized by other organisms, being respired, being oxidized. Thus most carbon tests, like Loss on Ignition (LOI) which heats soil to 550 degrees Celcius (at which most organic matter is incinerated) and measures the amount of mass lost, throw all forms of carbon together and don’t give a very useful number for those of us interested in building stable carbon. Also, they are expensive, require sending soil to a laboratory, and don’t give you immediate results.

An alternative approach is to directly measure the aspects of soil biology that are due to the presence of carbon. Those soil features are “proxies” for carbon. They couldn’t exist without carbon, and become more prominent as the carbon level in the soil increases. Also such tests are inexpensive, can be done on the farm, and can give immediate results.

As a part of its soil carbon program NOFA/Mass has been developing such tests. We have 10 of them now, and have acquired the equipment and materials necessary to do them. Here we give you a quick idea of the tests and what is 2017 NOFA/Mass Carbon Program Soil Test Protocols.

Download 2017 NOFA/Mass Carbon Program Soil Test Protocols

 

 





Farming with Animals, Cover Crops, Manure, Mulches, and Minimal Tillage

photo by Jack Kittredge
Julie Rawson in West Field at Many Hands Organic Farm, admiring some kale and broccoli

Central Massachusetts is not what you would call prime farmland. Like most of New England that isn’t blessed with a nearby waterway and thus alluvial deposits, our soils are thin and only farmable where the underlying landforms aren’t too rocky, hilly or wet to grow crops.

When Julie and I bought this land 36 years ago it was composed of two played-out hayfields that had been de-rocked years ago and about 30 acres of woods that had not. Since then we have put drain tile under the fields to get them plantable by April, brought or grown onto them uncountable tons of organic matter to build soil, and hauled from them an equal volume of rocks that the first team of de-rockers somehow missed. We have yet to deal with the underlying abundance of potter’s clay and ledge.

The big advantage to central Massachusetts, we told ourselves, was that the land was so unattractive to farmers that we didn’t have to worry about spray drift or chemical contamination by neighbors, a huge concern where Julie grew up in Illinois.

Since then we have built a serviceable farm here, certified organic since 1987 and are providing produce and small and orchard fruit through a CSA to some 60 families currently, and to several wholesale accounts. We also raise a number of animals and sell meat and eggs, mostly to individuals.

Soil Fertility

photo by Jack Kittredge
Perennial weeds ferment in water which is then added to the nutrient drench delivered to crops by drip irrigation

As in raising our children, one of the most important concerns for Julie (the primary farmer) has been providing adequate nutrition. That has only gotten stronger over the years. For the last ten years she has been taking a fall soil test (she feels that laboratories like Logan Labs, which use the protocols de-veloped by William Albrecht, are the gold standard for soil testing) and using that as the basis for what to put down the next year. She consults with our son Dan to better understand the test and make recommendations based upon it.

But Rawson does not rely on purchased products for all of her inputs – she also tries ideas picked up from other farmers. At a recent conference Maine’s Mark Fulford suggested using water from fermented weeds as an activator. Julie is trying this out and leads me to her many pails stuffed with plants soaking in brownish water.

“These are all kinds of perennial weeds – whatever is green that we can find. They start fermenting when you soak them, which we do for a week or so, till they get really stinky, then we use the water in the foliar spray mix that we apply to our plants. It makes them grow faster. We can use what is left of the weeds for compost.”

Livestock and Crop Symbiosis

One of the traits which distinguishes our farm from many area organic farms is the presence of a significant number of livestock and poultry. Besides lik-ing to eat meat and eggs that we know are from humanely raised and healthily fed creatures, Julie believes in integrating plants and animals in much the same way that nature does.

“One of the things that we have been trying to perfect,” she explains, “is how to best utilize the animals we have here — we raise 300 meat chickens a year plus adding a hundred new layers each year. We also have two cows, 9 pigs and up to a hundred turkeys.

“What we’re trying to do,” she continues, “is better use the animals in the vegetable growing areas. Before, when the certification standards required 60 days between the removal of animals and harvest of vegetables, we were able to do more with animals right there in the field. Now that they require most-ly 120 days for any crop that has edible parts that touch the ground, we have to be more creative. Chickens can destroy an area, as can pigs. But I try to bring our animals through the vegetable areas when we can, and balance the issue of wanting to have something growing there when they leave. I want to have as much green growing in wintertime as I can so I want those chickens coming in on an area that has perennial cover crops or going through an area early enough that you can plant cover crops after them. That is one of the real challenges of managing animals in this system.”

When putting animals on a field Rawson tries to replicate the ideas that have been popularized by Alan Savory concerning intensive but short periods of grazing followed by rest to allow the pasture to regrow, often called ‘mobstocking’.

“We have found that really builds the structure of the soil,” she stresses. “This summer, when we were in drought, our hayfield was bright green and still growing. We have plenty of pasture right now in mid-October although a lot of folks are struggling with not having enough green in their fields.”

The West Field Experience

photo by Jack Kittredge
Clover grows in the pathways and under the kale

In 2015, for the first time ever, Rawson took one of the main vegetable growing areas out of production in order to fully bring in the benefits of livestock and poultry and long term cover crops.

“We have about three acres of vegetable land,” she explains, “and in 2014 we put down a cover crop on a half acre we call ‘the West Field’ and later put our two beef cows on it to eat it down. They stayed there all winter and we took them out in the spring of 2015, let it all grow back, and put the steers back in again so they were pasturing there in July. Then we put our turkeys, who are out on pasture August to November, on it. They moved back and forth on that field a couple of times. Finally, we covered the entire half acre in cardboard and covered it with leaves, hay and wood chips.”

The results of Julie’s planned ‘Rest & Rehabilitation’ for the West Field have been more than she hoped for.

“Generally this field has been a real paradise this year,” she asserts. “It continues to produce an amazing quantity and quality of food. Just yesterday (October 10) this 100-foot bed of Ace peppers produced 50 pounds for us. The kale, which was planted in April, we are still harvesting. It was a superb crop. This has been a real paradise for broccoli. You can see the blueness of the plants. With broccoli generally you get a head and some side shoots and then the plant piddles out. In the West Field they are producing tertiary heads!”

This last year, because of her concern about carbon and weather etremes, Julie has experimented with various ways of practicing little or no tillage. It is way too early for her to draw conclusions, but she thinks some of these methods show real promise and says the farming year was quite successful. Despite the worst drought central Massachusetts has experienced in our 34 years of growing, it was one of our most productive years. Both crop yield and crop quality were high.

Solarization

One of the methods of preparing a seed bed in a planting area without tillage that has worked for Julie is to ‘solarize’ it. Solarization is the coverage of a growing area with a sheet of greenhouse plastic for long enough (it depends on the time of year, with longer times being necessary in spring and fall and shorter ones in summer) to kill vegetative growth in the top half inch or so of soil without bothering soil life any deeper. In summer this process can be accomplished in one 24-hour period,

“We planted cover crops last fall,” she relates, showing me some beds of thriving kale plants, “in the vegetable crops that were here and mowed them down in mid-June this year. We took the hay off and solarized these beds. Then we took our partially composted woodchips that we got from the local DPW and laid them down. Then we planted kale seedlings on June 22 through the wood chips — we just dug a hole with our hands and put the kale in — and then laid down the drip tape. We didn’t bother with the fungal inoculants that we often use because we figured we had lots of fungus from the wood chips.”

Wood Chips

Wood chips are one of the major innovations Rawson introduced to the farm this year. Our local Department of Public Works collects them from land-scapers and makes them available gratis, loaded into your pickup, to anyone in town who can use them. Julie hired a dump truck and we ended up taking 13 loads this spring. She finds that they are excellent as a mulch and can be applied for many crops even before planting.

“We tried planting through cardboard and wood chips this year,” she explains. “When we planted transplants, we used string to mark our beds and pathways and just dug a hole in the bed through the chips and planted our tomatoes or brassicas. In one instance we planted cucumbers and carrot, seeds in beds that had been mulched with chips for an earlier crop of onions. We drew a pathway and shallow furrow through the chips -– probably an inch deep — with a hoe and planted the seeds in that and covered them back up with dirt. There was a challenge with wood chips falling into the furrow until we learned how far to pull them back – probably 3 inches or so for cucumber seeds. If we are doing something like carrots, however, which we do as 4 rows equidistant in the bed, we found retrospectively that it was better to rake all the chips off the bed first. Germination was not good when we didn’t completely remove them from the bed.

“I have limited experience so far in all this,” Rawson admits, “but I have plenty of experience in evaluating crops and know we got an excellent response from plants sitting there in that wood mulch. For some crops that we planted with a more conventional preparation using the tiller, we weeded once and then mulched the beds heavily with chips. The dirt under there is really friable. There is a lot of fungal activity going on – you can see the white threads of fungus in the soil. Some of my take-homes for this year are that using wood chips as a mulch on crops that are prone to having weed problems has been a real labor saver for us and also has created some really high quality crops. We used this system with onions, leeks, carrots, parsley. One of the things we learned is that, even though many people are concerned about wood chips because they think too much carbon will tie up nitrogen in the soil, when you have carbon covering on the soil it can break down slowly. Worms and microbial life will access it as needed. They will keep the carbon:nitrogen ratio in balance if you don’t incorporate the carbonaceous material in the soil but leave it on top.”

Cardboard

Another innovation we tried was massive coverage of soil in the fall with cardboard. Julie and I located the merchants in town last year who went through large amounts of big corrugated boxes (think dealers of motor cycles, stoves, refrigerators, replacement windows and doors) received their blessings for scheduled raids upon their dumpsters, and brought home truckloads of the stuff which were then laid out over one-half of an acre of field from November through March. On top of that we would often pile truckloads of oak leaves just scavenged from edges of the scenic, tree-lined road on which we live.

“That was the preparation we used in the West field”, she points out. “Just before slaughter of our turkeys in 2015 we started laying down cardboard on the veggie portion of that field (the sunniest portion, in the center of the field). We covered that cardboard with whatever we could – some hay, oak leaves from the roads, and finally wood chips we got from the DPW. Essentially there was cardboard everywhere, covered with a lot of carbonaceous, natural materials.”

The cardboard didn’t break down over the winter and spring as much as Julie hoped, in part because of the lack of precipitation.

“I was worried early on with the cardboard,” she recalls, “that it didn’t seem like the soil was going to be soft and deep.”

Although she mostly planted through the cardboard, in one section of the field she pulled off the cardboard and hay, poked holes every 18 to 24 inches, and planted transplants into the dirt. But she didn’t till. She recalls that worms just filled the area under the carqboard, lying side by side.

“I felt a clodiness to the soil,” she says, “that reminded me of growing up in Illinois — clods the size of my hand, cracks in the soil. It was a different struc-ture than I’m used to here. I finally realized after talking to NRCS people that those clods are a good thing. That bore out in the crops we got here. What I noticed when we planted things here is that they immediately took off, they were dark, beautiful green from the start. That was the second week in June.

“Cardboard works very well to attract earthworms into the system,” she asserts. “I’m not sure why – they must be eating the cardboard or microbes are doing that and the worms are eating them. Also you can see daikon here and there. These are nicely formed plants that have a cohesive structure. The soybeans here were meaty, the summer squash quality and consistency was strong and resulted in a huge amount of production for a long period of time. I’d never had that kind of consistency. Things last longer when raised this way. Here are tomatoes that we didn’t pick last night. Looks like these made it through the frost. These were mammoth plants and we didn’t start getting early blight until about the fourth week in September.

“What I have found where we were just using cardboard,” she continues, “is that the plants, albeit planted earlier, when they came up they had these monster frames. Broccoli are still pumping out heads -– tertiary heads bigger than the primary heads across the street. The cabbages were monstrous too. What I have found this year is that the crops which were planted in that field have much more staying power that the crops planted elsewhere, which did pretty well, actually. With a second crop going in, or at the end of their life cycle, the other crops started to peter out, which I thought was pretty natural for mid October. But I am finding that in the cardboard-treated field the kale is still going strong, the pepper plants, broccoli, cabbages all have a frame that is two to four times the size of those elsewhere and are more resilient.”

Despite all these wonders, Julie is not planning on laying out massive amounts of cardboard this winter.

“It was a lot of work,” she says. “It is a good activity for a winter that is totally open and has little snow, and I will continue to use it around open peren-nials like blueberries, red raspberries, black raspberries, rhubarb – things where you want to have it clean right under the branches so weeds don’t grow too heavily there. In 2016 we used a lot on perennials and put wood chips on top. We had green pathways between the rows that were mowable!”

Avoiding Tillage

photo by Jack Kittredge
Cows and chickens are moved daily, with the birds closely following the bovines. Here Julie and grandson Sammy tend to the animal chores

One interesting lesson so far that Rawson is taking to heart is that despite all her fertility amendments and other good management practices, although her first crop in an area does well, replants in a bed that has been tilled do not hold that quality for the next crop.

“This kale,” she says, pointing out a bed of it “comes from an area that we tilled before we planted lettuce in the spring. After the lettuce came out we put the kale in. The planting was similarly timed to the kale across the street. You can see the difference in quality. These beds were tilled in the spring and got our usual treatment of fertility, drenching and so forth. The lettuce we harvested earlier out of here was very nice and we brought more wood chips in and did a similar treatment and planting to what we did to the other kale. We even under-sowed clover. The big difference is that in the first beds we looked at there has been no tillage since the spring of last year. This one was tilled this spring. Also this is a second crop, a succession where that was the first crop after a cover. This bed is full of grass that maybe came in through tillage. I don’t think the grass is hurting the kale, but the kale doesn’t look as good.”

“When I till and use all the good fertility practices I do,” Rawson explains, “I will have a good first crop but it can’t sustain it for a second crop. Some-times we plant after cardboard, sometimes after cover crops, sometimes after cardboard and cover crops. But it is the tilling that makes the difference, leading to lesser plants. My surmise is that the tillage has a strong negative impact.”

Julie is not sure why areas that have been no-tilled look so much better, but figures that those that have been tilled don’t have as much microbial activity in the soil, particularly less fungal activity.

A major problem that no-till presents is having to change the way you plant. That is part of the work that Many Hands Organic Farm is hoping to address next year.

“We are trying to find creative ways to plant into old cover crop residues,” Rawson says. “That is where our new learning is heading next year. How can we learn how to plant small seeded crops without having to till first? We want to use Bryan O’Hara methods, but that requires a lot of compost and we don’t yet have that system in place.”
Cover Crops

photo by Jack Kittredge
These brassicas were planted without tillage into our West Field, covered over last winter in cardboard and mulched with wood chips.

Besides reducing tillage, the other carbon-building practice Julie has had a lot of success with is use of cocktail cover crops. Although 2016 was a bad year for drought and cover crops sometimes had difficulty germinating, their use seemed to augment crop production.

“We planted cucumbers in our small hoophouse in the spring,” she says. “When they were up adequately we broadcast an annual cover crop mix. The cucumbers were mulched with hay and woodchips and the annual cover crop mix was broadcast onto the mulch. The cucumbers that were here had the longest life of any of our cucumbers on the farm.

“Kale was slow to start,” she continues, “but once it was six inches tall we undersowed clover in the bed to get more greenery in there. We put down some worm castings but not much — a 5 gallon pail of them on a bed 4 feet wide and 130 feet long. You can see they are generally darker and more vibrant than the ones that followed the lettuce crop. What I see is a better building of frame. That is what you want.”

Julie’s interest in cover crops resulted in MHOF being the site of a cover crop workshop attended by 50 or 60 people on July 25. She had taken a section of a field and planted it to 3, 6, 9, 12, 15 and 18-way cover crop mixes. Ray Archuleta and Brandon Smith came from NRCS, dug up soil samples, and showed attendees how to evaluate them. Ray was particularly pleased with our level of soil aggregation!

The biggest problem with cover crop use in operations that specialize in annual vegetable crops is getting them to go away when their usefulness is done. Unless carefully managed, perennial cover crops can overwhelm and crowd out crops planted into them.

The primary ways cover crops are disabled without tillage are by winter killing (for annuals), by rolling over them with a heavy tractor-drawn ‘roll-er-crimper’ which is supposed to knock them down and crimp their stems so that sap can no longer flow up and down, effectively killing them, or by mowing. The latter two systems are far more effective if the cover crop is at the ‘milk stage’ where its energy has shifted from vegetative growth to seed growth. That way the plant is less likely to have the strength to repair damage inflicted by crimping or mowing which does not succeed in actually killing the plant. The risk, however, is that unless done in a timely manner, the plant will get to the stage of setting seed, after which any practical management method guarantees widespread unwanted seed distribution — likely to lead to serious problems when the seed comes up.

“Some people talk about crimping the cover crop and then planting right into that,” she says. “But we haven’t done that and I don’t know what tools could be used for that. I’m using what tools we have available to us. My understanding is that it is very difficult to kill rye unless it is ready to die! My so-lution for early crops is to plant where we have used cardboard, or use annual cover crops that will winterkill.

“Vetch is another killer,” she continues, “like rye. It wraps around everything and chokes it to death where rye just muscles it out. But I like them because vetch fixes nitrogen and rye mines for minerals and builds incredible soil structure with its long roots. You can use nitrogen-fixing annuals like Austrian winter peas and many of the clovers in winter-kill cover mixes, but I like the soil building effect of the perennials so I’ll still use a lot of them.

“If I plant perennial cover crops like rye and vetch,” she concludes, “which are the major aggressive ones I have used here, I have to be sure that the crops I want to plant there the next year are not early crops. You can maybe push it for us, in cold central Mass, if you are planning to plant something on June 1 you could raise rye there, maybe even June 15, and be assured that when you mow it and knock it down it is done growing. That will be the milk stage when all the energy is going into seed production and the stalks become brittle and it loses its vegetative strength. At that moment you can take it out and it won’t grow back. We don’t have a roller crimper to crush the cover crop, so what we do is mow it with a rotary mower. In some areas we did till in 2016 because we had put in rye for the winter and it was hard to kill in the spring. We wanted to use that soil when it was too early for the rye to reach its milk stage — when we could mow it and kill it.

Her experiences with cover crops this year have taught Rawson a lot about management strategies. She feels next year she will be able to manage a lot better.
“Next year,” she promises, “we will have certain areas that were planted into annual cover crops in 2016 that will be the first places we plant. We’ll leave the other areas until June 10 or so and knock down the perennial cover crops and plant into them. But we will cover crop everywhere!”

Green Pathways

photo by Jack Kittredge
These Copra onions, one of our best crops ever, were planted as seedlings into a wood chip mulch after using broadforking of winter-killed cover crops as bed preparation.

Julie is careful to maintain green, carbon producing pathways between her cropping beds. Generally she prefers clover for that purpose, because it doesn’t get too tall and as a legume fixes nitrogen from the atmosphere into the soil. There are some tricky issues in keeping pathways properly managed, howev-er.

Especially with annual beds,” she says, “we make all the pathways 20 inches wide so we can mow them with a hand mower. Part of the problem of mowing pathways with vegetable crops, of course, is that the crops get big and it is hard to do. But if the crop in the bed has big leaves that hang into the pathway, just push them aside as needed to mow.”

Rawson takes us to a pathway between a kale bed and a parsley bed. The kale is tall enough to shade the pathway, and when they harvest the parsley weeders go in advance of the cutters to ‘weed’ the pathway where it comes up to and over the edge of the parsley bed.

“Maybe you don’t keep mowing once the vegetables themselves are drooping over the edges,” she agrees. “But at that point it isn’t so much an issue and the crops are shading the path and growth has slowed down late in the season. It is a work in progress, not always neat. There are certain things you don’t want to do, however, like mow lettuce pathways where you are shooting the grass onto the lettuce. You maybe use a bagger or don’t mow when you are near harvest.”

She also uses green pathways between rows of perennials like rhubarb. Julie mulches the rhubarb itself with wood chips and old chicken bedding, and then lets the middle of the pathway grow up in grass that can be mowed.

Undersowing

photo by Jack Kittredge
Lettuces are transplanted into a wood chip compost, in spots marked off by a 4’ x 4’ dibble, being pressed into bed in upper right. Note drip irrigation header in foreground. Bed prep included mowing and removing perennial cover crops in mid-June followed by one day of solarization. Outstanding high quality lettuce was harvested throughout July in 100˚ heat.

Clover is also excellent undersown with tall crops like kale or chard. In one bed Julie planted chard in May, mulched it with cover crop residue, then broadcast clover on top of that mulch. In October she is still harvesting the chard, which has a lot of good color and taste.

“The Chenopods do well with clover,” she asserts. “I use crimson red. The crimson clover doesn’t necessarily come back next spring. I’d rather not have it come back when I’m planting new crops. The clover can overwhelm them when young. In the pathway is Dutch white clover. That is more of a perennial clover. It can take a lot of traffic and will come back next year.”

Water Infiltration

Water is obviously crucial to agriculture. That importance was accentuated at MHOF in 2016 because of the drought impacting much of central Massa-chusetts. But Rawson feels that the water problems at the farm – both from too much and too little – have been mitigated by the years of building soil carbon.

“I’m very cognizant of the water penetration of our soil,” she says. “When we first moved here in 1982 it had been a hayfield and there was a lot of stand-ing water after any rain. It was a serious problem for us, particularly in June. We have slowly built up our soil structure for 34 years now through lots of good practices. The issue with water has gone away. I remember a rain in 2015 that was one of those 2 inches in an hour rains. The water percolated into the soil and was gone in 10 minutes! This year with a severe drought we had drip irrigation, but each bed would get just an hour or two once per week. Nevertheless, we had stellar crops throughout the whole season. They didn’t succumb to drought. I credit the water-holding capacity of our soil.”

Future Plans

photo by Jack Kittredge
Julie harvests summer squash from giant plants in no-tilled West Field.

Rawson is constantly looking at the root structure of her crops and the soil’s texture and color.

“I got into farming because I like to play in the dirt,” she laughs. “I’m thinking about soil all the time. I didn’t really understand aggregation until lately, but I think our aggregation is good. Our soil is greasy and satiny. I think that is appetizing and comes from a lot of glomalin, the soil protein that fungi create which holds aggregates together.”

“On much of our land the soil is not very deep,” she admits. “I think that is because of a plow pan or perhaps just ledge close to the surface. We are trying to think about tools to deal with that. After going to a talk by Mark Fulford, I’m considering a tool to go down and break it up. It has some sort of shank and you drive over the bed and rip right down the middle, maybe 8 to 12 inches deep. While you are there cutting into the plow pan or ledge, you drop into the furrow a liquid fertilizer with lots of inoculant and then plant potatoes. That way you get the microbial life down there giving everything a boost and then your potatoes don’t grow out and get green shoulders, either. They would partly grow down because there is a lot of space down there.”

Although mostly a practical farmer, Rawson is planning a small 4-way trial next year to compare various farming practices. She has selected an un-cropped area which has grown up with perennial grasses and weeds.

“We’re going to mow it and divide it into 4 equal sections,” she says. “The first one we’ll till this fall, and try to kill the sod, then come back and till 6 weeks later. Then we will leave it for the winter. Next spring we will plant a crop here. The second bed we will cover this fall with cardboard and put leaves and hay on top of that, and try to kill the sod that way. The third bed we will solarize in the spring and then plant into it. The last bed we are going to cover with tarps and kill by shading (called ‘occultation’). We will use the same fertility, same spacing, and plant the same crop in each area. We’ll measure yield and look at insect damage and weigh stuff and take pictures. I think it is important for anyone to be as curious and creative as they have time for. Bring systems that work into your protocols and be tinkering with them to get improvement.




Regeneration of Soil by Multi-Paddock Grazing

1. What happens to those plants controls 90% of what happens in the ecosystem. The plant captures energy and pushes it into the ground to feed the microbes and fungi who then feed the plants. What you do to the plant, good or bad, will affect the whole ecosystem.

2. In rangelands, which are usually very dry, the biggest limiting factor is not the amount of rain you get, but the amount of water you can get into the soil. In the poorly managed area, most of the water runs off.
The microbes control the soil structure which allows the water to get into the ground. There is no chemical you can put in the ground that actually improves the structure. It is a biological phenomenon.

3. But that is not the only thing you have to look after. You have to make sure that you are servicing the ecosystem: capturing the maximum amount of energy, that the water cycle works for getting it into the ground, that the mineral cycle works well — and that is a biological function as well — and you need the right mix of species in there. You need to manage the area for all these things to work together.


4. Let’s look at what happens in a continuously grazed situation. This is a 3000 hectare area in the hill country of Texas. The green dots are GPS points of cattle through the full year. You will notice that they are concentrating in the areas that they want, and beating the hell out of them and hardly utilizing the rest,


5. Here is a picture of that close up, where you have the soil and grass. The tall stuff is left up because the cattle keep eating the green stuff down below. How is the energy being captured in that scenario? Reasonably in some places, but certainly not in all. Nutrient cycling is poor in some, okay in others.


6. But many graziers are using regenerative Multi Paddock grazing. By that I mean graze for a short period of time, move the cattle on, and allow adequate time for grass recovery. The best success in improving things is by using this technology. Most conservation winners use multi-paddock grazing of sore sort.
Overgrazing has little to do with the numbers of animals, but it has everything to do with the amount of time animals spend on a particular piece of territory. If they are on a large area they scorn eating what is available and end up eating the hell out of certain spots. You need to remove them periodically to get around that.

7. The way you get around it is that you subdivide and put water in where you need to so you can control each paddock. You put the herd in, you graze moderately and you graze tall, and then you get off until it has recovered. That way all the ecosystem functions are kept operating reasonably well and you can improve matters.
I’m involved in a group down in Patagonia where, as soon as you put in one of these programs the wildlife just flocks to the area because they are speeding up the nutrient cycling and they are keeping it moderately green. That just keeps things going.
All you have to do for the wildlife goals is write them into your annual plan and execute them along with your change in grazing management. In that way, because of the landscape, you can spread the grazing and get all of the ecosystem services functioning really well.


8. In that way you can take this situation where most water just runs off and you are losing carbon from the soil to one in which you are gaining in both water and CO2. That is in about a 12 inch rainfall area.


9. Texas, in those 3 counties, we had 3 ranch treatments in each: light continuous grazing, heavy continuous grazing, and multi-paddock grazing. The multi-paddock grazing added three tons of carbon per year more than the heavy continuous grazing counterparts. That is a lot of carbon! Also, the decreased bare ground improved physical structure, bolstered soil fertility, enriched soil microbial composition (particularly the fungal component), improved water holding capacity, enhanced plant productivity, and improved species composition. Plus productivity increased!


10. So, causal mechanisms. Energy capture in the multi-paddock area is fantastic. And you keep it that way for longer through the year than in a lightly grazed area operating with half the cattle numbers.


11. Here on the left is low density continuous grazing. You get a lot of bare soil. The cattle concentrate in some areas and push the plants back. In contrast, in multi-paddock grazing there is very little bare ground and there is a lot of litter cover under there. The litter cover looks after the soil microbes and everything is ticking along very nicely. Whereas only a certain portion of the pasture is ticking along well on the left.


12. Here is a choice between multi-pasture grazing and no grazing. A lot of environmentalists will say you need to take down livestock altogether. On the left, this has all the old prairie species and lots of litter cover. It is grazed moderately and then given a long recovery. All the right plants are there, as well as all the ecosystem services. Here, after about 30 years without grazing, the plant cover is dominated by big bluestem and little bluestem. Both are fantastic grasses, but there is almost nothing else. There is bare ground between the tufts. A big clump grows up and nothing takes the stuff away. If you burn it of course you do that, but you still have bare ground underneath it. Although it might sound good, it does not give you all four of those ecosystem services.
13. So, continuous grazing, look at the soil color change there. Then look, after 7 to 10 years of regenerative grazing, how much darker it gets. And infiltration rates – on the left, one inch an hour. On the right, with regenerative multi-paddock grazing, 8 to 10 inches an hour. Gabe Brown is one of the guys who’s soil measurements we have captured. He is achieving exactly the same results.


14. The importance of Microbes is they provide improved soil structure, provide nutrients and access to the nutrients, promote efficient photosynthesis, extend the root volume, produce exudates and enhance soil carbon, increase water and nutrient retention in the soil profile, increase drought resistance, fend off pests and pathogens and increase crop growth with increasing fungal to bacterial ratio. When you have a large variety of species, and they are green for a large portion of the year, that is what fungi need! They work for you in getting phosphorus and other things available that you wouldn’t otherwise have.


15. Another big component is dung beetles. There are three different kinds: tunnelers, dwellers, and rollers. The value they create is estimated in the billions of dollars every year. They create these channels that enable water infiltration, as well as improving and recycling the nutrients. If you use continuous grazing there won’t be that many of them. Plus, if you use insecticides — like Ivermectin – you kill them off. Then you’ve lost a product of value on your property.


16. The same is true of earthworms. They provide the same functions and improve productivity enormously. For a lot of them you have to have the right plant populations and manage them in a manner that encourages them.


17. Multi-paddock grazing is a method of management that works pretty well You can get 200 cows to drop 25 tons of manure per week. That increases water infiltration by 130 %. It is a strong driver of moving soil conditions in the right direction.


18. Flexible Management – Here is a drawing of a system by a grazier in Canada. It gives the herd access to water at the end of the corridor, and paddocks that are suitable for one day’s grazing. He actually gives the cows one paddock split into three and they are moved three times in one day. By doing that, he has achieved that change from a one inch infiltration to ten inches of infiltration in a period of about 8 years.


19. Here is a picture of the cattle on the left moving off from an area they have been grazing, and on the right coming in to a new area. Many people would think the grass that they have knocked down on the left is totally wasted. No its not! One of the things that they have learned from this system is that when the grass is getting ahead of you in the summer you need to put a whole lot of it underground and that feeds the microbes and the earthworms, which improves your whole pasture. It is not wasted at all. It is just paying forward. In the spring, of course, you don’t try to leave this amount because it is just coming up. But as the grass picks up speed in its growth and gets ahead of the cows, you need to put a lot of it on the ground to start feeding the microbes.


20. For over a hundred years we have been working in North Texas measuring the output of water. What we have here is a model showing the surface runoff with heavy continuous grazing, light continuous grazing, multi-paddock grazing, and exclosure or no grazing at all. You will see the runoff is much higher than the groundwater flow in the continuous grazing systems. The multi-paddock and exclosure systems are functionally the same.
If you look at the graph of the ungrazed area with the dead grass, that is fantastic from a water point of view, because most of it is getting into the ground. But what happened to the nutrient cycling and the species diversity? It is very low on those scores. So that is not too good from a total management point of view.


21. These are results of a number of studies of carbon sequestration by multi-paddock grazing systems sampled across an East/West or wet/dry axis and a North/South or cold/hot one. In Texas we had 3 tons of sequestration per year over 15 years. In Georgia and Mississippi it is more than double that amount in fewer years. In the north we fixed a little less because we had a shorter growing season, but it was still substantial. And in the dry country you get much less effect. But even though you have less carbon being fixed there, the infiltration rates are hugely increased. We have found that when you institute good management the first thing that it increases when you cover the ground is that the biology comes right and you start getting better structure and the water comes into the soil. It will take many years of that in the dry country before you can measure the changes in carbon.


22. A lot of people don’t like cattle because they say they don’t like the emissions from cows. These two graphs are from work done in the northern plains. The red is the amount of Greenhouse gas equivalents emitted per hectare per year (which is dependent on the number of cows involved, however grazed) and the green is the amount sequestered by the plants they are grazing. These are grazing only cow operations, not including any grain-fed cattle. On the left is the light continuous system which shows the advantage of grazing on grass. On the right here is the heavy continuous system, which is not to be recommended, but even that sequesters more than is being emitted.

23. Coming to the research that we did on changing management, if you change light continuous to multi-paddock grazing there is a small advantage. If you change heavy continuous to light continuous there is a huge advantage because of the extra carbon sequestered by light continuous and of course there are fewer cows so there are less emissions, and if you change heavy continuous to the same number of cattle with multi-paddock grazing, you have a huge increase in the amount sequestered which more than offsets the amount being emitted by the cattle. Many of the studies don’t take these factors into account.

24. We also looked at cropland. This is work done by Gabe Brown. When he started off he had organic matter of about 1.7% and an infiltration rate of about an inch an hour. Moving from no-till (ed: Gabe was not practicing organic no-till then, but rather no-till using herbicides) to cash crop diversity, integrating a cover crop, then more species in the cover crops, and eventually bringing in crop rotation with animals grazing in a multi-paddock system he had an increase in organic matter from 1.7% to 11% — all those things together moved him in the right direction.

These are the elements that you need in a pasture to manage for to increase production. A lot of the current practices like the use of fertilizers and pesticides diminish your ability to put carbon in the ground and actually decrease the amount in the ground. So you have to get away from those practices.

In cropping systems it is pretty much the same. Minimize mechanical disturbance. Cover the soil all the time with plant cover. Use higher plant diversity so you are popping energy and carbon in the ground all the time. Integrate livestock into crop planning. Use cover crops to jump forward the rate of adding carbon to the soil enormously. These are all the practices that are beneficial.

Agriculture could be a net sequesterer if we adopted some of these things more widely!

W. Richard Teague is a range ecologist with Texas AgriLife Research. He grew up and received his schooling in Zimbabwe, Africa, receiving his BS (1972) in Grassland Science, from the University of Natal, Pietermaritsburg, South Africa and Ph.D. (1987) in Botany-Ecology at the University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa. He has practical and research experience in grazing management systems, brush control with fire and chemicals on semi-arid rangeland in Africa and North America. He joined the Texas AgriLife Research and Extension Center at Vernon in late 1991 as an Associate Professor.




Living Mulch Practices at Johnny’s Selected Seeds

photo courtesy Eero Ruutilla
Modular bed layout at Johnny’s in Albion, ME. Living mulch strips are established between the rows of transplants

Last October I accepted the job offer to manage Johnny’s Selected Seeds’ Research Farm in Albion, Maine. I was asked to demonstrate new sustainable production practices for the Northeast in step with Johnny’s core constituency of commercial market gardeners and farmers.

Johnny’s Research farm includes 13 very different fields in soil type and isolation, radiating out as far as 20 miles from Johnny’s 18- acre “home farm” facility. All in all there are more than 150 acres in different states of utilization and fallow, representing many soil types and agronomic potential. Many fields are stony and have no access to water. Some fields are better suited to dairy pasture, Albion’s most common farming enterprise. A handful of Johnny’s fields are prime vegetable soils– well-drained sandy loams, stone-free and level with excellent surface water access. All of Johnny’s fields share the risk of a short growing season with killing frosts and cool nights the constant threat for producing mature seed-bearing crops.

I was fortunate to come to Johnny’s in October, when most of the farm’s cropping cycles had finished. Farm crew tasks were directed to seed cleaning, tomato stake & plastic mulch removal, crop residue tillage and finally, late seeding of winter rye cover crops. A large percentage of field production is devoted to a handful of crops: tomatoes, peppers, winter squash, and pumpkins. These crops are historically important to Johnny’s seed production and seed breeding programs. [other crops currently in development for Johnny’s breeding & stock seed programs do not require large acreages or isolated plots.]

One of my challenges at Johnny’s was to determine how I could get fields protected to cover crops before the narrow window at the end of the season closed. I also wanted to eliminate bare soil weed cultivation in the gaps between plastic mulch as well as reduce large purchases of nitrogen fertilizer.

photo courtesy Eero Ruutilla
Mature eggplant/clover strips

During the winter months farm staff modified tractor tire widths to a 72-inch outside track standard. New implements were purchased to match our 6 foot on center new standard bed width. Implements and all tractors could now access any individual plot. Multiple tasks could follow a crop management progression with implements scaled so different tasks could be initiated or completed in adjacent beds. I called this plan our rapid response modular task layout system.

Conventional planting and tractor cultivation practices were still used for the small seed 3-row direct seeded crops. Beds representing different plant families in 3 rows continued to be planted in succession and planted in adjacent beds.

Many large area breeding nursery crops, however, fit to a plan where cover crops could be planted in the early summer and could grow next to the research crops. Crops benefiting from wide spacing were planted in alternating beds with “gap” beds either mulched with winter rye straw (pumpkins and winter squash) or planted to a combination of medium red clover and oats (tomatoes and peppers). The rye straw mulch smothered weeds and in some instances suppressed disease.

The living straw mulch system was used for trellised single-row tomatoes, double row peppers, eggplant, double row sunflowers, and trellised pole beans & snap peas. Oats were spun into “standard” beds and lightly covered with our new 6-foot tandem harrow. Medium red clover was also hand spun, then cultipacked. The cultipacker enhanced soil to seed contact & moisture conservation. Oats nursed red clover by suppressing annual summer weed competition. Summer mowing thickened the “living mulch clover strips” and diminished weeds.

photo courtesy Eero Ruutilla
Following removal of the eggplant, red clover migrates into area occupied by eggplant without additional field tillage

While the living red clover mulch provides benefits similar to the imported rye straw there are many additional benefits. A fundamental benefit is no tillage following the removal of the tomato & pepper crops. Medium red clover continues to grow late into the fall as well as migrate where former warm season crops no longer occupy space. It’s dormant for the winter. It reawakens come spring and grows vigorously into the following summer months. As a legume, nitrogen is fixed throughout its growing cycle (~100-125 lbs of N/A). Medium red clover also produces significant biomass (2000-4000 lbs/A). Mowing controls annual summer weeds as they emerge above the clover canopy. Mowing stimulates clover root mass and development. One third of clover biomass is credited to its network of subterranean roots.

By utilizing the living straw mulch technique over considerable acreage at Johnny’s this year, I was no longer pressed to make time in the fall to get my cover crops planted. In most fields cover crops had already been established months earlier. Bare soil cultivation between plastic mulch had been replaced with mowing of clover with the additional benefit of red clover fixing nitrogen to reduce soil amendment purchases for the upcoming spring.




Organic Farmers Rally to Keep Hydroponics Out of Organic

photo by Jack Kittredge Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) speaks to the crowd

photo by Jack Kittredge
Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) speaks to the crowd

Organic farmers rallied in East Thetford, VT, on Sunday, October 30, to protest the eroding organic standards of the USDA—particularly the fed-eral government’s decision to permit labeling of hydroponic fruits and vegetables as “organic.”

U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy challenged the crowd to keep the pressure on the Department of Agriculture. Leahy was one of several elected officials and organic farming leaders who addressed the crowd gathered in support of strict labeling for organic products. “I know the fight we had to go through to get the original organic regulations passed,” he said. “The Organic Food Production Act is one of my proudest pieces of legislation. We know what grown in the soil means, and we know what hydroponic means. I want ‘organic’ to mean organic! ”

“I’m not against hydroponic, but I am against freeloading,” said Congressman Peter Welch (D-VT), standing on a farm wagon. “You’ve got folks, including Big Ag, who want a free ride,” Welch said. “They want to get the benefit of the hard work that organic farmers do and take some of that market share with a label that wasn’t earned.”

U.S. Representative Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) told rally-goers. “It is our job to make sure we preserve that brand.” Pingree, who runs an organic farm in New Haven, Maine, warned farmers what they’re up against: “There are 1200 lobbyists on the hill that work for the agriculture and food processing industry. They spend $350 million dollars a year on forming opinions in Washington, and that is more than the defense industry.”

The US government is alone among developed countries in granting the much-desired “organic” label to hydroponic growers. Hydroponic pro-duction is a soil-less process that has long been the norm in conventional greenhouse production. Now it is fast becoming the norm in U. S. organic certification for several major crops, such as tomatoes and berries. Hydro plants are fed via fertilized irrigation water. Experts say the explosive growth in hydroponic imports may force some organic farmers out of business in as little as five years.

“Organic has always meant grown in the soil,” Eliot Coleman, an influential author and spokesman for the organic farming movement in the U.S., told the crowd. “We refuse to let the promise of organic agriculture be compromised by profiteers. We have won before and we will win again.”

Vermonter Dave Chapman, an organic tomato farmer who served on the USDA Hydroponic Task Force, told the crowd that the hydroponic incursion has become an “invasion,” as more and more hydroponic producers from around the world discover that they can now gain access to America’s coveted organic market.

“The Federal standards are being taken over by the hydroponics industry,” said Chapman, who noted that Driscoll’s is now one of the most powerful voices on the National Organic Program. “Unless we can fight back, ‘organic’ will soon become meaningless. This hydroponic invasion has been almost invisible to the farmers and eaters of America, as no hydroponic food is labeled as such. The more that I learned serving on the USDA Task Force, the worse it got. Who knew that over 1000 acres of Driscoll’s “organic” berries were actually hydroponic? None of us knew.”

Rally in the Valley

The marchers led by Enid Wonnacott, Executive Director of NOFA VT and organic farmer Kate Duesterberg of Cedar Circle Farm.

Men and women farmers, many wearing hand-knitted wool hats and work gloves against the chilly weather, came from as far away as Maine, Pennsylva-nia, and New York. The Rally in the Valley began at noon Sunday with a 26-tractor cavalcade that started at Long Wind Farm in East Thetford, VT, and rolled slowly to nearby Cedar Circle Farm. “Keep the Soil in Organic” and “Take Back Organic” were among the hand-made signs that marchers carried as they sang to onlookers. Twelve-foot-tall puppets made by Vermont’s Bread and Puppet Circus, depicting the sun and the moon, led the way.

The hydroponic invasion into “organic” fruits and vegetables
Most hydroponic production facilities in the U.S. were started after the 2010 recommendation from the National Organic Standards Board (the advisory board to the USDA) that called for excluding all hydroponics from the organic label.

And yet, since that 2010 recommendation, the USDA has welcomed all hydroponic production into the organic certification program, going so far as to issue a clarifying statement in 2014 that hydroponic production qualifies as organic if the companies use “permitted” fertilizers.

On November 16, the National Organic Standards Board will once again consider a proposal to prohibit organic certification to hydroponic producers. The hydroponics industry is attempting to prevent the proposal from coming to a vote of the full Board. Whichever way the Board votes, it is likely that it will be a long struggle before the USDA will actually prohibit hydroponics.