Saturday, September 20, 2014

Lessons in Farming II - I don't have a solution... BUT I admire the problem

The following is part of a six part series.  The first being Every morning is the dawn of a new error....

Before we get into this too far, I'd like to put out the caveat that I certainly do NOT know everything.  I'm not trying to put myself out there as a self-proclaimed expert.  On the other hand, I see value in sharing experience and thoughts related to the kind of farming we do at Genuine Faux Farm.  If you are a farmer, I hope these things help you to think about what you are doing and how you do it.  If you are not a farmer, I hope you take a moment to realize that these topics can provide you with depth to the story of where your food comes from.  Then, when the next choice you have about food comes around, you can add a bit more thought to the process.

I don't have a solution... BUT I admire the problem

The idea of paper mulch is fantastic, but there are issues
I'm writing these "Lessons" as much for us at GFF as anyone else.  These are things we have learned and re-learned as we work our way through each season.  And, it does us some good to remind ourselves in hopes, at the very least, we don't make the same mistakes.  But, perhaps, they will also inspire us to new and useful solutions.   

That said - I hereby refresh my memory from our prior Lessons in Farming post.

1. There is NO "silver bullet"
2. Farming isn't and should NOT be easy. 
3. Every farm has key differences that force the need for solutions that are unique to that farm.

The problem I admire enough to keep trying my hand at finding the most elegant solution is as follows:

Providing targeted plants with the best competitive advantage in healthy soils in a way that utilizes resources responsibly.

In other words - I want to grow great vegetables in ways that avoid negative impacts on the environment and soils, provide us with reasonable income AND don't wear the two of us down completely.  This is not a simple problem and, as far as I can tell, there may be multiple solutions that are reasonable approximations of a 'best' answer.  But, in the end, there is likely no perfect answer or system - especially when the rules seem to change every time you take the field.

Case in Point: the paper mulch dilemma
The idea of paper mulch has been attractive to us since even before we began to farm professionally.  We placed old newspaper under cut grass mulch in our gardens to help keep weeds down and hold moisture in the soil by the base of our plants.  The paper did its job and broke down, providing organic matter for the soil.  But, as we increased our growing area, it was no longer feasible to lay out newspaper.  I won't even bore you with all of the reasons for that.  Just imagine what it would be like to lay 200 feet of newspaper one page at a time... in a 20 mile per hour wind.
Paper mulch laid out for the study this year.

Many commercial vegetable growers use plastic mulch to control weeds.  We certainly understand the attraction, but we aren't terribly happy with the need to remove the plastic in the fall and put it in the landfill.  I also suspect that there are negative impacts on the soil biology when plastic is used.  On the other hand, paper breaks down and just becomes part of the system.  It allows water to seep through, whereas plastic diverts it.  In both cases (paper and plastic mulch), we have to fight the issue of weeds growing up through the holes where the crop is growing.  We also have to deal with weeds on the edges of the mulch.  Mechanical methods run the risk of tearing up the mulch, so this tends to be a labor intensive job.  But, then again, we would have had to hand weed right next to the plants anyway - so you're just moving the labor to something a little different.

At some other time, I may get the gumption to write about what I think the perceived trade offs might be in our options here.  But, for now, I'll just relate our past year's experience and our thought process.

Until a couple of years ago, we had not used any 'manufactured' mulch (paper or plastic rolls).  When Sunshine Paper Company came up with rolls of NOIP (ok for certified organic operations), we decided to give it a try.  We had already decided that plastic mulch was not in keeping with our farm's guiding principles.  We decided to target vine crops (melons in particular).  We are running a SARE grant research project that included a control (no mulch) in hopes that we could more formally learn some things about using paper mulch.  But, sadly, this year presented us with some new (to us) challenges that set the study back.  Of course, we still learned alot, but it wasn't at all what we intended to concentrate on.

Look carefully and you'll see sections missing at this point.

We got our melons in pretty much on time.  The trial grid with control and treatment rows were set out and all was ready to go.  And, we got the last few plants in as the wind was picking up and the rain was imminent.  What happened next was a perfect storm of events - or maybe a set of perfect storms to prevent the paper mulch from being as successful as it should have been.

First - high winds came before it rained.  The wind lifted the mulch up in places.  It didn't pull out, but it shifted a bit.  So, when the driving rains came, it pushed the mulch back down.  But, it wasn't always put back down so that the growing hole for our plants were lined up with the actual seedlings.  This could have happened (and I understand, has happened) with plastic mulch.  I spent some time a couple of days later trying to open up the holes for the seedlings or otherwise shift things so the vines could see the sun.  Not an optimal situation, but not the end of the world either.  We lost a few seedlings at that point, but nothing terrible.

Then, it rained more.  And things stayed wet for an extended period of time.  Since paper DOES break down, it should surprise no one that the perfect conditions for moisture and bacteria at the edges of the paper encouraged a faster decomposition than we normally see.  The third picture in this post illustrates a few sections where the paper tore off and took vines with it.  So, we started bringing out straw mulch to help hold the paper down.  Sadly, we didn't get to it all in time (after all this was an unscheduled task) and we lost more vines to paper lifting up and beating them to death.  But, again, it wasn't the end of the world.  We're still getting melons from this plot.  But, the real shame is that the need to throw mulch over the paper effectively ended the study for the year.  These things always look so good on paper in December. 

Now that it is September, we can still tell you that the vines that were on the paper were still more productive for us than the ones off of the paper.  But, one has to consider that paper flapping in the wind can take out rows that were NOT paper mulched as well as those that were.  Then, there was the issue of keeping things weeded. 

In the end, we still believe there is a place for the paper mulch in our system.  We refuse to consider one exceptional situation to be the rule.  Instead, we simply acknowledge that early wet weather will increase decomposition.  There is actually still paper under the straw that has held in there the rest of the season.  But, now we have to consider the economics and well as the logistics.  With Fall here, the time for contemplation of where we go with this next is coming.  But, we will say this, we hope to try the experiment once again next year on the melons.  I suppose we are stubborn - but we also have seen enough in prior years to feel that there is something there worth investigating.  It's all part of learning to use the tools in the tool box.

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