Sunday, November 8, 2015

Steward of the Soil

One of the key tenets for organic agriculture/horticulture is that the health of the soil is important and should be maintained.  The simple logic behind it is that healthy soil makes it easier to grow healthy plants.  But, of course, keeping soil healthy is one of those things where our desires to cultivate the land is at odds with what is actually the most healthy thing for the soil - let nature do its thing and leave the soil alone.  Since we do need to grow food to live and we must disturb nature to do it, it is our responsibility to do our best to find strategies and compromises that balance our needs with the needs of the soil.  There are numerous ways for each of us to do this and many possible answers.  I am hopeful that if I share some of our successes and failures it might encourage others to find their own balance as well.

Cover Crops
Cover crop seedlings emerging just five days after seeding.
One of the things we like to do and wish we could be even more successful at is using cover crops.  A cover crop is essentially a vegetative crop that is intentionally seeded for the health of the soil and the surrounding ecosystem and is not intended to be harvested as a cash crop.  Typically, the cover crop is incorporated into the soil at its conclusion so its biomass can break down and replenish nutrients and feed the microbiology.

Sunn hemp cover crop after a few weeks.
The hardest part about cover crops is finding a way to include them AROUND our cash crop growing schedule.  There is a tenuous balance between our need to grow a certain amount of produce so our farm can be financially successful and the need to use growing time and field space to grow cover crops.  On top of that is the time/labor issue.  Cover crops require some effort and need to be scheduled into the work load.  When your slate is already full, it can be difficult to want to spend time on a crop that you're just going to till in eventually.

And then, you have to factor in the weather.  If you can't prepare an area for planting a cover crop because the field is saturated there's not much you can do.  Or, you managed to plant the cover crop but the rain stopped falling.  If you can't manage to get to setting up some overhead irrigation (for whatever reason) the seed may not germinate.  If they don't germinate in a timely fashion, the schedule that you so carefully figured out so you could have your cash crops and your cover crops gets disrupted.  So, now what do you do?

Sunn hemp at full size.  We're letting it 'Winter kill' this time.
The good news is that every year on our farm, we have some cover crop successes.  The bad news is that every year on our farm, we have some cover crop failures.  But, the best news is that we do not intend to give up on using cover crops.  Our tools change, our knowledge grows and our success rate improves.

This year, we had poor germination for our clover cover crops.  We know part of it was simply a timing with the weather issue.  There is always more to it than that, but we have ideas about how to address it in future years.  We had fantastic success with buckwheat, but ran out of seed at an inopportune time.   We missed on the japanese millet and just never got the area prepped.  But, the sunn hemp trial went extremely well.  You win some, you lose some.  For the most part, we'll admit that most of the failures were probably 'operator' error.  We just missed our opportunities.  But, the good news is that we didn't give up and we didn't miss ALL of the opportunities.  As good as you can do is as good as you can do.  You just strive to get better after that.

Structure of the Soil
Without getting too technical here, we are also concerned with the structure of the soil and the soil aggregates.  We tend to break down aggregates with any type of tillage or soil disruption, so it is important to limit soil disruption and do things to offset issues we might cause.

Soil that was compacted when it was wet and broken up when dry
There are natural processes that aid in forming aggregates.  Among these things is the natural effect of moisture addition and the drying process.  Another is the act of freezing and thawing.  So, simply allowing soil to be undisturbed for a time should alleviate some issues and allow the build up of aggregates in the soil.

Another process that aids in the building of aggregate includes the activity of root systems and animals that live in the soil (such as earthworms, etc).  So, if we do things to allow plants with good root systems to grow while giving a good environment for soil organisms, we help to rebuild soil structure.  Now cover crops seem like an even better idea!

But, the cycle is furthered when you let the residue of a cover crop break down.  The microbial activity that breaks down organic matter also helps rebuild soil structure.

Maintaining Untilled Areas
We'd love to have more delphiniums
The temptation of any farmer is to start thinking about each and every acre as something that must have an easily traceable profit each and every season.  If you can't point to a yield number and a corresponding dollar amount, it may feel like that land is not pulling its load for the whole farm.  But, this is one-dimensional thinking that gets us into trouble and bad habits.  Not every piece of land is meant to be cultivated, just like every person is not meant to be a farmer.

We regularly question whether we are doing things in the best way we possibly can to support untilled areas on our farm.  We have perennial flower and vegetable plantings, buffer strips and path areas, pasture areas for our poultry, bush lines, new trees, lawn areas and areas we do very little to nothing.  Sometimes our efforts to maintain certain areas fail, sometimes they succeed and most of the time, we're not entirely sure if we're doing the right thing.  This is made all the more difficult when you consider that the 'right thing' may differ based on perspective, goals and surrounding environs.

In order to keep things simple for myself, I consider this.  If I leave some areas untilled that are adjacent to my tilled areas, that means I have a safe harbor for all of the soil organisms that are important for good soil structure/aggregate and soil health.  That means, when I harm the soil structure and organisms in the tilled area, but keep the destruction as low as possible, there is a bank of soil organisms just next door who can move in and help rebuild that structure.  If I do things in my tilled fields that help make that area more attractive, they will be more apt to move in and repopulate the area.

And now you know some of our motivations and thinking as we continue to learn how to be good stewards of the soil. As I reflected on these topics, I am amazed by how much we have learned and changed in how we do things on our farm.  I am pleased by a significant number of our choices on our farm over the years.  I am equally dismayed by some of our earlier choices, but fully realize that we were operating on good faith - we were doing our best with the knowledge and tools we had at that time.  We're looking forward to continuing to learn and improve what we do as stewards of the soil.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Thank you for your input! We appreciate hearing what you have to say.