Thursday, July 11, 2019

Mulchable

One of the biggest 'knocks' on organic agriculture is the idea that organic fields rely on cultivation, which is not good for promoting organic matter and supporting micro-organisms in the soil.  It can also be argued that constant tillage increases erosion.  However, if you are certified organic, the list of herbicides you can use are extremely short and if you have any kind of scale beyond 'big garden' most allowed applications fail to control the weeds.
Winter squash soon after planting into paper mulch.
 Like so many arguments that are used to discredit (regardless of what the topic is), they make so many assumptions about what it takes to steward a certified organic crop/field/farm that I would be tempted to laugh.  EXCEPT...  People actually listen to these short and to the point arguments without looking any deeper.

Soil Health is a Key to Certified Organic

First and foremost, it becomes clear to me that many people who blindly support the 'organic is bad because they till/cultivate too much' argument have no idea how much territory a certified organic operation has to cover to be certified.  It's not just 'don't spray these things.'  Certified organic farms must have plans on how they will maintain and improve soil health on their farms.  They must also consider how they will control or respond to diseases, pests and weeds, among other things.

 Use of a Broader Set of Tools
Another common argument people use to defend their choice to NOT convert to a certified organic operation is that the toolset is so restrictive and they don't see how they can use a limited tool set and succeed.  Ok, I'll grant that the fact that we can not use synthetically derived chemicals (which includes most herbicides, fungicides and pesticides) does limit the toolbox.  But, this is the equivalent of cutting the number of screwdrivers in your toolbox - they are all the same class of tool.

I tend to argue that those who sell themselves out wholly to using the chemical applications to solve all problems on the farm have limited their toolbox more than I have with my organic certification.  They've got every screwdriver known to the world, but they got rid of all of their saws, hammers and wrenches.  On the other hand, a certified organic operation is encouraged to explore the use of all types of tools available to them

One of the tools we are using more than we have in the past is mulch.

Two kinds of mulch, do you see them?  Keep reading and you will learn what they are.
What is "Mulchable?"
The first question we have to ask at the Genuine Faux Farm is "Is this crop mulchable?"

We grow enough crops with different requirements that we actually have to consider if the growing process for each crop will actually benefit from the addition of mulch.  Then we have to ask ourselves what kind of mulch will be the best choice.  And, after we've figured that out, we have to decide if we can actually implement this as part of our mulch plan and overall farm plan for any given season.

the Winter squash are starting to show some size.
What Type of Mulch Will We Use?
There are actually numerous mulching options available to us at our scale and there are others available to those who are either larger in scale or smaller in scale.  For example, you can use an organic based mulch such as straw or grass mulch.  The issue with these is that you must acquire the raw materials and then you have to spread it where you want it to be.  If the raw materials don't come from your farm, you have to ascertain that they did not have any chemical applied to them that will cause problems.   We have grass mulch in some of our green beans and in a bed of our potatoes.  We use straw mulch for our garlic.

And, we use dirt mulch on our potatoes as well.  If you can cultivate properly, the topic inch or so of soil will deplete the weed seeds in its seed bank.  That soil can become a 'dirt mulch' that could get hilled up against the base of the cash crop to help prevent further germination of weed seeds in the area that is hardest to weed.  So, there is your answer for picture #3 - there is grass mulch and dirt mulch there!

Larger scale operations often find that spreading grass would be far to labor intensive, though we are seeing some tools that could help automate spreading.  These operations also often find that straw mulch is also too labor intensive.  In fact, we (and other farms we know) have found that those who work on our farms tend to dislike spreading straw.  If you add in the fact that most farms who use straw as mulch do not have the space to grow their own, that adds an expense and all of the extra worries that come with sourcing off the farm.

Most operations of a decent scale will tend to use plastic mulch that is laid down by a mulch layer.  We fully understand this decision because the area in row with the cash crop is the hardest area to control weeds and it will often take more labor than the farm has in its resource pool.  However, we also made the decision that plastic mulch is not for us, which means we need to look elsewhere.

This year, we are using 3 foot wide paper mulch that comes in 500 foot rolls.  We have a mulch layer (the same tool that can lay plastic mulch).  The paper is put down in the bed, then we punch holes and plant into that mulch.  We increased the use of paper mulch this year and we are now using it in most of our vine crops, out tomatoes and much of our brassica.  These are all crops that are in the field long enough to warrant a mulch (whereas lettuce is not) and they are all crops we transplant.

So far, mulching has been working for us this year.  In other words, the plan has been a pretty good one for how this season has turned out.  The real test is in the next two weeks.  Can we keep up with the weeding cultivation of the crops that were not mulchable?  

We shall see!

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