Thursday, April 24, 2008

Cover Crop Saves Top Soil, Reduces Inputs

A picture is worth a thousand words. This picture was taken last July just as the cucumbers were coming in. I'm posting it to show our plan to create a sustainable, integrated organic system that we can keep building on. I have to give credit to the Small Farmer's Journal for giving me the insight and information to start this plan. The article in SFJ gave information about cover cropping and green manure rotation using horse powered equipment. So far, our small scale operation and compact tractor are just the right scale for this design.

The picture shows 4'x 200' rows of cucmbers and squash, mulched with unsprayed barley straw I bought from a local farm. The straw mulch kept out weeds and kept moisture and soil temps even.

In between the crop rows is a cover/green manure crop of white clover and perennial rye grass. By keeping it mowed, but tall enough for the clover to bloom, we keep weeds out, feed the soil a mix of organic matter and fixed nitrogen and cover the top soil. We encourage bees and other pollinators to work for us. We also have a clean surface to work on that's wide enough to bring machines onto when needed.

So far, the results are good. But we'll soon see if weed pressure is manageable and whether the rotations of crops we plan will continue the high yields we've had so far.

The low till approach means less fuel required to prepare for planting. Cover crops keep weeds from establishing, so there is no input cost for weedkiller, equipment or fuel for spraying. We mow between rows with a lawn tractor - using far less fuel and creating less soil compaction than heavy machinery.

Anyway, I guess we're learning things that people who farm with horses or small tractors already know. We find it exciting and rewarding to learn more each year about how to work with nature to create high yields on a compact scale.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

What Certified Organic Means To Us

Moving to a small farm on Prince Edward Island from Southern California created the obligation Susan and I feel to be good stewards of something we're holding in trust for the future. The farm will only be ours for a few short years and then it will be passed along. So we feel it's our responsibility to care for this old homestead as a living thing. Our goal is to invest in our children and in this land - to leave this farm to the next generation with fields intact, with water sparkling clean, with top soil that is deep and rich and with woodland that is diverse and healthy.

And so, as we started our farm adventure in 2000, we decided to begin organic and stay organic. We worked with MCOG (Maritime Certified Organic Growers)to become one of about two dozen certified organic farms on the island. And we found that we had a lot of learning to do. The certifying process is a learning process and our small production hardly justifies the expense and effort at certification. But we believe in creating and supporting small, local, Organic, hand-crafted food because it nurtures the land and it nurtures our community at a time when global oil and global agriculture threatens the environment and threatens food security for us all.

Lot's of people on PEI have beautiful gardens and small farms where they grow lovely produce for themselves and for market. I've met some older folks who take great care in their gardens; carrying on traditions they've learned from their elders. I am always eager to meet these growers and visit with them about the way they work. They have a lot to teach someone as ignorant as I am. Having grown up in a completely different time and place, there is plenty I don't know about living and growing on PEI.

The older people I meet don't claim to be doing anything special. They know what's useful about the old ways. They're practical and clever about the use of modern technology. In the times their experience comes from, "sustainability" wasn't a creative or political choice or a technique to preserve the environment. It was the action of keeping body and soul together on their own land season after season, year after year.

It's not surprising then that some of the people I meet as I stand behind our produce table in Murray River or at the Farmers Market in Dundas tell me that their gardens are organic and that they always have been. There is an appreciation on PEI for the tradition of carefully grown food on healthy land with clean water.

Our neighbors in Murray Harbour North are kind and generous people who have welcomed us to their community. Some go out of their way to visit and buy our vegetables. Being certified organic and selling direct at the farm gate gives us a chance to meet and talk. In a place like this, family ties and relationships go back generations. So being the new people on the old Dunn Farm is kind of like being the new kid in school. We try to mind our manners and hope to make a good impression. We hope to be worthy of our neighbors support and confidence.

I've just been reviewing the application for certification that must be filled out each year to renew our annual organic certification. The requirements are detailed and we must document every seed we plant, create farm maps of our planting areas, document the inputs we buy, the compost we make and the crops we harvest and sell. Our farm itself is inspected and our fields graded on our success and failures.

We've been re-certified each year for the last four years but have a long way to go. Perhaps it's my California bred optimism and Susan's Wisconsin work ethic that makes us think we have something to give this community and this Province. We think that if we work hard we can bring our dreams to life in these bountiful fields. We hope to produce the kind of wealth that money alone can't buy. And we encourage our friends, visitors and neighbors to share the wealth with us in each season.

Both Susan and I have worked for the rich, the powerful and the famous. We've both come to the conclusion that the quality of life isn't found in fame or fortune. Our life on Prince Edward Island brings us back to earth and teaches us the value of living. Our neighbors aren't rich, but they are generous. We are not rich but we appreciate the values that make life on PEI so good.

We don't expect to make a lot of money growing Organic vegetables. We expect to be rich in compost, yellow beans, family and friends.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Studying The Benefits Of Low Till Farming

Just 2 weeks from now I'll be getting our fields ready for another season of planting, growing and harvesting on beautiful Prince Edward Island. I'll be working to further our plan to eliminate the need for seasonal plowing from our mixed use row crop field.

Now, I should say that our farm is really a market garden that employs just a few of our total acres in any one season. And I'll humbly add we're slowly learning the benefits of including sustainable design into our small farm operation through trial and error.

Our overall plan is to use crop rotation, cover cropping and inter-cropping to maintain soil fertility, manage weeds and limit fuel/labor inputs. We plant intensively in a small area, looking for high efficiency in our work and sustainable yields at harvest time.

The photo above was taken in May, 2007. I had fallowed the field for the past three seasons and last year I used a trailing disc harrow and S tine harrow but no plow. I used a home built tool bar mounted on the back of the tractor with a 3 point hitch to form 4 foot wide raised beds. The wide lanes between the rows were planted with white clover and rye grass, so no bare dirt remained to require weed management or risk a loss of topsoil. These lanes were mowed over the summer, feeding a nice mulch into the soil, holding moisture, moderating soil temps and providing blossoms that attracted beneficial insects.

This year, we plan to continue to use the raised beds I formed last year by rotating our crops, planting green manure crops in fallow rows and adding finished compost mulch to crop rows.

We'll also be planting a small fruit orchard with trees set out to accommodate inter-cropping and machine work in the orchard. We hope this will mean a more compact operation and higher yields with less input.

Wish me luck!