Sunday, January 6, 2013

No-Till Growing, by Devorah Ketai, Our Winter Farmer

One exciting aspect of the winter-growing project is its small scale.  Organic standards of farming can be achieved on many scales, from a quarter acre to a thousand. Generally, though, it is easier for us to be friendly to our soils on a smaller scale.

Moldboard plow
Let's consider, first, less soil-friendly methods of preparing the ground, then move on to more eco-friendly processes. One way farmers affect their soils is through tillage.  Tillage is simply "the preparation of the land for growing crops." This preparation generally includes disturbing the soil in order to aerate it, loosening compaction and incorporating into the soil other plants that previously grew there.  Often, large-scale operations use a tractor for tillage.  The implements attached to the tractor vary, as well as consequences they have on soil health.  Traditionally, many farms used a moldboard plow (see above), which completely flips the soil upside down.  Today, many farmers realize that such a strategy is not very healthy for the soil's ecosystem!  Imagine going about your day, when suddenly everything that was once below you is now above you, and you are completely lost!  This must be how the soil's microorganisms feel when their world is turned upside down.  Flipping the soil severely disturbs its ecosystem, slowing the natural processes that break down soil nutrients and lead to successful plant growth.

In terms of large-scale soil preparation, many farms--including Red Hill--have turned to less damaging methods, particularly the use of a Spader (essentially several flat, sharp, digging shovels attached to a turning mechanism).  Spaders are great for many reasons. They're much more efficient than other plows in breaking down field residues, so the tractor to which the Spader is attached doesn't have to cross the field so many times and compaction is reduced.  This is one reason we love our Spader!

But the ultimate in eco-conservation of soil is the "no-till" process.  In the hoophouses, we grow on such a small scale that no mechanical cultivation is necessary--in other words, we're using a no-till method.  We loosen the soil with a tool called a broadfork, basically a giant fork we stick into the soil and tilt back and forth like we're trying to loosen a nice big piece of chocolate cake.  (See right; that's *not* Devorah!)  The use of the broadfork has two huge advantages:  1) we are not flipping the soil, and 2) there is no compaction caused by tractor weight.  We're simply loosening the soil so oxygen and water can enter and plants can send their roots down easily.  So why don't all farms use broadforks?  The answer is that it's extremely time-consuming, especially on a large scale; tilling a whole field with a broadfork would take many exhausting days, while with a tractor it takes half an hour.  A broadfork also doesn't incorporate the older plant material back into the soil, so it would have to be hand-pulled (difficult on all but the smallest fields).

I first mentioned it's exciting to work on small-scale, winter growing.  I'm grateful for the tractor we have on a 5-acre farm like Red Hill because it saves a lot of back-breaking work and makes growing more efficient.  However, being able to spend my time using a broadfork in the small space of our hoophouses is greatly rewarding.  Instead of bringing out the noisy tractor, I get to spend quiet time observing the detailed changes I am making while aerating the soil.  Instead of breathing the tractor's fumes, I feel myself sweating as I make a suitable bed for growing vegetables.  I also know the beneficial effects of this type of soil preparation greatly outweigh the negative ones, of which there are few.  The broadfork is great for small-scale farms and gardens alike.  If you are ever thinking of preparing a bed, be sure to inquire about this wonderful tool! It's been so great to be on a farm where the growing strategies and tools vary so much depending on the crop and time of year!

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