Innovation is not usually associated with agriculture, but it is central to our practice. We try new things. Some fail; some succeed. We reevaluate. We try again.
There are, however, core principles that guide us. Some of them are ancient, like crop rotation. Some of them are cutting edge, like developing mycorrhizal fungi.
We do not rely on marketing labels like "organic," "all natural" and the like as a shorthand description for our methods. There is, unfortunately, a lot of room for deception in those marketing labels. A quote attributed to Joel Salatin, a widely respected leader in the field, sums it up:
"'Organic' doesn't mean what people think it means."
Don't take this as an attack on organic agriculture. Organic farming is important from our perspective, and we may seek certification at some point.
We just rely on transparency instead of marketing labels. Empowered with information, you can draw your own conclusions about whether our methods align with your values and whether our food meets your standards.
That's the 30,000 foot view of our philosophy. If you want more details, keep reading. But keep in mind that agriculture is at least equal parts science, art, philosophy, and tradition. There are a lot of ways to get to a sensible production system.
This is ours.
Healthy soil produces healthy food. Every management practice we adopt is guided by those five words.
Our overall goal is to make abundant soil-bound nutrients available to plants through the development of relationships between mycorrhizae, rhizobacterium, and crops. Establishing these relationships unlocks vast nutrient stores in the soil.
This system meets our definition of sustainable because it does not rely on yearly additions of mined or manufactured products to maintain productivity. Instead, soil health is developed over time, and it is easily maintained or improved once it is established.
Our baseline soil is a sandy loam with approximately five percent organic matter and no serious deficiencies. While our soil is well suited for agriculture, sandy soils lose moisture quickly, and our granite bedrock is very slow (think geologic time) to weather and release minerals to the soil. Accordingly, we amend the soil with three mined products (organic Greensand, organic colloidal phosphate, and organic Azomite) to increase moisture retention and remineralize the soil.
We keep our soil healthy by following four practices: crop rotation, minimum soil disturbance, cover cropping, and compost tea inoculation.
The cornerstone of most polyculture, no-or-low chemical farm systems is crop rotation. This ancient practice moves crops around a production area based on the family to which the crop belongs. For example, tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant are rotated together because they are in the nightshade (solanaceae) family. Cabbage, broccoli, and kale are rotated together because they are in the brassica family.
Crop rotation has two important effects.
First, it ensures that nutrient draw on the soil is varied so that no specific nutrient is drawn to depletion. Growing a heavy nitrogen feeder like cabbage in the same spot each year will eventually deplete the plant-available nitrogen in the soil, for example. Crop rotation's ability to prevent this depletion is amplified if the rotation is carefully planned. For example, following the heavy nitrogen feeder, like cabbage, with a nitrogen-fixing legume, like beans, can increase soil available nitrogen over a two year rotation.
Second, harmful fungi, bacteria, and pests have a harder time establishing a foothold because their target crops are never in the same spot over a period of three to five years. This effect also can be amplified by careful planning. For example, following garlic with marigold, which, when allowed to rot into the soil, can help control harmful nematodes.
minimum soil disturbance
Our soil is not tilled deeply, and it is mechanically disturbed only once. To form a new permanent raised bed, we remove the top inch of sod with a sod cutter and shape the bed with a rotary plow, which does not penetrate deeply or pulverize soil like a traditional tiller.
After beds are shaped, they are never tilled again. Three tools are used to create proper seed bed texture and to ensure air and water penetration.
First, a common rake. Our soil has a fine texture, so we do not need to use a harrow to create seed beds. A rake does just fine. And if there are some larger particles on the surface that make direct sowing tougher, we accept it as the price of minimum disturbance.
Second, soil-dwelling critters--particularly worms. Our worm populations thrive, because we do not kill them by tilling and applying harsh chemicals, and we also provide plenty of fresh organic matter for food. Worms take organic matter from the surface and tunnel through the soil leaving behind their rich castings, which improve fertility, and pathways for air and water penetration as well as root development. Essentially, they till for us.
Third, the broadfork. At the beginning of the season, we broadfork our beds. This simple, effective tool helps encourage air and water penetration without destroying soil composition.
By practicing minimum soil disturbance, we improve moisture retention, prevent loss of organic matter, and encourage thriving soil life.
Finally, we are experimenting with no till systems. This year, we are trying a no till "four sisters" garden of sunflowers, heirloom flint corn, pole beans, and squash or melon. To prepare this garden, we removed the top inch of the sod layer and hand drilled seeds into the soil. No amendments were added. We are hopeful that this method will be productive for warm season, direct sow crops like our four sisters.
cover cropping and organic matter
Cover cropping and mulching protect soil health by keeping it covered and protected from wind and rain erosion. They also improve soil health by increasing soil organic matter. Cover crops in particular are capable of accomplishing specific tasks like fixing nitrogen, scavenging nutrients, and loosening the soil.
Soil organic matter is vital to soil health because it provides food for soil-born life to convert to plant-available nutrients. Soil organic matter also helps hold moisture in the soil and prevent surface crusting.
During the growing season, our beds and walkways are mulched with dried clippings harvested from our field. This practice preserves soil moisture, suppresses weeds, cools the soil during hot weather, and increases soil organic matter.
Cover crops generally are sown between harvest of a cash crop and frost. An example is oat-pea mix, sown after harvest around September or October. While this cover crop is alive, it fixes atmospheric nitrogen into the soil through a relationship legumes, like peas, have with particular rhizobacteria. When frost comes, these tender cover crops die, leaving a mulch on the bed. That mulch, with the help of worms and other critters, breaks down and increases soil organic matter.
compost tea inoculation
We do not apply off-farm compost to our soil. Quality organic compost is expensive, difficult to source, and takes substantial energy to transport and spread. Compost tea, by contrast, provides nearly all the benefits of compost at a tiny fraction of the cost and without the distribution and labor costs.
Our tea is made with four or five easily sourced and inexpensive inputs: rain or well water, microbe food (usually molasses and organic liquid kelp), organic worm castings, and an aerator. The tea is brewed for 24 hours. At that point, it is rich with beneficial microbes. We then dilute it 1:1 with water and hand-water into garden beds once or twice per month. The objective is periodic infusion of fresh beneficial microbes into the soil to encourage strong native populations.