a May(hem) montage

So many warm and happy greetings from Cycle Farm! We’ve been sending out weekly farm updates via emails to our farm share members  for a month now and have realized that without our routine springtime farm community events, there are many in our broader community of farm friends that we haven’t had a chance to catch up with these days and we’re missing time with you all. This is a collection of snapshots (mostly annotated) from the farm these past couple of weeks, highlights from the most recent week’s share member newsletter, and a brief update as to where we are in the season. We are sending this out with love and hope it finds you doing well, keeping busy, and eating something seasonal and delicious, wherever you happen to be.Currently on the farm we have three lambs, a young soon-to-be laying flock, and a brooder full of Freedom Ranger meat birds. The lambs, Emily, Oliver, and Budbill, are just recently weaned and still exceedingly snuggly. The not-quite-yet layers treat the lambs like playground equipment. The lambs don’t seem to be thrilled about this. The brooder birds have quickly phased from cutie little peepers into their partial feathers, haggard and ragged look and whole-hearted dissident punk attitude. I think they’re staying up late listening to Rancid records, making art stencils, and compiling their angst and diy ethics into zines. They are at least pooping everywhere and scratching all the feed out of their feeders, no doubt because the feeder is an indisputable symbol of authoritarianism. Last week we put the lambs to in graze an area that we had seeded last fall with a rye and vetch cover crop. They took to the task without hesitation, the chickens followed suit. A lot of full crops and contented ruminations. The photos below show the rye/vetch field, in the lower photo: on the left is what they’ve grazed down in two days, on the right is where we’re just about to move them.The field rows are filling in. It seems as though most of our time is being spent hauling stuff: carts of straw mulch, wheel barrows of compost, buckets of weeds, buckets of grain for chickens, flats of young, tender green plants, and the live trap with BunBuns and then, later, Mrs. Bun-Buns. Some things look awesome, some – not so hot. We’ve had trouble with some direct seeded crops (mostly due to flea beetles), and accepting of this, we’ve transplanted out starts from the greenhouse in their stead – that is to say we’re bummed about the spring turnips that didn’t even really have a chance to set true leaves, but the rainbow Swiss chard transplants we plunked down in the bed instead look great. We have a couple self-inflicted weed issues that have been and will take time over the course of the summer – a trailer load of oat straw that we’re using to mulch beds is rich in oat seed, which means now all our vegetable beds have a lush oat cover crop coming up, and after making a few batches of soil block mix with vermicompost, we discovered that last year we hid a butt tonne of flowering stinging nettle in the worm bin. On the plus side, stinging nettle appears to be great at increasing circulation and easing soreness in tired, achy hands.The snap and snow peas are climbing up up UP. The onions look great. Jeremy’s hands have completed their annual transition to 80-grit sandpaper.Last week, Jeremy and his father, David, finished up a construction project in the pack shed.  We now have a big, empty, sparkly new wall. This puts us another step toward having the packshed all set up and functioning super smooth AND gives us an excellent location for art – we are accepting any and all mural ideas.  (fyi octopus is off the list, we already have the world’s most amazing octopus). Two observations regarding wearing masks during construction work, an advantage and a disadvantage: the mask blocks unpleasant dust/mold/junk associated with working on an old building however it’s mighty inconvenient for people who are used to holding nails/screws in their mouth as they work. Last week we also sprayed Biodynamic preparation 500, this is our ninth season with preps on the farm.  Spraying 500 always seems to happen when our to-do list is over the top and we are feeling behind despite being in go-go-go mode. And this requires us to sit and focus, to pull our attentions and intentions together; this practice fosters observation, humility, and patience. It was a good opportunity to reflect and meditate on the farm with a special focus on all these leafy green solar panels collecting energy from the sun, exuding sugars into the soil, and feeding our soil microbes and diversity of life around us, and to help us grow good, healthy food. In short, things around here are busy busy and beautiful, and we’re feeling especially grateful for all of it, even the 500 billion baby nettles in our soil blocks.

Oh yes! AND we’d like to share a collection of things we’ve found of interest and delight these past couple weeks…

  • Orion’s new series of letters from isolation, Together Apart, especially so this one.
  • Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach.
  • This poem by John O’Donnell and read aloud by Billy Collins in an interview on Sugar Calling.
  • Even though we know just enough about basketball to know they aren’t the Yukon Huskies, The Ramshackle Garden Of Affection, a collection of letters between Ross Gay and Noah Davis
  • for SoDak friends: the Sicangu Community Development Corporation and Dakota Rural Action are in cahoots to rally the masses in a distanced celebration of food – join the party, come to the table.
  • And a bit of fascinating science about bumble bees – they are AMAZING.

a no-till report

Here is a summary of our experience and experiments with no-till, the development of our thoughts and practices over these past few years, the incredible perks, the frustrating challenges and drawbacks, what has worked well, and what hasn’t.  As we got started, we found limited information about small-scale, no-till mixed vegetable farming. We referenced Rodale and made things up. Even just over these past few years, more stories and examples have been surfacing about growers doing similar things in different areas. If you are interested in no-till vegetable farming, here are some resources you might check out:

Our intentions:

Tillage breaks up soil structure and disrupts dynamic soil ecology. Based on our partial understanding of soil health, of biological and nutrient cycling, we were predisposed to prioritize and nurture our soil. The health and longevity of our farm system and quality of our food is absolutely reliant on -and is a direct reflection of- our soil health.  Having backgrounds in environmental science, we both came to farming via an interest in land health. Although we were convinced of no-till by the book and in our guts, we had no actual hands-on experience growing crops this way.

One of our goals is to minimize off-farm inputs (in terms of fuel, fertility, plastic farm garbage, etc), we’re able to pursue this goal through managing our soil nutrients through a no-till system, using cover crops and crop rotation, hand and bicycle power.

Methods:

We have employed a creative, varied suite of techniques and a veritable rainbow of mulches over the past three years.  We established locations for our permanent beds using a sod cutter. Each 30” row was cut in 2 passes, with an 18” sod cutter blade.  The sod cutter blade was set at 1-1.5” depth, trying to cut below the sod and roots, while having minimal amount of soil disturbance.  In retrospect, we should have gone deeper as we missed some of the perennial root mat.  Glazing of the soil from the sod cutter was noticeable during the first year, limiting some transplant root growth, but by the start of our second year this had been broken down, worked in by worms. After cutting, we manually flipped the sod. Our thought here was that the flipped sod would die out; exposed roots would break down, making a great cleared area to transplant and seed.  This worked better in some places than others.  It did not work in areas where the grass growing is rhizomatous/perennial and where we have bindweed.  We used the sod cutter to prepare beds early during the spring we moved to the farm.  Ideally, we would have prepared these beds during the fall before our first growing season, using heavy mulch and not fussing with the sod cutter.jerm flipping sodnotill_obiandjillWe mulch liberally.  So far we’ve used: newspapers, barley bags from the brewery down the street (triple-ply paper bags, the same width as our walkways; work great, break down within a year), a roll of craft paper (100% recycled, unbleached 36” wide; fancy red-carpet effect, but breaks down almost immediately after first rain), straw mulch (@ $4/bale, 2 bales/bed, > 60 beds, with bonus thistle seed), wood chips, and cover crops. We’ve grown winter rye as a cover crop which worked well to out compete early spring weeds, then laid it down in place as a mulch that we planted winter squash into. This is ultimately the direction we’d like to go with all our mulching – growing it in place as a cover crop.notill_ryeSmall-scale, mixed vegetable growers will often use plastic mulch, but this is something we’d  like to avoid. The plastic is used for one season and then heads for the landfill. Although effective at reducing weed pressure, it’s biologically a net-negative for soil health as it leaves the farm as waste, rather than adding to soil fertility. Biodegradable plastic mulches are beyond our budget and seem creepy.

We use intensive spacing in our plantings and companion planting in order to help out-complete weeds. And hand weeding. We spend a discouraging amount of time hand weeding perennial weeds (grasses). This method seems to be the most efficient at getting rid of the persistant roots. In some beds, we have used a hoe to break up clumps of sod, followed by hand weeding. This is laborious and results in more soil disturbance than we would like.notill_TRANSPLANTINGnotill_mulchingThis year we finally invested in a broadfork; it works infinitely better than a heavy peasant hoe, with less disturbance and better root removal. We had procrastinated in getting one for three years because they are mega expensive, but we’ve had this for a week now, and it’s completely worth it.braodforkTangentially, but pertinent:  we irrigate our beds using gravity-fed drip tape, with water from the Evans-Tonn ditch off of Spearfish Creek. The tape should need replaced every 5-7 years. We have over-wintered the tape on the beds in the field, under mulch. So far, this is working well.  A problem we’re running into is calcium build-up at the emitters from hard creek water.

Challenges:

Effective mulching inhibits early spring soil temperatures from warming up. As mentioned, our biggest weed pressure is from bindweed and smooth brome. We have let early spring dandelions go for the bees and, as a result, some beds have substantial dandelion pressure (but great dynamic accumulators). Good intentions, poor foresight. Heavily mulched no-till beds, as it turns out, are absolutely irresistible forage and habitat for gophers.  The amount of time it takes to prepare the beds, individually and by hand, each spring has been a big challenge.  We have found limitations in direct seeding the beds. Also, claiming the aisles between the beds has been hard, it is currently smooth brome dominated, but we would like to replace this with a low laying resilient ground cover (i.e. white clover).

Successes:

We have very little trouble with annual weeds. Our third year in, we were able to direct seed carrots into certain beds, we even used an Earthway seeder. Progressively, each year, bed prep time is decreasing and weeding, transplanting, and seeding are getting easier.  The soil biology is thriving: so many earthworms, spring tails, and other invertebrates. It’s positively distracting. The soil structure and moisture capacity is awesome – no ponding water, ever. Rarely is it too wet for us to get in the field to work. And, with the heavy mulching (and weeds), we infrequently have bare, exposed soil.

Going forward:

In the future, we would like to pursue more attempts with cover crops, part of this is getting them written into the crop plan and calendar. We need to establish routine monitoring with soil tests.  And continue with proven ninja tactics: persistent mulching and proactive hand weeding.  As soil health improves and soil biology becomes more active, mulch decomposes/ breaks down at faster rates, so we’ll need to figure out how and at what rate to lay down new organic matter/mulch and where to source it from.

Soil amendments so far have included compost applications (our own vegetable compost and composted dairy manure), compost tea, and biodynamic preparations (BD 500 and barrel compost). We’ve used cover crops primarily as weed suppression and mulch and would like to do more with them utilizing soil building capacity.  Buckwheat, clovers, sorghum, and field peas are things we look forward to incorporating into our cover crop rotation in the future. We have a brassica heavy crop list and finding a spot to include a brassica cover crop (radishes) is going to be tricky.

As part of our monitoring, we would like to figure out a way to measure and track how much carbon we are sequestering in the soil.  We can get a rough estimate of this by looking at soil organic matter percentages over time. And then, ultimately, we’d like to be able to compare this to the carbon budget of the whole farm.

Through experimenting, we have learned and will keep learning an enormous amount. Overall, we’re happy with the results we’ve found and the direction we’re headed. We would really love to hear other no-till tales, suggestions, criticisms – please be in touch.

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Since posting this, we have been asked questions about the walking crimper. Here are some notes from Jeremy: There is a photo of our crimper – angle iron on a 2×4 with rope loop handle.  It did not work exceptionally well for us but I think it was more construction flaws than concept.  Most of our aisles are built up from mulching. When I built the crimper I sized it to do the whole row in one pass, this meant the edges crimped well but too little pressure was applied into the lower centers of the bed and we had a lot of the rye pop back up.  We ended up going back in and pulling the rows by hand.  The crimper was a joy to use, easy rhythm, not fatiguing. The piece of angled metal we had on hand (some shelving bracket) was not strong enough and by the end of 500′ the edges taking the pressure had flattened to nearly useless, I think a stout piece of angle iron would probably hold up better.