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Just like every other spring we’ve experienced since we started Local Roots Farm eight seasons ago, this one has been quite unusual. This March, we endured the wettest month in the PNW since November 2006. Usually, around here, November through January are when it rains the most, and the most often. Lately, we’ve noticed that the winters have been drier than normal and spring wetter. In addition to the unfortunate effect this has on the quality of the skiing, it also makes getting our year started a bit more difficult. We end every year planting cover crops and we begin each spring turning those cover crops into the soil. But when the ground is wet, you can’t work it…. and so throughout March, we mostly waited.

Using the Perfecta II as our primary tillage tool

Using the Perfecta II as our primary tillage tool

Thankfully, the weather gods were kind enough to us to provide a few opportunities to start turning fields of cover crops into fields of beds ready for seeds and transplants. We have adopted a new regime for taking a field from cover crop to seed bed that we are very pleased with. After we flail mow, we are using a Perfecta II field cultivator as our initial tillage tool. We like the fact that you can work up a field pretty quickly with it, and the action of the tool seems to encourage drying. In prior years we’ve tried spading (slow and surprisingly ineffective), disking (neither of our disks is heavy enough to do an adequate job), and tilling (slow and bad for the soil). The results from the Perfecta have been great. It slices cover crops just below the soil, killing most of the plants, and it fluffs and aerates the top few inches, promoting drying.

We follow the Perfecta with the spader. The spader works wonders when spading a field that’s already fairly clean. We like the spader because it works well when soil is damp, doesn’t require much horsepower or traction, tills deep, uncompacts the tire tracks, and doesn’t leave a hardpan below its working depth. The major drawback to the spader is that it’s very slow. 1 mph slow. It takes nearly three hours to spade an acre. But for early-season tillage, it’s probably the best tool out there because you can work a field earlier with the spader than most any other tool.

Spading

Spading a field destined for carrots

For those of you following along at home, you know we had an exceptionally cold winter that killed off nearly all of our overwintering plants, leaving us with very little early season produce to sell. We have planted nearly all of our greenhouses to fast-growing arugula, radishes, turnips, and baby lettuce…. and 100% of what we’ve been harvesting has been going to our favorite restaurants around Seattle.

d'Avignon French Breakfast radishes

d’Avignon French Breakfast radishes packed up for a restaurant delivery 

When, then, will we return to the farmers markets? A good question. We have just started harvesting from the first succession of direct-seeded beds planted outdoors. We are just beginning to see the first trickle of that bounty starting to flow in. We also have a good amount of lettuce and kale lying in wait, ready for us to begin markets again.

5000 heads of baby lettuce

5000 heads of baby lettuce

If this were an ordinary year, we would have probably started vending at the Broadway Market already… but it’s not. Siri and I are expecting our second child in less than a week and we’ve decided to hold off on farmers markets until we’ve gotten over that hurdle. Right now, we are aiming for May 11th to be our first market of the year. Come see us, and say hello to the newest addition to the farm!

Look at that garlic!

Look at that garlic!

 

 

Since our very first year farming, we’ve had help on the farm in the form of apprentices. In the beginning, we were pretty much making this farming thing up as we went, and our apprentices learned right along with us, getting the opportunity to see all the struggles and puzzlement that went into figuring out how to get plants to grow and then how to get people to buy them.

Marisa, Rita, and Leah learning about cultivating with our vintage Farmall Cub.

Marisa, Rita, and Leah learning about cultivating with our vintage Farmall Cub.

Over the years, our farm workforce has evolved. We still hire a group of mostly novice farmers each year, but we also have a crew of experienced workers who know our farm systems and can be entrusted with a lot of the day-to-day management of the farm. For me and Jason, providing an entry point into a farming career for people without previous experience is very important. We, and most of the farmers we know, got our start working as apprentices or interns on other farms. It’s a system that I sometimes jokingly refer to as the “apprentice pyramid scheme,” but in reality, it is the most consistent and effective means for a would-be farmer to learn the practical skills needed to start his or her own farm. Our own farm has now grown to the point where we need several experienced veteran managers and crew leaders to get all the work done, but we also recognize that everyone has to start at the beginning somehow.

Kyli and Rawley bunching kale.

Kyli and Rawley bunching kale.

Over the last seven years, we’ve had about thirty people spend all or part of a growing season working as part of our farm crew. As of today, eleven of them own farm businesses of their own.  Here they are, from newest to oldest:

Annie Woods, Dark Wood Farm – LRF Class of 2013

Bonnie Briggs, Skinny Kitty Farm  - LRF Class of 2013

Rawley Johnson , Early Bird Eggs – LRF Class of 2013

Leah Wymer, Bloom San Juan – LRF Class of 2012

Brady Ryan, Ryan Farms & San Juan Sea Salt – LRF Class of 2012

Anna Metscher, Wild Ridge Farm – LRF Class of 2010

Rand Rasheed, One Leaf Farm – LRF Class of 2010

Paul Simoneau, One Leaf Farm – LRF Class of 2010

Eli Hersh, Duffy Hill Farm – LRF Class of 2009

Larry and Michelle Lesher, Eastward Gardens – LRF C0-founders and 2007-2008 farm partners

Whether our “alumni” go on to careers in farming or take another path in life, their experiences with us inevitably shape the way they think and interact with the world. Farming, from the outside, may look like a series of mindless drudgery tasks, but in fact each job that we do takes skill and training. Farmers and farm workers learn to look at a problem or a task, weigh the possible solutions, evaluate their own capability to alter the situation, and take the appropriate actions.

Brady and Jason setting posts on our seedling greenhouse.

Brady and Jason setting posts on our seedling greenhouse.

A farmer I know classified people as those who are “able to change the corporeal world” and those who are not. In today’s world there are fewer and fewer people who have the skills and self-confidence to change the corporeal world, yet many of our greatest challenges as a culture require us to think of novel ways to interact with that world in new and challenging ways. We need to think differently about how we manage water, how we build the environment where we live, how we manage natural resources of all kinds. People who have spent time on diversified farms are well equipped to combine practical knowledge and intellectual rigor to solve this type of problem. The world needs more farmers. We’re working on it!

Sam cultivating potatoes.

Sam cultivating potatoes.

Our standout class of 2012. All these folks still work at Local Roots or run their own farms. And Cara.

Our standout class of 2012. All these folks still work at Local Roots or run their own farms. And Cara.

 

Last winter (2012-13) and this winter (2013-14) have been pretty different so far. February 1st-ish marks the mid-point of winter, but in our area it frequently can feel like the unofficial start of spring. This year, not so much. Temperatures barely crept above freezing today, and two nights from now the low is forecast to be 12…

We also had a very cold spell (single digits) back in December, which put an end to our harvest of most field crops. Kale, cabbage, chard, and Brussels sprouts all froze back, and while some of the plants didn’t die altogether, their edible-size leaves all fell off and they have yet to put on any new growth. We went to great trouble to cover our mostly-untouched beds of radicchio with multiple layers of row-cover, held up off the plants with an army of little low hoops. This strategy worked very well, and we will probably do more of this type of protection in future years’ cold snaps. Unprotected leeks and parsnips came through the freeze mostly undamaged, but the one remaining bed of carrots that we left in the field before the December freeze were damaged enough that the roots are now rotting from the top down.

Radicchio di Castelfranco protected from the cold under three layers of row cover

Radicchio di Castelfranco protected from the cold under three layers of row cover

Last winter, by comparison, we continued to harvest fresh leafy greens from the field almost every week of the winter. Our kale put out a slow but continuous supply of new leaves from the fall all the way through the early spring, when they transitioned to producing tender and delicious flower stalks – kale “rapini.” We left many beds of carrots in the field, and harvested them fresh throughout the winter. We had so much produce on our hands, in fact, that we staged a “rogue market” at our Sunday farmers market site after the market closed in December. Every other week in January and February we packed up our van with carrots, beets, squash, parsnips, and an assortment of bunched greens, and set up shop on the sidewalk where the market usually is. Our efforts inspired the market management to extend the market to a year-round affair… only to have this unusually cold weather take a lot of farms’ winter crops out of commission.

Felix & Jason at our "rogue market" last winter. How we miss those greens now!

Felix & Jason at our “rogue market” last winter. How we miss those greens now!

So, where are we now? Down to the dregs of our stored root crops, nothing green to eat in the field, and no early season re-growth of greens in sight, what with this frigid weather. We do have some experimental arugula and radishes bravely growing under row cover in one of our 30×90 greenhouses – sowed after the December cold, so we’ll see what it looks like after this week.

Early early greenhouse seeding

Early early greenhouse seeding

We also have our small grow-light setup fully occupied with a combination of lettuce, onions, artichokes, and an assortment of herbs. We usually start our first onions and shallots from seed in late January or early February, giving them a little time in the artificial heat and light of the grow room before moving them into the unheated greenhouse. We are about 50 flats over capacity in our grow room, so we have arranged a makeshift enclosure to provide the plants in our greenhouse with a little extra heat to help them survive the next few nights. If they don’t make it, it’s certainly not too late to start a round of replacements… but we’d rather not re-seed 10,000 onions.

Year Eight Begins

After a mad rush to get all our remaining storage crops harvested before the Great Freeze of December 2013, promptly followed by the departures (some temporary, some for good) of our remaining work crew, Jason and I had a chance to rest, celebrate, and turn our thoughts to the upcoming farming season.

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Solstice night

The single-digit weather caused significant damage to most of the crops we left in the field (kale, chard, parsley) and those things that did survive (radicchio, leeks) were quickly snapped up by our restaurant and market customers in the run-up to the holidays. We are now down to just a handful of storage crops: carrots, parsnips, Delicata squash, and a few boxes of shallots. We’ll continue to attend the Broadway market during January, but once we run out of stored produce we will have to wait for regrowth of our field crops before we’ll have anything to sell.

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Castelfranco radicchio, post-freeze.

In a way, a break in the weekly routine of market and deliveries will be very welcome. We haven’t taken a week off from making restaurant deliveries since March of 2012 – that’s 22 months straight! We had hoped to grow and harvest enough storage crops to make a showing at the Broadway market all the way through the 2013/14 winter, and were a bit surprised by how quickly we sold out of most things. That, combined with the colder-than-normal December weather, has left our cupboards and fields quite bare at the moment. Now we get the chance to spend February and March catching up on some long-deferred cleaning and building projects: beating back the ever encroaching blackberries that grow in all our fence lines, purging our farm shop of all junk and clutter, building a couple new 12′x130′ hoophouses, and continuing to fix up our old farmhouse(s).

Of course, there’s lots of other work that Jason and I do during the winter months. We have completed this year’s crop plan and are now in the process of calculating how much of each variety of seed we need and placing orders. While it’s always fun to peruse the seed catalogs and see what’s new, after seven years of vegetable growing, we now have our go-to varieties for most of the crops we grow.  We make our crop plan in concert with our annual budget. If we plan to increase sales, that means we also have to figure out what we will sell… which means figuring out what to grow more of. When we plan for increases in the size of our CSA, we have to make small across-the-board increases in the acreage devoted to each crop. If we hope to grow our restaurant sales, we may focus on planting more of just a couple crops that restaurant customers particularly like. Last year we bumped up our Brussels sprout, radicchio, and leek crops, all with good results. Next year we are considering adding to our onion and kale plantings.

Each of these decisions ripples across our farm plan in many ways: Where will we plant the additional kale? Do we need to adjust our long-term rotation plan? Will we need extra labor for the planting and harvesting? Our farm operation has grown so gradually – just an acre or two more each year – that we’ve always been able to add to our crew and our marketing plan “organically”, rather than using a formula about the ratio of crew size to acreage. One change we are planning to make to our crew this year is to hire on extra help just during a few specific times of year, like when squash transplanting coincides with the start of our CSA in early June, or in October when we are trying to get thousands of pounds of roots harvested, washed, and stored for the winter. Right now is when we have the time to think about and plan for all these things… before we begin the real work of 2014, but before we forget all the lessons of 2013.

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Making decisions

Decembrrrrrrr

It’s bloody cold out here. Thursday night the thermometer hit 10 degrees. It hasn’t been above freezing for a week. Despite leaving water running 24/7 in our kitchen sink, our pipes still froze. Drat. The good news is that with sunny days, the kale and radicchio and other veggies still in the field do stand a chance of making it through this Arctic weather.

Beautiful, below freezing, weather

Beautiful, below freezing, weather

We spent all last week harvesting like crazy, trying to bring in as much as possible to store in the coolers before the mercury dropped. Even with our nifty bed lifter and root washer, we quickly realized that we wouldn’t have time to harvest and wash all our roots.

Transporting carrots

Transporting carrots

Washing roots in the dark and cold, illuminated by car headlights

Washing roots in the dark and cold, illuminated by car headlights

So we quit washing them about half-way through and now have boxes upon boxes of unwashed carrots and beets and such in our coolers. We managed to finish the week with somewhere in the neighborhood of 4000 lbs of roots, 1000 heads of radicchio, and heaps of other assorted veggies in the coolers.

10x10 walk-in filled to the brim with produce

10×10 walk-in filled to the brim with produce

We already had lots of squash put away, so we feel ready and able to meet this year’s newest challenge, the year-round Broadway Farmers Market.

Broadway Farmers Market in the winter

Broadway Farmers Market in the winter

Every year, we are always strategizing about how to do a better job, how to grow our business in the most effective ways. We make the vast majority of our income between July and October. That’s five months in which we make 75% of our gross revenue. It’s those five months that make the rest of the year so crazy. The change we decided to implement this year was to grow more storage crops, in an attempt to flatten that income curve somewhat. It was a huge undertaking and a substantial investment infrastructure to bring in all that produce and have a relatively secure place to keep it all, and it took that looming Arctic cold front to force us to bring it all in. But now we are sitting on a lot of wonderful storage vegetables – tons of winter squash, four varieties of carrots, beets, parsnips, parsley root, rutabaga, Gilfeather turnips, celery root, daikon, leeks, Brussels sprouts, three types of cabbage, and three types of radicchio. Our plan to grow and store enough produce to make it through a winter’s worth of markets was a success…. now we’ll see how long they store in the coolers and how quickly we can sell them.

I really dislike returning to Standard Time. For the next four months, until we get back to Daylight Savings Time, it’s going to be getting dark really early around here. Sunset last night was 4:45. By the Winter Solstice, it’s 4:19 PM. Being in a valley, with hills to the east and west, shortens the hours of daylight even further. Add to that the ubiquitous fog and it can feel pretty bleak.

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A beautiful winter evening, as the fog ominously rolls in from the river. By morning, the fog will blanket the whole valley and won’t lift until the afternoon, if at all.

For us, though, perhaps the most difficult part about the winter months is the lack of income. Farming in a floodplain and in a climate that usually produces at least one prolonged freeze each winter, killing off most of the vegetables in the field, means we had always assumed we wouldn’t make any income between November 1 (the start of flood-season) and March 1 (the earliest we might expect to harvest greens from a hoop house). Most years, we’ve managed to keep harvesting and selling veggies through Thanksgiving, at least, but a few years that early-November stop date has come true due to freeze or flood. This year, however, we’ve invested in infrastructure that will (we hope) allow us to keep selling produce well into 2014, and perhaps year-round. The two big purchases we made were an insulated shipping container for storing winter squash and a second walk-in cooler for storing crops that want it cold (i.e. carrots, parsnips, cabbage, etc).

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Our shipping container, with Felix in front

Storing winter squash had always presented a challenge for us. It stores best at 50 degrees with 50% humidity. The problem is that it’s bulky, heavy, and takes up lots of space. The only place big enough was our seedling greenhouse, which is both too warm during sunny days, too cold at night, and too humid. Not to mention, it isn’t rodent-proof. By January, most of our winter squash would have succumbed to mold, vermin, or freezing.

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Greenhouse full of curing squash, all of which have either sold or been moved to the shipping container.

This year, we doubled the amount of winter squash we planted, and then took most of the summer to figure out how we were going to deal with the many tons of squash we had to store. After much research and deliberation, we decided to buy an insulated shipping container that we’d run a dehumidifier in to keep the humidity down. It’s currently filled with somewhere between 10- and 20-thousand pounds of squash, and our greenhouse is still full of the bigger squash that don’t fit as easily in boxes that can be moved around on pallets. The only issue I haven’t figured out how to deal with yet (or how big of an issue it will be) is keeping the temperature at 50 in the shipping container. The dehumidifier puts off heat, and the container is very well insulated. I’d guess it’s closer to 70 degrees in there, and I’m concerned the squash will not keep as well because it’s too hot, rather than too humid and cold.

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Pallets of squash (and a few potatoes) fill the shipping container.

The second walk-in cooler we bought is more straightforward. For the past two years, we’ve gotten by with a 10×10′ walk-in cooler and a supplemental 5×4′ “reach-in” cooler for overflow. However, this year the 225 CSA boxes we pack every week leaves very little extra room for storage crops. Add to that, the fact that our CSA is continuing through November 19th and we had left ourselves no extra room for winter storage crops. Last year we experimented with a bunch of storage crops that could be harvested before flood season and stored through the winter; which carrot varieties store best in the fridge? How long will daikon and watermelon radishes keep? When is the best date for planting rutabaga and storage turnips?

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Brussels sprouts are a wonderful winter-time crop that only get better as the temperatures drop.

This year, we felt we had the knowledge to comfortably extend our CSA well into November, and we planted enough storage crops that we could fill four weeks of boxes entirely out of the coolers if it came to it. Well, the first November box is being packed right now, and the mild October we had means there are fresh greens in it too. Nevertheless, in our second walk-in cooler we are storing thousands of pounds of carrots, parsnips, daikon, celery root, beets, and more, ready for the next November CSA box and for sale at the now year-round Broadway Farmers Market and to restaurants through the winter.

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Fall and winter veggies at the Queen Anne market

For us, the best part about trying to grow and sell year-round is that it will (with luck) generate enough income to pay more employees year-round as well. Vegetable farming in the Northwest is predominantly seasonal work, with the vast majority of the labor and income happening between June and October – five very intense months. What we’ve struggled with each year is losing workers every November for lack of work and cash-flow, only to replace them with new inexperienced people again each spring. For the past three years, we’ve managed to keep at least two veteran employees with us through the following season. And next year, two employees (Sam and Kyli) will return for their third season. Siri deserves a lot of credit for writing a budget and planting plan that has enabled us to generate enough income from June through October that we can continue to pay a few employees through the winter months. Nevertheless, one of our biggest goals for our farm is for it to be a place where people can find meaningful, year-round work and make a living wage doing so. For this to happen, I believe we need to keep investing in winter-storage facilities and to continue to experimenting with crops that can survive in the field through the winter we well as crop varieties that store best. I also want to keep building more hoop-houses so we can extend the season on less cold-tolerant crops like lettuce, salad greens, turnips, radishes, and more.

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Direct seeding in the greenhouse in early-Spring

Every year we try to add another piece to that puzzle. This year, it was an investment in winter-storage. Next year, who knows….

Well, that was the wettest September on record. 6.17″ of rain fell this month, breaking the old record of 5.71″. What’s amazing is that the 1.7″ we received on the 28th was more than the the average rainfall total for September. Not only that, but the total we received this September would be above average for December or January. No wonder we still haven’t seeded all our cover crops yet.

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Bonnie drilling in a rye/vetch cover crop during a dry September day

The topic of what cover crops to plant is one that arises frequently around here. This year, we’ve settled on a mix of rye and vetch for fields we are going to be transplanting into and just vetch for fields we will be direct sowing into. Why? The reason we don’t plant rye into fields that will get direct sown crops is that rye is allelopathic, meaning that the decomposing rye inhibits other seeds from germinating. This is wonderful for suppressing weeds from germinating in a bed of spring transplants. But it’s terrible if we are trying to seed a crop of carrots. The other virtues of rye are that it grows very vigorously around here, even when planted as late as November; it outcompetes weeds, it provides tons of biomass, and it protects the soil from rain and flooding. There is one big downside to rye; it is hard to kill in the springtime… more on that later.

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Siri & Felix admiring last year’s cover crops

For nitrogen fixation, we have settled on vetch as our primary cover crop.  We like vetch more than clover because it puts on more growth in the fall and winter. Clover, on the other hand, puts on most of its biomass in the spring.  We want strong fall and wintertime growth for weed suppression and to protect the soil from erosion and nutrient leaching. Being a legume, vetch also fixes nitrogen. The downside to vetch is that it can also be hard to kill.

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The flail mower has helped us better incorporate cover crops because it chops the plants into tiny pieces.

So, about killing those cover crops…There is a movement among us ecological farmer types to minimize the amount of tillage we do. Generically, tillage means any type of soil disturbance for the purpose of preparing ground to plant crops into. The reason we want to disturb the soil less is that disturbing the soil, in any way, disrupts the complex ecosystem of bacteria, microbes, fungi, worms, and bugs. Without a healthy soil ecosystem, our soil would essentially be a inert medium (I have a feeling that commercial potato production is so destructive to the soil that the potatoes are basically hydroponic, but grown in soil). When our soil is happy and well fed, all micro-flora and fauna turns organic matter to fertile soil, enabling soil to both retain moisture and drain well and to hold nitrogen in a state usable by plants. For an interesting take on this topic, check out this article in the Atlantic.

But when we speak of minimum tillage, reduced tillage, or no-till farming practices on a vegetable farm, the tillage tools we are primarily thinking about reducing are the plow and the rototiller. Why? The plow has been considered the enemy of soil health since its overuse in the 1920s & ’30s led to the Dustbowl. The plow does two things that are harmful to soil health. It inverts the soil, burying the top 6″ or 8″ where all the microbial activity is taking place, substantially harming the soil ecosystem. Plows also leave what’s known as a “plow-pan”, a hard layer of compacted soil created by the plowshare compressing the earth beneath it as it slides through the ground. The plow-pan, if it’s really bad, can block roots from penetrating deeper into the ground limiting the nutrients available to the plants and  inhibiting drainage.

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Neil, from Present Tense Farm, borrowed our tractor and plow to break new ground. You can see how the plow inverts the sod one strip at a time.

The plow also has many virtues. As a tool for turning mature sod into workable soil, it has no peer. When done correctly, the plow inverts and buries grass (one of the world’s most tenacious plants) starving it of light and separating its roots from moisture. To achieve a similar effect with a tool such as a rototiller or disk, you’d have to work the soil over and over and over, pulverizing the soil but probably not really killing the grass. One pass with a plow followed by a light disking and you are ready to plant. Because the plow can do in one pass what other “less harmful” tools can do in three or more, I’ve been reconsidering the value of the plow in a sustainably minded system like ours… more on this later.

The rototiller is bad for a completely different reason. Whereas the plow inverts, the tiller pulverizes. A rototiller is an amazingly powerful tool that works as effectively on small tractors as it does on big tractors, making it by far the most common tillage tool out there. Tillers are not “horsepower” tools like a plow or a disk that are dragged behind the tractor. Tillers are powered by the tractor’s “power take off” or PTO. The PTO is a shaft on the back of the tractor that, when engaged by the driver, spins at 540 RPMs. The PTO transmission is geared very low, providing a lot of torque to the tools connected to it. Implements like tillers, mowers, and the like are hooked up to the PTO and can spin at blindingly fast speeds.

The rototiller spins so fast that it breaks up the soil aggregate (the size of the soil crumb, held together by soil organisms) into a fine powder. This is wonderful for direct sewing small-seeded crops like carrots, lettuce, and mustards because you can calibrate depth very accurately. However, the smaller the soil aggregate, the more surface area. The more surface area, the more oxygen. The more oxygen, the more biological activity in the soil and the faster the organic matter gets eaten up by the microbes. Much like the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, introducing lots of oxygen into the soil causes the population of soil microbes to explode. They consume all the organic matter really quickly, and then die off for lack of food. This throws the soil ecosystem into imbalance. Soil overworked by a rototiller tends to be sandy and infertile.

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Sam rototilling beds last fall.

The rototiller too does have its virtues. For one, they are relatively inexpensive, easy to find, and very durable. They also work really well, even on small tractors. This means that farmers just starting out can achieve pretty good results working soil without having to invest in big, expensive equipment. Though we strive to minimize the amount we use our tiller, it is truly the most used tool on our farm because it does a great job making a seed bed. (I do have ours set up to till as shallowly as possible, so that we are only working the top 2″-3″).

What does this have to do with cover crops again? We want our cover crops to grow big so there’s lots of biomass to feed our soil microbes. But, as I mentioned earlier, both rye and vetch can be difficult to kill and incorporate into the soil especially when they are mature. It is doubly difficult to incorporate our cover crops because we are using relatively small equipment and are reluctant to use the most effective tools we have (the tiller and the plow) to do the job, fearing for the health of our soil. So, for a while now I’ve been coveting a bigger tractor, imagining that larger, heavier equipment (i.e. chisel plow or disk) would get the results we want. An encounter with an old-school farmer in the Skagit Valley has me reconsidering what “reduced-tillage” means on a small vegetable farm like ours.

I tend to feel unsatisfied by our efforts to turn a field from cover crop to seed bed. In the spring, we mow, disk, spade, and till, only to leave lots of still-living cover crops (once the beds are made, those cover crops turn into weeds) in our field. When the soil dries out and the cover crops are bigger, we mow then disk and harrow repeatedly, but the biomass doesn’t incorporate well and clogs the equipment. Buying a flail mower has improved the process, but it still seems like we are driving over each field three or four times after we mow before it’s ready to be seeded or transplanted into. The old-school farmer I was chatting with reminded me of a few things… First, tractors much bigger than our 45 hp John Deere didn’t really exist until the 1950s. Rototillers didn’t become popular until the 1960s or 70s. Yet farmers were growing vegetables across the country on a much larger scale than we are, using small tractors and small equipment. Second, he believed compaction from driving heavy equipment over the ground repeatedly may do as much damage to the soil ecosystem as aggressive tillage.

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The Farmall M was one of the biggest tractors around in the 1950s

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This Case IH 400 is one of the bigger tractors around these days…. it’s easily a whole order of magnitude larger and possibly two orders of magnitude heavier.

Now, all our tractors are relatively light compared to the 300+ hp behemoths commonly used today for primary tillage on large acreage. Still, I hate driving over our fields so many times to work in cover crops, especially when each pass with the harrow or disk only feels 75% effective. And, one shallow pass with a 14″ two-bottom plow (at best (worst?) our tractor can only sink it about 8″ deep) is very effective at getting our cover crops incorporated and the field ready to have beds made. What I’m wondering is whether plowing a field shallowly, followed by a light disking is less harmful to the soil structure than repeated passes with a heavier disk or harrow.

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