Some Highlights of the PASA Conference

I enjoyed attending the in-person conference of Pasa Sustainable Agriculture. This is the first conference I’ve been to in person in two whole years. PASA did a lot to ensure the conference was as Covid-safe as possible. They limited the number of attendees (there were still plenty to ensure lots of chances to exchange information). Everyone had to test on their day of travel to the conference, and speakers had to test every day of speaking. For me that was all three days. Everyone was masked, nearly all with KN95 “real” masks. The hotel housekeeping staff only came in after we left. (We could have requested the service, but, heck, I can make my own bed!) In the workshop rooms, the chairs were spaced 6 ft apart. The trade show had wide aisles, and meals could be taken out of the dining room to a quiet spot. Just getting to be there was a big highlight for me! I left feeling energized and enthused, and very grateful to the PASA team for preparing such a successful event.

There were four sessions of workshops each day, with one-hour breaks between, allowing time to visit uncrowded trade booths, catch up with old friends, and make new ones. We were well-supplied with snacks and beverages during the breaks. There were socials with more snacks at the end of the day.

I did have trouble with the conference app, but then, my phone is limited in what it can do. Likewise I failed to upload my slideshows to the platform, so I ran them off my flashdrive. My pdf handouts did make it onto the app, so if you wanted one of my handouts, you can find it there and here:

Young Yukina Savoy plants.
Photo Ethan Hirsh
Optimize your Asian Greens Production Dawling PASA handout 2022 2.10 9am
Young spinach seedlings.
Photo Pam Dawling
Winter Vegetable Production Methods From the Field to the Hoophouse Dawling 2022 2.11 9am 6 page handout
Sweet potatoes in storage. An ideal crop for winter meals, as they store at room temperature for a long time, maybe seven or eight months.
Photo Pam Dawling
Growing Sweet Potatoes from Start to Finish Dawling 4 pg handout 2022 2.12 11am.docx

Each of the ten workshop sessions had a choice of eight or nine workshops. I had thought I might hunker down in my hotel room when I wasn’t speaking, to minimize my chance of catching Covid, but as permaculture author Darrell Frey said “This feels safer than going to the grocery store!”

I enjoyed several workshops presented by others, including:

On-Farm Experience with Organic No-Till

Sam Malriat from Rodale

No-Till sequesters carbon in the soil, but simply never tilling does not improve the soil. Chemical no-till uses lots of herbicide. Don’t be obsessive about no-till. Shallow tillage can be a responsible choice, as incorporation of organic matter is valuable. Adding cover crops, compost or manure, grazing, and a good crop rotation, can increase the OM, and thus increase the soil water capacity enormously.

Crimson clover cover crop
Photo by Bridget Aleshire

To overcome the challenges of no-till, you need a very good cover crop stand that will provide a thick mulch when terminated; a competitive cash crop; a way to plant into the residue, and a back-up plan in case one of the requirements doesn’t pan out.

Sowing corn into rolled and crimped hairy vetch does not work well, because corn is a heavy feeder and not very competitive. Better is to undersow the corn at V5 or V6 (stages of vegetative growth) with white clover or crimson clover in September. It’s important to get good seed to soil contact. The clover grows when the corn dies. This is in Rodale Country in PA. If the clover can be left growing until the second year, cabbage can be transplanted into it. His slides showed the success of this system after an unpromising start.

Pumpkins can be direct seeded in crimped and rolled (or mowed) winter rye. There is a lot of difference in thickness of the mulch between rye sown in August and October.

Organic Solutions: Pest Management

Drew Smith and Emily Gantz from Rodale

There was a big drop in pesticide use in the mid 1990’s as GMO crops came in. But then a big uptick as resistance to the GMO crops developed. Currently, almost all non-Organic seeds contain neo-nicotinoids, even though they provide no economic benefits.

Crop rotation is the single most important thing you can do to manage pests. Drew showed us the IPM triangle, and we worked our way up. To succeed in preventing pest infestations, planning of all aspects of growing the crop is vital. As is regular scouting of each crop. Cultural controls include the physical aspects of the planting. Other physical controls include mechanical aspects of growing the crop. Biological controls include encourage beneficials, releasing biological agents. Greater biodiversity provides greater stability. See Cornell Entomology https://biocontrol.entomolgy.cornell.edu/index.php

Native Pollinators: Identification, Habitat Needs and Resources

Sarah Koenig and Ryan Stauffer from the Audubon Society

A bee pollinating squash.
Photo Pam Dawling

There are 4000 species of bees in the US (20,000 globally). 70% of food crop species rely on honeybee pollination to some extent. Native bees mostly nest in the ground. Don’t kill them by compaction (or weedkillers!). Use native flowers to attract native pollinators.

Using Tarps to Reduce Tillage on Small Vegetable Farms

Ryan Maher, Cornell Small Farms & Bob Tuori, Nook and Cranny Farm

More growers are trying tarping for weed control, killing cover crops, maintaining a good soil temperature, avoiding crusting and compaction, keeping beds dry enough for planting and reducing dependence on single-use plastics. Challenges include the heavy weight, the aggravation of using sand bags, especially in windy places, ponding of rainwater runoff, and the frustration of providing perfect vole habitat.

After 28 days in summer, you gain 200 GDDs. Plant-available soil N increases by 2 or 3 times from the plant residues. How soon does it dissipate after removing the tarp? Tarping for 3 weeks after shallow tilling kills the living weeds, improves crop establishment and reduces weed emergence by up to 83%. Think of tarps as a tillage tool! Do plan for weed management after removing the tarp. Pigweed and amaranth can become worse!

We haven’t tried tarps yet. Early September photo of hay mulched June-planted potatoes.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

Bob Tuori spoke about a SARE trial of tarping in the Northeast. He compared potatoes grown with and without prior tarping, both patches with and without hay mulch after planting. The tarped area needed sandbags every 10-15 ft. The tarp was removed June 4, weeds were counted June 24, then the patches were mulched. (I hope I got that right). I did not write down all the results, but the only-mulch area grew 17.4 lbs per hour of work, and the tarp-only area grew 13 lbs per hour of work. See the SARE report for the details.

Harvesting Techniques for Small- to Mid-Scale Vegetable Farms

Julie Henninger of Good Keeper Farm and Matthew Lowe

We saw good tool and equipment storage, and learned the benefits of growing head lettuce on landscape fabric (no rotten bottom leaves, no weeds). Muir is their favorite lettuce for spring, summer and fall. At $3/head, a 95ft row planted at 9” spacing earns them $1300, if they have a 15% loss.

Beautiful baby lettuce mix in our hoophouse.
Photo Wren Vile

We learned the importance of sharp knives or scissors for cutting baby greens with minimal cell damage and browning. Theirs sells at $12/pound. They grow Salanova, which brings in $1140/bed at each cutting. If they cut whole heads, these bring in $1476 per bed.

For loose carrots, they sow rows in pairs 2” apart, with 6 rows on a 30” bed, using a stale seed bed and flaming. They sell 1000 lbs per week. Julie Henninger emphasized not wasting time by setting the carrots down in piles. Minimize the number of times each crop is touched. They have modified a cement mixer to wash 25-45 lbs at a time.

Training and communication are also very important. New workers must master the task first, before chatting. Minimize distractions. Send crews out with a strong role model each, to keep the crew working at a sustainable pace. If working with a crew with diverse abilities (eg children), provide a clear short task with a beginning and an end, to give a good sense of achievement.

I also attended the Plenary, Why Is Farming So Hard & What Can We Do About It?  on Friday with Brennan Washington, Sarah Mock and Dr Jessica Gordon Nembhard, who were livestreamed and recorded.

I participated in the book swap, setting out some spare handouts I had in exchange for a couple of magazines. I enjoyed the Farm Innovations poster display of tools and techniques to improve production or save resources (or both). I liked that previous years’ posters were available as pages in several ring binders.

In the Trade Show there were 60-odd vendors. I checked in with Nifty Hoops, a company who will deliver a hoophouse and put it up for you in one day, or help you put it up, teaching as you build. We put ours up ourselves, in 2003, and we were inexperienced and slow, and had to work on it in the (hot) afternoons, after spending the mornings farming. At events when I talk about hoophouse growing, I’ve sometimes been asked if there are companies who will erect hoophouses (high tunnels), so it’s good to be able to pass on this contact. Nifty Hoops also sell interesting components such as DC-powered inflation blowers. (734) 845-0079.  They have videos on their Facebook page

I picked up some publications from ATTRA, who have supplied me with great vegetable growing info since before the internet. (We used to call them up and ask for publications to be sent in the mail).

The Mini-Treffler manual harrow

I also was fascinated by the Mini-Treffler, from OrganicMachinery.net, a manual rolling tine harrow for crops in beds.

  • The TINY Treffler is a hand drawn harrow with the working width of 80cm (2 ft 7 in), 100 (3 ft 4 in) and 130cm (4 ft 3 in)
  • Shares the same principle with the big Treffler harrows: in the row harrowing, adjustable tension and the patented tine suspension
  • Each tine follows the contour of the field and the downward pressure remains constant
  • The TINY is effective throughout the growing season in greenhouses or for small enterprises in vegetable production or seed propagation
  • Wheels extendable from one or both sides to straddle a bed

I gathered literature for our garden crew as well as our dairy, orchard and poultry people, and an assortment of free pens, notebooks, stickers.

PASA also had a virtual conference, spread out over a couple of weeks in January. I’m sure there was great information there too, but our rural internet is not up to the task of virtual conferencing, so I’m in the dark. Pasa intends to keep a virtual conference next year as part of the mix – it works better for farmers who cannot easily leave the farm, it reduces the carbon footprint of travel, and saves on travel and hotel or BnB costs. Maybe next year I’ll have better internet. Maybe Covid will have receded. This year’s conference was great! I look forward to next year’s!

 

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