This week I have for you several sources of information related to small-scale sustainable farming.
Growing for Market has posted Triage Farming by Matt S. as a free article on their website
Matt tells of becoming farm manager on a new piece of land, with terrible drainage problems and lots of grass weeds.
“There are five spheres in which a farm can be challenged. Most farms deal with serious disadvantages in one or two of these. We were handicapped in four.” The five are location challenges, site challenges, infrastructure and equipment challenges, institutional challenges (dealing with the bureaucracies), human challenges. They didn’t have human challenges!
As a response to kicking around dried mud-balls full of grass bristles, Matt invented Triage Farming. Triage (from the French trier ‘separate out’) was a concept that came into wider use during WW1 as medics had to sort injured soldiers into three groups: those that would be OK without treatment really soon, those that were going to die whether they had treatment or not, and those who would get the most value from immediate treatment. In farming it means prioritizing using your limited resources to their maximum effect when it’s impossible to accomplish all you hoped to do.
This is not a sustainable way to farm (or live). It’s a way to preserve sanity and be most effective when things have got out-of-control. It doesn’t leave a feeling of satisfaction. But nor a feeling of despair. It can be ruthless, sloppy and minimalist.
Maybe you have never had such moments, but I have. If you have, then I recommend this article. Keep a copy handy, especially in the heat of the summer. You’ll likely not agree with every decision Matt made, but the article will help you raise your head and look around, rather than keep pushing on the task at the top of the schedule you made back in January.
Matt helps with deciding which crops to grow, and how much, if you know it’s likely to be a difficult year (new site, brand new crew, etc). He works through each of the five challenge spheres he identified and explains his response to that aspect: suitable crops for different location challenges, suitable equipment, approaches to weeding (timely, untimely, and “carnage weeding”), tools and equipment for different situations, dealing with various bureaucracies, and how to delegate to other workers.
Matt has an uplifting style, which also helps when the going gets tough.
False and Stale Seedbeds
I just read a very clear 25-page publication about using false seedbeds and stale seedbeds, including flaming. False and Stale Seedbeds: The most effective non-chemical weed management tools for cropping and pasture establishment. Dr Charles N Merfield, 2013. Lincoln, New Zealand: The BHU Future Farming Centre www.bhu.org.nz/future-farming-centre
“False and stale seedbeds are based on three rules:
- most weed seeds are dormant,
- tillage is the most effective means of germinating weed seeds, and
- most weeds only emerge from the top 5 cm / 2” of soil.
- Both false and stale seedbeds work by the very simple process of germinating the weeds then killing them and then growing the crop.
- False seedbeds use tillage/cultivation to kill the weeds.
- Stale seedbeds use thermal weeders or herbicides to kill the weeds.”
Both false and stale seedbeds are made by preparing the bed 7-10 days before you plan to sow your crop, watering if the conditions are dry, then killing the carpet of emerged weeds, by very shallow tilling, hoeing or flaming. Getting the tillage correct is critical, including having a good weather-eye. Flaming will kill broad-leaved weeds, but only set grasses back by about a week. Alternatively, cover the prepared bed with a tarp to germinate and kill the weeds.
The 5-15% of weed seeds that are non-dormant are mostly in the top 5 cm/2” of the soil, and germinate very quickly. These can be very effective techniques, and this publication explains them well, and has good photos of crops, and machines such as the milling bedformer and the roller undercutter, and some fancy flamers and steam weeders, which might be equipment to aspire to, while working with spring tine weeders and shallow tillage. The explanations help with getting a better understanding of weeds seed germination, and so how to succeed with pre-plant tillage and post-crop-emergence cultivation. Timing is important, as is having the right tools for the job.
There’s also a good relevant article in Growing for Market:
Tools and strategies to reduce time spent weeding by Sam Hitchcock Tilton
Definitely read this if you are spending a lot of time weeding, or your crops are over-run by weeds. Work towards reducing your weed population each year, by preventing weeds from seeding. “Realize that one lamb’s-quarters or kochia or bindweed or galinsoga plant going to seed can be a much bigger problem next year than 10 or even 100 non-reproducing plants are now. So marshal your precious weeding resources smartly.”
Timely hoeing, while weeds are tiny and quick to die, can prevent the need for pulling weeds by hand, if you are working on a quite small scale. If your scale needs other tools, here you can learn about equipment to physically control weeds as part of your cropping system. If you are using a 4-wheel tractor, consider hillers, mini-ridgers, finger-weeders, Spyders, beet knives (L-blades), tine weeders, basket weeders.
The article includes some equipment for 2-wheel walk-behind tractors, such as the Thiesson cultivator, Buddingh and Tilmor basket weeders, Even wheel hoes have weeding attachments.
Sam also describes stale seed-bedding, and advises rolling the prepared bed before tarping or watering, to provide the weed seeds good contact with the soil.
Sam’s article includes excellent photos, a tailored-for-beginners’ explanation of which tool does what and many links to other website and videos.
Here’s an article from USDA on Killing the Crop Killers—Organically
As an alternative to bromide fumigation to kill pest nematodes, and other pests, try anaerobic soil disinfestation (ASD), an organic treatment that temporarily removes oxygen from the soil, is inexpensive and easy to apply. This method involves using a source of carbon, such as orchard grass, or mustard seed meal, tilled into the soil
Vertical farming is a code for a type of high tech hydroponics. See this article on the BBC website. Yes, hydroponics uses a large amount of energy to grow the plants. Yes, growing plants takes skill and attention. Yes, growing only a few crops is risky: people will only eat so much lettuce. Aerofarms has filed for bankruptcy, and several other “vertical farming operations” have hit financial troubles too.
Balance that with this post by Lee Rinehart from ATTRA:
Soil is complex, with a universe of microorganisms, and cycles of carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen and many other elements. Farmers are part of the cycle. Organic farmers are seeking to make continuous improvement to the life in the soil, by observing patterns and lifeways, mimicking the native systems. We are not the center of the universe. Wendell Berry says “We don’t know what we are doing because we don’t know what we are undoing.”
Plastic in the Organic Supply Chain Conference Report
From Modern Farmer
In early May, the Organic Center and the Organic Trade Association held the Organic Confluences conference about Reducing Plastic Across the Entire Organic Supply Chain. “While plastics serve many practical purposes on organic farms as well as for packaging and distribution, plastic production, use, and disposal cause massive amounts of pollution, which disproportionately affects low-income people and communities of color in the United States and around the world. At the conference, farmers, researchers, policymakers, wholesalers and retailers, nonprofit organizations, government agency staff and many others gathered to define the challenges in reducing plastic use, identify research needs, highlight success stories, and discuss what needs to be done to solve this growing problem.” Read a report about the conference on the eOrganic website here, with links to the conference program and slide presentations.
Spinach Trial Underway to Inform Organic Seed Production
The Organic Seed Alliance is evaluating 272 spinach accessions from the USDA-ARS Germplasm Resources Information Network (GRIN) seed collection at their research farm in Washington State to assess timing of bolting and seed yield potential as part of a NIFA OREI funded project. This fall, they will share the trial results as well as their knowledge on spinach seed production and seed cleaning techniques through a webinar hosted on eOrganic, but meanwhile, read more about the project on their blog post here!
The seed production trial information is a part of an effort to aid in developing better varieties for organic farmers. “Research on the role of soil microbes on nutritional content, nitrogen use efficiency, and abiotic stress such as extreme temperatures is also underway by the project lead researcher Vijay Joshi at Texas A&M, and Ainong Shi and Gehendra Bhattarai at University of Arkansas. Together with the results of the seed production trials this project will help inform organic spinach breeders and farmers, and anyone working with seed from the USDA-ARS Germplasm Resources Information Network (GRIN) seed bank.” Results will be posted on the eOrganic project website.
This 12-minute segment from Science Friday is an interview with Craig LeHouiller, who is a gardener/garden writer / tomato breeder in North Carolina. He is the author of Epic Tomatoes. In this segment he talks about the open source Dwarf Tomato Project. He and collaborator Patrina Nuske-Small aimed to preserve the flavor and beauty of heirloom tomatoes, without taking up too much space. They started crossbreeding heirloom tomatoes with smaller dwarf tomato plants. They signed up over 1000 volunteers across the world. They now have over 150 varieties of dwarf tomatoes, everything from cherries to beefsteaks, in every color. You can buy seeds from Victory Seeds, who have dedicated themselves to offering every dwarf variety produced.