By Shain Saberon
"Can mankind regulate its affairs so that its chief possession—the fertility of the soil—is preserved? On the answer to this question the future of civilization lies." -Sir Albert Howard, An Agricultural Testament
One of our primary concerns at EverGreen Farm is soil fertility. We feed the soil, the soil feeds the plants, the plants feed the animals, both plants and animals feed the soil and mankind, and the farmer strives to orchestrate the whole process. It is an endless interdependent cycle—a dance with nature!
Our program consists of the following eco-friendly principles:
- Composting with a medium containing animal manures and plant residues
- Cover cropping
- Crop rotation
- Management Intensive Grazing
- No/low till growing.
I have witnessed first hand the miraculous effects of compost as described in An Agricultural Testament by Sir Albert Howard. In this book Howard claims compost is the key to healthy, nutritious, and pest/disease resistant plants. I agree.
For soils of average fertility, like ours, compost made from animal manures and plant residues has quickly and substantially improved its quality and health. This is why I believe a farm without animals cannot be “organic.” By keeping goats, a few pigs, and chickens we are able to combine their waste with our vegetable leftovers to co-create with nature rich compost.
Because we are only able to make a limited supply of compost, we choose to apply it where it will provide the greatest benefit, in our greenhouses. I am continually amazed at the difference in the vitality, flavor, and resistance to pests and diseases the plants in my greenhouses exhibit compared to the crops in the fields not receiving this natural fertilizer. Needless to say, we plan to increase the amount of compost we generate on our farm.
However, wintertime forces our goats and chickens to seek a more confined shelter, allowing us to accumulate their waste and make a compost heap. First, we muck our goat barns and chicken coop. This waste is composed of several tons of hay and straw that is used for bedding and as a medium to neutralize the animal's dung and urine.
Next, we use our tractor to clear out the contents of the pigpens. (All season long we feed our pigs a substantial amount of garden leftovers which gets mixed with old hay, straw, and their waste.) By combining the contents of our open-air pigpens and what is collected from our goats and chickens, we form a large compost heap. The heap is repeatedly turned with the help of a tractor. It is also moistened and allowed to age. In time nature will thoroughly break down all plant and animal residues, while simultaneously eliminating dangerous pathogens. The end result is a dark, crumbly, sweet-smelling heap of soil that is amazingly different from it's coarse beginnings. The finished compost is then spread in the greenhouses each fall and spring.
Since we cannot make enough compost, we also use tons of horse manure. Each spring and fall we haul in multiple dump truck loads of this natural fertilizer. With the use of our tractor and manure spreader we cover the fields with aged horse dung. Immediately after spreading, I disc or harrow the fields to mix the manure with the soil. Obviously, many hidden dangers exist when purchasing inputs from external sources, so we are careful to ask questions before purchasing horse dung. This practice fills the void left by our existing capacity to make compost.
Cover crops, also known as green manures, also build soil fertility. Market gardeners who do not keep animals or live in an area where quality stable manures are available rely on cover crops for soil fertility. The idea of cover cropping is to seed plant varieties capable of adding organic matter and nitrogen into the soil and rest it for a season from growing vegetable crops. Typically grasses, like rye grass in colder regions like ours, are well suited to grow a substantial amount of organic material to feed back to the earth. Many grains and other plants are also good at adding organic mass. But, the organic matter provided by these plants alone is not enough. Legumes are also needed—clovers, vetches, field peas, and alfalfa. These special plants posses the ability to fix nitrogen in the soil with the help of natural and beneficial bacteria.
After planting a cover crop, farmers typically mow it several times in a season to prevent the plant from seeding and becoming a weed itself. In the fall cover crops are plowed and left in the field over winter. The following spring these fields are cultivated again, rested to allow more decomposition, and then finally planted to a vegetable crop.
To solely rely on cover crops for soil fertility requires approximately three times the amount of land planted for market crops. Since our farm is merely 7 acres, relying only on cover cropping to improve our soil fertility is not an option. However, anytime the opportunity presents itself I cover crop our land. For example, immediately after garlic is harvested I like to plant rye grass and vetch. Also, late in the fall just before our first serious snows, I seed some of our farm to cereal rye and field peas. These hardy plants actually germinate under the snow early in the spring and are visibly growing as soon as the snow is gone. Through the use of cover crops our farm attempts to mimic natural processes of soil building, not unlike those that built our nation’s rich prairie soils in the Midwest.
Crop rotation is the agricultural practice of avoidance. I strive to avoid planting the same crop in the same location for multiple years. Different crops possess different root structures and require distinct nutritional needs. In general, the longer a farmer can rest the land from growing the same crop, the healthier the soil.
For example, lettuce plants are mostly shallow rooted. If lettuce were planted in the same field for several years, it would soon deplete only the shallower soil levels of their nutrients. By planting a deeper-rooted crop in succession to a shallower rooted crop, carrots after lettuce for instance, nutrients are extracted from deeper levels not taxing the soil as much as when monoculture is practiced. This practice also helps reduce soil pests and diseases because pathogens that thrive with root crops don’t necessarily infest leaf crops. These are just two obvious benefits of this good agricultural practice.
The ideal crop rotation includes a complete period of rest by planting a leguminous cover crop. Deep-rooted cover crops, like alfalfa or certain clovers, are extremely beneficial. By growing these crops for a year their roots are able to extract and then redeposit nutrients from deeper soil levels more near to the surface, making them once again available to shallow rooted crops.
Crop rotation is a serious practice at EverGreen farm. I keep annual records of where crops were planted. This information allows me to plan and intentionally plant different crops in different areas of our farm from year to year. Each year my crop rotations become more refined. I believe we are seeing the benefits of this critical practice.
Management Intensive Grazing
Management Intensive Grazing is typically associated with an agriculturally pastured food operation, such as a pastured beef, poultry, or dairy farm. This practice consists of confining animals for a short period of time in a small section of a pasture and then moving them on a regular basis. Short intense periods of grazing are actually beneficial for the pasture and, therefore, the animal too. With a short intense grazing the pasture is not overgrazed and the animal does not over fertilize the ground. For detailed information on this practice read Joel Salatin’s Salad Bar Beef or You Can Farm.
This year I plan to practice a modified form of Management Intensive Grazing in our market garden. This practice, I believe, will further increase our farm’s soil fertility. The vehicle for this addition to our soil fertility program is called a chicken tractor—a small moveable chicken coop and pen that I have specially designed to be applied to our spent salad green beds.
After a salad bed has been harvested, a chicken tractor with its occupants will be moved down the row. Each day chickens will dine on the same gourmet greens you previously enjoyed. The chickens will also provide some extra labor by removing the old greens from the garden. Additionally, chickens will eat and help control some of the insects infesting the greens while simultaneously fertilizing the ground. These tractors will be moved once a day, which I believe will be just enough time to overgraze and kill the salad while leaving its roots and a small quantity of fertilizer in the ground. Obviously we get other benefits too, eggs and meat. I’m excited to try this! I believe chicken tractors promise to be a simple, low-cost, and high-benefit addition to our soil fertility program.
Farmers increasingly study, refine, and apply no till farming. This practice consists of planting a cover crop, like a grain, harvesting it, allowing it to winter kill, leaving it, and ultimately planting a vegetable that will thrive in the mulch (planting potatoes after barley, for instance). The primary benefit derived from reduced tillage is an increase in beneficial soil organisms.
Perhaps the most important organism to benefit from this practice is mycelium, a beneficial fungus whose fruit is the mushroom. Mycelium thrives in soils rich in both flora and fauna. This life-filled soil is typically absent in industrially farmed soils dependent on chemical fertilizers, fungicides, pesticides, and herbicides. Crop friendly fungi are present in healthy soils and take the form of a mycelial web, a filamentous web-like structure that sometimes extend for thousands of acres in undisturbed forests.
Why is mycelium important? Because it connects with the root structure of plants to form a symbiotic partnership. When intertwined with plant roots, mycelium extends the crops roots system making more moisture and soil nutrients available to the crop. The mycelium benefits from the plants ability to photosynthesize sunlight and produce sugars. Many studies document double the plant growth in soils rich in mycelium compared to those devoid of it. Other plant positive organisms are more abundant in no till soils such as earthworms and bacteria that work with legumes to fix nitrogen from the atmosphere.
I have been unable to fully employ no-till farming methods here at EverGreen Farm. However, I take every opportunity possible to reduce tillage. I have purchased and use old-world tools like the broadfork, which allow me to gently lift and aerate soil without turning it. Furthermore, I am planning crop rotations where fields are purposely not tilled having been planted with a mulching crop. This crop will be mowed and farmed with garlic, potatoes, and other plants that tolerate transplanting.
Industrialized agriculture commits the sin of oversimplification. By assuming that nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium (NPK) are all that plants require today’s industrial agriculturalist grossly oversimplifies plant, animal, and human nutritional needs. For instance depending on the “expert” you ask, humans need between 50 and 100 different nutrients.
Because at EverGreen Farm we care for, maintain, and even improve our soil’s fertility, you can be assured that your produce is the healthiest available—this is true because it is infused with a broad spectrum of micronutrients. Practices leading to better soil fertility combined with no tolerance for industrial chemical applications grow the best food. This is not philosophy. Scientists and Journalists like Sir Albert Howard, Michael Pollen, Dr. Weston Price, and a dozen others have documented this.
Eat our dirt! It will heal you.