I’ve gotten a lot of questions about my drip winder recently. Way back in November 2009 I wrote an article in Growing for Market on the winder, how to build one and how to use it. I have a lot of old articles in Growing For Market’s archives on similar topics. I’ve updated that one with a slightly different design on my website here. I highly recommend getting access to the Growing for Market archives by signing up for full access and checking out some of the old articles there, and I don’t just mean mine. You could go back and see what changes I made to the drip winder if you like, but you can also find tons of great articles by growers all around the country.
A Second Look at No Till (repost)
Below is a post from November 10, 2008, that was originally on a now defunct blog. I still haven’t gotten around to playing with no-till in the years since then but I’m partially posting this because there seems to be interest. I’ll put a few additional thoughts I have looking back at this at the end of the post.
I just got back from the Washington Tilth Producers annual conference in Bellingham, Washington, where Dr. Paul Hepperly of the Rodale Institute gave a keynote address on no-till and then followed it up with a question and answer session that was very informative. About five or six years ago I spent two seasons trying to get no-till garlic to work. Those experiments definitely turned me off from no-till in vegetables but Dr. Hepperly’s talk, even though it was on a grain rotation, actually gave me some hope that it might work in a few specific vegetable crops.
When we ran the garlic trials, three farms went in on a SARE Producer Grant. 47th Ave. Farm, Praying Mantis Farm, and Sauvie Island Organics all tried to establish thick stands of sudan grass, plant garlic into the cover crop, and then use the winter-killed cover as a mulch to suppress weeds. This did not work for us for a variety of reasons, all reasons that Dr. Hepperly’s system avoids. Also, as an aside, the Producer Grant turned out to be a lot of work for us to manage which made us less excited about those grants, but more excited about the Research and Education grants when the OSPUD project came around in 2005 (more on that in a future post).
The rotations that Dr. Hepperly was primarily talking about were field corn planted into a cover crop of hairy vetch and soybeans planted into a cover crop of cereal rye. Not only were the cover crops providing all of the weed control, they were also providing all of the fertility for the cash crops, and, at the same time, reducing economic and environmental costs by limiting tractor passes and other inputs, and holding soil from erosion. Perhaps the most amazing part is that they were out-yielding conventional tillage systems, consistently!
There are some important limitations to the no till approach that Dr. Hepperly described, and in the question and answer session he clarified that the entire rotation is not always no-till, when they have weed problems, or if other issues come up they need to till sometimes to establish strong cover crops. I made a list of the points I recognized as important to making the system work:
Weedless cover crop
For cereal rye they seed very heavily, I think he was saying 150-200lbs/acre. A fellow I was talking to at lunch also mentioned that instead of seeding in one pass at a heavier rate, two passes at right angles to each other at a more typical rate of 80-90lbs/acre give more early coverage in the field. For vetch, since the seed is expensive, a higher rate isn’t used but winter kill oats are added for early weed suppression. Buckwheat or other summer annuals are also possible, but the cover crop has to be an annual for the system to work.
To create an effective mulch there needs to be sufficient biomass, I think he was saying about 5 tons per acre. If there is too much biomass there can be problems as well but mostly it sounded like you just need enough so that there’s good ground cover when it’s killed.
Roll down at full flower
To kill the cover crop it has to be rolled down, preferably with a roller crimper, at full flower. They’ve done some good design work on the roller crimpers and there are a lot of little details available on the web site. A roller crimper is available for sale from Buckeye Tractor whose equipment I’ve used and is well made.
There are a couple of keys here: full flower, leaving the stalks attached to the ground, and crimping the stalks. The window is narrow for achieving full kill, it has to be after full flower, but before the cover crop sets viable seed. If full kill isn’t achieved the cover crop becomes the weed. Leaving the stalks attached to the ground helps keep them in place when the secondary seeding or planting operation happens. Crimping the stalks helps with more completely killing the cover crop.
Don’t expose soil when planting
The point of the mulch is to shade weed seeds and prevent them from germinating. If your planter exposes the soil and leave a strip then there will be in line weeds to deal with.
Direct seeding only works with large seeds
Small seeds don’t push through the mulch so this only works with large seeded crops, or transplants. Another important point with direct seeding is that the press wheels need to be be heavy enough to provide good soil contact for germination.
The mulching effect has a limited time window
The mulch starts to break down immediately so the system works best when the crop provides a full canopy by the time the mulch has broken down enough to let weed seeds germinate.
With all of this new information I’m re-inspired to try no till on a few vegetable crops. Good candidates, I think, are winter squash, tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, fall brassicas, sweet corn, beans, and melons. The trick, it seems to me, is to find crops where the planting dates roughly match the flowering dates of a cover crop, and that will provide a good canopy later in the season.
On small scale plantings this systems seems like it would require very little investment in equipment for trials. Crops can be crimped with a 2×4 and some string, and transplanted or seeded by hand or jab planter. On a larger scale more might need to be invested in a roller crimper and no till seeder or transplanter, but the roller crimper is not terribly expensive and modifications can be made to existing equipment to make them work in no till situations.
February 2015 – Additional Thoughts
Here in the Northwest I think there are a few drawbacks to thinking about no-till systems that are specific to our climate. No-till systems tend to help keep ground moisture and to keep the ground cooler. In hot and dry climates this is a big plus, but for us here in the Northwest we are almost always hoping to warm things us and dry them out a bit so the heavy mulch of no-till can be counter productive in all of the potential crops I mention above. Slugs and voles are also problematic in my area, particularly when there are damp conditions and there is ground cover. Bare soil in the field helps control both of these pests whereas mulch exacerbates the problem.
Another note that was left out of the original post, the Rodale system wasn’t all no-till all of the time, but for certain years of the rotation there was no tillage. This helps break build up of perennial weeds that establish in no till systems, and also makes crops that aren’t appropriate for no till fit into the rotation system.
More on Planning
You might recognize the photo above from a post in January where I linked to the spreadsheets that I use for mapping and planning. I just posted versions of articles I wrote for Growing for Market back in 2010 on the same topic. The articles are in the Q&A section of the site.
One other note of interest: I also made a minor update to my slowhandfarm.com site. And, you might notice that the header photos at slowhandfarm.com and joshvolk.com now match. It’s not me in the photo (I took it, as is the case with practically all of the photos on the site, including the ones of me) but it is the new farm site at Our Table.
Sharpening and other updates
It’s been a super busy spring! If you follow this blog you may have noticed that recently there are even fewer posts than usual. I’m working hard on getting the Our Table CSA established in Sherwood, Oregon, but I’m still trying to add content here when I can.
I’m also teaching a class on farm tools at Clackamas Community College and my intention is to put a few of the class materials up here on the site. To that end I’ve reposted an article on sharpening that I wrote for Growing For Market back in 2010. Sharpening is fundamental to tool care and functionality of many hand tools. The article is linked to in the Q&A section of the site.
I made some minor edits to the Links page here. Mostly I added two books to the list. When I did a workshop at MOSES last winter they gave me an excellent book on farm business, Fearless Farm Finances, so I’ve added that to the links page.
Another book I added is Greenhorns: 50 Dispatches from the New Farmers’ Movement, which just won a Nautilus Gold Award! I have an essay on tools in there, and there are a lot of other essays that really talk about the realities of what it’s like to be a young farmer. Check it out if you haven’t already.
Lazy Sunday Afternoon (repost)
Here’s a repost from my old blog. This was originally posted Sunday, September 14, 2008
Last Sunday I was up visiting my good friends at Foxglove Farm on Salt Spring Island in BC. It was a beautiful weekend, sunny and warm, with that low, late summer sun. After working a long market day on Saturday, as well as sun up to sun down every other day the previous week, Michael declared Sunday a lake day. We had a leisurely breakfast of blueberry pancakes, with strawberries and melon. How much better does it get than fresh fruit right off the farm. Well, then we headed off to the lake for an afternoon of sunning on the banks, eating fresh goat cheese and home made bread, punctuated with intermittent dips in the perfect lake. Incredible, so beautiful and relaxing.
The next part might not sound amazing, but to me it really fit in well with that afternoon. To top things off we headed back to the farm to do a little harvest of bunched beets and carrots for Tuesday market before making dinner. In a world where major efforts have been made to shorten the work week to most it would seem anathema to work another hour. I’ve questioned this kind of work week myself ever since I started farming, worrying that it must be a sure road to burn out and beyond that exploitative. Recently I’ve come to think that it’s less about the number of hours worked than the spirit in which they are worked.
In the language of Nonviolent Communication (NVC) there are four skills:
1.Differentiating observation from evaluation
2.Differentiating feeling from thinking
3.Connecting with the universal human needs/values
4.Requesting what we would like in a way that clearly and specifically states what we do want
In defining the fourth skill there is no particular wording that goes with a request, it is simply that the intention behind the request needs to genuinely be a request:
a request that is truly a request and not a demand (i.e. attempting to motivate, however subtly, out of fear, guilt, shame, obligation, etc. rather than out of willingness and compassionate giving).
Labor laws and conventions attempt to create universal definitions that are objective and easy to regulate. An industrial society where owners and managers are far outnumbered by employees necessitates some protection for workers rights. When the workers are the owners and especially when the work is done in an atmosphere that is supportive and open enough that the workers may meet their needs without overworking themselves, then there is no motivation “out of fear, guilt, shame, obligation, etc.” The work is truly done out of willingness and is also truly rewarding in the way that only compassionate giving can be.
This is complicated. It is difficult to assess ones own feelings and thinking without evaluation and perhaps impossible to do so with other people. In the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the most significant text on yoga, there are eight components of Yoga, the first of which is Yama, or our attitudes toward our environment. In Desikachar’s translation of the the second pada (chapter), line 30,
1. (Ahimsa) Consideration for all living things, especially those who are innocent, in difficulty, or worse off than we are.
2. (Satya) Right communication through speech, writings, gesture, and actions.
3. (Asteya) Non-covetousness or the ability to resist a desire for that which does not belong to us.
4. (Brahmacarya) Moderation in all our actions
5. (Aparigraha) Non-greediness or the ability to accept only what is appropriate.
Looking through this lens on the work that we do provides a more meaningful assessment of it’s appropriateness and sustainability than any labor law can. If we could all follow these guidelines for ourselves, and not worry about the next person there would be no conflicts and no need for labor regulation.
Even labor law acknowledges that farming is different, and small scale farms are more different still. There is probably nowhere that the sense of ownership, reward from giving, and satisfaction from accomplishment is more tangible. This is not to say that there aren’t moments of burnout on small farms as well, but to say that the idea of what work is in farming reflects the difference between a farm which is wholistic in it’s work and an industry which is specialized.
What it all comes back to for me, personally, is that I have to clearly look at each moment and ask myself if I am doing the right thing at that moment. So, on this lazy Sunday afternoon, I’m sitting down to write, and then I think I’ll go work in the garden, because the difference between work and leisure is mainly one of attitude in my mind, and both can be enjoyable or not, you decide.
I just added an article on basic tractor cultivation to the q&a section of the website. This is a version of an article that was first printed in Growing for Market in 2008. All of the articles that I’ve written for GFM are available in their online archives, which are accessible with an online subscription.
Three Sisters (reposts)
Reading a blog post from a friend of a friend’s farm this morning I was inspired to repost these two entries from 2009. The weather hasn’t been as conducive for these crops since that year (read, the weather has been downright terrible for those crops since 2009), but I have still had some success. I don’t really have enough space to play with this technique the way I’d like to, but I really think it has a lot of potential. Unlike the Kerr Center example linked to in the blog referred to above, I have been able to use the standard seeders and cultivating equipment and so there really isn’t much in the way of drawbacks, mostly just benefits.
The Three Sisters July 16, 2009
Pretty much every american grower it seems has heard of the three sisters: corn, beans and squash. Andy Griffin mentions this planting scheme in his recent excellent post “Corn,” in the ladybug letter. Earl, the chef at Meriwether’s, convinced me that we should try growing a block this way and we had some space so we are. We’re doing it a little different that the “milpa” system that Andy talks about, everything for us is in rows. We seeded the corn first, a type of popcorn actually. A few weeks later we came back and seeded the beans, five types of pole beans. Then a week or so later the winter squash was seeded, lots of trial varieties.
We’re also trying to grow these crops with no supplemental irrigation. The property has limited water but abundant land and soil that holds water well and is deep. So far everything has germinated beautifully, despite the lack of any rain and a stretch of hot sunny weather for several weeks before the winter squash was even seeded. We’re raking the soil to keep weeds down and to create a dust mulch to prevent surface evaporation. I’m hopeful that the crops will do well – meaning they’ll produce a modest harvest with minimal work. I’m fairly confident but it’s still a long way to harvest in late summer. I’ll let you know what happens.
Dry Farming August 11, 2009
Two months ago I wrote a post on the “Three Sisters.” Take a look back at those photos and then look at the one above. Same field, and this field has seen no irrigation this season, we’ve had no significant rain since early May, and the above photo was taken a week after the week long 100+ degree heat wave. All of the crops were direct seeded in this field but we also have melons in another dry section that were transplanted in June, and are ripening fruit now (pictured below).
The vine growth is not quite as vigorous as I would expect with irrigated vines, but there is good fruit set and so we’ll see how the yield and flavor turns out. Part of the reason for experimenting with dry farming, meaning growing crops in a rain free summer without supplemental irrigation, was because we didn’t have much irrigation water so we wanted to save that for the crops that really need it, like greens. I’m certain that we won’t get top yields per space, but I hope that we’ll still get top quality and we have definitely had to do very little cultivation and weeding, and no irrigation work.
Besides the three sisters section and the melons, we’re also dry farming tomatoes, potatoes, dry peas and beans, spelt, flax, several corns and quinoa. We’ve harvested half the potatoes with very good results, not a record yield, but respectable and good quality spuds. The tomatoes are just starting and everything else is looking good with no real signs of water stress and very little weed pressure. The corn pictured above is popcorn and the beans were a late seeding of flagolets, seeded in mid June to available moisture after a month of no rain.
One of the things that I think is allowing us to do this is the impressive water holding capacity and depth of the soil we have. Even though the site is on a ridge top, 1000’ above Portland, Oregon, there also seems to be a few natural seeps so I suspect there are areas of the field where water naturally flows subsurface late into the spring. On top of those things we have given the crops slightly more space than we would have if they were irrigated and early on we concentrated on cultivating out even very small weeds and leaving the surface soil loose to reduce weed seed germination and surface evaporation.
A few follow up notes are appropriate here. My feeling on the three sisters planting is that it works best when it’s a corn that is for drying (popcorn, dent corn, flint, etc, not sweet corn), pole beans for dry beans, and hard squash. None of these crops require entry into the field while the other is fully filled out for harvest. Letting the squash fully cover the ground is one of the benefits, and that makes harvesting the corn and beans impractical before the vines start to die back.
Also, the terrible weather we’ve had the last two years has been cold, wet springs and early summers (and cold through the summer). In 2009 I did notice that the corn and squash we grew together did very slightly better than those that grew separately, the beans seemed to not do quite as well, but the there was absolutely no work done to trellis them so that was a huge labor and materials savings, and there is far more row feet of corn than we’d usually plant in beans so there’s no problem in seeding extra beans to make up for the difference. in 2010 and 2011 none of those crops did well anywhere for us. Also, the beans are essentially in the same space as the corn, so they are bonus income from the same space, not requiring any additional costs over seeding and harvesting – no extra field prep, no extra cultivation, no extra fertilization. They also didn’t interfere with hand harvesting the corn, and the squash was harvested before either of those two crops.
I also experimented a little in my garden and actually seeded the corn and beans at the same time. it seemed like the beans would outstrip the corn, but actually the corn was always just a hair ahead of the beans. I wonder if the beans were forcing it to grow higher by continually shading the lower parts. I’ve also been surprised that I’ve had no trouble with lodging.
Below is a piece of a repost from when I launched my original site back in 2007. This predates the current “very small farm” out on Sauvie Island and is instead referring to the trial grounds in my backyard. Five years later I’m still growing most of those same chicories and enjoying them more than ever. The interest in chicories is definitely growing. NOVIC is going to do variety trials this winter here in the Northwest, and I was just talking to Carol Miles from WSU who is going to be trialing chicories in Washington. The Northwest Agricultural Business Center hosted a season extension workshop in Mt. Vernon two weeks ago that I was fortunate to be invited to present at. Carol, as well as a number of other very experienced growers participated and part of what I showed were my winter CSA shares, grown outside, that rely heavily on chicories to offer a good salad green that can also be cooked in the winter.
My varieties initially came primarily from Seeds From Italy, which has an excellent selection, and very high quality seeds. I’ve recently been getting more seed from Wild Garden Seed. Frank Morton, the breeder at Wild Garden is a friend and another chicory fanatic having been a long time salad greens grower. I think that here in the Northwest we’re still in the early parts of the learning curve in terms of variety selection, best growing practices, and also in developing a solid market. These greens are so good in the winter, although I don’t think they’re great at other times of year. That might limit their appeal to folks who aren’t used to cooking seasonally, but seasonal eating is also starting to catch on a little more. They’re a perfect addition to CSA shares which emphasize seasonality anyway.
Here are my notes from back in 2007
Thursday, December 6, 2007
It’s December and I am completely excited about the outrageously beautiful, and delicious chicories that are growing on the “very small farm” right now. This is a selection of them, two radicchios, a catalogna, a frisse, and an escarole. There are a few more out there that aren’t in the photo, equally beautiful and really flavorful. The cool weather has really mellowed any bitter and most of these aren’t bitter at all. I’ve grown some chicories, and enjoyed them but last year’s trip to Italy was very inspiring, especially an escarole salad we had at a little agritourismo outside of Sienna. So, this year I went a little crazy and decided that I wanted to experiment with a lot of varieties in the fields and preparations in the kitchen. They are a little tricky to grow, but mostly just in the uneveness of maturity and size. In the winter garden this might actually be a real advantage, since things aren’t really growing anyway. It’s a real advantage if they can all be planted in the late summer and then mature over the course of about five or six months, starting in October or November when the summer lettuces are finished. The downside is definitely low yields and lots of rot to dig through, but welcome to winter growing outside.
Lely tines for the G
Here’s another repost and update of one of my most popular requests, instructions on how to build a Lely tine frame for an Allis Chalmers G. There’s also a bit on how to use the implement in there as well. This used to be a PDF but I’ve moved it to HTML to make it faster to load. Follow the link over to the article, or find it under the q&a page.
Remembering Andy and a repost
I apprenticed on a small farm that was run by a farmer who, at that time had been farming for almost as long as I had been living. The farm was an amazing place, a small CSA run by this amazing, generous, eternally positive guy, Andy. It was in the middle of a 1600 acre ranch run by an educational non-profit, and provided some of the backdrop for the farm and wilderness programs there.
Andy knew everyone there, knew seemingly everything about that property, and lived in a little house on the creek at the upper end of the ranch with his wife Carolyn and his two young sons Forrest and Ray. I spent most of my time working on the farm, but what I remember most are the people there, especially Andy. It feels like most of the time I spent with Andy was driving up and down the ranch with him in a Clubcar Carryall II, stopping at the milk house to top off his huge mug of coffee with the cream skimmed off the top of the big milk jugs, and then proceeding to spill half of that coffee on the bumpy dirt road that ran the length of the ranch. The entire time Andy told me stories, mostly farming stories, often the same ones he had told me earlier in the week.
I spent a year there and I was anxious to do the next thing when I left, though sorry to leave many good friends behind. I made sure to come back for visits whenever possible, although those visits got farther apart as the years wore on. Andy was great about keeping in touch and keeping me updated on the happenings at the ranch, and with the family. For a few years we’d meet up at the Eco Farm conference every year and room together which was an opportunity to catch up. The farming connection continued but over time I came to visit more to just see Andy, Carolyn, Forrest and Ray, hear about their trips in the Sierra and what was new on the ranch.
Forrest ended up going to school in Washington and then moving to Portland so Andy would come through every so often and when I got lucky he’d stop for a quick visit. On his last swing through town we were lucky enough to have him bring Carolyn, and Forrest and Forrest’s girlfriend Holly over for dinner.
On Wednesday evening another farmer friend and mentor Michael Ableman, and his son Benjamin, came for a visit on their way down to California. When we got home from a dinner out Tanya checked the messages and there was one from Carolyn telling me that Andy had passed away on Tuesday.
I’ve been thinking about Andy a lot ever since. I’ve also been thinking about all of the other good friends I made, especially the ones I’ve managed to keep in touch with. I also thought about this blog post I wrote back in 2008, coincidentally with both Michael and Andy mentioned. My good friend Dan Gross, who I also met at Hidden Villa said of Andy,
Andy taught me even more about how to talk to people than he did about farming, even though he taught me so much about farming. While I was at Hidden Villa I always felt bad to ask Andy a question because he spent an hour answering it to me. I felt like I was wasting his valuable time when he took all that time to answer me. Now, as I get older, I strive to listen and engage friends and family as Andy did to me.
Andy absolutely set an example I’ve tried to emulate. I’ll miss him every time I think about him, but I’m so happy that I got the chance to work with him, to learn farming from him and so much on top of that.
The following post was about Michael’s farm, but it could just as well have been about Andy’s…
My first “formal” farming apprenticeship was ten years ago, 1998. I went to work for Andy Scott at Hidden Villa in Los Altos Hills, California, and spent a year absorbing stories, asking questions, and working hard. It was one of the best years of my life.
A few years later I was at the Ecological Farming Conference, talking with Andy and Jim Nelson from Camp Joy Gardens, a small farm I’ve always really admired. One of us, I don’t remember who, started talking about how great it would be to apprentice on someone else’s farm for a season, just to step back and do the physical work and not worry about all of the details of planning and selling and so on. Everyone agreed, it would be great. I just remember standing there with two farmers who had both been farming for practically as long as I’d been living, both so accomplished and both still engaged in learning more.
It was probably that same year that I met Michael Ableman. He was hosting a monthly discussion series on agricultural topics at Fairview Gardens and I was farming about an hour North. I had been really inspired by his book,From the Good Earth, when a friend at Hidden Villa showed it to me, and subsequently his book On Good Land about his experiences at Fairview.
We’ve run into each other a handful of times since that summer, always with an invitation to come up and visit. Finally this spring I made the time to go visit for a month, help out around the farm, and exchange farming ideas with another farmer who has been at this a couple of decades longer than myself. The result was one of the best months of my life, a chance to temporarily shed all the accumulated layers of responsibility that have built up over the years since my first apprenticeship, and to just focus on learning from someone else’s farm
It ended up being incredibly cold and wet most of the month. There was snow when I arrived in at the beginning of April, and then it snowed and melted, and snowed again. I didn’t mind though, I just enjoyed getting the opportunity to be an apprentice again, to watch and learn from an incredibly accomplished farmer.
In the month I was there we planted an orchard, fixed tillers and tractors, put together new equipment, skidded logs, seeded, covered and uncovered, mapped fields, put down a plan for the whole season on paper, and then changed it all again. We baked bread, ate lots of spinach and carrots, watched Benjamin race down the road on his bike, again and again. We counted and recounted, even when there wasn’t any reason to count. We moved rocks, lots of rocks, we dug holes and filled holes, Such a diversity of work in one month. Such is farming.
So here’s a big thank you to Michael, Anne, Jeanne Marie, Benjamin and Aaron and to all the farmers who have come before me, and after me, and that have been so generous with their time and knowledge. There is such an amazing community of farmers out there and it is truly one of the best parts of farming, that and the scenery.