Seed Cleaning Tools

Some of Allen's equipment
Some of Allen’s equipment

I can’t remember when I first came across Allen Dong’s hand drawn directions for converting a chipper shredder into a bean thresher, but it was a long time ago. He has shared a large number of other designs over the years for small scale, DIY farm tools. His designs look, and are, straightforward to build, with mostly common, inexpensive or salvageable parts and without the need for overly special tools. The designs are very well thought out to serve their purpose, something that is not completely obvious without looking at the details and in some cases seeing Allen demonstrate the simplicity with which they work.

I felt very lucky to be at the OSU Small Scale Equipment Field Day last month where Allen was demonstrating his bean thresher, several winnowers and a hand operated screen, and a vacuum packer for storing seed. I took a few photos and I’ve put a link to them up on the photos page. Make sure to click on the thumbnails to get larger versions.

Celebrating Organic Seed


Sweet Corn Varieties brought by Dr. Bill Tracy from Wisconsin
Sweet Corn Varieties brought by Dr. Bill Tracy from Wisconsin

Monday night was the Culinary Breeding Network‘s 2nd Annual Variety Showcase in Portland, Oregon. The event brings together seed breeders working on varieties for organic production, farmers, and chefs to highlight the work that they are all doing to promote new and special vegetable varieties. Lane Selman, the organizer and force behind the Culinary Breeding Network, does an incredible job of bringing seed breeders from all over the country, and pairing them with chefs who can prepare their vegetables into tastings that give a sense of their potential.

The format for the event is pretty simple: seed breeders and/or farmers are paired up with chefs well in advance and the chefs work with the vegetables to prepare a tasting. On the night of the event tables are set up around the perimeter of the very lovely cafeteria at Chris King Components (a high end bicycle parts manufacturer in Portland that has a love of good food). The tables are set with displays of the vegetables, dishes with raw samples, and the samples that the chefs have prepared. The room filled with journalists, chefs, farmers, and seed breeders and then Lane made some opening remarks giving the context and making short introductions to the participating breeders. After that it was just a big crowd of about 200, sampling the goods and talking with the chefs, breeders and farmers, and each other about what they were tasting. Lane also put together excellent print materials to help guide people through the event and the tastings.

As a farmer, I’ve been working with Lane on vegetable projects for about ten years now and she’s always included tastings in the work that she’s involved with, not forgetting the importance of flavor when we’re choosing varieties. We’ve worked together, and with lots of other farmers over the years on countless crops, mostly trailing varieties under organic production methods to look at their potential for yields, disease resistance, storage, cold tolerance, etc., but always also looking at flavor. In all of these trials we’ve looked at commercially available varieties, but from the very beginning we’ve also been trailing new plant material from seed breeders along side the commercially available seeds. About seven years ago she started inviting chefs to be a part of the conversation and the synergy is incredible.

Now, at the Variety Showcase, we have all three groups in the same room at the same time. As a farmer I’m able to talk to the breeders about what characteristics I’m looking for, and to the chefs about what they’re looking for. They are also giving me ideas about new crops, new techniques, new marketing avenues, and I get to see, touch, smell and taste the products right there. I had a great time catching up with friends from the food world and getting inspired by new crops and incredible preparations of old crops that give me new ideas.

I was tabling with Andrew Mace from Le Pigeon and Shaina Bronstein from Vitalis Organic Seeds. With Our Table Cooperative I’ve been growing fennel trials so we had 6 to sample at the table, and Andrew had made a take on chips and dip with the fennel that was delicious. I didn’t have a chance to make it around to all of the other tables; every time I’d go out to try to see what was out there I’d run into someone I wanted to talk to and then spend all of my time on just one or two items, but I did get to see most of it, and I talked to a lot of people about fennel and what I’ve noticed growing a dozen different varieties side by side this year. In the mix of crops being highlighted were carrot breeding lines, sweet corns, or perhaps more accurately vegetal corns which are sweet but also have amazing corn flavor and are for fresh harvest, really exciting work on American groundnut (Apios), winter squash, many different peppers and beans, winter melon, barley, wheat, shiso, parsley, and probably a hand full of others I either missed or didn’t get a chance to see.

This event in some ways is showing food at an exclusive craft level, but in typical Oregon style, it is anything but elitist. The emphasis is on featuring the vegetables, the importance of moving our food system forward, towards Organic techniques, and celebrating the breeders who are making this possible while raising everyone’s level of understanding and creating positive connections.

Chef Tim Wastel making samples of a charred “gypsy queen” pepper cured Oregon albacore with “Szentesi” cherry type pepper emulsion. This was incredibly delicious, and was only one of the dozens of amazing tastes that featured the vegetable breeding work that’s being done.

Farm Hand Carts


I made some long overdue updates to the Farm Hand Carts website today. Building the hand carts and working on improvements and accessories is a project that is currently stalled, but that I’m hoping to get back to soon. The updates to the site include adding a few more recent photos, photos and links to other folks carts, and putting a little sign up for a newsletter that will let folks know when things really get back up and running.

This blog is also long overdue for some posts. I’ll see if I can’t remedy that in the near future.

Building a Drip Winder


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.

Costing Out Seedlings: Cost Study Cohort

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Zoë Bradbury hand waters seedlings at Valley Flora Farm in Langlois, OR


Tanya Murray, Organic Education Specialist at Oregon Tilth, has created a great program with small vegetable farms around Oregon to help them to start looking at the costs of production for crops they are growing. This project is a collaboration between Oregon Tilth and the OSU Small Farms Program which is working towards long term viability of small farms.

I’m participating, collecting numbers from Our Table Cooperative to help us better understand our labor needs, expenses and to look for places where we can improve our systems to lower our costs. As a participant I’m sharing those numbers with the other farms in the program, but more importantly we’re all sharing our methods for collecting the numbers effectively through a listserv for the participants.

Tanya is coaching us through the process and every three weeks we switch to a new area of the farm to focus on, kicked off by a webinar where Tanya presents the numbers that need to be collected and formats for collecting the information. A few weeks ago we came to the end of the three week section on greenhouses and producing seedlings. I have some initial numbers that I’m still inputing, but I also built on the Excel workbook that Tanya created for an afternoon workshop on the same topic that she and Ellen Polishuk presented at the Oregon Small Farms Conference in March. Here’s a link to an Excel version of that workbook.


This workbook is a work in progress and I’ve populated it with some example numbers. They’re not super accurate, but they’re in the ball park and should help demonstrate how the file works. This is a workbook I set up for myself so it’s not completely “plug and play”, there’s some need for anyone using the workbook to understand Excel and it’s helpful if you understand how to write basic Excel formulas (addition, multiplication and that sort of thing). Here are some of the features of the workbook to get you started.

There are three sheets in the book: Overhead Costs, Filled Tray Costs and Crop Costs. Overhead costs lists out the basic costs of the greenhouse structure, furniture and utilities. These are costs not really tied to any one crop, and that don’t change directly in relation to the number of trays that are in the greenhouse. At the top of that sheet there is a number titled “est. total tray weeks.” That number comes from adding up the number of trays that are in the greenhouse every week. For example, if there are 10 trays on the first week of April and 20 trays on the second week that’s a total of 30 tray weeks, regardless of whether some of the trays are the same tray or not. I use this number to divide the “overhead” costs and get a cost per tray week. This makes trays that are in the greenhouse for longer significantly more expensive as overhead ends up being the biggest expense for me in producing seedlings. You could decide to allocate the overhead differently if you had a different way you thought was more fair, and if you do have a way I’d be interested in hearing about it. I got my total tray weeks estimate from the crop planning that I do, which is explained here. It makes it relatively easy to write a simple formula to add up all of the tray weeks planned for in a year.

One thing you should recognize here is that once you have invested in a greehouse, the more you can maximize its use the lower the cost per plant. We’re far from maxed out on using our greenhouse space and we could probably cut the overhead cost in half if we had a way to double the number of trays we produced in a year. We’d also have to have a way to use, or sell those extra trays, but it would bring the cost per plant down significantly for some of the starts.

You’ll notice through the sheets that no cells are locked so you can put whatever you like into any of the cells. Some of the cells have a background gray color; those are cells with formulas that are intended to be kept for standard calculations. The white cells are intended for inputting numbers. In some of those white cells you’ll notice formulas, but these are simple calculations when I have the number in one set of units and I need to convert.

The second sheet is “Filled Tray Costs.” This sheet looks at the cost of different size plug trays that we use, and what it costs to get them ready to “seed.” I put “seed” in quotes because preparing one of these trays for seeding is the same as preparing it for potting up, but it’s all called “seeding.” There are a couple of slightly hidden things I think I should point out about this sheet. One is that the labor rate that this sheet uses is actually on the next sheet, “Crop Costs.” Another is that there’s a relatively fancy “if statement” in the “Crop Costs” sheet that references the cell tray sizes I use. If you change any of these cell tray sizes (which is a likely thing if you use different size cell trays from me) you’ll need to update this “if statement” if you want the “Crop Costs” sheet to work for the new cell tray sizes.

The last sheet is the “Crop Costs” sheet and this is where you get the exciting final numbers. I’ve put the final calculations in three forms: per plant used, per tray, per bed. The per plant used takes into account that not all of the cells of a plug tray will germinate, and not all of the cells that germinate will be planted out. This number makes it easy for us to calculate reasonable sales prices for selling starts to home gardeners and also makes an interesting quick way of looking at the price of something like a head of lettuce where we’re selling the final product one plant at a time. The per tray costs is just what it says and I have that there because we may sell trays in the future, but also because it’s interesting to know if we were to seed an extra tray how much that costs us. The per bed cost is intended to be used for a future sheet which calculates out the total cost of producing specific crops.

To get to those final costs there are a bunch of intermediate numbers that are inserted to the right of those numbers and some calculations made. There are three numbers at the top of the sheet as well. At the top is the “loaded labor rate” which is the average cost per hour to the farm of an employee; the “minutes hand watering/tray/wk” which is zero in this case as I’m estimating these costs entirely on automatic watering; and “minutes/move” which is the time it takes to move a tray from one bench to another. For some crops we move the trays multiple times, adjusting their heat zone; others stay in one place until they are planted out.

One of the fascinating things about this sheet is looking at the relative expense of the different parts of the process of producing a seedling. The overhead is a big expense on the lettuce, but on the tomatoes it’s small and the seed is the big expense. Labor on seeding is relatively low, even though we’re doing it by hand. You’ll also notice that for the tomatoes, which are potted up, I split the cost into two parts: seeding the seeds and “seeding” the transplants, which you could also call potting up. For the second, I use the price of producing the seedlings in the place of the “seed” cost.

I’ll try to keep posting notes on the process of running enterprise budgets on the farm through the season. I’m very happy to see more folks doing this and sharing results. Some of the Universities, UC Davis in particular, have had enterprise budgets on their websites for a while now, but they’re usually formatted for larger production of single crops. Richard Wiswall has excellent examples of crop enterprise budgets on a diverse vegetable farm in the back of his “Organic Farmer’s Business Handbook.” I haven’t used it but Ellen Polishuk was touting the Veggie Compass tool which is available at and is more of a plug and play tool. Chris Blanchard has great interviews with both Richard and Ellen on his new Farmer to Farmer podcast, which is definitely worth checking out.

Summer Cover Crops


Buckwheat germinating
Buckwheat summer cover crop germinating

The other day I sat down with Louis at Our Table Coop to outline a cover cropping plan for the summer. For the past 15 years I’ve been using two basic cover crops here in the Northwest for filling in summer gaps in the field: buckwheat and sudan grass. I’ve experimented with a few others and I’m continuing to experiment, but those two are solid and each has a particular place. Creating the summer cover crop plan is pretty simple using those two crops, once the crop plan is mapped out, which I usually have done in December or Januay. The whole process of figuring out what beds would get buckwheat and which would get sudan, and how much of each we needed to order was done in about a half hour. Here’s are the basics of my approach.

Buckwheat gets planted anywhere there’s at least an eight week gap between crops starting in May. Sudan gets planted anywhere there’s more than a ten to twelve week gap starting in May. Gaps are easy to see on the map, they show up as white blocks and you just have to count the number of blocks between the last planned crop (or the expected maturity of a winter cover crop, usually mid-May to early June, and a late planted crop).

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Sudan cover crop


I have these kinds of gaps for several reasons and in other parts of the country they might not be as common. We’re typically cropping nearly all of our ground at least once, if not twice a year. Even then we can have blank gaps because our planting season is so long, starting in February and going until October in the field. Some of our cash crops are finished as soon as early April so there’s plenty of opportunity to build soil biology and organic matter and to keep nutrients cycling high in the soil profile by using cover crops in the summer.

A Few Details

Buckwheat takes between four and six weeks to start flowering and it starts setting seed shortly after it starts flowering, within a couple of weeks. The flowers are obvious and white so it’s kind of like a flag saying, “turn me in, now!” It goes faster with longer, warmer days and slower earlier and later. In either case it’s not going to last much longer than six weeks at the outside, and with four weeks, even if it isn’t flowering yet it will already have decent growth in most cases. I like to give a cover crop four weeks to break down before planting, therefore the minimum of an 8 week gap. If it’s less than 8 weeks, I’ll usually just let the weeds go for less picky crops, like tomatoes, or do a bare fallow for trash sensitive crops like carrots or salad greens.

Buckwheat flowers
Buckwheat flowers

That four to six weeks to flower is about as fast as any weed, but weeds aren’t as kind as the buckwheat and they don’t signal that they need to be mowed before they set seed in the same way. This is one of the reasons I like the buckwheat. Even if the patch is very weedy, those flowers give me a visual signal that I need to mow and incorporate or I’ll have seed setting, buckwheat and weeds.

I usually use a seeding rate of about 60-80 lbs per acre and I either broadcast it with a “belly grinder” (shoulder bag type broadcast spreader), or put it down with a drop spreader. It needs to be incorporated and a ring roller works well, or a shallow disking, or slowly dragging the rototiller over the bed with the pto off. I don’t worry about letting the previous crop break down much after incorporation before seeding, although it’s nice if it can be a week or two after the inital incorporation.

I’ve used all sorts of sudan grass and I’m not particular but I prefer the smaller stemmed types like Piper. In the past it’s been important to specify untreated seed as the seed is commonly treated with fungicide, at least in our area. I have an impossible time finding Organic buckwheat or sudan seed, which makes me think I should start growing it myself. Immediately after that thought I start thinking there must be some reason no one is growing it organically for seed on a small scale and that I’d probably find out why if I tried to.

The sudan starts out a little more slowly than the buckwheat, but it can be maintained essentially indefinitely with mowing, at least until first frost when it will die. I use the same seeding technique as with buckwheat, and go a little heavier, maybe 80-100 lbs per acre. It varies quite a bit how long it takes, but whenever the suday starts to elongate, as if it’s about to send up seed heads, I mow it short. This is usually timed pretty well to knock back any weeds starting to set seed as well. It’s possible to keep mowing it weekly and to maintain a sod, I’ve done it to create alleys in summer squash and melon plantings, mowing regularly with a flail mower, but if I’m just using it as a cover crop I’ll let it go until it is about to head out again before mowing it a second time.

Sudan used to make sod aisles between rows of summer squash
Sudan used to make sod aisles between rows of melons

Even though we don’t get any rain in the summer I only ever irrigate these cover crops once, giving them a little over an inch immediately after seeding. There is no question I’d get more biomass if I irrigated more. Whenever the crop is on the edge of a sprinkler irrigated crop and it gets over spray it gets significantly larger. To me, it’s not worth the extra work, or the extra electricity and displacement of limited water resources to get the extra biomass, and I still get good growth and coverage. I do water again after incorporation (or just before if it’s too dry to work in, which is usually not the case as the plants seem to keep the water pumped up into the upper levels of the soil). I water after incorporation to help it break down and to germinate any weed seed that is near the surface during the four week wait before planting a cash crop.

A field of winter killed sudan


How to Complicate Matters

I really like grass/legume mixes, as the grass and legume are complementary. The grass is good at taking up soil nitrogen, which encourages the legume to work with rizobacteria to fix more nitrogen from the air. The two nurse each other, and the upright structure of the grass provides a scaffold that helps any legume to climb and make more bio-mass without shading itself out.

The legume I’ve had the most success with in Sudan is clover. There are two ways I plant clover with sudan. I have had some success seeding it at the same time as the sudan, although I usually do this in separate passes since the seed sizes are so different it’s hard to mix evenly, and they don’t throw the same distance from a broadcast spreader.  This works ok, but the sudan tends to outcompete the young clover, which isn’t well suited to the hotter, drier time of year. The other way I seed it is to wait until a mowing in September and then to broadcast the clover seed over the mowed sudan. It usually starts raining soon after this and the clover comes up sheltered by the sudan, and then takes over in the winter when the sudan dies back, providing more growth and cover through the winter.

Crimson clover


There are two clovers I use: crimson and red. I use crimson if the field is going to be turned in in the early spring, especially if the next crop is sensitive to trash. Crimson clover is easier to kill than red clover, and this works especially well because the sudan is mostly broken down by the late winter and the lush clover works in easily.

I use red clover if the field won’t be planted until later the next summer, or even fall, as the red clover is a weak perennial and is deep rooted enough that it can be mowed at flower and continue through the following summer with no supplemental irrigation if needed.

More Complications

For a while now I’ve been wanting to try sunflowers as a summer cover crop alternative to sudan. Mostly I just think this would be a pretty alternative, but I also hear that sunflowers can create significant biomass.

I somewhat consider my plantings of dry farmed popcorn, flint corn, dry beans and winter squash as a summer cover crop. They are very low input since they’re not irrigated, and low yielding, but they give an excuse to keep the field clean and they provide cover all summer. There is significant biomass above what is harvested. I haven’t done it yet, but every year I think I need to spin on some clover when the squash starts to die back to provide more winter cover. I have friends who do this before the canopy fills in in early summer, but they’re irrigating with sprinklers so it’s a very different situation for them. We finish harvesting the field too late to get it worked up for our typical rye/vetch winter cover crop, or at least it always feels that way.

A lot of folks talk about the wonders of mustards and forage radishes as cover crops, and for orchard or grain situations I can understand that. For vegetable production, particularly in a place where brassicas are so important as a cash crop and club root is such a big problem when rotation are short, I can’t see incorporating a brassica as a summer cover crop. Although, similar to the corn, beans and squash, I do think of high density salad greens, which are largely brassicas, as a great cover crop. I frequently let these go to flower before turning them in, which probably doesn’t help with club root problems, but it does provide beneficial habitat and is essentially a free cover crop since it’s already planted and it will still grow thickly after harvesting.

Things I’ve Tried

I’ve tried a few other legumes. Cowpeas never did well for me and I think we’re just too cold for them. I did have a good crop of soybeans one summer, using old edamame seed, but someone told me they’re hard on the ground, and the seed isn’t cheap so I abandoned the thought in subsequent summers.

As much as I like the idea of super diverse cover crop mixes, the simplicity of the variations I have now means they actually get planted and are easy to manage. I think that’s a good starting point for anyone new to cover cropping and it’s way better than the alternative, which is bare, or weedy ground.

Making Wood CSA Boxes (update)

CSA box showing new lid design
CSA box showing new lid design and what happens when you screw up the screen printing, oops.

I just made an update to the page on making Wooden CSA Boxes. This includes an update to the lid design which makes them a little cheaper and easier to assemble, and should make them much stronger and more functional. I walked Louis (whose hands are featured above) through the full process of building the boxes and I was really glad I had my old post to remind me how I did it the first time. After two years we’re building 63 more of these boxes and we’re finding more uses for them around the retail end of the farm.

Covering Ground

Beds covered with clear greenhouse plastic to speed early season germination

I was listening to an interview with Jean-Martin Fortier on The Ruminant podcast earlier today where he was talking about his use of tarps. I’m not a big fan of plastic, both from an environmental and an aesthetic standpoint. Jean-Martin is a little flippant about it, but I think he’s right when he says we just need to get over our aversion to plastic as market gardeners. I’ve had similar discussions with Tom Denison in the past and Tom’s insightful and experienced attitude is that the reality is that the amount of plastic used for covering ground is actually pretty small due to the very thin films and even the tarp thicknesses that are used and that even though it’s not ideal, it does make the soil texture underneath pretty amazing, it suppresses weeds reducing needs for further disturbance of the soil (and the resulting diesel and/or labor), and the plants respond well to it, increasing yield per space.

I don’t use much plastic, but Jean-Martin’s discussion of how he uses tarps is inspiring and also reminds me of a technique that I used to use when I was growing on a smaller scale than I am now, although it could be used on a larger scale too.

In the early spring here in the Northwest, the soil can be slow to dry out and to warm up, even though the temperatures are close to appropriate for planting pretty much through the entire winter. What I would do is to cover a bed with clear plastic (leftover greenhouse plastic scraps) to warm it up and to protect it from the rain, drying it out a little bit. Then I would prep the bed and seed it and put the clear plastic on. The trick was to take the plastic off just before the seed germinated so that I didn’t fry the seedlings, usually this was just a few days. This works well when it’s raining and overcast but you want to get early seeds in. If the weather is sunny and dry it’s not so necessary but the plastic can keep the moisture higher in the bed.

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A day after removing the plastic from the beds the seeds have germinated. You can see in this photo how much drier the surface is where the beds were covered versus where they weren’t covered at the far end of the beds but there is still obviously moisture where the seedlings are.

It’s a little funny that I’m trying to keep the moisture of rain off of the seed, but in our climate here in the NW we have so much moisture in a typical spring that it’s better to moderate that moisture with the plastic, and it also helps to protect the seed from rotting or getting washed out of the soil. It’s also funny that the plastic, in dry conditions, has the opposite effect, and it keeps the moisture higher in the soil, essentially holding in humidity and improving germination that way.

I think I originally got the idea from Tom Denison who was probably telling me about doing something like that with early potatoes. I used it for mustards and other salad greens and definitely had much better stands early in the year when trialing it against uncovered ground or even ground covered with floating row cover.

Now I’m thinking more about how I can use JM’s tarping techiques effectively in our Pacific NW climate and also about the possibility of going back to using some of the clear plastic on some of our early salad seedings. The goal here would be to offset the plastic’s environmental impact by reducing our tractor useage, and increasing our yield per bed (which is essentially also reducing our tractor useage).

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.

Sufficient Biomass

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.

The Cost of Saving Ugly Produce

A small sampler share of delicious produce from Slow Hand Farm that wouldn't have made grade at any grocery chain
A small sampler share of delicious produce from Slow Hand Farm that wouldn’t have made grade at any grocery chain

My good friend Katherine Deumling ( just posted a short video about the French grocery chain, Intermarche, and their campaign to reduce food waste by promoting “inglorious fruits and vegetables.” This campaign follows the FAO initiative launched in 2011, SAVE FOOD: Global Initiative on Food Loss and Waste Reduction.

I am completely onboard with the FAO’s mission to reduce food waste. I think it’s fantastic that Intermarche is recognizing that fruits and vegetables should be a greater part of our diet and that people need better access to fresh fruits and vegetables. I also agree that size and visual appearance is not a good blanket indication of the quality of produce. When I started Slow Hand Farm in 2008 I intentionally put produce in my farm members’ shares that were “inglorious” but delicious. I put in anything that I would have eaten out of my own garden and reduced waste like so many other small farms do.

My late night, quick comment on Katherine’s post was, “Unfortunately this actually most likely means less $ to farmers.”

This deserves more explanation because I think the issue of food waste and food access goes much deeper than strict grading standards, and I worry about people oversimplifying and missing the bigger picture.

As a follow up to my comment Katherine posted two more articles, one from the New York Times and another from Grist, which both seem to imply that approaches like Intermarche’s have worked in other places to the benefit of all, including farmers. Certainly in some cases farmers have, and will benefit from this approach, but for farmers as a whole I think this makes things worse. Even though selling more produce (even at a lower price) definitely adds gross revenue to the farm’s income statement, it can actually reduce the bottom line, cutting into profits by adding significant expenses.

Let me explain that last point because I don’t think it is an obvious one, especially to non-farmers. As a farmer, I frequently leave produce in the field, not because some part of it is not edible, but because it is more work (read cost) to harvest, sort, wash and pack the produce than the return (read income) that I can receive from selling it. Most times it actually takes longer to sort, wash and pack substandard produce meaning the cost of production is actually higher, not lower, than quality produce. This produce is left in the field or is composted on the farm and provides fertility for future crops. I do not consider it waste, it is home grown fertilizer.

To be clear, this is not the vast majority of the produce being discussed in the above articles. The vast majority of the food waste discussed above is already harvested, and probably washed (I use the term washing loosely here), but is discarded either at the sorting stage (also called grading) before it is packed and shipped, or because once it has been packed and stored and shipped and stored again, it no longer meets the grade. Standard grades (usually based on size, color and shape) are set not so much because they ensure any kind of eating quality, but because they let far away buyers know, with a kind of short hand, what they are buying. If you’re a produce buyer buying cases of lettuce, you want to know that when you’re comparing two cases of romaine lettuce from two different suppliers, who in turn have bought those cases from different brokers, or maybe even farmers somewhere far away, that they both have the same number of heads, the same basic size of heads, they same basic color. You don’t want to pick the one that is $23 over the one that is $24, and then after buying 50 cases realize that what you’re getting is some tiny, mis-shapen, off color variety of romaine packed only 20 to a case that you can’t sell. You want to know that a case of romaine is a case of romaine, your typical loaf shaped green thing with a tender heart and 24 heads to a case. The standards are there to make life easier for distant buyers, not to improve the quality of our food.

Food that is rejected after the expense of harvesting, washing, sorting and being shipped from the farm is waste. It’s wasted energy (which can’t be recovered) and it’s wasted nutrients (which can be recovered by composting but usually aren’t). For the farmer that sells produce this way, and especially for the middlemen who distribute produce this way, being able to sell rejects as “inglorious fruits and vegetables” definitely increases the bottom line, at least in the short term.

But here I see a second problem in this nearsighted solution: the basic economic concept of supply and demand. To review for a moment, as supply increases, demand, and the corresponding price, decreases. There are only so many fruits and vegetables that the world’s population can eat, therefore demand is increasing slowly. It increases as we improve our diets (eat more fruits and vegetables), and increase our global population, but there are still limits. If we actually had a shortage of fruits and vegetables worldwide and adding “inglorious fruits and vegetables” into the supply didn’t make up for the full shortage then demand probably would stay high and prices to the farmers would would be good. Intead we have an abundance of fruits and vegetables and an inefficient distribution system, so by increasing the inefficiency by reducing the waste, prices will only be driven down. Increased supply without a corresponding increase in demand leads to lower prices. Lower prices are not good for farmers as a whole.

If having big grocery chains accept sub-standard vegetables to reduce food waste, increase food access for the poor, and generate more income for farmers isn’t the answer then what is?

Shifting more of our food dollars to local farms by buying directly, or encouraging the grocers we buy from to do the same would make a much bigger difference. Shorter supply chains reduce waste in shipping and storage, and any “waste” that stays on the farm can actually contribute to the farms fertility in the future.

Reducing income and wealth disparity and therefore increasing the purchasing power of the poorest segment of our population would go a long way toward improving food access.

Increasing food prices could help in several ways. Many of the worlds poorest are the food producers and so when we talk about getting food to the poor, increasing farm income, while at the same time reducing income and wealth disparity, would disproportionately improve conditions for small farmers and farm laborers at the same time as it increases access to food for all poor people.

Increasing prices would also encourage less waste by the end users of food. As food prices have dropped in the US food waste increased by 50% between 1970 and 2010 (

Intermarche’s marketing campaign for ugly produce is a good one. We all need to understand that visual appearance is not a stand in for more important qualities of food like taste, nutrition and environmental impact. Their campain is limited though, and we need to think beyond just the easy (and false) path of spending less to get more. We also need to make larger changes to the system to address some of the root causes, not just the superficial symptoms.