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Reduced Tillage Musings

The quest to reduce tillage, reduce inputs and ultimately, reduce work, continues….

Patty ponders ways to reduce tillage.

Our soil management regime currently centers around planting annual cover crops in the fall. Usually this is a mix of a legumes and grasses which grow a bit in late Sept/Oct., rest through the cold, dark of winter and surge into growth in spring. They often reach 6 feet tall by May when they flower and become fibrous/carbonaceous.

Working material back into the soil so we can run a seeder through the dirt again is a big process. This entails grazing sheep, flail mowing, tilling, chisel plowing, perhaps tarping, tilling again, maybe raking or some combination. At minimum it’s a 6 week process that requires no less that 4 passes with the tractor per bed. It’s a ton of labor, fuel, and tractor wear and tear, but the worst is the amount of soil damage incurred in the process.

It’s a constant dance of building and destroying soil health, just to maintain status quo. I’m always scheming about how to streamline this process, or otherwise change it up without sacrificing the benefits gained from the cover crops (which are vast). One option is buying compost to maintain organic matter instead of growing cover crops, which doesn’t require mowing and tilling to incorporate. Unfortunately, compost is incredibly expensive to buy and labor intensive to spread. It also doesn’t capture carbon, prevent erosion, maintain soil biology (the rhizosphere of cover crops keeps the soil ecosystem happy through the winter) or suppress weed growth like cover crops do.

One interesting soil management strategy we’ll test next season is the use of live pathways.  First we’ll seed a field of, say, red clover in the fall and let it grow until the following spring. Then, we’ll mow the field and strip-till 4-ft wide beds every 7 feet, leaving permanent 3 ft-wide clover pathways between the beds. This field layout could theoretically last for years and hopefully won’t require planting and tilling of cover crop every season. The 4 ft beds will be fertilized, planted, and weeded like normal and then mowed after the crop is harvested. We’ll manage pathways with a 3 ft riding lawnmower which will shoot clover clippings out the side into the bed as a nitrogen-rich mulch. The following spring the bed will hopefully be re-established with a single pass with the rototiller.

Granted, I can foresee a millions ways things could go awry, but hey, it sounds cool on paper. We’ll try to keep you posted on results!


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It’s a Bird’s World

And…we’re home. We had a wonderful, whirlwind of a road trip to North Dakota and back. One of the perks for me (Nathaniel) was witnessing dozens of species of migratory birds not usually seen on Whidbey. The Montana and North Dakota grasslands, lakes and wetlands hosted thousands of ducks, shorebirds, song birds and raptors: Golden Eagles, nighhawks, rails, avocets, meadowlarks, buntings, bobolinks, and so many more.

Birds take up much of the conversational space here on the farm, as Brian and I (and increasingly Annie) are avid birders. We consider these winged friends an integral part of the farm community and ecosystem. We all love scoping the harriers, eagles and hawks soaring across the fields and identifying the many sparrows, wrens and finches that perch and sing in our crops. Last year we added a few bird boxes to our fence lines, which were immediately adopted by migratory tree swallows. (The kestrel box was unfortunately hijacked by the invasive starlings.) This year the Cedar Waxwings have begun foraging for berries in our maturing hedgerows and warblers have newly discovered our fruit trees.

But despite their endless majesty the birds often pose significant management issues on the farm. The biggest headache is caused by the finches (house finches and goldfinches) and their voracious appetite for our seed crops. If not preemptively excluded with massive 150′ x 50′ bird nets, finches will completely wipe out a bed of bok choi, borage, spinach or kale seed within a few days. Our grass-nesting savannah sparrows also create a mowing conundrum. While we’d prefer to mow in April or May to prevent the dandelion from setting seed, the sparrows don’t reliably fledge their young until mid-late June. Mowing any earlier can destroy their nests and eggs or outright kill their chicks which haven’t yet learned to fly. And finally, the killdeers. These rowdy plovers build their camouflage nests in our fallow spring fields, at the beginning of the busy tractor season. We spend hours scouting for nesting sites (which are often revealed by the screaming nearby parents who fake broken wings to lure us away from the nest) and marking them with bright flags before discing, mowing, or plowing a field. But despite the few annoyances, we thoroughly enjoy the diversity of bird species that forage, nest, sing, shelter or just fly over our fields. (FYI – we are strong advocates of Bird-Be-Safe collars for those of you with outdoor kitties. They have significantly cut down on Patty’s bird kills, AND they are supremely fashionable!)

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What’s up with Real Organic?

Many of you already know this, but to some of you this may come as a surprise, so brace yourselves for some news.  It might blow your mind…. You ready?? Ok… don’t say, I didn’t warn you… Here it comes —   the   Organic  label   is   imperfect.  Did I hear a gasp out there in the crowd? You, in the back, are you going to be ok?  We’ll check back in on you in a little bit.  So. Why do I speak such blasphemy? Well, my friends, let me tell you. Back in 1995, the National Organic Standards Board defined the term organic as “an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles, and soil biological activity. It is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and on management practices that restore, maintain, and enhance ecological harmony.” Sadly, in recent years, Big Ag has convinced the USDA to ignore the main element of what it means to be organic— the soil! Now input dependent hydroponic warehouses and confined animal operations are allowed under the label, leaving consumers in the dark regarding how and where their food was produced.  The organic label still prevents the use of synthetic herbicides and pesticides and encourages at least some amount of crop rotation, thus providing customers more confidence in what they’re buying than unlabeled goods can.  We still reach out for the organic products in the grocery when we can’t talk directly to the producer we’re buying from.  However, all this watering down of “organic” has resulted in some new movements in the farming world that bring us soil lovers new energy and hope. One is the recently formed Real Organic Label, through which we are proud to be certified.  It was started by organic farmers and advocates to push the National Organic Program back to its roots in the soil, but in the meantime serves to distinguish pasture-raised and soil-grown products from other organicgoods. It’s a small, but growing movement with a lot of sustainable ag thought leaders at its helm.  The other thrilling move in the sustainable farming universe is one towards “regenerative” ag practices, which like the Real Organic folks, aim to tend and care for soil.  The Regenerative Ag movement is working to address climate change by promoting farming practices that sink carbon back into the earth. These approaches include planting perennials, cover crops, limiting tillage, rotating animals, and increasing plant diversity. I’m sure Nathaniel will nerd out on all of this in greater detail in a future newsletter. For now, if you’re interested in learning more about regenerative ag, give the new, beautifully produced Netflix Documentary “Kiss the Ground” a gander. Woody Harrelson narrates through a compelling cast of real farm characters who aim to reverse climate change by restoring soil. It highlights a fellow named Gabe Brown who farms outside of my hometown of Bismarck, ND in such an innovative, soil-regenerating manner that he’s been named one of the 25 more influential ag leaders in the US (#NDpride!).  This flick was stellar enough to get my ND teacher sister back into composting and to text me repeatedly, “I’m so inspired.” Aww.  It’s worth 90 minutes of your time and the ideas it holds are worth all of us taking seriously. What are you waiting for? Get thee to Netflix! And then to your compost bin and beyond!
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A Patent on…Pinkness?

Dow, Syngenta, Bayer, DuPont, BASF….what do these company names connote to you? You probably know them as some the world’s largest producers of chemicals, from glyphosate to alka seltzer. These companies, along with a few others, own hundreds of other smaller companies.  As a group, they responsible for the majority of chemicals produced on the planet, chemicals that define how we grow food, manage our health, and run our industries. But did you know these companies also pose one of the greatest risks to biodiversity threatening the worlds food supply?

In addition to producing the herbicides, insecticides, and fungicides that commonly drench fields, these companies are increasingly altering and patenting the species and varieties on which these chemicals are sprayed. The playbook often goes as follows. Take a common variety that has been grown, saved and selected on for thousands of generations. Use modern GM tech to alter a single gene or two among the plant’s tens of thousands. Apply for a utility patent which claims you’ve invented a novel product. Force this product on the world’s farmers who now have no financial choice but to stay on this technological treadmill. Use patent law to prevent other farmers, gardeners, independent breeders and universities from saving, sharing, and selling the seed or using the genetic material to breed new varieties for the public commons.

If this sounds evil, it’s because it is. While in many cases patents can be used to incentivize and reward creativity, this phenomenon does the opposite. By locking up more genetic material in the hands of multinational corporations, intellectual property laws are preventing hundreds of thousands of farmers and breeders the opportunity to use this gift of nature, this public technology, to further develop varieties that will be important to the future of our species.

We’ve heard from many organic seed companies and university breeders that are feeling the chill. But the problem gets even nuttier. Now, many of these companies are applying for patents over entire traits, like pinkness in tomatoes, long necks in broccoli or even, get this…drought resistance! These are traits often governed by the interaction of hundreds of genes in ways nobody completely understands (let alone created).  It remains to be seen how well some of these more egregious patents will actually get approved, or more importantly, hold up in court if the company actually sues for infringement.

The issue really hit home for us local organic seed producers when another small local seed company received a letter from one of the companies mentioned above. It was essentially a soft threat, stating that they were in pursuit of patenting several broad, vague plant traits, similar to the ones I just listed. A more formal way of saying: you little pesky seed companies better think twice before carrying any varieties that also have those traits, cause they’re ours! Oof. Unfortunately, this is all going to get a lot worse before it gets better. I think the best way to counter this trend is to decentralize the seed sector so completely, with hundreds of thousands more breeders, seed savers, regional seed companies, seed libraries, etc, that such patents could never be feasibly enforced. I like to think we’re playing a tiny role in this project.

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Regenerative Agriculture and Rewilding Farms

There’s been quite the buzz lately about Regenerative Agriculture, a new wave of farming practices that goes beyond the organic standards set by the National Organic Program, toward a truly more sustainable, ecological type of agriculture. As the climate continues to change beyond recognition, the world’s topsoil continues to erode and wild ecosystems continue to get bulldozed into industrial monocultures, it’s becoming clear to an increasing number of farmers, consumers and political leaders (Beto O-Rourke even mentioned Regenerative Ag at the last debates!) that something drastic needs to change. Business as usual may continue to feed increasing numbers of people in the short term, but will precipitate ecological collapse in the not-so-long term.

While the list of necessary changes to our global agriculture are endless, one area of focus must be the transformation of marginal, low-productive farmland back into diverse, carbon-sequestering habitat. Areas with minuscule rainfall, rocky soils, short growing seasons, etc., would, in many cases, be better left to regenerate into their former forests, prairie and scrublands. Back in the mid-century, as Agriculture’s get-big-or-get-out mentality compelled farmers to plant “fence line to fence line”, we lost nearly all of our remaining woodlands, hedgerows, bogs and prairies east of the Rockies.  It’s imperative that we restore these features of our native landscape. Any small losses in yields as a result of this restoration could be offset by a combination of smarter, regenerative farming practices that focus on soil building and polycultures coupled with smarter national policies and subsidies that incentivize healthy food over ethanol, corn syrup and beef. These changes would help stabilize the climate and provide critical habitat and ecosystem services without significantly diminishing global food yields.

On Whidbey Island, our land management could use improvement. There are few productive farms outside of the Coupeville prairie and vanishing little healthy, old growth forests or wetlands. Instead we have a steady increase in 5-acre parcels with a single house, fenced lawns, and perhaps a single horse or cow. If we are serious about both fighting climate change AND feeding a growing population, we’re gonna have to be smarter with our scarce land resource. I’d like to see most of our rural “homesteads” transition either into actual food production or back into native forestland. Future development should be concentrated in existing urban areas or other marginal lands.

On our farm, we inherited quite a bit of rocky, unproductive pasture. We could put this toward grazing sheep or pastured poultry, but this would likely be difficult to incorporate into our already over-complicated business model. (Also, we like taking weekends now and again, which animals don’t easily allow) Instead, we hope to return this area into a mix of carbon-sinking perennials: orchards, hedgerows, and native trees. This week we experimented by seeding a native wildflower mix on a 1000-sq ft patch of dirt we had been prepping for the past 6 months. (Check out if you’re interested in establishing some rare and hard-to-find wildflower and grass species on your property.) This winter we intend to expand our hedgerows area and plant more fruit trees.

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Food and Farming in Laos

We just returned from a a three-week vacation in Laos, where we rested our weary brains and celebrated our honeymoon. The best part of the trip was exploring the vast, smelly, colorful markets full of fresh vegetables, live catfish, odd forest products, and… squirrels? We did our best to taste every strange food we encountered and fell in love with the traditional Lao soup served for breakfast on the street corners. A highlight was trekking through miles and miles of farmland where we observed more rice patties than previously imaginable, as well as diverse vegetable fields full of asian greens, eggplants, pumpkins and herbs. Pigs, chickens and water buffalo roamed freely, unrestrained by fences, roads or any kind of property boundary. We took heart in seeing so many fields dedicated to growing seed, often just the remnant, unharvested food crops left behind to dry down. In a country with little to no commercial seed trade, (we saw a few Chinese seed packets at the grocery stores, but that’s all), seed saving still remains a vital and intrinsic part of the farming culture.