Concerning the Bioextensive Market Garden
by Anne & Eric Nordell
photo by John Nordell
illustration by Ed Ochsner
The following letters from Hank Nadu and Rob and Winny Sachno raise farsighted concerns about the nutrient sustainability of our farm system. We don’t have the scientific training or years of experience to do justice to this important issue so we hope you don’t mind if we refer to some of our favorite farm books for added perspective. The authors of these books have certainly challenged our thinking about sustainability of both conventional and organic agriculture.
Hi Anne & Eric,
Just a quick note to say how much we enjoy your articles. We’re also looking forward to seeing your video (if we can use someone’s TV and VCR for 52 minutes). We’re also “off the grid”. It’ll be like a night out at the movies for us…
I am always finding (at garage sales and book shops…) early 1900’s books on farming and crops and even on systems of farming (as you use). The problem came, as I read recently, when at the turn of the century fertilizers and pesticides became a $500 million business. This was in 1910. The reason we enjoy your articles so much is that they are written in the same mindset of a self-sustainable system a lot of these old books were. Why go out and buy, when you’ve probably got all the answers right there on the farm?
A couple of questions if you get the time to answer them. What do you think the fertilizer content numbers would be on horse manure? The closest I was ever able to figure out from “book knowledge” would in my opinion have been like 8-1-1. Would you think this would or could be right? We are homesteading here (again) in the Adirondacks (western part). There has never been any farming here, so the land and soil has never been turned. Since we use horses for power, I was just curious as to what we’re lacking from just manure (horse and green) for fertilizer. We do use lots of lime.
Question #2: Do you use any kind of supplemental fertilizer on your farm? I mean like bags of Agway stuff?
From your writings you seem to love farming as much as we do (as you wrote, for now anyway). It’s a labor of love. I look forward to getting up every morning and saying goof morning to our team. As we’ve read in SFJ you can’t become friends with a tractor!
Thanks for your time & stay happy,
Rob & Winny Sachno
Cranberry Lake, NY
Perhaps you could help me with a question that has concerned me for several years now. Although we garden to feed ourselves with chemical-free and nutritious foods, we hesitate to turn it into a livelihood because of concern for the fertility of our soil. Selling our produce seems but a systematic exportation of the soil’s fertility. Is it possible to even maintain fertility while selling what the soil produces?
Reading your excellent articles in the Small Farmer’s Journal it is obvious you have put much study and thought into cover crops, compost, etc. Are these along enough? I am wondering if we should put these into practice some of F.H. King’s findings in his Farmer’s of Forty Centuries!
I am most interested in hearing your thoughts on this subject.
“To build and maintain a sustainable agricultural system, people who garden should either integrate themselves somehow with a farm, or they should adopt some of the practices used on a farm to supply the fertility poured down their garden sink.” – Robert Parnes, Fertile Soil
One of our goals when we first started farming here was to develop the farm as a self-contained nutrient system. We have not let the fact that we have fallen short of that goal prevent us from forging ahead with our small business, doing the best we can given our personal limitations and other goals for the farm.
For better or worse we rely completely on cover crops and compost to maintain good growing conditions in the market garden. However, we continue to import the horse feed, bedding and rock minerals which are the basis for the compost. We do this primarily because of time constraints. But even if we had time to juggle both field crops and market gardening, we doubt we could have realized our goal in entirety because, as we look at it now, vegetable production is probably the least sustainable form of farming.
Unlike the almost complete recycling of nutrients which can take place on a livestock operation, we are always amazed – even a little disturbed – to see how many tons of fertility and organic matter leave the market garden each year with so little returned to the good earth. Between public perceptions, problems with contamination, and lack of infrastructure, it is not practical to recycle waste products from our customers the way livestock manures can be used to enrich the land. Along the same lines, when we finish cutting a planting of lettuce, or digging a crop of carrots, only a few wilted leaves are left behind in the field and the remaining root system is pretty pathetic compared to the sod left after a crop of hay made for animals right on the farm. Even the rampant vine growth produced by tomatoes and squash melt down to about nothing after frost compared to the blanket of coarse stalks following corn harvest.
Robert Parnes probably says it best in his thought-provoking guide to fertilizers called Fertile Soil which is offered through the “SFJ book service” as well as the publisher, AgAccess.
“A farm is a source of nutrients and a garden is a sink for nutrients. A farm produces hay and straw for mulch, and it produces animal manure, both of which contribute to the fertility of a garden. The garden takes all that fertility for producing a high intensity of valuable crops. Moreover, the tillage required to maintain a garden tends to destroy fertility, whereas tillage on a farm under ideal conditions, builds fertility.”
Parnes seems to suggest that one way to maintain fertility and soil structure in a market garden is to subsidize it with the surplus organic matter and nutrients generated by livestock based farm operation. When we started farming here in the early 80’s the livestock economy had hit bottom and many dairy farmers were bailing out, a trend which continues to this day at an alarming rate. In addition, the capital, labor and mechanization such a venture seemed of using the simplest of horsedrawn technology, keeping this a two-person operation, and remaining debt-free. In our minds, it seemed that if gardens were sinks for nutrients, than farms were potential sinkholes for money.
(We have since learned of pastured-based livestock systems which are affordable to the entry-level farmer and promise to be as profitable as market gardening if the same degree of attention is paid to management, value-added processing and direct marketing. For two good examples in The Small Farmer’s Journal, see Karl North’s “The Small Scale Integrated Farmstead” in the Fall 1991 issue and Joel Salatin’s book listed in the Book Service. We also know of many horse farmers who have successfully started more traditional livestock operations from scratch through careful and conservative banking, cutting costs, family and community support, and a keen interest in and understanding of the livestock market- and interest and understanding which neither of us posses.)
At the time, we didn’t see how we could afford to subsidize a livestock operation financially in order to subsidize a market garden with fertility. Instead, we tried the unusual approach of designing the market garden to look and function like a traditional farm operation. As we described in the winter issue, the cover crops in the fallow lands kind of substitute for the field and forage crops in old time crop rotations to rebuild soil structure after cultivated row crops. To make up for fertility exported from the market garden we purchase “surplus” nutrients from established farms in the area in the form of corn, oats and hay to feed our work animals, who through their manure, end up feeding the soil. The fact of the matter is the market garden is now profitable enough that we can begin to subsidize the improvement of the rest of the farm so that someday we might be able to generate those “surplus” nutrients on our own land.
As for present, we are in the midst of a long-term soil quality trial supported by The Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture. One of the objects of this trial, which was begun in 1993, was to measure the nutrient sustainability of our system. For those interested in such things, we have included the first four-year report at the end of this column.
Please keep in mind that soil tests, at best, give just a snapshot of the nutrient status of a particular field and cannot begin to show the dynamic complexity of nutrient exchanges and transformations taking place in a biologically active soil. Likewise, the methods and numbers used for soil analysis will vary from lab to lab as will their recommendations. As one extension agent pointed out to us, soil testing is an inexact long-term trends in soil management.
Our curiosity for what this sort of testing might tell us came only after ten years of getting to know our soil through observation, intuition and working it with the horses. Looking at the wild roller-coaster ride of the organic matter graph in Table 4, we really don’t have a clue as to what is taking place in the soil. For that matter, all our hard work and planning is no match for the fundamental rhythms of Nature. Still, we like to think the market garden would not be the same without our influence. Just like our workhorses at play in my brother’s beautiful photo, they occupy a very small part of The Big Picture. At the same time, the scene would feel altogether different without their presence.
Judging from the graphs in Tables 1 and 2, our part in the nutrient picture might be a little clearer. At least there seems to be some connection between applications of composted horse manure and phosphorus and potassium levels. Unfortunately, we have not yet tested the horse manure itself but somehow the Sachnos’ fertilizer analysis of 8-1-1 doesn’t sound quite right to us. In the chart reproduced from the Parnes’ Fertile Soil, the average nutrient content for a ton of horse manure is listed as 12lbs nitrogen, 4 lbs phosphorus an 10 lbs potassium, with a good bit of the nitrogen and potassium found in the urine. Written as a percentage, the NPK value might be something like .6%-.2%-.5%. The actual fertilizer analysis might be even lower as not all of the nutrients in manure are immediately available. Of course, the amount of nutrients which actually reach the field would depend entirely on what the horse is fed, the quality and quantity of bedding used, and how and when the manure is handled, stored and spread. (For a lighthearted account of how, we have tried to preserve the value of hot horse manure, see “Work Hogs and Horse Manure in the Spring 1991 SFJ and the shots of the “anal retentive horse stall” at the end of the video tape.)