Evolution of a Permanent Bed System
by Lou Johns of Lodi, NY
Why would anyone, let alone a young farm couple struggling to make ends meet, want to walk down a blind alley? Compaction, shallow silt and clay loam, poor plant performance, mud, inexperience; compassion for soil life and compunction about causing environmental harm…
Dealing with these issues on our newly acquired farm in the Finger Lakes region of New York while we were trying to establish ourselves as reliable organic vegetable growers became troubling. After three or four years we could see that the nature of our farming practices, particularly the frequent tractor traffic, full width tillage, constant foot traffic, overhead irrigation, working soils in less than ideal conditions (early season planting, or harvesting in inclement weather), would continue to have detrimental effects on our soils, and ultimately on our crops and our pocketbooks. We needed to make some changes, and trading in the farm for some sandy river bottom wasn’t an option. Nor was finding a book, farm magazine, Cornell expert, or experienced farmer that offered a solution. While we knew that deep chisel plowing could remediate compaction, we wanted something more; a long term fix, something that could address the issues at the front end of the process rather than at the tail end. We were looking for a new approach, a routine that would be sustainable, rather than a rescue treatment for an ongoing problem.
We decided to convert our fields to permanent planting beds with grassy strips in between where all tractor, foot and irrigation pipe traffic would be concentrated. This was accomplished with one major modification to our tractors, widening their wheel tracks to allow them to straddle the 70” swath that our Kuhn rotovator makes. Four of our five tractors (David Brown 995 65 HP, Case 1210 4WD 65 HP, Hines cultivating tractor, which is similar to an Allis Chalmers G, and Farmall 350 with belly mounted cultivators) were modified with the help of a local welder, or more simply by utilizing the manufacturer’s designs, i.e. sliding wheels on axles or flipping the dish of the wheels. The rotovator was new at the time that we made the conversion, so we gave little thought to trading it in for a different width. In hindsight, a narrower bed would be easier to manage from a hand weeding and hoeing perspective.
In the initial year of the conversion we created the bed system out of fields that had been under full width tillage practices, so it was all bare ground starting out. The large rear tires of the David Brown set the width of the paths. We thought that they should be kept as narrow as possible, but after a few years of struggling to till straight enough to keep the rotovator from encroaching onto the tire tracks, or driving onto the adjoining beds, we started remaking beds with wider paths. After working with this system for 12 years, we are now making 60” wide paths. This change is partly driven by the issue of encroachment, but also by learning what it takes to maintain the vegetation growing in the pathways. Our stony soil hasn’t helped. Stones getting onto the paths from tillage operations have wrecked many a mower; cheap hand-pushed, modified cheap hand-pushed, mid-level self-propelled, and heavy duty walking tractor mounted BCS types. Today we’re making our paths with an International Cub Loboy 154 with a belly mounted 60” Woods mower, and also keeping the self-propelled and BCS type mowers for maintenance. Obviously, it has been a long struggle to find the right tool for this job.
The time involved in mowing has constantly pushed us to upgrade mowing equipment. Now with almost ten acres under the permanent bed system and five acres of fallowed ground to manage, moving to a more powerful riding mower allows us to accomplish this important task quickly and efficiently. This is especially important in the spring when paths are growing lushly and need to be mowed every other week.
Though learning how to maintain these paths has been a headache, the farm has realized many benefits since their establishment. The clippings from mowing add significant organic matter to the beds. The paths also create habitat for beneficial insect and spider populations, and widening them will only increase the habitat. Our sloping, undulating land was prone to erosion under the former tillage practices. With the bed system, which was designed to have the beds running across the predominant slope of the fields, erosion has been eliminated completely, even in the heaviest summer thunderstorms.