Two management directives led us to a bio-extensive design. First, because our staff is small, we required a system that would provide inherently good weed control. Bermuda grass was a particular concern. Our second directive demanded a reduced dependence on outside fertility inputs, particularly industrial poultry litter. Many, if not most, of the organic market farms in our region depend on broiler or layer litter for annual supplies of nitrogen and organic matter. We wanted an alternative that would be more independent and sustainable.
One of our goals when we first started farming here was to develop the farm as a self-contained nutrient system. 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.
Our winter workshops seem to generate a lot of interest in bioextensive market gardening among young growers. However, we sense an undercurrent of frustration because many of the participants do not have access to enough land to fallow half of the market garden. We hope that the following list of speculative suggestions will provide some encouragement to new vegetable farmers who cannot afford to take land out of production but want to take advantage of the bioextensive principles of rotational cover cropping, minimum-depth tillage, and bare fallowing.
Many sustainable growers subscribe to the philosophy of “feed the soil, not the plant.” Our whole farm approach to weed management follows the same line of thinking – we call it, “weed the soil, not the crop.” Instead of relying on the cultivator or the hoe to save the crop from the weeds, we use cultural practices, including cover cropping, bare fallow periods, rotation and shallow tillage, to reduce the overall weed pressure in the soil. One result of this proactive strategy is we no longer depend on the cultivator or the hoe to grow certified organic produce. “Weeding the soil” has also enabled us to use reduced tillage and living mulches without compromising weed management.
We own a 40 jersey cow herd and sell most of their milk to Cobb Hill Cheese, who makes farmstead cheeses. We have a four-acre market garden, which we cultivate with our team of Fjord horses and which supplies produce to a CSA program, farm stand and whole sale markets. Other members of the community add to the diversity of our farm by raising hay, sheep, chickens, pigs, bees, and berries, and tending the forest and the maple sugar-bush.
A farm is never a static entity, a healthy farming system is something that grows and learns and builds upon itself with experience and time. Any successful farming system is ultimately the summation of an intelligent response of the farmers, eked out through years of trial and error, to the unique characteristics of their particular piece of ground. The farm cannot exist as a fixed point in time but only as the cumulative result of cyclical effort, exhaustion, and rejuvenation.
Primary tillage is the first step in readying land for the reception of seeds or transplants. Just as the gardener breaks ground with a spade, and then breaks up clods with a hoe, and finally levels all with a rake, so does the farmer have a basic armory of tools to perform these functions on a larger scale in order to create a seed bed. Our primary tillage begins with the moldboard plow.
These days I call myself a farmer. However, I was not born into the farming life. In my late teens and early twenties, I began to have the creeping suspicion that my privileged upbringing in a first-world household, my secondary education and suburban lifestyle had left me completely bereft of any useful skills with regard to the fundamental situation of being a human animal on the planet. When I came of age I had this gnawing suspicion that in the first eighteen years of my existence on earth I had learned next to nothing of the kind of skills that would allow a person to survive in the natural world.
After plowing and then spreading the fields with compost, the next step in our method of primary tillage is to roll out the disc-harrows. The disc harrows have traditionally followed the plow because they do an excellent job of breaking up any clods and of further turning and incorporating any surface trash that might not have been fully turned by the moldboard. The weight of the disc also has a leveling effect on the soil in preparation for seeding.
Saralee Lawrence and Ashanti Samuels are Rainshadow Organics, a burgeoning, certified organic operation which fully embraces the tenets of mixed crop and livestock farming. At its core is a full-force market garden. The entire farm comprises one hundred and eighty acres situated in the magnificent, high desert region of central Oregon and subject to a painfully short growing season (some years just slightly over 2 months).