The “Depths” of Planning Farmers’ Soil Education

Fruit and Vegetable Coordinator, Maryellen Sheehan, tells us how she approached the planning of soil-themed workshops for this year’s conference.  For more information and to register for the conference, which will be held January 23rd-25th in Saratoga Springs, NY, head to www.nofanyconference.org.

Tillage radish in soil

Farmers, especially organic farmers, recognize soil’s fundamental importance to agriculture, and go to great lengths to preserve soil health.  However, in my time with NOFA-NY, and when talking with growers, I know it’s also true that we recognize how challenging it can be to manage soils for both solid production (which keeps our doors open as farm businesses) and for increased fertility.  We know that increased fertility gives back to the future farmers using our land, makes our plants healthier, and arguably does all other sorts of good things like trap carbon, enhance nutrient levels in food, and more.  On my farm in Central New York, we’ve struggled with this delicate balancing act of farm commercial viability and building better soils on our operation these past two years. Near-constant rain left soil saturated for weeks (and months) at a time, repeatedly forcing the decision: do we prepare beds in too wet of ground, potentially damaging future soil structure, or do we risk missing major plantings and falling short for those CSA customers who have entrusted us with their money? For all farms, challenging decisions like these are what we strive to inoculate our operations against by building the well-functioning soil and farm systems that remove the necessity of facing these difficult questions.

It’s been really exciting for me to have the opportunity to plan this series of soil workshops for intermediate and advanced fruit and vegetable growers, since there are so many great presenters joining us. It’s also been more than a little daunting since we organic farmers can get quite passionate in our approaches to soil building and managing for better fertility! From farmer input and suggestions, two main themes arose that I strove to include in this soil series.

The first emergent concept was that of ample farmer-to-farmer discussion time to learn how expert growers are working on soil fertility.  You all wanted to hear how growers in similar situations or different regions are addressing some of the same questions facing your operations.

We actually kick off the day *before* the conference this year with a pre-conference on-farm field day on Thursday, January 22nd! Paul and Sandy Arnold graciously offered to host farmers at their Pleasant Valley Farm and set the context of thinking about soil and fertility management in the wider picture of whole farm systems and operations. The Arnolds grow winter greens using organic methods in unheated high tunnels, harvesting for weekly local markets. This field day will start with an indoor discussion and lunch (bring your own or pre-order a home cooked meal) while the greenhouses warm up. We will then tour all aspects of the farm’s production areas, including the greens in their three 34×144’ automated high tunnels, while learning how the Arnolds manage seeding dates, variety selection, winter protection, soil nutrition and amendments, and harvest techniques.  (If you’re planning to attend this field day, registration is separate from conference registration, and you must register in advance due to space constraints of being in the greenhouses!)

100_0847Two Saturday and Sunday sessions continue this theme of looking deeply at one farm for a soil and fertility management case study. Jean-Paul Courtens and Jody Bolluyt will join us to describe how they manage their soil health on Roxbury Farm’s 90 acres of vegetable production with an emphasis of addressing soil health management for vegetable farmers in the context of a diversified farm, emphasizing crop rotation, the use of green manures, and nutrient cycling and budgeting. (There also will be some ties-ins to how biodynamics influences parts of their management strategy!). Paul and Sandy Arnold will be back to wrap up the series on Sunday by examining how they grow profitable crops in high tunnels through good soil management. They will focus on the details of the soil management techniques that are used at Pleasant Valley Farm to grow high value crops throughout the winter in their French Intensive system of greens production, including soil tests, amendments, tillage, bed prep and biologicals.

The capstone workshop for our farmer to farmer sessions occurs as a half day intensive Friday for vegetable growers. We are lucky to have Vern Grubinger, UVM vegetable and berry specialist and Northeast SARE coordinator, joining us to present and facilitate a discussion on soil health practices for vegetable growers. Vern will start us out by discussing and showing some of the many techniques northeastern growers are using to measure and manage soil nutrients, maintain or build soil organic matter, reduce tillage, address compaction, and integrate cover crops and rotations. Then, we’ll transition to the farmer-to-farmer component of the day where as a group we will identify the key questions facing the growers in the room, and then address those questions with a facilitated discussion where participants can share what they have learned or have been trying on their farms. There will also be time to connect with other growers and continue conversations in the social hours and evenings, including a facilitated discussion group Saturday evening on organic no-till farming!

The second theme was the potential applications of biodynamic and permaculture practices in organic farming systems.

IMG_5533For fruit growers, we are thrilled to have Hugh Williams of the Hudson Valley’s Threshold Farm joining us for a Friday intensive on “Ecological Soil Management Strategies for Perennial Crops.” Hugh has farmed biodynamically since 1972, and for the past 21 years with his family at Threshold Farm, growing biodynamic and organic commercial vegetables, small grains, cattle, and orchards on their 45 acres, while maintaining 90% of the ground in permanent cover. This session will focus on some of the biodynamic and permaculture farming practices that can cross genres to help guide effective strategies to improve understory management for fruit, perennial, and annual crop farmers. At Threshold Farm, Hugh and his family were able to utilize the grasses of their farm’s worn-down pastures as an engine to drive fertility across the farm, while making a living off the farm from day one. This workshop will cover above and below ground soil and biological interactions, long term perennial crop management, keyline plowing, integrating perennial and annual cropping, and a range of other biodynamic and permaculture practices.IMG_5613

While these workshops are aimed at intermediate to advanced growers, everyone is welcome. Some great resources to study up in advance of the conference include the SARE books (available at www.sare.org) Building Soils for Better Crops, Crop Rotation on Organic Farms, and Managing Cover Crops Profitably, as well as Organic Soil Fertility and Weed Management (available at Chelsea Green).

grazing cows

Finally, in addition to these great soil workshops specifically focused for intermediate and advanced fruit and vegetable growers, there are also *more* great soil workshops aimed at dairy farmers (we have a half day Friday intensive for on “Building Soils with Recycled Nutrients”) and beginner farmers (a half day Friday intensive on Evaluating Soils and Land to Plan a Successful Farm.) There are also two sessions for grain and field crop farmers that may also appeal to other growers, including one on “Sustainable Soil Management for Field Crops” and another with our keynote speaker Wes Jackson and his Land Institute colleague Tim Crews on “Soil Organic Matter: Understanding the Holy Grail of Organic Agriculture!” We (and your soils) hope that you can join us!

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