Originially Published: Women Who Farm
When I first started farming, my husband and I were hoping to till an old horse pasture. We wanted to plant an acre of vegetables.
We knew we would grow organically. The soil was mainly clay and heavily compacted. The grass was a mat of wet straw and it was difficult to get into early season.
The first time I tried to till, the rototiller bounced and skidded off the field. I remember trying to hold onto it for dear life. That machine took off on me, flying down the field into the fence.
My neighbor saw how we were struggling and offered to come up with his tractor. The tractor's tines were no better than our tiller. They bumped along the surface, unable to get into the topsoil. So, we decided to take a giant excavator, and scrape the grass off, pile it to compost and then till the newly exposed soil.
Unknowingly, we scraped the only 1 inch of top soil we had, and were left with clay to plant into. That first year, with little water and only clay soil, our crops barely grew. We didn't have the proper topsoil, and organic matter necessary to plant and hold moisture.
We learned a lot from this. Soil structure is more important in plant growth than just planting without chemicals and fertilizers. Since living on the Gulf Islands of British Columbia, Canada, we still have little water, so we have shifted our farm completely over to No-Till. We mulch, mulch and mulch some more. Even with the small amount of water that we have, our plants are healthy and disease resistant.
These are the three guiding principles which we follow:
- Soil is Boss.
Soil scientists report that for every 1 percent of organic matter content, the soil can hold 16,500 gallons of plant-available water per acre of soil down to one foot deep. Increasing organic matter, means increasing your plants available water source. And when you are looking at growing beautiful food, you need this.
Since soil is the Queen Goddess of all living beings, we give everything to her. All our time and energy goes into preparing her. We disturb her as little as possible, and lovingly feed her with nutrients and sweetness. Really. We really, really love her.
Ways to treat the boss:
• Make sure you add compost and organic fertilizer after every single planting. If your plants are still not growing up to size, you probably need to feed them more.
• Don't invert the soil. Broadfork and open up the soil. A broadfork is a tool that sinks tines deep into the soil without turning it over. It opens it up. It's manual labour. You will sweat. It will bring you and the soil into fine health.
• Once you have broadforked, add your organic fertilizer, and compost. You can plant directly into the mulch compost. You will have to experiment until you find something that works for you. Finding and creating the right compost takes practice. (More on this in another article.)
• This kind of knowledge, where you don't invert the soil, and plant directly into the mulch goes completely against the thousands of years we have been tilling the land. You might look at this method and think: “WTF. This just doesn't seem right.” But honestly, once you perfect it, you will be astonished about how much better it is. It is all about the quality of your compost. Source the good stuff. You will be amazed.
2. Water is EVERYTHING.
The reason we go to such an extent with the soil is because of water. When you prepare soil correctly it will hold water. The water will go deep into the soil. This will allow the roots of your vegetables to go deep. With deep roots, and deep water, your plants will grow Jurassic. Really, people will stop and stare and ask if that radish is a beet.
Ways to bring more water and life into your land, without tapping underground water sources:
• Add swales and ponds. Throughout the farm, swales and ponds capture more water, and keep the water on the land. We have two ponds that harvest enough rain for most of our season. We farm on a south facing slope. The ponds are at the top of the slope, so we don't have to irrigate much of the beds directly under the pond. We have a small electric pump which feeds out to the other parts of the farm.
• We terrace all our beds so that they hold the water that falls in the winter. We have one main ditch that runs into a small duck pond, which feeds into another swale where we grow perennials. These never have to be irrigated. The Best Rhubarb Ever. (Direct the water flow to be stored in swales.)
• Design your Farm to be water centered. For some of you, you will have too much water, and it will flood your fields and you will curse the rains that make you pull all your vegetables out of the field before they rot. Raised beds can be one option for this challenge. Also, realizing that the flooding is a natural process for the soil. Don't fight it, get creative. Understanding that water is life, we need to design our farms accordingly.
• Mulch! Did I say this already? I think so. If you are into mulching, like we are, source out high quality, organic mulch and mulch everything. If you are using a compost based mulch, around 1 and half inches is a good thickness. Using a straw mulch, you will want to use more.
• Drip tape is your friend. I remember the first time I called up the irrigation company and asked him about the usual irrigation supplies that farmers use. I really had no idea. Connectors? Header Lines? What? But the man was really kind and patient. I explained what I needed and he translated that into the supplies, and now our entire farm is on drip. We use so little water with a good mulch and good irrigation system. It is truly amazing.
A word about mulch and slugs: Mulch can harbor slugs. It sucks to plant a full row of kale and come out two days later to see it completely eaten by slugs. Two ways to solve this: Don't use straw based mulch which seems to harbor more slugs than a compost one. A compost mulch is much more like dirt. There is less of something to hide under.
Ducks are the vacuums of organic farms. Let em loose! They are especially helpful in the winter, or when you are not actively growing. Just set them free and watch them wiggle those beaks into every nook and cranny, sucking back those slimers. If there are plants you don't want them to eat, just cover with row cover.
3. Observe your land.
This is one of the most important principles. Take time to walk through the farm. Look under the row cover, watch the seedlings emerge, check the temperatures in the greenhouse. Be vigilant and do it every single day.
This way, you will catch when your greenhouse is getting too hot, or if the row cover needs to be removed because it is burning seedlings. This kind of care, this daily observation will surely make you into a master farmer. Learning about the plants, what they need and then responding to their calls is what it is all about.
Ways to observe the land:
• Every morning, before you start anything, begin your walk. Look and see, check all the places that need checking. Let this become one of your favorite times of day. Just to relax and be in the farm. Look at every bed and walk all the rows, and check under all the covers. It can take me up to a half hour depending on what is being seeded.
• In this way, you will catch a lot of problems before they become epic fails. And the very best part is just to watch things grow.
So what I have learned over the years farming organically: Using only natural fertilizers is not enough. Avoiding pesticides is not enough. Just simply growing non-gmo seeds is not enough.
You've got to build soil like it's the apocalypse. You've got to treat water with the utmost respect. And you've got to check your land every single day. These three principals are my guiding stars as a woman who farms. I love them and honor them.