CSA Newsletter Week 9

THE CROP THAT COVERS IT ALL
by Farmer Skip

If I had to choose one essential element of organic farming it would be cover crops. Nature abhors bare ground yet drive through a countryside of conventional farming in winter and what you’ll see is a landscape stripped of its protective cover.

With the right timing and nature’s cooperation, a cover crop becomes a farm’s best friend. Those vine-like legumes — winter peas, iron and clay peas, hairy vetch — put nitrogen into the soil instead of the farmer hauling it in from a chicken farm or compost company or spraying a store-bought mix. Cereal crops like Elbon rye help suppress weeds and damaging nematodes*. Root crops like turnips and daikon radish aerate compacted soil, pulling up minerals for your vegetables.

Those are just some of the biological reasons for cover cropping. Other benefits include erosion control, increased water retention, feeding pollinators, and, perhaps most importantly, a bounty of organic matter that feeds microbes in the soil.

Recently, Green Gate completed a three-year contract with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS)  to grow cover crops on our farm. NRCS has become the leading USDA agency to encourage farmers to transition to organic practices. With their assistance, we improved our cover cropping — increasing the number of species from two to five and growing this in summer and winter. NRCS introduced us to Sun Hemp. A distant cousin of marijuana  —without the THC — this plant loves hot sun, is drought tolerant, and its 8-foot stalk sends up huge yellow blossoms in late summer that Farmer Erin featured in her flower bouquets.

Now that Green Gate is back on its own as far as what we choose for cover cropping, I wanted to continue the experiments. I was visiting Sharon Crow, owner of Guinea Hill Farm in Elgin, when she showed me her pride and joy. Not her flock of guinea hens. Not her tomatoes or potatoes. No, a field of hubam clover, elbow rye and peas gone to seed. I was as impressed as I was horrified. No farmer lets cover crop go to seed. You not only lose nitrogen to seed production but those seeds will be “weeds” when you plant vegetables the next season.

Sharon explained that our farmer friend Wayne Lundgren inspired her to do something that many organic farmers are reluctant to do — let a field go fallow for two years. Land needs a rest yet it rarely does. Indeed, 50 years ago, the USDA’s Soil Bank Program used to pay farmers, my father included, to keep their land fallow.

Experiencing this cover crop gone wild is even better than receiving a check. Three fields here are buzzing with bees and glittering with butterflies of every stripe. Sparrow and dove are nesting in its cool bowels. Who knew that clover not only smells sweet when it flowers but can grow seven-feet tall?  Or that hairy vetch, with its lacy combs of purple flowers, should really be called hairy stretch as it spreads like a greedy prospector to claim its territory.

Best of all, these crops have smothered my nemesis — the invasive Johnson Grass that was imported to Texas a century ago.

This fall, instead of plowing up and planting vegetables I’ll mow this field and give it light disking. And then simply wait for nature to send the farm a deposit from its seed bank.

*Nematodes are microscopic worms that are often parasitic.

Newsletter Week 6

Last Saturday, Green Gate Farm hosted an education event for Holistic Management International, a leader in regenerative agriculture. More than 40 aspiring farmers and ranchers spent the day touring the city farm, learning HMI practices and tools, and hearing from three sustainable farming experts.

Those experts — Edwin Marty, Robert Maggiani, and Ronda Rutledge — were asked what was the single biggest challenge facing the local food movement. Their answers were: lack of mindful consumption, a food system that is culturally and ecologically unsound, and the inability of small family farmers to make a decent living.

We spent the afternoon using HMI decision-making tools to come up with solutions to those pressing problems. Overcoming the mindless consumption of unhealthy food gained traction as the first place to start. Yet what began as a simple and fairly obvious strategy soon grew complicated once we got down into the weeds of HMI’s list of considerations, such as root causes, logjams and unintended consequences.

Sitting in our Children’s Garden, feeling the unseasonable heat rise as the afternoon wore on, we all began to appreciate why consensus is so hard to reach on an issue as multifaceted and entrenched as Big Food. If the path to change can’t find traction at the political level, the only alternative is at the grassroots. But where to begin? Who will be our leader? How will we sustain the movement?

As if mirroring the competing demands and considerations we faced, our outdoor classroom was interrupted by a cacophony of voices — this time from the creatures with whom we share the farm: a vociferous mockingbird perched on a branch a few feet above our heads; a rooster on the perimeter who wouldn’t stop crowing; guinea hens racing around the barn; and two dogs digging in under the picnic tables to keep cool.

“Suddenly a lot of competition,” said Peggy Seachrist, HMI’s Program Manager, trying to turn our attention back to fixing the logjam that has kept local food consumption at only 1% in Central Texas.

Why was that mockingbird carrying on, boldly taking center stage as if its message were so critical it needed constant repeating. What was that rooster crowing about in the middle of the afternoon? And what were the dogs to make of these record-breaking temperatures that were making them pant in Spring?

That very moment, thousands of enlightened citizens were marching in cities around the country, protesting our president’s attack on climate change initiatives. The following day, meteorologists would note that the first four months of this year were the hottest on record for Austin.

HMI’s Open Gate On-Farm Learning Program was a success by all measures. Making both business and personal decisions based on the health of the soil and understanding how biological wealth relates to financial wealth is an important message for our times. Unless that message gets louder and bolder, until we start digging and taking a stand, the climate might end up making those decisions for us.

-Farmer Skip

CSA Spring CSA Week4B Newsletter

Some days in Spring are especially busy for the farm and today was one of them. Crazy busy. 

There were melons to plant, tomatoes to trellis, slicing onions to dry. There were weeds to pull (nothing new about that.) And then, of course, the harvesting for this week’s share, which is a nice balance of the last of the winter crops and the first of the summer crops.

And then there were the kids. One hundred and two, to be exact. And I”m not talking baby goats. No, these were well-behaved, exuberant third graders from Elgin ISD who arrived at nine this morning for a field trip.

Erin is constantly hosting field trips at the city farm and most of them she can manage alone or with the help of Carolyn and one or two other farm educators. But today was different. Even before the dew had dried, three yellow buses pulled up to the barn and enough kids spilled out to encircle the entire barnyard several times.

Erin is our general and soon all seven of us foot soldiers for good food  are at our stations, ready to spend the next two hours giving these kids a real farm experience. For the farmer, who so often spends hours alone in the field, it is exciting and exhausting at the same time — all these questions thrown at you, ones you haven’t thought about in years. 

Some you can answer without thinking: what is organic, where does a potato come from, how old is Spot (our 800-pound boar)?  

And then come the one’s that give you pause. What is that pink thing on the back of Spot?  Why does the rabbit have red eyes. How do the goats make babies.? How do vegetables get their names? Do worms eat plastic?

 Humor goes a long way on days like this. And sometimes the kids run with our games. Our daughter Alex was in charge of the chicken and rabbit station. Pointing at the round rabbit droppings beneath the cage, she explain that we don’t call it poop. “

“We call it bunny berries,” she explained.

“Oh,” asks one astute third grader. “Can we eat them?”

“Yeah,” another chimes in. “It looks like Coco Puffs.”

Ah, life on the farm. Never a dull moment.

-Farmer Skip

CSA Spring CSA Week3A Newsletter

Visions of Green Fields

Warm days, cool evenings, and intermittent rains bring Spring to a brilliant crescendo of color — ten shades of green splashed with wine cup red, bonnet blue, and buttercup yellow. The farmer stands in awe at nature’s exuberance, once again caught off-guard by its silent rush to dress up and burst forth into the world. Everything in flux. Nothing staying put. A wild parade of growth that marches past him as he hastily pulls his babies out of its path.

Yes, it’s that time of year again, albeit a fortnight early by most planting calendars. This week’s harvest runs the gamut from fennel steaks that barely survived the late December freeze to romaine lettuce that baked under a summer-like sun. And now comes the moment he had waited for, dreamed about in mid winter when the farm finally appeared under control and promised to follow his best laid plans. Amid swarms of harlequin bugs and regiments of Johnson Grass, the farmer unveiled the white row cover and exposed his prized possession — the most tender, leafy, unmolested row of hakurei turnips he has ever grown.

As white and luminous as the full moon that rose later that evening, those sweet orbs were washed and packed and safely stored. A small victory worthy of a good meal, exalted, hopefully, by some brilliant menu that would honor the arduous journey.

The farmer has more to share — carrots and new potatoes ready in the next week or two; squash and cucumbers on their heels; and tomatoes already the size of easter eggs. And the farmer has more to tell, like how 30 Austin creatives celebrated the new moon at the city farm last night as part of the Moon Language Story Circle* gatherings. All it took was a fire and a dozen brave artists to hold back the storms with their poetry, music and timeless stories. A quintessential Austin moment was brought forth as gracefully and magically as those delicious turnips with the can’t-spell-me name. 

Alas, however, the farmer has run out of space and time. The Spring that sprung before its time has stolen the hours as well. 

-Farmer Skip

*Feel free to attend the next full moon meeting, which will be held at Urban Roots.

CSA Spring Week2B Newsletter

For years Erin has challenged me to try no-till farming, at least as an experiment on a couple of our fields. This year, after meeting an intense, passionate farmer from Arkansas named Patrice Gros, I decided to give it a try.

The Frenchman’s detailed sharing of his 10-year experiment provided the recipe, which requires four main ingredients, two of which were available on the farm this year — massive amounts of leaves and wood chips, and a five-species cover crop I planted in the fall.

The one ingredient that makes it unsustainable right now was having to purchase compost. Lots of compost. The initial bed-making requires literally tons of organic matter and the combination of leaves, compost and mulch are the secret to keeping weeds down while also building up the critical microbial habitat that can break down all that organic matter you heap onto these raised beds.

The fourth — and most critical — ingredient is lots of hands. As in hard labor. There is no way to skimp on this requirement — making the beds, weeding, and then pulling back all the decayed vegetative material to the shoulders when you get ready to plant the next season.  

Fortunately we have had lots of volunteer help this season. I won’t even try to estimate the number of wheel barrels that were filled and emptied for just one-quarter acre.

Another incentive for going no till this year was the fact that our old Shubaru tractor had stopped running; it, too, was tired of tilling up the ground each year.

Farming no-till organically on larger plots requires special equipment and ideal conditions. But for small plots on farms that have lots of volunteer hands, this style of no-till seems is about as sustainable as it comes. But it also requires a long-term commitment. Gros has been doing no-till for 10 years now and only recently has he felt like he has created the perfect system. His organic matter during that time has increased from 1 percent to more than 8%, which is about three time what we have in our fields right now.

Last week’s pac choy is the first crop to come from these no-till beds. The mediocre results were not unexpected. The leaves and cover crop underneath the thick layer of compost did not have enough time to break down and allow the roots to penetrate into the soil below.  The plants were fairly stunted and it didn’t help that our record warm spring forced the plants to bolt several weeks early. Next season will undoubtably be more fruitful.

Like a kitchen table after a hastily prepared meal, these fields are messy, with cover crop still growing in the crooked isles and uneven rows that were laid down without the benefit of string. And as with any undercooked meal, the farmer is still chewing on what he has wrought and whether this last-minute experiment is going to take off and become the apple of his eye.

Either way, the farmer feels good that he is pushing the envelope and wishes he had listened to his wife a long time ago.

-Farmer Skip

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