Gena Discing last summer with Jayme Fowler driving.

Gena Discing last summer with Jayme Fowler driving.

Our sad news is that we lost our oldest Suffolk horse, Gena, this winter. She had been having difficulty with her back legs and sometimes had trouble getting up after she laid down. This time round we couldn’t get her up again. I find the hardest thing about working with horses is not the chores or harnessing or training it is the sadness when they die. Gena was born on our farm and was a hard and willing worker her whole life. She was always patient with our apprentices and draft horse workshop participants.

On other fronts – The new downstairs windows were installed just before New Years. We were grateful for help from Jim and Bill with the job. The windows had been waiting in our attic to go in since the spring of 2013. Needless to say I am very pleased. We have a new flour mill with pink granite stones to grind our OHF grains into flour. We are hoping that it will be more efficient for the horse powered tread mill to drive. Ken will also be able to dress the stones to sharpen them when they become dull. I have been growing some pea shoots for our winter salads. It is encouraging to see the green in our south window during this snowy winter. Caesar and I have finished the annual CSA garden plan, seed order and greenhouse schedule. I used the computer this year with Excel spread sheets and ordered “on-line”. Ken has been busy making a new zone till implement with the good help of Jim Conrad, who has continued to come out to the farm to help out one day/week throughout the winter. See Ken’s explanation of why he is interested in zone tillage below.

Grayden has another video ready of the maiden try of our new root washer.

New Zone Tillage Implement

New Zone Tillage Implement

Converging Trends & Soil Management at Orchard Hill Farm by Ken Laing

Periodically things that have developed rather independently converge to create a revolution in the way we think and act. In organic agriculture we are at one of those points in our development where we are approaching a paradigm shift in our approach to soil /crop management.

Organic agriculture for many of us was a large step forward giving more credit to the biology in the soil (but without really understanding why or how it functioned), eliminating the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers that could be toxic to plants and soil life and incorporating cover crops to reduce soil erosion, soak up left over nutrients and add organic matter. But this new approach to agriculture left us very dependent on tillage when preparing to plant a cash crop or cover crop and for weed control in row crops. Our brothers and sisters in conventional agriculture at the same time embraced no-till planting as a way to reduce tillage and fuels costs, but were left very dependent on herbicides for weed control and other pesticides for disease and insect control. Here at OHF cover crops have played an increasing role at improving our weed control, holding nutrients over, adding organic matter and reducing soil erosion. We have reached the goal of leaving almost no soil bare over the winter or for long periods in the other three seasons. However, we still use tillage to prepare the soil to plant the cover crop and terminate it to get ready for the next crop. Why is tillage so detrimental? It has to do with its impact on life in the soil. Fungi are a very essential part of that web of life in the soil that help our crop plants access nutrients and water and avoid disease. Fungi build carbon levels in the soil, which is the food source for other biology. They also build soil aggregates that gives a healthy soil room to breathe and have the ability to hold more water. Fungi do not tolerate frequent tillage. It breaks up the hyphae (the branching structure that makes up the fungus). Thus the intensive tillage required to grow organic vegetables is preventing organic farmers from having healthier soils. We can offset this somewhat by growing cover crops, using compost, specific biological foods (such as molasses, kelp, liquid fish, humates) and inoculants.

The last few years have seen some quantum leaps in our understanding of soil life and its impact on crops. People like Elaine, Ingam, Ray Archuleta and Jill Clapperton are helping both organic and conventional farmers appreciate and understand the life in the soil and how critical it is to enable and not impede or destroy soil life. There are more individual organisms in a handful of soil than all the humans on this earth. These organisms all have a role to play in creating and maintaining healthy soil and clean air and water. Our health and the health of the planet begins with healthy soils.

Another part of the puzzle is integrating livestock into the system. Not only can livestock enable us to produce meat and draft power from land that is too steep, stony, droughty or wet to grow crops but they can also be integrated into the cropping system to produce compost, terminate cover crops and boost microbial life through their feces and urine.They can also control weeds and brush. Thanks, in a large part, to Holistic Management we now understand how to manage grazing animals very intensively to benefit the forage crops and the soil health. Unfortunately many organic farms do not have livestock because of the extra management, infrastructure (fences, barns etc.) and marketing required. At OHF the bulk of our livestock are horses which can be challenging to manage on pasture and they spend much of their days working during the pasture season.

We are at a crossroads in agriculture as we appreciate the vital role of soil life and particularly fungi, we organic farmers need to move toward no-till. Remember those of us with forests, permanent pastures and long term hay fields and orchards already utilize no-till in these areas. We also need to integrate more cover crops into our field crops and vegetable crops and learn how to seed them and terminate them with no-till techniques.

For those who are interested in reading more start your Google search with: no-till vegetables; Ron Morse; Ray Weil; Natalie Lounsbury; Steve Groff; Gabe Brown and Dave Brandt .

Of course here at Orchard Hill Farm we have the extra challenge of no-till planting with drafthorse power. No-till equipment is mostly too large and all of it is very heavy and very expensive. Not to be left behind we have already built an implement, which will allow us to plant seeds into a winter killed cover crop of oats/barley/peas. This implement is called a zone tiller because it sweeps aside the dead residue and tills a narrow band of soil 6-8” wide into which we can plant some of our early crops like spinach, carrots and radishes. Yes, we will have to come back and row cultivate for weed control but we have avoided some field wide tillage and the tillage for weed control tends to be more shallow. We are also planning some cover crops strategies, which will hopefully enable us to plant more crops with no-till or zone till techniques.

Bill and Jim helping to install new windows!

Bill and Jim helping to install new windows!

Inside pink granite mill stone on new flour mill.

Inside pink granite mill stone on new flour mill.

Martha and Caesar ordering 2015 CSA garden seeds.

Martha and Caesar ordering 2015 CSA garden seeds.

Growing Pea shoots for winter salad.

Growing Pea shoots for winter salad.