How we grow crops.

I want to take a moment to talk about the methods and techniques we use for growing crops on our property in Bristol, Indiana. I have always thought of myself as an “organic” farmer. Today though, the word “organic” has such a broad application that it is fairly useless to describe how we grow our crops. Other words like “sustainable” or “permaculture” could be added for a more specific picture to emerge, but even these words are not really going to tell you much. I strongly support these three ideas: organic, sustainable, and permaculture, but find them inadequate to clearly define our method of farming, so I will try to limit my usage of these terms.

When I was a much younger farmer, I pursued the idea of being self-sufficient. Twenty years later, I now realize that this dream of self-sufficiency has to remain nothing more than an idea. I simply don’t have the skills or stamina to be truly self-sufficient. I am not sure if it is even feasible, but, by dropping the word “self” from “self-sufficiency”, what’s left seems far more probable and realistic; “sufficiency”. By definition, sufficient means “adequate”, and sufficiency means “an adequate amount”. A simple enough idea and a good starting point. So, I would say we practice “sufficiency growing” and, realizing that we cannot accomplish this alone, we look to our community, growers and consumers alike, to help make this work. Our focus has to always start with what’s “local” (the local input of ideas and materials when available and local markets for our crops). Therefore, I would further say that we practice “sufficiency growing” for, or in, our “locality”. Enough of the semantics; let me now get a bit more specific.

Here are some of the basic principles of “sufficiency-growing” that we practice.

Buckwheat as a cover crop.

Buckwheat as a cover crop.

Grow soil first, then crops. Healthy soil is the absolute only way to have healthy food. Healthy soil needs to be managed and closely cared for to avoid nutrient depletion and more importantly, life depletion. Good top-soil is filled with billions of biota, big and small, all hard at work, living and dying, in a complex cycle that maintains that soil’s health. Our job is to keep them happy as best we can (kind of like being the entertainment director on a cruise ship).  The techniques we employ to accomplish this are:  cover cropping, a 4 year crop rotation (5 would be even better), planting carbon crops to help build compost piles, companion planting, and deep-mulching with natural, local materials like straw or leaves. This is the short list but it covers the basics.

Absolutely no synthetic fertilizers, insecticides, fungicides, herbicides or growth regulators, etc. Natural growers do sometimes have to use “natural” or “organic” controls for some pest and disease problems, but even these can be harmful to soil biology. We try to limit any “organic” chemicals and use them only as a last resort. I do though believe in the frequent foliar feeding of our plants. I use MaxiCrop, a water soluble, 100% kelp, 100% organic, product. I use it in the evenings as a kind of “bed-time snack”, like milk and cookies, for my plants. It smells good and the plants love it. Currently, I am raising a bed of Russian comfrey in order to make my own locally-sourced compost tea to use as a foliar feed. This brings me to my next principle.

Russian comfrey and Jerusalem artichokes.

Russian comfrey and Jerusalem artichokes.

Diversity of crops. Every year I trial many crops in order to find new varieties that are adaptable to our region here in Northern Indiana. Keeping our farm diverse is not only good for our “little chunk” of our local ecosystem, but it makes growing crops exciting! We try to maintain a wide spectrum of herbs, flowers, perennial vegetables, annual vegetables, and grains including both heirlooms as well as modern “naturally bred” varieties. We do place  a heavy emphasis on carbon crops and calorie crops. Currently, we are in the process of  adding orchard crops, like fruits and nuts. Another class of plants we tinker with are what I call “special use crops”. This would include comfrey, as well as cotton, bamboo, fiber, banana, and kenaf. The diversity of potential crop possibilities seems limitless from my vantage point!

Use only open-pollinated seed.  All the seed we ever purchase, and all the seed we will ever sell will be open-pollinated. Hybrids may have their place (not sure what), but in a hungry world, proprietary seed does not seem like a good idea, unless you are a shareholder in a global, mega-food corporation. GMO’s are always a big no-no, and to be avoided at all costs. Open-pollinated seed is logical and more than adequate to meet the need for diversity as well as sustainable growing. It also affords us the advantage of a local, regionalized source for seed.

Low tunnels in spring.

Low tunnels in spring.

Use a diversity of methods. We employ raised beds, various kinds of trellising systems, low tunnels, green house growing, hedge rows, etc.. In addition, we farm with both powered machinery as well as hand tools like the u-bar and scythe. We try to avoid, complex, man-made systems which require specialized high-tek equipment. Low-tek makes more sense for our scale of farming and our goals.

Keep a large buffer left natural. Less than half of our property is cultivated. The rest is woods and wetland. The large number of plants and trees, birds, bugs and various critters all play an important role in a stable, localized ecosystem. This also includes the bad-guys (deer, mice, raccoons and the “adorable” groundhog). A word to the wise, one of our best investments has been good fencing. While not perfect, it has been effective.

A good guy, but please just stay off my face!

A good guy, but please just stay off my face!

Seed Saving. We are slowly working toward the day when we can save the seed for all of the plants we sell in the spring. The “seed” we sell as “seed” is grown from our own local, on farm, seed stock, but for many of the plants we sell in the spring, we still rely on outside sources of seed like Native Seed/SEARCH and Seed Savers Exchange. We only purchase untreated, open-pollinated seed.  I encourage all of our customers and friends to learn how to save their own seed if they are not already.

We are committed to these principles and are open to new strategies and ideas that can help us to maintain what we have accomplished thus far, and improve where we will go next.

 

 

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