Archive for the 'Tools' Category

no-till

After spending a season working on a no-till farm this summer I have absorbed the numerous benefits of this system. For those of you who have never heard of no-till, it is basically what it sounds like, it is farming without tilling the ground. This method is very uncommon for many reasons. As a race we have been tilling the ground for thousands of years, in fact the word agriculture means “tillage of a field” when translated literally from Latin. Conversely the no till method of farming is relatively new and because of a lack of education and communication it has not been tried on many farms. Needless to say it hasn’t been tried in a big variety of climates and soil types either. Another issue is that it doesn’t lend itself to large scale production, in other words, this technique is only manageable on a small scale. On the other hand the benefits of no-till are so great that it’s definitely worth exploring and there is no question that it’s a big step towards a sustainable agriculture.

You might have heard about the idea that more small and medium sized farms are better for our food safety and for the environment than huge farms. Considering that no-till works in small scale farming it’s feasible that if eventually there are more small farms it could be adopted as a common and normal practice. From what I understand, every farmer and gardener who practices no-till does it differently. The system that I learned has been very effective for the farmers at Four Winds Farm in upstate New York for about 15 years. One of the reasons they got into it is because they didn’t have a tractor when they started their farm, which is an issue most new farmers face, considering tractors are such an expensive piece of equipment. After a couple of years, once they began to see the benefits of no-till, even though they were able to purchase a tractor they stuck with it.

Arguably the most important benefit is the preservation and improvement of soil structure and soil life. Better soil structure helps both retain water and drain excess water, it also prevents erosion, run-off and compaction. A soil that is alive with worms, bugs, fungi and bacteria is constantly breaking down organic matter and making nutrients available to plants. Another benefit is weed control. This idea is the hardest for people to understand because essentially, tilling is weeding. The problem with tilling is that it brings to the surface thousands of weed seeds that were buried and exposes them to oxygen which triggers germination. When you don’t till all you have to deal with is the seeds that landed on the surface and the weeds that spread through underground root systems.

The weed issue might be the key factor in considering the no-till method for South Florida. In the North East there are long freezing winters which kill off weeds and give farmers a fresh start in the spring. It isn’t totally perfect though; once the summer kicks in there are plenty of weeds to fight off, many of which have deep tap roots that are a nightmare to dig up. Here in South Florida during our off season the weeds take over instead of die back. That alone changes the way we should approach no-till. Weeding an entire organic farm by hand, which is the way they do it up north, is inconceivable for us. cornplotbefore

At Bee Heaven we have a few small fields tucked away in between the groves and one field we keep in permaculture that are never tilled. Coming back to work here this season, after my no-till experience, has given me the inspiration to treat this ground like we worked the fields at Four Winds Farm. I’m curious about how it will be different and how we can manage crops efficiently considering those differences. cornplotcleared

The pictures to the right are documenting the process of starting with a totally overgrown plot that had field corn in it last season and preparing it for a new crop. After weeding the “jungle” by hand, we raked the loose weeds and big chunks of wood, rocks and roots out of the way. Then we scuffle hoed the ground thoroughly and finally added a thick layer of compost to the planting beds. Because our compost is mostly plant material with some finishedcornplothorse manure, it isn’t very rich in nutrients so we have to add a small amount of pelletized chicken manure fertilizer over the compost. All of this work is much easier said than done! The 3 of us spent about 4 hours working really hard and sweating profusely to get 3 40′ beds done, all by hand.

We’ll see how the season pans out and what the weed pressure is like in this field compared to the tilled fields. The improvement of soil structure will come with time so we wont get the instant gratification of fluffy loose soil like you get with tilled ground. This field will be harder at first, but theoretically over the years if it continues to be treated like this it will gain organic matter, it will have better structure, less weeds and most importantly produce better food.

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After the harvest

 
before and after
before – and – after

The avocado harvest is finished in our grove, though there are still other groves, with later varieties, producing. When the harvest is done, there is one final duty before the trees are ‘put to rest’ until they bloom again in January – topping and hedging.

Trimming the trees allows us to keep them small enough to reach the branches without much more than a picking pole. If we let the trees grow untrammeled, we’d need special picking equipment (so-called ‘cherry pickers’, just like the ‘buckets’ you see utility crews using to get to the high wires). No need for that – the trees bear PLENTY – even better, I think, keeping them no taller than 12′. Another very important benefit of trimming the trees is that it helps hurricane-proof them against all but the aboslute worst tornado-like winds. So, every year, we have this ritual. The guy from the tree-topping service arrives with his machine and goes up and down the rows, first hedging, then topping the trees. But before he can begin, we must move all the chicken tractors out of the way, to a safe location. This means WAAY out of the way – when that big machine goes by, nothing is safe. A small twig thinner than your little finger can be thrown by the blades with such force that it will easily break a car window. We know – it happened one year. WWOOFer Stephanie had her van parked in what we thought was a safe spot, about 50 feet away from the driveway hedge, and a tiny twig of buttonwood smashed into her side window. That taught us proper respect for those machines, which always remind me of a cross between The Chain Saw Massacre and Edward Scissorhands!

topping and hedging the grove

topping and hedging the grove

After the topping and hedging is complete, then next thing is to clean up the mess. This is best done by driving through the entire grove with the bush hog (that’s the BIG mower attachment), grinding up all the cut branches. It needs several passes, and the really big branches need to be taken out of the way. We also need to go up and down each row, pulling out branches that are hung up on the tree or that fell below where the bush hog can’t reach. It’s quite a project, and generally takes 3 or 4 people a good chunk of the day to finish.

Reference:

H & H Caretaking Services
Steve Hoveland
465 NW 18th St
Homestead, FL 33030
305-247-2975
We’ve used these folks for topping our grove since the trees were old enough to get their first trim. They have a small machine which can easily handle tight corners, and an awesome operator who good-naturedly accommodates all our crazy requests (can you go around the papaya? can you leave these two trees a little taller?…)

Recycle and Reuse

A few years ago the local Boy Scouts built seedling benches for the farm using shipping pallets and wooden posts that where used to deliver the metal barn roof panels. Since then they have been patched a few times, but this year we decided they are too rotten to be useful. Coincidentally, we collected a huge stack of pallets throughout the summer from all the Avocado packing sessions. I have to hand it to Jade and Mike for all the sweat they put into the 10 sturdy benches lined up outside right now!

benches1

benches2

benches3

Preparing the ground

Juxtaposition

Juxtaposition

We’re prearing various planting areas all over the farm. Some, like the section containing scallions that ‘oversummered’ (seen in the front of the picture), are simply weeded by hand, amended with compost,  and the irrigation checked. Some areas are tilled with the tractor – you can see me in the background making the second pass on this field, after having waited 10-14 days after the first pass for weed seed to sprout. When there is sufficient time, we till a third time (not this season – we got behind because of all the rain). The repeated tilling reduces weed pressure on the planting beds. The next step is to form up the beds.  I do this with a bedder attachment on the tractor. Then we add compost and fertilizer, lay down the irrigation lines, and put up trellising where needed.

“They don’t make things like they used to”

Margie has many tools at the farm that are clearly antiquescpress.  She doesn’t keep them around as decoration; some of them we use on a daily basis and others occasionally.  One of my favorites is this citrus press.  I’ve used it a few times to save Key Lime juice when the hardy little tree produces a flush of fruit.  It’s so nice to have Key Lime ice cubes all year in the freezer.  Whenever I need it for a recipe or simply to dress a salad or an avocado I put a cube or two in a cup and let it defrost for a few minutes.

A fork in the Road…

I took the fork in the roadToday was the day to start tilling. I took off the front end loader, put on the tiller implement, started the tractor, and STOP!

Looks like we hit a fork in the road. Literally. I guess it came from the rock pile I was using to fill in low spots in the driveway…

Robert (Possum Trot) came to my rescue, with a radial plug and an air tank. Thanks to his prompt action, I was able to get started within an hour of the mishap.

Still, I only got part of the first pass done – the Sunn Hemp plants had been so tall a lot of them got knocked down whole when they got mowed. Consequently, there were some very long fibrous pieces. I couldn’t till cross-wise everywhere, so ended up with a lot of plant material wrapped around the tines. Finally, I had to stop to unravel the accumulation, with Muriel’s help.

Tomorrow is another day – we’ve already taken the fork in the road, so now our path is set!

A new season begins

Returning Farm Intern Muriel arrived two weeks ago (already?!) , along with increased responsibilities and a great attitude! She immediately got to work cleaning up the summer’s accumulation of spiderwebs, dust and debris in the barn, taking inventory of planting supplies, starting germination tests for our heirloom tomato seeds, posting CSA enrollments,  and a host of other startup chores.

In the meantime, I, Farmer Margie, was waiting to till under the cover crop… and waiting…and waiting…and waiting… Why? It was raining every single day, and not just a little. The soil has been soggy for weeks. You can’t work the soil when it’s so wet – you’ll destroy its tilth, and that’s something you want to avoid – even if it set you back a few weeks.

So what the heck is ’tilth’ anyway? Read more


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