Sunday, August 17, 2014

Super Soil, Super Food - A Land Stewardship Project Guest Post

 I recently wrote a guest post for the Land Stewardship Project. Lisa and I took a course from them 12 years ago called Farm Beginnings. If you are looking to engage in farming at any level I would highly recommend it. We have maintained a relationship the Land Stewardship Project team over the last decade and appreciate the chance to give back to them for the investment they made in our farming endeavors. Brian will write occasional articles about our farm journey.

The post follows or you can find more information on their web site.

Land Stewardship Project

Super Soil, Super Food

We have learned that quality produce on our 8 acre vegetable farm starts with the soil. Soil that teems with life at both the macro and micro level.

When we moved to our farm 12 years ago, we were newly minted farmers from the 2001 Farm Beginnings program sponsored by the Land Stewardship Project.

Let me provide some background information on our farm journey that will be important later in my article.  I had grown up on a conventional hay, corn, and soybean farm in western Iowa and moved to Rochester for work after getting a Mechanical Engineering Degree from Iowa State University.I liked engineering but after a few years of working in an office environment, I was feeling the urge for dirt under my fingernails and a better way to spend time with my young children.

I was convinced that organic was the way to grow produce and we had expanded our personal "farm beginnings" to encompass a 1/4 acre garden and we were marketing at the Rochester Farmer's Market.

The soil on our quarter acre "micro farm" started as red clay. The developer had sold off all of the top soil when he built our home leaving only C-horizon clay subsoil, which is a great subsoil with a high cation exchange potential. The key word here is potential; red clay without a generous cover of organic matter is a slippery mess in the spring and hard as a brick in the summer.

I started to rebuild this soil. I first double dug the beds and added compost to both the upper and lower layers. I had taken some extensive classes from John Jeavons, author of "How to Grow More Vegetables" a few years before. John teaches the Bio-intensive double digging technique for farms up to 1/4 acre and his growing approach encourages some of the best soil building techniques and high density planting approaches (while at the same time building soil) that I have found. Many of these techniques work well in depleted soils or in third world situations. Which was just what I had to deal with.

We worked on rebuilding this soil for 7 years before moving to our new farm and when we were done it was some of the best soil I have ever seen. We added compost and more compost. The compost clay blend was wonderful. The spring muck and summer brick-like consistency had morphed into a beautiful top soil that was 36 inches deep. I had originally double dug 18-24 inches deep, and the soil life had expanded the horizon both up and down. We never walked on the soil after that initial double dig to minimize any type of compaction and I could literally press a 3/8 inch metal rod into the soil 36 inches with my bare thumb, the soil had that deep a structure. Water and air penetration was excellent and I never had any erosion. Earth worms were abundant. I always had a cover crop on the soil, mostly vegetable related and I would often get up to four crops per year from a given space, and always at least two if I count soil building crops. It isn't difficult, but I'd never heard of anyone doing this, especially in this far north in Minnesota.

This intensive growing strategy would be difficult to replicate on 20 acres, for example, as it is very intensive hand work. The point of explaining all this is to learn the principles and what vegetables "looks like" when grown this way. If you know what the gold standard is, you will be motivated to achieve this level of quality and won't stop until you get there no matter what method you use. This is important back ground information because I believe what we do with our soil comes from the vision and values of the farmer as much as the training and knowledge he possesses.

Now back to our new farm and the new farm beginnings graduates.

When we moved to our farm 12 years ago the farm had been farmed conventionally with corn and beans. Nothing unusual about that, the farm had not been abused, it wasn't over grown to weeds or highly eroded. I'm sure they had been using the typical agricultural chemicals, fertilizers, corn and bean varieties. We had good soil types to work with. The soil types were, in fact, far better than at our previous home where the top soil had been sold and all that was left was red clay.

However, the soil on our new farm was "biologically DEAD". Maybe It would be more correct to say the soil was biologically suppressed, the biology was there it was just dormant and had to be awakened.  I couldn't double dig 8 acres, nor did I just want to scale up a boutique growing technique. I wanted to learn how to do this on a larger scale but with the same quality goals in mind.

Remember that soil we rebuilt from the red clay at our previous home? That soil was 800 percent more productive than the soil of our new farm. It took two acres on our new farm to grow organically what we had been able to do with 1/4 acre at our old garden. The flavor, shelf life and visual appeal wasn't nearly as good either. I also noticed some mineral deficiencies, such as calcium that first year.

So we got to work.
  1. We spread lime on the whole farm for two consecutive years to replace calcium "mined" from the soil. I also added kelp meal and rock powders the first few years to replenish the minerals that are so important to the flavor components of the vegetables.
  2. We grew green manure cover crops to feed the soil micro organisms and wake them up. Sometimes several of these a year in a massive soil and biology building effort. Our goal is to always have either a vegetable crop or a cover crop on the soil at all times. 
  3. We composted, composted, and composted some more. I don't buy much organic fertilizer. I put most of our fertility investment into compost. For the cost of a bag of organic 8-4-5 fertilizer I can buy a whole ton of compost and grow 10 tons. I vote for compost! Through the compost, we added humus, biology, and minerals to refill the soils dwindling "fuel tank". Between the cover crops and composting we have added 4 million pounds of compost to our 8 tillable acres in 12 years. This is an investment of over $50,000, but is priceless in terms of soil development.
  4. We are now experimenting with more advanced techniques like sequestering carbon with bio-char, multi-species cover crops, double cropping, and letting our choice of cover plants do the double digging for us. 
You can't believe the difference. A neighbor was flail chopping one of my cover crops that would then be made into compost. He said he had never seen such a massive amount of organic matter. The cover crop was hairy vetch and winter rye. I think we got about 20 tons from 1.5 acres. I was preparing the soil for a crop behind his chopper and the soil was amazing. This was 3 years after we starting to farm here. It has only improved from there.

It took 4-5 years to get to an acceptable level of quality and at 12 years our customers tell us it is great. But I still have that vision for excellence that we are still striving for. Is that just the Holy Grail that you look for but never find? No I don't think so. The more we study the secrets of the prairie and forest soils the more we understand the path to excellence. It is all there; we just have to look and listen. Sometimes we have to think small to understand these processes and then be able to incorporate them into our farming approach. We can explore some of these ideas and advanced techniques in some of our future articles.

When the soil is right, the vegetables are right. When the soil is healthy, the vegetables are healthy.

So our quality story begins with the soil. Yes, you pick good varieties and grow them well. Yes, you harvest at the right time. Yes, they are clean and fresh. Yes, they have good flavor. Yes ,they have excellent shelf life.

But the foundation for quality is the soil!

Brian and Lisa Petersen and their three children Andrea, Jenna and Reed are Farm Beginning Alumni and farm north of Rochester, Minnesota. Brian has a Web Site with posts of interest to new and experienced farmers. He blogs at
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