This year we swore we wouldn't plant until May 1st, since for the last five years, we've been hit by a killer cold spell in the last few days of April that's set crops back. However, since the weather is getting so warm so fast, we started getting into the fields last week, way earlier than planned!
We wanted to share a bit over this season about how we grow your veggies, and particularly some of the equipment changes we've been making in the last two years that will allow us to build our soils up better. We also wanted to explain what some of the weird equipment is that you might walk by in the fields! This week we are starting with what we've mostly been doing so far: primary and secondary tillage.
"Primary tillage" is pretty much what it sounds like--the initial field work that prepares the ground for planting. For us, it's a two stage process of spreading compost and/or composted chicken manure, and then chisel plowing. We make some compost on the farm (and buy some in, though we are always looking for more), but we also use an organic, dehydrated chicken manure compost that we spread in the snazzy yellow cone spreader, where it drops through the cone to fly out through the openings at the bottom (yes, spreading this is the dirtiest job on the farm!). This spreader also does double duty as a seeder, helping us plant cover crop seed for green manures at the end of the growing season or in fields we are actively growing on.
Next up is our beast of a chisel plow. This implement (in the picture below) is the one thing that can really strain the capacity of our tractor. It has five giant tines (about 30 inches high) and is pulled behind the tractor, loosening the soil to depths of 6 to 12 inches. We started using this last year because we wanted to do more "vertical tillage," which is where you don't invert the soil with a regular plow, a process which can break up beneficial microbial communities, but rather slice these blades through the soil and any compaction to allow better water percolation and root growth. We've been seeing good results so far!
Below is a picture of the chisel plow in action last week in Montana, which we actually left uncovered this winter so it will be ready for the earliest crops of the year (I know, it doesn't look like it's doing much, which is a good sign that it isn't that rough on the soil!).
[We name all our fields after states to help keep them straight. Montana is the highest, most northern field with the biggest view of the sky. California is the field with the high tunnel, since it has the most perfect growing conditions, and since our U-Pick fields are scattered in an archipelago over the farm, we call them Hawaii! If you hear us talking about going to Indiana, Maine, South Carolina, or any other state that sounds like a nice vacation, it's actually more likely we are talking about our growing fields, sadly! We are opening a field north of Montana this year, so one hot farm debate this season is if we should call that new field Alaska or Saskatchewan?]
After chisel plowing, we do one of two "secondary tillage" options on the farm. If we need a fine seedbed for direct seeding crops or using a plastic mulch, we would roto-till the soil right before planting. If it's less important to have a perfectly smooth bed, we will use our new tool for this year: the field conditioner. It's a replacement for a couple implements we have used in past years and essentially works the soil more gently with a series of tines, before leveling the soil out with a little roller in back. Our long time goal is to move away from roto-tilling unless absolutely necessary towards more reduced tillage options like this for preparing and managing our fields. Our other long term goal is to mechanize our heavier manual work so that we can handle the farm as we get older! This field conditioner hopefully helps a bit on both fronts!
And then the fields are ready to plant! This week we'll be putting a lot of crops into the ground, so we'll try to explain the tools we are using to do that in one of the next weeks! Enjoy your sunshine!