What a week! I started off on Monday thinking this week would be mostly consumed by weeding, but as usual, a whole slew of other things were accomplished. On Monday, we did our usual Farm Walk and noticed that nearly everything needed to be weeded. We ended up weeding in every field at least once this week, and got a huge amount done. Thursday and Friday were spent mostly in the strawberries, first with shuffle hoes, then with hand hoes, then finally coming in with clippers to nip the fruit in the bud (literally). We attacked the weeds in a prioritized list by order of size. Anything that was threatening to overtake the crops was done first, then we got to the alliums, which weren’t terribly threatened but do not size up very well under weed pressure, then we got to the areas that have minimal weed pressure right now but can easily be dealt with at this size.
In the process of weeding, we were disturbing the soil structure of the fields quite a bit by tearing through roots, sifting soil around, and leaving it nearly bare save for the crops, not to mention the soil disturbance that goes on in each pass of soil preparation and, later, cultivation. I know from many different classes I have taken about soil structure: the complexity and richness of soil, its vital importance in an ecosystem, how easily it is ruined, and the detrimental consequences of tampering with soil. I asked Adrienne about this process on their farm and she explained that the level of soil disturbance we are practicing now is not ideal and she doesn’t plan for it to be this way in the long-term. The land that New Beat Farm is on now has never been in organic vegetables before. We got the chance to meet Clayton Larrabee last weekend, whose family lived here before. They used this land for growing feed corn and pasture, so the combination of pesticides, chemical fertilizers, and grass rhizomes makes the land very weedy now that only organic practices are in use. Part of the bio-extensive model Adrienne and Ken employ that allows them to use horse power is wide crop spacing, which leaves lots of room for weeds to grow. Over time, and through, unfortunately, lots of soil disturbance, the weed seed bank of the soil will dwindle, and they will be able to continue farming bio-extensively but with less aggressive cultivation.
One method that is in use here to increase many different aspects of soil health under the bio-extensive model is ridge tillage. Ridge tillage is essentially hilling up the beds before planting so that the row itself is raised and the aisle is lowered. I just read a wonderful article in the summer edition of MOFGA’s quarterly newspaper by Nicolas Lindholm of Hackmatack Farm in Penobscot, ME. He explains that ridge tillage allows air flow around crops, creates a valley for water to gather and then sink in, and also minimizes wind erosion. Lindholm also explains that “ridge tillage significantly impacts the soil ecosystem by arranging topsoil in a way that enlarges and optimizes the volume most used by plant roots and the diverse ecology of microorganisms that promote plant growth and health. This expanded surface area of soil is highly beneficial. The top 3 inches of a vegetable field or garden soil, especially in a high-residue system, is where most of the macro and microorganisms live, so ridge tillage expands and increases this “bioactive zone.” Transitional or edge ecologies, such as at the forest’s edge or the ocean shore, are highly biotic zones where many forms of life thrive and biological activity is greater than in other, non-transitional ecosystems. In our vegetable fields, simply creating ridge formations expands this biotic zone along the surface of the topsoil (and the biotic root zone just under the soil surface).” One of the advantages of the bio-extensive method of field planning is the ability to practice ridge tillage and reap all of the benefits of the micro-environments created.
On Monday afternoon, Brian and I got off work early to go to another MOFGA-sponsored intern gathering. The theme of this gathering was “Creative Marketing” and it was hosted by the Pickup Cafe & CSA in Skowhegan, about an hour West of Knox. The Pickup is, in modern local foodie terms, a “food hub.” Manager Sarah Smith told us about the many things that the Pickup does, including operate an extremely flexible CSA (I would debate the use of that term for these purposes) that offers many different sizes and contents of shares for weekly payments, sourced from 40+ central Maine farms. The Pickup also has a cafe that is open 2 days a week for dinner and Sundays for brunch, sourcing heavily from central Maine farms. It also rents out (for a nominal fee) its commercial kitchen to local, small scale food processors. Lastly, Sarah personally coordinates many exchanges between Maine farms and wholesale accounts like schools and hospitals. (She also manages the twice-weekly Skowhegan farmer’s market, her own 52-acre vegetable, meat, and dairy farm, and mothers three children. Wow!) The Pickup is filling a big gap in the Waterville area: there is a lot of farmland in that region that is increasingly in the hands of young, small-scale farmers, but it is a “market desert,” as Adrienne said. The Pickup is taking on the role of creating a market for all those small farmers interesting in reaching a local consumer base. Brian and I agreed that the amount of information we absorbed at this gathering was overwhelming, but the main takeaways were around Sarah’s role in the Pickup. First, she works like crazy. She called herself a “spreadsheet wizard,” and said that her role at her own farm is rarely bending over vegetables. While I understand that all farming includes some degree of spreadsheets and phone calls, I want the bulk majority of my time to be spent outside. I’m glad there are those who are willing to take on the managerial aspect full time, though, because that liberates hundreds of others to focus on the fields. On the other hand, she is unique among “food hub” leaders in that she has an intimate understanding of farming. She was a farmer for a long time before starting the Pickup, and she grew up in the area, so she really knows how farmers make decisions and what their needs are. Adrienne said that many “food hub” coordinators come from a non-profit background and don’t necessarily know anything about the daily ins and outs of a real farm. (The Pickup is actually a for-profit LLC, and is allied with a nonprofit through which they can receive tax-deductible donations). Her work perfectly exemplifies a lot of the descriptions of community building discussed in a wonderful publication from 1993 from the Asset-Based Community Development Institute at Northwestern University. The book promotes an attitude towards community development that is in direct opposition to the mainstream charity-based work that a lot of nonprofits do. It talks about amplifying the resources and capacities that a community already has to build it up from the bottom. Sarah is taking the farms and people of central Maine and bridging them together to create a more healthful and vibrant local economy.
Another major event this week was moving the sheep from our pastures here to a neighbor’s pasture less than a quarter mile down the road. It was an all-morning affair that required all 6 of our brains, bodies, and the coordination thereof. Adrienne, Graham, and I set up a corral connecting their paddock to the trailer such that it had no sharp-angled corners or gaps and also allowed for a gate to slowly narrow the size of the corral as the sheep were herded (read: forcefully shoved) into the trailer. Before starting the process, we all talked through the game plan and assumed our positions. It went astonishingly well, and once they were in, Adrienne held them in with a section of hog panel while we slid the ramp away and closed the door. But there’s a catch! Only half the flock can fit inside the trailer at once, so we had to drop them off at the new paddock and go back for the rest. I stood guard at the new paddock, but I heard tell later of Brian leaping horizontally into the air to catch a lamb. The second round were more wary of the trailer, but they eventually all reunited.
On Wednesday, we all got a chance to drive Jewel and Pete with the forecart and hay wagon, which was a lot of fun. It involves being watchful of how much the wagon is pushing on the horses while we are going downhill, and braking accordingly, but otherwise it is not much different that driving them while walking.
I also transplanted basil from a micro-greens tray into soil blocks, using a whopping seven varieties. I planted a whole tray of typical green basil, and another tray mixed among sacred, thai, lemon, lime, purple, and purple crinkly basil. It smelled wonderful, and I look forward to our first harvest of basil (from the high tunnel) next week!
On Tuesday and Wednesday, we got all of the shallots into the ground and also planted quite a bit of scallions and some ornamental grasses.
On Thursday, we harvested for the Belfast Farmer’s Market and I got a turn at the wash station. What came through was kale, chard, pak choi, radishes, flowers, lettuce, and arugula. We had to be careful to leave enough for the CSA, which begins on Tuesday, while still harvesting as much as will sell at the farmer’s market. After soaking and washing, the greens were weighed or counted and the amount recorded in the harvest log.
Saturday morning, everyone worked on various tasks around the high tunnel, ultimately resulting in the transplanting of many different varieties of dahlias.
Ridge Tillage at Hackmatack Farm:
MOFGA’s newspaper: (awesome article about homesteading at the top!)
The Pickup Cafe & CSA:
Asset-Based Community Development:
Kretzmann, John and John L. McKnight. Building Communities from the Inside Out: a Path Toward Finding and Mobilizing a Community’s Assets. Evanston: The Asset-Based Community Development Institute, 1993.