Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Rockin' the Triangle

On Saturday we held our first volunteer workday in 2012!

The target was a little 900 ft corner of a conventionally-farmed field directly to the east of our garden. We carved it out of the the rest in 2010 with plans to expand in that direction as needed. (At right is the google-eye view).

The farmer who leases the fields on the property is a great guy, very amiable and knowledgeable about chemical farming, and curious about what it is we're doing. So when we asked if we could take a titch of the field for our own uses he told us to mark out whatever we wanted, and that it wouldn't be a problem. That was April of 2010, about a month before he would spray and put in soybeans.

Two months later we had a real appreciation for what round-up and whatever else he sprays is capable of doing. Except for a few resistant (or persistent) weeds, the field was devoid of anything but soybeans. Our triangle, however, had erupted in every weed whose seed had ever landed there, and had jumped to a height of 5+ feet. It was almost funny. But there were some serious thistles and heavy-duty dock plants, besides the sheer mass. Over the past two years we laid down cardboard and chicken feed bags across the whole thing, then put branches and whatnot to keep them down, all in the interests of preventing any more weed insurrections. We also put in two Elderberry bushes, which are native here.

Since we are beginning to get a handle on our Biointensive garden, we have started setting goals and taking steps toward management of the rest of the land, including the ~4.5 acre field to the East and the ~7 acre field to the West. We won't be able to put cardboard, chicken feed bags, and windfall branches on all of that, and so we've been brainstorming what is possible. Every pass of the chemical sprayer makes our next move feel more urgent. While we've toyed with using a disc for our little Ford 2000, the current state of the soil means any cultivation at all will contribute significantly to the erosion already taking place.

So we decided on the strategy of broadcasting grains and legumes in a Fukuoka-style kind of way. For those unfamiliar with Masanobu Fukuoka, I recommend his book One Straw Revolution. Essentially, over the course of decades, Fukuoka developed a technique of growing grains that meant he walked his fields only five times a year - once to broadcast seed, once to harvest barley and again to spread its straw, and once to harvest rice and again to spread its straw. The result was a constant returning of biomass to the fields, with little compaction and no disturbance of the soil other than root action. The straw also cut down on evaporation and weed growth.

In our case, we broadcast wheat and field pea seeds and mulched them with grass clippings (experimenting with technique at left), in the hope that we can cover the soil with something that will cut down on weed growth, build the soil through root action, and possibly give us food in addition to straw. We will see what we can to to develop a Fukuoka process for ourselves.

For a mere 900 ft, not all that much work is involved, unless you take into consideration the cardboard and paper that were covering the soil, and the branches piled willy-nilly all over the place. It would have taken us a couple of days to make the transition happen. So we sent out a general email to friends all over the place, and invited them out for a work day. In the end we had four friends stop on their way home from Pennsylvania to northern Indiana, four friends from much closer to home, and my brother. Many thanks to Brian, Chris, Harley, Luann, Miriam, Owen, Tracy, Will, and Zach!

We pulled up paper, piled up wood, sickled and raked grass, broadcast seed and clippings, had a fire, and ate good food before we called it a night. It took less than two hours, though, to complete the task at hand.

As usual, we count it a great blessing to have the community we do. Many hands make light work, as they say, and so we try to trade around who gets the benefit of that. In the next few years I think it will often be us, though, since the land work we need to do doesn't involve any particular skill or training. A simple willingness to get dirty, and be able to laugh while you're doing it, is enough.

Our next work days will be tree planting and path building.