Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Visits to Other Farms

Most Wednesdays, we have the opportunity to go (if we want to) to a CRAFT event. I’m still not sure what CRAFT stands for (if it stands for anything) but it is an organization of farms in the area that sponsors events where farmers can visit other farms and learn something about how things are done there. Sometimes a specific topic is being discussed in particular, such as greenhouse management or poultry processing, or sometimes it is a tour of the farm with a general presentation of what goes on there and the opportunity to ask questions and talk with other folks.

These can be very interesting, and I’ve tried to take advantage of most of them so far, though it makes an already long day even longer and throws in a spot or more of driving into the mix as well. But I’m thinking I may be in this for the long haul, and it’s good not only to learn everything I can but also to meet other people in the business. At this point, I really enjoy just seeing other farms, what the land is like, how big they are, how they organize their fields, what they grow, what kind of greenhouses they have, etc. Having limited practical experience in the field, sometimes the actual questions and discussions touch on things that I’m not very familiar with, and so the information doesn’t really have an easy time rooting itself to my brain. I should really take notes!

Even so, there are usually interesting things discussed that I can understand to some degree. Today we visited a small farm (2 acres or so) with a smallish CSA (110 half-size shares), and the field manager, a woman named Greta, brought up general and specific issues on all sorts of topics, from soil fertility to marketing. In particular we discussed weed management for a time. Controlling weeds is one of the most difficult and endless parts of farming. A lot of different ideas and techniques were tossed around. It is ideal to get control of the weeds in a field as quickly as possible, before they grow up much, to the point where Greta feels that if the weeds have gotten much bigger than an inch or so you’ve lost the battle and you might as well turn the whole field under, crop and all. That seems a bit extreme to me, and if we did that at Appleton we’d turn under all of our food.

There are all sorts of ways to control weeds at that tiny stage, but they’re not easy. One common way is to use a propane torch on the row before the crop plant has germinated but the weed seeds have. You singe just the topmost layer of soil where most of the germinated threads of weed are; the crop seeds are a bit deeper and are unaffected. I’ve been told that we have one of these devices, but I haven’t seen it in action yet. We were discussing in particular carrot beds, and, well, we’ve done an awful lot of hand weeding on our knees in our carrot beds! It’s a lot of work, but not a particularly unpleasant task, and with a group doing it, there are always some interesting conversations that get going.

Another interesting idea brought up was using large amounts of cardboard as a mulch, or cover, for the crop beds, and as cardboard will eventually decompose, it is also a kind of compost. Apparently it will pretty much kill everything beneath it, and somehow (not sure about the mechanics of this) encourages a lot of worm activity in the upper layer of the soil. The farmer who mentioned this said they even used it as part of a no-till approach, laying it directly on the cover crop from the previous fall, and once the rye or vetch was done, they just cut holes in the cardboard to plant through. Sounds kind of crazy, but there are lots of creative ideas like that out there, and exploring them (as well as more conventional ones) is what these CRAFT events are all about.


Nick said...

Using a propane torch on weeds just seems anathema to the whole idea of organic farming ??? At least my idea of it anyways.

Brian Kenney said...

Nick, I agree, though I'm not ready to rule out anything regarding weeding that doesn't leave any unhealthy chemical presence and doesn't use any more fossil fuel than is reasonable. Farming on a commercial scale is very much about weeding, I'm learning. Plant the plants you want, remove the plants you don't want. You can see how attractive the use of chemical herbicides would have been to farmers when they were first being introduced and knew little of the downsides or what it would all lead to. That being said, It certainly wouldn't be the first implement that I'd purchase, and I wouldn't use it at all if I had other reasonable options, and I think there usually should be. We haven't used it at Appleton this season.