Friday, October 09, 2009

Cover Cropping

The farm is in an interesting place right now; we are steadily moving into Fall, with all the things that Fall brings: cold mornings, blustery, clear afternoons, jackets and gloves, red maple leaves, fields of brown, yellow and red grasses, flying V’s of honking geese, roadside pumpkins, early nightfall and late sunrise. The air makes it feel like the farm is winding down and winter is just around the corner, and in fact we only have four more weeks of distributing produce to our shareholders. Yet in many ways we are at the very peak of production; we have never had such a variety and plenitude of good food grown and harvested in our own fields here at Appleton Farms. This last week we gave out New England Pie Pumpkin, Spaghetti Squash, a variety of decorative gourds, white potatoes, yellow onions, red onions, heads of garlic, tomatillos, summer crisp lettuce, oak leaf lettuce, green peppers, colored peppers, Italian red peppers, toscano chard, red chard, collard greens, arugula, mustard greens, tatsoi, spinach, carrots, beets, chard, globe eggplants, purple eggplant, white eggplant, fennel, turnips, daikon radishes, bok choy…I know I’m missing a couple things, and of course that’s not including the pick-your-own fields, which are on the downswing but still offering green beans, basil, parlsey, dill, cilantro, perennial herbs and cut flowers.

Besides harvesting all of this bounty, however, we are firmly engaged in a lot of end-of-season work. One of the biggest projects for this time of year is cover cropping. This is not something that we can leave off until we finish our harvest, as it will be too cold by then to ensure good germination of the cover-crop seeds. On Thursday I got a chance to do some cover-cropping and learn a bit about this very important farming practice.

Cover cropping, in short, is planting a field with some kind of crop after you are done harvesting from that field. This crop will germinate and grow in the fall and the plants and network of roots left intact in the soil over the winter. This is done for two primary reasons, to protect the soil from erosion and to retain and bind nutrients and organic matter in the soil. Many cover crops, such as peas (and other leguminous plants) are able to fix nitrogen into the soil, helping to maintain high levels of this extremely important element available to plants. Strong networks of roots and plants prevent snowmelt, rain and wind from washing away top soil and leaching nutrients below the topsoil.

Sometimes we do very large swaths of land with our biggest tractor, but on Thursday I did just a few smaller patches, maybe an acre in total, with our mid-sized tractor and a hand-seeder. First off, the finished beds need to be mowed to cut down the plants and cut up the thicker weed stems. This had already been done to the fields I was working on. Then I came in with our John Deere High Crop tractor, fitted with a discing implement, which is a set of sharp metal discs that can be lowered into the soil and rolled along to break up the soil and weed/crop refuse. Each bed usually has to be gone over a couple of times to make sure that enough good topsoil is exposed and there is not a lot thick layers of green vegetable matter on top. Then, I went along with a hand seeder filled with rye seed, and with the help of a hand crank spinning a disc underneath the bag I flung seed out in all directions while walking down a disced bed. I was probably able to cover about forty feet from left to right, or about four beds or so, at a time. Then, the seed generously applied, I went back over the beds with the disc again, just once and with the discs set quite shallow, to make sure that there was good contact between the seed and the soil, to ensure good germination.

That’s it; now I am very interested to see the results of my efforts (though I’ve already seen plenty of fields come up in either rye or oats and peas, but this was my first adventure in cover-cropping and I always have propriety feelings over my own personal efforts).

Anyway, peace to everybody.


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