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Tilth Producers Quarterly, Fall 2013

FOR THE LIFE OF THE SOIL – Farmer perspectives and experiences adopting reduced tillage organic agriculture, Doug Collins, Washington State University, Puyallup, WA

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GARY MILLER AND AMY PLANT, GOOD EARTH CENTRE AT TALKING HORSE FARM, SAN JUAN ISLAND

photoarticle“Every time I use manure I curse it,” exclaims Gary Miller in response to an inquiry about why they use no-till organic methods. Gary Miller and Amy Plant’s half-acre farm is nestled on a south facing slope on San Juan Island. Their major goal in using no-till organic method on the farm is to build soil through cover cropping, not weedy manure. Miller and Plant’s market garden is thick with carrots, greens, broccoli, beans, squash, leeks and tomatoes all planted with minimal soil disturbance and with reliance on hand tools. Miller met Masanobu Fukuoka, author of The One Straw Revolution, 30 years ago and is inspired by his ‘natural farming’ methods. According to Miller they have improved soil quality in their sandy loam soils over the last seven years; earthworms are more abundant, the soil holds moisture better, and it has a better crumbly structure.

A YEAR OF NO TILL METHODS

The no-till methods Miller and Plant adopted begin with winter cover cropping. In some areas they use a cocktail of hairy, common, and ‘Purple Bounty’ vetches mixed with fava beans, crimson clover, and common rye. In some seasons they even let weeds, especially lambs quarters and chickweed, act as cover crops, citing the importance of maintaining something green on the soil. Cover crop seeds are integrated into the soil after raking away crop residues. Then plant residues are spread over then to deter crows from snaking on the seeds before they germinate.

photoarticle2In spring, the growing cover crop is cut with a scythe as many as four times between April and May. Eventually, the cover crop is terminated with a shallow hoeing. Cover crop residue is generally left in place if the cash crop is to be transplanted. The residue is raked off and gathered into slow compost piles at the field’s edge when preparing for direct seeded crops. Shallow hoeing is also used to remove quack grass, which is very aggressive in the spring and is probably the most aggravating weed at the farm. Transplants are placed with a hand trowel while seeds are sown in a shallow opening in the soil. Squash and carrots were among the direct seeded crops sown this year.

Miller and Plant emphasized the need to jump on weeds as they emerge. They recognize what their major weeds are (often quack grass) and control them through aggressive pulling. They also recommend transitioning into no-till methods with a deliberate strategy to ward off major weeds.

Their farm is admittedly small scale but Miller believes these methods are scalable with the right equipment. Their shallow hoeing is similar to running an undercutter bar at a shallow depth to disrupt cover crop and weed growth. Heavy cover crop residue is both positive and negative in organic no-till. Heavy mulch is great for reducing weed emergence, but as weeds break through the mulch, controlling them is more difficult. Employing a rotovator at a shallow depth could be used to integrate mowed cover crop, though large cover crop volumes could still be difficult to handle on a larger scale with direct seeding, perennial weeds, and continuous no-till.

They try to farm as holistically as possible, Miller says, “agriculture is a man-made thing, but we look to nature to guide us.”