Letter from NY: Reflections at harvest time

Continued from page 1

Organic cabbage harvest, October 2002: The Martens' cabbage is made into sauerkraut and packed under the Cascadian Farms label.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

"Sometimes it seems that the current popular infatuation with no-till often amounts to little
more than an institutionalized support of increased Roundup sales."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

"As harvest finishes, many of us are facing grain bins and checkbooks that are not as full as we had anticipated when we planted those seeds
so hopefully last spring. It has been
yet another tough
year for farmers. Yet despite that, it is still
a privilege, shared by an increasingly
smaller number, to harvest our own
crops and to see and touch the tangible completion of the
year."



To till or not to till . . .

‘No till’ seems to be the ‘golden boy’ of American agriculture these days. Excessive tillage certainly can result in soil erosion, breakdown of soil structure, a shift in microbial activity, loss of organic matter, and it uses considerable amounts of fuel and tractor time. However, this does not mean we must go out and invest in massive quantities of Roundup! Sometimes it seems that the current popular infatuation with no-till often amounts to little more than an institutionalized support of increased Roundup sales. Not all soils, not all crops, and not all farms are well suited to no-till.

Organic farmers should incorporate reduced tillage practices into their techniques, but we prefer to use techniques that use a ‘bio-till’ rather than a ‘no till’ approach, letting an established live crop prepare the soil for planting the following crop. We had success broadcasting spelt into soybeans in September, just as the soybean leaves are turning yellow and starting to fall. The fallen leaves provide protection for the germinating spelt seedlings. One other technique we plan to try is used by farmers in the Red River Valley of Minnesota and North Dakota. They are planting rye as a cover crop in the fall. When the rye is almost heading in the spring, they mow it close to the ground and then no-till soybeans into the stubble. The decomposing rye straw provides weed suppression, nutrients, organic matter and erosion control for the new crop.

There are many creative ways that organic farmers can incorporate reduced tillage into their operations but we should not feel guilty about occasional plowing. Mixing the soil will redistribute nutrients and make them available to crop plants. The introduction of air into the soil is also important, especially in an organic system that relies on microbial activity to provide soil fertility. With the introduction of new oxygen, the soil microbes are able to digest soil organic matter, to convert it into stable humus, and to reproduce, releasing readily plant-available nutrients into the soil solution which our crops will use. While some soil organisms may be harmed by the physical action of plowing, for many species and for plant roots, this breath of fresh air is just what they’ve been waiting for.

To organic farmers, the most important value of soil organic matter is in the using of it as a source of fertility, and our friends, the microbes and worms, need oxygen to do that. We took the children on a ‘Sunday afternoon adventure’ one warm day last spring to recently plowed field and spent over an hour breaking open lumps and looking at earthworms of all sizes, their tunnels and their eggs. The plowing didn’t seem to have damaged that earthworm population. The ground was perforated with fresh earthworm holes which so needed for good water infiltration and root penetration. Something we’re doing was working well!

Giving thanks for the privilege of hard work

Tonight, I went out to feed the sheep after dark. Inevitably, the sheep are taking lower priority these days now that the other animals we raised during the summer, the pigs and chickens, are safely tucked away into the basement freezer. The wind was sharp and the water made my hands ache and sting. As I stood there waiting for the water tank to fill and watching the sheep, I was reminded of an article, printed several years ago in the Amish magazine, Family Life (Pathway Publishers, Rt. 4,
Aylmer, Ontario N5H 2R3 CANADA, or 2580N-250W, LaGrange, IN 46761 USA) , in which a young mother considered the privilege of having her hands in warm, soapy dishwater while watching the snow and bitter wind whip past her kitchen window. She did not dwell on the piles of dirty dishes, the other chores left undone, or the demanding children at her feet. Instead, she appreciated the simple pleasure of warm hands and a warm home.

The windows in the house glowed through the night as I walked back from the barn. Just waiting inside was warmth and light, the smell of good homegrown food cooking in the oven, the relentless ‘Mom-ing’ which would resume as soon as I opened the door. It was a privilege to be out in the cold silent winter night alone, and it was a privilege to come inside.

As harvest finishes, many of us are facing grain bins and checkbooks that are not as full as we had anticipated when we planted those seeds so hopefully last spring. It has been yet another tough year for farmers. Yet despite that, it is still a privilege, shared by an increasingly smaller number, to harvest our own crops and to see and touch the tangible completion of the year, of our hard work and our skill.

As Thanksgiving comes, it is a privilege to understand the deep urgency and relief expressed in the hymn, “all is safely gathered in, ere the winter storms begin.’ It is a privilege to know that, God willing, we will be back in our fields next spring, planting our seeds and again firmly believing in the abundance of the harvest to come.

Happy Thanksgiving! We wish you a rich and abundant harvest of family, friends, and love.


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