The Mad Agriculture Journal
June 19, 2023
The amazing thing about nature is its capacity to heal.
I remember the early days of the pandemic lockdown, when fewer cars were driving. The skies shone a tremendous blue, free of the usual smog.
Soil can bounce back in the same way.
In February of 2022, we planted a cover crop on an acre of our farm, Folks Farm and Seed. A cover crop is a selection of plants that can be used to naturally give nutrients back to the earth. By giving our soil more of these diverse root systems, we let our ground rest and help the soil microbial communities rebound. Like a five-course meal for all manner of soil biota. Sowing legumes, grasses, and flowers, we hoped to establish a diverse stand of biomass to feed our soil.
We decided to plant cover crops when the soil was dry enough to be lightly turned and could support the weight of a tractor. There was constant freezing and thawing during the winter, leaving the surface cracked and ready to accept seeds. The rain and snow in the spring forecast meant we wouldn’t need to use irrigation water to grow this crop, and we had two months before we could irrigate this section of the farm. Now, instead of bare dirt and weeds there, we hope to have a diverse pasture.
As we grow cover crops, we build an ecosystem of exchange. As more nutrients are available to the plants, they become available to the life forms in the soil that eat the plants.
However, the expectation of this well-formed plan turned out differently in reality. I had used a tool known as a drag harrow to rake the seed into the soil. However, the harrow was not aggressive enough in covering the seeds, leaving much still visible on the soil surface. The “rain” we were expecting barely amounted to any moisture at all. This, combined with the seeds not being planted deeply enough, led to most of the plants remaining dormant. The seed sat, the cover crop never filled in, and the ground remained bare.
In May, we came into this part of the farm with our 2022 onion crop. After getting the starts in and watered, all of those dormant cover crop seeds sprouted, creating a nightmare of wheat in our onions. We spent days weeding this plot, only to find that once we finished, a whole new flush of cover crop had already sprouted. The onion crop could not compete with the vigorous wheat and vetch, and it was effectively ruined for the season.
The intention was there, but the practice in building soil is much more complex.
The process of growth and soil regeneration takes place on a geologic scale, requiring patience–especially when dealing with cover crops in an arid environment. This planting would have gone much differently if the wheat was planted in the fall, covered deeper, and irrigated using the last days of ditch water.
We took these learnings into our fall cover cropping, where we planted Winter Rye and currently have glowing green stands of grass, which have provided forage, ground cover, and soil structure, and have sequestered carbon throughout the winter. These beds will be terminated with ample time leading up to the planting of the next crops.
Learning in agriculture happens over the course of a lifetime. Bearing witness to trials, paying attention to the results, and using creative problem solving throughout the process can make the radical practices of today normalized for tomorrow.
Collaboration and honesty are key ingredients that this movement needs to create radical change. The answers are still in the soil, and day by day, we can learn how to better listen to the lessons of Mother Nature if we pay attention.