Sunday, October 28, 2007

Work party and soil testing thoughts


Yesterday I held a work party here, and 15 people showed up, for at least part of the day. I need lots of help pulling weeds from the rows of vegetables growing in the fall/winter portion of the field. I got some of that, with friends clearing four rows of lettuce and two rows of red-ribbed dandelion of weeds, which I can now harvest on Monday for Tuesday’s delivery. I also needed help clearing the two-thirds of the field that I grew the spring and summer’s crops on, so that the tractor can come in, very soon, and disc the soil for the cover-cropping that also has to happen very soon. So we cleared that part of the field of all drip irrigation lines, piling them up in piles along the edges of the field. We also removed all pumpkins and much of the butternut squash, which I’ll store in the barn until needed. And we were able to do some seed saving – four different varieties of bush beans, plus cranberry beans and curly cress/pepper cress seed. I was a little disappointed because there weren’t as many dry beans available as I thought, and the amount gathered yesterday won’t be enough to allow me to avoid buying beans to plant next year. But it’s something. I’m not sure how dry the beans/pods have to be to pick them; I could possibly pick a bunch of beans that are tweeners – the beans are full-sized but not dry – and spread them out to dry in the barn. Another thing to ask my farming mentors, Martin Bournonhesque and Liz Milazzo.

I went over the results of a soil test I did back in January with Liz this past week. I had sent her a copy in the mail, but she moved to a new housing sitch and couldn’t find it, so I just read it to her over the phone – the various levels of calcium, magnesium, etc., the pH of the soil, the recommendations that the lab had for how to improve the soil. I sent another copy to her and she’s gonna go over it more deeply, since she is also getting the soil tested at the UC Santa Cruz farm she manages, which allows her to research more in depth what all these levels mean for the fertility of the soil.

The main thing about the results for SMIP Ranch soil seems to be that the pH is slightly acidic, and very high in magnesium. The high levels of magnesium result in a denser soil that is harder to work with. Both the pH level and the magnesium level can be changed for the better by adding lime, which is mostly calcium. I can either do that now, with this cover-cropping event that’s happening, or in the spring, when the cover crop gets turned in. I’ve elected to wait till the spring, since it takes both money and time to procure and spread the amendment, and I’m limited on both those things right now. In the spring I should have more energy and less to do; right now I’m trying to harvest tons of food from the summer field so it doesn’t get wasted when the ground is tilled, as well as harvesting from the fall /winter field, plus weeding, delivering, and clearing the last bit of debris from the summer field so that the tractor has free rein to do its thing.

  • I wonder if it makes sense to use less of the field, more intensively; in other words, let some of the field lie fallow, and work the remaining portion more, doing more than one planting in a given piece of ground. So for instance, the fifth of an acre I was able to plant right away in March (which is probably the best, most crumbly soil in the field) could be replanted 2-3 times. I’ve done this a little bit both last year and this year. It’s hard to tell if that would save any time; on the one hand, there’s less land to deal with. On the other hand, there’s a lot more work on every row I replant. The only things I can be sure of are 1) that the soil that’s replanted will be more depleted than if I just planted it once, and 2) I could rotate where the land lies fallow every year, which would help build back those nutrients. I guess it could make sense to replant a small section each year, and set aside a similar-sized section each year that lays fallow. Then the following year the section that was planted more than once could be the fallow one.

  • I’m wondering about cover cropping what is currently the fall/winter field, next spring, when the summer field’s cover crop is turned in. The problem is that there isn’t enough pressure in the irrigation system to do overhead watering, which means that, since the cover crop wouldn’t go in until after the last rains of the season, I’d have to do drip irrigation for the cover crop. That seems insane – a huge time expense. Another thing to consult about.

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