How we farm-- our agricultural practices.
Of course you know we have always followed "organic" practices, since long before such were legally defined with the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 and the ensuing Program Standards. These spell out an organic production system based on conservation and improvement of the soil and critically--the organic matter. Both a long range and an annual plan are required. All products used in production need to follow organic guidelines and in many cases are tested and independently approved; field histories are required for three prior years, including crops planted, amendments used... when and in what quantities. Generally, most amendments and fertilizers need to be naturally occuring and not chemically altered or synthetic. When farm produce is claimed to be organic, independent certification is required unless the farm grosses under $5,000. We have been certified organic since 1990.
For many years, we followed what is most common among organic farmers in that we used composted animal manures and other composted organic waste as the basis of our fertility and soil improvement program. About 5 years ago, soil tests were starting to show a pattern of high levels of major crop nutrients because of many years of composts made with manure. Our soils had improved (!)so much that just about all we now need is nitrogen--which tends to be used up annually. We had always used nitrogen fixing alfalfa as part of our rotation, and rye/vetch cover crops over winters. Two years ago we completely went off the use of manures and composts containing manure. We have transitioned to using nitrogen fixing crops such as alfalfa, clover, vetch, and peas to provide our nitrogen. Symbiotic bacteria colonizing the root systems of these plants takes nitrogen from the air and fixes it in the soil.
We've always tried to maximize the use of that great engine which energizes our planet--the sun--by keeping the ground planted at all times in photosynthesizing plants. Thus as soon as a crop is done in the fall, we seed a cover crop which continues to grow in the fall, in the spring, and even in the dead of winter on any day the temperature will allow. Having a thriving root system in place also forestalls erosion. Likewise we will often interseed lower growing plants like sweet clover between the rows of growing crops.
Continuing to experiment this year with a method to reduce tillage and erosion (and minimize work) we roll-killed a dense growing crop of nitrogen fixing hairy vetch, and planted a crop of winter squash in the heavily mulched field. The mulch will also conserve moisture.
We've also begun using a mychorrhizal innoculant. Mychorrhizae are symbiotic fungi which actually penetrate into the root cells of plants and forage the surrounding soil for nutrients and water which then they provide to the plant. In return they get sugars. It's kind of like multiplying the roots system of the plant. Of course it's nothing that doesn't already occur widely in the plant world anyway--just new to the human plant world of agriculture.
People often ask, what do we do for "bugs" . There's a whole menagerie of methods and strategies. We'll describe a few. Three of our most serious apple pests are moths--coddling moth, oriental fruit moth, and the tufted apple bud moth. In the early spring we put out thousands of plastic twist ties impregnated with the scent of the females of these pests. So when the males are searching for a mate, they smell them everywhere but can't find one. Thus there are no fertile eggs and no worms of these species. There's a bacteria--bacillus thurengiensis--which we spray for leaf eating catepillars, like the cabbage looper, which is deadly to them but totally harmless to us. Something we're quite optimistic about this season is a new product which is an extract of giant knotweed which induces an immune system response in a plant to resist fungal and bacterial infections. There's been evidence this is has been actually effective in controlling the dreaded phytophthora infestans--late blight in tomatoes and potato blight in spuds. Another remarkable new biological spray is produced through fermentation of a microorganism--Actinomycetes spinosa. This is highly toxic when ingested by a variety of pests. Under organic management we also use a number of mined materials like sulfur, phosphorus, calcium (in many forms from limestone to aragonite which is seashells), copper, lignite (a source of humate), and boron as well as seaweeds and fish emulsion (remember those grade-school images of native Americans throwing a little fish in each hole with a few corn seeds?) That's a brief snapshot of an ever evolving process.
We try always to learn to cooperate with nature to produce food while conserving or improving the resources we've been blessed with. Life, health, nutrition, cooperation, and balance are the keys.