The Good Earth

At times the soil seemed bountiful and kindly and again stubborn and unfriendly, but it was always a challenge to man’s cunning.

— Charles E. Kellogg

Sixty-one cubic yards of black, crumbly earth, that’s what came on the semi. And it wasn’t an easy fit. I hadn’t yet nailed up the fence across the front of Dew Point Farm, and good thing I hadn’t. The trailer bringing our “farmers mix” organic compost couldn’t make the turn into the 16-foot space I’d left between posts. So we yanked up another fence post, real quick-like, and gave him enough purchase to bend the truck onto our lot.

Reason Number 11 not to set posts in concrete.1

People seem surprised when they learn we’re trucking in compost to spread on the farm. This is probably our fault, as Jenn and I previously touted our quality soil-test numbers like giddy schoolchildren waving good report cards. There was practically no trace of metals and the nutrient levels were great across the board, with the exception of being a little low in phosphorous and potassium — and simple amendments would solve that.

Indeed, it wasn’t an easy decision. Nearly $2,000 in compost, to go on top of damn good soil, has proved the biggest expense yet in what we hoped would be a thrifty operation.

So why did we do it?

Two words: Privet and kudzu.

I’ve ranted about these enough, these stubborn and unfriendly residents, these challenges to man’s cunning (or lack thereof).2 It’s with no small amount of pride that we’ve seen these invasive pest plants fall to manual removal — which is to say literally manual, as in mano, as in a pair of gloved hands holding loppers or a chainsaw over the course of three months’ worth of mornings. I did a great job of clearing the lot. But to keep it clear, we did our research and learned that an 8-inch bed of soil should be enough to smother and kill those basticles for good, without the need for any more chemicals.3

The quandary really was what to do with the front half of the lot…

Lay of the land

OK, quick catch-up on the geography of the farm:

  • It’s about 40 feet wide, north-to-south and 150 feet deep, east-to-west.
  • We decided to divide that into two decent-sized fields, each maybe 35-by-70 feet.
  • If we’re able to add an adjacent piece of land, we’ll expand to 3 fields and have room for a shed, greenhouse, and proper wash station. (More on that when it’s real.)

So, that 61 yards of compost? That’s only enough to cover one of the fields. Since the privet was worst at the back half of the lot, we decided to put the “cap” of new compost on the back. We’ll be trying Indiana farm guru Ben Hartman’s “lean farming” method there, which is a no-till method that drops seeds directly in that compost and leaves it mostly undisturbed, aside from harvesting and planting, for years. It’s a tactic we first heard about directly from Ben at the 2019 Georgia Organics Conference.

The front field? It’s mostly covered in scrubby, low grass. We’re going to break up that ground, till it in place, and see if we can keep the weeds at bay.

Till or no-till, that is the question

That’s right, other farmers. We’re trying both till and no-till methods.

(For all the not-farmers out there, when you think of farming, you’re thinking of the till method. No-till farming, which I described very cursorily above, is based on the concept of not disrupting the soil’s microorganisms with the blades of a tiller, which theoretically means healthier soil. It comes with its own set of problems, though, and really requires a different plan for farming altogether.)

Hartman would not approve of our forked path. Neither would the successful farmer who counseled us at last month’s Georgia Organics Conference to plant three successions of cover crops on that field to eliminate weeds from the get-go.

And that’s what brings me to what’s been our biggest frustration with starting this little farm: An unclear road forward. In fact, it’s muddier to us than the Chattahoochee is right now, after two months of heavy rain.

Farming, an activity humankind has performed since we’ve walked upright, should be an exact science these days, right? But no, it’s still evolving. With relatively recent initiative like no-till farming and the push back from monoculture farms to more diverse plantings, it seems like strategies are actually changing more now than ever.

Unfortunately, that means there’s still a lot of confusion as to what’s the best way to treat your soil — that most valuable canvas on which to paint your market vegetables.

You’re thinking there’s probably a book on how to do that, right?

But there’s not. There’s not a book on the best way to no-till farm, the best way to rotate crops, the best way to control weeds organically, the best way to shape beds. There are hundreds of them, before even counting all the papers from the nation’s agricultural extension offices.

Our situation is further complicated by the fact that our space is too big to use traditional backyard gardening implements and too small to justify a true tractor and the attachments. Even the relatively affordable BCS walk-behind tractor would run us nearly $10,000 with the pieces we’d need to do an organic no-till crimp-and-roll farming method, and then we’d have to find a place to store all that stuff.

We’ve successfully niched ourselves into a market for products that don’t exist, I says to Jenn during a moment of Google- and Craigslist-induced frustration.

Yup, she says.

Splitting the difference

And that’s how we landed on doing both methods. There was no question we needed to truck in compost for the back field. If we wanted to kill the privet without chemicals, which is a must if you’re seeking to grow food sustainably, we had to smother it out.

But why spend an extra $2,000 on the front bed before even trying to grow in place?

If our crops there are overtaken by weeds, we can always reassess and spend the money on weed-smothering compost next year.

We’ll plant the vegetables that will be most wanted at the market — the okra, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, lettuce, and such — on that back field where we’re most confident of success. We’ll plant the sturdier (or cheaper) crops in the front field. That’ll be for the beans, sweet potatoes, and that sort of thing. We’d hate to lose them, but if we do, we will go on.

Long term, we’d like to be able to do no-till, or at least low-till on both beds. But we’re determined to try to use that good earth that’s already there on the ground if we can. And we pray that we find it bountiful and kindly in years to come.

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1Reasons 1-10 all involve some variation of either holding water and exacerbating post rot or making posts harder to replace without digging out the concrete — or both.

2The eloquent Charles E. Kellogg, whose “stubborn and unfriendly” quote I used to kick off this piece, was chief of the U.S. Soil Survey for 37 years, organizing it from a few disparate researchers to an organized field of 1,500 scientists. The quote is from the essay “Soils and Society,” in the USDA’s 1938 “Soils & Men: Yearbook of Agriculture.”

3“More” being the operative word. We did use triclopyr, judiciously, to kill kudzu vines, but it has a short half-life and no record of long-term detrimental effects on people after some 40 years of continuous use. And we spot-treated the biggest privet stumps with the godawful glyphosate (aka Roundup), using a paintbrush on newly cut stumps to avoid broadcasting that stuff. Using these chemicals on the ground means we can’t be a full-fledged Certified Naturally Grown farm for three years, but we felt we had no choice.

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