We were so excited to be featured this week in Edible Finger Lakes sustainability column where we talked briefly about some of the things we do here to promote resiliency and diversity at the farm. As mentioned in the article, which you can read here, we built our farm with the idea that no matter the scale, there are very simple practices and methods that can be integrated into your existing farming/gardening that promote greater diversity, healthier soils, and ultimately higher quality foods and FLOWERS! To that end, I wanted to share a little more about the things we do here.
Something we really strive for is to ensure that everything on the farm gets used, and everything serves at least one, but ideally many, purposes. Raw materials get routinely dragged home and repurposed into raised beds, trellis and fencing, compost heaters and even our hoop house was mostly salvaged. This is mostly to avoid the ballooning costs of building a farm from essentially nothing, but also a dedication to reducing our impact by consuming less. We exercise no-till farming, so no mechanical equipment. Rather than dig down, we build up from the native soil - less gas, less soil disturbance, many benefits. And although we're not certified because of the size of our farm (smaller farms don’t require certification), we use only organic fertilizers and pest management methods. But what makes the biggest difference? Building and growing in healthy soil.
PERMACULTURE IN PRACTICE
So much of what we do is rooted in permaculture. You may have read in the article about taking an integrated approach to farm planning and management. For us, we interpreted this concept (derived from the idea of integrated pest management, or really any problem-solving exercise) to develop a garden management approach integrating varying methods and techniques to reduce external, chemical, and mechanical inputs. What this ultimately boils down to is knowing what the deficiencies and attributes of your farm and garden are, so you can use creative solutions to address any problems or maximize your assets. All of that starts with really getting down and dirty in your space so you can formulate a plan that fits YOUR garden.
If you've farmed in the Finger Lakes, even on a small scale, then you've probably realized that our soils, while highly productive, are a nightmare when you first start to dig in. We realized early on that our farm site is not ideal. We have really rocky soils with a heavy clay component, we have drainage issues, lots of shade and invasive species. This lends really well to permaculture design, specifically because we wanted to avoid introducing chemicals and didn’t have the money for mechanical means of farm improvement. We knew we wanted to use a no-till method – for reasons monetary but also ecological. Tilling your soils, while the easiest way to get your new garden beds started, can create a number of unintended consequences from compaction to weed management issues and reduced soil health. So, we started with a few techniques to build and improve our soils from the ground up.
Most of the beds we grow in were built through a process called sheet mulching, which mimics nutrient cycling in natural environments to increase organic materials in the soil. We build up from the native soil by layering different kinds of organic materials. We started asking local businesses for their cardboard waste, working with a tree trimming company to acquire an insane volume of woodchips, and keeping ducks that produce an abundance of compost and manure to add to what we collect in food scraps and lawn clippings. Over time, these beds break down into layers of rich, organic soils that are far and away more productive than what we started with.
We also started building hügelkultur mounds which create a deeper bed using buried woods to promote drainage and soil moisture retention. This was particularly successful for vining plants, and trellised tomatoes - check the babies in the photo below. By the way - if you're not trellising your tomatoes, we highly recommend trying it to achieve more consistently high-quality fruits. These beds biodegrade over time, and during each successive year provide a better growing environment for certain plants, so a progressive planting plan is what we have in mind here. During the first year, nitrogen-loving plants will thrive in this environment as the decaying wood releases nitrogen into the soil. Squash, melons, beans, strawberries and potatoes will also do especially well.
Our ducks are an invaluable resource on the farm, and some form of domesticated animal is recommended if you're going the way of permaculture. In addition to producing some incredibly delicious eggs, the wastewater and natural manure they create gets repurposed and reused in building soil and fertilizing plants. We add used bed straw directly to our compost piles and Johnson-Su bioreactors (more on those another day). We also use diluted wastewater from their wading ponds to water compost piles and sheet-mulched beds to add nitrogen and inoculate the soil. Beneficial bacteria that ends up in their ponds from mud, plant parts, or well... poop, added to the soil will help speed the process of breaking down raw materials and encourage microbial growth.
And then...about the flowers. Currently, the commercial side of our farm is focused on cut flowers – this is a really important market for us not only for sustainability of our business, but also as a vehicle to promote our message and vision. Commercially-grown produce, and in particular flowers, have an exceedingly-high carbon footprint, requiring substantial inputs for production, transport, packaging, and all to provide a lower quality product. When you buy local - ideally direct from your farmer - you are often purchasing a product that is produced more sustainably, and that transaction results in fewer emissions and less waste. No trucks, no plastics, no problem! This is where I could go on for pages about supporting local farmers, spending within your community, and effectively writing a hate letter about big box everything, but I'll refrain. What we *really* love about growing flowers is how they've come to play an integral role in our whole system. Check out all the interesting ways in which flowers support a healthier vegetable garden in the article.
WANT TO LEARN MORE?
We’re constantly exploring new methods in compost and soil building, growing techniques and season extension through natural means that most any home gardener or even large-scale farm can adopt to increase farm resiliency and reduce waste and consumption. A lot of the things we do here are meant to promote a stable, natural, self-maintaining system for food production. Some of the things to come include integrating an orchard and grazing animals – more food, more compost, and less weed maintenance! And we promise to share everything we learn as we go. Keep an eye out for workshops and events on the farm by joining our mailing list (sign-up at the bottom of our homepage) and subscribing to the blog.