In this episode, Rue Genger and Liz Dwyer of Dancing the Land, Clearwater Minnesota, mix philosophy and practicality into their conversation about farming, food, and caring for the land. Liz describes the evolution of the several different reduced tillage systems that she and her partner Curtis use on their land, how their livestock are integrated into annual production systems, and the importance of adaptability and observation in developing systems for your farm.
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This transcript was exported on Aug 26, 2022 - view latest version here.
Ben Phillips (00:14):
Welcome to The Vegetable Beet. My name is Ben Phillips and I work with Michigan State University Extension.
Natalie Hoidal (00:20):
And my name is Natalie Hoidal. I work with the University of Minnesota Extension.
Ben Phillips (00:24):
We've been doing this podcast over the last few years and we're changing the format a little bit for this season. We're going to do some pre-recorded interviews. It might not be us doing them, but we'll have some other folks featured sometimes. And this is one of those episodes. Rue Genger at the University of Wisconsin was interested in interviewing vegetable farmers who do no till and low till production. So this is one of those interviews. The second that Rue has sent us so far. How are we doing this, Natalie?
Natalie Hoidal (00:52):
This podcast is brought to you by the Great Lakes Vegetable Producers Network. It was kickstarted by the North Central Integrated Pests Management Center. And our license for transistor is held by the University of Minnesota Extension.
Ben Phillips (01:04):
You can listen to this episode and all the rest at glveg.net/listen. Take it away, Rue.
Rue Genger (01:19):
Hi, Liz. And welcome to this podcast interview. Thank you for joining me today.
Thanks for having me. I'm really happy to be here.
Rue Genger (01:28):
I was wondering if we could start off with you doing a brief intro about your farm, Dancing the Land.
Sure. So Dancing the Land Farm is run by myself and my sweetheart Curtis. We have a little four-year-old rapscallion of a kid who runs around here as well. This is the land that I grew up on. But we started Dancing the Land... Well, gosh, we moved back from California in 2012, started our first year as a farm business in 2014. We grow everything. All the foods, all the flowers, lamb, goat, chickens, eggs, quail. We have a couple peacocks and a couple ducks running around here. Fiber animals, as well as dairy animals. All kinds of things because diversity is the key to life.
Rue Genger (02:21):
Nice. I saw on your website some of the fiber products that you have that look just really beautiful.
It's pretty awesome.
Rue Genger (02:30):
How big is your farm?
We have 56 acres total. We actively grow vegetables and flowers on about four acres. And then we have about 14 to 16 acres of pasture. Then the rest of it is either marshlands or woods.
Rue Genger (02:59):
Do the animal and produce operations stay separate in terms of the acres that you're using or do you do some rotation there?
Our animals have been key in bringing fertility to our annual productions. When we first moved back here, we took over my family's field, which my family were... No one was a farmer. I mean, my mom always had a garden but they were not farmers. Anyway, my parents rented out our tillable acreage to a local farmer who grew corn every single year without rotation for longer than I've been alive. As you can imagine, the soil quality was poor, to say the least. I mean, devastating is a better word. You couldn't find an earthworm. I mean, you couldn't find anything.
So we have, for years, made a practice of wintering our animals on our annual field so that they poop and pee in waste hay. They've been crucial. So we do mix them up. Then we have bedding from certain... Bedding from the chicken coop or bedding from the dairy goat barn that we also will incorporate into compost and then use those as mulch in our no-till beds and things like that, too. It's all mixed up together. Animals are a requisite for fertility, unless you want to be really dependent on inputs, in my opinion.
Rue Genger (04:32):
For the four acres or so vegetables and other annual crops, what numbers of livestock are you running? I'm interested in how many livestock are required to produce enough fertility?
Well, I mean, they always have babies, so getting numbers is so hard. But I think we have probably 60 or so head of Angora goats combined with Icelandic sheep. Together, we call them our Shangoras, our sheep and Angora. That's our fiber herd. They just require less maintenance than the dairy goats, which we tend to run separately. But we haven't always had that many. We've been in an increasing pattern with our herds for a couple of years. So we started out with just a handful and then every year, we've added more.
In those first couple of years, we did end up using things like trucked in compost and... Well, mostly just trucked in compost to help beef up the fertility before our animals could do a good chunk of it. Now we have, it's about 60 head of Angoras and sheep plus a bunch of babies. Because every year, we harvest babies for meat and skins and then the old ones retire, that kind of thing so it's an evolving number.
Rue Genger (06:02):
Yeah, absolutely. But that's a great ballpark estimate. That's helpful. Would you describe your vegetable production as no till or low till? How would you describe that?
We have several different models that we employ all at once. We have some no till beds, which are beds that we just literally never till. Then we have some low till beds, low till areas, I guess, because they're not beds, that we till once. And then we till once in the spring and then cover with fabric and then don't till again until the following spring. Landscape fabric is where I would say low till because things are getting tilled. But then we have no till trellis rows where we just rotate the crops on the trellises and they're all permanent installations and we just never till them. Then we have... I don't know. How big is that? Three quarters of an acre of straight up no till permanent installation beds.
Rue Genger (07:10):
When you think about tillage, I mean there's sometimes discussion and debate in farming circles about what actually constitutes tillage - is using a broad fork tillage, is using a tine weeder tillage. Can you talk a little bit about your rationale, and why you consider this important and what kinds of soil disturbance you consider tillage and are trying to limit?
I don't know. I'm not a purist in anything. There's no room for fascism in life, really. I think that things like broad forks, they are meant to aerate the soil without disturbing soil strata, which is great. That's definitely healthier for the soil than a rototiller. Also, there are places for rototillers in farms, even low and no till farms. Tine weeding, forks, I think those are interesting because you end up using the top layer of soil as a mulch in itself because when you disturb, it no longer has the soil structure. It's not great for that top surface of the soil, but then that top surface ends up being your mulch.
So it's an interesting way of thinking about things because it saves the bigger disturbances and you're getting thread stage weeds. I always find them to be putzy and never great, but whatever, people use them. I don't know. I think that the reason that I care about no-till is that, I mean, soil is just one of the, if not the most important and magical thing that there could possibly be in the whole world. I mean, every single thing that has ever died has become the ground that feeds us. I mean, it's utter magic. That's plant beings and bugs and microbiotics and people. I mean, all the animals. Everything goes into making the soil and becoming the organic matter that is the life of that soil that feeds all the microbiota and the flora and fauna that make the soil the magical thing that it is.
Every time you till up the soil, I think of a rototiller in this case, where you're really stirring up and messing with everything. Soil breathes and when you stir up the soil like that, you're introducing a ton of oxygen into the environment, and so all the natural processes go on hyperdrive. They're just like, "Okay, we're combusting and we're eating this and we're doing that. All right, we're doing all the things." And it just burns up the organic matter so fast and it just makes it so that the soil can no longer support life.
When we first moved back to this farm, our soil was basically an inert dusty media that was meant to hold corn roots and anhydrous ammonia. There was nothing to it anymore. There was no life in it. It had all been burned up and given to the sky in greenhouse gases. So limiting tillage is, in my opinion, it's... I don't know, it's stopping our endless hands out to what is holy in the ground, saying we want more and more and more and it's keeping some in the ground so that we can have a future. I know it's a little esoteric but I think soil's magic.
Rue Genger (11:01):
I love that. I think about how little we understand of the processes that are going on in the soil. It's such an incredibly complex world.
Totally. There's so much soil science stuff and people talking about cations and calcium levels and all the different NPKs. To me, it's really about life. And life wants to live. Life wants to do what she does. If we stop this antagonistic relationship to the ground to just clear... I mean, it's literally a clear cut. Tillage is just like going nuclear on the soil. It's just like, "All right, we'll destroy everything and then start over." It's a clean slate, and the part of me that is a Virgo loves it, honestly. It's so satisfying to just see empty ground and put plants in and watch them grow and pretend the weeds are never going to come. But of course they will, but...
Rue Genger (12:07):
I've heard some people say that there's a cultural shift needed in how we think about what makes you a good farmer in terms of how do you treat that ground. I think even people who don't farm experience that visceral satisfaction of seeing a field that is tilled up.
Yeah. I mean, I think that's a huge conversation. This may not be a popular opinion, but I think in a lot of ways, farming is warfare against the natural world or at least, it has become so and I don't think it has to be. But I think destroying an entire ecosystem just so you don't have a weed in your endless rows of corn and soy, that's an act of violence. And a lot of indigenous minds think that even just the act of piercing the soil with a planting stick to plant your corns in the ground one by one, that's thought of as an act of violence. You're piercing the world, you're piercing the womb of the earth, which is the soil, to have the seed grow.
There is an inherent violence, which I say that word and everybody wants to wash their hands of it, but I think that eating in general is a violent thing. I mean, we take life to feed our own lives, and that's for plants and animals. I think that there is this level of nuance and depth to what it is to be a person who eats and drinks water. And certainly to be a farmer, which is to be at the doorway constantly between life and death, constantly taking life, constantly planting seeds, constantly killing weeds, constantly making choices about who will live and who will die. I think there's so much of a cultural shift that needs to happen in order to see the world as a living being that we are not just entitled to.
I have so many strong feelings about... Among people, we are all absolutely entitled to healthy, good food, and we need to do so much more for equality in this world as far as access to good food. When I think about the natural world, none of us are entitled to life. We are here because of the generosity and the grace of the world. So if we can stop thinking about this world as a resource to plunder and start thinking of it as this, thinking of this whole place as some community that we are a member of but we are not the pinnacle of, by any means, nor are we the most necessary. And start approaching farming from this idea that the world was just fine before we got here and she is going to be okay if we don't make it. But also we could be here and we could do something good and thinking about what that might be versus thinking about the world as a resource to just extract.
Rue Genger (15:27):
Coming back to what you said earlier about not being a purist, to me, those things fit together in that there are choices that as a farmer you'll make sometimes, which have a negative impact on the soil ecosystem or on a part of it. And you might make those choices but you're balancing those choices and trying to see yourself as part of this system. Does that resonate?
Yeah. I mean, I just think that there just needs to be so much grace. We have some no-till beds that we didn't get the mulch on them that we needed, which is a thing that we'll talk about later, I think. The weeds grew up and they just got away from us. So we're making the choice to till those beds and to start again, because it is the most effective choice as far as our labor and time goes. I hated the choice and I resisted for so long that the weeds got enormous. You know what I'm saying?
Rue Genger (16:35):
Yeah. I know.
Then I was just like, "Actually, this is okay." I'm not perfect. I'm always learning. I am so sick of all of the judgment, social media this is the right way to farm nonsense that is out there. Unless we are pulling from a generations old practice of relationship and real rootedness to the ground, we are all learning. That's just how it is. And now with the climate crisis looming, we are all learning again, all of us, even people who have those ancestral teachings to pull from. So there has to be so much grace, there has to be like, "This is our ideal and this is what we want to go towards. And this is also how this season is showing up."
One thing that I am trying to do as a farmer this year is to allow my humanity, my aliveness, to be one of the things that comes to the table that gets to say, "This season will look like this." Because we have a relationship with the ground, because we have an accord with the soil and we have ethics and ideals that things we want to abide by, we just end up turning that shovel of extraction on our own selves instead of on the ground. And that is not a sustainable system either. So allowing us to be like, "Hey, we have a young kid. We're not going to work until 9:00 at night anymore."
Like, "Hey, I'm sick of being exhausted all the time. Let's just have a reasonable relationship with our work life and then see what shows up and see what we are actually meant to look like versus constantly thinking that we can do more and hit these super farfetched ideals." I mean, it's great to have dreams, yes. And to really allow ourselves to say, "We've had a lot of loss on our farm in the last seven years." Our son died and we buried him there. My mom died, my sibling died. We've had a lot of loss and we've just I can look back and see like, "That garden, that year looks like the garden of a farmer whose kid died." And that's okay, versus seeing it as a failure. Seeing ourselves and our identity show up at the table to be like, "This is what I can give. This is my collaborative effort with the natural world this year."
Rue Genger (19:07):
I appreciate that way of framing it. It seems both humble and realistic to me.
We got to do something different, man. Otherwise, we're just going to burn ourselves out.
Rue Genger (19:22):
So when you started growing, I mean, from the way you described the soil, when you started on that piece of land, it's pretty clear what led you to try no-till. Did you have experience with those practices from previous farming?
I mean, a little bit. I was living and farming - Curtis and I both were living and farming in California for about seven years before we decided to move back to Minnesota. People were trying all kinds of different things out there. So I worked on a bunch of different farms, saw a ton of different models. I had heard the idea of no-till, had heard the idea of permaculture, which I think goes hand in hand with no-till pretty easily, and just soil health and all of that. But the ways that we've been approaching it has just been a lot of trial and error, like so much. It's just funny how we arrived at no-till without the buzzword coming first. It was more like a, "Good Lord, we need to not have to weed so much," kind of decision. And then like, "What can we do?"
Because I had learned the French intensive method where you plant plants close enough together so that in mature adult forms, shade out the weeds below them, which is great, but you do have to weed until that end point. And that's really the main way that I learned. Then just being like, "Gosh, maybe if we just put mulches down." We played with the plastic biofilms that people use. We went for the biodegradable one because I couldn't stomach that much plastic. Then here comes the drip tape nightmare. It was just all of these different, "Okay, that's how that happens." Then just trying to find that sweet spot between a tremendous amount of labor upfront in the crunch of the season when you just need to get things in the ground.
Having to lay all the drip tape, having to get the plastic. Okay, so then we've got a machine delay, the plastic and that was okay, but it had to be pulled by people. I had a bunch of really whiny interns that year who didn't want to deal. Then we got a tractor machine and that was great. Then we found this porous fabric that you could punch a transplanter through without having to burn a hole. And it was porous so you didn't need the drip tape because it got rain or aerial flickers or something so that was a little easier to lay. Or you could put the drip tape on top.
But then it was plastic and we thought we could do it for multiple seasons, but no, it just didn't hold up. Then we just wound up trying paper and that was awesome. Plant right through paper. Craft paper rolls from Uline. That was cool. Then I was like, "Well, that just blows away in the wind once it gets wet and brittle." Paper got covered then with mulch, like organic matter. And then we suddenly reinvented the wheel of no-till.
Rue Genger (22:29):
That's a lot of different systems that you just whizz through describing it. That's a lot of stuff to try.
We are all about experimentation.
Rue Genger (22:39):
So would you say that you have a favorite system right now whether generally or for a particular crop that you'd be able to describe?
Yeah. I have two.
Rue Genger (22:50):
Walk us through them.
For soil health for long term relationship to a bed until... Because I have a photographic memory so I know what I've planted every single year after year. I know what's evolved in those places in the garden, and I just love that. My favorite absolute no-till method right now is it takes a little while to install, but we put down landscape fabric on our pathways. So we have three foot landscape fabric between our beds and then we start from a tillage place. So we till, landscape fabric and then we put down four to six inches of mulch and then we plant through them. Those beds that we've made have... I mean, we did that in a really... We did that because it flooded one year and our ground...
In high wet situations, tillage turns into, it's like a little ramekin of pudding because the hard pan underneath the tillage just holds water and then the soft fluffy stuff on top is just pudding. So it made this whole area completely impossible to grow in. So we were like, "Okay, let's just do a cover crop of daikon radish to break up the hard pan," which we did. And then we laid down this landscape fabric and mulch on top of it. Then just every year, we add a compost layer and then a mulch layer. The beds are amazing. Just phenomenal. There are some drawbacks. I don't know if you want the drawbacks on that one.
Rue Genger (24:37):
Always want the drawbacks.
The drawbacks are you need mulch, which is I didn't realize how much of a barrier that would be. The year that we put in these beds, we had landed on the no-till farmers mother lode dream of... In this area, we're known for our bachelor farmers. The old guys who just sat on equipment their whole lives. Anyway, we had some bachelor farmers called us up and they had a dairy barn full of 15-year-old chopped hay. So the seeds are mostly dead at this point and it's dry as can be. They have a ton of it and they just want it gone. I think they charged us 20 bucks for a truck and trailer load full. We just went all summer long and made tons and tons of beds and it was amazing.
But then the next year, we didn't have that anymore. So then we're like, "Well, what do we do?" So we started using different straws, different hays. The weed seed loading was just a little too intense. Then the beds get away from you and you have to figure out what to do. But I just got a contract with a local mushroom grower, which feels like another no-till dream come true. It's an organic mushroom production and they have this sterile straw and rice hull based mix that they grow their mushrooms in, and they can't reuse it. So you basically pay people to dump it. And I was like, "You may pay me to do that for you."
So they're not paying me to do it but we've worked out an arrangement. So now we have this semi-truckload of funky smelling sterile mulch medium sitting in our field, which I'm super excited about. But that is a drawback. If you don't have access to a mulch material... And I know some people grow their mulches and then terminate the crop and then plant into it. I haven't figured out a way to make that work in our short seasons. So needing some other mulch has been really key. This seems a great loop to close from a waste product for a local company so that's exciting.
Rue Genger (27:07):
I love that. I love that you're able to get something locally. That's wonderful.
Then my other favorite low till method is landscape fabric. I mean, there are drawbacks too, but when you're in that crunch point of the season and you just don't have time to hand lay a bunch of mulch out of bed, stretching out a 16 foot sheet of landscape fabric that we've already... Because you can reuse those sheets for 10 years. So they're not as wasteful as the yearly biofilms or anything like that. And we just have sheets that are set up that are nine inch spacing, triangulated or 18-inch spacing or whatever we need.
And we just lay them out and staple them down, throw a bunch of sandbags on and plant. And it's just done. It's so fast. Then it really does conserve moisture having the landscape fabric on, and it really does keep the weeds down. You end up just having to weed the little collar around each plant and only for the first couple of weeks. Then it's just done. The drawbacks there of course, is high winds.
Rue Genger (28:22):
I experienced that.
We've chased so much fabric this year. I can't even tell you. Then ground squirrels is a new one for us this year. They love running around underneath the fabric and eating all of our corn seeds. Little [inaudible] guys that they are.
Rue Genger (28:36):
I've heard about people having problems with voles as well, in more intensive situations. Definitely something to keep an eye on. Maybe get a dog.
But we have dogs and they're ripping the fabric trying to get the ground squirrel down. I'm like, "No." That's just it. There's no silver bullet in life or in farming and that's just okay. We hone and we improve and we learn every year. And there's just never going to be an end all, be all solution to everything. The no-till beds that we put in for flooding, they were the best in the drought that we went through last year. We had the best kale of our lives last year in our mulch beds. Our well went dry. We had to end our CSA halfway through because we couldn't water anything. But the kale was awesome. That is going to be a better solution than landscape fabric on a dry year when... The black fabric kills weeds but it also heats up the soils if it's going to be hot and dry.
Rue Genger (29:48):
I'm fascinated by systems that are resilient to both drought and to flooding. Having that ability to store moisture but also to infiltrate moisture rapidly so you can get back in the field after flood. I think that's...
The no-till bed's really increased the percobility of this one area that gets really boggy in our field. We did different things, too. In some of those permanent beds, we planted willows because they're a great... It's those fun curly willows in a few different colors and Japanese fantail willows and pussy willows. They're crops that we cut for our flowers, and they also really do a good job of sucking up the water, and stabilizing the soil. Because that particular area can have a flow across it in the melt time.
Rue Genger (30:43):
Do you find that they compete much with your crops in drought years?
Probably. I mean, what are you going to do? It's one of those things. The landscape fabric between the beds keeps them contained, so they're not spreading. Then I cut them pretty much down to the ground every fall or every spring when the pussy willows come out. But the roots are probably doing whatever they're doing under there, sucking water up. I don't know. They're also a windbreak for everything that's downstream from there. So that's preventing water loss. I don't know.
It's an ecosystem. We're basically suggesting per our desires that an ecosystem emerge. And part of what we're doing is not just having all the answers and knowing exactly what's going to happen, but witnessing, seeing what's going on. Next to my willows, I had planted some echinaceas and things that are... They don't like how wet it gets there and the willows are helping. But I think I'm going to move them anyway.
Rue Genger (31:57):
I like that approach of seeing what emerges and as you say, you're an active participant in this system. So if something isn't working, you try something else.
I feel like I've witnessed so many young farmers, especially, just get frustrated because they don't... Or judgmental or just down on everybody around them because they don't pick the right thing the first time. There's just no way to do that. Every place I've ever farmed has had its own spirit and its own energy and its own needs. And those need change from year to year. So much of what we do is just paying attention and stop trying to be right. Just listen to what the ground is saying. And we have to listen to our bottom lines because otherwise, none of us would make it. I mean that’s all true but let it all be true.
Rue Genger (32:55):
I have a couple of specific questions about those two systems you described. With the first one where you are putting mulch over the landscape fabric, I wasn't sure whether you are planting, whether the transplant is going through the landscape fabric or whether you are planting into the mulch.
The mulch is just on the pathway. We have a three foot pathway that has landscape fabric on it, stapled down. Then we have probably four foot bed tops that are open to the soil and that there's no landscape fabric, that's then covered with four inches of mulch or so.
Rue Genger (33:36):
Okay. Got it.
You have to pay special attention to the shoulders because that is where the weeds always come in first, is on the shoulders of the bed. I like to cap the mulch over top of the landscape fabric about six inches or so just to make sure... Three to six inches, just to make sure that there's no weeds trying to come in.
Rue Genger (33:58):
Those are the beds that are pretty much permanent. Is that right?
Yes. Unless they get away from us.
Rue Genger (34:06):
Permanent until they're not.
We get to start again.
Rue Genger (34:11):
Then in the other system, how are you prepping that bed... Not a bed. I think prepping that land before you roll out those big sheets of landscape fabric. Are you putting the landscape fabric over cover crops or is it pretty much just whatever is in that field in the spring?
If we're doing the landscape fabric, we're tilling first. So we're usually amending with compost or it's an area that our goats have wintered on. Then we till that under and then the landscape fabric goes on top.
Rue Genger (34:58):
Do you want to talk about any of the failures?
Rue Genger (35:02):
What are some systems you tried and you were just like, "Well, this might work for someone else, but it does not work for me"?
Well, the biofilms and the machines that roll out the films. Rain is so precious. Then to make a system that you just don't even get... I mean we have a high tunnel, so I get it. We do cover areas for certain things. But letting the rains come if they come just feels like a great thing. But necessitating watering by covering your ground with a thin sheet of plastic and then not covering the pathways, I never understood that. It doesn't make any sense. Anyway, I didn't like that one, most of the methods that we've tried have failed because of the unreasonable demands on our human labor.
My absolute favorite thing that we ever did was the craft paper rolls with mulch on top. Because the paper completely killed the weeds underneath and the mulch held the paper down and then allowed... The paper did the first initial work of killing those surface weeds and then the mulch just fed the soil for so long. Those beds just lasted so well and they were so neat and there was no weed poking through. But hand rolling out paper and hoping the wind doesn't come and... There's so many amazing things that you can do. But once you start having four acres that you're trying to handle, there's a failure there in watching your ideas take just too dang long.
Rue Genger (36:49):
Do you find yourself wishing that there was equipment? Are you interested in being able to mechanize some of those kinds of systems?
I have fantasized about some way to lay mulch that doesn't require a wheelbarrow. We got this cool conveyor belt cranky thing that you can put on the back of our pickup truck to crank out a load of mulch but it needs tweaking. I know that there are... I don't remember, Cold Creek or Clearwater Creek, they make small scale machines for laying mulch and compost. But of course, we're not some of those farmers that are also independently wealthy. So those machines are really expensive and out of reach.
Rue Genger (37:39):
I've definitely seen a few repurposed manure spreaders and people hack these things to make it work. Personally, I think that's interesting and promising. I would love to see more farmers just experimenting with that stuff for everyone else's benefit, hopefully.
It's having the time. There's just this point in the season where we blackout. Around May or June. The throes of planting season, when you can tell things are a little passed in the flats and they just need to get in. And all those good ideas just turn into this, "Just get it in the ground. Oh, God." That's usually when I revert to the landscape fabric. Because every year, we make new no-till beds and we maintain our no-till beds. Then we reach this point where we're like, "It's all lost. Go for the other easy thing. Quick." It's a good hybrid, I think, if I can let myself remember that, "It's like this every year, honey. It's okay."
Rue Genger (38:57):
You have the plan, then you have the backup plan and the...
Then the tertiary backup plan. All of them. This year, we couldn't lay a bunch of fabric because it was so windy. So we focused on building no-till beds but then we needed more beds. So we got into sandbags this year for the first time and I was like, "This is amazing. Sandbags, great." Because the staples work. But until they get a little rusty, they don't stay in the ground.
Rue Genger (39:29):
We're doing some experiments with landscape fabric held down with staples and definitely went for the longest staples that we could find because otherwise, they just get ripped up.
Rue Genger (39:43):
I'm sure that you're always turning over different ideas in your mind when you're not in the blackout planting phase. Do you have some next steps that you're thinking about trying out in the next year or so?
About no-till specifically or on other things?
Rue Genger (40:04):
I am really excited about this idea of putting in permanent no-till perennial bed windbreaks amongst the bigger field where we often do the landscape fabric. So mid-sized fruit and nut crops as well as shrubs that would produce flower crops and permanent six foot wide beds that we aim to get them to be 15 feet tall. Think of the size of a lilac hedge, but it's not just lilacs that we're planting. It's also roses and baptisias and serviceberries and aronia berries, all these different little things that add a lot of value as crops to our farm, but also block the wind so the landscape fabric will stay put. It'll help conserve water, because they'll be on the contour of this little hillside.
So there'll be this little place where just life can erupt and just have... These permanent windbreak islands that just every... I think we're doing them every 30 to 40 feet. Then there's this 30 to 40 feet of annual bed between them. We hope we'll just slowly convert to no-till. But until we get there, you can till them and then lay landscape fabric for the season for a minimal tillage system. Then you have the windbreaks. So our flower crops don't have curly stems because they're not blowing over. And it helps with late season frost and it helps with all these different things and water conservation.
The more habitat you have for wild birds, the less bugs you're going to have eating your crops next door. Like I said at the beginning, diversity is key to life. So interrupting these annual beds with no-till permanent beds where you... Then also you're creating these soil islands, these fertility islands where all the worms and the beneficial soil critters and everything really can thrive. I've noticed that fertility really does move out from these central places. Because in the beginning, we could only afford so much compost. We'd like dotted piles of compost and mulch and just bedding from our goat shacks onto high places, and then would watch as rain and snow would flow the fertility down these high places.
Because you start with this little spark, this little negative place that allows things to happen. Then you grow bigger plants one year, and then the next year, there's more organic matter from those bigger plants. Once you can get that fertility going and sparking off it, the world will come back to life. It's the nature of things. So creating little islands where that's happening on a perennial scale in our annual fields feels really exciting to me.
Rue Genger (43:13):
The idea of distributing that through an annual field just seems like there would be so many benefits to a lot of different ecosystem functions. You're already producing such a diversity of products that it seems like adding fruit and flowers into the mix that you're already producing would be a good fit given that you have a lot of different market opportunities.
Totally. And I really love the combination of perennials with no-till. I know a lot of growers, especially flower farmers, who just put down landscape fabric, burn a big hole for their perennials, and just let them rock in there. But the soil compaction is crazy. But if you're no-tilling those zones and even bridging the gap to living ground covers, I mean, it just gets cool. There's so many cool things. I just think that it could be so awesome having a row of native plums, which are delicious. We can make all kinds of things from them and having... They make thickets and having hazelnuts, which also make thickets, but also comfrey below them.
Comfrey is so amazing for the soil. It mines trace minerals from the sub soil and then it grows up these big little, they're almost like shrub size plant bodies and then they fall over every single year in a wind and then they die and feed the soil and then they do it again. They do that three or four times in one season. It's amazing. That's their natural cycle to grow up, give their bodies back to the ground, feed the world around them and then grow up again. It's just making these ecosystems that benefit not just people, but also people, really gets me excited. Because that's more of that idea of making agriculture less of an act of violence and more of an act of being of a place and not just exerting our will over a place. But being one of the entities that springs out of the ground right where we are.
Rue Genger (45:32):
That's beautifully said. What advice would you give to other diversified vegetable farms who are interested in reducing tillage? What have you learned that you would want to pass on?
I mean, go for it. Let's do this. I think that there's a million different ways to do it. I think the best advice that I would give is patience. Be willing to fail, be willing to try things and have good ideas and have them not work out. Give yourselves and people who work with you and all of us who are all learning a new way the chance to fail and be okay with it and to learn and to grow. We have to give ourselves grace, we have to stop judging every mistake as a negative thing. I mean, that's how we learn. Be prepared for things to not work out and be stoked about it because that means that you get to try something new.
I know that we get trial fatigue. We just want something to fucking work, you know. I get it. I mean, I grew up here. We always had a garden when I was a kid, but I learned how to farm in California on the coast where we're talking fog belts and no rain in the summer. You couldn't grow a tomato because it was too cold. Every place is going to be specific. We can read the books and we can share at the conferences and I think that's great. And so much of it is going to be listening to your specific spot, figuring out how to work with what is already happening so that you're not pushing the river all the time.
If you have an area that is wetter, thinking about what we did with the willows, permanent crops that will give you a crop and also help the situation and be happy there. I don't know. There's just these elegant solutions occasionally that just show up and you're like, "Oh, yeah." We realized on those wet years that it was really important for us to have high gardens and have low gardens depending... That way, whenever the season showed up, we could watch and then we could make choices about where things were going to go.
I just think that adaptability is the key to succeeding in life, whatever success means. Just being willing to scrap an idea halfway through and try something completely different. We just have to have grace. We have to have willing spirits and senses of humor and read all the books, for sure. Get the ideas down. Because you can over mulch a bed and kill some things pretty easily. That's true. But be willing to just try things out and screw it up and be... We don't need to be perfect.
Rue Genger (48:39):
Well said. Again, I really appreciate you taking the time to talk with me. We covered a lot of ground. I was wondering if there were any last thoughts.
A good mulch joke. I like that.
Rue Genger (48:58):
Any final layers that you wanted to lay down? Any final thoughts?
I just think that our work is so important. I think that the small family farm, or especially young farmers getting into things for the first time, there's so much information. So many books, so many opinions, so many, "This is how you do this and this isn't how you..." ideas out there. I just really would love to see us opening ourselves to have the land talking through our mouths for the first time in generations. Just to have the vision not just be our vision, to have the whole premise of living and making a life from the ground not be something that we force onto the world but something that we court. Something that we ask for. Something that we actively give towards.
I think about this with our CSA members because they don't have an easy go. These poor people. They chose our CSA and so they get my endless words about what it all means. It's not just an easy meal because that's an oxymoron that doesn't exist. Farming is such a beautiful way of life or it's just a cold system of inputs and products. That's what our gift as people is, is that we bring the meaning to that. We bring the soul to what we do. Soil and feeding the soil is everything. It's where the world becomes this amazing generous place. I mean it's everything. We wouldn't be here without that miraculous six inches that spread over so much. We waste a lot of it and we hurt a lot of soil. There's so much story there. There's so much to be learned if we can just kneel and apprentice ourselves to the ground herself.
Rue Genger (51:22):
Liz, thank you so much for sharing this time with me. I really appreciate it.
It's been really fun.
Rue Genger (51:28):
Ben Phillips (51:31):
That concludes this episode of The Vegetable Beet. If you'd like to check out all of our past episodes, head on over to glveg.net/listen. Sweet. Okay. Thanks, Natalie.
Natalie Hoidal (51:44):
Ben Phillips (51:44):
I got to run.
Natalie Hoidal (51:46):
Ben Phillips (51:47):
Okay. See you.
Natalie Hoidal (51:47):
All right. Okay.
Ben Phillips (51:47):
gengercast2 (Completed 08/24/22)
Transcript by Rev.com