The Vegetable Beet

Deep compost mulch systems are gaining popularity among vegetable growers who want to reduce tillage. In this episode, Rue Genger interviews Jimmy Bauman about the deep compost mulch systems used at Farm Farm in Princeton Minnesota. Jimmy describes the path he and his partner Heather have taken to reduce tillage, build soil organic matter, and refine their deep compost mulch system for vegetable production.

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A live weekly interview and discussion focused on vegetable production challenges and opportunities brought to you by the Great Lakes Vegetable Producers Network. We grow more together. JOIN US LIVE! We will be broadcasting live via Zoom at 12:30 ET/11:30 CT every Wednesday from the first week of March to the first week of September. Login at

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. 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 first that we have from Rue right now. 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 Pest Management Center. And our license for transistor is held by the University of Minnesota Extension.
Ben Phillips (01:04):
And you can listen to this episode and all the rest at Take it away, Rue.
Rue Genger (01:21):
Hello, Jimmy. And thank you for joining me today. The name of your farm is Farm Farm, and I'm sure there's a story behind that name. I was wondering if we could lead off with you telling us a little bit about the farm.
Jimmy (01:34):
Yeah. We are indeed called Farm Farm. And I suppose that was just our clever way of not actually having to come up with a name. We've been growing vegetables since 2011, and we bought our own farm in 2019. Between then, we produced on three different locations. The final one before our purchase was more of an incubator farm. We are an organic farm, but we are not certified. We sell 100% of our vegetables through our CSA program, as well as two Saturday farmers markets. We produce on two acres, and about a quarter acre of that is greenhouse and high tunnel space.
Rue Genger (02:36):
Greenhouse sounds like maybe you have some heated space in there?
Jimmy (02:40):
Correct. Yeah. The heat of greenhouse is 30 by 144 feet. And then, we have five caterpillar tunnels that are 12 by 100 feet long. And then, one high tunnel that's 20 by 48.
Rue Genger (02:53):
Nice, nice. You're up in Princeton, Minnesota? Can you tell us a little bit about the conditions that you're farming in, the soil that you're on, that kind of thing?
Jimmy (03:09):
Yeah. We're in Princeton, which is about an hour north of the Twin Cities. We actually jumped a half a zone when we moved from our other location in Delano. This is a very sandy area. Our soil type is fine sand, no loam about that. But we were pretty intentional on wanting sandy ground. This is really excessively sandy, but I feel that's better for our operation than being too heavy. When we were originally looking for a place to buy, we were hoping to try to stay in the area of Delano or Wright County, but the sandy ground is just limited to around rivers. And its proximity to the Twin Cities was also, it was more of an expensive area to try to stay in. And I suppose the further you north you go, it gets a little cheaper. And then, the sandy agricultural ground is usually cheaper because it's officially, it's not very good soil for row crops and stuff.
Jimmy (04:15):
But we knew we could amend the soils to get the fertility that we needed. And we had an irrigation well drilled when we moved in. So, we are taking care of the limitations of the sand. Because there's only so much drainage you can get out of any kind of loam, or clay loam, or anything like that. And on one of our incubator farms, we had a mix of sandy ground and a mix of loam. And we definitely got to experience the best of both worlds. Obviously, heavier ground is a little bit more fertile, and you don't have to worry about watering as much. But then, you get a wet week, and it keeps you out of that area. And then, obviously, vegetables are a lot easier to wash when it's sand and not mud.
Rue Genger (04:58):
Yeah. I've definitely had that experience. So, I invited you here to talk about no-till and reduced-till practices in growing organic vegetables. And I thought that we could lead off by talking about what you consider to be tillage? For example, in a real purist interpretation, some people might consider a broad fork tillage. Is a tine weeder tillage? Could you talk a little bit about with your low-till or no-till practices, what kinds of soil disturbance are you trying to avoid?
Jimmy (05:39):
We definitely avoid anything that inverts the soil layers as much as possible. And yeah, from a purist point of view, any kind of soil disturbance, raking, hoeing is tilling. But I am not a purist. I'm trying to make a profit farming. So, our current production is a little broad forking, especially before carrots, or parsnips, or anything like that. And then, we have a power harrow. We use our walk-behind tractor. And I typically only try to set that as deep as we need to. And that varies depending on what we're trying to accomplish.
Rue Genger (06:26):
What are some of the uses that you make of the power harrow?
Jimmy (06:32):
It's usually in the springtime. All of our beds receive compost, and we used that to just level out the compost. I set it basically to its shallowest setting, which for me, I took the machine onto a cement slab and lowered the tines down to when they were touching the cement. And I filed a notch in on the little doohickey that lowers it. And then, I set it all the way deep, and filed a notch in there, and then, put a few in between. So, it's my depth gauge.
Jimmy (07:04):
In springtime, when we apply the composts... And this year, we're doing about an inch and a half per bed or about one and a quarter yards per 100-foot bed. I just set that to the shallowest setting, that first notch there. And it's really just to break up the chunks of the compost, and even firm it up a little bit, and level it out. We tried transplanting and seeding into just the straight compost, and it was just a little bit better results when the chunks were there. And the power harrow does a really great job leveling the soil much more thoroughly and quicker than a rake could. It's less work to obviously use the machine doing that.
Jimmy (07:53):
But we're only putting the compost down in the spring. So, whenever we're flipping beds, we're going to reincorporate some composted poultry manure, like a 4-3-2 product. So, I might just set that about an inch down. You can still see a lot of it on the surface afterwards, but it's enough for me, I feel, to get that fertilizer incorporated enough to rot and actually become plant food. And then, also, when we're flipping beds to replant, it's nice to have a little bit of loose surface for transplanting or seeding.
Rue Genger (08:31):
It sounds like the disturbance is just... You're really trying to limit that to you as shallow as possible. And as you said, just avoid inverting the soil ever.
Jimmy (08:43):
Yeah, correct. Like I said, we're broad forking before carrots and parsnips this year. Last year and the year before, we were pretty much broad forking every bed before planting. And we were just really looking in ways to cut back on labor this year. So, we're like, "Well, we can skip some broad forking this year because we've done a lot of it." And then, probably next year, we'll try to hit up, I don't know, I'd say about half of our beds, try to get that broad forking action in at least once every other year. Because even though we're sandy, it can still get packed down even if we're avoiding foot traffic or machinery on the beds. There's other factors that are packing the soil down. But that being said, the sandy ground is naturally going to have more air in it than heavier ground. So, the purpose of tilling or loosening the soil for aeration really isn't that of a much of a necessity.
Rue Genger (09:41):
Yeah. That's definitely an advantage there. When you initially bought that land, you didn't start off with no-till systems, as far as I understand. What led you to start experimenting with that?
Jimmy (10:00):
Well, I'd say around 2015, 2016, we bought a power harrow and a flail mower for our walk-behind. And we were just, I don't know. You have to have a reason to till, and we were just trying to, I don't know, make less work of everything. At our incubator farm, we had access to a reciprocating spading machine, which is really great to turn sod into seed beds quickly. But it really goes deep, and it really works the ground. Just for everything we knew about every time you work the soil, you're burning up organic matter. And below the point of your machinery, you're probably going to create a hard pan. So, the first thing we did was really just stop plowing. We stopped using the spader. I had a little chisel plow I could have been using, but ultimately, it was just we just stopped plowing.
Jimmy (11:00):
Then, we bought our place in 2019. And unfortunately, we were not able to close until May of that spring. So, we had the farmer who was growing hay here on our field, we had him use a moldboard plow to flip it over. Because we needed to kill that sod, and we needed to begin production right away. So, that spring, we were producing in Delano where we were at for a long time. And then, started transitioning production up that first year we moved here. For a few months, there was a lot of back and forth, and the two were about an hour apart. And that was a really nutty first year, obviously, trying to move your farm in the spring. And we built the greenhouse and moved all our tunnels. It was terrible.
Rue Genger (11:47):
Wow. That's quite a spring. It sounds bad.
Jimmy (11:53):
Yeah. We consider ourselves a no-till farm, but the first thing we had to do was moldboard plow and flip the soil layers under it because we need to kill that sod. And plus, it had been a hayfield for, I don't know, 20 years. So, running all that heavy equipment over it is going to... Everything was really compacted and... I think had we had more time, even if we could've tarped two acres, I don't know, we probably would've still needed to plow just for the compaction. I don't know. I think you need to start off in the right spot. You can't just turn a yard into a vegetable garden without some disturbance. But since that first initial plowing, we've been pretty gentle. But I will say we did have a couple of field roads that we got rid of this year. So, I did use our little chisel plow just to reduce compaction.
Jimmy (12:53):
I'm not against tilling when it's appropriate, and you just need to have a really good reason to do it. Compaction being probably one of the better reasons. That being said, we avoid compaction in our beds by never driving on them with the tractor. And we use a tractor and a compost spreader to spread the compost. I have installed bricks or pavers every 10 beds in our field. So, every time I'm going to drive the tractor over the bed, I measure off those bricks that never move. I measure every four feet, put in a flag, and now, I can line up the flags and more or less keep everything, all the walkways, or all the tractor tires in the walkways, and never driving on the bed.
Rue Genger (13:41):
Nice. Those permanent bed systems are a real blessing, I think, if you can install that.
Jimmy (13:48):
Yeah. And we were trying to keep our beds permanent at our previous locations, but it was more like the eyeballing method. And then, all of a sudden, two different sides of the fields meet in the middle, and you've got a two-foot wide bed or a six-foot wide bed. And you're like, "Oh, geez."
Rue Genger (14:03):
Yeah. That system with the bricks and the flags sounds brilliant just to keep you on track.
Jimmy (14:10):
And then, we even got axle extensions for our Grillo walk-behind tractor, just to keep a little bit more weight off the beds. Although, I do need to take them off time to time, especially for mowing so I can get closer to certain areas. And then, sometimes, I might need a power harrow or something, the whole width of the bed, not just the growing space, if it's too weedy or for different reasons.
Rue Genger (14:36):
What percentage of your crops are you growing with some sort of reduced tillage system at this point?
Jimmy (14:45):
I'd say almost everything except potatoes simply because I use that chisel plow, toolbar thing. I put a nice big fat furrow maker on the back, and we dig a trench to plant the potatoes. And then, I'll close them up with the tractor. I'll use the tractor to hill the potatoes, but we're not chisel plowing or anything beforehand. I don't think I'm ever going to broad fork before potatoes even. It's not carrot. They don't need to be super straight. We seem to get good yields out of our potato beds without that. Aside from that, aside from the potatoes and aside from converting old field roads into production space, or last year, we got a strip on one of our field edges along the woods there that we wanted asparagus. So, I rototilled the quack grass to kill it and we chisel plowed, and just to get us off to a good start. But moving forward, all of that won't be tilled. So, just the potatoes.
Rue Genger (15:51):
After a crop like potatoes, where obviously at harvest, you're completely turning over the soil, are there any special methods that you use to transition back into low-till? Or are there crops that you follow potatoes with to take advantage of that disrupted soil?
Jimmy (16:10):
Well, last year, we bought a little potato digger, a Spedo brand one. That really allows us to get the potatoes out on time, say, by mid-September. Because they're usually pretty dead by then. And that was plenty of time for us to get hairy vetch and winter rye cover crop in. Our plan was to just put that kind of cover crop in to glue the soil structure back together with some roots.
Jimmy (16:41):
But unfortunately, we actually ended up tarping it really early this spring because the deer had spent all late winter, early spring coming to our field to eat the cover crop. And as soon as we started transplanting outdoors, they ate those too. So, we tarped the cover crop, covered all of our transplants with row cover, and then, put a fifth row of electric wire around our whole field. We have insane deer pressure up here. I grew up in the country.
Rue Genger (17:08):
Oh, I can imagine.
Jimmy (17:08):
River. And I've never seen them this thick. Some evenings, you come back the last two miles, you'll see like 20 deer, and they just love it. We're surrounded by woods. So, there's a bunch of swamps and lakes around, and they just love it here. But yeah, aside from that, the four or five rows of electric fence is more or less effective until the grass grounds it out, and you got to go and weed it, and they get in. And then, the little baby Bambis come in because they don't respect the electric fence or they haven't learned it yet. And yeah, it's ongoing for sure.
Rue Genger (17:40):
That sounds like a constant battle, but the electric fence and the tarp helped out. So, that's good.
Jimmy (17:48):
Yeah. And on the topic of cover crops, I honestly have not been super successful with them/haven't really done much with them. We're pretty reliant on compost and adding compost to soil for the fertility. But I am looking forward to doing more experiments with them. And that is going to be, I think, maybe one of the challenges about no-till is you turning a cover crop into a seed bed.
Rue Genger (18:20):
Yeah. I could not agree more. That's a great lead into you describing... Could you describe what your favorite no-till systems or low-till systems are on your farm? And just walk us through the details. You've talked a little bit already about your bed prep. But if you could also talk about how you're managing fertility and how you're planting into those systems, weed control, all of those things. That'd be great if you could walk us through that.
Jimmy (18:53):
Sure. I definitely, I get a soil sample every year, whether that's taken in the spring or the fall beforehand. And we use different amendments based on those results. This year was actually we use a ton of elemental sulfur because we're starting to trend pretty alkaline. I'm pretty sure that the farmer who is running this field, I don't know. He told me he put down a bunch of lime, which he definitely put down a bunch of lime. Because we're like 7.5, 7.7. So, we're trying to get that a little bit back towards-
Rue Genger (19:26):
On sand.
Jimmy (19:27):
Yeah. On sand, it’s like, "What the hell?" Because we moved here, it was 6.5. I was like, "Oh, that's perfect." But so, this year, was a lot of elemental sulfur, and then, copper manganese sulfates, usually a little gypsum every year, and a little boron. It's a blanket approach to the whole field unless we have a certain reason to add a little bit of this or that. Beets like boron or cole crops like boron. They might get a little extra juice of that.
Jimmy (19:55):
But for 2020 and 2021, we were doing what we called the double dump of compost. Our compost spreader holds about a yard and a quarter. So, we were doing two loads per bed, which would be at least three inches of vegetative yard waste compost. We had actually had ended up doubling our CSA when COVID happened. We're like, "Well, we got all this money in hand. We can't mess around with weeding. So, let's just put it on thick. Our soil needs it anyway." We started with one and a half percent organic matter. But this year, we are just back down to the one load, about the inch or inch and a half per bed. Our nutrient levels are getting pretty good. Organic matter, even though we put, in the span of three years, we put seven inches of compost on the bed and organic matter in the sand is only 2.8 right now in the field.
Rue Genger (20:51):
It takes long time to shift it, but that's pretty impressive over a pretty short period of time. That's quite a big jump.
Jimmy (20:57):
Right. But the greenhouse, having excluding all the precipitation, I think, eliminating the microbial activity, our greenhouse tested 7% this spring, organic matter. I did switch labs. So, our field tests were from a different lab. There might be a little discrepancy that way. But the greenhouse also, we're putting a little peat moss in for the last couple years in addition to the compost, just because we feel it's a long-lasting source of organic matter that isn't going to have as many of those soluble salts that we're all trying to avoid in our covered spaces.
Jimmy (21:38):
Early on, yeah, we were putting in lots of compost, correcting our chemistry with different organic amendments. We typically lay down our composted poultry manure fertilizer before the compost, because then, it's definitely incorporated. Do a slight harrow on top of the compost just to break up the clumps, create a seed bed, smooth it out, even pack it down a little bit because fluffy compost can just dry out and become hydrophobic.
Jimmy (22:08):
Flagging each bed, so I'm not driving on any of the production space with the heavy equipment. Early on in the spring, we are pretty strategic with where we lay out silage tarps. So, if something's not getting planted until late May, it'll just be tarped until the meantime, just keep the weeds from getting established. Because we spent a lot of time physically digging up quack grassroots with garden forks, hours and hours. Because we, not being tilling or only disturbing the soil an inch, maybe two inches down, that's a really great place for quack grass to just thrive. And that is something, I don't know, you could tarp it all year, and it'll just grow through the tarp, it seems. It's the worst thing. Loads of compost delivered in the fall and late October even. But comes first time in the spring, they've already grown through two feet of the compost. So, we don't mess around with the quack grass.
Rue Genger (23:09):
Is that your most significant perennial weed?
Jimmy (23:13):
Yeah. Other than that, we actually had a lot of weed seeds, a lot of annuals drop weed seeds last year. Some of our loads of compost that came in on the spring didn't cook up enough at the facility over the winter. So, they were loaded with mostly lambsquarter. And since we were doing the double load of compost, we didn't really budget enough time or labor to take care of those weeds. And we had a few choice spots that are pretty weedy this year, but we realized that would be the case and budgeted time for it. So, I think we're doing pretty okay in the weeds this year, but yeah, it's an always ongoing process, obviously.
Rue Genger (24:14):
Yeah. And in a low-till system, you don't have that disruption that's going to knock those perennial weeds back. So, I think that's something, to me, as a researcher, that's something that I'm really interested in how we can manage those without disrupting all of the benefits of reduced tillage. Are you mainly going in and... Sorry, go ahead.
Jimmy (24:44):
Oh, I'm sorry. That might be a reason also why I'm a little nervous about trying the cover crops because that's just another place for the perennials to get established with perennial weeds. Since 2019, basically, the entirety of our field has been in constant vegetable production. That really just doesn't allow that many perennials to get established.
Rue Genger (25:09):
And when they do, are you going in and hand digging those out?
Jimmy (25:14):
Yeah. Our neighbor's little prairie’s got a bunch of milkweed in it, and some of it's starting to... I see some here and there pop up in our fields, but for the most part, we try to keep everything weed-free. And some of our beds, even the outdoor beds see a couple crops a year. So, there's lots of chances for us to hit the reset button, whether that's just mowing. And maybe, I'll do a slight, shallow power harrow just to help whatever I mow break down or we'll tarp it a little bit.
Rue Genger (25:54):
Into this system where you're spreading compost on the beds, are you planting by hand or when you are dealing with transplants versus direct-seeded crops, what are your planting methods?
Jimmy (26:08):
We transplant by hand. We are looking at getting the paper pot transplanter for next year, but it just seems very expensive. I feel like they could probably make it a lot cheaper and the paper chains a lot cheaper, but people are willing to pay what they're paying for it now. So, why would they do that? But you crunch the numbers, you figure out how many hours it takes for somebody to plant a bed of Salanova or something that's really tightly-spaced. And then, you're like, "Okay. Maybe this makes sense." So, we're going to give that a try. But otherwise, everything is hand transplanted. We have this roller, couple rollers that we built that you just roll over the bed and makes a grid system, so you can plant it at every intersection or only plant the two outside rows. Or there's a lot of flexibility in with just the couple of gridding rollers that we have.
Rue Genger (27:05):
And then, how about with direct-seeded crops like carrots or parsnips you were mentioning before?
Jimmy (27:12):
We have Jang seeder, the three-row Jang. The only things we're really direct seeding are the carrots, parsnips, beans, radishes, Hakurei. We transplant our first couple rounds of beets, but we direct seed the beets after that. What else? But yeah, that's probably about it. I use pelleted beet seed. I use pelleted carrots, sorry, pelleted parsnips. I use raw carrot seeds. But one thing about a deep compost mulch system like we're doing is, let's say, you're trying to get that 10 rows of beds with arugula, or baby lettuce mix, or whatever. And you can put all three hoppers real close together on the Jang, but it's just going to plug up with a bunch of compost. So, that's one of the downsides of it.
Jimmy (28:09):
I overcame that reality by staggering the... I'll make a pass with the Jang with the three hoppers set wide. And then, I'll offset that so that the hoppers are now in between what was just laid down. And depending on how careful I'm being or how much time I have, they can end up pretty straight, evenly-spaced rows. But sometimes, they're really close together.
Jimmy (28:41):
Our farmers markets don't really allow us to sell too much like baby arugula. And since we switched over to Salanova for salad mix, we don't really do too much direct seeding of baby lettuces, or baby arugula, or anything in the mustard family or Asian greens, which I'm fine with. They're a ton of work, and it's pretty easy to have crop failures with that stuff. But that being said, I like growing the greens, and radishes, and stuff. You get so many tries per year. You can plant it every week. If you mess up your tomatoes, it's like, "Well, that was it."
Rue Genger (29:17):
Speaking of tomatoes, I've been wondering about your fertility management. And obviously, with full-season crops or long-season crops like that, you can put down a certain amount at the start, but how much are you finding that you have to amend different crops as you go through the season?
Jimmy (29:38):
Yeah, that's something we're still learning about since 2019 was the first year. Well, actually, we built the heated greenhouse in 2019, but 2020 was the first year we were actually able to produce those early tomatoes and cucumbers. And they need food. They need additional fertility, much more than you can provide early on. The heated greenhouse area is we're not putting as much compost as the field. We're being very careful with our amendments. I'm not using anything manure-based, just trying to avoid those soluble salts that it can accumulate. So far, we're doing pretty good. I think we're still under, I don't know, 1% or whatever. It's 0.05 or I don't know. They're still very low for the several years we're in there. The last couple years, we do half inch of peat moss, and then, an inch of compost on top of that, in addition to whatever the chemistry is asking for. I'll use feather meal for the nitrogen or blood meal, and again, something not manure-based.
Rue Genger (30:50):
What is your compost based on? Are you getting a local source of compost?
Jimmy (30:57):
Yeah. I think the facility might be 40 minutes away. It's just yard waste compost. It's cheaper than the manure-based. Obviously, the manure is going to have a little bit more nutrients in it, but we're trying to go after that cheap source of organic matter. So, we're paying... They just raised their price. I think they charging us 15 bucks a yard now for not delivered, and then, we got to pay the trucker. But still, that's cheaper than the facility we were getting it from when we were renting.
Jimmy (31:28):
And then, starting at about when the tomatoes have that first load of mature green fruits, I'll send in some leaves to a laboratory to get analyzed. And then, we try to correct the deficiencies based on those results. And I think the best results we've had with side dressing the tomatoes was within an actual dry, granular type of fertilizer. Just a few weeks ago was feather meal and sulfate of potash. We needed the nitrogen. We needed the potassium. Previously, I was trying to put stuff through the drip irrigation, like fish emulsion or different water soluble sources of nitrogen or potassium. And I was either just not doing enough of that or not using enough, but it just really didn't seem to be helping until we hoed in a decent amount of dry fertilizers, and then, top dressed with some more compost. But I'm trying to avoid the top dressing the compost because it's just so much work to carry in buckets of compost through the crowded pads inside the greenhouse when they're all big plants.
Jimmy (32:40):
Our tomatoes get transplanted in the ground towards mid to end of March. So, we typically get our first tomatoes end of May, early June, although it was a little delayed this year due to the cool cloudy spring, even in the heated greenhouse. But yeah, they are hungry suckers.
Rue Genger (32:59):
Yeah, they are.
Jimmy (33:00):
We plant them as close as we dare, I suppose, which the greenhouse beds, they're five feet on center as opposed to everywhere else in the farm is four-foot centers. We got double rows, two rows of tomatoes per bed. The rows are about a foot apart, and then, the plants in each row about two feet apart. So, in theory-
Rue Genger (33:21):
Yeah, that's pretty close.
Jimmy (33:23):
One foot apart in the bed between each plant, but they're pruned to one vine.
Rue Genger (33:29):
Yeah. You'd have to with that density.
Jimmy (33:32):
Rue Genger (33:32):
That's quite a jungle.
Jimmy (33:34):
It's quite a lot of work to prune and trellis. But it's really worth it that I think over the span of a week when we had that first fruit flush mature and ripen, we had about 1,000 pounds of tomatoes harvested from about 300 plants.
Rue Genger (33:52):
Jimmy (33:53):
Which is definitely, we went downhill since then, obviously. But that's the hard part is trying to keep them fed enough without creating excesses and keep them productive and healthy. And the health is a challenge in such a protected environment. We stopped growing heirloom tomatoes in the greenhouse. We do grow them in other unheated tunnels. But our greenhouse has insect screening on the roll-up sides. Even though we have a big exhaust fan and a louvre vent that opens up on the gable ends, it's still pretty still air. So, that leaf mold really took out the heirlooms pretty quickly. Even if it didn't kill them, it dropped enough of their leaves off where they weren't productive anymore. So, picking greenhouse varieties is really important. I know the seed is expensive, but it definitely pays for itself tenfold.
Rue Genger (34:54):
That leads into a question I've been wondering about. Have you noticed that some varieties are better-suited to lower tillage systems than others, whether for tomatoes or for other crops?
Jimmy (35:12):
No, I don't. As long as your soil's not compacted and there's plenty of fertility, I don't think that plants care whether you broad forked it, or plowed it, or whatever. I would assume that some of the plant health and the preventing disease can be attributed to the soil health from reduced or no-tillage. Because you're obviously getting a lot more of a fungal population, which is the slowest to recover from a tillage event. And then, there are certain crop families. I don't think the brassicas really care about any kind of fungal networks. They're too, I don't know, prehistoric even. It's like, on the evolution scale or whatever, they're pretty primitive.
Rue Genger (36:00):
They're going it alone. No mycorrhiza for them.
Jimmy (36:03):
Yeah. And is it the beet family is also another one, I think, that doesn't really have that relationship? But that being said, I'm sure that the abundance or the increased level of fungus is probably out-competing a lot of the bacterias that can cause those problems and be an issue. And we do have a lot of, I would say, our brassica families, cole crops are probably the most likely to get some kind of disease, since we have moved all of our tomatoes into either the greenhouse or the caterpillar tunnels. We don't grow any tomatoes outdoors. But that would be another one that would just be hard to keep healthy.
Rue Genger (36:49):
Have you noticed any changes as you've reduced tillage in pest or disease issues generally?
Jimmy (36:57):
Yeah. I'd say since we moved here to our new place in 2018, we've definitely had a lot better crop quality. With farming, it's never just any one thing. We're definitely more experienced. We're living on the farm. We put in the infrastructure. We're adding lots of compost, which we were using compost in the past, but we couldn't do it excessively because we were renting. So, it's all of those things. You're trying to draw a circle. And with farming, you don't just take a pen and draw a circle. You add a line here, you add a smudge here, and you have 100 little steps, and then, finally, you have your circle.
Rue Genger (37:41):
Yeah. That reminds me of a farmer I was talking to recently who was saying that every year, she learns a little more, and she figures once she's 90, she'll know exactly what she's doing on that piece of land.
Jimmy (37:55):
Oh, probably not. I don't think any farmers really think that they're going to ever have it figured out, and that's what keeps us going, and keeps it interesting. And it really, yeah. This style of two acres, farmer's market, CSA farming, just every day is different. And it really feeds into my need to just be not doing the same thing all day long.
Rue Genger (38:21):
In your journey to reducing tillage, are there systems that you've tried that you decided to drop?
Jimmy (38:34):
Yeah. I think just if you're too much of a purist for no-till, and you're just not like thinking about what you're trying to do, you might inadvertently just create more work for yourself. Like, if I got a bed that's empty, and we haven't planted it out, and it's the spring, and it's starting to get weedy, and it gets a little out of hand, the weeds are kind of big, I might have to set the power harrow a little deeper than I want to.
Jimmy (39:04):
But it's just because that's the reality of things. The cover crops are going to be an interesting journey for us to learn more about, and I'm excited to learn more about it. We're planning on scaling back a little bit next year. So, I'm hoping to just have an acre and a half in production. We will have the room to do a little bit more a farm-generated fertility through cover crops or at least just give something a rest. But I know keeping the perennials from getting established, and then, trying to get a nice seed bed or a place to transplant after growing a cover crop might be a challenge.
Rue Genger (39:47):
Are there any particular ways that you're hoping to use cover crops that feed into a low-till system? You mentioned wanting to grow fertility on the farm, and obviously, that's a big benefit of cover crops. But are there other ways that you're hoping to feed them into this low-till system?
Jimmy (40:09):
Yeah. If we scale back to, let's say, we just go down an acre and a half, I might, instead of having a half acre and a full year of cover crops, I might just not have to flip the beds as quickly. Especially this time of year, we got to manually remove crops or weeds to replant. So, I imagine the flail mower is going to be really invaluable and tarping as well. I try not to use tarps that often. The voles really like them.
Rue Genger (40:44):
Jimmy (40:45):
And we used to do a lot more with landscape fabric back at our incubator farm, especially because we had such high weed pressure. But I just remember, I don't know, we were trying to grow melons in some kind of landscape fabric, and then, the beds of beets right next to them just completely eaten by voles because they were just living under the landscape fabric. If I do use the tarps, I just want to use them sparingly and just for as long as is needed to have them do their duty.
Rue Genger (41:13):
Yeah. Makes sense. It sounds like you have an exciting journey. Sorry.
Jimmy (41:21):
One thing that we had tried, I think, in 2019, we tried a lot more with the intercropping, like seeding a row of radishes in between our two rows of cauliflower or putting some lettuce transplants in between some stuff. And it ended up just being really disorganized. And depending on the season or what's growing, who grows faster, there's a lot more failures and successes than I was happy with with this inter cropping business. Then, we just switched to just trying to have each thing has its own bed or part of a bed. However, the heated greenhouse space in March is pretty valuable space. So, we will transplant beets, and head lettuce, and stuff alongside that. And we learned the hard way about overdoing that to the expense of our tomatoes.
Rue Genger (42:12):
Overdoing that intensive intercropping too closely?
Jimmy (42:17):
Yeah. Too closely, like putting the beets every six inches. I think the first year, we transplanted beets every six inches on either side of the tomato rows. And then, it was like, "Oh, that's too much." So, we just did them every foot this year. And then, the head lettuces, we typically do 10 inches apart in the field, three rows per bed. But we gave them 18 inches alongside of the tomato plants. Because otherwise, if you're intercropping too much, your more intended crop, your long-term crop is just is robbed of nutrients, water, and such.
Rue Genger (42:50):
Yeah. It's quite a balance.
Jimmy (42:52):
Rue Genger (42:54):
And I can imagine on a large CSA, you're smaller in acreage, but you have a pretty large CSA. The efficiency of harvest is pretty important as well.
Jimmy (43:05):
Rue Genger (43:05):
So, having more clearly organized planting spaces, I can imagine, makes it a lot easier.
Jimmy (43:11):
And the cultivation too. Because a bed of cauliflower's pretty easy to hoe, but if you stick that row of radishes in, then you got to slow down a whole bunch.
Rue Genger (43:22):
Very true. It sounds like you have an exciting journey ahead of you with cover crops. And hopefully, we can check in at some point and hear a little bit about your experimentation with those. As we start to wrap up, I was wondering, what advice would you give to other vegetable farmers who are interested in reducing tillage? Where would you suggest that they start?
Jimmy (43:52):
I'd probably start with your most weed-free areas, for one, especially the perennials.
Rue Genger (44:00):
Jimmy (44:00):
You got to tame your perennial weeds before you can get into the no-till. And then, even, let's say, you got a high annual weed pressure. Don't be afraid to stale seed that for just a little bit. You don't want to overdo the stale seed bed because the healthiest thing for your soil is to have something growing on it, which in Minnesota, growing annual vegetables is a challenge. Buy your compost in the fall, since they had all summer to cook and heat up enough. And furthermore, then you don't have to deal with the roadway restrictions that are in place in the northern states. Because I couldn't even get a truck in here until mid to late May if I wanted to.
Rue Genger (44:41):
Oh, that's an interesting point.
Jimmy (44:43):
Yeah. I didn't really realize that our incubator farm was right off of Highway 12, so there were no road restrictions, roadway restrictions. But our little residential road, yeah, depending on the year, it's late May until we can get a semi-truck in here. And like I said, we moved here in 2019, and the first thing we had done to our field was had it plowed. It was compacted, and it was sod. So, I don't think you can just go ahead and take compacted weedy soil and just start doing no-till right off the bat because it's just a losing battle.
Jimmy (45:22):
Doing it intentionally and not just being a purist or not just, oh, I saw this YouTube video. I watched this conference, and this is the silver bullet. I just got to do it this way. I've been stuck in that trap for years. Like, oh, this is what this book said, this is what this grower I admire is doing. So, we got to do it that way. But without taking the critical look to things, you got to do what's working for you, and with your equipment too, and your time, your scale.
Jimmy (45:55):
Your scale, I think, is really important. We spent a long time trying to grow several acres. And we started, every time, we cut back on the land we were producing, we were more profitable with less work. And I think ultimately, at the end of the day, our goal with the no-tillage and reduced tillage is less work, especially on plant health. Soil health contributes to plant health. We got more to think about than just getting a big crop that we're sending down to the grain mill. We got shelf life to consider. And there's so many more diseases that affect vegetables than certain other crops.
Rue Genger (46:38):
It's a much more complex management system just to keep plant nutrition up, so you're producing something that's nutrient-dense as well as the biotic health of the plants.
Jimmy (46:51):
Yeah. And I read this somewhere too. I heard this. As farmers that grow annual crops, we have to measure our destruction with our construction of the soil. And vegetables are very destructive on the soil. You take a bed of lettuce, you need to add the fertilizer, then, you're hoeing it a couple times maybe. And then, you take the entire plant out of the bed. You're never giving back the lettuce. And especially, we have excessively sandy soil. So, the more we work that ground, the more our organic matter that we spent so much time and money applying to the field is just going to burn up. Like I said, seven inches or so of compost since 2019, and organic matter is 2.8%. I couldn't imagine if I just automatically rototilled everything after the fact. But we'd never get ahead on that end.
Rue Genger (47:51):
Those numbers, I think, are a real testament to the effectiveness of just letting that compost sit there. Because in any system that I've ever heard about that includes tillage, you would never get that kind of a jump in numbers. So, just the fact that you're letting it stay there and settle into the system. And as you say, not burning that up is really powerful.
Jimmy (48:15):
Right. Exactly. And I know that our soil's healthy. You just go out into any part of our field, and you take one shovel scoop, and you have all the worms you need for fishing. They love it here.
Rue Genger (48:35):
It sounds to me like you're taking a very experimental, and really, in a lot of ways, scientific approach to this where you are just really observing and seeing what's working for you, and figuring out more of a really place-based system that is based on what you and Heather are able to manage on the farm, the kind of equipment you have, the location that you're in. And I really admire that approach as a scientist myself. I'm also wondering where else you look for inspiration and for advice, help with problem solving as you run into issues with your systems?
Jimmy (49:32):
I think early on, it was a lot of Eliot Coleman stuff, and he's not necessarily no-till. But then, we bought The Market Gardener book, the JM Fortier stuff, and Singing Frogs Farm, Neversink Farm, basically anybody, the no-till growers group. There's all sorts of information out there now. Even 11 years after we started, there's way more information just for free online. And everybody's got their whatever online course they want you to buy. I've never done that. As terrible as social media actually is, Instagram is really useful for seeing what other farmers are doing. And I definitely post some stuff. I was really on the fence this winter. I was like, "I'm just going to be done with any social media," but we ended up continuing with that.
Rue Genger (50:27):
I've definitely seen some cool stuff on your Instagram. It is great to see what's-
Jimmy (50:37):
I make really dumb jokes and try to be silly all the time on Instagram because, I don't know. People take it too seriously.
Rue Genger (50:46):
It's nice to approach it with a light heart.
Jimmy (50:50):
I'd say, you had a question about a no-till system that we gave up on or changed a little bit. But, last year, we were physically, manually clearing bed, clearing beds by hand to replant flip beds. And sometimes, that even meant hoeing out a spent bed of arugula to replant. And that just proved to be so labor intensive. We spent a lot of money on labor last year, and we're trying to reduce that this year.
Jimmy (51:29):
So, this year, we dropped a couple crops. We dropped melons, and we dropped cauliflower. So, we had a little bit more space to spare in the field. Instead of physically removing crop debris to replant, we're doing a little bit more with mowing and tarping. Just give it a little more time. It's just ended up being cheaper. This week, we are going to end up pulling out certain crops by hand or old crops by hand, and replant, because it's the last window for carrots, and beets, or whatever. But just scaling back a little bit to allow us to use the tool of time with tarping and stuff like that.
Rue Genger (52:15):
I like that. I like that. It's respectful of your bodies as well, I think, to realize that sustainability operates on a lot of different levels.
Jimmy (52:31):
Yeah. And that being said, we were like, "Oh, we need to cut back on labor this year." And then, it turned out we cut back a little too much. So, for about a month and a half there, it was back to the old days of just working nonstop. But then, we crunched the numbers and realized that we could afford a little extra help. And then, we're getting a lot more back on track. And for the beginning farmer out there, there's a lot to keep track of. It can be a little overwhelming, and you'll probably take notes and stuff that you'll never look at again. But you really do need to take notes and treat your farm like a business, run the numbers. And us comparing our labor to last year, it's good for us because we got 10, 11 years of experience and can compare like that. But somebody's first getting started might not be able to have that luxury of looking back on the last few years.
Rue Genger (53:31):
Having that record is, again, very powerful to make decisions as you go forward. Jimmy, thank you so much for joining me today. I really enjoyed hearing about your farm and how all your systems are evolving. And like I said, I'm hoping that we can check in again maybe in a couple of years and see how those cover crops are treating you.
Jimmy (53:55):
Yeah. Please do. I'm excited. Every year's different and provides a new opportunity and new experience. And thanks for reaching out to me. I just love talking shop, so anything.
Rue Genger (54:12):
Same here. Thanks again.
Jimmy (54:14):
All right. Thank you. Goodbye.
Ben Phillips (54:18):
That concludes this episode of the Vegetable Beet. If you'd like to check out all of our past episodes, head on over to Sweet. Thanks, Natalie. I got to run. See you.
Natalie Hoidal (54:35):
Okay. Bye-bye.

gengercast1 (Completed 08/24/22)
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