Demonstrating Higher Yields and Market Opportunities of Mixed Annual and Perennial Intensive Planting in Appalachian Ohio

Final Report for FNC09-774

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2009: $5,909.80
Projected End Date: 12/31/2012
Region: North Central
State: Ohio
Project Coordinator:
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Project Information

Summary:

The project was carried out on a ½ acre site on my farm in Appalachia Ohio in Athens County. The project focus on polyculture led to a site design that established beds along contours, laid in an dry weather access road, and captured water on site in a small pond, all to examine how a mixed perennial and annual experiment can maximize market production in a demonstration site that can serve as a classroom for students, farmers, and homeowners who want to be part of a network to replace lawns, annual gardens, and whole farms with a system that eliminates erosion and support pollinators while generating crops for both their home use and for sale in nearby markets. We planted asparagus, apricot, peach, cherry, hazelnut, raspberry, elderberry, aronia, garlic, current, sweet potatoes, onions, squash, heirloom beans, senna, dwarf comfrey, lavender, basil, sage, and other perennial herbs on the site using sheet mulching to keep soil structure in tact.

From the start of residing on this land in the 90’s when I started planting gardens for my family, I have always used organic methods. Most notably, I carried out a four year composting project on the site thanks to the City of Athens need for an additional site to deposit leaves every fall. That project yielded composted leaves from more than 100 loads of material each year, and created a rich base for the site with a soil 7.2 ph. Prior to that, I was able to receive horse manure from neighbors and mushroom compost from a nearby mushroom growing facility in Jackson County, which has since closed. I also use woodchips for mulch and paths that are delivered by the electric company crew when they clear lines along the roads within a two-mile radius. I mulch beds every year to prevent erosion and have experimented with various cover crops, like buckwheat and rye to suppress weeds. I erected a fence around the site in 2008 to discourage deer predation.

PROJECT DESCRIPTION

GOALS
1. Create income-producing options on the small-irregular tracks common to the region.
2. Promote the profitability of sustainable organic growing methods
3. Use methods that minimize soil disturbance and build organic matter
4. Offer local landowners, faculty, and students field day opportunities

PROCESS

The top suggestions I would make to others who want to do a similar project are:
1. Do a full site base map.
2. Add layers that include contours, beds, proposed planting stock and placement,
3. All earthworks, (swale development, ponds, bed building, and water systems) should be installed first.
4. Plant your perennials early on (they take the longest to yield)
5. Plant cover crops or deep mulch on beds that will not be planted right away to control weeds and provide nutrients.
6. Plant productive annuals in the perennial beds while perennials are reaching productivity.
7. Look for opportunities to build your network for intern participation, and potential clients looking for guidance on their sites.

Site Planning:
Planning and succession plantings are key to the development of a project expected to yield income from perennial and annual crops. Our team (Ross Martin, Kurt Belser, and myself) started with meetings and paper to plan our field days and activities for the mapping process. After acquiring soil tests results, the first field days offered participants the opportunity to learn base mapping. With 100 ft. tapes and flags, four pairs were instructed to measure the site and locate every landmark (mostly plants already on site) that would be used to create a the base map we would use for additional layers including a basic contour layer, a proposed bed layer, and proposed plantings. Additional data included sun and wind patterns, site assets, plants already on site, and potential problems or limitations.
For example, a primary asset was that the soil proved to be a rich loamy composition with a 7.2pH; mature trees revealed how wind crossed the site, morning and afternoon sun identified shade and full sun locations, and a boggy area where water didn’t drain off on the site gave us a chance to apply the permaculture adage, “the problem is the solution” in our design.

Understanding the site can result in a more productive plan. For example, earth moving to build swales and ponds and deep plowing can combine to send water to holding ponds and tanks as well as direct it to move across the site slowly so your crops are well irrigated. If contours are mapped in the planning phase, you can ponds and swales before your beds are laid out and your perennials are planted.

Earth works-
My budget didn’t permit bringing in the large tractor necessary to use a chisel plow and because the site was fenced and already had beds on site, I did not use machinery to build swales. I did bring in a small machine operator to spread compost on the site. The wet area on the site led to a solution built by a small equipment operator. We directed an access road ditch to the small pond he built to hold the water in one place under the canopy of a large ash tree. That solution gave the site a feature that is both beautiful and practical as a shaded zone for potted perennials to be set out and watered. Later, a group of students hand dug a swale from the pond to a nearby blueberry patch, which insured runoff from the pond would slowly percolate through the beds and nourish the shallow roots of the blueberry bushes. The students finished off their pond project with a planting of shade and water loving herbs on its edge, adding to its beauty.

Building beds was advanced by the many students from the Natural Resources program at Hocking College who worked on the site for two years as interns, to complete class projects, and as volunteers.

Perennial Planting
Again, Hocking College students helped plan and plant the many perennials on site including asparagus, raspberries, apricot, cherry, and nectarine trees, and comfrey, senna, aronia, and elderberry.

PEOPLE

Andy Pressman from NCAT: ATTRA supported the project by sharing information with me about SPIN farming, permaculture and by connecting me with his colleagues who had advice about stone fruit rot on the site. I am attaching an article I found to be very helpful and am planning to “borrow” a neighbor’s chickens to clean up the beds, per the article’s recommendations.

Jaymee Weaver, a local resident who is passionate about gardening, volunteered on the site numerous times, always applying her learning back at her home garden in Ames Township.

Joe Weber from NRCS suggested that I apply for an EQIP grant to erect a high hoop house on the site and helped make the plan work for my interests. The house will be built this year and our design team is planning how to use it to propagate from mature specimens on the site to use on the farm as well as with new client projects we will pursue next year.

Kip Rondy of Green Edge Organic Gardens advised me about water systems and high hoop construction.

Kurt Belser consulted about fruit tree pruning and maintenance. I have contracted with him to maintain the site and use the pruning schedule as a field day opportunity for others to come and learn while they help do the work. He will start this summer.

Peter Bane, Permaculture Activist Journal Publisher and Permaculture Instructor visited the site in 2012 and suggested novel ways to construct the high hoop house to harvest the water that comes off the house into storage containers for watering the site.

Rebecca Wood, Herbalist and instructor from Hocking College consulted on plants and brought several of her classes to the site over the course of the project. She is now retired.

RESULTS
I expected the main yield in the first few years of the project to be focused on education, both my own as I experimented with combining the potential of several methods I had long been interested in applying–Permaculture, Small Plot Intensive (SPIn) Gardening, Polyculture design via the work of Joe Kovach–and the education of others, who came to the site ready to help move it forward and learn methods they could apply to their own projects.

Our successes were fueled by the support of several VISTA/AmeriCorps who worked for a local nonprofit, two instructors from a community college who offered the site to their students for final projects and internships, the interns who came out for work days, and the buzz created by posting on the Deep Garden Design FaceBook page.

In all three seasons, students and faculty from Hocking College participated in the project with more than 100 participants in all. Additionally a dozen community members volunteered and worked with me and started small plots of their own. I think the educational aspect of the project is the most satisfying.

Since perennial crops had not reached production climax over the life of the project, I did not measure or intend to measure their success based on crop yield; however, this year we will our primary yields in the asparagus, garlic, and herb beds, which will be used as fresh crop and in recipe development for scones and dips to sell at the farmers market this year.

I chose the crops for the site based on several factors: first, I looked at our local food system to get a sense of what is in demand and what receives a good price per unit. Then, using our data about the site, I chose the crops that promise a good yield and a good price in our market. Finally, I chose crops that could be used in as a value add recipe like scones and dips and specialty greens.

Finally, I plan to assess which crops would be good sellers if they were available early in the season and use the high hoop house to grow them. Additionally, the high hoop will be assessed as a propagation house for the woody plants on site.

These first years helped establish the site for students and landowner participation and learning, and I measured results by the fact that more than 100 participants attended the five field days I organized, that two classes brought a dozen students to conduct their final projects on the site, and that one student interned an additional 60 hours, weeding and building beds and learning more about how to apply the concept to the farm he was heading out west to work on after the internship. Additionally, I attended student final presentations and received copies of their projects to use for outreach.

Knowing that the soil was alkaline pushed the decision to put in a significant stand of asparagus in 2011, which is a few weeks away from yielding enough spears to sell at our farm stand at market. If I had it to do over again, I would have planted more asparagus in open beds to increase the yield for market.

Weather had a huge impact on this project and it’s difficult to say how things might have gone without the drought. I wound up using quite a lot of water at a high cost to keep young perennials alive under the pressure of heat and drought. If I were to do this project again, in better weather conditions, I would focus on the succession model early on and plant more annuals for early entry into the market.

PROJECT IMPACTS
The primary impact of this project thus far is not market sales, because we were not ready for market within the scope of the grant. The large impact is in how many students, VISTAs, interns, and community members have gone on to start their own projects. Small endeavors like planting a few fruit trees and adding annuals in the beds under the young trees and large whole farm projects like Solid Ground Farm which used many of the ideas for planning in building a permaculture course site nearby, and a number of projects in between from gardens to livestock were led by visitors who were inspired by this site.

OUTREACH

As stated earlier, more than 100 people attended field days and worked as interns or volunteers on the site. I conducted outreach through a FaceBook page, by sending flyers to the five or so email lists I belong to, and to faculty at the schools in my county. I’ve found news outlets were more interested in my other work and I was not successful in having stories about the project in the local papers. To date, 122 people have joined the FaceBook page.
I will continue to use the Facebook page to bring people on site and will work with the Permaculture courses organized by Solid Ground Farm to bring interested people to the site to learn from it.
Planning with local schools didn’t work out due to some serious budget cuts that reduced field trips. I am working with Live Healthy Appalachia and Community Food Initiatives two non profits that do food education in the schools with the hope we can find funds to bring students out to experience the garden and taste the produce.

Research

Participation Summary
Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.