Activating soil fertility in mulch-prepared small-plot commercial no-till

Final Report for FNC13-934

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2013: $5,944.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2014
Region: North Central
State: Kansas
Project Coordinator:
Ryan Stubby
Gardens at Eighty Acres
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Project Information

Summary:

My operation is an organic market garden that produces mixed vegetable crops on 2.5 acres. Before receiving the grant I had four years experience in sustainable agriculture. My practices included organic production methods, IPM, cover cropping, and reducing erosion with organic mulch applications.

GOALS
My project goals were:
1. Produce organic no-till vegetable crops without the aid of tractors or heavy equipment.
2. Improve soil quality using, cover crops, mulch, and shallow cultivation with hand tools.

PROCESS
In the first step of conducting the project, I prepared ½ acre of previous hay field for a cropping system. Straw mulch was laid out 2 feet thick over mowed grass to cover two ¼ acre blocks. The logic behind this choice was to clear the area of grasses and weeds by smothering them out with the straw mulch. Would it be possible to loosen and improve marginal soil without bringing in heavy equipment?

The area stayed covered with mulch for 12 months. The following year in 2014, most of the straw was removed and the area opened up exposing bare soil, A wheel hoe was used to continue clearing weeds as they emerged. A cover crop of buckwheat was seeded and became well established over most of the area. The buckwheat was cut with a scythe, and piled as mulch around the perimeter. Remaining stubble was wheel-hoed several times. Fall crops were seeded/transplanted in mid summer.

OUTREACH
Several local producers observed the project and provided feedback: Pete Maynard, Cedar Sky Farm in Leavenworth, KS; Loretta Craig, Prairie Garden Farm, Basehor, KS; Laura Christensen, Blue Door Farm located in KCMO; and Katie Nixon, Green Gate Farm, Wheatland, MO.

RESULTS
The project showed positive results in producing organic vegetable crops, improving soil quality, increasing earthworm populations and biodiversity. The mulch prepared no-till method is extremely labor and time intensive. The methods used for crop production in this project are not practical on a commercial scale. I expect that during a drought year, this method would have greater advantage because the soil would retain moisture more effectively.

Due to excessive rainfall in 2014 much of the production area that was covered with mulch experienced capping and anaerobic conditions. The heavy straw mulch layer combined with high moisture levels allowed a breeding ground for primary decomposers such as earthworms and pill bugs. Some crops were damaged by pill bugs including watermelon seedlings and chard. Without any significant aeration, the soil conditions were not favorable for most of the season and fall crops did not produce as well as expected.

The results of my project were share with others in the community including attendees of the farmers market held every Saturday at the farm. Visitors would have the opportunty to walk the gardens and ask questions about the process of establishing and growing vegetables in no-till prepared soil. Two field days were held at the farm. SARE grant coordinators attended one of the field days where a walking tour of the farm took place along with a question and answer session.

Project Objectives:

 • Build soil structure using heavy straw mulch layer followed by cover cropping.
 • Remain free from using tillage equipment.
 • Utilize traditional hand tools to manage soil and cover crops in preparation of new food production plots.
 • Produce harvestable yields of vegetable crops after one year soil preparation cycle.

 

 

Cooperators

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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.