Growing Highly Nutritious Staple Food Crops Using Intensive and Sustainable Agriculture Systems

Project Overview

FNC07-663
Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2007: $5,730.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2008
Region: North Central
State: Ohio
Project Coordinator:

Annual Reports

Commodities

  • Agronomic: buckwheat, grass (misc. perennial), millet, potatoes
  • Fruits: berries (strawberries)

Practices

  • Crop Production: alley cropping, cover crops
  • Pest Management: integrated pest management
  • Soil Management: soil quality/health

    Summary:

    WORK ACTIVITIES
    The work of this season went entirely toward implementing and demonstrating several of
    the permaculture techniques that I learned in the previous year.

    I. Belly Bowl
    With help from Mr. Lombard, I planted a demo plot that includes three on-contour (nonlineal, running roughly east-west) beds with water-holding swales in between, which
    double as footpaths. Digging on contour means maximum soil and water retention, and
    the swales are filled in with woodchips garnered from local Asplundh public road jobs.
    This means that, as the chips degrade, and as water and nutrients flow into them, the
    process of renewing the footpaths will include harvesting rich topsoil material to be
    applied to the raised beds or elsewhere.

    In two of these 25 by 3.5 foot beds, I planted two varieties of dry beans, using a sheet
    mulch technique. I laid down an overlapping layer of cardboard (no tilling), and then
    leaves and straw and composted manure. I then made “pockets” in the top mulching
    material, which I filled with compost and into which I planted the seeds. I placed these
    pockets in a hexagonal pattern, as is done in the BioIntensive system, to make greatest
    use of space. The cardboard will attract worms to feed on it and build soil for future
    seasons of gardening.

    In the third bed, I employed the technique of incorporating perennials in a polyculture by
    planting a mix of strawberries, nitrogen-fixing perennials (Wild Senna and False Blue
    Indigo), native perennial grasses purchased from a local nursery, and one very small
    locust sapling that I had transplanted from elsewhere in the field. The perennials will
    eventually be large enough to provide the biomass and mulch for the strawberries and
    annual beds, as well as provide integrated pest management via a dynamic biological
    contour that confuses insects and provides habitat for birds that will feed on insect pests
    and deposit fertility in the form of their waste into the beds. Additionally, the beauty of
    the grasses and the perennial legumes serve the health of any gardener or visitor.

    The locust serves not only to fix nitrogen and attract birds and pollinators. It also serves
    the function of “chop-and-drop”. Being a fast growing tree that withstands a lot of cutting
    and grows back, it can yield organic materials for soil building and fertility, as well as
    rot-resistant coppices. Being that the tree is planted on the southern end of these beds, it
    should be kept fairly small, although the feathery leaf pattern of the black locust lets a
    significant amount of light through.

    The general pattern of this section of the demo site, however, conforms to the practice of
    planting the lowest profiled plants toward the equatorial end and increasing in height
    toward the polar end, in order to capture maximum sunlight. On the northern edge of the
    northern-most bed, I planted fruiting shrubs (gooseberry and currant) and dwarf fruit
    trees (Peach and Cherry), with fruiting shrubs, more dry beans and some green beans
    below to form a mixed annual/perennial polyculture microclimate that employs integrated
    pest management.

    North of the dwarf fruit trees is a mulch-clothed and wood-chipped path, on contour and
    wide enough for a wheelbarrow. Just north of the path, on contour, is a planting of three
    hazelnut bushes, to be managed so as to become a hedge that will provide an aesthetic
    edge and can be easily harvested from the path. These are bred from native, wild
    hazelnuts and are said to be tolerant of some shade. I estimated that the distance that the
    path creates is enough that the hazelnut bushes should garner sufficient sunlight, during
    their growing period, over the tops of the dwarf fruit trees.

    In the section north of the hazelnuts, I planted two semi-dwarf hardy nectarine trees, with
    scattered plantings of native perennial grasses and shade-tolerant fruiting shrubs
    (gooseberry, currant) between. This gives some early succession ground cover, food, and
    bird habitat while the trees are growing, and the grasses provide will mulch year after
    year.

    On the east side of the three raised beds and the semi-dwarf/polyculture section, is a
    north-south path just like, and intersecting with, the path that runs alongside the hazelnut
    bushes. As one walks northward on this path, toward the intersection with the hazelnut
    path, one’s line of sight ends at a currant bush that I planted in the crotch of the “Y” that
    is created by these paths. Similarly, when one is walking eastward on the hazelnut path,
    one sees another variety of currant planted in the crotch of that “Y”. This follows the
    practice of limiting the distance that one can see ahead, which imparts a sense of intimacy
    with place, and it provides the gardener and visitor with a pleasant view as they walk the
    paths.

    On the east side of the north-south path, I demonstrated alley-cropping, by planting a
    series of hazelnuts along the path, so as to eventually form an edible hedge, then about
    six yards of annual crop space, sandwiched on the other side, on the forested eastern edge
    of the field, with a bed of shade tolerant currants, gooseberry, and jostaberry bushes, with
    wild, forest varieties of strawberry below and between. While the area described above,

    with the raised beds and swales has contour lines that run roughly east-west, the contour
    lines of this eastern edge of the field run north-south. This is why the hazelnuts, the
    perennial fruits, and the annual beds in between them (this year in potatoes) were planted
    in rows running north-south, to maximize soil and water retention.

    All of these techniques are applicable and helpful in small garden, homestead, and market
    garden sites, and can be used to make the most of the characteristics of each plant in the
    system, by combining them in such a way that they complement each other
    synergistically.

    I believe that the technique of alley-cropping with rows of perennial crops in between
    bands of annual crops, also taking advantage of successional characteristics of the
    perennials, is one of the most adaptable permaculture techniques to commercial scale
    agriculture, staple crops and otherwise, because it takes advantage of integrated pest
    management, habitat generation, soil building, carbon sequestration, fuel, etc, while still
    allowing for efficiency with larger equipment and repetitive operations.

    II. Green Edge Gardens
    The work at Green Edge Gardens has flowed right into a more commercial scale
    experiment with staple crops. One permaculture technique that I tested there was to
    overseed beans into a strip of the previous cover crop of rye, and then go over that strip
    with the brush-hog. I got this idea from a farmer in Kentucky, who overseeds her beans
    into rye, and then scythes the rye down on top of it. The bean plants came up through the
    rye debris, but there was also a lot of weed pressure. It seems that this technique would
    be more appropriate in a field that has been worked for many seasons and has been
    managed to significantly reduce weed-pressure. Also, it seems that a sickle-bar or a flail
    mower would be more appropriate, because it would drop the mulch more evenly.

    III. Currents Community
    Because of the obvious interest in regional availability of locally produced staple crops,
    the need to focus on perennials in a permaculture system, and interest from Currents
    Community to start to use the garden site that I had cultivated for a year, this project had
    much less of a presence at Currents. I had left millet and amaranth stalks from the 2008
    season standing, and I had not planted any rye crop for the winter in that small area (40’
    by 15’), although the entire rest of the field had been covered. I chopped and dropped the
    stalks, applied a thick layer of uncomposted manure, covered that with a layer of
    newspapers, covered that with a layer of composted manure, and covered that with a
    mulch layer of straw. Into this, I planted quinoa plants which I had started a month prior.
    This served as another demonstration of sheet-mulching.

    IV. Willow Farm
    Joe Beres thought that he would be able to continue experimenting with amaranth, but he
    became too busy setting up new vegetable contracts with local restaurants and putting in
    hours at our new local dairy. He may pick it up again, though, because he likes to eat
    amaranth, and, as a cut flower farmer, sees value in the amaranth flower.

    OUTREACH
    I hosted four field days at the permaculture site at Belly Bowl Farm throughout the
    season, with a total participation of 21 people, with only one repeat visitor.

    We also hosted Dale Arnold, the Director of the Ohio Farm Bureau Foundation, who
    viewed the progress of the site and took photos.

    Most of my energy in outreach this year was focused on the scale-up of the project, with
    only indirect reference to the roots of the project in testing permaculture techniques in
    staple crop production.

    CONCLUSION
    I consider what I have learned in the past two years about permaculture to be invaluable
    to my trajectory in the sustainable agriculture field. The focus on efficiency, stability,
    adaptability, and resiliency will be indispensable to the future of farming and gardening.

    Communities everywhere will do well to put effort and funding into bringing
    permaculture teachers to community garden groups and farmers, in order to more
    extensively integrate this well-informed set of principles and methods.

    Annual staples, such as beans, grains, and oilseeds, are a difficult set of crops for
    homestead-scale permaculture sites, because they are fairly process-intensive, but they
    can still provide a significant portion of a household/community diet. Furthermore, there
    are permaculture principles and techniques, such as alley-cropping, keyline plowing,
    overseeding, etc, that can and ought to be applied to commercial-scale annual crop
    production.

    This project has demonstrated that there is significant public interest in locally produced
    and processed staple foods here in our region, as well as in many regions across the
    country, so these are opportunities to apply these permaculture principles and techniques
    to today’s commercial-scale agriculture systems.

    As can be read about in the Progress Report of NCR-SARE Project FNC08-730, we are
    working to meet the local demand for these crops and foods, so that we have a foothold to
    start to integrate more sustainable solutions to our communities agriculture and food
    system.

    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.