Development of a Clean Hay Mulch System for a Diverse, Biologically Managed CSA Vegetable Farm

Project Overview

FS14-285
Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2014: $5,866.00
Projected End Date: 03/14/2018
Grant Recipient: Farmer
Region: Southern
State: Virginia
Principal Investigator:
Arthur and Carol Upshur
Copper Cricket Farm

PROJECT CLOSED OUT AND FUNDS DEOBLIGATED 11/29/18 DUE TO NONCOMPLIANCE OF REPORTING REQUIREMENTS IN SUBMITTING A FINAL REPORT.

Annual Reports

Commodities

  • Agronomic: grass (misc. perennial), millet, wheat

Practices

  • Farm Business Management: community-supported agriculture

    Proposal summary:

    The Copper Cricket Farm is a CSA located on Virginia’s Eastern Shore in Machipongo, bordered by the Chesapeake Bay. The farm currently utilizes 8 acres with a little less than 2 acres in diverse vegetable, herb, fruit and flower production and about 6 acres in pasture that supports our production. Our members receive weekly baskets of vegetables from the beginning of May to the first week of December, weather permitting. We have now been in operation for 5 seasons and have a membership of over one hundred local customers. We also sell our produce Saturday mornings at a nearby market.

    Our belief is that the most nutritious and flavorful vegetables come from the most natural and non-invasive production methods. We minimize off farm inputs by using our pasture to produce hay mulch to help fertilize as well as suppress weeds. We do not use commercial fertilizers or pesticides, not even organically approved ones. We do our own composting on the farm using local horse manure and our own farm’s weeds and organic debris. We rarely rototill our soil so as to preserve underground fungal networks and the balanced sub soil environment. The vegetable beds are sheet composted with farm compost, leaves collected on the farm, and hay mulch from our pasture. Our farm has thrived so far using these production principles that have preserved and encouraged both pollinator and predator insects as well as a healthy, organically rich soil.  We hope that our farm can be a model for new farmers who would like to start farming with minimal up front investment.

    There are two linked challenges that we are hoping to solve together. First is how to rejuvenate our current pasture. We have been cutting hay mulch from our current pasture now for six years and the number of plant species has gradually increased in our mix to a point where we are unable to harvest a hay mulch crop that is not full of seeds. The amount of unwanted seed in our hay mulch crop is now affecting the farm’s cost of production because our labor cost for weeding has increased and is now too high. We would like to increase the dominance of perennial grasses, which could create reduced seed in our hay without the use of chemical weed suppressants. We also need to rejuvenate the nutrition levels in the soil of this area that we have been drawing off of for six years. Given our farm needs the hay mulch for our current production, we need to develop a second area to harvest hay mulch while the current drawn down pasture is rejuvenated. With this in mind, we are hoping to reclaim adjacent, conventionally grown cropland currently in a wheat/soybean rotation by converting it to a perennial grass mix. We want to do this transition smoothly in a productive manor for our farm. The goal is to transition to a productive perennial grass/legume pasture with a quality hay mulch crop without the use of chemical weed suppressants. The essential problem we are faced with is that the quality of our current farm sourced hay mulch needs to be improved by sustainable, farm resourced, non-chemical means. Given this problem involves developing a better system of farm resourced sheet composting and clean mulching, we believe that a successful solution to this problem would be useful to a variety of farms in the South.

     

     

    Project objectives from proposal:

    Mulch hay rotation planning. Desirable perennial mulch hay species such as orchard-grass, alfalfa, red clover are not long-lived and highly competitive in our environment. Maintaining a perennial mulch hayfield over five years will lead to a high diversity of weeds, leading to major weed seed challenge, as we have observed with our current hayfield. Therefore what is needed is a planned rotation sequence with periodic renovation of the perennial stand. Every 3 to 4 years the perennial cycle will need to be broken with a sequence of annuals. What are the best sequences and species to try in this system? We propose to research this and set in motion a comparison of at options. Although we will not rotate out of perennial during the life of this project, we will develop a written plan which will become part of the project’s documentation.

    • Objective 1: Produce a reliable, high quality, reduced seed hay mulch on land converted from conventional grain production.
      • Issue 1: Seasonal gaps occur between when the land is available and the appropriate time for seeding a perennial hay mulch crop. Annual cover crops can fill those gaps and help to suppress weeds in that interval. We will research and try at least three alternatives to understand options. We will make and record observations and comparisons.

     

      • Issue 2: Perennial hay mulch species selection. What are the best perennial species to grow for high quality mulch hay following conventional grain? We will study and plan which perennials are best suited for this purpose. We will then compare and evaluate at  different options to fill this gap and make observations of their relative merit.

     

      • Objective 2: Restore current weedy, low fertility pasture to a more reliable, higher quality, low seed hay mulch production system. 
        • Issue 1: In the re-planting of the pasture we will experience a loss of volume of our hay mulch, because we will experience a loss of cutting as the new perennial grasses establish themselves. What can we plant that will have the highest biomass yield to offset the loss of hay crop? What annual will have the most benefits to use in this transition? We will research and try at least three alternatives.
        • Issue 2: It is essential to restore the nutrients that have been slowly stripped from our current, regularly cut hay field. We will research which annuals and how many plantings of each will be necessary to rejuvenate the hayfield, as well as out-compete undesirable plant species, as a transition to a perennial grass mix. To maintain this we will follow the plan we have specified in Objective 1, Issue 3.
          • Issue 1: Our diverse “weedy” hayfield is clearly a benefit to us as habitat for beneficial insects. We plan to retain strips of the current hayfield adjacent to our vegetable production area in diverse habitat for beneficials.Objective 3: Maintain the benefits of the pollinator meadow in current hayfield.          

    Approaches and Methods

    Our plan is to have test and control areas for each area. In the current pasture, we will run a two ½ acre plots of selected summer annuals and a 1/2 acre with continued pasture as a control. These strips will be oriented North/South to control for sun levels and/or shading. In the conventional grain crop conversion area, we will have 2 two- and one half acre plots planted in test summer annuals and a 1/2 acre fallow. In all areas we will then plant our perennial grass mix in late summer/early fall. We will then be able to measure samples of coverage, size, density, and hay yield of our perennial grass/legume mix following the annuals on both the control and test areas. We will be assisted by the resources and staff of the Eastern Shore Agriculture Research Extension Center. Measurements of perennial grass/legume mix growth results will be at one month (germination rates), 3 months (coverage and growth), and 6 months (coverage and growth). First cutting for hay of the new perennial grass/legume mix hay crops will probably be in May/June (9 months?). Our first cutting of the new hay crop will be measured to compare the production of the separate plots.

    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.