Thursday, August 20, 2009

Take cover!

From my friend Katie's house just west of Cleveland, Ollie and I made our way south to Wooster, OH to work with Matt and Debora on their small farm (or, rather, large garden) and learn about green manure. Matt, a professor of environmental entrepreneurship at the nearby college, spoke passionately and eloquently about the many merits of green manure -- using "cover crops" like oats, rye, and vetch to keep down weeds and enrich the soil in between food crop plantings. (Have you heard of vetch? I hadn't before I started working on farms. It's a kind of legume with little purple flowers, but every time I hear it I think "kvetch." Ollie has asked me to refrain from making jokes along the lines of kvetching about sowing seeds of vetch, so I'll do my best.) Green manure isn't the only green farming principle at work here: the couple is testing out using rolls of inexpensive (biodegradable) brown craft paper and old newspapers -- rather than the more common plastic sheets -- to block weed growth, retain moisture, and minimize soil erosion. The first morning I was there, Debora and I measured out and laid down enough of this paper and covered it with a 1" layer of compost to prepare space for 10 rows of spinach and lettuce, most of which Matt and I planted that evening (mere hours before a severe thunderstorm).

The second day was pretty rainy, so I wasn't out in the garden too much. Instead, I spent the day cooking, playing "spaceship" with 4-year-old Luka, and learning more about cover cropping and green manure. During my visit to the Rodale Institute a few months back, I'd seen a demonstration of a contraption that "crimped" (rolled over and bent) rows of cover crops where they stood, converting fields of rye into instant mulch that suppressed weeds while trapping moisture and warmth for the soon-to-be-planted seeds. Here at Hopeful Gardens -- Matt and Debora's operation -- cover crops are used in much the same way, but on a smaller scale using hand-operated equipment. Matt joked that he and his wife have a symbiotic relationship with weeds, but aside from perhaps the potato patch (and they were rampant there) I didn't notice much undesirable greenery in the garden. Rather than rows of crops interspersed with bare ground, as I've seen most other places, one sees rows of various vegetable crops amid neatly trimmed grass, with a few beds of newly cut cover crops awaiting seeds.

One of the cool things particular to legume cover crops (like clover, vetch, or soybeans) is the additional benefit they provide of trapping nitrogen moving about the surrounding air and soil, slowly releasing the valuable compound back into the soil when they decompose. Why don't more farmers use legume cover crops instead of chemical fertilizers (for nitrogen) and herbicides (for weeds)? My suspicion is that it takes more attention and careful planning to plant and cut these crops at the appropriate time than many farmers have the interest in committing. And, Matt added, there is the uncertainty of exactly how much nitrogen a particular cover crop will yield in a given year... what if it's not enough? (One of the experimental beds at Hopeful Gardens had too thin of a rye crop to block the weeds in the bean patch, for instance, but on a comparatively small scale this was a nuisance rather than a tragedy.) With so much uncertainty inherent in farming already, who can blame a farmer for seeking out the certainty of chemical fertilizer, a known quantity? It's easier and there's less room for error. But with so many obvious benefits to the non-chemical, cover cropping method, isn't it worth the effort? It may work out to be more economically sound as well: my initial suspicion is that the machinery involved in cover cropping vs. fertilizer/herbicide methods would be comparable in price, so unless all of the chemicals work out to be cheaper than a sack of vetch seeds -- and in the current industrial agricultural scene it may be -- cover cropping may make financial sense as well. (Are there agricultural economists or researchers out there who can help me out on this one?)

You're probably wondering why there is a picture of tomatoes included in this post. Well, the short answer is that I am perhaps as obsessed with heirloom tomatoes as Matt is with cover cropping. And I've been eating them constantly since I arrived. And, well, aren't they just gorgeous? A perfect accompaniment to the red onion and rainbow chard quiche I made for dinner....

Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry

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