Avoiding killer hay

Two of our top fall projects involve continuing to establish our permanent no-till beds in the main field, and completing our application for organic certification. While there is more to write about both these topics than I can possibly fit into one blog post, I want to discuss an interesting, challenging, and newsworthy way in which the two interact.

I first wrote about our intention to farm using organic no-till methods back in May. We are following the example set by Patrice Gros of Foundation Farm in northern Arkansas, as described on his website. Mulching is key here; thick layers of hay/straw keep the soil moist, encourage earthworm and microbial activity, prevent weed growth, and improve soil nutrition and structure. This is especially true when used in conjunction with manure or other natural fertilzers. Using this method correctly involves a lot of manure, hay, and straw.

The trick here, especially for us as we move toward organic certification, is to make sure all hay, straw, and manure are safe and approved for organic production. If you assumed that these are all safe because they are natural materials, you’re wrong. Some hay fields are sprayed with herbicides in an attempt to improve the hay; these herbicides have very long residence times and can damage or kill vegetable plantings if treated hay is used as mulch, even months later. Growing For Market magazine documented an especially devastating incident (article not available online) in which a Virginia vegetable farm (the one we got our start at, incidentally) lost somewhere around $80,000 in produce from using sprayed hay as mulch. They had used the same supplier for years with no problems, until one year the grower randomly decided to spray the fields and didn’t tell them. Among other hard-learned lessons, the farmers noted that had they been a certified organic farm, they would have been required to check whether their mulch had had anything applied to it.

So far we’ve done that, sourcing our straw and spoiled hay intended for mulch from growers that will sign paperwork indicating that nothing has been applied to the material. As for manure sources, long-term we hope to have enough goats, chickens, and other livestock to supply much of our own needs on-farm, but until then we need to use off-farm sources. We get a lot from a trusted goat operation north of us, who have nice piles of old, partially composted manure/bedding mix that is dynamite fertilizer. We also had a neighbor offer us some nice horse manure from their barn, which offer we happily accepted.

Then we read this in the latest print edition of Mother Earth News. You really ought to read the full article, but the gist is that several Dow herbicides marketed to hay growers have been found to have such long residence times that they retain their potency even through the gut of the animal and into the manure. In other words, the sprayed hay is fed to horses, they digest it, and defecate. Months or even years later, that manure still contains enough active herbicide to kill vegetables and other plants if the manure is applied to a garden or farm bed. Yikes doesn’t cut it.
So now, in order to achieve our certification (much less piece of mind), we have to track down all the hay sources that our manure providers might have used and ask them if they can sign paperwork certifying that their hay has not been sprayed. We also have to dispose of twenty bales of grass hay that I imprudently bought off of Craigslist about a week before we read the long-life herbicide article (they had been intended for the goats, not mulch). Starting to understand why organic is more expensive?

This really brings credence to a comment I once read (but can’t cite a source for) that organic ought to be the default standard, and everyone else ought to have to certify and state all the chemical and other inputs they put into growing the food. It’s basically the difference between the European and US models of consumer safety. As I understand it, in the EU you have to prove that an ingredient or chemical is safe before you can use it. In the US you have to prove that it isn’t safe before you can ban it. I would love to see food packages in grocery stores with labels that declared every pesticide, herbicide, hormone, and other unnececsary input used; talk about consumer education in a free-market system…

Practically, of course, that wouldn’t work very well in agriculture as opportunities to cheat would be far too common. As it is, organic certification is hardly a comprehensive guarantee of the intended principles (that’s another long upcoming post). But right now it’s all we’ve got, and we’re doing our best to jump through all the hoops that it takes to simply grow natural vegetables in a chemical world.

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