Preparing the field – permanent beds

With spring’s arrival, we’re working to expand and prepare our vegetable field for planting. We’ve been slowly expanding from our market garden into the larger field over the past few years, and are taking several significant steps this year toward really bringing the larger area into production. I’m going to be posting several items about our preparation methods, including burning and fence-building. In this post, I’ll discuss our philosophy on field management and our methods of establishing permanent beds.

Here’s our vegetable field, looking NW. To the north, south, and east are pasture areas, while to the west the field slopes down to our creek bottom and the ridge beyond (direction of view). We’ve set aside an area a bit over an acre for intensive vegetable production, with an option to expand into pastures to the north down the road. In the foreground you see a series of established 4’x40′ beds, covered in straw/hay mulch from the winter. In the background you see me starting to establish the next set of beds.

Our philosophy of field management is dependant on several goals. First, we want to minimize equipment use. Tractors and implements are expensive, repair-prone, require significant off-farm investments, and are damaging to the soil in the long run due to compaction and disruption. They are also very susceptible to weather and soil conditions. While they have an important role, we do not want to be utterly reliant on them.
Second, we want to maximize the efficiency of our land management. Vegetables are not grains; you have to grow them in rows with aisles in between, for equipment and manual access and also simply because the plants need space. Tomatoes and lettuce don’t take to being driven over, walked through, or packed together the way a corn or wheat field does. Typically, a farm would plow and/or till the entire field, spread whatever fertilizer they feel the need to use, then plant in rows with aisles in between. A mid-scale vegetable farm might use a mechanized raised-bed builder which drives along, mounding soil into beds, but still involves tilling and preparing the entire field (row and aisle alike). While that may be time-efficient, we see it as resource-inefficient, because inputs are spread over far more land than is actually grown upon, and the impacts of any equipment use and tillage are spread over the entire land as well. Put it this way: would you drive over your garden bed with your car, or spread compost on your driveway? I didn’t think so. We want to manage our fields to maximize our resource efficiency in terms of targeting inputs just where they’re needed, and conserving the soil’s texture and quality as much as possible.
Third, we want to minimize tillage. There are a number of studies and experiences clearly demonstrating the long-term detrimental effects of disturbing the soil’s natural structure, and we would prefer to follow the pioneering example of organic no-till farms like Foundation Farm in northern Arkansas.
With these goals in mind, we’ve been planning and establishing the vegetable field along the same lines as our market garden, using permanent bed locations that are spaced to allow both equipment and manual labor to function. When these beds are established, they will stay established, as will their aisles. All driving and tire weight will remain in these aisles, and all crops and inputs will remain in the beds. Better conservation and resource efficiency, balanced by somewhat less time efficiency (though not having to plow/till the whole field multiple times per year ought to balance that somewhat).
Above you see our wide beds, 4’x40′, established last year. These are designed to be straddled by our pickup truck, and are intended for growing crops that can be densely planted or need lots of room, like edamame, corn, squash, and so on. There are 24 of these.

Just west of these, we’re establishing a grid of narrower beds, about 2.5’x40′. These are designed to be straddled by our tractor, allowing us to do some basic maintenance like mowing cover crops or trenching potatoes, while being intended for items that like to grow in lines, like potatoes, tomatoes, and so on. Also, these beds are narrow enough to be straddled by a person, making some weeding and planting easier. The image above shows the future home of these beds, shortly after burning off the grass. There will be 48 of these beds (view a map of the field plants here, though the information is out of date).

Given that we’re establishing these beds in a pasture, breaking the sod is a near-necessity. We’ve done it here using a potato plow, a very simple implement which digs a single furrow at the center of the tractor’s path. Each successive row is plowed with the tires in the previous tire track, so that the overlapping tire tracks become narrow permanent aisles between beds that are never driven on. Look carefully at the left side of the photo and you’ll see this. In many of these beds we’re coming back through with a one-time tilling to break up the thick clumps of grass, but do not intend to use such methods again once the beds are established.

From here on, we’ll treat each bed as a garden bed, using hand cultivation, and mulch to manage weeds and soil tilth. Inputs like manure can be spread by truck in the upper beds, and a wide-wheelbase cart in the lower beds. This will sound like a great deal of manual labor to those accustomed to tractor farming, and it is. But equipment reliance brings with it a whole separate set of needs, like extra financial and resource costs that are often not properly accounted for. Using intensive, careful, organic methods, we expect to pull very high yields out of this area that will compensate for the labor needed. Patrice Gros at Foundation Farm in Arkansas has proven that such methods work very well when applied correctly, and we’re following in his footsteps while adapting the philosophy to our own needs. As he writes on this front page,

Many of the farming methods used at the farm are extensions of gardening
techniques fine-tuned on a small scale.

I think that’s a pretty accurate depiction of our philosophy as well, and it’s rooted in centuries of European small-scale farming that is very sustainable and practical for the small, diversified, non-mechanized type of agriculture we’re pursuing. Might not work for everyone, but we’re expecting it to work for us.

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