It has been an incredibly wet, cold, cloudy spring so far in Missouri, and this is playing havoc with farmers large and small. Fields are too wet to easily plow, soils are waterlogged, crops don’t grow fast (if at all) with so little sun and so much moisture. Many farmers have almost nothing planted yet, because the ground is simply too wet to work and has remained so for months.
These conditions, which are the sort of problems agriculture must always surmount, offer support to the long-term model we’re taking to managing our vegetable production. We do not want to rely on equipment such as tractors and tillers to work our land, because they are expensive, unreliable, and contingent on proper conditions. In our market garden’s raised beds, we can work the soil, seed, and transplant far sooner than an open field, because the beds help moisture drain, and the permanent walkways are more easily navigable by foot. Also, having permanent beds improves the soil condition, because they are never driven on, tilled, compressed, or otherwise negatively impacted.
This is all well and good for a small garden, but how does that translate into larger-scale production in our field? We are following the lead of Patrice Gros, an organic vegetable farmer in northern Arkansas who grows multiple acres of produce in a completely no-till permanent bed system. In our adaptation, we are developing permament 4’x40′ beds throughout our field, which will always remain in place. The advantage to this approach is that our reliance on equipment and weather conditions lessens; we don’t have to drive tractors through mudholes to prepare our ground. It’s more manual work and more time, but the tradeoff is reliability and better soil quality. The biggest challenge to no-till methods is weed control, which Patrice accomplishes through heavy, constant mulching with straw whenever there are no active crops growing. It is an interesting balance to learn, and we will be doing more tedious hand-weeding that someone with a mechanical cultivator would, but our goal is to be free(er) of the trap of relying on tractors, tillers, and capricious weather conditions. The other benefit to this method is that we can adapt intensive gardening techniques to a larger area, thus boosting our yield compared to tractor row production.
Raised garden beds, with deep drainage aisles between them, really help with the soil condition and growing possibilities in our market garden. They’re a lot of work up front, but should last for decades, and once they’re in we have far less maintenance and waterlogging issues. Applying a similar approach to our larger field (bottom photo) is intended to lessen our reliance on equipment and weather conditions. The extra weeding and planting work ought to be offset by the improved soil quality and greater flexibility in planting and maintenance.
Of course, our problem this year is that the beds aren’t DONE yet. A year like this is exactly why we’re doing this work, but when you still have to dig, move, and spread soil to build the bed in the first place, months of waterlogging rain really don’t help. Two years from now the work will pay off, but for now I’m even farther behind because trying to work this clay muck is just impossible. This is why farming is a long-term career; it works best if you’re planning for years if not decades ahead.