Crop management

Crop management is a complicated topic. We could write a lot of words on the subject, but instead we’ve put together this annotated pictorial guide to some of the management practices, methods, and strategies that we use at Chert Hollow Farm. This is not comprehensive, but hopefully provides a glimpse into the way we think about crops, their management, and how they fit into our landscape and ecosystem. We encourage customers to be inquisitive about our methods.

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Compost
Compost is the link between our animal management and our produce management, converting our goat & chicken bedding into appropriate fertility for our fields. Hot composting methods reduce weed seeds, promote populations of beneficial microbes, and more. Compost production is key to our produce production.
Crop diversity We grow diverse crops for several reasons: 1) Crop diversity helps to spread the workload of produce production throughout the year. 2) We like to eat diverse food. 3) Crop diversity is a form of crop insurance. Not knowing in advance what the weather will do for a given year, we don’t know what crops will thrive and which will fail, but if we grow diverse crops we know that something will do well under all but the most horrific conditions (think Dust Bowl).
crop_no_tillNon-mechanized, no till methods All our produce fields are established in permanent no-till beds, requiring no mechanized equipment to manage. This minimizes disruption of the natural soil profile & life while restricting erosion, keeping soil life happy, avoiding compaction of soil, and significantly reducing our consumption of fossil fuels.
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Cover crops
Cover crops, also known as “green manure” crops, make use of gaps in the planting plan to capture solar energy. The crops can provide weed suppression, nitrogen fixation (in the case of legumes), and addition of organic matter to the soil.
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Mulch
Mulch helps to suppress weeds, maintain soil moisture, reduce erosion, keep soil life happy, and make things look nice. We use straw purchased from off the farm as well as leaves from our own woods to mulch vegetables. For the orchard, we chip hardwood branches and sapling into wood chip mulch.
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Trellising
Growing vertically on trellises allows us to make efficient use of a relatively small growing area. This also allows more airflow through the plants, reducing potential for disease, and makes harvesting much easier.
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Permanent fencing
Good fences are essential to making peace with the wildlife in our area. Permanent perimeter fences around the growing areas are mainly designed to exclude deer and domestic dogs.
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Temporary electric fencing
Temporary electric fences allow us to give extra protection to crops that need it at the times that they are most vulnerable. For example, we use this in an effort to keep raccoons out of the strawberries and sweet corn, as well as to discourage rabbits from munching on baby peas and beans.
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Learning & knowledge
Diversified farming draws upon a lot of knowledge & skill. As scientists, we’re always reading, researching, learning, experimenting, sharing, and otherwise developing our fund of information.
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Manual removal of weeds
One of the most labor intensive parts of vegetable farming is weed control. We and our work-share members do a lot of hand weeding and hoeing to keep the weeds in check, thereby reducing competition with the crops that we’re growing. We work hard to prevent weeds from setting & dropping seed. Lots of weeds make their way to the compost pile & eventually return to the growing areas as fertility.
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Growing transplants
Many crops are best established from transplants. Transplants provide a head start on the season, give crops a competitive edge against weeds, and help to minimize the time that bare soil is exposed in a bed. We grow our own transplants using a homemade potting mix, generally starting under grow lights, then transitioning to a greenhouse. (Long term, we want to upgrade & better seal the greenhouse so that we can phase out our reliance on lights & the electricity it takes to run them.)
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Use of shade cloth
Shade cloth is a way to alter the microclimate for a crop to make conditions more conducive for a crop. We use it where a crop stands to most benefit from its protection based on what the weather throws at us; for example, in the scorching summer of 2012 we put shade cloth on posts to lessen sun scald on peppers. It can also act as a barrier to lessen the chance that crop pests (such as rabbits or the adult cabbage worm moths/butterflies) will reach the crop.
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Use of row cover
Row cover can act to exclude insects & pests, as well as to alter the microclimate of a crop. Row cover tends to trap heat, providing a few degrees of frost protection at night, though on especially hot, sunny days care must be taken to avoid roasting a crop.
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Phenology records
Paying attention to natural events, such as the dates when spring wildflowers bloom, migratory birds arrive or depart, and animals of various types become active, helps us to calibrate the timing of our planting & farming activities to be in tune with the natural world. Sometimes weather extremes catch nature by surprise, as with the memorable April 2007 Easter Freeze, but we still find phenological records to be a useful supplement to calendar dates and soil temperatures.
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Frost protection
Our prime vegetable growing areas are situated in the valley bottom, where the good soil is, but lowland cold pocket means our crops can get frost damage even when the uplands stay well above freezing. Thus, we often put a considerable amount of effort in spring and fall into covering delicate crops on chilly nights to provide protection from cold.
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Variety trials & selection
We’ve spent much time over the years reading seed catalogs, trialing various varieties, and settling on ones that work well for us.
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Seed saving
Saving our own seeds is a good way to develop plants that are truly adapted to our farming methods and location. Seed saving is also helps to promote true self-reliance, as we don’t have to worry about whether a variety will be in short supply or disappear altogether from the commercial seed trade. It isn’t practical or cost effective for us to grow more than a small percentage of our own seed, but we prioritize based on benefits, and we continue to experiment. We’re also members of the Seed Savers Exchange.
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Symbiotic microbes
All too often, microbes are perceived to be a bad group: “germs”, “pathogens”, etc. But the reality is that soil microbes are extremely diverse, poorly understood, and include some of the most important and beneficial players on the farm. In the photo to the left, these legume root nodules house nitrogen fixing bacteria, some of the best know microbial partners.
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Irrigation
The weather in central Missouri is far too variable to reliably grow diverse vegetables without irrigation. Though we overall seek to minimize plastic use, we have deemed it worthwhile to use plastic drip irrigation that allow us to provide a slow trickle of irrigation water right where it is needed. We use potable water from our rural water district to irrigate our crops.
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Interplanting
Growing more than one crop in a given location at a time can be a good way to make the best use of limited growing space. For example, parsnips take a long time to get established, so we grow scallions in the same bed; the scallions are harvested by the time the parsnip canopy fills in. This makes maintenance of the bed more worthwhile, generates an additional crop from the same space, and provides more green cover & less bare soil during the parsnip establishment period.
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Identification of biota
We like to know who the ecosystem players are, good, bad, or ugly. Thus, we put a fair amount of effort into learning about the biota with whom we share this farm. Plus, it is hard to come up with a solution to a problem if you don’t know what’s causing it. When troubleshooting problems, identification is often step one.
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Hand picking of problematic pests
We are less likely to reach for a pesticide (even an “organic” one) than virtually anyone else we know, but our plants are not immune to pest pressure. When needed, we do resort to “digital” control, that is, squishing the pests with our fingers. This is more effective for some pests than others. Why not just reach for the Bt for cabbage worms? Several reasons: Inherent reluctance about any pesticide no matter how natural or benign; the desire to find varieties & methods that don’t rely on pesticides; the fact that we learn about population dynamics by squishing rather than spraying; and avoiding the spray spares parasitic wasps that help us out in the long run.
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Weather monitoring
Weather is the number one wild card in farming. We pay close attention to forecasts, discussions, and model results put out by the National Weather Service, and we use these tools to inform many of our farming decisions. We also keep daily precipitation records for the farm, and rely on our years of accumulated experience in Missouri weather patterns.
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Crop rotation
Rotating crops so that plants from within a single family aren’t grown in the same place repeatedly is one of the important strategies for managing crops without chemicals. This breaks up disease and pest cycles, allows different plants with varying nutrient needs to take turns, and more. We have a 10 year rotation plan, and in most cases plants from a single plant family occupy a location only twice in ten years.
crop_records
Record keeping
Records are essential to farming, if for no other reason than that they help us to repeat things that worked and to avoid making the same mistakes again. Good record keeping has allowed us to put together a rotational system that uses growing space effectively and yields diverse produce through a long growing season.
crop_ecosystem
Value ecosystem interactions
The assassin bug in the photo to the left is eating a Japanese beetle on a ripening blackberry. We greatly value the predators that eat our pests. One of our biggest motivations for avoiding pesticides is that they interfere with the complex ecosystem interactions that are not fully understood. Predators work for us without pay, so long as we don’t kill them.
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Native plants
We grow & eat plants of diverse geographic origin, but we like to ensure that native plants are represented in the mix. Natives have advantages of being adapted to our soil & climatic conditions.
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Pollinator habitat
We do not have our own domestic honeybees, but pollination has never been a limiting factor for us. Honeybees visit our farm, and plenty of native and/or wild pollinators make themselves at home here, too. Diversity in crops means something is always blooming during the growing season, and in dry years when we’re irrigating, our crops can act as a super magnet for pollinators. Our avoidance of pesticides goes hand in hand with our desire to have lots of pollinators. Nest sites are also available thanks in part to our no-till management, though we have to admit that we’re not fond of ground-nesting bees in our actual growing beds.
Rock powders Overall we’re not fond of buying a bunch of stuff to bring on farm, but we make an exception for ground up rocks that are rich in nutrients. Blame it on our background as geologists, but we think these rock powders do help to provide a full menu of nutrients for the plants to select from. Plants with access to the nutrients they need tend to be healthier and better able to fend off pests & diseases.
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Biochar
Localized area with dark, rich, highly fertile soils of the Amazon basin, known as terra preta, were human “engineered” by Native Americans who added amendments including charcoal, or biochar, to the soil. We are experimenting with low tech ways to produce biochar on farm, by burning brush in pits that we cover with soil once full, then left to smoulder in low oxygen conditions. This char adds long-lasting carbon to the soil with high potential to hold nutrients and to house beneficial microbes.
Beneficial orchard sprays We have a deep reluctance regarding spraying, but Michael Phillips convinced us via his book The Holistic Orchard of the value of beneficial sprays that are intended to promote plant health rather than to kill pests. Perhaps plant breeding and selection could/should be able to produce plants that don’t need such crutches to produce fruit, but given our climate, the varieties available to us, and our desire to grow decent fruit as soon as possible (not decades down the road), we think this is a worthy approach to try.
And more! This is by no means a comprehensive listing of our farming techniques.

 

What we do NOT do is important, too. Here’s our pledge:

  • No intentional use of GMOs as seed or feed
  • No synthetic fertilizers
  • No feedlot manure (though it is allowed even for certified organic production)
  • No herbicides, synthetic or otherwise (other than an occasional dump of a pot of boiling water–a plant killer, indeed–from the kitchen on herb garden pathways)
  • No synthetic pesticides
  • No pesticides of any sort on vegetables, with the caveat that we can imagine circumstances in which we would reluctantly use a pesticide that is allowed for use in organic production, and in that case we will be open with our members about what we’ve used and why; orchard production is likely to involve pesticides that are acceptable for use in organic production (such as kaolin clay as an insect irritant), but it will be years before the orchard production will move beyond home use and be available to customers