June 6, 2021
Deep Compost Mulch No-till
A couple of years ago I encountered a staggeringly beautiful and enormous chard plant. It was growing just outside one of the hoop houses coexisting and flourishing amongst the witch grass, dandelions, and clover. It stopped me in my tracks and I have been mulling over it ever since. No fertilizer, no irrigation, no careful 6-8” between plants—thriving instead in undisturbed soil with all the other highly functioning plants we sometimes label weeds. I like to imagine the diversity in the soil to pull off a feat like that chard plant. We have tried a number of different no-till trials over the years—mowing cover crops and transplanting into the residues, permanent beds and tarping sequences, and now we are undertaking a deep compost mulch no-till trial. Currently we are aiming for five two hundred foot rows in our flower field and ten three hundred foot rows in Six Acre for our trial. The work and the expense is front-loaded—spreading a 4 inch layer of compost over the entire bed is a lot!—and we have only managed three of our vegetable beds so far. We are cover cropping the other seven and hope to squeeze in the work here and there. The flower beds are all mostly planted. These beds will be permanent and top dressed annually. If we are successful we will add more beds each year. Why are we doing this? Good question.
We’ve been growing food and flowers for a long time, for more than thirty years we’ve been engaging with this endlessly fascinating work. I am an unabashed maximalist and my hunger to try new things is unabated. I like the problem solving, the revelatory moments, the beauty, and the connections with the people I am working with and growing for. I think Addison’s reasons are probably similar though he doesn’t have that maximalist streak. We are increasingly undone by the challenges the weather delivers. Lately, hot and very dry, but just as likely some other extreme, this work is getting harder every year. Our ambition to switch to deep compost no-till is an effort to reduce the farm’s use of single use plastics, to actively sequester carbon and maintain top soil by reducing tillage, and to improve soil biodiversity to achieve resilient plants. We are trying to adapt, be nimble and resilient, and farm into the future without the burden of our waste contributing to the problem of climate change. We are also trying to make more money.
For one, I was disappointed when the $15 per hour minimum wage was struck from the covid relief bill passed this winter. I have touched on this before in prior blog posts: raising the price for food is tricky and had it passed there would have been broad acceptance for increased prices. Our average wage on the farm is $14 per hour. Our goal is to pay a living wage and we are steadily working towards that goal. So many people assume that we hire a bunch of college kids to grow our food. In fact, almost half the crew is over 60 and they are professionals—avid, knowledgeable, and invested. They do not fit the image of a kid picking up some summer work for pocket money and character building until they get a real job. And before another well-meaning individual suggests we organize volunteer work, I am compelled to point out that our work is skilled and I can think of no other profession that turns to unskilled volunteers as a solution to a labor shortage. Volunteer health care professional? Attorney? Nope.
Listening to NPR on my morning commute, the experts are saying we don’t have a labor shortage. If we raise wages workers will come. And then I read a piece in the New York Times about how tipping is returning to pre-pandemic norms and all the commenters gripe about the broken system of tipping and if businesses just paid their employees a living wage we could do away with this demeaning practice. And, I think, this is too hard. Maybe we should just get jobs and stop trying to run a business. I think those experts assume that the owners of the low wage paying businesses are sitting pretty—selling high and paying low and reveling in the capitalist beauty. Not so here. No one works harder than we do in our business and for a very modest financial reward. It would be heaps easier to make a living a different way. All the goals are irreconcilable: affordable, accessible food and a fairly compensated and valued farm crew. Beauty, bounty, diversity, flavor over yield, curiosity are all a drain on the bottom line. And then there’s that solar array that is always out of reach. Easily a $40,000 investment that is devastatingly short sighted not to make. Between the walk-in coolers, well pump, fans, and golf carts the energy consumption on the farm is substantial.
Mixed Greens Bunches
We will start selling our Mixed Green Bunches this week for $20. That’s a lot more than they were last year: $5. This is when I stop shilly-shallying and really drive my point home. Our flower bouquets are $20 also this year, and though that is more than they were last year I don’t think we will see decreased sales. Even though there is as much diversity, beauty, and work in the bunch of greens as in the bouquet, since it is food the price will come as a shock. This price is my pointed attempt to address two goals. Ten dollars of the sale of each bunch will be earmarked for our solar array project. The other ten dollars will be a farm worker gratuity. What of the cost of making the Mixed Greens Bunches? We have always made our Mixed Greens Bunches at a loss. I am here to say that money is not the only currency we dabble in—we make those Mixed Greens Bunches as a celebration of the love we have for all those crazy greens we grow. When you buy our Mixed Greens Bunches you will be able to affirm our goals and declare your love as well.