Sunday, March 1, 2015

The Right Tool For The Job

Wendell Berry
As we felled and burned the forests, so we burned, plowed, and overgrazed the prairies. We came with visions, but not with sight. We did not see or understand where we were or what was there, but destroyed what was there for the sake of what we desired.

I’ve been learning that what some perceive as the good old days of farming, before the onslaught of artificial fertilizers and pesticides, are not as good, are not as soil friendly as might be thought. Upon settling in this country farmers would use the soil until the soil had no more to give. Then the farmers would move west and repeat the process. Once farmers reached the mid-West they encountered the prairies whose native plants ran their roots deep into the ground. This led to soil that was full of nutrients and was less likely to wash or blow away. As new farm implements were developed that allowed farmers to more easily break up the roots of the natural prairie, the native plants were replaced with plants (wheat, soy, corn), whose roots did not run deep. This led, over the years, to a diminishment of the nutrients in the soil and soil that was much more vulnerable to blowing away, the Dust Bowl (an economic, social, and environmental disaster) being the by-product of this long-term process. One change in the modern era of farming, the resurgence of small farms that are organic and sustainable, is a greater appreciation of the health of the soil. One aspect of this increasing respect for the soil is using implements that are not as intrusive to the soil. To phrase it in a different manner, use the right tool for the job and things will go better.

Certainly the task can be completed with the wrong tool, but the quality of the work done will be less. This is as true in farming as it is in any other profession that requires the use of tools or implements. Here are some of the ‘tools’ that David uses at Z Food Farm. The ultimate goal of using specific implements, and when to use and not use the tractor, is to promote the health of the soil. “Healthy soil brings vigorous plants, stronger and smarter people, cultural empowerment, and the wealth of a nation. Bad soil, in short, threatens civilization. We cannot have good food – healthy, sustainable, or delicious – without soil filled with life”. (Dan Barber – The Third Plate- Field Notes on The Future of Food)

On the left is Ernie, now 2. On the right is Sadie, no 6 months. You look at them and see dogs, as do I. But I also see them as 'tools'. Their job is to prevent destruction of crops by ground hogs. Both of them are still in the process of learning how to do their job. In the mean time, and even when effective, we'll just enjoy them as great, loving, and loyal companions.

 Pictured below is a Perfecta 2 Field Cultivator. (Cultivate- to till or prepare the soil for the purpose of planting and growing crops.) To take from the web site where they are sold- the perfecta allows the farmer to till, level, and finish cultivating the soil in a single pass. The advantage is less damage to the soil and the saving of time. The pictures are a before and after demonstration about what the implement accomplishes.

 This is the Williams Tool System. It is very versatile in being able to cultivate between planted beds, as well as cultivate/weed within the bed itself. I am being overly simplistic, but between the Perfecta and the Williams, David saved himself many, many hours of labor. It also allowed him to accomplish more weeding, which allows for better growth of the plants. The addition of these two implements has been simply marvelous.

There is a road that runs from the barn to the fields. When wet it turned into mud and at times would be almost impassable. It would get rutted out and when the road dried out there was a risk of damaging the farm truck if the truck bottomed out. Pictured below is a box scraper or box blade. It is hitched to the back of the tractor and pulled along the road to smooth and level it out. Some rock was then placed on the newly smoothed out road, tamped down, and no more rutted road. This is not to be underestimated.

Roto tillers come in various sizes. If you've done home gardening you are aware that a roto tiller helps to break up  the soil into particles that are much finer in consistency than you would get with regular cultivating such as you would get with the Perfecta or the Williams.This is important when you are doing 'direct seeding'. Most plants are seeded in the greenhouse and the plugs with the baby plants are planted into the ground. However, some plants do not transplant well (carrots and radishes being two examples) and their seeds are directly planted into the soil. In these instances it is important to have the soil as fine as possible.

This is the implement that David uses to directly seed. There are different plates that take into account the variations in the size of the seeds of the different crops. He places the seeds in the clear plastic container seen in the middle, and walks along side the formed bed with the seeded depositing the seed at the right depth and at the right distance from the other seeds. And it will also place soil over the deposited seed. It is not an easy task, but it does a very effective job.

 These have been pictured and described previously. The one on top has a series of 'trowels' which will break up the ground, thus allowing David to come back with the Perfecta. Using the 'celli' is not as invasive or harmful to the soil as the traditional method of first using a chisel plow and then using a disc plow. The second picture is of the water wheel. It allows planting to be while sitting down rather than the back breaking method of bending over for each plant. The water wheel will also water the plant as it is being put into the ground. Unfortunately you do need to do some back tiring work by having someone walk behind and bend over to make sure that the root ball of the plant is not exposed. No matter what you do, there is no getting around the reality that farming is hard work.