Methods of Big Train Farm

Big Train Farm has been certified organic for several years now.  We understand that the certification is important to many of our customers, especially those that we do not interact with personally (for instance our Market Mobile customers in Boston).  The organic certification is also important for customers who are looking for a CSA membership and want the reassurance that we are not using harmful chemicals in our fertility, planting, or pest control practices.

But what does it actually mean?  And what are we actually doing on the farm that makes farming organically a realistic option for us.  After all, if organic was easy why don’t all farms forgo using caustic material in their practices?  Also what is the difference, if any, between “organic farming” and “regenerative agriculture?”

Here is a abbreviated list of some of our practices and inputs that we are continually refining and experimenting with:

1.  Fertility:  We use a number of approaches to make sure that our crops have enough nutrition to thrive.  We see soil fertility as the foundation (literally and figuratively) for our organic business.  Beginning at the seed-stage of life and until harvest and storage we are concerned about our plants nutritional quality.

Previous to 2012 I had a fairly minimal understanding of soil fertility dynamics.  The exposure I had received regarding fertility management on the three farms I’d worked on previous to BTF was essentially this: throw manure down, throw compost down, and/or throw down processed, granulated fertilizers.  Oh, yeah and fish emulsion is helpful.  In college the soil science I was exposed to mostly saw soil as a mineral/chemical phenomenon and focused minimally on the role of soil microbiology.

There was very little context to these fertility practices and how they intersected with field management practices such as bed formation (i.e tillage), carbon cycling (i.e decomposition of crop/cover crop), or pest control (i.e insect pressure).

We practiced remineralization for many years, beginning in earnest in 2012.  Based on the methodology laid out by Gary Zimmer (book The Biological Farmer) and many others we have attempted to meet some of our natural “soil deficiencies” by adding assortments of rock dusts, and organically derived soil amendments.  These materials add to the mineral component of the soil (minerals are about 45% of soils volume; air, water, and organic matter comprise the remainder) amounts of certain nutrients (elements, compounds) that are otherwise “missing” or not available to the plant(for example phosphorus, or manganese).  This process is geared towards removing limiting factors on growth, nutrient deficiencies that have detrimental effects on crop growth evidenced by slow development, weak habit, insect and disease infestation, etc.

One of the most common weak links in agricultural systems is the repeated use of tillage.  By relying on tillage farmers are constantly “setting back the ecological clock” of their soils (and their farms) to a point where remineralizing is necessary.  No-till methods are alternatives to this approach.

We have been encouraged by our current no-till systems (implemented in 2017) and believe that soil management that fosters (and maintains; critical point) diverse biological communities renders remineralizing soil with mined rock dust unnecessary.  After experimenting with various no-till methods (since 2014) In 2017 we implemented such a system with the intention to cut our remineralizing practices back drastically.  We continue to be rather pragmatic about the urgency of remineralizing our soils and by using new soil tests (such as the Haney Soil Health Test and/or on-farm microscope analysis)to keep an eye on our soil not just as a chemical/mineral composite but also as a biological nutrient cycling system.

Our no-till method is a permanent, sixty-inch on-center raised bed system implemented over our five out-door fields as well as our four 96×30 high tunnels.  Fields were first prepped with chisel plowing, harrowing, composting (sufficient organic matter was important to keep beds from collapsing), and finally shaping with a disc-bed shaper.  Since the initial shaping of the raised beds they have been maintained with top-dressed on-farm and off-farm sourced composts, and adding organic fertilizers, cover cropping, and mulching.  A custom built tine weeder is used to rake in amendments and/or rake off crop residue/mulch.  2″ sweeps on S-curved shanks are used to dig furrows prior to transplanting.

Composting is a hallmark in organic farming and we do our fair share on Big Train Farm.  Spreading compost (previously living material which has degraded and/or been broken down in a thermophilic or static, microbial environment) provides many benefits to the soil and is in and of itself a soil amendment.  Compost provides structure, water holding/mediating capacity, various sizes of carbon for microbial food, humic substances (the stable carbon compounds in organic matter which contribute to the nutrient holding capacity of soil), fertility, pH balancing, and microbial inoculation.  Wow, thats a lot of benefit.  In 2015 we spread about two-hundred yards of compost between Urban Edge and Snake Hill Farm.  We see composting as an excellent, and potentially exclusive way, of meeting our fertility needs on the farm.

We make our own compost using three methods:  large volume composting using bedding of cow manure, chicken manure, goat manure, horse manure, leaves, wood chips and soil (in a thermophilic pile).  On the small volume side of production we do static composting using Su-Johnson bioreactors  to attempt to make fungal-dominant compost.  Static compost is a process in which the organic material being broken down is done so more slowly, and without the high temperatures that thermophilic pile reaches.  Because thermophilic piles get so hot (over 140 degrees) many soil organisms are cooked off (pathogens as well as beneficials).  Beneficial fungal spores will denature at 120 degrees, so a static, cool pile helps propagate these fungal constituents of soil.  Once our stative compost is finished (18 month process) we then use it as a base for our worm compost.

Worm compost (vermicompost) is another stye of static composting that allows worms to enhance both the nutrient availability of compost but also to propagate soil microorganisms.  Worms are something of a key stone group in soil communities and help “energize” soils.  A good starter, or base, compost for worms is key (since you can’t propagate what isn’t there in the first place) and the Johnson-Su compost is an excellent candidate.

Once you have compost you can fertilize and/or inoculate your soils/potting mixes.  As mentioned above, compost can be an excellent microbial inoculant as well as a microbe food source.  Microbes are the external digestive tract of plants.  Without a diverse and healthy microbial community growing food becomes a nasty business, dependent on intense weed, pest, and fertility practices based on chemical application.  Inoculation on BTF is done using vermicompost extract, which is finished worm compost, milk, molasses, liquid fish and kelp, and water.  The extract is placed in 50 gallon tanks and used as a “dunk” for our seedlings and/or a rich spray or drench for crops in the field.

We also use the vermicompost as a inoculant for our cover crop seed by wetting the seed and compost slightly, mixing, and then sowing.

Once a microbial community is established we try to maintain that community by  avoiding tillage, and providing cover crops when cash crops are not in place, and using organic mulches (primarily straw).

On farm manure is provided by our chickens which have access to pasture, compost, and food waste.  Our small herd of goats, employed to keep our brush down and our deer fence clean, also provide another manure source.  Chicken manure, goat manure, along with cow and horse manure brought in from off the farm, is mixed to make our thermophilic compost that is then top-dressed over our raised beds in the fall.

To summarize plant nutrition is a concern of ours even before the seed is planted.  We use Vermont Compost Company’s Fort Light potting mix in our greenhouses.  We have experimented with different dry additives to this blend usually finding that it is hard to improve.  During seedling stage we drench and foliar feed our crops using various fish and seaweed products (SeaPlus and Neptune’s Harvest are my current favorites).

In the field we typically use only small amounts of Alfalfa Meal, as an additional stimulant to our soil and/or compost applied at planting time.  In the spring we also use Bone Meal for our earliest transplanted field crops.

2. Tillage and Cultivation:  Tillage is the working of soil in order to make it “ideal for planting”.  Tillage is an agricultural tradition that can be seen all over the world on many different scales.  Tillage is well known to be damaging to the soil structure and microbial life there in.   Starting in 2017 (Following the lead of the Kaiser family from Singing Frog’s Farm in Sebastopol California) we converted all of our annual and perennial vegetable fields (4+ acres) to raised beds.  This provides us with permanent beds that will require minimal disturbance through tillage, and less time on the tractor.  Less time in the field tilling the soil means you have less compaction, better soil structure, and a more vibrant microbial ecosystem.  We used chickens in the past to clear fields in the Fall which were then composted and “fluffed up” by the Winter freeze-thaw phenomenon.  In the spring we would plant into these fields without disturbing the soil whatsoever or we would put plastic mulch overtop.  After several years of doing this I deemed the system non-ideal for raising vegetables due to the disturbance of the birds to the soil, the destabilizing effect of the raw manure to the soil, and the inability to produce permanent beds.  Fall chicken rotations were great for control of spring weeds (especially chick weed) but summer weeds reacted aggressively to the high nitrate content in the manure, and led to documented fertility imbalances.  Instead all of our manure is composted first, converting much of the nitrogen to an organic form.

I am eager to stress the benefits we’ve seen by incorporating a no-till, permanent raised bed system on our farm.  Virtually every aspect of our field management has been impacted positively over the last several years.  Adjusting the Singing Frog’s Farm system (located in a zone 9 climate) to a southern new england climate (zone 5) required some tweaking but we have integrated cover cropping and overwinter practices that have seemed to work well for us.  The impacts of the drought in 2022 were greatly diminished on our farm due to our soils ability to hold water.

Field maintenance and bed rotation (i.e. crop succession) is done by mowing cover crop or vegetable residue with a rotary mower (tractor tires straddle raised beds).  Residue is smothered with perforated landscape fabric (150’x32′) which covers 5 beds at a time.  Beds that are fully smothered or otherwise residue free are either not worked or worked with the tine weeder.  The tine rakes work the top 1″ of soil and so make the bed easier to work in and integrate any fertilizer or compost placed on top before hand.  After the last cash crop for season is harvested from a bed cover crop is seeded and worked in with the tine weeder or landscape fabric is laid over the bed until the spring.

3. Planting and Harvesting:   At our scale it is always interesting to see where technology makes our lives easier and where it simply complicates things.  In 2021 we invested in a mechanical, water-wheel transplanter and, at our scale, this has been one of the smarter purchases we’ve made. The majority of the crops on our farm are transplanted, meaning they begin in a greenhouse, are seeded into flats, and then are brought out to the field to be planted.  We are transplanting from April until October outside and inside greenhouses just about every week.  We begin seeding into flats and directly into the ground in some of our greenhouses in February and March.  January is, at this point, the only month of the year where we are not actively seeding, planting, or harvesting crops.

Harvesting is done five to six days a week.  Heat sensitive crops like bunching greens or lettuce we harvest at or before first light.  Crops that are harvested at this time have all the turgor pressure that they’ve acquired from a night-time break from the sun, where they have been filling up on water and soluble nutrients in the water.  Leafy crops are at their best at this time of the day, so we try to grab them as early as possible.  Other crops are harvested throughout the day.  On Tuesday in particular we harvest sometimes 90% of what we selling for the week and we will be harvesting, washing, and packing our crops from seven in the morning to six in the evening.  Once washed all the crops (excluding things like tomatoes, onions, or winter squash) are stored in a walk-in cooler to stay fresh.

4. Pest Management:  Plants that are healthy, fully packed with all the micro and macro nutrients they require, have access to water and sunlight, will thrive.  When I tell people that over the years we spray less and less to control pests they ask me “are you just lucky?”.  The more you learn about soils and plant relationships with soils the more you realize just how important your methods are and how little luck plays into the equation.  Of course there will always be issues on the farm that are difficult or impossible to predict or control.  But by simple, holistic methodology you can provide your farm with a considerable amount of endurance in dealing with these issues.   And by understanding the factors at play in your problematic plots (compaction, nutrient unavailability, lack of organic matter) you can take steps to mediate these issues.  BTF has been working at this in one way or another in a serious way since 2012 when we stopped trying to solve all our problems with compost, bagged fertilizers, and organic pesticides while ignoring issues around tillage and microbes.  We began addressing specific mineral limiting factors, tillage reduction, compaction mediation, and a more sensible compost/compost tea program.  We saw our pest pressure drop and drop, weeds became easier to manage, and the overall health and predictability of our crops improved.  In 2017, other than a outbreak of thrips in one of our greenhouses, we never sprayed an insecticide to control any pests (in 2018 no pesticides were applied).  Although we don’t expect to hit that mark every year (2020 saw some massive infestations of striped cucumber beetle and brassica flea beetle due to some breeding opportunities in brassica cover crops and a historically mild winter) , we do see it as a sign that our methods are paying off, and is evidence that our crops are healthier and worth our customers money, time and effort.

Regenerative Ag Vs. Organic

Regenerative Agriculture defies a simple definition, like most things that are worth speaking about.  In a sense it is a unifying concept, one that would like to raise both conventional and organic farming to a higher ecological standard.  This higher ecological standard, the key to understanding what RegenAg is, leans on the concrete practices of minimal tillage, macro and micro biodiversity, soil microbiology as facilitators of nutrient cycling, and bio-mimicry.

Organic on the other hand, although it holds certain cultural significance, especially to first and second wave organic farmers, is a term largely captured by it’s use as a certification tool.  What constitutes organic versus non-organic is quite clear in terms of the acceptable uses of certain inputs (i.e. fertilizers), pesticides, and proximity to conventional (i.e. non-organic) crops.  Although there are some guidelines and rules around organic cultural practices, such as crop rotation, there are no strict rules pertaining to the stewardship of the land.  In practices a organic farm set next to a conventional farm may be indistinguishable by size, mono cropping, use or lack of cover cropping, tillage practices, spray frequencies, etc.

A good example that highlights the validity of using a new(ish) term like regenerative agriculture is as follows.  Dr. Jonathan Lundgren presented a survey of two almond orchards that abutted one another.  One orchard was managed conventionally, with the typical use of water, fertilizers, and the typical application of pesticides.  This orchard was mono cropped and so included only almonds.  All other plants in the understory had been removed using herbicides.

The other orchard was managed in a regenerative model where the understory was seeded with a variety of seasonally diverse flowering plants.  No additional water or application of fertilizer was applied to the almonds.  Livestock were used to graze the understory.

The juxtaposition of these two fields was striking because they were literally across a dirt road from each other.  The regeneratively managed orchard looked like the Shire.  The conventionally managed orchard looked like Mordor.  Strikingly when the harvests came in for these two orchards the amount of pest damage on both plots was equal despite no pesticides having been applied to the regenerative plot.

Now, consider that both of these test plots could have theoretically been certified organic.  The conventional orchard could have used organic substitutions for all it’s inputs (organic fertilizers, organic insecticides, organic herbicides).  However only one of them could be considered regenerative agriculture.