Restoring the Soil

One would think, that to a farmer there would be nothing more important than the health of their soil --- one would think.

Jon checking the soil in March 2015

Our farm dates back to the mid 1800's and was once a dairy farm, then grazed horses and most recently grew corn using "conventional" methods which means tilling, herbicides, pesticides and chemical fertilizer. We purchased the farm in early 2015 the fields had been tilled after the prior year's corn crop and laid barren over winter. The soil was compacted, dry and pretty much devoid of life, We knew we had our work cut out for ourselves.

Perhaps at this point I should point out that we are not farmers, or we weren't at that time, maybe still aren't but we're learning. Jon has a background in Ag but is a programmer and brewer and I'm most recently a teacher. However we knew dead soil isn't what we wanted. Where were all the worms that growing up proclaimed healthy soil?

Selecting the best cover crop

With this we started on our educational and experimental journey, reading, going to seminars (Organic Growers School, Mother Earth Fair), learning from other farmers (Living Web Farms, Gabe Brown) and taking a holistic, ecological approach to our farm. From the start we determined there would be no more tilling, no chemical fertilizers, no pesticides, no herbicides. That was the easy part now we had to regenerate healthy soil.

Step 1 was to get something in the ground ("a root in the ground" nod to Gabe Brown). We worked with Green Cover Seed out of Nebraska  to determine a beneficial mix of 7 different seeds to add nutrients and aid in breaking up the hardpan, of course this meant we also had to purchase a tractor and seeder for the farm.

Baby chicks 1st outing June 2015

Soon we were adding sheep and chickens which are pasture raised in paddocks and rotated around the farm. Although we only have 4 sheep, not what you'd call intensive grazing, they do help keep the fields contained and add some fertilizer to the ground, and the chickens provide us with the best eggs we've ever had while also helping to build the soil.

 

Now it was time to wait and allow the cover crops and animals to do their work, by waiting I mean experiment with our first planting of hops, prune the overgrown fruit trees, plant new trees and vegetables, tend the animals, brew our beers, put in a half mile of perimeter fence and all the other things that go along with having a farm and family.

In the summer of 2016 while suffering a severe drought we decided to have our soil tested. Taking samples from 5 or 6 different locations the ground was again hard, dry and no worms. The test results showed a miserable soil index of 19 out of 100, we obviously still had a lot of work to do but maybe we were expecting too much for just a year.

We selected a portion of our fields that we would plant the following year and based on the soil test results and with our friends at Lotus

Applying compost tea

Farm & Garden in Asheville, developed a plan to add organic minerals, compost tea and microbial inoculants. The minerals were surface applied with a broadcast spreader and allowed to infiltrate the ground. The microbial inoculants were directly sprayed on our hops and mixed with the compost tea and injected into the ground about every six feet as well as surface applied. Then the area was covered with a silage tarp.

We've not yet had our soil tested this year but as we started to plant we made a new discovery --- worms, yes worms and lots of them. In just 2 years we are seeing life returning to our soil. It is a good sign but not nearly the end of the story but we are determined to leave this land better than we found it.