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Farming polyculture efficiency

 
Josh Chance
Posts: 20
Location: Fort Collins, CO, E of Rockies, semi-arid, zone 5, elev. 5K ft, precip. 16 in, snowfall 54in, clay
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Im interning to run and own a small farm focusing mainly on veggies. A question that I have not found an answer to is, how do I efficiently transplant into a polyculture and harvest? On the organic farms that I have visited and worked on, rows or monocultures are used for efficient time/labor use.

While weeding labor may be reduced because of dense planting, time sensitive harvesting is my main concern.

Also, does anyone know of any money making permaculture farms in or near the Rockies?
Thanks for any feedback!

Josh
 
R Scott
Posts: 3306
Location: Kansas Zone 6a
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It is a pretty big step to go from a Holland planter rowed monoculture to true perenial permaculture.

It is possible to do mixed-flat plantings with a transplant planter--but you are planting at the same time, not necessarily timing for harvest. To plant into existing beds, it is more manually intensive--step planter or trowel.

Harvesting of root crops are a problem unless they are the last in the bed, but manual picking anything else is about the same. You are not going to run a machine.
 
Josh Chance
Posts: 20
Location: Fort Collins, CO, E of Rockies, semi-arid, zone 5, elev. 5K ft, precip. 16 in, snowfall 54in, clay
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R Scott wrote:It is a pretty big step to go from a Holland planter rowed monoculture to true perenial permaculture.

It is possible to do mixed-flat plantings with a transplant planter--but you are planting at the same time, not necessarily timing for harvest. To plant into existing beds, it is more manually intensive--step planter or trowel.

Harvesting of root crops are a problem unless they are the last in the bed, but manual picking anything else is about the same. You are not going to run a machine.


I understand that I won't be running a machine. I was looking more for techniques for efficient manual harvesting. So, would there be any kind of organization to the polyculture, is timing of harvest going to help, or should certain crops be planted in separate beds/polycultures for easier harvest? Like you mentioned, root crops would be difficult to harvest, so maybe plant potatoes with a polyculture of grasses?

THanks for your input!

Josh
 
R Scott
Posts: 3306
Location: Kansas Zone 6a
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I have been setting up polyculture beds from the POV of high-production HOME gardens, not market garden, so harvesting is done for all the veggies as you go down the bed and then sorted as it is used or put up. The same idea should work for market gardens if you have good pickers, you could sort as you put it on the truck/trailer. If you are looking at picking a single crop at a time, you will need to cover more ground per crop--but it isn't as much more as you think.

You can get better overall plant and production density with complementary crops. That is where I think you need to look for the $$$ to offset any increased labor. If you can get 20% production in the same amount of space, how much is that worth? What if you produce 50% more? Or do it with 80% less fertilizer?

 
Josh Chance
Posts: 20
Location: Fort Collins, CO, E of Rockies, semi-arid, zone 5, elev. 5K ft, precip. 16 in, snowfall 54in, clay
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R Scott, I really like your idea of harvesting multiple crops at the same time and then sorting afterwards for efficiency.

My experience with small scale farming and understanding of permaculture techniques is definitely in a pubescent stage. I am sill trying to see how I can best combine them without killing myself with the work or creating an unsustainable business plan.

Let's say you have 4hrs to harvest, sort and wash crops for 30 to 60 CSA members [obviously, not just me working ]. It seems to me that widely spaced, monocrop rows (easier to see and access crops) would be quicker/more efficient than a polyculture that is a dense, mixed planting, even if the poly is on a smaller amount of land. So I wonder what other techniques might improve harvesting efficiency for polyculture.

For instance, tall, steep hugelkultur beds might improve ones ability to see and access crops, allow closer proximity, and not require as much bending over. But then would the polyculture need to be organized loosely to make up for water content at different levels of the bed?

Or, if a third of crops were planted in polyculture "Upick" beds that are marketed as a higher quality food (more natural?). That would provide members an educational opportunity for CSA members to learn what the different plants look like, how to pick them, what is possible to grow together, and reduce my labor costs
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Any other ideas?

Thanks!

Josh
 
R Scott
Posts: 3306
Location: Kansas Zone 6a
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It takes time for a picker to move, so covering more area also takes time--even though they are covering each sq ft. faster. It isn't simple math because there are ergonomics and humans involved.

I hadn't thought of it in harvest crunch time, either. There are lots of times you do things less efficiently throughout the year just to be able to harvest as fast as possible. I am used to thinking of harvest windows in terms of days or weeks, not hours!

I would think hugels would make excellent premium U-pick beds--easy to pick and hard to trample.

Hugels generally get overplanted and natural selections takes over to let the plants thrive where they were meant--what is right is not so simple to figure out at first and can change between wet and dry or warm and cold years.
 
Chris Kott
Posts: 796
Location: Toronto, Ontario
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Most polyculture fans adopt a "spray and pray" mentality that I don't like for smaller managed spaces. I think that adapting the forest garden's idea of filling all the different plant niches so that you have a stratification, and everything is in a place where it gets optimal sun/shade for its development is a good idea, and for that to work, you do have to develop a patterned approach.

So if you are planting a garden, and you plant in rows, but in a suntrap shape (semi-circle facing south, for the sake of argument), and each next row is taller than the one in front of it, and perhaps the only thing that's not in rows might be a shade-loving groundcover polyculture, how is it inferior to the scattershot method? This, to my mind, is still polyculture, and if it makes it possible to harvest efficiently, rather than losing half of what you "plant" because it's lost in the tangle, or because the tall plants came up in front of the sun-loving plants, or for any number of reasons, I'd call it superior.

-CK
 
Josh Chance
Posts: 20
Location: Fort Collins, CO, E of Rockies, semi-arid, zone 5, elev. 5K ft, precip. 16 in, snowfall 54in, clay
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R Scott, I can definitely see teh importance of reduced space to cover while harvesting. I did not mean to discredit it, I was just fishing for other ideas

Chris Kott, I think your suggestion of having some organization to avoid losses makes sense. I wondered if a repeating pattern of 20? different plants spaced not by rows but in triangles or a biointensive pattern might save considerable space and still allow for easier access. Of course keeping in mind the needs, size, etc. of the plants.

Great input! thank you
 
Chris Kott
Posts: 796
Location: Toronto, Ontario
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What I am currently planning in my 20'x35' urban backyard is the kind of patterning I've described. I'm trying to cordon off zones in my plan that correspond to the amount of sunlight available (we have two old American Elms, the younger likely 150+ years to the north in the front yard, the older, probably 200+ years, overshadows half of my back yard , estimated from average circumference and diameter based on numbers from slightly warmer areas in the States, so a conservative estimate. They're both Dutch Elm Disease survivors , I wonder if that makes their seed resistant to it? ) and how that changes over the growing season (less sunlight to the back half as the Elm leaves grow out and the sun gets higher in the sky towards Solstice), but I have a range of really micro climates to play with, and my thought is that if I pattern my seed placement properly, I can more readily observe and describe the interactions between individual plants, both within each seed guild and on the edges of different pattern zones. I am laying out my patterns based on most of what I've read in "Square Foot Gardening" by Mel Bartholomew, insofar as plant spacing goes, but I am also allowing more room for larger veggies like tomatoes and using soil-building and conditioning groundcovers. I welcome suggestions to improve the observation of plant interactions in this setting, all suggestions, really, but I can't really think of a better way to both ensure a greater overall yield and to help figure out why some combinations work and others don't.

I don't know how, exactly you want to define efficiency, but it might be useful to consider patterns and systems that produce useful amounts of animal feed as a byproduct of the human feed they produce. This would almost certainly result in less of a vegetable/fruit yield, at least in the short term, but would likely result in better soil fertility. In the name of energy efficiency, livestock can sometimes be dismissed on the grounds that land that could be used to grow food for human consumption is used, instead, to feed animals, a less efficient transfer of energy from plant source to human; this might technically prove true, but not all land is appropriate for growing human food, not because it would be of inferior or harmful quality, but because the more demanding human food would require too much in remediation to actually produce food on less-than-optimal soil. A few pasture mixes with different hardinesses would easily make use of unused spaces.

My next space will enable me to have some laying fowl, pigs, and goats, at very least. The only livestock I have now are soil microbes and critters. I want to be able to have fresh eggs every morning, fresh chicken, duck, turkey and goose when I want some, goat milk, meat, maybe fibre, though I honestly want to get mini jerseys if they retain the a2 gene (it's a raw milk digestability thing, the new, high-production milking breeds like holstein produce inferior milk that is harder for humans to digest, which is compounded by pasturisation), and bacon that has lived a rich and full bacon life and rewards me with a nice rich and full bacon taste, and doesn't kill me. I also want to investigate some things I've put together about aquaculture in parts where mosquitoes and other water-laying species are abundant, where you make sure you have an insectivorous feeder fish that your, say, Salmon eat (if I had to choose one animal protein source that I could only have made one way for the rest of eternity, I would choose salmon sashimi, with the provisio that I get miso soup, wasabe, and soy sauce with it, I love it that much), allowing you to essentially forage feed your fish on what is essentially a human scourge at certain times of the year, and can be consistently bad the whole season at certain times of day and under certain conditions (in parts of Ontario I've called home, we refer to our Victoria Day, the long weekend known as the May 2-4, as the Feast of St. Blackfly).

I think that to achieve truly spectacular efficiency, you have to enlarge the scope of the system to have as many different low-to-no input operations within the greater system, both using nature as the bulk of their input (sun, wild/polyculture pasturage, wild insect harvest, etc...) and whose "waste" products are feedstock for the other operations. I can't think of a better approach to systems efficiency that takes into account as given that, as a system whose goal is to produce food, in some cases most of which will be taken off-property and, therefore, out of the system (their value from sale can be reinvested, but to directly replace what was removed would entail buying inputs or using resources to harvest them elsewhere), than to allow nature to make up the lack.

I think you might have to widen your scope to find most of what I have written at all useful, but I do hope it helps someone.

Cheers,
-CK
 
Renate Howard
pollinator
Posts: 755
Location: zone 6b
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Any chance you could modify the CSA structure so the customers pick their own? When I joined a CSA we picked our own of the more labor-intensive crops like strawberries. They also let some have free memberships in return for labor on picking/washing/packing days. A third option is to see if there's a gleaner group near you that would harvest your crops in exchange for a percentage of the crop (you could even work it so they get the surplus crops - you know, something always produces beyond your expectations).

You aren't talking specifics of the polyculture. Like which species you want to interplant. Flowers fit easily in polycultures, and aside from the benefits of small-flowered plants like alyssum that feed beneficial insects and take up little space, others can be given as part of the CSA, which was wildly popular when I ran one. If you make mixed bunches of flowers for them you can even incorporate "weeds" and blooms from food plants (salsify has gorgeous flowers). Garlic can be interplanted just about anywhere it will get enough light, and needs no special care during the growing season, and is easy to pull without disturbing neighboring plants if the soil isn't compacted. Same thing for herbs. For lettuces and greens you can just block plant and harvest them all at once in a cut-and-come-again kind of way. Your winter squash/pumpkin area can have sunflowers, indian or popcorn with it for a fall harvest celebration pick your own day. CSA customers in general love parties where they get to meet other CSA members. If you don't offer meat you can find a local farmer to supply the meat at a discount in return for free advertising and charge a very modest amount for the burgers or whatever if you feel you can't pay for them (tho a pot luck is very popular with CSA crowds, too).
 
Chris Kott
Posts: 796
Location: Toronto, Ontario
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I like the suggestions about the modified Pick-your-own. I have concerns regarding block plantings unless you put a lot of aromatics around them to confuse pests, and they'd better be small block plantings, at that. I am hard-pruning my raspberries to about three feet of cane, and making proper rows of the current mess. I'm trying garlic chives around the crowns, and a foot-traffic-hardy groundcover that I haven't figured out yet that I want to provide, in addition to covering the ground, at least one nitrogen fixer, a dynamic accumulator, a tap-rooted species, and maybe a berry, something like a cranberry, perhaps something else to feed the chickens I don't yet have. I'm also thinking of interplanting currants in the shade of the raspberries, as they can do well with it. I think I will also try some daikon radishes sown in a row in the middle of each harvesting path (that's the only time I'll be using them, other than pruning) because I might want to grow something more demanding as a winter silage crop.

-CK
 
Matt Baker
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Some crops might be more suited to planting in blocks.

Crops like baby spinach could be a problem to harvest efficiently in a polyculture. You could however plant and sell baby green mixes, e.g. spinach, kale, chard, mustard etc.. This way you could harvest them with a larger harvesting tool instead of a paring knife and reap some polyculture benefits. This may be a hard sell though if you run a CSA. Baby spinach is a popular crop. A few beds devoted to blocks of one crop may be necessary to meet demand for some crops.

sepp holzer plants crops like potatoes and rye in blocks on his terraces. But he has a lot of diversity adjacent to these plantings and probably sows diverse ground cover catch crops among them. I guess it's a compromise between efficiency and diversity. He must do some crop rotation in these annual crop monoculturish blocks. I'd really like see how he does it.



 
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