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Converting forested land into farm

 
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I have questions concerning the conversion of forested land into farmland. I am in the process of clearing about 2 acres of forested land consisting mainly of coniferous trees - spruce, fir, tamarack, pine, etc. The ground beneath the canopy is littered with conifer needles and blanketed with mosses. At one time back in the 40's this very land was part of a larger field that I assume was cultivated for crops or used for pasture.

What do I do with all the treetops and cutoff limbs that are piling up on the ground? Do I push them to the side and let them rot? Do I burn them and plow them into the ground? Do I chip them and plow them in to the ground? - but that's bad right? Or should I chip them and mix them with lets say grass, and pile them up to compost on their own. WHAT SHOULD I DO WITH THEM!!!
 
pollinator
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Yes.

You can do any or all of those things, and which one you pick depends on what you want to grow. If you intend to plant blueberries, then just leave them to compost on their own so that they mulch the berries. If you want to grow row crops, then turning them under will be a quick way to get the organic matter incorporated into the soil.

If you decide to let it dry out so you can burn it, pick a day when the rain is moving in. That way, it won't burn completely and, with luck, the rain will put out the fire while there is still a lot of charcoal left. Naturally made biochar!

Another alternative is to windrow it and then make a pass with a plow and cover the vegetation over with dirt -- turn it into hugelbeds.

If you want to narrow it down, tell us where you are (climate zone??) and what you want to farm on it, and we can come up with a plan.
 
Alfred Negri
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Hello John, thank you for responding to my post.

I live in Northern Maine and my land is in zone 4a. I'm most interested in growing heirloom potatoes and heirloom grains. Chipping all the debris is the most appealing to me, except for the fossil fuel aspect of this. However in a publication entitled "Regenerating Soils with Ramial Chipped Wood" by CĂ©line Caron, Gilles Lemieux and Lionel Lachance, they state that "n cold and temperate climates, ramial wood from coniferous species must be avoided or restricted to 20% of the overall content." You can read the entire article here:http://www.dirtdoctor.com/view_org_research.php?id=69.

Thanks!

Al
 
John Elliott
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Interesting what they say in that reference, Al

Coniferous trees, in cold and temperate climates, generate a blockage mechanism of soil pedogenesis. Their lignin, once into the soil, evolves in producing a great amount of polyphenolic inhibitors. This type of lignin is also found in many tropical tree species but high soil temperatures break the inhibitor effect to some extent. In cold and temperate climates, ramial wood from coniferous species must be avoided or restricted to 20% of the overall content. Coniferous trees are characterized by an asymetrical lignin (guaiacyl).



We don't have that problem here in the South, stuff breaks down plenty fast.....sometimes too fast. What you could do is to windrow the coniferous debris that you have and inoculate it heavily with fungi that will go to work breaking down those polyphenolic inhibitors. If this is something that you can do now before it all freezes for the winter, then the microbial action in the piled up windrow may keep it warm enough over the winter that it can still break down.

Are there a lot of mushrooms on the property? If so, you have what you need to get the inoculation started. If not, then you may be able to make up some inoculate with store-bought oyster mushrooms. They maintain a decent level of metabolism in cold weather.
 
Alfred Negri
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I think the subject of Ramial Chipped Wood is fascinating too, John. I am also starting to believe there is quite a bit of latitude when it comes to using coniferous wood chips. At this point in time I am leaning towards chipping the debris and piling it up in one corner of the plot for use later, after stumps are removed and possibly added with soil amendments. If renting a chipper is cost prohibitive, then I'll probably use your windrow suggestion. And yes there are mushrooms that grow on this plot.

I've posted the same question on a soils forum at the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association. You might be interested in reading those threads: http://www.mofga.net/Forums/tabid/56/aff/17/aft/1083/afv/topic/Default.aspx.

I asked the same questions to Tom Roberts of Snakeroot Farm. His response was to say the least wonderful. Here it is for you to read below. Also, Tom has a nice read about using wood chips on his website: http://www.snakeroot.net/farm/InPraiseOfChips.shtml.

Al

"On 11/18/13 9:24 AM, "Tom Roberts" <tom@snakeroot.net> wrote:


Hi Al,

I pretty much agree with the advice Argyle Acres gave you on the MOFGA forum. And as you noted, the quicker and more expensive way to convert the stumpland to farm land is to bring in the heavy equipment. So, it's really just a question of how fast you want to do this and whether you have more time or more money. Note that in everything you do on this land, this question will continually arise. Of course each time you make a decision in favor one one way or the other, that usually doesn't lock you into making future decisions the same way. It all depends on your perspective at each step in your five or ten year plan.

As to your original question to me about the slash from a clear cut, there are several ways to proceed. A common method in conversions to farmland is to burn the slash piles, which wastes a lot of slow-to-decompose nutrients, but does get the slash out of the way quickly. It also provides a quantity of quickly leachable potassium, which probably won't do you much good.

Chipping the slash takes a great deal of time and money to operate the chipper, but gives you a whole lot of nutrients in the form of chips. Remember, a big pile of slash creates a small pile of chips. Granted, these chips are not as valuable as hardwood chips, but they are a long way from having zero value. They work as well as any chips for mulch if you want to retain soil moisture and retard weed growth. If they are cedar chips, they will last a long time (5+ years!) either as mulch or just piled up for future use. If they are spruce, fir, larch, or pine they will be about half decomposed if piled for 5 years. As a mulch, they will all but disappear in a couple of years.

Altho I would not till in cedar chips (the non-rotting characteristics of cedar would inhibit soil fungal growth), the other conifers will go far toward improving the soil; after all, continually adding layers of dead woody material is how nature builds a forest soil out of glacial till. You are just speeding up the process. Again, hardwoods are superior for this, but then, we can't all drive Cadillacs.

Any chips (except alder) tilled into the soil will remain mixed with the soil as identifiable chips for a year or two as they decompose. Consider that this may interfere with planting and cultivating whatever crop you intend to grow. Potatoes or squash might be the easiest to grow soon after tilling in chips. Corn would work as well, but it is a heavy feeder and would require addition of considerable nitrogen. Until they are decomposed into humus, the microbes decomposing the chips will be in competition with your crop for any available N when they are mixed with the soil (as opposed to being used as a mulch on top of the soil). Note that most chippers will grind up the larger wood pretty well, but will "spit through" the smaller pencil-lead-sized twigs.

In any case, you would not want to till in any more than an inch of chips; so you would still be able to see the ground thru your chip layer prior to tilling. Do not plow them down, as they would then be in a deep soil layer that will inhibit their decomposition. Use a tiller or disk harrow to work them into the top layers of the soil.

So, as you can see, I can't really tell you what to do, I can only describe some of the choices you have. I have cc'd Eric Sideman, MOFGA's ag specialist to see if he has any further perspective.

Hope this helps. Please do write back if you have more detailed questions. At our website (in the "Mulching" section) I do have several suggestions for how we use chips at our farm here in Pittsfield.


In Greenery~
Tom Roberts
tom@snakeroot.net
27 Organic Farm Road, Pittsfield ME 04967
cell 207-416-5417
www.snakeroot.net/farm <http://www.snakeroot.net/farm>;
Snakeroot on Facebook <http://facebook.com/snakerootorganicfarm>;
Tom on Facebook <http://www.facebook.com/chiefsnake>; "
 
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Very informative discussion. I will try to use it at a small piece of land I plan to gradually convert from a forest to farmland. Thank you, all.
 
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Welcome to the forum!

I wanted to say this is perfect for hugelkulture but I saw that this is an old thread from 2013.

What is the main theme of your farm?  Will the forest turn into pastures for animals?  Or will the forest be cleared for crops?  Or both?

Why not consider a food forest?
 
M. Hasnain
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Hi Anne, I will have about 2 acres to work with. I am thinking of slowly and gradually getting it suitable for a vegetable/herb garden, a few fruit trees, a few fruit bush, and a few nut trees. I am in zone 5A. The ground currently is thickly populated with mostly small-sized mixed trees and it is very wet with mossy areas. What is a food forest?  
 
Anne Miller
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Most folks might start with an existing forest then add different layer for growing vegetables and fruits.

Some folks start from scratch by adding fruit trees, berry bushes, vegetables, etc:

https://permies.com/t/160695/Start-Food-Forest-Step-step

https://permies.com/t/52079/Creating-Food-Forest-Step-Step
 
M. Hasnain
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Thank you for the links. I plan to slowly build it over time. I am looking at a steep learning curve and hope to learn and experiment as I work on this. I am following Canadian Permaculture Legacy on YouTube. My immediate challenge will be dealing with water lodging flow of water. The land is flat and low. It is also very thickly treed. I do plan to make a small pond but still will have to disturb the echo system a fair bit to manage water flow.
 
Anne Miller
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The property we had where our daughter now lives had water problems.

I dug a ditch along the edge of the driveway and later we made some french drains to take care of the problem.

Sometimes we just have to help Mother Nature get it right.

 
M. Hasnain
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Yes, to make the lot livable, it will certainly need a few trenches and culverts. A lot of thinking, planning, and budgeting has to go into it before I start working on it.
 
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