This will be my first year farming. I've spent the past year reading and researching generally. I've got access to 17 acres of fields which were once dairy pastures, then for the past few years have been hayed, not taken care of too well. It's in Turner, Maine. Snow is melting now, and I'm starting to get anxious and nervous whether my plan will work, so I'd like suggestions on how to amend the plan or if people think it will work. I'll try to make it concise.
I plan on using only two fields, about 2 acres each. They were cut last fall, no cover crop, so there are stubs of established grass in the ground now. I want to plant a perimeter of a nitrogen fixer mixed with another grain to help get established. Was told rye is good for overseeding, and was thinking white clover as the nitrogen fixer. I could just broadcast early and hope for the best.
Then in the center of the field, I'll have three sisters crops, a mix of sweet and dent corns, many varieties of pole beans, and variety of winter squashes. I want to do no till. I originally thought I could hand sow directly in what's there, but am now thinking the grasses from last year will come up and smother my crops before they can get established. I'm thinking of hay mulching some, cardboard mulching most, right before a heavy rain as soon as the snow melts. should give a few weeks before last frost to decompose a bit but not much. Then I'll push aside hay where my seeds will go, or poke large holes in cardboard, and plant corn and squash together first, 6 feet apart in a grid. Then once corn is growing, will do the same for the pole beans. Will this work, or should I put a thin layer of compost on top of the cardboard and hay? I'd liked to have done Ruth Stout method but wasn't living here last fall so hay mulching in the fall was not an option, though I'd like to do this in the future, which is why I want to have a perimeter of clover/rye to cut with a scythe at the end of the year and use as mulch immediately.
I don't have any farming equipment, so it all has to be done by hand. Your input is much appreciated! I do have a job I work from home, so if it's a failure, I'll keep my job, but I'm hoping to have enough income from selling at a local farmer market that I can transition out of this job and farm in the coming years.
Sounds like a pretty big 'Jump into farming' project. I'm not saying not to do it, but I guess I'm saying perhaps some caution is in order before trying to deal with 4 acres on part time.
How much experience do you have raising such crops? Or, with farmer's markets?
One thing, from what you wrote that concerns me is putting the squash and corn in early.
Unless you are doing transplants and protecting them, squash and corn are generally seeded later in the year, when the soil is warmer.
Corn may or may not grow from seed very well in your soil (if it's been treated poorly) without a boost of nitrogen and waiting until the soil is warmer would help too. Corn likes to grow in close proximity to more corn... or at least it pollinates better (by wind) that way.
My advice would be to go smaller rather than bigger, and put way more of it in a cover mulch crop than you were planning... no matter what you were planning. Go small, and have success. Go big, and risk getting way overwhelmed.
Perhaps grow strips of cover crop even throughout the rest of the growing area, and then the following year, switch the growing areas and the strips of cover crop. Or plant something like 100 square foot sections (10'X10'), that you surround with cardboard and that you surround like a checkerboard with cover crops squares. This will give your corn and squash good pollination, but make each square a manageable unit... helping you not feel overwhelmed.
If you have a greenhouse, or a solarium, or someplace you can start plants, talk to a local farmer about when it is safe to put out corn and squash transplants, and the soak the seeds to sprout them and seed them indoors in good potting mix and then bring them out when it is optimum. This is particularly true of squash; though I've done well with seeding out this family too, you just have to wait for warm soil. Corn needs deep pots. To plant it outside, you should talk to other farmers about the optimum time. Do not soak your beans; at least some beans don't like it. Then plant your pole beans in the ground as beans not transplants. This will ensure that your beans do not climb all over your squash and corn before they are big enough.
Inoculate all beans and legumes with nitrogen fixing bacteria that you can buy at a garden supply place.
Rye is good, but barley, oats, ancient wheat varieties... there's plenty that will do just fine. Rye exudes stuff that will impede the growth of the grasses, and that will be helpful for the first year. Clover is good, but a clover mix is better, or a legume mix (including field peas and vetch), even better.
Remember that every piece of cardboard has to be weighed down with something, or it will fly away in a good wind. Cardboard is much more efficient if the ground is made wet before laying, ad mowed really low, the cardboard is dampened, and the cardboard is weighed down with rocks to conform to the ground. Overlap the corners and edges and any holes with at least six inches. Even then perennial grasses are a tenacious bunch and they will send out runners to try to find the light. You will still be weeding unless you triple coat your cardboard. And even then, you will be weeding the grasses where your plants are. But that's O.K.. The more you stay on top of it the first year, the less you have to deal with in the coming years.
Getting some local farming info would be a great idea. Talk to farmers, agricultural extension offices, and gardeners and ask them about these specific plants.
Good luck, and post about your results. And if you have other more specific questions, then create more threads.
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Thanks, I see that is great advice. I forgot to mention, the 3 sisters plan I was working off had four corn plants together, four squash plants around, and four pole beans (one per stalk) in one "cluster". These clusters would be six feet apart. Guy who did this did five feet, but I was thinking six would be less draining on the soil, though this might not be as good for corn pollination and also let more weeds come up, though I'm less worried with cardboard mulch down.
I think grid or strips would be prudent and easier to manage. I'll think about the benefits of each, though strips would likely be simpler to plant as I could just run lines with a hand seeder.
I think if I put the cardboard down right before a good rain, maybe even during the rain (what fun!) it would not blow away and would pretty much stay put, so poking holes for seeds would work?
I don't have experience growing these crops, only tomatoes and peppers mainly (which I'll also be growing but in a separate garden). I have no experience with markets, but have a spot at one in the nearest big "city" (it's Maine...) and possibly another in a smaller town nearby. I'll also be making beds with cardboard mulch and compost on top, interplanting various vegetables, probably with spots of nitro fixers for green manure to make next year easier -- much of it for subsistence but also to sell. Though I'm more confident in my plan for that as it's more like what I've done in the past.
Mainly I'm just worried that I'll plant the corn and squash and it won't even make it up through the weeds, or won't make it up due to poor soil. (I'm not a farmer. I don't even know what happens to a hay field in the spring when you don't till/seed). The soil has been tilled probably every year. The owners rented it out to neighbors, so I don't think they fertilized quite properly. I plan on getting some soil tests done this week to get a better clue. Talking to local farmers would be a no brainer, I'll have to find some around. I was planning on waiting to plant the corn til a week or two after last frost, basically playing it by ear. Also starting indoors is off the table. My tomatoes and peppers have taken up all my space, and starting that much corn and such indoors would be a huge pain. I like the idea of the three sisters garden because it's minimal maintenance and mimics nature. Transplanting would kind of remove this aspect.
OK, I've looked into hairy vetch/clover/rye mix cover crop. Seems it's best overwintered but can be planted in early spring. If I broadcast this mix over the whole two fields, then late kill strips or a grid with the scythe and plant the corn and squash once the soil has warmed (here it'd be sometime in June I imagine as last frost is mid-May, according to Victory Seeds data May 10) and use the cut cover as mulch, will that both fertilize with N from vetch/clover and keep weeds out? Will the corn/squash/beans be able to poke through the mulch? If so I could ditch the cardboard idea altogether and leave that for the beds.
Before you do anything I would recommend at least one soil test per field. Depending on the results you can determine what amendments you will need as well as knowing what is in the soil already. I've planted hairy vetch and peas as cover crops and they have worked out very well.
I just watched Gabe Brown's part one lecture, treating the farm as an ecosystem, on youtube. All information I did not fully understand, and I think I have a better grasp now. Just took two shovel samples of the main field, one at the upper end, one at the lower end (elevation). Both looked very similar, though the lower end was even a bit more dense than the upper.
Notes: dense, small particles with not larger bits. Medium brown, not too light, though the soil was waterlogged. There's a serious hard pan 6" down, very rocky too. A few large rocks in the field, not protruding but flush with soil level. Water pooling in a few spots from melting snow, marshy at the western border (lower end). Small stubs of last year's crop (hay of some sort, I'm no expert) and minimal new weed growth where there snow has melted. Also saw a couple big holes, I suppose groundhogs, though maybe snakes?
Brown says you can tell more from a shovel than from a test. Based on his talk, I think the best approach is to broadcast a cover crop cocktail immediately after the snow is melted (and pray we don't get another storm). Choose a few species to amend soil before main crop, which will be planted late.
Here are the problems I think I'll have growing corn/beans/squash there, most to least important (tell me if I'm wrong) --
1. poor water infiltration (dense top 6" with no large particles and pooling water)
2. lack of available carbon (not very dark, no large particles)
3. no mycorrhizal fungi growth (though it's surrounded by woods so may not be difficult to amend since I won't be tilling)
4: lack of available nitrogen
If I choose species that combat each issue and make a "cover cocktail" as an early cover, then cut by scythe, leave as mulch/residue, and plant 3 sisters beneath, I believe this is the best strategy. I'm going to read "Managing Cover Crops Profitably" (out for free by Sare, referenced by Brown) and choose species, but my first inclination is daikon for hard pan and to make N available long term; hairy vetch to make N available immediately; some northern-suited clover species for pollinators and N immediately. I'll also choose a mycorrhizal-friendly cool season grass.
Thanks all for the advice, it is greatly appreciated!