A few weeks ago, I introduced the Free Soil Community Garden by offering 7 free garden plots to members of the community. Six of those plots were taken and have been planted by local families and I took one back to make room for my own asparagus patch and some edamame.
Now a little more about what is going on outside the garden fence. I have decided to call my new farming venture “Free Soil Farm.” As mentioned in the previous column, this is a hat tip to General Wadsworth, who built the Hartford House in 1835 and was one of the founders of the Free Soil Party in the 1840s.
The Free Soil Party was adamantly opposed to the expansion of slavery into the western states and their candidates ran under the banner, “Free Soil, Free Speech, Free Labor and Free Men.” After putting up 3rd party candidates for President in 1848 and 1852, they merged into the newly formed Republican Party in 1854.
Of course there is another meaning to Free Soil and one that is probably more important to those of you who I hope will someday soon be eating some of our produce. It is my goal to make the soil of my farm as free as possible of agricultural chemicals.
This is not to say that my farm will be certified organic, at least not in the first few years. Organic certification is a state-regulated designation that prohibits a laundry list of chemical herbicides and pesticides as well as most manufactured fertilizers. Having farmed commercially before, I know just how hard it may be to produce a decent crop under such restrictions, especially on an old pasture that to my knowledge has never been farmed.
That is not to say I have been busy dosing the land with chemicals. The bulk of the 5 acres that has fallen to the plow so far has not seen any herbicide. I did spray one acre of the grass with a generic version of Roundup just to hedge my bets, but that land is only going into a cover crop this year.
For the time being, I will try to make due with mechanical cultivation to keep the weeds at bay. To that end I have recently purchased a new Kovar tine cultivator and a used Lilliston rolling cultivator. I only bought new, because the tine cultivator is a rather new adaption of the old spring harrow concept and there are just not many used units around.
The Lilliston, which features gangs of rolling “spyders”, has been around for decades in conventional agriculture, however, that tool as well as most mechanical cultivators are being used less on conventional farms because of the growing trend to incorporate herbicide-resistant genes into crop seeds.
For that reason, I was able to buy a 6-row unit, which probably originally retailed for over $10,000, for just $450. Of course that unit was in Michigan, but even with $500 of trucking it is still a bargain. No, I am not planning to use a 6-row planter (please shoot me if start thinking big again!) The plan is to break the unit up into three 2-row cultivators. That way I can have different configurations for different crops without having to constantly readjust the rig.
I am not a true believer on the evils of conventional fertilizers either. I know some organic farmers go to great pains to only used “approved” sources for their NPK. In my view nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus are all natural elements, and with my soil test results showing large deficiencies, I will take the cheapest source I can find.
I do plan to make full use of my locally-available manure supply to cook up some mean compost, however, that is a long-term project. In the meantime, I want to have decent yields, so I have supplemented the manure with conventional fertilizers. Note: This does not apply to the garden area which has seen only natural compost and lime.
According the National Organic Farming laws and regulations, land must be kept clear of all banned herbicides and fertilizers for two years before it can be certified organic. That means the earliest I could certify the Free Soil Farm would be 2012. We’ll see…