Cover Cropping – Techniques for Creating Productive Soil

Cover Crop

Part 1: Should You Cover Crop? 

Yes! But only if you are willing to put in the time, money, and effort that having a successful cover crop requires. Most farmers are dubious about starting the journey because of the many associated costs and risks, and this is fair. However, when implemented with care, cover crops can make your crop and soil highly successful and productive. This article will illustrate some of the many benefits by talking to you about the story of walnut farmer Russ Lester. Later, once you’re convinced this is the way to go, I’ll give you the basics on getting started. 

What are the Benefits?

To start off, the benefits of cover cropping are a reduction of soil erosion and enhanced nutrient cycling which contributes positively to soil physical, biological and chemical properties. However, the success of the cover crop depends on the type of cover crop, timing and management as well as the crop that you are growing alongside or after it. 

Success with Cover Crops at Dixon Ridge Farms:

Russ Lester, co-owner of Dixon Ridge Farms, has been very successful at implementing a cover crop system on the walnut farm. Lester says, “We don’t just look at how cover crops can supply fertility; we look at how they can suppress weeds, conserve soil moisture, attract and keep beneficial insects, cool the orchard, and supply cover crop seed for next year.” He does this by using a “Rich Mix,” made up of Lana (wooly pod) vetch, purple vetch, common vetch, crimson clover, sub-clover, burr medic, oats, cereal rye, and barley, to maximize his cover crop benefits.This mix provides the low carbon to nitrogen ratio, meaning that C and N are cycled back into the soil, leguminous crops like clover and vetch fix nitrogen directly making them available for plants and uses water efficiently from the soil surface via irrigation. Evaporative losses are minimized because of the high soil organic matter from previous cover crops, which hold more water in the soil. In addition to this, the quick growth of the cover crops protects the water from evaporative losses. Weeds are also not a concern because they are quickly smothered by the planting and their growth is suppressed. 

Timing is Everything 

The process should also be timed to maximize benefits. A trade-off for cover crops is that it utilizes the water for the main crop, which is an issue in drought-prone environments like California. This is counteracted by growing the crop during the walnut tree dormancy, where the water use of the walnut tree is very low.  Cover cropping has a cost – seed and soil preparations and labor requirements factor into implementing the system. Although there is no direct profit associated with the process, it does increases water holding capacity, soil infiltration and soil biodiversity. It increases nutrient availability and nutrient content, soil stability and also suppresses weeds. This also means that the soil is able to absorb water from irrigation, rain and runoff from neighboring land, contributing to groundwater recharge which is especially important in California’s climate. Because of these reasons, at Dixon Ridge Farms, where the cover seed mix is produced in-house, the benefits are worth the expense. 

Cover cropping practices, if implemented well, can ultimately reduce costs for farmers by saving on irrigation and fertilizer, contributing to soil health, assisting in nutrient uptake (potentially contributing to greater yields); while at the same time decreasing demand for mining of minerals and contributing to groundwater recharge, adding to overall sustainability!

Taking the Plunge

So you’ve decided to take the plunge and start cover cropping. That’s great! There are a few key factors that you will have to work within and this entry is going to break them down for you. Cover crops are for the soil instead of for direct consumption, but they need to work within the framework of your typical growing practices. A successful cover process is a balancing act between the needs of the soil, and what you are willing and able to give. It may seem daunting to throw in an added element into the mix, but with some planning, time, and practice, the payoff is worth it.

What is your Cover Crop? 

Depending on the amount of time your fields are left fallow, and the nature of your crops, decide what kind of cover crops are even available to you. When growing a cover crop, it must suit your needs. If your crop has a long growing season, and your fields are fallow for a short time, you may consider Triticale. Triticale is an easy and quickly-established cover crop that adds increases soil organic matter. It doubles as a weed suppressant and grazing grass for livestock. On the other hand, On the other hand, if you are growing corn, for example, you may choose to cover with a mix that is predominantly leguminous. By growing legumes like hairy vetch and crimson clover, you add to the soil nitrogen stock by introducing desirable nitrogen fixing bacteria. The type of mix used can be manipulated to best suit your needs and give you the most bang for your buck. 

What do you have now? Time:

First, how much time do you have? You can do cover cropping for long or short periods of time, depending on the season, the dormancy of your crop/orchard, they type of mix you are using

  • Mix/following crop/soil needs 
  • Kill type/time
  • Season

Key questions are what do you want out of the cover crop, where are your problem places and in what time frame are you looking to see a return on your investment? All these answers play a role in deciding what type of mix, when it’s sown, how long is grown and how it is maintained and integrated with the overall agricultural practice of your farm. 

Shailaja Chadha

About Shailaja Chadha

I am a fourth-year student at the University of California, Davis studying Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems. I chose this major because I wanted to study how people are connected to the ecosystem through food and the implications of our current food system. I am very interested in soil health and sustainability and am looking to pursue higher education in soil science and nutrient cycling. I joined ADAK Software as a blogger because I wanted to be able to share the things I learn in the classroom and on the field with everyone who is interested, in words that anyone can understand. I hope to eventually return to my home country, India, and develop agriculture and sustainability there to create a more equitable social, environmental, and economic system.

Sources

Agriculture Sustainability Institute  — UC SAREP. Retrieved from http://asi.ucdavis.edu/programs/sarep/about/copy_of_what-is-sustainable-agriculture/practices/cover-crops

California Agriculture http://calag.ucanr.edu/Archive/?article=ca.v048n05p43  

Dixon Ridge Farms.Retrieved from http://www.dixonridgefarms.com/farmingandprocessing/sustainability.html

Russ Lester — ASI.Retrieved from http://asi.ucdavis.edu/about/external-advisory-board-1/russ-lester

Small Farm Labor: Hiring Freelance Laborers or Employees

Farm laborer picking beans

You may be able to start a small farm with just your own labor and the help of family members and friends, but eventually a successful market farming operation will grow big enough to need outside labor. Without enough workers on hand, you can miss out on crucial growing and harvesting windows and lose an entire farm vegetable crop. Choosing a type of labor is a major part of small farm planning because each option offers a mix of restrictions and benefits. Explore the two main options for staffing a growing vegetable farming operation to pick the right fit for your market farming plans.

Hiring Freelance Laborers or Employees

Whether you need help only with harvesting a growing bumper crop or year round work, hiring an independent contractor or farm employee is often the most reliable way to close the labor gap. Freelancers and contractors are particularly helpful for piecemeal and single time market farming work, such as harvesting, while any long-term schedule and need for close control over the work requires you to hire on a permanent employee for your small farm.

In order to hire a freelance farm laborer or team for market farming, you must meet the standards set by the Department of Labor (DOL) and Internal Revenue Service (IRS) for this arrangement. These requirements may include:

  • The contractor supplying their own tools and equipment, including combines and harvesters on large farm jobs
  • The job requires only broad objectives, such as bringing in a specific amount of crop by a certain date, with relatively few specifications on how the work is done
  • The contractor is free to offer the same services to other farms
  • The employment offer is based per project and not on an ongoing daily, weekly, or monthly schedule
  • The contractor sets and controls their own schedule, although the farm hiring them can specify a deadline for the work.

Unlike many labor requirements, your growing farm may not have to meet all of these requirements in order to legally hire freelancers and independent contractors. When you choose this kind of small farm labor, you don’t have to pay half of each employee’s FICA taxes like you do with employees. However, you will still need to file income reporting forms with the IRS if you pay your contractors more than a few hundred dollars within each calendar year.

Hiring an employee for your small farm may lead you to do more paperwork and pay a small amount of tax per worker, but you’ll gain many benefits in exchange. You can directly control an employee’s method of completing work, down to specifying when they arrive and when they take their breaks. If you need to move them around to different growing and harvesting tasks on the farm, there’s no need to renegotiate a new project contract. You are responsible for filing a W-4 and I-9 form for all employees you hire. The first form tracks your responsibility for part of the employee’s Social Security taxes, while the second determines if the employee is legally allowed to work in the United States. Failing to complete either form for an employee could lead to thousands of dollars’ worth of fines from both the DOL and IRS.

Inviting Volunteers to Help

When you only need help occasionally and in a relaxed way, such as making small improvements to existing market farming infrastructure, you may only need volunteer and intern labor. Be careful when using these kinds of arrangements, even when working with a well-established organization. Unless the volunteer group is providing the insurance, you may be liable for any injuries that occur while guests are visiting your farm.

There are multiple organizations that provide short to long term free labor in exchange for room and board on a small farm. Some organizations prefer farms to offer guests a small stipend per month to help cover their living costs as well. Groups like World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF), Workaway, HelpX, Appropriate Technology Transfer for Rural Areas (ATTRA), and many others provide free or low cost listings for growing market farming operations looking to attract volunteers, guests, and interns. However, you’ll need to follow both federal and state guidelines for utilizing free labor on your farm, especially if you refer to your opportunity as an unpaid internship.

Interns in particular are protected by federal law and by even stricter standards in many states. Federal requirements include:

  • Educational opportunities similar to what one could receive from a college classroom setting
  • No automatic offer of employment at the end of the internship
  • A mutual understanding that no wages will be exchanged, even if a stipend is involved
  • Someone from the farm is designated as the leader of the internship program
  • No immediate profit or advantage can be gained from the intern’s labor
  • The entire experience is primarily for the benefit of the intern and not the farm.

You’ll still need insurance if you stick within the regulations for internships and volunteer opportunities. Even if your guests sign waivers, you’ll want the extra protection of liability insurance since farms are inherently risky environments for inexperienced volunteers.

Jessica Kolifrath farmer, educator and blogger

Jessica grew up eating homegrown tomatoes and showing rabbits at livestock shows, so it’s no wonder she has her own 3 acre organic hobby farm today that will soon be home to a small licensed nursery for valuable trees and native shrubs. When she’s not busy with her own gardens and chickens, she enjoys helping build greenhouses and weed the blueberry fields at her friend’s 30 acre organic fruit and vegetable plant farm.

 

 

Sources

http://organicgrowersschool.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/2016-Structuring-Labor-on-the-Small-Farm-FINAL.pdf

https://attra.ncat.org/attra-pub/download.php?id=505

https://extension.unh.edu/resources/files/Resource006459_Rep9258.pdf

Holiday Farm Sales – An Opportunity Not to be Missed!

Image courtesy of The Misty Manor Mercers

Looking at the Black Friday and Small Business Saturday ads the past few days, the pain that many farmers feel this time of year hits home. The farmers’ markets are mostly closed down for the season, and so is that extra income that comes from them. Even if you’ve had a separate harvest, it’s probably done for the year and you know that money needs to be budgeted carefully to make it work through a long winter. The holiday season is coming and there’s an expectation for presents, family visiting and travel in the air. How are you going to get in a little extra money coming in for the season? Holiday sales! Here’s a quick look at a few options you can consider to bring in some additional money over the course of the holiday season.

  • Celebrate the season – on the farm! Offer one or many opportunities for people to come to your farm for a seasonal event, such as offering hayrides around your property, pick-your-own options and similar possibilities. Agri-tourism has been growing by leaps and bounds over the past decade or two as people want to get closer to their food source. You have the opportunity to grow a larger, more loyal customer following as more people learn about your operation and family. This is also a great time to bring in more customers to next years’ farmer’s market booth by promoting that as part of your overall process.
  • Add value. You may sell the most amazing tomatoes during the market season, but with a little work, you can offer preserved items through the rest of the year, such as tomato sauces, salsas, sun-dried tomatoes and similar options. This will require a certain amount of research into what’s allowed in your state, county and, should you choose to bring them to market, in the farmer’s market as well. However, organizations that have certified commercial kitchens available, such as churches and community groups, are often happy to rent them out during their downtime provided that the facilities are cleaned up well afterward.
  • Organize a farmer’s market holiday market. Some farmer’s markets will provide their vendors with the opportunity to reach out into the community after the season has closed down for one or two special events to move a little more produce, value-added products, CSAs or similar aspects that help promote both the farmer’s market and the farms themselves. These events are often planned indoors if the weather isn’t just perfect or can’t be anticipated for that time of year. Though this may require a certain amount of advertising and a bit of word-of-mouth to get a good turnout, but can be an excellent source of extra holiday income.
  • Diversify your offerings. Though you may provide plenty of produce during the summer, what about your beautiful end-grain wood cutting boards that you’ve been churning out during your downtime, the amazing quilts or crocheted blankets your daughter turns out so regularly or the wonderful homemade soaps and candles your aunt puts together? Adding a few crafts to fill out your booth, especially when produce is starting to let up, provides you with a great way to bring in more customers who may not be looking for produce while bringing in more income for your farm as a whole.
  • Advertise for free with other forms of media. If your market has officially closed for the year, that doesn’t mean that your opportunities for selling produce or value-added products are over! Facebook’s Marketplace, Craigslist and Etsy all offer options for moving a few more items after the main farmers market season has ended, though they’ll require a little more work to get the ads worded how you want for the best effect. You’ll also want to check with your local, state and county laws about whether you’ll require a business license to sell from your farm, though there are exemptions in many cases and several states have exemptions in place for farms that are selling “at the farm gate”.

By taking a few of these off-season market farming approaches to improving your income and opportunities, your small farm can remain sustainable and growing throughout the entire year, making your holidays merry and bright and the new year more promising than ever. Whether your family farm’s focus is on hydroponics, avoiding genetically modified organisms, organic or natural production, greenhouse opportunities or simply staying sustainable, making your operation more efficient in terms of recordkeeping, crop management, farm planning and production management, you can ensure that your family farm will stay strong to be passed on to the next generation. Have an amazing holiday season and a fabulous new year as 2019 comes rolling in!

Cathleen Vought, Jane of all trades, is a farmer, educator, blogger and more!
Cathleen Vought

Cathleen Vought is a freelance content and copywriter living on a small farm in southwest Missouri with her husband and daughter, two dogs, a few dozen Shetland sheep and chickens, too many cats and a Morgan-Arabian mare with serious attitude. A strong believer in social entrepreneurship, she has over two decades of experience as a volunteer disaster and medical responder, living the quote, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” She spends her free time working with wild edible and medicinal plants, fiber arts, playing with hot glass at her torch and renovating the family’s historic farmhouse.

 

The Family Business: Getting (and Keeping) Everyone Involved in the Farm

Two girls playing is mud on farm

Farm families know how to keep it together. They work hard, play hard and have fun in the process. Unfortunately, it’s getting harder and harder to keep kids on the farm because of increased regulatory requirements, input costs and competition from foreign markets. Combined with the attitude many children pick up from their peers in school, it can make it really difficult to get and keep everybody involved in farm operations for this generation and for years to come. Here’s my view from the pasture on how to make it work.

Continue reading

The Family Business: Getting (and Keeping) Everyone Involved

Two girls playing is mud on farm

Farm families know how to keep it together. They work hard, play hard and have fun in the process. Unfortunately, it’s getting harder and harder to keep kids on the farm because of increased regulatory requirements, input costs and competition from foreign markets. Combined with the attitude many children pick up from their peers in school, it can make it really difficult to get and keep everybody involved in farm operations for this generation and for years to come. Here’s my view from the pasture on how to make it work.

Continue reading