Sunday, December 13, 2015

It's All About the Dirt

Unless you are growing in hydroponic or aquaponic systems, it’s the heart and soul of your farm. Soil.

So in honor of World Soil Day - December 5th, 2015, the next few blog posts will chronicle the story of the soil here on the farm and its recent journey from leached out water logged to restored. 

In this 2015 International Year of Soil, the soil here at Eden’s has taken a bit of a beating. 

With over 50 inches of rain, nearly 30 of it in just a couple of months late winter and early spring, the constant, heavy, flooding downpours not only kept us from planting what we wanted, but leaching of the nutrients in the soil had apparently become an issue beyond what I estimated and yields were low - very low. 

Leaching is something I have dealt with somewhat before. I had simply added more organic fertilizers to the compost mix those years, beefed up the frequency of foliar feeding and things seemed to perform adequately. 

I know, my CSA and market customers know, my chef friends know – we’d all seen it with our eyes and tasted it with our mouths; this farm produces wonderful and bountiful yields! 

I was doing things pretty much the same. Organic matter was being added back in each year, slowly, as the mulch and leaves broke down and manure aged, at the very least in the troughs where the plants were growing. And, I still used pretty  much the same fertilizer schedule as in past years. What had changed?

Rain. And lots of it.

I thought I was going to be able to start moving organic matter onto the rows on a much thicker, faster and more efficient basis with the new loader over the winter. However, my tractor – can’t cross water – no, inflatable wings didn't come with the loader. I need a Bat-motractor from Gotham City.

Nor can it keep from getting stuck in what amounts to quicksand when things are really wet out there. The utility company gave me a complimentary 2' rut at my gate during one of their service calls last winter, making it nearly impossible to get out to the field with the tractor - to farm or to improve the rut - until the soil was much drier. And we just were not getting enough dry days in-between the deluges.

This meant a bit of a delay in moving compost out as fast as I wanted. Heck I couldn’t even prepare soil to plant potatoes, much less drive around with bucket loads full of mulch. Trust me – I tried. Ahem. Don’t ask.

Many of the summer crops had been planted, in-between monsoons, in rows I managed to get prepared by hand, but seemed to be failing miserably or yielding very low and not always good looking veggies.

Of the few rows prepped with the tractor, before the spring rains, things were noticeably better. I got a great melon crop out of just a few rows this year.

But the vast majority of crops performed poorly, with low yields. I knew something was wrong. 

The rest of the rows were composted with the tractor's loader, and fertilized during the "flash-drought" as it was dubbed by some. By late October, the soil was re-saturated and transplanting and direct seeding for late fall and early winter crops began. Finally!

But then in a few weeks I noticed that seeds that had been direct sown would germinate, and stop at their cotyledons leaves.

Plugs that I’d bumped up into larger pots for another farmer, were double the size of any transplants from the same batches out in the garden – the ones that had actually survived.

I took a PH meter to the soil to see if something had changed. It was registering much lower than the prior year. When I say low, I am talking LOW – like almost 5.0 and as low as 4.5 in unamended areas.

Last year after the rainy spring season we'd had, it was right at about 5.0 and a just a little higher in most test areas, and then I had been halfheartedly considering planting a field of pick your own blueberries and calling it a day. Now, with the PH even lower – I was nearly kicking myself for not having done it for real!

But I felt this was certainly indicative of something being wrong. Out of balance. With that drop of  PH, certainly other things were lacking, too.

I’d added extra nitrogen to compensate for any of the compost that might still be “active’. I’d added various basic soil amendments like I’d done the first several years – and each year for the first 4 or 5 years, the yields increased as the soil got healthier.

Then in year 6, and in year 7, 2014, I first noticed some things, like tomatoes, losing ground. I took a PH reading to find it had dropped to the 5.0 reading, down half a % from the time I had taken it a few years prior – when things were doing pretty darn well.

I started reading how excessive rain can cause a drop in the PH levels, causing the soil, specifically sandy soils, to become acidic and wreak havoc on the nutrients.

There are some “quick fixes” you can find at just about any East TX feed store; “fixes” that can end up making a total nutritional mess of the soil.

And then there were the long term fixes. I had opted for the latter. That is where the need for last year’s fund raiser for the loader came from. 

I knew if I added compost and got the biology back in the soil with the use of home brewed aerated compost teas and Texas Worm Ranch's Worm WineTM, it would build up the soil, and the micro-organisms, bacteria and fungi. In good time Nature would repair itself, as I continued this cycle towards the goal of a closed loop system.

I guess I was 2 years late to the fix. The compost hadn't been added until after the soils had been stripped of just about everything useful, leaving me with a lot of sand and a little red clay. I needed results - now.

Had the gardens been fully amended with the decomposed mulch before the first monsoon spring in 2014, much less enduring another record season of winter/spring rains in 2015, perhaps things wouldn’t have become quite as depleted as they are now.

Or was there something else going on?

I called our ag extension office here in Dallas County to see if they could offer some kind of guidance. Maybe there had been something really strange grown, or dumped, here over 100 years ago or something that had some mysterious affect on the soil. I didn’t know? I just knew that everything I’d been doing, following the advice of my mentors, was not working any more.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t really offered any help and in fact was told that “we don’t have anyone here that can help you on that scale.” No offer was made to take my name and number and have an extension agent who could help me, call me back at another time.

Frustrated, and standing out in my dying field, I just hung up and nearly cried. 

How could I have worked so hard all this time to have nothing but native "weeds" like henbit, purslane, lamb's quarter, pigweed and Bermuda, pencil and prickly pear cactus and mesquite trees – oh, and the asparagus – surviving? 

A colleague of mine who practices bio-dynamic farming, as well as organic and sustainable methods, was taking a break from growing, so he could, you know, actually make a living. But he agreed to take my case as a consultant and help me remotely from Houston.

He had experienced a very similar situation on another farm just a few years ago. In fact, the soil lab had sent a hand written note back with their soil test declaring it the worst soil they’d ever tested. It too, was very sandy and depleted. Little to almost no organic matter, too. I hoped that at least I had that advantage, with all of the compost I'd spent the last half of the summer spreading out there.  At least the top soil had some OM in it. I was beginning to feel a sense of hope again.

He knew it would need a big boost in the arm of various raw materials and amendments to help the current crops and act as a temporary bridge until Nature and the Worm Wine could do the rest. And this calculating of all of these test results and minerals, etc., is unchartered territory for me. I knew I'd need some help.

I've always gardened based on how the plants react and what the soil needed based on experience. Not soil tests. I’d been taught to “read weeds” by one of my first farm mentors, and a cool book by Charles Waters, in order to know what amendments to add – and so far, mostly it was N and OM that I needed - and it had worked for many years. But it seemed two seasons of excessive flooding rainwater had begun to undo everything I'd done thus far. 


So, I’ve taken soil samples from the aprox. 3 acres currently under production and
 mixed them together and
sent them off to Texas Plant and Soil Labs for testing. I hope I don’t get any sarcastic hand written notes back with my results. LOL

To be continued…..

PS - Heather has a few classes coming up soon at her Worm Ranch in Dallas. Check it out.


Eat Your Food - Naturally!