At this time a year ago I dug a hand into the field that became our vegetable plot. I knew the field had been in conventional grain and dairy production for decades, but the last 8+ years was in rotational pasture. A new place to farm presents many potential issues. From depleted soil and persistent weeds to low microbial activity. As we approach seasons end a review of production and some observations is appropriate.
Curiosity had me check the USGS info available at the library and online. It described a level field with sandy-loam topsoil. It also had a deep sandy subsoil that provides excellent drainage. In this area many fields are left bare for the majority of the year. With such light soils, erosion has left little topsoil. Many farm the remaining sandy subsoil. Conventional tillage with little returned to the soil in the form of cover cropping or composts leaves organic matter often below 2%. My first handful of soil revealed a medium brown color, indicating moderate organic matter, a pleasant smell and nice friable texture. A nice first impression.
A common tool for soil evaluation is a soil sample test. This scientific method test looks at macro/micro-nutrients levels. A broad range of tests can be paid for from $15.-300.00+ per sample. An alternative for intensive vegetable farmers is close evaluation and observation. By looking at what is growing on the land a fair review can be made that is as accurate as many a soil sample test. Our field showed a broad range of pasture plants that were evenly distributed throughout the field. No areas were infested with invasive pest species. The mix of forages included legumes, grasses and other perennials that were vigorous and healthy. This indicated good fertility, high microbial activity and a fairly uniform soil type throughout the field.
The use of soil building, organic farming methods is a key to maintaining and improving fertility. We compost all farm waste and return it to the land. We utilize cover crops, mulch and continuously add carbon rich material to the soil to feed the soil food web. The foundation of farming practices is supplemented with compost teas and mineral fertilization. Attention and effort is also made for even minor improvements. The sum of 1% improvements may seem insignificant, but the cumulative impact of a series of 1% measures becomes significant over time.
Early in the year the land was plowed with oxen and horses. This turned under the thick pasture. Newly plowed land often exhibits excellent fertility as a mass extinction of soil microbes releases masses of nutrients. Farming practices have to work with this understanding and plan for a drop in fertility if supportive measures aren't in place. As the year has progressed, the initial positive first impression have been supported by excellent production.
Next week a review of field production and some observations...