Thursday, April 29, 2010

The first day of applying compost tea

We had our first delivery of organic compost tea today. Shepard Smith from Soilsmith Services brought 1000 gallons of tea and 100 gallons of organic fish fertilizer, as well as 10-15 gallons of liquid kelp. The tea is a kind of all-in-one amendment that restores nutrients to the soil. The fish fertilizer will help the crop enormously as well. The kelp aids in disease resistance. A few applications of the tea a year, at around 10-15 gallons an acre, should help restore good biology to the soil. Hopefully after a few years of tea and good crop rotation, we will have immense yields of healthy organic crops. The cost savings as compared to conventional chemicals is pretty amazing too. We are paying close to 30-35 dollars an acre for the tea, fish, and kelp. That is about half the cost of conventional fertilizer, although we will have to do several applications of tea a year.

Here is a link to Soilsmith's website. They are only about 10 minutes from us.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

We've secured some federal funding through the NRCS

We applied for federal funding through the NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service). They pay farmers a financial incentive to adopt certain agricultural practices such as farming organically, conserving water through more efficient irrigation, managing pests without conventional chemicals, etc. The areas we applied for include: Organic cover crops, organic nutrient management, organic pest management, and crop residue incorporation. Organic cover crops are things like clover that you plant in the fall and allow to grow during the winter. They fix the nitrogen in the soil, meaning we use less fertilizer. We plan to grow crimson clover. Organic nutrient management is a plan that involves use of organic fertilizers. We are using organic compost tea instead of conventional fertilizer on a few hundred acres. Organic pest management is similar to the nutrient management that just means we will use organic pesticide where needed instead of conventional. And finally crops residue incorporation means we will plow less and incorporate the wheat and grass stubble into the soil instead of taking off straw. It helps the soil recover faster. The NRCS is paying us a significant amount of money to adopt these practices on about 10 percent of our acreage. We qualified for close to the maximum amount, which is why the payout is only for a small amount of acres. It's great that the government is doing things like this to help growers like us transition to organic. The funding program is called the Environmental Quality Incentives Program.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Reworking, Cultivating, Replanting...

We had a bit of a setback. All of the hard red wheat we no-till planted is not doing well at all. Michael reckons that the seed was planted too deep, its been too cold, and the rows were full of water. What this means is that we have to replant about 40-50 acres of hard red wheat. In addition to the extra wheat seed required that is a LOT of time. I have been working up the main field in question for the last 3 days. I started by discing up the field. Discing is basically chopping the ground up with bowl-shaped discs turned on their side. We did that twice, let it dry, then cultivated it twice. Cultivation means dragging an implement with C-shaped tines on it that cut the soil deeper than the disc. At about 4-5 miles per hour it takes around 3 hours to go over the field once. After that we let it dry again then go over the field with the roterra. The roterra is a nifty machine that chops the dirt up with vertical rotating forks and a cylinder with slanted horizontal bars that flatten the soil out. Wheat doesn't need extremely fine and flat soil like grass seed does so we don't work the ground as much for it, but its still a lot of time. After looking at the one field that we did work up and plant weeks back during the warm spell it was clear that the hard red would do better in cultivated soil. The one field we worked up before planting is doing very well.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Planting transitional hard red wheat

2 weeks ago we planted about 70 acres of hard red wheat. Hard red wheat has a higher protein content than soft white wheat, making it better for bread-baking. Soft white is good for pastries, tortillas, and all-purpose flour. Organic and transitional hard red wheat is also worth quite a bit more than soft white wheat. We purchased about 15,000 pounds of organic hard red wheat from a nearby farm that grows hundreds of acres of it each year. Before they acquired some hard red from North Dakota, hard red had not been grown in the valley in significant amounts in decades. The farm is called Stalford Seed Farms. They grew out the smallish amount they acquired and began to acclimatize the variety to Oregon's climate, which is important to maximize yield. Now even though we planted organic seed the crop we harvest will not be certified organic. The reason for this is the fields we are planting the wheat in are classified as "transitional." I should explain the difference between organic and transitional before I go any farther. To be certified organic a field must have had no conventional chemicals of any kind applied to it for a period of 3 years. 3 years from the date of the last chemical application that field is then eligible for organic certification. We only have 30 acres of certified organic ground this year. Most of the rest of the ground will be in first-year transition. Transitional crops are essentially farmed organically but they cannot be sold as "certified organic." This means you can't charge the kind of prices than organic crops fetch, but if you market the transitional crop right you can get a better price than you would for conventional crops.
We plant hard red wheat at a rate of about 105 pounds per acre. Since we planted 70 acres that means we already went through about 7350 pounds of seed. That's roughly a truckload. Once the weather clears up and the fields dry out a bit we plan to plant another 50-55 acres of hard red. We are hoping to harvest at least 1 ton of wheat per acre. That is a very conservative estimate when you realize that conventionally farmed white wheat can sometimes yield up to 4 tons per acre. Too bad the price of conventional soft white wheat is so low. At the current market price of $4.50 a bushel (bushel=60 pounds) soft white wheat can bring in about 450 dollars per acre. That's assuming a yield of 3 tons per acre. At the current market price hard red wheat grown transitionally can bring in about 1200-1700 dollars per acre. That's a no-brainer, right? Well, its not that simple. We are very limited on what we can put on the hard red to help it grow. Obviously all chemical fertilizers are out. So we are planning to use something called compost tea. Compost tea is exactly what it sounds like. A liquid brewed from solid compost. It is very good for the soil and the crops, and it is relatively inexpensive. We also plan to hit the hard red with either organic fish fertilizer or organic chicken manure. We'll see how that goes. Most of our hard red will be purchased by local bakeries. When I say local I mean anywhere in the valley from Portland to Eugene. Stay tuned...