Crop Rotation Planning
CRAFT WNC Farmer Round Table
February 10th, 2016
Facilitated by Jamie Davis from A Way of Life Farm
Farmer Round Tables are open-discussion group conversations geared toward our farmer members about a specific topic, facilitated by one of our own CRAFT members. It’s a place to share ideas and experiences with advanced farming topics on a deeper level than we can get into at the CRAFT farm tours.
For our second CRAFT Farmer Round Table we jumped into the sticky planning process for crop rotation. Jamie Davis did an excellent job leading us through the discussion considering our motivations for crop rotation, the pros and cons, it’s efficiency, and our actual processes. Below is an outline of the discussion flow.
What is crop rotation?
- A sustainable agriculture tradition of not growing the same crop in the same place 2 yrs in a row
- There are different organizing criteria for how to plan depending on who you talk to:
- Based on plant family
- Same type (leaf, fruit, root)
- Heavy/light feeders, etc.
- But, how necessary is it?
Why do we do it?
- Soil nutrients
- Pest suppression
- Disease suppression
- Tradition – it’s what we’ve been told we ought to do for sustainable agriculture. Organic certifiers like to see it, too.
- Heavy vs non-heavy feeders – help prepare for next crops
- Keep weeds off balance – weeds like to grow tall, some spread out. It’s thought that if you change the type of crops they aren’t able to make much progress.
- But, whatever your weed control system is, you may be selecting for certain weeds that are tolerant of that system.
- Different types of cultivation
- Mixing up cultivation for different crops may help
- Working cover crops into crop rotation a battle for some – could plan cover crops first, then work production crops into that cycle – b/c it tends not to happen otherwise
- Is rotation worth doing with what we do on such a small scale? Growing 30 crops on 1-5 acres isn’t the same as 100 acres of corn. With all that diversity in such a small space – and double/triple cropping does it need to be so coordinated?
- For example, with tomatoes there is some research that it gets better and better the more you plant them in the same place – tomatoes like tomato soil
- But, then you risk not cover cropping, or running out of space and not getting all your crops in, It may be more important for you to make sure you plan space for everything.
- In The Lean Farm by Ben Hartman. His farm, Clay Bottom Farm, is heavily compost based. They put 8 inches of compost over the whole farm.
- So one option is to compost heavily instead of cover cropping. The compost adds diversity, nutrients, and organic matter.
- However, crop rotation can be a more cost effective alternative to heavy composting
- Cover crops also help protect soil in the winter, and when it’s resting/in between crops
How do we plan? What guides your planning process?
- Often in WNC areas of the farm aren’t uniform in size in shape, soil type, etc. It makes it difficult rotate everything uniformly.
- When you try to take your plan away from the spreadsheet and onto the farm – the irregularity of farming kicks in.
- Jamie, explained his & Sara Jane’s current planning process that they redeveloped a year ago. They are entering their second season with this plan.
- One problem was how to compare different size plots? So they ended up dividing the farm into 13 growing areas, and three different rotations.
- For example they split one hillside into 4 relatively even sections, and that field has it’s one crop rotation plan – potatos only grown there, and the crops are rotated up and down the hillside.
- From there they shifted their thinking for organizing crops from considering crop family to using timing as the organizing factor (i.e. length time to harvest), and then looks at families of crops w/ each field.
- When crops are timed together you have the added advantages for weeding and cultivation.
- When you alternate beds based on crop family you can end up with plants that come out at different times and beds that can’t be cultivated and re-planted in a timely way. Some beds are done and some are still in production.
- For example: You can’t cultivate a bed, if the bed next to it is has cucumber trellis trailing across the aisles.
- If a whole plot/section finishes at the same time you can can clean up the whole field, or section at one time. Cultivate, weed, replant, or cover crop at one time.
- Jamie also explained a technique used by Pam Dawling on her farm Twin Oaks, and explained in her book Sustainable Market Farming
- They use a dot system on their farm maps, colored dots represent each crop family.
- For split beds where you plant multiple crops it can be helpful because you don’t need to know the specific variety, just family. And you can have blank maps where you plot out series of dots in the rotation.
- Ben and Cedar from Goldfinch Gardens shared their planning process. It is an excel spreadsheet that they print out, and keep in notebook in the field.
- One major change they made recently was to switch to week #’s (1-52) instead of dates. Then they the general time they did it the year before and can shoot for that, and can also mark down the actual week the item was done for future planning. They reinforce the week #’s by writing the #’s on their wall calendar, and on their CSA weeks.
- Cedar has maps for each section, then does a master list that tells her everything that needs to be planted in the field and in greenhouse. And all tells what needs to happen each week with field prep work.
- For them the main management tool is space oriented.
- Tom Elmore & Karen Thatcher from Thatchmore Farm, use their sowing schedule as their organizing factor. Field prep is driven by what looks close to overgrown in greenhouse, so then they prep beds as needed. They know if they sow it on time they’ll have crop, and early on they at least make sure there is enough space to plant everything they sowed. But, after that don’t worry too much about it.
- Three years seems to be the minimum crop rotation plan – but can be as many as 10+ years – what is necessary?
- Dawling uses a 10 yr rotation w/ bulk crops and then they have a smaller plot where they can treat it more like a garden, moving things out and in as needed.
- Crop rotation is a multi-year plan, and it can lock you in once you’ve started. What happens when you want to make a change, or something didn’t work? After putting so much energy into it, you feel you can’t make changes.
- That is why random crop rotation is appealing. It doesn’t require so much planning up front – just put things in when you’re ready and space is available.
- Randomness – leaves room for on the fly changes, and what might work better.
New technologies to help plan?
- Jamie has been using AgSquared this past year with mixed results.
- Main benefit he’s has is to be able to see whole farm in one place.
- It does have as seed calculator. You can plug in plantings & beds and it tells you how many seeds you need, when to plant, expected harvest dates.etc.
- Jamie doesn’t like doing that because they have had seed failure in past, and instead plans for 70-80% seed to plant conversion.
- The biggest challenge for him is that it’s all online, and the internet is spotty and slow where they are. There is no off-line ability.
- It also seems hard to get all your data spreadsheets, etc. in order, then input them online to then print out in spreadsheets again…seems redundant.
- Farm Hack has an open source version – called FarmOS. But, no one at the round table had experience with it.
- What are the productivity gains from incorporating all this new tech?
- Getting info all in one place – projected harvest dates, yields, sowing dates, etc.
- You can look at different pieces through the data.
- Veggies Compass another option, that Francis from Franny’s Farm has used.
- It’s important to remember however, that there is no one system that will work for all farms. Computer programs lead you to believe that there can be just one.
Thank you all for sharing your inquisitive thoughts and honest experiences, thanks to Jamie for helping facilitate such an interesting & needed discussion. Until next time!
Now is the time to join CRAFT for 2016! WNC CRAFT is a year-round farmer training collaborative that offers farmers, farm workers and aspiring farmers networking and learning opportunities. For more information or to join, click here. Or contact Cameron Farlow, Organic Growers School Farmer Programs Coordinator at 828.338.9465 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Cameron Farlow is the Farmer Programs Director.She grew up in Greensboro, NC with dairy farming in her blood, and has made her home in Western North Carolina. After earning her undergraduate degrees from UNC – Chapel Hill in Anthropology and Geography in 2006, Cameron dove headfirst into the realm of sustainable agriculture and local food systems, and later completed her Master’s Degree in Appalachian Studies and Sustainable Development from Appalachian State University in May 2011. Gaining as much experience as she could she worked with several other regional nonprofits in the realms of farmland preservation, food security, farm to university, and land access for farmers. She came on board with OGS in April 2012. When she isn’t visiting farms all around this end of the state as Farmer Programs coordinator you can usually find her digging in her garden or adventuring alongside her husband Walker, the farm manager at Hickory Nut Gap Farm.