Through a Continuing Farmer Education Award granted from Organic Growers School, Holly Whitesides, CRAFT Member farmer with Against the Grain Farm in Zionville, NC, had the opportunity to attend Singing Frogs Farm in Sebastopol, CA in October 2017, and learn about their no-till farming model. Read more about her experience below.
I received a scholarship for travel expenses and workshop fees from OGS to attend a one-day intensive at Singing Frogs Farm in Sebastopol, CA in early October 2017. I stayed at the farm for 4 days and 3 nights, which gave me the opportunity to gain exposure to a more holistic perspective of the farm then was just offered at the workshop.
Signing Frogs Farm has approximately 3 acres of cropland in intensive vegetable production on an 8-acre farmstead. They are located in the middle of wine country in Northern California, and about 1-hour drive from the Pacific Ocean. In addition to vegetable plots, the farm has a series of irrigation and flood mitigation ponds, hedgerows, a greenhouse, plant nursery and several unheated high tunnels.
One of the main take-home points I learned from the intensive was that the ecology of a farm is just as important as the biology. In other words, planting hedgerows of native and non-native perennials (woody and otherwise) to encourage beneficial insects, birds and mammals are just as important as building your soil with compost, amendments, and reduced/no-tillage. The hedgerows also offer frost and wind protection.
The term “no-till” or “reduced tillage” is being tossed around a lot in the small farming community these days, and encompasses a wide range of techniques and approaches. Singing Frogs version of “no-till” farming is pretty close to a true “no-till” system. They do not own any motorized equipment that they take out into their vegetable plots and only own a tractor to move compost around the farm. They use a hoe or flat rake, when necessary, to re-shape beds and only use a broadfork in their lower plots that typically get flooded annually in order to aerate the soil and reduce compaction. Otherwise, they do not open their soil layers in any way. They simply add amendments to the soil surface of their beds and then layer compost on top. This is not necessarily done between each successive crop, and is instead typically done before heavy feeder crops (tomatoes, broccoli, peppers, cauliflower, etc). As a result of this approach, they have soil with incredible water-holding capacity, high organic matter, and very limited weed pressure.
Their technique for flipping a bed involves pulling out any weeds and cutting off crop residue at an angle just below the soil surface. If a bed needs re-shaping, they use flat rakes and flat shovels to pull soil from the paths back up onto a bed. Then they sprinkle amendments and apply about 1 inch of compost. Next, they set their drip lines back up on the bed tops to act as guides for transplanting. Because the soil has nice tilth, they are able to transplant by hand, without trowels (for the most part). Finally, they water transplants into the bed by hand and from overhead with a hose. They cover some transplanted crops with tulle fabric to protect them from bird pressure and the occasional deer that gets inside their deer fencing.
When they direct seed a crop, the bed prep is much the same but after seeding and watering, they apply burlap to the surface of the soil in order to keep the soil covered. They will water overhead for multiple days, or until the crop emerges and then switch to drip irrigation.
During the workshop, Singing Frogs outlined 4 tenants of their no-till methods:
- Disturb the soil as little as possible
- Grow as many species of plants as practical
- Kep living plants in the soil as often as possible
- Keep the soil covered at all times
The USDA also includes another tenant: 5-incorporate livestock
Singing Frogs does not incorporate livestock into their production system, but the other 4 tenants are well addressed in their methods. They definitely disturb the soil as little as possible and grow a wide diversity of vegetable crops and hedgerow plants. Once a crop is harvested, they flip the bed as soon as possible, in order to have living plants growing as much as possible. The transplants act to cover the soil, but they also use burlap, to cover direct seeded crops and they utilize straw and landscape fabric in their paths to keep soil covered.
Much of what I learned will be very valuable and adaptable to our farm. One major difference involves differences in climate and the resulting weed pressure. Singing Frogs essentially gets no rainfall during the April-October growing season in Northern CA, thereby greatly reducing weed pressure in their pathways and beds. I anticipate that we will be using some landscape fabric in our paths that moves around the farm every 4-6 weeks in order to reduce weed pressure. I am really looking forward to staying in touch with Goldfinch Gardens in order to learn from each other and our experiments with no-till or reduced tillage farming methods.
Because I was able to stay at the farm for several days and nights, I was able to help out around the farm during a work day and visit several markets where Singing Frogs is a vendor. I had the opportunity to see their weekly production or “to-do” list, pick list and irrigation chart. I was also able to stop by 3 different farmer’s markets, observing not only Singing Frog’s booth but also other vendors and overall market composition.
The experience was extremely valuable to the growth and development of Against the Grain and I am very grateful to OGS for the opportunity!
Written and shared by Holly Whitesides, Against the Grain Farm
Author: Cameron Farlow
Cameron Farlow is the Executive Director of Organic Growers School. Hailing from Greensboro, NC with dairy farming in her blood, she has now made her home in Western NC. After earning her undergraduate degrees from UNC-Chapel Hill, 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. She also brings experience 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. In addition to her work with OGS, Cameron is a dancer, baker and avid adventurer.