Through a Continuing Farmer Education Award granted from Organic Growers School, Ben McCann & Cedar Johnson of Goldfinch Gardens had the opportunity to attend a no-till workshop at Singing Frogs Farm in Sebastopol, CA in the summer of 2017.
Goldfinch Gardens is a four acre production vegetable farm in Celo, NC. In operation since 2007, they grow specialty vegetables for the high-end restaurants of Asheville and the surrounding area. They also operate an online CSA and grow and market from March thru December. They have a small commercial flock of Katahdin hair sheep that they raise for meat on a rotational grazing system. They strive for personal health, soil health, animal health in all that they do.
Ben & Cedar’s visit to Singing Frogs Farm
By Ben McCann
We became interested in reducing tillage on our farm in 2017. While researching other low-till farms online, we became acquainted with Singing Frogs Farm in Sebastopol, CA. Their model was attractive to us since they have adapted traditional small garden techniques to a 4-acre market farm. We had started thinking about implementing some of their practices after reviewing their youtube online videos, but were left with many questions about specific techniques.
We had a couple of days to explore the natural environment before attending the workshop. We were able to really get a sense of how different the climate is compared to our home. While they have similar high and low temps and similar amounts of annual rainfall, they experience a complete drought for half the year and then wet conditions for the other half. That requires different surface water management techniques than would be necessary for us. For example, in our wetter climate, we deal with many more annual weeds than they do.
Cedar and I focused on different areas of the farm as we went through the day. I was able to see how specific tools and techniques that helped them achieve their goal of no-tillage soil building. One specific was that they allowed for significantly more organic residue to remain in their soil between crops. They leave all root matter in the soil and then transplant into it. This allows the soil life communities that developed around the crop roots to continue their biological processes un-interrupted during the season. Over many seasons, this resulted in a very high soil organic matter content, providing much of what the new plants needed. They used mostly transplants in their system, so the lack of a smooth seed bed was no obstacle. While we are increasing the use of transplants in an attempt to adopt this technique, we also invested in a direct seeder than can operate in high crop residue soil conditions.
I (Ben) was also impressed with how much production they could achieve with so little summer water. We have numerous foliar diseases that we contend with, and I suspect that we contribute to disease conditions with excessive overhead irrigation. I am inspired to look for ways to reduce the amount of water we use and try out the orchard tubing (heavy duty drip tape) that was utilized on Singing Frogs Farm.
Cedar was particularly struck by the biodiversity that was incorporated into their farm. Singing Frogs Farm uses lots of beneficial insectary plantings including many woody perennials. They were much taller and wilder than we had previously seen. It is hard to get a proper impression of the degree of their plantings on video.
Cedar was also impressed by the efficiency of their working style. At times, we aim for perfectly straight rows and 100% germination. We were reminded that the plants don’t need straight rows and unless we are mechanically cultivating, neither do we. She was also reminded that a farms techniques are often a product of the personality of the farmers.
We came home and immediately began to implement certain techniques. We ordered the knives that they use to clear beds, the watering hose that they use to gently water in transplants and plan on purchasing the type of drip tape they use. In looking for ways to keep our raised beds permanent, we made a narrow chisel plow that only operates in the bed in hopes of reducing the need to use our current intense tillage tools.
Not everything we saw we would adopt, but the consideration of soil life that went into technique development will be of value going forward.
Author: Sera Deva
Sera Deva has a B.S. in Microbiology & Agroecology from The Evergreen State College. She works with OGS as the Farmer Programs Coordinator and Conference Curriculum Coordinator, serves on the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group (SSAWG) Board of Directors, and is the Administrative Director for The Firefly Gathering. When she’s not geeking out over genetics, systems theory or soil hydrology, she spends her time growing and eating food in the South Toe Valley in Burnsville, NC.