Every farm has different challenges, based on so many factors. Geographic location, microclimate, how many trees are on the property, the direction and angle of the slope of the fields, etc. Some things can be both a challenge and a blessing, depending on the context. One challenge/blessing we have is our soil holds water. In drought years, this is great, because the soil holds onto moisture longer than fields just down the road from us. But in wet seasons like we've been having, it's a challenge. Without doing anything to mitigate the situation, root crops like potatoes and carrots can rot in the field, it takes longer to dry out to be able to plant new crops, and harvesting can get pretty sloppy.
We've been experimenting with many different ways to help with this situation. One of the first things we've been doing since beginning to farm has been raised beds. We mound up soil into beds for the rows, and have sunken pathways to walk between the rows. This helps the water drain out of the area where the crops are growing. However, in times when it's wet for weeks like we've had this and last week, that isn't enough.
The soil type we have is silty loam, but we also have a fragipan of hardened mud about 2 feet under the top soil that keeps the water from fully draining away. Roots can't penetrate it, and there's even a story of Adam's great grandmother getting in a hole they were digging, trying to get at it with a screw driver, and even that didn't work. This is unique to our little area in Rhodelia along the Ohio River. Farmers just 10 miles away in Brandenburg have well-draining soil.
In Adam and Rae's short farming history on this land, some ways we've been working with this are using raised beds, planting cover crops that get plowed back into the soil to increase organic matter and build the soil, and positioning the slopes of the beds so the water drains out toward the edge of the field instead of getting trapped in the middle. About three years ago, we also started using plasticulture on the raised beds, which is basically using a layer of plastic as a mulch to help limit weeds and better control water conditions of the soil. It helps the soil from getting too wet, and also keeps moisture in the beds in the middle of August when it's typically dry.
In October 2017, Adam read some new research out of the University of Kentucky Extension service that was showing that a particular type of Rye grass was having success in breaking through fragipan, so we've been experimenting with this too. Now, this is a little embarrassing, but we've never once since we've been farming had a good potato crop. ("A farmer who can't grow potatoes? What kind of farmer are you, anways?" That's how it feels). This year, we used plastic mulch on a raised potato bed, and planted rye grass in the walk paths. The rye grass is digging deep into the soil helping create pathways for drainage, while also sucking up excess water. The potatoes are able to access the water they need, and the soil under the plastic is moist but not wet. It looks like we're going to have an excellent potato crop this year. We started harvesting this week. The plants are loaded, and the potatoes are looking great.
There's no silver bullet solution in organic farming. It's a lot of experimentation and trial and error to figure out exactly what works, and how to use natural elements to help challenges become blessings.