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The Johnny Appleseed Organic Village is a 15-acre (and growing!) experimental research center near Jacksonville, Florida. We practice Climate Farming, an innovative growing approach that combines tenets of permaculture, syntropic agroforestry, and biodynamic farming with the goal of sinking carbon back into the soil while growing healthy, vibrant crops.
We didn’t invent these techniques (check out “Indigenous Roots of Climate Farming,” but we’ve combined them into a unique system that we believe has the power to sustainably feed the world while replenishing – rather than depleting – our natural resources.
Putting these practices into place on a small-farm scale has come with its fair share of challenges and successes. We’ve learned a number of lessons over the years, including which pieces of machinery work best for our needs, that we hope can help any farmers who find themselves in a similar situation.
First of all, take everything you know about traditional row crops and toss it into the compost. There are a few major differences you’ll need to know about permaculture farms before you get started.
Garden beds aren’t straight. Instead, they’re slightly raised and designed to follow the natural contour of the land, which helps improve water management and prevent erosion.
Monocrops don’t exist in permaculture. Instead, each planting area is thoughtfully designed to include a variety of crops, cover crops, and companion plants. This diversity helps bolster disease control, pollination, and soil fertility.
Permaculture farms make use of irrigation canals, dams, gravity-fed water tanks, drip tape, and, when possible, ponds, all of which help direct, capture, and sink water runoff. Keeping water on the property is a huge goal of permaculture, not only because it saves a precious resource, but also because it helps prevent erosion and contamination of nearby waterways.
Bare soil is a major no-no of permaculture. You’ll always need to be thinking ahead to what comes next, whether that’s cold-season vegetables, cover crops, or heavy mulch. At our farm, we have a detailed crop-rotation system, and we also grow millet, rye, hairy vetch, and other crops specifically to “chop and drop” onto beds, serving as a locally grown, mineral-rich mulch.
Because of these differences, the first thing you’ll need to do is take a good, hard look at your land – and prepare to move some soil around – so you can get your permaculture foundation in place. Eventually, your permaculture farm will be a low-to-no-till space. However, at first, you’ll most likely need to bring in a tractor and possibly an excavator to create irrigation systems and build raised, contoured beds.
If possible, get a topical map of your property that shows the contours of your land, including hills, ridges, valleys, and places where water may collect. This map will be helpful to draw on and mark up with your garden plan. There’s also the iPhone app Theodolite that we’ve found extremely helpful for practicing surveying.
After you’ve built any necessary water-catchment systems then you can begin to prepare your soil accordingly.
Land and Soil Preparation
The first thing you’ll need to do is kill the grass, weeds, or other vegetation currently growing on your farm site. If you can wait a few weeks before your next planting, then you can use the solarization method. This involves laying a black-and-white polyethylene tarp (black side facing up) over mowed, damp land, typically after harvesting a field of crops or culling a cover crop. This method captures the sun’s heat, which will then bake the vegetation, bacteria, insects, and weed seeds in the soil until they die. Then, you can plant a crop, such as a daikon radish crop, if your Zone allows. The radishes’ large taproots will naturally break apart the compact soil to increase soil aeration and water infiltration. This is a wonderful way to prepare soil for planting without tilling or spraying.
In addition to solarization, other methods and tools have been created to speed up your soil preparation process.
Tilling. To get started immediately, you can use a traditional four- or two-wheel tractor to mow and then till the soil, breaking apart plant roots and uprooting current vegetation. A rear-tine tiller attachment will be helpful here, and BCS America offers this attachment for its two-wheel, walk-behind tractors, which are a great size (and more affordable option) for market gardeners. Tilling can also follow solarization to help remove grass that may grow back.
Shaping. After your soil is broken up, you’ll need to shape your contoured rows and berms. BCS offers a swivel rotary plow for its walk-behind tractors that makes it easier to control where the soil goes while you till, shooting it to either the left or right. It also offers a bed-shaper attachment that you can use after tilling as a separate step.
Farming innovator Ernst Götsch has also designed an all-in-one tiller, subsoiler, and bed shaper that’s designed to attach behind a four-wheel tractor. This new invention is called a “Tree Line Preparer” and is part of a series of Climate Farming machines he’s named “Peace Farming Technology.” (Learn more at www.Rhenustek.ch.)
Irrigation. Permaculture practices involve creating small irrigation channels and ditches to keep water and nutrients on the property. One helpful tool for doing this on a market scale is the subsoiler attachment for the walk-behind BCS tractor. This will help dig small irrigation ditches in the rows between beds to sink and store water near the plants.
Land and Soil Maintenance
Weeding. In addition to hand-held tools, the BCS power ridger is perfect for cultivating between rows during the growing season, reestablishing paths, and hilling soil for crops, such as potatoes. You can also weed with a flame weeder as well as by adding biomass to the soil from cover crops and support species.
Breaking up soil. A power harrow or disc harrow is a more environmentally friendly option than tilling, because it breaks up loose soil without penetrating so deeply that it disrupts taproots and microbial networks. Harrows are less invasive than tillers, and we use them when preparing land for seeding.
Preparing biomass. As I mentioned earlier, mulching is an important part of permaculture. You’ll need to be able to mow down and, ideally, chop up crops that you grow as biomass. The flail mower from BCS is a great option for this step, and a manual or powered hay rake will help you collect the biomass to transport to your beds.
If you have a lot of trees on your property, then you may also want to invest in a chipper or shredder, which will break apart sticks, twigs, and small limbs into wood chips that can be used on paths or added to mulch piles.
You don’t need to purchase all of this equipment at the same time, and you could consider splitting the cost with other farmers in your area and then taking turns using the equipment when needed.
As you work to establish your permaculture farm, remember that you don’t have to do everything yourself! Here are some helpers to invite and employ on your property.
Animals on the Farm
A key component of permaculture and Climate Farming is using animals to help break up the soil and provide nutrient-rich manure for your compost pile. Both pigs and chickens naturally root and scratch the ground, turning and loosening the soil in the process. Our portable chicken tractors and movable electric fences on our farm help move our chickens and pigs around based on which areas need to be “tilled.”
Our permaculture consultant, Mikael Maynard, has a great story about how our chickens were able to prevent pest damage on the farm:
“I’ve seen papaya and guava groves that were infested with papaya fruit fly larvae,” she says. “Part of the way to break that cycle is to prevent the fruit from dropping to the ground. We integrated chickens into the orchard to eat the fruit that fell to the ground, and, with time, we saw a noticeable decrease in the larvae’s presence, along with healthier fruit.” This required very little work on our end, and it was a fully organic, totally natural way to deal with a potentially devastating pest.
We learned that you may need to budget for extra labor during harvest season, because, unlike a traditional monocrop farm, you can’t use large-scale harvesting machinery on the uneven rows and berms. You’ll need to harvest more by hand, which takes longer. While this extra expense may seem daunting, keep in mind that you’ll save money on fertilizer, water, and herbicides and pesticides, since your farm will be healthier in general, and you’ll be growing or capturing most of your inputs on-site. In our experience, the expense of seasonal employees has been evened out by the money we’ve saved in other areas.
You may also need to hire temporary workers during pruning season. Permaculture plantings, or guilds, are often composed of a tree or shrub in the center with smaller plants around the base to help fix nitrogen, prevent erosion, and sometimes provide additional edible material. Because you’ll have so many small trees on your property, you’ll have more pruning and chipping duties compared with a traditional market garden.
Finally, we’ve learned that it’s helpful to assign one team member to coordinate companion planting, cover cropping, and seed starting. We nearly always have a batch of small seedlings in the greenhouse being prepped to replace whatever crop we’re about to harvest. These crop rotations are great to plan, but it does take some forethought, and it’s helpful if one person owns this task so they can keep all the moving parts organized. We’ve also found Evernote (www.Evernote.com) and Gardenate (www.Gardenate.com) to be two software programs that help with planning and taking note of our rotation plans.
Practicing permaculture on a farm scale does take more of an initial investment in terms of money, time, and education. But after you’re up and running, a permaculture farm is in a better position to deal with extreme weather conditions, disease, drought, and other unexpected events that are costly to farmers across the world.
Jeff Meyer is the founder of Johnny Appleseed Organic, an eco-village and online store that provides farmers and gardeners with resources to fight climate change.
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