Field Crop Growing Practices
It is our goal at Spring Ledge Farm to grow our field crops in a way that reduces our environmental impact and increases sustainability. We spend many hours every winter researching new cultural practices, products, growing methods, and equipment that help obtain an optimum balance between sustainability and successful growing.
Integrated Pest Management
Integrated Pest Management, or IPM, is practiced in both field and greenhouse crops at Spring Ledge. IPM programs utilize many different methods of pest control rather than strictly relying on conventional chemical pesticides for every pest issue. This means we spend hours each week actively scouting crops to monitor how many pests are present on any given crop. We base our action thresholds, or the point at which there is enough pest pressure to warrant treatment, on the most recent recommendations from our local extension service and other experts. If a pest is above the action threshold, we choose the appropriate control measure for the specific situation. If a pest is below the designated action threshold, we leave it be and continue to monitor it.
When we need to apply pest control products, we use a combination of products labeled for organic production as well as conventional products. Many hours are dedicated to researching pest control products to make sure we are choosing the safest and most environmentally responsible products available to us. Pesticide licensing is required to apply both organic and conventional products, and our certified applicators must take courses each year to maintain their licenses. Our certified applicators are the only people on the farm who ever apply or handle pesticides.
Another way that we practice Integrated Pest Management in the fields is through mechanical cultivation. We have ramped up our game in mechanical cultivation equipment through the years which has allowed us to eliminate herbicide use in the majority of our field crops. These different mechanical cultivators mount on a tractor and can be adjusted to accommodate many of our different crops and cropping systems. They have the ability to get very close to the crop which not only eliminates the need for an herbicide but greatly reduces time spent hand weeding and hoeing.
Nutrient Management and Soil Fertility
Our soil is the basis of a successful and sustainable crop. We strive to take great care of our soils and focus on adding and retaining organic matter, reducing erosion, enhancing biological activity and managing nutrients.
Responsible nutrient management is very important in our field crops. Field soil samples are collected every other season and sent out to the lab for testing. The results of these tests tell us exactly which nutrients need amending and how much we need to apply to achieve the optimum nutrient levels for each specific crop. We create crop specific fertility programs using results from our field soil tests as well as individual crop nutrient requirements. A key part of these programs involves small weekly fertilizer applications to provide crops with just the right amount of nutrition for each crop. Frequent applications of small amounts of fertilizer are much preferred over one large application because crops are able to use a higher percentage of the applied fertilizer which means less runoff into our ecosystem.
We have also incorporated organic based fertilizers derived from dehydrated chicken manure into our fertility program. These organic fertilizers provide nutrients in a form that must be metabolized by soil microbes before they are available for plant uptake. This process not only helps support healthy, living soil but creates a slow release of the added nutrients from that fertilizer. Slow release translates to reduced risk of nutrient leaching and runoff into our ecosystem. Seeing a trend here?
Tillage Practices and Green Manure Crops
Tillage practices play a large role in maintaining soil health at Spring Ledge. Soil health is one of the most critical factors when it comes to quality produce and we take it seriously. We have worked hard to reduce the amount of tillage performed in our fields each year. Reduced tillage leads to less soil compaction, better soil structure, less erosion, increased activity of beneficial soil organisms, and less fertilizer runoff. On top of reducing the amount of tillage in our fields, we have also invested in modern tillage equipment that is less detrimental to soil structure and helps reduce and even reverse soil compaction.
Another tool that greatly aids in increasing soil health is the use of green manure crops, also called cover crops. These types of crops are never harvested but are grown with the intention of being incorporated back into the soil. By growing and incorporating these crops, we help to build soil organic matter, break disease cycles, reduce erosion, and retain soil nutrients. We work hard to keep the amount of bare soil in our fields to a minimum by seeding many different types of cover crops, including Buckwheat, a fast grower that smothers weeds and feeds the pollinators, Japanese Millet, which works as a main season cover that produces a lot of biomass to help feed our soil, Mustard crops, which can help eradicate certain diseases and pests when incorporated into the soil, and we use Winter Rye as a winter cover, planting in the fall and incorporating it in the spring.
Reduced Waste through Drip Irrigation,
Biodegradable Plastic Mulch, and Composting
Over the past several years we have stepped up our use of drip irrigation in field crops. We now drip irrigate the majority of our field crops including the strawberries grown near Pleasant Lake. Drip irrigation has many benefits, the most important of which is reduced water usage when compared to overhead sprinkler irrigation. Drip irrigation allows us to narrow the irrigated area to the plant root zone rather than water the entire field space. Drip irrigation also gives us the ability to apply fertilizer and beneficial microbes into the plant root zone. This ability is a key component of our weekly fertilizer applications. It allows us to easily apply a small amount of fertilizer each week to each individual crop during normal irrigation run times.
Most of our drip irrigated acres also utilize biodegradable plastic mulch that covers the planting bed. Plastic mulch warms the soil quickly, greatly reduces weeds in the planting row, and helps retain moisture and nutrients from drip irrigation since it placed under the mulch layer. A while back we made the switch from conventional plastic mulch to corn-based biodegradable plastic mulch. Although the biodegradable plastic mulch is an added expense compared to conventional plastic, we feel it is well worth the added cost since it greatly reduces the amount of plastic waste destined for the landfill.
We have managed a composting system on the farm for many years now. All plant and produce waste stays on site and is discarded in our compost system. This allows us to re-purpose it for amending our soils.
We have made improvements to our composting systems over the last decade. We have a concrete three-bay system that was designed to contain all water and runoff from compost, which helps keep our watershed clean and healthy.
Composting materials start in first bin and get moved through the three bin system throughout the season until it reaches the third bin. Once in the third bin, the compost is considered finished and ready to be spread on our fields and in our tomato greenhouses.