At Natural Roots Farm in Conway, MA, David Fisher and Anna Maclay use a five-part fertility program to raise every plant, farm animal and person in optimal health and vitality. They nourish land with animal manure-based compost, mineral amendments, seed inoculants, green-manure crops and rotationally-grazed animals. By enhancing soil fertility, these farmers improve their food’s nutritional content while raising the farm’s long-term sustainability. This spring, David Fisher shared his farming experience with growers and gardeners at a NOFA/RI Advanced Grower Workshop held at URI.
Workhorses have helped David Fisher power Natural Roots Farm since 2000. Fisher, Maclay and their two children raise 3.5 acres of produce for 200 CSA shareholders and another 3.5 acres of soil-building crops. Fisher modeled many of the farm’s systems on the work of Anne and Eric Nordell (see a sample here). Fisher focuses on biological fertility, intensive cover cropping and weed control.
“We first nourish the land so in return, it can nourish us,” said Fisher. His training and efforts to enhance soil health have led to improved soil as well as personal health. He finds that his family and crops are both becoming more vigorous and resistant to illness and diseases over time.
Fertility (Biological and Mineral)
Fisher routinely gets his soil tested. The test results determine the appropriate mineral-based fertilizers needed. Fisher recommended that whatever lab farmers use, they should keep using the same lab for helpful year-to-year comparisons.
Fisher uses Lancaster Agriculture Products for custom mineral and fertilizer blends. Minerals are laid down in fallow years to enhance soil biology a year ahead of the vegetable growing season. He is also experimenting with fertility programs from Advancing Eco Agriculture http://www.growbetterfood.com/.
Forage blends are seeded in fallow fields. Portable electric fence and a solar charger allow rotational grazing for optimal animal nutrition and to enhance soil fertility. Meat birds or layers follow horses in their field rotations. Chickens get supplemental grains, which add soil nutrients. Poultry “scratch” up horse manure, speeding breakdown and soil nitrogen absorption.
All legume seeds are inoculated with rhizobia bacteria to improve nitrogen fixing.
Transplants receive a biological liquid drench via Fishers custom-adapted, horse-drawn water wheel transplanter. This reduces transplant stress and offers a fertility boost. Every 2 weeks, Fisher delivers a foliar spray or liquid fertilizer side-dressing with micronutrients appropriate to his soils and crop needs. “Foliar feeding can be up to ten times more efficient than feeding crops through the soil,” said Fisher. The biologically active foliar spray helps bacteria and fungi outcompete with pathogens on leaf surfaces.
Horses spend 12 hours per day in stalls or at work. Manure and bedding are collected from the stalls and carefully blended with other farm waste into ideal compost. Farm staff poke holes in compost piles and add grain. The farm hogs’ rooting action turns the compost.
Compost is spread with a 4’ wide manure spreader on every field in the fallow year. This narrow spreader does not contaminate nearby crop rows. Minerals can be layered in the spreader with compost for single-pass efficiency. “The whole crop jumps up at once after this treatment,” said Fisher.
Soft rock phosphate is easily available for plants uptake, helps reduce bedding odors in chicken bedding and ties up nitrogen, reducing volatilization.
Extensive and intensive cover cropping breaks weed, pest and disease cycles and builds fertility and resilience. Crop rotations with cover cropping, change plant families. Removing pests’ favorite host plants greatly reduces pest numbers and risks to subsequent plantings.
At riverside or floodplain farms like Natural Roots Farm, cover crops provide crucial erosion control and capture sediments during floods.
The deep roots of cover crop plants accumulate minerals and make them available to crop plants once these plants break down. Green manures build organic matter.
Cover crops offer effective weed control. Fisher plants cover crops between vegetable crops during his last cultivation – just before plants close the row spaces. The cover crop minimizes soil compaction during harvest and afterwards, the cover crops continue to grow.
Winter Rye and Hairy Vetch are clipped in early May causing tillering and additional shoots. The denser top growth shades out weed seeds and perennial weeds as well as offering additional nutrients when turned under. Rye should be allowed to flower for maximum nutrition yield. “When you see yellow clouds over the rye field, it is time to cut the rye to kill it,” Fisher said. Do not let it go to seed, or rye will become a weed. He recommends cutting all weeds when blooming before seed set.
Fisher kills vetch using a disk harrow with weights as a roller-crimper. When plants have good soil contact, they act as a mulch, preventing weed seeds from sprouting. Worms feed on cover crop residue, helping decay the plants and improving soil structure. Do not use this technique in overly wet regions or seasons. The mulch may go anaerobic causing a nitrogen loss through amonia volitalizaion. Fisher recommends waiting no more than four weeks before tilling in the rolled mulch to prepare for a new crop.
Reducing weeds and preventing new weed seeds lower future labor efforts and farmer stress. Lower weed competition reduces plant stress while increasing harvest quality, efficiency and yield.
During some years, Fisher will allow some fields to be fallow from early June to mid-July. Stale seed bedding with weekly cultivation exhausts the weed seedbed.
Fisher manages 15 acres of hay and pastureland to feed his working herd.
The workhorses strengthen the vitality of the farm, offering tremendous power, sharp minds and fluid grace compared to the tractor they have replaced. The horses help with heavy plowing, delicate cultivating, hauling harvests, offering visitor’s hayrides, digging potatoes, as well as mowing and harvesting their own hay and grain. During winter months, Fisher uses his horses for low-impact logging and snow plowing. Their manure enriches soils; they tread lightly and do not cause soil compaction like tractor wheels.
Horses are essentially solar-powered. They run on grass, hay and oats, which they help grow and harvest. The farm produces all the hay needed for the horses, stored loose in the barn or in outdoor stacks. Using horses minimizes a farm’s carbon footprint; they deliver living, clean and sustainable energy.
CSA, You Pick and Farm Store
22-week farm shares are available from early June through the end of October. A regular share is ideal for a single vegetarian or a small family and large shares are suitable for larger families, those who love vegetables or those who preserve some foods for the winter. The farm also offers low-income shares and installment payment options to make farm produce accessible to everyone. Surplus crops are donated to local people in need. The farm offers You-Pick perennial herbs, peas, beans, cherry tomatoes, sunflowers, raspberries and blueberries.
A Farm Store offers vegetables, fruits, eggs, meat, cheese, yogurt, bread, honey, maple syrup, miso, pickles & krauts, kombucha, dressings, salsa and cookbooks.
Learn more about Natural Roots Farm or email David Fisher or Anna Maclay. Call (413) 369-4269 to arrange a farm visit at 888 Shelburne Falls Road, Conway, MA 01341.
A similar story ran in the July 15, 2013 Northeast edition of “Country Folks.”