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  • Rema Boscov

Simple Gifts Farm

By Rema Boscov

Spring planting time. Four people wait to take their seats on the newly adapted water-wheel transplanter. In their bright yellow waterproof overalls, they stand out against a thick layer of dark brown compost. A few beige remnants of a winter-killed cover crop of oats and peas stick through the compost.

At Simple Gifts Farm, an organic farm and CSA in Amherst, Massachusetts, growing food has become an adventure in adaptation as they transition to no-till. Today, for the first time, the crew will sit behind a water wheel with spikes that have been welded onto the more shallow and blunt hole punchers of the conventional transplanter. The spikes should dig deeply into mulch that wouldn’t be there on a tilled farm. Previous tries without the spikes pushed the compost or mulch into the hole, which had to be dug out manually. This time, with coulters recently added in front to cut narrow furrows, they hope all will go smoothly. It’s been a process of trial and tweaks, attempts and invention.


Dave Tepfer, co-owner with Jeremy Barker Plotkin, designed the adaptation, taking the transplanter apart and then rebuilding it with an additional frame that includes coulters on the front. Now, he heaps trays of transplants grown from seed in their greenhouses onto racks the crew can reach. The coulters and spikes have been set today to plant five rows of intercropped lettuce, scallions and beet seedlings. Barker Plotkin gives a few last instructions. “You don’t have to be too delicate,” he says.


Scott Codey, who has done this before agrees and adds, “You do want to close the hole. If there’s water in the hole it will drain away.” In tilled soil, the water would create a muddy pool, but not in this well-aggregated compost. “You might be able to use the back of your hand to guide a little soil into the hole,” Codey says. It all depends on the speed of the tractor, which Tepfer will adjust according to their feedback.


Water will drip through holes near the spikes. “Whoever’s in the front right seat has to adjust the water and turn it off quickly when we stop,” Barker Plotkin says, pointing to the valve.


“A little tractor safety,” Tepfer adds. He’ll be driving. “I can’t see or hear from there.” They will need to shout.

The four mount their seats. Almost immediately they stop to give Tepfer feedback on how fast to drive as they pluck seedlings from their trays and push each one into a hole. And they are off… but this is no race. The tractor crawls, arms and fingers behind it planting seedlings into compost and soil as the team creeps toward the finish.


In their three years of transitioning to no-till, Simple Gifts has employed several strategies. “The first thing is not tilling,” Barker Plotkin explains. “Tilling immediately generates annual weed seeds. You have to see it to believe it. It’s impressive how true it is.”


They use a variety of mulches. In spring, they use decomposed leaves obtained from landscapers. Later in the season, they cut their cover-cropped fields, turning that into green-chop mulch.


Thick compost acts as mulch into which they can directly seed short-season crops such as salad mix and bok choy. “Those we tarp after harvest and then plant again,” he says. “We get two to three rotations a year in that spot. We use tarps because you can’t mulch something you’re direct seeding.” The black occultation tarps bring in heat, which germinates seeds, but without sunlight, they die. “Tarping for three weeks is standard. But it depends on what we’re trying to kill. We can tarp for a shorter time when it’s hot out.” “We can tarp regardless of how wet the field is,” he says, noting it’s not good to drive a tractor on a wet field. “We can do it with two people. It’s about being organized and having a system. We pick it up with the tractor and unfold it in the field. We used to roll it but we figured out that folding it is a lot quicker and lighter.”


Desiree Robertson Dubois, who tends to the greenhouses, remarks that all the work on the farm is labor-intensive. “It’s more about soil health and integrity,” she says. By providing cover for the billions of microbes, mulch helps build soil organic matter. Intercropping, placing a variety of plants near each other, each with differing leaf structures and root depths and widths encourages the increased buildup of topsoil and greater carbon sequestration.


A peek inside a greenhouse shows adjacent rows of kale, tomatoes, and bok choy, but no mulch. “It’s harder to harvest if it’s mulched,” she explains. “We’re constantly making choices.”


Why switch to no-till? According to these farmers, “Lots of reasons!” Growing nutrient-dense crops, increasing soil organic matter, sequestering carbon and reducing their carbon footprint are a few. “Our hope is that this [no-till] is really going to help us weather extremes of temperature and moisture. We are already seeing more rainfall and more drought. A no-till system creates a sponge, which allows water to penetrate the soil better and retain water better.”


“We’ve been here 15 years, “ Tepfer says. “There was really poor soil to start with. It hadn’t been taken care of. We started with an aggressive cover crop system, terraces, and contours. Over ten years we saw dramatic influences in crop yield and soil.” But it took heavy rainfall to push them to attempt the transition to no-till. “In 2018, we watched these fields wash away. We thought we were doing everything right but we had so much soil moving off our fields. We could see the soil moving like crazy.”


“It’s difficult to figure out what to do on our scale,” Tepfer says. “For some crops, there’s massive equipment. That’s not appropriate for 12 acres in production. While we have 20 tillable acres, we leave a lot left fallow each year for soil improvement. Some are in permanent grass and others are not tillable. We’re an intermediate scale.” Smaller farms can adopt no-till without machines. But for Simple Gifts, “Mechanization makes doing no-till on a scale like this possible,” he says.


Equipment dots the landscape.


“First, it’s about suppressing weeds,” Tepfer says. “We have big machines to handle mulch and put it down thick. The trick is to get the mulch on thick enough but uniform. Our old manure spreader had lots of mechanical problems. The new one doesn’t do as good a job,” he says, referring to uniformity. But under the tractor wheels “it’s a pyramid of compaction.”


To deal with compaction, Barker Plotkin says, they use a subsoiler, a tractor version of a broadfork. “It flips the soil a little and it goes right back. It breaks compaction after tarping. We have less hard pan than we used to.” They purchased the subsoiler with an NRCS grant, part of a USDA program for relieving compaction. “Tillage makes the soil loose and fluffy but destroys soil structure, “ he says. “The first few years of no-till you have increased compaction, before the increase in soil biology and the buildup of soil organic matter. We’ve been told it takes four years.” In some fields, he says, it has taken only three.


Their greenhouses overflow with trays of seedlings. Transplanting on a small farm can be done by hand. But not here, with thousands of seedlings ready to be placed in soil, thickly mulched. “A water wheel transplanter is common technology,” Tepfer says. “We did a bunch of modifications to get it to go five rows, six inches apart. You can’t cultivate with five rows, but with this method, we’re not worried about being able to cultivate.”

What about planting directly into a dead cover crop? They do that for some crops. They use a flail mower to cut down rye when it’s flowering. “For the first or second week of June it [the flail mower] works great,” Tepfer says. Then they can plant vegetables like tomatoes, summer squash, cucumbers, peppers, kale and Swiss chard directly into the cover crop. However, before flowering, the rye will keep on growing. “That’s why mulch is better,” he says. “We’re going for a steady supply of stuff for the store. We’re planting all the time.”

Equipment and modifications cost money. In some cases Simple Gifts get grants. At other times they ask their CSA and community members for support. “There’s a cost to this learning curve,” Tepfer says. “We had a lot of crop losses last year. Try something new and some things are going to go wrong.”

Fortunately, a lot has gone right also. “You can plant a cover crop immediately after harvest,” Barker Plotkin says, “Saving yourself a tillage pass.” For mulch later in the season, you can “cut the cover crop somewhere else and take a manure spreader and spread it.”


In one field, row cover has been pulled off salad greens that survived the winter. Codey uses a Farmer’s Friend, a mechanized hand-held harvester, to cut the greens at just above ground level so they can continue to produce. These will go into their farm store and be used for their CSA shares. They also grow salad greens and other vegetables in their greenhouses. “We had greens all winter,” Barker Plotkin remarks. Intercropping is possible in greenhouses and less feasible in the field. “For everything we plant, one of the many considerations is the cover crop that comes next,” Tepfer explains. “We want at least four to five beds to come out at the same time so we can tarp at the same time.”

Simple Gifts grows diverse crops, but there’s nothing simple about it. On a windy day, team members stake down plastic mulch between rows of early strawberries, which produce for a year before getting diseases. After harvesting, they’ll be tarped. Late-season strawberries in another field are “short-term perennials,” Tepfer says, “they’ll last for two years.”


Nearby, cattle pasture under trees on sloping permanent pasture, adjacent to rows of raspberry bushes. The cattle will “come on sometimes to cover crops,” Tepfer says. “It’s a way to control the cover crop and is good for soil microbes. We pull them off before they kill the plants.”

Not far from the cattle, 300 laying hens are rotated with their moveable coop on additional permanent pasture, and at times are moved onto cropland. “All land that’s fallow from vegetable production is forage for them,” Tepfer says.


They have also planted eight chestnut trees and soon will put in 300 more trees for alley-cropping. “There’s no one part of this that’s completely original,” Tepfer says. “It’s how putting it together fits our circumstances.”


*****

It’s a sunny morning. This time, the transplanter is set to plant broccolini, three rows a foot apart, into a thick layer of decomposing leaves. Immediately the team notices they can’t get the seedlings down deep enough. The mulch is too thick and uneven.


Tepfer evens out the row with a rake, while crew members dig deeper holes by hand to plant the seedlings from the first pass. Ash Torok, wearing yellow rain bib overalls though it’s a dry day, sits on the ground, reaching, planting. The water trickling from the transplanter wheel includes fish emulsion, he explains. He doesn’t want to go home smelling of fish. He’s had that experience; it’s his third season working here. “It makes me happy to do this work,” he says. His pleasure extends beyond working with plants and soil to social concerns. “I wouldn’t be able to eat such good food if I didn’t do this work. It’s not always possible for people to grow their own food. You wish it were an option for everyone but it isn’t.” He dreams of doing the same work with animals, especially donkeys. He adds, “No-till was not created by white farmers. Indigenous people have always stewarded the land this way.”


The crew has finished hand-planting the seedlings that didn’t get through the mulch. Tepfer places some weights on the water wheel so the spikes will go in deeper. It’s a trial. With too much weight the spikes can get stuck, or pop out because of too much tension. He adds a couple more weights. The team mounts their seats. “Go a little bit slower,” Codey says. “Even if we go wicked slow it’s faster than doing it by hand.” Suddenly he shouts, “The coulters are making a big difference!” Tepfer, driving, shouts back, “I could totally feel that groove in the ground!” Later, to make things go even more smoothly, Tepfer says he will add “a stiff metal shank with a tiny foot” to each row, “to open a groove a little wider than the coulter. It’s the same principle as the subsoiler but only about 2 inches deep. It will disturb the soil very little.”


Can they turn a profit with no-till? “It remains to be seen,” Tepfer says. “We haven’t got the healthy soil community that will build up over time yet, but it clearly has potential.” Small farms don’t need to rely on machines, and much larger farms use big, expensive equipment. “Who knows if it will work at this scale!” he says. For this mid-sized farm, 12 acres, some machines are necessary, and they’ve often had to come up with modifications such as adding weights to get spikes to go through thick mulch that wouldn’t be there on tilled acres.


They’ve learned a lot and made all kinds of adjustments and innovations. They are only three years into it. It’s late afternoon. Tepfer has 2 more hours of work today. He waves and heads off to do it.


Rema Boscov is a freelance journalist who writes about regenerative agriculture practices.


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