At Stony Point Center, our intention is to farm in a way that honors our commitment to food justice and sustainability. We grow crops using organic methods (although we are not certified organic by the USDA), we utilize local resources when possible, and we are striving to improve the quality of our soil over time. Click on the links below to learn more about some of the specific practices and techniques we use on our farm.
Crop Rotation is a common practice in sustainable agriculture. In our system, crops that are part of the same plant families are grown together in our various fields. Every year, the plant family that is grown in each field changes. For example, in year one a field will be planted with nightshades (tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants). In year two, that same field will be the home of the brassica family (kale, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, etc.). Crops in the cucurbit family (cucumbers, squash, melons) will be planted in that same field in year three, and so on. Here’s an example of one of our crop rotations at Stony Point Center, which is a four-year rotation:
Nightshade to Brassica to Cucurbit to Fallow/Cover Crop/Livestock to Nightshade.
At some point in a field’s crop rotation, we will let a field go fallow for an entire season, which means we will not be planting vegetable crops in that field in that particular year. Instead of leaving it completely idle, we will plant what is called a “cover crop” in that field. A cover crop is a crop that is seeded for the purposes of building soil properties rather than for harvesting food. Cover crops are cultivated then mowed down and turned back into the soil. Some cover crops are good as “green manures” growing large at a fast rate to a create a good supply of biomass that essentially composts in the field to supply the field with organic matter which is a critical component of healthy soil. Other cover crops are “nitrogen fixers” meaning that they restore nitrogen to the soil when they are mowed and tilled into the soil at the proper time so the nitrogen can then be made available to the following year’s crop. We use buckwheat as a green manure, which grows well in late spring, summer, and fall and dies off with the first frost. We seed hairy vetch in our fields in the late summer and fall, which is a cold-hearty leguminous nitrogen fixer that gets tilled into the soil in the spring.
Crop rotations are helpful for a couple of reasons. First, since crops from the same plant families generally have the same nutritional needs as each other, but slightly different nutritional needs from crops in different families, a good crop rotation helps keep soil from getting depleted by drawing out all its nutrients. The common industrial rotation of corn to soy to corn to soy is an example of an inadequate rotation that is taking nutrients from the soil without putting anything back into it. Soil depletion in the Midwestern United States is well documented. Second, crop rotations can be helpful because they protect crops from common pests. When crops are moved from year to year among different fields, the negative impact from the insects and diseases that thwart their growth is reduced.
For example, when predatory insects emerge in the spring, they won’t find the same crops to feed on. You can see in a photo a striped cucumber beetle on a spinach plant. We took this photo in the spring during a spinach harvest. From what we could tell, the cucumber beetles were not eating the spinach at all. What was the cucumber beetle, which usually feeds on cucumber and squash leaves, doing in the spinach field? Well, in the previous year, that field had been the home of cucumbers and squash. At the same time, on the other end of our property, our cucumbers and squash were growing undeterred by the pesky cucumber beetles. Sure, the beetles might find cukes and squash eventually, but the crop rotation allows plants to get established in the field instead of being attacked almost immediately by the hungry pest.
Even though we usually get consistent rain in the spring and summer here in New York, it is very helpful to have an irrigation system in place for the times when rains are few and far between. After dragging hoses across the property for the entire month of July in our first year, we decided to install drip irrigation on our farm in our second year. Drip systems are good because they deliver water directly to a crop’s root system by dripping water directly into the soil. This method dramatically reduces the amount of water that is lost to evaporation compared to overhead watering systems. When combined with our plastic mulch, a layer of cloth laid over the soil which helps our soil retain moisture, we are able to reduce the amount of water required to nourish our crops for those times when the rain is not sufficient.
After attending an excellent workshop on seed saving at the 2014 Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York (NOFA-NY) annual winter conference, we began to re-think our approach to purchasing seed and made plans for saving our own seed from the crops we are cultivating on our farm.
This year, we purchased seed from three different vendors: High Mowing Seed (based in Vermont), Fedco Seeds (based in Maine), and the Hudson Valley Seed Library (located about an hour north of us in New York). The decision to purchase seed from these organizations was based on multiple factors. First, our understanding is that each of these groups has absolutely no ties to the “seed giants” who are instrumental in developing genetically modified seed varieties. Second, each of these seed companies is regionally local to our location. Finally, these companies offer a solid selection of open-pollinated seeds, which are necessary for any seed-saving attempt.
The difference between hybrid seed varieties and open-pollinated seeds is important for a seed-saver. Seed saved and subsequently planted from crops grown from hybrid seed are not guaranteed to grow true to its parent plant. That is because hybrid seeds are bred from two parent plants that independently possess different characteristics that are desirable for their genetic offspring. For example, a yellow cherry tomato plant may have one parent plant that helps it produce fruits a certain size and another parent plant that helps it produce fruits a certain color. Seed saved from such a plant may possess each of these traits in future generations, but the possibility exists that one trait from each of its parents may be dominant in the second generation. Conversely, seed saved and planted from open-pollinated varieties will grow true to its parent plant precisely because it was not bred from two parents with differing characteristics. This is a fairly simple explanation of the difference between hybrid and open-pollinated seeds, and the nuances and complexities of this topic are vast.
We have selected certain open-pollinated seed varieties this season and have plans to experiment with seed saving in the hopes that a significant portion of the seeds we plant next year will come from our own farm. This season, we will try to save seeds from a variety of tomato, pepper, eggplant, broccoli, cucumber, squash, and flower seeds. Seed-saving techniques vary from crop to crop, and we’ll be trying multiple techniques throughout this season to save our own seeds for the first time!
Compost is an incredibly beneficial soil amendment with properties that enrich the soil’s nutrient content and add organic matter to the soil. Making compost requires striking a balance between materials rich in nitrogen and rich in carbon. We make our own compost on site by mixing our kitchen’s food scraps with dead leaves collected on the property. Kitchen waste and food scraps are the primary source of nitrogen for our compost pile. Guests participate in composting by scraping the uneaten food on their plates into a 5-gallon bucket that is placed next to the trash can by our dish room. Our kitchen staff also uses 5-gallon buckets to collect any food scraps that accumulate during food preparation.
We then haul the 5-gallon buckets full of food scraps to our compost pile near the back woods of our property. We recently re-designed our composting space so that we can use our tractor to turn the compost pile. Using repurposed and locally-milled lumber, we have constructed a 4-bay system that allows us to keep one active compost pile while turning and finishing two other piles. Sometimes we add horse manure from local horse farms or manure from our chicken coop to our piles which is also a high nitrogen source. We generally try to add equal parts carbon and nitrogen by volume to keep our carbon/nitrogen ratio in balance.
Finished compost is added to our fields in the spring or fall before crops or cover crops are planted. We generally try to add between a ½ inch and 1 inch of compost to the fields in need of organic matter.
Soil fertility is a critical part of every farm. The primary tenet of organic farming focuses on building and maintaining healthy soils so that crops can be nourished rather than simply feeding the crops with synthetic fertilizers.
Our initial soil tests indicated that we have our work cut out for us in terms of building healthy soils. While our organic matter levels were higher than anticipated (but still a little low for our liking), our tests revealed that we are deficient in several nutrients and have soil pH levels that are less than desirable. We send our soil to A&L Eastern Labs for analysis.
In order to increase nutrient content in our soils, we add a variety of elemental salts that we purchase from Compostwerks, which provides water-soluable granular soil amendments that we can easily apply to our fields using a backpack sprayer. Our soil amendment regimen is based on recommendations from the Bionutrient Food Association.
To improve our soil pH levels, we are adding lime to our fields. Our soil pH ranges from 4.9 to 6.5 depending on the field. Most vegetable crops will thrive in soil whose pH ranges from 6.5-7.0. Lime is the most common soil amendment to raise soil pH, and sulfur is the most common element used to lower soil pH. Luckily, we are about an hour’s drive from a lime quarry, so the lime we are able to apply is a local resource.
We also make our own compost “tea” in an effort to increase the biological activity in our soils. We brew our compost tea in a 5-gallon bucket using compost from our compost pile, rainwater we harvest from the roof of our tool shed, and a fish tank bubbler. We add unsulfured molasses and sea kelp to the water in the bucket to feed bacterial and fungal microorganisms that live in the compost. We generally try to brew the mixture for 24-36 hours before applying it to our soil. It is important that compost tea be applied within four hours after the bubbler is removed from the bucket since the microorganisms living and breeding in the tea cannot survive without the air the bubbler provides.
We also added some fish emulsion and a product called Sea-Crop (which is essentially liquid kelp and sea water) to our compost tea before applying it to our soil and plants as an added source of fertility. We usually try to apply the compost tea/fertilizer mix to crop fields every 3-4 weeks during the growing season. Ideally, application takes place after rain or irrigation when soils are moist and early in the morning or early evening to avoid the heat of the day.