We care for the farm’s vegetables almost entirely by hand-tended methods, each year adding to our battery of sophisticated hand and human-powered tools to increase efficiency and effectiveness of fieldwork. While initial plowing or tillage will be done with our walk-behind 2-wheeled tractor or by a neighboring farmer with a 4-wheeled tractor, we are working with reduced tillage practices as much as possible. Increasing the fertility of our soil is a top priority – through cover cropping, the addition of compost to increase organic matter, using rock powders to return lost micro-nutrients and minerals, and methods to increase microbial soil life. Before starting to farm here, the fields had been hayed for more than 25 years with little done to maintain the fertility. During Many Forks first season, I didn’t see a single earthworm! Our light and sandy soils, bordered by the North Branch of the Hoosic River, are coming back to life! Every year, the soils are holding moisture and nutrients better, and, the earthworms abound because of the addition of the organic matter and the reduced tillage practices.
With just about 2 acres in cultivation and caring for our crops by hand-tending, we have our eyes on the vegetables all the time. For the greater part, we see how everything is doing every single day and can respond quickly if we see problems such as insects or disease developing, can indentify any nutritional issues, or determine if the soils are drying out and need irrigation. We use drip irrigation with water from the North Branch of the Hoosic River. Soil tests on our fields every 12-18 months give us information about the nutrients and help us assess any amendments, such as the rock dusts or compost, that should be added and in what amounts.
Our garden planning, which takes place in the late fall and early winter, always includes working out the rotations of crops so that they are not grown in the same location for several years running. Because of our small land base, every square foot in cultivation is important to the farm. When crop disease or insect infestation develops, we do our best to control by low-impact methods such as hand-picking insects, or picking off and cleaning up diseased foliage. We may use biological controls, such as helpful bacteria or compost teas judiciously. We use those that do not harm pollinators or have known health impacts, but even introducing a common soil bacterium, in the amounts to help control a fungal disease, is shifting the balance of the microbiology, so these are used at the lowest dose considered to have efficacy.
We do not use any GMO seeds or plants. We do use many open-pollinated varieties, and only use hybrid seeds sold to us by seed companies we trust. If they are not breeding the seeds themselves, they are vetting it to be sure it is not genetically-modified. We grow lots of different varieties of our vegetables, rarely only a single variety of any one crop. We believe that this diversity is helpful to control insect pests and attract beneficial insects and also helps with the diversity of microbial life in the soil. It also adds to the diversity of nutrients available to those that eat our produce! Every variety will have some difference in the phytonutrients it packs.
Since we don’t raise animals, we find that we need to bring in compost. We produce all the compost on the farm that we can, but it isn’t enough for our needs at this point in the farm’s development. We get our compost from a local farm with a longtime compost operation.
We use electric fencing around all our vegetable fields. Given our location, there is lots of wildlife that find our vegetables delectable, and given our small land base, a munching by a deer or two can take a whole crop down in one night’s feasting! The fence is baited so that the deer sniff or try to bite at the baits and gets a small, but unpleasant shock, and hopefully not return for a snack as they can easily jump over the fence which is only 4 feet high.
We have a hoophouse that we use as a propagation house for all our seedling transplants, and we also grow seedlings for an heirloom tomato sale each spring. Two additional high tunnels and two caterpillar tunnels allow us more protected culture for sensitive crops such as tomatoes and cucumbers. Row cover is used in the early spring and fall for frost protection, as needed for insect protection, as well as to deter critters such as groundhogs and bunnies in the early spring and fall when food is less plentiful and these sweet, green things become very appealing.
To help with small rodent control on the farm, we have installed a barred owl nesting box and a kestrel nesting box. We’re hoping for some new tenants there!