Two participants in The FARM Institute’s (TFI) Pilot Parcel Project have already learned important lessons from their projects even though the program has been in operation for only a few months.
The Pilot Parcel Project made available five one-acre plots of land for experimental development by Island farmers back in March at their property in Katama. In May, TFI announced that the ground was prepared, deer fence installed, and the projects were ready to begin.
Lily Walter, whose business is called Slip Away Farm, is working full time on her project and is already selling vegetables from her plot at the West Tisbury Farmers’ Market. She has plans to deliver her produce to her own community supported agricultural project (CSA) on Chappaquiddick by bicycle later this summer. Ms. Walter’s project is to compare no till, reduced till, and conventional till gardens.
Ms. Walter, who started farming while working at Morning Glory Farm over the course of seven years, said that she has evidence from her one acre that both the no till and reduced tilling methods require less water and help reduce soil erosion. She explained that conventional tilling, which involves more plowing and frequent weeding, disturbs the mini eco-systems around the plants, exposing more soil to the air. This allows for faster water evaporation particularly in the windy Katama area.
She is experimenting with grass and the native weeds as ground cover foliage between the plant rows to help keep the soil rich and damp and is considering using clover in the future. The ground cover is mowed. She also uses seaweed mulch and plans to use mulch from recycled cardboard and other waste materials.
Ms. Walter said with the demands of her work she probably would not have been able to test these various methods without the help of the Pilot Parcels Project, which in addition to the land provided the participants $500 in starter funds. More information on Lily Walter’s project is on her website, slipawayfarm.blogspot.com.
Patrick Brown is a Vineyard Haven builder and a self-taught farmer or, as he says, has been “self educating aggressively for the last few years.” He has a garden at home and said he has been renting an acre of land from the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank for his farming for several years. His project is to explore ways to re-mineralize Island soils with pond fines (sediment), glacial gravel powders, and other local materials.
He said that the extremely acidic nature of TFI soil has limited what he could plant. He added that it takes several years of adding crushed limestone (lime) to significantly reduce the acidity to a level that will allow for testing a wider range of crops so he had to choose an acid-loving plant to conduct his experiment. He chose potatoes as his main test crop while also planting other vegetables.
Mr. Brown has potatoes growing in three conditions. The control plants are in the existing loam, other plants are in soil with a native material of silt and clay particles added, and the third group has blue stone dust, which is a material imported from a mine in Acushnet, freshly-crushed granite/basalt rocks. He said that, like the lime, it would take several years for the rock powders he has added to reach their full effectiveness in the test areas.
He uses an instrument called a Brix meter, which measures the percentage of dissolved solids in plant sap to gauge his progress.
“Higher percentages indicate healthier plants due to increased soil nutrition, which makes the plants more insect resistant and makes better feed for animals and humans,” he said.
One of the unexpected lessons Mr. Brown has learned is that some plants he has planted are much more acid tolerant than others. He planted peas before he realized how acidic the soil was and they “failed miserably.” Fava beans and a crop primarily grown in the southern United States called cow peas, he discovered, are much more tolerant of conditions here on the Vineyard than many other legumes. He said that the cost of the wasted peas was “probably worth what I learned.”
Teri Praskach of Flower Tins, a flower business she has operated for 20 years, is growing flowers and herbs using different cover crops between the rows. Using cover crops that will decompose quickly, she plans to till in the cover as sprouts at two to three week intervals to enrich the soil.
She will have the soil tested to record the change in soil conditions and will observe the effects on weed control. She will also count stems on her rows of flowers to determine the effects of any changes on her flowers. She sells her flowers at Eden in Vineyard Haven and Fiddlehead Farm Market in West Tisbury. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/#!/flowertins.
Alex Rentumis and Katrina Nevin are planting an oilseed crop for use in bio-diesel fuels and for human consumption. The object is to learn whether the soil and climate in Katama will support a crop that can be harvested and pressed for a clean, fresh oil.
Dan and Anna Merhalski are experimenting with the financial sustainability of a small-scale market garden as a possible way to encourage more food production on limited acres. They have beehives and are growing quinoa, barley, and hops, along with heirloom tomatoes and other vegetables.
TFI project manager Rebecca Sanders said she thinks the Pilot Parcels Project is going well although some of the participants were a little slow to get started. She said that if they receive funding to continue next year she would recommend that some smaller plots be made available for those who cannot put in enough time due to job constraints to work a full acre.
TFI received funding from the United States Department of Agriculture’s Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program to support the Pilot Parcels Project. According to Ms. Sanders, in addition to the $500 startup grant per plot, the funding pays for the time TFI personnel spend on the project, tractor fuel, and other miscellaneous expenses, and workshops TFI plans in conjunction with the project.
More information on the TFI and the Pilot Parcel Project may be found at farminstitute.org.