Mustard Seed Microfarm
Wicked Local. Wicked Fresh
How do I do what I do? I like to think of myself as a combination old school/new school farmer. I am old school in the fact that I employ techniques that do not use mechanized methods of production. All of my planting and harvesting is done by hand. I intensively manage my beds by using cover crops and green manures to increase my soils organic matter and fertility. I am new school in that I use modern soil science and research to build my soils fertility. My soil is tested yearly for nutrient levels, which tells me exactly what nutrients my soil needs to be its best. By focusing so much on soil health and biology, I am able to grow more crops in less space than typical row cropping techniques. My motto is "Healthy Soil Grows Healthy Plants".
Good food starts with good seed. Here on the farm, I only use certified organic seed. It costs more, but the results are worth it. Take a look in a seed catalog though and you can become confused quite easily by all the options. When talking about seeds, there are 4 main types: Open-Pollinated (OP), Heirloom, Hybrid (F1), and Genetically Modified (GMO).
Open-Pollinated: When properly isolated from other varieties in the same plant species, open-pollinated varieties will produce seed which is genetically "true to type". This means that the seed will result in a plant very similar to the parent.
Heirloom: Heirloom varieties are named open-pollinated strains that have remained unaltered over the years. Typically for a variety to be considered heirloom, it must be at least 50 years old.
Hybrid: When open-pollinated varieties are allowed to cross within the same species, the resulting seed will be a hybrid. This happens in nature all the time, and does not mean a variety is genetically modified. In modern seed production, the careful and deliberate cross breeding is used to create new varieties. There is nothing "mad scientist" about hybrids.
Genetically Modified: GMO's are varieties that have been created by adding genetic material from one species into the DNA sequence of another species that would not normally exist. This is done in a laboratory and unlike hybrids, could never occur naturally.
Here at Mustard Seed Microfarm, I never grow GMO varieties. I choose mostly open-pollinated varieties and have a special place in my heart for the old heirloom varieties. I also grow some hybrid varieties on occasion.
I've recently had several people ask where the name "Mustard Seed Microfarm" came from. I call it a micro farm because that is what it is, a micro sized farm. The name "Mustard Seed" is a reference to a Bible passage, Mathew 17:20. Jesus says that with faith the size of a mustard seed, you can move mountains and that nothing is impossible. Taking a 1/4 acre piece of lawn and turning into a working farm has taken a lot of very hard work and has definitely taken a lot of faith. There are still a lot of unknowns to be faced. Will the needed funding come through? Will the weather cooperate? Will I be able to sell what I grow? I have faith that everything will come together and work out. Faith like a mustard seed.
Running a 1/4 acre market garden is a daunting task. It wouldn't be possible without a solid plan. When I start the planning process, the first thing I do is figure out dates. The most important date is the last frost date. This is the forecasted date of the last hard frost in spring. This year, last frost is at the end of April, but to be on the safe side, I usually plan on the first week of May. Once this is determined, I start the crop plan. This tells me what to plant, when to plant it, and where to plant it. Each crop is different. Some can be direct seeded and some need to be started indoors and then transplanted. I also have to plan according to how long a variety takes to germinate and then how long it takes to mature. A solid plan is important, but it also needs to be flexible. I have to be able to adapt according to weather conditions, and a host of other factors. It's a lot of work, but when it starts to come together, it's worth it.
Spring has finally sprung (although it's snowing out as I write this!). Yesterday was a big day. Our first batch of seedlings moved out to the greenhouse. Another round has been started under the lights.
Soil Fertility: How's It Done?
I was having a conversation with one of my friends the other day, and the question of how I build and maintain soil fertility came up. It's a fascinating subject-especially if you like science and biology!
One of my first memories of gardening with my grandmother was her telling me "Healthy soil makes healthy plants". That continues to be my mantra to this day. Soil fertility is extremely important, especially on small farms like mine. As some of you may know, I use biodynamic practices at Mustard Seed Microfarm; I wrote about it in the last newsletter. Biodynamics views the farm as a living organism. Rather than fighting and trying to control the environment, biodynamics seeks to work in harmony and heal the environment. Surprisingly, I use a minimum amount of fertilizer. My soil is tested every year, and I only add what the test advises. My approach to building and maintaining soil fertility is three pronged. The prongs are: Compost, Cover Crops, and Biodynamic Preps.
1. Compost: Good quality compost is the foundation of my soil fertility program. It helps soil by adding beneficial organisms and bacteria while also adding precious organic matter which helps build humus. Because my compost making capacity is small, I choose to add the majority of my compost in liquid form which is known as compost tea. In simple terms, this involves brewing a tea in a specially designed brewer that's aerates the water as it brews. By aerating the water and adding a food source (I prefer unsulfured molasses), The amount of bacteria and other goodies can be maximized. The tea is then filtered and sprayed onto the crops and soil.
2..Cover Crops: Cover crops, sometimes called green manure, are used for several reasons. Firstly, the roots grow down and "mine" nutrients that are deep in the soil and bring them up where they can be used by the plants. Secondly, they provide organic matter that can be broken down in the soil and by composting. I currently use two types of cover crops. The first is a special blend of peas, oats, and tillage radishes. The peas help bring nitrogen into the soil and provide organic matter. The oats help support the peas and also provide a good supply of organic matter. The radishes help loosen the soil. They can penetrate the soil up to 30" deep, helping to bring nutrients to the surface. When the roots rot, they leave channels in the soil that help bring oxygen and water into the soil. The tops also provide organic matter. During the growing season, I use buckwheat as a cover crop. It grows really fast, adds a lot of organic matter, and the blossoms make an incredible pollen source for bees.
3. Biodynamic Preps: These are special preparations made from manure, rock dust, and plants that are applied to soil and plants. There are 8 different preparations, BD 500 - BD 508. BD 500 is called horn manure and is applied to the soil. BD 501 is called horn silica and is applied to vegetation. BD 502-BD 507 are herbal preparations that are added to compost. BD 508 is an herbal preparation which is used to suppress fungal growth on plants.
I also do not till or turn over the soil in my beds. When preparing my beds for planting, I use a tool known as a broadfork. A broadfork is a tool with 4 long steel tines that is sunk into the soil and then rocked back, cutting up through the soil. It helps to loosen and aerate the soil with out destroying the soils structure like a plow or rototiller would.
This is the time of year that many farmers and gardeners are planning what they will be growing this next season. Crack open a seed catalog, and your options seem to be endless, sometimes even a bit overwhelming. I’ve spoken with many people about types of seeds, and it can be a somewhat confusing subject. There are 4 types of seeds I’ll be explaining: Open-Pollinated (OP), Heirloom, Hybrid (F1), and Genetically Modified (GM).
First, lets talk about Open-Pollinated. This refers to varieties in the same species that have not been cross-pollinated. If they are properly isolated from similar varieties, open-pollinated seed will produce plants that are genetically true to type. This means that the resulting plant will be identical to the parent. Open-pollinated varieties are good to save seed from.
Heirlooms are open-pollinated varieties that have been preserved for a number of years, sometimes hundreds of years. Generally, in order to be considered an heirloom, the variety must pre-date World War 2. Many heirlooms have superior taste but may lack the disease resistance of more modern varieties. Heirlooms are good to save seed from.
Next comes Hybrids. Hybrid types are the result of two or more similar varieties cross-pollinating. This happens all the time in nature and doesn’t mean the variety in question is genetically modified. In seed catalogs, hybrids usually have “F1” after the name. This means that the seeds are first generation. In modern plant breeding, careful and deliberate cross pollination is used to create new varieties with desired traits such as disease resistance or being able to hold up to shipping stress. Seed saved from hybrid varieties will often not grow true to type and are not a good choice for seed saving.
The last type to discuss is Genetically Modified, or GM. GM varieties have been created by manipulating the DNA of one variety by adding genetic material from another unrelated variety. A good example of this is taking corn and adding genetic material from a certain bacterium to make the corn produce its own pesticide. GM’s are created in a laboratory are unlike hybrids, are impossible to occur in nature. The vast majority of commercially grown commodity crops grown in the United States including corn, soy, wheat, and sugar beets are genetically modified. Genetically modified seed is not available to the general public and must be purchased from the companies that own the patents.
Here at Mustard Seed Microfarm, I do not grow any GMO crops. I grow mostly open-pollinated varieties, many of which are heirlooms. On occasion, I will grow hybrids if I can’t find an open pollinated variety. All my seed is also certified organic/biodynamic.
What is a “Right to Farm” Bylaw and Why Should I Care?
February 3, 2019
What is a “Right to Farm” Bylaw and Why Should I Care?
By: Zachary L. LaVergne
Southbridge Agricultural Commission
February 3, 2019
Over the past year, the newly re-formed Southbridge Agricultural Commission has been working very hard to draft a proposed Right to Farm bylaw for our town. We are currently on our sixth revision. According to the Massachusetts Attorney Generals office “A Right to Farm bylaw is an important tool that can bolster a community’s efforts to protect the viability of farming. The intent of such a General Bylaw (not Zoning) is to reiterate the importance of—and support for—farming within the town. There is a notification provision that works to ensure that people moving into the community are aware that agriculture, and the associated sights, sounds, and smells, is an accepted and central economic and cultural activity. This type of bylaw seeks to prevent conflicts between farm operations and neighbors.” These laws also serve to protect farmers from nuisance lawsuits and help to preserve precious farmland. Back in the 1970’s Massachusetts was the first state in the country to adopt right to farm legislation, and as of May 2017, there were 140 towns and cities in Massachusetts that have local Right to Farm bylaws.
The first question then is “What exactly is a farm?”. Like most people, when you think of a farm, you probably think of a place with hundreds of acres of land and all kinds of animals to go along with it or huge fields of commodity crops that seem to go on forever. Large farms like this are becoming less and less common though and are proving to be unsustainable due to many reasons including high overhead, labor costs, fuel costs, water shortages, and a dependence on chemical fertilizers and herbicides. Under current state law, a property must be at least 2 contiguous acres and sell at least $1000 of farm products annually to be considered a farm. This definition does not consider the growing trend of mini/micro farms, which often operate on under 2 acres of land or hydroponic farms that can be located inside a building. Right here in Southbridge, we have High Purity Natural Products who use hydroponic techniques to grow industrial hemp and manufacture high quality hemp products in an old mill building. My own farm, Mustard Seed Microfarm, is located on just over a ½ acre of land with about a ¼ acre under cultivation. Despite the small size of my operation, this past season I was able to produce over 1500 pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables. Small farms can be incredibly productive, are much more sustainable, and contribute to a more diverse and secure food supply.
The second question is “Why are smaller local farms so important?”. There are many reasons that smaller local farms are important, but perhaps the most important reason is that a local food supply is a secure food supply. Much of the food we eat, especially produce and meat, is produced on farms that are thousands of miles away and are major polluters. It is then trucked, at enormous cost, to the stores we buy it from, which creates even more pollution. If there is a problem with the fuel supply or transportation system, how will we eat? Local farms are exactly that, local. Instead of having to transport food over thousands of miles, it is maybe transported 20 or 30 miles. Another reason is that by operating on a smaller scale, a farmer can employ more sustainable farming techniques with less overhead costs and pollution. Using my farm as an example again, by keeping things small, I can efficiently grow a wide variety of produce using primarily hand techniques. My use of gas-powered equipment is kept to a bare minimum. By making my own compost and using cover crops I’m able to use minimal amounts of fertilizer. When I need to bring in compost or manure, I can source it locally. This all helps farmers to lower their carbon footprint. Another reason is that when you support local farmers, you are keeping your money in the local economy. When you support a local farmer, you are giving your money to a local business, not some mega-corporation thousands of miles away. When you support a local farmer, you get to know where your food comes from and who grows it.
The third and final question is “Why should I care?”. You should care because this is our town. This is where we live and choose to raise our families. You should care because Southbridge gets a bad rap. It’s up to us to change that. It’s up to us to create a better world for our children. The purpose of a Right to Farm bylaw is not to create a free-for-all where anyone with a bit of land can call it a farm and do whatever they want. On the contrary, it is meant to work with existing state laws and local regulations to create a community that supports legitimate agricultural businesses and is more sustainable. There is very little good agricultural land left in Southbridge and if we lose it, it’s gone forever. By making it easier for people to use smaller parcels of land to produce food, a Right to Farm bylaw will help Southbridge become a stronger, more resilient, healthier, and sustainable community.
Hard Work Pays Off
March 14, 2019
Hard Work Pays Off
When I first founded Mustard Seed Microfarm back in 2017, the soil was less than ideal. It was sandy, had very little organic matter, and was full of rocks. The top soil layer was only about 8 inches deep. I had decided early on that I wanted to keep tillage of the soil to a minimum. Regular tilling can actually cause more damage to the soil. The first thing I did was bring in about 15 yards of top soil and compost. Over the last 2 years, we have continued to add compost, apply biodynamic preps, minimal fertilizer, and planted cover crops. Our latest soil test results show that all major soil nutrients have more than doubled! We will continue adding compost and biodynamic preps which will help to increase the level of organic matter in the soil, but don't need to apply nearly as much fertilizer as in the past.
Our nursery is starting is starting to fill up with seedlings. Everything is growing well. We will begin planting out in the beds late in April. Last month, I was able to attend the Harvest New England conference in Sturbridge. Farmers of all types from all over New England as well as members of the state agricultural departments came together for two days of workshops and a trade show. The workshops covered everything from social media marketing to food safety. It was a great way to network with other farmers and really helped recharge my batteries for the season to come.
Over the winter, I've been very busy planning and working on ways to improve the farm and the quality of our produce. My big project this year will be working to improve our wash and pack area. Food safety has become increasingly important, and I want to make sure that the produce I grow is not only the highest quality possible, but also safe to eat. I will be reworking the wash and pack area to make it easier to clean, and to minimize the possibility of any food becoming contaminated.
June 6, 2019
As many of you know, Mustard Seed Microfarm is a Certified Naturally Grown farm. What many of you may not realize is that we are also a biodynamic farm. But what does that mean? What is Biodynamics?
The biodynamic method of farming and gardening was developed in Europe starting in 1922 by a man named Rudolph Steiner. Steiner had been approached by a group of farmers who were concerned about the decreasing fertility of their soil and health of their animals. In 1924, Steiner gave a series of lectures on the subject that came to be known as the "Agricultural Course".
In biodynamic agriculture, each farm or garden is viewed as a living organism. Like a human being, it is made up of many different systems and organs. When these systems are brought together in a dynamic way, they interact positively to support the health and well-being of the whole. Also, like a human each farm or garden is unique, and develops it's own personality and identity. It is a marriage of scientific knowledge and spiritual awareness.
Planting and harvesting are done in harmony with lunar and planetary cycles, and special herbal preparations are used to help the soil develop humus and become harmonized with the environment. There is a huge emphasis placed on compost, cover cropping, and crop rotation as tools to increase soil fertility. Biodynamic farms strive to create as much of the farm's fertility as possible. Animals provide manure for compost, which in turn provides fertility for the soil to grow feed for the animals and farmer. Due to my farm's size and location, it is hard for me to keep animals, so I do bring in manure and compost occasionally. My goal this year is to acquire some rabbits and chickens to provide manure and to really focus on creating really good compost to make my farm as self sustainable as possible.
June 17, 2019
One of the things we are currently experimenting with here on the farm is the use of biochar as a soil amendment. What exactly is biochar you ask? Biochar is a charcoal-like substance that's made by burning organic matter such as wood or plant material in a controlled process called pyrolysis. Although it looks a lot like common charcoal, biochar is produced using a specific process to reduce contamination and safely store carbon. During pyrolysis, the organic materials used as feed stock are burned in a container with very little oxygen at an extremely high temperature. During the pyrolysis process, the organic matter is converted into biochar, a stable form of carbon that can't easily escape into the atmosphere.
The resulting biochar is approximately 70% carbon. It is highly porous, fine-grained, and has a large surface area which makes it an excellent material for soil building because it holds on to water a nutrients, and makes a good home for beneficial soil organisms.
Although the method I use to make biochar is fairly modern, the practice of using charcoal to enrich soil is not new. It is modeled after a 2,000 year old practice in the Amazon basin, where native peoples created areas of rich, fertile soils known as Terra Preta, which means "dark earth". Before the biochar is applied to my beds, it is mixed, or "primed" with compost and rock dust to inoculate it with nutirents and beneficial organisms. Biochar should never be applied without being primed because it will absorb all of the nitrogen in the soil.