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Straw Mulching

Straw Mulching

Douglas Gayeton for Lexicon of Sustainability

Straw Mulching

Location: Greenbranch Farms, Salisbury, MD

Featuring: Ted Wycall, Tim, Virginia, Julia, Jon and Joe

“When health is the goal, and the proper actions are taken, the need for chemical crutches like herbicides are eliminated.” – Ted Wycall

Using straw as mulch vs. synthetic pesticides keeps sunlight from hitting the soil which prevents weeds from growing, prevents moisture loss through evaporation, and keeps the plant roots cool (It also looks great).

Instead of using chemical inputs to control his weeds (which rob the soil of vital nutrients) Ted uses straw from local grain farmers after they have harvested spring wheat. Straw mulching eliminates the need for pesticides because 1) the soil is amended and balanced (soil microbes digest the carbon and convert it to nitrogen) giving the plant boosted immunity to insect pests; 2) there is no bare ground for weeds to have opportunity to grow; and 3) the mulch ground cover conserves water and stabilizes the soil temperature to reduce stress to the plant. Greenbranch usually straw mulches the crops that have a long growing season or are very high value, like tomatoes, peppers, and garlic.

Forest Raised

Forest Raised

Douglas Gayeton

Forest Raised

Location: Greenbranch Farm, Salisbury, MD

Raising pigs in the woods is not an entirely new practice, but what is new about these pigs is that their forest foraging area rotates, thanks to the help of electric fencing. Ted lets them hit the wild forage hard until it dwindles, then moves them to fresh ground. This mimics the pattern of wild animals who are always moving to a fresh food supply, allowing the forest food to regenerate. Ted also enhances the wild forage supply by using forestry practices of selective thinning and clearing of trees and shrubs. Ted’s pigs also get a grain based pig feed, but this is only a fraction of their diet.

These animals forage and harvest their own food in the same habitat they would prefer if they were wild. The forest also provides them with shelter from the summer sun and cold winter winds; deciduous trees are the perfect passive solar home for a pig.

What are these pigs foraging for? Tree bark, shrubbery, wild grapes, worms, mice, acorns, grass, persimmons, dewberries, elderberries, roots, grubs, lizards, clover, ants, honeysuckle, seeds, beetles, hollyberries, hickory nuts, weeds, and blackberries.

Soil Amendments

Soil Amendments

Soil Amendments

Location: Greenbranch Farms, Salisbury, Maryland

Featuring: Ted Wolf-Wycall

Some soils are naturally unbalanced. Some soil minerals wash away with rains or are blown away by wind erosion. Some soil fertility is lost when absorbed by plants that are later harvested. All of these circumstances require adding to the soil in order to energize the life forms that depend on it.

Farming removes minerals and nutrients from the soil. Amending soil balances its chemistry and improves its physical properties of water retention, drainage, permeability, water infiltration, aeration, and structure, ultimately so plants and animals can derive the greatest nutritional benefits.

When Ted Wycall took back his family’s farm after it had been subjected to 25 years of industrial corn and soybean production, he discovered that the soil was inert. One of the main challenges to operating a successful organic farm is to fix soils that are heavily depleted by conventional farmers who have mined their topsoil of vital nutrients. Soil amendments used at Greenbranch includes Aragonite (a calcium source from sea shells), Lime, compost, gypsum, Boron, Rock Powered, humates, Kelp, and Sulfate. Ted says it is nothing short of amazing to watch the soil come back to life and see crops thrive in healthy balanced soils. Soil fertility is the foundation of any successful farm.

“Farming is one of those things that has recently gained the attention and interest of a large part of the population; everyone thinks, after reading a few books or seeing a few documentaries, that they understand what it is like to farm. I will be the first to tell you that no one will ever understand what this business can inflict on a naive and well-meaning human being until he has actually spent more than a few years going this work. It is work that will test your strength in every single aspect of one’s humanity. People need to realize that Mother Nature will punish you severely and unfairly many, many times, even though you have done nothing wrong and are only trying to make things better for people and nature. She will kick you when you are down, spit in your face, and the only thing you can do is pray that she doesn’t kill you.

“On the positive side, there are many rewards to be had from this work, though they will probably not be financial in nature. I am sticking with farming, but I will not be one to paint a picture of farming that is rosier than reality. All farmers will get burned badly from time to time and they had better be prepared for that. I was not ready to learn that lesson when I began, but I have learned it now and it gives me great humility and enormous respect for all my colleagues, organic or conventional, that takes the lickin’ and keep on tickin’.”

Building Soil Fertility

Building Soil Fertility

Featuring: Steve Ela
Location: Ela Family Farms in Hotchkiss, Colorado

Building Soil Fertility
Steve Ela is an organic farmer who depends on cover crops to enhance soil fertilization on his farms. He plants both deep-rooted perennial legumes like alfalfa and clover (red and white) and vetch which provide biomass early in the season (when the peach trees need it most). They also…
1. suppress weeds
2. build organic matter reserves
3. build top soil by bringing nutrients up from deeper soil levels
4. prevent erosion and loss of top soil
5. perennials don’t require replanting each year (continued cultivation disturbs tree roots) and cover crops enrich a variety of soil bacteria and microorganisms that support earthworm populations.

Peaches Require:
1. hot days
2. cooler nights
3. lots of fresh mountain snowpack water (the Rockies)
4. good soil

Steve says the US agricultural model has always been exploitative. It uses up resources instead of treating agriculture as a system that can build resources like energy, food, biodiversity, and fertility.

Steve Ela' grandfather first planted peaches in western Colorado in 1907. Four generations later Steve grows a variety of stone fruits, including Earlistars (mid-July), Risingstars + PF-7 (later July), Newhaven + Bellaire (early August), Starfire (mid-August), Glohaven + Rose + Coralstar (late August), Glowingstar + Allstar + Blushingstar (early September), Cresthaven + J.H. Hale (mid-September), and O’Henry (late September).