Organic Farming: Year Two

This is my second year running an organic farm. We’re a lot bigger now, with a new name (Mike & Clare’s) and a new location (Ottawa, Illinois). The first year was about running through the process and learning, and this year is more of the same. I think it’s going to take some playing around before we get into a repeatable system. In fact, on reflection, I’m not even sure that is a possibility. There’s just so much going on that is not visible to us. We are dependent on things we cannot see and interactions that may be too complex to fully understand. But enough of that. We all know there is mystery in the soil.

This year I had a breakthrough in understanding soil fertility. And about time, too. It was making me nervous not knowing how to handle it. We’re not doing everything right, but we keep moving toward it. I was thinking it’d take at least seven years to get really good at sustainable farming, and we’re only in year two.

We do a lot of weeding, but not without some hand-wringing over it. The presence of most weeds indicates that something is wrong with the soil — it’s either missing something or its structure is degraded. Many weeds improve soil conditions to the point where they themselves can no longer compete. But be that as it may, we can’t have them shade out our plants. So, we’ll spend tomorrow weeding things so that we get a crop this year, but we also will spend time improving our soil. In our scheme, weeds are signs that we need to continue to a higher succession of the soil food web. Weeds that don’t shade out our plants are allowed to live. They are working to restore the soil.

We need to save our vegetables from weeds because in our second year we have expanded our CSA operation from 8 share boxes a week to 55 boxes a week. CSA stands for community-supported agriculture. The way these systems work is that people send us money before the season starts; we then bring them a weekly box of vegetables for a set amount of time during the growing season.

Last year I knew all of my members very well before they joined. This year we’re getting to know people as the year goes on. People who started out as strangers sending us checks in the mail have turned into friends with their own stories. Our CSA members’ support means a lot to us. Like I said, we’re still learning. There is a lot going on out there and we’re trying our best to feed the soil and grow healthy food and not kill ourselves doing it.

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