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Walking in a winter wonderland…of green cover crops peeking through snow, fall-seeded small grains, and fields that can’t wait to be frost-seeded soon.

Walking In a Winter Wonderland

Dani Kusner
Posted January 7, 2019 by Dani Kusner

Walking in a winter wonderland…of green cover crops peeking through snow, fall-seeded small grains, and fields that can’t wait to be frost-seeded soon. As the chaos of the holiday season comes to a close, our organics team is hard at work handling your organic harvests, talking to prospective organic and transitioning growers, and attending tradeshows, such as the ACRES USA conference.

While attendance at the ACRES show last month seemed lower, perhaps due to challenges of the delayed harvest, the energy and optimism around organic production could not have been stronger. One part of biologically-vibrant soils that successful organic and regenerative farmers practice is integrating diversity and stacking tools with multiple functions into their rotation. Rockey Farms, based in south-central Colorado, is one shining example.

At ACRES, Brendan Rockey shared his story of how their farm made a turnaround once he began to pay attention to the biology underlying the system. Once he realized that the “cides” (fungicide, herbicide, and insecticide) were causing more negative feedback loops of other problems to this potato crop, he began to investigate different solutions such as supporting carbon, soil structure, life in the soil, beneficial insects, and life on the plant’s leaves.

Brendan recalled how his grandpa would say, “You have to take care of the soil before the soil can take care of you,” and he acknowledged that returning to this level of care took several years, as they added more diversity back into the system. Brendan started with carbon. His previous rotation had been barley and potatoes, and he replaced the barley with cover crops. Cover crops push out more carbon from root exudates to feed soil microbes. With more activity, the microbes also respire carbon, which allows more oxygen to enter the soil. Brendan strongly believes that this increased gas exchange, fueled by the soil microbes, is underestimated in its role to improve soil structure, which in turn began eliminating his soil borne disease challenges.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Rockey Farms’ use of cover crops is the planting of several species directly into the potato row as companion crops to serve multiple functions, without any detriment to harvest quality or quantity. His legumes, such as fava beans, field peas, and chickling vetch, fix nitrogen, while buckwheat helps mobilize phosphorus. These flowering species attract beneficial insects and pollinators, which keep undesirable insect pests “in-check.” They also help to conserve water, so that they irrigate less, and save money.

This may come as a surprise, but Rockey Farms is not certified organic. The point that I want to stress is that the transition to a new production system (whether non-gmo, certified organic, regenerative organic certified, or not certified at all) requires a change of mind-set to think differently about the biological system and diversity on the farm. This is why, many times, the best transition to organic takes several years (more than the three years required by the NOP) because the farmer is introducing one new idea a year, such as reintroducing small grains for the first time in decades, experimenting and beginning to master cover crops, or trying no-till or roller-crimping to try to eliminate the need for tillage or herbicides in an organic production system. The Andersons will never tell you that the transition will be easy. We are here, however, to support you and to share stories such as Rockey Farms, that provide a radically different and profitable model that values diversity in cropping systems, natural pollinators, and the soil’s biology that can serve as an immune system of resistance against pests and disease.

If you have questions about your organic production system plan, nutrient inputs, or the transition process, please reach me at dani_kusner@andersonsinc.com or call 419-891-2785. From everyone at The Andersons, we wish you an awesome 2019!