Summer Reflections on Fall Cover Crops
We have been growing cover crops during the winter months for more than 30 years now. Cover crops are essential in our farming system, as they capture energy from the sun, nutrients and water from the soil, and store this energy in their biomass in the form of carbon. The biomass produced by the cover crop then is returned to the soil where it is digested, broken down into its molecular and elemental components by microbial activity, and becomes available to the subsequent crops.
The sustaining cycle of organic agriculture.
This winter when we had steady rains, the run off from neighboring range and farmland was heavy, carrying with it tons of topsoil from unprotected fields. One day in early February I walked out into one of our cover cropped fields after a deluge, and the water was about 8” deep in our field. The cover crop was holding the rainwater back, giving it time to percolate into the soil profile. The drain water coming from our fields was so clean you could almost drink it—very little soil erosion.
We typically work our cover crops into the soil in mid-March and finish by early April. They are generally about 3 or 4 feet high at that time. We use a flail mower that chops the plant matter into small pieces, which aids in rapid decomposition. With all the rain this year and wet soil conditions running well into April and May, all field activities got put on hold. We ended up running about 3 weeks behind schedule getting the cover crops mowed and incorporated into the soil. As a result of this delay, our cover crops grew to 6 feet tall in most fields. Normally we mow them down when they are about a 2 feet tall. Although I know that all this biomass will be of great benefit to our soils, the process of returning this plant-mass to the soil was energy intensive, requiring our tractor with the flail mover to creep slowly through the field.
The rain and cool weather did not help our asparagus harvest either with yields coming in 40% below normal this season. We were able to keep close to schedule with our tomato planting, but watermelons and other crops kept getting put off due to wet and cold conditions. We ended up canceling two of our late watermelon plantings because their maturity would have pushed into September.
So here we are in early July. We started to harvest cherry tomatoes at almost the exact same time as last year. Warm June temperatures spurred maturity on the tomatoes, making up for the later planting time this spring. Other crops too are finally taking off: melons, cucumbers, winter squash, and zucchini. These crops love warm weather.
Sometimes nature makes folly of our best plans and intentions. This is a given in agriculture. But nature also invites abundance to the table. When we humble ourselves to nature’s purpose, we can be rewarded with results we did not anticipate. Spring of 2019 is etched into my memory and I am looking forward to the bounty of summer. The tears we shed this spring will water the seeds of abundance that always comes, sometimes in ways we do not anticipate or expect.