jim athearn plowing in katama

Jim Athearn plowing at the old Waller Dairy farm, now owned by the town of Edgartown, just to the north of the Katama air field.

Dad says “It’s time to plow everything.” Last week’s wet weather made the cover crops jump up, and kept us out of the fields because they were too wet. Many to most fields now are covered by our staple cover crop, a mix of winter rye, legumes and radish. We grow it to 10 inches, the optimal height for plowing down while it’s most biologically active and before it gets too carbonaceous.

Winter rye puts on a huge amount of growth in the spring, and establishes easily even into late November. And the best part of rye is its ability to hold fertility over the winter. Even when 2 to 4 inches high in November, it binds up many of the soluble nutrients that might otherwise disappear down to the water table. Then there is the bonus of a large crop of “green manure”‘ to plow down in the spring.

I love that term, “green manure.” It applies to any vegetation that when grown can add to the soil after plow-down. 

Mixed in with the bodacious rye are hairy vetch, Austrian winter pea and daikon radish. Vetches and peas, like alfalfa, are part of the legume family. This means they have that magical ability to “fix” nitrogen from the air and store it in nodules in their roots. So these little cold-weather legumes will grab the farmers’ most valuable nutrient from the air (I hear there is too much in the air as it is) and store it for use during the growing season, then we plow it down and take advantage of those nutrients.

Daikon radish, also known as tillage radish, sends its taproots several feet into the earth to pull up minerals from the soil. Killed by winter’s cold, the radish roots decay and make fantastic food for our greatest unpaid labor source, the worms.

I could watch that rank green winter crop slide over and under into the earth as it leaves the plow all day, just beautiful. And luckily I do get to watch it all day, because this part of the season a lot of time is put in on the plow.  At a fast pace on a long field (with less turning around at the ends) I can plow up to about two acres in an hour—that was a record time, though. 

It’s a lot of time in the saddle, and just the beginning of the process. Plowing is followed by: disking, fertilization/lime, compost spreading, more disking, perfecting (a tool for leveling and smoothing), planting, cultivation, irrigation, and harvest. 

But every year, we’re plowing less of our land. This year we are planting no-till crops on about 22 of the 60 or so acres we are planting to vegetables. 

Some crops, like carrots, will always require tillage. But no-till agriculture is better for soil health, which is one of our primary concerns here at the farm. We have been working with Rodale, Island Grown Initiative and the federal National Resource Conservation Service to improve our no-till methods.

Thought for the day: Spring makes the farmer happy because his fields are still full of promise and he hasn’t had time to screw anything up yet!