A Day with Blackberry Farm, Producing Organic Heirloom Vegetables Without Tilling
Blackberry Farm is a 4,200-acre luxury hotel resort located in Walland, Tennessee, near the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Blackberry Farm wasbuilt in 1939 and has evolved into the luxury resort in Blount County that it is today. My interest in Blackberry Farm began about a year ago in September, 2016. I was asked by Blount County Soil Conservation District's Conservation Director, Erich Henry to join him to work with Michael Washburn, Garden Manager at Blackberry Farm. In 2015, Michael became the garden manager. The garden consists of approximately 3 acres. The garden produces heirloom vegetables that are served at the resort's two kitchens. There is close correlation and team chemistry between the gardeners and the chefs.
I could tell when I first met Michael Washburn that he was a trained agronomist. He also had experience in restaurants, so again you could see a close correlation of producing and preparing the food. The garden produces food organically. They are not organic certified, but they grow food without chemicals and work on improving their most important natural resource, their soil. Some areas and especially one of the lower fields that had been regularly tilled in the past, were of particular interest. Here soil structure was still lacking. Michael had already followed some great conservation practices. They were making their own compost and applying it regularly. Michael had done research on biochar and constructed an outdoor stove to burn wood and collect the char. You can see the black char in the rows of vegetables. Compost is an active carbon source that feed soil biology. Biochar is a stable carbon source. Many of the chemical properties of soil from humus can be improved by adding bio-char. For background, go to Terra preta on Wikipedia, Terra preta is Portuguese for black soils. Michael is emulating Terra preta by adding bio-char.
Read more: Blackberry Farm
A Day in Coffee County
Coffee County, Tennessee is one of the top counties in Tennessee and the nation as far as embracing and practicing conservation practices that improve soil health. The reason Tennessee is so successful in soil health is the team approach. It starts at the top, and Tennessee embraced soil health because of Kevin Brown, State Conservationist, NRCS, Tennessee. His top three priorities were and are Soil Health, Soil Health, and Soil Health. TACD and the Board of Directors have embraced soil health and has hired a person to promote soil health, that being yours truly, Mike Hubbs, author. Tennessee NRCS from State office to every person in each field office understand the importance of soil health. Our current Acting State Conservationist, Jamie Carpenter is following Kevin's lead and promoting soil health. It helps that Jamie's normal job is Assistant State Conservationist for Programs. Having Programs focusing on soil health is huge for promoting and providing financial assistance. Tennessee Department of Agriculture is another major partner that is also supporting soil health in working with District Supervisors and financial support. Again, the team approach has been instrumental to Coffee County's support as well as the entire state of Tennessee.
Coffee County, like Tennessee, has embraced soil health in 2013. Adam Daugherty, NRCS District Conservationist, Coffee County convinced the Soil Conservation Board that this was the direction they needed to go. Coffee County was already a leader in no-till. They were doing a good job in natural resource conservation. The systems approach of mimicking nature, a deciduous forest was the missing piece. Bringing in cover crops were important, but understanding the function of soils and mimicking a forest was the key. The Soil Conservation Board not only supported the aggressive approach but many of them also jumped in and applied many soil health improving practices.
Coffee County knew that no-till would preserve the benefits of a crop rotation system, but the soil biology was in neutral or status quo. By adding cover crop mixtures with diversity and following good agronomy practices such as planting depth, planting by temperature, preserving moisture when it counts in the summer, covering the entire soil, and balancing the carbon to nitrogen ratio they have unlock some but not all of the secrets of the soil. They and we are always learning something each and every cropping season.
Approximately 70 or more farmers are farming using cover crops, no-till and this system to mimic nature. I think it is incredible for so many to buy into this. Recently I had the privilege to visit and speak to farmers in Alabama. They are beginning to follow some of these principles. On April 25, 2017, I had the privilege to join Adam Daugherty, Allen Willmore, NRCS Soil Conservationist, Coffee County, Steve Musser, Assistant State Conservationist, NRCS Alabama, Jamie Carpenter, Acting State Conservationist, NRCS Tennessee to visit an assortment of farms and see Coffee County's successes in soil health.
Traditionally, farmers have grown cover crops to around knee-high and waist high, killed the cover approximately two weeks before planting of corn or soybeans and plant in a crispy or dead cover. The weaknesses of this system are it limits the growth in the spring especially in corn. Some farmers in counties as south as Coffee County begin thinking about planting corn in March. As we know, cover crops are fairly short in March and just beginning to kick in another gear in the end of March, especially species such as Austrian winter pea, hairy vetch, and crimson clover. In fact, we dug these plants up on April 25 and found many nodules on the roots of each species of legumes. Nodules when they are pink indicate they are producing nitrogen. To kill legumes early, would be to lose a major benefit from the legumes in the mix. Farmers in Coffee County have learned to wait to plant corn to middle to third week of April. I know there are exceptions, but many farms that we visited had planted only about 7 to 10 days earlier. It was very wet on the April 25th, about 8 inches of rain had fallen a few days prior to our visit. Corn was germinating why we were there with a few acres of corn was still to be planted. Another weakness of planting crispy is once you terminate the cover, there is not an active root growing. This year we are bombarded by rain and cool weather. Having a root growing right up to planting is great way to drain uptake the excess moisture. Once the cover is terminated, the residue will hold the moisture in to the soil. Warm weather will eventually alleviate this problem.
Many of the farmers are planting green. That is plant the cash crop of corn or soybeans (most common crops in Coffee County) in standing growing cover crops. Many will lay down the cover crops at planting with variety of implements. The Coffee County Soil Conservation District has purchased a 30 feet wide I&J Crop Roller. The roller/ crimper does an excellent job crimping and rolling the cover crop down. The advantages of rolling a cover down is to manage the much higher biomass when planting green and waiting later. The cover crop exceeds waist high and much of the time is 60" plus in height with a few times exceeding 72" in height. It is easier to plant in well managed cover laying down in one direction. It is best to plant into or at least generally parallel but also covers are much more forgiving planted in green than after terminated. Coffee County farmers are also using pipes, round drums filled with water, power or utility poles and cultipackers to simply lay the cover down in a manageable fashion. The roller/crimper crimps or damages the plant. So, if the grass is in boot stage or mature and legumes are in early bloom, there will be some termination by rolling and crimping. There will still be a need to apply herbicide to complete the termination.
Since Coffee County has farmers in the fourth season of cover crops, it was great to see the benefits after four years. Some of the observations were on a steep red-clay field that had been in covers for approximately three years. They had been killing the covers early about knee-high to preserve the moisture going into summer. Now after some of accumulation of soil carbon, they were letting the cover grow higher. The field was functioning at a higher-level due to the three years of no-till and cover crops.
In another field near a stream the field was highly productive and was in its fourth year of covers. The farmer had learned through experiences that he needed much more grasses than legumes because of the increased biology. When we pulled back the covers the previous year's residue was decomposing quickly. This is a benefit after three to four years. We normally see water infiltration improvements the first and second year. If we are growing cover crops high enough and managing them by rolling them, we are seeing major weed suppression the second to fourth years in covers. The decomposition of corn and bean stalks in less than a year is seen only after three to four years. Also, while standing on the edge of the field, we noticed the water was clear as a mountain stream. This is impressive right after planting. I made a comment that water looked clear enough to drink. Before I finished the statement, Adam Daugherty swooped down to the stream and took a drink. That is confidence in the farmer's conservation.
Coffee County also has been in a three-year demonstration following the Haney Test recommendations. Farmers will reduce on some plots down to about 75 units of nitrogen (N) compared to the normal of about 200- 210 units of N. Farmers may be able to cut back on N as we continue to build the soil biology and carbon and nitrogen ratios lower to below 10 to 1 ratio.
Soil structure in all the fields we looked at are granular at surface with some sub-angular soil structure as we dig deeper into the soil. This is why Coffee County is seeing 6-8" or greater per hour of water infiltration. We have seen by comparing some bare spots or some monoculture-legumes as cover crops that we can lose this soil aggregation quickly and water infiltration will go back to 2-4" per hour. We need diversity and cover continuously to keep soils aggregating. Active carbon that is recently dead residues and cover crops are the key to aggregating soils and for nutrient cycling. Total carbon or soil organic matter is important to keep climbing, but it is much more important to see diverse high-quality carbon being produced annually and being consumed by soil biology providing policing of soil disease, cycling of nutrients, and aggregating soil. If we continue to keep the soil covered, keep an active root growing, reduce disturbances, and maintain diverse covers we will continue to see our soil health or functions improving.
Coffee County is an excellent example to follow. They are having their annual Soil Health Field Day, which is one of the larger field days in the state, on August 3, 2017. To attend, contact the Coffee Soil Conservation District and register and pay. Also, you can follow them of Facebook, coffee Soil Conservation District. It was my pleasure to spend a day in Coffee County.