Research Farm in Berry Creek, CA
Spring Report 2017
The Research Farm is located at the Environment Celebration Institute (ECI) in Northern California. The 68 acre property was purchased in March of 2015 with many springs, ponds, forests and meadows. During the past 2 years much work has been done to convert the acreage around the buildings into research plots, with and without biology added. Data has been collected and analyzed and organized. Some results have been described in the North America Permaculture Magazine in 2016 and 2017. Below is a summary of what is being done this Spring in 2017.
We purchased the new tractor (see picture below) and the picture below shows Joey Soli, one of the employees we are training in the Soil Foodweb approach, digging a planting hole for an apple tree that we grafted onto dwarf pear rootstock. We also purchased apple, almond, and peach semi-dwarf fruit trees to plant in the area west of the house, and in the new orchard area to the south of the vegetable production area.
Four out of the eight trees in the no-added biology orchard area pictured below were so severely diseased that we had to remove them. In the plus biology area, all but one of the 10 older trees showed improving health, and we will continue to work to bring them back into healthy production. The one apple tree removed from the plus biology part of the orchard was very diseased and needed to be removed.
Thirty of the semi-dwarf fruit trees were planted in this area (in the photo below), to the south of the existing vegetable beds, and we are expanding this area beyond the existing fence line. This new orchard area is an added-biology block, using the orchard to the west of the house as the control, without added biology.
All of the blackberry bushes that were inter-planted between the vegetable beds have been transplanted just to the left (south) of this picture, as the berries were blocking needed sunlight to grow crops. Additionally, we have planted 10 blueberry bushes and 10 apple trees along the eastern fence line where morning sun is blocked by the forest trees. Half of each of these areas will be no-added biology, and the other half is an added-biology area.
Later this year, we will clear 3 acres of forest (the forest you can see in the background in the picture above) to expand the orchard and berry areas further. We plan on growing a large area (200 feet by 200 feet) of strawberry in the area to be cleared.
In the past two years, we have experimented with hand-watering methods (troughs along each bed filled with water each day), and a drip irrigation system. We found it very difficult to keep reminding people that the troughs were to be filled first thing in the morning, and then kept filled with water whenever the troughs dried. This is perhaps a method of watering that works better in more medic climates, not in semi-arid California. Last year a drip irrigation system was recommended by the person we hired as a potential farm manager, but the system was unreliable. The hoses were constantly disconnecting, so that each day for several hours portions of the field did not receive the water needed.
This year we hired a consultant to design a system for our farm. We are going to trial this system in the 30 foot by 50 foot garden area at the Nature’s Solution office/warehouse. Planting dates are early April in Oroville, and mid-May in Berry Creek due to the 3,000-foot difference in elevation, so we will be able to determine whether the new irrigation system is reliable enough for us, or not, before investing in the much larger system needed in Berry Creek.
The perennial cover plants we planted last summer have come through the rather tough winter we had this year. Beginning in mid-December, we started having torrential rainfall turning to ice and then to snow. Both the Dichondra and the mini-clover were buried in snow for a week or more several times throughout the winter. At the end of the growing season in 2016, the Dichondra was predominant throughout the growing beds. But during the winter, under the snow (about 4 to 5 feet cumulative), the mini-clover took over. The Dichondra is still present under the clover and will begin to assert itself to emerge in the right conditions, we suspect. This is exactly the reason that multiple types of cover plants are a good idea. There will always be good cover no matter what the weather conditions are if we promote diversity. However, both cover plants have survived a tough winter, and will now grow and cover more area as spring progresses.
The picture above shows the uniform nature of the coverage by the mini-clover, with the Dichondra barely visible under the clover. Notice that the cover plant is crowding the lettuce, parsley and spinach starts that were recently planted in the bed. Both the Dichondra and the mini-clover need to either be cleared back a greater distance, or need to be mowed to reduce height to give the advantage to the crop. We will trial both approaches to be able to recommend the practice that is most efficient and gives the best head-start to the crop.
In another area, using row covers through the winter, some fava beans and peas, as well as the cover plants, survived through the winter. These crop plants are bolting (photo below) and thus aren’t going to be useful as early starts since they haven’t grown up enough to give good yields. However, the dichondra and mini-clover stayed vibrant and healthy throughout the winter and is preventing weeds from growing in the bed, providing a protective layer to hold moisture and acting as a “living mulch”.
The lettuce and spinach starts still need fabric row covers when the temperatures drop below freezing at night during this time of the year. Even though the starts are being protected during cold nights by putting the row covers on, and then during the day the row covers are removed so direct sunlight reaches the plants, the starts are not growing significantly. Putting on and taking off the row covers takes a serious amount of time and effort. Unless some benefit of having starts in the ground long before growing conditions are conducive to growth, we will not be repeating this effort in the future. The cost of putting the row covers on and taking them off every day for weeks is not resulting in any benefit.
The 2017 meadow: The next area, being put into production this year
The 2017 Meadow is south of the current areas of production and is approximately a half acre in size. The deer fence will be extended around this new production area and the fence posts are currently being put in. To the east (right hand side) we are planting semi-dwarf fruit trees approximately 20 feet east of where the first row of corn will be planted. West and north within the deer fence is the new orchard and berry areas just planted this spring.
The beds in the 2016 area will be extended south, along the contour of the slight west-ward (left hand side) slope. The same crops will be planted in the same place in the 2016 area as last year. This will begin the demonstration that as long as the biology in the soil maintains high diversity in all groups, then diseases and pests will continue to not be a factor. Just as last year, corn, tomatoes, cucumber, summer squash, peas, and successive lettuce crops will be planted in 2016, as well as 2017 meadows. There will be five sections designated within the 2016 – 2017 areas: (1) the control, no-biology-added section of 2016, (2) the plus biology area in 2016, (3 and 4) two sections of plus biology in the new 2017 area, and (5) another control section where conventional fertilizers and tillage will be used. If the irrigation system being trialed in Oroville proves to be acceptable, we will use the same irrigation system in both 2016 and 2017 meadows.
Annual Meeting of Certified Soil Life Consultants
The Certified Soil Life Consultant’s annual meeting was held at the Oroville office facility on February 2 and 3, 2017. On the first day of the meeting, each attendee presented an example of the successes they have had this last year by applying the soil food web approach, with proper documentation of plant production, soil organisms and the benefits that improving soil organisms gives to the plant. Each consultant is expected to put that information into the format for the success story sections of the SFI and ECI websites, and then also on their own websites. Each consultant works typically with several thousand acres of crops, landscape, turf, homeowner yards and gardens throughout the US, Canada, and Mexico. Visitors were also at the meeting with connections to South America and SE Asia.
The second day of the meeting was planned to be at the Celebration Farm, but weather did not cooperate. Because roads were icy and snow was falling, only those with four-wheel drive were allowed to drive up to the farm, and we stayed only a short period of time touring the farm before returning to the Oroville office to work on microscopes. Next year, the meeting date will be set a bit later in the year to avoid bad weather.
Microscopes and supplies were brought from the farm to the office in Oroville and we spent the rest of the day doing microscopic assessments of different soil samples to make sure all the advisors were assessing the different groups of organisms correctly. All the advisors passed the check-up of their skills with flying colors! Along with the focus on microscope work and identification of different soil organisms, a demonstration of how to do statistical analysis with the data was performed and discussed.
The laboratory space above the garage is finished (see picture below). There is a fully functional sink in the room, and a heat pump to maintain comfortable temperatures. The new bathroom is downstairs on the ground floor, below the lab, and behind the garage area. In addition, we have a lunch room with refrigerator, microwave and hot plate for employees to use.
Microscope Practical Training Classes
The week of Feb. 13, 2017, we had the inauguration of the microscope lab with our first microscope class. People taking the on-line microscope class find that they need practice and a great deal of hand-holding to gain the confidence that they are correctly identifying the soil critters. Just as with the Advisor’s meeting, we also went over statistical procedures and writing reports.
The Farm Office
Since we have had difficulty getting people who have stayed in the guest house to clean up after themselves, and neither Carole nor Elaine want to take on the job of running a hotel, the guest house has now been officially converted into the farm office. Elaine’s office area (see picture below) is the back of the main room (instead of the kitchen table or her bedroom in the main house), and there is another desk area for Michelle, Carole’s administrative assistant when she is at the farm, and Jimena, the person designated to take over the day-to-day running of the farm once her training is finished, at the front of the room.
An 18-foot x 28-foot plastic-fabric-sided carport has been adapted to get our small scale hand-turned piles out of the weather. We call this (see picture below) our “Comport”. It is much more pleasant working in the protection of the compost when weather outside is very unpleasant, and this winter has been very unpleasant. We have had close to 100 inches of rain/snow since mid-December to late March, a time when California typically only gets 10 to 12 inches of precipitation. Protection from the weather has allowed us forgo placing tarps on the piles, at least during these wet winter months. We have the room inside the compost to fill buckets, for two 40 bucket compost piles, as shown below.
Because the current compost windrow area is temporary, we don’t want to turn the ground at the current site into concrete using anhydrous ammonia and lime. Thus, through this winter of excessive rainfall, we have not made compost windrows nor have we used the turner. As soon as the ground dries, we will start to build compost windrows again.
In the area sited for the permanent composting operation, we need to clear the young trees, grade the surface and apply lime to harden the soil to compact the surface. We plan on putting up a shed for storing compost tools, starting materials, and finished compost.
Hoop House / Greenhouse
The greenhouse had accumulated a year’s worth of “debris”, so the first of March was designated as time to clean the hoop house. All new benches were built and shelves were built (see picture below) and we are starting seedlings to be planted out in about a month. Successional planting will be done this year with crops like peas, lettuce, carrots, and radish.
Gold mines, sluiceways and erosion
Three acres of disturbed forest just south and west of the current production area needs to be cleared. Initially, we wanted to clear this area to alleviate shade preventing sunlight from getting to the production area, and to expand the orchard, berry and row crop / vegetable production areas near the house. As we walked this area, however, we discovered that there was a serious problem in a steeply eroded ravine part way down the hill. The people who owned the property before us had used the bottom of this ravine to dump garbage over the years. So there are several reasons to clear this area to deal with these problems.
The loggers who came to look over the area to be cut, pointed out that the swale-like depression leading into the badly eroding ravine was, in fact, an old gold-mine sluiceway, and not a natural feature. When the sluice way was originally dug, perhaps in the 1860’s or 1890’s, based on when the majority of gold-mining was done in this area, the forest was most likely clear-cut at that time. But the trees in this area are too narrow diameter at 5 feet height above the ground (DBH), indicating the area was probably cut a second time in the 1920’s also.
All these factors put together means that cutting the mostly tertiary forest, with a few secondary trees, but no old growth trees, is the best course of action to be able to level the sluiceway, fix the erosion problems in the ravine (maybe level the ravine as this is not a natural water feature) and clean out the garbage dump. The production area of the property will be increased as a result, allowing us to plant a more extensive orchard, have a large strawberry production area, and possibly put in an insulated polycarbonate greenhouse for year-round production
Projects In Planning
We now have the farm equipment that we need to proceed with the experimental part of our agricultural work. Communication of our results at workshops, meetings and symposia has been happening, publication of the results of our experiments and documentation of the continuing work is creating an ever-expanding the range of people who are now able to see that the biological approach does indeed work. Now, that this part of the institute’s work is proceeding full-steam ahead, we would like to turn to two projects that would ensure year-round, sustainability of the farm. Two things will allow this goal to be accomplished within the next two years.
First, a greenhouse made of clear polycarbonate with triple wall insulation with heating and cooling systems would give us the ability to produce food outside the constraints of the summer growing season. There is a manufacturer in Sacramento (just an hour and a half away). They will work with the contractor in our area on permits and help with installation of the greenhouse on the farm.
The second project would be installation of a solar energy system. The 30% tax incentives are still available from the federal government through 2019, and with careful research of all the existing systems, we have determined that Solar Panels tied into the existing regional energy provider with a backup stand-by generator is the best choice for our situation. We decided not to go completely off-grid, due to maintenance and cost issues and inefficient use of energy.