Conservation as the Cornerstone
We speak often about crop rotation and organic principles around plant production in these newsletters, yet recently we realized we have not gone into much detail about conservation measures we employ to be good stewards of the land. We are blessed with magnificent soil here at Elmwood Stock Farm, and we do everything we can to improve it as we convert solar energy into nutritious foods for you and, by extension, human energy.
In our animal- and crop-rotation plan, each acre of land has its assigned purpose. Every eight years, we plow down alfalfa hay fields and plant them in our rows of little vegetable seeds or transplanted seedlings. This is obviously disrupting to the plants, insects, microbes and aggregate soil particles that have called it home for so many years. We most often use a moldboard plow, which basically undercuts the field about 8 inches deep and flips it upside down. The nutrients released from the now-decomposing plants and all the related biota immediately start re-colonizing the underground rhizosphere to give a good start to the little plants that we're about to put into the soil.
Good soil conservation dictates that the ground is always worked on the contours of the slope of the field. For the initial tillage, we use a five-bottom 16-inch plow. This leaves the field rough, which helps spring rains infiltrate easily, reducing the risk of erosion as long as the rows are perpendicular to the slope. If one were to plow up and down the slope, the lower area between the humps of each plowshare would act like a gutter and erode a gully every 16 inches, effectively washing away tons of topsoil. These same dips between the plowshare humps act like little berms that hold water until it has time to infiltrate the soil.
Secondary tillage to smooth the surface and prepare a seed bed is also done on the contour for the same reason. This is not as easy as it sounds, given the undulating hills and slopes of the topography of the Bluegrass Region. Working soils when too wet can ruin the structure of the soil, and tillage does not work well when too dry. A “good farmer” is steadfast in limiting erosion while prepping the fields in a timely fashion for spring planting.
Planting on the contours is equally important, whether the plants are growing on bare ground or, even more importantly, in strips of plastic mulch. Since the plastic sheds rainwater, it is important to encourage the water not to collect and run down a slope, so we use the raised-bed berms of plastic to hold the water in place to infiltrate and nourish the plant roots underneath. Bare-ground plantings get cultivated several times a year, which loosens the soil, making it at risk of erosion which is why contour farming is so critical.
Understanding individual fields on a farm means becoming familiar with the lay of the land. Fields that require little consideration to all of this are said to lay well. Some fields have variable slope patterns and/or variable soil types, which require more attention to detail. Sometimes, we will have several row patterns in the same field. We might also leave a portion of the field in sod, where the water naturally drains away, letting the established plants and their roots hold the soil in place. These are called sod waterways; you should see them in some fields as you drive through the countryside.
The USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), which used to be called the Soil Conservation Service, has funds available to incentivize farmers to employ conservation measures on their farms. Wind breaks save lots of soil loss in the Great Plains and are, therefore, a good investment in national food security. In our area, programs are available to offset the cost of various erosion-control measures, plant beneficial-insect habitat, employ cover-cropping systems and more. These investments in stabilizing the soil, for the good of society, date back to the Dust Bowl years. What a wakeup call that was.
Here at Elmwood Stock Farm, we have six, going on seven, generations of good farming techniques bred into our heritage. Our few inches of topsoil are our livelihood. First and foremost, we do everything we can to keep it in place. Building the organic matter, increasing the diversity of microbes that develop structure within the soil particles, rotating crops with differing types of root structures, and long rest periods in hay and pasture are other tools we have to maintain, if not build, soil. This gets to the art of farming. In The Gift of Good Land, Wendell Berry says: “We have neglected the truth that a good farmer is a craftsman of the highest order, a kind of artist.” In a past conversation with Wendell, he referred to us as good farmers, and for that we are very proud. —Mac Stone
In Your Share
Fresh Herb: Sage
Orzo with Kale and Roasted Tomatoes, adapted from Tasty Kitchen
Serve this warm as a main dish or cold as a side salad.
12 Roma tomatoes, cut into 1-in. pieces
½ tsp. sugar
½ tsp. salt, plus more to taste
1 bunch kale, stems removed and leaves thinly sliced
¼ c. olive oil
1 clove garlic, minced
3 c. dry orzo
2 oz. Parmesan cheese, shaved or grated
Heat oven to 325 degrees F. Place tomatoes on a rimmed baking sheet lined with parchment or lightly oiled. Sprinkle with sugar and salt. Roast 1 ½ to 2 hours, until tomatoes are dried, wilted and slightly dark at the edges.
Prepare orzo according to package directions.
Heat olive oil in a small pan over medium-low. Add garlic and stir until just fragrant, then turn off the heat and let cool.
In a large bowl, massage kale with salt for 30 seconds or so to tenderize. Add the cooked orzo and garlic oil. Stir and taste. Add salt to your preference. Very gently stir in the tomatoes and most of the Parmesan. Top with the rest of the Parmesan and serve.
Thai Coconut Delicata Squash and Green Beans, adapted from Eat Well, Enjoy Life
2 c. green beans, trimmed and cut into 1 ½-in. lengths
1 T. coconut oil
2 cloves garlic
1 small onion, chopped
¼ c. chopped ginger
1-2 medium Serrano chiles, seeded and minced
1 T. red Chili sauce (or to taste)
3 c. delicata squash, chopped into 1-in. cubes
1 c. canned, full-fat coconut milk
¼ tsp. black mustard seeds (optional)
Bring a pot of water to boil. Add the green beans, and cook 3 minutes, until crisp tender. Drain.
Heat oil in a large sauté pan over medium heat. Add garlic, onion, ginger and peppers. Sauté 2 minutes on medium-low until fragrant. Add chili paste and stir. Add squash and ½ cup water, cover, and steam until squash is medium-tender, about 4 minutes. Add coconut milk and a little salt. Bring to a very gentle simmer and immediately turn to low. Add beans. Simmer, uncovered, about 5 minutes, until vegetables are tender and the sauce is slightly thickened. Don’t allow the mixture to come to a rolling boil or it will curdle. Serve topped with mustard seeds.
Lemon-Cucumber Cake, adapted from Veggie Desserts
half a large cucumber ⅓ c. butter, softened
zest and juice of half a lemon 1 ½ c. powdered sugar
⅔ c. butter, softened 1 T. gin or lemon juice
¾ c. granulated sugar
1½ tsp. vanilla extract
1 ¾ c. all-purpose flour
2 tsp. baking powder
Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. Lightly grease 9-inch cake pan. Wash and leave the skin on the cucumber and de-seed it by cutting it in half lengthways and scraping the seeds out with a teaspoon. Cut into chunks and purée until smooth. Stir in lemon juice. In a large bowl, cream together butter, lemon zest, sugar and vanilla until light and fluffy. Add eggs, one at a time, beating each one in well. In a medium bowl, combine flour and baking powder. Add ⅓ of the flour mixture to butter mixture, then gently mix in ⅓ of the cucumber to butter mixture, and continue until all ingredients are combined. Bake in the preheated oven for 30 minutes or until a skewer comes out clean. Allow to cool for 5 minutes in the pan, and turn out on a wire rack to cool completely before icing.
Beat butter, sugar, and gin or lemon juice together until smooth and fluffy. Keep in the fridge until ready to ice the cake.