The farm feels like a tropical rainforest. There is a humid heat that rises around 9:00am that breaks most afternoons with a heavy cool rain, followed by a blanket of clouds. If you were to leave for a few days and return (a luxury afforded by summer that is happily accepted), you would be struck by the rapid growth of the cover crop growing in the fields. Everything is glowing an emerald green and breathing air dripping heavy with water and the frogs sing all night when it rains.
Summer is the perfect time for cover cropping. Cover crops are rapidly growing plants that farmers grow in the off season to add carbon, nitrogen, air and biomass to the soil. Usually, farmers employ legumes or grasses as cover crops, but even radishes can be a cover crop depending on your soil’s needs. Cover crops break up pest life cycles and attract good bugs too – like flowering buckwheat, a crop that bees and parasitic wasps love to drink the sweet nectar from.
This year we chose to cover crop with sunn hemp and cow peas, two legumes. First, we wait until a heavy rain is predicted. Then we get our seed ready. To do this, we inoculate the cover crop seed with a nitrogen producing bacteria (rhizobia) that clings to the roots of the plants. It’s a chalky black powder that looks like ash. We mix up the cover crop seed in the spreader then stir it all around with the black powder with our hands and laugh at how cold the chalk covered seeds feel, coming straight out of storage in the cooler.
The spreader is a new addition in our tool set this year. It’s basically a huge funnel that holds hundreds of pounds of seed that you can adjust to release seed at many different rates depending on the amount of seeds you desire per acre. It has an arm that fiercely flings the seed in a 45 foot spread over the freshly prepared ground beneath. Then we go over it one more time to bury the seeds, with a shallow pass of the tiller or disc harrow, depending on the soil moisture.
A few weeks later, the leguminous cover crop will start to form roots. We eagerly watch for the first seedlings to pop up in the wettest areas of the field first and then through the whole field. This is the time when the rhizobia really go to work. The rhizobia form pink little “nodules” on the roots of the legumes that become nitrogen-producing factories.
We watch in awe as the cover crop biomass accrues daily, eventually yielding thousands of pounds. It is our job to step in at the right time, when the nitrogen is at its peak, and mow it down, before the plants go to seed or fruit, so we get the most nitrogen possible to where we need it, the soil. This organic matter from the mowed cover crop will biodegrade in the soil and increase water retention, bring air into the root zone for gas exchange, and increase carbon and nitrogen, making a very happy home for our future veggies, fruits and flowers come late-July when we begin to plant out into the field.
Then there is the story of your farmers.
Cole and I have been nestled in our notebooks and computers, blurting to each other a note about a new exciting variety, a calculation or an idea and then continuing at our work. We’ve been busily ordering seeds, designing irrigation improvements, fine tuning our nutrient management, managing the construction of four new hoop houses, and applying for grants for programs that help farmers reduce environmental impact and farm more effectively. That is our summer mission each year, to take a moment to look at how to make our farm more efficient and sustainable for the longterm. It brings us joy having the time to create and implement new systems that we have been dreaming of for years, each year improving little by little.
The future season is steadily underway, as we sow the first seeds and watch them grow. It is an incredible thing, to hold a tiny seed in your hand. A seed that contains all the blueprints to become its adult form. A seed that will eventually be part of the thousands of pounds of vegetables we harvest, becoming delicious meals and nourishment for friends and family gathering together.
If you took a stroll through the farm at this moment, you would see: our first scallions, leeks, peppers and heirloom tomato seedlings in the greenhouse, sweet potatoes, roselle, eucalyptus, rosemary, leeks, ginger and turmeric chugging along in the field, a freshly mowed leguminous cover crop and pasture, four new hoop houses- skeletons only (we try to put the plastic over the tunnels as late into hurricane season as we can muster), and happy farmers, enjoying a bit of a summer respite with shorter work days and starry eyes as we look into the future of next season.
We are missing the bounty of the growing season, as I’m sure you are too. We’ve grown a little weary of making countless meals out of carrots, potatoes and onions from our storage crop loot plus a few delicious and prized greens from our little summer garden. We cannot wait to see you all in October, with trucks filled once again with delicious fresh organic produce, to experience all the upcoming year has to offer and to continue our conversations with our beloved St. Petersburg community! Much love, we’ll see you soon!