He who has water and peat on his own farm has the world his own way. -Old Irish proverb.

Category: SARE Grant

A-Rollin’ and A-Crimpin’

We got it!! We got it!! We got the grant!!

Back in November, my friend (and partner in crime) Andrea and I applied for a North Central Region SARE Farmer Rancher Grant. SARE stands for Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education and is an organization that supports and promotes sustainable farming and ranching. According to their website, they offer competitive grants and educational opportunities for producers, scientists, educators, institutions, organizations and others exploring sustainable agriculture. The title of our grant application was Roller-crimper Construction and No-till Organic Weed Control Trials.

You see, weed control is an organic farmers #1 problem. Organic farmers can’t spray their crops with herbicides, and so have to rely upon heavy tillage for weed control, which can lead to soil erosion and a continued dependence on fossil fuels. Conventional farmers have their no-till, where they don’t till the soil at all and just drill next season’s crop into the left-over stubble from the previous season. This technique does a great job of controlling soil erosion, but unfortunately depends upon heavy herbicide applications to kill the weeds.

Andrea, however, read one day about a roller-crimper being used for organic no-till agriculture at The Rodale Institute in Pennsylvania. She told me about it and we ooh-ed and aah-ed over it for days. I may have even drooled a little. You see, I haven’t been able to convert to organics as fast as I’d like because we don’t have much farm equipment. It costs lots of money (literally hundreds of thousands of dollars) to buy the various plows, cultivators, and planters needed for an organic crop farm. If we could do no-till organic, then we’d only need to buy a roller-crimper and a planter. But the question remains, how well does it work? I mean, sure, it works on Rodale’s farm because they’ve been organic for over 25 years. But would it work in the Midwest, in our climate, on our tired, overworked soils?

Quickly thereafter, we received an email from our friend Margie at Extension about an opportunity to apply for a Farmer Rancher grant through SARE. In typical Andrea and Jackie fashion, we thought about it for maybe 2 minutes and said, “Let’s go for it!” Did I mention we had 10 days until the grant application deadline? We put our heads together and worked like mad women literally all day, every day, for every one of those 10 days–writing, editing, budgeting, editing, finding collaborators, editing, etc. etc.–until we finished. The grant was due at 4 PM Nebraska time and I pushed the ‘send’ button at 2 PM.

The remarkable thing is that neither of us are experienced grant writers. But our enthusiasm built steadily throughout the 10 day process and we knew that when we had sent that application we had done a pretty darn good job.

Even so, I didn’t really think we’d get the grant. (I have this thing about second-guessing myself.) So you can imagine my surprise when we arrived from Panama to a message on my answering machine from Margie, “Congratulations. You got the grant!”

To which I eloquently exclaimed, “Holy Sh*t! We got the grant!”

Anyways, here’s a picture of a roller-crimper in action:

To utilize a roller crimper, you plant a fall-seeded cover crop on your land. By the time you’re ready to plant your field to a cash crop the following spring, be it corn, vegetables or what have you, the cover crop is mature. You mount the roller-crimper onto the front of your tractor which will, as the name suggests, roll and crimp the cover crop, killing it and creating a weed-suppressing mat. At the same time, you pull a weighted planter behind the tractor that will cut a path in the thick mat and plant your seeds. Only one pass through your field to roll, crimp and plant, which saves time and diesel fuel. Brilliant!

We proposed three demonstration plots at three separate farms. At Irish Grove Farms, I will compare weed pressure in my no-till organic corn plot (using the crimper and cover crops) to the weed pressure in my non-GMO no-till conventional corn fields that will get sprayed with an herbicide for weed control. Andrea, at Hazard Free Farms, will compare weed pressure between her no-till organic melons and her organic melons that rely on heavy tillage/hand weeding. Another farmer, Kathryn, will compare her organic no-till sunflower field with a field where she interseeds a companion crop into her sunflowers for weed control. All 3 of us will also do cost comparisons, keep weather journals, the whole 9 yards. We will also hold field days where people can come out to see what we’re doing.

Three different farms. Three different crops. All using the roller crimper. Pretty exciting.

Our hope is that the roller crimper will be an effective weed suppression tool for organic fields. But we realize that our one-year trials will face some major obstacles (weeds). Especially since our land has only been recently taken out of chemical-intensive agriculture. It takes years to rebuild the soil. As Midwestern Bio-Ag’s founder Gary Zimmer says, “You’ve gotta earn the right.” Meaning you have to do the long, hard work of rebuilding the soil before you can expect great yield results from organic no-till.

Honestly, we haven’t earned the right to expect great yields from our organic no-till plots. But we know for a fact that we can still learn a great deal about weed control in organic agriculture. We want to test how well the roller crimper works, and how much time it will buy us in weed control. Even if the cover crop mat is effective through June, that is long enough to reduce herbicide use by 50% in conventional fields. Which to me is huge.

Anyways, I’m super excited and a lot nervous about this opportunity. I’ll be sure to keep you posted as we get started.

Random Thoughts for the New Year

Marcel and I have joined the ranks of homeowners, but we are more adeptly described as loan-owers. We are buying the farmhouse, farm buildings and 5 acres from “the farm” (AKA mom).

I giggled as I watched our new horse Brittany slowly and painstakingly slip and slide her way across the icy barnyard. Then I felt like a bad farmer.

What does it mean when I call up each and every Irish Grove owner (AKA Mom, Matt, and Laura), ask them to come over on Sunday to help with the organic certification record keeping, and no one shows up?

Farmer Bill sold the last of his cattle herd. He is officially, completely, 100% retired. It’s the end of an era for the Donald Flynn family. Which makes me sad. And worried about the future of their farm.

I wish one of the cousins would get the farming itch. (Hint, hint.)

We are getting nearly 4 dozen eggs a day. Holy Cannoli.

My grant-writing partner, Andrea, and I have written up evil plans to take over the agricultural world. Bwa-ha-ha. OK, not really. But we are pitching ourselves to the local U of I-Extension Director as the up-and-coming, most perfect alternative-agriculture-education-team she’s ever laid her eyes on. Think she’ll buy into our load of (composted) cow manure?
Correction: The all important Madam Secretary Laura did come to my Sunday meeting, and helped me get started on the all-encompassing, extremely frustrating job of organic certification record keeping. Kudos to you, Madam Secretary.
Can you believe that on the very eve of our new status as homeowners the furnace broke? We fixed it, to the tune of a few hundred bucks, only to have it break again 4 days later. Would this be karma, or a coincidence, or just plain bad luck?
Did you know that the cows and horses both grow a winter coat of fur to protect them from the cold? They’re pretty charming this way, all woolly and fuzzy. Olivia the Border Collie also grew a second layer of fur. On top of a layer of fat, the lazy thing.

Marcel and I bought a new point and shoot digital camera. Which means I’ll be able to take more (and better) photos of the goings-ons around here. Stay tuned.

I didn’t get around to mailing Christmas cards this year. But everyone here at Irish Grove Farms, animals and all, wishes you all a wonderful 2009.

Busy-ness

Before I catch y’all up with what’s happening around here….about stuff like the corn harvest, cattle wrestling, future plans, and just my regular ramblings about extremely interesting and pertinent farm stuff, I gotta finish working on this grant we’re apply for. The deadline for applications is Monday, December 1 at 4:30 p.m.

Yeah, 4:30 is relevant. We need all the time we can get.

*huff and puff*

It’s a SARE farmer/rancher grant. Two other local farmers and I are applying for money to conduct research trials using a cover crop and no-till techniques to control weeds in organic systems.

I’ll fill you in on the details later, but you can check out SARE at: http://www.sare.org/

And you can read about what we want to do at: www.rodaleinstitute.org/no-till_revolution

But for now, I’m off and running…..

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