Growing Methods

ccof

“At a meeting a few years back, a rice breeder made the proud remark that the California Rice Industry could “blow away” any other country in the world. As if growing crops is like a top fuel drag race. It takes a lot of fuel, a new engine almost every time and lots of spare tires to win those races. But we don’t have all those resources, and besides, the exhaust is choking us. We need to run the race, but the real object is not to be the fastest but to run it over and over again without polluting or using up our scarce resources. Sustainable agricultural systems that are productive, resource conserving, non-polluting and profitable can and will be devised. Our future depends on it.”

Ed Sills, June 25, 1992

Growing Methods, What Methods?

No two farms are alike, so while we are certified organic by CCOF, we also have our own practices and values that make us unique. We feel that every consumer should have the opportunity to learn more about how their food is grown and where it is grown, so here is your chance to learn more!

Quickly, An Organic Primer

Here is a young purple vetch plant in a rice field that was recently harvested. The cover crop was planted while the rice was still growing.

Here is a young purple vetch plant in a rice field
that was recently harvested. The cover crop
was planted while the rice was still growing.

If you asked ten organic consumers why they buy organic you would get a range of responses. Each consumer supports organic for reasons personal to them, such as flavor, the environment, or personal health.

If you asked an organic farmer to define organic you might get a long-winded philosophical answer, but you would also get directed to the common thread of organic production in the United States, the USDA National Organic Program Standards (NOP). These standards give confidence to the consumer that when they buy organic, they are getting a product that was produced in a certain way.

One of the main points of the Organic Standards is that farmers can use natural products in production, such as manure, compost, and some mined minerals to improve the soil. Synthetic chemicals such as pesticides, herbicides, and fossil fuel derived fertilizers are largely prohibited. Following are some other requirements for organic production:

Cover crops provide beneficial habitat to many animals, including bees and ducks.

Duck eggs. Cover crops provide beneficial
habitat to many animals, including bees
and ducks.

  • The use of crop rotations, cover crops, and plant/animal materials to build a healthy soil system
  • The use of crop rotations to prevent pests, weeds, and disease
  • Managing the farm system to improve soil organic matter
  • The use of organic seed when commercially available
  • No GMO (genetically modified organisms) seed
  • 3 years since last application of a prohibited material before organic crop is harvested

Now that we have covered the basics of organic production, let’s look at what makes Pleasant Grove Farms unique, and how some of these points play out here on our farm.

Crop Rotation, The Cover Crop

Crop rotation including a legume cover crop is the essence of our farming system. Crop rotation is growing many different species over time and space, and a cover crop is a single crop grown for the purpose of improving the soil and providing fertility to following cash crops. Let’s focus on the cover crop portion of the crop rotation first.

A very tall purple vetch cover crop being  mowed during the spring. Look at all that biomass!

A very tall purple vetch cover crop being
mowed during the spring. Look at all that biomass!

Every fall we plant a purple vetch cover crop on almost every single acre of our farm. Purple vetch is a legume, which means it can take nitrogen from the air and incorporate it into its cells. Non-legumes must take nitrogen from the soil where it is often a limiting factor in plant growth. By growing purple vetch in the winter and incorporating it into the soil in the spring we provide nitrogen for the following crops. The cover crop also helps improve soil tilth, protects against erosion, reduces compaction, builds soil organic matter, and provides habitat for wildlife.

On some of our fields, the cover crop provides enough fertility to grow high yielding crops with very little additional material. For other fields we add poultry litter (manure and rice hulls), in additional to cover cropping, once or twice every four years to give our crops the nutrients they need to give good yields.

The Rotations

Purple vetch. Nitrogen is fixed from the  atmosphere at the small white balls (nodules) shown here on the root system.

Purple vetch. Nitrogen is fixed from the
atmosphere at the small white balls (nodules)
shown here on the root system.

Our land is divided broadly into two crop rotation systems. Our heavy, poorly draining soils are in a two year rotation, and our lighter soils are in a four year rotation.

The two year rotation consists of one year of rice followed by one year of no-tilled green fallow. Green fallow is a year where a cover crop is grown and the land is rested between cash crops. Rice is grown in the summer, and before harvest, purple vetch is broadcast onto most fields by airplane. When the rice is harvested the purple vetch is already about a foot tall and over the winter and spring it grows and sets seed. The following summer we harvest the purple vetch seed to sell and use for our own needs. After harvest the first rains sprout the purple vetch seed that has fallen to the ground and another cover crop grows over the winter. In the spring the purple vetch is incorporated into the soil and and rice is planted again.

After mowing, purple vetch is incorporated into the soil ecosystem where it can feed soil life and build the soil.

After mowing, purple vetch is
incorporated into the soil ecosystem where
it can feed soil life and build the soil.

The four year rotation is rice, beans, wheat and corn. Every winter purple vetch grows and is incorporated into the soil before the next crop is planted. Wheat is the one exception, as it too grows during the winter and spring. The wheat grows with the purple vetch and the seed is harvested together and separated out in our seed cleaning facility.

Once our crops are harvested all of the remaining plant material is incorporated into the soil to return fertility and build soil organic matter. We never bale straw or remove organic material that could otherwise be building our soils.

Weed Control

Mechanical cultivation of weeds in a bean crop. Non-toxic, just steel shovels and knives

Mechanical cultivation of weeds in a bean crop.
Non-toxic, just steel shovels and knives

Healthy, fast growing plants are a key to weed control in organic systems. By providing a fertile soil, plants grow quickly and compete with weeds for sunlight and nutrients.

Crop rotation also helps prevent the buildup of weed populations by changing growing conditions from year to year. One year it may be flooded rice, and the next row crops of beans or corn.

Cultivation is the main form of controlling weeds in our corn, popcorn and beans. Cultivation is carefully killing small weeds by distrubing the soil without damaging the main crop. Tractors mounted with shovels, knives and other equipment can do this with the help of a talented driver and very accurate GPS tractor guidance systems.

In our flooded rice fields we use water management to control weeds, as well as ensure good rice plant populations. We hope to add more information on our rice methods in the near future.

Pest Control

Weeds are managed in rice mainly by dense stands of healthy rice plants, and water depth management. Above a rice patty with deep water  to control weeds.

Weeds are managed in rice mainly by dense
stands of healthy rice plants, and water depth management. Above a rice patty with deep water
to control weeds.

Like weed control, pest control is mainly through encouraging fast growing, healthy plants. A healthy plant can survive some insect damage while unhealthy plants cannot recover.

In our rice we use an organically proved product to help control tadpole shrimp.

Disease Control

In our farming system, disease is controlled by planting modern varieties that are resistant to common diseases, and by using crop rotation to help prevent the buildup of disease in any given field.