The Foundation of Farming
April 2022 Edition
Levesque’s Organic Farm
As the snow disappears and things start to turn green, the farm has been getting more active! We are continuing to gather and boil sap for maple syrup. At the time this newsletter was sent out, our current total for sap collection is over 1200 gallons!
We have begun to prepare our greenhouses for the first round of planting. Cover crops have been turned under, soils have been tilled, irrigation has been run, and furnaces have been serviced. Soon, the first of the plants will be going into the ground.
We have also started to fill up our seedling house with lots of plant starts that will be destined for the fields in the coming weeks. So far, lettuce, peppers, eggplant, tomatoes, onions, and leeks have been started, just to name a few!
We also continue to be busy processing firewood for next winter and sawing out lumber for building and repairs all of which was harvested from the farm's land, and preparing new fencing for this year's flock of chickens, as well as expanding our existing pasture land for our cows!
The Foundation of Farming
Here is a fun fact for your next trivia night, the state soil of Maine is called Chesuncook soil. Maine adopted it in 1999 as its state soil. It is a coarse, loamy soil that shares its name with a lake in northern Maine and it derives its name from the Native American word meaning converging bodies of water. It is widespread in Maine and one of the first soils identified in the state of Maine.
The reason we bring up soil is that it is at the heart of everything we do as organic farmers. Whether you are a produce farmer or an animal farmer the more nutritious and healthy your soil is the more nutritious and healthy your vegetables, grains and animals will be.
When we decided to be organic farmers we made a conscious decision that we would focus on building up our soils and the nutrients in the soil in order to avoid the use of fertilizers and allow our plants to pick up its nutrition from natural sources. We also wanted our soils to be healthy enough to be a nutrient store that, year to year, could store and provide all the macro and micro nutrients our plants would need.
To accomplish this goal we needed to focus on a variety of things including, but not limited to, cation exchange, organic matter, topsoil development, water retention and microorganism biodiversity in the soil. To reach these goals we focused on cover cropping, crop rotation, organic matter input, and avoiding heavy tillage of soils.
Where our farm is in North Leeds history tells us we are fighting a bit of an uphill battle. It is said that in the early agricultural days of Leeds farmers would use fields and pastures for a limited amount of years until the fields would turn to beach sand and be unusable for pasture or vegetable production causing almost a desert environment. The farmers would constantly clear other fields to have ready to use when their other fields and pastures became unusable. Fast forward to the early 1990s when we first started clearing fields on the farm, to say the least, the sand was abundant. The top soil was near 0, the organic matter was near 0, the cation exchange rate was very low and the nutrients in the soil were severely lacking so we started off to build our soils.
First thing we looked at was our topsoil. Topsoil is the upper, outermost layer of soil, usually the top 5–10 inches. It has the highest concentration of organic matter and microorganisms and is where most of the Earth's biological soil activity occurs. Topsoil is composed of mineral particles, organic matter, water, and air. The tricky thing with topsoil though is that it can take 100 to 500 years to build an inch of it naturally, but it only takes a few major wind storms or erosion events to remove all the top soil from an open, non-vegetated area. By using green manures, animal manures, minerals and cover crop rotation we are able to help the natural process and give the microorganisms a healthier happier environment to work their magic.
The next thing we looked at was our cation exchange, which in a basic view, is the soil particles ability to hold onto and pass on nutrients to plants. Most soil particles have a negatively charged outer shell which allows them to bond and hold on to the positively charged nutrients that plants need, such as calcium, magnesium, sodium and potassium. These nutrients are then much more readily available for plant uptake. The basic rule of thumb is that the more clay like your soils are the higher the cation exchange rate will be. Sandy soils have a very low exchange rate which is why plants in sandy soils count heavily on organic matter in the soil, which by itself has a very high exchange rate. This is why on our farm, where the soils are a lot closer to sand than clay, we focus heavily on cover cropping and incorporating organic matter into our soils, while using as minimal tilling as possible to avoid breaking up the topsoil and disturbing the microorganism that help plants break down and incorporate their food.
By focusing on the first two things, topsoil and cation exchange, we have been able to greatly increase the environment of the microbes in the soil. These microbes are considered anything from earthworms to fungi to bacteria, all of which play significant roles in the building of healthy soils, take up of plant nutrients and break down of organic matter. While many people know that the bacteria and earthworms in the soil will help break down organic matter what some people don’t know is that plants have a symbiotic relationship with many of the fungi and bacteria in the soil that will help the plants thrive by helping plants take up and find nutrients or protect the roots of the plant from harmful disease and bacteria. The most commonly known bacteria is called rhizobium, this group of bacteria is known for having a symbiotic relationship with legumes. With the help of this bacteria the legumes (beans, peas, and peanuts) are able to fix nitrogen to their roots in exchange for carbon that was taken up by the plants. To increase the ability of our legume crops (string beans and peas) and cover crop legumes (clover, vetch and field peas) we are able to buy and apply this bacteria to our seeds before planting, also known as inoculating.
Lastly, we take soil test yearly or every other year to evaluate our soil health and the nutrients that are in the soil. There are 17 nutrients that are necessary for plant growth, with the 3 biggest ones being nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium (N-P-K). These are the three numbers that you will see on the front of the fertilizer bags at your local garden store or hardware store. These nutrients will all play different roles in plant growth whether it be leaf growth, root development or support of flowering and fruiting. Plants also use them at different amounts, (corn loves nitrogen while tomatoes can’t get enough potassium). A big part of why we cover crop both our fields and greenhouses is that we want to be able to hold on to these nutrients from one year to the next making them available for next year’s crop and avoiding any possible leaching into the ground water. The cover crops will take up these nutrients, hold them, and then disperse them back into the soil when they are broken down in the ground the next year by the bacteria, fungi and other organisms in the soil.
We hope you enjoyed this brief snapshot into our soils and how we try to manage and help them grow. It is our hope that one day our soils would be healthy enough that the use of fertilizers would no longer be necessary and that the soils could stand alone in supporting our crops, our animals and the way of life we have chosen.
Candies Jalapenos (Cowboy Candy)
· 1 1/2 lbs fresh jalapenos (about 30 peppers)
· 1 cup apple cider vinegar
· 3 cups granulated sugar
· 1 tsp garlic powder
· 1/4 tsp ground turmeric
· 1/4 tsp celery seed
· Remove and discard stems from peppers, then slice into 1/4" slices. Set pepper slices aside.
· To a large pot, add cider vinegar, white sugar, garlic powder, turmeric, and celery seed and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to about MED LOW and simmer for 5 minutes.
· Raise the heat to about MED HIGH to bring mixture back to a boil. Once boiling, add the pepper slices. Allow to return to a boil, then reduce the heat again (to about MED LOW) and simmer for 4 minutes.
· Transfer the peppers using a slotted spoon to clean glass canning jars, filling jars to within 1/4 inch of the upper rim of the jar.
· Only the syrup should remain in the pot at this point. Increase the heat to bring to a full rolling boil. Boil like that for approximately 6 minutes.
· Ladle the syrup into the jars with the jalapeno slices. If you notice any air pockets, take a clean spoon and insert it into the jar to get rid of the trapped air. Fill jars to within 1/4-1/2" from the upper rim of the jar.
· Wipe the rims of the jars with a damp paper towel, then screw on canning jar lids. Label if desired and refrigerate for at least 1-2 weeks (3-4 weeks for optimal flavor). Candied jalapenos are good for up to 3 months if kept properly refrigerated.