At the Organic Farm School, we focus on giving new farmers a solid foundation in small scale farm planning and management. To do this, we engage students in the full spectrum of tasks they can expect to encounter as a farmer. We also work from a model where time and space are always given to exploration of new ideas and techniques, because this is how thoughtful farmers incorporate positive changes without placing their farm at risk. Here are the projects we're working on this year.
Reduced-Tillage Trials with Washington State University (WSU):In partnership with Doug Collins, PhD, from WSU’s Food Systems Program, the Organic Farm School is participating in our second year of reduced tillage trials for vegetable production. Tillage of farm soils not only harms the beneficial soil microbe that reside there, but also releases much of the carbon present in the soil into the atmosphere, contributing to the rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, which are a major contributor to global climate change. By trialing and discovering new systems of reduced tillage that drastically reduce the amount of soil carbon released into the atmosphere, these trials are working toward developing a functional system for organic vegetable farmers to sequester in the soil more of the atmosphere's excessive carbon, and to help make organic farming an even more ecologically friendly enterprise. In 2017 we did a trial planting winter squash into narrow strips tilled into a mowed rye grain crop, and for 2018 we'll be planting broccoli into a terminated stand of vetch cover crop.
Long-term Soil Carbon Testing: Because we at OFS are concerned (but optimistic) about how organic farming relates to global climate change, in 2017 we began a long-term study on our farm's soil carbon. We've identified two exact locations in our field to take annual samples from: one site will be tilled in a way that many organic farmers typically use (with spring tillage, summer cultivation for weeds, and fall tillage to establish cover crops), while the other site will continuously be the location of a years-long reduced tillage experiment. By having the soil carbon from those two sites tested every October, we'll over time have good information on not only how tillage practices can impact soil carbon, but will simultaneously be gaining insights into how we can adapt our tillage systems to better serve our soil life, and the planet.
Olympic Sweet Corn Breeding Project with Organic Seed Alliance and the University of Wisconsin-Madison: Working with our good friends from the Organic Seed Alliance (OSA), with help from corn breeders at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the Olympic Sweet Corn project is working to breed an open-pollinated sweet corn that grows well in the northern Puget Sound, meaning that it can germinate in our cool spring soils and ripen reliably in our relatively cool and short growing season. Much of the sweet corn seed available to organic growers is bred for non-organic systems, has to be started here in the greenhouse, and needs more heat than we typically get here to mature a good crop. This multi-partner breeding project is well on its way to developing a strong organic sweet corn variety bred by organic farmers, for organic farmers.
Northern Organic Vegetable Improvement Collaborative (NOVIC) Trials with the Organic Seed Alliance: The Northern Organic Vegetable Improvement Collaborative (NOVIC) joins researchers and farmers in Northern U.S. states to address organic farmers’ seed and plant breeding needs. We at OFS are working directly with the Organic Seed Alliance, but the nation-wide collaborative includes researchers and educators from Oregon State University, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Cornell University, Washington State University, and the USDA. These institutions, and the farmers working with them, are growing many of the same varieties of vegetables across the country to see how they perform in different organic systems. For 2018 we at OFS will be doing the second year of a winter squash trial, and will also be trialing sweet peppers to see which varieties perform best outdoors in the mild PNW.
Carrot Improvement for Organic Agriculture (CIOA) with the Organic Seed Alliance: CIOA is a long-term breeding project that addresses the critical needs of organic carrot farmers by developing orange and novel colored carrots with improved disease and nematode resistance, improved weed competitiveness, and improved nutritional value and flavor. For the 2018 season, we at OFS will be partnering with the Organic Seed Alliance to grow a seed crop for a strain of red carrot that they're in the process of breeding. The CIOA project includes field trials not only in Washington but also in California, Indiana, and Wisconsin to evaluate the performance of 36 diverse carrot cultivars and breeding stocks for field performance (yield, appearance, leaf blight, nematode resistance) and consumer quality (flavor and nutrient content).
OFS On-farm Variety Trialing and Breeding Projects: In an effort to find the varieties that work best for us, while also giving our students hands-on experience in the plant breeding process, this year at OFS we'll be starting several breeding projects for crops that are particularly important to us – lettuce, salad turnips, and cherry tomatoes. All good breeding projects start with a variety trial, and so for 2018 we'll be evaluating several varieties within each crop that might best meet our needs. Based on those results, we'll begin a years-long process of selecting individual plants from within the best variety to save seed from, or possibly cross-pollinate plants from a couple varieties in order to create the variety we want. It can be a long and winding road, but we're excited to get started.
Enterprise Budget Studies: As much as we love farming, the hard reality is that we can't do it if it doesn't make us any money. To that end, 2018 will be the first year of many for each of our students to produce an enterprise budget for a single crop. An enterprise budget is a management tool that helps farmers figure out how much money they make (or not) off a specific crop. By tracking and calculating every single expense incurred to produce a crop (from the cost of seed, fertilizer, tractor fuel, and field labor, to packaging material and marketing costs), and then comparing that to the price they sell the crop for, students will be gaining a very detailed and informed view of what it takes to keep a farm financially viable. This set of financial skills will not only provide us at OFS with better decision-making tools, but will be invaluable to our graduates as they start their own farms.
Cover Crop Phenology Trials with Washington State University: As part of a multi-farm study led by WSU's Doug Collins, we've planted four different types of cover crops (winter wheat, Aroostook rye, hairy vetch, and common vetch) that Dr. Collins hopes to gain valuable insight from about when to plant and when to incorporate into the soil to maximize the soil benefits from cover crops for organic growers. As in many other aspects of farming, timing is everything, and knowing how much biomass a cover crop variety produces and when in the season it's at its most fertile will be a great tool to help organic farmers enrich their soil.