Making Soil

Our farm has two faces. The western facing slope is covered with gardens as well as our house and barns. Across a small valley is a southeastern slope with soil that is not so good for growing food. The soil is shallow and red. Before we came to the farm in 1989, when it was a labor camp and strawberry farm, the owners had planted that back field in strawberry rows that ran up and down the slope. Winter rains took all the topsoil that was not held by the strawberry roots down to the bottom of the hill.

In the Spring of 1990, we went to an Earth Day celebration in Portland and were given 300 leftover cedar seedlings. With our 3-month-old son Seth in a backpack, we started planting trees in the back field. For years you couldn’t tell that the slope had more than a sprinkling of grass.


Kate and Meg with pumpkins 1993. The back field is in the background.

P1080242Polly in March 2011. She is standing where the fence post is in the photo above.

The tree planting project has continued over the years (all our kids have graduated college). Now the field has a mix of fir, cedar, chestnut, walnut, willow, black locust, as well as self-seeded maples, oak and alder. The USDA gave us a three-year grant to plant more trees and understory plants. What is amazing to see now is how the trees that are there are changing the field. Walking in the back field feels like walking through a wildlife habitat: birds are singing, squirrel digging is obvious, elk and deer droppings abound. Under each of the trees, the duff is building up and worms are underneath!

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On the production side of the farm, things are less natural. Nevertheless, we try to mimic natural processes. In order to replace all the nutrients we export in the form of vegetables, we spend a lot of time bringing in materials and making compost. What nature does over decades, we try to do over weeks. As in nature, variety is key. Our materials for compost include used horse bedding, grass clippings, manure from our chickens, vegetable scraps, cow manure on straw, old hay, and crop residues. Bacteria heat our piles to at least 140 degrees, then time and earthworms help us turn this medley into vast majority of the fertilizer we use on the farm (the rest comes from cover crops and the limited amount of organic powders we use for high demand crops).P1080263-225x300

Unlike farms, conventional or organic, that rely on processed powders and potions, we believe that making soil is the key to the health of our farm and our food .