Farming the Hard (Pan) Way

The land here at Full Flavor Farm in Wilton has seen grazing, cropping and animal husbandry for more than a hundred years. As a result, the soil is tired, unhealthy and hard as granite two feet down. Over the years, ammonia from manure and urine has stripped nutrients from the soil particles. Animal hooves have caused compaction. And the soil is seriously depleted, the nutrients drawn down by successive crops and never replaced.

All of this means that trees struggle to grow. Even digging nutrients into the soil is not enough to help. Their roots drown in standing water that cannot permeate the compacted soil, known as hardpan. In addition, the roots can remain close to the surface, spreading laterally above the hardpan and leaving poorly anchored trees at the mercy of Wilton’s strong winds.

Normally, a healthy agricultural ecosystem cycles a finite stock of plant nutrients and keeps soil alive and healthy. But every time bales of hay, grazing cattle or other farming products are removed from the system, the nutrients that sustain plants, bacteria, protozoa, beneficial insects, and all the other inhabitants of the ecosystem are reduced until completely depleted. In our ground, that hundred years of depletion caused critical deficiencies that we have had to address from the first day we arrived.

To rebuild, we started with a laboratory analysis of the soil. What we discovered was so much acidity that it was surprising weeds could grow, let alone crops. We spread oyster shell lime to counteract that acidity. We added a number of different kinds of organic compost to improve soil structure, including flour, sugar and mushroom compost. We replaced some diminished micronutrients with fertilizer and worked the ground to reduce compaction. None of this was a one-and-done process. Each step was repeated and repeated and repeated.

Today, a year-round cover crop both in the orchard and in our vegetable field carries the balanced biology through the full year. That balance sustains earthworms, ladybugs, praying mantis, small frogs and beneficial microbes. The work is ongoing, but we can already see a much healthier soil and the prospect for bountiful crops this year and in the future.


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