You may have seen the fence go up around our new south field this winter, either on Facebook or in person. And you may have seen the lush cover crops of oats, field peas, rye and hairy vetch growing that we planted last fall to improve the soil for this year’s crops. Wednesday of last week was another exciting day for us at Cropsey Community Farm. Ethan Roland, of Appleseed Permaculture, came down to help us lay out our beds using the principles of Keyline Design. It was truly great to work with Ethan, an expert permaculture designer, teacher, and researcher based in the Hudson River Valley.
Jose, Ryan and I witnessed more erosion than we were comfortable with on the north field last year. Our fragile, sandy soil would wash down the pathways between our raised beds during heavy rains, taking nutrients along, and leaving the crops growing near the ridge in the middle of the field to struggle along with less food, humus, and topsoil. We’re not talking landslides here, but over time, this is one of the same processes that is leaving much of the incredibly fertile Midwest of our country with less than four thin inches of dying, drought-vulnerable dirt. Virgin prairie soils that settlers plowed up there were often two feet thick of dark earthen gold.
Maybe that comparison is a little severe, but we were not comfortable with what we saw, and were determined to set up our beds to minimize erosion. After trying to figure out how best to do this on our own, we finally decided to call someone with experience. When Ethan showed up, I grabbed a bucket of landscaping flags and his clipboard, and he shouldered his tripod and laser level. The wind was whipping as we trudged up to the field and set up the laser level. We commenced straight away with marking contours in a few spots. Ethan quickly trained Jose and I to use the laser level ourselves, and with his keen eye for the land and experience we laid out the longest contour on the field, as well as a few that crossed the steepest, most erosion-susceptible spots on our hilly south field by lunchtime.
After lunch we went inside and mapped out the contours on paper. Ethan saw four distinct sections to the field. There are two little “bowls,” a ridge, and a corner where the land drops away again in the northwest corner of the field. In each of these sections, we chose a particular contour line, from among the ones we had staked out that morning, to base our plowing and beds off of. Here is a very abridged version of using Keyline Design to lay out a field like ours: you choose a basic contour in a given area so that when you plow or form your beds parallel to that contour, and they inevitable become slightly off contour due to the radius of the curve becoming greater or narrower, the water’s charge down the hill is stopped and directed ever so gently away from valleys and out towards ridges. The idea is that erosion is nearly stopped, water is dispersed more evenly through the field, and substantially more water soaks into the land than before.
This should result in healthier soil, and healthier, tastier crops. I think it will be really beautiful to behold. Though it will make some elements of our job more complex, such as planning where to put each crop since all of the rows will be different lengths, to us this choice was absolutely necessary. So thank you, Ethan for guiding us in this process. We are excited to see our the new field blossoms this year. Keep an eye out for us in the fields. If the ground dries up we’ll be out there real soon.
Shane Hardy, Farm Manager
Cropsey Community Farm