Our ranch is not certified organic by the USDA. Maybe one day we’ll go through the rigmarole to become certified, but for now, here is what we mean when we tell you we grow our crops organically.
We believe one of the most important factors in growing healthy crops that produce an abundance of food, is the quality of the soil. Soil is a living organism, full of life-giving nutrients. When the soil can provide plants with the nutrients they need, you get healthy, high-yielding plants. If the soil is not healthy, it can’t provide those nutrients, and the plants won’t be as healthy and won’t provide the full potential of food they have in them to provide.
We have been in the process of amending the soil on our property for the past three years. The soil, when we first moved in, was terrible. When we tested it for nutrients, we found it had very little of any nutritional value. You can still see this horrible quality soil in our fields because we are only starting to amend the soil there this year. It’s hard clay. And if you dig down about two feet, you’ll find that it goes from being clay, to being sand and rock. So even the soil beneath isn’t any good.
We are not adding anything unnatural to the soil to amend it. We have a large compost pile where we compost leaves, grass, and other yard debris, as well as food scraps from our kitchen, and manure from the chickens and goats. We let these things break down and then mix the nutrient rich mixture into the gardens. Our compost pile isn’t big enough to make much of a difference in the fields, so for that, we have good compost and some nutrient rich dirt delivered. We spread that over the field and till it into the clay soil to break it up and get nutrients to the roots of our hay crops.
Our water comes from an irrigation ditch, or our well. We don’t have much control over the quality of our water, and if anyone upstream is using pesticides or herbicides, it could very well deposit small amounts of those things into our water and land as well. But even certified organic farms deal with that issue. In fact, I heard an organic famer say he was testing the rainwater that fell on his land, and found it had trace amounts of roundup in it. This is because those chemicals get washed down stream, get evaporated, and come back down in the rain.
Soil amending is a constant process. Our goal is to, one day, have beautiful, dark, health soil on every inch of our property. But keeping moisture in the soil in another important factor, especially in our dry, drought riddled, climate.
Healthier soil holds moisture longer, but so does mulching, which is why we add mulch around the plants in our garden as well as amend the soil. The great thing about mulch is there are lots of natural things you can use for mulch, and that mulch can also add nutrients into the soil as it breaks down.
For instance, we use pine needles as mulch around our berry plants. Why? Because berries like acidic soil, and pine needles release acid into the soil as they break down. It’s a win-win. The pine needles keep the weeds down and provide an essential nutrient to our plants.
Besides soil, here are some ways we grow organically:
We try to plant the healthiest plants to begin with, because pests tend to attack weak plants. The healthier the plant is to begin with, the better chance you have of avoiding a pest problem.
However, we do typically see aphids on crops like broccoli, brussels sprouts, and cabbage. For this, we take a capful of Thieves cleaner from young living, which is an all-natural cleaner made of essential oils and surfactants which allow the oils to mix with water. We spray this mixture onto the plants, which kills the aphids, and, because essential oils come from plants, it’s like an immune booster shot for the plants as well.
We also use Neem oil, which is a smelly, green oil that comes from the neem tree. And it’s extremely good at killing and repealing pests. We only use neem oil when there is an infestation of bugs, and we don’t use Neem right before harvesting as the oil can stay in the plant up to four days. There is new evidence that suggests Neem oil may harm beneficial pollinators such as bees and butterflies. It was believed this oil did not harm them, but we are in the process of looking for alternative treatments to Neem oil.
Occasionally we have an infestation of pincer bugs, also called earwigs. For those, we use oil traps. These are shallow containers that sit on the soil under the plants. The containers have a mixture of olive oil and soy sauce in them. The soy sauce attracts the bugs, and the oil kill them.
Last year, for the first time, I had hornworms in my tomatoes. This year, to avoid a repeat of those nasty things again, I’m planting my tomatoes and peppers in a different location in the garden and will be spraying the plants with neem oil and Thieves, at least once a week.
Two other pest control methods we use are companion planting and camouflage planting. Companion planting puts two plants together that benefit each other in some way. Like placing onions next to cabbage because onions repel aphids. Camouflage planting is great for keeping the deer out of certain crops. We plant chives around our strawberries because deer don’t like the strong onion scent of the chives and leave the strawberries alone.
The last thing we do to keep pests at bay, is to keep the weeds at bay. Weeds use up nutrients in the soil, so if we let them grow, the weeds are stealing nutrients from the plants. This year, for the first time, we’re going to use landscaping fabric to help keep weeds down.
So there you have it, these are the main ways we grow organically at JulBud Ranch. Do you grow organically? What methods do you use?