Thursday, July 9, 2015

Managing Weeds at Harmony Valley Farm

How do you manage weeds? That is a great question we’re often asked and it has a variety of answers depending on the crop, the stage of growth of the crop, the weather conditions, etc.  While conventional farmers often use chemical forces in their battle against weeds, we turn to non-chemical methods including mechanical cultivation and flaming. Richard and Rafael keep a close watch over our fields. Richard referred to Rafael as the “Weed Manager”. His observations have been extremely helpful in deciding when to cultivate and which implement to use on each crop. The goal is to reduce the weed seed, also known as the ‘seed bank’ in the soil. Weed seeds can live for 10 – 30 years in the soil, just waiting for the perfect time and conditions to grow. Our job is to remove weeds and not let them produce any more seeds. Below I will summarize some of our equipment, crew and processes that take on the task of keeping the weeds at bay!

Rafael flaming the cilantro
field before the crop sprouted.
If you have ever been to our farm or seen field pictures, you have seen our raised bed fields. Our first line of defense is to reduce the weed seed in the top 2 inches of soil before planting a crop. We try, but do not always have the perfect weather conditions or enough time, to make the beds 2 weeks prior to planting, thus giving the weeds time to sprout. If that happens, we can use the ‘Flamer’ to burn off the weeds that have sprouted prior to planting. Juan or Rafael have been Richard’s go to guys when it comes to flaming our fields. The ‘Flamer’ is a piece of equipment that takes the propane from the large tank mounted on the implement and through the pipes to create, in essence a flame thrower.  Sounds pretty cool right!  No, there is no big ball of flames; it is really just enough heat/flames close to the ground to burn the weeds that are already growing, but can save a huge amount of time and manpower.  We can also use the ‘Flamer’ after the crop is                                                          planted but before the plants push through the ground to                                                                  burn the weeds that are already growing.

Rafael cultivating the cilantro field
with the 5 Row Basket Weeder

A closer look at Rafael basketing the
cilantro field!

Once the crop is out of the ground we lose the option to flame. Now we have to turn to a variety of different cultivating implements for help. This will depend on the crop and how big it is in the field. A good example is our cilantro. It is planted on raised beds in rows of 5 on top of each raised bed.  We use the 5 row ‘basket weeder’ to loosen the soil and pull out any small weeds that are already growing in the top inch of soil. Rafael has done an excellent job with perfecting his basketing procedures.  Rogelio, Ramon and Jose Manuel have also done a great job with the basket weeder.

Oscar (driving the tractor) and Luis operating 'The Kult'
to take care of those pesky weeds in our beautiful parsnip field.

A closer look at the fingers of 'The Kult' working!
Last year we purchased an awesome German made K.U.L.T. Kress Cultivator. We refer to this as ‘The Kult’. Rafael learned how to operate this implement and has now taught Oscar and Luis how to use it. Weeds growing in the row are a huge problem as they are hard to get to without damaging the crop. This implement, when conditions are good, will help to reduce those pesky weeds in the row. There is one person (Oscar) driving the tractor and another (Luis) steering the implement to make sure the crop does not get pulled out. The Kult has little fingers that come close to weaving together near the base of the crop loosening the soil and ‘stirring’ out the small weeds. We use this machine with our transplanted brassicas (broccoli, cauliflower, etc). We transplant our brassicas to give them a head start on the weeds, giving them the advantage of being larger than the sprouting weeds.  It is way easier to get rid of smaller weeds when our crop is larger and easier to see in the row and the Kult works very well with these crops.    

Vicente using the 2 row Lilliston
cultivator in the corn field.

Vicente using the disc Lilliston
to bury the weeds in the potato field.
For other larger crops, it makes more sense to bury the weeds with dirt. This is a great option for crops like potatoes or corn.
 Vicente has learned how to use the Lilliston cultivator with ease. The open steel fingers on this implement pull up the soil between each crop row and push the loose soil around the plant, essentially burying the weeds.

Corn row before (top) and
after (bottom) the Lilliston.
When all mechanical attempts have been applied,
we have one more tool: our hands to do hand weeding. This is very time consuming but also necessary in some cases.  With carrots or parsnips, both of which have longer germination rates, the weeds generally pop up before the crop. After the field is flamed with the flame weeder and the crop starts coming up, we need to make sure the hand weeding gets started soon.  This takes very good eye-hand coordination as well as knowing the difference between the crop and a weed.
I can’t stress this enough, but extreme precision while using any of these implements makes the difference between a well weeded crop and not having any crop at all because it was all pulled out or buried.   You have to watch the front of the tractor to see where you are going, but also the back to make sure you are not pulling up any plants.  Even the hand weeders need to be careful.

Picture of the tool room where we
store the hand weeding tools.

Here are some parting thoughts on weeds.  Richard estimates that we kill 90 -95% of the weeds in our fields with the mechanical weeding techniques, leaving only a smaller amount for the hand weeders. Did you know that 1 weed that has gone to seed can produce up to 20,000 seeds and that these seeds can and will be carried by birds, water and the wind? This means that even though we remove most of the weeds, we will always have some weeds to deal with on the farm. Did you also know that Mother Nature does not like bare ground? Turns out she doesn’t like to be naked!  We use cover crops to help with the weeds (and other reasons) since if we don’t cover it, she will use the weed seeds in her seed bank to cover herself up. I know we have only touched briefly on the weed subject and there is a lot of information out there we didn’t discuss.  Rest assured that Richard and Rafael are on top of the weed battle. Discussing when to cultivate, which crops, upcoming weather, which implements to use, should they use fingers, discs, knives or how deep to go when cultivating are just some of the conversions that they have on a daily basis. In the end, we are grateful to all of our cultivating crew for their attention to detail, which allows us to have healthy crops to harvest and eat!


Charles Summers said...

Great article.

Nice looking systems you have!

Gotta ask, what's up with the big pruning shears with the added bit son the side? Do you use them to harvest something or what? Never seen that before...

Best of luck this season,


Kelly K. said...

The pruning shears have metal “baskets” mounted on the blades. They were created here for the purpose of cutting salad greens. The metal “baskets” hold the product as it’s being cut so it doesn’t fall on the ground.