You won’t hear us tout the aroma, color or flavor of these crops, and chefs will never serve them to their guests. Yet during any given growing season, we plant them on two thirds of our 400 farmable acres.
They’re called cover crops ─ grasses such as rye, buckwheat and alfalfa ─ and they’re integral to the health of our soil, as well as the health of our vegetables.
“Soil is no different than you and I,” said Bob Jones. Jr. “Soil is a living, breathing organism just like we are, and you have to treat it as such. It needs food, air and water to be able to be productive. And, if you really want it to be productive, you’ve got to give it rest. The same things we need.”
Underground Food Chain Activities
The Chef’s Garden’s sandy loam lake bottom soil is ideal for growing farm-fresh vegetables, Jones said, because it is loose and allows water to pass through easily. But that permeability has its drawbacks. “It’s very, very difficult when you’re talking about holding onto soil nutrition,” he said.
Growing cover crops and then tilling them back into the land introduces important organic plant matter into the soil. That material can then be broken down by soil-dwelling microorganisms, which makes it available for plants to use as food, Jones said.
“It’s kind of a composting process when you look at cover crops,” Jones said. “It’s the flow of energy from the sun to the cover crop, from the cover crop to the soil, and from the soil to the microorganisms, from the organisms to the vegetables. The organisms are feeding off of the root exudates that are a product of photosynthesis, converting soil chemistry to a form that the plant can take back up. We’re putting a diversity of plant organic matter back into the soil to be decomposed by the organisms that are in the soil naturally, as long as you haven’t put something on the soil to kill those.”
Healthy Soil, Healthy Plants
That last point is crucial. Building the healthiest possible soil is difficult if an entire thriving community of underground organisms is decimated by chemical applications aimed at a pesky few. Fortunately, nurtured, cultivated, healthy soil minimizes the need for pesticides drastically.
“Because our soil is microbially active, we have what’s called competitive exclusion,” said Research Botanist Nicholas Walters. “Some of the bad things, some of the rhizoctonia, some of the e-colis, they don’t have a chance to get a foothold in our soil because there’s so much more other activity that’s positive going on and outcompeting them.”
Simply put, plants that grow in a healthy environment grow strong immune systems to protect them from illness.
“When soil gets healthy enough that the plants are healthy, they become less susceptible to disease and insect pressure,” Jones explained.
Strong healthy soil isn’t a “once and done” approach, Jones said. So growers maximize the effectiveness of cover crops by rotating where they’re planted, planting them consistently and repeatedly, and by introducing diversity into the mix.
“Thirty years ago we were growing cover crop and we were growing rye,” Jones said. “And we thought, ‘Oh! My gosh! This is so much better than we used to do.’ Now we’ve discovered that you want four to six different species within a cover crop planting so you have diversity of species. When we plant a field to cover crop, we don’t want to plant just buckwheat. We want to plant buckwheat and three other things simultaneously. And then you have diversity of microbiology that’s living off of those roots.”
Harvesting and saving cover crop seeds for successive plantings is another tactic for building better and healthier soil, Jones explained. “To the best of our ability, we’re growing all of our own cover crop seed here on the farm,” he said. “Some of the cover crops we grow are harvested and tilled back into the soil in a composting technique, while others are allowed to go to seed, and we will harvest the seed.”
The advantage to that, he said, is a supply of cover crop seeds with a remarkable affinity for the environment here on the shores of Lake Erie.
“When a plant grows in this specific environment, it tends to tune in to its surroundings,” Jones said. “So when we harvest the seed from cover crop grown here, and we plant that here again, now you have generation two, generation three, generation six. It is really tuned in to right here. Each generation gets a little bit better. It gets a little healthier.”
Planting superior vegetable seeds into superior soil makes a difference, as well, according to Jones. “You put good genetics in combination with healthy soil, that’s where the magic happens,” he said. “It’s a continual process, and it tends to get better and better and better.”
Do the Right Thing
Jones said that The Chef’s Garden’s regenerative farming practices continually give back to the soil, making it healthier and more productive year after year, whereas conventional farming is more of “a mining process” that strips the soil and ultimately makes it sicker and sicker.
The farm’s sustainability initiatives, such as cover crops and soil research, are something of an anomaly in the industry.
“Most traditional agronomic farms don’t go to this length,” he said. “We are doing all of these things. We are establishing best practices and trying to set the bar. You do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do.”
The right thing isn’t always the less expensive thing, however. But in the final analysis, Jones said the expense of intensive sustainability and stewardship practices are worth the investment.
“In the big picture of what we’re trying to accomplish ─ healthy soils, healthy crops, healthy people ─ we can’t afford not to,” he said. “The soil is another crop. The land has to rest. It has to be reinvigorated.”
And taking care of the soil, ultimately, means taking care of the chef.
“What are we trying to provide? Price, quality or service?” Jones asked, then answered his own question. “Quality and service. That’s our model,” he said. “We do that in any possible way we can ─ doing the right thing, doing it sustainably and for the right reason. What we believe is that taking the extra steps to produce healthy soils and healthy crops are worth it in the long run. And in all honesty, we’re hoping that enough people will value that, that they will support our efforts. And thus far, they have.”