Kaleigh Barton and Benjamin Corno own and operate Heavenly Roots Farm on 5 acres of leased land at the Burgoyne Valley Community Farm on Salt Spring Island. The pair grow fruits and vegetables which they sell through weekly farmers markets, a CSA program, and wholesale to stores, restaurants and caterers. They grow seeds for the BC Eco Seed Co-operative, a farmer-run, co-op seed company. They adopt a method of production that prioritizes ecology and sustainability. At Heavenly Roots, they grow without the use of synthetic pesticides or herbicides and enrich their soil with compost, manure, mulching and cover cropping.
They started utilizing cover crops in 2016, a basic blend of oat, pea, and vetch. Pretty quickly they realized it wasn’t providing the coverage they needed on the soil and switched over to using just oats, and introducing red clover as a companion. The two work in sync as the oats grow tall and create a rich upper layer of green growth while the clover spreads thick and close to the soil. Corno says, “The oats can leave a lot of space where perennial weeds can still pop up. But the clover is very thick so we spend a little bit of extra money on the clover and put down a lot but it’s worth it for us.”
Because we choose not to till we need to build soil fertility naturally; cover cropping allows us to make our fertility program more meaningful. We use the cover crop to keep safe all of the beneficial inputs we are adding to the soil.
Working cover crops into the annual rotation on a vegetable and seed farm needs planning. When most farmers want to grow a cover crop in the fall, there are careful considerations for timing, irrigation and climate. Corno says, “We don’t have above-ground irrigation on the farm so we have to have things watered in by rain.” In their area, they plan to have the cover crop seeded by the middle of September. In the spring, they let their cover crops grow until mid-march, early April before cutting them down and covering them with a tarp for two to three weeks. At this point, most of the green material has decomposed and they can start to build beds.
“We use cover crops because it has multiple benefits for our farm”, says Corno. For Heavenly Roots, the biggest benefit is covering the soil during the wintertime. Corno says, “Having [a plant] absorbing the impact of the rain, reducing soil erosion and keeping the compost and nutrients we add in the summertime held by the cover crop is very valuable. It’s had a positive impact on our soil porosity.” Cutting down the cover crop, allowing it to decompose, adds to the thatch layer and helps build an annual community of decomposing plant material that insects, microorganisms, and fungi live in. Corno says, “If there are things that I think are environmentally responsible about choosing cover cropping as a solution or farming technique, the biggest reasons have to be water retention, not exposing our soil for as much of the season to the sun, and helping to build an organic layer. Building a healthy community in that top layer is helping our plants get by with more efficient use of water. Because we choose not to till we need to build soil fertility naturally; cover cropping allows us to make our fertility program more meaningful. We use the cover crop to keep safe all of the beneficial inputs we are adding to the soil.”
Cover cropping takes planning and careful consideration for crop rotation. Corno says, “I think the idea of having to take things out of production for this technique is in line with the slower, save first, putting into the future ethic that both no-till and cover cropping concepts need you to interact with.” Corno knows the work being done now will reap huge benefits in the future. He says, “It feels like more of an adult farming concept where you’re doing something that you know won’t have immediate benefits but you’ll appreciate it later.” Farmers can build soil fertility, increase water retention, and benefit the environment with the use of cover crops. Corno says, “Working around the timing is worth it but you have to look at your farm differently.”