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The 4 Principles of Soil Health ft. Tony of Columbia Center or Urban Agriculture

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Show Notes

The 4 principles of soil health is this week’s Backyard Bounty podcast topic as we join Nicole as she talks with Tony, Farm Manager at the Columbia Center or Urban Agriculture

What You’ll Learn

  • The 4 principles of soil health and how to apply them to your soil
  • Why to use cover crops
  • How and why to minimize soil disturbance
  • Some great ideas for tools you may want to add to you tool shed
  • How to reduce the time that soil is left bare
  • Using transplanting as a benefit to soil health
  • How soil testing and mineral prescriptions can help your soil

Our Guest

As the Urban Farm Manager for CCUA, Tony oversees the day-to-day growing operations for CCUa’s Planting for the Pantry program. He is engaged in facilitating volunteers, Americorps service members, and staff toward seeing their crop plan through to ensure that the freshest, tastiest, most exciting vegetables are grown for local consumption where it’s most needed.

Tony gets a kick out of demonstrating growing techniques that work with nature to yield abundant harvests and finds that they have to deal with pest pressures less and less each season by focusing on the health of their soils.

CCUA envisions its Columbia community transformed by good food for all — and people who have the skills to grow it. CCUA works to enhance our community’s health by connecting people to agriculture and the land through hands-on learning opportunities, from seed to plate. They donate everything grown at Columbia’s Agriculture Park to hunger relief outlets through their Planting for the Pantry Program. They believe that all people deserve access to good, healthy, nutrient-dense foods, as well as hands-on educational opportunities to become empowered to grow their own food. In 2020, they donated over 20,000 pounds of food to families in need!

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Announcer: 0:01

Welcome to the Backyard Bounty podcast from, where we aim to educate and inspire you by sharing practical information to help your homestead thrive. And now, here's your host, Nicole.

Nicole 0:16

Hello, everyone. And thank you so much for joining me for another episode of Backyard Bounty. I'm your host, Nicole. And today I'm joined by Tony, the Urban Farm Manager for the Columbia Center of Urban Agriculture. And today, we're going to be talking about the four principles of soil health and how they implement those into their practices. So with that being said, Tony, thank you so much for joining me today.

Tony 0:41

Thanks so much for having me on, Nicole. It's not something I get to do that often. So this is fun.

Nicole 0:45

Yeah, I'm really excited to have you on the show. I'm excited to talk to you today. I think it's gonna be a great episode. So diving right in, can you tell us a little bit more about the Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture? What exactly is that? What do you do there? Give us all the information.

Tony 1:01

Sure. So yeah, I've been managing our farm sites for the Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture. The past five seasons is my sixth season and we're in the heart of Missouri, right off a highway 70. So we'd eventually find ourselves in Denver with you. We've been around since around 2010, working in the Columbia, Missouri community to enhance our community's health through connecting folks to agriculture in the land, in hands on ways, so getting people out into garden spaces, farm spaces, learning where their food is coming from. And one of the great take homes of our programming is that all the produce we generate from our sites ends up getting donated to hunger relief outlets in the community. So year after year, in a program called Planting for the Pantry, which I manage, we've been able to donate more and more produce to these hunger relief outlets in town. We end up doing our fundraising throughout the course of the year to sponsor the costs of production for each grow bed at our farm, so that once that produce is ready coming out of the field fresh as it gets, it can go straight to most commonly the central pantry in town, which is run by our local food bank. So you know week to week, I get to manage tons of enthusiastic volunteers. I work with a cohort of AmeriCorps VISTA members that we work with annually, as well as some other staff at our site to generate all that produce. And actually to kind of look at the larger organization we've found a new home in the last few years in Colombia, we're now based at a 10 acre park. Expanding from about an acre and a half or so urban site I've been managing for the years before now, our new 10 acre site is under the name Columbia's Agriculture Park. And in a public private partnership, we've been able to work with the city of Columbia, the city farmers markets, Parks and Rec, and the local sustainable food and communities network to develop this open to the public park hours oriented park to teach people about where their food comes from, and a huge new capacity.

Nicole 2:54

Well, that sounds really amazing. I love that, you know, it's kind of a full circle thing where you can have folks out there to learn and then give back into the community in so many different ways. So I think that that kind of speaks for itself. But what was the thing that started this whole program?

Tony 3:09

Well, this was a Columbia, Missouri is a University City where University of Missouri is based. And some students at the time were in a college class of swords, I think it has something to do with sustainable agriculture or ecology. They had a class project where they started using bikes to transport food scraps around the city, from restaurants to compost on site at our urban lot, you know, generating that waste into a fertility source for the garden and, you know, secured a acre site that became our urban farm where they were able to start using that compost, you know, I think around 2010 is when it became a nonprofit organization. And it took a couple years maybe for anybody to start getting paid. And, you know, sort of scrappy as the organization has been, there's been more and more growth each year, new, you know, staff increases each year. And to be honest, I've been here a little over five years, and the growth has been pretty rapid going into this new campaign for the Columbia Agriculture Park and the exposure that having the farmers market for Columbia, which you know, has 1000s of visitors each weekend, as well as just having a new larger location and a more frequently traveled area of the city, we just getting a lot more exposure, exposing a lot more people to the work we do, and to have fun gardening and good eating can be.

Nicole 4:24

It's a really fantastic organization that gives back to the community. So it's really exciting to hear that things like that can grow. No pun intended, I guess. I imagine that you saw an increase in interest during COVID. As well,

Tony 4:36

To some degree, we were hit by the inability to have a lot of our volunteer base come out. Early 2020, we had to shut down our volunteer program and limit the amount of educational programming on site but being an outdoor garden venue, you know, of all the places to sort of be lucky enough to continue working we were able to, you know, keep people distanced at 10 feet, so they could drop their masks and continue to work. Work out in the field getting the work done. So around mid summer last year, we really ramped back or help on site. And of course, the need has never been more great in Colombia for the food access that our produce sort of plays a part in counteracting.

Nicole 5:13


Tony 5:13

Yeah, we have grown, like I said, our numbers every year, but from what is now about a half acre of actual production within that 10 acre site of the Ag Park, we generated over 20,000 pounds of produce last year. And you know, these are all first quality, organically grown, although not certified types of vegetables that we're bringing weekly to the pantry.

Nicole 5:35

And that was actually going to be my next question. What do you grow? And then obviously, you answered how much so what what kind of things do you grow there?

Tony 5:43

We do a whole lot of everything. So in the planting for the pantry program, we do work really closely with pantry staff to find you know, what produce is in most need. Maybe it's the stuff that's most expensive to find or inaccessible at a grocery store, we find what quantities we need to grow. So what surface area of bed production per crop we need to do. And then even we look at specific varietals and what's the culturally appropriate way to present that food at the pantry. In terms of actual crops, it's a little bit of everything. So right now we just are about to seed the second succession of beets and carrots. We're about to be in the bulk of harvesting sweet and hot peppers, okra, tomatoes, cucumbers in the fall and spring will really focus on the turnips and radishes and bok choy and kale and collards. And so a little bit everything veggies at the site, we're also putting in a demonstration garden where we're able to, you know, show folks in their backyards all the things they're capable of doing. So raised bed container gardens and ground beds, you know, we do a holistic fruit tree program where we'll do holistic sprays for folks in the community, their fruit trees, as well as plant things source, you know, more rare genetic stock. So we're demonstrating some of those different fruit tree varieties, common things like apples and peaches, and pears, but also getting kind of funky with it. So if you've ever heard of Jujubees, or Chinese Mulberries, the Tea Tree, or there's a blue bean plant that's like a blue bean tree. There's a lot of space out there. So we're getting creative with what we put in and with what we show people they can grow at home.

Nicole 7:22

How neat. So as you've been managing this program and working with it over the years, so we mentioned the beginning talking about soil health, how does soil health relate to all of this? And how did you determine that soil health was important?

Tony 7:38

That's a good question. And there's a lot of ways I think to address it, we sort of look at all sorts of different methods for ways in improving soil health, because the gardeners that come to our site, and some of the small farmers that learn from what we're doing at the park, you know, all come with different challenges with the soils they have, they come with different, you know, financial resources, they come with different sensibilities on whether they're interested in, you know, maintaining organic practices, or if they're willing to, you know, practice more than pesticide spraying and whatnot. So I try not to spin any silver bullets at folks, you know, on what, what the best only way to sort of build soil fertility up is but you know, broadly like a soils class I recommend, we sort of focus on the physical, the biological, and the chemical. And I think one thing we could talk about in this episode is there's a great PDF that the NRCS put out, you know, some years ago, roughly titled farming practices for the 21st century, a practical guide for soil health. And when I found this, that kind of thinking, wow, this is really close to what we're already doing. And a lot of the practices we do fall into these four principles listed in the PDF. And those four principles in the PDF are: Number one, disturb the soil as little as possible. And we can get into these all more specifically later. But number two would be plant as diverse a number of living species in the field as is practical. Number three would be keep living plants occupying and covering the soil as much as possible. Principle four would be just keep the soil covered as much as possible. And as you can kind of imagine, in the language of all those, there's a lot of overlap between the principles and how they play out but when folks usually come to the garden or Park looking for answers to their disease questions, bacterial, you know, fungal blights, various pests, you know, there's all these different solutions and depending on your means and ability, you can address these pests in different ways. But I think it all begins in the soil, and balancing those biological, chemical and physical demands to create the ideal conditions for your plants to be able to boost their immune systems, fend for themselves, and hopefully, save yourself all the time having to deal with those downstream problems in the first place.

Nicole 9:51

You said this was from the NRCS. Who is that?

Tony 9:57

What does the NRCS stand for? National Resource Conservation Services, I think.

Nicole 10:02

Yeah, Natural Resources Conservation Service. So these four principles, can you kind of walk us through how you incorporate those into your garden setting?

Tony 10:13

Sure. So, a little bit of background, I guess on our setup, you know, within the 10 acre park, there's about a half acre that we've dedicated as our initial production area. And within that, there's four quadrants we've taken from that half acre and so each quadrant is a makeup of 16 beds that are each in the 30 inch wide by 100 foot long layout. And we use at this new site program with the BCS tractor which a lot of your listeners might be familiar with, the two wheel tractor that you can catch all those cool implements flail mowers, tillers, rotary plows, and we use a rotary plow to work up soil in the walkways, these 18 inch walkways to bring soil up from those walkways into a raised bed, you know, 30 inches wide. And for our heavy clay soils, and mid Missouri that is super crucial for some of these wet you know, torrential summer rains we've been having and keeping our plants roots happy and above water. So within this model, then each of those principles kind of is broken down into different actual practical steps. So that do not disturb soil as much as possible, quite simply as reducing tillage as much as possible. So there's of course, you know, the whole gradient of tillage from using a big moldboard single plow, you know, four wheeled tractor to taking your cultivator at home, your stirrup hoe or your whatever kind of thing you use to kill weeds and disturbing those top inches of soil. And we try to do less of the former and more of the latter in terms of dealing with weeds and managing the bed tops for planting. So some of those things include cover cropping, we'll do a lot of cover cropping, which also addresses principle three that keeping living plants covering the surface as much as possible. I don't know if your listenership has practiced much with cover crops in the home setting, but we consider the cover crops anything we're growing that isn't for marketable yield. And that were growing for the ecosystem services it provides, you know, to our soil to pollinators and local habitat for other beneficial insects. That third principle is, you know, the crucial piece of a living plant covering the soil is that living plant is that only shading the soil, regulating the temperature of that surface of the soil for the plants around it, and the soil microbes in that in that top six inches, but it's also releasing liquid carbon, it's made through the photosynthetic process into your soil. So you're increasing your soil carbon content through these living plants. They're releasing, you know, what are called plant exudates through their roots. So they take all these sugars they generate through photosynthesis. And they send all these tasty sugars, these carbohydrates and proteins into the soil food web where these microbes are waiting, and happily hungry, ready to proliferate eating up all these plant based foods. And in turn, the plant wants to attract these microbes, right because these bacteria and fungi are capable of breaking down the rock and mineral material in the soil that would otherwise be inaccessible to those plants. So by us growing cover crops in the shoulders of the season, when we otherwise can't squeeze in another cash crop or in between maybe we goofed on a transplanting or there's just a, you know, a gap between those spring radishes and a carrot crop that we're not going to put in until July for the fall, we can squeeze in a cover crop of buckwheat, for example, which might only take five to six weeks to go from that seed date to full bloom, where the pollinators are eating it up, and where it's doing all those ecosystem services for us in the meantime. So you know, I can kind of keep connecting and drawing all these together. But those cover crops are a great addition to the third point as well as a way to target the first point of disturbing the soil as little as possible. Because what we're able to do is grow cover crops in the fall that intentionally will winter kill based on cold conditions. And then what we're left with is a nice residue of what looks like straw in the springs, we have a free straw source, and instead of having to come in in the spring and till up that soil to make it available for crops, it has smothered any chance of weeds coming up and we can just rake that duff back from the cover crop and plant our spring crops into it.

Nicole 14:19

And so then what do you do in the warmer months when you plant the cover crops that you would then need to remove to plant a cash crop? Do you pull them? Do you cut them? Like what do you do with that?

Tony 14:31

Yeah, that's a great question. Um, different ways to deal with it depending on again, what tools that are at your disposal. So if you really had to limit on tools and funds for tools, you could be using a weed whacker or a mower to take that buckwheat down around the time of its full bloom. But before it goes to seed and kind of creates a buckwheat weed problem, which we've done a lot and so you could mow or weed whack that stuff at that flower stage which will kind of zap it of it's enough energy to regenerate from the roots and what we to do is often smother that with a layer of compost that you can plant directly into. And that compost not only acts as another sort of mulch layer to keep weeds from germinating, thus reducing the need to till but it also will kind of create a seedbed because of course, the buckwheat roots will be kind of tangled kind of mess in the surface of the soil that would be hard to plant into. So you could plant into that top layer of compost, do you have the means to kind of expand your tool belt we also will use the BCS fleet of tools may have a great flail mower that's made for the 30 inch width beds so that flail mower is a real powerful beast of a tool and it'll take you know, five foot tall or four foot tall buckwheat cover crop down to small shreds that can easily be incorporated into the soil with a little hoe. You know, on the farm scale, we also have bought a BCS power harrow, which if anybody looks that up, unlike a tiller, where your times are rotating on a horizontal axis kind of moving up and down bringing soil from the bottom to the top. This just sort of stirs the soil in the top layer in a more horizontal orientation. So the tillage is greatly reduced, the weed seed that would come from bottom to top is greatly reduced and you're still able to work in that buckwheat crop residue that way. And actually a third thing would be if people have played with plastic tarps or billboard tarps, or there's sometimes pulled from silage operations, silage tarps, you can weed whack that buckwheat cover crop, put a tarp over it for a month to let the, you know, microbial world under that tarp, break down that buckwheat straw, and be left with a really nice bed to plant into five weeks or so later.

Nicole 16:36

Gotcha. Yeah, that all makes sense. I know that we were looking into doing some cover crop things. And I'll tell you, I look no further than what can I plant as a cover crop?

Tony 16:47


Nicole 16:48

But my concern, when I was going to plant them in the spring was well, then what? So...

Tony 16:54

It's never it's never an easy answer.

Nicole 16:57

I mean, I probably could have looked it up. But...

Tony 17:00

Yeah, and the different species we do, you know, we've experimented more and more. And this addresses the second point of planting as many diverse species of plants as practical, because they each offer different strengths and weaknesses into the field. But um, we'll plant very diverse cover crop mixes. So sort of divided into warm weather versus cool weather species and you know, to to address different functions in the soil and the environment, we'll put different species in the mix. And they all kind of create different challenges in terms of mowing or putting it under or you know, when all of them are blooming at the same time, and you do a nice mow probably won't kill all of them. That's maybe when you bring those tarps out or do some light surface work on the soil. But it's fun playing with the mixes.

Nicole 17:45

So on the the four principles, the fourth one with keeping soil covered, I assume it's not just mulch, it's also just like physically being covered by plants and things like that as well.

Tony 17:57

Yeah, and that last one, I feel like the NRCS must have just thrown in there as a catch all because it's like at this point, you know, you've covered all these different methods for covering the soil to get to that fourth principle. But yeah, the cover cropping examples of how we address it as well or interplanting. So maybe we'll so on the outer edges of our summer tomato beds, spring radishes, and then when the radishes near maturity, we just dropped the tomatoes into, you know, that center of the bed, and then that radish residue that's left over will contribute somewhat to organic matter, in addition to some straw around the tomatoes to keep that covered. Basically, any kind of creative ways you can maximize the space of your beds through more intensive plantings would be examples of that. Another great example is instead of the radishes come out in the spring, I keep using radishes for some reason as an example, but and you know, instead of direct seeding or okra in late May, maybe we'll have started it two to three weeks in advance. And because we're using our transplants, we reduce any of that amount of time when the bed would just be more or less bare waiting for direct seeds to come up. So for folks that have a greenhouse or outdoor space conducive to grow in their own plants or buying stuff from nurseries, just the sheer ability to transplant the majority of your stuff can reduce that amount of you know, bare soil exposed time, that time when your soil is going to cook or get heavily rained on or things like beets, turnips, sometimes even beans and peas I've tried this way but will grow and transplant blocks as little clusters that we plant on you know, six or it depends on the spacing for the plant. But instead of direct seeding those things and then having to necessarily do thinning or kind of wait that amount of time for them to come up while the weeds are coming up with them, you know, in tandem fighting it out. That transplanting will really be a huge benefit in that regard.

Nicole 19:50

Yeah, that makes sense. So have you been using these principles the entire time or the some things that you implemented over time, and stack on to that, if you were doing something different before, have you noticed a difference in your crops since using these new principles?

Tony 20:09

Yeah, um, one challenge and answering the question is that we've only been at the new site, the Agriculture Park, where I'm spending the majority of my time with my crew now, you know, for the last two seasons, so it's sort of all new there. I think at the former site, though, we we definitely saw these things build on top of each other, as well as doing more soil based mineral balancing was a big piece, because as we were piling on the compost, and really focusing on getting up our soil organic matter. In addition to practicing these soil based concepts from NRCS, we were lacking on making sure we were providing all the micronutrients and the you know, the minerals on a soil test, not only in their abundance, but in their correct proportions to each other. So paying a little more attention to our fertility beyond the NPK that, you know, a lot of fertilizer brands might focus on. When we started balancing the calcium, the magnesium and the potassium and the micronutrients, we had deficiencies of boron and copper in our field, those made great differences to in terms of reducing pathogens and disease.

Nicole 21:15

So maybe we could talk more about that I assumed the first thing you would need to do is a soil test. But once you find out that you do have a deficiency, how do you go about fixing it? How do you know how much of whatever to add and all of that?

Tony 21:28

It's been a newer world of information I've stepped into to learn about more recently, I don't have an easy answer to that. But certainly there are certain labs across the country that pay more attention to that full spectrum of minerals and how they're balanced in proportion to each other. The professor and I believe Dean of Soils at the University of Missouri, William Albrecht in the mid 20th century did a lot of studies on the most nutrient dense and healthy plants that produce the most nutrient dense and healthy livestock feed sources. He studied the ways that the minerals played in proportion to each other in these soils and came up with some ideal ratios that since then, writers like Michael Astera, and as a new author, as reading Will McKibben, have kind of, sort of developed more books on. And so you can take soil tests that you might take through a company like Logan labs in the Midwest, or Kinzie Ag in Missouri, actually. And they'll give you these proportions. And you can work with some of these texts to sort of concoct your own fertilizer cocktail to put these minerals back into balance. And some companies like Kinsey, you can actually pay a fee to be able to have them do that analysis for you. So you don't have to go into a completely blindly on your own.

Nicole 22:47

So is that something that is like a one time fix? Or that you need to do maybe a heavier application of whatever you're lacking? And then in subsequent years, just, you know, lower doses?

Tony 22:59

Yeah, that's a good question. It's, it's usually really important, I think, for gardeners to at least one time soil test where they're working. And if they think they have various micro climates that might differ substantially, you know, they have a bog on their property versus Highland soil versus a sandy soil where these things differ greatly, I would take a different test for each area, but at least one time do that test and, you know, apply the mineral prescriptions according to that test. Beyond that, what we typically do is we'll consult with a group like that to make sure we weren't overdoing any of the particular micronutrients that might end up leading to a toxicity level. But generally that same mix that we prescribed that first year, we'll use that annually, and then tweak crop to crop, if there's anything, you know, different that a certain crop might want more than the other. But it's really good, I think, just from the get go to make a sort of balancing effort for those things. And usually, they're the fertility sources, we're using our long term breakdown, forms of fertility that usually require microbial breakdown. So some of the nitrogen sources will use your feather meal and fish meal and things that might take a little bit of time to break down mineral amendments like sulfur and trace mineral amendments, like azomite, kelp meal, all have these, you know, varying times for breakdown. So usually, you're getting benefits your second year from that same stuff you applied in your first year.

Nicole 24:24

That makes sense. So would you ever get to the point where the soil is then balanced? And you wouldn't have to add any more I know that the plants have certain demands, but if you're composting and things like that is is it ever done?

Tony 24:39

That's a good question. Can we ever stop spending money?

Nicole 24:42


Tony 24:43

You know, I think that what we're talking about right now is really addressing sort of the way we can play out the chemical environment in the soil and the way that we can sort of jumpstart the soil with these minerals, but it would take we would just go back to those four principles from the NRCS document. You know, the talk about preserving the physical integrity of the soil and fostering the soil foodweb of all life in there that's doing that free nutrient cycling for us. So I don't really have an easy answer to your question. But in theory, you know, the minerals you're putting into the soil, in a solid living system, following those principles, that you're just you're boosting that nutrient cycling. And once you have a really healthy soil food web, I don't think you ever would reach a point where you might not have to add something because we're in the mineral extraction industry, when we're gardening or farming and taking all that food into our bodies, and potentially not putting that back into the soil. But I do think that we've seen great, great reductions in needs for those fertilizer sources, both just through observation, you know, I'm putting less and less of these items on crop after crop. But also our soil tests are proving that and we're, we're having much lower recommendations year after year.

Nicole 25:56

So would it be safe to say that with patience, if you follow these four principles, and really nurtured the soil that eventually it would improve and get pretty close to the point that it wouldn't necessarily need much of an application of these different minerals after a certain period of time, whatever that time? That may be?

Tony 26:16

Yeah, absolutely. I think you know, where you'd be building that momentum up for several years. And seeing improvements year after year after year. Like I said, some of these mineral fertilizers, some of these soil biology, building principles take time to you know, sort of accrue their success, but you really can sort of get your soil into a place where it's sort of self sustaining. I mean, the key is to remember that you can always unfortunately, set yourself back quite a bit too, every time you're bringing your tiller out and pulverizing the top, you know, 12 inches of your soil, you're sort of setting nature's succession plan back to square one. And, you know, breaking up those earthworm burrows, disturbing those fungal environments, oxidizing the organic matter that you've been building up in that soil. So back to that principle one, you know, disturbing the soil as little as possible, once you have developed a lot of this soil health, you know, I think is a really important thing to keep in mind.

Nicole 27:14

So the four principles they seem, you know, relatively simple and straightforward, but have you had any issues, implementing them or found any challenges along the way that maybe you weren't expecting?

Tony 27:27

It's always a challenge managing for complexity, right. So there's always things that we start with good intentions and sort of get out of hand, one of the one of the biggest challenges is in a no till environment where you're not disturbing the soil through mechanical tools, and you're trying to keep it covered and happy as best you can. So you're, you know, keeping it moist and you're keeping it covered, you can really create a habitat that perennial weeds just go crazy for. So if any of your listeners are garden warriors against bind weed or Bermuda grass, or any number of those sorts of perennial noxious weeds, these systems can be really challenging. And I think one of the things I would highly recommend is if you really want to be serious about pushing these principles into effect, you really want to manage for those perennial weeds before you get started on a no till journey. So for example, the agriculture park where we've moved into in the last two years, we started off with a very heavily compacted former Boone County Fairgrounds, the area where we're growing our vegetables used to be the site of livestock Expo buildings and a tractor pole. There's a tractor pole moving right through it and there's you know, heavy gravel content in the soils we have a really high pH really curious soils and the soils for growing some really good crops of buying weed and Bermuda grass, probably about a 50% stand in the field. So there's a great resource I believe in East Oklahoma called the Kerr Center and they have a great PDF online that describes a farming model to combat perennial weeds called bio extensive farming and as opposed to bio intensive farming where you know you're planting, you know, every square foot of your space with vegetables to grow and you really don't have any extra space to focus on you know, growing your own fertility so to speak, or, you know, have the extra space to dedicate to dealing with the weeds without growing crop. This is kind of tough, but the bio extensive model basically uses cover crops and brown following to kill perennial weeds. So, in the case of Bermuda grass, its main ways to go down are frost exposure or shade may love the sun. So what we were able to do following the Kerr Center before we got involved in our permanent bed no till system is the wintertime drug a chisel plow through the field. If you're a home scale, you can use you know a three prong type rake or something that you can easily pull rhizomes and bees. plants out of the soil with that in the winter, we regularly when the soil was workable with chisel plow or rake up these Bermuda grass rhizomes expose them to frost and have them killed that way. And then for two years, during the summers, we grew a diverse cover crop that included sorghum, Sudan grass, which is this crazy cover crop that puts on you know, five feet of growth multiple times per season.

Nicole 30:26

Oh, wow.

Tony 30:27

And it's able to very aggressively shade out that Bermuda grass. So in in combination of these two things, as of the beginning of 2020, when we really went full time at the new site, we had almost completely reduced the Bermuda grass and buying weed populations in that entire half acre field. And this is a long, long winded way of saying perennial weeds can be the bane of this whole plan. And there is a way to reduce them. And you should check out the crew centers website for more info on that.

Nicole 30:56

I appreciate the long winded way because I have gotten so many emails about buying weed in Bermuda grass. And that's not really something that I'm super knowledgeable about. So unfortunately, I don't usually have an answer.

Tony 31:10

Oh, yeah. They're tough. Yeah, spent a lot of years hand weeding and dealing with them. And when we started this new site, we just said, you know, we literally can't, we don't have the time and energy and resources to spend the next 10 years pulling perennial weeds out of vegetable beds. So it's not everybody has the, I guess the situation or opportunity to completely do an operation like that and take their bins out of production or whatever. But if you if you're planning to start something, I would make sure you deal with those weeds first.

Nicole 31:39

Well, that's a really great idea and some suggestions for options outside of just the guiso fate, you know, kill all and then start from scratch.

Tony 31:48

Right, right. That was the other option. And we really didn't want to do that in a, you know, public city park where folks want to bring their kids and their dogs learn about, you know, how easy it is to grow vegetables without that.

Nicole 32:01

Sure. So the question about the second principle of growing different species of plants, what's the benefit of doing something like that, you know, in the world of mono crops that we have today, you would think that maybe that's how things are supposed to be done. So why mix the different varieties of plants?

Tony 32:23

At a simple level in terms of sort of mimicking the checks and balances present in natural ecosystems, our providing as diverse species mixes, we can provide all those different checks and balances for our farm site and allows us to grow things without the intervention of, you know, spraying herbicides and pesticides as frequently. So in a lot of the marginal spaces around the Agriculture Park and our other farm site, we will often you know, plant specific things that draw in beneficial insects, as well as plants that offer a diverse forage for pollinators throughout the year. So some things would be, you know, perennial natives that are always there with a root system intact to provide habitat for beneficial ground beetles. We'll plant Lanceleaf Coreopsis, or Purple Poppy mallow, you know, some different Missouri natives that are really known for attracting green lacewings. And ladybugs which are great for you know, tackling your aphid problems, we'll plant the carrot family, a lot of you all know, its members include fennel and parsley, loveage. And even sort of other frilly like plants like that, like Yarrow, these are all considered nectary plants that draw in really beneficial insects like bracanoid wasps, they're kind of famously known for laying their eggs inside the bodies of the tomato hornworm. And then those worms, you know, come out and go to town on the bodies of that worm.

Nicole 33:48

Yeah, I've seen that. That's terrifying.

Tony 33:49

That's a great, but brutal, brutal checks and balance of nature. That's some of the sort of pest management benefits of doing that. Just doing the cover cropping we do doing the intercropping we do in a bed. These are examples of ways that, you know, we're putting different root systems together. And each of these root systems is taking in different nutrients, it is releasing different nutrients, it's drawing in a different community of microbes into what people call the rhizosphere, you know, that root zone surrounding their roots immediately. So the more diversity of plant roots we're putting out there, the more diversity of plant microbes, partnerships we're establishing, and drawing more of these different microbes to the table means more decomposition of what would otherwise be locked up in the soil fertility wise. And so we can kind of get more of that free nutrient cycling, more of that checks and balances. The more we plant a key word and that principle that the NRCS lists is the word practical. So I think you know, it can be impractical in some sense to do just endless amounts of additional plantings if they're not going to be generating a cash crop and I get that but, you know, one thing we've kind of put some plans into place that We're going to implement this fall is I talked about the four quadrants and there's like ABCD. They're divided, you know, A and D has a as a six foot, stretch in between them, and B, and C does as well. And we're going to install a large 100 foot long hedgerow in between those quadrants. So that even though the field in general, that half acre is being managed more commercially, without the diverse plantings of a home garden, we're going to put in all those nectary plants and sort of habitat locations into this sort of six foot wide 100 foot long berm on both sides to kind of create a permanent space for that habitat, that might be a great place for us to put up some posts for some Bluebird boxes, to use their their pest management skills to our advantage, these hedgerows will benefit the beds adjacent to them because they'll be inoculated with the mycorrhizal fungi, that fungi collection that partners have plant roots and extends the ability for your plants to take in extra water and nutrients from the soil profile. So what we're when we might be putting other crops under and saying goodbye for the year, and ending some of those fungal partnerships, these sort of hedgerow, the biodiversity banks can be places where in the soil, we're also keeping those fungi alive, so they can further inoculate our beds, you know, to their sides later.

Nicole 36:19

I would swear that you're a mind reader. And for anybody listening, I can promise you, we didn't script this out. But it's so ironic, because my next question I was going to ask you is what's in the future. And you already touched on that, obviously, but what are some other future goals and you know, things that you plan to implement and things around your facility?

Tony 36:44

Kind of in the more housekeeping of the park, you know, we just had our barn and greenhouse installed over the last winter. So we're still getting our operations more fine tuned, doing a lot of work. We're building vertical in our barn. So we just got a pair of pallet forks for the first time, we're able to store off some of these fertilizer and materials in a more efficient way. But back in the field kind of more on point with what we've been talking about. It's been a really big goal this year to get all of our beds transitioned from that cover crop intensive, that bio extensive method I talked about earlier, we're because we're kind of running up at our current size to some space sort of limitations, I can't, you know, afford to take an entire quadrant into a cover crop every year like we were when we were initially managing for those perennial weeds. So this year, the name of the game has been using that rotary plow tool to build permanent 30 inch wide 100 foot long beds that are raised, so that we can better practice those four principles and do less event disturbance, all the fertility, we spend money and time, you know, putting into those beds will then stay in place in that you know, raised soil profile where our plant roots are going to be closest to. And we can kind of also have a just tidy or looking site.

Nicole 38:01

So with everything that you have going on now and all the things that you have planned in the future, how can we connect with you follow along, get more information, maybe get involved if we live in the area?

Tony 38:14

Yeah, we have a presence on Facebook, Instagram, and on our website, which I believe you have listed in the show notes.

Nicole 38:20

We will.

Tony 38:21, we are always looking for more volunteer help. If you're in mid Missouri, it's a great way to learn about the principles in person and to see kind of what we're doing for the Columbia community in person. And more recently, due to the pandemic, we've actually put some really funding we were given into doing a lot more video content. So if you want to check, we have a YouTube presence as well, where we've been creating some videos that will accompany the produce we send to the local pantry so that people have a better idea of what and how to use the different things we're bringing, like how many people maybe I've ever had a kohlrabi before. And there's also some great content on there in terms of, you know, garden education and things people can do in their backyards. So that's a good thing to check out.

Nicole 39:04

Fantastic. And then of course, links will be in the show notes so that people can find you easily there. But it sounds like you've got a really exciting future ahead. And I think what you're doing is amazing. I love the philanthropic side of it and everything else that you have going on there as well, the education and just all of it. I love all of it.

Tony 39:25

Well, thank you appreciate the support and having having me on. It's great talking with you,

Nicole 39:29

Of course. And, you know, thank you for sharing your knowledge with the listeners. And hopefully this can help their garden grow a little bit greener next season.

Tony 39:37

Heck, yeah. Happy Gardening this summer. Obviously anybody's listening can feel free to hit me up for any more info on what I was talking about today. We kind of were all over the place in it so wonderful. So hopefully for the better.

Nicole 39:50

Yes, I think so. Well, thank you again, Tony. I really appreciate it.

Tony 39:54

Thanks a lot, Nicole.

Nicole 39:56

And for those of you listening thank you so much for joining me for another episode and we'll I'll see you again next week.

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