Author: Julie Rawson| Published: April 2017
Jen Salinetti farms with her husband Pete in Tyringham, MA in the Berkshires. They have been farming for 16 years together, the four years spent on their almost 5-acre farm. In recent years they have not been using tillage to grow their vegetables. Jen feels that by not disturbing the soil they have a considerable positive impact on carbon sequestration on their land. They have experienced a significant increase in quality and yields which has enabled them to create a viable business on a small amount of land.
“Pete and I started experimenting with no-till 13 years ago, and we are now going into year 11. Our initial experimenting began when we were looking to increase greenhouse production. We started looking into ways to do prep without the tiller. We saw some really great results after the first season. And then we expanded it out to our market garden. Through the process, we were able to set up permanent beds and maximize our earnings and outputs through proper spacing of plants. It was right around when our son Diego was born. We wanted to commit to farming, to be available for family life and to be home.”
They read of French bio-intensive methods in books. Pete took off with that and Jen has supported him on some level. In the early 2000s they took an intensive with Eliot Coleman at a NOFA Summer Conference. Jen remembers being in that workshop and Pete looking at her and giving her an “I told you so” look. Jen thought this system was nice for a backyard gardener, but was unsure of the scalability for market growing for profit.
Some authors whose works were important in their conversion to no-till and soil buiding were Lee Reich, author of The Weed Free Gardener, and Grace Gershuny’s The Soul of Soil. Jerry Brunetti’s book Farm as Ecosystemwas also valuable. Now they feel that they are living proof that no till can be accomplished on scale. Jen remembered Eliot’s class giving her a whir of emotions. “There is someone who is doing this, has success, hard numbers, and success further north than us. It came at a critical time. We were having our second child. We were committing to being home and to being a family unit and to being in a position to provide high quality food to our community,” said Jen.
Every year they make some adjustments to their system. They push their season extension, have more constant soil coverage and provide more mulching. They find it fun to have this foundation and be able to build off of it, grow their business and teach others about their findings.
Jen states: “I would actually encourage somebody to not do it all at once. I think for two reasons – it could be incredibly overwhelming and a huge risk. I can say with complete confidence that we have better yield and quality, but it would have been too much of a risk all at once. Transitioning over a couple of years helped us to be able to see that one field over there was doing better than the other – carrots, for example were not growing as well over there as here. The longer transition helped to solidify it in front of our eyes and in our mouths. Within the first year we were able to bear witness to the overall positive changes we were making. By the end of year two, it was a significant shift for us.”
Though it was hard for Jen to embrace no-till farming at first, she did have some amazing mentors – she interned with Deb Habib and Ricky Baruc of Seeds of Solidarity Farm. She was their first intern. She saw that they were a number of years ahead of them and having success with what they were doing. After she left college and apprenticed on a farm that was not operating in that way, she was able to see on so many different levels that no-till made sense. Nonetheless, it was harder for her to take any really big steps. Pete is always willing to push the envelope further than she is through new applications and trials. “We had a few books on hand and some good inspiration. The Soul of Soil was a huge one for us. It gave us a clear perspective of our soil as a living environment. Having a better understanding of soil building was the foundation of that book. It helped us to see how comprehensive the system could be. I could see that we were not growing plants anymore. More so, we are here to support an ecosystem.”
Jen suggests that folks start by defining the bed spaces within their garden with permanent walking spaces and beds. Commit to having the bed spaces as weed free as possible. Their beds are very systematic – 30” wide with 12” pathways and beds 50’ long. With that system, they can set up their quick hoops easily and always use the same materials. It also makes it easier to calculate yields when there is uniformity.
Organic matter is a really important component. Having a good source of compost and being generous with it is essential for them. When they first started, they just put the compost in the planting hole. Now they do the whole bed. It is a hard thing to swallow at first, but the layering of compost mimics what the earth naturally does on its own. Observing what surrounds them and putting it into practice in the field continues to help their production thrive.