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Perennial green manures - Gary Clausheide and Sweet Clover Farm of Valleyfield, PEI

By Ruth Richman, De Gros Marsh, PEI

In early spring I spent a pleasant morning watching Gary Clausheide dig in the warming earth of his green house. It wasn’t until I returned home that it occurred to me I could have been digging along with him as we talked about his farm and other interests. He probably would have appreciated the help as he mostly works alone, and I could have remembered most of what I needed instead of writing it all down. While digging, Clausheide recalled the first time we met, on the Murray River wharf in late July back in 1991. The Northumberland Fisheries Festival was on and a sign proclaiming the PEI Provincial Double Dory Races caught the eye of Clausheide and a friend as they drove by. They were interested in participating; spotting the Vermont plates on their car I suggested they try the Open Race but Clausheide declared he was a PEI resident, albeit a fairly new one, and thus eligible for the Senior Men’s. Soon after this Clausheide and his wife Junellen became fixtures at the Charlottetown Farmers Market with beautiful displays of baked goods, freshly prepared foods and produce. Glorious, luscious, organic produce. In my opinion the Clausheide’s helped the market overall improve the presentation and quality of the fresh and prepared foods sold there.

More than a decade later I am still rowing dories and the Clausheide’s still sell at the market although Clausheide works the farm mostly alone. After more than a decade of being an advocate for organic agriculture, and a steward of the soil, his fields are in good shape, they look good even in late winter. He works the long hours of a small-scale organic grower but lacks the financial resources to build a much needed, warm, small house to replace the decaying Island farmhouse that he calls home. He needs help with the sowing and the harvests but the farm doesn’t bring in enough to pay employees and he hopes for WWOOFers (Willing Workers on Organic Farms) to help prepare produce for the market.

His farmed land includes the 96 foot by 27 foot greenhouse which had young spinach seedlings growing in it when I was there. In spring and fall it is used for spinach, beets and lettuce, which sell really well at the market. In the summer it has been used for cucumbers and tomatoes but Clausheide is trying to find other crops for it as there have been some problems with both vegetables as the structure gets very hot, helping disease spread. It is also used to start seedlings for the field crops.

Outside he has nine four-acre fields. Two are devoted to vegetables. There is a permanent pasture where horses and cows have resided and six acres are in grains and hay. Clausheide grows a half-acre of potatoes annually, relying on early varieties to avoid blight problems. In the other planting plots he grows all the basic vegetables you could think of, including the most tender broccoli, the tastiest beans, the crunchiest carrots and the sweetest corn. And, of course onions. He and I have been talking onion production for years. Onions are an important crop for Sweet Clover Farm and Clausheide tries new techniques every couple of years, although he has yet to try my highly intensive technique, which is both time and manure consuming. Since I am just growing for my own use is easy for me to do. Clausheide, as with most organic producers I know, are constantly seeking sources of nutrient rich organic matter.

To help solve this perennial problem Clausheide’s vegetable acreage is divided into eight one-acre plots. Half are planted annually with crops and the other half is planted in green cover plants, which traditionally are tilled in to enrich the soil as “green manure”.

Five years ago Gary first heard about Elliot Coleman, an innovative organic grower and authour living in Maine, and Eric Nordell of the Small Farm Journal. They both rely on green manures to build the soil and increase fertility and have been experimenting with perennial green manures, which are not subjected to winterkill. This attracted Clausheide as he is always seeking ways to build the soil to improve his crops and to save time and cost of production. He is devoted to green manures as they help control erosion but their protection only kicks in once they are established which traditionally is late in the season, after potentially damaging spring rains. With a permanent green manure cover the soil is protected year round. Green manures also help suppress weeds and keep the soil from compacting.

Explaining what he began doing last year, with photographs and hand motions, Clausheide told me “if you are growing organically you are pretty much managing organic matter and there are many ways to do it. Some people may look at this and see controlled chaos.” He appreciates the idea that “if you get a green manure crop at the same time you are getting your food crop you are that much ahead”. Nature will fill the vacuum of empty soil surface, usually with plants we do not want in the garden or field. Planting with green manures lets the farmer choose the plants which fill the vacuum.

What he has done is organize the vegetable plots in18 inch aisles, wide enough to accommodate a push mower. In every other strip he planted white clover and/or blue grass. In the other strips the vegetables are planted. As the seeds sprout and emerge or as sets root and grow or as transplants get used to their surroundings, the cover plant is kept away from the crops plants but as the crop plants get larger and roots grow deeper the cover plants are allowed to grow and expand sideways beyond the 18 inches into the crops’ strip. This helps keeps the weeds down and yet the cover plant has not encroached on the crop to affect size or vitality.

In addition to the weed mulching benefit the land is protected against erosion caused by heavy rains and drying winds. Also, only half the land in any given year is tilled, saving time, fuel, and wear and tear on equipment. Less tilling also means the soil structure is disturbed less. This is important to Clausheide as he feels we underestimate how much harm tilling does to earthworms and soil microorganisms. There is a fine line though between weed mulching and crop suppression, this line will be explored more by Clausheide and he will be setting the green manure plants back by hand cultivation. By the end of July cultivation will end and the plants will be allowed to grow freely.

By the end of the summer the crops are harvested and the crop strips have filled in with the green manure plants protecting the whole area against the heavy fall rains we get on PEI and also against the freezing and thawing which causes soil erosion during the winter, if there is no snow cover. In the second season the cropped strips from the previous year become the future green manure strips and the alternating strips get tilled and planted with the new crops. In year three the entire plot is left to grow with the cover plants, while another plot is used for production. He hopes to let the plants go to seed, scythe the plants and save the seed. In year four the tilling and planting begins again. Ideally, the cover plants do not need to be seeded again, saving time and money.

To Clausheide, the big question is “can I control the bluegrass and clover to keep them from taking over the crop? I just want to subdue not kill” the cover plants. Where other farmers would use “Round-up” to kill or suppress unwanted green plants Clausheide will use mowing and creative cultivation. Before planting, strips will be tilled twice although Clausheide will try tilling with a rotovator once and using a stirrup hoe once to see what difference, if any, that makes. Clausheide knows there is a chance that this technique of introducing permanent green manure plants into his crop plots may not work as he envisions it should. “I may be shooting myself in the foot with this, if I can’t control the strips. I am not being paid to do the research.”

Clausheide hasn’t received any government grant money to try this innovative farming technique, he doesn’t really look at government as a source of information or of funding for how he wants to farm. He thinks that the government sees a lucrative market for organic products but hasn’t figured out how to tap into it or how to really help organic farmers. “Government can’t really support conventional (chemical dependent large scale farming) and organic agriculture at the same time”, he says. Hence most organic producers are working small-scale operations that are consistently in an economic bind. They may not have the million dollar debt of the conventional farmer but carrying any debt when there is no extra money over expenses causes stress and limits expansion.

I asked Clausheide what gets him out of bed in the morning to do what he does day in and day out during the growing season. He responded that he thought it was an excellent question and continued “Wendell Berry says we have an obligation to give hope to the younger generation. I think the hope we can give is sustainable agriculture.” He then smiled and said “the word sustainable is used so many ways that it now means nothing. Sustainable to me is Survival.” He feels pressure to change his life but knows it would be difficult to give up the life he has on the farm. “After all these years of building the soil and the farm I have no money to fix this house or build another”, he commented.

The winter months see him researching not only farming techniques but also intentional communities and he is drawn to the idea of community living. A like interested group of people in the surrounding areas have been meeting to discuss ways to draw closer and share the costs and joys of life and living. To help Clausheide continue what he is doing on his land his friends organized a twelve hour “Raise the Roof” fundraiser with music and foods open to the public with donations accepted to go towards the building of a modest home. At press time the event had occurred but it is not known how much was raised for this farmer who believes that the three pillars of sustainable agriculture are to be socially responsible, to be economically viable and to be ecologically sound.

The OACC gratefully acknowledges the author for permission to post this article on our website.

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Posted November 2006


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