For farmer David Brandt, the founder of Walnut Creek Seeds, it would be a soil bursting with worms, fungi, arthropods and microbes that is blanketed with a healthy cover crop.
Since the 1970’s David has followed in the footsteps of natural ecosystems to increase his farm’s yields, suppress weeds, expand the capacity to hold moisture, build organic matter and soil tilth, while decreasing his reliance on chemical and inorganic compounds for crop health and soil fertility. Thirty years later David has become a leading voice in the promotion and education around the use of cover crops. What’s the big deal about cover crops? I think David sums it up well in this quote from his USDA farmer profile;
So many farmers have learned to sit on the tractor seat and let an agronomist make their decisions. I like to have farmers come and feel the soil here, dig in it, smell it, and see for themselves how healthy soil should look and feel. That’s when they get excited.
Since the beginning of agriculture cereal grains have been planted to increase soil fertility and health. Let’s step back for a minute to my own history and my experience with the oft misunderstood practice of using cover crops. In 1996 I set foot on the land which would become the home of my first farming job. It was about fifteen acres of blueberry plants in orderly rows divided by river of grasses and various other plants. At the time I couldn’t help but wonder why the farm owner cared so little for their farm. Sure it was certified organic, but did that mean that “weeds” were just allowed to take over?
Western Washington State where I grew up used to be one of the top producers of carnations, daffodils, and milk in the country. I remember as a child vast fields of flowers punctuated by clean rows of dirt between them. The deep brown hue of the soil contrasting with the brilliant colors of the flowers created a patchwork quilt for the eyes to feast upon. Cows would meander across wide open spaces of thick grasses leaving behind a barren landscape of dusky colored earth; proof in my innocent mind that they had done their job and eaten all the grass to make delicious milk. I will freely admit that cover crops were something it took me a bit of time to understand.
David Brandt has dedicated his soul to helping us achieve that holy task of feeding our soil so we can feed ourselves.
I’m happy to say that many years later I have become enamored by the multitude of flora and fauna which weave together to grow soil. Yes, I said grow soil. When we embark on the path of growing food we have entered a relationship with the plants, minerals, fungi, bacteria, and microorganisms which are the network of life we call soil. In the winemaking regions of France people reference terroir; the taste of the land. When we are seeking to grow produce with exceptional flavor and nutrition it is the terroir of our home earth which imparts the sensations that ignite the taste buds and fuel our bodies. It is through the use of cover crops where we can really feed the soil, develop the palate of flavor the land has within, and harness the abundance which is yearning for release.
David Brandt has dedicated his soul to helping us achieve that holy task of feeding our soil so we can feed ourselves. We are happy to offer various crop blends and single varieties that David and his family have labored over to develop which will allow us to be true caretakers of the land.
Whether you are a home grower or full time farmer, these crops will build the health and vitality of your soil, encourage beneficial earthworms, bacteria, and fungi, while harnessing the natural systems seen in healthy grasslands and forests.
What are we planting now?
Summer Cover Mix – A diverse mix to improve soil health and attract pollinators. Spring planting will yield summer flowers for cutting and crafts. This mix will prevent erosion, improve soil health, fix nitrogen, and will improve water infiltration. Includes: Cowpea, Sunn Hemp, Pearl Millet, Flax, Oats, Sunflower, Nitro Radish
Crimson Clover – With its rapid, robust growth, crimson clover provides early spring nitrogen for full-season crops. It is a top choice for short-rotation niches as a weed suppressing green manure. Its spectacular beauty when flowering keeps it visible even in a mix with other flowering legumes. Whether you use it as a spring or fall N source or capitalize on its vigorous reseeding ability depends on your location.(1)
Hairy Vetch – Few legumes match hairy vetch for spring residue production or nitrogen contribution…The stand smothers spring weeds and can help you replace all or most nitrogen fertilizer needs for late-planted crops. Hairy vetch can improve root zone water recharge, and improves topsoil tilth, creating a loose and friable soil structure.(1)
Oilseed Sunflower – Not only are sunflowers a beautiful addition to the garden they also bring the huge benefit of reducing some pest problems when used in crop rotations. Not to mention they produce delicious seeds which you can extract oil from with a press or in your oven.
Dutch White Clover – This cover can be sown early in spring before last frost. A great nitrogen fixer that provides heavy cover for areas which need serious weed suppression. Dutch White Clover also is a good addition to heavy traffic areas between rows for providing green manure after the fall harvest.
A native prairie is a natural ecosystem we are trying to mimic with the use of cover crops.
I look back to those first days working in the hot sun, ambling through shin-high grass, and “weeds”. How incredible that system was; mimicking the oak savannas to provide nutrients and protection for the tender blueberries growing around me. I feel blessed each day by the new lessons nature teaches me; how to care for the earth, how to care for myself, and how to care for others.
Article Written by: Angie Lavezzo
About the Author: Angie Lavezzo is the former general manager of Sow True Seed. Beyond her professional role at Sow True, Angie's passion for gardening extends into personal hands-on experience, fostering plants and reaping bountiful harvests.
Reference used in the text: (1)Managing Cover Crops Profitably 3rd Edition, Edited by Clark, A.
Sustainable Agriculture Network, ISBN 978-1-888626-12-4