LOYSVILLE, Pa. — The heart of the farm is in its earth.
The Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture showcased a Perry County Farm last month that has an effective soil management plan.
However, farmers attending the Soil Health Conference at Spiral Path Farm in Loysville were cautioned that what works there may not be ideal for everyone.
Spiral Path was part of a soil benchmark study done by PASA that compared it with other organic farms based on a Cornell University scale using such factors as aggregate stability, soil protein, soil respiration, phosphorus and other factors.
Franklin Egan of PASA said samples were taken from fields managed with cover crops, tillage and other practices.
The Cornell Assessment of Soil Health looks at the physical dimensions and biological aspects of the soil, he said.
Spiral Path scored excellent or better in most areas with the exception of phosphorus, which was still high after previous years of using hog manure, the family said.
Mike and Terra Brownback bought the farm in the 1970s when they were 23 years old and still used conventional methods to grow grain, hay, wheat, oats and corn on the 60 acres.
In 1991, they adopted organic farming practices, and by 2007 Spiral Path had become a preserved farm.
Today, the Brownbacks’ son Will and his wife, Deidre, own the farm’s 188 acres and grow crops on 140 of those acres, including 60 acres of produce for a community-supported agriculture venture serving south-central Pennsylvania and parts of Maryland.
Will Brownback said the farm’s mission is driven by the desire to “grow food that promotes health” and soil health is the most critical factor in that effort.
Though Spiral Path was serving as an example of excellent soil management, Will Brownback assured participants that the farm is not a perfect model.
“The paradigms on this farm are just paradigms we are stuck in,” he said. “We have to think outside of the box. We at Spiral Path do not have the best way of doing things.”
Mike Brownback, who still works on the farm, said the methods the family uses are always subject to change.
“Whatever we are doing here, come back in a couple years and we probably won’t be doing it,” he said.
Egan said there are three themes that help make a farm successful: Healthy crops make healthy soil, grow cash and cover crops constantly, and don’t till when it is too wet.
The level of organic matter is 5.1 percent at Spiral Path. Back in the 1980s, it was just above 2 percent.
Will Brownback led a tour of the farm’s composting operation. The family uses a 10,000-gallon tank that turns the compost at a slow speed for 20 minutes every morning.
The static pile is bio sensitive to dynamic turning and can repopulate itself, Will Brownback said, but the family turns the compost so it is not anaerobic.
He also said that moisture is rarely added.
“The waste vegetation has enough water in itself,” he said as he picked up a pile of the compost to show to participants. If clumps are found in the soil, then there was too much moisture.
The senses play a keen role in making good compost. “If you smell ammonia, you shouldn’t smell that,” Will Brownback said, “That means your nitrogen is too high.”
A typical compost recipe at Spiral Path includes chopped hay, heated compost from the mother pile, well-aged woodchips, packing-house waste, clay-based top soil, basalt rock powder and biochar.
About 2 tons per acres are applied to fields in late March or early April when the cover crops are actively growing.
Asked whether the farm’s own produce waste is used for compost, Will Brownback said yes indeed, but the family “won’t harvest something in the field simply for compost.”
He also said that zero animal waste is used on the farm.
“This is not because we are vegan, but because most of (the animal waste) has GMOs and antibiotics,” he said.
Spiral Path Farm also uses worm castings. Will Brownback took the participants into the covered area where the worms were present.
“As they are consuming food, they end up adding biology,” he said. The focus of the farm is to increase biology, and the worm castings have been a part of this focus for seven to eight years.
Spiral Path uses red wiggler worms for the process instead of earth worms. The red wigglers eat through the top surfaces and are typically found near the top of the casts.
When a great number of red wigglers are found beneath the casts, it’s time to rotate the soil, Will Brownback said.
He pointed out that the worms are fed unfinished compost and their castings are high in bacteria. The worms do not like a dry atmosphere, so watering is important throughout their eating period. The castings are used to make potting soil.
“The biggest impacts we have is when we grow healthy transplants,” Will Brownback said.
Methods such as these are what work at Spiral Path, he said. Other farmers can heed the suggestions but may not have similar success at their particular locations.
Mike Brownback noted that caring for the quality of food without focusing too much on the money-making aspect will result in a quality the farmer can be content with.
“Our primary responsibility as farmers is to help build a health society,” he said. “It’s not about the pay. Civilization depends on it.”
Will Brownback said he personally believes in praying for every aspect of his crop. And he encouraged farmers to get up close and personal with their plants every day.
“Care about your plants. Spend time in the fields really looking at the plants and thinking about the plants.”
And care about your soil tests, he added. “If that soil test tells you to add a certain fertilizer, add it. It’s going to make your soil better.”