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How Do I Improve a Large Scale Monocrop Area That I Manage?

 
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Hi,  I am working as agronomist for first large scale certified organic hemp farms California. We are in Ventura co southern california and people farm like the dustbowl never happened out here.  I am in a unique position to change some of the farming principles and apply things I have learned in permaculture.  I am however taken back when I think about applying something on 50 acres let alone 500.  I have developed food forest and homesteads and know permaculture but this is not your average agriculture.  No one really cover crops cause of the 'value' of the land. They crop perpetually with very little rotation.  We can bring in compost but it is not always cost effective or practical. We have a compost yard and i am hoping to apply some biodynamic composting principles and make our own compost but again some of these plots are hundreds of acres of hemp.  It is beautiful but still a sitting duck when considering that we have few organic pest control options out here. I am using beneficials and rely on plant health to protect us. I am getting the plants what they need via fertigation and some foliar application.  I want to cost effectively (considering labor/price of ammendment/sourcing)  enhance the soil life on a large scale and implement practices on small parts of lots that will prove their worth in saving money while enhancing the soil and expand them outward till that is how all the acres are farmed.  I need help.  What would you guys do if you were forced to make the best out a large scale monocropping scenario or even on a smaller scale that could be prove its worth to be bumped up.  I have room to experiment but must proceed cautiously and wisely. Thank you
Adam
 
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adam crowe wrote:I am working as agronomist for first large scale certified organic hemp farms California. We are in Ventura co southern california and people farm like the dustbowl never happened out here.  

...  I have room to experiment but must proceed cautiously and wisely. Thank you
Adam



Hi Adam, Really interesting problem you've got there, big and exciting. I'll make a suggestion to get the conversation rolling. I'm thinking of Fukuoka's attention to overlapping harvest and seeding cycles, and Steve Solomon's observation of dry climates needing larger plant spacing.

Picturing combining those ideas, overlap the timing of seeded cover-crops and the hemp growth-cycle, seeding one on top of the other's undisturbed roots, and returning as much as possible to a light mulch layer before careful seeding. That's radically different than what you have now, so alternating swaths of mixed cover and hemp might be a way to start, cutting and maybe harvesting some of the cover without tilling.  Eventually you can encourage some re-wilding community of shorter plants around and through your widely spaced stands of cash crop. Get some real life back in, under and above the soil. Any chance of getting poultry in those swaths? Something for cash between your hemp rows?

Your employers and neighbors might freak out with all those "weeds" and spidery critters, so making it all look on purpose will probably need a major effort.  Maybe calling it a "mixed planting". If it's productive and cost effective, they might come around. For outside amendments, I don't know what kind of soil you have around there, but it might benefit from wood ash. Those Californian wild fires produced some, and fire-clean-up sometimes produces more.

All the best to you. Looking forward to others' ideas and criticism. And looking forward to your project progressing!
 
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Welcome Adam, that's quite the opportunity. I'm in a similar place of having a commercial monocrop operation but looking for ways to improve soil health and grow better crops. Permaculture has a lot of great design principles we can learn from but not a lot of recipes yet for large scale mechanized ag.

Some of the groups doing broadacre soil health research are SARE, Rodale Institute, Korean natural farming, and there is Advancing Eco Agriculture, a crop consulting outfit with a lot of free podcasts. They have a keen outlook on the specifics of organic crop health and nutrition.


Consider how water cycles through your land. What the crop feeds on. You can bring in microbes and fungi. Finding ways to justify planting a mix of crops or at least rotating crops is usually the way soil health pioneers have started. And earthworms are typically the sign that you are on the right track.

There is so much uncharted territory in this space, you might need to start with a narrow, specific concern or area of improvement and work from there.
 
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I think I would probably start with biochar. It tends to be a long-term amendment, so it wouldn't need to be reapplied the way composts and mulches would be. It can also be made from crop debris, which cuts down on the input costs. You can even use a beefed-up version of a solar oven to make it with, so you don't have to bring in fuel.

From there, see if the farm owners would be willing to do small test plots. They probably are looking for ways to reduce inputs while increasing yield. So if the test plots show you can do that successfully, they'll be more willing to let you use it in all their fields.
 
pollinator
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Adam, you want a pretty good answer- you will get some here. If you want an expert, bring in someone like Mark Shepard to consult. I would absolutely think it would be cost effective at that scale.
 
Antigone Gordon
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Grady Houger wrote:Permaculture has a lot of great design principles we can learn from but not a lot of recipes yet for large scale mechanized ag.



Adam is pretty wise to ask for small plot ideas that might get larger after they prove themselves. This is also an opportunity for people to publish their wish lists here.  Be bold, hemp is an experimental crop at any scale, these days.

adam crowe wrote:What would you guys do if you were forced to make the best out a large scale monocropping scenario or even on a smaller scale that could be prove its worth to be bumped up.  I have room to experiment . . .



Ellendra Nauriel wrote:I think I would probably start with biochar. It tends to be a long-term amendment, so it wouldn't need to be reapplied the way composts and mulches would be. It can also be made from crop debris, which cuts down on the input costs.



Imagine miles of mounded trenches burying charred tree branches. They'd form swales and hold water longer, maybe sprouting wind-rows. They'd outline no-till lines and separate zones if that was useful. They'd also make nooks and crannies for flora of various sorts.
 
master pollinator
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Is there any way you can introduce tree belts into the large fields?

 
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Adam, sounds fun. There’s no economic way to spread compost or biochar over 500 acres, that said you can still do “permaculture on 500 acres. First look into keyline design, it’s a bit complex but there are people out there who can map your keyline and it’ll pay off in the long run  Basically it’s a water harvesting strategy that is mindful of your equipment needs. Second consider alley cropping. Basically having rows of trees maybe Almond.. planed along the keylines then you have the hemp in the alleys. The USDA has lots of studies going way back showing that alley cropping actually increases crop yields, due to the many benefits trees offer. Third look into pasture cropping, the only economic way to regeneratively spread nutrients is with grazing animals. Maybe if you planted the whole acreage in white clover a cool season perennial you’d be able to lease the land for grazing when the hemp is out, then graze it low before planting and plant with a no till seeder or transplanter into the stubble. Ideally the grazer would utilize high density rotations to maximize grazing/ manure distribution.
 
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Take a look at the  List of Dr. RedHawk's Epic Soil Series Threads.

He has past experience in helping farms of large acreage improve their soil. I'm sure he will be along soon to join in the conversation too.
 
adam crowe
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Thanks you all for your feedback.  Your suggestions are interesting food for thought. I appreciate any and all thoughts coming my way. One thing I should mention is that this land is leased out and so many long term water harvesting strategies (keyline designs etc) that would require greatly modifying the land are out of the question.  This industry could be bought out by big ag and corporate america in a mtter of years.  The company I work for knows this and intends to sell to the highest bidder when the time comes.  ONe very exciting thing is that rodale institute is setting up a research facility on our property so I do see some room to experiment coming our way (cover crops, no till, living mulches).  Along the lines of microbes, minerals, and increasing the soil food web and protecting soil I feel i can get creative. As far as making closed loop systems and utilizing tree crops not so much so, unless it could be temporary.  More than likely 5 years from now these fields will be monocropped organic berries and celery.
 
pollinator
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>  more than 5 years from now these fields...

That defines the problem. Along with, of course, the budget. Below are some standard notes on overreaching strategy - which you may already have laid out fully.

Do you have a work-up of the costs for doing it "standard ag"? Noting availability of local inputs, etc. Part of that would be the expected crop yield and harvest costs. Probably you'd need to guestimate some important variables, but still, that would give you a benchmark that you're competing against. Important info because that's the first thing anybody wants to know when it comes to "how are you doing"?

Second work up might be _your_ version of "standard ag" if you feel you can make certain tweaks and modify the usual inputs a little and come out ahead. But basically "standard ag" all the way. This is your best CYA scenario, so that's why it's important.

Then. Change almost always costs extra, and costs are front-loaded so the first 2-3 years profit suffers significantly. Not always, but it's a biggee when deciding on a PLAN where you're not the final decision maker. This what the small plots are for, of course. At a guess, you'd want to set up with #2 above for 80-90% of your land. The time line is so short that I think it will be _really_ hard to demonstrate the test plots and then implement ideas on the whole. Might be good to hold that clearly in mind so as to reduce the potential angst. This may just be a super opportunity to test alternative hemp methods (small plots), but not really any chance of implementing new procedures large scale.

The size of the test plots might affect success and it will certainly affect "opportunity cost" compared with cropping that land like the rest. Have to get  more knowledgeable people to comment on that. The location of of the test plots - you'd like to make it real easy to "baby" them and make good. Or maybe you want to hide them? Anyway, location might be worth a thought - real easy beforehand.

Trees. The type of tree may depend on your "exit strategy". Even if your company is not the one doing the work, "clean up" costs will directly impact land value and you and the "board", or whatever the powers that be are, might want to be aware. Not sure, but people have been pulling out and replanting orchards in CA for a long time. Not a happy moment, but the methods and equipment are out there and costs should be easily known. The costs _may_ depend on the type of tree so that's another reason you'd like to glance at this ahead of time. Also, costs/tree removed probably depend on the number of trees removed and you're not planting an orchard (I don't think). This info can influence what type of trees you can realistically consider using in light of the land value at the end of lease. Maybe it doesn't matter, but maybe it does. Nice to know and info is available.

Test plots.
Who is going to profit from the results of the test plots? Need to know this clearly, because the crop as a whole is probably _not_ going to profit much from the info with the test plots - the time frame is too short. So you don't want to make crazy promises or projections - that looks bad. But somebody is going to wonder "why" about those test plots; almost for sure. You don't want to be blindsided; you want to have a clear and plausible answer. Doesn't have to accurate, true, detailed, specific or or even reasonable (some of that depends on your long term strategy, morals, etc - do what's right for you), but it _does_ have to be "clear and plausible" to the persons concerned. "Visionary" can work in some cases. This is sales, rhetoric and persuasion we're talking here and good info can help _you_ a lot with your tactics. Good info, just raw, OTOH, probably won't do squat for your persuasion, at least not with most people. We just don't seem to work that way. Clear and plausible carries the day. Or Visionary...  Oh well.

On the test plots, since the scale is small (depending), it _may_ be possible to do essentially anything you can come up with, including key line planting (sorta, maybe). It will come down to the budget, including impact on the exit strategy. But "throwing money" at a very small acreage is a lot cheaper (absolute cost, not relative cost) than doing it whole hog and that may allow options. This may impact your decision on the size of the test plots, location, etc.

Sounds very exciting. Best luck.
Rufus
 
Matthew Sargent
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Adam, if you understand the principles of keyline patterning you could start utilizing that as a cultivation pattern at almost no cost which would still improve water catchment. Who knows it might even be the pattern a future buyer would just use, therefore becoming a permanent land improvement...
 
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Are there machines used in these fields that depend on there not being any non-hemp plants around?

Couple thoughts I have:

- Find some kinds of plants to be a slightly more diverse understory to the hemp.  These could be seeded some time after the hemp gets growing so they don't outcompete it.  The understory would essentially act as a living mulch and can have lots of benefits to soil health, via water retention, temperature and wind erosion control, habitat for biodiversity, etc.
- Divide the fields up with rows that have a mix of other plants, others have suggested trees but if you can't plant trees, you could still put in lots of other fast-growing plants just to bring in some habitat for wildlife (aka biodiversity) including predators that could keep pests down.

Both of these could be experimented in smaller plots till you find something that overall seems to benefit the crop.  Even if the benefit isn't very noticeable in the first crop, it will likely help the soil over the long term, so it may be worth doing regardless, but of course to get away with doing this in a business you might need to justify it by pointing to short term profit, since "it's good for life on the planet" or "good for native wildlife" doesn't mean anything to some people.
 
Tyler Ludens
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Philip McGarvey wrote:

- Find some kinds of plants to be a slightly more diverse understory to the hemp.



I would do strips instead of understory.  Understory might complicate the harvesting process, whereas strips would not.

https://onpasture.com/2016/05/02/bring-in-the-bees-farmscaping-with-pollinator-mixes/

Strips, even of annual beneficial plants, will help break up the monocrop problem.  Annual or biennial pollinator plants won't permanently change the fields like trees would, since this project may be temporary.

 
Philip McGarvey
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Tyler Ludens wrote:I would do strips instead of understory.  Understory might complicate the harvesting process, whereas strips would not.


Agreed that strips would probably be my first step.  But you can do an understory / ground cover as well.  Hemp is a tall plant.  If you try to leave it as bare soil underneath you'll lose more water to evaporation etc, and you'll also probably have random weeds coming up in there.  The right choice of ground cover could mitigate both of these and be low enough to the ground to not be in the way of harvesting.
 
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hau Adam, I have some questions about this farming venture. 1. are the fields currently tilled prior to every planting start?  2. are the plants direct seeded or are you planting out transplants? 3. Is the company interested in keeping the soil covered with something to prevent water evaporative loss?

There are some things you can use as intercropping living ground covers that also help keep soil nutrients up for best plant growth rates.
While there are indeed large corporations watching this "new" industry (we had a major hemp for fiber industry prior to the end of WW2) but most are focused at this time on the federal laws which have not been removed or even modified from criminalization. That means the big corps are going to wait and see what the feds do to the current laws. Right now this industry is considered "experimental" so the DEA etc. are turning their eyes to more pressing issues and leaving the experimenters alone for the most part, states may or may not be doing the same. California finally legalized but state law is always trumped by federal law when the feds want to do so.

I'll watch this thread for your answers then I can offer up some good suggestions.


Redhawk
 
adam crowe
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Thanks so much for all your feedback I have been swamped trying to keep up with demands out here.   We had the first meeting with rodale out here and honestly I think they were a bit blown away out how hard it is for farmers in Ventura. Rent costs basically make most eco friendly cropping options very uncommon.  I am trying to work out how I can present concepts like soil biology improvement reducing fertilizer costs,  low lying living mulches that can be grown with celery during rainy season (as it is quite dry most of the year and water is $$$$) then tilled in after harvest to save money on nitrogen. Most of these guys dont have soil ethics, im talking bout driscol berries and large players.  If farmers are gonna try some of these methods they have to not go bankrupt doing so. Maybe no till systems for hemp cbd using a roller crimper if rodale brings one out.  Conventional Farmers have a unique oppurtunity to make substantially more money off of hemp CBD than many crops  and transistion to organics these next few years until big ag drives the price way down.  This could be the one transistion oppurtunity they ever have that doesnt break their pocket with labor costs for the 3 years it takes to transition. They say $2000 vs $200 for weed control organic vs conventional. To top it all off mexico is importing dirt cheap organics meaning that some years farmers box their organic as conventional cause they get a better price!  Most of these guys are in the hole with little hope, it is hard to have the balls to recommend anything to them.  I guess that the flaw is in cities, economies, large scale farms, and everything else we do. too much too many too mechanized.  It is disheartening trying to think how to make something work that just needs to change. You all have been so great in lending me your ears and advice, I am taking notes!.  Im bringing in compost teas, rock dusts, mycos.  Trying to figure out the best ways, this is no easy task.  thanks again
 
adam crowe
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redhawk-  yes tilling every crop, transplants the majority of the time, raised rows with one season black plastic that the nutgrasses poke right through.  Little chance for soil protecting living covers, but that is one of my obsessions I will trial on  a small scale.  Mostly flat out here so not much erosion from rain, probably mostly from winds actually. thanks for your interest sorry if i dont reply immediately s*** is crazy out here!
 
pollinator
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Hey Adam, congratulations on the project, exciting for sure. At your snake I would recommend looking to someone like Gary zimmer from Midwest bioag. He calls his system "biological farming" and it is designed for huge commodity type agriculture. It assumes tillage and doesn't rely on being fully organic (although that is his preference). I believe he does consulting work and he also had two books out called Biological Farming and Advancing Biological Farming that you could probably get a lot out of. Another resource would be the company A.E.A out of Ohio. Like Mr zimmer their focus is on plant nutrition and soil health. Good luck
 
adam crowe
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thanks stephen very exciting indeed.  i went ahead and ordered biological farming book.  never know when you might learn something that saves you some troubles! thanks for tip
 
adam crowe
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phillip or anyone -  what living covers would you recommend I try to implement, water is very expensive out here and so is the land.  I would love to see more covers in use out here instead of black plastic. Nut grass pops right through plastic it is pretty crazy. My strategy is too ammend, till, then water for three weeks, flame weed the nut grass that comes up, lay plastic and plant.  In a living cover bed i am thinking of low lying covers, white clover/buckwheat for off seasons.   summer covers would also have to persist in summer with the moisture from drip lines i am looking into kurupia and dimandia but seeds are pricey. we have a well but it is quite saline and soil tests already show way to much chloride in soil.  I am gonna apply gypsum to buffer that but it would be great to use our well water if we could figure out how to do it and not complicate soil problems related to excess salt.  RO is out of the question cause of the waste water it produces. Thanks again y'all
 
Antigone Gordon
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MAKING NUT-GRASS YOUR FRIEND

adam crowe wrote:what living covers would you recommend I try to implement, . . .    Nut grass pops right through plastic it is pretty crazy.



How about making your enemy your friend?  (This is based on a tiny bit of nut-grass research, so take these ideas with a handful of salt from your dirtiest wells).

"Your insurmountable enemy is your friend that keeps your lifestyle going." I just made that up, but it seems like it could be a permaculture motto. The nut-grass you are fighting lives great in the tilled mono-crop deserts out there. It is fine with wasted soil and the tilling breaks and distributes it's nut-like tubers. It hates shade and your fields don't have any. So considering farmers are doing what it loves: plowing separating and spreading it's tuber network ... How about getting some of that love back?

In South Asia where nut-grass is native, the seeds and ground-nuts (tubers) are used for food and medicine. How do they harvest them there?  Instead of ripping its tubers with plows, how about harvesting them? Then process it as medicine or food, or to some innocuous form reapplied to the fields.  For example, it apparently contains phenolic compounds that promote the rooting of cuttings and seedlings. [wikipedia:Cyperus rotundus]

The grass fibers are used for weaving sleeping mats, so it must be strong. Let strips of it grow (in a remote experimental plot!) and harvest the nut-grass as an entire plant, grass and tubers included, (before they go to seed?). Harvest after it has grown a bit, when its propagating tubers and attaching twines will be more durable, attached to each other, the stalks more strongly attached to the roots, easier to harvest as a bundle with machinery or by hand.

Some people plant potatos in nut-grass plots because each step, gently lifting out old tubers, trenching, planting, hilling and harvesting exposes entire nut-grass interconnected bundles to the surface for easy removal. And all of it is done in a way that won't damage or disconnect the culprit's valuable little parts. Other tuber or root crops might be as usefull as potatos this way.

I hope you enjoy the process Aaron. It's all life, as hectic as at it feels at times.
 
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You have the right idea in starting small.  Convincing a guy who's livelihood depends on a successful harvest to completely change the way he does things at the drop of a hat isn't going to work.  Instead try to convince them to do split-field trials on a small scale at first to see the benefits of no-till and cover cropping.  20 acres would be a good starting point-10 traditional and 10 no-till/cover cropped.  

Buckwheat is an amazing cover crop but maybe not the right one for your application.  It is not very drought-tolerant and would require extra water to keep it growing optimally.  Instead maybe try clay iron peas.  They are N fixing and drought resistant so once established they will require much less watering than buckwheat.  Sunflowers are also surprisingly drought resistant once established.  Both are also potential 'cash crops' though for maximum soil building it would be best to cut them down at flowering stage.   Alter your watering habits to favor the cover crops over grasses.  Water once or twice a week deeply rather than everyday with drip irrigation.  I'd do it about 2 hours before sunrise for optimal effect.  depending on how compact the soil is you may benefit from doing a "pre-watering- of a few minutes then let the water settle before doing the full watering.  This will help with water runoff by saturating and hard-crust that may be on the surface and improve water infiltration.  Barley may be a good choice for a winter cover since it is salt tolerant.  Some radishes, kale, and winter peas mixed in would make a good cover crop to build soil health.  The fun part of course is figuring out the correct ratio of each type to plant.  Ideally you will end up with 25-30:1 C:N ratio so that the cover crop residue breaks down sufficiently fast to provide nutrients to the following crop but not so fast that it loses its weed suppressing ability.  This is something you'll have to tinker/experiment with since things like temperature, rainfall, and relative humidity will have an effect on how fast the residues break down.    The best way to fine-tune your cover crop is to find someone in your area who uses covers now and see what works for them and then fine-tune it to your own farming operation.

Once you settle on your cover crop mix/rotation it is time to start the trials.  The first year don't abandon fertilizing completely.  The soil is likely in a terrible state and will have to be brought back to life in stages rather than all at once.  The first year I'd start with half of the fertilizer applied to the conventional crop and then adjust from there.  It takes time to rebuild nearly-sterile soil and trying to go cold turkey is going to set you up for failure-though I'm sure you know this already.  Track all expenses on both sides of the trial.  Fuel savings alone in no-till usually more than make up for the cost of the cover crop seeds.  Also get soil samples at least once a year from both sides.  Nothing will make your case better than hard numbers showing the soil improvement from no-till and cover cropping.

One last thing and then I'll end this overly long post.  If you need a quick and cheap weed suppressing cover crop that won't compete with your hemp crop the lowly radish could be the friend you are looking for.  Extremely easy to grow with little water and fertility requirements radishes properly spaced will quickly suppress weeds trying to grow between the rows of hemp.  They are also good at storing nutrients from fertilizer runoff.  While radishes grown in the summer may bolt and generally don't taste very good they are effective at controlling weeds.  Since the seed is so cheap you could let them go until they start to bolt.  Mow them and reseed into the residue.  When the farmer next tills his fields he should have radishes in various stages of decay to spread around the field that will release nutrients back to the crop.  I hope this helps you in some way though I imagine you probably already knew most/all of what I suggested perhaps someone reading this didn't already know.  Let us know how things work out I'll be checking in here from time to time to see how you are coming along.  Good luck!  
 
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Super soil! If you have the funds (you can also make it all yourself with a little work) to do living soil which is basically fancy composting which makes you able to omit added nutrients for your crop among various other improvements for enhancing soil quality. You’ll need a cement mixer to make sure everything is mixed in well and in a large scale it’s impossible without.
Do you have your plants in fabric pots or in the ground? Better for the roots.
One grasshopper per plant will keep all small pests away.
Know your plants genetic make up- some strains are more suitable for your climate than others, some require more or less water etc

We’ve been farming cannabis for about 5 years now. Not much time, but have been fortune enough to work along side some of the top growers in the world, and the largest hemp grower in our state.
 
Bryant RedHawk
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Abbey Wilson wrote:One grasshopper per plant will keep all small pests away.



Um, Abbey, you do realize that grasshoppers are also called Locust and are one of the major plant eaters yes?
I would not consider any grasshopper a predator, they don't eat other insects, only plants, including cannabis.

Redhawk
 
Bryant RedHawk
gardener
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Location: Vilonia, Arkansas - Zone 7B/8A stoney, sandy loam soil pH 6.5
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adam crowe wrote:redhawk-  yes tilling every crop, transplants the majority of the time, raised rows with one season black plastic that the nutgrasses poke right through.  Little chance for soil protecting living covers, but that is one of my obsessions I will trial on  a small scale.  Mostly flat out here so not much erosion from rain, probably mostly from winds actually. thanks for your interest sorry if i dont reply immediately s*** is crazy out here!



You can cover the soil with cover crop plants that will also help the hemp grow (Dutch white clover is just one example, dichondra is another good choice), both are low growers with shallower roots (the hemp will put down deep roots if allowed to).
The best part of these two cover crop plants is that both will shade out nut grass once established and you wouldn't need to do much maintenance care for anything but the crop plant.

Redhawk
 
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Adam,

Instead of plastic mulch, why not go no till, planting into a rolled/crimped cover crop?

Nutsedge is easily dealt with by integrating pastured swine into the rotation, they will eradicate it.

Why grow celery through the winter? You should be able to grow hemp year-round in Ventura. You can get two crops from November through May when rainfall is more abundant.

Wondering if you could alley crop hemp, etc between rows of pistachios too

Some questions:
Are you returning most of the stem biomass back to the soil?
Are you using any form of crop rotation at all?



 
Antigone Gordon
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Looking for "organic", "hemp", "Ventura". . .  I found some pics, examples of the kind of enormous fields farmers deal with there:

https://venturaseedcompany.com/our-farms/

I'm glad they-all have the funds and partner support to do experimental small fields too!
 
it's a teeny, tiny, wafer thin ad:
dry stack retaining wall
https://permies.com/t/85178/dry-stack-retaining-wall
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