Farming for the Soil First: Blue Raven Farm in Corbett, OR
Lessons Learned from a no-till, mixed-veggie, ecological farm operation in the PNW
The Pale Kale Litmus Test
It was the kale that did it. Jen Aron had been managing a CSA farm and teaching for OSU extension for seven years—going by the books of conventional organic. “Our organic matter was in the 10% range, so the advice was to stop adding compost. Years, 4, 5, 6, and 7 I stopped adding compost all together,” says Jen, “The crops got lackluster. There was a huge number of pests and disease. And so many nutrient deficiencies—really rare deficiencies, even manganese. A top soil scientist was baffled.” Jen followed expert recommendations, and it got worse. The kale at the farm was so pale it was almost white.
The root of the problem came into focus on one particular day for Jen: “My staff was all at OSU Small Farms School, so I had to do the harvest, wash, and pack all myself. It finally allowed me to really look at everything, to touch everything. I had to ask myself what changed? Why are there so many problems like this not just here, but at every farm I visit? There’s something bigger at play. I don’t think I have a nutrient deficiency. I have a microbial deficiency!” Over the past four years, Jen’s been dedicated to studying soil microbiology both on the farm and off. Her new favorite farm equipment might just be a microscope.
Blue Raven Farm: An Opportunity to Test A Soil First Farm
The timing of Jen’s epiphany could not have been better. She was in the process starting her own farm just outside of Portland at the time—a place where she could test out her new knowledge and create a space for learning and teaching.
When we visited Blue Raven Farm late in 2020—the farm was absolutely vibrant with fall crops. Every shade of green imaginable outstretched in beautifully designed rows. The abundance in peak summer must be extraordinary. The farm is on 5 acres tucked into the forest along the Sandy River watershed. Jen and her family moved here in the fall of 2015 and spent the following year getting to know the land, planting trees, and building a deer fence. Slowly, Jen says, “we made plans to farm in a way that fosters soil health and the surrounding ecology.” 2017 was the one and only year they broke ground with a tiller, which they followed with 100 pounds of crimson clover cover crop to build the soil.
Today Jen intensively manages a half-acre, CSA veggie farm. They’ve planted close to 1,000 native trees and shrubs, and flowering cover crops to help support pollinators, beneficial insects, and wildlife.
Soil Management Principles & Practices
Jen’s guiding principle is to farm for the needs of the soil and the health of the microbial life. It’s reflected in every decision made on the farm. As an educator and researcher, Jen has documented her process thoroughly. She emphasizes that it’s important to share not just her successes, but her struggles as well.
Keeping the soil covered and minimize soil disturbance: The sheer amount of rainfall on the west side of the Cascades in winter makes it critical to keep the soil covered. The uber saturated soils go through a beating in the three months of rain, which can harmfully compact the soil. Jen has experimented with two main ways of keeping the soil covered: keeping living roots in the ground and covering the soil with plastic, a practice sometimes referred to as tarping or occultation. Tarping is also well known for suppressing weeds.
Jen’s not a fan of excessive use of plastic, so she tried to reduce her use of plastic in the winter of 2019. Following the practice of mentors at Singing Frog Farm in Northern California, one of the only farms on the West Coast following these principles, she had every row planted with over-wintered crops. Singing Frog emphasizes the importance of maximizing photosynthesis and keeping roots in the ground. But “come spring the soil was really compacted, I hadn’t anticipated that. Spring 2020 was hard.” Jen realized she needed to return to fall tarping on areas where she wants to plant earliest in the spring. The tarp keeps the soil drier, warmer, and protects the microbial life. She’s able to plant right into the soil in the spring. Jen uses 6-millimeter plastic in manageable 20x100 foot pieces from Home Depot. Jen says, “I never thought I would say these words, but plastic is one of the most amazing tools, to protect the soil.”
Keeping plant roots in the ground: Jen’s bed prep consists of chopping plants down at the root line and leaving the roots in place—great for feeding the soil microbial life. It also makes for incredibly fast work, reducing both labor intensity and time. Crop residue is removed from the row and is composted separately on the farm.
Compost is essential: Jen’s soil organic matter is currently at 10% and yet, she still finds adding a thin layer of compost is essential to feeding microbial life. Compost also provides a slow release of nutrients over a long period of time and improves soil structure. Her current application rate is 10 gallons per hundred-foot row (2.5 feet wide), which looks like a heavy sprinkling. She’s working on developing a good on-farm compost system.
Plant diversity: Jen plants a wide diversity of crops. This translates to a diversity of healthy soil microbes, a diversity of beneficial insects and a farm resilient to changes in weather.
Jen’s 2020 Successes
After four seasons of experimenting with these practices, in 2020 Jen began to see big system shifts. “Our weed and pest pressure are non-existent this season. That being said, yes, we have some weeds and some pests, but they are not negatively affecting crops. Our fertilizer application (organic composted chicken manure) has been reduced to 1/3 of what it was last season. Yields seem to be up, but that one is difficult to quantify due to the infinite variables in a season. I also noticed more than any other year the water holding capacity of our soil. I was watering only two times per week- even during the very hot spells.” Jen did so much less work farming in 2020 that she says, “I ended the season refreshed and energetic! I’ve never had that happen before.”
Notable farm improvements as a result of ecological farming from 2017-2020 at Blue Raven Farm:
Symphylans: Devastating losses in 2019. No losses in 2020. Symphylans are still present but are not feeding on crops.
Marmorated stink bug: significant losses in 2018/2019. No losses in 2020.
Diamond back moth: infestation levels 2017, 2018, 2019. No impact 2020.
Aphids: Large numbers detected in kale 2020, but within 2 weeks the levels were controlled with no farmer intervention.
Slugs: present, but are not eating the plants as much
Weeds reduced: A total of 10 hours spent weeding the entire 2020 season.
Water use reduced: Water holding capacity in soil noticeably increased
2018= 200+ hours of labor (40 person CSA and salad sales) 2020= 80 hours per week (50 person CSA and salad sales).
Additional Benefits of No-Till:
Maintains soil structure and function
Increased water holding capacity of the soil
Less labor and inputs
Reduces greenhouse gas emissions
Increases soil carbon sequestration
Reduces cost: tractors are expensive!
Jen’s Transition to No-Till Tips
The transition will be rough – weeds are bad in the first year or two—keep focused on the long term benefits.
Start small. Try a half-acre or full acre at a time.
Focus on increasing soil organic levels first. Plant cover crops and add compost.
Once you’re ready to plant, plant your most weed resistant crop there first. Jen recommends starting with winter squash first and then next season transition to hearty transplanted crops like broccoli.
Every year the weeds will decrease. By year two or three you’ll be able to direct seed plants.
Trust the ecological process • Be patient • Stay the course
Next Steps -- What can you do?
Attend Jen’s workshops! Go to Blue Raven Farm’s website for more information
Listen to the In Search of Soil Podcast
Check out Elaine Ingham’s Soil Food Web School
Get engaged with Oregon Climate and Agriculture Network on education and policy advocacy in support of farming for soil first.
“The more we get out of the soil’s way the better it is,” says Jen, “The less we do the better it is.”
Thanks to Jen Aron for sharing her story and Jamie Thrower/Studio XIII Photography for the photographs.