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Cover Cropping, Then and Now.

Posted 10/23/2014 11:34am by Judy Lessler.

I preparation for winter, we are planting the fall cover crops. We rotate our cash crops across three summer fields so that two are under cover crops each year. This builds soil and helps control diseases and pests since bacteria, viruses, and bugs have to hunt around for their favorites.  

Cover cropping has been employed for thousands of years. The ancients did not understand soil chemistry at the elemental level but had good knowledge of what worked and what did not. In spite of its ancient origin, this knowledge was not always widespread. For example, in the 1800s farmers and plantation owners moved into Alabama because they had depleted their soil by constantly planting of cotton in the same fields in South Carolina.  

Marcus Terentius Varro lived for nearly 90 years (from 116BC to 27BC). When he was 80, his wife purchased a farm and asked how to increase it fertility. In response, he wrote a treatise on agriculture for her. Presumably, his wife was considerably younger because he stated that, "while I still live, [I will] bequeath my counsel to my nearest and dearest. I will then write three books for you, to which you may have recourse for guidance in all things which must be done in the management of a farm."  

He starts the book by "invoking the divine approval...from the solemn council of those twelve divinities who are the tutelaries of husbandmen. He starts out with Farther Jupiter and Mother Earth and ends up with "Lympha, goddess of the fountains, and Bonus Eventus, god of good fortune, ...."because without water vegetation is starved and without good luck all tillage is in vain." I think Bonus Eventus is an excellent name for a god and intend to invoke his help from now on.  

Varro writes in the form of a dialog. He sets that stage by saying he went to a temple on a holiday called Sementivae because he had been invited to dinner by the Sacristan (chief caretaker of the temple). Others are there also waiting for the dinner and began a dialog on agriculture. The characters in the dialogue speak with eloquence and authority citing other writers as sources for their statements, and occasionally personal observations.  Most likely this did not happen as described--it was a method for writing an essay.

During the dialogue, a character called Scrofa states that, "Certain plants are cultivated not so much for their immediate yield as with forethought for the coming year, because cut and left lying they improve the land. So if the land is too thin, it is the practice to plow in for manure, lupines not yet podded, and likewise, the field pea, if it is not yet ripened so that it is fitting to harvest the beans. " 

This is exactly what we are doing at Harland's Creek Farm. We are planting winter rye and Austrian winter peas in Plot G and will follow pink-eyed purple peas next spring and summer. Crops will be in Plot G in 2016. Plot I will have the cash crops next year, 2015, and will be planted with clover and vetch this fall. Plot I has already had Sudan-grass and cow peas, winter rye, and Essex kale in 2013 and 2014.  

We are, as advised by Varro over 2000 years ago, planting with "forethought for the coming years."   

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