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As the growing season winds down, Haley Rylander, a masters student working with the reduced tillage project of the Cornell Small Farms Program, has been visiting with farmers who have taken an active role in her research. Haley shares some of these farmers’ experiences and gives insight about using tarps to suppress weeds and reduce tillage on small farms.

There are few foolproof methods to control weeds, especially in organic agriculture where farmers cannot use herbicides. For these farmers, tillage is one of the best ways to reduce weed pressure, but intensive tillage degrades soil structure over time and leads to loss of organic matter and moisture from the soil. The reduced-tillage project team at the Cornell Small Farms Program have been talking with farmers in the northeast who are experimenting with innovative solutions to reduce weed pressure and conserve soil health in organic systems. We’ve been doing some research trials with one of these tools: black silage tarps placed on the soil surface prior to planting.

Masters student Haley Rylanders helps Nina Saeli of Centurion Farm secure a newly tarped plot.

These tarps smother living weeds and can encourage the seed bank of other weeds to fatally germinate. Tarps also prevent leaching of nutrients and conserve moisture, while slightly heating the soil. Tarps can be used in combination with low-disturbance tillage to provide many of the same benefits as intensive tillage. The initial results of this research was recently published on

To supplement our trials at Cornell University’s Thompson Research Farm, we’ve been doing some on-farm trials with local growers in Central New York to see how tarps perform in real situations on real farms. Over the last few weeks, we’ve visited some of these farms to see how things have progressed as we near the end of the season. Three of these farms are local to the Cornell campus in Ithaca, NY: Centurion Farm, Muddy Fingers Farm, and Ploughbreak Farm.

These farmers used tarps for different lengths of time and on different crops, with whatever pre- or post-treatment of the soil they chose. Some tilled lightly before the tarps were applied, some tilled after, some had mowed cover crops before hand. It was all up to the farmers, as long as they used a tarp over a number of beds and compared their weed pressure and yield to that of un-tarped beds nearby.

From talking with these farmers about their experience with the trials, we have found some common themes. One of which is that tarps hold soil moisture at an ideal level.

“A drier area stayed pretty dry, even in rainstorms, and if it was a wetter area, the moisture sort of evened out,” Aaron Munzer from Ploughbreak Farm said of the soil moisture under tarps. “So it was actually pretty perfect for tillage or planting.”

Liz Martin of Muddy Fingers Farm explains how she used tarps to suppress weeds.

Liz Martin from Muddy Fingers Farm planted beets in this year’s very dry July, and attributes her higher stands in tarped beds compared with untarped beds to better soil moisture.

One of the biggest benefits of tarps is their ability to suppress weeds. Nina Saeli from Centurion Farm said that the weed suppression alone makes the tarps worth it.

“I timed myself when I weeded, on the tarped beans, it literally took me more time to walk the beds to look for weeds than it took me to actually weed,” Nina said. “On the untarped side with the beans, it was much more difficult, and I spent a lot more time weeding … once I let that side get a little away from me, I was on my hands and knees pulling those weeds up when I was not doing that on the tarped side.”

Several of the farmers commented on the ability of tarps to control perennial weeds, though it may take many more weeks or even months longer than the three weeks required to kill most annuals. Weed suppression from tarps does not seem to be a season-long effect. However, Liz said it was fun to see how clean she could get her beds. She also noted that they had tarped over weeds “and then just left it, and then it’s neat to see how it breaks them down to nothing.”

The farmers say there is definitely a learning curve in terms of figuring out how to incorporate tarps into their cropping plans and determining which crops and timings work best on their farms. In general, prepping beds before tarping seems to have the most positive effects, as tilling after tarping brings up more weed seeds.

Tarps are no miracle solution to eliminate tillage and weeds, but growers seem excited about using them and learning more about the benefits they can provide in a small farming system. When asked their overall opinion of tarping here were some responses:

Jeffrey Saeli of Centurion Farm unwraps a tarp.

“It’s a great tool. Even if you’re considering, I recommend people give it a try.” – Liz Martin

“The results we’ve seen so far have encouraged us and we actually went out and bought two tarps.” – Nina Saeli

“I don’t think it’s a perfect solution for a 6-acre farm. I think tillage is still required… on our farm, [but] I think it’s a tool in our tool belt of options to keep weeds down and to practice some reduced tillage.” – Aaron Munzer

Today, October 12th, is National Farmers Day. While we think every day should be National Farmers Day, the day is meant to raise awareness about the farmers behind our nation’s food.

Here at the Small Farms Program, we would like to thank all of the farmers we work with. We recognize the great service you provide and admire your dedication to producing healthy food — whether its a rural field or urban lot, a woodland or a high tunnel.

Interested in learning more about the diverse farming practices and techniques of some of the small farms in our network? Our YouTube channel is full of videos to explore.

The celebration of National Farmers Day dates back to the 1800s, according to National Day Calendar. Eventually October 12 was chosen as a recurring date as, traditionally, the harvest would be finished, and farmers could join in the celebration.

If you want to join us in celebrating farmers today, share your farm stories using #CornellSmallFarms. For today’s celebrations, you can also use #NationalFarmersDay and #ThankaFarmer too.

If you’re interested in improving your farm’s soil health, reduced tillage may be the answer.

Reduced tillage practices can minimize soil disturbance by using less intensity, going shallower, and restricting the width or tilled-area. They can be applied to a bed, within a field or across the whole farm. The practices can take many forms, which are highlighted in a new handbook available at no charge from Cornell Cooperative Extension and partners.

The basis of this resource came from a popular field day event this summer at Cornell’s Willsboro Research Farm in Willsboro, NY. Presentations given during the event are included in the handbook, including a section from the Cornell Small Farms Program’s own Ryan Maher.

“The field day was a way to demonstrate reduced tillage tools and think through the barriers organic growers face in adopting alternative practices,” Ryan said. “Some of the common themes that emerged were weeds, residue interference, weeds, managing cover crops, and more about weeds.”

Ryan manages our Reduced Tillage Project, and during the field day he presented on zone tillage systems. This practice targets disturbance to the planting row and reduces tilled area by at least 50 percent when compared to conventional tillage.

A farm can successfully adopt zone tillage by making system-level changes: selecting specific crops in a rotation, planning cover crop management, and acquiring and/or modifying tools that work in moderate to high residue conditions.

“One of the biggest challenges going forward, particularly with zone tillage, is fitting these approaches to the scale of the operation and considering the rotations and the diversity of crops on organic vegetable farms,” Ryan explained. “We have found really interesting results testing different cover crop mixes and some good, practical lessons on tools, all of which I think growers can use as they look to adapt zone till to their own operation.”

Learn more about ongoing research results and the considerations for trialing zone-till practices on your farm in Ryan’s section of the handbook on zone tillage.

In the full handbook you can learn about other practices, such as: managing weeds in small-seeded crops, by Bryan Brown of the New York State Integrated Pest Management Program; and weed seedbank management, by John Wallace of Cornell University Specialty Crops Systems.

Cervids, such as deer, elk, and moose, are a $3 billion industry in the United States. There are many opportunities for farms to raise deer, but proper care and health management is critical.

Recently the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets (NYSDAM) hosted Dr. Douglas Wagner of Newport Labs to discuss the topic with NYSDAM veterinarians. The recording was made available to provide a resource for farmers and veterinarians.

During this presentation, Dr. Wagner introduces and provides an overview of the “captive cervid industry” in the U.S., including husbandry, handling, reproduction, stocking density and biosecurity. He also discusses the most economically important diseases and parasites of captive cervids, and a system for producers and veterinarians to use when determining herd specific vaccination and deworming protocols, with good husbandry standards and biosecurity as the cornerstone.

Are you ready to build your knowledge about permaculture and ecological design? Permaculture gardens, farms, and backyards balance the provision of human needs with improvement of local ecosystem health.

The School of Integrative Plant Science at Cornell University has opened registration to the online course Permaculture: Fundamentals of Ecological Design, from Nov. 5 to Dec. 20, 2018. The course will be offered through the University’s Horticulture distance learning program.

This 6.5-week-long course provides an opportunity for you to build your knowledge about permaculture and ecological design. Participants will explore the content through videos, readings, and activities and complete portions of a design for a site of their choosing. While the course is online, the format is designed for consistent interaction between instructors and students through forums and review of assignments. Readings and presentations will be directly applied through hands-on activities students will engage with at home.

Space is limited to 20 participants, and registration will close when the limit is reached. The registration fee is $675, to be paid via credit card at registration.

The distance learning program has two additional permaculture design courses. Completion of a single class gives students a certificate of completion, while completion of all three courses gives students the portfolio necessary to apply for an internationally recognized certification in Permaculture Design though the Finger Lakes Permaculture Institute. The additional courses include:

  • Permaculture Design: Ecosystem Mimicry (Jan. 7 to Feb. 21, 2019) fee: $675
  • Permaculture Design: Design Practicum (March 4 to April 4, 2019) fee: $325
    • Note: the prerequisite for this course is one or both of the other Cornell permaculture courses

Registration opens about six weeks before courses begin. For more information on the Horticulture distance learning program, visit their FAQ page.

Did you know that the Cornell Small Farms Program has been offering specialty mushroom resources and extension education for 10 years? This has occurred through our website, online courses, and in-person workshops. Now we need your help to continue this important work.

To all extension/university or non-profit educators, government agency employees, and private consultants — please complete this short survey to help us gauge the interest and needs for mushroom producers from your perspective.

We’ve personally seen the interest in this crop increase dramatically during that time, but want to gauge your experience and the demands you receive on the topic as an agricultural service provider. We have been invited by NE-SARE to submit a full Professional Development Grant Proposal to expand the number of ag service providers able to confidently offer growers support to develop mushroom production enterprises.

The survey will take less than 10 minutes, and offer us insight into our collective needs as farm educators of various sorts.

Thank you for your time!

Are you a part of the solar farming community? Help inform researchers by taking this survey on vegetation maintenance practices for solar arrays.

In collaboration between the Cornell University Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future and the American Solar Grazing Association (ASGA), a team of farmers and researchers are working toward a roadmap for viable collaborations among solar site operators, landscapers, and grazers. Through your survey responses, they hope to gain a better understanding of the challenges, economically and agriculturally, that you are facing with the land stewardship of the solar sites you are managing.

The submitted surveys are anonymized, and at no point in the survey is information requested from you that could identify you or your business. Please submit your survey by October 8, 2018.

All survey participants will be given the opportunity to learn from the results, which the team anticipates releasing in mid-October. The results will also be announced as part of the Cornell Sheep and Goat Symposium on Saturday, October 13, 2018.

If you have any questions, contact Niko Kochendoerfer at

For veterans and military families interested in learning about a variety of farming techniques and farm business management, tours of working farms can offer important insight and inspiration.

On September 19, 2018, a farm tour was held at Wind Swept Meadows Farm in Watertown, NY. The tour was hosted by the Small Farms Program (SFP) Farm Ops partners at the Jefferson County Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE).

This month, a group of about 30 people — including active duty military personnel stationed at Fort Drum, as well as retired military service members — were welcomed to Wind Swept Meadows, a 465-acre farm owned and operated by Delta and Tom Keeney.

The Keeney’s run a popular roadside stand with a wide variety of fruit, flowers, vegetables, baked goods and crafts for sale. In addition, they have USDA inspected beef available for sale year round, raise chickens, ducks and turkey, coordinate a large CSA, and offer a small therapeutic agriculture program.

One highlight of the day was a homemade lunch featuring ingredients all sourced from the farm. The meal brought the entire group together for warm meal under the barn roof.

“I thought the tour had a great turn out and one of the most diverse group of attendees I’ve seen yet,” said Alyssa Couse, agriculture outreach educator at Jefferson County CCE. “From active duty soldiers, to military wives, to young children and several female veterans, the farm tour offered something for everyone.”

As the day’s events came to a close, several people asked when the next farm tour would be… Stay tuned!

For more information about the Small Farms Program’s Farm Ops project, visit the project site.