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Why permanent beds?

Permanent beds can help improve soil health on the farm-scale. Rather than plow and harrow by the field, fields are divided into a set of beds. Field traffic (tractor or foot) is then restricted to the between-bed area, year after year. These pathways can be managed with cultivation, mulches, cover crops, or perennial sod.

cabbage in straw

Cabbage growing in permanent beds. Ryan Maher / Cornell Small Farms Program

Especially on small, diversified organic vegetable farms, beds are a convenient management unit that can help reduce tillage across a range of different crops, regardless of row spacing.

With compaction concentrated outside the planting area, growers can reconsider the intensity, depth, area, and frequency of tillage necessary. The approach to tillage in the planting bed can vary by the farm: conventional deep tillage, shallow surface tillage (>50% reduction in soil volume), a combination of shallow tillage with targeted deep ripping, or no-till.

Looking for farm examples? We feature long-term permanent bed farms and describe their methods in our RT Farm Stories series.

Research Focus – Evaluating RT in permanent beds

Permanent bed

Permanent bed experiment. Ryan Maher / Cornell Small Farms Program

We are using a long-term permanent bed experiment to see the benefits and trade offs with RT management practices. Crops are grown under different tillage intensities with a range of soil disturbance, from deep rototilling to no-till.

We are testing a no-till system using tarps to suppress weeds between crops.
We compare two surface mulches, compost (about 1.5 inches thick) and rye hay/oat straw (about 5 tons per acre per year), to no-mulch with standard cultivation practices.  We take a systems perspective, monitoring soil nutrients, soil moisture and temperature, weeds, insects, and crop yield.

We also track labor hours, like time spent hand weeding and handling mulches, and the material and equipment required to inform an economic analysis.

This work will help growers in their own decision making as they consider the suitability of RT practices in permanent beds. Research locations: Freeville, NY and Monmouth, ME.

What are we learning? Check out some take aways after the first two years!

In depth! Our 2017 webinar dug deep into permanent bed practices and we shared some early research results. Listen to the recording at our webinar archive here.

In short! Some results were shared at the Session on Organic Soil Health Research at the Tri-Societies meeting in Tampa, Florida on October 25, 2017. Recording provided by eOrganic, published Nov 6, 2017.

Ryan Maher

Ryan Maher

Ryan began with the SFP in the summer of 2013 and focuses on research and extension in soil health practices for vegetables. He is a Baltimore native with family and educational ties to CNY. After graduating from SUNY-ESF in 2003 he spent two summers training on diversified vegetable farms, first in SW Oregon and then in the Boston metro area. In 2007, he graduated from Iowa State with an MS in Sustainable Agriculture focusing on soils in native grassland restorations. He spent five years with the USDA-ARS in St. Paul MN, coordinating research on nutrient cycling in perennial forage crops. Ryan, his wife Jackie, and daughters Gia and Olive are happy to settle in CNY and enjoy the food, farms, forested hills, and water of the Finger Lakes region.
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