20 Years of Building Soil with Cover Crops – The Real Results (FSFS186)

Farm Small Farm Smart with Diego Footer


Nicolas grows on a multigenerational farm, with 7 acres in production, 2 of which are under-protected culture. Crystal Organic Farm is one of the oldest certified organic farms in the SouthEast. 


Did you have a model that you built off of when you got started in 1993? And how has that changed over the years?

We always had a garden while I was growing up and I enjoyed that. I read Elliot Coleman’s book when it was just out there. I read it over and over and then just got started. What I’ve learned over the years is to take things more slowly. Farming is a business and you need to take it slowly. It gets built over a long time. You can push and push but eventually, nature is going to push back. So grow it over time with cover crops, solarization, compost, compost teas. Get the irrigation set upright. When we got started we were just go, go, go. But if we’d taken the time to get the soil in order before we started we would’ve saved money


What do people say that Crystal Organic Farm does great?

We pride ourselves in our high tunnel production. People are impressed that we are able to make a living off the farm. We have very few employees and have been doing it for over 20 years with very little debt and all self-funded. The key has been hard work.


With 7 acres under production, how do you keep up with such a small crew?

We have 4 full-time and 3 part-time employees. They have been here a long time – they are very efficient. We have good systems in place. Especially in the tunnels. 


How are your beds set up and what implements do you use? 

We are on 5’ bed spacing. We maximize space within the tunnels this way. We use a disk harrow, then an all-purpose (or chisel) plow, cone spreader and drop spreader for fertilizer, and finish with a tiller. We don’t use the disk harrow in the tunnels.


What are your thoughts on plowing and tilling for soil health?

Soil is definitely number one. There are tools out there that are better for the soil than what we have, but you have to use what you can afford. We are very consciously using our tools to preserve soil structure.

 “I’ve been on farms where they pulverize the soil to look like sand. That’s the last thing I want to do. We try hard to maintain the structure of the soil.”

By solarizing we are also being conscientious of our soil. We had fields of tomatoes and peppers we lost 10 years ago to Southern Blight, but this year with solarizing we have it well managed with minimal losses. This way we haven’t had to use sprays.


When we first started we had very weak soil, red and clay, perennial grasses. We used cover crops to correct a lot of this. In the high tunnels, it’s even better where we don’t get these hard rains. I’ve done soil tests in the tunnels and they hardly need any amendments. Out in the fields, they need a lot more improvement, there’s a lot more erosion. We keep growing cover crops on them. 


What would you do differently if you had to start over?

I would take a three-year window to get to know it better and plant cover crops. Remove the rocks. Do soil tests and add what’s needed. Observe what perennial weeds are in there. Look at where the water is going. Plan and manage before putting any crops there. 


How do you rotate crops in your high tunnels?

In the spring, fall and wintertime are when we do most of our production. During the summer is when we solarize and grow cover crops. Once we solarize there is little soilborne disease pressure so we grow our best tomatoes and peppers in the tunnels in the fall. It also reduces weed pressure so much you can plant smaller crops that are easily crowded out typically.


How to Solarize

  • Always do it during the summer (or warmest) months
  • Prepare your beds entirely, even laying down drip tape if that’s what you use.
  • Get the soil well hydrated, water it thoroughly. Sometimes you run the drip tape again if the soil is getting dry. If you soaked it with overhead irrigation ahead it will not need to be remoistened.
  • Cover with the thickest clear plastic of the biggest size you can find. You want 1mil if you can find it, we use .7mil from Home Depot/Lowe’s. 
  • Cover or bury the edges so they are tight.
  • Leave it on for 5-6 weeks. It depends on heat, sometimes it can be less.


What is the goal of your cover crops? How do you grow them?

To add biomass. We don’t use compost or till in previous crops to make a clean bed for the next crop. The organic matter, when it’s fresh, adds the necessary nitrogen. We can grow a stand of iron and clay cowpeas in 3 to 4 weeks, mow them multiple times if we want, and they add organic matter and fix nitrogen. We use the flail mower to cut and then irrigate to help decompose, after 2-3 weeks we can incorporate it.


Do you use compost?

We have a compost pile but we don’t have enough organic material to add to it for the farm to use. We would use more if we had an organic source that was affordable. We do use a lot of compost tea. We make it with worm castings. We mix it in the vortex brewer, 15 gallons. We place 2lbs in a porous white mesh, then mix a big handful of sea-90, and kelp called maxi-crop – one cup, and then a little blackstrap molasses. Brew it overnight and incorporate it via drip tape, once per crop. We use a fine filter. I didn’t see a difference in the first year, but I’ve seen a dramatic shift in health over time after adding the tea for 1.5+ years. The crops became a lot more consistent production-wise.


Making nettle-comfrey tea

We grow it ourselves. Mix them in a five-gallon bucket, but then don’t incorporate oxygen, just let it sit for 2-3 days until it’s nice and funky. Then mix it 50/50 with water and spray when you see the first signs of blight.


What crop do you think you’ve learned to grow exceptionally well?

I’m from Belgium and in Europe, we eat a lot more bitter greens. Radicchio, frisee, dandelion, escarole – the chicory family and I are buddies. We have them from Fall through early spring. The trick to growing them well is giving them plenty of spacing to prevent root rot. We keep a constant production cycle which helps with restaurant sales. We find they are profitable. Sugarloaf endive (green radicchio) stores well into summer after growing late into spring, we can get $6/lb. at the market, $4/lb wholesale. They can grow quickly – frisee is popular with restaurants. 


How do you grow tomatoes successfully in GA?

Growing them in tunnels is number one – they need to stay out of the rain. Solarization and healthy soils as well. We save our own seeds from the crops that do well for us. Evaluate the health of the plant and fruit, and then save from the first tomatoes of the season before they get prone to cross-pollinating. We select for medium-sized fruits so they aren’t too big to alarm people at the farmer’s market which lets us charge $6/lb. We also select them to not be too tall, around 6 feet tall. We save from Black Krim tomato, Bradley, baby red plum. 


“When I talk to young farmers I tell them to slow down. You want to minimize your failures, you can learn how by going to conferences, talking to older farmers.”


In Conclusion

Nicolas mentioned several times during the interview the importance of slowing down. He advocates for watching your crops carefully and using intuition gained from experience and observation to make wise decisions down the line.

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