From our farmers: Thrifty farmer ideas for the season to come

reusing burlap coffee bags as mulch

This is the sixth in our “From our farmers” series, which was contributed by Sue Nackoney of Gentle Rain Farm, one of the farmers enrolled in our Farm Incubator Program. Originally written in February, this piece features several clever ways Sue and other farmers at Headwaters are conserving resources and reusing materials!

As the days lengthen and we come out of our own hibernation, the urge to get into the soil starts, but usually it is still too wet and cold to do much this time of year here in the northern climes. Here are a handful of ideas to conserve, reuse and re-purpose for the farm or garden that you can do indoors before the busy garden time begins.

Repurposed pants for soil or sand bags

It is almost painful to throw away a pair of pants just because they have a hole in the knee. And considering that 10.5 million tons of clothing heads to the landfill every year – or about 5% of the landfill waste overall – it hurts more than just my own sensibilities. So I was delighted to find a blog post from Fiddlehead Farm (link) about using old pants to create sand or soil bags. The bags are used to hold down shadecloth , tarps, floating row covers (used for plant protection from bugs and cold temperatures), or a myriad of other uses on a farm in a land that is blessedly not abundant with large rocks.

To make the bags, I cut the pants at the knees and sewed up the cuff with my sewing machine, and then cut them in half through the waistband at the zipper and rear seams and sewed those up. Viola! Four bags from one old pair of pants. It was also kind of cute to see those pants my 5-yr old son wore, the ones with the froggie patch on the knee, having a new life “outstanding” in the field.

Soil blocks

In the spirit of sending less to the landfill, farmers have pioneered a way to make potting soil stand up in little cubes in a tray for starting seeds indoors; no disposable plastic pots needed. At the beginning soil blocks look like a tray full of mud brownies that a little kid might offer you (mmm!), but then the plants start growing out the tops of each block and you can see the roots filling in on the exposed sides.

As my fellow Headwaters farmer, Pete of Udan Farm, says, “blocks mimic natural soil conditions better than pots because a block lets the plant develop a healthy root system that is less shocked by transplanting.” Plant roots in the block stop growing when they reach air (a good thing), rather than circling around inside a plastic pot making a difficult-to-transplant root knot. So, stronger plants means Pete and Claire of Udan Farm can harvest earlier for their various farmers markets, and maybe need less fertilizer in the process.

Mulch with burlap bags

A great way to protect soil from erosion by wind and rain, while also preventing weeds from overtaking farm paths, is to reuse old burlap coffee bags. Though not always found in cafes full of coffee, there are plenty of locations to find the used burlap. I came upon the empty bags at OSU’s Small Farms School, where Clair Klock of Clackamas Soil Water Conservation District was handing them out from a giant tote that must have held hundreds. When used as ground cover, these do give the garden a certain vintage aesthetic that is nicer than, say, mulching with cardboard. Check out the picture of Angela’s calendula rows at her medicinal herb farm, Alquimia Botanicals, here at Headwaters.

I just get so excited when I think about all these great things, especially from the vantage point of February’s cool rainy days of making farm plans and indulging my love of seed catalogs. Headwaters farmers have a lot of great tricks, and I look forward to seeing what everyone has up their sleeves for this coming year!