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CONVERTING FORESTED LAND INTO FARMLAND
Last Post 19 Nov 2013 07:35 AM by Mitchel Mountain Farm. 5 Replies.
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Mitchel Mountain FarmUser is Offline
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Mitchel Mountain Farm

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16 Nov 2013 09:10 PM  
I have questions concerning the conversion of forested land into farmland. I am in the process of clearing about 2 acres of forested land consisting mainly of coniferous trees. The ground beneath the canopy is littered with conifer needles and blanketed with mosses. The soil type is Thorndike. This plot of land faces south to south-east, and is gently sloping. At one time back in the 40's this very land was part of a larger field that I assume was cultivated for crops or used for pasture.

As the trees are being cut down and yarded before they are sold to mills nearby, I am asking myself what is the next step. It seemed obvious to me that the cut tree limbs and branches full of needles that now litter the ground, would need to be chipped and plowed back in to the ground to eventually rot and replenish the soil with their nutrients. Or should the limbs and branches be pushed and piled at the edge of the forest to rot? Or should they be burned and then plowed back in to the soil? (Comments please.)

After the limbs and branches are dealt with, it seemed to me that removing the stumps would be the next order of business. Should I go the bulldozer-root-rake-route, or use an excavator to pluck the stumps and roots from the ground? (More comments please. )

Once the stumps are removed what next? I'm thinking soil tests, soil amendments, and cover crop?

Any information and or comments would be greatly appreciated. Thanks!
Argyle AcresUser is Offline
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Argyle Acres

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16 Nov 2013 09:33 PM  
The soil needs to make a big transition.

I would go with a mixture of clover and potatoes. Clover to obviously begin building nitrogen, the potatoes as a treat. Then the next year turn pigs loose. They will go after the potatoes and they will roto-till all of it.

After that FEDCO has some great mixes you can look at, to finish converting the soil.
Mitchel Mountain FarmUser is Offline
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Mitchel Mountain Farm

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16 Nov 2013 09:42 PM  
Thank you Argyle. I am wondering though, what is the best way to deal with all the debris? Aren't they potential nutrients for the soil?
Argyle AcresUser is Offline
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Argyle Acres

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16 Nov 2013 09:53 PM  
It is common to 'twitch' the stumps out, wait a season and then burn them.

If you use an iron tamping rod to place a handful of whole-corn deep in the ground between stump roots, pigs will dig under the stump and flip it for you.
Mitchel Mountain FarmUser is Offline
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Mitchel Mountain Farm

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16 Nov 2013 11:04 PM  
I like your suggestion to use pigs to help remove the stumps and to ultimately build the soil. I especially like how this technique is "natural" and good ecologically speaking. However the only negative I can see is the time element involved. If I were to hire an excavator or bulldozer with root-rake, I could conceivably be planting cover crop next spring? Albeit at considerable expense though. But the pig-method may offer some opportunities to experiment, and to achieve my goal to get something planted in this particular piece of ground by next year; you see the forest on this particular plot of land was not dense, and the spacing between trees in some areas was quite large. So one can envision maybe a grid system, where pigs are kept in areas where stumps are the densest, and soil amendments, plowing, and covercrop plantings could occur in areas where stump densities are the lowest, without having to remove the stumps. (I'm not sure if any of this makes any sense.)
Mitchel Mountain FarmUser is Offline
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Mitchel Mountain Farm

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19 Nov 2013 07:35 AM  
I wanted to share with everyone a response I received from Tom Roberts of Snakeroot Farm. It is an excellent read.

"I pretty much agree with the advice Argyle Acres gave you on the MOFGA forum. And as you noted, the quicker and more expensive way to convert the stumpland to farm land is to bring in the heavy equipment. So, it's really just a question of how fast you want to do this and whether you have more time or more money. Note that in everything you do on this land, this question will continually arise. Of course each time you make a decision in favor one one way or the other, that usually doesn't lock you into making future decisions the same way. It all depends on your perspective at each step in your five or ten year plan.

As to your original question to me about the slash from a clear cut, there are several ways to proceed. A common method in conversions to farmland is to burn the slash piles, which wastes a lot of slow-to-decompose nutrients, but does get the slash out of the way quickly. It also provides a quantity of quickly leachable potassium, which probably won't do you much good.

Chipping the slash takes a great deal of time and money to operate the chipper, but gives you a whole lot of nutrients in the form of chips. Remember, a big pile of slash creates a small pile of chips. Granted, these chips are not as valuable as hardwood chips, but they are a long way from having zero value. They work as well as any chips for mulch if you want to retain soil moisture and retard weed growth. If they are cedar chips, they will last a long time (5+ years!) either as mulch or just piled up for future use. If they are spruce, fir, larch, or pine they will be about half decomposed if piled for 5 years. As a mulch, they will all but disappear in a couple of years.

Altho I would not till in cedar chips (the non-rotting characteristics of cedar would inhibit soil fungal growth), the other conifers will go far toward improving the soil; after all, continually adding layers of dead woody material is how nature builds a forest soil out of glacial till. You are just speeding up the process. Again, hardwoods are superior for this, but then, we can't all drive Cadillacs.

Any chips (except alder) tilled into the soil will remain mixed with the soil as identifiable chips for a year or two as they decompose. Consider that this may interfere with planting and cultivating whatever crop you intend to grow. Potatoes or squash might be the easiest to grow soon after tilling in chips. Corn would work as well, but it is a heavy feeder and would require addition of considerable nitrogen. Until they are decomposed into humus, the microbes decomposing the chips will be in competition with your crop for any available N when they are mixed with the soil (as opposed to being used as a mulch on top of the soil). Note that most chippers will grind up the larger wood pretty well, but will "spit through" the smaller pencil-lead-sized twigs.

In any case, you would not want to till in any more than an inch of chips; so you would still be able to see the ground thru your chip layer prior to tilling. Do not plow them down, as they would then be in a deep soil layer that will inhibit their decomposition. Use a tiller or disk harrow to work them into the top layers of the soil.

So, as you can see, I can't really tell you what to do, I can only describe some of the choices you have. I have cc'd Eric Sideman, MOFGA's ag specialist to see if he has any further perspective.

Hope this helps. Please do write back if you have more detailed questions. At our website (in the "Mulching" section) I do have several suggestions for how we use chips at our farm here in Pittsfield."

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