Alfred Farris and his wife, Carney, began farming in the 1960s in Robertson County, raising cattle and corn conventionally. In the 1970s, Alfred visited the Rodale Institute and changed his mindset to adopt principles that build the soil and cut out chemicals. Alfred and Carney sold the home farm and bought their current farm in Orlinda around 1986. They began growing cover crops, planted rye prior to soybeans, and to bring back life in the soil, they began making compost with sawdust and chicken manure.
Alfred knew that the foundation of organic farming had to be cover crops, rotation of crops, and compost. They applied approximately 1,000 tons of compost per year on corn ground for 20 years. As they transitioned, they used some herbicides in a narrow band in crop rows. They eventually stopped applying chemicals, and the farm was certified organic in 1997 by USDA.
Alfred said they learned to live with weeds. “To farm organically, one has to choose some tillage (steel) or not farm organically and use herbicides.” He was determined to completely transition to organic, and some tillage is utilized in his operation.
Alfred began incorporating rotational grazing and built perimeter fences to separate paddocks. He now practices a six-year conservation crop rotation system of three years of grass, followed by corn, soybeans, wheat and back to grass.
Fifteen years ago, Alfred wanted to no-till his crops. He would disk to transition from grass to his fall cover crop, usually in August, and plant his cover crops in September. He bought a six inch pipe with cleats on it and began using it to roll covers on two acres of corn, starting with hairy vetch.
Five years ago, Alfred built a roller crimper. He demonstrated his organic no-till at a meeting of the Cumberland River Compact to show ways to improve soil as well as water quality and health. He has continued no-till crops behind rolled covers for the last five years.
Alfred cautions that timing is the key to try to plant in heavy cover crop mulches without use of herbicides. One must wait on cover crops to reach flowering when terminating covers completely by rolling and crimping, three to four weeks later than conventional farming where herbicides are used for termination. Many conventional farmers are using roller/crimpers for managing how covers are laid down in addition to the use of herbicides for termination. In organic no-till, the roller crimper totally terminates the covers. Another timing issue is selection of varieties that mature quicker in the season. Alfred uses purple bounty vetch because it matures three weeks earlier than hairy vetch.
His cover crop species varies due to what is following the cover crop mix. Before corn, he plants 25 lbs. oats, 25 lbs. purple bounty vetch and 10 lbs. crimson clover per acre. Before soybeans, he plants 118 lbs. cereal rye, 54 lbs. wheat and 7 lbs. purple bounty vetch per acre. Note, the rates are higher because he is depending on higher populations to become a mulch to retard annual weed germination.
For his pasture mix, he plants chicory, endophyte free fescue, orchard grass and red and white clover. He manages his pasture for three years, disks in August, plants cover crops before corn in September, and plants corn no-tilled behind roller/crimper cover crops. He disks in August, plants cover crops before soybeans. After harvesting soybeans, he lightly disks and plants wheat or small grain for a crop. He does deal with some cereal rye in his wheat crop. When growing corn, he lightly cultivates in corn row. He uses a shaving-cultivator with GPS guidance. When planting covers for soybeans, he drills twice to establish cover crops on 3.5″ rows to choke out as many weeds as possible.
Alfred says that livestock is a must to make organic farming work. His 91 head herd’s manure and urine – plus the rotations of grass – increase soil organic matter during the years in grass. Alfred practices regular rotations that basically takes half and leaves half, removing cattle at approximately four inches in height. As he near transitioning to crops, he grazes closely in winter as he converts to covers. He normally seeds 70 acres of pasture per year. One field recently seeded to pasture is the first time the field has been in grass in over 100 years.
Alfred’s soils are well-aggregated as the result of keeping roots growing continuously and producing high amounts of biomass. Tillage is used in limited manner for preparation of seed beds for wheat, cover crops and transition from grass to crops. Prescribed rotations with well-distributed manure, urine on pastureland and compost and covers provide high productivity. Alfred and Carney Farris have improved their soils the last 30 years by using grass, cover crops, reduced tillage, and use of compost. The results are better functioning soils and better profits.