Greetings from Book & Plow,

Kaylee here with you this month with an admittedly long newsletter about onions :)

Let’s talk about onions. So very many things go into growing them (and all the other food we grow) I wanted to give you all a glimpse into the amount of planning, thought, and work that goes into growing just one of our 40+ crops . Onions are one of our longest season crops. They’re the first thing we seed in the greenhouse in March and we harvest them in the beginning of September.

Folks, I’m proud to say: we grew some really nice onions this year! In a time when joy feels like it is in short supply, finding  joy in our beautiful, bountiful onions is something I’m savoring. I don’t even really like to eat onions, I’m just so dang proud of our onion crop this year. 

Maida unloading a pallet of onions from our truck & celebrating our onion haul. We harvested 8 pallets of onions this season!

Our onions this season are really special to me for a lot of reasons. Primarily because growing onions has been a struggle at Book & Plow for many years. Second, because our onions are the only crop we seeded before the pandemic, one of the very first tasks done by our work study crew. Fertilizing the beds by hand and rolling out the mulch was one of the last tasks they did before leaving campus.

Maida, Julia, and I planted our onions in solitary shifts, a far cry from the usual teamwork that our commencement reunion crews typically use to get them in the ground. One of the only days Maida and I physically worked together in those early pandemic times was to plant onions for several hours together. It was one of my first days wearing a mask to work and I remember how strange it felt. We talked logistics of the coming season while we worked, tried our best to predict what it would bring and what we should do. All the while tucking little clusters of the barest wisps of plants you’ve ever seen into deep holes in our thick mulch, making sure to tuck their spindly little roots into the cold soil. That day feels simultaneously like yesterday and several years ago at the same time. 

Onions are not like squash. When you transplant squash, it looks like it might die for a few days, but after a week it’s grown significantly and I find myself reassured when I walk past the squash beds. They’re gonna be fine, I know it. Onions do none of this. They grow really slowly, especially at first because it’s still spring and the nights are cold. “Are they getting enough sun through all the mulch?” I found myself wondering. They were the only things besides the garlic planted in that most far flung of our fields. Perhaps it was because I didn’t often walk by them that I had so little faith in our onions. Perhaps it was just the way I had always felt about the onions, not very confident. 


When we had a dry spell in June, we watered the onions twice. Our irrigation system didn’t reach that far yet, and though the mulch had kept a lot of moisture in the soil up until that point, our onions were thirsty. We used a big cube container on the back of our truck hooked up to a small drip irrigation system we rigged up for just this application. The whole system relies on gravity to power the drip tape, it’s really neat, but it means we can only water 5 lines at a time. Throughout the day we’d refill the tank and move the lines. Thanks to the mulch, our slowdraining glacial-till soil, and probably a total of 1,200 gallons of water applied at a crucial moment, our onions pretty much took care of themselves from there on out. 


One morning in early July Lianbi, Yang, Gregory and I spent 2.5 hours working down the beds of onions with clippers cutting down the large weeds that had grown and laying them down in the pathways. That’s not a very long time to weed 3000 row feet of onions and another 500 row feet of leeks! Because the mulch was laid down thickly and so early in the season that the weeds hadn’t had the chance to start photosynthesizing, we had very few weeds, it was really awesome to see and a far cry from most other years.


Folks who aren’t in our CSA won't know this, but for years we’ve struggled to grow nice, big (or even normal sized) onions. This might be the first good onion crop Book & Plow has ever had. Sometimes members will ask “are these shallots?” Perhaps more often we get folks telling us how cute our tiny onions are. Some folks pickle them, some folks swear that 1 small, red onion is the perfect amount for a salad. 


The reason they’ve always been small is because of weeds. No matter which way we tried to grow them, bareground, plastic mulch, straw mulch, they were always swallowed by weeds. Onions, as I mentioned, are slow growers. They don’t compete at all with weeds. Onions are a really neat plant because they have to do most of their growing before the summer solstice. Once the day length starts shortening again, onions start the long, slow process of forming their bulbs. If they get overwhelmed with weeds, they won't be big onions. 


We’re overjoyed, proud, and extra excited because the secret to our success is growing them without tillage! Reducing tillage at Book and Plow is something we’ve been experimenting with over the past few years. We’re figuring out which crops respond well to it and which don’t. As we experiment more with it, we learn more. Our onions feel like our first big no-till success. We can’t claim credit for this idea. Ryan Karb, our friend and neighboring farmer over at Many Hands Farm Corps has been growing his onions this way for a few years with impressive results. When we heard he had only spent 2 hours with one other person weeding his onions the whole season, we were convinced and started preparations to grow our onions this way.

Preparation for growing our onions no-till started the year before planting. Maida and I decided we would plant our onions in Valley field for a few different reasons. The field would be coming out of its fallow season and would be “open”. Valley is a wet, clay-y field that is slow to drain in the spring. Years previous, we couldn’t consider growing onions in this field because we wouldn’t be able to get into it with a tractor early enough in the spring to prepare the soil. With no-till, we didn’t need a tractor! 

We also knew it would be impossible to water this field early on in the season, so we trusted that the mulch would do what it does best and keep soil moisture in the soil. We really weren’t sure how this was going to go, but, to be frank, it couldn’t really go much worse than previous years.

8 months before planting our onions, I broadcast 100# of oats and 100# of peas on a scorching afternoon in August and then disced the seeds into the soil with a tractor. Around that time we used our truck and tractor to load up 20 round bales of straw we bought from our friend and farm neighbor Gordy Cook. The bales of straw are made from his winter rye cover crop that he seeds after the corn harvest in the field right across the street. We pick them up and disperse them around the farm where they’ll be needed the following season. (We’ve always got one foot in the present moment and one foot in the future). The oats and peas grew that fall, fixing nitrogen, photosynthesizing, feeding carbon to microbes, shading out weeds, being habitat for insects, etc. Then the frosts came and the oats and peas turned from a bright and cheerful chartreuse to a somber pale yellow over the next few weeks.

Oat and pea cover crop

The following spring, while there was still snow on the ground, we brought stakes and string, buckets, cups, and fertilizer out to the field. We marked out our beds, and sprinkled chicken manure based fertilizer onto the ground. In that pre-pandemic time, we packed 6 people, all wearing hats, sweaters, and rainboots into our minivan and drove out to the field. Rolling out mulch is where Maida shines. Rolling big bales of straw that are wet because they’ve been sitting out all winter is really hard work, especially when it is one of the first ever farm tasks many of our students have done. Maida remains endlessly chipper, enthusiastic, and supportive the entire time. For some reason, we can rarely get the darn things moving the right way on the first try. Sometimes the bales have thin spots or layers that rip. The first half bale you get to unroll downhill, but then there is still a pretty big chunk you have to roll back uphill! I’m just so glad to work with someone who makes mulching almost feel fun :)

So why are we so excited about no-till? Microbes love it! Working air into soil through tillage is harmful to soil microbes, it causes them to eat up humus (sequestered carbon) and die. Tillage (along with use of non-organic fertilizer) is the reason most agricultural soils are a carbon source rather than being a carbon sink (as they had been before European colonization and the invention of the plow/synthetic nitrogen!). When you support the microbial life in soil through the use of diverse cover crops, reduction of tillage, and limiting “bare” soil, you allow microbial populations to grow and thrive. When you have plants growing and photosynthesizing in a microbe rich soil, they will work with microbes to get nutrients in the soil they otherwise would not have access to. In exchange for these essential nutrients, plants trade their excess carbon which they make through photosynthesis. The microbes use this carbon for the various processes they do, one of which is creation of humus. Humus is a stable form of soil carbon, this is what we’re after! We want to draw down carbon from the atmosphere and lock it up in the soil. 


Not only can no till growing sequester carbon, on a small scale it also relies less on fossil fuel use by not requiring tractors. For Book & Plow specifically, this is a really crucial aspect of no-till. Working soil when it’s too wet causes compaction. Because we have primarily glacial till soil, our soils are wetter for longer than most other farms. This makes any technique which cuts out early season tractor work especially beneficial for our farm.


We’ve been growing the same amount of onions for years now, and this year, because of no-till and heavy mulch growing techniques, our yields at least doubled, we’ve got more onions than we can give out to our CSA members and sell to Valentine Dining Hall. We will be selling our large, sweet Ailsa Craig onions and red storage onions for $3/lb. Ailsa Craigs are so sweet and delicious, but need to be used in the next few weeks for best quality. The red onions will store for many months. If you’d like to purchase some of our onions, please respond to this email with the amount you’d like to buy and we’ll set up a distanced pick-up.


For Book & Plow Farm,


Seasonal Recipe of the Month

This french onion grilled cheese seems like just the thing to make this cold, blustery weekend. You fold saucy, caramelized onions into shredded cheese before griddling for maximum onion flavor.

French Onion Grilled Cheese
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Book & Plow Farm · 301 E Hadley Rd · Amherst, MA 01002 · USA

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