With the rise of industrial agriculture in the 1950s, farms grew larger and more specialized, and farming disciplines grew more divided. Despite the recent resurgence of diversified farms growing a variety of crops and raising multiple breeds of livestock, the division of vegetable and animal operations tends to remain. But as pressures mount to find more resilient ways of farming, things are changing. Stone Barns Center recently began a new ley rotation of grains, row crops and forage for animals that better integrates our farming practices in pursuit of long-term soil health.
Ley farming is the growing of grass or legumes in rotation with grain or tilled crops as a soil conservation measure.The practice formally emerged in England in the late 19th century as a way to restore over-farmed land, with legumes depositing valuable nutrients and building the structure of deficient soils. It remained a primary land-management method until after World War II, when synthetic fertilizers took the place of legume rotations. Variations of ley rotations could be found on some small American farms in the early 1900s, before priorities shifted toward growing fewer commodity crops in greater quantities.
The pilot ley rotation at Stone Barns began last fall, when one acre of the front pasture was tilled and planted. Year one has seen small grains, legumes, flint corn and soybeans followed by cover crops. Year two will see row crops including potatoes and squash. In years three through seven, the area will be in pasture grasses and clover as forage for livestock. Each year the cycle will begin again on a new one-acre parcel, until seven acres of current grazing land are in rotation.
The chief purpose of our ley experiment is to improve the condition and quality of our soil and animals. The system offers other benefits along the way: Grain plantings will help break the cycle of perennial weeds in the pasture; choice row crops will have access to more bed space and new soil fertility; and forage for livestock can be planted for energy content, productivity and palatability to the animals.
This new application of an old practice encourages growth in soil vigor and in crop and animal health—just the kind of growth the future of farming depends on.
Originally published on October 20, 2014