Soil School: Cover crops on sand drive healthy vegetable yield

Sandy Shore Farms agronomy manager Bill Ungar.

Building organic matter, soil health, 4R nutrient management, and profitability are all part of the crop production puzzle Bill Ungar and the team at Sandy Shore Farms is piecing together on the sandy north shore of Lake Erie.

On this episode of RealAgriculture’s Soil School, Ungar, Sandy Shore’s agronomy manager, shares how the family-owned farm and vegetable producer manages the challenging sandy soils of Ontario’s Norfolk plains to grow more that 1,000 acres of vegetables annually. Their work has earned them the honour of being province’s the largest asparagus producer.

With most of the soil testing at less that 2% organic matter, Ungar stresses the need for every acre to see a cover crop, ranging from tillage radish to rye, millet and alfalfa — not your typical cover crop, but alfalfa fits nicely into the crop rotation, while being harvested as a forage crop.

Crop rotation can be challenging on a farm where a large percentage of acres are dedicated to asparagus — a  perennial crop that typically produces for eight to 20 years before being removed. While the farm’s other two major crops, peppers and onions, can be rotated with millet and alfalfa, the long-term asparagus crop relies heavily on cover crop rye and tillage radish to protect the soil from wind and erosion, while contributing organic matter and improve soil health.

Ungar says seeding tillage radish into asparagus is a relatively new practice for the farm, but in five years his team has been impressed with the radish’s ability to breakdown hard pans in high traffic areas, add organic mater, enhance microbial activity and contribute to overall soil health. (Story continues after the video.)

In the video, Ungar also shares how he applies the 4R nutrient strategy to this sandy soil environment. He notes that fertilizer is spread on the hungry asparagus crop three to five throughout the growing season. That makes selecting the right source, rate, time and place critical for effective application.

When it comes to peppers and onions, Sandy Shore relies on irrigation and fertigation. Using a trickle or drip tape system, Ungar can control nutrient levels in irrigation water to efficiently feed the crops throughout the growing season.

When it comes to the challenge of managing diverse crops this challenging environment, Ungar says Sandy Shore has yet to hit the ‘sweet spot’ — but they are getting there. “It takes time to build and maintain healthy soils that support healthy crops, healthy yields and a healthy return on investment,” he says.

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