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Conservation demonstration farm stays busy with no-till potatoes, high tunnel, biochar and worm juice

Inside the high tunnel at Menoken Farm, container gardens follow the soil health principles the farm upholds, including maintaining living roots. Jenny Schlecht / Forum News Service1 / 4
A pile of biochar at Menoken Farm later will be used to fertilize fields. Biochar is a new venture for the conservation demonstration farm. Jenny Schlecht / Forum News Service2 / 4
Darrell Oswald holds a worm that is producing "worm juice" to be used as a seed inoculant at Menoken Farm on May 21. Jenny Schlecht / Forum News Service3 / 4
Staff at Menoken Farm plant no-till potatoes. Later, second-cutting alfalfa will be rolled out on top of the seed potatoes. Jenny Schlecht / Forum News Service4 / 4

MENOKEN, N.D. — Though many fields in the area remain damp from the wet, cool spring, the staff at Menoken Farm are finding plenty of projects to keep them busy, like no-till planting potatoes, working in the high tunnel garden, experimenting with biochar and making worm juice.

Menoken Farm is a conservation demonstration farm in central North Dakota. The farm is owned by Burleigh County Soil Conservation District and receives additional funding through the North Dakota Department of Health Water Quality Division and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Made up of 10 fields, the farm focuses on soil health through five principles: soil armor, minimal soil disturbance, plant diversity, continual live plant/root and livestock integration.

Darrell Oswald, manager of the farm, said seven of the 10 fields had been planted by Tuesday, May 21. Only two fields remained to be planted, as one field is planted to perennials. Livestock will arrive soon to graze on that field.

Oswald and other workers at the farm were busy working on a no-till potato plot. The crew was placing potatoes on the surface of the soil rather than in holes. Later, bales of second-cutting alfalfa will be rolled out over the potatoes and watered down. The potato plants will grow up through the alfalfa. Harvesting will mean pulling apart the alfalfa to find the new potatoes growing at the surface of the soil.

“People are really amazed by it,” Oswald said.

Near the potato plot are two long mounds of compost. This year, one of the mounds includes biochar, a charcoal-like substance made from burning biomass to very particular conditions. Menoken Farm, Oswald explained, held a workshop on biochar in April with the North Dakota Forest Service. For hosting the workshop, the farm got to keep some biochar.

The biochar will be spread on fields at the farm so that it can be compared to the regular compost. Though Oswald said biochar often is considered kind of a “hippy” fertilizer, it could have real applications in conventional agriculture, he said.

Beyond the compost piles is a high tunnel or unheated greenhouse. That has taken some time to figure out, Oswald said, but as more people seek to grow their own food, the Menoken Farm wants to be able to explain how to use the tool. After sprinklers weren’t the best source of water, they’ve switched to drip irrigation.

Even in the high tunnel, Menoken Farm is following its soil health principles. Last fall, they planted each of the planter boxes to rye. The temperature in the high tunnel remained warm enough all winter that the rye didn’t die off, so staff covered the rye in heavy fabric to block it from getting light. Then they cut slits in the fabric to plant into the soil under the rye. Tomatoes, peppers, onions, herbs and more are now growing inside the high tunnel.

Not far from the high tunnel, though, may be the most peculiar project going on at Menoken Farm. A large funnel-shaped kiln has been turned into a worm habitat, filled with things like dirt, alfalfa, wood chips, shredded paper and hay. The worms inside are fed coffee grounds, hay and corrugated cardboard (“They like the glue,” Oswald explains). The funnel is watered regularly, unless it rains as it has lately, which provides more than enough water.

The purpose of the project is to harvest the “worm juice”: the nutrient-rich liquid that goes through the worm habitat, which has become a compost-like substance. Oswald said some worm juice was used as a seed inoculant on some rye cover crop, while another section of the crop was left untreated.

“You can see the difference,” he said.

The worm juice project is still a work in progress, as Oswald is not completely certain what will happen to it. The worm habitat may be moved to the compost pile, as the worms likely could not survive the winter in the funnel.

This summer, Menoken Farm will host events with speakers who are experts in compost, cover crops and other subjects studied by the farm. Oswald said a few groups already have toured the farm this spring, but many more people will venture to the site throughout the summer.

For more information on the farm, including visiting and upcoming events, visit