It has been years since Chuck Zumbrun, who farms 1,200 acres near Churubusco, got the odd piece of advice from a one of his father’s friends, a man he described as an old hillbilly farmer.
Plant your beans, corn and squash together, like the Indians always did, the man said, and you’ll get better yields.
Such folksy advice, it seems, doesn’t carry a lot of weight in the world of American agriculture – where universities and corporations have spent decades designing high-yield and disease-resistant hybrids.
Science always trumps folklore.
But there are people who suspect there might be something to the old ways: That different plants do different things to the soil and can actually benefit each other. Among them is Bryan Granshaw, an Australian sugar cane grower who received a Nuffield Foundation scholarship to travel around the world and investigate alternative farming methods.
One of the people he visited last week was Zumbrun because he has experimented with the concept as well.
Zumbrun acknowledges that some people view mixing crops as sort of a crackpot approach.
You can read a lot about this online, and it’s weird, hippy organic types, Zumbrun said. We real farmers don’t listen to that, he said, referring to the mainstream reaction.
New ideas in any field often bring that kind of reaction. No-till farming, for example, which proponents say reduces erosion and improves the fertility of soil, was a hard sell years back. Zumbrun says even his father looked askance at the no-till concept, saying it was used by farmers who wanted to fish, who were too lazy to properly take care of their fields.
But Zumbrun is willing to at least ponder new ideas. Last summer, he planted 35 acres of corn, and when it was about a foot tall, he spread clover seed on the field.
The results were good. In the end, Zumbrun had yields of about 145 bushels per acre, while the county average was 90 bushels, in part due to the drought that lasted for much of the summer. Over the winter, the field had clover cover.
Other people have been experimenting, too. In Canada, some farmers have tried planting canola with beans, a legume which puts nitrogen into the soil. The beans run up the canola stalks and they can both be harvested at once and then separated.
The idea of planting different crops together is only natural, Granshaw said. If you walk into the woods, he said, you don’t see just one species. There are all types of ground cover, grasses and scrub plants.
Growing different crops together is just imitating nature, Granshaw said. Plants can complement each other rather than robbing each other of nutrients and depleting the soil, he said.
Granshaw spent 10 days in Saskatchewan where farmers are mixing crops.
They’re seeing good results. There are synergies.
It isn’t a feel-good thing, either, Granshaw said. The different crops put different things back into the soil, while taking out different things. The end result can be food with more nutrients.
It’s about the bottom line and money in your pocket, he said.
And, if nothing else, it’s an idea gardeners can try for themselves when the planting season starts in about five weeks. Plant your sweet corn, zucchini and beans together and see what happens.