Profile: George Ayres, Shortsville, NY
PROFILE: George Ayres, Shortsville, N.Y.
|George Ayres: Vegetables, fruit & grain. Shortsville, N.Y. |
Photo by Patricia L. Ayres
George Ayres is the kind of farmer who thrives on new ideas. Since 1977, he has, as he says, grown a bit of everything on his 600-acre farm in New York’s Finger Lakes Region: strawberries, raspberries, sweet and grain corn, pumpkins, soybeans, alfalfa for hay and small grains. His diversity in crops is matched by his markets, which include selling wholesale to a grocery chain under a low-pesticide label, selling products in his daughter’s farm market and offering pick-your-own berries.
It’s no surprise, then, that when his local Extension agronomist, Jim Capron, told him the next big production innovation was planting with zone till, Ayres was one of the first to try it. Zone till, also known as strip till, focuses tillage in the crop rows, providing 4- to 5-inch slots into which a farmer later plants, leaving the rest of the soil undisturbed.
“Jim pushed it here in New York ahead of the curve,” said Ayres, who has been zone-till planting since 1996. “I don’t do any other tillage between the rows anymore; I leave all my crop residue on the ground.”
A main goal for Ayres was conserving moisture, and today the tillage system plays a huge part. The area between the rows retains soil cover with crop residue, which captures runoff and minimizes evaporation. Ayres plants cover crops like rye each winter, so the rye residue adds to soil organic matter, improving infiltration. Finally, the ridges, which cut across the contour, act as runoff curbs.
Each fall, Ayres gets to work strip-tilling. With a rotary spreader on his combine, he spreads crop residue as he harvests., Then he creates mini-ridges across the slope, each with a narrow slot, with a zone builder.
“It works really well,” said Ayres. “If we get a deluge of heavy rain in late winter or spring, the ridges stick up like a washboard and stop the water from running down. If we get a real belly-washer, it goes down the slots, not the slope.”
Ayres spreads his labor using zone till, too. His extra field pass in the fall means less work in the busy spring, when all he does is burn down his weeds with an
herbicide and plant.
Ayres is a farmer-collaborator with a team of Cornell researchers funded by SARE to examine ways to improve soil health. The team, which is conducting research on dozens of New York farms, including Fresh Ayr Farm, hopes to demonstrate how strategies such as cover cropping and reduced tillage can improve soil quality.
In spring 2005, upstate New York experienced an unusually dry May with little rain. At the end of the month, Ayres planted soybeans into his ridges and was surprised that it was almost too wet in the strips to run his planter. By contrast, a neighbor who had plowed, disked and cultivated that spring, kicked up so much dust during planting that Ayres couldn’t see him on his tractor seat.
“The secret to soil quality is never to have anything bare,” Ayres said. “I don’t have heavy rains and flooding taking the water and soil away.”