MILPA FAQ – How Can I Be Involved?
We get a lot of folks coming to us saying that they love the First Acre Program and the concept of growing food to donate to those in need in their communities. Many want to know how they can still be involved in the program even if they do not have access to land. If this is the case for you, thank you! It is great to have folks looking for ways to bring this program to their community. We suggest that you contact your local community groups, church groups, Rotary clubs and farmers who may find interest in the First Acre Program. Chances are, you will find landowners who have the land, equipment and interest but lack the time or desire to do all of the coordination that goes into participating in the First Acre Program. This is where you come in! It may be your calling to be a coordinator within your community and you can do so by striking up a partnership with local landowners to plant Milpa Gardens in your community. One of the great things about Milpa is that it is an opportunity to build community as well as building your soil.
MILPA FAQ – Do I Need Fertilizer?
People often ask about fertility requirements for the Milpa Garden. “Do I need phosphorus, nitrogen, potassium?” The short answer is that we do not know what your soil looks like so that is a bit difficult to know. The Milpa has a lot of legumes in it including beans and peas so we don’t want too much nitrogen fertilizer because it will make those legumes lazy. You want to encourage them to nodulate with the rhizobia bacteria, taking the nitrogen out of the atmosphere and putting it into the soil. If you are going to fertilize, we suggest limiting the nitrogen that you put on to 25-35 pounds. That should be all that you need to get the mix going especially if it’s in a system where you are recycling nutrients from a previous year. If it’s an especially worn out piece of land it may require more fertilizer, possibly 45-50 pounds of nitrogen.
As far as phosphorus and potassium, a soil test would give you a better indication of what you might need but we suggest that you keep fertilizer application on the lower end of what you think you might need. Remember that one of the reasons to plant Milpa is to encourage the biological systems to kick in to let the biology make those nutrients available from the soil. Those nutrients, phosphorus, potassium, calciums, they’re all in your soil. You need the biology involved to unlock those nutrients.
If you have access to compost and manures, those are going to be, by far, the best way to get nutrients and fertility out to your Milpa Garden (much better than something coming out of a bag). This will create a much more natural process that is much more beneficial to biology.
If you want, you can experiment with having one strip where you have a higher rate of nitrogen or other fertilizers to see if it would make a difference. You can compare the performance to the rest of your field which you fertilize at a much lower rate. Two reasons for doing this: it will keep your costs low and it will allow the biological systems to work the way that God created them to work.
MILPA FAQ – Can I Add My Own Seeds?
We often get asked, “Are there other things I can add to this mix? I love tomatoes, peppers, onions but you don’t have those in your Milpa mix.” The reason that we don’t have those seeds in there is that they are really tiny seeds and they struggle to come up in a direct seeding method like this. As seedlings, they struggle to come up alongside some of the faster growing seeds in this mix so we don’t often see them performing well planted as part of this mix.
It is great to have those plants out there amongst the Milpa so we encourage people to plant in two steps. First, plant your Milpa mix, then go in and plant your tomatoes, peppers and onions as a separate step. You will want to plant these in an area that is conveniently accessible to you because of the extra attention that these plants will need. You may also need to thin and prune the Milpa around the areas you plan to plant in so there is less competition from the faster growing plants like squash. It is great for tomatoes, peppers and onions to be growing in such a diverse community, you will just have to help them get started by doing some hand transplanting.
MILPA FAQ – How Do I Harvest?
We get a lot of people asking, “How do you harvest this? You’ve got 40, 50, 60 different things growing out here, isn’t that a problem when it comes time to harvest?” The answer is, it’s not necessarily a problem but it can be a challenge. You are going to have things to harvest at all different times. When you order your Milpa mix, you will receive a “Milpa Garden Starter Packet” and part of that packet will show you the different crops in the Milpa mix and different harvest windows.
There will be some produce that you can start harvesting in probably 30 days after you plant. These first harvests will be mainly salad greens which can be clipped and used in salads as fresh greens. These greens will likely persist throughout the Milpa cycle right up until frost. You want to be harvesting regularly, when they’re young and tender because that’s when they have the best taste and flavor. As greens mature they become bitter.
Some things will come on quicker like the cucumbers and the summer squash and you’ll be able to harvest those throughout the lifetime of your Milpa Garden. Some things, like the melons, winter squash or decorative gourds will need to grow longer to reach maturity which means they will be ready to harvest towards the end of the season.
This year, one of our new additions to the Milpa mix is sweet corn. Of course, most people know how to harvest sweet corn but you will need to be going out and checking regularly because sweet corn can go from being not ripe to too ripe in a very short time. Also, if you are in an area that has a lot of racoon pressure, you may want to harvest early to prevent them from getting into your sweet corn. Some people may want to put up electric fences to keep the racoons out of their Milpa Garden.
A lot of the leafy greens in the Milpa mix, like radishes, turnips, collards and mustards, are not going to die with the first frost. You can continue to harvest those greens even after frost and in some cases they will actually be sweeter because they will convert some of their starches to sugars when they freeze.
We encourage you to reference the Harvesting page in the First Acre Starter Packet so that you know when to begin looking for each species to harvest. There will be things to harvest from about 30 days after planting all the way up through and even past frost. Expect lots of things to harvest and don’t be afraid to visit your Milpa Garden frequently and be sure to bring a basket because you’re never sure what you’re going to find! Almost like a scavenger hunt, you never really know what you will be coming back with but you certainly won’t be empty handed.
MILPA FAQ – How Do I Prepare My Seedbed?
As far as seed bed preparation for the Milpa Garden, it depends on how you plan to seed the mix. If you’re going to be broadcasting, you really should have a tilled seed bed to get good seed to soil contact. If you’re planting with a no-till drill, there’s not a lot of seed bed preparation that needs to be done. The important thing is that you get good seed to soil contact and there are a variety of ways to do that depending upon the equipment that you have. That seed needs to be touching the soil, ideally in the soil ½ to ¾ inch but if it is on top it just needs to have good seed to soil contact to have the best chance for success.
MILPA FAQ – How Do I Set My Drill?
Planting the Milpa seed with a drill is probably the best way to get good seed to soil contact without tilling. We often get questions on how folks should calibrate or set their drills. It can be a challenge with these highly diverse mixes that have larger seeded things like squash and then smaller seeded things like turnips, collards and mustards. It is a little bit of an artform but we have done this across hundreds of thousands of acres with mixes that farmers are planting on a large scale, maybe not always as diverse as the Milpa mix but certainly with a highly diverse seed size. We know this can work.
First of all, for seeding depth you are going to want to seed this ¾ inch to one inch deep. This may be a bit deeper than what some of the small seeds may want and maybe not quite as deep as some of the larger seeds may want but that’s going to be a good average and you should get pretty good emergence with that.
As far as setting the drill, it depends on your drill. What we would suggest is that you start with a setting on your drill that is equivalent to barley. Barley has a test weight of about 48 pounds and that’s kind of in the middle of this mix. There are lots of different drills and ways of setting drills so you may have to experiment a bit. You are likely going to be planting your Milpa on a relatively small area so we suggest that you cut your seeding rate in half and then plan on drilling everything twice. If you do that then the first time you come across you can look and see how close you were to using half of all of your seed and then you can adjust your rate up or down for the second drill. You can even drill at two different angles. Drilling twice with a half seeding rate gives you an opportunity to adjust your rate halfway through and will ensure that you don’t accidentally plant way too densely or sparsely all at once.
MILPA FAQ – How Much Will I Get?
People often ask, “How much produce can I expect to be able to donate from my one acre Milpa patch?” And again, like everything else, that answer depends on a lot of factors.
One factor will be how good of a job you did getting good soil to seed contact when planting your Milpa mix.
Number two would be how well you’re doing controlling the weeds. It’s a great idea to drill the mix directly into a rolled down cereal rye crop or using hay or wood chips to mulch. You can also try weeding by hand when weeds are young and easy to remove, whatever your technique may be, competition from weeds is definitely a factor in how much produce you should expect.
A third factor, which applies to any farmer or grower, would be how much rainfall you get. If you are unable to irrigate your Milpa you’re going to be dependent upon rainfall and that will make a huge difference in how much produce you will get.
In a perfect world if you get a great stand, you have good weed control and you get a good amount of rain, the amount of produce you can expect to get is a very large amount. If you think about the squash, the pumpkins, the melons, all of these things can really add up. It wouldn’t be surprising if you were about to get 8,000-10,000 pounds of produce off of your Milpa Garden if you were really out there weeding, watering and harvesting everything that is being produced by the garden. Now, that is probably not realistic because there are a lot of factors that go into having those perfect conditions and that number will adjust to the environmental conditions that your Milpa Garden experiences. For example, it’s not very practical to imagine that you would have the labor to be out in the garden picking produce everyday, so some will definitely go to waste.
It is probably realistic to say that you could get 2,000-4,000 pounds of produce especially if your squash, pumpkins and melons really do well. Those larger vine crops typically tend to do very well and have high yields. This year we have included sweet corn in the mix and we’re not exactly sure how that will perform but that could be significant.
The thing that people often forget about, because it takes a lot of work, are the leafy greens. You can get hundreds of pounds of leafy greens from your Milpa Garden if you are diligent about clipping and harvesting the greens on a regular basis. Even if you’re not able to clip and harvest the greens, at the very least you should definitely go out and harvest those greens for yourself and your family to eat. This will be a source of good, healthy, nutrient dense food and it is worth the time and effort required to share with the family. All of this effort adds up to create healthier, stronger communities and provide healthy food for your family as well.
MILPA FAQ – How to Control Weeds
One of the most common questions within this whole question is, “How can I control the weeds within my Milpa Garden?” To be honest, that is one of the biggest challenges and it is going to be very difficult. Because of the diversity that is in this mix, there are no chemicals that you can use. Since you are growing produce, it is not a bad thing that you’re not able to use chemicals. When there are no chemical options there are several options left for you.
The first option, if you’re planting on a small scale, you can do hand weeding. This can eliminate a good amount of weeds if you catch them when they are small and not quite established yet. It may not be the most practical and probably too labor intensive if you are planting on a large scale.
If you are planting on a large scale, the best thing for weed control actually has to start the year before. The cleanest Milpa fields that we have seen are when the farmer has planted cereal rye the fall before. They let the cereal rye grow to be 5-6 feet tall and then they come through with a roller crimper of some sort and they flatten that cereal rye. If you do it right when the cereal rye is “headed out” and shedding pollen, it is pretty susceptible to being killed at that point. You will just lay it flat and then you’ll have a mutch mat which will be very good for weed control. It is going to make it more difficult to seed which means at that point you will need a drill to cut through that thatch to get that seed planted. It is very effective weed control and it will keep your soil cool through the summer, you just have to have a way to seed through that thatch. That is the best technique we have seen for weed control.
The good thing is that it is okay to have some weeds in your Milpa Garden, you just have to learn to live with it. We have definitely had some people who have had to scratch their Milpa garden because of weed pressure. Some folks just mow it down or turn the cattle out there. Sometimes things just don’t work out the way that we plan!
MILPA FAQ – Our Partners
Here at Green Cover we’ve been working on the Milpa Garden First Acre Program for about three or four years. It started out pretty small with just a handful of folks in Oklahoma who were doing this program and donating to food banks. Jimmy Emmons and that group did a great job of connecting to the Oklahoma Food Bank and that’s really how this program got started. We saw how successful they were, how much produce they were able to donate to their local food banks and it really inspired us to say, “Hey, why can’t we take that and do that in other areas as well?” So, it started there in Oklahoma and every year it has grown and grown and grown. At Green Cover we are committed to getting that free seed out to the farmers who are willing to donate the land and the time.
The program has grown quite a bit since it has caught on in popularity. This year we are ready to make a big jump with the involvement of some additional partners, so it is no longer just Green Cover doing this, now we have a couple faithful partners working with us. First of all, The Nature Conservancy has seen and read about what we’re doing. They have actually been to our farm and saw what the program has been doing, not just in the fields but also within the communities. They decided that they would like to be a part of the program too so they are helping from a financial perspective. They are helping to underwrite not only the seed but the cost of shipping as well which is very helpful because shipping prices are through the roof this year! Because of their generous donation, we are able to get the seed to you, completely free, including the shipping. They are also helping with some of the marketing and the promotion of the program as well.
Syngenta seeds has been working with The Nature Conservancy on a number of projects as well and they wanted to get involved. They are one of the largest growers of vegetable seeds in the world, which I didn’t even know that myself until I started going down this path. Syngenta is donating a huge amount of seed, so a lot of the seed that you see in this year’s mix is going to be from donations from Syngenta. Those seeds will be mixed in with some of the seed that we already have here on hand that we use for cover crops, forages and soil building. So it is a combination of Green Cover, Syngenta and The Nature Conservancy, all working together to make this program successful at a much larger scale than what we could do by ourselves
MILPA FAQ – Where Do I Donate?
One of the main purposes of the First Acre Program is to donate at least 50% of the produce to people in your communities who really have a need for these fresh vegetables that will come from the Milpa Garden. We get asked a lot for some suggestions of where folks can go to donate. Your local food bank is an obvious place to start looking but think a little more creatively. Some people have gone to nursery homes, homeless shelters, the Salvation Army and they tend to be very grateful for that. Take the produce to your church and put it in a box that is free for anyone to take if they like. As you are doing this, make sure that people know how the vegetables were grown in a very diverse environment.
This program is a way to feed people but it’s also a way to teach people about soil health, the importance of diversity. You could even talk about the fact that this is a Mayan farming tradition that dates back thousands of years, it has been a successful system for many, many years.
One warning that we would give is, do not take these vegetables to the farmer’s market to give away. We don’t want to discourage people who have worked hard to grow produce for a living or to make a profit from. Bringing free vegetables into this environment could potentially ruin some of that local economy.
You can even go to the chamber of commerce to ask them what organizations in town might be able to utilize some fresh produce. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, there are people in your communities that will know the answers. Again, one of the reasons to plant a Milpa Garden is to build your community as well as build your soil.
MILPA FAQ – How Do I Plant?
One of the challenges with these really diverse mixes, Milpa being one of our most diverse mixes, planting. How do I get these seeds in the ground, what if I don’t have equipment? There are a lot of questions people have about planting the Milpa Garden mix. Again, a lot of this is going to be dependent upon your situation, your equipment.
If you’re a larger scale farmer and you’ve got a no-till drill, you can run some simple calibrations and drill this seed about ¾ of an inch deep. That is pretty easy if you have that equipment but of course, not everyone has a no-till drill. If that is the case for you, the only option is to be creative and figure out creative ways to do this.
If you’re doing this on a very small scale all you can really do is broadcast. The key is getting good seed to soil contact in order for it to germinate well. If you till your ground you can get good soil to seed contact that way. If you are trying to plant using no-till then we applaud you for doing that, this is a great way to improve the health of your soil. If you have a small enough plot, try broadcasting your seeds and then mulching it down with straw or grass clippings, something to hold the moisture in for about a week which should be enough time for most of those seeds to sprout. If you’re broadcasting and not drilling, you’re going to want to increase your seeding rate. The Milpa mix is designed 35# per acre drill rate. If you are broadcasting and you do not have an optimal way to get good soil to seed contact, you’re going to want to increase your seeding rate by 50% or even double if your seed is going onto a thatch and not into the soil.
One thing that we have found successful is finding a way to scratch up the surface before planting. If you can get something that will scratch up the soil like an old tine harrow or something similar and get that behind an ATV or a riding lawn mower with some weight on it, you should be able to create some surface area that you can work again after broadcasting to get good seed to soil contact. You will need to keep it wet after planting for 7-10 days to get maximum germination from a broadcast situation.