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Archive | April, 2016

Humus: What is it and How is it Formed?

The secret of fertile soils: humus.Humus forms as a result of the complicated interplay between inorganic conversions and organic creatures such as microbes, nematodes, and earthworms. Humus formation is carried out in two steps. First, the organic substances and minerals in the soil disintegrate. Next, totally new combinations of these broken-down products develop. This leads to the initial stages of humus. Humus formation is a biological process. Only 4-12 inches (10-30 centimeters) of humus-containing soil are available in the Earth’s upper crust. This thin layer of earth is all that exists to provide nutrition to all human life. The destiny of mankind depends on these 12 inches!

Humus Formation

Cultivated soils with 2 percent humus content are today considered high-quality farmland. What makes up the remaining 98 percent? Depending on the soil type, organisms contribute about 8 percent, the remains of plants and animals about 5 percent, and air and water around 15 percent.

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Powered by Microbials: Organic Farming, Japanese Style

Nancy Matsumoto
powered-by-microbialsUnder an azure-blue sky filled with cottony clouds, two women, Akiko Ishiguro and Michiyo Igarashi, work in a field harvesting fat, deep-orange carrots, large, cream-colored daikon and magenta-hued edible chrysanthemum blossoms. They’re members of Konohana Family, an intentional community and organic farm in Shizuoka Prefecture, Japan, where the values of a ’60s-era back-to-the-land commune, hard work and a deep respect for microbial activity and fermentation in all its forms combine to produce a vast array of top-quality produce and handmade products.

The vegetables the two women farmers are harvesting — among more than 260 different crops grown on the farm — have been treated with the farm’s own brand of organic fertilizer, the key ingredient of which is a fermented microbial brew they call Konohana-kin, or “Konohana bacterium.”

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Return to Civilization

Evaggelos Vallianatos

I grew up in the 1940s in a village in Greece. My father owned a few strips of land that, together, equaled no more than 4 acres. Most of this land had olive trees. The rest was for grapevines and the growing of wheat, barley and lentils. In addition, my father had small flocks of sheep and goats, and we had chickens, a donkey, a mule and ancient tools for cultivating the land.

My family was self-reliant in food. We had everything: wheat and barley bread, olive oil, wine and cheese and meat once a week. Even during the years Greece was occupied by Italians and Germans, 1941-1944, we had enough food. Those were years of famine and hunger for most Greeks, especially those living in cities. I remember that my father hid our olive oil in a large stone container buried in the ground.

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Nitrogen Fertilizer’s Long-Lasting Legacy

Aerial of intersecting roads in rural IndianaDangerous nitrate levels in drinking water could persist for decades, increasing the risk for blue baby syndrome and other serious health concerns, according to a new study published by researchers at the University of Waterloo. Nitrogen fertilizer applied to farmers’ fields has been contaminating rivers and lakes and leaching into drinking water wells for more than 80 years. The study, published in the journal Environmental Research Letters, reveals that elevated nitrate concentrations in rivers and lakes will remain high for decades, even if farmers stop applying nitrogen fertilizers today. The researchers have discovered that nitrogen is building up in soils, creating a long-term source of nitrate pollution in ground and surface waters. “A large portion of the nitrogen applied as fertilizer has remained unaccounted for over the last decades,” said Nandita Basu, a professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences and Civil and Environmental Engineering. “The fact that nitrogen is being stored in the soil means it can still be a source of elevated nitrate levels long after fertilizers are no longer being applied.” Their paper presents the first direct evidence of a large-scale nitrogen legacy across the Mississippi River Basin. Professor Basu and her group analyzed long-term data from over 2,000 soil samples throughout the Mississippi River Basin to reveal a systematic accumulation of nitrogen in agricultural soils. In many areas this accumulation was not apparent in the upper plow layer, but instead was found 25-100 centimeters beneath the soil surface.

This article appears in the May 2016 issue of Acres U.S.A.

Breeding Wildness Back for Resilience

Cherry tomatoesWild tomatoes are better able to protect themselves against the destructive whitefly than our modern, commercial varieties, according to a study published in the academic journal Agronomy for Sustainable Development. Researchers show that in our quest for larger, redder, longer-lasting tomatoes we have inadvertently bred out key characteristics that help the plant defend itself against predators. Led by Newcastle University, UK, the research shows that wild tomatoes have a dual line of defense against attack; an initial mechanism which discourages the whitefly from settling on the plant and a second line of defense which happens inside the plant where a chemical reaction causes the plant sap to “gum up” blocking the whitefly’s feeding tube. Thomas McDaniel, who led the research, says the findings highlight the natural resistance of wild plant varieties and suggests we need to “breed some of that wildness back in” instead of continuously looking for new methods of pest control.

This article appears in the April 2016 issue of Acres U.S.A.

Interview: Researcher, Author Eric Toensmeier Explores Practical, Effective Carbon Farming Strategies

Real-World Solutions

While this Eric Toensmeier_rgb (2)interview was being prepared a story surfaced on public radio about a couple of enterprising Americans who are taking advantage of changing policy to open a factory in Cuba. Their product? Tractors! The whole idea, the story helpfully explained, was to introduce “21st century farming” to the beleaguered island. By making it easier to tear up the soil. Clearly there is some distance to go before an accurate idea of 21st century farming penetrates the mainstream. It will take people like Eric Toensmeier. His new book, The Carbon Farming Solution, carries enough heft, range and detail to clear away forests of confusion. If the notion of leaving carbon in the soil is going to take its place next to that of leaving oil in the ground, this one-volume encyclopedia on the subject is exactly the kind of deeply informed work that’s required. Reached at his home in western Massachusetts, Toensmeier was exhilarated over finishing a project years in the making, and more than happy to talk about it.

This interview appears in the May 2016 issue of Acres U.S.A.

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