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Archive | cover crops

CSA Creates Community Connection

There is a duality to the benefits of CSA, and nearly every point in the food network receives gains. People in the community are better able to forge strong relationships with the farmers producing food around them, and food is distributed and enjoyed locally.

Sweet corn at Spiral Path Farm in Pennsylvania.

Spiral Path Farm, owned by Michael (Mike) and Terra Brownback, is a prolific organic farm resting on silt loam and flinty soil in western Pennsylvania’s Perry County. Although neither had deep agrarian family roots, plucking from and merging a dedication to the land from their respective histories, they’ve created robust, fruitful environs on the original 56 acres when the farm was established in 1978. That eventually swelled to the current 255 acres when they were able to acquire adjacent land.

The farm is broken into two sections, making approximately 160 acres of the total 255 tillable and ready to support their meticulous rotational scheme.

“We do tillage on vegetable land,” said Mike, making about 80 acres prime for vegetables. “The rest of the land is in semi-permanent fallow. We have a lot of good buffers that are woodland.” The remainder of untilled acreage is “very important because it’s part of our watershed and helps with infiltration and recharges our aquifer.”

Spiral Path Farm is situated within the Susquehanna River Watershed and is part of the Tonoloway Formation, which houses a limestone aquifer.

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Cover Cropping & Green Manures

After 22 years of farming, my farm’s soil is markedly more fertile and productive. It has been a wonderful journey learning what works and how to continue to improve long-term productivity while harvesting bountiful crops.

Flail mowing summer Sudangrass/cowpea green manure at Potomac Vegetable Farms – West in Virginia.

There are several methods that deserve credit for this increase in soil quality: the use of compost, the use of a balanced mineral fertilizer and a serious commitment to cover cropping.

For this article I want to focus on the growing of cover crops and green manures. When I became the farm manager at Potomac Vegetable Farms – West in 1992, I sought advice on how to transition the farm into organic production.

The land had been growing mostly sweet corn, pumpkins and green beans with commercial chemical fertilizers and herbicides. The soil was biologically inactive and nutrients were missing. I can clearly remember the words from a fertility consultant, “I can sell you something in a bag, and I can sell you something in a bucket, but what you really need to do is to make compost and grow cover crops.” And thus began my journey into both compost-making and cover cropping.

Why take on both of those jobs rather than just one? Well, they go hand in hand, each leveraging the benefits of the other to move a soil more quickly toward health and resilience.

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Soil Restoration: 5 Core Principles

Soil restoration is the process of improving the structure, microbial life, nutrient density, and overall carbon levels of soil. Many human endeavors – conventional farming chief among them – have depleted the Earth to the extent that nutrient levels in almost every kind of food have fallen by between 10 and 100 percent in the past 70 years. Soil quality can improve dramatically, though, when farmers and gardeners maintain constant ground cover, increase microbe populations, encourage biological diversity, reduce the use of agricultural chemicals, and avoid tillage.

Soil restoration begins with photosynthesis.

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Supplying Nitrogen: Tap into Nature

Human activity is affecting planet Earth to such an extent that natural scientists are naming this time the beginning of a new geological age/epoch called Anthropocene (the recent age of man) and ending what was the Holocene epoch (about 17,000 years ago to present).

We are no longer observers of nature, but significant influencers of what is happening to nature. The sheer weight of humans and their livestock is now bigger than the Earth’s wild animal population. Our activities are rapidly increasing the amount of CO2 in the air. That is an established fact, the effect of which is the only thing in dispute, i.e. will it get warmer or cooler and will we be wetter or dryer?

The temporary warmth is obvious in the Arctic. Although growers usually help to absorb CO2 by growing crops, their improper handling of crop residue or improper feeding of livestock can add the CO2 back into the air. However, farming’s bigger polluting effect concerns nitrogen.

Plants have always used N from the air by a variety of natural methods. Now the rate we are taking N out of the air is 50 percent higher than what nature has done for millions of years. Most of this industrially created N is now used for fertilizer. This industrial process was originally used to make munitions prior to World War I.

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Soil Conservation Yields Economic Gains

Soil conservation practices such as growing cover crops and going no-till can result in an economic return of over $100 per acre, according to a set of case studies jointly released by the National Association of Conservation Districts and Datu Research, LLC.

Cover crops, like tillage radish, can improve soil health and structure.

Cover crops and no-till can limit soil loss, reduce run-off, enhance biodiversity and provide other benefits. Naturally, farmers who are considering adopting these soil conservation practices are keen to know how they will affect their farm’s bottom line.

“These case studies quantify for producers, policy-makers and researchers alike what the economic advantages of using no-till and cover crops are, and why it makes good sense for farmers to try them and for organizations like NACD to support and even incentivize their use,” said Jeremy Peters, NACD CEO. “We have loads of anecdotal data that says conservation practices benefit the land and producers’ pocketbooks, but now we have run the numbers and know how much.”

During the three-year study period, corn-soybean farmers experimented with cover crops and/or no-till, and quantified the year-by-year changes in income they attributed to these practices compared to a pre-adoption baseline. They found that while planting costs increased by up to $38 per acre: Fertilizer costs decreased by up to $50 per acre; erosion repair costs decreased by up to $16 per acre; and yields increased by up to $76 per acre.

The studies also found that with adoption of these soil conservation practices, net farm income increased by up to $110 per acre. Included in the farmers’ calculations was the considerable time they spent attending workshops or searching the internet to learn about no-till or cover crop practices.

“That time turns out to be an excellent investment, when bottom lines start improving,” said Marcy Lowe, CEO of Datu Research, which conducted the case studies in partnership with NACD. “Farmers who switch to these practices can see losses at first. But thanks to these case study farmers who are generously sharing what they’ve learned, that learning curve will speed up for other farmers.” Continue Reading →

Cover Crops on the Farm

Cover crops are increasingly being used by farmers across the country to suppress weeds, conserve soil, protect water quality and control pests and diseases.

A mix of rye, clover and vetch.

The fourth annual SARE/CTIC Cover Crop Survey, collected data from more than 2,000 growers from 48 states and the District of Columbia and provides insight into cover crop usage and benefits as well as farmer motivation for including cover crops as components in their farm management and soil health plans.

Responders reported a steady increase in the number of acres they have planted to cover crops over the past five years. They said the most important benefits of cover crops include: improved soil health, reduced erosion and compaction and increased soil organic matter. Other key benefits of using cover crops include: weed and insect control, provides a nitrogen source, attracts pollinators and provides deep taproots.

In the 2015-2016 survey, SARE and CTIC sought data on how farmers manage their fertilizer inputs as a result of their cover crop practices. Cover crop users were asked to indicate their level of agreement with a series of fertilizer-related statements, using a scale ranging from 1 (strongly agree) to 5 (strongly disagree). The statement that got the highest level of agreement was, “Using cover crops has enabled me to reduce application of nitrogen on my cash crop,” with 134 of 1,012 respondents strongly agreeing and 244 checking “agree.” The statement that had the highest level of disagreement was “Using cover crops has required me to use additional crop fertility inputs over time to meet the needs of my cash crop.” Continue Reading →