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Soil Health, Quality & Microbial Diversity

Soil health and soil quality have evolved as important concepts as we continue to expand our understanding of soil as the vital factor for vigorous plant productivity. These concepts have also stressed our awareness that soil is indeed a limited non-renewable resource that requires deliberate stewardship to avoid or minimize its degradation.

Figure 1: Bacteria (small rod-like structures) and fungi (larger spherical shapes) associated with the surface of a root (rhizoplane) readily use organic substances released by the plant as sources of food and energy for mediating many biochemical processes and to maintain dense communities in the rhizosphere. Note the non-random distribution of bacteria showing concentration of cells on the rhizoplane where several processes take place including nutrient transformation, synthesis of plant growth-regulating compounds and antibiotic production for protection from attack by pathogenic microorganisms. Micrograph presented as 5,000X magnification. Source: R.J. Kremer

According to John W. Doran, soil health is the capacity of a soil to function and sustain plant and animal productivity, maintain or enhance water and air quality and promote plant and animal health.

Optimal soil health requires a balance between soil functions for productivity, environmental quality and plant and animal health, all of which are greatly affected by management and land-use decisions. Soil health focuses on the living, dynamic nature of soil that incorporates the biological attributes of biodiversity, food web structure, ecosystem functioning and the intimate relationships of soil microorganisms with plants and animals.

Soil quality also refers to the functional capacity of soil, but has a greater emphasis on agricultural productivity and economic benefits. Indeed, the development of the modern soil quality concept by Warkentin and Fletcher in 1977 was within the context of intensive agriculture, where the major concerns were food and fiber production and the capacity of soil to recycle nutrients, presumably from residual fertilizers and crop residues.

The term soil health, with its focus on biological function and protection of environmental quality, is most relevant for eco-agriculture production systems promoting good management practices that foster a balanced focus on all functions of soil health rather than an emphasis on single functions, such as crop yields.

Several articles published in Acres U.S.A. within the past decade illustrate how eco-agriculture embodies soil health, which is an inherent benefit of this production system. In a series of articles from 2012 to 2015, Gary Zimmer focused on the importance of mineral nutrition for both plants and soil microorganisms for improved soil health. He also stated that the capacity of a healthy soil to function could be realized without intervention, suggesting that eco-agricultural systems facilitate functional capacity by minimizing disruptive management of synthetic fertilizer, pesticide inputs and intensive tillage. Continue Reading →

Veteran Farmers Making a Difference

Veterans are once again taking up the call for our country as veteran farmers. Charley Jordan stops to listen to the quiet and to feel the breeze as his cattle graze in the distance. The silence is a stark contrast from the thunderous helicopter rotors he knew in the Army.

Tom Bennett has removed his staff sergeant stripes and left the Marines, but he now brings the same gung-ho attitude to sustainably raising his pigs and chickens.

Richard Gwilt no longer breathes the cordite he once did as a range master and paratrooper. His days in the 101st Airborne are over. Today he serves as director of operations for the Desert Forge Foundation, a nonprofit located in Albuquerque, New Mexico, that is dedicated to transitioning veterans to farmers. The former chief warrant officer raises horses, cows and chilies, among other crops.

Tom Bennett has removed his staff sergeant stripes and left the Marines, but he still has the same gung-ho attitude, which he has been able to apply to raising pastured pigs and chickens. He has found a vocation that allows him to apply the problem-solving skills that he honed in the military.

Many veterans come home to a life completely different from the one they grew accustomed to in the military. Some aren’t lucky enough to adapt. For thousands of veterans, farming has become that new life: an occupation that is saving both them and agriculture.

There are currently more than 23 million veterans in the United States. When their service ends and their tours are over, veterans often have no place to turn. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, today’s vets are more likely to be unemployed than both civilians and veterans of prior conflicts. Through 2012, veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan had an unemployment rate of 9.9 percent — compared to about 7.9 percent for the general U.S. population. Continue Reading →

Book excerpt: A Biodynamic Farm

The book A Biodynamic Farm by Hugh Lovel is a practical, how-to guide to understanding the definition of biodynamics, and practicing biodynamic techniques on your farm.

An expert in quantum agriculture and biodynamics, Hugh Lovel goes into detail in this book on biodynamic farming. The table of contents includes chapters on:

  • What is Biodynamic Agriculture?
  • No-Till Farming Without Chemicals
  • Biodynamic Training
  • The Compost Preps
  • And many more chapters!

The excerpt below details the thinking behind creating a biodynamic farm, and the guidelines to doing so.

Continue Reading →

Daniela Ibarra-Howell on Bringing Eco-Farmers Together

Savory Institute Co-Founder, CEO Daniela Ibarra-Howell Shares Insights into How the Organization is Bringing Like-Minded Farmers and Ranchers Together

Daniela Ibarra-Howell

Daniela Ibarra-Howell

It is not often that someone who is not a billionaire decides to take decisive steps toward solving a global problem. It is even less common for anyone, even and perhaps especially billionaires, to have ideas about how to do it that not only work but point the way for others of like mind. Daniela Ibarra-Howell is one of these rare people. She is a co-founder and the current CEO of the Savory Institute, the nonprofit wing of the Savory operation based in Boulder, Colorado, (her husband, Jim, heads the for-profit wing). Beginning in 2009 and now boasting over 8 million hectares (19,768,430 acres) under holistic management in every continent except Antarctica, the Savory Institute is becoming a force to be reckoned with. As scientific evidence accumulates, adding to an enormous fund of narrative accounts, holistic management’s value becomes ever more undeniable.

As Ibarra-Howell recounts here, she declined to follow the well-worn paths offered to her as a girl in Argentina. She wanted to make a difference. Between meeting Allan Savory in 1994 and the beginning of the Institute, she and her husband devoted a number of years to consulting and running a notably successful ranch near Boulder. Ibarra-Howell will be keynoting at the Acres U.S.A. Eco-Ag Conference & Trade Show in Louisville, Kentucky, in December. Continue Reading →

Leasing Farmland 101 by Joel Salatin

Leasing is a way in and a way to scale. Goodness knows we need as much of this transitional farmland as possible to go to our tribe and not to the corporate industrial tribe. An owned hub is great, but it can be much smaller than the managed acreage. Don’t frustrate yourself with partners that only want as much money as possible. That’s not a good fit. Work with landowners who want wildlife, soil building, better water cycles. Those are the things our eco-farming tribe can bring to the table.

Chickens outside at a farm In the late 1960s farmland prices began spiraling far beyond historic price-to-production ratios. When my mom and dad purchased the core property for our farm, the land was $90 per acre (in 1961) and feeder calves brought $150. You could raise half a feeder calf on an acre of pasture, a gross annual production value of $75.

At a price-to-production ratio of $90:$75, that was nearly 1:1. Today, it’s worth $7,000 per acre and that calf is $700. We receive no more rain, sunshine, or fertilizer than we did in 1961. At half a calf per acre, the new ratio is $7,000:$350, or 20:1.

I’ve talked to many older farmers (all of whom are now gone) in the community who acquired their land from a couple years’ production. I mean, their wheat, cattle, milk, etc. paid for the land in a couple of years.

That’s now an outrageous idea. Yes, some of the most successful micro-farms are buying land with production, but it’s rare. So where to from here? Virtually all agricultural experts agree that in the next 15 years, half of all America’s farm equity (land, buildings, equipment) will change hands due to the average age of farmers being 60 years old. Only 6 percent of farmers are younger than 35. Business gurus say that anytime the average practitioner in an economic sector drops below 35, it’s a sector in decline. Continue Reading →

Magnesium, the Unheralded Star

Although nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and even calcium are often discussed, magnesium is mostly unheralded and misunderstood. In this article I will examine the nature of magnesium deficiency and show how ignoring soil magnesium can lead to dire consequences in human, plant and animal health.

Unlike nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, magnesium is often overlooked in conventional fertility.

Like the other aforementioned macrominerals, magnesium is essential for plant and animal health and productivity. In man, beasts and plants it is found in substantial amounts and can wreak havoc when it is deficient.

Our health is rooted in our soils both as vegetables we consume and as animal products, which are nourished from the soil. Since the vast majority of what we eat comes from the soil, our health partly depends on earthworm activity, but the overuse of modern chemical fertilizers and pesticides has left many soils deficient in earthworms. This in turn impoverishes the soil.

As soils lose their vibrant microbial activity they become depleted in critical nutrients even as fertilizers are applied in larger amounts. Synthetic fertilizers are not a solution and often aggravate soil issues they supposedly cure. Remedying this downward spiral is more critical than ever because a growing population needs not only more food but better food quality for present and future generations to thrive. Continue Reading →