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Archive | Crops

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

Imagine there was a process that could remove carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere, replace it with life-giving oxygen, support a robust soil microbiome, regenerate topsoil, enhance the nutrient density of food, restore water balance to the landscape and increase the profitability of agriculture. Fortunately, there is. It’s called photosynthesis.

THE POWER OF PHOTOSYNTHESIS

In the miracle of photosynthesis, which takes place in the chloroplasts of green leaves, CO2 from the air and H2O from the soil, are combined to capture light energy and transform it into biochemical energy in the form of simple sugars.

These simple sugars — commonly referred to as photosynthate — are the building blocks for life in and on the Earth. Plants transform sugar into a great diversity of other carbon compounds, including starches, proteins, organic acids, cellulose, lignin, waxes and oils.

Fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and grains are packaged sunlight derived from photosynthesis. The oxygen our cells and the cells of other living things utilize during aerobic respiration is also derived from photosynthesis.

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Shiitake Mushrooms as Specialty Crop

The flavorful shiitake mushroom is native to Asia where it has been harvested wild from forestlands for centuries.

Commercial production was introduced in the 1930s first by inoculating select logs, and later by growing mushrooms on sterilized sawdust, which sped up production. As its taste and nutritional value become more and more known and desired in North America, shiitake mushrooms present another possible niche farm crop to consider.

Shiitake can be sold in a variety of ways, including as fresh mushrooms, dried mushrooms, pre-inoculated shiitake logs or sawdust blocks for backyard or tabletop shiitake mushroom growers and of course as value-added culinary products that contain the mushrooms. Even the resulting “mushroom compost” can be a valuable product. For actual spawn production, a sterile or at least very clean laboratory-type environment is preferable.

But the purchase of spawn is relatively inexpensive. Also, in some states, a certified kitchen is required to produce and sell value-added food products such as mushroom soup, but the production needs of the other shiitake products can usually be set up on a typical working farm.

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Corn Mazes as Profit Generators

“If you build it, they will come.” Several years ago, these words seemingly fell upon the ears of John Kondilis-Hashem, an ambitious young farmer whose skills have graced Bella Organic Farm since 2008. With an eye for business prosperity and a hand for organic cropping, Kondilis-Hashem keenly studied the methods through which neighboring farms were boosting profits and sales. Upon assessing the local competition, he soon realized that his Oregon-based operation was lacking one critical ingredient.

The corn maze at Sweetfields Farm in Florida is designed, cut and maintained by the owners to keep costs down.

“(Conventional) farms were all offering corn mazes — an attraction for drawing in crowds to their businesses,” he said. “We realized we were one of the only farms in the Portland area not doing one.”

But once the owners of Bella Organic built it — amid the steamy summer of 2010 — the premonition soon rang true. Today, visitors come in droves from the greater Portland region and beyond to lose themselves in the farm’s green-cropped labyrinths, a fun fall diversion from football and leaf-raking.

Although farms typically charge between $10 and $20 per visitor for a two-to three-hour meander through the pathways, the maze itself has not been the primary moneymaker in the case of many organic and sustainable farms.

“We make a little bit of money from the admission prices, but not a great deal,” said Kondilis-Hashem. “Rather, the purpose of the corn maze is to simply lure people to the farm. And boy has it ever. Once we get folks to come out, they end up spending an entire day here and purchasing many of the other things that we offer. We run the maze in conjunction with our pumpkin patch — and that’s where we really clean up. I’ve seen people come here and end up carting out six or seven pumpkins at a time. But the corn maze is what reels them in.”

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Bt: Toxic Soil & Nature’s Balance

Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), a GMO more commonly known as Bt toxin, is spliced into the seeds of crops as a biological pesticide. Our environment is now sustaining genetically modified organisms in the soil, affecting everything we grow. As the seed sprouts, the Bt comes alive and grows with the plant as well as in the surrounding soils. This is a biological, living GMO pesticide that remains in the soil long after the plant is harvested. It also remains in every cell of the plant — all the way from the field to the end product, be it food, clothing, paper or tobacco.

Aerial of intersecting roads in rural Indiana.

GMOs are interrupting genetic expression of any and all plants grown in soil that has nurtured compromised seeds. This includes organic farming products coming from any farm that has been transitioned from conventional farming. To-date, there are 33 common crops being grown and harvested on over 444 million acres of land worldwide.

Beyond the soil, the effects of Bt toxin are found in the genetic makeup of pollinators, as the toxin has been found in nectar and pollen of the plants. These are taken back to the hive where it accumulates and contaminates the hive, ultimately contributing to colony collapse disorder.

We find these toxins in animals and in people (it has been found in breast milk and body tissue). It is now being reproduced in the gut. Bts are airborne, traveling in pollen and dust, spreading worldwide. DNA transfers naturally through mechanisms that allow gene flow across species. In this way Bts in the soil as well as in the air serve to compromise all efforts to produce organic and non-GMO plants, challenging their genetic integrity above and below the soil. Continue Reading →

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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