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Tractor Time Episode 17: Brendon Rockey, Potato Farmer and Speaker on Biodiversity


This episode’s guest is Brendon Rockey, a third-generation Colorado potato farmer. He spoke last October at a soil health conference near Greeley, close to our office, and when I wandered down to hear his talk, I was a bit surprised. We are surrounded by conventional ag folks in the Greeley, Colorado, area, but instead of talks about spraying schedules and storage tanks, I heard a guy talking about a wildly diverse field, about growing at 7,000 feet above sea level, about the importance of microbial life in the soil, and even how his neighbors even called him “weird.” As soon as I heard all that, I was pretty sure we had an Acres U.S.A. guy in Brendon.

Brendon Rockey

Turns out, we did. He will be speaking at our conference this year in Louisville, Kentucky, about what he does on his farm, and how he went from “weird” to the envy of his community.

Today, we’re going to talk to Brendon about this journey, and explore his farming techniques that go against a lot of conventional thought, and talk to him a bit about his quinoa crops as well.

Learn more about Brendon Rockey here, and his farm here.

Learn more about the 2018 Eco-Ag Conference & Trade Show, where Brendon Rockey will be speaking in December, here.

Book of the Week: Hands-on Agronomy

By Neal Kinsey and Charles Walters

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from an Acres U.S.A. original book, Hands-On Agronomy, by Neal Kinsey and Charles Walters. Copyright 2013, 1993. Soft cover, 391 pages. $35.00 regularly priced. SALE PRICE $22.50.

Hands-on Agronomy, by Neal Kinsey and Charles Walters

No one used the term killer agriculture or knowledgeable mining when I was a youngster growing up on a farm in southeast Missouri. We raised corn, wheat, cotton, soybeans and a little hay. We also finished a few cattle. Now, a more mature sense of values brings the reality of our farming operation into focus. Sir Albert Howard identified the horns of the modern farming dilemma: partial and imbalanced fertilization, and toxic rescue chemistry.

Neither I nor my father heard or understood that dictum then, then being the 1950s and 1960s. All we knew was that the crops faltered—not occasionally, but year after year. My father had five sons and he concluded, “I hope you won’t even think about going into agriculture because it costs too much and I am not going to be able to help you get started. I hope you will go into business and be an accountant or something like that.”

Accordingly, I went to college with the intention of becoming an accountant. There was a problem with that. I couldn’t stand being inside four walls all the time. So I changed my direction while I was at the University of Missouri where I met William A. Albrecht, the legendary professor who contributed so much to what Acres U.S.A. calls eco-agriculture. Albrecht gave the Department of Soils its well-deserved reputation, but by the time I arrived, he had been retired—forcibly, I am told—in the wake of a great grant from a fossil fuel company. In any case, his classroom days were over, for which reason I was able to get more of his ear than might have been possible as classroom fare. He taught a private study course for Brookside Laboratory, and I decided to avail myself of this extra-curricular opportunity. He changed my entire way of thinking. Continue Reading →

Book of the Week: Ask the Plant

By Charles Walters and Esper K. Chandler

Editor’s Note: This is a combination of two smaller excerpts from Acres U.S.A. original book, Ask the Plant, written by Acres U.S.A. founder Charles Walters and Esper K. Chandler. Copyright 2010, softcover, 286 pages. $30.00 regularly priced. SALE PRICE $20.00.

It takes a cloudless night an adequate distance from the city’s light pollution to really appreciate the beautiful planet on which we live. Telescopes can take us well beyond the Milky Way, yet the unaided eye can find some planets in our solar system, and a little book learning can supply the intelligence that we have been here some 14 billion years, more or less.

Ask the Plant, by Charles Walters & Esper K. Chandler

This organism called Earth is no more than a speck in our planetary system, one that is swung on a gravitational string in a 300-million-mile orbit around a nebular sun. It wobbles slightly on its axis so that each hemisphere can be blessed with summer, winter, spring and fall.

Geologists tell us that planet Earth has many more mineral compounds than our sister planets, all of them fashioned from those elements that are blocked with such orderly symmetry on the Mendeleev chart.

How can these minerals have evolved from the same elements that service other planets? This evolution of inert minerals is aided and abetted by the life forms called microorganisms. Our microbial workers did not raise mountains from the deep. A fiery heartbeat from the center of the earth did that, striking land masses with tsunamis, sending water up or into a frigid air envelope, igniting ocean warming and great ice ages.

Continue Reading →

Cover Crops Don’t Deplete Moisture

Among the myriad of benefits cover crops provide to a row crop or vegetable operation, Clemson University researchers have found another one: Cover crops do not deplete water stored in the soil profile, thus preserving the precious resource for the cash crop — an all important function, specifically in times of drought.

USDA photo showing a cover crop mixture that includes oat, proso millet, canola, sunflower, dry pea, soybean and pasja turnip.

In the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education (SSARE) On-Farm Research Grant-funded study (OS16-096), “Cover Crop Influence on Stored Water Availability to Subsequent Crops,” researchers evaluated common fall cover crops grown in the state for water use efficiency and biomass production.

“We need to bring biodiversity to our farming systems to alleviate drought stress, and cover crops are one practice that provides the benefits to achieve that,” said Ricardo St. Aime, a Master’s student and Fulbright Scholar from Haiti who worked on the project. “But many farmers are hesitant to adopt cover crops. One reason is that they fear cover crops might bring water resource competition for the following cash crop. We conducted this study to determine whether or not this is true.” Continue Reading →

Suburban Farming: Growing Berries & Small Fruit

The more I explored the world of growing berries, the more I began to understand how limited most American consumers are in their knowledge and experience of these healthy and tasty foods. Additionally, many of the berries and small fruit I grow are unavailable to consumers, even in high-end supermarkets.

Ripening ‘Red Lake’ red currants.

Growing up in central New Jersey, I’ve seen large expanses of former farmland transformed into seemingly endless residential sprawl. While this doesn’t bode well for open space (as well as a host of other things), it does present opportunity for those able to attract these new potential customers.

One way is by creating a suburban farm. Such a farm, on less than an acre, allows spry and innovative farmers to use small size and proximity to market to their advantage.

Eight years ago, after my youngest child neared the end of high school, I decided to expand my love of gardening into a business. I started off small — about a tenth of an acre in part of my backyard. I named my suburban farm “Pitspone Farm” — from a Hebrew word meaning very small. Over the years I slowly expanded, until at this point I’ve more or less taken over my entire backyard, about one-third of an acre. Continue Reading →

Quest for Quality: Growing Nutrient-Dense Crops

For Central Virginia farmers Dan Gagnon and Susan Hill, the best proof that they’re doing things right with their soil to produce nutrient-dense crops comes from the mouths of babes and customers facing health challenges.

Dan Gagnon discusses soil structure at Broadfork Farm in Chesterfield, Virginia.

Gagnon and his wife, Janet Aardema, operate Broadfork Farm in Chesterfield, Virginia. Gagnon likes to observe how children interact with food. His youngest son Beckett, 3, last winter used organic store-bought carrots to dip into salad dressing while Gagnon’s mom was looking after him. But he would not eat the carrots.

When she dropped him off, Gagnon had just dug some overwintered carrots. Despite a bit of dirt clinging to them, Beckett gobbled them up. “The feedback from customers that we continue to get has been very encouraging,” said Gagnon. “Also, a child’s palate is a great indicator of the quality of your produce.”

Hill, who grew up outside Helena, Montana — where, she says, if they didn’t grow it, they didn’t eat — cooks for a woman who has multiple sclerosis; another customer has cancer and another, Lyme disease. Continue Reading →