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Archive | Crops

Microorganisms for Fertility

The use of microorganisms for fertility is an exacting process using inexact tools in the production of food, fiber and fuel. Each farmer’s fertility program for plant growth is tied to the desired response of the plants. A simpler way to put it is; how much would you like to produce, at what rate and at what cost to the environment and to the farmer using the inputs? For field crops, newer genetic combinations are race horses in the sense of their yield potential, but also in their need for attention whether fertility or otherwise.

A field in Hoven, South Dakota, using 12.8 ounces per acre MicroAZ-IF Liquid, treated (left), untreated.

This has been a large part of fostering a reliance on petrochemical industries for growing plants. Our challenge is to grow these plants using different techniques, relying on more natural production strategies — particularly in the use of fertility products.

Microorganisms for Fertility: Fundamentals

Microorganisms are a fundamental part of healthy soils, plants and people. We’re still trying to understand how they contribute to the health of soil and how their omnipresence impacts our environment. This can and will have a direct impact on our ability to provide for plant fertility using microbially mediated processes as we understand and harness this interconnected web of life.

Harnessing microorganisms for reliable use has been and will continue to be problematic. The interactions and complexities of the soil microbial community are not well understood.

What is understood is the promise and possibilities they have in providing supplemental, complementary or replacement sources of fertility to plants. Building products that have reliability and performance characteristics similar to more widely accepted sources with better economic and environmental consequences is already happening and getting better. Continue Reading →

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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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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