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Archive | Crops

The Huge Impact of Mycorrhizal Colonization on Plant and Soil Health

Mycorrhizal inoculation effecta

This University of Florida photo shows the effect of mycorrhizal inoculation on maize drought response. Mycorrhizal colonization (front left and back right) helps plants avoid severe drought losses compared to the control (front right and back left).

Leonardo da Vinci remarked, “in order to be a successful farmer one must know the nature of the soil.” Even today in the age of hydroponics, most of our food, over 98 percent by some estimates, is grown from field on a soil medium. Beyond growing our food, the way we treat our soil determines the nature of our environment and the climate.

There is a great and still relatively undeveloped agronomic and environmental opportunity that could make an important global difference. This opportunity is hidden underneath our feet, in the living soil. The soil is home to the most populous community on the planet. Around the seven continents, the living soil is the Earth’s most valuable bio-system, providing ecosystem services worth trillions of dollars. The most limiting resource for global food system is drought, with over 75 percent of the crop insurance outlay related to these events.

The vast majority of our cultivated soils are in an eroded and degraded state. As we increase demands on our soil to feed billions, we are losing it and depleting it at an unprecedented rate. Our ability to transform it will address both of these key issues. In addition to addressing drought and climate, the web of soil life is critical to maintaining and building soil resources we need now and into the foreseeable future.

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When Less is More: Understanding Fertilizer and Solubility

The amphiphilic nature of humic substances allows them to work in water and hydrophobic environments, providing the critical conditions necessary for biological processes when they are closely associated with clays.

Make the gesture “just a little bit” by squeezing your thumb and index fingers as tight as you can; tighter, tighter — the amount of fertilizer you could hold between your fingers is about the amount dissolved in soil solution … per acre! That’s right; there is very little if any dissolved “plant food” in the water of a typical soil.

The amount of plant nutrients dissolved in soil solutions is so small that it is expressed as parts per million (ppm), not hundreds of pounds or tons per acre. While synthetic fertilizers are sold primarily on the basis of their water (aqueous) solubility, the emphasis on aqueous solubility is generally misunderstood and somewhat misguided.

It is generally known that over-application of extremely soluble synthetic fertilizers has been responsible for disrupting ecosystems and numerous environmental problems. What is not generally known is that all highly soluble soil inputs, including sulfates, chlorides and fluorides, disrupt the structure of water molecules, impeding the biochemical energy flows that affect the metabolism of plants, making them more susceptible to insect pressure and diseases and decreased water use efficiency.

It is also a well established fact that highly soluble phosphate fertilizers become “tied-up” soon after application. When there is an overabundance of dissolved phosphates in soil water, the soil system responds chemically by forming more stable forms of phosphorus, usually by chemically combining with calcium cations and complexing with lanthanides (rare earths) and organic matter. All of these materials can release phosphorus as plant nutrients through microbial activity.

Although water is critical to all life forms, there are numerous metabolic pathways in biological systems where it gets in the way and must be pushed aside; it’s called the hydrophobic effect.

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Growing Microgreens for Profit

Itsy Bitsy Greens in Washington state grows a variety of colorful and flavorful options.

Growing microgreens for profit is feasible, as one Washington state-based couple proves. On less than half an acre, Michael Douglas and his wife, Astrid Raffinpeyloz, operate Itsy Bitsy Greens, an organic/biodynamic microgreens farm in Sequim, Washington, that generates about half of their modest, but ample, annual income.

Michael grows the microgreens full-time. Astrid works full-time in a managerial capacity at Volunteer Hospice of Clallam County, which she says fulfills her heart mission, and she helps Michael part-time with the microgreens business. She works mostly from home, which allows her the flexibility to help as needed.

Microgreens are vegetables, greens mostly, harvested when they are 10 to 20 days old. They are cut above the root around the time the first true leaf appears (the cotyledon stage), when the plant has all the nutrients it needs for future growth. At this stage, plants are still benefiting from the seeds’ energy and are nutrient-dense.

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Weathering Drought

Corn field in drought

For farmers, the decision to put in an irrigation system is often dictated by economics. One must consider the cost of the system versus the possible crop losses due to drought.

With the arrival of spring, farmers and gardeners look forward to the start of the growing season. As temperatures warm, spring planting can begin. Fruit trees will break winter dormancy. Pastures will start to green up. Livestock become more active. But as spring turns into summer, the weather can also provide challenges — the greatest of which are heat waves and droughts.

In the summer, temperatures may soar past levels where plants and animals begin to be affected and can reach a point where production is negatively impacted. At worst, damage or even death can occur. Drought is an even greater threat to crops. A lack of water causes even more immediate production losses and a total loss is certainly possible.

For many locations, heat and drought go hand in hand during the summer, and just about every year somewhere in the country heat waves and drought occur. Every farmer is bound to find themselves dealing with drought at some point. What constitutes hot temperatures depends on where you live. For Fairbanks, Alaska, 90°F is rare but has occurred.

In Columbia, South Carolina, where it can top 90°F many times in the course of a summer, even 100 degrees is not that unusual. This is important since to a large degree agricultural operations are geared for normal conditions; the type of temperatures normally experienced and expected. With the relatively cool waters of the Pacific just offshore, the West Coast has only brief hot spells when an offshore flow develops in summer. From the Rockies eastward, abnormally hot conditions become more of a periodic threat. Continue Reading →

The Growing Potential of Growing Hemp

Hemp farmer Brian Furnish

Brian Furnish is director of Global Production at Ananda Hemp, based in Kentucky.

It’s Time to Consider the Growing Potential of Hemp

Hemp, once a legal and thriving crop in the United States, was dealt a heavy blow with the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act. The Act put heavy tax and licensing regulations on both hemp and marijuana crops, making hemp cultivation difficult for American farmers. The Controlled Substances Act of 1970 proved to be a virtual death knell for the crop, classifying all forms of cannabis as a Schedule 1 drug, making it illegal to grow.

The crop is beginning to make a comeback, however. In the early 1990s, as hemp’s potential uses became more widely known, there was a sustained resurgence of interest in allowing commercial hemp cultivation in America. The Hemp Industries Association estimates an average of 15 percent annual growth in U.S. hemp retail sales from 2010 to 2015, with the majority of this growth attributed to hemp-based body products, supplements and foods.

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Compost & The Promise of Microbes

Scientist David C. Johnson Explores Microbial Communities, Carbon Sequestration and Compost

David C. Johnson’s experimental findings and openness to new insights have turned him into a champion of microbial diversity as the key to regenerating soil carbon — and thus to boosting agricultural productivity and removing excess atmospheric CO2. His research, begun only a decade ago, affirms the promise of microbes for healing the planet. It has attracted interest from around the world.

Johnson didn’t come to science until later in life. At age 51 he left a rewarding career as a builder, specializing in custom homes for artists, to complete his undergraduate degree. He planned to use his education “to do something different for the other half of [his] life,” though what he didn’t know. He said a path opened up and opportunities kept coming his way. After completing his undergraduate degree, Johnson kept going, earning his Masters in 2004 and Ph.D. in 2011, both in Molecular Microbiology. With his first advanced degree in hand, he got a job at New Mexico State University, where he was going to school and currently has an appointment in the College of Engineering.

He credits a fellowship program that placed undergraduate students in different labs with sparking his fascination with the composition of microbial communities as a graduate student. Johnson, who once farmed as a homesteader in Alaska, says he was once “an NPK junkie” but considers himself to be “13-years reformed.” Continue Reading →