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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 →

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 →

Keys to Composting for Increased Soil Health, Vitality

For many years we have been composting various agricultural and forest materials at Tobacco Road Farm to provide for the soil fertility in order to raise vegetable crops without the use of pesticides. This practice has been highly successful though it has required more refinement as the environment continues to deteriorate and the soil’s need for rebalancing becomes increasingly important.

Compost with temperature gauge carbon materials

Compost with undigested carbon materials still present has now cooled to about 80°F and is ready for application.

The composting system is the mouth and stomach of the farm system and prepares the nutritive materials for absorption into the soil. How we choose the appropriate materials to feed into this system, along with an examination of mixing, piling and application of this material, is the focus of this article.

Let us set the stage of how and why this compost is utilized on our farm. At Tobacco Road Farm in Lebanon, Connecticut, we focus on intensive vegetable production with 3 acres in crops. The vegetable fields produce tremendous volumes of crops year-round. The soils are typical of the Northeast with a sandy acidic nature. The impact of pollution and climate manipulations on our soils is tremendous. The forest surrounding the farm is in a rapid state of decline. There are die-offs of trees and vastly reduced numbers of insects, bats, frogs, snakes and birds.

The variety of pest insects and diseases of vegetable crops moving into the region continues to increase and is a reflection of the environmental conditions. It has been very useful to re-examine compost and its utilization through a holistic eye that can see these changes and adjust the compost system accordingly. This is similar to the way humans have had to adjust their diets in this modern age of illness. Continue Reading →

True Soil Health: Create the Capacity to Function Without Intervention

My philosophy is that whatever you do on your farm should improve soil health. But how do you know what that is? The USDA defines soil health as, “The continued capacity of soil to function as a vital living ecosystem that sustains plants, animals and humans.” I would add to that definition and say that soil health isn’t just the capacity to function, it’s the capacity of soils to function without intervention.

The same field pictured below, three months later. This is the result of managing the field to promote healthy soil life and maximize biological nutrient cycling: a beautiful organic seed corn crop, just after detasseling.

What counts as “intervention?” Does intervention mean biotechnology, insecticides, fungicides and tillage? Is fertilizer an intervention? Do these interventions make your farm better for future years? I believe money spent on interventions needs to be shifted to inputs that yield soil health.

Appropriate intervention when absolutely needed is wise, but the goal is minimum intervention — in other words do everything you can to get the soils healthy and mineralized. Mineralize your soils using exchangeable nutrient sources that come from the carbon biological system. You have to create an ideal home for soil life and feed them in order to build soil health.

Remove the negatives, which include monoculture crops and excessive tillage. Reduce the use of other possible negatives added through harsh soluble fertilizers and excessive nitrogen, not to mention chemicals and biotechnology.

Farming for soil health means treating your farm like a system. For years we have been promoting the “rules” of biological farming (Six Principles of Biological Farming). Following these rules will lead to healthy soils that produce good yields. The soil health guidelines you now see published in many places focus on minimum disturbance with an emphasis on no-till. In my opinion not all soils are capable of being farmed no-till. Continue Reading →

Book of the Week: Tuning in to Nature

By Philip S. Callahan

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from Acres U.S.A. book, Tuning In To Nature: Infrared Radiation and the Insect Communication System, by Philip S. Callahan. Copyright 2001, softcover, 264 pages. Regular price: $25.00.

Tuning in to Nature by Philip S. Callahan

Tuning in to Nature was written in 1975 as a direct result of an experience I had shortly after World War II ended, when I was still attached to the RAF Coastal Command in northern Ireland.

During July 1945, I took a Jeep from Belleek to Castle Archdale in Fermanagh County, northern Ireland. The RAF Coastal Command had its western Ireland headquarters on Lough Erne not far from our American Radio Range Station near Belleek.

When I picked up a technical report by the RAF on the XAF (10 cm radar) the researcher pointed out that most boat hulls were in sharp focus since 10 cm is a short wavelength in comparison to a boat. Diesel launches under way, however, were “blurred with indistinct edges over the stern.” It did not take long to deduce that the XAF radar was “seeing” the diesel exhaust — in short, the radar was smelling exhaust by electronics. This rather simple observation led to my irreversible belief that insect spines (sensilla) are indeed real antennae.

Continue Reading →

Proper Digestion Central to Health

Old wisdom suggests that to understand something our best bet is to simply be open to what it is telling us, with all of our senses. Use eyes, ears, smell, taste, touch, along with intuition, to notice the obvious — and trust our own perceptions.

Mother to three grown children plus grandchildren and a life long organic gardener, the author cultivates a nutrient-dense, pesticide and GMO-free garden, and raises a few chickens, with her husband in Ohio.

With the digestive system, or gut, its central location should tell us a lot. The gut — as a path for transformation and exchange with the outside world right through the center of our bodies — is indeed central to everything that happens in our bodies and minds.

Digestion is the transformation of not-self into essentially something, which resembles self. It’s the conversion of fats, proteins and carbohydrates into constituents, which are the same material that make up the body eating and digesting the food. Digestion is the transformation of substances with their own distinct identity into generic ‘parts’ which can be used by another living being.

Digestion: Microbes Play Key Role

Microbes are central to the process of digestion in both the gastrointestinal tract (GIT) or gut, and in the soil.

In animals, microbes facilitate the final transformation of flesh or fiber into something usable by the animal; in the soil, microbes transform the residues of plants and animals into something usable, and necessary, for the growth of plants. Continue Reading →