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Archive | Eco-Farming

Drought Planning: Grassland Preservation

Drought planning and preparation should be a priority for most ranching operations, as ranches are likely to be located in areas of natural grassland and one of the formative factors for grasslands is erratic mois­ture availability. Drought is not just dry weather; drought occurs when there is a significant reduction in normal pre­cipitation. A desert area that received only 9 inches of rain is dry, but it is not in drought unless annual precipitation falls well below 9 inches; an area that is in a 40-inch rainfall belt and received 20 inches is in a serious drought.

Our home ranch in Nolan County, Texas, was in a 20-inch rainfall area that was very drought-prone; local wags said that the 20-inch average came about because it would rain 60 inches one year and then skip two years.

Build the health of your range, your bio­logical capital, when growing conditions are good so that you can survive the drought that is surely coming.

Where moisture availability is con­stant, the vegetation tends to be made up of longer-lived plants (trees). If drought kills most of the local vegetation, grass­es and forbs can germinate from seed and reproduce quickly, but trees require much more time to reach maturity. The fantastic ryegrass and clover pastures of England and Ireland did not come into being until the oak forests that were originally there disappeared into ship timbers and charcoal kilns. If humans were removed from these areas, the oak forests would return because of the uni­formity of the local moisture patterns.

The frequency and severity of droughts vary widely according to location; know­ing the probability of drought in the local environment is essential informa­tion for formulating drought planning management strategies. Equally important is recognizing the early signs of impending drought — the sooner drought is recognized, the more effectively its effects can be offset. If drought is recognized as a normal occur­rence, and it is, then plans can be made to reduce its impact upon the operation and upon the soil-plant-animal complex on which the operation depends.

The National Weather Service keeps detailed weather records for many places in the United States, and an examination of these records for your area is a good place to start in determining the likeli­hood of drought and need for drought planning. There is nothing you can do to keep drought from occurring, but you can do a great deal to reduce its impacts.

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Interview: Author Judith Schwartz Examines Water Management

Modern Water Wisdom

Interviewed by Tracy Frisch

When writer Judith Schwartz learned that soil carbon is a buffer for climate change, her focus as a journalist took a major turn. She was covering the Slow Money National Gathering in 2010 when Gardener’s Supply founder Will Raap stated that over time more CO2 has gone into the atmosphere from the soil than has been released from burning fossil fuels. She says her first reaction was “Why don’t I know this?” Then she thought, “If this is true, can carbon be brought back to the soil?” In the quest that followed, she made the acquaintance of luminaries like Allan Savory, Christine Jones and Gabe Brown and traveled to several continents to see the new soil carbon paradigm in action. Schwartz has the gift of making difficult concepts accessible and appealing to lay readers, and that’s exactly what she does in Cows Save the Planet And Other Improbable Ways of Restoring Soil to Heal the Earth, which Elizabeth Kolbert called “a surprising, informative, and ultimately hopeful book.”

For her most recent project, Water in Plain Sight: Hope for a Thirsty World, Schwartz delves into the little-known role the water cycle plays in planetary health, which she illustrates with vivid, empowering stories from around the world. While we might not be able to change the rate of precipitation, as land managers we can directly affect the speed that water flows off our land and the amount of water that the soil is able to absorb. Trees and other vegetation are more than passive bystanders at the mercy of temperature extremes — they can also be powerful influences in regulating the climate.  

The week after this interview was recorded, Schwartz travelled to Washington, D.C., to take part in a congressional briefing on soil health and climate change organized by Regeneration International. As a public speaker, educator, researcher and networker, she has become deeply engaged in the broad movement to build soil carbon and restore ecosystems.

ACRES U.S.A. Please explain the title of your book, Water in Plain Sight.

JUDITH D. SCHWARTZ. The title plays on the idea that there is water in plain sight if we know where to look. It calls attention to aspects of water that are right before us but we are not seeing. By this I mean how water behaves on a basic level, not anything esoteric.

ACRES U.S.A. How should we reframe the problems of water shortages, runoff and floods?

SCHWARTZ. Once we approach these problems in terms of how water moves across the landscape and through the atmosphere, our understanding shifts. For example, when we frame a lack of water as “drought,” our focus is on what water is or isn’t coming down from the sky. That leaves us helpless because there’s really not much we can do. But if we shift our frame from drought to aridification, then the challenge becomes keeping water in the landscape. That opens up opportunities. Continue Reading →

High-Quality, High-Yielding Crops: Measure to Manage

High-quality, high-yielding crops are the goal for most farmers. But where do you begin? Some even insist that to have both is simply impossible to accomplish. For those who think that way, it will likely always be true. But for those who are looking for ways to improve and believe there is still room to do so, what should be considered first? And then where do you go from that point to make the most possible difference?

The soil’s physical structure can be measured and needed corrections determined by use of a detailed soil analysis.

To get high-quality, high-yielding crops, begin with the soil where they will be growing by performing the closest examination of all the most important factors needed to meet every possible requirement. What provides the most advantage to the crop from that soil? Some will feel the answer here is a heavy fertilizer program for the crop. Sufficient fertilizer is extremely important, but to achieve high-quality, high-yielding crops, there is another requirement that is also essential to assure the greatest value from whatever fertilizer is applied.

For each soil to perform at its best requires a balance of water, air, minerals and organic matter. Specifically, if you want the soil to do its best it should contain a balance of 50 percent solids (ideally 45 percent minerals and 5 percent humus) and 50 percent pore space (composed of 50 percent water and 50 percent air). This is the correct physical composition of extremely productive, high-performance soils. To be consistently efficient it is a necessary requirement to develop the most effective biologically active environment to build the needed extensively developed root systems of high-quality, high-yielding crops.

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Composting Tips and Strategies for Balanced Compost

Composting tips are common to find, but information to build a composting program is really what most people are seeking.

A wheelbarrow full of compost that is ready to apply.

Charles Walters, as quoted in Secrets of the Soil, by Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird, says of microbial life: “There are more kinds and numbers of minute livestock hidden in the shallows and depths of an acre of soil than ever walk the surface of that field.”

As much as a cattle rancher’s livelihood depends on healthy livestock, he and his cattle’s very lives depend on armies of beneficial microbes for survival. Microbes are the foundation for all life on earth; without them the earth would be nothing more than a barren rock. There would be no fertile soils, no plants, no trees, no insects, no animals and no humans.

Soil bacteria secrete acids that break down rocks, and enzymes that break down dead plant and animal matter into rich, life-giving soil, while transforming minerals into forms that are usable to plants. Microbes help prevent soil erosion, combat disease organisms that attack plants, animals and humans, and are an important link our food chain.

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Genetic Drift: Protecting Your Crops from Contamination

Genetic drift is one of the most common problems organic farmers in the United States face. Recently, my husband Klaas looked across the road at our neighbor’s farm and said in a horrified tone, “You know, if Harold plants Bt corn on that field next year, we won’t be able to plant organic corn anywhere on this farm.” This sudden realization, born in the increasing knowledge that organic

Seed contamination can occur when farms cross-pollinate, or when waterways carry contaminants into other fields.

farmers can no longer ignore the impact of their neighbor’s genetically modified crop varieties, struck us hard. We had thought that the neighbor’s corn pollen might affect a small portion of our nearest field, something that appropriate buffer zones would take care of, never really thinking it could render many downwind acres unsuitable for corn. But it certainly could. This is the reality of organic farming today.

The impact of genetic drift can affect my farm, my planting plans, my certification, my income — not on just a few rows, but possibly on many acres. The scariest part of this reality is that the farmer won’t know if contamination has occurred until it’s too late, and then there is relatively little he can do to prevent it. To be prepared for the 2000 crop, organic farmers must start thinking of GMOs as being their problem too.

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Agritourism: Tips for Getting Started

Agritourism as an additional revenue stream for the farm can be tempting for some. Possible experiences for farm visitors may include education about farming such as sheep-shearing demonstrations, entertaining activities such as gourd-painting classes, or simply the opportunity to observe the crops and animals on a working farm. Visitors can range from the local community to international tourists.

A local artist attracts the attention of two young farm visitors during a lavender farm’s summer festival.

When non-farming citizens come directly onto the farm enticed by enjoyable experiences, the farmer can benefit in multiple ways. In some cases, farm-owners use agritourism as a marketing platform to draw customers to the farm to buy and pay for the farm’s crops directly, eliminating both the need to deliver crops as well as the middleman.

Agritourism sometimes adds direct revenue to a farm’s offerings by charging a fee for workshops or tours. And though agritourism can range from a one-hour herb drying class at a backyard herb farm to overnight rural B&B stays, here’s one example concerning revenue from the well-known October pumpkin agritourism venture described by Jane Eckert, founder of Eckert AgriMarketing.

“While the average pumpkin sale might be $4-$8 per customer, they will generally spend at least $20 per family just to have a fun day on the farm. Fall season revenues might start for farms at just a few thousand dollars. But with a little bit of ingenuity, hard work and a good product mix, $100,000 is not a difficult goal for a farm to reach in October. After several years, many farms are approaching sales up to $500,000 and more. Most farms I know exceed $100,000 annually from their October season. The concept is to start small with pumpkins and then start adding the products, food sales, school tours, etc., and the revenue quickly builds.”

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