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Interview: SOS: Save our Soils — Dr. Christine Jones Explains the Life-Giving Link Between Carbon and Healthy Topsoil

Christine Jones Interview

Christine Jones

Dr. Christine Jones, interviewed by Tracy Frisch


To the pressing worldwide challenge of restoring soil carbon and rebuilding topsoil, the Australian soil ecologist Dr. Christine Jones offers an accessible, revolutionary perspective for improving landscape health and farm productivity. For several decades Jones has helped innovative farmers and ranchers implement regenerative agricultural systems that provide remarkable benefits for biodiversity, carbon sequestration, nutrient cycling, water management and productivity. After a highly respected career in public sector research and extension, in 2001 Jones received a Community Fellowship Award from Land and Water Australia for “mobilizing the community to better manage their land, water and vegetation.” Three years later she launched Amazing Carbon as a means to widely share her vision and inspire change. Jones has organized and presented workshops, field days, seminars and conferences throughout Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Europe, the United States and Canada. Last year, she gave presentations to American organizations and institutions as diverse as Arizona State University, NRCS, Pennsylvania No-Till Alliance, the Massachusetts chapter of Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA), San Luis Valley Soil Health Group and the Quivira Coalition. In 2015 Jones’ personal commitment to make the biggest possible impact globally will take her to Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Kansas, New Mexico, California, Florida, Costa Rica and South Africa, as well as many regions within Australia and New Zealand. In early March she travels to Western Australia, 2,500 miles from her home, to hold the first in a series of Soil Restoration Farming Forums, in which 11 farmers will receive monetary awards for reversing soil deterioration in dryland cropping systems through intercropping with perennial warm season grasses.

ACRES U.S.A. You’ve written that the most meaningful indicator for the health of the land and the long-term wealth of a nation is whether soil is being formed or lost. Yet there’s a widespread belief, actually dogma, that the formation of soil is an exceedingly slow process. Even some organic researchers accept that idea. You describe the formation of topsoil as being breathtakingly rapid. Continue Reading →

Interview: Forging a Better Path — Texas Farmer Jonathan Cobb Embraces Shift from Conventional to Biological-Based Practices

Jonathan Cobb Interview

Jonathan Cobb

Jonathan Cobb interviewed by: Chris Walters


This month’s interview swings our focus away from storied veterans to a newcomer, a young farmer trying to forge his way in the middle of Texas. Like a lot of others who dedicate themselves to rational agriculture based in soil science, Jonathan Cobb left his family’s land for a while, getting an education outside the ag school monolith, getting married and trying out urban life before coming full circle back to the land in 2007. He encountered an event in recent Texas history that felt apocalyptic at the time and still strains belief — the summer of 2011. As the worst Texas drought in about a century kicked in with a vengeance, temperatures exceeded 100 degrees for nearly three months, the land turned into brick and reservoirs dropped like a second-term president’s approval rating. As he relates, it forced a fresh look at all sorts of things. Along the way, a business Cobb ran with his wife, Jennifer Brasher, had to be folded, and he began a momentous transition away from row crops and into livestock. It also bears remembering that despite the influence wielded by the liberal enclave of Austin a mere hour away, rural Texas is not known for its open embrace of progressive ideas. For Jonathan’s refreshingly candid account of how he meets his challenges, read on.

ACRES U.S.A. Tell us about your neck of the woods near Rogers, Texas.

JONATHAN COBB. It’s Blackland prairie; really good, really rich, deep soils with a long history of farming there. My great-grandfather was a sharecropper since around 1900. My grandfather farmed it and then my Dad stayed. He was the youngest, and he stayed on the family farm. We were all gone when I decided to come back about eight years ago. I had been in Fort Worth doing landscape design and then came back and started farming. Continue Reading →

Corn Silage Starch Fill

silage.tifA recent field study of fresh chop corn silage shows that waiting for that last 3 to 5 percent of starch fill may not be worth it — especially if you intend to feed that silage to lactating dairy cows. As the plant matures and kernel starch fill continues, the rumen digestibility of the starch decreases, explains Dr. David Weakley, director of forage research for Calibrate Technologies. In dairy cows, when the amount of rumen degradable starch is less than expected, milk production can suffer. In addition to lower rumen digestibility, more mature starch also means that kernel processing may not be as effective. That, in turn, could further decrease the amount of starch that is available to the cow.

This report appears in the January 2015 issue of Acres U.S.A.

Boosting Corn Yields

corn.tifEnsuring that corn absorbs the right balance of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium is crucial to increasing global yields, a Purdue and Kansas State University study finds.

A review of data from more than 150 studies from the United States and other regions showed that high yields were linked to production systems in which corn plants took up key nutrients at specific ratios — nitrogen and phosphorus at a ratio of 5-to-1 and nitrogen and potassium at a ratio of 1-to-1. These nutrient uptake ratios were associated with high yields regardless of the region where the corn was grown.

“The agricultural community has put a lot of emphasis on nitrogen as a means of increasing yields, but this study highlights the greater importance of nutrient balance,” said Tony Vyn, Purdue professor of agronomy. “We will not be able to continually boost global corn yields and achieve food security without providing adequate and balanced nutrients.” The paper was published online in the Agronomy Journal.

While U.S. corn producers have long relied on nitrogen fertilizers to improve yields, they should not overlook other nutrients such as potassium and phosphorus, Vyn said.

“Growers need to be as concerned about the amount of potassium available to their plants as they are about nitrogen,” he said. “Corn’s demand for nitrogen and potassium is similar. We need to focus on the nitrogen-potassium balance because that’s where we have the greatest deficiency in terms of application, especially in the eastern Corn Belt.”

This report appears in the November 2014 issue of Acres U.S.A.

Book Review: Defending Beef ─ The Case for Sustainable Meat Production

Defending Beef Book Review

Defending Beef by Nicolette Hahn Niman

Defending Beef ─ The Case for Sustainable Meat Production
by Nicolette Hahn Niman

It’s the blurb below the subtitle that gets your attention — The Manifesto of an Environmental Lawyer and Vegetarian Turned Cattle Rancher — and then the author’s surname. Yes, she is married to that Niman, and yes, she still eats no meat, now a matter of habit and comfort, she says, not any lingering animus. The irony could not be more acute, for this vegetarian makes as forceful and comprehensive a case for rational livestock husbandry as could be imagined.

Like the talented lawyer she was when she ran the Waterkeeper Alliance’s campaign to reform industrial livestock and poultry production, Hahn Niman assembles a case and argues it point by point. The vast advantage she enjoys over a writer making similar arguments from an office in Austin or New York comes from her time on the Niman Ranch. A wealth of personal experience percolates through her case, giving it detail, color and emotional logic. First-hand familiarity with the cycle of birth, death and renewal seem to have defused any ethical objections to eating meat, though that issue is not the book’s main subject.

Much of the material here will be familiar to those who follow the issues that swirl around sustainability and health, both human and animal. The trick to telling this kind of story has to do with rendering reams of data into a relatively swift narrative without oversimplifying it. Whether telling the story of Allan Savory and mob grazing or recapping the findings of the late John Yudkin — author of Pure, White and Deadly, the book that fingered sugar for crimes against health 40 years ago — Hahn Niman never misses a step. Continue Reading →

Interview: Extending the Growing Season — Organic Farmer, Author Eliot Coleman Shares Strategies for Successful Year-Round Growing

Eliot Coleman Interview

Eliot Coleman

Eliot Coleman interviewed by: Chris Walters


Anyone attempting to grow fruits and vegetables in the winter will likely come across the work of Eliot Coleman. A tireless innovator and skilled communicator, Coleman began writing about organic growing an astonishing 39 years ago. Along with fellow writer and wife Barbara, he was the host of the TV series, Gardening Naturally, on The Learning Channel. He and Barbara currently operate a commercial, year-round market garden at Four Season Farm in Harborside, Maine, where he conducts the experiments he describes in this interview. He served for two years as the executive director of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements and was an advisor to the U.S. Department of Agriculture during their landmark 1979-80 study, “Report and Recommendations on Organic Farming.” Coleman’s books include The New Organic Grower, Four Season Harvest, and The Winter Harvest Handbook.

ACRES U.S.A. Didn’t your wife, Barbara Damrosch, play a large part in your story? Not only personally but professionally?

ELIOT COLEMAN. No question, she is the best thing that ever happened to me. We’ve been married 23 years this December. She writes a weekly column for the Washington Post called “A Cook’s Garden,” and she has written two books by herself and one with me. I’ve written three by myself. When my first book, The New Organic Grower, came out in 1989 my publisher told me the competition for it was something called The Garden Primer by Barbara Damrosch. After I moved back here in 1991, I was down at Helen Nearing’s place, helping her tie up tomatoes in her greenhouse, and this very attractive brunette wandered in to visit Helen. I invited her to go for pizza, and we were married six months later. She had heard about my book, and obviously I’d heard about hers. She said she had always wanted to live on a farm, so I tell everybody that she stalked me.

Continue Reading →