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Archive | Permaculture

Stories, photos and podcasts about permaculture techniques, including information about healthy pollination tactics. Permaculture is defined as the development of agricultural ecosystems intended to be sustainable and self-sufficient.

Wild Farm Alliance Supports Connections Between Farmer, Ecosystems & Community

Wild Farm Alliance reports that 37 percent of the Earth’s land is dedicated to agriculture, making farmland a top priority for Earth regeneration and wildlife conservation. While they assist farmers, they also connect with them for the purpose of learning from them. And that’s valuable to farmers, because we have to be careful that non-farming certifiers and agricultural advisors do not become too distant from farming itself. Often farmers are the ones on the forefront of continual discovery and innovation by being constantly engaged in their operations.

Hedgerows benefit pollinators

Photo courtesy of Wild Farm Alliance. Hedgerows can provide a multitude of benefits including pollinator, beneficial insect and wildlife habitat, dust and wind protection and increased diversity.

Each time we plant borders for beneficial insects or erect homes for raptors as rodent control, we’re offering something to wild nature in exchange for it being our ally as we nurture domesticated crops. Sometimes, as with Nettles Farm on Lummi Island in Washington State, nature’s bounty makes its way into the farm’s offerings.

Nettles Farm is surrounded by the sea and natural woodlands. Wild rose petals, wild plums and even edible seaweeds find their way into the foods of the chefs they supply at the famous Willows Inn.

Meanwhile, more and more information is surfacing on the huge potential agriculture has toward climate and natural resource restoration. But both farmers and wild nature are vulnerable, and like any good partnership, the union can truly sustain itself when each partner receives ongoing symbiotic support from the other. This article focuses on how eco-farmers are affected by growing desires and expectations to support ecosystems while earning a living at the same time, along with how I’ve seen an organization called Wild Farm Alliance assist them.

Even if it initially appears a future farm and wild nature partnership would be symbiotic eventually, the transition time to reach that state needs to be financially and labor-wise feasible. Farms can’t support nature if they go out of business in their attempts to do so and sell out to development or corporate agriculture. And because consumer demand fuels the farm with its financial support and policy voting, consumer understanding of the process farms must go through to reach and maintain higher states of sustainable regeneration is also intrinsic to the partnership. Continue Reading →

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.

Continue Reading →

Campus Composting

In 2009, with my retirement from Ohio University looming, I didn’t think my personal involvement in the construction and start-up of a class 2 campus composting facility would develop into such a large operation. Class 2 compost (according to the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency) consists of yard, agriculture, animal, or food waste, plus a bulking agent.

To get this project underway, thousands of yards of dirt on the campus’s periphery had to be moved to prepare the site and many yards of concrete were poured to construct the base of a metal pole barn, which would eventually house the composting machine.

Hauled by truck from Ottawa, Canada, the enormous composting machine was unloaded by crane and placed on the concrete pad.

The vertical posts were installed and metal siding attached. For power, electricity was connected and the solar array installed. Today, the Ohio University Composting facility also boasts a solar thermal system and waste oil heaters that use leftover oil from the university’s facilities operations. Skylights provide indirect lighting. The entire facility is self-sustainable. With a 10 kilowatt-per-hour built in 2009 and a 31.1 kilowatt-per-hour system added in 2012, the solar array produces more energy than is used in the operation.

Continue Reading →

Barn Owls for Pest Control

Using barn owls for natural rodent control is gaining traction among farmers and those in other agricultural sectors. This has come about from increasingly critical environmental issues regarding chemical use in the field for rodent population control. To reduce poisons and other invasive methods of pest management, one of the most beneficial owls on the planet is being called upon as an expert rodent assailant.

Barn owls are noted for being fond of nesting but the lack of nest sites, including the loss of tree habitats, has become a major reason for the decline and non-productivity of this owl species.

When hole-nesters cannot find suitable places to breed, the population decreases notably.

Farmers have been putting barn owls on patrol for prey, including moles and gophers, as part of an Integrated Pest Management (IPM) alternative.

Barn owls exhibit some of the best hearing among birds of prey. They have a white heart-shaped, monkey-faced appearance, and are distinguished by whitish or pale cinnamon underparts and rust-colored upper plumage. Velvety feathers allow them to approach their prey silently in darkness.

Continue Reading →

Carbon Cycling, Carbon Building

In this article I hope to provide some ideas concerning carbon cycling and how to effectively build soil carbonic organic matter. There seem to be three primary means by which we can increase a soil’s carbon content: carbon imports, carbon generation and carbon induction. Each of these possible methods can also offer other strengths to a soil-building program, compost can provide a biological inoculum, humates can provide a biological stimulant.

Adequate levels of functional organic matter and a robust soil digestive system are sorely lacking in most all agricultural soils. This lack of humic substances and biology significantly reduces a soil’s water-holding capacity and the ability to release nutrients, all of which leads to large losses in crop quality and yield.

Meanwhile, increasingly higher levels of atmospheric carbon or CO2 are being produced by the burning of fossil fuels and land desertification. Carbon sequestration — the term has been thrown around like a rubber ball. What does it really mean for agriculture? How can carbon be stabilized in soils most effectively?

Importing Carbon

There are three primary carbon imports: Humates or leonardite, and their derivatives such as fulvic and humic acids. The humic substances present in these materials generally provide very good nutrient exchange. Biochar is also a stable carbon import but not as active as leonardite seems to be. Compost can also be a viable carbon import with the added benefit of a strong biological component. Compost, however, tends to have a lower level of stable humic substances when compared with other materials. A fair proportion of compost can degrade over a period of a few years. Continue Reading →

Biochar: Prepping it for Soil

Biochar can benefit your soil, but only if properly prepared prior to application. In November 2007, scientists at the USDA National Laboratory for Agricul­ture and the Environment (NLAE) in Ames, Iowa, began multi-year field trials to assess the effects of biochar on crop productivity and soil quality. Scientists amended almost 8 acres with biochar made from hardwood. Twelve plots re­ceived 4 tons per acre; 12 were treated with 8 tons per acre.

Prepping soil for biochar

Author David Yarrow helps install a biochar test plot at Subterra in Kansas.

They found no significant difference in the three-year average grain yield from either treatment. Other USDA field and laboratory studies in Idaho, Kentucky, Minnesota, South Carolina, and Texas showed hardwood biochar can improve soil structure and increase sandy soils’ ability to retain water. But soil fertility response was more variable.

USDA scientists violated four key principles for biochar use: they used 1) bulk char, in one large load; 2) raw, uncharged char; 3) sterile, uninoculated char, with only a tad of microbial life; and 4) synthetic salt fertilizer, tillage, and other antibiotic practices.

Biochar, like water, is best added in a series of small doses so soil has adequate time to distribute and digest it. After all, soil may get 25 or more inches of rain a year, but not all at once in a single event. We already know from research in the Amazon that dumping 5, 10, or even 20 tons of raw char all at once into poor soil retards plant growth for one year and maybe two. After that, though, plants erupt in impressive, vigorous growth.

But a dip in yield isn’t acceptable for production agriculture. Farmers can’t wait a year or two to harvest a profit­able crop. Professional growers need fast response and strong stimulus to growth. Economics and handling logistics require convenience and low cost, with vigorous growth from minimal applied material.

Fortunately, we are learning how to prepare char for optimum results in soil and on crops. Biochar research in America is hardly 10 years old, but solid research shows that properly prepared, intelligently applied biochar has dramatic effects on soil structure and plant growth at as little as 500 pounds per acre.

There are four fundamental steps for optimally preparing biochar for use in soil: moisten, mineralize, micronize, and microbial inoculation. Continue Reading →