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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.

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.

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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.

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: 1) bulk char, in one large load 2) raw, uncharged char 3) sterile, uninoculated char, with only a tad of microbial life 4) synthetic salt fertilizer, tillage and other antibiotic practices.

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

To prepare biochar for optimum effec­tive use in soil, there are four fundamen­tal steps: moisten, mineralize, micronize and microbial inoculation. Continue Reading →

Pollinators in Peril

Pollinators have a staunch ally in Graham White. White, a small-scale hobby beekeeper in Scotland, has been an international campaigner on the dangers of neonicotinoid pesticides since 2003. To this endeavor, he brings his background in environmental education and teaching, a fascination with the biodiversity of life and his long-term involvement in environmental issues.

Graham White, a small-scale hobby beekeeper in Scotland, has been an international campaigner on the dangers of neonicotinoid pesticides and their affect on pollinators since 2003.

Born into a family of coal miners and glassmakers in an industrial town near Liverpool, England, White developed his love of nature exploring remnant woodlands and abandoned 19th century canals. As a teenager he was introduced to hiking and as a university student in the late 1960s he became an avid rock climber. He credits his 1976 expedition, hiking the John Muir Trail from Yosemite to Mt. Whitney in California, with changing his life.
When White returned to the UK, he decided to make it his mission to introduce John Muir, his writings and environmental values to the people of Britain. Muir, who founded the Sierra Club in 1892, was from Scotland, but was virtually unknown there. White founded the UK’s first Environment Centre in Edinburgh in 1978 and served as founding director for 23 years. In 1994 he proposed the creation of The John Muir Award for environmental excellence as a personal development program for people of all ages. In recent years over 200,000 people have completed this national challenge award.
White is also an accomplished nature photographer, author and editor of environmentally themed books and articles, and radio broadcaster, whose productions include the BBC interview series Deep in Conservation with environmental luminaries such as David Brower, Satish Kumar, Vandana Shiva, Wangari Maathai, Amory Lovins, and Bill Mollison.

Interviewed by Tracy Frisch

ACRES U.S.A. How did you come to be a campaigner for bees?

GRAHAM WHITE. I started keeping bees in 1994, with four hives; within two years I had 10 hives. I harvested about 20 pounds of honey per hive each year, to share with friends and family. I only became a bee campaigner around 2000, when my bees began to die for no apparent reason. The Varroa mite arrived in 1998, but we treated for it, and I didn’t lose any colonies. The French have had Varroa mites since 1963 without any impact on honey production. In 2001, I moved to the Scottish Borders, an area where wheat, canola, barley and potatoes are intensively farmed. I soon noticed something odd happening with the bees; my colonies didn’t die, but they no longer thrived or made as much honey. They seemed weaker and lacking in vigor. In 1998 Bayer’s imidacloprid appeared in the UK. I wasn’t living among the wheat fields back then, so I wasn’t aware of it. When clothianidin appeared, around 2003, people began to lose bees on a large scale — 50 to 80 percent of hives died each winter. After some online research, I discovered that mass bee deaths had occurred in France since 1994. We were just the next in a line. I began to educate myself and try to alert my fellow beekeepers in the UK. Continue Reading →