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Archive | Soil Fertility

Treasure Trove of Fertility: Composting Mussels

For about the last two years, I have been experimenting with composting mussels. Head to southern West Virginia and you’ll meet farmers who are learning to amend the brown, yellowish sandy soil deep within the Appalachian Plateau. The Berks-Pineville and Gilpin-Lily soil created by weathered shale, siltstone and sandstone can be unpredictable. Though it appears to be well drained in some areas and easily cultivated in others, the black gold they need to amend their crops is all but gone.

The author has experimented with a compost mix of zebra and quagga mussels.

Here in the southern coalfields that surround Mullens, Itmann and Pineville, mountaintop soil and dirt can be tightly packed and tough to work.

Compost can take a long time to break down, especially when there are long stretches of dry hot weather.

I knew little about the soil in Mullens when I first started experimenting with my zebra mussel shell compost mix. I first made a visit there last summer and stumbled upon a row of gardens at the Mullens Opportunity Center while I was in town for a meeting.

There, I met the executive director of the Rural Appalachian Improvement League and a farm-to-school AmeriCorps worker who was caring for their summer crops and high-tunnel complex. I asked if I could return to Mullens with just the right remedy for their soil. Continue Reading →

Biointensive Growing for Smart-Scale Farming

Conventional thinking holds that vegetable farms must be fully mechanized and produce on a certain scale to provide a livelihood, except in extraordinary circumstances, but Les Jardins de la Grelinette (Broad Fork Gardens) in Quebec, busts this myth, using biointensive growing methods.

For more than a decade Jean-Martin Fortier and Maude-Helene Desroches have operated a phenomenally successful “biologically intensive” microfarm using biointensive growing methods.

By choice they use only hand tools and a small walk-behind tractor and employ only one or two workers. Yet with less than 2 acres under cultivation and one greenhouse and two hoop houses on their certified organic farm, this husband and wife team grosses around $150,000 a year.

Of that impressive sum, they’re able to count more than 40 percent as profit for family living. Jean-Martin and Maude-Helene are in their 30s and have two children.

At a half-day workshop I attended in the company of well over 100 farmers, Jean-Martin summed up some of their achievements. Continue Reading →

Book of the Week: The Farm as Ecosystem

By Jerry Brunetti

Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from Acres U.S.A. original book, The Farm as Ecosystem, written by Jerry Brunetti. Copyright 2014, softcover, 335 pages. Regular price: $30.00. SALE PRICE: $25.00.

An Invitation to Become a Legume

The Farm as Ecosystem, by Jerry Brunetti

 

Another exciting breakthrough in nitrogen-fixing bacteria originates out of the University of Nottingham’s Center for Crop Nitrogen Fixation. Professor Edward Cocking and colleagues found a specific strain of nitrogen-fixing bacteria in sugar cane that could intracellularly colonize all major crop plants. Remarkably, this development potentially allows all the cells within a plant to x atmospheric nitrogen! This technology, labeled “N-Fix,” is not a genetic modified/bioengineering technology, either. Rather, it is a seed inoculant, enabling plant cells to become nitrogen fixers, a hopeful boon to annual crop production, which uses wasteful and contaminating amounts of nitrogen. Commercialization of this non-GMO breakthrough is expected by 2015–2016.

In the same vein of investigating the “cellular wisdom” that exists among microbes and plants, researchers at the University of Missouri’s Bond Life Sciences Center, under the direction of professor Gary Stacey, discovered that, for reasons yet unclear, non-legumes have not yet made a “pact” with nitrogen-fixing rhizobia bacteria that allow legumes to convert nitrogen gas into plant food that can be used to build proteins. Continue Reading →

Book of the Week: Hands-on Agronomy

By Neal Kinsey and Charles Walters

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from an Acres U.S.A. original book, Hands-On Agronomy, by Neal Kinsey and Charles Walters. Copyright 2013, 1993. Soft cover, 391 pages. $35.00 regularly priced. SALE PRICE $22.50.

Hands-on Agronomy, by Neal Kinsey and Charles Walters

No one used the term killer agriculture or knowledgeable mining when I was a youngster growing up on a farm in southeast Missouri. We raised corn, wheat, cotton, soybeans and a little hay. We also finished a few cattle. Now, a more mature sense of values brings the reality of our farming operation into focus. Sir Albert Howard identified the horns of the modern farming dilemma: partial and imbalanced fertilization, and toxic rescue chemistry.

Neither I nor my father heard or understood that dictum then, then being the 1950s and 1960s. All we knew was that the crops faltered—not occasionally, but year after year. My father had five sons and he concluded, “I hope you won’t even think about going into agriculture because it costs too much and I am not going to be able to help you get started. I hope you will go into business and be an accountant or something like that.”

Accordingly, I went to college with the intention of becoming an accountant. There was a problem with that. I couldn’t stand being inside four walls all the time. So I changed my direction while I was at the University of Missouri where I met William A. Albrecht, the legendary professor who contributed so much to what Acres U.S.A. calls eco-agriculture. Albrecht gave the Department of Soils its well-deserved reputation, but by the time I arrived, he had been retired—forcibly, I am told—in the wake of a great grant from a fossil fuel company. In any case, his classroom days were over, for which reason I was able to get more of his ear than might have been possible as classroom fare. He taught a private study course for Brookside Laboratory, and I decided to avail myself of this extra-curricular opportunity. He changed my entire way of thinking. Continue Reading →

Soil Sentinels: Harness The Power of Earthworms

When moist, practically all soils from tundra to lowland tropics support the activity of earthworms. Largely unseen, earthworms are a diverse, powerful workforce with the capacity to transform soil into fertile ground.

Found in 27 families, more than 700 genera and greater than 7,000 species, earthworms vary from about 1 inch to 2 yards long. Their living mass outweighs all other animal life forms in global soils. Although we may view earthworms as being both prolific and productive, do we fully appreciate our human capability to favor their beneficial efforts as allies allowing farms and gardens to flourish? I think not.

Earthworms not only play productive roles in sustainable agriculture, but they have enormous capacity to help mitigate our elevated atmospheric greenhouse gas content by reducing carbon and nitrogen gas. Continue Reading →

Cover Crops Don’t Deplete Moisture

Among the myriad of benefits cover crops provide to a row crop or vegetable operation, Clemson University researchers have found another one: Cover crops do not deplete water stored in the soil profile, thus preserving the precious resource for the cash crop — an all important function, specifically in times of drought.

USDA photo showing a cover crop mixture that includes oat, proso millet, canola, sunflower, dry pea, soybean and pasja turnip.

In the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education (SSARE) On-Farm Research Grant-funded study (OS16-096), “Cover Crop Influence on Stored Water Availability to Subsequent Crops,” researchers evaluated common fall cover crops grown in the state for water use efficiency and biomass production.

“We need to bring biodiversity to our farming systems to alleviate drought stress, and cover crops are one practice that provides the benefits to achieve that,” said Ricardo St. Aime, a Master’s student and Fulbright Scholar from Haiti who worked on the project. “But many farmers are hesitant to adopt cover crops. One reason is that they fear cover crops might bring water resource competition for the following cash crop. We conducted this study to determine whether or not this is true.” Continue Reading →