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Archive | Soil Life

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.

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Soil Restoration: 5 Core Principles

Imagine there was a process that could remove carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere, replace it with life-giving oxygen, support a robust soil microbiome, regenerate topsoil, enhance the nutrient density of food, restore water balance to the landscape and increase the profitability of agriculture. Fortunately, there is. It’s called photosynthesis.

THE POWER OF PHOTOSYNTHESIS

In the miracle of photosynthesis, which takes place in the chloroplasts of green leaves, CO2 from the air and H2O from the soil, are combined to capture light energy and transform it into biochemical energy in the form of simple sugars.

These simple sugars — commonly referred to as photosynthate — are the building blocks for life in and on the Earth. Plants transform sugar into a great diversity of other carbon compounds, including starches, proteins, organic acids, cellulose, lignin, waxes and oils.

Fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and grains are packaged sunlight derived from photosynthesis. The oxygen our cells and the cells of other living things utilize during aerobic respiration is also derived from photosynthesis.

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Bt: Toxic Soil & Nature’s Balance

Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), a GMO more commonly known as Bt toxin, is spliced into the seeds of crops as a biological pesticide. Our environment is now sustaining genetically modified organisms in the soil, affecting everything we grow. As the seed sprouts, the Bt comes alive and grows with the plant as well as in the surrounding soils. This is a biological, living GMO pesticide that remains in the soil long after the plant is harvested. It also remains in every cell of the plant — all the way from the field to the end product, be it food, clothing, paper or tobacco.

Aerial of intersecting roads in rural Indiana.

GMOs are interrupting genetic expression of any and all plants grown in soil that has nurtured compromised seeds. This includes organic farming products coming from any farm that has been transitioned from conventional farming. To-date, there are 33 common crops being grown and harvested on over 444 million acres of land worldwide.

Beyond the soil, the effects of Bt toxin are found in the genetic makeup of pollinators, as the toxin has been found in nectar and pollen of the plants. These are taken back to the hive where it accumulates and contaminates the hive, ultimately contributing to colony collapse disorder.

We find these toxins in animals and in people (it has been found in breast milk and body tissue). It is now being reproduced in the gut. Bts are airborne, traveling in pollen and dust, spreading worldwide. DNA transfers naturally through mechanisms that allow gene flow across species. In this way Bts in the soil as well as in the air serve to compromise all efforts to produce organic and non-GMO plants, challenging their genetic integrity above and below the soil. Continue Reading →

Keep the Soil in Organic Movement

On Sunday, October 8, farmers and pioneers of the organic movement will assemble for a Rally to Keep the Soil in Organic, in Burlington, Vermont.  Join a tractor cavalcade at noon, led by the Brazilian drumming ensemble “Sambatucada” and a parade of farmers and organic eaters to the Intervale Center at 180 Intervale Rd. (parking at Gardeners Supply), followed by short speeches from leaders in the organic movement, including Senator Bernie Sanders (tentative), Eliot Coleman, Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman, Maddie Monty, Christa Alexander, and Pete Johnson. More than 50 regional farms are expected to attend.

Women lead the parade toward the 2016 Rally in the Valley in East Thetford, Vermont.

There are 16 rallies scheduled so far to publicly oppose the weakening of USDA Organic labeling standards and to demand that the National Organic Program preserve soil as the foundation of all organic farming. Rallies are being organized in England, Canada, Costa Rica and across the United States from California to Maine.

A large rally will take place in Hanover, NH on October 15 at 2 p.m.  The final rally will take place at the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) meeting on October 31 in Jacksonville, Florida.

Keep the Soil in Organic: Farmers Weigh In

Pioneer Eliot Coleman has written, “The importance of fertile soil as the cornerstone of organic farming is under threat. The USDA is allowing soil-less hydroponic vegetables to be sold as certified organic without saying a word about it. Just when today’s agronomists and nutritionists are finally becoming aware of the crucial influence of soil quality on food quality, the USDA is trying to unilaterally dismiss that connection by removing soil fertility from the National Organic Program definition of organic. The encouragement of “pseudo-organic” hydroponics is just the latest in a long line of USDA attempts to subvert the non-chemical promise that organic farming has always represented. Without soil, there is no organic farming. The USDA is defrauding customers who expect certified organic crops to be grown on optimally fertile soil as they always have been.

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Supplying Nitrogen: Tap into Nature

Human activity is affecting planet Earth to such an extent that natural scientists are naming this time the beginning of a new geological age/epoch called Anthropocene (the recent age of man) and ending what was the Holocene epoch (about 17,000 years ago to present).

We are no longer observers of nature, but significant influencers of what is happening to nature. The sheer weight of humans and their livestock is now bigger than the Earth’s wild animal population. Our activities are rapidly increasing the amount of CO2 in the air. That is an established fact, the effect of which is the only thing in dispute, i.e. will it get warmer or cooler and will we be wetter or dryer?

The temporary warmth is obvious in the Arctic. Although growers usually help to absorb CO2 by growing crops, their improper handling of crop residue or improper feeding of livestock can add the CO2 back into the air. However, farming’s bigger polluting effect concerns nitrogen.

Plants have always used N from the air by a variety of natural methods. Now the rate we are taking N out of the air is 50 percent higher than what nature has done for millions of years. Most of this industrially created N is now used for fertilizer. This industrial process was originally used to make munitions prior to World War I.

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Soil Conservation Yields Economic Gains

Soil conservation practices such as growing cover crops and going no-till can result in an economic return of over $100 per acre, according to a set of case studies jointly released by the National Association of Conservation Districts and Datu Research, LLC.

Cover crops, like tillage radish, can improve soil health and structure.

Cover crops and no-till can limit soil loss, reduce run-off, enhance biodiversity and provide other benefits. Naturally, farmers who are considering adopting these soil conservation practices are keen to know how they will affect their farm’s bottom line.

“These case studies quantify for producers, policy-makers and researchers alike what the economic advantages of using no-till and cover crops are, and why it makes good sense for farmers to try them and for organizations like NACD to support and even incentivize their use,” said Jeremy Peters, NACD CEO. “We have loads of anecdotal data that says conservation practices benefit the land and producers’ pocketbooks, but now we have run the numbers and know how much.”

During the three-year study period, corn-soybean farmers experimented with cover crops and/or no-till, and quantified the year-by-year changes in income they attributed to these practices compared to a pre-adoption baseline. They found that while planting costs increased by up to $38 per acre: Fertilizer costs decreased by up to $50 per acre; erosion repair costs decreased by up to $16 per acre; and yields increased by up to $76 per acre.

The studies also found that with adoption of these soil conservation practices, net farm income increased by up to $110 per acre. Included in the farmers’ calculations was the considerable time they spent attending workshops or searching the internet to learn about no-till or cover crop practices.

“That time turns out to be an excellent investment, when bottom lines start improving,” said Marcy Lowe, CEO of Datu Research, which conducted the case studies in partnership with NACD. “Farmers who switch to these practices can see losses at first. But thanks to these case study farmers who are generously sharing what they’ve learned, that learning curve will speed up for other farmers.” Continue Reading →