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Archive | Soil Life

Farming to Improve Soil Health

Today, you can’t pick up a farm paper or any other ag publication without seeing something about cover crops, minimum tillage and farming to improve soil health.

But what exactly is meant by “soil health?” Much of the soil health focus is on soil biology and fostering a healthy, diverse, living ecosystem in the soil. I agree that soil life is a key component of soil health, but in my opinion, the other important aspect of soil health is the soil’s ability to dish out nutrients to the crop, and then using the right sources of minerals to make up for any shortcomings in what the soil can provide. This aspect of soil health is often overlooked in discussions on the topic, but is equally important in getting you a high-quality bumper crop.

Like many aspects of biological farming, it’s the balance of different components that makes the system work.

I believe that many farmers now recognize that the soil is alive, a teeming underground city of creatures, all doing their own “jobs,” working together. They can be really productive, naturally balancing things out and providing nutrients for the crop that’s being grown. Soil health under this definition is a balance of organisms — no group crowding out any other group, seizing control and causing crop problems. Continue Reading →

Minerals for Healthy Soil & High-Quality, Top Yields

It’s a new century, and there is more knowledge about farming and the role of minerals, and there are more farmers paying attention to it. When it comes to farming, we know what the “base” is: putting all the pieces together including minerals, biology and soil structure — and using crop fertilizers that provide above and  beyond what the soil can dish out in terms of nutrients and biology.

A fall mixed cover the author grew after rye was harvested. He used the cover crop to capture nutrients in a biological form and to cycle nutrients to get more minerals into the following cash crop.

Even though there’s a lot of discussion about soil health, no-till and soil structure in farming right now, not enough attention is paid to minerals.

It seems like so much of agriculture is spending its time and money chasing magic biologicals, foliars or plant protection and not focusing on doing everything you can to feed your crop a balance of minerals and prevent the problems in the first place.

So what is your limiting factor or constraint that interferes with plant production and plant health? You need to understand that your farming practices have a lot of influence on plant health, and plants that are healthy protect themselves — just as you have an immune system that functions well if you are healthy. Reduce stress; eat a balanced diet with a balance of nutrients; eat a variety of foods that are clean without foreign compounds to fight and a good biological balance. If you get all that right do you need to take supplements?

It’s not farming the same way it was in grandpa’s day because there was a lot he didn’t know. He didn’t understand nutrients, soil health or soil fertility, and didn’t have the tools we have. He was stuck with a “plow.” If I asked you to do everything you could to get your soils healthy and mineralized, what would you do? Continue Reading →

Real-World Composting: Making the Life/Death Cycle Work for Your Operation

By Malcolm Beck

Editor’s Note: This article was first published in the February 1997 issue of Acres U.S.A. magazine. We republished it in 2018 in memory of Malcolm Beck, who passed away and was an important figure to Acres U.S.A. and to the world of agriculture.

When I got into the compost business, it was by accident. I made my living working on the railroad. Our farm was more of a hobby than a necessity, although it was a good place to live and raise our family. Besides the usual farm crops and animals, we raised vegetables, up to 20 acres some years, and did it all organically. Our fertilizer was lots of manure gathered from our and the neighbor’s cow pens. We always kept a few big piles around.

Malcolm Beck

A visiting friend who was a landscaper spied our manure piles and pestered me until I finally sold him some. We loaded it by hand using manure forks. He paid me forty dollars for four yards. I got to looking at that money and thought, Gosh, that was much easier than spreading that manure in the field and plowing, disking, planting, cultivating, irrigating, harvesting, then going to the market and letting someone else dictate the price. Then it struck me, Why don’t I sell compost?

But I soon learned that at that time, few people, including farmers, knew was compost was. Next, the landscaper’s mother wanted some compost mixed with sand, then his uncle wanted compost mixed with sand and topsoil. Soon word got out that I had manure mixed with sand and/or soil, and here came the landscapers. I was forced into the soil mixing business. It wasn’t long before I used up all the rotted manure. Then I had to use manure that was still raw to make the mixes. I explained to customers “this stuff may be hot,” but they bought it anyway. One day, I made a delivery to a woman who operated a small nursery. She grew shrubs in big containers and I noticed her containers were free of weeds, while other nurseries always had a weed problem. I complimented her on the good job she did weeding, and she replied, “Malcolm, you soil/compost mix never has any weeds in it.” Continue Reading →

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 →