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Archive | Soils

The Huge Impact of Mycorrhizal Colonization on Plant and Soil Health

Mycorrhizal inoculation effecta

This University of Florida photo shows the effect of mycorrhizal inoculation on maize drought response. Mycorrhizal colonization (front left and back right) helps plants avoid severe drought losses compared to the control (front right and back left).

Leonardo da Vinci remarked, “in order to be a successful farmer one must know the nature of the soil.” Even today in the age of hydroponics, most of our food, over 98 percent by some estimates, is grown from field on a soil medium. Beyond growing our food, the way we treat our soil determines the nature of our environment and the climate.

There is a great and still relatively undeveloped agronomic and environmental opportunity that could make an important global difference. This opportunity is hidden underneath our feet, in the living soil. The soil is home to the most populous community on the planet. Around the seven continents, the living soil is the Earth’s most valuable bio-system, providing ecosystem services worth trillions of dollars. The most limiting resource for global food system is drought, with over 75 percent of the crop insurance outlay related to these events.

The vast majority of our cultivated soils are in an eroded and degraded state. As we increase demands on our soil to feed billions, we are losing it and depleting it at an unprecedented rate. Our ability to transform it will address both of these key issues. In addition to addressing drought and climate, the web of soil life is critical to maintaining and building soil resources we need now and into the foreseeable future.

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When Less is More: Understanding Fertilizer and Solubility

The amphiphilic nature of humic substances allows them to work in water and hydrophobic environments, providing the critical conditions necessary for biological processes when they are closely associated with clays.

Make the gesture “just a little bit” by squeezing your thumb and index fingers as tight as you can; tighter, tighter — the amount of fertilizer you could hold between your fingers is about the amount dissolved in soil solution … per acre! That’s right; there is very little if any dissolved “plant food” in the water of a typical soil.

The amount of plant nutrients dissolved in soil solutions is so small that it is expressed as parts per million (ppm), not hundreds of pounds or tons per acre. While synthetic fertilizers are sold primarily on the basis of their water (aqueous) solubility, the emphasis on aqueous solubility is generally misunderstood and somewhat misguided.

It is generally known that over-application of extremely soluble synthetic fertilizers has been responsible for disrupting ecosystems and numerous environmental problems. What is not generally known is that all highly soluble soil inputs, including sulfates, chlorides and fluorides, disrupt the structure of water molecules, impeding the biochemical energy flows that affect the metabolism of plants, making them more susceptible to insect pressure and diseases and decreased water use efficiency.

It is also a well established fact that highly soluble phosphate fertilizers become “tied-up” soon after application. When there is an overabundance of dissolved phosphates in soil water, the soil system responds chemically by forming more stable forms of phosphorus, usually by chemically combining with calcium cations and complexing with lanthanides (rare earths) and organic matter. All of these materials can release phosphorus as plant nutrients through microbial activity.

Although water is critical to all life forms, there are numerous metabolic pathways in biological systems where it gets in the way and must be pushed aside; it’s called the hydrophobic effect.

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Book of the Week: Food Power from the Sea by Lee Fryer and Dick Simmons

Editor’s Note: This is a combination of two smaller excerpts from the 1977 book, Food Power from the Sea, which was published by Acres U.S.A. and is still one of our best sellers.

By Lee Fryer and Dick Simmons

Since Romans, Bretons, Scots, Vikings, and Spaniards used seaweed for fertilizer ever since the time of Christ, it is not surprising that Portuguese settlers near Cape Cod used this resource in growing vegetables for Boston markets. Old timers of that area remember stories of the seaweed harvests by market gardeners after every storm, when they piled their carts high with the briny stuff to use in growing potatoes, corn, turnips, carrots, cabbages, and other kinds of produce. Their crops claimed highest prices because of the fine flavor and quality attributed to the seaweed.

Food Power from the Sea, by Lee Fryer and Dick Simmons

Nor is it surprising that tobacco growers of Connecticut learned to use seaweed to fertilize tobacco well over 100 years ago. Seaweed is high in potash (about 3 percent) and potassium is a favored nutrient for growing fine tobacco.

The demand for seaweed must have been strong, since Luther Maddocks of Boothbay, Maine, a skilled fisherman, quit fishing in 1869 and went into production of seaweed fertilizer for sale to Connecticut tobacco farmers.

He says, in his autobiography, “That was 1869 . . . I sold out my fishing gear to the Suffolk Oil Company and decided to locate at Boothbay Harbor, where I have lived ever since. My first undertaking at Boothbay Harbor was to build the Algea Fertilizer Company plant. I was making the fertilizer from dried and ground sea­weed. I had a United States patent on it and a con­tract with the Quanipaac Company of New Haven (Connecticut) for $30 per ton for all I could dry and deliver in three years. This looked better to me than the fish business, and in the fall of ’69 I built and equipped the factory which I have since used for many purposes and which is now a canning factory.”

Luther Maddocks then goes on to describe the difficulties of drying and grinding seaweed which, he says, “Becomes tough like leather and impossible to grind.” However, he learned to cool the seaweed suddenly, then grind it into a suitable texture for use as fertilizer.

Living from 1845 to 1932, Luther Maddocks was America’s first entrepreneur to harvest seaweed and process it for use in farming, for tobacco farmers of the New Haven and Hartford areas.

Oscar Wood’s Giant Beanstalk in 1975

Living in West Seattle near Alki Point, Oscar Wood has walked along Puget Sound beaches for fifty years. He is known to his neighbors and friends as an old semipro baseball player who played several seasons for the Seattle Indians; and who worked for Ma Bell’s telephone company in the Seattle area for thirty-seven years.

Recently, Oscar Wood has been seeing how high he could grow a bean plant, using the Scarlet Runner variety. He does this, he says, “Mostly for fun and for seed to give away, and to see how high it will go.”

In 1974, Oscar Wood’s bean plant reached a height of 19 feet and its picture was shown in the West Seattle Herald. However, in 1975, Oscar fed his beans seaweed, and they at­tained a height of 24 feet.

Says Oscar Wood, “I plant two circles of seed, but of course it is one particular vine that reaches to the top. As to the seaweed, it is the green ribbonlike and ruffied variety, and sometimes the tide has left our beach covered with it. Our son-in-law raked up and loaded about six wheelbarrows full onto his trailer and put it in his compost, and he really raises a garden. One hill had forty-four large potatoes in it, besides about twenty little ones this year. We wash some of the salt water off the seaweed first. We only applied it once.”

To our knowledge, during forty years of hearing farmers and gardeners tell about their big crops, Oscar Wood has the world record beanstalk.

Author of such classic works as The American Farmer and Earth Foods, the late Lee Fryer was undoubtedly one of the greatest minds and voices in the service of sustainable agriculture. In addition to his powerful writing, Fryer worked to improve American agriculture through 30 years’ experience in the USDA and the farm and garden supply industry, where he helped hundreds of farmers and gardeners to grow safe, nutritious food crops. A longtime associate in Fryer’s research, writing and work with fertilizer technologies, Dick Simmons was a marine biologist, chemist and fertilizer agronomist.

Weathering Drought

Corn field in drought

For farmers, the decision to put in an irrigation system is often dictated by economics. One must consider the cost of the system versus the possible crop losses due to drought.

With the arrival of spring, farmers and gardeners look forward to the start of the growing season. As temperatures warm, spring planting can begin. Fruit trees will break winter dormancy. Pastures will start to green up. Livestock become more active. But as spring turns into summer, the weather can also provide challenges — the greatest of which are heat waves and droughts.

In the summer, temperatures may soar past levels where plants and animals begin to be affected and can reach a point where production is negatively impacted. At worst, damage or even death can occur. Drought is an even greater threat to crops. A lack of water causes even more immediate production losses and a total loss is certainly possible.

For many locations, heat and drought go hand in hand during the summer, and just about every year somewhere in the country heat waves and drought occur. Every farmer is bound to find themselves dealing with drought at some point. What constitutes hot temperatures depends on where you live. For Fairbanks, Alaska, 90°F is rare but has occurred.

In Columbia, South Carolina, where it can top 90°F many times in the course of a summer, even 100 degrees is not that unusual. This is important since to a large degree agricultural operations are geared for normal conditions; the type of temperatures normally experienced and expected. With the relatively cool waters of the Pacific just offshore, the West Coast has only brief hot spells when an offshore flow develops in summer. From the Rockies eastward, abnormally hot conditions become more of a periodic threat. Continue Reading →

Natural Lawn Care

green grass growing

Lawn management practices makes a huge impact on the health of each lawn as well as the environment.

In terms of acreage devoted to pro­duction, grass in the United States cov­ers more than 40 million acres — as much as corn, wheat, soybeans and the next five top irrigated crops com­bined. Although in most cases, it has only aesthetic value, every year Americans devote much of their leisure time and discretionary in­come to the maintenance of their lawns.

A variety of management prac­tices collectively make a huge impact not only on the health of each lawn but on the environment in general. Armed with a bit of knowledge, the homeowner can adjust his or her cultural practices in such a way as to decrease time and expense given to raising grass and become more eco-friendly at the same time.

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Compost & The Promise of Microbes

Scientist David C. Johnson Explores Microbial Communities, Carbon Sequestration and Compost

David C. Johnson’s experimental findings and openness to new insights have turned him into a champion of microbial diversity as the key to regenerating soil carbon — and thus to boosting agricultural productivity and removing excess atmospheric CO2. His research, begun only a decade ago, affirms the promise of microbes for healing the planet. It has attracted interest from around the world.

Johnson didn’t come to science until later in life. At age 51 he left a rewarding career as a builder, specializing in custom homes for artists, to complete his undergraduate degree. He planned to use his education “to do something different for the other half of [his] life,” though what he didn’t know. He said a path opened up and opportunities kept coming his way. After completing his undergraduate degree, Johnson kept going, earning his Masters in 2004 and Ph.D. in 2011, both in Molecular Microbiology. With his first advanced degree in hand, he got a job at New Mexico State University, where he was going to school and currently has an appointment in the College of Engineering.

He credits a fellowship program that placed undergraduate students in different labs with sparking his fascination with the composition of microbial communities as a graduate student. Johnson, who once farmed as a homesteader in Alaska, says he was once “an NPK junkie” but considers himself to be “13-years reformed.” Continue Reading →