AcresUSA.com links

Archive | Soils

Order vs. Wildness: The Land Management Question

A member of the Virginia Monarch Butterfly Society called me: “Do you know where we can plant a pallet of milkweed seed?”

I didn’t even know Virginia had such an organization. Beyond that, I wondered where in the world they procured a pallet of milkweed seed. As I talked with the lady on the phone, I suppressed my laughter realizing that a couple of hours before I had had a totally frustrating in-the-field meeting with the landlords of one of the farms we rented.

By Joel Salatin

The landlords were more than a little dismayed at the weeds we had created with our mob grazing management. In September, right when the monarch butterfly larvae needed them, those weeds included a healthy contingent of seed-pod-bursting milkweeds. The monarchs were euphoric. The landlords weren’t. This 90-acre pasture farm had been continuously grazed for years before we rented it. The sparse grass never exceeded a couple of inches in height; clover was virtually nonexistent; thistles dominated the plant profile.

In three years, by using mob grazing and aggressive hand tools we vanquished the thistles, but a plethora of edible and often delectable weeds (like milkweed) thrived. Indeed, that afternoon at our pasture-based summit, Daniel (my son) and I exulted in the biomass volume we had stimulated. Fall panicum, milkweed, redtop, clover and some goldenrod offered color and variety to the orchard grass and dominant fescue sward. The landlords, however, did not share our euphoria. As we stood in armpit-high biomass, arguably more than had been on the farm for decades, all the landlords could utter was a contemptible and emphatic: “Look at all these weeds.” I was incredulous. Outdoor and wildlife lovers, the landlords could not make the connection between this diversified, voluminous biomass and the overall health of their pasture farm. We could scarcely walk through the biomass jungle, replete with spiders, field mice and a host of creepy-crawly insects.

Continue Reading →

Microorganisms for Fertility

The use of microorganisms for fertility is an exacting process using inexact tools in the production of food, fiber and fuel. Each farmer’s fertility program for plant growth is tied to the desired response of the plants. A simpler way to put it is; how much would you like to produce, at what rate and at what cost to the environment and to the farmer using the inputs? For field crops, newer genetic combinations are race horses in the sense of their yield potential, but also in their need for attention whether fertility or otherwise.

A field in Hoven, South Dakota, using 12.8 ounces per acre MicroAZ-IF Liquid, treated (left), untreated.

This has been a large part of fostering a reliance on petrochemical industries for growing plants. Our challenge is to grow these plants using different techniques, relying on more natural production strategies — particularly in the use of fertility products.

Microorganisms for Fertility: Fundamentals

Microorganisms are a fundamental part of healthy soils, plants and people. We’re still trying to understand how they contribute to the health of soil and how their omnipresence impacts our environment. This can and will have a direct impact on our ability to provide for plant fertility using microbially mediated processes as we understand and harness this interconnected web of life.

Harnessing microorganisms for reliable use has been and will continue to be problematic. The interactions and complexities of the soil microbial community are not well understood.

What is understood is the promise and possibilities they have in providing supplemental, complementary or replacement sources of fertility to plants. Building products that have reliability and performance characteristics similar to more widely accepted sources with better economic and environmental consequences is already happening and getting better. Continue Reading →

CSA Creates Community Connection

There is a duality to the benefits of CSA, and nearly every point in the food network receives gains. People in the community are better able to forge strong relationships with the farmers producing food around them, and food is distributed and enjoyed locally.

Sweet corn at Spiral Path Farm in Pennsylvania.

Spiral Path Farm, owned by Michael (Mike) and Terra Brownback, is a prolific organic farm resting on silt loam and flinty soil in western Pennsylvania’s Perry County. Although neither had deep agrarian family roots, plucking from and merging a dedication to the land from their respective histories, they’ve created robust, fruitful environs on the original 56 acres when the farm was established in 1978. That eventually swelled to the current 255 acres when they were able to acquire adjacent land.

The farm is broken into two sections, making approximately 160 acres of the total 255 tillable and ready to support their meticulous rotational scheme.

“We do tillage on vegetable land,” said Mike, making about 80 acres prime for vegetables. “The rest of the land is in semi-permanent fallow. We have a lot of good buffers that are woodland.” The remainder of untilled acreage is “very important because it’s part of our watershed and helps with infiltration and recharges our aquifer.”

Spiral Path Farm is situated within the Susquehanna River Watershed and is part of the Tonoloway Formation, which houses a limestone aquifer.

Continue Reading →

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 →

Soil Restoration: 5 Core Principles

Soil restoration is the process of improving the structure, microbial life, nutrient density, and overall carbon levels of soil. Many human endeavors – conventional farming chief among them – have depleted the Earth to the extent that nutrient levels in almost every kind of food have fallen by between 10 and 100 percent in the past 70 years. Soil quality can improve dramatically, though, when farmers and gardeners maintain constant ground cover, increase microbe populations, encourage biological diversity, reduce the use of agricultural chemicals, and avoid tillage.

Soil restoration begins with photosynthesis.

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.

Continue Reading →