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Archive | Soils

Interview: Author Judith Schwartz Examines Water Management

Modern Water Wisdom

Interviewed by Tracy Frisch

When writer Judith Schwartz learned that soil carbon is a buffer for climate change, her focus as a journalist took a major turn. She was covering the Slow Money National Gathering in 2010 when Gardener’s Supply founder Will Raap stated that over time more CO2 has gone into the atmosphere from the soil than has been released from burning fossil fuels. She says her first reaction was “Why don’t I know this?” Then she thought, “If this is true, can carbon be brought back to the soil?” In the quest that followed, she made the acquaintance of luminaries like Allan Savory, Christine Jones and Gabe Brown and traveled to several continents to see the new soil carbon paradigm in action. Schwartz has the gift of making difficult concepts accessible and appealing to lay readers, and that’s exactly what she does in Cows Save the Planet And Other Improbable Ways of Restoring Soil to Heal the Earth, which Elizabeth Kolbert called “a surprising, informative, and ultimately hopeful book.”

For her most recent project, Water in Plain Sight: Hope for a Thirsty World, Schwartz delves into the little-known role the water cycle plays in planetary health, which she illustrates with vivid, empowering stories from around the world. While we might not be able to change the rate of precipitation, as land managers we can directly affect the speed that water flows off our land and the amount of water that the soil is able to absorb. Trees and other vegetation are more than passive bystanders at the mercy of temperature extremes — they can also be powerful influences in regulating the climate.  

The week after this interview was recorded, Schwartz travelled to Washington, D.C., to take part in a congressional briefing on soil health and climate change organized by Regeneration International. As a public speaker, educator, researcher and networker, she has become deeply engaged in the broad movement to build soil carbon and restore ecosystems.

ACRES U.S.A. Please explain the title of your book, Water in Plain Sight.

JUDITH D. SCHWARTZ. The title plays on the idea that there is water in plain sight if we know where to look. It calls attention to aspects of water that are right before us but we are not seeing. By this I mean how water behaves on a basic level, not anything esoteric.

ACRES U.S.A. How should we reframe the problems of water shortages, runoff and floods?

SCHWARTZ. Once we approach these problems in terms of how water moves across the landscape and through the atmosphere, our understanding shifts. For example, when we frame a lack of water as “drought,” our focus is on what water is or isn’t coming down from the sky. That leaves us helpless because there’s really not much we can do. But if we shift our frame from drought to aridification, then the challenge becomes keeping water in the landscape. That opens up opportunities. Continue Reading →

Soil Organic Matter: Tips for Responsible Nitrogen Management

For soil organic matter to work the way it should, it depends on a careful balance of nutrients and minerals, including one of

Healthy, homegrown carrots in rich soil.

the most important elements — nitrogen. One of the great paradoxes of farming is that lack of nitrogen is regarded as one of the great limitations on plant growth, and yet plants are bathed in it because the atmosphere is 78 percent nitrogen.

Most plants cannot use nitrogen in this form (N2) as it is regarded as inert. It has to be converted into other forms — nitrate, ammonia, ammonium and amino acids for plants to utilize it.

In conventional agriculture most of these plant-available forms of nitrogen are obtained through synthetic nitrogen fertilizers that have been produced by the Haber-Bosch process.

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High-Quality, High-Yielding Crops: Measure to Manage

High-quality, high-yielding crops are the goal for most farmers. But where do you begin? Some even insist that to have both is simply impossible to accomplish. For those who think that way, it will likely always be true. But for those who are looking for ways to improve and believe there is still room to do so, what should be considered first? And then where do you go from that point to make the most possible difference?

The soil’s physical structure can be measured and needed corrections determined by use of a detailed soil analysis.

To get high-quality, high-yielding crops, begin with the soil where they will be growing by performing the closest examination of all the most important factors needed to meet every possible requirement. What provides the most advantage to the crop from that soil? Some will feel the answer here is a heavy fertilizer program for the crop. Sufficient fertilizer is extremely important, but to achieve high-quality, high-yielding crops, there is another requirement that is also essential to assure the greatest value from whatever fertilizer is applied.

For each soil to perform at its best requires a balance of water, air, minerals and organic matter. Specifically, if you want the soil to do its best it should contain a balance of 50 percent solids (ideally 45 percent minerals and 5 percent humus) and 50 percent pore space (composed of 50 percent water and 50 percent air). This is the correct physical composition of extremely productive, high-performance soils. To be consistently efficient it is a necessary requirement to develop the most effective biologically active environment to build the needed extensively developed root systems of high-quality, high-yielding crops.

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Soil Testing Based on Mehlich III Extraction Methods

Soil testing, wrote Jerry Brunetti in 2009, is the foundation for the actions you take to add fertility to your soil:

A farmer starts to test the soil.

I’ve always been a fan of foliar nutrition, especially on forages. However, I don’t advocate the application of foliar fertilizers as a replacement for sound agronomic practices involving comprehensive soil analysis (including multiple trace elements), tissue testing, and an evaluation of the soil ecology.

A soil test can be quite easy to interpret and recommendations can just as easily be made based on the results of the test. Since many articles on soil fertility have been written for Acres U.S.A., this article will provide the reader with an “ideal” test based upon a Mehlich III Extraction.

Forage tests generally determine whether or not you are on target with adequate feeding of the crop and are becoming considerably more revealing than in the past. This is especially true in the measurement of total digestibility and fiber digestibility, protein quality, and the various fractions of energy such as sugars, starches, digestible NDF, etc.

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Healthy Soil, Defined

What is healthy soil? Most farmers strive for a healthy, fer­tile soil that has good tilth. But do these terms — soil health, soil fertility and good tilth — all mean the same thing to all of us? I bet you have an image in your mind of what the soil and the crop grow­ing in it should look like. But in today’s

A worm comes up from the earth.

world, with all the available technology, plant protective fungicides, insecticides, etc. along with plenty of soluble nutri­ents, looking at a “good” crop can be deceiving. It may in fact be wearing a lot of ‘make-up,’ covering up its true state of health. In recent years, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has started to focus more on soil health and what constitutes a “healthy” soil.

If we define soil health using the NRCS’ definition, it is “the capacity to function.” I thought about this definition for quite some time and decided I need­ed to add to it, clarifying the thought as “the capacity to function without inter­vention.” I define intervention as plant alterations, fungicides, insecticides, etc. Healthy soil should produce healthy crops without intervention.

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Mole Control: DIY Trap Construction

Mole control methods range the gamut from simple and non-toxic to chemical-based and complex. My simple mole trap was founded on the basis of field trials and personal convictions I hold regarding the environment and its inhabitants. Prior research had been done early on in the search for a humane and sustainable method for dealing with the mole problem here at Highland Hill Farm.

This trap is made from a common five-gallon bucket with about 70 quarter-inch holes
drilled through the bottom.

Highland Hill Farm is a 22-acre parcel located in the steep, rocky foothills of Mt. Sunapee. Agriculturally speaking, this area of New Hampshire is better suited for grazing pasture and forestry than for large-scale horticulture. A milestone in sustainability and independence here on the farm has been reached with the addition of a fully functioning, off-grid solar powered electrical system. Photovoltaic solar panels supply clean renewable power to maintain three farmstead dwellings as well as the two large chest freezers used to keep the summer produce fresh. This system was designed, constructed and fully funded by myself as a personal goal to act responsibly in support of the convictions I maintain toward environmental stewardship.

This article was written on a computer powered by the sun. I developed and experimented with various types of mole traps. The soil of my growing beds is rich and teeming with life, especially earthworms, the favorite food of the common northern mole (Talpa europaea ). Over the years I’ve been using a thick layer of mulch hay between the rows and around the spring plantings. This layer of hay provides cover for the moles, and as it decomposes it provides food for the earthworms. Plenty of worms create an environment conducive to plenty of moles. It’s not uncommon for me to step on a mole tunnel every third or fourth step, even around the grassy area near the trout pond. The infestation had gotten to the point where action had to be taken.

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