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Interview: Researcher, Author Eric Toensmeier Explores Practical, Effective Carbon Farming Strategies

Real-World Solutions

While this Eric Toensmeier_rgb (2)interview was being prepared a story surfaced on public radio about a couple of enterprising Americans who are taking advantage of changing policy to open a factory in Cuba. Their product? Tractors! The whole idea, the story helpfully explained, was to introduce “21st century farming” to the beleaguered island. By making it easier to tear up the soil. Clearly there is some distance to go before an accurate idea of 21st century farming penetrates the mainstream. It will take people like Eric Toensmeier. His new book, The Carbon Farming Solution, carries enough heft, range and detail to clear away forests of confusion. If the notion of leaving carbon in the soil is going to take its place next to that of leaving oil in the ground, this one-volume encyclopedia on the subject is exactly the kind of deeply informed work that’s required. Reached at his home in western Massachusetts, Toensmeier was exhilarated over finishing a project years in the making, and more than happy to talk about it.

This interview appears in the May 2016 issue of Acres U.S.A.

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Biochar as Substrate for Hydroponic Tomatoes

tomatoes USDA photoAs the use of soilless, hydroponic growing methods becomes more prevalent among crop producers, researchers are looking for new materials that can help growers save money, produce healthy plants and contribute to sustainable practices. The authors of a study in HortScience say that biochar, a charcoal-like material produced by heating biomass in the absence of oxygen, can help “close the loop” when used as a substrate for soilless, hydroponic tomato production. “This method could provide growers with a cost-effective and environmentally responsible green-waste disposal method, and supplement substrate, fertilizer and energy requirements,” said the study’s corresponding author Jason Wargent.

This article appears in the February 2016 issue of Acres U.S.A.

Cover Crops in Grazing Systems

cover crop winter pea, clover, cereal ryeNoble Foundation researchers are studying how cover crops could be part of a year-round grazing system that provides economic and environmental benefits to farmers and ranchers. Noble Foundation research agronomist James Rogers, Ph.D., received a three-year conservation innovation grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service to conduct the research. The grant will support Rogers in determining how much moisture is used and/or conserved by summer cover crops and how those crops impact production of grasses and legumes consumed by livestock (commonly called forages) during the winter months. Moisture is a key  component of crop and forage production. Sufficient moisture levels boost pasture quantity and provide benefits to soil, which ultimately helps farmers and ranchers. “We need to determine whether the cover crops take moisture away from or preserve moisture for winter pasture,” Rogers said. “Preserving moisture will allow for earlier fall production. However, if the cover crops use up the moisture, winter pasture production is limited.”

This article appears in the February 2016 issue of Acres U.S.A.

Healthy Soils for a Healthy Life — Increasing Soil Organic Matter through Organic Agriculture

Better infiltration, retention and delivery to plants helps avoid drought damage. Organic is on the left, conventional on the right. Photo courtesy of Rodale Institute

Better infiltration, retention and delivery to plants helps avoid drought damage. Organic is on the left, conventional on the right. Photo courtesy of Rodale Institute

by André Leu

This year has been declared the International Year of Soils by the 68th UN General Assembly with the theme “Healthy Soils for a Healthy Life.” I am particularly pleased with the theme because this is a message that we in the organic sector have been spreading for more than 70 years, and at first we were ridiculed. Now there is a huge body of science showing that what we observed in our farming systems is indeed correct.

“Organic farming” became the dominant name in English-speaking countries for farming systems that eschew toxic, synthetic pesticides and fertilizers through J.I. Rodale’s global magazine Organic Farming and Gardening, first published in the United States in the 1940s. Rodale promoted this term based on building soil health by the recycling of organic matter through composts, green manures, mulches and cover crops to increase the levels of soil organic matter (SOM) as one of the primary management techniques.

Numerous scientific studies show that SOM provides many benefits for building soil health such as improving the number and biodiversity of beneficial microorganisms that provide nutrients for plants, including fixing nitrogen, as well as controlling soilborne plant diseases. The decomposition of plant and animal residues into SOM can provide all the nutrients needed by plants and negate the need for synthetic chemical fertilizers, especially nitrogen fertilizers that are responsible for numerous environmental problems. Continue Reading →

The Soil Solution

The Soil Solutionby Graeme Sait

The UN has named 2015 International Year of Soils, and we should embrace this initiative with open hearts and willing hands. It is an incredibly timely focus in light of a series of serious challenges impacting our future and perhaps our very existence. Soil health directly affects plant, animal and human health. It also impacts topsoil erosion, water management and ocean pollution. Most importantly, it is now recognized that climate change is directly related to soil mismanagement. I believe a global soil health initiative can help save our planet.

The Top Five Threats

While in the UK, I met with a professor who shared some deeply concerning findings. He informed me that a recent survey of leading British scientists revealed that as many as one in five of the best thinkers in the country believe that we will be extinct as a species by the end of this century, or perhaps much earlier. This information should serve to spur meaningful action from every one of us. There are five core threats that need to be urgently addressed, and they all relate back to the soil. Continue Reading →

Fish Fertilizer Meets Nitrogen Needs

Organic LettuceThe authors of a new study have found that hydrolyzed fish fertilizer holds promise as an economically feasible nitrogen source for growing organic vegetables.

“Soluble organic nitrogen sources suitable for fertigation in organic vegetable production are much needed,” said lead author of the study, Charles Ogles. Ogles and colleagues at Auburn University studied the effects of three different nitrogen sources during a two-year crop sequence of yellow squash and collards. The scientists used hydrolyzed fish fertilizer, inorganic nitrogen (N) source with secondary and micronutrients, inorganic nitrogen without secondary or micronutrients and a zero nitrogen control for the study. Nitrogen was applied at recommended rates for both squash and collards, 80 percent of the recommended rates and 60 percent of the recommended rates. The study design included a zero nitrogen treatment used as the control.

“To eliminate the rotation order effect, the crops were switched each year: yellow squash-collard in year one and collard-yellow squash in year two” said Ogles. Continue Reading →