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Composting Tips and Strategies for Balanced Compost

Composting tips are common to find, but information to build a composting program is really what most people are seeking.

A wheelbarrow full of compost that is ready to apply.

Charles Walters, as quoted in Secrets of the Soil, by Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird, says of microbial life: “There are more kinds and numbers of minute livestock hidden in the shallows and depths of an acre of soil than ever walk the surface of that field.”

As much as a cattle rancher’s livelihood depends on healthy livestock, he and his cattle’s very lives depend on armies of beneficial microbes for survival. Microbes are the foundation for all life on earth; without them the earth would be nothing more than a barren rock. There would be no fertile soils, no plants, no trees, no insects, no animals and no humans.

Soil bacteria secrete acids that break down rocks, and enzymes that break down dead plant and animal matter into rich, life-giving soil, while transforming minerals into forms that are usable to plants. Microbes help prevent soil erosion, combat disease organisms that attack plants, animals and humans, and are an important link our food chain.

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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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Genetic Drift: Protecting Your Crops from Contamination

Genetic drift is one of the most common problems organic farmers in the United States face. Recently, my husband Klaas looked across the road at our neighbor’s farm and said in a horrified tone, “You know, if Harold plants Bt corn on that field next year, we won’t be able to plant organic corn anywhere on this farm.” This sudden realization, born in the increasing knowledge that organic

Seed contamination can occur when farms cross-pollinate, or when waterways carry contaminants into other fields.

farmers can no longer ignore the impact of their neighbor’s genetically modified crop varieties, struck us hard. We had thought that the neighbor’s corn pollen might affect a small portion of our nearest field, something that appropriate buffer zones would take care of, never really thinking it could render many downwind acres unsuitable for corn. But it certainly could. This is the reality of organic farming today.

The impact of genetic drift can affect my farm, my planting plans, my certification, my income — not on just a few rows, but possibly on many acres. The scariest part of this reality is that the farmer won’t know if contamination has occurred until it’s too late, and then there is relatively little he can do to prevent it. To be prepared for the 2000 crop, organic farmers must start thinking of GMOs as being their problem too.

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Agritourism: Tips for Getting Started

Agritourism as an additional revenue stream for the farm can be tempting for some. Possible experiences for farm visitors may include education about farming such as sheep-shearing demonstrations, entertaining activities such as gourd-painting classes, or simply the opportunity to observe the crops and animals on a working farm. Visitors can range from the local community to international tourists.

A local artist attracts the attention of two young farm visitors during a lavender farm’s summer festival.

When non-farming citizens come directly onto the farm enticed by enjoyable experiences, the farmer can benefit in multiple ways. In some cases, farm-owners use agritourism as a marketing platform to draw customers to the farm to buy and pay for the farm’s crops directly, eliminating both the need to deliver crops as well as the middleman.

Agritourism sometimes adds direct revenue to a farm’s offerings by charging a fee for workshops or tours. And though agritourism can range from a one-hour herb drying class at a backyard herb farm to overnight rural B&B stays, here’s one example concerning revenue from the well-known October pumpkin agritourism venture described by Jane Eckert, founder of Eckert AgriMarketing.

“While the average pumpkin sale might be $4-$8 per customer, they will generally spend at least $20 per family just to have a fun day on the farm. Fall season revenues might start for farms at just a few thousand dollars. But with a little bit of ingenuity, hard work and a good product mix, $100,000 is not a difficult goal for a farm to reach in October. After several years, many farms are approaching sales up to $500,000 and more. Most farms I know exceed $100,000 annually from their October season. The concept is to start small with pumpkins and then start adding the products, food sales, school tours, etc., and the revenue quickly builds.”

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Regenerative Agriculture in Action

Regenerative agriculture comes in many forms. Since 2010 Main Street Project has been developing and testing a poultry-centered regenerative agriculture system capable of producing economic, ecological and social benefits that are grounded in local rural communities. Main Street Project’s regenerative agriculture system connects and supports people, makes efficient use of land and

Planting hazelnut in Minnesota.

energy and helps rebuild local food systems by creating opportunities for a new generation of aspiring young and immigrant farmers.

The team at Main Street Project is embarking on an exciting new project in Minnesota. The organization has purchased 100 acres of farmland near Northfield. The farmland is on Mud Creek, located on the northeast side of Northfield, in Dakota County. The farm will showcase the organization’s replicable, scalable system and provide a more expansive space for education and training programs for new and established farmers.

Reginaldo Haslett-Marroquin is the principal architect of the innovative poultry-centered regenerative agriculture model that is at the heart of Main Street Project’s work. As Chief Strategy Office, his focus is on the development of multi-level strategies for building regenerative food and agriculture systems that deliver social, economic and ecological benefits. He leads Main Street’s engineering and design work and currently oversees the implementation of restorative blueprints for communities in the United States, Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras. The Main Street Project team has helped train more than 70 agripreneurs. Continue Reading →