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Sustainable Soil: Four Rules for Controlling Organic Inputs

Sustainable soil requires profitability.

A girl plays in the soil.

No matter how desirable a sustainable program might be, it must be tempered by the realities of making a total commercial agriculture program work economically. Growers attempting to deal with this reality often focus on sustainability in a piecemeal manner, as they do not always understand the basic rules or guidelines that are required of a sustainable soil program. In this article, we will review the guidelines on achieving sustainability and also report on new developments in sustainable soil nutrition products.

Commercial agriculture programs are often unable to profitably approach sustainability due to economic pressures. Time-honored practices that require land to lay fallow and the use of cover crops along with manure or compost applications are expensive when compared to the rapid prepare-fertilize-plant harvest cycle that has come to dominate commercial practice. Sustainability struggles within such a marketplace, as growers rarely receive a premium for crops grown on sustainable soil versus crops grown conventionally. When a grower is faced with the hard choice of feeding his soil or feeding his family, the family will win.

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Organic Nitrogen: When are Nitrogen Units Not Nitrogen Units?

Organic nitrogen and inorganic nitrogen: what’s the difference?

A farmer gives a plant organic humus fertilizer to plant.

Organic growers frequently attempt to quantify the amount of organic nitrogen they add to their soil ecosystems in the same manner that conventional growers use inorganic nitrogen units to calculate their nitrogen requirements. Logically, they reason that a ton of organic material with 4 percent nitrogen content as verified by a laboratory test will provide 80 pounds, or units by some determinations, of nitrogen.

The truth is that organic nitrogen sources vary in their efficiency of transformation into soil components over a much broader range of response than do inorganic synthetics, which offer precision measurement and a repeatable predictability of release. Use of inorganic nitrogen units to determine nitrogen needs for organic growers is therefore problematic. A popularly available and reliable conversion algorithm between tested inorganic nitrogen and untested organic nitrogen in organic soils does not exist, however. Without such an algorithm there can be no scientific basis of comparison. Continue Reading →

Flame Weeding: Turn up the Heat to Fight Weeds

Flame weeding (also referred to as flaming) has been an apt option for or­ganically ridding row crops and fields of uninvited weeds while also replenishing the soil with nutrients from the result­ing carbon. Wedding the proficiency of flame with the compressed liquid power of propane has served many farmers and food producers well over the past cen­tury. According to the Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticide, the first agricultural flame weeder was patented in 1852.

Flaming with propane attacks weeds with no repercussions on crops or fields.

Flame weeding is done by generat­ing intense heat through a chosen de­vice — whether it is a handheld torch or tractor-mounted — that sears the leaves of the weeds, which causes the cell sap to expand, thusly damaging the cell walls. “You’re watching for the color change, depending on the weed and its maturity,” said Charles House of Earth & Sky Solutions. Leaves wilt and dehydrate the plant, leaving the invaders no other option than to die, sometimes up to three days later.

“The key to successful flame weeding is the maturity of the plant you’re trying to eradicate. The smaller, the better,” he explains. The best time is when they’re immature and in the cotyledon stage.

Flame Weeding Background

Flaming gained popularity in the first third of the 20th century and continued through the 1960s until pesticides re­placed industry attentions. Though its use waned over the following 20 years, flame weeding resurfaced and regained popularity in the early 1990s, and con­tinues to be used today. So continues flame weeding’s renaissance. Continue Reading →

Tractor Time Podcast Episode 7: John Slack and Soils from a Geological Perspective

This week, we’re dipping into the archives back to 2005. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans and YouTube was founded, and in 2005, John Slack also took the stage at our Eco-Ag conference and spoke about rocks.

John Slack.

But we are not really talking about rocks. We are talking about geology. And even more so, geology-microbiology, or as Slack puts it, “Bugs eating rocks.”

The basis of all this, and why it’s interesting to us and other eco-farmers: the industrial chemical revolution that occurred after World War II caused scientists, or geologists, or just rock fanatics, to pause in their research in regards to agriculture. Yet a few passionate folks, like John, continued. They avoided the noise of short cuts and pollution and learned how many living things manipulate rocks to get the nutrients they require.

John Slack does not call himself a geologist or a farmer. He calls himself a prospector. “We went out and looked for calcium,” he says in his talk. He talks about what he looks for when he walks the fields and digs his hands into the soil, to see what plants are reacting to those minerals.

John Slack is a fourth-generation miner who worked throughout northern Canada in the search of economic mineral deposits from 1979 through 1992. This entailed extensive stream sediment, soil geochemistry, geological mapping, compilations, mine development and mine management. This experience would result in employing these techniques in the evaluation of agricultural landscapes. In 1992 Slack left the mining industry and started farming on the family’s 330-acre property, Golden Innisfree Farms, located in Erin Township, Ontario. The farm was a grass-based cow-calf operation. Today the farm comprises organic vegetable production and a grass-based sheep dairy. Slack and his father started to evaluate and experiment with agrominerals. Commonly referred to as rock powder and rock dust, this research resulted in developing the Spanish River Carbonatite Complex, a unique igneous (magmatic) calcium carbonate deposit. Slack commenced soil auditing services that resulted in introducing soil evaluation methodologies, commonly employed in mineral exploration, to farm clients.

We’re proud and happy to share that talk from 2005 with you this week. It’s still as relevant, and shrouded by short cuts and industrial chemical fertilizer and pesticide propaganda, as ever.

If you like this talk, you can purchase other talks from John Slack at AcresUSA.com.

Also, find all of the Tractor Time podcasts here, or for free in the iTunes store.

Hosted by Ryan Slabaugh.

Beehive Construction: Innovative Beekeeping and Value-Added Marketing

Beehive construction isn’t limited to a single set of blueprints. There are options, and within those options, thousands of sustainable variations exist.

Beekeeping construction can even include a temporary box for a second swarm. Photo courtesy Sparrowhawk Farm

Les Crowder always had a great curiosity about insects when he was a kid growing up in Bernalillo, New Mexico. This interest was particularly pronounced when it came to social insects such as ants, wasps and bees. He was fascinated with the organization of ants as they adjusted their behavior to the food he would bring them. Crowder said it appeared that the ants showed intelligence, as they got to know he would feed them at a certain time and a certain place every day and had the ability to communicate this information with their “sister” ants. Later, he managed to catch a bee swarm, which he put into a box. From that point, he was captivated by bees and would eventually spend the greater part of his life studying and making a business out of them. He now owns an apiary at Sparrowhawk Farm with his wife, Beth, and family.

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Subsoil: Digging Deep into Hardpan without Over-Tilling

Subsoil: The term implies tilling in an out-of-sight area called the “subsoil.” Building these zones may be the most important

Tractor plows farm land. Understanding why you till and how deep to till are important.

tillage practice, and it also may be the least understood. To understand why it is necessary to till the subsoil, we must first look under the ground into the real world of agriculture.

We will find mysterious things lying underground that can severely limit yields, regardless of how well we have managed the surface zone. Let us begin by taking a slice of the soil to see what is under there. The farmer should begin by looking for evidence of worm activity in the upper 6 to 12 inches of soil. Worms are a beautiful sight for those who understand their value. Their burrows enhance soil aeration and soil fertility. The burrow linings thrive with microbial activity. Once the soil passes through a worm’s digestive tract, the castings will be much higher in nutrients such as phosphorous and potassium than the nearby undigested soil.

We may also see a number of vertical holes that are formed by a different worm, commonly called the “night crawler.” These holes may be as large as 3/8 inch in diameter and extend from the surface to deep into the subsoil. In other areas we may not find night crawlers because while some soils may have them, others do not.

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