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Book of the Week: How to Grow Top Quality Corn, by Dr. Harold Willis

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from Acres U.S.A. original book, How to Grow Top Quality Corn, written by Dr. Harold Willis. Copyright 1984, 2009, softcover, 58 pages. BOTW price: $8.00 ($12.00 regularly priced.)

By Dr. Harold Willis

So you want to grow top quality corn. Where do you begin?

Soil. The very most basic thing for growing really good crops is good soil. Soil that is not only high in fertility, but is alive with beneficial organisms. The ideal soil for growing corn is deep (six or more feet), medium-textured and loose, well-drained, high in water-holding capacity and organic matter, and able to supply all the nutrients the plant needs. Of course, not everyone has the perfect soil, and corn isn’t so fussy that it can’t do well on less than ideal soil. But I will show you how to build up your soil so that you can grow much better corn.

How to Grow Top Quality Corn

How to Grow Top Quality Corn, by Dr. Harold Willis

Climate. Corn does best with warm, sunny growing weather (75–86° F), well-distributed intermittent moderate rains, or irrigation (15 or more inches during the growing season), and 130 or more frost-free days. The U.S. corn belt has these soil and climatic conditions.

Humus. Even if the weather isn’t ideal, a good, living soil with high humus content will often make the difference between a good crop and disaster, for humus allows soil to soak up considerable moisture and hold it for dry periods. It is often the case that one farmer who has been building up his soil will have lush, green crops in a drought year, while his neighbor’s crops have burned up.

Soil parts. An average, good soil should contain nearly one-half mineral particles, one-fourth water, one-fourth air, and a few percent organic matter. The minerals supply and hold some nutrients and give bulk to the soil. Water is necessary for plant growth and for the soil organisms, but not too much or too little. Air (oxygen) is needed by roots and beneficial soil organisms. Organic matter (humus and the living organisms that produce it) is a storehouse of certain nutrients, holds water, gives soil a loose crumbly texture, reduces erosion, buffers and detoxifies soil, and even helps protect plants from diseases and pests because of antibiotics and inhibitors produced by beneficial bacteria and fungi. Some of these friendly microbes also produce plant growth stimulators, others help feed nutrients directly to roots, and others trap (fix) nitrogen from the air—free fertilizer. Continue Reading →

Corn Mazes as Profit Generators

“If you build it, they will come.” Several years ago, these words seemingly fell upon the ears of John Kondilis-Hashem, an ambitious young farmer whose skills have graced Bella Organic Farm since 2008. With an eye for business prosperity and a hand for organic cropping, Kondilis-Hashem keenly studied the methods through which neighboring farms were boosting profits and sales. Upon assessing the local competition, he soon realized that his Oregon-based operation was lacking one critical ingredient.

The corn maze at Sweetfields Farm in Florida is designed, cut and maintained by the owners to keep costs down.

“(Conventional) farms were all offering corn mazes — an attraction for drawing in crowds to their businesses,” he said. “We realized we were one of the only farms in the Portland area not doing one.”

But once the owners of Bella Organic built it — amid the steamy summer of 2010 — the premonition soon rang true. Today, visitors come in droves from the greater Portland region and beyond to lose themselves in the farm’s green-cropped labyrinths, a fun fall diversion from football and leaf-raking.

Although farms typically charge between $10 and $20 per visitor for a two-to three-hour meander through the pathways, the maze itself has not been the primary moneymaker in the case of many organic and sustainable farms.

“We make a little bit of money from the admission prices, but not a great deal,” said Kondilis-Hashem. “Rather, the purpose of the corn maze is to simply lure people to the farm. And boy has it ever. Once we get folks to come out, they end up spending an entire day here and purchasing many of the other things that we offer. We run the maze in conjunction with our pumpkin patch — and that’s where we really clean up. I’ve seen people come here and end up carting out six or seven pumpkins at a time. But the corn maze is what reels them in.”

Continue Reading →

Soil Conservation Yields Economic Gains

Soil conservation practices such as growing cover crops and going no-till can result in an economic return of over $100 per acre, according to a set of case studies jointly released by the National Association of Conservation Districts and Datu Research, LLC.

Cover crops, like tillage radish, can improve soil health and structure.

Cover crops and no-till can limit soil loss, reduce run-off, enhance biodiversity and provide other benefits. Naturally, farmers who are considering adopting these soil conservation practices are keen to know how they will affect their farm’s bottom line.

“These case studies quantify for producers, policy-makers and researchers alike what the economic advantages of using no-till and cover crops are, and why it makes good sense for farmers to try them and for organizations like NACD to support and even incentivize their use,” said Jeremy Peters, NACD CEO. “We have loads of anecdotal data that says conservation practices benefit the land and producers’ pocketbooks, but now we have run the numbers and know how much.”

During the three-year study period, corn-soybean farmers experimented with cover crops and/or no-till, and quantified the year-by-year changes in income they attributed to these practices compared to a pre-adoption baseline. They found that while planting costs increased by up to $38 per acre: Fertilizer costs decreased by up to $50 per acre; erosion repair costs decreased by up to $16 per acre; and yields increased by up to $76 per acre.

The studies also found that with adoption of these soil conservation practices, net farm income increased by up to $110 per acre. Included in the farmers’ calculations was the considerable time they spent attending workshops or searching the internet to learn about no-till or cover crop practices.

“That time turns out to be an excellent investment, when bottom lines start improving,” said Marcy Lowe, CEO of Datu Research, which conducted the case studies in partnership with NACD. “Farmers who switch to these practices can see losses at first. But thanks to these case study farmers who are generously sharing what they’ve learned, that learning curve will speed up for other farmers.” Continue Reading →

Interview: Scientist, Author Jonathan Lundgren Discusses Ground-Breaking Research into Insects and Species Diversity

Acres U.S.A. is North America’s monthly magazine of ecological agriculture. Each month we conduct an in-depth interview with a thought leader. The following interview appeared in our Febjonathan-lundgrenruary 2016 issue and was too important not to share widely.

Dr. Jonathan Lundgren is an agroecologist, director of the Ecdysis Foundation and CEO of Blue Dasher Farm in Brookings, South Dakota. He received his Ph.D. in Entomology from the University of Illinois in 2004 and was a top scientist with USDA-ARS for 11 years. Lundgren received the Presidential Early Career Award for Science and Engineering awarded by the White House and has served as an advisor for national grant panels and regulatory agencies on pesticide and GM crop risk assessments. Lundgren has written 107 peer-reviewed journal articles, authored the book Relationships of Natural Enemies and Non-prey Foods and has received more than $3.4 million in grants. Dr. Lundgren has trained five post-docs and 12 graduate students from around the world. One of his priorities is to make science applicable to end-users, and he regularly interacts with the public and farmers regarding pest and farm management and insect biology. Lundgren’s research program focuses on assessing the ecological risk of pest management strategies and developing long-term solutions for sustainable food systems. His ecological research focuses heavily on conserving healthy biological communities within agroecosystems by reducing disturbance and increasing biodiversity within cropland.

Interviewed by Tracy Frisch

Continue Reading →

Bats a Boon to Corn Farmers

lasiurusborealis

Corn farmers, look to the sky at dusk and mutter thanks to the bats swooping over your moth-ridden fields: Those winged mammals put more than $1 billion back into your collective pockets, a new study suggests.

The first-of-its-kind research used nets to fully enclose 20-by-20-meter fragments of large corn fields at night, thereby excluding foraging bats throughout the growing seasons in southern Illinois in 2013 and 2014.

The team’s analysis focused on damage caused by corn earworms, the crop-damaging larvae of a species of moth (Helicoverpa zea) that lives worldwide and is often preyed upon by bats such as North America’s eastern red bat (Lasiurus borealis). Ears grown where bats couldn’t feed on moths had 56 percent more larvae-damaged kernels, the researchers report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

On the whole, bats increased crop yield by 1.4 percent — a benefit that, on average and at current corn prices, adds up to a difference of about $3.18 per acre and more than $1 billion worldwide.

The drop in damage could be attributed to bats, the researchers say, because the crop-enclosing nets were rolled up during daylight hours to provide access for farmers and pest-eating birds.

This article appears in the November 2015 issue of Acres U.S.A.

Smart Sowing for Natural Weed Control

weedy-wheatNew research results from the University of Copenhagen’s Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences report that weeds would have a tough time competing against crops such as corn, grains and beans if farmers were to alter their sowing patterns.

“Our results demonstrate that weed control in fields is aided by abandoning traditional seed sowing techniques. Farmers around the world generally sow their crops in rows. Our studies with wheat and corn show that tighter sowing in grid patterns suppresses weed growth. This provides increased crop yields in fields prone to heavy amounts of weeds,” said Professor Jacob Weiner, a University of Copenhagen plant ecologist.

Research studies performed in Danish wheat fields, together with recent studies in Colombian cornfields, demonstrate that modified sowing patterns and the nearer spacing of crops results in a reduction of total weed biomass. The amount of weeds was heavily reduced — by up to 72 percent — while grain yields increased by more than 45 percent in heavily weed-infested fields. The trick is to increase crop-weed competition and utilize the crop’s head start, so that it gains a large competitive advantage over the neighboring weeds. The research results from Colombia have been published in Weed Research. This encapsulation of the research is from the March 2015 issue of Acres U.S.A.