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True Soil Health: Create the Capacity to Function Without Intervention

My philosophy is that whatever you do on your farm should improve soil health. But how do you know what that is? The USDA defines soil health as, “The continued capacity of soil to function as a vital living ecosystem that sustains plants, animals and humans.” I would add to that definition and say that soil health isn’t just the capacity to function, it’s the capacity of soils to function without intervention.

The same field pictured below, three months later. This is the result of managing the field to promote healthy soil life and maximize biological nutrient cycling: a beautiful organic seed corn crop, just after detasseling.

What counts as “intervention?” Does intervention mean biotechnology, insecticides, fungicides and tillage? Is fertilizer an intervention? Do these interventions make your farm better for future years? I believe money spent on interventions needs to be shifted to inputs that yield soil health.

Appropriate intervention when absolutely needed is wise, but the goal is minimum intervention — in other words do everything you can to get the soils healthy and mineralized. Mineralize your soils using exchangeable nutrient sources that come from the carbon biological system. You have to create an ideal home for soil life and feed them in order to build soil health.

Remove the negatives, which include monoculture crops and excessive tillage. Reduce the use of other possible negatives added through harsh soluble fertilizers and excessive nitrogen, not to mention chemicals and biotechnology.

Farming for soil health means treating your farm like a system. For years we have been promoting the “rules” of biological farming (Six Principles of Biological Farming). Following these rules will lead to healthy soils that produce good yields. The soil health guidelines you now see published in many places focus on minimum disturbance with an emphasis on no-till. In my opinion not all soils are capable of being farmed no-till. Continue Reading →

Cover Cropping & Green Manures

After 22 years of farming, my farm’s soil is markedly more fertile and productive. It has been a wonderful journey learning what works and how to continue to improve long-term productivity while harvesting bountiful crops.

Flail mowing summer Sudangrass/cowpea green manure at Potomac Vegetable Farms – West in Virginia.

There are several methods that deserve credit for this increase in soil quality: the use of compost, the use of a balanced mineral fertilizer and a serious commitment to cover cropping.

For this article I want to focus on the growing of cover crops and green manures. When I became the farm manager at Potomac Vegetable Farms – West in 1992, I sought advice on how to transition the farm into organic production.

The land had been growing mostly sweet corn, pumpkins and green beans with commercial chemical fertilizers and herbicides. The soil was biologically inactive and nutrients were missing. I can clearly remember the words from a fertility consultant, “I can sell you something in a bag, and I can sell you something in a bucket, but what you really need to do is to make compost and grow cover crops.” And thus began my journey into both compost-making and cover cropping.

Why take on both of those jobs rather than just one? Well, they go hand in hand, each leveraging the benefits of the other to move a soil more quickly toward health and resilience.

Continue Reading →