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Book of the Week: The Farm as Ecosystem

By Jerry Brunetti

Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from Acres U.S.A. original book, The Farm as Ecosystem, written by Jerry Brunetti. Copyright 2014, softcover, 335 pages. Regular price: $30.00. SALE PRICE: $25.00.

An Invitation to Become a Legume

The Farm as Ecosystem, by Jerry Brunetti

 

Another exciting breakthrough in nitrogen-fixing bacteria originates out of the University of Nottingham’s Center for Crop Nitrogen Fixation. Professor Edward Cocking and colleagues found a specific strain of nitrogen-fixing bacteria in sugar cane that could intracellularly colonize all major crop plants. Remarkably, this development potentially allows all the cells within a plant to x atmospheric nitrogen! This technology, labeled “N-Fix,” is not a genetic modified/bioengineering technology, either. Rather, it is a seed inoculant, enabling plant cells to become nitrogen fixers, a hopeful boon to annual crop production, which uses wasteful and contaminating amounts of nitrogen. Commercialization of this non-GMO breakthrough is expected by 2015–2016.

In the same vein of investigating the “cellular wisdom” that exists among microbes and plants, researchers at the University of Missouri’s Bond Life Sciences Center, under the direction of professor Gary Stacey, discovered that, for reasons yet unclear, non-legumes have not yet made a “pact” with nitrogen-fixing rhizobia bacteria that allow legumes to convert nitrogen gas into plant food that can be used to build proteins. Continue Reading →

Book of the Week: Hands-on Agronomy

By Neal Kinsey and Charles Walters

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from an Acres U.S.A. original book, Hands-On Agronomy, by Neal Kinsey and Charles Walters. Copyright 2013, 1993. Soft cover, 391 pages. $35.00 regularly priced. SALE PRICE $22.50.

Hands-on Agronomy, by Neal Kinsey and Charles Walters

No one used the term killer agriculture or knowledgeable mining when I was a youngster growing up on a farm in southeast Missouri. We raised corn, wheat, cotton, soybeans and a little hay. We also finished a few cattle. Now, a more mature sense of values brings the reality of our farming operation into focus. Sir Albert Howard identified the horns of the modern farming dilemma: partial and imbalanced fertilization, and toxic rescue chemistry.

Neither I nor my father heard or understood that dictum then, then being the 1950s and 1960s. All we knew was that the crops faltered—not occasionally, but year after year. My father had five sons and he concluded, “I hope you won’t even think about going into agriculture because it costs too much and I am not going to be able to help you get started. I hope you will go into business and be an accountant or something like that.”

Accordingly, I went to college with the intention of becoming an accountant. There was a problem with that. I couldn’t stand being inside four walls all the time. So I changed my direction while I was at the University of Missouri where I met William A. Albrecht, the legendary professor who contributed so much to what Acres U.S.A. calls eco-agriculture. Albrecht gave the Department of Soils its well-deserved reputation, but by the time I arrived, he had been retired—forcibly, I am told—in the wake of a great grant from a fossil fuel company. In any case, his classroom days were over, for which reason I was able to get more of his ear than might have been possible as classroom fare. He taught a private study course for Brookside Laboratory, and I decided to avail myself of this extra-curricular opportunity. He changed my entire way of thinking. Continue Reading →

Book of the Week: Ask the Plant

By Charles Walters and Esper K. Chandler

Editor’s Note: This is a combination of two smaller excerpts from Acres U.S.A. original book, Ask the Plant, written by Acres U.S.A. founder Charles Walters and Esper K. Chandler. Copyright 2010, softcover, 286 pages. $30.00 regularly priced. SALE PRICE $20.00.

It takes a cloudless night an adequate distance from the city’s light pollution to really appreciate the beautiful planet on which we live. Telescopes can take us well beyond the Milky Way, yet the unaided eye can find some planets in our solar system, and a little book learning can supply the intelligence that we have been here some 14 billion years, more or less.

Ask the Plant, by Charles Walters & Esper K. Chandler

This organism called Earth is no more than a speck in our planetary system, one that is swung on a gravitational string in a 300-million-mile orbit around a nebular sun. It wobbles slightly on its axis so that each hemisphere can be blessed with summer, winter, spring and fall.

Geologists tell us that planet Earth has many more mineral compounds than our sister planets, all of them fashioned from those elements that are blocked with such orderly symmetry on the Mendeleev chart.

How can these minerals have evolved from the same elements that service other planets? This evolution of inert minerals is aided and abetted by the life forms called microorganisms. Our microbial workers did not raise mountains from the deep. A fiery heartbeat from the center of the earth did that, striking land masses with tsunamis, sending water up or into a frigid air envelope, igniting ocean warming and great ice ages.

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Supplying Nitrogen: Tap into Nature

Human activity is affecting planet Earth to such an extent that natural scientists are naming this time the beginning of a new geological age/epoch called Anthropocene (the recent age of man) and ending what was the Holocene epoch (about 17,000 years ago to present).

We are no longer observers of nature, but significant influencers of what is happening to nature. The sheer weight of humans and their livestock is now bigger than the Earth’s wild animal population. Our activities are rapidly increasing the amount of CO2 in the air. That is an established fact, the effect of which is the only thing in dispute, i.e. will it get warmer or cooler and will we be wetter or dryer?

The temporary warmth is obvious in the Arctic. Although growers usually help to absorb CO2 by growing crops, their improper handling of crop residue or improper feeding of livestock can add the CO2 back into the air. However, farming’s bigger polluting effect concerns nitrogen.

Plants have always used N from the air by a variety of natural methods. Now the rate we are taking N out of the air is 50 percent higher than what nature has done for millions of years. Most of this industrially created N is now used for fertilizer. This industrial process was originally used to make munitions prior to World War I.

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Root System Architecture & Nitrogen Management

Researchers questioned whether current improved rice varieties are suitable for organic agriculture. Through an experiment focused on nitrogen use efficiency (organic and inorganic sources) and root system architecture, they concluded that varieties bred for high-nitrogen inputs may not be suitable for organic agriculture — reinforcing the need for varieties to be bred specifically for organic agricultural systems. Here the researchers present their work:

The production and extensive application of N fertilizer to crops worldwide has contributed to major environmental problems due to soil leaching and greenhouse gas emissions that play a large role in ozone depletion. Sustainable agriculture aims to conserve natural resources with the mitigation of climate change, and there is increasing interest to move toward organic agriculture. An important issue regarding the acceptance of organic agriculture is the question of productivity. In addition to readily available ammonium and nitrate ions, the soil of organic agriculture can contain a wide range of organic nitrogen compounds such as peptides, proteins, free amino acids, amino sugars and nitrogen heterocyclic compounds. Continue Reading →

Phosphorus: A Limited Resource

Soil is a living, breathing ecosystem. Just as you and I breathe, soil too re­spires, and we measure that respiration rate as an indicator of microbial activity in soil. While there are large, non-mi­croscopic organisms living in soil such as worms, insects and small mammals, none of them exist by the billions in just a handful of soil except the microbes.

Nitrogen can play a close second in the nutrient race, but in most soils phosphorus is the most limiting nutrient.

There are many scientific classifica­tions for microbes in soil, but from the farmer’s perspective only two catego­ries are relevant. Good microbes (major­ity) and bad microbes (small minority). Good microbes enhance plant growth, and bad microbes cause disease in plants. Of course, things are never quite so clear-cut in nature. Some things can be good under some circumstances and bad under other circumstances. So keep in mind this is a simplification of what are, in reality, very complex interactions.

Our management practices should be refined to support the good (most of the time) microbes and suppress the ones known to cause diseases in crop plants. Diseases are not always caused directly by organisms. Sometimes the balance of the system gets thrown off and something ordinarily not a prob­lem finds a new niche and can become problematic.

Weak plants may also be susceptible to organisms in the envi­ronment that normally would not have much impact on them. For instance, a nutrient deficiency might weaken a plant and lead to susceptibility. The good news is, of the thousands of microorganisms identified in soil thus far, only a handful of those really fall into the bad category. The good far outweigh the bad, and with a little thoughtful management, you can keep it that way.

In the case of good microbes, we can take this a step further and narrow our focus to the most crucial organisms within this group, which are those that provide the macro and micronutrients plants require for growth. The most limiting of these nutrients is typically phosphorus.

Nitrogen can play a close second in the nutrient race, but in most soils phosphorus is the most limiting nutrient, often occurring in quantities a thousand times lower than other miner­als. One of the reasons for this is the high reactivity of phosphorus. It tends to bind to soil particles and complex with metals in the soil. This makes it unavailable to plants even if it is present in the soil.

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