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Book of the Week: Secrets of Fertile Soils

By Erhard Hennig

Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from Acres U.S.A. original book, Secrets of Fertile Soils, written by Erhard Hennig. Copyright 2015, softcover, 198 pages. $24.00 regularly priced. SALE PRICE: $19.20.

Humus forms as a result of the complicated interplay of inorganic conversions and the life processes of the microbes and tiny creatures living in the soil. Earthworms play a particularly important role in this process. Humus formation is carried out in two steps. First, the organic substance and the soil minerals disintegrate. Next, totally new combinations of these breakdown products develop, which leads to the initial stages of humus. Humus formation is a biological process. Only 4–12 inches (10–30 centimeters) of humus-containing soil are available in the upper earth crust. This thin earth layer is all that exists to provide nutrition to all human life. The destiny of mankind depends on these 12 inches!

Secrets of Fertile Soil

Cultivated soils with 2 percent humus content are today considered high-quality farm land. What makes up the remaining 98 percent? Depending on the soil type, soil organisms constitute about 8 percent, the remains of plants and animals about 5 percent, and air and water around 15 percent.

The remaining 70 percent of soil mass is thus of purely mineral origin. The mineral part of the soil results from decomposition and the erosion of rock. The dissolution of these components is carried out by the lithobionts, which can be seen as the mediators between stone and life. It was, once again, Francé who coined the term “lithobiont,” which means “those who live on stone.” The lithobionts are the group of microbes that begin the formation of humus. They produce a life-giving substance from the nonliving mineral. On the basis of this process, living matter, earth, plants, animals, and human beings can begin, step by step, to build.

Only soils with an optimal structural state of tilth have a humus content of 8–10 percent. Untouched soils in primeval forests can, at best, reach 20 percent. A tropical jungle can’t use up all its organic waste, so humus can be stored. All forests accumulate humus, but real humus stores only emerge over the course of millenniums. Once upon a time accumulations of humus known as chernozem (Russian for black earth) could be found in the Ukraine.

Continue Reading →

Quest for Quality: Growing Nutrient-Dense Crops

For Central Virginia farmers Dan Gagnon and Susan Hill, the best proof that they’re doing things right with their soil to produce nutrient-dense crops comes from the mouths of babes and customers facing health challenges.

Dan Gagnon discusses soil structure at Broadfork Farm in Chesterfield, Virginia.

Gagnon and his wife, Janet Aardema, operate Broadfork Farm in Chesterfield, Virginia. Gagnon likes to observe how children interact with food. His youngest son Beckett, 3, last winter used organic store-bought carrots to dip into salad dressing while Gagnon’s mom was looking after him. But he would not eat the carrots.

When she dropped him off, Gagnon had just dug some overwintered carrots. Despite a bit of dirt clinging to them, Beckett gobbled them up. “The feedback from customers that we continue to get has been very encouraging,” said Gagnon. “Also, a child’s palate is a great indicator of the quality of your produce.”

Hill, who grew up outside Helena, Montana — where, she says, if they didn’t grow it, they didn’t eat — cooks for a woman who has multiple sclerosis; another customer has cancer and another, Lyme disease. Continue Reading →

Transitioning to Organic: Strategies for Success

The year two spring rye crop — note how few weeds are present. This rye grew well during the spring and early summer, and was ready for harvest in mid-July. Below shows the rye straw after the grain was combined. Yields were about 35 bushels/acre of rye seed the first year and 4 bales of straw/acre. This year, the yield was 52 bushels/acre of rye seed and 8 bales of straw/acre.

With conventional prices for corn, beans, wheat and dairy really low right now and both prices and demand for organic products high, a lot of growers are thinking about transitioning to organic.

For most growers, one of the biggest deterrents to going organic is the 36-month-long process of transition, during which time you can use only organic-approved inputs and practices, but the crops, milk or other farm goods produced can’t be sold as “organic” and receive the price premium.

In my opinion, chasing profits is not the right reason to go organic, and there is more to it than not adding prohibited inputs and getting paid more for your crops. Being a successful organic farmer requires a different mind-set, and the best time to figure out your approach to organic farming and set yourself up for success is during the transition period.

Before Transitioning to Organic 

If you’re considering transitioning to organic, the first thing you should do is sit down and think about why and then think about how. If your answer to why is that you are doing it for the money, maybe it’s not for you. Continue Reading →

Electrical Conductivity: The Pulse of the Soil

Soil consultants have traditionally used electrical conductivity to measure salinity. Conductivity can tell us much more about the physical structure and health of the soil, though, and can help  indirectly measure crop productivity.

electrical conductivity - the pulse of the soilWhen we walk into our home on a dark night, the first thing we usually do is turn on the lights. With the flip of a switch we complete the electrical circuit, initiating the flow of electricity to the light bulb and illuminating our home.

In the human body, electricity controls the flow of blood from the heart to all the organs. In the same way that flipping a switch turns on a light, electrical signaling in the body tells the heart when and how often to contract and relax. These electrical signals can be altered by the intake of nutrients. For example, the intake of high-salt foods can lead to a higher pulse rate. A higher pulse rate forces the heart and other organs to have to work harder in order to function properly. This extra work certainly puts added stress on the body. In contrast, consuming a balanced form of energy can reduce the stress put upon the body.

Waking up in the morning and only consuming caffeine does not give you the same energy as waking up and eating a balanced breakfast. While both inputs may increase your readiness in the morning, they affect the human body in different ways physiologically. Inputs into any biological system, whether human, animal, plant, or soil, affect the system in unique ways. 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 →

Minerals: The Big Four for Soil Health

Minerals and their respective roles in achieving healthy soil is a common topic of discussion among agriculture consultants and farmers. A long time ago, when I was going through my initial soil balance training, mineral balance was all that we talked about. Get the minerals right, address calcium and get it to 68 percent base saturation and all will be great.

soil aggregation

Healthy, well-mineralized soils have good aggregation.

The physical and biological aspects of soil weren’t even part of the discussion. Even alternate mineral sources were just touched on. Potassium chloride (KCl) was a no-no due to the high salt index and the chloride, as was dolomitic lime due to our already high magnesium soils. Also on this “not to be used” list was anhydrous ammonia because of its damaging effects on soils. The concept of soil correctives and crop fertilizers wasn’t talked about either, nor was the idea of different calcium sources for different soil conditions. The balance of nutrients on a soil test was the only goal.

Now, looking back, I can certainly see that wasn’t the whole picture. What about the biology and the physical structure? How about making a fertilizer that not only delivered soil minerals but did so more efficiently? Why not have fertilizer that can balance the soluble to the slow release, make sure carbon is added for the buffering effect and provides something for the minerals to attach to so that it is “soil biology food”? Soil health is the capacity to function without intervention; therefore minerals are certainly a part, but not the whole of soil health. Continue Reading →