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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.

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Book of the Week: The Biological Farmer, 2nd Edition

By Gary Zimmer with Leilani Zimmer-Durand

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from Acres U.S.A. original book, The Biological Farmer, written by Gary Zimmer. Copyright 2017, softcover, 518 pages. $30.00 Regularly Priced.

What’s Wrong with the N-P-K Approach to Farming?

Does it make sense to use high levels of only highly concentrated water-soluble nutrients? The N-P-K-pH chemical approach to farming is both incomplete and wasteful.

Nitrogen — Managing nitrogen should not be just mathemati­cal. Crop rotation, the nitrogen source used, and when and where the nitrogen is applied all have a bearing on how much nitrogen we need, as does soil air, soil life, organic matter, and

The Biological Farmer, 2nd Edition

the presence and balance of other elements (such as sulfur and calcium). Biological farmers do not want to use any more nitrogen than absolutely necessary, not only because of cost and possible environ­mental pollution, but also because excess nitrogen suppresses long-term stable biological processes in the soil.

Research from the University of Minnesota has found that corn yields are highest when legumes are added to the rotation (O’Leary, Rehm, and Schmitt, 2008). By including soybeans, alfalfa, or other nitrogen-fixing plants, it is possible to grow your own plant-avail­able nitrogen and reduce fertilizer requirements. Now consider how conventional thinking advocates applying more nitrogen to increase yield. Is yield always increasing as much as the nitrogen applied? Are your added fertilizer dollars getting you results? If not, what happens to the extra nitrogen you apply? Does it benefit the soil, the environment — or your water? What are the overall costs? 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 →

Book of the Week: The Secret Life of Compost, by Malcolm Beck

By Malcolm Beck

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from Acres U.S.A. original book, The Secret Life of Compost, written by Malcolm Beck. Copyright 1997, softcover, 170 pages. $19.00 regularly priced.

There are many beneficial forms of life in the soil. Scientists now tell us there is more tonnage of life and numbers of species in the soil than growing above. All of this life gets its energy from the sun. But only the green leaf plants have the ability to collect the sun’s energy. All other life forms depend on the plant to pass energy to them. The plants above and soil life below depend on each other for their healthy existence and continued survival.

The Secret Life of Compost

The Secret Life of Compost, by Malcolm Beck

Another beneficial microbe that colonizes plant roots was introduced to me by Mr. Bill Kowalski of Natural Industries. He said he had a microbe that has been shown to knock out a half dozen root rots in the laboratory. At first I told him I was not interested unless it was known to stop cotton root rot, because the only deterrent to a booming apple industry in the hill country of Texas is cotton root rot. He replied it hadn’t been tested on cotton root rot, but he would be glad to give me some if I wanted to try it.

Okra is related to cotton and back when we were farming we planted lots of okra. We had a spot on the farm where the plants suffered from cotton root rot. To test the new microbe, we planted two rows of okra across the root rot spot, then skipped two rows and planted two more rows of okra. The seed in these last two rows had been soaked in the product for a few minutes to ensure they would be inoculated with the microbe.

After the okra was in full production, Bill came over and we went out to inspect. Immediately we noticed the inoculated okra averaged a full 12 inches taller than the control rows. We walked down the control rows first and pulled up the smaller and weaker looking plants. We found the roots to be badly infected with some form of root rot and also full of root knot nematodes. Inspection of the inoculated row found not a single case of root rot or nematodes. Continue Reading →

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 →

Tractor Time Episode 14: Neal Kinsey on Hands On Agronomy

GREELEY, Colorado (May 21, 2018) — It’s that sound again – tractors, the voice of Charles Walters, and that happy little strum. It all means we are launching into a second season of the Tractor Time Podcast by Acres U.S.A., the podcast for farmers who care about the Earth. My name is Ryan Slabaugh, and I’m lucky enough to be your host for a second season.

Neal Kinsey

Neal Kinsey

We have a lot in store this year. We are going to talk about a lot of eco-farming tactics and methods. We’re going to go back in time and listen to age-old talks that still apply today. We’re going to talk about with surveyers about the loss of farmland, and what you and I can do about it. Our goal this year is to also make sure we are talking with young farmers, to better understand how they see themselves fitting into the future of agriculture. Anyway, we’re so excited, we hope you are too.

Today’s episode, like our very first episode, starts with the voice of Charles Walters. Charles started Acres U.S.A. in 1971 as a vehicle to report on the challenges facing small farms, and to help give farmers a resource for good, healthy, ecological growing in the face of large-scale toxic takeovers of our methods.

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