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Tractor Time Episode 10: Mark Shepard and Water Control on the Farm

Phew. We can smell, hear and see how busy you guys are out there. The dust is flying. The trucks are moving. It’s just that time of year. We called a farmer this week and he told me that as he prepares for harvest by getting his workers set, his

Mark Shepard, courtesy www.forestag.com

equipment ready and his crops healthy, it barely leaves time for anything else. Just to prove the point, we had to laugh when one of our coworkers told us about their kids going off to school this week, but were worried about how much work that left their dad to do on the farm.

So if you are listening this week to our podcast, we want to say thank you. Thank you for making the time, and for helping us grow our little podcast with each post and with every download. If you feel so compelled, please spread the word about Tractor Time and Acres USA.

Which brings me to this week’s podcast.

Mark Shepard is one of Acres USA’s newest authors, whose book, Restoration Agriculture, is No. 1 on our bestselling list. Talk about getting off to a good start. Part of it is the way he deftly explains proven practices on how to holistically repair damaged and broken farmland, something he’s done in his own life.

Part of it is the way Mark advocates for the practices and methods that he has developed. He speaks and works with farmers around the country, so speaking in front of our audience is just second nature.

In this week’s podcast, we are featuring Mark Shepard’s talk from the 2016 Eco-Ag annual conference in Omaha, Nebraska, where he spoke to a very full hall on his sustainable water practices he uses on his farms. It’s also the subject of his new book that we will be releasing later this fall, so stay tuned for that. It’s under production as we speak.

What follows this is Mark’s speech, which lasts just a little more than an hour. We hope you enjoy his talk, and the discussion that occurred between him and the audience last year in Omaha.

For all of our podcasts, click here.

Restoration Agriculture, by Mark Shepard

To learn more, please buy Mark Shepard’s book, Restoration Agriculture, and stay tuned for his new book on water management to be released by Acres USA this fall.

Interview: Author Judith Schwartz Examines Water Management

Modern Water Wisdom

Interviewed by Tracy Frisch

When writer Judith Schwartz learned that soil carbon is a buffer for climate change, her focus as a journalist took a major turn. She was covering the Slow Money National Gathering in 2010 when Gardener’s Supply founder Will Raap stated that over time more CO2 has gone into the atmosphere from the soil than has been released from burning fossil fuels. She says her first reaction was “Why don’t I know this?” Then she thought, “If this is true, can carbon be brought back to the soil?” In the quest that followed, she made the acquaintance of luminaries like Allan Savory, Christine Jones and Gabe Brown and traveled to several continents to see the new soil carbon paradigm in action. Schwartz has the gift of making difficult concepts accessible and appealing to lay readers, and that’s exactly what she does in Cows Save the Planet And Other Improbable Ways of Restoring Soil to Heal the Earth, which Elizabeth Kolbert called “a surprising, informative, and ultimately hopeful book.”

For her most recent project, Water in Plain Sight: Hope for a Thirsty World, Schwartz delves into the little-known role the water cycle plays in planetary health, which she illustrates with vivid, empowering stories from around the world. While we might not be able to change the rate of precipitation, as land managers we can directly affect the speed that water flows off our land and the amount of water that the soil is able to absorb. Trees and other vegetation are more than passive bystanders at the mercy of temperature extremes — they can also be powerful influences in regulating the climate.  

The week after this interview was recorded, Schwartz travelled to Washington, D.C., to take part in a congressional briefing on soil health and climate change organized by Regeneration International. As a public speaker, educator, researcher and networker, she has become deeply engaged in the broad movement to build soil carbon and restore ecosystems.

ACRES U.S.A. Please explain the title of your book, Water in Plain Sight.

JUDITH D. SCHWARTZ. The title plays on the idea that there is water in plain sight if we know where to look. It calls attention to aspects of water that are right before us but we are not seeing. By this I mean how water behaves on a basic level, not anything esoteric.

ACRES U.S.A. How should we reframe the problems of water shortages, runoff and floods?

SCHWARTZ. Once we approach these problems in terms of how water moves across the landscape and through the atmosphere, our understanding shifts. For example, when we frame a lack of water as “drought,” our focus is on what water is or isn’t coming down from the sky. That leaves us helpless because there’s really not much we can do. But if we shift our frame from drought to aridification, then the challenge becomes keeping water in the landscape. That opens up opportunities. Continue Reading →

Livestock Grazing: The Organic Farmer’s Dilemma

Livestock grazing organically is one of the hardest things to do, and a dilemma for most organic farmers. Why do most farmers farm the way they do? Because it’s easy — easy to spray, easy to buy technology, easy to plant with a no-till machine.

An Angus calf grazes.

But it’s not always easy to make money, provide quality food, or be sustainable.

And about the way farmers care for their livestock? Locking them in a small box, calculating the “perfect ration,” and keeping it “simple”? When problems do show up, grab a drug — that’s easy! It’s a routine that can be taught. It’s certainly easy to get production and volume, but what about the well-being of that animal? And if we are what we eat, we have a problem.

And then there is organic farming. Is it easy? Well, the “not doing things” part is easy. If I just stopped all the negative practices and things went great, then organic would be easy, too. But is that a sustainable system for feeding the world and producing quality food? Organic can produce crops that yield as much as any other production system, but in more sustainable, environmentally friendly ways, providing better quality food while using less energy.

Continue Reading →

Biochar Alters Water Flow

Vincent Mina demonstrates biochar production in Maui.As more gardeners and farmers add ground charcoal, or biochar, to soil, a new study by researchers at Rice University and Colorado College could help settle the debate about one of biochar’s biggest benefits — the seemingly contradictory ability to make clay soils drain faster and sandy soils drain slower. The study, published in PLOS ONE, offers the first detailed explanation for the hydrological mystery.

“Biochar is light and highly porous,” said lead author Rebecca Barnes. “When biochar is added to clay, it makes the soil less dense and it increases hydraulic conductivity, which makes intuitive sense. Adding biochar to sand also makes it less dense, so one would expect that soil to drain more quickly as well; but in fact, researchers have found that biochar-amended sand holds water longer. … By adding our results to the growing body of literature, we show that when biochar is added to sand or other coarse-grained soils, there is a simultaneous decrease in bulk density and hydraulic conductivity, as opposed to the expected result of decreased bulk density correlated with increased hydraulic conductivity that has been observed for other soil types.” The study was summarized in the January 2015 issue of Acres U.S.A.