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Soil
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Link to Cornell Nutrient Analysis Lab

Link to University of Maine Soil Testing Lab

Compost
Compost is great stuff. The material shown here is recycled into a vibrant soil that feeds the beautiful perennial flowers and herbs on MOFGA's grounds. Jean English photo.

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Entries for 'MOFGApedia Editor'

Jay and Polly Armour of Four Winds Farm in Gardiner, N.Y., practice certified organic no-till vegetable production. They grow crops in permanent beds – some in place for 17 years – that are never plowed or rototilled, so they depend less on energy-consuming tractors and capital-consuming equipment, while fighting fewer weeds.

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Ridge tillage as we practice it at Hackmatack Farm is a system of growing vegetable crops in raised ridges formed before planting. Essential to this system is incorporation of winterkilled cover crops and other organic matter into the top surface layer of soil as we form the ridges. Practically speaking, our crops grow on a single-row raised bed. Ridge tillage, in essence a hybrid between raised bed production and single row cropping, offers many of the benefits and advantages of both.

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An Oakland, California, community, with EPA help, is mixing fishbone meal with soil to control lead contamination. As the bones degrade, phosphates released from them bind with lead to form a reportedly harmless mineral, even if consumed.

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Soil samplingOrganic farming is centered on taking care of the soil. You do not need soil to produce crops, as hydroponic farms show. But organic farmers hold tightly to the belief that for sustainable crop production, one needs and expects a lot from one’s soil. Consequently, organic farmers do a lot to care for soil.

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In the past two issues of The MOF&G, I discussed the plant mineral elements nitrogen and phosphorus. The third of the three nutrients most commonly limiting crop growth on farms and in gardens is potassium. Fertilizers come with three numbers printed on the bag, such as 10-10-10.

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Trees and their leaves are probably the greatest natural soil builders on earth, greater even than grasses. (I mean “on earth” literally, as I am not including the oceans.) The incredible proliferation of life that occurs in the forest ecosystems of the world is powered by the prodigious plant biomass of the trees themselves, particularly their leaves.

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Phosphorus-deficient cornAfter nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) is the next nutrient most likely to limit crop growth on farms and in gardens. It has a much simpler cycle in farm systems, and, unlike N – the availability of which depends heavily on biological activity – the availability of P usually depends simply on whether your soil has enough. Like N, soils can have too much or too little P, so monitor P rather than blindly adding more year after year.

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The 2010 Farmer to Farmer Conference at Point Lookout in Northport, Maine, featured a session on managing soils in high tunnels. Speakers were Vern Grubinger, University of Vermont vegetable and berry specialist; Bruce Hoskins of the University of Maine Diagnostic Lab; and Paul Volckhausen, who, with his wife Karen, grows organic tomatoes and other crops in high tunnels at Happy Town Farm in Orland, Maine.

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Nitrogen deficiency shown on bean plantsNitrogen (N) is the nutrient most commonly limiting crop growth and yield on organic farms. This is especially true when creating a farm from an old, abandoned field and when transitioning from conventional to organic fertilizing practices, because N, unless managed, is easily lost from soil. Also, unlike other nutrients needed for plant growth, the parent minerals that make up soil contain little or no N; N found in soils comes from biological activity.

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Soil is much more than “dirt.” Why is such a disrespectful word still used for one of the major components of life on Earth? Humanity could not be sustained without the living soils and the living oceans. Let’s banish the word “dirt” from our vocabulary when we talk about soil.

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In the late 1960s I watched a play by Megan Terry called Home: Or Future Soap on public television. The set was a single room that had no view of sky, ocean, sun, snow, hills or rivers. People lived their whole lives in this single room; never left their rooms; and those rooms were set on top of and beside more rooms. Rooms and rooms and rooms. Air, water and food were piped into each room, and waste was piped out. People did not think this was a bad way to live: Everyone lived like this, and it was all anyone knew.

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Eliot ColemanThe 2010 Spring Growth Conference at MOFGA’s Common Ground Education Center in Unity featured Dr. Will Brinton of Woods End Laboratories in Mt. Vernon, Maine; Eliot Coleman of Four Season Farm in Harborside, Maine; Dr. Sue Erich and Dr. Marianne Sarrantonio of the University of Maine; Dr. Fred Magdoff, co-author of Building Soil for Better Crops; and Dr. Eric Sideman, MOFGA’s organic crop specialist.

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Growing the oilseed plant called cuphea the year before growing wheat results in better wheat seedling survival and in grain that is 8 percent higher in protein, according to USDA Agricultural Research Service scientists who conducted a four-year experiment rotating cuphea with corn, soy and wheat in Morris, Minnesota.

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CompostOne of my early questions in the '80s was, "Can I have too much organic matter in my soil?" I thought about it for a minute, which is a long time of silence on a phone call, and then, because I couldn't think of any negative reasons, said, "The more, the better." That was the wrong answer. Now I know that too much organic matter could be a problem.

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Cornell Soil Test ReportBianca Moebius-Clune, a graduate student at Cornell University, introduced the Cornell Soil Health Test (CSHT) at the 2008 Farmer-to-Farmer Conference, and Dennis King of King Hill Farm in Penobscot, Maine, told how he evaluates soil health on the diversified farm that he and Jo Barrett own and run.

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Two-page publication from UMaine Extension with concise guidelines to ensure safe vegetables, from garden to kitchen.

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Resource from Ohio State University Extension with lecture slides, video and references that outline the fundamentals of soil quality and organic matter through various management practices.

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Biochar (or agrichar) is the product of pyrolysis – of burning plant material under controlled, low-oxygen conditions (in a kiln, for example) to produce charcoal. Adding this highly stable form of carbon to soils may increase plant yields (especially on degraded soils); reduce nutrient leaching; cut fertilizer needs, thus decreasing runoff of fertilizers and the energy needed to produce, transport and apply fertilizers; and significantly reduce greenhouse gases (CO2, methane and nitrous oxide).

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Long-Term Agro-ecological Research Program at Iowa State University; studies challenge the belief that nitrogen fertilizer builds long-term soil fertility.

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On the website of USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service you can find soil survey maps, great educational resources about soils, uses for various soils and more.

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Building better soils is one of the most important benefits of organic farming systems. A report by The Organic Center proposes a new method to quickly and cost-effectively track changes in soil quality brought about by the transition to organic farming.

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In 1648, Jean-Baptiste van Helmont did a great experiment and had clear results, but he drew the wrong conclusion. Still, he was among the first on the path to understanding the role of soil in plant nutrition. He placed 200 pounds of soil in a pot and planted a willow branch. He weighed the plant at the start of the experiment (5 pounds), recorded how much water he gave it, then weighed the plant and the soil after five years. The willow weighed 169 pounds; the soil had lost only 2 ounces. Van Helmont concluded that the 164 pounds of new plant material arose from the water. Wrong! Actually carbon dioxide from the air contributes most of the material making up plants.

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Compost thermometerComposting is a natural, biological process in which microorganisms use organic materials as food and leave a residue of digested organic matter that is nearly completely decomposed. Composting is the same as the decomposition that happens to all living things when they die, except that you control composting in order to provide optimum conditions for the microbes, and the process takes place in a specific location so that you can collect the product.

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Bocashi is fermented organic material that has been used traditionally in Japan (where it’s spelled ‘bokashi’) as fertilizer. Making bokashi is an ancient art in Japan, with many recipes, often handed down (sometimes along with bokashi starter) through families.

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An organic crop rotation is at least as sustainable as no-till farming or chisel tillage in terms of nitrogen loss and corn yields, according to an Agricultural Research Service (ARS) study.

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A paper by Rodale Institute® researchers, published in the September 2003 issue of the American Journal of Alternative Agriculture, describes not only how the organic system gives better yields of corn and soybeans under severe drought conditions, but also shows how the organic system gives better environmental stability under flood conditions, by allowing less runoff and harvesting more water for groundwater recharge.

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Manure is a great source of nutrients for crops and, when managed well, can often eliminate most of the need for fertilizer. Average dairy manure contains about 23 pounds of nitrogen per 1000 gallons or 10 pounds of nitrogen per ton.

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AnglewormAlways with us and the farmer’s friend. Right? Is that what you think when you think ‘gardening’ – when you see those long, red angleworms surfacing all over the lawn and under the rhubarb after rain?

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It always amuses me to think back to when I was young and, like most, I understood very little of what my parents did. Now that I am an adult, most of their former actions make sense. Sometimes they had good reasons for their behavior and other times their actions simply must have seemed like the right thing to do. I regret not talking and listening more to my parents because it is too late to find out for sure which was which. Even some of my father’s gardening practices leave me asking myself: “How did he know that when he grew up in the slums of New York City?”

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Fungi known as basidiomycetes – the same group that produces edible mushrooms – may play a key role in maintaining and improving soil quality, Agricultural Research Service scientists found.

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A new computer model from the Agricultural Research Service could save farmers worldwide millions of dollars by increasing crop yields while requiring fewer soil tests and less use of nitrogen fertilizer. The Nitrogen Fertilizer Decision Aid, available on the World Wide Web, eliminates uncertainties that lead many farmers to over apply nitrogen as so-called “insurance fertilizer.”

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Jerry BrunettiJerry Brunetti is the managing director of Agri-Dynamics, a soil and animal health consulting company that also markets holistic remedies for animals in Easton, Pennsylvania. At MOFGA and Cooperative Extension’s Farmer to Farmer Conference in November, he spoke about improving soil chemistry and soil health through diversified cropping systems and amendments.

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Tom Morris did a great job of integrating environmental and agronomic concerns. When I was in college and until recently, the only environmental concern related to phosphorus amended soil was thought to result from soil erosion. This was not an unreasonable belief, as phosphorus is quickly bound to soil particles in chemical compounds and does not become mobile.

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In 1998, the University of Maine Analytical Lab tested 233 soil samples for commercial vegetable growers (not including potatoes). Thirty-three percent of the soils in which vegetables were to be grown had pH values in the 6.1 to 6.5 range; 29% were within the 5.6 to 6.0 range.

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Organic farming may be an even bigger part of the solution to global warming. In a study reported in the November 19, 1998, issue of Nature, the Rodale Institute reported on its 14-year comparison of organic with conventional cropping systems, focusing on “carbon sequestration.”

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Nitrate accumulation was a very hot topic a few decades ago, when European growers as well as researchers at the New Alchemy Institute were first investigating winter production in greenhouses. I do not want the warnings of those reports to be ignored by farmers today, so I put together a review of the biology of nitrogen accumulation, the associated risks and the cultural practices that reduce accumulation.

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The real costs of modern farming are great but hidden. Many people realize the environmental and health costs stemming from tons of toxic chemicals sprayed into the environment to control pests; these chemicals can contaminate soil, air and water. The environment is also impacted as a result of nutrients needed by plants and animals raised on farms, since producing the fertilizer requires a great amount of energy, and then the nutrients are concentrated in small areas.

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