Urban Farming: Laws and Land Access

By Leah Penniman
Excerpt from the book Farming While Black

For a few years our illegal chickens flew under the radar of the city. Albany, New York had an ordinance that disallowed chickens and other livestock under the belief that they were “incompatible with urban life.” There was an exception for educational nonprofits, but no flexibility for residents trying to raise food for survival. We collaborated with three other neighbors with adjoining backyards to take down our fences and build a collaborative food landscape. All combined, there were two chicken coops, a goat pen, vegetable gardens, and mulberry trees. Our young children could roam far without ever having to cross a street. Unfortunately, code enforcement caught on and evicted the chickens. Many neighbors took the fight to city hall. After nine months of organizing, activists convinced the city council to allow backyard chickens in 2011. Sadly, the mayor vetoed the vote and the chickens could not return. 

Soul Fire Farm in Grafton, New York, is always buzzing with activity and camaraderie.

In many cities these nuisance ordinances were created to specifically target immigrants and people of color who were more likely to be preserving agrarian practices. Whether you decide to abide by the law, skirt the law, or challenge the law, it is helpful to understand what restrictions apply to urban agriculture in your area. Before you invest substantial resources into your plot of earth, investigate the following questions: 

  • Zoning. Does the zoning of the land permit agriculture? What “public nuisance” laws exist in your city? Are there “right to farm” laws in your county? 
  • Greenhouses and high tunnels. Is a building permit required for greenhouses? Is there a size limitation? Note that some states categorize greenhouses as permanent structures and high tunnels as temporary structures, influencing how they are taxed. 
  • Animal housing. Is animal agriculture permitted? Is a building permit required for chicken coops and other animal housing? How far away must animals live from residential buildings or property lines? 
  • Rooftop and wall gardens. What building code requirements exist for a rooftop garden? Do roof- top gardens require permits? Is a permit required to grow plants on the exterior wall of a building? 
  • Food safety. Is it legal to sell processed food out of your home kitchen per a “cottage food law”? If not, determine whether a commercial kitchen is available to rent. Learn more about food safety law from the Urban Agricultural Legal Resource Library, a project of the Sustainable Economies Law Center

Should you decide to advocate for changes in zoning or ordinances that are more favorable to urban agriculture, it helps to look at best practices in other cities. For example, Cleveland, Ohio, has an Urban Garden District Zoning ordinance that gives community gardens additional protection from being sold and converted to other uses. Seattle, Richmond, Portland, Oakland, Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Chicago, and Baltimore also have useful policy templates for promoting urban agriculture.7 In advocating for policy change, try to get your hands on any community food assessments that can provide data to support the need to uplift urban agriculture. Engage with the local food policy council to find allies for your cause. 

Lack of accessible and affordable land can be one of the greatest constraints to urban farming. Empty lots, utility rights-of-way, private backyards, parks, institutional land (schools, hospitals, churches, prisons, universities, senior homes), and rooftops are all examples of vacant land that might be reclaimed for agricultural use. When you encounter vacant land with agricultural potential, take note of the address of the adjacent parcels and take that information to the local tax assessor or department of finance. Ask to see the tax map and property records to determine the parcel number, and research the site’s ownership history. You can then contact the most recent owner to discuss license, lease, or sale of the property. Alternatively, many cities have passed legislation to allow citizen-controlled land banks and land trusts to manage vacant land. If your city has a land bank, approach them directly to determine what properties are available, their land-use history, zoning designation, and any public programs that provide incentives for their purchase. The national nonprofit Trust for Public Land also stewards urban lots that can be used for agriculture. 

If you are unable to buy property outright, you will need to enter into a lease or other contractual agreement to guarantee access to the land. The Urban Agricultural Legal Resource Library outlines important elements of land-use agreements for both public and private land and sample land-use agreements. Your land-use agreement should include the following provisions, at minimum: 

Provisions of Land-Use Agreement 

  • Land. Specifications of size and location.
  • Rent. Cost to tenant.
  • Use of land. Specification of permitted uses and prohibited uses (sales, tree removal, fires, and the like).
  • Term. Duration of lease, options for lease renewal, and expected tenure of project on land.
  • Building and improvements. Clarification of building types prohibited and permitted (carports, storage, temporary shelters, and so on) and improvements (fencing, garden beds, landscaping).
  • Right of entry. For example, restrictions to farm employees, contract workers, volunteers.
  • Hours of use. Days and times of activities, clarification of overnight stay.
  • Noise. Expected decibels of noise pollution created.
  • Animals. Use of animals and restrictions thereof.
  • Expected traffic. Estimated number of trips to the site and number of people expected on a plot at any given time.
  • Growing practices. Farmers’ use of tools/machinery and use of pesticides, fertilizer, fungicides, and so on. (On the city’s end, this could be a selection criterion—for example, projects growing organically could rank higher than projects proposing to use these chemicals.)
  • Environmental impacts. Management of runoff and water pollution.
  • Water usage. Agreement on source, use, and payment.
  • Routine maintenance. Specifies responsibilities of landowner and farmer in maintenance of plot’s appearance and preventing hazards.
  • Subleasing policy. Permitted/prohibited and where liability for subtenant lies.
  • Garden produce. Clarification of ownership of produce from the land and whether sales are permitted.
  • Compost. Agreement on use and location of compost pile and perhaps use of landowner’s acceptable yard and kitchen wastes.
  • Payment. Type and amount of payment; can be monetary or in-kind through share of crops.
  • Liability. Two-way release of liability; each party gives indemnity to the other over specific scenarios and legal responsibilities for their respective uses of the land. 
Farming While Black book cover

This article is an is from Leah Penniman’s book Farming While Black: Soul Fire Farm’s Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land (Chelsea Green Publishing, November 2018) and is reprinted with permission from the publisher. The author is a Black Kreyol farmer and founding co-executive director of Soul Fire Farm in Grafton, New York, a people-of-color led project that works to dismantle racism in the food system. She is the recipient of the 2019 James Beard Foundation Leadership Award. Find out more about Leah’s work at www.soulfirefarm.org and follow her @soulfirefarm on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Toxic war on insects is costly and ineffective

2020 Healthy Soil Summit speaker

Taking a stroll through the 840 acres in New York’s Central Park, urban dwellers and tourists gain a soothing respite from the turmoil of the city. Views down the main promenade are arched with American elms vividly recalling scenes from movies like When Harry Met Sally and other blockbusters. The park contains over 20,000 trees, 280 bird species and a hum of insects. In 2003, this hum included the gnawing sounds of two invasive aliens: the Asian longhorned beetle and the emerald ash borer (pictured below).

Emerald ash borer beetle on leaf.
Emerald Ash Borer beetle.

These two pests have had a catastrophic impact, responsible for the deaths of millions of trees in North America, since their respective arrival in the 1930s and 2002. With their discovery in the park, New York City and 135 square miles surrounding the area, were put into immediate quarantine. The original infested trees, including their root materials, were removed and burnt: this was seen as the only effective control following infestation. With the iconic park’s image at risk, the decision was made to aggressively defend the trees using the neonicotinoid called imidacloprid. If you sat under a tree in Central Park between 2005 and 2007, you were guaranteed a close personal encounter with this neonicotinoid (neonic), with over 14,000 applications used, during that two-year spell[i]. Neonics, with their high solubility, were applied either as soil drenches or injected directly into the trees. Assumed to only target specific insect receptors, they were considered far safer than many other insecticides on the market at the time.

Book Cover: For the Love of Soil by Nicole Masters
Nicole Mastters is the author of For the Love of Soil: Future-Proof Strategies to Regenerate Food Production Systems.

In the early 1980s, there were three main broad-spectrum insecticides in use: organophosphates, carbamates and pyrethroids. With a heavy reliance on these insecticides, these chemical controls were becoming increasingly ineffective as pests developed resistance.[ii] Pesticide resistance has been explained by adaptation in a process called hormoligosis, the theory being, that with sub-lethal exposure, insects adapt and evolve to resist the chemical. Many scientists thought these dynamics explained the increase in pest insect pressures observed after spraying. However, the story is far deeper and more complex than this. In vibrant and alive ecosystems, there are checks and balances in place that mitigate whole-scale vegetation losses. In healthy functional ecosystems, many of these so-called insect pests and disease organisms provide beneficial services. Just as weeds are here to tell you something, so too are pests and diseases. 

During the 1980s panic, that growers would be unprotected against chemically-resistant insect hoards, and with growing awareness around environmental and human health risks, new systemic chemicals entered the world. As these pesticides move systemically inside the plant, manufacturers argued they would only target chewing insects. By using substances marketed as being far less dangerous, growers could breathe a sigh of relief. These pesticides could be applied prophylactically through the growing season, instead of exposing people and bees through aerial sprays. These pesticides are now used indiscriminately around the world in seed treatments, mixed with irrigation water, injected directly in trees, or applied foliarly (hopefully after the bees have gone to bed).  

The chemical war on insects is costly, toxic and ineffective.
Nicole Masters.

The systemic pesticides include groups of chemicals such as neonicotinoids and phenylpyrazole (fipronil). Fipronil is commonly used around households to control fleas, termites and cockroaches under tradenames like Frontline, Goliath and Termidor. Neonics were developed in the 80s, by the dream team of German multinational pharmaceutical company Bayer and Shell. Chemically similar to nicotine, they disrupt the nervous system of insects, resulting in “mad bee disease” and death. As neonics travel throughout the plant, they expose the innocent bystanders, known as “non-target insects,” through pollen, dew and nectar. A global analysis of 198 honey samples, found 75% of all samples contained at least one neonic.

Pesticides are the most inefficient of all the agrichemicals. It is estimated that at best 1 percent of these chemicals reaches their target sites, as nearly all is lost to run-off, spray drift or degraded in sunlight. In the case of neonics, only a tenth of the seed treatment is taken up by the plant, leaving the remaining 90 percent to impact on non-target species in soil, dust and waterways. 

Recent studies has shown that migratory birds ingesting, even low doses of neonics, become “anorexic,” losing 6-25 percent of their body weight and have costly delays to their migratory patterns. A study released recently on waterway health in New Zealand, should be ringing alarm bells for all; between 2 to 6 different pesticides were found in 78 percent of streams sampled. The organophosphate chlorpyrifos was found in most of these samples, this insecticide has a court order ban in the US and is banned for residential use in New Zealand and in many countries in the EU, including Germany. Ironically, this most widely used insecticide, is banned in its home country. Bayer continues to offer scientific assurances and shows dismay at the suggestions that neonics harm birds or bees as: “Bayer cares about bees.”

The timing of an explosion in neonic use in the mid-2000s, went hand-in-hand with the sudden collapse of bee, butterfly and bird populations. The Central Park treatments were celebrated as a success until, curiously, the treated trees began to turn yellow and lose their leaves. Closer inspections revealed a tiny spider mite, Tetranychus schoenei. Overnight, this mite, once considered a harmless herbivore, had turned into a raging beast, causing massive damage to the valuable trees. Initial assumptions were that the neonic wiped out the mite’s predators, the lacewings, ladybirds and parasitic wasps, turning a shackled monster free.

This phenomenon is not limited to elms. Other researchers discovered that following neonic applications, mite populations boomed between 100-200% percent in crops as diverse as corn, cotton and tomatoes. Mites are unaffected by the systemic pesticides as they lack the receptors that the neonics target. Measuring predator populations and other influences, did not explain why the mites began to produce nearly twice as many offspring. Researchers became curious. If it’s not a lack of predation influencing the population growth, they wondered, what could be the cause? In a breakthrough study, they uncovered a cascade of changes to the genes inside the trees themselves. The activity of over 600 genes were altered with the application of a single neonicotinoid. 600 genes! Many of these genes are responsible for cell wall structure, detoxification and the switching on of enzymes and phytohormones involved in defence. The neonics also increased the digestibility of nutrients, lifting available nutrition for the mites, resulting in an increase in the number of young. The insecticide created optimal conditions to weaken the plant and invite other pests to the table.

Many of the crude, broad-brush chemical controls have set agricultural systems up for the proliferation of pests and diseases. In a chemical arms race, it’s the insect pests who are winning the war. For every 1 pest species, there may be as many as 1,700 non-pest insects who have become the unintended causalities of this war. Insects provide a multitude of ecosystem benefits from pollination, nutrient cycling, decomposition and fueling the foodweb. The impacts from a looming “insectaggedon,” the collapse of insect species, is broad ranging, far-reaching and potentially catastrophic. Although non-target species, like bee and butterfly populations are collapsing, the crop pest species are flourishing. There are now over 550 insect species resistant to pesticides, including insects that have evolved to consume the Bacillus thurgensis (BT) toxin contained in engineered corn, cotton, soy and potatoes. Despite an increasing complexity of chemical controls, pests still consume 18-20 percent of the global crop and are becoming increasingly resistant to the controls.[iii]

With BT technology and targeted systemic chemicals, one could be forgiven for believing in the promised hype for a reduction in pesticides. Despite the benefits promoted by the seed producers, insecticide use has increased, not decreased, since BT technology was released.

In 2014, a public EPA memo stated, “published data indicate that most usage of neonicotinoid seed treatments does not protect soybean yield any better than doing no pest control.” Despite this information, these pesticides continue to be pushed upon producers around the world, as the gold standard in crop protection. Today half of soy and 79-100 percent of corn crops in the US are sown with a neonicotinoid pesticide. A 2016 review, applying whole systems accounting to pesticide use, found the benefit ratio falls below 1. Which means that for every benefit pesticides offer, there are 99 costs. These calculations include environmental and human health costs. In the U.S. alone, the direct and hidden costs of pesticides are estimated to be costing the U.S. economy over $37 billion every year. A total rethink on pesticides is urgently required.

A 2018 study in the U.S. corn belt comparing regenerative farms to conventional farms using insecticides, found ten times more insect pests in the conventional. Yup, you read that right, where farmers were applying their full arsenal of insecticides, genetically engineered, plants and seed treatments, there were 10 times more insect pests.

That there is a relationship between chemicals and pest pressures is not new science. Sixty years ago, agronomist Francis Chaboussou, from the French National Institute of Agricultural Research (INRA), was discovering that pesticides and fungicides were responsible for insect outbreaks. His work has largely been ignored. He hypothesised, that an insect would starve on a healthy plant, a phenomenon he termed as “Trophobiosis.” His book was published in 1985 and finally translated into English 20 years later under the title, Healthy Crops: A New AgriculturalRevolution. Chaboussou’s theory was that insects don’t attack all plants; it is the weakened plants with high amino acids and incomplete sugars that draw in pests like moths to a flame.

In Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand, the orchardist Nick Pattison can attest that after removing the pesticide Tokuthion from his programme, mealy bug numbers reduced in the first year, and the next year … they were totally gone. The pesticide was creating the conditions for the pests. In response to human health and environmental concerns around chemical use in the late 1990s, the New Zealand horticulture sector introduced Integrated Pest Management (IPM) strategies, which included hormone disruptors, pollinator strips, improved water management and accurate monitoring. One of the most effective strategies: stop using chemical pesticides! Growers became increasingly aware, that the insect pests were being attracted to disruptions in the trees. Why this information backed by measurable experience, did not flow outwards to other production sectors is baffling.

To address the concerns of growers around increasing pest resistance, many of these chemicals are now being used together to increase their efficacy, which also increases their harm to non-target insects due to synergistic effects in the environment. Research in the past decade, has been unveiling the insidious nature of even low concentrations of pesticides and fungicides on the environment, wildlife, bees, butterflies and on people.

How did soluble, persistent, broad-spectrum pesticides, pass reviews to be released with such gusto into the global environment? It could be argued that these pesticides did not follow a rigorous risk assessment process before being released. “Your risk assessment is only as strong as the question you ask,” says Jonathan Lundgren, the agroecologist and entomologist who led the 2018 Regenerative Ag study. He began his exploration into the adverse ecological impacts from pesticides in the late ’90s. His doctoral research became more complex and he began to realise that his inquiry into robust risk assessment processes opened a doorway he couldn’t close again. “I don’t think we can assess risk; the question is just too complicated. The effects are too broad. We don’t know which organisms are affected and in what way. How do you do science on 20,000 formulations? As soon as you add an adjuvant, the risk profile changes.” The risk assessment process has very little relevance to what happens outside of the lab. In the assessment process around the BT crops, no one asked the question “what would happen if all farmers changed to grow just one or two crops?” Wholescale biodiversity collapse is the answer; above and below ground.

This article is excerpted from Nicole Masters’s book, “For the Love of Soil: Strategies to Regenerate Our Food Production Systems.” Masters is an agroecologist and educator based in New Zealand.

[i] Szczepaniec, A., Creary, S. F., Laskowski, K. L., Nyrop, J. P., & Raupp, M. J. (2011). Neonicotinoid insecticide imidacloprid causes outbreaks of spider mites on elm trees in urban landscapes. PLoS One6(5), e20018.

[ii] Simon-Delso, N., Amaral-Rogers, V., Belzunces, L.P., Bonmatin, J.M., Chagnon, M., Downs, C., Furlan, L., Gibbons, D.W., Giorio, C., Girolami, V. and Goulson, D., 2015. Systemic insecticides (neonicotinoids and fipronil): trends, uses, mode of action and metabolites. Environmental Science and Pollution Research22(1),

[iii] Bass, C., & Jones, C. (2018). Editorial overview: Pests and resistance: Resistance to pesticides in arthropod crop pests and disease vectors: mechanisms, models and tools. Current opinion in insect science27,

Learn Soil Health from Nicole Masters

Nicole Masters will be presenting at the 2020 Healthy Soil Summit virtual event on Tuesday, Aug. 25. View the agenda here and register for the event!

Healthier Soil Yields More Broccoli

Sponsored by Heliae® Agriculture

Broccoli growers understand that there is a direct correlation between soil health and crop yield. However, some do not know that it is easy to create soil conditions that help broccoli thrive. The right soil amendment is the key.

Broccoli plant.

It’s a fact: Maximizing the per-acre production of high-quality broccoli requires healthy fields. What is required to maintain healthy fields? One of the factors that researchers have identified is that soil has to have the right balance of microbes and available nutrients, and studies have shown microalgae-based soil amendments encourage significant improvements to the balance of the soil’s microbiome.

Fortunately, it’s not difficult to revive depleted, old acreage or maintain the productivity of younger fields. A study of soil quality and its impact on broccoli crop quantity has shown that the application of a microalgae-based product in drench application can increase yields by as much as 5,300 lbs/acre as compared to traditional products. The same study also recorded a 19% increase in cumulative mean head weight over a grower standard product and a hydrolysate/plant extract product plus an orthophosphate product.

Not only did the activity of the microalgae in the product improve soil health, it created an environment that encouraged other beneficial microorganisms to thrive. In essence, it jump-started a healthy, underground ecosystem that benefitted both the member organisms themselves and the crops.

Soil Structure Is Also Essential

Another benefit of soil biodiversity is that the actions of bacteria, fungi, microalgae, and other organisms in breaking down plant and animal residues produce sticky “glues,” net-like fungal extensions, and other byproducts that improve soil structure. These materials aid in the creation of soil aggregates—clumps that have spaces between them that can receive and store water.

That moisture is, of course, essential to helping roots absorb nutrients. Plus, aggregates aid in moving water deep into the soil, which draws roots deeper and protects them from the effects of drought conditions occurring at shallower depths.

Without proper aggregation, soil that has been subjected to compaction, tillage, or surface crusting can’t handle moisture from precipitation or irrigation properly. Instead of being absorbed, the water runs off or pools and evaporates, providing no benefit to the crops and increasing the cost of irrigation. But when microorganisms are allowed to proliferate in the soil, its water-holding capacity and overall health and quality increase as a result.

A Healthy Microbiome is the Cornerstone of Regenerative Agriculture

Growers today are increasingly recognizing the importance of “regenerative agriculture.” This approach to farming focuses on ensuring the ongoing health of acreage and growing its value as a grower’s most important asset.

By taking steps to achieve and maintain a robust soil microbiome and proper soil structure, agriculture businesses are able to get more production from the same fields while simultaneously extending the viability of those fields. It’s a true win-win strategy. Plus, more than ever, consumers are showing a preference for fruits and vegetables grown in a sustainable, earth-friendly way. They want the companies they do business with to be stewards of the land, not just owners of it.

Sponsor Message

Broccoli field comparison

There is no question that a broccoli grower’s experience and understanding of their land is essential to raising healthy crops. No agriculture business can succeed without that knowledge and expertise. As growers complement this expertise with the latest in agricultural science, they can enjoy a distinct competitive advantage. One company on the forefront of agriculture research is Heliae® Agriculture. The company’s innovative PhycoTerra® microalgae-based soil amendment serves as “superfood” for starving soil, increasing helpful microbes by as much as 27 times over a control. To learn more about Heliae® Agriculture, PhycoTerra® soil amendment, and how to improve soil health and broccoli yields, please visit phycoterra.com/broccoli or call (800) 998-6536.

2020 Healthy Soil Problem Solving Booklet

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This booklet is being released in conjunction with the Healthy Soil Summit event, held virtually Aug. 25-26, 2020.

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Connect with trusted companies who can help you:

• Build soil life naturally;
• Increase soil fertility by balancing your soil;
• Measure your soil microbiology to help you manage inputs; and
• Tell the difference between high-performing and poor fertilizers.

Also learn dozens of specific techniques for building healthy soil from industry experts!

Complete the form above to download the full guide today for free, and to receive updates about upcoming educational opportunities from Acres U.S.A.

Key to High Yield is Available Minerals in Soil


Herodotus was an ancient Greek historian who lived from 484-425 B.C. He is credited as one who helped compile the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World were all man-made edifices located around the Mediterranean rim and in Mesopotamia. It appears the compiled list was funded and promoted by the Greek Tourism Board.

In my mind one of the greatest wonders of the world is right below our feet: soil.

• Soil is the Foundation of Society

• Soil is the Foundation of Health

• Soil is a Fascinating World with Much Yet to be Discovered

• Soil is a Teeming Metropolis with Vast Biodiversity

Soil is where life interacts with life and where life interacts with its environment. It is my sincere belief that we have not yet realized the full potential of soil. We are, in fact, still peeping through the keyhole. The best is yet to come. The world has yet to see a fully optimized soil and the tremendous yield and quality it can produce.

Soil is where biology interacts with chemistry and where chemistry interacts with physics, and where physics interacts with biology — all at the same time.

Most soil tests measure soil minerals using chemistry. Let’s take an example using calcium and magnesium. By measuring both the calcium and magnesium, a ratio between the two can be computed. Consider a soil with 1,400 lbs. of calcium and 70 lbs. of magnesium per acre. This soil would have a 20:1 calcium to magnesium ratio (1,400 / 70 = 20). If the magnesium was 700 lbs. per acre it would be a 2:1 ratio.

When these tests are performed using the Original Morgan test the ratios directly relate to soil physics, and soil physics directly relate to biology and the environment for biology. The desired ratio for calcium to magnesium is 7:1. A 20:1 ratio could be a soil with inadequate cohesion. It is too loose and can erode easily. On the other hand, a 2:1 Cal/Mag ratio indicates extremely tight and sticky soil. When this soil gets muddy walk on it at your own risk.

Because the soil is so tightly compacted there is very little room for air. The environment lacks oxygen and is detrimental to soil biology. The extreme tightness is also detrimental to plant roots. It is a struggle just to survive. To make matters worse the extreme level of magnesium dissipates soil nitrogen back into the atmosphere. The economics of growing a crop on this soil does not cash flow — especially with a nitrogen-loving crop.

Let’s recap. The calcium to magnesium levels are tested using chemistry. The ratio between both elements directly relate to physics and consequently impacts biology. In other words, biology, chemistry and physics are all intertwined.

The difficulty we face is that testing is done with chemistry while understanding biology and physics must be inferred from the soil test, i.e. chemistry. The good news is that the right soil test and theory make it much easier to understand biology and physics.

Here is a statement that is both obvious and profound: Biology thrives in the right environment. The implications are that we as farmers, consultants and growers need to create the right environment for biology.

Let me say it more boldly. As stewards of the land and soil, we have a moral imperative to create the right environment for biology. What biology you ask? All biology. From the microbe interacting with plant roots to downstream river biology to the ultimate consumers of the crops we raise. And this imperative leads us right back to soil testing.

By using the diagnostic tool of soil testing we analyze soil chemistry. But what we are really doing is assessing the environment of the biology. By acting on the information given on the soil test we are actively changing the environment for biology.

So, what is soil physically constructed from?

• Structural particles of sand, silt, and clay

• Environmental prerequisites of moisture and air

• Carbon compounds

• Soil biology ranging from bacteria to earthworms

• Plant roots

The goal with soil testing is to assess the environment for biology and then enhance it through the application of soil amendments and specific nutrients. After many years of reading the Original Morgan soil test on thousands of different soils, I observe that soils can be grouped into various patterns. As a consultant my goal is to change the pattern to a pattern that optimally supports roots and biology. Once in while I will see a soil that is already in the optimum pattern, but this is rare. In that case, the goal is to hold the soil in that pattern.

The optimum pattern will support an extensive network of roots and lots of plant carbohydrates feeding to soil microbes. It is also important that plenty of minerals are supplied ready to be digested and made available for plant uptake.

The key to achieving excellent quality crops with very high yield is to have a reserve of predigested minerals ready for plant uptake. These minerals have already gone through microbial digestion. Not only do you need the right quantity you also need the right spectrum. Plants and all biology do best when given full-spectrum nutrition. This means major minerals, secondary minerals, trace minerals and rare earth elements. To get full-spectrum nutrition requires various fertilizers, soil amendments and rock powders. This will be the subject of future articles.

Certain carbon compounds can also be added to soil to enhance the environment. Remember from my previous article that carbon compounds have the potential to hold heat energy. By adding needed minerals and carbon compounds, the pattern of soil changes. At the same time, minerals are removed from the soil primarily through crop removal but also through leaching.

Annual soil testing is a very important time to stop and ask “Where is the soil right now?” Minerals have been added, microbes have been digesting, and plants have been removing nutrients. Productive soil is most always in a state of flux — ever changing.

At this point, it is very important to ask what type of soil testing should be done. I suggest the Original Morgan and will explain why, but first an illustration.

My wife and I have coffee together every morning. I grind the coffee beans fresh and then blend in some grass-fed butter and a refined oil from coconuts to make a frothy cup of morning Java. And we always sprinkle the top with plenty of cinnamon. Since we really like our coffee, I also grind the cinnamon in batches to make our own cinnamon powder. Here is a picture of a recent batch. What starts as a stick of bark is first broken and then ground in a spice grinder. Then it needs to be sifted to get the fine powder. I don’t like to chew whole cinnamon sticks with my coffee nor do I prefer the coarse sifting. The best flavor comes from the fine powder.

Having predigested minerals ready for plants to absorb them is like the difference between a cinnamon stick and a fine cinnamon powder. Photo by Jon Frank

Think of this as the process soil amendments and rock powders must go through. Let’s take calcium in the form of limestone. What starts out as calcium carbonate must be broken down into an available form of calcium for plants to pick up.

As limestone is broken down some becomes available calcium and some is in the soil but not yet available. Most soil tests answer the question: What nutrients are in the soil? This is similar to the cinnamon that comes out of the spice grinder. Some of it is powder and some of it is too coarse to use.

The Original Morgan test was patterned after root exudates and asks the question: What nutrients can plants get? This is similar to the fine cinnamon powder after the sifting. It is not the total in the soil but instead the fraction that is actually plant available after have gone through microbial digestion.

The clarity of knowing what nutrients are available to the plant paints a clear picture of the pattern of the soil.

If both the available and unavailable nutrients are measured together, you cannot tell which is which. Clarity is lost. This is very similar to a radio signal that has too much noise with it. The Original Morgan soil test is, in my opinion, the best test to sift out the noise and thus see the real pattern of the soil. This is why Dr. Carey Reams only promoted this soil test and why it became the premier diagnostic tool in Reams Agriculture.

I close this article with a toast to one of the true wonders of the world: Soil. I hope you get your hands in some this spring.

Jon Frank is the owner of International Ag Labs, based in southern Minnesota. He is a soil consultant with over 20 years of experience in his field. He is the founder of High Brix Gardens, the market garden/backyard garden division of IAL. Jon is fascinated with the correlation between minerally rich soil and nutrient-dense food and its subsequent impact on human health.

This article was previously published in the June 2020 issue of Acres U.S.A. magazine.

Learn More About the HSS Replay!

The live event August 25-26 featured speakers like Klaas Martens, Glen Rabenberg, Mimi Casteel, Nicole Masters, Michael Phillips and more! Register for the replay and get all the educational workshops in the replay. Includes downloadable presentations and special book deals! Learn more about the HSS Replay here!

Healthy Soil Summit 2020

Want Better Crops? Start with Better Soil Structure.

Sponsored by Heliae® Agriculture

Experienced growers know how important the condition of their soil is. Good soil health and quality translates directly into good plant health. However, it’s important to keep in mind that there’s more to good soil than just the presence of ample nutrients.

In order for crops to reach their full yield potential, the soil they’re in must contain adequate moisture, particularly at depth. Fields in which precipitation or irrigation water runs off or pools and then evaporates typically don’t maintain an optimal plant available moisture content throughout the growing season.

High-performance soils, on the other hand, are good at receiving and storing water. What’s the key to this attribute? Good soil structure. Fertile acreage is characterized by the presence of soil formations called aggregates. The spaces between these tiny structures not only accept and hold water, they transmit it deeper into the soil, pulling thirsty roots down with them.

Poor soil structure is common. It can occur as a result of tillage, compaction, or surface crusting, and is easy to overlook with all the other challenges that have to be addressed in running an agricultural operation. Unfortunately for growers, failing to take steps to address deficient soil structure results in smaller harvests of crops and greater susceptibility to stressors.

However, on the bright side, soil structure can be improved, even in the most neglected of fields, and doing so doesn’t require a great deal of labor to achieve significant gains. Healthy structure is the result of natural activity by bacteria, fungi, microalgae, and other organisms. They create sticky “glues,” net-like extensions, and other byproducts as they work to decompose plant and animal residues. These byproducts cause soil particles to clump together as aggregates, which helps form a better framework for water retention and moisture movement.

Soil Amendments That Improve Fields in Multiple Ways

The microbiome in fields can be improved by the introduction of a soil amendment containing a high-quality food source. Microalgae can be particularly beneficial.

As soon as they are applied, microalgae help to create more and larger aggregates. Not only does their activity have a positive impact on the soil’s moisture content, it also creates a more hospitable environment for other types of microbes.

These dual improvements—better structure and an improved microbiome—allow for more growers to help realize their yield goals. Microalgae-based soil amendment can also [A1] [A2] be useful for extending the viability for older fields.

Focusing on Regenerative Agriculture

Restoring the health of soil is one of the key elements of what’s called regenerative agriculture. This approach to farming recognizes that there is only so much land that can be cultivated and that restoring the soil is critical not only to growing operations but to the planet as a whole.

As a result, adopting regenerative agriculture practices like the use of microalgae soil amendments benefits businesses in a few ways. First, it allows them to deliver greater quantities of crops to the wholesalers and retailers who rely on them.

Second, it demonstrates to partners and consumers that the grower is more than just a crop supplier, and is, in fact, an environmental steward focused on leaving the environment in better shape than they found it. And that, of course, is definitely good for business.

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Infographic – Properties of high-performance soils

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To learn more about Heliae® Agriculture and PhycoTerra®, please visit phycoterra.com or call (800) 998-6536. To learn more about soil structure, please visit our blog.

A Guide to Edible Mycorrhizal Mushrooms

Yellow Morel mushroom. Photo by Mary Smiley / Wikicommons


I claim few talents as a stalker of edible mycorrhizal mushrooms. The occasional morel on abandoned apple ground, the golden glow of chanterelles easily found — knowing these gifts are out there is happiness in itself. Yet now I’m motivated to spend even more time in the woods, thanks to inspiring friends with tried-and-true mushroom abilities. What follows is an introduction to an array of edible wonders. We begin with the unquestionable tie between mycorrhizal mycelia and the root systems of certain tree species.

Identifying trees is part of the skill set needed to know where to best look for these mushrooms. Some mycorrhizal fungi form partnerships specifically with manzanitas and madrones, for instance, along the Redwood Coast. Other species are found only with alders, or with certain pines, or with beech. On the other hand, the same tree can have numerous mycorrhizal affiliations and thus offer prospects for different fungi at different points in the year. According to David Arora, author of Mushrooms Demystified, “[t]here are well over 1,000 kinds of mushrooms known to form mycorrhiza with Douglas fir, and the great Douglas fir forests of the Pacific Northwest are among the best fungal foraging grounds in the world.” Mycelia extend further than the canopy stretch of a single tree, so cast your eyes broadly across the forest floor. The “tree viewpoint” becomes more about recognizing the right sort of forest ecosystem where desirable mushrooms will be found.

My better chanterelle finds have come in mixed stands that include balsam fir; the same place where others report finding boletes. Mature hemlocks along streambeds are noted for being a good place to look for dozens of species, including matsutake. The oak family supports many species including king boletes, chanterelles, and black trumpets. Birches are a well-known source of chanterelles, hedgehogs, and the more disconcerting webcap.

Let’s zone in all the more as to the right sorts of places to look. Mixed stands of hardwoods and conifers provide a variety of habitats for mycorrhizal collaboration. Mature trees are more likely to offer a prize than a younger, successional stand. Look for sphagnum moss, in part because mosses reflect nondisturbance and thus fungal continuity. Well-shaded embankments along back roads and trails are prime mushroom ground. Any microclimate that holds moisture tends to be a good fungal bet.

Michael Phillips is the author of several books. His latest is Mycorrhizal Planet: How Symbiotic Fungi Work with Roots to Support Plant Health and Build Soil Fertility.

Establishing mycorrhizal mushrooms at one’s own place requires patience. The first step involves getting mycelium growing on the right sorts of trees . . . and then you wait and wait some more. Years may pass before a single fruiting body shows itself. The “lottery approach” involves distributing spores from forest finds on promising tree sites. Overly mature specimens or stem butts serve well here. Scratch these slightly into the ground to get closer to the proximity of actual roots. The odds may be slim that the new species takes up residence (by which point you will have forgotten all about it anyway!), but those spores will indeed germinate. Only time will tell if an introduced species can wriggle its way into an established fungal scene. Transplanting saplings from proven mushroom ground brings with it the expectation that those root systems will carry the same mycorrhizal connection along. This holds slighter better promise, only it may be a decade or more before those trees come into their own and that first mushroom says here I am. Similarly, you can make root dip inoculum by crushing the spore-bearing surfaces of wild mushrooms (dried and held over from the previous fall) into water and then immersing the roots of appropriately matched nursery stock prior to planting those seedlings in early spring. Chances of success rise if such root systems have no dominant ectomycorrhizal affiliation to start.

Morels are among the better mycorrhizal candidates for establishing on home ground. These mushroom species work in a broad range of host situations thanks to a ready ability to adapt. Some form mycorrhizal associations directly, while others express a modus operandi that’s more saprotrophic. Some believe that morels are disrupted out of a healthy symbiosis when a tree dies for whatever reason . . . causing the fungus to withdraw from the roots, form sclerotia (compact masses of hardened mycelium, with food reserves), which then go into fruiting mode separate from the tree in order to sporulate and find new hosts. This dual nature goes a long way toward explaining the settings where these delectable mushrooms can be found.

Savvy morel hunters know to look near ash, oak, and wild cherry trees in forests with moderately well-drained soils. Cottonwoods and tulip poplars are good indicators of yellow morels in the vicinity. Mushroom hunters from Tennessee claim to find these just as often under red cedar. Mass fruitings of black morels follow forest fires in the coniferous forests of the Intermountain West. Morels continue to feed off the root systems of dead elms and apple trees in abandoned orchards as true saprobes. Morels are even found in gravelly roads and streambeds on a go-figure basis.

Conditions are right early in the spring as the ground is warming. Morels will first appear on south-facing slopes in fairly open areas. As the season progresses, the place to be is deeper in the woods on the north-facing slopes. The season begins when trillium flowers bloom and redbud trees burst forth with color. Here in northern New England, morels peak when apple and lilac bloom overlaps. Morel season can be very short in southern regions when it gets very hot and dry early, while the cool, wet weather often experienced further north is conducive for stretching out the harvest window to a full month long.

You’ll find strategic tips for cultivating morels in Organic Mushroom Farming and Mycoremediation by Tradd Cotter. Regional strains have a strong affiliation, not only for specific tree types, but importantly for the soil microbe community found in each place. Positioning a nonnutritive layer between the spawn and wood chip substrata is integral to getting morels to pop forth the next year. Native soil—from where the morels being cultivated were found, no less—must be included in the propagation bed to ensure the presence of the right bacterial associates known to that particular morel strain.

Morels are among what mycologists call the Foolproof Four, a list that includes morels, puffballs, sulfur shelf mushrooms, and shaggy manes. Each of these mushrooms has a distinctive look that’s easily differentiated from other, poisonous varieties. The takeaway here is you need to know all the clues when it comes to identifying any mushroom as edible. Morels have a distinctive conical shape, with a series of cups arranged haphazardly on the head, atop a hollow stem. Yet there are false morels just as there are false prophets . . . so be forewarned.

Chanterelles are delicious, orange-yellow, almost trumpet-shaped mushrooms, said to emit a pleasant apricoty smell. These are found in many kinds of woodland and are fairly easy to spot at that because of their glowing vibrancy from head to toe. The fruiting body can persist as long as two to three weeks, so leave the smaller ones to expand in size for later picking. Look to mossy areas where the right tree associates grow nearby. This can be anything from oak and beech to hemlock and pines, whether found in uplands or lowlands. David Spahr in Maine points out that the edge of a dirt road or trail can be especially promising, perhaps because the compacted earth to be found in such places causes the mycelium to react by fruiting heavily. July through September marks the months to be on the lookout for chanterelles, especially in those years with consistent summer rains.

One of the identifying features of a true chanterelle is the “false gills” on the underside of the cap. These are not individual structures that sit separate from one another but rather are mere folds in the undersurface of the fruiting body. Assessing true or false gills is especially important if one wants to eat chanterelles, since the poisonous Jack O’Lantern mushroom is a cluster growing lookalike with true, rather than false, gills.

The ability to hide—and hide quite well at that—belongs to the black trumpet grouping of mycorrhizal mushrooms. All species are not only edible but among the very best in flavor. Black trumpets will be called the black chanterelle or horn of plenty in some regions. These funnel shaped mushrooms can be tan to light gray early on, darkening to dark gray or black at full maturity. The fruiting bodies range in height from 1–6 inches (2.5–15 cm) and up to 3 inches (7.5 cm) across. The flesh is thinner than most, and extremely fragrant. Small clusters are typically found in mixed woods where beeches and oaks grow, especially shady and damp locations. Those so-called spring washes where snowmelt runs off hillsides as a visible stream (and does the same after a heavy rain in a wet summer) are bonanza territory for trumpet lovers. The trick to finding these naturally camouflaged mushrooms is to stand directly overhead, looking down rather than letting your eye rove across the landscape. Some say that looking for black trumpets is like looking for holes in the ground, which isn’t far from the truth.

Hedgehog mushrooms are known as tooth fungi, so named because of spinelike bristles on the undersides of their caps. The sweet, nutty taste and crunchy texture give these mushrooms a high rating in the kitchen. The cap starts off lightly colored, picking up a yellow to light-orange to even brown hue by maturity. Hedgehogs often develop an irregular shape, especially those crowded in closely with adjacent fruiting bodies. This basidiomycete has no poisonous lookalikes and will rarely be bothered by slugs or other insects. Hedgehogs associate regularly with Scots pine and hemlock, and occasionally with beech and yellow birch. Tooth fungi can be found growing on bare ground, such as eroded river gravels, likely assisting trees to stretch roots into new territory. These mushrooms grow in profusion in the leaf litter of both coniferous and deciduous forests. Fruiting occurs from midsummer through the autumn months.

Concealed under duff on the forest floor, matsutake mushrooms come on strong by September. These highly sought-after mycorrhizal mushrooms grow across all the northern temperate zones. Species on each continent are classified separately, but in truth they are much the same. Tricholoma magnivelare is found in the coniferous forests of the Pacific Northwest, is associated with low-growing hardwoods in California and parts of Oregon, and is generally found in jack pine and hemlock forests in the Northeast. The North American variant is typically called “white matsutake,” as it does not feature the brown coloration of the Asian strain. The odor of the matsutake is its most distinctive yet hard-to-characterize feature. David Arora described it as “a provocative compromise between red hots and dirty socks,” and so it may be. The fungus often grows in fruiting arcs through the soil as root outreach extends further each year. Matsutake favor what are known as podzol soils. This gray clayey, somewhat sandy earth is the third layer below a needle layer and a thin humus layer, followed by subsoil.

The king bolete is a delicious, meaty mushroom that grows worldwide. Its many names include porcini and pennybun, comprised of several closely related species with similar looks, habitat, and flavor. These stately mushrooms feature a thick cap, with a distinctive spongelike texture on the underside. Their clubbed stem often appears to be covered in fine webbing (reticulation). Boletes have a strong affinity for spruces and, depending on how the species is defined, other conifers and even hardwoods. The choicest specimens can be served raw, thinly sliced with lemon juice and oil . . . though more typically boletes will be sautéed in their own juices. These prized mushrooms have a very short life cycle, harvestable for just a few days before turning into maggot hotels and soon after that into a puddle of black slime. The best things in life are often ephemeral.

The following excerpt is from Michael Phillips’ book Mycorrhizal Planet: How Symbiotic Fungi Work with Roots to Support Plant Health and Build Soil Fertility (Chelsea Green Publishing, February 2017) and is reprinted with permission from the publisher. Phillips is a farmer, writer, carpenter, orchard consultant, and speaker who lives with his wife, Nancy, and daughter, Grace, on Heartstrong Farm in northern New Hampshire, where they grow apples and a variety of medicinal herbs. He is the author of The Apple Grower (Chelsea Green, 2005) and The Holistic Orchard (2011).

Learn soil health from Michael Phillips

Michael Phillips is among our speakers at the 2020 Healthy Soil Summit on Aug. 25-26. This is a virtual event – which means you can join from anywhere! Take a look at our informative programming and please join us at the end of August to learn more about soil from experts and farmers. Learn More!

Watch the 1st Healthy Soil Problem-Solving Webinar

Watch the first episode in a series of Healthy Soil Problem Solving Webinars, created to give you easy access to information you need to improve your soil and overall farm productivity. This 30-minute, Live Earth Products sponsored webinar will discuss solutions for improving your soil structure and fertility with humic acid. Learn how humic acid is formed, when and why you would add it your soil and what happens in your soil once it is incorporated.

You can watch the webinar on our Acres U.S.A. YouTube channel – or here in the video below:

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Tractor Time Episode 44: In Defense of Okra (with Chris Smith)

The guest for this episode is Chris Smith, author of the James Beard Award-winning book, The Whole Okra: A Seed to Stem Celebration. Chris lives in Asheville, North Carolina, where he is the founder and executive director of The Utopia Seed Project.

It seems like a perfect time of year to talk about okra. And I have to say that okra is one of my favorite vegetables. I grew it back when I lived in Texas, and it is just a stunningly beautiful plant. It loves the heat. It’s drought tolerant. I loved serving it at dinner parties because people were always surprised it could be so good.

But, let’s face it. Okra is polarizing. There’s the slime, for one. At the grocery store, you find it in a can, which, no thank you.

But beyond all that, it turns out okra is a powerful vehicle for telling stories about genetic diversity, seed to stem eating and even the American slave trade. Chris weaves all that, and much more, into his book.

— Ben Trollinger