Why You Should Spend More Time Thinking About Soil Reports

Sponsored by Ferticell®

Agricultural producers in 2022 will face new, unwelcome changes to how they evaluate programs and fertilizers due to supply and price concerns across the board. Many growers are looking at their soil, determining what is needed, where they are, and what can be applied.  Any organic or sustainable farming operation needs a baseline to review regarding prior year soil health, potential limiting factors, and what options are available.

At the start of the season, it is essential to always be looking to the soil, as a first order, to establish current soil and water conditions if irrigation is in place. This is the stage where we learn if there are any favorable, as well as possible soil limiting factors that can be identified early. This will provide the opportunity to determine what product options are available. 

woman testing soil in field
Studying and understanding your soil will help your crops grow to their full potential.


The cost of sending in labs may seem high, but every dollar is multiplied down the row. A qualified assessment of inputs requires getting all figures and reports. In a season of high fertilizer prices, buying an excess of product can significantly reduce profits. When selecting a laboratory for sampling, it is important the methodology is accurate for the growing region. For example, soil analysis methods developed for the southern region may not be applicable in other regions of the country. For those concerned about measurement accuracy, growers should inquire about the results of NAPT (North American Proficiency Testing).


It is imperative that every soil test includes an accurate assessment of active carbon availability. Carbon is the foundation for soil organic matter (SOM) and the main source of energy for soil microorganisms. Each irrigated farm should produce a soil paste report and should use farm water for an accurate analysis. Dryland practices should also include a soil paste report using deionized water, as that is as close to rainfall results as possible in the lab.

Soil physical property measurements should be collected to identify soil classification by measuring the sand, silt, and clay components. Any reports that classify soil as a “sandy loam” with a high sand content should also include a measurement of sand particle sizes. Uniform sand categories will have a balanced distribution that is measured on several screen sizes. A uniform sand particle size is established by measurements using a minimum of five screens that include 35mm, 60mm, 80mm, 100mm, and 140mm, as well as silt and clay. This data will establish the balance of air and water holding potential of all the soil types.

Simple practices such as soil priming will initiate a balancing of active carbon. This will assist in converting or releasing elements that are in a complex condition such as sodium bicarbonate. Priming soils will facilitate biomass activities that are critical for nutrient release and assimilation in the correct form at the correct timing.

Soils that may be compacted in the early part of planting or start-up will benefit from timely applications of calcium and L-amino acids that have a direct impact on soil flocculation (tilth) and biological activity. Soil or applied cations such as calcium and potassium will improve efficiencies and assimilation when plant-based amino acids are applied in combination. Two of the most significant soil elements that can be directly impacted by heavy or tight soils are carbon and oxygen. Nutrient cycling must have a reliable source of carbon and beneficial biology must have oxygen.

Inspecting soils once every year will give you an educated idea of where soil health and conditions are headed. Soil performance can be estimated with as little as three years of data collection, and it is recommended to always use the same laboratory and near the same time.

Optimal soil balance depends on a combination of physical, biological, and chemical conditions that allow your crop to reach its full genetic potential.


Marginal quality water can hinder uptake and overall availability of soil nutrients, working against your yield instead of for it. An irrigation suitability test will determine any corrective products or practices that may be put in place. A critical water analysis will report several salts such as sodium, chloride, carbonate, bicarbonate, boron, nitrates, sulfur, and pH. Water classified as marginal will require a balance of cations and anions.

Once the season starts and crop production is in place, tissue or sap samples can verify successful corrective practices or products that have been placed at the correct timing. 

As we move forward into the 21st century, mainstream agriculture has the burden or opportunity of protecting the soil with rich agricultural production products and practices that are proving to be efficient, and profitable. Carbon-rich fertile soil has been challenged by the use of salt-based fertilizers, and we can measure the decline in biology with anaerobic soils and the loss of physical properties with hardpan at or near the surface. Small, calculated changes or combinations of product choices will always add to or build topsoil biodiversity.

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Wake Up the Microbes in Your Soil

Find out how activating your soil microbiome can help boost your bottom line in 2022.

Sponsored by Heliae® Agriculture

You manage many important assets on your farm, from your equipment to seed to crop inputs. But one of the most critical assets is right below your feet—soil. Your soil is full of valuable bacteria and fungi that are mostly dormant and not contributing to the growth of your crops without the right food source. As you make plans for the 2022 crop season, consider making your soil microbiome a priority to uncover your soil’s potential.

The health of your soil is dependent on how the microorganisms, such as bacteria and fungi, interact in their ecosystem. A single teaspoon of your soil contains one billion bacteria and one million fungi, searching for a proper food source. When they have a healthy environment and food source, the microbes can improve soil quality, thus improving the environment for your crops to grow and receive beneficial nutrients.

Soil closeup

Healthy soil resists erosion, reducing soil degradation from water or wind. It also improves nutrient use and profitability, while reducing the effects of unpredictable events and externalities.

For the best moisture retention in areas more susceptible to drought or dry periods between rainfall, healthy soils are well aggregated and allow for water infiltration. Aggregation of soil particles allows for water to fill in between soil pores and around soil particles to provide moisture for the crop for a longer period of time.

The structure of your soil is critical to supporting the growth of your crops. Common practices such as excessive tillage, soil compaction from equipment and the use of inorganic fertilizers can negatively impact your soil structure, resulting in decreased soil health.

On average, 75% of the microbes in soil are dormant and starving. By providing a food source for microbes, you can activate the native microbiome in the soil and bring it to life to help restore the biological potential of the field. The activated microbiome increases the soil’s NPK availability and water holding capacity, while supporting abiotic plant stress and improving soil aggregation.

Microalgae has proven to be the key in providing the right nutrients to your soil’s microbiome. Found naturally in water and in soils, microalgae are unicellular photosynthetic micro-organisms. When delivered in a high-load formulation to feed the microbiome, their application has been proven to have extensive benefits to increase yield.

By building native microbial communities with a microalgae-based soil microbial food, farmers across the United States are seeing their crops thrive. Research and field trial results have shown direct response to the treatment and 33x more microbial activity.

Soils with poor water holding capacity result in increased water stress and poor nutrient uptake by plants. The right food source for your microbiome improves water retention within the soil by up to 10%, while also improving access to nutrients and increasing NPK and micronutrient availability.

Activating the microbes in your soil is crucial to increasing the productivity of the microbiome. A proper food source brings your soil to life so it can properly retain water, feed your crops and allow you to reap the benefits with enhanced yields and ROI. When you feed the starving microbes a superior food source, you wake up the soil microbiome to put it back to work.


Wake Up Your Soil with PhycoTerra®

PhycoTerra® soil microbial food is sourced from microalgae and is an innovative forumlation for your soil’s beneficial microbes. PhycoTerra® promotes healthy soil structure, water productivity, and nurtrient availability by activating the soil microbiome, which supports your crop through abiotic stresses and translates to healthy yields and optimized ROI. PhycoTerra® is pasteurized and feeds the native microbes already in your soil, it mixes with a large variety of crop inputs, and works across crop and soil types.

For more information on soil health and PhycoTerra®, visit www.phycoterra.com.

Measuring Microbes a Step Toward Soil Health

Measuring the microbes present in your soil is a step toward understanding how to achieve fertility.


Hidden in just one teaspoon of healthy soil are more micro-organisms than the Earth’s entire human population.

These microbes break down organic matter in the soil and make essential nutrients like carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, sulfur and others available to plants. According to a 2020 study published in Nutrient Cycling, microbes contribute about 60 percent of the bioavailable soil carbon in farms and grasslands. A recent study published in the ISME Journal of Microbiology correlates soil microbial biomass with ecological biodiversity. A healthy microbiome improves water retention, helps ward off plant diseases and makes a farmer’s job a heck of a lot easier.

The regenerative farming movement has long drawn upon both the cultural traditions and scientific literature supporting the supreme importance of microbial health for cultivating plants. Gardeners and farmers can observe different “tells” indicating different mineral deficiencies or depleted microbes. Lower leaves turning yellow and falling off the stem might indicate low nitrogen levels, while poor nodulation in legumes hint at a lack of sulfur.

But how can growers know if their soil is on the verge of a deficiency before the leaves turn yellow and their crops are negatively impacted? How might a grower learn precisely how effectively a plot is reacting to their cover crop?

Until recently, testing soils for microbial contents has been too expensive and time-consuming for many farmers. Plus, many microbes do not survive the trip to a lab, which leads to inaccurate test results.

Dr. Judith Fitzpatrick and her product, microBIOMETER, are changing the world of soil testing, making healthy soil a goal that any farmer can accurately measure and work toward achieving. “MicroBIOMETER will allow growers to see the positive impacts of their changes in practice in real time,” says Laura Deck, the president of Prolific Earth Science, which makes the tool. “They can both assess which practices are more effective and also prove out the efficacy of biologics as they go — making compliance and uptake faster and more thorough.”

Creating an Accessible Tool

Earlier in her career as a microbiologist and medical test developer, Dr. Fitzpatrick founded and ran the company Serex, through which she created over 15 medical diagnostic tests and produced 3 million FDA approved tests a year. After the National Science Foundation awarded a $600,000 grant, Fitzpartrick began teaching at Bergen Community College and developing quality assurance control training.

The inception of microBIOMETER occurred when Fitzpatrick saw a gap in traditional soil quality testing, which typically analyzes soil content and chemical volumes without giving special attention to microbes and their impact. Her goal was to build a tool that was low cost to manufacture, user friendly and highly accurate.

In 2015, Fitzpatrick collaborated with regenerative landscaping designer James Sotillo. Sotillo felt his work was hampered by having to test his soils the old fashioned way: collecting a sample, sending it to a lab and waiting weeks for a result that cost over $100 per test.

Working with neurophysicist Dr. Brady Trexler, Fitzpatrick developed an app that processes and analyzes the data collected from soil samples.

Interestingly, the most difficult part of developing the test was coming up with affordable tools to replicate in the field the careful mixing and analysis done in the lab. “Fitzpatrick actually had a custom mixer made that’s similar design to a milk frother,” Decker says.

After three years of development and testing, microBIOMETER was released to the public in 2018.

In the Field

The test itself works with a comparatively minimal number of steps. Users collect a soil sample and follow instructions to mix it with water and the company’s proprietary extracting compounds. “Soil microbes secrete a substance that binds non-living soil particles to each other and to themselves,” the microBIOMETER instructions explain. “Our patented method extracts the microbes from the bound soil particles which then settle to the bottom.” After 20 minutes, and after all the particles have settled in the extraction tube, users take a sample of the tube with a pipet and place several droplets onto a card which gets scanned into the app with the phone’s camera, similar to a QR code. The app measures the test’s results in micrograms, or µg, of microbial carbon per gram of soil and shows a fungal to bacterial ratio as F:B.

Decker says users typically have little trouble applying the test with the instructional video and step-by-step directions in their kit, but when problems arise it has often been from agronomists. “One time we had an agronomist call us very frustrated saying, ‘Your test didn’t work,’ but it turned out they had swapped their own tubes and applied their own mixing tools, which the test is not designed for.” Decker says each element of the kit is carefully calibrated and those who follow the instructions typically don’t run into problems.

Fitzpatrick and her team designed microBIOMETER with a global mindset. Once downloaded, the app is able to read tests without internet access. “Additionally,” Decker adds, “it was designed with no dangerous or controlled ingredients, making it easy and safe to ship around the world.” While other tests range in the $100+, microBIOMETER costs $13.50 per test and $7 per refill. “The ease of using the test is especially helpful in developing countries where lab test are impractical and prohibitively expensive, but where cell phones are ubiquitous,” Decker says.

Measuring Success

Shortly following its release, microBIOMETER attracted attention. In January 2019, FuzeHub awarded Prolific Earth Science a grant in their Innovation Incentive Prize Program. Then, in November, microBIOMETER was selected as the Innovator for Soil Carbon by the Global Terraton Challenge. Several recent studies have used microBIOMETER in their research, including one paper published in Applied Soil Science documenting the impacts of Roundup and microplastics on soil health.

Decker explains that because the results delivered by the test is data only, it’s useful to users who want information rather than prescriptions. “We would love to be able to tell you exactly what you need to do once you get your results, but at this point the app can’t do that.” She postulates that this is why researchers and independent farmers tend to be more interested in the test than most agribusinesses the company has pursued. “We’d be happy to work with agribusinesses,” she says, “this kind of information can make a positive impact.” But so far, a focus on soil microbial biomass has remained largely outside the scope of these players.

But all of that isn’t to say that microBIOMETER’s following isn’t loyal — and growing. “Our tool tends to attract the grower who is curious and creative, Decker says.

Author of “Teaming with Microbes,” Jeff Lowenfels calls microBIOMETER “an advancement in measuring soil food web activity that finally lets us know if our inputs are working. Finally, there is a way to measure if soil or related products actually team with microbes!”

Another user and now microBIOMETER distributor in Kuwait, Dr. Jassem Bastaki, shares on the Prolific Earth Science blog that he’s worked long and hard to educate his community about soil microbiology in an attempt to reverse practices that kill off microbes. “It’s common to see people in our region praising the life in the soil (finally),” Bastaki writes, “but then professing solarization at the end of or the beginning of a growing season. This is an obvious clash in concepts that we hope are not deeply understood. We believe with popularizing the use of the microBIOMETER, we can help clear the fog!”

Microbes are the Future

As the climate imperatives increase, data will play an important role in promoting regenerative solutions. For Decker, Fitzpatrick and the team at Prolific Earth Sciences, microBIOMETER and the ability to easily and affordably measure microbial biomass and track soil health over time couldn’t arrive a moment too soon.

Several states already have programs to incentivize climate-sensitive agricultural practices, and Decker says microBIOMETER could play a role in demonstrating the efficacy of regenerative practices over time. “We definitely see ourselves as part of the carbon markets,” she says.

For so long microbes have done their crucial work underground invisible to the human eye, and often squelched by poor practices. “Tests are a window to what’s going on,” Decker says.

A Farmer’s Guide to Mulching

By Leah Smith

Mention mulch and the first thoughts that spring to mind are probably moisture retention and weed suppression. And yes, mulch serves both of those functions well. But the benefits of using mulch go beyond those to other areas of importance. If you thought it a simple matter of spreading whatever you like on the ground whenever you like around whatever you like, think again.

What To Use

Mulch can be almost anything that slows the loss of moisture from the soil and suppresses weeds. It is often true that when you are in need of mulch you are likely to use whatever the best option is you have at hand; and this is fine as long as you are able to judge what the best option is.

Popular natural mulches include compost (including composted manure), hay, straw, shrub and tree leaves and grass clippings. These feed the soil to varying extents, with the compost, hay and grass clippings doing it best. There are procedures to keep in mind with most mulches. For example, leaves must be chopped or mixed with other materials so that they don’t mat down and prohibit aeration and water infiltration to the soil. Also, some leaves contain compounds that can inhibit plant growth. So either conduct your own trials or (preferably) age leaves for at least six months before spreading them. Grass clipping layers should be kept to about two inches deep at most so that they do not become putrid. Alternatively, clippings can be allowed to dry a day or two so that they are no longer overly damp and not as prone to become fetid.

Pine needles, sawdust, wood chips, chopped bark and rock are additional natural mulch options. Pine needles add acidity to the soil and should only be used when this won’t create a pH problem but rather is desired (or at least tolerated) by plants that enjoy a lower pH. Blueberries and hydrangeas are examples of that, though many people use them on strawberry beds with great success as well. Pine needles can also inhibit seed germination due to the terpenes they contain. Wood products should be aged at least a year prior to use to prevent the depletion of nitrogen in the soil. And rock as a complete mulch is naturally used in permanent or semi-permanent situations (such as fruit trees and bushes), unless it is a few larger rocks used in conjunction with another mulch (more below).

And there are further and creative natural mulch alternatives. For example, you can use the ferny (reproductive) growth of asparagus as the bed’s own mulch, bending it down and leaving it in place at the end of summer. Plants like comfrey and aquatic plants in general are especially nutrient rich. They will give you mulch that is a valuable nutrient source. What is more, pulled weeds that lack seed set have the potential to be used as mulch. Some people will have access to other plentiful and unique mulch sources — buckwheat, cottonseed, peanut hulls, peat moss, seaweed or even hops or coffee grounds. Use what you have access to.

Processed mulch alternatives include cardboard, newspaper and plastics. Make sure your cardboard is free of toxic or non-decomposable materials (e.g., glues and ink). The colored ink now used in newspapers tends to be water-based and non-toxic, making it a viable option. Black and clear plastic mulch, though it has multiple environmental minuses, are viewed by many with admiration because their coverage is so total and they are frequently used to warm the soil and keep it warm, an aid to season extension. Overheating of the soil should be avoided (a greater issue with clear plastic).

Reflective mulches are gaining popularity. Said to increase plant photosynthesis and productivity because they increase sunlight availability, they can especially aid those growing gardens in the partial shade. Also, they are known to disorient pests like the Mexican bean beetles, leaf hoppers, whiteflies and aphids. Though commercially made (from products like silver polyethylene), economic versions can be created with aluminum foil or cardboard painted white. Because they also increase air temperature and their reflectiveness is diminished as plants grow larger through the season, they are a means of getting a head start during the growing season; additionally, peak temperatures during the season could lead to overheating and plant burning, a reason to remove it prior to the summer heat. Their reflective ability is diminished by dirt and grime as well, often leading to their disposal after each season.

Why to Use It

As previously stated, weed suppression and moisture retention may be the principle reasons for mulching crops, but they are by no means the only benefits.

Aid Germination: Certain seeds are known for having especially temperamental germination. In many cases, keeping seeds and soil moist is of help; and, naturally, this is also the case for almost any seed you may be trying to germinate during a drought. A light sprinkling of mulch on top of a recently watered row will often do the trick. Carrots, peas, spinach and many flower seeds can be helped in this way.

Crow Confounder: Mulch, especially bright green grass clippings, can be used to camouflage young shoots such as those of corn when they are emerging from the ground and are especially tempting to birds like crows. But really, mulch can help to hide many a plant from many a curious garden trespasser.

Control Your Temperature: The application of mulch can be used as a method of season extension, so to speak, due to the ability it has to create a temperature microclimate. Though air temperature changes rapidly, soil temperature does not, so using a mulch to blanket the soil will insulate it well. This can be done to extend the season of both cool and warm season crops. On our farm, we use mulch at the beginning of the season around arugula, spinach and turnip plantings, applying it before the ground begins to heat up for summer so that it can “keep its cool.” Rocks increase the thermal mass of garden beds. Though seldom welcome willy nilly, strategic placement of rocks can hold onto heat in the garden where you want it to keep your heat-loving crops cozy for as long as possible.

Keep it Clean: Using mulch to grow a clean crop is nothing new. For strawberries, it would be quite impossible to grow a fruit with a decent shelf life without the use of a mulch, as those delicate fruits and dirt really don’t mix well. We also use mulch to keep our husk cherries clean and easier to handle. But the cleanliness of mulch doesn’t end with fruits. Basil is always a very popular herb. Clean leaves of any sort have better storability than dirty ones and so a dip in cold water is always good. But basil leaves, unless they dry just right, can develop brown/bronze spotting where moisture clings, leaving you with an unattractive product. Deciding one summer it would be better to grow clean basil that didn’t need to be washed at all, we turned to mulch. A nice hay mulch, stretching out eight inches on either side of the basil row, protects the plants from rain splattering dirt onto the leaves and gives you just that.

Harvest Helper: Spinach is another crop where mulch can be used to produce a clean leaf. Savoyed spinach leaves, in particular, hold on to soil they pick up by growing so close to the ground. Mulching prevents this, but it also does something more. It causes the spinach to grow in a more upright orientation as it reaches for the sun. This orientation makes harvesting clean spinach leaves quite easy.

Good SPF: Bulbing onions, as they are putting on size and nearing harvest time, are susceptible to sunburn. This is particularly discouraging when you are so close to harvest. An airy layer of mulch removes this threat by giving it protection from the sun. Onions are one of our top priorities when it comes to mulching. Weed suppression and moisture retention are particularly important to the plants, and they are sensitive to having their roots disturbed as well as having sensitive skin!

Shelter from the (Wind)Storm: In nature, and therefore the garden, everything is connected and everything has an impact; it can be easy to forget some of the perceived minor players when the major ones take center stage. Though moisture and temperature levels have a great impact on plant health, the common wind does as well. The air itself may be cold, but it is often that wind that is really driving it home. And though drought conditions are bad enough, a wind harassing the air layers around leaves’ stomata where gases are exchanged and moisture loss can take place will make it all the worse. Using mulches early (or late) in the year to protect them from a chilly wind or the sapping nature of a harsh, dry wind during a drought and you have mulch-as-windbreak.

Nab Nutrients: The extra soil protection provided by mulch slows the rate at which water enters the soil. This allows for better water absorption, and also prevents nutrients from being leached out of the root zone by excessive water flows and therefore better nutrient absorption as well.

Mulch for Your Microorganisms: We are hearing more and more about the different ways in which happy microorganisms will create happy plants. Many of the conditions that make microorganisms happy are aided by the presence of mulch. A steady soil temperature (during the heat of summer as well as the chill of winter), moist conditions, and raw materials with which they can work (“food” sources to utilize) can all be produced when using mulch and will encourage microorganisms to operate nearer to the surface of the soil and in your plants’ rhizospheres. And don’t forget, the maintenance of a steady population of beneficial soil bacteria and fungi means a steady defense against destructive nematodes. And then there are the earthworms. They’re not microorganisms, but definitely fans of mulch (though not straight sawdust mulch).

An Insect’s Worst Enemy: Mulch is frequently regarded as an insect pest deterrent.  The laying of onion maggot, cabbage root maggot, bean beetle, and cucumber beetle eggs at plant bases is lessened and/or eliminated by the presence of mulch, and the likelihood of egg/larva survival in mulch is poor as well. Insects overwintering in the soil will also find less success if they emerge under a thick layer of mulch (as is the case for thrips).

A Slug’s Best Friend?: A word of caution here. As well as making plants and microorganisms happy, many of the forms of organic mulch also create environments that are very pleasing to slugs. Mulch avoidance isn’t the way to go. Just keep an eye open for them; if an outbreak occurs, opt for using a commercial product like Sluggo (a snail/slug bait that contains iron phosphate, a naturally occurring soil mineral), drowning them in beer bait traps, or calling upon nature’s slug collectors — a flock of ducks. Also, note that oak leaves are said to repel slugs (as well as cutworms and the larvae of June bugs), so use this to your advantage when possible. 

The Sick Bed: The number of ways in which a mulch can help to combat diseases in the garden appear to be legion. Mulch is essential for certain crops that are susceptible to diseases which are spread by contact with the soil. Many fungal diseases are spread to plants when water splashes off the ground and up to them, and mulch will reduce or even eliminate this splashing of fungal spores. For example, mulching bean plants provides protection against bean rust. Bacterial diseases are impeded by mulches as well.  Further, leaves (chopped, of course) and straw mulch show the ability to mitigate the effects of certain harmful soil fungi and nematodes by creating a chemical environment which either repels or kills these potential pests. In other words, it is not the physical barrier itself but rather the chemical changes created by the mulch that is key. Root rots of pea and bean plants have been shown to be reduced by wheat straw mulch is this way. 

Soil Improvement: Many of the features of an improved soil that organic growers aim for can be achieved by using mulches — reduction of compaction, soil pore destruction, and nutrient leaching, for example. They also prevent the overly hot and dry environments so destructive to soil life. Further contributing to an improved soil is the addition of nutrients including nitrogen and hefty quantities of organic matter when using various plant matter and animal manure mulches. Additionally, you can think of these as slow-release fertilizers for throughout the growing season. We find this particularly beneficial for plants that are heavy feeders with a long season — crops like cucumbers, summer squash and winter squash.

And Back to Weed Suppression: Though the focus has been on the other benefits of mulch, weed suppression is virtually essential with certain crops. This is the case with plants that are very sensitive to having their roots disturbed by the pulling of weeds (both large and not so large) as they grow — pea and cucumber plants being very good examples of this. Without mulch, keeping them happy can be hard.

Things to Watch Out For

Though there are clearly many benefits to using mulch, there are a few things to remember. Very thick mulch can make it difficult for moisture to get through to the soil. “Too thick” varies with the type of mulch, but be aware of that possible pitfall and check the soil itself when in doubt. Remember when mulching heat-loving plants that the soil must be suitably warm before you mulch them. You may be trying to get such plants out early for a longer season, but you must not prevent the soil from heating up by mulching too early. As mentioned, mulch can potentially harbor slugs and there is the need to be mindful of the rules involved with specific mulches. Additionally, special attention needs to be paid to the weather during the winter season. Though roots and the crowns of perennials appreciate the protection of mulch in cold weather, mild winters can lead to dampness and potentially crown and root rot under that layer of mulch. Be vigilant in milder years and check.

Whether dealing with orchards and small fruits or garden annuals, the need for mulch is great indeed.

Leah Smith is a freelance writer and home and market gardener.  She works on her family’s farm in mid-Michigan called Nodding Thistle (certified organic 1984-2009, principally by Organic Growers of Michigan).  A graduate of Michigan State University, she can be reached at noddingthistle@gmail.com.

Cover Crops Make Farming Fun Again

David Brandt.

By Mary Ann Lieser

Edward Faulkner’s Plowman’s Folly was first published in 1943, on the heels of the Dust Bowl. During the 1930s, the southern Great Plains had seen millions of tons of topsoil lost, thousands of families uprooted and impoverished and hundreds of deaths from “dust pneumonia.” Faulkner’s no-till message introduced another way to plant field crops that, had it been widely adopted a few decades earlier, would have largely prevented the catastrophe that was the Dust Bowl.

 The benefits of no-till agriculture are better understood today, and no-till is just one leg of conservation agriculture’s three-legged stool of soil health, along with permanent ground covers and diverse crop rotations. Those practices build soil health rather than deplete it, and when those practices are continued over time they continue to build increased nutrition and resilience into the soils that we rely on for our very survival.

There’s no more enthusiastic proponent of no-till farming and diverse cover crops than David Brandt, who farms over 1,100 acres in Fairfield County, Ohio, in a corn-soy-small grain rotation. A Marine veteran who earned a Purple Heart in Vietnam, Brandt returned to his family’s farm over fifty years ago. He adopted no-till practices in 1971, and began using cover crops in 1978 to control erosion.

Early in his cover crop journey Brandt teamed up with agricultural researchers from the Ohio State University (OSU), and they’ve been collecting data on his farm’s soil health going back decades. For the past twenty years he’s been experimenting with more and more diverse cover crop cocktails, tracking which species bring the most soil benefits. And he’s clearly enjoying himself along the way.

“Cover crops made farming fun. It’s a challenge to solve the puzzle of how best to draw trace elements up from deep in the soil, how to attract the most beneficial insects and cut back on insecticides, how to get the best infiltration after a rain, how to make cover crops pay for themselves. I enjoy figuring all that out. Farming isn’t the drudgery some folks think it is.”

His current collaboration with OSU researchers means there’s solid data to support what Brandt’s learned through years of trial and error. His farm is, in effect, a long-term continuous no-till study site for the OSU ag department, which has demonstrated increased total microbial biomass, increased crop yields and decreased carbon loss on the land he farms.

Brandt has a passion to spread his message to other farmers, so they can learn from mistakes that he’s already made. But he also cautions that they may have to make their own mistakes, because no two pieces of land are identical. He encourages people to visit his farm, and he takes them outdoors to feel and smell the soil. He likes to see a farmer get down off the tractor and really experience what’s going on in the deeper layers. And he loves to place a photo of a shovelful of soil from when he began farming his land, next to a photo of a more recent shovelful. “We had yellow clay. Now we have eighteen inches of dark, granular topsoil. I want to take that beautiful dark soil all the way down to the bedrock. Cover crops will get us there.”

For farmers who are transitioning from conventional farming to no-till with cover crops, he believes that the biggest challenge can be to shift their thinking to a different kind of management. With the goal to “keep something of value growing as many months as possible,” Brandt sometimes harvests and replants a field the same day to keep cover on the ground. He wants to have living roots in the soil all year, but he also doesn’t want cover crops to go to seed, with the exception of sunflowers. Crimson clover, for instance, should bloom but not make seeds, for the seeds take nutrients from the soil. So timing is vital.

Brandt uses a roller crimper to terminate most of his cover crops, and termination timing can be crucial. Especially with high residue cover crops, it’s important to watch the weather, and not terminate too early. And for farmers who’ve been using herbicides, it’s important to understand how the herbicide residuals work. “Learn to manage your residue and learn the best ways to terminate your crops, and the rest usually takes care of itself.”

Nationwide, research on yield responses with cover crop cocktails has produced mixed results, but soil-health pioneers like Brandt are taking the long view. No-till farming with cover crops is a long-term investment in the soil. Yield increases may not happen for several years. Although he always keeps the big picture in mind, Brandt is ever practical about the details, whether he’s talking about purchasing fertilizer — “Why are we buying nitrogen when it’s in the air?” — or about paying for seed — “Don’t spend more on seed for cover crops than you gain in reduced fertilizer or better yield.”

Continuing no-till and cover crop practices over time seems to offer increasing benefits, as shown by Vinayak Shedekar’s work at the OSU. As part of an ongoing research project Shedekar is looking at how mature systems like the Brandt farm compare with both conventional farms and with systems that are at an earlier point in the transition to conservation agriculture. It can take up to a decade for a no-till system to be stabilized, and there haven’t been many studies that have looked at long-term effects of no-till practices because it’s not easy to find farms like Brandt’s that have incorporated these practices for more than forty years. Early measurements in Shedekar’s ongoing project have compared soil health scores for fields being farmed conventionally (which averaged 5.1) with those for fields after two years of no-till (averaging 6.1), and those for mature no-till cover crop systems (which averaged 8.1 on the soil health scale).  

Among the first cover crops Brandt used were hairy vetch and winter peas, and he still likes both of those plants. Back then he was using commercial nitrogen, but found he was able to reduce nitrogen inputs as his soil changed. Leguminous cover plants like the vetches, clovers, peas, and hemps pick out nitrogen from the atmosphere and use it to form nodules on the roots, where soil bacteria can break those nodules down, making the nitrogen available in the soil for the next crop. Brandt sometimes plants several varieties of peas in the same cover so that they nodulate in different layers of the soil, to stratify nitrogen for the corn that will follow.

These days Brandt plants custom blends of multiple species, often eight to fourteen at a time. Selecting the right species for the mixture is part of the challenge of getting to know a piece of land and discovering ways to improve it. “We’ve tried over a hundred different cover crops. Twenty we’ll never use again. Fava beans were a disaster.” But for every disaster he’s had many successes, and he’s still learning how to use specific species to meet specific goals.

He looks at priorities and chooses species accordingly. Grasses build organic matter. Early flowering plants like canola attract and support pollinators and beneficial insects. Brassicas bring up nutrients and enhance their availability, and legumes fix nitrogen. For instance, crimson clover is excellent for pulling in lots of nitrogen quickly.  But it’s also important to look at what comes before and after a cover crop. It can be difficult to establish diverse covers in a corn-bean rotation because the cover crops go in the ground later and the ta roots won’t have time to get big enough to really break up deeper soil layers. With a third of his land in small cereal grains (like rye, barley, or triticale) at any given time, those grains are harvested in July and Brandt starts his cover crops then.

He likes to plant Daikon radishes with a corn planter for deep penetration, then watch the radishes loosen and lift the soil as much as three or four inches as they grow. “When we plant corn after the radishes, the radishes with their two and a half foot tap roots have done the tillage.” Radishes have also helped the Brandt farm reduce the need for insecticides. The roots emit a sulfur smell that fumigates the soil, resulting in fewer cyst nematodes and slugs.

Sunflowers likewise have a large taproot and attract beneficial insects, as well as bring up zinc and magnesium from the subsoil, making those elements move available close to the surface. And buckwheat makes phosphorous more available to plants. “We are always looking for cover crops that will release nutrients that are tied up in the soil. Buckwheat is a good starter cover crop to use on depleted soils. It brings up phosphorous from deeper layers and jumpstarts soil restoration.” Phacelia is increasingly used as a cover, due to its thick and fibrous roots that grow quickly. “Phacelia has a tremendous root system. Pull up one full-grown plant and you can’t fit all the roots in a five-gallon bucket.”

The varying root systems of these cover crops result in less soil compaction and deeper water infiltration. Brandt believes the root systems allow for a version of infield compost tea with no extra work on his part. “I get a controlled release of nutrients every time it rains.” And when the soil retains more moisture, that soil is less prone to temperature extremes, which can cause plant stress. Brandt enjoys sharing photos that show soil thermometer readings taken on a 100-degree day. The probe in his neighbor’s soil registered 118 degrees, while his own only reached 86 degrees. Cooler soil under extreme conditions means healthier plants.

Brandt has accomplished a lot for a small-time farmer from Ohio. He currently serves as president of the Soil Health Academy, and he’s traveled to or hosted dozens of speaking engagements over the years, including a trip to Europe at the invitation of the French Minister of Agriculture to talk about how farmers can achieve carbon sequestration in the soil. His enthusiasm for the soil is tangible, and it shines through in his spontaneous comments when he looks at photographic evidence of his farm’s health. “Look at the color of that soil.” “Look at those nodules!” “Look at the cottage cheese of that soil” — this last referring to the lumpy texture that results from the formation of soil aggregates.

In the eastern US, the wood-based soils of 250 years ago would have had organic matter levels of five or six percent. Organic matter always goes down with tillage, and today a lot of farms have only one or two percent organic matter in their degraded soils. Farmers like Brandt are achieving five and six percent organic matter levels on land that’s in continuous cultivation, thus pioneering the sustainable methods future farmers will need to use to feed our planet’s population.

Today, almost eighty years after the publication of Plowman’s Folly, the stakes are higher than ever. If more farmers don’t begin adopting conservation practices to build soil health, our descendants will face catastrophes many times greater in magnitude than the Dust Bowl. But there’s also plenty of room for optimism, and that’s the path Dave Brandt has chosen. We understand more about the science of soil health than ever before, from the micro to the macro levels. All those levels are on display on the Brandt farm. He is equally excited about invisible organisms — “We’re building the microbial herd underneath the surface” — and visible ones — “Look at the size of those earthworms!”

And, to pull back a step further, a photo Brandt loves to share is an aerial view of his fields, an image captured by drone. It’s winter, and the Brandt farm is an oasis of green in the middle of his neighbors’ bare, brown fields.

Organic Farming Doesn’t Have to Mean Excessive Tillage

A roller-crimper works its magic in a field of rye.

By Sam Malriat

Rodale Institute’s organic farm consultants have spent the last 18 months working with farmers nationwide to transition their operations to organic. During our conversations with conventional, transitioning, and even some new organic farmers across the country, we often encounter the misconception that organic farming is a system built on intensive tillage. However, our goal is to show that this isn’t always the case.

This assumption is partly based on the reality that organic farmers have a limited number of non-mechanical tools for weed control at their disposal. But it also ignores the fact that there is a growing contingent of organic farmers making their systems work without tillage, or with tillage implemented in a rare, responsible way. Additionally, production systems using reduced or infrequent tillage may not be as detrimental to soil health as previously thought.

The no-till movement has brought the concept of soil health into the mainstream over the past decade, which in turn has caused the entire supply chain to consider how soil relates to our food system and human health. Farmers are increasingly exploring certified organic production as a means of reaping both the financial and environmental benefits of on-farm soil-building efforts.

However, we find that a significant number of conventional no-till farmers are concerned that a transition to organic production requires an exponential increase in tillage; they’re worried about losing the soil structure they’ve worked hard to maintain. While intense tillage may have been the prevailing practice on organic farms 30 years ago, that assumption is now not only dated, but directly preventing progress on farms across the country. The organic farming community, which is now made up of a host of former conventional and sustainable farmers, has fully recognized the benefits of no-till methods.

There’s an abundance of evidence that no-till agriculture has a positive impact on soil health. The concept of keeping living cover on soil for as long as possible has translated well to a variety of production systems. As of 2017, approximately 21% of row-crop farmers were operating under a continuous no-till system, and it’s likely that number is higher today. In some parts of the United States, no-till is a necessity; it has offered a way of preserving highly erodible soils and maximizing water availability where precipitation is limited. In just 50 years, we’ve gone from a production system characterized by continuous and routine primary and secondary tillage to a system soon to be dominated by no tillage whatsoever. While this provides some benefit to farmers and natural resources, is it possible that we’re on track for a slight over-correction?

There are tested, successful organic no-till techniques that can be implemented on more farms without compromising no-till principles. But no-till isn’t the only way to build healthy soils. In most cases, the combination of an application of compost and manure, the long-term use of cover crops, and the effective rotation of diverse cash crops has a more positive impact on soil health and productivity than continuous no-till alone.

Between the two extremes of no-till and excessive tillage, there may exist a middle ground for farmers who want to go organic but don’t want to sacrifice their carefully built organic matter. Studies show that tillage implemented in a responsible way can still foster healthy soils.

Take the most recent results from the Pasa Sustainable Agriculture Soil Health Benchmark Study report, an effort to quantify and compare soil health across 100 farms in the Mid-Atlantic United States. It states that “it would … be reasonable to predict that soil disturbance could have a drastic and unavoidable negative impact on soil health. If this were true, we would expect a steep and consistent negative relationship between tillage intensity and organic matter… Our data do not support these predictions. Instead, we found a shallow and weak correlation between tillage intensity and organic matter. Our data indicate it’s possible to achieve optimal soil health while still conservatively tilling and cultivating to control weeds and terminate cover crops.”

As with most things, we may find that moderation prevails. If you’re a conventional no-till farmer wary of organic production because you’re under the impression that it requires excessive tillage, know that there are options for you that don’t require a full-scale tillage routine, but leaves room for you to be open to its use as a rare tool. Adding cover crops to your rotation or utilizing manure from a local source can help buffer the impact of tillage events. However you decide to manage your operation, making an investment in a certified organic system now, with or without tillage, will undoubtedly position your operation for long-term success.

Sam is the Director of the Organic Consulting program at the Rodale Institute in Kutztown, PA. Please visit www.RodaleInstitute.org/Consulting for more information. Farmers interested in transitioning their land to organic and participating in one or more of these opportunities can contact Rodale Institute’s Organic Crop Consulting Services to get started. Reach out at Consulting@RodaleInstitute.org or 610-683-1416.

Gary Zimmer on Transitioning to Organic, Biological Farming

Gary Zimmer standing in field
Gary Zimmer on his organic farm in Wisconsin.

By Gary F. Zimmer

Deciding to transition your farm to organic is a big undertaking.  There’s a large learning curve to becoming a successful organic farmer, and transition can be a challenging and expensive endeavor.  But it’s also a huge opportunity.  Rather than trying to grow a row crop during the 36-month transition period where you’re required to use all organic inputs and methods but have to sell your crop as conventional, instead grow soil building crops that will set you up for success when you’re fully transitioned to organic. 

First, you had better decide what transitioning while building soil health means on your farm, and second you need to recognize there are many farmers that have done this successfully already.  Farmers that have the most success spend the transition building up health, microbiology, balancing soil minerals, and building soil structure.  They build the chemical, physical and biological aspects of their soil; that three legged stool that sets the farm up for success. 

When it comes to soil health, we have a lot of good understanding about minerals. We know there is a ratio between them; we know more than 20 minerals are known to be essential for crop growth; we know deficiencies or excesses are going to hurt our crop and lead to problems with diseases or insect pressure; we know deficiencies reduce crop yield and quality. It is also essential to make sure calcium levels are right and the soils are being constantly fed a good soluble source. To make minerals more available, add carbon from sources like manures, humates, and compost if it is available and fits the farm. We know the soil has a certain ability to dish out minerals if they are there and biology is taken care of. It’s also important to remember that the soil life needs minerals and so does the crop. The better the needs of the soil life are taken care of the more the minerals in the soil can become plant-available, and the less you as the farmer will need to add to the soil. When minerals are present and in a good balance, your crop is fed a balanced diet and the less plant protective compounds will need to be purchased and the fewer problems you will have. 

Once you have a plan for minerals, it’s time to look at biology.  We know we need to create an ideal home for soil life, feed them with living roots and a variety of carbon sources like manures or plow-down cover crops of different maturities. We also know they want their food on top, without a crust on the soil that limits air and water exchange. A good way to achieve this is to shallow incorporate cover crops or residues and then use minimal disturbance from tillage to create an environment where air and water are managed. 

On-Farm Intensive with Zimmer Ag

Learn about soil health in person with Gary Zimmer

The Acres U.S.A. On-Farm Intensive – starting in summer 2021 – is held in partnership with experienced farm consultants Gary Zimmer and Leilani Zimmer-Durand at their famous Otter Creek Farm near Lone Rock, Wisconsin. This two-day educational experience will help farmers, growers and land owners maximize their land’s potential. 

Learn more here!

The big secret for soil health is filling the soil with roots. Crops like brassicas, clovers, rye and other grasses provide a lot of root structure, and when they die the old dead roots become the breathing tubes — channels for new roots to follow.  It’s similar to earthworm channels where all along the edges of the channel is an area of moisture and high fertility where a lot of diverse organisms live. These are the highest fertility spots in the field, and you can create more of these high fertility zones by growing and managing more types of cover crops and having more different types of crops in your rotation.  When looking at your own farm the question is: what plants best fit your farm? What tillage practices, crop rotations, and management tools do you choose? What’s your budget to make these changes? 

Another factor in understanding soil life and how to take care of it is making sure the soil is loose and crumbly, with a chocolate-cake like texture. With tillage, “thoughtful disturbance of the land” is the best way to control air and water and manage the decay of residues. I like shallow incorporation of residues and I use a deep in-line type ripper to break up compaction if it’s needed. Ideally we wouldn’t need to use the ripper, but conditions aren’t always perfect. In wet years we still need to plant and we still need to harvest, and driving on the fields with big equipment will later require intervention to break up compaction. I also like strip tillage as a way to build good soil structure around the roots.  We can concentrate on balancing minerals in the strip, get good root development and a good crop even if the land is rented and you don’t want to spend money on soil corrections. The purpose of the strip is not only to concentrate inputs in order to maximize plant uptake, but you had better choose your inputs well and not over-salt that zone or you’ll have problems. Buffer the inputs with carbon and use high quality fertilizer. By managing the strip-till zone you don’t have to plant in hard, tight soils and in our northern climate the zone will dry out and warm up sooner in the spring. 

I know it’s always a question of how to pay the bills and make some money while transitioning to organic and building healthy soils. It’s important to have a solid plan heading toward your goals, and work toward your goals over a longer period of time, especially if your soil needs a lot of fixing. There is no one exact way to get there, but you can’t violate the principles or expect things to be different if you keep doing them the same way. You will be happy once you have healthy, mineralized soils, you just need a realistic plan to get there.

So the question is: how do you put together a working plan to address the needs of the soil and plants?  We start by taking soil tests, plant tissue tests, and making soil and plant health observations.  Choosing what to do once you have all the information you need may require help from a good consultant.  A consultant can help find the best sources of minerals, recommend amounts of minerals, and guide you on where to start and where to find the best inputs that fit your farm.  Along with helping with mineral balance in the soil, a consultant can also recommend methods for growing soil life, when to use starter, liquids and foliars, as well as when to implement tillage with a purpose.  Finding that knowledgeable consultant will be your first challenge.  Check out The Biological Farmer and Advancing Biological Farming to walk you through the basics on soil life and minerals so you know what questions to ask.

Let’s say you took soil tests and they show that you need lime, phosphorus and trace minerals, and you intend to use a lot of manure to increase soil fertility. Building soil fertility is like making a cake.  Add together the right ingredients like a blend of manure, ag lime and a trace mineral blend, mix it up, plant the cover crop cocktail mix and watch it grow and come alive. Clip the cover crop, shallow incorporate and do it again. You can also establish a perennial blend.  Do this for two growing seasons and it’s now on the road to being “fixed” and it is certifiable organic if you followed the rules.  In this situation you’re not harvesting a crop during transition but you’ve set yourself up for a bumper crop with high yields your first year as organic, and that will be a profitable crop. Not many farmers do this.  Many struggle along with weeds and unhealthy crops during transition and then their first organic crop performs poorly.It’s better to invest in soil health during transition so you have a bumper crop your first year of organic.

Let me share an example from my family’s farm in southwestern Wisconsin.  The farm is about 1,500 acres of cropland and is very hilly. There are 80 dairy cows on an all-forage diet, and the dairy herd is certified organic. For the land we have some soils fixed, some on the way, and some just starting.  We do use the transition years to mostly fix the soil, and during transition the only thing we may harvest is some rye cover crop seed. The soils are all tested before transition, and fertilizers, calcium and manure are added to build minerals and get them in a carbon/biological cycle. 

During transition a cover crop is planted each year, often a perennial cover crop that is clipped and used to build soils.  Once it’s organic we plant corn, as this is our highest return organic crop.  The year before corn is always a legume-dominant cover crop with clovers, alfalfa and high-quality grasses.  Having a high legume blend gives us much of the nitrogen we need for the following corn crop. Two major problems organic farmers face are weeds and having enough available nitrogen. The best way to get nitrogen on an organic farm is to grow it, not buy it. To get enough soluble nitrogen and other nutrients into the corn crop, we feed that soil the same way we would feed a cow giving 100 lbs of milk/day.  A high-producing cow needs a lot of highly digestible minerals, just like a high yielding corn crop needs to follow high-quality forages that are worked in when they are young and succulent. This releases a lot of soluble nutrients for the organic corn, and is how we start the rotation farming cycle. 

We have been at this since 1994 but only in the last five years have we gotten aggressive at fixing our soil.  When we had 300 cows and 600 acres the land was worked hard. We got good production but soil organic matter only slowly improved over 20 years. We can do better. The rough hill ground on our farm we pasture and have summer forages. We harvest the acres closest to home for the cows for feed. The rest of the farm is one year corn, then a cover crop and soil building year, and then back to corn. 

Cereal rye is an important part of the rotation as it is planted after corn in the fall, then come early spring when there is frozen ground we frost seed a clover/alfalfa blend. Our objective is a great clover/alfalfa stand and not having the rye lodge on the clover/alfalfa mix or choke it out. In order to keep the rye from getting too tall and lodging, we plant it thinner following corn and don’t apply any nitrogen.  Our yields are poor, only 30-40 bushels/acre, but our soils are rapidly changing and corn yields keep going up. 

After rye harvest the fields are clipped and let go until next spring when the clover/alfalfa blend is 8 to 12 inches tall. We then shallow incorporate the cover/alfalfa into the soil and then plant corn.  This is a system we like. We are working on getting the rye yields up to 50 to 60 bushels/acre with better varieties and some controlled manure and biological nitrogen application. As our rotation goes forward we have carry over of nutrients, we’re building organic matter and more nitrogen is available from the soil every year.

That’s just one way that we like to establish our rotation for biological/regenerative organic, and it fits our farm and the area very well. For your own farm, think about what you can do to grow a corn/soybean rotation while also building organic matter and soil health. The system requires another crop besides corn and beans — what best fits your farm?  Rye, wheat, or a different small grain? Is it something you can do on your farm?  If you’re growing only row crops, how can you mineralize the soils and find the best fit for cover crops to supply nutrients and build organic matter on your farm?  Can you be successful building soils during transition?  The answer is “yes,” but cover crops and other inputs will be needed.  Not only is this a unique challenge on each farm, it’s the thing we need to do for our planet, future generations, and human health.

Gary Zimmer is a farmer, author, speaker, and farm consultant.  Gary Zimmer founded Midwestern BioAg in the 1980s, and has been farming biologically and organically with his family since 1991 in southwestern Wisconsin. Gary recently started a consulting business, Zimmer Ag, with his daughter Leilani Zimmer-Durand where they offer advice to both conventional and organic farmers who want to build soil health and resilience while making a profit on their farm.

No-till Farm Integrates Animals, Wise Use Of Technology

An aerial photo of Red Shirt Farms.


Red Shirt Farm is a no-till operation on 13 acres of hilly land that is realizing its mission of revitalizing the health of its soil. Located in the western Massachusetts foothills of the Berkshire Mountains near the New York border, this diversified micro-farm is a successful enterprise producing quality crops and livestock.

It’s been over a decade since the farm began its transition to no-till, a few beds at a time. For farmer Jim Schultz, the merits of no-till are pragmatic.

“We saw for ourselves how bad tillage was for the soil and how much better it was where we didn’t till,” he said.
Switching to no-till has brought dramatic improvements in the health of their calcareous, silty loam soil and the quality of the plants they grow. They now experience less insect pest and weed pressure, and earthworm populations have increased dramatically.

Besides not plowing or turning the soil and using only minimal, shallow tillage, Red Shirt Farm uses a number of regenerative practices, such as mulching and cover cropping. Jim doesn’t like to leave bare ground, even between beds. To prevent weeds from establishing and soil quality from deteriorating, walkways get heavily mulched with old hay or composted wood chips.

Raising healthy food is a central goal at the farm. Jim strives to produce nutrient-dense vegetables and the farm abstains from the use of all biocides (insecticides, fungicides and herbicides) and synthetic fertilizers. He follows the re-mineralization program developed by Dan Kittredge of the Bionutrient Food Association and works with Advancing Eco-Agriculture, John Kempf’s company. And although the farm follows organic principles and practices, Jim has chosen not to get it certified.

A Farmer on the Bench

When he retired at age 53 in early 2015, Jim and his wife, Annie Smith, who works full-time as a registered nurse, started Red Shirt Farm. This summer marks their sixth year of commercial production.

Although Jim is a second-career farmer, he is not new to agriculture. As a young man, Jim had immersed himself in organic agriculture before turning his attention to making a living and raising his family. The farm’s name is a somewhat obscure reference to his long hiatus from farming as his primary occupation. “To redshirt” is a verb that refers to the sidelining of an athlete with lots of potential so that he can learn the system and make a bigger impact when he returns to the field, explained Jim, who has background in sports and coaching. “We redshirted for 20 years. The kids were growing. We were paying off the land, and reading and learning.”

Jim became interested in farming after high school, but he chose a pre-med course of study at Williams College instead. When he answered an ad to housesit and care for livestock for Caretaker Farm owners Sam and Elizabeth Smith while they led a college study trip to Sri Lanka, he met their daughter and his future wife Annie Smith, who was home on winter break. Romance ensued.

Inspired by the experience, Jim took a leave from college to learn to farm. At Sterling College in Vermont he studied sustainable agriculture and worked with draft horses. He also did apprenticeships on several small farms in New England and enrolled in the New Alchemy Institute on Cape Cod to study renewable energy systems, sustainable agriculture, and bioshelter technologies. Jim and Annie then travelled west to complete their undergraduate degrees at The Evergreen State College in Washington, where he managed the student organic farm and double-majored in Ecological Agriculture and Education.

The couple returned to Massachusetts for graduate school. After earning a master’s degree in education at UMass Amherst, Jim worked for 26 years as a public school teacher, coach and administrator. In 2000, the couple purchased the open land on which they would build their home and later farm. Jim continued his agricultural education, attending two or three organic and eco-agriculture conferences annually and reading voraciously, keeping alive his dream of farming.

In the early 2010s, Jim and Annie started a very small CSA to test the waters. Interest was strong and initially their CSA doubled in size every year. In the years leading up to launching Red Shirt Farm, Jim had been slowly renovating the land and opening up more and more garden beds. “We were farming before work and after work and on weekends,” Jim recounted.

“I retired early because I wanted to farm before it was too late,” explained Jim. He decided it was worth sacrificing his pension. “This is what I really wanted to do all my life.”

While Jim is the principal farmer, Annie fills various roles on the farm. As the face of the CSA, she greets CSA members on Tuesdays and Saturdays when they come for their vegetables and she orients new members. She also does the farm’s bookkeeping, runs the family household, and comes up with the annual growing plan for herbs and flowers, which Jim implements.

Pandemic Pushes Production

Most of Red Shirt Farm produce goes directly to customers through its CSA program, currently 100 households strong, and two farmers’ markets. As it has for many small farmers, the pandemic has opened up opportunities for the farm. This year it was able to retail a much larger proportion of its production than in 2019.

Red Shirt Farm is located in a region known for upscale vacation homes and famed arts venues such as Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and Jacob’s Pillow, a summer-long dance festival. However despite the appealing image that Berkshire County, Massachusetts, presents to the outside world, many county residents live in small rustbelt cities distinguished by shuttered factories and large pockets of poverty. Most notable is Pittsfield, where General Electric left behind a toxic legacy of PCB contamination.

Wealth and income disparities not withstanding, a strong demand for locally grown food emerged several decades ago in Berkshire County. For more than 25 years, the community organization Berkshire Grown has helped sustain this demand and pride in local agriculture.

Until this year, Jim was reluctant to add a second farmers’ market. The best area markets take place on Saturday afternoons so the farm would have needed another truck, more canopies, and additional employees to participate in an additional farmers’ market. But during the pandemic, with farmers’ market customers carrying out transactions online, those sticking points disappeared and Red Shirt Farm easily added another market.

“You don’t have to stand there for four hours. Nothing’s wasted because everything is pre-ordered,” Jim explained. With this increased market access, the farm doubled its farmers’ market sales.

Jim and Annie Schultz.

Making Their Beds

As a no-till farm, Red Shirt Farm shies away from disturbing the soil, except when there is no alternative, such as for harvesting root vegetables. This raises the obvious question of how they manage crop succession.

When a crop is done, Jim and his crew make a single pass of the flail mower, which is lightweight and maneuverable, to cut down plant materials and chop them into mulch. Often they can plant directly into this mulch. Otherwise, they re-prep the bed with hand tools.

For a crop like kale or Brussels sprouts with stout stalks, they cut the tops off at ground level in November, leaving the roots in the ground for the microbes, and mulch the bed with hay. Occasionally, crop residues are so thick that they have to rake them into the wheel track. Later they will add those residues back into the bed.

Red Shirt Farm also has other ways to deal with crop residues. During the growing season, they sometimes solarize with a clear plastic tarp. At 75°F, it only takes 24 to 48 hours to kill nascent weeds and accelerate the breakdown of the residue.

Another option is using a black silage tarp to block the sun and cook living and dead plant material and seeds. Tarping this way allows the residues of a chopped crop or cover crop to break down and kills any weed seeds that germinate in the moist, warm conditions. In the winter this process takes months, but in warmer periods it can be completed more quickly.

The main tool Jim uses to make “a nice, fine seed bed” for mechanical seeding is the power harrow. Jim sets it to go down to a depth no greater than 2”. It can even be adjusted to only disturb the top half-inch of the soil, he notes. The power harrow “stirs” the soil but does not invert it like a tiller.

No-till methods encourage leaving roots in the ground and more organic debris on the surface. “We’d like to incorporate more of these techniques, but we’ve had a harder time getting good germination when we direct-seed into a rough bed,” he said.

A number of no-till or low-till organic vegetable growers are averse to cover cropping because they lack a good way to kill them without tillage. Not so at Red Shirt Farm, where they seed some beds in winter rye in order to grow their own mulch straw. The walking tractor and its implements give Jim a good system for turning cover crops into mulch that he can use elsewhere on the farm.

However, winter rye is particularly difficult to solarize due to its extremely vigorous root system. In May, the solarization process for winter rye can take three days or longer, three times as long as for many other crops.

Usually, however, Jim favors winterkilled cover crops for fall planting. Timing is always a big factor in determining the most appropriate cover crop for a given situation.

Shifting Irrigation Strategies

Red Shirt Farm mainly relies on drip irrigation, along with some overhead irrigation for germinating direct seeded crops. Until a couple years ago the farm got its water from the house well, which produces 5 gallons a minute. This prevented the farm from watering as few as three beds at a time. Now that the farm has its own drilled well, which produces 26 gallons a minute, it’s possible to irrigate all the vegetable beds in a single day. And in a half hour the farm can irrigate six 100’ beds with three drip tapes each.

Most drip tape has emitters spaced 8 or 12” apart. Red Shirt Farm favors 4” emitters. That choice is a carryover from when they had to depend on drip irrigation to water newly seeded crops before they germinated.

Drip irrigation also provides the means for fertigation on the farm. Jim uses a Dosatron, a water-driven non-electric injector that meters out the nutrient solution into the irrigation water at the desired rate. He mixes up a 5-gallon bucket with the quantities of different nutrients needed for the area being irrigated.

Over the course of a growing season, fertigation will clog up the emitters on drip tape. “We used to get medium-grade drip tape and save it as long as possible,” he said. But after they began fertigating, they switched to cheap-grade drip tape, which they discard after a single growing season. They donate their old drip tape to a start-up nonprofit organization that collects feed sacks and used drip tape to be made into shopping bags.

Integrating Animals

Relatively few vegetable growers integrate livestock into their operations. Despite its small land base, Red Shirt Farm raises animals on pasture. They are central to the farm’s mission.

“We have a regenerative farm, in that we incorporate animals into our operations,” Jim said. “One of our main goals is animal welfare. We breed and hatch our own birds and process them here.”

They also raise feeder pigs, which are likewise slaughtered on the farm.

For the last six years, Red Shirt Farm has also been doing its part to preserve several heritage poultry breeds. Instead of ordering newly hatched chicks as replacements for their layers and for the next round of meat birds, Red Shirt Farm maintains year-round populations of two breeds of chicken and one turkey breed.

Their laying hens are Black Australorps, and for meat they raise Buckeyes, which the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy considers an endangered breed. They also breed Standard Bronze turkeys. Jim said that they are selecting the birds for their breeds’ desired characteristics to help bring these them back to their Standards of Perfection.

In a given year they raise about 100 turkeys and keep another 15 or 20 turkeys as breeding stock. They also typically raise 700 or 800 meat chickens and keep a flock of 100 to 200 laying hens. The numbers fluctuate as they raise their own replacement stock and cull birds as needed.

Their farmers’ market customers and CSA members count on being able to get their eggs from Red Shirt Farm so Jim and Annie keep laying hens, though eggs are not one of their “main profit centers.”

“In the winter we bring the birds up closer to the house where we have electricity. The chickens have a day-run in the caterpillars. We compost their manure,” Jim said. Two caterpillar tunnels provide winter poultry housing. Red Shirt Farm has experimented with the Rolling Thunder mobile high tunnel, but they don’t have enough flat land to make it worthwhile.

This year, during the pandemic, several curious conventional farmers stopped to talk when they saw chickens out on pasture. Earlier in the season, those farmers were having trouble getting Cornish Cross chickens and wondered about Red Shirt Farm’s source. Jim explained that they keep several flocks of heritage breed birds. They agreed that makes sense in times like these, Jim recalled.

While Red Shirt Farm has no intention of becoming a hatchery, they have sold small batches of 20 chicks to homesteaders that want heritage breed birds.

Red Shirt Farm also raises about seven feeder pigs a year, which they buy from a local farmer who prefers heritage breeds. These pigs, which are part Duroc, part Old Spot and part Berkshire, do very well on pasture.

Red Shirt Farm is licensed by the state to slaughter poultry on the farm. They work with a custom butcher to get their pigs killed and processed. They sell their homegrown pork by the half and whole pig.

Grazing livestock and mowing have transformed the lower fields at Red Shirt Farm from weedy brambles into decent pasture. It works well for them to take an early cutting and use that hay as mulch because poultry do better on 8” pasture than on taller grass.

The Hunt for Good Compost

Red Shirt Farm buys about 45 yards of commercial compost annually from area farms. Delivered in bulk, compost goes for $35 to $40 per yard. The compost available for purchase is usually made from municipal leaves, wastes from commercial landscapers, and other plant materials, as well as food waste, smaller amounts of animal manure and sometimes offal from on-farm poultry processing.

Jim is not fully satisfied with the quality of locally available compost. It tends to be sold before it’s fully finished — at a stage where it’s hydrophobic and too coarse to successfully seed into. And when Red Shirt Farm experiences low germination rates, Jim worries that the compost might contain persistent herbicides, which he is anxious to avoid. “It’s hard to find good compost,” he lamented.

Jim gets around the shortcomings of his purchased compost by reserving it for certain situations, such as mulching, where “it’s less important that it’s coarse and unfinished. In our no-till system, we’ll leave lettuce roots in and put a 2-inch layer of compost on the bed before the next planting.” He also uses purchased compost “to get the biology going and raise the organic matter levels when we open up new beds” on previously uncultivated ground.

Long term, Jim would like to put in an aerated static pile composting system. Such a system uses a fan and perforated pipes to blow air throughout compost windrows in lieu of mechanical turning. At present, Jim makes some compost from a mixture of animal bedding and vegetable scraps laid down in a large windrow, with new materials always added at one end. Jim restricts the width and height of the windrows to keep them from going anaerobic. He refrains from turning his compost because “we don’t want to disrupt the fungal hyphae.”

After a year, he considers his compost to be sufficiently finished for perennial plantings like orchard trees and berry bushes, as well as for flower gardens and opening up new ground, places where the presence of weed seeds would not be a problem.

Another Kind of Compost

In 2018, Red Shirt Farm assembled its first Johnson-Su bioreactor. It appealed to Jim because of all the benefits it offers. It produces fungal dominant compost with a much wider diversity of microorganisms than conventional, quick-turnaround compost. It also requires far less labor and is odor-free. Turning compost piles to expose them to oxygen destroys fungal organisms.

The materials needed to build a Johnson-Su bioreactor include re-mesh and six 4”-diameter perforated drainage pipes, which are used to create channels for airflow within the bioreactor. These pipes are positioned so that inside the bioreactor, no material is further than one foot from the flow of oxygen. The bioreactor sits on a pallet with circular holes cut for the perforated PVC pipes. The whole bioreactor is wrapped in inexpensive landscape fabric. Once assembled, fungal hyphae rapidly colonize the compost feedstock. Within a day or two, their growth lines the perforated pipes sufficiently to hold air channels in place, and the pipes are removed.

The bioreactor is a temporary structure that produces finished compost in one year’s time. Part of the assembly process involves filling the bioreactor with whatever feedstock is to be composted, which at Red Shirt Farm consisted of raw dairy manure from an organic farm, wood chips and leaves. The materials are layered alternately every 6 inches, finishing with a layer of wood chips on top to act as a cap.

In the desert Southwest, where David Johnson and his wife Hui-Chu Su designed and tested the bioreactor, regular irrigation is required to support fungal activity. Jim took a chance that rainfall in the temperate Northeast would be adequate. The 12-month period in which Red Shirt Farm tried out his first Johnson-Su bioreactor was wet, with at least weekly precipitation, and when he opened up the bioreactor after a year of incubation, the material was moist.

David Johnson has a detailed YouTube video and other instructional resources online, but as far as “how to use the end product, I haven’t found as much information,” Jim said. The Johnson-Su bioreactor produces two types of material. Most of the compost is a very fine, pasty material that turns into slurry when mixed with water. Jim makes it into a spray that serves as a soil inoculant. He scoops out the other type of material from along the bioreactor walls and wherever there are wood chips that haven’t fully decomposed. That material is full of fungal hyphae. They sprinkled that onto new beds, also as an inoculant. While they did not do any controlled studies, “Anecdotally, it performed well,” Jim said.

Jim has also been experimenting with indigenous microorganisms (IMO) in his high tunnels. However, with so many variables, it’s hard to say whether the IMO has had any impact.

Once an Educator …

Jim spent half his life teaching and coaching students in the public schools. As a farmer, he has been able to continue to educate young people.

Every year Red Shirt Farm selects four apprentices, who normally start in April and stay on through November. They generally live on the farm unless they are from the local area. Few are currently in college because college calendars tend not to be compatible with the farm’s needs.

Apprentices receive room and board plus $900 per month and access to food grown on the farm. The Red Shirt Farm apprenticeship program focuses on their apprentices’ education. They learn much more than how to do the tasks of daily farm work.

Jim strives to expose his apprentices to the knowledge and skills they would need to start their own farm or work as a farm manager or in other non-entry-level positions. Apprentices also have access to a full library at Red Shirt Farm.

2020 was Red Shirt Farm’s sixth year working with apprentices. Asked if any have become farmers, Jim mentioned one former apprentice, a chef without prior farming experience who spent two years on the farm, who is now running a farm on Martha’s Vineyard.

Working with Roots Rising is another aspect of the farm’s educational work. This local nonprofit organization works to empower youth and build community through food and farming. Its programs engage high school-age students from Pittsfield. Many participants are high-risk kids. Because of its great reputation, it has become very competitive to get into. The organization employs kids in its farm crews and running the Pittsfield farmers’ market, and next year it will launch a youth-run food truck program.

Red Shirt Farm is one of the farms that benefits from a Roots Rising farm crew of a dozen kids. They visit the farm one day per week in the summer and one afternoon per week after school during the spring and fall. “It’s nice for us to have twelve willing hands for big weeding, composting and tarping projects,” said Jim. For example, they tarped the ground for the new vegetable beds between the hugelkultur orchard rows on an extremely windy day. “They were being lifted up by the tarp,” Jim recalled.

Roots Rising pays an hourly wage to the young people it employs. They spend a half-day working on a farm and the rest of the day take part in programming that emphasizes self-development, group development and interpersonal and life skills. The curriculum includes educational workshops and culinary and financial literacy.

Jim is excited about the culture that Roots Rising is building. He told me that the organization has an educator that teaches the youth traditional and indigenous songs and that they also create their own songs. Roots Rising has feedback circles called group talk where the youth participants receive feedback from their peers and adult mentors, and also evaluate the adults.

“This is how I wanted school to be when I was a teacher,” Jim commented. As a biology teacher, he said he would have loved to have a farm as a learning lab.

Besides apprentices and the Roots Rising crew, the farm employs four to six part-time hourly workers. They work on pick/wash days and one other day of the week. Two of these workers are Roots Rising graduates so they were familiar with the farm and its practices. That’s been a significant advantage.

“Regenerative agriculture holds the key to resolving our health crisis and our planetary crisis,” Jim said. “To share this is so rewarding and essential, for there are so few resources to train young people.”

Tracy Frisch lives in New York State.

Montana Ranchers Demonstrate Regenerative Agriculture in Action

Roger with the author during a Native Energy Soil Carbon gathering. Photo courtesy of Kayla Walker, Ranch Raised Media.

This article is excerpted from Nicole Masters’s book, For the Love of Soil: Strategies to Regenerate Our Food Production Systems.

Fraggle Rock is an ’80s TV show featuring Jim Henson’s colorful puppets, covering topics like waste, the environment, spirituality and dealing with social conflict. It’s a silly show that resonates with me. The Fraggles family includes a character called Uncle Traveling Matt. Matt, who has a grey Doc Holliday mustache and a pack on his back, he leaves his safe underground community to record his observations about the human’s world (outer space). His backpack is full of measuring tools and notebooks to enthusiastically scribble his thoughts.

In a nutshell, I’ve just described to you one of my favorite ranchers — Roger Indreland. I think it may have been a shock to this well-spoken and educated rancher that he reminded me of a Muppet! It always brings a smile to my face when we don our backpacks and set out to check on our monitoring sites, under the blazing Montana sun. We’ve been doing this since May of 2014.

Roger and Betsy Indreland had doubts when we first met at the Ranching for Profit (RFP) Summer Conference. Roger’s mind has a carefree, child-like quality. The suspense of an unopened parcel, or working out how a toy is put together, can drive him to distraction. This need to understand things deeper left him intrigued enough to confront me to comment: “We couldn’t make that work.” I flippantly commented, “Well, why not?” They were both baffled that I could be so confident (“cocky” is the New Zealand term), so we set to work. Roger and Betsy have curious minds, but they’re not ones to take unnecessary risks. They’ve learned over the years to observe and record changes, before rolling actions out over their 7,000-acre operation. With their daughters Kate and Ann, they built a successful registered Angus stud, via trial and error — results they are happy to share with the neighbors. They’re a family that have earned the respect and admiration of their community, through their contribution to strengthening the Angus breed and their commitment to improving the resilience of ranching families. When Roger talks, people listen.

Betsy is his perfect counterbalance. “She speaks louder with her body,” jokes Roger. With Roger, the visionary, Betsy carries the details in the pockets of her keen mind. He’ll rattle off a sentence, which Betsy completes; “it was cow 5409 that got bit by a rattlesnake last year,” “no, it was 5475.” Roger knows she’s right. They are a powerful, collaborative team, who value their currency of communication.


To stand in the rolling pastures here, you get a sense of what gives Montana its “Big Sky” reputation. When the sun starts to rise, the light catches the Absaorkee Beartooth Mountains to the South and the Crazy Mountains to the West. Less than 2 hours to Yellowstone National Park, you could be forgiven for thinking you’d found Nirvana — until the Californian fires smoke out the mountains, and the skies turn Hades orange.

At the beginning of the 19th century, those in the famed Lewis and Clark Expedition were the first Europeans to cross the western part of the United States. They set to survey the geography, plants and animals, as well as to establish trade with the First Nation peoples. Their voyage took them within 12 miles of the Indreland Ranch where Clark noted “Buffaloe is getting much more plenty.” This area was once dominated by dense, short prairie grasses. Now the rangeland is dominated by sagebrush with bare ground, cryptogams and diverse native flowering species. With early overgrazing of sheep and cattle, estimates point to a decline in soil carbon between 30-60 percent since Lewis and Clark first sailed by.

Anyone who lives and works on the land appreciates the forces of nature and how small and powerless we really are. The climate here in Big Timber is not easy, with winter bringing whistling winds and dense snow, followed by scorching summer sun. The ranch sits around 4,500 feet in elevation, with 300 to 350 mm (12 to 14”) of annual precipitation. The frost-free window is only 90 to 100 days. The bulk of feed needs to be grown in a short and frantic 30-45 days, to supply enough grass for the coming year.


When Roger was growing up, his father was adamant that fertilizer was expensive and made the ground hard. Of course, after heading off to ag school to study economics, Roger came back with the inflated opinion — that his dad was backwards in his thinking, and that “bigger is better.” With risky spring rainfall, fertilizer numbers didn’t really stack up. Instead, they invested in equipment for farming and haying. A dry year hit early on and with repayments due and no harvest, the early years for the new couple were tough.

During college, Roger had the opportunity to work with one of the icons of the registered Angus business. In a private conversation, the breeder revealed a pivotal insight, his belief “the Angus breed was now beyond its optimum size.” With Betsy’s background in marketing and Roger’s keen observations, they knew going to bat against the big Angus players and wealthy landowners was a risky maneuver, given their promotional budget. The Indrelands were early pioneers in using the genetics from what has now become one of America’s most popular “bigger is better” bulls. In their windswept land and tough nutritional conditions, this decision cost the pair dearly, with 75% of the cows returning infertile. Roger and Betsy have always valued diversity and that year chose to use two different bull genetics. Fortunately, their second-choice bull had much better cow energy value ($EN) and his daughters thrived. Their ultimate realization? These bigger-framed, high-input breeds didn’t have the traits necessary to survive and thrive in an extreme low-input natural system.

These early incidents were catalysts for the duo to look at techniques to reduce inputs and produce a fit-for-purpose herd that can perform in low energy environments, requiring minimal handling or supplemental feeding. For instance, in the harsh 2017-18 winter, before the snows became too deep for them to dig through, their cows were only fed for a total of 3 weeks. “We have a herd of cattle that are low input, extremely durable and very sound,” Roger says. This trouble-free line of cattle that works in sync with nature has attracted a loyal and growing client base interested in resilient, cost-effective and profitable progeny.

Having an indicator for how much input an animal requires to grow and produce milk is a valuable decision-making tool for producers interested in profitability, rather than showy large frames. Cow energy values ($EN) are used by breeders to predict how much a cow’s energy requirements could save you in feed costs. $EN is expressed in dollar savings per cow, so a higher value is better. Not all cultivars or livestock selections are designed for low-input systems. Being able to calculate potential costs would be invaluable in any sector — for wheat, apples, vegetables (…but maybe not horses?). In Montana’s extreme environment, a low, negative $EN means high amounts of supplementary feeding will be required through winter. If you look in breeder catalogues, the average Angus breed has an $EN of minus $4.01. The average for Indreland bulls in a recent year was +$20.57. Now that’s Montana tough.

Until 2006, the ranch was running an approach typical to the area, removing every blade of grass, feeding hay for a large part of the year and then calving in winter to produce larger calves at weaning. Calving in winter is a stressful approach for anyone, with lots of sleepless nights and long days ensuring calf survival and cows are well fed. It’s a common practice, often in the most inhospitable environments, with warm wet calves hitting frozen surfaces at birth. Seeing cows with no ears and tails can be a clue as to the climatic conditions on their birthday.


After attending a Ranching For Profit (RFP) school, the pair had a bombshell moment; they had been calving at the exact opposite time for cow nutritional needs. They shifted calving from February to May, to match the spring growth and every man, woman and beast breathed a sigh of relief. This timing is a closer match for when wild antelope and deer are birthing on the range too. After my first visit with the Indrelands, we discussed the concept, that these lands may never have been grazed every year by large herds. Extending this recovery time has been a breakthrough and a return to what Roger believes used to happen before the invention of large round-bailing equipment. For drought resilience “successful old-timers knew they needed to have at least 18 months of feed in front of them,” he says. Drought in Montana is not a someday/one-day concept, yet memories can be truly short in every farming/ranching community.

Grazing is recorded in a notebook and a chart on the wall. They aim to graze different pastures, at different times of the year. Some of the larger pastures create management challenges; these areas are split up with electric fence. Plant species on the range provide diverse pickings. The irrigated grounds and lowland areas consist of smaller pastures where stock can be moved more regularly. The ranch practices the “Bud Williams Stockmanship” approach to low-stress animal handling, creating a relaxed environment for people and animals. Most cattle work is done on foot and with their stock dogs, Lily and Ace. Another consequence of the smaller framed livestock is the safer conditions in the yards. Betsy recalls how in the early days, they couldn’t see over the backs of cows, which made her feel vulnerable in small spaces. The cattle “are responsive to us,” says Roger, “and that is a source of great pride for us too, to be able to go out and maneuver cattle and do just about anything we want, without any huge problems.”

I fancy myself as pretty sensitive when moving stock. However, watching Roger on foot, silently pull a cow and calf from the herd and wind them up a hill through an open gate, all without breaking a sweat, has left me with a new appreciation for the art of moving cattle.

There was no crisis that led the Indrelands to shift their practices. Roger had a good early foundation with an observant, patient and skilled stockman father. He doesn’t worry about what the neighbors think; in fact, I think he enjoys making them scratch their heads. He’s unusual in that he’s not afraid to ask any question, of anyone. Their neighbor, Gretel Ehrlich, poet and author of the The Solace of Open Spaces, has an ethereal way of capturing the raw nature of the ranching community. She is astounded by Roger’s mind. “He stays contemporary in his thinking processes,” she says. “He’s stimulated by looking at the land.” Even when Roger is knowledgeable about a topic, he will still ask people deeper questions to expand or question his own knowing. Gretel and he both ask the big questions many are afraid to ask. This is a rare skill; indeed their fearlessness is inspiring. “What are you doing here? Because your father said you should be a rancher?” reflects Gretel. “Because you love it? To make money?” Or to leave a legacy? “Most people are terrified to stop. You could ask this about your marriage, children or life.”

Gretel is a close friend of Allan Savory and has traveled and visited with him on many ranching operations. She marvels at the same processes many discover when deepening their relationship to soil. “It’s the new thinking which makes it fun, which no one ever anticipates,” she says. The new learning and creative actions dissolves “the poison of tradition,” she says. She’s a lyrical genius. I’m in awe.


The Indrelands keep excellent records and have been tracking their soil and pasture changes, monitoring Brix, soil minerals, biology and plant tissue tests, to ensure they’re heading in the right direction. Their irrigated meadows are bacterially dominated, with ‘sleepy’ soils on the range, a fairly typical finding in Mid-Western rangelands. They have soils with 100% Base Saturation, high Ca and Mg. Early testing revealed trace element mobility issues (Mn and B), low sodium and low nitrogen. Their irrigated meadows contain a diverse mix of introduced grasses and alfalfa, with yields that had been struggling due to tight soils and poor infiltration. Field observations and leaf tissue tests showed the hay was of average quality, providing lots of feed for insect pests, like alfalfa weevil and flea.

Based on the testing, a bio-stimulant blend of trace elements, fish hydrolysate and humic acid was applied. These initial results were startling; this one-off treatment had effectively lifted feed quality by 43 percent! Livestock producers can see this result directly by observing animals; they will spend less time eating and more time lying down. If you’re in a feedlot, the improved quality will mess with your feed budgets. The cattle effectively are now getting the same amount of nutrition from two mouthfuls, as they once got from three. This improvement in nutrition is retained in stockpiled winter feed, increasing the valuable protein and energy levels. Brix levels doubled from 10 to 20o, all for only a $20/acre investment. These fields also increased 1 ton in yield. Working out the numbers, this additional ton yield pays for a further 5-10 acres of application for the following season, paying improvements forward. Quality hay like this will store better and, when markets become educated, will command extra at sale point. One hay producer in New Zealand, who produces a high Brix, solid stemmed Lucerne (alfalfa) for racehorses; found that once horses got a taste of his wares, they wouldn’t eat any other hay. He could then dictate the market prices. Excellent.


In 2015, Roger repeatedly struggled to use a conventional sprayer, which blocked with any coarse materials. In 2017, he set about designing and building a slurry sprayer, based on the advice from brilliant New Zealander and Utah native, Steve Erickson, at Chaos Springs. The sprayer cost less than $5,000, including labor, to build. It can pump huge volumes (300 gallons or 1200 liters/min) directly out of irrigation ditches or troughs.

A slurry sprayer, is a coarse-nozzled spray unit, driven by an open diaphragm or trash pump. These sprayers are designed to reticulate liquids and keep solids in suspension. One advantage of the unit is that there are few points for blockages, due to the simple interlocking systems and no complex mixers or compression points. I prefer round tanks, rather than oval or square tanks. These round tanks can create vortexes and reduces sloshing — an essential element on uneven country. The vortex offers another dimension of benefit for those interested in biodynamics or structured water. A single 5 mm nozzle (1/5 inch) can cover over 16 meters (52 feet), so cropping operations can put 2 nozzles onto a boom and cover 32 meters. They are great for spraying sieved compost, live biology and seed, with large droplet sizes at surprisingly low pressures.


The Indreland Ranch includes 400 acres of low-lying rolling country. These areas with their deeper topsoil, were traditionally used for oats and barley. What little organic matter remained, after historic grazing cycles, was rapidly oxidized or blown away. As a result, the farmground degraded into lifeless, structureless clays and silts, dominated by early succession Yellow alyssum (Alyssum alyssoides) and non-mycorrhizal-species, like field pennycress (Thlaspi arvense) and lupines. It was an area Roger and Betsy initially left from the soils program since it was so degraded. This is a good strategy. By focusing on better-performing areas, or areas that do get moisture, subsequent lifts in quality and performance can help fund the cost of improving poorer areas. Through lifting the carrying capacity in their irrigated lands, they were able to lift livestock by 25 percent. Numbers they continue to build upon.

In fall, 2017, the farm ground received its first inputs in 30 years. Using a direct drill, Roger mixed 2 pounds of dry vermicast and 2 pounds of kelp meal with 12 pounds vetch and 50 pounds of winter rye. As an additional experiment, he also added sunflowers, because he could and that’s what experiments are all about, even when your “know-it-all” coach thinks you’re crazy. The 2017 summer had been a scorcher; over 300,000 Montana acres, had been on fire. Fortunately, fall did bring some germinating rains. The sunflowers grew to 3 inches, before they were knocked out by frosts. It may not seem like much, but even 3” of growth and a wee taproot would have some benefit to a land that had been growing nothing. Any cover is better than being caught out with a bare bottom.

Come spring melt and warm sunny days, the vetch and rye sprung to life. Excited daily updates were received on their growth status. The 2018/19 seasons were one of the best South-Central Montanans can remember, with some good regular rainfall keeping the covers growing. Even by late summer, the base stayed green. Quite frankly, with the mud, it feels more like New Zealand than the yellow dusty country I have come to love. It’s been a fantastic year to start on new ground. The cover crop grew to over a meter high in places and only 40 of the 400 acres were grazed. The rest was left to self-seed and give the soil some well-needed rest and recovery. Roger had never seen this kind of growth here and was encouraged to expand their seeding/vermicast acreage. Leaf tests showed that the treated plants were responding positively to nutrients, setting them up for better quality seed set, forage and carbon drawdown. After years of being treated like dirt, these lands were now flourishing.


One morning while Kate and I were moving cattle, we saw Roger, who was across a large pasture, double over. He didn’t stand up again and Kate began to worry. Was he having heart trouble? We called his phone. No answer. And no movement across the field. Suddenly, we saw him leap onto his ATV, arms flying as he zipped over to us. He had a broad grin and was full of contagious excitement. Beetles! He’d been trying to film a dung beetle he’d spotted rolling a ball of manure, something he’d never seen on the ranch before. The minute he’d stopped to watch; the dung beetle played dead. Roger remained motionless in the hope the beetle would set to work again, ignoring any phone calls in the process. He kept his camera primed, until the dung beetle slowly unfolded its legs and promptly flew off!

Since the management changes have been implemented and plant nutrient levels have been lifting, diversity has naturally returned. John Baxter, a young grassland ecologist in the making, has been out flipping cow pats. At last count, there were 6 different dung beetle species, including the escapee roller. With the taller pastures and winter cover, more biodiversity is flowing in. Sage grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) and Hungarian partridges (Perdix perdix) are now common sights, as they bob across the lawn with a trail of fluffy young. Both species look very tasty and with the voles and moles, the fox population is booming. One mum and dad fox set up camp on a knoll opposite Roger and Betsy’s bedroom window. This spring, we all watched in wonder as not 4 or 5 cubs, but 7 fuzzy balls tumbled out from their den. They provided entertainment for weeks. It’s always a pleasure to be around families who rejoice in the diversity of life and see the benefits predators bring to the land.


The principle: “Without measurement there is no management” is demonstrated by all the Regenerators I speak with. These measurements also include observations, which Roger and Betsy are naturals at. They have a comprehensive soil testing kit, which includes materials to photograph and monitor transects.

Through monitoring changes over time, Roger says, “We have gotten into the habit of tracking those things and observing results from a different perspective from which we had looked at them before.” The actions I’ve suggested with the family have “had a positive result, whether it is an increase in Brix, dung beetles or earthworms.” Infiltration improvements have been dramatic, with a 3-to-4-fold improvement in just a few years. When you ask Roger how much rainfall he got, you’ll get a sassy, “Why, all of it, of course!” At least that’s the goal. They were put to the test with a 6-inch storm event (2 inches were hail) in 2 hours, flash flooding causeways and the road to the north of the ranch. The next day, they had no issues driving across the ranch to survey the damage. Soil structure for the Indrelands has been one of the more notable differences. This structure differs across the fence. Driving a pick-up or side-by-side is easy going…until they open gates to drive across neighboring properties, often to haul out bogged down neighbors!

The Indrelands are part of a unique soil carbon scheme, the Montana Grasslands Carbon Initiative. Driven by Western Sustainability Exchange and Native Energy, a carbon credit provider, the program pays ranchers up front, for practice changes known to improve soil carbon, such as adaptive grazing management, range riding and avoiding tillage. These ranchers are using the funds to improve water systems and fencing. They submit their grazing plans to the project and attended workshops on methods to improve soil health. The initiative has received a lot of positive attention from the community and the voluntary market. I’m not a fan of carbon offset markets personally, as the benefits from building soil carbon rewards producers directly. However, hiring the producers, who are responsible for most of the land, to improve ecosystem services, is something I am happy to get behind. As the U.S. soil guru Abe Collins says, “we are building the largest infrastructure project in the world.” To achieve such lofty goals, the people on the ground need to be hired to build the system. Unfortunately, building soil health doesn’t catch the eye, like a CO2 scrubber, foodbank, dam or a bridge. The effect, however, is far more profound and effective than the ‘ambulance at the bottom of the cliff’ approach.

Many producers tell me they don’t have time for monitoring; however, it’s the monitoring that is going to give you more time. Try to create a simple system that becomes a habit. The most successful producers I know carry a small notebook, a refractometer, garlic crush and a temperature probe by their truck’s gearstick. When driving through a gate, drive an extra 10m (32’), put the moisture meter in the ground (away from the track) and as you walk to shut the gate, grab a few handfuls of grass, put the sample into your garlic crusher, look at the sample, shut the gate, walk back to the truck, record the temperature and drive off. This would be the same for horticulturalists. When you’re walking down the rows, take around 20 leaves from different plants. Include pH sap readings in this sampling too. This will add all of a minute to your routine and a wealth of information as you build a picture of your place.

You will be sampling at different times of the day in different climatic conditions and different growth points. All this information is going to help you manage more decisively and build confidence that you’re heading in the right direction. If you’re not heading in the right direction, this information will point you in another direction. Plants are stressed? Take actions to support health, without losing production. Or when Brix is highest, cut for hay. For dairy and lamb fattening, if Brix is low, miss this field in the rotation. Brix lines are low and sharp? Consider potential nitrates, don’t graze and, if possible, apply a spray with humic or milk products to mop up the nitrates before weeds germinate. If your plant pH is low, try applying an alkaline spray like milk, liquid calcium, or seawater. Once crop and pasture health improve, you’ll have more time on your hands anyway, which I’m sure you’ll find ways to fill!

Nicole Masters is an agroecologist and educator based in New Zealand.

Learn Soil Health Management from Nicole Masters

Nicole Masters is one of four expert speakers who will be presenting full-day Eco-Ag U workshops at the 2021 Acres U.S.A. Eco-Ag Conference & Trade Show! This annual conference will be held in person, Dec. 6-9, in Cincinnati, Ohio. Focused on eco-agriculture education, this event features two days of Eco-Ag U workshops plus three days of sessions on all kinds of eco-farming topics.

Learn more about Nicole’s Eco-Ag U workshop here.

Preparing Land for No-Till Farming

The following excerpt is adapted from Bryan O’Hara’s new book No-Till Intensive Vegetable Culture: Pesticide-Free Methods for Restoring Soil and Growing Nutrient-Rich, High-Yielding Crops (Chelsea Green Publishing, February 2020) and is reprinted with permission from the publisher.


Converting the vegetation of an area of land from the more natural conditions of perennial plant coverage to that of selected annual crops is often a necessary part of starting a new vegetable farm or garden, or expanding an existing one. This process, and the continuing work of maintaining production areas from year to year, has often employed extensive tillage in order to fit the land into a state that is acceptable for seeding and planting. Tillage has become both excessively utilized and extreme in its damage to soil functions, especially with the development of more powerful equipment. Many growers are now seeking to limit this damage by being much more careful and judicious in their use of tillage equipment. This is often referred to as reduced tillage. When systems are developed that require essentially no disturbance of the soil, no-till has been achieved.

In terms of soil health, it is best to reduce tillage as much as possible, but conditions may dictate the need for occasional tillage, as in the case of initial conversion of an area to vegetable growing, or to incorporate soil amendments thoroughly into severely depleted soils, or to control particularly noxious perennial weeds. For purposes of my book No-Till Intensive Vegetable Culture, no-till means that tillage is not utilized for seedbed preparation. However, soils may still be slightly disturbed at some times, such as when opening a furrow to set transplants in, hoeing to cut weed roots, or harvesting root vegetables.

Vegetables growing in no-till garden.
An example of a no-till growing system.

Pros and Cons of Tillage

Tillage, though inherently detrimental, can also provide some benefits to the vegetable grower. The natural state of agriculturally suitable land is a cover of perennial vegetation such as grasses, shrubs, and trees. Tillage is the traditional method to convert such land to vegetable production. Most vegetables are fast-growing annuals, and annual plants are nature’s response to disturbance.

Thus vegetables, to some degree, are a reasonable plant to cover a tilled soil. Tilling not only quickly converts land out of its natural perennial growth but also creates a surface that is appropriate for seeding or planting. Tillage destroys weeds and mixes fertilizers and organic materials into the soil profile and can break up plow pans and surface crusts. Thus tillage may have beneficial results in terms of air and water movement, soil temperature, and residue decay. The need for many of these improvements, however, may actually arise from inappropriate past tillage events. To some degree tillage may lead to conditions where more tillage is needed, a sort of tillage treadmill effect.

For growers to best utilize tillage for potential benefits and avoid perpetuating the need for tillage, they must first identify a clear purpose for tilling and understand the damage that tillage events may cause. This provides the best chance that they will achieve their goal and inflict the least possible damage. Though nature is forgiving, over time repeated disturbance by tillage can wear down a soil’s ability to effectively recover. The deterioration of soil structure leading to soil crusting and subsurface plow pans, increased erosion of soil, destruction of soil life, and the dramatic impact on the soil temperature and imbalance of soil air:water biology and nutrients are just a short list of the detrimental impacts of tillage. The ramifications of these conditions on crop health can be extensive. Weeds respond to the disturbance with rampant growth. Damage and imbalance to the soil biology lead to nutrient imbalances that if unmanaged by growers quickly lead to disease and insect assault as well as poor growth with all manner of production difficulties, leading to lack of profitability. Fortunately, there is a better way.

The transition from tillage systems to reduced tillage and finally to no-till is often gradual. As well, no-till may not be a permanent field condition, and some form of tillage may be reintroduced in order to achieve a specific goal such as eliminating an infestation of aggressive perennial weeds, with an eventual return to no-till when that goal is achieved.

Growers whose systems presently incorporate tillage may need to approach the conversion to reduced and no-tillage carefully, because it may take time to learn the intricacies of a new system. Experimentation with various methods on smaller areas as opposed to going cold turkey with tillage may well be more financially stable.

Below is a brief overview of field conversion methods and choices of tillage equipment, but these techniques and equipment are presented primarily as the means to achieve an eventual no-till system.

Clearing Woody Growth

Clearing existing perennial vegetation is an essential first step in preparing a field for annual vegetable production of any sort. This may be as simple as plowing in a sod, but in many regions, sod is mixed with scrub and tree regrowth. Some growers even face the daunting task of converting forest to cropland. When clearing trees and other woody vegetation, the general formula is chainsaw, remove the firewood, and haul off the tops and brush. Piled brush can be crushed with a tractor after a few years; this process greatly enhances the soil underneath. A heavy-duty mower serves well to reduce any residual vegetation after the clearing. If there is time to spare before the area must be brought into production, it’s beneficial to then seed a cover crop of a perennial nature and mow it for a period of time; this allows stumps to begin to decay. A partially decayed stump pulls out with much less disturbance and more ease than a fresh-cut live stump.

Destumping can be very disturbing to the soil profile, so it is best to approach it as carefully as possible. Backhoes, excavators, tractors and chain, or ax and mattock can be used to remove stumps. Moldboard plowing of root-ridden, stumpy soil is very difficult. In fields with only small stumps, we have had success with not destumping upon clearing. Instead we used a combination of chisel plow and disk harrow to fit the field for vegetable crop seeding for a few years. Over time, the chisel plowing acted to pull out the roots and stumps. Of course there’s the stones and boulders that needed to be removed, too . . .

When land is being converted to field for vegetable production, it is also the opportune time to address any major drainage projects. Before beginning the conversion process, it’s ideal to observe the general water condition of a future growing area over a period of time—the longer the better, because groundwater characteristics can change dramatically over the course of a year. Drainage characteristics of a soil do improve in tandem with the general soil improvement, such as soil aggregation that the grower will facilitate. With careful observations, though, it often becomes obvious that a soil will need additional drainage efforts—for instance, soils in areas with seasonal high water tables. Drainage can be in the form of surface ditches or swales around the field area or subsurface drainage via stone-filled French drains or perforated pipe buried with stone. All drainage channels must discharge outside the field area, of course. When a backhoe or excavator is in the field digging drainage ditches, it is a prime time for a little careful destumping and boulder removal as well, if needed.

Tillage Tools and Techniques

Tillage tools range from plows and harrows down to hand shovels. Some are meant to work the soil very deeply, others to work only the surface. Tools that work the soil below a depth of about 10 inches (25 cm) are often called subsoiling tools. Tools for working the soil from a depth of a few inches to about 10 inches are primary tillage tools. Tools that penetrate the surface only a few inches are the secondary tillage tools. A traditional tillage routine is subsoiling and primary tillage in the fall if necessary, followed by spring secondary tillage. This allows the soil to recover its structure and biology to some degree through the winter months, with only surface disturbance occurring during spring seedbed preparation. Regardless of time of year, tillage is best done when soils are relatively dry; this lessens compaction and soil structure deterioration in comparison with working wet soil. It is often said that when tilling, seeing a little dust flying off the soil surface is a desirable sign. This is especially the case with subsoiling and primary tillage and thus an additional reason to take advantage of any fall dry periods for primary tillage. Spring may not offer any such conditions in a timely manner.

Bryan O’Hara has been growing vegetables for a livelihood since 1990 at Tobacco Road Farm in Lebanon, Connecticut. He works with natural systems to build complex and balanced soil life, resulting in a highly productive, vibrant growing system. Bryan was named NOFA’s Farmer of the Year in 2016. He is the author of No-Till Intensive Vegetable Culture (Chelsea Green Publishing, February 2020)