The Soil-Life Connection

Welcome to Book of the Week – a weekly feature of an Acres U.S.A. published title offering you a glimpse between the pages! Get the Book of the Week email newsletter delivered directly to your in box! This week’s Book of the Week feature is Eco-Farm, by Charles Walters. 

Few people use the fingerprint left in the soil to identify the drum rolls of history, and yet the connection is so obvious that only the simple-minded, the boasting dishonest or the rank opportunist can manage to ignore it. Goethe touched on the genius of Joseph, who saved Egypt from starvation by foresight and wisdom, at the same time putting the Pharaoh Mephistopheles do the opposite, creating inflation rule, as have government economists in centuries 20 and 21.

We were told that the Xhosa and Zulu of the African continent once enjoyed the lush savannahs of the area now known as the carbon-less Sahara. The bottom line that adjusts history is always the food supply and man’s witless destruction thereof.

Even without recent studies, USDA cannot pretend ignorance of this fact. In 1938-1939, Walter Lowdermilk, formerly assistant chief of the Soil Conservation Service, toured the Middle East, North Africa, Cyprus and Europe to study food production and discern what separated desert from fertile soil. The lands he inspected had been cultivated hundreds and thousands of years. He wrote that “in the last reckoning all things are purchased with food.” He went on to propose that food buys the division of labor that begets civilization. He discerned land and farmer and soil life as the work foundation of our complex social structure.

The Seattle Indian with that same name may have been the first to make clear what we do to the earth, we do to ourselves.

The farmers of 7,000 years ago could not have known what we know now. But they must have had some appreciation of fertility. Ancient artifacts reveal slaves wringing the sweat from their garments for a soil amendment. In Egypt as well as Mesopotamia, Telus learned how to grow wheat and barley, giving rise to a renewable civilization. Flood irrigation and silt from the Nile charged and recharged the soil, giving a fix of nutrients for prolific soil life, year after year. It was perhaps in the Valley of the Nile that a genius of a farmer learned how to disturb the soil with a yoke of oxen and a plow, unwittingly re-establishing nature as a mandated balance between bacteria and fungi.

Bible students will recall that King Solomon nearly 3,000 years ago made an agreement with Hiram of Tyre to furnish cypress and cedars for the construction of Tyre’s temple. We are told that Solomon supplied 80,000 lumberjacks to work in the forest and to skid the logs to the sea. Only about 40 acres remain of a forest that was once 2,000 miles square. Obviously, clear-cutting annihilated the microbial population, especially the mycorrhizal. Apologists for man’s debauchery cite climate change, intervention of the gods, the cycles of life and death, whatever.

Lowdermilk’s message was clear. Man’s intervention prevailed. In Babylon he pondered the ruins of Nebuchadnezzar’s canals. At the ruins of Jerash, one of the ten cities of Decapolis—once populated by 250,000 people, now 3,000—he wondered aloud about cities under erosion and silt. He was told that the French archeologist Father Mattern counted at least 100 dead cities in Syria alone.

The Sahara is expanding in excess of 30 to 40 miles a year. The Aswan Dam, a mechanical marvel and an ecological disaster, will silt over in 500 years. The common denominator everywhere is the death of life in the soil. Man proposes, but God disposes.

Often, analysts became lost in their metaphors. The Seattle Indian with that same name may have been the first to make clear what we do to the earth, we do to ourselves. In fact, there is no food chain; rather there is a food web, a mesh of life in the soil, this according to Elain Ingham, Ph.D. of Soil Food Web, Inc., formerly with Oregon State University, Corvallis. Ingham wrote a sizeable chunk of Soil Biology Primer, the most useful booklet published by USDA since that agency gave its imprimatur to Walter Lowdermilk’s Conquest of the Land Through 7,000 Years well over half a century ago.

1. A connection

When life in the soil becomes a consideration, it is no longer time to indulge in single-factor thinking. The irrigation pump may deliver fluid, but the impact on root organisms could be devastating. Microorganisms that live rent free in nature’s settings often die or leave the scene not only when the weather changes, but also when salt fertilizers or rescue chemistry put into the pet the land. Only recently has university science assembled the data base and the insight necessary to identify Ingham’s food web. Hints for the direction trail back to the beginning of the last century—as illustrated in previous chapter—but definitive answers are as new as the present edition of Acres U.S.A. Primer.
What then are the right food webs needed to support wholesome field-ripened crops without reliance on inorganic fertilizers and/or toxic rescue chemistry? How can the grower identify the organisms that power crop production?
Poverty acres support weeds, as Albrecht pointed out, because the bacteria dominate, the way mycorrhizae dominate woodlands. Grass systems seem to have two times more bacteria than forage. Row crops, in turn, require an eight to one ratio, forage to bacteria. The Wisconsin ginseng grower who expects open prairie under wooden slats to approximate the environment of shaded woods is either ignoring Ingham’s food web or is still ignorant of the concept.

Perennial crops, vines, blueberries, blackberries, strawberries—all require more fungi than bacteria. The ratios vary. Indeed, the grand mosaic of nature’s whole is an exponential infinity of variations. Deciduous trees demand at least ten times more fungi than bacteria. Without the ratio, growers are forever spraying and waxing fruit to preserve a cosmetic look. Conifers simply won’t survive without 1,000 more fungal life forms than bacteria, all according to Elaine Ingham’s research.

Investigators have categorized the twenty or so microorganisms we refer to as soil life. Their names—genus and species—are of interest in the same way postage stamps are of interest to collectors. The names create arrays under heads such as algae, fungi, protozoa, nematodes, micro anthropods, earthworms, vertabraes and, not least, plant roots. All of the above eat. All move through the soil. They filter water, decompose organic matter, sequester nitrogen, fix nitrogen, preside over aggregation and porosity. They prepare nutrients for assimilation, they battle crop pests, and, with biblical dedication, present themselves as food for above-ground animals.

About the Author:

Charles Walters founded Acres U.S.A. and completed more than a dozen books as he edited the Acres U.S.A. magazine, while co-authoring several more. A tireless traveler, Walters journeyed around the world to research sustainable agriculture, and his trip to China in 1976 inspired others. By the time of his death in 2009, Charles Walters could honestly say he changed the world for the better.

More By Charles Walters:

Browse the Charles Walters Collection for all of his titles and works.

Similar Books of Interest:

The Master Line System

Welcome to Book of the Week – a weekly feature offering you a glimpse between the pages of an Acres U.S.A. published title. Get the Book of the Week email newsletter delivered directly to your in box! This week’s Book of the Week feature is Water for Any Farm, by Mark Shepard.

In attempting to design a Keyline system on this property I discovered all kinds of things that just didn’t make sense. It all started with the basic vocabulary describing land shape. It was fairly easy to define the “hills” on this farm. There were four low “knuckles” rising out of the general lay of the landscape, the highest in elevation abutting property owned by none other than Bud and Dee Hill. The Hills on the hill. It was fairly simple also to find the primary valleys. They were the valleys that cut into the sides of the main ridge where water first began to collect and flow in flash-flood events. But that is where a dogmatic adherence to the Yeomans’s plan began to unravel. For one thing, there were some primary valleys on the farm that had no clear keypoint. There were other primary valleys that appeared to have multiple keypoints cascading down the primary valley like a series of pools in a mountain stream. Which one was the “true” keypoint? Where do I start?

The next puzzler for me was the fact that yes, the main ridge was cut into by primary valleys, but in our case the primary valleys didn’t feed a “main valley” but joined another primary valley to form a secondary valley. The secondary valley joined with another to form a third that joined a fourth, then finally a fifth (with the named Camp Creek in the bottom) before it reached what would have qualified as a main valley in Yeomans’s terminology. But even that continued on… What I considered the main valley—Camp Creek—joined with the east branch of the Kickapoo, which joined the west branch of the Kickapoo, which joined the Wisconsin River, which joined the Mississippi before returning to the ocean. Nine valleys?

What I had discovered was that the Yeomans terminology completely failed to describe the landscape that I was working in. What I had discovered on the ground (and not from a book, a satellite, or a GPS unit) was what is known as the Strahler, or Horton-Strahler, stream order classification system used by ecologists and hydrologists worldwide. In the Strahler system, a Yeomans “primary valley” is called a first-order stream. When two of these first-order streams come together, they form a second-order stream. If the second-order stream is fed by primary valleys only, it still remains a second-order stream, but when a second-order stream meets with another second-order stream, they become a third-order stream. This combining of stream orders continues until, as in the case of the Mississippi River, you get a tenthorder stream.

The Horton-Strahler stream order classification system. “Primary valleys” in Keyline design vocabulary are “first order streams” according to the rest of the world.

The majority of streams in the world have a stream order of three or less, and it is within that context that the Yeomans plan was developed. I was attempting to take a simple water management system developed in a geographically simple landscape and apply it to one of the more complex watersheds in all of North America. As a matter of fact, I was attempting to apply it to the most complex watershed on the planet! Although 3+5=8 is beautiful, accurate and true and perfect every time, the mathematics that second grader uses to solve that problem are not adequate for solving.

Why did it matter that the Mississippi River watershed is so complex? First, the complexity of the water system made it difficult to find the keypoint. It appeared to me that this farm’s primary valleys had several keypoints, but according to page 13 of Water for Every Farm: “ONLY A PRIMARY VALLEY HAS A KEYLINE” (caps original). If only a primary valley has a Keyline according to Yeomans, then it follows that only a primary valley has a keypoint from which it is derived. Simple! But wait a minute…. A few pages later (page 32), Yeomans writes:

The Secondary Valley

On occasions a series of primary valleys on the one side of a main ridge will join up with a larger valley, which does not contain a channeled water course in the bottom of it. Such is named a “Secondary” valley, and it will have at its commencement its own keypoint and Keyline.

Now I was really confused. First, Yeoman’s says that only a primary valley has a keypoint, yet at least one primary valley on this farm had what appeared to be several keypoints. Then I read that not only do primary valleys have keypoints but secondary valleys do as well? How can both be true?

Although the principles of Keyline geometry are simple, most land forms are NOT! This photo shows the
infamous “starting point” on New Forest Farm where multiple, unclear, “apparent keypoints” were maybe somewhat visible.

I staked out and flagged many of the other apparent keypoints to see how the geometry would work, and none of them really did. Again I was confused. It turns out that while actually attempting to design a system on the ground, I had discovered something Yeomans only once barely mentions. On page 47 of Water for Every Farm, he writes, “some steep primary valleys cannot be cultivated as described, because the shape of the valley contours may make turns in the valley floor impossible.”

Now, not only was I attempting to use first-grade math to send a spacecraft to Jupiter, I was attempting to take a simple water management technique designed in simple land forms, and apply it to a complex landscape, and not only did I have primary valleys, secondary valleys, and third-order valleys to deal with, I had multiple keypoints and contradictory information about them. I was setting out to do what the master himself claimed was “impossible.”
Yeomans’s recommendation on how to deal with such tight primary valleys did come to inform my designs later on, however. Later, when describing tight primary valleys, he describes in one brief sentence a technique which I have come to learn is as revolutionary as the Keyline pattern cultivation itself. “These valleys are most suitably worked in a herringbone pattern with a tractor-attached rather than trailing implements.”

My biggest frustration in attempting to apply the Yeomans plan to this farm was the Keyline pattern cultivation itself. As mentioned above, Yeomans himself realized that it didn’t work in every primary valley. Whether it did or did not work, what Yeomans failed to mention was that one of the benefits of Keyline design—making regular, machine-friendly patterns on the ground—actually backfires in a complex landscape. If each primary valley gets its own cultivation pattern derived from its own Keyline (some of which won’t work and will require a herringbone pattern), and if each primary ridge gets its own cultivation pattern derived from its own unique contour reference line, then this farm would have no less than eight separate ridge cultivation patterns. It would have seven or more valley cultivation patterns depending on whether the Keyline geometry actually worked in that particular valley, whether you classified one “sort-of-kind-of-possibly-a primary valley” as one primary valley or two primary valleys, and whether the herring-bone pattern needed to be applied.

About the Author:

Mark Shepard heads Forest Agriculture Enterprises and runs New Forest Farm, an 106-acre commercial-scale perennial agricultural ecosystem that was converted from a row-crop grain farm. Trained in mechanical engineering and ecology, Mark has combined these two passions to develop equipment and processes for the cultivation, harvesting and processing of forest-derived agricultural products for human foods and biofuel production. Mark is a certified permaculture designer and teaches agroforestry and permaculture around the world. 

Also by Mark Shepard:

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Tractor Time Episode 64: Defending Beef with Nicolette Hahn Niman

On this episode we welcome Nicolette Hahn Niman.

The name might sound familiar to some of you. She’s married to the pioneering California rancher Bill Niman, for one, but you might also know her as the author of two seminal works on ethical meat production, Righteous Porkchop and Defending Beef.

Over the years, the former vegetarian and environmental attorney has become a passionate and outspoken advocate for sustainable food production and improved animal welfare. She’s published pieces on those topics in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, HuffPost, and The Atlantic.

And Chelsea Green has just published a new and expanded edition of Defending Beef: The Ecological and Nutritional Case for Meat. A lot has happened since the first edition of the book was published back in 2007. Since then, cattle have become nearly synonymous with human-caused climate change and environmental destruction. But are cattle inherently bad? Or … is there another side to the argument?

In this conversation, you’ll hear why she believes cattle, and other grazing animals, can be used as tools for restoring both human health and ecological balance. Beef, Niman argues, doesn’t have to remain an environmental villain. She believes that wisely managed livestock can help repair ecosystems, fight climate change and improve human health — all at the same time.

Purchase Defending Beef: The Ecological and Nutritional Case for Meat at the Acres U.S.A. bookstore.

Discovering the Birds and the Bees

Welcome to Book of the Week – a weekly feature offering you a glimpse between the pages of an Acres U.S.A. published title. Get the Book of the Week email newsletter delivered directly to your in box! This week’s Book of the Week feature is A New Farm Language, by W. Joe Lewis.

Etched forever in my memory is the first time I observed a bat up close and personal. I was six. One evening after dark, my parents and Patsy and I were at Uncle Lonnie’s grocery store. While my cousin Paul and I were inside and the others were on the porch, a bat flew into the store. Paul and I began swatting at it with brooms, eventually knocking it to the floor. When I pounced down and grabbed it, I was stunned by a piercing bite between my thumb and index finger. To this day I feel fortunate to have somehow avoided rabies. I saw for the first time that this creature was not like the other flying creatures I had seen in my six years. This was no bird. This had the face of a rodent, with hair and ears and teeth. Sharp teeth, as a matter of fact.

One reason I might have been surprised is that the actions of the bats I had seen to that time had been mimicked by a bird known as a nighthawk. The nighthawk is a bird that feeds at night and flies erratically, like a bat, making long dives and just as quickly putting on the brakes and pulling up and darting in another direction, its wings making bull-like sounds. We knew them as bull-bats, in fact, so it’s easy to see what I had in my mind when I first approached the bat that night in Uncle Lonnie’s store. But the creature I encountered had neither feathers nor a beak.

What it did have, as I would learn, was something called radar. Until then, I assumed that, like a bird of prey, a bat would visually spot its target. We often used to throw little pebbles up the air at dusk to watch bats dive for them, only to veer off once they realized the pebbles were not insects. It was stunning to learn that a bat actually picked up the motion of the pebble from an internal radar system. Nature just kept getting more and more interesting.

I kept learning about insects, too. There was another kind of doodlebug I learned to catch, another member of what I would one day understand was part of the Neuroptera insect order. This doodlebug was called an antlion, part of the family Myrmeleontidae of the order Neuroptera (big names I would learn much more about, much later in life). In the larval stage, the antlion has a plump little body with long mandibles. In sandy soil, they build little pits that trap passing ants or other prey. The antlion feels the vibration of the ant sliding into the pit and is ready to grab it with his mandibles. If you know what you’re looking for, you can spot these little cone-shaped traps, tap on the side of one with a piece of straw to mimic a fallen, trapped ant and snatch the antlion right out of the pit just as he closes his mandibles on the straw.

I also began to observe and learn about different types of “hunting wasps” that catch various insects and spiders and take them back to their nests for their larvae to feed on. These wasps included dirt daubers, a type of wasp that builds its nests out of mud; the paper wasps that build their gray paper-like nests in sheltered places such as under the eaves of houses, the underside of tree branches, or the open end of pipes; and the yellowjackets that also build similar papery nests in protected structures like tree stumps and cavities in the ground. On numerous occasions, due to my unrelenting curiosity, I discovered in a very real way that the paper wasps and yellowjackets can be quite aggressive if disturbed, and both pack a painful sting. Later I would learn that the dirt daubers are classed in the family Sphecidae and the paper wasps and yellowjackets are in the family Vespidae. All of the wasps and bees are part of the order Hymenoptera (other big words I would eventually learn).

Of course there were the lightning bugs, perhaps the insect that intrigued me the earliest in life because of its natural magic lamp. I would go on to learn how efficient these insects are, generating light while losing very little energy to heat, something we humans could never do with our own incandescent lighting and something we’re only now beginning to approach with LED lighting. Lightning bugs are still a subject of study as nature’s unmatched model, guiding pursuits of even more efficient energy usage.

Larger wildlife that grabbed my interest included foxes. Daddy hunted foxes and we always had fox-hunting dogs, along with dogs for hunting quail and squirrels. The fox hunting was mostly a social event with cousins and other people from the community, everyone more enamored by the chase than anything else, and mostly content to sit around an evening bonfire listening to the dogs. The men all knew their dogs by the sounds of their barks and could tell which one, having come across the scent of a fox, might be yelping, which ones were participating, and which one was leading the chase. Once a dog got on the trail, there was no stopping him.

I saw this kind of stubborn determination with our dog Bobo when I’d go out hunting squirrels with him. He’d find the scent and chase a squirrel up a tree and stay there, looking upwards and barking until he knew you understood exactly what it was he’d found for you. Sometimes a squirrel would be smart enough to leap to the branch of another tree without Bobo noticing and make its escape. For their part, the foxes had their own tricks when being chased through the woods. They’d often run through water to mask their scent or sometimes loop around just to confuse the dog.

Squirrel, quail, or fox, it was the hunted and the hunter, perhaps the most basic of all natural relationships, next to mating. What I learned with all of my observing and discovering was that when it came to hunting, there were really only two ways for a creature to proceed: ambush or search and find. The antlion uses the ambush technique. Dirt daubers use search and find. As humans, we copy these animal techniques, building a bird or mink trap or using a turkey call as an ambush, or setting the dogs free to search and find a fox. We’ve never done anything that nature didn’t do first. Maybe this is what interested me in nature in the first place, even at such a young age. Nature was infinitely wise and I couldn’t help but feel overwhelmed with admiration and respect. Everything was so efficient and every animal so resourceful. My insatiable thirst for learning about the environment around me continued and, as I grew older, I got it in my head, somewhere along the line, that no matter what I was going to do or be as a grownup, it was going to have to include continued study of the natural treasures of my world.

About the Author:

Dr. W. Joe Lewis is an award winning scientist, recognized worldwide for major crosscutting discoveries in the fundamental science of pest management. The models for his studies have been behavioral and chemical interactions of parasitoids, insect herbivores, and plants, along with ecosystem principles. The impact of his research is evidenced by over 200 refereed scientific publications and book chapters, including five papers in prestigious journals of Nature and Science, and three in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and an invitational paper in Scientific American. His work has been highlighted extensively in the popular press, including CNN Science and Technology, BBC/ Discovery Channel, Business Week, National Public Radio and BBC Wildlife, Fortune Magazine, and NBC Today Show.

Learn from Joe in person this December!

Join Joe and other incredible speakers at our annual Acres U.S.A. Eco-Ag Conference and Tradeshow! Learn more about the upcoming conference and tradeshow and see our line-up of experts on eco-agriculture here.

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Tractor Time Episode 63: Beth Hoffman, author of ‘Bet the Farm: Dollars and Sense of Growing Food in America’

For the last twenty years, Beth Hoffman has worked as a journalist covering food and farming. Her work has been featured on NPR’s Morning Edition, The Guardian, Latino USA, and the News Hour. She’s also taught journalism at university. And now she considers herself a full-time farmer. Although she lived much of her life on the west coast, in the San Francisco area specifically, she and her husband moved to rural Iowa a few years ago with the dream of taking over his family’s 530-acre farm.

She tells that story in her new book, Bet the Farm: The Dollars and Sense of Growing Food in America, out now from Island Press. The book is part memoir and part exploration of the current state of the family farm.

Use the coupon code NOVPOD at the bookstore for 10 % off on all titles.

The Importance of Balancing Metal Ions

Calcium (Ca), Potassium (K), Magnesium (Mg) balancing is crucial for the health of your plants and soil

Sponsored by Ferticell®

Understanding how nutrients cycle through the soil and become availability to the plant is critical to achieving physical harmony and nutritional balance in your farming system. 

Today, many growers face the challenges of balancing metal ions due to the accumulation of salts, including sodium, which can be a hidden ingredient lurking in a farm’s water sources. When found in the correct ratios or in manageable levels, salts can be low impact or beneficial. When building a soil balancing approach, it is also important to consider soil physical properties and how nutrient balance, such as calcium, potassium, and magnesium, affects overall crop yield.

Most crop plants grow in environments that are suboptimal, which prevents the plants from attaining their full genetic potential for growth and reproduction (bray et al, 2000)

Testing of soils at periodic intervals is necessary due to soil-level fluctuations throughout the growing cycle. When it comes to assessing and managing the levels and ratios of Ca:Mg and K in soil, soil tests are crucial. Whenever soil reports are run, all micronutrients should be analyzed.

Managing the Ca:Mg Ratio

In the absence of a calcium supply outside the root system, root extension ceases within a few hours. (Marschner, 1986) 

Calcium is a powerful ally in the fight against salinity and is thought by many to be a macronutrient. Plants require generous levels of calcium to manage many other ions in the colloid. In the rooting zone, calcium will moderate the harmful effects of sodium, chlorides, and other salts. There are well more than 1,000 genes that are activated and deactivated in response to salinity. Under conditions of extreme salinity, proteins are precipitated. Together with magnesium and potassium, calcium helps neutralize organic acids formed during plant metabolism.


In plant tissue, magnesium and potassium are responsible for regulating chlorophyll production. Thus, if Mg or K is deficient, the shortage of chlorophyll can’t capture sunlight needed for photosynthesis. Magnesium also helps to activate specific enzyme systems.

To keep ratios intact, knowing the nutritional influences is paramount to keeping them available. Calcium is directly affected by phosphorus, zinc, magnesium, and manganese and has an effect of its own on magnesium. Low calcium and magnesium levels are generally defined as less than 300 parts per million (ppm) and 35 parts per million (ppm). Each crop has its own tolerances and references should be made on a case-by-case basis with up-to-date and historical soil reports.

Increasing the Ca:Mg ratio will require more time and additional amendments on soils with a higher cation exchange capacity (CEC). The cost of soil balancing may be prohibitive depending on how much change is needed and the value of the crop.

Consider calcium sources when looking for a calcium product to moderate salts and improve the uptake of plant nutrients. It is possible that calcium nitrates and other sources of calcium could contain limiting factors, along with a higher salt index component or associated chemistries that may decrease their effectiveness. A concentrate of highly processed calcium will allow you to increase surface area without overloading the soil with large amounts of fertilizer.  

Calcium also helps the plant adapt to stress by influencing the signal-chain reaction when stress occurs. It has a key role in regulating the active transport of K for stomatal opening and is particularly effective at helping reduce summer heat stress, minimizing wilting and leaf damage. (Harris, 1992)

Potassium (K) Availability Concerns

As the pH of soils drop below 6, potassium availability becomes a concern and potassium absorption can be seriously affected. If the CEC is below 10 meq/100 g, a K deficiency may develop. It is possible to develop deficiencies of potassium and magnesium quickly if cations have a low holding capacity.

For balancing acidic soils around or below 6, always monitor with regular soil tests. Choosing a plant-derived potassium at this stage, with an easier uptake, can be a go-to source for low pH soils. In vines, by keeping Brix levels monitored, we can add either soil calcium or foliar calcium if they’re not around the 18 to 20 numbers. By adding a calcium shot to your late-season applications, will help with both overall vine health and plant tissue rigidity.

Sodium can inhibit the assimilation of several nutrients, including potassium. Plant cells will begin “leaking” potassium as they assimilate sodium. Metals like manganese, iron, and aluminum all influence potassium. A plant’s signaling, osmoregulation, and balance of cations and anions are dependent on K. The availability and mobility of K are important for starch synthesis, enzyme activation, and cytoplasmic pH regulation.


Nutrient and ion availability and how they work with each other determines not just soil health, but can hurt yields in certain calculations. By developing a program and monitoring system to periodically monitor all metal and nutrient levels in both soil and tissue throughout the season, nutrient use efficiency can be expanded through a balanced, healthy soil profile.

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A Foundation for Balancing Nutrition and Soil Health

Soil health is a function of soil physics, chemistry, and biology

Sponsored by Ferticell®

The properties of soil often determine the balance and nature of vegetation, and indirectly, the population of inhabitants that can be supported. The above-ground portion of plants is most generally equally balanced with the sub-soil mass of roots in area. Most of the communicated directions we receive for nurturing plants have focused on water and raw material fertilizers. But today’s operations manager has been exposed to tactical ideas such as no-till, synthetic fertilizers, pest control products, bio solids, and a myriad of bio-stimulants.

Soil must provide an anchoring system for plants, nutrient storage, water reserves and a habitat for biomass that are the cyclers and re-cyclers. This will require a stable soil matrix and balanced porosity. Soil physical specifications must have properties that hold capillary water, gravitational water and will also inherently hold unavailable water (hygroscopic). Soil must also protect water by filtering water to ensure quality. Clay particles and the organic component of soils are the nutrient reservoirs that also make up a component of soil physics.

Soil physical components are described as a balanced mix of sand, silt, and clay. This balanced distribution of particle sizes is the direct influence for water holding, oxygen capacity, and stored nutrient reserves.

Soil physics will provide water infiltration at the soil interface or surface percolation, or movement through soil porosity and finally drainage. As water moves down through soil, air is pulled into large pores for storage. This activity will also remove gasses that can build up and have a negative influence on root activity.

Physical properties of soil must provide for the ability of oxygen, water, and roots to move freely through macro pores. Porosity is divided in two sizes: capillary that are the micro pores that hold water and non-capillary that are the larger macro-pores that will store air and promote rooting.

How important are the physical specifications for soil performance?

Approximately 45% of the dry matter analysis of plants is  comprised of oxygen. Almost 88% of all plants examined are dominated by only two of the essential elements: oxygen and carbon. That leaves about 6% for hydrogen and 6% for all the fertilizer elements we sometimes consider the most important.

Deficient physical properties will greatly impact plant rooting performance and limit top growth eventually. Soils without oxygen are described as anaerobic and will alter biology as well as limit root  growth and no longer suppress pests. The greatest impact is cell division that will cease, and essential “ions” are no longer being transported in the soil solution. Plants will display symptoms that indicate a need for either fertilizers or water.

Nutrients that have a beneficial direct impact on soil physics are a very short list. Calcium is the most misunderstood nutrient of the 17 essentials due to the impact on soil physics. Calcium simply pushes clay particles apart and creates porosity.

The critical point to remember about Calcium nutrition is that it is “phloem immobile” or needs to move upward through the roots to the upper plant  parts. (Marschner, 1983)

It is also noteworthy to remember that calcium is our most insoluble and immobile of all the elements.

Salts including sodium and bicarbonates that will be a component in most all water sources in the Sunbelt, directly impact soil physical properties. Even your favorite organic fertilizer comes with a salt impact. A question we never hear is in reference to salt index of a product such as Urea. Salts and bicarbonates will act as a       cementing agent for soil particles and reduce porosity.

Once physical properties are lost, we suffer greater risks from  heavy rainfall, salts from irrigation water, surface germination of “misplaced plants” (weeds) and restricted growth response on selected plants.

Soil physical properties will influence chemical performance especially control products. Several studies have indicated that chemical degradation can be slow or disturbed when aerobic (with    oxygen) and anaerobic (no oxygen) micro sites are not fully functioning. These micro sites must be in proximity or other failures will occur. Corrective measures are simple if we use frequency as a key component for all cultural practices. A list of    beneficial practices is as follows:

Watering properly by frequency and delivery rate. If soils will   not accept the water source due to hardness of water or hardpan, simply reduce application times and provide time allowances for a soaking-in cycle between total irrigation events.


  • Apply calcium on a regular basis and rotate sources. Water in  thoroughly.
  • Monitor “salts” that you control in all products used.
  • Manures will have a greater efficiency than conventional composts and municipal waste. Poultry manure will have lower  salt risks and reduced inorganic ash content. Compost from site should be first choice.
  • Rotate sources of fertilizers, such as use of nitrogen from  nitrate, ammoniacal, urea, and protein.

Cultural practices listed above are not complete without assigning a  responsibility of stewardship activities, which ask us to increase our knowledge of soils beyond the conventional soil chemical test.

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Where Does it all Go?

Welcome to Book of the Week – a weekly feature offering you a glimpse between the pages of an Acres U.S.A. published title. Get the Book of the Week email newsletter delivered directly to your in box! This week’s Book of the Week feature is My Farmer, My Customer, by Marty Travis.

Sometimes there are opportunities for interaction at events designed to connect with either chefs or CSA members. We have seen not-for-profits or other organizations host meet-the-farmer or meet-the-buyer events. These can be great door openers. If you have that opportunity and can showcase some samples, do so. Many times your product will speak volumes about your farm and sometimes more so than you. If you can even get one person hooked, that is where to begin. Then, with continued relationship development, you can sometimes ask if they know anyone else that would be interested in what you have to offer. I believe many times it is better for someone else to recommend you than for you to try to press your case. To me, it means more to hear someone else is happy with a product than to hear a sales pitch from the one trying to sell it. Don’t get me wrong— it is important for you to believe and represent yourself and your farm well; just continue to get as many advocates as you can along the way. They become your unpaid sales force!

We never really sold at farmers’ markets, but I do believe farmers’ markets are a fairly easy way to enter into the arena of local food. You can connect with local shoppers and develop many of the same relationships that we are talking about. Depending on the market, some can be expensive to get a booth while others may be nearly free. In recent years, we hear more and more of the experienced farmers say they are beginning to see their sales drop at their farmers’ markets. This is a bit concerning and sometimes confusing. Consumers are in general looking for more local choices and looking to connect a face to their food for their families. Farmers’ markets allow that kind of interaction. Some communities do offer late-season special holiday markets. This helps, as many of us still have a lot of product after the regular markets end. I think it is important to have as much cash flow coming in for as much of the year as you can.

Some of the downsides to markets are the uncertainties, such as weather, consumer schedules, consumer spending, and other farmer competition. We know one farmer who said it was their intention to have the cheapest sweet corn at the market. That really helps no one. We are all trying to make a living at this, and racing to the bottom does not help. It doesn’t help the consumer understand the true meaning of producing something great. It demeans other farmers, and it also demeans that particular farmer’s reputation. So think carefully about how you price your product. Think carefully about how people will perceive you and your farm. You are worth a fair price.

During the last several years, we have sold literally tons of products to our chef community. In that same time, we have had numerous folks ask us where they can buy our produce for their own use. We began with a volume/scale we could handle, which was selling to restaurants; as we have continued to expand our production, we have been able to offer more and more to the general public. One way that I have thought about this is that we as farmers should be selling our food through the places where people buy their food, regularly and conveniently. Grocery stores are that place for the vast majority of the population.

Many times your product will speak volumes about your farm and sometimes more so than you.

As we began thinking about that opportunity and how we could access the grocery store market, we initiated a conversation with our local grocery store family. We have a family-owned grocery store that is really quite nice, large, and accommodating. We spoke with the owners and came to an agreement that they would be happy to provide a certain amount of cooler/shelf space for local product. Instead of the store buying the product, we offered to set up the space with our product, to manage it every day or two to make sure it was still looking good, and to see if it needed restocking. In return, the store would give the farmers 80 percent of the sale price and hold back 20 percent for the space. They had little investment into the shelf area and we could work to keep it filled with items that we thought or knew would sell.

It was a good starting point. The store could use it as a promotion that they were carrying local produce and we could use it as promotion that we had our product in a local grocery store. We received a fair price for our work and were able to set the price for our own produce. The percentage the store kept was built into our retail price.

Moving forward a couple of years, the grocery store saw the benefit of working with the farming community and began purchasing the product outright. They had made it through the risky startup phase and had some sense of what was available during each season and also what folks were willing to purchase from local sources. We continued to do some meet-the-farmer events at the store; these are always a good way to connect with your customers. We were supplying local food to a place where people buy food! We now had begun to close that loop of food miles and accessibility.

Next, we had another larger family grocery store contact us to discuss a project. The new concept was to have a large store that made the connection with the farmers an important, integral, and visible part of their business. This project did not go as well. We came to understand that if we don’t have everyone on the same page, working to develop the relationship extremely well, there is a real chance that not everyone is going to buy in. It looks and sounds good, but when it comes to the point of numbers, the margins often mean more than the relationship and the product.

I think there is still a lot of work to be done with grocers. Everyone needs to make it work, I get that. But, we need to have conversations about the whole experience. If a store wants to showcase verbiage and signage promoting local farms and their products, we all need to make sure that everyone realizes what that means. How is our product different than what is purchased from the warehouse or from a farmer’s auction house? How is one farm’s product different from another’s? What about different prices paid to the farms? I will explore and share some other ideas coming up, but just know for now that we all have a lot of work to do in order to make local food more mainstream.

As we begin to think about how to make connections, consider who you know and who they know. References and referrals are super important. If you are faced with someone who says they are not interested, don’t let the opportunity pass. Ask them if they know of someone else who might be interested in what you have to offer. Never take a “no” without asking another question. Sometimes it is good to start by saying, “I’m not here to sell you anything. I just need your opinion or advice. What do you think of this product, and do you know anyone that might be interested?” That takes the pressure off of Farming with a Purpose 73 the person in front of you. It also makes them feel important as you are asking for their advice. Sometimes it works out that they are definitely interested; plus, you might get another referral, or more.

Another successful tactic we employ is at the end of the year we ask several of the seed companies we deal with if we can purchase or acquire a box of their seed catalogs to hand out to our chefs. Many of the highly visual catalogs are super exciting to look through. Chefs are visual characters, and looking at a seed catalog does a couple of things. First, it allows them a window into the farmer’s world. They get to see what we have access to, and this can create a lot of excitement for them. Second, they can begin to visualize specific varieties from the catalog being on their plates. This also gives them an opportunity to have something totally unique on the menu. Additionally, it helps you, the farmer, know what to grow. If you ask how much they would use per week during the season, it will give you an idea of how much to produce. This is a great way to understand how much and what items you should grow. Then if you have an abundance and can offer it to other folks or, again, ask who else would be interested in it, you have a supply and demand issue that could be nearly well matched. We always like to have the demand for any product just barely ahead of the supply, and it is okay if we run out. Better that than to have so much extra that it goes to waste. We just try to be close.

About the Author:

Marty Travis is the proud owner of Spence Farm, which he runs with his wife, Kris and son, Will. Their farm supplies organic vegetables and heritage meats to some of the top kitchens in the City of Chicago. In 2019, Spence Farm was highlighted in the documentary, SustainableMarty is also a speaker at the upcoming 2021 Eco-Ag Conference and Trade Show.

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Allergic Reactions

Welcome to Book of the Week – offering you a glimpse between the pages!  Get the Book of the Week email newsletter delivered directly to your in box! This week’s Book of the Week feature is Dr. Paul Dettloff’s Complete Guide to Raising Animals Organicallyby Dr. Paul Dettloff with Megan Dettloff-Meyer.

Acute allergic reactions happen in the bovine, sheep, goat and horse worlds that are quite severe and sudden. An animal will be normal in the morning and in the evening it will come in with swollen eyes, swollen vulva, and sometimes will have rapid, short respirations because the pharynx is swelling shut.

I have noticed that this usually occurs in the evening and in the summer on cattle that are pastured. They consume some protein or plant during the day that sets them off. Haylage-fed, confined animals will have an allergic reaction at any time, depending on when they eat the stored feed that is going to bother them.

This swelling is caused by edema (extra fluid) in the tissue. Very few animals will die from this, but they are in great distress.

This will dissipate as fast as it came. Animals will be over the crisis in 24 to 36 hours. Some swelling in the vulva may persist. Warm soap and water and massage on the edematous area will help, then apply Savvy Wound or Poke Oil and massage. Goats rarely have allergic reactions as they seem to both have and tolerate a more diverse diet than sheep or cattle.

Immunology, at this point in time in veterinary medicine, is an area of great interest, research and discovery. In the pharmaceutical world, the concept of a new antibiotic to be our savior is dead. We have learned the negative side-effects of antibiotics. All manufactured drugs eventually show their side-effects as they are not with the frequencies of life. Bacterial mutation by microorganisms is real.

This makes the new mutated organism resistant to the antibiotic. This happens in nature all the time. We then create a more virulent, hardy organism that is worse than its parent. This is happening with the most common herbicide, glyphosate, as there are fields of soybeans that are full of giant ragweeds that now seem to laugh at Roundup.

The drug world research has focused on the immune system to be our next panacea. They are learning much about the defensive mechanisms of an animal’s body to protect. There will be on the market very soon natural products to help fight viral and bacterial infections. Whether they will qualify for organic production is yet to be seen; it will depend on what all is bundled into it. Will they have negative side-effects and be as safe as the claims are on anything new? Only time will tell.

It has been discovered recently that our common anthelmetics (wormers) are not affecting internal parasites in the intestine. Any wormer that has been highly used in the last few decades is no longer effective. Parasites have mutated too, and they are now resistant. Research has shown that these drugs have only a 30–40 percent effectiveness due to a genetic mutation. The heavier the use, the quicker they mutate.

An eminent parasitologist from a highly recognized veterinary college at a continuing education course in the spring of 2018, suggested two paths that need to be explored. First we need to select the few animals that are naturally resistant to parasites and use their genetics, which would take a long time. Secondly, we need to look at the natural botanical world. This surprised me that he is actually looking at the natural world as Mother Nature cannot be patented. That means solutions will come out of the organic world, not the pharmaceutical world. The problem there is the FDA stands in the way. We can’t make claims and an NADA is required. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

About the Authors:

Paul Dettloff, D.V.M.was raised on a farm in Minnesota and graduated from the University of Minnesota School of Veterinary Medicine in 1967. Though he began as a conventional practitioner, he moved into the sustainable and organic/biological treatment of dairy and beef cows, sheep and goats using natural remedies, botanicals, homeopathy and holistic management of the soil and entire farm. He is an international authority on the natural farming and consults and lectures widely.

Learn from Dr. Paul in person this December!

Join Dr. Paul and other incredible speakers at our annual Acres U.S.A. Eco-Ag Conference and Tradeshow! Learn more about the upcoming conference and tradeshow and see our line-up of experts on eco-agriculture here.

Megan Dettloff-Meyer, L.Ac., MSOMis a nationally certified acupuncturist, Oriental medicine practitioner and diplomat in Chinese herbology. She operates Dr. Paul’s Lab, a maker of herbal remedies.

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The Underlying Philosophy of No-Till Farming Practices

Welcome to Book of the Week – offering you a glimpse between the pages!  Get the Book of the Week email newsletter delivered directly to your in box! This week’s Book of the Week feature, produced by Chelsea Green Publishing, is The Living Soil Handbook, by Jesse Frost. The following excerpt is reprinted with permission from the publisher.

Let’s consider the impact of tillage on the key factors needed for photosynthesis. A good place to start is to simply define the word tillage.

Many dictionaries describe tillage as “preparing the ground to grow crops.” For centuries, that’s all it was. Dating back to the earliest agrarians, Indigenous farmers prepared small plots of ground by hand or with animals, using implements made of stone, bone, wood, and later, metals. Certainly, many of these traditional practices opened up and exposed the soil temporarily. The scale of farms was generally small. Fields were regularly fallowed — that is, they were encouraged to go back to hosting wild plants — several years at a time, which replenished nutrients and repaired soil structure. These practices served farmers for thousands of years, and many indigenous cultures still practice these small-scale growing methods.

Over time, though, the scale of farming changed, and with it, the definition of tillage shifted. The development of new tools enabled farmers to open up and plant larger and larger plots of land. Cast-iron implements replaced wood implements, and then steel replaced cast iron. Powerful tractors entered the picture, followed closely by chemical fertilizers. Changing practices in farming led to huge swaths of exposed soil, and an increasing potential for soil degradation. Unfortunately, that potential has been realized many times over.

To understand how large-scale mechanical tillage begets soil loss, think of soil as a major underground city. Like all cities, soil requires infrastructure. It needs tunnels for the transport of air and nutrients, and it needs housing for its residents (soil organisms). It needs a stable physical structure that allows water to flow laterally and to drain vertically. In living soil, plant roots and soil aggregates bind the soil together, creating vital stability. Earthworms carve tunnels, making it easier for air to come in, carbon dioxide to leave, and fungal hyphae and plant roots to thread their way through. However, when we crush that infrastructure by tilling and poison that soil life by applying pesticides or chemical fertilizers, we render the soil vulnerable to erosion.

Soil organic matter is plundered in major tillage events. Soil aggregates are broken apart and oxygen is simultaneously whipped into the rhizosphere. Newly enlivened oxygen-loving bacteria begin to feast on soil organic matter and respire it as carbon dioxide. Because there are few or no plants present to capture much of that carbon dioxide gas and return it to the carbon cycle, it flows into the atmosphere unobstructed.

Mechanical tillage is catastrophic to fungal populations. Bacteria are highly adaptable to changing conditions, but many fungi require significant time and energy to build a mycelial network. Mechanically churning the soil rips all of that apart and the fungi must begin again, starting from the level of individual spores. Nematodes, arthropods, earthworms, and other predatory organisms likewise get pummeled when organic matter is lost by being tossed onto the soil surface where it burns up in the sun, blows away, or is swept off by heavy rain. The end result is a soil rich with bacteria, low in predators, and with damaged fungal populations. This type of soil primarily favors the growth of plants that a soil ecologist might praise as adaptable, but that farmers would condemn as unwanted weeds.

The ecological risks that accompany regular plowing and mechanical tillage don’t stop at microbial devastation, organic matter loss, and erosion. If the soil is worked when it’s too wet, tillers, plows, and other similar implements can create various types of compaction in the soil. These types of compaction are a significant barrier to creating healthy soil, and they limit crop production and soil health tremendously. Surface compaction occurs when bare soil is exposed to heavy rains or foot traffic. This form of compaction inhibits water penetration and limits respiration. Hardpans are compacted layers that generally form at the greatest depth a farm implement reaches, and these deep hardpans can inhibit root and water penetration. This type of compaction is stubborn and can persist for many years even after a farmer adopts good soil management practices.

Many bacteria and some fungi can survive in compacted soils, but microbial predators such as nematodes often suffer. Without those predators, bacterial populations increase but nutrient availability may not. Moreover, if water cannot properly drain, photosynthesis slows or stops entirely while microbes and plant roots drown. The microbes that survive such saturated environments begin to consume the available nitrogen, leading to nitrogen loss (denitrification). Both carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulfide gasses may build up and become toxic to plant roots.

With these negative impacts of tillage in mind, let’s explore the idea of expanding our concept of tillage. Tillage is not solely the outcome of using a tiller or disc or plow. Many other kinds of tools can cause some or all of the problems we generally attribute to mechanical tillage. It is not the tool but the user who determines whether a particular act of tillage creates minor soil disturbance or major soil disturbance. Put another way, it is not the tool that decides how to till a piece of land, how long and how intensively, and how to follow up after tilling — those are the decisions that farmers make, and that determine long-term soil health and performance.

To underline this point, let’s compare and contrast some tillage tools and how they can be harmful or helpful to the soil depending on how they’re used. First on the list: the rotary tiller. When used as the primary means of soil preparation year after year, this tool can absolutely devastate soil ecology and structure, repeatedly encouraging all the aforementioned issues. That said, in some cases, a tiller may be ideal for starting a garden. When a farmer or gardener uses a tiller appropriately, this tool can break up existing compaction layers and inject composts and amendments into depleted soils, rapidly preparing them for production, and thus improve that soil’s potential to support photosynthesis.

Consider another — sometimes controversial — tool in the no-till world: the broad fork. This large fork has long tines and farmers use it to gently decompact soil. The farmer stands on the crossbar to force the tines into the soil, then steps off and pulls back on the handles, lightly lifting the tines enough to simply crack the soil surface. However, the broad fork can easily be used to heave up large chunks of soil and flip them over, breaking the soil apart and damaging fungal populations, exposing carbon stores, and injecting large amounts of oxygen into the soil thus encouraging an organic matter feast by bacteria.

A less obvious tillage tool is the silage tarp, which is popular for covering an area of prepared soil to cause weed seeds to germinate and then die, or over a crimped cover crop to help terminate the cover crop. But when left in place too long, a silage tarp can also be a form of tillage. Tarps are heavy and can create surface compaction. Exposure to UV radiation causes the tarp fabric to break down and shed microplastic particles, which can be harmful to soil life. Polyethylene tarps do not allow for much gas exchange, potentially creating an anaerobic environment that may encourage pathogenic microbes. This practice may not look like classic tillage—it does not invert or blend soil layers—but it has some of the same negative effects that we associate with tillage systems.

All that to say, when we’re working toward a no-till, living soil system we need a clear definition of what we’re trying to avoid. We also need a more comprehensive representation of what constitutes tillage. In the English language, words can flip meanings from one generation to the next. Awesome used to mean something that evoked terror. Egregious used to mean distinguished. The meaning of tillage has flipped, as well. Tillage no longer simply means preparing ground for growing crops. Increasingly, tillage is a set of practices that make the soil less capable of growing anything at all. I suggest that we call tillage what it is: anything done to the soil that does not ultimately promote soil health.

About the Author:

Jesse Frost, aka Farmer Jesse, is a certified organic market gardener, freelance journalist, and the host of The No-Till Market Garden Podcast. He is also a cofounder of, where he helps collect the best and latest no-till insights from growers in the United States, Canada, the UK, and Europe. He and his wife, Hannah Crabtree, practice no-till farming at Rough Draft Farmstead in central Kentucky.

Learn from Jesse in person this December!

Join Jesse and other incredible speakers at our annual Acres U.S.A. Eco-Ag Conference and Tradeshow! Learn more about the upcoming conference and tradeshow and see our line-up of experts on eco-agriculture here.

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