Digging into a Summer of Soil Health

Soil Food Web

Soil Food Web by Elaine Ingham

You don’t have to be a farmer to appreciate the importance of soil health. Of course, most farmers I know really love their soil and treat it with the upmost care. But increasingly, the general public is realizing what farmers and gardeners have known for years, good food starts with good soil. It seems like everyone from Fine Gardening and the New York Times to the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is talking about the soil food web and the connections between soil health and human health.

Building Soils for Better Crops

Building Soils for Better Crops, by Fred Magdoff & Harold Van Es

To dig into this topic, I am dedicating my summer reading to two SARE publications that take closer looks at building soils through practices like cover cropping. The first is “Building Soils for Better Crops: Sustainable Soil Management,” by Fred Magdoff and Harold Van Es. Originally published in 1993, the book is now in its third edition and has remained a SARE classic over these 20+ years. The reason? I think it has something to do with the practical style that Magdoff and Van Es deliver soup to nuts information on the ingredients to good soil, plus extremely helpful color photos and illustrations (I, for one, am impressed by anyone who can snap good shots of soil that don’t look like dirt heaps!). They also provide user-friendly tips to managing soils through practices like crop rotations, use of compost and animal manures, reduced tillage, and cover crops.

Managing Crover Crops

Managing Cover Crops Profitably

Speaking of cover crops, the other book on my summer re-reading list is “Managing Cover Crops Profitably,” edited by SARE’s Andy Clark. Also in its third edition, this handbook spells out the many benefits to the soil of using cover crops–preventing erosion, conserving moisture, improving soil structure, and scavenging nutrients, just to name a few. It also profiles the major cover crops available today, from the non-leguminous covers like rye, brassicas, buckwheat, and winter wheat–to legumes like clovers, hairy vetch, and cowpeas. Best of all, it contains a series of charts aimed to help readers select the right cover crops to meet their unique needs. Both books are available online as free PDFs on the SARE website as well as in hard copy through SARE’s webstore.


UVM Extension agronomist Heather Darby at Annual Field Day

I am eager to learn more in the field too! For example, I will be attending the UVM Extension Northwest Crops and Soils Annual Field Day. The event, to be held at the Borderview Research Farm in Alburgh on July 24, will focus on–you guessed it!–Feeding the Soils, the Plants, and the Communities. The day includes highlights of the many research trials being conducted there–including cover crop mixes, interseeding, no-till cropping, etc.–and will also feature a soil health tour looking at strategies to improve soils. The day is free for farmers, and 25 per person for the rest of us (includes a local lunch).



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Response to “Pastoral Icon or
Woolly Menace?” (NYT January 26, 2014)
By Kimberly Hagen Grazing Specialist, Extension, University of Vermont


It’s not the sheep Mr. Monbiot, it’s the people that manage them, THAT is the problem. Ah! What a surprise – to think that people, and our infatuation with bowling green expanses could be responsible. This four legged creature whose historical existence is tightly woven with the human race, providing it with a portable source of food, fiber and material for the pages of writing that history, knows only to do what evolution and humans have directed it to do – eat, roam and procreate with the occasional baa-aaing. For more than just a few centuries, humans relied on this species to provide what it needed to survive. But cultivation agriculture evolved, and the dependence on sheep faded as other foods became an integral part of the human diet. Still, we insist on having them numerously populating our landscape, and Mr. Monbiot is right in stating that the places where they have been looks “like the aftermath of a nuclear winter.” It is indeed an ecological disaster as he declares – to the living systems and on par with industrial pollution and climate change – if you are in that camp. The mid-east provides all the evidence needed to see what ruminants will do to a landscape when not managed with care to balance with the existing ecosystem.
So here we are in the 21st century, no longer so completely dependent on that species for survival, yet unwilling to give up the landscape they provide us. The question we should be asking is why? What is it about that landscape that we can’t let go of? England is not alone in this green carpet infatuation. I have no idea what the total tally of time, labor, fuel and chemical cost of maintaining the lawns here in the USA might be, but it would probably send everyone but the lawnmower and chemical companies swooning if we really knew. But why are we so attracted to that vision that we ignore all practical and economic reason (and there are many! ) against it. This is a very important question because it does need an answer and we can’t keep blaming the sheep. That deeply cherished landscape is very, very, very expensive – for everyone.
No doubt anthropological, neurological, or psychological scientists have theories and good explanations about the human attachment to expansive clipped lawns. I leave it to them and look forward to hearing what they are. In the meantime, the timing might be just right for some adjustments – oh boy, here comes another paradigm shift! In other words, since we are nearing a crisis point with our bowling green infatuation, both financially and environmentally, perhaps we should take this opportunity to try and embrace a different landscape – the “scruffy scrub”? We just might get some cake ( a smaller piece) and get to eat it as well.
In the “scruffy scrub” landscape, the sheep get to stay, but not as many, and not 24/7. They are confined to a smaller section for a period of time and then moved to a new section. Clipping or mowing is not allowed. It does leave a scruffy, rough unkempt look, although with some evidence of management, as there has been some grazing. The rewards? Birds and insects will populate the habitat, and other bits of wildlife as well – a “rewilding” of sorts, as Mr Monbiot so fervently wishes. The sheep will be happier as they won’t have to work so hard for a mouthful of food, and they will be healthier since the need for chemical worming medication is dramatically reduced when grazing is taking place in the upper levels of forage, and not near the ground where the parasite larvae like to hang out.
Sheep are still important – they are a renewable resource, and still provide meat, and wonderful fiber that is finally enjoying the renaissance it deserves. Hard to believe, but there isn’t yet a man-made fiber that can do what wool can do.
So perhaps a gathering of Mr. Monbiot, with Phil Bicknell – the economist for the National Farmer’s Union, John Boardman – the Oxford Geographer, Wouter Helmer – of Rewilding Europe, and Paul Lister – of Ecotourism Scotland, to prepare a meal of roasted leg of lamb and potatoes, drenched in rosemary, red wine and garlic, where all would get to eat it too – would be a place to start. The landscape needs a new coverlet, and it’s best if knitted together with all the strands. It will be much stronger and last much longer.

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Innovation is in the Air…and on the Ground

Planting Green:  no-till planting corn into a standing crop of winter rye

Planting Green: no-till planting corn into a standing crop of winter rye

The growing season if finally starting to take hold. I have seen corn plants poking through the ground, vegetable crops starting to look like something edible, and first cut hay is on the ground in some places with hopes of a dry day to bale tomorrow. And with a new growing season comes all the hope and suspense of another year…all the potential for the best year ever or the worst, or maybe something in between. Farmers are going all out this week. We may not be able to predict what the weather will do this year, but one thing is for certain. Farmers in Vermont are innovative.

As I traveled from farm to farm today, I had the pleasure of talking with several different farmers – all of whom are trying something new this year. I saw fields of winter rye that were ‘planted green,’ that is no-till planted corn into standing rye before the cover crop was terminated. Innovation. I measured out 16 strips in a soon-to-be corn field with one farmer to help analyze two different reduced tillage systems this year. Innovation. He wants to interseed three different cover crops over those strips once the corn is up. Innovation. Another farm rounded out a SARE partnership project that analyzed two different cover crop mixes by no-till planting corn into those cover crops right next to a conventionally managed part of the field to see how these two systems will perform on his farm. Innovation. Another farm asked to borrow our GPS and try their hand at some precision agriculture. Innovation. A vegetable farmer is trying out different strategies to implement cover crops in his rotations for green manure, weed suppression, mulch and livestock forage. Innovation. A soybean grower has just modified his corn planter so he can no-till soybeans in 30-inch rows and will be trying out higher populations and some interseeded cover crops in those same soybeans. Innovation. I talked to three farms who have agreed to partner on a cover crop mixture demonstration project and will be hosting field days on their farms to share the results. Innovation. I have spoken with several farmers this week growing new crops like chicory, quinoa, and berseem clover.  Innovation.  I emailed with a new member of the Champlain Valley Farmer Coalition who is excited to be part of a farmer-based watershed group looking to protect Lake Champlain and thriving agriculture in Vermont. Innovation.

As you walk around your own farms, identify the many ways you are being innovative. As you drive down the road, what are your neighbor farmers doing to be innovative? If you see some fields this year that look a little different – instead of wondering if something went wrong, maybe its just another Vermont farmer trying something new.

Here’s to Innovation!

A grain grower marking out strips in a field to compare tillage practices.

A grain grower marking out strips in a field to compare tillage practices.

Chicory planted with grass, clover and alfalfa in a pasture

Chicory planted with grass, clover and alfalfa in a pasture

Winter rye with hairy vetch used for a green manure before vegetables and ear corn.

Winter rye with hairy vetch used for a green manure before vegetables and ear corn.

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