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Understanding Soil Carbon Dynamics

Carbon is an often overlooked, but very important com­ponent of the soil. We know how to manage nitrogen, phos­phorus and potassium for maximum production, and that micronutrients play a critical role in crop yield and disease resistance. Deficiencies can usually be corrected relatively quickly through the addition of soil or foliar fertilizer ap­plications. While soil nutrient status can change quickly, changes in soil carbon status are generally much slower and effects are less obvious in the short term.

Example of soil carbon difference between two soil samples

These two soils came from neighboring fields separated only by a fence. This Wyoming ranch recently converted half of the irrigated hay ground into pastures and implemented a rotational grazing system. The soil on the right is from the field that remained in hay production. The soil on the left is from the field that was converted to well managed pasture. Note the change in color (soil carbon) and rooting depth after one year.

Soil is a living system and has both inherent and dynam­ic properties — land managers work within the constraints of the inherent properties to change the dynamic proper­ties. Changes in type and amount of soil carbon is one of our biggest opportunities for soil improvement.

Soil health can be defined as the capacity of a soil to function in the areas of biological productivity (i.e. plant growth and decomposition), environmental quality (i.e. water filtration and erosion resistance) and plant and ani­mal health. It is also one of the best indicators of long-term sustainability in land management. The primary unifying factor in all of these areas is soil carbon, the major compo­nent of soil organic matter. It is what gives healthy soil its dark brown color and rich, earthy smell.

Soil organic matter encompasses all organic components of the soil system. This includes living and dead plant and animal tissue, as well as excretions and soil microbes. Soil organic matter is typically a small percentage of the soil but has a very important role to play in soil health, disease suppression, drought resistance, water quality and quantity and long-term agricultural viability.

The terms soil organic matter and soil carbon are often used interchangeably, and while one is a component of the other, they are not the same thing. Carbon is the primary component of SOM, accounting for approximately half of the molecular weight. Nitrogen, phosphorus, calcium, magnesium, iron, zinc and other plant nutrients make up the rest. While plants do not take up any significant amount of carbon from the soil (instead they get it from the air), or­ganic matter is the food and energy source for soil bacteria, fungi, worms and the rest of the soil food web. Continue Reading →

Book excerpt: Maple on Tap by Rich Finzer

Front cover of Maple on TapRich Finzer, author of the book Maple on Tap, has two decades’ worth of experience producing maple syrup. That experience is distilled into the each chapter of this book, which includes step-by-step instructions for all sugaring activities from tapping to bottling, as age-old skills are enhanced with modern technology.

There are also plenty of beautiful, full-color photos to further illuminate the process.

The excerpt below focuses on the community aspect of a local, sustainable practice. Continue Reading →

Community Seed Network

For farmers and gardeners who practice the time-honored tradition of preserving seed and trading with neighbors and friends, the swapping circle just got a whole lot bigger.

Logo for Community Seed NetworkA collaboration between the Seed Savers Exchange and USC Canada has launched an online resource for seed savers of all experience levels known as the Community Seed Network (CSN). The website (communityseednetwork.org) is designed to serve both as a database with tools for seed savers, community organizers and seed librarians as well as a platform for users across the continent to connect and swap seeds.

In recent decades, community-organized seed preservation has resurfaced as an alternative to purchasing packaged seeds every year from major seed companies. Organizations like the Seed Savers Exchange and USC Canada have long supported grassroots efforts to take back seed sovereignty, but the internet affords a unique opportunity to vastly multiply access to vital skills for seed preservation and to develop community infrastructure. Continue Reading →

Planting By the Moon

The practice of growing food and raising livestock is a calling that urges us to become stronger and hardier. The variables present in natural systems can be overwhelming, and it is only those who are willing to face hard truths and adapt that can truly turn it into a lifestyle.

The top of a scarlet turnip in the ground

Scarlet turnips seeded on a root day develop robust roots instead of leaves, flowers or seeds.

From the outside, the natural world looks extremely chaotic and unpredictable, and to a certain degree, it is. Even the best laid plans can be nullified by unseasonable weather, accidents, disease and a deluge of other unforeseen obstacles and losses. It takes a willful person to persist through these challenges and adapt in ways that lead to success.

The overall effect of this persistence pays off in countless rewards of spiritual and physical importance. To tune oneself to the natural rhythms of this planet with dedication and discipline is to gain insight into how this seeming chaos provides for order and how ambient rhythms guide all life through a cyclical journey here on Earth.

Observation

One of the most important tools a grower can use to become more successful is observation. We must learn about the ecology of the land, in the soil, on and in the plants, in the water and in the air, all while also being able to take these individual pieces and fit them into a broad awareness of the greater natural system as a whole. Continue Reading →

Poultry Hacks for the No-Fuss Flock

Lately, I have been seeing a lot of articles and even entire books written about what are called “hacks,” bits of wisdom and common sense that tend to accumulate around one subject or another. In other times it might have been called lore, the experience and the essential skills and knowledge that have grown out of a particular calling or pursuit.

Chickens standing in a fieldYes, even concerning chickens, there are practical hacks — hacks and what old-timers might call tricks of the trade. One that comes to mind is the practice of wing clipping to prevent fully feathered birds from flying up and over enclosures.

Wing Clipping

Most know to clip just one wing to make the bird unbalanced and un­able to get aloft, but which is the best wing to clip? Can it possibly matter? Clip the bird’s left wing. The internal organs on the left side of a chicken’s body are generally more developed, making that side of the body a bit heavier. By clipping that wing the rea­soning is that the bird is made more imbalanced for flight. Continue Reading →

Book excerpt: Rebirth of the Small Family Farm

Front cover image for the book Rebirth of the Small Family FarmThe book “Rebirth of the Small Family Farm” is a concise handbook for starting a successful organic farm based on the community-supported agriculture concept. The authors, Bonnie and Bob Gregson, illustrate how they – two self-described “middle-aged novices” – made a decent living on less than 2 acres of land.

This is not just a theory book — it details specific tools, techniques and how-to information, which can be utilized by beginning and advanced farmers alike.

The excerpt below comes from Chapter 3, titled, “Key Factors to Success.” The authors go into detail for each of the 10 identified factors, including having like-minded partners, organic growing, physical ability, ongoing education, direct marketing, location close to consumers, value-added products, and more. Continue Reading →