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Reducing Food Waste: Compost Production Recovers Nutrients for Soil Benefits

When you consider our nation’s health, the quality of our food, its decreasing nutritional value and the increased degradation of our farmland, it’s not a pretty picture — and the challenges related to these issues keep growing.

Green waste used as part of a mixture of ingredients for compost.

By 2050 the world’s population will likely reach close to 9 billion people. To feed everyone, we’ll need to globally produce more food. Yet, almost 40 percent of food currently produced ends up in landfills.

According to ReFED, a collaboration of over 50 business, nonprofit, foundation and government leaders committed to reducing food waste in the United States, American consumers, businesses and farms spend $218 billion per year growing, processing, transporting and disposing of food waste.

Food waste is a global problem. The 2017 Food Sustainability Index ranks 34 countries from best to worst. In France, No. 1 on the Index, supermarkets don’t toss food approaching its sell-by date; they must donate it to charities or food banks. This has lowered the country’s annual wastage to 1.8 percent of its total food production. Germany, Spain and Italy, which follow close behind, also scored high with agriculture-related conservation and research and nutrition education. Continue Reading →

Building the Microbial Bridge to Support Nutrient Availability

The root zone around plants, known as the rhizosphere, is an area of intense activity in the soil. It’s a lot like the snack stand at the state fair on a hot day. Everyone is crowding around trying to get to the cold drinks, funnel cakes and hot dogs. Snacks are being sold as quickly as the workers can make them. In return, the snack stand is bringing in a lot of cash.

Corn roots with lots of root exudates and soil sticking to the roots.

While the snack stand exchanges food for money, plant roots feed nearby microbes in exchange for plant nutrients. The roots put sugars down into the soil, creating an area of crowded, busy bacterial feeding in the rhizosphere, and exchange that microbial food for nutrients the plant needs but would otherwise have a hard time accessing.

We tend to think that plants photosynthesize entirely for their own metabolism, but in truth plants spend a good portion of their energy feeding soil life.

Plants fix sugars through photosynthesis, and while 55 to 75 percent of those sugars support plant growth, reproduction and defense from pests, the rest goes into the soil through the roots to feed the soil biology. This isn’t a waste of energy by the plants.

Those organisms living in the rhizosphere, primarily bacteria, not only make nutrients available to the plants — they also provide a protective layer against pests and diseases. It’s a win-win for the plants and the bacteria living in the rhizosphere. Continue Reading →

Meet The Sioux Chef: Revitalizing Native Foodways

From the plains of the Midwest, a new and surprising trend in the world of healthy local food is gaining ground thanks to Sean Sherman, an Oglala Lakota Sioux and founder of The Sioux Chef, a nonprofit organization aiming to revive the traditional Native American diet through hands-on education and the use of indigenous ingredients.

Worlds of Flavors at the Culinary Institute of America-Greystone.

I first heard Sherman speak at the Missouri Organic Association conference where he was keynoting at the event’s locally produced organic dinner. He took the stage and held 600 people rapt with attention as he spoke with passion and wisdom about Native American history and their foodways and the need to rediscover the indigenous foods that nourished native peoples around the world for hundreds of thousands of years.

A Different Path

Sherman grew up on and around the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. This vast, almost wild stretch of American High Plains is located in the southwestern corner of South Dakota. The reservation is flanked to the north by the stark beauty of the Badlands and to the northwest by the ponderosa-topped Paha Sapa (Black Hills).

As a child, Sherman ate what everyone around him ate — a standard fare prepared with government commodity rations handed out monthly to those living on the reservation as part of a food allotment program going back to the mid-1800s. Sherman points out that while the variety of foods in the commodity allotments are a little better today than they were when he was growing up, they never contain fresh fruits, vegetables or meats and were never meant to be a “nutritional program,” but rather an emergency ration. Continue Reading →

Tropical Agriculture Conference Topics Range from Greenhouse Management to Soil Humus, on Day 2

BELMOPAN, Belize — Perhaps it was better when the power went out. The lack of microphones forced Ronnie Cummins with Regeneration International to start Wednesday’s Tropical Agricultural Conference shouting over the passing trucks.

The extra volume didn’t hurt the critical nature of his message.

Crowd at the Tropical Agriculture Conference

Crowds listen to speakers rotating between five stages, talking about regenerative agriculture.

“Thank you for what you do every day, and I’m going to thank you in advance for what you’re going to do in advance every day,” Cummins said. “The next 10 years, what you do, what I do, what we all do around the world, we either move in a regenerative direction, or it’s going to get very, very difficult for our children.”

Continue Reading →

Gabe Brown on Ecosystem Stewardship

North Dakota farmer and rancher Gabe Brown stands at the forefront of the regenerative agriculture movement. He is perhaps best known for popularizing the concept of cover crop cocktails as a key strategy for jumpstarting soil health and nourishing soil biology, but that’s only one of his many contributions.

North Dakota farmer Gabe Brown stands among his crops

North Dakota farmer Gabe Brown grows crops, cover crops and trees and manages diverse livestock on 5,000 owned and rented acres outside of Bismarck.

To his life work, Brown brings an inquisitive mind and an infectious love of the journey. He revels in trying new things and is not reluctant to fail at some of them, as experiments always yield food for thought and generate ideas for future exploration. As a pioneer, Brown has forged close relationships with fellow seekers and fostered a stimulating community for trailblazers. Generous with his knowledge, he’s a consummate educator who strives to open minds and is known for making a deep and sustained impression on his audiences.

As science begins to catch up with what Brown has been demonstrating on the ground, his sphere of influence has steadily expanded to include more mainstream researchers, policymakers, and even leaders in the conventional food industry.

Brown grows crops, cover crops and trees and manages diverse livestock on 5,000 owned and rented acres outside of Bismarck. By area standards, Brown’s Ranch is not that big. But what is astonishing is how much more this dryland farm is able to produce than comparable operations — both for market and deep within the soil. Continue Reading →

Soil Health, Quality & Microbial Diversity

Soil health and soil quality have evolved as important concepts as we continue to expand our understanding of soil as the vital factor for vigorous plant productivity. These concepts have also stressed our awareness that soil is indeed a limited non-renewable resource that requires deliberate stewardship to avoid or minimize its degradation.

Figure 1: Bacteria (small rod-like structures) and fungi (larger spherical shapes) associated with the surface of a root (rhizoplane) readily use organic substances released by the plant as sources of food and energy for mediating many biochemical processes and to maintain dense communities in the rhizosphere. Note the non-random distribution of bacteria showing concentration of cells on the rhizoplane where several processes take place including nutrient transformation, synthesis of plant growth-regulating compounds and antibiotic production for protection from attack by pathogenic microorganisms. Micrograph presented as 5,000X magnification. Source: R.J. Kremer

According to John W. Doran, soil health is the capacity of a soil to function and sustain plant and animal productivity, maintain or enhance water and air quality and promote plant and animal health.

Optimal soil health requires a balance between soil functions for productivity, environmental quality and plant and animal health, all of which are greatly affected by management and land-use decisions. Soil health focuses on the living, dynamic nature of soil that incorporates the biological attributes of biodiversity, food web structure, ecosystem functioning and the intimate relationships of soil microorganisms with plants and animals.

Soil quality also refers to the functional capacity of soil, but has a greater emphasis on agricultural productivity and economic benefits. Indeed, the development of the modern soil quality concept by Warkentin and Fletcher in 1977 was within the context of intensive agriculture, where the major concerns were food and fiber production and the capacity of soil to recycle nutrients, presumably from residual fertilizers and crop residues.

The term soil health, with its focus on biological function and protection of environmental quality, is most relevant for eco-agriculture production systems promoting good management practices that foster a balanced focus on all functions of soil health rather than an emphasis on single functions, such as crop yields.

Several articles published in Acres U.S.A. within the past decade illustrate how eco-agriculture embodies soil health, which is an inherent benefit of this production system. In a series of articles from 2012 to 2015, Gary Zimmer focused on the importance of mineral nutrition for both plants and soil microorganisms for improved soil health. He also stated that the capacity of a healthy soil to function could be realized without intervention, suggesting that eco-agricultural systems facilitate functional capacity by minimizing disruptive management of synthetic fertilizer, pesticide inputs and intensive tillage. Continue Reading →