Monday, June 21, 2010

Vitamins and Soil

I talked here about N, P and K--the big three nutrients that farmers pay attention to and add into their soils to help produce healthy crops.

I compared NPK to vitamins that you might take to round out your diet. Can you imagine not eating any food--only taking a handful of vitamins each day? Even if we were really careful to take a C, a D, an iron pill, a multivitamin, and maybe even B6 and B12--would that be enough?

Heavens, no. There are many things we get from food that cannot be compressed into a pill. Yet in some ways, that is what we farmers are doing. We are trying to sustain crop life by just adding the nutrients we know the crops need. But there is so much going on in the soil that we don't understand. So many things that we cannot help but miss when we JUST take soil samples and add the required nutrients (that we know about).

So that's part of why we've moved in the direction of biological farming. We're trying to build healthy soil by using compost and other organic (not the USDA type of organic, but naturally occurring stuff) soil amendments, by rotating our crops, and by avoiding herbicides and synthetic fertilizers that are known to destroy microorganisms in the soil.

Years ago, we applied anhydrous ammonia to our corn crop to supply the needed nitrogen. It's a horribly dangerous product to use, and we decided it wasn't worth the risk to The Farmer. So we switched to N-28, a liquid form of nitrogen. Quite a bit safer for the operator than the ammonia gas. After several years of using N-28, we noticed something strange happening in our fields. The velvetleaf that was such a noxious weed was not so prevalent anymore. And earthworms, an endangered species before, were making a comeback.

We no longer use N-28 for our nitrogen. The past few years we've applied feathermeal to supply the necessary nitrogen. We've also carefully rotated our crops, and gained naturally-occurring nitrogen from legume crops planted and harvested for two years before the corn is raised. Legumes are a nitrogen-producer (or "fixer"), while corn is a nitrogen consumer. Planning crop rotations based on the characteristics of the individual crops can cut down on fertilizer needs. And you know what? We're seeing even more benefits from this latest switch to a new nitrogen source.

So, I'm guessing that some of you quit reading long ago. Bring back the pretty flower shots, you're thinking. Others of you tried valiantly to get to the end of the post, but your eyes have glazed over. But maybe one or two of you read to the end and mostly got it. Thanks for hanging in there...


  1. Lona, I hung in and agree, it's so great to see the worms cultivating the soil:) Have you tried green manure crops yet?

  2. Yes, we have! This spring we plowed in a cover crop of oats and planted corn. It's a great concept, both from the nutrient stand-point and to help with weeds.

    Thanks for reading and commenting. =)

  3. Not at all!

    I was just pulling weeds out of a tiny plot yesterday that was pure beach sand when I started. The soil is looking amazingly soil-like after nearly 15 years of adding organic matter.

    It's funny, when I was at MSU I mentioned using a trap crop in my home garden, and one of the professors snorted "That sounds like something one of those organic gardeners would say!"

    20 years later, the prof. who was my advisor back then is in charge of MSU's organic farm.

  4. Good for you! Got before and after photos to put on your blog?

    Your second paragraph illustrates the divide between organic and conventional farming. No snorting is needed. There's room enough for all of us.

    So, to clarify--is the prof who snorted now in charge of the organic farm? That would be quite a "before" and "after", too, wouldn't it?

  5. I read to the end and found it quite fascinating! I think it's very cool that earthworms are back. I have been amending the soil in our little garden plot with organic matter for 9 years, and now I can *really* tell the difference! I love to just hold it in my hand. It feels so rich.

    (And hugs to you! Been too long since I've commented)


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