Increasing Farm Wages: A Labor Crisis and the Effects on Agriculture

Labor Costs

Rising Farm Wages and Labor Costs May Lead to Higher Grocery Bills

Farms across America are struggling to secure sufficient labor and pay increasing minimum wages. This issue is most prevalent in California where the minimum wage will continue to increase to $15 in just three years. Additionally, previous exemptions on overtime for agricultural workers are now null, meaning that any person working more than forty hours a week will have to be paid time and a half. Readers from other states might be thinking “who cares about CA politics, there’s no problem here!” Think again, With 60% of the country’s agriculture in California, a rise in labor costs will inevitably lead to higher grocery bills for consumers as well as more food waste.

The Response can be Challenging and Complicated

As farm wages rise, farmers are faced with few options. To mitigate the cost of labor farmers are forced to increase productivity of their crews, raise their prices, or switch to automated processes. Each of these options has major drawbacks. Increasing productivity is difficult and there is only so much work that can be done in one day. Some farms offer production bonuses to their workers based on how many pounds of produce is harvested in the day. These bonuses can be costly, especially since the workers baseline pay is already so high. Since labor is more expensive, the price of the crop must go up. However, farmers are competing not only with other states with lower minimum wages, but with other countries that have no regulations regarding farm labor. Raising the price of the product will only result in more produce being imported from Mexico. This takes jobs away from entry level positions across the entire farm.

Automation is Costly and Can lead to Increased Market Farm Consolidation

Automation seems like a great solution to this labor crisis; however, the technology has not yet met the complicated needs of agriculture. While new options are on the horizon, we are still very far away from fully automated harvesting or planting. The initial cost of machines is very high, and most small farms lack the capital required to invest in automation. As these technologies develop, we will likely see family businesses bought out by corporate farms. In addition, the agricultural workers will not benefit from the rising minimum wages as they will be without a job completely.

Is Buying Local the Solution?

So, what can consumers do to help both agricultural workers and farm owners? BUY LOCAL. Even when produce is more expensive, buying local supports the farms in the community and reduces the ecological hazards of long distance shipping. It also provides demand for products that will lead to more production at local farms and therefore more work for agricultural laborers. Buying domestic products also guarantees that the people who produced that product were paid a fair wage, had safe working conditions, and the product passes the high safety standards of the United States. It only takes a few extra seconds at the grocery store to check the label on produce and ensure it is a product of the USA. Aside from buying local, another way to help local farms is to fully read and understand measures before voting on them. If you are unsure how a bill might affect agriculture, do research or try to speak with a farmer about their opinion. When the time comes to elect senators and representatives, consider their stance or background on agricultural policy. Human welfare and labor rights are extremely important, but food supply affects every single person in this country. When food costs rise, the poorest people are affected the most.

Author - Riley Graham

About Riley Graham

Riley is a third year Food Science student at UC Davis hoping to one day work in research and development. Her specific areas of interest are in sustainability in agricultural processing; however, she’s exploring other options in food science such as sensory science and even brewing. Being a food science student at one of the world’s premier agricultural research centers gives Riley a unique perspective on the issues we face in food production. Even when I’m outside of the classroom, Riley never stops learning. When not doing homework or working in a lab, Riley plays piano, reads science fiction, and loves to cook.

 

Life Beneath the Soil

Life beneath the soil

For the market farmer, soil health is critically important. The soil is a generic term for the upper layer of the Earth’s crust. In fact, there are six soil layers that impact market farming and even big Ag via the life within the soil, the overall soil health, and the relationship therein. Inside we discuss the life beneath the soil and how those organisms affect soil health.

Soil Biota

Biota is the life – animal or plant – that exist in a specific habitat or environment. All the fish, plants, algae and other organisms in the Pacific Ocean would be the biota of the Pacific Ocean. Soil Biota is the organisms that live in the soil of a specific area or environment, such as your garden or market farm. For most plots of land, we are talking about organisms such as bacteria, Fungi, spiders, worms, arthropods – insects, spiders, crustaceans, etc., small rodents and mammals, etc. In short, there is a lot of life in the soil – Some of it good and some a little challenging for farmers and gardeners – all of it seems to be essential for growing food.

The Layers of the Soil from top to bottom

  1. Humus — In healthy soil, there is a thick layer of humus which is the off-cast parts of plants — leaves, bark, stems, fallen fruit, etc. It is in the humus where new soil is created and nutrients within top soil replenished. That process is in thanks to the soil biota and the hydrologic cycle — rain and water.
  2. Topsoil — a nutrient-rich layer — usually — where most plant roots are found. Larger trees and shrubs may have roots that extend as deep as the subsoil layer.
  3. The Eluviation layer — Often a sink for soil nutrients as they are carried down through the humus and topsoil layers by water. This is generally a small grained layer of soil particles.
  4. Subsoil — The subsoil layer is made up of tiny grains of rock, soil, and clay. There is not much organic residue in the subsoil layer, but it can be an excellent place for the natural storage of excess water – especially in areas with a lot of clay. This can also be a place where hardpan forms.
  5. Regolith — Upper Bedrock – a broken layer of bedrock – this is where bedrock begins to decompose thanks to physical and chemical weathering.
  6. Bedrock — The bottom layer of the soil is bedrock on which the upper layers of soil rest. Bedrock is exposed due to erosion. We see that naturally on the upper reaches of the mountains. We also see it farming in extreme cases where air or water erosion is uncontrolled.

Little Creatures with a Big Impact

Bacteria and fungi are microscopic, but both do a fantastic job converting organic compounds into nutrients. Nitrogen-fixing bacteria are literally the driving force behind life on earth through a process called the nitrogen cycle. The air we breathe is nearly 78% nitrogen, yet plants cannot use nitrogen in its gaseous form. There are a few ways that nitrogen becomes usable to plants and nitrogen-fixing bacteria are one of the most efficient means.

However, it is not just nitrogen that makes soil healthy. It is also aeration thanks in part to critters like earthworms, moles, voles, shrews, and even insect larva that help to “fluff” up the topsoil and humus layers so that air is available for all organisms to use. It is also about the ratio of organic matter in the soil to the amount of moisture that the ground holds. The humus layer helps the topsoil layer to retain water and by decreasing the amount of evaporation that occurs. In the humus layer are all kinds of organisms that help to reduce plant matter so that the bacteria and fungi can do their jobs. That is a natural, organic cycle. The plants grow, shed their fruit and leaves, which become the humus layer where the organism’s consume the debris and turn it into usable nutrients.

Supplements for Soil Health

In commercial farming, the humus layer is burned off or removed. Over time, the topsoil layer becomes compacted due to the reduction of organic material and the farmer must then supplement their lands with inputs — nitrogen-based fertilizers — because there is not enough life in the soil to regenerate the nutrients. Market farming does not have to follow this path. Many small farms are using other methods such as no-till to improve the condition of their soil. There are other tricks too, such as cover crops that utilize nitrogen-fixing plants. Nitrogen fixing plants are a symbiotic relationship between specialized bacteria and the plant. Together they help to absorb nitrogen or nitrogen components and then convert it into a usable material that the plant can use to grow.

Soil health is a relationship between many small organisms, the plants that grow in the soil and the amount of water available. The small farm can take advantage of these relationships to produce more food or flowers and use fewer resources.

David Stillwell organic gardener

About: David Stillwell is an organic gardener, entomologist, writer and student. David specializes in hymenoptera – bees, wasps, and ants, and the study of cecidology – Plant galls. He has a fondness for recognizing natural circles and energy webs that exist in nature — those interconnected natural systems such as food webs. He is a native of California and an advocate for conservation, locally grown, and farmer’s markets.

Becoming a Disease Manager

Leaf with disease spots

About Erik Vegeto

Erik is a student of Plant, Soil and Insect Science at Umass Amherst. He has a passion for restorative agriculture and environmental stewardship that drives him forward into new frontiers of thought. Erik loves to read, play guitar, and be creative. One day he hopes to have his own farm and write for a living.

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What is Organic and How to Get Certified

organic farming field

What Does Certified Organic Mean?

The last decade has seen a surge of organic products and farms. From grocery items to cosmetics, to textiles the label organic can be found on thousands of products in America. But, what does this label actually mean about the product?

The US department of Agriculture defines organic as, “a labeling term that indicates that the food or other agricultural product has been produced through approved methods. Organic operations must demonstrate that they are protecting natural resources, conserving biodiversity, and using only approved substances.” There is a long list of requirements set for organic agriculture. The most important ones include not using radiation as a method of preservation, not using genetically modified crops, and that production must be overseen by a USDA organic representative.It is a lengthy process to get a farm certified organic. While the certification process can be finished in six to eight weeks, many farms face a “transition” period of three years. During this period, products cannot be labeled organic, but the farmer must follow all organic regulations. While this process seems extreme, market trends are surging toward organic produce it may be beneficial for some farmers to make the switch.

No matter the size of the operation, from 1,000 acre farms to backyard gardens, the organic guidelines can be helpful in maintaining a sustainable and natural yield. In order to better understand the benefits of these regulations it is important to understand the process behind becoming certified.

First, farmers must take a look at the entire farming operation from tilling practices and pesticide usage to harvesting and storage and make a plan that meets the USDA guidelines.

The guidelines differ for produce, livestock and textiles. There are strict regulations against GMO foods and synthetic fertilizers. If GMOs or chemicals were used in previous harvests the farm must use organic practices for three full years before getting certified. This can be one of the hardest parts of getting certified organic.

Taking an intense look at an operation and considering the environmental and nutritional impact of agricultural practices is beneficial for any size operation. Even if organic is not an option for you, are there steps that you can take that will make the production more sustainable? For example, instead of using synthetic fertilizers, can you replace them with composted materials? Instead of pesticides and herbicides, is there an alternative practice such as companion planting or solarizing that can be utilized? Even small changes can make a huge difference in the overall sustainability of the farm.

 The next step in becoming organic is to get in contact with the USDA.

An inspector will take a thorough look at the operational plan and approve it. Once this has been approved, it’s time to enact all the changes.

While the USDA oversees all farming to ensure food safety is maintained, organic farms have an extra level of supervision. These strict regulations force farmers to run a highly organized, well maintained operation equating to higher quality produce.

If getting certified is not your end goal, it is always a good idea to maintain a good relationship with the USDA. The USDA provides resources such as insurance, loans, grants, new agricultural research findings, food safety guidelines, and agricultural policy updates.

 The final step in the certification process is to complete an Inspection

Once the organic plan is successfully running, it is time to get certified. An agent from the USDA will come to the farm and do a thorough inspection of the land, water, farming practices, and records. If farms pass this inspection (and have maintained their transition period) they can officially market products as organic. If not, the USDA will recommend changes that will allow them to apply for another inspection.

The process of becoming an organic farm is very thorough. To ensure a high-quality product, these regulations serve to standardize and enforce sustainability and efficiency across all certified farms. While organic produce costs more, it may be worth it to a consumer once they know the process a farm must go through to become certified organic. Consumer demand is what drives the agricultural practices. If people demand foods from sustainable and natural sources, the industry will deliver. While these practices do not suit every operation, there is something to be learned from the organic guidelines. If all farms made changes to reduce their environmental impact the combined results would be significant.

Author - Riley Graham

About Riley Graham

Riley is a third year Food Science student at UC Davis hoping to one day work in research and development. Her specific areas of interest are in sustainability in agricultural processing; however, she’s exploring other options in food science such as sensory science and even brewing. Being a food science student at one of the world’s premier agricultural research centers gives Riley a unique perspective on the issues we face in food production. Even when I’m outside of the classroom, Riley never stops learning. When not doing homework or working in a lab, Riley plays piano, reads science fiction, and loves to cook.

Small Farm Labor: Hiring Freelance Laborers or Employees

Farm laborer picking beans

You may be able to start a small farm with just your own labor and the help of family members and friends, but eventually a successful market farming operation will grow big enough to need outside labor. Without enough workers on hand, you can miss out on crucial growing and harvesting windows and lose an entire farm vegetable crop. Choosing a type of labor is a major part of small farm planning because each option offers a mix of restrictions and benefits. Explore the two main options for staffing a growing vegetable farming operation to pick the right fit for your market farming plans.

Hiring Freelance Laborers or Employees

Whether you need help only with harvesting a growing bumper crop or year round work, hiring an independent contractor or farm employee is often the most reliable way to close the labor gap. Freelancers and contractors are particularly helpful for piecemeal and single time market farming work, such as harvesting, while any long-term schedule and need for close control over the work requires you to hire on a permanent employee for your small farm.

In order to hire a freelance farm laborer or team for market farming, you must meet the standards set by the Department of Labor (DOL) and Internal Revenue Service (IRS) for this arrangement. These requirements may include:

  • The contractor supplying their own tools and equipment, including combines and harvesters on large farm jobs
  • The job requires only broad objectives, such as bringing in a specific amount of crop by a certain date, with relatively few specifications on how the work is done
  • The contractor is free to offer the same services to other farms
  • The employment offer is based per project and not on an ongoing daily, weekly, or monthly schedule
  • The contractor sets and controls their own schedule, although the farm hiring them can specify a deadline for the work.

Unlike many labor requirements, your growing farm may not have to meet all of these requirements in order to legally hire freelancers and independent contractors. When you choose this kind of small farm labor, you don’t have to pay half of each employee’s FICA taxes like you do with employees. However, you will still need to file income reporting forms with the IRS if you pay your contractors more than a few hundred dollars within each calendar year.

Hiring an employee for your small farm may lead you to do more paperwork and pay a small amount of tax per worker, but you’ll gain many benefits in exchange. You can directly control an employee’s method of completing work, down to specifying when they arrive and when they take their breaks. If you need to move them around to different growing and harvesting tasks on the farm, there’s no need to renegotiate a new project contract. You are responsible for filing a W-4 and I-9 form for all employees you hire. The first form tracks your responsibility for part of the employee’s Social Security taxes, while the second determines if the employee is legally allowed to work in the United States. Failing to complete either form for an employee could lead to thousands of dollars’ worth of fines from both the DOL and IRS.

Inviting Volunteers to Help

When you only need help occasionally and in a relaxed way, such as making small improvements to existing market farming infrastructure, you may only need volunteer and intern labor. Be careful when using these kinds of arrangements, even when working with a well-established organization. Unless the volunteer group is providing the insurance, you may be liable for any injuries that occur while guests are visiting your farm.

There are multiple organizations that provide short to long term free labor in exchange for room and board on a small farm. Some organizations prefer farms to offer guests a small stipend per month to help cover their living costs as well. Groups like World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF), Workaway, HelpX, Appropriate Technology Transfer for Rural Areas (ATTRA), and many others provide free or low cost listings for growing market farming operations looking to attract volunteers, guests, and interns. However, you’ll need to follow both federal and state guidelines for utilizing free labor on your farm, especially if you refer to your opportunity as an unpaid internship.

Interns in particular are protected by federal law and by even stricter standards in many states. Federal requirements include:

  • Educational opportunities similar to what one could receive from a college classroom setting
  • No automatic offer of employment at the end of the internship
  • A mutual understanding that no wages will be exchanged, even if a stipend is involved
  • Someone from the farm is designated as the leader of the internship program
  • No immediate profit or advantage can be gained from the intern’s labor
  • The entire experience is primarily for the benefit of the intern and not the farm.

You’ll still need insurance if you stick within the regulations for internships and volunteer opportunities. Even if your guests sign waivers, you’ll want the extra protection of liability insurance since farms are inherently risky environments for inexperienced volunteers.

Jessica Kolifrath farmer, educator and blogger

Jessica grew up eating homegrown tomatoes and showing rabbits at livestock shows, so it’s no wonder she has her own 3 acre organic hobby farm today that will soon be home to a small licensed nursery for valuable trees and native shrubs. When she’s not busy with her own gardens and chickens, she enjoys helping build greenhouses and weed the blueberry fields at her friend’s 30 acre organic fruit and vegetable plant farm.

 

 

Sources

http://organicgrowersschool.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/2016-Structuring-Labor-on-the-Small-Farm-FINAL.pdf

https://attra.ncat.org/attra-pub/download.php?id=505

https://extension.unh.edu/resources/files/Resource006459_Rep9258.pdf

Seeds of Hope: New Crops Emerge for South Florida’s Warming Climate

papaya fruit part of South Florida’s Warming Climate

Growing food in the country’s hottest city is no joke.

Miami producers and plants alike are hardened veterans in roughing out the bugs, the plagues, and the heat. It’s why you can find luscious passionfruit, lychees, mamey and other unique fruits flourishing in our backyards along with more beloved staples like bananas, avocados, and mangoes. It’s how strawberries, lettuce, and sweet corn ripen here even in the dead of “winter”. But insert rapid climate change- intensified storms, warming temperatures, rising sea levels, etc. and it’s become tragically harder and harder for the plants we typically grow to “take the heat”.  In fact, a recent study from the Economic Research Service compared how the agricultural productivity of different states would fare under climate change over the next two decades, and Florida was projected to be among the most negatively impacted. 

What gives? 

Many crops in Florida are already grown at temperatures that exceed or at the higher end of their optimal range. The higher temperatures lead to greater pest/disease pressure, increased demand for water, and impaired yield. For example, say you’re growing the most popular garden vegetable- the tomato. The optimal growing temperature for a tomato is 66-77℉. Temperatures above 90 °F degrees can cause pollen sterility, but days like those are only becoming more common in Miami where between 1970 and today there’s been over a 20% increase in 90+°F days per year. The effect is growing seasons cut short and a northern migration of crops’ zones of production. What’s a 305-grower to do? 

Dr. Alan Chambers, a fruit breeder at the Tropical Research and Education Center (TREC), knows that the right crop can make the difference between tropical paradise and pestilent hellscape. Using genetic insights, he’s discovering new cultivars of crops that will work with our evolving South Florida climate and keep local farmers in business. 

One crop that is ripe with potential is the vanilla orchid. 

While some home gardeners try their hand at it, vanilla is not commercially grown in South Florida…yet. Wait at least 5 more years, says Dr. Chambers. Vanilla is a tropical plant that is well-suited for local production. Our hot rainy summers trigger rapid growth; the dry, increasingly drought-like conditions of winter encourage flowering. In fact, established plants may not need any additional irrigation except in extreme cases. And because vanilla is a shade-loving vine, it could be a lucrative secondary crop using a range of tropical fruit trees for structural support. The four species native to Florida’s preserves introduce unique and useful traits not seen elsewhere in the mostly homogenous vanilla industry. For example, not needing to manually pollinate seeds cuts down on a huge expense in commercial production. Resistance to major pathogens like fusarium oxysporum makes production more locally adaptable. The logistics of harnessing these traits are not simple. “The question is, is there a gene in that plant we can hybridize into the commercial type and take care of the number one pathogen,” Dr. Chambers explains. 

Where do dreams of local vanilla lead us? 

Stories of climate change are packed with doomsday language and for good reason. Certain harsh realities will continue to grow; more heat will attract more pathogens and generally require more inputs. But the emerging story of vanilla is a seed of hope for growers looking to invest in novel crops. While there is no “Planet B”, the dream team at TREC is researching the many Plant B’s. These plants will be adapted to more tropical conditions. For example, Chambers says lengthening intervals between freeze events could allow for production of crops like cacao or breadfruit. Today, risks are still too high- even for a profession as fraught with risk as farming. Research mainly focuses on opportunity crops for the here and now like vanilla which may not have been recommended in the past. Ultimately, remaining adaptable is and will continue to be essential to growing abundant local food. That wouldn’t be too bad a forecast… for America’s hottest city. 

Author Meylin Muniz writes about South Florida’s Warming Climate

 

 

 

 

 

 

About Meylin

Meylin is a Plant Science student at the University of Florida specializing in Sustainable Crop Production with a deep interest in closed-loop systems and regenerating soil fertility. When not studying, she can be found writing, running, and taking pictures of critters in the garden. During the summers, Meylin spends time in Miami with her family. Meylin believes food is a great way for people to connect; some of her personal favorites include mangoes, peanuts, and oats.

Sources: 

  1. http://floridaclimateinstitute.org/docs/climatebook/Ch08-Her.pdf
  2. https://www.ers.usda.gov/amber-waves/2019/august/climate-change-likely-to-have-uneven-impacts-on-agricultural-productivity/
  3. http://floridaclimateinstitute.org/docs/climatebook/Ch08-Her.pdf
  4. https://statesatrisk.org/florida/all
  5. http://www.southdadenewsleader.com/news/science-has-the-recipe-for-only-in-miami-dade-food/article_6557f58e-0ff3-11e7-a14e-aba078c3acdb.html
  6. https://ediblesouthflorida.ediblecommunities.com/things-do/homegrown-vanilla
  7. https://78431ae5-e506-4dc6-85f6-b8b36962c43c.filesusr.com/ugd/1d2622_0e01f3655744433d81afad6c02adb556.pdf
  8. https://crec.ifas.ufl.edu/extension/trade_journals/2017/2017_June_vanilla.pdf
  9. https://www.wcjb.com/content/news/Florida-grown-Vanilla-might-be-on-the-way-509366071.html

Are All Sweet Potatoes “GMOs”?

Sweet Potato Question Mark

Are you growing, buying, or eating "GMO" sweet potatoes? How would you know?

Over the past few decades, advances in the field of genetic engineering have occurred alongside increasing public awareness of, and a variety of reactions to, the presence of genetically engineered crops and ingredients in our food systems.

If you’re someone who grows or sells sweet potatoes, some of your customers might be asking, “Are these sweet potatoes GMO?” Even if you’re just someone who buys and eats sweet potatoes, you might be asking this question too.

Before this question can be answered, however, a few terms need to be cleared up.

What does "GMO" mean, anyway?

Many people are familiar with the popular acronym “GMO”, which stands for “genetically modified organism.” The more scientifically accurate term is “genetically engineered organism.”

This term refers to any organism (such as a plant or animal) whose genome (DNA) has been altered through the use of genetic engineering techniques, in which an undesired gene is removed, or a desired gene is isolated, copied, or synthesized, before it is prepared and then inserted into the host genome. In plants, the most common techniques for inserting a gene are:

  1. Agrobacterium-mediated recombination (using a type of bacteria known for its ability to transfer DNA between itself and plants)
  2. Biolistics, also known as microparticle bombardment (using a biolistic particle delivery system, also known as a “gene gun,” to insert DNA)
  3. Electroporation (applying an electrical field to cells, in order to increase the permeability of their cell membranes, so that DNA can be introduced into the cell)

Once a cell has been transformed by using one of these methods, a new plant is grown from that cell via tissue culture. Then, tests are performed to make sure the plant contains the DNA that was added to the original cell.

There are a few different types of genetically engineered organisms. Transgenic organisms have been modified to contain gene(s) obtained from an unrelated or sexually incompatible species. Cisgenic organisms contain gene(s) from another organism of the same species, or from a sexually compatible species.

So, what about sweet potatoes? Fascinatingly, researchers discovered that sweet potatoes already contain DNA sequences from Agrobacterium within their own genome. Not only that, but sweet potato plants actively express some of these genes. In light of this discovery, sweet potatoes serve as the first known example of a naturally transgenic food crop.

“Okay,” you might ask, “But have they been genetically modified by humans?” The answer, as you might expect by now, takes the form of a “Yes, but…”

How do we genetically alter sweet potatoes?

Like any cultivated crop, sweet potatoes have been genetically modified by humans over a very long period of time, through selective breeding, to produce improved varieties with desirable traits for flavor, texture, color, shape, pest and disease resistance, drought tolerance, and so on.

Different varieties are crossed with each other via cross-pollination. Next, the offspring of these new crosses are planted and grown in field trials, in which they are observed and tested for desirable traits. Additional tests (such as bake tests and fry tests) are conducted as well. Varieties which have potential for the market (or potential for crossing with other varieties) are kept for further research, with the ultimate goal of delivering impressive, new varieties that growers and producers will want to buy.

People have also been researching how sweet potatoes may be genetically engineered in the future, but the sweet potato varieties which are commercially available today (at least in the United States) are not the product of such technology.

To answer the original the question: yes, sweet potatoes are “GMOs” – or “transgenic,” to be more precise. But at least in this case, humans can’t take all the credit.

Sources


Edmisten, K. “What Is the Difference Between Genetically Modified Organisms and Genetically Engineered Organisms?” North Carolina Cooperative Extension. Web. Accessed 22 December 2018 at agbiotech.ces.ncsu.edu.

Kyndt, T., Quispe, D., Zhai, H., Jarret, R., Ghislain, M., Liu, Q., Gheysen, G. and Kreuze, J. “Sweet Potato: A Naturally Transgenic Food Crop.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 112 (18) 5844-5849. 2015. Web. Accessed 22 December 2018 at pnas.org.

National Research Council (US) Committee on Identifying and Assessing Unintended Effects of Genetically Engineered Foods on Human Health. “Methods and Mechanisms for Genetic Manipulation of Plants, Animals, and Microorganisms.” Safety of Genetically Engineered Foods: Approaches to Assessing Unintended Health Effects. 2004. Web. Accessed 22 December 2018 at ncbi.nlm.nih.gov.

Matthew Adkins

Matthew Adkins

Matthew graduated from NC State University in 2017 with a degree in Environmental Sciences and a minor in Agroecology. He has worked for both the Christmas Tree Genetics program and the Sweetpotato Breeding & Genetics program at NC State, and now manages a small farm in Cary, NC where he grows veggies, herbs and flowers for local restaurants.

Cover Cropping – Techniques for Creating Productive Soil

Cover Crop

Part 1: Should You Cover Crop? 

Yes! But only if you are willing to put in the time, money, and effort that having a successful cover crop requires. Most farmers are dubious about starting the journey because of the many associated costs and risks, and this is fair. However, when implemented with care, cover crops can make your crop and soil highly successful and productive. This article will illustrate some of the many benefits by talking to you about the story of walnut farmer Russ Lester. Later, once you’re convinced this is the way to go, I’ll give you the basics on getting started. 

What are the Benefits?

To start off, the benefits of cover cropping are a reduction of soil erosion and enhanced nutrient cycling which contributes positively to soil physical, biological and chemical properties. However, the success of the cover crop depends on the type of cover crop, timing and management as well as the crop that you are growing alongside or after it. 

Success with Cover Crops at Dixon Ridge Farms:

Russ Lester, co-owner of Dixon Ridge Farms, has been very successful at implementing a cover crop system on the walnut farm. Lester says, “We don’t just look at how cover crops can supply fertility; we look at how they can suppress weeds, conserve soil moisture, attract and keep beneficial insects, cool the orchard, and supply cover crop seed for next year.” He does this by using a “Rich Mix,” made up of Lana (wooly pod) vetch, purple vetch, common vetch, crimson clover, sub-clover, burr medic, oats, cereal rye, and barley, to maximize his cover crop benefits.This mix provides the low carbon to nitrogen ratio, meaning that C and N are cycled back into the soil, leguminous crops like clover and vetch fix nitrogen directly making them available for plants and uses water efficiently from the soil surface via irrigation. Evaporative losses are minimized because of the high soil organic matter from previous cover crops, which hold more water in the soil. In addition to this, the quick growth of the cover crops protects the water from evaporative losses. Weeds are also not a concern because they are quickly smothered by the planting and their growth is suppressed. 

Timing is Everything 

The process should also be timed to maximize benefits. A trade-off for cover crops is that it utilizes the water for the main crop, which is an issue in drought-prone environments like California. This is counteracted by growing the crop during the walnut tree dormancy, where the water use of the walnut tree is very low.  Cover cropping has a cost – seed and soil preparations and labor requirements factor into implementing the system. Although there is no direct profit associated with the process, it does increases water holding capacity, soil infiltration and soil biodiversity. It increases nutrient availability and nutrient content, soil stability and also suppresses weeds. This also means that the soil is able to absorb water from irrigation, rain and runoff from neighboring land, contributing to groundwater recharge which is especially important in California’s climate. Because of these reasons, at Dixon Ridge Farms, where the cover seed mix is produced in-house, the benefits are worth the expense. 

Cover cropping practices, if implemented well, can ultimately reduce costs for farmers by saving on irrigation and fertilizer, contributing to soil health, assisting in nutrient uptake (potentially contributing to greater yields); while at the same time decreasing demand for mining of minerals and contributing to groundwater recharge, adding to overall sustainability!

Taking the Plunge

So you’ve decided to take the plunge and start cover cropping. That’s great! There are a few key factors that you will have to work within and this entry is going to break them down for you. Cover crops are for the soil instead of for direct consumption, but they need to work within the framework of your typical growing practices. A successful cover process is a balancing act between the needs of the soil, and what you are willing and able to give. It may seem daunting to throw in an added element into the mix, but with some planning, time, and practice, the payoff is worth it.

What is your Cover Crop? 

Depending on the amount of time your fields are left fallow, and the nature of your crops, decide what kind of cover crops are even available to you. When growing a cover crop, it must suit your needs. If your crop has a long growing season, and your fields are fallow for a short time, you may consider Triticale. Triticale is an easy and quickly-established cover crop that adds increases soil organic matter. It doubles as a weed suppressant and grazing grass for livestock. On the other hand, On the other hand, if you are growing corn, for example, you may choose to cover with a mix that is predominantly leguminous. By growing legumes like hairy vetch and crimson clover, you add to the soil nitrogen stock by introducing desirable nitrogen fixing bacteria. The type of mix used can be manipulated to best suit your needs and give you the most bang for your buck. 

What do you have now? Time:

First, how much time do you have? You can do cover cropping for long or short periods of time, depending on the season, the dormancy of your crop/orchard, they type of mix you are using

  • Mix/following crop/soil needs 
  • Kill type/time
  • Season

Key questions are what do you want out of the cover crop, where are your problem places and in what time frame are you looking to see a return on your investment? All these answers play a role in deciding what type of mix, when it’s sown, how long is grown and how it is maintained and integrated with the overall agricultural practice of your farm. 

Shailaja Chadha

About Shailaja Chadha

I am a fourth-year student at the University of California, Davis studying Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems. I chose this major because I wanted to study how people are connected to the ecosystem through food and the implications of our current food system. I am very interested in soil health and sustainability and am looking to pursue higher education in soil science and nutrient cycling. I joined ADAK Software as a blogger because I wanted to be able to share the things I learn in the classroom and on the field with everyone who is interested, in words that anyone can understand. I hope to eventually return to my home country, India, and develop agriculture and sustainability there to create a more equitable social, environmental, and economic system.

Sources

Agriculture Sustainability Institute  — UC SAREP. Retrieved from http://asi.ucdavis.edu/programs/sarep/about/copy_of_what-is-sustainable-agriculture/practices/cover-crops

California Agriculture http://calag.ucanr.edu/Archive/?article=ca.v048n05p43  

Dixon Ridge Farms.Retrieved from http://www.dixonridgefarms.com/farmingandprocessing/sustainability.html

Russ Lester — ASI.Retrieved from http://asi.ucdavis.edu/about/external-advisory-board-1/russ-lester

The Soil is Alive – Updates from University of Kentucky Integrated Plant and Soil Science

KCl Extractions Lab.png

The Soil Is Alive!

Did you know that a teaspoon of productive soil contains between 100 million and 1 billion bacteria? That adds up to equal the weight of two cows per acre! When you look down, you don’t see them, so they are easy to forget about. However, when you look down and see plants growing you have billions of microorganisms to thank! These microbes are vital in nutrient cycling and many other important processes taking place in the soil.

what's in a handful of soil

How Microbes Are Running My Master’s Degree

As I discussed in my earlier blog post, I am currently a graduate student at the University of Kentucky studying nutrient management in soil science. For my research I am conducting a laboratory incubation study comparing different types of poultry litter and the factors influencing the nutrient content of these manures. During my time at the University of Kentucky I took an in-depth soil microbiology class with a lab that opened my eyes to the importance of these organisms in agriculture. Soil microbiology is also a big part of my research.  I am in the middle of the first study and am currently processing samples as they finish incubating. The reason an incubation process is used is to facilitate microbial activity in the sample cups. These microbes are the ones doing the work to break down the poultry manure and transform the nitrogen into a usable form for plants to use. To create optimal conditions for microbial growth, the sample cups I prepare are kept at about 77°F and the soil is kept at about 50% of field capacity (that is a scientific term that pretty much means the soil is moist but will still crumble in your hand). This is important because it gives the microbes enough water but also allows for air to get to them. They are living organisms, so they need oxygen and water just like us. Over time I take out samples and analyze them for inorganic nitrogen content. I am specifically interested in ammonium (NH4+) and nitrate (NO3) in the soil that the microbes are releasing. This is done by extracting the nutrients from the soil with potassium chloride (KCl), filtering the samples, and then analyzing with flow injection analysis. Once two months of samples are collected, I will have a record of how much nitrogen was released and when it was released.

assembling sample cups with manure and soil            sample cups in the incubator

Goals of the First Study

This first study focuses on two main factors; the rate of manure (poultry, specifically broiler litter) applied and the method the manure is applied. Half of the cups received manure at a rate of 100 lbs of plant available nitrogen while the other half received 400 lbs of plant available nitrogen. This comparison will shed light on differences in the rate of nitrogen release as you increase the amount of manure applied. This study is also comparing a tilled and no-till manure application. For this comparison I mixed the manure into one cup and in an identical cup, I sprinkled the manure on top of the soil. This study is a chance for me to perfect my procedures and techniques before I begin the bigger study that will compare eight types of poultry litter from all around the country.

The end goal of my project is to collect data that will help crop producers improve their decision-making when considering using poultry manure. I am excited to see the results and will be sure to have an update post once I have the results of this first study!

If you want to learn more about the living soil and the microorganisms beneath your feet, check out these websites!

USDA NRCS Soil Health

USDA SARE The Living Soil

Lydia Fitzgerald: Student, writer, flower & vegetable farmer!

 

 

 

 

About Lydia

Lydia grew up on a farm in Nelson County, Va and helped raise wholesale pumpkins, apples, corn, and soybeans. She did work in food safety and certifications and started a retail sector with pumpkins, gourds, sunflowers, Indian corn, and sweet corn for a pick-your-own operation. Lydia has been involved in home vegetable gardening and loves to learn about different management and marketing strategies for small and large scale production systems. She is currently a student at Virginia Tech studying Crop and Soil Science planning to attend graduate school in the fall.

Sources:

https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/detailfull/soils/health/biology/?cid=nrcs142p2_053862

https://blog.rsb.org.uk/the-living-soil-tread-carefully/

Using Perennials

By Meylin Muniz

The Benefits of Perennials

Apples, pecans, asparagus, and blackberries- what do these delicious foods have in common? Depending on your climate zone, each of these can be planted once and with a little patience are the gifts that keep on giving (bonus: no seed-starting or tilling necessary!).

Perennials are Hardier and Require Less Care

As members of a more mature successionary stage, perennial crops are in it for the long haul. Their roots run deeper and thicker, allowing them to subsist with fewer water and fertilizer inputs. Annuals, on the other hand, demand more intensive inputs which are easily lost from their shallow and delicate root systems. This is where water pollution can become a common reality. The extensive roots of perennials also work to enrich the soil with organic matter and microbial life. The difference is so dramatic that conversion of land from perennial to annual agriculture has been shown to cut the soil organic carbon content in half over a 30-year period. Finally, the no-till-necessary perennial system reduces the erosion and soil disturbance weeds crave so much. Compare this with short-lived annuals which keep the land at the earliest stage of succession, making fast-growing annual weeds a persistent issue.

Why Are Perennials Less Prevalent?

Still, the elephant in the room remains- if perennials are so great, why are they so heavily outnumbered by annuals in food production? Over 90% of plants in nature’s reservoir are perennials, so the issue wouldn’t be a lack of options. Ironically, however, perennial crops- especially improved varieties- are difficult for farmers to come across. Up to now, scientists have worked almost exclusively on breeding and making specialized equipment for annual varieties.

Then there is the issue of wait time which doesn’t feel worthwhile for growers on rented land (slow and steady output is the perennial motto). A mix of annuals for immediate income and perennials for a value-added investment may be best. For some of the more quicker growing perennials, check out this page:

https://permaculturenews.org/2016/11/25/20-quick-producing-perennial-fruit-trees-vines-bushes-grasses/

Using Perennial Alternatives

Finally, not every annual has an identical perennial counterpart. Sure, fruits nuts, herbs, and flowers are easy enough additions. However, many perennial alternatives (particularly vegetables) are unfamiliar to consumers even if they are just as delicious! If you are still feeling adventurous after reading, feast your eyes on some of the perennial vegetables growing in your climate zone: https://bezmotika.com/applications/core/interface/file/attachment.php?id=1252

Or consider picking up a copy of Perennial Vegetables by Eric Toensmeier.

Integration of perennials may take the shape of agroforestry. Trees can be mixed with annuals, pasture, or both depending on the goals of the farmer. Typically, perennials are planted in fall to promote strong root growth through the winter, but this is only a general rule.

Use of Perennials is Expanding

Many institutions have taken notice of the benefits of perennial crop production such as increased landscape and financial resilience. For example, organizations like the Land Institute are working to “perennialize” existing annuals that make up the bulk of human nutrition like grains, legumes, and oilseed crops. Helping in this mission are scientists that look at the perennial food crops we do have in production. An interesting finding is that perennial crops have much fewer genetic bottlenecks than annuals despite being domesticated over thousands of years and showing differentiation from their wild counterparts. 

This suggests that trait selection doesn’t have to be at the cost of great losses in genetic diversity. With some of these exciting developments already in their final stages, we can expect to see foods like rice and wheat make their debut onto the perennial scene soon- part of a growing movement to give these tough plants a well-deserved chance in the field and on our plates.

Meylin Muniz

Meylin Muniz

I’m a Plant Science student at the University of Florida specializing in Sustainable Crop Production with a deep interest in closed-loop systems and regenerating soil fertility. If I’m not studying, I can also be found writing, running, and taking pictures of critters in the garden. During the summers, I spend time in Miami with family. I think food is a great way for people to connect; some of my favorites are mangoes, peanuts, and oats.