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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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.



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.


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

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

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

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.

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.


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:

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:

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.

The Effects of Fertilizer Runoff

Runoff from harmful algal blooms

Fertilizer Use Revolutionized Food Production

Have you ever wondered why so many people are concerned about the use of fertilizer in agriculture and the impact of field runoff on the environment?  Let’s talk about it for a minute.

The use of fertilizer in agricultural practices revolutionized food production and helped to build modern society as we know it today.  From the big, industrialized farms to the little organic plots, most producers improve the efficiency of their soil by adding sources of Nitrogen, Phosphorous, and Potassium (N, P, and K) to their cultivation practices.  These traditions have been in place since the beginning of modern farming and make it possible to feed the world.

A field can only hold as much fertilizer as its soil can capture.  Soil is made up of sand, silt, and clay.  Each of these structures have different sizes and qualities.  They mix together to form the soil’s texture.  This texture informs how a soil behaves: how crop roots develop, how much water the soil can hold, how well the field drains, and how much fertilizer can the soil structure hold.  Soil is only capable of holding a certain amount of nutrients based its structure.  Fertilizer compounds that are not contained and held by the soil structures dissolve into the water of the field and are carried away as fertilizer runoff.  It does not matter if the fertilizer is organic or not.  All added nutrients to soil have the potential to become runoff.

Lost Nutrients Increase Costs

Fertilizer runoff is a concern for both farmers and environmentalists.  Nutrients lost from fields are wasted resources for farmers.  These inefficiencies created unnecessary operational costs and limit the profitability of a farm.  The environmental impact of runoff is a concern for everyone in the community, including the farmer.  When the nutrients in fertilizer flow into local bodies of water, they can have damaging effects on local wildlife and water quality.

The nutrients found in fertilizers are not just good for crop growth.  They encourage natural biological growth as well.  Normally, more growth from fertilizer would be a good thing.  However, natural systems, like rivers and lakes, have a balanced ecosystem that keeps them healthy and clean.  When fertilizer leaves a field and enters these systems, the balance is thrown off.  N, P, and K nutrients are naturally present in these bodies of water in very small amounts. The concentrations found in field runoff are typically much higher than an ecosystem is used to.  Bacteria and algae grow extremely quickly using fertilizer nutrients.  As their population explodes, the quality of the water decreases.  The water becomes too toxic for fish and other aquatic life to live in the system.  Eventually, the water begins to stink, turn green, and become unsafe for humans to use.

Nutrients in Runoff Create Toxic Effects

The scary thing about this effect is that it does not stay in the local river.  All rivers flow to bigger bodies of water, and those nutrients travel with them.  As they flow downstream, more runoff from other fields is added to the river until it reached its end point.  In the United States, this is typically an ocean or one of the Great Lakes.  When all of the nutrients from all of the field runoff reach those big bodies of water, we see the same algae and bacteria growth we saw in the local river on a massive scale.  This growth is what causes large algae blooms in the Gulf of Mexico and on the Great Lakes.  The water surrounding these blooms becomes so toxic, so quickly that mass die offs of local fish and plants occur.  The blooms also make the water unsafe for humans to use or even touch in some cases.  This effect is commonly referred to as hypoxia.  It can cause problems at home and even bigger ones downstream.

In case you were curious about why so many people are talking about the problems of agriculture runoff, these are some of the reasons why.

Claire Haselhorst

About Claire:

I have a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in agricultural engineering from Purdue University and am currently working on my doctorate. My research focuses on improving the productivity of small scale local producers and new farmers entering agriculture.  I believe that strong and clear communication between educational bodies and agricultural producers can provide the tools and opportunities to build a better tomorrow.


Using Your Local Agricultural Extension Office

large farm fields

Farmers – familiarize yourself with using your local agricultural extension office and the resources it offers

Every farmer should be familiar with using their local extension office, the resources it offers,
and how best to use them. With the officiation of the Morrill Act of 1862 (signed into law by
President Abraham Lincoln, during some of the bloodiest days of the Civil War), land-grant
universities were formed by state governments in cooperation with federal instruction and
funding, as, “institution[s], that shall possess the means of affording scientific and practical
instruction in the various departments of agricultural husbandry.”

What is a Land-Grant School?

Like other universities, land-grant schools, (i.e. The University of Massachusetts
Amherst, University of Connecticut, Cornell University), have two primary goals which justify
their continued existence: Research and Education . But, unlike other universities and colleges,
land-grant schools have a third primary purpose: Extension . This means, not only do they use
their academic resources to illuminate and document new knowledge; and not only do they
accept official recruits into the world of academia in the form of students; but also they have a
third primary purpose and activity, which is, to propagate the fruits of knowledge outside of the
university, making them public for the benefit of everyone. In essence, the Cooperative
Extension System —the system which unifies the land-grant schools across the country—is, “a
non-formal educational program…designed to help people use research-based knowledge to
improve their lives” (Co-Op Research and Extension Services.).

Scientific Agriculture

But as a farmer, this knowledge is aimed at helping you the most. For, as was argued in
the Massachusett State Senate, January 31st, 1850 by Joseph T. Buckingham: “No country can
be populous and prosperous without attention to [agriculture]—and exactly in proportion to the
difficulty of securing ample returns from the simplest and rudest forms of labor seems to grow
the necessity of substituting art , and of enlisting the aid of science to guide the application of
means to attain the desired ends” [emphasis added]. In other words, the institution of land-grant
schools, is the government saying—( theoretically as the voice of the People) — “We want
farmers, and we want them to succeed. Here are the resources; made available to the best of
our ability to everyone on equal terms.” Of course, we always need to be demanding better
Government; we do that best by participation.

How can an Extension Office Help Me?

At the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, there are several programs that can be
utilized by farmers. There is a soil testing lab, a plant diagnostic lab, and several educational
programs—like Pesticide Education Training, Nutrient Best Management Practices—among
other services. Check out this resource for beginning farmers from UMass: Paige Laboratory – Office of Umass Extension

Paige Lab
Paige Laboratory Umass Extension

Getting a Soil Test

If you want to try using one of your extension office’s laboratory resources, consider
ordering a soil test, which will involve gathering twelve samples from a depth of six to eight
inches, randomly, from different spots in the soil you want to test and mixing the collection in a
cup. You can follow online instructions like the ones offered here, when you click Get A Soil

Specify Your Analysis

Sending in your samples, you will be able to choose different levels of analysis. For
example, a basic Standard Fertility Test ($20), “Includes pH, acidity, Modified Morgan
extractable nutrients (P, K, Ca, Mg, Fe, Mn, Zn, Cu, B), lead, and aluminum, cation exchange
capacity, and percent base saturation.” The report will also include, based on information the lab
collects from your samples, “recommendations for nutrient and pH adjustment”. This will allow
you to make precise applications of fertilizers, nutrient amendments, and pH adjustments, not
wasting valuable resources, while creating the optimal soil chemistry. You can also spend an
extra $6 to add Soil Organic Matter or Soluble Salts analyses, or an extra $8 for a Soil Nitrate

Conclusion: Agriculture, Both Art & Science

With all the knowledge and laboratory resources which land-grant schools offer through
their extension programs, knowing and using your local extension office can greatly improve
your utilization of a scientific agriculture. We all enjoy doing work by listening to our gut,
especially in agriculture, when having a ‘special touch’ can mean all the difference. But,
organized, systematic approaches in obtaining the greatest value from nature allows us to not
reinvent the wheel. We can be kind and thoughtful farmers—partnered with the Earth and all of
humanity—while at the same time using technology and knowledge, in the generations long
project of being the most prudent farmers we can be.

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.


Buckingham, Jos. T. “Concerning the Establishment of an Agricultural School.” Commonwealth
of Massachusetts, 1850.

Act of July 2, 1862 (Morrill Act), Public Law 37-108, which established land-grant colleges, 07/02/1862; Enrolled Acts and Resolutions of Congress, 1789-1996; Record Group 11; General Records of the United States Government; National Archives.

Co-Op Research and Extension Services.

What Plant Propagation Methods Fit Your Needs?

Plant grafts

Easy Propagation by Division

Since some plants have trouble reproducing on their own, humans have created plant propagation methods to help aid in asexual reproduction. The first main type of propagation that is the simplest to perform is division. It pretty much is as easy as it sounds. Division is a method where the plant is broken up into multiple parts. Herbaceous perennials (aka herbs, non-woody plants that live for more than two years) are the most common type of plant used in division, due to their root and plant structure. The process is quite simple- gently separate the crown of the plant that contains shoots and roots either by hand or using a tool. As long as every separate section contains these shoots and roots, then it’s ready to replant! Division is a great and easy way to expand your plant population and can be done successfully almost any time of the year.

Simple Propagation by Cutting

Another simple method of propagation is cutting. This again is as simple as it sounds! Research should be done beforehand on the type of plant you want to cut, to double check and make sure your plant can root from a cutting. To begin taking a cutting, remove all flower buds and flowers from the stem, so more energy can be focused on the growth of the roots. Take the cut as close to the stalk as possible in order to get all the essential growth parts. After taking the cuttings, either directly stick them in potting soil, (if you only have a few), or store the cuttings in a high humidity place covered in plastic to help reduce water loss until planting. Cutting is extremely simple and beneficial if you’re wanting to expand the plant population by just a few, but it can also be beneficial when wanting to store and plant the cuttings in bulk.

Intermediate Layering Propagation

Layering is a more difficult method of plant propagation but can still easily be done. Layering is when root development begins on a stem while the stem is still attached to the parent plant. This is beneficial if you have a plant that struggles rooting from seed, so in this case, they can root from themselves. There are many different types of layering techniques to fit your need- and they all have an extremely high success rate. Simple layering, with no surprise, is the simplest form of layering. In this process, a low growing stem can be bent, staked, and covered with soil. If the bend is done properly and is facing vertically, then the bend will induce rooting and thus a new plant will begin growing. This process can also be repeated in the form of compound layering, where several layers can result from a single stem.

Mound and Air Layering Propagation

Mound layering is used more with heavy-stemmed branches or with rootstocks of fruit trees and is a process where the plant is cut back in the dormant season, and then covered with layers of soil as new buds shoot.

The last form of layering is called air layering, which is a method used to propagate large houseplants or woody ornamental plants. A wound is created on the stem of a plant, then the area is covered with moist soil and wrapped in plastic. This creates a growth environment for new roots to grow! Once the covering is filled with roots, you can sever the stem underneath the air layer and pot to continue growth. Since layering is a more in-depth technique, research should be done on your plant first in order to know which method would be most successful!

Grafting in the Details

The last, most detailed method of propagation is grafting. Grafting is a way to join parts from two different plants and have them become one. (It’s basically surgery for plants). A common reason for grafting is wanting to grow a cultivar of a plant that doesn’t come true from seed. Grafting is an intense method of propagation used to create desirable traits in plants based on what the plant and farmer’s needs are. In this case, the scion of the desirable plant can be connected to the stalk of another until they grow as one.  There are many types of grafts, and they range in complexity. Grafting is a high leveled-skill, since vascular systems of the plants need to line up, and growing conditions have to be ideal. Experienced scientists or farmers can easily grow any plant they desire using grafting.

These main propagation methods, along with many more, assist farmers and home gardeners in their every-day lives by helping reproduce asexually and allowing for desirable traits of your favorite plant to shine through!

About Parker Greene

Although I grew up in the city, I found my passion lives within the farming lifestyle. I am currently a student at NC State studying agricultural education, where I spend most of my time learning hands-on with plants and animals. If I’m not found out at the farm, I’m usually spending time with family or at a sporting event supporting the Wolfpack.

Works Cited:



Sales Orders and Farm Production Systems for Vegetable and Flower Growers

Farm Sales Order Entry

The Sales Order Entry (SOE) function, also known as Customer Order Entry, is the Supply Chain gateway for external demand flowing into the farm fulfillment process, and ultimately to the production planning system somewhere in the back office. As technology slowly invades farm delivery processes, SOE has currently been relegated to the accounting function, with a manual hand-off to the back office. This makes sense in some measure because sales orders eventually become billing, and that is when money starts flowing, assuming the product flowed in a manner that made the customer sufficiently happy.

But increasing competition is going to change this picture substantially.

The back-office planning system needs to get the SOE delivery information sooner rather than later. And the back office needs to know in a timely manner if the delivery requirements are going to change or perhaps have already changed. Why you might ask?

If the product quantity and delivery timing is far enough in the future, the farmer may alter planting schedules. However, if the lead time is shorter, then harvesting and shipping schedules are the remaining levers to make it happen. But information and timing are very important.

To react effectively and efficiently to changing demand, the scheduling function must have easy access to the supply side, in the form of harvest schedules, and the demand side in the form of shipment schedules. If these two business schedules reside in different systems, one in an accounting system and the other in a spreadsheet, then the reconciliation process will require an individual to perform a manual comparison. And then both systems need to be updated with the changes.

And that is why farm production systems need to include SOE as part of the planning system.

What is the scope of this new visibility and how should it be presented to the scheduling function?

sales orders sales menu

For starters, we recommend at least 4 things:

Customer data including, as a minimum, the name and delivery address or addresses. We refer to this information as Cards.

Sales Order Doc, which includes the Sales Order Document Number, Customer Name and shipping address and Sales Order Type. Sales Order Type would be a value that distinguishes between Restaurant Delivery Schedules, CSA Delivery Schedules and other things such as Roadside Stand for example.

Sales Order Lines, which includes one line for each discrete product shipment quantity and date, within each sales order.

Shipments to Harvest Reconciliation Screen. This screen is the nexus of delivery schedules, harvest inventories and unharvested product growing in the field or greenhouse.

The reconciliation screen should bring together the following schedule inputs.

For a Specified Product Number: Arugula 

Inventory Input Type Quantity Date
All Unshipped Sales Order Line Detail Ship Quantity Ship Date
All Scheduled Plantings Expected Harvest
Harvest Date
Harvest Feedback Actual Harvest Quantities Within Shelf Life Days of the current date.

All of the data displayed by the grid above exists in the control of the farmer. So the question for the Business Minded Farmer is:

Can you leverage the information you already possess, to make better business decisions?

Chris Trow, President ADAK Software

Chris Trow has been immersed in the application of Production & Inventory Management systems and techniques, and the design of computer based manufacturing planning solutions, for more than 20 years.  Worked in traditional manufacturing at General Electric as a systems analyst, software designer and project manager.  Transitioned to independent employment as a consultant for small manufacturers and developed a small manufacturing production and inventory management solution that is still in use today.

Chris discovered the need for a manufacturing solution for vegetable growers when joining the Roxbury Farm CSA in Columbia County New York, shortly after it was founded in the mid 1990’s. The current cloud based solution for vegetable and flower growers was implemented in 2013 based on the application used at Roxbury Farm.  BASc Applied Science & Engineering, University of Toronto Certified Fellow, Production & Inventory Management Master Industrial & Management Engineering, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.