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If you are looking for grant and loan programs to incubate your local food and farm initiative or enterprise, this graphic from USDA’s Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food site may be of interest. The color coding refers to the specific USDA agency that manages the grant or loan program (i.e., USDA – Agricultural Marketing Service, USDA – Farm Service Agency, USDA – Natural Resources Conservation Service, etc.).
Can Virginia farmers find common ground around the issue of soil health and the management of core principles for better soil function and performance?
Understanding and building your farm’s soil resource is critical for productivity, profitability and sustainability. Of course, soils have inherent and dynamic properties that affect the function and performance of soils. Like a personal bank account, good farmers and producers seek to manage the dynamic processes by making soil health-building deposits and minimizing withdrawals that are soil health-depleting.
At the 2015 Virginia Farm to Table Conference, Ellen Polishuk of Potomac Vegetable Farms shared how she and her colleagues work to grow money and soil with commercial vegetable production. The Common Ground Soil Health profile video below highlights the core principles she uses to build soil health and maintain a positive bank account.
Farming and the marketing of farm and food products has many challenges without being a clod and making the job even tougher. With vegetable production and farming in general, the question of whether to till the soil or not can be a dilemma or the start of a new way of thinking? For proper seed germination, good seed to soil contact is critical so a good seedbed is essential even if it’s a very small area. However, can we be doing more harm than good by relying solely on tillage for providing a good environment for the seed and subsequent plant? Or are we leaving the soil naked and hungry and the plant vulnerable?
Obviously, too much tillage is bad. Any tillage is disruptive, but over-tillage destroys soil structure, disrupts the habitat for many microbes and beneficial insects, increases the breakdown of soil organic matter and the oxidation and loss of soil carbon. Can we minimize soil disturbance and use gentler options for creating a healthy environment for a seed and growing plant? Can we create a soil environment that is not cloddy and too hard and tight for even a plant root to penetrate? Can we avoid pulverizing the soil with tillage equipment so the results are a dust and the powdery remains of a soil?
Virginia Cooperative Extension is cooperating with Virginia’s USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to encourage soil building strategies to minimize soil disturbance and promote overall soil health. Here are some tips to get you started on your way: 1) Start slowly and manage plant residue from previous crops better; 2) Add soil organic matter as often as possible with compost, mulches, green manures and soil amendments; 3) Use diverse cropping rotations that include plants with different rooting depths and patterns; 4) Feed the soil microbes a diverse diet; 5) Experiment with planting different soil building cover crops like radishes, turnips, crimson clover, buckwheat and old standbys like rye and barley; 6) Be aware of the adverse effects of pesticides and certain types of fertilizers on soil ecology; and 7) If you have to till, use the most gentle equipment possible under the right soil moisture conditions to avoid pulverizing the soil, creating clods or just being a clod!
Soil is the foundation for farming and the production of fresh nutritious food, therefore, ecologically sound soil management is critical for the present and future well-being of Virginia’s communities. Similarly, ecologically sound soil conserving practices are needed to protect the environment and keep farms profitable and viable. Soils should not be treated like dirt, but should be cared for to encourage health and proper ecological function.
Scientists and researchers are just beginning to discover and unlock some of the secrets of a healthy well-functioning soil. Of course, soil testing and fertility management are critical for yield and performance since soils need to be fed and plants use nutrients. However, because of the importance of carbon and organic matter to a soil’s chemical, biological and physical properties, these principles give greater emphasis to practices that build soil organic matter and encourage more biological activity to drive and enhance chemical and physical processes needed for healthier soils. Virginia Cooperative Extension and Virginia SARE (Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education) are glad to be part of the Virginia Soil Health Coalition to share education information with and among farmers, growers, landowners and communities about these critical soil health promoting principles.
Virginia Cooperative Extension, Virginia Tech, Virginia State University, and Virginia Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education are partnering with USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service and other organizations and agencies (e.g., Chesapeake Bay Foundation, American Farmland Trust, Virginia Soil and Water Conservation Society, Virginia Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts and others) as part of a Virginia Soil Health Coalition to promote and educate farmers, growers, landowners and the general public on the foundational principles of soil management in an overarching effort to unlock the secrets in the soil.
Virginia’s USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service has boiled down the core principles of soil health management to four easy to remember phrases!
Keep the soil covered
Minimize soil disturbance
Maximize living roots
Energize with diversity
Soil was definitely meant to be covered.
For more information about soil health and the Virginia Soil Health Coalition, contact your nearest USDA Service Center or local Virginia Cooperative Extension office.
Soil is a foundational resource to farming, conservation and health in the 21st century so let’s not keep the importance of soil health a secret!
Even though I was born in the 1900s, I have to adapt to the demands and expectations of the 21st century. Farming and water stewardship also face new demands and expectations since it is the 21st century and not the 1900s.
Virginia communities face a multitude of economic, environmental, and social challenges. The prolonged recession has generated a sense of urgency and has triggered discussions about community economic development strategies that will promote short-term economic recovery and long-term economic vitality, community viability, and improved quality of life.