All About Soil Health

As stewards of the land, farmers are responsible for maintaining fertile land for future generations. A big part of this is preserving rich, healthy soil, which is important not only for a sustainable future but also for the crops these farmers grow. Soil health is a science and can be tricky to master, but there are plenty of resources available to farmers to help.

Not sure how the quality of soil impacts you? The Rodale Institute created a Soil Biology webinar to explain why healthy soil is important to individuals and the ecosystem as a whole. “The soil is not, as many suppose, a dead, inert substance,” J.I. Rodale wrote in Pay Dirt: Farming and Gardening with Composts. “It is very much alive and dynamic. It teems with bacteria, actinomycetes, fungi, molds, yeasts, protozoa, algae and other minute organisms.” The webinar goes on to explain what elements should be abundant in soil and how to maintain those levels.

A crucial aspect to preserving healthy soil is testing. Cooperative Extension offers soil testing resources and guides to help with this process. Click here to find an Extension agent near you. Many Cooperative Extensions provide online educational resources. University of Maine Extension offers this publication with a step-by-step guide to soil testing. Cornell University Cooperative Extension has an entire webpage for soil health, including the “Cornell Soil Health Assessment Training Manual,” a soil health management plan and informative videos dedicated to proper soil testing. The University of Georgia Cooperative Extension also offers a soil health webpage with various publications, updated news on soil health science and a list of websites that can provide further help.

While these organizations provide an overview of how to sustain soil health, there are many outlets that offer information on the nitty-gritty of related topics. The Rodale Institute compiled reports and publications related to soil health research discussing specific issues the organization is working on. Many of these can be viewed online here. Rodale also provides an informative, focused webinar, “Impacts of Plastic and Cover Crop Mulches on Weeds, Soil Quality, Yields and Season Length for Tomatoes.”

ATTRA also compiled a list of publications the organization created that discuss specific topics surrounding soil health, ranging from “A Brief Overview of Nutrient Cycling in Pastures” to “Rye as a Cover Crop” to “Alternative Soil Amendments.” ATTRA also offers two educational webinars discussing soil health: “Organic Research and Needs: Cover Crops, Crop Rotation and Soil Health” and “Innovative No-Till: Using Multi-Species Cover Crops to Improve Soil Health.”

Small Ruminant Toolbox

ATTRA now offers a free guide to everything you need to know about producing small ruminant animals. The National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT) developed the new Small Ruminant Toolbox full of information on the animals.

Tools included are a 978-page “Small Ruminant Resource Manual,” several informative presentations shared by Susan Schoenian of the University of Maryland Extension, the Tennessee Master Meat Goat Producer Program in its entirety, a section on “Frequently Asked Questions” about sheep and goat production and a list of other resources.

The Small Ruminant Toolbox is available for free on ATTRA’s Website. In the event that you will need the toolbox when you don’t have internet access, the toolbox is also available on a USB flash drive for $5 each and is also available for order on the website.

Food and farm webinar roundup

What is a webinar, you ask? A webinar is essentially an online educational video that typically discusses a specific topic. Many organizations listed in our Farmer Research Network online search tool provide this type of resource to assist agricultural producers. While some of these webinars require advanced registration, other videos are archived for farmers and ranchers to watch anytime! From conservation tips and tools to learning to start a farm, there are plenty of agriculture webinars available to farmers. Here are some trusted websites with webinars that can help:

National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service (ATTRA) 

ATTRA, a division of the National Center for Appropriate Technology, maintains an ongoing archive of its webinars focused on different areas of sustainable agriculture. Want to learn how to build a better relationship with your lamb processor? How about organic farm conservation? With 55 archived webinars and a growing library, this is the site to visit for all things sustainable.

United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)

Many branches of the USDA developed webinars to assist and educate producers. The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) created a library of various videos related to conservation. These webinars span topics ranging from “Planning for Floodplain and Riparian Area Special Environmental Concerns” to “Conserving Pollinators While Addressing Other Resource Concerns.” Each webinar is hosted by a lineup of experts, many of which are USDA employees.

The USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) developed a series of webinars that air twice a month from January through June of 2014 focusing on farm to school programs. All of these videos are archived in an FNS library in addition to a host of other webinars from the past two years.

The USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service created an ongoing series of fruit and vegetable webinars archived here.

The USDA’s Forest Service developed the “Invasive Plants—Issues, Challenges and Discoveries Webinar Series” intended for landowners, agriculture professionals and scientists. This seven-part series will run through May, 2014, and information on each can be found here.

National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC)

While NSAC doesn’t have a library of archived webinars, the organization hosts several training webinars throughout the year. These training sessions cover many different topics, like how to market your agricultural business through building connections with the media or this overview of cover crops based on updated USDA termination guidelines. To stay up-to-date on the latest NSAC webinar, check out its website or like the organization on Facebook.

Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE)

The different SARE branches created varying series of webinars. North Central SARE offers webinars focusing on greenhouse energy, cover crops, building local sustainable foods and irrigation energy.  Southern SARE provides a webinar on “Grafting for Disease Management in Organic Tomato Production.” Farmers and ranchers can also order archived webinar series from Northeast SARE focusing on marketing for profit or farmland transfer and access.

Women, Food and Agriculture Network (WFAN)

WFAN has a library of webinars that focus on empowering female farmers. These webinars cover a diverse range of topics within this realm, but each is meant to give women the tools they need to succeed. That may be on a policy level, such as the “Policy—When The Personal Becomes Political” video, which engages women leaders to explain how individuals can further policy goals. There are also more abstract videos, like this webinar that discusses the power of blogging.

Farm Commons 

Farm Commons creates and archives webinars focused on dealing with legal issues that can impact farm operations. The organization supplements these videos with downloadable resources. These webinars cover topics relevant to beginning and advanced growers alike, with titles ranging from “ Starting a Farm” to “Community Supported Agriculture Legal Issues.”

Rodale Institute 

While the Rodale Institute hasn’t released any webinars yet, stay tuned! The organization is in the works of creating a schedule of webinar trainings. In the meantime, Rodale developed a page with helpful videos from its conferences and workshops.

 

 

Resource Partners Event Roundup

Center for Rural Affairs

April: The Center for Rural Affairs (CFA) has two events this month. In partnership with The Farmer Veteran Coalition and the Drake University Agricultural Law Center, CFA is hosting the WI Farmer Veterans Tour and Workshop on April 12.  Veterans and family members interested in farming careers are invited to attend this event at Growing Power Farms in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. A tour of the farm and its composting and aquaponics system will be followed by workshops at the farm. Admission is free and seating is limited so register here to reserve your spot!

Also on the 12th is the Farm Dreams Workshop. Women interested in farming and ranching will be able to participate in a four-hour workshop to get a feel for the professions and learn how to take the first steps to enter the field. The workshop takes place at the Syracuse Public Library in Syracuse, Nebraska and costs $5. Participants must register in advance and can contact virginiam@cfra.org or call 402.992.5134.

May: On May 10 the Farm Business Financing Workshop for Women will take place at the Lewis and Clark Center in Nebraska City, Nebraska. The event is an intensive business planning and farm-financing course to help women farmers and ranchers design a business plan and access financing for agricultural operations. Contact virginiam@cfra.org or call 402.992.5134 to register in advance. The event costs $5 and lunch is included.

June: For those thinking about venturing into the farmers market business, the June 7 event Selling at Farmers Markets gives tips and tricks to find the best location, customer base, product, presentation and price to maximize success. Located in Ashland, Nebraska, this event costs $5 and includes lunch. Contact virginiam@cfra.org or call 402.992.5134 to register.

On June 21, Selling Through a CSA will teach women getting started in gardening, farming, and ranching about the advantages of selling through a community supported agriculture system. The workshop will take place at the Webermeier Public Library in Milford, Nebraska. Contact virginiam@cfra.org or call 402.992.5134 to register in advance 

National Center for Appropriate Technology (ATTRA)

April: On April 25 the National Center for Appropriate Technology (ATTRA) will host Entering the Institutional Food Market. Montana farmers, ranchers and processors will be provided information and technical assistance.  Register for this $10 event here by April 20 to reserve a spot.

June: With Montana adopting a new energy code requiring blower door and duct tightness testing for all new homes, there are emerging business opportunities in residential energy efficiency. On June 2, the Home Energy Rater and Energy Star Training in Missoula, Montana will provide comprehensive energy auditor training with an emphasis on new residential construction and the Home Energy Raters rating process. Participants will be prepared to take the tests required to become a certified Home Energy Rater, a Northwest Energy Star Homes Verifier and a Northwest Energy Star Homes Performance Tester. Register online and click here for more details 

Rodale Institute

April: Interested in having your own chickens? On April 26 the Rodale Institute is hosting the Backyard Chickens event to educate those looking to learn how to make chickens a part of their family and get fresh eggs everyday. Participants will learn about cost, breeding, housing, feeding, protecting and handling chickens, as well as leave with a list of recommended books and resources on how to complete this project efficiently. Register ahead of time here.

The Greenhorns

 April: . The future of farmland is unclear. In the next 20 years an expected 400 million acres of U.S. farmland will change hands. On April 26 and 27 Our Land: A Symposium on Farmland Access in the 21st Century at UC Berkeley will delve into the historical context, long-term implications and economic impact and stewardship potential of this impending transition.

May: On May 3 The Greenhorns is hosting Farmland Seekers to provide technical assistance around land and capital access and transition. Attendees will learn essential tools for building and navigating relationships with lenders, investors, landowners, partners, boards, conservation organizations, neighbors and more!

Click here to find out more about our Resource Partners! Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter for more news about upcoming events and conferences!

Agricultural apprenticeship roundup

Beginning farmers account for approximately 10 percent of all US agricultural production, according to data collected from the USDA Census of Agriculture. Moreover, a beginning farmer operates about 20 percent of all farms. As such, there is an increased need for training and education opportunities for these farmers entering the field.

The Economic Research Service recently released a brief using data collected from 2011 with shocking results: only 25 percent of beginning farmers earn a positive margin of profit from farming. With the changing landscape of agriculture, beginning farmers are more important than ever. For this reason, it is crucial that beginning farmers are able to access the tools necessary to be successful. Many national organizations offer apprenticeships for those interested in farming.

Before beginning an apprenticeship, those interested in the opportunity should look into the Farm Internship Curriculum that Western Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (Western SARE) put together. This guide comprehensively describes the workweek of an individual farmer.

ATTRA – National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service

ATTRA has offered apprenticeships in sustainable and organic agriculture since 1989 in the US, Canada and the Caribbean. Potential apprentices can browse the farm and location possibilities for free. The listings are posted directly from farmers seeking apprentices or interns. For more information, visit: https://attra.ncat.org/attra-pub/internships/

Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association

The Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association created the North American Biodynamic Apprenticeship Program (NABAP). This two-year on-farm program is designed for beginning biodynamic or organic farmers, in addition to one classroom course. Upon completing the program, apprentices receive a biodynamic farming certificate from the Biodynamic Association. Click here for more information: https://www.biodynamics.com/nabdap

CRAFT – The Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training

CRAFT is broken down by region, but each farmer-led branch is specifically designed to educate farmers through mentoring and a social network of support. CRAFT farmers are specialized in organic, sustainable or biodynamic practices in growing vegetables, livestock or grains. For more information on an apprenticeship with CRAFT, find your specific region here: http://www.craftfarmers.org

Beginning Farmers LLC

The Beginning Farmers LLC is dedicated to providing beginning and aspiring farmers with the resources and educational tools they need to succeed. As such, Beginning Farmers aggregates on-farm internship postings on its website. The Beginning Farmers’ blog announces internship postings, while its employment page collects information on regional resources with internship or apprenticeship opportunities, organizations with information on other jobs generally related to agriculture and links to international listings of agricultural jobs. For more information, visit: http://www.beginningfarmers.org/internship-and-employment-opportunities/

Season extension resource roundup

Winter is just around the corner, but just because the season is ending doesn’t mean the growing season needs to go with it. Luckily, there are season extension techniques that farmers and gardeners can implement in order to stretch a crop’s natural outdoor growing season or store crops through the winter.

There are plenty of easy, inexpensive practices available to farmers and gardeners for season extension. Many organizations put together tips on how to extend the growing season well beyond its natural time:

The National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service (ATTRA) provides an extensive look at season extension. The resource includes information on everything from irrigation to transplants to plasticulture to heat as it applies to soil and moisture. The guide offers preparation and logistical information for various practices right for farmers or gardeners at any level, whether that is mulches or high tunnels or anything in-between. The resource also contains input on how to calculate the economics behind different practices and implementation.

The North Carolina State University organized basic concepts to remember in order to effectively extend a crop’s growing season. Most importantly, NC Cooperative Extension explains that growers must understand the principles behind heat and cold, as well as its impact on plants. Among other ideas, the university’s guide points out the ground retains heat that protects plants in cold temperatures, but wet ground preserves more heat than wet ground. The guide also addresses: temperature thresholds for different crops, different cultural practices for season extension and information on fabrics and structures commonly used.

University of Massachusetts Cooperative Extension provides a look at various inexpensive methods of season extension. The guide provides insight into low tunnels and winter storage for post-harvest storage methods. Through video demonstrations, the UMass Extension site also displays various how-tos on building and maintaining a hoophouse.

Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) put together an overview of information involving season extension, with particular focus on high tunnels, greenhouses and nurseries. SARE provides an outline of different topics with access to case studies, course information, fact sheets, multimedia packets and links to other organization’s websites. The guide delves into basic winter storage units, as well as information on marketing products and the economics behind season extension. The SARE website explains the basic fertility, pest and water management during cold months.

The Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont (NOFA-VT) provides individual results from farmers that conducted research on various topics surrounding winter growing and storage. Five farmers researched methods of winter storage delving into the following issues: broccoli under row covers, watering impacts on soil temperature, bed pitch impact on soil temperatures, row cover comparisons and row cover heights. Three farmers looked into differing issues with winter storage techniques: winter carrot storage to maintain quality and minimize staining, carrot storage systems and post-harvest winter squash treatments.

The University of Maine Cooperative Extension organized a guide for farmers in Maine climate areas. The site is dedicated to educating farmers on how to make appropriate decisions for a particular farm situation. The resource explicates different techniques separated by no or low-cost practices and those that require investment. The site provides cost estimates for the techniques and offers links to resources on specified topics from other outlets.

In the same realm, Maine Rural Partners has a season extension program in place that focuses on food and energy. The program focuses on assisting women, elder and limited resource farmers in overcoming a multitude of common challenges: high energy costs, low daylight, market uncertainty, low volume compared to input costs, financing and institutional purchasing challenges.

The Colorado State University Cooperative Extension provides a short, but comprehensive overview of various tools to implement for effective season extension including: cold frames, garden fabrics, high tunnels, Walls O’ Water, hot caps and greenhouse umbrellas. The site explains how to use these techniques leading up to and proceeding frost dates.

The USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service often provides hightunnel cost-share support for limited resource farmers.

Just because winter is coming doesn’t mean it’s the end for fruit and veggies. It is important to recognize that different season extension techniques are suited for different types of farms and climates. There are many inexpensive, basic methods of season extension, such as winter storage, that any farmer can easily implement into his farming or gardening.

Disaster resources to relieve farmers and ranchers in CO and SD

Shortly after farmers in Colorado were faced with severe flooding in September, others in South Dakota were hit with a record-breaking October blizzard leaving ranchers to deal with 48-inches of snow. Unprepared to face these conditions, farmers and ranchers in South Dakota lost tens of thousands of livestock to the freak storm. All of this came in the midst of the government shutdown, leaving family farmers without immediate answers or assistance from federal entities during the crises.

If you or your family was affected by the disasters in Colorado or South Dakota, contact 1-800-FARM-AID (800-327-6243) or farmhelp@farmaid.org.

Additional resources for affected farmers are available on the Farm Aid website. The Farmers Legal Action Group offers a guide explicating disaster programs available to farmers under the 2008 Farm Bill. The National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service also has an extensive online list of available disaster relief resources. One of the most important steps a farmer can take when struck by a disaster is to carefully document all losses and attempts to receive help. RAFI-USA created a guide to help farmers with this documentation.

Farm Aid is working alongside partner organizations on the ground to assist these farmers, already having donated $20,000 toward the relief efforts. The Farm Aid Family Farm Disaster Fund is activated and accepting donations towards farmer and rancher recovery.

Upcoming Webinar on Organic Farm Conservation

This week, the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT/ATTRA) will present a webinar with Harriet Behar, an organic specialist at the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service (MOSES). The webinar, “Virtual Tour of Organic Farm Conservation Activity Planning,” will take place on Thursday, January 31st at 1pm EST.

This webinar is the third in a four-part series established for people interested in becoming NRCS-approved Technical Service Providers (TSPs). Behar is an approved TSP and will lead a virtual farm tour, identifying conservation concerns and possible mitigation strategies, as well as areas that affect organic certification. This unique webinar is helpful not only to potential TSPs, but any organic farmer interested in conservation practices on the farm.

To register for the webinar on January 31st, visit: https://www2.gotomeeting.com/register/576856170

The final webinar will be on Thursday, March 21st, on the topic of how NRCS TSPs can support biodiversity conservation in organic systems. See below for the first two webinars in the series:

Title:  Doing NRCS Conservation Activity Planning for Organic Farmers and Ranchers
Presenter: Katy Green of Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA)

Title:  Becoming a Technical Service Provider for NRCS: An Introduction
Presenter: Harriet Behar of Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service (MOSES)

New Organic Certification Guides from ATTRA

Earlier this year, USDA launched its new Organic Literacy Initiative, an effort to help connect current and prospective organic farmers, ranchers, and processors with the USDA resources available to them.

As part of this initiative, the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT) has partnered with the National Organic Program (NOP) on four new guides with detailed information about organic certification.  They include information about organic requirements and best practices, and also further explain the certification process:

The guides can be downloaded for free or ordered as a paper publication for a small handling fee either at the links above or on the ATTRA website.

Text an ATTRA Ag Expert!

Catering to the increased use of smartphones and the convenience of texting, ATTRA is expanding its “Ask an Ag Expert” email service, which offers farmers free advice about sustainable agriculture practices and resources. Now farmers can reach a professional at any time of day, whether at a computer or out in the fields! Earlier this year, ATTRA also launched a mobile version of their website that makes it much more smartphone and tablet-friendly.

To reach an ATTRA expert, send a text to askanag@ncat.org and a staff member will respond directly to your phone.