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Natural ways to improve soil quality

Cover crops may be more practical than molasses and milk

For many years there has been growing public concern that food is declining in nutrition. Dr. Arden Anderson, a favourite researcher, has studied the correlation between soil health and feed nutrition. His research has shown that the nutrient content of foods today compared to half a century ago ranges from 15 to 75 per cent less. This is valid for animals as well as humans.

Farmers already know what comes out of the soil has to go back in. Some reports show conventional crop fertility falls short in producing nutritious foods. The USDA report at ars.usda.gov/nutrientdata is one example.

More consumers want more nutritious food. Tools being used by the organic/sustainable agriculture sector could be used on a larger scale to accomplish this.

Organic/sustainable agriculture advocates say the higher the nutrition of the plant, the more sugar it produces, resulting in fewer insects attacking the crop. This is because insects have no pancreas so they can’t digest the sugars and will die. Many producers are simply broadcasting sugars such as molasses, raw sugar and skim milk on certain crops.

Nebraska farmer David Wetzel (greenpasture.org) completed a 10-year study on applying milk at different rates to his pastures and recorded the results with the help of a team made up of the local agricultural extension agent Terry Gompert, a university soil specialist, a weed specialist and an insect researcher. The results were encouraging and could be done using plain old organic grocery store milk if desired.

The nurse crop option

For most producers though, pouring milk and natural fertilizer on a piece of land would seem weird. That is where other more accepted ideas such as nurse crops and more readily available forms of carbohydrates come into play.

Organic growers such as Gerry DeRuyck of Treherne, Man. share a wealth of knowledge and experience. They are using nurse crops of peas and red clover to supply their grain/grass crops with nitrogen. This method fixes the nitrogen while allowing the nutrients found in the nurse crop to be worked back into the soil after the grain has been harvested. When alfalfa is the nurse crop, the plants just decompose naturally after it’s harvested for hay, helping to replenish the soil.

Sea minerals are another tool for increasing soil nutrients. An arborist from Norway has been pointing us toward practices used in his country. Good books for winter reading include Sea Energy Agriculture by Maynard Murray, M. D. and Fertility from the Ocean Deep by Charles Walters.

The product most easily used is Sea90 fertilizer — natural mineral crystals produced by solar dehydration of seawater trapped in retention ponds in a very arid, coastal regions.

There is a plethora of information at seaagri.com as well as a growing number of users in Canada. The work of Joel Salatin (polyfacefarms.com) is also a very good place to learn how to improve the soil.

In Manitoba, Luna Field Farm, a direct marketing farm at Belmont, report pasture-raised poultry can help improve soil quality and fertility. Our hens are definitely moving into a hen mobile next spring!

Sitting and looking at a huge pile of winter squash we harvested my mind turns to what is now owed to the soil that produced them. Is this where the concept of crop rotation started? Is this why our ancestors were taught to leave land rest every seven years? So many questions and thankfully there are many, many knowledgeable farmers willing to share their successes.

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