Ag 101 Week 51

Agronomic Testing Options

My titles have not become any more creative, but I get my point across.

This is the second to last post of the 52 Weeks of Agronomy Series. I would be lying if I didn’t say I’m slightly relieved. At the same time, I’m looking forward to having more time for other projects that do not require typing, or at least me doing it.  Maybe one will require me wearing out a red pen ripping apart someone else’s grammar. Who knows!?

What I do know is that we have come to the time of year farmers have questions. They have them year-round, now they have more time to ask them.

One of the most recent questions I’ve gotten is regarding the different types of agronomic testing available to farmers and growers.

The following is part of an email conversation with a grower I work within Maryland-

The farmer asked,

“I was thinking about doing a sap sample of the grass and clover in the field and also a Brix's reading at the same time. What are your thoughts?”

My response was,

“As far as the sap and Brix's testing, from an agronomic standpoint they won't change any soil fertility recommendations I would have. Everything I look at and take into consideration is based on soil tests in conjunction with tissue testing depending on the type of crop, farming system, and whether the grower will see an economic return for the costs of the tests. I'm looking at the actual nutrient levels of nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, calcium, etc. There are so many variables like time of day the sample was taken, what part of the plant was sampled, and what calibration standards were used, it would make it difficult for an agronomist to base a soil fertility assessment on sap and Brix's levels. 

Tissue testing utilizes dry matter - it’s a picture at the moment at that part of the plant sampled as to what is there

Sap testing utilizes the fluid portion of the plant; it's similar to a blood test - keep in mind that fluids are constantly moving and every nutrient moves at different rates 

There are always variables in any kind of testing; you can't mitigate for everyone. However, soil and tissue testing are the best tools currently an agronomist has to look at what is going on at that moment in time.

That being said, and due to the fact, you are testing sugar and protein levels in the plant with the Brix's test, from a forage quality standpoint, the results may be of value to an animal nutritionist when determining rations and taking animal health into consideration.”

Here are some common agronomic tests, followed with a brief description and some of my thoughts on them.

Standard soil test- I talk in detail about what a soil test should include in week 24

Soil health assessments conducted by universities include soil typing and physical analysis of samples similar to what Cornell offers at the following link

In general, I recommend a standard soil test and use the link at the Web Soil Survey

Using both of those is comparable to Cornell’s package costing considerably less

 Soil paste test-

In general, this test shows what nutrients are immediately available to a plant because they are not bound to a colloid.

It is also one of the most accurate tests for measuring soil salinity which can be a common problem in soils in the central and western part of the country.

Some agronomist’s feel a standard soil test plus the paste test is the most accurate way to determine soil fertility needs. In my experience, it is farm, soil type, and management dependent as to whether you will see a return on investment for the extra cost.

 Plant tissue test-

As stated before in my email response; tissue testing utilizes dry matter - it’s a picture at the moment at that part of the plant sampled as to what is there.

It is a good measure of the nutrient status of a particular plant at that moment in time giving you a picture of what may typically be happening. It is a good indication of the efficacy of your fertility program as well. Tissue tests are dependent on timing, plant temperature, and growth stage the sample was taken.

Typically, guides are offered for the plant stage at which a tissue sample should be taken based on crop type. The sample is taken when the plant is actively growing, so timing is critical.

Spectrum Analysis offers a detailed guide to plant tissue testing

Plant sap analysis-

This is the best analogy I have come up with for sap testing-

Sap testing utilizes the fluid portion of the plant; it's similar to a blood test - keep in mind that fluids are constantly moving and every nutrient moves at different rates 

The following is an interesting article regarding sap analysis

I believe it can be a useful in-field test. However, there are variables such as operator error that would make me uncomfortable using it as the sole means of making fertility recommendations.

There are a few labs in the states that conduct sap analysis. One of them being

Brix test-

A brix test is the measure of the sugar content found in a plant tissue sample that has been pulverized, and the aqueous solution from that is then put in a refractometer and read.

Once again as with the sap testing, I believe it has in field use especially in a grazing operation. However, the variables associated with it make it suitable for field use and not what I would base a sound soil fertility program on.

I work with growers that use it in the field to help with harvest decisions with a tremendous amount of success. Using well-calibrated equipment with consistent protocols for testing has saved them time and money ensuring they harvest at that crop’s peak quality and nutrition levels.

Just as with plant sap analysis I believe it can be a useful in-field test. However, there are variables such as operator error and calibration protocols that would make me uncomfortable using it as the sole means of making fertility recommendations.

Soil Biological testing-

   Co2 Burst test-

This test is a soil health indicator, measuring the amount of microbial respiration.

The following pdf is the best explanation I have found

I would recommend growers use this in conjunction with soil nitrate tests to make a comparison and better calibrate any side-dress nitrogen applications that might need to be applied during the growing season.

The following is a well-written extension guide from Penn State explaining pre-side dress soil nitrate testing

  Microbial Identification-

Microbial identification is done with a microscope.

There are several consultants that provide soil microbiological identification services at the following link

 Water testing-

Water can be the carney in the coal mine especially when it comes to greenhouse management. pH is the most critical aspect of water testing in term of a soil fertility program and soil health. However, with water and its natural pH due to its source, comes with its dissolved elements that could be beneficial or not depending on the situation. The best measure to determine the impact irrigation water will have is through testing.

The following are links to labs I regularly use for soil and water testing

Entomological/ Pathological testing for field crops-

Before I started the 52 Weeks Series, I wrote a post titled “What’s an Agronomist, Anyway?”

Here’s an excerpt-

“On any given day as challenges and questions are posed to me, I have to think like a biologist, a chemist, a botanist, sometimes a pathologist, and if I’m really confident an entomologist. Usually, I defer to experts on the pathology and entomology. I know enough to be dangerous and kill stuff. “

As an agronomist, I kill stuff or keep it alive depending on what the farmer wants me to do.

What I can also say is I have been doing this long enough to make a definite diagnosis like thrips, aphids, blights, rusts, etc. However, when it goes beyond the obvious, I send a sample to the local land-grant university for identification. That’s what they are for, as well as other services.

Some good references to have on hand to make common identifications easier are-

Introduction to Plant Diseases: Identification and Management by George B. Lucas & Lee Campbell

Garden Insects of North America by Whitney Cranshaw

The Ortho Problem Solver by Michael D. Smith

 Forage test-

Ask an animal nutritionist or forage specialist. I can’t be an expert at all things.

In week 44 I discuss potassium and admit what my dad refers to me as

With that in mind here are basic ratios I look at when interpreting a soil test for forages-

Calcium to phosphorus 1.7:1

Calcium to magnesium 2.7:1

Calcium to sulfur 2.1-1

Potassium to calcium 1.5:1

Potassium to magnesium 4:1

Protein to sulfur 50:1

Nitrogen to sulfur 8.8:1

Potassium should be between 3.0-3.5% Calcium between 70-75% of the base saturation

One of the best agronomists who has an extensive forage background and one I’ve had the pleasure to be around and learn from is Dave Wilson from Penn State Extension.

Here’s a link to two articles he has written

In summary-

This is in no way an exhausted list. There are several tests that are similar but have different names based on the lab offering them.

I am not suggesting that every farm needs to be doing all the mentioned tests. Each one mentioned is another layer of management in the overall plan of how you are running your farm. They are not meant to be used in every case all of the time. Every farmer needs to weigh if the results from the analysis will yield an adequate return on investment for their operation.

Just as the title states, they are agronomic testing options.

Ag 101 Week 48

Buy One Get One Free


This post isn’t about a great deal on fertilizer or an early order discount program. I happen to be writing it on Black Friday, and that was the best title I could come up with.

What we’re talking about are amendments and fertilizers that do double duty.  The ones you get more bang for your buck out of. The ones that you could use by themselves or with others.

In addition to that topic, everything I’ve been talking about over the past year is all starting to come together.

In week 2 – Soil Health vs. Soil Fertility I started laying the groundwork for what I saw as a need in the agricultural industry. Farmers need to have an understanding of basic agronomic principles to be and remain a sustainable and financially viable business while utilizing the incredible resources offered to them by mother nature herself.

I followed that up with a post about the difference between amending and fertilizing in week 5

In week 11 I discussed the similarities between fertilizer blends and pajamas – one size does not fit all. In all seriousness, the fact that fertilizer blends can contain fillers is the real story. A farmer or gardener needs to be knowledgeable of how fertilizer fillers are capable of altering soil chemistry.

Moreover, we’ve talked about the need to understand how, when, what and where to fertilizing in weeks 6 & 10

So, what are some amendments and fertilizers that do double duty-

Fish/Crab/Shrimp Meal-

Typical analysis ranges from 5-30%N 4-6%P

Typically, fish varies from 5-9%N depending on whether it is a meal, powder or liquid

Crab and Shrimp range from 10-30%N with 11-18%Ca depending on the shell to meat ratio

Crab makes an excellent addition to a fertilizer blend for the extra calcium, and the addition on an enzyme called chitin that has been shown to help control nematodes in the soil. This also makes it an excellent fertilizer for tomatoes.

Bone Meal-

A typical analysis is 3-4%N

It is also a good source of phosphorus at 15-27% and calcium.

When mixed with a calcium source like aragonite, it supplies immediately available and season-long calcium.

Soybean Meal-

A standard analysis is 6-7%N ~2%P

It’s a good source for full season nitrogen supply as well as phosphorus

Soybean meal has been shown to burn new seedlings and reduce germination rates potentially. Care should be exercised when timing the application

Alfalfa and Cottonseed Meal -

Typical Analysis 1-2% K 2-3%P Slow to medium release

These are an all-around season long supplier of not only nitrogen, a small fraction of phosphorus, and potassium as well.

Alfalfa and cottonseed meal can be cost prohibitive in an organic system. However, if used effectively the benefits can out weight the price.

Benefits of alfalfa meal-

-Helps build organic matter

-If used as a cover crop it fixes nitrogen

-Alfalfa adds essential nutrients such as calcium, phosphorus, potassium, boron, iron, zinc, and magnesium

-Alfalfa feeds soil microbes

-It can be a compost stimulator

Some advantages to using cottonseed meal-

-Cottonseed meal is an excellent option for acid-loving plants like blueberries and roses. It’s a fertilizer, soil conditioner, and acidifier.

Both alfalfa and cottonseed meal both have growth stimulating properties that aid in overall plant health.


Typical analysis 22%K 22%Sulfur 11%Mg Medium to fast availability.

Much like SOP, it is relatively soluble depending on particle size.

SOP covers sulfate, potassium, and magnesium deficiencies at once


Typical analysis 4-13%K Slow to medium release

Kelp can be used as a liquid concentrate, powder, or meal. It can be attributed for being part of all five of the previously listed roles K plays in plant health. If I could only recommend one product, kelp would be it. That being said you still need to use it judiciously as not to decrease its efficacy.


Typical analysis ~5% K Prolonged release

Greensand is a good source of potassium, trace minerals, and soil conditioning properties. When I got into organic agriculture and was working for a fertilizer company, I had never heard of anything like greensand. They would explain greensand as being magic. It could loosen tight soils and tighten loose soils. Not being satisfied with the supernatural explanation, I came to learn the power of greensand is in the structure. It has a unique layered structure unlike any other clay giving it the ability to correct a variety of soil structure issues. Hands down I would use greensand before any others. I often recommend a 50/50 mix of greensand and kelp.

Liming products-

I talk at length about liming materials in the following post

Another critical point to remember is these materials are used as fillers in fertilizer blends to help products flow better or add to the volume of product for packaging. Just as with other chemistries listed in the NPK value, these interact with the soil and alter the chemistry as previously mentioned.


Raw manure is the most nutrient dense. The longer it composts it losses its nutrient value. Over applying it, can lead to not only environmental issues also pest and disease challenges.

Typical analysis ranges depending on the manure, however, if used judiciously from a trusted source it can be a great building block for any fertility program adding not only organic matter but nutrients as well.


Vinegar is to a farmer as a gym sock and paperclip are to MacGyver. You can do anything with it from kill weeds, clean and disinfect tools, use it as an extract for kelp, greensand or aragonite, and use it to mitigate pH issues in fertigation systems.

For even more ideas go to week 18

Ag 101 Week 42




Last week I said I was going to start and break down what goes into a bag of fertilizer. If you recall, I likened each component to a piston in an engine. Put the right pistons together, and you get a locomotive engine, put others together, and you get a Yugo.

You buy a bag of blended fertilizer, and you are getting a mix of nutrients that supply a plant with nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium - NPK. In some cases, you can get some magnesium, calcium, sulfur, and trace minerals. I’m sure most of you know that already.

So, I want to go over a few questions I get; then we’ll take a look of some more commonly used components within the organic or softer chemistry area of fertilizers.

Why are the numbers, otherwise known as NPK values, so much lower in organic fertilizers than conventional?

The numbers representing NPK are a ratio of the percentage of available nutrients. The amount of the nutrient that is soluble and readily available for the plant to use. The more solvent, the higher the number and the more significant amount that the plant can uptake sooner. In the case of organic fertilizers, you have to also consider variabilities due to the fact components are naturally sourced materials, i.e., mined from clay deposits or animal by-products. Nature is not always consistent. One of the best benefits of organic fertilizers is a more extended nutrient supply over the growing season given the fact they are comprised of soluble and insoluble forms of nutrients. Given adequate moisture, biological actively, and crop type a natural fertilizer can take you through from planting to harvest. Once again, I stress it is crop specific and dependent on other management decisions. I will often suggest a split application if at all possible or fertilizing with a liquid to get through a season depending on all the variables.

Keep in mind from week 5 when fertilizing you are feeding the plant and the soil. Some are hungrier than others and at a different rate.

What is the difference between soluble and insoluble nutrients?

A soluble form of a nutrient is readily available to the plant for immediate uptake. Insoluble nutrients are held in the soil longer and need to be converted to plant available forms by the bacteria and fungi present in the soil. Other factors determining the rate at which they become soluble are soil moisture, temperature, and pH.

 What does it take to ensure a fertility program is effective?

1.      pH management -You want to manage pH to accomplish two things

First be in a range for optimal nutrient uptake based on soil type and crop variety while staying slightly acidic to help make nutrients available through mineralization and biological activity.

2.      Irrigation management

A fertility program is only as effective as your irrigation.

3.      Good amendment & fertilizer practices

Fertilizing is strategic and should be applied at the right rate, time, location using the right source. I discussed that in weeks 6 & 10

You could say I’m finally getting around to talking about the fourth – the source.

Let’s talk about nitrogen-

Nitrogen is used for several functions in the plant including the production of proteins that lead to tissue development

It also plays a role in chlorophyll production.

It is critical in leading to the vegetative growth in a plant but can become problematic when over applied for several reasons.

Such as-

Environmental issues

Increased insect pressure

A plants’ inability to retain blooms, such as in tomatoes

Balancing a plant’s need for nitrogen at the time it is required by the plant is a matter of timing it’s application. Even though it is abundant in the air we breathe, unlike phosphorus and potassium, it is not found in sufficient levels in the soil because it is not present in the parent material giving soil its properties.

By themselves, plants cannot use atmospheric nitrogen. It has to be converted by nitrogen-fixing bacteria in the form of NO3¯ or applied in a plant available form at the right time.

Due to the fact, the form most available to plants has a negative charge, it is not held in the soil and is more sustainable to leaching. If you recall, the cation exchange capacity is a soil’s ability to hold onto positively charged ions.

Nitrogen management is centered around optimizing nitrogen fixation by the soil biology and minimizing loss by using good management practices such as timing and location of fertilizers and manures.

With some conventional forms of nitrogen such as ones that are ammonium based, except ammonium sulfate, they have an acidifying effect on soil. Meaning they lower the pH. This can be an issue with over applying it and repeated long-term use. It is often not seen immediately but as somewhat of a cumulative effect based on cropping history, moisture, temperate, etc.

Over the past several years I have not seen that to be as much of an issue with organic sources. However, I have not found much research or data on the subject either. It should be noted that everything you put into the soil at some point in time effects it, whether immediate or long term.

Let’s talk about some common organic nitrogen components used in fertilizers.

First, I’m going to start with a three that are conventional component equivalents. Meaning they are still a naturally derived source, that can be used in an organic system but is more soluble and available to the plant quicker rather than later making them somewhat similar to that of conventional chemistries.

Blood Meal

It typically has an analysis of 10-13%N

It has been shown to have deer and rabbit repellant properties when used as a top dress. However, it may attract other animals such as raccoons and dogs.

Blood meal is primarily hemoglobin, which is a protein, and iron. In my experience, I have found the concentration of iron not to be an issue, just something to be mindful of

It can be cost prohibited to use it as a single source of nitrogen. However, when added to a blend It is a rapid release source making it a significant component when used with other mid and slower release forms

Chicken Manure

Of all the manures it is, in general, the one highest in nitrogen typically ranging from 2-8%

Keep in mind the analysis of manures of any type can be extremely variable based on source and solid to liquid ratios

It is available in several forms from liquid to pellets and relatively inexpensive depending on what part of the country you are in

It is also a good addition if lime and phosphorus are needed

Sodium Nitrate (Chilean Nitrate)

It is water soluble at a guaranteed 15% total N availability, with 2% potash, and 1% sulfur. The new formulation has allowed for ease of shipping because it is no longer considered a hazardous material.

The fact it is readily solubilized in water makes this the best choice for a starter fertilizer, especially for corn. It gives corn the boost it needs to get out of the ground even if planted into soils that might be cooler than what is generally required to get the best germination rate.

It can be an expensive insurance policy if not used accordingly and applied with good seed to fertilizer placement at the right rate. This is when cleaning, calibrating, and using the right equipment are essential as well.

I highly recommend using it in a blend as opposed to a straight source of nitrogen for several reasons. First, it can be expensive. Second, it is available almost immediately to the plant, making it the first to be used during the growing season, leaving the plant with nothing in reserve for the next several weeks that nitrogen is vital to develop enough vegetation for the plant to efficiently and adequately be able to perform photosynthesis. Remember it is a balance between vegetative growth and reproductive growth.

Next, the following have medium to slow release rates of nitrogen. They are relatively insoluble.

Fish/crab/shrimp meal

Typical analysis ranges from 5-30%N

Typically, fish ranges from 5-9%N depending on whether it is a meal, powder or liquid

Crap and Shrimp range from 10-30%N with 11-18%Ca depending on the shell to meat ratio

Crab makes an excellent addition to a fertilizer blend for the extra calcium, and the addition on an enzyme called chitin that has been shown to help control nematodes in the soil

Peanut meal

A typical analysis is 8-9%N

Can be cost prohibitive and not allowed due to allergen restrictions

Bone meal

A typical analysis is 3-4%N

It is also a good source of phosphorus and calcium

Feather meal

Typical analysis 11-15%N

Apply early in the season to take advantage of slower release rate providing nitrogen over the course of the growing season

 Soybean meal

A typical analysis is 6-7%N

A good source for full season nitrogen supply

Soybean meal has been shown to burn new seedlings and reduce germination rates potentially. Care should be exercised when timing the application


For years now, agricultural manures have gotten a lot of press. After taking the PA Nutrient Management courses, I concluded – shit’s complicated. Gone are the days you cleaned the barn and piled it out of the way so you could spread it when you had more time. Raw manure is the most nutrient dense. The longer it composts it losses its nutrient value. Over applying it, can lead to not only environmental issues also pest and disease challenges.

However, there is one manure that is gaining popularity with tobacco and cannabis growers, and its bat guano. It is cost prohibitive to use on a large scale, but I feel it is important enough to mention as a potential source of not only nitrogen but phosphorus as well, while being low in salts.

A typical analysis is 5-12% depending on the source

It is fast acting and soluble in water making it a great addition to a liquid program for cannabis especially vegetative and flowering stages

I have several growers using it in sub-irrigation systems for starting organic tobacco. They like the fact its water soluble and doesn’t seem to burn the way other fertilizers have a tendency to do if not managed correctly.

 There are several other sources I could mention that are used for nitrogen such as corn gluten, alfalfa meal, legumes, and cottonseed meal.

We’ll cover those and more during the time remaining in the 52 Weeks of Agronomy Series.

Ag 101 Week 41

It’s Not Just Fairy Dust & Go-Go Juice – It’s Chemistry


Five years ago, when I told my Dad, I was going to work for an organic fertilizer company there was a long pause of silence.  After some more discussion he concluded that it must not be that big of a company so why not get back into the workforce with a small local business. Little did we know what I had gotten in to.

It was culture shock in more ways than one.

If you recall, I’m the girl that still thinks Kenny & Dolly are platonic and…

I didn’t come from the world of ‘organic/all-natural’ fertilizers. I came from a long line of tried and true conventional farming chemistries and practices that my family still uses today. Chemistries that are not even an option for or for that matter are even somewhat shunned by over 50% of the growers I currently work with. I almost titled this week’s post, “I Go Both Ways.” Because I work with all types of farmers/growers; large, small, conventional, certified organic, everything in between, and the list keeps growing.

Here’s why-

Agronomy is a universal language spoken between the soil and the crop. Fertilizers and amendments are chemistries, whether they are naturally or synthetically derived, that are used to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of the soil and plants communication. Whether it is a by-product of industry, created in a lab, dug up from a mine somewhere from around the world, hauled out of the ocean, or an extract from a plant it is chemistry. All need to be used responsibly to ensure the future of farming, our food supply, and the environment.

As I started learning and getting more and more familiar with the world of organics I brought my dad to meetings so he too could learn and hear about the fascinating ways which they use all the amazing resources our world has to offer.

After one meeting, while we were having coffee, he said, “I guess I was wrong Monica. The way you explained things made me realize it’s not just fairy dust and go-go juice. You have a mighty big task ahead of you to get both sides to realize that and the farmers that use them to do so as efficiently and effectively as possible.”

Don’t be fooled; I still get the funny comments like, “Do you make them spin in three circles before sprinkling the fairy dust, or do they sprinkle then spin?” Or, “Why does go-go juice attract so many cats?” Better yet, “What’s Monica bringing to the family reunion? Fish and kelp, haha!” However, my dad has come a long way from the once staunch naysayer to one of my biggest supporters, and for that, I am very grateful.

Ask my neighbor; I also make several recommendations with conventional chemistries I don’t even mention in some circles. While we are working in our gardens, she graciously listens as I tell her about the fine line I walk between both worlds.

Considering I have ‘a mighty big task ahead of me’ and we are at a point in the growing season that farmers should be soil testing to make amending and fertilizing decisions, over the next several posts we’re going to talk about what makes up a bag of fairy dust otherwise known as organic fertilizer.

If you recall I’ve talked about how fertilizer blends are not always one size fits all. I do find myself recommending more amending and management options before fertilizers to most farmers. However, the more you understand what each component can do, the more informed decision you can make.

Just as I stated in Week 11 comparing fertilizer blends to pajamas, there are fillers added to them for specific reasons ranging from making up the volume to helping the product flow through manufacturing and spreading equipment. Those ‘fillers’ come with consequences both good and bad depending on whether you are aware of them and can plan in others areas of your fertility management. However, using a blend can extend a fertility plan and reduce the number of applications if careful consideration is made when choosing which one you use

Look at a bag of fertilizer as an engine, and each component in that blend has a piston, understanding the specific function of each piston is key to buying the right fertilizer and more importantly using it the best way. That knowledge along with a soil test and knowing the type of soil you’re working with is what gives you the necessary pieces of the puzzle in putting together a sustainable fertility plan.

Not quite the look I was going for, but thank you Google Images for the help

Not quite the look I was going for, but thank you Google Images for the help

The link below is a free e-book titled Understanding Amendments & Fertilizers I put together over a year ago. I’m in the process of updating it and offering this one to you as an intro to organic and all-natural amendments & fertilizers for signing up to receive news and updates.

Over the next several weeks we’ll cover nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, and trace mineral components that make-up what goes into a bag of fertilizer, and you’ll see it’s not just fairy dust and go-go juice.

Ag 101 Week 40

No Assembly Required

I posted this graphic on Instagram this week. At the time, I had planned on writing a lengthy explanation as to what I meant and at the last minute deleted. I wanted to see what kind of response I would get.


One person asked if I was against soil building techniques. The following was my reply

“Not against good management practices at all. They are part of what it takes to be good stewards of the soil. But, soil comes pre-assembled. It’s like a set of shelves that are ready and waiting for you to start stacking books on. Or better yet, to start using and storing nutrients in for the microbes and plants that rely on it. All you need to do is take time to understand the specs the shelves came with, or what I refer to as the inherent characteristics your soil came with. We amend, which is a temporary change to the physical and chemical characteristics and we fertilize which is strategic and is intended to feed the biology in the soil and the plant, depending on the type of inputs you use. Neither build, they complement what’s already there.”

Another person explained, “permaculture allows for amendment added in 1-foot layers starting from a depth of 6 feet below grade. That’s building soil…The amendments are specific and by their nature create a mycillium layer right at the frost line. “

To this, I responded

“If I understand correctly, you still have the parent material left. For lack of better terms, that is what ‘builds soil’ and dictates its characteristics. I have long wanted to understand permaculture better and have not taken the time to do more research on it. If you have any good resources I would love to read more about it.”

If indeed taking away the top six feet is what permaculture prescribes, it seems pretty destructive to me. Here again, I don’t know that much about it.

Three things I want to point out-

1.     Soil doesn’t know and or understand any of this. It comes the way it is and has had stuff growing in it way before we got here. We need to either work with or against it. It is selfish and doesn’t follow trends.

2.     If people understood the difference between amending and fertilizing that alone would save them money and have a more significant impact on helping the environment than some of the other things we do.

3.     Long-term soil fertility, the kind that keeps soil healthy and you and the next generation farming and eating is a balance between the actual make of the soil specifically the clay fraction, organic matter management, and the physical management of it as well.

The notion that we build soil has been around for a while now. You see it phrased that way on social media, industry gurus say it all the time, everyone who’s anyone has used the term at some point in time. It sounds powerful and gives us a sense we are in control. It is what good marketing is made of. It’s even on one of my favorite books, Building Soil for Better Crops by Magdoff & Van Es. If you’re in the industry, you want to jump on the bandwagon and ride the wave of being known as the one who builds the best soil ever! Right?

Here’s the challenge I have with the statement, “build soil”-

We can’t build soil. It comes no assembly required. You don’t open a box like you do from Ikea and put the pieces together.

It comes pre-assembled with both physical and chemical characteristics that we can’t change. They are dictated by its parent material. We have nothing to do with it. The soil is what it is, and we have to except that.

I talk about those in weeks 8 & 9

However, there is one thing we can do. We can amend it. But, there’s another kick in the pants. No matter what amending you do, no matter what type of amendments you use it is only temporary. It doesn’t last forever. Soils main objective is to go back to what it originally was no matter what we try to do with it. You always have to be tinkering with it to keep it the way you want it.

I hate to say it, but there is no Ronco Set It & Forget It when it comes to soil. It is a constant work in progress.

I have said that organic matter gets all the attention and clay is often overlooked while being misunderstood for what it brings to the table in soil management.

If I were to put it into somewhat crude and simple terms

Organic matter

is the girl you want to date. She’s fun, easy to get along with, doesn’t require much attention and is relatively inexpensive. It is the most biologically active fraction of the soil. It does have a negative charge due to humus. However, it is referred to as being loose because it doesn’t have the structure that clay does. Humus, all though being somewhat stable breakdowns faster than clay and needs to be replenished to keep nutrient holding capacity and availability in check.


is the women you want to marry. However, she requires more strategy. She won’t go for just dinner and a movie. She might need something more expensive to keep her happy. However, if managed properly and the timing and application are well thought out and strategic, it will be well worth the effort and expense.

When you have a balance of both organic matter and clay you get married and live happily ever after. I realize my analogy is probably offensive to some, but it illustrates my point.

All of this leads back to knowing your soil type, getting a soil test and balancing the biological, the chemical, and the physical.

Ag 101 Week 21

What’s Your Threshold?

This spring has been extremely challenging for growers in the northeast and other parts of the country.

I find myself saying the same thing throughout the spring season, “The weather has not been on our side.” Growers are facing extreme weather events that are leading to increased crop damage, insect, and disease pressure resulting in decreased yields or total crop loss.

I also hear myself saying,

“Summer doesn’t matter if you don’t have a good spring.”

I realize that statement is dependent on the crop your growing and how you manage your farm. I’m usually referring to management decisions made before their growing season gets started, then during the summer months they have to live with them. But lately, spring weather conditions have lead to more challenges effecting the rest of the growing season.

This year I have growers that will no longer be growing crops like strawberries due to weather conditions being so unfavorable they can’t afford the risk. For economic reasons they need to focus on crops they can manage in the weather conditions we are now experiencing. Management has now taken on a whole new level of importance.

At the opening day for a local market this week, vendor numbers where low due to spring weather impeding their ability to bring sellable products. One farmer and I were discussing the amount of hail damage on his lettuce and if he could even sell it for an amount that would at least cover his travel expenses for that day.

As I’m writing, it’s raining for the 6th day this week, I know the sun will eventually come out, and things will start to perk up and grow again. Before we know it, we will be in the dog days of summer, and everyone will be hoping for some rain, so they don’t have to run their irrigation. It is a never-ending cycle.

All of this and experiencing my own crop loss this week due to a hungry family of bunnies has me thinking about what threshold a grower can tolerate before they have to make management decisions about harvesting, spraying, or even writing a crop off as a total loss. Do most farmers even know what factors to consider or how to establish a value? And, do they have a plan in place if that threshold is reached.

The dictionary definition of threshold is

ˈTHreSHˌ(h)ōld/ noun

noun: threshold; plural noun: thresholds

2.     the magnitude or intensity that must be exceeded for a certain reaction, phenomenon, result, or condition to occur or be manifested.

"nothing happens until the signal passes the threshold"

synonyms: lower limit, minimum "the human threshold of pain" a limit below which a stimulus causes no reaction.

"everyone has a different pain threshold"

But what does threshold mean in agronomic terms?

Every farmer needs to establish their “pain” or economic threshold they can withstand to keep themselves profitable and in business for years to come.

First, let’s look at specific thresholds-

Economic injury level(EIL) - The smallest number of insects (amount of injury) that will cause yield losses equal to the insect management costs. EIL is also referred to as the break even point.

When pest density is above the EIL - damage exceeds the cost to control

When pest density is below the EIL - damage is lower than the cost to control

Economic threshold - The pest density at which management action should be taken to prevent an increasing pest population from reaching the economic injury level.

The economic threshold is also referred to as the action threshold. That is the point at which insect numbers (population) have gotten to the point you need to mitigate them through cultural practices or inputs such as spraying in order not to reach the economic injury level.

You as a grower have to determine what is the pest density that will justify the cost of applying control measures.

Deciding levels and thresholds at which you have to reach before action is taken can include using formulas and having an understanding of the pest and crop it is affecting.

I work with a specialty grower that produces a niche crop. He sells to high-end wholesale buyers only. He knows the value of his crop and grows a certain number of plants to accommodate a 25% loss. All his management decisions are based on that, and it works for him.

I grow in my backyard. I grow whatever I feel like that year. I give most of it away and eat what is leftover. I know the value and can assume a 100% loss. It works for me.

It’s a good thing it's easy for me to write my season off as a complete wash. The rabbits have decimated everything I planted, and they keep coming back night after night to clean up what they left behind. I realize I’m not growing for profit this year so let them eat, and I’ll figure something else out when I have more time. 

Both of us have established the level of pain or our threshold we can tolerate and how to plan for it. He grows more plants to accommodate; I live with it.

But what if you are growing for market and need to establish that number.

Here are several factors to take into consideration-

1. How much aesthetic or economic damage can be tolerated?

2. What is the value and production costs of the crop at various levels of damage?

3. What is the history of the field?

4. Do you understand the difference between injury and damage and what level is tolerable?

Injury - the effect of pest activities

Damage – monetary value lost due to the pest activities causing injury

5. How much do the control measures cost?

6. Is the insect or disease distributed in the field so effective control can be reached without further crop disturbance?

7. Do you have the ability to control the pest quickly and effectively?

8. Do you have a market or use for a less than perfect product?

9. Do you have the ability grow enough to make up for a certain percentage of loss?

Lastly, here is a simple equation that can be used in conjunction with the factors above to help establish a comfortable threshold for your farming situation

EIL (Economic Injury level) = C*N / V*I

C = cost of controlling the pest per acre

N = number of pests injuring the commodity per acre

V = value of the commodity per acre

I = percentage of commodity injured (% loss expressed as a decimal)

EIL is expressed as the number of pests per acre or pest density that justifies the cost of applying control methods i.e. spraying

Why is all of this important?

Bottom line you need to stay profitable to stay in business. Having established thresholds will help make management decisions to do so, even if it is as simple as growing more to accommodate a percentage of loss or knowing at what pest density you can justify the cost of applying control measures.

Extremely unprofitable broccoli, thanks to the family of rabbits living in our hedge

Extremely unprofitable broccoli, thanks to the family of rabbits living in our hedge

Ag 101 Week 18

Not Your Grandma's Vinegar

This time of year, I get questions ranging from how to keep things alive to how to kill them. One thing I’ve talked a lot about recently is what can farmers and gardeners use for weed control that is relatively inexpensive yet effective.

My first response always includes the obvious cultural practices including, but not limited to-

Maintaining clean fence rows and perimeters

Mow/graze in a timely manner

Cultivate on a regular schedule

Use aggressive cover crops or inter-seeding – by aggressive I mean one that grows fast

When that isn’t enough, and you need to use another alternative my first suggestion is 20% or 200grain vinegar. Just as the title said, this not your grandma’s 5-10% vinegar she uses for pickling or cleaning, but the gnarly eat through your pants kind.

For home and backyard growers

The homemade concoctions you read about, in my experience, are not sufficient even for the home/backyard grower. In my opinion, you need to ditch the dawn/salt/vinegar mix and use the more effective strength vinegar I’m going to talk about. It will save you time and effort, ultimately saving you money as well. Remember size vs. scale? If not refer back to Week 4

So, what kind of vinegar am I talking about – 20% or 200grain vinegar, commonly referred to as Ag or Food Grade. It can be purchased online or at some farm and garden type retailers.

Some points to think about when using 20% vinegar

1.     It is not a systemic herbicide, meaning it will not enter into the plant's metabolism and kill it that way. It is a burn down that may have to be applied more than once. Target younger weeds at the appropriate stage of growth for maximum efficacy.

2.     It is non-selective, it burns whatever it comes in contact with even the person applying it. Be careful and strategic when using it and don’t do it on a windy day.

3.     Make sure you cover as much surface area of the plant as possible, contact is critical.

4.     Growers I work with have found the following rates to be effective

                 For tank mixing 8-10 gallons/acre with as little water as possible

                 For backpack and hand sprayers 50/50 vinegar & water

5.     The general rule of thumb

If spraying to kill spray during the hottest part of the day when the sun is the most intense.

There are several other products on the market for the chemical free, natural, or certified organic grower. They are usually oiled based and have been found useful as well. One of the most common that I have worked with is Nature’s Avenger. For several years I recommended that you dilute it with vinegar. After talking with a field rep from Nature’s Avenger, they have found there is no increased efficacy of either the vinegar or their product using it that way.

My suggestion to a grower is to start with a single chemistry first while maintaining good cultural practices. If weed pressure escalates and cannot be efficiently controlled with one chemistry instead of mixing products, alternate spraying with a different one.

Have questions – don’t hesitate to ask

Ag 101 Week 17

The Power of Biology

When I first started college, I went with the intent of becoming a dog trainer. Not just any kind of dog trainer, but a Seeing Eye Instructor. I was also determined not to get into agriculture. I had milked enough, bailed enough, and seen enough corn, alfalfa, and chickens to last me a lifetime.

Fast forward to my second year at Delaware Valley University. I’m majoring in biology and love it. I’m gearing up to start psychology classes so I can get my minor. When all of a sudden I’m asked by my advisor to pick a track in the biology program to specialize. I went with environmental biology, because why not.

I started taking agronomy classes to satisfy the requirements for my specialization and wanted to change my major to agronomy. Unfortunately, my advisor passed away, and no one knew what to with me. The biology department did understand why and the agronomy department did seem to want a biology major lurking around.

That was until the head of the agronomy department meant with me and changed the course of my future. He laid out a plan for the rest of my senior year that landed me a job with an environmental remediation company that was looking to hire someone with my background. Win-Win I was in!

To make a long story short, I ended up graduating with a degree in biology minoring in agronomy and working on Superfund sites.  I got to use both biology and agronomy and save the earth at the same time.  Well, sort of save the earth. As long as the client was happy and I could bill my hours to them, so my employer was happy. So not my plan, but I enjoyed it and was making a decent living. I even had a secretary. Everyone needs a secretary, trust me.

Jump ahead even further in time, and I find myself working for an organic fertilizer company. Totally out of my wheelhouse, I grew up in conventional agricultural, and it was all I knew. I had never heard of anything remotely associated with the industry I was working in now. I remember calling my dad and asking him if he had ever heard of the company I had just gotten a job with, he said no. We concluded that they must not have been that big of a company if he or the rest of the family had never heard of them. Little did I know what I was about to get myself into.

All this to say, I am a total outsider to the world of organic agriculture. I understand farming, but this was unlike anything I had ever had experienced. I found myself in the same situation I was in college. No one knew what to do with me. Only this time I was coming from conventional agriculture and now working with organic farming. As I started working with more and more natural growers, I began to see similarities between the two types of mindsets and I could also see the differences.

This post is not an editorial to pursued one to see the light and change to one side or the other. I don’t get why there has to be such a dichotomy between the two. Both have positives and negatives associated with them. I have always said that it is up to the grower to be willing to assume the level of management that is required for the way in which they want to grow a crop. But there is one hang up I’ve had with conventional growers, especially traditional no-till.

Why do they underestimate the power of biology?

As I started going to conferences and meetings held by the organic counterparts to conventional, I became more aware that organic growers harness the power of soil biology and employ management strategies to use it in their favor. While some conventional growers know its there, however they often use inputs or management practices that are counterproductive to encouraging the microbial populations in soil.  

Why don’t some farmers see all that biology can do for them? It seems as if it has been taken out the equation. Remember the triangles?


Lately, I’ve taken the time to go to more conventional conferences and meetings. I sat in on a meeting with a highly respected traditional agronomist and after listening to him talk it cleared all my confusion as to why in my opinion there is such an under-appreciation for biology in conventional farming.

Biology can’t be quantified; chemistry can


Inputs whether organic or conventional are chemistries. However, the affect a chemistry has on a crop can be measured. For every action, there is a reaction, A+B=C, and so on. You can calculate how much you will need to achieve a specific yield. You can forecast an outcome based on inputs and have actual numbers to back everything up. As long as you get your timing within a particular window and your placement relatively precise, you can rest assured barring any catastrophic weather event or unforeseen circumstance the input you use will do its job. It will do its job because it was chosen based on criteria already established and proven to work.

Soil microbe’s -aka biology- don’t work like that. Biology is a variable dependent on weather, pH, temperature, moisture, soil type, organic matter, compost type, amendment type, crop selection, previous crop, the sun, the moon, the stars -I think you get the point. Harnessing its power is being entirely dependent on things we cannot always physically control. We can not talk to the microbes and ask them to break the phosphorus in our soil down and make it plant available at the specific growth stage we need it. We can not go out to the field and ask the microbes to show up at the right time the right location and do everything we know it is capable of doing when it is most critical for the plant. We can use biologically enhanced inputs. However, there is still the question as to how viable they are due to all the for mentioned variables.  You can count them under a microscope but, do we still have a scientifically proven measurable way to explain, or quantify, all that microbes do, and how that translates into a profit? In most cases, all we can do is hope the microbes are there and show up at the right time and place.

Farming is part hope and expectation. You hope the weather will be in your favor; you expect the seed will germinate, you expect your yields will make a profit. And if a farmer can stack the deck in one’s favor they should, right?

Conventional growers rely on inputs, organic rely on biology.  That’s the great divide. That’s it. Right or wrong it is just using a different corner of the triangle to achieve the same results. However, both use management. 

So how does a farmer stack the deck in their favor harnessing the power of such a variable like biology?

You create conditions and an environment the natural biology of your soil wants to live. You create one that it wants to thrive and flourish in by using chemistries and management practices that encourage biological activity. You use management strategies such as cover cropping and minimal tillage to promote plush living conditions for the very microbes you want to do the work while hopefully starting to minimize inputs.

Harnessing the power of biology-

Simple on paper, not always simple in practice. If it were, everyone would be doing it.

Ag 101 Week 15

Alternative Soil Fertility

I’ve been preparing for a presentation titled Unusual Edible Perennials and How to Use Them for Soil Health. Already, I have a problem with the title because I dislike using the term soil health. I would rather it be the title of this post. However, I realize it is not as pleasant sounding. It seems as if a large part of what I end up focusing on revolves around making things sound good to get likes, clicks, and follows. I will be the first to admit if you look at my social media, well, let’s say I might not be as social as I should be if those are my goals. I have come along way from posting about the tattoo on my foot though. I have also stated that those are not the reasons why I'm doing all of this either. It is just the nature of the beast I guess. 

What preparing for this particular presentation has made me think about is

How I as an agronomist view -how and what farmers use to manage soil fertility. I know the obvious – cover crops, fertilizers, manures, and management. But, does it have to stop there?

What if you grew an alternative crop that had multiple markets, could be used to do what cover crops do and provided a sustainable source of soil fertility? That seems like money in the bank to me.

I will insert all my disclaimers now. I realize the ideas I’m talking about aren’t necessarily new, however, far too often we get in our set ways and don’t look beyond what we’re currently doing. I realize that most of what I’m suggesting is anecdotal at best. I also understand the scale at which these crops could be grown successfully will vary. Last, but maybe the most important, incorporating them comes with financial implications. However, in this era of agriculture, it seems to me that markets are opening up to be more receptive if not on the cusp of demanding we make some radical changes to our approach.  Our approach to crop choices, fertilizer choices, and management choices.

In doing research, I’ve come to realize there is not a lot I could find about the subject.  I found the typical article about favorite cover crops, what soil needs to be fertile, and what one can do to promote soil health. Beyond that standard research and information and looking at actually using plants to target soil fertility, information gets pretty obscure.

One article I came across was titled, Maximizing Soil Fertility with Soil Improving Plants.

I finally felt like I was on to something, and maybe I am, but I still want to take the subject further. Again, what if you grew an alternative crop that had multiple markets, could be used to do what cover crops do and provided a sustainable source of soil fertility?

What if we looked at using specific plants to go beyond cover cropping and used them to help meet even more specific soil fertility needs?

Even my husband who proclaims he has no idea even on an average day what I’m talking about when he reads my stuff, let me know I am pretty much-smoking something if I think farmers are going to be able to incorporate alternative crops successfully. But, why not start and look at things through a different lens if only for one presentation. 

Next, I thought I should look at the primary reasons farmers use cover crops. What are the significant factors leading to the choice of cover crop and how could an alternative crop meet those reasons.

Most farmers choose cover crops based on the following-

1.     Reduce fertilizer costs, mainly nitrogen

2.     Reduce herbicide and pesticide use

3.     Prevent soil erosion

4.     Increase overall soil tilth

When planning my talk, I took those reasons and few others into consideration based on the crowd I’m going to speak to and the typical scale of the grower I work with.

I also took into consideration-

1.     The fact I grow each one in my garden - hence the scale

2.     They are edible in some form - multiple markets

3.     They are all relatively easy to grow – ease of management

4.     They are relatively common – attainability

5.     If it could address at least one fertility need – a movement towards sustainability

So, the five plants or “crops” that I included are borage, comfrey, stinging nettle, Jerusalem artichoke, and rhubarb.


It’s growth characteristics lend it to being a natural addition to add to any market garden.

It...  tends to spread if happy

and does not like to be in wet soil,

but it

can tolerate some shade, and


What are the fertility benefits?

It... is a functional companion plant for strawberries, squash, and legumes.

and  is said to be a sacrifice plant for tomatoes from hornworms.

But, what I’m most interested in is the fact it contains B vitamins and trace minerals.

Research has been done regarding the role B vitamins play in metabolic pathways and how it helps to make biochemical reactions in plants easier in regards to environmental stresses.  Take a look at some work being done at the University of Florida at the following link

The part about containing trace minerals interests me because most soils lack them and often overlooked. However, trace minerals can be a limiting factor in soil fertility that can mean the difference in yield loss and more noticeably crop quality. For some growers, trace minerals can be expensive and harder to apply at appropriate levels without doing more harm than good. Using a plant to supply that need could, in fact, be a viable option while having several other benefits as well.




I can’t say enough about this one. It seems to be the overall work-horse of the plant world.


grows anywhere, and will tolerant several growing conditions

I suggest in my presentation to consider planting the sterile variety. It is a firsthand lesson I had to learn.   

It uses include...

 it can be used as a mulch and dried as a soil conditioner

 soil stabilizer due to is deep roots

  high in calcium and potassium

  hay and forage potential

The fact it is high in calcium is what caught my attention. I have come across several scenarios where soil needs calcium, but other more mainstream inputs are not always an option. Comfrey could be one alternative depending on the scale, that could be more sustainable than mined products.



Stinging Nettle

Nettles are quite fussy about the soil in which they will grow

Once established roots creep so it can be hard to control

Unfortunately, the entire plant is covered with stinging hairs  

So, there are some definite disadvantages to stinging nettle. But, it’s contributions regarding soil fertility in my mind out way the painful reality of dealing with the plant. 

It is high in iron, calcium, magnesium, nitrogen, sulfur, and silica

Aphids love nettles, which you can grow as 'sacrificial' plant

There have been several studies done regarding the benefits of silica and its relationship to nutrient retention and efficiency as well as the role it plays in overall plant health.  What I want to find out more about is the calcium, magnesium, nitrogen, and sulfur potential stinging nettle may bring to the table.

Stinging Nettle Photo Courtesy of DB Impressions

Stinging Nettle Photo Courtesy of DB Impressions

Jerusalem artichoke

Plan when deciding the location

They are prolific and can become invasive unless managed properly

It goes without saying...

the plant is an excellent source of biomass to add organic matter

because they are a tuber, they may help mitigate some compaction issues

and they are rich in minerals like phosphorus and potassium

Jerusalem artichokes contribution from a fertility aspect would come from mainly its addition of organic matter. I don’t have an issue with that being the only one. You have to create conditions conducive for a soil being able to handle the nutrients needed to grow healthy plants.

Jerusalem Artichoke

Jerusalem Artichoke


Is easy to establish and can be harvested continuously  

Interesting note about rhubarb

It’s considered a vegetable but mostly used as a fruit.

I wonder if it has any conversations with a tomato?! Admit it; you wanted to laugh or google it to see why I said that 

On a more serious note, it’s fertility benefits are, it...

contains Ca, K, Mg, Mn, and fiber


My presentation is ready

 I’ve stated my case as to the why I think farmers should consider some alternative crops


            My husband has brought me back to reality



Even if for only one presentation, this agronomist got to think outside the typical bag of seed, fertilizers, and manures and started to think about...

Alternatives to Soil Fertility