Talking Dirty with The Accidental Agronomist - Take One

The Homesteader Edition

After writing about agronomy for a year, I decided I would do something different.

Even though I have gained two more chins due to the number of prescription drugs I have been on for the past six months and my complete lack of technical skills, I decided I would start doing video interviews with all types of people either directly or indirectly involved in agriculture.

Nothing scripted or even really edited, just a one on one conversation about agronomy.

For the first interview, I sat down with a friend I’ve known for a while now to get her take on what agronomy means to her as a homesteader and let her ask a question or two as well.

Meet Diane, a backyard gardening homesteader from somewhere in Pennsylvania.

Ag 101 Week 52

The Golden Rule

Can you believe it! This is the last you will hear me using the phrase, The 52 Weeks of Agronomy.

Unless I turn it into a made for TV movie or a fiction novel and travel the world doing book signings.

I don’t think that is happening anytime soon. I tried to watch the video I made for week 27 and convinced myself the only saving grace was I didn’t take my clothes off. It’s so bad I’m not even putting a link to it. My family is still petitioning me to remove the link to it altogether.

It has been a wild journey getting to this point. After taking some time and re-reading several of the posts, I can say I’ve laughed, cried, and wondered” What the heck was I thinking when I wrote that!?

However, one thing keeps coming to mind when I look back over the last 52 weeks.

Soil, much like people, follows one golden rule. You know, that rule we all heard about as kids.

Treat other’s the same way you want to be treated

Or, in agronomic terms

Give back to the soil what you have taken from it

It’s that simple. There is no complicated formula, no fancy terminology needed, no industry jargon to convolute and be confused by. Just give back what you have taken.

Why should you give back…?

Soil is selfish, and plants are horny

To keep soil productive and plants reproducing you have to continually manage the fertility needs of both. Giving soil back what it needs to support the plant's recreational activities that ultimately benefit us.

That’s it — nothing more, nothing less.

Just a simple exercise of reciprocity between the farmer and the land using all the information we've covered over the last 52 weeks


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 47

Trace Minerals


Would you believe after this post there are only five weeks left in the Ag 101 52 Weeks of Agronomy Series!

Since I’ve started writing, a lot has happened not only professionally but personally as well. Last year I came on the speaking scene pretty strong presenting at four fairly significant conferences. This year I have had seven proposals rejected for silly reasons like they didn’t like my title or they felt I was redundant. Funny thing is, I said the title was not set in stone and I had never spoken at that particular conference before.  I’ve been called everything from a charlatan to a rock star. It has been brought to my attention that I should ask my family to purchase Grammarly for me as a Christmas gift. Even through all of that, I gained readers all over the world, doubled my email list, recorded a couple podcasts, presented for gardening clubs, and kept writing. Last but not least, I can now say I have clients in six states, and the consulting side of my business is steadily growing.

I’ve also gained a new appreciation for my health and hope to keep up with the small but necessary steps to get past some challenges I’ve had. I have completely given up coffee, alcohol, refined sugars, and processed foods along with some other changes without harming anyone in the process.

Moreover, that leads me to this week’s topic.

Trace Minerals- Small but necessary elements that are critical for plant health.

Roles trace minerals play in plant health-

The amount of trace minerals in soil is related to the parent material and the amending and fertilizing history

Trace minerals are often referred to as micronutrients because they are required in relatively small amounts by plants and the people and animals consuming them

It has been up to debate has how nutrients such as sulfur are viewed. For the sake of this post, I’m going to cover it.

Trace minerals have been linked to the following functions

Sulfur (S) – Sulfur is needed to manufacture chlorophyll and the synthesis of nitrogen. It also encourages overall plant growth and vigor.

Boron (B) – Boron aids in cellular growth and helps to regulate the uptake of nutrients. It is essential for water absorption and the translocation of sugars. Boron and zinc have been linked to aiding in the vegetative and reproductive stages of berry development.

Copper (Cu) – Copper works to help plants metabolize nitrogen and is essential for iron utilization. It has been linked to bacterial and fungal suppression as well.

Iron (Fe) – Iron assists in the creation of chlorophyll and protein synthesis

Manganese (Mn) - Manganese is known as an activator for several enzymes responsible for plant metabolism as well as nitrogen transformation. 

Molybdenum (Mo) – Molybdenum plays several critical roles in a plants ability to metabolize nitrogen.

Zinc (Zn) – Zinc is required in seed production. It has also been linked to aiding the vegetative and reproductive phases in berry development.

Potential sources of organic inputs for trace minerals


Kelp can be used as a liquid concentrate, powder, or meal. It is a powerhouse of trace minerals and plant growth stimulating hormones. If I were reduced to recommending one product kelp would be it. That being said you still need to use it judiciously as not to decrease its efficacy


An excellent source of potassium and trace minerals along with built-in soil conditioning properties.


Azomite is a hydrated sodium calcium aluminosilicate broad-spectrum soil remineralizing product


Raw aragonite brings with is biology from the sea, acting as a built-in inoculant as well as containing several trace minerals

Redmond Salt-

Redmond salt is an unrefined product containing more than 60 naturally occurring minerals

Chelated liquid forms-

This group of products can be mineral specific. The most common that I have worked with are Baicor Liquids. Care should be taken that your plants show signs of apparent deficiencies through tissue testing before applying to determine necessity and rates


Ag 101 Week 46






1.     the ability to produce a desired or intended result.

"there is little information on the efficacy of this treatment"


effectiveness, success, productiveness, potency, power;

Before moving on to talking about trace minerals and sulfur, I wanted to discuss a word I find myself using often. I even found myself having a conversation about this topic with my acupuncturist this week.

I arrived for my appointment, and he noticed I have a cold. He told me before we could move forward working on my leg and arm; we would need to treat the cold, so it doesn’t go any deeper into my system. That alone is another topic for a post, but I’ll save it for later.

As we were discussing some options for herbs I could take, he spoke about a common over the counter remedy that contains Chinese herbs for colds. He mentioned the reason why people do not see the results they want is twofold – timing and overuse. As I was sitting there listening to him, I thought, “Umm, that’s much like issues some growers experience.”

To realize somethings full efficacy; it’s ability to produce a desired or intended result, you need to use the right source, use the right rate, have the right timing, and in the case of fertilizer, amendments, hebicides, and pesticides have the right placement.

A chemistries efficacy becomes even more critical in the case of trace minerals because they are required in such small amounts.

I’ve spoken at length about the right rate, timing, and placement in the following two posts

Since week 41 I’ve talked at length about the right sources

The best example of chemistry losing its efficacy is in the case of herbicides. We have heard year after year of more weeds becoming herbicide resistant and even developing into superweeds. More and more I am hearing about common chemistries on the organic side of agriculture losing their efficacy as well. Things such as copper, Bt products, and even my favorite kelp are having to be applied at higher and higher rates to see any results.

So, how does a farmer avoid overusing inputs-

1.     If possible, use cultural practices such as mowing, minimal tillage, removing debris, etc.

2.     Identify the problem correctly, whether it is a pest, disease, or nutrient related

3.     Use the proper chemistry for the issue

4.     Rotate with several chemistries that work synergistically with each other

5.     Most importantly do not use more than the recommended amount of the chemistry

6.     If chemistries are needed, follow the 4R Principles laid out in the previous weeks 6 & 10 links

Remember the adage, “If a little is good, more must be better.” Isn’t always the case.

Ag 101 Week 45

Calcium & Magnesium

Image courtesy of Google Images

Image courtesy of Google Images

One of the fascinating aspects of soil nutrient balancing is the interactions each mineral as within the soil matrix and other nutrients. The Mulder Chart is an excellent illustration of that. It also shows the certain dominance cations like calcium and magnesium have over others.

If you recall in week 39, we discussed pH and how you use pH to adjust cations and anions. The relationships they have with each other need to be taken into consideration as well as the roles they play in soil and plant health.

Calcium and magnesium are two of the major players when balancing soil nutrients. Their ratio is one of the most talked about in the world of soil nutrient balancing. Whether you are of the school backing the ideal 8:1, or some variation of, it can’t be denied the importance of both to not only plant health but soil health as well.

If you recall in week 29, we discussed cation exchange capacity (CEC), and I use two side by side fields to illustrate the power of calcium

It’s calcium’s critical role that brings it front and center in not only soil but plant health as well.

Here are nine critical roles it plays

1.     Calcium is a flocculating agent that helps stabilize clay and organic matter leading to aggregate stability.

Calcium and to some degree magnesium, help chemically bind clay and organic matter helping with better drainage and erosion control by making the soil more stable.

2.     Proper moisture balance, created by aggregate stability in soil leads to a healthier microbial environment

3.     Calcium can neutralize excessive soil conditions, dependent on the source, leading to more robust root growth

4.     Reduce weed pressure

5.     Reduce leaching of other nutrients

6.     Calcium has also been likened to a nutrient filter whereas it regulates the movement and availability of such nutrients’ as sodium, phosphorus, iron, aluminum, and boron

Specifically, in plants

7.     Calcium is responsible for proper cell division and cell wall development.

8.     It plays a role in nitrate uptake and metabolism

9.     It represents a role in enzyme metabolism

Calcium is not mobile on its own in the soil or the plant, leading to the need to be continually supplied. It is transported through the xylem in the plant and dependent on water to complete the process. This is why tomato blossom end rot is not a calcium issue as much as it is an irrigation issue. Without a consistent water supply, calcium cannot move into the plant, hence rendering it calcium deficient.

Magnesium is just as vital to a plants’ health. Several roles it plays are-

1.     It is the central element in the chlorophyll molecule

2.     Carries phosphorus into the plant

3.     It activates and is a component of plant enzymes

4.     Aids in plant oil and fat formation

5.     Helps control nutrient uptake by the plant

6.     Aids in nitrogen fixation

One of the main concerns with magnesium in forage crops is grass tetany. It is a metabolic disease when an animal is deficient in magnesium.

Factors that lead to it are-

1.     Low levels of magnesium in the soil

2.     Soils higher in potassium

3.     Long periods of cool or cloudy weather in spring

4.     Poor soil drainage

5.     Moving animals from indoor to outdoor feeding

Magnesium can be often overlooked due to the fact it does not always translate to a higher yielding crop, just a more nutrient dense one.

Potential organic sources of calcium and magnesium

Aragonite- Typical analysis is 33-40% calcium

Aragonite is a readily available calcium source. It can be applied in the spring and be available that growing season. It also has a far greater liming effect than once realized, while providing trace minerals and biology to the soil. Raw aragonite brings with is biology from the sea, acting as a built in inocculant.

High Cal Lime- Typical analysis is 38% available calcium

Best used when there are no need for magnesium. Sometimes referred to calcitic limestone

Dolomitic Lime-Typical analysis is ~21% calcium ~11% magnesium

Use when both calcium carbonate and magnesium carbonate are needed

Oyster Shell- Typical analysis can be as high as 96% calcium carbonate

Used as a source of calcium and trace minerals

Wood Ash- Typical analysis is ~32% calcium oxide 3-7% Magnesium

Wood Ash is considered a liming material, supplying about 50% calcium carbonate. Care should be exercised that it is not over-applied due to its rapid reactive nature

Gypsum- Typical analysis is 18-23% calcium 18-29% sulfur

Gypsum is used to correct alkaline and sodic soils. It can improve the structure of heavy clay soil and supply calcium and sulfur when a pH adjustment is not necessary. Can be used to add calcium if magnesium is not needed and soil tests show lower sulfur. Does not remediate sodium issues alone, irrigation is still needed

Bone Char- Typical analysis is ~25% calcium

Has varying amounts of NPK, but is also high in calcium. Bone char has more surface area to bone meal making it more reactive especially at higher temperatures

Crab Meal- Typical analysis is 11-18%

Crab meal is a slow-medium release nitrogen source. It can also be a calcium source depending on how much shell is mixed in. Crab meal also contains an enzyme chitosan, which helps plants build a robust immune system, increases germination rates, and repels parasitic insects and nematodes. Due to the expense, it is often used in fertilizer blends more than a stand-alone.

 Epsom Salt (Magnesium Sulfate)- Typical analysis is 10% magnesium 18% sulfur

Epsom salts are a good source of magnesium and sulfur. Can be used as a dry application or foliar. Care should be taken when you spray so not to burn plant tissue

 Sol-Po-Mag- Typical analysis is 0-0-22 11% magnesium 22% sulfur

Sul-Po-Mag is a medium to fast release source of sulfur, potassium, and magnesium. It is also known as K-Mag or Langbeinite

Aragonite & Epsom Salt

Aragonite & Epsom Salt

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 26

Six Steps to Planning a Dinner Party - Cont'd


Setting the Table

Miss Kitty and The Kitchen Table 

Miss Kitty and The Kitchen Table 

That’s a picture of our kitchen table. It’s put together from three different sets and painted so it would all match. Nothing fancy but gets the job done.

Sometimes we do everything but eat at it.

We hold family meetings, do art projects and science experiments, re-pot plants, pit cherries, write blog posts, decorate cookies, and even cry there. I’ve taught both our kids’ reading, writing, and math at it.

When we all have time to have a meal together, we pray over burnt offerings otherwise known as dinner at it.

It’s old, well used, and now and then we have to tighten the legs. It should be repainted but has not been a priority. That doesn’t affect how well it works; only its’ looks.

Generally, we use paper plates - do not judge. I know the environmental implications and take steps to balance it out in other areas to offset them. Is it a perfect system?  No. However, I know my schedule and what it takes to make our empire spin, and there are tradeoffs. I bet there are some in your home, or on your farm, as well. We all have to make management decisions based on our situation. For us sometimes it’s paper. If not paper and much to my moms’ dismay, I use all my depression glass and china from my grandparents. My philosophy is, if I have it, I’m going to use it and enjoy it until someone breaks it.

I’m using our kitchen table and our dishes, as an illustration, to talk about the next two steps in the Six Steps to Planning a Dinner Party that I started last week

If you recall, the first two are

1.    Pick a Venue – Your Farm

2.    Make a Guest List – Crops and Insects


This week we’re going to talk about steps three and four

What Types of Tables – Soil

Choosing the place setting – Management and inputs


3.    Choosing the Tables – Soil

When you’re planning a dinner party, you get to pick the type of tables you want, and the seating arrangement can be based on the types of tables at your venue.

The tables can be extended, short, round, tall, or any combination of all.

Maybe the venue comes with tables, and they are already chosen for you by default, similar to buying a farm or land.

Maybe like our kitchen table, it is a miss-matched set put together for function over style.

Whether you are looking to purchase or have been farming the same ground for years, you need to invest time getting to know the type of soil you are working with or reacquainting yourself with it. My best suggestions are

-Go to the Soil Survey Website. I wrote about it back in Week 3.

This is the direct link


Just as making the seating arrangement at your dinner party can be based on the types of tables. Your crop rotations, amendment/fertilizer choices, and types of management such as tillage options are based on the amounts of sand, silt, and clay present in the soil.

Like we work with our old rickety table, some farmers I work with have marginal land but have overcome it with a sound fertility plan taking into consideration the soil type and test results. 

Using a free resource like the Soil Survey Web can give you insights as to where to start in making those decisions.

-Get a complete soil test

I wrote about this in Week 24 – Six Things Every Soil Test Should Include

I say completely because far too often it’s not that farmers aren’t getting them done, its that they don’t get all the information they need to make complete decisions. Keep in mind when choosing a lab, read what each test package includes and fill the form out accordingly. In doubt and before submitting the sample call the lab if necessary.

-Get out and walk your fields

It goes beyond planting, spraying, and harvesting. Take some time and walk your fields with your soil survey and soil test results. Take notes of the physical characteristics of the soil in each field and compare it to the map and results. In some cases, you could be surprised at what the soil will tell you as opposed to the maps and tests. I've looked at soil tests at my desk and gone out to the field to either have my thoughts proven or disproven. But without physically looking with my own eyes, it was a mere educated guess. Soil and plants will tell you things you just have to be willing to look for it. 


4.    Chose the Place Setting – Management/Inputs

Just has my choice to use paper plates or depression glass for our table setting, how you manage your farm can be based on several factors. They can range from soil type, crop choice, financial limitation, regulatory requirements, or philosophical and moral views. A few farms I work with had to create management zones due to the types of crops they grow and to make it easier for employees to understand. 

Whatever the case may be for your situation having good management plans in place and practicing them will go a long way to ensuring a successful season. I wrote a post titled - You Can’t Out Fertilize Poor Management, Week 13

My husband read it and said I had been harsh. As much as I don’t like saying it, it’s true. Think of it as one of the legs of our kitchen table I spoke about earlier. Sometimes I need to tighten it to stay functional. Sometimes you need to manage the resources you have to be profitable.

Inputs need to be viewed much the same. Basing them off of the soil type, test results, and crops will ensure the right choice to produce a quality high yielding product. Managing them using principles suggested in the 4 R’s covered in weeks 6 and ten will provide financial and environmental benefits.


Ag 101 Week 25

Six Steps to Planning A Dinner Party


Don’t worry; you’re not planning a dinner party.

Last week while standing in a field with a farmer, I found myself saying-

“You have to start thinking about your next growing season now. In fact, depending on your cropping system you have to be thinking about the next crop before the current one is harvested.”

As I said that, he turned around only to look at like me like I was crazy. Since I have been saying this a lot recently, I thought to myself, “How can I make all of this not so overwhelming but get my point across?” I told the farmer to think of it as if they were planning a dinner party. Silly I know, but who doesn’t love a good party with a great meal? Your crops are no different. So, over the course of the visit, we broke it down into manageable size tasks that weren’t as overwhelming.

All that being said, I’m using the analogy of planning a dinner party for the next several weeks in the Ag 101 52 Weeks of Agronomy Series.

I also realize you are in the thick of this season and for most, it has been tremendously difficult due to the fact most of the northeasts spring was wet and cold. And that is why I’m telling you this now because I want you to have a successful sustainable farm. To do that you have to be taking care of this year while planning for next.

It is like a revolving dinner party where you are the host and are setting the table for what and who comes next. Your previous amending, fertilizing, management practices, and most importantly the crops that were grown or currently growing are all factors as to what happens next. You are setting the table for what’s to follow in a field, raised bed, or hoop house.

If we are planning a dinner party, and break it down into smaller management decisions, it isn’t as daunting as you might think. A party should be enjoyable whether hosting or attending. You are ultimately doing it to get some satisfaction out of it. If you lay out manageable steps ahead of time when things come up unexpected like crop failure, weather issues, etc., there is no need to panic because you have a plan.

So, if I were to plan my next dinner party, I would use the following six steps as a guide-

1.     Pick the venue – your farm or land you’re farming

2.     Make the guest list – crops/insects

3.     What type of tables – the soil

4.     Choose a place setting – management/inputs

5.     Create the menu – soil fertility

6.     Then party like it’s 1999 or till the cows come home – harvesting, taking to market, planting the next crop

This week I’ll talk about the first two

1.     Pick the Venue- Your Farm or Land You're Farming

There’s not much to say about this step; you probably already have land you are currently farming unless moving or add additional land. If you still are looking for property and have options, I strongly suggest you look at the Soil Survey Website. It is full of information regarding soil type, hydrology, etc. that is beneficial in narrowing options. If at all possible I suggest considering what is already growing there or what the land is currently being used. This type of information will help you determine if it is suitable for what you want to do.

For the sake of our conversation, I’m going to assume you have land and that is what you have to work with.


2.     Making The Guest List – Picking Crops and Insects

Next, picking crops should be based on the lands capabilities and market demand.

If you have land that can only grow blueberries, cranberries, or currents, but you desperately want to grow celery, cucumbers, and cauliflower, you might want to adjust your plans. Or tailor the rest of your dinner party to accommodate those crops in the form of amending and fertilizing. This option can be financially prohibitive depending on your situation.

But if you don’t have a market for any of the previously listed crops, you need to invest in research as to what will sell, what could potentially sell, or how you could create a market and demand for what you can or want to grow.

You may have to find a happy medium in the center, growing what works best on your land while incorporating a few things you desperately want to grow, and producing things to accommodate the existing market. The possibilities are limitless but finding what works to keep your farm profitable may take some trial and error. I’m your go-to resource for what will grow, what could grow, or how to make what you want to grow all work, but marketing is not my forte.

 I leave market strategy up to other experts.

The following are some tremendous resources I've come across that have been valuable for growers I work with-

BootStrap Farmer Business Network

3 Cow Marketing


Current crops need to be taken into consideration because they are the ones already eating at the party. They are one of the primary determining factors of the next crop because you will have to replace what has already eaten or used. If you grew potatoes last year and want to grow potatoes again in the same place you need to replace or fertilize to have the nutrients that crop needs to produce and yield successfully. This is just an example, not a suggestion. Each crop you plant needs a specific ratio of nutrients. This is why soil testing, rotating and keeping records are crucial for a farms sustainability. Knowing a crops nutrient removal and requirements are vital pieces of information when making rotation decisions.

One of the best resources I have come across is the book-

Crop Rotations on Organic Farms edited by Charles L. Mohler & Sue Ellen Johnson

It is free at the following link

The reason I put insects in this category is due to the fact often we unintentionally invite guests we didn’t want. Whether this happens because we over applied manures, miss used fertilizers, or missed an opportunity with cover cropping the balance between the soil and the plant has been altered, and insects know it. Overall it weakens the plant's immune system making it more attractive to the unwanted guests such as aphids, thrips, beetles, etc. Just as our health is reliant on the efficiency and effectiveness of our immune system, so is a plant’s. If it is compromised due to malnutrition, the plant then becomes more susceptible to insect pressure ultimately leading to increased disease pressure. The following is an excellent illustration of the three factors that determine a plants vulnerability to diseases.

When it comes to insect and disease management, think of it regarding who you’re inviting to the dinner party. The use of previous management types, inputs, and crops dictate whether you are inviting troublemakers or welcome guests that will benefit and you want to have over more often. Are you fertilizing at appropriate rates, overwatering, are you clearing debris for proper ventilation, and so on?  A lot of times you will hear me refer to them as good cultural practices.

Typically, an Integrated Pest Management (IPM) programs include seven steps-

Step 1: Scouting regularly. This is the cornerstone of an effective IPM program

Step 2: Preventive Action. This includes what I previously mentioned, overuse of manures, miss use of fertilizers, or just not paying attention to the overall nutritional needs of the plant

Step 3: Identification. The proper ID of insects is critical to being able to determine the appropriate course of action

Step 4: Analysis. What needs to be done to irradiate or discourage the pest in the first place

Step 5: Treatment Selection. Choosing what is the best product to use or can it be handled with cultural practices such as weed control, hand picking, etc.

Step 6: Monitoring. Keep scouting

Step 7: Documentation. Take pictures and make field notes

You’ve picked your venue and made the guest list; this means you are a quarter of the way to having a successful dinner party. Next week we’ll talk about the fun stuff- what type of tables and place setting you want.

Ag 101 Week 24

Six Things Every Soil Test Should Include


Last week I wrote about four things your agronomist should know about you. One critical piece of information when working with an agronomist is having a soil test. It is the starting point for them to be able to build a fertility plan that makes financial and environmental sense for you and your farming system.

One challenge I face when working with farmers is not that they haven’t gotten a soil test done. However, that the results are missing critical pieces of information that are needed to make the best recommendations tailored to their specific situation. Soil test results are a snapshot of what was happening then when it was collected, however, without the entire picture making the best fertility choices can cost you financially and have unforeseen environmental impacts both on and off your farm. Investing a few minutes and dollars can ensure you get all the necessary information that will save you in the long run.


1.     pH

pH is the potential amount or concentration of hydrogen ions in the soil. It is represented by a negative logarithmic scale, zero through 14. Acidic soils, represented by a pH of below 7.0, have a higher concentration of hydrogen ions available. Alkaline soils, represented by a pH above 7.0, have a lower concentration of hydrogen ions available. It is how many hydrogen ions are in that particular soil. – Talk to the Blueberries

pH is the foundation for all soil chemistry. In which it plays a role in microbial activity that drives nutrient reactions in the soil directly affecting plant health and yields.

2.     Organic Matter (OM)

Often, I refer OM to being the pantry that microbes have access to, where nutrients are stored that plants need. Due to the fact this fraction of the soil acts as a holding area, or pantry, for several nutrients it is important to know what percentage makes up the soil in a given sample. 

OM plays a role in storing a vital nutrient, such as nitrogen. The estimated amount of nitrogen (lbs./ac) that can be released or ENR that can potentially be available over the growing season is relative to the percentage of OM present in a soil. Decomposition of organic matter can release about 20 lb. N/acre/year for each percent of organic matter. Knowing these amounts can help to adjust nitrogen inputs over the course of the growing season leading to better cover crop choices, more effective crop rotations, and increase the efficiency of a fertility program.

Depending on the lab this may not be included in a standard package and can often be overlooked. Pay close attention to the soil sample submittal form, making sure it is tested for each sample.

3.     Cation Exchange Capacity

If OM is the pantry where the nutrients can be stored, cation exchange capacity or CEC is the number of shelves or sites you have to store nutrients such as calcium, magnesium, potassium, and other positively charged ions.

Say, for example; I have two pantries’ in our home one with eight shelves and a smaller pantry with two shelves. That gives me a total of ten shelves to place food on for storage. Clay, which is predominantly negatively charged could potentially be the pantry with eight shelves and be able to store nutrients that have a positive charge. OM could be the pantry with two shelves, being made up of both negatively and positively charged ions, can store either. In the case of nutrient storage in soil, how much and where is relative to the amount of clay and OM and the sum is referred to as the Total Cation Exchange Capacity (TCEC).

4.     Base Saturation

Base Saturation is a percentage of a nutrient, or cation makes up the TCEC. How much shelf space in the pantry that particular cation is occupying in relationship to the total size of the pantry.  When it comes to balancing soil nutrients, there is a school of thought that uses percent base saturation results. Whether that is the measure you are using to adjust nutrients or not, it is still a good overview as to the ratios nutrients are present in the soil. And can be used to help determine the most useful input to achieve the desired balance of nutrients based on other factors as well.

Nutrients that should be included are

Potassium (K), Calcium (Ca), Magnesium (Mg), Hydrogen (H), and Sodium (Na)

5.     Macro Nutrients

For this post, which is to make sure farmers get the appropriate tests results for an agronomist to make sound and appropriate recommendations, I am listing nutrients that a standard soil test should include, and as they are categorized by most labs across the country. For example, I could go into more detail talking at length regarding Nitrate testing and the categorization of sulfur being a micronutrient as opposed to a macro. But that’s not the point of this post.  What a farmer needs to have reported in the results are the following essential nutrients that make up the majority of a plants diet including-

Calcium, Magnesium, Potassium, and Phosphorus

6.     Micro Nutrients

Sometimes referred to as trace elements, due to the fact they are required in smaller amounts than the previously listed macronutrients.

These should include sulfur, zinc, boron, copper, manganese, and iron. Depending on the lab, sodium could be reported under this category as well. I’ve listed them in importance for how and why I make fertility recommendations. Farmers need to note that some labs charge per element or as a group. You have to be diligent when filling out the soil sample submittal form, including ones that are pertinent to your situation.

Don’t let a few extra minutes or a couple of extra dollars keep you from getting-

The Six Things Every Soil Test Should Include