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Cultivating Questions

Dear Nordells,

I have enjoyed your articles thoroughly and have learned a whole lot. The recent section on phosphorus prompted me to ask about fertilizer suppliers.

We (our family) have had difficulty locating soft rock phosphate, and frankly, any other organic rock fertilizers in quantity. Locally, we are aware of none; shipping from elsewhere usually is outrageously priced. Where do you get your phosphate? How about greensand? Do you have any ideas for finding a local or otherwise reasonable distributor?

Once again, your column is most informative. Any help you can give me regarding suppliers would be greatly appreciated!

Thanks,

Stacy Gerry

Pleasant View, TN

The sources of rock phosphate that we use are actually closer to Tennessee than Pennsylvania. For instance, the black rock product which we applied directly to the fields for a few years is mined in North Carolina while the colloidal clay rock phosphate which we use in the composting pigpens is a byproduct of the phosphate mines in Florida.

The least expensive way we know of to purchase these minerals is to order a tractor trailer load direct from the sources. We have inquired about prices from wholesale distributors who advertize their services in Acres-USA (PO Box 91299, Austin, TX 78709 1-800-355-5313). For example, Hugh Paddock of Greenwood, IN (317-881-6143) quoted us a price in January 1998 of $72/ton for the Lonfosco brand of colloidal clay soft rock delivered to our farm from Minehead, Florida. We had intended to split a truckload with several dairy farmers in the area, but due to the low milk prices at the time we were unsuccessful at putting a group order together. Needless to say, we did not have a large enough storage area — or pocketbook — to take the whole 22 ton load!

Instead, we have relied on local distributors for rock mineral. In the 80’s, we purchased soft rock by the pickup load for $3.00/50 lbs bag from a farmer located 15 miles away. He became a distributor for Earth-Rite natural fertilizers (633 Quarry Rd., Gap, PA 17527 717-442-4171) in order to get their products delivered at discounted prices. Becoming a distributor would be one way to get these materials into your area without paying retail prices.

When this farmer retired in the early 90’s, we began purchasing rock phosphate from a Fertrell salesman who stops at the farm on his monthly route supplying feed minerals to dairy farmers in the area. This arrangement certainly is convenient, although the prices we are now paying for phosphorus have almost doubled over what we paid in the 80’s. (Fertrell is a national supplier of natural fertilizers and livestock supplements. Contact the main office at PO box 265, Bainbridge, PA 17502 #717-367-1566 for their closest distributor.

Now that the phosphorus levels in the market garden appear more than adequate, we no longer purchase rock phosphate for direct application to the vegetable fields. However, we continue to purchase rock minerals to add to the composting process and to slowly but surely upgrade our long neglected pastures. The payback for remineralizing these malnourished paddocks has been a significant increase in volunteer clover the year after applying this slow-release form of phosphorus.

Keep in mind that the rock phosphate products on the market have different analyses and physical characteristics. For example, the collodial clay products contain about 18% P and are very dusty. We think the black rock, containing over 30% P, is better suited for field application with the horse drawn fertilizer spreader pictured in the Winter 2000 photo essay. In fact, this fine, sandlike material is so free flowing we find it advantageous to mix in a coarser material, like gypsum, or some of our own screen compost. Mixing in these materials slows down the flow of the black rock and should make the phosphorus more available to the soil life and the plants.

On the other hand, we prefer the collodial clay type of soft rock for use in the composting pigpens because it does a better job of tying down the ammonia in the fresh additions of horse manure. Also, this is the only type of rock phosphate which we use as a mineral supplement for the horses and other farm animals for the important reason that it has been deflourinated. Likewise, the collodial clay products would be the safest material for continued applications to the fields in order to prevent the buildup of fluoride, cadmium, and other heavy metals.

We hope the message came through loud and clear in The Great Phosphate Debate that there are other ways to improve phosphorus availability in the soil than trucking in rock materials. Animal manures are a good source of phosphorus, particularly the droppings from poultry. Mulch materials and high carbon cover crops can promote fungal activity, in this way releasing the stores of locked up phosphorus in the soil.

Even better, from the standpoint of long-term sustainability, would be including a grass/legume sod in the rotation to increase overall biological activity and to extract the phosphorus reserves through the sod’s extensive root system. Legume cover crops and buckwheat have also earned the reputation of being natural extractors of phosphorus. In fact, recent research at Geneva, NY by Thomas Bjorkman indicates that a fall cover crop of buckwheat can provide a good bit of available phosphorus early the next spring when the soil is too cold to release this nutrient through biological activity.

In retrospect, we fear we may have done readers a disservice by focussing The Great Phosphate Debate entirely on the different ideas about building up and balancing phosphorus levels in the soil, we should also have emphasized the dangers of oversupplying phosphorus. Indeed, one of the peculiar challenges facing market gardeners is that vegetable crops use relatively small quantities of nutrients, like phosphorus, but return little in the way of organic matter to the soil. The temptation for growers of high value produce is to replenish the organic matter in the soil by applying manure or compost to the fields year after year.

Over the long run, this practice can lead to excessively high levels of nutrients, which is not the best for the crops or the environment. Although livestock producers have received the brunt of the blame for phosphate pollution here in the Northeast, several states are proposing to make vegetable growers next in line for mandatory nutrient management plans due to their role in saturating the soil with nutrients.

To provide a down-to-earth perspective on this issue, we offer the following article by Brian Caldwell on how organic growers can increase organic matter without overloading the soil with nutrients. His carefully considered arguments, and creative solutions, come from years of experience as an organic grower and Cooperative Extension agent in Tioga County, New York.

We like to think that the bio-extensive approach to market gardening minimizes the risk of overloading the soil with nutrients because the fallow lands make it possible to grow lots of cover crops to maintain soil structure and organic matter rather than relying on large quantities of manure and compost. However, we are now seeing the consequences of ignoring our own farm philosophy when we resorted to off-farm inputs to correct a phosphate deficiency.

To reverse the slow-but-steady decline in phosphorus levels showing up in our long-term, PASA sponsored soil quality trial, we initiated the all-out phosphorus building campaign described in the Winter 2000 column. This included the application of 500 lbs/acre of black rock in the market garden for three years in a row during the mid-90’s, followed by cultural methods, like adding cow manure to the compost mix, and including buckwheat and double-cut rye in the rotation of cover crops.

The impact of this “campaign for phosphorus” did not show up on the soil test reports until recently — a delayed reaction? or cumulative effect? we do not know. One thing is for sure, that when we replicated Klaas and Mary-Howell Martens’ monthly soil testing trial last year, P levels in our fields were all very high! In fact, the levels of available phosphate have risen from a low of 100 lbs of P205/acre in 1993 to over 200 lbs/acre in the last two years as measured by Brookside Lab. While these high levels are still well below the saturation point causing phosphate pollution, we clearly added more rock phosphate than necessary.

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Spotlight On: Crops & Soil

Lost Apples

Lost Apples

The mindboggling agricultural plant and animal diversity, at the beginning of the twentieth century, should have been a treasure trove which mankind worked tirelessy to maintain. Such has not been the case. Alas, much has been lost, perhaps forever. Here are images and information on a handful of apple varieties from a valuable hundred year old text in our library.

Of Peace and Quiet

LittleField Notes: Of Peace and Quiet

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Walk with me for a moment to the edge of the Waterfall Field. We can lean on the gate and let our gaze soak up the mid-summer scene: a perfect blue sky and not a breath of wind. Movement catches your eye, and in the distance you see a threesome hard at work in the hayfield. Two Suffolk horses, heads bobbing, making good time followed by a man comfortably seated on a mowing machine. The waist high grass and clover falls steadily in neat swaths behind the mower. What you can’t help but notice is the quiet.

How to Grow an Acre of Potatoes

How to Grow an Acre of Potatoes

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Heretofore potato production in this country has been conducted along extensive rather than intensive lines. In other words, we have been satisfied to plant twice as many acres as should have been necessary to produce a sufficient quantity of potatoes for our food requirements. Present economic conditions compel the grower to consider more seriously the desirability of reducing the cost of production by increasing the yield per acre.

Peach

Peach

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The Peach is a showy tree when in bloom. There are double-flowered varieties, which are as handsome as the dwarf flowering almond, and they are more showy because of the greater size of the tree. The flowers of the Peach are naturally variable in both size and color. Peach-growers are aware that there are small-flowered and large-flowered varieties. The character of the flower is as characteristic of the variety as size or color of fruit is.

Starting Seeds

From Dusty Shelves: A WWII era article from Farming For Security

Making Sorghum Molasses

Making Sorghum Molasses

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Growing sorghum doesn’t take much work, according to Buhrman. You plant it in the spring, work it a couple of times and that’s about all that’s required until late in the growing season. That is when the work begins. Before it is cut, all the stalks have to be “bladed” – the leaves removed from the stalks. It’s then cut, then the tassles are cut off, and the stalks are fed through a crusher. The crusher forces the juices out of the plant. The sorghum juice is then boiled in a vat for four to five hours until nothing is left but the syrup.

Prairie Grass A Jewel Among Kernels

Prairie Grass: A Jewel Among Kernels

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Years ago, my brother advised against plowing the patch of prairie on the back forty of our Hubbard, Iowa farm. “Some day,” he predicted, “that prairie will be as valuable as the rest of the 40 acres. We know how to grow corn; but that prairie was seeded by the last glacier.” Left untilled by generations of my family, the troublesome treasure has now become a jewel among a cluster of conventional crops on the farm.

Evolution of a Permanent Bed System

Evolution of a Permanent Bed System

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After three or four years we could see that the nature of our farming practices would continue to have detrimental effects on our soils. We were looking for a new approach, a routine that would be sustainable, rather than a rescue treatment for an ongoing problem. We decided to convert our fields to permanent planting beds with grassy strips in between where all tractor, foot and irrigation pipe traffic would be concentrated.

Cultivating Questions Winterkilled Cover Crops for a Mild Climate Part 2

Cultivating Questions: Winterkilled Cover Crops For A Mild Climate Part 2

Finding just the right cover crop-tillage combination for crops planted the last half of June has always been a real challenge in our location. While surface-tilling mature rye and vetch in May works well for fall crops established in July and August, this cover crop-tillage combo does not allow enough time for decomposition and moisture accumulation for end-of-June plantings.

Apple Cider Autumns Nectar

Apple Cider, Autumn’s Nectar

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While autumn’s beauty is food for our souls, autumn’s harvest provides food for our tables. Along with the many hours and days of canning and freezing our garden produce, harvest time also means apple cider making for our family. We have been making apple cider, or sweet cider as it is commonly called, for six years. Beginning slowly, the demand for our juice has resulted in a production of over six hundred gallons this year.

Cultivating Questions Winterkilled Cover Crops for a Mild Climate

Cultivating Questions: Winterkilled Cover Crops For A Mild Climate Part 1

Our mild climate makes it too easy to overwinter cover crops. Then the typically wet springs (and, on our farm, wet soils) let the cover put on loads of topgrowth before getting on the soil. Buckwheat is the only crop that I can be certain will winterkill. Field peas, oats, annual rye and crimson clover have all overwintered here. Any suggestions?

Syrup From Oregons Big-Leaf Maple

Syrup From Oregon’s Big Leaf Maple

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There is a great potential in establishment of a seasonal “sugarbush” industry for small farmers of the northwestern states, particularly western Oregon and Washington. Five syrup producing species of maples are found mainly east of the Rocky Mountains. The Box Elder and the Big-leaf Maple are the only syrup producing maples of the Pacific Northwest. Properly made syrup from these two western maples is indistinguishable from the syrup of maples of the midwestern and northeastern states.

Purslane, Portahoopies and Plow Planted Peas

Purslane, Portahoopies and Plow Planted Peas

For those not familiar with this tasty, nutritious weed, purslane can be a real challenge to manage in vegetable crops for a number of reasons. The seeds of this weed remain viable for many years in the garden, and generally do not germinate until hot weather — that is, after many of the market garden crops have already been planted. To make matters worse, this succulent plant often reroots after cultivation. Purslane also grows so close to the ground that it is impossible to control by mowing.

Cultivating Questions

Cultivating Questions: Concerning the Bioextensive Market Garden

One of our goals when we first started farming here was to develop the farm as a self-contained nutrient system. Unlike the almost complete recycling of nutrients which can take place on a livestock operation, we are always amazed – even a little disturbed – to see how many tons of fertility and organic matter leave the market garden each year with so little returned to the good earth.

Raised Bed Gardening

Raised Bed Gardening

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Raised beds may not be right for everyone, and our way is not the only way. I have seen raised beds made from rows of 5’ diameter kiddy pools, and heard of a fellow who collected junk refrigerators from the dump and lined them up on their backs into a rainbow of colored enameled steel raised beds. Even rows of five-gallon pails filled with plants count as raised beds in my estimation. Do it any way you care to, but do it if it’s right for you.

Journal Guide