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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: Equipment & Facilities

Living With Horses

Living With Horses

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The French breed of Ardennes is closer to what the breed has been in the past. The Ardennes has always been a stockier type of horse, rude as its environment. Today the breed has dramatically changed into a real heavy horse. If the Ardennes had an average weight between 550 and 700kg in the first part of the last century, the balance shows today 1000kg and more. Thus the difference between the Ardennes and their “big” sisters, the Brabants in Belgium, or the Trait du Nord in France, has gone.

Sleds

Sleds

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The remainder of this section on Agricultural Implements is about homemade equipment for use with draft animals. These implements are all proven and serviceable. They are easily worked by a single animal weighing 1,000 pounds, and probably a good deal less. Sleds rate high on our homestead. They can be pulled over rough terrain. They do well traversing slopes. Being low to the ground, they are very easy to load up.

John Deere Model A Tractor

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Your John Deere Tractor has a range of speeds. These various speeds not only give you the flexibility and adaptability you want, but also they enable you to balance the load and the speed for maximum economy. However, if you are handling a light load and want to travel at slow speed, it is far better to put your tractor into the gear which gives you the speed you want than to use a higher gear and throttle down.

Champion No.4 Mower Reaper

The Champion No. 4 Combined Mower and Self-Raking Reaper

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The project for the winter of 2010 was a Champion No. 4 mower made sometime around 1878 by the Champion Machine Works of Springfield, Ohio. The machine was designed primarily as a mower yet for an additional charge a reaping attachment could be added. The mower was in remarkably good condition for its age. After cleaning dirt from gears and oiling, we put the machine on blocks and found that none of the parts were frozen and everything moved.

Shoeing Stocks

An article from the out-of-print Winter 1982 Issue of SFJ.

Eighteen Dollar Harrow

Eighteen Dollar Harrow

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This is the story of a harrow on a budget. I saw plans on the Tillers International website for building an adjustable spike tooth harrow. I modified the plans somewhat to suit the materials I had available and built a functional farm tool for eighteen dollars. The manufactured equivalent would have cost at least $300.

Build Your Own Butter Churn

Build Your Own Butter Churn

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Fresh butter melting on hot homemade bread… Isn’t that the homesteader’s dream? A cheap two-gallon stock pot from the local chain store got me started in churn building. It was thin stainless steel and cost less than ten bucks. I carted it home wondering what I might find in my junk pile to run the thing. I found an old squirrel cage fan and pulled the little motor to test it. I figure that if it could turn a six-inch fan, it could turn a two-inch impeller.

LittleField Notes Spring 2013

LittleField Notes: Spring 2013

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If we agree that quality of plowing is subject to different criteria at different times and in different fields, then perhaps the most important thing to consider is control. How effectively can I plow to attain my desired field condition based on my choice of plow? The old time plow manufacturers understood this. At one time there were specific moldboards available for every imaginable soil type and condition.

Basil Scarberrys Ground-Drive Forecart

Basil Scarberry’s Ground-Drive Forecart

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I used an ’84 Chevrolet S-10 rear end to build my forecart, turn it over to get right rotation, used master cylinder off buggy and 2” Reese hitch, extend hitch out to use P.T.O. The cart is especially useful for tedding hay. However, its uses are virtually unlimited. We use it for hauling firewood on a trailer, for pulling a disc and peg tooth harrow, for hauling baled hay on an 8’ x 16’ hay wagon, and just for a jaunt about the farm and community.

Pferdestarke

German Version of Horse Progress Days: Pferdestark

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There is a rather neat phrase in German – ‘wenn schon, denn schon’ – which literally translates as ‘enough already, then already;’ but what it actually means is ‘if a something is worth doing, it is worth doing well. That would be a fitting description of Pferdestark, the German version of Horse Progress Days. For sheer variety of different breeds of draught horses, regional and national harness styles, or for that matter, languages or hats, it would be hard to beat Pferdestark.

John Deere Side Delivery Rake No 594

John Deere Side Delivery Rake No. 594

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When starting a new side rake, turn the reel by hand to be sure it revolves freely and the teeth do not strike the stripper bars. Then throw the rake in gear and turn the wheel by hand to see that the tooth bars and gears run free. Breakage of parts, which causes serious delay and additional expense, can be avoided by taking these precautions before entering the field.

Wheel Hoe

The Wheel Hoe: A Tool For Shallow Tillage

When we bought this little farm I soon realized I needed a wheel hoe. The size of the horse and tractor dictated space wasting wide rows in crop production and, to some degree, so does my two wheeled tractor.

Between Ourselves & Our Land

Between Ourselves & Our Land

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Since being introduced to the straddle row cultivator last year in hilling our potatoes, I have been excited to experiment with different tools mounted under the versatile machine. Like the famed Allis Chalmers G or Farmall Cub my peers of the internal combustion persuasion utilize on their vegetable farms, this tool can help maximize efficiency in many ways on the small farm.

New Idea Manure Spreaders

New Idea Manure Spreaders

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There is no fixed method of loading. The best results are usually obtained by starting to load at the front end, especially in long straw manure. To get good results do not pile any manure into the cylinders. The height of the load depends upon the condition of the manure, the condition and nature of the field. Do not put on extra side boards. Be satisfied with the capacity of the machine and do not abuse it. Overloading will be the cause of loss of time sooner or later.

McCormick-Deering Potato Digger

McCormick-Deering Potato Digger

McCormick Deering (eventually International Harvestor) made what many believe to be one of the outstanding potato digger models. This post features the text and illustrations from the original manufacturer’s setup and operation literature, handed to the new owners upon purchase. This implement, pulled by two horses or a small suitable tractor, dug up the taters and conveyed them up an inclined, rattling chain which shook off most of the dirt and laid the crop on top of the ground for collection

The Cutting Edge

The Cutting Edge

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In the morning we awoke to a three quarters of a mile long swath of old growth mixed conifer and aspen trees, uprooted and strewn everywhere we looked. We hadn’t moved here to become loggers, but it looked like God had other plans! We had chosen to become caretakers of this beautiful place because of the peace and quiet, the clean air, the myriad of birds and wildlife! Thus, we were presented with a challenge: how to clean up this blowdown in a clean, sustainable way.

The Tip Cart

The Tip Cart

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When horses were the main source of power on every farm, in the British Isles it was the tip-cart, rather than the wagon which was the most common vehicle, and for anyone farming with horses, it is still an extremely useful and versatile piece of equipment. The farm cart was used all over the country, indeed in some places wagons were scarcely used at all, and many small farms in other areas only used carts.

Barbed Wire History and Varieties

Book Excerpt: The invention of barb wire was the most important event in the solution of the fence problem. The question of providing fencing material had become serious, even in the timbered portions of the country, while the great prairie region was almost wholly without resource, save the slow and expensive process of hedging. At this juncture came barb wire, which was at once seen to make a cheap, effective, and durable fence, rapidly built and easily moved.

Journal Guide