By Ben Trollinger
Acres U.S.A. editor, Tractor Time podcast host
On Wednesday, August 25, Acres U.S.A. kicked off the 3rd annual Healthy Soil Summit with deep dives into the biological processes at work within healthy agricultural systems (Steve Becker and Dennis Warnecke), the principles behind keyline water management (Mark Shepard), a successful regenerative organic no-till farm (Rick Clark), and the importance of balanced mineral nutrition in a farm soils (Meagan Perry Kaiser).
All About Biology
To start the event, Steve Becker, the chief science officer at Tainio Biologicals, teamed up with colleague Dennis Warnecke, the director of sales for the Washington-based company, to offer a whirlwind tour of the wild, underground world of soil biology.
Industrial agriculture tries to convince us that plants are almost too stupid to live, needing constant intervention in the form of herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers.
However, on Wednesday morning, Becker and Warnecke presented a radically different vision, one that embraces the wisdom of biological processes and plants. They explained that the “incredible genetic potential of your crop can be unlocked with biological farm management.” Like humans, plants have digestive systems and microbiomes. Where we have “roots” along the walls of our intestines in the form of villi, plants have roots that form symbiotic alliances with bacteria and fungi to cycle nutrients back and forth.
“Soil microorganisms are the big link between mineral resources and plant growth,” they said.
Just Add Water
Mark Shepard, a Wisconsin-based permaculture designer, agroforester and ecological farming consultant, was next in the event line-up. The author of the best-selling Restoration Agriculture: Real-World Permaculture for Farmers gave an overview of keyline water management principles.
“We can capture every single drop of water and keep it there,” he said.
Originally developed in Australia by P.A. Yeomans in the 1950s, keyline design uses natural landscape contours and to harness rainwater and build healthy soil.
Shepard’s latest book from Acres U.S.A., Water for Any Farm, goes into great details for how such systems can be used in the agricultural landscapes of North America.
On Wednesday, Shepard explained how good water management will “light up your biology.”
No-Till, No Problem
Rick Clark, a 5th generation farmer from Williamsport, Indiana, gave an inspirational keynote address that was part motivational speech and part master class in no-till organic principles.
Working more than 4,200 certified organic acres, Clark uses diverse cocktails of cover crops to fuel the growth of corn, soybeans, wheat and other cash crops.
He explained that in addition to supplying the soil with food for microbes, cover crops also play a big role in his 70-30 principle: 70 percent of the weed suppression comes from cover crops and 30 percent comes from the crop canopy. He said the no-till farmer should view his cover crops as being just as important as his cash crops. “The success of next year’s cash crop starts with the success of this year’s cover crop,” he said.
Going no-till has also allowed Clark to transition the balance of his soil to tilt more toward fungal than bacterial. “That’s exactly where I want to be,” he said. Clark also talked about using livestock like cattle to cycle nutrients into the soil and drive fertility.
Clark estimates that he’s saved over a $1 million a year by going no-till and cutting out synthetic chemicals.
Meagan Perry Kaiser, the chief operations officer and soil scientist of the Missouri-based Perry Agricultural Laboratory, Inc., closed out Day 1 with an overview of the importance of technology and soil testing in identifying deficiencies and opportunities in agricultural soils.
Coming Up Next
The Healthy Soil Summit concludes on Thursday, August 26, with presentations from Dan Kittredge, of the Bionutrient Food Association, and Mimi Casteel, a regenerative winemaker based in Oregon, as well as virtual farm tours of Alderspring Ranch, a grass-fed beef operation in Idaho, and Fillmore Farms, a walnut orchard in California. Additionally, Day 2 will feature a farmer panel tackling the question, “Does Soil Health Pay?”
Interested in joining us for Day 2? We’re offering a limited-time one-day ticket at a discount. Joins us for the second day, and get access to both days of recordings. This is your best opportunity to take advantage of in-depth soil education from these knowledgeable experts. Sign up today!
Update! Read our Day 2 Recap here! And if you are interested in purchasing the replay of the 2021 Healthy Soil Summit, you can check it out here.