Ohio State University agriculture specialists spent Friday talking about cover crops, no-till methods, integrated pest management, and every which way farmers can avoid using chemical fertilizers and pesticides.
It was music to the ears of the organic farmers who gathered to hear them.
“This is news,” said Harv Roehling, 76, operator of Locust Run Farm near Cincinnati. “Twenty-five years ago, people from OSU were on the wrong side of the podium. They didn’t know anything except the chemical approach.”
Steve Edwards of Earth-Shares CSA in Loveland, also near Cincinnati, agreed with Roehling.
“There was a time when organic farmers were seen as kooks,” he said. “We’ve been saying for years that organic farming works. Now they’ve got the data to show it does.”
Six educators from OSU Extension across the state, and two researchers from the Ohio Agriculture Research and Development Center in Wooster presented the workshop, “Eco-Farming, Biodiversity and Soil Health: A Systems Approach to Enhancing Productivity” at Cherry Valley Lodge in Newark. The program preceded a two-day sustainable agriculture conference held each year by the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association, a Columbus-based group with a mission to educate the public and certify organic farmers. The main conference runs Saturday and Sunday in Granville.
One of the classic images of farming is a tractor turning dirt in the field. But that’s exactly what the speakers want to eliminate, since tilling reduces beneficial microbes in the soil, releases more carbon dioxide into the air and sends phosphorus and nitrogen into water systems such as Lake Erie. In the last few years, overloads of phosphorus into the lake has contributed to algal growth, some of it toxic.
Jim Hoorman of OSUE in Mercer County
talked about “ECO-farming,” a method that combines the practice of keeping living plants in the soil as much of the year as possible. Their roots maintain microbial life that feeds crops a lot of what they need.
“If you put 45 pounds (per acre) of nitrogen (fertilizer) on the of the soil, how much goes to the plant,” Hoorman asked. “About 33 percent. If you put 90 pounds, the plants take up 38 percent of that and if you put 98 pounds, the plant gets 50 percent of that.
“So where does the plant get the rest of its nitrogen? From plant matter in the soil. If you increase that, it’s possible you don’t have to add nearly as much fertilizer.”
Phosphorus supplies are dwindling worldwide, said Hoorman.
“They’ve got some big stocks in Florida, but when they run out we’re going to have to go to different parts of the world. And I don’t think we want to be tied to Morocco for our phosphate. Organic matter is the lag screw that will keep fertilizer in the soil.”
In practice, Hoorman has seen a corn farmer use the ECO-farming method and produce higher yields than farmers who only applied chemical fertilizer. And the ECO farmer’s yields stayed high – and higher than the others’ – during a drought.
“He’s growing his own nitrogen,” Hoorman said of the cover crop planting.
Covering an acre of farm with one percent of organic soil matter can save $670 in fertilizer costs, he said.
Other speakers emphasized Hoorman’s program, touting the importance of all players in the soil, including microbes, fungi, bacteria, nematodes and some insects.
Each stressed that there is no one formula that will work for every farm. Two new tools under development were introduced including a soil organic matter calculator that uses software to help plan practices such as crop rotation, and a soil testing kit that can be used on location to measure organic matter and nitrogen.
Brad Bergefurd, an OSU horticulture specialist from Piketon in southern Ohio, promoted the use of plastic mulch and high plastic tunnels to extend the growing season. Black works best as a mulch cover, he said, and farmers should consider using compost-filled agricultural “socks” to grow vertically in the space above a tunnel’s ground plants.
“Tunnels mean higher quality and higher yields,” he said. “And they retain customers. When you sell someone their first market tomato of the year, you’ve basically got that customer for the rest of the season.”
OSU Extension sent out a press release this month touting the number of their educators appearing at this year’s conference – 17 in all.
Rafiq Islam, an OSU researcher also from Piketon, agreed with farmer Roehling that it is newsworthy.
“Historically, not that many people at the university have been thinking about sustainable agriculture,” he said. “But the game has changed. We are thinking about ecosystems and sustainability as we see what’s happening with the fluctuations of the weather or what’s going on in Lake Erie.”
At one time, a strong vein of research money came from the fertilizer companies themselves, said Islam. “They had the money and they could try to push people in their direction,” he said.
Now, he sees a strong push toward sustainable, if not organic, farming from OSU leadership, federal grants and what he calls a smart new generation dedicated to the issue.
“We have to take care of Mother Nature,” he said. “We can’t just use her soil anymore, we have to manage it.”