Tuesday, June 11, 2013

All the Buzz: the Importance of Pollinators to our Food Supply

Pollinators come in several shapes and sizes, although the most-well known are the several varieties of bees and butterflies we encounter during warm weather. Plants depend on pollinators to fertilize them and spread their seeds. Without their hard work about one-third of our food supply would be drastically affected.

According to the EPA and Agriculture Department, honey bee colonies have been dying and the number of colonies has more than halved since 1947. This decline has increasingly been reported in the news (here, here, and here for examples); scientists have dedicated careers to studying its causes (like the Xerces Society); and it has even gotten attention on Capitol Hill. The problem of disappearing pollinators isn't one that can be solved by a "silver bullet" solution, though, as the known causes of the decline are numerous. This list is in no particular order:

  • Improper and over-use of pesticides and herbicides
  • Parasites
  • Reduced habitat
  • Climate change
  • Limited genetic diversity in American bees leaves them weaker to variations in their environment (EPA)
  • Competition to native plant species from invasive ones
  • Lack of floral diversity
As an aside, domesticated bee colony numbers are on the rise (source).

Agricultural producers are very aware of the decline of pollinators - especially bees. Inputs such as pesticides, combined with limited ecological diversity and crop rotation, contribute to the decline of pollinators. Producers and conservationists combat this by using ag practices that improve biodiversity and pollinator habitat on their farms, plant cover crops, rotate their cash crops, use practices that reduce the need for pesticide and herbicide applications, and more. Read more about what farmers can do to help pollinators.

Landowners can promote pollinator habitat and survival through several practices. Planting flowering native plants, reducing or outright declining to use pesticides and herbicides, and creating nesting areas through leaving patches of ground bare, installing nesting blocks, and planting caterpillar host plants. Learn more from the Xerces Society.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

(Mis)Conceptions about Soil Health

by Logan Garner
Indiana State Department of Agriculture
Program Manager, Water Quality Initiatives

Unless you are involved in agriculture in Indiana, you may not have heard the term “soil health.” We are fortunate to live in a state where so many farmers are focusing on the improvement of our soils, and are adopting the concept that healthy soils mean good things for their crops, their wallets and the natural resources which sustain both.

Still, not every farmer sees the benefits of building soil health. There are some misconceptions about soil health as a goal which may give the impression that it does not apply to them. For instance, some growers still ask, “if I put nutrients in my soil, then isn’t my soil healthy?”

While putting nutrients on the ground does allow for greater nutrient availability to plants, it does not improve the soil’s inherent ability to function. Soil health is not just about how much Nitrogen, Phosphorus or Potassium is available to a crop, but how well the soil as an ecosystem exchanges those nutrients, how well it allows water (and nutrients and air) to infiltrate below the surface of the ground, and how much water holding capacity lies within the soil’s structure.
An excellent gauge of all these abilities is the organic matter in the soil. This is ultimately a measure of carbon in the soil. Some soils have more and some have less, but there’s a lot more to it than that. When carbon levels in the soil rise, it means that things are living and metabolizing there. Bacteria, insects, earthworms and fungi all play specific roles in helping nutrient exchange and availability for plant roots to tap into, and the more, the better!

Building organic matter also allows pores (or holes) in the soil to hold their structure, which means more water can flow through the soil, and more water fills those pores. Another way to say all this is “better infiltration and greater water-holding capacity leads to better water availability to the crop.” The improved infiltration also results in less runoff, less soil loss and reduced flooding.

If all this is true, then why isn’t everyone doing it? There’s no quick answer to this. First and foremost, there is little formal research on soil health. A search of academic journals quickly shows that the term “soil health” is just that—a term. However, the important role of organic matter in a soil’s capacity to sustain crops is well known by ag researchers.

While this lack of research data on soil health may seem like a small hurdle to those who see the readily visible and practical benefits from building soil health, it’s a flag to individuals who want to “see the numbers” before exploring the issue. So as conservationists, we should be asking the question differently. For example, “If given the choice between soil with low organic matter and soil with high organic matter, which one would you choose?” I don’t think a single person would pick the first choice. This same argument can be made for other issues that compromise soil health and long term sustainability (such as soil compaction and soil erosion). 

Ultimately, soil health is not about conservation program enrollment. It’s not about participation in cropping initiatives. Healthy soil is the result of a system of conservation cropping practices, such as no-till and a cover crop regimen. These are all tools (excellent ones, at that) which will help to reach the goal of building soil organic matter which is inherently good for production, the economy and the environment.

Bottom line — building soil health comes about through the process involved in building organic matter--keeping living plants in the soil as long as possible and keeping the soil surface covered with residue year round.

For more information on soil health, contact members of the Indiana Conservation Partnership, a collaboration of eight groups supporting on-the-ground agricultural and urban conservation practices across the state. They can be found at the ICP website: http://www.iaswcd.org/icp/index.html and their cooperative program, the Conservation Cropping Systems Initiative at: http://www.iaswcd.org/CCSI/ccsi.html.

Friday, April 26, 2013

WHIP and Hunting: A True Story

Perry County Soil & Water Conservation District Supervisor, farmer, and conservationist Jim Fiedler sent us this inspiring story about a fifth-grader bagging her first turkey. The turkey flock was attracted to Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program (WHIP) land - acreage that had been preserved specifically to attract wildlife and all the benefits it brings to a farm's ecosystem.

Jim writes, 
"Miss Kayla is 11 years old and in the 5th grade at Perry Central Elementary and an avid hunter. The Turkey was measured at Michael’s Market’s check in. It weighed 25 pounds with an 11 inch beard and 18 mm spurs. I know that is big but a turkey hunting enthusiast who has hunted all over the country...told me he has only killed two that big: one 25 pounds and one 26 pounds. (I believe the Indiana state record may be 25 pounds!)

"Kayla killed her first deer last fall but did not even take a photo because it was too ‘small’. This certainly makes up for it! Her dad, Bert took her hunting on Saturday which was the first day of youth hunting. But it was late after he got home. So he got home earlier the next day on Sunday and took her to the blind they had set up on my property on the far edge of the big field in front of my house.

"There were several turkeys in the field and they started coming toward their blind but they became spooked and turned back. Bert decided it was late and left Kayla alone in the blind while he went for his truck. He heard the shot and Kayla yelled, 'I got the son of a gun!' as he walked to the truck! So it definitely was her turkey all by herself. She used a single shot 20 gauge shotgun...and is having a full mount of the turkey to keep in the corner of her bedroom!

"Here is an interesting side note about the field where she shot it. The 40 acre field was planted in cover crops last fall as part of the government WHIP (Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program) for drought relief for farmers. I think an 11 year old girl killing her first turkey while the flock was feeding on WHIP acreage is just what [the conservation program] intended. She should be the poster person!

"Kayla is very modest and did not at first want to be seen ‘bragging’ about killing a turkey but decided it was okay when she understood how it can encourage others [to value conservation]."

Conservation's values and rewards aren't limited to farmers. Wildlife, hikers, hunters, bird-watchers, pollinators, scientists, young people, teachers - the list goes on, but the point is that conservation's benefits are realized not just by the folks who are responsible for its implementation on their lands, but by all of us.

Learn more about conservation and hunting by checking into organizations such as Ducks Unlimited and Pheasants Forever. Learn more about ecologically and personally responsible and ethical hunting from organizations like Orion, the Hunters' Institute and the Indiana DNR's safety course.

Celebrating Stewardship in Indiana

Stewardship Week kicks off on Sunday, April 28. The theme this year is "Where Does Your Water Shed?" The purpose of having a week dedicated to learning about and celebrating stewardship gives us the opportunity to remember our own commitment to protecting our resources, as well as show off our accomplishments and announce our goals and expectations for the coming challenges.

In Indiana, our abundant natural resources are truly something to celebrate, as are the women and men who work tirelessly to protect and improve them. Farmers who value the sustainability of their operation and the long-term health of their land; scientists who are committed to determining the best practices for conservation, improving water quality, and soil health; community members dedicated to making sure their neighbors are aware of the value and benefits of conservation; the elected or appointed leaders of the state who make sure conservation issues are given a voice; and volunteers who go above and beyond to be good stewards of the land in all capacities.

Inspiring stories can be found in all corners of the state. One of my favorites comes from the southeast, an area known for old coal mines, freeway construction projects, and low-lying river bottom land. In this instance, invasive weeds had totally dominated an area of an abandoned, exposed surface mining project. A local man, dedicated to restoring the land's integrity, worked with all sorts of companies, government agencies, and neighbors to eradicate acres of kudzu, honeysuckle, tree of heaven, and other rampantly-growing invasive plants. It involved renting heavy machinery, hours and hours of time, and a sustained commitment to seeing it through.

In another story, closer to our office's home in Indianapolis, a section of a parking lot at the Indiana State Fair was reclaimed in order to build a model of a healthy watershed. Crazy idea, huh? The crazier thing is that twenty years later it's still there, attracting hundreds of visitors and learners each year. Pathway to Water Quality was featured in the February issue of My Indiana Home - check out the article here. This coming Tuesday, we'll be reading a proclamation recognizing Stewardship Week and the value of watersheds out at PWQ with members of the Indiana Conservation Partnership and state government.

What is your commitment to stewardship? Make sure to let your community know! Any time is good, but this coming week - Stewardship Week - is particularly good.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

For The Sake Of Soil, Sustainability and Profits, Just Say "No" To Tillage

Spring tillage is a tradition that is steeped deeply into American agriculture. But more and more producers are realizing that this iconic tradition is costing them – in more ways than one.

Tillage, which was once considered necessary in order to prepare a proper seed bed for planting, comes at a high price in terms of increasing diesel prices and labor costs. But according to Barry Fisher, a soil health specialist with USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service in Indianapolis, the bigger, long-term cost may come at the expense of the health and function of the soil itself – resulting in lower yields, higher input costs and reduced drought resiliency for Indiana farms.
Barry Fisher at a field day.
Photo credit: PlantCoverCrops.com

“Tillage is incredibly destructive to the soil structure and to the soil ecosystem,” Fisher said. “In healthy soil you have 50 percent air and water – which is made possible by the pore space in the soil – and 50 percent mineral and organic matter. But tillage collapses and destroys that structure, making the soil vulnerable to erosion and compaction,” he said.

The possibility of another dry year should also have producers rethinking their use of tillage, Fisher said. “Because it destroys organic matter and soil structure, tillage actually reduces the soil’s infiltration capacity,” he said. “Additionally, studies have shown that each tillage pass can release a half an inch of soil moisture from each acre. In short, tillage tends to limit the availability of water in the soil,” Fisher said. “And that could prove very costly during those long, summer dry spells.”

Fortunately, more and more producers in Indiana are farming with systems to build soil health, Fisher said. “Using a suite of conservation practices, like quality no-till and diverse cover crops,” he said, “they’re keeping living plants in the soil as long as possible and they’re keeping the soil surface covered with residue year round.”

And according to Fisher, the benefits of improved soil health extend beyond the farm. “Producers who improve the health of their soil are also increasing its water-holding capacity, which reduces runoff that can cause flooding. Improved infiltration keeps nutrients and sediment from being carried off-site into nearby lakes, rivers, and streams,” he said.

Producers interested in learning more about the basics and benefits of soil health, or in receiving technical and financial assistance to implement a soil health management system, should contact their local NRCS office www.in.nrcs.usda.gov/contact/directory/field_offices.html. Additional soil health information is available at www.nrcs.usda.gov.

Barry Fisher is a soil health specialist with USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service in Indianapolis.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

March: Indiana Ag Appreciation Month and Women's History Month

There's an old saying about March: "In like a lion, out like a lamb." As I type a snow-rain-ice storm seems to be creeping up on our office in Indianapolis. Ugh. Hopefully the old maxim holds true.

Despite the weather, March is an important month for many. Across the state, March has been designated as a day to celebrate Indiana Agriculture (we're kicking it off today at the Statehouse!) Across the nation, March 19 will be given to celebrating all our country's food & fiber producers, and the land that we rely on for our sustenance. March is also Women's History Day in the United States. The day of March 8, this Friday, is celebrated as International Women's Day for the past 105 years.

What about Women in Agriculture?

The USDA's Farm Service Agency states:
"Women are key to the development of rural areas through their contributions to sustainable agriculture and rural development, including food security, but women are often marginalized in the agricultural sector, do not share equal status at the banks or within the agribusiness sector, and often do not fully participate in USDA programs and services."
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations states:
"Farmers. Workers. Entrepreneurs. Care-givers. Bread-winners. Bread-makers. Mothers. Wives. Daughters. Women are the backbone of the rural economy, especially in the developing world. Yet they receive only a fraction of the land, credit, inputs (such as improved seeds and fertilizers), agricultural training and information compared to men. Empowering and investing in rural women has been shown to significantly increase productivity, reduce hunger and malnutrition and improve rural livelihoods. And not only for women, but for everyone."
Despite these upsetting, yet very real statements, strides towards empowering women in agriculture are increasing with every passing year and generation. For those who follow international development and food security, you can no doubt call to mind some of the leaders of the slow revolution: Vandana Shiva, Muhammad Yunus & Grameen Bank, Kiva, etc. Powerful international organizations such as the United Nations and the World Bank have also focused their efforts on highlighting the importance of women's roles in agriculture and stable societies, with the UN's FAO reporting that having equal access to agricultural resources could reduce world hunger by 12-17%.

The revolution that's taking place across the country—the feminine approach to farming—might be enough to save the future of food, according to Temra Costa [in] Farmer Jane: Women Changing the Way We Eat. Photo: Rodale Institute
In the United States, the number of women who own farm operations increased by 19% between 2002 and 2007 (source). In that same time period, the number of women who are principal farm operators rose as well. National and regional women's organizations have grown as well. Close to home, Indiana is the site of the Purdue Women in Ag Conference. Nationally, several exist. Here are some:

There's much too much to write about all the exciting facets of the intersection between women and agriculture in one blog post - which is a good problem to have! Indulge your curiosity by checking out these infographics and articles:

Friday, December 14, 2012

Apps for Modern Agriculture


They're everywhere. Even if you don't own a smartphone or a tablet, you can't have missed all the buzz around these new tools and toys.

Though it's perceived that most apps are developed for young urbanites, creatives, and tightly-scheduled business people, many apps have come out that are especially relevant and useful for agriculture-related purposes. Apps to aid in precision farming, determine soil types, and plant identification are widely available. Check out this list of ag apps, from our Soil Health Program Manager Lisa Holscher:

  • FieldScripts – from the Monsanto Integrated Farming Systems
  • LandView – We understand Becks has been providing some growers with iPads and the application. They’re doing a lot of field scouting using the program
  • AdaptN - From Cornell University, this app uses climate information to calculate N needs. Especially useful for farmers who side-dress.
  • GreenIndex – This app aims to help verify chlorophyll content in the field (you could also use a hand-held GreenSeeker). This could be a great companion to AdaptN.
  • Weed ID Guide – from University of Missouri Extension
  • 1000 Weeds of North America - Fairly self-explanatory.
  • Aphid Speed Count – An app to help count aphids on soybean plants. How fun!
  • SoilWeb - This lets users access digital soil survey data from USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).