A Small Medium at Large – Galen Chadwich 8.9.18

“The geography of soils in Missouri is complex.  Several contrasting soils typically occur within a single hillslope sequence, and even seemingly uniform floodplains have highly variable texture and drainage patterns.”  So begins the introduction to soils in the Atlas of Missouri Ecoregions, a beautiful information source that provides maps and descriptions of the ecological sections, subsections, and landtype associations for our state.  

The atlas is intended to help enhance the conservation of our rich array of native plant and animal species, and is the kind resource essential for locally managed watershed objectives and goals.  This compendium will serve to help introduce some water and soil technologies that could boost local food and pasture productivity in our highly degraded and/or weathered soils. 

Douglas and Ozark Counties lie almost entirely in what is called the White River Hills Ecological Subsection.  Most of the soils were formed in materials weathered from Ordovician limestones and dolomites, the stream gradients are steep, and drainage channels carry immense bed loads of gravel and sand.  There are 17 landtype associations (LTAs) in the White River Hills Subsection, ranging from high, gently rolling oak savanna/woodland dissected plains, through rugged dolomite knobs and river breaks, to more typical oak-pine woodland/forest hills.  

Restoration of the various soils in this ecoregion is a particular challenge, and the careful use of prescribed fire is essential, we are told.  When combined with integrative grazing and wood utilization, fire may increase the economic value of these lands.  In any case, knowledge of restorative (or regenerative) agriculture is foundational to returning food freedom and economic self-reliance to the Ozarks.

Soil tests taken from across the Ozarks gives us a picture of overall low fertility and nutrient density status.  A more detailed examination is better left for another time, but most farmers already know that in the end, productivity is directly tied to the nutrient health and mycorrhizal complexity within the soil.  Standing behind the operation of every successful farm, you will see an accomplished microbe farmer and worm herder. 

 A nutrient management plan is essential for restoring full food diversity to each watershed community.  Work is in progress on an open source reference, the Whole Watershed Planning Handbook, just recently renamed the “Well-fed Watershed Handbook.”  Anyone interested in volunteering time working on this project is invited to get in contact with me through the Herald.

Precision farming is a systems approach that plays a major part of this plan, and it is distinguished from traditional agriculture by its level of management and reliance on modern analytic technologies.  Instead of managing whole fields as a single unit, management is customized for small areas within fields and the FRC approach emphasizes the need for sustainable and organic agricultural practices.

To succeed, a farmer must consider both economic and environmental factors when dealing with the practical questions of field-level management.  It takes only a glance to see that most Ozark fields have variable yields across the landscape.  These variations can be tied to both age-old environmental conditions and to various management practices (or absence!) in the three phases of agricultural life in the Ozarks, as outlined in the July 26th edition of the Herald.   

Crops usually grow better near watersheds and level areas of the field, often with a 2:1 ratio of yield variation over sideslopes, where erosion depleted topsoil shows moisture stress and reduced plant stands.  What if the sideslope yields could be dramatically increased?

Contemporary agricultural wisdom maintains there is no economically feasible method of “fixing” the depleted topsoil areas in the field, so the focus of management has been to optimally manage the areas within the field that already have higher production capacities.  With the larger issue of “fixing” the depleted soils thus dismissed, the discussion turns to evaluating crop health through precision crop and soil measurements by GPS satellites and an array of other technologies, including infrared sensors and high resolution measurement of crop stress, compaction, nutrient composition, insect and crop disease.  

While this technology is exciting and welcome, the FRC is taking a hard look at the possibility of “fixing” broad acre areas of depletion through an entirely different approach.  That is, by combining the magic of bio-char with a liquid drilling approach to combines several known technologies in a new way.  

This involves the implantation of a fixed, water laden/ nutrient gel, which could be a hydrophilic (water-attracting) plug, and sufficient to provide for a known quantity of growth.  This gel would be injected into the soil to the moisture horizon with a seed encased.  What kind of seed? It could be anything fit for a whole field crop, ranging from fescue or alfalfa, to sesame, wheat, spelt, or corn.

The gel would be based on a simple methyl cellulose compound derived from almost any source, notably sawdust, leaf litter, or roadside woodchips harvested by county road crews.  A seed is mechanically placed at the top of this gel plug (an injection consistent with the specific root pattern requirements of the seed), and the gel would be formulated with a mixture of biochar, nutrients, and living soil microbials sufficient to inoculate the ground.

The soil moisture horizon is where surface drying usually slows down and roots can stay viable for some period of time after a rain; it  usually ranges around 3 to 6 inches deep under most local soil and weather conditions.  The amount of carbon in the soil plays a very big role in water retention and keeping microbial populations happy.  For each one percent increase in topsoil carbon content, some 15,000 gallons/acre of rain water is retained in the growing zone and kept available for use over time by the growing plant.

The ultimate goal would be to bring the fields up to a level above the virgin levels found by the first wave of settlers.  After all, this isn’t Iowa, and if it was most of us couldn’t afford to live here.  The corporate hegemony of Big Ag, and wealthy (often foreign) land speculators have driven High Quality farmland prices north of the Missouri River to as high as $8,933K per acre.  But we can enjoy the fruits of more valuable soils if we are willing to invest the time and creativity (and constant battle) implied by an intelligent and inclusive vision for the future.  

The injection of a char/seed/nutrient mix would be cumulative over time and opens the way for reversing side slope depletion.  On a faster scale, if the gel contains micro-tubular capillaries, the developing plant roots will extend along the artificial pathway created by the gel and begin taping into the sub-surface moisture horizon.  In plain speech, a farmer who plants pre-germinated seeds in the early morning may see his crop beginning to poke through the ground by the time he heads for home in the evening, even though it hasn’t rained.  

Normally, it must be fairly dry to work a field with farm equipment, and planted seeds must sit in the ground waiting for the next rain.  Even though our best rain usually comes early in the season, the seed only absorbs an infinitesimal amount of moisture in order to germinate, and this can take several days.  Meanwhile, the first rains run-off, migrates downward, or evaporates.  The newly geminated plant needs subsequent rains to keep developing its roots.

 But with both time and moisture requirements significantly telescoped by the water-attracting gel injection, the plant is not so bound by the caprices on nature, and the risk factor tilts in favor of the farmer.  Also, second cropping possibilities would be more likely; a sesame crop can follow a hard red or soft red wheat harvest, say, and bring the amounts of income not usually seen in this region. 

Large scale biochar production should be one of the first job-creating industries to come to each watershed community that grasps the possibilities of launching its own 20 Year Plan to restore food security.  Biochar application will significantly reduce veterinary antibiotics in the soil (like Tylosin), will chelate heavy metals, vastly improve water purity, and significantly contribute to carbon sequestration.   

It will pay to check out the following on-line publication for a scientific treatment on biochar use, production, and soil nutrient dynamics:  Journal of Environmental Quality, July 2012 . Environmental Benefits of Biochar;  by James A. Ippolito, David A. Laird, and Warren J. Busscher. https//dl.sciencesocieties.org/publications/jeq/pd