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High Mowing Organic Seeds
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Understanding Your Soil

- Paul Betz, High Mowing Organic Seeds Sales Associate and owner of High Ledge Farm, VT

Until recently, the prevailing wisdom was that one couldn’t add too much compost to a field. When we first opened our ground, we put on a lot of compost. I considered it to be a pro-biotic for the soil; awakening and exciting lots of microbial life, and supplying food for that renewed population to eat. While compost is certainly a great soil conditioner, and it has a role on a vegetable farm, it is possible to have too much of a good thing.

When compost is applied at a rate sufficient to cover nitrogen demands for a crop, significant quantities of phosphorus are spread as well. Phosphorus build-up and run-off is a problem in many watersheds, as its presence in surface water can lead to algal growth and then subsequent oxygen depletion in the water. Excess nutrients can build up over time and are a problem whether one is farming organically or conventionally. Since constant spreading at heavy rates isn’t really a good idea, many growers are moving to a more targeted application of nitrogen to feed the crop. The only way to get a good indication of what and when to apply is through soil testing. 

There are lots of qualitative ways to take the pulse of a vegetable farm; the look and “feel” of the plants and their yield is a good way to start, but at some point a more in depth and quantitative look at what’s happening with your soil can be really helpful. That’s where the soil test comes in. Soil tests aren’t expensive or complicated and they provide a good baseline to use to ensure that you’re doing the right thing for your farm. Even if appearances suggest that everything is fine, a soil test can help you with targeting specifically what amendments you need.  Applying too much fertility can also be a waste of money, as the plants can only use so much in any given season. This will help you to be both more profitable and a better steward of your farm.

Your basic soil test will give a few different numbers, including pH, macro nutrient levels (N-P-K), and organic matter. The organic matter is largely a function of your soil type. Sandier soils naturally have lower numbers than more loamy soils. However, this number is something to pay attention to. Growing vegetables can
  be hard on a farm and all that beautiful weed-free ground creates the perfect conditions to oxidize the organic matter in your soil. Growing cover crops or adding compost is a way to restore that carbon. 

The lab that performs the test should also give some recommendations for amendments to meet the basic N-P-K requirements, based on crop type. Your local extension agent can also be a source for interpretation of your results. Another test that is helpful for full-season crops is a Pre-Side Dress Nitrate Test. It takes a snapshot of how much Nitrogen should be available for the rest of the season, allowing the grower to side dress appropriately later in the season.  

I prefer to take my samples in the fall. It allows me the chance to plan for the next season and make my amendment purchases early, rather than waiting on the results in the spring when I want to get into the field as soon as possible. This summer, I plan to take a more advanced measure of the health of my soil, using Cornell’s testing services. Their comprehensive test examines the basic macronutrients and also looks at soil “health” by doing a series of extra tests.  These additional tests look at particle size, aggregate stability, available water capacity, active carbon, and even a root health assessment (that is done by growing beans in the soil sample). Here’s a link to the site:  http://soilhealth.cals.cornell.edu/

As growers, we work hard to provide healthy food from our farms. Knowing what’s going on under the surface allows not only our work to be more productive, but insures that our farm will be better for the next generation of farmers as well.

I hope that the 2011 season b
rings everything you need for you and your farm.


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