Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Beer and Planting!

Enjoy one while doing the other and you might end up with crooked rows - and maybe even in the wrong field!  Using and enjoying the knowledge that can be gleaned from both can set you up with a crop to be proud of. 
Giving your crop the best start possible could be compared to starting a batch of beer.
Success is not guaranteed, all you can do is attempt to control and guide the process.
I like this comparison because it gives me a chance to explain the growing use and acceptance of biological inputs in a way that is easy to follow.

Let’s start with sanitation. 
In the field you have tasks like residue management, weed control including trying to keep the weed seed bank low, and varying levels of soil prep for what you plan to plant.  There are also disease and insect hosts in and around the field that should be scouted and appropriate actions taken when enough of a potential problem is found.  For some crops fumigation is used to achieve a certain level of soil sanitization.  This can be useful but remember that everything is killed with fumigation even the good guys. 
In brewing, sanitation is also very important.  It is very similar to the approach in the field.  You do not need total sterilization or control.  Just address the most common problems and decrease the numbers of bacteria/fungi in preparation for guiding the brewing process in your desired direction.  All you need to do is level the playing field to give you a greater chance of success. 
Could you have a successful crop with minimal prep?  Sure, but the odds are against it.
Could you have a safe tasty beer with minimal sanitation?  Sure, but the odds are against it.

Next let’s cover adding enough nutrients to the system to provide for the end product.
In the field this should involve soil testing to have an idea of what nutrients are already in the soil and their levels.  There are many other pieces of information that are made available at the same time.  Soluble salts, pH, percent organic matter, and cation exchange capacity are just a few.  This information is then used, along with the needs of the crop to be planted to figure out what nutrients need to be added to the field soil, or what will need to be supplied to the crop during the season.
In brewing this involves making wort – a watery solution of sugars, starches, and enzymes extracted from barley.  Plus any myriad of other ingredients added for flavor, aroma, and texture goals.  It is becoming common to add a liquid nutrient package to the wort along with the yeast to get fermentation off to a healthy start.

So now you have this nutrient rich medium all ready to go.   
In the field this might mean a well prepared seed bed ready to plant.  
 In brewing this would be a fermenter full of cooled to room temperature wort.
Are you going to leave things to chance and hope the right kind of yeast or even bacteria (sour beers are gaining in popularity) floats along in the air and lands in your wort?  NO!  Only primitive man had to go about it this way!  You are going to “pitch” a large amount of a wonderful hard-working yeast strain that has been in use by humankind for many years.  It is an infection or inoculation of sorts; you are deciding how those nutrients you so carefully put together are going to be used.  You are going to control and guide the fermentation process to get the alcohol content, flavors, aromas, and mouth feel that you want.
It is the same for your crop and field!  Are you going to leave the seed or transplant at the mercy of chance? NO!  Only primitive man had to go about it this way!  The nutrient rich seedbed and impending rhizosphere are like the nutrient rich wort for making beer.  You should “pitch” biological inoculants with the seed or in the root zone.  If you have a recently fumigated soil then there is even more risk to going the “chance” route.  We know that many pathogenic bacteria and fungi can reproduce faster than other benign and beneficial microbial soil dwellers.   So rather than control your soil and plant “infection” now you have just handed the pathogens virgin territory to exploit along with some nice tasty plant snacks.  Don’t risk it and leave it to chance – control your crop's root zone and root development – and crowd out the bad guys – just like your local brewer!
We know that we can influence what happens in the root zone.  One way is to control the “infection” or inoculate the root zone with a large population of assorted “good guy” bacteria and fungi.  Part of this equation is in the simple physical nature of our world, any system has limits of what it can support.  If large numbers of crop friendly beneficial microbes are inoculated into the system many pathogens will be held at bay through competitive exclusion.  In the same way a vigorously fermenting yeast in a batch of beer will not allow molds and bacteria to gain a foothold.   
You decide – do you want phytopthera or rhizoctonia to infect your roots or do you want some trichodermas and fluorescent pseudomonads to be more prevalent?

At Ag Tech Services, LLC we have the knowledge, and the products to accomplish this.

Sometimes, while on a sales call with an organic producer or soil health oriented conventional producer I run into the question “aren’t we encouraging beneficial microbes with adding compost or using compost teas?”  Yes in the broad sense of stimulating the existing soil biology, which is mostly made up of the actinomycetes.  This approach is great for land you own and want to improve for the short and long term, but the benefits will be more general and a gradual process.  However in a land rent situation I would choose to target my crop and its growth and development versus improving soil that I do not own. 
The rationale for this is similar to how you choose to go about using other ag products.  Are you going to broadcast it or band it, full canopy spray or a basal spray?  Logistics, economics, targets, and product efficiencies have to be considered as well.
The approach we take and the specific organisms we use are targeted specifically at your crop and more importantly your crop’s roots.  These microbials are symbiotic root zone dwellers not bulk soil organisms like the actinomycetes.  They need the plant to support them in their life cycle, and in return they provide benefits to the plant.  This is a targeted approach to disease suppression and plant growth promotion.  Beneficial bacteria - Bacillus subtilis, Bacillus polymyxa, Paenibacillus azotofixans, Pseudomonas fluorescens, Pseudomonas putida, Azotobacter chroococcum, Azospirillum brasilense.  
Beneficial fungi - Trichoderma atroviride, Beauveria bassiana, Metarhizium anisopliae.
Once again back to my brewing analogy – there would be a high failure rate in brewing if we were hoping for the right combination of events in nature – versus knowing what will happen when we control and guide the natural fermentation process in the direction we want.

Controlling other variables
In brewing there is usually some consideration given to environmental factors like temperature and light. 
In open field agriculture we take what we get, but look at how much production is taking place all over the world in greenhouses, shadehouses, and high tunnels.  There are many industries that have learned to steer around common problems. 
Too many soil diseases? – Move to soilless mediums. 
Too many environmental stressors? – Move inside or under cover and control more of the variables. 
Not enough light for production at the desired time of year? – Supplement with electric light.

So… if you have a crop that has susceptibility to disease or a tough time becoming established? – Improve your chances of success and control your root zone to guide the crop to high yield and quality.