Friday, December 1, 2017

The more we understand soil, the more we succed in ag

Sometimes you run across an article that just needs to be shared. The following article by John Sitka was forwarded to me and I felt it needed to be shared even further. We have obtained permission from the author and AGDAILY to republish this in our blog.

Published: November 10, 2017, in AGDAILY

In agriculture, as with anything, we must always be careful about what we ask for. This is true with many complex subjects. It’s not always about the answers we receive, but the questions we ask.

For several decades producers had asked for higher yields; not higher profits or improved soil that would sustain their operations into the future. It is not surprising that after decades of asking for higher yields we find ourselves with degraded soil, slim profit margins, and yes, higher yields. While every producer is interested in producing a good crop each year, the conversation in agriculture is changing from the pursuit of high yields, to one of restoring the soil and profit margins.

Many have assumed that restoring the soil’s capacity to function and the profitable production of crops are mutually exclusive. We all know it costs money to apply conservation practices to the land to control erosion. However, we have mistaken soil erosion as a problem, when it is actually a symptom of a larger problem. For many years we have been chasing soil downhill, all the way to the Gulf of Mexico, because we did not question things deep enough to identify the actual problem. The problem was dysfunctional soil, manifested as erosion. We mistook a symptom (soil erosion) for the disease (dysfunctional soil) and so did not discover the cure (restoring soil health) … until now.

Now, we have correctly determined that the reason soil and crop nutrients are leaving the field is because the soil lacks the capacity to infiltrate water and cycle nutrients. The soil is no longer functioning as designed. Properly functioning soil absorbs water and cycles nutrients so neither leave the field except through transpiration of water through the leaves of living plants or nutrients in the grain. The most provocative part of this revelation is that improving soil function reduces input costs, which increases the margin of profit. The more we understand about how the soil is designed to function and manage it accordingly, the more the soil does for us. The soil allows plants to convert air, water, and sunlight into the commodities that can be sold in the marketplace.

In our quest for higher yields, we have been given control over many variables of crop production. Modern agriculture is about controlling weeds, controlling insects, controlling soil moisture, controlling plant nutrients –controlling whatever nature throws at us. But these controls can come with a cost. By changing our understanding of the soil from a place where we supply and control things to where we allow life in the soil to supply and control things is how profitable production can take place. Pesticides, fertilizers, and other agricultural technologies are tools, and as such, are not to be revered nor condemned, but can be applied to either facilitate or suppress the biological processes in the soil. The biology of the soil is always working to find the most efficient way to maintain itself and its indispensable partners: living plants. Living plants are the mechanism for air, water and sunlight to be transformed into food for the soil as well as food for us. By changing the way we think about soil, we can utilize the soil’s capacity to regenerate itself and support plants to our advantage.

Now that we know better how the soil functions as a biological system, we need to learn how to harness that understanding to power the production of our crops. We need to ask for ways to get our soil back in peak condition so it can capture and cycle water and nutrients as efficiently and profitably as possible. That way, any inputs we may choose to add to the system will not only improve the capacity of the soil to function, but will return the most bushels for our buck. Instead of only asking researchers and agricultural suppliers for higher yields, perhaps we should be asking for ways to restore the soil that will sustain both short- and long-term crop production, and leave the soil better than when we found it.

Understanding how the soil functions as a biological system is the future of agriculture. A future where agriculture can be profitable and productive without the imminent specter of regulations developed to address any adverse impacts on the environment. By restoring the soil to allow it to do its job more efficiently, producers can be more productive, proactive, and profitable, while reducing the footprint of agriculture on the environment.

Agriculture needs to ask for something better than bushels. We need to ask for a future with fully functioning soil, which is something we can all agree on.

Jon Stika is a soil scientist who has worked with the North Dakota Soil Conservation Committee and NDSU’s Dickinson Research and Extension Center. He is also the author of “A Soil Owner’s Manual: How to Restore and Maintain Soil Health.”

For more articles, videos, and trending issues from AGDAILY, sign up at for their biweekly newsletter.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

After the Harvest, Now What?

The busy time of year for anyone in the Ag supply business normally runs from March through October. As you can see, it is basically planning through harvest. So with two-thirds of the year behind us, what do we do for the final one-third?

November through February is meeting and education time for us. In November we attend the Pacific Northwest Vegetable Association (PNVA) meeting. This day and a half conference packs a lot of information into a short amount of time.

Mid December gives us the Far West Agribusiness Association Winter Conference (FWAA). This organization covers the Pacific Northwest region, OR, WA, and Idaho. This year’s meeting is in Boise, Idaho, so we need to allow some travel time. The FWAA presents material that covers various cropping structures but also some political and business information that is needed in today’s Ag market.

The third and fourth weeks of the New Year will be busy with two important meetings to attend. The third week will find us in Houston, Texas, attending an international meeting of one of the companies we work with. Attendees from all over the world explain product trials that worked and those that didn’t work. One thing is certain; we always learn something while we are there.

The fourth week of January is the Washington/Oregon Potato Conference. For many years the two states had separate meetings until they put their similarities together for the sake of efficiency. It is very well organized and the meetings are very informative.

So as you can see, when the physical work is done for us, the learning continues. We do spend a lot of money and time away from our families to keep ourselves up to speed. It is what we do for our Ag industry and we do it gladly.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Attack of the Killer Potato Vines

Those of you who know me understand that I do a fair amount of traveling during the growing season. Naturally, when you travel anything can happen.

Long story short, I wound up taking a fall in a potato field located about 20 miles from Burley, Idaho, a couple weeks ago. Nothing broken, but I have a really bad sprain of my right knee. So I am 700 miles from home and can’t walk out of the field without a great deal of help. Whereas I couldn’t walk, I also couldn’t drive my rental vehicle, get on an airplane, or get on the shuttle from the airport to go home. This created a 1400 mile round trip for my wife to come get me. She is not fond of long-distance driving, so I’m glad she was able to do this. It’s amazing how much better I felt mentally when she walked into my hotel room.

It would be easy to dwell on the hardships of the incident but I would rather concentrate on the positive things that came from this fall. The fertilizer dealership that asked me to see this field went out of their way to help me. They drove me to the hospital and checked on me several times when I was in my hotel room. They even contacted me on my way home to make sure I was all right. I could tell their concern was real.

The hospital staff was extremely caring in the way they allowed me to take the time to cancel my car rental by waiting patiently for me to finish my business before doing the x-rays. With more compassion than I have seen at other hospitals, they bent over backwards for my comfort.

The hotel staff was absolutely awesome! Not only did they select a room for me that was close to the main desk, they also brought my dinner to me. My knee was about three times its normal size and when I called the front desk for some ice they brought it to me gladly. They went so far as to check on me periodically just to see if I wanted anything. It is important to note that this was not the hotel I have stayed in every month for several years. That hotel was booked for my original night’s visit, so I was staying in a completely new place.

Some people would look at all of this and say they were just doing their job. I saw it very differently. What I saw was people who didn’t know me but still wanted to make me comfortable. They didn’t care if my politics was left, right, blue, or red. They just wanted to help a person in distress.

In this world of divisions and taking sides, it is good to see that helping someone comes first and politics, race, or religion comes much later. There are a lot of good people out there and I think if we all open our eyes a bit wider we can see them. Once we see them, let’s be one of them.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Taking the Bite Out of High Salt Soils

The soils of the Skagit Valley are noted for being very fertile. After 27 years of pulling soil samples in the valley, I would agree with this statement. However, along with the good, you will always have some bad. One of the most prevalent challenges in our valley is high salt. This can happen from fields being very close to a salt water bay, poorly drained soils with high levels of nitrate nitrogen, or fields close to dairies where liquid manure has been applied over the years. There is no fault in these soil conditions, sometimes it just works out that way. 

That being said, it is possible to help a crop get through the stress of trying to grow under high salt conditions. The picture above is of two corn plants grown in separate fields. The plant on the left is from the untreated field and the plant on the right is from the treated field. The two fields are separated by a ditch and have always been farmed the same.

Without going into a tremendous amount of over explanation, I can say the treated planting had a pre plant incorporated combination of a high-carbon liquid product with a soil surfactant. The treatment in furrow at planting was a biological inoculant and a salicylic acid product to enhance root structure and increase root length. After 11 days from planting, it looks like the program is working so far. We will do another picture and post in a couple of weeks.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Set Up for Success

While going through the history of our blog we discovered that we had more visits to the blog post concerning skin set on potatoes than any other. We decided it’s time to revisit that blog but also post a new one on what it takes to set up a potato crop for good skin set.

The process of skin set, the thickening of the outer-most cells on the potato, is a natural occurrence when the potato plant has completed the movement of sugars from the leaves to the tubers. It is part of the maturing process that will keep the tuber from degrading during storage. This all seems like an easy task but in the Skagit Valley skin set can take several weeks after the plants have died.

A few things can be done early in the plant development to help the maturing process:

1.     Do not apply nitrate forms of nitrogen early in the plant’s development. This has a negative effect on the plant by pushing top growth and reducing root development.

2.     Get as much calcium, boron, silica, and magnesium into the plant as possible. Start early and go long! These elements will enhance cell wall strength, reduce stress, and increase photosynthesis all of which are critical to keep plant top growth in check.

3.     If at all possible, use a water surfactant pre-plant and during the growing season to move both irrigation and rain more efficiently. We have been using a product called Integrate 80 with a great deal of success. It will move water both vertically and horizontally creating a better water distribution path.

These are a few ideas that you can try to help your potatoes achieve a stress-free crop. If you follow through with these three ideas and use the finishing program, also posted, I’m confident you will be satisfied with the end results.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

A Gathering of Potato Growers

We attended the Washington-Oregon Potato conference in Kennewick, WA, on January 24th and 25th to learn from some of the best growers and researchers in the industry.

Did you know that the combined acreage of potatoes for Washington and Oregon amounts to 20% of the nation’s total? Washington alone grows about 170,000 acres per year with Oregon in at 40,000 acres. The vast majority of the crop is grown on the east side of the Cascade mountain range so, naturally the majority of the research has east side growing conditions in mind. But that still doesn’t mean that we “westsiders” didn’t glean some valuable information from the conference.

Topics such as using hormones to break seed piece dormancy and balance the amount of stems per hill was very interesting. We (the west side) have been doing this for some time but they (the east side) are on the right track. Also the appropriate amount of nutrients to use was very important. Farmers are some of the best stewards of the land on the planet so they are always concerned about using the right amount of the right nutrients for their crop.

Overall, it was very informative and we look forward to sharing that information with the growers of Skagit County.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

International Collaboration

On the 16th through the 18th of January, we attended the 24th Annual Stoller International Associates Conference in Houston, Texas. Ag Tech Services has been to about 10 of these conferences over the past 15 years and it seems we learn something new every year. Even though this is a very international meeting, with 26 out of 46 presentations from outside the U.S., we are still able to pick up new ideas on plant physiology and plant hormone activity. These ideas are very applicable to our cropping systems in the U.S.

Naturally the research that is done has product sales in mind. What we find refreshing is when an idea or crop growth intent doesn’t work the way it was expected. It’s great to show success but it is also important to show failure if you are in search of knowledge, not just sales.

We at ATS will share what we learned this year with the growers of Skagit Valley and beyond. We can use this as part of a full program, or as a field trial. After all, it’s all about learning and applying.