As a new hire at Snowville Creamery and as an aspiring farmer, I was honored to be able to attend the Acres conference this year. I first heard about Acres while interning on a pasture-based livestock farm in Oregon. The farm received issues of the magazine monthly. I read the magazine and every issue got me inspired to research and try some new sustainable farming technique, not to mention that I was always blown away by the number of articles and the span of topics they covered. For instance, I can still remember stumbling upon an article about growing algae as a future food and fuel source. Imagine my surprise when the December issue given to everyone at the conference had an article on the farm that I interned for!
This year the annual Acres conference took place from December 9th to 11th in Pittsburgh, PA. The conference is a four days long. Amanda Peterson, Snowville’s Science Officer, Warren and I represented Snowville Creamery. We attended classes to gather information and inspiration to bring back to the creamery and to Snowville farmers.
Acres USA is one of the world’s leaders for sustainable, organic farming. They publish a monthly magazine that Snowville sends out to all their farmers. The magazine contains articles written by experts in their fields who are involved in growing environmentally sustainable products. Authors include farmers, ranchers, consultants, scientists and even chefs. Acres also publishes books on everything from permaculture to bee-keeping.
While at the conference I was aware of the huge amount of knowledge and resources that surrounded me. Not only from the lecturers, but from the other conference attendees. For instance, I talked to a farmer who owns thousands of acres in the Southern U.S. He grows everything from corn to soybeans to alfalfa hay to beef cattle. He farmed conventionally his whole life but he said that he’s sick of putting poison on his fields, of seeing his soil get worse with every passing year. He came to the conference looking for alternative growing methods. I met him the first day. We were in a session on growing high-nutrient crops together. He said coming to the conference was a huge risk for him—it could have been a waste of his time and money. But, and he looked like he might cry, in this first session all the risk was worth it. The biggest challenge would be finding a market in the Texas and Oklahoma areas to profitably sell his more sustainably produced soy, corn, hay and beef to. He is going to try though, even if it’s only a few acres at a time.
The class that I found most relevant to Snowville was Profitable, High Brix Farming taught by Glen Raeburn, CEO of Soil Works LLC. It was the perfect complement to the information taught by Dan Kittredge in a Bionutrient Rich Crop Production seminar put on by the Amesville chapter of the Bionutrient Food Association (BFA) this past November. Brix is simply a scale that measures the amount that light bends when it passes through a liquid. It is used to measure the amount of sugar in plant sap and can therefore be correlated to the nutritional quality of a plant, fruit or vegetable.
Snowville is currently working with the Amesville BFA chapter to improve soil fertility in pastures on the main farm, Melody Holler. Soil fertility is extremely important, whether you’re growing vegetables or grains or grass. The soil needs to have all the nutrients plants require to grow and protect themselves from pests and disease. If the soil is deficient in nutrients, the plants won’t produce to their full potential and will be nutrient deficient as well. In turn, when people eat vegetables or cows graze grass on that soil, they won’t get those nutrients either. By improving soil fertility Snowville’s producers can improve the quality of their land, improve the health of their cows and the quality of milk they produce, and reduce the amount of grain and mineral supplements they buy.
Glen Raeburn explained how to read a traditional soil test and how different elements and microminerals effect soil fertility and plant health. One of his main points was that a soil test only tells you so much. For example, if soil samples are taken from below the aerobic zone than none of those minerals are available to plants because most roots can’t push down that far. Instead of relying on soil tests there are other relatively inexpensive tools that allow farmers to do their own tests throughout the year to know what’s happening in their soil and plants immediately. These tools are:
- Penetrometer- Measures soil compaction and tells you where the soil aerobic zone ends. Once the pressure gauge hits 300 psi plant roots can’t push through further and you’ve hit the anaerobic zone.
- Soil Conductivity Meter- Measures microbial activity by measuring the energy charge generated by microbial reproduction. This is important because microbes are essential to plant growth. Microbes fix nitrogen for plants and in exchange the plant exudes sugar for the microbes.
- Refractometer- Measures how much sugar is present in plant sap. This tells farmers how disease resistant and healthy their crop is.
Acres website: http://www.acresusa.com/
Bionutrient Food Association (BFA) website: http://bionutrient.org/
Glen Rabenberg’s consulting company Soil Works LLC: http://www.gsrcalcium.com/index.html