NSAS Newsletter - Spring, 1997

Spring 1997, Number 58

The Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Society promotes an agriculture
that builds healthy land, people, communities and quality of life, for
present and future generations.

This is an abridged version of the NSAS newsletter. If you wish to read
the complete version, please visit our web site at

NSAS is a non-profit membership organization. Annual membership costs
$25, which includes a year's subscription to the NSAS newsletter. For
more information about NSAS or the information in this newsletter,
please contact: NSAS, PO Box 736, Hartington, NE  68739; 402-254-2289.
Fax: 402-254-6930. E-mail: cecarusi@hartel.net. 

The NSAS newsletter is published quarterly. We welcome articles,
letters, poetry and other contributions, which should be sent to the
above address. Articles appearing in this newsletter may be reproduced;
please credit the authors and the NSAS newsletter. This newsletter is
supported in part by grants from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the
USDA Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program.

In This Issue:
Getting to Know Your Soil
Change the Way You Think!
	Frantzen Stresses Diversity at NSAS Western Conference
	Kirschenmann Explores Farm Size and Sustainability
	Chuck Francis Accepts Stewardship Award
	New Members Join NSAS Board
	Silent Auction Thanks!
Rural Enterprise Assistance Program Begins Eighth Year
Musings on Good Earth
Mirrors Help Achieve Precise Cultivation
Nebraska IMPACT Project News
 	EQUAL Receives IFFS Mini-Grant	
	Gathering Emphasises Cooperation	
	Committee Approves New Groups and Projects
Chuck Francis Accepts Stewardship Award

Getting to Know Your Soil
(Need a Simple Way to Test Your Soil Quality? Just Dig a Hole!)
by Mark Liebig, UNL Graduate Research Assistant
             At a recent scientific meeting on soil quality, the
question was asked, "If a person was to make one assessment to determine
soil quality, what would it be?"  
	As expected, this question created a lively debate among the meeting's
participants.  Soil organic matter, salinity, aggregate stability,
infiltration rate, soil respiration, as well as other soil tests were
all offered as being the assessment needed to determine soil quality.
Unfortunately, but not unexpectedly, the discussion turned into a
bickering session, with each group defending their assessment as
superior to others. 
	After some time had passed, a well-respected soil microbiologist,
obviously fed-up with the scientific infighting, stood up and said,
"Just dig a hole."  A silence fell over the room.  It was as if a new
paradigm in soil testing was introduced.  Somehow 'digging a hole'
seemed to make perfect sense.
        Digging a hole has many advantages over traditional soil quality
assessments.  In a nutshell, it's a quick, easy, no-cost test that does
not require specialized equipment.  It's a test that relies on our
common sense(s) for evaluation (i.e., senses of touch, sight, smell, and
taste). Digging a hole is a subjective activity; the conclusion one
person has about a particular soil property may differ from that of
another person.  Nevertheless, it is probably the most practical test
for a quick assessment of soil condition.  Furthermore, because the
person conducting the test is in direct physical contact with the soil,
it is the best way to 'get to know' the soil.
        The first step in digging a hole is to choose a good shovel.  A
sharpshooter spade will work nicely, but any shovel with a sturdy handle
will do.  
	The next step is to choose an area to evaluate.  'Problem' areas are
often good places to check.  If you're not sure where you want to dig,
let vegetation be your guide. What exists below ground will affect what
grows above ground.  Therefore, inspecting vegetation is a useful 'first
step' in determining soil condition.  Noticing variation in crop color,
height, and percent stand can give clues as to what may be occurring in
the soil, whether it be a nutrient or aeration problem or some other
limitation to crop growth.  
	Furthermore, weeds, when in clearly defined areas, are excellent
indicators of soil condition.  Calcareous, saline, compacted,
poorly-drained, and nutrient-rich soils are each characterized by the
growth of certain types of weeds.  For instance, bindweed often
indicates the presence of a hardpan, docks usually indicate a
poorly-drained soil, and pigweed typically indicates high soil
        Once you've chosen an area to evaluate, start digging.  Dig a
hole at least four to six inches past the lowest depth of disturbance by
tillage implements.  While you're digging, be sensitive to how much
effort you're putting forth to get the hole dug.  If excavation requires
a significant amount of energy (like standing on the shovel to get it to
go in) you probably have a compaction problem.  
	Make sure the hole is dug wide enough so that you can inspect plant
roots.  Observe their condition.  Are they well branched with lots of
fine root hairs, or are they balled up and growing sideways at certain
depths? A lack of fine root hairs indicates oxygen deprivation in the
root zone, and sideways root growth is a sure bet that there is a
	Having a feel for the amount of earthworm activity can give you a good
idea of the overall biological health of your soil. Searching for
earthworms can be done as you're removing soil from the hole.  Count the
worms as you see them.  If you find ten earthworms in a hole a
foot-square and foot deep, you've got a healthy soil.  If you didn't
notice any earthworms while digging, inspect the wall of the hole for
earthworm burrows. 
        Once your done looking for earthworms, cut out a slice of soil
from the wall of the hole and lay it out on the ground.  Here's where
the fun really begins!  First, look for color changes from the soil
surface downward.  If you have a tape measure with you, measure the
topsoil depth. Soil that is dark brown, very dark gray, or black
qualifies as topsoil in Nebraska. If you happened to leave your tape
measure back in the shop, but know the distance between the tip of your
thumb and pinky with your hand fully extended, you can estimate topsoil
depth from that.
        Next, break off a chunk of soil about the size of your fist from
the top six inches of the hole.  Gently break it apart with your fingers
and then hold it up to your nose.  What do you smell?  The smell of soil
can range from a strong putrid, sour, chemical smell, to a strong
earthy, sweet, fresh smell, to no odor at all.  It's the earthy, sweet,
fresh smell that we typically associate with healthy soil.
        While you have the soil in your hands, notice the size and shape
of the soil aggregates.  Are the aggregates blocky, granular, or
powdery?  Having a range of different types of aggregates is best, with
the majority having a granular shape and a size of about 1/16th to 1/8th
inch in diameter.
        The next step is to check soil texture.  Take what soil is in
your hand and squeeze it.  If the soil does not stay in a ball after
squeezing, then it's sand.  If it stays in a ball, try to make a ribbon
with the soil by squeezing it between you forefinger and thumb.  Make as
long a ribbon as you can, and then estimate its length.  
	If the ribbon is shorter than one inch, it's probably a silt loam or
sandy loam.  A silt loam will feel smooth, while a sandy loam will feel
gritty.   If the ribbon is between one and two inches in length, it's
probably a silty clay loam.  If the ribbon is longer than two inches in
length, it's probably a silty clay or clay.
	 It is important to recognize that digging a hole is not intended to
replace analytical soil tests; there is no substitute for charting
trends in soil condition in a quantitative manner.  What digging a hole
does that analytical soil tests do not do is that it gives you a quick,
down to earth idea of what the soil condition is like, without the use
of specialized equipment.  
	Furthermore, you can develop a special relationship with your soil by
digging a hole.  Checking for compaction, observing soil structure, and
looking for earthworms are all activities that will bring you closer to
the source of much of our food and fiber.  By getting to know your soil
in this way, you will almost certainly increase your respect for it as a
living, dynamic system that is sensitive to different forms of
agricultural management.
        For additional information on descriptive assessments of soil
quality, consult The Soul of Soil: a guide to ecological soil management
(3rd ed.), Grace Gershuny and Joseph Smille, 1995, agAccess, Davis, CA
(Address - agAccess, P.O. Box 2008, Davis, CA 95616;  Phone - (916)

Change the Way You Think!
by Tom Tomas
	You can't buy healthy soil in a bag or a bottle or a box.  Healthy soil
is the result of working with what nature provides locally.  Local
resources recycled through natural processes of decomposition, which
contribute food for earthworms, bacteria and fungi, provide the basis
for soil fertility.  Building healthy soil results in healthy crops. 
That is the basis of organic gardening.
	I have been reading organic magazines and papers since the 1950's and
have seen countless ads that extol the virtues of one wonder product or
another.  Many of them appear each decade under a new name, complete
with testimonials as to their amazing results.  Most of them cost way
too much for any benefit they may give, and all of them depend on basic
soil building with sound organic practices.  Building soil makes the
real difference.
	I have asked myself "Why do organic growers continue to seek an instant
formula for organic soil?  Don't they know that the basis of organic
production is working with local resources in a natural way?"  I have
come to the conclusion that the transition to an organic growing
philosophy is much more difficult than the transition to organic
practices.  It is much more difficult to change our way of thinking than
it is to change our way of doing things.
	In our culture, we have been trained to identify a problem and then buy
a bag or a box or a bottle of something to solve that problem. 
Advertising adeptly creates problems for us that we are not even aware
of, and then presents the solution to those problems in the form of
products we otherwise wouldn't consider buying.  Given this life-long
training, it is no wonder that when we approach organic gardening for
the first time we look for purchased products to get us started.
	If you feel the need to buy something to become successful in organic
gardening, I suggest that you buy things that will help you change the
way you think.  Buy books.  For example, in The One-Straw Revolution by
Masanobu Fukuoka, the author presents an idea that it took him years to
develop.  "What would happen if I did nothing?"  He was asking what
would happen if he tried to produce food with the least possible
intervention in nature's processes.  That is a powerful question.  If
each problem we encounter must pass this test before we try to solve it,
we will have fewer problems that seem to require solutions.
	Another question that arises from this is "how much is enough?"  What
should we expect an organic system to produce on a sustainable basis,
year after year?  If a given yield cannot be sustained by local
resources without depleting them or supplementing them with purchased
inputs, does it make sense to strive for higher yields?  Sooner or later
we will have to learn to live within the limits of our local biological
systems.  We will have to address the question of how much is enough.
	I would encourage you to subscribe to publications on organic
gardening.  You will find ideas and inspiration from other organic
gardeners.  As you read the articles and advertisements, apply the
following test:  Do they tell  me how they became better gardeners by
working with nature and using local resources, or are they trying to
sell something?
	Whenever I read an article or an advertisement that extols the virtues
of a product, I immediately become suspicious.  When I read an article
or an advertisement that tells me how I can use a local resource and
work with nature to improve my garden, I am more receptive. 
Advertisements for books on organic gardening always catch my interest
because they have the potential to present new ideas that may change the
way I think.  Changing the way you think about gardening is the most
difficult and rewarding part.

Kirschenmann Explores Farm Size and Sustainability
by Chuck Francis, UNL Center for Sustainable Agricultural Systems
	Farm size is not necessarily an indicator of sustainability in today's
agriculture. North Dakota organic farmer and livestock producer Fred
Kirschenmann explored the impacts of farm scale during a keynote speech
at the NSAS Annual Meeting in Columbus. He then described ways we can
learn to farm economically and still follow an ecological standard.
	Kirschenmann first presented four clues to the answers of size,
efficiency, and sustainability in farming:
	1. Smaller is not necessarily better. New generation pesticides provide
a technology that uses drastically lower amounts of active ingredient,
leaving residues so minute that they are barely detectable; this does
not mean they are harmless. A certain level of scale is necessary to
create biological diversity in time (rotations) and space (multiple
species in field).
	2. Bigger is not always worse, but at some scale it can be. Livestock
concentration converts a valuable resource (manure) into a waste product
that causes an expensive disposal problem. Another example is the vast
acreage of monocropped wheat. An estimated 450 trillion stalks of wheat
in 1994 would suggest this crop is far from endangered, yet the opposite
is true as we move to greater genetic uniformity.
	3. While economies of scale do play a role, bigness does not assure
efficiency or productivity. Green revolution technology gave higher
yielding varieties, but when health costs are factored in, many of the
gains are canceled out. Punjabi wheat production has helped to feed
India, but it has depleted the groundwater, replaced grain legume crops,
and reduced efficiency of use of scarce production inputs.
	4. The issue is not bigness or smallness, but the appropriateness of
technology. To farm ecologically, we need to think like a biotic
community. What is used from nature must be returned to nature without
harming living organisms. Three principles apply: we must use current
energy, all waste must become food in the cycle, and diversity is
essential for stability and system integrity.
	The nationally known sustainable agriculture advocate then gave some
guidelines on how to farm economically by an ecological standard. He
cited the dependence of industrial agriculture on fossil energy, and a
narrow focus on 15 plant species to provide more than 90% of our crop-
based production; neither is sustainable. We need a conversion from old
economies of mass produced food at a cheap price, to niche products and
flexible crops with multiple uses. We must learn to adapt, unlike the
Vikings who settled Greenland about 900 years ago and then disappeared,
unable to sustain a transplanted system they were unwilling to change.
The First Peoples survived very well in that same place.
	Kirschenmann concluded that organic agriculture must not fall into the
trap of pursuing success based on the industrial model, simply
substituting "natural" inputs for synthetic ones. If organic agriculture
mirrors itself after the industrial food system, rather than enhancing
its differentiation by developing diverse and ecologically designed
systems and focusing on developing local foodshed, it will lose its
market advantage.

Musings on Good Earth
by David Podoll
	I have been admonished more than once by the lady of the house to not
bring dirt from the field into the house.  My pet answer is "But it's
just clean dirt."  Soil is so common that we rarely give it much voice
except in derogatory terms.  But for me there is a real distinction
between grime from the shop or manure from the barn and the good,
sweet-smelling earth from the garden or the field.
	I revel in being close to good earth.  And I can be closest in the
garden.  There, all work is done by hand, carefully turning the soil
with a fork or skimming with a hoe, or plunging hands deep in the
loosened soil to make room to set a tomato plant, then carefully firming
the soil around the roots.  One seems so aware of the life there that
extra care is taken to trod lightly.
	I am reminded often how Japanese farmers of old removed their regular
walking shoes for bare feet or soft moccasin-type footwear before
entering their fields.  It was necessary to be gentle with the good
earth.  That the soil was precious and necessary for life was
acknowledged daily.  How many of us do that when we crawl in our tractor
	Few farmers, I have found, take the time to sentiently observe the soil
that they till.  Today's agribusinessman will often move from field to
field without even setting foot on the ground.  What would the Japanese
farmer think of the tractor's wake of compacted and pulverized dirt?
What a contrast from the garden!
	Good, rich earth can be alluring.  Abused soil can feel real bad.  One
fall, I helped a neighbor harvest silage from another neighbor's field
of failed grain corn.  This field had not, within my memory, ever had an
application of manure or had returned to it a growth of green manure. 
It had been farmed intensively with high rates of fertilizers and other
foreign materials for a decade.  
	The soil was very fine and compacted.  So compacted, in fact, that the
tractor tire lugs barely left a mark on the surface.  I had never
conceived that even tilled soil could be found in such a state. As I
walked the ground, I felt death.  It was profoundly remorseful.  
	In contrast, the rich earth in our garden feels pleasantly sensual.  It
is black and moist. Large granules stick together loosely with bacterial
goo and earthworm slime.  Even dried out earth clumps glisten with the
remains of this ooze.  It moves - with all sorts of worms and spiders
and little red mites and green iridescent beetles and click beetles and
big fat squiggling larvae and ad infinitum.  
	It smells, well - earthy.  We all know the smell - full of sweet rot. 
Somehow clean, even though we know it is just earthworm and bacterial
and fungal poop.  (Gosh, and I used to eat unwashed carrots right out of
the ground.)  It sticks under the fingernails, where it stays all
season, and stains the undersides of the fingers where it gets
thoroughly mashed into the skin.  And the feel, the touch, of good earth
generates a gentleness in the soul.  Be careful, be gentle, this is a
precious thing, it is life. It is the progenitor of us.  
	It seems strange, even corny in this age to speak of the soil's
spirit.  But those intimate with good earth cannot deny it's presence. 
I even feel it through the droning tractor, through the drawbar, and
down the digger shanks into the earth.  I feel how the shovels slice
through the soil, and the lilt it takes as it is turned and tumbled.  I
know what the yield will be without "soil tests."  I know if the soil
feels good or bad.  
	Discing sweetclover feels good, but if the rain pounds and the dry
winds blow hard, it may not feel so good. Then I ask forgiveness and
strive to be a better husbandman. A husband knows when he has done
wrong. A good steward wishes neither an unhappy spouse nor sad soil.
	Our ability as stewards of the soil will determine how long our
civilization will endure.  The fecundity of the earth determines our
fecund health.  That we know.  Do we care?  
	A sacred trust.
	NSAS member David Podoll farms near LaMoure, North Dakota.

Mirrors Help Achieve Precise Cultivation
by Dennis Demmel
	Mirrors allow me to cultivate more precisely, and therefore help me
eliminate herbicides. I have used two side mirrors on my tractor for
many years to monitor the cultivator location relative to crop rows. 
This process allows me to set my cultivator close to the row, for
precision cultivation without the use of a guidance system.  
	My tractor has a cab, which provides support for mounting mirrors.
Mirrors could perhaps be used on tractors without cabs, as well. 
	I have placed mirrors on each side and forward of the cab.  The mirrors
are located about 45 inches in front of my eye when seated in the cab. 
The 7" x 10" mirrors are each 45 inches to the side of tractor center. 
Since I am on 30-inch rows and the mirrors are 90 inches apart, each
mirror is directly over a row and views the row directly behind it. 
These dimensions can be adjusted for different row widths.
	The mirrors are about 18 inches below my eye level.  This location lets
me  watch the row in front of me and the mirror by shifting my eyes,
without head movement.  If you are ever off the row, your mirror gives
advance notice before a lot of your crop is destroyed.  The mirrors also
help the driver to "lead" the tractor on hillsides.
	I use 3/4" x 3/4" square steel bar stock for constructing mirror
mounts.  The bar stock is bent to mount to the front of the cab. 
Brackets are welded to the 3/4" x 3/4" stock, to bolt the system onto
the cab at several locations.  Braces are used to support the mount and
avoid vibration.  I attach one brace to the bottom of the cab on each
	I use several holes at each mirror location, to move the mirror in or
out.  The mirrors need to pivot up, down, and side-to-side for
comfortable viewing.  This requires an angle mount with two bolts.  The
vertical bolt is used for side-to-side adjustment, and the horizontal
bolt is used for vertical adjustment.  
	Wind and dust can reduce visibility with the mirror system, but I have
developed a process to overcome this difficulty.  Most of my rows run
east and west, and the prevailing north and south winds are cross
winds.  I like to start cultivating on the upwind side of the field.  I
always view the mirror on the upwind side of the tractor where dust is
less of a problem.  
	Sunlight can cause glare on tractor windows, reducing visibility with
mirrors.  One can open side windows or even take the door off to solve
this problem.
	Some tractor manufacturers now provide side mirrors as accessories.
Those I have seen appear to be too high and close to the cab for
valuable use in cultivation.
	I would never cultivate without these mirrors!  There is a great
comfort in knowing exactly where your cultivator is located.  Better
cultivation can be achieved when the cultivator is centered on the row,
even if isn't set "tight" to the row.  I would not be without my mirrors
even if I had a guidance system. 
	NSAS board member Dennis Demmel farms at Ogallala and can be reached at

Chuck Francis Accepts Stewardship Award
	Chuck Francis was honored for his contributions to Nebraska agriculture
with NSAS's 1997 Agricultural Stewardship Award. NSAS President Tom
Larson presented this award to Francis at the Annual Meeting in
	Francis is Professor and Extension Crops Specialist  in the Department
of Agronomy at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He is also the
director of the UNL Center for Sustainable Agricultural Systems. He has
conducted extensive field research in the areas of crop rotations and
cropping systems.
	Upon receiving this award, Francis thanked NSAS for its support of
university programs and for its work for the future of Nebraska
	"We recognize that we're all on the same team in agriculture," said
Francis.  "Although we may differ in philosophy and farming methods, we
are all working toward a safe and sustainable food supply.  We need an
agriculture that provides for our future without harming the integrity
of the environment."
	Francis has taught at the University of Nebraska Lincoln for 20 years.
During those years, he has pushed hard for sustainable agriculture
research.  He has worked in sorghum breeding, innovative strip cropping
and relay systems.  
	Since 1990, NSAS has awarded the Agricultural Stewardship Award at the
Annual Meeting. Francis is the first "academic" to receive the award.