“The Dirt on Organic Matter” – Organic Farmers learn about Soil Organic Matter & Soil Health

By Rafiq Islam, PhD Soil and Water Specialist and Vinayak Shedekar, Research Associate II
 
On Feb. 12, Dr. Rafiq Islam, Soil, Water & BioEnergy Program leader at OSU South Centers organized “The Dirt on Organic Matter,”  a special preconference workshop before the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association’s (OEFFA) annual conference in Granville OH.  This was one of the three pre-conference workshops offered by OEFFA to provide in-depth learning opportunities.  The day-long workshop covered topics such as how to increase soil organic matter levels by using compost, manure, cover crops, and soil amendments such as gypsum, zeolite and leonardite, or black carbon. 
 
The presenters’ team included farmers, experts from the college’s outreach and research arms, Ohio State University Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center; and experts from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service in Michigan. 
 
The workshop started off with opening remarks by Dr. Islam about the importance of soil health in organic production systems.  “Organic farmers often opt for intensive tillage-based practices in an effort to manage weeds, reduce operating costs, and increase farm profits,” Islam said.  He further explained, “Tillage may provide short-term yield gains but results in loss of soil organic matter  and productivity over time.  Soil organic matter SOM is the cornerstone of soil health. As with any agricultural production system, maintaining a healthy and productive soil is the foundation of sustainable organic farming.”
 
In the first session of workshop, Dr. Islam further presented an overview of soil quality/health indicators and their assessment, and explained ways of  soil balancing with organic and inorganic amendments.  Dave Brandt, no-till farmer from Carroll, Ohio and a nationally recognized speaker presented “Having fun with cover crops and economics.” Dave shared the practical and economic considerations of using cover crops for improving soil health.  Dr. Harit Bal from the Ohio State University Department of Entomology explained the role of soil management for healthy agro-ecosystems through her presentation.  She presented findings and recommendations from a recent USDA-funded research project focused on long-term organic and transitioning farming systems, and further described the role of nematodes.  Following on the biological aspects of soil health, Dr. Ye Xia from the Department of Plant Pathology at OSU gave a presentation about the importance of beneficial microbes for plant and soil health.  Dr. Xia explained the vital role played by various micro and macro organisms in the soil with respect to nutrient recycling, suppression of soil-borne pathogens and parasites, and synthesis of enzymes, vitamins and hormones beneficial for plant growth.  Jerry Grigar, state agronomist with the USDA-NRCS in Michigan,  shared the practical aspects of soil organic matter management for healthy soils.  Mr. Grigar’s key message to organic farmers was to “focus on C (carbon) instead of T (tillage).”  Vinayak Shedekar from OSU South Centers demonstrated the OSU Soil Organic Matter Calculator, and showed farmers how to use prediction tools for effectively managing soil health.  Jim Hoorman, OSU Extension, explained the economics of cover crops and organic matter through real life examples. 
 
The workshop was attended by more than 60 organic farmers and educators. The attendees also received the OSU Soil Quality Field Test Kit, free samples of cover crop seeds (courtesy, Dave Brandt), and a copy of  Building Soils for Better Crops – sustainable soil management produced by Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE).  A few student volunteers and Dr. Tom Worley, Director of OSU South Centers assisted with the organization of the workshop, and participated in the discussion forum.  The workshop was well received, and workshop organizers received excellent feedback comments from the attendees.
 
Contact Rafiq Islam or Vinayak Shedekar for more information.