ACRES Conference: Themes from the Cutting Edge of Eco-Agriculture

ACRES USA was supporting the organic movement before "organic" was a buzzword.  Over forty years ago ACRES started publishing books and their monthly magazine and hosting gatherings to support the budding new field of natural farming.  Now they are a pillar of the movement, and we attended their annual flagship event, "Eco-Ag 2016," which was hosted last week in Omaha.

Dozens of speakers laid out the stories from their farms, research, and lives in the movement.  We attendees felt at once energized and exhausted as we left the three-day event, ready to put inspiration into action.  The diversity of topics ranged from commercial-scale chicken houses that utilize adjacent paddocks for chickens to forage under hazelnut orchards, to conventional cropping - managing weeds and fertility with cover crops and livestock, to personal stories from leaders like Grace Gurshuny who was involved in the early organic movement and then criticized by her peers when she worked on consolidating regulations that would allow USDA Organic certification to exits.  

Through all the divergent topics, two themes kept showing up again and again.  Soil Microbes and Soil Organic Matter.  These are the sexiest things in farming today.  Soil microbes are bread and butter to this blog, so I was satisfied to hear again and again acknowledgment to bacteria, fungi, and their predators from nearly every researcher and farmer at the lectern.  These organic farmers are proud and humbled by the power of microbiology.  Often their innovation in cropping and livestock management is viewed with skepticism by neighbors and extension, when the seemingly impossible proves true one thing is always the same: a thriving soil food web has colonized the soil.  I was pleased to hear so many successful farmers testifying to the power of biology.

Soil organic matter (SOM) has been known since early soil science as a powerful indicator of soil health.  "Humus" is another catch-all term for this carbon-based component of soil.  When some speaker, scientist, or salesman at the tradeshow wanted to show some data that proved their soil was regenerating, they went straight for soil organic matter.  Everyone knows that soil with 5% SOM or greater is wholly a different material all together than the soil most crops must grow in.  When someone shares a result that shows a steady increase in SOM over the course of years, growers start to salivate.

These take-homes are very validating of our work here at Soil Dynamics.  A healthy compost, like the compost that we carefully produce, is an ecosystem swarming with the soil microbes that inhabit any healthy soil, on top of that, compost itself is humus - almost completely organic matter.  For the home gardener a few yards of compost will bump small vegetable beds over the 5% SOM mark and lay the foundation for robust, nutrient dense plants.

There's always more to learn, it's the classic case that the more I learn about soil, the more questions I have.  But when we forget about the why's, the fact remains that our healthy soils are full of humus and microbes.  So with that we can keep calm and carry on planning our gardens for 2017.