Category Archives: Feature

4-H teen wins national STEM award

Colleen in lab coat with beakers
Delaware 4-H member Colleen Murray, an incoming freshman at the University of Delaware, has been named the recipient of a national 4-H science innovator award.

As winner of the award, Murray will receive an all-expense paid trip to the flagship 4-H National Youth Science Day event to be held Wednesday, Oct. 7, in Washington, D.C., where she will represent the state’s 4-H program. >>>Read more on UDaily.

Onions – alternative crop for Delaware?

Delaware onions  Gordon Johnson
Gordon Johnson, UD Extension fruit and vegetable specialist

Onions. We cry as we slice them, but through the tears, onions remain a favorite staple on salads, sandwiches and in stews. But can they be grown in Delaware? Yes, says Gordon Johnson, UD Extension fruit and vegetable specialist, but with some caveats for First State farmers.

For the past four years, Johnson has conducted trials on overwintering onions and spring transplants. Delaware’s unpredictable weather makes growing onions challenging, but not impossible.

University of delaware onion trial tour
Variety trial and field tours, like this onion tour, are held throughout the summer at the Carvel Center

Approximately 20 local farmers and growers attended an onion twilight tour, held at the research farm of the University of Delaware Elbert N. and Ann V. Carvel Research and Education Center in Georgetown, in order to see what’s up with the underground bulb. Red, white, or yellow, strong or sweet, growers are keen to grow what consumers like. Onions could provide a choice as an alternative crop, and a new opportunity for Delaware farmers.

Johnson’s research has traversed a good deal of trial and error, typically brought on by the unpredictability of Delaware weather. June is especially stressful, weather wise, and combined with weed and pest pressure, the swinging summer  temperatures can wreak havoc on the temperamental onion, which prefers a specific number of sunlight hours and a steady climate.  Although Delaware is “not a hotbed of onion production” investing in onions has potential Johnson said.

Onions have specific daylight requirements and are generally classified into two major categories, short day and long day. They are cultivated over two growing seasons, those planted in the spring and harvested in the summer, and onions that overwinter.

Planted in late summer or early fall, long-day onions grow better in northern locations. Long-day onions are characterized by a more pungent flavor and have better storage capacity, as long as six months or more, if properly stored in a cool, dry location.

Short-day onions, on the other hand, such as the consumer favorite Vidalia, thrive in southern climates and produce a sweeter bulb, albeit with limited storage shelf life. Short day sweets are typically sewn from seed or from transplants started in a greenhouse and planted by hand. These onions are harvested the same season they are grown.

Varieties of red, white and yellow onions are on display, together with signs that provide general results from the trials
Varieties of red, white and yellow onions are on display, together with signs that provide trial results

Strong shifts in temperatures, such as a cold snap in April or May, triggers an undesired “bolting,” the process by which an onion detects stress and flowers to reproduce. Johnson has pushed back planting dates to counteract the bolting sparked by the up and down temperatures of a Delaware spring. Johnson and his team keep a close eye on the varieties that are suseptible to bolting.

Not surprisingly, as a mid-Atlantic state, Delaware does best meeting onions in the middle with intermediate-day onions. In Delaware, direct seeding of onions is difficult, Johnson concedes. “After four years of research I still can’t tell you when to sow.” he told his guests.

Onions grow well in rows of soil covered in plastic
Onions grow well in rows of soil covered in plastic

Onions grown from transplants fare better, and grow better in plasticulture – rows of mounded soil covered in plastic to reduce weeds and raise soil temperatures. For the past 10 years Pennsylvania and New Jersey have had good results growing onions in plastic, Johnson said.

For onions to be an attractive alternative crop for growers, farmers must commit to starting their own transplants from seeds or ordering transplants from southern suppliers. Growing transplants requires a lead time of 8-10 weeks before going into the ground in March. Farmers must be willing to invest in the higher energy costs to heat their greenhouses in January and grow enough onions to make it worth the investment.

plastic trays for growing onions
Johnson’s onion trials examine all types of seed and transplant trays for greenhouse productivity

Unlike other crops, growing onions is not automated. Johnson evaluates the seed trays – noting the best practice of sewing a single seed in one cell. The size of the cell tray, the number of cells per tray and labor to hand plant each cell or transplant in plastic rows are important economic and practical considerations, Johnson noted.

“Intermediate day onions reach their maximum size in June,” Johnson told growers, as he guided them through the various results of his trials. White onions do well in Delaware Johnson said, producing medium and jumbo sizes at a consistent rate.

A market for local onions exists, Johnson explained and noted that local and frozen markets are in demand for the crop. Delaware onion growers could be poised to capture a short window in July and August when competing onions are not in season, Johnson said.

Johnson identified thrips as the major pests for onion. “Thrips will need to be kept in control if you are growing onions,” he said. “Lighter foliage color is more susceptible to thrips,” Johnson observed.

Norman Pierce, of Townsend, traveled south for a close up look at onions as an alternative drop
Norman Pierce, of Townsend, traveled south from New Castle County for a close up look at onions as an alternative crop

Delaware farmers Gwen and Norman Pierce traveled from their farm in Townsend, Delaware to attend the tour, their first visit at the Carvel research farm. Primarily goat farmers, Gwen Pierce said her husband devotes acreage to vegetables and is considering an alternative crop like onions. “We grow for local restaurants, “ Pierce said. ”My husband wanted to come here and check this out.”

Variety trial field tours, such as this onion twilight tour, provide an opportunity for growers and potential growers to taste, feel, smell and assess a potential crop. In addition to the information signage, attendees were given spring transplant and over wintering onion trial results. For more information visit the small vegetable and fruit resources.


Article and photos by Jackie Arpie and Michele Walfred

4-H Summer Evening of STEM

2015-stem-flyer-434x600Experience an interactive and engaging evening using Science Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) on Monday, July 13, 2015, 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. at the Delaware Aerospace Education Foundation (DASEF), 585 Big Oak Road, Smyrna, Delaware 19977.

Dinner is provided for all participants and a free t-shirt will be provided for all youth participants!

Cost is free for 4-H youth members statewide. Parents/guardians are welcomed to attend. The fee for adults are $5 per adult.

Registration is due July 2, 2015.  For questions, please contact the NCC 4-H office at (302) 831-8965 .

Return the 2015 Summer Evening of STEM_Registration Form, payment (if applicable) and health/photo release form to:

New Castle County 4-H
Attention Autumn Starcher
461 Wyoming Road
Newark, DE 19716

Open kettle canning is no longer safe

canning-photoHave you ever heard that some methods of canning are not recommended but don’t understand why? Just last week at Ag Day someone asked me about these methods. Please, keep reading to end the mystery. Or come to one of our upcoming programs to learn to safely can Jellies and Jams (June 6, 9:30am-12:30pm) and Water Bath Canning (June 13, (9:30am-1pm) at the NCC Extension office. Kent county will offer as session August 5 from 6:30-8:30. Preregistration is required and a small fee will cover supplies.

Open Kettle Canning

Since the late 1980’s we have been teaching that open kettle canning is no longer safe. Open kettle canning involves heating the food to boiling, pouring it into the jars, applying lids, and allowing the heat of the jar to cause the lid to seal. Many years ago, it was commonly used for pickles, jams and jellies, and sometimes used for tomatoes and applesauce.

The reason open kettle canning is no longer recommended is that the food is not heated adequately to destroy the spoilage organisms, molds and yeasts that can enter the jar while you are filling the jar, and it does not produce a strong seal on the jar. Processing jars in a boiling water bath or in a pressure canner drives air out of the jar and produces a stronger vacuum seal.

canning-photo-2Open kettle canning is not safe! It is especially dangerous when used for canning tomatoes or tomato products where the acid level may be low enough to allow bacterial growth. Never open kettle can low acid foods (meats, vegetables, soups) that should be pressure canned.

Just because a lid “pops,” it doesn’t mean the contents inside the jar are safe. The time saved with open kettle canning is not worth the risk of food spoilage or illness.

Oven Canning

Occasionally people ask about processing jars in the oven. They claim a friend or neighbor promotes it as a simple method of canning. What they fail to understand is that oven heat is not the same as heat from a boiling water bath or from steam in a pressure canner.

First of all, placing jars in the dry heat of the oven may cause the glass to crack and shatter causing injury to you. The Jarden Company that manufacturers most canning jars in this country states emphatically that it is not safe to heat glass jars in the dry heat of an oven. Jars are not designed to withstand oven temperatures and can break or even explode causing injury from broken glass.

Secondly, dry heat is not comparable to the moist heat of a boiling water bath. Processing in an oven will not heat the contents in the coldest part of the jar in the same way as boiling water.

Thirdly, oven heat will not increase the temperature inside the jar above boiling to be adequate to destroy botulism spores in low acid foods. Only in the enclosed conditions of a sealed pressure canner will you be able to increase the internal temperature to 240°F. So, oven canning is not recommended!

For more information, visit the University of Delaware website or call your local UD Cooperative Extension office. To find out more about the upcoming programs go to:


By Maria Pippidis


Enjoy Gardening? Become a Master Gardener

14689523276_cd98b1c14c_k-300x201Who: Anyone who enjoys volunteering and sharing their gardening knowledge
What: 2015 Delaware Master Gardener Training
When: Wednesday, September 2 – Monday, November 23, 2015 Classes are Monday’s and Wednesday’s 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. (Applications should be postmarked by June 4, 2015)
Where: Local Delaware Extension Offices
Why: The goal of Delaware Cooperative Extension MG Training is to prepare volunteer educators to enhance the ability of Cooperative Extension to provide science-based educational programs in home horticulture to the citizens of Delaware.

The 2015 Delaware Cooperative Extension Master Gardener Training Program is scheduled for Monday’s and Wednesday’s, 1:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. from Wednesday, September 2 through Monday, November 23.

Most training will be held at your county Extension Office. Some training sessions will require travel to another location to learn with your fellow trainees from the other two counties. Carpooling is encouraged.

As a member of the 2015 Delaware Master Gardener training class, you are expected to complete the course of study, volunteer 40 hours, and gain an additional 5 hours of advanced training by November 1, 2016, to become a Master Gardener.

An application may be emailed to Tracy Wootten at or mailed and postmarked by Saturday, May 30, 2015. If you are accepted into the class you will be required to pay the training fee and complete a background check facilitated by the University (see introductory letter). Applicants will be notified by Monday, July 6, 2015 (by telephone, if possible) whether they will be seated for the class of 2015.

All applicants are encouraged to attend an evening open house event on Thursday, June 11 from 6 p.m. – 8 p.m. at the Sussex County Extension Office. This is a great way to meet other master gardeners, ask questions about the program, learn more about current educational outreach programs and see if this is a great fit for you as a volunteer.

Click here>>How to become a Delaware Master Gardener

Keeping Disease Off Poultry Farms


Poultry Grower’s Disease Control Workshop:
Keeping Disease Off of the Poultry Farm September 30, 2015

Please note: this program was offered in Princess Anne, MD, Georgetown, DE and Harrington, DE on June 11, 2015. You may only receive nutrient management credits for attending this program ONCE.
• 10:00 a.m. – 12:00 noon: Elks Lodge #1624, 1944 Worcester Hwy., Pocomoke City, MD

• 2:00 p.m. – 4:00 p.m.: Bridgeville Fire Hall, 311 Market St., Bridgeville, DE

• 6:00 p.m. – 8:00 p.m.: Ruthsburg Community Club, 105 Damsontown Rd., Queen Anne, MD

Topics Include:
Avian Influenza Outbreaks in Commercial Poultry in the U.S.
Dr. David Shapiro, Veterinarian, Perdue Farms

Practical Biosecurity Best Management Practices for Broiler Growers
Dr. Jon Moyle, Extension Specialist, University of Maryland Extension
Ms. Jenny Rhodes, Ag Extension Educator, University of Maryland Extension
Mr. Bill Brown, Poultry Extension Agent, University of Delaware Cooperative Extension

Avian Flu Response and Control Plan on Delmarva
Dr. Don Ritter, Veterinarian, Mountaire Farms
REGISTRATION DEADLINE is September 25, 2015

When registering, please be sure to choose the location of the workshop you would like to attend.

For more information, please contact Lisa Collins at or call (302) 856-2585 x702
This event is hosted by University of Delaware Cooperative Extension and University of Maryland Extension, in cooperation with Delmarva Poultry Industry, Inc., Delaware Department of Agriculture and Maryland Department of Agriculture.

Nutrient Management Credits Available : 2.0 for Delaware and Maryland



UD students create Christmas tree app for growers

An interdisciplinary team of students at the University of Delaware has developed a new app called PocketFarmer designed to help Christmas tree farmers in the region diagnose, identify and mark potentially diseased plants.

The PocketFarmer was developed through the Spin In program in UD’s Office of Economic Innovation and Partnerships (OEIP).

Through Spin In, OEIP matches entrepreneurs who are developing innovative early stage technology with a team of UD undergraduate students to further develop both the technology and the marketing strategy.

The student team is mentored by UD faculty members and works side-by-side with entrepreneurs to provide solutions to the challenges that need to be overcome on the path to commercialization.

The idea for the app came about when Michelle Rodgers, associate dean for Cooperative Extension in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, asked agents to come up with app ideas that could benefit Extension clientele as part of an “App Challenge” contest that involved all 13 northeast states in the Extension system. As part of that challenge, the participants would also have to create a YouTube video to go along with their app.

Nancy Gregory, an Extension agent, had been working closely with Christmas tree farmers in Delaware in conjunction with Brian Kunkel, an Extension specialist. They had conducted workshops for the growers and collaborated with them through a three-year grant from the Delaware Department of Agriculture (DDA) to evaluate disease resistant cultivars of Christmas trees.

Christmas tree diseases

The main type of Christmas tree that is grown in the area is the Douglas fir, and Gregory said it can be afflicted by two main diseases – Rhabdocline needlecast and Swiss needlecast.

Both diseases cause premature needle loss, leading to thin foliage, which is especially problematic for Christmas tree growers who need fuller trees to appeal to customers.

Gregory said that to combat the Rhabdocline needlecast, growers have been interested in cultivars from the western United States that have sources of resistance to the fungal pathogen. Unfortunately, local growers have not found trees with growth habits and characteristics that they like.

“In the meantime, Swiss needlecast has come in and become even more problematic and it turns out that all those lines they were looking at that might be resistant to the Rhabdocline needlecast are susceptible to the Swiss needlecast. So that’s become an even bigger problem,” said Gregory.

The two needlecast diseases are especially prevalent on Douglas fir trees in the area because of the coastal climate and humid summers.

Gregory said that both diseases are easily controlled with the use of fungicide sprays but that timing is crucial, and that is where the PocketFarmer could be of a benefit to the growers.

“The control of these diseases usually requires three fungicide sprays, sometimes four in a season, and it’s very dependent on timing. You have to know when the spores are being produced, which is usually in May,” she said. “When those spores are released, they infect the new expanding needles so it’s very crucial when you get that first spray and then traditionally the growers will spray every two weeks after that.”

PocketFarmer features

The PocketFarmer app would help growers know when to spray and also help them keep track of the number of applications.

Michelle Lifavi, a junior majoring in communication and the communications specialist for the team, explained that the app is equipped with a seasonal calendar that will tell the growers how their trees should be progressing and what diseases to look for during particular times of the year.

“We have a GPS pinpointing feature so the trees can be pinpointed on the farm. If one tree has a certain feature on it, the farmer can write notes, can have a picture and can input coordinates so he can come back to it and know the exact location,” she said.

Another way in which the app could help the growers is in identifying and verifying the needlecast diseases early on.

“The growers need to recognize whether or not they have the fungal needlecast disease or whether they might have something else causing spots on the needles,” said Gregory. “There are look-alikes that it might be confused with, whether it’s a scale insect or small specks. There is a small speck called flyspeck, which is not a pathogen, it’s just kind of an opportunist that might grow there. There are a number of things that the growers could confuse.”

With the app, the growers would be able to take a picture of what is afflicting their trees and compare it against images of known pathogens.

“We have the ‘take a photo and diagnose page,’ which is quick and easy,” said Lifavi. “The growers implement all the symptoms that they have – such as where it is on the tree, what’s going on with it – and then the app filters through and picks the disease that they most likely have.”

Gregory explained that these features “could save them time and money because they’d know when that crucial first spray needs to go on and they would know for sure what pathogen they have, or if they have an insect instead of a pathogen – they would know what’s causing the problem.”

The PocketFarmer would also work hand in hand with Extension agents because while it would allow the growers to be more self-reliant, the group still stresses the need for Extension agents to confirm diseases.

“The idea is to give them picture clues and information, but always back it up with the recommendation to either contact your local county Extension office or send a sample in for an accurate diagnosis,” said Gregory.

Lifavi said the app would provide farmers the ability to take photographs of their potentially diseased trees and to share them directly with an Extension agent.

While the app is currently focused on just conifer trees in the area, the group named it the PocketFarmer with the hopes that they could expand it to other crops.

Nathan Smith, a plant science major who worked on the project, said, “The idea behind this app is to create a useful tool for farmers to be able to carry around with them in the field and help them diagnose problems that are occurring with their crop. In this case, it’s Christmas trees. PocketFarmer will give them recommendations on what to do. It’s like carrying a thesaurus with you but it’s faster and caters to the specific needs of the farmer.”

Learning experience

Andrew Seski, a sophomore finance major and the business analyst for the PocketFarmer team, said of the experience, “Throughout my time working in the Office of Economic Innovation and Partnerships (OEIP), I have not only gained a new appreciation for diversity in the workplace, but I have personally grown through experiencing other disciplines focused on accomplishing a common goal. OEIP has offered me both the autonomy to be innovative in my work, as well as offering me lifelong connections.”

Akuma Akuma-Ukpo, a computer engineering student, said he enjoyed the project management aspect of the app development. “The privilege to get exposure to real world project creation while collaborating with an interdisciplinary team with limited resources was a great way to usher us into our respective real world careers,” said Akuma-Ukpo.

Team members include Akuma-Ukpo; Lifavi; Smith; Seski; Jack Sherry, design/graphics; and Rebecca LaPlaca, arts and sciences.

The team is mentored by Reetaja Majumdar, a master’s student in business and economics, and works with Sarah Minnich and Cyndi McLaughlin, both from OEIP.

Anyone interested in learning more about the app can contact Lifavi or Seski for more information.

Click here to check out the video put together by the students and Lindsay Yeager, photographer for the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, which will be entered into the App challenge contest.

Article by Adam Thomas

Photo by Lindsay Yeager

Young people can benefit from nutrition & food preparation lessons

logoUD Cooperative Extension once again has received funding to bring 4-H Food Smart Families-Kid in the Kitchen out to the community. This program is a 10 hour hands-on nutrition and physical activity program for 8-12 year olds. We are looking for groups that would be interested in having this series of five lessons. We will provide:

  • Staff to conduct the lessons
  • All materials to carry out the lessons. Each lesson will consist of hands-on nutrition education, fun physical activity, opportunity to learn and practice food preparation skills and preparation and tasting of a healthy recipe.
  • Lessons will include
    • The Incredible, Edible Five Food Groups
    • Power Up with Protein – Eat a Variety
    • Live It Up with Fantastic Fruits, Vivid Vegetables
    • Glorious Whole Grains
    • Got Milk?

Groups that are interested need to provide:

  • A facility to carry out the lessons
  • Groups of children 8-12 years old that can attend 10 hours of 4-H Food Smart Families-Kids in the Kitchen programming – no more than 20 per group. The ideal scenario would be 5, 2 hour sessions.

Families of children who attend the lessons will be invited to participate in a family event and will receive groceries to make some of the recipes in the lessons. If you would like more information you can contact Kathleen Splane or 4-H Food Smart Families Project Director Kimi Moore or call 730-4000.

Selecting the best plants for your garden

Hooray! Spring is really here with its rainy days, windy days and beautifully sunny days. So, it is time to visit the garden center and buy new plants for your home and garden. Many people want help in selecting just the right plant for their particular location. Plant selection is tricky and should be based on a number of factors. First and foremost, evaluate your planting site. Does it get full sun, partial shade or is it shady all the time? Is it dry, moist, well-drained? Is the soil sandy or clayey? Are there competitive plants nearby? Are there walkways or buildings close to the planting space? All these factors should be considered when selecting the best plant for any landscape. Remember to learn how large a plant is expected to grow; don’t expect the plant to stay the size and shape it is when purchased. Think about when and how long it blooms or what fall color and winter interest can be expected. It is easy to walk around a garden center and be wowed by the plants that are in bloom, but they are not likely to bloom all season, so you should also enjoy the habit, bark, leaves and branch structure of the plant.

Most people select plants based on ornamental characteristics like flowers, fruit, fall color, bark and interesting branch structure. Those are important and should be considered when choosing a plant to occupy space in your landscape. Think also about how it will be viewed. Is the plant going to be viewed from a distance, where fall color and habit can play a big factor or is it going to be located right next to your patio where fragrance might be most important? Maybe a tree should be selected that will provide shade or screen an unsightly view. Really think about what you want the plant to “do” in your landscape. That will help narrow your choices. Of course, start with plants you like, but then focus on the functions the plant will perform.

Unbalanced plant selection criteria based only on landscape design principles vs. balanced selection including ecosystem services factors.  Graphic courtesy of Doug Tallamy
Unbalanced plant selection criteria based only on landscape design principles vs. balanced selection including ecosystem services factors. Graphic courtesy of Doug Tallamy

So far, we’ve been talking about traditional landscape design principles. But, I propose there is another set of factors you should consider when selecting a plant for your landscape—the ecosystem services that plant will provide. All plants provide some ecosystem services such as taking in carbon dioxide and giving off oxygen; absorbing pollutants from the air; and taking up water, breaking the fall of raindrops and having root systems that allow water to filter into the surrounding soil. But, not all plants are created equally when it comes to some ecosystem services. Especially when it comes to wildlife habitat, native plants are superior to exotic plants. Most plants have evolved defense mechanisms to protect themselves from predation (getting eaten by insects), but plants and insects that have evolved together over many thousands of years have special relationships that allow insects to find food in their native environment. A good example is the Monarch butterfly whose larvae are able to consume milkweed, even though the milkweed contains a chemical toxic to most insects. This relationship is so important to these specialist insects that they won’t survive without the native milkweed they have evolved to eat. So, if you want to support a diverse population of wildlife with your home landscape (and you should), consider including a variety of native plants in your selections this year.

Susan Barton, Extension Specialist

Earth Day – every day, focus is on healthy soil

We walk, drive, work and play on it. Our food, fuel and fiber production rely upon it.  The various combinations of loam, sand and clay which form our Earth’s outermost layer, our soil, is the cradle of life for humans, animals and plants.  The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations named year 2015 as the International Year of Soils. Beginning with Delaware Agriculture Week in January and continuing throughout the year, Delaware Cooperative Extension is reinforcing its efforts to promote soil health throughout the state.

Steve Woodruff, USDA-NRCS agronomist presents at last month's soil health field day at UD in Georgetown
Steve Woodruff, USDA-NRCS agronomist presents at last month’s soil health field day at UD in Georgetown

“Soil health is a topic being discussed nationally and internationally, but how it is implemented is going to be very specific to individual farms and fields,” says Mark VanGessel, UD Extension specialist in weed science.

“Working with farmers, the National Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) and the conservation districts, UD Extension is working on locally adapted practices that fit with Delaware soils, climate, and cropping systems. Getting farmers to think more about soil health an implement specific practices requires a collaborate effort on the part of USDA, conservation districts, Delaware Department of Agriculture, UD and DSU Delaware Cooperative Extension and most importantly, farmers,” VanGessel says.

Healthy soils are rich in organic matter with a high diversity of microbial activity and are more healthy if they are not over tilled, says Steve Woodruff.

Woodruff, an agronomist with the USDA -NRCS was the featured speaker at the Soil Health Field Day held on March 25, 2015 at the Carvel Research and Education Center in Georgetown. During the day-long seminar, Woodruff reflected on the change of mindset and cultural practices he has observed in agriculture. Growing up on a tobacco farm, Woodruff says the excessive tilling needed to grow tobacco has over time, ruined the soil’s function.

“Tobacco fields are starving for water today,” Woodruff says. “Humans have ruined what was a well-functioning system.”

Woodruff explains that farmers need to understand how soil functions so they can better use rainwater. Water that runs off, or just sits, is not a functioning system.

“Agriculture soils don’t have an erosion problem,” Woodruff adds. “But we have an infiltration problem.” Farmers need to stop focusing on the amount of rain, but instead, on how much rain gets to the crop.”

To illustrate his message, Woodruff often travels with his rain simulator, a messy, but effective device that distinguishes the way healthy and unhealthy soils accept or receive water during a rain event. In the video, Woodruff arranges soil profile samples to demonstrate a variety of soil quality and conditions. The soil profiles, from left to right are: 1. Low diversity and heavy tilled soil – less than 1% organic matter (unhealthy). 2. No-till – a section of soil with 25 years of diverse cover crops and organic matter equaling 4 to 4.5% (healthy). 3. Poor soil with a heavy residue cover (control). 4. Well-managed pasture with a diversity of cover crop (healthy) and, 5. Poorly-managed pasture – over grazed with biological disturbance – impaction (unhealthy). The results are clear.

The solution to the problem, Woodruff stresses, is creating healthy balance of organic matter in the soil. “Organic matter is the glue for soil strength,” Woodruff says.  Building that organic matter takes time. “We have to keep feeding the soil,” Woodruff explains. He concedes building organic matter in sandier soils can be tricky. Warmer soils, Woodruff emphasizes, need more microbial activity and less tillage.

Growing more cover crops is one solution. Understanding how these crops grow, use carbon and take up nitrogen, and eventually break down to form organic matter is vital knowledge for a farmer to put into practical use. Performance results of various cover crop species were made available at the field day.

Making the effort to understand how organic matter works and adding it to the soil also makes good economic and productive sense.

In farms where he is conducting research, adding one percent of organic matter in the top 12 inches of soil saved one farmer 16,500 gallons of water per acre, Woodruff says.

In one Michigan study, adding 1 percent of organic matter equaled a 12 percent increase in crop yield.

Most biological activity occurs in the top three inches of soil, Woodruff explains.

Healthy soils require microbial diversity. Woodruff compared a healthy soil in terms of human health. When humans are sick and take antibiotics, smart advice is given to replenish the diet with yogurt or pro-biotic additives to restore the “good stuff,” the microbes and bacteria the human body needs to thrive, Woodruff related. So too with plants. Plants and crops interact with particular microorganisms in the soil and help the plants to absorb nutrients better. A diversity of microbes need to exist in order to convert plant material into organic matter. In addition to cover crops, adding compost and strategic applications of poultry litter are natural and effective amendments.

For agricultural soils, Woodruff advocates planned and lengthened crop rotations along with the implementation of a variety of cover crops.

“Diverse soils are more resilient,” Woodruff explains, “and the crops that grow from that soil have a better chance to resist diseases, pest insects, climate change and other stresses.” As a result, Woodruff explains, there is less reliance and need for the “cides”  – pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, nematicides, etc. Prevention, avoidance, and monitoring should be undertaken before suppression and spraying for pest populations, Woodruff said.

“The impact of not building soil health is a $400 billion consideration,” Woodruff said. “Farmers need to know their main crops and understand the conditions that allow and provide the habitat for organisms to thrive in the soil.”

“Soil health is the continued capacity of oil to function as a vital living ecosystem that sustains  plats, animals and humans,” Woodruff featured in a slide presentation.

The Soil Health Field Day also covered presentations on the early establishment of cover crops with an air seeder, by Mike Willeke, Buckeye Soil Systems and included two field stations; the rain simulator and weed management in cover crops conducted by Mark VanGessel. The seminars were sponsored by the Sussex Conservation District, MRCS, DNREC and the University of Delaware


Article & media: Michele Walfred