Wednesday, December 15, 2010

From the Ground Up: Soil comes to life in the Classroom

by: Raylene Nickel

Soil comes to life in the classroom of vocational agriculture teacher Marcus Lewton at South Heart High School, South Heart, North Dakota. His creative teaching tools, contained in a soil-quality tool kit, unveil to students the microscopic citizens of the soil, such as fungi and bacteria. Students also learn the critical role of all microorganisms in soil and plant health.
For high school senior Michael Zarak, whose parents farm and ranch near South Heart, learning about soil builds a foundation for the future.

“It’s important for young people to learn about soil so we will have that knowledge if we do decide to get into farming,” he says.
Zarak’s new view of soil learned from Lewton drew him to educational events where he saw the benefits of cover crops.
“I didn’t know that you could plant all this different stuff after harvesting cash crops,” he says. “I learned that all these different types of cover crops really help out the soil and make the ground more productive.”
Making the connection between healthy soil and robust crops was Lewton’s aim when he conceived the idea of creating soil-health test kits for use in vocational agricultural classrooms. Each kit contains simple tools for vo-ag teachers to use to illustrate characteristics and processes of soil.

Lewton got the idea for the kits while attending a soil-health seminar for vo-ag teachers. The seminar presenter, USDA-ARS soil microbiologist Kristine Nichols, showed participants how to use inexpensive, homemade tools to demonstrate various soil-quality aspects. She also presented instructions showing how to build the tools, how to use them, and how to interpret the results.
Drawing ideas from Nichols and other soil-health sources, Lewton designed a simple soil-health test kit for use in vo-ag classrooms. He then got a grant from the USDA’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program. With help from the high school’s shop classes, Lewton and his students built 100 kits for vo-ag teachers in North Dakota and 60 kits for instructors in Minnesota.
Each kit includes PVC pipe, sponges, nitrate strips, and Styrofoam cups. Also included are instructions telling how to use the tools to demonstrate characteristics and processes of soil.
“Soil health can be a boring subject for high school students,” Lewton says. “But this kit makes it more exciting.”
One test, the Soil Clod Test, demonstrates differences in the aggregate formation of soil that is stable vs. soil that easily falls apart.
Students drop clods of soil into jars of water and note its response to water and gentle shaking. This invites discussion of how soil structure impacts soil functions such as air and water flow, biological activity in soil, and nutrient cycling.
To demonstrate water-infiltration differences among soils and to link these to management practices, Lewton’s students take soil samples from a pasture, a no-till field, and a field in a fallow-crop rotation.
“We put each soil sample in a 5-ounce cup, filling each cup to the same level,” Lewton says. “We then drop equal amounts of water in each cup and watch the water infiltrate the soil. The water in the pasture sample always soaks in faster than the water in the other soil samples.”

Adding an element of competition makes the lesson more interesting and further illustrates differences in water-infiltration capabilities of soil. The game involves predicting which of two soil samples has the best water infiltration. One of the soil samples comes from clay-based pasture hills and the other comes from a heavily tilled garden.
“The students usually predict the garden soil will win. But the clay soil from the pasture always wins,” Lewton says. “The game breaks down stereotypes that kids have about soil and shows the effect tillage can have on water infiltration.”
As vo-ag teachers put Lewton’s soil-health test kits to work in their classrooms, students across North Dakota and Minnesota will learn similar lessons about soil quality.
“These kids are the farmers of the future,” Lewton says. “By teaching them about soil health and soil quality, we’re giving them the tools they need to make choices that will improve the sustainability of their land.” 

To read more about Lewton's NCR-SARE Youth Educator project, visit the SARE reporting website at:

Winter Not the End of Nature’s Bounty for NCR-SARE Farmer Rancher Grant Recipient

Source: Columbia Daily Tribune
By Cathy Salter

With our own meadow garden now fully at rest, Kit and I continue to find our kitchen filled with greens and vegetables. Seems impossible this could be so given the fact that December is on the horizon. But this is the magic of belonging to a winter subscription farm, or CSA (community-supported agriculture). From October to April, Jennifer and Keith Grabner from Wintergreen Farm deliver a box of fresh greens and vegetables to our door late every Friday afternoon.

I first met Jenny when she and her colleague Lesli Moylan began a schoolyard garden at Ashland’s Southern Boone Elementary School, two miles east of Boomerang Creek. The garden, a volunteer operation, has grown to be an integral part of the life of both the elementary school’s curriculum over the past three years and has earned the support of the community, as well as local and state legislators.

It also was recently featured in The Geography Teacher magazine, a publication of the National Council for Geographic Education, along with first lady Michelle Obama’s White House Kitchen Garden and organic chef Alice Water’s Edible Schoolyard Garden in Berkeley, Calif.

When the Southern Boone Learning Garden is in operation, Jenny and Lesli visit classrooms and hold after-school garden classes twice a week, teaching children their peas and cucumbers by putting them to work planting, harvesting and cooking up what they grow.

Like others from the community and school who help out, they are volunteers.

This would be quite enough time in the garden for most mortals, but Jenny is cut from that amazing cloth from whence farmers come. With the help of her husband, Keith, and their three children, she has made gardening and backyard organic farming not only her own passion but also a family operation.

Their family garden, Wintergreen Farm, is located on 5 acres off Route MM near Ashland, just a hoot and holler from Boomerang Creek. Jenny and Keith use small, unheated hoop-style greenhouses (cold frames) to grow greens and vegetables throughout the fall, winter and early spring months.

The cool-season crops include several varieties of lettuce, spinach, chard, carrots, beets, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, turnips, kohlrabi, radishes, green onions, leeks, mustards, collards, arugula, bok choy, several Asian greens and cabbages, and a few herbs, including parsley, cilantro, fennel, dill and chives.

They also try to include a few winter storage crops such as garlic, potatoes, winter squashes, onions and sweet potatoes.

The last week of October, we received our first e-mail announcing the beginning of this year’s winter CSA. Jenny and Keith listed what would be in the veggie box for the first week — butternut squash, sweet potatoes, lettuce and mixed Asian greens.

The second Friday, our box contained red-leaf lettuce, Swiss chard, baby carrots, golden Hubbard squash and cilantro. We also had a few other items offered on a first-come, first-served basis — shiitake mushrooms, fresh eggs (“if the ladies are laying”) and rabbit meat. And should we need some ideas on cooking up a Hubbard squash or collard greens, Wintergreen Farm’s website includes recipes to get us started.

As I write, chunks of Hubbard squash are simmering in a soup pot on the stove along with a butternut squash delivered the first week. Combined with onion, red bell pepper, pear, apple, ginger and chicken broth, they will purée into a golden harvest soup served with a dollop of sour cream and a sprinkling of Spanish paprika.

While the soup is cooking, Jenny’s latest e-mail arrives with this week’s harvest — turnip greens, Chinese cabbage, mixed salad greens, Tokyo turnips or radishes, parsley or cilantro, and more butternut squash. I’m already dancing as fast as I can looking up creative recipes for the bounty that will arrive on Friday.

So, let the first snow fall white on our meadow garden. Our kitchen will be filled with local greens all winter long.

To read more about the Grabners' NCR-SARE Farmer Rancher Grant project, visit the SARE online reporting site at:

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Organics 101: An Introduction to Organic Crop Production

Source: Wilmington News Journal

The strong demand for organic food presents a growing opportunity for Ohio farmers. The Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association (OEFFA) and the Ohio State University Organic Food & Farming Education and Research (OFFER) program will present “Organics 101: An Introduction to Organic Crop Production.” This educational workshop will be held at the Agricultural Incubator Foundation in Bowling Green on Dec. 10, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

All Ohio farmers who are looking for information on organic crop production are encouraged to attend this workshop. The program will include presentations by OSU research scientists and extension educators, organic farmers and organic certification representatives. Participants will learn about the organic certification standard, the certification process, organic crop production practices, the economics of organic crop production and the marketing opportunities for organic crop producers. University scientists and experienced organic farmers will lead sessions on these and other topics and will answer questions from participants.

“We’ve seen tremendous growth in the demand for organic foods over the past decade,” said Mike Anderson of OEFFA. “More and more Ohio farmers are considering organic production to help meet this demand and take advantage of the economic opportunity that it provides. Working together with one of the finest agricultural research institutions in the country, the Ohio Agriculture Research and Development Center (OARDC), we will be able to provide Ohio farmers who are interested in transitioning to organic the information that they need to be successful.”

Cost of the workshop is $30, which includes lunch. Registration information should be sent to Mike Anderson, OEFFA, 41 Croswell Road, Columbus, Ohio 43214.

For more information, go to or contact Anderson at 614-421-2022 ext. 204 or Walk-ins welcome, but pre-registration is encouraged.

The Agricultural Incubator Foundation is located at 13737 Middleton Pike, Bowling Green.

Organics 101 is presented with funding provided by the USDA’s North Central Region Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (NCR SARE).

Whole Farm Cooperative Project Makes a Difference

Source: Agri-News
By Carol Stender

The Whole Farm Cooperative is a grocery store of locally grown foods.

Apples, ground beef, cabbage, bacon, potatoes and turkey can be found in the Long Prairie-based cooperative.

The cooperative started more than 10 years ago when a group of farmers wanted to expand their markets. They sought to supply ground beef from cull cows to St. John's University, the College of St. Benedict and St. Cloud State University.

They called their proposal "Feed the Saints," and sought a SARE grant for the project, said co-op member Herman Hendrickson.

When one school suggested the term "cull"cows be changed, the farmers used "reconditioned" cows instead, Hendrickson said.

The schools did not accept Whole Farm's proposal.

"We were scratching our heads about it," Hendrickson said. "We wanted to supply healthful foodstuffs. All of our livestock was grass-fed."

Beth Waterhouse, a Whole Farm Cooperative member, said she knew people would be interested in purchasing their products.

The farmers made plans for the cooperative. They set up a food collection area in Phil Arnold's basement. Someone donated a freezer. Another person offered a refrigerator for cold storage. Farmers brought produce and frozen meat to the site and made telephone calls seeking orders, Hendrickson said.

Their model was successful. They have built a distribution system to the Twin Cities, St. Cloud, Freeport and Duluth. They have drop-off sites at 17 churches, six homes, five businesses, six cooperatives and one restaurant. Each site receives food deliveries once a month.

The drop sites make up the largest part of Whole Farm's business, Bromeling said. Local customers can purchase produce and meat at the cooperative's store located in the lower level of a Long Prairie business building. The store has a walk-in freezer, several coolers, storage and display areas .

The cooperative also offers books, cookbooks and artwork.

There are more than 30 farmer-members. Each pays a $25-per-year membership and must meet the co-op's standards. Livestock and poultry receive no hormones or sub-therapeutic antibiotics. All chickens are free range and must be kept in a poultry shelter with access to pasture for foraging. Feed must be clean whole or ground grains.

Vegetable producers can't use artificial or manufactured chemicals on plantsor genetically modified seeds.

The cooperative also sells farm-fresh eggs from six producers. All the eggs sold at Whole Farm are candled and handled according to USDA specifications.

Bromeling started selling eggs at the cooperative in 2001, he said. He also raises beef, pork, geese, ducks, sheep and sometimes goats on his Browerville farm.

Kristin Wilson handles the orders and helps package. Cooperative members get the orders ready on Tuesday for Wednesday delivery.

A complete list of the co-op's standards and ordering information is available at their website:

To read more about this SARE project, visit SARE's project reporting website at:

NCR-SARE Project Creates Value Around Grass-fed Milk

Source: Ag Weekly

Is there a way to “create value around grass-fed milk?”

Scott Rankin, a UW-Madison food scientist, asked that question last week during a “grass-fed dairy tasting.”

It was the second annual event, and it drew several dozen invited guests to the Arlington Agricultural Research Station. Guests heard informational presentations and participated in side-by-side tastings of foods made with “conventional” milk and that made with milk from cows that had primarily been grazed.

The 36-month project has a year to go. It’s funded with just over $148,000 from a North Central Region Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Grant.

Laura Paine, the Wisconsin agriculture department’s grazing and organic agriculture specialist, said the project has four goals. The first goal is to “develop a definitive understanding of the unique physical, chemical and flavor qualities of grass-fed milk.”

The second goal is to “gain an ability to manage seasonal changes in milk flavor and physical properties to improve processing quality,” she continued. Goal number three is to “create an increased awareness among dairy processors of the opportunities and appropriate uses for grass-fed milk.”

Goal number four, said Paine, is to figure out how to establish a premium price for dairy products made from the milk of grazed cows.


Beginning last year, milk was collected from grazed cows on the farms of the five members of Edelweiss Graziers’ Cooperative. The co-op requires that at least 60 percent of members’ cows feed is fresh forage during the grazing season, said Bert Paris, Belleville, an Edelweiss member.

Milk was collected three times during each grazing season n during the spring “flush,” in midsummer, or June, and again during the fall. That was done, said Rankin, to see if the time of year influences the milk, and also the products made from it. In addition, pasture samples were collected for testing right before the milk was processed.

Project partners turned to the UW-Madison’s Babcock dairy plant to make the milk into finished products. Last year the milk was processed into fluid milk, cream, yogurt and butter. This year the research has concentrated on butter and fluid milk.

Rankin evaluated the products on their color, fatty acid content, texture, melting point and other characteristics, both chemical and physical. For a comparison, the same kinds of products were made with conventional milk from cows on a farm that used stored feed.

“The evidence so far,” said Rankin, “suggests that the unique features of grass-fed milk are concentrated in the butterfat.” He offered some “preliminary observations about the milk and dairy products that were made from the milk of the grazed cows.

The Babcock plant made six samples of each of four products from the grazing milk, and two samples of each product using the conventional milk. Products made were fluid milk, butter, heavy cream, and yogurt.

Rankin explained that project members decided the milk should be pasteurized, and that for the fluid milk sample it should also be homogenized. Then they conducted sensory tests on the UW-Madison campus.

People involved in the tests were asked, “’How much do you like this product?’” Rankin explained. “Generally,” they liked the conventional milk more.

One-hundred people said they preferred the milk from conventionally fed cows, while 50 said they preferred the milk from the grazed cows. On a scale of 1 to 10, the conventional milk outscored the “grass-fed” milk 6.3 to 5.8.

“Is this a fatal flaw?” the food scientist asked. “These numbers are pretty close.”

The milk from grazed cows had a “very distinct, unique flavor,” Rankin added. But he hinted that perhaps more people would like it as they become “educated” about it.

Paine, the grazing specialist, pointed out that the study’s aim is “not to validate” what graziers “think is good.” It might turn out, she said, that milk from grazed cows is not the best to be marketed as fluid milk.

Perhaps, she said, this milk might find more consumer acceptance as butter and cheese. The people involved in the study would like to be able to make recommendations to milk processors, Paine added.


Butter made from the milk of the grazed cows fared better when it came to a health factor. Rankin said this butter tested about 5 percentage points lower in saturated fat than butter made from the conventional milk.

Butter made from the milk of the grazed cows was also more yellow. Rankin noted that yellower butter is often perceived as being “more healthful.”

Turning to butter hardness, the food scientist said the results varied. Butter made from the milk of grazed cows could be harder or softer than butter made from conventional milk, depending on the time of year the cows grazed.

As for the cream, that from milk of grazed cows was thicker. It scored 47.73 in viscosity tests, while the cream from conventional milk scored 38.13.

When it came to yogurt - unflavored and unsweetened n that made from the milk of grazed cows almost matched that made from conventional milk, in terms of preferences. Tasters scored yogurt made from conventional milk an average of 4.83, while they scored yogurt made from the milk of grazed cow 4.73.

Commented Rankin, “As we build complexity in a product, these (preference) differences start to go away.”

Still to go in this project is work comparing the two types of fluid milks and butters, along with a more-in-depth look at the beta carotene content of the butters. Rankin said he also plans to examine the color and texture of the two kinds of butter.


The project has tapped the expertise of two chefs to see how products made from the milk of grazed cows compares to those made with conventional milk when it comes to cooking. Leah Caplan, Field to Fork Culinary Consulting, Madison, and Jack Kaestner, a chef at the Oconomowoc Lake Club, Oconomowoc, prepared several items for people at the tasting to sample and compare.

Kaestner said he serves some dairy products made from “grass-fed” milk to customers at the Oconomowoc Lake Club. When it comes to the butter, he said an oft-uttered comment is, “Oh, that’s what butter used to taste like!”


Next year’s phase of the project will focus more on outreach to farmers, processors and consumers, said Paine. And the sampling and testing will continue.

For more information on this SARE project, visit the SARE reporting website at: