Whole farm nutrient planning for organic farms

Final Report for ENE07-104

Project Type: Professional Development Program
Funds awarded in 2007: $96,756.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2009
Region: Northeast
State: Pennsylvania
Project Leader:
Elsa Sanchez
Penn State University
Expand All

Project Information

Performance Target:

Of the 45 agricultural educators who participate in the project and attend the educational events, 15 will use the new organic farm soil and compost test recommendations and a whole farm nutrient planning tool to assist organic farmers and agribusinesses manage nutrients on organic farms.

Introduction:

Nutrient management is a major challenge on organic farms, and a challenge that organic growers have indicated they need help with. To address this challenge, we convened an intensive training program for agricultural educators in which we studied the issues with nutrient management on organic farms and modified existing soil and compost analysis recommendations to make them more relevant for organic growers. During the training sessions we also evaluated computer-based whole farm nutrient planning tools using situations common to organic farms. We developed educational materials about using organic nutrient sources for grower audiences. Presentations of the new recommendations for using organic nutrient sources and our experiences with whole farm nutrient planning tools to grower and agricultural educator audiences occurred in Pennsylvania and New York. Agriculture educators developed workshops to provide growers in-depth, site-specific recommendations for using organic nutrient sources based on information learned during the training sessions.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Tom Butzler
  • Tim Elkner
  • John Esslinger
  • Mark Goodson
  • Mena Hautau
  • Heather Karsten
  • Tom Murphy
  • Amy Ouellette
  • Anu Rangarajan
  • Tom Richard
  • Richard Stehouwer
  • Emelie Swackhamer
  • Dave Wilson

Educational Approach

Educational approach:
Phase One: Intensive Training Program for 10 Agricultural Educators

For this phase, nineteen agricultural educators from Pennsylvania, New York, New Hampshire and New Jersey were invited to participate in three intensive training sessions to address nutrient management issues on organic farms. Of those invited, fourteen were able to participate. Prior to attending the first training session each participant was asked to meet with an organic grower to discuss their current nutrient management strategies and thoughts on current compost and soil test analysis recommendations. This was requested to determine how best to develop nutrient management recommendations for organic nutrient sources and to strengthen relationships with the organic community. Educators were also asked to take soil and compost tests for analysis at the organic farm they visited and to share the results with the grower and the other participants of the training.

The first training session was held on August 17, 2007 and had the purpose of modifying existing compost and soil test recommendations. After introductions, each participant presented the nutrient management challenges faced by the organic grower they visited. Several themes were identified: 1) growers tended to apply compost based on the amount on hand rather than by calculating the rate to apply based on nutrient needs of the crop to be planted, 2) in general, compost was not analyzed prior to use and 3) soil on many of the farms had above optimum phosphorus, potassium, magnesium and calcium levels. Next, the presentation, Compost: Critical Concepts and Current Recommendations was delivered. Based on the identified themes and presentation, soil test reports from Penn State’s Agricultural Analytical Services Laboratory were modified to include a statement about the hazards of above optimal nutrient levels. Compost reports from Penn State’s Agricultural Analytical Services Laboratory were modified to include a statement on the use of nutrient sources besides compost in the event of above optimal soil nutrient levels. Assumed mineralization rates were also modified for compost analysis reports. The units used to report nutrient contents within compost were also discussed to make the report more user friendly. Additionally, a fact sheet on the use of organic nutrient sources including an example calculation for determining how much to apply based on crop nitrogen needs was determined necessary and a subgroup initiated its writing.

The second training session was held on November 14, 2007 and had the purpose of examining whole farm nutrient management software. The session began with an update on the changes to soil and compost testing reports. After discussion, it was determined that some of the text should be further modified. Also, through conversations with personnel at the soil and compost testing facility it was determined that to more accurately calculate the amount of compost to apply, bulk density should be determined. How to determine bulk density will be included in the fact sheet and incorporated into other educational materials.

A presentation on the mass balance concept used in the whole farm nutrient management software was delivered followed by an introduction to the NEON and I-Farm tools. Participants then used the tools by entering site specific information from the organic farm they visited.

The third training session, which was held on January 10, 2008, had the objectives of providing feedback on the NEON and I-Farm nutrient management software, learn more about nitrogen mineralization and plan educational events based on information presented and learned throughout the training sessions. At the conclusion of the second training session participants were asked to evaluate the NEON and I-Farm tools prior to the third training session. The third training session began with a discussion of the participants experiences using the tools. Several suggestions for improving the tools surfaced. One suggestion was to address the practicality of using the tools for small acreage operations. The tools are scaled for large sized operations growing large areas of single crops, while most organic vegetable growers in our area operate relatively small sized diverse farms (for example, one participant was working with an organic grower who farms 21 crops on one acre). Another suggestion was to have printer friendly outputs. These suggestions were shared with personnel involved in the development of the NEON and I-Farm tools. Additionally, a new nutrient management software tool was being developed at the University of Vermont and these suggestions were also shared with the principal developer. This discussion was followed by a presentation by Dr. Laurie Drinkwater from Cornell University entitled Nitrogen Dynamics and Mineralization on Organic Farms in the Northeast. The session concluded with a discussion of educational materials and events to develop as a result of the training sessions. The importance of continuing to develop a fact sheet on using organic nutrient sources was stressed as well as presenting the topic at winter meetings.

A fourth training was proposed; however, the objectives for the training sessions were met with three sessions and therefore a fourth session was not held.

Phase one of the project was completed successfully. Fourteen agricultural educators from Pennsylvania and New Hampshire participated in intensive training on using organic nutrient sources. We had planned on engaging agricultural educators from New York; however, our attempts to do so were unsuccessful. As a result, the training sessions were all conducted in Pennsylvania, deviating from our plan to conduct two in Pennsylvania and two in New York.

Phase Two: Nutrient Management Workshops

Based on the training sessions, a PowerPoint presentation about using compost for organic vegetable crops was developed and presented at the Western Pennsylvania Vegetable and Berry Growers Seminar on November 10, 2007, at the Pennsylvania Certified Organic Annual Meeting on December 4, 2007 in PA, the New Holland Vegetable Day on January 21, 2008 in PA and the Long Island Agricultural Forum on January 14, 2010 in NY. One hundred eighty-five growers and agricultural educators attended these events and response was very positive.

In 2009 three workshops were developed by educators attending the training sessions. These workshops were held at meetings reaching growers and agricultural educators throughout Pennsylvania, New York and surrounding states. On January 23, 2009, two agricultural educators presented a 3 hour workshop entitle Using Organic Nutrient Sources to 40 attendees of the Northeast Organic Farmers Association (NOFA) of New York’s Organic Farming & Gardening Conference. February 3, 2009, one agricultural educator presented 2 half hour presentations on Using Organic Nutrient Sources to 40 attendees of the Mid-Atlantic Fruit and Vegetable Convention. On February 6, 2009, four agricultural educators presented a 90 minute workshop to 70 attendees of the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture’s (PASA) Farming for the Future Conference. Attendee interest at these events was high based on questions and comments during the workshops.

Eight agricultural educators took the workshop concept further and developed a one day class aimed at delivering the topics presented at the previous workshops and having the participants develop a nutrient management plan for their farms. Workshops were held on November 17 and 18, 2009. Prior to attending, participants were asked to submit compost and soil samples to Penn State’s Agricultural Analytical Laboratory for testing with kits provided to them. They were asked to bring the resulting soil and compost reports to the class. The first part of the class consisted of a PowerPoint presentation on using organic nutrient sources. A series of examples based on a decision tree were develop and presented next. After the classes, the main decision tree was posted on the web at http://horticulture.psu.edu/system/files/Decision_Tree.pdf. Then, participants were asked to develop a plan for using compost on their farms based on the presentations, examples, soil and compost reports and site specific concerns. The class concluded by demonstrating the whole farm nutrient management tools followed by time for each participant to enter information based on their farms into the NEON tool. About 60 growers attended the classes.

A 14 page publication entitled Using Organic Nutrient Sources was developed as a result of discussion at the training sessions and is available free of charge through Penn State Cooperative Extension and on the internet at http://pubs.cas.psu.edu/FreePubs/pdfs/uj256.pdf.
Sections in the publication include:
National Organic Standard Summary on Soil Fertility Management,
National Organic Standard Summary for Fertilizers and Soil Amendments Use
Soil Testing
Soil Test Values
When Nutrient Levels Exceed Crop Needs
Balance and Imbalance of Nutrients in Organic Nutrient Sources
Nutrient Availability from Organic Nutrient Sources
Increasing Soil pH and Calcium and/or Magnesium Levels
Decreasing Soil pH
Recommendations for Nitrogen, Phosphate and/or Potash
Adding Phosphate
Adding Nitrogen and/or Potash
Calculating Sodium Nitrate (Chilean Nitrate) that can be Applied on Organic Farms
Adding Nitrogen with Leguminous Green Manures
Soil Organic Matter Content
Mineralization
Using Compost
National Organic Standard Summary on Compost
Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium in Compost
Carbon to Nitrogen Ratio
Tips for Using Compost
Calculating How Much Compost to Apply
Estimating Residual Nitrogen from Compost
Using Manure
National Organic Standard Summary of Manure Use
Additional Sources for Information

At the time of the January and February 2009 workshops the Using Organic Nutrient Sources publication was not yet in print; however, it was sent to over 100 of the attendees at a later date. Additionally, working with personnel at Penn State’s Agricultural Analytical Services Laboratory submission forms were modified so that people now can identify themselves as using organic nutrient sources. Once this identification is made, a hard copy of the Using Organic Nutrient Sources publication accompanies soil test reports. Since its publication in March 2008, 1750 hard copies have been disseminated. It has also been downloaded numerous times from the web; however, the exact number of times is not recorded.

A series of six articles were developed and disseminated through the Vegetable & Small Fruit Gazette. They were: Tips for Using Compost, December 2007; Calculating How Much Compost to Apply to Meet Nitrogen Needs of Vegetables, January 2008; Calculating How Much Compost to Apply to Meet Nitrogen Needs of Vegetables: Another Method, February 2008; Calculating how much Sodium Nitrate (Chilean Nitrate) can be Applied on Organic Farms, March 2008; New Publication: Using Organic Nutrient Sources, April 2009; How much Organic Material are you Applying?, December 2009. The Gazette reaches over 350 growers and agricultural educators and articles are reprinted in other newsletters throughout Pennsylvania and the Northeastern U.S. It can be viewed at http://horticulture.psu.edu/cms/vegcrops/node/112.

Phase two of the project was completed successfully. In fact, due to the high interest of the participants, presentations, workshops and articles not proposed were developed and delivered. Our goal was to engage 35 additional agricultural educators during phase two. While we are confident we reached that number, we failed to definitively document this fact. During phase two, we engaged with approximately 400 participants of presentations, workshops and classes. Numerous others were exposed to our work through the development of a publication and series of articles. However, we did not record the names of the participants at all events and when names were recorded we failed to ask participants to identify themselves as agricultural educators or growers. Nonetheless, we did reach our ultimate goal of 15 agricultural educators using the new organic farm soil and compost test recommendations and whole farm nutrient planning tools to assist organic farmers and agribusinesses manage nutrients on organic farms.

Phase Three: Verification and Evaluation

Throughout this project we used survey instruments to determine the impact of our efforts and adjust protocols as needed.

Intensive Training Program Evaluation
At the final training session, participants were asked to complete a written survey. Participants rated their ability to help organic growers with nutrient management as 3.50 before and as 5.50 after the training sessions. They rated the changes in soil and compost reports as useful for their educational programming (5.63 on a 7 point scale; 7 indicating very useful). Additionally, participants commented that “I plan to meet with all of my organic fruit and vegetable growers to look at their soil testing and soil amendment histories to determine how they should change/improve their nutrient management. Many over-rely on compost as their sole source of nutrients”, “I will select more growers to use the NEON tool”, “Plan to use a twilight meeting to present information learned”, “Closer work with producers on use of organic nitrogen, organic matter in agronomic systems. Also work to create a greater understanding of the overall systems approach to nutrient management in organic systems. Much still to do.” and “When helping people interpret soil tests, I’ll have a better explanation of the consequences of having high levels of P and K.”

Approximately a year and a half after the training sessions, participants were asked to complete a survey administered through survey monkey to determine if they were using information gained during the training sessions to assist their clientele. One hundred percent of respondents rated their ability to help growers using organic nutrient sources as excellent (57.1%) or above average (42.9%) after attending the training sessions. The majority of respondents documented using information gained at the training sessions frequently (57.1%) or all the time (28.6%) to assist growers using organic nutrient sources. Over half of the respondents cited using whole farm nutrient management software as a result of the training sessions (57.2%). The majority of respondents (71.4%) incorporated information gained at the training session into their educational programming and 85.7% cited using or recommending the Using Organic Nutrient Sources publication to growers or others. Respondents indicated that as a group they have assisted approximately 419 growers using information gained. When asked what information learned during the intensive training program was most useful to them, they stated, “more efficient use of compost”, “nutrient imbalances (high P) and managing for that”, “sources of information/contacts”, “the changes made to the soil test reports, the publication”, “the new soil test reports”, “compost utilization, value of green manures, exposure to the NEON and I-Farm software” and “current practices of growers using compost, calculating compost application rates”.

Nutrient Management Workshops Evaluation
Attendees of the workshop held during the PASA conference were asked to complete a written evaluation. Respondents rated the workshop as near excellent (6.33 on a 7 point scale; 7 indicating excellent). They rated their knowledge of using organic sources as 3.92 before and as 5.92 after the workshop. The majority planned on using the Using Organic Nutrient Sources publication, using soil test reports to determine if compost is a good source of providing nutrients and having compost analyzed to determine its properties before use. Several also planned on using a nutrient management decision tool for nutrient management planning.

Attendees of the one day classes were also asked to complete a written evaluation. Respondents rated the workshop favorably (5.72 on a 7 point scale; 7 indicating excellent). They rated their knowledge of using organic sources as 3.89 before and as 5.62 after the class. The majority planned on using the Using Organic Nutrient Sources publication, using soil test reports to determine if compost is a good source of providing nutrient sources, calculating how much compost to apply to fields and having compost analyzed to determine its properties before use. Several also planned on using a nutrient management decision tool for nutrient management planning. Other planned changes included using less compost and more green manure crops.

Phase three of the project was completed successfully. During the intensive training program we developed soil and compost analysis recommendations for organic growers and evaluated whole farm nutrient planning tools using situations common on organic farms. Several workshops were conducted in Pennsylvania and New York to extend the knowledge gained in the intensive training program to other agricultural educators and growers.

No milestones

Performance Target Outcomes

Performance target outcome for service providers narrative:

Outcomes

Fourteen agricultural educators have participated in three intensive training sessions on whole farm nutrient management for organic farms. All participants indicated an increase in their ability to help organic growers manage nutrients after each session.

Soil test reports from Penn State’s Agricultural Analytical Laboratory were modified to include a statement on the hazards of above optimum nutrient levels. Additionally, categories of soil nutrient levels were changed to better indicate the hazards of nutrient levels that are not within the optimum range. This laboratory processes samples primarily from Pennsylvania, New Hampshire and New Jersey and the changes will benefit numerous growers in these states.

Compost reports from Penn State’s Agricultural Analytical Laboratory were modified to include the statement – “when compost is applied on an N basis most composts have an excess of P and K relative to plant demand. These mineral elements and salts can accumulate above optimum with repeated application. Growers using compost should regularly soil test to monitor P, K and salt accumulation and should consider using nitrogen fixing legumes and/or other nutrient sources.” Additionally, assumed mineralization rates were changed. Lastly, the compost value of ammonium nitrogen was changed so that it is now reported as a percent and can be more easily used to calculate how much compost to apply.

A fact sheet on the use of organic nutrient sources has been developed for growers. This publication is 14 pages long and is available through Penn State Cooperative Extension (http://pubs.cas.psu.edu/Publications.asp), on the web at http://pubs.cas.psu.edu/FreePubs/pdfs/uj256.pdf, as well as through Penn State’s Agricultural Analytical Services Laboratory accompanying soil test reports.

Each participant of the intensive training program met with an organic grower strengthening relationships with the organic community.

Additionally, participants of the intensive training program were able to make recommendations to the organic grower they visited on managing nutrients.

Whole farm nutrient management software was evaluated for usefulness in helping manage nutrients on organic farms. Many participants found these tools useful for illustrating soil nutrient levels.

One hundred eighty-five growers and agricultural educators attended presentations on the use of compost developed as a result of the training sessions.

A series of six articles on using organic nutrient sources was developed as a result of the training program and delivered to over 350 agricultural educators and growers.

A series of workshops/and classes were offered in 2009 reaching 350 agricultural educators and growers. The majority of attendees, gained new information about using organic nutrient sources and planned changes in their nutrient management strategies as a result.

A decision tree on using organic nutrient sources was developed. It was used in the one day classes and is posted on the web at http://horticulture.psu.edu/system/files/Decision_Tree.pdf.

Additional Project Outcomes

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

Future Recommendations

Participants of the intensive training program were asked what topic within “using organic nutrient sources” they would like to receive more information on. They stated, “Developing some basic information for people that do not have background in soils so it helps demystify this. Most information is put out by consultants and usually adds extra cost to the operation”, “using cover crops to fix N and scavenge N”, “I get questions on the effectiveness of organic foliar feeds? How effective are they (cost effectiveness)? Are they better used in early spring when soil temperatures are cooler and mineralization is low?” and “best application rates”.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.