Use of Acid Reclaimed Mine Land for Commercial Blueberry Production

Final Report for FNC04-512

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2004: $6,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2005
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $6,610.00
Region: North Central
State: Ohio
Project Coordinator:
Patricia Tillis
Tillis Highlands Farm
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Project Information


We have 87 ½ acres of hilly land in an economically depressed area of Southeastern, Appalachian, Ohio. Half the land is in woods on steep slopes, ravines and on top of the high wall. The site for the blueberry plot is in what we call the “upper pasture” which is reclaimed mine land adjoining the high wall where coal was strip mined prior to the 1980s. I believe the reclamation occurred in the late 1980s and the land has been considered too fragile to farm. Reclamation involved putting about 6 to 8 inches of soil over the mine slag and creating drainage ditches. There are spots in the reclaimed land where the acid breaks through, or the soil did not cover high spots in the slag, leaving bare spots where nothing will grow. Acid also leaches from this area into one of our two ponds, making the water too acidic for fish to live.

In our lower pastures, which are on land that was never mined, we have put in fences and sheds and are raising Boer meat goats on pasture. Our second pond is not acidic, but it leaks badly and nearly dries up by the end of a dry summer. The high pasture area where we are growing the blueberries is at an elevation and on a geological base where digging a well for water was not deemed appropriate. When we bought the land, it was totally undeveloped -- no roads or utilities and just remnants of old barbed wire cow fences attached to trees. We have built gravel roads which reach the blueberry plot from two state highways forming a one-lane one-way loop. Our farm is at the junction of these two state roads.

This year we put in a water tap and over 1,500 feet of waterline to reach the blueberry plot for irrigation. We have started building a house near the blueberry plot and hope to complete the house by fall of 2006 so that we may be able to move to the farm before the blueberries reach commercial production.

We have been putting huge amounts of leaves and some lime on bare areas where nothing has grown due to high acidity. We have had some success, as trees (sweet gum, mainly) and grasses are coming into these previously lifeless patcheS. We have also done some work with straw bales and earth moving to stop erosion patterns in portions of the reclaimed mine land.

The woods are being restored through sustainable practices such as grapevine removal which was done on 30 acres of woods last year. We are working with a forester to know when it will be time for crop tree release, but have been advised to wait at least three years after grapevine removal to let the canopy fill out and the grapevine roots to die out before opening the canopy through crop tree release or any other modifications. We are also trying to eradicate some invasive species such as Tree of Heaven.

Goals. We wanted to see if a commercial crop, blueberries, could be grown in the poor and acidic mine reclamation soil which has been considered too fragile either to use as pasture or to grow crops. By only renovating narrow strips for the blueberries and leaving wide sod strips between rows, we hoped to preserve the fragile soil from erosion, since there is only a thin layer of topsoil over the mine wastes. By planting blueberries, we hoped to take advantage of the natural acidity of the soil. This is not a project whose success can be evaluated at the end of one year. We spent most of our effort during this one-year project adding organic matter to the soil.

Our goal was to put four to six inches of organic top dressing on the soil of manure, sawdust, and other compost, all of which had been already allowed to compost for at least 3 to 6 months prior to application to the beds and mixing with the soil. We used periodic soil tests to tell us how much nitrogen we needed to add to compensate for the breaking down of the sawdust, and how much acidifying we had to do to compensate for the alkalizing effects of the manure, i.e. we were trying to add organic content that was needed while preserving acidity.

For blueberries, organic content should ideally be 4 to 7 percent and pH should be 4.0 to 5.5. From a soil test in a nearby area of the farm prior to applying for the SARE grant, we thought we were starting with about 3.2 percent organic contend and a pH of 5.6.

The Process. On August 3, 2004, I was notified that my project to develop the planting strips and plant 300 blueberry bushes had been approved. (Tillis took slides throughout the project and developed a slide show that contains a photographic record of each step described in this report.) On August 22, 2004, the field where the beds were being developed was mowed and we laid out the beds. We marked the beds with stakes and marking paint and then killed the grass with weed killer before rotovating the beds for the first time. We did a lot of hauling spreading, and rotovating of manure and sawdust during the fall of 2004 and the spring and summer of 2005, with periodic soil tests to check our progress.

We hauled the manure ourselves with our truck and equipment trailer. We added plywood sides to the trailer. The trailer is 16 feet long, 6 ½ feet wide and the loads averaged 2 ½ feet deep. We got the manure free from a friend who is a horse farmer, using his end loader to load the trailer at his farm. It was 62 miles round trip for each trailer load of manure. We paid $100.00 a load to have sawdust hauled to the farm from a sawmill. The wood chips for mulch were mainly provided free of charge by the electric company, which brought them to the bottom edge of our farm. John Tillis transported them up the hill to the blueberry site. We have leaves for the compost pile on the farm, but were unable to get the truckloads of leaves from the city that we had gotten in the past. We were able to buy a large truckload of compost from the Athens Cooperative Compost project—their compost production from the whole first year of the project. We are constantly adding to our compost pile whatever plant material we collect from our vegetable garden, mowing, etc.

We rented a skid steer at $30.00 an hour until we had spent $350.00 on skid steer rental and were only beginning the project. We then bought a 4wd Farm Pro red tractor with an end loader for handling 6 loads of horse manure and 2 ½ large dump truck loads of sawdust in the fall of 2004. We had discovered that we could not unload and distribute manure, compost, sawdust or eventually heavy loads of bark mulch without either a skid steer or end loader.

In September 2004, piles of manure and sawdust were deposited in the rows for hand spreading and subsequent rotovating. Piles of sawdust and wood bark mulch were created and aged for at least 6 months before spreading. In November and December of 2004, the waterline trench was extended to the blueberry plot. A winter wheat cover crop was planted to prevent erosion over the winter and the wheat came up in December.

In the spring of 2005, we hauled, spread, and rotovated 1 ½ more dump truck loads of sawdust, a large pile of composted plant material, and 3 more equipment trailer loads of manure. We also added 200 pounds of elemental sulfur and 50 pounds of urea in the early spring and rotovated after each addition. We expected these amendments would break down the sawdust and acidify the soil over the summer before the fall planting.

The fence building was done in spells of a few days at a time spread out over the summer up until almost planting time in fall, 2005. Due to the drought, the ground was like concrete and an auger could not be used to dig the post holes—they all had to be dug by hand with posthole diggers. We bought ground staples to tie the base of the wire fence down to try to keep out small creatures, since we have had a lot more damage in our vegetable garden from raccoons, opossums, woodchucks, and rabbits than from deer. The researchers at OSU’s South Center horticultural station near Piketon, OH tell me that skunks also eat their blueberries if given a chance and we have a lot of them in our area.

Water. Originally, we thought that we would just pump water from one of our ponds into a tank on a truck and truck it up the hill to the blueberry bed. Then we could attach a hose to the tank and water the berries through drip lines in times of drought, since our clay soil tends to hold moisture quite well. However, this year’s very prolonged and severe drought conditions convinced us that we needed to have a better plan for keeping the berries watered, so we asked for approval to substitute our much larger-than-planned irrigation expenses for the amount budgeted for bird net posts which will not be needed for a few years. We had included the posts for bird nets in this proposal with the intention of applying later for support in buying the bird netting itself, since netting and the frames to hold the netting are the most expensive part of growing blueberries in our region where birds are more plentiful than berries, (unlike Michigan where most blueberry growers can survive without using any bird netting). We now hope to wait until the berries are established before putting in either posts or netting.

We asked Dripworks to design our irrigation system and bought most of the materials from them. The irrigation lines have an emitter on each side of each plant, to which we can add extensions as the plants approach their full size. The two weeks between October 1st and October 12th were a time of intense activity. John and I had bought a topper for our pickup and gone to Michigan to pick up the 300 berry bushes that were planted in one gallon pots. The deGrandchamp Nursery, from whom we purchased the berry bushes, strongly recommended that we do our own delivery of the berries rather than sending them by a common carrier. In our budget, we had budgeted for bushes delivered, so we included our delivery expenses with the cost of the berry bushes.

The next morning after we arrived with the berry bushes, two neighbors assisted John and me in starting to get the berry bushes into the ground. Planting took two days. I took some photos of a planting hole showing the dark amended topsoil and the orange subsoil where there is blue clay mixed with orange sandstone mine tailings. We dug up many hunks of coal and a lot of chunks of a shiny translucent hard green mineral with sharp edges which my neighbor identified as flint. We broke up clay clumps by hand to mix with the topsoil in the planting hole and mixed topsoil and acid planting mix in the wheelbarrow for each plant. We put the earliest varieties at the top of the hill assuming they might need a little more altitude protection from late spring frosts than the later varieties. The varieties planted are exactly as proposed: Duke, Patriot, Blue Crop, Blue Ray, Elliot, and Jersey: two early, two midseason, and two late season blueberries.

In the next week and a half, we laid out the irrigation lines along the planted rows, covered plants and irrigation with landscape cloth and bark mulch on 50 percent of each variety and bark mulch only over the other 50 percent of each of the six rows. We used 8 truck loads of bark chips and still need to add more next year to extend the mulch out the whole 5 foot width of the rows.

The main people, other than ourselves, who have been involved with the project from inception to the present are the agricultural extension agents and, to a lesser extent, the soil conservation agents in Athens and Meigs Counties. I have received counseling from both Rory Lewandowski of Athens and Harold Kneen of Meigs regarded interpretation of the soil tests and recommendations for further amendments. In the next few years as the plants are growing, I will stay in touch with these agents as we continue to sample the soil and the leaves. These same agents will be assisting us when it is time to set up presentations about our project.

We do have an unusual situation in having the subsoil so much more acidic than the topsoil. Even though blueberries are shallow rooted, they do have tap roots that reach into the subsoil. It is known that you cannot successfully grow blueberries where the subsoil is alkaline. Despite the depressing topsoil pH results at planting time, I believe that the berries will grow well and that eventually the topsoil will test more acidic. The berries that we planted with no soil amendments except in the planting holes and with no proper irrigation system are surviving and beginning to produce. The berries in the SARE project area are starting out with more organic matter and better nutrient balance and a good irrigation system and should do even better.

Soil Test One was taken after killing the sod growth with weed killer and rotovating the planting rows, but before any soil amendments were added, giving a pH of 5.8 in topsoil and only 1.6 percent organic material.

Soil Test Two was taken in April 2005 after we had added 2 ½ large dump truck loads of sawdust and 6 equipment trailer loads of manure the previous fall and had plowed in the cover crop of winter wheat, but before adding any elemental sulfur or urea. The results showed that organic content was up from 1.6 percent to 2.9 percent. However, in the amended topsoil, acidity had dropped from 5.8 to 6.1. Subsoil pH was 4.6, showing that we still had our acid base to keep from leaching acid amendments from the topsoil once we get our organic amendments broken down and compensated for.

Immediately after this test, we added 200 pounds of elemental sulfur and 50 pounds of urea to the six 270 foot x 5 foot rows that only add up to .117 acres. Actually, the sulfur was even more concentrated than would appear because we mainly spread it down the center two feet of each bed rather than evenly over the whole five foot width of rotovated soil.

However, Soil Test 3, taken on August 2005, that we expected would show a lower pH and more break down of organic material, showed no increase in the acidity of the topsoil and no further increase in percent organic content. The subsoil pH was down to 4.3, so perhaps we will have happy taproots. At times our “progress” has seemed to be backwards, because as we added compost, manure, and sawdust to increase the organic content of the soil, we lost our acidity, and when we added sulfur to increase acidity, and nitrogen to handle the breakdown of the sawdust, the worms in our soil all died. The loss of live worms in the soil may have been due to drought, but I suspect the intense addition of chemicals killed our worms, without doing anything yet to increase our topsoil pH. One extension agent thinks we just caused the worms to “move away a little” and that they will return once the chemical fertilizer assault has ended!

We concluded, in consultation with our Agricultural Extension Agent, that probably the “slow release sulfur” hadn’t released into the soil because of the severe drought in summer 2005 and that this had probably also contributed to the slow breakdown of our manure and sawdust. Another factor may be that our rotovator couldn’t dig deep enough to mix much of the clay soil with our sawdust and manure and compost, since we had added at least 4 to 6 inches of organic amendments. We rotovated after each addition, but the “topsoil” looked mainly like sawdust and manure! Our County Agent recommended not adding anymore sulfur despite the high pH at that point in time, because the sulfur pellets had not yet dissolved and the sawdust and manure had not yet composted into the soil as well as expected. Therefore, we watered and rotovated many times between August 6, 2005 and our planting date of October 1, 2005. We also added fertilizer (150 pounds of 6-24-24 to increase nitrogen and phosphorus, and later we added another 150 pounds of 19-19-19 to aid in fertility and provide more nitrogen to compensate for sawdust breakdown), but did not add any more sulfur, because it was obvious the sulfur already added had not yet dissolved into the soil. We could actually see yellow pellets of sulfur that had not dissolved still sitting in the soil appearing unchanged from when we had rotovated them in five months earlier.

We were finally blessed with some rain the last three weeks before planting. By the time we planted, the soil was looking darker and better mixed. We used 1/6 bag of the prepared acid planting mix recommended by our local nursery for blueberries and rhododendrons combined with our amended topsoil in each planting hole. We piled the topsoil in a ridge down the row around each plant and between plants to give a raised bed for drainage, since blueberries like steady moisture, but they don’t like “wet feet.”

Soil Test 4, taken in October 2005 at planting time, showed that topsoil pH is still stuck on 6.1, with organic content up to 4.2 percent in our top soil away from the planting holes. In the planting holes themselves, we mixed 1/6 bag of acid planting mix recommended for blueberries and rhododendrons with our topsoil to enrich and “acidify” the planting hole. We mechanically broke up the acidic clay from the planting hole. The soil analysis of the soil in the planting hole showed that our acid mix had actually raised the pH from 6.1 to 6.2 instead of lowering the pH! However, it did increase our measured organic content around each plant to 6.2 percent. So we have about reached our goal regarding the organic content around the planted blueberry bushes, but our soil pH is not yet at an acceptable level in the top soil where we have the heavy concentrations of manure and sawdust and compost. We added 50 more pounds of elemental sulfur in November 2005, before the winter wet weather, to try to get some sulfur to actually begin acidifying the soil prior to the spring growing season. Next spring we will add ammonium nitrate to try to help with the continuing breaking down of the sawdust and to continue working to lower our pH.

We took slides of my test plot of 16 blueberries on August 22, 2004. This is where I first planted berries on mine reclamation land the year before applying for the SARE grant. I leaf analysis reports done on this pre-SARE test plot this year after we covered the bushes with a stretchy bird netting which kept the birds off, but compressed the leaves and retained moisture between leaves and produced some orange-encircled holes and spots that I wanted to get identified. They turned out to be insect damage rather than fungus. Leaf analysis also showed that nitrogen was needed in this test plot area, so we added urea.

It will take a few years to see the results of what we have done this year. We will continue to monitor the soil so that when production begins and we have something worth showing people as the results of our labors, we will have good records and a good slide show to use in making presentations.

We are surprised that we haven’t been able to get the surface pH lower and I can hardly believe that when the top four inches of soil look like they are mainly manure and sawdust, that the organic content doesn’t register higher than it does. However, we have essentially met our goal for organic content and I have faith that the topsoil pH will come down and that the blueberries will benefit from the organic matter in the topsoil and also from the acid subsoil. Our soil is in good shape for blueberry production in every way except for the pH in the top six inches. Levels of phosphorus, potassium, magnesium, and calcium were either Good, High, or Very High at the time of planting the berry bushes on October 1 and 2, 2005.

Our other big surprise has been that hours of labor and of hauling supplies were greater than expected, even with hiring the hauling of sawdust and the purchase of labor saving devices such as the end-loader. We also did not anticipate the amount of physical effort or the amount of time involved in hauling and unloading manure and spreading out a 4-to-6-inch-deep top dressing of sawdust and horse manure and other compost on six rows , each row being 270 feet long and 5 feet wide. We soon recognized that we would have to buy either a skid steer or a tractor with an end loader to handle all these tons of organic amendments plus mulch without paying exorbitant equipment rental fees. Of course, now that we have the end loader, the trailer for the ATV, and the topper for the pickup truck, we will continue to find good uses for them in and out of the blueberry patch. It was probably good fortune that the drought was so impressive this year that it forced us to put in a good irrigation system before putting down the landscape cloth and the mulch and then discovering later that we needed a better watering system. Our irrigation system with its injector for supplying acid or ammonium nitrate, etc. as needed will make it easier for us to make needed adjustments to soil fertility or pH now that the landscape cloth and bark mulch are down, since the irrigation system is under the mulch.

I have visited several farms and one horticulture experiment station to see how others are managing their bird nets and supports. The row method is definitely easier to install and maintain, but the large area under one net roof is easier to work under and more inviting to pick under for u-pickers. In Ohio, no one suggests going without nets as many nurseries in the South Haven area near Lake Michigan do. There are such masses of blueberries and cranberries grown in a concentrated area in Michigan that the birds are not the threat they are to a single small berry farm in Ohio, surrounded by miles of woodlands full of birds.

The project was both more expensive and more labor intensive than we had expected. We ended up having to buy equipment we hadn’t planned for. The 4wd tractor with end-loader, and different size of bush hog that works better with the smaller tractor between the rows, the topper for the truck to haul the plants, and the cart for hauling fence materials and planting materials behind our ATV were not budgeted nor was the irrigation system. So we have a more realistic idea of what is needed to get the ground prepared and the fences built and the berries planted. The high cost of gasoline made our “free” supply of horse manure more expensive. After we discovered the labor involved in hauling on the trailer and having to unload the trailer with John operating the end loader and me in the trailer helping to scoop the manure into the bucket, we paid to have the sawdust hauled by someone who could dump it out of his dump truck so we didn’t have to spend 1 ½ hours per load getting it out of the trailer. Metal fence posts went up a lot in cost and the sawdust which had been free the year before, was charged for by the sawmill this year.

By maintaining nine foot sod strips between the five foot cultivated strips, we hope to minimize erosion. We have also planted along the contour of a gentle slope which should reduce erosion potential and provide good air drainage for the blueberry bushes. We will monitor our water usage and costs so that we can realistically report what irrigation is costing us when we do not have adequate well water or ponds to provide free water. The sod strips between and below the rows should absorb any runoff of excess nitrogen or sulfur that were used to get enough acidity and enough nitrogen into the blueberry rows for the berries to thrive. The sod strips should reduce chances of run-off reaching waterways and affecting water quality.

We developed a slide show and copied it to a CD and will use it to make public presentations regarding the project when the berries reach production stage.

The Grazing Council is one of the groups we belong to who will come to see the blueberry project when it is ready to become commercial and is ready to be shown off! Our grazing Council came to our farm this year to see our goat pastures, but the Extension Agent who directs these meeting did not think that there was any point in showing off my rotovated strips with soil amendments until I have productive blueberry bushes to show off. This group has visited the SARE blueberry project of Bill Nose who used gravel mulch around his berries, when going to visit his pastures, so the combination of blueberries and pasture meetings will not be something new in our county! As stated in my proposal, I will also arrange to visit local high school farm and home clubs such as FFA and FHA when the blueberries become productive. We also plan to try to attract u-pick customers with various agri-tourism entertainments including blueberry pancake breakfasts and farm tours for youth to learn how different foods grow, which will include our vegetable garden and livestock. This is another outlet for outreach that will become available once we have a marketable product. Obviously I cannot evaluate the market impact until the berries are in production.

It will take a few years to determine whether there is any difference in the half of each variety where we used landscape cloth under the bark mulch compared with the other half of each variety that has only bark mulch and no landscape cloth. We won’t fully know the answer to whether blueberries can be grown commercially on mine reclamation land for several years from the time of planting. However, we have every intention of keeping records and continuing to consult with our extension agents. We will follow through on our plans for outreach—this just isn’t the time for it yet because we don’t have results yet.

[Editor's Note: Along with her final report, Tillis submitted copies of her soil tests and the following information which summarizes the soil test results.]

Soil Tests of Mine-Reclamation-Land Blueberry Project From Inception of Project until Planting Date

Interpretation. Success in preparing soil for blueberry planting was achieved in all areas except for topsoil pH. Our efforts to increase organic content have, so far, resulted in decreasing acidity, despite 250 pounds of elemental sulfur added to increase acidity.

Between test one (rotovated, but no amendments) and test two, in the fall of 2004, manure and sawdust and compost were added, but no sulfur or urea.

Immediately after test two, 200 pounds of sulfur and 50 pounds of urea were distributed over the beds and rotovated in to increase acidity and replace nitrogen needed for sawdust breakdown. Over the next month, more manure and sawdust and compost were added and rotovated to bring up the organic content of the topsoil, and then they were left to work over the remainder of the spring and summer, 2005.

After Test three showed no adjustment in topsoil pH, I was advised to give the sulfur more time to act because of the extreme drought conditions. However, we did add nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium as chemical fertilizer (150 pounds of 6-14-24, and one month later 150 pounds of 19-19-19) to add N to replace that which should be lost eventually in the breakdown of sawdust and to raise P and K levels. Test 3 was hard to believe since we had added huge amounts of organic material as well as the 200 pounds of urea to lower pH, and the test showed no results from all this effort in either pH or percent organic content. The topsoil visually appeared to be at least 50 percent manure and sawdust.

After the results of Test 4, taken at planting time, October 1, 2006, 50 more pounds of 90 percent elemental sulfur (at a rate of 300 pounds per acre) were distributed over the planted beds in November. It is hoped that with winter and spring wetness, the elemental sulfur will finally become active and acidify the topsoil. Ammonium nitrate will be added in the spring of 2006 to promote both greater acidity and better breakdown of sawdust. Water will be supplied as needed. Further soil tests will be taken in summer 2006 and, if needed, soluble nutrients will be injected into the irrigation water.

[Editor's Note: In September 2007, Pat Tillis provided the following update on her project.]

RESULTS, September 2007
We have not had a good crop yet. Last year we were advised to strip off the berries to promote better plant growth. This year, the late freeze hit the two top rows in full bloom, but they seemed to bloom out more and fill out with a fair amount of fruit and some of the lower rows were loaded. However, we have not been able to put up the bird netting yet and with an early summer drought, the birds --especially robins--swooped in and ate all the irrigated blueberries before they were anywhere near ripe.

However, the bushes are doing well. It has been a stuggle to get the PH adjusted. Hal Kneen, Meigs County extension, helped us out at the end of last summer when he told us that our irrigation water from the Tuppers Plains water system had a pH of 7.2 and was loaded with calcium carbonate, so all last summer when we were adding acidifyiers (amonium sulfate and Peters acid plant food) to the irrigation water, we weren't adding nearly enough and ended up the season with soil tests indicating our soil pH had gone UP during the summer instead of down as we expected. After adding 20 gallons of vinegar to the next irrigation, we got our Tuppers Plains water system irrigation water tested at the Wooster Ohio Research station and were given the rate for adding muriatic acid (Hydrochloric acid)to our irrigation water during the 2007 year to counter the alkalinity of the irrigation water. So we did that this summer and will test the soil again later this year to see what that has done. The bushes in general seem healthy and growing well and we did have a decent fruit set despite the frost--we just need to continue with the adding muriatic acid every time we irrigate unless we can find a way to get water from our acid water pond pumped up the hill to the berries and we need to get the posts and netting installed to deter the birds.

I did sell a few blueberries at the Athens Farmer's market at the end of the season, but only 17 half-pint boxes.

I guess I should mention that we have had to pick off Japanese Beetles by the hundreds both last year and this year, although the blueberries have not suffered as much this year as the canna lilies and roses at the perimeter of the blueberry field which took the brunt of the beetle attack on the blueberry field before the beetles got to the blueberries.


Participation Summary
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.