My 39.5 acres is situated in the first hills past the flood plain of the Missouri River valley in Kansas City, Kansas. It’s a beautiful piece of property with a nice home in the valley, 34.5 of the acres are forest and 5 acres are pasture. I have a pole barn close to the house for storing some equipment and equipped with a Coolbot cold storage unit which I built last summer.
5 years ago I planted 20 fruit trees in anticipation of retiring from my work at the University of Missouri, Kansas City. 2 years ago I planted 50 blueberry bushes and 100 elderberry bushes. 3 years ago I also put up a 30’ x 70’ cold frame. 2 years ago I put up a deer fence around the orchard and attached it to one side of the cold frame. This fall I plowed, tilled and put in a cover crop on ½ acre. Everything I’ve done is on the five acre pasture on top of the hill about 800 feet from our home and water source.
The soil is heavy loess clay. I’ve done a lot to enhance the soil in the orchard and in the cold frame. I’ve heavily mulched the trees with free wood chips from the city creating a loamy woodland soil. I have only sprayed the trees with neem oil and clay and with herbs like nettle tea and garlic. The soil around each blueberry plant is amended with 50% pine bark, 10% compost, sulfur, green sand, rock phosphate and cottonseed meal. When I put the cold frame in I had to flatten the area with a bobcat and in doing so shaved off what little top soil there was. By adding a truck load of compost, rock phosphate, green sand and microbials I’ve been able to pull a lot of vegetables from the cold frame.
During the last few seasons my wife, Regina, and I grew vegetables for sale at two small farmer markets. She is an herbalist and has also developed a line of soaps and salves. She plans to incorporate blueberries and elderberries in value added products.
In fall 2016 I trenched and buried an irrigation pipe from the house which is 800 feet from the imminent blueberry field. I have improved the road up to the pasture in order to make it possible to receive mulch deliveries.
Regina and I are advocates of sustainable and organic agriculture and creating a place that our surrounding community can benefit from and enjoy. I am applying for a cost share for organic certification this year as well. Because our property is so lovely and we are in the city and only 15 minutes from Kansas City we believe we are situated well to develop a small blueberry U-pick operation and would like this to be a certified organic alternative as this is not presently an option in our area.
Our goal is to raise blueberries sustainably on ½ acre of pasture land. The soil is heavy loess clay on top of a hill. In order to produce blueberries we have amended the soil significantly. We used biochar on ¼ acre along with our usual sustainable practice using mulch and organic amendments. On the other ¼ acre we used the same practice minus the biochar.
Biochar is a type of charcoal that is produced by heating air-dried plant material (biomass) in a setting without oxygen. Biochar can store moisture and nutrients in the soil. Properly produced biochar provides a good environment for essential microorganisms to grow. These microorganisms play a major role in nutrient cycling within the soil environment. Biochar has been proven to have a significant impact when using a holistic approach to sustainable food production.
One problem with using biochar in blueberry production is that that biochar has a naturally high pH. This is, of course, the inverse of what is desirable when raising blueberries. Our pH is already 6.9. Depending on what medium is used to make the biochar the pH can be between 7-9. Also, the effectiveness of biochar can be inconsistent and not all biochar is equal.
Our objective is to see if biochar improves blueberry growth and production. Making the biochar proved to take longer than I expected so I bought enough organically produced biochar to use at 3%. After receiving the shipment of biochar I washed it and then added it to the compost. After letting it stew for a few weeks I added it to the soil and about a month later tested the soil. Our soil pH is presently at 5.9. I may want to bring that down a bit more and should be able to do that with iron oxide and/or sulfur.
After two years we expect to see significantly more foliage on the biochar blueberries. One does not harvest blueberries the first or second year (fruit is picked off to encourage plant growth), but we will weigh the blueberries that are picked off and document foliage development over the two years of the study. After the study is over I will still report yields.
, various lengths (as they are on a slope and I contoured them to minimize erosion and capture moisture). After plowing I tilled each bed to create a terrace. Next I added the sulfur, rock phosphate, green sand and 100 cubic yards of pine bark and tilled that in.
I then used a bed shaper before planting the blueberries. The blueberries arrived in November. I planted them on a grid. There are six varieties (2 early, 2 mid season, and 2 late season). They are planted 3 feet apart.
Because there is only 3% biochar I don’t expect it to have any affect on the pH but I will test the soil with biochar and the soil without separately in the spring.
I’ve changed my mind many times about which mulch to use. I really don’t like plastic mulch and have decided against it. I was considering a living mulch but several studies show a lack of production so I am now using 4 inches of wood chips the first year and will add more the next year. At this point the paths between the beds is pasture grass. I am going to till that several times in early spring, go over it with a flame weeder and then plant clover. Mowing and blowing the white clover on the blueberry beds should be a good nitrogen source and the clover I am picking takes foot traffic pretty well.
The 3-D electric fence seems to be working well so far and was a fairly low cost solution to keep the deer at bay and easier to maintain than the mesh I was originally planning on using.
I still need to purchase and install the irrigation with emitters but decided to wait until spring,
After two years we expect to see significantly more foliage on the biochar blueberries. Although one does not harvest blueberries the first or second year (fruit is picked off to encourage plant growth), we will weigh the blueberries that are picked off and document foliage development over the two years of the study. After the study is over I will still report yields.
The only findings I have to report at this time is that the addition of the soil amendments (primarily the sulfur and pine bark) did lower the pH 1 point.
Educational & Outreach Activities
Information will be shared through our local organization, Cultivate KC. I will also share my findings on my Dogwood Forest Farm Facebook page and at the farmers markets we participate in.
I have agreed to share my information with Dr. Bayan who is the only biochar scientist in the region. He is well connected with other biochar researchers across the country. He has access to the data and knowhow generated from my experiment and will disseminate the information through Lincoln University Extension and Research via publications and workshops to train the extension trainers. Dr. Bayan also agreed to reach out to organic farmers in the central region through a website and the scientific community across the country by means of conference presentations and by publishing the project findings in journals. Unfortunately, Dr. Bayan lost his position at Lincoln. Hopefully he will still be able to share my findings but I’m not sure at this time if he will have the time or resources to do that.
At about the same time I received this grant I got a job at Johnson County Community College as the farm manager. I work closely with the Sustainable Agriculture class. I plan to present my findings at one of the sessions and do a field day with the students at my farm. There are usually around 15 students many of whom have farming projects they are presently engaged in or are planning a career in sustainable agriculture.
I already had 2 field days. One where we demonstrated and moved mulch with the tractor and dump truck and the other where we demonstrated and planted blueberries. I made events on Facebook for both events.
Next fall I plan on doing a field day, invite a local biochar enthusiast to make biochar, observe the blueberry field, and I will present my findings up to that point on the project. I will also serve blueberry crisp.
I’m still in the early stages of the project. We just planted the blueberries. I did learn that almost everything took longer than I expected.
Not applicable at this time.
Not applicable at this time.