MOUNT VERNON — Scientifically, soil and the interaction of its physical, chemical and biological elements provide a rich field of study for agricultural research.
Turning that research into practical information farmers can use to improve their soil, grow healthier crops and make more money was a main goal of a recent conference held at the Washington State University Northwestern Washington Research and Extension Center in Mount Vernon.
Drawing a crowd of speakers, attendees and volunteers that numbered 125-plus, the workshop held Thursday offered a balance of cutting-edge research and easy-to-implement techniques and tests for improving and monitoring soil health.
Although the Skagit Valley has famously fertile soil, relatively little academic research on soil quality has been performed here, said Caitlin Price Youngquist, a graduate student pursuing her doctorate degree in soil science at WSU.
“A lot of the research we use in Western Washington comes from other areas. There has not been a lot of soil quality research here. Soil is such a complex system, it needs to be done in place,” said Youngquist, who organized the conference.
“My hope is that it will get people thinking, talking and help the cross-pollination of ideas.”
Presentations ranged from scientific findings on highly specific topics to easy ways any farmer can improve their soil’s quality. For instance, Nick Andrews, senior instructor and Small Farms Extension agent at Oregon State University, explained how to test and record soil quality using a tub, a piece of plywood and gravity.
One theme of the conference was the role organic material plays in boosting soil health, whether it is added through mulch or cover crops.
Contrary to traditional practices of using herbicides and tilling to control weeds, David Granatstein, a WSU sustainable agriculture specialist, presented studies where cover crops planted during off-seasons reduced weeds and plant-feeding insects.
“Organic matter is probably the most essential piece of soil quality. We’re not used to adding carbon as a fertilizer, but it’s as much a necessary component of soil, if not more so, than nitrogen,” Granatstein said.
Reduction of tilling or using less soil-disturbing tractor implements may also help promote healthy soil by minimizing disruption to a complex soil ecosystem, according to a presentation by Doug Collins, an extension faculty member with WSU’s Small Farms program.
Camille Green, who manages a vegetable garden at Good Cheer Food Bank in Langley on Whidbey Island, said she came with colleagues to the presentation not only to build healthier soil in her plots, but to be able to relay knowledge through classes she presents in her garden.
“I’m curious about learning what are better cover crop cocktails. We kind of do the same thing every year, so I want to expand that,” Green said. “We want to know more about the science of what’s going on in the soil, because I’m not a scientist myself.”
Even the most experienced Skagit County farmers with long family histories in agriculture found the event useful.
“Soil is where it all starts. Soil health is really important,” said Darrin Morrison, owner of Morrison Farms producing primarily potatoes. “I’m looking for new and innovative ideas. There’s probably a few things here we could apply, maybe experiment with for a couple years.”
Morrison said he was looking for ways to decrease clods in his soil and make it easier to work. To accomplish this, he said he is considering growing more cover crops over his fields when potatoes are out of the ground, then tilling the crops in at the end of the season to boost organic matter in the soil.
“It will require less fuel and less passes over the soil with a tractor, which saves us money,” Morrison said.
Jack Hulbert, co-owner of Hulbert Farms and Skagit Seed Services, is one of many beet seed farmers in the valley who have witnessed an inexplicable and drastic reduction in crop yields over the last two years.
In meetings with growers and researchers on the problem, Hulbert said a lack of cover crops and soil deterioration has come up as a possible factor since peas left the valley as a major cover crop.
“We’ve lost organic matter. We’re not a monoculture, but we’re growing mostly potatoes and beets,” Hulbert said.
Hulbert said his soil has lost water-holding capabilities, evidenced by a heavier reliance on irrigation than in years past. He said he will likely grow more cover crops on his land — not for profit, but to introduce nitrogen and organic matter to the soil for his main crops.
“In cover crops, you never see a profit. You’re banking it in the soil for profits down the road. You’re not going to see an instant return for any of this stuff. It’s a long-term approach,” Hulbert said.
While researchers and agriculture support specialists made most of the presentations Thursday, farmers play an important role in testing the science for efficacy and economic feasibility in production fields, Price said.
“Researchers can bring a lot of info to the table, and I think growers can use that, put it into practice, and turn it into knowledge, and make it useful to them,” Youngquist said.