COMPARING AGRICULTURAL GYPSUM WITH LIMESTONE AND DOLOMITE

 By Brent Rouppet, Ph.D.

(Part 1 of a 3 Part Series)

There are two key soil amendments in agriculture: (1) gypsum (calcium sulfate dihydrate [CaSO4 H2O]), and (2) liming materials such as limestone (CaCO3) and, dolomite ((CaMg(CO3)2). Liming materials are applied to neutralize soil acidity, but in situations where Ca is required without the need for correcting soil acidity, then gypsum is necessary.

These soil amendments should never be confused. Routine and frequent application of gypsum is required for the sustainability of all irrigated soils1; and while limestone, dolomite and other liming materials are necessary to neutralize soil acidity problems, improper usage of these liming amendments will actually result in harm to crops and plants.

The differences between gypsum and liming materials, and their uses in agriculture: 1. Limestone, dolomite, and other liming materials. Liming products are used and necessary in agriculture when the pH of the soil becomes too acidic for optimal plant growth and production. For most soils worldwide optimum pH is 6.2. At this pH the essential plant nutrients are most available; so in most cases in agriculture we strive to maintain a pH as close to 6.2 as practical.

If the soils become too acidic (have pH values lower than 6.2) then limestone, dolomite, or other liming products are applied to bring the pH back to the optimal range for crop/plant growth and production.

An example of the chemical reaction:

CaCO3 (limestone) + CO2 + H2O + 2H+ (acid) Ca2+ + CO2 + H2O

Acidic Soils:

• Soils become acidic when they are leached, especially in areas of higher rainfall. The more leached the soils are, the more strongly acidic they are.

• Strongly acidic soils have (1) few basic cations (calcium, potassium, magnesium and sodium) available in the root zone; (2) higher amounts of aluminum, hydrogen, and manganese; and (3) have lower amounts of more easily leached nutrients: sulfur, boron, zinc, molybdenum, and chlorine.

• Levels of toxic aluminum and manganese iron increase as pH levels do down.

• Most microbial processes, including nitrogen fixation, are slowed down by strong acidity.

Limestone, dolomite and other liming materials should never be applied to soils when the pH levels are above 7.0. At higher soil pH values the carbonate in limestone and dolomite will actually burn the crops, and even cause plant death in more severe cases.

The grower must be aware of which soil amendment products are needed (and how much) for application for specific uses to maximize crop production, and not harm plant growth and production.

Note: Dolomite is also used worldwide as a fertilizer source for magnesium (and calcium), but should only be used when soil pH values are less than 7.0.

Again, at pH values higher than 7.0 the carbonate in dolomite will actually burn the crops. Since limestone and dolomite are 150 times less soluble than gypsum, they generally are not a preferred source of calcium as a fertilizer.

WILL CHINA BEGIN IMPORTING U.S. RICE?

Western Farm Press. 15 February 2016.  U.S. and Chinese officials appear to have reached an agreement on a phytosanitary protocol for the shipment of American-grown milled rice into Chinese ports, according to a statement by the USA Rice Federation.

Most trade exports believe China has been importing more rice than it reports with most of the foreign-grown rice coming from Cambodia, Thailand and other countries along its southern border, but none from the U.S.

“The challenge now is to move from agreement to shipments,” said USA Rice Federation CEO Betsy Ward, who, in the past, has described the long-running negotiations as “complex,” and involving issues that seemed to have little to do with actual pest issues faced by rice producers in the U.S.

“This extraordinary agreement has been a long time coming, and I commend the U.S. negotiators and USA Rice for sticking to it and getting us a phytosanitary protocol that while more complicated and detailed than any other rice protocol in the world, is something both industries appear able to make work,” said Dow Brantley, USA Rice chairman.  read more

HOW PLANTS INTERACT WITH BENEFICIAL BACTERIA

PHYSORG. 12 January 2016.  Scientists have wondered for years how legumes such as soybeans, whose roots host nitrogen-fixing bacteria that produce essential plant nutrients out of thin air, are able to recognize these bacteria as both friendly and distinct from their own cells, and how the host plant’s specialized proteins find the bacteria and use the nutritional windfall.

Now a team of molecular biologists led by Dong Wang at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, working with the alfalfa-clover Medicago truncatula, has found how a gene in the host plant encodes a protein that recognizes the cell membrane surrounding the symbiotic bacteria, then directs other proteins to harvest the nutrients. Details appear online in the January edition of Nature Plants.

As Wang explains, plants often recruit microbes to help them satisfy their nutritional needs, offering the products of photosynthesis as a reward. A process used by most land plants depends on a symbiotic relationship with mycorrhizal fungi. These form structures known as arbuscules that help plants capture phosphorus, sulfur, nitrogen and other micronutrients from the soil. This method is akin to scavenging, Wang says, because the amount of nitrogen available in soil is quite limited.

By contrast, the less common process, found mostly in legumes, goes one giant step further: it uses bacteria called rhizobia, which live in root nodules and fix nitrogen from the air and make it into ammonia, a plant fertilizer. Symbiosis with rhizobia means legumes can make ammonia by fixing nitrogen in the air, which at 78 percent of the atmosphere, is “essentially limitless,” the biochemist adds.

Thanks to this feat, legume plants can get as much nitrogen fertilizer as they need, rather than relying on often scarce nitrogen in the soil. This is why beans are so nutritious, Wang notes. “The next time you eat your tasty tofu or edamame, you have those little bacteria, and their ‘marriage’ with legumes to thank.”

“Talk to anyone in our field, and the dream is to make it possible for our crops that can’t fix nitrogen to get that ability,” Wang suggests. “This discovery moves us one step closer. Beans are special, but what our result says is they are not that special because some of the basic infrastructure is already there in plants that use arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi instead of nitrogen-fixing bacteria, which no one understood before.”
Read more at: http://phys.org/news/2016-01-interact-beneficial-microbes-soil.html#jCp

USDA SAYS IS CHINA SLOWING U.S. AGRICULTURAL GROWTH

Growing Produce. 8 January 2016.  International trade is a major factor in the American agricultural economy. A key player is China. In fact China’s impact on slowing growth on trade and agriculture is a session topic during the 2016 USDA’s Agricultural Outlook Forum.

Over the last two decades, China’s economic prosperity and increased consumer demand for food has significantly contributed to the record growth in U.S. agricultural exports. From fiscal year (FY) 2000 to FY 2015, the value of U.S. agricultural and related exports to China rose from $1.7 to $25.9 billion. Currently, nearly 17% of all U.S. agricultural exports are destined for the Chinese market. These export figures highlight the critical importance of the U.S.-China trade relationship for U.S. agriculture and underscores the U.S. interest in China’s ability to maintain a strong and stable economy.Several U.S. agricultural sectors have capitalized on the market opportunities created from China’s economic growth. Traditionally U.S. exports to the country were dominated by land-intensive bulk commodities that were processed for domestic consumption or re-exported. Recent increases in Chinese consumer purchasing power and improved standards of living have generated new demand for luxury items and ready-to-eat foods.

Looking forward, many of the macroeconomic conditions traditionally signaling long-term growth and trade expansion readily exist in China. An increasingly urban population, a burgeoning middle class, and higher disposable incomes have increased Chinese consumers’ ability to diversify diets and purchase high-value, protein-rich foods. Additionally, growth in China’s food consumption is forecast to outpace its domestic agricultural production by more than 2% per year between 2015 and 2020, resulting in an increased demand for food imports (IHS Global Insight).

U.S. trade with China has been rewarding; however, China’s economic slowdown, subsequent reforms, and recent decline in U.S. exports to China have raised legitimate concerns among agricultural stakeholders about the potential impact to U.S. exports in the near and distant future. China’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth is projected to drop to 6.1% in 2016, their lowest level since 1990. Moreover, China is pursuing a variety of economic and regulatory policies that promote agricultural self-sufficiency and protect domestic industries. Finally, whether directly or indirectly triggered by the recent economic slowdowns in China, a majority of U.S. agricultural exporters have experienced severe decreases in sales to the region over the last year. Total FY 2015 U.S. farm exports to China are down approximately $4 billion or 13% from the previous fiscal year and are projected to drop even more in FY 2016. Collectively, these events have created uncertainty within the global agricultural marketplace and have caused broad speculation on the future of U.S. trade with China.

MICROBES ADDED TO SEEDS MAY BOOST CROP PRODUCTION

Scientific American 6 January 2016. Nathan Cude pulls open the top of a white Tupperware container labeled Q8R, which holds one of the hundreds of samples of American farmland he’ll handle in a year. The dark brown soil inside looks lifeless, but the microbiologist at Novozymes smiles as he utters one of his favorite lines: A spoonful of soil contains about 50 billion microbes, representing up to 10,000 different species. The number of organisms in the container surpasses the number of people who have ever lived on Earth.

Communities of soil-dwelling bacteria and fungi are crucial to plants. They help plants take up nutrients and minerals from the dirt and can even extend root systems, providing more access to food and water. They also help plants grow, cope with stress, bolster immune responses and ward off pests and diseases.

Now scientists at agricultural companies are digging through the dirt, like prospectors panning for gold, to find the exact microbes that make specific crops grow better. Agribusiness firms Novozymes and Monsanto are leading the way by coating seeds with microbes, planting them on farms across the U.S. and harvesting the crops to see how they fared. The two companies, through their BioAg Alliance, have just concluded the world’s biggest field-test program of seeds laced with promising microbes. This past autumn they harvested a variety of crops, planted using seeds with more than 2,000 different microbial coatings, grown in some 500,000 test plots from Louisiana to Minnesota, and they have been busily analyzing the outcomes. They will announce early results today. But they gave Scientific American a peek at their operations, and their aspirations, prior to releasing any findings.

Ultimately, such microbial agricultural products could significantly reduce fertilizer and pesticide use, easing the burden farming imposes on the environment and potentially helping a farmer’s bottom line by reducing costs or increasing crop yields. The research is the beginning of an ambitious movement to replace chemistry in agriculture with microbiology.

Field trials are the key. “There is nothing that translates a greenhouse result to a field result,” says Thomas Schäfer, vice president of bio-ag research at Novozymes, and Cude’s boss. “Because the field is so complex, we have to test [seeds] in the field directly.”

A growing need
The world’s population is predicted to reach nine billion by 2050. With more mouths to feed, agricultural yields will have to nearly double. Climate change isn’t helping: droughts, floods, rising salinity and soil erosion are creating harsher growing conditions. Many pests and pathogens are developing resistance to pesticides. Chemical fertilizers only partly address the problem, and some studies show they contaminate groundwater, possibly contributing to human illnesses, and amplify harmful algae blooms in rivers and oceans. Scientists are hoping microbes can provide a viable alternative.

That solution could also alter the economics of big ag companies. Today the market for agricultural biologicals, such as natural pest controls, plant extracts and beneficial insects, is about $2.9 billion a year [updated Jan. 7, 2016]—a mere fraction of the $240 billion brought in by traditional fertilizers and pesticides, according to the alliance. Monsanto thinks the microbial market could grow substantially. Microbials have faster development cycles and fewer regulatory hurdles than other agricultural products, which can take 10 to 14 years to move from idea to market. And if widespread use lessens dependence on fertilizers and pesticides, that could ease public wariness of industrial farming.

The notion of bio-agriculture isn’t new. In 1888 the Dutch microbiologist Martinus Beijerinck discovered that the roots of leguminous plants were inhabited by a bacterium called rhizobium, which could take nitrogen from the air and convert it into a form the plants could use. Farmers and gardeners have been sprinkling packets of powdered rhizobiaon their peas and beans ever since. One by one, other microbes have been transformed into products, like biofungicides and biopesticides. But it wasn’t until recently that new DNA-sequencing tools allowed researchers to see the vast, complex microbiome, known as the rhizosphere, living in, on and around plant roots. A 2012 report written by the American Academy of Microbiology, titled How Microbes Can Help Feed the World, argued that tapping into this resource could generate products that “increase the productivity of any crop, in any environment, in an economically viable and ecologically responsible manner.”

The tricky part is figuring out which of the billions of members of the rhizosphere to go after first. Novozymes sends out teams of researchers to collect soil samples from private farms, which they bring back to the company’s labs in Research Triangle Park, N.C., where scientists like Cude process them. Although each sample might contain billions to trillions of microorganisms, only about 1 percent of will grow in the lab. Those that do often materialize in petri dishes in a dazzling array of shapes and colors: thin streaks of indigo blue, droplets of mustard yellow, a fuzzy asterisk of charcoal gray, a giant glob of blood red. Each microbe’s genome is sequenced (decoded) and checked against a database of known pathogens; any matches are discarded whereas the rest move on to the next phase.

The researchers test the remaining contenders to see if they could be used as one of two things: inoculants, which help plants take up nutrients, or bio-control products that help protect against disease and pests. One test checks if the microbes help plant roots better absorb nutrients such as nitrogen or break down inorganic soil phosphates so plants can use them. Another test assesses whether the finalists could offer protection against plant diseases or pests. For example, parasitic nematodes cause more than $120 billion in damage to plants worldwide. Jennifer Petitte, a zoologist at Novozymes, shows me a dish writhing with these tiny worms, which are barely visible to the naked eye. She adds promising batches of microbes to the dishes to determine if any can paralyze or kill the nasty pests.

Vials containing the best microbial candidates travel down the street to another Novozymes laboratory, where they are grown in large flasks filled with various formulations of rich broth, ranging from pale yellow to amber to almost black. Bill Throndset, a microbial physiologist at Novozymes, tells me the flasks’ exact contents are a trade secret, “like the recipe for Coca-Cola.” None of the microorganisms are genetically modified or engineered; instead, they are derived and cultured from soil samples. After each batch is cultured in its favorite media, it is cryopreserved and stockpiled, much the same way eggs or sperm are stored in banks. They’ll need to be alive and healthy when spring arrives and they are applied to seeds, so when the seeds germinate they can become part of the rhizosphere as soon as the plant takes root. “We essentially only have one experiment a year, so we have to get it right,” Throndset says.

Shortly before the growing season, the microbes are shipped a Monsanto facility in Saint Louis, where they are sprayed on seeds in big stainless steel bowls, like giant popcorn holders. In 2014 Monsanto planted seeds coated with hundreds of different microbial strains on around 170,000 plots, ranging from three by three to three by 10 feet in size. In 2015 the company greatly expanded the trial to more than 2,000 types of microbes on some 500,000 plots. Beside each test plot, the company planted a control plot with no microbe-laden seeds, creating a checkerboard effect across portions of the U.S. South and Midwest.

More bushels per acre
In October and November 2015 researchers harvested the crops and began crunching the numbers to determine which if any microbes made a difference. Many of the 2,000 coatings turned out to have no effect. But the top five increased corn yields by an average of four to five bushels per acre and soy yields by an average of 1.5 bushels per acre. The early results “look great,” says Jeff Dangl, a scientist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who studies the plant microbiome and is not involved with the experiments. “However, typically field trials have to run for seven years before anybody believes them. So the jury is still out. After we see several years’ worth of data, then we will have a more complete picture of which microbes are doing what.”

Nevertheless, the alliance says it plans to launch one of the five microbes as a product in 2017—an inoculant based on fungus found in cornfield soil. Novozymes’ Schäfer admits that even with all of the laboratory testing, he and his colleagues are still making educated guesses when choosing which microbes to send into the field. He hopes after multiple rounds of field testing, with top performers returning year after year, that patterns will emerge to help them predict which strains of microbes will benefit specific crops. The alliance will again field-test thousands of strains in 2016.

Unleashing microorganisms into new environments—particularly when the end product is destined for our kitchen tables—can raise concerns, some more valid than others. For example, Dangl says it is possible that messing with the microbial milieu might affect the taste of a particular crop, much like the composition of soil is known to influence the flavor of wine. There is also a risk that seed coatings, like many agents applied to a field, could slough off one crop and contaminate another. Some proponents don’t see a downside to sharing these “plant probiotics,” however, saying they would at best be beneficial to other crops and at worst have no effect.

Gwyn Beattie, a professor of biology at Iowa State University in Ames and one of the contributors to the American Academy of Microbiology report, has been following Novozymes’ efforts for years. She thinks the biggest concern is not necessarily that newly introduced microbes will grow and spread to other crops but rather that they won’t stick around long enough to do their job in the first place. “My analogy is if you throw one person [at a time] into New York City, the vast majority of people you throw in there do not change New York City. Every now and then there is one that will change the world, but it is not very likely to happen,” Beattie says. “It is like that in a microbial community. Introducing organisms rarely has an impact at all, and that’s actually the biggest frustration.” As a result, she argues, there will always be a need for chemical pesticides and fertilizers, but perhaps in smaller amounts as microbes are added to the mix.

The transient nature of the microbiome is one of the reasons Novozymes and Monsanto are currently field-testing microbes coated on seeds, rather than using other applications like sprays or root soaks. Hitting plants when they are germinating and sprouting, even if the effects are fleeting, could put them on track to be healthier as they grow. Although Schäfer would love to find a single blockbuster microbe, his scientists are also beginning to realize that bigger benefits may come from sets of microbes working together. With thousands of species in one gram of soil, the possible combinations are endless. Right now they are testing the species one by one, and they will wait until they have strong enough data on the singletons before testing combos.

Despite the challenges, Schäfer maintains microbes are poised to make a lasting impact on modern agriculture. Existing microbial products such as Novozymes’ Met52, a fungus that limits vine weevils, are already used on millions of acres; if seed coatings take off, that number could jump. The two firms think bio-ag products will be used on up to 500 million acres, or 50 percent of U.S. farmland, by 2025. “Companies like Monsanto, Bayer, Syngenta and BASF are working on microbes because they believe [the technology] has the potential to reduce chemistry and allow us to live more sustainably,” Schäfer says.

CA AG EXPORTS PLUNGE 14% FROM A YEAR AGO

Sacramento Bee. 6 January 2015.  Wavering economies among key California trading partners in the last half of 2015 landed with a thud in the Golden State in November.

The value of California’s merchandise exports in November was $12.86 billion, down 13.6 percent from $14.89 billion in November 2014 and the worst November showing since 2009, according to Beacon Economics.

Beacon, a consulting firm with offices in the Bay Area and Los Angeles, on Wednesday broke down California’s export totals from U.S. Commerce Department figures.

“Buyers abroad are pinching their pesos, loonies, yuan, yen and euros, assuming they have any,” said Jock O’Connell, Beacon’s international trade adviser. “Then they’re reckoning with the fact their currencies are buying far fewer greenbacks. It’s not an ideal time to be an American exporter.”

However, Christopher Thornberg, founding partner of Beacon, noted that the annual decline was driven in part by a rising dollar: “It must be remembered that these are nominal figures, and part of the decline is driven by the appreciation of the U.S. dollar over the last year. California exporters price their products in local currencies, meaning a rise in the dollar brings in less revenue from foreign sales.”

By that reckoning, Beacon’s California export price index suggests a 7 percent decline in the value of exported goods, equating to real exports declining about 6 percent, by volume, in the period.

Beacon said California’s exports fell across the board, year over year.

Shipments of manufactured goods totaled $8.1 billion in November, down 13.4 percent from $9.36 billion last year. Exports of non-manufactured goods – chiefly agricultural produce and raw materials – tumbled more than 17 percent, to $1.77 billion from $2.14 billion. Re-exports fell nearly 12 percent, to about $3 billion from almost $3.4 billion.

Owing to a stronger showing early in 2015, Beacon noted that California’s year-to-date export trade through November 2015 was lagging the previous year’s record pace by only 4.3 percent.

California exports hit an all-time record of $174.13 billion in 2014. On a straight-up dollar basis, not accounting for inflation, 2014 marked the fourth consecutive year of record-setting exports.

Beacon said it did not expect California’s December export numbers to reverse the downward spiral.

Previous Beacon reports indicated a slowing of economies in traditionally strong markets receiving California merchandise, particularly China, which just this week saw a meltdown in stock prices. O’Connell noted that trade with Canada and Japan also slowed near the end of 2015.

California is not the only one feeling the impact of the global economic ripples. Beacon said Wednesday that the value of merchandise shipped by business rival Texas in November was down 14.4 percent from the prior year. U.S. exports fell 10.4 percent in the year-over-year period.

On the import side, California took in $36.11 billion in goods in November, up 1.4 percent from $35.61 billion in November 2014. Some goods entering California go to other states, so exports are considered a more accurate measure of the state’s trade health.

Read more here: http://www.sacbee.com/news/business/article53327850.html#storylink=cpy

CHINA COMMITTED TO PRODUCING GM CROPS

Western Farm Press. 16 December 2015. On the heels of the FDA approving the first genetically-modified food animal – an Atlantic salmon – for U.S. consumers, it’s worth checking on what’s happening in the rest of world. That’s especially true in the case of China, where President Xi Jinping has been pushing his nation to greater and quicker adoption and development of GM crops and animals.

As more farmworkers abandon rural China for cities and it becomes more difficult to produce good yields on polluted farmland, the desire of the Chinese government to jump head first into biotech waters is for real. The state-owned ChemChina has made its desires clear by trying to buy Syngenta. A few years ago, the company made a bid to buy Dow AgroSciences.

The acceleration of biotech adoption by the Chinese has been fueled by the populations’ increased prosperity. Folks with more cash in their billfold are more apt to buy a steak or a bucket of chicken. That means an increased need for grains to grow the animals out. The government’s calculation is easy to sum up: GM crops mean easier ways to combat pests and weeds and GM food animals can pile on the pounds much quicker while consuming less grain.

But it isn’t just food animals China is moving to genetically modify. Reports have surfaced that the country has invested some $200 billion since 2005 to bolster its high-tech abilities.

A Global Risk Insights story says a Chinese company, in conjunction with one from South Korea, is set to open the “world’s largest cloning facility” in 2016. “This enterprise is the not first collaboration (as the) companies previously teamed up to clone Tibetan mastiffs — expensive boutique dogs which are considered status symbols in China.”

What is the new cloning collaboration planning to produce? “Once operational, the facility is slated to produce one million beef cattle embryos per year, as well as sniffer dogs and race horses,” the report continues. The companies “hope to profit from rising beef consumption in China, with their cloned products both meeting that demand, while also allowing China to reduce its reliance on foreign imports, thus improving food security. … The Chinese government appears to be more open than others to cloned products supplementing food production, as witnessed by the fact that currently many strawberries and bananas sold in China are cloned.”

New Institute Launched to Help Improve Soil Health

PRN Newswire. 3 December 2015. With more than one million organisms in a single teaspoon of Earth, soil is the starting point for plant, animal and human life. It is the foundation for society, providing the basis for food production, healthy families and economies.

To ensure that soil continues to be a vital natural resource for generations to come, The Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation and Farm Foundation, NFP, today announce the formation of the Soil Health Institute. The announcement coincides with World Soil Day (Dec. 5) and celebrates the 2015 International Year of Soils.

The Soil Health Institute’s mission is to safeguard and enhance the vitality and productivity of the soil. It will work directly with conventional and organic farmers and ranchers, public- and private-sector researchers, academia, policymakers, government agencies, industry, environmental groups and consumers – everyone who benefits from healthy soils.

The organization will serve as the primary resource for soil health information, working to set soil health standards and measurement, build knowledge about the economics of soil health, offer educational programs, and coordinate research in all aspects of soil and soil health.

“Leonardo DaVinci once mused ‘We know more about the movement of celestial bodies than about the soil underfoot,'” says Bill Buckner, president and chief executive officer, Noble Foundation. “Hundreds of years later that sentiment is just as accurate. The Soil Health Institute will provide much needed research funding so we can better understand our soil. We will make that research publicly available, so we can work together to provide solutions for improving our soil and protecting it for our children and grandchildren.”

The Soil Health Institute is an evolution of the Soil Renaissance, an initiative established in 2013 by the Noble Foundation and Farm Foundation to advance soil health and make it the cornerstone of land use management decisions. The Soil Renaissance brought farmers, ranchers, soil scientists, economists, environmental interests, agribusinesses, NGOs and government agencies together to examine the role of soil health in a vibrant, profitable, sustainable natural ecosystem. Their work identified the need for a national organization to serve as a hub for measurement standards, economic data and coordinated research.

“There are many short-term initiatives in progress that are regionally focused or examining only selected elements of soil and soil health,” says Neil Conklin, president, Farm Foundation. “The Soil Health Institute will be a permanent organization that will coordinate the long-term work needed in this area.”

The Noble Foundation will continue to provide financial support for the new institute. Next steps will be to broaden the base of involvement with both private and public entities to provide necessary funding for the Soil Health Institute’s activities.

How Can You Help?For more information about the Soil Health Institute, visit www.soilhealthinstitute.org. (Please note: media may access b-roll/video clips and audio clips regarding the Soil Health Institute announcement at https://woodruffsweitzer.egnyte.com/fl/j7ylZEdzcv.)

Farm Foundation, NFP serves as a catalyst for sound public policy by providing objective information to foster a deeper understanding of issues shaping the future for agriculture, food systems and rural regions. The Foundation does not lobby or advocate. Our 83-year reputation for objectivity allows us to bring together diverse stakeholders for discussions on economic and public policy issues. The issue of soil health became prominent in discussions of A Dialogue on Food and Agriculture in the 21st Century, a Farm Foundation initiative to promote discussions on the challenges to be addressed if agriculture is to feed 9 billion people in 2050, while protecting and maintaining natural resources.

The Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation has focused on soil health since it was created by Lloyd Noble in 1945 to help protect the soil and safeguard the land for use by future generations by working directly with agricultural producers to effect change in regional soil health. An independent, nonprofit institute headquartered in Ardmore, Okla., the Noble Foundation conducts direct operations, including assisting farmers and ranchers, and conducting plant science research and agricultural programs to enhance agricultural productivity regionally, nationally and internationally.

RECORD WALNUT HARVEST FOR CALIFORNIA FORCAST

Western Farm Press. 2 December 2015. Despite the drought and low chill hours, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is forecasting a record California walnut harvest of 575,000 tons statewide, up 1 percent from last year’s estimated 570,000-ton harvest.

Although most growers have completed the bulk of their harvest, it may be awhile before the industry knows whether a new record was achieved. Some growers point to the variability among orchards and varieties as reasons why the crop may come up short of a record.

Jake Wenger grows walnuts near Modesto, Calif. He says once the trees lose the leaves that he’ll have a better idea how many nuts remain on the trees and whether he needs to re-shake. So far, he believes the crop size looks similar to last years.

“I think most growers are close to where they were last year,” Wenger said. “For us, we’re just a hair off.”

Although blight was not much of an issue this season, Wenger says Navel orangeworm (NOW) caused significant damage to the Vina walnut variety.

“For whatever reason, it seems like Vina had a lot of Navel orangeworm.”

Brent Barton, a walnut grower involved with the family-owned GoldRiver Orchards processing facility in Escalon, believes his yields will be down slightly.

“We’re seeing a crop a little bit below normal quality with higher than normal mold,” Barton said.

“The kernel and color are variable. There’s been some with good color and nuts which are darker. It has varied by the variety, harvest date, and the field.”

Farming near Merced is Bert Crane who says it’s too early to determine the statewide yield. He is waiting for scale tickets form his handlers to determine his yield. Crane sees a trend toward fewer jumbo-sized nuts.

On one ranch with mature trees, for example, Crane says the second pick yielded 71 percent jumbo, 11 percent large, 4 percent medium, and 8 percent ‘babies’. Historically, the orchard has yielded jumbos in the 80 percent range.

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Walnut grower Dan Cummings located near Chico is more optimistic.

“Generally, I think walnut yields are better than last year. The edible meat yields and color are better. The nut sizes are smaller and the jumbo count is not as great as the last several years.”

During most years, Cummings says bloom toward the end of pollination does not set a crop. But this year favorable conditions occurred throughout the entire blossom period. Even the later blooms set nuts.

Cummings, who also grows almonds, says almond growers have reported wide yield variations across California based on orchard locations. He does not believe walnut yields experienced as wide of swings.

Cummings believes the USDA walnut estimate is close to accurate.

As of the last day of the 2014-15 marketing season (Aug. 31), walnut handlers reported receipts totaling about 562.5 million pounds, just short of last year’s USDA objective estimate (570 million pounds)

U.S. exports of shelled walnuts for the 2014-2015 season (Sept. 1, 2014 -Aug. 31, 2015) was 31 percent higher, compared to the 2013-2014 season – reaching 529 million inshell equivalent pounds, according to the California Walnut Board.

Of the total shipments, about 333 million inshell equivalent pounds were exported while nearly 200 million pounds were sold domestically.

Although the 2015-2016 marketing year has just begun, many growers expect walnut prices to fall.

Wenger said, “What I’ve been hearing suggests that walnut prices could be lower – perhaps around $1.25 per pound for Chandlers which is down significantly from last year.”

He added, “It’s still early to say but I think everyone can expect a pretty big drop off from last year. Last year’s prices were astronomical.”

Barton agrees, and sees long-term opportunities for walnuts. He points to increasing walnut demand by consumers. Research suggests that walnuts are a ‘super food.’

On the price side, Barton said, “There’s a new reality beginning to set in with grower prices. Prices are down now compared to two months ago so we expect the farm gate value to drop considerably.

“We’re no doubt in a correction right now,” he concluded.

THE ROLE OF GYPSUM IN AGRICULTURE

While farmers have used gypsum (calcium sulfate dihydrate) for centuries, it has received renewed attention in recent years. This resurgence is due in large part to ongoing research and practical insights from leading experts that highlight the many benefits of gypsum.

Major Benefits Of Gypsum

1. Source of calcium and sulfur for plant nutrition. Plants are becoming more deficient for sulfur and the soil is not supplying enough it. Gypsum is an excellent source of sulfur for plant nutrition and improving crop yield. Meanwhile, calcium is essential for most nutrients to be absorbed by plants roots. Without adequate calcium, uptake mechanisms would fail. Calcium helps stimulate root growth.

2. Improves acid soils and treats aluminum toxicity. One of gypsum’s main advantages is its ability to reduce aluminum toxicity, which often accompanies soil acidity, particularly in subsoils. Gypsum can improve some acid soils even beyond what lime can do for them, which makes it possible to have deeper rooting with resulting benefits to the crops. Surface-applied gypsum leaches down to to the subsoil and results in increased root growth.

3. Improves soil structure. Flocculation, or aggregation, is needed to give favorable soil structure for root growth and air and water movement. Clay dispersion and collapse of structure at the soil-air interface is a major contributor to crust formation. Gypsum has been used for many years to improve aggregation and inhibit or overcome dispersion in sodic soils.

Soluble calcium enhances soil aggregation and porosity to improve water infiltration (see below). It’s important to manage the calcium status of the soil. It’s every bit as important as managing NPK.

In soils having unfavorable calcium-magnesium ratios, gypsum can create a more favorable ratio. Addition of soluble calcium can overcome the dispersion effects of magnesium or sodium ions and help promote flocculation and structure development in dispersed soils.

4. Improves water infiltration. Gypsum also improves the ability of soil to drain and not become waterlogged due to a combination of high sodium, swelling clay and excess water. When we apply gypsum to soil it allows water to move into the soil and allow the crop to grow well.

Increased water-use efficiency of crops is extremely important during a drought. The key to helping crops survive a drought is to capture all the water you can when it does rain. Better soil structure allows all the positive benefits of soil-water relations to occur and gypsum helps to create and support good soil structure properties.

5. Helps reduce runoff and erosion. Agriculture is considered to be one of the major contributors to water quality, with phosphorus runoff the biggest concern. Gypsum helps to keep phosphorus and other nutrients from leaving farm fields. Gypsum should be considered as a Best Management Practice for reducing soluble P losses.

Using gypsum as a soil amendment is the most economical way to cut the non-point run-off pollution of phosphorus.