Soil recordkeeping initiatives are helping farmers increase understanding of their most important asset.
The Soil Health Benchmark Study, led by Pasa Sustainable Agriculture, and the Million Acre Challenge from Future Harvest CASA are yielding insights for improving soil and showing farmers where they still need to improve.
Farmers discussed their use of records in a mid-March Future Harvest CASA webinar.
The benchmark study was designed in part to compare no-till and tillage systems.
The study uses four types of records: soil disturbance, usually related to equipment activity; livestock activity, pasturing and moving herds; planting and termination dates; and soil amendments — probably the most common record kept by farmers.
Of course, there are other types of records customary for farmers such as water, soil testing results and yields.
But how can these records be kept accurately and completely?
Carrie Vaughn, a vegetable production manager at Clagett Farm in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, starts with a detailed grower plan and ties that in with a daily record of activity, or journal.
The Soil Health Benchmark Study requires more details than this, but it’s enough to start with a simple daily journal, she said.
Vaughn also keeps a harvest log that includes harvest weight, location grown, yield, date, and type of crop.
“I started keeping a log because I knew I wouldn’t remember the details,” Vaughn said, adding that a daily log or work log can be kept on a smartphone.
Since not all of her crew are equally careful with the day’s logging, Vaughn takes pictures to help jog her memory and to augment the brief written notes.
She’s been using a free program called Airtable, which helps farmers build online databases. The setup is a bit complex, but data entry is easy, Vaughn said.
Entries can be made on the fly, and Vaughn has taken to adding pictures of the seed bags and bags of nutrients in the barn. She can also use those pictures for her organic certification.
Vaughn also uses a to-scale field map. She makes copies of that basic map and adds the crop rows, dates planted, and other notable information until the field is harvested. Then, she takes another blank field map and starts again.
Finding a Log System That Works
But good recordkeeping isn’t something that begins overnight.
“The first year my records were poor and odd. Next year I overdid it,” said Mike Krug, co-owner of Fullers Overlook Farm in Waverly, Pennsylvania. “I had to find a system that allowed me to make improvements over time.”
He keeps two types of logs — one for mechanized planting and a second for hand-based planting.
Because he’s comfortable with Excel, he uses that with Google Drive. Like Vaughn, Krug keeps notes on his smart phone while in the field, even using the Voice Memos app.
He recommended printing out the spreadsheets for manual entries to be used by the workers. He keeps a binder and pencil hanging where the crew returns its tools. Krug and his assistant enter the handwritten notes into the database at week’s end.
“I recommend adding pictures of what the form should look like when it’s completed,” he said.
The records for organic certification and the Soil Benchmark recordkeeping overlap, so while Krug is fulfilling one set of requirements, he’s also compiling the information he needs for the other project.
The soil tests Krug does regularly with Logan Labs and now Cornell University provide easy-to-understand results and a chart that he posts for his CSA customers to peruse, both on the web and at the pickup site.
“My customers are excited about these charts. It’s great to educate people about the soil,” Krug said.