Category Archives: Virginia

Hot Fun in the Summer Time: Ear Leaf Tissue Testing

It was July, almost August. And was HOT. I was burrowing my way through six foot tall corn in 100 degree temperatures! Last month I told you about testing the soil to get a read on how much nitrogen (think plant food) there is next to the corn plants to help them grow. We did that BEFORE the farmer gave the corn any additional fertilizer which made it a Pre-Sidedress Nitrate Tests (PSNT).

As a crop advisor for the BMP Challenge, I revisited the fields at the end of July to take Ear Leaf Tissue Samples. The plant’s silk coming from the top of the ears is still yellow but just about to turn brown meaning it’s our last chance to check up on the health of the plants prior to harvest. Walking the length of the field (about two football fields with 6-foot corn means I hadn’t seen daylight for 30 minutes!) and I periodically pulled off a leaf, the one that grows at the base of the ear of corn, to collect samples for testing.  Being in the field also gave me a chance to examine the crop for signs of stress, such as withered leaves from drought, yellowed leaves due to low nitrogen and insects.

These samples taken in BMP Challenge enrolled fields come from two areas: first from the “check strip,” where the farmer had applied nitrogen at a rate of his or her own choosing, and then from the remainder of the field where the nitrogen rate was determined by the PSNT results.  The samples of ear leaves help backup the PSNT results, showing that the portion of the field that had received a reduced amount of fertilizer would still have adequate nitrogen to make it through harvest.  But maybe even more important, the ear leaf test provides another data point, another topic to discuss when we sit down as a group with the participating farmers after the harvest. As a crop advisor, I work to provide BMP Challenge enrolled farmers with all the information to ponder, discussing their observations and the test results against their yields to evaluate the use of best management practices on their field.

The PSNT and Ear Leaf tests just provide a snapshot of the nutrients available to the plants on the day the samples are taken. They give the farmer one more piece of the complex puzzle that is nitrogen fertilizer management.  Much research has been done over the last several decades to determine the amount of each nutrient that is necessary to support growth. Mother Nature is unpredictable and soil types differ from farm to farm, so each farmer must have their management strategies. At the same time, it is impossible for any single test or guideline to consistently provide the “right” answer about how much fertilizer a farmer should apply.  The main reason I was out in the summer heat, melting and collecting the ear leaf samples was to give each farmer one more measurement of their crop’s progress in order to evaluate the recommendations that we made to them after the PSNT.

When people my age leave Virginia Tech with an ag degree and look at today’s economy, they know they will have to be innovative in order to remain profitable if they want to farm  The “slippery fish” of nitrogen that I work with as a crop advisor requires extra attention; it’s risky and being wrong is expensive. AFT’s BMP Challenge program is providing access to tools and knowledge to help farmers better manage their fertilizer usage. By offering insurance, AFT is encouraging producers to try new practices on their fields—like the one I walked through that hot July day—and not lose sleep at night worrying about yield loss. Using fertilizer more efficiently meets the double bottom line that farmers want: to improve the water in the stream while getting the most corn at the least cost.



About the Author: Dana Gochenour is a farmer and freelance writer in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. She can be reached at dgochen@vt.edu.

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What is the BMP Challenge?

The BMP Challenge™ is a program that American Farmland Trust is running in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, in other Mid-Atlantic states, in New York, California and across the Midwest as a tool to help farmers implement BMPs, or Best Management Practices to achieve conservation goals, on their farmland. For farmers with fields in corn, nitrogen is one of the primary nutrients to help it grow, and farmers apply commercial forms of nitrogen fertilizer to provide the crop with added nutrients. The amount of nitrogen applied to the field is based on the farmer’s yield goal, or how many bushels of corn the farmer expects to grow per acre—one pound of nitrogen for one bushel of corn on average. But nitrogen’s availability to the plant is tricky, affected by temperature and the moisture in the soil. To ensure that the corn gets enough a farmer may apply extra nitrogen as insurance for reaching their yield goals.

Barn and corn field in Virginia's Shenandoah ValleyWhen more nitrogen (or any other nutrient) is applied than what the plant can utilize for growth, the excess can leave the field as runoff and contaminate waterways. Farmers have no interest in wasting expensive fertilizer or sending nutrients into nearby waterways, but their harvest is their pay check for the whole year. The risk of being wrong is great. The role that the BMP Challenge plays is to allow the farmer to compare a new practice, designed to be more nitrogen efficient, to their standard practice with a guaranteed payment if they lose yield.

When a farmer agrees to participate in the BMP Challenge a crop advisor, like me, works with them to collect a detailed history on the enrolled field, outlining the history of corn grown  and how much and what types of fertilizers have been applied to the ground. This allows us to establish how much nitrogen is already present in the soil and available for use by the newly planted crop. The crop advisor then asks what the farmer’s current yield goal is, so we can determine how much total nitrogen the corn will need by the end of the growing season.

Typically, farmers in the Shenandoah Valley apply fertilizer to corn twice; once at planting and again when they “sidedress” the balance when the corn is about knee high. This way fertilizer is available to the plant at every stage during the growing season. My job as a crop advisor is to help the farmer pinpoint exactly how much sidedress nitrogen is needed by using a Pre-Sidedress Nitrate Test, or PSNT.

The farmer and crop advisor collect soil samples 12 inches deep to measure the amount of nitrogen available to the plant just prior to the time when the young plants need the most fertilizer. The extra depth allows a more complete and accurate picture of how much nitrogen is available and helps guard against over fertilization. (Check out this video from the University of Wisconsin Extension for a look at PSNT in action.)

For the BMP Challenge™, We take soil samples from two different parts of the field.  One is a strip through the middle of the field, or check strip, where the farmer was encouraged to sidedress the crop at whatever rate they would typically use based on their soil type and yield goal.  In the remainder of the field the farmer agreed to only apply the amount of nitrogen recommended from the PSNT result.  It is possible that the PSNT could be the same as what the farmer had already planned or it could even call for more nitrogen, but often, the PSNT indicates that the nitrogen sidedress can be reduced or even eliminated without causing a loss in yield.

At a time when commercial fertilizer can be a third of corn’s total cost of production, any savings a farmer can find will make a huge difference for their bottom line.  Using a soil test to adjust nitrogen rates to the actual need can save money and improve water quality.  But what if it’s wrong?

By using a side-by-side comparison within the same field it is possible for the farmer to prove to him or her self that the PSNT can be trusted. And by performing the test under the umbrella of the BMP Challenge™, the risk of trying this new practice is eliminated.

Next up… Half-way to Harvest – What’s the Score? -Ear Leaf Tissue Testing in the BMP fields



About the Author: Dana Gochenour is a farmer and freelance writer in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. She can be reached at dgochen@vt.edu.

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Mid-Atlantic: A Year of Progress

The Mid-Atlantic region is blessed with agricultural diversity, producing an array of food, fuel and fiber from Delaware to Virginia. The past year has been filled with both challenges and opportunities for farms and farmers. Inclement weather throughout much of growing season tested the patience of farmers across the region. State budget concerns brought discussions of conservation to the forefront, at times challenging critical efforts to protect farmland.

As we look back on another year passed, there is also much to celebrate. 2011 saw a remarkable mix of work undertaken to save the land that sustains us, including efforts across the region to protect valuable farmland resources and to safeguard clean water sources and clean up the Chesapeake Bay. We are proud of our work in the Mid-Atlantic and wanted to share a few highlights from the past year:

Farm fields and barns in MarylandHonoring a Farmland Preservation Hero

This year, we honored Robert Ambrose of Ridgeview Acres Farm with the Pennsylvania Farmland Preservation Local Heroes Award. The award recognizes his outstanding efforts to protect the farms, natural resources and waters of the commonwealth. Ambrose, who runs a 130-acre cut-flower farm with his wife Sally, has served as the chairman of the Westmoreland County Agricultural Land Preservation Board since 2001, which has preserved more than 10,960 acres of productive farmland.

Helping Farmers Protect Clean Water

Kevin Craun, who farms in the Shenandoah Valley area of Virginia, is just one of many farmers working with American Farmland Trust to reduce fertilizer use and protect clean water. Craun has been working with us by experimenting with alternative soil sampling. This method guides his final fertilizer application, closely matching the crop’s need. By sampling so accurately, Craun and other farmers are reducing their fertilizer use—saving money and protecting their crop yields while helping the environment.

Expanding Our Work in the Chesapeake Bay with Corn Farmers

Through our Mid-Atlantic Clean Water Initiative to help farmers improve their conservation practices, we reached out to farmers and their crop advisors in Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania to test effective practices that reduce fertilizer applications while maintaining crop yields. By working with farmers in the field and at the policy level, we made progress in reducing the amount of fertilizer flowing off farm fields and into waterways.

Rallying for Farmland Protection in Maryland

At the state level in Maryland, we galvanized the support of farmland advocates to ask the Maryland General Assembly to reject proposals that would negatively impact land conservation programs. As the Maryland General Session gets underway in January, we’ll need everyone who supports Program Openspace funding that protects farm and forest land and supports parks and recreation to make their voices heard.

A Look Ahead

As the calendar page turns to 2012, we look forward to more chances to work with our partners throughout the region to protect farmland, improve water quality and ensure a viable future for farms and farmers throughout the Mid-Atlantic. We will continue to do our best to turn the many challenges we face into opportunities by doing good work for agriculture in the region. We hope you stay tuned and keep in touch.


Jim Baird About the Author: Jim Baird is Mid-Atlantic Director for the American Farmland Trust where he works to help maintain viable farms and clean water through the adoption of nutrient-related conservation practices and en

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Farm and Food News 12/2/11

Young farmers look to historic New Jersey crop: the cranberry

New Jersey cranberries are making a comeback among a young generation of farmers. Rutgers University is trying to increase this growth and other farm trends in the state through its revised agricultural program. The university will also be educating consumers on the value of locally grown produce.

Conservations program faces hurdle

In Minnesota, farmers enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program—a farm bill program that protects environmentally sensitive land—are considering returning protected land to production due to high crop prices. Nearly 10 million acres of Conservation Reserve Program contracts are expiring in the next few years. Find out more about the Conservation Reserve Program [PDF].

Christmas trees are looking good this year

Despite a rough hot summer in Oklahoma, Christmas tree sales are off to a good start. Why not try to get your Christmas tree from a local farm this year?

Maryland increases farmland protection

The state of Maryland has recently secured four easements, totaling 563 acres of farmland in various counties across the state. This brings the amount of farmland protected through the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation to 286,660 acres. In conjunction with both state and county programs, Maryland has protected a total of nearly 558,914 acres.

Washington state secures additional agricultural preservation

The North Olympic Land Trust in Washington State has officially preserved the 61-acre Finn Hall Farm for perpetuity.

Still time to register for the Virginia Food Security Summit!

The second annual Virginia Food Security Summit is being held December 5 and 6 in Charlottesville, Virginia. Speakers include Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Kathleen Merrigan, with topics ranging from innovative food distribution to Virginia’s farm-to-table initiative.

The state of the world’s land and water resources for food and agriculture

The Food and Agriculture Organizations of the United Nations put out a new report on the state of the World’s Land and Water Resources for Food and Agriculture earlier this week.

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Farm and Food News 9/30/11

Coalition announces 2012 Farm Bill conservation priorities

Policy and advocacy groups rallied Congress this week to put forth their vision for conservation funding in the next farm bill.

Farm bill educations

Did you know that the original farm bill was created as a temporary solution to help farmers during the Great Depression? The farm bill has evolved over time to include the disaster assistance, conservation and nutrition all under the same budget. Want to learn more about farm and food policy in the United States? Take our short quiz.

Flooded farmers look for new ways to stay in business

With flood damage still affecting farmland in the Northeast, some farmers have taken to other means to secure income. From fundraising fall fests on the farm to using websites to promote and sell unused (but still good) chicken feed, these farmers are reaching new levels of creativity.

Farmland preservation is on a roll in New York

New York state is experiencing a wealth of farmland protection activity. Dutchess and Columbia counties will be permanently preserving almost 700 acres of working farmland, thanks to funding from various sources. A 70-year old family-run farm in Westchester County has also received a farmland protection grant from the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets.

Virginia is for….locavores?

Charlottesville, Virginia, is making a name for itself as more than just the home of the University of Virginia. In fact, this city was called “locavore capital of the world” by Forbes magazine. With activities taking place across the state, from food festivals to extensive farm volunteer and donation programs, it looks like Virginia is taking the local food lead.

Visions of apple trees dancing in your head

Always wanted to own a neighborhood fruit orchard? Now could be your chance to have those dreams come true! The Fruit Tree Planting Foundation is currently accepting applications nationwide from people looking to start their own community orchards.

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Catching the “Slippery Fish” on the Farm and Doing Good for Water

When it comes to balancing a farmer’s need to grow healthy crops and preserve water quality, nitrogen—an important component of fertilizer—can be quite a “slippery fish.” Many factors influence how fertilizer cycles in and out of soil, water, plants and the air. The Nutrient BMP Challenge®, a risk management tool that American Farmland Trust is implementing across the nation to encourage on-farm conservation and reduce the amount of fertilizer flowing from farm fields into our waterways, helps address some of that risky behavior. We recently visited a Virginia farmer and BMP Challenge participant who pitted his wits against a special soil test to predict how much, or how little, fertilizer his corn would actually need.

Farmers use a range of techniques to determine the right amount of fertilizer to apply to their crop; some use high-tech tools, others apply a rule of thumb. The risk protection of the BMP Challenge offers farmers peace of mind when trying something new. The program reaches out to farmers who are interested in adopting conservation practices to reduce the amount of fertilizer used and help preserve water quality but who may be nervous about the risk to their crop yield. A number of these practices provide farmers with techniques to get a better handle on that slippery fish and to use fertilizer as efficiently as possible.

“Now is the Time to Protect the Land”

A BMP Challenge visit to Craun Farm in Virginia. (L to R: Jim Baird, American Farmland Trust; Matt Heldreth, Virginia Tech; Kevin Craun, Craun Farm; Jeff Cline, Virginia Department of Conservation and Natural Resources)

Our visit to Kevin Craun on his farm in the Harrisonburg area of the Shenandoah Valley helps demonstrate this process. We met him in the corn field that he enrolled in the BMP Challenge this year. Craun has been an active participant in various soil conservation practices and farmland protection for some time now. As we stood in his cornfield above the creek, he pointed out fencing he had installed along the stream to keep out his cattle.  A buffer of grass and trees varying from 50 to 100 feet in width protects the banks and can absorb nutrients that might runoff his filed in a storm. He is also participating in the Grassland Reserve Program (GRP) on 40 acres of his property and has a conservation easement on additional sections of the property, which means that they can never be converted to development. He noted the assistance of American Farmland Trust when he and other community members were developing a farmland protection program for the county. “Now is the time to protect the land when the land prices are low,” remarked Craun.

Doing Good for the Water

Farm Advisor Heldreth prepares the soil sample to be combined with a solution that allows the available nitrogen level to be measured.

The purpose of our visit was to take a soil sample to determine how much nitrogen was in the field before Craun made the final application of fertilizer. This information would allow him to apply an amount closer to what the corn actually needed rather than following a fixed formula. Being more accurate in this way would not only benefit the environment, but would help his profits by not paying for more fertilizer than the crop could use. Matt Heldreth, who took the soil samples and testing along with Jeffery Cline, Nutrient Management Specialist with the Virginia Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, is a senior at Virginia Tech and a farmer himself and noted that “techniques such as the PSNT (Pre-Sidedress Nitrogen Test) help farmers match their management to the needs of their individual fields, crop selections and whole farm operation, allowing them to do well economically while they do good for the water.”

As we left, Heldreth asked Craun how much nitrogen he thought his corn would need. “Well,” said Craun, squinting thoughtfully at the knee high plants nestled in the rolling hills. “Maybe 80 pounds?” Wouldn’t you know, the PSNT test agreed! The test and his experience came up with the same estimate for the amount of fertilizer to add to his soil.

As our work with farmers across the country using the BMP Challenge increases, we hope to continue to expand on-farm conservation practices and, in turn, work to preserve water quality in more and more critical locations. Conservation has both public and private benefits, which are being generated by the farmers themselves. And now, as our Virginia farmer put it, we need to “get the story out there of what farmers are doing.”


About the Authors:

Jim Baird is Mid-Atlantic Director for the American Farmland Trust where he works to help maintain viable farms and clean water through the adoption of nutrient-related conservation practices and ensuring that farmer concerns are reflected in policy and program discussions.

Delancey Nelson is a Marketing Intern with American Farmland Trust. She has worked on numerous farms and vineyards abroad and holds a degree in Historic Preservation and Community Planning from the College of Charleston. She is also the market manager of the Lauraville Farmers Market in Baltimore, Maryland.

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