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Interview with Derek Christianson Presenter for the NOFA/Mass Winter Conference Intensive on January 13, 2018

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This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2017 November Issue Newsletter

By Julie Rawson, NOFA/Mass Education Director

Derek Christianson

Refining fertility programs; and adjusting mineral based fertility through the seasons. This intensive is seen heavily through the lens of vegetable production. 

Derek Christianson is the owner of and head farmer at Brix Bounty Farm in Dartmouth, MA and is appreciated by many to be one of our farmer leaders in the organic and sustainable farming community. He is one of the few of us who makes the entire family income through farming, supported by his wife Katie and their three young children. We are lucky to have Derek present an all day seminar at the winter conference where farmers and gardeners can do some deep thinking and sharing around fertility management. This event is geared for the intermediate to advanced grower, regardless of size.

The day will be broken into three sessions that will run concurrently with the workshop slots on the day of the winter conference.

Session One

For the first session there will be a real quick review of soil tests and making sure people know the difference between a Mehlich 3 – Logan and a modified Morgan – UMass soil test. There will be a review of Cation Exchange Capacity,  Base saturation, the  big 5 minerals– Nitrogen, Phosphorous, Potassium, Calcium and Sulfur.  In that first session –participants will discuss how to use observation to identify deficiencies in the field. There will be a very quick review of common organic amendments and discuss cost, availability, and the pros and cons of each amendment.

Session Two

Session Two will investigate the importance of trace minerals and discuss a snapshot in time approach for fertility adjustment during the season. Derek thinks of the growing season in four parts -

  • Spring
  • Summer flush – surf that wave you can have a really great season – the natural bounty of annual renewal. In the early part of the spring you have biology sitting on the sideline. Warm up- exponential increase. If roots growing and colonized the rhizosphere – things really going. When there are no diseases yet.
  • Summer drought
  • Fall

In Derek’s opinion, what is happening on the same plot of land during any one of these periods is very different from the others. How the conditions differ and how you want to manage them from a mineral standpoint will be discussed. It might have to do with row cover to increase soil temperature in the springtime, irrigation to alleviate drought; it might be addressing the potential shortfalls or excesses during that time of year.

Says Derek, “There are a few things that I see as potentially common on organic farms – sluggish growth in spring, aphids appearing in June, crops being stressed or dying from drought, and an excess of fertility which brings on cabbage loopers and aphids. Worms are attracted to things that are not presenting balance protein production – the delicate balance between Sulfur and Nitrogen.

If we look at some of these challenges that growers face year in and year out, it is an indication that something is out of line. We can potentially improve our resilience. We need to train our eyes and understand observationally. The farmers that do it best can anticipate and also manage. We get so tied up with our labor situation that we don’t have a chance to react. We as growers are so tight with our labor that it is very hard for us to anticipate and be proactive.”

Derek is trying to approach the intensive so as to build into our fertility program things that will help alleviate our problems. “If there is time we will talk about high tunnel soils -

soil type, organic matter, moisture, temperature, what roots are there, tillage wise, mulch, residues present. There are infinite factors that can change the condition of the soil in that moment.”

Session Three

The third session will discuss lipid production and things to increase disease prevention .

Derek will take three soil tests from workshop participants and then look at them and make copies and come up with fertility programs for each soil test. People will be able to see how one might change behaviors in season and at different times of year, while better understanding  growing conditions for their soil. Inevitably these types of exercises work out well  because one grower might have a low CEC, another may use heavy doses of compost or not be addressing trace mineral amending.

His goal for this intensive is to help people:

  • Start to better understand different minerals in crop growth
  • Be more confident looking at a soil test\
  • Learn how to adjust their fertility program to meet the needs of the crops
  • Be smart in use of resources.

Derek’s bias is that labor is expensive so one needs to make sure to get a good return on investment. When yields are down all the fixed costs get spread over less income. If you can pick squash and zucchini for 2 or 3 more weeks, you increase profitability. Considering the price and appropriateness of fertility amendments will also be discussed.

A reason to come is to continue to pursue better quality production through all seasons of the year. “I view things through the lens of fertility so much. I think there is an opportunity for everybody producing to improve quality and quantity. This is a conversation for folks once people have their systems in place – timing for planting, or weeding in place. If we can address fertility issues we can have better root growth.”

Derek’s Three practices that encourage better faster root growth

  • Boron plays a role in the trace mineral side
  • Not being afraid to using liquid fertilizers – they provide availability that helps get the spark going
  • N, P in the sense that you need N to grow the cells and P to make sure you have the energy.

Derek’s last comments for folks, “If you are growing vegetables, you should invest in irrigation on day one. I don’t have an irrigation system because I don’t wholesale and don’t have to have consistency in my production. Our marketing systems are directed toward complete flexibility.”

Derek has been one of my most important fertility mentors over the past several years. I can personally testify to the value this intensive will have for anyone who wants to boost production and quality on their farm or garden.

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