There’s one fact that all farmers know to be true: using N-P-K fertilizers will increase your crop yield. But today, the scientific foundation for this supposed fact is eroding faster than dirt in a downpour. And what farmers are realizing is that the benefits of using fertilizers are starting to be dwarfed by the side effects. For one, fertilizers lead to empty growth. If you’re trying to grow high quality flower for CBD, this means less terpenes and cannabinoids per pound. For another, feeding a plant N-P-K fertilizers leads to a decline in the soil microbial population which is ESSENTIAL for protecting the plant from pests and diseases.
Many people believe that hemp is naturally resistant to pests. Yet we’ve already seen hemp farmers fall victim to the same problems’ other farmers face. Fungal diseases like Fusarium and Pythium are ravaging entire crops. Grasshoppers find hemp leaves especially tasty. Spider mites and root aphids have a particular affection for the hemp plant. While fertilizers might appear to increase your yield, they will ultimately leave your plants vulnerable to a disease or pests that could decrease your yield dramatically.
The use of chemicals- such as synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, fungicides, and pesticides- is a relatively recent agricultural development. For thousands of years, chemicals were not needed or used in farming. Despite what we’ve been told about the necessity of the “green revolution,” countries like China, Japan and Korea managed to sustain very dense populations for hundreds of years using only techniques that feed the soil and promoted healthy microbial life. Sensibly, chemical inputs are not required when you are working with, not against, the systems that Mother Nature already has in place.
The Fundamental Principles of Farming Are Changing
The past two decades have seen rapid advances in our understanding of soil science. We now know that a healthy soil microbial ecosystem is the most important factor in getting a high yield, healthy crop. Healthy, regenerative soil should become alive and thriving with an abundant and diverse group of microbial life. Biodiversity is critical, with an average of 90% of soil functions created by different microbes. This is because microbes are what make nutrients bioavailable to plants. Most soils have plenty of nutrients in them, they are just bound to other elements in a form that makes them not available to the plants. Microbes can unlock these compounds and ionize the nutrients, allowing plants to take them up through their roots. Soil microbes also perform two other key functions: preventing runoff and minimizing soil erosion. Bacteria bind the soil together, allowing the land to take in more water and oxygen, and that results in less runoff. With solubilizing minerals in the ground, this will slowly feed the plants, helping them grow the way nature intended.
Bare soil is damaged soil, worthless soil, and should be defined by its proper lifeless name, dirt. Dirt only occurs where farmers’ pesticides or other chemicals have interfered with the natural ecological balance. Once the land has been bare, it becomes susceptible to further damage from harsh elements: sun, wind, and water. Thus, the use of the conventional plow in cultivation not only damages soil life processes which are crucial for plant nutrient uptake, but may ultimately cause more extensive yearly hemp crop loss. The three main approaches to preserving soil life in intensive hemp cultivation are as follows:
• Planting divers cover crops and rotate crops
• Reducing tillage and implement alternative weed control strategies
• Add organic matter and microbial supplements to jumpstart soil life
We will discuss these three techniques in detail below. Some of these measures are easier to implement than others. It also may be difficult to implement them all in one season, but by introducing one of these methods in three consecutive seasons, farmers can move toward producing a healthier crop, healthier profits, and a superior product.
1. PLANT DIVERSE COVER CROPS AND ROTATE CROPS
Next level hemp farming begins with comprehending that mother nature never lets soil to become bare. Newly developed soil microbes depend on plants, and soil health depends on the bio-diversity of the living soil microbes. How we manage plants is critical to not only restoring but also rebuilding the microbial health of the soil. Cultivating a diverse mix of healthy cover crops and other plants does many useful things for you, including:
• Cover crops rebuild microbial populations and allow composting worms and white springtail mites to break down organic matter in the soil, producing more carbon and nitrogen for the Soil Food Web.
• Protects and covers the earth, regulating and maintaining its temperature during extreme hot or cold environments
• Allows another level of security for your hemp plants to defend and fight off bug infestations
We have found that the more attention to detail and diversity in the cover crop seed selection, the easier it is in the summer months for the hemp farmer. Diverse seed selection helps create the level of health the farmer needs to achieve by beginning to build a thriving microbial ecosystem. Here are the twelve best cover crops to use in conjunction with the hemp plant:
1. Flax - Carter
2. Clover - Yellow Sweet
3. Clover - White Dutch
4. Clover - Medium Red
5. Clover - Crimson
6. Lentils - Indianhead
7. Millet - White Proso
8. Vetch - Hairy
9. Vetch - Common
10. Cowpeas - Red Ripper
11. Buckwheat - Mancan
12. Pea - Forage
Cultivating a diverse variety of plants to the soil, the microbial population in the ground becomes stronger and better able to fight off invasive diseases and pests. Diversity also gives the plants access to more nutrients that were bound up in the soil and previously not bio-available.
2. REDUCE TILLAGE AND IMPLEMENT ALTERNATIVE WEED CONTROL
Our ancestors brought a wide variety of knowledge from Europe, and one of the most detrimental "pearls of wisdom" they brought with them was the art form of tilling the land. Their thought process was that by tilling, they could "fluff and soften" up the soil, mix in oxygen, and increase water infiltration. It turns out that they were sadly misinformed.
Tilling is exceptionally destructive to our land and atmosphere. Tilling the land:
• Destroys the rhizosphere, which is crucial for peak soil function
• Destroys mycelial networks which bring nutrients to the plant
• Reduces soil organic matter and releases excess carbon into the atmosphere as CO2
• Increases the presence of weeds (contrary to conventional wisdom)
• Decreases water infiltration
While tiling is often seen as crucial for controlling weeds, there are many other, less destructive ways to do so. And in fact, tilling only causes weeds to grow back with a vengeance.
Properly timing the planting and harvesting of a cover crop can do a lot to slow down weed growth. If the field is covered with a dense and diverse cover crop, this crop will typically out-compete common weeds. During the main planting season, companion crops can be planted with hemp, which can also reduce weed pressure and protect the hemp plant from pests. Mulch is also an effective weed control strategy. Woody mulches will also break down during the season and supply extra organic matter and nutrients to the soil. Biodegradable plastic mulches are also an effective way to control weeds. Finally, if you introduce the right kind of grazing animal into your field during the growing season – one that will eat the weeds instead of the hemp plants – this can not only control weeds, but provide organic fertilizer to your field in the form of manure.
3. ADD ORGANIC MATTER AND MICROBIAL SUPPLEMENTS TO YOUR SOIL
Soil organic matter is the key to fostering healthy and diverse microbial life. There are many amendments that can add organic material and a boost of microbes to your soil. Some will work quickly, while others will build up the soil organic matter over a few seasons.
Aerobic compost is the most common soil amendment used to add organic matter and beneficial microbes. This compost can be made on your farm with your own organic waste materials, but the process can be labor intensive. Purchasing compost from a reliable, tested source can be a good alternative. A lesser-known and less widely available form of compost is Bokashi. This originates from a Japanese technique of essentially fermenting organic waste material, without the labor-intensive process of turning and aerating.
Biochar is an amendment that’s very high in carbon and in surface area, making is super-absorptive. This can be extremely beneficial for holding water, nutrients and microbes for plants. However one must ensure that biochar has been inoculated with microbes before being applied to the soil, otherwise the raw char might temporarily suck up nutrients and microbes, depriving the plant. Balancing the pH of biochar ahead of application is also important, as biochar is naturally very alkaline.
Worm castings are one of the most effective organic soil amendments, because they contain some of the highest density and diversity of microbial life, as well as bioavailable nutrients, since this is essentially worm manure. Producing worm castings at scale is challenging, but they can often be bought and made into a tea, which can be applied to crops through the irrigation system.
Actively aerated compost tea (ACCT) is a water-based oxygen-rich tea containing large populations of beneficial aerobic bacteria, nematodes, fungi, and protozoa; these microbes work in a symbiotic relationship with plants. Quality compost tea breeds thousands of beneficial microorganisms as well as a stable balance of bacterial and fungal ratios. Compost tea allows you to breed a small amount of compost into a dispersible liquid form, letting a little fertilizer to go a lot farther. All it requires is an inoculant of beneficial bacteria and fungi, some key food sources, chemical-free water, oxygen, and slight agitation.
Finally, fermented plant juice, produced from anaerobically fermenting organic material, produces a liquid microbial similar to compost tea, but with a few additional advantages: 1) it doesn’t have to be aerated, and therefore has a longer shelf-life, 2) it is guaranteed to be pathogen free because the fermentation process kills human pathogens through acidity, and 3) the organic acids produced in the fermentation act as growth hormones for the plant, causing a more rapid response in plants than a compost tea.
The goal of the modern hemp farmer is to learn to Feed the Soil, Not The Plant" and use knowledge and products to improve on Mother Natures' wisdom. That is why Everflux has created an organic handmade product that is like a "Kombucha for your Hemp plants." Our all in one formula allows you to feed the microbes at an optimal level so that your hemp farm can produce a higher quality product year after year.
About the Author
Daniel Enking is the founder of Everflux Technologies. He is a life-long environmentalist and practical dreamer who is obsessed with resource efficiency and imaged an "everything recycling machine" at age 10.