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Social & Soil Networks

Posted by Tyler Sabin | May 8, 2017

This year CSANR sponsored registration for several WSU students to attend the Tilth Conference.  We will be posting reflections written by the students over the next several weeks. Please feel free to comment and give these students your feedback.

The Tilth Conference was a highly informative and welcoming experience to attend. As an organic agriculture undergraduate citing articles and extension publications, I find it rewarding to have the opportunity to meet the men and women doing the research. As an intern researching cover crops out of Pullman, I enjoyed the chance to discuss methods and results with the researchers doing similar work full time on a large scale. I found the information shared during the presentations by Nick Andrews and Doug Collins, both renowned for their work with cover crops, to be helpful in framing what I had seen firsthand. Their presentations also helped put my mind at ease knowing that even at the professional level, researchers are facing similar struggles to those that I encountered during my internship.

Beyond confirming our shared struggles, Nick and Doug were also able to show me that my understanding of cover crops is of economic consequence for Washington State producers. Cover crops were discussed as consistently being the most economical form of fertilization for farmers. Beyond simply my internship, I find it highly valuable to have WSU researchers explaining their research in layman’s terms and being present to answer questions about parts that may not be clear in their written research.

One of the most fascinating presentations of the conference was Dr. Mazzola who presented on soil microbiology and its ability to build system resistance and increase plant productivity. Most interesting to me was the complexity of relationships that exist in the soil, which seem unfathomable. Variation of microbiota in communal interactions within the soil are so highly variable that discoveries in the future are near endless.

Complexity aside, many counter-intuitive discoveries came out of Mark’s presentation as well. His talk on disease suppressing soils brought to light that some of the universally recommended solutions we consider in organic agriculture are not necessarily where we find disease management solutions. Dr. Mazzola mentioned how some mycelium products sold commercially are meant to induce mycorrhizal mutualism, however if applied to the wrong crops can create parasitic relationships instead if the fungi and crop are not compatible. Another counter-intuitive discovery he mentioned was that only soils that have been monocropped for many years possess specific resistance to pathogens of that crop type. This is due to the biological community that plants propagate via root exudates.

Other fascinating comments were made by researchers throughout the conference.  Dr. David Granatstein discussed the economics of soil improvement, specifically the economic return in the short and long run of improving soil, and how land managers can get the most bang for their buck. For me, this talk helped tie together many sustainable practices and their economic impact on the state.

Science talk aside, the Tilth Conference provided a great diversity of presenters, producers, and organizations who collectively will help address the concerns many of us have with our agricultural system. It was great to network with such a wide variety of alternative food producers, to hear new discoveries, to see the organizations that have been built, and to observe the connections forming.  All of these will further the sustainable agricultural movement and rejuvenate the planet’s soils.