Renewable Farming

“I’ve tried farming efficiently. Now what?”


The quote marks around that headline give credit to its originator, Farm Journal crops editor Ralph Wennblom. It was a cover story, and one of the “best read” articles of the year — about 50 years ago. Ralph, a great friend, also told me as a new associate editor: “The only reason we need soil is to hold up the plant. Everything else the crop needs, we can do with fertilizers.”

March 8, 2018  By Jerry Carlson — It has taken most of the intervening 50 years to learn that few of Ralph’s proposed solutions based on NPK led to building soil health and biological activity. Unleashing biological power is foundational for paring down costs and widening profit margins.

In spring 2018, we had expected farmers to quit spending across the spectrum of “inputs.” However, this was our busiest spring since we began offering WakeUP formulations almost a decade ago. Dollars may be coming out of NPK, but they’re shifting to biologicals, such as seed treatment and in-furrow application of mycorrhiza blends. And WakeUP, to make nutrients and biologicals more efficient. To borrow a famous line from BASF commercials, we don’t make fertilizer. We make it work more profitably.

Grandaddy of advocates for Renewable Farming is AgriEnergy Resources, whose biologicals we’ve begun providing to our customers.

Today, AgriEnergy’s periodic advisory, “Ground Work,” e-mailed clients and friends the following bullet points. We again give credit by enclosing the AgriEnergy advice within quote marks. Here’s what AgriEnergy says:

“What should I do this year to be more efficient and profitable?

  • Pull soil tests if you don’t have current ones
  • Use AgriEnergy’s Residuce® program. There’s still time to make an impact and accelerate nutrient cycling.
  • Focus on the soil environment with AgriEnergy’s SP-1. The soil environment makes everything else more efficient!
  • Provide the plant with beneficial bacteria and mycorrhizal fungi by treating your seed with Myco Seed Treat®.
  • Consider split-applying your nitrogen – some at planting and some at sidedress time. Use the Pre Sidedress Nitrogen Test to confirm rates.
  • Consider banding your fertility. Banding is 1.5 times as efficient as broadcasting, and cuts fertility expense by at least one-third.
  • Take the savings from reduced broadcast inputs and apply it towards row support and sidedress. Feed the crop – not the weeds!
  • Foliar to correct plant deficiencies efficiently at critical times

“What are issues for long-term efficiency?

  • Drainage is #1
  • Soil pH
  • Compaction: Buy a soil penetrometer or dig a hole to identify compaction layers
  • Take soil tests and stick to a 2, 3, or 4-year testing cycle
  • Build organic matter and carbon in your soil, adding humus to unleash biological power
  • Accelerate nutrient cycling in your soil. A strong residue management program and wise tillage are invaluable.”

Residuce and SP-1 have proven so profitable over the decades that these biologicals attracted similar products, which we’re watching with considerable interest. (Hopefully we can find research-oriented growers to conduct field trials comparing their modes of operation.)

Meanwhile, I discovered “old” data created by AgriEnergy, which I reported in the 1980s in one of their newsletters. The chart shows benefits of a regular Residuce cornstalk digestion program for reducing soil compaction. Today this benefit gets scant mention when competing firms advocate biological acceleration of stalk residue. 

The chart is based on penetrometer data at the Princeton, Illinois research farm operated by AgriEnergy. It measures penetrometer pressure in pounds per square inch at various depths. This measure was taken after about three years of consistent Residuce application. My guess is that the treated versus untreated differences would widen with time. In the early years of treatment, soil structure improved enough to show nearly a 30% reduction in compaction at the six-inch depth, which is a primary root zone. That means more rapid root penetration and rainfall infiltration.


A basic soil penetrometer is about $250. More if you want a recording penetrometer with GPS capability. Dickey-John makes a reliable one. You can also get a GPS-linked penetrometer system allowing you to build a grid map of your soil density layers.