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Fridays on the Farm: A Journey to Food Equity and Community Building

This Friday meet Armondo White, a veteran and Black farmer in Marvell, Arkansas. Amidst the sprawling fields of the Delta, Armondo works with his wife, Andrea, and their two daughters, Madam and Ava, to combat food insecurity by bringing fresh, healthy produce to their community.

Two people smiling
Armondo and Andrea grow a variety of produce and raise chicken, fish, lamb, and cows. Photo by Claire Kausch, NRCS.

Growing to Give it Away

Farming has always been in Armondo’s DNA. His father and grandfather were sharecroppers. Growing up, Armondo and his family spent long hours tending to and harvesting crops—just so they could give them away to their neighbors.

“I didn’t understand at the time why we were working so hard just to give all that food away. But that’s the most important thing my father taught me: selfless love for my community,” Armondo explains. “Now, I have this desire to be able to offer everyone access to fresh fruits and vegetables.”

This desire remained dormant until Armondo’s service with the U.S. Army in Iraq from 2004 to 2005. Witnessing hunger and scarcity sparked a fire within him, especially once he realized that hunger was not a distant issue. He’d seen it back home. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, underscoring our food system’s fragility.

“I asked myself what would happen if the grocery stores shut down while I had a family to feed. It was a huge eye-opener.”

Two people standing in high tunnel
Armondo and his daughter, Madam, inside their hoop house. Photo by Claire Kausch, NRCS.

Shifting Perspective

Armondo’s perspective shifted from farming as an extracurricular activity to a full-time job. Realizing he could grow more than enough food for his family, he began cultivating for the wider community too, recognizing the need to address food disparities especially within Black communities.

Armondo grows a variety of produce, including cantaloupe, cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, watermelon, salad greens, and okra, and he raises chicken, fish, lamb, and cows. He carted along his fresh fruits and vegetables and offered them to people when he’d deliver newspapers, with many customers offering to pay what they could for the produce.

“I wanted to purchase a mobile food trailer and offer 'take what you need, give what you want' days to help [provide access] to high quality, fresh, affordable organic vegetables,” Armondo said. By fostering a culture of mutual support, he's helping create a network of neighbors who look out for each other.

Two hands cupping cherry tomatoes
Madam holds tomatoes grown on the farm. Photo by Claire Kausch, NRCS.

But he says he can’t do it alone. With the guidance and support of NRCS staff at the USDA Field Service Center in Phillips County, Armondo’s farming aspirations have taken root. Armondo has obtained a hoop house, farm well, pumping plant, micro-irrigation pipeline, and synthetic mulch. Through his Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) Urban, Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), and Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) contracts, Armondo can make his vision for his family’s farm a reality.

“[The] Natural Resources Conservation Service has been a lifeline as far as the resources and support their people have provided us in the last few years,” Armondo explains. “I’m grateful for NRCS helping people like me and my family that are striving to help out the rest of their community.”

Armondo also wants other producers to know that USDA can help them. When a couple recently shared their troubles with their outdoor garden due to crop overspray, he advised them to contact the local USDA Service Center office in Helena-West Helena for help.

Two people walking in high tunnel
Armondo and Madam inside the hoop house. Photo by Claire Kausch, NRCS.

“About a week later while I was visiting the office, I saw them there completing their paperwork for a [high] tunnel house,” he said. “I was overjoyed to know that they had followed up on the advice and hopeful [that they are] on the road to having a successful year.”

Armondo’s commitment extends beyond providing fresh produce. He believes in teaching the value of connecting with others.

“I feel an obligation to Black communities and younger generations to put the ‘neighborly’ part back into the meaning of the word ‘neighborhood’,” he said. “If I don’t set a good example by reaching out to others, who will? I’m just doing what I believe we were all put on this earth to do—and that’s to help one another.”

More Information

Visit local farms, ranches, forests, and resource areas through our Fridays on the Farm stories. Meet farmers, producers and landowners who are working to improve their operations with USDA programs.

USDA offers a variety of risk management, disaster assistance, loan, and conservation programs to help producers weather ups and downs in the market and recover from natural disasters as well as invest in improvements to their operations. Learn about additional programs.

For more information about USDA programs and services, contact your local USDA service center.

Microbes could be used by farmers as natural fertilizer for poor soil
  

A study published in The ISME Journal identified 522 genomes of archaea and bacteria associated with the roots and soil of two plant species native to the Brazilian montane savanna ecoregion known as campos rupestres ("rocky meadows"). Hundreds of microorganisms hitherto unknown to science were identified, showing that the ecoregion is a biodiversity hotspot and that many new organisms have yet to be described and classified in Brazil.

The discovery could potentially be a basis for the development of biological substitutes for the chemical fertilizers used by farmers, especially those containing phosphorus.

"Phosphorus is normally present in the soil, but not always in a form that plants can use. Most of the  we found make phosphorus soluble so that plants can absorb it," said Antônio Camargo, first author of the article.

The study was conducted under the aegis of the Genomics for Climate Change Research Center (GCCRC) in partnership with the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (EMBRAPA) at UNICAMP.

One of the plants, Vellozia epidendroides, lives in shallow soil, whereas another, Barbacenia macranta, was found growing on exposed rock. Both belong to the family Velloziacea. Specimens were collected in a private area adjacent to the Serra do Cipó National Park in Minas Gerais state.

A comparison of microorganisms associated with plants found growing in soil and on rocks showed that they comprised different communities but shared many species. Several microorganisms were highly specialized in phosphorus transport and conversion to the soluble form of the mineral, which plants can absorb.

"Microbial communities also play an important role in supplying nitrogen, another essential plant nutrient," said Camargo, currently a researcher at the US Department of Energy's Joint Genome Institute, where the genomes were sequenced.

Novel solutions

"Previous research focused on plants' mechanisms for adapting to the harsh conditions of this montane savanna and often ignored microorganisms. Our study shows that microorganisms can play a key role in plant adaptation to the extreme conditions of this environment. In particular, they supply the phosphorus need to fuel ," said Rafael Soares Correa de Souza, one of the corresponding authors of the article.

The researchers expect their discoveries to contribute to the creation of products that replace  based on phosphorus, one of the crop nutrients most widely used by Brazilian farmers. More than half the phosphate fertilizer used in Brazil is imported, mainly from Morrocco but also from Russia, Egypt, China and the United States.

In addition to the dependence on imports, phosphate fertilizer pollutes , and its production is a source of greenhouse gas emissions, estimated at 1 kg for every kg of  produced. Moreover,  is a non-renewable natural resource and hence finite.

Biological fertilizers are already in use in Brazil. In the case of soybeans, they are the main source of nitrogen in 80% of the planted area. A previous study by the GCCRC estimated that the use of biological inoculants instead of nitrogen fertilizers could save USD 10 billion per year.

"The study also underscores the need for conservation of Brazil's ecosystems, which can supply many other nature-based solutions like this one," said Souza, a co-founder of biotech startup Symbionics, which develops next-generation biologics.

As noted, campos rupestres are biodiversity hotspots with many exclusive species. They form mosaics totaling some 26,500 square kilometers scattered across Brazil in biomes such as the Cerrado (savanna), Caatinga (semi-arid areas in the Northeast) and Atlantic Rainforest. The main threats to these ecosystems are mining and cattle raising.

The researchers are now conducting studies to test the benefits of some of the microorganisms found in croplands. Experiments are under way at the GCCRC in Campinas.

Alternative Forages:

Specialist looks at different options

 

Kansas State University’s Beef Systems Specialist Jaymelynn Farney is investigating how cattle choose what to eat.

Farney, who is at the Southeast Research and Extension Center in Columbus, Kansas, has been performing studies on what forages cattle prefer. She’s using summer cover crops, or annual forages, in re-purposed protein tubs. They’re then offered to cattle to determine preference.

“I have grown eight plant species in each growing period and offered the plants to the cows in two 24-hour sessions,” she said. “We recorded their behavior for the first hour after introduction to the plants and they were video recorded through the remainder of the time to see which plants they completely consumed and in which order.”

The study wants to help producers make decisions about which cover crops to plant when incorporating grazing.

“There is a laundry list of plants that contain useful cover crop benefits and it becomes daunting to select the species that will meet your operation’s objectives,” Farney said.

When deciding what plant species to sow, Farney said there are two trains of thought.

Purposefully plant only those species that cattle will consume to maximize land usage or gains along with capturing some cover crop benefits; or

Strategically plant species that cattle are averse to in order to leave appreciable biomass in the field for soil health objectives.

“With these two things in mind I was interested in seeing how cattle that were completely naive to cover crops consumed these plants,” Farney said.

Initially, Farney has found the most preferred plants include: Barley, Austrian winter pea and Graza forage radish (tie), mustard, Impact collard, Trophy rape, and purple top turnip (all fairly the same in preference). Last was Bayou kale. Her preference information was collected prior to a freeze.

“Stay tuned to next year to find out what their preference to these same species are when grazing after a killing freeze,” Farney said.

For summer grazing, in order from most preferred to least includes: Brown mid-rib forage sorghum and sorghum-Sudan (tied for first), pearl millet, Black oil sunflower and sun hemp (tied for third). Least favorite with little to no difference (strongly objected) were mungbean, okra and safflower.

Farney said there is some learning in both the cattle and the researchers associated with these summer grazing plants.

“The first day exposed nearly all the cows did not even try the okra, but the second day they consumed them before mungbean and safflower,” Farney said. “Another interesting comment about the summers, all grazing occurred when the sorghums were 2 feet tall to minimize prussic acid issues.”

For the sorghums, grazing occurred 35 days after planting. The sunflowers in that time frame were very small and immature (6 to 8 inches tall at the most) while the mungbean and okra had leaves that were over 7 inches in diameter.

“Preference studies become difficult to quantify as cattle do learn and modify grazing behavior especially after that first introduction to new plants,” she said. 

When in drought

Farney suggests spending some time to determine the plant species with more drought tolerance.

“I would stay away from really expensive components of mixtures because there is a greater chance of crop failure with no moisture,” she said. “There is some literature that shows that a few different plant species as a cover crop have some environmental lee-way.” 

For stocker cattle

Farney leans heavily on the grass component of a stocker cover crops plan.

She limits brassicas to a 1 pound per acre with maximum of 1.5 pounds of brassica seed per acre. Amounts over this can cause the brassicas to outcompete the grass species and reduce grass tonnage. For fall forages, the grass and brassica species offer enough protein to the animal.

“Younger calves have a stronger aversion to the broadleaves and brassicas than cows do and this can potentially hamper gains for a short duration until they begin to consume these plants,” Farney said

“In Kansas, from my research and measuring producers fields, we rarely get any fall growth of legumes,” she said. “This is an expensive component of the mixture and with the combination of low to no-growth and no need for additional protein to meet calf requirements, I do not include legumes in fall covers.” 

Farney suggests oats and barley—both spring and winter varieties—to those looking to graze something other than native grass as they offer the earliest, quickest growth. Triticale is intermediate and wheat and rye will have the majority of their growth late winter and early spring. Turnips and radishes have a very rapid growth rate, but once a freeze happens, they don’t generate any more dry matter. Grass species continue to have some growth as the season goes on.

Managing the meat

During and through a drought, the reduced availability of forages hurts stocker producers the most.

“If forage is severely limiting, alternative methods of growing these calves need to be implemented,” Farney said.

She said Dale Blasi at the K-State Stocker unit has been doing interesting research that shows that limit feeding stocker calves can be a viable management strategy.

“These calves gain as well as contemporaries on less feed,” Farney said. “This allows us to stretch our forage and feed base.”

With the option of several high energy feedstuffs, when limit fed and balanced in the ration become an economical option to forage only, especially at elevated prices due to low supply and high demand.

“Substitution is another thing to consider with stockers,” Farney said. “We are essentially wanting to feed more of something else so they eat less grass or hay.”

Corn has commonly been identified as the culprit of reducing free-choice hay and grass consumption, according to Farney. A general rule of thumb for supplementing corn is 0.3 percent of the animal’s body weight or less will not reduce forage consumption. A level above that can reduce it. At 0.75 percent of body weight, for each pound of corn they will consume one pound less forage on a dry matter basis.

“It is still important to make sure to meet protein requirements,” Farney said.

Clover adds yield, nutritional quality to pastures

MT. VERNON, Ill. — Legumes in pastures improve forage quality, increase animal gains and reduce fescue endophyte effects.

“The clover dilemma is if there is enough clover in the field for high yields and if there are broadleaf weeds in the pasture should they be sprayed to kill them,” said Jimmy Henning, University of Kentucky Extension professor.

“Clover can extend grazing over grass alone and often times it gives you more yield in the summer,” Henning said during a presentation at the Heart of America Grazing Conference. “And it will reduce the nitrogen fertilizer cost though nitrogen fixation.”

It is important for graziers to determine how much yield they need from their pastures for their livestock before deciding if they have enough clover to withhold nitrogen fertilizer.

Henning discussed research that evaluated yields from forage and the nitrogen transfer in mature alfalfa and grass pastures. “In five- to six-year pastures, the yields increased as the alfalfa increased from 11 to 55%,” he added.

“The yield is going to be more correlated to the legume content of last year,” he said. “There is not much direct transfer of nitrogen in season from the legume to the grass.”

A study in Virginia compared the dry matter yield of three systems — fescue and nitrogen, fescue and red clover and fescue and alfalfa.

“They were able to duplicate the yield with fescue and clover and increase the yield with fescue and alfalfa,” Henning said. “We can make fields of grass and clover yield like grass and nitrogen, but it takes a lot of legumes to do that.”

How long the clover has been in a pasture impacts yield. When comparing a newly seeded grass and clover pasture to a long-term stand of grass and clover, Henning said, for the long-term stand, the yields peak out at about 30% legume, however with the new stand, yields continue to increase all the way to 80% legume.

“Actual yield tonnage depends on the productivity of the legume,” he noted.

“You may choose to apply moderate rates of nitrogen in the spring even if the stand has clover in it,” Henning said. “It doesn’t kill the clover but the clover will take a break and when the nitrogen goes away the clover will start the factory again.”

But, the speaker added, don’t put nitrogen down at the same time clover is being established.

With a grazing system, the clover, grass, livestock, roots, nodules are all interacting and the nitrogen flows throughout the system.

“The legume is pulling the nitrogen out of the air and there is the decay of leaves, dead roots and sloughing of nodules,” he said. “The majority of the nitrogen is going through the cow and coming out its back end, so feeding the grass nitrogen from legumes takes time.”

Alfalfa can fix 150 to 300 pounds of nitrogen per acre per year and both white and red clover are similar, Henning reported. “From 80 to 90% of that is excreted through the animal as manure and urine,” he added. “The manure contains nitrogen and phosphorus and the urine is nitrogen and the majority of the potassium.”

About 50% of urinary nitrogen is lost through volatilization, Henning said.

“From 14 to 22% of the area of the pasture is covered with manure and urine so the grazing system is going to have a great impact on the ability of getting nitrogen flowing through the system. With continuous or low stocking rates, more nitrogen is concentrated around the loitering areas like the fence, shade or waterers.”

When a rotational grazing system is utilized, the nitrogen distribution in the pasture is improved. The goal, Henning said, is higher stocking rates with shorter grazing duration. “The No. 1 pathway of nitrogen transfer from legumes to grass is through grazing livestock,” he added.

“The increase in yield in mixed stands comes from the legume,” Henning stated. “For high yields we need 25 to 30% legume by weight in the pasture, year after year.”


There’s a discussion of how herbicide carryover impacts your plan, which can be challenged since cover crops aren’t usually listed on many herbicide labels.

And there are termination tips to maximize your approach to clearing covers for the new-season crops.


 Ask about 
 these NRCS/SCD Programs
The Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP)
provides financial and technical assistance to help conserve agricultural lands and wetlands and their related benefits.Under the Agricultural Land Easements component, NRCS helps Indian tribes, state and local governments and non- governmental organizations protect working agricultural lands and limit non-agricultural uses of the land.Under the Wetlands Reserve Easements component, NRCS helps to restore, protect and enhance enrolled wetlands.Agricultural Land Easements protect the long-term viability of the nation’s food supply by preventing conversion of productive working lands to non-agricultural uses. Land protected by agricultural land easements provides additional public benefits, including environmental quality, historic preservation, wildlife habitat and protection of open space.Wetland Reserve Easements provide habitat for fish and wildlife, including threatened and endangered species, improve water quality by filtering sediments and chemicals, reduce flooding, recharge groundwater, protect biological diversity and provide opportunities for educational, scientific and limited recreational activities.
Agricultural Land Easements NRCS provides financial assistance to eligible partners for purchasing Agricultural Land Easements that protect the agricultural use and conservation values of eligible land. In the case of working farms, the program helps farmers and ranchers keep their land in agriculture. The program also protects grazing uses and related conservation values by conserving grassland, including rangeland, pastureland and shrubland. Eligible partners include Indian tribes, state and local governments and non-governmental organizations that have farmland or grassland protection programs.Under the Agricultural Land component, NRCS may contribute up to 50 percent of the fair market value of the agricultural land easement. Where NRCS determines that grasslands of special environmental significance will be protected, NRCS may contribute up to 75 percent of the fair market value of the agricultural land easement.
Wetland Reserve Easements NRCS also provides technical and financial assistance directly to private landowners and Indian tribes to restore, protect, and enhance wetlands through the purchase of a wetland reserve easement. For acreage owned by an Indian tribe, there is an additional enrollment option of a 30-year contract.Through the wetland reserve enrollment options, NRCS may enroll eligible land through:
  • Permanent Easements are conservation easements in perpetuity. NRCS pays 100 percent of the easement value for the purchase of the easement, and between 75 to 100 percent of the restoration costs.
  • 30-Year Easements expire after 30 years. Under 30-year easements,NRCS pays 50 to 75 percent of the easement value for the purchase of the easement, and between 50 to 75 percent of the restoration costs.
  • Term Easements are easements that are for the maximum duration allowed under applicable state laws. NRCS pays 50 to 75 percent of the easement value for the purchase of the term easement and between 50 to 75 percent of the restoration costs.
  • 30-year Contracts are only available to enroll acreage owned by Indian tribes. Program payment rates are commensurate with 30-year easements.
For wetland reserve easements, NRCS pays all costs associated with recording the easement in the local land records office, including recording fees, charges for abstracts, survey and appraisal fees, and title insurance.
Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) 
The Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) is a continuous USDA sign-up program that offers financial and technical assistance to eligible participants to install and maintain conservation practices, including those related to organic production, on agricultural land or private nonindustrial forestland.  Traditionally all funds have been allocated to applications taken during the first signup period running from October 1 to December 20th, with applications carried over from the prior year included in the first funding period. In Giles County most funds utilized in this program have addressed water quality issues associated with animal agriculture. Conservation practices installed most often increase the ability of the landowner to manage land more profitably and provide positive impacts to the local economy.  Cross fencing and access control fencing, alternative water systems such as frost proof water troughs for cattle, and pipeline have proved to be the most feasible and popular practices we use. Managed grazing allows a landowner to reduce the time that livestock have access to streams which goes to our local water intake. Managed grazing can also significantly increase forage yields, reduce health problems for cattle and improve wildlife habitat. We also offer several options on seeding cropland or poor pastureland, including establishing native grasses.  EQIP offers assistance to address cropland, energy conservation, animal waste management, organic farming, and other resource concerns identified locally.  It offers a great tool for good land managers to improve their farmland. The application, ranking and contracting period usually runs from Fall to Spring with practices being completed during the first 12 months after contracting.
  
Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program (WHIP)
is a USDA-NRCS program aimed at working with landowners to create viable habitat for wildlife through improved management of natural resources.
Agricultural Resource Conservation Fund (ARCF)
 is a program provided by the Tennessee Department of Agriculture (TDA) to help agricultural producers implement Best Management Practices (BMP’s) that will help improve water quality.
Please contact 731-412-3106 or 731-412-3104 if you are interested in any offered programs
 The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) prohibits discrimination in all its programs and activities on the basis of race, color, national origin, age, disability, and where applicable, sex, marital status, familial status, parental status, religion, sexual orientation, genetic information, political beliefs, reprisal, or because all or a part of an individual's income is derived from any public assistance program. (Not all prohibited bases apply to all programs.) Persons with disabilities who require alternative means for communication of program information (Braille, large print, audiotape, etc.) should contact USDA's TARGET Center at (202) 720-2600 (voice and TDD). To file a complaint of discrimination write to USDA, Director, Office of Civil Rights, 1400 Independence Avenue, S.W., Washington, D.C. 20250-9410 or call (800) 795-3272 (voice) or (202) 720-6382 (TDD). USDA is an equal opportunity provider and employer.