Problem for potato farming is … making earth
Dirt is not usually considered high-tech stuff, after all this entire planet is made of dirt, never mind on the surface it’s more water than dirt. Still we did name this place Earth, and earth is dirt.
In raw terms, this image is correct enough. The Earth is dirt and from a planetary point of view pretty good dirt when compared to Mars, the moon, Mercury, Venus and Jupiter, all of which would be tough places to bring in a potato crop.
Despite the movie version of “The Martian” based on the book by Andy Weir, as a potato guy myself I don’t think Mars is good potato ground. As every gardener knows or ought, a garden and a crop takes candle power more than it does horsepower, on average about 15 watts per square foot.
The solar incidence to pull off a crop when expressed as Growing Degree Days (G.D.D.) is somewhere of 2,000 to 3,000. A typical corn hybrid fits in the middle of this range, to mention potatoes can grow at temperatures where corn will not prosper, though genetics and the Hudson’s Bay Company have been pushing this margin for 200 years.
The fur posts attempted to grow corn as far north as the Bearskin, Fort Rupert and Moose Factory. Green plants essentially keep a checkbook balance against continued maturity based on the accumulation of growing degree days.
Insect predation can be calculated by these same growing degree days; whether central Wisconsin gets two or three generations of potato beetles is determined more by the heat units than on whether the beetle has access to Viagra. If you find your libido driven by heat units, you’re not the only one. And you thought it was the Swimsuit Edition.
A lot of what happens on farms is based on those growing degree days. As for the movie, “The Martian” surface temperatures range from minus-243 degrees Fahrenheit to 68 degrees Fahrenheit. Martian weather, lacking an oceanic influence, is actually more predictable than weather on Earth.
The temperature at the first Viking site ranged from 1 degree Fahrenheit to minus-161 degrees Fahrenheit. The Spirit rover recorded a daytime high of 95 degrees, but the real problem for potato growers on Mars is the double distance from the sun as is the Earth, to the end solar radiation on Earth is the square of its effect on Mars.
To grow potatoes this difference has to be made up with artificial illumination, that 15 watts per square foot would be hard on batteries though a little plutonium nuke would suffice. When it comes to heating degree days, this planet Earth is nicely sited.
The problem for Earth is we are losing earth, more specifically losing our soils. Some of the cause are those same erosion factors that have long plagued agriculture, where the very act of farming is to disturb the land surface and then suffer what happens on hills and slopes and dry springs.
At certain points in spring our central Wisconsin does resemble Mars as our local atmosphere takes on the reddish hue of wind-blown dirt. There are other factors of soil loss – salinity, desertification, decreased organic content, urban development and deforestation.
How then to make dirt, meaning top soil, has long been a popular classroom study for kids somewhere of fifth grade, who learn it takes 500 years to make an inch of top soil, never mind some opine it’s 1,000 years per inch, a long time in either case.
Soil, meaning the good stuff, brings me to consider our own Central Sands that from our 21st century viewpoint is only dramatically fertile because we’ve added those special condiments called fertilizer and irrigation.
To recollect a recent conversation with Allen Brooks whose father was the superintendent at the Hancock Agricultural Research Station. Allen now farms in the Green Lake area, some 1,600 acres, sweet corn, barley, etc. He irrigates but as he tells me it’s marginal, needing only supplemental water in the two- to three-inch range versus the 10-inch average of central Wisconsin. The why is the organic content of his Green Lake soils.
A few years ago, my son did contract corn combining for a farmer at Blaine, as expected those were some horrid fields, more ski slope than field, that did however touch 200 bushel per acre non-irrigated, about the same average as our prized irrigated corn. The difference being the soil.
To ponder here the opportunity to remake the Central Sands whose nom de plume as the Golden Sands is not quite so golden were our practice of irrigation profoundly altered. Either the result of the state Legislature running amuck, or apolitically by weather alteration.
Were central Wisconsin’s average rainfall, currently at 32 inches, at the behest of climate change to drop to a 26-inch average, or 22-inch, our current annual recharge would be largely absent. Our landscape, our groundwater would become a debit card, withdrawals only, no deposits.
Were we to imagine central Wisconsin more like Nebraska than Ontario, as may be our fate, we might see more rain with warmer, longer summers. Or less rain and warmer longer summers to include five generations of Colorado potato beetles like Texas.
How does our farm sector survive if a generation hence how we now irrigate is unsustainable, never mind some believe we are already there.
Can we re-prairie … prairie-soil the Central Sands, can we raise our soil’s organic content from the 1/2- to 1-percent range to 4-, 5- or 6-percent range?
Every backyard composter knows that grade-school 500 to 1,000-year equation to make an inch of soil is mistaken when you can super-actuate the organic process. The backyard composter demonstrates how any amorphous blob, from banana peels to old sneakers, broken crackers, dust bunnies, cardboard, chicken bones, carpet, rugs, hideous prom dresses, deceased cowboy boots, scrap 2 x 4s, Christmas trees, weed seeds eventually succumb to compost and yield topsoil.
Could central Wisconsin do this on a large scale, to include municipal waste, industrial waste, bio-plastics, old furniture, ground-up tires, roofing shingles, yard waste, food waste, all of it rendered bite-size and digestible, the fields anointed and intermixed, a plow layer depth of extreme organic insult, to the gain of a field able to cut irrigation in half if not two thirds? In practice extend our aquifer efficiency by a factor of three versus the current model. Can we invent a new science of dirt?
Just wondering …