Soil, Plant, and Farm Methodology Course

Presented by John Kenny, Big Train Farm

Hosted by Bell Street Chapel and NOFA/RI

Limited Subsidies Available Through NOFA/RI

The twelfth annual (2023) spring course for farmers, gardeners, and others interested in the world of soil and plant health and function. This course covers foundational and current soil science, crop science, and soil maintenance principles with a focus on organic/regenerative/sustainable farming methodology.

For Who? This material will be accessible and stimulating for any kind of grower from any background (farming, gardening, etc). Although the material may be challenging for the beginner it will be presented with an introductory focus.

What’s Covered? See below for a detailed description of the syllabus.

Where Abouts?  We will be offering class virtually this year.

What Days and Time? Course will be offered virtually during the weekend of March 25th and 26th.  There are two classes per day (four classes total), each running about 1.5-2 hours.  Class will start at 1pm and end around 5-5:30pm (half hour break between classes).

What’s the Charge?  Current sliding scale is a requested  $75-$ 150.  Please pay what you can afford.  NOFA/RI scholarships are typically available.  Contact John to inquire about scholarships.   None are turned away

How Do I Register? Please make sure you are available for both days of class before registering.  They are complementary.  Register using Eventbrite here: Soil

Classes are led by Big Train Farm owner/manager John Kenny.  John has over 20 years of experience as an organic farmer as well as an academic background in biology and chemistry.  John approaches this course with a farmer to farmer/gardner focus.  All though the course is science-heavy it will be presented in familiar context and analogy.  For more info on John and the methods of Big Train Farm use this link.

The class was fantastic! There are a million theories on best practices of soil care. Each method that John taught was presented with the caveat that each farmer should practice whatever method works for them. He shared what he practiced at his own farm as well as the practices of major figures in the industry. He presents ideas vs. preaching them. Besides the two day course diving very, VERY deep into the chemistry and biology of the soil, John also made it light-hearted and engaging throughout the two days. I left the course with lots of ideas to experiment with on my own land.”

I found the class to be really informative.  It contextualized much of what I know about soil science and integrated new perspectives as well.  It has certainly changed the way I farm and work in the garden.  My only personal complaint was that the course wasn’t long enough.  I know it’s already a dense weekend, but I could learn about this stuff for days.”


Class One Physical, Chemical, Biological Nature of Soil

* Physical Structure and Intro to Scale – delving into the basic, foundational structure of soil and it’s New England natural history.  Scale is an important issue when dealing with any life science topic.  Due to soil’s microscopic nature a basic understanding of scale is crucial.

* Chemical Processes, Form and Function – On the microscopic level matter functions on a chemical scale, dominated by the forces of electro-magnetism.  We will introduce the mechanisms of how soil constituents interact before introducing the complexities that biology brings to the system.

* Cation Exchange – An understanding of how soil functions is partly concerned with how elemental nutrition is held (or sorbed) onto soil minerals and organic matter.  Cation and Anion exchange capacity will help us understand where our mineral nutrition resides in soil.

* Organic Matter, Origins, Form and Function – What is soil organic matter exactly?  Where does it come from and how does it impact our soil?  Why does is it so emphasized in organic agriculture?  We will look in detail at how organic matter matters to soil productivity and function and how to build and maintain it.

* Rhizosphere and Intro to Microbial Life – The wonderfully complex world of soil life is introduced here.  How it fits into the mineral, air, and water categories of soil composition will be discussed.

* Mycorrhizae and Soil Fungi – The particular role of fungi in the soil will be introduced in class one and expanded on in class three and four.

Beginning to Interpret Soil Tests – based on what we have discussed we will use various soil tests to show how soil can be analyzed.  Logan Labs’ standard and paste tests, as well as Haney tests and PLFA (biological counts) tests will be used as teaching tools.

Class Two Plant, Soil Function and Health

* Chemical Nutrition, Form and Function – Now that we understand the constituents of soil we will examine the role they play in plant growth.  What are the building blocks of plants?  All the plant nutritional elements besides carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen are supplied either exclusively or primarily from the soil.  This class will focus on the way plants thrive with proper elemental nutrition.

* Photosynthesis – the chemical reactions of photosynthesis and the by-products resulting are the foundation of plant growth (and nearly all life on earth).  Let’s take a close look at this process and see how it works in order to understand how we can manage it.

* From Elements to Compounds to Tissues – From the reaction of photosynthesis plants build their own metabolic compounds and tissues.  How do soil nutrients fit into this web of biology?  Where does, for instance, sulfur or calcium exist and function once it is taken up by plant roots?

* Nutrient Mobility in Plants – Observing nutrient mobility (or how nutrients are translocated around a plant) is an important way for us to understand plant health and productivity.  Why are some nutrients mobile and some not?  What does this tell us about, say, our crop health?

* Plant Health, Immunity, and Nutrition – Organic farming philosophy holds that promoting a healthy plant can reduce or completely exclude pest and disease pressure.  We will explore this controversial topic and discuss the role nutrition plays in plant “immune systems.”

* Growing Practices, Effect on Soil, Plants – We will briefly introduce the role farming practices have on soil and crop health.  How do we improve our methods in order to grow better crops?  We will explore this topic in detail in classes three and four…

Class Three 
The Soil Food Web

Mineral Composition: Who’s Got the Right Numbers? – From one soil test to another it can be quite confusing as to what supply of mineral nutrition we have in our soil.  What is the significance of nutrition being available or being “locked up”?

Soil Food Web – Food Web dynamics are totted by some as the key to creating truly sustainable farming systems.  Let’s observe the strands of the web and see what is happening in the microscopic ecosystem of our soil.

* Feeding the Soil, Feeding the Plant – Plants and soil biology maintain a reciprocal feeding relationship.  AM fungi, for instance, obtain much of their carbon from plants while in return supplying plants with mineral nutrition mined from soil particles.  They are also part of a dynamic food web where they are both predator and prey, continuing a cycle of nutrient acquisition and excretion.

Ecological Succession – How does our soil management fit into a broader ecological context?  Our practices can either mimic a forward or backward ecological succession which has a direct impact on our farms and crops.  Natural ecology can inform our farming practices greatly.

Microbe Ratios, Weed or Crop Promotion? – Soil biology and ecological succession follow interesting patterns of microbe ratios (for instance bacteria to fungi ratios) and nutrient ratios (for instance nitrate to ammonium ratios).  What do these ratios mean for our soil?  How do they effect how our farm landscapes look and behave?

Class Four Farm Methods, Themes

Four Elements of Fertility – Understanding that fertility is the relationship between soil water, air, mineral, and life, is a crucial part of becoming an educated soil manager.

* Elements Point by Point – Water, Air, Earth, and Fire (aka Soil Life) all interact in a synergistic fashion.  None of the elements are of superior importance but must be managed together considering each one’s role in your techniques.

Farming Themes – There are some simple themes which are involved in managing each of the soil elements.  We will look at each of them in detail.

Remineralization – Often presented as a foundational approach to soil fertility, remineralization will be discussed.  Although we will not have time to delve into this topic in tremendous detail we will discuss resources for remineralizing soil.

Successful Soil Managers – We can look around the country at some of the interesting and compelling work that is being done in regards to natural and biological farming.

* Big Train Farm – John will offer the systems that are used on Big Train Farm to manage soil fertility.  To read about them generally in advance click here

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