Progress Made in Soil Health, More to Come

March 25, 2015  

Where should the research effort supporting the Michigan potato industry’s soil-health initiative move next?

That question was foremost for a group of Michigan State University (MSU) specialists attending an on-campus work session Mar. 23-24. They charted what has been accomplished so far, discussed the best means for getting vital information out to the industry and formulated the next direction to take in the research arena.

“The purpose was to develop a comprehensive soil-health research proposal,” said Mike Wenkel, executive director of the Michigan Potato Industry Commission. “There is no real target for research dollars at this point. The discussion really focused on what a proposal should encompass and what pools of money might be the best options.”

The two-day meeting was the latest milestone in a three-year effort to improve crop productivity by addressing soil issues. An ad-hoc “soil-ecology group” of industry leaders and researchers met on Jan. 11, 2012 to initiate the effort. That meeting led to a follow-up session two and a half months later that included prominent out-of-state soil scientists sharing their expertise and adding their recommendations. The outcome was development of a Michigan Soil Health Plan of Action for the potato industry.

An action policy to seek outside financial support has been fruitful. The Commission successfully competed twice for soil-improvement funding under the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s annual Specialty Crop Block Grant program. One grant funds soil studies in Lower Peninsula potato fields, and another involves Upper Peninsula research plots.

Progress from those projects was reported at the Mar. 23-24 session, which was under the leadership of the Commission’s Research Committee co-chairs Don Sklarczyk of Sklarczyk Seed Farm of Johannesburg and Stephanie Kipp of Andersen Brothers of Blanchard. Most of those engaged in MSU potato research were in attendance to give updates on their work and suggest topics in need of more investigation.

Wenkel noted that three other specialists who are not part of the regular MSU potato team were also present. Paul Gross is a Mt. Pleasant-based MSU Extension field-crops educator experienced in soil-enhancing cover crops in commodities other than potatoes. Dr. J. Roy Black of MSU’s Department of Agricultural, Food and Resource Economics does economic analyses of complex cropping systems including biological components such as cover crops. Dr. Sieg Snapp is a specialist in biologically based soil management who worked earlier with the Michigan potato industry while in a campus-based position but is now on the staff at MSU’s Kellogg Biological Station near Hickory Corners. As part of her outreach there she coordinates a website on applied soil ecology.

“It’s good to get the perspectives of these experts,” Wenkel said. “They made valuable contributions throughout our meetings.”

The two-day session, which was coordinated by Chris Long and Dr. George Bird of MSU along with Wenkel, closed with work groups focused on present-day knowledge about soil health, communication of that knowledge and options for expansion of that knowledge to the benefit of the Michigan potato industry.

Wenkel said it was an upbeat meeting throughout. “Soil health is a major issue for the industry,” he said. “We’re making progress.”

The Weekly Potato Report