Vision of ‘Soil Nutrient Management in Drought’ Series & Forage Crop Segment Kick-off!

Alfalfa hay at Prather Ranch, near Mt. Shasta.  - UC ANR

It has been five months since FarmsReach, UC Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education Program (UC SAREP), and Sustainable Conservation together launched our Nutrient Management Solutions series.  These online, moderated forums and complementary Toolkit offer farmers of all experience levels practical information to manage soil nutrients in times of drought.

Now more than ever, farmers and ranchers seek solutions to maintain productivity despite the shortage of water, and today we’re sharing more of the background and vision for this timely, collaborative project.

We sat down with our partners at UC SAREP, Aubrey White and Ryan Murphy, to capture their story of how this project came about, and what they envision for the series in the future.

Today also marks the kick-off of the third topic in the series: Forage Crops.  The first two segments of the series covered orchards and trees, and wine grapes and vines.

To follow the conversation in the series or to participate, join the Nutrient Management Solutions group in FarmsReach.  (It’s free and takes minutes!)


FarmsReach (FR): First things first, why should farmers of all skill levels and all crop types be concerned about soil nutrient management, and especially now?

UC SAREP Aubrey White and Ryan Murphy: Soil nutrient management is so important to grow healthy crops, and every farmer always has an opportunity to improve how he or she uses and manages the soil.

Some practices are intended to build up the long-term fertility of the soil, while others (like nitrogen use) are meant to meet immediate needs, like building healthy foliage on crops. When done incorrectly, some practices may actually be harmful to the environment and human health.

For farmers today, water is probably their top concern.  And since soil nutrient management is closely linked with soil moisture and irrigation, farmers must adapt their nutrient management strategy as the water source, quality and quantity change in these drought years.  Thinking about the two issues together can help a farmer manage their farm more holistically and be better prepared for the likely upcoming years of drought.

Aubrey White, Communications Coordinator, UC SAREP

Aubrey White, Communications Coordinator, UC SAREP

FR: We often hear that newer farmers have a steep learning curve in managing their soil.  Do you have a sense of how skilled the typical newer farmer versus experienced farmer is regarding soil nutrient management? 

UC SAREP: Well, knowledge can be all over the map, and farmers work very differently.  Some are agronomists and depend on frequent soil sampling and data-driven information.  Others monitor and understand soil fertility based on sight, touch, and smell. Both types of farmers can be just as successful, but both need a set of practices they can use and trust to guarantee healthy crops.  Because farming doesn’t require any sort of formal training (no degree required), many farmers may start at ground zero.  I think a lot of the learning curve is in understanding your own soil and how to see the signs of healthy or unhealthy changes.  But yes, that can be a steep learning curve!

We know that farmers seek out informational resources, and there are a lot of resources available out there to get started.  But, when you’re in the field in mid-May and your crops are looking damaged and you have to troubleshoot, the vast amount of resources available can be overwhelming to sift through.   When you have an immediate problem, talking to someone with knowledge and experience can be invaluable.  It’s great to see farmers ask soil questions in FarmsReach and get answers from others in the community!

FR: Can you share a bit about how the UC SAREP Solution Center for Nutrient Management project came about?

UC SAREP: The Solution Center for Nutrient Management began as a project in 2013.  We want agricultural research to be easily digestible, available at the right time to growers, and relevant to the diversity of growers throughout the state. We also want to build a statewide network of people who are knowledgeable about nutrient management—growers, researchers, crop consultants, and others.  We think the power of information-sharing is in these networks, so we hope to create a variety of ways to open up communication on the topic, and use our collective minds to address big challenges growers face.

Initially, the Solution Center focused on the greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) and agriculture research of UC Davis’ Martin Burger and Will Horwath.  Going forward, though, the Solution Center will focus on nutrient management in general.  Currently, we have a small (but growing) database of research on our website, searchable by categories growers are interested in, with research summaries and links to related publications. We’re organizing field days, building toolkits on our website, and, of course, partnering with FarmsReach and Sustainable Conservation to host this series of online discussions on a variety of topics, and curating the Soil Nutrient Management Toolkit in FarmsReach. We hope to see this project grow over the years into a reliable source of information for growers, and a helpful tool for researchers who want to get the word out about their research.

FR: What is the relationship between UC SAREP, FarmsReach and Sustainable Conservation?

UC SAREP: As I see it, our three organizations have similar goals and complementary skills and resources. UC SAREP houses the Solution Center for Nutrient Management on the UC website, and we’d been brainstorming hosting an online forum as part of the project.  With the robust community already participating in FarmsReach’s Conversations forum, we realized it was much wiser to partner with you rather than slave over building our own platform.  Sustainable Conservation works closely with dairy producers, so our partnership has allowed us to bring our university research to this additional segment of dairies and forage producers as well.

Of course, the agricultural community in California is huge and diverse. Each of our organizations works with different (and sometimes overlapping) areas in the community.  Without these partnerships, I don’t think the Solution Center statewide network that we envision would be possible to create.

Ryan Murphy, Agriculture, Resources & Environmental Analyst, UC SAREP/ANR

Ryan Murphy, Agriculture, Resources & Environmental Analyst,               UC SAREP/UC ANR

FR: How do the online, moderated forums within FarmsReach fit into the larger UC SAREP Solution Center project, and how might they guide what researchers focus on in the future? 

UC SAREP: Every few months, we start up a new, moderated forum topic in the Soil Nutrient Management group on FarmsReach.  The next one’s focused on forage crops, and starts Monday, April 6th - today!  We’re expecting several more in the series throughout 2015.  We host these forums on different research topics relevant to nutrient management, and then simultaneously prepare related resources for the UC SAREP Solution Center. These could include field days, in-person discussions, research summaries, self-guided curriculums, and more.

We also hope that, through the forums, we’ll see which issues people want to know about, so researchers can focus attention where it’s needed most.  We really want the Solution Center to be able to respond to the needs of the community, and we see the forum as a key way to understand those needs.

FR: Who are the moderators of the forums?  How did you select these ‘experts’?

UC SAREP: “Expert” is a funny term, and often used for lack of a better one. We try to pick a diverse set of moderators—consultants, growers, and farm advisors—who know about and are interested in the topic we’re discussing.

At the same time, our moderators are extremely experienced and can offer a lot of insights! This forum is a great opportunity to connect with them and tap their knowledge.

Their role is in part to answer questions that participants have, and to provide helpful resources to the community.  We also hope that any participant in the discussion who has experiences or knowledge to share will do so!  The moderators are intended to spark the conversation and introduce new topics, but we hope that everyone will take part in sharing any issues, solutions and ideas they want to.

FR: How did you select the first three topics in the series: nut & tree crops, wine grapes and vines, and forage crops?  What future topics do you foresee?

UC SAREP: We know drought is on everybody’s mind.  And the situation is particularly dire for growers with perennial crops and crops grown for animal consumption, in part because those crops take such a large initial investment.  Growers will see new challenges in the coming years that need to be talked about now.

Despite the limited research on how to deal with nutrient management during drought specifically, researchers are able to apply their years of scientific experience together and come up with some good principles to guide growers during this time.

We’re looking at our next topics to cover.  We’re planning for a few different topics right now: managing greenhouse gas emissions, methods in soil monitoring, and properly assessing the nutrient value of composts.   We’re very interested in which topics people are interested in learning about, and what kind of forum discussions would do justice to those topics.  Should we discuss specific research findings, or general principles in agricultural management?  Should we cover specific crops, or try to stay more general?  We are trying to make the process iterative, so the form might change a bit as we move forward.  We would love the community’s input!

Switchgrass used primarily as a forage crop and groundcover

Switchgrass used primarily as a forage crop and groundcover

FR: What do you hope to do achieve in this next series topic on forage crops, or in the future series topics? 

UC SAREP: We hope that the forum can be accessible to people with a range of experience.  We want beginning farmers to be able to troubleshoot nutrient management in their first few years of farming, and we want long-time farmers to be able to discuss new methods in soil monitoring and newly available technologies.

We’re still learning how to create the space that will generate good conversation.  We’ll try to provide background materials on the topics beforehand so newer growers can establish some baseline knowledge ahead of time, and we’ll pose some questions to kick off the discussion that we think the community are interested in.

If we miscalculate, tell us about a topic you are interested in!  Don’t be shy to pose your own question, or reframe the discussion in a way you think your community will better respond to.  We are still learning, and really want this to be about the power of the group to push important conversations forward.

FR: How has the recent media coverage about California’s extreme drought affected your work on the Solution Center? Or has it?

UC SAREP: It’s told us to keep the conversation going!  There are no quick answers to the drought, and I think growers often feel like they don’t have much control – some literally have no control because they have no water allocations.  We know conversation won’t make it rain, but at least they can help us think creatively to keep our farms growing.

FR: If you could give our farmer readers one word of wisdom or practical advice to manage their soil in these times of drought, what would it be?

UC SAREP: Our first thought is: monitor, monitor, monitor.   In reality, though, it’s hard to give one single word of wisdom when each farmer has his or her own unique circumstances.  I’d suggest everyone join the Soil Nutrient Management Group and voice questions and issues in the discussions!

FR: How can the community help this project be more successful?  How can we help?

UC SAREP: Participate and spread the word!   It takes minutes (and is free) to join the Soil Nutrient Management Group in FarmsReach.

If you are interested in being even more involved in the project, there are lots of opportunities.   Help moderate a discussion, participate in a field day to share your nutrient management practices, submit your research to be added to our website, etc.  Help this resource grow!

One of Sustainable Conservation's project works with dairies and their use of water

Sustainable Conservation also works with dairies and their impact on fresh water

FR: Anything else you’d like to add?

UC SAREP: Aside from the UC SAREP Solution Center and the FarmsReach Nutrient Management forums, both UC SAREP and Sustainable Conservation run a lot of other in-person and on-farm programs that support sustainable agriculture and food systems in California. Check out the UC SAREP site to find out about our other programs, and go to the Projects pages in the Sustainable Conservation website to learn more about their great work.

And, we hope to have your participation in the next Soil Nutrient Management Series for forage crops starting Monday, April 6th


Thank you, Aubrey and Ryan, for spearheading this important project!

To stay up-to-date on the Soil Nutrient Management Series and see recent posts, all you have to do is join the group.  It’s free and takes minutes!  Also, check out our Soil Nutrient Management Toolkit, with categorized practical resources.

If you have ideas for future series topics or have any feedback about the series so far, please do get in touch.  We’d love to hear from you!

The California Climate & Agriculture Network (CalCAN) Hosting 4th Climate & Ag Summit!

Bruce Rominger at field day

Participants visit with Bruce Rominger at the 2014 conference

Our partner, the California Climate & Agriculture Network (CalCAN) is organizing its fourth California Climate & Agriculture Summit in Davis, CA on March 24 & 25, 2015! CalCAN is a coalition of the state’s leading sustainable agriculture organizations and farmer allies that come together out of concern for the impacts of climate change on California agriculture and to find sustainable agriculture solutions.

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Summit workshop 2014

At this year’s Summit, you will hear about the latest science, policy and practice related to climate change and sustainable agriculture in California. This is a great opportunity to get together and share knowledge and experiences with a diverse group of participants, including farmers and ranchers, researchers, policymakers, advocates and agriculture professionals.

The Summit begins on March 24th with farm tours in Yolo County starting at Rominger Brothers Farm with a focus on water conservation. Next at Yolo Cattle Co., you will learn about grazing management and native grass restoration. And lastly at Hedgerow Farms, you will see a variety of hedgerow and riparian plantings, and learn about their role in climate resilience. Lunch at Yolo Cattle Company is included in the price of the farm tour.

IMG_0935On March 25th there is a full day of plenary, workshops and poster presentations. The day begins with a keynote address by Craig McNamara, owner of Sierra Orchards and Chair of the California State Board of Food and Agriculture, followed by a panel of farmers sharing their experiences in coping with the drought. More speakers, poster presentations and workshop sessions will fill the morning.

After a healthy and delicious catered lunch, the Summit will continue into the afternoon with more workshop sessions and poster presentations. To conclude this unique event, attendees are invited to a wine and cheese reception to cross-pollinate and mingle with all of the attendees. For more info on the day’s events, check out the full program.

This is a wonderful conference and an incredibly important issue. If you’re thinking of attending, earlybird registration goes until Feb. 7th, so get your tickets now!


For more information or questions about the Summit, contact: summit@calclimateag.org.

Interested in learning more about the impact of climate change and land development on agriculture? Check out our Farmland & Estate Planning Toolkit for more resources.

If you have questions or words of wisdom about climate change and agriculture, visit FarmsReach Conversations and post a question or comment!

If you have other great resources to share, get in touch. We’d love to hear from you.

New Marketing & Sales Toolkit Resources!

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We’re excited to announce that we recently added a whole new slew of resources to our Marketing & Sales Toolkit! As always, these resources were recommended, and many of them written, by our amazing community of farmers, ranchers and subject-matter experts. A big thank you to all of our contributors!

For a taste of what’s new, check out several of the resources highlighted below. To see the entire list, visit our Toolkits page. If you have a great resource to share, please send them our way.


Choosing Sales Channels

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Marketing Tip Sheet
Tips, advantages and considerations in choosing a marketing channel, including farmers markets, institutions, restaurants and wholesale.
Source: NCAT/ATTRA

Pricing Your Product

Screen Shot 2015-01-05 at 2.13.12 PMPricing Your Products & Tracking Sales
Basic tips to improve your pricing strategy, competitively price your products, and track sales.
Source: FarmsReach

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Member Spotlight: Elle Huftil-Balzer of Soil Born Farms

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In this week’s Member Spotlight, we’re heading up to Sacramento/Davis to talk with Elle Huftil-Balzer, Farm Manager at Soil Born Farms and Farmer/Owner of Sidecar Farm in Winters.

Elle began working at Soil Born as an apprentice in 2010 and then worked at the Sacramento Natural Foods Coop and at Feeding Crane Farms. In 2012, Elle graduated from the Center for Land-based Learning’s (CLBL) CA Farm Academy and went on to establish her own ½ acre vegetable and flower farm, Sidecar Farm, which is an incubator plot located at CLBL.

In addition to her work at Sidecar, Elle is also now the Farm Manager at Soil Born Farms where she’s in charge of planting and harvesting, coordinating the pack, quality control, and distribution of produce, and managing restaurant accounts. She also works as Field Manager for Green Corps youth, teaching, directing and mentoring during their farm interactions. She does a lot!

Read on as we talk with Elle about her many years farming, what advice she’d give someone just starting out, and which piece of equipment she can’t live without!


FarmsReach: How many years have you been farming?
Elle Huftil-Balzer: This is my fourth season farming, though maybe it could be technically my 5th. I worked my own 1/2 acre, selling to a 10 person CSA and restaurants part-time last year while also working full time with Soil Born, so that counts as 2 seasons right?

Elle working in the field

Elle working in the field

FR: How did you get into farming? What do you love most about it?
EH: I got in to farming when my partner and I decided to move to Davis. He was excepted to UC Davis for their PhD program and I wanted to be outside and working with my hands. I found the apprenticeship at Soil Born, applied, and was excepted. That was the beginning of the end for me. I love what I do. What I love most about it is being physically tired at the end of the day and knowing that I worked hard for something tangible and good. Farming just seems like the right thing for my soul.

FR: Which question(s) are you most asked by other farmers – either new or experienced? What is your response?
EH: The question that most folks ask is: What is wrong with my tomatoes? It is usually home gardeners, and I try and trouble shoot with them, but there are so many factors that could be a part of whatever their issues are. I usually don’t come up with a solution, just suggestions on how to possibly make the situation better.

FR: What was the most important piece of advice you received when you were getting started? And/or, what single piece of advice would you give a new beginning farmer?
EH: I don’t know that I solicited anyone for advice because I just sort of jumped into it all. However, if I had to give advice, it might be: Farming is hard work, not just physically hard, it is also mentally trying. It isn’t as romantic as you might think it is. When the sun is coming up and everything is golden and quiet, and you start your harvest, there’s some romance in that. Bit overall, you have to be organized, creative, smart, and strong willed. You will probably fail at some point, so just keep going and learn from your mistakes. Though I don’t know that I am in the position to be giving advise, I myself am not nearly experienced enough to be doling out sage words.

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Elle and the rest of the crew at Soil Born Farms

FR: What is the strangest (or funniest!) thing you’ve learned since starting your operation?
EH: Hm, I think it is funny to find fruit and veggies that look like people.

FR: Which piece of equipment can you not live without, or what would your dream new piece of equipment be?
EH: Something I could not live without is my hands. I know and understand the place for a tractor and its tools, but I love using my hands for things. Sometimes driving a tractor separates you from the land. Pulling some weeds by hand reminds you of what you’re made of and gives you time to ponder life.

FR: What do you like to do in your free time? Hobbies outside of farming?
EH: In my free time, I like to run and play ultimate frisbee. I’ve been playing competitive Ultimate now for 12 years, it is getting more difficult as the farming has worn my body down a little, but I still love the community and competition of the game.


Thank you, Elle for sharing about your farming life with the community! If you have questions for Elle, get in touch.

If you have questions or words of wisdom about your farm or ranch, visit FarmsReach Conversations and post a question or comment!

Do you know another farmer that would be interesting to profile? Get in touch. We love to hear from you! 

More Crops Per Drop: No-Till Farming Combats Drought

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This week’s feature comes from Civil Eats and discusses no-till farming. For those who don’t already know, no-till is the practice of planting crops directly into the soil without overturning the earth beforehand. It’s biggest benefits are increased soil organic matter and water storage capacity. As California and other parts of the US continue to deal with drought pressure, this form of soil management could be an important tool during adaptation.

Read on to learn more from Northern California’s Singing Frogs Farm and a number of experts on how this type of soil management can greatly benefit your soil’s productivity. Nothing happens overnight, so if you’re able, the sooner you test these practices, the better!


Written by Olivia Maki on August 26th, 2014.

Paul and Elizabeth Kaiser of Northern California’s Singing Frogs Farm grows fruit and vegetables completely without machinery, a system Paul refers to as “non-mechanized, no-till.” He said goodbye to his tractor and tiller seven years ago after he felt he was unnecessarily harming wildlife, saw too many machines break down, and watched his soil quality decrease. Now, his eight-acre farm has a robust community supported agriculture (CSA) program, and his soil is full of life.

“I wanted greater productivity and healthier soils with less reliance on machinery,” Kaiser says.

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A Successful Nutrient Management Series & New Toolkit Resources!

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We want to extend a big Thank You and Great Job to the folks at UC SAREP and Sustainable Conservation for the successful start of our ongoing Nutrient Management Series. In case you missed the conversation, join the Nutrient Management Solutions Group to see all the great Q&A.

For those who are new to this level of detail around nutrient management, or for those who simply want to read more about these concepts and ideas during times of drought, we’ve created a Toolkit with hand-picked resources for both the beginner and more advanced farmer. Read more below for a preview.


 A few resources for those new to the concepts within soil nutrient management:

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Building Soils for Better Crops
A thorough, easy-to-read guide for ecological soil management, including nutrient management, nutrient cycles, cover crops, and other soil-improving practices.
Source: SARE

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Marketing & Sales Series: Pt 12 ~ ‘Speed Dating’ Connects Farmers and Schools

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Today, we conclude our Marketing & Sales series with a great article from Civil Eats on San Diego’s “Let’s Go Local” event. In its second year, this meet-and-greet or ‘speed dating’ event brings together farmers, food distributors, and representatives from dozens of area school districts to build connections and have conversations that lead to sales.

As San Diego’s farm to school programs continue to grow, events like this are a great way to build relationships and get more local food into school district kitchens. Read on to learn more and perhaps consider hosting an event like this in your area!


Written by  on October 30, 2014.

On a recent Friday outside San Diego, California, 26 farmers and eight food distributors set up tables at a local ranch. Representatives from dozens of area school districts (plus a few folks from universities, hospitals, restaurants, grocers, senior centers, and preschools) shuffled from booth to booth, tasting growers’ products, shaking hands, and hashing out potential business deals. When asked how he’d done at the end of the day, Colin Bruce, salesman for the award-winning hydroponic farm Go Green Agriculture, pulled a wallet-sized stack of business cards from his pocket and fanned them out. “This is a unique event,” he said.

The “Let’s Go Local!” produce showcase was sponsored by the San Diego County Farm to School Taskforce, a project of a local obesity prevention program. The event was designed to make possible what many farms and institutional buyers have trouble navigating on their own—conversations that lead to sales. Call it speed-dating for farmers and institutions in a place where the farm to school movement has officially taken off.

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Marketing & Sales Series: Pt 11 ~ GAP 101, Group GAP Certification & Online Food Safety Tools

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Today our Marketing & Sales series continues with guidance and tools to help you improve on-farm food safety. We hear from Raman Maangat, Food Safety Program Manager with the Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF) on the ins and outs of Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs), Jeff Farbman, Sr. Program Associate with the Wallace Center on a new Group GAP (GGAP) certification program slated to launch in 2016, and Conor Butkus, Business Development Program Coordinator with familyfarmed.org about their easy-to-use food safety tool.

Read on to learn more about why GAPs are important, ways to easily incorporate them into your on-farm practices, and how Group GAP certification and a user-friendly online food safety tool can save you time and money!


Written by Raman Maagnat.

Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs) are practices that growers adopt/adapt on their farm in order to minimize the risk of contaminating the food they produce. The key for growers is to understand their own practices and how they may be impacting the safety of the produce they are growing, and where necessary, adapt/adopt new practices.

The push to implement GAPs may be driven by a number of factors including your customers, insurance companies, and changing regulations, such as the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) to be finalized in 2015 and/or state laws like California’s AB 224 (direct marketing and CSAs) & AB 1871 (direct marketing and farmers markets).

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Effects of Organic Insecticides on the Bagrada Bug

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The invasive stinkbug known as the bagrada bug has been aggressively moving north through California. First discovered in LA County in 2008, it has now been identified as far north as Yolo County. The FarmsReach Conversations have been active with concerns, questions and suggestions for how to deal with these persistent pests. See what others are saying and chime in!

Shimat Joseph, PhD, IPM Advisor for UCCE Monterey County, has published findings on the devastating effects bagrada bugs have on brassicas and offers some possible solutions for pest management. Read on to learn more about dealing with this pest and possible ways to prevent [further] damage.

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Free Drought-Focused Soil Nutrient Management Series Offered by UC SAREP, FarmsReach, and Sustainable Conservation

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Below is the press release announcing our partnership with UC SAREP and Sustainable Conservation to hold a series of virtual field days on the topic of Soil Nutrient Management in Times of Drought.


Davis, Calif. – November 10, 2014 – From November 2014 until January 2015, the University of California Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education Program (UC SAREP), FarmsReach, and Sustainable Conservation are hosting a free, online drought-focused soil nutrient management series for farmers in California and beyond.

“Farmers and ranchers have to continually adapt their management of soil nutrients to changing conditions,” says Aubrey White, UC SAREP’s Communication Coordinator. “Adaptation during this extreme drought presents a new challenge for growers and researchers alike. A forum dedicated to the issues farmers will face next season is an opportunity to share resources, research, and ideas for success.”

Kicking off on November 17th, the Nutrient Management Solutions Series will offer the agriculture community:

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