FINLAND - Can dandelions blooming help farmers know when it's the best time to plant potatoes?

This is one example question a new research project by Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center's farm hopes to answer. The Wolf Ridge Farm recently received a Minnesota Department of Agriculture Sustainable Agriculture Demonstration Grant to develop an agro-phenological calendar for northeast Minnesota that will serve as a more reliable planting guide for farmers.

Using nature to plan a farm

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What is an agro-phenological calendar?

"I think I coined the term," Wolf Ridge Farm manager David Abazs said. "Phenology is the study of nature over time. So a phenological indicator might be, say, a juneberry tree. The idea of the research is to look at natural plants, like that juneberry tree, to see if they're a better way of determining when we should plant a crop."

Abazs said the usual planting calendar doesn't work very well anymore due to climate changes. This inspired him to find other ways to determine a better planting schedule.

First, they need to determine which phenological indicators - plants and animals - would be best to garner that information from.

"For example, if we used hummingbirds to determine when to plant something, that would never work because they always come on the same day on the calendar every year," Abazs said.

Some plants and animals use light patterns or stars to determine their routines. Since these schedules aren't changing with the climate, these species would not make a strong indicator.

"Instead, we'll look for species that are not connected to the regular calendar, but change every year," Abazs said. "What makes them come early or go late? Things like soil temperature and moisture? If so, then those are things we want to look at when farming."

Abazs hopes to develop a calendar with different indicators that would guide farmers when to plant specific crops. The program is a joint project between Wolf Ridge and Abazs' family business, Round River Farm.

Abazs' farm has more than 30 years of production data, where the Wolf Ridge farm has only existed for the past four or five years, so soil quality is still a compromising variable.

Abazs isn't certain what will come of the research project yet, but said it's a win for him either way.

"Say all this fails - we don't get any strong indication," Abazs said. "Having the farmers go out into the fields and forests to look at phenological indicators will get them more in tune with the conditions on the ground, regardless. So, as a lifestyle and tool, having farmers take those walks are good not only for the health, but a daily chronicle of what nature is doing around them. It's beneficial either way."

Improving the soil

This is the second demonstration grant research project the Wolf Ridge farm has undertaken. The results of the first were recently published in the MDA's "2018 Greenbook." The previous project was a study in raising soil pH effectively in acid soils. It came about as the Wolf Ridge farm was just beginning.

"This land had never been farmed, so we saw the opportunity to do research on how to better prepare a field for planting by raising the soil's pH levels," Abazs said.

The field was split into six sections and each section was prepared with a different soil amendment or conditioner, or a combination of two. One field was amended with lime; another with ash; another biochar; and two fields with combinations of the previous three. The sixth field was left as it was to act as a control group.

The research was conducted over three years. The most effective combination was biochar and ash, by "leaps and bounds," according to Abazs.

"Biochar is anaerobically combusted wood and it acts like a nutrient sponge," Abazs said. "Ash from trees consists of all the nutrients that trees contain, minus the carbon. Biochar is heavy with carbon, so this combination provided both the holding capacity and the nutrients. It was an amazing improvement."

This discovery will help the farm, and other farms in the area, bring the rest of the land up to snuff because they know the combination which will quickly improve the soil.

"Plus, we don't have lime in this area. But we do have biochar and ash, so it's much more sustainable to use those resources rather than truck in thousands of pounds of lime from far away," Abazs said.

More about the pH soil improvement study can be found in the Minnesota Department of Agriculture's Greenbook, available at