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Supply Chain Innovations

Salinity in the Farms: A Crippling Problem in California

You can be in the middle of the ocean and still die of thirst. That's basically what salinity does to your crops. Simply put, salt draws water. And if you have high levels of salinity in your soil -- from a simple osmosis perspective --that water is going to want to stay in the soil rather than get absorbed by the plant. Plants will be stressed even when the soil is seemingly moist.

The Problem With Salinity in California

Salt is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, with the right amount of salt in our systems, our human bodies are able to hold water — a key ingredient for life. But similar to how too much salt can make us dangerously unhealthy, high levels of salinity also have drastic health effects on our plants. Too much salt can have negative effects on the productive life of even the most fertile soils in the world. This is a critical problem faced by farmers in California today, especially those in the Central Valley.

Unlike other coastal communities, salt simply has inadequate (and in some cases absolutely no) direct outlets to the ocean in parts of the Central Valley. Without a direct way out, salinity has risen over the years and has posed dire problems that have plagued farmers in the region. Salt also kills the microbial life upon which plants rely on to get the various nutrients and minerals they need; which is exactly why salt is a good preservative for extending the shelf life of food — it kills fungi, microbes, and such. 

As an added problem, the region has been infamously plagued with droughts and diminishing water supply. For farmers everywhere, especially in California, water is simply an expensive but vital resource. Simply put, having crops inundated with water without actually taking in what it needs is definitely money, time, and effort spent in vain.

Increasing salinity is now considered to be the most-pressing and chronic water quality impairment to water sources in the valley. Solving this issue would require a comprehensive and statewide overhaul of the regulatory systems and infrastructures in place. It will likely take years, maybe even decades, and definitely a whole lot of money for California to adequately address salinity. Serious implications for failing to solve the problem include potentially permanently losing massive portions of prime agricultural land in the state that are vital sources of living for families and a substantial source of food supply for the nation.

Why The Status Quo Won't Do

Salts that are naturally-occuring in the soil are one thing, but then there's also the problem of salt accumulating from irrigation water, fertilizers, and other soil amendments. Unfortunately, these practices that tend to add even more salt to the soil are the very same practices farmers rely on to address the consequences of salinity and compensate for lost nutrients and poor water absorption. 

The truth is that the more micronutrients are added to replenish the soil, the more susceptible plants become to things like foliar injury or stifled growth. Even the timeless method of flood irrigation ultimately deals a blow to the soil because water sources in California are high in salt content to begin with.

What you have are crops that are planted in soils that already have high salinity, being irrigated with water that also contains high levels of salt and nitrates, during hot and droughty periods with peak evapotranspiration rates — a sure recipe for disaster.

Often times in an attempt to replenish the soil by using various amendments and fertilizer products, farmers are unknowingly rendering their soil’s naturally occurring and vital microbial life useless. A high salt environment basically makes it impossible to create any sort of biodiversity in the soil it killed the ecosystem. This can lead to heavy compaction that ultimately results into inadequate or no water infiltration. Ultimately, you don’t get oxygen into the soil and that itself is limiting your biological systems from growing and functioning like they should.

Carbon Penetrant: A Better Way To Solve Salinity

There's no quick miracle fix. Water is arguably the single-most expensive input for farmers. Added to the problem of unhealthy crops, efficient and effective utilization of water is a goal that is hard to achieve when you’re faced with high salinity. There’s a tendency for farmers to do what they have always done because:

  • Innovation has been slow in Ag.
  • There has not been much reliable breakthrough products when it comes to soil inputs.
  • Margins in the industry have slimmed throughout the years.

But if you’re reading this, here’s a good solution for you. At Penny-Newman, we’ve created Carbon Penetrant precisely to break the status quo and put forward a viable long-term solution.

Carbon penetrant is a proprietary penetrant that effectively opens soils and breaks through the salt. Once soils have opened up and salt has moved away, Carbon Penetrant basically jumpstarts the soils’ biological system. That's where the carbon comes in. Rather than adding or over-compensating, we’re simply trying to feed and grow nutrients and microbes that are already present in the soil. It basically provides a two-pronged approach:

1.  It creates the environment that would be suitable for microbials to thrive by leaching salts away.
2. It ultimately provides the food source that they can sustain themselves on.

Our philosophy is that if plants are alive but visibly struggling, there are likely essential microbials that are key to their survival already in the soil, albeit not in the optimum levels for the plant to flourish. By creating a more ideal environment for these microbials to thrive in, we are ultimately enabling the plants to grow strong and healthy.

As salts get pushed away and the biologicals flourish, soils open up for water penetration longer compared to when other methods or chemicals are used.  While farmers might see immediate effects from gypsum and other similar products, they ultimately do not have long-term effects that enable soils to remediate and grow healthier over time.

Why did we create Carbon Penetrant?

Why? Because the current solutions we have been relying on will just make farming an impossible business to sustain as salinity goes from bad to worse over the years. We want to save farmers money, help rear more crops, but what we’re really after is longevity — if we bring soil health at the center of it all, we are able contribute towards solidifying the future of the farming industry.

The deepest economic benefit that Carbon Penetrant brings to the table is having healthier soil over time. This allows farmers to do more with less water, meet the economic and regulatory demands of reducing consumption of traditional inputs, and break the self-harm cycle of stripping the quality of the soil in order to achieve temporary gains.

Let’s face it. We’ve taken a lot of years, we’ve beat up the soil, we haven't treated the soil the way we should, and we're not gonna change overnight. But it’s time for new solutions — solutions that work not as temporary fixes, but solutions that will help all of us in the Ag industry thrive for years to come. 

About the Author

Dennis Butcher

Dennis Butcher

Dennis is a Consultant at Penny-Newman Grain Co Farm Division with over 25 years of experience and expertise in soil health, commercial fertilizer blends, and biologicals coast-to-coast. When he's not on the road or in the fields helping growers with their soil, you'll find him home in Utah spending quality time with his beloved kids and amazing wife.