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Why you should pay attention to pH and alkalinity

Teresa Rusinek, Vegetable Specialist
Eastern New York Commercial Horticulture

May 9, 2018

Why you should pay attention to pH and alkalinity

pH and alkalinity, what's the difference?

Simply put, pH is a measure of how acidic or basic a solution is. Positively charged molecules such as H+ will make solutions acidic (lower pH) and the negatively charged OH- molecules will make a solution more basic (raise pH).  The pH scale runs from 1-14 with the value 1 being most acidic, 7 is neutral, and 14 most basic.  This scale is logarithmic, meaning a change in one whole unit is 10 times more or less acidic. For example, pH 5 is ten times more acidic than pH 6. Sometimes people will refer to basic solutions (high pH) as alkaline and this is where folks can get confused with the term ALAKINITY.

Alkalinity is the ability of water to neutralize acids due to the dissolved alkalis (bicarbonates) in the water.  Alkalinity is often reported in part per million (PPM) of calcium carbonate (CaCO3). As alkalinity increases in the water, more acid will be needed to neutralize the alkaline substances.   The primary source of alkalinity in ground water aquifers, rivers, ponds and lakes are limestone deposits that have reacted with water over time.  Throughout the seasons, water levels within aquifers can change.  High water levels can dilute alkalinity levels just as low water levels can concentrate them.  Sample your water 2 or 3 times during the year as you notice conditions change.  If your samples show significant change, then you know that regular sampling is necessary.

Water quality considerations in the greenhouse and high tunnel:

When alkalinity is high, it's likely that pH is above optimum as well and the alkalinity level of your water may need to be adjusted to manage your pH.    Think of alkalinity as "liquid limestone".  Each time you water, you increase the pH of the soil/media a little bit. Over time, the soil /media pH increases significantly and ties up nutrients. For example, we commonly see iron and manganese deficiencies in tomatoes growing in media with pH over 7.   This effect happens faster in containers.

Alkalinity regulates the buffering capacity of the water and affects how much acid is required to change the pH.   Many growers use, fertilizer injectors like a Dosatron or Chemilizer to add acid  to water to reduce alkalinity. The acid combines with the bicarbonates to form carbon dioxide and water. ENYCHP specialists can help you design an acid injection program to adjust your pH. The ideal alkalinity level for irrigation water is generally around 100 PPM CaCO3.

Alakinity and pH affect the performance of Pesticides and Sanitizers:

Another important reason to pay attention to water pH and alkalinity is that it plays a significant role in the efficacy of many pesticides used. This is true for both organic and synthetic pesticides.  In a pH over 7, pesticides can break down in a process called hydrolysis.   The higher the pH the faster the reaction. Adding a buffering agent such as LI700, is an easy way to change the pH of the water for mixing pesticides that require a lower pH.   To determine how much buffer should be used, applicators need to know the pH of the water and the volume needed to treat the crop/area.

Here is an example taken from a PyGanic label.

"GENERAL USE DIRECTIONS

IMPORTANT: It is recommended that the final spray mix be buffered to a pH of 5.5-7.0.

Outside of this range pyrethrins can degrade and the product will lose effectiveness."

Word of caution, fixed copper pesticides in a low pH become soluble and can cause phytotoxicity.  The pesticide label will often state optimal pH ranges. If you are unsure contact a technical representative of the product manufacturer.  Applicators should test their water pH prior to a spray application using a pH litmus strip or a pH meter.

Products other than pesticides are sensitive to pH. According to the label, the sanitizer Sanidate 5.0 works best when diluted in water with a neutral pH (close to 7), but sodium hypochlorite (bleach)works best when water pH is lowered to 6.0-6.5.

Water alkalinity and pH adjustments are easy to make and significantly improve the performance of pesticides and sanitizers. If you need help or have questions on the process, ENYCHP specialists can help. We have pH meters and titration kits to determine alkalinity  or can guide you to labs that can test water quality parameters.

 

 



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Upcoming Events

Tarping for Reduced Tillage Workshop

November 2 - November 19, 2019

Are you a vegetable farmer already using tarps? Or are you wondering if and how tarps could work best on your farm?

The Cornell Small Farms Program is excited to announce a series of workshops on tarping for reduced tillage in small-scale vegetable systems, to be held in Maine and New York this fall. The Reduced Tillage (RT) project of the Cornell Small Farms Program supports farmers in adopting scale-appropriate RT practices that can lead to healthy, productive soils and greater profitability. Through the evaluation of novel tools and methods using systems-based field research and on-farm trials, the project helps farmers learn about the approaches that can work for their farm. This work is accomplished in collaboration with the University of Maine, and with support from Northeast SARE.

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Winter Greens High Tunnel Tour

November 13, 2019
9:30am - 4:00pm
Willsboro, NY

Join us for a tour of overwintered high tunnel greens. Our first stop will be the Willsboro Research Farm, where we will visit our spinach nitrogen fertility experiment, discuss research results, and view a sous vide hot water seed treatment demonstration. Following an early lunch, we will carpool across the lake via the ferry to the Intervale Community Farm in Burlington, Vermont. The Intervale has been providing organic vegetables to the greater Burlington area for 30 years and has a 600 member CSA. Farm manager Andy Jones will discuss their evolving winter greens production practices, including variety selection, soil fertility, irrigation, and food safety practices. After touring their high tunnels and new wash/pack shed, we will return to Willsboro.

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Learn About Using the H-2A Program on Small Farms

November 18, 2019
1:30pm - 4:00pm
Schenectady, NY

Are you worried about labor next season on your farm?
Are you wondering if the H-2A program will make sense on your farm?

The H-2A program allows US employers who meet specific regulatory requirements to bring foreign nationals to the US to fill temporary agricultural jobs. Join us to learn about how to use the H-2A program on small farms. Learn from US DOL H-2A staff and a CSA vegetable farmer, with experience using H-2A, about what it takes to use the program.

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Announcements

Resources from CCE ENYCHP!

We are developing new ways to connect with the CCE ENYCHP team this year! We have a Youtube page located at this link. Check out videos on Table Grape Production, Pest Updates and the 20 Minute Ag Manager - in 4 Minutes series

We have a Facebook Page here as well as an Instagram page. We keep these places updated with current projects, events, and other interesting articles and deadlines.

There are also text alerts available. Fruit and vegetable farmers in 17 Eastern NY counties can now receive real time alerts on high risk disease and pest outbreaks texted directly to their cell phone. The Eastern NY Commercial Horticulture program, which is supported by local Cornell Cooperative Extension associations, will now offer text alerts to those that enroll in our program in 2019. 

The text alerts will be reserved for important crop alerts that could impact management decisions immediately. For instance, if there were an outbreak of Late Blight in the area, this would be transmitted to vegetable growers.

Farmers can choose the crop for which they wish to receive updates. Additionally they can request that Ag Business Alerts be sent to them. These alerts might include due dates for crop insurance deadlines, market opportunities etc.

If you have questions, please contact enychp@cornell.edu


Podcasts

Climate Change Adaptations

September 30, 2019
In this episode regional vegetable specialist Elisabeth Hodgdon interviews University of Vermont PHD student Alissa White about a series of interviews with growers in the north east concerning climate change adaptations.

Listeners can access Alissa White’s climate change adaptation survey report and additional information on the project by clicking on the following link:

https://adaptationsurvey.wordpress.com/results/
Alissa’s project was sponsored by a Northeast SARE Graduate Student Grant (GNE17-163).

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