How Do I Begin A Conversion To Sustainable / Organic Agriculture?

By Philip A. Wheeler, Ph.D.

That is one of the most controversial questions you can ask. One paradigm would have you simply stop all inputs, begin a crop rotation and introduce livestock, if possible. Another paradigm would suggest you try to balance all your major and minor minerals within a one or two season time period. There are certainly many ways to begin but the question is: which way will get me to the goal I have in mind without costing more than my return on investment over the next few years? The complexity of that question is enormous.

Probably the most important issue is your perception of what you want to accomplish. If you do not understand what sustainable/organic/biodynamic mean, then it will be difficult to perceive a plan of action or an outcome. Talking to growers in your area who are already working in one of more of those paradigms is a good first step. Reading books by practitioners and consultants would also be recommended. Once you have a reasonable understanding of the paradigm(s)you want to begin working in; a plan can begin to be formulated.

Since there may be new readers, lets offer a short definition of each of the 3 most common designations for alternatives to “conventional” agriculture. Sustainable is a very broad term so the definition has to be broad. Sustainable farming means you are using inputs, techniques, and practices that will improve your soil over time rather than degrade it. The “degradation” that currently occurs includes; erosion, chemical contamination, loss of humus, dependency on artificial inputs and chemical rescue to get the crop off of the field and/or keep it in storage. Sustainable agricultural practices would seek to stop as much of the degradation as possible, make crop production more dependent on natural processes and improve the quality and quantity of the crop.

Organic agriculture seeks to accomplish the same thing, but it puts more restrictions on the source on inputs. In doing this, it allows for a set of standards that can be adhered to, verified, and used as a marketing tool. The input restrictions are based on a philosophy that seeks to conserve natural resources, selects materials based on origin or content and tends to be conceived as pastoral, natural or not containing any poison or chemical residue. Organic markets are expanding rapidly, so there is need for increased organic production, especially in the more difficult area of fruits and vegetables. With standards and certification comes cost and paperwork: Growers may choose to remain at the sustainable level because their marketing does not require meeting the standards of a wholesale certified organic buyer and they may be able to get a good price based on quality and flavor.

Biodynamics is a more esoteric paradigm that has grown out of the teachings of Rudolph Steiner, a German scientist and mystic. It correctly assumes that there is lots 6ee energy in nature that can be captured by various natural compounds, such as manure, when placed in natural shaped containers, such as cow horns. The material is composted in the container and the captured energy is then transferred to a water solution for spreading on soil to accomplish conditioning, growth, etc. Very precise mixing and spreading regimes are followed.

Biodynamics can be compared somewhat to homeopathy, but the two paradigms are not the same. Homeopathy captures the essence or energy of compounds at very low dilution levels by repeated dilution and succussion (pounding). Organic and sustainable growers are now starting to use homeopathic compounds for weed control, growth enhancement and conditioning.

The location of your farm is a major f8ctor. Some areas of the country have deep topsoil with reasonable organic matter and few mineral shortages. Other areas have thin soils with low organic matter or high or low pHs or high salt levels or low phosphates etc. Some of these factors could preclude you from the “stop all inputs” and the “balance all the minerals” paradigms. Two of the generally agreed upon principles among the different paradigms are remineralization and increased carbon content. What sources of materials are available nearby or what materials can be shipped in at a reasonable rate that can work on those two principles?

Let’s consider remineralization first. The size of your operation can make a big difference in the costs per acre of inputs for remineralization. Basic commodities such as lime, gypsum soft or hard rock phosphates, sulfates of potash, sol-po-mag, paramagnetic rock, green sand, kiln dusts, mineralized clay deposits, humates, compost or trace minerals may be difficult to find and quite expensive per unit when purchased in 50 lb. bags, as compared to the cost in semi-load quantities. Blended products containing the basics have additional markups to cover costs of the convenience factor. Farm operations in the 100-120 acre plus range can consider purchasing direct semi-loads of commodity inputs at good prices. This method can usually supply you with calcium phosphorous, potassium magnesium and sulfur, five of the six majors. You will also be able to get a broad spectrum of trace elements and or paramagnetism when dealing with basic rock deposits. The deposits may not have enough of the traces recognized as being significant to agriculture, so you may still have a need for separate purchases/sources of iron, copper, manganese, zinc, boron, cobalt and molybdenum.

The sixth major element is nitrogen, which is really not a mineral element. It is quite expensive to buy and offers the least alternatives for source for the organic grower. That behooves all growers in all paradigms to grow or capture their own. The most obvious grow your own source is legumes (clovers, beans, alfalfa). That sometimes presents a problem if the legume must take up a crop season and has limited market value. It can also be a problem when sufficient molybdenum is lacking in the soil to have the legume be able to fix nitrogen in its nodules. Capturing your own nitrogen could also involve the use of azobacter, which can fix atmospheric N into the soil without a legume. My consulting in Mexico has shown that a working azobacter system combined with small amounts of protein nitrogen can remove the need for the typical soluble nitrates and ammonia.

The sources of protein nitrogen are limited and some are quite expensive. Soy meal and alfalfa can be used, but the cost may be prohibitive. Liquid 8 % collagen from the leather industry is a good source, but it can never be certified organic because of the chromium used in the manufacturing. Blood meal is expensive and may have lead contaminants and cottonseed meal may have pesticide and herbicide problems. Liquid hydrolyzed fish appears to be one of the best sources, as it has reasonable costs, contains other nutrients and growth factors and can be used on both soil and foliage.

Sustainable growers can use non-protein sources of nitrogen such as ammonium sulfate, ammonium nitrate, 28-32 % liquid nitrogen as transition products until they are able to produce their own. These products, when combined with carbohydrates (sugar/molasses) have continued to demonstrate that they increase bacterial activity and raise plant quality when used in appropriate amounts. It is wise to include some protein nitrogen with the manufactured N, because the crop will selectively pick up the protein N when it is stressed. Sustainable growers may also use urea as a foliar, because the plant doesn’t need to expend energy to utilize the urea the way it would if fed a nitrate or ammonia source.

The most obvious natural sources of N are animal manure and compost. Again, relatively large amounts (cost factors/availability) may be required to achieve an adequate supply for high nitrogen using crops. Now we are getting into the second major agreement point of having increased active carbon in the form of humus, which is a sink or reservoir of nitrogen. We can start to solve the nitrogen problem when we start working on the humus problem. Creating large amounts of humus without or in addition to adding/hauling compost/manure is possible. The missing factor is conventional agriculture for making use of the natural systems is the presence or availability of carbohydrate [sugars] as energy sources for the bacteria. After all, even conventional growers plow down corn stover or green manure, but….do they get good humus for their efforts? Research shows otherwise. Their residue does not get digested properly for a variety of reasons, but two reasons we can deal with quite readily are the absence of the right bacteria and a supply of energy that will encourage them to digest the residue. The adding of carbohydrates and a touch of nitrogen to green or brown crop residue (use more N on the brown stuff) sets the banquet table for the bacteria to have a balanced diet of meat (the N and protein) and potatoes (the carbohydrates/sugars). New inoculations of live/dormant bacterial cultures may be appropriate. The bacteria will gorge themselves, reproduce rapidly in the presence of ideal conditions and turn your crop residue into real humus. The humus will contain the nitrogen and other nutrients in a non-leachable, but available form for your plants to feed for the entire season.

Growers are always advised to do a year or two of sustainable transition before they begin a certification process if possible. This allows them to reasonably balance their soils as per Albrecht, biologically activate their soils according to Reams, increase paramagnetism according to Callahan and start to have the natural processes help them prevent/control weed, insect and disease problems. By not seeking certification the first year or two, the grower can have full access to the marketplace to accomplish the balancing and activation he desires. This approach assumes that all fertility inputs are bio-enhancing, even though they may not meet certain manmade standards. It also allows the grower to continue to use reduced chemical rescue, if natural processes aren’t working or natural products aren’t unavailable to solve the problem.

In my humble opinion, too many growers have lost too much money by attempting go directly from conventional agriculture to organic or biodynamic. I perceive this to be true because I frequently get calls that go like this: “I went organic two years ago on my soy beans, and of course, I had reduced yield. (Emphasis mine) Since soybeans are considered scavengers, the grower was not supplying enough nutrients/energy for the crop to scavenge, or he wasn’t foliar feeding to supplement the soil supply. Why would you change paradigms without preparation if you “knew” you were going to have a major yield reduction? Some of those who have depended on price to compensate for yield have been very disappointed.

So what is the “best” approach to making a change or transition? There is no best approach There are only multiple possibilities. You have to go back to the first paragraph and the question of goals and costs. There is little doubt that if you don’t know where your starting from or what you are starting with the chances of success and return on investment are not great. That is why most consultants and sales companies ask/insist on soil tests. The question of interpretation then rears its ugly head. Again, there are no right answers, only multiple possibilities. (However, there are some wrong answers.)

Even in the realm of testing, there are multiple possibilities. The one test most agreed upon, in the CEC (cation exchange capacity). The majority of commercial labs serving standard agriculture use this kind of test. One of the problems is that CEC test procedures may vary from lab to lab, and some labs make the claim that their method is the only correct way. Any reputable CEC lab should give you a reasonable idea of what you need to know and a well versed agronomist should be able to read it and advise you accordingly. Be cautious of computer generated recommendations that tell you down to the pound what is going to solve all your problems. Applying huge amounts of materials just to match computer programs may cost more than the return on investment in the first few years. Activating what you have is usually less expensive in the short term and allows you to work on balancing on a more gradual (less account draining) basis.

The second test being used extensively is called a LaMotte test when done by a certain procedure or a water-soluble test done by similar methods. These tests tell you the likelihood of your crop being able to use the minerals identified on your CEC test. Again, if the lab provides interpretive ranges for their readings, a well-rounded consultant can help you interpret your results.

Leaf tissue analysis is also valuable in pinpointing just what the plant is doing with all your attempts at helping it out. Radionic scanners can also be used to show energy relationships. These are very important, as general health and vigor of all organisms is dependent on resonance of the energy coming from within and without.

Using the data obtained from one or more of the above should allow you to begin the transition to the new paradigm(s) you have chosen. Good luck on your journey/transition.