Soil Fertility, Biodiversity and the Gut Microbiome

This article was also published in the October 2019 issue of Acres U.S.A.

Georgia farmer Will Harris is known to say that, “nature abhors a monoculture.” I heard him say this on my first visit to White Oak Pastures several years ago. It stuck with me.

Since that time, I have been trying to better understand the connection between pasture health and biodiversity of forages in pastures. The more diverse the pasture, the more resilient that entire plant community is to adverse factors like drought and pestilence. Why is this? Why would a diverse pasture be better suited to adversity and have higher nutrition than a monoculture of alfalfa or orchard grass, for example?

Healthy Soil Summit 2020
The annual Healthy Soil Summit is built for farmers searching for an advantage in today’s marketplace. Our instructors are real farmers who practice what they teach, from tactics to build soil resilience, increase water storage capacity and decrease costly inputs and programs. Learn More today!


In complex communities of plants, there is a corresponding greater and more diverse population of soil biology feeding on root exudates and detritus from plant diversity above ground. It is similar to the community of the gut microbiome. Consider the elimination diets that are so popular today. If you go on a 30-day carrot cleanse (an extreme example, of course), the biology in your gut that corresponds with the metabolization of the proteins and carbohydrates in carrots will flourish.

This is very similar to a monoculture planting; we are only supporting the relatively small spectrum of biology in symbiosis with that crop. After 30 days of nothing but carrots, your gut will be simplified to the point that when you eat something new like steak or bread it will upset your stomach and likely ruin your evening.

Now if this was your situation and you were rooted in place, like a plant, and your capacity to metabolize carrots went away, or there was a disease that impacted carrots, you would not be very resilient and you would have a compromised immune system.

Alternatively, if you are used to eating a great variety of fruits, veggies, fats and proteins, then your microbiome would be much more diverse and able to metabolize a greater variety of nutrients. It would allow you to withstand changes in diet without getting an upset stomach or being susceptible to sickness.

Similarly, in a diverse pasture, all of the different plants in that community are feeding different biological communities in the soil. The vast populations in the soil microbiome are fed a feast of diverse proteins, lipids and carbs from all of the plants in the community, resulting in a balanced diet for the soil biome.

This diversity in food sources creates diversity in soil biology. The life in the soil provides large amounts of plant-available nutrients to the rhizosphere. Now all plants in the community can make use of these nutrients and grow more higher-quality vegetation. The plants growing in biodiverse soil have a healthy immune system. Secondary and tertiary metabolites keep the plants resistant to disease and pest pressure.

Spencer Smith on ranch forage
Spencer Smith ponders the diversity of his ranch’s forages.


This process has evolved over the millennia as a way for the ecosystem to function in the face of adversity. Not only do different plants produce different foods for the soil biology; these different plants also correspond with availability of other plant nutrients.

For example, legumes collaborate with certain bacteria to mineralize nitrogen so that the entire plant community can access it. There are similar symbiotic relationships that are responsible for mineralizing other nutrients as well. This gives us an impressive tool in our farming toolbox when we evaluate our soil tests and determine how to make up for nutrient shortcomings in our pastures and crop fields. Intercropping and cover cropping fields increases available calcium, for example. This process occurs through the liquid carbon pathways or the plants’ leaking liquid carbohydrates — which they make via photosynthesis — through root pores to feed soil biology. This happens in predominantly two ways.

Firstly, plants leak low-molecular-weight plant sugars that feed large populations of soil biota. These are called basal exudates, which are the genesis of soils with higher organic matter content. The other way that plants alter the plant community is by emitting exudates for which the plants have specific purposes. These include secondary metabolites that correspond with specific soil biota that can mineralize specific nutrients such as nitrogen, iron, calcium and phosphate. These minerals are common in all soils, but must be “unlocked” by soil life to make them accessible to plants. Many farmers are now cover cropping with the intent of planting crops that will create better nutrient availability for the entire crop.

Many of these secondary metabolites do more than just unlock minerals to the rhizosphere. They are also responsible for creating the plants’ immune system and pest deterrent properties, as well as detoxifying soil pollutants.


Biodiversity in plant communities also impacts the physical properties of soil by creating relationships with arbuscular mycorrhizae. They produce glomalin and create improved aggregate structure. This improved structure is responsible for increased water-infiltration rates, as well as for holding maximum water in the rhizosphere for plant use.

Different plants have different structures that help them break soil compaction, combat erosion and pull mineral nutrients and water from deeper in the soil profile. Tap-rooted plants grow in areas that have challenges with compaction or low gaseous exchange. The tap root will penetrate this compaction zone, allowing air to follow. Greater and more diverse rooting types will follow the tap root, further opening the soil and fostering a greater population of beneficial soil biology.

If you see tap-rooted plants in your pasture and you think that compaction or low gaseous exchange isn’t an issue, I would ask you to carefully dig one up. Most likely you will find that the fine hair at the end of the tap root is penetrating deeper than the rest of the fibrous rooted plants. This is one reason why cover croppers across the country are adding radishes and turnips to their cover crop mixes. These tap-rooted plants deepen the rooting depth, bringing new nutrients up into the rhizosphere.

Figuring out how to increase diversity in our pastures and crop fields will add value and resilience to our operations. This is a deviation from the common teachings of 20 years ago, when farmers were advised to plant monocultures for their ease of management and uniformity. No longer is a plant out place considered a weed on some of the most productive and progressive farms. A plant that shows up in your field could be adding value to your operation by unlocking nutrients and improving soil structure. Next time, before you pull that weed, take a minute to figure out if that plant is trying to tell you something about your soil.

About Spencer Smith

Spencer Smith is a Savory Field Professional. Savory Global Network hubs provide accredited Holistic Management training and support across the world. Abbey and Spencer Smith manage the Savory Global Network hub serving Northern California and Nevada, called the Jefferson Center for Holistic Management. They live in Fort Bidwell, California, on Springs Ranch, where they produce grassfed beef; provide Holistic Management training, consulting and Ecological Outcome Verification enrollment; and manage contract grazing on the ranch pastures. Visit to learn more.

Meet Spencer Smith at the 2020 Healthy Soil Summit

The 2nd annual Healthy Soil Summit will take place this August 25-26 in Sacramento, California. Among the presenters will be Spencer Smith, who will teach how to integrate animals into your operation. View the presenter agenda and speaker info here.

Tractor Time Episode 33: Doug Fine, Author, ‘Hemp Bound’

In this episode, we’re talking about the hemp revolution with Doug Fine.

Fine is an investigative journalist whose work has appeared in places like Washington Post, Wired and Outside Magazine. He’s traveled all over the world, including to places like Burma, Rwanda, Laos, Guatemala and Tajikistan. He’s given TED Talks. He’s appeared on late-night talk shows. And he’s written several books, including Not Really An Alaskan Mountain Man, Farewell My Subaru, which is about his attempt to wean himself off fossil fuel, and Too High To Fail: Cannabis and the New Green Economic Revolution.

Doug Fine

His latest book is Hemp Bound: Dispatches From the Front Lines of the Next Agricultural Revolution.

For Fine, those front lines are found at Funky Butte Ranch, his 40-acre spread in southern New Mexico where he and his family grow hemp, tend a garden and raise a herd of mischievous goats.

Although Fine sees himself as a journalist first, he doesn’t shy away from speaking up for what he believes in. And what he believes is this: Hemp represents not just the next big money-maker in agriculture. Instead, he believes it’s an opportunity to change the whole game — and maybe fight off the effects of climate change in the process.

Hemp Bound is published by Chelsea Green Publishing, it has a quote from Willie Nelson on the cover and it’s available at the Acres U.S.A. bookstore at

This episode is sponsored by BCS America.

Connect Soil Health and Hemp

Join Acres USA for our 2nd annual Advancing Hemp event on May 20, 2021. This virtual event is designed to prepare farmers for successful hemp production through practical, applicable advice from industry-leading experts and growers. Learn more here.

Rancher Puts Allan Savory Principles into Action

By Tracy Frisch
This article also appears in the 2019 September issue of Acres U.S.A.

Gene Goven is a dryland farmer in the center of North Dakota. He has owned and managed 1,500 acres of shortgrass prairie and cropland for the past 51 years. In 1986, the ideas of Allan Savory changed his life.

When I reached out to him about visiting, he informed me of his deceptively simple mission: “To manage diversity for soil health enhancement.” Toward that end, he promotes biodiversity at every level and aims to capture rainwater and to deepen roots. As we will see, he has succeeded by a variety of measures.

For Goven, the quest for a better way to farm has been a journey toward greater understanding. Learning occurs in steps rather than as a continual uphill climb. “All of a sudden another light comes on,” he said.

“No one big thing made the difference,” he said of the evolution of his farm “It was many different little things. Nothing stands alone. If you change one thing, you change everything.”

Bringing along fellow farmers and other people that interface with land management has been an important complement to Goven’s own learning. He has made presentations in 22 states and 3 foreign countries, and he continues to take pleasure in the positive changes he has witnessed among farmers in his immediate neighborhood and far beyond.

People have to be shaken up a bit in order to rethink their belief system, he’s learned.

“If the edges of someone’s paradigm aren’t ruffled, why would anyone want to change?” he asked. “Eighty percent of people are followers. Twenty percent are adapters. Less than a half of one percent are innovators.”

Goven falls into the latter category. He just thinks differently about creating agricultural systems. And he isn’t the only one.

Goven observed that more than half of the mentors in the North Dakota Grazing Lands Coalition are left-handed. He also has dyslexia. For many years, he considered it a disability, but over time he has come to see it as a gift.

“There’s a little contrarian in me,” he said.

western wheatgrass
Gene Goven holds western wheatgrass, grazed and ungrazed. Western wheatgrass is another important native cool-season rhizomatous grass.


Goven credits his decision to cross-fence his paddocks with putting him on his lifelong path. He installed his first cross-fencing in 1980. Within a few years of starting to cross-fence his land, he had increased the stocking rate by 20 percent. And that was just the beginning. Subdividing his rangeland allowed him to more intensively manage cattle grazing, which boosted forage production.

But cross-fencing wasn’t enough of a change to resolve his grazing issues. “I still couldn’t get the animals to eat uniformly,” he said. He continued to look for solutions.

Goven found what he was looking for in November 1986 when he took his first Holistic Management class. Taught by founder Allan Savory, the course cost $1,500 and took Goven away from the ranch for five-and-a-half days. He questioned whether it would be worth it.

“But I never looked back. I started thinking and not just acting,” he said.

The biggest revelation came from Savory’s Holistic Planned Grazing concept, through which Goven was able to steadily increase forage production on native prairie. It taught him the importance of giving land an adequate rest following grazing. He began to understand that “we need to feed the soil first” and that livestock come second.

Before 1980, with set stocking and no cross-fencing, an acre of Goven’s native prairie would only produce 450 pounds of dry matter in a good year. Now, even in a drought year, Goven says he counts on each acre yielding 2,000 pounds.

For years now, Goven has managed his cattle so that they only harvest a fraction of his increased forage production.

“I used to be puzzled by the concept of take half, leave half in rangeland management. Then it dawned on me that the severity of leaf removal means the plant has to start again,” Goven explained.

If cattle are left in a paddock for too much time, they will munch on the regrowth of plants that they’ve already taken bites from. “I’ve kept livestock in a paddock too long. I’ve thought there’s enough forage for another day,” he said. That mistake can devastate a paddock for the next two or three years.

Goven considers weather (moisture and temperature) and the rate of plant growth, as well as the quantity of standing forage, when determining how frequently to move the cattle. When plants are lush and growing fast, he doesn’t let the cattle stay in a given paddock for more than three consecutive days. But in dry weather, when plants are barely growing, he may leave cattle in the same paddock for 7 to 10 days, or even 14 days, depending upon the paddock size.

Gene Govern monitors soil health
Gene Goven monitors soil health. Although he’s semi-retired, Goven still never stops learning new things about his land in North Dakota.


Goven cautions graziers to be conservative when grazing forages in the fall, after they green up following summer brown. Taking off too much grass can effect the next year’s production by as much as 50 percent, he warns.

Around a decade ago, Goven added an interesting twist to his planned-grazing sequence. He fittingly named it “managing for chaos.” Every year he changes the approximate date of grazing in each paddock. If he grazed a particular paddock around June 1 one year, he won’t graze it again in early June for another 10 years.

This approach has enriched the species diversity of his native prairie. While 50 or 60 percent of the local farmers have native prairie on their ranches, continuous grazing and other non-optimal practices simplify the species composition of these grasslands.


Changes in his grazing management have boosted the carrying capacity of Goven’s land. “Prior to 1980, we’d be able to run 55 to 60 cow-calf pairs on a good year,” he said. Back then a drought would force him to drastically reduce the herd to 35 or 40 cow-calf pairs or “there’d be nothing to eat.” In the 1980s, after he started putting up cross-fencing, he increased his herd size to 72 cow-calf pairs. By 2000 he was up to about 105 pairs. These days he often grazes 150 to 180 pairs, though it varies by year.

Besides native prairie and hay, Goven’s farm provided other sources of feed for the herd. After cash crops were harvested, his cattle would graze the crop aftermath. Cover crops also provided forage for later grazing.


On rangeland, two opposite management scenarios produce equally negative outcomes. A study by the Agricultural Research Service at Mandan, North Dakota, found that under continuous grazing and in the absence of grazing, native prairie grasses have very shallow roots — just 3 to 5 inches in depth. Under a planned rotational grazing regime, the roots of these grasses extended 6 to 10 times deeper and were much fuller, with obvious implications for withstanding drought.

This research supports the notion that idle rest brings harmful consequences. The Conservation Reserve Program rested land for 20 years. However when standing grass or grain stubble is left alone over the winter, it loses up to 20 percent of its weight through oxidation.

The quality of standing vegetation and the health of the soil reach their peaks within five to eight years, before declining, Goven said.


Grazing converts forage into something that’s more readily marketed in the form of livestock. For Goven, the value of cattle also lies in its ability to enhance soil health. Grazing animals fertilize grasslands with urine and manure and feed the soil-food web.

Animal hooves also can produce a positive impact on soil. Animal impact, when managed appropriately, causes carbon to be slowly released into the soil. Trampling vegetation puts plant residues in contact with the soil, where the soil-food web can break them down and recycle them.

Soil microbes have a very low browse line,” Goven explained.


More than 20 years ago, Goven stopped keeping cattle as property. Instead he custom-grazes other people’s bovines. He likes using someone else’s equity to market forage. Like other custom graziers, he charges by the head per day, adjusted by the size and type of animal.

Taking in disparate groups of animals managed under different regimes can present serious handling challenges. That hasn’t been a problem for Goven. Rather than herding or chasing the cattle, he trains them to follow him.

In his slow process of retiring, Goven has been gradually cutting back on his farming obligations. He currently rents cropland to two brothers. In the lease, he put in some stipulations about stewardship. He cautioned the farmers not to use any fungicides because of their impact on microorganisms in the soil-food web, like mycorrhizal fungi. They use herbicides at a drastically reduced rate — in line with Goven’s practice — and they hire Goven to plant cover crops on his own land.


A Natural Resources Conservation Service study site in South Dakota compared soil properties of pasture under two management regimes: continuous, season-long grazing versus rotational grazing. With rotational grazing, the top 12 inches of soil gained an additional 1 percent organic matter. One percent of soil organic matter equates to about 20,000 pounds per acre.

The soil in the rotationally grazed pasture infiltrated water almost 10 times faster than continuously grazed pasture. It took 12 minutes for an inch to infiltrate under the rotational grazing treatment instead of 109 minutes on the continuously grazed land.

Goven’s farm also reveals this contrast, though in time rather than space. Decades ago, monitoring by agencies such as NRCS (then known as the Soil Conservation Service), North Dakota State University Extension and the Agricultural Research Service showed that his farm infiltrated water slowly, at the rate of around 0.8 to 1.2 inches per hour. Over time, as a result of dramatic changes in grazing and cropping practices, water infiltration improved greatly. “Now my poorest rate is 6.5 inches per hour. The best is 12 inches per hour,” he said.

He referred to the example offered by his late friend Neil Denis of Saskatchewan, who converted his cropland to perennial forages. “The mob grazier king of the world” was also an early adopter of Holistic Management. His soils infiltrated at the rate of 15 inches an hour, while his neighbor’s cropland clocked in at a mere half inch per hour.


Goven grew up with his family growing cover crops and doing companion planting.

“In the middle 1930s my grandfather, Ed Goven, was paid to plant sweet clover in with his grain crops,” he said.

One year of his crop rotation had to include clover as a companion crop. But then overproduction emerged as a problem that threatened to destabilize the economy. The federal government responded by penalizing practices such as cover cropping. Farmers were directed to leave a certain amount of acreage fallow. By taking land out of production, the government hoped to prop up farm gate prices. After World War II, agrochemicals came along, further pushing cover crops and intercropping out of favor.

Goven remembers his dad and granddad using cereal rye “to clean up the fields,” making use of its allelopathic properties. They would harvest some of this rye for hay and turn under other fields of rye.


Long ago Goven started experimenting with bi-cultures and polycultures on his own farm. For example, he might interseed lentils with a cash crop of sunflowers. Planted at the rate of 10 to 12 pounds per acre, the lentils serve as “the fertility program” for the sunflowers. Field peas play that same role with oats. And instead of broadcasting commercial fertilizer, Goven became accustomed to interseeding lentils and turnips into winter wheat at spring green up.

Dr. Jill Clapperton of Hamilton, Montana, has studied the synergy between legumes and grasses and how it affects plant behavior. Legumes will share up to 70 percent of the nitrogen they fix with a grass-type crop. When lentils and/or field peas were planted together with a grass, they nodulated within 5 days of emergence. At just an inch tall, lentils already had pink nodules on their root to fix nitrogen. In monoculture plantings, it took up to 30 days for lentils to nodulate. Grown with ample nitrogen fertilizer or in the absence of a hungry grain crop, the legume has no need to fix nitrogen. “The legume is lazy” is how Goven put it.

Researchers at North Dakota State University and the Agricultural Research Service looked at the rooting depth of oats and inoculated field peas grown together and separately. They found that in intercropped plantings they rooted four times deeper than either species did when grown alone. That’s more good evidence for growing legumes and grains in combination.


Influencing fellow farmers to improve the environment has long been central to Goven’s mission. He quotes Allan Savory’s instructions to him: “Work with your neighbors. Don’t antagonize them.” Goven has taken this counsel to heart. He wants to help guide his immediate community and takes great pains not to insult or alienate any of his neighbors. Several times during our conversations, he reminded me, “You won’t catch me doing boundary line comparisons!”

His efforts have borne fruit. Most of his neighbors who work smaller farms practice no-till and use cover crops. Goven has been instrumental in bringing about this shift.

Goven encourages fellow farmers to not let the cost of seed get in the way of adopting cover crops. He tells them to start with whatever is at hand. “What do you have left over in your grain bin – corn, oats, sunflowers?” he asks. He recommends buying individual species separately and making your own cover crop seed mixes.

He also custom-seeds cover crops for other farmers. They contract with him to plant no-till cover crops following the combine. “I’ve even had requests to seed cover crops from 50 and 70 miles away,” he said.

He also has made it easier for his neighbors to adopt no-till practices. “I’m willing to lend out my no-till drill to neighbors. I lent it to one neighbor. A year ago they bought their own,” he said.


Goven is pleased to have been able to influence people outside of agriculture that are in a position to support better approaches to farming. Kent Linney first visited Goven’s farm as a high school student. He later became a plumber and a leader in Ducks Unlimited. Today he promotes livestock as a component of the organization’s program for habitat enhancement. “Seeing my farm must have really impressed him,” Goven quipped.

He went on to list other individuals who have come to recognize the value of regenerative agriculture for its ecosystem and public health benefits. A North Dakota big game biologist told him, “Because of you, I have the career I have, using livestock as a habitat management tool for wildlife enhancement.” And Greg Sandness, the state’s water-quality specialist in Bismarck, told Goven, “If everyone was doing what these guys are doing, I wouldn’t have a job!” That’s because farms like Goven’s so dramatically reduce runoff and leaching.


Goven rejects the notion that water quality starts at the edge of a lake or stream. He holds a more expansive view of what it takes to protect water resources.

“For me, riparian management starts at the top of the hill and extends over to the next hill,” he said.

As he sees it, protecting water quality must address water infiltration, through-flow and re-flow. Goven’s views are relevant because his farm is bisected by Crooked Lake, a beautiful water body that is used for recreation. The farm contains almost four miles of shoreline.

Some years ago, the presence of Goven’s cattle near the lakeshore sparked complaints from several “cabin people” on the lake. An extension water-quality specialist stopped by to investigate. When Goven took her around, she could not find any visible evidence of erosion. That evening, she called her husband and told him to start cross-fencing.


Goven composed a bold goal for rain on his land: “Every raindrop shall infiltrate where it falls, no matter steep the hill is.” After he intensified his grazing management, he noticed welcome changes in the behavior of water on his farm. Water infiltration kept improving, resulting in less risk of run-off, erosion, flooding and drought.

The ranch sits in the middle of the Prairie Pothole region, the waterfowl nesting and breeding capital of North America. The region stretches northwest from Iowa through large portions of the Dakotas and into three Canadian provinces.

Three decades ago, Goven began noticing an odd phenomenon. His potholes would stay empty while his neighbors’ potholes were brimming full of water. This confounded him.

A breakthrough in understanding came in 1990. Following two years of drought, four inches of rain fell in less than an hour on the evening of July 3. There was immediate flash flooding, and fences were torn out. But not on Goven’s farm. “All the slews and potholes filled with water on my neighbors’ land. I didn’t have any standing water and my potholes stayed empty,” he recalled.

Seven days later, water started showing up in the ranch’s potholes and wetlands. Goven had captured every raindrop.

“My wetlands and potholes hold water longer and better than they used to, but they also don’t fill up as much,” Goven said.

This periodic drying up of prairie potholes is beneficial. When potholes constantly hold water, they go anaerobic. As a result they smell like a sewer. But if their water levels go up and down, when they do dry up, they re-vegetate. And when it next rains and the potholes take up water, that vegetation provides food for invertebrates and they in turn feed migratory waterfowl.


Goven is proud of his work in helping U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s recognize the use of livestock as a management tool for achieving its mission of habitat enhancement. The agency’s wildlife refuges in North Dakota aim to provide habitat for migratory waterfowl.

During the serious drought years of the mid and late 1980s Goven was looking for a way to avoid having to liquidate his cattle herd for lack of sufficient forage. He came up with the idea of grazing wildlife refuges, one of which is only 15 miles from his ranch. When he and a neighbor rancher went looking for duck nests on that refuge, they couldn’t find any. “Initially the only place we found nests was outside the refuge,” he said.

Goven proposed using cattle grazing as a land management tool to improve habitat on the refuge. The agency’s regional director flew to North Dakota from Denver and gave him the go-ahead to “prove” that his idea would work. Goven and his neighbor did the pilot project, sharing labor and resources. They ran their cattle together in the refuge using temporary electric fencing powered by battery-operated fence chargers.

Using livestock brought refuge lands back to health by enhancing nutrient cycling, energy cycling and water cycling, Goven said. “In three years we turned it from a biological desert into a preferred nesting area,” he reported. As a result of this success, “all refuge managers in North Dakota were required to attend sessions with me on prescribed grazing in the WPA Waterfowl Production Area,” he said. As a cooperator with U.S. Fish & Wildlife, Goven received the extra grazing land he needed, thus solving his feed problem.

A national outcry (“Cattle-Free by 1993”) calling for the removal of all livestock from public lands had no effect on Fish & Wildlife practice in the U.S., as the benefits of the grazing program were so well-established. The program has had one big limiting factor however; U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service can’t find enough cooperators willing to bring livestock in.


For 25 years, Goven hasn’t used pesticides of any kind to control insects and parasites on his cattle or pasturelands, including insecticidal ear tags. He doesn’t worm his cattle or use products like Ivermectin. He stopped using these biocides to avoid collateral damage to non-target species. If he were to turn to insecticides, he estimated that 80 beneficial insect species would be destroyed for every cattle pest insect he killed.

He strives for rapid nutrient cycling on his farm, and giving up these biocides is consistent with this aim. At the Goven ranch, dung beetles, other insects and earthworms begin colonizing and breaking down cow patties within three days. In the absence of these small manure-loving animals, fresh cow paddies become dried up cow “Frisbees.” Nutrients remain tied up in them for months or years. Nitrogen in this desiccated manure is readily lost through volatization into the atmosphere, however.

“For fly control, I’ll skip a paddock so there’s a quarter mile gap,” he said. This “leapfrog” approach creates a big enough distance between cow patties to limit fly populations.

Similarly, moving cattle frequently to new paddocks can be an effective means of interrupting the life cycle of internal parasites. Cattle excrete internal parasite eggs in their manure. Newly hatched larvae climb up stems, waiting to be ingested by a host animal. Young calves are most vulnerable to the effects of parasites.

The key to managing these parasites with grazing involves not returning animals to a paddock when the worms are in their infective stage. New Zealand data show that graziers can attain up to 90 percent parasite control with planned rotational grazing, Goven said.


If you’re trying to enhance biodiversity, pesticides of any kind can pose a threat.

Over the course of his farming career, Goven said, “I got more and more disturbed by the increasing use of chemicals. It seemed like the landscape was going dead.”

He’s been particularly dismayed by the use of herbicides, most commonly glyphosate off-label, as desiccants to dry-down crops shortly before harvest.

Sixteen years ago, Goven’s ranch experienced herbicide spray drift damage. An aerial applicator, hired to kill weeds in a wheat crop on neighboring croplands, neglected to shut off his booms while circling out beyond to go back to the field he was spraying. The spray mixture contained Roundup and other herbicides used off-label.

“I’m still suffering from chemical residual,” he said.


Some ranchers attempt to improve the productivity of native prairie rangelands by no-tilling in purchased forage seed. Goven has never seen a need for such intervention. Rather, he works to retain and enhance the diversity of prairie species. “For every grass-type species, I want to have at least five forb species because they have deeper rooting systems, some down to 15 feet deep,” he said.

Goven has identified some 200 different native plants growing in his shortgrass prairie. Years ago, he created a slide show of these plants and their historic uses. He especially enjoyed taking this program to senior citizens, including Alzheimer’s groups, because many elderly people would come alive seeing the plants of their childhoods.

One June around 25 years ago, the National Audubon Fish and Wildlife Refuge held part of its annual field day on Goven’s ranch. That day, when bird watchers did a noon bird count on a quarter mile stretch at the ranch, they counted an astonishing 112 different bird species in one hour. The varied habitats on that site included brushy ground, lakeshore and prairie potholes.

“I was told that there are very few places in the world with that concentration of species,” Goven said.

Growing Red and Purple Potatoes Organically

By Dale and Darcy Cahill
This article also appears in the September 2019 issue of Acres U.S.A.

While many potato varieties are not suited to organic management, there are just as many that are bred specifically for success in an organic garden. Jim Gerritsen from Aroostook County, Maine, has been growing potatoes with his wife, Megan, for over thirty years on their farm in Bridgewater. In that time, Gerritsen has discovered varieties that not only thrive under organic management but also taste delicious. Once only popular in specialty markets, blue/purple and red potatoes have gained attention in the past ten years for their robust colors, their hardiness and their taste. Maine potato farmers, including Gerritsen, have been growing these colorful and delicious potatoes for years now and have seen both the breeding, growing and marketing of these varieties surge in popularity. Whether grown in a kitchen garden or commercially, these colorful potatoes are easy to grow and are here to stay.

As a farmer, Gerritsen begins with the premise that all potato varieties are flawed. He says, “if you can’t find at least two flaws in a variety, then you are not looking hard enough.” That said, before he commits to selling any variety of his certified organic, certified Maine kitchen or seed potatoes, they undergo a three-year trial period to see if they are tasty enough and hardy enough to grow organically. After thirty years of conducting these trials, a few blue and red varieties have earned their place on his farm.

Colorful Potato Varieties

Caribe potato (purple)

The purple-skin potato with the longest history on Gerritsen’s Wood Prairie Family Farm is a variety called Caribe. Although the commercial market never picked up this variety, over the years Gerritsen’s local customers have come to count on it, and word has spread that it is a tasty, consistent producer that grows reliably in over 48 states.

Caribe is an early potato, ready to harvest in just 70 days. This potato’s early harvest time makes it well suited for an organic garden, as it is ready early enough in the summer to avoid most summertime pests and diseases.

Although the seed was developed in Canada, potato lore says that it originally came from Cuba, where its deep and lustrous purple skin earned it the reputation of being an aphrodisiac. But true to Gerritsen’s theory, it too has a few flaws. One is that when boiled the skin color fades. The only way to maintain their bright, purple shade is to cook them using dry heat.

Adirondak Blue potato

Another potato that has earned its place at Wood Prairie Farm is the Adirondack Blue, bred by Robert Plaisted, Ken Paddock and Walter De Jong at Cornell University in 2003. This variety has both blue skin and blue flesh and retains its color whether baked, boiled or mashed. It is considered an early- to mid-season, medium- to high-yielding variety. Adirondack Blue tubers are mostly oblong with an attractive appearance and intermediate eye depth. The variety also has a short dormancy (time required for sprout emergence).

This colorful potato has been picked up by both specialty and commercial markets, making it a favorite at farmstands, restaurants, high-end grocery stores and large-scale potato chipping companies.Its deep-blue color indicates high levels of antioxidants, a nutritional bonus that adds to its popularity. The Adirondack Blue is often paired with the Adirondack Red, also developed and bred by the Plaisted, Paddock and De Jong team. Both varieties are considered perfect for the beginning gardener as they are a low-maintenance crop needing minimal oversight. An excellent choice for a kitchen garden, the Adirondack Red is equally popular on small and commercial farms.

All Blue potato

All Blue, an heirloom variety developed over a century ago, has also earned a place in Gerritsen’s fields. It scores high in moisture, flavor and color and is grown all around the world. It can be harvested early for its small tubers but will also produce large, cylindrical tubers when allowed to fully mature. It is a drought-resistant variety that is planted first and most often harvested last. Over the last one hundred years, this variety has been frequently renamed, often in relation to its geographical location. Its other names include called Congo Black, British Columbia Blue, Blue of Sweden, Himalayan Black, Russian Blue, Blue Marker, Fenton Blue, River John and many others. This blue potato has clearly earned worldwide approval.

LaJoie Farm

The LaJoie family is another multi-generational potato farming family located in Aroostook County. However, unlike Gerritsen’s ten to twelve acres of potatoes, the LaJoie Growers’ 1300 acres are devoted to a wide variety of potatoes, beets, wheat and other produce. Three of their staple potato varieties are All Blue, Adirondack Red and Adirondack Blue/Purple. In 1901, William LaJoie, the family patriarch, bought two hundred acres for his farm in Cyr Plantation. During those first few years, LaJoie cleared his fields of rocks and tree stumps and planted potatoes. In 2000, just over one hundred years later, William’s great-great-great grandson, Dominic, saw a financial opportunity in expanding the family’s potato varieties to include colorful heirloom potatoes for niche markets.

blue potatoes in storage facility
Blue potatoes in new storage facility at LaJoie farm. (Photo courtesy of Paul Cyr)

That year the LaJoies invested in “All Blue” and “Adirondack Blue” potatoes on a large scale. At the time, Adirondack Blues were available only at farmers’ markets and specialty grocery stores. They were considered a novelty product. Dominic, with the help of his brother Gilbert, ended that novelty status when they landed a deal with Terra Chips. Terra now buys LaJoie Growers’ blue potatoes for JetBlue Airlines’ blue-chip inflight snack. The LaJoies sell three million pounds of their blue potatoes to Terra Chips and have seen the popularity of Terra Chips explode on the chip market.

Colorful Potato Popularity Increases

As the popularity of colorful potatoes has increased, so have the recipes for cooking them. Potatoes USA, the nation’s potato marketing and research organization, is a good place to look for new ways to cook and serve potatoes ( One of their chefs describes the blue/purple potato as a hero ingredient. “Think of purple potatoes as a hero ingredient to add to green salads or potato medleys.” These colorful potatoes are also less time-consuming to prepare, as there is no need to precook them, and their delicate quality allows them to be grilled, steamed and roasted raw. There is also no reason to peel these beauties. Red, blue and purple potatoes pop up in recipes for backyard parties and black-tie events.

While these unique potatoes look and taste good, there is more and more scientific evidence that red, blue and purple potatoes are cancer fighters. According to researchers at Penn State, there may be several substances in purple potatoes that work simultaneously on multiple pathways to help kill colon cancer stem cells. There is also growing evidence that red, blue and purple potatoes are antioxidant-rich and help in regulating blood pressure, preventing blood clots and improving endurance.

Maine’s Potato History

With a long and respected history of growing Maine potatoes, Aroostook County lies three hours north of Bangor, bordering the St. John’s River. It is New England’s northernmost county. Here visitors are likely to see a combine harvester at work in an endless field of oats or thousands of acres of potatoes. With over 8,000 farms in Aroostook County, most of which devote some of their acreage to potatoes, it is home to some of Maine’s most fertile farmland.

During the 1940s, the state dominated the nation in potato production. Since those heydays, acreage devoted to potatoes has decreased, but the state is still seen as a place where potato farmers devote time and resources to cultivating new disease-resistant varieties and innovative ways to market this incredibly popular root vegetable. Farming families like the LaJoies and Gerritsens are just a few examples of Aroostook county farmers who continue to develop Maine’s unique agricultural history of breeding, cultivating and growing potatoes.

The Next Generation of Colorful Potatoes

Gerritsen is personally and professionally excited about the next generation of organic potato research, as it includes his son Caleb, who recently took over Wood Prairie Farm. Gerritsen sees promise in the movement for vertical rather than horizontal breeding and in the research of developing resistance traits specifically to benefit the organically grown potato.

In addition, he is in the midst of his own research project on a red potato variety named Sharpo Una. Una, harvested from mid-\June onwards, is perfect for growing in pots or potato sacks. Currently under trials at Wood Prairie Farm, it has a good resistance to late blight and a range of other diseases. Gerritsen is eager to finish up his trials and hopes to add the Sharpo Una potato seed to his catalog by 2022.

Potato Growing Resources

No matter what variety or color potato you plan to plant, there are excellent resources across the country for new and veteran farmers who, want to add a little color to farmer’s markets, co-ops and their own tables. One of those resources is Jim Gerritsen himself. Jim is the president of the Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association and has served for more than twenty years on the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association certification committee.

His enthusiasm for growing potatoes is contagious, as is his interest in sharing his discoveries. One place he does this is on his website: The site includes a concise guide on growing potatoes, advice about unit-tuber planting, instructions for green sprouting, seed treatments to increase tuber sets and much, much more. It is also a good place to find out the results of the Sharpo Una test trials, which should wrap up in 2020.

More Articles on Potatoes

Want more great potato content? Try out these related EcoFarming Daily articles:

How Farmers Can Fight Climate Change

This article also appears in the September 2019 issue of Acres U.SA.

There is a new climate paradigm in town, and it is bringing radical changes to farm fields across the nation and around the world. On the short list of weather craziness is heavy spells of unexpected precipitation, more frequent and severe floods, fluctuating temperatures, crop-killing droughts, devastating super-storms and unpredictable “zone creep.”

The Carbon Dilemma

Once referred to as global warming, climate change was first brought to the attention of the majority of the American public in 2006 with Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth, which warned that global warming trends were directly linked to rapidly increasing carbon levels in the atmosphere. Of course, Gore didn’t invent global warming any more than he did the internet, because scientists have been discussing and studying the phenomenon since the latter part of the Industrial Revolution (1760-1850).

Avoiding the deluge of climate data is near impossible these days, but some still don’t fully understand what climate change is or what it means for the world, much less for farmers. The short explanation is that weather patterns are not the same as they once were and affect various regions in different ways. These changes are thought to be caused by the build-up of excessive amounts of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, methane, ozone and nitrous oxide in the atmosphere.

Conversely, there are some in the scientific community who steadfastly claim that these alterations in the climate should be attributed to nothing more than the natural cycle of earth’s climate, which has been in motion since the dawn of time.

For those who believe in the modern theory of greenhouse gases, carbon is among the worst of the offenders. The most common explanation of how these greenhouse gases got into the atmosphere in the first place points at pollutants from as many sources as you can imagine, including smokestack industries, automobile emissions, general over-consumption, and, of course, belching cows. And while this article is not meant to address the question of why the weather is changing as much as how it is changing and what farmers can do to get ahead of the curve, we would be remiss if we didn’t briefly touch on the issue of carbon from the farmer’s perspective.

Carbon is one of the primary building blocks of life on earth – without it, life as we know it will cease to exist. The overall plan to sequester, or lock up, carbon in various ways should and does naturally lead to ecological farming. In a 1971 interview with Charles Walters reprinted in the May 2019 issue of Acres U.S.A., the illustrious Dr. William Albrecht succinctly explained the carbon issue when he said, “You’ve got to maintain the living soil and not a dead soil. And the moment you start putting nitrogen on the soil, you burn the carbon out. And you burn out more than you put in.”

Albrecht went on to explain that it is reduced carbons (carbon atoms bonded to oppositely charged elements in the soil) that hold all of the other attributes of healthy living soil, like minerals, nitrogen and microbes, together. Albrecht concludes that when the carbon is gone, the living soil is dead.

Sadly, this profound truth perfectly describes the soils that most conventional farmers grow their crops in. Depleted and dead soils need to be force-fed tons of chemical fertilizers year after year. This leads to chemical-laden food with low nutritional value and an atmosphere filled with carbon that has been burned out of the soil. With roughly 900 million acres of farmland in North America alone, many believe that it is time for America to stop conventional carbon-burning farming practices in favor of carbon-sequestering, sustainable farming practices for all forms of agriculture.

Soil erosion after heavy rains
University of Vermont Extension’s Joshua Faulkner standing in some serious erosion from heavy rains. (Photo by Vern Grubinger)

Research in the Fields

To understand the real-world impacts climate change is having on farmers, I turned to Alissa White from the University of Vermont. White obtained her B.S. from the University of California Santa Cruz, where she studied agroecology and sustainable agriculture.

Over the course of 15 years, White has worked in farming, horticulture, education and community organizing and is currently enrolled at UVM as a Doctoral student in the Department of Plant and Soil Science. White also serves as the university’s liaison to the USDA Northeast Climate Hub and as a Graduate Student Climate Adaptation Partner (GradCAP), working on climate adaptation in agriculture. In this role, she works with UVM staff and USDA Hub leadership to develop a digital library of information based on their research that can be shared with other academics, scientists, agencies and farmers.

“My work at the University of Vermont is all about community engagement,” she said. “Bringing farmers’ perspectives and voices into the research process and making sure that there is an ongoing conversation about what matters to them.”

White’s engagement also includes participation in UVM’s Agroecology and Livelihoods Collaborative (ALC), the principles and goals of which focus on understanding and seeking solutions to issues surrounding food systems.

Her contribution to the ALC is the New England Adaptation Survey for Vegetable and Fruit Growers, which is funded by USDA/SARE grants and advised by Joshua Faulkner, farming and climate change program coordinator for UVM Extension’s Center for Sustainable Agriculture. White says her survey seeks to understand how diversified vegetable and berry farms in the northeastern U.S. are adapting to the increasingly extreme weather associated with climate change and what resources they need for resilience.

“When I first started working with the Agroecology and Livelihoods Collaborative, my job was to interview stakeholders that had been involved in research on agricultural climate resilience in Vermont and identify the needs for ongoing research. One of the big lessons from that work was that different kinds of farms have very different vulnerabilities and adaptation strategies to climate change. There are some universal ideas, but farmers want information that’s relevant to their specific context,” she said.

White describes the two phases of the work that she and her team of undergraduate students have undertaken in the last three years: “The first phase was a regional survey which asked farmers to identify the changes they had made in response to extreme weather, changes they were planning to make, what they thought the most promising and innovative ideas for dealing with extreme weather were.” This part of the 2017-18 survey is available online.

“In the second phase of the research, I went back to the farming community and held focus groups,” she said. “The purpose of those conversations was to ask farmers to identify what kinds of resources they need for resilience. We just finished the focus groups and are working on the final report this summer.”

Impacts of Climate Change

When asked how the climate had changed in her region and issues that farmers were experiencing because of those changes, White said that the increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme precipitation events in the region is “the big story for the Northeast.” She also pointed out that summer droughts were becoming more common and were projected to intensify in the future.

This model is very similar to the one related to me by Dr. Kenneth Blumenfeld, senior climatologist at the Minnesota State Climate Office in St. Paul, Minnesota. Blumenfeld summed up the current and future trends for the Midwest by saying that the overall trend is wetter with more severe storms in spring, with hotter summers, punctuated by occasional drought and high humidity, which encourages mold on grain and cereal crops.

He also said that the extreme cold winters, typical of the region, are becoming less common. Blumenfeld feels that the changes we are currently seeing are simply the ups and downs of cyclical change and that the earth is simply going through another natural adaptation in the climate.

He encouragingly said, “It’s important to remember that right now is not forever. There is always variability along any trend and ,one day, even this one will change.”

White also believes that these trends will continue.

“These weather extremes are projected to intensify in the future,” she said. “Drought and excess moisture are responsible for over 70 percent of crop losses reported to the Farm Service Agency in recent years, so these two precipitation extremes of too much water and too little water are shaping how farmers make decisions.”

She also says that farmers in her area now require irrigation during the summer months, which wasn’t typical of the area before. “Excessive rain has caused a lot of problems for growers with washed-out seeds, big increases in erosion, ponding in new areas, wetter soils that restrict plant growth and tractor access, increases in fungal diseases and nutrient losses.”

White also said that many of the farmers she has surveyed have told her that the wetter springs have forced them to delay planting. This has been a huge issue this spring, with dire predictions of shortages of commodity crops this fall coming from various agencies.

“A friend of mine at the University of Maine did the math and calculated that based on historical weather data, farmers have fewer field-working days than they have historically,” said White. “I think this is really interesting because some people talk about the overall warming associated with climate change and think that we might get a longer growing season in these northern climates, but that’s not what is happening on the farms. It’s really the opposite. Farmers have been planting later because the soil is too wet to get out there early and they can’t be out in the field through the season as much because the soil is frequently saturated.”

She continued by saying, “When I spoke with farmers in Pennsylvania, some of them reported that they had received three times their annual average rainfall in the last year. They said their fields were too muddy to run a tractor through and too saturated and soupy to even plant crops successfully. Farmers reported that fields with tarps, hoop houses or row covers were the only places they were able to plant and harvest. I think it was tragic for them, and knowing that they might see more seasons like that is disheartening.”

According to White’s Adaptation Survey from 2017-18, farmers in the Northeast have seen a 71 percent increase in heavy precipitation events and an overall increase in high-rainfall events, leading to more frequent and damaging flooding. Heavy precipitation and late spring frosts are causing delays in spring plantings. This is only exacerbated by hotter and drier summers that lead to heat and water deficit stress for crops. These factors and others are also leading to increased pest and disease pressure.

This particular scenario is playing out across most of the Northeast, Midwest and Northern Plains regions with slight variations in extremes. Because of the overall increase in heavy rainfall events, erosion is a major problem across the board, including in the Southwest and Southern Plains. One of the big problems for those in the Northern Plains and lower Midwest regions is an increase in humidity. This is wreaking havoc on the harvest and storage of grain and cereal crops, which are showing a marked increase in incidences of mold.

Adaptive Management

Adaptive management is a simplified way of describing a system in which strategies for managing resources during a time of uncertainty include continually observing and analyzing problems and carefully planning and modifying the solutions based on their effects and other variables.

When I asked White about some of the adaptive management practices that farmers in her region were beginning to adopt in order to deal with these uncertain times, she said, “One of the things I’ve learned is that farmers are thinking about their farmland through a new lens. They are paying more attention to where the low points are, which fields are wetter, and looking at the way water flows across the landscape to limit erosion and direct water either away from fields or to places where they can store it for times of drought. Farmers in my region also use many different soil building strategies to create soils with really good structure.”

Healthy soils act like sponges, absorbing water when it is abundant and moving it to plants when they need it most. They are also better able to handle erosive rainfall events, hold nutrients, increase drainage, and allow the farmer to get into the field earlier in the season. Not only are farmers in her region building healthier soils, but they are taking more intensive steps to protect them from loss of topsoil, nutrient leaching and erosion.

“Farms that have clay soils or steep slopes are adopting the use of raised beds to increase drainage and reduce erosion, and many farmers are investing in hoop houses, row covers and mulches to protect crops and soils from excessive rain,” she said.

White mentions that many of her interview subjects have taken advantage of Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) incentive programs to help them invest in high-tunnel infrastructure, which don’t generally get waterlogged in heavy downpours and can be used to start seedlings and help farmers diversify their income.

The work that GradCAP student researchers like White do are supported by the USDA’s Climate Hub, which in turn supports farmers with a wealth of adaptive management resources. The site is broken down into regions and includes a plethora of articles and information for each. Topics covered include everything from erosion control to biochar production to weather and climate considerations for dairy producers.

Even though there might be some reluctance from a small segment of eco-farmers to turn to the USDA for help, the diversity of topics on this site won’t leave anyone feeling left out of the discussion. In fact, this is where researchers in sustainable ag, like Alissa White, can share their findings with farmers trying to deal with the impacts of climate change on their own.

White also said that in addition to soil building, many farmers are investing in irrigation infrastructure that includes plastic drip tape and, increasingly, plastic mulch, which is usually used for weeds and erosion benefits but is recently more appreciated for its additional benefits during drought.

“Many farmers regret the amount of plastic waste that this creates,” she said, but they are also using lots of different strategies to create new water sources around the farm, too. Some are building ponds and drilling new wells, while others are setting up water catchment systems. Many also reported placing water tanks or barrels in new places on the farm

Of the many concerns related to weather, heavy precipitation and drought ranked among the highest in White’s study, with 72 percent of respondents saying they had already made adaptive changes on their farms for heavy rainfall and flooding events; and 66 percent who had done so for drought conditions. Some of the most common actions included irrigation, drilling wells, mulching, reduced tilling, adding or increasing cover crops, improving soil health, reducing the use of herbicides, avoiding bare soil, using drought or moisture-tolerant plant varieties, staggering planting times and planting more perennial crops.

White said, “Farmers reported growing more perennial plants because they can handle the weather extremes better than annual crops. This is a strategy that the survey data correlated to be significantly associated with farms that have steep slopes, so we know that they are often used to protect soil and hold it against the forces of erosion.”

One of the main ways that farmers in her study are approaching heavy precipitation and all it entails, as well as drought and irrigation problems, is by controlling, catching, and containing excess water using time-tested methods that most farmers can accomplish on their own.

Some of these techniques include catching rainwater from buildings and high-tunnels into barrels, diverting stormwater to storage ponds for later use in irrigation, creating raised rows for crops, and generally slowing runoff to prevent erosion. This information and much more can be found in the New England Adaptation Survey online.

The key to all this, said White, is strategic whole-systems site planning.

“Create a map of your farm, identify the key opportunities and challenges, plan for extreme weather, think long term and start talking to other farmers about how weather patterns are affecting your crops,” she said. “Extension and NRCS staff are well suited to help farmers with site planning and often have engineers that can help with field and farm-scale water challenges.”

White also strongly believes that farmers themselves are among the best people to turn to for solutions to tricky problems.

“Farmer-to-farmer groups are one of the best resources that growers have for dealing with climate change, and I suggest farmers look to other farmers who grow similar crops and have similar site conditions for ideas. Farmer organization conferences are also a wealth of information on ways to deal with new problems and often feature workshops about new management strategies,” said White. “And if you think your community would like to do a survey like the one we just did in the Northeast, I’m happy to help.”

Jill Henderson is an artist, author and organic gardener. She is the editor of Show Me Oz (, a blog featuring articles on gardening, seed saving, nature ecology, wild edible and medicinal plants and culinary herbs. She has written three books: The Healing Power of Kitchen HerbsA Journey of Seasons: A Year in the Ozarks High Country and The Garden Seed Saving Guide.

Explaining Cation-Exchange Capacity

By Charles Walters & C.J. Fenzau

The cation-exchange capacity measures the ability of the soil to exchange nutrients.

The first order of business for the soil colloid is to hold nutrients —nutrients that can be traded off as the roots of a plant demand them. Thus the first index from the laboratory — the energy of the clay and the humus.

Almost all laboratories report cation exchange capacity, and they do this in terms of milliequivalents, or ME. If it helps, you can think of an electrician mea­suring in terms of volts and amperes, or a physicist measuring magnetic energy in terms of ergs and joules. The soil laboratory has its own lexicon. It expresses col­loidal energy in terms of milliequivalents of a total exchange capacity, since soil colloids — composed of clay and organic matter — are negatively charged parti­cles. Negative attracts positive. Cation nutrients are attracted and held on the soil colloids. Since anions are not attracted by the negative soil colloids, they remain free to move in the soil solution or water.

ME represents the amount of colloidal energy need­ed to absorb and hold to the soil’s colloid in the top seven inches of one acre of soil 400 pounds of calcium, or 240 pounds of magnesium, or 780 pounds of potas­sium, or simply 20 pounds of exchangeable hydrogen.

Source: Eco-Farm: An Acres U.S.A. Primer (1979)

The Anion-Cation Connection in Soil

By Neal Kinsey

An-i-on / ´an-,i-en / n [Gk, neut. of anion, prp. of anienai to go up, fr. ana + tienai to go] 1) the ion in an electrolyzed solution that migrates to the anode; 2) a negatively charged ion 3 an acid forming element 4 opposite of a cation.

Cat-i-on / ´kat-,i-en / n [Gk kation, neut. of kation, prp. of katienai to go down, fr. kata- cata- + tienai to go] 1) positively charged base elements, either alkali metals or alkaline earths; 2) migrate to the cathode in an electrolyzing solution 3 the opposite of an anion.

New words now command entry into the farmer’s vocabulary — cation, anion, exchange capacity, base saturation — also some new nuances attend the use of a soil audit that must be mastered. But all have to do with the clay of the soil and the electricity of nutrition, and how nutrients, or the lack thereof, govern everything from crop production to weed control.

In buying a farm, some people seem to prefer space and loca­tion to prime land. Land in the Missouri Ozarks — often seem­ingly quite useless for crop production — sells for more than prime land in the Little Dixie area of northern Missouri. There are some yellow, clay soils in the Ozarks of Missouri. I went there to sample a farm on one special occasion. This fellow wanted to develop his farm, but the soils were extremely poor. They grew scrub oak, not much more. As we were pulling the samples, I discerned a nice yellow clay soil, thinking this was great because it could be built up easily. When the analysis came back, it was immediately evident that the soil had no more ability to hold fertilizer than a sand dune in Florida. It was a yellow clay, but if it had ever been broken down into a fine colloidal soil, that por­tion had been lost. The finer particles of humus and clay which hold the plant nutrients in a soil were gone, leaving only a coarse yellow clay with very limited nutrient-holding capacity.

A soil colloid is a particle of clay that has been broken down to the point that it can’t be broken down further. Such a clay particle and humus carry a negative charge, much like the negative post on a storage battery. Fertilizers must have a positive charge to be held to the soil colloid. Calcium and magnesium from lime compounds have this positive charge. So does sodium. Hydrogen, as a gas, also has a positive charge. Negative sites on a clay particle will attract and hold positives, according to our scientific conceptualizations. The more clay colloids in the soil, the more negatives there are to attract positively charged ele­ments, much like a magnet. Positively charged elements are called cations. Negatively charged elements such as nitrogen, phosphorous and sulfur are called anions. Negative ions do not hold to the clay colloid. The bottom line is that clay has a nega­tive charge and the element being held on that clay has a positive charge. Most of the chemical reactivity of soils is governed by clay colloids. These colloids are extremely small, and can’t be seen with the naked eye.

It should be pointed out that some laboratories do not actu­ally measure the amount of clay in a soil. Some operators put it between their thumb and two fingers and rub it around as if to say, “Well, that feels like so much clay,” and so they put that num­ber down. If you start getting good, round numbers on a soil test, you can just about say, “Well, they are just estimating the exchange capacity.” That is a standard practice in Europe. It is a standard practice for a lot of soil testing classes. Obviously, if you cannot see the colloid with the naked eye, how are you going to determine how much of it there is unless you involve sophis­ticated instrumentation? Colloids are plate-like in structure. These plates lie upon one another, very flat, forming the clay soil.

Colloids come from clay and organic matter. In other words, there is a humus colloid and a clay colloid. Both have negative charges. They are very small, much like dust or talcum powder — only smaller and finer in makeup. These smallest pieces of clay — along with humus — attract and hold nutrients, but they are also easy to lose. If you could collect the dust that wind moves across a field and analyze it, you would find that it has the highest fertility of any part of the field. The most fertile part of the soil always leaves first, via either water or wind erosion. The longer erosion continues, the worse the soil gets.

When we pull soil samples, a lot of farmers think we overdo it. Take a flat field. Basically, if you can find out which way it drains, sample the low end and the high end. The biggest area we recommend being put in a sample the first time is around 20 acres. The low end will almost always have the highest nutrient content because the lion’s share of nutrients is held on the clay particles, which are that light colloidal dust. On upland soils, whatever way the water drains, the fertility goes that way, too. Soils can be built up. They can also be torn down. In the area where I live, soils that are considered the worst soils — the ones that nobody really wants, the ones that are sold for poor horse pasture — were considered the most fertile soils in southeast Missouri when my grandmother was a child. Growers farmed it and farmed it and let it erode away. They would raise wheat year after year and burn the stubble, then plant something else for a second crop. Nobody really wants to try to raise crops on it nowadays. Much of this land is now blown sand.

The first thing to do for your land is to correctly measure the amount of clay and humus the soil has in it. Nothing less than a detailed analysis will answer the questions. The procedure to rely on is atomic absorption. Technicians use a flame and actually measure the atoms, and how much the atoms will absorb in terms of color.

This test shows a different amount of light for each nutrient. That measurement has a name — cation exchange capacity, or CEC. As mentioned earlier, cations are nutrients with a positive charge. Exchange capacity is merely a measure of capacity of the soil to exchange nutrients. Whether the CEC is large or small, it affects the soil’s capacity to hold nutrients such as calcium, magnesium and ammonia nitrogen, and it also affects the quantity of a nutrient needed to change its relative level in the soil. A lighter soil will hold less of everything. Consequently, it doesn’t take as much fertilizer to get the right nutrient balance for total saturation. But that nutrient load can be lost or quickly taken up by cropping it. If you have an exchange capacity of, say, 5, that is like a sandy soil for certain. It is not going to hold very much fertilizer. Another soil may have an exchange capacity of 10. It will hold twice as many pounds of nutri­ents as the soil with a CEC of 5.

The term cation exchange capacity is not used on our soil tests. The nomenclature total exchange capacity fits much better. “Cation exchange capacity” means that the laboratory is mea­suring a certain part of the cation content. It may be measuring all, and it may not. We use the word total on the form to assure the client that we are measuring all the cations that could have a major effect on the soil analysis.

Neal Kinsey, Using Soil Analysis to Grow Crops, from the 2005 Eco-Ag Conference & Trade Show. (50 minutes, 12 seconds). Listen in as agronomist Neal Kinsey, the author of Hands-On Agronomy, teaches about how to test your soils, and use that data, to increase crop yield and decrease weed pressures.

A number of soil tests do not report the sodium content in the soil. If you get a soil test that doesn’t measure sodium content, it does not measure the total exchange capacity, and therefore the exchange capacity will be expressed differently. The exchange capacity is not something you measure and then fill with nutri­ents. It is developed because the soil can hold a certain amount of calcium, magnesium, potassium and sodium. Each of these nutri­ents must be measured, or a valid answer will not be provided.

There is also a category called other bases shown on our soil test. It covers cations not usually singled out in terms of how many pounds are available in small amounts. Thus, use of the term TEC, or total exchange capacity, instead of CEC. The TEC shows the measured amount of “holding power” of the clay and humus in a soil.

Let me illustrate the point. Potassium has a single + beside it, meaning a single positive charge. So do sodium and hydrogen. But calcium and magnesium exhibit a double plus charge, thus a ++. The latter are strong-arm elements. They have the capac­ity to push single-plus elements aside.

Hydrogen is at the bottom of the pecking order. Then come sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium. The positively charged nutrients obtained from the use of lime and manures and fertilizers are called cations. Their positive charge is attracted to the colloid because it has a negative charge.

As mentioned, the clay colloid has a plate-like structure. This plate may be hexagonal, square, chunky or blocky, but it basi­cally maintains a plate shape of some type. All of the cations are attracted accordingly. For every plus charge there is a negative, or minus charge.

That is great as long as we have enough open negatives for the single plus-charged elements like potassium, but when we start saturating a soil to achieve pH 7, not enough room will remain for weaker cations, and therefore additional nutrients with a single positive charge will not be easily positioned on the soil colloid. This is likely part of the reason why potassium will not be built up in clay soils when the pH is above 6.5.

Adsorbs is a term that needs to be added to every farming vocabulary, with special emphasis on the “ad.” It means held on the surface, in this case on the surface of the clay particle. When a plant root releases its acids, an exchange between hydrogen and a cation nutrient takes place.

Sand has a low exchange capacity because it contains smaller amounts of clay and humus and holds less nutrients than other soil. Gumbo, on the other hand, has a high exchange capacity. A Florida sand used to grow leather leaf fern probably has a 3 or 4 exchange capacity. Some heavy clay soils have a 40 to 50 exchange capacity, or ten times more ability to hold nutrients. If you started out with nothing in either soil, it would take ten times more fertilizer to balance the high exchange capacity soil com­pared to the low capacity soil. That is why we have to measure the soil and mark the nutrient equilibrium, or lack thereof. High TEC soils therefore hold much larger amounts of fertilizer and moisture because they contain higher amounts of clay and humus.

In a Mississippi survey, 82% of all farmers questioned said that they thought soil tests should be taken on farms to deter­mine how much fertilizer should be used. Only 28% of the sur­veyed farmers actually used soil tests. Many farmers it seems, do not really believe in using soil tests.

Until Hands-On Agronomy was first published, virtually all of my clients came to me by referral. Since most farmers and growers do not really trust soil tests, I cannot properly convince anyone of the value of soil testing in an hour or even in a day. If you start reading all the literature on soil tests, it might seem appropriate to ask, “Why should they?” At a meeting in Illinois, the head of the state Extension Service and I served on the same panel. One of the farmers asked if it was possible to use a soil test to determine the fertility of a soil. The head of Illinois Extension said, “No. You only use a soil test to determine roughly how much fertilizer to put on to feed the plant.” When my turn came I explained, “I tell every farmer that from the analysis I do, I can sit down with him — not knowing what his soils have produced previously — and rate the samples from the best to the worst.”

Farmers give various reasons why they do not trust soil tests. One fellow, in his early sixties, said he hadn’t used soil tests for years, but in a sense he had. He said way back when the AAA program was in effect, and the government paid for the limestone, he had some very good pasture and some very poor pasture. He went out and took soil samples and he said, “You know what? I noticed the poor pastures needed two tons of lime and the good pastures also needed two tons of lime. One day I was digging post holes and got down to some old yellow clay, and I thought, “I wonder if I had soil like that how much it would need.” The next time I sent in some soil samples, I reported that the yellow clay was from one of my pastures. It came back needing two tons of lime just like the rest of them. I decided, why should I walk all over these fields and take these soil samples to get the government to pay for the lime. From then on, I just kept a bucket of soil in my barn. When I thought I needed to put on lime, I put some of that soil in the sample bag and sent it in. They would tell me I needed two tons of lime.”

I recall another farmer. His fertilizer dealer called me. He said, “We have a major problem in this area.” This guy had over-limed his fields. He took a soil sample one year and sent it in to the university. They told him to put on two tons of limestone. He took a sample the next year and sent it in to the university. He didn’t tell them that he had put lime on the year before. He thought that they ought to be able to pick that up, which is not the case. The recommendation came back, two tons of lime. He got so much lime on his fields he tied up the other nutrients, and his yields dropped. The fertilizer dealer said he took a soil sam­ple from another client’s land and split it up into three parts. He did this because he said, “Always, if a sample comes from the northwest part of the county it needs three tons of lime. If it comes from the northeast part of the county, it needs two tons of lime. If it comes from the south part of the county, it only needs one and a half tons of lime.” He just wondered if it really made any difference. So he split up this one soil sample and reported that it came from each of the three areas. Each of the three came back with the lime recommendations as “needed” in the three different areas.

Right in the area where we lived, there was a fellow who graduated from Purdue University. He wanted to have a soil test made. It didn’t have anything to do with Purdue at the begin­ning, but in the end it did. Anyway, he wanted to have his soils tested, but he also went out and pulled samples and sent them to the University of Missouri. The soil test results came back from the University of Missouri. It revealed that the pH was some­thing like 5.0 to 5.6. The results came back from our lab. The pH was around 6.5. He said, “Everywhere I look, I am a point to a point and a half lower on the university tests compared to the tests that you people do. How do I know which one is right?” So he sent samples to Purdue. When those levels agreed closely with our lab tests, he was satisfied.

University of Missouri uses salt pH tests. The tests we use are water pH tests. There is an important difference. The salt pH test will generally read a point to a point and a half lower, maybe sometimes a half point lower. Herbicide instructions call for a pH of such and such, but that is not for a salt pH test. It is for a water pH readout. So if your pH shows a 5.5 on a salt pH test and I show 6.5 on a water pH test, it could affect the herbicide program. If you are going to use herbicides, it is important to know which is which. In farm periodicals, they almost always fail to tell you which one is being used.

There are several different ways to run trace element tests. There are different extracting solutions. Even if the same extract­ing solution is used, and the same shaker from the same com­pany to shake the solution is employed, if one laboratory shakes it fifteen minutes and another shakes it thirty minutes, the results are going to be different. A higher concentration will result for the one that was succussed longer.

The laboratory that I use feels that you get a more accurate reading if you shake it longer. They don’t cut down the time of shaking in order to get more samples processed. The question is, how do we get the most accurate readings, the ones most helpful to the farmer and the fertilizer dealer? The laboratory I use buys the more expensive extracts because it wants to do the best job. There’s a lab close to where I live that runs three times more samples in an eight hour shift than the lab I use could run with three shifts a day. They supposedly measure all the same things. They just cut down on all the time involved.

I have clients who have been with me since the mid-1970s. I have seen a soil look great one year, and the next the bottom falls out. There seems to be no explanation. It doesn’t fall out on every field. It’s not the rain. It just happens. I don’t know what the scientific explanation is. If I don’t catch it, and there are crops that really benefit from calcium, the yield will suffer. Calcium is the one thing that I notice most of all, but there will be other nutrients—phosphates, for instance.

I met one farmer, now retired — still one of the most interesting clients I have ever had — who decided to use our testing services. It was late in the spring when the samples went in. It got dry early that spring. He said, “Look, we need to start to work, and this field is the driest, and we can go ahead and get it ready for cotton. Would you use this test from this other lab and tell me what to do? I know you can’t tell me that you know exactly what to do, but at least that is better than what I would otherwise do.” That particular lab simply said he needed to apply two tons of limestone. Although Dr. Albrecht always cautioned, “Don’t do it,” we sat down and used the formulas. We went through and calculated out how much limestone was needed. According to the formulas from the numbers on his lab test, he needed high magnesium limestone. Magnesium deficiency is basically not a problem in most soils, but some of the lighter soils do need it if they have never had it. His had never had it. When our sample came back, it turned out that he didn’t need high magnesium lime. He should have used high calcium lime. I did him a disservice. I can’t use somebody else’s numbers and know the right thing to do. I have to use the soil test I understand, and not one from another lab.

Gary Zimmer, Gaining a Working Knowledge of Calcium, from the 2002 Eco-Ag Conference & Trade Show. Listen to Gary Zimmer talk about how calcium drives the flow of other minerals and nutrients through the soil and plant, and how to measure and balance calcium levels in your fields.

Now, why should anybody believe that my service is better than somebody else’s? For one thing, I try to find out what is the next limiting factor, and then try to review the principles of physics and chemistry in order to answer the questions. I know that all of these things have an effect—sand, insects, disease, variety, drainage, placement, weeds—but increasing the soil’s fertility does more to take care of problems with yield than any­thing else. It also helps to moderate some of these other factors.

The answers contained in what I call The Albrecht System are based on over 40 years of practical experience in the field. Not my 40 years, but 40 years that this system has been applied before I ever started.

André Voisin, a member of de l’Academie d’Agriculture de France, distilled his years of research into the Law of the Maxi­mum. This law states that if you put on too much of a given nutrient, it is going to tie up something else that is needed. He found that if you put on too much potassium, it ties up boron. If you put on too much phosphorus, it ties up zinc and possibly copper. If you put on too much nitrogen, it ties up copper and sometimes some of the other elements, even zinc. If you put on too much calcium, it could tie up all the other nutrients, depend­ing on their level of availability.

Thus our lessons fall into place. When the pH is 7 or higher, the exchange of hydrogen will be zero. As you come down the scale from a pH 7, then hydrogen begins to increase in direct proportion (as long as a water pH test is used to measure the phenomenon). If pH goes from 7 to 6.9, exchangeable hydrogen will go up by 1.5%. If pH goes from 7 to 6.8, exchangeable hydrogen will go up by 3%. For every 0.1 that pH is dropped, exchangeable hydrogen from pH 7.0 downward will go up by 1.5% until you reach pH 6.0.

When micronutrients are present in the soil in adequate amounts, and the soil has the right base saturation percentages, then they are most available, but not necessarily in adequate amounts. At the right percentages of calcium and magnesium—if the micronutrients are in that soil—these are going to be pres­ent in their most available form. Still, there are a tremendous number of soils that can be balanced in terms of all major nutri­ents, and be missing micronutrients in bare minimum amounts. They are in the deficient category even after we have done every­thing we can to balance the soil. It is not correct to say balance the soil, and micronutrients will take care of themselves. Some soils simply do not contain adequate minimum amounts of micronutrients. But if they are already there and tied up by excesses, they will be released as the excesses are brought under control.

Source: Hands-On Agronomy

When and How to Harvest Alfalfa

By Dr. Harold Willis

Now that you have a good stand of forage established and understand some principles of fertilization to obtain high quality, how can the stand be best managed to give optimal yields of the highest quality feed?

When to Cut Alfalfa

There have been various ways used over the years to tell when to cut alfalfa, such as cutting at the bud stage, or at 10% bloom or half bloom, or full bloom, or when new shoots appear from the crown, or even by the calendar. The latter is obviously unreliable because of variable weath­er conditions, but when should alfalfa be cut? There are scientific studies which show that the plant’s content of minerals and digestible nutrients is highest during the succulent growth stage and declines during flowering and maturity, while fiber content increases. Feed value is said to decrease. (S. Beck, Journal of Insect Physiology, vol. 1, p. 158-177, 1957.)

Stacked alfafa hay.

These studies were probably done with forages that were fertilized with too much potassium and perhaps other imbalances, because on-the-farm experience and certified production records show that top quality feed can be produced when alfalfa is not cut until early bloom (25-50% bloom). Cows can eat two-thirds to one-half as much of this kind of hay and still increase in production. Early-cut hay is often too high in nitrates and low in high quality protein.

Traditional studies have shown that the long-range greatest yields and best recovery growth are produced when alfalfa is cut at full bloom, although in the Southwest, greater yields may be obtained if cutting is done at 10% bloom (first bloom), but in the hottest weather stand density and yield will be reduced. (A . I. Virtanen, P. K. Hietala, & Ö.U. Wahlroos, Suomen Kemistilehti, vol. 29, no. 1B, p. 143, 1956.)

The best method to judge when to cut is to use a refractometer to measure the sugar content of plant juice every day or two as blooms begin to appear. When the sugar readings reach a peak or begin to level off, that is the time to cut. That is generally at 25 – 50% bloom. The appearance of new shoots from the crown is another sign to watch for, but is not as reliable as bloom stage or the use of a refractometer.

Signs of Quality Alfalfa

When you begin to get your soil fertility in the proper balance, (high calcium and phosphorus, low po­tassium), you will be amazed that your alfalfa doesn’t bloom at a height of 8 inches or a foot like it used to, but it will keep on growing—and growing—and growing. It may reach heights of over 40 or 50 inches before it is ready to cut. And it will be so thick that you may have to get a new heavy-duty mower! You won’t get as many cuttings as your neighbor does, but you will get far superior quality feed and probably as good or better total yields.

If you cut open several stems with a knife, you may begin to see the growth of “solid stem alfalfa,” in which the entire stem is filled with succulent cells, not air.

Good quality hay will dry rapidly after cutting (because its cells contain more minerals and nutrients and less water) and can even be baled so wet that ordinary hay would heat up and burn the barn down.

Will Winter: Pasture, the Profit Maker, from the 2006 Eco-Ag Conference and Trade Show (53 minutes, 51 seconds). Listen in as professional livestock consultant Will Winter discusses ways to manage pasture profitably.

Cutting Alfalfa

Cutting should be done with a sickle-bar or cutter-bar mower, which gives a good, clean cut to the stems. High quality hay will dry quickly and does not need to be crushed or crimped; in fact, this torture treatment can cause loss of nutrients from the crushed tissues. Cutting should always be made above any new shoots that are sprouting from the crown, since the growing point of legumes is at the stem tips, and cutting them will severely retard the next growth. This is not true of grasses, whose growing point is at or below ground level.

Alfalfa Drying Aids

If you want to speed drying, there are sprays that can be used. Some are designed for poor quality forage and are basically a salt solution, but there are also ways of speeding drying and increasing the feed value of hay by spraying a carbohydrate solution before cutting.

Stimulate Alfalfa Regrowth

If the soil needs any nitrogen, a nitrate-containing fertilizer can be topdressed at a low rate after a cutting to stimulate regrowth. Fertilizers containing ammonium nitrogen should not be used because ammonium will stimulate early flowering rather than vegetative growth (leaves and stems).

Also, if you did not apply the recommended lime and soft rock phosphate before seeding or in the fall or spring, they can be topdressed after a cutting.

early-cut alfalfa
Early-cut alfalfa hay.

Early Alfalfa Cuttings

The first cutting of a new stand should be delayed until the plants are strong and vigorous and have a good root system, generally 70 to 90 days after germination for a spring seeding. Also, in the North the first cutting should not be made at an early stage of growth or the plants will be injured from low food reserves. (D. Smith, p. 488 in Alfalfa Science and Technology, 1972.)

Late Alfalfa Cuttings

In more northern regions especially, alfalfa should not be cut or grazed during the period of 4 to 6 weeks before the first killing frost, or approximately between the first week of September and mid-October. (D. Smith, Forage Management in the North, 1962, p. 95.) This is so the plants can store up enough food reserves to survive the winter. A cutting can be made after a killing frost (not a light frost).

Grow Your Own Alfalfa Seed

Once you have good soil and a good, healthy stand, there is no reason for not setting a small plot aside for growing your own seed, adapted to your own soil and climate. To produce high quality seed, the soil needs a higher level of ammonium nitrogen (after the plants have attained some growth) and an adequate level of manga­nese. Bees are also necessary for legume seed production (not grasses). Either honeybees or wild bees (bumblebees, leaf-cutter bees, and alkali bees) can do the job of pollinating the flowers. Hives of honeybees can be rented from honey producers if there are not enough in your area.

Source: How to Grow Great Alfalfa

Picky-Eater Insects Pass On High Brix Plants

By Thomas M. Dykstra
This article also appears in the September 2019 issue of Acres U.S.A.

For many decades now, the magic number of 12, in regards to leaf Brix, has been tossed around as the number to achieve if desiring to prevent insect pests from attacking your crop plants. Although not entirely accurate, this is a good point from which to begin a discussion.

This is not an article discussing Brix refractometers, how to use them, how to read them, or even how to argue the merits of digital versus analog refractometers. I will assume that the reader is familiar enough with their use. But for those who are hoping to garner some additional talking points above and beyond the magical value of 12 Brix, then I believe this short article can help.

Although refractometers are commonly used in the wine and citrus industries for testing grape and orange fruit sap, the notion of taking Brix readings from leaves finds more restricted uses among agricultural consultants and farmers in the know. Sometimes this is referred to as leaf Brix in order to differentiate it from the more common usage of testing sap from fruit. The Brix charts circulating around the internet include both leaf and fruit Brix, so I need to be clear that my discussion will focus on leaf Brix measurements.

Insects and Brix

First of all, one must understand at some level that insects do not attack healthy plants. Many people know this instinctively, but few have been told this explicitly. It is for this reason that knowing your leaf Brix levels is crucial to knowing your crop, whatever you may be growing. High Brix (14 and above) means not just that insects will not attack a given plant but that they will not even be attracted to the plant. In short, pest insects will pass over a high Brix field.

The converse is also true. Insects are very attracted to low Brix plants (6 and below). Unfortunately, if one uses insecticides to keep insects off plants, then it takes longer to realize this truth due to the insect indicators being repelled or killed. If you leave the insects alone, they will indicate to you the relative health of your plant. Now a logical, and seemingly heretical, conclusion to be drawn from this is that insecticides are totally unnecessary for protecting high-Brix plants. Financially speaking, excessive inputs reduce profit. Eliminating insecticides will increase a farmer’s profit — this should be your goal.

But if the only important Brix value to know is “12,” then what exactly is the purpose of having the other numbers? What types of information can be gleaned from Brix values of fourteen, or nine, or even five? For those who want to know something about their crop — immediately, right there on the spot — without having to send a sample away to some far-off laboratory, then you should be Brix-testing on your farm.

Leaf Brix measurements

The vast majority of leaf Brix measurements will fall between 0 and 20. Therefore, I will restrict my analysis to those numbers (see chart – coming soon). The leaf Brix chart I have constructed is broken down into both general categories as well as more specific levels. The general categories include (1) those plants between 0 and 2 Brix, (2) those between 3 and 7 Brix, (3) those between 8 and 11 Brix, and finally (4) those between 12 and 20 Brix.

Low Brix plants: 0-2

Generally speaking, if a full-grown plant falls between 0 and 2 Brix, it already has one root in the grave. Plants with Brix readings that low are removed from planet Earth with alarming efficiency. Insects will move in quickly to consume these plants and disease will run rampant in these plants since they essentially have no immune system. These plants are unable to take care of themselves in a natural environment. If grown in an artificial environment, then they must be “spoon-fed” in order to survive.

For those who have ever played golf (not miniature golf), you have most likely walked on plants in this Brix range. Turfgrass cut that short, especially on the greens, has very little ability to effectively photosynthesize. Also, the prodigious amounts of pesticides sprayed on this same turfgrass through the sprinkler systems will indirectly prevent substantial root growth, making it difficult for the plant to store nutrients. If not continuously fed and watered, turf below 2 Brix will turn brown in a matter of days. Diverse insect groups will be attracted to it and will assist in the very natural demise. Spraying insecticides helps to hide the insect presence, and daily watering with synthetic fertilizers will be just enough to keep the turfgrass alive for one more day. These plants are being spoon-fed; their existence depends on it.

Mid-level Brix plants: 3-7

The next general category is substantially different. Those plants with leaf Brix readings between 3 and 7 have a fighting chance at survival. Many of our crop plants are between 3 and 7 Brix and are in considerably better condition than plants below 2 Brix. These plants require neither a daily dose of pesticide nor a daily dose of fertilizer. A farmer may only spray weekly or even biweekly, depending on the leaf Brix values, in order keep the crop alive. Most of the agricultural plants I have tested — perhaps 75 percent of them — fall within this range.

To be sure, these plants are struggling. They have enough inherent ability to get by and can even provide for their own basic needs, such as the production and storage of sugars. But they will not thrive. Size, health and yield will all be compromised.

Once most plants reach 6 Brix, there is a significant jump in the production of secondary plant metabolites. Secondary plant metabolistes are the phytochemicals that help contribute to a plant’s odor, color and taste. In addition, some secondary plant metabolites provide natural plant defenses against pests. These 6-Brix plants are finally able to devote their energy reserves into producing new proteins and diverse molecules. At 5 Brix and below, plants produce tasteless leaves, exhibit dull coloration and boast fruit with minimal odor signatures. For example, if you hold a tomato in the supermarket or out in the field and cannot detect any odor emanating from it, then that is a preliminary sign that it may be below 6 Brix.

Higher Brix plants: 8+

Once a plant reaches a leaf Brix of 8, the secondary plant metabolites have really started to kick in and natural resistance begins. In my experience, Homopterous insects, such as aphids and scales, lose interest in the plant that obtains a value of 8 Brix. In fact, it is relatively common for me to spot these insects on plants below 6 Brix. When a plant reaches 8 Brix, the aphids lose interest, but other insects can and will move in to feed on the plant.

In certain circumstances, the presence of aphids can be an indication that only a part of the plant is below 8 Brix. Diseases characterized by physical “plugs” that prevent the flow of nutrients through phloem and xylem tissue are often manifested in trees by dead or dying branches. Insects will focus their feeding on these weakened branches and ignore nearby branches with seemingly healthy leaves and/or stems. It is for this reason that different parts of the same citrus tree can display different leaf Brix readings when Citrus Greening takes hold, and even more so during drought conditions, when plugging of the vascular tissue is prevalent.

When plants ascend the leaf Brix ladder and reach between 8 and 11 Brix, insects metaphorically “fall off” the plant because the plant has a “sword and shield” that protects itself from insect predators. As a general rule, and although exceptions occur, sucking insects will not tolerate 8 Brix or higher. Chewing insects that eat the roots or leaves directly, such as caterpillars, grasshoppers, and beetles, will start to lose interest in eating a plant once the plant reaches 10 or 11 Brix.

I have witnessed grasshoppers taking bites out of 12-Brix leaves and then flying off the plant. I have also witnessed immature caterpillars of the Fall Webworm stop eating the leaves of a pecan tree once the Brix is increased to 12. As a result, these caterpillars will form a dense clump and then slowly die of starvation within inches of healthy growing pecan leaves. Virtually no insects will attack a plant at 12 Brix; this is why this figure is tossed around so commonly among growers.

Now variability is a hallmark of Nature. Fluctuations between Brix readings can and do occur throughout a growing season. Even if maintaining Brix levels in a given crop, it is not unusual for the leaves to fluctuate 1-2 Brix from one week to the next. It is for this reason that the safest place for your plants to be is at 14 Brix or above. In this way, one may be relatively secure that natural fluctuations do not take your crop below 12 Brix where it may become differentially attractive to various insect pests.

The role of sugar in Brix levels

Although Brix is a measurement of dissolved solids, for our purposes it is the measure of sugar in plant sap. Sugar is the main product of photosynthesis. The more a plant photosynthesizes, the more sugar is contained in its tissues, and the higher the leaf Brix readings. This sugar is produced in the leaves, and is not only stored in the leaves but eventually descends to the roots as well.

Depending on environmental conditions and the health of the plant, approximately 20-70 percent of the sugar (photosynthate) is expelled into the soil from the roots. This expelled sugar feeds the microbes that will, in turn, break down minerals and supply them to the plant. Therefore, high Brix plants will support a thriving subculture of microbes in the soil.

But sugar has another role. It is hygroscopic, meaning that it absorbs water. It may accomplish this by absorbing liquid water, such as from a spill, or by absorbing water vapor from the atmosphere, which can occur under conditions of high humidity. Either way, the more sugar you have in the soil, the higher the soil’s water retention. Hence, drought resistance and high-Brix plants go hand-in-hand.

Plants with a Brix of 4 might only contribute 25 percent of their photosynthate to the soil, but plants of 10 Brix may provide the soil with 40-50 percent of its photosynthate sugar and still have enough sugar to grow reasonably well.

By the time a plant reaches 14 Brix, there is so much sugar being pumped into the ground from the crop that microbial counts can reach 20 million or higher in a teaspoon of soil. On top of the soil, these plants are not only drought resistant, but freeze tolerant as well, since highly concentrated sugar water will not freeze above 26 F. Freeze warnings from the National Weather Service then become largely inconsequential to a grower.

Brix levels and our health

Insects have a simple digestive system and cannot digest the same foods that we do. Low-Brix plants are designed for the insect gut. They do not have the digestive enzymes to break down healthy proteins from high-Brix plants, only the broken or incomplete proteins from low-Brix plants.

High-Brix plants are meant for vertebrate animals, most notably humans. When we eat healthy plants, we augment our long-term health. When we eat low Brix plants, our long-term health is compromised, although the effects may take years to manifest.

Therefore, we should be eating high-Brix food for our long-term health. If eating meat, then our animals should be feeding on high-Brix plants. If continuously fed low-Brix plants, our cows, our sheep, our goats and the like will display compromised health and will suffer from various diseases and spontaneous miscarriages. It is only common sense to say that eating this unhealthy meat will then, in turn, compromise our own health.

Brix fluctuations and other considerations

It is important to repeat that this article refers to leaf Brix only. There are other parts of the plant, such as the fruit and the roots, that often display different Brix readings when compared to the leaves. This is to be expected. But roots are hard to get to and measure. Additionally, testing roots is often destructive to an individual crop plant. Testing leaves is not only easier, but is more consistent.

There are uncomfortably large fluctuations in both root Brix and fruit Brix readings throughout the season that make both of them difficult to decipher without the help of a specialist. Unless someone is very familiar with the differential readings from differing plant tissues, a farmer should stick with leaf Brix first and foremost as the chief indicator. Comparatively speaking, leaf Brix measurements remain much more consistent; hence, they are the gold standard when determining the relative health of your crop.

Insects recognize Brix levels better than we do. Insects are indicators. They indicate to us what plants are unhealthy to eat. If a codling moth caterpillar is in my apple, I am going to toss the apple. It is not worth eating. The insect has told me this by virtue of its presence. On the other hand, if insects are not present and no insecticides are being sprayed on the crop, thus allowing insects to choose, then this would be an indication to me that the crop may be healthy for my family to eat.

For those who are actively testing their crops with a Brix refractometer or have an agricultural consultant who is accomplishing the same, much information can be gleaned within just a few minutes about the current state of your crop. To be sure, there is more information that can be provided with further off-farm testing, at considerably greater expense. But in terms of an on-farm testing procedure, using a Brix refractometer is an inexpensive first step, and a wonderful one at that.

Tom Dykstra is an agricultural consultant based in Gainesville, Florida.

A Guide to Using the Co-op Model to Start an Eco-farm

By Stephanie Hiller
This article first appeared in the August 2019 issue of Acres U.S.A.

If the high cost of farmland is all that’s standing in the way of realizing your dream of becoming a farmer, you might want to get together with a few other young farmers and form a cooperative.

After a hundred years of believing that Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species had proved that competition determined the “survival of the fittest,” visionaries striving to develop a more collaborative (and hopefully harmonious) society discovered that in another book, The Descent of Man, Darwin had actually argued that cooperation — and compassion — have saved the species all along.

Writing in Yes! magazine, Eric Michael Johnson writes, “the cooperative — the financial model in which a group of members owns a business and makes the rules about how to run it — is a modern institution that has much in common with the collective tribal heritage of our species.”

The cooperative economy may be an idea whose time has finally come.

History of the farming co-op

Begun in England in the mid-19th century by a guild of weavers who saw the quality of their craft declining in the emerging industrial economy, and employed by American farmers forming cooperative credit unions and supply cooperatives to cut costs, the popularity of co-ops waxed and waned for 150 years.

Then in the 1960s, cooperative ideals were embraced by young visionaries seeking pathways to a way of life more grounded in nature. Grocery co-ops sprung up everywhere, but in the long run they lacked staying power and were beat out of the market by giant supermarket chains.

Farming co-ops of the modern world

But when the going gets tough, cooperatives begin to look more appealing; and in today’s world, where the market seems to serve only the already rich, the idea of giving up some of that dyed-in-the-wool independence that allegedly has kept farmers from forming partnerships to take up the challenges of working together on shared land seems less daunting.

What’s the advantage of farming cooperatively? In addition to sharing the cost of land, co-op farmers share the work, keep each other company on winter days and share childcare. They can divide the chores according to each other’s respective skills, and they can cover for each other when someone is sick.

Just in the last few years a bounty of resources has appeared, offering information, advice and even grants for new farms – including the USDA, which offers grants through its Rural Cooperative Development Grant Program “to start, expand or improve rural cooperatives and other mutually owned businesses.”

Last March, President Trump signed the Consolidated Appropriations Act into law. Thanks to the efforts of Kirsten Gillibrand, senator from New York, the bill includes language encouraging the formation of cooperative businesses:

“It is noted that worker owned businesses are uniquely structured to provide wide-ranging economic benefits. In order to encourage new and assist existing employee owned businesses, SBA is directed to provide education and outreach to businesses, employees and financial institutions about employee-ownership. This effort should include information about the different business structures available, such as cooperatives, Employee Stock Ownership Plans, and technical assistance to assist employee efforts to become businesses.”

The legislation was supported by the Federation of Worker Co-ops.

Another organization dedicated to the growth of worker cooperatives is Cooperation Works, a “cooperative development network” offering trainings and advocacy across the United States (

Additionally, Cooperative Development Institute offers up to 5 hours of pro bono consulting for developing group businesses, plus further consultation services and written resources, such as Co-op 101: A Guide to Starting a Cooperative (

Farmland Access provides all necessary legal materials for forming a co-op on its website,

Perhaps most helpful to farmers is the Greenhorns, a grassroots organization “with the mission to recruit, promote and support the rising generation of new farmers in America,” started by Severine von Tscharner Fleming in the Champlain Valley in New York.

The Greenhorns has published a number of helpful books, including the online report, Cooperative Farming: Frameworks for Farming Together. The report, by Faith Gilbert, can be downloaded from the Greenhorns website and offers all the basic information you need to start developing your cooperative farm, including how to share resources, how to structure your operation, legal basics and forms to use for planning.

The guide advises starting with the question, “How do I want to work with other people?” There are many different ways to collaborate, from actually purchasing and working one farm together to having separate farm businesses that share access to resources and services, like marketing, equipment and labor. Visit for more information.

Where to find farming co-ops

But where are all the cooperative farms? During the last five to ten years, they are beginning to pop up across the country.

Winter Green Farms, near Eugene, was one of Oregon’s first certified organic farms. Its six owners share the tasks of running the farm, which has a CSA and runs a herd of cattle (

Also in Oregon, 15 miles from Portland, Our Table, founded by Machelle and Narendra Varna, states on its website, “Our goal is to have all the people who work with us be worker-members of the cooperative, allowing all of us to gain the full benefits of cooperative membership.” Formed in 2011, the 58-acre farm is certified organic, runs a CSA and has five owner-farmers. For more information, visit

New Roots Cooperative Farm’s six members are buying a 30-acre farm with help from Maine Farmland Trust and Cooperative Development Institute.

In Cincinnati, urban farm Our Harvest has become “a multi-stakeholder cooperative — a cooperative that extends beyond just our workers to include members of our community, as well.”

Community owner shares cost $100 and entitle members to various discounts and direct participation in governance of the farm. This form of investment is known as a Direct Public Offering and was newly established by the JOBS Act signed into law by President Obama in 2012. It allows members of communities to participate directly in the formation and management of small business enterprises in which they are customers. This type of investment encourages localized economies. Visit for more information.

Cooperative farms, like cooperative businesses, tend to be small and embedded in their communities, thus supporting local economies and allowing money to circulate within the neighborhood instead of being siphoned off by big box stores located far away, with no personal investment in the welfare of their communities. More importantly, they empower the people who do the actual work, providing each with a fair share of the farm’s income.

“Something is dying in our time,” writes Marjorie Kelly. “As the nation struggles to recover from unsustainable personal and national debt, stagnant wages, the damages wrought by climate change, and more, a whole way of life is drawing to a close.” The cooperative economy, or what she calls the regenerative economy, could be our future.

Stephanie Hiller is a writer based in Sonoma, California.