Tractor Time Episode 59: Gary Paul Nabhan on ‘Jesus for Farmers and Fishers’

On this episode we welcome Brother Coyote himself, Gary Paul Nabhan. An agricultural ecologist, an ethnobotanist, a MacArthus “genius grant” winner, a professor and an Ecumenical Franciscan Brother, Nabhan is a true polymath. He’s a pioneering figure in the local food movement as well as the modern heirloom seed saving movement. He’s also the author of an almost countless number of books, including The Nature of Desert Nature, Food from the Radical Center: Healing Our Land and Communities, and Mesquite: An Arboreal Love Affair.

His most recent book is called Jesus for Farmers and Fishers: Justice for All Those Marginalized by Our Food System. The book is a challenging, poetic and hopeful exploration of what the teachings of Jesus have to tell us about our modern food system and our relationship to the natural world. Even if you’re not religious, or even spiritual, I think this interview is still well worth your time — Nabhan has tapped into a deep and universal store of wisdom just when we need it most.

I’ve been a long-time admirer — of his endless curiosity, of his versatility as a writer and of his rare insight when it comes to ethics, agriculture and science. He isn’t someone who spends much time raging at powerful institutions. He’s not always shaking his fists at corrupt corporations. Instead, he offers us pathways of hope, healing, purpose, abundance and justice.

Nabhan’s spent much of his life working, often in the fields, to preserve both cultural folkways and biological diversity, two things he see’s as being inextricably linked. And his biography is so full of milestones that it’s impossible to fit all but a fraction of them here.

Born in the early 1950s, Nabhan is a first-generation Lebanese American who was raised in Gary, Indiana. He has a B.A. in environmental biology from Prescott College in Arizona, an M.S. in plant sciences from the University of Arizona, and a Ph.D. in the interdisciplinary arid lands resource sciences, also from the University of Arizona.

He’s served as director of conservation, research and collections at both the Desert Botanical Garden and the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, where he did the research to help create the Ironwood Forest National Monument.

He was the founding director of the Center for Sustainable Environments at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona. He’s on the University of Arizona faculty as a research social scientist with the Southwest Center, where he now serves as the Kellogg Endowed Chair in Southwestern Borderlands Food and Water Security.

He and his wife currently live in Patagonia, Arizona on a five-acre spread near Tucson. I could go on, but I’m eager to share this interview with you today. I hope you find as much inspiration as I did in this conversation with Gary Paul Nabhan.

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André Leu: Regenerative Farming is the Next Stage of Agricultural Evolution

By André Leu

“Regenerative agriculture and animal husbandry is the next and higher stage of organic food and farming, not only free from toxic pesticides, GMOs, chemical fertilizers, and factory farm production, and therefore good for human health; but also regenerative in terms of the health of the soil.” — Ronnie Cummins

Hardly anyone had heard of regenerative agriculture before 2014. Now it is in the news every day all around the world. A small group of leaders of the organic, agroecology, holistic management, environment and natural health movements started Regeneration International as a truly inclusive and representative umbrella organization.

The concept was initially formed at the United Nations Climate Change Meeting in New York in October 2014. The aim was to set up a global network of like-minded agricultural, environmental and social organizations.

The initial steering committee meetings included Dr. Vandana Shiva from Navdanya, Ronnie Cummins from the Organic Consumers Association, Dr. Hans Herren from The Millennium Institute, Steve Rye from Mercola, and myself, André Leu from IFOAM-Organics International. It was soon expanded to include Precious Phiri from the Africa Savory Hub, Ercilia Sahores from Via Organica in Mexico, Renate Künaste from the German Green Party, John Liu, the China based filmmaker, and Tom Newmark and Larry Kopald from the Carbon Underground.

Our founding meeting was held on a biodynamic farm in Costa Rica in 2015. We deliberately chose to hold it in the global south rather than in North America or Europe and include women and men from every continent to send a message that regeneration was about equity, fairness and inclusiveness. Ronnie Cummins raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay for the travel, accommodation, food and other expenses for all the representatives from the global south.

The meeting agreed to form Regeneration International to promote a holistic concept of regeneration. The following mission and vision statements came out of this consultative and inclusive event.

Our mission: To promote, facilitate and accelerate the global transition to regenerative food, farming and land management for the purpose of restoring climate stability, ending world hunger and rebuilding deteriorated social, ecological and economic systems.

Our vision: A healthy global ecosystem in which practitioners of regenerative agriculture and land use, in concert with consumers, educators, business leaders and policymakers, cool the planet, nourish the world and restore public health, prosperity and peace on a global scale.

In six years Regeneration International has grown to more than 360 partner organizations in 70 countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America, Oceania, North America and Europe.

The Third Phase

The need to form an international regeneration movement was inspired in part by the development of Organic 3.0 by IFOAM – Organics International. Organic 3.0 was conceived as an ongoing process of enabling organic agriculture to actively engage with social and environmental issues and been seen as a positive agent of change.

Organic 3.0 has six main features. The fourth feature was the “inclusiveness of wider sustainability interests, through alliances with the many movements and organizations that have complementary approaches to truly sustainable food and farming.”

One aim of Organic 3.0 was to work with like-minded organizations, movements and similar farming systems with the aim of making all of agriculture more sustainable. The concept was to have organic agriculture as a positive lighthouse of change to improve the sustainability of mainstream agriculture systems.

Beyond Sustainable

Many people in the organic, agroecology and environmental movements were not happy with the term sustainable for a number of reasons, not the least that it has been completely greenwashed and was seen as meaningless: “Sustainable means meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Unfortunately, this definition of sustainable has led to concept of sustainable intensification, where more inputs are used in the same area of land to increase productivity and proportionately lower negative environmental footprints. This concept has been used in sustainable agriculture to justify GMOs, synthetic toxic pesticides and water-soluble chemical fertilizers to produce more commodities per hectare/acre. This was presented as better for the environment than “low yielding” organic agriculture and agroecological systems that need more land to produce the same level of commodities. Sustainable intensification is used to justify the destruction of tropical forests for the industrial scale farming of commodities such as GMO corn and soy that are shipped to large scale animal feedlots in Europe and China. The rationale for this is that less land is needed to produce animal products compared to extensive rangeland systems or organic systems. These sustainable intensification systems meet the above definition of sustainable compared to organic, agroecological and holistically managed, pasture-based systems. Companies like Bayer/Monsanto were branding themselves as the largest sustainable agriculture companies in the world. Many of us believed it was time to move past sustainable.

In this era of the Anthropocene, in which human activities are the dominant forces that negatively affect the environment, the world is facing multiple crises. These include the climate crisis, food insecurity, an epidemic of non-contagious chronic diseases, new pandemics of contagious diseases, wars, migration crises, ocean acidification, the collapse of whole ecosystems, the continuous extraction of resources and the greatest extinction event in geological history.

Do we want to sustain the current status quo or do we want to improve and rejuvenate it? Simply being sustainable is not enough. Regeneration, by definition, improves systems.

Hijacking Standards       

Another driver towards regeneration were the widespread concerns about the hijacking of organic standards and production systems by corporate agribusiness. The neglect of the primacy of soil health and soil organic matter, as well as allowing inappropriate plowing methods, were raised as major criticisms.

Jerome Rodale, who popularized the term organic farming in the 1940s, used the term specifically in relation to farming systems that improved soil health by recycling and increasing soil organic matter. Consequently, most organic standards start with this; however certifiers rarely, if ever, check this these days. The introduction of certified organic hydroponics as soilless organic systems was been seen by many as the ultimate sell-out and loss of credibility.

Major concerns and criticisms about the hijacking of certified organic by industrial agriculture were raised by allies in the agroecology and holistic management movements. These included large scale, industrial, organic monocultures and organic Confined Animal Feed Operations (CAFOs). These CAFOS go against the important principles of no cruelty and the need to allow animals to naturally express their behaviors, which are found in most organic standards. The use of synthetic supplements in certified organic CAFOs was seen as undermining the very basis of the credibility of certified organic systems. The lack of enforcement was seen as a major issue. These issues were and still are areas of major dispute and contention within global and national organic sectors.

Many people wanted a way forward and saw the concept of “Regenerative Organic Agriculture,” put forward by Robert Rodale, son of the organic pioneer Jerome Rodale, as a way to resolve this. Bob Rodale used the term regenerative organic agriculture to promote farming practices that go beyond sustainable.


The term regenerative agriculture is now being widely used, to the point that in some cases it can be seen as greenwashing and as a buzzword used by industrial agricultural systems to increase profits.

Those of us who formed Regeneration International were very aware of the way the large agribusiness corporations hijacked the term sustainable to the point is was meaningless. We were also aware of how they are trying to hijack the term of agroecology, especially through the United Nations systems and in some parts of Europe, Africa and Latin America where a little biodiversity is sprinkled as greenwash over agricultural systems that still use toxic synthetic pesticides and water-soluble chemical fertilizers.

Similarly we have been concerned about the way organic agriculture standards and systems have been hijacked by industrial agribusiness as previously stated in the above section.

The critical issue is, how do we engage with agribusiness in a way that can change their systems in a positive way as proposed in Organic 3.0? Many of the corporations that are adopting regenerative systems are improving their soil organic matter levels using systems such as cover crops. They are also implementing programs that reduce toxic chemical inputs and improving environmental outcomes. These actions should be seen as positive changes in the right direction. They are a start — not an end point. Remember that there are also corporations that are rebranding their herbicide sprayed GMO no-till systems as regenerative.

The opposite of regenerative is degenerative. By definition, agricultural systems that are using degenerative practices and inputs that damage the environment, soil and health — such as synthetic toxic pesticides, synthetic water soluble fertilizers and destructive tillage systems, cannot be considered regenerative — and should not use the term. They must be called out as degenerative.

The Path Forward

From the perspective of Regeneration International, all agricultural systems should be regenerative and organic using the science of agroecology.

Bob Rodale observed that an ecosystem will naturally regenerate once the disturbance stops. Consequently, regenerative agriculture, working with nature, not only maintains resources, it improves them.

Regeneration should be seen as a way to determine how to improve systems and to determine what practices are acceptable and what are degenerative and therefore unacceptable. The criteria to analyze this must be based on the Four Principles of Organic Agriculture. These principles are clear and effective ways to decide what practices are regenerative and what are degenerative.

Consequently, the four principles of organic agriculture are seen as consistent and applicable to regenerative agriculture.

Health: Organic agriculture should sustain and enhance the health of soil, plant, animal, human and planet as one and indivisible.

Ecology: Organic agriculture should be based on living ecological systems and cycles, work with them, emulate them and help sustain them.

Fairness: Organic agriculture should build on relationships that ensure fairness with regard to the common environment and life opportunities.

Care: Organic agriculture should be managed in a precautionary and responsible manner to protect the health and well-being of current and future generations and the environment.

Why Regenerative Agriculture?

The majority of the world’s population is directly or indirectly dependent on agriculture. Agricultural producers are amongst the most exploited, food and health insecure, least educated and poorest people on our planet, despite producing most of the food we eat.

Agriculture in its various forms has the most significant effect on land use on the planet. Industrial agriculture is responsible for most of the environmental degradation, forest destruction, toxic chemicals in our food and environment and a significant contributor, up to 50 percent, to the climate crisis. The degenerative forms of agriculture are an existential threat to us and most other species on our planet. We have to regenerate agriculture for social, environmental, economic and cultural reasons.

Soil Focus

The soil is fundamental to all terrestrial life of this planet. Our food and biodiversity start with the soil. The soil is not dirt — it is living, breathing and teeming with life. The soil microbiome is the most complex and richest area of biodiversity on our planet. The area with the greatest biodiversity is the rhizosphere, the region around roots of plants.

Plants feed the soil microbiome with the molecules of life that they create through photosynthesis. These molecules are the basis of organic matter — carbon-based molecules — that all life on earth depends on. Organic matter is fundamental to all life and soil organic matter is fundamental to life in the soil.

Farming practices that increase soil organic matter (SOM) increase fertility, water holding capacity, pest and disease resilience and, thus, the productivity of agricultural systems. Because SOM comes from carbon dioxide fixed through photosynthesis, increasing SOM can have a significant impact in reversing the climate crisis by drawing down this greenhouse gas.

The fact is our health and wealth comes from the soil.

Regenerative agriculture is now being used as an umbrella term for the many farming systems that use techniques such as longer rotations, cover crops, green manures, legumes, compost and organic fertilizers to increase SOM. These include: organic agriculture, agroforestry, agroecology, permaculture, holistic grazing, sylvopasture, syntropic farming and many other agricultural systems that can increase SOM. SOM is an important proxy for soil health — as soils with low levels are not healthy.

However, our global regeneration movement is far more than this.

Regeneration Revolution

We have a lot of work to do. We are currently living well beyond our planetary boundaries and extracting far more than our planet can provide. As Dr. Vandana Shiva puts it: “Regenerative agriculture provides answers to the soil crisis, the food crisis, the climate crisis and the crisis of democracy.”

According to Bob Rodale, regenerative organic agriculture systems are those that improve the resources they use, rather than destroying or depleting them. It is a holistic systems approach to farming that encourages continual innovation for environmental, social, economic and spiritual wellbeing.

The vast majority of the destruction of biodiversity, the greenhouse gases, pesticides, endocrine disrupters, plastics, poverty, hunger and poor nutrition are directly caused by the billionaire corporate cartels and their obscene greed aided by their morally corrupt cronies. We need to continue to call them out for their degenerative practices.

More importantly, we need to build the new regenerative system that will replace the current degenerate system.

We have more than enough resources for everyone to live a life of wellbeing. The world produces around 3 times more food than we need. We have unfair, exploitative and wasteful systems that need to be transformed and regenerated. 

We need to regenerate our societies so we must be proactive in ensuring that others have access to land, education, healthcare, income, the commons and empowerment. This must include women, men and youths across all ethnic and racial groups.

We must take care of each other and regenerate our planet. We must take control and empower ourselves to be the agents of change. We need to regenerate a world based on the Four Principles of Organic Agriculture: Health, Ecology Fairness and Care.

Ronnie Cummins, one of our founders, wrote: “Never underestimate the power of one individual: yourself. But please understand, at the same time, that what we do as individuals will never be enough. We’ve got to get organized and we’ve got to help others, in our region, in our nation, and everywhere build a mighty Green Regeneration Movement. The time to begin is now.”

André Leu is the author of The Myths of Safe Pesticides and Poisoning Our Children. He previously served as president of IFOAM — Organics International and is currently the international director of Regeneration International. 

A Farmer’s Guide to Mulching

By Leah Smith

Mention mulch and the first thoughts that spring to mind are probably moisture retention and weed suppression. And yes, mulch serves both of those functions well. But the benefits of using mulch go beyond those to other areas of importance. If you thought it a simple matter of spreading whatever you like on the ground whenever you like around whatever you like, think again.

What To Use

Mulch can be almost anything that slows the loss of moisture from the soil and suppresses weeds. It is often true that when you are in need of mulch you are likely to use whatever the best option is you have at hand; and this is fine as long as you are able to judge what the best option is.

Popular natural mulches include compost (including composted manure), hay, straw, shrub and tree leaves and grass clippings. These feed the soil to varying extents, with the compost, hay and grass clippings doing it best. There are procedures to keep in mind with most mulches. For example, leaves must be chopped or mixed with other materials so that they don’t mat down and prohibit aeration and water infiltration to the soil. Also, some leaves contain compounds that can inhibit plant growth. So either conduct your own trials or (preferably) age leaves for at least six months before spreading them. Grass clipping layers should be kept to about two inches deep at most so that they do not become putrid. Alternatively, clippings can be allowed to dry a day or two so that they are no longer overly damp and not as prone to become fetid.

Pine needles, sawdust, wood chips, chopped bark and rock are additional natural mulch options. Pine needles add acidity to the soil and should only be used when this won’t create a pH problem but rather is desired (or at least tolerated) by plants that enjoy a lower pH. Blueberries and hydrangeas are examples of that, though many people use them on strawberry beds with great success as well. Pine needles can also inhibit seed germination due to the terpenes they contain. Wood products should be aged at least a year prior to use to prevent the depletion of nitrogen in the soil. And rock as a complete mulch is naturally used in permanent or semi-permanent situations (such as fruit trees and bushes), unless it is a few larger rocks used in conjunction with another mulch (more below).

And there are further and creative natural mulch alternatives. For example, you can use the ferny (reproductive) growth of asparagus as the bed’s own mulch, bending it down and leaving it in place at the end of summer. Plants like comfrey and aquatic plants in general are especially nutrient rich. They will give you mulch that is a valuable nutrient source. What is more, pulled weeds that lack seed set have the potential to be used as mulch. Some people will have access to other plentiful and unique mulch sources — buckwheat, cottonseed, peanut hulls, peat moss, seaweed or even hops or coffee grounds. Use what you have access to.

Processed mulch alternatives include cardboard, newspaper and plastics. Make sure your cardboard is free of toxic or non-decomposable materials (e.g., glues and ink). The colored ink now used in newspapers tends to be water-based and non-toxic, making it a viable option. Black and clear plastic mulch, though it has multiple environmental minuses, are viewed by many with admiration because their coverage is so total and they are frequently used to warm the soil and keep it warm, an aid to season extension. Overheating of the soil should be avoided (a greater issue with clear plastic).

Reflective mulches are gaining popularity. Said to increase plant photosynthesis and productivity because they increase sunlight availability, they can especially aid those growing gardens in the partial shade. Also, they are known to disorient pests like the Mexican bean beetles, leaf hoppers, whiteflies and aphids. Though commercially made (from products like silver polyethylene), economic versions can be created with aluminum foil or cardboard painted white. Because they also increase air temperature and their reflectiveness is diminished as plants grow larger through the season, they are a means of getting a head start during the growing season; additionally, peak temperatures during the season could lead to overheating and plant burning, a reason to remove it prior to the summer heat. Their reflective ability is diminished by dirt and grime as well, often leading to their disposal after each season.

Why to Use It

As previously stated, weed suppression and moisture retention may be the principle reasons for mulching crops, but they are by no means the only benefits.

Aid Germination: Certain seeds are known for having especially temperamental germination. In many cases, keeping seeds and soil moist is of help; and, naturally, this is also the case for almost any seed you may be trying to germinate during a drought. A light sprinkling of mulch on top of a recently watered row will often do the trick. Carrots, peas, spinach and many flower seeds can be helped in this way.

Crow Confounder: Mulch, especially bright green grass clippings, can be used to camouflage young shoots such as those of corn when they are emerging from the ground and are especially tempting to birds like crows. But really, mulch can help to hide many a plant from many a curious garden trespasser.

Control Your Temperature: The application of mulch can be used as a method of season extension, so to speak, due to the ability it has to create a temperature microclimate. Though air temperature changes rapidly, soil temperature does not, so using a mulch to blanket the soil will insulate it well. This can be done to extend the season of both cool and warm season crops. On our farm, we use mulch at the beginning of the season around arugula, spinach and turnip plantings, applying it before the ground begins to heat up for summer so that it can “keep its cool.” Rocks increase the thermal mass of garden beds. Though seldom welcome willy nilly, strategic placement of rocks can hold onto heat in the garden where you want it to keep your heat-loving crops cozy for as long as possible.

Keep it Clean: Using mulch to grow a clean crop is nothing new. For strawberries, it would be quite impossible to grow a fruit with a decent shelf life without the use of a mulch, as those delicate fruits and dirt really don’t mix well. We also use mulch to keep our husk cherries clean and easier to handle. But the cleanliness of mulch doesn’t end with fruits. Basil is always a very popular herb. Clean leaves of any sort have better storability than dirty ones and so a dip in cold water is always good. But basil leaves, unless they dry just right, can develop brown/bronze spotting where moisture clings, leaving you with an unattractive product. Deciding one summer it would be better to grow clean basil that didn’t need to be washed at all, we turned to mulch. A nice hay mulch, stretching out eight inches on either side of the basil row, protects the plants from rain splattering dirt onto the leaves and gives you just that.

Harvest Helper: Spinach is another crop where mulch can be used to produce a clean leaf. Savoyed spinach leaves, in particular, hold on to soil they pick up by growing so close to the ground. Mulching prevents this, but it also does something more. It causes the spinach to grow in a more upright orientation as it reaches for the sun. This orientation makes harvesting clean spinach leaves quite easy.

Good SPF: Bulbing onions, as they are putting on size and nearing harvest time, are susceptible to sunburn. This is particularly discouraging when you are so close to harvest. An airy layer of mulch removes this threat by giving it protection from the sun. Onions are one of our top priorities when it comes to mulching. Weed suppression and moisture retention are particularly important to the plants, and they are sensitive to having their roots disturbed as well as having sensitive skin!

Shelter from the (Wind)Storm: In nature, and therefore the garden, everything is connected and everything has an impact; it can be easy to forget some of the perceived minor players when the major ones take center stage. Though moisture and temperature levels have a great impact on plant health, the common wind does as well. The air itself may be cold, but it is often that wind that is really driving it home. And though drought conditions are bad enough, a wind harassing the air layers around leaves’ stomata where gases are exchanged and moisture loss can take place will make it all the worse. Using mulches early (or late) in the year to protect them from a chilly wind or the sapping nature of a harsh, dry wind during a drought and you have mulch-as-windbreak.

Nab Nutrients: The extra soil protection provided by mulch slows the rate at which water enters the soil. This allows for better water absorption, and also prevents nutrients from being leached out of the root zone by excessive water flows and therefore better nutrient absorption as well.

Mulch for Your Microorganisms: We are hearing more and more about the different ways in which happy microorganisms will create happy plants. Many of the conditions that make microorganisms happy are aided by the presence of mulch. A steady soil temperature (during the heat of summer as well as the chill of winter), moist conditions, and raw materials with which they can work (“food” sources to utilize) can all be produced when using mulch and will encourage microorganisms to operate nearer to the surface of the soil and in your plants’ rhizospheres. And don’t forget, the maintenance of a steady population of beneficial soil bacteria and fungi means a steady defense against destructive nematodes. And then there are the earthworms. They’re not microorganisms, but definitely fans of mulch (though not straight sawdust mulch).

An Insect’s Worst Enemy: Mulch is frequently regarded as an insect pest deterrent.  The laying of onion maggot, cabbage root maggot, bean beetle, and cucumber beetle eggs at plant bases is lessened and/or eliminated by the presence of mulch, and the likelihood of egg/larva survival in mulch is poor as well. Insects overwintering in the soil will also find less success if they emerge under a thick layer of mulch (as is the case for thrips).

A Slug’s Best Friend?: A word of caution here. As well as making plants and microorganisms happy, many of the forms of organic mulch also create environments that are very pleasing to slugs. Mulch avoidance isn’t the way to go. Just keep an eye open for them; if an outbreak occurs, opt for using a commercial product like Sluggo (a snail/slug bait that contains iron phosphate, a naturally occurring soil mineral), drowning them in beer bait traps, or calling upon nature’s slug collectors — a flock of ducks. Also, note that oak leaves are said to repel slugs (as well as cutworms and the larvae of June bugs), so use this to your advantage when possible. 

The Sick Bed: The number of ways in which a mulch can help to combat diseases in the garden appear to be legion. Mulch is essential for certain crops that are susceptible to diseases which are spread by contact with the soil. Many fungal diseases are spread to plants when water splashes off the ground and up to them, and mulch will reduce or even eliminate this splashing of fungal spores. For example, mulching bean plants provides protection against bean rust. Bacterial diseases are impeded by mulches as well.  Further, leaves (chopped, of course) and straw mulch show the ability to mitigate the effects of certain harmful soil fungi and nematodes by creating a chemical environment which either repels or kills these potential pests. In other words, it is not the physical barrier itself but rather the chemical changes created by the mulch that is key. Root rots of pea and bean plants have been shown to be reduced by wheat straw mulch is this way. 

Soil Improvement: Many of the features of an improved soil that organic growers aim for can be achieved by using mulches — reduction of compaction, soil pore destruction, and nutrient leaching, for example. They also prevent the overly hot and dry environments so destructive to soil life. Further contributing to an improved soil is the addition of nutrients including nitrogen and hefty quantities of organic matter when using various plant matter and animal manure mulches. Additionally, you can think of these as slow-release fertilizers for throughout the growing season. We find this particularly beneficial for plants that are heavy feeders with a long season — crops like cucumbers, summer squash and winter squash.

And Back to Weed Suppression: Though the focus has been on the other benefits of mulch, weed suppression is virtually essential with certain crops. This is the case with plants that are very sensitive to having their roots disturbed by the pulling of weeds (both large and not so large) as they grow — pea and cucumber plants being very good examples of this. Without mulch, keeping them happy can be hard.

Things to Watch Out For

Though there are clearly many benefits to using mulch, there are a few things to remember. Very thick mulch can make it difficult for moisture to get through to the soil. “Too thick” varies with the type of mulch, but be aware of that possible pitfall and check the soil itself when in doubt. Remember when mulching heat-loving plants that the soil must be suitably warm before you mulch them. You may be trying to get such plants out early for a longer season, but you must not prevent the soil from heating up by mulching too early. As mentioned, mulch can potentially harbor slugs and there is the need to be mindful of the rules involved with specific mulches. Additionally, special attention needs to be paid to the weather during the winter season. Though roots and the crowns of perennials appreciate the protection of mulch in cold weather, mild winters can lead to dampness and potentially crown and root rot under that layer of mulch. Be vigilant in milder years and check.

Whether dealing with orchards and small fruits or garden annuals, the need for mulch is great indeed.

Leah Smith is a freelance writer and home and market gardener.  She works on her family’s farm in mid-Michigan called Nodding Thistle (certified organic 1984-2009, principally by Organic Growers of Michigan).  A graduate of Michigan State University, she can be reached at

The Living Farm

This excerpt is brought to you by Book of the Week – offering you a glimpse between the pages and an exclusive discount of a new book each week. Get the Book of the Week email newsletter delivered directly to your in box! This week’s Book of the Week is Small Farms are Real Farms, by John Ikerd.

Sustainable farming will require ways of thinking that are fundamentally different from the mechanistic, industrial thought processes that have dominated human thought for the past four centuries. Industrialization is the physical manifestation of a mechanistic worldview, which dates back to the seventeenth century, to the “enlightenment” and the birth of science. Rene Descartes, a Frenchman, suggested that the world worked like a large complex machine — specifically like a large clock — with many interrelated but separable parts. Sir Isaac Newton, an Englishman, built upon Descartes’ ideas and developed many of the fundamental principles of modern mechanical physics.

At first, the new principles of physics were used only in dealing with “non-living things” — inanimate materials, such as water, minerals, gases — as Descartes suggested was their appropriate use. Over time, however, scientists began to use the same principles to study and to manipulate “living things,” even “thinking things.” Today, modern science treats all things as if they were mechanistic, including living things — plants, animals, and humans. Muscles and bones are nothing more than a complex system of levers and pulleys, the circulatory system a complicated plumbing system with pumps and valves, and the mind, a sophisticated computer with electrical circuits and connections.

This mechanistic worldview has led to the many marvels of today’s world of science. It provided the conceptual foundation for the industrial era of human progress. Machines could duplicate, extend, and eventually replace the productive processes of nature. Factories could be built that would use machines, fossil energy, and human labor to transform various raw materials into useful finished products, much as nature uses plants and solar energy to transform minerals from the earth into food and fiber. People were no longer dependent on nature. They could manufacture the things they needed or wanted. They didn’t have to wait for nature to provide them.

The industrial era brought many benefits. It removed much of the drudgery from day-to-day life; it challenged the then constant specter of starvation, and it suppressed diseases and extended human life. Few would willingly choose to return to a pre-industrial world. However, in the past few decades, we have begun to realize that treating living things as if they were non-living has inherent negative consequences. In fact, nearly every social ill of today can be traced to the separation of people — the destruction of family and community, the domination of the masses by the few are all consequences of a specialized, standardized, centralized industrial economy.

Nearly every environmental problem confronting society today is a consequence of people becoming separated from the land, from the earth, then treating inherently diverse and dynamic natural ecosystems as if they were specialized, inanimate machines or factories. The economic problems that today confront individually owned and operated small businesses are all direct consequences of corporate consolidation of economic power and control, which has characterized the industrial era. And, nowhere are the social, ecological, and economic problems of mechanistic thinking more evident than on American farms.

A farm is a living organism — soils, plants, animals, people, all are living, growing organs. The social, ecological, and economic problems of American agriculture today are all direct consequences of treating the soil, plants, animals, and people as if they were separable, replaceable, mechanistic parts of some sort of sophisticated “biological factory.” The current “biotech craze” in the “life sciences” community is but the latest product of an outdated worldview that life is nothing more than a sophisticated mechanical process to be manipulated for economic gain. But a farm is a living organism made up of microorganisms, plants, and animals. And farmers are breathing, thinking, caring, living beings. Solutions to the current problems of American agriculture will require new ways of thinking — a new “living” worldview.

Living things are “self-making” — they have the capacity to grow and reproduce; dead things cannot. Machines are manmade; they are designed to perform specific functions to achieve a specific purpose. They may be well maintained, but all machines eventually wear out. Worn out machines must be discarded and may or may not be replaced. Living things are conceived, born, germinate, hatch, or otherwise come to life. As they grow and mature, they learn to perform various functions to fulfill their purpose in life. They may be well nurtured, but all living things eventually die. Before they die, however, living things have the capacity to reproduce — to regenerate their communities and their species.

Because they are self-making, living things are dynamic; they are ever changing, even though the pattern of a living thing, its DNA, remains unchanged throughout its life. A human is a human at all stages of life — whether it’s a bouncing baby, a strong mature adult, or a feeble “senior citizen,” it’s the same human, but ever changing in physical structure and appearance.

Learn more about living farms and holistic practices at the 2021 Eco-Ag Conference and Trade Show this December!

Living things are also holistic. If the various parts of our bodies were surgically separated and laid side by side on an operating table, our life, the essence of who we are, obviously would have been destroyed. Our life would be gone. Dividing an elephant into a dozen pieces obviously doesn’t result in a dozen little elephants. A living organism is more than the “sum of its parts,” living organisms are inseparable, holistic.

Farms are living organisms; they are regenerative, dynamic, and holistic. They are not machines or factories. If farming systems are to be sustainable, our ways of thinking about farming must reflect their regenerative, dynamic, and holistic nature. We must have the courage and wisdom to abandon the old, mechanistic worldview and adopt new, organismic ways of thinking about farming.

A farm represents a purposeful “organization” of resources — land, labor, capital, and management. The purpose of a sustainable farm must reflect its multidimensional nature, its economic, ecological, and social dimensions. However, a sustainable farm is not multipurpose. Its purpose is holistic, and thus, is not separable into sub-purposes. A farm cannot make more money, for example, without affecting the land and the relationships among people on the farm and in the community. Nor can a farm reduce soil loss or protect water quality without affecting its economic performance and its contributions to society. So, every decision made on the farm has economic, ecological, and social implications. Every farm thus should be organized with a definite purpose in mind that considers its economic, ecological, and social potential. An essential aspect of the purpose of all sustainable farms is permanence.

The principles by which a sustainable farm is operated constitute its conceptual DNA. Just as DNA defines the nature of a living organism, principles define the nature of a farm. The principles followed in managing a farm will determine whether it is capable of fulfilling its purpose. The number of principles should be sufficient to insure that, if followed, the purpose will be fulfilled, but not more than necessary to ensure the purpose. As humans, we want all of the genetic material necessary to ensure that we are healthy humans, but we don’t want anything extra. The fundamental principles of sustainable farming are those of economic viability, ecological integrity, and social responsibility. The specific principles by which individual farms are managed will be different, reflecting the uniqueness of the farm, the farmer, and the “community.” But to be sustainable, the principles of a farm must be both necessary and sufficient to ensure permanence — sustainability.

The definition of purpose and principles represents the “conception” of a farm. Once conceived, the farm is free to “come to life” — to emerge, to grow, to mature, to regenerate, and to evolve. Creating a living farm is not like building a factory, to be used, worn out and discarded or rebuilt. A living farm is conceived, comes to life, grows, matures, reproduces, and evolves — like a living organism. As farming takes from the soil, it rebuilds the soil; as it earns money, it reinvests money; as it demands personal commitment, it contributes to quality of life. It is dynamic, ever changing in its structure and appearance, but is ever constant in its purpose and principles. Farms also may evolve forward into marketing and distribution or backward into production of inputs. As a farm grows and matures, the farming practices, methods, and enterprises may change, but the farm that remains true to its economic, ecological, and social principles will remain true to its purpose and will be sustainable.

Old farmers eventually must be replaced by younger farmers; sick and worn down farms may be nursed back to life and health. But life in the soil and life on the farm must go on. If we allow living farms to die, they cannot be restored to life. A farm is not a machine that can be restarted or a factory that can be rebuilt. Once a life is gone, it is gone forever. Farming sustainably requires a different way of thinking about farming. We must have the wisdom to reject the old, mechanistic worldview, and the courage to challenge the conventional wisdom that a farm can be run like a factory. We must conceive new systems of living farms that will be capable of sustaining a regenerative, dynamic, holistic, living, human society.

About the Author:

Dr. John Ikerd, Professor Emeritus of Agricultural Economics, retired from the University of Missouri in 2000. He was raised on a small dairy farm, worked in private industry, and held several other academic positions, prior to returning to the University of Missouri. In the 80’s, John had a “conversion” of sorts after seeing the failures of the policies he had been advocating to farmers.  He then reoriented his work toward agricultural and economic sustainability a means of supporting small family farms and rural communities. Since retiring, John has maintained an active speaking schedule and has authored numerous books and papers, many of which can be found at his university website: . John is recognized as a longtime leading voice in the sustainable agriculture movement.

Learn with John Ikerd this December!

John Ikerd is joining our amazing speaker line-up for the annual Acres U.S.A. 2021 Eco-Ag Conference and Trade Show. Taking place from December 6-9, the annual Eco-Ag Conference & Trade Show is where you find farmers and consultants from every facet of eco-farming who come together to share their experience and expertise. John will be bringing his economic expertise to discuss building sustainable agricultural communities!

Learn more about this incredible opportunity here!

Tractor Time Episode 58: Higher Standards for Cannabis

On this episode we’re talking about bringing a higher standard to cannabis production. With the federal legalization of hemp and the continuing state-by-state rollout of recreational cannabis, the industry is just picking up steam in the U.S. A California-based nonprofit started by David Bronner is aiming to lead the way on setting regenerative and socially responsible standards that empower farmers and farm workers in a rapidly expanding agricultural sector. In this episode we’re joined by Andrew Black, the executive director of Sun+Earth Certified, a beyond-organic standard for cannabis and hemp, and Josh Gulliver, a regenerative hemp and herb farmer based in Oregon, to talk about the challenges and opportunities on the horizon for cannabis growers.

This episode is particularly relevant right now, as three U.S. Senate Democrats have just presented a plan to end the federal prohibition on cannabis. This interview was recorded back in April, so that’s not part of the conversation, but what we do talk about is the increasing need for cannabis producers to lead the way on what it means to be truly regenerative. Right now we are at a crossroads. Does cannabis become just another commodity crop or can we use it as a vehicle to transform agriculture?

In this episode, we go deep into Sun+Earth Certified standards and what that means for the future of cannabis. Sun+Earth, if you don’t already know, is the non-profit started by David Bronner, who is the head of Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps as well as an outspoken cannabis activist. The non-profit has set ambitious standards for cannabis production that include earth care, human empowerment and community engagement.

To find out more about Sun+Earth Certified go to If you’re interested in learning more about how Dr. Bronner’s is creating regenerative supply chains for its products go buy Honor Thy Label: Dr. Bronner’s Unconventional Journey to a Clean, Green, and Ethical Supply Chain. That book is availablein the bookstore. Use the coupon code JULYPOD, that’s J-U-L-Y-P-O-D for 10 % off on all titles.

Tractor Time is brought to you by Acres U.S.A. and Barn2Door. Subscribe to our channel on YouTube, iTunes or anywhere podcasts are available. Also, find us on,, and don’t forget to subscribe to our monthly magazine.

Michael Ableman’s Urban Food Manifesto

This excerpt is brought to you by Book of the Week – offering you a glimpse between the pages and an exclusive discount of a new book each week. Get the Book of the Week email newsletter delivered directly to your in box! This week’s Book of the Week is Street Farm, by Michael Ableman. This excerpt has been republished with permission from the publisher.

I have been developing the following Urban Food Manifesto over the last ten years. Some of the ideas may sound radical; others will likely seem terribly obvious. Some are practical, some more ideological, but either way they are focused on the municipal and on individual ways to address what I consider to be some of the most prominent challenges in how we feed ourselves.

Every municipality should establish publicly supported agricultural training centers in central and accessible locations. I’m not talking about think tanks or demonstration gardens. I’m talking about working urban farms that model not only the social, cultural, and ecological benefits of farming in the city, but the economic benefits as well. We can talk about all of the wonderful reasons to farm in urban areas, but until we can demonstrate that it’s possible to make a decent living doing it, it’s going to be a tough sell.

Regular folks are now so removed from the work of farming that they need to literally see what’s possible. They need access to those who have maintained this knowledge and those who are serious and active practitioners. Every city should have teams of trained farm advisers in numbers proportionate to the population devoted to urban food production. Those agents should operate out of their local urban agriculture centers to run training workshops and classes; they should also venture out into the community to provide on-site technical support in production, in marketing, and in food processing and preparation.

The nutrient cycle that once tied farms with those they supplied has been interrupted. We need a full-cycle food system that allows for the return of organic waste via central regional composting facilities that can support the nutrient needs of both urban farms and farms on the fringes of our urban centers. Every community could be composting all its cardboard, paper, old clothing, shoes, restaurant and grocery store waste, and on and on. We need to reduce what comes into our communities from elsewhere, but we also need to reduce what leaves those communities, especially if it has nutritional or soil conditioning values for our land.

My fields at Foxglove Farm have as many rocks as grains of soil. Removing those rocks represents a huge amount of work for me, but each one of those rocks also represents an enormous amount of embodied energy, if I could just release it. Every community should own a portable rock grinder that could be taken to farms and used to grind rocks in and around fields that contain essential minerals now being mined elsewhere at great ecological cost. There are huge holes in the world, entire mountains removed, to supply minerals such as gypsum and lime and rock phosphate to our farms. We cannot talk about a sustainable agriculture unless we address where the minerals—especially phosphorous—are going to come from.

We’ve all heard about peak oil; we need to prepare for peak water and peak phosphorous. We can grow food without oil, but we cannot grow it without phosphorous and water. Phosphorous is a mined mineral, which now has limited reserves, most of which are located in China, Morocco, and the Western Sahara. Some scientists believe that at the rate we now use it, remaining reserves will be depleted within fifty to one hundred years.

This should become the responsibility of individuals and families to grow for themselves in their front and backyards, on their balconies and rooftops, and in community garden plots.

Let’s get over our phobia around human waste, stop spending billions of dollars to flush it away and pollute our rivers and oceans, and start recycling it onto our farms and gardens. Urine is the best local source of phosphorous, and we need to figure out creative ways to recycle it.

Every community should support the construction and funding of a permanent covered year-round farmers market space in a dominant central location. Providing this type of physical space is just as important to our civic health, if not more, as the public swimming pool, the sports fields, schools, churches, and libraries.

Every new permit for a housing development should be contingent on inclusion of an approved food-production component on a scale relative to the number of people who will live in the development. And every new office or retail building should be engineered for a full-scale rooftop food production component, including greenhouses warmed by the spent heat vented from the building.

Every neighborhood, school, and church should be required to restructure existing institutional-kitchen facilities to accommodate cooperative canning, freezing, and dehydrating services for their neighborhoods during non-peak hours.

Every real estate transaction should include a small urban farmland preservation tax from which lands could be purchased specifically for the production of food, and those lands could have protective easements that require agricultural use in perpetuity.

A great deal of privately owned arable land currently lies fallow. This land could be made available to new farmers under long-term leases. We need to recognize that there is not necessarily any relationship between landownership and land stewardship. The only requirement for landownership in our society is access to capital. That’s not enough. I believe that ownership of land should come with a set of responsibilities.

Building inspections are common practice prior to many real estate transactions; we should require land inspections, including ecological assessments and baseline documentation, on every piece of land over five acres. Every land purchaser should be required to attend a stewardship and restoration training course based on the particularities of that piece of land. This will help move land away from its status as commodity and bring some sense of stewardship into ownership.

When I was in school my favorite classes were wood shop, metal shop, mechanics, and home economics, which included cooking and sewing. Those subjects were well respected. I looked forward to shop class far more than math or science or English. It was a time when I could make something real and tangible. (Every wood shop teacher I’ve known was missing a finger or two, and I am sure that was a requirement for those positions. I made the connection very quickly between those missing fingers and the machines we worked with.) Life skills classes are coming back into schools, but we need to give farming and cooking and mechanics and plumbing and carpentry the same status and attention as math or English or the sciences.

It sounds radical, but in the future full-time professional farmers may no longer have the luxury of raising fruits and vegetables. This should become the responsibility of individuals and families to grow for themselves in their front and backyards, on their balconies and rooftops, and in community garden plots. We could probably survive without another carrot or tomato, but we cannot live without grains and beans and protein sources.

Every municipality should initiate a phase-out of all home lawns—effective immediately—but they must also provide neighborhood training programs and technical support for home- and building owners to replace those lawns with food production.

It may be that along with growing food, the real work of farmers in the future should be seen as the sequestration of water and carbon. Anyone who has land, or is managing land, has a huge opportunity and a responsibility to address two of our greatest global challenges—water and climate. Slowing and spreading surface water and allowing it to percolate and not run off, along with learning to use land and improve soils to store and hold carbon, are urgent and essential roles that farmers need to play now and into the future.

About the Author:

Michael Ableman is a farmer, author, photographer and urban and local food systems advocate. Michael has been farming organically since the early 1970′s and is considered one of the pioneers of the organic farming and urban agriculture movements. He is a frequent lecturer to audiences all over the world, and the winner of numerous awards for his work. Ableman is the author of four trade published books: From the Good Earth: A celebration of growing food around the world; On Good Land: The autobiography of an urban farm; Fields of Plenty: A farmer’s journey in search of real food and the people who grow it, and most recently Street Farm; Growing Food, Jobs, and Hope on the Urban Frontier. Michael Ableman is the founder of the Center for Urban Agriculture at Fairview Gardens in Goleta, California where he farmed for 20 years; co-founder and director of Sole Food Street Farms and the charity Cultivate Canada in Vancouver, British Columbia; and founder and director of the Center for Arts, Ecology and Agriculture based at his family home and farm on Salt Spring Island.

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Sun+Earth Certified Sets a High Bar for Cannabis Production

Interview by Ben Trollinger

Photo courtesy of Sun+Earth Certified

With the federal legalization of hemp and the continuing state-by-state rollout of recreational psychoactive cannabis, the cannabis industry is just picking up steam in the U.S. A California-based nonprofit is aiming to lead the way on setting regenerative and socially responsible standards that empower farmers and farm workers in a rapidly expanding agricultural sector. Acres U.S.A. recently talked with Andrew Black, the executive director of Sun+Earth Certified, a beyond-organic standard for cannabis and hemp, and Josh Gulliver, a regenerative hemp and herb farmer based in Oregon, about the challenges and opportunities for on the horizon for cannabis growers.

Acres U.S.A. Josh, I thought we’d start with you. Could you tell us a little bit about your operation out in Oregon and why you’ve taken a regenerative approach to hemp production?

Josh Gulliver. I started J and J Organics shortly after the Oregon Hemp Pilot Program was put in place. I started it with a farmer who’s owned a mixed vegetable farm for many years, a place called Gathering Together Farm here in Oregon. I made his compost for five years before the two of us started growing hemp together, as a side project at first. We grew an acre and it turned out really well. So, we continued.

John’s farm was organic. It’s organic today. It was a natural transition to grow organic hemp. Also, the vegetable farm’s a production farm, so we had this natural inclination to really try to produce hemp on a larger scale. But, as we got further and further into the hemp industry, a couple things happened. First, we recognized that no matter how much organic product we produced, we couldn’t get it to the retailer. We couldn’t find an outlet that actually brought that organic integrity all the way to the person who would finally use CBD or hemp products for their well-being. The hemp industry has been a wild ride. So, it was very quick that we all of a sudden went from an acre and a couple of years later, we put in 22.

When we put in that 22 acres, it changed my perspective in a large way about how to grow hemp. We put down a lot of plastic. Even this year, which is two years later, I still roam through the field and I pull up plastic. Again, it’s legal for organics and so forth. But I drove about, I want to say it was 15,000 pounds of plastic and irrigation materials off the farm at the end of that season. Just drove it straight to the dump.

When I would reflect upon that, I wondered how much that actually saved me. What was the purpose of that? I’ve always been somebody who likes to identify myself as more than just a farmer. I’m somewhat of an activist generally. It just didn’t feel right to me.

So very quickly, we decided to eliminate plastic use. Rather than use traditional weed control, we would load the fields with interplanting of everything, from calendula to sunflower, and all sorts of different things. We quickly identified the benefits of that just from a pollinator perspective and the ecological support system that we created here on the farm. It just turned into something really fantastic.

Then, about three or four years ago, I want to say, I was doing an event called Organicology. I had the pleasure of listening to Andrew Black talk about Sun+Earth certification. Certifications are something that I’ve always really been interested in. I like when certifiers and certifications align with my values generally, from the farming perspective right through the social justice issues I like to align myself with. It was pretty obvious right off the bat, after listening to them present that their kind of certification was something that we’d been looking for.

At the time—and even today—did it have the clout of something like organics? Not necessarily, but it was definitely something that better aligned with our values.

Acres U.S.A. This might be a good opportunity to bring Andrew into the conversation, and walk us through Sun+Earth certification and what that means, and why specifically that is needed in addition to something like, say, Regenerative Organic Certification.

Andrew Black. Sun+Earth is founded on three pillars. We have earth care, human empowerment, and community engagement. Where organics does a pretty good job of trying to get people to stop using synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, Sun+Earth also requires that and goes several steps further with the earth care portion of the standard. It really promotes biodiversity and mulching, reduced tillage, cover cropping, and farms creating their own fertility onsite.

So someone like Josh, who has experience making high-quality compost and utilizing it, and doing companion planting, and cover cropping — already practicing what we would call regenerative organic practices — it was a lot easier for him to qualify for Sun+Earth and meet those earth care standards.

Now, like I said, a very interesting thing about Sun+Earth that makes it different than USDA Organic is the pillars of human empowerment and community engagement. If you look at USDA Organic right now, it’s clear that there’s nothing in those standards that really protect farm workers, or tries to foster sustainable working relationships between the farmer and the farm worker, right?

So, we’ve added some very simple principles that require written contracts between farm owner and farm labor, and requires a commitment to farm worker protections. Similarly, we have added a community engagement piece to the Sun+Earth standard. Again, it comes from this idea of simply requiring a written strategy about how you engage with the community.

We don’t want to go and overregulate the farmers that work with us. But if you have some simple rules that shift the perspective away from me, me, me, and put it outwards towards the landscape, the workers, and the community, then we’ve actually done something radical. We’ve shifted the certification program away from just buying inputs, and pumping out product, and making money to okay, let’s expand our horizons here and consider these things, and actually have conversations with the farms about various aspects.

In that way, Sun+Earth is very unique as a certification standard. I’m excited to see how we can implement more certification in hemp. Josh mentioned that we have, right now, certified over 40 farms. That’s true. Sun+Earth Certified was created with the THC cannabis farmer in mind. We didn’t create Sun+Earth to capture all the hemp farmers in the world. We created Sun+Earth thinking about how are these legacy homesteader medical marijuana farms going to survive in these places where they’ve been farming cannabis for its medicinal purposes for two, three, four generations. That was the impetus of Sun+Earth and it’s grown to include certain hemp farms, like Josh’s, who goes way beyond organic practices and has a commitment to the three pillars that I mentioned.

Acres U.S.A. Josh, it sounds like you were doing a lot of the earth care practices already before going through the certification process. I’m curious, though, how that process changed your business or changed your approach, particularly the community engagement piece. Could you talk more about that?

Gulliver. Sure. I’d say the biggest thing that it’s done — this is a little detrimental on myself — sometimes when you are required to do something, even though it’s something that you really want to do generally, it forces you to find the time to do it. I’d suggest that Sun+Earth’s priorities have helped me align my own in terms of educational outreach. My partner here at our processing center and I try our best to do community outreach all the time, whether it’s just at our local co-op talking to people about organics, about Sun+Earth, about regenerative agriculture, and what that means for their final product on the shelf and so forth. [Sun+Earth] holds me a little more accountable to make sure that I do the things that I want to do, to make sure I find the time to do them.

Acres U.S.A. I think consumer awareness is something that’s always evolving. You might have people who are really in touch with where their food comes from and they have relationships with farmers, et cetera, et cetera. But cannabis is this thing that has come onto the landscape over the last few years through legalization efforts. The transparency and awareness within that industry is in its infancy. Could you contrast what you’re doing with what the industry is doing as a whole, and how those two things are different? In other words, in your case, how is most CBD product produced in the U.S.? How is that different from what you’re doing?

Black. The current model of agriculture is being used in hemp production as well, and for CBD production. You can think of a 50-acre block or a 100-acre plot, where people are planting hemp in rows with black plastic and pumping them with synthetic fertilizers, not considering or making space for plant biodiversity within the rows or alongside the rows. So, you’ve got really monoculture cropping going on with hemp. You can see it. Come out to Oregon in the summer and you just drive by any country road, you can see it north, south, all the way into eastern Oregon. You can see it all over the nation, right?

So, that type of farming, it’s non-organic. There’s very little consideration to treating the landscape as a home place or a living organism. That’s in stark contrast to Josh’s farm, J and J Organics, where they’re not using black plastic. They’re actually planting medicinal calendula crops and other medicinal herb crops, saving the seed back from these herbs. And now they’ve realized well, maybe we can’t make it just by selling our CBD, our dried flower bulk, to another CBD processor. So, they’re processing all sorts of medicine in their own facility. They’ve achieved that over the years and are having success.

There are other hemp farms that we certify, that we work with through Sun+Earth that do the same thing, or a little bit differently. They’ll plant hemp in, let’s say, a quarter-acre block or a half-acre block alongside echinacea that they also harvest and take to market. There is a stark difference between a reality where hemp becomes just another commoditized monocrop versus hemp that is grown in a way where you’d let your children play in the field.

Gulliver. There’s so much noise in the industry that the certifications are, A, very important to get so that whether you’re wholesaling or retailing, it allows you to show people that you’re trying to adhere to some level of integrity.

I also would suggest that hemp farmers—most of them—have kind of come from a cannabis background. If you’ve my age and you’ve been growing cannabis, you’ve experienced it as a real illegal thing to do, in most situations — unless you’re brought up on the west coast. Naturally, it’s created this very internal culture where people don’t really share information. They’ve been in their basement trying to do the best that they can. It’s not a collaborative environment.

I’d say that early on, my relationship with John Eveland at Gathering Together, taught me that to do this on any kind of scale that’s achievable and that you can be successful at, and to do it in a manner that carries values and integrity to the person you’re selling product to, it takes that collaboration. It takes getting out there and talking about it, and settling the dust a little bit, and realizing that a vegetable farmer who’s been farming for 40 years versus a cannabis guy who’s been in their basement for five, the cannabis guy, it’s going to behoove him to talk to that vegetable farmer to figure out how to do it on a scale that he can actually produce a product that gets to a retail outlet.

Early on, I mentioned we recognized that there wasn’t a way to get organic product to a retail outlet, to an individual. We started another Sun+Earth-certified facility actually called SunGold Botanicals. That’s where we take our hemp and we turn it into products. It gets turned into raw oil, it gets brought right through to a finished product.

It’s important to mention Sun+Earth on that end too because it’s about maintaining the integrity of the plant right out of the ground, right? Sun+Earth would never certify, say, an isolate made with harsh chemicals. It’s a CBD isolate, right? It has no THC, but honestly it’s terrible for the environment and it’s a terrible thing to make, but probably the most popular CBD product right now.

Sun+Earth helps us carry that integrity all the way through. That’s why we do the outreach. Why we let people know these things. I’d say 15 years ago, I was in California and I ran a microgreen farm. It was similar, right? Microgreens were something I was bringing to chefs and they were like, what the…? What am I going do with this? We had to do an educational outreach. Now, I think we’re doing the same thing.

On the manufacturing end, we get to do it through white-labeling tinctures for smaller companies that want to put their own product on shelf. That gives us this decentralized way to get information to the consumer. Naturally, the centralized system seems to fail in our case. So, I like the educational outreach aspect of everything.

Acres U.S.A. Andrew, could you tell us a little bit more about the history of Sun+Earth? It has a connection with Dr. Bronner’s, specifically David Bronner, I believe. Could you tell us a little bit about that? And why that was something that he was passionate about and wanted to start? Because it seems to me that Dr. Bronner’s has a pretty masterful grasp of supply chains.

Black. Exactly.

Acres U.S.A. I’m imagining that that’s incredibly useful for someone like Josh. I guess it’s really two questions. One is background, history. Then, the other is helping farmers and growers understand how to vertically integrate what they’re doing.

Black. Well, let me tackle the first question first. I’ve been involved in organic certification since 2005. I worked for a long time with Oregon Tilth doing certification throughout the United States. Also in Latin America, I ran the Latin American program for Oregon Tilth for a number of years. That experience really helped me understand standards and how to implement a certification program.

In 2017, I was approached by Dr. Bronner’s. They were interested in putting together a certification standard that was for sun-grown cannabis that went beyond organics. That was the root conversation. In 2018, Dr. Bronner’s funded us to do a pilot program.

We created a technical advisory committee. We had eight meetings to create the standards. During that time, while we were creating the standards, we recruited 12 farms in the Emerald Triangle in California — Mendocino, Humboldt and Trinity Counties, and Sonoma County, actually, as well — to participate. We tested our certification program with those guys. They helped us flesh it out. We actually went to their farms twice that year, so they had two inspections each. We worked out the kinks. We had a 50-day public comment period, received comments and then published our standard.

Since then, we’ve grown to 40 certified farms. Our goal is to get up to 60 certified farms or manufacturers this year. Dr. Bronner’s is the main funder. They have a program where — it’s called Constructive Capital. They give away a lot of philanthropy money to nonprofits that they’re interested in supporting. A lot of them are in the regenerative agriculture space. That’s where we fit in.

Acres U.S.A. Describe how Sun+Earth is a necessary piece of this particular industry. Why couldn’t someone like Josh just do Regenerative Organic Certification, which Dr. Bronner’s is also involved in? Why was it important to have a specific certification for cannabis growers?

Black. Well, I think back in 2018, when we started, the ROC, which you referred to, was just also getting started. Also, we were dealing with THC cannabis farms. I don’t know if the ROC will actually certify adult-use cannabis. On some level, this certification was needed specifically for sun-grown adult-use cannabis.

I was a part of — and I still am — Certified Kind, which is a certification standard for organically grown cannabis. That certification standard allows indoor famers to get certified, for example. But Sun+Earth goes beyond that and only certifies cannabis that was grown under the sun and in the soil. But the need was there for a high-bar standard. That was created collaboratively. The need is there because most certification standards can’t touch adult-use cannabis. It’s still too much of a stretch. For example, USDA Organic certifiers won’t certify adult-use cannabis, even in states that have legalized it.

Acres U.S.A. Josh, could you talk a little bit about your approach to producing CBD and other products? You seem to have a big focus on soil health. Do you see a big difference in the end product?

Gulliver. The values are dictated by what you want to do with it at the end product. For example, we’ve been making essential oil, hemp essential oil. The plant that I want in the field that I’m going to utilize for hemp essential oil is not the same one that I want to utilize for standard hemp biomass that we might put through an ethanol extraction to product hemp CBD oil. So, I’d say that the biggest thing there is to start with the genetics. We utilized different genetics, depending on what we want to use it for. It’s hard to say that it changes the final product substantially.

In our processing outfit, we’ll have multiple farms bring us their hemp. The final product is typically pretty similar when it comes to CBD oil. The big difference is terpenes, to tell you the truth. The smell. That’s why I mentioned the essential oil as well because we only want to use cultivars that produce that really heavy cannabis smell so we can allow that to transcend through to the final product. But really, I’d say that the way I grow a vegetable is very similar to the way I grow hemp. We test the soil, we figure out what kind of nutrients it wants.

One of the nice things about Sun+Earth is it does limit how much nitrogen we can put down. One thing Andrew and I haven’t really mentioned in any kind of depth is climate change. All these things that we’re talking about, all the regenerative agricultural aspects of this, is completely related to that. To give you an example, we did a test on dry farming hemp a few years ago. This will tie back in, but when we did the test, we determined that with no irrigation whatsoever, we only lost about ten percent of production. So as a farmer, I had to say to myself, “Okay. What does that really mean from an input perspective? Let alone a climate change perspective, but what does that mean from just an input perspective? Can I farm on even more of a shoestring by not applying water?”

To give you the number, 49 gallons of water produced one pound of hemp on an irrigated field, and 4.6 gallons of water produced hemp on an unirrigated field. Which is a substantial difference, and we only lost ten percent in our production. So, I have to ask myself as a farmer, those kind of experiments have definitely shaped how we move forward, and how much we apply, and when we apply irrigation, for example.

Acres U.S.A. You mentioned earlier using different genetics based on intended application. Can you talk more about your approach to genetics? I know it varies by hemp farmer.

Gulliver. I mentioned that I come from a vegetable production farming background. I don’t want to see blanks in my field. I don’t want my hemp seeded. When I put regular seed out, naturally I’m going walk through that field and I’m going pull out all the males. I might have 20 females in a row, and a blank of 40 feet and two females.

When I look at how to efficiently farm in the manner that I want to, we’re tight. We’re tight on margins. It’s hard to be a regenerative farm in today’s agricultural community. Especially with hemp. Hemp is a roller coaster.

I have the privilege of being right down the road from Oregon CBD. Oregon CBD is one of the larger hemp seed producers in the country. They’re really good at it. They have $100 million of overhead and all sorts of things to make these seeds. What’s nice about that is I’m keenly aware that whether it’s an echinacea seed or whether it’s a hemp seed, it’s gonna grow better in your environment if it was bred in your [environment]. Naturally, that is where I source my production seeds from. I source feminized seed only because I don’t want those blanks in the field. Because I can’t afford those blanks in the field, quite honestly. There’s some great farms that are now trying to produce feminized seed in a manner in which Sun+Earth supports and organic supports. East Fork Cultivars is one of those. We use them for our essential oil. They’re also in southern Oregon. So again, it’s a privilege for us because they’re right next door and I know it’s produced here in Oregon, I know it’s going to grow well in my environment. So, it’s pretty simple for me when it comes to that. I definitely would prefer to source seeds locally and I do.

Acres U.S.A. I’m wondering if you had to come up with a few rules of thumb for people who are looking to get into regenerative hemp, what would you tell them? Where would they start? What should they know?

Black. For me, it’s simple. It’s very simple. My number one advice would be to, before you even think about doing this, cultivate a market for it. Too many farmers have been left with thousands of pounds of hemp and incurred tens of thousands of dollars or hundreds of thousands of dollars of loss because they went big. Start small, know your market.

Gulliver. Yeah. I’d also say that starting out with a regenerative approach, starting out with an organic approach. There’s a general idea that it’s more expensive to farm that way. You do have to do it on a shoestring budget. But when you approach it practically and say to yourselves, “Okay. If I interplant with this type of cultivar, I can avoid weeding.” Especially when you’re first setting up a farm, I think when you go into it with those ideals and those priorities aligned correctly, in two or three years, you can really create a, I don’t want to call it a food forest, but you can create a real ecological system that continues to produce for you. That is not going happen with traditional agricultural and conventional agricultural methods.

Acres U.S.A. Andrew’s advice was to know your market and have a market, build a market. Was that your experience? Did you go into it that way?

Gulliver. I don’t want to be too much of a cynic. The hemp industry is a very tough industry to exist in right now. J and J Organics has expanded their crop line by almost 20 cultivars that’s non-hemp related this season alone just because we need to continue to do things. We need to produce some kind of revenue. Hemp alone, as a company that’s been fairly successful in the industry here — at least I like to think we have been—hemp alone would not keep my farm 100% afloat this year. The industry has gone from something where you’re seeing $80 or $90/pound price points to all of a sudden conventional hemp, you might be lucky to get $1.50, $2/pound right now in today’s market, which is a tremendous crash.

I guess not only do you want to be careful going into it, but you want to really do some realistic numbers and say to yourself, “Okay. What am I going to put into this and what am I going to get out of it? It’s a difficult market to navigate right now. My biggest thing with it is do not put all your eggs in one basket. It’s funny. J and J Organics is very much considered a hemp farm. Like I mentioned, we have a lot of different crops on the list. I don’t necessarily identify myself as only a hemp farm these days because I think it’s going be hard to exist as just that.

Acres U.S.A. What are the factors at play there?

Gulliver. Well, I’ve give you the most simple explanation I can. Last year, it cost me about $11.70/pound to get out of the field. I could sell it for maybe $15.

Acres U.S.A. Even the high-end stuff that you’re producing?

Gulliver. Even organic, biodynamic, regenerative, Sun+Earth-certified hemp. There are customers out there that will recognize the importance of those ideals and those certifications, and they’ll pay you for them. But with an industry that you can get on eBay and buy an isolate tincture that has 5,000 milligrams of CBD and they have no idea where it came from, they can get it for $22 or something. Then, compare that to what we produce on a shelf that’s a much, much different product.

Acres U.S.A. It sounds like there’s got to be a change in consciousness. I was talking to a blueberry farmer in Oregon, up in your neck of the woods. He was talking about his goal was always to produce the most nutrient-dense blueberries he could, certified organic, et cetera. He realized that wholesale distributors don’t care about your nutrient density. They just want your organic certification. It’s like getting all these certifications and then expecting a big premium isn’t necessarily a realistic goal?

Gulliver. No, it’s not. That’s what I mentioned, one thing about certifications that’s really important to me personally is this aligning of values. Because I think once people discover what Sun+Earth is about and what it represents, then yes, those individuals that now have learned about it are going to see the value, going probably try to search out Sun+Earth-certified products. But yeah, they don’t always equate to profits or revenue, or any of that thing, to be frank. Not at all.

Black. That’s clear. The certification itself isn’t going raise the value that you can get at the marketplace by 3X, 4X, in a similar way that some organic crops get. It’s not going happen. Because of that, we have a scholarship fund that basically allows us to do the third-party certification on a shoestring budget, where we only charge the growers $400. The annual fee for the certification is $400, which is a pretty good value as far as certifications go. It’s a flat fee. We can thank Dr. Bronner’s, their charitable arm, for that because they’re the ones that are supporting this Sun+Earth program and allowing us to do that.

Acres U.S.A. To close this out, Andrew, could you tell us a little bit about the future for Sun+Earth, and what your plans are? I know that it’s sort of rolling out in different parts of the country.

Black. Our goal is to be a certification standard that we can offer anywhere in the world where they have adult-use cannabis farming or hemp farming. But right now, we’re really strong in California. We have over 30 farms certified in California. We’re focused on trying to educate the marketplace in California to develop what I call a truly green marketplace in California. If we’re successful there, I think that the same types of projects that we do where we’re going into dispensaries and educating the bud tenders about why Sun+Earth is important, and how we’re making an impact, and why consumers will be interested in having these high-quality products. That type of education at the point of sale is a project that we’re focused on. What we realize is that with this new certification, and just certification in general, it’s that point of sale education and awareness is so important. We’ve got initiatives there.

We hope to expand to the eastern seaboard. We’re talking to some people in Massachusetts. Little by little — just onesies, twosies — if we can certify hemp farms on the East Coast, or even adult-use cannabis in some of these states that are legalizing, then we can continue to put the information out there and raise awareness about these beautiful farms — how they’re farming, why it’s different, why it’s important.

That’s the goal. The goal is just to raise the awareness about these farms and help them succeed. The tendency in agriculture and all things in our culture these days is to point to technology and say this is going to save us. In agriculture, the technology that is put out there is GMO and chemicals, and even sometimes CRISPR technology. These are suspect. We really need to shift the narrative. This type of technology is inferior to the natural technology that traditional cultures have known about for eons and that we’ve added to. That is part of the message that ultimately comes out. We’re saying grow cannabis under the sun and in the earth. It’s better for the environment. It produces a superior product. This seems like a no-brainer to a lot of people who are already familiar with the benefits of organic agriculture. But to a lot of people who know nothing about hemp production or cannabis production, or even how to grow a tomato, the concept of natural farming is foreign to them. If we can bring this through cannabis and hemp, the idea of natural farming and how important it is to cannabis and hemp, then we’ve succeeded.  

Cover Crops Make Farming Fun Again

David Brandt.

By Mary Ann Lieser

Edward Faulkner’s Plowman’s Folly was first published in 1943, on the heels of the Dust Bowl. During the 1930s, the southern Great Plains had seen millions of tons of topsoil lost, thousands of families uprooted and impoverished and hundreds of deaths from “dust pneumonia.” Faulkner’s no-till message introduced another way to plant field crops that, had it been widely adopted a few decades earlier, would have largely prevented the catastrophe that was the Dust Bowl.

 The benefits of no-till agriculture are better understood today, and no-till is just one leg of conservation agriculture’s three-legged stool of soil health, along with permanent ground covers and diverse crop rotations. Those practices build soil health rather than deplete it, and when those practices are continued over time they continue to build increased nutrition and resilience into the soils that we rely on for our very survival.

There’s no more enthusiastic proponent of no-till farming and diverse cover crops than David Brandt, who farms over 1,100 acres in Fairfield County, Ohio, in a corn-soy-small grain rotation. A Marine veteran who earned a Purple Heart in Vietnam, Brandt returned to his family’s farm over fifty years ago. He adopted no-till practices in 1971, and began using cover crops in 1978 to control erosion.

Early in his cover crop journey Brandt teamed up with agricultural researchers from the Ohio State University (OSU), and they’ve been collecting data on his farm’s soil health going back decades. For the past twenty years he’s been experimenting with more and more diverse cover crop cocktails, tracking which species bring the most soil benefits. And he’s clearly enjoying himself along the way.

“Cover crops made farming fun. It’s a challenge to solve the puzzle of how best to draw trace elements up from deep in the soil, how to attract the most beneficial insects and cut back on insecticides, how to get the best infiltration after a rain, how to make cover crops pay for themselves. I enjoy figuring all that out. Farming isn’t the drudgery some folks think it is.”

His current collaboration with OSU researchers means there’s solid data to support what Brandt’s learned through years of trial and error. His farm is, in effect, a long-term continuous no-till study site for the OSU ag department, which has demonstrated increased total microbial biomass, increased crop yields and decreased carbon loss on the land he farms.

Brandt has a passion to spread his message to other farmers, so they can learn from mistakes that he’s already made. But he also cautions that they may have to make their own mistakes, because no two pieces of land are identical. He encourages people to visit his farm, and he takes them outdoors to feel and smell the soil. He likes to see a farmer get down off the tractor and really experience what’s going on in the deeper layers. And he loves to place a photo of a shovelful of soil from when he began farming his land, next to a photo of a more recent shovelful. “We had yellow clay. Now we have eighteen inches of dark, granular topsoil. I want to take that beautiful dark soil all the way down to the bedrock. Cover crops will get us there.”

For farmers who are transitioning from conventional farming to no-till with cover crops, he believes that the biggest challenge can be to shift their thinking to a different kind of management. With the goal to “keep something of value growing as many months as possible,” Brandt sometimes harvests and replants a field the same day to keep cover on the ground. He wants to have living roots in the soil all year, but he also doesn’t want cover crops to go to seed, with the exception of sunflowers. Crimson clover, for instance, should bloom but not make seeds, for the seeds take nutrients from the soil. So timing is vital.

Brandt uses a roller crimper to terminate most of his cover crops, and termination timing can be crucial. Especially with high residue cover crops, it’s important to watch the weather, and not terminate too early. And for farmers who’ve been using herbicides, it’s important to understand how the herbicide residuals work. “Learn to manage your residue and learn the best ways to terminate your crops, and the rest usually takes care of itself.”

Nationwide, research on yield responses with cover crop cocktails has produced mixed results, but soil-health pioneers like Brandt are taking the long view. No-till farming with cover crops is a long-term investment in the soil. Yield increases may not happen for several years. Although he always keeps the big picture in mind, Brandt is ever practical about the details, whether he’s talking about purchasing fertilizer — “Why are we buying nitrogen when it’s in the air?” — or about paying for seed — “Don’t spend more on seed for cover crops than you gain in reduced fertilizer or better yield.”

Continuing no-till and cover crop practices over time seems to offer increasing benefits, as shown by Vinayak Shedekar’s work at the OSU. As part of an ongoing research project Shedekar is looking at how mature systems like the Brandt farm compare with both conventional farms and with systems that are at an earlier point in the transition to conservation agriculture. It can take up to a decade for a no-till system to be stabilized, and there haven’t been many studies that have looked at long-term effects of no-till practices because it’s not easy to find farms like Brandt’s that have incorporated these practices for more than forty years. Early measurements in Shedekar’s ongoing project have compared soil health scores for fields being farmed conventionally (which averaged 5.1) with those for fields after two years of no-till (averaging 6.1), and those for mature no-till cover crop systems (which averaged 8.1 on the soil health scale).  

Among the first cover crops Brandt used were hairy vetch and winter peas, and he still likes both of those plants. Back then he was using commercial nitrogen, but found he was able to reduce nitrogen inputs as his soil changed. Leguminous cover plants like the vetches, clovers, peas, and hemps pick out nitrogen from the atmosphere and use it to form nodules on the roots, where soil bacteria can break those nodules down, making the nitrogen available in the soil for the next crop. Brandt sometimes plants several varieties of peas in the same cover so that they nodulate in different layers of the soil, to stratify nitrogen for the corn that will follow.

These days Brandt plants custom blends of multiple species, often eight to fourteen at a time. Selecting the right species for the mixture is part of the challenge of getting to know a piece of land and discovering ways to improve it. “We’ve tried over a hundred different cover crops. Twenty we’ll never use again. Fava beans were a disaster.” But for every disaster he’s had many successes, and he’s still learning how to use specific species to meet specific goals.

He looks at priorities and chooses species accordingly. Grasses build organic matter. Early flowering plants like canola attract and support pollinators and beneficial insects. Brassicas bring up nutrients and enhance their availability, and legumes fix nitrogen. For instance, crimson clover is excellent for pulling in lots of nitrogen quickly.  But it’s also important to look at what comes before and after a cover crop. It can be difficult to establish diverse covers in a corn-bean rotation because the cover crops go in the ground later and the ta roots won’t have time to get big enough to really break up deeper soil layers. With a third of his land in small cereal grains (like rye, barley, or triticale) at any given time, those grains are harvested in July and Brandt starts his cover crops then.

He likes to plant Daikon radishes with a corn planter for deep penetration, then watch the radishes loosen and lift the soil as much as three or four inches as they grow. “When we plant corn after the radishes, the radishes with their two and a half foot tap roots have done the tillage.” Radishes have also helped the Brandt farm reduce the need for insecticides. The roots emit a sulfur smell that fumigates the soil, resulting in fewer cyst nematodes and slugs.

Sunflowers likewise have a large taproot and attract beneficial insects, as well as bring up zinc and magnesium from the subsoil, making those elements move available close to the surface. And buckwheat makes phosphorous more available to plants. “We are always looking for cover crops that will release nutrients that are tied up in the soil. Buckwheat is a good starter cover crop to use on depleted soils. It brings up phosphorous from deeper layers and jumpstarts soil restoration.” Phacelia is increasingly used as a cover, due to its thick and fibrous roots that grow quickly. “Phacelia has a tremendous root system. Pull up one full-grown plant and you can’t fit all the roots in a five-gallon bucket.”

The varying root systems of these cover crops result in less soil compaction and deeper water infiltration. Brandt believes the root systems allow for a version of infield compost tea with no extra work on his part. “I get a controlled release of nutrients every time it rains.” And when the soil retains more moisture, that soil is less prone to temperature extremes, which can cause plant stress. Brandt enjoys sharing photos that show soil thermometer readings taken on a 100-degree day. The probe in his neighbor’s soil registered 118 degrees, while his own only reached 86 degrees. Cooler soil under extreme conditions means healthier plants.

Brandt has accomplished a lot for a small-time farmer from Ohio. He currently serves as president of the Soil Health Academy, and he’s traveled to or hosted dozens of speaking engagements over the years, including a trip to Europe at the invitation of the French Minister of Agriculture to talk about how farmers can achieve carbon sequestration in the soil. His enthusiasm for the soil is tangible, and it shines through in his spontaneous comments when he looks at photographic evidence of his farm’s health. “Look at the color of that soil.” “Look at those nodules!” “Look at the cottage cheese of that soil” — this last referring to the lumpy texture that results from the formation of soil aggregates.

In the eastern US, the wood-based soils of 250 years ago would have had organic matter levels of five or six percent. Organic matter always goes down with tillage, and today a lot of farms have only one or two percent organic matter in their degraded soils. Farmers like Brandt are achieving five and six percent organic matter levels on land that’s in continuous cultivation, thus pioneering the sustainable methods future farmers will need to use to feed our planet’s population.

Today, almost eighty years after the publication of Plowman’s Folly, the stakes are higher than ever. If more farmers don’t begin adopting conservation practices to build soil health, our descendants will face catastrophes many times greater in magnitude than the Dust Bowl. But there’s also plenty of room for optimism, and that’s the path Dave Brandt has chosen. We understand more about the science of soil health than ever before, from the micro to the macro levels. All those levels are on display on the Brandt farm. He is equally excited about invisible organisms — “We’re building the microbial herd underneath the surface” — and visible ones — “Look at the size of those earthworms!”

And, to pull back a step further, a photo Brandt loves to share is an aerial view of his fields, an image captured by drone. It’s winter, and the Brandt farm is an oasis of green in the middle of his neighbors’ bare, brown fields.

Cover Crops

This excerpt is brought to you by Book of the Week – offering you a glimpse between the pages and an exclusive discount of a new book each week. Get the Book of the Week email newsletter delivered directly to your in box! This week’s Book of the Week is Advancing Biological Farming, by Gary Zimmer.

Rule number four of the Six Rules of Biological Farming is about cover crops: Create maximum plant diversity by using green manure crops and tight rotations. I never miss an opportunity to have something growing on my land. Green plants feed soil life, build organic matter, and capture nutrients in their tissues. Keeping my nutrients in a biological cycle means those nutrients will not leach or erode, and they are in a form that is linked to biology so it is easier for plants to access them. Nutrients held in a cover crop do not show up on a soil test, but as those plants break down, the nutrients in them are released into the soil in a plant-available form. When I do not have a forage crop or row crop growing on my land, I want to have a cover crop growing.

A good cover crop can provide many benefits, including:

  • improving water infiltration into the soil
  • reducing water loss from bare soil by evaporation
  • holding soil in place and reduces erosion from wind and rain
  • reducing fertilizer inputs by providing calcium, phosphorus, potassium, nitrogen and micronutrients to the following crop
  • breaking up soil compaction producing compounds that deter weeds and crop pests
  • increasing soil organic matter levels
  • feeding soil biology

There are many different types of cover crops, and each provides different benefits, but there are a couple of things that all cover crops have in common: cover crops increase plant diversity in your rotation, and they pull up and hold onto soil nutrients.

The Benefits of Plant Diversity

There is a lot to be gained by adding more types of plants to your rotation through growing cover crops. Many pests, for example, prey on a relatively narrow range of species, so increasing diversity can break pest and disease cycles. Growing a wide range of plant species can also increase microbe diversity because different microbes prefer different types of plants. Another benefit of increasing plant diversity is that different types of plants access nutrients other than those the crop will pull up, so planting cover crops and working them into the soil can increase the amount and variety of plant-available nutrients. Finally, cover crops can have a different type of root system from the main crop, which will help keep channels in the soil open to allow water infiltration and air movement.

I run a lot of different test plots on my farm, and when I was first starting out I wanted to demonstrate the value of planting a diversity of plants by establishing a continuous corn plot on my farm. This sounds counterintuitive, but what made this corn-on-corn field different was that it always had one or more cover crops on it.

A lot of farmers have learned from experience that problems with diseases and pests occur when you grow corn-on-corn and don’t rotate your crops. By interseeding my corn crop with clover and planting rye each fall, I wanted to show farmers that you do not have to rotate your crops to get diversity in the system — you can get diversity by adding cover crops. Planting clover and rye with my corn meant I was growing not one crop, but three. In addition, not using herbicides gave me more plant diversity in the form of weeds. Having weeds on my fields is not all bad, as long as I use management techniques like early cultivation to keep them under control.

After ten years of planting this corn/cover crop system on the same field, a University of Illinois researcher visited my farm and took a look at the field. He was very surprised by the health of the plants and the lack of crop pests. He had never seen a 10-year continuous corn field without corn rootworms in it. He could not understand how I was able to maintain such a healthy cornfield without rotating the crop. Of course, it was not really a 10-year continuous corn field, it was a corn/clover/rye field. The diversity added by the cover crops helped break pest cycles, kept the nutrients cycling, fed soil life, and improved soil structure. By adding cover crops, corn-on-corn really can be a sustainable farming system.

on-farm info

Learn about cover crops in person with Gary Zimmer

The Acres U.S.A. On-Farm Intensive – starting in summer 2021 – is held in partnership with experienced farm consultants Gary Zimmer and Leilani Zimmer-Durand at their famous Otter Creek Farm near Lone Rock, Wisconsin. This two-day educational experience will help farmers, growers and land owners maximize their land’s potential. 

Learn more here!

Increasing plant diversity results in a wider variety of soil life and insects, and as a result no one disease or crop pest can take over. If you are planting a corn/beans rotation with no variation and no cover crops, you have neither a diversity of residues nor soil life, and as a result you will not be able to stop the diseases and insects. That is one reason there are so many bioengineered crops and such heavy pesticide use: we have removed diversity from our farming system, and as a result we are in a constant battle against insects and diseases.

Plant diversity is the key that can break those pest and disease cycles. Since each type of plant uses different minerals, cover crops put different minerals back in the ground as they break down and this feeds a variety of soil life, improving the entire biological system. This means that the more plant diversity I have, the more success I have on my farm.

Nutrients Provided by a Cover Crop

Cover crops help make nutrients more accessible to your crop by pulling them out of the soil and holding them in their tissues. When the cover crop is worked back into the soil, microorganisms digest the plant material. As those bacteria, fungi, and other soil creatures die and decay, or are consumed by other soil organisms, they release nutrients into the soil in a plant-available form. They also produce proteins and increase plant-available nitrogen through their own biological processes. This means that as a cover crop breaks down in the soil, there is an increase in soil biological activity and a release of plant-available nutrients for the next crop growing on the land.

I wanted to demonstrate just how many nutrients are held in a cover crop, so several years ago I grew a cover crop and tested the plants. In early August, I planted a blend of Italian ryegrass, hairy vetch and buckwheat. Two months later, just before the first killing frost that fall, I tested stems, leaves and roots to determine what nutrients the cover crop had extracted. Based on my calculation of the number of pounds of biomass per acre produced by both the aboveground and belowground portions of the cover crop, the following table shows how many nutrients per acre were held in those plants.

As you can see, the cover crop pulled a lot of nutrients out of the soil and fixed some nitrogen from the air. Those nutrients will be held in the dead plant tissues and roots over the winter, and in the spring when microorganisms break down the tissues, most of those nutrients will be released back into the soil. In addition, the vetch and ryegrass will grow back in the spring and pull even more nutrients out of the soil. After I work the cover crop into the ground in the spring, those nutrients, along with carbon the plant fixed through photosynthesis, will become food for microbes and then will be released into the soil.

Not all plants pull the same nutrients out of the soil. Different types of plants take up varying amounts and types of nutrients. Corn and potatoes, for example, tend to need a lot of available minerals in the soil in order to get the nutrients they need. Small grains, on the other hand, can grow on low fertility soils. Oats and buckwheat in particular can grow and produce a crop on poor soils where other plants would struggle.

About the Author:

Raised on a Wisconsin dairy farm, Gary Zimmer is a world-renowned farmer, author, speaker, and biological farming consultant with over 35 years’ experience in agriculture.  He has helped thousands of farmers to improve their operations, starting with the soil and building to a profitable, successful farming operation.  Gary is the founder of Midwestern BioAg, and runs Otter Creek Organic Farm together with his family.

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Learn on Gary’s farm in person this summer!

The 2021 Acres U.S.A. On-Farm Intensive with Zimmer Ag is a first-year partnership between leaders in soil health education and an event to help farmers, growers and land owners maximize their land’s potential. Taking place July 19-20.

Gary Zimmer and his daughter, Leilani Zimmer-Durand, will lead a small group on a two-day educational journey at their famous Otter Creek Organic Farm near Lone Rock, Wisconsin. Workshops will demonstrate best practices for cover crops, soil testing, field preparation, equipment/tillage, weed & pest management, fertilizer programs, livestock integration and more. You will walk away with clear, next steps to improve your land’s value and potential.

Learn more about this amazing opportunity here.