Future of Agriculture

Welcome to Book of the Week – a weekly feature of an Acres U.S.A. published title offering you a glimpse between the pages! Get the Book of the Week email newsletter delivered directly to your in box! This week’s Book of the Week feature is A Grower’s Guide to Balancing Soils, by William McKibben.

After consulting in the field of agriculture for over forty years, I can say that I have seen tremendous progress in the protection of our most valuable resource — soils.

We have gone from moldboard plowing all of our production fields and suffering tremendous soil loss to farming virtually all of our production fields with conservation tillage and no-till farming practices. We are not at zero soil loss and probably never will be, but it is truly remarkable how far we have come. People just getting involved in agriculture sometimes become impatient with the speed of progress, but I feel that we are at least 80-85 percent there. The last 10-15 percent is always the most difficult and most expensive.

What is it going to take to continually improve soil quality and production? Money is the number one factor. When crop prices are good, it is amazing the willingness of farmers to experiment with new ideas and techniques. Poor crop prices continually keep farmers in survival mode and unwilling to take risks. In general, I see farmers as fearing the risk of loss more than risk of gain. I have been to organic conferences that tout the high price of organic products as a reason for the commercial farmers to move to organic practices. I seriously doubt if those price advantages could be maintained if a significant number of farmers shifted to organic production. It is simply supply and demand. It would be beneficial if both the commercial growers and the organic growers would move closer to the center. Until both organic and commercial growers are being paid for quality instead of volume, significant changes will be minimal at best.

If everyone switched to organic production whether I seriously question we could feed the population that exists now, let alone in the future. This comment is not meant to besmirch organic farmers in any way. I know this is a bold statement, and there are several reasons.

  • We just don’t have nearly enough farmers to make this switch. Let’s face it — organic farming is labor intensive.
  • Tillage will have to increase to achieve weed control, and getting commercial growers to go back to cultivating row crops is probably not going to happen, at least without a large incentive package. This increase in tillage will also increase the potential for soil loss.
  • Currently I seriously doubt if there is enough non-GMO seed in the pipeline to satisfy the demand.
  • This is probably true for fertilizer as well.

I don’t really see a major shift in the number of commercial growers going into organic production — not only for the reasons mentioned above, but a three-year transition period would be financially crippling. There is a small shift in farmers planting into cover crops with reduced fertilizer and chemical inputs, but chemical control remains the backup plan. Unfortunately, due to current economic conditions, I do see the smaller and older farmer getting out of farming. This results in fewer farmers operating larger operations. Big does not necessarily mean bad, but it is the large operations that struggle with things like cover crops, doing away with fall nitrogen applications, and fertilizing just prior to planting. These large operations love no-till, which allows them to farm more ground. If no-till is resulting in stratification of the phosphorus and tillage is required to fix the problem, the larger operations will have more problems accomplishing this.

We need more diversity in our crops. Corn and beans only increase nematode, insect, and weed issues.

The onset of hemp will eventually bite into some of the corn and bean acres, but government involvement will drastically slow that process down.

I think we will see more urban farming, but that will only be for leafy greens and vegetables.

Technology is rapidly changing the way spraying, planting, and harvesting is being done. Farmers in general are on information overload. We have more data now on how the crop was planted — at what depth and rate as well as harvest moisture and yield, virtually by the square foot — but we know practically nothing about soil biology. Much of our soil chemistry research is from the 1940s and ’50s. Most of this information is still valid today but not being fine-tuned for the changes in varieties and farming practices in today’s agriculture.

Few people are using paste analysis, tissue analysis, and stalk nitrogen testing. There is no doubt that farmers of the future will need to be more technologically savvy from the equipment perspective, but they need to quit trying to micro-manage a soil system that is too complex and variable. Advancements in equipment technology is a wonderful thing, but it is not going to increase crop yields substantially. Yields are going to be dramatically increased through bio-engineering and balancing the soils. This will only be done when we use all the tools at our disposal, such as standard and paste tests, tissue analysis, stalk nitrogen, and available nitrogen testing — and do it on a zone basis. There still many farmers not even running the basic soil test, and those that do delegate it to the very people who are selling them fertilizer. Universities need to be turning out more independent consultants who practice the principles put forth in this book; however, that would require a huge change in attitude. The environmental challenges could be corrected with our current knowledge of soils, but this knowledge needs to be used and built upon if future generations are going to survive.

It is time to quit looking for the magic bullet and slapping BandAids on problems. It is time to get back to the basics of balancing the soil chemistry and improving soil organic matter and structure, and to leave the rest up to the Good Lord.

About the Author:

William “Crop Doc” McKibben is an Ohio-based consultant specializing in soil fertility balancing and managing crop yields, as well as livestock nutrition. He holds a master’s in soil science from Ohio State and has worked as an agronomist in the Midwest for more than 30 years, much of that with Brookside Laboratories. In addition to consulting to farmers, he has experience with municipalities, golf courses, and specialty crops.

Hear William McKibben’s speeches here.

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Tractor Time Episode 65: Rick Clark on Soil Health, Cover Crops and No-Till Techniques

Rick Clark is a fifth-generation farmer based in Warren County, Indiana, but he’s been spreading the no-till, organic gospel far and wide for the last few years. He gave a keynote address at the Acres U.S.A. Healthy Soil Summit back in the summer. And just this month he was a featured speaker at the Acres U.S.A. Eco-Ag Conference in Columbus, Ohio.

And if you’ve ever heard Rick speak, you know how much of an evangelist he is for soil health and ecological farming. His enthusiasm is infectious. He’s definitely not hiding his light under a bushel.

In fact, big food brands have started taking notice of Clark’s production methods. Rick was named Danone’s Sustainable Farmer of the Year in 2017. And Land O’ Lakes recently recognized his work with an Outstanding Sustainability Award.

So why is Clark getting this attention? Because he’s proving that an obsessive focus on soil health — and not just on yield — can work at a commercial scale.

His family has farmed near Williamsport, Indiana since the 1880s. Today, the family is producing organic corn, soybeans, wheat, alfalfa and more on 7,000 acres. Clark is quick to point out that they were, historically, among the worst offenders in terms of excessive tillage and toxic chemistry.

But over the last 15 years or so, that’s all changed. Today, Clark is proving that no-till organic production methods can lead to both a profitable business and a healthy, balanced ecosystem. Yes, that means no till, no pesticides, no herbicides, no synthetic fertilizers. But it isn’t just about what he isn’t doing. Clark is also perfecting the craft of cover crops as well as the use of livestock within cropping systems. Clark says his strategy is to work with Mother Earth to create self-sustaining, closed loop ecological systems that are teeming with biodiversity. But he’s also obsessed with collecting data and using technology to his benefit. What he’s not obsessed with is yield. To him, it’s almost a five-letter word. The most important consideration, for Clark, is the long-term health of his land. And his vision might just be the future of agriculture.

To find our more about Rick Clark, visit www.farmgreen.land.

Effects of Using Rock Dusts

Welcome to Book of the Week – a weekly feature of an Acres U.S.A. published title offering you a glimpse between the pages! Get the Book of the Week email newsletter delivered directly to your in box! This week’s Book of the Week feature is Stone Age Farming, by Alanna Moore.

Increased Yields

In scientific studies soil remineralization with rock dust has been shown to increase yields by between two to four times in agriculture and forestry (with increased wood volumes).

Lower Mortality

People report lower mortality rates in crops that have been treated with rock dust. In the Boral plant trials during a 115 F (44 C) heat wave there was an instance of a vent not being opened to cool down the greenhouse. Many plants were “fried” brown in the heat and looked like they were finished. But 48 hours later the ones with added rock dust and Sweetpit were rejuvenated and looked healthy again, whereas all the others were truly dead.

Pest Suppression

People report less pest control is required after soils are improved with rock dusts and plants have become vibrantly healthy. In trials run by the Men of the Trees in Perth, seedlings grown in granite dust enriched potting mix did not get nibbled by caterpillars, as did the controls.

One of the Boral trials looked at the effect of rock dust on nematodes, a plant pest in soils. Rock dust was applied to a major sporting ground that suffered turf nematodes and it did prove effective. A plant pathologist was then employed to further study this in a scientifically replicable trial. The results showed that plants in biologically active soil with high levels of rock dust could maintain vigorous growth, despite the presence of the nematodes, which would normally have damaging effects. Tomatoes grown in these trials were 21% taller than the controls, with a 65% greater dry weight as well.

Relevant studies show increased pest resistance from organic as opposed to conventionally produced crops. A study by Dr. Franco Weibel at the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture in Ackerstrasse, Switzerland found that organically produced apples had higher phenol levels. Phenols are naturally synthesized by plants as a defense against pests and diseases.

Research in Germany has found that very fine rock dust sprayed directly on plants will deter insects. Also, trails of rock dust around plants can be a good physical barrier against snails and slugs.

Fungal Protection

The aerobic conditions fostered by rock dusts and microbes are not favorable for fungal activity. Georg Abermann, an Austrian agricultural consultant and forester, finds that silica and other fresh trace elements improve resistance to fungal attack. Silica is well supplied by granite and other rock dusts, while the antifungal biodynamic preparation 501 is basically silica, made from crushed rock crystal.

Many people around the world have enjoyed fungal-free crops thanks to rock dust. Using it in potting mixes with compost reduces the damping off of seedlings from fungal attack, as well as generally suppressing pathogens.

Weed Suppression

Some people report a suppression of weeds. Whether this is from the physical barrier of a layer of rock dust around trees or a change in the soil status that does not foster weeds remains to be studied. Other people report lush weed growth in the enhanced growing conditions.

Improved Flavor

Georg Abermann also finds that rock dust improves the aroma and taste of the harvest. This I can vouch for, and other peoples’ anecdotal evidence agrees. Trace elements allow the formation of aroma enzymes in plants. Mineralized hay has a stronger aroma, which animals then eat with all the more gusto, he says.

Improved Quality

With organically produced foods from rock dusted soil there is a general enhancement of quality. There is no single standard test for quality, but improved nutritional levels are a good indication, as are the presence of large complex molecules such as sugars, proteins, enzymes, esters and organic acids.

Plants grown in paramagnetic soils tend to have a blue tinge, visible to the human eye, due to higher sugar levels. This equates to better flavor, pest and frost resistance, and improved health of plants.


Mineralized soils produce crops with increased brix readings, due to higher sugar levels. The brix index reading is done with a refractometer, in a technique utilized by Dr. Carey Reams in the early 1980s. Plants grown in paramagnetic soils tend to have a visible blue tinge, due to increased sugar levels, which equates to better flavor, pest and frost resistance, and health of plants. Some researchers report a 6 point brix increase with crops grown in paramagnetic soils.

Additional Nutrient Tests

Other tests to determine the level of nutrients in food include copper-chloride crystallization and chromatography, physical/chemical techniques such as counting photon emissions (the higher the count — the better), measuring electrical conductivity and other electro-chemical properties, as well as microbiological and biochemical techniques.

The ancient art of dowsing can also be used to determine the level of nutrients in food. The dowser can look at the invisible dimensions to discover the levels of life force in foods as an indication of their vitality and health-giving properties. The stronger the life force, the better the food is going to be for health and wellbeing.

About the Author:

Alanna has written articles for several Permaculture, farming, new age and rural life magazines — especially on dowsing, Permaculture and geomancy. Alanna is the author of Backyard Poultry Naturally, Sensitive Permaculture and Divining Earth Spirit. Alanna discovered the ancient art of dowsing in London in 1980 and helped to found the New South Wales (Australia) Dowsing Society in 1984. Since those times she has trained many thousands of people in the dowsers’ art.

Titles of Similar Interest:

Fighting for Food and Seed Sovereignty in Hawai’i

Nancy Redfeather is a farmer, teacher, writer, program director and activist.

By Allie Hymas

“Start with one row,” says Nancy Redfeather, farmer, teacher, writer, program director and activist. In addition to decades teaching in Waldorf and public schools and cautioning  against GMOs in her home state of Hawai‘i, Redfeather recently retired from a decade of work with the Kohala Center as the director of the Hawai‘i Island School Garden Network whose vision was to support schools and teachers to create organic gardens in schools across the big island.

Her advice to would-be seed advocates: “If you want to save seed, start with something you know how to grow, read about how to save that kind of seed, and make sure you do a germination test and store it properly… and don’t forget to use compost! Once you get going, you have something to share with your family and friends.” 

To Redfeather, staying grounded in the work informs the direction and motivation for organizing people. Her life’s arc of prolific educating, organizing and advocacy can be traced back to a desire to see the land flourish and food sources multiply to nourish the community. “You’ll have way more  appreciation for the whole system if you participate in it yourself.”

While it’s well known that tourists flock to the Aloha State, fewer are aware that the biotech companies have fought for decades with locals to carry out their field trials with the benefit of Hawai‘i’s isolated land and year-round 75 degree climate. “In many ways, Hawai‘i didn’t really give them a welcome mat,” Redfeather says. “They use too many pesticides, communities were getting sprayed–especially Kauai.” Some, like Grist’s Nathaniel Johnson, argue that newcomers to the islands eschew GMOs to protect their own vision of paradise. Others point out that small farms are Hawai‘i’s legacy, and monoculture threatens to erase it.  But in these past 5 years, the presence of the biotech companies has lessened.  “Hawai‘i has bigger fish to fry than opposing anything, we need to develop and grow a vibrant community food system and agricultural economy” says Redfeather. 

“86% of farms on this island are small farms, one to nine acres,” Redfeather says. Before colonization, the Kō Hawaiʻi Paeʻāina (Hawai‘ian Kingdom) grew food in many small, contiguous gardens, and Redfeather contends that this model is as much Hawai‘i’s future as its past. “They fed a population that’s roughly as big as we have now, and everyone participated in the food system.” 

Food prices in Hawai‘i continue to rise, in Oahu, a gallon of milk might cost $8.99, a pound of carrots $3.49. “That’s because we are shipping food here from the Central Valley, which is completely unsustainable,” Redfeather says. “When you think about the price of groceries at supermarkets here, there’s every reason to throw in with small and medium sized farms, and don’t forget about the home producers! Before 1980, they were our biggest growers of diverse food sources,  excluding the pineapple plantations.

Redfeather’s many shades of activism and work in seed sovereignty comes in a long list of directorships and leadership roles, but she sums up her work with a very practical motivation.

“Who owns the seed? This is the time for people to come together and to share their heirloom seed varieties with home and market growers in our communities to help develop regional and local food systems. We need to keep growing varieties that are adapted for Hawai‘i. Our ecosystems and micro-climates are unique.”

From Mainland to Island

“My ancestors were farmers. They came from Scotland in the 1800s and brought the black angus cattle to the United States,” Redfeather says. “People who were breeding animals in that time always had a diverse farm, they had crops for their cattle, produced their own and grew food for their family.” The family had collaborated on the cattle breeding operation for generations until the 1930s, when they lost their business and farm in the Great Depression. “Eventually, when their farm was foreclosed, they sold all their machinery and came to California.” Redfeather’s grandparents bought two acres in the San Gabriel Valley and started the farm where she was born.

“When I was a child in Los Angeles, there were ten thousand of small farms; Los Angeles had become an agricultural center  back in the 1920s. The chamber of commerce had decided that instead of big farms, many small farms would create a stronger economy for Los Angeles.” Redfeather says the early vision for a multiplicity of small farms led to the region’s early success in becoming a food hub for the western United States. “They made it easy for farmers who went bankrupt in the midwest to come out and buy a piece of land–and that’s what my grandparents and great grandparents did. “My grandparents had a small egg farm and bred baby chicks for the many small regional egg farms in Los Angeles,” Redfeather says. “My grandmother bred a chicken that was a good layer but really docile. I grew up spending a lot of time with chickens.”

Initially after graduation, Redfeather was not drawn to the agrarian life, but she turned to it again when the stress of college began to wear on her health. “I was working on my master’s degree in education, and I realized that I didn’t feel that great. If I’m 21 years old and I don’t feel like I have a lot of energy, there must be a reason.” It was around 1971, and a recently-published book, Diet for a Small Planet by Frances Moore Lappé had influenced several of Redfeather’s friends. “I read that book and I realized this is exactly what I wanted to do. I wanted to grow my own food.” 

“There was a big Back to the Land Movement in California in the 1970s and I think it is also occurring today among young adults. It was such a progressive time, consciousness was really opening.” Redfeather purchased a house in Long Beach with a backyard. “When I got there, I dug up the entire backyard and I put it all into a garden. I’d never done this before! I had seen my grandmother’s gardens but I really didn’t know what I was doing at first.” Five rows of zucchini and other rookie mistakes would teach Redfeather that first year about how to plan and organize her garden. “I had so much food coming out of my garden, I would teach all day and then come home and work until nightfall putting all my extra food in cardboard boxes out on the parkway in front of my house with a sign free organic food, and by morning it would all be gone!” 

It wasn’t until Redfeather moved to Hawaii in 1978 that she began to overlap her career with growing food. “Through teaching at a Waldorf School I was introduced to biodynamics,” she says. The soil on Hawai‘i Island was much different from Southern California, and Redfeather needed to majorly pivot her approach to growing food. “I couldn’t believe how hard it was to garden here,” Redfeather says. “Every island is different: Kauai is very old and has soil, but I live on the newest island and there was hardly any soil on the land I had.” Reading Rudolph Steiner’s books offered a framework within which Redfeather could pivot some of her strategies. “I started practicing biodynamics by myself, because I couldn’t find anyone else that was doing [it.]” After spending some time outsourcing her materials from the Josephine Porter Institute in Virginia, Redfeather began meeting other practitioners of biodynamics who lived on other Islands  and they formed an organization, Biodynamics Hawaii. “We had over 65 different gatherings and conferences over a ten year period,” she recalls. “At that time there were many more practitioners of biodynamics than there are today.”

Redfeather’s interest in seeds and seed saving became a passion in 1994 when she took classes from John Jeavons. “One day I was sitting in his class and he told us that he had just read a report in FAO that by 2005 we will have lost over 90% of all crop varieties that were grown in the 1900s. Those are the seeds that fed all our ancestors!” Redfeather found the report herself and launched a personal study into her state’s history of seed-company buy-outs and loss of seed diversity. “Before the 1980s, over a hundred different seed companies used to come to Molokai and other Islands and do their winter grow outs, but by the time I learned about this in the ‘90s, all of those seed companies no longer grew in Hawai‘i.” 

The GMOs Next Door

It was this growing awareness of a threat to seed diversity that sparked Redfeather’s attention when she learned about a massive wave of field trials happening quietly on several islands. “There hadn’t been a word about this in the paper,” she says. “By the time people found out around the year 2000, Hawai‘i was the center for US field trials of genetically engineered crops.” Later, Redfeather would learn that in 1999, the Hawai‘i Department of Health submitted concerns about the field trials, but were overruled. “We had congressional members who thought it would be a great thing for Hawai‘i to become a center of production for a new kind of seed that was going to feed the world.” 

Redfeather remembers a letter to the editor written by a local librarian, alerting the public that at the time roughly five to six thousand field trials for new and experimental genetically engineered crops had already occurred in their backyard. “I called her, asked what we should do as a community. At the time, I didn’t know anything about it, but it seemed wrong to violate the nucleus of a plant that has grown for millions of years and then decide that it’s yours: you can patent it, own it, and change it. It seemed like the wrong thing to do.” The librarian called her back and connected her with five other women who had reached out with a similar desire to take action. “We got together and it turned out that we were all mothers, we were all organic growers, none of us had ever been an activist and none of us understood genetic engineering.” The group committed to a year of study before taking any action. Using a room at their local Extension Station,  they would all meet one night a week,  and shared their research findings with one another, culminating in a position. “After a year and a half, we felt like we knew enough to speak up. It’s always important to take time and develop your public voice.”

As the group began to solidify their arguments that would be questioning GMOs in Hawai‘i, the University of Hawai‘i began to invest more resources into genetic engineering. The university hosted a two-day conference, inviting professors and extension agents from all over the state to come discuss genetic engineering as the future of agriculture in Hawai‘i. In the spirit of discourse, however, the university searched for an organization to present the perspective of organic agriculture. Redfeather recalls that other leaders in the state’s organic agriculture scene were unavailable to join this discussion. “They needed an opposing voice, and they couldn’t find one,” she says. “In desperation, they called me. It was like being thrown into the fire!” Redfeather says she felt nervous, but determined not to miss this opportunity. “To think that we were challenging the biggest corporations in the world–Monsanto, Syngenta, Dow, Dupont, Bayer, and so on. It was daunting! But it was time to articulate an opposing reality

Redfeather gathered her materials and created a speech outlining the concerns shared by the organic farmers in her group. She walked into the conference thinking her position would be postured as an afterthought, but when she arrived at the conference, she was surprised to discover the organizers had rearranged the schedule. “The person before me dropped out, so they told me I had an hour to speak.” Redfeather says that this speech was a pivotal moment for her, not only in platforming the collective voice of her group, but also in learning the university’s systems and language for discussing the issue. It was an important opportunity to shift the debate away from merely a blanket rejection of genetic engineering itself and present the disruptive impact of seed patents and modified crops on the agriculture and ecosystem of a small isolated island community and the communities really need to grow more food that everyone could eat! That message would become the foundation of Redfeather’s organizing mission in the years to come.

Redfeather and her cohort of activists worked on the GMO issue for seven years, during which they spoke regularly and produced a widely distributed pamphlet. “We didn’t really have the internet in the early 2000s so we traveled across the state and had live gatherings.” The group maintained a good rapport with the University of Hawai‘i, getting speakers for their events and setting up debates. 

The Garden Teacher

In 1994, Redfeather submitted a proposal to the Waldorf school where she worked as a Kindergarten Teacher to begin a school garden program. Splitting her time between the classroom and a new school garden, she was among the first teachers that decade to promote the benefits of agrarian classrooms. 

“I brought the 8th graders out to a big field filled with tall grass and said, ‘Okay, we’re going to make a garden here!” Refeather says. This was the beginning of a five year  program with kindergarteners through eight graders. “By 1999 I had a really good idea of the role agriculture could play in education and the classroom.” With her background and decades in classroom teaching and child development, Redfeather saw many layers of benefits in overlapping her skills and passion for growing food. “The children were not only adding to their skills by working in the infrastructure of the garden, they were using the garden for their learning. If every school system in America could create school garden programs linked to the classroom’s core curriculum, by high school, every child would understand and appreciate our farmers and our local and national food system, how to be good stewards of their ecosystem, and how to make healthy lifetime food choices.”

Redfeather had lived in Hawai‘i for over twenty years before she was able to purchase land of her own. “I’d always had gardens everywhere, but the piece of land we bought in 1998 was the first time I’d owned a small farm.” With this new opportunity, Refeather retired from teaching and developed Kawanui Farm with her husband, Gerry Herbert. Herbert is an agriculturist who graduated in International Agriculture from  UC Davis and is a self made  agricultural historian. “Gerrry has been my teacher and listening partner over the past 25 years.  He started taking ACRES USA in 1971 and when he moved to Hawaii in 1996 he brought all his old magazines with him. It’s important to have a partner that has the same vision you do for your work, our early morning conversations are a constant source of knowledge and encouragement!”

Not long later, a local conservation nonprofit, the Kohala Center, reached out to Redfeather with the opportunity to organize a two day conference. “I wanted to include everybody: the dairymen, the ranchers, the farmers, the educators, the policy makers, and the scientist.” In 2007, the Hawai‘i Island Food Summit launched with over three hundred attendees. “One of my breakout sessions was about school gardens and I didn’t think anyone would be interested since there were only a couple of school gardens, but as I watched almost a hundred people cram into this tiny room, I realized the time had come for organic agriculture to merge with education.”

Following the conference, the Kohala Center hired Redfeather to run the Hawai‘i Island School Garden Network and for ten years she pursued the goal of starting organic gardens in each of the island’s 75 schools. 

But seeds were always on Redfeather’s mind.

The Hawai‘i Seed Growers Network

“In 2009, the USDA’s Organic Research and Education Initiative (OREI) had a grant that would fund  a seed symposium for the entire state, so I applied and we got it.” At this point, Redfeather had been putting on local seed exchanges for over seven years. “They would be huge! Five hundred people would come, but only about five people would bring seeds.” 

The symposium “Hua ka Hua – Restore our Seed” brought together 150 farmers and the Organic Seed Alliance. “The Organic Seed Alliance brought their A team; they put on presentations and did demonstrations—it was awesome.” By the time the symposium was over, a working group of 25 farmers and gardeners from across the state had formed to collaborate on preserving and sharing open-pollinated local varieties of seed. “Everyone in this group was growing seed independently, we just weren’t connected. Many of the group were extension agents or professors, so it was a nice combination of private and public.” This working group became the Hawai‘i Seed Growers Network.

Through the Cerus Trust’s fund aimed at supporting state seed initiatives, five members of the network began putting on statewide seed saving trainings. “We called it Seed Basics,” Redfeather says. “One thing lead to another: we  seeded networks, seed libraries, and seed exchanges on the islands.” This work has culminated in the creation of the Hawai‘i Seed Growers Network online marketplace that opened in 2018 the collective work and knowledge of so many local seed growers. The unique climate, soil and half rainy-half dry seasons in Hawai‘i heighten the impetus to protect regionally-adapted seeds and the knowledge to grow them. Redfeather and her group began discussing how to build an effective market for sharing seeds and connecting various knowledge bases. “This is what Hawai‘i needed in order to protect food security moving forward.”

The necessity of seed saving came into focus during the pandemic. With many of the Indigenous food systems displaced by colonization and expensive industrial food shipped in from the mainland, gaining back access to fresh, nutritious food is a matter of survival. “After March of 2020 we realized that the pandemic had renewed a local interest in backyard gardens,” Redfeather says. “Home gardening is one of our biggest food security assets, because you can always grow something here all year-round. Even a small yard can have a small garden and fruit trees.”

Growing an Impact

Today, Redfeather and her husband work with Western SARE Farmer Rancher Initiative, on a Table Grapes for Subtropical Hawai‘i research and education project at their farm. Gerry and I have been involved with many trials of diverse crops for Hawai‘i over the past 23 years, but one thing that is impacting agriculture everywhere is the slow march of invasive species due to the impacts of globalization and climate change. Although the work of the biotech companies has decreased in the islands,  genetically engineered seeds are still the number one economic crop in Hawai‘i.”

Redfeather acknowledges that working on policy for small farms is difficult, because many lawmakers and policy influencers don’t see small farms as participants in the agricultural economy. “They would rather there be two or three thousand acre farms rather than a thousand two or three acre farms, but I know from living in Los Angeles what ten thousand one acre farms can do. Adapting to the changes in climate that are already here will be the big challenge of agriculture over the next decades.  Locally produced seed and learning to eat what grows well in your regional area will become ever more important.

Redfeather advises all seed and small farms advocates to start by truly dialing-in their own growing operations. “Grow crops that do well in your ecosystem, find your direct market, feed your family  and share with friends; invest your time in organizations moving the same direction–build the  alternative systems that will take us into the future…systems that we’ll end up with in the end…you might as well start investing in them now.”

To learn more about Nancy Redfeather visit www.kawanuifarm.org. Read more about the Hawai‘i Seed Growers Network at www.hawaiiseedgrowersnetwork.com.

The Biological Nature of Soil

Welcome to Book of the Week – a weekly feature offering you a glimpse between the pages of an Acres U.S.A. published title. Get the Book of the Week email newsletter delivered directly to your in box! This week’s Book of the Week feature is The Farm as Ecosystem, by Jerry Brunetti.

Soils contain an estimated 2–3 million species of bacteria and an estimated 1.5 million species of fungi, and only 2–5 percent have been described or named! We have a robot searching for life on Mars while we ignore or marginalize the most significant life-forms that allow this planet to be alive. As in animals, the vast majority of these microbes dwell in the “digestive system” of the plant, the root ball or the rhizosphere. Also as with animals, the majority of the immune system of plants is in the “gut” because high populations of beneficial, symbiotic microbes are both the plants’ and animals’ primary first line of defense to synthesize compounds that not only protect the digestive system or root ball/rhizosphere but also supply compounds that can be taken up by plants to protect its tissues above ground. Generally we refer to these plant protectants as plant secondary metabolites, compounds that are beneficial to the plant but are not directly necessary for its survival. Soils that have a well-balanced soil food web, have excellent physical and mineral properties, and depend upon biodiversity and high populations of these diverse microbial species are typically referred to as “immune soils.” Practices that can enhance the disease-suppressive properties of soils are:

  1. liming acid soils
  2. compost
  3. proper irrigation and water quality (pH, TDS, bicarbonate, alkalinity, salinity, EC, etc.)
  4. aeration and drainage
  5. reduced or zero tillage
  6. cover crops (preferably multiple biodiverse species)
  7. balanced fertilizer applications
  8. tight crop rotations
  9. crop residues returned to surface or shallow “sheet composting”
  10. seed inoculation with mycorrhizal and trichodermal fungal spores, etc.

According to Brady and Weil’s The Nature and Properties of Soils, the reproductive potential of bacteria is incomprehensible. A single bacteria allowed to divide every hour would yield 17 million cells in twenty-four hours. In six days this reproductive juggernaut would yield a volume of organisms greater than the volume of the Earth! Of course, bacteria being a primary food for everyone else, this situation will never be anything but a fantastic hypothesis, but it does impress upon one the amazing volume of “livestock” that make up life in the soil, and how much energy and fertility these “livestock” contribute to the productivity and well-being of natural systems, be they forest or farm.

Aerobic organisms utilize free (atmospheric) oxygen for their metabolism. Zero to six inches below the soil is where most of the microbial activity is occurring. This fact is often referred to as the fence post principle, which states that most microbial activity happens at the point where an untreated fence post will decompose, beginning at the soil surface and extending a few inches below the surface.

Atmospheric gases are typically 21 percent oxygen and 250–350 ppm or 0.025–0.035 percent carbon dioxide (CO2 ). The soil atmosphere is generally about 15 percent oxygen and 2,000–4,000 ppm or 0.2–0.4 percent carbon dioxide. The exhalation of soil life creates this difference and, of course, that CO2 is a primary raw material that plants recycle through their stomata to incorporate into the chloroplast. There it can combine with water (H2 O) to create sugars (CHO), which are in turn the building blocks of numerous other carbon complexes, such as starches, cellulose, hemicelluloses, lignin, waxes, oils, resins, pectins, fructans, glucans, and numerous plant secondary metabolites like terpenes, alkaloids, and phenols.

The photo shows me drawing the trapped soil atmosphere out of a four-inch diameter cylinder tapped into the soil surface and capped. This is allowed to sit overnight before I draw out the air and gases that have accumulated in that containment. Halfway between the cap and the syringe is a CO2 monitoring indicator capsule that captures the CO2 in the trapped atmosphere and registers the amount via a color code. Needless to say, the CO2 amounts generated in soils that are either pastured or cover cropped versus soils that have been subject to continuous tillage without any cover are significantly different. Ninety percent of the carbon dioxide produced by life on this planet primarily originates from bacteria and fungi. According to James Nardi, a research scientist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, a single acre of rich soil can easily surpass the metabolic activity of fifty thousand human beings.

Brady and Weil indicate in their book The Nature and Properties of Soils that the “living (liquid) carbon” is retained more in the soil than is the carbon (crop residue) that we have been mostly focused on, since on the average two-thirds of the crop residue is going to be discharged as CO2 gas. That’s why, when growing annuals, it is important not only to have their residues digested in the soil but also to get that bare ground covered quickly with living plants.

About the Author:

Jerry Brunetti,1950-2014, worked as a soil and crop consultant, primarily for livestock farms and ranches, and improved crop quality and livestock performance and health on certified organic farms. In 1979, he founded Agri-Dynamics Inc., and confounded Earthworks in 1990. He spoke widely on the topics of human, animal and farm health.

More From this Author:

Jerry Brunetti Workshop Lectures Complete Set on USB Thumbdrive 

Cancer, Nutrition, and Healing DVD

The Keys to Herd Health DVD

Holistic Veterinary Care DVD

Similar Books of Interest:

Secrets of Fertile Soils, by Erhad Hennig

The Art of Balancing Soil Nutrients, by William McKibben

From the Soil Up, by Donald Schriefer 

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