How to Make Your Events Pay Off

By Jorge Abrego
Acres U.S.A. Advertising Director

To better understand the best ways of yielding optimum ROI from your event spending, you first have to examine what role events play within your broader marketing strategy. Events enable you to skip a few steps in the early marketing funnel by allowing you to actually talk to a potential client about challenges and how your solution can help them add more value to their business.

While this confirms why you do events, maximizing your company’s investment requires that you don’t skip the necessary steps it takes to optimize both the quantity and quality of those leads, which should then lead to more high quality conversions.

People buy from people. And in ag this is certainly true. Which is why 68% of B2B marketers say that events are an effective demand generation strategy to acquire qualified leads that can be converted at a high rate. 68% is a high percentage, but given the fact that events are fantastic for facilitating personal interaction, building strong relationships and creating trust, why isn’t it higher?

Strategic Demand Generation

Too many companies struggle with maximizing ROI from B2B events because they aren’t planning and executing an event marketing plan that is integrated into their broader marketing strategy. An important guideline to keep in mind is that your overall demand generation strategy should include a healthy mix between digital marketing, print advertising and events.

According to B2B event marketing research, a healthy balance would be to spend around 35% of your marketing budget on events and 35% on digital marketing, with the remaining 30% spent on branding, content marketing, earned media, owned media and miscellaneous things like partner marketing and affiliate development.

A good way to look at it as that the latter, which primarily feeds the top of the funnel, supports and enhances the former, which feeds the middle and bottom of the funnel. So much so that when done correctly and with strategic forethought, it significantly increases the quantity and improves the quality of your leads.

Integrate B2B Event and Digital Marketing

Combining events and digital marketing requires companies to stop treating events and online marketing in separate silos. To get more ROI out of B2B events, you need to treat an event and digital marketing as one campaign. Too often, an event is considered a campaign and digital marketing as another campaign channel. Maximizing results requires merging and treating them as one campaign to improve customer experience and create an omnichannel approach to get your target audience to engage with you to improve ROI.

Understanding what you’re aiming at is a fundamental aspect of ROI evaluation and in B2B event marketing is 4:1. This means that for every dollar you invest, you should receive $4 in return on average. However, 44% of marketers only experience 2 to 2.5:1 event ROI. If your event ROI in a B2B environment is 2:1, then you need to figure out ways to improve your event marketing plan.

Of course, not every event will be successful. You will generate more revenue from certain trade shows and less from others. Therefore, you need to evaluate your ROI on more than one event and you should continuously tweak – but not dramatically change – your tactics to ensure you have a broader view of what works best to improve and refine.

If you’re routinely changing which events you sponsor then you’re not properly researching the value proposition and true fit. Also, you may not be building equity with the audience and your event partners. These two considerations are key in making sure you are hitching up with the right events to grow your business.

Optimize your pre-event strategy

At the core of your event marketing plan should be your pre-event strategy. What are you going to do to ensure you will maximize ROI post-event? B2B lead generation is tough and without a pre-event strategy, you likely will not yield the kind of ROI you’re hoping for.

In addition to working closely with your sales team to create a mutually agreed event lead coverage plan, the pre-event marketing plan should include how your team will leverage social media. These should be well-written posts that highlight important event content topics relevant to the problems your solution solves. In order to do so, work with your media/event partner to ensure you have the content agenda to help develop these posts since attendees will generally follow these hashtags and will see your posts.

Additionally, some event sponsorships include media as part of a package, so be sure to leverage those with content-relevant messaging. If your sponsorship doesn’t include media, leverage your event partner’s print and digital channels to amplify your sponsorship again by correlating your message to relevant event content themes. Nothing increases the quality and quantity of leads more than association to events and themes your “community” are interested in and passionate about.

Post- Event Strategy

Many CMOs will tell you that even though MQL (marketing qualified leads) follow-up is the domain of sales, marketing should play a role in continuing to nurture the lead by helping to build the relationship. A good way to do that is to make sure you capture key moments and news-worthy topics from the event to send out digital ads that tout them, and tie it into a special offer you’ve created just for event attendees as a way to thank them.

More than any other channel, events allow your company to be part of a community that shares a mission and vision that your company can play a role in bringing to life. So it makes sense to leverage your connection to the audience by touting the shared experience of an event in your messaging.

As for lead follow-up, be sure your sales team closes the follow-up gap to 1-2 days after the event. Especially if the contact is a senior-level person, you need to take into consideration that they are extremely busy and if you don’t follow up fast enough, they will have moved on and started working on other things. The caveat is that they will only talk to solution providers that are able to talk in business value. So take this into consideration.

Year-Round Engagement

Because events continue to grow in their marketing importance — assuming your events are on point and checking all the boxes for audience and content themes — working on your event game should be a year-round endeavor. Customer engagement should begin at the event itself for next year by working with your event partner to discuss ideas that can enhance the value of the experience to the audience and your company. Be proactive and leverage your association to the event’s themes and brand via webinars, white papers, podcasts and any other tactic which enables you to generate endemic engagement, build thought leadership and become a provider of rich content that delivers both direct and indirect value to the regenerative ag community we all serve.

Event marketers who do it well have realized that the real goal of an event marketing plan should be similar to the goal of any other tactic in their over-arching marketing strategy — the on-going engagement of your target audience to take the next step in the buyer journey. Recognized as one important part of a larger marketing ecosystem, events are being embraced as an integral aspect of working work hand-in-hand with an event or media partner in a unified effort toward the same shared outcomes: more loyal customers, and fuel for growing your business.

Learn more about advertising opportunities with Acres U.S.A. here.

Jorge Abrego is the Advertising Director for Acres U.S.A. and has 26 years of advertising agency and B2B media experience in the agriculture, energy and technology sectors.

“Built-in” Pest Management

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 A New Farm Language, by W. Joe Lewis.

“You can’t have any good guys without a few bad guys. That’s fact.”

So says Alton Walker. Alton and I have been friends since our days at Mississippi State where we went through our master’s degree program at the same time. Also a native of Mississippi, Alton continued his education at Clemson University, obtaining a Ph.D. in entomology prior to his career in agricultural consulting and farming in Georgia. He and I came to have a shared interest in ecologically sound farming, and in the mid ’90s we collaborated with a team of scientists on sustainable cotton production following the boll weevil eradication. Alton is a scientist with some skin in the game. He’s pursued the application of his conservation/ecologically based ideas with cotton production on a 600-acre portion of his own farm.

As Alton will tell you, the common practice of cleaning a field down to bare soil after harvest and leaving it barren over the winter is a harmful practice for multiple reasons, including pest management as well as natural resource conservation. “Farming’s been the victim of the advances of highly mechanized ‘big farming’ approaches,” he says. “Through the use of large equipment like harrows, plows, and mowers, enormous portions of biomass are removed from countless stretches of land. The land is then tilled and planted into monocultures from ditch bank to ditch bank. Then, mechanical cultivation and chemical pesticides are used to restrict diversity, while fertilizers and irrigation foster a lush growth of crops. Every year, the process starts over, meaning there’s never an opportunity for a true, natural ecosystem to develop and remain in place for the length of time it takes for it to become balanced and efficient. It’s no wonder pest outbreaks occur. On the other hand, perennializing the field—growing something year-round—helps promote a much more stable and balanced environment. We have to find our way back to approaching farming, including pest management, with an understanding of how to manage the ecosystem in which we live.”

The team Alton and I collaborated with in the ’90s was an interdisciplinary group of researchers that included Sharad Phatak, Rick Reed, John Ruberson, and Jim Hook, and Glenn Harris with the University of Georgia, and Philip Haney with my laboratory in Tifton. Eradication of the boll weevil, which had been completed in Georgia in 1990, and, later, essentially all of the United States, presented the cotton industry with a unique opportunity to advance sustainable agriculture. The eradication had been one of the greatest technical successes in agricultural history, with immense potentials in economic and environmental benefits. To completely eradicate the presence of a pest of this magnitude from the entire cotton belt! In Georgia, insecticide use was already dropping sharply, with average crop revenues increasing markedly. By 1995, the use of fifteen to twenty treatments per year had been reduced to three to five treatments. Grower interest in biological control and sustainable agriculture had never been higher, but a shift in thinking on when and how to give nature more time was going to be needed. The boll weevil had been an invasive pest without any effective natural enemies. Quick to reach damaging levels in early season, it was an especially devastating primary pest because the necessary insecticidal treatment for its control regularly spurred a sequence of secondary pest outbreaks. But now, for the first time, we could put in place an ecologically based management system without the disruptive influence of the early season boll weevil treatments.

In this new era, we could promote the adoption of cotton production as part of a healthy year-round landscape system, with approaches to pest management that deal with the natural enemy/pest complex being a vital part of that overall system.

But to take advantage of this new era, we knew there needed to be a lot of educational outreach to the grower community, including on-farm demonstrations with associated data. Otherwise, we could miss the opportunity and drift back to pesticides as the dominant pest-management practice.

Figure 9a below shows the conventional high intervention methodology (Box 1) as contrasted to year-round landscape ecosystem management (Box 2). The conventional, high-intervention approach has predominated cotton production and pest management for years, particularly since the advent in the 1950s of big farming. After harvest, the field is mowed and harrowed, rendered barren until spring when the process starts over. Because of this winter and early spring “wipeout” of everything prior to planting, the ecosystem—as represented by the typical “ecological growth curve”—is never able to achieve equilibrium status. So, there are no relays of natural enemy/pest balances into the following season. As one consequence, the pests show up first with a lag time before the natural enemies can be expected.

During the growing season, the crop is kept clean of pests such as weeds, insects, and other undesired variables by thorough cleaning, pre-planting tillage, and other soil preparation and operations, and by diligent mechanical and chemical interventions during the growth and fruiting phase. Use of fertilizers, irrigation, and other inputs are used to ensure a lush, mono-cultural growth of cotton plants from one end of the field to the other. Other plants are considered undesirable and out of place. So, this lush abundance of cotton plants, without alternate vegetation as food sources and shelter for the natural enemies of pests, along with high frequency of mechanical and chemical intervention, creates an environment prone to disruption and resistance, ultimately leading to the pesticide treadmill. This is why, prior to the boll weevil eradication, the number of pesticide treatments for cotton production would sometimes approach twenty per season.

Moreover, the lack of winter cover and the high-intervention approach with substantial removal of the biomass, along with frequent harrowing and tilling, contribute to heavy depletion of organic matter and soil microbial quality, plus extensive water and wind erosion. All of this leads to a host of other issues including lower air and water quality; higher use of fuel, labor, and machinery wear; soil compaction; and the loss of associated wildlife.

Yes, after the boll weevil eradication, we had the opportunity to shift to a less disruptive, environmentally sound, sustainable approach as represented above (Box 2), but it was going to take some time and outreach to bring about such a change in practice. We were up against methods of farming that had dominated pest management in every cropping system for over sixty years. Rachel Carson’s call for concern had brought about change, but the change was to move to softer, less toxic pesticides. Still treating the symptoms, in other words. But we had come to understand that the real issue stemmed largely from a lack of understanding of how and why external interventions are disruptive and unsustainable, in contrast with sustainable “built-in” mechanisms, which we had concluded should always be the first line of defense.

I began having discussions about this lack of understanding with Sharad Phatak, a respected pioneer on the subject, and from whom I had gained much insight. We decided to present our case as a profession-wide argument in a highly respected publication. In 1997, he and I, along with Joop van Lenteren and Jim Tumlinson, published a paper in the esteemed journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA). Our paper, “A Total Systems Approach to Sustainable Pest Management,” stressed the urgent necessity for a fundamental shift in how we think about and approach agricultural pest management to resolve escalating economic and environmental problems. We drew on our discoveries to show that an ecosystem is just that—a system, with interactive parts that behaves not like a collection of unrelated pieces, but more like a living organism. We emphasized what we’d learned about the remarkable built-in mechanisms that agricultural ecosystems have, mechanisms that act through a set of feedback loops to maintain balance and to protect against herbivore feeding, diseases, climatic stress, chemical imbalances, and other similar attacks or interventions. To our great satisfaction, the paper turned out to be a major factor in reshaping foundations around sustainable agriculture at grower, research/education, and policy levels. The USDA Sustainable Agriculture and Education Agency adopted the paper for nationwide use as a standard in guiding constituents toward grant proposals and used it as a standard in developing a sustainable pest management brochure.

The gist of our argument then (as now) centers on the obvious contrast between our sustainable approach making use of the built-in defenses, and the interventionist “treadmill” approach. Figure 9b further illustrates this contrast. The built-in defenses respond only when, where, and at the level needed. They are need-induced and target specific. The chemical SOS signals sent by plants under attack are a perfect example of this. Parasitic wasps searching for these plant feeders, thereby rescuing the plants in distress, create pest control only in fields and around plants with actively feeding populations of caterpillar pests, thus avoiding non-target collateral damage and disruptions.

Furthermore, these parasite-host/predator-prey interactions are free of resistance and maintain balance, within fluctuating bounds, through a density-dependent phenomenon, meaning that levels of attack are determined by the availability of hosts or prey. On the other hand, external therapeutic interventions, such as applications of pesticides, act continuously at full level throughout the field without regard to need or target. The consequence is high collateral damage and disruption, and maximum selection for resistance. Next stop: the pesticide treadmill.

The interventionist approach is engrained deeply into not just the agricultural mentality, but in the way we, as a society, think about corrective actions in any system. You can observe the same treadmill effect in how we approach the health of the human body. On the surface, it seems that the proper corrective action for an undesired entity is to apply a direct external counter force, hence a “healthy” dose of antibiotics for infections or painkillers for pain. But there’s now a long history in medicine where it can be demonstrated that such interventionist actions never produce sustainable desired effects. They always become less effective requiring more and more to get results. The attempted solution eventually becomes the problem. You can find vivid examples with the growing resistance to antibiotics, and problems of addiction stemming from drugs for treatment of pain or mental distress. Black-market crime is on the rise as people seek illegal sources of drugs, just as it rose during the days of prohibition as an intended solution for alcoholism.

As a matter of fundamental principle, the application of external corrective actions into a system can be effective only for short-term relief. Long-term, sustainable solutions can only be achieved through a shoring up or restructuring of the natural system—in the case of the body, through nutrition, sleep, exercise, etc.—so that natural built-in forces, such as the immune system and other regulators that function on an as-needed basis, act effectively.

The same thing is clear with pest control strategies centered on toxic chemicals and other therapeutic interventions, such as prophylactic treatments. New and “better” pesticides are continually required, just as new and “better” antibiotics are continually required in the field of medicine. It’s a constant footrace with nature. The use of pesticides and other treat-the symptoms approaches are unsustainable and should be the last, rather than the first, line of defense. A pest management strategy should always start with the question, “Why is the pest a pest?” and seek to address underlying weaknesses in ecosystems or agronomic practices that have allowed organisms to reach pest status.

About the Author:

Dr. W. Joe Lewis is an award winning scientist, recognized worldwide for major crosscutting discoveries in the fundamental science of pest management. The models for his studies have been behavioral and chemical interactions of parasitoids, insect herbivores, and plants, along with ecosystem principles. The impact of his research is evidenced by over 200 refereed scientific publications and book chapters, including five papers in prestigious Journals of Nature and Science, and three in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and an invitational paper in Scientific American. His work has been highlighted extensively in the popular press, including CNN Science and Technology, BBC/ Discovery Channel, Business Week, National Public Radio and BBC Wildlife, Fortune Magazine, and NBC Today Show.

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Fertilizer: What, Where & When

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 inbox! This week’s Book of the Week feature is Advancing Biological Farming, by Gary Zimmer. 

There are a lot of different fertilizer sources out there — some that work well in a biological farming system and others that do not. Knowing the benefits and drawbacks of different fertilizer sources can help you make the right choice for your crop and for your farm. The following table and discussion covers the most common fertilizer sources and should help answer your questions on the pros and cons of using each.


Manure and compost are excellent sources of nutrients because they provide a blend of minerals in a form that is tied to biology. The difference between these sources of nutrients is how quickly they become plant available. Compost is a slow-release source of nutrients while manure is soluble, meaning it is quickly available to plants.

A farmer I work with found out the downside of applying a lot of soluble nutrients in the spring when he went out and applied 8,000 gallons of liquid manure to his fields and then planted soybeans. He was overrun with weeds. Some people say if you don’t compost manure the weed seeds in the manure will germinate and cause problems, but in my opinion that is only a small part of it. The bigger problem is the soluble nutrients in liquid manure that cause weed seeds already in the soil to germinate. I have problems with weeds on my farm when I put raw manure on the land in the spring, but I see fewer weeds after I apply compost. I don’t believe this happens because I have a problem with weed seeds in my livestock manure. Rather, raw livestock manure is full of soluble nutrients, which sets up conditions for weeds to germinate and grow. The nutrients in compost are stabilized and less soluble so fewer weeds pop up right after applying compost than after applying raw manure.

Green manure crops (or cover crops) and crop residues are also excellent sources of nutrients. Not only are green manure crops a means for holding onto nutrients so they can’t leach, tie up or erode, as the plants decompose they feed soil life, which releases nutrients in a very plant-available form. Similar to the comparison made of manure and compost in the previous paragraph, green manure crops and young, succulent plants are a source of soluble nutrients, while mature plants and crop residues are slow release. A young green manure crop worked back into the ground breaks down right away and immediately releases nutrients into the soil. You won’t find a trace of that green manure crop two weeks after it is worked into the soil. In contrast I can go out to a field and find corn stalks two years after a corn crop was harvested and the stubble worked into the ground. Mature plant residues break down much more slowly, and the nutrients in them take a long time to become plant available.

Nitrogen Sources

Like other fertilizers, nitrogen is sold based on solubility. If you look at the Fertilizer Sources table, you will see that anhydrous ammonia, ammonium nitrate and urea are all very soluble sources of nitrogen. As I’ve already discussed, I don’t recommend using anhydrous ammonia because I don’t believe it fits on a biological farm where the goals are to increase soil organic matter and humus over time.

I don’t usually recommend urea because it is unstable and can release ammonia gas into the soil, which is toxic to roots and soil life. Applied urea also needs to be kept at least six inches away from the seed so it does not inhibit root growth. However, using a small amount of urea is not always a problem. It is often found in small quantities in foliar sprays, and in that form I think it works well.

My preferred nitrogen sources are ammonium sulfate and pelletized chicken manure. They both have some soluble and some slow release aspects to them.

I can no longer use ammonium sulfate on my farm because it is certified organic and ammonium sulfate is not allowed by the organic rules, but I would use it if I could. It is excellent for spring application on corn, small grains and alfalfa because it has a warming effect on the soil, which extends the growing season. The other thing I like about ammonium sulfate is that the nitrogen source (ammonium) is hooked to sulfur, which is a needed element in a fertilizer program.

Chicken pellets from laying hens are high in nitrogen (from five to eight percent), and provide nitrogen in a form that is easily digestible by soil microorganisms. Next to manure and cover crops, chicken pellets are the source of nitrogen I use most on my farm.

If more nitrogen is needed on a biological farm, I often recommend ammonium nitrate (liquid 28 percent). Since we want to use as little nitrogen as possible to get the job done, placement, timing and add-ons like thiosulfate, humates or molasses can improve efficiency and allow a reduction in quantity. Another good option for an efficient nitrogen source that can save future trips over the field is polymer-coated urea, labeled as ESN (Environmentally Smart Nitrogen). The nitrogen in ESN is coated in a substance that breaks down from moisture and temperature, slowly releasing nitrogen into the soil. Farmers I know who use ESN have been very satisfied with its performance.

Fish meal, feather meal and animal byproduct fertilizers are also excellent sources of nitrogen, but they are very expensive. They work well as a supplement to other nitrogen sources, but are usually not practical as the sole source of nitrogen for a crop.

Legume cover crops are another excellent source of nitrogen, working well either as a stand-alone cover crop, or when interseeded into other crops. On my farm, I have had good success interseeding clover into my corn crop. Some legumes, like alfalfa and clover, can provide up to 200 pounds per acre of nitrogen per year. A legume cover crop will provide nitrogen two ways: first, as it is growing and fixing nitrogen in its root nodules, and second, when it is worked back into the soil and becomes food for microbes. Also don’t forget that cover crops have more benefits than just supplying nitrogen; they also build soil structure, prevent erosion and feed soil organisms.

Phosphorus Sources

Orthophosphoric acid, or orthophos, is a liquid phosphorus source used as an ingredient in many high quality liquid fertilizers. It is a readily available source of phosphorus for plants. However, because of its chemical make-up, it ties up quickly with other elements in the soil and may become unavailable within hours of application. Polyphosphoric acid, or polyphos is produced by dehydrating orthophos. This process makes it more stable so it stays in the soil longer before tying up with other elements.

MAP and DAP (monoammonium phosphate and diammonium phosphate) are highly soluble dry phosphate fertilizers. Both also contain nitrogen in the ammonium form. MAP has a lower pH and less ammonium than DAP, making it a better source of soluble phosphate and is easier on soil life. The commercial fertilizer industry makes soluble phosphorus fertilizers like MAP and DAP by taking insoluble rock phosphate and mixing it with an acid, like sulfuric acid, to create orthophosphoric acid. The phosphorus is then purified out, which means calcium, sulfur and other beneficial elements found in the rock phosphate are removed.

The final step is to mix the purified orthophosphoric acid with ammonia to create MAP (monoammonium phosphate) or DAP (diammonium phosphate). This process makes a highly soluble phosphorus source, but all of the other elements of the rock phosphate have been removed. I generally do not recommend DAP. It has a high pH which can damage root hairs, those fine hairs on roots that take up most of the water and nutrients plants consume. DAP is also high in ammonia and can release ammonia gas into the soil, which is hard on soil life.

My preferred phosphorus source is a blend of rock phosphate and a commercial soluble phosphorus source such as MAP. I like to include rock phosphate in the blend because I want to keep the calcium, sulfur and trace elements found in the naturally mined rock. I also don’t want to overdo application of soluble nutrients, which in the case of phosphorus ends up being a waste of my money since much of the phosphorus from a soluble source will tie up quickly in the soil. By applying a mix of rock phosphate and commercial phosphorus, I get a good blend of soluble and slow-release phosphorus.

If I have acidic soil that needs phosphorus and calcium, that is the perfect time to add a rock phosphate soil corrective. The acidity in the soil will speed up the breakdown of the rock phosphate, and I get as much calcium out of it as I would if I put lime on. If I don’t have an acidic soil, it will take a long time for the phosphorus to become plant available unless I have abundant soil biology. Regardless of soil pH, phosphorus uptake is tied to soil biology. Planting a cover crop like oats, rye or buckwheat can stimulate soil biology and help plants access phosphorus in the soil. Plants with more acidic roots, like oats and buckwheat, can extract more phosphorus from the soil reserve and from rock phosphate. These plants hold that phosphorus in their tissues, putting the nutrient into a biological cycle. This interaction is a vital part of the system. If you put rock phosphate on a hard, dead soil without any life in it and no green plants growing, the opportunity for that phosphate to show up is pretty minimal.

Calcium Sources

High calcium lime (close to 35 percent calcium) and dolomitic limestone (close to 20 percent calcium and 12 percent magnesium) are mined calcium sources that are very slow release. They are a good source of calcium for acidic soils. Just as acidity helps release the nutrients from rock phosphate, acidity breaks down high calcium lime or dolomitic lime. On soils that are neutral or higher pH, these sources will not supply much plant-available calcium. To get more calcium on soils that are not acidic, a source of calcium that’s more soluble is needed.

When I started working as a farming consultant I went in search of a soluble calcium source. I found a source of lime (calcium carbonate) that was finely ground, had been burnt in a kiln, and then hydrated to remove the caustic effect of burnt lime. At the time I had no idea that by putting calcium carbonate through a kiln the carbon was burned off and what was left was soluble calcium. In addition, being a natural, mined material and a byproduct of manufacturing meant this calcium source also had some sulfur and other beneficial materials in it. When I applied the hydrated burnt lime to the ground, I got a calcium response in the plant right away. It worked wonders on my alfalfa crops. Later my partners and I developed a product from the hydrated burnt lime called Bio-Cal. Over the years I’ve seen wonderful responses from the application of Bio-Cal, especially on legumes. Unfortunately, I can no longer use Bio-Cal on my organic farm because it is burned and thus it is considered synthetic. We therefore developed OrganiCal to take the place of Bio-Cal on organic farms. It is a soluble source of calcium similar to Bio-Cal, but rather than burning the limestone it is finely ground and blended with acid binders and sulfur. This makes it more plant available than straight limestone, and because it is not burned or processed, it is approved for use on organic farms.

HumaCal is another calcium product my colleagues and I developed. It is a blend of finely ground limestone and gypsum with humates. Humates are large, complex molecules that have a low pH and contain a lot of sites that hold on to nutrients like calcium. This means that humates can help break down rocks like limestone into a plant-available form, and can also hold on to the plant-available nutrients so they don’t leach or tie up. This makes humates an excellent material for blending with a lot of nutrients, including calcium. I have done quite a bit of research on HumaCal demonstrating that it provides plant-available calcium, and I’ll talk more about this in the next chapter. Gypsum, which is calcium sulfate, is more soluble than lime. I like to use gypsum on my land when the soil is high in magnesium because gypsum is not only a source of calcium, it also supplies sulfur. The sulfur will hook to magnesium in the soil and form Epsom salts (magnesium sulfate) which is very soluble. That means it makes the magnesium more plant available but it also leaches, so it washes some of the excess magnesium out of the soil. Calcium nitrate and calcium chloride are both very soluble sources of calcium.

Calcium nitrate is often used as a foliar on high value crops because not only is it a good source of available calcium, it also supplies soluble nitrogen. However, it is a very expensive way to provide calcium, so it is generally only used on high value crops like potatoes and other vegetables. Calcium chloride is better known as road salt. It is also used as a foliar spray, but less often. Even though it supplies soluble calcium, it does have chloride, which has some negative side effects.

About the Author:

Gary Zimmer is an organic dairy farmer, an accomplished speaker, a sought-after farm consultant and president of Midwestern BioAg, a biological farming products and services company. He is also the author of The Biological Farmer, the prequel to Advancing Biological Farming.

More By This Author: 

Save money and order the Advancing Biological Farming/The Biological Farmer Combo here. 

Be sure to check out the Gary Zimmer audio collection for a complete selection of his previous Eco-Ag Conference seminars!

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Insect Damage

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 inbox! This week’s Book of the Week feature is The Non-Toxic Farming Handbook by Philip Wheeler and Ronald Ward. 

Insects and insect damage have been called the “farmer’s curse.” It is true that each year millions of tons of produce, grains, and fruits are destroyed or damaged by insects. Insects account for a 13-16 percent loss from $244 billion in crops annually in the United States. Insect numbers count in the billions and their collective weight by far surpasses the collective weight of mammals. Of more than a million zoological life forms identified and categorized by scientists, more than 800,000 consist of insects. It is believed that as many as 10 million insects remain as yet to be identified. Aside from our annoyance with these pesty critters and their attacks upon crops, pets, and livestock, what is their purpose?

Insects actually benefit man. Estimates of the value of insect pollination from honey bees and wild bees alone amount to approximately $30 billion annually in the United States. Insects pollinate fruits, berries, grapes, and field crops including peas, onions, carrots, clover, alfalfa, and flowers. In addition, insects provide millions of dollars annually in the form of such items as honey, shellac, and silk.

Many insects are actually beneficial to man because they devour insects harmful to our crops. Ladybugs, for example, will eat aphids. These predators play a useful role in maintaining balance within the insect kingdom.

Less than 1 percent of the insect species are considered harmful. About 1,000 species are considered serious crop pests, another 30,000 species are described as minor crop pests. Their control cost is only slightly less than the value of the crops they would have destroyed if left alone. In 1995, worldwide expenditures for pesticides hit $37.7 billion; U.S. expenditures came in at $11.3 billion.

Conventional Control

Insecticides are the modern mode of insect control. Insecticides come in either dry or liquid form and are either dusted or sprayed. They are used to prevent insect damage as well as to kill the insects after they have arrived. Insecticides come in several types. Some are stomach poisons which react within the insect after being consumed. Others kill on contact. Others, called systemics, are absorbed by the plant or animal and affect the insect after it bites the treated host.

Now that public awareness has increased and public opinion has caused the EPA to review pesticides, it is expected that many will not be allowed to remain on the market. This scenario has prompted Steve Brown, Auburn University Extension Service, to list several alternatives for farmers to consider. These can be considered as part of an IPM or Integrated Pest Management program.

  • Select insect-resistant varieties.
  • Calculate closely such variables as planting dates and row spacing.
  • Take advantage of crop rotation benefits.
  • Utilize pheromones (insect sex attractants) to capture or disrupt insects or introduce predator insects.
  • Utilize the biological pesticides which are available.
  • Consider trap crops in certain instances.
  • Utilize plastic mulch.
  • Consider soil solarization, using clear plastic.
  • Utilize machinery which sucks insects off plants.

Although these suggestions represent creative solutions to a growing reality, they miss the mark in that they don’t address the cause for the insect infestation in the first place. Once the variables influencing insect attack are understood, steps can be taken to remedy these causes. Addressing the cause will produce more lasting results.

Infrared Signals

Dr. Philip Callahan, renowned authority on the corn earworm and author of The Soul of the Ghost Moth and numerous other books, has studied insects extensively in his role as USDA researcher. His research indicates that insects communicate via infrared signals which are received and sent by the insect antennae which occur over much of their bodies. Each insect is apparently sensitive to certain plant signals and ignores others. Most damaging insects are selective in what they attack. Thus, the alfalfa weevil would not infest elm trees.

Antennae of the male cecropia moth. Insects, like this moth and others, can detect much information from plants via their antennae.

Infrared signals are emitted naturally by all living plant or animal bodies as well as from the gaseous emissions of all plant and animal life. Signal strength and configuration are affected by a variety of factors including nutrient balance and stress factors. Insects detect these signals with their antennae.

Upon close examination, it is evident that each species of insect has an antenna shape unique to its species. According to Dr. Callahan, the shape of the antenna determines the signal range received by the insect. Thus, the shape of weevil antenna allows it to be attracted to alfalfa frequencies.

When plants are grown in a soil with balanced nutrients and the plant itself utilizes those nutrients in a balanced manner, its own system will maximize its genetic potential in terms of yield and health (or resistance to stress). However, when the soil is out of balance, when normal growth stresses, e.g., drought, excess water, heat or cold, wind or hail occur, the plant may require other nutrients to counteract the stresses at hand. The extent those nutrients are missing is the extent the plant will suffer and, eventually, deviate from its genetic potential.

The infrared signals given off by the plant will modify depending upon the health of the plant. As the plant moves further from ideal health, the signals become more pronounced in a way that attracts insects. This can be shown by taking refractometer readings and observing that the brix reading measured as percent sucrose on attacked plants is lower than plants not being attacked. The brix reading is a good indication of the efficiency of the plants’ output of carbohydrates which is the result of photosynthesis.

Soil Balance-Imbalance

A properly balanced soil will have sufficient quantities of organically active carbon — humus — which helps hold nitrogen in the ammoniacal form. In soils lacking this active carbon content, the soil will give up this ammoniacal nitrogen to bacterial conversion into nitrates or directly to the atmosphere in gaseous form. During the process of ammoniacal nitrogen leaving the soil, it passes by the plant and can act as an amplifier of the infrared signal coming from the plant. Whereas the plant may have been initially broadcasting the signal, “I’m not balanced nutritionally,” the signal now reads, “Come and feed on me!”

Dr. Reams taught that most insects do not attack healthy plants. His whole approach to plant fertility and insect control capitalized on supplying the soil balanced forms of plant food which, in turn, maximized plant health. Insects look for signals coming from unhealthy plants and seldom attack healthy ones. Insects willingly eat weeds and will return to that practice in fields with healthy crops and soils and unhealthy (low brix) weeds. The attacking of weeds by insects is one of the signs to look for in observing your progress toward sustainable agriculture.

Failing Plant Health

The research conducted by Dr. Callahan and Dr. Reams has immense implications. If insects attack unhealthy plants and ignore healthy plants, they are telling a sad story about the fertility approaches as currently practiced. By attacking unhealthy plants, insects are actually benefiting humanity by pointing out which plants are unhealthy, low in mineral content, and not fit for human or animal use. The astute farmer views insects, as he views weeds, as messengers of soil or crop conditions, not the cause of them.

Natural Control

Many farmers are beginning to work with the IPM (Integrated Pest Management) approach to insect control. President Clinton once announced his intention to have a large percentage of U.S.A. crops grown under IPM by the year 2000 in an effort to reduce the amount of toxic chemicals used.

This concept consists of setting out insect traps baited with the sex scent (pheromones) of insects and then observing insect populations. If the insects are present, but in a number below that which would cause significant crop damage, no spraying should occur. If the population indicates significant crop damage will occur, steps are taken to control their numbers, hopefully with non-toxic materials. Other aspects of IPM include the release of mating disruption pheromones or predator insects to devour the harmful ones present on the crop.

Increasingly, farmers are turning to non-synthetic pesticide options such as botanical, microbial or predator approaches. These consist of using plant extracts such as nicotine from tobacco leaves, pyrethrum from flowers, rotenone from roots as natural insecticides; using plant extracts such as garlic juice and capsicum from peppers as repellents; microbial vectors that destroy harmful microbes or larger organisms; and predatory insects to control insect pressures.

Ladybugs and lacewings are traditionally welcomed in the field as a predator of moths and other destructive insects. Additionally, their presence usually indicates a relatively low level of toxic contamination in the field, since they are also killed off by toxic sprays. Ladybugs usually are considered an indication that the field environment can sustain beneficial insect life.

It is important to consider using a foliar nutrient or feed with any type of insecticide whether synthetic or natural. Any plant under attack by insects is mobilizing its defenses. This requires nutrient and energy utilization. Wouldn’t it be wise to give some “chicken soup” to your crop along with anti-insect treatment to aid in its recovery?

An interesting natural product for insect control is diatomaceous earth. D.E., as it is commonly called, consists of the shells of tiny fresh or sea water diatoms which have been deposited on old lake beds over millions of years. They are mined and milled into powders for feed or for use as a filtering agent in swimming pools. The swimming pool product cannot be used in feed as it will damage the animal consuming it. Since it will absorb many times its weight in water, D.E. is considered to be an anti-caking ingredient for feed. It is often fed by alternative ag farmers, not because of its anti-caking properties, but because of claims it will control parasites in animals. Although it feels like talcum powder to the touch, you would see extremely sharp edges under a microscope. Supposedly, when the substance comes into contact with an insect it will scratch the insect’s cuticle. Death often follows from dehydration. How it works internally is not fully understood. Some think it de-energizes the parasite in the stomach.

Although only a few brands of D.E. on the market have gone through the EPA registration requirement to be considered a pesticide, other brands could work the same. Recent university research has shown that the vegetable oils used with pesticides may also give excellent insect control when used alone. However, the EPA has yet to “catch up” with this information and give its full “blessing.”

Could it be that insects and weeds are symptoms of a problem rather than problems themselves? Could it be that fertility approaches exist which can correct these basic problems exemplified by insect and weed pressures? Are these pressures related to fertility practices? If this is the case, how does the farmer determine the correct fertility program to use?


Philip A. Wheeler has worked as the technical advisor and consulting agronomist for Crop Services International in Grand Rapids, Michigan. CSI is a soil testing lab and consulting service operat­ed by Phil and his wife Louisa. He is a national lecturer on biological and sustainable agriculture and its relation to nutrition and health. An amateur dowser, graphologist and meta­physician, Phil also enjoys composting and gardening. He is a member of American Mensa.

Ronald B. Ward grew up in suburban Grand Rapids, Michigan. At the age of 9 his parents bought a 50-acre farm 25 miles away from their city home. He obtained a B.S. in park management from Michigan State University; a master’s of divinity from Asbury Theological Seminary; and a master’s in community counseling from the University of Kentucky. After working for and eventually directing the Lexington Central Kentucky Re-ED Program for emotionally disturbed children, Ron returned to his country roots where he was introduced to alternative health and the Reams method of testing urine and saliva.

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Maximize Early Season Growth to Increase Yield at Harvest

Sponsored by The Andersons

Providing adequate nutrition at planting is essential for a productive growing season. When looking at early season growth, consider the nutrients that are necessary at this time, such as phosphorus. Phosphorus is essential for stimulating early season root and shoot growth in seedlings. Phosphorus can be used in the form of starter fertilizer to meet crop needs.

When measuring the effectiveness of starter fertilizer, there are numerous factors to evaluate including germination, emergence, growth, pollination, dry down, and finally, yield. Placing starter fertilizer in-furrow or close to the seed helps to achieve three main goals by effectively delivering key nutrients in an available form to the crop:

  1. Quick germination and even emergence,
  2. Accelerated growth, and
  3. Enhanced grain fill and yield.
corn field at night

The first goal when using a starter fertilizer is to get the seed out of the ground as quickly and evenly as possible. The longer the seed is in the ground and not exposed to the sun, the more likely it will be affected by insect damage, disease, or insufficient energy. Lost plants or slow emergence can translate into yield reduction. If a corn plant germinates and emerges later than its neighbors by one growth stage, it becomes a weed that is robbing nutrients from the productive crop.

The next goal is increased vegetative growth and earlier pollination. Starter fertilizer contributes to accelerated growth throughout the growing season, increasing the photosynthetic ability of the crop. In many cases, starter fertilizer can lead to germination occurring 7 days earlier compared to crops that did not receive the benefits of starter fertilizer.

The final goal is to influence grain fill and dry down. By providing essential nutrients through the season, the crop has adequate supplies to maximize grain fill and remain healthy until harvest. If a crop does not have sufficient nutrition, it will rob nutrients from the stalk and leaves to fill the ear. When this happens, the crop is weaker and more susceptible to lodging. When the crop is properly equipped at harvest, it is able to focus its efforts on grain fill and dry down.

In conclusion, starter fertilizer has proven to provide three main benefits – early emergence, quicker pollination, and faster dry down at harvest. If these three main objectives are achieved, higher yields will likely be observed.

Sponsor Message

The Andersons is proud to introduce a one-of-a-kind organic liquid row starter, PureStart™. PureStart organic fertilizer is OMRI Listed® and designed specifically for organic production. For more information, including proven yield data, about PureStart organic fertilizer, visit The Andersons website here.

Book of the Week: Start Your Farm

Welcome to Book of the Week – offering you a glimpse between the pages and a weekly discount on our latest featured book. Get the Book of the Week email newsletter delivered directly to your in box!

This week’s Book of the Week feature is Start Your Farm, by Forrest Pritchard and Ellen Polishuk. The following content is published with permission from Workman Publishing.

Do you dream of starting your own farm but wonder where to begin? Or do you already have a farm but wish to become more sustainable to compete in today’s market? Start Your Farm, the first comprehensive business guide of its kind, covers these essential questions and more:

  • Why be a farmer in the 21st century? Do you have what it takes?
  • What does sustainable really mean, and how can a small (as little as one acre) to midsize farm survive alongside commodity-scale agriculture?
  • How do you access education, land, and other needs with limited capital?
  • How can you reap an actual profit, including a return on land investment?
  • How do you build connections with employees, colleagues, and customers?
  • At the end of the day, how do you measure success? (Hint: case your lifestyle paycheck.)

More than a practical guide, Start Your Farm is a hopeful call to action for anyone who aspires to grow wholesome, environmentally sustainable food for a living. Take it from Forrest Pritchard and Ellen Polishuk: Making this dream a reality is not for the faint of heart, but it’s well within reach – and there’s no greater satisfaction under the sun!

Peek Inside!

Page 7 of Start Your Farm.
Pages 92-93 of Start Your Farm.

About the Authors:

Forrest Pritchard is the New York Times–bestselling author of Gaining Ground and Growing Tomorrow. He is also a full-time organic livestock farmer and seventh-generation producer. 

Ellen Polishuk is a first-generation sustainable vegetable farmer. Formerly an owner of Potomac Vegetable Farms, she is a sought-after farm consultant and conference speaker.

Titles of Similar Interest:

Botany 101: Germination

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 inbox! This week’s Book of the Week feature is Made From Scratch, by Louise Placek.

The process of germination is truly one of the great miracles of nature. Against many formidable odds, these packets of genetic material and potential have covered the earth with new life year in and year out, century by century, millennium by millennium. The progression from seed to seedling to mature plant is nothing short of magic.

Only when the time is right does the seed begin the process of growth and development. The first thing that happens to start germination is the taking in of water by the seed. The seed coat is softened; easily in the case of a thin skin, or more slowly in a seed with a thick coat that needs mechanical or chemical help. Either way, there is eventually a break in the seed coat, allowing the internal components of the seed to soak up water and swell. This process is called imbibition (Pronounced: em bi bish’ yun) and is not unlike what happens when you put a dry sponge in a pan of water. The seed will usually swell to about twice its original size by the time the embryo begins to respond and grow.

Along with water, oxygen is needed by the seed to begin the conversion of all the stored nutrients (in the cotyledon) into usable form by the embryo. That is why a loose soil is best for germination, as it has plenty of air space to supply needed oxygen. The following are terms that are used to describe various aspects of germination:


This is a term describing the probability of a seed to germinate or not. If a seed is viable, then it is likely that it will germinate successfully if all the environmental factors necessary for this to happen are also in place. A small amount of moisture is needed inside the seed at all times (less than two percent of its weight) to maintain its state of viability. A seed can become non-viable (essentially dead) if it is allowed to dry out completely. Also, some seeds actually need extreme temperatures (either cold or hot) to make the embryo fully viable (developed) and ready for germination.


This is the suspended, non-active state of a viable seed before germination takes place. Many viable seeds can stay dormant for an indefinite amount of time as long as the seed coat remains intact. Seed banks around the world keep supplies of valuable and potentially threatened (almost extinct) seeds in cold, dry storage to maintain their genetic heritage. In nature, viable, undamaged seeds will stay dormant in the soil until conditions are perfect for germination.


This is something that happens in many seeds after they leave the fruit vessel. It is sort of like the process an infant goes through in the womb. In animals, if a baby is born before it is developed enough, it will likely not survive. In some seeds, if the after-ripening process is not finished, then the seed may not germinate. After-ripening can be very fast or very slow, depending on the plant and environmental circumstances. Often, in a batch of seeds dropping from the parent plant, the after-ripening process happens at different times for each seed. This is an evolutionary precaution developed by plants to ensure that all their seeds will not germinate simultaneously, which could end in extinction if something happens to kill all those plants at once. In some cases, the after-ripening process can take years.


This is the process of thinning the thick, tough seed coats of some seeds. As mentioned before, the layer can be removed over time via decomposition from bacteria and fungi, or mechanically by having it ground off by coarse soil granules, assisted by rain and wind. It can also occur when the seed travels through the gut of a bird or mammal. By being exposed to digestive enzymes as it travels through the alimentary tract, it softens and thins the seed coat, making it perfect for germination, leaving the body in a pile of ready-made fertilizer. Some plants have this planned out perfectly by offering their seeds in bright colored, delicious berries, irresistible to birds or other foraging animals.

Scarification can also be done manually by growers trying to germinate these seeds. Tough seed coats can be scored with a knife, sanded with sandpaper or a nail file, boiled in water and even soaked briefly (one to five minutes) in sulfuric acid. Another method is to paint the inside of a jar with glue and pour sand into the jar, rotating it until all the surfaces are covered with a layer of sand (this can be repeated to give you a good thick layer of sand). When this dries thoroughly, put your seeds into the jar with a lid and shake the jar until the surface of each seed is sufficiently scratched. Horticulturists all have their favorite, foolproof way to break down the skin of these seeds.

Some seeds have an inhibiting chemical attached to their seed coat that must be washed off before they can germinate. This is often coordinated by the plant so that a specific amount of water (rain) is needed to wash away the chemical, which incidentally is the same amount needed to germinate the seed, and usually occurs at the optimum time of year (fall through winter). This is to prevent the seed from germinating after a brief shower at times like the middle of summer, when high temperatures and mostly dry conditions would quickly diminish the seedling’s chances of survival.


Many seeds from native plants require specific conditioning called stratification, to be ready for germination. In the temperate part of the world (where hot and cold temperatures are generally not extreme), scores of native plants shed their seeds in late summer or early to mid-autumn to allow them to go through this conditioning process before spring. The seeds are moistened by the usually ample rains of fall, seasoned by the cold winter temperatures (a sort of afterripening that helps them develop), so when spring brings warming conditions, they are ready to germinate.

Conversely, many desert seeds fall in the spring so they can be conditioned by the very hot temperatures of the desert floor (up to 120° F or 50° C) through summer, before germinating in late summer or fall when the autumn rains come. A rare few desert seeds actually need the scorching of fire to ready them for germination when the monsoons come. They grow in areas where wildfires from lightning are not uncommon. The parent plants burn to the ground, raining their nutrient-rich ashes onto the desert floor giving the scorched, ready seeds a perfect environment to come to life.

If you want to germinate native seeds artificially, then you have to mimic the conditions they require to ripen. In the first case, they can be placed in a moisture-proof bag between moistened paper towels or mixed into moist vermiculite (peat moss may be too acidic) and kept in a refrigerator or freezer (depending on the type of seed) for a month or two before attempting to germinate. In the case of the desert seeds, they may be heated in an oven (for up to a week at 120° F) before attempts at germination will be successful.

If you are going to germinate wild, native seeds, it is a good idea to find information on the stratification needs of the individual seeds before embarking on this method of growing. There are now good books available on native plants and information about specific plants can often be obtained on the Internet, from the USDA, or from universities that have strong botany or horticulture departments. Most U.S. states and Canadian provinces now have native plant societies that present a wealth of information about the needs of endemic plants. It is a fascinating and challenging endeavor.

Light Requirements

To germinate, most seeds have specific requirements for light. Some need light, some need darkness, and some are not particularly picky either way. A general rule of thumb for planting seeds is to cover them with an amount of soil that does not exceed the size of the seed. Basically (although there are exceptions), the bigger the seed, the deeper it should be planted. Very tiny seeds (the ones that look like grains of fine soil) need only be sprinkled on top of the soil and gently misted with water to settle them in. Covering them with any soil would be too much. Most seed packets have planting depth on the label so there is no mistake what the light requirements are.

Soil Temperature Requirements

Seeds are also fairly picky about soil temperature in order for germination to begin. Commercial growers of bedding plants often have heating mats on large benches where seeds are germinated early, to be sure plants will be ready when people want them in the spring. In the wild or in the garden, seeds will only begin germinating when they are good and ready. For the most part they can’t be fooled. The soil temperature is either right or it’s not. In Texas people are obsessed with tomatoes, and they always try to put them in the ground too early in the spring. I have told people repeatedly that tomatoes will not actually grow until the soil is warm enough, so they might as well wait until the time is really right.

Moisture Requirements

Seeds need water to germinate. The amount may vary, but a general rule is to keep the soil moist (like a wrung out sponge), but never soggy. Once germination has begun, do not let the seeds dry out. This is death for a tiny seedling. Even wilting can cause too much stress in the emerging plantling, causing it to die or become stunted. Read the directions on the seed packet for any special moisture requirements.

About the Author:

Louise Placek undertook the transition from a 20-year traditional career in nursing to the unknown world of owning and operating a small container plant business. With her husband Chris, she bought a hilly, 22-acre site with sandy loam soil, lots of prairie grasses, an oak and cedar woodland with wonderful wildflowers and a 50-mile view. Misty Hill Farm and the container business grew into a successful commercial venture all without the use of the standard industry chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Louise had a mission to grow outstanding plants commercially using only natural, earth-made products. A challenge at times – because there wasn’t a manual or mentor to turn to – it has become a very worthy cause.

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Why Purchase Soil Inoculants? The Benefits of Off-farm Biology

By Jason Stoll, Regenerative Agriculture Consultant, Advancing Eco Agriculture

As a regenerative agriculture consultant, I was delighted to see a return to in-person events in 2021. Being able to connect with growers face-to-face, whether at a conference or in the field, was something I can say we all missed dearly. As I continue to share and interact with others in the agricultural industry, one idea seems to be gaining traction at an accelerated pace. This idea, while nestled in good intentions, falls short on the promise of regenerative practices for large scale operations.

The idea is this: We do not need off-farm biology because it will bring in non-native biomes, causing an unnatural balance in the soil. Proponents of this idea may point you in the direction of a more “natural” inoculant source like compost teas.

This approach perplexes me for several reasons. If American growers were to return to a full native biome model, many would have to abandon corn and soybean crops and allow native hardwood successions to rise to prominence in their fields to promote a “natural return” of the soil. However, this process would take a century or more to take hold. The same goes for biology – we can wait patiently for it to return, but the reality is we have been killing microbial populations for the last 40 to 50 years. Growers need to be actively replacing beneficial organisms instead of waiting for the organisms to come back on their own. 

plants growing in soil

Let me be clear—I am in no way bashing compost teas. I have worked in agriculture my whole life and I have seen good results from small growers and market farmers who have utilized this method. It takes time and energy to create adequately effective compost teas and this may not be economically viable for most. All the same, we don’t want to leave the process of biological restoration to chance.

Bulk compost applications bring their own volley of problems, one of the biggest of which is weed pressure, something compost is known for triggering in large swaths. Even organic compost has its gray areas. Organic compost can come from conventional farms, where cows could be eating GMO corn. Currently, there is no certainty that your organic compost doesn’t have concentrated amounts of glyphosate, which would be detrimental to any grower’s attempt at fostering soil biology. 

Many soils in the U.S. are deficient in bacterial biology. Even if management practices on your farm didn’t kill it, your neighbor, environmental impacts, and decades of the conventional ag approach have eviscerated microbiome populations throughout the country. The desire to restore our soils to their natural state is a lofty goal, but that goal gets even tougher when you expect a monoculture of soybeans to have the biological diversity of a thriving forest. This is where bringing in off-farm inoculation really shines. For example, Spectrum™️ from Tainio Biologicals contains about twenty different species of microorganisms. When was the last time you planted twenty species of crops into your soil?

The goal of regenerative agriculture can be boiled down to this: to grow healthier soils that lead to ever increasing results with fewer inputs, at less cost from the farmer’s pocket. Everyone starts this journey at a different point. While you might have to dump on a ton of biology in the first year to get your numbers up, during the next season you’ll begin to see a compounding result on your investment as these biological populations begin to sustain themselves over time. If you find that you need to re-inoculate in increasing amounts for 15 years in a row, something has gone awry. Somewhere along the way biology is lost and we need to discover why.

Sponsor Message

Our approach at AEA focuses on obtaining more response from less material. With the inclusion of off-farm biology and other regenerative practices, growers can take the next steps in their journey towards healthier, more profitable growing. For more information on the Regenerative Soil Primer or other practices that can improve crop quality, visit

Real-World Validation of Holistic Systems for Stockmen

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 Ranching Full-Time on Three Hours a Day, by Cody Holmes.

In the early years of my ranching experience I began to watch one particular farm neighbor. He raised his family on a small cow/calf ranch with what income the ranch could provide. They appeared to have an average lifestyle from an economic stand­point, that is they lived like most the other families around except he did not have to go to work each day to support the ranch. The ranch supported the family. Bob had no farm machinery and spent no time during the busy hay time in May like everyone else working 16-hour days baling up hay to feed in winter. What little hay he fed in the winter was custom baled. I farmed next to Bob for only about seven years, and it was only the last few years that I began to see that he did not do what everyone else was doing. I moved on to a larger farm and began leasing larger and larger farms.

I began doing the things that I saw Bob doing on his farm in my operation. Learning came very slow to me and I have no problem admitting my reluctance to education. But I was certain that machinery was a great evil and had no place in a livestock operation. I began grazing further and further into the winter without feeding hay. I also found that if I could allow the grass to grow kind of wild it would produce more forage in the long haul. This was hard for most people to accept. With the belief that our farms should resemble golf courses, this became a prob­lem for most of my landlords.

I remember one particular landlord who was in his 90s and was very set in his ways. I was leasing about 1,600 acres from him at the time for my cow herd. He had sold all of his equipment except his 15-foot brush hog and 150-horsepower tractor. About the time I would get a few paddocks of grass knee high, he would chop it down to lawn height. I could not convince him of my need for that tall forage this winter. His holistic goal of his ranch was not the same as mine. My goal for that ranch was for it to produce as much forage as possible. He wanted it to look freshly mowed most of the time. He had made a lot of money from buy­ing and selling farms and little to none from livestock produc­tion. He was good at what he was doing, but it was not really ranching. He also did a good job of keeping the tractor suppliers, feedstores, vets, and other input salesmen in business.

All of these challenges helped educate me in the holistic sys­tem of farming. Through my experiences, continued reading, and talking to good farm managers I began to formulate this system that once and for all could make livestock ranching prof­itable. By using the holistic systems approach, and not simply looking at production as an isolated event, my ranch began to turn around. After looking more closely through the holistic point of view, I realized I could not make this work the way I wanted it to on rented farms. In order for me to function holisti­cally I would have to have complete control over all aspects of the ranch. This can only be done through ownership of the land. Holistic land planning is a multi-year program and short-term leases lead only to frustration and disappointment. This does not mean that farm leasing is not practical and necessary for the cash-limited farmer in the early stages of growth. But the long-term plan must include land ownership for success. With holis­tic systems in place, profits from a productive livestock opera­tion can pay for the principle and interest costs of purchasing that ranch.

In order for me to function holisti­cally I would have to have complete control over all aspects of the ranch.

I designed the Ten Steps to Holistic Systems with ranch profit in mind. It encompasses over 35 years of personal, practi­cal experience meshed with the insights and contributions from many different authors and farmers I have come across in as many years. As I list these steps try and visualize how you can incorporate these steps into your holistic plan on your farm or ranch.

Step 1

Determine who the decision makers are in the organization and utilize all their efforts to compile the group’s holistic goals. This is a written document of one to three paragraphs stating the purpose and desires of the decision makers. This short letter format should be posted where it can be observed daily, such as on the door of the refrigerator with the valuable pictures of the decision maker’s family. I believe Allan Savory best describes this by categorizing these goals into three distinct areas: quality of life, forms of production, and future resource base. You can break down your holistic goals into these three areas of how you see the future arriving. Remember to keep the lists short and precise. And only the decision makers make contributions in this area.

Under the heading of Quality of Life write out in just one or two sentences what you would like to get from the organization. That is list how you see the farm contributing to your quality of life. This is not a list of weaning weights or cow numbers, but a list closely related to personal benefits.

Under the heading Forms of Production write out in what form you see the organization or farm producing revenue, if revenue is part of the quality of life you seek. Again do not limit yourself to a certain breed of cow or chicken, but more gener­ally species or types.

Under the heading Future Resource Base write out how you see your organization or farm taking shape in the future. More specifically, describe where you would like to see it go or look like and what the resources or farmland may look like once you get closer to where you want to be.

One of the main reasons I use this list of holistic goals is to verify that for each movement I make each day that that move­ment, decision or project is moving in the direction stated in these goals. If I have this list posted on the wall or the refrigera­tor I can easily question my task at hand to determine if what I am going to do today specifically gets me closer to where I want to be. The listed holistic goals are like a beacon in the night.

Step 2

Develop a methodology to help make informed decisions in the operation by starting with time management.

Many of us have the misconception that if we are not busy all the time at a high rate of speed that our time is being wasted. I urge you to conserve your time and eliminate all “busy time.” We must have extended periods of the day to reflect on and observe the operation in order to make decisions which will lead us to our goals…If you start many days running around the ranch putting out fires and it’s noontime before you can really get started on real projects, you are at the top of the pyramid with too much of your time. Or maybe you are spend­ing enormous amounts of time riding around the ranch on the tractor compared to the time spent moving cattle from pasture to pasture, which will always be more productive and less expen­sive. It helps to remember that livestock have the ability to be productive on their own, that is they can graze, drink and move from one place to the next without your labor. We have to learn to get out of the way and let them do what they do best.

Step 3

Implement a system that can help you compare the econom­ic viability of one enterprise on the farm to another enterprise, whether one already in existence or one that is being considered. This is to help provide information so we can discern which enterprise is most likely to earn the greatest profit. Use the Enterprise Worksheet Forms (See appendix) to evaluate and monitor success. This is not to imply that all success comes from business profits, but one primary objective of most farm opera­tions should be net profit from operations.

These worksheets can be created using simple multi-column accountant’s lined paper or with a computer program or spread­sheet. The concept is to isolate the income from each enterprise and allocate the expenses that apply to that enterprise. Generally we are talking about separation of animal species to determine if, for example, the beef cows are really making any money or whether it is the laying hens that are the most profitable. Isolat­ing income sources and providing a check register system that categorizes expenses into enterprises or animal species is the best approach I have found to accomplish enterprise analysis.

Once we set aside fixed costs, which are the costs we have no matter what animals we choose to earn income from, we compare the variable costs associated to that income enterprise. In this analysis the fixed costs are generally first covered by the primary enterprise before any direct costs are compared. We then are able to attach the direct costs that actually apply to the specific species of animals or enterprise. This can also be a time to reflect on whether or not the chosen primary enterprise should remain or be discontinued. We must learn to be very objective during this phase. Our favorite animal or enterprise may have to be altered significantly or even dropped from the farm altogether.

Step 4

Develop an understanding of the absolute necessity of solar collection and how it relates to farm profitability. The only prod­uct a farm really has to market is solar power. The tangible part that is transformed and provided to the customer is only the result of our efficiency at solar collection. Unlock this very sim­ple process.

For most livestock businesses it is forage, or grass in general terms, that we are actually producing. We may be marketing our grasses through the sale of T-bones or cheese slices, but it is the quantity and quality of forages produced on the farm that mainly determine our profitability. The production of forages on our farm is directly dependent upon our efficiency at solar collection. The better we are at solar collection the higher our success will be.

I like to use the example of having a small 6-inch by 6-inch solar collector on top of your house and expecting to collect enough sunlight for everyone in the household to take a shower. The results would be improved tremendously if we replaced that little 6-inch by 6-inch solar collector with a solar panel that took up the entire rooftop. When we allow our grasses to grow to tall heights, rather than keeping them eaten down to the ground, our solar collector – forages — are multiplied in effectiveness manyfold. Just the same, when we fill in the empty spaces between plants and increase the density of our stands of forage in each paddock by high-stock-density grazing and animal impact, our solar collectors are increased. Creating a litterbank on top of the soil and a massive root system of healthy plants and organic matter below the surface, we are better able to col­lect the rainfall that once ran down the cattle trails into the creek and off the farm. We can grow more forage when our neighbors are complaining about drought. We are actually harvesting sun­light, not forage or livestock.

Step 5

Unlock the hidden tools every stockman possesses on every farm that will improve efficiencies and is absolutely critical for sustainability:

  • Grazing
  • Animal Impact
  • Rest
  • Soil Biology

We know that the more time a cow spends grazing and the less time she eats at the hay bunk, the lower our costs will be. As she grazes she expels about 27,000 lbs. of grass-growing nutri­ents each year directly on the paddock where it can be best uti­lized. All of this fertility is added at the cost of zero inputs.

The stomping of the litter from tall grasses into the top layer of soil — what we call animal impact — is part of the nutrient buildup done by the hooves of the bovine. From this point for­ward we can leave behind the concept of a fertilizer buggy. We can be more concerned with having 90 or more paddocks across the ranch so that we can get long rotations and long periods of rest between the times cattle enter those paddocks. It is these long periods of rest that are critical in producing tall forages that the grazing animal can work with to produce the desired ani­mal-impact results.

Now the soil biology, our workers beneath the surface, can multiply and break down the fibrous material we call carbon first into organic matter, then humus, and provide the means to help sequester the nutrients plants require for even better solar collection. In considering the sun, rainfall and the atmosphere, it appears we have an almost perpetual motion machine on the ranch.

Step 6

Determine where the weakest link is in your operation and divert energy, money and effort to this problem first. Once this break in the chain is fixed, then and only then should we direct our efforts elsewhere. There is always just one weakest link at a time. This weakest link is the direct aspect of our operation that is keeping us from obtaining our listed holistic goals.

We may wrongly blame the small amount of rainfall as the reason we run out of grass each summer and have been forced to purchase expensive supplements for the livestock. In fact, the weak link lies in the fact we have not spent enough money on fencing so that we can do a better job of rotating cattle across the ranch allowing long periods of rest for each paddock. When the typical hot, dry summers arrive, our bare soils, short-rooted plants, and low organic matter in our soil thirst more than nec­essary. This reduces the soil’s ability to hold moisture. It is clear that our lack of fencing in this case is our weakest link in this example. In this case, it may be easy to assume that all we need to do to get more grass is to spend more money on forage seed for the bare areas between plants. In fact we do not even have enough moisture in our soils to support what roots exist now. A common mistake is to spend money, resources and labor on areas not the weakest link. It is more prudent to take the time and identify the single weakest link of today, make the correc­tions, and then when tomorrow arrives look for the weakest link for that specific time.

Step 7

Create a Financial Planning Model specifically for the opera­tion. Utilize worksheets for entering data into a system that allows for monthly monitoring to compare planned objectives to actual activity.

Just as when we were using individual enterprise worksheets for analysis, we will have a recording system in place that encom­passes the entire operation. This is best done using now afford­able computer software with a little bit of training or can be done manually on handwritten spreadsheets. This year’s results must be compared with last year’s results as well as projections made before the season begins.

Step 8

Prepare a written plan to manage the land in a manner that does not contradict the holistic goals. This should be a one-page document that emphasizes the goals and practices referred to in the holistic goals.

By taking the time to describe, in light detail, our overall strat­egy, will help us better achieve our goals. Sometimes the actual words being written down and looked at closely will bring our shortfalls to the surface. This is no time for unbalanced egos.

Step 9

Prepare a total land grazing program covering January through December. This is a system of handling each and every square foot of land mass for each and every day of the year. Implement a fence and water design that utilizes:

  • Herd impact
  • Forward speed grazing
  • Rest

The herd impact of moving cattle from one paddock to the next on a daily basis will create a rest period of 90 days on each paddock once we have at least 91 individual paddocks in place. During the fast-growing times of the season like April and May for those of us in North America, we move cattle very quickly through as many paddocks as we can to get the benefits of for­ward speed grazing. If we wait until the forage is 6-inches tall in the early part of the growing season, the growth will overtake us too soon. These are some of the grazing practices that will allow us to eventually add more livestock to our operation without increasing costs.

Step 10

Implement a program designed to monitor both financial and land responses over time. Compare results frequently with the holistic goals and planning process and initiate a process for correction and re-planning.

A digital camera positioned within the same transects every year or every month for ecological planning can give us an idea of how our progress is working, for example, plant spacing.

Financial records comparing year-to-year results are critical for economics. Accurately kept records in binders representing each year of operation that are easily accessible will prove to be excellent resources for finding places in our operation that need correction.

These ten steps for initiating the holistic system on a livestock operation will require the continued use of advancement in edu­cation. You will recall this was on the large base and most impor­tant part of the time pyramid. As we increase our education in all that makes up this simple-to-manage but complex-by-design field called agriculture, our success will be enlightening. But studying and reading books such as this one, visiting other live­stock operations, and attending progressive seminars and holis­tic system courses like I offer at my ranch each year are only part of this continued education which I am referring. These ideas can only come to fruition by spending the critical observation time down to the soil level, to implement changes where chang­es are demanded for better profits on the ranch. None of this can occur by remote control. And only those who properly respect ecology, animal behavior, and human interaction — particularly adaptation, soil biology, and the benefits of financial planning — will derive real satisfaction from the farm or ranch.

About the Author:

Cody Holmes left home at age 17 with his high school 4-H project of seven cows. That project grew into the Rockin’ H Ranch, a diversified ranch, on-farm market, and agri-tourism business. The ranch has supported as many as 900 head on 3,400 acres. Cody, his wife, Dawnell, and daughter, Taylor, opened up their ranch to the public and also run Real Farm Foods Farm Market, an on-farm store offering retail sales of beef, pork, lamb, chicken, eggs, milk, and seasonal produce.

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Those Variable Soils

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 Ask the Plant, by Charles Walters and Esper K. Chandler.

“If you discuss soil,” says Chandler, “you have to put ‘variable’ on the other side of the equals sign.” During his days at research stations, small 7 x 14-foot plots had a go at forage soil and plant testing. The size of those plots was governed by the availability of space as well as by the requirement for alleyways. The goal was to maintain as many as 120 of these randomized, replicated, and repeated multiple-year studies. The usual procedure was to test soil 6” deep in each replication and plant test each cutting. There might be 21 different treatments in a test with four or five replications. Looking over the plots you could see variations in the way the plants would grow, even though there wasn’t a difference in treatment. Chandler recalled the scene this way. “The superintendent, Dawson Johns, insisted that we sample each individual plot separately. We’d take, say, seven cores throughout that 7 x 14-foot plot. We’d test these representative composites from each plot. So here you had quite a bit of variation in a very small area. On that Louisiana State University North Hill Farm Experiment Station, calculations would be based on replicated variations between plots. Dr. Darrell Russell, soil and plant chemist analyzed each sample. Years later, that valuable data was still wallowing in the bowels of University bureaucracy.”

Healing Wounded Soil

When Chandler returned from combat in Korea in the early 1950s, he encountered more than a cotton allotment. President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s administration set up a Soil Bank, which seemed to comply with the Committee for Economic Development’s mandate to consolidate farms into big units and close down the type of agriculture that existed during the Depression ’30s and wartime parity ’40s. The erosion left over from ravaged soil invited correction. This meant factual research, aimed at replacing the cotton farmers, turning Kansas wheat plots into mega-fields, and complying with Ezra Taft Benson’s injunction to “quit mollycoddling the farmers.” Conservation programs planted millions of acres of trees across the South, often on eroded hill land, to build back the soil. Many of those forests are still productive today.

The range of work on that postwar station involved crops, pasture, pine tree fertility, dairy, peach production, beef cattle work, poultry broilers and layers, clearing land and forage production of coastal Bermudagrass hay, which was shipped to the main campus. The farm’s diversity goals included silage production, row crops — cotton, corn and milo, as well as grass and legume test crops that seemed to pose questions. There were no bureaucratic limits on what could be researched, and there were no caveats tied to industrial grant money. Chandler was allowed to put in all the test plots he desired, including his own food patch.

Coastal Bermudagrass, developed by Dr. Glenn Burton of Georgia, rated front burner attention because of its potential for closing those soil wounds that wind and water erosion had accounted for. Coastal Bermuda is a prolific grass, one capable of taking hold with deep anchoring roots in places like eroding gullies. The state of the art decrees one treatment regardless of variations spreading across either plots or row acres.

“We would take manure from the dairy and poultry operations and straddle those gullies, usually dumping the manure rather than slinging it to the bottom. With that fertility, the Bermudagrass would grab hold and stop the erosion,” Chandler recalls.

“Variable soil profiles are the norm,” says Chandler, “even under the best of circumstances.” Old red subsoil often canceled out the small amount of organic matter discerned now and then. Very acid soils have little or no nutrition in escrow.

Circa 1950, “we introduced grain sorghum to that parish,” remembers Chandler. Every innovation seems to invite an unsought counterdevelopment. In the case of milo, it was birds. The feast of small grains for creatures that like grain made the station look like something out of an Alfred Hitchcock movie. Propane guns with timers failed to stop the birds. “We used firecrackers spaced on lengths of cotton ropes tied to trees so that fire smoldering up the rope would explode the firecrackers at intervals. Next we had to get retired folks to fend off the winged predators with shotgun pellets interspersed with the firecrackers or the birds, mainly crows, would take everything.”

The soil proposed and the crows disposed because the environment around Homer, Louisiana made it tough on wildlife. There was a time when it was impossible to lose sight of a nearby cotton field in that environment. By the end of the 1940s, King Cotton was not even a poor pretender to royalty — research on cotton, fumigation, and fertility studies notwithstanding. Small farms became social, political and research anathema. “Don’t do research on small plots,” the sotto voce admonition. “Use commercial farms. That’s where the need is.” Chandler and his associates found three commercial farmers still in the cotton business. Today that parish has not one. The soil-mining era having spent itself, the soil would no longer permit it.

Chandler calls his and the grower’s nemesis “bad cultural practices.” These include excess tillage, wasteful fertilizer and water use, bulk soil treatment when spoon-feeding is indicated, and virtually complete ignorance of foliar nutrients and natural adjuvant application.

Looking at Soil Sampling Differently

The paradigm changed the day Esper K. Chandler moved into the Rio Grande Valley because the soils had changed. Gone were the hills and sand, now replaced by a flood plain in an arid subtropical climate. The Rio Grande originates in the mountains of Colorado, meanders through New Mexico, passes El Paso, and then turns toward the Gulf of Mexico. It is one of the historical rivers of the world in terms of the land nearby and the irrigation systems it supplies. Here, as in present-day Egypt, the plains are spared the inconvenience of floods with a dam, canceling out the nutrient fix and salt leaching that every flood accomplished. With irrigation the salts build up. In Egypt cotton, once a famous staple crop, is almost nonexistent because the builders of the Aswan Dam’s irrigation system failed to plan for internal drainage for salt to facilitate leaching.

A soil chemist named Schultz started the laboratory in 1938 that Chandler later made his own. It was the first soil lab in the state of Texas. Schultz developed the four-foot-in-one-foot increment profile. This technique had its faults, the main one being the prevailing concept of the hour. The soil was rich in minerals and equipped with the full pantheon of micronutrients. Everyone believed that all you needed was nitrogen. If you leveled the land, controlled salts, irrigated and used nitrogen, you painted the landscape green. That, points out Chandler, is what we’re still doing seven decades later. “We’re mining our soils, particularly of organic matter and minerals.”

The standard procedure is to take several randomized core samples, then mix the samples to achieve a representative composite. Yet even plot experiments reveal a significant difference within a few feet. Uncommon good sense analysis told Chandler that precision farming was indicated. In time, global positioning systems enabled a precision never envisioned when Chandler was simply observing as a researcher, not a pioneer and visionary.

In Chandler’s view, the methods of the natural/organic folks demanded that conventional agriculture pay attention to claims about organic matter, humus, soil microorganisms, and the conversion of inorganic minerals to soluble organic for root uptake. But it was the recognition of variations between side-by-side trees or row crops that exhibited a difference and invited the farmer to address those differences with the use of plant nutrients. Citrus trees were usually 10 to 24 feet apart. A soil sample on one side of the row often varied greatly from a similar sample on the other side. This prompted the marking of trees so that subsequent samples could validate findings and measure the character of every response where sampling variations did not influence the evaluations. The bottom line information revealed that there were more inherent differences in the soil than in the treatments. The uncomfortable conclusion was that most of the earlier basic research was badly flawed because it was not calibrated to plant uptake.

Some of Chandler’s mentors wanted to remove many of those inherent variations. Immediately, certain appropriate conclusions started closing the gap between organic folklore and so-called settled science. It was a small step to repair the soil with humic acids or soil inoculants, eschewing the NPK code.

“We came to an inescapable conclusion,” Chandler conceded. “We were introducing more variations via our testing procedures than were imposed by the differences we were trying to measure.” Statistics don’t lie, but they don’t digest facts very well either. Peer review somehow failed to square with reality. It was an awesome discovery, this business of methods and materials introducing more variables than were the goal of increased production. Then, as now, “too much of our work was and is theoretical and formula founded, and too much of the practical farm-applied research is funded by people and firms with a product to sell, products that they can protect with a patent or copyright.”

The situation has taken more alarming turns than a Roman taxi. Witness Monsanto and its relentless effort to develop and sell Roundup Ready soybeans, glyphosate, GMO canola, and all the rest. It makes dealing with nature seem less than scientific by comparison. To regenerate the soils that have been mined out, “we have first to understand that it is recoverable. It forgives many of our transgressions, but to recapture the values both research and practical agriculture have to obey nature, not the laboratory approximation thereof,” says Chandler.

About the Authors

Charles Walters was the founder of Acres U.S.A., and completed more than a dozen books as he edited Acres U.S.A., while co-authoring several others. A tireless traveler, Walters journeyed around the world to research sustainable agriculture, and his trip to China in 1976 inspired others to travel to this then-mysterious society. By the time of his death in 2009, Charles Walters could honestly say he changed the world for the better.

Esper K. Chandler was a professional agronomist and soil scientist who traveled the country consulting with growers in a quest to improve yields, quality, and profits. He was the owner of TPS Lab for more than 27 years. K. Chandler was a founding member of the National Organic Standards Board and a Certified Professional Agronomist (CPAg) by the American Society of Agronomy. He has been proclaimed as a leader in the soil fertility and plant nutrition field. Chandler passed away in 2008.

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