Interview: Dr. Caius Rommens Questions Biotechnology Safety

Interview by Tracy Frisch
This interview first appeared in the January 2019 issue of Acres U.S.A. magazine

For 26 years, Dr. Caius Rommens was an ambitious and prolific genetic engineer. He held positions of great responsibility at major corporations. As director of the company’s biotech effort from 2000 to 2013, he developed GM potatoes for the Idaho-based J.R. Simplot Company, the leading U.S. producer of frozen French fries. These GM potatoes are being sold under innocuous names such as Innate, Hibernate and White Russet in thousands of supermarkets across the United States and Canada. They are not labeled as GMO.

Eventually, growing doubts about his GM creations led Rommens to question the validity of the simplistic dogma of biotechnology and renounce his career. His re-evaluation of the data and study of the broader scientific literature has given him insight into the risks and fallacies of the GM potatoes he created. He recently published a slim volume entitled Pandora’s Potatoes: The Worst GMOs to communicate what he has learned.

Today Rommens is a plant breeder who develops genetically diverse potato and tomato varieties for the public domain. He also creates new crops that can be used to create tastier and healthier alternatives to French fries. In his spare time, he continues to write about the hidden issues arising from his previous work in genetic engineering. Prior to his tenure at Simplot, from 1995 until 2000, he was employed as team leader at Monsanto Company in St. Louis, Missouri. He completed his Ph.D. at the Free University of Amsterdam, in the Netherlands where he was born and raised, and carried out his postdoctoral work at the University of California at Berkeley.

Interviewed by Tracy Frisch

ACRES U.S.A. After a long, successful career in the field, what motivated you to renounce genetic engineering and write a book pointing out its fallacies and dangers?

CAIUS ROMMENS. I never made a deliberate choice to become a genetic engineer — or to work at Monsanto and Simplot, to end my career and to write books about the hidden issues of genetic engineering. It just happened.

ACRES U.S.A. What were your goals and responsibilities as a research leader at Monsanto and Simplot?

ROMMENS. Monsanto had been very successful in weed and insect control, and the company wanted to branch out into disease control. It was interested in the work I had carried out at universities in Amsterdam and Berkeley and invited me to lead part of its new disease control program. I accepted the invitation, but I knew, even then, that I would not succeed. Pathogens are genetically more dynamic than weeds or insects so they evolve more quickly around any barrier to infection, whether that barrier consists of genes or pesticides. I ignored my gut feelings and began to try and develop GM disease control. I mostly worked on potatoes, but Monsanto lost interest in potatoes when public pressure pushed McDonald’s to steer clear of GM potatoes. That was when I sent a letter to the owner of a company that I believed was more passionate about potatoes than any other company in the world: J.R. Simplot Company in Boise, Idaho. I proposed to develop a friendlier biotech effort that would avoid Monsanto’s mistakes. I would create GM potatoes by modifying their native DNA without inserting foreign genes. And I would work on traits for processors and consumers as well as agronomic traits. Simplot liked the idea, and I became director of a new division called plant sciences.

Caius Rommens
Dr. Caius Rommens

ACRES U.S.A. Tell me about breakthroughs you were trying to achieve in each position.

ROMMENS. At Monsanto the most interesting gene for disease control we identified encoded a fungicidal “defensin” protein. However this protein is folded into a very tight knot that cannot be degraded in the gastrointestinal tract. That makes it a potential allergen. We also succeeded in enhancing the overall level of disease tolerance in plants, but this positive trait was linked to negative traits, including possibly a reduced tolerance to insects. I should have realized that every gain comes with losses, and that experimental failures may be due to technological limitations rather than personal limitations. But I didn’t allow myself to be critical of genetic engineering. Instead, I decided to work harder, 16 hours a day, six or seven days a week. At Simplot, we developed methods for marker-free transformation and gene silencing, and we also created a variety of GM traits. Some of these traits were scientifically interesting. For instance, by silencing a few potato genes, we transformed white potatoes into yellow or even orange (antioxidant carotenoids) potatoes, and by overexpressing a potato gene, we transformed white potatoes into purple (antioxidant anthocyanins) potatoes. We did many things, but I can only talk about what has been published, and I must say that 99 percent of our experiments failed to cause any meaningful changes.

We eventually decided to commercialize four GM traits: resistance to black spot bruise, reduced accumulation of the carcinogen acrylamide in French fries, suppressed fry-induced browning and late blight resistance. What I didn’t realize was that all these seemingly positive traits were linked to more elusive negative traits.

Only White Russet potatoes containing the first two traits have been commercialized. Since 2015 these GM potatoes have been sold at about 4,000 supermarkets in 40 states. The more advanced lines containing all four traits have been approved for commercial release by the regulatory agencies, and I assume Simplot has plans to bring them to market.

ACRES U.S.A. Do you understand Simplot’s economic motivation for developing GM potatoes?

ROMMENS. I believe it is difficult to make money on commodities such as French fries. It seems that the biotech program was meant to de-commoditize potatoes because it would be very beneficial for a company to own a superior potato variety.

ACRES U.S.A. Is there any estimate of the economic potential of the GM potatoes that you developed for Simplot?

ROMMENS. According to Joe Guenther, an economist at the University of Idaho who frequently collaborates with Simplot, the total economic benefits are $740 million annually. But this economist was not aware of the hidden issues, some of which I have described in my book. I believe these issues outweigh the benefits.

ACRES U.S.A. One of the hidden issues you discuss is yield depression, which obviously would negatively impact farmers. What should we know about the agronomic problems with these potatoes?

ROMMENS. It is important to understand that even normal potatoes are much more vulnerable to diseases, pests and environmental stresses than other major crops. The difference is tremendous. Farmers often spend just under $3,000 to grow an acre of potatoes, but they can only hope to earn just over $3,000. There is very little margin for error, and a 5 percent yield loss can turn a profit into a loss.

ACRES U.S.A. What sorts of toxic compounds of concern do these GM potatoes produce?

ROMMENS. The potential toxins that I am concerned about include alpha-aminoadipate, chaconine-malonyl, which is related to glycoalkaloids, and tyramine, which is toxic to people taking certain antidepressants called monoamine oxidase inhibitors or MAOIs. None of these toxins are mentioned in the petitions for deregulation of GM potatoes. I only learned about them by reviewing the scientific literature, after my departure from Simplot. Scientists have shown that PPO-silencing [silencing the PPO gene to reduce bruising] in potatoes causes a massive increase in levels of the toxin alpha-aminoadipic acid and a more modest increase in the levels of chaconine-melanyl.

Furthermore, I learned that damaged potato tissues accumulate tyramine. In normal potatoes, such damaged tissues discolor and so they are ordinarily spotted and trimmed. But in GM potatoes the damaged tissues are at least partially concealed. Therefore they are not trimmed, so people may be exposed to tyramine when eating GM potatoes.

ACRES U.S.A. How does tyramine affect susceptible people?

ROMMENS. When tyramine cannot be degraded, it accumulates in the blood and triggers the release of norepinephrine, a hormone that constricts blood vessels and causes a rise in blood pressure, sometimes to dangerously high levels.

ACRES U.S.A. Is it fair to promote GM potatoes as less carcinogenic than normal potatoes? Or does this claim obfuscate important truths about GM potatoes?

ROMMENS. I believe it was in 2002 when scientists discovered that French fries contain acrylamide, a suspected carcinogen. I responded to this discovery by developing methods to lower the acrylamide-forming potential of potatoes. But I did so without asking myself the basic questions. Are French fries carcinogenic? Do the very low levels of acrylamide pose a threat to consumers? I studied these questions only after I had left Simplot, and I found out that there are no reliable studies proving that French fries cause cancer. There is a correlation between the consumption of French fries and various diseases, such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and perhaps even premature mortality, but the list of diseases does not include cancer.

ACRES U.S.A. What other unintended effects of your work manipulating genes especially trouble you?

ROMMENS. I am concerned that PPO-silencing not only conceals bruised and damaged tissues by making less visible; it also conceals infected tissues. Because of this, a tuber that appears healthy may contain a viral, bacterial, or fungal infection.

Normal potatoes allow farmers to quickly spot diseases and take appropriate action. But what happens if the disease is symptomless or if its symptoms are minimized? This will make it much harder to contain diseases and prevent potato disease epidemics.

Furthermore, bacterial and fungal pathogens are known to produce toxins and allergens, so the concealment of infections may expose consumers to these undesirable compounds.

ACRES U.S.A. Are the GM potatoes you created transgenic? I am asking because they contain foreign genes, but not from other species.

ROMMENS. Transgenic means that the genes introduced into the GM crop are not native to that crop. Foreign genes can be derived from bacteria or other organisms or they can be entirely artificial and new. At Simplot, we created foreign genes by fusing parts of native genes to their mirror images. That was how we created the RNA interference (RNAi) technology. These fusions are artificial and don’t exist in nature.

ACRES U.S.A. One of your significant contributions at Simplot was using this RNAi technology to silence key potato genes. What was gained by doing this, and what implications weren’t considered?

ROMMENS. Silencing is based on two assumptions — first, that some of potato’s genes are not just redundant but also undesirable and, second, that the inactivation of these genes has no unintentional effects. There is no evidence for these assumptions though, and it is obvious that potato plants, like all living things, preserve genes only if these genes are evolutionary significant. Furthermore, it is becoming increasingly clear that the function of a particular gene is linked to the function of other genes, just like the meaning of a single word of a poem is dependent on the meaning of other words of that poem. For these reasons, it was narrow-minded of me to silence PPO and then believe that PPO-silencing would solve the bruise issue and have no other effects. And it was equally narrow-minded to believe that silencing INV would only prevent potatoes from browning when fried. I should have known that this genetic modification would affect the sensory profile of fried and roasted potatoes and all the other processes that use the INV products glucose and fructose, such as tuber sprouting spring, seed set in summer, and so on. Furthermore, the ASN gene that I silenced to limit the acrylamide-forming potential of potatoes is important, for instance, in the efficient use of nitrogen, which is the most important component of fertilizers.

ACRES U.S.A. You spoke about genes being linked to other genes functionally. I’m also wondering if RNAi technology silences genes that aren’t being targeted.

ROMMENS. Silencing is not gene-specific. The RNAi technology uses a long sequence motif to silence genes that share at least a short stretch of identity with that motif. Apart from the intended gene, RNAi may also affect other genes, both within the GM potatoes themselves and in some of the insects eating parts of the plant where the RNAi is active, including the tubers, roots, flowers and probably pollen. The unintended effects of RNAi are well documented, but I have not seen any studies demonstrating there are no such unintended effects associated with these GM potatoes. I am concerned, for instance, that bees may use GM potato pollen to produce royal jelly to feed their larvae. By doing so, the larvae may be affected in growth and development by the RNAi. Based on my assessment of the literature, it appears that the silencing constructs are active in pollen and potentially active in bees. So it is possible that certain genes in bee larvae could be inadvertently silenced.

ACRES U.S.A. That’s frightening! Going back to INV-silencing, I’d like to better understand how that genetic modification causes changes in the sensory profile of Pandora’s potatoes.

ROMMENS. In the second version of the GM potatoes, which has been approved but may not yet be commercialized, the potato’s ability to make glucose and fructose is blocked. This modification benefits processors by preventing French fries from darkening as much as normal fries. However this modification also causes a decline in other sensory attributes that require glucose and fructose, namely aroma and taste. A person who uses the same process to make GM fries and normal fries will find that the GM fries are much lighter in color and have less aroma and taste than normal fries. The secret is that most sensory attributes of fries are Maillard reaction products, derived from the fry-associated oxidation of glucose and fructose.

ACRES U.S.A. I think the public would be surprised to hear that you succeeded in developing the genetic modifications used in GM potatoes by “working blindly” through a process of “trial and error.” Can you elaborate?

ROMMENS. By “working blindly” I mean that I relied on scientific assumptions rather than personal experience to modify potatoes. For instance, the generally accepted assumption within the community of genetic engineers was that PPO-silencing had only one effect: it caused “black spot bruise resistance.” I accepted this assumption without seriously challenging it. By “trial and error,” I mean that, with the help of my teams, I often just modified genes and tested what happened. During my career as a genetic engineer, I have tested thousands of different genes in GM plants.

ACRES U.S.A. When you and your team determined that a certain gene controlled a particular trait, did you then explore further what else you might have affected?

ROMMENS. It took many years of work to identify the genes involved in bruising, fry-induced browning and acrylamide formation. When we finally succeeded in pinpointing the genes that should be silenced, we really didn’t want to burst our bubble of success. It was a subconscious reluctance to consider the unintended effects of our modifications. Some basic tests were inevitable, of course, especially during deregulation. But I believe now that these tests were mostly set up to demonstrate that GM crops resembled their untransformed counterparts, not to identify risks. Genetic engineers are under tremendous pressure, and their work is highly specialized. Success provides job security, but failure will eventually lead to an uncertain future. It took me a long time, about 26 years, to accept failure. Before I could, I struggled with scientific impartiality. And I am not alone, because almost all academic and corporate genetic engineers find it difficult to remain impartial; they tend to exaggerate the benefits of their work and to overlook the detriments. For instance, genetic engineers have published hundreds of genes that, supposedly, increase crop performance, but hardly any of these genes confirm. I believe that the majority of published studies on GM crop improvement should be retracted.

ACRES U.S.A. In your book, you write, “Genetic engineers are still in their Conquistador phase as they steal R [resistance] — genes from exotic plants … Pandora’s Potatoes represent the first example of a GMO crop that contains an illegally acquired exotic gene.” How was the gene in question acquired, and why was that unethical and illegal?

ROMMENS. There are still hundreds of wild species of potatoes that interbreed and evolve in South and Central America. The immense genetic diversity of potatoes and their wild relatives is essential for evolutionary survival. European genetic engineers obtained access to a wide variety of these wild potatoes and screened them for genes for control of late blight, the most important disease of potatoes. They isolated and patented their genes and licensed at least one of them to Simplot. But, according to Article 15 of the Convention on Biological Diversity, the actual owners of the resistance gene are not the European engineers but the country where the wild potatoes evolved, which is, in this case, Argentina.

ACRES U.S.A. Are there ways to breed resistance to late blight and other potato diseases that are superior to genetic engineering?

ROMMENS. Conventional methods in plant breeding are often more effective because they enable the transfer of clusters of linked resistance genes. But, again, I believe that any attempt to take advantage of biodiversity should be carried out in partnership with the country where this biodiversity evolved.

ACRES U.S.A. You have predicted that GM potatoes will contaminate normal potatoes. How would that occur?

ROMMENS. We only worry about contamination if what contaminates something is very different from what is contaminated. Potatoes tend to get mixed up, and we usually don’t care. That happens, for instance, when a tuber is not picked up by the harvester and survives the winter, and then grows as a volunteer, contaminating the next crop. It is almost impossible to guarantee that not a single potato is left behind in the field, or on a conveyor belt, in a truck or warehouse. But that usually is not a big deal. It is possible to limit the risk of contamination by growing potatoes in an expensive, closed-loop system. But companies would only be so careful about preventing contamination if contamination were a major concern. Apart from Simplot’s GM potatoes, I don’t believe any other major GM crop is still grown in a closed-loop system four years after approval. Why did Simplot convince the regulatory agencies that GM potatoes are identical to normal potatoes and then spend extra money to keep them separate? Another question is will it succeed? Someone could buy GM potatoes in a supermarket, apply certain methods to break dormancy, and then grow the GM potatoes outside the closed-loop system, though I don’t recommend doing this. Within a few years of Monsanto releasing its GM potato varieties, they were detected as contaminants in French fries in Japan, a country where they had not been approved. While Simplot is more careful, I don’t believe that any biotech company would develop a GM crop, get it approved for commercialization, and then commit to growing it in a closed-loop system forever.

ACRES U.S.A. Was there an event or insight that led you to start re-evaluating your work as a genetic engineer?

ROMMENS. I became more hesitant in 2008, after I wrote some complicated papers and patents. Until that time my work had been an interesting but exhausting experience, but I felt increasingly ambivalent when the plans for commercialization became more serious. Wait a minute, I thought. Did I dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s? I was not sure anymore. Even though I was not ready yet to be critical of my own work, I sensed that something was wrong. I wanted to slow down the effort so I began to reallocate program resources to non-GMO projects. In 2012, I became aware of the first mistake. It was a sequence error of a tiny fragment that is used to transfer DNA from bacteria to plants that gets degraded during the process. The error confirmed that I was not completely in control of what had happened, what was happening, and what might happen. I retracted a research article related to the sequence mistake and wondered if there were bigger issues. Feeling uncomfortable about the GM crops and the push to market, I decided to leave the field of biotech. I did not try to identify the unintended effects of my work until years later.  

ACRES U.S.A. Simplot used this sequence mistake as ammunition against you in response to the publication of your book. I want to ask you about it in order to dispel potential doubts about your integrity.

ROMMENS. The single technical mistake I made during my long career as genetic engineer was minor, especially when compared to the major oversights I discovered afterwards. It was a sequence mistake made in 2001, mostly by me and published in 2004. I discovered it by evaluating old data in 2012. The mistake relates to one of the many “tools” we used to produce the GM plants, but it did not affect the GM plants, and it neither invalidated any of the nearly 60 patents I wrote for Simplot nor affected my many other publications. It was kind of like having used an orange-colored hammer instead of a red hammer to build a piece of furniture. An auditor concluded there were no other technical mistakes, but by then I was feeling conflicted about the fundamentals of genetic engineering. I also didn’t agree with certain business decisions, and I was ready for change and decided to distance myself from the field of biotechnology.

ACRES U.S.A. What enabled you to finally look closely at the consequences of the genetic modifications you made to the potato, and what did you find?

ROMMENS. I had relocated to a small farm in Colville, Washington, to breed animals and plants. I enjoyed my new work but still felt bothered about the GM crops. The questions would come up as I was tilling the ground or watering my crops so I used the evenings to re-evaluate my old papers and patents and to study the literature. It took me several years to understand the issues. For instance, I had believed that silencing one of the most conserved genes of potatoes, PPO, only caused a single intentional effect — that is, taking care of black spot bruise. Only in 2017 did I understand that PPO-silencing actually does something differently. Rather than providing bruise resistance, it hides the symptoms of tissue damage by preventing damaged tissues from darkening. A compounding factor is that melanin-deposition in normal potatoes is often an early symptom of infection, so inhibiting melanin-deposition may make it more difficult to detect infection in GM potatoes. Farmers and processors thus lost the marker they needed to identify the potatoes that were compromised. Without this marker, consumers may eat GM potatoes that are bruised and infected and may contain toxins. And given these symptomless infections, GM potatoes may complicate efforts to contain potato diseases. I started wondering why I had silenced a gene that potatoes (and numerous other living things, including people) had conserved for millions of years. I realized that PPO had to be very important for evolutionary survival. Looking back into the scientific literature, I discovered the enormity of studies demonstrating that PPO is involved in stress tolerance and found that many living things — not just plants, but also bacteria, fungi, animals and even people — need PPO to produce the melanin that protect them from stress. Imagine what would happen if we blocked a person’s ability to produce melanin. That person would become an albino and develop sensitivities to UV radiation and other stresses. In plants, numerous scientific studies have shown that PPO-silencing lowers their tolerance to diseases, pests and stresses caused by oxidation, water, drought, and so on. PPO is not silenced in potatoes’ leaves, so I expect most issues to occur in the GM potato tubers, especially when they are stored.

ACRES U.S.A. Will advances in biotechnology allow us to overcome those barriers, or do they reflect our mistaken understanding of biology?

ROMMENS. Most people overpromise and overestimate the potential of new technologies. In contrast, there are hardly any attempts to define the limitations of new technologies. This is partly due to the need to secure funding. I had to learn the hard way that the products of science and genetic engineering are not as perfect as they may seem — that every single modification triggers not just the one obvious and intended effect, but also an unintended ripple effect that is very hard to study. At Monsanto, I worked with an excellent scientist who had developed some of the strongest insecticidal Bt genes. I admired this man. He was not just smart but also honest and sincere. He told me with all his conviction that insects would never be able to overcome his Bt toxins. I believe he said he would bet his life on it. But nature proved him wrong in a matter of two decades. I also remember the early excitement about Roundup Ready weed control. The scientists who had developed this technology would never have anticipated the speed in which weeds developed resistance to glyphosate. The devastating effects that the Roundup Ready system had on benign insect populations — in part, by decimating weeds — also came as a shock to all of us. Genetic engineering is just like chemical engineering in that it takes a lot of time to understand the many unintended effects of a product. While I would never make the claim that that there is no value in any form of genetic engineering or gene editing, it is essential to understand their limitations and risks.

ACRES U.S.A. I was surprised that you virtually never visited a farm or even an experiment station during your decades-long year career as a genetic engineer. Why weren’t such field visits considered to be an integral part of your work? What does that failure to leave the laboratory tell us about genetic engineering?

ROMMENS. There is a disconnection between the reality in the field versus the way that genetic engineers try to improve on this reality in the lab. Genetic engineers are intellectuals. They study the literature, talk with the experts and then decide how to change crops without really understanding these crops. I did have the GM crops tested in the field, but it is almost impossible to mimic the way that potatoes are grown by farmers. Ultimately, I believe that my failure to leave the laboratory was a matter of naïve arrogance. I assumed that I could revolutionize agriculture by changing some genes.

ACRES U.S.A. What allowed you, and presumably everyone else who worked with you, to deny your daily experience that “most GMO varieties were stunted, chlorotic, mutated, or sterile, and most of them died quickly, like prematurely-born babies?”

ROMMENS. When you are taught from the first day on, in my case in 1987, that most GM plants don’t look as good as normal plants, you eventually get used to it! Instead of understanding this important limitation of the technology, you work around it by creating many more plants than you need. If you plan to test the effect of a modification in a plant, you don’t just produce one GM plant; you use the same process to create dozens or even hundreds of independent GM plants. Each of these plants contains the inserted DNA at a different location in the genome. And you then focus on the few plants that seem the most similar in appearance to normal plants. These few GM plants have issues, too, but the issues are less obvious.

ACRES U.S.A. What makes GM potatoes less healthy and less vigorous than normal potatoes?

ROMMENS. Another issue I only understood after I left the industry is that the genetic engineering process compromises the integrity of plant genomes in unpredictable ways. Each GM plant contains hundreds of mutations. These mutations are removed from crops such as corn and soybeans through a process of post-transformation breeding. But, since potatoes are propagated asexually and are very complex genetically, these mutations cannot be removed from potatoes without a dramatic change in appearance. This means that the genome of commercialized GM potato varieties is inferior to that of normal potatoes. The inferiority reveals itself as yield drag and other detriments. A second problem is that each modification of potato’s own genes causes an unintended ripple effect that can further affect plant performance. For instance, PPO-silencing compromises a basic stress tolerance response in plants, and it is also shown to increase the levels of alpha-aminoadipate.

ACRES U.S.A. Is that what led you to conclude that potatoes are simply not amenable to genetic engineering?

ROMMENS. Yes, I believe that GM potatoes derived from conventional varieties lost some of the qualities that made these conventional varieties so successful. This issue is specific to GM potatoes and does not apply to crops such as corn and soybeans.

ACRES U.S.A. I’m assuming that GM potatoes are propagated clonally, like ordinary potatoes. Normal potatoes remain pretty much the same from year to year. Are GM potatoes equally predictable, or given their poor vigor, wouldn’t a GM line run out quickly?

ROMMENS. That is another issue. I believe there is a problem with the stability of GM traits in potatoes. The inserted DNA has certain features that make it potentially unstable. By analyzing Simplot’s own data, I have to conclude that the silencing of both PPO and ASN show signs of potential instability. This instability may be due to genetic recombination or genetic inactivation. Furthermore, two other genes that were supposedly silenced don’t seem silenced at all. These apparently unstable traits (PHL and R1) are hardly discussed at all in the petitions that Simplot submitted for deregulation. And the VNT gene belongs to a class of disease resistance genes that may be broken at any time by the evolving pathogens they are supposed to control, so I believe that VNT may eventually lose functional efficacy as well. Therefore it seems that the biotech traits of the GM potatoes are not as predictable as normal traits.

ACRES U.S.A. In the U.S. we’ve experienced an exponential increase in food allergies and autoimmune diseases in recent decades. Does your work suggest a relationship between genetically engineering crops and the rise of such health problems?

ROMMENS. I don’t know. I do believe that our diet lacks diversity, and that the conversion of normal crops to GM crops further limits diversity.

ACRES U.S.A. How do you assess the regulatory process? Would you say it’s skewed to give GMOs a pass, or is it equipped to catch potential issues before release to market?

ROMMENS. In the U.S. the regulatory agencies determine the safety of GM crops based on the data provided by the developer of these crops. The regulatory agencies assume that the developer is not biased. Their simple approach only requires that GM crops appear “similar,” or “substantially equivalent,” to their non-GMO counterparts, in terms of their nutritional profile and agronomic performance. For instance, the level of a sugar or an amino acid cannot be lower than the lowest level ever recorded for any potato, and it cannot be higher than the highest level ever recorded for any potato. Even if there are differences, as there always are, the agencies just ask for explanations or assurances that the differences are not meaningful. But GM crops may take one or two decades before an unintended issue becomes apparent. That’s why I believe the U.S. regulatory agencies should adopt the precautionary principle of the European Union, which carefully studies the risks of GM crops. Under the precautionary principle GM crops are not deregulated if scientific evidence is insufficient, inconclusive, or uncertain, or if a preliminary objective scientific evaluation indicates reasonable grounds for concern about potentially dangerous effects on the environment or human, animal or plant health.

ACRES U.S.A. In its October 2018 response to your book, your former employer J.R. Simplot Company attacked your credibility as a scientist, dismissed your concerns as false and hinted that they are malicious, and sought to distance its GM Innate potatoes from you and your work. It also defended its GM potatoes as safe and well-tested. What most troubled or disappointed you about the company’s statement?

ROMMENS. Unfortunately, my book was taken as an inconvenient threat rather than what I believe is a necessary warning. Simplot responded with indignation and then failed to address any of my concerns. If my concerns had been false, I believe that Simplot would have dismissed them immediately by presenting the facts. I am quite sure that the book surprised Simplot, and that Simplot is working very hard now to collect its own data on the questions that I raised: Is it true that PPO-silencing does not prevent bruising but conceals the symptoms of bruising, as well as of certain infections? Is it true that PPO-silencing has unintentional effects?  Is the scientific literature correct in that PPO-silencing elevates the levels of certain toxins, either directly or indirectly? Is it true that the GM varieties are compromised agronomically compared to their untransformed counterparts? Are there differences in sensory profiles when GM potatoes are fried in the same way as normal potatoes? And so on. I assume that Simplot hopes to refute my concerns, or, at least to show that my concerns are manageable. But it will be difficult for the company to be truly unbiased and to take the time needed for careful analysis. I am concerned about its defensive response.

ACRES U.S.A. What should be the next step in determining the validity of the issues you’ve raised?

ROMMENS. Ideally, members of the scientific community will stand up and confirm the unintended effects of genetic engineering in potatoes — and, undoubtedly, identify other issues). Independent scientists could request GM lines and study some of the concerns I raised in my book. Dr. Jiming Jiang at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, may have INV-silenced lines, and PPO-silenced lines may be available from Dr. Louise Shepherd at The James Hutton Institute in the United Kingdom. It is also possible, of course, to study the White Russets that are sold at supermarkets and Potandon Produce. I am willing to help in any way I can.

ACRES U.S.A. In your reply to Simplot, you state that, “I never criticized the company about anything. I only criticized one person, and that is me.” What are you taking responsibility for?

ROMMENS. I take responsibility, not for what I had done, but for what I had failed to see were the unintentional consequences. I was wearing a ‘pro-biotech’ filter and did not allow myself to think critically of the genetic modifications. I should have realized that every change we made would not only have one obvious and positive effect, but also had many more elusive, negative effects.

ACRES U.S.A. Let’s go back to your decision to study genetic engineering. How was genetic engineering a departure from what had drawn you to the study of biology in the first place?

ROMMENS. I don’t think genetic engineering is anyone childhood’s dream. I was interested in animals and plants but not in DNA. I had the feeling that genetic engineering was too intrusive. But if your professor tells you that ecology is a hobby at best, and that genetic engineering is the best way to get a decent job, then you do what seems inevitable. And you then tell yourself that you are fortunate and convince yourself that you like what you do.

ACRES U.S.A. What about your early experience manipulating genes made it “a dangerous addiction?”

ROMMENS. I felt stuck. This was my field of expertise and I not only had to succeed but also to excel. Genetic engineering began to occupy my mind. I fell asleep with unanswered questions and woke up with what seemed like answers. A little later, I lost my ability to sleep. My brain was filled with theories, dogmas, assumptions and ideas about DNA and genetic engineering. This was not a unique experience. Many ambitious colleagues had similar experiences. I am sure the same is true for other over-specialized disciplines of science and technology.

ACRES U.S.A. Did the training you received in graduate school serve to exclude understandings about biology that might challenge the premises of genetic engineering?

ROMMENS. Graduate school in Amsterdam was about one thing only: I had to publish at least four articles in peer-reviewed journals. I would receive my Ph.D. if I did, and I would be disqualified if I did not. I didn’t have time to think about anything but my immediate goals. Graduate school is a little friendlier in the United States.

ACRES U.S.A. In debates about GMOs and other controversial scientific issues, the evidence presented in peer-reviewed journals plays a central role. Are we placing too much confidence in peer-review publications? 

ROMMENS. I have learned to distrust publications, unless they describe very specific details of GM crops, such as the molecular structure of an insert or the level of a chemical. Publications on the general characteristics of GM crops should be taken with a grain of salt. When GM crops are described as higher-yielding, drought tolerant, salt tolerant, and so on, the data are often irreproducible, unless it’s based on multi-site/multi-year field trials and good statistics. Of the hundreds of proposed genetic modifications, it is my personal experience that only a handful can be confirmed. Many publications should be retracted but they are not, because retractions are frowned upon. I believe that our scientific progress would benefit from the encouragement of retractions. Another issue with publications is that the presented data only scratch the surface. How many of them describe the sensory qualities of GM crops? How many feeding studies are performed? How many studies attempt to uncover unintended effects?

ACRES U.S.A. How have your former Simplot colleagues and elsewhere reacted to your decision to leave the firm and the field? Have you been able to engage in frank conversations with any of them?

ROMMENS. The departure of genetic engineers is a very common event. In my experience, about 10 percent are fired each year and another 10 percent burn out. Interestingly, this drain of people is a bonding experience for those who stay, and stayers almost never maintain contact with leavers. Simplot was not interested in any contact with me, and I was not interested in contact with Simplot. I had to move on and get some distance. Several years later, in 2017, after I had reevaluated my old work, I contacted Simplot again. I told the company that I had identified issues that were potentially serious, and I suggested a way for Simplot to test my concerns before I went public. Such tests might have made it unnecessary for me to go public. But Simplot was not interested in critical feedback, just like I had not been when I was still a genetic engineer.

ACRES U.S.A. How did the culture of genetic engineering keep you and your colleagues from noticing flaws in your thinking and problems with your gene manipulations?

ROMMENS. The first dogma is that the essence of life is a dead molecule (DNA) that can and should be modified at will. The second dogma is that we are acceptable members of the community of genetic engineers only if we make new discoveries and publish them and get them patented. The third dogma is that nothing else really matters.

ACRES U.S.A. Even the most careful critiques of GMOs continue to be met with charges of ignorance and anti-science bias. How do you/should we counter such attacks?

ROMMENS. Another problem with genetic engineers is their intellectual arrogance. Genetic engineers insist we speak their language. Anti-GMO activists fall in this trap by trying to word their concerns as scientific arguments. It is an impossible battle to fight. Instead of trying to talk their language, we need to be more trusting of our own gut feelings.

Gut feelings may hint at issues that take many years of scientific research to be confirmed. Indeed, there is no reason that emotional arguments should not be heard.

ACRES U.S.A. After all that time not setting foot on farms, you now live on a small farm. What were you looking for when you made this move?

ROMMENS. I wanted to breed animals and plants and enjoy the silence. Growing your own crops and raising your own animals is among the greatest joys of life.

Pandora’s Potatoes: The Worst GMOs by Caius Rommens is available on Amazon.

Editor’s Note: This interview first appeared in the January 2019 issue of Acres U.S.A. magazine.

Interview: Raw Milk for Real Health, Wealth with Joseph Heckman

Interview by Chris Walters
This interview first appeared in the June 2018 issue of Acres U.S.A. magazine

Soil Scientist, Author Joseph Heckman Examines the State of Raw Milk Dairying & Challenges to Consumer Choice

Joseph Heckman, Ph.D., who tells his story and airs his views below, is a tireless advocate for common sense and good science regarding producing, selling and drinking fresh, unprocessed milk. A professor of soil science at Rutgers University, he teaches courses in soil fertility and organic crop production. He conducts research and extension programs on optimizing nutrition and soil quality in support of plant, animal and human health. He has served as chair of several professional organizations including the Council on History, Philosophy, and Sociology of Soil Science, the Committee on Organic and Sustainable Agriculture, and the Organic Management Systems Community of the American Society of Agronomy. He is also a member of the Board of Directors of the Farm to Consumer Foundation. Dr. Heckman was the lead author of the Soil Fertility in Organic Farming chapter for the agronomy society’s book, Ecology of Organic Farming Systems. Most recently he co-authored Fresh Milk Production, The Cow Edition and Fresh Milk Production, The Goat Edition. Heckman’s determined insistence on sanity, science and sense has done a great deal to lift the reputation of raw milk in this country.

Interviewed by Chris Walters

ACRES U.S.A. Dr. Heckman, how did you find your way to the subject of fresh, unprocessed milk and all the science, politics and controversy around it? Did you arrive at this debate via research, personal background, or lucky happenstance?

HECKMAN. As a soil scientist, the concept of “fresh food from fertile soil” strikes a chord with me. And long before as a child I got to see the big picture — a flow of energy from soil to grass to milk into the glass. So your question is a great place to begin. By profession I am a professor of soil science with responsibility for soil fertility research, teaching and extension. In 2006, when I initially became embroiled in this controversy, I had no idea that working to correct the reputation of carefully produced fresh unprocessed milk — commonly referred to as raw milk — would evolve into an academic odyssey. At Rutgers, New Jersey Agriculture Experiment Station, I work with numerous dairy farms and vegetable farms across the Garden State conducting on-farm soil fertility research. My earlier research contributed to the development of in-season soil nitrate testing as a way to decide if supplemental nitrogen fertilizer should be used on corn. This soil test for nitrogen was especially advantageous to dairy farmers because it often showed them that they had fertile soil and could significantly reduce their input cost. Vegetable growers were soon asking if they could use this same soil testing approach for predicting need for nitrogen fertilizer. Indeed our research soon extended use of this soil test to sweet corn, cabbage and other vegetable crops. However, the savings were far less common in the case of vegetable farms. These growers do not utilize the same soil fertility building livestock-legume-sod-crop rotations. It was soon obvious that dairy and other farms with livestock manures and legume crop rotations found the greatest cost savings from use of this soil nitrogen test. Doing this kind of soil fertility research on both livestock farms and vegetable farms made it apparent that the very nature of dairy farming builds soil fertility in ways that vegetable production does not. Soil fertility textbooks long ago arrived at the same conclusion: pastures with cows go together and build soil organic matter and fertility. Our research and extension programs showed farmers how to reduce off-farm inputs, and it demonstrated what land grant cooperative extension programs could do to benefit farmers and the environment. Following this success I wondered how else we might help dairy farming. After all New Jersey was rapidly losing its dairies. In 1990, there were about 250 dairy farms statewide, while today only about 50 remain.

Joseph Heckman
Soil scientist and author Joseph Heckman.

ACRES U.S.A. How did your background inform your work?

HECKMAN. Conducting research with the goal of helping dairy farms prosper came natural to me as I was raised on a small farm in Darke County, Ohio. Like any child growing up on a dairy farm, drinking truly fresh milk was completely normal. Our family farm was a highly diversified operation which included milking shorthorns for dairy, steers raised for beef, hogs pastured in the woods and poultry with access to pasture. Shortly after returning to the farm after World War II, my father became interested in alternative agriculture and around 1950 began farming organically. I was born in 1956; the year Organic Gardening & Farming magazine ran a cover story about how one could travel across the United States and to see 150 organic farms. Listed in that article as being open to visitors was a description of our family’s organic farm. Also, I should add that my father was a longtime subscriber to Acres U.S.A. My brother now continues to operate an organic dairy on the same Ohio farmland. I went to college to study agronomy and to grad school to become a soil scientist. During my college years (late 1970s and ’80s) I intuitively knew that my interest in organic agriculture was too radical for open discussion with my professors. Even in 1990, the year the Organic Food Production Act was signed into law, organic agriculture continued to be shunned within land grant universities. But the world of agriculture has undergone some remarkable changes. Today nearly every agricultural university has active research and teaching programs in organic agriculture at some level. At Rutgers University I now have the pleasure of teaching several college courses in organic agriculture.    

ACRES U.S.A. What are some of the topics you explore?

HECKMAN. As a witness to a significant historical period of growth and mainstreaming of organic agriculture I have published several articles on the history of this movement. From family background and work experience I gradually became aware of the many parallels between organic agriculture and the raw milk movement. My most recent article, published with Cambridge University Press, is entitled, “Securing fresh food from fertile soil, challenges to the organic and raw milk movements.” (A web search of that title will give you access to all 14 pages). My publication examines the raw milk movement as a result of a storm of controversy that surrounded a seminar series I organized and hosted at Rutgers University. The program specifically focused on raw milk and informed consumer choice. Speakers included an organic raw milk dairy farmer, a lawyer, a professor of food safety, a journalist and two medical doctors. As a way of navigating through the controversy I collected and read up on the relevant scientific, historical, legal and political aspects of producing and consuming unpasteurized milk. In my publication I provide what I believe is a unique scientific and social analysis of the raw milk movement. Before we move on to the next question, let me say that I am here expressing my opinion about raw milk as an independent scientist, and it does not represent the position of my employer. I do not advocate consumption of any particular food by any person, but rather as a scientist and educator I support the position of informed consumer choice.

ACRES U.S.A. What are some of the parallels you see in the growth of the organic or sustainable food movement and the drive to rescue raw milk from legal and practical limbo?

HECKMAN. The similarities between the raw milk and organic farming movements are numerous. The early pioneers of the movement spoke out strongly about the vital importance of fresh unprocessed food. For example, when Lord Northbourne outlined seminal concepts of organic farming in his 1940 classic Look to the Land he pointed out that pasteurizing of milk was good industrialization but not good for human nutrition. In 1946, Albert Howard declared ‘fresh food from fertile soil’ the ‘birthright of humanity.’ And J.I. Rodale explicitly staked out a position against pasteurization. In an article (1958) entitled “What Does Organic Mean” he wrote, “It is not organic to produce milk organically, and then to pasteurize it.” Eve Balfour, known as the Voice of the Organic Movement, was also a vigorous opponent of compulsory pasteurization. Current research provides strong evidence that organic milk has a superior nutritive food composition when compared to conventional milk. This is largely because organic dairy farming is required to obtain a minimum of 30 percent of dry matter intake from pasture across a grazing season lasting a minimum of 120 days. Although organic standards prohibit treatment of organic food with irradiation, there are no other provisions to prevent organic milk from being treated differently after it leaves the farm than with the conventional system. People who want to drink raw milk strongly favor organic feeding practices, especially pastured.

ACRES U.S.A. Is there a growing demand for raw milk among consumers?

HECKMAN. In many cases, soon after a farm transitions to certified organic, consumers start showing up at the farm gate wanting to buy raw milk before it gets shipped off to the processor. This has happened so often that the Organic Valley Cooperative has prohibited its members from selling milk off of the farm to any other buyer. Clearly there is a significant market demand for USDA Certified Organic Milk as raw milk. Organic Pastures Dairy produces and sells raw milk all across California. Interestingly, Organic Pastures is the third leading brand of organic milk in the United States. The raw milk movement is at a place in history where the organic food and farming movement was about 30 years ago. Before passing of the 1990 Organic Food Production Act the USDA and Land Grant Agricultural Universities wanted nothing to do with organic farming. It was like a Cold War. In 1980 there was a brief thaw with publication of the “USDA Report and Recommendations on Organic Farming.” In that report the secretary of agriculture called for research, education and communication to gain an understanding of organic farming systems. What would happen if government officials applied a similar approach to fresh unprocessed milk? I think that the market success of organic movement shows what is possible when all parties listen, learn and work together. 

ACRES U.S.A. The Pure Food & Drug Act passed in 1906 and the FDA didn’t assume its current form (more or less) until circa 1930. Yet serious concern about the safety of fresh or raw milk does not appear in the historical record — correct me if I err. Briefly, was the postwar pasteurization push motivated mainly by economics?

HECKMAN. The FDA has prohibited the interstate sale of raw milk since 1987. It does not, however, regulate sale or distribution of raw milk within a state; that is for the state to decide. The FDA has a history of opposing many kinds of health freedom and food choice. Economics plays a role, but I think there may be more to this story. A physician attending a raw milk seminar I hosted described what might explain the motivation in a blog entitled Government vs. Raw Milk, which you can read at It certainly is useful to know some history to understand the competing pathways of certified raw milk versus pasteurization. For a good summary I recommend the book Untold Story of Milk by Dr. Ron Schmid and Sally Fallon. The journalist David Gumpert also has several good books on this subject, starting with the Raw Milk Revolution. But long before the raw milk movement emerged as an alternative to pasteurization, there was a Certified Milk movement. One could say that the Certified Milk movement began in 1893. It started with a legal agreement between a pediatrician, by the name of Dr. Henry Leber Coit, in Newark, New Jersey, and a dairy farmer in Caldwell, New Jersey.  The contract specified details about how to maintain cleanliness in all aspects of dairy practice and handling for the purpose of producing pure milk, which became known as “Certified Milk.” Dr. Henry Coit, M.D., founded the Medical Milk Commission in response to high rates of infant mortality associated with unsanitary milk. Medical Milk Commissions were soon established in many states and in Europe to supervise how to carefully produce but not pasteurize the milk. In most places Certified Milk was only a small fraction of the overall milk market. A large Walker Gordon Dairy in Plainsboro, New Jersey, produced and sold Certified Milk for about eight decades. There was never a recorded case of illness connected to its Certified Milk. It ceased operation in 1971 for economic reasons. Certified Milk was about twice as expensive to produce as pasteurized milk.

ACRES U.S.A. It was legal, though?

HECKMAN. Certified Milk and pasteurized milk were allowed to coexist in many states, but by the mid-1940s a campaign got underway to pass state laws to force pasteurization. Articles appeared in popular magazines such as Readers Digest, Ladies Home Journal and others. A 1945 article in Coronet magazine was boldly entitled: “Raw Milk Can Kill You.” That article used fiction — without telling readers it was fiction — to describe an outbreak from raw milk that never really happened in a town called Crossroads USA, which does not exist. In 1947, Jean Bullitt Darlington attempted to correct the record with a series of three articles appearing in The Rural New Yorker: “Why Milk Pasteurization; Sowing the Seeds of Fear, Plowing Under the Truth;” and ”The Harvest is a Barren One.” Michigan was the first state to legislate mandatory pasteurization of all milk in 1948. Others followed with restrictions that vary from state to state. New Jersey legislation made raw milk distribution illegal in 1964. Reversing exiting law is not easy. A concerted effort to legalize raw milk sales in New Jersey has been underway since 2006. Interestingly, Certified Milk (unpasteurized) continued to be available for sale in New Jersey at least up until 1971, even after raw milk distribution was declared illegal. With regards to economics, readers wanting more information should search on the web for, “What Raw Milk Sales Would Do for New Jersey.”

ACRES U.S.A. Farm families were drinking unadulterated milk centuries ago and many if not most of them never stopped. They know from experience it tastes better and promotes good health. What kind of hard, scientifically valid evidence emerged over the past decade or so to move fresh milk’s benefits out of the anecdotal realm?

HECKMAN. Surveys have shown that the number one motivation for drinking fresh unprocessed milk is taste! This is very important because dietary health benefits can only come from foods people are willing to eat. While demand for fresh milk has been increasing, consumer demand for pasteurized milk has been on a steady decline for over three decades. Evidence that drinking raw milk provides protection from allergies, asthma and respiratory infections has been accumulating from a steady stream of published peer reviewed scientific literature, since about 2007. Much of the evidence for health benefits in this modern era is based on epidemiological research conducted in Europe. What exactly is it about drinking raw milk that protects against allergies, asthma and respiratory infection is not so well understood. Scientists typically like to take natural things apart and try to isolate the active components. However, the organic-minded ecologist or the functional thinker would rather look at the whole system. In 2012 a report from the Michigan Fresh Unprocessed Whole Milk Workgroup described the situation this way: “Milk fresh from the cow is a complete, living, functional food … the full benefits … are only realized when all of these components function as a complex interdependent and balanced process.”

Numerous health benefits associated with consuming raw milk have been documented in the scientific and medical literature for well over a century. In my review article I list over 20 supporting references.

In the early 20th century, medical doctors believed, based on clinical experience, that pure fresh milk ensured superior nutrition and health. Beginning in 1917 heat treatment of milk was found to be a contributing cause of infantile scurvy.

ACRES U.S.A. How far back does the history of dairy reach?

HECKMAN. Dairy farming with cows or goats on pasture may be older than seed saving and row crop agriculture. Archaeological evidence shows that some human populations have been consuming milk unpasteurized for well over 10,000 years. This food gave these peoples a major selective advantage. Populations flourished because they had more fertile offspring. Contemporary opponents to consuming raw milk have been very slow to acknowledge any of this scientific evidence and always argue that the risks of food-related illness and the possibility of death far outweigh any potential health benefit.

Most often public health officials are in complete denial about any unique health benefits associated with unpasteurized milk.     

ACRES U.S.A. For as long as anyone can remember, the shibboleth invoked against fresh milk was safety, safety, safety. You speak in public at panel discussions and the like. Has the attack changed as evidence mounts as to health benefits and farmers prove they can keep the milk clean and safe?

HECKMAN. Yes, slowly with education the tide against fresh unprocessed milk is changing. First of all it is important to recognize the fact that pasteurization in itself cannot guarantee food safety. Proponents of pasteurization would like you to assume it guarantees safety. For example, in the scientific literature one can find such statements as this: “In order to guarantee its microbial safety and prolong its shelf-life, milk is heat treated.” When a major newspaper called me about a question similar to yours, my statement made front-page news. “If you’re going to criticize raw milk on the basis of safety, then let’s look at pasteurized milk and its record. It’s not a perfect record,” I told the New Jersey Star-Ledger in 2011.

ACRES U.S.A. It’s always more or less presumed to be faultless. What are the facts?

HECKMAN. To be completely accurate and truthful it is useful to quote a professor of food safety who acknowledges, “There is no way to guarantee the safety of any food.” To illustrate that point, we should look at some examples of where pasteurization failed to protect: In 2007 a Listeria outbreak from pasteurized milk was linked to three deaths. An article about that outbreak published in Journal of American Medical Association noted, “Records indicate that pasteurization methods at the dairy were adequate.” Interestingly, a study out of Cornell University found using higher pasteurization temperatures actually makes pasteurized milk a more risky food. This may be because raw milk has antimicrobial properties that are destroyed by heat. In their research model they found that increasing pasteurization temperature by 10 degrees would increase annual listeriosis deaths from 18 to 670. It is often said that there are more outbreaks linked to unpasteurized milk. An important thing to know about outbreaks is the actual number of illness per outbreak. For fresh unprocessed milk, illness numbers per outbreak tend to be relatively limited and traceable back to a single dairy farm. But in the case of pasteurized milk, they can be very large. An article published in Journal of American Medical Association in 1987 was entitled, “Massive outbreak of antimicrobial-resistant salmonellosis traced to pasteurized milk.” In that outbreak more than 168,000 people were sickened with salmonellosis. As with any food, we need to consider the both the risks and benefits. As noted previously, among the health benefits of drinking raw milk may be protection against asthma. In the United States, there are over 3,000 asthma-related deaths, annually. Asthma is a serious disease. And some of the FDA approved drugs used to treat asthma have troubling side effects. I imagine there might be interest in the health benefits associated with raw milk if it pharmaceutical companies could figure out a way to patent or profit from it. When we acknowledge that “there is no way to guarantee the safety of any food” it begs this question, why is less than perfectly safe a manageable risk for every kind of food except in the case of fresh unprocessed milk? Why is only fresh milk held to the impossible standard of a perfect safety record?

ACRES U.S.A. Good question. What is the best answer?

HECKMAN. A veterinarian speaking at the Harvard Raw Milk Debate suggested that problem was due to cow anatomy — the position of anus and the udder made it almost impossible to keep fecal matter and pathogens out of milk. But the udder and teats can be cleaned and washed before milking. In 2016, when I participated in the Raw Milk Debate (web search IAFP Raw Milk Debate) sponsored by the International Association of Food Protection, I pointed that out and also that there is no anus on a lettuce plant and yet food safety is still a challenge. Until recently lettuce has been considered uniquely different with respect to food safety. It was said that lettuce can be washed whereas milk, because it is a fluid, cannot be washed. However, research has shown that pathogens can get inside lettuce plant tissue — probably making them impossible to wash off. Raw milk is not in the list of Top Ten Most Risky Foods. At the top of the list is ”Leafy Greens” — a raw food from plants. Using CDC data, there are on average about 163 illnesses from raw milk per year (for years, 2007-2012). When we assume adjustments for same number of consumers, eating leafy greens is still several times more risking than drinking raw milk. Let me quote from the New York Times, Jan 5, 2018: “At least two people were killed and dozens sickened by E. coli outbreaks in Canada and the United States that the authorities in Canada have linked to romaine lettuce.” But did anyone call for a ban on selling or eating raw leafy greens? On the contrary, much educational effort is going into teaching vegetable farmers about how to produce a safe product. By comparison there has so far been limited effort going toward teaching fresh unprocessed milk dairy farmers about how to improve safety. With increasing demand for fresh milk there is naturally a need for training dairy farmers. Get to know the facts. In this way everyone supporting freedom of food choice can become a teacher and work toward correcting the reputation of fresh unprocessed milk.

ACRES U.S.A. Where do we stand on legalization?

HECKMAN. Over the last decade or more the Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund and other like-minded groups began having some success in reversing state restrictions for consumer access to raw milk. As of today, 43 of the 50 states allow access to raw milk by some means: shared ownership of the dairy animal, on-farm sales and in some states as retail sales in grocery stores. In Europe fresh milk is available in many countries from raw milk vending machines. Canada, however, has complete prohibition.

ACRES U.S.A. Which of the states currently takes the most enlightened stance toward fresh or raw milk, and does it point to a way forward as conventional milk sales decline and fresh milk acquires commercial luster for more farmers?

HECKMAN. States are sometimes called “laboratories of democracy.” This means that they can try out various novel social and economic experiments and the rest of the country can see how a certain policy might work. As I respond to your question I am looking online at the Raw Milk Nation Interactive Map at RealMilk.Com. It is fair to say there are different workable pathways for access to raw milk. There is retail, on-farm sales, cow shares and legal sales as pet food. Retail sales are permitted in California, Washington, Idaho, Arizona, New Mexico, New Hampshire, Maine, Connecticut, Pennsylvania and South Carolina. On-farm sales are popular in many states. In some states where they are allowed, there are hundreds of dairies operating successful cow shares.  Sources suggest to me that all of these state models are an effective way to sustain the economic viability of many dairy farms. Michigan, the first state to mandate pasteurization, has since gone on to become an example of enlightenment. After six years of monthly meetings between a group of dairy farmers, producers, consumers, scholars and food safety regulators they have published a report entitled, “Michigan Fresh Unprocessed Whole Milk Workgroup.” In addition to providing this valuable publication, their efforts cleared a pathway for cow shares in Michigan. What is clearly not working is keeping raw milk illegal in the remaining seven states. Raw milk is of course legal everywhere by keeping a family cow, but it’s just not practical with every lifestyle. One of the major downsides keeping raw milk illegal in a certain state is that people drive over to the neighboring state to get what they want. And driving out-of-state is rather challenging for people living in Hawaii. But otherwise keeping raw milk sales illegal is a failed state policy since people get the food they want one way or another.

ACRES U.S.A. Can you give us some examples?

HECKMAN. Let me use New Jersey to illustrate the absurdity and unsustainability of the current illegal status. What I have observed is that thousands venture over to Pennsylvania to buy real food as if the Garden State is not allowed to feed itself. They just need to cross over the Delaware River (flows north to south and serves as state line) and raw milk dairy farms are close by or in some cases farms make arrangements to deliver to customers at parking lots just over the bridge on the Pennsylvania side. This steady parade of coolers filled with fresh milk stowed away in cars crossing that river from west to east represents a huge economic loss for New Jersey agriculture. It is probably close to about $100 million in lost agricultural revenue annually for dairy alone. But the loss must be much greater because raw milk is such a magnet for other food sales. Busy moms and dads like to do one-stop shopping for farm fresh food and typically drive on by our local New Jersey farms that are producing Jersey Fresh vegetables, meat, eggs, etc. Pennsylvania is a great state for raw dairy, but we would love to do more to support our local farms. I even know of an organic farmer who farms land in both Pennsylvania and New Jersey. West of the Delaware River he produces and sells organic raw milk, but on the East side sales are illegal. In the laboratory of democracy what could better illustrate such political absurdity?

Eating is said to be an agricultural act with political consequences. Current trends show that what people want to eat is challenging the usual agricultural industrial complex.

There are questions and concerns about fresh locally grown vs. imported foods; organic vs. conventional; hydroponic vs. grown in living soil; livestock in CAFO confinement or raised outside on sunny pasture; pesticide residues vs. clean food; and of course raw dairy vs. pasteurized.

The point is that food isn’t just food. Good farming practices matter, and smart people want real food choices to nourish their family. Raw organic is the real organic milk.

ACRES U.S.A. How can readers best keep up with the evolving situation?

HECKMAN. A peaceful food activist and mom in Maryland, Liz Reitzig, writes about food freedom challenges on her blog called “Nourishing Liberty.” Also David Gumpert runs a popular blog called “The Complete Patient.” I visit these blogs often as a way to keep up with raw milk news and events in the various states.

ACRES U.S.A. Where do you see yourself in this arena?

HECKMAN. Rather than an activist, I see my role as scientist and teacher. But I have this one idea that could be a fun illustration in the laboratories of democracy. It could put the economic loss to New Jersey on public display. At the site where George Washington crossed the Delaware River on December 25, 1776 there are state parks on both the Pennsylvania and New Jersey sides in commemoration of this historic crossing. When Washington and his army crossed the river it was nighttime and a very risky venture that succeeded in changing the course of the American War for Independence. There is a reenactment of this historic crossing every year around Christmastime. Today there is no need to take the risk of crossing the Delaware by boat since there is now a pedestrian bridge for easy crossing. Imagine a very long parade of coolers filled with fresh milk from farms on the Pennsylvania side and walked across that bridge — coolers pulled by families from New Jersey. Also, maybe some Jersey cows or dairy goats could be walked across that bridge too. Imagine the attention this could generate. They could also march onto Trenton, following in the footsteps of George Washington and his troops, to bring about historic change — A Raw Milk Revolution. 

For more information, see Dr. Heckman’s newsletter The Soil Profile, at Contact him by email: or call 848-932-6333. To learn more about the Farm to Consumer Foundation, visit  

Editor’s Note: This interview first appeared in the June 2018 issue of Acres U.S.A. magazine.

Interview: Dr. William Albrecht

By Charles Walters

First published in Acres U.S.A. magazine in 1971. Acres U.S.A. founder Charles Walters studied from Dr. Albrecht in the early 1970s and used his studies to help build the eco-agriculture movement.

Acres U.S.A. and this interviewer, Charles Walters, served as an editor with Veterinary Medicine magazine in the 1950s and traveled the country for the NFO in the 1960s. This was the era when animal care and farming based not on natural processes but domination by toxic chemistry came into being. In fighting for the survival of family farmers — he entered agriculture as a trained economist — he saw the only way agriculture can be economical was to be ecological.

In rounding up the body of knowledge of the day he kept hearing the name William Albrecht, not from the University of Missouri, but from esteemed scientists and consultants around the world. He picked up the phone and learned Dr. Albrecht was still alive and held office hours, even though long in retirement. When dissuaded by the University he hopped into the car and drove two hours down the road to Columbia and met the good professor.

And so began a weekly tradition of tutorials, lessons which formed the foundation of the magazine and books and conferences of Acres U.S.A. And so began a remarkable friendship.

Dr. William Albrecht.

Here is an interview and an introduction from our second issue in 1971 with William A. Albrecht. “Let me help you catch a vision” was the phrase with which he greeted the Acres U.S.A. interviewer:

William A. ALBRECHT. If you want to reduce human medicine or veterinary medicine to a common denominator, you have to remember that when the animal’s physiology is deranged, it doesn’t make much difference what you call the problem — but it is very probably a mistake in nutrition often founded on the attempt to be economical. I have come to the conclusion that deficiencies are more often at the base of health irregularities than we realize. I have had occasion to test some trace elements. And two M.D.s hooked up with me at one point. So I jumped in at the deep end because if I got into trouble with the medical profession — and that’s very easy to do — I’d have two M.D.s to pull me out. I put a student on studying brucellosis contagious abortion, which they call contagion, which it isn’t at all. And we proved it with four generations of a herd of 85 milk cows that were labeled to be slaughtered. We fed them trace elements, and we treated the soil with trace elements while we were getting ready to feed the animals the products of the soil. In four years we had 17 female calves that became heifers and raised calves, and their calves were clean according to the veterinary tests. Because, you see, they introduced an artificial microbe they call a brucellosis abortus as though it were a grand name. It is nothing but the symptom name given to the microbe. We had 17 heifers mature after we started feeding trace elements, and they give us calves, and those 17 calves were as clean as could be by any test the veterinarian could run on the bloodstream.

ACRES U.S.A. The remedy turned out to be nutrition?

ALBRECHT. All by just feeding trace elements, and the four trace elements we picked were those a Cleveland concern showed were missing in the nervous tissue of the animals which were infected, and were not missing in the animals that were not infected.

ACRES U.S.A. What were the trace elements?

ALBRECHT. The four trace elements that were missing — manganese, some iron — and I put that in parenthesis, because that wasn’t necessarily missing, but it is always necessary to have iron, copper, cobalt and zinc.

ACRES U.S.A. Were these findings reported in the professional literature?   

ALBRECHT. Oh, yes. It was a volume, but not too many were printed. In 1949 we held a clinic because I got the state medical association on my neck. The doctors down in Springfield had been giving the people inoculations for brucellosis. The women and the men moved over to Dr. Allison, who fed them the trace elements, changed their blood corpuscles from all white pussey ones to red ones. He was feeding these trace elements with a coating so that they didn’t open until they got into the alkaline part of the intestines. We showed that Bang’s disease was the result of a trace element deficiency.

The early Albrecht papers.

ACRES U.S.A. Did you ever consider becoming a physician?

ALBRECHT. Yes. I had a good doctor friend who spent his lifetime teaching people about health, and when he died he had 72 percent of his business still on his books. So I got discouraged as a boy. I said, “I am afraid that I don’t have enough association with the medical profession to make a go of it.” Having been a country boy with a lot of curiosity, interested in the physiology of plants, animals and man, I decided I’d better stay with plants and agriculture. So I took soil fertility and soil microbiology for my major, and they brought me here to put out cultures of legume bacteria, because at that time soybeans were new and there were no cultures.

ACRES U.S.A. Where did you take your training?

ALBRECHT. All at Illinois. Four degrees. A.B., B.S. in agriculture, M.S. and Ph.D. I’m probably more of a plant microbial nutritionist than anything else. In other words you get down to the single cell.   

At this point Dr. Albrecht started questioning the editor of Acres U.S.A.

ALBRECHT. Does the veterinarian know which way to turn? His animal is on that soil and eats plants from that soil. Why doesn’t he get down to the basics? Why doesn’t he go down to the foundation?

ACRES U.S.A. You can’t get them to listen. Despite the evidence, you can’t make anyone listen if he doesn’t want to.

ALBRECHT. Now that’s one of my disappointments in teaching and writing and studying. They don’t use logic to explain what it is all about. They’re only commercial-minded. As a boy — before I left country school — I told my mother I’d learned something. There are no hoop snakes. And I said, “Mother, I’m going to study snakes.” I got myself an Osage orange cane with a little fork at the bottom. And a cane is longer than most snakes. That snake has to keep at least half of its body down to get the leverage for the other half to strike. It has to have an anchor. When I finished my graduate schoolwork, I had over 200 specimens of various things of that nature preserved and put away on the stockboard nailed on the joists in the basement, all cured.  Alcohol only cost 50 cents a quart. And I knew the saloonkeeper. The thing that disgusts me is that your scientists go to technology instead of teaching. They patent everything and make it secret. I don’t like that. So I decided that I was going to study and learn. If you analyze what I’ve done here that they’ve paid me for, it’s nothing but learning what nature did which had never before been recorded.

ACRES U.S.A. What has been the biggest revelation?

ALBRECHT. In agriculture, and soil microbiology, and in medicine, I discovered what the country boy said when he came home to his dad from the college of agriculture. He said, “Dad, they teach so much that ain’t so.” So I’ve spent most of my life finding what is so. As I learned, I wrote everything out and studied it out, and put it into manuscript form.

ACRES U.S.A. On the basis of your research, should fertilizers be soluble?

ALBRECHT. No. Fertilizers are made soluble, but it’s a damn fool idea. They should be insoluble but available. Most of our botany is solution botany. When it is solution botany, the first rain would take it out. There’s a big difference between the laboratory and the farm.

ACRES U.S.A. Is this the reason we have so many farm wells that are too hot to use?

ALBRECHT. There you are. And we live with our own damnable ignorance because we don’t sit and think. We copy to make money. And they teach copy stuff in college. And if a student has an idea, he never gets to say, “I have a hunch.” And teachers do not encourage students to have a hunch because they want them to memorize what they’ve said.

ACRES U.S.A. Is that why the “insoluble but available” idea has not been taught in school?

ALBRECHT. I wrote this (a paper entitled Insoluble Yet Available) and got it published in the British papers. We’ve put money between scientific study and publication of the results. So we only tell farmers about products that can make money for the companies.

ACRES U.S.A. I go around to these schools — including the University of Missouri — and all they’re teaching is this “soluble” business. There are regulations in some states that in effect define fertilizers as products that are NPK rated, and make it difficult for farmers to have ready access to humates, natural mineral fertilizers and the like. Some of my associates inform me that you are the best spokesman — with academic standing — in America today. 

ALBRECHT. I’ve had to stand alone.

ACRES U.S.A. I note that you’ve done a lot of work, and that this work is not being made available to younger generations — farmers under 40.

ALBRECHT. That’s the reason I’m happy to see you. As a journalist you can use quotation marks. You can report. I’ll just give you a simple principle. A root puts out carbonic acid and treats the rock with that acid and gets its nutrition. And yet we fight soil acidity.

ACRES U.S.A. In other words, this acidity breaks down the rocks? ALBRECHT. Of course. The only acid you like to drink is carbonic. You don’t drink hydrochloric acid. ACRES U.S.A. Why, then, have these states come to proscribe against acidity with their fertilizer laws?

ALBRECHT. Because what I say doesn’t amount to anything in the eyes of these people. They’ve bought a conventional truth because there is profit in it for a few big firms.

ACRES U.S.A. What you’re telling me isn’t what they’re teaching in this university? ALBRECHT. That’s the sad part. You see what people take is what the horde take. Not what the fellow who sits and thinks takes. ACRES U.S.A. Would you agree with the aphorism, “People take leave of their senses as a group. They come to their senses individually?”

ALBRECHT. Always, if they have the courage of their convictions.

ACRES U.S.A. Is this reprint, Insoluble Yet Available, your anchor piece?

ALBRECHT. Just horse sense, that’s all. I tried to put together the observations that mean something. Let’s take this matter of the plant’s nutrition. When I came here as a microbiologist, they wanted me to grow a culture. And they thought I could grow a bacteria that would make a plant fix nitrogen and be inoculated. And I was here six months before I discovered that was what they believed, and I was terribly disgusted. I said, I’ll have to tell those people that when a bull and a cow get together, the cow has to do her part too, not just the bull. All of my research here is merely that conviction that when my cultures do not make nodules on their legumes, I’ve got a plant that is too sick to carry its half. But I haven’t got that across so far.

ACRES U.S.A. Why has your research turned out so differently from results others have had — results, I might add, more pleasing to commercial firms?

ALBRECHT. Well, Professor Miller thought I should grow bacteria that would make the cow have a calf whether she wanted to or not. And I had to politely show the points I wanted to make. Here (at which point Albrecht produced a report titled, Some Soil Factors in Nitrogen Fixation by Legumes) is increasing calcium saturation of an electrodialyzed clay. I separated the finest part of the clay out in the centrifuge running 32,000 rpm after the clay had been suspended and settled for three weeks. At the bottom that clay plugged up finally, because the clay was too heavy. But we had thinner and thinner, smaller and smaller clay until about halfway up in that centrifuge — you know what the milk separator is? — there we had it as clear as Vaseline. Now we took the upper half of that clay — a clay so fine that it was like transparent Vaseline. We made pounds and pounds of that because we had put it into the electrical field and made it acidic and took all the cations off so it was an acid clay. That was the thing with which we studied plant nutrition. We studied plant nutrition with that clay by putting different elements on in different orders. We grew plants. We studied plants with this fraction of the clay in the soil that holds the positively charged nutrients. And we could mix them and balance them.

ACRES U.S.A. As controlled experiments, I suppose you reduced the variables so you could take up one element at a time. How did you start?

ALBRECHT. We began with calcium because we found that we had to come up here to 65 percent saturation. In other words, you’ve got to load that clay in that soil with 65 percent of that clay’s capacity to hold calcium against rainwater before you can grow a plant with enough calcium to be healthy.

ACRES U.S.A. Will you explain acidity to me?

ALBRECHT. Your acid clay is nothing more than one that doesn’t have the positive ions on it — hydrogen, calcium, potassium, magnesium, sodium and the trace elements. I’ve got to have 65 percent of that clay’s capacity loaded with calcium and 15 percent with magnesium. I’ve got to have four times as much calcium as magnesium. You see why we ought to lime the soil? We ought to lime it to get it up to where it feeds the plant calcium. Not because it fights acidity.

ACRES U.S.A. You can’t perform this function with any soluble fertilizer?

ALBRECHT. It’s got to be a positively charged element like your calcium, magnesium and so on.

ACRES U.S.A. When were these findings revealed?

ALBRECHT. This paper was given at the International Society of Soil Science the day Hitler moved into Poland, 1939. In this paper I summarized the work of about a dozen graduate students.

ACRES U.S.A. Why this clay method for research?

ALBRECHT. As a result of using this clay method of learning what plants are fed, I learned about plant nutrition in the soil, not in solutions, as is common laboratory procedure.

ACRES U.S.A. To what extent did the farm press pick up this material and make it available to farmers?

ALBRECHT. Very little. They say it’s too complicated. They say, “I don’t know anything about it,” and out it goes. But here comes something from the chemistry lab that’s advertised for sale, and they swallow it hook, bait and all.

ACRES U.S.A.  Do research grants influence scientific findings?

ALBRECHT.  Let me answer you this way. I have a concept as to how those positively charged elements are held in the soil against water. My problem is to get a vision, and my graduate students, helping me a leg at a time, let me catch the vision. I say let’s put it into the common man’s language of the Creator’s business of creation. Not commercialism. The moment you throw money into this thing for a boy to study, you’re on the wrong track.

ACRES U.S.A.  A couple of years ago, I was writing a book on farm bargaining. I came across some information to the effect that the continued application of salt fertilizers is delivering less and less production. In other words, the American farm plant is over the hill and on the way down. Would you care to comment?

ALBRECHT.  I have excellent data on the half-life of our soils. You see the soil is like a radioactive element newly created. When this soil was balanced out there in man’s absence, and before man took it over, it was virgin soil. It was in equilibrium with the forces of soil development and leaching. If you start with the desert in the west, on the east side of the coast ranges — because water has all been precipitated on the west side — that’s the raw rock with a slight weathering. As you come east, then it is heavier rainfall, and you develop the soil into more than a desert. And that American bison lived where conditions were about balanced, and that’s a little above 25 inches of rainfall. Because when you go above 25 inches of rainfall you began leaching. But at 25 inches, you’re just about balanced. That buffalo was smart. He had mineral rich soil and not mineral-leached soil.

ACRES U.S.A.  Yes, but that same soil is now being irrigated, and nature’s 25 inches of rainfall is being sidestepped?

ALBRECHT.  Yes. And it’s been grown with crops that suck only the back teat, we’ll say, and remove certain elements more than others. The buffalo didn’t go far east and west, but north and south. He went with the winter and summer, back and forth. He went long distances north and south, but he didn’t migrate far east and west, because he would have gone to less rainfall and more rainfall.

ACRES U.S.A.  This would put the center about the middle of Kansas?

ALBRECHT.  That’s right. Here in Missouri, we have virgin soil east of Columbia — soil that has never been plowed. The farm across the road hasn’t been farmed since it was broken out in the early days. So we studied that soil, and we have the rate of decline under the old-fashioned horse and collar days against that of virgin prairie. How rapidly did this system of farming tear that soil down after 60 years? Well, the 60 years show how fast it went down. On Sanborn Field we grew corn continuously with nothing put back. Everything taken off. In 40 years we took 2/5 of the fertility out of the soil. Where we put out corn continuously, in 40 years we exhausted 2/5 of the fertility. I grew wheat continuously for 25 years and used nitrogen fertilizer at 25 pounds per acre. And, including the nitrogen I put back, in 30 years we burned out 50 percent of the soil.

ACRES U.S.A.  So you can’t farm, say, 100 years on this ground? Not with techniques being used in America.

ALBRECHT.  Not if you take half of the remaining fertility out every 30 years. You see, with salt fertilizers NPK rated, you’re churning that soil to make the microbial fires burn.

ACRES U.S.A.  What can farmers do to farm scientifically and still preserve the topsoil for future generations?

ALBRECHT.  Supplement with the first item that is most exhausted. But this isn’t as simple as just putting nitrogen back. You have to know that nitrogen is an extremely significant item in the microbial life that is going to live in that soil. You’ve got to maintain the living soil, and not a dead soil. And the moment you start putting nitrogen on the soil, you burn the carbon out. And you burn out more than you put in.

ACRES U.S.A.  How can nitrogen be returned soundly?

ALBRECHT. On my garden I take the leaves of the trees and I compost them. And I keep that carbon high for the nitrogen I put in, and not the nitrogen high to make that carbon burn out and shoot the life out of the soil. I put calcium into that compost — it’s all leaves, kind of woody, so it’s like wheat straw — ratio of carbon to nitrogen of 100 to 1. But I just put a little nitrogen, and just that so that during the year I get down to where I’ve got still a lot of carbon. But there is enough nitrogen being used this way. The microbes don’t let it leach out because it’s always tied up. Carbon ties up the nitrogen.

ACRES U.S.A. Do you do anything else to that compost?

ALBRECHT. Oh, yes, you’ve got to take care of your phosphorus, calcium, potassium and magnesium. That’s nature’s way. But it has to be broken up. Now we haven’t learned how to appreciate carbon as excess because we’ve got 3/100ths of a percent in the atmosphere, and what does a plant do mainly? It ties up the active element into that excessive carbon. So you’ve always got to keep a black soil.

ACRES U.S.A.  That’s the significance of the black? Carbon?

ALBRECHT.  Yes. And you never can go very deep with the black because the air is shut off, and you can’t have a deep soil unless it is granulated with calcium. So we had our black soil in the prairie that still had a lot of calcium. And the depth of that black soil merely shows that balance, that accurate balance of good nutrition.

ACRES U.S.A.  Since I was a boy in Kansas, we’ve been growing wheat —

ALBRECHT.  High protein wheat —

ACRES U.S.A. — but the protein is slipping.

ALBRECHT.  Oh, yes, I kept the records of Kansas, and in the time I studied it protein dropped dramatically.

ACRES U.S.A.  Now they have deep wells, fantastic milo crops, and soil that is starting to leach out.

ALBRECHT.  In other words, they’re moving it to where the microbial fires are being fanned.

ACRES U.S.A.  This is being characterized as efficiency in agriculture, is it not?

ALBRECHT.  Efficiency in mining. Once the soil is exhausted, you’re on an ash heap. You don’t know what’s missing except that nothing grows. The mysteries of creation haven’t all been put under button pushing technology. And the trace elements are a part of it. I had a letter from a man in Florida. He had read something about my remark that we aren’t including an inventory of all the elements that are nutritional. He wrote, “Albrecht, I’m growing citrus down here. I graduated from Purdue.” He said, “Tell me what to put on the soil as trace elements. I’d like to try it.” I gave him a gunshot. Copper, magnesium, zinc — I gave him a list. Come Christmas he sent me some fruit. Earlier he said, “We’re having trouble keeping our dairy cows out of our citrus grove. Every morning that herd of cows goes through the fence. Now we have a strong fence, but we have one cow that goes right through it anyway. She’s in every morning.” So I said. ‘‘Don’t laugh at that critter. She’s just a little smarter. She’s an A student.” Anyway, I received this citrus; I put the fruit in my wine cellar. When we finished that grapefruit bushel, the last two in the bottom had been cracked. But they hadn’t spilled any juice. They had split so that the slices separated out. And I checked the shipping date, and it had taken six weeks for them to come to my place. This was interesting, because the fruit hadn’t been taken by the green mold, and citrus turns green in a hurry if it isn’t properly fertilized. I think the copper he had put on that land at about 5 lbs. per acre protected against the green mold. Later he wrote that he had corresponded with some 100 experts. Not one thought we knew what we were doing. But, he said, “I just closed my contract for all of my citrus at a nice markup because I had a better fruit.”

ACRES U.S.A.  Then the whole business in Florida is a matter of trace element deficiency?

ALBRECHT.  Of course. Now why can’t our farmers here see that? I’ve seen that Florida thing for years. They went to seedless fruit because they could grow more seedless fruit without making seeds because you’ve got to have balanced fertility to make seeds. I just talk straightforward to those people. They’re on sand down there, and they have to literally spoon feed their citrus fruit.

ACRES U.S.A.  Recently I visited with a man in Minnesota who told me it was costing him twice as much per pound of feedlot gain in Minnesota than it was costing him out West. Is that because the corn is deficient? What about blight? If grapefruit develops green mold because of mineral deficiency, does the same hold for corn blight?

ALBRECHT.  I have written several letters telling people that before they fight this corn blight, see what 5 lbs. of copper per acre will do to help corn protect itself. I ate the grapefruit. Mrs. Albrecht ate them. They were not green moldy.

ACRES U.S.A.  A lot of farmers are coming to their senses — one at a time. What’s the best starting point in considering sound farming, rather than soil mining?

ALBRECHT.  We should not start before we include all the potential stages, and see how they fit together. The first stage, when this farmer made his power and his manure, and handled it all himself, he was more nearly natural. We have lost sight of three factors. The microbes in the soil, and on top of the soil, they are the forces that which by decomposition do the recycling. Then we’ve got the plants that profit by that. And they synthesize sunshine. The microbes can’t do that. The microbes have to have synthesized plant foods. My Wastebasket of the Earth outlines this. The microbes in the soil are the decomposers. The plants are synthesizers. All else that grows is a predator on those two. That’s why it is so important to treat microbes in the soil with respect, and why it is so important to rebuild soil. Now the German manure system was a tremendous force in rebuilding, but you see that’s too much work.

ACRES U.S.A.  How can you farm and rebuild that soil if you pursue monoculture or one-crop farming?

ALBRECHT.  You can’t because you haven’t got the manure. You have got to go back to the profile of the soil, maintain the carbon because the carbon reduced is what holds the other things there. When it is not black, she’s gone. Wide carbon ratio is the safety of your soil. You can’t do that out of a chemical company’s paper bag. And this whole business of what’s pollution is nothing more than having run the thing lopsided — out of balance.

ACRES U.S.A.  Can you give me a precise take on calcium?

ALBRECHT.  Calcium granulates your soil, and keeps it black. That granulation lets air go deeper. And that lets the microbes burn. Now if you don’t have enough air in there, you ferment, and you make alcohol. So when you make that soil anaerobic and don’t granulate it, you got too much hootch in it. Oh, that thing is delicate. You can’t put nitrogen in that soil without damage.

ACRES U.S.A.  Can you comment on natural minerals?

ALBRECHT.  I like to use natural minerals. That’s what limestone is. That’s what rock phosphate is. Your humates. That’s when your decomposition is carried under enough air exclusion.

ACRES U.S.A.   Humates are not soluble?

ALBRECHT.  No. And humus deep down in the soil is anaerobic and tends to be black. You bring it up and cultivate it and oxidize it and you release the things that were reduced.

ACRES U.S.A.  It is a sound approach?

ALBRECHT.  Oh, yes. Nature builds its own humus down only so far because it gets no air and is preserved down there. Down in Texas you do pretty well because your panhandle of Texas is high calcium. Your Kansas soils are high calcium. But they’ve been burning the calcium out awful fast.

ACRES U.S.A.  What will irrigation do?

ALBRECHT.  That saturates the land with water, gives it a fermentation and quick oxidization. Nature does this so gradually. And if there is plenty of calcium there to granulate it, the humus will move down and your roots go down, and you’ve got a deeper feeding.

ACRES U.S.A.  If 25 inches per annum rainfall means perfect balance in the high plains, what effect does irrigation have, especially when carried on to the point where catch basins are used?

ALBRECHT.  If you waterlog the field, you’re going to be in trouble. It doesn’t take many years. Just look what 25 years did on Sanborn Field — burned out 50 percent of our fertility.

ACRES U.S.A.  Let’s go back to your statement that fertilizers should not be water-soluble.

ALBRECHT.  It can’t be water-soluble because the preceding rain would have taken it out. The clay humus is a colloid on which the positive ions are held because the clay is negatively charged and holds positive elements. So your calcium is held on the clay. Your hydrogen is held on the clay humus. Your magnesium is held on the clay. Your potassium is held on the clay. You’ve got the cations — the positive ions — and they have to be balanced for the plant. And I told you, you had to have 65 percent saturation of the calcium, 15 percent of the magnesium, 2 to 5 percent of the potassium … for your legume plant to take nitrogen from the air, and grow, you’ve got to have 65 percent saturation on the clay of the calcium, and so on. Now that’s a balanced plant diet. But how many plants are fed on that kind of a diet? Nobody talks about a balanced plant diet in terms of positively charged elements because they don’t understand it. They only understand mining the soil for a fast profit, with no thought of future generations.

ACRES U.S.A.  To have an idea of what’s wrong with soil, you’d have to test the soil, wouldn’t you?

ALBRECHT.  Yes, But how many men doing the testing look for it to be balanced? They only start with the one element, that’s least, and dump on an excess and go overboard. So you might talk about the soil in terms of a balanced diet for the plant. But the plant has an advantage. As a root goes down, it is hunting. So you need a deep profile for that plant to be fed in. The plant struggles to survive. Its roots are hunting. The plant does  a lot of scratching around. So they’re trying to feed this plant and don’t realize that as the soil gets dry that root’s going for water. When they put water-soluble salts on that soil they unbalance the thing as if you took too much whiskey.

ACRES U.S.A.  Some of these points seem complicated. Does this plant physiology have a counterpart for illustration purposes?

ALBRECHT.  For about 25 years I’ve worked on this Epsom salts business. Frequently, after a hernia is repaired, bowels won’t move past that hernia. So they give Epsom salts. And if they check they’ll see that urine is throwing the protein out of the blood. Protein is wasted because the Epsom salts ruin the membrane in kidneys and keep them from doing their normal work. When you take Epsom salts, that salt replaces the calcium in the wall of your intestines and it throws everything it can because that membrane is no longer normal. It just throws everything from the blood stream till it flushes it and can go back to your bones to get some calcium to rebuild intestine walls. When I gave that to Dr. F.M. Pottenger, he said, “You’ve got a good theory because if we’ve got a highly rheumatic person and give him Epsom salts, he’s so low in calcium he throws the calcium out so badly that it kills him.” Now the medical profession  knows that they shouldn’t give Epsom salts, but they do. But you see with this hernia, the kidney wasn’t functioning when the magnesium went through. The magnesium that the bloodstream had to throw out through the kidney was knocking the kidney. Now here’s my theory. Now remember my work. If I didn’t have my soil loaded high enough with calcium, the nutrients were going from the plant back to the soil exactly the way they go from an intestine. If I don’t have this calcium-saturated soil high enough, the plants throw their fertility back to the clay, instead of from the clay to the plant.

ACRES U.S.A.  The plant feeds the soil instead of the soil feeding the plant?

ALBRECHT.  The plants will build the fertility up in the soil and the plants will starve to death. Now you see what I mean when I had a different vision of plant nutrition in the soil than solubility. This thing is delicately balanced, but who has a vision of it. If you put chemicals into that soil you’ve ruined that cell root. These laws of physiology — it doesn’t make much difference whether it is a person or a plant. I’m convinced that the Creator knew his business, and man still hasn’t learned.

ACRES U.S.A.  There is one problem with what you’re saying. Hardly any of these farm magazines put this information into laymen’s language so that farmers can understand.

ALBRECHT.  That’s the sad part of it. I just want you to do your own thinking. Let me fill you in on why we’ve been on the wrong track. You can then pass it on to your readers. I just want to say it the same way and have it repeated that way. Don’t worry too much if you don’t always understand. Keep on studying and it will all come clear.

The Albrecht Papers: Albrecht’s Foundation Concepts, Soil Fertility & Animal Health, Albrecht on Calcium and Albrecht on Pastures are all available from Acres U.S.A. as part of an 8-volume set.

Interview: Eric Holt-Gimenez Part 2: Farmers Supporting Farmers

Interviewed by Tracey Frisch

Editor’s Note: This is part 2 of a two-part interview with Eric Holt-Giménez. Read Part 1 here. 

Who is Eric Holt-Giménez

Since 2006 scholar and activist Eric Holt-Giménez has been executive director of Food First(Institute for Food and Development Policy), a people’s think tank founded by Frances Moore Lappé in 1975. As a leading critic of the global food system his work is grounded in a quarter-century of experience working in Latin America with peasant farmers in the agroecology movement. His latest book, and the central focus of this interview, is A Foodie’s Guide to Capitalism: Understanding the Political Economy of What We Eat. Holt-Giménez, who is of Basque and Puerto Rican heritage and the son of farmworkers, grew up milking cows and pitching hay on Marin County, California, dairy farms. He studied rural education and biology at the University of Oregon and Evergreen State College and later earned his M.Sc. in international development (UC Davis, 1981) and Ph.D. in environmental studies (UC Santa Cruz, 2002).

On his first project in Mexico after college, Holt-Giménez was charged with teaching sustainable agriculture to impoverished subsistence farmers, but quickly realized that he could learn a lot more from them. There he witnessed the impact of larger social and political forces on small farmers through the Green Revolution, which was getting them hooked on a treadmill of purchased inputs and imposing a farming system that was destructive to their land and well-being. A visit by several Mayan farmers from Guatemala to hold a field course on restoring degraded land marked a critical turning point for both Holt-Giménez and the peasant farmers. That encounter helped launch the Campesino a Campesino (farmer to farmer) movement through which untold numbers of small farmers around Latin America created more productive and ecologically sound, innovative farming systems, increased their livelihoods and amplified their voice.

Eric Holt-Giménez
Eric Holt-Giménez

Holt-Giménez’s Ph.D. dissertation on that movement formed the basis for his book Campesino a Campesino: Voices from Latin America’s Farmer to Farmer Movement for Sustainable Agriculture. He also co-authored, with Raj Patel and Annie Shattuck, Food Rebellions! Crisis and the Hunger for Justice and is the editor of Food Movements Unite! Strategies to Transform Our Food System. His writing has appeared in prominent newspapers, and he has a blog on Huffington Post. He also teaches internationally at the graduate level.

Learning From Farmers

ACRES U.S.A. After you graduated from college, what motivated you to immerse yourself in peasant communities in Latin America?

ERIC HOLT-GIMENÉZ. I was already in the highlands of Guatemala doing a study for my college thesis. I saw that schoolteachers there didn’t just teach kids; they also acted as a liaison between the indigenous community and the outside world. They were tasked to bring in seeds and fertilizers, and they worked together with everybody. That got me interested in rural development, and I turned away from education, which was where I was heading. I found a volunteer position with the Mexican Friends Service Committee, and my partner and I went to a village in Tlaxcala in central Mexico. Tlaxcala is the smallest state in Mexico. It’s also the most eroded, one of the poorest and the most densely populated state. It has the longest history of colonization and exploitation. We were supposed to teach the farmers sustainable agriculture, but not very long after I got there, I realized that was an absurd proposition. These people have been farming for 6,000 years. Much of their agriculture was for subsistence. They were depending on it to survive so they couldn’t take chances on experimenting with new things. The problem was that they had entered into the Green Revolution and were getting credit to buy fertilizers, pesticides and hybrid seed. They had done quite well with that for five or six years. But then, as the soil became degraded, they had to apply more and more fertilizer. They were forced into a monoculture of corn in order to get credit. With everybody growing corn, the price of corn went down and they were having trouble paying off their loans. The price of beans, which they used to grow with the corn, went up since no one was growing beans, so their very basic diet was costing them more. And they had stopped growing squash, which had helped to shade the soil and provided large pumpkins for their animals. They had to buy feed for the animals, and the soil was drying out so the crops were less resilient to drought. The corn didn’t keep very long so they had to sell it right away, when everybody else was selling it.

ACRES U.S.A. They had gotten on the pesticide and fertilizer treadmill and were now looking for a way out.

HOLT-GIMENÉZ. The organic agriculture I was practicing on my own experimental plot was doing quite well, but they weren’t adopting any of those techniques. I was very frustrated. Then, at almost the end of our two-year stint, some peasant farmers from Guatemala came to the village and gave a workshop. They belonged to a very large co-op and had gone into temporary exile because it was safer for them to be out of the country during elections. Only one man in the village attended their workshop. They showed a lot of the things that I had been doing. It was their style of communication, and the fact that they were farmers, that convinced the farmers in the village where I lived of the benefits of rebuilding the soil, diversifying crops, implementing conservation techniques and whatnot. They had a fantastic course. That one person who took the course implemented those things on his own land where other people could see them. Since it worked for him, other people became interested. With a group from the village we took a trip down to Guatemala to visit the Guatemalans, and they became even more convinced of these sustainable practices, which we now call agroecology. I extended my stay another year as we implemented those practices, and the farmers began to give workshops. They used demonstrations and little models that they built in the dirt and poems and songs for sharing the agroecological knowledge that they had learned from the Guatemalans. Very little was written down. It was very accessible, and they were able to learn basic concepts in agroecology and how to do efficient experimentation that allowed them to quantify their results. They could run five or six small-scale experiments on their plot without risking the harvest. With a group of about 10 men, if they each had five experiments, that’s 50 experiments.

ACRES U.S.A. That is so exciting!

HOLT-GIMENÉZ. It changed my life. I could have come home like any Peace Corps veteran and gone into business or to grad school. But with this experience, I became convinced that it wasn’t my role to teach farmers to farm. What I could do was help bring farmers to meet with other farmers, so they could figure out the best ways to farm. That was the beginning of the Campesino a Campesino, or the farmer to farmer, movement.

ACRES U.S.A. Tell me more about the highly eroded state you worked in.

HOLT-GIMENÉZ. Tlaxcala was one of the first areas to be colonized by the Spanish. They deforested it, put sheep on the land and degraded the soils. Much of Tlaxcala looks like a moonscape, and this is where poor farmers have been shoved to farm. Pushing the peasants onto the most fragile lands and then expecting them to produce is quite typical in most parts of the world. And actually, they do produce. But accepting the inputs from Green Revolution technologies is a doubled-edge sword. At first, yields increase. Then very quickly their whole system degrades and collapses, and they’re ruined. This has repeated itself over and over the last half-century. These farmers were able to get off that treadmill.

ACRES U.S.A. How did the Guatemalan farmers start using agroecological practices?

HOLT-GIMENÉZ. The Guatemalan farmers are indigenous Mayan farmers who worked under supremely oppressive conditions for 500 years. They had been shoved up onto the steep hillsides growing corn, beans and squash. They, too, were offered fertilizers. Their situation was much worse than the Mexicans, who have land tenure through the ejido system. The Guatemalans didn’t have that. For six months out of the year they had to go down to coastal areas and work on banana plantations. They would come back sick and exhausted. The large landowners would loan them money to buy the inputs, which they would sell to them. When they couldn’t pay back the loan after the harvest, the landowners would load them onto big cattle trucks and send them on a 20-hour ride down to the coast where they were being worked to death. What happened was that a Guatemalan soil specialist, who had been educated in part in the United States and worked all his life in soil conservation in Guatemala, retired to a small indigenous village that his wife was from. He was bored so he bought a little piece of steep, highly eroded land. He put in small terraces and added organic matter to conserve soil and water, the factors that limited production in most peasant agriculture, and he got tremendous yields. It was rain-fed agriculture. Some indigenous farmers asked him what special seed or fertilizer he was using. He was using the local heirloom seeds — they’re called landraces. The indigenous farmers were amazed by his yields and asked him to teach them. He agreed. He didn’t speak the indigenous language, so there was a lot of pantomime and teaching by example. Nothing was shared by the written word. In the Mayan culture, if somebody advances, everybody advances so they wanted to share these techniques within the rest of their villages. They asked him to go out with them. He said no because he didn’t speak Kaqchikel, the Mayan language. He would teach them to teach the others, but first they had to show results on their own land. And this worked.

ACRES U.S.A. When was this?

HOLT-GIMENÉZ. In the early 1970s, during a time of extreme repression in Guatemala for indigenous people. This was incredibly important to them. As the knowledge spread in their villages, they began to produce enough to live on and to sell, so they formed a cooperative. They weren’t completely organic; they did use a little fertilizer along with a lot of organic material that they added to their soil. When the cooperative began making money, they started other activities in the co-op like sewing, and the women were involved. They had worked on coffee farms so they began to produce coffee. Then, they pooled their money to buy eroded coffee farms at very low prices and restore their fertility with agroecological practices. They were so wildly successful that they stopped working for the large landowners and stopped using them as middlemen to sell their corn and beans. Actually, they started outcompeting the large landowners in the coffee market. On top of that, through the co-op — which was called Kato-ki, which means welcome, they were doing their own land reform, buying land and distributing it among themselves. I got to know them when they were at their zenith. They were recovering a lot of old indigenous practices that we call traditional and also innovating as well. They received some help from Oxfam and World Neighbors. They had developed a very sophisticated methodology for teaching and sharing agroecological knowledge, and they would put on workshops all around the Guatemalan Highlands. They would have fairs and give demonstrations. It was a tremendous effervescence of agriculture within Mayan culture.

ACRES U.S.A. How did the landowners react to their success?

HOLT-GIMENÉZ. The landowners saw them as a threat, denounced them as communists and called in the army to burn them out. Some were killed, others fled. Some joined the guerillas. Others went into exile, taking with them the knowledge that they had gained.

ACRES U.S.A. How did this movement evolve?

HOLT-GIMENÉZ. The Campesino a Campesino movement continued in Honduras, Salvador, Mexico and Nicaragua. When Campesino a Campesino hit Nicaragua, where there was a revolution and massive land reform, it spread across the country through the National Farmers and Ranchers Union and became wildly successful. The peasants were on the land, armed and empowered, but it was very difficult for the government to give them anything else. They were importing Soviet tractors for another Green Revolution, though it failed because of inept central planning and poor logistics. It wasn’t a well-greased machine. Campesino a Campesino provides tremendous levels of autonomy for the peasantry, ensures their food security and links them in very dense cultural networks across the country. During the revolutionary period a lot of farmers’ organizations and NGOs from around the world were descending on Nicaragua to learn about what was happening and provide support. Many people came in contact with the Campesino a Campesino movement. The Nicaraguans and the Mexicans went back and forth visiting each other. It was more difficult for the Guatemalans, though they visited with the Hondurans and others. The movement exploded. Within 20 years, about a quarter of a million families were participating. And then, Campesino a Campesino was taken over to Cuba during “the special period.” In five years, a quarter of a million farmers became involved. With the end to the huge subsidy for fertilizers, pesticides and other input from the Soviet Union, the Cuban government had the political will to advance sustainable agriculture and agroecology. This showed us that if there is political will these practices will spread very quickly because of their success. In 1998, Hurricane Mitch hit Central America and 10,000 people died. They estimated losses at about 13 percent of the region’s gross national product. It was called the Hurricane of the Poor because of the deaths of so many peasants living in precarious conditions. Almost all of the crops were lost except those of the farmers in the Campesino a Campesino movement. We thought isn’t this interesting? Everybody was talking about reconstruction, but it didn’t make sense to reconstruct with conventional Green Revolution farming practices because they make the land too vulnerable. That’s why the losses were so high. We said we should reconstruct agroecologically to give more resilience. That would give us protections against hurricanes and droughts at the same time.

ACRES U.S.A. How did you advance your concerns about reconstruction?

HOLT-GIMENÉZ. We carried out a three-country study in Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua with 2,000 farmers that compared conventional to agroecological methods. The agroecological methods won hands-down. The farmers did all this research. I was there, finishing up my Ph.D., and I helped them design the field methods for the study. They already were experts at observing and measuring, having carried out small-scale experiments on their farms, and they knew what indicators to use to compare resiliency. We worked with over 100 teams in the three countries. Our massive database allowed us to make comparisons and reach conclusions with a high degree of certainty and precision. When we published in scientific journals, I think it was the first time 2,000 farmers, semi-literate and illiterate farmers, have ever published in a scientific journal. The farmers held huge events in the national capitals and presented their findings to the Ministries of Agriculture, the Ministries of Foreign Cooperation and everybody who was involved in the negotiations for the reconstruction of Central America. They were wildly applauded, which was quite a turnaround. For 30 years, the scientists and technicians from the Green Revolution and the Ministries of Agriculture had made fun of them. They’d told them, you say you’re sustainable. Now prove it. Well, they proved it. Then the ministries went off to Spain to negotiate the terms of reconstruction. When they came back several months later, we found out that they had decided to simply abandon agriculture, conventional and sustainable. They wanted the peasantry to leave the countryside and move to the urban centers to work in a vast network of sweatshops that were going to ground the economic reconstruction of Central America. We learned a terrible lesson: It’s not enough to be right. They didn’t care. Capitalism had another idea. I don’t know which idiot in the World Bank or the Inter-American Development Bank thought that Central America could ever compete with China and their sweatshops. Of course, the plan failed miserably. On the heels of that came the free trade agreements, which devalued all of the crops the farmers grew. That’s when you begin to see farmers going out of business, bankrupt, and the beginning of the farmer exodus from Mexico and Central America to the United States, looking for work. The basis of the migration crisis really started over 30 years ago, and the fate of these farmers was sealed when capitalism refused to rebuild after natural disasters.

ACRES U.S.A. What should we know about the ejido system in Mexico?

HOLT-GIMENÉZ. The ejido system consists of state-owned lands, which were distributed to farmers. The ejido was given to the peasantry in return for their having been the cannon fodder during the Mexican Revolution in the early 1900s. And with all of the problems that the ejido had — and there were plenty — it maintained the peasantry for 70 years. Every ejido in Mexico would have a certain amount of land, anywhere from 300 to 1,000 hectares, which would be distributed to between 50 and 200 families. In each village the ejido assembly managed the ejido. They gave out different parcels, set aside land for conservation and reforested. Most often land was worked individually. Farmers could pass down their plots to their progeny, but they couldn’t sell them. But then, in anticipation of the free-trade agreements, the Mexican government constitutionally abolished the ejido land with Article 27, so it could be bought and sold. Everybody likes to blame the United States for this, but the Mexican elites were quite complicit. The intention was to move the peasants out of the countryside. There’s always a war on the peasantry. But the peasants kept their ejido land. When the women learned that in order to sell, the wife had to sign along with the husband, they refused to sign. Very often, the husband wanted to sign to get the money, go to the United States or buy a pickup truck. But the wives were not convinced, in part because if your husband goes to the United States with all the money, he may never come back. He may find another woman and start another family. Very little ejido land was sold until the free trade agreements ground the rural economy to a halt. The U.S. dumping of grains into Mexico undercut production. With no market for their goods, farmers were going bankrupt. Then came sales of ejido land. This also affected the farmers in the Campesino a Campesino movement. I visited a lot of the original farmers. Many of their sons and daughters are in the United States. They are probably only producing at 15 to 25 percent of capacity because there’s no market for their farm products. Mexico could be farming ecologically and be self-sufficient in grains, but political decisions favoring international capital have driven the country in another direction.

ACRES U.S.A. To what extent are peasant farmers around the world using agroecological practices and farming systems? Do we have any idea?

HOLT-GIMENÉZ. It’s impossible to know. People have tried again and again to quantify it, and have asked me to, but I couldn’t even quantify things when I was in the middle of it. It’s so horizontal. We called it reticular because it’s thoroughly embedded within peasant culture and peasant extended family networks — it moves like water finding different pathways. We would have a gathering and expect maybe 100 people to come, and suddenly there were 500 or 600 people there. Where did they come from? And then we would plan for 500 and 800 would show up. Around the world, agroecology is pushing back against conventional agriculture and, I would say, becoming the bastion of peasant production. Agroecology is a science, a practice and a movement. The science of agroecology is now being taken much more seriously, and it’s converging with researchers and scientists from other disciplines who have been studying it for quite some time.

ACRES U.S.A. Since we don’t use that term very much here, could you give a quick definition of agroecology?

HOLT-GIMENÉZ. Agroecology involves managing the ecological function and processes on a farm in order to create an agricultural surplus. A lot of ecology and biology and atmospheric science come into it. There’s agroforestry and animal husbandry and relay cropping, and very complex combinations of diverse cropping systems and timing. While it’s certainly grounded in what we call traditional practices, traditional is an inaccurate term because it confers the sense of being static. Traditional agriculture wasn’t and isn’t ever static; it’s always changing. Agroecology as a science came out of biologists and ecologists observing traditional farming systems to find out what farmers were actually doing. They found that these farmers were managing the ecosystem functions of their farms. Some of their systems are ancient, millennial systems. Others are reworked, like the movement that I was associated with. And agroecology is really anathema to capitalist agriculture because it encourages farmers to spend less on inputs. That helps to explain why farmers who practice these techniques were ridiculed for as long as they were. But it worked so well and was so resilient in the face of natural disasters, worsening droughts and storms, that it couldn’t be ignored anymore. Now agencies like the UN and even the World Bank are trying to co-op the term and selectively incorporate different agroecological techniques into the existing structures of industrial capitalist agriculture. This is really a big split because industrial agriculture dispossesses peasant agriculture over time, and the political content of agroecology is to defend peasant agriculture. Agroecology is not just about the techniques; it’s about the whole system.

ACRES U.S.A. This sounds very different than organic farming, where the assumption has often been that scale doesn’t matter and that it doesn’t matter who owns the land; it’s just about production systems.

HOLT-GIMENÉZ. Well, they’re sorry about that now, aren’t they, because smaller organic farmers have prepared the market for big industrial agriculture to come in and take over. And now they’re changing the rules to favor large industrial agriculture and driving the small farmers out of production. So, at your own peril, you ignore the agrarian politics of agroecology, organic agriculture and permaculture.

ACRES U.S.A. Why must we pay attention to the role of race in the food and agriculture system?

HOLT-GIMENÉZ. Our food and farming system has been racialized from the very beginning and continues to be so even today. Capitalist agriculture, particularly in the United States, is founded on slavery, the dispossession of indigenous people and the exploitation of Asian and Latin American farmers. If we weren’t exploiting undocumented immigrant labor from the Global South, primarily from the Caribbean, Mexico and Central America, the fruit and vegetable sector would crash tomorrow. We have to pay attention to race in our food system because it is founded on racism, and to ignore it is absurd. Racism allows this type of exploitation to take place by invisibilizing workers of color, or criminalizing them, as we do today. That’s on the production side. On the consumption side, all you have to do is look at health statistics in this country to see that the highest indices of diet-related disease and food insecurity are amongst people of color. Most of the food sector runs on the labor of people of color, and those are the people who suffer the most from our current food system.

ACRES U.S.A. You argue that we need to overcome racism, sexism and other forms of oppression and exploitation within the food movement, saying, “This is the work, not the after work.” How we can accomplish this?

HOLT-GIMENÉZ. None of these things are going to change without powerful social movements that create the political will to change the rules, the regulations and the institutions that hold this exploitive system in place. Within the food movement the people with the most at stake for these transformations are the ones that are most exploited. And they happen to be people of color. The rest of the people identified with the food movement need to recognize that leadership because that’s the leadership that will see us through. For many people, this is difficult because they’ve been conditioned to dismiss that type of leadership. And some people are afraid of that type of leadership. These attitudes are just forms of racism. So that’s what I mean when I say we have to dismantle racism. Most of the voices that one hears speaking for the food movement are white males. Next come white females. There’s another movement for food justice and food sovereignty led by people of color. They are the ones we really have to be listening to. The structural racism that conditions our participation in anything in this society has to be recognized and then dismantled, if we are going to build a movement that reflects the type of world we want to live in.

ACRES U.S.A. Is it worthwhile for people to vote with their fork, by changing what they buy as consumers? Is that a good first step to changing the food system?

HOLT-GIMENÉZ. Voting with your fork is really a baby step. Those people who can afford to vote in accordance with their values should do so, but it’s not enough. We are not going to change these structures on the basis of the market because the market is what these structures are built to reinforce. In a market economy whoever has the most market power gets to do what they want. You’re not going to change the monopoly structure simply by buying fair trade or organic. People have to act as citizens as well as consumers.

ACRES U.S.A. Do we need land reform in the United States, and if so, what should be its goal and what might it look like?

HOLT-GIMENÉZ. We definitely need land reform. The only land reform this country has ever known has been genocide and dispossession. The concentration of land in our country is worse than in most countries in the Third World. Land today is so expensive that it’s a barrier to entry for all of the young people who want to start farming. But just splitting up land and giving it away condemns the new farmers to farming within a structure that favors large industrial plantations. We also need a thorough agrarian reform where we value farmers and crops and communities much differently, based on parity and sustainability. With its hollowed out towns and the opioid, crack and meth crisis across the heartland, the U.S. countryside is a disaster. We need to reinvest in the countryside and to repopulate it in a way that is both equitable and sustainable.

ACRES U.S.A. Can working on the farm bill lead to substantial reform?

HOLT-GIMENÉZ. The farm bill is the institution that sets the rules for production, and right now it encourages overproduction. But it’s very difficult to change the farm bill. The U.S. has the farm bill for the world, and no one gets to vote on it. It’s a pillar of late capitalism, and they’ve got it insulated by layers of committees so that citizens can’t touch it. In other words, they’ve made it exempt from democracy so corporations can control it. As we organize and advance alternatives to reach the point where we will be able to actually transform or eliminate the farm bill, there’s a lot of exciting work being done on the ground. Since it’s so difficult to change the farm bill — the institution that governs the country and a lot of the world, too — people are starting local food policy councils and doing many other things to establish different economies, alternative food chains and food sheds with their own rules and institutions. While the movement is very diverse and a bit fragmented, it is gaining steam. Now the challenge is to converge in the diversity of these experiences and bring a strong political direction to what we’ve been doing.

ACRES U.S.A. What can the family farm and food justice movements learn from the experience of the Global South? Demographically the situations are really different, so how do you translate the lessons that you’ve seen to this country?

HOLT-GIMENÉZ. Even though less than 2 percent of our population is on the land — we have more people in prison than we have on the land — we are still an agrarian country. From agrarian societies in the Global South, we can learn how important it is to carry out agrarian reform. Such reform has to take into consideration the land loss of indigenous peoples and African-American farmers, and set it right with reparations. We have a tremendous amount to learn from the movements for food sovereignty in the Global South, which is basically about the democratization of the food system in favor of the poor. And we have a lot to learn from them in terms of scale and environmental sustainability, and other ways of knowing and organizing world society.

ACRES U.S.A. What keeps you going in your life’s work?

HOLT-GIMENÉZ. The people that I work with. When I used to work in the field, it was very energizing to be working alongside the men and women who were transforming their own system of agriculture. Any time I would get discouraged, they would snap me out of it because they didn’t have the luxury of losing hope. Today, when I mostly do research, analysis, writing, about the terrible statistics on world hunger, I maintain hope by aligning myself with those for whom giving up hope is not an option.

Interview: John Jeavons, Biointensive Methods


Still Growing Strong

John Jeavons is known around the world as the leading exponent of the small-scale, sustainable agricultural method he has trademarked as Grow Biointensive. Working from the heart of Mendocino County, California, he is a tireless advocate, developer and researcher of intensive growing. Over the years he has proven that the title of his best-known book, How to Grow More Vegetables, Fruits, Nuts, Berries, Grains, and Other Crops Than You Ever Thought Possible On Less Land Than You Can Imagine, is no exaggeration. As he tells below, Jeavons has been hard at it for over 40 years, yet he still talks about his work with unabashed enthusiasm and passion.
— Chris Walters

ACRES U.S.A. Were you always interested in food and growing things? Did that always appeal to you?

JOHN JEAVONS. Yes, at age 2 I was at my aunt and uncle’s dairy farm in Pennsylvania in Amish country. They had a kitchen garden and a grape arbor, and I was just fascinated. I loved it. That was just for a brief visit but years later I moved with my family to Arizona. We lived in a suburban home that had been built in a former grapefruit orchard, and of course all the homes had grapefruit trees. There was a big grapefruit orchard nearby, and I enjoyed that. I enjoyed gardening even though the heat was sometimes extreme. We had one tree in our backyard that had chickens and ducks around it — though I really didn’t make the connection until very recently, that tree produced at least four times the grapefruit and was about four times the size of the other trees. It was all due to the chicken and duck manure that made it so much healthier. But I have always enjoyed plants and gardening.

ACRES U.S.A. When did you settle in California?

JEAVONS. In the late ’60s I was interested in going into farming. I traveled to the San Joaquin Valley in central California, which at the time was producing 30 percent of the food for the United States, and I talked to farmers and agronomists. I asked them what the smallest area where you can grow all your food in an environmentally sound and equitable way. They said they really didn’t know, but if you had 1,000 acres of wheat and if it was a good year you would be able to pay your bills. I learned several things from this experience. One was that farming wasn’t being cost-effective if it had to be a good year for you to break even. Not immediately but soon thereafter 100,000 farms went bankrupt every year for a 10-year period in the United States. The second thing I learned was that if I wanted to know the answer to my question, it was tag — I was it! I’d have to find out the answer for myself. I had my work cut out for me.

ACRES U.S.A. Did your university training play a role in forming your approach to intensive growing?

JEAVONS. I went to Yale University. My major was in political science and I was particularly interested in political philosophy. From a functional point of view you could see that in the Middle Ages certain political institutions provided one function, and by the 1970s other institutions in society produced the same function. I was interested in this sort of multifaceted parallelism. I loved geography and even spent an extra semester in school in order to take all the geography courses I wanted. Then I worked for USAID after I graduated on a special information-gathering project.

ACRES U.S.A. What was USAID?

JEAVONS. That’s the U.S. Agency for International Development. It’s the organization that gives skills and funds for improving life in other countries. After I decided to move back to California and there I worked for Kaiser Aerospace & Electronics as an administrative engineer. During summers in college I had worked at Motorola Aerospace Electronics doing time and motion studies. I figured out ways to make paperwork easier to fill out so that tests of parts coming in to Motorola could be reported more easily and in a flow that was more fun for the testers and inspectors. I also learned about sample testing there, that you can sometimes have more accurate testing by testing part of a group of parts than by testing all of them. That’s been instrumental in some of the ways I’ve been able to acquire information about farming. After Kaiser Aerospace & Electronics, I went to the Stanford University library system where I was Chief of Business Services. It was and is a very large library system with over 500 staff and something like 23 libraries. I was in charge of things such as the janitorial service, and I was able to streamline it by reorganizing how often various jobs were done. Some jobs that should have been done once a year were being done once a month. Doing them once a year left more time for people to do jobs that needed to be done daily.

ACRES U.S.A. When did you get back into the sunshine?

JEAVONS. Farming kept pulling at me, and in 1972 I joined Ecology Action, a group in Palo Alto, California that had been recycling glass and metals. They’d been so successful at it that it was taken over by the city. The members of the group met late in 1971 to discuss what to do next, and they decided to do an organic gardening store and an educational center and combine those two into one because they were complementary. A bicycle workshop was also developed. The organic gardening/mini-farming project was called Common Ground, and the board of directors said we could go ahead with it as long as we could raise the money — and I’m still raising money for it after 40 years.

ACRES U.S.A. Did your experience in streamlining systems give you a special insight into how you could garden in ways that were less backbreaking or labor-intensive than the usual?

JEAVONS. I think so. There are a number of aspects of this. What I’m doing now is sort of a combination. Since I have an interest in international relations and development, combining that with farming, with the business side, and with the systems analysis side I hope creates a more effective, easier to use and human-friendly way of raising food. Before I began the project in 1972 I spent a year amassing all of the San Francisco wholesale market prices, week by week for every week in the year, for all of the vegetables and soft fruits. This wasn’t an easy job because they didn’t tell you that it’s so many cents a pound. They said it’s so many dollars a lug, and the different lugs and boxes weigh different amounts, even for the same vegetable. Sometimes they weighed different amounts at different times of the year. I had this big master chart, and I found out some interesting things. I found out that if you want to sell celery, the best time to sell it is in the first part of December. You can get double the price, and the reason is because the supply is used up at Thanksgiving and there’s a big demand coming up for Christmas. I learned that you could earn a lot more money from cauliflower than broccoli. In fact, you can make eight times the dollars per unit of area per unit of time with cauliflower than with broccoli. A lot of it has to do with the weight of the broccoli head — cauliflower is much more dense. Also the cauliflower sells for a little bit more per pound, but the big thing is the weight of the cauliflower.

ACRES U.S.A. It sounds counter-intuitive because broccoli is more popular.

JEAVONS. It is more popular, and what surprised me is they’re both brassicas and they both take approximately the same amount of time to grow. I always thought they weighed the same, but when I developed the master charts and ran it all out I said, “Wow, this is interesting and exciting.”

ACRES U.S.A. What did you do to make the work more manageable?

JEAVONS. In terms of easier, we use a process called double digging, where manually we prepare the soil 24 inches deep. This is really important, because if you have good soil structure down 24 inches deep you’ve got nutrient cycling 24 inches deep. In farming, whether it’s organic or chemical, currently the soil is only prepared about 6 inches deep, and unless you have a really good soil already you only have ease of nutrient cycling one quarter as deep. When you make it deeper, then you can put all the plants closer together so there’s about four times the plants per unit of area per unit of time, and the nutrient cycling in the soil to support that. Using the double digging technique in 1972 certainly was strenuous. Over time I’ve found ways to make it easier, so now we have a Grow Biointensive DVD that shows how to dig with almost no effort. I once taught one of the best market gardeners in California how to double dig, and she learned how to do it without any effort. She came back to me two minutes later and said, “John, I just realized something. I really like to work.” John Dromgoole was the Southwest region representative for Rodale when I taught in Austin, Texas. After seeing the way we double dig, he said, “John, I now realize nobody’s ever really taught us how to dig. You don’t really need to use much effort. You can just use your body weight; you shift your body weight and you let gravity and the tool do the rest.” If you’re digging, you’re not digging right. If you’re letting the process do it for you, you’re digging right.

ACRES U.S.A. It’s tempting to wonder how many other techniques were developed and forgotten and are ripe for revival.

JEAVONS. The French gardeners, who developed over a 300-year period peaking in the early 1900s, broke into guilds. These were like extended families, and they had a cradle-to-grave social system because their farming was so effective and made a good income. But they had different ways of growing crops that enabled them to bring cantaloupe, for example, to market four to six weeks earlier than anybody else. That’s where they made most of their net income. They used all sorts of special tricks and pieces of knowledge. What Ecology Action has been doing is relearning how people 5,000 years ago in Ethiopia, 4,000 years ago in China, 2,000 years ago in Greece, and 1,000 years ago in the Mayan culture structured their biologically intensive forms of raising food. Along the way we’ve found tricks and little processes that make a big difference. For instance, if you transplant your carrots you can get double the yield that you get if you directly sow them. We’ve replicated this more than once.

ACRES U.S.A. Why is that?

JEAVONS. I don’t know all the reasons why, but I think it’s because the soil is looser at the point where you transplant the seedling. When you put a seed in, it doesn’t germinate for about two to three weeks, and the soil is more compacted by then. Some of the nutrients are less available. And it takes you a fair amount of time to thin a carrot bed that’s been broadcast, but it doesn’t take much longer to transplant than it does to thin. For many people around the world who want to eat, a little bit of extra time isn’t an issue while a lot more food is wonderful. What we found out is that there are lots of economies of small scale. One of them is that we use three to eight times less water per pound of food produced with this biologically intensive system. We use 50 to 100 percent less purchased nutrient in organic fertilizer form. We use 94 to 99 percent less energy in all forms in producing food.

ACRES U.S.A. Can you cite some extended benefits of those savings?

JEAVONS. There’s a human side to all this that’s just terrific and I’ll mention one of those sides. In India there are millions of children who have eyesight problems and brain development issues because they don’t get enough vitamin A and iron during the first six years of their life. You can grow the missing vitamin A and iron in just a few square feet with dark green vegetables such as collards or parsley. It’s so simple that once the children are older, like 4, 5 and 6, they can actually grow their own food.

ACRES U.S.A. How long did it take to develop the fundamentals of biointensive growing?

JEAVONS. We spent the first seven years breaking the code of economic mini-farming. We worked on everything — economics, diet, and sustainable soil fertility — but we focused particularly on income mini-farming. During the second seven years we worked on complete diet mini-farming, and I’ll come back to that. Then for the last 26 years we’ve worked on sustainable soil fertility, which has been the most challenging code to break. Organic farming is not fully sustainable because it imports 50 to 84 percent of its inputs — composts, manures and organic fertilizers — from other soils. Even though we’re building up our soils with organic farming, we’re depleting other soils. Worldwide there are as few as 34 to 49 years of farmable soil left.

ACRES U.S.A. Not to mention challenges like the droughts hitting many parts of the world currently, including part of the U.S.?

JEAVONS. It’s more than challenging. Biointensive has the potential of using as little as 88 percent less water per pound of vegetable produced, and it has the potential of using as little as 67 percent water per pound of grain produced. We’ve found that by growing seedlings in flats and transplanting them, the amount of water you save if you choose the right crops is enough to feed half a person to a whole person for an entire year compared with direct sowing.

ACRES U.S.A. Let’s return to the diet component you mentioned.

JEAVONS. You asked about how my systems analysis experience helps in farming area and food raising. One of the things we discovered is that special root crops, and there are seven of them, produce a tremendous amount of calories per day per unit of area compared with grains and compared with soybeans. These special root crops can produce as much as five times the calories and more compared with soybeans per unit of area, per unit of time. Here’s another way of looking at it. If you have just 100 square feet of wheat and Grow Biointensive intermediate yields, you produce about 15,000 calories. But if you have potatoes, you’re going to be producing something like about 70,000 calories. That seems fantastic, and it is. But the wheat takes eight months to grow and the 65-day maturing potato takes only two months to grow, so when you figure out the effectiveness on a per-month basis the potato is incredible! Now, we’re not trying to encourage another Irish potato famine because you should have more crops than just potatoes, and we do. Potatoes or sweet potatoes, leeks, garlic, salsify, Jerusalem artichoke, and a few others — if they’re part of your diet, they’re going to greatly reduce the amount of area it takes to grow your food. Growing the food for the average U.S. diet takes an average of about ¾ of an acre, about 30,000 square feet. With a different diet and with biological intensity, we’re able to grow all of the nutrients you need for one person for all year in 4,000 square feet. That is seven-and-a-half times the area efficiency. It’s not the same diet. It’s got a lot of root crops in it. It has some grain crops in it, but in an increasingly desertified world with less farmable land it’s the type of diet design that is healthy. And people just may have enough land to grow it.

ACRES U.S.A. What are your thoughts about the heavy reliance on soybean and grains in this country?

JEAVONS. I think I have one way that will make the challenge clear for people. Certainly it did for me. If you grow soybeans at the kind of yield that they normally produce, which is not a high yield, it takes about 12,000 square feet to grow all of your calories. But if you grow using a cropping plan like we do, then 60 percent of the area is in what we call compost and calorie crops. That’s your grain and seed crops such as wheat, corn, and amaranth. They grow a significant amount of calories and a very large amount of compost material. Then in 30 percent of our area the goal is to grow the special root crops that produce so many calories per unit of area per unit of time. In 10 percent of our area we grow vegetable crops for any vitamins or minerals that are not in the other two kinds of crops, and also for income. With this particular kind of combination you can grow all your calories for one person for all year in about six beds — 600 square feet not 12,000 square feet. If you grow a mixed diet plan with 40 beds, then that would be 4,000 square feet rather than 12,000 square feet. Many of the people in the world, especially low income people, are only going to have about 4,500 square feet of farmable land.

ACRES U.S.A. Have these ideas been implemented in India, for example?

JEAVONS. There are currently people in 142 countries using Grow Biointensive sustainable mini-farming practices. These aren’t giant projects, though sometimes large numbers of people are affected. It’s reported that there’s as many as 2.5 million farmers in Kenya using biointensive practices, and over 2 million people in Mexico have been taught biointensive. In India we had a wonderful experience. In 1976 we got a list of alternative technology agriculture locations around the world. We sent out a letter saying we’re doing this ages old but new-to us biologically intensive practice of food raising. It produces higher yields and uses less water, and if you’re interested we’ll send you a free manual showing how to do it. Only one person in the whole world answered, and that was Dr. Seshadri in Madras, India. We sent him a book, and they ran the test with 22 low-income families who had never farmed before. They had sandy soil, and the only fertilizer they had was fresh manure. By the end of their third season these farmers were getting 75 percent to 100 percent of the yields of the good farmers in India. Now good farmers there average about double the regular average. These formerly inexperienced people were in the upper 15th percentile of yields in India. I don’t attribute it just to biointensive. I attribute it to the great teaching of the late Dr. Seshadri and his wife Chitra.

ACRES U.S.A. Nature takes many, many years to create rich topsoil. How do you address this reality?

JEAVONS. The thing that excites me tremendously is the result of a master’s thesis at the University of California at Berkeley in the Soil Science department.

We discovered that Grow Biointensive has the capacity to build the soil up to 60 times faster than happens in nature, and in fact for every pound of food eaten it can produce up to 20 pounds of farmable soil. This is in contrast to conventional practices in the United States, which result in six pounds of farmable soil getting lost. In developing countries on average 12 pounds of farmable soil are lost.

In China 18 pounds of farmable soil are lost. We’re talking about just the reverse being possible, potentially, with biointensive practices. At a time of increasing desertification, at a time in which there is less and less farmable soil left per capita in the world, this is exciting. When I teach workshops, one of the things that I say is, “Here’s the most important thing I want everyone here to do for a better world and a better future and a better diet. I want everyone to stop growing crops and I want instead for everyone to grow soil.”

ACRES U.S.A. What do you say next?

JEAVONS. If you grow soil, you have to grow crops, so you didn’t lose anything. The reason for growing crops isn’t just to eat; it’s to grow soil. If you grow soil, the soil will provide for you abundantly. This is something we all need to start focusing on — growing soil. To do that we use the recipe I mentioned earlier — 60 percent compost and calorie crops, 30 percent special root crops, and 10 percent vegetable and income crops. It is a goal. There are other percentages that can work. In the tropics it’s 50 percent, 30 percent, 20 percent for a 12-month tropical growing season. The important thing is to realize that we’ve got to feed the soil. Too much of what we’re doing now is like milking a cow every day and not feeding it. The cow here that’s nurturing us is the soil and what a wonderful opportunity. I’m thinking of a quote from Voltaire in his book Candide. On the last page Candide says, “The whole earth is a garden, and what a wonderful place it would be if each one of us just took care of our part of the garden.” I would say our mini-farm, because we need to realize our gardens are powerful farms. There are a lot of challenges happening in the world. There’s peak water — it’s incredible the degree to which people aren’t having enough water, but you’re experiencing that in Texas right now. And people are experiencing that in different locations globally. But Ecology Action has a theme, a philosophy, of changing scarcity into abundance. If normally it takes one unit of water to grow a certain amount of food, with Grow Biointensive — if it’s practiced properly — you can grow the same amount of food with 1/3 to 1/8 a unit of water. You’ve just changed from a situation where you didn’t have enough water to where you have more than enough water. Rain has to come down of course — some.

ACRES U.S.A. What happens if it’s not practiced properly?

JEAVONS. If you don’t use Grow Biointensive properly, because it’s so productive — it has the capacity for higher yields — you can deplete the soil 2 to 6 times faster than other techniques.

ACRES U.S.A. Do organic farmers with acres to manage — not gardeners — ever come to you for advice on how they can reduce their inputs?

JEAVONS. We have a little bit of that, not a lot. I expect to see a lot more in the future because if you can reduce your inputs, that improves your profit line tremendously. Another thing we experience is that we have only about 5 percent crop loss due to pests, so that’s another way that things are easier, and for the production farmer it can mean more income. Ever since 1972 when we began, we gave classes every Saturday and we gave tours every Saturday. Now we’re north of where we were, and we have four one-day tours a year and two threeday workshops — one in November and one in March — and all this information is detailed online. We have over 50 publications addressing different topics, like how to grow all your seed in the smallest area while preserving genetic diversity, online now so everyone can get started easily. We have a 12-page How To Grow More Vegetables with almost no numbers in it. It’s in our self-teaching section.

ACRES U.S.A. Can people restricted to limited amounts of growing space use your techniques to insulate themselves from economic shocks by reducing their grocery budget?

JEAVONS. By whatever techniques including ours, you can grow in your apartment or in your small yard and greatly reduce your bills at the grocery store. It depends on how long your growing season is and which crops you grow, but you can grow up to $500-$1,000 worth of vegetables and soft fruits in as little as 100 square feet. There are some wonderful books out on container gardening, and both editions of The Apartment Farmer by Duane Newcomb are exciting in the opportunities that Duane offers you for balcony gardening, flowerpots, window boxes and so on. There are even special varieties of seed that are smaller and suited for window box cultivation.

ACRES U.S.A. Biointensive techniques are applicable even on a very small scale?

JEAVONS. Absolutely. There’s no question. You can do it in a square foot; it’s better if you do it in a square yard, three feet by three feet, because you get a better mini-climate. You use less water, you get higher yields, and you have fewer insect and disease problems. You can do it in pots, but if you do it in a pot you just have one plant, and I don’t think we can claim that’s biointensive. It’s just good gardening.

ACRES U.S.A. Is there an upper limit to how far you can scale your techniques?

JEAVONS. In 1911 the Chinese were farming their whole country in biologically intensive agriculture. There’s no upper-scale limit in that way — China’s a big country. However, if we’re talking about a single-family farm, is there an upper limit? I have a friend who farmed three acres biointensively in Pennsylvania with just four people, and it was a production farm. It uses more people if you begin to get into the acre range, but what I’d like to encourage people to do is think about income range. If you choose your crops right, you can have a good income on less than an acre. You can even have a good income on a quarter-acre or halfacre. Marketing is half of it. It isn’t just growing it.

ACRES U.S.A. Did you originally draw a lot of inspiration from biodynamics?

JEAVONS. First of all, my mentor was Alan Chadwick, an Englishman. He was a phenomenal individual. He called his method that he developed and used at the University of California at Santa Cruz in the ’60s and ’70s the Biodynamic/French Intensive method. But he only used one of the biodynamic preparations some of the time, so a lot of biodynamic members felt he wasn’t biodynamic. But the fact that he grew healthy soil, healthy crops, beautiful flowers and good tree fruits is beyond question. He was just amazing, and his apprentices were wonderful. Over time we changed the name of the method we used to Biointensive, and that was unique to us but it went into the public domain. So we changed the name to Grow Biointensive with a registered trademark after it. People were beginning to use biointensive farming with pesticides, and we wanted to be sure that when someone was using Grow Biointensive they were sure that pesticides weren’t needed and weren’t being used.

ACRES U.S.A. Did he teach regular classes?

JEAVONS. Our work grew out of Alan Chadwick’s mentoring by what he did in his garden and his life, and I took classes from him and tutorials from him. The classes I took were public classes that hundreds of people attended.

ACRES U.S.A. What have you picked up from looking into techniques developed in the distant past?

JEAVONS. We’re rediscovering these techniques that have been used for millennia in different areas. I’d like to mention three of them because people think that manual food raising is going to be too much work. As we re-learn and rediscover farming skills, initially it is going to be a lot of work sometimes, no question.

Most of us are farming illiterate. It didn’t used to that way in this country, but it’s been evolving that way.

The Chinese call their farmers “living libraries.” I want to mention another culture that is 10,000 years old. They’re not still doing this, but 10,000 years ago with einkorn and hornemanni wheat there was a culture in northern Iran that raised all their calories in just 20 hours a year. The anthropologists have been able to determine that they spent just 20 minutes a day for 60 days. The hornemanni variety of einkorn is the earliest spelt wheat, and spelt wheat today derives from it. It’s not the original though sometimes you can get ancient spelt wheat bread.

ACRES U.S.A. Do you have an example from Asia?

JEAVONS. A group of people who are still active are the Hanunoo in the Philippines. The Hanunoos are not literate. What they do is spend about 80 percent of their table conversation talking about farming and how to farm. Their children play farmer. The Hanunoo have a 200-crop, five-year rotation system that grows 40 different varieties of rice. No matter what the year brings — too hot, too cold, too wet or too dry — they get a good yield of calories. What we have there is a culture that in their minds, hands and hearts have one of the most sophisticated rotation systems in the world. If you go to most of our agriculture colleges and universities, you won’t find something nearly as complex. The Hananoos are living libraries.

ACRES U.S.A. How about the Mayans?

JEAVONS. The Mayans a thousand years ago, who survived when other cultures were waning, raised their food with neighborhood biologically intensive gardening. This is something everybody can do wherever they are.

ACRES U.S.A. Have you been able to effect a technology transfer from a group such as the Hanunoo?

JEAVONS. No, we’re not aware of what their system is. From articles we know some of their system, but the working details we don’t have. There are a lot of wonderful areas of studies, and this is one of them. Another one is how the Navajos plant maize seed or corn seed very deep in sandy soil and are able to grow corn in areas with as little three to five inches of rain.

ACRES U.S.A. Northern California seems like an origin point for many of the ideas about growing and preparing food that are transforming American life from farm to dinner table. Have you drawn sustenance and inspiration from your context and contacts in the region?

JEAVONS. Absolutely. Alice Waters and I are friends. She’s written the preface to How To Grow More Vegetables and she notes how effective biologically intensive food raising has been in making good food for restaurants. All of northern California is a very nurturing culture for all this, and it’s wonderful to be surrounded by lots of people who are pushing the biological envelope in raising food toward a much more sustainable culture. It’s an exciting time for all of us.

ACRES U.S.A. Did Alan Chadwick play a critical role in acting as the spark plug, so to speak, igniting this movement?

JEAVONS. Absolutely. He died in 1980 but his spirit lives on. His energy was implanted in so many projects and people.

ACRES U.S.A. That’s the best outcome any of us can hope for.

JEAVONS. Absolutely.

This interview appears in the December 2011 issue of Acres U.S.A.

Interview: Supporting the Soil Carbon Sponge

Microbiologist, climate scientist and founder of Healthy Soils Australia Walter Jehne discusses climate and soil health.

Interviewed by Tracy Frisch

WALTER JEHNE is an internationally known Australian soil microbiologist and climate scientist and the founder of Healthy Soils Australia. He is passionate about educating farmers, policymakers and others about “the soil carbon sponge” and its crucial role in reversing and mitigating climate change. His work shows how we can safely cool the climate by repairing our disrupted hydrological cycles. That project requires us to return some of the excess carbon in the atmosphere to the soil, where it belongs. In 2017, he participated in an invitation-only United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization conference in Paris aimed at bringing soil into the next Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report.

Jehne was an early researcher on glomalin, mycorrhizal fungi and root ecology. He grew up in the bush, surrounded by nature. At university he chose the field of microbiology because it encompasses all life processes in microcosm. As a young man he started his career working on forest dieback diseases in relation to soil microbial interactions. Later he “switched to the dark side” when he realized that the disease fungi were actually our friends because they’re involved with symbiosis, and disease serves to remove and recycle moribund organisms. 

As a research scientist at CSIRO (Australia’s scientific research organization), Jehne investigated the potential of mycorrhizal fungi to recolonize toxic, degraded soils and to rebuild productive biosystems. His curiosity took him to China to study why the country’s traditional agriculture was so productive. Later he worked with his federal government on changing the paradigm of land management to foster strategic innovation. He retired 15 years ago so he could get back to practically applying science and grassroots empowerment. He travels widely to share his understanding of the causes and solutions to climate change.

Walter Jehne
Microbiologist, climate scientist and founder of Healthy Soils Australia Walter Jehne discusses climate and soil health.

ACRES U.S.A. You assert that for the past 50 years climate science has been misguided by the assumption that carbon dioxide is the dominant greenhouse gas, not water vapor. How did this misunderstanding arise, and why does it persist?

WALTER JEHNE. In 1958 the scientist Charles Keeling published data showing that carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere were going up. For half a century we’ve had the warning about an abnormal change in the atmospheric dynamics of the whole planet that we need to seriously address. Since then, we’ve focused the debate on the increase in CO2 and assumed that this CO2 symptom is what’s driving the increased greenhouse effect and global warming. But going back to the 1940s, our understanding of the role of water in governing 95 percent of the heat dynamics of the blue planet was what anchored climatology.

ACRES U.S.A. Are you saying we already knew about the role of water vapor, but forgot?

JEHNE. Absolutely.

ACRES U.S.A. What’s the relationship between fossil fuels and the rise of CO2 in the atmosphere?

JEHNE. CO2 started going up abnormally from about 1750 AD, 270 years ago. But the major spike in fossil fuel use, particularly of oil, only occurred since the Second World War. And James Watt didn’t even invent the steam engine until the 1770s, and it really only took off in the mid-1800s.

ACRES U.S.A. So was the CO2 rise initially caused by deforestation?

JEHNE. Precisely. Until around 1850, most of our energy came from burning wood. In Europe, smelting and heating relied on burning wood until the continent was effectively deforested. Of course, soil degradation and the oxidation of soil carbon are associated with deforestation and burning. In about 1800, they started burning coal instead. But until the Second World War, we were only using 1 or 2 billion tons of carbon a year, largely from coal. Now we burn about 8 billion tons of carbon from fossil fuels per year. But all through that period we had been burning about 5 or 6 billion tons of carbon from wood. 

ACRES U.S.A. What forces make Earth’s climate?

JEHNE. The incident solar radiation coming from the sun onto the Earth. We get about 342 watts per square meter of incident solar radiation at the top of the troposphere. For a stable climate, 342 watts have to go out. Otherwise, the Earth would heat up. But if climate was just a question of the energy coming in and going out, the Earth would be much, much cooler. For the last 4.3 billion years, the water vapor on Earth has created a natural greenhouse blanket and maintained stable, buffered temperatures 33 C higher than they would otherwise be. Rather than being -18 C, the average temperature on Earth is about 15 C. That natural greenhouse effect enabled the planet to function and for life on Earth to evolve. 

ACRES U.S.A. Hasn’t the temperature fluctuated at times? We’ve had ice ages as well as hot climatic periods. 

JEHNE. Yes, though even the fluctuations have been minor compared to what’s happening now. The average global temperature rarely drops to 10 C from 15 C. When it does, we get an ice age. If it gets 3 degrees warmer, we have a hot period. But the average temperature has never gotten down to -30 C. If it did, it would be like Mars or Neptune!

ACRES U.S.A. Let’s talk about water vapor and carbon dioxide in the natural greenhouse effect.

JEHNE. Eighty percent of the natural greenhouse effect results from water vapor in the atmosphere. And the amount of atmospheric water vapor has been relatively constant at up to 40,000 ppm, or about 4 percent. By contrast, the level of CO2 in the atmosphere governs about 20 percent of the greenhouse effect, and those CO2 concentrations have varied enormously. When the Earth was first forming, CO2 levels were initially very high. Then it was drawn down by biology, first through the formation of corals, limestone and chalk by marine organisms in the oceans. Later, for the last 420 million years, plants on land and the formation of soils drew down atmospheric CO2. 

ACRES U.S.A. How effective is water vapor at absorbing heat? 

JEHNE. Water vapor is uniquely powerful at absorbing heat. Due to the way its two hydrogen atoms bond to its oxygen atom, 1 gram of water can absorb 590 calories of heat energy. That’s massively more heat per molecule than most other things can absorb. For example, a CO2 molecule — one carbon and two oxygens with two double bonds — can only absorb about an eighth of the heat per molecule that a water molecule can. And a water molecule weighs only one-third as much as a CO2 molecule. So the power of water vapor to absorb and transfer heat is 20 times higher than that of CO2, molecule per molecule. And by weight, there are 40,000 ppm of water vapor in the air compared to 400 ppm of CO2. There is no question about the power of water vapor. CO2 is not even in the contest as far as moving heat in the atmosphere. 

ACRES U.S.A. How does nature cool the planet?

JEHNE. Nature uses a sequence of about a dozen hydrological processes to cool the planet. As a water molecule journeys through the atmosphere, it will sequentially go through each of the different processes that regulate 95 percent of the heat dynamics of the blue planet. For example, it takes 590 calories of energy to turn 1 gram of water from liquid to gas. That’s the latent heat of vaporization. It’s simple physics. When water evaporates from the land’s surface or is transpired by vegetation or forests, that heat gets transferred from the Earth’s surface up into the atmosphere, cooling the surface. When that water vapor condenses in the atmosphere, the energy is released. That’s what makes energy in storms. But most of that heat gets dissipated back out to space from the upper atmosphere. That process accounts for about 24 percent of the Earth’s natural hydrological cooling. Clouds are another very important cooling process. That water vapor going into the air will form clouds. Some clouds are very dense, with high albedo — very high reflectance. At any given time, clouds cover over 50 percent of the planet. Clouds act as a regulator. They cool the planet by reflecting incident sunlight out to space, preventing it from reaching the Earth’s surface. While this varies, roughly a third of the incident solar radiation — of that heat coming in — never makes it to Earth because it’s reflected out to space. By increasing the level, density and duration of cloud cover, we can cool the planet. But to do that, we need green plants and organic matter in the soil to keep that whole hydrology working.

ACRES U.S.A. In terms of their cooling effect, how does transpiration from trees compare with evaporation from freshwater bodies and the oceans?

JEHNE. Oceans cover 71 percent of the Earth’s surface; 29 percent is land. Trees are wonderfully efficient at cooling because they can have a leaf area 10 times greater than the land’s surface area. But trees are much more significant for other reasons. The oceans are just liquid water, and water can only evaporate from a two-dimensional monomolecular layer on the surface. That is a very limited physical dimension. Also, that water is always being cooled by cool water from below, so for evaporation to occur the sun has to heat each molecule in this monomolecular layer. On land, with transpiration from leaves, a completely different dynamic occurs. The leaf area makes the process three-dimensional. And the longevity of green growth means time is involved, making it four-dimensional. The amount of surface area and the length of time that leaves transpire make this process phenomenally greater than evaporation from a monomolecular surface.

ACRES U.S.A. We love your description of the soil carbon sponge as a bit like a cathedral. How do biological processes create this awe-inspiring architecture?

JEHNE. What’s awe-inspiring about a cathedral are the voids and the ethereal spaces — the nothingness they create — not the bricks and the cement. Well-aggregated soil is like a cathedral. The mineral particles in the soil are like the stones of a cathedral. Soil organic matter is analogous to the cement that holds the stones together. Adding just a small amount of organic matter — 1, 2 or 3 percent by weight — fundamentally changes soil’s physical structure. That organic matter cement between the mineral component enables us to develop these massive, beautiful spaces. A healthy soil has a bulk density of about 1.2 g per cc or less. About 66 percent of a healthy soil is just space, air — nothing — and that creates massive capacity for the sponge to hold water. It allows water to infiltrate and be retained and made available over time. It’s really the “nothing” that we add to soil which creates its health and viability, like a cathedral. What nature has done is exquisitely beautiful. There’s one other dimension that is profound. The availability of nutrients is related to how much surface area of the mineral particles is exposed. In a healthy soil with a beautiful, open, spacy structure, we massively increase the mineral surface exposure for nutrient uptake and cycling. A lot of essential minerals and trace elements are cations that are absorbed onto these surfaces and held as if by Velcro. More than 80 percent of a soil’s biofertility depends on this surface exposure, rather than on the quantity of nutrients we add as fertilizer. Creating these cathedrals — these spaces and surfaces — is fundamental for both soil hydrology and biofertility. And we can do this just by adding a few percent organic matter to the soil.

ACRES U.S.A. How did you come to this work?

JEHNE. I’m a microbiologist who was studying mycorrhizae. I was looking at the health, disease and productivity of pioneering vegetation systems. I always asked the question, how do such productive biosystems exist in extreme habitats? Microbiology has always been the pioneers enabling that to happen. Think about pedogenesis — soil formation. Some 420 million years ago the planet only had bare, consolidated rock that couldn’t hold water. In colonizing the Earth’s surface to get nutrients, fungi began breaking up that rock and leaving behind organic detritus of dead fungal matter to create cathedrals. Fungi make all those nutrients available by governing their solubilization, access, cycling and uptake. 

ACRES U.S.A. You’ve written about how some of the most productive natural ecosystems occur on very-low-nutrient soils.

JEHNE. In the early ’80s we were working on rain forests growing on sand dunes in Queensland. Nature created one of the world’s most bioproductive terrestrial ecosystems on sand, which is effectively crushed glass — silicon dioxide. How is this possible? Wonderfully, it does that through fungi. The efficiency of their bionutrient recycling enables these rain forests to function. We can use those same efficient bionutrient cycles in agriculture to sustainably produce food, even on poor soils, as long as we also recycle those nutrients. In the 1970s I was working in Green Revolution space, where everything was based on the idea of adding more. I call this the more-on (or moron) mentality of agriculture. But you don’t have to add more. What you have to do is enhance the natural efficiencies of cycling, solubilization, availability and fixation, and you can sustainably achieve very high productivities in every environment. That’s the basis of biofertility in the organic world. Liebig, back in 1851, came up with a theory about the chemical limitations of fertility. He had a very simplistic more-on philosophy: basically, fertility is a function of the quantity of ions in the soil. But by the 1870s, even Liebig was realizing that this was wrong and that the organic agricultural people were right. It’s those processes of biological cycling that govern the speed and the availability of nutrients, not the quantity of nutrients in the soil. In the 1920s, Rudolf Steiner was trying to encapsulate that in terms of the biodynamics of soils. What are the life processes? It’s all one story.

ACRES U.S.A. Should we be testing soils for nutrient levels?

JEHNE. I don’t want to be rude, but no, I believe we’ve wasted a lot of money on soil testing. What’s found in nature is less than 10 percent of the story. The other 90 percent is “how well do you use whatever you’ve got?” We ignore that in agriculture. If we can more efficiently cycle and make available whatever is there, then we can get along very happily with a fraction of what we think we need in more-on agriculture. But there’s a caveat. In Australia where I come from, parts of the country have very ancient soils where trace elements like selenium, copper and zinc have been leached out. When they’re no longer present, we need bird droppings, rock dust, or some other source to get these essential elements. But most soils, especially younger ones, have enough nutrients.

ACRES U.S.A. Would you say that microbial systems are as effective as fertilizers in stimulating crop growth?

JEHNE. It’s a 20/80 situation — not “all or nothing.” Twenty percent is whether we have enough nutrients in the soil, which we do in most cases. Biofertility is about whether we’re managing our soils and their ecology so well that we are speeding up nutrient cycling. Are we moving closer to that rainforest scenario where every molecule of phosphorus is cycling 3,000 times more rapidly than it does in our current dead, industrial agriculture?

ACRES U.S.A. Have you and others measured the speed of that cycling?

JEHNE. Absolutely. That’s what the paper about the rainforest does.

ACRES U.S.A. Is it fair to say that plants without mycorrhizal fungi take up nutrients and toxins in the soil solution without any quality control?

JEHNE. In nature, most plants won’t survive alone; they need these microbial associations. Mycorrhizal fungi are very important, but there are also nitrogen-fixing organisms in the rhizosphere, including blue-green algae, Azotobacter and Azospirillum. There’s a whole beautiful zoo of them. Plants produce plenty of sugars, and in effect they’re exchanging those sugars as root exudates with these fungi and microbes and maintaining that healthy organic biodiversity. These fungi are really membrane interfaces between the mineral soil environment, which is often toxic, and the plants. Such a membrane interface allows for selective, intelligent nutrient uptake. These membranes will take up the nutrients that the fungus and the plants need while leaving behind, or positively excluding, toxic ions like aluminum, cadmium, or lead in that soil. The surface area of these microbial interfaces is enormous, with 25,000 kilometers of fungal hyphae in a cubic meter of healthy soil. But once we kill that microbial interface with biocides, excessive cultivation and excessive fertilizer, then plants have to rely exclusively on their root systems for nutrient uptake. A plant’s root system, including its root hairs, will have less than a thousandth of the surface area. And without mycorrhizae, plants don’t have the quality control system to discriminate between toxins and nutrients for healthy plant growth and human health. Their roots just indiscriminately suck up water from the soil solution as if they were straws and use it in their transpiration stream. In effect, such plants are growing hydroponically. The soil solution is full of soluble anions, like nitrates and sulfates and potassium. Without mycorrhizae, plants will take up a lot of these (negatively charged) anions, but often they will have very low levels of the essential (positively charged) cations that are absorbed onto soil surfaces — in the cation exchange capacity — rather than in the soil solution. Thus we’re living on food whose nutrition mainly comes from what’s in the soil solution via the application of soluble fertilizers. The nutritional integrity of these hydroponically grown plants is totally compromised compared to plants grown naturally in soil with these selective, intelligent interfaces.

ACRES U.S.A. Are you suggesting that industrial organic actually functions hydroponically?

JEHNE. By definition, if we’re relying on high levels of fertilizers, we’re going to kill all these microbial interfaces, and then have to depend on that soil solution slush. Our industrially grown food often contains as little as a third of the nutrients as it did before World War II, according to reports published by the UK Ministry of Health, USDA and CSIRO Human Nutrition. You’d have to eat three carrots to get the same nutrients as a pre-World War II carrot. These industrially grown foods often have no trace minerals. And we’re seeing chronic, diet-induced chronic diseases — like Alzheimer’s, cancers and cardiac and immunological disease — go through the roof. Enzymes drive all of our biochemical functions. Enzymes are protein’s molecules, which have a mineral cofactor at their heart. If we don’t get those mineral cofactors through our nutrition, we can’t make those enzymes. Without selenium, for example, we can’t make peroxidase enzymes, which kill cancer cells in animals. We lack the capacity to regulate biochemistry because we’ve compromised our nutrition, though obviously it’s more complicated than that.

ACRES U.S.A. How does the ability of the most innovative farmers to grow soil carbon compare to nature’s ability to do so?

JEHNE. As humans, we’re competitive. We’re always looking at how big and fast we are. But nature doesn’t work like that. Doing something well, slowly, is often much smarter than doing something faster, but poorly or inefficiently, even if it’s bigger! Nature has evolved some exquisite biosystems, and its capacity to fix carbon is prodigious. During the ice age 10,000 years ago, glacial clays washed out from glacial till areas in North America. Over the intervening years, tall bluegrass prairie grasses fixed remarkable quantities of carbon and created 10 or 15 meters of deep organic soils with 8 percent carbon levels. We’re in exactly the same game in farming. We can maximize the production of plants, but how we do that will govern whether the carbon will be oxidized or burned as CO2, or put into soil as stable soil carbon to build those cathedrals we talked about earlier. Take sugarcane, a tropical grass. In good environments it can produce roughly 200 tons of biomass per hectare per annum. Under suitable soil conditions — that we control — 60 to 70 percent of that carbon can be bio-sequestered as stable soil carbon, thus building highly productive organic soils very rapidly. Most organic farmers have the potential to do 5 to 10 tons of carbon per hectare per annum through wise, regenerative land management. Farmers like Gabe Brown are maybe fixing 15 tons of carbon per hectare per annum. But it’s not a race. It’s about doing the best you can in your situation and being grateful for every gram of carbon that you can put in the soils. We won’t beat nature. For every bit of plant material that you produce, think about whether you are letting it oxidize or are putting it through composting and biosequestration processes to build healthy soils. That’s the challenge. 

ACRES U.S.A. Globally, to what extent has human activity degraded productive land?

JEHNE. For the last 8,000 years of “human civilization,” we’ve been very effective at clearing and burning that land, cultivating those soils and building the industrial systems. We’ve oxidized the carbon and destroyed the biological cycles that underpin the health of those landscapes. We’ve done that with 5 billion hectares of land, turning 40 percent of the Earth’s land surface into desert and wasteland. Of the 13.9 billion hectares of ice-free land on this planet, about 40 percent — 5 billion hectares — has become manmade desert and wasteland, and we’re halfway through eating up that natural capital on the remainder. This is documented by United Nations Environment Programme data. Whereas we once had 8 billion hectares of old growth forest on this planet, we’ve cleared 6.3 billion hectares. Some of the forestlands that we’ve cleared have regenerated, like in New England, giving us 3 billion hectares of forest in total. We initially had about 5 billion hectares of grasslands rangelands, but we overgrazed, cultivated, degraded and burned that. The Sahara, Central Australia and the Middle East were all savannahs. Rome got lions and rhinoceros and other wildlife for the Coliseum from the savannahs of Libya. Today Libya is an arid wasteland. As we oxidize the carbon, by definition, those soils can’t infiltrate, retain, or make available water from rain. Invariably, they go to desert. That’s been the history of man on this planet. 

ACRES U.S.A. What has been your experience with the use of biostimulants and inoculants to encourage soil life?

JEHNE. That rainforest that we talked about was extremely active microbially, so it had natural stimulatory factors at work. Next to that rainforest, on the same soil in the same climate, there was a heathland. It was a degraded, nonproductive biosystem because its microorganisms weren’t functioning well. Can we add things to soils to switch these organisms on? Sometimes yes, but it’s more important to create the right soil conditions through our land management so nature will do it naturally. Biostimulants off the shelf can be very important on degraded soils or pioneer sites where we’re trying to kick-start a system. But ultimately we want the natural system to be producing them itself. Inoculants are another category. All surfaces of the Earth are covered in organisms. But on virgin soils or highly disturbed sites like on mining waste, it can be beneficial to add new organisms because they aren’t there. Most of the time though, when you add an inoculant into an existing system, it won’t survive so it’s not going to have a long-term effect.

ACRES U.S.A. Do we have any idea of how much carbon dioxide has been released into the atmosphere by desertification?

JEHNE. There are about 750 billion tons of carbon in the atmosphere in CO2 and about three times — 2,300 billion tons of carbon — in the soil. Most of the carbon that we’ve oxidized from the land over the last 8,000 years initially went into the atmosphere, but then the world’s oceans absorb it. We can do the accounting, but it’s not just in the atmosphere — it’s in the whole system.

ACRES U.S.A. Looking at the planet as a whole, how is rainfall changing?

JEHNE. As the planet warms, there is more evaporation from the oceans; so we’re getting more rain, but it’s coming down in extreme damaging storms. They’re not equally distributed, so along with more extreme flooding there are also more severe droughts. We’re already locked into getting more weather extremes. Our point of agency depends on our capacity to buffer these extremes. The only thing we can do is rebuild the Earth’s soil carbon sponge and those in-soil reservoirs. That’s a win-win-win. If we don’t do that, it’s lose-lose-dead.

ACRES U.S.A. Going back to basics, what’s required for precipitation to occur?

JEHNE. The water that goes up into the air has to come down. Water vapor goes up into the air, where it forms clouds as well as humid hazes, which play a key part in warming the planet. Those haze micro-droplets absorb solar radiation. For water vapor in the air to fall on the land as rain, a million cloud micro-droplets need to coalesce to form a raindrop that’s large and heavy enough to fall out as rain. For that to happen, we need precipitation nuclei. Only three things in nature form these precipitation nuclei: ice crystals, salts and certain bacteria. Ice is hygroscopic; it will absorb and condense water around it. Ice is very important in high latitudes and for high altitude rain, where we’ve got cold fronts. Salts in the form of sea spray are responsible for a lot of marine rain. We’ve also used salts, like silver iodide, to artificially seed clouds to induce rainfall. But by far, the highly hydroscopic bacteria Aerobacter are the most effective nuclei in cloud chamber studies. (Aerobacter was formerly a genus, but has been reclassified and grouped into the gram negative enterobacter common in animal guts.) They govern more than half of the planet’s rainfall dynamics. These bacteria are produced in the stomata of trees in inland and tropical areas. They move up in the transpiration stream and effectively bring that water back down to Earth. Rainfall in the Amazon is largely a symbiotic, bacterially driven process. The trees are regenerating their own rainfall by the precipitation nuclei they’re putting up there!

ACRES U.S.A. So before the planet had trees, this source of rainfall wouldn’t have existed, correct?

JEHNE. Rainfall existed from ice nuclei and salt nuclei, but there wasn’t as much rain. We know that because when we’ve cleared forests from an island, its rainfall crashes. Only by reforesting that island can we now restore that rainfall. The evidence is very clear. 

ACRES U.S.A. Could you give us some examples?

JEHNE. In around 1430, Portuguese marine explorers found the beautiful little island of Madeira in the Atlantic. It was covered in rainforest with many mahogany trees. The Portuguese decided to build ships out of these trees. They set up an industry on Madeira, cutting mahogany trees 2 meters in diameter. They floated the logs down the rivers and cut them up with water-driven sawmills to make their mahogany ships that allowed them to get into the spice trade in the East Indies. In no time, the Portuguese cleared Madeira of all of its mahogany forest. If you go to Madeira now, there’s no streams so there’s no way you could float a 2-meter diameter log down water or run a water-powered sawmill. It has semi-arid vegetation, like the Canary Islands. In 1495, Peter Columbus, Christopher’s son, documented that the rainfall in Madeira had collapsed enormously. Madeira is now only getting 40 percent of the rainfall that it did previously. In Australia we cleared land for agriculture up to a certain area beyond which was considered too dry. Then we installed a rabbit-proof fence. Now, 40 or 50 years later, the area that we didn’t clear gets 20 percent more rainfall than the cleared area, whereas before, it had been the reverse.

ACRES U.S.A. Living in the temperate northeast of the United States, I’ve always thought of humidity as a precursor to rain. I’m wondering how humid hazes aridify a region.

JEHNE. It’s counterintuitive. In the U.S. northeast you get humid hazes, and precipitation nuclei coalesce these haze micro-droplets into the much larger raindrops. That’s what happens in the Amazonian rainforest every day, where they get massive transpiration, humidity builds up and at 4:30 in the afternoon, bang, a thunderstorm brings all that moisture back down.

ACRES U.S.A. Increasingly, we have humid weather and no rain for many days.

JEHNE. Exactly. The Persian Gulf has persistent pollutant humid hazes with 80 percent relative humidity all summer, but it never rains. In the Middle East those humid hazes have become an existential health threat. Once you get temperatures above 35°C, even 40°C, with 90 percent humidity, we humans can’t perspire enough to cool ourselves. Mammals can’t survive. We’re at that threshold now. Humid haze doesn’t precipitate because water stays suspended in haze as micro-droplets. They’re electrostatically charged so they repel each other and stay up there in the air. In the liquid phase, they’re absorbing heat from the sun, and in the gaseous state they’re absorbing re-radiated infrared radiation from the Earth in the greenhouse effect, so they have a double warming effect. But they never rain out because there is not any precipitation nuclei to bring them back down as rain. Instead humid hazes are nucleated on aerosols and dust particulates, and they are far too small and light to fall, just a millionth of the size of a raindrop. To turn a humid haze into rain, a million haze micro-droplets would somehow have to coalesce into a raindrop-sized drop. The process that nature evolved to do that involves these highly hydroscopic bacteria.

ACRES U.S.A. We’ve always thought of humidity as a precursor to rain. How do humid hazes aridify a region?

JEHNE. It’s counterintuitive. In the U.S. northeast you get humid hazes, and precipitation nuclei coalesce these haze micro-droplets into the much larger raindrops. That’s what happens in the Amazonian rain forest every day, where they get massive transpiration. Humidity builds up and at 4:30 in the afternoon, bang — a thunderstorm brings all that moisture back down.

ACRES U.S.A. Is there more water vapor in the atmosphere than there used to be?

JEHNE. Regionally, there is. We now have a pollutant brown haze sitting over half of the world, from Cairo to Beijing. The Asian brown haze contains up to 4 percent moisture plus pollutants. This is an emphysema problem, and it’s killing lots of people.

ACRES U.S.A. That sounds like one of the positive feedback warming processes.

JEHNE. Exactly. By having taken out the precipitation nuclei so water in the atmosphere doesn’t fall as rain, we end up with a positive feedback, which accelerates warming. There’s the solar energy absorption, as well as the infrared greenhouse absorption effect. 

ACRES U.S.A. If we regained our rain-forming nuclei, how much water vapor would we be removing from the atmosphere?

JEHNE. In a sense, as much as we wanted to. That’s what happens in the Amazon, right? At 3 in the afternoon, the atmosphere in the Amazon might have 5 percent water by weight in it. But then, in the late afternoon, it comes back down again as rain. That rain keeps that luxuriant biosystem functioning. The vast quantities of heat taken up by this transpiration also cool the Amazon. It’s always a nice steady 30 C there, rather than getting up to the 45 C or 50 C that we’re seeing in the Middle East.

ACRES U.S.A. How does the biotic pump fit into this?

JEHNE. When we degrade an area and leave it bare, it will absorb incident solar radiation and heat up and enormously re-radiate back infrared radiation. That’s just black body radiator physics. This creates high-pressure heat domes over those bare, dry areas. Cool, moist, low-pressure air cannot push away a high-pressure heat dome. This is one of the positive reinforcing feedbacks whereby degrading landscapes are desertified. In California’s San Joaquin Valley, our agriculture has created a high-pressure heat dome. Previously, a lot of cool, moist marine air would come into the valley from the Pacific, but it no longer comes in. We’re desertifying the land, and within the next decade that’s going to collapse agriculture in that region. This will partly be due to the effects of this dynamic on the biotic pump. This powerfully illustrates how our land management is negatively changing regional hydrological dynamics.

ACRES U.S.A. What role do the oceans play as a carbon sink and in the heating of the planet?

JEHNE. There are 750 billion tons of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Fifty times more carbon dioxide — 38,000 billion tons of carbon dioxide — is dissolved in the world’s oceans. Most of the CO2 that we’ve emitted went into the atmosphere, but from there it’s been absorbed in the world’s oceans. Of course, that’s acidifying the oceans. The oceans are also a massive buffer. As we remove CO2 from the air, the oceans say thank you and release some of the CO2 that they’ve absorbed back into the air. The ocean re-equilibrates. We can’t just take 750 billion tons of carbon out of the atmosphere, because the ocean will always replenish it. It’s a longer-term game. In terms of the heat dynamics, the oceans’ role is even more profound. The oceans are currently absorbing 93 percent of the additional heat that we’re generating and retaining on this planet. We’re seeing temperatures going up and think we’ve got global warming now. Well, sorry Charlie — we’re only seeing 7 or 10 percent of the effect. At the moment, the world’s oceans are buffering 90 percent or more of the additional heat from global warming. But that’s not going to continue. As the oceans heat up, we’re going to get more intense storms. In terms of carbon, energy and heat dynamics, water is the elephant in the room. 

ACRES U.S.A. That’s not talked about much publicly.

JEHNE. No, it’s just assumed to be there passively. That’s what we’re doing, whether to our soils, land, oceans, all these biosystems. And we’re so naïvely ignoring the actual impacts we’re having.

ACRES U.S.A. Are the only long-term carbon sinks are on land?

JEHNE. The oceans, with their algae and phytoplankton, have a lot of photosynthesis as well. But much of the carbon that they fix then gets eaten by animals and is quickly recycled back as CO2 through animal respiration. And some of that carbon falls to the ocean floor as sediments where biological processes turn it into methane. Over millions of years, it was land-based systems that formed the fossil fuel carbon sink, as deposits of coal, oil and gas. All of those resources come from carbon that has been fixed by plants and turned into organic matter. Oceans also have a massive carbon sink in the chalk, calcium carbonate and corals that they started sequestering 3.5 billion years ago. Calcium carbonate locks up an enormous amount of carbon, but that’s really a geological sink and so not part of the discussion of climate carbon dynamics.

ACRES U.S.A. If we want to put some of the carbon in the atmosphere back into the Earth, do we have to do that with biology?

JEHNE. The only carbon drawdown process that nature’s got involves green plants taking up CO2 and water and sunlight and making sugars through photosynthesis. It’s wonderfully efficient. Where humans are critical is that we have agency over what happens to that molecule of carbon fixed by plants. For every CO2 molecule that a plant takes out of the air and turns into sugar, and then into cellulose or lignin, there are only two things that can happen. It can either be oxidized back to CO2, or turned into stable soil carbon. We call this the ABC of carbon fixation. A is about agriculture and maximizing the growth of green plants. B is about burning, and ensuring that not all of that carbon is rapidly burned or oxidized back to CO2. How we do that is through C, carbon biosequestration, by making sure that a big slice of the carbon fixed by plants is turned into humates and glomalin, stored in soil to enhance soil structure and build the cathedral we talked about and beneficial biosystems. It’s really about that B to C ratio — burning less and biosequestering more as stable soil carbon. Burning and oxidizing refer to the process of turning organic carbon into the oxidized CO2 form. Burning involves active flames; oxidation is like rust. Everything we’ve done in agriculture has burned off the soil carbon to try to mineralize more nutrients, whether it’s burning, clearing, tillage, over-fertilization, biocides, or bare fallowing land. In the process, we have cannibalized that soil capital. Organic agriculture is all about saying no to all that. Instead, we must use that carbon as the structural building block for our cathedrals, for increasing soil biofertility, microbial activity, surface areas and moisture-holding capacity, thus rebuilding healthy, productive agricultural systems. 

ACRES U.S.A. I’ve begun to think that many farmers and gardeners lack visual representation of what good, healthy soil looks like. 

JEHNE. That’s why I talk about the concept of a soil microbial root interface. It’s not just the soil. It’s that whole bridge — how that plant links to that soil and its microbes to optimize the relationship. Let’s think about it as relationship optimization, rather than “here’s my soil” and “here’s my plant.” How do I get that communication and transfer in that bridge? 

ACRES U.S.A. Through Healthy Soils Australia, how have you been able to get this paradigm shift across to the farmers you work with? 

JEHNE. We’re doing that through continual communications and problem solving. For example, in Western Australia, we’ve got sandy soils that are becoming very acidic. Once soil drops below pH 4, you have an enormous problem with heavy metals that become soluble and toxic. The prescription is to add a lot of lime, so we’re back in this more-on thing of having to add tons and tons of lime. But nature didn’t have lime and didn’t transport fertilizers. All that nature would do was say, we’ve got acid soils. That means very high numbers of hydrogen ions in soil solution. Nature would remove those hydrogen ions by absorbing them onto organic surfaces. That raised the organic matter status of the soil and massively increased the negative charges on that organic matter. Those negative charges absorb positive charges, that is, the hydrogen ions. Then there’s no longer that high amount of hydrogen ions in solution. Therefore the pH goes up, and you solve the problem. By understanding those dynamics, people realize they don’t need to add lime, but just get back to healthy organic soil. 

ACRES U.S.A. Many people think that the way to increase organic matter is by bringing in compost or mulch. Or they believe that the aboveground biomass or the roots themselves of cover crops (or other plants) are the carbon-containing material that will become humus. But what I’ve learned from people like you and Dr. Christine Jones is that while these materials appear to be a potential source of soil organic matter, they really are not the primary source.

JEHNE. It’s absolutely true. We live above the ground, so we see things above the ground, and we want to have agency. We ask, ‘what should I do?’ There’s no harm in adding compost, but most of the soil carbon comes from plants’ root exudates. Nature created soil by growing plants and making sure that potentially up to 60 or 70 percent of the biomass produced can be fixed into stable soil carbon. Currently though, little of it is. But we could do that. It’s not rocket science. Instead of burning off 100 or 120 percent of the carbon that’s fixed, as we do now in oxidative agriculture, we could keep half of it in the soil. That just requires a change in management practices.

ACRES U.S.A. Isn’t that process always mediated by microorganisms and fungi?

JEHNE. Yes. The actual process of conversion of cellulose or lignin or root exudates in stable soil carbon, either as humates or glomalin, is totally mediated by different groups of fungi. These fungi are the drivers of stable soil carbon.

ACRES U.S.A. We’ve spoken a lot about how to remove excess carbon from the atmosphere and put it back in the soil, but that won’t solve the incredibly pressing problem of cooling the Earth. To what extent do we need to cool the planet? 

JEHNE. That’s very simple. The Earth is continually receiving on average 342 watts per square meter of incident solar radiation. That’s the energy coming in, like a radiator on the outside. For a stable climate, the Earth has to re-radiate or transmit 342 watts back out to space. But as a result of the enhanced greenhouse effect, that heat can’t escape as well as it used to, and we’re retaining an extra 3 watts per square meter. That’s less than 1 percent of the incident solar radiation, so it’s a 1 percent problem. How do we achieve that 1 percent? If we could just increase the natural hydrological processes a little in a sensible way, we can readily get to that one percent. The latent heat fluxes of transpiration transfer 85 watts per square meter of heat from the surface back out to space. If we increase transpiration globally by 5 percent, that would effectively be putting another 3 watts per square meter back out to space. Similarly, by increasing clouds by 2 percent, we would get an extra 3 watts per square meter reflected back out to space. The amount of regeneration and restoration we have to do is very realistic in scale, but we still have to do it. 

ACRES U.S.A. Are people buying this? 

JEHNE. For the last 10 years, we have been trying to inject hydrology into the climate management debate. CO2 drawdown is essential because we need to rebuild organic matter in soils in order to have the soil carbon sponge that supports the water cycle. But the only way we can safely and naturally cool the planet and prevent the climate catastrophe is by restoring these hydrological processes. We’ve been advocating, talking and educating about that for 10 years. In all of those years, not one person has ever said no, that’s wrong. They all say yes, that’s climatology 101. But in a sense it is new, because we’ve been focused on reducing CO2 emissions for so long. Of course, we have to do that, but really the solution lies in restoring these hydrological cooling balances by one percent.

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ACRES U.S.A. Is the earth warming much faster than the models predict?

JEHNE. With these positive feedbacks kicking in and accelerating the warming processes, we’re experiencing what the IPCC models were saying, five or 10 years ago, was going to happen in 2100. The Arctic Ocean is now bubbling up methane from methane hydrates that were frozen in the ocean. If that accelerates significantly, it’s an enormous, dangerous problem.

ACRES U.S.A. You’ve also stated that the CO2 levels in the atmosphere are increasing faster than either our emission rate or the models predict.

JEHNE. Again, go back to Charles Keeling and 1958. Every year in that saw-tooth graph we’ve seen a peak in CO2 emissions and a valley of CO2 dropping back down. That’s because in winter we get net emissions. Then in springtime and summer, everything goes green in the Northern hemisphere and we get a massive natural drawdown. Fossil fuel emissions are 8 billon tons of carbon per annum, but every year we are emitting 130 billion tons of carbon from our biosystem. The fossil fuel component is only about 5 percent of that! There are many other sources, like wildfires, land degradation, soils and cement production. With the tipping points accelerating things, we’re reaching the point that, in a bad fire year, we will be emitting more CO2 from fires than we are from fossil fuel use. But we don’t record that because we assume that it’s Mother Nature, rather than Homo Hubris, that is driving to these tipping points. The same goes on the other side of the curve. Every year, photosynthesis in the green biosystem draws down 120 billion tons of carbon. But when forests burn, we compromise that carbon drawdown capacity. Land management is affecting emissions, and also nature’s capacity to drive down those emissions, far more than all our fossil fuel emissions. Yet we only seem to want to focus on setting, say, a 5 percent reduction target for fossil fuel emissions. And then, the politicians go around patting themselves on the back.

ACRES U.S.A. That seasonal variation in atmospheric CO2 provides a good clue. If we think CO2 is what’s causing the temperature rise, look again. The fact that lower CO2 levels occur in the spring and the summer because plants are drawing it down should tell us something.

JEHNE. You’re saying it beautifully now. Like I said, the problem is the solution. If we look at Charles Keeling’s 1958 graph, here it is going up; here it is going down. We want more down than up. How do we enhance the down? Keeling gave us the solution, but we’ve ignored it. Very powerfully, the solution is the actual amount, the area, and longevity of the green carbon drawdown by nature. That’s the only thing that can save us. 

ACRES U.S.A. Won’t that also heal the water cycle?

JEHNE. Yeah, but not until we get more green transpiring. The water cycle becomes the medium, but the action on our part is to get that biosystem healthy again. We’ve got to get our boot off her throat.

ACRES U.S.A. I’d like to hear about your background and motivation.

JEHNE. I grew up in the bush — in nature — so natural forest functioning was in my blood. At the university I studied science. I was really turned on by microbiology because here all the life processes are in microcosm. When I graduated, I was very interested in forest disease dynamics. My initial work was at the Forest Research Institute in Australia with dieback diseases — which we’ve now got all over the world — and soil plant microbial interactions. I wanted to understand what governs health. When I realized that these fungi are actually our friends, I switched to the dark side. Fungi are involved with symbioses and positive functionality, and I realized that disease is a process for removing and recycling moribund organisms to make space and nutrients available for new productive growth. At CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization), I studied mycorrhizal fungi for recolonizing toxic, degraded soils and forming new soil. How can we use our understanding of soil microbiology in rebuilding productive biosystems? I went to China and researched why their traditional agriculture was so productive. This was all great science, but the short-term thinking of industry prevented it from being applied. Finally, I worked in our federal government on changing the paradigm of land management to foster strategic innovation. I retired to get back to practically applying science and work on grassroots empowerment. We formed the NGO Healthy Soils Australia. For the last 15 years, I’ve been working with very innovative farmers on new paradigms for biological farming and rebuilding healthy biosystems in degraded landscapes. We’re talking about hydrological cycles because water is fundamental for life. I’ve come to understand that the increase in atmospheric CO2 is a symptom, a measure of land degradation or forest fires. It’s really the blood on the floor. And it’s not about mopping up the blood on the floor or predicting how much blood there will be on the floor. What’s important is to stop the bleeding. CO2 is a building block for healthy biosystems; we just don’t need it in the air. Let’s stop simplistically demonizing carbon emissions and recognize that it’s us, Homo Hubris, that has disturbed these cycles. Don’t blame the symptom; focus on the regeneration.

Editor’s Note: An abridged version of this interview ran in the April 2019 issue of Acres U.S.A. magazine.

Compost & The Promise of Microbes

Scientist David C. Johnson Explores Microbial Communities, Carbon Sequestration and Compost

David C. Johnson’s experimental findings and openness to new insights have turned him into a champion of microbial diversity as the key to regenerating soil carbon — and thus to boosting agricultural productivity and removing excess atmospheric CO2. His research, begun only a decade ago, affirms the promise of microbes for healing the planet. It has attracted interest from around the world.

Scientist David C. Johnson Explores Microbial Communities, Carbon Sequestration and Compost

Johnson didn’t come to science until later in life. At age 51 he left a rewarding career as a builder, specializing in custom homes for artists, to complete his undergraduate degree. He planned to use his education “to do something different for the other half of [his] life,” though what he didn’t know. He said a path opened up and opportunities kept coming his way. After completing his undergraduate degree, Johnson kept going, earning his Masters in 2004 and Ph.D. in 2011, both in Molecular Microbiology. With his first advanced degree in hand, he got a job at New Mexico State University, where he was going to school and currently has an appointment in the College of Engineering.

He credits a fellowship program that placed undergraduate students in different labs with sparking his fascination with the composition of microbial communities as a graduate student. Johnson, who once farmed as a homesteader in Alaska, says he was once “an NPK junkie” but considers himself to be “13-years reformed.”

Charged with finding a way to process manure from factory dairy farms that would be beneficial to cropland, he and his wife — and behind the scenes collaborator — Hui-Chun Su designed a bioreactor for producing fungal-rich compost. Previous researchers on the project had only been able to make highly saline composts that proved harmful to plants. Johnson went on to demonstrate the remarkable power of his compost to dramatically boost crop growth and carbon sequestration in soil, which correlates with its high fungal to bacterial ratio. Currently, he is experimenting with this compost as a seed inoculant and working to expand the scope of this critical research through collaborations with other interested researchers.

Interviewed by Tracy Frisch

Microbes in Action

ACRES U.S.A. At what point did you fall in love with microbes?

DAVID C. JOHNSON. I guess when I started seeing results. Through a fellowship I had at New Mexico State University, I was put in a lab with Dr. Geoff Smith who was looking at biodegradation of toluene in a lake in Mexico. All the oil from the cars was washing down into the lake. We have a pond here that all the roads drain into. I got a sample of that soil and put it in the bioreactors. The toluene completely degraded overnight. That kind of set my path. Every lab situation has taught me something about what I’m looking at today. What I learned about the structure of clays and their ability to catalyze reactions was part of this as well. You always wonder why are you doing this. I stopped asking that question. Now I think let’s see what happens.

ACRES U.S.A. How did you get on the research path you’ve been pursuing?

JOHNSON. For my Ph.D., I was looking at microbial community structures for hydrogen production. It’s bio-hydrogen, where you can make hydrogen using hydrogen-producing microbes with certain substrates. At the same time, I was working on a project with USDA to figure out what to do with dairy manure.

ACRES U.S.A. I haven’t been to New Mexico for a number of years, but I remember seeing what looked to be very large CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations).

JOHNSON. Many dairy CAFOs moved to our area from California to get away from the regulations there on the disposal of their manure and effluent. Some of these CAFOs are still here, but a lot of them have gone further east, to the other side of the state, and to states like Texas. One of the problems with the dairy manure was it was very saline. Researchers had been working on the project for about a decade before I got assigned it. They experimented with making compost with the manure but had concluded that compost was bad for soils.

ACRES U.S.A. How were they making the compost?

JOHNSON. They were using a windrow composting process. I started with windrows, too. But then my wife changed the way of doing it. She stepped in and said, “You’re coming home with too many dirty clothes, turning these piles. We’re going to figure out a better way.” So we developed a no-turn static composting process that also kept the pile aerated, which was essential for allowing the fungal community to begin to dominate in the piles.

ACRES U.S.A. She sounds like a good collaborator. What’s her background?

JOHNSON. She has a talent for recognizing the obvious, which is quite commonly missed and she is very creative.

ACRES U.S.A. Why wasn’t the windrow method successful for composting this manure?

JOHNSON. With windrows, most of the time it’s anaerobic. Then every time you turn it, you’re disturbing the fungal community’s households. Basically you’re throwing everything out in the street and having them start over. At the beginning, you’d turn it up to twice a day. Later you taper off to turning once a day, and then usually to about twice a week and on down, as the process continues. But every time you turn the pile, you disturb it. We found out that with the windrow process, the salinity stays the same or increases. The compost would have from 30 to 44 millisiemens conductivity. But plants can’t take anything over, say, 10, and they really like it at under 3 millisiemens.

ACRES U.S.A. I imagine you already have a salinity issue in a dry state like New Mexico.

JOHNSON. Yes, and the more fertilizer they put on, the more severe the salinity is becoming. The fertilizers seep down into the water table, and now they’re pumping those salts back up when they irrigate their fields with groundwater. That’s pretty detrimental to our soils.

ACRES U.S.A. Of course, that’s one of the causes behind the downfall of the great irrigation civilizations.

JOHNSON. You’re correct there. But add the fertilizers and you compound the problem. We originally had the ability here to leach [the salt out of] these fields because we have a shallow water table with a significant amount of water. But now that they’ve pumped out the aquifers, they’re down in the phreatic zone. The result is they’re just putting out more salty water right on top of salty soil.

ACRES U.S.A. Are there parts of New Mexico where ag land has already been abandoned due to its salinity?

JOHNSON. Not yet, not like Arizona, but we’re really close and the farmers are really concerned. The one redeeming thing is the Rio Grande, which goes through Las Cruces. That water is pretty low in salinity so farmers are still able to leach out the salts. But the Rio Grande’s flow rate depends on Colorado having a good snowpack and the last decade has been pretty dry.

ACRES U.S.A. Last year I did a story with a farmer who does static pile composting for his vegetable farm. To aerate it he uses PVC sewer pipe and a little squirrel cage fan that he only has to run intermittently for a week. He makes his compost very fast. Would that be too quick for fungi to take hold?

JOHNSON. That’s more a mulch than compost. From what I’m seeing in the research, my compost is not even mature at six months. The compost I put out is like clay. It oozes between your fingers when you squeeze it. The analysis of its community structure shows at least a four times increase in the biodiversity of the microbes. More importantly, I see that fungal community really thrives.

ACRES U.S.A. Do you do this analysis yourself or do you send it out to a laboratory?

JOHNSON. The equipment is about $1.5 million, a bit out of my budget, so I send it out to a lab.

ACRES U.S.A. How are the fungal bacterial ratios determined? Is it based on the chemical composition?

JOHNSON. I use two processes. The cheaper, less expensive process is called 16S or 18S analysis. The 16S does bacteria; the 18S does fungi. The tests are about $40 to $50. In some cases it gives me the bacteria or fungi down to the species level.

ACRES U.S.A. Is this DNA-based?

JOHNSON. Yeah, it’s genomics. The technology was developed in 2004 or 2005. I also run metagenomics on it. This basically breaks apart all of the DNA and sequences and reassembles it and then assigns it to an organism that matches the closest. Those tests run from $400 to $800.

ACRES U.S.A. It’s amazing that they could do that.

JOHNSON. We have information overload now.

 ACRES U.S.A. What should we know about the Johnson Su Bioreactor you and your wife designed?

JOHNSON. It’s a relatively simple, inexpensive bioreactor made of readily available materials. It is simple to put together and fill and requires no turning or maintenance once built and filled. You don’t need any electricity. We designed it so it can be applied anywhere from the Third World to an industrial setting. Material costs are approximately $40/reactor and can be used multiple times. The bioreactor is made of remesh, used in concrete construction; landscape cloth (the woven cloth, 5 oz. or greater); a pallet; and 4-inch perforated plastic pipes, though they are only used for one day. After that first day, fungal hyphae will have stabilized the pile so much that you can pull the pipes out. The six cores will stay open and allow air to flow up from under the pallet, which is slightly elevated. The most important thing is allowing it to go long enough — for a year. The instructions are available in video and PDF form.

ACRES U.S.A. Do you need to use a certain ratio of nitrogen-rich materials and carbonaceous materials?

JOHNSON. I really didn’t follow that. I started out trying to adhere to a ratio, but my big problem was figuring out how to get airflow into the dairy manure because it was too dense. We put the tubes in the center because we found out that anything over 1 foot away from ambient air would start to go anaerobic. To get the dairy manure to compost, we had to add other materials. You could mix hay with the manure and you’d be fine. But then I used one-third dairy manure, one-third yard trash and one-third wood chips. Now I’m using all leaves. Of course, leaves have a carbon to nitrogen ratio of 50 or 60:1, but they compost just fine. I’ve actually composted straight wood chips just to see. They make a really nice, rich black compost, but it’s not practical time-wise.

ACRES U.S.A. How much material would you need to fill one of your bioreactors?

JOHNSON. It’s 5 feet tall. For wet leaves, it takes three pickup truckloads to fill a bioreactor. That’s 1,700 pounds. I pack them down. You get about a third of that height in finished compost.

ACRES U.S.A. I have some old round bales of grassy hay. Could I use hay alone or would I want to put other materials in?

JOHNSON. I would run it through a chipper shredder, so you could get more in. Otherwise, it would be really tough to pack. It would be good to throw in some manure and whatever other waste you have. Nature doesn’t discriminate, as long as there’s a carbon bond in it.

ACRES U.S.A. What’s the goal for moisture?

JOHNSON. It’s so dry here that I put all the materials through a water bath. It can be 113 degrees with 10 percent humidity, and in a day we’ll lose an inch of water on a pool or in a field.

ACRES U.S.A. What form is the CAFO manure in?

JOHNSON. They just pile it up. The cows are locked up, standing outside.

ACRES U.S.A. The initial charge of the project was to figure out a composting solution for the CAFO dairy manure that’s good for the soil. Did you succeed?

JOHNSON. If the project had gone further, we’d have been able to develop an industrial plant that could parallel process it. Two of the biggest problems with composting operation are odors and leaching. This process has neither of these problems. You can stand right next to one of the bioreactors and you wouldn’t be able to tell what it’s doing. We’ve been to composting operations all over the United States. When we went to one in Disney World, we had to run upwind. The ammonia was so powerful that we couldn’t breathe. In an anaerobic process, ammonia and all your volatile fatty acids — the ones that really smell — are released. They’re the issue that’s most likely to shut down most composting operations. The second issue is leaching. Most often, the compost is on a pad on the ground, and it’s watered. If you get a heavy rain, effluent leaches out of the piles and flows into rivers or the aquifer. The way the pile in the bioreactor is made, it will absorb almost any amount of rain it gets. It’s up off the ground, it’s aerobic and more porous, so it holds much more water before there’s any leachate.

ACRES U.S.A. What happens to the ammonia when you’re using high-nitrogen feed stock in the bioreactor?

JOHNSON. If it’s aerobic, the right microbes will be breaking it down and putting it into their cell structure.

ACRES U.S.A. I didn’t realize that. You’ve said that compost shouldn’t be considered a nutrient source. What do you consider compost to be?

JOHNSON. That goes to the root of the problem. For so long, in agriculture, we’ve thought that we have to amend the soil in order for anything to grow. That’s a dangerous mindset. Nobody fertilizes the rain forest! Nature does this handily without any nutrients. Rain forests are the most productive ecosystems on the planet, and they do this with biology. When I do the analysis, I find a lot of free-living, nitrogen-fixing bacteria in these soils, and in this compost as well, since I don’t abide by that recommended carbon to nitrogen ratio in making compost. If nature has a need for nitrogen there are a lot of organisms that can supply it.

ACRES U.S.A. That is revolutionary. I hear you suggesting that all the dogma we’ve learned about compost may be incorrect.

JOHNSON. How we look at soil today is counterproductive. It’s a living system, not a sponge that you put nutrients into so that plants grow. We need to ask the question, what biology do I need, not what fertilizers do I add. Besides free-living, nitrogen-fixing bacteria, I’m also finding phosphorus-solubilizing bacteria. We probably have a 40-year supply of phosphorus from fertilizer in agricultural soils but it’s inaccessible by plants without the right microbes to make it available. I also see microbes that secrete plant growth-promoting hormones. This system is beautifully and exquisitely dynamic in nature. If we can restore it back on our farmlands and rangelands, there’s a lot of potential.

ACRES U.S.A. You stress the desirability of a high fungal to bacterial ratio. Tell me what the implications are for growing plants.

JOHNSON. I currently see such a ratio as a coarse measure of soil fertility and soil health. Practically everything we’ve done in agriculture is detrimental to fungal communities. Now from what I’m seeing, using the metagenome, I think that bringing the fungi back is an indicator of good soil health.

ACRES U.S.A. Let’s make a list of what’s detrimental to fungal communities.

JOHNSON. There’s the plowing we do and the application of herbicides. One study figured out that applying glyphosate at 1/100th the recommended rate kills half the Aspergillus nidulans fungi. At 1/50th of the rate, it kills all of them. We need to reconsider things like that. When we leave a soil in a bare fallow, it’s probably the worst thing we could do to a soil. Soil depends on energy flow to function, just like we do. If the energy flow isn’t there, they won’t have a dynamic microbial community.

ACRES U.S.A. When you talk about energy flow, I’m assuming you’re referring to plants photosynthesizing using solar energy and carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to make energy for themselves and soil microbes.

JOHNSON. Basically the majority of our energy supply on this planet is what has happened that way. With that carbon flow the plants put a significant amount of root exudates into the soil to feed these soil microbial communities. I did a greenhouse experiment to try to tease out what percentage of the carbon flow went into the soil, and I found that in a bacterial-dominant, low-carbon soil, 96 percent of the carbon captured by the plant went into the soil.

ACRES U.S.A. To try to heal the soil because the soil was in a desperate condition?

JOHNSON. Yeah. If a plant is going to put that much of those valuable resources into the soil instead of growing itself, there’s a reason. In my experiment, in a healthy soil 46 percent of that carbon flow went into the soil to feed the microbes.

ACRES U.S.A. What happens in soils that are heavily contaminated with pesticide residues?

JOHNSON. We don’t have a good handle on that. It’s a dynamic system. We only have to look at our own microbiome and consider how significant an impact it has on our health. The microbes in our digestive system are turning on and off genes in our body that affect our appetites, our cravings and our immune system. If a person’s microbial community has been decimated by antibiotics they can get Clostridium difficile, IBS, IBD and Crohn’s disease. Doctors may give them more antibiotics to try to fix it and even cut out sections of the intestines to help them survive. Now they’ve found that a simple fecal transplant can cure most of these patients, some within 24 hours. They’re just getting the right biology back into the system.

ACRES U.S.A. Are you saying there’s an analogy with plants?

JOHNSON. That’s what I’m observing — soil is just like us. I suspected it, but it took putting in about seven years of research.

ACRES U.S.A. I like how you’ve referred to humans and plants as superorganisms that depend on many times more microorganisms to thrive. Is symbiosis then far greater than what we learned in school?

JOHNSON. Most assuredly. We are outnumbered 10 to 1, cell to cell. And we only have 30,000 genes to their 8 million. If there wasn’t a beneficial relationship for both sides, we would be just a tasty morsel to that many microbes.

ACRES U.S.A. Going back to your bioreactor, after you made that first good compost, what was your next step?

JOHNSON. In order to prove to USDA that it was a good product, I compared it to eight other composts available in the area. I did a standard inorganic chemical analysis and I threw in measurements of fungal and bacterial biomass. I had taken Elaine Ingham’s class and was curious how significant those results would be. For my growth test, I grew chili pepper plants in each of the different composts. In one of my tests I watered my bioreactor compost daily in the greenhouse for five months to see what would leach out, and how well the plants would grow in this medium. That material was better than all the others, including my raw bioreactor compost. Overall the two materials from my bioreactor supported twice as much plant growth as the next best compost. When I looked at the levels of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium in the different composts, the correlations with plant growth were less than .05. (Some of the commercial composts had been amended with inorganic nitrogen.) The correlation with organic matter was poor as well, but the fungal to bacterial ratio gave a correlation of about .88. That’s pretty good odds, if you’re in Las Vegas!

ACRES U.S.A. That seems quite amazing.

JOHNSON. This was serendipity for me. I didn’t expect it, but it got me started looking at the fungal-to-bacterial ratio and the biological dynamics. I set up several experiments to look at what happens if I use this compost as a soil inoculant. I had already used my compost in the bio-hydrogen reactors with some interesting results and that reinforced this new path. That’s what I got my Ph.D. on. The microbial community that developed from the compost for bio-hydrogen broke every rule of hydrogen production. The rules are: hydrogen production happens at a pH of 5; at low headspace pressures, so in the reactors we keep the headspace pressure as low as possible; at mesophilic temperatures, which is around body temperature and low headspace hydrogen partial pressure. But the microbial community that came out of my bioreactor compost produced hydrogen down to a pH of 3. That’s a very significant amount lower than the pH that they say it happens at. The hydrogen bioreactors achieved high enough pressures to blow up, around 45 psi. The microbes produced hydrogen at room temperature and also at 100 percent hydrogen partial pressure in the headspace, and at headspace pressure of 45 psi. None of these conditions are supposed to allow microbes to produce any hydrogen. That was the clue telling me to look at the microbes. Going back to the growth test with the chili peppers, I had noticed that seeds wouldn’t germinate in some of the composts. When I transplanted seeds from my bioreactor compost into other composts, I found that eventually boosted their productivity, suggesting it could be an inoculum. All these little observations got me thinking. The first time I used my bioreactor compost in the field I put on a dusting of 400 pounds per acre. I only used it once. From that point on, it’s how you manage the soil. I say it’s 2 percent inoculant and 98 percent management. The biology needs oxygen, water and food and to be taken care of, just like any other organism. My wife says it’s the fifth animal on the farm that you need to consider to keep it alive.

ACRES U.S.A. Talk about the longer-term tests you’re doing.

Microbes in the Field

JOHNSON. In the seven-year test — which is going on eight years now — I was looking at a mechanism to pay farmers to put carbon into the soil. I’d grow a cover crop, green chop it and disc it back into the soil. Then I’d immediately replant and grow another crop. Everything went back into the soil. I used no fertilizers or amendments besides that initial compost application. From the first year until now, I’ve had a five times increase in net primary productivity in my winter cover crops. At one year there was about 50 grams of dry biomass per square meter of production on the control versus 250 grams on the treated. Then, from that soil to what I have now, production jumped 250 to almost 1,200 grams. By improving the biology in the soil I observed a quintupling of its ability to grow a crop.

Scientist David C. Johnson discusses soil microbes

ACRES U.S.A. It would be interesting to continue to compare the inoculant treatment to a control that has also been planted in the cover crops for a number of years.

JOHNSON. That’s the second test, which ran for four years. For this test, I wanted a soil that didn’t have legacy issues — no herbicides — so I picked a sandy desert soil that doesn’t grow much without the microbes. For four years I grew a cover crop, cut it, hauled it off and planted another crop. One plot was inoculated and one wasn’t. I wanted to know the best-case scenario so I irrigated the plots. I noticed there was always a defined line between the control and the treated. I planted them right next to each other to see if there was any drift or movement. I saw none.

ACRES U.S.A. You mean you found that the microbial life didn’t move over and colonize another area?

JOHNSON. As a microbiologist, we think everything is everywhere. When I did the composting here, I did an analysis of where the microbes were from. There were some that were first discovered in the Arctic and in the Antarctic. There were pelagic or ocean-going bacteria and also intestinal bacteria. All of them were in Las Cruces, New Mexico, which is a little strange. For this experiment I thought we’d do a treated plot and an untreated plot, and we’d see no difference. If the microbes are there, they just need to be fed. But there was a difference. The final annual productivity on the untreated plot was about 2,200 grams of dry biomass per square meter. That’s as much as the most productive terrestrial ecosystems on the planet, like old-growth forests. But the treated plot produced 3,200 grams, another 1,000 grams above that.

ACRES U.S.A. In other words, you found the desert soil was quite productive when it had a cover crop?

JOHNSON. With a cover crop and the right biology. Both are integral.

ACRES U.S.A. Right, because you have plants feeding the soil microorganisms.

JOHNSON. But with the microbial inoculant, it was half again more productive. Our first season with the winter cover on the treated was about 800 grams. The second season was over 1,600 grams. The third winter crop season was almost 2,200 grams. There’s some overlooked ability in these soils.

ACRES U.S.A. What’s your climate like?

JOHNSON. It’s pretty temperate. We have a long growing season. It can get down to -16°F in the winter. We usually have about a half-inch of rain every month in the winter. We plant the cover crop in the fall, and it doesn’t grow over a couple inches tall. Then in mid-February, growth just takes off. There’s no winterkill. We’ve seen these plants freeze, the leaves become like potato chips and you can go out and crush them. Yet by 10 a.m. when it starts to thaw, they’re busy photosynthesizing. That winter cover crop is ready for harvest at the end of April. In those 10 weeks, it grew 2,200 grams of dry biomass per square meter.

ACRES U.S.A. Are other researchers and farmers doing trials of similar systems of making compost in other settings?

JOHNSON. In other countries, they are. I just got an email from Pakistan today. We presented in Australia. Last week people in New Zealand contacted us.

ACRES U.S.A. Are there active trials where people have made bioreactors, used the finished compost and are now reporting results?

JOHNSON. They’re in the process. It takes a year to make this compost.

ACRES U.S.A. What are your current thoughts on different application methods?

JOHNSON. I’ve done applications of up to 400 pounds per acre. I’m looking at much lesser amounts. I’ve been making a slurry out of the compost and coating seed before planting. I see a difference in the growth dynamics compared to a control. In Australia, they are doing something similar. Their application rate for a very similar fungal to bacterial compost product is 1 kg per hectare. From what I’ve heard and read, they’re having pretty good success. They make an extract by vigorously stirring their compost, either with air or mechanically in water, to make a homogenous solution. They use about a kg of compost per 70 liters water, or a pound per 15 gallons. Then they inject it when they plant. In an area that normally produces about 1.6 tons of wheat on an early spring grain crop, they’ve reached up to 3 tons. This is the work of Ian and Diane Haggerty in dryland Western Australia. Their neighbors have gone broke trying to grow crops conventionally in that area. The Australian government is invested in improving their soils because they know that’s their future. Farmers could get started right away by using cover crops. There’s no reason to wait just because you don’t have the right compost. But once you do, at least in that desert soil, there’s a definite difference between inoculated and not inoculated.

ACRES U.S.A. If you use this sort of compost to inoculate seed or you apply it under dry conditions, would the bacteria and fungi go dormant and then be revived in the soil?

JOHNSON. I think what you’re putting out there is a lot of spores and cysts. When you let the compost go this long, without the recommended carbon-to-nitrogen ratio of feedstocks, you get lot of free-living, nitrogen-fixing bacteria in the pile. And when the whole system senses that it’s running out of usable resources, the fungi will form spores and bacteria will encyst. There still would be living organisms, like the worms processing it, and the compost would continue to mature.

ACRES U.S.A. Is your compost similar in composition to what ancient farmers were producing?

JOHNSON. Judging by the description in Farmers of Forty Centuries, the Chinese did it for 4,000 years. My wife, who is from Taiwan, was growing up during the shift to using synthetic fertilizers. She said they noticed that they had a lot more rice, but lost their protein source. All the fish and cockles and frogs that lived in the paddies died. Applying fertilizer completely decimated the whole system. The Amazonian Indians seem to have done something similar with Terra Preta del Indio. They used Terra Preta for 2,000 to 5,000 years.

ACRES U.S.A. I understand that if you use raw biochar, rather than allowing microorganisms to colonize it, it can pull nutrients out of the soil so plants grow poorly.

JOHNSON. Yeah, it becomes detrimental, as does biochar over 15 tons per acre.

ACRES U.S.A. Are you able to focus on your compost-related research, or are you involved with other topics?

JOHNSON. This has been part-time research. Since things grow slowly, I’ve had time to do other research here at the university. Mostly I’m working on technologies for purifying water, with reverse osmosis and electro-dialysis reversal methodologies.

ACRES U.S.A. What are your next steps?

JOHNSON. We want to scale up the bioreactor and do trials in different locales. There are a lot of people interested all over — in Australia, New Zealand, India, Africa, Canada, Mexico and Europe, and hopefully we’re going to get into China. A month ago, we were in Finland talking about their possibly using it to restore the Baltic Sea by reducing or eliminating all of the fertilizers and herbicides flowing into that water body.

ACRES U.S.A. You could find those types of scenarios practically everywhere around the world.

JOHNSON. Yeah. And there are some people using similar practices that are seeing dramatic results.

ACRES U.S.A. Can you give some examples of where people are using similar practices, with or without inoculation?

JOHNSON. Roland Bunch has been doing this in Africa and South America for 30-odd years. He is seeing that cover crops can bring these soils back. And it’s bringing that biology back that makes it work. But mostly, people consider compost as an amendment that has to be applied in large amounts. What they’re not realizing is that if they allow compost to mature, they can use it as a microbial inoculant. That’s now starting to come to light. Now that I have an improved soil, I’ve gotten an idea of what the biology’s supposed to look like. That’s going be what I’ll be comparing to, but I had to have that first.

ACRES U.S.A. That’s great because there are many questions about how to select good measures of soil health. Some of the measures being used may not be very appropriate.

JOHNSON. I agree.

Soil Carbon

ACRES U.S.A. Often there seems to be a lack of understanding of how to increase soil carbon. People are still thinking it comes from crop residues or adding something to the soil, rather than from the action of microbes in the soil. While I don’t know the science in much detail, I recognize it’s really about a paradigm shift, which hasn’t fully caught on yet.

JOHNSON. Nobody knows the science yet. I’m trying to learn.

ACRES U.S.A. Could some persistent carbonaceous molecules in compost be the mechanism for increasing soil carbon?

JOHNSON. From what I have seen, I don’t believe that is the mechanism.

ACRES U.S.A. Yet there are people still dwelling on questions like, what kinds of carbon compounds are present in a particular compost.

JOHNSON. They are asking that. One paper I recently read pretty much characterized any carbon entity in the soil as being fair game to a microbe. They’ve found sugars that are 10,000 years old, though sugars are supposed to degrade really fast. They’ve found aromatic ringed carbon structures that are supposed to be more resistant to microbial breakdown, but they degrade in a month.

ACRES U.S.A. Well, microbes inhabit every kind of environment on the planet, including those considered extremely inhospitable, but they have figured out how to use whatever substrate is available as an energy source.

JOHNSON. Yeah. We have to look at this a little differently. It’s not that we want to put carbon in the soil and lock it up. It’s a living system, and carbon is the lifeblood of this system. We have to allow it to flow. With our modern farming techniques we’ve cut back the efficiency of the system for capturing carbon. Remember, I said I had a five times increase in productivity. I’ve seen that in the greenhouse and in my field experiments. I’ve talked to Richard Teague and he has seen it in grazing management.

ACRES U.S.A. Tell us who Richard Teague is.

JOHNSON. Richard Teague is the rangeland ecologist at Texas A&M AgriLife Center in Vernon. He has been looking at how we can change grazing management on the planet. Along with Johan Zietsman in Africa, Terry McCosker in Australia, and others, he sees that we need to mimic how the bison grazed the Great Plains. It was a complete system that functioned properly. The animals would take about 30 to 40 percent of the grass and move on because predators were behind them. They deposited their manure. Dung beetles rolled it up into little balls and put it into the ground. That was the perfect environment for it to compost in place. It started to build soil carbon up and that’s what I’m trying to mimic. We have to slow the velocity of the carbon moving through the system. So little carbon is left in the soil, and there is going to be a certain amount of respiration always taking place in soils just to keep it alive. We have to create a system that’s capturing more carbon than it’s respiring. Reinvigorating the microbial community structures seems to also increase carbon-use-efficiency of the soil microbes as well.

ACRES U.S.A. Your research finds that the amount of carbon in a soil that’s respired off as carbon dioxide varies. It’s not a fixed percentage of soil carbon, or even a fixed amount. What factors influence the magnitude of soil carbon loss through respiration?

JOHNSON. From what I’ve seen in my research, it depends on the microbial community structure. I did both a greenhouse study and a one-year field study that looked at respiration in different soils with different levels of carbon and different biology. In the low-carbon, bacterial-dominant soil, over 50 percent of the original soil carbon was respired. Yet as you moved to a soil that was more fungal dominant and had more carbon, only 11 percent of the original carbon in the soil was respired. Increasing the rate at which we capture carbon while decreasing the rate at which that carbon is respired is how we will begin to reduce atmospheric CO2. Now this contradicts what most scientists are saying — that when we increase soil carbon we’ll increase respiration.

ACRES U.S.A. That sounds like linear thinking.

JOHNSON: Very, and nature has never been linear. In the greenhouse, I had soils with an 18 times increase in soil carbon, compared to the lowest treatment, and a 5 times increase in microbial biomass, and respiration was only four times greater. In a field study conducted for one year, I had soils ranging from less than half a percent up to 7 percent soil carbon. With the fourteen-fold increase in soil carbon there was only a doubling of the respiration.

ACRES U.S.A. What’s the significance of carbon respiration?

JOHNSON. Ninety-seven percent of carbon that’s respired into the atmosphere comes from microbes or plants. Plants and microbes have metabolic processes that are very similar to ours. In order to stay alive, they, like us, respire and release CO2. In plants for the most part this occurs only at night. Plants just also have the ability to fix carbon during the day and capture CO2.

ACRES U.S.A. How does the amount of respiration of crop plants compare to the amount of carbon that they capture?

JOHNSON. Plants capture enough CO2 in their photosynthetic processes to offset 97 percent of CO2 emissions and they keep it pretty balanced. It is the other 3 percent, our emission of CO2 from burning fossil fuels, that tip this balance.

ACRES U.S.A. Talk more about that 3 percent of the atmospheric carbon.

JOHNSON. That’s what we, as humans, contribute by burning fossil fuels. When you look at the ratios, the 3 percent we contribute is a relatively small component. We can reduce this one of two ways; make big changes in a small system by reducing our emissions or make small changes in a large system by improving plant productivity and regenerating carbon into soils. We have a choice here, and I believe it will be easier to achieve a reduction in atmospheric CO2 by regenerating carbon in our soils than by drastically reducing fossil fuel consumption.

ACRES U.S.A. When did we go wrong?

JOHNSON. We started out by adopting the European model of farming, where agriculture extracted nutrients and carbon out of soils and then farmers moved on to areas with undisturbed soils to repeat these soil-degrading practices. Then in the early 20th century came the Haber-Bosch process for manufacturing nitrogen fertilizers. Before 1940, you could produce six units of food energy for one fossil fuel unit. Now it takes 10 units of fossil fuel energy to produce and deliver 1 unit of food energy, even though the solar energy to grow the plant is free. So the last great hope I see is soil, and microbes.

ACRES U.S.A. Under this scenario how much greater could carbon sequestration in the soil be?

JOHNSON. In my transitional soils, those that I’ve just started using a biologically enhanced agricultural management (BEAM) approach, I have observed 10.7 tons carbon per hectare per year over the first 4.5 years of application. That’s a 0.25 percent annual rate of soil carbon increase.

ACRES U.S.A. I’ve been led to believe that soil carbon levels are hard to measure since they fluctuate a lot. If that’s the case, how are you able to say they’ve increased?

JOHNSON. There’s too much noise in soil carbon data to measure annual increases. But at four and a half years, I feel pretty confident in what I’ve observed and the analyses I’ve done. I’ve done multi-core sampling, composites and triplicates of those samples run with a LECO test, which is a combustion test. It’s the gold standard of soil carbon estimation. As you get the carbon back in the soil, you also see that change in growth dynamics, and the increased tonnage of carbon in above ground biomass. But let me give a caveat. If we want to build the carbon up, a certain amount of the cover crop has to go back into the soil. On the desert soil, when I’m harvesting everything off, I see only minimal increases in soil carbon. It’s like any relationship — you’ve got to give something back.

ACRES U.S.A. Do you have a big enough field experiment to divide your treatments in half and in some plots put some of the biomass back and in others, not?

JOHNSON. No, none of mine are big enough. I’ve been doing this research on a shoestring budget. The ag schools have yet to see its value. I funded a lot of this work myself. In the last couple of years the Thornburg Foundation has been very kind and helped me, but the plots are not big enough. This research needs to be replicated here and in other areas under different conditions. But I know it has potential with the right biology. I see what Gabe Brown and other people have done with grazing management and other changes, and how these progressive farmers are turning their farms around.

ACRES U.S.A. Is there research into whether the importance of the high fungal bacterial ratio holds in other places where people are sequestering significant amounts of carbon? I’m wondering if anyone has looked at this ratio on Gabe Brown’s farm.

JOHNSON. Not that I’m aware of. I would definitely like to compare his soil to what I’m seeing here with the biology that I have.

ACRES U.SA. Perhaps you and other researchers will determine that the fungal bacterial ratio, plus ongoing management, are the decisive factors, and then measuring soil carbon might take a back seat. Or maybe carbon is a better and cheaper measurement?

JOHNSON. There are still questions on all of this. I’ve had good luck in the lab and in the greenhouse, where I can control everything, but once you get out into nature that changes. In the greenhouse, I was able to use pretty much the same microbial community all the way through the test, but with different fungal to bacterial ratios. That allowed me quite a bit of latitude to eliminate all the other variables. If I were to get soil from Gabe Brown with a certain fungal bacterial ratio and then try to compare it to the soil I have here, it would be complicated by differences in the structures of the microbial communities.

ACRES U.S.A. Right. There are all kinds of confounding factors.

JOHNSON. This is such a dynamic system, and we think linearly.

ACRES U.S.A. It seems quite urgent to get other people interested in doing allied work.

JOHNSON. Yes, it’s critical, and not just for the soil carbon part. In my estimation, the carbon is just the icing on the cake. There are so many benefits for agriculture, like increasing crop productivity and improving crop water use efficiency. I did a cotton crop this year just to see how it would turn out.

ACRES U.S.A. I saw the incredible photos!

JOHNSON. The cotton grew 6 feet high. Of course, tall cotton doesn’t mean that you’re going to get a crop, but when we harvested it last weekend, there was a little over five bales of cotton per acre without fertilizers, herbicides or insecticides, just biology. The average in our area is about two and a half. This was on the improved soil in my seven-year field trial. As a scientist, you have to be half skeptic and half optimist. I’m always wary and expect failure, but nature has been pleasantly surprising.

ACRES U.S.A. Do you have any opportunities to talk with farmers in New Mexico and elsewhere?

JOHNSON. Yes, Rudy Garcia, the regional NRCS manager, has been pulling me into a lot of his meetings to do presentations, as has Ray Archuleta. In California certain groups like Chico State are really interested. They see that it’s the microbes that are making this work.

ACRES U.S.A. Even on a shoestring you seem to be doing a remarkable job of letting people around the world know about this.

JOHNSON. We have a lot of help. Carbon Underground is helping us. Terry McCosker with Carbon Link in Australia is an intermediary between the ranchers and the carbon market there, which actually has money.

ACRES U.S.A. How do you get this on the ground in a large enough number of places to make the big difference in our atmosphere we need? How do you get farmers to try and implement things?

JOHNSON. You never know what one connection will lead to. That has been proven to me over and over. I get frustrated, but then something seems to come through every time it needs to. Carbon Underground took us to Finland because Finland is interested in this. I’m talking with Patagonia now.

ACRES U.S.A. Is Patagonia still buying organic cotton?

JOHNSON. That’s what I’ll be working on. I’ll be sending them the results on that cotton, so there is potential.

ACRES U.S.A. A recent study led by scientists at Woods Hole Research Center and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that agriculture had removed 133 billion tons of carbon from the top 2 meters of soil. Could your approach potentially put some of that carbon back?

JOHNSON. I think we can do better. There is a limit to the percent carbon increase you can get in a soil, but there’s no limit to the amount of carbon increases you can get as you build up new soil.

ACRES U.S.A. The USDA promotes the false notion that it takes 500 years to create a half-inch of soil. What’s your evidence that we could increase the amount of soil?

JOHNSON. In the United States, our average loss rate is about 10 tons of soil per hectare per year, but we have demonstrated the ability to rebuild more than 10 tons of carbon per hectare per year on top of that. That’s how nature did it on the Great Plains. How else could they get the 6-foot deep topsoils that we have so destructively mined for the last 75 years or more? That was our carbon bank account and we’ve pretty much withdrawn it all the way down. It’s up to us to build it back up because that’s where the fertility is. It’s by putting that carbon back in there and letting the microbes function optimally that we’ll see an increase in primary productivity.

ACRES U.S.A. Do you have any critics or detractors?

JOHNSON. People do say it’s not going to work, but they don’t come up with a good argument of why it won’t. Nature is doing it every day. My work is about aligning ourselves with nature enough to understand how she does it.

ACRES U.S.A. Do you have any thoughts on why more people haven’t seen this?

JOHNSON. I think it comes from assuming procedures that other people used in the past are the best. My approach has always been different. I wouldn’t have discovered the bio-hydrogen community had I not challenged what other people had done before me. I approached things different. I’ll be the first to admit there was a certain amount of luck in it. We pasteurized the compost at six different temperatures and in triplicates. One out of the 18 went crazy. It produced over 200 ml of hydrogen while the others were producing less than 10. I can’t argue with fate. I nurtured that microbial community for over two and a half years while I was doing research on it and it kept producing. It was trying to tell me then to look at the biology. I ignored it until I got working at the Plant Science Center here at NMSU and started using biology again.

ACRES U.S.A. As a building contractor, did you just do the normal things, or were you taking risks?

JOHNSON. I did specialty and custom homes, a lot of homes for artists. They’re always unique in how they looked at things, and how they wanted things put together. I won an award for the design of one of the homes. My wife Hui-Chun and I did everything. Sometimes we would work for a year and a half with a customer on a set of house plans. We ended up friends with all of our clients.

ACRES U.S.A. How should education change to facilitate greater openness and vision in people?

JOHNSON. Right now, with the reductionist viewpoint in science, we’re missing the dynamic part of this planet. We need to realize that the Earth is a living organism. It’s going to be very complex, and we may never figure this out.

ACRES U.S.A. You mean we might not have the capacity to understand exactly what’s going on?

JOHNSON. I think that’s a distinct possibility.

ACRES U.S.A. Perhaps it doesn’t matter. Without characterizing every microbe in our gut, we probably can know that certain practices are health-promoting and others promote disease or sterility.

JOHNSON. You can see almost every pathogen known to man in these soils. Yet most likely they have a function there. It depends on the environment they’re in. When we destroy the composition of that microbial community, that’s when we start having problems. Like you were saying about soil health or soil fertility, I don’t know that anybody can really define it right now. I don’t know that we ever will, but I believe we’re going the right direction when plants grow better. Supporting that seems like a good goal. And building that soil carbon also takes care of water issues. Seventy percent of the world’s water goes toward agriculture. If we can double the production of a commodity crop with the same amount of water the efficiency of that water use doubles. We see that in rangeland management. Nancy Ranney in New Mexico has been practicing adaptive multi-paddock grazing management. They built dikes to supply stock tanks. For the first couple of years, they filled up, but as they improved their soil and grew better grasses, the tanks stopped filling up. Their aquifer level started coming up. They went from four species of grasses to 44. This is the direction we need to go.

This article first appeared in the April 2018 issue of Acres U.S.A. magazine.

Interview: Eric Holt-Gimenez Part 1: The Agrarian Transition

Interviewed by Tracy Frisch.

Editor’s Note: This is part 1 of a two-part interview with Eric Holt-Giménez. Read Part 2 here

Who is Eric Holt-Giménez

Since 2006 scholar and activist Eric Holt-Giménez has been executive director of Food First (Institute for Food and Development Policy), a people’s think tank founded by Frances Moore Lappé in 1975. As a leading critic of the global food system his work is grounded in a quarter-century of experience working in Latin America with peasant farmers in the agroecology movement. His latest book, and the central focus of this interview, is A Foodie’s Guide to Capitalism: Understanding the Political Economy of What We Eat. Holt-Giménez, who is of Basque and Puerto Rican heritage and the son of farmworkers, grew up milking cows and pitching hay on Marin County, California, dairy farms. He studied rural education and biology at the University of Oregon and Evergreen State College and later earned his M.Sc. in international development (UC Davis, 1981) and Ph.D. in environmental studies (UC Santa Cruz, 2002).

On his first project in Mexico after college, Holt-Giménez was charged with teaching sustainable agriculture to impoverished subsistence farmers, but quickly realized that he could learn a lot more from them. There he witnessed the impact of larger social and political forces on small farmers through the Green Revolution, which was getting them hooked on a treadmill of purchased inputs and imposing a farming system that was destructive to their land and well-being. A visit by several Mayan farmers from Guatemala to hold a field course on restoring degraded land marked a critical turning point for both Holt-Giménez and the peasant farmers. That encounter helped launch the Campesino a Campesino (farmer to farmer) movement through which untold numbers of small farmers around Latin America created more productive and ecologically sound, innovative farming systems, increased their livelihoods and amplified their voice.

Eric Holt-Giménez
Eric Holt-Giménez

Holt-Giménez’s Ph.D. dissertation on that movement formed the basis for his book Campesino a Campesino: Voices from Latin America’s Farmer to Farmer Movement for Sustainable Agriculture. He also co-authored, with Raj Patel and Annie Shattuck, Food Rebellions! Crisis and the Hunger for Justice and is the editor of Food Movements Unite! Strategies to Transform Our Food System. His writing has appeared in prominent newspapers, and he has a blog on Huffington Post. He also teaches internationally at the graduate level.

Understanding the Food System

ACRES U.S.A. What motivated you to write A Foodie’s Guide to Capitalism?

ERIC HOLT-GIMÉNEZ. I saw that many people in the food movement thought that we could transform the food system without addressing the capitalist system in which it was embedded. But the minute you realize it’s a capitalist food system, you recognize that’s impossible. The goal of the food system is to make money. It works like any other capitalist enterprise on the basis of commodities and profit. Food just happens to be the commodity being used to make that profit. Does that mean we have to change capitalism first before we can change the food system? I think the answer is no because food is different. The food system is located at the point of primary productivity, and it undergirds all of the other sectors. That puts the food movement in a strategic position to be able to influence and transform the larger political economic system.

ACRES U.S.A. In this country we’ve been persuaded that capitalism is the only economic system that’s aligned with progress. Is it compatible with progress?

HOLT-GIMÉNEZ. It depends on how we define progress. If you define progress as an increase in GDP, then you should celebrate every time a hurricane destroys billions of dollars of houses, goods, roads and livelihoods because fixing those things is going to increase the GDP. Whether they really get fixed is irrelevant. The point is that money is being spent. For banking institutions in this country, progress after the financial crash has been fantastic. They’ve grown by something like 40 percent. That shows up on the balance sheet as economic progress, but wages have been stagnant. So who is that progress for? Can we consider global warming as progress?

ACRES U.S.A. It seems that we have two different food systems, the industrial capitalist food system and something else.

HOLT-GIMÉNEZ. Even today, when we live under rampant, unbridled neoliberal capitalism that privatizes everything, one of the reasons our society still works is because of all the socialism in people’s lives.

ACRES U.S.A. What are some of the manifestations of this socialism and other non-capitalist systems in our society?

HOLT-GIMÉNEZ. The first thing to recognize is that it’s always a mix. We’ve paid for a huge public sector — like infrastructure and roads and schools. The army is completely socialistic. If we didn’t have the public sphere and socialized goods, and we didn’t engage in mutual aid without monetary exchange, the capitalist system would crash tomorrow. Clearly, this mix is toxic. The monopolies and oligopolies that rule the Earth are exacerbating inequities and destroying the planet. As long as the market controls everything, then whoever has the most market power will make all the rules. So how can we strategically remove the market imperative over our social decision-making to the point where we have a much different society? This is happening around the world in different ways. For example, the Chinese import soy from South America, not because they can’t grow their own soy, but because they don’t want to use their water for growing soy. They would rather use Latin American water so they made a social and environmental decision not to produce their own soy and instead to buy it from Argentina. Argentina, Bolivia and Brazil are called the “Republic of Soy.” They have 755 million acres of soy — and those countries do not have any control over capitalism. If there’s an opportunity to make a profit, no one can tell them no. It doesn’t matter if they destroy the aquifer and uproot millions of small farmers, or that they store their profits in offshore banks and other investments. That’s the logic of capital. What we want to do is impose a social logic over the logic of capital.

ACRES U.S.A. How is capital different than money?

HOLT-GIMÉNEZ. Capital is essentially wealth seeking more wealth. Capital is almost a verb — it’s a process. Money is simply an expression of wealth. It’s used for exchange. With money, you can buy commodities. Then you sell those commodities and get more money. Otherwise, why would you even bother buying and selling commodities? The fact that more wealth is realized as profit is what capital is.

ACRES U.S.A. Where does wealth come from?

HOLT-GIMÉNEZ. Combining labor and capital with raw materials or natural resources creates wealth. In the study of capitalism, which is called political economy, we ask questions about the distribution of the wealth. Who gets to decide how wealth is distributed? Who does what? Who owns what? Who gets what, and what do they do with it?

ACRES U.S.A. Those are the sorts of questions that we never seem to talk about.

HOLT-GIMÉNEZ. Pretty much we don’t. We gripe about it.

ACRES U.S.A. Why do you call Food First “the people’s think tank?”

HOLT-GIMÉNEZ. Frances Moore Lappé started Food First 42 years ago on the heels of her revolutionary book Diet for a Small Planet. In defiance of all the experts, this young female graduate student had the insight that people are going hungry because they can’t afford to buy food, not because there’s not enough food. And she also said we are eating too high on the food chain, and that’s going to come back to haunt us.

ACRES U.S.A. How severe was global hunger when Moore Lappé wrote that book?

HOLT-GIMÉNEZ. One in seven people were going hungry then. That’s also the proportion of people who are going hungry today, if not more. Moore Lappé founded Food First to look into the why of hunger. Why are so many people poor? Why are most of the people who are going hungry farmers? Why are they mostly women? How is food insecurity constructed? How does it come about? No one has a gene for food insecurity. As Food First began looking into these impolitic questions, they found that people around the world were fighting back and forming social movements against the corporate food regime. These were people being dispossessed of their land, and what they needed to grow food and feed themselves, or being poisoned by toxic, highly processed food and coming down with diet-related diseases.

ACRES U.S.A. Is industrial agriculture necessary to feed the world?

HOLT-GIMÉNEZ. We’re taught by the capitalist media that industrial agriculture — the Monsantos, Syngentas, Cargills and Bayers — feeds the world, but that’s a myth. It does not. Industrial agriculture only feeds about 25 to 30 percent of the world. And only about 15 percent of the food produced globally even crosses borders. When you look behind those claims about industrial agriculture, the first thing that jumps out is that the people who feed the world are actually very poor peasants. About 2 billion of them produce nearly three-quarters of the world’s food on about a quarter of the Earth’s farmland. The problem is that these farmers don’t have enough land or access to water and other resources. They often go hungry themselves. When they harvest their crop, they sell it right away. That’s the worst time to sell because everybody else is selling. They need money so they don’t keep enough food for themselves. Six months later, when the price of food is high, they run out and have to buy food. That’s when they go hungry. And 70 percent of the hungry people of the world are poor farmers, and most of these are women and girls.

ACRES U.S.A. Why are  these women farmers so impoverished?

HOLT-GIMÉNEZ. One can’t escape the conclusion that this is part of patriarchy. Why is it that peasant farmers are paid the worst? Why do they have the smallest pieces of land? And why are they mostly women? Frankly, it’s because you can do this to women. If we were to facilitate peasant women’s access to more food-producing resources and to education and equal rights, very quickly they would be able to feed themselves as well as everybody else.

ACRES U.S.A. So what’s behind the slogan that we have to feed the world, and where is it taking us?

HOLT-GIMÉNEZ. We produce one and a half times more than enough to feed every man, woman and child on the planet. When Cargill, Bayer or Syngenta say they need to expand the use of GMOs or the other latest technologies so they can feed the world, they’re really talking about capturing the market that’s still controlled by the peasantry. To get those markets they have to knock out the peasantry. The World Bank report on agriculture clearly lays out how they intend to move most of the peasantry off the land. Some calculations propose that around 50,000 mega-farms on the best land and all the best resources could probably feed the world (though not very sustainably). But that would displace the 2 billion peasant farmers. Where are they going to go? Those industrial mega-farms won’t be providing many jobs, and there’s no new industrial revolution to sop up all this labor. So this would be condemning almost a third of humanity to abject misery. Think about the social and political ramifications. But if industrial agriculture is allowed to continue expanding, that’s exactly what’s going to happen.

ACRES U.S.A. That’s horrifyingly dystopian. We never seem to consider where all this is headed.

HOLT-GIMÉNEZ. No, I don’t think people follow it out to the logical conclusion. What’s happening is called the agrarian transition. It involves the expansion of capital into the countryside and the demographic transitions which result from that. It has been going on for over 200 years.

ACRES U.S.A. Few Americans are knowledgeable about what you call the first  agrarian  transition, during which English peasants were pushed out of countryside and an early form of industrial agriculture replaced them. What should we know about it?

HOLT-GIMÉNEZ. Agriculture played a very important role in the emergence of capitalism. We tend to think about the steam engine and the satanic mills of Manchester as what brought about capitalism, but it could never have happened without the agrarian transition. The Industrial Revolution displaced people from the countryside and created a large reserve army of labor. These people weren’t paid enough, and there weren’t enough jobs. Even people who were working in these low-paid jobs in Britain had to steal in order to survive so Britain filled its jails. Then they got rid of their convicts through indentured servitude. In 1776, when the United States was formed, the new republic decided to stop accepting prisoners. By 1788 Britain had to send them on to Australia. Why did they have so many prisoners? They were poor people who had been criminalized. They were poor for several reasons. First, the peas- ant relations of production had been destroyed to move surplus labor from the countryside to the city to work in manufacturing. And second, they wanted people to stop growing food and produce sheep for wool. But the peasantry was incapable and unwilling to produce the wool, which the manufacturers wanted for their factories. So they moved the peasants off their land and put sheep on it. That process was called the enclosures because the commons, which the peasantry had used from time immemorial under agreements with the lords of the manors, were enclosed to raise sheep on this land. But the commons were essential to the survival of rural communities. The peasants grazed their livestock there and hunted there and got firewood, medicinal  plants,  building  materials  and  other  kinds  of things there.

ACRES U.S.A. What about the fields where the peasants grew crops? Were they pushed off that land, too?

HOLT-GIMÉNEZ. Previously the peasants could pay the lord of the manor for the use of arable land with bags of grain without any money changing hands. That was called ground rent. But now taxes were levied, and peasants had to go to work because they didn’t have money. That was the whole point. They were coerced off the land and into factories. The peasants who remain have to produce food cheaply, so the wages can be low in the factories for the takeoff of the Industrial Revolution. When peasants can’t make it under these new conditions, the land gets consolidated into larger and larger parcels by whoever can buy them out. This is incredibly devastating for the people in the countryside.

ACRES U.S.A. Hasn’t the same kind of process happened in the rural United Sates and elsewhere to dispossess small farmers?

HOLT-GIMÉNEZ. It should sound familiar because in the expansion of capitalism this dynamic between farming and industry has remained the same. After capital empties the countryside of most of its peasantry, then over a period of time, capital invests in and industrializes the countryside. But the peasantry, despite all of the travails and suffering visited upon them, refuses to disappear. This has been repeated around the world, with variants of genocide and enslavement. Yet today there are as many peasants as 100 years ago, though with the larger total population the percentage of peasants is smaller. Along with this process of de-peasantization, there’s also a counter-process of re-peasantization. People go back to the countryside because they have nowhere else to go. They’re not going back as gentry or to seek their fortune. They go back because industry is unable to absorb all of this labor. This is getting much worse because there aren’t enough jobs.

ACRES U.S.A. When peasants migrate to the shantytowns of the huge, crowded cities, I’m imagining that they are unable to grow food for their own subsistence.

HOLT-GIMÉNEZ. Actually when the poor are forced to the cities, you get an explosion of urban and peri-urban farming. Even today, 15 percent of the world’s food is grown with urban agriculture.

ACRES U.S.A. I wasn’t aware of that. Going back to the United States, what were the salient events and policy decisions that led millions of families to quit farming and leave rural areas, particularly after World War II?

HOLT-GIMÉNEZ. In World War II, the theaters of the war were Europe and the Pacific. Countries in those regions were destroyed and had to rebuild. The United States came through unscathed. When the soldiers came home, we converted the tremendous productive capacity of the war machine for peacetime. Factories built tractors instead of tanks. Instead of using nitrates to make bombs, they turned them into fertilizer. They took the poisons that were used for defoliants and poison gas, and made pesticides. Men were going to work in factories; women were going back to the home. Who was going to run the farm? Farms had to get bigger and more mechanized. During the war Mexicans were imported to the U.S. under the Bracero Program to work the fields; without them, we couldn’t have fought the war. That program continued because we needed more and more labor. This is when we got the supermarket industry and freeways and more cars, and we increased production far beyond what we needed. All of this fed into cyclical crises of overproduction. The United States loaned money to other governments, so they would buy the new things that we were producing. First, we sold our surplus food to Europe, through the Marshall Plan. The we loaned them money to buy our farm machinery and chemical inputs, But before long Europe rebuilt the countryside and started to feed themselves, and they didn’t need our food or farm inputs anymore. After a while, Europe was producing more food than they needed, too, and they needed export markets, just like United States had. That’s where the concept of development comes in. After World War II, the United States produced much more than we could possibly consume, so we had to export it. Exporting all this food was a tremendous boon for the United States so we decided to open up markets in the Third World. First, we get in the door with food aid. By giving away surplus food, you destroy local food economies because local farmers can’t compete with free food. Once you’ve done that, you can replace their markets and production system with your own. We produce more tractors and fertilizer and other inputs than our farmers can use so we have to export that, too. The way you get people to buy your products is to extend loans to them. And this is development.

ACRES U.S.A. Are you arguing that this was the motivation for the Green Revolution in Asia and other regions of the world?

HOLT-GIMÉNEZ. Beyond question. Rockefeller and Ford were the financial architects of the Green Revolution. Rockefeller needs to sell more petroleum products. People aren’t buying enough fertilizers and diesel. And Ford has more tractors than he can sell. They’ve got a crisis of accumulation so they have to open up new markets. They sent Carl Sauer, a very esteemed UC Berkeley anthropologist, down to Mexico to tell them how they can save Mexico from hunger and improve its production systems. But when he comes back, he says, “I would suggest that you leave them alone. You can cause more harm than good. They have a rich millennial culture of maize and beans, with thousands of varieties. The ejido systems were doing quite well at producing food. Mexico has some infrastructural problems, but basically is self-sufficient.” Of course, they fired him and hired Norman Borlaug, the crop scientist from Iowa. He went down there and said, “Oh heck, we can fix this.” And they launched their crop-breeding program for high-yielding varieties and dwarf wheat. The Green Revolution has a long history with many strange biological and ecological missteps. But what’s often forgotten in the relentless discourse of saving the world from hunger is that agribusiness was having a crisis of accumulation and had to open up new markets. To do that, they had to destroy the existing farming and market systems. That’s what the Green Revolution was really about. It stumbled a couple times and had to be rescued by the World Bank, but it’s been incredibly successful at opening up markets and it’s spread like a cancer over the entire world.

ACRES U.S.A. I was intrigued by the questions you raised about why the Gates Foundation and U.S. AID are focusing on Africa when there are so many more hungry people in Asia.

HOLT-GIMÉNEZ. They already had the Green Revolution in Asia. The markets are saturated there, and people are still going hungry. And now, they’re being poisoned. So who are you going to save from hunger? Well, let’s save people from hunger where we can open up new markets, not where markets are already established. They use all kinds of excuses and rationalizations, like now it’s Africa’s turn because it never got a chance for the Green Revolution. But that’s not true. Every year for 20 years, the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) dedicated a third of its budget to trying to start the Green Revolution in Africa. It failed because Africa’s conditions are not amenable to Green Revolution techniques. Now they’re doing it again. It’s a revolution that just won’t go away.

ACRES U.S.A. Is it fair to make such a stark division between industrial and peasant agriculture?

HOLT-GIMÉNEZ. When I divide agriculture into two camps, it’s not exactly accurate. Industrial agriculture is monocultural and highly monolithic with just a few monopoly corporations controlling it. That’s not only a social problem, but also presents environmental problems of many dimensions. On the other hand, after 200 years of capitalist expansion, many different kinds of the small family farming and peasant agricultural systems still survive. For the most part, these farmers are not living well, but they’re still there. And unlike industrial agriculture, there’s a lot of diversity and variation.

ACRES U.S.A. The Environmental Working Group condemns federal farm subsidies for enriching industrial-scale farms (and wealthy absentee landowners) and driving overproduction. How does your view differ from EWG’s analysis?

HOLT-GIMÉNEZ. The Environmental Working Group has been very energetically articulating the dominant environmentalist discourse on farm subsidies. This is disturbing because I think they know it’s not true, but they’re so committed to that narrative that it’s impossible for them to change. You produce too much corn, the prices go down, and farmers go broke. You have to then prop them up with subsidies, but it’s never enough. The reason we have subsidies is because of overproduction. We don’t have overproduction because of subsidies. And subsidies don’t just go to big farms; they also go to small farms and other family farms. And if you take those subsidies away, those farmers will go broke and then agricultural land will concentrate even more in larger farms in fewer and fewer hands. We overproduce because we got rid of supply management and price floor. When prices are low, farmers produce more because they still have to cover their high fixed costs, and their margins are slim. They also have to lay out a lot of money at the beginning of the year for up-front costs. They’re betting that the crop and the price will be good. Very often, the price is not. And if it isn’t, they’ve got to pay those production debts the next year. So they produce more because they need to cover those costs. As more food is produced, the price goes down and farmers produce more, trying to arm their way out of debt. It’s a vicious cycle. And even when prices are good farmers will produce all they can because one year in five, they can actually make some money. You’ve got to cover the costs from those other years. But if agriculture didn’t overproduce, the grain companies, processors and livestock industries wouldn’t be able to buy their grain cheap. They get most of the food dollar that way, which is why they’re so powerful. Overproduction cheapens grain, even as it drives out farmers and consolidates farms into larger and larger hands and creates incredible environmental problems, such as the algal blooms and big die-offs in the growing dead zones due to over-application of nitrogen. Our taxes pay for subsidies so that they can buy their grain cheap. If we were to impose a parity price that gave family farmers a fair price for their product and allowed them to make a dignified living, they wouldn’t have to exploit their land this way.

ACRES U.S.A. Why don’t agribusiness and food corporations do the actual farming?

HOLT-GIMÉNEZ. They do everything but. On the upstream side they supply inputs and seed and tractors and fertilizer and irrigation. And on the downstream side they take the product and process and market it to us, the consumer. That’s where most of the money is made. Only something like 15 or 17 percent of the food dollar goes to the farmer. One of the reasons these corporations don’t farm is that farming presents certain obstacles to the way capital works. The farmer has to invest all this capital just to put a seed in the ground. During the six months that the crop sits there growing, that capital is tied up for the farmer. But capital is only capital — is only making money — when labor is being added to it. The farmer has to wait until harvest for the crop to be turned into a commodity that can be marketed. That also creates difficulties for market response because when the price is down, you want to be producing less. When the price goes up, you want to be producing more, as a good capitalist.

ACRES U.S.A. Just-in-time production doesn’t work in agriculture.

HOLT-GIMÉNEZ. No. You can’t even slow down the assembly line in agriculture. It’s not like producing shoes so you’re stuck.

ACRES U.S.A. Are there other characteristics of agriculture that make the actual farming unattractive for capital?

HOLT-GIMÉNEZ. Capital also doesn’t like slow growing cycles, the vagaries of the weather or biological risks. They want the farmer to take those risks. You see this really clearly in the way production of hogs and chickens is organized. In the contract poultry industry the farmers own the land (or the bank does). The industry loans them the money for the building and then rents them the birds and sells them the feed, the hormones, antibiotics and everything else. It takes absolutely none of the risk of the chickens dying; they are left to the farmer. There are different ways of then charging the farmer for the risks. You can sell them insurance. You can sell them mega data information systems. You can sell them farm futures and create derivatives from that to speculate with the price of food. All the speculation being done with commodities is one of the things that led to the last financial crash and last food price crisis.

ACRES U.S.A. What other opportunities have financial services found in the agricultural sector?

HOLT-GIMÉNEZ. Financialization has invaded agriculture both in terms of the product and the futures markets and through the financialization of land. Most farmers don’t own their land outright; they have a mortgage on it. And at least in the Midwest, most farmers lease most of their land. With the land that they have a loan on, banks can sell their loans, repackage them with other loans and sell them again. These packages can get cut up and repackaged again in different ways and sold again. The process is infinite. So little particles of wealth from land mortgages are continually being traded at the speed of light on a global level. This can pump up or deflate the value of that land. Very often, the market price of land is worth much more than what you can produce on it, agriculturally. (Sometimes it’s the other way around.) That introduces tremendous uncertainty into farming systems. With financial speculation of land, the horizon that farmers are looking at is seconds, rather than several generations. That’s not a good way to think about stewardship of the land. Banks are also encouraging farmers to sell their mortgages in order to be able to buy the new technologies coming down the pike for the next agrarian transition, things like big data, CRISPR technologies and satellite information systems. You’ll need a lot more money to buy these things. Where’s the money going to come from? From your land.

ACRES U.S.A. The technology treadmill is one of the salient pressures in the lives of many farmers. Isn’t some of this technology desirable and beneficial for farmers?

HOLT-GIMÉNEZ. Of course, farmers would like to have more environmental information. The problem is that the type of information that’s being collected, packaged, sold and transmitted from satellites down to tractors is what suits the industry and larger and larger farms. On a 100-acre farm you can walk around and stick your hand in the soil pretty much all over the place. You don’t need a satellite telling you, at the resolution of a centimeter, what your NPK is and how much fertilizer to release. It’s a different story on a 100,000-acre farm, where you need to mechanize the environmental knowledge that way. And there are also other ways of dealing with fertility besides buying chemical fertilizers and other ways of building in resilience besides buying disaster insurance. Smaller farmers can use agroecological practices to build in diversity and whole-farm resilience that giant farms cannot and don’t want to use because of the labor cost. Those giant farms’ concept of diversity is that this year we grow soy, and next year we grow corn.

ACRES U.S.A. You stress how the logic of our capitalist agricultural system drives farmers to degrade their soil, use up water resources and pollute the environment. If U.S. agriculture operated under a system of supply management with parity prices would farmers more readily adopt regenerative agricultural practices?

HOLT-GIMÉNEZ. Most farmers want to conserve their land. They don’t want to exploit and mine the soil, but they’re caught in a treadmill where if they don’t exploit the land, they go broke. And they very often end up going broke anyway. If we were to lay out sound agroecological parameters upon which to base a fair supply management system to avoid overproduction, I think you would find farmers converting to agroecology and organic. They could save money and conserve their soil.

Editor’s Note: This is the end of Part 1 of the Eric Holt-Giménez interview. Read Part 2: Farmers Supporting Farmers next.


Gabe Brown on Ecosystem Stewardship

Interview by Tracy Frisch
From the December 2018 issue of Acres U.S.A. magazine

North Dakota farmer and rancher Gabe Brown stands at the forefront of the regenerative agriculture movement. He is perhaps best known for popularizing the concept of cover crop cocktails as a key strategy for jumpstarting soil health and nourishing soil biology, but that’s only one of his many contributions.

To his life work, Brown brings an inquisitive mind and an infectious love of the journey. He revels in trying new things and is not reluctant to fail at some of them, as experiments always yield food for thought and generate ideas for future exploration. As a pioneer, Brown has forged close relationships with fellow seekers and fostered a stimulating community for trailblazers. Generous with his knowledge, he’s a consummate educator who strives to open minds and is known for making a deep and sustained impression on his audiences.

As science begins to catch up with what Brown has been demonstrating on the ground, his sphere of influence has steadily expanded to include more mainstream researchers, policymakers, and even leaders in the conventional food industry.

Brown grows crops, cover crops and trees and manages diverse livestock on 5,000 owned and rented acres outside of Bismarck. By area standards, Brown’s Ranch is not that big. But what is astonishing is how much more this dryland farm is able to produce than comparable operations — both for market and deep within the soil.

North Dakota farmer Gabe Brown stands among his crops
North Dakota farmer Gabe Brown grows crops, cover crops and trees and manages diverse livestock on 5,000 owned and rented acres outside of Bismarck.

For an 11-day trip I took to the Great Plains in June, I made a point to arrange a visit to Brown’s Ranch months in advance. I was able to sit down with Brown for a wide-ranging conversation and get a firsthand look at a small portion of his extensive operation. Seeing a couple of shovels’ full of his beautifully aggregated soil would have been sufficient to make the trip worthwhile.

Brown recently completed his first book, Dirt to Soil: One Family’s Journey into Regenerative Agriculture, and was a speaker at the 2018 Eco-Ag Conference in Louisville, Kentucky.

You’ve made quite a big contribution to the regenerative agriculture. To sum up, what’s the essence of your philosophy?

I firmly believe that how we steward the whole ecosystem — the land and the crops and the animals — plays a bigger role than which crops you grow and the prices you get. We are currently quantifying the outcomes of our regenerative stewardship in collaboration with a company called Landstream. Dr. John Norman, the lead scientist on this project, told me he’s never seen soils as well aggregated as ours, down to 4 feet over most of the farm! Well-aggregated soil is a great way to measure the water cycle and the carbon cycle. Soil aggregates are the home for biology. Think of the soil aggregates as marbles in a jar. Now add water to the jar. Soil needs to have those pore spaces to hold water. Soil organisms live in and on those thin films of water between the marbles (aggregates). They’re subaquatic organisms; they need that water to live. We’re not sequestering carbon. Too many people think that we have to store carbon in the soil. We need to start thinking about it as a cycle. The issue is that there’s too much carbon in the atmosphere and not enough in the soil. The biology in the soil needs the carbon, but it’s part of a cycle. We can heal the carbon cycle and the water cycle with diversity, cover crops and grazing animals.

Say more about the project with Landstream documenting the progress you’ve made with soil health.

We’re working with Landstream founders Abe Collins and Dr. John Norman, who invented a lot of the satellite equipment that NASA uses. In my opinion, both of these men are geniuses. They were out here in May, and we pulled around 180 soil samples. They’re starting to quantify what the soils look like and how much carbon is being pumped into the soil. It’s pretty dramatic.

cover crops
Gabe Brown is perhaps best known for popularizing the concept of cover crop cocktails as a key strategy for jumpstarting soil health and nourishing soil biology.

I have neighbors that have an A horizon, which is topsoil, that’s approximately 4 to 6 inches deep. They have samples of my soils that are 28 to 29 inches deep. We’ve been able to grow topsoil. The next step is to determine if can we equate soil health and more carbon in the soil to nutrient-dense food. We need to quantify this so we can prove that healthy soil can produce food of higher nutrient density. We’re really in the infancy, but this research will pay dividends down the road.

The speed that water soaks into soil is a telling indicator of soil health. How quickly does water infiltrate on your ranch?

In 1993 water infiltration on our land was a half an inch in an hour. Two years ago, we had a team of scientists record that the first inch took 9 seconds to infiltrate, and the second inch took 16 seconds. I used to have standing water with a half-inch rain.

You’ve been having some weather extremes in North Dakota. Has that affected you, and how has it affected other ranchers?

It rained a mere 5.6 inches on our ranch in 2017. Three of those inches fell in August. Then we had an extremely cold winter, without much snow, which usually accounts for a large part of our moisture. Last year most producers were selling off cattle and feeding a lot of hay, but we were able to run as many livestock and graze as long as we did in previous years. It was the second year in a row where less than 50 percent of the normal precipitation fell, yet it didn’t negatively affect us to any great extent.

You’re called upon to teach and advise many farmers. What are some of your messages to them about soil health?

I talk about focusing on the five principles of healthy soil ecosystem: First, do the least amount of chemical or mechanical disturbance possible; second, maintain the soil armor – the residue on the soil; third, enhance diversity of plants and animals, including insects; fourth, grow living roots in ground as long as possible throughout the year; and fifth, integrate animals into the system. Because I travel so much and get on hundreds of farms and ranches all over North America, I’ve seen what a grip industrial agriculture has on people. Right now most producers are in the conventional mind-set where all they’re doing is treating symptoms. We’re not solving a problem. Producers believe they can buy something in a jug that will take care of anything. It’s like one of these hamster wheels; they just run in circles.

How do they get off of this treadmill?

The key is you have to start. Moving along the regenerative path is like climbing a staircase. You start going, and you try one thing and then another and another. That’s the way it is for my family and I — the more we learn, the more we try. Every year we try to fail at something because if you’re not failing, you’re not learning. That makes farming more enjoyable. When my partners and I put on our Soil Health Academy schools, we try to teach people the power of observation. Yesterday I took a couple of interns out to show them what to look for on the cattle. Are they full? Are they content? How far are they eating down on the plant? You can’t be taught those things any way but through observation. I had a group from Tennessee here on Wednesday. I told them I farmed here for 9 years alongside my father-in-law, and he never once put a spade in the ground and looked at the soil. During the growing season there’s not a day that goes by that Gabe doesn’t look at his soil. What’s it trying to tell me? What does it need? You can learn these things through observation. We’ve totally lost that in production agriculture today. Is there a pest problem? If there’s a pest problem, where are the predator insects? Are we not providing a home for them?

What sorts of things do farmers want advice about?

I receive 100 to 400 phone calls and emails daily. Most of them say “I want to plant a cover crop. What should I plant?” I use Dwayne Beck’s adage. I say I didn’t pick your spouse; I’m not going to pick your cover crops. I talk about resource concerns. I ask them what they need on their land and what the ecosystem is trying to tell them. Then you design your cover crop mixes accordingly.

You often get asked about what makes your ranch so unique. How do you answer?

A group working with the Smithsonian Museum will be out here sometime in September. They want to do a display on regeneration. I think it’s great. We were talking about what makes this place different from others, and I said I just grow things and stand out of the way of nature. I let nature dictate a lot. That’s really not happening today. They asked me “What’s the number one thing impeding producers from grasping regenerative agriculture?” I said hands down, it’s the farm bill. The current farm bill is totally antagonistic to regenerative agriculture. It promotes monocultures and a commodity mindset with accompanying low prices.

Besides the farm bill, what else prevents farmers from paying more attention to their soil?

We have to realize that for those producing and marketing their crops and livestock as a commodity, there is not much profit to be had. Because of this, they look at practices such as cover crops, as an expense with little return. They need to be looking at cover crops as a way to cycle carbon and nutrients for future crops. That would allow them to significantly reduce their inputs while making their operations more resilient to wide swings in moisture and temperature. One of the things that helps us is we set our own prices. We’re not price-takers. We know what it costs to produce a pound of beef or a pound of honey so we just make sure to set the price above that.

You’ve been doing work to educate and advise big food companies about regenerative agriculture. How did that come about?

General Mills, Annie’s Organic, Dr. Bronner’s and Cascadian Farm have all been to our ranch. They realize that there’s a movement in this country for people to learn more about the food they’re consuming. If they can help their producers produce food that is more nutrient-dense, they can market that fact. That’s a good thing. Last winter I worked on that with Shauna Sadowski with Annie’s, which is a subsidiary of General Mills. I reviewed their plan to help move producers into regenerative agriculture. They are encouraging less tillage, more cover crops, more pollinator strips and many other stewardship practices that will lead to healthier soils and healthier ecosystems. I applaud them for their efforts. Jerry Lynch, who is head of sustainability for General Mills, came out here because he wanted to learn about regenerative agriculture. I showed him my soils and the soils of my neighbor who are long-time no-tillers. I tell people no-till is not the answer. It’s just a piece of the puzzle, like livestock, equipment, cover crops are all just tools to be used to enhance ecosystem function.

Say more about growing nutrient-dense foods and about some of the things that hamper their production.

I explained to the people from Tennessee that one of the reasons I plant so much rye is its tremendous root mass. Rye [grain] as a crop has also been influenced less by the plant geneticists. They’re breeding for the market — for weight, not for nutrient density. I’ve been propagating the rye and the vetch you see here for 20 years so I practically have my own varieties. I know it’s acclimated to my environment and that it will grow a tremendous root mass. Many of the varieties we’re seeding we’ve propagated over the years. In our gardens we try to use old heirloom varieties. I really believe that those older varieties have a better root system and a better ability to seek out those nutrients. Almost all of the fruit trees you saw planted in the tree tubes are heirloom varieties. We sourced a lot of them from St. Lawrence Nurseries in New York. I think producers need to realize that the current production model is based on yield and not on what varieties can grow best in one’s soil. Wendy Taheri worked as a mycorrhizal fungi specialist at the Agricultural Research Service in Brookings, South Dakota. She has now started her own lab in Georgia. Her business is called Terra Nimbus. At ARS, she found that many of the new varieties of grain no longer have the ability to form associations with mycorrhizal fungi. Think about the compounding, cascading effects of that. If mycorrhizal fungi don’t propagate, you’re not going to have enough glomalin and you’re going to lose soil aggregates. With fewer soil aggregates, you’re going to decrease infiltration and the water-holding capacity of your soils. You’re not going to have the pore space, which is the home for biology. And you’re not going to transfer as many nutrients throughout the soil, which will lower the nutrient density of the plants that you are producing. I’m sure that plant breeders never intended for that to happen. But they start out in a sterile environment in a lab and then they propagate their plants in a high synthetic input situation on their experiment farms. In that environment plants don’t have the need to form associations with mycorrhizal fungi. It’s just mind-blowing, and it has ramifications all the way down to human health.

 Let’s turn from soil health considerations to production on Brown’s Ranch. You’ve been able to dramatically boost your stocking rate. How many animals do you produce on the ranch these days?

When they had this place, my in-laws ran 65 cow-calf pairs and about 20 yearlings. Today we’re running 300 cow-calf pairs, 400 to 800 yearlings and grass finishers, depending on the year. I’m running at about 2 and a quarter times as many beef animals as the average producer in this area but that’s only beef. We also have 150 ewes plus all their lambs. We run about 20 sows and finish around 300 pastured hogs. We have 1,400 laying hens, several hundred broilers and a bee enterprise, plus we do all the grains, cover crops and other forages. We’re on the same land base more or less as my in-laws had. By focusing on regenerating our resources, we have been able to significantly increase both production and profitability.

Trees are an important element on your farm that might not get enough attention.

My wife and I have planted over 20,000 trees since we bought the farm in 1991. We planted mostly pines and ash trees. I wish now that I had had the foresight to plant fruit and nut trees. They would be providing wind protection while providing us with a saleable product. On the northern plains you can go for miles without seeing trees. When we had 100 inches of snow by Christmas in 2016, big drifts formed by the trees.

Over the course of the year how do you manage your cattle?

We move the cattle every day during the growing season. Typically, they graze a paddock only once a year. Our rest period is 12 to 15 months because it takes that long for plants to recover in our limited moisture environment. In winter our cattle graze stockpiled forage or cover crops. We do bale grazing when the snow is too deep for them to graze. When bale grazing, we move the cattle to a new allotment of bales approximately once a week. They get most of their water from snow, although we do allow them access to heated waterers if they want to walk back to a farmstead.

cows in pasture
Today Brown’s Ranch has 300 cow-calf pairs, 400 to 800 yearlings and grass finishers, depending on the year. “I’m running at about two and a quarter times as many beef animals as the average producer in this area,” says Gabe Brown.

I’ve read that manure breaks down very quickly in your pastures.

2009 was the last year we used any insecticides on our cattle. It took two years for the first dung beetles to show up. My son has now documented 17 species of dung beetles on our land, not to mention many other beneficial insects.

Are the pigs compatible with grazing ruminants and growing crops? Don’t they tear up the land?

Well, they do. Pigs will be pigs. Right now we have them in the trees, so they’re cleaning up that shelterbelt. We do run them on our perennial pastures. If they rut that up, it doesn’t bother me because it will heal very quickly. I tried grazing them on a cover crop but even though we were moving them twice a week, they still rutted it up more than I liked. It makes it rough when we come in to seed the next crop.

Is there anything unusual about the way you manage the hens?

Our laying hens are truly free-range. They can walk to Bismarck if they want to. They are acclimated to our “eggmobiles” so they stay close to them. They get a large part of their diet from foraging for insects and greens. This adds to the nutrient density of their eggs. During the coldest part of winter they make their home in a large hoop house. Being a hen on Brown’s ranch is a good life!

Having so many parcels of land, you must have a lot of infrastructure to get water to all the livestock out on pasture.

We have more than 100 permanent pastures with shallow water pipelines going to all of them. These pipelines deliver water to rubber tire tanks, which are set underneath a fence in order to water two paddocks. Because these pipelines are buried only 6 to 12 inches deep, they are only used during the growing season. We rely on snow to supply water for the cattle during the winter.

What kind of synergy have you created between your cash crops and non-ruminant livestock?

Some of the crops that we grow go to feed the hogs. These include; corn, peas, oats, barley, flax and lentils. I sell a lot of my crops for seed, like rye-vetch. We sell the seed as a blend. To sell seed, you clean out the weed seed and broken kernels. Those screenings go to feed the laying hens, along with a little bit of whole grain. We’ve started growing what I call polyculture cash crops. We grow and combine five species together — peas, lentils, flax, barley and oats. We sell some as seed and we have people who buy feed from us because they want non-GMO grain. We grind it up, and it makes a good ration we can use for hogs or poultry.

Is the stacked model something you recommend other farmers employ?

We enjoy the stacked model and all that entails, but too many people think that in order for them to be successful they have to do all these things. I tell them no, you shouldn’t do that at all. Every operation, and every family, is unique. Your wants and goals and desires and what you enjoy are unique. Everyone has to find what they want to do and go from there.

 As a very committed gardener myself, I’ve been wondering how you raise your vegetables and why you grow them, given all the other things you’re doing.

I had a bet with a few friends about who could do the craziest thing so I mixed 70 species together and planted them one year. We called it the chaos garden. It was fun once but was not practical to harvest so we are not doing that anymore. Instead, we have a 150 x 150-foot vegetable garden. We grow the garden to produce our own food; it simply tastes better and is more nutrient-dense than what we can purchase elsewhere. We feed four families and our interns. Last year we sold the excess and grossed $20,000. We sell the vegetables at the market when we’re marketing our meat products and honey. Hopefully we’ll soon do that with our fruit also. It takes a little time to grow fruit trees in North Dakota! We’re just getting our garden started now [in mid-June] because spring was so late this year. In our environment by the time the vegetables are done, there’s no time to plant a cover crop because we’re froze up already. We could put cover crops in during the growing season but it would take away some of the space in the garden. So in place of that, once the vegetables are harvested in the fall, we roll out second cutting alfalfa hay. Over the winter it breaks down and the worms cycle it through. In the spring we part the remaining hay and plant into it. As the hay is cycled by earthworms we put a layer of wood chips on to cover the soil and prevent weeds from germinating. By doing this, we are balancing the carbon-to-nitrogen ratio. We make our own wood chips from dead trees on our farm.

What goes into the compost you make for the vegetable garden?

We get manure from a neighbor who does not have enough acres to spread all his livestock manure on. The first year we add cardboard boxes, newspaper, magazines and food scraps from our farm. We turn the pile several times that year. The second year we do a static pile, meaning we do not turn it. That’s when we bring a few buckets of soil from our native prairie. We place this soil in the pile. This “inoculates” the pile with fungi and other microbiology. It proliferates and spreads throughout the compost pile.

Has anything in particular stopped you from becoming certified organic?

I get criticized because I’m not certified organic. If someone wants to be certified organic — if it adds value to their operation — by all means do it. But to our knowledge, we have never lost a sale because we were not certified organic. We have an open door policy here so people can come at any time and look at anything. That builds trust with the consumer. All of our animals, with the exception of the chickens, are born on the ranch, and we grow all the feed here. Having a closed loop system also gives more confidence to consumers. If they trust you, they’re going to buy, obviously with certain price constraints.

earthworms in soil clumps held in hands
The last time I tilled was 1993. I’ll never say never, but I don’t see myself tilling again. It is just too destructive.

What do you do in place of tillage for weed control?

If I have a certain weed pressure problem, I’m either going to use livestock, which is the number one thing that we do, to consume that ‘weed,’ or use a herbicide. I’m not going to take that herbicide out of my toolbox. The last time I tilled was 1993. I’ll never say never, but I don’t see myself tilling again. It is just too destructive. I was the first no-tiller in the county. No-till was adopted quickly. Seventy percent of cropland in the county is now no-till. People can condemn me for occasionally using an herbicide, but I can condemn them for tilling. Which is the lesser of two evils? That is for each person to decide.

I don’t see how condemnation helps anything.

Exactly. We try, if we use an herbicide, to choose those that have the shortest half-life and that can readily be consumed by biology. We don’t use glyphosate because it’s patented as an antibiotic and a chelator. Being an antibiotic it is very detrimental to soil biology. Also, from what I’ve learned, I believe that it’s negatively affecting human health. I don’t use atrazine as it, too, has many long-lasting negative ramifications. On our pastureland we have never used any herbicide. I have many crop fields that have not seen an herbicide for five years, so they could be certified organic if I wanted to, but why?

What do you find consumers care the most about?

When we go to farmers’ markets, you get one-on-one interactions. The first question people ask when they come up to our concession trailer is always where are you from. That’s because they want to know where their food comes from. The question we get the second most often is do you grow or feed any GMOs. Maybe 75 or 80 percent of the people ask us this question. When I speak to ‘industrial’ mind-set producers, I tell them you can argue all you want about whether GMOs are good or bad, but if my customers are telling me that don’t want it, why would I ever plant it? We haven’t grown GMOs in many years. It’s too easy for producers to turn a blind eye. They say, ‘our product’s sold at the elevator. What happens is not up to me.’ We’re being way too naïve if we think that what we do on our operations does not affect human health. True, not everything being produced is fed to humans, but if it’s fed to livestock, then humans consume it. So we have to stop thinking that our practices are not affecting human health. And that for me is one of the reasons that we don’t use the pesticides and fungicides and all the herbicides that most producers use.

How did you make a living on the farm before you started direct marketing to consumers?

We had a very successful registered cattle herd. We were selling bulls to other producers, and we fed them grain to make them look good to sell. At the same time we were raising a few grass-finished beef every year for our own consumption because I believed in the human health aspects of it. In 2010, the year Paul graduated from college and came back to the farm, I said we’re done. We’re not doing this anymore. We were selling bulls for good money, but after weaning we were feeding grain to those livestock and I knew it wasn’t the right thing to do. And I was calving in February and March, which was ridiculous in North Dakota! Most producers do that. You put them in barns and live with them day and night. When Paul was coming back to the farm, I said I’m not going to have you kill yourself like I did for all these years. We switched to calving in May and June. We dropped all vaccines. We did that all at once and decided we were going to go down the grass-finished path. Paul got interested in direct marketing and started selling eggs. That’s something he really wanted to do, and he runs that end of the business. We have our own trademark, Nourished by Nature. Shelly, my wife, and I are silent partners but the business is Paul’s. How else are these young people going to learn about business? He’s grown the business from a $10,000 investment to one that’s worth quite a bit of money without borrowing a penny. But to sell our grass-fed beef, a group of us had to build a slaughter facility. It is state-inspected for retail sale.

Starting a slaughterhouse sounds like a big deal, not a little detour!

Here was the problem. In North Dakota there were only three slaughter facilities approved for retail sale. Well, the waiting time to get an animal harvested was 13 months. You can’t run a business that way. (There are more slaughterhouses than that in the state, but you can’t sell the product processed in them.) It took almost four years to get enough money and build that plant. It’s a co-op and it’s for-profit. Paul has served on the board since its inception. It cost $2.2 million for the structure, and the operating budget was about three-quarters of a million. It’s starting to turn a small profit, but it’s a challenge.

Are there many farms behind the co-op?

There are over 70 investors. A lot of them have just a few animals, and there are investors that don’t even own animals. Some are retired people who put in a few thousand dollars. Bowdon, North Dakota, the small community where it’s located, donated land. They wanted to see it happen. Once we got that built, we could retail our own meat products. Now every two or three weeks, Paul will take two to 15 animals to the plant and bring back the product that was harvested the time before. We also now ship semi-loads for processing in Missouri, and we bring back the frozen product. We only deal in frozen product; there’s too many regulations on fresh product. The timing of slaughter is important because we want to keep the omega-3s high.

You’ve been quite influential in spreading ideas about soil health. Yesterday when I visited Menoken Farm, a soil conservation demonstration farm owned by the Burleigh County Soil Conservation District, I heard that you were instrumental in making that farm a reality. How did you get involved?

You know my story with my three years of hail and one year of drought. In 1998 in the last year of that disaster Jay Fuhrer approached me to ask if I’d consider running to be on the board of supervisors of the Burleigh County Soil Conservation District. In North Dakota, there are five people on these boards; three are elected, and they appoint the other two. Jay already had two people on the board who were fairly open-minded. He knew if he could get me on there, we would be able to appoint a couple others who could steer it in the direction of focusing on soil health. I was very fortunate that I had met Jay right when I started down the soil health path. At that time, nobody was talking soil health. I was doing rotational grazing, and I was starting to plant these cover crops. Jay took an interest in that, and we bounced ideas off each other. After I got on the board, we aggressively started promoting soil health.

Going back to those terrible four years when your crops were repeatedly destroyed by hail followed by a bad drought, how did you get by?

I worked a full-time job in town and farmed at night. That’s when I stopped sleeping much. I was a livestock nutritionist for a feed company. My degrees are in animal science and economics.

 What has enabled you to try so many things and integrate new practices into a workable system?

In my book, I write about many of the people who influenced me. I tell people, Gabe’s not very smart — I’m just good at stealing ideas from other people and applying what I can to this operation. That’s all I’m trying to do. You have to take bits and pieces from many places. You meet the right people at the right time and you learn from them. Jay and I are kindred spirits; we both have insatiable appetites to learn. In 2006 Jay and I were at the No-till on the Plains conference in Salina, Kansas. Dr. Adamir Calegari from Brazil was talking about multispecies cover crops. Up until then I had only been mixing two or three together. He was saying you need to mix seven or right. The minute I heard that I knew it made sense because that’s exactly how nature functions: native prairie has tremendous diversity. When Jay and I came back from Salina, I immediately started planting multispecies cover crops, and the soil district set up a plot near here. That brought a lot of attention. NRCS started bringing people on trainings to see our cover crop plots and what I was doing. At a tour with NRCS people from all over the United States, I remember this guy standing there with his head cocked. He was looking at me like what in the world are you talking about. Well, it was Ray Archuleta. He will tell you a light bulb was going off in his head. Now he’s “Ray, the soil guy,” and the rest is history. Ray retired after many years with NRCS. Now he and I are business partners with Soil Health Consultants. He’s 57, the same age as me. He used to phone me every week. Now he calls me multiple times a day. He’ll tell me, “Gabe, I saw this here. They were trying this. I think I might try that. It’s a lot of fun.”

You’ve become exceedingly busy. What have you let go of? Are there other benefits of letting go?

I was on the Burleigh County Soil Conservation District board for 14 years. We did a lot of things together. But it got to the point in my life where I was traveling a lot, going to conferences and speaking, and I needed to back off on a few things. I’ve come to believe that people spend too much time on individual boards. We need to let other people have the opportunity to experience that. Let the young guys do that. How are we going to grow the next generation of leaders if we don’t give them the opportunity? It’s the same way with farmers and ranchers. Many will not turn the operation over to the next generation, that’s ridiculous. Our son is 30, and he’s the manager. We’ve turned everything over to him. I tell people I’m retired, and he’s the boss of this place.

You’ve got me wondering how many people work at Brown Ranch.

My son, and my wife and I, and Shalini, an intern who came four years ago from California and hasn’t left (because she and my son hit it off) and Jasmine, our second-year intern. This year we hired a young man who has a wife and three little kids. A few years ago he drove from his home in Nebraska to Colorado to hear me speak. He took a fascination for what we’re doing. When he and his wife came on a tour here, he told me, I’m going to come and work for you. And I said we really don’t have any employees. We just hire interns. No, he said, you don’t understand. He insisted, so we hired Andrew full-time in April. His wife is self-employed. He grew up on a farm in Nebraska and he farmed, but very conventionally. His wife didn’t like how hard he worked on the farm, so he quit and was selling chemicals. He couldn’t do it anymore. Once he heard about what I was doing, he wanted to learn. So, in all there are six of us working on this ranch. We’ve run an internship program for well over 20 years, and we get applicants from all over the world. Most don’t have any farm experience, just an interest. I can teach everything else, but I can’t teach drive and desire. They either have it or they don’t. That’s one of the reasons Jasmine is here. She wasn’t born and raised on a farm. We invited her back because of her enthusiasm and work ethic.

 I’m surprised that only a few people work with you. How do you accomplish so much?

Some people think there’s too much work in what we’re doing, but they don’t realize all of the things that we don’t do. For instance, our cattle get no vaccinations. We don’t apply fungicides or pesticides [insecticides]. We don’t use fertilizer, and we no longer feed any mineral to our animals. They just don’t consume it because our soils are healthy. And the list goes on. By not having to take the time to do all of those things we have the time to stack more enterprises and to direct market what we produce.

You’re blessed with a large land base, but land is often a significant barrier for beginning farmers. How do you counsel new farmers to deal with the land question?

When these young people come here, they think they want to buy a farm. That’s exactly the wrong approach. You intern on a few different places. You find out where your passion is and then take your passion and you run with it. You make your operation portable. You start with something that’s easy to move, chickens or rabbits, vegetables. You find a small place to rent. As your operation grows and you build the customer base, you put the money back in and grow with it. Sooner or later the right opportunity will come along, and you’ll have the money to be able to purchase a land base if that’s what you desire. But it’s not necessary. Many people think they need a lot of land. I have a neighbor who farms 40,000 cropland acres. That’s just crazy! Our operation is 5,000 acres, owned and rented, down from 6,200 acres. We’re shrinking it by letting go of a lot of the rented land. We just don’t need it. We’re not addicted to work! I write about this in my book Dirt to Soil. The industrialized, commoditized model has sent us on a path of larger and larger operations. This has led to a mass exodus from rural America. The regenerative model gives us the opportunity to reverse this trend. We can bring both enjoyment and life back to our farms. We can revitalize our rural communities, all while improving both human health and our resources.

Find more information about Brown’s Ranch.

Editor’s Note: This interview originally appeared in the December 2018 issue of Acres U.S.A. magazine.

Tracy Frisch is a journalist, advocate and subsistence gardener in upstate New York who has been involved with the organic movement for more than 30 years. 

Daniela Ibarra-Howell on Bringing Eco-Farmers Together

Savory Institute Co-Founder, CEO Daniela Ibarra-Howell Shares Insights into How the Organization is Bringing Like-Minded Farmers and Ranchers Together

It is not often that someone who is not a billionaire decides to take decisive steps toward solving a global problem. It is even less common for anyone, even and perhaps especially billionaires, to have ideas about how to do it that not only work but point the way for others of like mind. Daniela Ibarra-Howell is one of these rare people. She is a co-founder and the current CEO of the Savory Institute, the nonprofit wing of the Savory operation based in Boulder, Colorado, (her husband, Jim, heads the for-profit wing). Beginning in 2009 and now boasting over 8 million hectares (19,768,430 acres) under holistic management in every continent except Antarctica, the Savory Institute is becoming a force to be reckoned with. As scientific evidence accumulates, adding to an enormous fund of narrative accounts, holistic management’s value becomes ever more undeniable.

As Ibarra-Howell recounts here, she declined to follow the well-worn paths offered to her as a girl in Argentina. She wanted to make a difference. Between meeting Allan Savory in 1994 and the beginning of the Institute, she and her husband devoted a number of years to consulting and running a notably successful ranch near Boulder. Ibarra-Howell will be keynoting at the Acres U.S.A. Eco-Ag Conference & Trade Show in Louisville, Kentucky, in December.

Interviewed by Chris Walters

Developing Savory Hubs

ACRES U.S.A. How did a city girl from Buenos Aires get into working with soil, cattle and the like?

DANIELA IBARRA-HOWELL. I was born and raised in Buenos Aires, a beautiful city, but I always dreamed of going to the countryside. Three of my grandparents were farmers from Europe — we would visit their estancias in the pampas, and I just loved riding horses and being in the countryside. When the time came to choose a career, I chose agronomy at the University of Buenos Aires. At the time the world of agriculture was a very male-dominated one. By the time I left five or six years later, the percentage of women had increased, but still women were not supposed to be in the countryside. I started working for the Ministry of Agriculture in the areas of desertification and land degradation. I always had a love for Patagonia and worked there not only for the ministry but for the United Nations, and there was a lot of effort being done on land degradation in Patagonia. I realized there were no answers for what was going on and how to change it. The solutions being proposed all the way from Rome, and even from Argentina, in terms of how we do this were ecologically not working, and socially were really not viable. Things like moving people off the land. Economically, the proposals were not viable either. I didn’t want to become just another bureaucrat, I wanted to really do something, so I set out to learn more about it.

ACRES U.S.A. What was the nature of the threat?

IBARRA-HOWELL. You have two issues. At the time I was there, agriculture was mainly focused in the humid pampas, which were always productive. All of Patagonia in the time when the Spanish came into Argentina was grasslands, and they brought the sheep with them. They were quite severely stocked, and over time the land degraded. Most of the native people there were killed by diseases the Europeans brought or were actually killed by the Europeans. The whole of Argentina from a cultural and social point of view is very European. Close to the Andes, the west of Argentina in the foothills, there is more moisture and more fine foods. That is where the Germans and the Welsh and the English went with their cattle operations. But all the rest of Patagonia is harsh country. During the late ’80s and early ’90s they recognized that we had 20 years left of Patagonia as we knew it. It’s not the Patagonia that people dream of, that moist and beautiful type of ranching. This is really rough, windy, cold, hard-to-live-in Patagonia, with low precipitation and very prone to degradation when it’s not managed properly. A lot of places are abandoned, no one wants to go live there, not many people and not much infrastructure. But we have a hub working there now, and it is just fantastic, the things we are seeing just managing animals, mainly sheep, holistically. We are seeing plant species that haven’t been seen in 25 or 30 years coming back. So we know the potential is there. Now, of course you can overstock a place, and ask from a piece of land more than it can give you. But most of the issues come with management of time, timing and frequency of recovery periods. So even if you’re not fully stocked or overstocked, you can also damage the land. Even after sheep had been removed years ago and the carrying capacity lowered and lowered, the core management had never been addressed, which is that whole biological sizing of the plans, feeding the soil and then moving away to allow the plants to grow again. That process was never allowed to happen because of the way animals were run for so long.

As You Read: Listen to the Tractor Time Interview with Daniela Ibarra-Howell from 2018

ACRES U.S.A. Was Patagonia one of the first places the hub idea was successfully deployed?

IBARRA-HOWELL. Yes, one of our first hubs, in 2013, was in Patagonia. It was around 10 years ago that we were first there, perhaps a little longer. My husband, Jim, who manages the for-profit arm of the Savory Institute called Grasslands, visited Pablo Borelli and his group of producers in Patagonia who were very well known for fine Merino wool genetics they’d brought from Australia. They said, “We’ve gone about as far as we can go with genetics. If we are going to improve the quality of our production, we need to look at the health of the land. That is our limitation, that is our logjam. We cannot move further with our ability to produce more and further.” Jim and I had met Allan Savory in 1994. We worked with him in New Mexico, so we knew the potential of holistic management. We introduced holistic management to Pablo Borelli who is now at the helm of the Argentine hub, the other producers, and officials from the government. They liked it, so we started a program to train the ranchers, and we said, “Let’s learn by doing.” I think they started with six or seven estancias, big ranches, and they went through all the aspects of holistic management, from setting the holistic context to decision-making to the financial planning to the land planning — all the aspects of really looking at the land holistically to see what could be done. They engaged Brian Marshall, who is an amazing educator from Australia who is part of our network, and they worked for five or six years. They started to see all the metrics of productivity, amount of perennial species — all the metrics of ecosystem health, how to get trends going in the right direction. They were challenged in the first years by animals adjusting to the new management, and so performance dipped, but they pulled out of it and they haven’t stopped yet. When the opportunity arose to become a hub, they said yes.

ACRES U.S.A. What are the central characteristics of a Savory hub?

IBARRA-HOWELL. A hub is basically a partner of Savory, a locally led, locally owned, locally managed initiative with leaders who want to influence their region. They want to support the farmers and ranchers in their region to do things better with the knowledge that holistic management can offer. It’s really like an accelerator and a support mechanism for those understanding the context and the challenges and the opportunities — as well as the uniqueness — of any one region. Now they have close to 60 estancias working with them. All of them have been measuring and monitoring the biological and ecological metrics, and all of the holistic management folks are improving their land base. Using all that data, a paper is about to come out authored by Pablo and Jason Rowntree at Michigan State. They have worked together at understanding all of the correlations and understanding if the data is truly pointing to holistic management folks doing much better than conventional folks. The paper that Pablo and Jason have been working on will begin to put some relevant science behind the claims we make about holistic management — because we know it works! We’ve been doing it forever, and we know how much potential is released when you plan. This paper will give our experience the backing of science. It’s one more paper in the right direction, with relevant science — real people doing it in real conditions, not just trying to evaluate a variable, say, stocking conditions or animal density or soil density. It’s about holistic management of a specific piece of land in a specific year in a specific social situation.

ACRES U.S.A. By now there are millions of acres or hectares under holistic management in many countries. How do you reconcile the need to maintain consistency with the core principles while accounting for the dizzying variation in regional conditions, local cultures and economies?

IBARRA-HOWELL. One of the beauties of holistic management is that it is not a practice, it’s not telling someone what to do top-down. It’s really acquiring the deep understanding of your own context and then making the decisions that are socially, ecologically and financially sound. The framework of holistic management allows you to do that. Anybody working in a specific context has that deep understanding. Based on that, we plan for specific things, for profit for example. We ask ourselves really basic questions. Are there adverse factors? Are there logjams? Are there weak links? Where is the weak link in my production, all the way from sunshine to dollar? Is it in the resources; is it in the product; is it in the market? We ask these questions to know where to allocate money and put the money into removing those adverse factors, in removing the logjams, in strengthening the weak links so we can be more profitable. We plan for profit rather than seeing what our income is and seeing how we end up the year. We’re planning, we’re saying, “This is the revenue left, let’s get creative about it. What is socially appropriate? What are the enterprises that we want to launch here?” Then you start implementing, and after you implement, you monitor very closely to make sure you are all the time adjusting. You don’t wait to see if things have worked or didn’t work.

ACRES U.S.A. What are the key factors for success for implementation of the plan?

IBARRA-HOWELL. There is a lot of observation and monitoring. If one of your enterprises is livestock, the beauty of holistic planned grazing is that it allows you to look at where are you operating, which eco-region, what are the species on your ranch, plant or animal, that you need to take care of? You really get to understand deeply the place where you are working. Based on that, you follow a process that is of aggressive complexity, but is very orderly. You go step-by-step, asking questions and addressing questions and bringing the answers into a plan. Then that plan is something that is used to guide management, but you are all the time monitoring and adjusting it. Not just something that you put to work and forget about it. When it comes to grazing, the biggest factor that we talk about is recovery of plants, but in the context of a lot of complexity. For example, we work with the Nature Conservancy in Colorado at the Fox Ranch. They were concerned about the prairie chickens, concerned that too many animals or too many bunched together might endanger the prairie chickens, step on the eggs and so on. So the question was, let’s learn all we can about the prairie chickens: Where do they live; where do they hatch their eggs; what is the perfect height for different types on the ranch? We took all that information and included it in the plan. It’s a chart that we use that has all the dimensions of space and time. You can look at it and tell what time of the year they need to be left alone, what time of the year we need to graze to create less cover — all the conditions those birds need. There are so many considerations you need to take into account when you manage animals, and all that goes in the plan. Knowing recovery times for specific plants at different times of the year, given the growth rates of the plants, allows you to then start to plan backward, plan how much time and space with each animal do you have? It’s almost like art — you put all this complexity, including your birthday, when you want to go on vacation, etc. so the animals will be somewhere they don’t require so much oversight. All that information goes into the plan, and then it is an intelligent plan that allows you to create all the outcomes for all the aspects of management, not just for your livestock. No one better than a local farmer understands that context and how to support farmers in their regions as they deal with those specifics of complexity.

ACRES U.S.A. Who makes up a hub?

IBARRA-HOWELL. The hub strategy is a partnership, with leaders and entrepreneurs and people who want to be the movers and shakers in different parts of the world. Some of them are farmers or ranchers, some of them are not farmers or ranchers. Some of them are teachers or people in finance or agronomists or marketing folks. We have micro-investment in Pakistan with a gentleman who was running a micro-investing initiative. He thought that since most of their investments were going to people involved in agriculture, smallholders, these people needed to know how to craft their future and manage accordingly. He approached the Savory Institute and went through the training. When we began the Institute, we decided that to move fast in terms of regenerating land and empowering farmers, the way to do that was to do it simultaneously all over the world. We couldn’t do it from Boulder, obviously, or even from the United States. We needed leaders in those particular regions. They came to us, actually. They came to us and said, “We want to teach Savory holistic management in Turkey — I just came back from Turkey — or in France, Kenya, Patagonia or Australia.”

ACRES U.S.A. How do you identify leaders from far-flung parts of the world?

IBARRA-HOWELL. They come to us. We have criteria to decide the likelihood of an individual succeeding. We select a handful every year, and then we go through around 18 months of on-boarding process. Here is where the quality assurance comes in. Two leaders from every hub come together — usually we have from five to 10 hubs at one time — so we have from 10 to 20 people coming together, and they go through a training process starting with intensive training in holistic management. Some of our sessions happen in Zimbabwe, and some of our sessions happen in Colorado where we have our headquarters or in other hub regions. Most hubs have these requirements: you have to have a demonstration site — that means a ranch or a farm that is contextually relevant to the region. In Patagonia that would be a large estancia. In the northeast United States it will be a smaller farm, like a 500-acre farm. It all depends where you’re operating. You need to have a plan that is representative of the farmers and ranchers in your region, and you need to have management control over that land. Here is where we are going to push the limits and manage holistically and be a place of learning and research and demonstration. The other requirement is that they go through the holistic management training, beginning with what we call boot camp. Boot camp is 10 days of training in which hub leaders come together and go through their business models, their plans, how they are going to reach out to the farmers and ranchers in their regions and describe the market situations that can help create incentives for the type of management they will be teaching. In some cases we are talking about pastoralists, where they don’t have a market, like the Masai or districts in South Africa where they work at subsistence. So how are we going to work with them? Who is going to pay for their training, whether it is government money, grants, other NGOs or philanthropy from donors? In some cases there is a market component and there is a commercial infrastructure, so maybe a brand will pay for the training of a farmer. Each hub identifies the unique situation they will be working with. Then, once they meet all the requirements and are accredited, they become part of the network and they start doing their work — offering workshops, offering training — they become part of the family, so now they are connected not only with Savory but all the other hubs.

ACRES U.S.A. How do you maintain these connections?

IBARRA-HOWELL. We come together in different ways. We connect through a digital platform, which is very cool, almost a social platform like Facebook but which is professional, on which we share resources and ideas — the Savory Institute shares all the tools they will use in their own contexts. We share the curriculum. If there are translations, we share the translations. We share pictures from around the world. Everybody puts their resources into that platform so we can use them for all the people on the network and then customize them for the region in which these hubs are operating. We are in constant communication with them. Then, once a quarter, we have continuing education, so that anything new that we’ve learned, challenges that farmers are facing, we work together to remove those challenges. It’s really like a big think tank, and everybody brings their insights from all over the place. Then once a year we come together in person.

ACRES U.S.A. What are the advantages of decentralization, as opposed to a lot of organizations, even global organizations, where people report up the chain and decisions come down? How did you come to embrace the idea of widely dispersed, distributed knowledge as it’s often known?

IBARRA-HOWELL. We were part of the holistic management movement since 1994, when I moved to the United States and had the honor to meet Allan Savory and work with him. At that time the model was more like what you mentioned, more the hub-and-spoke model in which the organization was a nonprofit that Allan founded for training individuals. So we all became educators, and as educators you would then go and do what you had to do. What happened then is that you had a bunch of people around the world. Some of them came all the way from Australia; the great movement of holistic management in Australia happened because of two people, Brian Marshall and Bruce Ward, who studied with me back in 1994. They were fantastic in creating awareness, and I think Australia is one of the biggest expressions of the power of holistic management, with many thousands of farmers that practice it, as well as many, many educators. But overall we had a lot of people distributed around the world, and they were sort of atomized, like points in space. We didn’t have much traction as a movement because we were not relating to each other, not talking to each other. We trained farmers but then they disappeared, and we didn’t know what happened to these people. There was a lack of local support mechanisms for these farmers who had been exposed to holistic management.

ACRES U.S.A. How did you overcome these challenges?

IBARRA-HOWELL. We needed several things: the local solutionary, the local support mechanism, someone who could be there to hold the hand of a farmer, someone who had also learned something about holistic management. The typical thing that happened was that a farmer would go back home, put in a fence and start rotating animals. It would be a disaster, and they would leave it behind. That was because they were so alone in trying to move it forward. Then we experimented with management class. A few farmers would get together and support each other through the challenges. Then we talked about how wonderful it would be if each area would be like a node in which there would always be a support mechanism — these ongoing relationships that would continue to train, continue to support, especially in those two or three years of transition into doing things differently. We believe the sweet spot is around two to three years of doing it with someone helping you through the tough times, so you don’t go back to old habits and you stay with the planning. We thought it would be great to have many, many nodes of support around the world. The second thing was, it would be great if all these nodes were connected to each other, so we are all unified as we try to change the way agriculture is going and address its impact on soil and degradation of natural resources. Instead of having many points in space, we decided to have a net so the message would get more traction. Then we thought, well, how do we make sure everybody is connected, talking to each other and supported through the whole process so that they are recognized in the marketplace for the good things they are doing? We had been monitoring for a long time the outcomes of our work, so let’s take it to the next level of scientific validity. Let’s show that we have something different in different regions of the world, so we know that it’s not that it works in one place but not in another. But let’s have that conversation happen. We always look at nature, and we saw in nature the way things are always distributed, and the more that model is refined then there is more resiliency. That way, we believed the Savory Institute would never be a bottleneck. We will be a node in the network with a specific function, and the function is the curriculum, and the support and the formation of new hubs. So we thought, let’s give it a try. And if we are going to influence a large amount of land in a short time, we are going to do it with almost a super-franchise approach — many Savory Institutes around the world, all talking to each other, all with the same DNA that is passed on to our producer network. We then see what we learned from implementing in different places, and as all that feeds back into the clearinghouse at headquarters we can send it back to the whole network. We thought that could work, and we set a goal of a billion hectares, which is one-fifth of the grasslands of the world, including savannas and shrublands. Then how do we do it? We’re not going to do it from Boulder, Colorado. So let’s have 100 partners around the world with the same mission, the same vision, the same tools, equipped to influence their region, so each one could influence 1 million hectares. Knowing, of course, that in some cases that would be feasible and in some cases it would not. At 10 hubs a year, we would have 100 by 2025. So that was the idea — a big, audacious goal. With each year and each iteration, we did it better. We are now at 35 hubs, and on-boarding new ones. We are very excited. I just came back from Turkey where we met with hub leaders from Turkey, Pakistan, the U.K., Sweden and Spain.

ACRES U.S.A. That is a disparate group, to put it mildly. What clues did the meeting give you about the future?

IBARRA-HOWELL. It was just fascinating because at the end of the day, as different as they are culturally, economically and ecologically, the challenges we face are so similar, so common, and so we explored what’s next, how do we do it better? What are things that can be put in place? It’s like a big community thinking around the same challenges and bringing solutions that can be deployed around the network — so we are not reinventing the wheel in each node. The learning goes on and lifts us all to the next level.

Daniela Ibarra-Howell will be keynoting at the Acres U.S.A. Eco-Ag Conference & Trade Show in Louisville, Kentucky in December. For more information about the Savory Institute, call 303-327- 9760.