Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Organic Agriculture and Thinking in three parts By Bill Duesing, Organic Advocate

Organic Agriculture and Thinking in three parts 
By Bill Duesing, Organic Advocate
Gleanings, October 2013 

1. Use Nature’s methods/ work with Nature.

2. Pay attention to:
  •      where things come from
  •      where things go, and
  •      what the effects are at both ends and along the way.
3. Think holistically.

For years I’ve used these three points to illustrate what organic agriculture is and by extension what an organic attitude for living on this beautiful planet should be.

They have held up very well over time.

See Part one, Use Nature’s Methods here.

Part two: Paying attention and making connections

Organic thinking makes connections throughout the whole process. Results of that knowledge and thinking point to the importance of working locally within Earth's natural cycles.

Chemical fertilizers, prohibited in organic standards, usually contain synthetic and soluble nitrogen and phosphorus as well as potassium.  These fertilizers provide important examples of the messes we turn up when we think this way about the whole linear flow of materials.  

The long and complicated journey from raw materials to land application and the widespread effects of synthetic fertilizer use on soil, air and water point to this planet's imperative for connecting the end and the beginning in smaller on-going cycles.

Linear thinking often produces unsustainable and polluting results.

We have doubled the global flow of nitrogen with disastrous consequences for the environment.  Excess nitrogen in plants causes lowered resistance to pest insects, weedier growth and more susceptibility to disease.

Phosphorus is near the limit (and well over it in many places) and may soon, ironically, also be in short supply. 

Fertilizing our farms and gardens

How are we going to grow our food?  Will we use energy and resource intensive chemical fertilizer or local organic materials and good growing practices and rotations?
Some time ago, the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station published the results of 12 years of research comparing 10-10-10 synthetic fertilizer plus limestone to a one-inch application of leaf compost in their respective abilities to "fertilize" vegetables.  

Each year, the amendments were rototilled into separate plots, standard garden vegetables were grown and records were kept of yield and of four important soil conditions (pH, organic matter, water holding capacity and bulk density).

The yields from the chemically fertilized and limed plot and from the compost-only plot were just about the same.  Repeat: Conventional fertilizers with limestone and just leaf compost produced the same vegetable yields.  

There was a difference in the soils in the two plots, however. The soil in the compost plot had a higher, better pH, contained more organic matter, held much more water and was less dense.  None of this is very surprising if you know about the benefits of compost.

Where do they come and where do they go?

Let's ask where these things come from.  The chemical fertilizer in this case contains (often soluble) nitrogen, phosphorus and potash, ten percent each, and then 70 percent of "other ingredients."

To make the nitrogen in fertilizer requires natural gas to get nitrogen out of the air and into a form which can be converted into nitrogen fertilizer.  Natural gas is increasingly requiring hydraulic fracturing or fracking for its "production." It seems that fracking may be incompatible with agriculture, which provides us with a big problem.

(There is a coalition in Connecticut working on legislation to ban the import of fracking waste.  This waste contains a mix of toxic substances often with dangerous levels of radiation. See more here: http://www.wastefreect.org/ These linear systems keep spreading their damage.)

The phosphorus likely comes from environmentally destructive mining in Florida and has been treated with acid to make it soluble and fast acting.

A lot of process and transportation energy is consumed in wells, mines, manufacturing and transportation, all releasing greenhouse gases. When the soluble nitrogen hits the soil, it speeds up decomposition of soil organic matter and releases powerful greenhouse gases from the soil as it reduces the soil's important organic matter content.

Since both nitrogen and phosphorus in conventional fertilizers are usually soluble, if more is applied then plants can absorb quickly, the nutrients run off and pollute surface and ground water.  Some wells in the midwest are undrinkable due to high nitrate levels.

When excess phosphorus enters fresh water or excess nitrogen enters salt water, it causes explosive algae growth which pushes the water body toward eutrophication and death. See the Dead Zone at the mouth of the Mississippi and the trouble that excess nitrogen causes in Long Island Sound.


The leaves on the other hand, came from local landscapers, whatever they picked up in the New Haven/Hamden area.  After a year or two of sitting in a pile, with perhaps a turning or two, they were applied. (It wasn't long ago that Ansonia and perhaps other towns paid to pick up leaves and then paid $50 a ton more to burn them in the middle of town.)

Now compare the footprint and effects of those two methods of fertilization which produce the same yield.  The very long and complicated synthetic path involves fracking, chemical factories, phosphate mines, damaged soil, polluted water and changed climate.

The organic/compost path involves a few to tens of miles, stores carbon and makes use of a "waste" product.  (The soil organisms under the lawns and gardens where those leaves were
removed probably miss the annual bounty of food
from the nearby trees.)

Increasing Yield

The researchers also planted three other plots. They all included the inch of compost, but The next third added only seven percent more and the last third only added one percent to yield.

included one third, two thirds and the full amount of the 10-10-10 and limestone, respectively. The first third of the fertilizer did add about 17 percent to yield. The next third added only seven percent more and the last third only added one percent to yield.

It would be easy to increase the yield organically by using other materials such as manure, green matter or food wastes in the compost, using an bagged organic fertilizer based on compost, alfalfa meal, a seaweed fish fertilizer, by growing nitrogen fixing crops such as peas and beans in rotation or planting leguminous cover crops. See more here (I bet even just not rototilling would have a beneficial effect on soil and yield. Let the soil organisms work the leaf compost into the soil.)

The limestone likely comes from the area in northwestern Connecticut and southwestern Massachusetts that used to be shoreline and has lots of marble created from the shells of long dead sea creatures. When ground up it becomes dolomitic limestone which is good at raising soil pH and providing calcium and magnesium.  

But note that just the leaf compost raised the pH more than the fertilizer and lime did. And that even when the full amount of limestone and fertilizer was added to the leaf compost, the pH didn't change. That is an example of the metabolic stability, or resistance to change provided by the soil organic matter.

For your soil.

Test the soil before you add anything. Google soil test UConn or UMass for good instructions on how to sample.

Ask for organic recommendations.  
Remember, there are lots of ways to provide nutrients to your farm or garden. A true organic thinker will look for the closest materials with the least damaging footprint and the least energy consumption.

Now is a good time to start on next year's fertility.

I welcome your thoughts or comments.


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