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Spring, 2009 Vol. 2, No.

80 Publication of the Northeast Organic Farming Association 1077-2294

Inside This Issue
Food Safety His the Fan 8
Localvores by Necessity 10
DFTA Annual Meeting 50
DFTAs Meaning for NOFA 51
7th Annual NOFA-NH Winter Conference 52
Supplement on
Building Organic Soil
Soil Health 11
Humic Substances 15
Soil Building 19
The Soil Ecosystem 23
Soil and Human Intestines 27
Soil without Toil! 28
Building Soils for Better Crops 31
The Importance of Building Humus 41
Soil Building and Biodynamics 43
Soil Biochar 46
Letters to the Editor 2
Editorial 2
NOFA Exchange 4
News Notes 5
Book Reviews 48
NOFA Contact People 53
NOFA Membership 54
Calendar 54
We are excited to announce the keynote speak-
ers for the 2009 NOFA Summer Conference,
Paul Stamets and Will Allen! Our two keynot-
ers have very different expertise and experience
but at least one thing in common the desire
to see the next generation inherit a healthier,
cleaner, more sustainable world.
Paul Stamets will speak on Friday night, August
at 7:30 pm. For over three decades, Paul has
been collecting, studying, (and of course, eat-
ing!) mushrooms, and is an expert on the count-
less ways in which they can beneft human and
environmental health. Most of us know about
some of the strange properties of mushrooms,
but Paul has delved much deeper into the mys-
teries of fungi. Along with providing humans
vital nutrients, Paul believes that we can use
mushrooms to break down toxic waste, restore
soil, aid in water fltration, and even treat vi-
ruses and diseases in humans and animals. In
short, he believes that mushrooms have the
power to save the planet.
In his keynote, Paul will discuss how we can
start immediately to put mushrooms to practi-
cal use for the environment and for human
health. He will discuss his current research and
work with the U.S. governments BioShield
BioDefense program, and will present to us six
inventions that will help steer ecosystems and
humanity to a healthier future.
Paul has written and fled over twenty patents,
and runs his own wholesale and retail business,
Fungi Perfecti, LLC. Fungi Perfecti sells all
kinds of mushroom related products; growing
kits, cultivation tools, mushroom art, and kits
and books for kids. You can visit his website at
Paul Stamets and Will Allen
to Keynote 2009 NOFA Summer Conference
photo courtesy Paul Stamets
Paul Stamets with one of his favorite organisms
photo courtesy Will Allen
Will Allen at Growing Power
Stamets and his wife, C. Dusty Yao, share a
passion for fungi and a love of the Old Growth
forests of the Pacifc Northwest. He has gath-
ered much of his exceptional collection there,
and is enthusiastic about preserving, protect-
ing, and cloning as many ancestral strains of
mushrooms as possible. Much of the fnancial
resources generated from sales made at Fungi
Perfecti return to support this work.
(continued on page 47)
Th e Nat ur al Far me r S p r i n g , 2 0 0 9 2
Advertisements not only bring in TNF revenue, which means
less must come from membership dues, they also make a
paper interesting and helpful to those looking for specifc
goods or services. We carry 2 kinds of ads:
The NOFA Exchange - this is a free bulletin board service
(for subscribers or NOFA members who get the TNF) for
occasional needs or offerings. Send in up to 100 words and
well print it free in the next issue. Include a price (if selling)
and an address, E-mail or phone number so readers can
contact you directly. If you dont get the paper yourself you
can still send in an ad - just send $5 along too! Send NOFA
Exchange ads directly to The Natural Farmer, 411 Sheldon
Rd., Barre, MA 01005 or (preferably) E-mail to TNF@nofa.
Display Ads - this is for those offering products or services
on a regular basis! You can get real attention with display
ads. Send camera ready copy to Bob Minnocci, 662
Massachusetts Ave. #6, Boston, MA 02118 or BMinnocci@ and enclose a check (to TNF) for the appropriate
size. The sizes and rates are:
Full page (15 tall by 10 wide) $360 $500
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One-third page (7 1/2 tall by 6 1/2 wide) $125 $175
One-quarter page (7 1/2 tall by 4 7/8 wide) $95 $135
One-sixth page (7 1/2 tall by 3 1/8 wide), or
(3 3/4 tall by 6 1/2 wide) $65 $90
Business card size (1 1/2 tall by 3 1/8 wide) $20 $25
Note: These prices are for camera ready copy on clean
paper, or electronically in jpg or pdf format. If you want
any changes we will be glad to make them - or to typeset a
display ad for you - for $45 (which includes one revision --
additional revisions are $10 each). Just send us the text, any
graphics, and a sketch of how you want it to look. Include a
check for the space charge plus $45.
Advertise in or Sponsor The Natural Farmer
Frequency discount: we give a 25% discount for
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Deadlines: We need your ad copy one month
before the publication date of each issue. The
deadlines are:
January 31 for the Spring issue (mails Mar. 1)
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October 31 for the Winter issue (mails Dec. 1)
Disclaimer: Advertisers are helping support
the paper so please support them. We cannot
investigate the claims of advertisers, of course,
so please exercise due caution when considering
any product or service. If you learn of any
misrepresentation in one of our ads please inform
us and we will take appropriate action. We dont
want ads that mislead.
Sponsorships: Individuals or organizations
wishing to sponsor The Natural Farmer may do so
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Contact for Display Ads or Sponsors: Send
display ads or sponsorships with payment (to
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If you have questions, or want to reserve space,
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by Jack Kittredge
One of the simplest ways of characterizing organic
growers is that they feed the soil, not the plant. In
that simple distinction lies a world of importance.
A chemical approach relies on soluble nutrients
(primarily nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium)
going directly to the plants roots, treating the
soil pretty much as a dead matrix providing only
stability to hold the plant in place. That is why
hydroponic growing is an easy step for conventional
growers, but not for organic ones.
The importance of the soil to organic growers is
that soil life is the means by which plants fourish.
Whether it is nitrogen, fxed from the air by rhizobia
or other bacteria, or organic acids which break
down soil rock and release available minerals, or
a symbiotic relationship between the plant and
mycorrhizal fungi that provides the fungi with
carbohydrates for energy and the plant with the
myceliums large surface area for water and mineral
absorption, or the complex organic residue humus
which, among other things, chelates ions of trace
elements and makes them available for uptake, the
presence of life and once-living things in soil is
crucial to plants and fourishing organic crops.
In this issue we explore some of these relationships
and how to encourage them by building healthy,
living soil. For some of you this may be remedial
reading. Organic farmers, after all, do not stay in
business long if they neglect the life in their soil.
But even for those of our readers who are well
versed in managing soil life, it does not hurt to
return once in awhile to the foundational truths of
our craft. The details are not all well understood yet,
and there is much mystery here still. It can be both
humbling and quietly uplifting to dwell for a few
moments on these relationships, and the magnifcent
fertility they enable.
On Building Organic Soil
Letters to
the Editor
A reader took it upon himself to address a letter
to several of those (Im not sure how many yet)
whose contact information is given in the back
of this journal under NOFA Contacts. To those
who received a letter and did not feel comfortable
replying, I apologize. For the rest of you, I thought
I should reprint the readers letter, my response to
him (written at the request of a recipient who did
not feel comfortable replying), and his address in
case others would like to write him. He obviously is
eager to communicate with the outside world. Jack
Denzial Tittlo
66072-179 A-3
PO Box 7000, FCI
Texarkana, TX 75505
Dear ___________
You dont know me -- indeed, you may not want to
know me but Ill take the risk of that and the cost
of a stamp and send you this letter anyway.
I found your name and address in the contact
section of a recent issue of The Natural Farmer. I
am writing to you (and to others who were listed) in
the hope that you might respond.
I am a 52 year old male inmate of a federal prison.
I made a terrible mistake too terrible and foolish
for me to want to discuss in detail. Suffce it to say
that I regret my past behavior that resulted in me
shaming my family the way I did. My goals are to
make amends to those Ive hurt and to demonstrate
that I can live a life that is acceptable to God (or
whoever you might call the Big Kahuna of the
(continued on page 3)
The Natural Farmer is a quarterly membership
journal of the Northeast Organic Farming
We plan a year in advance so those who want to
write on a topic can have a lot of lead time. The
next 3 issues will be:
Summmer 2009:
Microbes, Food and Public Health
Fall 2009:
Localization and Organic Farming
Winter 2009-10:
Nutrient Density in our Food
If you can help us on any of these topics, or have
ideas for new ones, please get in touch. We need
your help!
Moving or missed an issue? The Natural Farmer
will not be forwarded by the post offce, so you
need to make sure your address is up-to-date if you
move. Those who regularly send us a subscription
fee should send address changes to us. Most of
you, however, get this paper as a NOFA member
beneft for paying your chapter dues and should
send address updates to their local NOFA chapter
(listed at the end of each issue).
Archived issues from Summer 1999 through Fall
2005 are available at http://www.library.umass.
edu/spcoll/digital/tnf/. More recent issues are
downloadable at as pdf fles.
Jack Kittredge and Julie Rawson
411 Sheldon Rd., Barre, MA 01005
978-355-2853, fax: (978) 355-4046
ISSN 1077-2294
copyright 2009,
Northeast Organic Farming Association, Inc
The Natural Farmer
Needs You!
Th e Nat ur al Far me r S p r i n g , 2 0 0 9 3
I would like when I leave here to purchase 30+
acres of semi-rural farm/forest land in order to start
a bed and breakfast/pick your own (berries,
apples)/outdoor furniture business. Some aspect
of my sustainable business/farming venture would
be: use of renewable energy; organically grown
vegetables and fruits; grass-fed chickens and sheep
to raise; bees for their honey, wax and pollination
assistance; trails; ponds; gazebos; nicely furnished
tents; and a log cabin to house my kitchen, dining
area, store and personal living space.
If you have the time, energy, and interest I would
enjoy corresponding with you about my Big
Plan. I tend to see only the virtues and not the
problems inherent in my ideal. So bouncing my
ideas off of you would help immensely, Also, your
suggestions for books I should read and people
and organizations I should contact would be very
benefcial to me.
Im not a one-trick pony I would enjoy discussing
spirituality, books or anything else that you might
want to talk with me about.
Well, I gave it my best shot. Regardless of your
response, I wish you much peace, joy and love.
Sincerely, Denzial Tittlo
Dear Mr. Tittlo,
____________ asked me to respond to you as she
doesnt feel comfortable responding herself.
I think your dream of living on the land is one that
many people share. Unfortunately, most people fnd
that it is not easy to achieve it. Both the initial cost
of purchasing such land 30+ acres of farm/forest
land with a pond, etc. is high, and the diffculty of
making an adequate living -- at agrarian crafts and
farming -- to support yourself, much less pay off a
mortgage, is very diffcult.
As Jim Hightower once said, the best way to make a
small fortune farming is to start with a big fortune.
My guess is that you dont have a big fortune,
at least most of us dont, so we have diffculty
even getting the kind of land we want, mush less
supporting ourselves on it.
Those of us who are on the way to achieving the
kind of dream you have fnd that we needed to
build up capital for several years to even get a down
payment on a piece of land. In my case it involved
several years of working two jobs and living very
frugally. Then we have to have some sort of skill
or job which can support us while we develop the
buildings, fencing, crops, orchards, animals, etc. to
realize our dream. Some have a spouse who has a
job with good pay, some teach and use the summer
vacation to farm, some work construction and farm
on the side, etc. In my case my wife runs an organic
farming non-proft and I edit The Natural Farmer,
both from home where we can farm and homestead
in our extra hours. We feel very lucky to be so close
to the dream you wrote about. Many people we
know have not got even this far yet.
So I guess my advice is keep the dream alive and
fnd some way to use your skills to work toward
it, both putting aside the money you will need and
also getting the knowledge you will need to be
successful on the land. Many organizations like
NOFA exist which offer low cost conferences,
publication, videos, etc. on homestead and farm
skills. Im sure there are some in Texas. I would
suggest getting familiar with them and attending
their events once you are out of prison to meet
others who share your goals and to see what you can
What you have learned about yourself while in
prison will certainly help you be a wiser and more
responsible person when you are out. I certainly
hope you get a chance to fnd your dream and to
make amends to those you have hurt. Just the fact
that you realize you have made mistakes and want
to atone for them is a great start. Please accept my
best wishes.
Jack Kittredge
Letters (continued from page 2)
Please help us thank these
Friends of Organic Farming
for their generous support!
Supporting a Food Culture that is
Kim Q. Matland
Robert & Linda Dimmick
Makers of Award-Winning
Organic Farmstead Cheeses
Organic Raw Milk Cheddar:
Winner at The Big "E", 2008
Organic Monterey Jack:
American Cheese Society Winner, 2005, 2006
Organic Jalapeno Jack:
American Cheese Society Winner, 2008
Organic Colby:
American Cheese Society Winner, 2007
Organic Green Onion Cheddar:
American Cheese Society Winner, 2005, 2006
Organic Garlic Cheddar
Organic Cow Milk Feta
Look for our cheeses in your local
Natural Foods Store!
Neighborly Farms of Vermont
1362 Curtis Road
Randolph Center, VT 05061
Th e Nat ur al Far me r S p r i n g , 2 0 0 9 4

To learn more about the benets of providing milk

to the leading dairy company, contact:
Cindy Masterman (New England) 888-648-8377
Peter Slaunwhite (Northeast) 315-272-3218
Steve Rinehart (Mideast) 866-268-4665
Liz Amos (Mideast) 303-551-5230
Michelle Sandy (Mid Atlantic) 866-412-1380
Richard Klossner (Midwest) 303-319-6899
Larry Hansen (West) 888-406-6556

. P
The Clarks, Milky Way Organic Farm, Ira, VT
transitioning to
Gardeners needed for private retreat in Johnson,
VT. We host events and workshops and have a
large organic vegetable garden along with extensive
landscaped fower gardens. Work would include
gardening, landscape work, trail work and event
preparation. Opportunity for own garden space,
use of the beautiful grounds which include art/clay
studio, pristine swimming ponds, hiking trails.
Private cabin with shared vegetarian kitchen
available. Hours and stipend negotiable depending
on experience. Call 802-655-7889 or Email
The Natick Community Organic Farm located in
Natick, Massachusetts is looking for a year round
intern. Housing (one room studio with shared
kitchen and bath facilities) is offered in exchange
for 15 hours of farm related work, teaching, and
some weekend work. Studio available May 15
Email your letter of interest
or resume.
Apprenticeships available on organic vegetable
farm in western CT for 09 season, April-Nov.
Help plant, cultivate, harvest, and market produce
through a 400 share CSA and farmers market.
Opportunity to learn many of the agricultural and
business skills you will need to run an organic
farm. Compensation includes a private room in
separate apprentice house, farm produce and eggs,
$1000 monthly stipend plus scheduled raises and
a year end bonus. To apply, email a letter of intent
and resume to Paul Bucciaglia, pbucciaglia@, or send to Fort Hill Farm, 18 Fort Hill
Rd., New Milford, CT 06776. Also see www.
Farm for rent or partnership in central New York.
Currently Farmers Pledge but organic certifable.
130 acres cropland, pasture, berries, market garden.
Apartment and barn included. Negotiable terms
including work trade. Contact Judy Wolter 259
Main St., Jordonville, NY 13361, (315) 858-3520,
Assistant Director, Farmer/Educator - Immediate
Opening. The Natick Community Organic Farm is a
27 acre diversifed operation with organic vegetable
production, livestock, solar greenhouses, a syruping
operation, and many educational programs for
children and adults. We are looking for a dynamic
person committed to organic farming, with a 2
to 4 year degree in the feld and /or equivalent
experience in agriculture, with carpentry and
mechanic skills, who loves teaching and working
with people. Computer skills, interest in developing
programs a plus. Please send resume and letter
of inquiry to Detailed
description at
Mountain Dell Farm seeks two apprentices for
2009 season, May 18 through Thanksgiving. We
have been making our living as organic vegetable
farmers since 1990, and have taught many people
how to farm. We farm fve acres intensively. Must
know how to work hard, although farm experience
is not necessary. Labors include planting, weeding,
picking and packing. Apprenticeship includes
private cabin, board, plus excellent stipend for
50-hour weeks. We live in a beautiful land in the
foothills of the Catskills. Mark Dunau or Lisa
Wujnovich, Mountain Dell Farm, 2386 Roods Creek
Rd., Hancock, NY 13783. 607-467-4034. e-mail at
Farmer Wanted: To transition into eventual
ownership of a 138 ac. SE VT conserved farm
with 20 ac. of Christmas trees, an ac. of organic
rhubarb, and 100 ac. of managed woodland with a
working sugarbush. Other crops possible including
vegetables, small fruits, and specialty crops. For
info and application contact 802/257-0233 or
Looking for organic gardener to grow fruits
and vegetables at Folly Cove in Gloucester, MA.
Property has good soil, Concord Grape vines, a few
apple trees. Small, 40 foot garden with automatic
drip irrigation that could extend to 1/2 acre or more.
Place to start plants indoors (small area in barn with
20 x 6 skylight). Seaweed for the garden nearby.
Vines and trees need pruning. Maybe we take care
of supplies and give the gardener most of the crop to
sell at the local farmers market or I buy the produce.
Will consider other arrangements. Contact Anne at
April 2 - May 31 Food As Medicine Workshop,
Sharon A. Kane, Instructor. Get the most out of your
food! Ongoing classes teach gentle detoxifcation
protocols and hands-on instruction in the making of
kombucha, kefr, Gluten-free sourdough baking, and
lacto-fermented pickles. Classes held in Ashland,
MA. For more info: 508-881-5678, Gpath2003@ or
Blow Your Own Horn!
Th e Nat ur al Far me r S p r i n g , 2 0 0 9 5
Call for the location of your
nearest wholesale distributor
Depot Street
Bradford, VT 05033
Ph. 802.222.4277
Fax 802.222.9661
Bone Char 0-16-0
Cheep Cheep 4-3-3
Chilean Nitrate 16-0-0
Greensand Plus 0-0-17
Kelp Meal
Natural Sulfate of Potash 0-0-51
Organic Gem 3-3-.3
Phosphate Rock 0-3-0
Phosphate Rock and Greensand Mix
Pro-Gro 5-3-4
Pro-Start 2-3-3
Stress-X Powder
Livestock Nutritionals:
Redmond Trace Mineral Conditioner, Salt
Blocks & Granular Salt
Pest Controls:
*Many of our products that are not OMRI listed may be allowed for use on a
certifed organic farm. Check with your certifcation representative to be sure.
Bone Char 0-16-0 contains
more than 16% available
phosphate (P2O5) and 32%
total phosphate. It is OMRI
listed and can be applied
without restriction on certifed
organic farmland.
compiled by Jack Kittredge
MICI Looks to Expand
Massachusetts Independent Certifcation, Incs frst
and only program is Baystate Organic Certifers
which has an excellent regional and national
reputation as a program of outstanding integrity
that is not prone to soft interpretation of the NOP.
Now the MICI board is seeking additional Board
members and interested parties to help create
and implement new program activity. Current
ideas include but are not limited to certifcation or
verifcation of the following:
1) Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) and Hazard
Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) plan
2) Energy audits, and
3) Humane Livestock Standards compliance.
Interested parties should contact MICI President
Judy Gillan at MICI also
plans to host an informational meeting at the 2009
NOFA Summer Conference. The MICI board of
directors looks forward to hearing your ideas!
Co-op Bans Eight Pesticides
In January the Co-op, Britains frst supermarket
chain, prohibited suppliers of its own-brand fresh
produce from using eight pesticides that have been
connected to honeybee colony collapse disorder
and are already restricted in some parts of Europe.
The Co-op said it will eliminate the usage of the
neonicotinoid family of chemicals where possible
and until they are shown to be safe. The Co-op
has over 70,000 acres of land under cultivation in
England and Scotland, making it the largest farmer
in the UK. Since 2001 it has prohibited the use of 98
pesticides under its pesticide policy.
USDA Gives Final Rule on Naturally Raised
Despite signifcant protest from organizations and
many thousands of concerned individuals, the
USDAs Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS)
has defned naturally raised to mean something
far from it. Producers are now allowed to label
products naturally raised as long as the animals
have been produced entirely without growth
promotants, antibiotics (except for ionophores used
as coccidiostats for parasite control), and have
never been fed animal by-products. Nowhere does
this defnition mention pasture (or even outdoor
access!), genetic engineering, or physical mutilation
(like tail-docking and beak-trimming).
source: http://animalwelfareapproved.list-manage.
UK Study Finds Biodiverse Systems Produce
Healthier, Better Tasting Meat
It turns out the old adage You are what you eat is
true for livestock too. Researchers at the University
of Exeter recently published a study which found
that meat from animals grazed in quality, biodiverse
systems is nutritionally superior to meat from
intensive systems. Professor Henry Buller and his
colleagues attributed this difference to the impact of
the different plants on the digestive process and the
growth and development of the animals.
Laboratory analyses showed that lamb meat
from biodiverse pastures was seen to have more
vitamin E than control meat and higher levels of
omega 3 fatty acids - the kind that provide health
benefts like protection against heart disease.
Levels of conjugated linoleic acid, or CLA, were
also higher in biodiverse-fed lambs, compared to
conventional controls - another encouraging sign
as studies suggest these compounds may have
anti-carcinogenic effects. Additionally, levels of
a compound called skatole were seen to be lower.
Skatole can be produced as a result of the digestive
process of grazing animals and has a negative effect
on the taste of meat, especially when grilled. Taste
panels rated biodiverse beef from traditional breeds
to be more tender and more favorful than meat from
conventional breeds.
source: http://animalwelfareapproved.list-manage.
Livestock Manure Stinks for Infant Health
New research examining two decades worth
of livestock production data fnds a positive
relationship between increased production at
industrial farms and infant death rates in the
counties where the farms reside. The study reported
in the February American Journal of Agricultural
Economics implicates air pollution and suggests
that Clean Air Act regulations need to be revamped
to address livestock production of noxious gases.
The study, by economist Stacy Sneeringer of
Wellesley College in Massachusetts, examined
birth and death records from the National Center
for Health Statistics and the increase in animal
units per county across the United States from
1982 to 1997. An increase of 100,000 animal units
in a county corresponded to 123 more infant deaths
per year per 100,000 births. Doubling livestock
numbers was linked to a 7.4 percent increase in
infant mortality. Ammonia, hydrogen sulfde and
airborne particulate matter are all associated with
livestock production, Sneeringer says. Exposure to
the gases has been linked to respiratory distress in
infants, while exposure in the womb has been linked
to disorders that occur late in pregnancy or shortly
after birth, and has also been linked to spontaneous
abortions. Sneeringer found that about 80 percent of
the infant deaths associated with increased livestock
production occurred in the frst 28 days of life.
source: Science News http://www.sciencenews.
Wood Prairie Farm Receives Award
Wood Prairie Farms new Organic Prairie Blush
Potato has received the Green Thumb Award
from the Mailorder Gardening Assocation as one
of the top six plant introductions of 2009. Jim
Gerritsen, who with his family owns and operates
the organic Wood Prairie Farm in Bridgewater,
Maine, was presented the award at the MGAs
Winter Convention. Every year the competition for
a Green Thumb Award is pretty intense especially
from the ornamentals sector, says Gerritsen. As
an organic seed potato farmer its great to see the
resurgence of interest in home vegetable gardening
and in healthy vegetables like Prairie Blush.
source: Wood Praqirie Farm press release, January
14, 2009
Th e Nat ur al Far me r S p r i n g , 2 0 0 9 6
Synthetic Fertilizer Taints California Organic
For up to seven years, California Liquid Fertilizer
sold what seemed to be an organic farmers
dream, brewed from fsh and chicken feathers. The
companys fertilizer was effective, inexpensive and
approved by organic regulators. By 2006, it held as
much as a third of the market in
California. But a state investigation caught the
Salinas-area company spiking its product with
ammonium sulfate, a synthetic fertilizer banned
from organic farms. As a result, some of Californias
2006 harvest of organic fruits, nuts and vegetables
including crops from giants like Earthbound
Farm wasnt really organic.
According to documents obtained by The
Sacramento Bee through a Public Records Act
request, California Department of Food and
Agriculture offcials were notifed of the problem
in June 2004 but didnt complete their investigation
and order the company to remove its product
from the organic market until January 2007. State
offcials knew some of Californias largest organic
farms had been using the fertilizer, the documents
show, but they kept their fndings confdential until
nearly a year and a half after it was removed from
the market. No farms lost their organic certifcation.
The nonproft California Certifed Organic Farmers,
which certifes about 80 percent of the states
organic acreage, decided not to penalize farms that
had used the product on the grounds that farmers did
not know they were using an unapproved chemical.
The state could have pursued harsher penalties
against California Liquid Fertilizer, including
violation of the Californias organic product law,
which carries fnes of up to $5,000, according to
agriculture department spokesman Steve Lyle. It
also could have referred the case to the attorney
generals offce for civil action as an unfair business
practice. We did not pursue those courses of action
because our priority was to remove the product from
the market, Lyle said. More process would have
delayed that.
Even Vegetarians May Not Be Safe from Mad
Cow Prions
Fancy a dose of prions with your vegetables? A new
study suggests that infectious prions - thought to be
the causative agents in mad cow disease and human
vCJD can survive wastewater decontamination
and wind up in fertilizer, potentially contaminating
fruit and vegetables. The prions would be present
in such low quantities that they are unlikely to
pose a health threat, but as a precaution, we
should prevent the entry of prions into wastewater
treatment plants, says microbiologist Joel Pedersen
of the University of Wisconsin in Madison, US, who
led the research. Prions could end up in wastewater
treatment plants via slaughterhouse drains, hunted
game cleaned in a sink, or humans with vCJD
shedding prions in their urine or feces, Pedersen
Previous studies have suggested that prions can
survive heat treatment and caustic chemicals, but
to see how prions fare during sewage treatment,
Pedersens team spiked sludge from a local
treatment plant with infectious prions, and then
subjected the toxic brew to a typical wastewater
treatment regimen. This typically involves three
weeks of fltration, separation and incubation with
microbes that break down contaminants in the
sludge, resulting in clean water and biosolids free
of most human pathogens, which can be used as a
fertilizer. When Pedersens team tested the sewage
soup at various stages, they found the water was
clean, but the biosolids were contaminated with
prions. The sludge digestion seems to have no
effect on the prion protein, he says.
from-mad- cow-prions.html?DCMP=ILC-
Industrial Farmed Birds Much More Likely to
Get Avian Flu than Backyard Birds
According to the May/June, 2008, issue of Public
Health Reports, an international team of scientists
conclude that birds raised in industrial confnement
operations are 32 times more at risk of being infect-
ed with Avian Flu H5N1 than backyard focks.
source: Organic Research Center Bulletin,
December, 2008
Canada to Implement Organic Rule
June 30, 2009 is the launch date of the Canadian
Organic Regime. Not as broad as our NOP, the
Canadian system will cover just human food
and beverages, and livestock feed. Aquaculture,
cosmetics, textiles, etc. will continue to be able
to make organic claims based on their third-party
organic certifcation. The new rule references
the standards of the International Standards
Organization (ISO 17011 for accreditation and ISO
65 for certifcation) as guidelines. It also clarifes
how imported products can be marketed as organic:
either 1) certifed to the Canadian standard by
an accredited certifying body; or 2) certifed to a
standard deemed equivalent under a country-to-
country agreement.
source: Organic Processing, November/December
Mutant, Virulent New Strain of E. coli
British ministers have been briefed about the
emergence on a British dairy farm of a mutant
strain of antibiotic-resistant E. coli that causes life-
threatening cases of food poisoning, especially
in children. The strain, known as E. coli O26 is a
vera-toxin producing E. coli similar to the strain
E, coli O157 which caused deaths in the spinach
outbreak of 2006. The strain has an enhanced type
of antibiotic resistance, called ESBL, which makes
it resistant to almost all known antibiotics. Public
health offcials are calling for an end to routine
antibiotic use on dairy farms.
source: Organic Research Center Bulletin,
December, 2008
Peak Phosphorus?
Some 85% of the worlds known deposits of
phosphorus are in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and
Eygpt. The 4 to 8 billion metric tons of this element
in the worlds deposits are being used at the rate of
125 million per year. The price of rock phosphate
has increased fvefold in the last two years.
Scientists predict that agriculture, the primary user
of phosphates, will see higher prices for the input, as
well as declining yields when less is applied because
of its cost.
source: Organic Research Center Bulletin,
December, 2008
GE Corn and Infertility Linked
Austrian scientists conducting long-term feeding
trials with lab mice have found that by the third and
fourth litters, offspring of mice fed a diet of 33%
genetically engineered corn were fewer and smaller
than those from mice fed a quite similar diet except
with corn that was not engineered. Research leader
Jurgen Zentek of the University of Vienna said there
was a direct link between the changes observed and
the diets.
source: Acres, USA January, 2009
Fuel from Fungi?
Non-food parts of plants such as cellulose, lignin,
and hemicellulose can be treated with enzymes
called cellulases that turn them into sugar. That
sugar can then be fermented into ethanol. But a
unique fungus has been discovered living in a tree
in the Patagonian rain forest that can make myco-
diesel directly from cellulose, eliminating one
step in the process. When we examined the gas
composition of [the fungus], said Gary Strobel
of Montana State University, we were totally
surprised to learn that it was making a plethora of
hydrocarbons and hydrocarbon derivatives. This
is the only organism that has ever been shown to
produce such an important combination of fuel
source: Acres, USA January, 2009
Are Organic Fish Organic?
In November the National Organic Standards
Board decided to allow fsh to carry the USDA
organic label despite being raised in cages which
dump fsh waste, parasites and disease organisms
directly into the ocean and despite being fed feed
which is not 100% organic (a requirement for other
organic livestock) and which can be from wild
fsh potentially carrying traces of mercury, PCBs
and other pollutants. Critics cite statements from
NOSB members that they were under pressure from
the aquaculture industry to push through a weak
source: Acres, USA January, 2009
Inoculate Crops with Fungi for Soil Carbon
Natural soils store carbon in many forms.
Agriculture has a tendency to disturb that carbon
and use it for crop production, depleting the
reservoir in the soil. A substance called glomalin
was discovered in 1996 which is produced by
arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi (AMF). Glomalin
permeates organic matter, binding it to silt, clay
and sand particles. Not only does glomalin contain
30% to 40% carbon, it also forms aggregates that
add structure to soil and keep other stored soil
carbon from escaping. A test of soil and crop root
development from planting seeds inoculated with
mycorrhizal fungi showed almost twice as much
carbon in the inoculated crop soils.
source: Acres, USA January, 2009
Bumble Bees Decline
A review of bumble bee studies and surveys
across the US shows that three formerly common
species are experiencing steep declines. This is
particularly distressing since bumble bees can act
as alternative pollinators when honey bees are in
short supply because of Colony Collapse Disorder.
You can learn more at
source: Organic Broadcaster, Jan/Feb 2009
Oceans Acidifying
The oceans have been absorbing some of the extra
carbon dioxide humans have been creating for the
past 2 centuries, and in the process becoming more
acidic. Today, it is estimated, they absorb some 30
million tons of carbon dioxide daily and are about
30% more acidic than they once were. The impact
of this is still being studied, but it has already had
a major impact in reducing the number of coral,
phytoplankton, and shell-forming species like
mussels and lobsters.
source: Acres, USA February, 2009
Grazing Produces Healthier Milk (Surprised,
A new study at Britains Newcastle University
shows grazing organic cows produce milk with
more antioxidants, vitamins, and benefcial fatty
acids than conventional high input cows. During the
summer months, conjugated linoleic acid was 60%
higher among the grazing cows. The study involved
25 farms of three types across the United Kingdom:
organically certifried, non-organic sustainable (low
input) and conventional high input.
source: Acres, USA February, 2009
Non-GMO Project Up and Running
On December 15, 2008 the Non-GMO Product
Verifcation Program was rolled out with some 350
products listed. The project was organized by some
of the largest organic industry companies: Eden
Foods, Lundberg, Natures Path, Organic Valley,
Whole Foods and R. W. Garcia. Products that
meet the standard can bear the Non-GMO Project
Verifed seal beginning in October, 2009. For more
info visit
source: Acres, USA February, 2009
Th e Nat ur al Far me r S p r i n g , 2 0 0 9 7
Organic Equipment
Specializing in
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Call today with your cultivation
Bob Lefrancois
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Th e Nat ur al Far me r S p r i n g , 2 0 0 9 8
Steve Gilman
NOFA-IC Policy Coordinator
Food contamination happens! Just look at the
headlines, periodically full of government alerts
and industry recalls concerning everything from
toxic tomatoes to pathogenic peanut butter and
sullied spinach. For home gardeners and farmers
alike theres no doubt that paying close attention to
food safety from soil to stomach are just plain good
agricultural practices. And even though organic
standards have many extra food safety standards
for certifed growers to comply with including
audit trails, no fresh manure use on crops, strict
composting parameters and requirements for
regularly testing the farms water supplies organic
growing per se is clearly not immune to food
contamination problems.
Outbreak du jour
Todays largest infectious outbreaks have mostly
to do with toxic strains of E. coli and salmonella
bacteria. Both contaminate food through contact
with feces and can be transferred to produce by such
diverse vectors as animals, birds, humans, wind and
water. But theres no obvious way to discern if the
groceries are safe many contaminated foods look,
smell and taste normal. Current agency estimates
are that food-borne illnesses sicken as many as 76
million people each year, resulting in more than
325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths.
Here in Winter, 2009 the outbreak du jour is
salmonella in processed peanut butter -- again
implicating the centralized industrial food
production model as a major cause of far ranging
contamination. Traced back to a single processing
plant in Georgia, investigators efforts have led to
the recall of over 180 products in everything from
baked goods to snack crackers and protein bars. This
outbreak, in what experts consider a normally safe
food, sickened more than 500 people in 43 states
and led to eight deaths. This time the investigation
stopped short of the farmers, however, because the
raw peanuts were roasted before processing killing
any bacteria that might be present to that point.
And while the Georgia plant did not sell directly
to stores, they supplied a wide range of big food
makers like Kellogg and General Mills; numerous
smaller manufacturers including Jenny Craig diet
foods; and a considerable number of institutions
including schools and nursing homes that serve
the most vulnerable populations. FDA has been
severely hampered by repeated cuts in funding
and staff since the deregulation glory days of the
Reagan Administration. Domestically, in 2008 they
managed to inspect 5,930 food production plants
out of a total 65,520 facilities around the country.
Scary Spinach
Food contamination is not just the province of
manufacturing plants. The nationwide E.coli O157:
H7 spinach outbreak in the late summer and fall of
2006 put the risk of infected farm produce squarely
in the public eye. Baby spinach is part of the pre-
cut leafy greens trade that includes ready-to-eat
salad mixes and lettuces packed in special moisture-
conserving breather bags and plastic clamshells
that extend the shelf life up to 17 days. Just shake
it out of the bag, add some dressing and Voila!
its salad time. According to the FDA, however,
contaminated produce causes 15% of all toxic food
outbreaks with the highest risk commodity groups
being leafy greens, tomatoes, melons, herbs and
green onions in that order.
Once the sickness reports started to mount up across
the country it took weeks to link the outbreak to
spinach consumption and weeks more to trace
the contamination back to a single 16,000 pound
shipment from Natural Selection Foods, a state-of-
the-art California packer holding 6% of the national
market. Processing 26 million salad servings a
week, they also pack for their own Earthbound Farm
label the largest organic grower and shipper in
the country. This co-mingled batch happened to be
conventionally grown, however, and was cleaned
and packed into 6 ounce bags and distributed
nationally under Dole and several other brands. By
the time this comparatively swift outbreak was over
the toxic greens had left 205 confrmed illnesses in
26 states with 103 hospitalizations and 3 deaths in
its wake.
Again, fngers were pointed at the market
concentration of large-scale industrialized growers
and handlers where a single contamination event
can affect thousands of eaters all over the country.
Designed for a burgeoning consumer convenience
market, leafy greens have grabbed fully two-thirds
of the nations fresh-cut vegetable sales over the
past decade. Bagged spinach sales alone constitute
a $200 million annual market. But this new product
category is fraught with intrinsic drawbacks that can
exacerbate food safety troubles.
For starters, the myriad cut surfaces in a bag of
leafy greens are potential infection points. Bacteria
can hide in craggy leaf textures and consolidating
thousands of pounds of greens from several farms
en masse into one wash can spread the pathogens
throughout the whole batch. While the greens are
treated with a series of chlorine and citrus rinses
at the packing facility a procedure which usually
destroys common bacteria the E coli super-strain
0157 H:7 seemed to survive unscathed. Since the
greens are intended for raw consumption they lack a
further cooking stage that more defnitively destroys
pathogens as in ground beef, for example, or
broccoli. And while designed to signifcantly extend
the life of the product in the truck, the supermarket
and the home refrigerator the plastic bags and
clamshells can act as mini greenhouses to incubate
and greatly multiply any disease organisms present.
In a pattern similar to a 2008 salmonella scare in
tomatoes, the media coverage and public alarm
about the spinach contamination event had a
devastating economic impact on leafy greens
growers all across the country. Even though the
outbreak was traced to a single feld in California,
in the public eye all greens were tainted and even
small scale growers at Farmers Markets far from
the outbreaks epicenter suffered big slumps in
sales. Meanwhile, product liability lawsuits were
gathering at Natural Selections door.
Although to this day there still are no defnitive
answers as to how the spinach feld became
contaminated by the virulent E coli, government
investigators determined the likeliest source was a
cattle ranch a short distance away. The pathogenic
manure could have been carried by dust in the
wind, storm runoff into irrigation systems or even
feral pigs who ate the cow feces and deposited it in
the spinach felds via their own manure. However,
theres very little science to defnitively back up any
of these transmission theories. And theres even less
science to justify the industry reaction that followed.
Voluntary standards
Dealing in perishable merchandise, the fresh
produce business is particularly vulnerable to
market disturbances. Experience has proved that
public health warnings and national recalls are
disastrous for the industrys bottom line. So are class
action lawsuits. As the din of negative publicity and
recalls took its toll, supermarket shoppers hurried
by the bagged greens display for something they
deemed more healthful. It wasnt long before the
west coast spinach industry was losing a million
dollars a day and growers were plowing down their
felds of greens.
Responding with unprecedented action, 60 packers
representing 99% of Californias bagged greens
industry convened to deal with the crisis. Smaller
stakeholders were not invited, however, and had no
say in the initial proceedings. Within a few months
the handlers hammered out a 50 page set of rigid
regulations that were aimed squarely at farm
practices, not their own. Called the California Leafy
Green Marketing Agreement (LGMA), the rules
spelled out the Good Agricultural Practices or
GAPs farmers have to comply with in order to do
For handlers, (the category includes packers,
processors, manufacturers, shippers and
supermarkets) marketing agreements also serve
several key defensive functions not the least of
which is protection from lawsuits. By requiring
farmers to undergo third party verifed farm audits
and inspections to meet their strict market standards,
the handlers liability is substantially reduced via a
reasonable care defense in the courtroom. There
are also signifcant reductions in insurance costs.
And, at the heart of the action, after $100 million
in industry losses, a P.R. campaign was designed
to reinstate the healthy image of leafy greens for
consumers and get the industry back on track.
Although most marketing agreements are
voluntary they are in fact compulsory when
the farmers have no choice but to deal with the
handlers to stay in business. Third party audits
are also becoming a de facto requirement for
farmers all around the country who want to supply
everything from local school lunch programs to area
supermarkets. For smaller-scale farmers looking on,
it isnt far-fetched to worry about industry insiders
using a safe food pretext to ramp things up into a
self serving, one-size-fts-all, national marketing
order which requires mandatory compliance from
everybody in the trade. Meanwhile, theres a danger
that specialty crop groups in other sections of the
country are looking to forge marketing agreements
in conjunction with their state departments of
agriculture in order to gain market share.
Nuke and destroy
From an ecological perspective, let alone an
organic farming one, the GAPS matrix outlined in
the handlers 2007 Marketing Agreement was an
environmental disaster. Under the name of assuring
food safety, the regs literally took a scorched earth,
sterilization approach to farming: burning and
bulldozing grassy buffer areas down to bare ground;
removing hedgerows and windbreaks; channeling
and re-routing streams; poisoning wildlife;
fumigating soil organisms and constructing huge
fences as well as draining ponds, flling in wetlands
and removing vegetation to destroy animal, bird
and amphibian habitat. Often this meant ripping
out conservation enhancements and wild habitat
put in place over many decades by state and USDA
programs to protect water quality and wildlife. To
start, the initial LGMA directive directly impacted
140,000 acres.
For smaller scale farmers the handlers food safety
regs were plainly ruinous. The GAPs matrix was far
from being scale neutral. Instead of just targeting
fresh-cut leafy greens it included small-farm
specialty crops like kale, collards, beet greens
and Swiss chard. Requirements for 30 foot non-
vegetative buffers between crops and streams
or wildlife habitat took relatively larger bites
out of small feld holdings. Fencing to keep out
proven low-risk 0157 animal vectors such as deer
and rodents were exorbitantly expensive. Water
testing schedules did not accommodate multi-crop
operations. And, for smaller operations without
support staff, the heavy burden of paperwork,
documentation and audit costs were overwhelming.
Food Safety Hits the Fan:
Regulatory Action, Inaction and Over-reaction
and the Effects on Small Scale Growers
Th e Nat ur al Far me r S p r i n g , 2 0 0 9 9
Essentially, long-proven biodiversity practices are
the gold standard for protection from pathogens,
pests and pollutants for organic farmers especially.
The USDAs National Organic Program requires
certifed farmers to maintain and enhance the farm-
scape -- from soil and water to woodland, wetlands
and wildlife. As opposed to the conventional pesti-
cide-reliant monoculture system, for example, build-
ups of pests, weeds and diseases in the feld are con-
trolled to a large degree by annual rotations to other
plant families and intermittent sod crops. Grassy
strips, hedgerows and windbreaks serve as flters for
pollutants and barriers to pathogen encroachment
via dust and downpours. And the LGMAs good
agricultural practices did not begin to address the
use of toxic pesticides, chemical fertilizers and soil
fumigants that are standard inputs for the large pro-
ducers, but not allowed under the organic regs.
California groups such as the Wild Farm Alliance
and the Community Alliance with Family Farmers
(CAFF) led an outraged public response with pub-
licity, research briefngs, teach ins and political pres-
sure on public offcials. As wildlife buffers and con-
servation infrastructure were being dismantled in the
Salinas Valley and other agribusiness strongholds,
sustainable and local agriculture advocates mounted
a public campaign to explain the issues. As a result,
the LGMA was somewhat modifed reducing buf-
fers and lessening impacts on wildlife habitat.
But the industry did not sit still. Fearing losses to
the west coast competition, Arizona handlers de-
veloped their own marketing agreement. Soon, the
biggest industry players in California responded,
upping the ante. With the aim of gaining a greater
market share and recouping their losses from the
spinach scare they escalated their initial LGMA
regulatory requirements into super strict super-
metrics. And once big liability-adverse buyers like
McDonalds and Walmart signed on, the stringent
provisions became a new part of business as usual
for growers.
Despite the lack of sound scientifc rationale, farm
felds now had to have 450-foot bare earth buffer
zones to streams, for example, and 200 foot zones
next to grazing lands. The ubiquitous toads and ro-
dents that inhabit farm felds became newly targeted
enemies, as much as for their capacity to foul the
giant harvester machines as for any (scientifcally
unverifed) food safety parameters. And to assure
compliance on the ground, the auditors were solely
trained to strictly interpret the farm sanitization regs
without any certifcation in agricultural natural re-
source protections.
The gaps in GAPs
With the hamstringing of effective governmental
protections there has emerged a tremendous demand
and market for privatized food safety products
and services. The proliferation of stakeholders with
a piece of the action in this lucrative feld range
from research groups, academia and state Depart-
ments of Agriculture to auditing frms, certifcation
bodies and food safety training companies. Some
critics say law frms acting on behalf of consumers
are driving the food industry, as they have the most
power to infuence food safety practices and bring
about meaningful changes. Of course with all the
pricey class action settlements, lawyers are clearly
serving their own proprietary interests. But lately
the top law frm in the feld, Seattle-based Marler-
Clark, is casting an eye on the legal exposure in lo-
cal food systems, including Farmers Markets, road-
side stands and CSAs.
The concept of using a Good Agricultural Practices
approach to assure food safety has been around
for years. Here in the east, GAPs work was done
in the early 1990s at Cornell University as part
of a regional extension initiative. The project took
a commonsense non-regulatory, non-verifcation
approach to farm food safety practices based on
good sanitation practices and worker training.
An updated manual, Food Safety Begins on the
Farm A Growers Guide is currently available,
with many other useful growers materials, on
their website at, featuring
valuable user-friendly information on reducing risk
in everything from worker hygiene and storage
facility sanitation to manure management.
Farmers, however, are now faced with a baffing
array of GAPs programs. As is their wont, USDA
took the basic Cornell material but ramped it up
into a regulatory checklist and certifcation program
-- while still calling it GAPs. In 1998 FDA also
developed a program, offcially titled the Food
and Drug Administrations Guide to Minimize
Microbial Food Safety Hazards for Fresh Fruits
and Vegetables but known as the GAPs Guide,
for short. And theyre currently in the process
of conducting hearings and taking comments to
renew and revise those guidelines. State agriculture
departments have gotten into the act by creating
their own GAPs programs, conducting audits under
USDA accreditation. Finally, third party verifcation
programs are allowed in most states, all certifying to
some form of GAPs parameters.
All of the GAPs programs are voluntary at this
point from a legal point of view anyway. But to
protect themselves from liability exposure, more
and more wholesalers and buyers are requiring some
form of GAP certifcation from their growers. Come
traceback time they can point to the due diligence of
having a farmers certifcate on fle in the offce.
GAPs certifcation comes at a price and widespread
adoption would present signifcant barriers for di-
versifed small-scale and organic growers looking to
supply school lunch programs, their local Univer-
sity, supermarkets or larger wholesale produce mar-
kets, for example. The cheapest GAPs audit avail-
able to farmers in New York State is through the De-
partment of Agriculture and Markets at $93 an hour
but the fee also includes travel time to and from the
farm, plus the expenses of an additional surprise in-
spection. NYS was able to secure a Specialty Crops
Grant from a new program written into the 2008
Farm Bill that compensates farmers for up to $750
in audit expenses, however, with enough funding to
cover 200 certifcations in 2009. These monies are
currently available to other states that apply.
While the NYS GAPs program lets the grower
develop their own customized farm plan that is
then inspected under a USDA-accredited audit, the
Maine Department of Agriculture takes a more stark
FDA-style approach. A farm assessment section
uses a yes/no scoring system that automatically de-
ducts points for produce farms that keep livestock
or if there are other livestock farms within two
miles of the farmstead. Further points are deducted
for bringing manure or manure-based compost onto
the farm and for the feld presence of wild animals,
something almost impossible to comply with.
Due to extensive biodiversity practices, however,
organic farms could easily not qualify under the
Maine GAPs matrix and would be prohibited from
dealing with school lunch programs and wholesale
entities. The Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners
Association (MOFGA) has responded to this predic-
ament by creating their own third-party food safety
training and verifcation program based on another
FDA food safety matrix called Hazard Analysis
and Critical Control Points or HACCP (pronounced
GAPs has become a policy priority for the NOFAs
as well. The leafy greens issue rose to the top of
the list at the 2007 NOFA Interstate Council retreat
and was accentuated for 2008-2009. An east coast
Leafy Greens Working Group has been created with
a membership that includes the NOFAs, MOFGA
and FOG (Florida Organic Growers) along with par-
ticipation from the National Organic Coalition, the
National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, Food
and Water Watch and the Center for Food Safety,
among others.
The Working Group is in the process of developing
approaches that can utilize GAPs compliance to cre-
ate a crosswalk to provisions already present in the
certifed farmers Organic Farm Plan. Members are
responding to the FDA GAP Guide rulemaking in an
attempt to keep the program voluntary and respon-
sive to small-scale growers. Theres also an effort
to identify researchers to look at the science and de-
velop protocols to better serve organic farmers. And
theres an opportunity for the NOFAs to provide
basic food safety training for their farmers under a
HACCP-style protocol if as in Maine, so goes the
nation and a GAPs alternative becomes necessary.
But for small farmers at this point everything is in
Th e Nat ur al Far me r S p r i n g , 2 0 0 9 10
by Robin McDermott
While many people claim that local food is elitist,
some of the worlds great cuisines - Chinese, Italian,
country French, Indian - come from the people who
had the least to work with - peasants. However,
few of us are farmers or homesteaders, so unlike
peasants, our livehood is not directly focused on
feeding ourselves. Still, there are many things that
we can learn from peasants and peasant cuisine
that can help us lower our food bills and eat food
produced closer to home.
Peasants are small-scale farmers, ranchers, herders,
hunters or fshermen and this means that they are
close to their food source they are Localvores by
necessity. By US standards, peasants appear to be
poor and many of us feel sorry for the meager
lives peasants lead. In fact, peasant culture is rich
in traditions passed down through the generations
along with recipes for Cassoulet, Osso Bucco and
Roghan Josh.
These classic recipes are typical of peasant cuisine
which often translates into hearty one-dish meals
that combine lesser cuts of meat cooked in a
savory broth with seasonal vegetables and some
form of bread. Think Beef Bourguignon and a
French baguette, Ribolita which is a Tuscan bread
soup, or Huevos Rancheros and you are thinking
peasant food YUM!.
So, what can we learn from peasants throughout the
world to make Northeast meals more local and more
affordable at the same time?
First, carnivores like me need to learn how to work
with the less expensive cuts of meat leave the
expensive steaks and roasts to the nobility just
like the peasants do. Serious cooks will tell you
that a chuck roast is much more favorful than a
flet mignon and it is usually a third to a quarter the
price. But, you cant just throw a chuck roast on the
Localvores by Necessity
grill. It needs to be slowly cooked in broth to make
it tender which can easily be done with a crock pot,
on a wood stove or in the oven.
Second, we need to use a little kitchen creativity to
cook with what is both seasonally available and on
hand. Missing an ingredient or two from a recipe?
Ask yourself, what would a peasant do. Since
the answer is not run to the grocery store, do as
chefs in even the fnest restaurants do everyday
and improvise substitute yogurt for buttermilk or
saut vegetables for a stew in saved bacon fat if you
dont have any bacon available to infuse a baconey
smokey favor into your dish.
Third, we need to make the most of everything we
have. Maybe the thought of making turkey soup
after eating the Thanksgiving or Christmas turkey
for three days isnt all that appealing, but to me it is
a crime to throw out the bones. Make turkey broth
and put it in the freezer. In January a piping hot
bowl of turkey soup will mean a free and delicious
meal for you and your family. Most peasants dont
have freezers lucky us!
In the cold and dark New England winter months
who doesnt crave a big bowl of soul satisfying
soup, the cornerstone of peasant cuisine? So, when
your next retirement savings statement shows up in
your mailbox, dont cry about feeling like a peasant.
Instead, get into your kitchen and start cooking like
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Th e Nat ur al Far me r S p r i n g , 2 0 0 9 11
Special Supplement on
Building Organic Soil
taken from Cornell Soil Health Assessment Training
Manual Edition 1.2.2, 2007
(full manual available at http://soilhealth.cals.
What is Soil?
Briefy, soil is composed of four basic components:
mineral solids, water, air and organic matter
(including living biota).
The mineral solids are stone fragments, sand, silt,
and clay. It is the proportion of the latter three
that determines the soils texture. For example, a
soil that is composed of 70% silt, 20% sand and
10% clay can be classifed as a silt loam using the
soil texture triangle. Soil texture contributes to
the inherent soil quality, the characteristics of the
soil that result from soil forming processes. These
characteristics are diffcult to change through soil
Water is essential for soil life. Water is the medium
that facilitates nutrient transport through the soil and
enables plant nutrient uptake. Water also enables/
facilitates the movement of microbes such as
nematodes and bacteria through the soil.
Air is constantly moving in and out of the soil. Air
provides the oxygen required for cell functioning
in aerobic organisms including plant roots. Both
air and water occupy the pore spaces (Figure 2)
created within and between soil aggregates (clusters
of sand, silt and clay particles bound together by
particle surface chemistry and microbial and plant
Organic matter is any material that is part of or
originated from living organisms. Organic matter
may be divided into three fractions, the living, the
dead (active fraction) and the very dead (stable
fraction). The living soil organic matter fraction
includes microorganisms, soil-dwelling insects,
microarthropods, animals and plants. The dead
fraction consists primarily of fresh residues from
crops, recently dead microorganisms and insects,
sloughed-off root cells, leaf litter, and manure,
etc. This fraction is considered active. The sugars,
proteins, cellulose and other simple compounds
are quickly broken down (degraded) by soil
microbes and used as a food source which fuels
the soil microbial population. The exudates (sticky
substances) produced by the microbes (and roots)
as well as the microbes themselves (e.g. fungi)
help bind the mineral particles together to form
soil aggregates. Good soil aggregation is important
for maintaining good (crumbly) soil structure and
enabling adequate air exchange and water drainage.
The very dead organic matter fraction is also called
humus. Humus is very stable and resists further
degradation. Although it is not an important food
source for microbes, it is important for storing
nutrients and water, binding toxic chemicals and
contributing to improved aggregate stability.
Soil Biology
The soil is teeming with life. Soil microbes
range from microscopic bacteria to macroscopic
earthworms and microarthropods. Some soil
scientists say that there are more species of
organisms in a shovel full of garden soil than can
be found above ground in the entire Amazon rain
Bacteria are the most abundant cells in the soil.
They can occur singly or join together in groups.
The bacteria (as well as other organisms) in the soil
are responsible for the decomposition of residues.
They secrete enzymes that break down molecules
such as sugars and starches into basic chemical
components like carbon and nitrogen, which the
bacteria can use for energy. If the nutrients are
not needed by the bacteria (or other degrading
organisms) then they are released into the soil and
become available for plant uptake. Other types of
bacteria such as rhizobia form specifc associations
with plants (e.g. legumes). The symbiotic
relationship results in the formation of nodules by
the plant. These bacteria fx nitrogen from the air
and convert it to ammonium nitrogen, a form that
can be used by the plant.
Actinomycetes, are another type of bacteria from
which numerous antibiotics have been derived.
They function to degrade the larger lignin molecules
in organic residues. They are also responsible for
the earthy smell of the soil from the production of
Fungi are also important in the decomposition of
crop residues, especially the recalcitrant compounds
such as hemicellulose and lignins. They are also less
sensitive than bacteria to acidic conditions. Ninety
percent of plants (with the exception of those in the
Brassica family and a few others) form a symbiotic
relationship with certain fungi called mycorrhizal
fungi. Mycorrhiza means fungus root. The fungus
penetrates the root cells and forms specialized
structures called arbuscules that are the site of
nutrient exchange between the plant and fungus.
The fungus also produces hyphae that grow out into
the soil and absorb water and nutrients, especially
phosphorus, and translocate them to the plant. In
return, the fungus receives sugars from the plant
that are used as a source of energy. Some soil-borne
fungi are also pathogenic and cause diseases.
Nematodes are generally the most abundant
multicellular organisms in soils. They are involved
in organic matter decomposition and nutrient
cycling, biological control of insects and other
organisms, as well as serve as food for other soil
organisms. A number are also parasites of plants and
Algae are abundant in habitats with accessible light
and adequate moisture. They can exist as single
cells or can form long chains. Similar to plants,
algae contains chlorophyll and therefore are able to
convert sunlight into energy or form more complex
Soil Texture Triangle helps you determing what kind of soil you have.
Th e Nat ur al Far me r S p r i n g , 2 0 0 9 12
Protozoa are single celled animals that are classifed
based on their means of locomotion (cilia, fagella,
etc.). They can feed directly upon microbial cells
such as bacteria and fungi or they can adsorb
solubilized organic and inorganic compounds. It is
thought that through feeding on other soil microbes,
protozoa are instrumental in mineralizing nitrogen
in agricultural systems.
Large macroscopic organisms such as earthworms,
insects and millipeds are important for improving
aggregation, soil drainage, and aeration due to their
burrowing/-channeling nature.
All the life in the soil interacts together into what
is termed the soil food web. With organic matter as
the initial primary food source the bacteria, fungi,
actinomycetes and nematodes feed and release
nutrients for plant uptake. Then they themselves are
fed upon by larger soil organisms such as arthopods,
earthworms and so on (see diagram).
Some Key Functions of Soil Microbes Include:
Decomposition of organic matter (crop residue)
Mineralization and recycling of nutrients
Fixation of nitrogen
Detoxifcation of pollutants
Maintenance of soil structure
Biological suppression of plant pests
Parasitism and damage to plants
Soil Management
Although there are only four main strategies for
improving soil biological and physical health
(tillage, cover crops, organic amendments and
crop rotation), the options within each strategy are
numerous and the combinations are endless. Not all
soil management practices are practical or adaptable
to all farm situations therefore trying out practices
on a smaller scale and modifying them to suit the
particular farm operation is recommended.
Cover Crops
Cover crops provide a canopy for seasonal soil
protection and improvement between the production
of the main crops. Cover crops usually are grown
for less than one year. When plowed under and
incorporated into the soil for improved fertility,
cover crops are also referred to as green manure.
Cover crops have the potential for recycling
nutrients which otherwise would be lost through
leaching during off -season periods. Cover crops
with shallow fbrous root systems, such as many
grasses, rapidly build soil aggregation in the surface
layer. Cover crops with deep roots can help break-
up compacted layers, and bring nutrients from
deeper soil layers to make them available for the
following cash crop. Leguminous cover crops can
also fx atmospheric nitrogen for the beneft of the
crop that follows. Other benefts from cover crops
include protection of the soil from water and wind
erosion, improved soil tilth and suppressing soil-
borne pathogens. Dead cover crop material may
be left on the soil surface, and are then referred
to as mulch, which can reduce evaporation of soil
moisture, increase infltration of rainfall, increase
soil organic matter and aid in the control of annual
weeds. Leguminous cover crops suitable for the
Northeastern US include clovers, hairy vetch,
feld peas, alfalfa, and soybean while popular
nonleguminous cover crops include rye, oats, wheat,
oilseed radish, sudangrass, and buckwheat.
When selecting cover crops it is important to
What are your goals for using a cover crop(s)?
Is it to increase organic matter, break-up surface
or subsurface compaction, weed and disease
suppression, nutrient management, or prevent
Where can cover crops ft into the rotation?
Summer, winter, or season-long?
When and how should the cover crop be killed or
incorporated? Winter-kill vs. chemical applications
vs. rolled and chopped?
What cover crops are suitable for the climate?
What cover crops ft with the current production
practices including any equipment constraints?
Winter cover crops
Winter cover crops are planted in late summer into
fall, typically following harvest of a cash crop.
Both hardy grasses and leguminous crops can
be planted. Some crops like buckwheat and oats
will be damaged by frost or winter-killed while
others will require tillage, rolling or chemical
management in spring prior to planting. Although
in Northern climates the choices are limited by
the short growing season, planting a winter cover
crop can provide protection from soil erosion,
suppression of weeds and root pathogens and can
increase soil organic matter and aggregation. For
late harvested crops, winter cover crops might be
better interseeded. Winter cover crops commonly
planted in the Northeast include winter rye, hairy
vetch, oats, wheat, red clover and various mixtures
of the above.
Summer fallow cover crops:
Summer fallow cover crops are more common in
vegetable than feld crop rotations. A fast growing
cover crop could be planted between summer
vegetable crops. However, this option is severely
limited in the north by the short growing season
and severe cold. For example, buckwheat can be
grown after early spring lettuce and prior to planting
a crop of fall broccoli. In shorter season climates, a
more successful option may be to interseed a cover
crop into the main crop once the latter becomes
established, but it is important to avoid competition
by the cover crop for water and nutrients.
Season-long cover crops
Full season-long cover crops serve as rotational
crops and are an excellent way of accumulating a lot
of plant biomass. However, often this means taking
the feld out of cash crop production for a season.
This will especially beneft felds with low fertility
and farms with limited access to manures and
other sources of organic amendments. Relay cover
cropping is also another option. This is when a
crop such as red clover is spring seeded into wheat,
which then continues to grow after the wheat crop is
harvested. It is important to keep in mind that some
cover crops such as buckwheat, ryegrass, crown
vetch and hairy vetch have the potential to become a
weed problem if they set seed.
Organic Amendments
Organic matter is critical for maintaining soil
structure, and increasing water infltration as well as
water holding capacity. It can also increase cation
exchange capacity (CEC), nutrient retention, and
microbial diversity and activities. Organic matter
can be added through incorporation of cover crops
as green manures as well as additions of composts,
animal manures, and crop residues. The addition
of organic amendments is particularly important
in vegetable production where minimal crop
residue is returned to the soil and more intensive
tillage is required that promotes the rapid depletion
of soil organic matter. The impact of various
organic amendments on soil physical, chemical
and biological properties can be different and
thus is important to consider when making soil
management decisions.
Animal manure
The application of manure can have many soil and
crop health benefts such as increasing nutrient
levels (nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium in
particular) that beneft not only the crop but also
the soil microbial community. However not all
manures are created equal and will vary depending
on the animal, feed, bedding, and manure-storage
practices employed. Manure containing a lot of
bedding is typically applied as a solid while manure
with minimal bedding is applied as a liquid. Manure
solids and liquids may be separated, or can also be
composted prior to application to help stabilize the
nutrients. Due to the variability in nutrient content,
manure analysis may be benefcial and take the
guesswork out of estimating the nutrient content and
characteristics of the manure.
Manuring of the soil can also infuence soil organic
matter and fresh uncomposted manure is very
effective at increasing soil aggregation. However,
the impact is dependent on the amount of solids
delivered. It also can increase the CEC, soil pH, and
total pore space. Careful attention should be paid to
the timing of application and optimizing application
to meet the needs of the crop or cropping sequence.
Excessive or untimely application can cause plant
damage and pose an environmental danger to water
Unlike manure, compost is very stable and
not a readily available source of nutrients. The
composting process uses heat and microbial activity
to quickly decompose simple compounds like sugars
and proteins, leaving behind more stable complex
compounds such as lignins and humic acids.
The stable products of composting are an important
source of organic matter. The addition of compost
increases available water capacity by improving
water retention and pore space on which water
and nutrients can bind. Compost is less effective
at building soil aggregation than fresh manure,
because the readily-degradable organic compounds
have already been decomposed. Composts differ
in their effciency to suppress various crop pests,
although they can sometimes be quite effective.
Green manure crops
Green manure crops are those grown for the purpose
of improving the soil fertility with microbial
diversity and organic matter content in general as
opposed to cover crops which are grown more for
the purpose of erosion protection and cycling of
nutrients. When incorporated, green manures add
a lot of fresh, readily degradable material to the
soil, which fuels the soils microbial community.
The increased production of microbial exudates
helps hold the individual soil particles together as
aggregates. A soil with better aggregation (aggregate
stability) is more resilient in heavy rain storms and
is capable of greater water infltration.
In reduced tillage systems, one way to get the added
benefts of green manure crops is to only incorporate
them in the planting row and use the killed crop
between the rows as a mulch.
Crop residue
Crop residue is another important source of organic
matter. As it decomposes, the organic matter is
going back into the soil and improving soil tilth.
Crop residue left on the surface will protect against
erosion and improve surface aggregation, thereby
reducing crusting and surface compaction. However,
diseased crop debris can harbor inoculum that
can become a problem during the next season if
a susceptible crop is planted. Crop rotation with
non-host crops belonging to different plant families
will reduce pathogen inoculum. Removal and
composting of crop debris may be an option in some
situations. Incorporation or plowing down of crop
debris to encourage the decomposition process may
be an option depending on the tillage system and
crop rotation sequence being employed.
As new technologies have been developed, the
reliance on tillage to kill weeds, incorporate crop
debris, and prepare seedbeds has been diminished.
Extensive tillage reduces soil aggregation, resulting
in crusting and soil compaction as well as oft en
stimulating the microbial community that burns
off organic matter quickly. There is consensus that
reducing tillage intensity will improve soil health
and over time reduce production costs
There are many different strategies for reducing
tillage intensity aside from going to no-till.
Strip tillage uses a shank set at the depth of the
compacted layer (if present) to rip the compacted
layer and then a series of coulters to form a narrow,
shallow ridge into which the seeds are planted.
Zone tillage is similar to strip tillage without the
rip shank. Instead of preparing the entire feld as a
seedbed, only a narrow band is loosened, enabling
crop or cover crop residue to remain on the soil
surface as a mulch. Implementing the use of
permanent drive rows often better facilitates reduced
tillage systems.
Th e Nat ur al Far me r S p r i n g , 2 0 0 9 13
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Reduced tillage can also be thought of in the long-
term and modifed based on the cropping sequence.
Different tillage practices can be rotated depending
on the soil management goals and concerns. For
some crops such as potato, more intensive tillage
and soil disturbance may be required in order to
establish and harvest the crop, but the subsequent
sweet corn (or other) crop(s) could be strip- or no-
tilled into a killed winter rye cover crop.
Frost tillage can be a means of alleviating soil
compaction in the winter. It is done when the soil is
frozen between 1 and 3 inches deep; conditions that
typically occur on average 4 to 6 days per winter
in New York State and other similar production
regions. The soil below the frost layer is non-plastic
or dry, ideal conditions for tillage. Frost-tilled soil
leaves a rough surface but subsequent freeze-thaw
action loosens the soil and allows the clods to fall
apart in the spring.
However, the type and timing of tillage is often
site specifc and dependent on the cropping system
and equipment availability. Reducing both tillage
frequency and intensity will reduce the burning of
organic matter and lead to improved soil tilth and
microbial activity, resulting in soils that are less
susceptible to compaction and more resilient.
Crop Rotation
Initially, crop rotation was practiced as a way to
avoid depleting the soil of various nutrients. Today,
crop rotation is also an important component of
soil and pest management in many agricultural
production systems. Crop rotations can be as
simple as rotating between two crops and planting
sequences in alternate years or they can be more
complex and involve numerous crops over several
years. Proper crop rotation can reduce insects and
disease-causing pathogens as well as weed pressure
by breaking their lifecycles through removal of a
suitable host. Crop rotation can also aid in nutrient
management through incorporation of crop residues
and improve soil resiliency after a root crop such a
carrot or potato. Many growers fnd yield increases
when crops in different families are grown in
rotation versus in monoculture and this is often
referred to as the rotation effect.
One basic rule of crop rotation is that a crop should
not follow itself. Continuous cropping will result
in the build-up of disease causing pathogens,
nematodes, insects and weeds that can lead to
yield reductions. The development of a cropping
sequence should take into consideration the use of
cover crops and season-long soil building crops
for improving soil tilth and increasing soil organic
matter. Rotating with a diversity of root structures
from taproots to fbrous-rooted crops will also
improve the soils physical, chemical and biological
qualities. Developing successful crop rotation
sequences is farm specifc and dependent on the
unique combination of location and climatic factors,
as well as economic and resource limitations.
All the life in the soil interacts together into what is termed the soil food web
Th e Nat ur al Far me r S p r i n g , 2 0 0 9 14
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by Elham A. Ghabbour and Geoffrey Davies
Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology,
Northeastern University, Boston, MA 02115
This article is about soil. Look at your soil. Feel
it in your hands. Ask yourself what compounds in
your soil are pH buffers, retain water, sequester soil
organics, bind metal ions, neutralize toxic pollutants
and enhance plant growth, all at the same time? The
brown to black soil biomaterials were discussing
are called humic substances (HSs), the essential
components of healthy, productive soils. Humic
substances got their name from their earthly source,
Water retention and plant growth enhancement
depend on soil organic matter (SOM) and especially
on a soils HSs fraction. Arable soils have up to
10% SOM, of which HSs typically account for 80%.
The major sources of SOM are shown in Figure 1.
Dead leaves mixed in and on top of soil consist of
50-60% cellulose and other polysaccharides, 15-
20% lignins and 15-20% of fatty molecules called
lipids. Depending on the water and oxygen supply,
temperature and other environmental factors, up to
80% of the carbon in these inputs may be converted
to carbon dioxide (CO
) and released to the air
within a year.
Figure 1. Typical soil inputs.
Humic Substances:
Essential Components of a Healthy Soil
photo by Craig Bailey Northeastern University, Boston
Principal Scientist Dr. Elham Ghabbour and Prof. Geoffrey Davies direct the National Soil Project.
However, with the aid of microbes, the remaining
carbon is converted (humifed) to give HSs that
are much more stable over time than the inputs. In
fact, carbon dating indicates that some HSs in soil
are thousands of years old! But even these very
stable HSs react over many years with oxygen in
the air to make CO
. This CO
production from HSs
respiration prevents the earth from being covered
with HSs soup and completes the carbon cycle. So
the basic difference between organic inputs to soil
Th e Nat ur al Far me r S p r i n g , 2 0 0 9 16
Th e Nat ur al Far me r S p r i n g , 2 0 0 9 17
and the remainder after most of them have been lost
as CO
is the long lived HSs in the soil.
HSs are by no means dead. In fact they are very
active soil components. Here are some parts of the
carbon cycle that involve HSs.
HSs contain more carbon than all living things; in
other words, they are the major carbon sinks in the
cycle of life.
Among many other roles, solid HSs act as pH
buffers and metal binders, and they are places to
sequester plant fertilizers, nutrients, pollutants and
soil toxins. No other natural materials have so many
functions in so many different places.
HSs are more versatile than any other synthetic or
natural material and they are biodegradable, non-
allergenic and non-mutagenic if freed of harmful
metals, pollutants and microorganisms.
HSs have been the object of much study over
the last 100 years. Interest in them is growing
despite natural obstacles. For example, we need to
know which HSs components are responsible for
the major processes in soils and waters, and the
proportions of these components in a humic source.
Finding the structures of molecules requires pure
samples, but HSs are very complex mixtures that
are hard to separate into discrete compounds. It may
be that this complexity confuses microbes that are
much more adept at chewing up polysaccharides
and proteins with more regular structures. Structural
differences between HSs might prevent evolution of
microbes able to consume them.
One thing to think about is how can we reverse
constant, well-documented loss of fertile topsoil
through wind and water erosion and from over-use
of mineral fertilizers? We can appreciate that HSs
stick frmly to clays and minerals, preventing them
from being rinsed from soils.
The HSs mixtures are assigned as family members
based on their solubility in water. Compared to
other family members, the babies -- called fulvic
acids (FAs) are relatively small molecules that are
soluble at all pH. The parents -- called humic acids
(HAs) are larger and soluble only above pH 2. The
grandparents -- called humin (HU) are completely
insoluble in water at any pH and are believed to be
HA-clay-mineral mixtures. Mass for mass, HAs
dominate HSs and SOM and are the focus of what
Humic Acid Characteristics
HAs are carbon-rich materials with characteristic
and fairly constant analyses but variable total
acidity. The principal elements of HSs and HAs
are carbon (C), hydrogen (H), oxygen (O) and
nitrogen (N). Despite the different origins of soil
humic acids (forest litter, grasslands, manure,
farmlands and so on), they have quite similar
chemical formulas. Isolated HAs can contain up to
10% each of polysaccharides such as cellulose and
proteins, with a few amino acids and carbohydrates
predominating. Allowance for the amino acid and
carbohydrate contents gives the simplest formula
O (x = 0-15) for HAs isolated
and purifed from many different sources by many
different scientists.
Figure 2. Scanning electron microscope image of
HA aggregates. The average particle diameter is
about 500 nanometers (about 200 times smaller
than the diameter of a human hair)
As already mentioned, HAs resist separation into
fractions. They like to clump up to give nearly
spherical particles (Figure 2). Scientists are
beginning to speculate about their structures. HA
clumping may involve lipids. Recent work by
Professor Alessandro Piccolo in Italy indicates that
HAs in soils can separate into smaller units like
those found in FAs and dissolved organic matter.
These smaller molecular units can get back together
again (aggregate) as the soil pH drops or the soil
dries. This is the supramolecular theory of HSs
that we will revisit later.
Present knowledge suggests fairly small HA
building blocks. Lab experiments indicate that HAs
are a bit like Swiss cheese, with holes flled with
water surrounded by solid organic regions. Clump
breakup and molecular stretching occurs at higher
pH because the molecules take on negative charges
and repel one another.
HA Model Structures
Humifcation products are non-uniform in three
respects. First, they are made from different inputs.
Second, they may be contaminated with non-
humic substances such as lipids, nucleic acids,
polysaccharides, proteins, steroids, clays, minerals
and metals. Third, HAs contain carbon backbones
dotted with active groups that are neutral, acidic or
Although there are no actual structures known,
modeling of HAs is a hot topic. There are two
classes of models. The frst envisions the average
HA building block and the second models the whole
SOM. One HA building block (Figure 3a) comes
from lignins and tannins, while the other pathway
starts with amino acids to give the structure in
Figure 3b. Lignin is also made in nature from amino
acids. Actually, the so-called Temple-Northeastern-
Birmingham (TNB) building block (Figure 3b) can
be generated in known reactions from known lignin
components. The proposed building blocks all link
together to give hollow structures that normally are
flled with water (Figure 3c). This helical model is
like a telephone cord. It explains water retention in
terms of HAs with hollow centers and water-loving
functional groups on the outside of the molecular
The whole SOM model in Figure 3d consists of
hydrocarbon rings linked by long hydrocarbon
chains in a fairly big molecule. The structure has
cavities large enough to hold small amino acid
and carbohydrate chains and water. The helix and
whole SOM molecular model are like Swiss cheese
because of their holes.
Whatever their structures, the fact is that HAs are
excellent mopper-uppers because they are water-
loving, lipid-loving chameleons. They lower the
surface tension of water and form colloids that can
sequester hydrophobic (water-hating) compounds,
bind more polar compounds and also bind metals.
This is why HAs as a class are so much more
versatile than other natural materials.
Big molecule models built by loose association
of small HA structures are being put forward and
this supramolecular chemistry of HAs is a new and
exciting feld. Instead of single molecules, HAs are
being described as aggregates and surfactants. HA
molecule surface areas are being measured and their
shapes and sizes described. Advanced computer
modeling is predicting shapes, folding patterns and
metal binding sites.
Molecular architecture and surface features of HA
particles can be measured by todays microprobe
techniques. The shapes and properties of HSs
dramatically alter in response to changes in
soil pH, salinity and exposure to minerals. The
actual behavior of HSs in natural soil and water
environments is a function of their molecular
structure. This has important implications for
pollutant transport in drinking water, HAs sticking
to clay and mineral surfaces, and ultimately to
human health.
Remediating Soil Erosion
Deserts are growing, populations are exploding and
frightening amounts of soil and humic substances
blow and wash away from the land every year by
erosion. Long term intensive farming also depletes
SOM. HSs lost from soils need to be replenished.
Solutions to SOM loss include promoting organic
farming, waste composting, and seeking alternate
natural sources of HSs, the pivotal components of
the air-soil-water system.
We are supervising an undergraduate research
project at Northeastern. It aims to give a snapshot
of HA and FA contents of the nations agricultural
top soils. Measurements to date indicate a wide
range of values ranging from practically zero to
higher than typical values. The scope of the project
depends on the number of soil samples received. We
ask for your kind assistance. Details of how you can
contribute are given at the end of this article.
Humus and potting soil sales are big business, but
it makes little sense to replenish large amounts of
poor top soil with soil from another location. A
solution to soil shortages is accelerated large scale
composting, which is a worldwide interest. Plants
Ia Ib
a b
1a 1b
Figure 3. a. lignin building blocks (Diallo and coworkers, 2001); b. Proposed TNB HA building
block (Jansen and co-workers, 1997); c. Hollow elliptical helix obtained by linking lowest energy TNB
HA building blocks (Sein, Jansen and co-workers, 1999); d. Proposed 3-dimensional SOM molecule
(Schnitzer and Schulten, 1995). Notice the cavities for solute and water binding
Th e Nat ur al Far me r S p r i n g , 2 0 0 9 18
that contain HAs are good composting feedstock.
Another HA source is low-rank soft brown coals
and leonardite, which contain extractable HAs that
resemble soil HAs but are more carbon-rich. These
economical coal-derived HAs are useful for soil and
water remediation.
Todays technology gives us commercial products
with high HA contents of up to 80%. Aside from
agricultural applications, the products can be
used as reactive barriers for landflls, wastewater
cleanup, munitions decommissioning and as health
supplements. Leading companies in this emerging
industry include Arctech, Inc. of Chantilly, VA,
Horizon AG of Modesto, CA and Morningstar
Minerals of Farmington, NM.
Recently, a number of commercial products made
with soft coal-derived HAs have capitalized
on their remarkable properties. Humic acids
derived from low rank coal are cross-linked to
make them insoluble in water even at high pH.
These products are then able to remediate soils
and waters contaminated with toxic organic and
inorganic chemicals. Some metals are converted
from toxic states to a non-toxic state, e.g. chromate
(chromium (VI)) to chromic (chromium (III)).
Also dramatic is the removal of substances like
trichloroethylene (TCE), a common pollutant in
soils and groundwater resulting from improper
solvent disposal and spillage. These pollutants
are converted by HAs to the gases ethylene and
hydrogen chloride. A bright future is envisioned for
the detoxifcation applications of humic substances.
Solid HAs as Metal Binders
Humic acids have higher metal binding capacities
than most commercial ion exchangers and they
selectively bind, store and release metals. Humic
acids can be used in soil remediation to trap
contaminants. They also can transport metals to
other sites. Metals mainly are bound by HAs as
acids, which means that they act at least partly
as weak acid cation exchangers. Bound metals
and minerals reduce HAs fexibility and cause
HA aggregation or they block the binding sites
and reduce the binding capacity. HAs molecular
fexibility enables them to wrap around a metal
center. Metals can also bridge reactive groups on
different HA molecules.
Plant Growth Enhancement by Humic
Besides improving the texture and increasing
the water retention of a soil, HSs have been
demonstrated in combination with traditional
nitrogen + phosphorus + potassium (NPK) and
micronutrients to improve crop yields. Crops
demonstrating growth enhancement by HSs include
alfalfa, beans, sugar beets, begonias, carrots, clover,
cotton, cucumbers, grapes, millet, peanuts, peas,
peppers, radishes, soybeans, sunfowers, tomatoes,
turf and wheat.
Reports of HSs infuence on root initiation,
elongation and surface area are easy to fnd. These
enhancements are partly attributed to improved zinc
and phosphorus uptake, and there is evidence for
a hormone-like growth enhancement effect. HSs
also appear to encourage the growth of benefcial
mychorhizal fungi in the soil. HSs can be added
to NPK-amended irrigation water throughout the
growing season. Reports from this approach indicate
increased crop levels of potassium, nitrogen,
phosphorus and micronutrients. The effects of HSs
on plant growth are classifed as direct and indirect.
Direct effects include 1) improved transport of
nutrients into plant cells. Nutrient metals are stored
in the roots and HSs seem to facilitate nutrient
translocation to stems and leaves; 2) enhanced
protein synthesis in plants; 3) plant hormone-like
activity; 4) enhanced photosynthesis and resistance
to lime-induced leaf chlorosis due to iron defciency;
5) effects on enzyme activity within the plant.
Indirect effects include 1) improved root access
to water and oxygen because of better soil
structure and tilth; 2) soil pH buffering; 3) a
contribution from HSs of up to 50% of the cation
exchange capacity (CEC) of a soil despite their
much lower proportions in soil than clay and
minerals; 4) solubilization of K, calcium and P
for plant nutrition; 5) sequestering toxic elements;
6) increasing microbial populations, including
benefcial microbes.
FA babies are faster growth enhancers than HA
parents because they are smaller and can cross cell
membranes. Foliar spraying with FA is cheaper
than mixing commercial HAs with topsoil, although
the frst beneft is for the year while the second is
long-lasting. Addition of FAs and NPK to spray
water are effective on most crops. Optimum
FA concentrations depend on the crop and feld
conditions. Pot tests may be used to get the spray
mix optimized. Some results of optimized foliar
spraying approaches are listed in Table 1 and
illustrated in Figure 4. Typical concentrations for
foliar FA applications lie in the range 1.4 4.2
ounces of FA per 100 gallons of water.
Reliable, Dependable HSs Specifcations
The days when soft coal with vague specifcations
and little or no agricultural value was sold to
farmers are hopefully over. As commercial HSs use
in agriculture and soil remediation increases, so
does development of reliable, inexpensive methods
for commercial HSs product analysis. Also of value
is determination of the current HSs contents of soils.
The Humic Acid Group at Northeastern has many
years of experience in HSs isolation and analysis.
With these data, HSs use can be optimized and
recommended to farmers by suppliers. With clearly
stated HSs contents as a requirement, commercial
humic products can be approved and regulated. Not
suprisingly, analytical method development is a hot
subject in humic research and commercial humic
product operations.
Humic acids are essential components of healthy
soils. Current HA models help to explain their
origin and behavior as fexible, highly functional
molecules. Composting and economical HA
extraction from soft coal will help to combat water
and soil pollution and fght soil erosion. Judicious
use of HSs as soil builders and remediators leads
to enhanced crop yields, lessening excessive use of
mineral fertilizers, which kills the soil.
We thank Jack Kittredge, Editor of The Natural
Farmer, for inviting us to contribute this perspective
on HSs as soil builders and natural crop growth
enhancers. We are very grateful to Northeastern
University undergraduates John Daggett, Jr., Wei
Ng, Jason Silverman and Gregory Wyant for their
ongoing work on the National Soil Project.
National Soil Project Underway at Northeastern
University Assistance Requested
Principal Research Scientist Elham Ghabbour and
Chemistry Professor Geoffrey Davies are directing
an undergraduate National Soil Research Project at
Northeastern University Boston (NU) that aims to
measure the humic (HA) and fulvic acid (FA) contents
of the nations agricultural top soils (0 30 cm).
The ultimate objective is to monitor the status of our
soils over time. FAs and HAs are major microbially-
resistant organic soil components that retain water,
act as pH buffers, improve soil texture/permeability
and regulate many other healthy soil functions. The
concern is that our HAs and FAs are being depleted
over time, leading to poorer and poorer soils. Soils
potentially can be re-built with HAs extracted from
sources such as low rank coals that are of no use as
fuels. Existing data do not distinguish HAs and FAs
from transient soil organic matter such as leaf litter,
manure and corn stover. Preliminary results on 150
samples indicate wide variation in soil HA and FA
contents. The NU group has many years of experience
in isolating and measuring HAs and FAs. The project
needs one-pound, air-dried soil samples to be mailed
parcel post to NU from the nations farms and counties
for analysis. Parcel post will be reimbursed on request.
Please contact and check the
website The project results will
be published and shared with soil donors on request.
Your participation will make this project possible and
is greatly appreciated.
Figure 4. Effects of FA concentration on the dry weight of cucumber roots
(after Rauthan and Schnitzer, 1981)
Th e Nat ur al Far me r S p r i n g , 2 0 0 9 19
by Lee Reich, PhD
adapted from Weedless Gardening (Workman
Publishing, 2001), by Lee Reich.
First, an admission: The soil here on my farmden
(more than a garden, less than a farm) is, physically,
as good as any gardener or farmer could hope for.
Its well-drained, a silty loam about 18 deep over a
clay loam another 18 deep and then a coarse sand
as deep as Ive ever dug, with virtually no rocks. I
can dig a 4-foot-deep post hole by hand in about 5
And good drainage is the most important, frst
consideration when it comes to building good soil.
Roots need air to breathe and suffocate in poorly
drained soils. Such conditions also cause some
minerals to reach levels toxic to plants. No amount
of fertility can override the effects of poor drainage.
Assessing Soil Drainage
You know drainage of a piece of ground is poor if
you see water standing long after rain has stopped.
The presence of wetland plants such as purple
loosestrife, yellow fag, cardinal fower, buttercup,
horsetail, Joe-pye weed, smartweed, sedges,
buttonbush, winterberry, and, of course, cattails
is another indication. But dont be led astray by
soil wet on just one day or by one or two wetland
plants that are struggling in soil that is actually well

Digging a hole is the most direct way to assess
drainage as long as you factor into your soil
evaluation recent weather conditions such as rain
and time of year (cold soil drains more slowly
than warm soil). Dig the hole wide enough to
accommodate a large can such as one in which
tomato or grapefruit juice is sold. Cut the top and
bottom off the can and press it into the soil at the
bottom of the hole so that water cannot run out its
bottom edge. Fill the can with water and let it sit
until all the water drains out the bottom into the soil.
Fill the can with water again and this time measure
how fast the level drops. Drainage is poor if the
water level drops any slower than one inch per hour.
Dealing With Poor Drainage
Poor drainage results when water cant percolate
fast enough down through a soil and/or when
groundwater levels remain near a soils surface.
Clay soils can percolate poorly because their
small pores cling to water by capillary attraction.
One way to loosen up clay soil is by mixing in
an abundance of organic materials. These organic
materials act like glues to aggregate the small clay
particles into larger units with correspondingly
larger spaces between them. Many organic materials
suffce, but peat moss or sawdust is ideal for a
dramatic change in soil structure, on a garden or
farmden scale, at least. The small peat moss or
sawdust particles mingle intimately with the clay,
decaying slowly. (Sawdust also has the advantage
of being free or cheap. Look in the Yellow Pages
under Sawmills, Cabinet Makers, Millwork,
and Woodworking. Avoid sawdust containing
pressure-treated or painted wood.)

Apply the sawdust or peat moss when the soil is
neither very wet nor very dry, but just moist. Spread
a six-inch layer over the ground, which works
out to about two cubic yards per hundred square
feet. Because peat moss or sawdust makes the soil
temporarily more acidic, add limestone at the rate
of 60 pounds per hundred square feet -- unless
youre also trying to make the soil more acidic. For
sawdust, add some extra nitrogen fertilizer because
soil microorganisms temporarily borrow nitrogen,
at the expense of plants, to decompose that sawdust.
Spread a hundred pounds of some fertilizer, such as
soybean meal, containing about 10 percent nitrogen
on top of the sawdust. Then mix the peat moss or
sawdust thoroughly into the top foot or so of soil.
Not every clay soil is a candidate for such heroic
treatment. Many clay soils need nothing more than
regular, smaller additions of organic materials and
not being subject to tillage or traffc when very wet.
Soils that are only moderately high in clay yet are
high in sodium, the latter a condition common in
the western part of the U.S. and near salted roads in
these parts, also suffer from poor drainage. Sodium
prevents the aggregation of small clay particles into
larger units. Remedy this condition by substituting
calcium, usually from gypsum, for that sodium.
Acidity resulting from application of sulfur or iron
sulfate can dissolve calcium carbonate in alkaline
soils to release calcium and produce the same effect.
Thoroughly mix the gypsum, sulfur, or iron sulfate
into the top half-foot or so of soil, then follow
the digging with a heavy application of water to
leach out the sodium. A soil test for sodium and
a recommendation from your local Cooperative
Extension offce will tell you how much material to
apply. In the case of gypsum, common applications
are on the order of twenty pounds per hundred
square feet.
Moving on now to soils that drain poorly because
groundwater levels are too near the surface . . . the
cure, in this case, is to get the roots out of the water.
One way to get roots out of the water is to simply
lower that water table by draining it away to lower
ground in open ditches or in buried, perforated
photo courtesy Lee Reich
Lee turns a load of compost in his slab-built
compost bin
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We use the 4 tine cultivator behind the oscillating hoe. Donald E. Beckwith,
Meadowood Farm, Yarmouth, Maine. Owner of 4 Valley Oak wheel hoes.
We used the wheel hoe for many
hours this weekend. I wish I had
bought one years ago. It has and
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how we cultivate our small plantings
of vegetables. Dale Willoughby,
Willoughby Farm, Pittsfield, New
Th e Nat ur al Far me r S p r i n g , 2 0 0 9 20
plastic pipes. (The Natural Resource Conservation
Service provides technical assistance for drainage
projects.) The more clay in the soil, the more closely
spaced ditches or pipes need to be in order to draw
off the water.

A drainage ditch does not have to be large. A
shovels width is suffcient breadth for a garden.
The deeper the ditch, the greater the depth of well-
aerated soil that results. A gradual slope along the
length of any ditch, about a half foot per 100 feet,
keeps the water fowing downhill.
Perforated pipe buried beneath the ground drains
water away without changing a sites appearance.
Four-inch-diameter, black plastic drainage pipes
available at home and building stores can be laid
in pre-dug trenches. Cover the upper side of pipes
with some fabric or paper to keep out dirt, then add
a layer of gravel and backfll the soil. A screen at the
outlet end of the pipe keeps out curious animals.

A so-called hardpan, which is a hardened layer
within the soil through which roots and water
penetrate only slowly, also can create a high in
this case really a perched water table. Pans form
naturally in soils where certain minerals or types of
clay particles accumulate and cement themselves
together. They can also result from traffc over the
ground or from repeated tillage to the same depth.
Slow drainage is a symptom of a hardpan. Dig
a hole and you may be able to see or feel a layer
of hardened material. Neighbors or the Natural
Resource Soil Conservation Service might be able
to tell you if hardpan soils are prevalent in your
area. Time and deep-rooted plants can eventually
break up a pan, but a quicker way is to use a long-
bladed spade, garden fork, chisel plow, or rototiller.
In this case, turning the soil over is not as important
as breaking through the hardened layer.

Instead of lowering the water table, you can rescue
roots by raising them above the water table before
planting, of course. Raised beds can do this or, in
the case of individual trees, shrubs, and vines, wide
mounds. Wide because they will dry out too
quickly in summer if too small.

On a garden scale, neither open ditches nor raised
beds need be eyesores. Stone-lined ditches might,
for example emulate designs of water gardens of
ancient Persia. Likewise, a pattern of raised beds,
as well as the materials used for their sides and
the paths, might transport your garden to another
time, another place. That time and place might be
medieval Europe if the edgings are of sawn timbers
and the paths of beige pea gravel. Line the beds
with rough cut logs and lay straw or crushed oyster
shells in the paths, and you might instead imagine
hitching your horse to a post outside this shadow of
a colonial American garden. Or, build raised beds
and ditches at the same time, emulating those old-
time gardeners of Xochimilco, Mexico. Plant plenty
of marigolds, a favorite fower in Xochimilco,
to lend authenticity to such a garden, and have
a boat ready to ply the paths if they are, indeed,
permanently water-flled ditches as were the paths
of Xochimilcos gardens.
Taking Care Of The Soils Biology And
Once drainage is taken care of, a soils biological
and nutritional ftness needs to be addressed. Soil
Th e Nat ur al Far me r S p r i n g , 2 0 0 9 21
acidity is the frst order of business here because if it
is not in the correct range, certain nutrients become
unavailable, others become toxic, and benefcial soil
microorganisms are not favored. Most cultivated
plants enjoy soils that are slightly acidic, that is,
with a pH of about 6.5. Many of our soils here in the
northeast are naturally more acidic than 6.5, which
is why they need periodic liming, or applications of
ground limestone. Blueberries and some other plants
require very acidic soils, with pH in the range 4 to
5.5; sulfur, a naturally mined mineral, lowers soil
acidity when needed.
With soil aeration and pH taken care of, soil
building becomes straightforward; it can, for the
most part, be summed up in two words: organic
materials. When added to the soil, organic materials
feed myriad fungi, bacteria, earthworms, and other
organisms that, in turn, release nutrients that feed
our plants. But thats only part of the picture. A
whole witchs brew of organic compounds are also
formed that further help feed plants, protect them
against pests, and further improve soil aeration
and water holding capacity. Organic materials
even buffer soil acidity, allowing for more wiggle
room in pH adjustments. Organic materials are the
essence of organic gardening and farming.
The question is where to get organic materials and
how to get them in the soil. Fortunately or, rather,
unfortunately our society is rife with such waste
organic materials as lawn clippings, autumn leaves,
kitchen waste, livestock manure, and wood chips.
Certain industries and businesses also produce
abundant and useful organic waste: spent hops from
brewers, spent coffee from Starbucks, manure, spent
produce from supermarkets. I used to gather hay
that had been mowed along road right-of-ways for
my garden.
Organic materials could be composted before being
applied to the soil, laid on top of the soil, or tilled
(or dug) into the soil. Where possible, I avoid tilling
or digging materials into the soil because digging
exposes buried weed seeds to light and air, inducing
them to sprout and so exacerbating weed problems.
Tilling or digging also speeds decomposition,
burning up organic materials faster than they are
replenished. Depending on the organic material,
that quick decomposition can temporarily tie up soil
nitrogen, so that extra nitrogen has to be added to
avoid starving plants for that nutrient.
Laying organic materials on top of the ground
works especially well when these materials are
weed-free, as is the case with materials such as
wood chips, pine needles, and wood shavings. Laid
on top of the ground, these high carbon materials
decompose slowly and mostly at the interface with
the soil; a steady state is achieved where nitrogen
is re-released into the soil about as fast as it is tied
up. Contrary to what is frequently recommended,
NO extra nitrogen is needed when these materials
are applied as mulches, except perhaps in very poor
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How to plant a tree so that its roots stay above the water table
Th e Nat ur al Far me r S p r i n g , 2 0 0 9 22
Compost is the Cadillac (or, more up-to-date, the
Prius) of soil builders: it is a rich source of both
stable and more readily decomposable organic
material and a host of nutrients and micronutrients,
and is free of pests and viable weed seeds or roots
when properly made. To get the most bang for your
buck from compost, lay it right on top of the ground
thats where aeration is best and near where most
plant feeder roots are. Burying compost by digging
or tilling it into the ground dilutes its benefts and
potentially subjects it to anaerobic decomposition
(putrifcation). A one-inch-deep mulch of compost
should supply all the nutrients plants need for a
Unless a soil is very sandy or plants are grown in
permanent, dedicated beds, periodic tillage will be
needed for aerating the soil to offset the compaction
that results from traffc, whether its from footsteps
or a tractor.
Another way to enrich a soil with organic materials
is to grow it in place, with so-called cover crops,
which are plants grown for soil improvement. Any
cover crop also helps prevent leaching and protect
the soil surface from erosion. Cover crops do not,
however, always increase soil organic matter. A
cover crop that is very young when killed for soil
improvement has such a low carbon to nitrogen ratio
that the excess nitrogen could even end up burning
up some of the existing organic matter. At the other
extreme is a non-leguminous cover crop that is very
mature when killed for soil improvement. Mixed
into a soil, this latter cover crop has a high enough
carbon to nitrogen ratio to tie up existing soil
nitrogen during decomposition (to be released later),
enough to temporarily starve plants for nitrogen
unless some nitrogen fertilizer is added. This cover
crop does build up soil organic matter, though. A
happy medium would be to kill a cover crop at some
intermediate stage or, rather than tilling a mature
cover crop into the soil, just let them fop down
dead on top of the ground as mulch. Cover crops
can be killed by tillage, by being knocked down and
chopped on the surface, or by winter cold.
Annual Care On My Farmden
I have not rested on my good luck at starting
out with a soil having naturally good drainage,
reasonably high organic matter, and moderate
fertility. Right from the beginning, 25 years ago,
I aspired to have the best possible soil, something
admittedly more readily achievable on the scale
on which I was working than on a farm. I also had
good inspiration for this aspiration: Many years ago,
when I had just started gardening and working on
a graduate degree in soil science, I traveled to the
homestead of Scott and Helen Nearing to help round
out my education. There, I marveled and delighted
in touching, planting, even weeding their mellow,
friable soil, a condition they said they achieved
mostly with the addition, over many years, of
abundant compost to their naturally poor soil.
I have parted ways with the Nearings in laying
out my planting areas in permanent beds that are
never dug or tilled part of a system I detail in
my book, Weedless Gardening (2001). Soil care is
very simple, consisting mostly of laying abundant
organic materials, as well as any amendments, on
top of the ground. When space is available, I also
grow cover crops oats or barley, either of which
winterkills so that all I need to do in spring is to rake
off the dead tops, leaving the dead roots intact to rot
and leave behind organic matter and channels for air
and water. For 25 years, I have produced more than
enough compost to cover each bed each year with
a one to 2 inch depth of compost. I add dolomitic
limestone to my compost piles rather than liming
the beds themselves. Paths and all other plantings
(berries, fruit trees and vines, fowers) get some
other weed-free organic material, such as wood
chips, leaves, leaf mold, or wood shavings. Any
amendments, such as the very occasional kelp meal,
greensand, or rock phosphate, are merely spread on
top of the ground, letting them work down through
time and frost cracks. Special plants or conditions
have warranted special treatments, such as the peat
moss and sulfur that I dug into planting holes before
planting blueberries.
Cornell University has recently instituted the
Cornell Health Assessment which rates soil
health taking into consideration various biological,
chemical, and physical parameters. My soil rated
very high, something I attribute, in large part, to
my liberal use of a pitchfork rather than any special
Farmdener Lee Reich, PhD (
is the author, most recently, of Landscaping with
Fruit (Storey Publishing, 2009), Uncommon
Fruits for Every Garden (Timber Press, 2004),
and Weedless Gardening (Workman Publishing,
illustration courtesy Lee Reich
Organic matter declines rapidly under average farming practices
illustration courtesy Lee Reich
Nutrient availability of various elements at various levels of soil acidity
Th e Nat ur al Far me r S p r i n g , 2 0 0 9 23
by Paul Sachs
If one were to contemplate the soil ecosystem as a
machine, it would have billions of functioning parts.
It would be such a complex mechanism that, were
it to break, there would be no repairman on earth
capable of fxing it. Fortunately, in its exquisite
design, the soil also contains its own repair
mechanism and even in cases of extreme damage, it
can almost always repair itself. The time that it takes
to implement recovery, however, depends on the
extent of the damage and it depends on conditions
that regulate the renewal of life as it is the soils
biological component that facilitates its ability to
In 1980, Mount Saint Helens exploded and
destroyed a 234 square mile area surrounding the
volcano. The soil disappeared under a thick blanket
of volcanic ash and rock. Soil lifeall lifewas
annihilated. The devastation from extremely hot ash,
pyroclastic fows, blow-downs, and mudfows was
severe and seemingly irreparable. But slowly, over
the decades, life has begun to re-establish itself. The
repair is an ongoing, joint effort between teams of
plants, soil organisms, insects and other arthropods,
amphibians, birds, and mammals -- some of which
work 24/7/365. Restoration probably began by
photosynthesizing (autotrophic) bacteria that
could extract energy from the sun, combine it with
carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and terrestrial
minerals and produce organic materials necessary
for proliferation. As these pioneers of life grew in
numbers, some predator organisms were able to
subsist and they, in turn, fed others on the next link
of the food chain.
Eventually, more and more groups of different
organisms began to colonize the devastated area,
and organic residues from their activities and
expired bodies began to accumulate. Before long,
plants were able to acquire the necessities for life.
Wildfowers, especially prairie lupines and freweed,
were probably the frst to reappear.
activities, through the ash to the soil below, began
mixing the different horizons together. The spread
and proliferation of life begun by autotrophic
bacteria have, since 1980, brought about signifcant
change to an area that, a relatively short time
ago, resembled the surface of the moon more
than anything on this planet. As more and more
life inhabits this devastated soil, it becomes more
habitable for other organisms -- including forest
plants. The essential interdependence of life in a
functioning ecosystem is an important lesson to
learn from Mt. Saint Helens, and one that applies
The chemical, biological, and physical reactions
that make soil functional need air, water, minerals,
energy from the sun, and time. The scenic beauty
of natural landscapes was not created from a grand
plan engineered by a landscape architect and
constructed by men in a single season. It evolved
over thousands of millennia from organisms in
stiff competition but, at the same time, creating
symbiotic alliances along the way. It is that
competition and those alliances that need to be
better understood to engage the soil ecosystem in
the creation of a sustainable recreational landscape.
The soil machine can be nudged perhaps, but it
cannot be controlled, which is fortunate because no
one really understands the complexities of the soil
system well enough to govern it. When control is
attempted, a part of the machine may be altered or
damaged and cease to function properly.
In a simple machine, like an automobile
engine, malfunctioning parts are noticed almost
immediately. But in a very complex system, like
the soil, dysfunction can go unnoticed for years,
decades, or perhaps even centuries. And, because
the machine is so complex, the cause of a symptom
can easily be misunderstood.
To get a sense of how the soil functionsand it will
be a superfcial sense at bestlets frst take a look
at how the soil, as we know it, was formed.
Before there was soil, there was rockperhaps
one extremely large chunk called earth. Eventually,
tectonic movement, volcanoes, and other natural
photo courtesy Paul Sachs
Mt. St. Helens erupts in 1980,
creating a devastating dead zone
of hundreds of square miles
The Soil Ecosystem
The prairie lupine survives and thrives in nutrient
poor soils and, because its a legume, the lupine
fxes nitrogen (with the help of rhizobacteria) from
the atmosphere for itself and shares it with other
organisms. As more and more different plants
appeared, wildlife could begin to graze again.
Gophers and mice were some of the frst mammals
to migrate into the devastation and their burrowing
Th e Nat ur al Far me r S p r i n g , 2 0 0 9 24
forces created pieces of rock, some of which where
very large and some were particles of dust. This
process of rock size reduction is called weathering
and there are many forces that contribute to it. A
typical analysis of a well-developed loam shows
that half of the soils volume is pore space that is
(ideally) flled with equal parts of air and water.
Most of the soil solids are minerals derived from
Soils formed from rock are called mineral soils;
they are the most common types of soil on earth.
An analysis of a well-developed mineral soil might
contain around ninety-percent rock particles on a
dry basis. If it is a rich, healthy soil, an average of
only fve-percent will be organic matter. Natural
levels of organic matter vary considerably.
Weathered rock needs something else before it can
become soil and that is lifeand also death. Life
and death in the soil are vital phenomena of an
ecosystem that perpetually generates energy for the
biosphere. Here is where the soil and its system of
cycles begin to get more complex. Magdoff and van
Es, in Building Soils for Better Crops (Sustainable
Agriculture Network) classifed the organic fraction
of the soil into three different categories, the living,
the dead, and the very dead. The soils living
component includes the biomassthat group of
organisms from the single celled bacillus, to macro-
organisms such as earthworms, arthropods, and
mammals that live in the soil. But all organisms,
including plants and humans, are connected to the
soil in many ways. They are affected by and have
affects on the soil. So all terrestrial life on earth
should be included in this category.
Leaves that fall from trees, grass clippings,
animals that burrow in or just trespass on the soil
leave residues that contribute to the system of
cycles. Most of these residues fall into the dead
category. These residues not only provide energy
and sustenance for numerous organisms but also
contribute to the development of humusthe very
Humus is a by-product and end product
manufactured by organisms during decay processes.
Humus is a dark, inconsistently shaped substance
that is biologically resistant to decay and makes
up the major portion of organic matter in most
soils. It is a vital component of soil and provides a
cornucopia of benefts.
The discussion that follows includes two distinctly
different forms of humus. The frst is young or
labile humus and the second is stable humus.
Labile humus is like compost. It has a wealth
of resources available for soil organisms but is
fragile and relatively ephemeral. Labile humus
is still undergoing humifcation and very little of
it may ever become stable humus, depending on
the chemical structures of its organic contents and
environmental conditions. Stable humus has much
fewer available resources for soil organisms but
makes greater contributions to soil structure and
cation exchange capacity (CEC) than labile humus.
Both labile and stable humus contribute to the
soils capacity to hold water and airtwo essential
constituents for most soil organisms (including
turf plants). Both can increase a soils resistance
to compaction. In fact, humus is an amazing soil
conditioner. Only three to fve percent humus can
transform almost lifeless sand into a relatively rich
loam. It has abilities to both bind sand and focculate
clay. Plants tend to produce more microscopic
root hairs when growing in a soil environment that
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Decayed residues contribute to cycles in soil
Th e Nat ur al Far me r S p r i n g , 2 0 0 9 25
contains adequate amounts of humus. These tiny
root hairs have signifcantly more surface area than
the course roots that typically grow in sandy soils
and can absorb more water and nutrients than an
equal mass of larger roots.
In sandy soilsthose often prescribed for sports
feld constructionplant and microbial mucilage
from humus can reduce the size of the pore space
between sand particles, increasing the moisture
holding capacity of the soil and reducing the
leaching of soil solution with all the dissolved
nutrients it carries. As the moisture holding
capacity increases, more plants and soil organisms
can inhabit the environment. This, eventually,
creates more humus. Under ideal conditions, the
advancement of humus in sand can develop the
most preferred type of loam for plant production.
Many, however, will tell you that the accumulation
of organic matter is one of the last things a
grounds manager wants. A common belief is that
left unchecked, organic matter will accumulate
to monstrous levels that arrest drainage. In a
biologically impoverished environment where only
undecomposed organic residues can accumulate,
this may very well happen. But in a biologically
active environment where residues are constantly
being consumed by soil organisms, this is rarely
the case. Conditions for the development of humus
in sand, however, are seldom ideal. In tropical
and subtropical environments, for example, where
moisture, temperature, and the duration of the warm
season are optimum for populations of bacteria,
fungi, and other saprophytic (decay) organisms,
organic matter is quickly assimilated back into
the biomass. This rapid assimilation, coupled with
the abundance of oxygen in porous sand, makes it
extremely diffcult, if not impossible, for humus to
accumulate to an adequate -- let alone an extreme
-- level. Unlike a rain forest, a feld situated in a
tropical or subtropical environment has little chance
of maintaining adequate levels of humus mainly
because not much organic debris is contributed to
the soil. The types of organic debris that contribute
to thatch, for example, are not what are being
discussed here. These tough, fbrous residues may
eventually contribute to the formation of humus
but must be balanced with residues containing
sugars, starches, and proteins such as clippings,
organic fertilizers, or mature compost. Without
this balance, not only is there little chance of soil
improvement from humus accumulation, but also
less carbon dioxide can be recycled back to plants
for the production of photosynthesized materials.
Many recommend sand-based felds for their water
draining characteristics. This near-obsession with
drainage, however, is obscuring our view of other
necessary components of the plant-growing system.
Its a little like washing and waxing a car twice a
week but never changing the oil.
In clay soil, humus forms an alliance with clay
particles. Complexes are formed between the
two particles because both particles are colloidal,
possessing an electro-negative charge capable
of attracting and holding cation nutrients. These
complexes not only increase the soils overall
cation exchange capacity (CEC), but also mitigate
the cohesive nature of clay by causing granulation
and increase the decay resistance of humus giving
it a longer life span. Clay is considered an even
more taboo soil component than organic matter. An
abundance of clay is, without argument, a less than
ideal medium but does that mean there should be
no clay in the soil? We know arsenic can be lethal
Composted manure contributes to the tilth of soil
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Th e Nat ur al Far me r S p r i n g , 2 0 0 9 26
but we also know that a little is essential to human
Weathering forces, soil organisms, climate, plants,
and animals (including humans) have had, and
continue to have, a profound effect, both direct and
indirect, on the soils evolution. The existence of
almost all life is both controlled by, and controls, the
biological, physical, and chemical diversity in the
soil. The manager certainly belongs in this equation
so it is important that he has a basic understanding
of the soil ecosystem. The overview presented
here is painted with a very broad brush. Volumes
of informationsome of it confictinghave
been published about the soil but all the currently
available information on soil probably represents
only a fraction of what has yet to be discovered. The
soil is indeed a complex ecosystem but its biological
health and vitality appear to be inextricably linked
to the vigor and resilience of plants. Recognizing
the living component of the soil system as the most
ideal barometer of soil health may be the extent of
what we need to understand. Its possible that all we
have to learn now are the best ways to care for it.
Paul Sachs runs North Country Organics, a supplier
of organic soil amendments in Bradford, VT. The
attached article is excerpted from Managing
Healthy Sports Fields: A guide to using Organic
Materials for Low-Maintenance and Chemical-Free
Playing Fields (John Wiley and Son, Inc).
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Th e Nat ur al Far me r S p r i n g , 2 0 0 9 27
by Bill Duesing
Healthy, fertile soil, which is literally teaming with
living things, is the foundation of organic growing.
A doctor friend once told me that he could sterilize
surgical instruments with good garden soil because
it contains so many benefcial and benign organisms
(up to six billion in a teaspoonful) that pathogenic
germs cant survive. This concept is a little easier
to grasp if you consider the opposite end of the
spectrum. Many of the most virulent organisms
exist in places like the drains in hospitals and meat-
packing plants, where germicides have been used
to keep anything living (other than patients, that is)
under control.
Soil organisms (especially the decomposers,
bacteria and fungi) break down organic matter into
simpler molecules that provide plant nutrients and
build humus. The tough fbers in straw and wood are
particularly valuable for creating the most stable and
long-lasting humus, that ever-changing, not-fully-
understood, almost magical substance which has so
many benefcial effects in the garden.
In talking about soil, Ive often compared the need
for fber there with the importance of fber in the
human diet. Now I understand how appropriate this
analogy is.
In a recent talk at Yale University, Sidney Baker,
a physician from Weston, clearly connected
the digestive processes in the soil, with similar
processes inside the human body. Apparently,
every adult has a surface the size of a tennis
court lining his or her intestines. This surface is
inhabited by bacteria and fungi similar to those
found in healthy soil. According to Dr. Baker, the
one hundred trillion organisms in each humans
gut constitute the second largest organ in the body.
This organ which is integral to our nutrition but is
not genetically human, is metabolically active and
changeable. It contains over 300 species, mostly
bacteria with a few kinds of fungi.
These intestinal organisms perform numerous
chemical functions. From the passing stream of food
they synthesize vitamins, turn fber into the nutrients
needed by cells lining the intestines, and create
metabolically-active substances which have effects
throughout the body. A healthy, balanced intestinal
ecosystem is as important to our well-being as
fertile soil is to a healthy garden.
Of course, the ecosystem in our intestines, like
that in the soil or the rain forest, can be upset by
environmental insults. Antibiotics are one common
cause of excess growth of fungi and undesirable
bacteria. When these organisms practice
chemistry, the compounds they make can be
damaging to our health, causing symptoms in other
parts of the body that are commonly attributed to a
disease. Conditions as diverse as autism and fsh
odor syndrome seem to be connected with faulty
digestion that produces damaging chemicals.
Our digestive system evolved over hundreds of
eons, before the advent of agriculture and many of
the foods that we eat today. Dr. Baker pointed out
that our diets have changed faster than our digestive
processes. The average modern diet provides just
one ffth the amount of fber eaten by most of our
ancestors. Foods such as milk and cereal grains are,
relatively speaking, very recent additions to our
Given our long evolution on this planet, it is not
surprising that our insides are connected with the
outside- that the processes in the soil are similar
to those in our guts. They are both part of natures
cycling. The wastes which result from our intestinal
processes have the same nearly-neutral pH as good
compost. The roots and stems of rye are one of the
best ingredients for building fertile soil. The fber
from rye bread seems to be especially benefcial to
our intestines.
Over the last century, humans have made major
changes to soil microbiology with agricultural
chemicals, and to intestinal ecology with new
foods and chemicals. Although there is much more
to learn about soil ecology and human digestion,
evidence suggests we should show greater respect
for microbiological processes.
The organic garden, which uses a variety of plant
residues to build healthy soil and produces nutrient
and fber-rich fruits and vegetables for us to eat, is a
good way to begin.
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Human intestines are host to a trillion living organisms representing some
300 species of bacteria and fungi. These critters are the primary source of our
immune systems, synthesize vitamins for us,
and are as crucial to our bodily health as biologically active soil is to a plants.
Soil and Human Intestines
Th e Nat ur al Far me r S p r i n g , 2 0 0 9 28
by Witch Hazel

Every spring it begins. Gardeners drive to the
local nursery or hardware store, and load up their
cars with bag upon bag of soil amendments - peat
moss, gypsum, manure, compost, and topsoil - its
expensive! There are so many things wed rather
be spending our money on, like that new snail vine
from Thompson and Morgan, or that gorgeous
glazed pot set at the garden store.
But sad experience tells us that without good soil,
the garden fops. Right? And lets not even get
started on the whole yearly affair of tilling, plowing,
turning, double digging, cultivating, and raking. Its
enough to make you think about taking up another
hobby. But the soil is where it all starts, and if you
skimp on the soil, then your plants will be skimpy
So why is it that the hardpan soil you started with
still bounces your tiller around like a ping pong
ball? And, why does that sandy garden patch still
drain water like a sieve? And, what happens to all
that soil you cart in every year? Where does it all
go? It can really wear you down! Well, Im here
to give you a break. Soil building doesnt have to
be expensive and hard, and it doesnt have to be
a carefully measured science, either. When given
a chance, nature will take care of most of your
needs. All she needs is a little elbow-room. So quit
crowding her out of your garden, and listen up.
No matter what kind of soil you have, it is ideal
for growing something. In all but the most extreme
situations, there is a lovely or tasty plant you can put
right in the soil you start with, from clay to hardpan
to sand to swampy muck. Something will thrive.
So instead of trying to improve all of your soil,
spot treat around your pickier plants. That will stop
spreading your resources so thin. Once you have
reduced the area that needs work to manageable
sizes, then its time to get to work.
Conventional wisdom has us working and turning
the earth with shovel, pick and tiller. It is supposed
to give us fuffy soil, weed reduction, and available
nutrients. This isnt actually true. Take even the
best fuffy worked garden soil and fll a pot with it.
Within a few months with no compaction other than
watering, that soil will be a brick. Tilling actually
destroys soil structure, kills off the benefcial fungal,
bacterial, and insect life that maintains plant health,
and can also bring weed seeds up to the surface
where they will germinate. It can also take one
pesky taproot of a weed, and chop it up so that you
will have ten or twenty weeds where the one used
to be. So while there is always a place for tilling, it
isnt actually a good thing when used every year.
Enough organic matter in the garden will result in a
natural, slow-paced movement of nutrients, water,
and oxygen through the soil. Worms, rain, roots,
fungi, and even the garden pests like woodlice,
snails, moles and voles, can contribute to the general
health and structure of the soil. Tilling is seldom
needed. A humus rich soil is perfect without tillage.
So how do you work in soil amendments down deep
where they are needed? Well, how about growing
them? Ive sat in horticulture classes where I was
told that topsoil is a limited commodity and cannot
be replaced. Well, my response to that is unprintable
- but makes good fertilizer... How did topsoil come
to be in the frst place? It was grown. And it can
still be grown. When you plant deep rooted plants
such as Alfalfa, Tyfon, and Daikon radish as cover
crops, you are breaking up the soil and providing
access for rain and oxygen to reach deeper into the
soil. When they are cut off at the top and die, the
roots left in the ground will continue to decompose,
preparing the way for the next generation of plants,
while the top portion of the plant, shredded and left
to lie, will provide protection and nourishment for
germinating seedlings. Each consecutive planting
of cover crops will work itself deeper and deeper
into the soil, loosening clay, tightening sand, and
absorbing excess water in mucky areas. A single
well-planned year can give you six or more inches
of humus for your garden. And not a single shovel
lifted, nor a wheelbarrow full of amendments hauled
at the expense of your breaking back.
When you try this method of gardening, you will
undoubtedly notice that while the well screened
and sifted peat and topsoil and compost you have
used in the past disappeared without a trace into
the native soil in your garden, the roughly chopped,
semi-fnished materials that create your humus
layer in your no-till garden simply work themselves
in and stick around a while. They still need to be
replenished, but by continuing to use your plant
trimmings and compost on the soil you can keep
it going for around four to seven years before you
need to cover crop it again, and the results will
be even better. It isnt too hard to explain this
phenomenon. Tiny broken down particles of ideal
garden soil have no staying power. The weather
in one season will cook them right back to the soil
you started with. But when you use big, chunky,
semi fnished or unfnished compost, woodchips,
manure, leaves, grass - whatever - it takes time to
break down. Since organic material tends to become
spongy while it rots, it forms a matrix under the
soil of air and moisture that cannot be recreated or
Soil Without Toil!
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Th e Nat ur al Far me r S p r i n g , 2 0 0 9 29
improved upon by any gel polymer. The plants have
easy access to everything they need, and the soil is
stabilized, not as vulnerable to erosion, drought, or
I have been told that the down side to this method of
gardening is that the soil is too chunky for starting
small seeds, and it looks sloppy. Well, there are
ways around this, too. On top of every layer of plant
material, you can use decorative mulches of wood
or chopped leaves, with a little organic fertilizer
mixed in for good measure. It looks nice, rots down
with the rest of the organic material, and there is
no problem. For the seeds, you can move aside the
top layers of chunky organic material to expose
the well-rotted undersides. That layer will easily
germinate happy little seedlings of even the fnest
dust sized seeds.
The cover cropping can also serve two purposes.
Not only can you provide organic material, nutrients
and soil conditioning, but also you can use the
cover crops as pest control. Sudan Grass (sorghum)
for instance repels nematodes even as it provides
wonderful humus and feeds the benefcial fungi in
the soil with its natural sugars. Fast growing cover
crops can also choke out pernicious weeds like
poison ivy, bindweed, devils ivy, creeping charlie,
henbit, and other garden pests. Planting cover crops,
which provide a habitat for benefcial insects, can
greatly reduce your pest problems in the garden,
reducing or eliminating the need to spray. And
planting low growing cover crops around the base
of your taller plants as living mulch can attract
benefcial insects, provide protection from soil
splash on the underside of the leaves, and hold in
moisture even in hot weather.
So here you are with great garden soil, and only the
expense of the cover crop seeds for a year. You can
maintain and help it along, of course, by continuing
to add organic matter - as much and as varied as
possible. Newspaper and cardboard are great to lay
in the paths, or to use as weed barrier, covered with
your more attractive mulch. They rot, and worms
love them, so they add to the structure of the soil
in one season. No lifting and re-rolling a damp,
Buckwheat makes an excellent cover crop
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Th e Nat ur al Far me r S p r i n g , 2 0 0 9 30
muddy, and usually odorous plastic sheeting out of
the garden. Not to mention that the cardboard and
newspaper are free and are small enough to easily
handle on your own.
Of course, the cover crops can only accumulate and
hold as many nutrients as the soil already holds
and some soils just dont have what it takes. So soil
amendments are necessary from time to time. But
when the structure of the soil is right, the nutrients
will not be lost due to erosion or percolation, and
will be held in the soil for your plants to use. When
it is used, and the plants returned to the soil as
scraps and compost, it isnt completely lost, either,
and subsequent applications can become lighter, and
less frequent, saving you time and money.
So why not stop fghting mother nature for a year or
two and put her to work for you?
Reprinted with permission from http://
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Th e Nat ur al Far me r S p r i n g , 2 0 0 9 31
by Fred Magdoff, and Harold van Es
What is Soil Organic Matter?
Soil consists of four important parts: mineral solids, water, air, and organic matter.
Mineral solids are sand, silt, and clay. Sand has the largest particle size; clay has
the smallest. The minerals mainly consist of silicon, oxygen, aluminum, potassium,
calcium, and magnesium. The soil water, also called the soil solution, contains dissolved
nutrients and is the main source of water for plants. Essential nutrients are made
available to the roots of plants through the soil solution. The air in the soil, which is in
contact with the air above ground, provides roots with oxygen and helps remove excess
carbon dioxide from respiring root cells. The clumping together of mineral and organic
particles to form aggregates of various sizes is a very important property of soils.
Compared to poorly aggregated soils, those with good aggregation usually have better
tilth and contain more spaces, or pores, for storing water and allowing gas exchange.
Organic matter has an overwhelming effect on almost all soil properties, although it
is generally present in relatively small amounts. A typical agricultural soil has 1 to 6
percent organic matter. It consists of three distinctly different parts living organisms,
fresh residues, and well-decomposed residues. These three parts of soil organic
matter have been described as the living, the dead, and the very dead. This three-way
classifcation may seem simple and unscientifc, but it is very useful.
The living part of soil organic matter includes a wide variety of microorganisms, such
as bacteria, viruses, fungi, protozoa, and algae. It even includes plant roots and the
insects, earthworms, and larger animals, such as moles, woodchucks, and rabbits, that
spend some of their time in the soil. The living portion represents about 15 percent
of the total soil organic matter. Microorganisms, earthworms, and insects help break
down crop residues and manures and, as they use the energy of these materials, mix
them with the minerals in the soil. In the process, they recycle plant nutrients. Sticky
substances on the skin of earthworms and those produced by fungi help bind particles
together. This helps to stabilize the soil aggregates, clumps of particles that make up
good soil structure. Organisms such as earthworms and some fungi also help to stabilize
the soils structure (for example, by producing channels that allow water to infltrate)
and, thereby, improve soil water status and aeration. A good soil structure increases
water fltering into the soil and decreases erosion. Plant roots also interact in signifcant
ways with the various microorganisms and animals living in the soil. Another important
aspect of soil organisms is that they are in a constant struggle with each other.
The fresh residues, or dead organic matter, consist of recently deceased
microorganisms, insects, earthworms, old plant roots, crop residues, and recently added
manures. This part of soil organic matter is the active, or easily decomposed, fraction.
This active fraction of soil organic matter is the main supply of food for various
organisms living in the soil microorganisms, insects, and earthworms. As organic
materials decompose, they release many of the nutrients needed by plants. Organic
chemical compounds produced during the decomposition of fresh residues also help to
bind soil particles together and give the soil a good structure.
Organic molecules directly released from cells of fresh residues, such as proteins, amino
acids, sugars, and starches, are also considered part of this fresh organic matter. These
molecules generally do not last long in the soil because so many microorganisms use
them as food.
The well-decomposed organic material in soil, the very dead, is called humus. Humus
is a term sometimes used to describe all soil organic matter. Some use it to describe
just the part you cant see without a microscope. Well use the term to refer only to the
well-decomposed part of soil organic matter. The already well-decomposed humus is
not a food for organisms, but its very small size and chemical properties make it an
important part of the soil. Humus holds on to some essential nutrients, storing them for
slow release to plants. Humus also can surround certain potentially harmful chemicals
and prevent them from causing damage to plants. Good amounts of soil humus can
both lessen drainage or compaction problems that occur in clay soils and improve water
retention in sandy soils.
Soil carbon is sometimes used as a synonym for organic matter. Because carbon is
the main building block of all organic molecules, the amount in a soil is very strongly
related to the total amount of all the organic matter the living organisms plus fresh
residues plus well decomposed residues. However, under semiarid conditions, it is
common to also have another form of carbon in soils limestone either as round
concretions or dispersed evenly throughout the soil. Lime is calcium carbonate, which
contains calcium, carbon, and oxygen. This is an inorganic carbon form. Even in humid
climates, when limestone is found very close to the surface, some may be present in the
soil. So, when people talk about soil carbon instead of organic matter, they are usually
referring to organic carbon. The amount of organic matter in soils is about twice the
organic carbon level.
Why is Organic Matter So Important?
The organic matter content of agricultural topsoil is usually in the range of 1 to 6 percent.
A study of soils in Michigan demonstrated potential crop-yield increases of about 12
percent for every 1 percent organic matter.
You might wonder how something thats only a small part of the soil can be so important
for growing healthy and high-yielding crops. The enormous infuence of organic matter
on so many of the soils properties biological, chemical, and physical makes it of
critical importance to healthy soils (fgure 4.1). Part of the explanation for this infuence
is the small particle size of the well-decomposed portion of organic matter the humus.
Its large surface area-to-volume ratio means that humus is in contact with a considerable
portion of the soil. The intimate contact of humus with the rest of the soil allows many
reactions, such as the release of available nutrients into the soil water, to occur rapidly.
However, the many roles of living organisms make soil life an essential part of the
organic matter story.
Plant Nutrition
Plants need 18 chemical elements for their growth carbon (C), hydrogen (H), oxygen
(O), nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), potassium (K), sulfur (S), calcium (Ca), magnesium
(Mg), iron (Fe), manganese (Mn), boron (B), zinc (Zn), molybdenum (Mo), nickel (Ni),
copper (Cu), cobalt (Co), and chlorine (Cl). Plants obtain carbon as carbon dioxide
(CO2) and oxygen partially as oxygen gas (O2) from the air. The remaining essential
elements are obtained mainly from the soil. The availability of these nutrients is
infuenced either directly or indirectly by the presence of organic matter. The elements
needed in large amounts carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium,
calcium, magnesium, sulfur are called macronutrients. The other elements, called
micronutrients, are essential elements needed in small amounts.
Nutrients from decomposing organic matter. Most of the nutrients in soil organic
matter cant be used by plants as long as they exist as part of large organic molecules.
As soil organisms decompose organic matter, nutrients are converted into simpler,
inorganic, or mineral forms that plants can easily use. This process, called mineralization,
provides much of the nitrogen that plants need by converting it from organic forms. For
example, proteins are converted to ammonium (NH4 +) and then to nitrate (NO3 -). Most
plants will take up the majority of their nitrogen from soils in the form of nitrate. The
mineralization of organic matter is also an important mechanism for supplying plants
with such nutrients as phosphorus and sulfur, and most of the micronutrients. This release
of nutrients from organic matter by mineralization is part of a larger agricultural nutrient
Addition of nitrogen. Bacteria living in nodules on legume roots convert nitrogen from
atmospheric gas (N2) to forms that the plant can use directly. There are a number of free-
living bacteria that also fx nitrogen.
Storage of nutrients on soil organic matter. Decomposing organic matter can feed plants
directly, but it also can indirectly beneft the nutrition of the plant. A number of essential
nutrients occur in soils as positively charged molecules called cations (pronounced cat-
eyeons). The ability of organic matter to hold onto cations in a way that keeps them
available to plants is known as cation exchange capacity (CEC). Humus has many
negative charges. Because opposite charges attract, humus is able to hold onto positively
charged nutrients, such as calcium (Ca++), potassium (K+), and magnesium (Mg++)
(see fgure 4.3a). This keeps them from leaching deep into the subsoil when water moves
through the topsoil. Nutrients held in this way can be gradually released into the soil
solution and made available to plants throughout the growing season. However, keep
in mind that not all plant nutrients occur as cations. For example, the nitrate form of
nitrogen is negatively charged (NO3-) and is actually repelled by the negatively charged
CEC. Therefore, nitrate leaches easily as water moves down through the soil and beyond
the root zone.
Clay particles also have negative charges on their surfaces (fgure 4.3b), but organic
matter may be the major source of negative charges for coarse and medium textured
soils. Some types of clays, such as those found in the southeastern United States and in
the tropics, tend to have low amounts of negative charge. When these clays are present,
organic matter may be the major source of negative charges that bind nutrients, even for
fne textured (high clay content) soils.
Protection of nutrients by chelation. Organic molecules in the soil may also hold onto
and protect certain nutrients. These particles, called chelates (pronounced key-lates)
are byproducts of active decomposition of organic materials and are smaller than those
that make up humus. In general, elements are held more strongly by chelates than by
binding of positive and negative charges. Chelates work well because they bind the
nutrient at more than one location on the organic molecule (fgure 4.3c). In some soils,
trace elements, such as iron, zinc, and manganese, would be converted to unavailable
forms if they were not bound by chelates. It is not uncommon to fnd low organic matter
soils or exposed subsoils defcient in these micronutrients.
Other ways of maintaining available nutrients. There is some evidence that organic
matter in the soil can inhibit the conversion of available phosphorus to forms that
are unavailable to plants. One explanation is that organic matter coats the surfaces of
minerals that can bond tightly to phosphorus. Once these surfaces are covered, available
forms of phosphorus are less likely to react with them. In addition, humic substances
may chelate aluminum and iron, both of which can react with phosphorus in the soil
solution. When they are held as chelates, these metals are unable to form an insoluble
mineral with phosphorus.
Building Soils for Better Crops
Th e Nat ur al Far me r S p r i n g , 2 0 0 9 32
Benefcial Effects of Soil Organisms
Soil organisms are essential for keeping plants well supplied with nutrients because they
break down organic matter. These organisms make nutrients available by freeing them
from organic molecules. Some bacteria fx nitrogen gas from the atmosphere, making
it available to plants. Other organisms dissolve minerals and make phosphorus more
available. If soil organisms arent present and active, more fertilizers will be needed
to supply plant nutrients. A varied community of organisms is your best protection
against major pest outbreaks and soil fertility problems. A soil rich in organic matter
and continually supplied with different types of fresh residues is home to a much more
diverse group of organisms than soil depleted of organic matter. This greater diversity of
organisms helps insure that fewer potentially harmful organisms will be able to develop
suffcient populations to reduce crops yields.
Soil Tilth
When soil has a favorable physical condition for growing plants, it is said to have
good tilth. Such a soil is porous and allows water to enter easily, instead of running
off the surface. More water is stored in the soil for plants to use between rains and
less soil erosion occurs. Good tilth also means that the soil is well aerated. Roots can
easily obtain oxygen and get rid of carbon dioxide. A porous soil does not restrict root
development and exploration. When a soil has poor tilth, the soils structure deteriorates
and soil aggregates break down, causing increased compaction and decreased aeration
and water storage. A soil layer can become so compacted that roots cant grow. A soil
with excellent physical properties will have numerous channels and pores of many
different sizes.
Studies on both undisturbed and agricultural soils show that as organic matter increases,
soils tend to be less compact and have more space for air passage and water storage.
Sticky substances are produced during the decomposition of plant residues. Along with
plant roots and fungal hyphae, they bind mineral particles together into clumps, or
aggregates. In addition, the sticky secretions of mycorrhizal fungi those that infect
roots and help plants get more water and nutrients are important binding material
in soils. The arrangement and collection of minerals as aggregates and the degree of
soil compaction have huge effects on plant growth. The development of aggregates is
desirable in all types of soils because it promotes better drainage, aeration, and water
storage. The one exception is for wetland crops, such as rice, when you want a dense,
puddled soil to keep it fooded.
Organic matter, as residue on the soil surface or as a binding agent for aggregates near
the surface, plays an important role in decreasing soil erosion. Surface residues intercept
raindrops and decrease their potential to detach soil particles. These surface residues
also slow water as it fows across the feld, giving it a better chance to infltrate into the
soil. Aggregates and large channels greatly enhance the ability of soil to conduct water
from the surface into the subsoil.
Most farmers can tell that one soil is better than another by looking at them, touching
them, how they work up when tilled, or even by sensing how they feel when walked on.
What they are seeing or sensing is really good tilth.
Since erosion tends to remove the most fertile part of the soil, it can cause a signifcant
reduction in crop yields. In some soils, the loss of just a few inches of topsoil may result
in a yield reduction of 50 percent. The surface of some soils low in organic matter may
seal over, or crust, as rainfall breaks down aggregates, and pores near the surface fll
with solids. When this happens, water that cant infltrate into the soil runs off the feld,
carrying valuable topsoil (fgure 4.4).
Large soil pores, or channels, are very important because of their ability to allow a lot
of water to fow rapidly into the soil. Larger pores are formed a number of ways. Old
root channels may remain open for some time after the root decomposes. Larger soil
organisms, such as insects and earthworms, create channels as they move through the
soil. The mucus that earthworms secrete to keep their skin from drying out also helps to
keep their channels open for a long time.
Stimulation of Root Development Microorganisms in soils produce numerous
substances that stimulate plant growth. Humus itself has a directly benefcial effect on
plants. Although the reasons for this stimulation are not yet understood, certain types
of humus cause roots to grow longer and have more branches, resulting in larger and
healthier plants. In addition, soil microorganisms produce a variety of root-stimulating
substances that behave as plant hormones.
Organic Matter and Natural Cycles
The Carbon Cycle
Soil organic matter plays a signifcant part in a number of global cycles. People have
become more interested in the carbon cycle because the buildup of carbon dioxide
(CO2) in the atmosphere is thought to cause global warming. Carbon dioxide is also
released to the atmosphere when fuels, such as gas, oil, and wood, are burned. A simple
version of the natural carbon cycle, showing the role of soil organic matter, is given in
fgure 4.6. Carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere by plants and used to make
all the organic molecules necessary for life. Sunlight provides plants with the energy
they need to carry out this process. Plants, as well as the animals feeding on plants,
release carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere as they use organic molecules for
The largest amount of carbon present on the land is not in the living plants, but in soil
organic matter. That is rarely mentioned in discussions of the carbon cycle. More carbon
is stored in soils than in all plants, all animals and the atmosphere. Soil organic matter
contains an estimated four times as much carbon as living plants. As soil organic matter
is depleted, it becomes a source of carbon dioxide for the atmosphere. When forests
are cleared and burned, a large amount of carbon dioxide is released to the atmosphere.
There is a potentially larger release of carbon dioxide following conversion of forests to
agricultural practices that rapidly deplete the soil of its organic matter. There is as much
carbon in 6 inches of soil with 1 percent organic matter as there is in the atmosphere
above a feld. If organic matter decreases from 3 percent to 2 percent, the amount of
carbon dioxide in the atmosphere could double. (Of course, wind and diffusion move
the carbon dioxide to other parts of the globe.)
The Nitrogen Cycle
Another important global cycle in which organic matter plays a major role is the
nitrogen cycle. This cycle is of direct importance in agriculture, because available
nitrogen for plants is commonly defcient in soils. Figure 4.7 shows the nitrogen cycle
and how soil organic matter enters into the cycle. Some bacteria living in soils are able
to fx nitrogen, converting nitrogen gas to forms that other organisms, including
crop plants, can use. Inorganic forms of nitrogen, like ammonium and nitrate, exist in
the atmosphere naturally, although air pollution causes higher amounts than normal.
Rainfall and snow deposit inorganic nitrogen forms on the soil.
Almost all of the nitrogen in soils exists as part of the organic matter, in forms that
plants are not able to use as their main nitrogen source. Bacteria and fungi convert the
organic forms of nitrogen into ammonium and different bacteria convert ammonium
into nitrate. Both nitrate and ammonium can be used by plants.
The Water Cycle
Organic matter plays an important part in the local, regional, and global water, or
hydrologic, cycle due to its role in promoting water infltration into soils and storage
within the soil. Water evaporates from the soil surface and from living plant leaves
as well as from the ocean and lakes. Water then returns to the earth, usually far from
where it evaporated, as rain and snow. Soils high in organic matter, with excellent tilth,
enhance the rapid infltration of rainwater into the soil. This water may be available
for plants to use or it may percolate deep into the subsoil and help to recharge the
groundwater supply. Since groundwater is commonly used as a drinking water source
for homes and for irrigation, recharging groundwater is important. When the soils
organic matter level is depleted, it is less able to accept water, and high levels of
runoff and erosion result. This means less water for plants and decreased groundwater
Amount of Organic Matter in Soils
Natural Factors
In the United States, it is easy to see how temperature affects soil organic matter levels.
Traveling from north to south, average hotter temperatures lead to less soil organic
Th e Nat ur al Far me r S p r i n g , 2 0 0 9 33
matter. As the climate gets warmer, two things tend to happen (as long as rainfall is
suffcient): more vegetation is produced because the growing season is longer, and
the rate of decomposition of organic materials in soils also increases, because soil
organisms work more effciently in warm weather and for longer periods of the year.
This increasing decomposition with warmer temperatures becomes the dominant
infuence determining soil organic matter levels.
Soils in arid climates usually have low amounts of organic matter. In a very dry climate,
such as a desert, there is little growth of vegetation. Decomposition may be very low
when the soil is dry and microorganisms cannot function well. When it fnally rains,
a very rapid burst of decomposition of soil organic matter occurs. Soil organic matter
levels generally increase as average annual precipitation increases. With more rainfall,
more water is available to plants and more plant growth results. As rainfall increases,
more residues return to the soil from grasses or trees. At the same time, soils in high
rainfall areas may have less soil organic matter decomposition than well-aerated soils
decomposition is slowed by restricted aeration.

Soil Texture
Fine textured soils, containing high percentages of clay, tend to have naturally higher
amounts of soil organic matter than coarse textured sands or sandy loams. The organic
matter content of sands may be less than 1 percent; loams may have 2 to 3 percent; and
clays from 4 to more than 5 percent. The strong bonds that develop between clay and
organic matter seem to protect organic molecules from attack and decomposition by
microorganisms. In addition, fne textured soils tend to have smaller pores and have less
oxygen than coarser soils. This also causes reduced decomposition of organic matter.
The lower rate of decomposition in soils with high clay contents is probably the main
reason that their organic matter levels are higher than in sands and loams.
Soil Drainage and Position in the Topography
Some soils have a compact subsoil layer that doesnt allow water to drain well.
Decomposition of organic matter occurs more slowly in poorly aerated soils, when
oxygen is limited or absent, than in well-aerated soils. For this reason, organic matter
accumulates in wet soil environments. In a totally fooded soil, one of the major
structural parts of plants, lignin, doesnt decompose at all. The ultimate consequence of
extremely wet or swampy conditions is the development of organic (peat or muck) soils,
with organic matter contents of over 20 percent. If organic soils are artifcially drained
for agricultural or other uses, the soil organic matter will decompose very rapidly. When
this happens, the elevation of the soil surface actually decreases. Some homeowners
in Florida were fortunate to sink corner posts below the organic level. Originally level
with the ground, those homes now perch on posts atop a soil surface that has decreased
so dramatically the owners park under their homes.
Soils in depressions at the bottom of hills are often wet because they receive runoff,
sediments (including organic matter), and seepage from up slope. Organic matter is
not decomposed as rapidly in these landscape positions as in drier soils farther up
slope. However, soils on a steep slope will tend to have low amounts of organic matter
because the topsoil is continually eroded.
Type of Vegetation
The type of plants that grow on a soil over the years affects the soil organic matter level.
The most dramatic differences are evident when soils developed under grassland are
compared with those developed under forests. On natural grasslands, organic matter
tends to accumulate in high amounts and to be well distributed within the soil. This is
probably a result of the deep and extensive root systems of native grasses. Their roots
have high turnover rates, for root death and decomposition constantly occurs as new
roots are formed. The high levels of organic matter in soils that were once in grassland
explains why these are some of the most productive soils in the world. By contrast,
in forests, litter accumulates on top of the soil, and surface organic layers commonly
contain over 50 percent organic matter. However, subsurface mineral layers in forest
soils typically contain from less than 1 to about 2 percent organic matter.
Acidic Soil Conditions
In general, soil organic matter decomposition is slower under acidic soil conditions than
at more neutral pH. In addition, acidic conditions, by inhibiting earthworm activity,
encourage organic matter to accumulate at the soil surface, rather than distributed
throughout the soil layers.
Human Infuences
Soil erosion removes topsoil rich in organic matter so that, eventually, only subsoils
remain. Crop production obviously suffers when part or all of the most fertile layer of
the soil is removed. Erosion is a natural process and occurs on almost all soils. Some
soils naturally erode more easily than others and the problem is also greater in some
regions than others. However, agricultural practices accelerate erosion.
Organic matter also is lost from soils when organisms decompose more organic
materials during the year than are added. This occurs as a result of practices such as
intensive tillage and growing crops that produce low amounts of residues.
Tillage Practices
Tillage practices infuence both the amount of topsoil erosion and the rate of
decomposition of soil organic matter. Conventional plowing and disking of a soil to
prepare a smooth seedbed breaks down natural soil aggregates and destroys large,
water-conducting channels. The soil is left in a physical condition that allows both
wind and water erosion. The more a soil is disturbed by tillage practices, the greater
the potential breakdown of organic matter by soil organisms. During the early years
of agriculture in the United States, when colonists cleared the forests and planted
crops in the East and farmers later moved to the Midwest to plow the grasslands, soil
organic matter decreased rapidly. In fact, the soils were literally mined of a valuable
resource organic matter. In the Northeast and Southeast, it was quickly recognized
that fertilizers and soil amendments were needed to maintain soil productivity. In
the Midwest, the deep, rich soils of the tall-grass prairies were able to maintain their
productivity for a long time despite accelerated soil organic matter loss and signifcant
amounts of erosion. The reason for this was their unusually high original levels of soil
organic matter.
Rapid soil organic matter decomposition by soil organisms usually occurs when a soil
is worked with a moldboard plow. Incorporating residues, breaking aggregates open,
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and fuffng up the soil allows microorganisms to work more rapidly. Its something like
opening up the air intake on a wood stove, which lets in more oxygen and causes the fre
to burn hotter. In Vermont, we found a 20-percent decrease in organic matter after fve
years of growing corn on a clay soil that had previously been in sod for a long time. In
the Midwest, 40 years of cultivation caused a 50-percent decline in soil organic matter.
Rapid loss of soil organic matter occurs in the early years, because of the high initial
amount of active (dead) organic matter available to micro-organisms. After much of
the active portion is lost, the rate of organic matter loss slows considerably.
With the current interest in reduced (conservation) tillage, growing row crops in the
future may not have such a detrimental effect on soil organic matter. Conservation
tillage practices leave more residues on the surface and cause less soil disturbance
than conventional moldboard plow and disk tillage. In fact, soil organic matter levels
usually increase when no-till planters place seeds in a narrow band of disturbed soil,
while leaving the soil between planting rows undisturbed. The rate of decomposition of
soil organic matter is lower because the soil is not drastically disturbed by plowing and
disking. Residues accumulate on the surface because the soil is not inverted by plowing.
Earthworm populations increase, taking some of the organic matter deeper into the soil
and creating channels that help water infltrate into the soil. Decreased erosion also
results from using conservation tillage practices.
Crop Rotations and Cover Crops
At different stages in a rotation, different things may be happening. Soil organic matter
may decrease, then increase, then decrease, and so forth. While annual row crops under
conventional moldboard plow cultivation usually result in decreased soil organic matter,
perennial legumes, grasses, or legume-grass forage crops tend to increase soil organic
matter. The turnover of the roots of these hay and pasture crops, plus the lack of soil
disturbance, allow organic matter to accumulate in the soil. This effect is seen in the
comparison of organic matter increases when growing alfalfa compared to corn silage.
In addition, different types of crops result in different quantities of residues returned
to the soil. When corn grain is harvested, more residues are left in the feld than after
soybeans, wheat, potatoes, or lettuce harvests. Harvesting the same crop in different
ways leaves different amounts of residues. When corn grain is harvested, more residues
remain in the feld than when the entire plant is harvested for silage.
Soil erosion is greatly reduced and topsoil rich in organic matter is conserved when
rotation crops, such as grass or legume hay, are grown year-round. The extensive root
systems of sod crops account for much of the reduction in erosion. Having sod crops
as part of a rotation reduces loss of topsoil, decreases decomposition of residues, and
builds up organic matter by the extensive residue addition of plant roots.
Use of Organic Amendments
An old practice that helps maintain or increase soil organic matter is to apply manures
or other organic residues generated off the feld. A study in Vermont during the 1960s
and 1970s found that between 20 and 30 tons (wet weight, including straw or sawdust
bedding) of dairy manure per acre were needed to maintain soil organic matter levels
when silage corn was grown each year. This is equivalent to 1 to 11/2 times the amount
produced by a large Holstein cow over the whole year. Different manures can have very
different effects on soil organic matter and nutrient availability. They differ in their
initial composition and also are affected by how they are stored and handled in the feld.
Organic Matter Distribution in Soil
In general, more organic matter is present near the surface than deeper in the soil. This is
one of the main reasons that topsoils are so productive, compared with subsoils exposed
by erosion or mechanical removal of surface soil layers. Much of the plant residues
that eventually become part of the soil organic matter are from the above-ground
portion of plants. When the plant dies or sheds leaves or branches, it deposits residues
on the surface. Although earthworms and insects help incorporate the residues on the
surface deeper into the soil and the roots of some plants penetrate deeply, the highest
concentrations still remain within 1 foot of the surface.
Litter layers that commonly develop on the surface of forest soils may have very high
organic matter contents. Plowing forest soils after removal of the trees incorporates the
litter layers into the mineral soil. The incorporated litter decomposes rapidly.
Active Organic Matter
This discussion has been about amounts of total organic matter in soils. However, we
should constantly keep in mind that we are interested in each of the different types of
organic matter in soils the living, the dead (active), and the very dead (humus). We
dont just want a lot of humus in soil, we also want a lot of active organic matter to
provide nutrients and aggregating glues when it is decomposed. We want the active
organic matter because it supplies food to keep a diverse population of organisms
present. As mentioned earlier, when forest or prairie soils were frst cultivated, there
was a drastic decrease in the organic matter content. Almost all of the decline was due
to a loss of the active (dead) part of the organic matter. It is the active fraction that
increases relatively quickly when practices, such as reduced tillage, rotations, cover
crops, and manures, are used to increase soil organic matter.
Living Organic Matter
The weight of fungi present in forest soils is much greater than the weight of bacteria.
In grasslands, however, there are about equal weights of both. In agricultural soils
that are routinely tilled, the weight of fungi is less than the weight of bacteria. As soils
become more compact, larger pores are eliminated frst. These are the pores in which
soil animals, such as earthworms and beetles, live and function, so the number of such
organisms in compacted soils decreases.
Different total amounts (weights) of living organisms exist in various cropping systems.
In general, high populations of diverse and active soil organisms are found in systems
with more complex rotations that regularly leave high amounts of crop residues and
when other organic materials are added to the soil. Organic materials may include
crop residues, cover crops, animal manures, and composts. Leaves and grass clippings
may be an important source of organic residues for gardeners. When crops are rotated
regularly, fewer parasite, disease, weed, and insect problems occur than when the same
crop is grown year after year.
On the other hand, frequent cultivation reduces the number of many soil organisms as
their food supplies are depleted by decomposition of organic matter. Compaction from
heavy equipment causes harmful biological effects in soils. It decreases the number of
medium to large pores, which reduces the volume of soil available for air, water, and
populations of organisms such as mites and springtails that need the large spaces
in which to live.
Managing for High Quality Soils:
Organic Matter, Soil Physical Condition, Nutrient Availability
Building high-quality soils takes a lot of thought and action over many years. Of course,
there are things that can be done right off plant a cover crop this fall or just make
a New Years resolution not to work soils that really arent ready in the spring (and
then stick with it). Other changes take more time. You need to study carefully before
drastically changing crop rotations, for example. How will the new crops be marketed
and are the necessary labor and machinery available?
There are three different general management approaches to enhancing soil health.
First, various practices to build up and maintain high levels of soil organic matter are
key. Second, developing and maintaining the best possible soil physical condition
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often requires other types of practices, in addition to those that directly impact soil
organic matter. Paying better attention to soil tilth and compaction is more important
than ever, because of the use of very heavy feld machinery. Lastly, although good
organic matter management goes a long way toward providing good plant nutrition in an
environmentally sound way, good nutrient management involves additional practices.
Organic Matter Management
There seems to be a contradiction in our view of soil organic matter. On one hand, we
want crop residues, dead microorganisms, and manures to decompose. If soil organic
matter doesnt decompose, then no nutrients are made available to plants, no glue to
bind particles is manufactured, and no humus is produced to hold on to plant nutrients
as water leaches through the soil. On the other hand, numerous problems develop when
soil organic matter is signifcantly depleted through decomposition. This dilemma of
wanting organic matter to decompose, but not wanting to lose too much, means that
organic materials must be continually added to the soil. A supply of active organic
matter must be maintained so that humus can continually accumulate. This does not
mean that organic materials must be added to each feld every year. However, it does
mean that a feld cannot go without additions of organic residues for many years without
paying the consequences.
Plowing a soil is similar to opening up the air intake on a wood stove. What we really
want in soil is a slow, steady burn of the organic matter. You get that in a wood stove by
adding wood every so often and making sure the air intake is on a medium setting. In
soil, you get a steady burn by adding organic residues regularly and by not disturbing
the soil too often.
There are three general management strategies for organic matter management. First,
use crop residues more effectively and fnd new sources of residues to add to soils. New
residues can include those you grow on the farm, such as cover crops, or those available
from various local sources. Second, be sure to use a number of different types of
materials crop residues, manures, composts, cover crops, leaves, etc. It is important
to provide varied residue sources to help develop and maintain a diverse group of soil
organisms. Third, implement practices that decrease the loss of organic matter from soils
because of accelerated decomposition or erosion.
Soil Organic Matter Levels
Raising and maintaining soil organic matter levels. It is not easy to dramatically
increase the organic matter content of soils or even to maintain good levels once they
are reached. Improving organic matter content requires a sustained effort that includes
a number of approaches to return organic materials to soils and minimize soil organic
matter losses. It is especially diffcult to raise the organic matter content of soils that
are very well aerated, such as coarse sands, because added materials are decomposed so
rapidly. Soil organic matter levels can be maintained with less organic residue in high
clay-content soils with restricted aeration than in coarse-textured soils.
All practices that help to build organic matter levels do at least one of two things add
more organic materials than was done in the past or decrease the rate of organic matter
loss from soils. Those practices that do both may be especially useful. Practices that
reduce losses of organic matter either slow down the rate of decomposition or decrease
the amount of erosion. Soil erosion must be controlled to keep organic matter-enriched
topsoil in place. In addition, organic matter added to a soil must either match or exceed
the rate of loss by decomposition.
These additions can come from manures and composts brought from off the feld, crop
residues and mulches remaining following harvest, or cover crops. Reduced tillage
lessens the rate of organic matter decomposition and also may result in less erosion.
When reduced tillage increases crop growth and residues returned to soil, it is usually
a result of better water infltration and storage and less surface evaporation. It is not
possible in this book to give specifc soil organic matter management recommendations
for all situations.
How much organic matter is enough? Unlike the case with plant nutrients or pH
levels, there are no accepted guidelines for organic matter content. We do know some
general guidelines. For example, 2 percent organic matter in a sandy soil is very good,
but in a clay soil, 2 percent indicates a greatly depleted situation. The complexity of soil
organic matter composition, including biological diversity of organisms as well as the
actual organic chemicals present, means that there is no simple interpretation for total
soil organic matter tests.
Using Organic Materials
Crop residues. Crop residues are usually the largest source of organic materials
available to farmers. The amount of crop residue left after harvest varies depending
on the crop. Soybeans, potatoes, lettuce and corn silage leave little residue. Small
grains, on the other hand, leave more residue, while sorghum and corn harvested for
grain leave the most. A ton or more of crop residues per acre may sound like a lot of
organic material being returned to the soil. However, keep in mind that after residues
are decomposed by soil organisms only about 10 to 20 percent of the original amount is
converted into stable humus.
The amount of roots remaining after harvest also can range from very low to fairly
high. For a crop of corn, roots may account for over a ton of dry weight per acre (thus
more than 4 1/2 tons of surface residues plus roots about 60 percent of the total plant
remain following a Midwest grain harvest of about 120 bu. per acre).
Some farmers remove above ground residues from the feld for use as animal bedding
or to make compost. Later, these residues return to contribute to soil fertility as manures
or composts. Sometimes, residues are removed from felds, to be used by other farmers
or to make another product. There is renewed interest in using crop residues as a wood
substitute to make a variety of products, such as particleboard. This activity could cause
considerable harm because residues are not returned to soils.
Burning of wheat, rice, and other crop residues in the feld is a common practice in
parts of the United States as well as in other countries. Residue is usually burned to help
control insects or diseases or to make next years feldwork easier. Residue burning may
be so widespread in a given area that it causes a local air pollution problem. Burning
also diminishes the amount of organic matter returned to the soil and the amount of
protection against raindrop impact.
Sometimes, important needs for crop residues and manures may prevent their use in
maintaining or building soil organic matter. For example, straw may be removed from a
grain feld to serve as mulch in a strawberry feld. These trade-offs of organic materials
can sometimes cause a severe soil-fertility problem if allowed to continue for a long
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time. This issue is of much more widespread importance in developing countries where
resources are scarce. There, crop residues and manures frequently serve as fuel for
cooking or heating when gas, coal, oil, or wood are not available. In addition, straw
may be used in making bricks or used as thatch for housing or to make fences. Although
it is completely understandable that people in resource-poor regions use residues for
such purposes, the negative effects of these uses on soil productivity can be substantial.
An important way to increase agricultural productivity in developing countries is to
fnd alternative sources for fuel and building materials to replace the crop residues and
manures traditionally used.
Using residues as mulches. Crop residues or composts can be used as a mulch on the
soil surface. This occurs routinely in some reduced tillage systems when high residue-
yielding crops are grown or when killed cover crops remain on the surface. In some
small-scale vegetable and berry farming, mulching is done by applying straw from
off-site. Strawberries grown in the colder northern parts of the country are routinely
mulched with straw for protection from winter heaving. The straw is blown on in late
fall and is then moved into the interrows in the spring, providing a surface mulch during
the growing season.
Mulching has numerous benefts, including:
enhanced water availability to crops (better infltration into the soil and less
evaporation from the soil);
weed control;
less extreme changes in soil temperature; reduced splashing of soil onto leaves and
fruits and vegetables (making them look better as well as reducing diseases); and
reduced infestations of certain pests (Colorado potato beetle on potatoes is less severe
when potatoes are grown in a mulch system).
On the other hand, residue mulches in cold climates can delay soil warming in the
spring, reduce early season growth, and increase problems with slugs during wet
periods. Of course, one of the reasons for the use of plastic mulches (clear and black) for
crops like tomatoes and melons is to help warm the soil.
Effects of Residue Characteristics on Soil
Decomposition rates and effects on aggregation. Residues of various crops and
manures have different properties and, therefore, have different effects on soil organic
matter. Materials with low amounts of hard-to-degrade hemicellulose and lignin, such
as cover crops when still very green and soybean residue, decompose rapidly (fgure
8.1) and have a shorter-term effect on soil organic matter levels than residues with high
levels of these chemicals (for example, corn and wheat). Manures, especially those that
contain lots of bedding (high in hemicellulose and lignin), are decomposed more slowly
and tend to have more long-lasting effects on total soil organic matter than crop residues
or manures without bedding. Also, cows because they eat a diet containing lots of
forages, which they do not completely decompose have manure with longer lasting
effects on soils than non-ruminants, such as chickens and hogs, that are fed exclusively
a high-grain/low-fber diet. Composts contribute little active organic matter to soils, but
add a lot of well decomposed materials (fgure 8.1).
In general, residues containing a lot of cellulose and other easy-to-decompose
materials will have a greater effect on soil aggregation than compost, which has
already undergone decomposition. Because aggregates are formed from by-products of
decomposition by soil organisms, organic additions like manures, cover crops, and straw
will enhance aggregation more than compost. (However, adding compost does improve
soils in many ways, including increasing the water holding capacity.)
Although its important to have adequate amounts of organic matter in soil, that isnt
enough. A variety of residues is needed to provide food to a diverse population of
organisms, nutrients to plants, and to furnish materials that promote aggregation.
Residues low in hemicellulose and lignin usually have very high levels of plant
nutrients. On the other hand, straw or sawdust (containing a lot of lignin) can be used
to build up organic matter, but a severe nitrogen defciency and an imbalance in soil
microbial populations will occur unless a readily available source of nitrogen is added at
the same time (see discussion of C:N ratios below). In addition, when insuffcient N is
present, less of the organic material added to soils actually ends up as humus.

C:N Ratio of organic materials and nitrogen availability. The ratio of the amount of a
residues carbon to the amount of nitrogen infuences nutrient availability and the rate
of decomposition. The ratio, usually referred to as the C:N ratio, may vary from around
15:1 for young plants, to between 50 to 80:1 for the old straw of crop plants, to over
100:1 for sawdust. For comparison, the C:N ratio of soil organic matter is usually in the
range of about 10 to 12:1 and the C:N of soil microorganisms is around 7:1.
The C:N ratio of residues is really just another way of looking at the percentage of
nitrogen (fgure 8.2). A high C:N residue has a low percentage of nitrogen. Low C:N
residues have relatively high percentages of nitrogen. Crop residues are usually pretty
close to 40 to 45 percent carbon, and this fgure doesnt change much from plant to
plant. On the other hand, nitrogen content varies greatly depending on the type of plant
and its stage of growth.
If you want crops growing immediately following the application of organic materials,
care must be taken to make nitrogen available.
Nitrogen availability from residues varies considerably. Some residues, such as fresh,
young, and very green plants, decompose rapidly in the soil and, in the process, may
readily release plant nutrients. This could be compared to the effect of sugar eaten
by humans, which results in a quick burst of energy. Some of the substances in older
plants and in the woody portion of trees, such as lignin, decompose very slowly in soils.
Materials, such as sawdust and straw, mentioned above, contain little nitrogen. Well-
composted organic residues also decompose slowly in the soil because they are fairly
stable, having already undergone a signifcant amount of decomposition.
Mature plant stalks and sawdust that have C:N over 40:1 (table 8.3) may cause
temporary problems for plants. Microorganisms using materials containing 1 percent
nitrogen (or less) need extra nitrogen for their growth and reproduction. They will take
the needed nitrogen from the surrounding soil, diminishing the amount of nitrate and
ammonium available for crop use. This reduction of soil nitrate and ammonium by
microorganisms decomposing high C:N residues is called immobilization of nitrogen.
When microorganisms and plants compete for scarce nutrients, the microorganisms
usually win, because they are so well distributed in the soil. Plant roots are in contact
with only 1 to 2 percent of the entire soil volume whereas microorganisms populate
almost the entire soil. The length of time during which the nitrogen nutrition of plants is
adversely affected by immobilization depends on the quantity of residues applied, their
C:N ratio, and other factors infuencing microorganisms, such as fertilization practices,
temperature, and moisture conditions.
If the C:N ratio of residues is in the teens or low 20s, corresponding to greater than 2
percent nitrogen, then there is more nitrogen present than the microorganisms need for
residue decomposition. When this happens, extra nitrogen becomes available to plants
fairly quickly. Green manure crops and animal manures are in this group of residues.
Residues with C:N in the mid-20s to low 30s, corresponding to about 1 to 2 percent
nitrogen, will not have much effect on short-term nitrogen immobilization or release.
Table 8.3
Application rates for organic materials. The amount of residue added to a soil is often
determined by the cropping system. The crop residues can be left on the surface or
incorporated by tillage. Different amounts of residue will remain under different crops,
rotations, or harvest practices. For example, three or more tons per acre of leaf, stalk,
and cob residues remain in the feld when corn is harvested for grain. If the entire plant
is harvested to make silage, there is little left except the roots.
When imported organic materials are brought to the feld, you need to decide how
much and when to apply them. In general, application rates of these residues will be
based on their probable contribution to the nitrogen nutrition of plants. We dont want
to apply too much available nitrogen because it will be wasted. Nitrate from excessive
applications of organic sources of fertility may leach into groundwater just as easily
as nitrate originating from purchased synthetic fertilizers. In addition, excess nitrate in
plants may cause health problems for humans and animals.
Sometimes the fertility contribution of phosphorus may be the main factor governing
application rates of organic material. Excess phosphorus entering lakes can cause an
increase in the growth of algae and other aquatic weeds, decreasing water quality for
drinking and recreation. In these locations, farmers must be careful to avoid loading the
soil with too much phosphorus, from either commercial fertilizers or organic sources.
Effects of residue and manure accumulations. When any organic material is added
to soil, it decomposes relatively rapidly at frst. Later, when only resistant parts (for
example, straw stems high in lignin) are left, the rate of decomposition decreases
greatly. This means that although nutrient availability diminishes each year after adding
a residue to the soil, there are still long-term benefts from adding organic materials.
This can be expressed by using a decay series. For example, 50, 15, 5, and 2 percent
of the amount of nitrogen added in manure may be released in the frst, second, third,
and fourth years following addition to soils. In other words, crops in a regularly
manured feld get some nitrogen from manure that was applied in past years. So, if you
are starting to manure a feld, somewhat more manure will be needed in the frst year
than will be needed in years 2, 3, and 4 to supply the same total amount of nitrogen to a
crop each year. After some years, you may need only half of the amount used to supply
all the nitrogen needs in the frst year.
Th e Nat ur al Far me r S p r i n g , 2 0 0 9 37
Organic Matter Management on Different Types of Farms
Animal-based farms. It is certainly easier to maintain soil organic matter in animal-
based agricultural systems. Manure is a valuable by-product of having animals. Animals
also can use sod type grasses and legumes as pasture, hay, and haylage (hay stored
under air-tight conditions so that some fermentation occurs). It is easier to justify putting
land into perennial forage crops for part of a rotation when there is an economic use for
the crops. Animals need not be on the farm to have positive effects on soil fertility. A
farmer may grow hay to sell to a neighbor and trade for some animal manure from the
neighbors farm, for example. Occasionally, formal agreements between dairy farmers
and vegetable growers lead to cooperation on crop rotations and manure application.
Systems without animals. It is more challenging, although not impossible, to maintain
or increase soil organic matter on non-livestock farms. It can be done by using reduced
tillage, cover crops, intercropping, living mulches, rotations that include crops with high
amounts of residue left after harvest, and attention to other erosion-control practices.
Organic residues such as leaves can sometimes be obtained from nearby cities and
towns. Straw or grass clippings used as mulch also add organic matter when they later
become incorporated into the soil by plowing or by the activity of soil organisms. Some
vegetable farmers use a mow-and-blow system where crops are grown on strips for
the purpose of chopping them and spraying the residues onto an adjacent strip.
Maintaining Organic Matter in Small Gardens
There are a number of different ways that home gardeners can maintain soil organic
matter. One of the easiest is using lawn grass clippings for mulch during the growing
season. The mulch can then be worked into the soil or left on the surface to decompose
until the next spring. Also, leaves can be raked up in the fall and applied to the garden.
Cover crops can also be used on small size gardens. Of course, manures, composts, or
mulch straw can also be purchased.
There are a growing number of small-scale market gardeners, many with insuffcient
land to rotate into a sod type crop. They also may have crops in the ground late into the
fall, making cover cropping a challenge. One possibility is to establish cover crops by
over-seeding after the last crop of the year is well established. Another source of organic
materials grass clippings are probably in short supply compared with the needs
of cropped areas, but are still useful. It might also be possible to obtain leaves from a
nearby town. These can either be directly applied and worked into the soil or composted
frst. As with home gardeners, market gardeners can purchase manures, composts, and
straw mulch, but should get volume discounts on the amounts needed for an acre or two.
Maintaining Soil Biodiversity
The role of diversity is critical to maintaining a well functioning and stable agriculture.
Where many different types of organisms coexist, there are fewer disease, insect, and
nematode problems. There is more competition for food and more possibility that many
types of predators will be found. This means that no single pest organism will be able to
reach a population high enough to cause a major decrease in crop yield. We can promote
a diversity of plant species growing on the land by using cover crops, intercropping, and
crop rotations. However, dont forget that diversity below the soil surface is as important
as diversity above ground. Growing cover crops and using crop rotations help maintain
the diversity below ground, but adding manures and composts and making sure that crop
residues are returned to the soil are also critical for promoting soil organism diversity.
Managing Soils and Crops to Minimize Pest Problems
It is now known that plants have very sophisticated defense mechanisms against insects
and diseases. When plants are under environmental stresses caused by compact soils,
droughty conditions, or excess nitrogen, they are less able to combat pests and may
be even more attractive to them. On the other hand, healthy plants growing on soils
with good biological diversity are able to mount a strong defense against many pests.
For example, when attacked by insects they may emit chemicals that attract benefcial
insects that are predators of the pest. In addition, good soil management decreases levels
of pests that live in the soil.
It is well established and known by most farmers that crop rotation can decrease
disease, insect, nematode, and weed pressures. A few other examples are given below.
Insect damage can be reduced by avoiding excess nitrogen levels in soils through
better nitrogen management.
Root rots and severity of leaf diseases can be reduced with composts that contain low
levels of available nitrogen, but still have some active organic matter.
Fungal diseases of roots and insect damage are decreased by lessening soil
Many pests are kept under control by competition for resources or direct antagonism
(including the benefcials feeding on them). Good quantities of a variety of organic
materials help maintain a diverse group of soil organisms.
Root surfaces are protected from fungal and nematode attack by high rates of
benefcial mycorrhizal fungi. Most cover crops help keep mycorrhizal fungi spore
counts high and promote higher rates of infection by the benefcial fungi.
Parasitic nematodes can be suppressed by cover crops.
Residues of some cover crops, such as winter rye, reduce weed seed germination.
Weed seed numbers are reduced in soils with a lot of biological activity, with both
microorganisms and insects helping the process.
Managing Soil Physical Conditions
Developing and maintaining an optimum physical environment. Plants thrive in a
physical environment that allows roots to actively explore a large area, gets all the
oxygen and water needed, and maintains a healthy mix of organisms. Although the
soils physical environment is strongly infuenced by organic matter, the practices and
equipment used from tillage to planting to cultivation to harvest have a major
impact. If a soil is too wet whether it has poor internal drainage or it receives too
much water some remedies are needed to grow high yielding and healthy crops. Also,
erosion whether by wind or water is an environmental hazard that needs to be kept
as low as possible. Erosion is most likely when the surface of a soil is bare and doesnt
contain suffcient medium- to large-size water-stable aggregates.
Nutrient Management: An Introduction
Many of the practices that build up and maintain soil organic matter also help enrich
the soil with nutrients or make it easier to manage nutrients in ways that satisfy crop
needs and are also environmentally sound. For example, a legume cover crop increases
a soils active organic matter and reduces erosion, but it also adds nitrogen that can be
used by the next crop. Cover crops and deep-rooted rotation crops help to cycle nitrate,
potassium, calcium, and magnesium that might be lost to leaching below crop roots.
Importing mulches or manures onto the farm also adds nutrients along with the organic
materials. However, specifc nutrient management practices are needed, such as testing
manure and checking its nutrient content before applying additional nutrient sources.
Other examples of nutrient management practices not directly related to organic matter
management include applying nutrients timed to plant needs, liming acidic soils,
and interpreting soil tests to decide on the appropriate amounts of nutrients to apply.
Development of farm nutrient management plans and watershed partnerships also
improve soil while protecting the local environment.
Of the 18 elements needed by plants, only three nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and
potassium (K) are commonly defcient in soils. Defciencies of other nutrients,
such as magnesium, sulfur, zinc, boron, and manganese, certainly occur, but they are
not as widespread. However, in locations with lots of young minerals that havent
been weathered much by nature, such as the Dakotas, potassium defciencies are less
common. Defciencies of sulfur, magnesium, and some micronutrients may be more
widespread in regions with highly weathered minerals, such as the southeastern states,
or those with high rainfall, such as portions of the Pacifc Northwest.
Environmental concerns have placed more emphasis on better management of nitrogen
and phosphorus over the last few decades. These nutrients are critical to soil fertility
management, but they are also responsible for widespread environmental problems.
Poor soil and crop management, the overuse of fertilizers, misuse of manures, sludges
and composts, and high animal numbers on limited land area have contributed to surface
and groundwater pollution in many regions of the U.S. Both nitrogen and phosphorus
are used in large quantities and their overuse has potential environmental implications.
The Bottom Line: Nutrients and Plant Health, Pests, Profts, and the Environment
Management practices are all related. The key is to visualize them all as whole-farm
management, leading you to the goals of better crop growth and better environmental
quality. If a soil has good tilth, no subsurface compaction, good drainage, adequate
water, and a good supply of organic matter, then plants should be healthy and have
large root systems. A large and healthy root system enables plants to effciently take up
nutrients and water from the soil and to use those nutrients to produce higher yields.
The ABCs of Nutrient Management
a. Build up and maintain high soil organic matter levels.
b. Test manures and credit their nutrient content before applying fertilizers or other
c. Incorporate manures into the soil quickly, if possible, to reduce nitrogen volatilization
and potential loss of nutrients in runoff.
d. Test soils regularly to determine the nutrient status and whether or not manures,
fertilizers, or lime are needed.
e. Balance nutrient infows and outfows to maintain optimal levels and allow a little
draw-down if nutrient levels get too high.
f. Enhance soil structure and reduce feld runoff by minimizing soil compaction damage.
g. Use forage legumes or legume cover crops to provide nitrogen to following crops and
develop good soil tilth.
h. Use cover crops to tie up nutrients in off season, enhance soil structure, and reduce
runoff and erosion.
i. Maintain soil pH in the optimal range for the crops in your rotation.
j. When phosphorus and potassium are very defcient, broadcast some of the fertilizer to
increase the general soil fertility level, and band apply some as well.
k. To get the most effcient use of the fertilizer when phosphorus and potassium levels
are in the medium range, consider band application at planting, especially in cool
Doing a good job of managing nutrients on the farm and in individual felds is critical to
general plant health and management of plant pests. Too much available nitrogen in the
early part of the growing season allows small-seeded weeds, with few nutrient reserves,
to get well established. This early jump-start may then enable them to out-compete crop
plants later on.
Crops do not grow properly if nutrients arent present in suffcient quantities and in
reasonable balance to one another. Plants may be stunted if nutrients are low, or they
may grow too much foliage and not enough fruit if nitrogen is too plentiful relative to
other nutrients.
Plants under nutrient stress, such as too low or too high nitrogen levels, are not able to
emit as much of the natural chemicals that signal benefcial insects when insect pests
feed on leaves or fruit. Stalk rot of corn is aggravated by low potassium levels. On the
other hand, pod rot of peanuts is associated with excess potassium within the fruiting
zone of peanuts (the top 2 to 3 inches of soil). Blossom-end rot of tomatoes is related
to low calcium levels, often brought on by droughty, or irregular rainfall/irrigation,
Nutrient Management Goals
* Satisfy crop nutrient requirements for yield and quality.
* Minimize pest pressure caused by fertility imbalances.
* Minimize the risk of damage to the environment.
* Minimize the cost of supplying nutrients.
* Use local sources of nutrients whenever possible.
* Get full nutrient value from fertility sources.
Modifed From OMAFRA, 1997
When plants either dont grow well or are more susceptible to pests, this affects the
economic return. Yield and crop quality usually are reduced, lowering the amount of
money received. There also may be added costs to control pests that take advantage of
poor nutrient management. In addition, when nutrients are applied beyond plant needs,
its like throwing money away. And when nitrogen and phosphorus are lost from the
Th e Nat ur al Far me r S p r i n g , 2 0 0 9 38
soil by leaching to groundwater or running into surface water, entire communities may
suffer from poor water quality.
Organic Matter and Nutrient Availability
The best single overall strategy for nutrient management is to work to enhance soil
organic matter levels in soils. This is especially true for nitrogen and phosphorus. Soil
organic matter, together with any freshly applied residues, are well known sources of
available nitrogen for plants. Mineralization of phosphorus and sulfur from organic
matter is also an important source of these nutrients. As discussed earlier, organic matter
helps hold on to potassium (K+), calcium (Ca++), and magnesium (Mg++) ions. It
also provides natural chelates that maintain micronutrients such as zinc, copper, and
manganese, in forms that plants can use.
Improving Nutrient Cycling On The Farm
For economic and environmental reasons, it makes sense to utilize nutrient cycles
effciently. Goals should include the reduction in long-distance nutrient fows, as well
as promoting true on-farm cycling. There are a number of strategies to help farmers
reach the goal of better nutrient cycling:
Reduce unintended losses by promoting water infltration and better root health
through enhanced management of soil organic matter and physical properties. The ways
in which organic matter can be built up and maintained include increased additions of
a variety of sources of organic matter plus methods for reducing losses via tillage and
conservation practices.
Enhance nutrient uptake effciency by carefully using fertilizers and amendments.
Better placement and synchronizing application with plant growth both improve
effciency. Sometimes, changing planting dates or switching to a new crop creates a
better match between the timing of nutrient availability and crop needs.
Tap local nutrient sources by seeking local sources of organic materials, such as
leaves or grass clippings from towns, aquatic weeds harvested from lakes, produce
waste from markets and restaurants, and food processing wastes. Although some of
these do not contribute to true nutrient cycles, the removal of agriculturally usable
nutrients from the waste stream makes sense and helps develop more environmentally
sound nutrient fows.
Promote consumption of locally produced foods by supporting local markets
as well as returning local food wastes to farmland. When people purchase locally
produced foods there are more possibilities for true nutrient cycling to occur. Some
Community Supported Agriculture farms, where subscriptions are paid before the start
of the growing season, encourage their members to return produce waste to the farm for
composting, completing a true cycle.
Reduce exports of nutrients in farm products by adding animal enterprises to
crop farms (fewer exports, and more reason to include forage legumes and grasses in
rotation). The best way to both reduce nutrient exports per acre, as well as to make more
use of forage legumes in rotations, is to add an animal (especially a ruminant) enterprise
to a crop farm. Compared with selling crops, feeding crops to animals and exporting
animal products results in far fewer nutrients leaving the farm. (Keep in mind that, on
the other hand, raising animals with mainly purchased feed is the best way to overload a
farm with nutrients.)
Bringing animal densities in line with the land base of the farm can be
accomplished by renting or purchasing more land to grow a higher percentage of
animal feeds and for manure application or by reducing animal numbers.
Develop local partnerships to balance fows among different types of farms.
Sometimes neighboring farmers cooperate with both nutrient management and crop
rotations. This is especially benefcial when a livestock farmer has too many animals
and imports a high percentage of feed and a neighboring vegetable farm has a need
for nutrients and has an inadequate land base to allow a rotation that includes a forage
legume. By cooperating with nutrient management and rotations, both farms win,
sometimes in ways that were not anticipated. Encouragement and coordination from an
extension agent may help neighboring farmers work out cooperative agreements. It is
more of a challenge as the distances become greater.
Some livestock farms that are overloaded with nutrients are fnding that composting
is an attractive alternative way to handle manure. During the composting process,
volume and weight are greatly reduced, resulting in less material to transport. Organic
farmers are always on the lookout for reasonably priced animal manures and composts.
The landscape industry also uses a fair amount of compost. Local or regional compost
exchanges can help remove nutrients from overburdened animal operations and place
them on nutrient-defcient soils.
Using Fertilizers And Amendments
There are four main issues when applying nutrients:
How much is needed?
What source(s) should be used?
When should the fertilizer or amendment be applied?
How should the fertilizer or amendment be applied?
Organic sources of nutrients have many good qualities. They usually provide a more
slow release source of fertility and the nitrogen availability is more evenly matched to
the needs of growing plants. Sources like manures or crop residues commonly contain
all the needed nutrients, including the micronutrients but they may not be present in
the proper proportion for soil and crop needs. These materials are also sources of soil
organic matter, providing food for soil organisms and forming aggregates and humus.
One of the drawbacks to organic materials is the variable amounts and uncertain timing
of nutrient release for plants to use. The value of manure as a nutrient source depends
upon the type of animal, its diet, and how the manure is handled. For cover crops, the
nitrogen contribution depends upon the species, amount of growth in the spring, and
weather. Also, manures typically are bulky and may contain a high percentage of water
so considerable work is needed to apply them per unit of nutrients. The timing of
nutrient release is uncertain, because it depends both on the type of organic materials
used and on the action of soil organisms. Their activities change with temperature and
rainfall. Finally, the relative nutrient concentrations for a particular manure used may
not match soil needs. For example, manures may contain high amounts of both nitrogen
and phosphorus when your soil already has high phosphorus levels.
Getting the Most From Soil Tests
Although fertilizers and other amendments purchased from off the farm are not a
panacea to cure all soil problems, they play an important role in maintaining soil
productivity. Soil testing is the farmers best means for determining which amendments
or fertilizers are needed and how much should be used.
The soil test report provides the soils nutrient and pH levels and, in arid climates, the
salt and sodium levels. Recommendations for application of nutrients and amendments
accompany most reports. They are based on soil nutrient levels, past cropping and
manure management, and should be a customized recommendation based on the crop
you plan to grow.
Soil tests and proper interpretation of results are a very important management
tool for developing a farm nutrient management pro- gram. However, deciding how
much fertilizer to apply or the total amount of nutrients needed from various sources
is part science, part philosophy, and part art. Understanding soil tests and how to
interpret them can help farmers better customize the tests recommendations.
Taking Soil Samples
The usual time to take soil samples for general fertility evaluation is in the fall or in the
spring, before the growing season has begun. These samples are analyzed for pH and
lime requirement as well as phosphorus, potassium, and magnesium. Some labs also
routinely analyze for selected micronutrients, such as boron, zinc, and manganese.
Accuracy of Recommendations Based on Soil Tests
Soil tests and their recommendations, although a critical component of fertility
management, are not 100 percent accurate. Soil tests are an important tool, but need to
be used by farmers and farm-advisors along with other information to make the best
decision regarding amounts of fertilizers or amendments to apply.
Soil tests are an estimate of a limited number of plant nutrients, based on a small
sample, which is supposed to represent many acres in a feld. With soil testing, the
answers arent quite as certain as we might like them. A low potassium soil test
indicates that you will probably increase yield by adding the nutrient. However, adding
fertilizer may not increase crop yields in a feld with a low soil test level. The higher
yields may be prevented because the soil test is not calibrated for that particular soil
(and the soil had suffcient potassium for the crop despite the low test level) or because
of harm caused by poor drainage or compaction. Occasionally, using extra nutrients on
a high-testing soil increases crop yields. Weather conditions may have made the nutrient
less available than indicated by the soil test. So, its important to use common sense
when interpreting soil test results.
Th e Nat ur al Far me r S p r i n g , 2 0 0 9 39
Sources of Confusion about Soil Tests
People may be easily confused about the details of soil tests, especially if they have seen
results from more than one soil testing laboratory. There are a number of reasons for
this, including:
laboratories use a variety of procedures;
labs report results differently; and
different approaches are used to make recommendations based on soil test results.
Labs Use Varied Procedures
One of the complications with using soil tests to help determine nutrient needs is that
testing labs across the country use a wide range of procedures. The main difference
among labs is the solutions they use to extract the soil nutrients. Some use one solution
for all nutrients, while others will use one solution to extract potassium, magnesium
and calcium; another for P; and yet another for micronutrients. The various extracting
solutions have different chemical compositions, so the amount of a particular nutrient
that lab A extracts may be very different from the amount extracted by lab B. However,
there are frequently good reasons to use a particular solution. For example, the Olsen
test for phosphorus (see below) is more accurate for high-pH soils in arid and semi-arid
regions than are the various acid-extracting solutions commonly used in more humid
regions. Whatever procedure the lab uses, soil test levels must be calibrated with crop
yield response to added nutrients. For example, do the yields really increase when you
add phosphorus to a soil that tests low in P? In general, university or state labs in a
given region use the same or similar procedures that have been calibrated for local soils
and climate.
Labs Report Soil Test Levels Differently
Different labs may report their results in different ways. Some use part per million
(10,000 ppm = 1 percent); others use lbs./acre (they do this usually by using part per
two million, which is twice the part per million level); and others use an index (for
example, all nutrients are expressed on a scale of 1 to 100). In addition, some labs report
phosphorus and potassium in the elemental form, while others use the oxide forms,
P2O5 and K2O.
Most testing labs report results as both a number and a category, such as low, medium,
optimum, high, very high. However, although most labs consider high to be above the
amount needed (the amount needed is called optimum), some labs use optimum and
high interchangeably. If the signifcance of the various categories is not clear on your
report, be sure to ask. Labs should be able to furnish you with the probability of getting
a response to added fertilizer for each soil test category.
Different Recommendation Systems
Even when labs use the same procedures, as is the case in most of the Midwest, different
approaches to making recommendations lead to different amounts of recommended
fertilizer. Three different philosophies are used to make fertilizer recommendations
based on soil tests.
One approach the suffciency level system suggests there is a point, the suffciency
or critical soil test value, above which there is little likelihood of response to an added
nutrient. Its goal is not to produce the highest yield every year, but, rather, to produce
the highest average return over time from using fertilizers. Experiments that relate yield
increases with added fertilizer to soil test level provide much of the evidence supporting
this approach. As the soil test level increases from optimum to high, yields without
adding fertilizer are closer to the maximum obtained by adding fertilizer (fgure 19.1).
Of course, farmers should be shooting for the maximum economic yields, which are
slightly below the highest possible yields.
Another approach used by soil test labs the build-up and maintenance system calls
for building up soils to high levels of fertility and then keeping them there by applying
enough fertilizer to replace nutrients removed in harvested crops. It is used mainly for
phosphorus, potassium, and magnesium recommendations.
The basic cation saturation ratio system, a method of estimating calcium, magnesium,
and potassium needs, is based on the belief that crops yield best when calcium (Ca++),
magnesium (Mg++), and potassium (K+) usually the dominant cations on the CEC
are in a particular balance. Although there are different versions of this system, most
call for calcium to occupy about 60 to 80 percent of the CEC, whereas magnesium
should be from 10 to 20 percent and potassium from 2 to 5 percent of the CEC. Great
care is needed when using the base cation saturation ratio system. For example, the
ratios of the nutrients can be within the guidelines, but there may be such a low CEC
(such as with a sandy soil that is very low in organic matter), that the amounts present
are insuffcient for crops. In addition, when there is a high CEC, there may be plenty of
the nutrient, but the cation ratio system will call for adding more. This can be a problem
with soils that are naturally high in magnesium, because the recommendations may call
for high amounts of calcium and potassium to be added when none are really needed.
Research indicates that plants do well over a broad range of cation ratios, as long as
there are suffcient supplies of potassium, calcium, and magnesium. However, there
are occasions when the calcium-magnesium-potassium ratios are very out of balance.
For example, when magnesium occupies more than 50 percent of the CEC in soils
with low aggregate stability, using calcium sulfate may help restore aggregation. As
mentioned previously, liming very acidic soils sometimes results in decreased potassium
availability and this would be apparent when using the cation ratio system. The
suffciency system would also call for adding potassium because of the low potassium
levels in these very acid soils.
The suffciency level approach is used by most fertility recommendation systems for
potassium, magnesium, and calcium. It generally calls for lower application rates and
is more consistent with the scientifc data than the cation ratio system. The cation ratio
system can be used successfully, if interpreted with care and common sense not
ignoring the total amounts present.
Labs sometimes use a combination of these systems, something like a hybrid approach.
Some laboratories that use the suffciency system will have a target for magnesium,
but then suggest adding more if the potassium level is high. Others suggest that higher
potassium levels are needed as the soil CEC increases. These are really hybrids of
the suffciency and cation ratio systems. At least one lab uses the suffciency system
for potassium and a cation ratio system for calcium and magnesium. Also, some labs
assume that soils will not be tested annually. The recommendation that they give is,
therefore, a combination of the suffciency system (what is needed for this crop) with a
certain amount added for maintenance. This is done to be sure there is enough fertility
in the following year.
Crop Value, Fertilizer Rates, and Recommendation System
The value of your crop can have a major impact on the economics of over-applying
fertilizer. As a general rule, the lower the per acre value of your crop, the greater the
economic penalty for applying extra fertilizer. Farmers growing agronomic crops should
take special care not to over-apply fertilizer.
As the soil test level of a particular nutrient increases, there is less chance that
adding the nutrient will result in a greater yield. However, it may be worth adding
fertilizer to high-value crops grown on soils with the same test levels that call for no
fertilizer use low-value crops (fgure 19.2). This difference should be refected in the
recommendations provided by soil testing laboratories.
Plant Tissue Tests
Soil tests are the most common means of assessing fertility needs of crops, but plant
tissue tests are especially useful for nutrient management of perennial crops, such as
apple, citrus and peach orchards, and vineyards. For most annuals, including agronomic
and vegetable crops, tissue testing is not widely used, but can help diagnose problems.
The small sampling window available for most annuals and an inability to effectively
fertilize them once they are well established, except for N during early growth stages,
limits the usefulness of tissue analysis for annual crops. However, leaf petiole nitrate
tests are sometimes done on potato and sugar beets to help fne-tune in-season N
fertilization. Petiole nitrate is also helpful for N management of cotton and for help
managing irrigated vegetables, especially during the transition from vegetative to
reproductive growth. With irrigated crops, in particular when the drip system is used,
fertilizer can be effectively delivered to the rooting zone during crop growth.
What Should You Do?
After reading the discussion above you may be somewhat bewildered by the different
procedures and ways of expressing results, as well as the different recommendation
approaches. The fact is that it is bewildering! Our general suggestions of how to deal
with these complex issues are:
1. Send your soil samples to a lab that uses tests evaluated for the soils and crops
of your state or region. Continue using the same lab or another that uses the same
procedures and recommendation system.
2. If youre growing low value-per-acre crops (wheat, corn, soybeans, etc.), be sure that
the recommendation system used is based on the suffciency approach. This system
usually results in lower fertilizer rates and higher economic returns for low value crops.
[It is not easy to fnd out what system a lab uses. Be persistent and you will get to a
person that can answer your question.]
3. Dividing the same sample in two and sending it to two labs may result in confusion.
You will probably get different recommendations and it wont be easy to fgure out
which is better for you, unless you are willing to do a comparison of recommendations.
In most cases you are better off staying with the same lab and learning how to fne-
tune recommendations for your farm. However, if you are willing to experiment, you
can send duplicate samples to two different labs, with one going to your state-testing
laboratory. In general, the recommendations from these labs call for less, but enough,
fertilizer. If growing crops over large acreage, set up a demonstration or experiment in
one feld where you apply the fertilizer recommended by each lab over long strips and
see if there is any yield difference.
4. Keep a record of soil tests for each feld, so that you can track changes over the years
(fgure 19.3). If records show a build up of nutrients to high levels, reduce nutrient
applications. If youre drawing nutrient levels down too low, start applying fertilizers
or off-farm organic nutrient sources. In some rotations, such as the corn-corn-4 years of
hay shown at the bottom of fgure 19.3, it makes sense to build up nutrient levels during
the corn phase and draw them down during the hay phase.
Th e Nat ur al Far me r S p r i n g , 2 0 0 9 40
Testing Soils For Organic Matter
If your laboratory reports organic matter as weight
loss at high temperature, the numbers may be higher
than if the lab uses the traditional wet chemistry method.
A soil with 3 percent organic matter by wet chemistry
might have a weight-loss value of between 4 and 5
percent. Most labs use a correction factor to approximate
the value you would get by using the wet chemistry
procedure. Although either method can be used to follow
changes in your soil, when you compare soil organic
matter of samples run in different laboratories, its best to
make sure the same methods were used.
There is now a laboratory that will determine various
forms of living organisms in your soil. Although it costs
quite a bit more than traditional testing for nutrients or
organic matter, you can fnd out the amount (weight) of
fungi and bacteria in a soil, as well as analysis for other
organisms. (See the Resources section at the back of the
book for laboratories that run tests in addition to basic
soil fertility analysis.)
Interpreting Soil Test Results
Below is a soil test example, including discussion about
what it tells us and the types of practices that should be
followed. Suggestions are provided for organic producers.
These are just suggestions there are other satisfactory
ways to meet the needs for crops growing on these soils.
Many labs estimate the cation exchange capacity that
would exist at pH 7 (or even higher). Because we feel
that the soils current CEC is of most interest the CEC is
estimated by summing the exchangeable bases. The more
acidic a soil, the greater the difference between its current
CEC and the CEC it would have near pH 7.
(New England)
Field name: North
Sample date: September (PSNT sample taken the
following June)
Soil type: loamy sand
Manure added: none
Cropping history: mixed vegetables
Crop to be grown: mixed vegetables
What can we tell about soil #1 based on the soil test?
It is too acidic for most agricultural crops, so lime is
Phosphorus is low, as are potassium, magnesium, and
calcium. All should be applied.
This low organic matter soil is probably also low in
active organic matter (indicated by the low PSNT test,
see table 19.4a) and will need an application of nitrogen.
(The PSNT is done during the growth of the crop, so it is
diffcult to use manure to supply extra N needs indicated
by the test.)
The coarse texture of the soil is indicated by the
combination of low organic matter and low CEC.
Recommendations for organic producers:
1. Use dolomitic limestone to increase the pH (as
recommended for the conventional farmer above).
2. Apply 2 tons/acre of rock phosphate, or about 5 tons
of poultry manure for phosphorus, or better yet a
combination of 1 ton of rock phosphate and 2 1/2 tons
of poultry manure. If the high level of rock phosphate
is applied, it should supply some phosphorus for a long
time, perhaps a decade.
3. If the poultry manure is used to raise the phosphorus
level, add 2 tons of compost per acre to add some longer
lasting nutrients and humus. If rock phosphate is used
to supply phosphorus, then use livestock manure and
compost (to add N, potassium, magnesium, and some
4. Establish a good rotation with soil-building crops and
cover crops.
5. Care is needed with manure use. Although the
application of uncomposted manure is allowed by organic
certifying organizations, there are restrictions. For
example, three to four months may be needed between
application of uncomposted manure and either harvest of
root crops or planting of crops that accumulate nitrate,
such as leafy greens or beets. A two-month period may
be needed between uncomposted manure application and
harvest of other food crops.
Excerpted by Jack Kittredge from Magdoff, F. and H. van
Es. 2001. Building Soils for Better Crops, 2nd Edition.
Sustainable Agriculture Network. Beltsville, MD. www.
A 3rd edition will be published later in 2009.
$15 for a US address, or
$20 for a foreign address
Th e Nat ur al Far me r S p r i n g , 2 0 0 9 41

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by Jack Lazor

Incredible advances have been made in agricultural
productivity in the last half century. Crop yields
have soared. Output in pounds of meat and milk has
doubled and even tripled in many cases. Improved
plant breeding and genetic selection have only been
partially responsible for these increases. The wide-
spread adoption of salt based nitrogen fertilizers has
pushed crop yields beyond all expectations. Aver-
age corn yields have climbed from 80 bushels per
acre in the early sixties to over 160 bushels today.
Many corn growers consistently achieve 200 plus
bushel yields.

We have paid a price for the green revolution. For
every one part of N that a plant absorbs as nitrate,
twenty to thirty parts of carbon are needed to com-
plete the assimilation. Large and continuous ap-
plications of nitrogenous fertilizers like urea, MAP,
DAP, ammonium nitrate, and anhydrous ammonia
have resulted in the loss of over half the earths
soil carbon reserves since 1950. Simply put, we
are burning up soil humus and organic matter at an
alarming rate. I have observed soils in my neigh-
borhood turn from chocolate brown to a bleached
white appearance where corn silage has been grown
continuously for the past 25 years.

Carbon is the forgotten element in modern agricul-
ture. While calcium moves other minerals around
and phosphorous promotes root development,
carbon is responsible for structure. Calcium and
magnesium are held in carbonate form in limestone.
Modern dairy farming has gone to a liquid manure\
slurry regimen for the sake of speed and effciency.
Straw or wood product bedding is virtually absent in
the modern freestall barn. Too much bedding would
not allow the manure to travel through pumps. Ma-
nure pits and liquid systems were designed to keep
manure out of streams, rivers, and lakes. Why is it
that Lake Champlain is so much more polluted by
phosphorous and farm runoff now than it was thirty
years ago when solid manure was the norm on dairy

It is my belief that we have changed the basic struc-
ture and nutrient holding capacity of our soils by the
over application of low carbon slurry manure. The
ground has hardened and doesnt absorb water like
it did at one time. Manure leaves the back of a cow
charged up with bacteria from the digestive process.
Mix this product with urine and rain water in an an-
aerobic pit and you have transformed a once benign
substance (cow shit) into a low grade chemical
fertilizer. It is soluble and salty which means
that it has a high rate of conductivityjust like its
chemical cousins urea and ammonium nitrate. Liq-
uid manure needs to be applied after every cutting
of hay to insure a decent harvest. One application
of the manure of yesteryear would sustain good hay
yields for a year or two. Hydrogen sulfde laden
slurry only promotes the rank growth of grasses that
like to suck up soluble nutrients. Solid manure, on
the other hand, sustains a much more diverse popu-
lation of legumes and grasses.

Carbon and humus in the earths mantle or crust
are like the lungs of the planet. A breathing earth
can handle the extremes of food and drought, by
storing moisture in dry times or wicking it away
in wet spells. I wonder if the increasingly erratic
weather that we have experienced in the last few
decades might be related to the earths diffculty
breathing. Humus is all about fexibility in the soil
environment. Glomulin, a byproduct of humus, is
the glue that hold soil particles together. High hu-
mus soils dont wash away or lose their structure in
heavy rainfall events.

In Vermont the methane digester on the large in-
dustrial dairy farm has become synonymous with
sustainable agriculture. Supporters of anaerobic
digestion tout the production of electricity and con-
servation of manure nutrients as a win-win situation.
Manure solids are separated and can be reused as
bedding, saving lots of money. Sure, your N, P, and
K are still there in the odor-free liquid byproduct,
but you have removed carbon and hydrogen in the
form of methane - CH4. It is so easy to forget car-
bon. Not all greenhouse gases come from tailpipes
or smokestacks. Burned up soil carbon ends up in
the atmosphere as well. By decarbonizing our soils
on this earth, we are chipping away at the founda-
tion or structure beneath us. Extreme weather and
global climate change are the result of our under-
story being weakened as we watch our house fall

I suggest that we go to the next step beyond organic
agriculture and embrace the likes of humus farm-
ing as described by British visionaries Sir Albert
Howard, Friend Sykes, and Newman Turner. How
much carbon can we take out of the sky and lock
up in the earths crust as humus- stable microbial
protoplasm under our feet? It has been stated that
raising the average organic matter content of the
earths soils by 1% would go a long way to reducing
the greenhouse problem.

On my own dairy farm, we have been housing
our Jersey cows on a bedding pack of straw and
bark since 2001. Our 60 x 120 foot long hoop barn
houses about 80 head of cows from early November
to early May. Fresh straw is spread every morning
and evening. Occasionally hard wood bark and rock
phosphate are added. By spring, the pack is 5 to
6 feet deep. The top foot or so is actively compost-
ing which transmits heat to the animals when they
lie down. The beauty of the bedding pack is that it
is sponge-like. No urine leaches through. The basic
principle is that the soluble salts in the urine and the
manure are buffered by the high amount of carbona-
ceous material in the bedding.

We clean out our tack barn after the frst cut of hay
is fnished. Every bit of material goes through ma-
nure spreaders into compost windrows. Within eight
hours of deposit, windrows reach a temperature of
150-160 degrees Fahrenheit. Each season, we pro-
duce 12 -14 250 foot windrows of compost. The
compost is turned several times during the summer
and applied to our land in September when there is
still plenty of biological activity in the soil. Each
year, compost is applied to about 125 acres of our
farmland. Organic matter levels on our farm average
about 7%. Our hayfelds embody a diverse popula-
tion of grasses and legumes which produce well in
both wet and dry conditions. Protein and energy
levels as well as digestibility of our hay are excel-
lent. Concentrating on the carbon cycle of our farm
has really paid off. When we take care of the earth,
it takes care of us.
The Importance of Building Humus
Th e Nat ur al Far me r S p r i n g , 2 0 0 9 42
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Mac Mead, a biodynamic farmer for more than
thirty years, likes to tell the story of his frst
encounter with biodynamics. In 1972, a friend
brought him to Camp Hill Copake, an upstate New
York community that includes a biodynamic farm.
A farmer there told Mac: Were doing a kind of
agriculture here where the soil gets better every
year. Biodynamic farming is synonymous with soil
building. For biodynamic farmers, sustainability is
too modest a goal; instead, they are committed to
practices that strengthen and enliven the soil and its
produce and eventually the farm, its community,
and the wider world as well.
The soil-building effects of biodynamic agriculture
have been scientifcally documented. A 1993 study
by Reganold et al., Soil Quality and Financial
Performance of Biodynamic and Conventional
Farms in New Zealand, compared the soil
quality and fnancial performance of adjacent BD
and conventional farms in New Zealand. They
concluded that the biodynamic farms in the
study had better soil quality than the neighboring
conventional farms and were just as fnancially
viable on a per hectare basis. A 2002 paper by
Mder et al., Soil Fertility and Biodiversity in
Organic Farming, reported the results of a 21-year
study of agronomic and ecological performance of
biodynamic, bio-organic, and conventional farming
systems in Central Europe. They found enhanced
soil fertility and higher biodiversity in the
ecologically managed plots, which also benefted
from using far lower levels of inputs fertilizer,
energy, and (needless to say) pesticides.
As a frst step to grasping biodynamics, visualize
the farm and all its component parts as organs
within organisms. In our own bodies, every organ is
a coherent whole in itself, but any organ lives and
makes sense only in the context of its organism:
my heart cant live outside my body. Our bodily
organs communicate among themselves, informing
each other of their needs and condition, a process
that goes on continuously without our conscious
awareness or intervention. Similarly, a cow is an
organism, complete in herself, but she is also an
organ within the organism of her herd, and the herd
is an organ within the organism of the farm. The
cow has a sense of her own well-being; she also
senses and responds to the state of the herd and of
the farm. These relationships, easy to grasp when
we look at the living beings on the farm, can also
be found in the social realm. Farms exist in social
communities and economic markets, and they are
organs within the organism of the surrounding
human social structure. Going even further, with a
bit of imagination it becomes easy to see that our
Earth is exactly how it is because of its place in the
community of our solar system: how different would
our climate be if we were located in Venuss spot?
The biodynamic farmer takes all these relationships
into account, recognizing that a multitude of forces
some of them physical and perceptible, many
of them unseen and unquantifable infuence the
course of life and the processes of the household
of nature. The biodynamic farmer treats her farm
as a living individuality, forever in the process
of becoming itself. She acknowledges the reality
of unseen and (ordinarily) imperceptible forces,
attempts to understand them, and does what she
can to facilitate their positive infuences. She
understands that it is the task of the biodynamic
farmer to understand all the forces at work on the
farm, and to hinder or intensify them as appropriate.
A basic organ of the farm is the soil. Soil has
plant-like vitality that changes with the seasons.
Just as our bodily organs respond to homeopathic
dosages of minerals and other substances (such as
the minute quantities of hormones that keep our
bodies running smoothly), the soil too responds to
homeopathic dosages, an ability that biodynamics
makes much use of. The soil surface is an organ
much like the human diaphragm; it mediates the
dynamic equilibrium that exists between the soil
below and the air above. Below the soil surface is
a realm of stillness and respiration, while up above
ground take place digestion and reproduction. If you
superimpose a human fgure on this image, you fnd
the head and lungs below ground, and the digestive
and reproductive organs above: an upside-down
Many people, contemplating this image for the frst
time, suspect that it is their own thinking that is
being turned upside down. Maybe so. We modern
folk are trained to analyze the world by reducing
its beings to their smallest constituent parts. The
smaller the detail, the closer we think we are to
understanding how nature really works: its all in
the DNA! If our soil is defcient, we compile a list
of the chemicals and elements found in healthy
soil. We then compare a list of the elements in our
defcient soil, and add to our soil isolated dosages
of the individual missing elements. For example,
we observe that nitrogen stimulates plant growth,
so we food the soil with nitrogen. It works, but a
cascade of unintended and unforeseen consequences
soon follows, because our focus on the smallest
parts blocks our view of the larger connections,
interactions, and interdependencies that constitute
the household of nature. The biodynamic farmer, by
contrast, knows that a farm with the right number
and mix of livestock will generate the correct
quality and quantity of manure for that particular
farm. The biodynamic farmer does not mix and
calibrate particular substances to address particular
defcits in the soil; rather, he cultivates the insight
and understanding necessary to fnd the dynamic
balance of elements that the farm needs to thrive.
Soil Building and
A fow form helps to energize water
Th e Nat ur al Far me r S p r i n g , 2 0 0 9 44
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whole Foods Market has set up an annual
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Th e Nat ur al Far me r S p r i n g , 2 0 0 9 45
We often forget that understanding nature by
reducing it to pieces is a learned way of thinking. It
is not natural. It is not in itself a bad thing; reductive
thinking has made possible science and technology,
with all their benefts. However, the reductionist
world view does impede our ability to see and
make use of larger connections and forces. So its
important to recall that our minds didnt always
work that way. At one time, in the distant past,
people lived more or less in nature, with a natural
intuitive grasp of lifes processes of growth and
decline going on around them. People were, so to
speak, at one with the spiritual world, in a condition
that we might associate with Native Americans or
with unspoiled tribal people.
Over time, humankind plunged deeper into the
material world, and gradually lost its direct intuitive
connection with the natural or spiritual world. But
the knowledge that we had gained in that previous
condition lived on in the form of folk wisdom,
homilies, proverbs, and the like. For generations,
farmers knew what to do next by quoting a proverb.
In recent times, however, the authentic sources of
that wisdom were lost to memory, and proverbs and
homilies came to be denigrated as fairy tales and
baseless superstitions. Because they were quoted
and followed without any understanding of their
underlying wisdom, the proverbs lost their value.
The foundational document of biodynamics is
Rudolf Steiners Agriculture Course of 1924. In
it, Steiner observes that we urgently need a new
holistic agriculture that will heal the damage caused
by modern scientifc farming practices. Steiner
honors the wisdom of the past, but he emphasizes
that the way forward will not be found in past
practices. Rather, we must look forward and fnd
a new way: The natural gifts, naturally inherited
knowledge, traditional medicines, and so on that
have been passed down from ancient times are
all losing their value. We need to acquire new
knowledge in order to be able to enter into all the
interrelationships of these things. Humanity has
only two choices: either to start once again, in
every feld of endeavor, to learn from the whole of
nature or to allow both nature and human life to
degenerate and die off.
Further on, Steiner cites the example of a simple
farmer, an uneducated man who may even be
considered stupid by his neighbors. Walking his
felds, or sitting by the fre of a winters night, this
farmer experiences a meditative life that gives
him insight into the workings of nature on his
farm. Those insights guide his actions: He knows
something, and afterwards he tries it out. I lived
among farmers when I was young, and I saw this
happen again and again. Mere intellectuality is
not enough; it does not get us deep enough. Natures
life and fow are so fne and subtle that in the end
they slip right through the coarse mesh of our
rational concepts.
Steiner gave the Agriculture Course at the request of
a group of farmers who believed that his guidance
could help them reverse the perceived decline in
the vitality of their soils, crops and livestock. The
old ways were no longer helping, and they did not
believe that modern scientifc methods were the
answer either. Synthetic mineral fertilizers had been
in use for many years, and in the mid-1920s farmers
felt especially strong economic and social pressure
to adapt the new scientifc agricultural methods.
During the First World War, European and American
chemical companies built up a huge capacity for
manufacturing phosphates for explosives. Peacetime
brought the end of that market; to compensate,
the chemical companies intensifed their efforts to
sell synthetic agricultural fertilizers. While many
farmers embraced this scientifc agricultural miracle,
those who turned to Steiner for help understood, as
Steiner said, that modern methods of improving
manure may sometimes give astonishing outward
results but ultimately they tend to turn all the frst-
rate agricultural products into mere stomach-fllers.
It is important not to be deceived by things that
look big and swollen; what is important is that their
appearance be consistent with real nutritive power.
Rudolf Steiner lived from 1861 to 1925. He frst
attracted notice when, in his early 20s, he was
invited to edit a new edition of the scientifc writings
of Goethe. Goethes emphasis on the importance of
deep observation of nature, and his holistic approach
to understanding nature, deeply infuenced Steiners
thinking. Later, Steiners work as the editor of a
popular magazine in Berlin led to his teaching a
wide variety of subjects at Berlins Free Workers
University, an experience that cemented his standing
as a ferce advocate for universal education and
personal self-improvement as a route to meaningful
social change. After the turn of the twentieth
century, Steiners work as a writer and public
speaker became ever more deeply tied to popular
movements for spiritual growth, culminating in his
founding of a movement for spiritual and social
development known as Anthroposophy.
A tireless worker, Steiner wrote nearly two dozen
books and left behind some six thousand transcribed
and published lectures. His teachings and writings
all start from the understanding that behind the
everyday sense-perceptible world lies a world of
unseen forces that guides and shapes the material
world. These forces, which can be investigated and
understood in a systematic, rational manner, must
be factored into our decisions and actions. Steiner
was intensely interested in the most fundamental
aspects of social life. In a few short months in
1919, for example, Steiner described a method
of education that today is the worlds largest and
fastest-growing private school movement: Waldorf
education. At around the same time, as the German
people began to confront the consequences of the
peace imposed upon them by the victorious Allies,
Steiner articulated an innovative vision of social
and economic organization that gained the support
of his many wealthy and well-connected patrons
and students. Steiner saw that human development
had outstripped existing social forms, even the
supposedly forward-looking and revolutionary
ones. In response, he offered observations that were
neither prescriptive nor Utopian, but rather how
people would arrange things for themselves if they
were given the freedom to do so: social forms in
which real cooperation continually renews social
forces. Sadly, Steiners ideas were swept aside in
the tumultuous political currents of the time, which
culminated in the rise of Fascism and the Second
World War.
The many currents in Steiners work scientifc,
spiritual, social, and economic all come into play
in biodynamics, as is suggested by the full title of
the Agriculture Course: Spiritual Foundations for
the Renewal of Agriculture. In the social realm,
Steiner noted that even though agriculture touches
every aspect of human life (after all, everyone eats),
farmers have been pushed to societys periphery.
This trend must be reversed if we are to restore a
healthy agriculture and a healthy social life.
Steiners recommendations can be astonishingly
concrete and economical. For example, when
farmers asked how they could fnd the time and
labor to follow a particular recommended practice,
Steiner suggested having a farm festival on that day,
with music and food, and the work would get done
by the assembled crowd of people: two problems,
one social and one agricultural, solved in one
stroke. The CSA movement, which was started by
biodynamic farmers inspired by Steiners economic
ideas, grows out of this same impulse: to draw
producers and consumers together into living social
and economic communities.
Biodynamic practices are based on using specially
treated organic fertilizers composted plant matter
and composted manure to build the soil even as
it is being worked. This is necessary to do because
the idea that we are exploiting the land when we
farm is quite accurate. [W]ith everything we send
off the farm and out into the world, we are taking
away forces from the soil which need to be
replenished. Eventually, the manure must be treated
in order for it to acquire the capacity to properly
vitalize the depleted soil. Biodynamics is aimed
toward building the soil not feeding it, and not
using it as a mere vehicle for delivering fertilizer
to plants. In Steiners words, It is not a question
of merely augmenting the soil with substances that
we believe will be of beneft to the plants. It is a
question of infusing the manure with living forces,
which are much more important to the plants than
the material forces, the mere substances.
Rudolf Steiner observed that compost piles, felds
and plants respond to homeopathic dosages, and
he described eight special substances, known as
Preparations 500 through 507 (the preps), that
are used to treat the farm. The preps are made from
materials such as chamomile, yarrow, dandelion,
nettle, cow dung, and silica. Because the farm is
a unique living individuality, these materials are
best sourced on the farm itself, especially the cow
dung. The preps are not fertilizers. In the words of
Ehrenfried Pfeiffer, a student of Steiners and an
early proponent of biodynamics in North America,
the preps have a dynamic effect one that is to
say that stimulates growth. Where they are present,
even when fnely distributed, they bring about
pronounced changes in the life of a plant. Preps are
applied directly to compost piles, and are sprayed on
felds and beds.
There is much more to biodynamic farming than
can be touched on in the scope of this article. There
are practices and techniques, such as making and
applying the preps; and there is also an attitude
toward the spiritual realities underlying nature.
Fortunately, some excellent resources exist for those
interested in learning more about biodynamics.
For more than 13 years, the Pfeiffer Center in
Chestnut Ridge, NY, has offered a part-time year-
long training that meets one weekend a month from
September through June. This course offers a fne
overview of the principles behind biodynamics,
along with ample opportunities for hands-on
practice. An apprenticeship program, designed to
blend biodynamic training with traditional farm
apprenticeship service, is being developed by the
Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association,
in collaboration with other interested parties. The
Association publishes a journal and offers other
resources through its web site. Preps are available
for purchase from the Josephine Porter Institute,
and Stella Natura publishes a calendar that many
biodynamic growers fnd invaluable. All of these
resources can be found below.
Biodynamics is demanding. To study and
practice biodynamics requires the cultivation of
a mindfulness and perceptiveness that benefts
anyone who works with soil, plants or animals,
whether they call themselves organic, conventional
or biodynamic. In the words of Ehrenfried Pfeiffer,
It is this that makes such exacting demands on
the powers of observation of the biodynamic
husbandman, for he may not act mechanically nor
according to rule, but always in harmony with the
life-conditions around him. When we heed those
demands, we reap rich rewards. Again to quote
Pfeiffer, The biodynamic methods bring man to
a deeper understanding of nature. Thoughtless,
mechanical cultivation of the earth must be avoided;
the cultivator himself should be the guiding and
observing factor and one of the most important
members in the organization of land and garden
Reganold, J. P. et al. Soil Quality and Financial
Performance of Biodynamic and Conventional
Farms in New Zealand. Science Vol. 260, no. 5106,
pp. 344-349.
Mder, P. et al. Soil Fertility and Biodiversity in
Organic Farming. Science Vol. 296, no. 5573, pp.
Steiner, Rudolf. Spiritual Foundation for the
Renewal of Agriculture. Translated by Catherine
E. Creeger and Malcolm Gardner. Biodynamic
Farming and Gardening Association, 1993.
Pfeiffer, Ehrenfried. Using the Biodynamic Compost
Preparations and Sprays in Garden, Orchard
and Farm. Biodynamic Farming and Gardening
Association, 2002.
The Pfeiffer Center:
Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association:
North American Biodynamic Apprenticeship
Josephine Porter Institute: http://www.
Stella Natura:
The author, Bill Day, is Development Coordinator at
the Threefold Educational Center in Chestnut Ridge,
NY (
Th e Nat ur al Far me r S p r i n g , 2 0 0 9 46
by David Yarrow
On January 20, eight years of federal denial and refusal
of global warming ended. Many states, communities
and corporations have already confronted climate
change by assessing their greenhouse gas emissions to
reduce their carbon footprint. The publicly promoted
goal is to be carbon neutralzero net emissions, by
cutting emissions, or buying offsets to compensate
for emissions.

But carbon neutral isnt enough. Reducing emissions
may slow our rush into climate catastrophe, but
enough greenhouse gases are already in Earths
atmosphere to assure future generations the hardships
of extreme weather. To reverse global warming
and mitigate climate change, society must become
carbon negative. We must develop technologies to
remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, and
safely store them in stable solid forms.

Somehow, agriculture remains a sacred cow in climate
strategy. The current industrial mindset fxates on
visible emissions from tailpipes and smokestacks, and
misses gases and vapors from plowed and fertilized
farmland, animal feedlots and manure pits. Nitrogen
fertilizer synthesis uses half the US hydrogen
produced, most from methane, a greenhouse gas.
Farm runoff creates water pollution, to spew gases
from microbial blooms and die-offs. Farm machinery
and crop drying burn more fossil fuels. Agriculture
is a major greenhouse gas producer.

Agriculture must cut its carbon footprint and become
a way to sequester carbon. Farm soil can be a carbon
sink, and farming can produce renewable biofuels.
Eating food can be everyones daily way to help
reverse climate change. Fortunately, the way to
achieve these urgent goals is a legacy left by native
tribes who vanished into extinction 300 years ago.

In South Americas western Amazon, 6000 years ago,
tribes began creating highly fertile soils. In 2000
years, this practice spread eastward to the mouth
of the Amazon. By Christs time, land area greater
than France was converted to this rich soilenough
productive farmland to feed at least fve million
people. Early European explorers told of these
Amazon dark earths. Portuguese settlers named
them terra preta, or dark earth.

For decades, these unusual soils were believed to be
unique geological deposits. But in 1966, Dutch soil
scientist Wim Sombroek proved they were made by
indigenous tribes. Terra preta has up to 9% carbon, at
least three and often six feet deep. Adjacent infertile,
acid clays contain only 0.5%. While terra preta
contains a variety of settlement debris, the unusual
ingredient that makes them black is charcoal.

In 1992, Sombroek published Amazon Soils, and
suggested these charcoal-enriched soils can sequester
carbon to reverse global warming. Further, charcoal-
making can produce renewable energy to replace
fossil fuels.

April 2007 in New South Wales, Australia, the frst
international conference on this carbon-negative
strategy gathered over 250 scientists, farmers,
businessmen, activists, and journalists. A worldwide
organization was formed to investigate and advocate
this way to sequester carbon, regenerate soils and
produce biofuels. In September 2008, a second
conference in Newcastle, England gave birth to the
International Biochar Initiative (IBI).

Biochar is a new term for fne-grained, highly
porous charcoal made from biological material
(biomass), high in organic carbon. This excludes
fossil fuel products, geological carbon and industrial
synthetics (plastic). Biochars primary use is in soil
to retain nutrients and water, and offer habitat for the
soil food web. This includes food-producing farm
soils, so careful specifcations are needed to defne
materials suitable for this use.

Biochar is produced when biomass is heated to
500 degrees with a minimum of oxygen. Normal
combustion oxidizes biomass into ash, steam, CO
plus other gases and vapors. Without oxygen, the
biomass is reduced to carbon-carbon bonds of char.
Charcoal was made for centuries worldwide by
simple methods with few or no tools. Small batches
can be homemade in simple barrel burners. Modern
pyrolysis gasifcation technology in air-tight retorts
turns tons of biomass into energy, gases and liquids.

Biochar is a key to a new carbon-negative strategy
to resolve critical ecological, economic and energy
challenges. Properly made and used, biochar can
mitigate climate change and other environmental
effects. Biochar enhances soil in numerous ways.
Its effects require a paradigm shift from chemical
views to emerging 21
Century insight into soil food
web biology.

Research consistently fnds poor soils enriched
by biochar grow bigger, stronger plants that yield
higher quantity and quality. Yields 300% greater
are common. Some research got over 800% more
yield from biochar-enriched soil. Plants grow well
in soil with 9% biochar, at less cost, retain nutrients,
and sustain productivity longer with less fertilizer.
Even better, food from those soils has higher nutrient
balance, density and quality.

Biochars carbon-carbon bonds dont break down,
and will stay in soil for centuries. CO
fxed by
photosynthesis is now an inert form, safely stored
long-termfar longer than other organic matter,
such as compost, plant residue or manures that
oxidize quickly. Thus, biochar in soil is a true
carbon-negative strategyone of our few ways to
permanently sequester carbon.

Robert Brown at Iowa State University, with a $1.8-
million USDA grant, calculates corn stalk pyrolysis
into biochar on a 250-hectare farm can sequester
1,900 tons of carbon a year. NASA climate scientist
James Hansens August 2008 paper estimates that
worldwide biochar soil sequestration can lower CO

by ~8ppm in 50 years. Research also shows biochar
in soil reduces nitrous oxide emissions 50-80%, and
eliminates methane emissionsfar worse greenhouse
gases than CO

Making biochar by pyrolysis can also produce
energy, and turn energy production into carbon-
negative industry. As biomass breaks down into
char, hydrogen, methane and hydrocarbons are
released, to capture and refne into biofuels. Energy
produced can be turned into space heat, electricity,
reformed into ethanol or ultra-clean diesel. One ton
of biomass can equal 5.5 barrels of oil. About half
the original carbon and most minerals return to soil
to support sustainable, biological fertility. Biomass
pyrolysis uses crop residues and biomass wastes to
create new local jobs, businesses and fnancial cycles
to raise rural community incomes.

Best of all, this creates carbon negative, nutrient-
dense food. Soon consumers will have a choice
to buy food grown in biochar-enhanced soil. By
eating this food, we support farming that sequesters
carbon and reduces other greenhouse gases. Such
foods have higher nutritional content, cause minimal
environmental pollution and other damage, and
encourage community-based renewable energy
production and local distribution.

Will farmers grow such foods? Will consumers buy
For more information contact David Yarrow at
518-881-6632 or, or go to
biochar,, www.biochar-, or
Biochar Projects in the Northeast

Stacy L. Luke
District Manager
Merrimack County Conservation District
Phone: 603.223.6023
Merrimack County Conservation District &
McClary Hill Farm in Epsom, NH has received
a grant from the Natural Resources Conservation
Service Conservation Innovation Grant to create
a larger-scale demonstration site. The grant was
entitled: Agrichar, Growing Season Extension,
and Energy Project: A Greenhouse System with
On-Farm Soil Amendment Production, Small-
Scale Electricity Production, Effcient Heating,
Extending Greenhouse Operating Season, and
Future Entrance into Carbon Trading Market
partially funded by the USDA Natural Resources
Conservation Service Conservation Innovation
Grant. For more information, please contact the
Conservation District at

Biochar Demonstration and Project Discussion at
the Lodge at Pony Farm, Temple, NH: The Farm
has done some demonstrations. The next step is
to promote a mobile unit that could be tailored to
various farms and home gardens to give people a
chance to make their own biochar and sequester it
in a test garden this coming growing season. They
are also looking into partnering with a recycling
facility where people bring biomass and create
biochar on-site for the public good. For more
information, please contact Douglas Williams at .
Soil Biochar:
Key to Carbon-Negative Farming
Th e Nat ur al Far me r S p r i n g , 2 0 0 9 47
Along with running his own business, Stamets is an
advisor to the Program of Integrative Medicine at
the University of Arizona Medical School, Tucson;
on the Editorial Board of The International Journal
of Medicinal Mushrooms, and was appointed to the
G.A.P./G.M.P. Board of the U.S. Pharmacopoeia. He
has written six books, including Growing Gourmet
and Medicinal Mushrooms, The Mushroom Cul-
tivator (coauthor) and his newest, Mycelium Run-
ning: How Mushrooms Can Help Save The World.
He has published papers in peer-reviewed journals
like The International Journal of Medicinal Mush-
rooms, Herbalgram, and numerous others. On top of
all this, Paul is the supplier and co-investigator of
the frst two NIH funded clinical studies using me-
dicinal mushrooms in the United States.
Paul has been recognized many times for his
groundbreaking work. In 1998 he received the
Bioneers Award from The Collective Heritage
Institute, and in1999 the Founder of a New North-
west Award from the Pacifc Rim Association of
Resource Conservation and Development Councils.
Last year, Paul received National Geographic Ad-
ventures Magazines Green-O-vator and the Argosy
Foundations E-chievement Awards. He was also
recognized in 2008 by Utne Reader as one of the 50
Visionaries of the Year.
We look forward to hearing more about his fascinat-
ing research and ideas in August!
Our Saturday keynoters philosophies directly par-
allel this years conference theme - Know Food,
Know Freedom: NOFA. Our mission at NOFA is to
educate people about safe, sustainable food how
to grow it and where to get it. Unfortunately, many
still think of organic, healthy food as something that
is an option only for the elite few who can afford to
pay higher prices. Will Allen believes that we can
change that, and he has made it his lifes work to
show people how.

Allen is a community activist, founder and CEO
of a not-for-proft organization, and former profes-
sional basketball player. He is also a farmer, one
who believes that we have a responsibility to show
youth and adults how to grow food in a sustainable
way, and to bring this knowledge to people in urban,
low income areas.
He and his organization, Growing Power, are suc-
cessfully bringing food freedom to these areas
while simultaneously supporting small family farm-
ers. They site their goal as: to grow food, to grow
minds, and to grow community. How do they do
this? By offering hands-on training, workshops,
youth training programs, active demonstration and
technical support to farmers and potential farmers in
the Milwaukee area and beyond.
The national headquarters for Growing Power is an
urban farm and Community Food Center located
in Milwaukee. The center is a 2-acre farm with 14
greenhouses, greens, vegetables, herbs, fsh, live-
stock, hoop houses, an apiary, and a small store.
It is a place where anyone in the community can
come to learn and to witness sustainable farming
methods frsthand. Alongside these centers, Will is
also founder and president of The Rainbow Farmers
Cooperative, an organization dedicated to helping
farmers keep their small family farms running by
working together. The RFC offers marketing, trans-
portation, access to sellers and storage space to their
farmers, so that they are able to get their products
to local farmers markets. Along with these benefts,
farmers can also take advantage of training work-
shops, seminars and guidance on marketing, grant
writing, and growing techniques.
But Wills accomplishments dont stop there. He
is also an innovator who has developed a system
to grow food in the winter without conventional
heating, and a bio-intensive growing system using
worms. He is currently working hard to be sure that
Growing Power uses renewable energy sources to
become more self-suffcient. An expert composter,
Will uses not just Growing Powers own farm waste
but also waste from several other local businesses
including a grocer, food coop, brewery and coffee
Keynotes (continued from page 1)
Allen has been recognized for his efforts numerous
times. In 2005, he received the Leadership for a
Changing World Award from the Ford Founda-
tions. In 2008, he was awarded the MacArthur Ge-
nius Fellowship, a $500,000 grant given to people
who show exceptional creativity in their work and
promise for the future.
Will has much to share with us about the amazing
things he has accomplished on his urban farm and in
his life. To read more about him and Growing Pow-
er, visit And of course,
mark your calendar for August 8
Our new website is up! See our fresh new look at, and be sure to
check in often for updates and information
The NOFA Summer Conference is going greener!
In order to lessen our impact on the Earth - this
years registration form will NOT automatically be
sent out to NOFA members or organizations. Con-
ference information and registration will be posted
on the website, and we encourage you to register
online to help in this effort. Of course, if you are
not online you can always request a paper registra-
tion form.
In order to get the word out, we will still be sending
out a small postcard to various organizations, CSAs,
markets, coops, colleges and libraries. If youd like
to receive some to share with others, please contact
us: NOFA Summer Conference, 411 Sheldon Road,
Barre, MA 01005, or (978) 355-
We dont want to lose touch with you during this
transition. If you need to update your email address,
or have a friend who would like to hear news from
us please let us know! You can contact us about
any of the above at or 978-355-
With 1,500 attendees from seven states, the Summer
Conference provides a wonderful, inexpensive op-
portunity for farmers, businesses and non-proft
organizations to exhibit and sell their products and
services, advertise, and enjoy a broad away of mar-
keting benefts as a sponsor. For more information
on exhibiting and advertising, contact Don Persons
-- For more information
about sponsoring the event, contact Bob Minnocci
Attention Northeastern Organic Farmers!
NOFAs summer conference planning committee is
looking for suppliers for this summers local organic
dinner. If you are interested in having your farms
products showcased in the summer conference lo-
cal meal, please contact John Ferris: 413-548-6930,
Barter Swap!
We are excited to announce a new event at the Sat-
urday Fair. We will have a section of the Fair Green
set up for folks who would like to swap farm/home-
stead/country-living type items and services. Give
some thought to what you may want to barter, and
be ready on Saturday afternoon at the Conference.
We also love to receive items for the Tea Cup Raffe
table, which benefts our scholarship fund. These
can be any items you think NOFA people might be
interested in, new or just good stuff to pass along.
Just drop them off at the Raffe table when you ar-
rive at the Conference on Friday.
As always, at the Fair, we invite open mike musi-
cians and entertainers (volunteer), and welcome
ideas for activities you might like to see or help cre-
ate. Talk to Tricia Cooper, 617-558-3322 or email
Work Exchange
A great way to experience the summer conference is
to attend as a Work Exchange volunteer. Volunteer
for 20 hours, including some time before, during
and immediately after the conference, and youll
receive free registration (and other perks!) and get to
know terrifc folks committed to organic growing.
``The best part about the conference last year were
the friends I made doing work exchange. And it
felt great to help NOFA, and do my part to further
organic agriculture, says Adrianne Appel, who is
coordinating Work Exchange this year. For more
information and an application, contact Deb Pouech
at or 860-684-0551.
Childrens Conference
We are looking for childrens conference teachers!
If you are interested in teaching a group of children,
please contact Valerie Walton at (978) 689-0716 or Children are grouped by age,
and teachers will remain with their group as they
attend the workshops during the weekend. Teachers
are paid $330 for the weekend.
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Zapped! Irradiation and the Death of Food
by Wenonah Hauter and Mark Worth
published by Food and Water Watch Press, 2008
paperback, 212 pages, $10.00 postpaid
review by Jack Kittredge
Wenonah Hauter is the Executive Director of Food
and Water Watch, and Mark Worth is a senior
researcher there. Opposing food irradiation has
long been a campaign of theirs so (as one can
probably fgure out from the title alone) this is not
an objective analysis of the topic. On the other
hand, it is hard to imagine anyone studying food
irradiation and not coming up with a number of
reasons to object to it. So many Americans dont
trust irradiation and wont buy food that is labeled
as irradiated that the industry has been struggling.
What makes this book very timely is the fact that, in
the wake of recent food safety scandals, irradiation
is being resurrected as a high-tech solution to a
public health problem.
After a spirited foreword by Jim Hightower, the
authors get right down to business and explain why
food irradiation is bad for human health. A number
of studies have found that eating irradiated food
results in symptoms similar to those found in people
directly exposed to radiation. One of the most
disturbing is polyploidy the tendency for cells to
develop extra chromosomes. Polyploidy has been
linked to leukemia.
Unsettling results have been found in experiments
resulting from the feeding of irradiated food not
only to humans (polyploidy), but to monkeys
(chromosome damage), rats (mutations and
polyploidy) and mice (mutations, polyploidy, and
low sperm counts). There have been studies that
show no detrimental effect from irradiation, but
they are in the minority. In 1979 a scientist with
the Hungarian Academy of Sciences reviewed
1223 studies on the wholesomeness of irradiated
foods. Among these studies, 185 benefcial effects
of irradiation were identifed, while 1414 harmful
effects were identifed. Despite this record, the
World Health Organization and the International
Atomic Energy Commission endorsed irradiation
for all foods in 1980 and the American Food and
Drug Administration began a series of approvals
of food irradiation in 1983. As Dr. Vijay, who
conducted some of these experiments says: The
FDA has its own interests. The WHO has its own
interests. And the IAEA has its own interests. The
IAEA wants to use food irradiation to promote
atomic energyIt is diffcult to escape from the
feeling that all fndings which are in favor of the
wholesomeness of irradiated foods are readily
accepted, while observations which question this
stand are either viewed with suspicion, covertly or
overtly, or outright rejected.
How are these health impacts mediated? Apparently
one way is that when the radiation (usually electron
beams, X-rays, or gamma rays) enters the food it
blows apart existing compounds and the electrons
ripped from their orbits form altogether new and
harmful chemical compounds. Over 100 of these
chemicals have been identifed, including benzene,
toluene, and methyl ethyl ketone, which have
been linked to birth defects and cancer. When the
resulting food is eaten, these toxic chemicals attack
cells and create organ and neurological problems.
A secondary impact of irradiation on food is the
destruction of the vitamins, enzymes, favonoids
and other nutrients foods contain. When you take
away the nutritional value of the food, and factor
in the slightly burned or singed taste many report,
it is easy to see why consumers have consistently
rejected this technology and why its proponents are
trying to eliminate effective labeling requirements
which alert consumers to its use.
The bulk of this book delves into the history of
irradiation, including an analysis of the vested
interests that have been pushing for it. Irradiation
is a key to enabling global commodity trade, which
is destroying local agriculture and the family farm,
because the technology can preserve food for the
long periods of time required for global transport
by destroying insects, molds, bacteria, and other
agents of decay. As mentioned above, it is also
being proposed as a solution to the national E. coli
and Salmonella outbreaks. But those outbreaks
result from the industrial scale of our food system
and rather than reform that system, it is considered
easier to sanitize the food and eliminate the small
farms that are not part of the irradiated supply chain.
This is an excellent book for someone who wishes
to know more about irradiation. It waxes long on
various struggles of citizen groups to oppose the
implementation of irradiation plants struggles
the authors may have participated in but it gives
a clear picture of the role of corporate power in
minimizing regulatory restraint. One problem
I found with this work is that there is no index.
Admittedly good indexes are time consuming to
create, but they give such assistance to readers,
and especially researchers, that I am surprised they
issued this without one. But for ten bucks you get a
pretty good read -- and a scary story.
Prescribed Grazing and Feeding
Management for Lactating Dairy Cows
by Karen Hoffman Sullivan, Robert DeClue and
Darrell L. Emmick
New York State Grazing Lands Conservation
Initiative In Cooperation With The USDA Natural
Resources Conservation Service, January 2000
Available online at:
review by Winton Pitcoff
Cows have been practicing their alchemy for
millennia, turning grass into milk without any help
from us humans. Once humans decided we wanted
some of that milk for ourselves, though, and started
tinkering with how to get the cows to give us some,
everything changed. Cows were taken off grass
and instead given processed rations, designed to
boost their output and make them easier to manage
no more having to call them in from the feld for
milking, since they had spent the day in the barn
eating grain and silage! Many of them still got some
grass, but more often than not it was brought to
them in the form of hay, with humans deciding how
much of it they could have and when.
But, as with so much in agriculture these days,
what was old is new again and theres a resurgence
of grass-based dairying. Farmers are fnding that
managing their cows on grass has a myriad of
benefts for themselves, for the cows and for the
land. In doing so, however, these farmers are
indeed fnding that grass-fed cows do produce
less milk than their ration-fed sisters, and in order
to stay economically viable they need to explore
management techniques that help them get the most
out of their pastures.
Its not just a matter of fencing a feld, turning
out the cows and saying eat!, according to
Prescribed Grazing and Feeding Management for
Lactating Dairy Cows. Karen Hoffman Sullivan,
Robert DeClue and Darrell L. Emmick wrote this
comprehensive guide to assist farmers in mastering
the ecology of grazing. Their focus is the prescribed
grazing management (PGM) process, wherein a
farmer makes a plan based on resources available
and outcomes desired.
Issues such as grazing height, water availability,
intensity and timing of grazing, and the level of
diffculty for the cows to get to, fnd and consume
their food are all detailed as factors in successful
management practices. Particularly fascinating is
the books description of how cows choose what to
eat. In a section called Palatability and Preference,
the authors describe how cows learn and remember
what tastes good, react differently to different
forages and even develop taste aversions to grasses
that lack nutritional value or contain toxins.
The book details the processes of monitoring and
controlling forage plants. Clipping, monitoring and
Book Reviews
Th e Nat ur al Far me r S p r i n g , 2 0 0 9 49
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altering fertility and controlling grazing methods are
all critical to ensuring that pastures remain a viable
source of forage season after season. Rotational
pasture design is covered, as is fencing, watering,
laneways and other infrastructure considerations.
Sampling and testing forages for components
protein, fber, minerals is recommended, as a
way of gathering information to develop a properly
balanced feeding program. A section is devoted to
formulating supplemental rations, if needed.
The book concludes with a section on animal
management, covering transitions to and from
pasture, health issues and how energy needs change
during the lactation cycle of the cow.
Dense with detail and examples, this is one of those
books that farmers can open to a random page and
pick a random paragraph and come away with a
piece of information that will make them think
about the way they manage their pasture. In order
to maintain pastures at their highest quality and
to obtain the greatest utilization, they should be
grazed when the plants are in the vegetative stage
at heights of 6 to 8 inches, for example. Legumes
should comprise 25 to 40% of the herbage in
your pastures, for another. Experienced graziers
and conventional dairyers alike will fnd this
book invaluable to improving their management
Milk: The Surprising Story of Milk Through
The Ages
Anne Mendelson
Published by Knopf, 2009
$29.95, hardcover, 336 pages
review by Winton Pitcoff
The triumph of drinkable fresh (or pseudo-fresh)
milk as the dominant popular Western form of
milk, writes Anne Mendelson, has left millions
of us without access to genuinely fresh, excellent
milk or any sense of what were missing. The
revival of small dairy farms and renewed interest
in artisanal dairy products is a step toward re-
introducing people to real milk and all it can do, she
The book begins with a brief history of milk animals
in different regions of the world. She discusses
how domestication and management styles differed
among various cultures, and then takes aim at
modern milk production as the ultimate culprit in
removing real milk from our culture.
Humans are, genetically, unable to properly process
lactose after infancy, explains Mendelson. Most
people ate only soured milk and products made from
it until the mid-nineteenth century, when modern
science and economics led farmers and processors to
begin marketing milk fresh. Medical opinion about
the value of fresh milk as necessary for children
and healthy for adults increased demand greatly and
ultimately led to developments in refrigeration and
pasteurization to increase the shelf life of fresh milk
so it could be distributed more easily.
That was the beginning of the end of real milk,
according to the book, and todays dairy industry
is focused on quantity over quality, with dramatic
changes in everything from the cows themselves to
the machinery that processes the milk, all of which
have changed the composition of whats in our
glasses at breakfast.
While the number of dairy cows in this country
shrank from about 18 million to 9 million between
1960 and 2005, the total amount of milk they
produce increased from 120 billion to 177 billion
pounds during the same period, reports Mendelson.
In 1950 dairy cows produced milk for a dozen years
or so, she adds, while dairy farms today often cull
cows after only three or four lactations. The levels
of solids, fat and nutrients in milk has changed
as a result of these factory farming processes,
she says, and the changes milk undergoes when
it is separated, standardized, homogenized and
pasteurized further alters its chemical makeup and
Mendelson steps gingerly into the discussion about
raw milk, laying out the arguments on both sides
and suggesting that both have merit. But raw milk
proponents too often overlook the real dangers
of unpasteurized milk, she says, and those who
insist the stuff should be banned forever represent
muddled government thinking at its offcious
worst. The way the milk market operates, with
product from hundreds of farms being pooled and
traveling great distances and requiring long shelf
life, is what necessitates pasteurization, she says. If
we all had access to sources of good, fresh, locally
produced unhomoginized milk, batch-pasteurized by
slow methods, less nonsense might be spouted about
rawness and pasteurization.
Meanwhile, she adds, it certainly isnt irrational
to point out that the risk of spreading disease
through raw milk lies not in its rawness but in
the absence of carefully designed, well-enforced
regulations requiring that it be handled under much
stricter supervision than the HTST or ultrapasturized
milk in ordinary retail stores. She fails to point out,
however, that such regulations do exist and are well-
enforced in many states, and that illnesses attributed
to raw milk in those states are very rare.
Mendelson says that even modern organic milk
still fails to resemble real milk. An organic
label is no guarantee of either humanely tended
animals or more natural milk. With organic
dairies becoming more concentrated, animals being
raised in similar conditions as conventional dairies
and fed similar types of rations, and a processing
method that still involves separating, homogenizing
and ultra-pasteurizing, Mendelson suggests that
consumers need to look beyond the organic
label and compare concrete markers of production
All of this history and analysis is covered in only
the frst 70 pages of the book. Fully three-quarters
of the book is recipes, all of which involve milk in
some form and all of which are accompanied by
scientifc and cultural commentary. From clotted
cream to vegetarian malai kofta, she endeavors to
demonstrate the versatility of milk and describe a
myriad of ways it is used around the world.
The book is thorough, if a bit dry, and would be
well served with some analysis of how small, local
dairies work and can be made sustainable. There are
hundreds of good stories out there about successful
small dairies, and a few of them would go a long
way toward making this already very worthwhile
book even better.
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The Natural Farmer
411 Sheldon Rd.
Barre, MA 01005
Th e Nat ur al Far me r S p r i n g , 2 0 0 9 50
by Bali MacKentley
I am proud to say that I am a NOFA baby, meaning
that I have been attending NOFA conferences
since I was in utero. As such, I was excited when,
a couple of days before Thanksgiving, Elizabeth
Henderson, author of Sharing the Harvest, asked
me if I would like to attend the Domestic Fair Trade
Association conference in LaFarge WI, as a NOFA
representative. In the days that followed, Elizabeth
sent me emails containing the bylaws of the DFTA,
its goals, and challenges. As I sat familiarizing
myself with this information, munching some
leftover turkey (I might add that the turkey was
local and organic!), I couldnt help thinking about
all the people whose Thanksgiving dishes contained
ingredients with a very sketchy past. Thanksgiving
is all about food and people. What happens when
a day devoted to food and people, includes mostly
factory farmed meats where animals are treated
inhumanely, the vegetables are grown using GMOs
and pesticides, the people who produce the food
are discriminated against and taken advantage of,
and everything on the table has a yeti-sized carbon
footprint? Yes, we can be thankful to have food
in front of us, but that thankfulness is tainted by a
chain of dirty business. Every year we sit down
at a table covered with various dishes of lovingly
prepared food. The DFTA is about protecting the
sanctity of food. Sitting down to a Thanksgiving
meal where the turkey was grown in a manner
that respects the animal, the land, and the people
is something to be truly thankful for. As farmers,
distributors, and consumers, we should be sure that
what we are giving thanks for is something that has
a history marked by fair and responsible practices.
We must change the American Dream from a state
of ignorant bliss hiding unjust practices and
low-pricing at the expense of our environment and
people, to one in which our actions refect, honest,
fair, enriching values.
A summary of the 2008 DFTA conference
International Fair Trade Organizations have come
about to address injustices to people who are far
away. We are typically so far removed from these
people that without a trademark indicating instances
of fair labor practices, we would remain unaware
of abuses. However, one neednt travel to Chile or
Argentina to view these problems. There are many
who believe who believe that such injustices are
not present in the US of A, where laws abound and
we pride ourselves on abundant opportunity for all.
The unfortunate reality is that these injustices are
very real on domestic soil and it is only right that
we work to protect the rights of workers domestic
as well as abroad. It is also widely assumed that
social injustices are not part of organic agriculture.
Organic agriculture may not expose workers to toxic
chemicals; however exploitation, is present in this
sector of agriculture. This is where NOFA comes in
as a key advocate of the DFTA.
The meeting began with an overview and approval
of the original founders decision making process;
one that would include everyone involved while
moving forward at times of disagreement. One
of the DFTAs key interests is in breaking down
hierarchies that have historically caused unfairness
in the food industry, by bringing to the table
everyone involved in the process of getting food
from the farm to the table. Currently, this includes
5 groups:
1. Farmers and Farmer Co-operatives and
2. Farmworkers Organizations,
3. Intermediary Trading Organizations,
4. Retailers, Food Co-operatives, and Farmers
Markets, and
5. Civil Society Organizations and NGOs.
Members from these fve sectors work together
and translators are provided for Spanish speaking
individuals to clearly state their thoughts and
actively engage in the efforts of the meetings.
Discussion ensued about addition to this list to
include food system workers, fshers, and small
crafts manufacturers.
There was discussion about the mission statement,
vision statement, and bylaws, and some tweaking
was done to include language that would
more adequately demonstrate the values of the
organization. There was consensus that these drafts
should continue as evolving documents, refning and
clarifying the defnition of domestic fair trade.
The newest member, Honest Weight Co-op in
Albany NY was approved. The budget for 2009
was discussed and many suggestions were made
for a more effective and realistic expense plan.
Committee updates was next on the agenda with
each reporting what they had been up to during the
past year and their questions and concerns. Next
followed a brainstorming of actions to take during
2009. These ideas covered member recruitment,
public education, challenges, and organizational
development goals and were delegated to the
various committees.
One point of contention among the participants
was the issue surrounding immigrant labor, a very
politically charged and sensitive issue. There
were those at the meeting who were representing
organizations comprised of farmers with
conservative views, who did not feel comfortable
with the DFTA making a political stand on the
protection of immigrant workers without frst clearly
defning what this stand might include. Others
felt that since immigrant labor is where many of
the injustices are taking place and the change in
political regime offered a more promising future
for immigration policy reform possibilities, that
it was important to make protection of immigrant
labor rights a priority for the coming year even if
there could not be immediate consensus on what
this would entail. The proposal that the DFTA
endorse the reform of US immigration policy to
conform with DFTA principles was approved,
and it was decided that the board of directors and
any interested members would make this issue
a frst priority, drafting a position statement on
immigration policy reform that would receive
DFTA member feedback until 1/20/09. Member
organizations will have till 3/1/09 to comment, after
which the board will determine how to proceed.
The last part of the meeting was set aside for
election of new board positions and deciding on
committees. Grace Cox, Hilary Johnson, Richard
Mandelbaum, Tirso Moreno, Sue Kastensen, Sarah
Belfort, Erbin Crowell, Michael Sligh, Marla
Carlson, Andrea Hanks, and Erin Ford comprise the
steering committee for 2009.
NOFAs involvement in the DFTA
There is much concern among those involved in
NOFA that the term organic has been permanently
stolen by large agribusiness as a proft driven niche
market. Some people have decided that they do not
feel comfortable using the term organic anymore
and have decided to forgo organic certifcation
because they feel that the USDA organic standards
no longer embody the original ideals. Similar
issues are arising with the fairly new International
Fair Trade labeling, a classic case being Starbucks,
which boasts being the largest seller of fair trade
coffee in the world, not mentioning that they are the
largest coffeehouse company in the world (http:// and that their fair
trade coffee sales represents only 2% of their gross
sales. I think that most NOFA members would
agree that fair trade is an integral part of what it
means to be organic. One of the reasons why DFTA
members spend so much time and energy to nit
pick and fne tune the bylaws and clearly defne the
process by which they wish to continue, is to guard
against misuse of the term to bolster the images
of undeserving companies. The aim is to protect
small farms, food manufacturers, and retailers who
are genuine in their commitment to fair trade, not
just for proft reasons, but for the sake of moral
responsibility. The history of organic and fair
trade cannot be erased just because there are those
who want to cash in on a good idea for the wrong
reasons. One of the best things about the DFTA
is its networking capability, its representation of
very different sectors of agriculture, and its unity of
these different groups over the issue of protection of
people and land. As one of the pioneering organic
movements in the US, NOFA is an important part of
this discussion.
photo courtesy Elizabeth Henderson
Author hard at work at the DFTA annual meeting
The 2nd Annual Domestic Fair Trade
Association (DFTA) Meeting Progress Report

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Th e Nat ur al Far me r S p r i n g , 2 0 0 9 51
by Elizabeth Henderson
As a founding member of the Domestic Fair Trade
Association (DFTA), NOFA has endorsed the
principles of fair trade and made the commitment
to continually improve the implementation of these
principles in our work. In doing this we are joining
with other farming organizations and cooperatives,
civil society groups, farmworker associations,
retailers and processors who are also determined to
bring fair trade home. (See article on 2008 Annual
meeting by Bali MacKentley).
At the fall 2008 Interstate Council meeting, the
NOFA chapters shared their progress. Some
chapters have the capacity for more ambitious
programs than others, but all seven chapters
continue to work at spreading sustainable
agriculture and improving the livelihoods of our
regions organic farmers. Jack Mastrianni and
Elizabeth Obeleneus from New Hampshire report
that their chapter is struggling to provide living
wages and decent benefts for its employees.
Organic farms in their state are hiring African
refugees and Jamaican workers so the chapter is
paying more attention to equitable access to living
wages. New Jersey NOFA too is trying to do better
by its staff. Because so much of the farmland is
held by wealthy landowners, Marc Bouvier reports
that NOFA-NJ is embarking on a project to make
the deals offered by these landowners to organic
farmers more equitable.
NOFA/Massachusetts is seeking ways to give
greater education about and access to organic
food to the lower income and minority citizens
of their state. They are building on their urban
youth gardening programs and offering work
exchange possibilities and scholarships to urban
teens to chapter conferences and workshops in
practical skills. Twenty of the workshops will
take place in urban settings. The bulk order has
pick up sites in Boston and at the headquarters of
partner organization Nuestra Raices. The chapter
also partners with the New Entry Sustainable
Farming project to help train immigrant farmers.
A Diversity committee is seeking ways to make
both the staff and board more ethnically and
economically diverse.
Bill Duesing reported that the Connecticut chapter
is supportive of the community garden association
which helps expand access to organic gardening
know-how in urban areas. One of CT NOFAs
major efforts has been the Organic Landscaping
program. Thinking about this program in the
context of fair trade, the council came up with the
idea that the program should reach out to land care
workers, translate the standards and promotional
materials into Spanish and Portuguese, and offer
a 1-day course in Spanish. Another new direction
would be to design a training in organic landscaping
for former convicts.
NOFA-NY, Kate Mendenhall reported, is joining
with Heifer International in a new program to
bring greater access to organic food to low-income
families. By holding the 2009 conference in the
city of Rochester, the chapter hopes to attract more
diverse participants. The program includes a strand
of food justice workshops, including a day-long
session on Food Policy Councils with Mark Winne.
The chapter is also taking a strong policy stand on
immigrants rights.
The Vermont chapter has been actively expanding
low-income access to organic food through their
Senior Share that reaches hundreds of senior
citizens and their Fair Share program that leverages
$100,000 for low income shares in CSAs. As
the coordinator of the states Farmers Market
Association, NOFA has made sure that the markets
can accept food stamps by providing EBT card-
swipe gadgets. NOFA-VT also has a revolving
loan fund that enables farmers, even those with no
credit record, to borrow up to $90,000 and $30,000
for energy effciency projects. And Vermonters
are translating materials on organic farming into
What Membership in the Domestic Fair Trade
Association Means for NOFA
photo courtesy Elizabeth Henderson
Most of the newly elected board of the DFTA
The goal of a truly fair food system seems distant,
yet the hour our chapters spent sharing our progress
shows that we are making many small steps in the
right direction. By supporting, encouraging and
inspiring one another, we can accelerate our work
and make this path seem less daunting. Together, we
also come up with exciting new ideas. Hopefully,
these reports will become an annual ritual.
& Seedlings
Certified Organic Farm Mike Merner & Jayne Merner Senecal
Rhode Islands Oldest Operating Farm Composter
Qual i ty Made Compost i s the Heal thi est Way to Nouri sh Pl ants 401.364.9930
Send $15 for US, $20 for foreign address to:
Th e Nat ur al Far me r S p r i n g , 2 0 0 9 52
Gail Giustozzi, Realtor

Let us live in harmony with the earth and the creatures,

all given to us by God, our Creator.
105 Old Long Ridge Road, Stamford, CT 06903
Cell/VM: (203) 561-5764 Fax: (203) 595-9815
Email: Website:
i work for you
Our political, economic, and environmental
landscape is undergoing transformational change.
As the economy and the environment get more
attention, local food production, especially organic
farming and gardening, will have a prominent role.
To address this changing landscape, the 7
NOFA-NH Winter Conference, which will be held
on Saturday, March 7, 2009, needs to change as
Last winters conference theme, The Sustainable
Future, urged a new vision and direction. We
discussed how we can realize this vision by acting
locally and adopting sustainable and regenerative
behaviors and practices. Several conference
speakers stressed the importance of stopping
what we are doing, assessing where we are, and
recognizing that we must change many cultural
habits in order to create a sustainable future if we,
and the planet, are to survive. Alas, how do we
actually make that happen?
The theme for NOFA-NHs 7
annual winter
conference, Building Community Many Hands and
Many Voices, is indeed that next step in achieving a
sustainable future.
So, we need to start by assessing where we are
today and understand how it is different from
previous years. Starting this spring and intensifying
through summer and fall, everyones attention was
focused on growing, buying and eating local food!
Interest continues to peak in all things local and in
local organizations, including locavores, locavore
dinners, NOFA-NH, Vital Communities, Slow Food
and Seacoast Eat Local. Our regional and statewide
guide to farms was in high demand many people
cited the food map on our website and 255 people
attended our farm and garden tours this summer.
The amount of farm land actually increased in New
Hampshire as farms became smaller, leaner, and
more diversifed. There was a lot of community
garden activity; high demand led some towns to
create community garden space for the frst time,
small groups of people informally got together and
created their own community garden space, victory
gardens sprang up on church lawns, and towns
with existing community gardens expanded their
space, or created wait lists, to deal with the greater
The number of New Hampshire farmers markets
increased for the third year in a row and plenty of
media attention was directed to the benefts and joys
of local seasonal foods fresh from New Hampshires
backyards, gardens, and farms. Michael Pollan
suggested a garden on the White House lawn and
called for a Farmer-in-Chief. There is more support
than ever for local agriculture plus more interest in
producing our own food.
Now, where do we go from here? It takes many
hands and many voices to build, maintain, extend,
and integrate our local organic communities.
NOFA-NH represents a vital part of that process.
The conference theme refects a from the ground
up, all-inclusive perspective that will be necessary
to keep local organic farming and gardening in the
spotlight. Building Community - Many Hands and
Many Voices demonstrates our view that all of us,
including local and state government, businesses,
schools, community organizations, families, the
networks of friends and neighbors that defne
your local community, all play an important role
in growing and developing the greater organic
community, in supporting local and organic food,
and developing and supporting local and regional
agricultural economies.
This years keynote address fts well with that
theme. We are pleased to welcome Russell
Libby, Executive Director of MOFGA, to our
conference. MOFGA is the largest state-level
organic organization in the country. Russell and
his wife work Three Sisters Farm, a small organic
farm in Mount Vernon, Maine, where they keep
Seventh Annual NOFA-NH
Winter Conference
Saturday, March 7, 2009
Building Community - Many Hands and Many Voices
small focks of sheep and chickens, raise vegetables
and fowers, and make maple syrup. Russell
oversaw the creation and successful operation, for
24 years, of the Common Ground Country Fair, a
fair that utilizes over 1,000 volunteers. Under his
directorship MOFGA acquired 210 acres and built a
dozen buildings.
Russell will share his experiences in growing the
MOFGA organization to over 3,000 members, make
broad brush suggestions on how we as members
can grow our NOFA-NH community and how, as a
larger organization, we can develop more programs
and resources to support our membership.
This years conference will be held at Rundlett
Middle School, 144 South St., Concord, NH. The
conference will have a vendor fair, a Childrens
Program, and a raffe featuring donated goods and
services from many of our sponsors. The price for
attendance will be $35 for NOFA-NH members, $45
for non-members. The fee also covers two breaks
and a lunch featuring local and organic foods and
There will be forty workshops, with ten workshops
held at a time over four sessions (two sessions in the
morning before lunch/keynote, two sessions in the
afternoon). Some of the workshops are connected
by subject, and will be held consecutively so people
interested in that subject can attend each workshop
from the entire track. Tracks include soils and soil
management, permaculture, livestock (overview,
poultry, and bees), and home-based agricultural
businesses (brewing, cheese making, and soap
making). There will also be a series of workshops
devoted to organizing in your community: creating
farmers markets, agricultural support groups,
agricultural commissions, community garden
space, developing a produce distribution point, and
creating a bulk grain buying cooperative and many
others. Other individual topics include organic
gardening, seed starting, getting certifed, and record
For more information, please contact Anne Nason,
Conference Coordinator, at (603) 746-3018 or Email
her at The NOFA-NH website,, has a printable brochure and
registration form.
Subscribe to:
Send $15 for US, $20 for foreign address to:
411 Sheldon Rd.
Barre, MA 01005
Th e Nat ur al Far me r S p r i n g , 2 0 0 9 53
CT NOFA Offce: P O Box 164, Stevenson, CT
06491, phone (203) 888-5146, FAX (203) 888-9280,
Email:, website:
Executive Director: Bill Duesing, Box 164,
Stevenson, CT 06491, 203-888-5146, 203 888-9280
Offce Manager/Webmaster: Deb Legge, PO Box
164, Stevenson, CT 06491,, 203-
President: James Roby, P.O Box 191, 1667 Orchard
Road, Berlin, CT 06037, 860-828-5548, 860-881-
8031 (C),
Vice President: Elizabeth Fleming, 54 Four Mile
Road, West Hartford, CT 06107-2709, 860-561-
Treasurer: Michelle Hartel, 593 41 Angeli Court,
Berlin, CT 06037, 860-829-0749, michelleahartel@
Secretary: Chris Killheffer, 112 Bishop Street, New
Haven, CT 06511-7307, 203-787-0072, Christopher.
Farmers Pledge Program: Contact the offce.
Organic Land Care Program Manager: Ashley
Kremser, PO Box 164, Stevenson, CT 06491,, 203-888-5146
Organic Land Care Accreditation Manager: Carol
Hannon, PO Box 164, Stevenson, CT 06491,, 203-888-5146
Bookkeeper: Marion Griswold, PO Box 164,
Stevenson, CT 06491,, 203-
President: Lynda Simkins, Natick Community
Organic Farm, 117 Eliot, South Natick, MA 01760
(508) 655-2204, Email: lsimkins.ncorganic@
Vice President, Fred Newcombe, 252 Dodge
Road, Rowley, MA 01969 (978) 432-1019,
Secretary: Danielle Andrews, 85 Day St, Jamaica
Plain, MA 02130 (617) 524-1320; email:
Treasurer: Dan Conlon, 2 South Mill River
Road, Deerfeld, MA 01373; (413) 665-4513;
Executive Director and NOFA Summer Conference
Coordinator: Julie Rawson, 411 Sheldon Rd., Barre,
MA 01005 (978) 355-2853, Fax: (978) 355-4046,
Administrative Coordinator: Kathleen Geary, 411
Sheldon Rd, Barre, MA 01005, 978-355-2853
(Mondays & Thursdays, 8:00 am - 5:00 pm), email
anytime to:
Webmaster: David Pontius: 26 School Street,
Northfeld, MA 01360, (413) 498-2721, Email:
Baystate Organic Certifers Administrator: Don
Franczyk, 683 River St., Winchendon, MA 01475,
(978) 297- 4171, Email: baystateorganic@earthlink.
net, website:
Press and Winter Conference Coordinator: Jassy
Bratko, 28 High St., Hubbardston, MA 01452, (978)
Newsletter Editor: Jonathan von Ranson, 6 Lockes
Village Rd., Wendell, MA 01379, (978) 544-3758,
Website: Email: nofa@
New Hampshire
President: Jack Mastrianni, 277 Holden Hill
Road, Langdon, NH 03602, (603) 835-6488,
Vice President: Joan OConnor, PO Box 387,
Henniker, NH 03242, (603) 428-3530, joconnornh@
Treasurer: Paul Mercier, Jr., 39 Cambridge Drive,
Canterbury, NH 03224, (603) 783-0036, pjm@
Program & Membership Coordinator: Elizabeth
Obelenus, NOFA/NH Offce, 4 Park St., Suite 208,
Concord, NH 03301, (603) 224-5022, info@nofanh.
Business Manager and Local and Organic Foods
Project Coordinator: Barbara Sullivan, 72 Gilford
Ave, Laconia, NH 03246, (603) 524-1285
Newsletter Editor: Karen Booker, 44 Prospect
St., Contoocook, NH 03229, (603) 746-3656,
Winter Conference Coordinator: Anne Nason, 119
Dustin Rd., Webster, NH 03303, (603) 493-1919,, (603) 228-6492 (fax)
Bulk Order Coordinator Jennifer Quinlivan, P.O.
Box 92, Strafford, NH 03884
(603) 269-0063, (603) 731-1182 jenq@worldpath.
Organic Certifcation: Vickie Smith, NH Department
of Agriculture, Markets & Food, Division of
Regulatory Services, Caller Box 2042, Concord,
NH 03301 (603) 271-3685,,
New Jersey
Executive Director: Marc Bouvier, 334 River Road,
Hillsborough, NJ 08844, (609) 737-6848, fax: (609)
737-2366, Email:
President: Donna Drewes, Municipal Land Use
Center, TCNJ, PO Box 7718 McCauley House,
Ewing, NJ 08628, 908-782-2443, Email: drewes@
Vice President: Stephanie Harris, 163 Hopewell-
Wertsville Rd., Hopewell, NJ 08525, (609) 466-
0194, Email:
Treasurer: William D. Bridgers, c/o Zon Partners, 5
Vaughn Dr., Suite 104, Princeton, NJ 08540, (609)
452-1653, Email:
Secretary: Emily Brown Rosen, Organic Research
Associates, 25 Independence Way, Titusville, NJ
08560, 609-737-8630 Email: ebrownrosen@gmail.
Supervisor, Organic Certifcation Program: Erich V.
Bremer, NJ Dept. of Agriculture, 369 S. Warren St.,
Trenton, NJ 08625-0330, (609) 984-2225, fax: (609)
341-3212 Email:
Administrative Coordinator: Connie Deetz, 334
River Road, Hillsborough, NJ 08844, (609) 737-
6848, Fax (609) 737-2366 General Request Emails: Email:,
New York
President: Scott Chaskey, Quail Hill Community
Farm, PO Box 1268, Amagansett, NY 11930-1268,
(631) 267-8942,
Vice President: Gunther Fishgold, Tierra Farms,
2424 State Rte 203, Valatie, NY 12184, (888) 674-
Vice President of Marketing: Rex Farr, The Farrm,
156 Youngs Ave, Calverton, NY 11933-1428, (631)
Treasurer: Karen Livingston, 2569 Rolling Hills Rd,
Camillus, NY 13031, (315) 672-5244, klivingston@
Secretary: Annette Hogan, 131 Alpine Drive #5,
Syracuse, NY 13214, (315) 559-2460, hoganal@stu.
Executive Director: Greg Swartz, (845) 796-8994,
fax: (570) 224-8013 (call frst),
Offce Manager: Mayra Richter, (607) 652-NOFA,
fax: (607) 652-2290,
Organic Seed Partnership (OSP) Project
Coordinator: Elizabeth Dyck, (607) 895-6913,
Projects Coordinator & ODT Project Co-Project
Manager: Kate Mendenhall, (585) 271-1979, fax:
(585) 271-7166,
Organic Dairy Transitions (ODT) Project Co-
Project Manager: Bethany Russell, (315) 806-1180,
ODT Project Dairy Technician: Robert Perry, (607)
NOFA-NY Certifed Organic, LLC, Certifcation
Director: Carol King, 840 Front St, Binghamton,
NY 13905, (607) 724-9851, fax: (607) 724-9853,
NOFA New York Offce: PO Box 880, Cobleskill,
NY 12043, Phone: (607) 652-NOFA, Fax: (607)
652-2290, Email:, Website:,
Rhode Island
President: Dan Lawton, 247 Evans Road Chepachet,
RI 02814 (401) 949-1596
Vice-President: Erik Eacker, Ledge Ends Produce,
830 South Road, East Greenwich, RI 02818 (401)
Secretary: Nicole Vitello, Manic Organic, PO
Box 425, Portsmouth, RI 02871 (401) 480-1403,
Treasurer/Membership: Abbie Barber, Shannock
Organic Farm, 1411 Shannock Rd., Charlestown, RI
02813-3726 (401) 364-7140 shannockorganicfarm@
Bookkeeper: Peggy Conti, Brookside Apartments,
Apt. #8, Charlestown, RI 02813, (401) 364-3426
NOFA/RI, 51 Edwards Lane, Charlestown, RI
02813, (401) 364-7557,
NOFA-VT Offce, PO Box 697, 39 Bridge St.,
Richmond, VT 05477 (802) 434-4122 NOFA, (802)
434-3821 VOF, Fax: (802) 434-4154, website:,
Executive Director: Enid Wonnacott, enid@nofavt.
Financial Manager: Kirsten Novak Bower, kirsten@
Ag Education Coordinator: Abbie Nelson, abbie@
Bulk Order Coordinator & VOF Staff: Erin Clark,
Dairy & Livestock Administrator: Sam Fuller,
Dairy & Livestock Advisor: David Rogers, dave@
Dairy & Livestock Advisor: Willie Gibson, willie@
Direct Marketing & Consumer Access Coordinator:
Jean Hamilton,
Offce Assistant and Share the Harvest Fundraiser
Coordinator: Becca Weiss,
Offce Manager: Cara Couch,
Outreach Coordinator: Meg Klepack, meg@nofavt.
Vegetable & Fruit TA Coordinator: Wendy Sue
Winter Conference Coordinator: Olga Boshart
VOF Administrator: Nicole Dehne, nicole@nofavt.
VOF Certifcation Specialist: Cheryl Bruce,
VOF Certifcation Specialist: Brenda Hedges,
* indicates voting representative
* Bill Duesing, President, Staff, Box 135,
Stevenson, CT, 06491, (203) 888-5146, fax, (203)
888- 9280,
Kimberly A. Stoner, 498 Oak Ave. #27, Cheshire,
CT 06410-3021, (203) 271-1732 (home), Email:
Elizabeth Obelenus, 22 Keyser Road, Meredith. NH
03253, (603) 279-6146,
* Jack Mastrianni, Treasurer, 277 Holden Hill
Road, Langdon, NH 03602, (603) 835-6488,
* Steve Gilman, Ruckytucks Farm, 130 Ruckytucks
Road, Stillwater, NY 12170 (518) 583-4613,
NOFA Contact People
Th e Nat ur al Far me r S p r i n g , 2 0 0 9 54
* Vince Cirasole, Sunshine Farm, 745 Great Neck
Rd, Copiague, NY 11726, (631) 789-8231, vince@
Elizabeth Henderson, 2218 Welcher Rd.,
Newark, NY 14513 (315) 331-9029 ehendrsn@
* Dan Lawton, 247 Evans Road Chepachet, RI
02814 (401) 949-1596
* Nicole Vitello, Manic Organic, PO Box 425,
Portsmouth, RI 02871 (401) 480-1403, Nicole@
* Enid Wonnacott, 478 Salvas Rd., Huntington, VT
05462 (802) 434-4435,
Kirsten Novak Bower, 65 Wortheim Ln., Richmond,
VT 05477 (802) 434-5420,
Kay Magilavy, Virtual Rep, 212 18th St., Union
City, NJ 07087, (201) 927-7116
David Pontius, Webmaster, 26 School Street,
Northfeld, MA 01360, (413) 498-2721, Email:
Jack Kittredge and Julie Rawson, The Natural
Farmer, NOFA Summer Conference, 411 Sheldon
Rd., Barre, MA 01005 (978) 355-2853, Jack, tnf@,
Marion Griswold, Bookkeeper, 30 Hollow Rd.,
Woodbury, CT 06798, (203) 263-2221, marion@
Nicole Dehne,, PO Box 697,
Richmond, VT 05477, 802-434-3821, 802-434-4154
Carol King, 840 Front Street, Binghamton, NY
13905, (607) 724-9851, fax: (607)724-9853,
Erich V. Bremer, c/o NJ Dept. of Agriculture, PO
Box 330, Trenton, NJ 08625, (609) 984-2225 erich.
Saturday, March 7: Seventh Annual NOFA-NH
Winter Conference, Concord NH, for more info:
Anne Nason, (603) 746-3018 or,
Wednesday, March 11 Friday, March
13: Whole Farm Success Stories by Three
Experienced Farm Couples (Jean-Paul Courtens
and Jody Bolluyt, Roxbury Farm, Kinderhook,
NY; Martin and Atina Diffey, Gardens of Eagan;
Mara and Spencer Welton, Half Pint Farm, The
Intervale, Burlington, VT) Saratoga Springs,
NY, for more info: Sandy Arnold/Ted Blomgren, 518-638-6501
Thursday, March 12: Perennial Plant
Conference, Lewis B. Rome Commons on the
University of Connecticut Storrs campus, for
more info: Donna Ellis at 860-486-6448, email:, or www.hort.uconn.
Saturday, March 14: Pruning the Fruit Orchard
workshop, Barre, MA, for more info: Jack
Kittredge, 978-355-2853,, or
Saturday, March 28: Beginning a Vegetable
Garden, Chestnut Ridge, NY, for more info:
The Pfeiffer Center, 845-352-5020 x20, info@,
Saturday, April 4: Raised Beds in the Garden
and Farm Organism, Chestnut Ridge, NY, for
more info: The Pfeiffer Center, 845-352-5020
x20,, www.pfeiffercenter.
Friday, April 17 Sunday, April 19: Spring
Workshop and Farm Tours, Hawthorne Valley
Farm, Ghent, NY, for more info: 978-318-
7827,, or www.
Friday, April 24 Saturday, April 25: Organic
Beekeeping: Principles and Practices, Chestnut
Ridge, NY, for more info: The Pfeiffer Center,
845-352-5020 x20,, www.
Saturday, June 6: The Role of the Horse in the
Farm Organism, Chestnut Ridge, NY, for more
info: The Pfeiffer Center, 845-352-5020 x20,,
Saturday, June 6: HerbFest 2009, Pleasant
View Farms, 452 South Road, Route 83,
Somers, CT, for more info: or, 860-763-5206 or email:
Saturday, June 27: Farm Fresh and Seasonal
Cooking workshop, Barre, MA, for more info:
Julie Rawson, 978-355-2853,, or
Sunday, July 11: Beginning a Vegetable Garden,
Part II, Chestnut Ridge, NY, for more info:
The Pfeiffer Center, 845-352-5020 x20, info@,
Sunday, July 25: Summer Organic Beekeeping
Workshop, Chestnut Ridge, NY, for more info:
The Pfeiffer Center, 845-352-5020 x20, info@,
Send $15 for US, $20 for foreign address to:
Thank you for joining us and helping to support organic agriculture today!
City: State: Zip:
Phone: County:
Fax: Email:
Please check the category that best describes you:
Farmer Gardener Conscientious Eater Food/Ag. Business Other
Please send this completed form to the appropriate state chapter address.
Choose Your Chapter and Membership Level:
I would like to become a membership of the:
_________________________________ State Chapter
Sign me up as a:
_________________________________ Member
My annual membership dues are: $___________
(enclose check made payable to the appropriate chapter)
Do NOT share my address with other organizations.
You may join NOFA by joining one of the seven
state chapters. Contact the person listed below
for your state. Dues, which help pay for the
important work of the organization, vary from
chapter to chapter. Unless noted, membership
includes a subscription to The Natural Farmer.
Give a NOFA Membership! Send dues for a
friend or relative to his or her state chapter and
give a membership in one of the most active
grassroots organizations in the state.
Connecticut: Individual $35, Family $50,
Business/Institution $100, Supporting $150,
Student/Senior $25, Working $20
Contact: CT NOFA, Box 164, Stevenson, CT
06491, (203)-888-5146, or email: ctnofa@ or join on the web at
Massachusetts: Low-Income $20, Individual
$35, Family/Farm/Organization $45, Business
$75, Supporting $150
Contact: Kathleen Geary, 411 Sheldon Road,
Barre, MA 01005, (978) 355-2853, or email:
New Hampshire: Individual: $30, Student:
$23, Family: $40, Sponsor: $100, Basic $20*
Contact: Elizabeth Obelenus, 4 Park St., Suite
208, Concord, NH 03301, (603) 224-5022,
New Jersey: Individual $35, Family/
Organizational $50, Business/Organization
$100, Low Income: $15*
Contact: 334 River Road, Hillsborough, NJ
(609) 737-6848 or join at
New York: Student/Senior/Limited Income
$20, Individual $40, Family/Farm/Nonproft
Organization $50, Business $115, Patron $125.
Contact: Mayra Richter, NOFA-NY, PO Box
880, Cobleskill, NY 12043, Voice (607) 652-
NOFA, Fax: (607) 652-2290, email: offce@,
Rhode Island: Student/Senior: $20, Individual:
$25, Family $35, Business $50
Contact: Membership, NOFA RI, c/o Abbie
Barber POB 86 Shannock, RI 02875 (401) 364-
Vermont: Individual $30, Farm/Family $40,
Business $50, Sponsor $100, Sustainer $250,
Basic $15-25*
Contact: NOFA-VT, PO Box 697, Richmond,
VT 05477, (802) 434-4122,
*does not include a subscription to The Natural
NOFA Membership
Send $15 for US, $20 for foreign address to:
Th e Nat ur al Far me r S p r i n g , 2 0 0 9 55
- Year-round internships
- 0ne-Year Part-7ime 7raining
- eginning a VegetabIe Carden Mar 28
- Raised eds in Carden and Farm Apr 4
- 0rganic eekeeping April 24-25
- 7he RoIe of the Horse June 6
- Crowing VegetabIes July 11
- Summer 0rganic eekeeping July 25
The Pfeiffer Center
The most beautiful,
self-fulflling, environ-
mentally conscious,
and practical approach
to growing plants and
working with the earth
Erin Dreistadt, LILIPOH
Get complete details and sign up
for email updates on our website:
Chestnut Ridge, New York
i nfo@pfei ffercenter. org
845. 352. 5020 x 20
You name it, weve got it!
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& cover crop seeds, OMRI
listed and/or NOP compliant
fertilizers and pest control,
benecial insects, propagating
supplies, irrigation, tools,
oating row covers...
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