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Farm Soils - Still Hope?

In last month's newsletter, I discussed the problem of fertilizer runoff and run-through, and how our rivers and drinking-water aquifers are being contaminated. I suggested that home gardens, lawns, and smaller farms could all change to cleaner biology-based organic techniques without too much effort, while larger farms are pretty much trapped into the use of synthetic fertilizers.

One of my newsletter subscribers wrote to me afterward. Here is what he had to say about that subject:

"Nice rant, Don:

We own an Ag Chemical Co. and Farm in Southwest Arizona. What you have said is right in line with what we do. We are one of the only farms that has no-tilled for over the past 8 years. We do see an increase in earthworms and good soil biology. We farm 3000 ac. and getting better at it as we learn over time. However it appears you are knocking conventional fertility. This is something that for now is still needed we are trying to transition away from it but it will take time to amend and manure the soils to a point they will self sustain themselves. The biggest reason we are moving is because we can't rely on the major fertilizer company to offer fair and constant pricing. 2008 for example. Currently looking at Myco. Fungi. Any way just my point of view."

Here is my response:

"Hi -

Thanks for the kind words. Sounds like you have the fertilizing thing nicely figured out, and are heading in a good direction with your farm. I think your patience in restoring the soil health will pay off.

You better believe I'm knocking conventional ag, but as you point out large farms really don't have good options. To put it bluntly, after eliminating the biolife in their soils they are now locked into using synthetic NPK fertilizers... or in other words, pretty much screwed. If they want to stay in business they must continue to use "dirty" petrofertilizing methods and monocropping which can ruin soil in the long run.

If important humic/trace elements are never replenished, or cover crops not occasionally grown, then there almost has to come a time when yields suddenly drop off the end of the table. Burned-out is an appropriate term. I can't prove this is going to happen, or say exactly when, but I do believe we will begin seeing it in the next 10-20 years.

I realize that my "rant" would have been better if I had been able to suggest some useful solution to the water-contamination issue for large farms instead of just throwing verbal rocks at them - but I honestly think that the huge-acreage corporate farms are trapped. There's just not enough profit per acre in corn or beans or wheat to pencil out soil restoration costs. So if and when the yields do fall off, I'd expect the corporate types will then mostly just walk away from their unprofitable land. There's no emotional connection for them.

The good news, if there is any, is that almost any soil can be restored and made productive again, but I can't see it being done by anyone constrained by tight profit requirements. Maybe a government soil-preservation program?? Don't know who else would spend the money on major acreage restoration.

Meanwhile, I'll just keep marketing mycorrhizal spores to those who want to establish healthy bio-populations in their soil - and occasionally ranting a bit."

His Response:

"Actually Don your probably not as old as I am. I have a few more thoughts along this line. Some of the big problems for commercial farming. One is availability of raw, organic or composted matter. The cost for 20 ton of cow is $100 bucks an ac. Sludge is $50. When the commercial fertilizer cost go beyond these numbers more growers will take a look but until then they are comfortable doing what's easiest. Ground can be reclaimed but it takes years. The green manure, N building crops cost additional moneys. It takes a huge financial commitment to change your entire operation to no-till, organic fertility, N building crops. Do you have Myco. Fungi priced for the commercial ag user in liquid and dry?"

In Closing-

That's from someone who's actually out on the front lines. I admire his efforts. It's good to know that there are some farmers who are looking ahead and paying attention to the important living elements in their soil. I hope their productive organic soil pays off big-time for them - after cheaper petrofertilizers become not so cheap.

A Related Note: I read that New York retailers have 60 days to sell old inventories of dishwashing detergents that contain phosphorus, and in 2012 a similar ban will apply to lawn fertilizers. (Phosphorus turns lakes and rivers green with algae, and degrades drinking water.) The smarter farmers will see this as a glimpse into the future - when there will certainly be more and more restrictions on fertilizers. I'll help them as much as possible - test plots using organic methods is a starting point.

Cheers, and good growing, my friends.
Don Chapman
President, BioOrganics

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