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If It Ain't Broken...?

Back when I was just a pup in my mid-50's and struggling to get a new soil biology company off the ground, I exhibited at agricultural trade shows up and down the west coast and was invited to be a speaker to several farm groups.


I suppose you could be charitable and call this a valuable learning experience.  I had grown up on a large farm in Oregon's Willamette Valley, so I could speak farmer OK.  I mean, it wasn't like some slick city kid wandering out into a rural environment for the first time.  I even knew that almonds are called amins in California's Central Valley.


If I was expecting to be hailed as a savior for explaining how microscopic fungi could be added to plant roots, and how this fungi would grow great plants with less fertilizer and water, all such expectations were quickly dispelled.  A fair description would be "getting smacked upside the head by the wet mop of reality."


Besides the squinty-eyed responses I saw to my idea of introducing fungus to their soils, there was a definite pattern of not wanting to change growing routines that had been working just fine for decades - the old "If it ain't broken, then why fix it?" objection.


They were pretty much all agreed on this point, and I could see that making converts to biology-based ag was going to be an uphill struggle.  Hey, when you're talking about people's livelihoods, their mortgages, children's college tuition, etc. and suggest that they do things very differently than what has been profitable for years - well, good luck with that.


Now, some 15 years later, I'm still learning (and gaining new battle scars), but a growing number of farmers, along with university soil scientists, extension agents, gardening experts, and USDA/ARS officials are seriously working with mycorrhizal fungi - and not just out of idle curiosity.  The benefits of good crops that need less fertilizing and water, plus greater disease resistance and soil sustainability, are worth researching.


Some of the increasing interest in employing plant-helping microorganisms is happening because of rising fertilizer costs, some from water shortages, some from growers seeking organic certification, and some from folks simply wanting to see how these biological techniques stack up to their usual practices.


However, my prediction is that sometime in the foreseeable future the biggest motivator to change old routines may well be government restrictions on fertilizers because of contamination of drinking water supplies and waterways.


Some towns and cities sitting in the middle of our most heavily-fertilized corn, soybean, and cotton acreage depend on wells that tap into underground aquifers testing higher each year for nitrates.  The "dead zones" in gulfs and oceans off the mouths of many rivers are getting bigger because of excess nutrients from farms, lawns, and septic systems.  Ponds and lakes become scum-filled and fish die because of algae blooms.


It's becoming harder and harder to ignore all these issues (as we have in the past).  In my opinion, growing systems that rely entirely on synthetic chemicals are at least somewhat broken and need fixing.


And if this sounds biased coming from someone promoting an alternative biological approach, well, let's just all watch the agricultural and environmental news headlines in coming years.


Good (clean) growing, my friends,


Don Chapman



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