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Putting the Pencil to Bio-Growing

On the mixed vegetable, grain and dairy farm in Oregon where I grew up, you often heard the phrase, "How does it pencil out?" With the soils and climate in the Willamette Valley you could grow nearly any crop - vegetables, berries, grain, Christmas trees, nursery stock, etc. The issue of how possible crops would "pencil out" involved adding up all the expected input costs and guessing at harvest prices.

It seems pretty obvious that the current huge increases in oil prices will have a major effect on the penciling-out for farmers, who can expect dramatic cost hikes in petro-fertilizers as well as their equipment fuel. Much higher food prices in the future seem inevitable as a response to these higher farm input costs, and poorer countries that depend on imported food or fertilizer are in for very tough times. (I recently read that filling a transport ship with fuel can now cost well over a million dollars.)

As many of you know, I've been saying for several years that more research and trials should be conducted on less-expensive biological alternatives to chemical fertilizers. While chemical fertilization methods have been developed and fine-tuned with huge research budgets, the science of employing microbial plant nourishment is still at a beginning stage. Crops can be successfully grown with far lower input costs through harnessing beneficial microbial organisms, but relatively little formal, controlled, testing has been done outside laboratories.

I once was told about a Middle East sheik who bought a large amount of mycorrhizal fungi spores and arranged to have them scattered over a desert area by helicopter. He was bitterly disappointed when the desert didn't turn green with plant growth. Whether this story is true or not, it makes the point that simply throwing biological inoculants into business-as-usual farming is not likely to produce great results. Somewhere, somehow, demonstration acreage need to be set up for trials of bio-methods, and various types of beneficial organisms need to be tested to establish localized techniques. We really should get more farmers and microscope jockeys working together on this.

Decades of abuse by over tilling and killing off beneficial soil organisms with strong NPK fertilizers can't be fixed overnight, but higher input costs may finally provide the motivation for both soil scientists and farmers to get serious about modifying "conventional" growing practices. It won't be easy to make large-scale conversions from chemical to biology-based methods, but it can be done. I could argue that it must be done if future oil prices continue to spiral upward.

We live in interesting times. Sharpen those pencils, and stop by a car dealership that sells SUV's if you want to feel some real loving.

Good growing, my friends,

Don Chapman

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