Resources | Projects
(organic fact sheets and more!)
Research and Studies
Trainings | Field Days
Funds for Farmers
Yes! I want to hear about the latest MOSES events & resources. Please add me to your mailing list!
So Many Ideas! A Farmer’s View of Soil
This article was first printed in the Jan/Feb 2010 issue of the Organic Broadcaster, published by the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service.
Albrecht, Steiner, calcium, Biodynamics, limiting factors, spiritual qualities of soil and plants. Those of us who do a lot of learning through reading, talking and attending educational sessions at times have our heads swirling with seemingly contradictory information and recommendations on how to best manage our soils, and thus crop productivity and animal health. At a workshop at the recent ACRES USA conference in St Paul, MN, Klaas Martens explained his reasoning on how to respect and take the best from a diversity of seemingly contradictory management tools.
Klaas farms with his wife Mary-Howell and their children on 1,300 organic acres in upstate New York. An avid reader and learner, Klaas loves to think and talk about his farming in both the big picture and the small details. Today he was pondering the big picture.
“When looking at our farms, we can tend to look at the picture too closely” Klaas begins, referring to the confusion generated by seemingly contradictory management recommendations. “We need to step back and recognize these as many small pieces of a very big picture.” Each recommendation is only one piece of the picture, he says. There is a lot happening in the natural world that we can’t see and are not aware of.
How to describe that big picture? Klaas takes us back to the origins of organic agriculture to set the stage.
Klaas sees that the view of “modern” chemical farming was initiated in the mid 1800s- when Justus von Liebig developed what is known as the “Law of the Minimum”: yield is limited by the factor which is in relative minimum. This law has led to soil management practices of supplementing the least factor (i.e. minerals) in order to bring up the productivity of the whole system.
On the other side of the spectrum, in the late 1800s, Rudolf Steiner was studying and writing about subtle energies, spiritual policies and their relationships to farming. Steiner advocated that synthetic chemicals have a negative effect and are harmful to a plant’s energy.
During this same period the harmful chemical DDT was invented, although it wasn’t brought into wide use until the 1930s when it was touted as a very powerful insecticide, though later banned for its negative effects on wildlife.
In the early 1900s Sir Albert Howard, deemed by many to be the father of organic agriculture, went to India expecting to teach about agriculture, but instead observed agricultural practices from the local farm leaders and the weeds, seeds and bugs around him. This “advanced education” led him to develop theories and methods on the value of composting and ways of returning nutrients back to the soil through organic matter.
In the U.S., William Albrecht began researching and writing in the 1920s on organic matter and its ties to calcium and soil fertility. Originally studying to become a medical doctor, Albrecht began to see a correlation between people’s health and soil type charts. Said to be the inventor of soil testing, he is seen as the father of biological farming, and is Klaas’ role model.
During this important formative time in organic agriculture, from the mid 1800s through the mid 1900s, this group of extremely intelligent visionaries were all looking closely at agriculture. It was a vibrant and rare time. Each narrowed in on a particular view of physical processes and developed theories of how to best succeed in agricultural production.
Do we see contradictions and have disagreements on the “best way”? Klaas asks. Yes, but only if we are looking too closely to the picture, and only seeing parts of the farm. There are many commonalities in their work. These elders noticed the correlation between soils and plant and animal health. They understood that well mineralized soil led to the production of nutrient dense foods. They looked at the difference between what was happening in the soil when production was going well and when production was going poorly.
“Some people say that Albrecht and Steiner are in disagreement,” Klaas says, “but I see a lot of agreement. They both recommend ways to produce food that make people and animals healthy and strong. Both have succeeded at this goal- there is no right way and no wrong way, their ways are complementary. As the soil gets stronger, the life in the soil gets stronger, then manipulating the science and chemical interactions becomes less important.”
“The real expert on the farm is you, the farmer,” Klaas concludes. “You have become a part of that ecosystem.” He continues that the knowledge that is passed on from farmer to farmer, father and mother to son and daughter is irreplaceable. And also that everyone is an expert about something or someplace, where they know more than anyone else. “One approach may work better for someone rather than another.”
This thought leads Klaas to emphasize some principles of Holistic Management: specifically, the importance of identifying your farm goals, and using information and your own thought processes to turn each situation into something that matches the outcome you desire. “What is your goal?” Klaas questions. “To raise the biggest quantity, or to enjoy what you are doing and make a good living?”
“Every day we are getting feedback from the farm on how we are doing. It is giving us a lot of information. Our contentment with what is going on is a good clue.”
He sees the goal of a fertility program is to develop soil that grows good crops- not to have exactly balanced soils. A big fan of soil tests, he is the first to admit that it can be very difficult to understand what those tests are telling you. “We need to try to understand the numbers so that we can make the most of them to assess our specific situation.”
Different soil test labs will give you different kinds of readings. He uses the example of tests for phosphorous levels. What is an ideal level? Well, are you looking at phosphate in parts per million, or p205 (phosphorus oxide) in pounds per acre? The tests are looking at phosphorous levels, but the first will give you a reading of one, and the second a reading of two for the same levels of phosphorus. Knowing exactly what test is done within what parameters is key.
“Inputs are really expensive,” Klaas says, and recommends that we “do what is free first, what is inexpensive second and save what is expensive for last.” Use soil tests to avoid buying what you don’t need, or to avoid buying yourself a problem. “Prioritize where the money will do the most good,” he adds. Fix problems gradually. Use the tests to see if what we are told matches what we see in the field once we start the correction. “Every mistake teaches us something, “Klaas adds. “It is important to share what you’ve learned with others.”
When asked what the best time is for taking soil test, Klaas says that he originally thought it didn’t matter, but that results of a SARE funded research project done on their farm gave him pause as to how to answer this question. The research focused on finding how soil mineral levels changed over the course of a year. While most nutrients didn’t change, phosphorous mirrors soil activity, and so is highest in the best part of the growing season.
Surprisingly, organic matter changed by as much as 1.5% throughout the year, being highest at the end of summer. This seems counter intuitive, but Klaas speculates that it is possible that root exudates are the highest source of soil organic matter. (Research has shown that half of the sugars fixed by a plant are given to organisms in the soil as root exudates!) Thinking of this information, Klaas says that it seems the best time to see the highest soil test levels may be at the peak growing season. However, it seems most useful to do the tests before the growing season, so that you have time to add amendments to prepare for a heavily feeding crop. Even though phosphorous levels will rise naturally as the soil activity increases, it will often be a limiting factor in a cold spring. But, if a low spring test drives you to add phosphorous, natural soil activity may raise levels too high as the season progresses. It may be best just to wait!
Klaas adds this last thought to the soil test discussion: soil tests will tell you what chemical extracts are in the soil. However, they won’t tell you what nutrients are being held by the cover crop and will be added to the soil when plowed in. Nutrients are being used by the cover crop and will ultimately be available to the production crop, but won’t show in a soil test. For example, a good 18% protein clover crop will yield 180 pounds of nitrogen per acre once plowed down!
As in every talk I’ve attended with Klaas, the conversation stops not because the subject is done but because there is no more time to share. I have an inkling that Klaas perhaps has a touch of that “extremely intelligent visionary” himself. We always are left with a lot to think about after spending time with him. This time is no exception.
Jody Padgham has been with MOSES since 2002. She is the organization's Financial Manager, and the editor of the Organic Broadcaster newspaper. Jody raises poultry and sheep organically on a 60-acre farm in west-central Wisconsin.Return to TOP