Biological farming, in essence, is a tribute to creation. It involves putting everything into place so nature can do her work:
- The first step is to add the elements that are missing from the soil. Ten years ago, when we began to add calcium to the soil, we saw earthworm population take off and the flavor of our produce soar! Now, as we pay attention to the other elements in the soil as well, we are seeing more dramatic results.
- The second step is to make sure we feed the life in the soil. Our constant green manure and cover crops provide the organic matter to keep this life going.
The concept of creating a healthy, non-eroding soil that produces nutrient dense food is our major goal. It can be challenging, time-consuming, and expensive, but the benefits to the land and to our health are worth it!
CLICK HERE to watch Mark tell growers about biologicial farming at the MN Fruit and Vegetable Growers Conference in St Cloud.
Principles Behind Biological Farming
There are three vital components to the soil: chemistry, biology, and physical structure. The chemistry is the most important. When the delicate chemistry ratios between the elements in the soil are in place, then the second component, biology, can begin to flourish.
When the chemistry and biology are functioning, the physical structure of the soil accomodates plant growth. The soil becomes porous, accepts and holds water and has ample space for air. Our sincere goal is to enhance these three components with total reverence to nature's plan for the soil. That's what we mean by biological farming.
Chemistry in the Soil
Despite the common fertilization notion that "N-P-K" is all plants need, there are actually 17 essential elements to plant health. What really makes it complicated is they need to be in balance. Too much of one will make another unavailable to plants. To find out the actual ratios of each element in our soil, we get it tested by Kinsey labs.
Amazingly, 95% of plant material comes from the air! Carbon (45%), hydrogen (6%) and oxygen (45%) are luckily the freebies that are taken by plants from the atmosphere. The remaining 5% comes from elements in the soil. Nitrogen occupies 1.5% of plant material, phosphorous is .15%, and potassium is 1.5%. Calcium makes up just .5%, sulfur is .1% and copper is only.0006%. Even though the amounts of these elements needed in plants is so minute, they play a vital role. Below are just a few examples of the huge role these trace elements play.
- Calcium. Calcium is like the traffic cop in the center of the intersection directing traffic. First of all, it opens up the soil to make it more porous, giving the life in the soil the air space and water it needs to survive. It allows for enzyme activity and protein synthesis to take place. It strengthens cell walls of plants increasing storage life. And, it manages decomposition and increases symbiotic nitrogen fixing in legumes. Those are just a few of the many benefits of calcium!
- Sulfur. It has been said that if you have enough sulfur in your soil, you drought-proof your farm. It makes the soil soft and enables it to soak up and hold the water of a five inch rain. But it also plays a huge role in helping plants make complete proteins. Interestingly enough, insects can't digest complete proteins. They would much rather feed on plants that aren't nutritionally dense!
- Copper. Copper is a critical catalyst for enzyme and chlorophyll synthesis, respiration, and carbohydrate and protein metabolism. Copper is also partially reponsible for the huge boost in flavor.
These are just three examples of what often overlooked trace elements do in the soil. And these are just three examples of the seventeen! Think what doesn't happen within the plant when they aren't in place. Better yet, think of what does happen when they are!!
Life in the Soil
The life in the soil is the centerpiece of the entire farm. Without that life, we would be raising ordinary produce.
A gram of soil can contain 10,000 species of life. Some, like the mycorrhizae fungi, are the microbes that live in a symbiotic relationship with the root. While getting energy from the root, they make the nutrients of the soil available to the plant. Others, such as the actinomycetes, play a critical role in organic matter decomposition and humus formation.
All this life in the soil needs to be fed. Cover cropping, also know as green manure cropping, provides organic matter to keep the life in the soil thriving.
Many times, cover crops are used on soil that isn't actively raising a crop. Since we need all the land for vegetable production, we creatively work cover crops in with our existing crop. For example, when the sweet corn is knee high, we broadcast yellow blossom sweet clover seed. The clover and corn grow together. After the corn is harvested, it is mowed so the clover can get more light. The clover goes dormant over winter and grows back in the spring. When it is tall enough, it is tilled into the soil, providing valuable organic matter to feed all those microbes and earthworms!
Earthworms, in fact, are a terrific example of the importance that life forms have in improving the soil. As earthworms eat the organic matter that is in the soil, their worm castings can be eleven times richer in nutrient value than what they eat. This is due to the secretions in their digestive tracts. They also mix and aerate the soil. A recent test in Ohio showed that a two inch rain can be absorbed in twelve minutes when the soil has a high population of eathworms. A soil without earthworms can take 12 hours to absorb a two inch rain!
A good earthworm population is between 30 and 300 per cubic meter. They are a sign of healthy soil. As much as fifteen tons of soil per acre goes through earthworms each year. The earthworm castings add as much as eight tons of fertilizer per acre!