Instigating a New Era of Real Agricultural Sustainability
by Gary Kline
Long Beach Peninsula in Pacific County, Washington is a major cranberry growing area on the Pacific Coast. Currently there is one certified organic grower and at least three more farmers interested in converting from conventional methods and undergoing transition to organic growing. A group of soil and fertility researchers and formulators, along with organic fertilizer manufacturers allied with the cranberry grower group, has applied for a research grant from Washington State University. The objective of this research project is to test the effects of selected natural and organic fertilizer materials, augmented with biochar treatment, on commercial cranberry yield and quality.
In this article I want to examine the prospective larger picture ramifications of expected research findings on the benefits of this unconventional mineral-augmented and biochar-enhanced soil treatment as compared to both conventional and currently used organic cultivation methods.
Economically, the cultivation techniques to be researched could have widespread and profound impact on the entire cranberry industry, inasmuch as organically-produced cranberries already command three times the price, locally, as processors have been paying growers.
Consumer interest and purchasing in recent years has been reflecting a preference for organically grown foods, not only from the standpoint of avoiding contaminants and toxic chemical residues, but, now, from a heightened concern for nutritional content or nutrient density. That nutrient density, it is the researchers’ contention here, is largely owed to the mineral array and nutrient balance of the soil. Just as importantly is the added, and very promising dimension of using biochar as an amendment to dramatically reduce soil nutrient and moisture loss while also aiding plant growth and resistance to pests, with the bonus of sequestering carbon in perhaps the most practical and effective, but overlooked, strategy available.
No other single technique offers such major multi-dimensional benefits from one simple action, albeit with a relatively expensive initial input being required. Nevertheless, a very substantial economic pay-off in the mid- to long-term can be expected, extending on into future decades or centuries, and without causing environmental harm. Such is tantamount to a definition of sustainability in the agricultural sector, which arguably is the biggest and most critical to achieving real sustainability for civilizations’ activities overall. To get there will require a national and global commitment in partially financing a new agricultural conversion and regeneration, along with other complementary measures. We should not expect a great leap forward to come at no cost to the citizenry.
Nationwide and worldwide there is near universal recognition that food and water shortages loom large in the near future, but let us look at the situation in Western Washington. We have a generally mild, but very wet climate. Consequently, with the high rainfall (ranging from around 50 inches in the interior to over 150 inches along the coast) there is a high mineral and other nutrient loss from leaching, resulting in most places in high soil acidity (low pH), reflective of low soil fertility conditions. In some years we also have periods of near-drought conditions. Farmers in eastern Washington and California should listen-up.
Despite the encroachment of urbanization, highways, etc. on cleared agricultural areas, there remains large acreages of under-utilized pastureland. I have recently read that 95% of those lands are inadequately fertilized or entirely unfertilized. This means pasture forage is sparse and nutrient-poor and, as a consequence, pastures are under-stocked in relation to potential animal raising capacity and are frequently weed-infested. The typical farmer or landholder, to the extent they realize what the problem is, looks at the market and prices for milk and meat and at the cost of applying sufficient fertilizer and lime and concludes that the cost of upgrading the fertility of their pastures is not worth it. This contributes to the impoverishment of our rural areas and the general demise of family farms. Basically, farmers need to get over the hump to get back into a profitability position. Rapidly emerging organic niche markets could keep them viable. Remember, we are trying to get somewhere different and better all-around in a lasting way. Arguably the survival of civilization will depend on making this fundamental shift to a saner agricultural paradigm.
What can and should be done about this situation? Other aspects of Western Washington agriculture may be suffering as well, but even if someday sizable portions of those under-utilized pastures have to be pressed into vegetable and fruit production they will require serious fertilization (and lime) treatment. Such treatments will need to be done in conjunction with professional soil fertility analyses and fertilizer prescriptions in the same manner as are contemplated in our cranberry research project for the Long Beach growers.
But equally vital to this effort (and from the standpoint of true sustainability for the long haul and full pay-off) will be the necessity to incorporate biochar in treating these impoverished pasturelands. If the biochar (suitably pre-charged) cannot be practically worked into the soil, it can be surface-applied, perhaps along with liquid marine waste products and seawater mineral extract solutions (such as Sea-Crop™), and will get worked in from animal trampling. The beauty of biochar enhancement is that once up to about 5% by volume is worked into the upper six inches, and given initial full fertilization, very little fertilization should be needed thereafter, and that fertility can be essentially banked for a very long time. That basically meets a definition of sustainability. We know of no other way that fertilizing nutrients, beyond the needs of plants, can be held in the soil for more than a few years without the added fertilizing materials being lost to leaching from rainfall or irrigation.
As a nutritional adjunct to the above-described program, livestock can be fed small daily doses of biochar with a variety of health benefits to the animals, which thereby become a means of automatic dispensing and dispersing of the biochar within the organic fertilizing carrier of the dung they excrete. Among those health benefits are greater meat gain at lower feed requirements (thus cost savings), improved stamina, better coat condition and fewer diseases and veterinary costs. Additionally, a benefit of feeding the biochar is a microbial conversion resulting in decreased methane release into the atmosphere and thus a reduction in the worst of the climate-altering “greenhouse” gasses. Extended globally, this obviously is another big contribution to planetary wellbeing on top of cheap, extensive and on-going carbon-sequestion.
Still another small cost/big benefit of using our prescribed materials is that Sea-Crop™ in very small daily doses may be added to the drinking water of livestock (and pets) with striking health benefits. For specifics, refer to Seawater Concentrate for Abundant Agriculture (2012) by Arthur Zeigler. The two products together are dynamite for solving our twin critical needs for restoring soil mineral levels and holding them there.
Arthur Zeigler, a local participant in our cranberry research project and inventor of Sea-Crop™ seawater concentrate, gives some profound observations on the interrelated subjects of soil biota, biologically active compounds and soil remineralization as they bear on prospects for a brighter future for agriculture and the clear breakthrough path these offer to sustainability, greater food supply and improved health of people everywhere. Zeigler has found that it actually takes the combination of biological activity, or it’s compounds, plus the whole array of minerals to get significant extra growth response in crops. Minerals alone can not do the job.
Following discussion of the increasingly adverse impacts of toxic pesticides, genetically-engineered herbicides and GMO cropping on agricultural soils and food production, Zeigler states (p. 100), “This need not be the future. There are alternatives available that can be chosen now. There is another path that can be taken. Damaged soils can be brought back to life and nutrient-dense food can be made available to all. Living soils, teeming with microbes and fungi can, with only a little help, provide plants with all the nutrients they need.”
Continuing on page 101, “Instead of assassinating soil biota with poison and tortured genetics, [the biota] can be encouraged to be energetic symbiotic partners. - - - Seawater concentrates applied in practically homeopathic amounts have been documented to build up soil microflora populations. They have also been proven, when used properly and consistently, to enable high yields of nutrient-dense crops. - - - [Sea Crop] acts as a catalytic trigger that enables both plants and soil biology to more nearly achieve their full genetic potential.”
Zeigler adds (pp. 102-3), “Appropriate mineral nutrition needs to be present for soil organisms and plants to prosper. Adequate levels of all minerals that exist in nature should be supplied and the most convenient and economical method is to supply them in the form of seawater concentrate. - - - The future of successful agriculture must, of necessity, involve remineralization of agricultural soils and the least scarce resource to supply those minerals are the seas of the Earth.” Finally, he states, “Farming with seawater concentrate [89 elements] is the modern way to supply complete mineral nutrition to both plants and soil biota. Seawater concentrate [enhanced with biochar, I say] is the key to a future of agricultural abundance.” Indeed, it won’t happen any other way.
Coming back to what could and should be done to upgrade the fertility and productivity of our pasture areas, as well as upgrade all agricultural areas generally, I have a simple common-sense solution. If society wants to continue to eat; if it wants to reverse rural decline and address the plight of farmers and the near demise of the family farm in America, (now at fewer than one percent of the population), we need to make an enlightened investment and give a jump-start stimulus for a new era of agricultural transformation and effective, sustainable practices. These changes in how farming is done would have the concomitant consequence of reversing the presently alarming rise in degenerative disease problems arising in large measure out of the deterioration of soil fertility, nutrient and organic matter losses, erosion of soils, etc. leading to insidious malnutrition on a wide scale. Refer, for instance, to the data and chart on the alarming rise in heart disease as shown on page 29 in Zeigler’s book.
Now throw in the fact that our present fossil-fuel dependent agriculture is unsustainable and must someday be abandoned in favor of alternative methods and viable modes that can carry civilization forward into Century 22 and beyond. We all know this and see it coming. We just have to get the courage to make the bold leap into a transformative era of bonafide and achievable sustainability using mineral-augmented organic methods that include biochar soil enhancement. In other words, we now have the clear means to move forward beyond simply converting conventional agriculture to ordinary organiculture. We would be smart to do this before finding ourselves in a lurch.
Just what, specifically, is this heretical recommendation I have? In essence, it is an agricultural subsidy program aimed first at small-scale and family farm operations as a sort of Marshall Plan for agricultural sustainability, stability and recovery that puts more people on the land and gives large numbers of people meaningful employment or incentive to stay in farming. We know for a fact that small farms are more efficient and attentive to customer satisfaction than are mega farms and industrial farming. We have a real emerging crisis in farming in that the average farmer is middle-aged and struggling to make it while recruitment from their offspring and other young people has severely faltered because they see no worth-while future in farming. Where does that leave the 99% who expect to keep eating? Not many things are more important or fundamental than a wholesome, stable and nutrient-dense food supply. If oil companies and mining firms can get massive depletion allowances, why can’t our farmers get funding to restore their depleted and marginally-productive or unprofitable farmlands and pasturelands?. Humanity will shortly require those acres for food growing. You can’t eat oil or gold.
The eminently sensible subsidy program I advocate (in place of the current lopsided giveaways to large corporate farms) is a one-time grant to enable farmers to restore their lands in conformance with an approved revitalization and marketing plan and a required soil test or analysis that gives prescriptions for the natural and organic fertilizers and amendments needed. Some formula for determining a maximum dollar amount, minimum acreage or other restrictions would be needed, as well as follow-up inspections to insure the farm plan is being correctly implemented and followed. Hopefully, paperwork would be kept to a minimum. We owe this to rural America, to farmers, and to our own welfare and that of our progeny.
© 2014 Gary L. Kline
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