No, I'm not talking about climate change but rather keeping your crops warm during winter. We are just beginning our 4th season here at the Truckee Community Farm's Growing Dome and last night, November 11th, marked our first truly cold night of the season at 5°F! Watch the videos to see how the Growing Dome's natural heating system is able to keep the inside just above freezing on such a cold night. We used floating row covers to help the soil retain as much heat as possible overnight especially for the sprouts and seedlings that are still getting established. But once they are more mature, the Growing Dome will stay warm enough that they won't be needed. I'm as excited for growing veggies as I am for skiing this winter season! Check back soon for a progress report.
 
 
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The debate between organic and conventional agriculture is not nearly as polarized as the news would have you think. There is a large gray area in the middle where conventional farmers are transitioning to more sustainable practices but not necessarily organic, at least yet.

I've often thought (and blogged about it. Click here for article 1 and article 2) that real change in the way we grow food is going to come from the farmers. They see first hand the devastating impact that chemical fertilizers and pesticides have on their land. They are also starting to see the money they could save in synthetic inputs by farming more ecologically and still have the same, if not better, yields.

Massive and sweeping change in the agricultural industry is probably never going to happen at the scale we would like. And for sure, the change is not going to be driven from the deep pockets of Monsanto. Rather, it's going to start at a grassroots level.But it isn't going to require that farmers convert cold turkey, however, and go organic overnight. It starts with baby steps like utilizing cover crops and crop rotations to better manage soil. Twilight Greenaway wrote a great article for Grist.org entitled, "Feed your soil - and the rest will follow." Here's my summary...

Instead of leaving a field fallow or bare over winter, a cover crop keeps roots in the ground feeding the soil food web 365 days year. Combined with a crop rotation, a field won't see the same summer crop for 2-3 years rotating a crop like corn with, oats, alfalfa and soy. Combined, cover crops and crop rotations reduce soil erosion, replenish lost nutrients, minimize pest outbreaks and grows stronger, more resilient plants. The secret behind these two simple strategies is how they build organic matter in the soil! Organic matter is the living part of the soil like microbes and fungi. Without organic matter soil is just dirt...clay, sand and silt (the inorganic bits). And dirt is what we are left with when land is farmed strictly conventionally because not enough organic matter is added to the soil and the little that is gets killed by the synthetic applications.

Non-organic farmers like David Brandt have been employing these practices for years and have the results to prove it. "This past summer, despite the drought, Brandt harvested 120-150 bushels of corn per acre compared to his neighbors who averaged 40-50 bushels. Plus, he is only using 2.5 gallons of diesel fuel per acre for applications compared to 30-40 gallons." You don't have to be a rocket science to realize that "$10 to farm an acre is much more economical than $120 per acre. The fastest way to a greener agricultural system is through a farmer's wallet!

Why the drastic difference? Soil rich in organic matter and living organisms can retain water better enabling it to weather drought years. And cover crops and crop rotations grow healthier plants which require fewer synthetic inputs. The fewer fertilizers and pesticides and less diesel fuel is needed to power tractors to apply it.

The USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NCRS) manages $27 million/year in funding for agricultural programs which promote soil health. But its up to the farmer to opt in. The funding is already low so the NCRS waits for farmers to come to them. With the farm bill in jeopardy of not getting passed, the agency may have even fewer funds to work with next year. Let your voice be heard and ask congress to not shelf the farm bill but to reform this very important piece of legislation. SIgn the petition by clicking here.

 
 
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Our first corn!
As I inspected our small crop of corn in the growing dome today, I found one lone ear infested with aphids. The crop is almost ready to harvest so I thought I would take a peak and make sure the little buggers hadn't damaged the corn. As I slowly peeled back the husk to reveal the ear, I felt a little like Charlie in the Chocolate Factory unwrapping to find the golden ticket. Would my hard work be rewarded with a healthy ear of corn??

Lucky for me, it was stellar! I'm a little biased but it was the most beautiful ear of corn I've ever seen. I felt a little guilty as I revered this work of art thinking of my comrades in the Midwest suffering from the drought and entire corn crop failures.

Conventional farmers with "big ag" contracts are protected with crop insurance. The same can't be said for small specialty-crop farms especially organic farms. They aren't eligible for these benefits leaving them to take the hit. For CSA farmers, they can at least lean on their members for a type of "crop insurance." In these desperate times, CSA members are learning firsthand what it means to share the risk with the men and women who grow their food.

As I've been following the drought, I couldn't help but wonder, "how are the organic farms holding up?" Are they doing better? And are conventional growers starting to see the pitfalls of their farming methods which deplete the soil making them more vulnerable to drought? I haven't been able to find a report documenting this just yet but I did find an article by one of my favorite food & farming writers, Tom Philpott. I was glad to see he was asking the same questions. And while the results aren't in for 2012, studies have been done which prove that organic crops have higher yields than conventional crops during times of drought and heavy rain. Why?

Organics fields are high in organic matter. The organic matter is a result of regular composting, diverse crop rotations and cover crops. It feeds the soil and in the process stores atmospheric carbon. Carbon rich soil is able to retain moisture helping soil to be more resilient during drought years. During heavy rains, carbon high soil can manage water better so it can filter through the soil versus not being able to penetrate hard, nutrient deficient soil which leads to flooded fields.

It isn't surprising then to learn that organically managed soil is a great way to sequester carbon and mitigate climate change. When carbon is in the soil it is not in the atmosphere. Conventional crops can't say the same. The soil food web which creates the environment to sequester this carbon is destroyed when treated with synthetic chemicals.

My hope is that the 2012 drought will be taken into consideration during the final stages of the 2012 Farm Bill creating incentives to help conventional farms transition to organic and in the process transfer some of the crop insurance over to the farms making the switch in order to protect  their efforts.

 
 
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I had the fortune of attending a gardening workshop this past weekend in Pagosa Springs, CO where the Growing Domes are manufactured. It was wonderful to meet the designers of this amazing 4-season growing structure and fellow dome owners. When Udgar and Puja Parsons brought their business, Growing Spaces, to Pagosa Springs 17 years ago, they were the first dome. Now there are over 80 in the greater Pagosa area making it the mecca for geodesic greenhouses. It is more than just an impressive number, it demonstrates a mountain community' self-reliance and ability to grow their own food year-round.

Leading the workshop was permaculturist, Jerome Ostenowski with the Central Rocky Mountain Permaculture Institute in Basalt, CO. Jerome had us up and out of our chairs in under an hour digging in the dirt and planting tropical plants of banana and papaya in Growing Spaces newest dome demo. These "Growing Spaces" are so amazing that you can grow tropical plants in the mountain climates!

Before the trees went in the ground, we had to "make the bed" using a fascinating and simplistic method called "sheet mulching." Some people call it a "lasagna bed" because you create a soil profile by layering a combination of organic materials alternating layers between browns (carbon) and greens (nitrogen). There are different theories on what ingredients you can use. Some allow newspaper and cardboard as a brown, carbon source. But for this exercise, we are going to keep it strictly organic. Sheet mulching is not only fun and easy but reduces the cost of buying a whole truckload of gardening soil. Many of the items can be sourced from your own yard (grass clippings, green manure) or acquired for FREE from local sources (composted manure and straw).

Above is a diagram I wrote in my notebook as the layers went into the bed. You can see how you start with a bulky carbon source on the bottom and begin stacking 3-4" layers repeating the process every 4-5 layers till the bed is full. Give the stacking a good soak every four layers too. Get rev up the mA few tips:
  1. Composted manure - composted manure means it is mature livestock poop and has been sitting for at least 3-years. It ensures that all the weed seeds have died and other bacterias have as well. You can find this locally from a farm. Try and get horse or chicken manure. And if unsuccessful, you can buy bags of chicken manure at a local plant nursery.
  2. Grass clippings - use clean grass clippings without a lot of other debris and that has not been treated with synthetic, chemical fertilizers
  3. Green Manure - this is yard and garden trimmings. It could be tall grasses from the side yard or discarded plant residue from the garden. Just be sure to not grab grasses that have gone to seed.
  4. Worms - you can order worms online or buy locally at a nursery. Best to get composting red worms versus earthworms. 
  5. Soil/compost - Buy good organic soil or compost versus native soil but native soil is fine too because it will be so well amended with all the other ingredients.
Next time you go to build a raised, garden bed, give sheet mulching a try and give your wallet a rest!



 
 
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In the 80's, there were these hideous sunglasses called Blu Blockers made famous by an infomericial featuring a catchy, rap jingle. When I heard of soil blockers, that was the first thing that came to mind. Haha!

Soil blockers and Blu Blockers, however, do have one thing in common...the sun! Soil blockers are an alternative way of growing plant starters. Instead of using a bag of potting soil and plastic trays, you make your own potting mix and press the mixture into a handheld machine that pumps out little blocks of soil complete with a little divot in which you place the seed.  Soil blocks are great not just because you don't waste plastic starter trays but because you are making your own potting soil from scratch, which is always better, and with soil blocks, the roots of your starters are less prone to get root bound than in traditional plastic trays...somehow the roots of the plants sense the edge of the block and stop growing.

Bottom line, soil blocks are really fun to make and a great project for kids. You feel a little like you are making cookies using a recipe and molding the batter into shapes. It is definitely a little more expensive but the ingredients go a long way much like the ingredients for cookies...Once you make the initial investment like with flour and sugar, you can make many batches. In addition to the supplies for the batter, you need the soil block machine. I use the 2" block that makes four soil blocks at a time. They are $29.95 and available online (larger models that press more blocks are available).

As you get your starters ready this spring and summer, consider making the switch. You'll be glad you did! Here is a link to a nice video I found on how to make soil blocks. I first learned about soil blocks from the master, organic gardener himself, Eliot Coleman. He has a lot of great information on his website as well. Below are a couple progression photos to give a better idea for how it works and here is the recipe I use for making my own soil blocks:

3 buckets     coco peat or coir (made from dried coconut husks) DO NOT use peat moss **
1/2 cup        lime (horticulture grade)
3 buckets    coarse Perlite
3 buckets    organic compost
3-4 cups      base fertilizer
                        1cup blood meal
                        1 cup green sand
                        1 cup phosphate rock
1 bucket (give or take) of water
               
** peat bogs store lots of carbon dioxide. When they are farmed for agricultural purposes, all that carbon is released into the atmosphere and contributes to global warming. All the world’s peat bogs store approximately 562 billion tons of carbon—more than all the trees in the world. SAVE THE PEAT BOGS...use coir!


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They look like little brownies when finished!
 
 
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See photos below for making dirt into soil
The grow dome is really starting to take off. We are harvesting greens at least once a week: chard, spinach, lettuce, and mustard greens. Keep in mind, this is Tahoe in April. On average, the dome heats up b/w 75-95°F everyday. And at night, the dome is typically 25°F warmer inside than out. It got down to 12°F the other night and it was 37°F in the dome. The thermal mass of the water tank is really doing its job to retain the heat and the 4-walled, poly-carbonate exterior is keeping it trapped inside. They make a good team! This week we are making our first food donation to our local hunger relief agency, Project Mana. The original goal of the dome was to supplement food for Project Mana's weekly food distribution. Considering it is only April, we are doing pretty good. Take a seedling tour by watching the video below.

This week's project has been to get our last, big bed ready for planting. The other beds all had wonderful, compost-enriched, garden soil from our local compost authority, Full Circle Compost in Minden, NV. The garden bed by the water tank, however, only has about 10% of this yummy stuff. The rest of it is our native, clay-heavy, rock-ridden soil. With all that clay, it clots up into tight chunks as soon as water hits it. It needed help! It needed to have the big rocks removed and amended generously with organic compost to turn the clay dense soil into more of a loamy soil. Below is a photo progression of how I did it. It is so rewarding. I felt like I was mining for gold as I sifted the native soil through the screen and revealed this fluffy, aerated soil. Loosened and rock-free, the soil was now capable of being mixed with compost which would feed the soil food web and awakened its growing power.

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1) Loosen the compaction of the soil with a digging tool. 2) Dig a square about 3'x3'x1'. Move in a grid pattern to get every area of the grow bed.

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3) Place a soil screen, either bought or homemade, over a bin to raise it up off the soil. FYI...don't use a screen with too tight of a gauge to keep all the rocks out. Small rocks add air pockets and leech healthy minerals. 4) Place a few scoops of the soil on to the screen.

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5) Sift the soil through the screen by working it with your hands. 6) Your left with rocks on top and silky smooth soil underneath. Once the entire bed is sifted, it is ready to be amended with compost then seeded.

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That's all the rocks that came from just one square in the grid. That's a lot of rocks!

 
 
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Continued from the previous post on December 2nd...

What soil biology tells us is…conventional agriculture kills soil. If we need soil to grow plants, then eventually conventional agriculture is going to farm itself out of business and unable to “feed the world.” If we want to feed the world, we need to farm using biology. Soils farmed conventionally cannot store nutrients, retain water or sequester carbon because all the mechanics that enable these functions have been eliminated. When no organic matter remains, you have dirt. By enabling soil to store nutrients, we can reduce fertilizer run-off. Being able to retain water, soil can weather floods and survive droughts. By keeping carbon stored in the root structures of the plant, we can mitigate climate change.

Much of the “feed the world” discussion, however, surrounds yields. The Rodale Institute has proven yields are higher in organics. But some contest that the Rodale study can’t be extrapolated to large-scale farms. Perhaps they should look at the yields of Fred Kirschenmann who owns and operates a 3,500 acre certified organic farm in North Dakota. They employ many of Rodale’s farming principles. Fred’s success with large-scale organics is well supported and backed by the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agricluture where he is a distinguished fellow. When asked the question about feeding the world in his book Cultivating an Ecological Consciousness, he said, “As our population increases, we have to use fewer of our ecosystem resources and services to restore and retain the health of our ecological neighborhoods. The only kind of agriculture that can hope to keep the world fed is an ecologically oriented agriculture that mirrors and maintains the natural ecology in which it is located.”

In large-scale ranching, there is a movement afoot in South Dakota called the Brown Revolution. It is setting out to prove the viability of organic, pasture-raised livestock. While still in the grassroots stages, rancher and lead spokesperson, Jim Howell calls the Brown Revolution, “a spin on the Green Revolution of the early 20th century.”  In an article by Lisa Hamilton (author of Deeply Rooted: Unconventional Farmers in the Age of Agribusiness), she explained, “The Green Revolution greatly increased agricultural productivity in developing countries to meet the demands of a growing world population.” She continued by saying, “Howell and his group aim to increase agricultural productivity around the world as a way of addressing one of the great challenges of our time, climate change. But while the Green Revolution hinged on implementing new technology, the Brown Revolution relies on restoring natural systems.” Jim and his partners’ holistic management style was developed by Allan Savory. Historically, grassland ecology was managed by the herding behaviors of wild, grazing herbivores. By mimicking this interdependent relationship, Savory and now Howell can facilitate these natural, regenerative cycles. In Lisa’s interview, she asked Jim, “How big can we expect the revolution to get?” He replied, "It has to be done on a freaking massive scale." He continued, “We need enough land to impact climate change, but also provide a model that becomes the standard for grassland management.” His passion and vision resonates with Mark Smallwood’s “massive awakening.”

While it is good to think big, feeding the world will need to come in many sizes. Small to medium sized farms offer the best opportunity. And the Rodale Institute’s farming trials provide the research. By keeping farms smaller, we can get more people farming. It empowers local communities to secure their own food and puts people to work. Smaller farms can service a regional food system more efficiently making a local economy more resilient and adaptable to economic and climate fluctuations. A regional system shortens the supply chain driving down price. With more organic farms, overall supply increases driving down price as well. And Rodale is helping people to start farming with their newly launched “Your $.02” campaign. The program collectively pulls money from like-minded businesses and awards grants to aspiring, organic farmers.

When we look at soil biology, we need to see it through the lens of an ecosystem; something we need to protect. Like the critical habitat zones of polar bears and whales, we need to respect soil as a wilderness. In many ways, it is an endangered species. Rodale, Kirschenmann and Howell all take a whole systems approach placing humans in that same ecosystem. The soil is not separate. It is part of the human ecosystem.

Where do we go from here? Pay attention to the soil science in organic articles. Glean as much as you can. Absorb it, challenge it and share it. Don’t dismiss it as just some interesting facts. It’s the meat and potatoes of the whole issue.


 
 
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Ever heard of a noble lie? This regal term dates back to Socrates and Plato’s time. By definition, it’s a myth told by the elite to keep social harmony. As an example, Plato was criticized for calling religion a noble lie.

In a recent Huffington Post article, organics was called a “noble lie.” The author, Joe Satran, concluded by saying that "overblown health claims" may be a noble lie to justify the ecological benefits of organic agriculture. His otherwise glowing report did a fabulous job of explaining the Rodale Institute’s 30-year study comparing organic to conventional farming methods. It also addressed many of the arguments that organic encounters such as price, supply and access. Instead of using the facts of his articles to endorse organics, a “noble lie” left it up to the reader to weigh the evidence and decide for themselves. Was he insinuating his true belief? Or challenging his readers?

Challenging readers with a list of persuasions implies that organics is an alternative. Ironically, organic was the original. But the green revolution of the 1940’s made conventional the standard leaving organics picketing on the sidewalk. Many articles use the list technique to compare organics to conventional, i.e. healthier, more nutritious, tastes better, supports local, more ecological and ethical. Instead of trying to convince people with lists, how about we teach people the science behind organics and end the debate once and for all. Science doesn’t lie.

In reading the public comments that followed the Huffington Post article, a thread lingered over the integrity of the organic name. Some argued that the organic certification has been diluted by the infiltration of large food corporations trying to capitalize on the rise of organics’ popularity. One post reminded the other post that the organic product market is not the same as the organic farming practice. Rodale uses science to study the organic practice. They are not responsible for how the open market decides to lessen its meaning. Rodale's Executive Director, Mark Smallwood, wants to use the science to create what he calls a "massive awakening.”

The Rodale Institute is located just outside of Allentown, PA. They are the nation’s premier research station for organic farming. I immersed myself there for a 3-day course about soil science back in October..

And what I learned is…people can handle the science. Yes, in science there are a lot of complex ratios and talk about parts per million. But if you skim just the common sense off the top, it doesn’t have to be complicated. People don’t need to be a scientist to understand how conventional agriculture defies the laws of soil science. The law boils down to this…we need soil to grow plants. Pure and simple! Conventional agriculture treats soil as merely something to hold plants up. They may as well go into hydroponics which doesn’t use soil at all. The fundamental difference between organic and conventional is that if soil is in the game, it has to be treated like soil. Soil provides an environment for millions of microbes not just to live but to actually make the nutrients for the plants. What matters is the biology in the soil. Rodale’s chief scientist, Dr. Elaine Ingham, PhD, sums up the science this way, “To build soil structure and build healthy plants, we need to let biology do its thing!” To learn more about the biology of soil, read two earlier posts on October 9th and 12th.

Stay tuned for Part II of the article...

 
 
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If you want to get a party going in your soil, make a compost tea and serve it up. It's a process by which you steep compost and spread the solution on your garden, crops or grass. Nothing like a libation of compost juice to fuel the foodweb living in and around your soil.

Cheffing a good compost and compost tea is the  ONLY way to keep a soil's biology in balance. I was enlightened to this trade fact during the soil class that I recently took at the Rodale Institute (see October 10th). Anything else, and either the soil is not as healthy as it could be or is being managed with inorganic treatments. Compost tea is applied in the spring and summer unlike compost which is applied in the fall. Compost tea is also an efficient way (yes, organic has lots of efficiencies) of applying organic matter if there is not enough compost to spread around. It helps compost go further. Compost tea, however, is only as good as its compost and knowing first how to make compost will provide the theory behind this little known energy drink.

COMPOST BASICS
Once we understand how soil works (see October 10th post), it becomes obvious that good soil biology leads to good soil structure. And it starts with compost! Compost provides the scheduled dose of biology that soil needs to grow healthy plants. It carries all the organic matter and living organisms to the soil. When you think of it, compost is just mimicking nature's biology. Old growth meadows and forests decompose plants and leaves cyclically. Applying compost brings that same type of biology to the crop's soil. 

While things like pH tests provide important information about nutrient deficiencies, it is more important to know that the fungal biomass to bacteria ratios are strong and that there is a diverse mix of insects (arthropods), nematodes, earthworms and protozoa thriving in the soil. If those things are present, the soil's foodweb will be strong and the nutrient cycling in the soil will be strong. Together, it keeps the soil aerobic and the biology in balance. Does this mean that fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides are unnecessary? Yes! In conjunction with other good organic, farming practices like cover crops, crop rotation and inter-cropping, compost and compost tea gives the soil all the nutrients it needs. Under these healthy conditions with lots of fungal biomass, weeds don't have the bacteria ratio to proliferate and the plant's immune system is strong and can ward off pests. If a garden or farm has sickly plants, lots of weeds or an outbreak of pests, the first thing to ask is, "what's wrong with the soil?" it should not be, "grab the spray!" Good compost will help fix the problem and correct the imbalance.

As the compost revs up the nutrient cycling, the root structure develops decreasing soil erosion and increasing the soil's water retention thus making it more drought tolerant. Root structure doesn't just mean more roots but longer roots that can access water deeper in soil horizons. For instance, regular grass may only have roots that are 4-6 inches but with the right compost, roots can grow as deep as 4-5 feet. Feet I say! With that kind of network, soil can hold more water and roots can go deeper for more water. Win-win! Then there is all the carbon which can be sequestered but we'll devote a whole separate discussion to that.

All of this new found knowledge would not have been made possible if it weren't for Dr. Elaine Ingham, PhD. I had several light bulb moments during the class but the one which flipped the really big switch was when she said, "if you have the right compost, you can fake a crop rotation." Whoa! That proved not only the power of compost but provided another trump card for my back pocket when talking it up with those who rebut the credibility of biological organics.

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Dr. Elaine Ingham, PhD brewin' up some compost tea!
BREWING 101
When it comes to making compost, there are a few different roads to take. There is the choice between thermal (hot) or vermiculture (worm) compost. Within thermal composting you have the 21-day, slow and kitchen compost recipes. The super cool part...compost doesn't rely on sun or outside temperature. If done properly, the microbes will generate the heat needed indiscriminate of the weather. Dr. Elaine has made compost in sub-zero temperatures. I love biology!

Dr. Elaine and her squad at the Soil Foodweb have several resources on making compost and compost tea. Here is a great article by Elaine featured on www.finegardening.com which takes you all the way through the process. For this exercise, I will share the basic concepts for thermal composting. Composting can sound complicated, smelly, time consuming and costly. Taking the right steps will keep the hassle, time, cost and smell down. Keeping the smell down, keeps the critters away and the method Dr. Elaine uses eliminates the need for expensive compost contraptions like tumblers. All thermal recipes have varying proportions of three ingredients: green waste (including food waste and coffee grounds), woody stuff (leaves, paper, sawdust, wood chips) and nitrogen (manure, legumes). The addition of nitrogen begins the composting process. And the amount determines how fast the compost cooks. In other words, hold onto your greens and woody stuff and add the nitrogen component when your ready to activate the process. At which time, it becomes a schedule of turning the compost when the core temperature reaches certain degree points. Closing tid bit...compost should have 50% moisture content. huh? it's easy...just take a fist-full of compost from the middle of the pile and squeeze it. If one to two drops of water seep out, you're golden! If not, spray some water on the pile. Okay, one more fun fact from Dr. Elaine..."You can't ever apply too much compost, just compost that wasn't made properly." She's one wise grasshopper.

 
 
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View of the Rodale Institute and farm from the orchard
Last Thursday afternoon, I headed to Kutztown, PA and a 3-day soil class at "the" Rodale Institute. For years, I've revered Rodale for their contributions to the advancement of ecological growing techniques. My trip felt more like a pilgrimage to a world heritage site. While the farm's idyllic landscape could be mistaken for a landmark or park, the 300-acre demonstration like-garden is hard at work setting the standard on what is possible in biological farming. Rodale has been doing side-by-side trials in organic agricultural for three decades comparing yields, energy consumption, soil fertility and profitability between organic and conventional farming practices. Their results speak for themselves proving organic's ability to out compete conventional in every category. Don't believe me, read their 30th anniversary report on their Farming Systems Trial. They are the oldest research station of its kind in North America and the same age as the one started in Switzerland the same year, 1981. They know a thing or two!

During the seven hour drive to Kutztown, I had lots of time to imagine what my my impending experience would be like. And I had lots of co-pilots to help me soar with ideas...I wasn't in the car more than 10-minutes when NPR aired Steve Job's entire 2005 Stanford commencement speech. If that speech doesn't get you inspired and fired up, I don't know what will. Wow! He was as powerful a speaker as he was a pioneer. Loved his story about quitting college to audit the classes that most interested him. It renewed my faith in the ad-hoc curriculum I've created for myself in learning about our food system. Later, when I grew tired of music and the NPR stations were fading in and out of reception, I started streaming podcasts from the Dirtbag Diaries. They are a collection of stories by outdoor enthusiasts whose life is defined not by what happens during work but what happens before and after. One particular episode was by filmmaker, Allie Bombach. Her film, 23 Feet, is about the community which binds the tribe of people who not only follow the road but live on the road in route to their next adventure. Having rented my house for a year in order to take this eco-quest, I could relate to this liberating, nomadic lifestyle. Guess you could say, I'm "staying hungry and staying foolish!"

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Dr. Elaine Ingham, PhD demonstrating the use of a compost temperature probe.
Landing in my hotel bed at 10pm, anticipation filled me like the night before Christmas.The next morning, I drove down a country road and through the gates of Rodale's 280-year old estate. I was here! It really exists. But unlike a fairy tale, it was most certainly real. And in Rodale style, we were to be trained by the best, the Jane Goodall of Soil, Dr. Elaine Ingham, PhD - founder of the Soil Foodweb and Rodale's NEW Chief Scientist.

The course content delivered. It was packed full of all the science, ratios and explanations I needed to answer the questions which perplexed me most. I'm now in even more awe at the dynamics of soil. Soil is as simple as it is complex. Complex for the million of interactions occurring below ground but simple in its message...biology! Conventional agriculture primarily uses chemistry to fix imbalances and organic agriculture uses biology (life) to keep the chemistry in balance. Biology teaches how to introduce and encourage nutrients naturally in the soil versus relying just on a pH test to prescribe nutrients and then apply them.

Let me explain...If plants only needed roots to stand up, we could just inject their stems with chemical nutrients. But plants need their roots to get nutrients. And roots have a certain way of absorbing these nutrients from the soil. Conventional agriculture, however, overrides the biological processes that roots use to absorb these nutrients. How? Synthetic fertilizers are delivered in a ready-made form that the roots can absorb without the soil microbes having to do anything. Sounds like we are doing the plants and roots a favor. Quite the contrary...surrounding each root is a universe of fungi and bacteria working in unison to get soil nutrients ready for the plant to absorb. These fungi and bacteria as well as worms, insects and other microbes perform a nutrient cycling dance eating and being eaten by each other to create these nutrients (nitrogen, calcium, phosphorous, etc.). Toss down a bunch of ready-made chemical nutrients for the roots to absorb and we disrupt the biological process of the root community. The fungi are like the soil's respirator breathing life into the soil so the plant can get its nutrients. Take their job away and they stop working. Your left with bacteria who have nothing better to do than to multiple literally sucking the life out of the soil. Respecting the biology between the plant and the roots, the roots and the soil and the fungi and the bacteria keeps things in balance. To build soil structure and build healthy plants, we need to let biology do its thing!

That's the quick skinny, check back for more on how to get this balance in your soil...