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.

I love NPR! I work from home so all the reporters and anchors are like my co-workers...Renee Montagne, Neal Conan, Kai Ryssdal, Melissa Block, Chris Simmons, etc. But yesterday on Morning edition, hosts, David Green and Steve Inskeep, really disappointed me with their one-dimensional interview about organic food...

Equally respected NPR correspondents, Allison Aubrey and Dan Charles, were there to talk about the nutritional value of organic food, or the lack there of. Even if it is true, which I don't believe it is, why even fill the airwaves with fodder for the opposition to say, "See, we told you so." Especially, when there are studies that show organic food really does have a higher nutritional value than conventional like the one released by Organic Farming Research Foundation this past August entitled "Organic Farming for Health and Prosperity." And if these counterpoint studies do exist, proper editorial would compare both not just present one side of the story.

But that's not what irks me! It's the other half of the story, the most important part of the story, that they marginalize...eating sustainably grown food is really more about the ecological benefits than the nutritional benefits. Synthetic fertilizers and pesticides kill the soil food web disabling its biological functions to provide food to plants, store carbon and retain water. 70% of the chemicals used on crops aren't even absorbed by the plant. They run-off contaminating ground water  and contributing to the oceans' dead zones which increases the effects of global warming. Bottom Line...choosing organics goes way deeper than nutrition. it is an ethical and lifestyle choice.

Even if you are not worried about pesticides on your family's health, there is no denying the detrimental effects these poisons have on the soil, air, water and farm workers! Yes, farm workers! If farm workers can get sick and even die from over exposure to these nasties, then it can't be that much better by the time it gets to my dinner plate.

Allison and Dan do mention the environmental upside to organics but by that point in the interview, all that people are thinking is..."Did I just spend too much at the grocery store today on organics?"

When the news dumbs-down the story and doesn't provide the full picture, we stop thinking critically. If the news doesn't present both sides equally then we only hear what they want us to hear..."organic food is not any more nutritious than conventional."

Alison and Dan did not linger on the environmental attributes which would have helped bring people around. And David and Steve did not bother to challenge them. The inclusion of organics' redeeming qualities was on the downside of the story and was mentioned as an after thought. Are they shortsighted, or just too busy reporting the facts than to really take beef with this bologna study?

Under-reporting is a problem in many parts of the news...people will talk about offshore oil reserves, the abundance of domestic coal and natural gas as a cleaner fuel. If the situation was that cut-and-dry then yes, let's get after that energy independence. But the ugly truth is in the extraction process of those fossil fuels and their degrading impacts on the land, the ocean wilderness and the neighboring communities. Like food, it is not just about the end product, it is about the means to get there and the toll it takes on the environment and people. We need to think holistically when considering these options. And the news needs to present it in such a way so people can make an educated opinion based on this holistic picture.

Farming ecologically is about taking care of the land so it can feed the next generation and the many generations after that. It is about treating livestock humanely and allowing them their innate right to interact with the land and work together to build a healthy agro-ecosystem. Sustainable farming practices are focused on the long-term whereas conventional is focused on the short-term. To feed the world, we need to start thinking long-term!

I started writing this post yesterday and already, the news wire is filled with angst against this study. I opened my home page just a little while ago and Grist.org had their review of the study front and center! Even if NPR, can't see past the end of their nose on this one, their media allies will get their back and help bring them along. Don't worry NPR, I still love you!

Every week, I pretty much, have something that inspires a blog post. It may be a rant, an epiphany, a story, a farmer profile, an update about one of my food projects, etc. This week, not so much. So I visited my favorite web haunts to drum up some ideas. Nothing! I did some online searches about  food. Still nothing! Soon I found myself at Facebook lurking through my news feed and my friend Sarah had posted this quote! Enough said! I absolutely love it! it sums up the ag debate in a nutshell!

What would the "pesticide-laden" produce be called? I may need some help with this one but here are a few stabs...conventional produce, factory produce, synthetic produce, genetically modified produce, chemical produce, not-your-grandmas' produce, gag-me-with-a-spoon produce, don't-buy-me produce, the other produce, enslaved produce, unhappy produce, engineered produce...the list can go on.

I tried to find out more about the person. Ymber Delecto, who coined this saying. But yet again...I came up with nothing. I'm thinking it must be an alias for someone or a fictitious name. So strange! It dilutes the power of the quote not having a personality to attach it too! Or does the mystery of this elusive character make it that much stronger? Hhmm?? I may not have learned more about the author of this quote but I did learn about Handpicked Nation which looks like a rad food site where I might be looking for blog inspiration in the future when I hit a dry-spell or writers block. Check them out!

On May 3rd, I spoke about the domino effect that California's GMO Label law, Proposition 37, could have not only in California but throughout the entire US food system, click here.

Well, my assumption was right...The food industry sees the threat it poses. Here is what Pamela Baily, President of the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), had to say in a speech to the American Soybean Association on July 9th...

"The California Ballot Initiative to label genetically engineered food is "a serious, long-term threat to the viability of agricultural biotechnology. Defeating the Initiative is GMA's single highest priority this year." -

The conventional food industry isn't worried about the cost to redo their packaging or concerned about a little bad press. They realize that once California falls, so will the rest of the country. Ever state will want to have GMO labels and with GMO labels comes decreased sales. People aren't going to want to buy food with a label that will have the likeness to "skulls & crossbones." 

It's deductive reasoning...To increase sales, the food industry will have to start producing food that doesn't require GMO labeling. To obtain that stature, they are going to have to change the way they grow the food. Fingers crossed...Hopefully, that means more sustainable and earth-friendly farming methods. Conventional farming is so closely aligned with genetically engineered (GE) seeds that they are practically synonymous. Change will only be able to happen, if they change the way they do business.

Big Ag should be afraid...very afraid! The GMO Label could be checkmate!

2wk old pigs at Massa Organics in Chico, CA. Click the image to watch the video.
To change our food system, we can vote with our forks, support farmers who transition to organics and lobby government for agricultural reform. But a rogue wave is on the horizon which just may create a tsuanmi in BIG Ag...corporate responsibility.

On Monday of this week, food distribution giant, Sysco, announced, "We are committed to working with our pork suppliers to create a gestation crate-free supply system. We’re going to work with our pork suppliers to develop a timeline to achieve this goal.”

Gestation crates are metal cages just big enough to hold a pig and nothing more. Confinement systems are synonomous in factory farms or CAFO's (concentrated animal feeding operations)...Gestation crates disable pigs from moving from side-to-side let alone turn around. Their adorable noses which are intended for rooting around for food are rendered useless stripping them of their "piggyness" (in the words of Joel Salatin).

Sysco is not the first to make this type of pledge but they are the biggest player whose mandate could impact how pigs are raised in the US and hopefully other livestock. It demonstrates the power that corporate responsibility can play. It creates a "keeping up with the Jones" effect. When a industry leader makes a change of this magnitude, others will follow suit in order to be competitive. Likewise, a critical mass of smaller businesses can pressure bigger companies looking to improve their brand image. These motives to improve the lives of pigs and other livestock may not be altruistic but the result is the same...happier animals treated humanely and with respect.

Some staunch hold-outs like Domino's Pizza and Tyson Foods ridicule Sysco on their decision. But just like a politician, their marketing departments may have them singing a different tune if their sales or image starts to drop. Instead of pork, they may be eating crow.

We are already starting to see the impact that a critical mass can have on our food system. Schools and hospitals require huge volumes of food to service their students and clients. They are increasing the demand for healthier, local, sustainably grown food with Farm-to-School initiatives, scratching-cooking programs and Healthy Food in Health Care campaigns.

With Sysco's decision comes easier access for small food businesses looking to improve the food they serve. But this annoucnement does have its pitfalls...it will take 5-10 years to take full effect and "cage-free,"  like with chickens, does not mean grass-fed or free-range. But its a step in the right direction and one we need to recognize.

Read more on this topic by visiting a more detailed article written by Twilight Greenway at grist.org.

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.

Revenge of the Superweed
A few months ago, I wrote a blog post which outlined a pretty far-fetched, but thoughtful, plan to reform US agriculture. The premise placed the ball in the hands of conventional farmers. Ultimately, it is the farmers who control our food. They grow it. If they were given a strong enough incentive to stop farming with chemicals then the Monsanto’s and Dow’s of the world would be brought to their knees.

It may not be that far-fetched. The toxic climate of chemical farming is finally becoming even too much for the conventional, vegetable farmers (pulled from an article on Grist.org). Many of them have formed a coalition, Save Our Crops, to fight the USDA approval for a new genetically modified corn seed that is resistant to the biggest and baddest herbicide of them all, "2, 4-D." Sounds more like a character from Star Wars than something we would put on out food unless of course Heinz has added a 58th variety.

Like most petroleum-based, synthetic pesticides and herbicides, 2, 4-D has a litany of detrimental health effects, i.e. cancer, neurotoxicity, endocrine disrupters, etc. But it’s not the health effects that have the farmers up in pitchforks, it is the environmental and crop degradation that the super-herbicide will cause. 2, 4-D is a pretty intense chemical. It is a descendent of the bio-warfare chemical, Agent Orange. When applied, 2, 4-D can drift from commodity crops over to neighboring vegetable crops which are NOT resistant; especially broad-leafed crops like tomatoes, green beans, peas, squash, pumpkins, melons, grapes and other fruits.

Farmers are starting to see the toll that these stronger applications are having on their land’s fertility. On one hand, 2, 4-D could destroy a neighboring, conventional specialty-crop in one drift and on the other hand, it could initiate a slow death for the commodity farmer who with each application is chipping away at their land's yield potential.

"Save Our Crops" could help unify the conventional, farming community bringing together commodity farmers (grains, soy and corn) who want to combat mega-weeds and specialty crop growers (vegetables) who don't want to see their crops damaged by herbicide drift. Together, they have invested interest to protect their livelihood and their shared, local economy. The result will be alternatives that work for both. Go farmers!

Perhaps the tide is turning. And conventional farmers will start integrating more sustainable farming methods into their practice.

After I read about Save Our Crops, it turned my attention back to the grassroots movement working to get GMO foods labeled (genetically modified organisms). FYI...I wrote a blog post about this too if interested - and sign the petition!

Underlining the initiative is our civil right to know what’s in our food. But its more than just a label and a civil rights issue. A GMO label could mark the beginning of the end for conventional agriculture as we know it. Think about it…overnight, millions of people will stop buying products with this label. The label will turn people off and steer them towards other options, hopefully more organics ones. BIG ag will have to adjust to the market trend and consider alternative growing methods which don’t require GMO’s.   

Granted, people still smoke cigarettes even though the surgeon general says not too. But drugs and food are different. Drugs are optional, food is not. People know the inherent risk with drugs but proceed anyway. In general, people trust food believing it is safe if is it for sale. In the case of food, knowledge can be a dangerous thing. A GMO label would carry a powerful message. I’m glad that the organizations behind this campaign is not promoting this hidden agenda but I have to believe that they see the watershed moment before them like I do. It will be a sneak attack!

With the conventional farmers on one flank with Save Our Crops and consumers on the other with Just Label It, we might just have found a way to wage this war.

In the wake of Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, resigning and a new Italian government on the horizon, it makes you wonder, "is it really that easy?" Out with the old government and in with the new? All of a sudden, some of my more radical ideas started to seem not so extreme. So I dug through my archives and pulled out a piece that I wrote a couple years ago when I first started dabbling in food thought. I had this idea for a farmer led food revolution. It is pretty idealistic. But sometimes you just have to ask, "What If?"

Change in the food system can come from consumers voting with their fork or government passing progressive policy. Neither is moving very fast. What if the change came from farmers? After all, they grow the food! Without them, we would have no food. From that perspective, they hold a lot of power. The number of organic farmers is growing but we need more. Could we get enough conventional farms to transition to sustainable methods before consumer demand and government support turn the tide?

How many conventional farmers would it take to create a farm revolution in Big Ag? If that number banned together in solidarity for better farm practices, it could create a tipping point leading to a cascade of agricultural reforms. But how do we convince this critical mass?

Big Ag has lobbied government to consolidate and centralize taking the farmer out of the equation. It has driven the percentage of registered career farmers down from 20% seventy years ago to just 1%. 1% leaves the agricultural industry vulnerable. A significant disruption like a flood, drought or plight could paralyze the food economy. An organized guerilla effort could give that 1% a lot of power.

I like to believe that all farmers have an innate love for the land. And if given the chance, conventional farmers would unanimously return to a management style that built integrity not only back into the soil but into their craft. In the root cellars of these tradesmen exist basic guiding principles of land stewardship. Farmers are in many ways the first conservationists; learning from nature on how to grow food and provide. If food insurgents help them recover this lost art, we can reclaim the land and reestablish a sensible, food system.

How about a movement that paid farmers to quit farming conventionally? Farmers would participate in a program where they would be paid from private funds to transition their farms over to organic. Contracts with Monsanto, Cargill and the like would need to be cancelled. Land would begin to heal and diverse farming ecosystems would once again populate the country. A training program would assist farmers in the conversion process giving them the necessary skills as well as a business plan for marketing their products.

If enough farmers participated in the program, the supply of organic food would eventually surpass the supply of conventionally grown food or at least give organic a competitive edge.

To convince conventional farmers, a coalition of organic growers would launch a ground effort to talk farmer to farmer. With enough farmers on board, conventional farming would begin to wane and perhaps be extinguished altogether.

The money to fund this project would come from individual donors - celebrities, business men/women, private parties, foundations, etc. Basically, anyone interested in seeing a change. It would require huge capitol. Billions of dollars would be needed to cover all costs associated with the project from paying farmers and training programs to the project’s steering team made up of fundraisers, farmers and administrators.

The proposed revolution would focus on large-scale producers. To truly fix our food economy, we need address the large tracts of land designated for industrial farming and ranching namely the Central Valley and the Bread Basket. The question then becomes...Do we help these farmers improve their practice at their current size or do we encourage them to down-size dividing their land into smaller plots to be bought and sold to new farmers? Smaller farms create jobs and smaller farms can more readily mimic natural ecosystems. Better for the land, better for the economy, better for the community.

Farming is an untapped job market which could significantly reduce unemployment. If we could get just 5% of the population farming again, it would make a huge impact economically, culturally and environmentally. It would help achieve Food Sovereignty where by "the people" define their food system and agricultural policy. Now is the time! The average age of farmers is getting older. We need young, enthusiastic farmers entering the market. If we don't get more people farming now, the ag giants will only get bigger as the gobble up the land of these aging farmers. Rise your scythe!

"Whoa Becky! That's a lot of milk you got there!" (her name really is Becky)
My Sundays are starting to become synonymous with farm tours. But today's tour was of a slightly different variety...a non-organic dairy. To understand the food movement, we have to look at all sides. Within organic practices there are many disparities and the same goes for non-organic. It drives home the point even more, "You have to know where your food comes from!"

It was a 380-cow dairy farm. They use no growth hormones (rBST) and only use antibiotics but once or twice a year for vaccinations. The cows still eat primarily a diet of silage (moistened corn and hay) but their environment and treatment is way better than most confined feeding operations. While not pasture-raised, they are put out to graze between daily milkings. One, 20-acre field is made available during summer and fall months which provides exercise and a natural, grass diet. The barns are very spacious and airy with screen-sided walls to the outside. Rubber floors make it nicer for the cows to stand. Alleyways are cleaned out twice a day and sandy beds get freshened up frequently with new sand. It may not be a day at the beach but the cows are clean and not stressed. The sand is used in place of straw because it doesn't harbor bacteria like straw. Hay is still used as seen in the picture above but usually for pregnant cows and young calves who need to stay warm.

Shiny new milking parlor
Today was open house for their new state-of-the-art milking parlor (see photo right). All the farmers in the area were streaming through - lots of wranglers and roper boots. You could tell the farm is customarily spic-n-span but the milking room was especially shiny. Keeping it clean is built into the design with grated floors to make it easy to hose down.

185 cows are in production at one time. The other 205 are either too young or too close to giving birth. They are kept in a separate barn with alternating access to the same pasture. Cows don't go into milk production until they are 2-years old and when they have their first calf and pregnant cows are pulled from production when they are 3-months from delivery in order to let them rest. With the new facility, they can milk all 185 cows in 2.5 hours including the time spent bringing them into the parlor. The room accommodates 24 stations. That's about 5-7 minutes per cow. Compared to the old parlor with only 14 stations, it took over 4 hours to do the same job. Keeping cows pregnant is a daily task, a veterinarian visits the farm every day to monitor the ladies' health and schedule the artificial inseminations.

Tucked out back was the manure pond. While contained in a concrete structure with no possibility of leakage, it was in stark contrast to the practices of an organic dairy. Yes, organic dairies have manure and save waste for compost. But most of the dung on pasture dairies is naturally spread by the cows as they rotate fields not collected in a lagoon. In this scenario, the nitrogen-rich water is later sprayed on the fields as fertilizer. Since it is straight manure, the soils have to be tested for other nutrient deficiencies and treated with artificial amendments versus using a compost tea which would carry all the nutrients necessary (see post 10/12/11). If pasture-raised, the farmer wouldn't have to grow as much feed leaving fields to develop mature, carbon-sequestering grasses upon which the cows would graze eating primarily a diet for which their digestive tract was intended.

The farm family was delightful and their farm a picture of Americana. It represented a lot of good things in our agricultural system and perhaps they are the lowest lying fruits to later transition to organic. In the meantime, their co-op only accepts milk from dairies who share the same husbandry practices. Only problem is, there is no label for this type of product. So unless you do some research to find out what's in your area, you won't know the story of the milk on the shelf. And by the time you do that research, you'll have discovered a local, organic dairy and probably decide to just go with them. In the case of this dairy, their milk gets trucked across state line to be bottled three hours away. So much for local.

My next stop is an organic dairy. I had hoped to do the visits in reverse and go to the organic dairy first but you take'em as they come. Stay tuned!

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!"

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...