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.

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.

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.

Dr. Elaine Ingham, PhD brewin' up some compost tea!
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.

After a robust morning discussing the four level "Conversion Process" for transforming conventional farms to organic, we took another field trip but this time to Swanton Berry Farm further north on Hwy 1 in the quaint, coastal town of Davenport, CA.

Photo: Here we are inside a 1940 barrack structure playing an old-fashioned game called Skittles. It provided a lot of fun and laughter as well as a great inter-cultural team building exercise for our ethnically diverse crew. Franciso from Mexico City (pictured here) was the high scorer with 125 points. He knocked down both 25 point pins and the 50 point pin. You would have thought we were in Las Vegas with the crowd that had gathered to watch the excitement as each player took their turn. Here's a peak at how the game works.

Swanton Berry was the 1st organic strawberry farm in California transitioning from conventional in 1983. There was a time when not even organic growers tried strawberries because it wasn't thought possible to grow organic strawberries for market - just too many pests and disease. Owner, Jim Cochran, proved them wrong. Much like Yvon Chouinard proved everyone wrong in the mid-90's when he switched all of Patagonia's cotton to organic. Now, organic strawberries represent 5% of the market in California going from 0 acres in 1982 to nearly 1700 acres in 2011 - Jim represents 1% of that (California produces 80% of the total strawberries in the US). Even now, conventional growers scratch their heads at how organic can be as successful as they are without using the ubiquitous methyl bromide to fumigate their crops. "How do they do it?" they ask. It's not simple but it isn't rocket science either....Jim worked with our course director, Steve Gliessman, back in 1983 on the 4-Step Conversion Process to transition his fields from conventional to organic. The basis is a 3-5 year crop rotation with crops like broccoli and cauliflower which can be harvested in those rotating years but their main job is to help reduce soil borne pathogens as well as cut down on the weed proliferation. Yes, broccoli is a magical weed killer. When the field is ready to be planted again, they use bio-mass as a from of natural fumigation simply by incorporating a complex mix of organic material into the soil, i.e. onion waste, grape pomace, rice bean, molasses and mustard oil. After the organic material, the soil is saturated with water and then covered with the black, plastic tarp which assimilates the anaerobic conditions of fumigation by suffocating, or cooking, the pathogens under the tarp and helping the organic matter to further decompose.Voila! You have organic strawberries!

We had a huge feast out on the front lawn for dinner. Here's the kitchen where they are making our Strawberry Shortcake desert. It looked like a scene out of Santa's workshop at the North Pole

This is Swanton's Honor Code system. Has to be the largest of its kind. Literally everything that is for sale in the store is by the honor code anything from the jams and t-shirts to the strawberries and pastries. There's one clerk keeps an eye on things but  otherwise, it's scout's honor!

The man behind it all, Jim Cochran. Let's give it up for Jim! Applause, standing ovation and more applause.