It’s interesting that conventional agriculture is so far off the mark when the “real” information needed to prosper and produce good crops is available if it’s looked for.
The problem of course is that most farmers get their information from each other, or they go to the feed trough of information from the chemical industry which is widely promoted and easily available.
And information coming from the chemical industry is all about making money regardless of what the outcome is to the farmer, the consumer, or the earth.
Good Information Is Still Out There, Although It May Not be Labeled as Such
Surprisingly, even the United States Department of Agriculture, that seems to be in the pocket of biotech companies, has resources available to farmers to show them the “other way.” But not surprisingly, when they do provide these resources, they post notice at the end saying: “The opinions expressed in this video are those of the farmers and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the USDA.” (After all, they wouldn’t want to get on the outs with the biotech/chemical companies.)
Another way they (USDA) provide “good info” is through the Natural Resources Conservation Service, another federal agency. They (NRCS) have conservationists whose purpose is to provide technical expertise and help with conservation planning for farmers, ranches and forest landowners if the want it.
They’re Careful Not to Make Waves (Isn’t “politically correct” a term for that?)
If you do a little “looking around” the internet you’ll find (again, not surprisingly) that these conservationists who teach soil health (and principles of something they refer to as “agroecology”) are careful not to make waves with the biotech/chemical industry.
As one lengthy definition of agroecology (a word that came into being in the 1970s) stated, “… agroecology does not
- systematically embrace organics,
- reject monoculture, or
- take a single particular stance on synthetic chemicals or technologies.”
From that, I gather that they don’t take a stand on wrong principles, they just offer good principles when folks will listen.
The Typical Response from Farmers
Most conventional farmers view soil health as an abstract virtue. In other words, it’s not a concrete proven principle to them. It’s more of a theory or an idea, rather than something that can really work for them and make a difference in their bottom line (profit).
So you can imagine what response some of these NRCS conservationists get when they start talking to conventional farmers about soil health and how working with nature will improve the health of their soil and increase their bottom line.
Even the farmers who eventually ended up making changes will readily admit that their first thought when they first started listening was “This soil scientist fellow is crazy!”
Under Cover Farmers
Pat, a friend and reader in Tennessee, recently sent me the link to a video (entitled Under Cover Farmers) about several conventional farmers in North Carolina who ended up really listening and taking the information on soil health to heart. It dramatically changed the way they farmed and radically reduced their dependence on chemicals.
They’re far from being organic. They still use herbicides that harm soil life. In spite of that, they’ve increased their production and profit by practicing some of nature’s principles. They don’t yet know it’s possible to stop using chemicals, but at least they are acting on what they do know.
How the Change Came About
When these farmers heard one of the soil scientist of the NRCS talk about limiting disturbance of the soil (no-till) and keeping the soil covered at all times with a wide range of cover crops (diversity, diversity, diversity), they didn’t just “listen” and change. The change came when they heard “real” farmers singing the praises of this way and saw the results first hand.
The soil science fellow from NRCS invited several North Carolina farmers to go out to North Dakota with him to see and meet farmers in that state who were farming with a great diversity of Cover Crops and no-till. They accepted.
Farmers in North Dakota showed the North Carolina farmers fields of beautiful corn that had had no compost, no compost tea, and no commercial fertilizers. These stands of corn, that towered above the heads of the men, were producing a beautiful and abundant crop from the energy of a variety of cover crops that occupied the fields before the corn.
The NRCS District Conservationist told the men those fields were probably one of the best examples of the power of diversity that he could show them. He stressed to them that the power of diversity is extremely strong and had they planted a monoculture (just one cover crop) in the field before the corn, the field would not look the same. It would not be as lush and healthy. (These farmers plant 20 to 25 cover crops at a time in the same field!)
According to the NC farmers, this was their aha moment.
The Changes 3 Farmers Made Started a Small Revolution in Their Home County
By the time they were ready to leave for home, the NC farmers had only 3 weeks before time to plant cover crops. One of them figured up what he needed before he left and called in the order before heading home.
These men were excited! They figured if farmers in ND, with an annual rainfall of about 12 inches, could do this and get great results, they, in NC with an annual rainfall of about 40 inches, should certainly be able to do it. (All these farmers farm 100s of acres without irrigation.)
They laugh looking back and tell stories of how their neighbors thought they had lost their minds when they returned from ND as changed men. Everyone said they’d go bankrupt. Now those same neighbors are coming to see what these men are doing.
Follow-ups as The Years Pass
In follow-ups with all these farmers, they reported much healthier crops and increased yields. Even in just their first year of change they reported a 10% yield improvement. Roots were bigger. Earthworms were abundant.
They reported lower inputs (what farmers call fertilizers and herbicides). (Keep in mind they have not yet learned that they can farm profitably and better without these.) They do however, with each passing year, use less and less chemicals. Some are seeing that it IS possible to grow crops without any synthetic input.
What’s Your Take-Away from This Post?
I have written post after post on TMG that stress the same things that these NRCS soil biologists and/or scientists stress to these farmers and that the farmers saw first hand would bring excellent results.
- Disturb the soil as little as possible. (For the home gardener – permanent beds that don’t have to be tilled get that job done.)
- Cover the soil at all times. (Whenever you can, cover your soil with living plants. The biomass and the roots of living plants is where your greatest benefit will come from.)
- Diversify in EVERTHING! Have as much variety (diversity) in your garden (and borders) as possible. When you plant cover crops plant as many different ones as you can. And plant them together.
Yes, this is going to take some planning, but the payoff is HUGE! Even as much as I promote diversity on this website, I realize now I was still thinking small and didn’t know it. But I want this big payoff in MY GARDEN and I’m willing to spend some time planning to get it.
I’ll also have to work at having more living plants in the soil whenever possible, rather than just have the soil covered with mulch.
It’ll take me some time. One little step by one more little step, done consistently, will get me there.
We’ve just been given an even greater understanding of how to use diversity and cover crops in our gardens. I hope you will join me in planning to accomplish what’s necessary to reap the great harvest of benefits that can come from using these two great principles of nature: keep the soil covered and use as many varieties of plants as you can.
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