Soil Minerals and Soil Testing for Organic Gardeners

Better than Organic

a Conversation with Agricola, part I

By Michael Astera

Q. You were saying Organic farming and gardening aren’t really working. How are they not working?

Agricola: They’re not working on several levels, including corporate greed, business ethics, and of course “We’re from the government and we’re here to help you.” But that’s not what I’d like to talk about today. I’d like to focus on the nutrition aspect, and on soil, plant, and animal health. Specifically, why most Organic food isn’t necessarily more nutritious than chemically grown food.

Q. It isn’t? That certainly isn’t the conventional wisdom. The people who grow it and buy it seem to think it is.

Agricola: Yes, there’s definitely a myth or misunderstanding that organically grown means more nutrition. But when tested or assayed for vitamins, protein, minerals, etcetera there is no good evidence that organically grown food is more nutritious than chemically grown grains and produce. Organic growers and consumers don’t like to hear this. They seem to believe that it has to be better, and of course it is better in one way: it has fewer pesticides, herbicides, and other nasty chemical residues. But these are all negative things, saying what organic food doesn’t have. They say nothing about what it does have. And the simple fact is that it is possible to grow more nutritious food with standard NPK fertilizers and lime than with just composted organic matter..

Q. What? That’s heresy! (Laughing)

Agricola: I know. How dare I say such a thing? Well, for one thing, we’re not farming much virgin prairie soil any more. The virgin prairie soil was gone a hundred years ago, and all of our best agricultural soils have been farmed and cropped steadily for at least a hundred years. [In the USA] Most of them are worn out, and many of the soils we’re farming today weren’t that good to start with. Sure, a lot of them need organic matter, they need humus, but they also need minerals. Manure and compost don’t have any more in them than the organic materials they’re made from–mostly Carbon, Hydrogen, and Oxygen, which the plant gets from air and water, plus, usually, an unbalanced amount of Nitrogen and Potassium and some humic acids. High Nitrogen and Potassium levels can grow big, lush, healthy looking crops, but they’re not balanced nutritionally and they may even be harmful.

Let me give you an example. If you have ever wandered around in a cow pasture you have seen these lush green little patches growing where the manure has landed–big, tall bright green grass that the cows won’t touch, won’t eat. They’ll graze right up to it and all around it but they won’t eat it. Why not? It’s not just because they’re finicky about grazing where they pooped. That lush green grass can actually be poisonous to them. It will make them sick if they eat much of it. It’s full of nitrates and incomplete proteins and probably too high in Potassium. After maybe a year, after the winter rains and snow have leached and diluted the manure and the soil microorganisms have gone to work on it, and the grass roots have maybe pulled up some Calcium from the subsoil and mellowed things out, then the cattle will graze that spot again. What do they know that we don’t know? Well, they know instinctively what is good for them and what is not; whereas we humans seem to have lost that ability.

And that’s the kind of food that most organic growers are growing. They add tons of manure and compost–the more the better, they think–and grow these same kinds of crops that the cattle won’t even graze on–big, lush, green, watery crops loaded with nitrates. And too often that’s what we’re getting when we buy organic.

Q. So are you saying that you think chemical fertilizers are better?

Agricola: Don’t get me wrong. I’m no big fan of chemical fertilizers. The right ones used in the right way can grow good, healthful food, but seldom are the right ones used in the right way. Usually the wrong ones are used in the wrong way and they end up killing off the soil life: bacteria, fungi, protozoans etc. which of course leads to erosion, ground water pollution, etc.etc.

However, let’s say you used some high quality ammonium sulphate for a Nitrogen source, some single superphosphate, which is just a concentrated form of natural rock phosphate, and a decent Potassium fertilizer like Potassium sulfate or Potassium nitrate (not muriate of potash, Potassium chloride. That stuff has the same effect on soil life as pouring Chlorine bleach on your soil would). These are all considered “chemical” fertilizers. And let’s say you had spread some gypsum or some limestone or even some dolomite lime on the field or garden the previous year.

Now instead of this imbalanced high Nitrogen, high Potassium situation from manure and compost, you might have the proper amounts of Nitrogen, Phosphorus, Potassium, Calcium, Magnesium, and Sulfur plus whatever trace minerals might be in the soil or in the limestone or gypsum you applied.

You will hopefully have a little organic matter in the soil from last years crop roots and residues; you’re going to be able to grow much healthier and more nutritious crops than you could possibly get from manure and compost alone, simply because you have a wider and more balanced array of nutrients available. It may not be ideal, but you’ll certainly grow better food than from just adding organic matter to a depleted soil.

Q. I guess that makes sense. So would you recommend throwing out the conventional organic approach and using a combination of chemical fertilizers and compost or manure?

Agricola: Not exactly. More like a combination of science and nature. But let’s back up a bit. I’d like to talk a little about how we got to this situation with Organic growing in the first place.

Q. Going back to Sir Albert Howard?

Agricola: (laughs)You got it. Albert Howard was a British agriculturalist who was stationed in India for a number of years, from about 1905 to 1924, in an area of poor and worn out soils. He hypothesized that what was wrong with the soil was a lack of organic matter, so he had the locals round up a large quantity of manure and crop residues, which he composted and applied to this worn out soil. I imagine this soil had been farmed for hundreds if not thousands of years. Howard claimed he grew marvelous, abundant crops and that the animals fed these crops were healthy and disease resistant All well and good, but I’ve always wondered if that was any kind of a solution for the locals. I mean, if they’d been farming and gardening there for hundreds of years, they must have been well aware of the benefits of adding manure and organic matter to the soil. I imagine if the locals had had the ability to round up all their neighbors’ manure piles to use on their own crops they might have done so, but their neighbors might have objected. Anyway, Howard didn’t invent composting, it was well known in Asia, but he seemed to think he’d discovered something new.

Q. Why is that? Weren’t they composting and using manure in England?

Agricola: Oh, of course, but not so much as they had done in the past, and it certainly wasn’t the modern, scientific thing to do and wasn’t taught or encouraged in the colleges Sir Albert attended. In order to explain why, I’ll need to go back a little further.

Q. Go ahead.

Agricola: OK. Well, you see, chemistry as we know it really isn’t a very old science. Modern chemistry, which is based on knowledge of the 92 natural elements and their properties, didn’t really begin until the late 1700's. Dalton isolated Calcium in 1804. Dmitri Mendeleyev didn’t publish his Periodic Table of the Elements until the 1870's. Before Mendeleyev, though, some people had come up with some very useful things to do with the new science. In the 1840's, a Paris trained German chemist, Justus von Liebig, burned some barley grains to ash and analyzed what was left. He came up with Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium. NPK. Von Liebig showed that if he added just N,P and K ( K is for Kalium, the name the German alchemists used for Potassium) to the soil, the plants grew well. He reasoned that certain elements had been depleted from the soil over the years and needed to be replaced, and he was right. Von Liebig rejected the prevailing agricultural wisdom of his day, which was the old idea that humus, totally broken down organic matter, supplied plants with food. NPK worked great, and it was relatively cheap and easy to manufacture. His discovery was immediately seized upon by the German industrialists, and thus was born chemical agriculture. Humus, composting, and manure were off the fashion runway. All one needed was NPK to grow huge crops and the chemical factories made money hand over fist. So did the farmers, for a while, until it got to the point of diminishing returns, where they had exported the reserve fertility from their soil and had to dump more and more chemical fertilizer on their soil to get results. At that point, which was reached anywhere from ten to twenty years after the introduction of chemical fertilizers to the soil, the chemical factories kept on making money but the farmer didn’t. His profit was going to make the industrialists rich. And that’s how things have remained to the present day.

Von Liebig has gotten somewhat of a bad rap over the years and has been blamed by some for the excesses of chemical agriculture, but what he really stated was that whatever needed nutrient was in the shortest supply was going to be the limiting factor in how well the plant grew. He called it the “Law of the Minimum”.

Von Liebig did realize by 1850 that humus was essential, but by then the industrial chemical factories had taken over and no one listened. The manure piled up in the barnyards and the “modern” farmer didn’t need to get his hands dirty with it.

So by the time Albert Howard was going to school in England in the late 1800's it was all chemical fertilizers, all NPK, and organic matter and humus were forgotten.

Is this getting too detailed here?

Q. No, it's fine. You were saying, then, that Albert Howard, later Sir Albert Howard, rediscovered the value of humus and organic matter in the soil?

Agricola: Exactly. And, back in England, he proceeded to put his ideas into practice and to write a couple of very influential books–An Agricultural Testament in 1940 and The Soil and Health in about 1947.

Q: And that was the beginning of the Organic movement?

Agricola: More or less. Around 1940 in Pennsylvania, a young health magazine editor named J.I. Rodale happened to read an article about a boy’s school near London where the food was grown by the Howard method. A dramatic decline had been seen in the incidence of flu, colds and scarlet fever, except in new arrivals, who soon became well. Rodale read Howard’s book, and was so excited that he began corresponding with Howard and soon bought a farm where he began growing crops by this “new” method. Rodale had been sickly. When he noticed an improvement in his own health, he soon became a fanatic.

Q. You’re calling J.I. Rodale a fanatic? (laughter) I can see your point. But was that good or bad?

Agricola: Both, I guess. It was good that he was inspired to preach the message of Organic agriculture and to start the magazine that became Organic Gardening Magazine, which got the message out to millions of people. Bad, in that he was pretty much what one might call a one trick pony. Organic matter, compost and humus became the litany and the dogma of the Church of Organic Gardening, no heretics need apply. Understand, I mean no disrespect to either Howard or Rodale. Both of them made valuable contributions in waking people up to the dangers of chemical agriculture and the importance of a healthy, living soil. They just sort of got stuck in simplistic answers. They neglected the all important mineral balance. Howard was of the opinion that composted leaves from forest trees would supply all the minerals necessary. He figured the tree roots would go deep into the earth and pull up any that were needed, which may be true if the needed minerals are down there. Pine trees and maple trees, however, don’t necessarily need the same mineral balance as cabbages and wheat. Howard’s books contain almost no mention of minerals. Neither Howard nor Rodale were well informed chemists or nutritionists.

Although Rodale did recommend the use of lime, phosphate rock, and greensand in his later work, it was never strongly emphasized and was largely ignored by his followers. Rodale himself didn’t seem to have much understanding of minerals. Neither of them ever advocated a soil test beyond measuring pH, as far as I know. And how is one to really know what’s going on without a soil test?

Q. I agree, although interpreting a soil test is rather complicated, and knowing what to do with the results is even more complicated, isn’t it?

Agricola: Sure. And many gardeners and farmers aren’t willing to invest the time, expense, and effort in getting a soil test and educating themselves, especially when it’s so simple to just pile on more manure, compost, mulch etc. Which is fine, I think, unless they’re actually trying to grow real food to grow healthy bodies and keep them healthy.

I’ve been fascinated for many years with nutrition, medicine and agriculture. In my opinion, real scientific agriculture trumps medicine and it trumps nutritional science. Nutritional science these days is mostly concerned with supplements–vitamins, minerals, amino acids, enzymes, hormones, herbal extracts and all the pills and potions on the health food store shelves. All of these are only needed because the nutrients that should be in our food aren’t there. And why aren’t they there? Because the minerals aren’t in the soil the food is grown in. For example, Zinc has been shown to be necessary for over three hundred metabolic and enzymatic processes in the body. With no Zinc, or not enough Zinc, you’re looking at over three hundred vital processes in your body that aren’t going to happen. Could this have an effect on your health? And going back to Howard’s mulch of leaves, if the rocks that broke down to form that forest soil didn’t contain Zinc, there won’t be any Zinc in the leaves, will there?

Q. And how does Agriculture trump Medicine?

Agricola: Because Medical care for disease, as opposed to injury, is mostly dealing with the results of malnutrition. Cancer, heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, chronic infections etcetera are largely diseases of malnutrition. This has been shown in thousands of scientific studies for the last century. How much sense does it make to treat malnutrition with drugs and surgery? How much proof do we need? None of these diseases are caused by a deficiency of drugs or surgery. The real nutritionists realize this, so they attempt to alleviate problems by having people change their diets and take supplements, like vitamins and minerals. That wouldn’t be necessary if the full complement of nutrients was in everyone’s everyday diet.

Q. But Organic farming, at least by the Howard/Rodale method, isn’t the answer?

Agricola: Well, I’m sure you can see from what I’ve said so far what I’m leading up to. Mineral balanced agriculture is the only thing that can work. It’s the puzzle piece that’s been missing from organic gardening, and from nutrition, and from medicine. What we need to do first of all is to figure out exactly what constitutes a perfect or nearly perfect diet for the human body. We can do this. Nutrition is a well advanced science, unlike most of today’s agriculture.  Much of what has been discovered in nutritional science isn't being taught in the colleges, but the information is there for those who look.

Once we’ve figured out the nutrients we want in our food, then we figure out how to grow crops that contain those nutrients. And in order to grow crops that contain those nutrients, we have to figure out how to build soil that contains the elements the crops need to make those nutrients. When I first grasped this concept it seemed overwhelming because I thought we’d have to start from square one, but as I did more reading and research it turned out that a lot of the work had already been done, mostly in the period from 1930 to 1950. And just like in nutritional science, the research was shut down and the results buried by the chemical/industrial cartels after World War II.

 Did you know that there has been no basic research done on soil science in American agricultural colleges since the mid 1950's? None. Zero. What’s with that?

 There has been plenty of research on hybrids bred to produce bulk tonnage on an NPK diet, and more recently on genetically modified organisms created to survive lethal doses of herbicides etc., but nutrient content and health hasn’t even been in the picture. The entire picture has been greed, monopoly, and short term gain. Don’t look to corporate agribusiness or the chemical companies to solve world hunger or malnutrition problems–they are the problem.

Q. Tell us about the work that has been done.

Agricola: Gladly. There are several major figures who have done original research on soil minerals, people whose work has gotten enough attention to actually make some difference. I already mentioned Von Liebig, who got the ball rolling. Another early contributor of note would be Julius Hensel. In 1893 Hensel published Bread From Stones, an overview of the experiments he had done in Germany using rock powders, ground up rocks, to fertilize farm crops. Hensel was a serious chemist as well as an agriculturalist. He argued against the use of large quantities of manure, saying it weakened the plants and the soil. He also blamed the overuse of chemical fertilizers for ruining German food production, and claimed he got greater quality and quantity of crops using only rock powders. Needless to say, the industrial chemical cartel did their best to discredit him and bury his message, but his book is still in print and well worth reading.

The two biggest names in what has become known as Eco-Agriculture, however, are William Albrecht and Carey Reams.

Albrecht was head of agricultural research at the University of Missouri from the 1920's until the mid 1950's. He was very much a classical scientist. He and his colleagues made the single most important discovery in soil science to date, the role of the clay fraction of soil in cation exchange capacity, abbreviated CEC or just EC for exchange capacity. Briefly, it’s the ability of the clay and humus in the soil to hold and release tiny particles of certain positively charged minerals, for instance Calcium, Magnesium, Potassium, Sodium, Manganese, Copper. When we talk about clay we are actually talking about colloids, particles so small that they suspend in water and wont settle out. They’re not dissolved in the water. The negatively charged clay particles can hold onto positively charged ions of Calcium, for instance, that would otherwise be leached away into the subsoil by rain and irrigation. The clay keeps these minerals from washing away, but gives them up easily to a plant’s roots in exchange for Hydrogen (H+).Albrecht discovered why different soils have different exchange capacities. A soil with a lot of clay in it can generally hold onto a lot more minerals than a sandy soil. Humus also has a high exchange capacity, which is a good argument for maintaining soil humus in the ideal 4-5% range.

Albrecht and his crew made this discovery about clay in the 1920's, and this led to many years of experiments with the mineral balance of the soil and its relationship to plant, animal, and human nutrition and health. He believed that animals had a finely tuned sense for what was good food and was good for them. If the pigs, rabbits, or cows wouldn’t eat forage that was grown on a certain soil or fertilized in a certain way, or would eat it only if starving, he wanted to know why. His published work, collected in four volumes by Charles Walters, is called The Albrecht Papers. It covers a vast amount of territory, from geology to soil organisms to animal husbandry to human nutrition, and in my opinion it stands as the greatest agricultural work yet written. Yet Albrecht’s name doesn’t even get a mention in modern soil science textbooks, though they have entire sections devoted to cation exchange capacity and the structure of clays. Sort of like Nikola Tesla or Kary Mullis. Tesla gave us our entire worldwide electrical system, Mullis gave us the polymerase chain reaction that is the basis of all DNA work today, and neither of them get a mention in the textbooks.

Q. Linus Pauling comes to mind, too.

Agricola: Yeah, and Pauling spent the last years of his life working out the links between mineral deficiencies and disease. Pauling and Mullis both won Nobel prizes too, and I imagine that million bucks took a bit of the sting out of being shunned by the textbook writers. Albrecht was just shuffled off out of the way when the chemical companies took over the ag colleges in the 1950s. If it hadn’t been for his friend Charles Walters, who recognized the importance of his work, Albrecht’s work might have been lost and forgotten.

Anyway, Albrecht concluded that he got the best results when the exchange capacity was saturated with about 65% Calcium, 15% Magnesium, 5% Potassium, a couple percent Sodium, and a few parts per million of some other minerals–Zinc, Copper, Manganese, Iron. That leaves about 10% of EC which is saturated with Hydrogen. If you add in some humus and organic matter, Phosphorus to equal the Potassium level, some Sulfur and a tiny bit of Boron, you have the basis of the Albrecht method. These ratios will give you the balanced mineral base for a healthy soil, and you should be able to grow bountiful, healthy, highly nutritious crops. The Albrecht method works very well, but of course it’s not the whole answer. Carey Reams gave us another big piece of the puzzle.

Q. Yes, I’m curious about Carey Reams. From the little I know I’ve gotten the impression that he was pretty eccentric.

Agricola: Well, if you ever try reading him, I think you’ll agree that he was unconventional, at least. Reams was not the same sort of classical scientist as Albrecht was, even if he did have a PhD, but he was an awesome scientist nonetheless. What makes him difficult is that there were no accepted scientific terms for what he was observing and measuring, so he either borrowed terms like cation and anion from mainstream science and used them in his own way, or he made up his own, like his fabled millhouse units of energy. Reams can be obtuse and often verges on the mystical, but he undoubtedly got results.

He was certainly involved in determining the ideal mineral balance in the soil, although he used what’s called the LaMotte method for soil testing, which uses a weaker extracting solution and measures easily available nutrients. But his more important focus and contribution was on the energy balance or imbalance of the soil; the flow of energy in the soil.

One way of describing his energy ideas might be the comparison of a dead battery and a fully charged battery. Their elemental makeup is identical: the same amount of Lead, Sulfur, and water are in each, but one of them can do useful work while the other one just sits there. There’s an energy flow when you connect + and – on the charged battery, nothing on the dead battery.

Let me see if I can make that a bit more clear. The charged battery has the same mix of elements in the same proportions as the dead battery, but there are a lot of potential chemical reactions that haven’t happened yet, chemical reactions that release energy. Sort of like a bottle of vinegar and a dish of baking soda; when you pour the vinegar onto the baking soda, things start fizzing, heat and energy are released. When the fizzing stops, things have reached chemical equilibrium and there’s no more energy release. A living soil with the right balance of minerals always has a certain amount of chemical imbalance, things being born and dying and decomposing, plant roots exchanging Hydrogen for Calcium or Potassium, grains of sand breaking down and releasing new minerals. Nutrient elements are constantly shuffling around and energy is being released. In a dead soil, nothing is happening, new nutrients are not being released and exchanged, and the only way to get plants to grow is by feeding them synthetic fertilizers.

So one could have two soils of identical chemical composition but of different energy potentials, and the energized soil would grow good crops while the “dead battery” soil just sat there. This is a valuable observation Reams made, one that has been overlooked by many agricultural researchers.

Reams and his students also popularized the use of the refractometer in agriculture. A refractometer is a fancy name for a simple tube and eyepiece with a prism lens at one end that is used to measure dissolved solids in a liquid. It measures in the Brix scale and has long been used by professional winemakers to measure the sugar content of grapes–the higher the Brix reading, the sweeter the grapes.

Now this is a simple little device that anyone can use. One could even take it with them to the fruit stand and measure the sugar content, hence the mineral content, of an orange or a tomato before buying a bagful. If that orange has a Brix reading of 16%, buy it! If it’s only 4 or 6%, don’t waste your money on insipid, tasteless food. Pretty cool.

What the refractometer measures is how much light is bent, or refracted, by the dissolved solids in the plant’s juice or sap. A thin, watery sap devoid of nutrients won’t bend the light passing through it like a sweet, richly mineralized sap will. So a person can use a refractometer to measure the quality of their own homegrown fruits and vegetables.

Q. That has to be easier than learning to interpret a soil test.

Agricola: Sure. And you don’t have to wait a week or two for your results to come back. Refractometers only give you a snapshot of where you are, though. They can’t tell you what minerals are involved. But back to Reams.

Reams was a strong advocate of Phosphorus, and he claimed that all nutrients should enter the plant in phosphate form, a claim I’ve never quite understood. He lived and worked in Florida, which has vast phosphate deposits, so he had plenty of Phosphorus available to experiment with. Now, Phosphorus is sort of a mystery element in the soil. Other elements will readily leach out, but Phosphorus stays put. And no one seems to know exactly why. We know from Albrecht’s work that the positively charged cations like Calcium and Potassium are held by static charge to the clay and humus. But we don’t know as much about what’s going on with the negatively charged anions like Sulfur, Chlorine, and Phosphorus. We do know that these other anions will readily leach out, but not Phosphorus.

Can you believe this? We don’t really know how the negatively charged elements are stored or how they move in the soil or get into the plant’s roots. In the 1920's Albrecht and crew discovered the CEC connection to clay in the soil. As far as I can tell, that is the last major discovery in soil chemistry–made 80 years ago. And the last one before that was Von Liebig in 1840. And before that?

Nope. That’s it. As I count it, we have exactly two major discoveries in agricultural soil chemistry, plus Reams’ observations about energy flow. And one from the petroleum engineers and geochemists. More about that one when we talk about Calcium.

So we really don’t know very much about the soil. The soil of Mother Earth, that feeds us and upholds us, has been the redheaded stepchild for most of the history of modern science.

During the dustbowl years of the 1930's, when the topsoil was blowing away on the wind, people were scared and some in the government were scared so between 1930 and the end of the second world war agricultural science was relatively well funded. Not, of course, funded like research into weapons of mass destruction, but at least enough to learn a few things of practical importance.

This all ended as the multinational corporations took aim at the American family farm in the late forties and through the fifties. By the late 1950's they had bought every ag college and land grant university in America, bought as in “ We’ll give you a bunch of money but you have to put the people we want in charge and do only the research we pay you to do.” And the foolish, greedy administrators and trustees went for it. They sold out. There has been no real research in soil chemistry since then, only research on pesticides, herbicides, chemical fertilizers, hybrids, and now GMOs. [ed. note: Genetically Modified Organisms]

OK. Let me try to get back to Reams and Phosphorus. Reams said that Phosphorus is necessary for the production of sugars, particularly complex sugars, in the plant. No Phosphorus, no sugar. Phosphorus is also essential to the production of DNA. And it is also the element in shortest supply in the soil over most of the world. I don’t mean that there’s less Phosphorus than the trace elements, but that Phosphorus is one of the major elements required for plant and animal health. Bones and teeth are made of Calcium and Phosphorus. And it’s in short supply in most soils. Reams said that there should be twice as much available phosphate as potash for most crops and four times as much phosphate as potash for grains, grasses and legumes like alfalfa.

Q: That disagrees with Albrecht, doesn’t it? Didn’t Albrecht call for an equal amount of Phosphorus and Potassium?

Agricola: (smiling) I see you are paying attention. Very good. Actually, Reams and Albrecht are saying the same thing. Phosphate is P2O5, two atoms of Phosphorus and five atoms of Oxygen. Potash is K2O, two atoms of Potassium and only one of Oxygen. If you do the arithmetic, based on the atomic weights of the elements, you will find that phosphate is only about 44% Phosphorus by weight, while potash is 83% Potassium by weight. One hundred pounds of potash contains eighty-three pounds of Potassium. Two hundred pounds of phosphate contains only about eighty-seven pounds of Phosphorus. So if you want the amount of Phosphorus in your soil to equal the amount of Potassium, by weight, you will need to have twice as much phosphate as potash.

It’s worth noting here that the numbers on a fertilizer bag, the NPK numbers, don’t actually stand for Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium, they stand for actual Nitrogen, an amount of phosphate, and an amount of potash. So if the NPK numbers say 5-10-5, for instance, there is about an equal amount of Phosphorus and Potassium. If the numbers say 5-5-5, there’s only half as much Phosphorus as Potassium. I don’t know why they started doing this, listing phosphate and potash instead of Phosphorus and Potassium, maybe to make it look like there were higher percentages of nutrients in the bag. I said earlier that Phosphorus stays put in the soil. If you spread Phosphorus on top of the soil, that’s where it stays. What little we do know about Phosphorus indicates that it readily forms insoluble compounds in the soil that apparently can only be made available through the action of soil microbes and fungi. So you can end up with a situation like we have in the prairie soils of the great plains of Canada and the US, where there is plenty of Phosphorus in the soil, but because the soil is biologically dead, the farmers have to apply large amounts of highly soluble phosphate every year to grow a decent crop, which of course the chemical companies love.

 Okay, I was talking about Carey Reams. Reams had some memorable sayings. One was see what you look at. Another was well grown produce doesn’t rot, it dehydrates. He claimed to have entered the same watermelon in the county fair three years in a row. I’m just repeating what I read.

Q. That melon must have been extremely well grown. I’m developing more respect for Reams and his work after what you’ve told me. Who else needs a mention?

Agricola: Charles Walters, for sure. None of the people presently working in this field would know much if Charles Walters hadn’t had the vision to start his magazine Acres USA.

Walters was working as an editor for agricultural newspapers in the 1950s and 60s when he became friends with William Albrecht. The agriculture newspapers that Walters worked for were the same kind that are mailed out free to farmers today, every other page a full-page ad for the chemical companies. Walters was intelligent enough and cared enough to realize the importance of Albrecht’s work, and he realized that this work would be lost if someone didn’t make it available to farmers. The commercial ag newspapers wouldn’t touch this info, because it showed how to grow superior crops without using any of the toxic chemicals that their advertisers were selling. So Walters started AcresUSA in the early 1970s, and it remains to this day the magazine that makes the most significant contribution to sustainable agriculture.

Acres USA isn’t just focused on Albrecht’s work, though. They are just as likely to publish an article on biodynamics or composting or herbal or Homeopathic medicine, all without prejudice. If it’s about natural health, sustainability, Eco-Agriculture, organic gardening, or just better and more efficient farming you will find it there. I can’t speak highly enough of this magazine and the work that Charles Walters has done. Anyone interested in the subjects I mentioned owes it to themself to subscribe to it and read it cover to cover. There’s just nothing else like it.

Walters also gathered together and published William Albrecht’s work in four volumes. Volume II, Soil Fertility and Animal Health is required reading, I would say, along with Walters’ own tour-de-force Eco Farm.

He has also edited, written, or published dozens of other books on sustainable agriculture and natural health, many written by students of Albrecht or Reams, and all worth reading. The real reason that we have several million acres being farmed sustainably today is mostly due to the vision and work of this one man, Charles Walters. Albrecht and Reams may have laid the foundations of the science, but few would have heard their message without him and AcresUSA.  One caveat, though, on reading Walters' books and essays.  Somewhat like the old alchemists, he doesn't always give the information in a straightforward manner.  Reading his work requires a little patience.

( a long pause.)

OK, that’s enough history for now. I am leaving out over a dozen people who have been and are making great contributions to the field, but if I start listing them this wouldn’t be an interview, it would be an encyclopedia. Let’s get back to “Why Organic isn’t Really Working and How it Can.”


An Interview With Agricola part II:  (Bad) Science and the (Hopeful) Future  

The Ideal Soil:
A Handbook for the New Agriculture

Michael Astera


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