Sunday, September 21, 2014

Of Poop and the FDA

This week, after much revising, editing, re-writing and proofing, I will launch what is called a “crowd funding” campaign, to raise the funds to buy and have installed a front end loader on the farm’s tractor. This piece of equipment is the missing link of labor for being able to get manure out of the stalls, onto a trailer and into the fields in an efficient manner.

A front end loader will also make the many, many mountains of mulch sitting here turn into molehills of compost a lot faster. By being able to mix together bags of leaves and some of the manure with the mulch and put it into more manageable piles means the difference in usefulness of materials and, well, piles of stuff just sitting around waiting to decompose. 

Let’s face it, a front end loader makes a LOT of farm jobs more efficient. And we really need one. Here, on the farm. All of the time. I hope you'll be able to help the farm reach the full goal. (LINK goes live this week.)  

I mean it's either a front end loader - or expensive hired help - a sure fire way to sink the financial sustainability of most small farms. I don't think an ongoing stream of a small army of poop shoveling volunteers exists and I've slowly but surely come to realize that relying on the unreliability of a former "partner" is no way run a farm, either, or live for that matter. A girl's just got to have her own equipment!

If I’ve learned one thing about organic gardening since I started farming that I didn’t know beforehand, (and trust me, I’ve learned way more than I ever dreamed I would!), it is that no matter how much bagged organic fertilizer you apply to the soil, no matter how straight your rows or how well you weed out the goat-heads, Bermuda grass and Carolina nightshade (aka bull nettle); none of this is a substitute for having microbiology in the soil. And being able to add and keep it in the soil, is a matter of having a way to do so without wearing out the body of the applicator.

Microbiology is the difference between dirt – and soil. (Or, in the case of this farm; beach sand with some red clay tossed in here and there.) Back when I was taking classes on horticulture, I would say that the soil I’ve been working with here, falls all the way into the lower left hand corner of the US Dept of Ag’s fancy soil pyramid. (you didn’t know there was a dirt pyramid did you? It’s sort of like a food pyramid – for soil.) That lower left hand corner is not a good place to be necessarily, if you’re trying to grow things besides pigweed, grass burrs, purslane or mesquite trees.

But, short of fixing soil the way Nature would, with a lightening storm sparked prairie fire, we can add organic matter manually – over and over and over – until the class of the dirt, becomes more soil-like.

Moving dirt’s structure up and over to the right on the pyramid where it really becomes productive soil, takes a lot of labor and a lot of organic material.

Ah, labor. When I started, I had quite a few volunteers and a full time job that supplemented the farm’s modest CSA membership funded budget. Secondly, renting a tractor with a loader for the weekend to help us, only set me back a half a day’s salary. The farm's production was very good, too, for the small area I’d planted. During a time of my late father’s illness, I gave up that full time off-farm job, and salary. But, without the off-farm job, the farm’s budget shrank and cash flow slowed considerably.
So, buying fertilizer in small increments seemed more manageable financially, than committing to several weekends a year of expensive equipment rentals. And fortunately while I still had some savings, I took the opportunity to purchase a small, low hour, very clean tractor – with a brush hog. (No front end loader. I didn’t realize back then just how important it would be to have that as much as the big mower it came with. But let’s just say I realized it a few years later.)

One way to add organic matter to soil, is to sow seeds in mass quantity at the time of fall or spring rains, let these specialized “crops” grow, then mow them down, chop them up and mix them into the soil. This takes a big, heavy duty mower – such as the one I have on my tractor. And I’ve done this many times during the several years I’ve been growing.

But, much like adding bags of commercial compost or organic fertilizer to the soil, without microbiology present, it takes much longer for the process to create a living, nutritious soil.

Enter – POOP! That’s right, manure.

photo credit - Joel Salatin at Carbon Economy Series Class 2014
It's got to be one of our greatest gifts in organic farming, to date. Better than any of the latest, greatest bottled wonders of laboratory created mixtures and concoctions, some of which are very good – when you’re not adding them to a soil that’s devoid of any life forms other than fire ants.

They say when you put a teaspoon of soil under a microscope you’ll see a colony of millions of microorganisms. Clearly, they’d not seen my soil. It looks like crushed glass mixed with dark grains of crushed pepper or something. Virtually lifeless and still.

In order to have life in the dirt, making it soil, you must have residents of life.

And in order to learn about that, you have to look someplace besides your Biology of Horticulture textbook. Microbiology is not even in the index – much less the table of contents. Neither is the word microorganism.

However, it does speak of manure. Although, I think it misses the real magic that manure adds to the picture of creating healthy soils. All of the things the textbook claims about manure’s ability to help keep soil warm in a greenhouse because of the exothermic bacteria decomposing the manure; its addition of macro and micro nutrients and nitrogen, etc., are true. But that’s about as close as it gets to talking about the real benefits of adding manure to one’s soil.

But organic farming is what it is because over the centuries – literally – things have pooped on top of the soil and stuff grew there. 

The real magic of manure, is the wonderful and complex community of microorganisms that comes with it. Without this, sandy soil is basically a lifeless, medium used to hold up plants. With that community – you can feed the world. Seriously.

Fortunately, this farm does have a small army of poop makers – and they make a pretty fair amount of it. It has also been the fortunate recipient for the past 4 years of tons, literally, of shredded tree trimmings via the local tree trimming company who saved me after the 2008 tornado that hit here. Mix in a few hundred bags of leaves and some moisture – WHALA! – you have a living, breathing, multiplying source of a wonderful and complex community of microorganisms to add to that lifeless medium that will turn it into – SOIL! Better than any bag of commercial compost you can pay for.

But organic farming is what it is because over the centuries – literally – things have pooped on top of the soil and stuff grew there. It’s a simple, proven, like it or not – FACT. And I couldn’t have been happier or more relieved to see that the FDA has actually at least paused for awhile on their initial knee-jerk legislation to take away one of the most important tools organic farmers have in their tool-belt because of people’s germ phobias. (Be sure to send your comments to them on the revised provisions - comment period opens at the end of September.)

The application of raw manure to soil, well in advance of harvesting any food, is very important – dare I say critical to healthy soils and therefore to crop production. The presence of living bacteria is what breaks down not only the manure itself, but other organic materials such as previous crops, weeds, leaves, bags of organic fertilizer and whatever else used to be on top of the soil that manages, either through tilling or light raking, to get close enough to the bacteria. And it is through the breaking down of these materials, that makes available to the plant, the macro and micro nutrients that most textbooks focus on.

Without organic matter and the microbiology present, those micro and macro nutrients, no matter how applied, in a sandy soil either leach away into some black hole unreachable by cultivated crop roots (or downstream somewhere), or sit there locked up waiting to be discovered – as is often the case in the more dense, gumbo-like soils of most of north Texas.

It is true as I previously noted that you can take mounds of mulch, stalls of manure, bags of leaves and pile them up and turn them, creating a wonderful compost. And this can often be the difference in a well-realized harvest, or a fair one.

However, through the very process of commercially decomposing organic matter at the high temperatures required by various laws, a lot of that community of microorganisms perish. Even in a home made pile heats up to 140°F or so. Still better than nothing, it isn’t the same as being able to spread manure, straight from the stalls, coops or lean-tos, onto the fields in-between crops. Ask just about any organic farmer. They don't need a 5 year study by the FDA to tell them this. But we'll take the 5 year reprieve and hope some big chemical company - ahem - doesn't fund the study.

And some new farmers, like me, may tell you it took a few years of literally observing the difference between a crop grown from fresh horse barn bedding versus that grown from soil fertilized mostly with bags of organic fertilizer, to realize just how MUCH of a difference there can be. After all, the commercial organic fertilizer companies would like you to think you just have to add their stuff and have bounties of harvests.

But, once the life in the soil begins to die off due to lack of moisture, excessive heat or cold or other often weather related factors, that organic fertilizer doesn’t do nearly as much good.There's nothing left to break it down so the plants can use it. You have to add more manure and living compost.....

Enter – a front end loader to the rescue!! I know it took a long story to bring you here, but it’s been a good lesson in soil building for those who may have wanted it. 

So thank goodness for Indiegogo crowd-funding campaigns and the countless number of people who wrote to the FDA calling for common sense when it came to pretty much ending organic farming as it has been known for centuries.

We’re going to have a poop scooping party after I get my tractor back with it’s shiny, new front-end loader attached! And our friend Elizabeth Dry's community gardens at Promise of Peace, and Farmer Jones Eco Friendly Produce are first up on the list of places we're going to bring it to help out - as soon as we get that new trailer. ;) 

Marie Eat Your Food - Naturally!