True Excellence in Growing Food
By Hugh Lovel
Obtaining true excellence relates to the way nitrogen works within each farm. This can be complex and sophisticated or crude and rude. Nitrogen is the essence of protein chemistry, which is what gives us the character and flavour of what we grow. Each farm has its unique protein signature, especially when it generates all its own nitrogen inputs. The wine industry calls this terroir as it comes from the earth. It is the key to protoplasmic density and nutrition. However, few farms today are consciously run with this in mind, and few people think about maximizing sophisticated nitrogen and minimizing the crude and rude stuff. Nevertheless the benefits implicit in robust nitrogen self-sufficiency—production cost, market share, profitability, nutritional excellence and social evolution—are enormous.
Kicking things off may require inputs from off the farm, but these should be thought of as medicine rather than fertiliser. Growers already addicted to nitrogen fertilisers need to adopt this line of thinking so they wean themselves from buying nitrogen. After all, who wants to keep paying the bill? The key to quality is getting the soil biology really cooking and keeping it cooking with the most minimal outside inputs. There are roughly 1.5 tons of nitrogen over every square foot of soil, and it makes no sense to ignore this abundance.
The chemistry of plants parallels the chemistry of our bodies. Both are carbon based life forms. While plants harvest energy and build carbon chemistry, animals digest and transform this harvest. In the process both depend on the nitrogen in DNA and RNA for memory and sensitivity. Maximum in-place nitrogen fixation requires abundant energy, which plants supply. Animals, particularly protozoa, digest nitrogen fixers and supply amino acids so chlorophyll and haemoglobin can build chloroplasts and red blood cells. This complex plant/animal symbiosis suffers whenever it is short-circuited.
Our amino acids are supplied by digestion—which is hugely dependent on symbiotic microbes living in a synergistic relationship with us. Vibrant health depends on generating blood in our own bone marrow, while blood transfusions are purely a stop-gap measure. Similarly, nitrogen in plants is provided at the cellular level by endophytes, which live in between plant cells, as well as symbiotes. For example, we may talk about plants fixing nitrogen, but the actual fixation and digestion comes from endophytes and symbiotes that plants share their energy with. If we treat the farm—no matter how large or small—as its own entity this accumulation of energy means life force and farm vitality.
How Plants Grow
Chemical agriculture tries to feed the plant directly, while the soil is there simply to hold the plant up. This amounts to hydroponics on a weekly or monthly schedule instead of a daily or hourly timetable and it ignores the importance of the soil foodweb.
At first glance the chemical method seems simple and easy, but it is guaranteed to achieve less than optimum quality even when it delivers quantity. Soluble inputs use up humus and nutrient reserves while they take the soil foodweb on a rollercoaster ride between excess and shortage. Chemical fertilisers amount to the residual waste of the microbial network that releases minerals, fixes nitrogen and stores insoluble but available nutrients in humus. The result is soil depletion when we meant to encourage an optimum response. Our rule of thumb should be to feed the soil foodweb so it feeds the plant. This far surpasses anything we can do either chemically or mechanically, and it is wasteful and unjustifiable not to feed and maintain this complex biological system.
The principle components of protoplasm are hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, nitrogen and sulphur while minerals such as silicon, calcium, magnesium, phosphorous, potassium and traces make up only a few per cent. Carbon—which stores energy—enters into plants from the atmosphere while nitrogen—which provides awareness and coherence—enters from the soil. This carbon/nitrogen duality means plants depend on a dynamic interplay between what goes on above with what goes on below. Humus provides a reservoir that acts as a biological flywheel that stores momentum. The more we build it, the better the soil foodweb nourishes the plant, and the more ably the plant grows and feeds carbohydrates to the soil foodweb.
Soil Biology and Vitality
Nitrogen, which is inert in the atmosphere, is basically restless and elusive. It is most content when sharing its beauty, cleverness and sensitivity with itself. Nitrogen fixing microbes require abundant energy to seduce it away from this narcissism and engage it with hydrogen, oxygen, carbon and sulphur to form proteins and mineral links. But unless nitrogen is in use, or stored in clay/humus complexes, it goes to waste by volatilizing or leaching. Waste nitrogen suppresses nitrogen fixation, and growers who think they must use nitrogen will find using it requires more use.
Feeding crude nitrogen to the soil foodweb along with humic acids or clay/humus complexes is the safest way to tie it up as amino acids and minimize its effect on crop complexity, flavour and vitality. From there high production growers should watch closely, leaf testing every three or four weeks, to phase these nitrogen inputs out. The goal is to encourage thriving fixation and protozoal digestion so there is always an abundance of freshly digested amino acids to build the farm’s terroir. Since this is a complex and delicate process, we need to know how to enhance it.
Life builds up on boundaries and surfaces, both in the plant and in the soil. The greater the habitat, the greater the diversity—which ramps up the synergy where ten plus ten becomes a hundred or more. Sulphur containing amino acids play a key role in this boundary process even though they are not especially plentiful. Sulphur also has an intimate relationship with the transition metals essential for enzymes and hormones, which makes it the premier catalyst of life chemistry. As the ignition key to growth sulphur deficiency holds back all other biological processes. This led Rudolf Steiner (1861 – 1925), a biochemist way ahead of his time, to group sulphur with hydrogen, oxygen, carbon and nitrogen as essential for life.
Beyond sulphur, the minerals plants need from soils have a certain hierarchy of importance. One thing must work before anything that depends on it can. The earlier deficiencies occur in this sequence the more everything else is affected. For example, silicon provides the capillary action that allows plants to draw water and nutrients from the soil. All biological transport vessels—to say nothing of cell walls and connective tissues—are rich in silicon. Silicon is most stable when it forms four chemical bonds. However, boron, which loves to react with silicon, can only form three bonds. This leaves silicon unsatisfied and seeking a fourth electron partnership. It only takes a small amount of boron to make silicon thirsty for water and electrolytes—which means boron is the key to sap pressure. Without it silicon cannot take up water and nutrients from the soil.
Of course, both boron and silicon are essential for plants to take up other nutrients such as calcium and amino acids. Without adequate boron and silicon, the protein chemistry and enzyme activity of the plant—particularly chlorophyll and photosynthesis—will suffer.
Furthermore, phosphorous is essential for all energy transfers in both soil and plants, from soaking up energy via chlorophyll, to microbes breaking down soil carbon for energy. Because phosphorus transfers energy, it energizes the complex processes in soil and plant chemistry. It is essential for utilizing iron, copper, zinc, manganese, cobalt, molybdenum and traces of lesser significance. Even though energy first enters via photosynthesis, phosphorous and the various trace elements play a huge role in the soil foodweb in providing nourishment for crops from root emergence onward.
Lastly, potassium, the electrolyte, is responsible for all the electronic communication and movement processes going on in the plant starting with nutrient flow and the opening and closing of doorways in cell walls.
Understandably NPK fertilisation, which breaks down organic matter and disrupts the soil foodweb, works in the short term because it solubilizes reserves, but in the long term it peters out and loses effectiveness as reserves are depleted. This ignores the biochemical sequence as well as the relationship of micronutrients with sulphur and phosphorous. The truth is NPK fertilisers destroy soil biology and ignore the biochemical sequence, as N, P and K are not of primary importance.
It shouldn’t need emphasis, but nitrogen fixation depends on soil biology. It requires abundant energy as well as the availability of calcium and certain trace elements. The abundance of energy is determined by the efficiency of photosynthesis, which depends on sap pressure and amino acid rather than salt nitrogen uptake from the soil. Sap pressure depends on microbial symbiosis to access boron and silicon at crop roots. Probably the most important microbes in this regard are the Actinomycetes, which are the source of many antibiotics and are responsible for the clean smell of healthy soil. By forming a fine fuzz growing outward from young roots, they build as well as provide access to the nutrients in clay/humus colloids. Often they live as endophytes within crop tissues and may be found in their seeds. Because they work at the beginning of the biochemical sequence to break down clay/humus structures and release boron and silicon, the Actinomycetes and mycorrhizal fungi, provide optimum plant nutrition. In return this ensures plentiful root exudation in the active root zone and an excellent habitat for nitrogen fixing microbes and other microbial symbiotes, which again provides optimum plant nutrition. This activity can be seen as soil adhesion around plant roots and a delicate, dense, finely branched root development. This never occurs with heavy applications of soluble NPK fertilisers as they create salty conditions that inhibit both Actinomycetes and mycorrhizal fungi.
More of the Story
Although the Biochemical Sequence can help to determine the key deficiencies when soils do not perform, in living soils everything happens in an integrated way. Above ground phosphorous follows magnesium, but in the soil foodweb phosphorous is the key to energy availability. Soil microbes need phosphorous to release energy from the carbohydrates crop seeds give off as they sprout. Thus most planting formulas include phosphorous and its co-factor trace elements to get seeds and their symbiotes off to a good start.
However, if the soil reserves of phosphorous and its co-factors are depleted, the Actinomycetes and mycorrhizal fungi will struggle instead of providing access to nutrient reserves.
Lest we forget, the rule of thumb is to feed the soil foodweb and let it feed the plant. This is best done with humified compost, although the term ‘humified’ deserves explanation.
Many people imagine that composting is a process of breaking down organic materials until somehow they stabilize. This is over-simplified and poorly informed. If breakdown of organic materials was all that occurred the result would be carbon dioxide, methane, ammonia and residual mineral salts and oxides. Cellulose, for example, is a long chain polymer of glucose, a simple sugar. If all it did was break it down the resulting glucose would be used up. However, beneficial fungi and Actinomycetes build up large humic acid molecules much like bees store honey in the comb. All sorts of amino acids and minerals are tied up in humus formation, and the clay/humus complexes that result are so stable that bacteria cannot break them down. Protozoa and higher animals may release their nutrients, but in a healthy soil foodweb the mycorrhizae and Actinomycetes that stored them have primary access. This provides insoluble but available nutrition, as they are so stable they may last for decades or even centuries. Most soil tests do not reveal what’s there in humus rich soils without a total aqua regia digest.
The fungi and Actinomycetes that build humic complexes grow particularly well on clay surfaces, so making humified compost requires some sort of clay or soil dispersed throughout the materials being composted. The resulting humified compost makes a perfect medium to restore key—often missing—micro-nutrients and rebuild the soil foodweb. Even at six hundred pounds per acre, such compost can be spiked with five pounds of borax or solubor per ton, ten pounds per ton of copper, zinc and manganese sulphates, one pound of cobalt sulphate and a gallon of sea minerals to feed the foodweb of a senescent soil and restore it to robust interaction with crops. Incidentally, sea minerals are the dense, almost oily pot liquor left over after the evaporative extraction of sodium chloride from sea water. This contains every element in sea water and can round out the picture with traces like selenium, molybdenum, fluorine and ORMEs (Orbitally Rearranged Monoatomic Elements). Compost of this sort also makes a good microbial feedstock to combine with applications of gypsum, rock phosphate, lime, basalt or granite dusts. Without feeding these inputs to the soil biology via compost, soluble inputs at five times this dosage may miss the mark and wash away.
The Keys to Success
Syntropy is a process where order arises out of chaos and energy accumulates at boundaries. Chaos theory shows that infinitesimal changes at the borders of chaos can effect large scale changes in a medium. The richer soils are in surface area and internal order the more strongly they draw a syntropic energy stream to themselves. The boundaries inherent in the surfaces and patterns of soil particles are where microbial life arises. As islands of order amidst an ocean of chaos, living organisms depend on syntropy to grow and multiply. Carbon particles are particularly rich in internal order, and carbon based life forms provide a dynamic dimension to this order, as life begets more life.
Synergy is where two or more organisms working together generate a greater joint product than their products taken separately and added together. Synergy shows us that the greater the diversity and interaction between living organisms the more we can expect ten plus ten to equal a hundred or a thousand. When we take syntropy and synergy seriously the self-sufficiency of kissing nitrogen inputs good-bye is achievable—even while we harvest and sell eight or ten per cent of our total annual biomass production.
Food of true excellence and sophistication supports the development of human potential so we produce art, music and poetry of incredible beauty and poignancy and perform seeming miracles. Clairvoyance, telepathy, healing at a distance or accessing the akashic record need not be rare if we nourish our children so they have the physical capacity to develop their abilities more fully than we, with our dietary handicaps, have managed. As a by-product I believe we will reclaim the Sahara Desert, but first we must reclaim the deserts in both our souls and our bodies.
In nature there are many master plants and animals, and by isolating these and growing them as mono-crops modern agriculture has done a few things. By themselves grains, fruits, vegetables, fibres, even bees, cows, and earthworms are impressive, but we really don’t know what is possible until we integrate them into a concert of life. If we work like members of a vast symphony orchestra to achieve true excellence in food, the progress we make may amaze us.
How We Get Our Nitrogen
At birth we each have a unique nitrogen signature stamped upon the assembly of our proteins and the replication of our DNA. We digest proteins into amino acids and re-assemble them according to our individual DNA patterns. Our protein chemistry has our singular identity stamped upon it. Everyone is a bit different, and our immune systems maintain this personal integrity.
The same is true of a farm or even a suburban garden. It develops its own nitrogen character. Its nitrogen fixing microbes take in nitrogen from the atmosphere and build proteins according to that location’s unique stamp. All the animals at that location eat, digest and transform this into their unique organisations. The soil microbes and plants that recycle these animals’ digestive products get an even more enhanced nitrogen organization. As the terroir builds, its plants and animals, and ultimately the people that eat them, take the enhancement of nitrogen round after round higher. When we bring in artificial nitrogen fertilisers we water this down significantly.
Even manures, humates and other biological fertilisers brought in from off the farm or garden have to be integrated into its identity. Instead of getting nitrogen from elsewhere, we want to produce crops within each farm or garden’s nitrogen cycle. This makes the most out of biological enhancement. On any given property the more we increase the density and variety of plants and animals and build self-sufficiency, the more we ensure its depth of character. If we keep this in mind, we will achieve true excellence.
Eden is far too shrouded in our past to see from present vantages. Nor can we return. But, having experienced the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and savoured its bitter lessons, we stand on the threshold of creating future Edens.