Hugh answers Ibo Zimmermann, Deputy Director Agriculture and Natural Resources Sciences Namibia University of Science and Technology

Dear Ibo,

How biodynamic does a farm have to be to be biodynamic? Here is what Rudolf Steiner had to say about farms:

A farm is true to its essential nature, in the best sense of the word, if it is conceived as a kind of individual entity in itself — a self-contained individuality. Every farm should approximate to this condition. This ideal cannot be absolutely attained, but it should be observed as far as possible. Whatever you need for agricultural production, you should try to posses it within the farm itself (including in the “farm,” needless to say, the due amount of cattle). Properly speaking, any manures or the like which you bring into the farm from outside should be regarded rather as a remedy for a sick farm. That is the ideal. A thoroughly healthy farm should be able to produce within itself all that it needs. (Agriculture, Lecture II)

 

What I’ve found is the most important part of a farm is its boundaries. That’s like our skin is our most important organ, without which our inner organization would neither arise nor maintain itself. You could plant casuarina trees along the boundaries and horsetail like hair in the ditches and dykes, and that would really help the farm to be self-sufficient, but how are you going to delineate the boundaries of experiment plots so they are comparable to rice paddies on biodynamic farms? My smallest rice terrace was somewhere around 7 to 8 square metres and my largest would have been more like 50 square metres. The dykes were in grass, clover, dandelions, plantain, and other ‘weeds’ that got mowed occasionally (maybe once a month) with a lawnmower. You could have used a whipper snipper. All my local frogs, from the huge bull frogs to tiny tree frogs reproduced in the rice terraces, which were teeming with life. My old farm cat developed a taste for the young bull frogs and couldn’t wait to catch them at the boundaries. She stalked them through the rice. She would emerge slathered down in mud and algae with a frog in her jaws. Her tongue bath and toilet afterward must have been a lot of work, but somehow she reckoned it was worth it–there was a really strong life going on in those terraces and the frogs must have tasted really delicious. Being from South Louisiana I never ate frogs legs raw. I always dipped my frog legs in an egg batter and dredged them in corn flour and seasoning to fry them. I never tried the frog legs from my rice terraces because I didn’t have enough rice swamp to have a night-time frog gigging party with headlamps and tridents like we had in Louisiana. But with a few acres of rice instead of a mere 120 square metres we could have had parties–a great place to grow frogs and crayfish.

 

I paint this picture above to illustrate how difficult it might be to plant one or two experiment blocks of biodynamic rice in a larger context of test plots including control plots where nothing is added or taken away. If you stir up a complex made from all the biodynamic preparations and apply this to the biodynamic plot or plots how can you keep the effect from this tone-like resonance from affecting nearby plots? And where will you get your biodynamic ecology of algae, azola, tadpoles, birds and all sorts of other aquatic and flying species and still keep them away from the other plots including the controls? I’m not saying give up and forget it. And I’m not saying you can just ignore the spill-over effects from one block to the next. You’re going to have some spill over and you’re going to have some challenges in establishing a biodynamic ecology from the soil food web up. You’re going to have to consider that biodynamic farms generally show almost triple the conventional concentrations of fungi, bacteria and protozoa, to say nothing of ants, earthworms and other higher animals–and the same with ‘weeds’ or companion plants like legumes in the rice. No. You’re going to have to do the experiments and see how much of an ecology can be imparted to the biodynamic plots and how much this can be kept separate form the other experiment plots. And the final conclusions of the experiment will need to acknowledge the limitations and challenges of the experimental methods and show how these were dealt with. Go for it, but don’t expect it to be easy.

 

To help get a fuller picture of what biodynamic farming is about I’ve attached a copy of Steiner’s agriculture lectures, Georg Adams translation. It is the earlier translation (1938) and in some respects is more poetic than the Creeger/Gardener translation which dates to the 1990s. You can also go to Rudolf Steiner audio and download an audio version of the Agriculture Course that you can listen to while driving or whatever.  http://www.rudolfsteineraudio.com/agriculture/agriculture.html

The researcher doing the rice might delve into these resources as well. Biodynamics may have resisted conventional research by virtue of its complexity. It is a comprehensive system of agriculture and it works best as a comprehensive system. Anything less will fail to show biodynamics in the light it deserves. A lot of biodynamic concepts, such as the importance of silica, can be very useful in conventional agriculture as well. For example, the USDA did research that compared the use of potassium silicate (an industrial product) with various fungicides. Even though potassium silicate is not a fungicide (it doesn’t kill fungi on contact) it prevented fungal diseases in wheat, carrots, tomatoes, potatoes better than any of the fungicides tested. Somehow the USDA refrained from blanket publicity of this fact, I suppose out of consideration for the welfare of makers of commercial fungicides.

 

Best wishes,

Hugh Lovel

Youtube of Hugh teaching Biodynamic Association of Namibia

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gm5nKDUBElY&t=1661s

Hugh Lovel New Book  

Quantum Agriculture:   Biodynamics and Beyond  

http://quantumagriculture.com/quantum-agriculture-biodynamics-and-beyond

 

Hemp Cultivation: Secrets of the Soil

Ideally crops would be grown in mixed covers with as little soil disturbance as possible while feeding, balancing and enriching the soil’s ecology with mulches, humified compost, raw humates and soil drenches to harvest warmth, light, water, carbon dioxide and nitrogen from the atmosphere.

Weather Moderation: Drawing Rain Using Biodynamic Preparations

Biodynamic Preparations and Drought

Hugh Lovel

How certain notions arise and become entrenched is a bit of a mystery, especially when they are wrong. Yet they do get started and entrenched. One of these is the belief that when things dry up and little moisture is available we cannot put out biodynamic preparations—as if these were delicate microbial cultures that must have moist conditions to establish and thrive. This is so far from true it seems impossible that it ever got started. Yet it did.

Azolla as a nitrogen fixer and source

It isn’t too clear what this ​Azotic Technologies ​mob is on about, but it looks like a microbial product not a DNA insertion or GMO tech. One of the annoying features of most of these sorts of things is the marketers like to keep the details of what they are selling very clost to their chest. Let me tell you a story.

Twelve years ago I used to spend a couple afternoons a week with a microbiologist by the name of Kyle Merritt who worked for Nutri-Tech. We would go to the pub and have a coffee together and brainstorm about nitrogen fixing microbes. As we were both aware, the varieties and numbers of species of nitrogen fixers is quite enormous and by no means limited to the Rhizobia that form nodules on legume roots.​ There are also the Azotobacters, of which large numbers of different species have been cataloged in river deltas, and Azospirilla which have been found in most Brazilian soils and elsewhere–again with large species diversity. There is the blue green algae, Anabaefa azota​, famous for fixing nitrogen in the fronds of the aquatic weed Azolla, and several species of Azolla as well as large numbers of nitrogen fixing blue green algae that live in the ocean as well as phosphate rich ‘fresh’ water. Then there is the gram negative anaerobe, Acetobacter diazotrophicus​, that fixes nitrogen in the stems of sugar cane and coffee and other plants.​ And also certain species of Clostridia are anaerobic nitrogen fixers. The list goes on and on and may involve even the Archaea, the most primative microbes on earth which eat rocks. Archaea, which are extremely tiny, are thought to be predecessors of the mitrochondria which handle energy within the cells of Eukaryotes, which are all modern organisms with chromosomes. Since somewhere around 10% of the earth’s microbial life has been studied so far, I wouldn’t be too surprised about much of anything. But the point of this story is Kyle left Nutri-Tech and working with a new company developed his own nitrogen fixing microbial product called Twin-N. Twin-N has been tested by the USDA and other research facilities and is capable of infecting a wide range of crops from wheat to bananas and including rice and sugar cane. One of Kyle’s problems with this very effective product was sometimes it didn’t work. First, the plants had to have adequate supplies of lime complex elements from calcium to molybdenum as well as adequate phosphorous and silica uptake. And N fixation takes a lot of energy so the crop’s photosynthesis had to be efficient as well, which meant this didn’t work in a high nitrate environment. And it seems that the nitrogen fixing microbes did not just sacrifice themselves and donate their precious amino acids to the crop plants. Protozoa living within the plants as endophytes, had to consume the nitrogen fixers, digest them and excrete free amino acids. And in some cases as with ginger and tumeric nematodes and other tiny somewhat parasitic animals were responsible for digesting the nitrogen fixers. In the case of Acetobacter the microbe itself may have brought about its dissolution and release of amino acids due to excessive acid production, but that may not have been the main way the amino acids were made available to crops. There was a lot we didn’t know. Yet, in many cases Twin-N was a very effective means of obtaining N for crops as long as nitrogen fertiliser applications were kept low (and usually coupled with soluble humates). You can google Twin-N, which might not be licensed in the UK, I don’t know. Azotic Tech says they are coating seeds with Gluconacetobacter diazotrophicus​, where ​Twin-N used more than one different type of N-fixers.

I just thought you ought to be aware there may be various approaches to nitrogen fixation and from my experience with using biodynamics to create the right environment for nitrogen fixation you may not have to buy anything special to get it to supply all the N your crops require. These microbes are found in environments all over the earth. Radionic application of biodynamic preparations, soil mineral balancing and good management of diverse vegetative covers may be all you need and you need these things anyway to get the N-fixing products to work. This doesn’t mean to avoid the products. If they can be any help, go for it. Just don’t get too many stars in your eyes.
Hugh Lovel 13/06/2017 Wiangaree, NSW, Australia

Humus Flywheel Effect

There is a common belief that humus is the result of the breakdown of organic materials in the soil. While this is true it is less than true because the organic materials do need to break down into simple organic compounds—and from there they need to be built back up again into large, complex carbon molecules by soil organisms whose role is to store nutrients for rainy days. These organisms, primarily actinomycetes and mycorrhizae, work in tandem with plants, storing humic acids in an easy to access form. Humic acids are too large for most organisms, such as bacteria, to absorb. Yet they are accessible to the actinomycetes and mycorrhizae and thus are insoluble but available nutrients. And that’s how we want nutrients in the soil—insoluble so they are not easily lost when it rains, but available.

The NPK theory that all soil nutrients must be soluble all at once is rather like feeding a pig six months’ worth of slop in one meal—initially it is too much. Try though the pig will, he can’t handle it all. As time goes on the banquet sours and the pig is left lacking a balanced diet while flies, yeasts, moulds and various pests move in. This is modern agriculture, and it’s not a pretty picture—you wouldn’t feed your kids that way. Surely, plants are more resilient than pigs, but as living organisms they aren’t that different.

Basically we do not want most of our nutrients to be soluble. Rather, we want them to be insoluble but available. A plant can only consume a small amount of its needs every day. Having more soluble than the daily optimum in the near vicinity of uptake roots invites unwonted guests to the table, and this creates unnecessary problems for crops. Nature, left to her own devices, provides insoluble but microbially available nutrients in the humus flywheel. Crop-symbiotic micro-organisms mop up loose nutrients and store them in the humus reserve in large, carbon complexes. Acting like bees storing honey, they maintain this nutrient reserve. Photosynthesis and root exudation feed the microbes that stock this storehouse when conditions are good, and when conditions are poor these microbial plant partners—along with protozoa—draw energy and nourishment from the humus reserves to feed the crop.

The Humus Flywheel

This reveals humus as the soil’s flywheel to keep plant growth going by feeding the digestive activity around plant roots. Humus sustains this microbial activity by providing uptake of a steady stream of quality amino acids and mineral complexes—like mother’s milk—that makes it easy for crops to assemble their proteins and grow, photosynthesize, and make nectars that are shared with the soil as root exudates—like honey. These root exudates provide energy for soil microbes that unlock minerals, fix nitrogen and feed the soil’s digestive activity—which in turn provides a milky, mineral amino acid rich feed for growth. Observation of this millennia old interplay in nature is honoured in Mosaic Scripture and elsewhere as a land flowing in milk and honey. Humus is the flywheel whose momentum fosters and sustains the milk and honey flow through thick and thin—the better the storage of insoluble but available nutrients, then the more momentum the system has.

Soluble Problems

Soluble nutrients, such as the salts of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium, must be extremely dilute or they interfere with the sensitive micro-life of the humus flywheel. Like urine, these salts are the wastes of microbes that fix nitrogen, solubilize phosphorous and release potassium. In the soil these salts shut down the microbes that otherwise might make them available when they are awash in their own waste. If these salts are applied at rates sufficient for a couple months’ supply, they kill off soil microbes and release nutrients—which results in a flush of crop growth; but it also leads to leaching of key minerals such as sulphur, boron, silicon, calcium, copper, zinc and manganese. Chlorides tend to sterilize the soil, while phosphates and sulphates, though useful to soil microbes, can still cause harm in excess. Nitrates are especially notable for causing a flush of available nutrients and a lush response that looks good, but it’s like the long haul trucker using ‘speed’, keeping double log books and driving 5 day runs in 48 hours. The result is problematic, and there is a price.

Humic vs Fulvic

Both humic and fulvic acids are so complex and varied they are only distinguished by the size of their molecules. Fulvic acids are of low enough molecular weight they can pass through bacterial cell walls as bacterial food. Humic acid molecules are larger and can only be consumed by microbes that can ingest them, like protozoa, or by silica oriented microbes like fungi and actinomycetes (aka actinobacteria) that can take the carbon skeleton apart. Since fungi and actinomycetes often live in close partnership with plant roots, especially our food crop roots, they provide access to the humic complexes in the soil, stripping out the silicon and carbon frameworks of the clay/humus colloids, thereby releasing all the other nutrients held on these structures. However, like bees drinking nectar and concentrating it into honey, these microbes also can mop up root exudates and loose nutrients in the soil solution and combine them for storage in clay/humus complexes so bacteria and leaching do not let them go to waste.

Many bacteria and protozoa are consumers that thrive in a nutrient rich broth and break things down. When soluble nutrient levels are high in the soil, the bacteria that fix nitrogen, solubilize phosphorous and release potassium can’t function because they are awash in their own waste. This is why tilling in a green manure crop requires a waiting period of 3 or 4 weeks, over which rampant bacterial breakdown subsides, before humus formation resumes and the excesses are stored in insoluble but available complexes. Only then can crops be planted and a stable plant/microbe partnership established.

Justus von Liebig, the great 19th century chemist who introduced chemical agriculture, acknowledged toward the end of his life his mistake in assuming productive soils required the nutrients to be soluble. By then, however, the chemical industries had seen great prospects for sales. Liebig, in his retirement, was ignored, and today the error of thinking solubility is good still continues.

Consider that most crop seeds contain a food supply so they can give off nourishment for beneficial microbes—thereby attracting and multiplying their microbial partners as their roots emerge. On the other hand, most weeds have tiny seeds which rely on soluble nutrients rather than microbial partnerships. They soak up loose nutrients by design, sprouting and growing vigorously when cover crops or raw manures are tilled in. They do not rely on the humus flywheel or feed its microbes. If crops are planted immediately after mixing in fresh vegetation or manures they do not grow well. It doesn’t take much experience to see the difference between application of raw manures and the application of humified compost—the former feeds weeds and the latter feeds crops.

Likewise if we apply large doses of highly soluble fertilisers—anhydrous ammonia, superphosphate and muriate of potash—our crops then have to compete with weeds that love soluble salts like potassium nitrates. It is only when we apply humified compost that we feed the crop/microbe interactions that feed our crops with a mix of amino acids and minerals akin to milk.

Soil Testing

Most soil tests use mild acids that do not reveal what is stored in the humus flywheel. The concept behind these tests is that several months’ worth of nutrients, especially the nitrogen, must be present in soluble form. But in reality, feeding a plant is more like feeding your kids. Plants only need a little bit of soluble food on a steady basis, rather than having it all on the table at once. To reveal what could be available from the humus reserve on a daily basis requires a testing method more like what is used for tissue analysis—a total acid digest.

Many organic growers take it on faith that if they build organic matter they will have good crops and their problems will go away. However, this is rarely the case. The clay/humus complexes in the soil are like a storehouse, and unless this storehouse has everything it needs, growth is limited to whatever is in short supply.

Since sulphur is the bio-catalyst that acts as the key in the ignition, when it is deficient both soil and plant life suffer. When boron—which leaches unless held in clay/humus complexes—is deficient, nutrient uptake lags because boron’s interaction with silicon is what draws fluids through the plant’s capillary system. And silicon, which lines the capillaries themselves, must also be sufficient, along with boron, to transport calcium and other nutrients. And, if calcium—which is essential for nitrogen chemistry and cell division—is deficient, then growth suffers. Moreover, if too much soluble potassium gets in the way of calcium and magnesium uptake, photosynthesis suffers. And even if everything else is working, without sufficient phosphorous and its trace element co-factors, chlorophyll burns up because its energy can’t be transferred into making sugar. So all these things need to be stored in the right proportions, which means we need to get the mix of major and minor nutrients right in the humus flywheel.

Understanding the Mix

In some of the world’s premier soils, such as the Ukraine, Western Missouri or Australia’s Liverpool Plains, nature’s virgin conditions provided black, crumbly clays with cation exchange capacities of nearly 80, and the first couple plantings of wheat and other cereals produced crops beyond anyone’s previous experience without any fertilisers. However, with insufficient understanding and poor management these soils went straight downhill and their enormous momentum was lost. Nevertheless, measurements of the carbon to nitrogen ratios in unexploited remnants still in their virgin state are between 9 and 10 to 1, carbon to nitrogen. Interestingly, it takes roughly 10 units of sugary carbon to fix one unit of amino acid nitrogen, so this does not seem mere coincidence. Even making industrial ammonia takes ten units of methane to make one unit of ammonia.

Comparing hundreds of total acid digest tests to field responses also revealed that a six-to-one nitrogen to sulphur ratio is desirable. When these two ratios are achieved and major and minor nutrient targets are approached so that microbial partnerships interact efficiently with the humus flywheel, then the only limit to nitrogen fixation is the energy provided by root exudation.

Since grasses make more sugars and can get them to their roots a lot faster than legumes, they can feed several times more nitrogen fixation than legumes. However, because legumes unlock minerals better with their acidic root exudates, they can feed nitrogen fixation in nodules on their roots and kick off nitrogen fixation in an otherwise mineral deficient soil. Because legumes unlock far more minerals than they use in nitrogen fixation, and because they leave these minerals behind for plants that follow, they have a reputation for getting nitrogen fixation going under tough conditions. Besides, it is easy to measure their nodules and estimate how much nitrogen was fixed, though it may be a mistake to credit their follow-on effects solely to the nitrogen fixed in their nodules. After legumes have made sufficient minerals available, grasses can easily supply the energy needed for further fixation.

Soil test information is useful in blending the right amounts of major and minor nutrients into composts or fossil humate fertilisers to ensure that both grasses and legumes have what they need. Composts and raw humates can be combined in humus based fertiliser programs, and as such they are food for life and are appropriate for growing quality crops.

Manure composts are richer in minerals and nitrogen than fossil humates, but either or both are an excellent way to add deficient nutrients in a humate complexed form. Even at only a quarter ton per acre composts and mined humates fortified with deficient nutrients can deliver significant adjustments, although imbalances and deficiencies usually require many small corrections. Fossil humates, which are more notable for nitrogen and sulphur deficiencies, generally need ammonium sulphate added along with whatever else is needed as rock phosphate, gypsum, borax, copper, zinc, manganese and sea minerals.

The total test ratios of carbon to nitrogen and sulphur can be used for nitrogen and sulphur targets while calcium, magnesium and potassium targets are derived from their percentage of base saturation. Other targets vary depending on the test used, and achieving these targets is likely to require many partial adjustments. Exact formulas for restoring optimum balance in soils is the job of a professional consultant, but in general never add more than 10 kg/ha borax, 15 kg/ha copper sulphate, 25 kg/ha zinc or manganese sulphate or 1 kg/ha sodium molybdate, cobalt sulphate of sodium selenate.[1] In sum, blending these mineral supplements in with humified compost and/or raw humates before spreading turns an expense into a capital investment.

Some References:

http://www.stadiumturf.com/acidity_and_salt_index.htm

http://www.soils.wisc.edu/extension/wcmc/2008/ppt/Laboski1.pdf

http://www.uctm.edu/journal/j2008-2/8_Kamburova_227.pdf

http://www.fertitech.com/

http://extension.oregonstate.edu/catalog/html/sr/sr1061-e/2tables.pdf

 

Growing Ginger: Building the Soil Foodweb

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Growing Ginger

Building the Soil Foodweb

Hugh Lovel

 

Ginger roots normally contain endophytes, which are microbes living in between the plant’s cells. This means there is no problem finding the right microbial cultures that are symbiotic with ginger. The piece of ginger root you plant brings in many desirable species with it. This is also true for garlic, potatoes and tumeric and even seeds like peanuts, pumpkins and maize. These endophytes are often yeasts and lactobacilli, but they may also include actinomycetes and nitrogen fixing species. Ginger is particularly good for hosting these last two. Virtually all of these endophytic microbes depend on the photosynthesis of the plant itself to provide their energy in the form of their carbon rich plant sap.

This means that the surplus sugars produced by the plant and exuded around its roots are the food these beneficial microbes, and ginger, which originated as a rainforest undergrowth plant, is very efficient at photosynthesis. In order to make the most of this feature of ginger, I have found it best to space my ginger root cuttings 15 to 20 centimetres (6 to 8 inches) apart in the row with three rows running parallel down a metre wide (40 inch wide), heavily mulched bed. I lay off shallow drills, press my root cuttings in, lightly cover with soil and lay on a thick layer of mulch—too easy. At that spacing I get enough root exudate overlap that the soil biology rivals the population density of an outdoors music festival and there is dense branching along the feeder roots. This close spacing also develops a canopy that—along with the mulch—excludes weeds and provides habitat for many digestive species living under the mulch.

The Way It Works

The whole arrangement is powered by the fact plants photosynthesize and share a portion of their energy as complex carbohydrates seasoned by proteins, hormones and enzymes given off along the roots. This provides plenty of energy for the mycorrhizae and actinomycetes that solubilize silicon and release calcium, and for the bacteria that solubilize phosphorous and fix nitrogen.

Of course, these fungi and bacteria do not sacrifice themselves and release their nutrients directly to the plant. Protozoa and other tiny soil animals eat and digest the silicon and nitrogen rich micro-organisms, releasing their nutrients as amino acids and mineral complexes. Mulching encourages this by providing habitat for the animals that feed around the roots where water and nutrient uptake occur. Because this is an on-going process around active roots,  such plants luxuriate in sucking up their nutrients as freshly digested amino acids and mineral complexes before they decay into such things as nitrates and salts.

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Happily, when plants take up nitrogen as amino acids instead of nitrates their assembly of complex proteins is direct and efficient, and is not watered down by having to process nitrates. Then photosynthesis is more efficient, which makes root exudation richer, which makes microbial activity more robust, which makes silica uptake, calcium release, nitrogen fixation and phosphorous solubilisation more abundant, which ramps up the digestive activity around the roots and feeds the plant a richer and richer stream of nutrition in a round robin the limit of which is unexplored. It is doubtful that any form of chemical fertilization can result in higher production, let alone attain the quality of this natural system. Between the plant giving sugars to soil microbes, and the soil food web feeding back complex minerals and amino acids, the plant is giving honey to the soil and the soil giving back milk to the plant.

I particularly like ginger because it gives a high proportion of the carbon it catches to the soil. It doesn’t waste its time growing massive tops, and it enjoys crowding—which results in an unusually high degree of root exudate overlap.

In the pictures that follow I mulched with my lawnmower clippings, which I used as thin applications, along with sugar cane mulch, round bales of grass hay or shredded tree bark. Since it was dry at planting, I irrigated along with occasional doses of liquid humic acid in a watering solution as a mycorrhizal booster. And I applied all the biodynamic preparations including horn manure, horn silica horn clay and cow pat pit (aka barrel compost). Not only did I stir and spray these; I also applied them 24/7/365 using a field broadcaster. After all, I was working with a nearly dead soil that had a long ways to go.

What Ginger Can Do

This first picture shows some of my original planting material from a biodynamic farm (Aracaria Farm) in Mullumbimby, NSW. It had unusually rich, fuzzy, actinomycetes growing out of its roots and extending through the soil. These microbes are particularly good at eating into the clay (aluminium silicate) in the soil to release silica, which is what makes their hairs such good transport vessels. They also have the virtue of unlocking calcium and other nutrients held on the colloidal clay/humus complexes in the soil, releasing a storehouse of minerals while growing a hairy forest teeming with bacteria and protozoa.

To my way of thinking, planting ginger seems like the simplest and best way of culturing the very microbes I want to see thriving abundantly in my soil—and I simply let the most vigorous strains for that soil and locality predominate.

Recipes and Pictures

Most of the pictures that follow show my crop at harvest—grown under mulch with occasional irrigation, biodynamic preparations and a few applications of humates along with a bit of kelp and fish on a soil that simply wasn’t cooking prior to this planting. See how dense the clusters of ginger corms are. The short distance between nodes indicates a rich silica content, which relates to both herbal potency and good keeping qualities. This is ginger of rare nip that makes quite a potent tea when boiled, or good, hot curries and stir fries.

I invested in a small deli slicer and pickled quite a bit as sushi ginger using a rice vinegar/apple cider vinegar, honey, salt, pickling spice and red shiso leaf recipe. At the rate I’ve tucked into it I wish I had put up three times as much—spicy, ginger hot and delicious. The rest of the crop has kept for four months in my garage without refrigeration. At the time of writing I am replanting in a new bed.

While the ginger was excellent, the big deal is what it did for the soil. I like to farm to improve my soils rather than depleting it, and ginger surely can do this.

I followed the ginger harvest with maize, which isn’t suited for winter. Yet the maize got off to a bang of a start, survived light frosts and is making a modest crop–which can only happen when corn roots are colonized by the best biology from root emergence onward.

All garden work in this series of pictures was done with hand tools on odd weekends. The ginger harvest and subsequent cultivation of the bed was done with a pitchfork rather than a shovel—that’s how workable this soil became.

 

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The ginger, dug and laid out View from the other end

 

 

 

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A couple close ups showing the ginger clump density, a result of superb silica uptake

 

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The soil afterward  Ginger roots with dense branching

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A couple close ups showing the ginger clump density, a result of superb silica uptake

 

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The great secret of legumes is they carry oxygen to their root tips

Dear Greg,

 

Thanks. That was an interesting article. The scientific world, though fascinated with microscopy, is slowing catching up. It could get better at connecting the dots, but it keeps identifying lots of dots anyway. Many things are clear from the overview that seem like momentous discoveries down in the tsunami of complexity.

 

The idea that we might get plants other than legumes to form nitrogen fixing nodules is bogus, though.

 

The great secret of legumes is they carry oxygen to their root tips, releasing oxalic acid that solublizes the lime complex. Calcium may be primary, but all the other cations, at least to molybdenum are activated as well. In 1971 I studied soil microbiology and found out about azotrophs. Later when I was farming I used the Tulane and Georgia Tech libraries to find out more. At the time over 800 species of Azotobacter were identified in the Nile Delta and over 600 in the Mississippi Delta. Azotobacters are responsible for nitrogen fixation around plant roots without nodulation. They require the alkaline complex in the soil to already be readily available while they specialize in energy utilization. They especially like high-carb root exudation, so they are found in and around C4 plants like maize or sugar cane where photosynthesis is tops. They don’t need nodules if the lime complex is in flux. Nodules are their prison. Many are also phosphorous solubilizers, which ensures they can metabolize carbs excreted at growing root tips. It takes most azotrophs 10 sugars for every amino acid  they produce, and this mob wastes not. Why would they limit themselves to nodules when their freedom allows them to do much more. Legumes are so famous for nitrogen fixation simply because they lift the availability of the lime complex so much. They leave activated lime behind for the next crop, so you see a good follow-on nitrogen response. But ideally we would just plant suitable legumes along with crops like sugar, maize and sorghum. Without wasting time rotating crops we would keep the lime complex in flux at the same time as growing a corn or sugar crop. Having done this I found that after a while the soybeans in my maize stopped nodulating because the azotrophs at large in the soil did a better job.

So much for getting cane and corn to nodulate when it’s less efficient.

Under the microscope, nature is fascinating. Its complexity is boggling. Wherever there’s a function there’s a piece of the puzzle. Yet, the overview is more enlightening if you want to know what is going on.

 

Best wishes,

Hugh Lovel

Boron’s Role in Sap Uptake

I realize Marschner doesn’t make the role of boron very clear. I refer to Marschner’s second edition on silicon, pages 417 – 426. Marschner classifies silicon as ‘beneficial’ rather than essential. Boron he considers essential, pages 379 – 396. Although he acknowledges their close similarity, he doesn’t make the connection I do. And Marschner is, I reckon, the best of the lot as far as academia is concerned. For instance he does make a connection between manganese and silicon, which I reckon is a very important connection, (p. 423).

Unfortunately an over-reliance on such tools as gas chromatographic/mass spectroscopy tends to miss some of the broader connections in nature. We get a snapshot at a point in time and it fails to reveal the processes that are going on.

For example, I work directly with farmers who farm on a commercial scale. I was lecturing in Atherton, QLD Australia and remarked the appropriate way to apply boron was with humic acid because humic acid was food for the microbial species that took up boron and silicon. I mentioned applying a rate of 25 kg/ha boron stabilised humate granules. These are 3% B. A mango farmer in the audience made a note, 25 kg/ha boron. I got an emergency call while in the states from a colleague in Queensland saying the farmer–who we both knew–had applied 25 kg/ha solubor (disodium octaborate tetrahydrate which is nearly 21% B) and the bark is splitting on his trees and his fruit is starting to split open. What can he do? I knew the farmer had a tipper truck and bobcat, so I recommended he go to a diatomaceous earth deposit in the not too distant vicinity (90 km) and load up his truck with DE and crush and spread it like he was frosting a cake (about 1 cm thick) and water it in. He did this and the fissures in his bark and fruit closed up. He saved his trees and his crop.

My reasoning was that boron embeds itself in the capillary linings of the cellular transport system in the xylem, and if the ratio of boron to silicon was too high and the sap flow too great, the remedy would be more silicon to correct the ratio. The next year this farmer came in to our depot in the industrial park near Atherton and gave us all a case of mangos because he was picking the best crop he’d ever grown.

This sort of macro rather than micro evidence is often dismissed as anecdotal–as if what we see in the big picture can only be accepted if we can demonstrate at the micro-level what is going on and it gets published in the peer reviewed literature. I don’t accept those limitations. I can do a paper disc chromatogram and see the charged particles (dominated by the cations Ca, Mg, K and Na) adhere to the central region of the disc and the silicon particles flow to the periphery since they are the most non-polar, or have the least charge. Urea, if present, actually will out-strip the silicon as being the most non-polar and mobile–but it is a minor component in relation to silicon complexes.

That’s proof enough for me at the chemical level that silicon is the non-polar contrast to the polar lime, but you could take it further and analyse cell walls and connective tissues and compare them with cell nuclei and see the contrast there too. I don’t want to go too far toward isolating details because I think it is an unnecessary detour unless we first look at the evidence of our senses and see what the bigger picture tells us about the on-going processes in nature. Isolated details are fine, but they don’t do much for understanding the processes in the wider realm of nature. Once we understand the processes the details make more sense. We need to understand the silicon process is one of containment and transport and the boron process stirs up the silicon process, makes it ‘thirsty’ and this drives nutrient uptake and sap flow. Then I think we are getting somewhere. To understand that too much sap pressure will cause the bark to split and fruit to fissure, then it becomes clear that when you have too much sap pressure (boron) for your transport system (silicon) you need to strengthen your transport system (more silicon). That got the farmer out of some very serious trouble because he could have lost his whole orchard. As it was, his mistake ended up improving his production. I take that as evidence I had correctly observed the boron process and its interaction with the silicon process. I don’t think that’s going to get me past peer review into publication in a scientific journal, but it is all the evidence I need.

 

Establishing A Self-Sufficient System

                                

 

 

Establishing a Self-Sufficient System

Developing Basic Soil Fertility

by Hugh Lovel 

                        
404
                 

 

Because soil fertility involves biological processes as well as mineral substances, it is extremely complex and always changing. Biodynamic agriculture acknowledges that most soils today need their health and vitality rebuilt. In times past nature built healthy, vital soils, and there is value in copying nature in rebuilding soil health. However, we cannot afford to take millions of years to do so as nature did—we need intelligent intervention. Cultivation, grazing, composting, soil conservation, green manuring, soil testing, soil remineralisation, fertiliser priorities, fossil humates and visual soil assessment all play a role in establishing self-regenerative, self-sufficient fertile soils.

The biological activities at the basis of self-regenerative soil fertility occur at the surfaces of soil particles where minerals come in contact with water, air and warmth. It is at these surfaces that biological activities provide nitrogen fixation and silicon release, engaging the two substances—nitrogen and silicon—whose abundance will last as long as farming exists.

 

Soil Building

Nature, with minimal human intervention, developed biologically diverse, richly fertile soils and eco-systems with little by way of inputs other than the accumulation of dust, periodic rainfall, fresh air and sunlight. Rainforests are examples fertile ecosystems with rich diversity of microbial, plant and animal species.

While rainforests can be quite fertile, the world’s deepest, richest topsoils evolved as grazing lands—prairies, steppes, plains, savannahs, veldt and meadows that grew grasses, legumes and herbaceous plants and supported herds of herbivores along with the predators they attracted.

 In both forests and grasslands the vegetation draws in carbon. Forests store most of their carbon above the surface of the soil where it cools the earth and helps precipitate rain. Grasslands store more of their carbon in the soil as humus complexes. With forest fires most of the carbon returns to the atmosphere; but with grassland fires most of the carbon remains.

Nature’s way of building soil fertility involves awesome diversity and intense cooperation. Insofar as possible, every ecological niche is filled, every job is done by something, every need is satisfied and everything is gathered, recycled and conserved. No area is left bare and no opportunity lost. And, nature is patient. If something is missing or deficient it may take eons upon eons for it to accumulate from dust and rainfall or cosmic ray bombardment. Nature can use our help.

Cultivation 

In nature, soil animals cultivate the soil—from the smallest protozoa, arthropods, nematodes, mites and collembolans to beetle grubs, earthworms, ants and even larger burrowing animals. Plants and their fungal symbiotes spread rocks and soil particles apart by growing into pores, cracks and crevasses. They secrete substances that etch the surfaces of rocks and soil particles and feed micro-organisms that free up minerals. Inevitably at some point animals will consume the plant roots and open up passages where air and water are absorbed by the soil. Some, like earthworms, grind soil particles up in their digestion. They also recycle plant matter as manures, building soil fertility and feeding further growth. This softens the soil and builds crumb structure, tilth and retention of moisture and nutrients while allowing water, air and root penetration. Conversely, continuous grazing, to say nothing of human and machinery impact, compresses the soil and reverses these gains.

Mechanical cultivation softens the soil and prepares a clean seedbed for planting. For the most part cultivation destroys soil life and is highly digestive and oxidative. In an age of machinery and power equipment with excessive cultivation and monocropping as the norm this provides more and faster nutrient release as it collapses the soil biology. More importantly, it depletes nutrient reserves. This leads to higher and higher fertiliser inputs while bio-diversity and soil fertility declines.

Even back in the 1920s Steiner saw the trends and introduced horn manure [500], horn silica [501], horn clay and biodynamic compost made with the herbal preparations [502-507] as remedies. But we also need to reverse the trends outlined above. Too much cultivation burns up organic matter, impoverishes soil life, breaks down soil structure and releases nutrients that then may be lost. Wind and water erosion may also occur, and the result all too often is loss of soil fertility. The biodynamic preparations are no universal remedy for all mistakes. We must farm sensitively and intelligently as well.

Various strategies are used for minimizing cultivation damage while still enjoying cultivation’s benefits. Some crops, such as potatoes, require cultivation. But with a mixed operation, crop rotations can take this into account and soil building can still proceed. Strip cropping, composting and rotations in pasture and hay can help restore diversity so soil biology recovers. Controlled traffic, where machinery strictly follows pre-determined lanes, reduces compaction. No-till and minimum till planting methods help, especially when used with biological fertilisers and biodynamic preparations to feed the soil foodweb and take the place of harsh chemicals. Inter-cropping, multi-cropping and succession cropping increase diversity and reduce machinery impact. Instead of herbicides, managing mixed vegetative cover on roads, access strips, headlands, fence rows, laneways, waterways and ditches provides biological reservoirs that interact with cultivated areas.                                                                                           

Grazing

High density cell grazing is particularly effective, where large numbers of livestock graze and trample small blocks for a few hours and then are moved on, not to return till plants have regrown. Based on what a pasture needs rather than on a calendar, this could be two weeks, two months or more than a year. With high density cell grazing the impact is minimal, and what is not grazed is trampled so the more sought after plants that get grazed hard have an even chance at regrowth.  

Soil animals recycle what was trampled, feeding it back to the regrowth. Some avenues to investigate in this regard are Holistic Resource Management www.savoryinstitute.com and Resource Consulting Services www.rcs.au.com   (yes the url is .au.com this is not an error!).

Composting 

This is more than a simple digestion and decay process. Nature breaks down every sort of organic material into simple carbohydrates and amino acids, but in many cases these would oxidize and leach if there weren’t ways of storing and conserving them in easy to use forms.

Bees gather nectar, digest it, concentrated it and store it in their honeycomb. Similarly there are micro-organisms in the soil that gather up loose nutrients, store them in large, carbon molecules called humic acids and complex them with clay particles in the soil. As with bees, the organisms that gather and complex these nutrients have access to them when needed, and these micro-organisms are mainly the actinomycetes and mycorrhizal fungi that form close relationships with plants to the benefit of both. To favour these microbes and their activities, manures and organic wastes can be composted by building stacks, piles or windrows with a favourable mix of carbon and nitrogen rich materials, soil, moisture and air. A ratio of 30 to 1 carbon to nitrogen materials along with 10% soil and at least 50% water is a good starting mix.

Into the newly built pile, insert a small spoonful of each of the herbal ‘composting’ preparations [502–507] described in Steiner’s agriculture course. In the case of the valerian flower juice tincture the liquid is diluted in water, stirred intensively and sprinkled over the pile. Sprinkling the horsetail herb [508] over the pile before covering can also help.

These preparations impart a balanced range of activities that assist and improve the breakdown and humification process. A covering of some sort will be very helpful in providing an outer skin or membrane that holds in the life and vitality of the compost heap as it matures into humified, fresh smelling, ready to spread fertiliser. Once it is stable with most of its nutrients bound up in humic complexes its microbial activity should be rich with nitrogen fixing, phosphorous solubilizing and humus-forming species. 

Using the composting preparations is equally important in large scale composting operations, whether piles are frequently turned or left static. However, what about the economies of scale? On the one hand Steiner indicated each preparation need only be inserted in a single place—even in a pile as large as a house—and its effects would radiate throughout the pile. On the other hand, since Steiner’s death special composts known as manure concentrate, cow pat pit [CPP], barrel compost [BC] contain all the herbal preparations in one easy-to-use formula that can be stirred intensively for 20 minutes and sprayed throughout the pile as it is assembled or added to the water used to moisten the compost. This can bring the benefits of the preparations into a large scale operation economically.

Some composters prefer to use the horn preparations with the herbal preparations, and a Biodynamic Agriculture Australia formula called Soil Activator combines all the preparations in one compound that is stirred and applied like Cow Pat Pit. According to John Priestley, one of Australia’s most experienced and innovative biodynamic farmers, “The only way the biodynamic preparations don’t work is if you don’t use them.”

Volatilization and Leaching

A criticism identified by organic farm research is volatilization and leaching from raw animal or plant wastes. These losses can be pollutants in the atmosphere, in waterways or in the water table. Biodynamic management of plant and animal wastes prior to application on soils involves composting of solid wastes and fermentation of liquids, such as effluents, with the herbal preparations. All materials need to be broken down into stable humus or stable liquid brews before use. Proper application of the full range of biodynamic preparations ties up loose nutrients and minimizes run-off or leaching. Rank, manurey smells are a sure sign of nitrogen loss and are also an invitation for weeds, pests and diseases. This is neither a plus for soil fertility nor a plus for the environment. Wherever animal wastes collect or nitrogenous materials break down, soil or rock powders can be scattered and Cow Pat Pit or Soil Activator can be sprayed to minimize losses and keep smells in check.

Cover Crops and Green Manures 

In general these are quick growing annual plantings of grasses, legumes and herbaceous species intended to rebuild soil biology, restore nitrogen fixation and provide material for grazing, composting, mulching or ploughing back into the soil. In some cases seed is harvested off of these mixes before they are grazed, composted, used for mulch or ploughed down. Applications of Barrel Compost, Cow Pat Pit or Soil Activator can assist in rapid breakdown, re-incorporation and humification of these green manures.

Ideally cover crop mixtures should include at least fifteen or twenty species of annual grasses, legumes and herbs. These can restore diversity, rebuild soil biota, conserve loose nutrients, help with pest, weed and disease control, increase soil carbon, conserve moisture, reduce run-off and prevent erosion—while protecting what might otherwise be bare soil.

Broadacre cover crops may be under-sown with succession species to take over after harvest. Or cover crops may be planted as catch crops at the end of growing seasons. They may also follow short season crops depending on region and climate, and they may be handy ways to feed rock powders and composts to the soil biology. Vegetation is almost always a plus, while bare soil ensures the opportunity is lost.

For example, a winter crop of oats, lupines, rape, clovers and corn salad could be taken to the point the grain and other seeds are harvested and separated. Alternatively mixes of winter cereals, legumes and broadleaf plants might include wheat, barley, rye, triticale, vetches, clovers, medics, turnips, mustards, rape and radishes. If the area in question is to be used as pasture, perennial grasses, legumes and other species such as dandelions, plantains, chicories and yarrow may be sown along with the annuals as succession species. For summer covers a mix may include different kinds of sorghums, millets, cowpeas, lab lab, maize, soybeans and buckwheat, harvested either green or at seed to be milled for animal feed. Experiments along these lines were pioneered by Colin Seis of Winona Farms. Visit his website at www.pasturecropping.com. Direct seeding [minimum or no-till] of a diversified mixture of compatible annual species into existing vegetation, such as pastures and hayfields, shows considerable promise for soil improvement and increased forage yields and at the same time reduces risks where droughts can be followed by floods which would devastate cultivated soils.

Soil Testing

Before bringing in manures or mineral inputs it is important to have reliable information about what is already there. Soil testing can be helpful, but it also can be misleading. Since the birth of chemical agriculture most soils have been tested for soluble nutrients using dilute solutions of mild acids in an attempt to mimic the weak acids plants give off at plant roots. This ignores the wider range of soil biology and assumes plants only access those elements in the soluble form as shown by the testing method.

In his retirement Justus von Liebig, the father of chemical agriculture realized he was wrong in thinking plants depended on solubility, and this was his mea culpa:

“At one time, the view permeated my every fibre that plants obtained their nourishment in soluble form. This view was false and was the source of my error, but the human mind is a curious thing and it sees nothing beyond its field of vision. In truth, agriculture is both contemplative and spiritual. Unfortunately almost no one realizes the true beauty of agriculture—its inner spirituality and beingness. It warrants the best efforts of science—not only because of its produce and the benefits it bestows on those who understand the language of nature—but because it stands above all other vocations. As my final wish, I pass on the mission to cleanse my teachings of the accumulated deceptions others have used to obscure them, lo these many years”

Total Testing

Rudolf Steiner took up the challenge of correcting Liebig’s errors by teaching his agriculture course. Time passed and Ehrenfried Pfeiffer, who worked closely with Rudolf Steiner in his agricultural researches, immigrated to the United States after World War II and set up testing laboratories in Spring Valley, New York. He conducted extensive total testing of soils and found that most soils contained large quantities of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium that didn’t show up on soluble tests. These were the very elements being applied in large quantities to agricultural crops, though soils continued to decline in fertility.

In many cases soil biology, given encouragement and sufficient trace elements, would provide access to the insoluble but available nutrients stored in the humic fraction of the soil. However, fertiliser industries using soluble testing as a sales tool and selling farmers minerals they already had in abundance, were unstoppable. They perpetuated Liebig’s errors, and financed on-going research into solubility based agriculture, building a momentum that relegated Liebig’s final wish to obscurity.

Today in Australia Environmental Analysis Laboratories at Southern Cross University in Lismore, New South Wales offers both the soluble Albrecht test and a hot aqua regia total digest test similar to the one Pfeiffer used. EAL accepts samples from anywhere in Australia or the world. It is recommended to contact EAL and ask for both the Albrecht and total tests. See: www. http://scu.edu.au/eal/

The Albrecht test measures the ratios of calcium, magnesium, potassium and sodium, which are the major cations or metallic elements in the exchangeable portion of the soil. The ratio of calcium to magnesium is particularly important for soil mechanics. Heavy soils may need as high as a 7 to 1 ratio of calcium to magnesium to crumble and expose particle surfaces. By the same token, light soils may need more like a 2 or 3 to 1 ratio to hold them together. Other soluble analysis targets of importance for robust, vigorous growth include 50 ppm sulphur, 2 ppm boron, 100 ppm silicon, 70 ppm phosphorous, 80 ppm manganese, 7 to 10 ppm zinc, 5 to 7 ppm copper, 1 ppm molybdenum, 2 ppm cobalt and 0.8 ppm selenium.

In total tests the targets for nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium depend on the carbon content of the soil, since most soil reserves are stored in humus or accessed by humus based organisms. Most importantly, total testing finds out what is in the soil reserves despite what may seem like deficiencies in soluble tests. As Pfeifer discovered, it is common to find huge reserves of phosphorous, potassium and other elements that are deficient in soluble tests—which indicates something else is going on.

The Biochemical Sequence

There is a hierarchy or biochemical sequence of what must function first before the next thing and the next thing works. The elements early in this sequence must be remedied before later elements have much effect. Nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium occur late in this sequence, while sulphur, boron, silicon and calcium start things off.

Sulphur

Since everything going on in the biology of the soil occurs at the surfaces of soil particles where minerals combine with water, air and warmth, sulphur is the essential key-in-the-ignition for activating the soil biochemistry. In his third Agriculture Course lecture Steiner speaks of how ‘the spirit-activity of the universe works as a sculptor, moistening its fingers with sulphur . . .’ [1]

Sulphur works at the surfaces, boundaries and edges of things to bring life and organization into being. It is the classic catalyst of carbon based chemistry. Regardless of the other soluble elements in the soil test, there should be 50 ppm sulphur [Morgan test] for biological soil fertility to function properly, and a 60 to 1 carbon to sulphur ratio in the total test.

Silicon

Silicon forms the basis for the capillary action that transports nutrients from the soil up. Fortunately for agriculture, the activity of silicon is to defy gravity, but this silica activity relies on boron, a component of clay, to do so. In lecture two Steiner asserts, “First we need to know what is really going on. However else clay may be described, however else we must treat it so that it becomes fertile—all this is of secondary importance; the primary thing we need to know is that clay promotes the upward stream of the cosmic factor.”[2] Thus boron is the accelerator while silicon is the highway. If either boron or silicon are deficient the soil biology will function below its potential. Ironically, the most effective way to make sure boron and silicon are deficient is 1.) clean cultivation, and 2.) heavy use of soluble nitrogen fertilisers. Hello, this is modern agriculture.

Calcium

Calcium, which comes next in the biochemical sequence, is the truck that travels on the highway. It collects and carries with it the nutrients that follow in the biochemical sequence. As the opposite polarity from the aloof silicon, calcium is hungry, even greedy. Calcium engages nitrogen to make amino acids, the basis of DNA, RNA and proteins. These in turn are responsible for the complex enzyme and hormone chemistry of life which utilize magnesium, iron and various trace elements as well as depending on chlorophyll and photosynthesis for energy.

Photosynthesis is where magnesium, phosphorous, potassium and a wide range of micronutrients follow nitrogen in the biochemical sequence. Unfortunately, NPK fertilisers stimulate this latter portion of the sequence without addressing the priorities of sulphur, boron, silicon and calcium. This explains why these fertilisers stimulate growth, but are like methamphetamine. The NPK approach usually grows crops that are highly susceptible to pests and diseases.  

 


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Supplementation with Minerals and Rock Powders

Even though bio-dynamics is primarily about organization and biological activities, soil mineralization must be considered. It is pretty hard to organise some-thing if it isn’t there. Many soils need gyp-sum or elemental sul-phur. Many soils also need boron, especially after nitrogen fertilis-ation, but also follow-ing overgrazing or clean cultivation. Silicon may also be needed to get the soil biology up and running so it can release more silicon from the surfaces of soil particles. It too is depleted by overgrazing, clean cultivation or nitrogen fertilisation. Many ‘organic’ farms using raw manure—especially chicken manure—as a nitrogen source deplete their sulphur, boron and silicon.

In addition to silicon rock powders, lime will provide calcium, dolomite also provides magnesium and rock phosphorous provides silicon, calcium and phosphorus. There are also natural potassium sulphates and many rock powders provide trace elements. For high pH soils with large excesses of sodium and potassium the remedy may be humates and zeolite to buffer pH and build additional storage capacity.

Most importantly, the biochemical sequence shows us we need to start with a full correction for sulphur to expose the surfaces of soil particles to biological activity before the biochemistry can kick in. Other methods may not recognize sulphur’s key importance, but in biodynamics this should be clear. Liebig’s ‘law of the minimum’ rightly says plants only perform as well as their most deficient nutrient.

Calculating Inputs

A soil test can show how many parts per million [ppm] of each element are present and whether it meets target levels. The question is, how can we calculate the right adjustment and add no more and no less? Fortunately there is a rule of thumb.

250 kg/ha [250 lbs/ac] of any input supplies that input’s per cent analysis as parts per million.[3] (Since a hectare is 2.5 acres and a kilo is 2.2 pounds we can approximate this rule fairly closely using 250 lbs/acre in the place of kilos and hectares.) For example, if the soluble test for sulphur [Morgan test] shows 5 ppm when the target is 50 ppm, then 45 ppm sulphur is needed. If gypsum is 15% sulphur then 750 kg/ha [750 lbs/ac] gypsum will deliver 45 ppm sulphur. If gypsum is 20% S then only 565 kg/ha [565 lbs/ac] will be required. If the gypsum is 12% S then nearly a metric ton per hectare [or 1000 lbs/acre] is needed. Use a calculator if needed.

Since gypsum is calcium sulphate, it provides both calcium and sulphur, which usually is desirable. However, in the event the soil is already rich in calcium and has a pH of 6.3 or higher, elemental sulphur may be a better choice. In contact with moist soil, sulphur will oxidize to sulphate and lower the pH slightly; but it will open up the surfaces in the soil, stimulate soil biology and release some mineral reserves. For practical purposes elemental sulphur may be combined with 10% bentonite for ease of handling.  90% elemental sulphur would require 125 kg/ha [125 lbs/ac] to deliver 45 ppm S.

As a different example, sodium molybdate is 42% molybdenum. To add 0.5 ppm Mo to the soil requires 42 divided by 0.5 which equals 84. If we divide 250 kg by 84 we get 2.976 kg sodium molybdate. However, to add this much in one go would be expensive and unwise. With most inputs, especially the traces, the soil has trouble adjusting to a full correction of anything other than sulphur. In the case of sodium molybdate 0.5 kg/ha [0.5 lbs/ac] is the usual correction and 1 kg/ha [1 lb/ac] is considered the limit. The maximum manganese or zinc sulphate per application per hectare is 25 kg/ha [25 lbs/ac], and copper sulphate rarely is applied at any rate higher than 15 kg/ha [15 lbs/ac]. Nevertheless do the math to see where things stand, keeping in mind soil biology has access to the total test.

Boron, Humates and Trace Minerals

When adding trace elements, especially boron, food for the fungal activity of the soil foodweb is essential. Fungi hold on to inputs that otherwise would leach. If available, well-humified compost produced within the farm is highly desirable. If this is not available then other humic inputs must be considered. Humic acids are extracted commercially from carbon rich deposits such as leonardite, soft brown coal and peat. While raw leonardite or brown coal may be processed and sold as raw humates, the extracts, sold as soluble humates, are a handy food concentrate for actinomycetes and mycorrhizal fungi, which are amongst the most important micro-organisms for nutrient retention and delivery in the soil. Soluble humates and raw humates are excellent for buffering boron and trace elements such as copper, zinc, manganese or sea minerals[4]. They also are helpful when adding bulk minerals such as gypsum, silica rock powders, lime, rock phosphate or potassium sulphate. Trace elements may be combined with 250 kg/ha [250 lbs/ac] of raw humates or 25 kg/ha [25 lbs/ac] soluble humate extracts in dry blends, or they may be dissolved in liquid soil drenches with soluble humates and water. Feeding them in this fashion to the soil biology delivers them to the soil’s fungi which holds on to them and delivers them to plants.

Crusher Dusts

Siliceous rock powders such as granite or basalt crusher dusts only provide silicon from the surfaces of their particles, but they can be helpful in repairing silicon deficiencies while the soil biology gets going to release the soil’s silicon reserves. Siliceous rock powders can be fed to the soil biology along with humates as a food source and the actinomycetes and mycorrhizae will gradually weather the particle surfaces and release silicon. Crusher dusts are especially effective when fed to pigs and their manure is composted. They also can be added to composts or spread along with composts. Generally 2 or 3 tons per hectare will get a helpful response, and usually these rock powders also release boron, which is especially essential for legumes.

Lime, Rock Phosphate, Potassium Sulphate, etc.

Each of these has its own story, and, as Pfeiffer discovered, the soil total test is a better indication of whether these are needed than the soluble test. If deficient, any of these can be built into soils by inputs, with the exception that it is not a good idea to add bulk lime to composts. Lime should not be added to compost at more than 0.1% of the total mass, as it tends to drive off nitrogen as ammonia. It can be spread along with composts, but when added to composts at more than a kilo per ton it tends to waste valuable nitrogen.

Visual Soil and Crop Assessment

In order to evaluate how well the soil biology is going and what can be expected of it, visual soil assessment is helpful. New Zealand soil scientist Graham Shepherd, has published a book[5] on this, and while it may not be the last word on the subject, it is a surprisingly good start toward evaluating soils, their conditions and their biological activity. This system assesses texture, structure, porosity, mottling, soil colour, earthworm activity, aroma, root depth, drainage and vegetative cover.

There also are many visual clues to mineral deficiencies. For example, hollow stem clover, lucerne, beans, potatoes, etc. indicates boron deficiency. Boron deficiency is also indicated by high brix in the early morning which shows plants are holding their sugars in the foliage and the cycle of root exudation is not occurring at night.

Dwarf leaves in clover indicates zinc deficiency. Purpling of grass and clover in winter indicates copper deficiency, and so on. Poor chlorophyll development and pale, yellowish green vegetation often is magnesium deficiency on a magnesium rich soil. This is common where the soil is too sulphur deficient to release magnesium properly. Under these conditions foliar analysis usually shows high sulphur because what little sulphate is present is soluble and plants take it up even though there is not enough in the soil for magnesium release. This slows growth and sulphur builds up in the plant because it is not being used. Adding magnesium to a high mag soil will only make matters worse, while the real cause of magnesium deficiency is the first priority of all soil amendment programs—sulphur.

Taste and smell of vegetation can be clues to excess nitrate uptake and poor photosynthesis, while complex, delicious flavours and aromas indicate high brix and nutritional density. Biodynamic growers should be aware that their own senses can be the best guides to determining what is going on with pastures and crops. Sending soil and plant specimens to laboratories for analysis is a useful tool for learning what the senses reveal, but first hand observation is quicker as well as less expensive, and it can be far more informative. 

Nitrogen Fixation and Silicon Release

These two elements, nitrogen and silicon, are present in enormous abundance, though this usually goes ignored. Nitrogen fixation and silicon release should be the highest priority in agricultural research. If growers knew how to access nitrogen and silicon in abundance it would eliminate the larger part of their fertiliser costs, to say nothing of most of the rescue remedies for weeds, pests and diseases. Unfortunately little funding is available for such research since industrial concerns would suffer is this knowledge was wide-spread.

Currently the nitrogen fertiliser industry uses ten units of methane to manufacture one unit of ammonia. With a little more energy, this can then be converted into urea and applied as fertiliser. With straight urea applications to the soil, losses of 50% and more are normal, since large amounts of nitrogen evaporate as nitrous oxide [N2O] when the urea oxidizes.

The same ten to one carbon to nitrogen ratio holds true for biological nitrogen fixation since it takes ten units of sugar from photosynthesis to fix one amino acid. However, the losses are nowhere near as great. The grower’s challenge is making photosynthesis as efficient as possible so biological nitrogen fixation is abundant.

Potentially nitrogen fixation is more robust when plants have steady access to all the necessary requirements for efficient photosynthesis. This feeds a steady abundance of carbohydrates to their microbial nitrogen fixing partners in return for amino acid nitrogen. Biodynamic farms attain this level of mineral balance and photosynthetic efficiency when everything is working near optimum. This deserves replicated scientific trials, but it hardly makes sense to wait for funding when there isn’t any money to be made from the research. Farmers must simply try their hand at it. Some will undoubtedly succeed with relative ease while others will find it difficult for a variety of reasons. Some may not sort it out, which is how life is.

 

The previous subheading on soil testing indicates optimum levels of minerals for plant efficiency and nitrogen fixation. Though these guidelines are generally higher than those considered adequate in chemical agriculture, these levels are desirable for efficient photosynthesis, especially at lower temperatures. This is particularly true for silicon, which is almost always deficient in conventionally farmed soils. Silicon, and its co-factor, boron, are the principal keys to transport speed, which is the key to abundant photosynthesis in plants. Energy must be transferred from the chloroplasts in the leaf panel to the leaf ribs where sugars are made. Silicon is basic to fluid transport, and this transport determines how fast sunlight is converted into sugar.


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A chromatogram of poorly composted feedlot manure shows strong solubility of silicon in its outer boundaries and lack of internal organization which will lead to nitrate leaching and silicon loss in both plants and soils.Unlike amino acid nitrogen, nitrates, nitrites and other non-organic forms of nitrogen impair the silicon chemistry of the plant as well as the symbiosis between plants and their microbial partners in the soil. Raw manures and poorly composted manures, especially raw chicken manure, are extremely detrimental because of the nitrate burden they impose on the soil biology. Nitrates flush silicon out of both plants and soils. How well a plant picks up silicon from the soil depends, at least in part, on the level of actinomycete activity at its roots. This in turn depends on the extent to which the soil opens up and is aerated, which in turn depends on sulphur levels and soil microbes such as Archaea which digest siliceous rocks. The sensitive biochemistry of these activities, in both soils and plants, is impaired by high levels of nitrates.

Animal activity in the soil around plant roots provides freshly digested amino acid nitrogen, which encourages rather than discourages the release of silicon from the surfaces of soil particles. Living in partnership with plant roots, Actinomycetes form fine fuzz along the root exudate zone of young roots, and nitrogen fixing microbes make this their home. In the process the actinomycetes utilize the silicon and boron in forming their fine, fuzzy hairs. As roots age and mature these microbes are consumed by soil animals ranging from single celled protozoa upwards. The nutrients they excrete are taken up as nourishment by plants, often providing a high proportion of amino acid nitrogen and amorphous fluid silicon.

Soil microbial life can only access silicon at the surfaces of soil particles where moisture, air and warmth interact. The rest is locked up. Nitrogen fertilisers, particularly nitrates, suppress actinomycete development and the nitrogen fixing microbial activity they host. If, on the other hand, actinomycete activity is robust the soil foodweb freely provides a luxury supply of both amino acids and amorphous fluid silicon.


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Biodynamic practices promote this activity as a way to achieve quality production that sustainably and efficiently rivals the yields of chemical agriculture. The bonus comes when environmental conditions are less than ideal. Then biodynamic production can easily surpass chemical yields.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Australian Government Department of the Environment and Heritage Australia State of the Environment Report 2001 reported the Australian average continental rate of soil loss is 6.97 tonnes/hectare/year.



[1] Agriculture, Rudolf Steiner, Creeger-Gardner translation, pp 44-47.

[2] Agriculture, Rudolf Steiner, Creeger-Gardner translation, page 31.

[3] This is based on the average weight of the top 17 cm of soil in one hectare, which is approximately 2,500,000 kg. [To do the maths, 2,500,000 / 250 = 10,000 which is 1 per cent of a million parts per million.]

[4] Left over after extraction of table salt from sea water, sea minerals provide iodine and selenium, as well as elements which may be useful even though not proven to be essential.

[5] Visual Soil Assessment Volume 1: Field guide for cropping & pastoral grazing on flat to rolling country by Graham Shepherd.

 

Hugh’s best article ever on Biochemical Sequence and Plant Growth

The Biochemical Sequence

 

© 2014 by Hugh Lovel

 

What is the hierarchy or ‘biochemical sequence’ of what must function first before the next thing and the next thing works. The elements early in this sequence must be present and working well before later elements have any chance of being useful for plant growth. Nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium occur late in this biochemical sequence, while sulphur, boron, silicon and calcium start things off.

 

0 Sulphur: Sulphur interacts with life chemistry (carbon-hydrogen-oxygen-nitrogen compounds) at surfaces. Along with warmth, it is the principle catalyst in biochemistry. Since everything going on in the soil biology occurs at the surfaces of soil particles where minerals react with water, air and warmth, sulphur activates surfaces—is the essential ‘key-in-the-ignition’ for kicking off robust soil biochemistry. In his Agriculture Course, Steiner speaks of how ‘the spirit-activity of the universe works as a sculptor, moistening its fingers with sulphur . . .’ [1]

Along with warmth, it is the classic catalyst of carbon chemistry.

 

Biochemical Sequence 3_3

Sulphur works at the surfaces, boundaries and edges of things to bring organization and life into being. Regardless of other soluble elements, the soluble soil test for sulphur should show 50 ppm sulphur [Morgan test] for biological soil fertility to function properly. Light soils may need a bit less and heavy soils may need more. In the total test a 60 to 1 carbon to sulphur ratio is helpful to ensure enough sulphur in soil reserves.

 

Silicon forms the basis for the capillary action that takes up nutrients from the soil. Fortunately for agriculture, silicon’s activity defies gravity. But to do this silica relies on boron, a component of clay. In his second agricultural lecture Steiner insightfully asserts, “First we need to know what is really going on. However else clay may be described, however else we must treat it so that it becomes fertile—all this is of secondary importance; the primary thing we need to know is that clay promotes the upward stream of the cosmic factor.”[2]

 

1 Boron: It is the boron component in clay that is the accelerator pedal of agriculture, while silicon forms the highway that carries nutrients throughout plants and animals. Boron interacts with silica in the linings of transport vessels and stimulates the flow of nutrients along the silicon highway. This places boron first in the biochemical sequence, and if either boron or silicon is deficient the soil biology will function below its potential. With either boron or silicon deficiency—and especially with both—crops will wilt instead of growing on hot days. Ironically, the two most effective ways to create boron and silicon deficiency are: 

 

1. Clean cultivation  

2. Use of artificial nitrogen fertilisers 

 

Though standard in modern agriculture, these practices make boron and silica available by killing off the soil biology that builds and maintains the soil’s clay/humus complexes. This releases a flush of boron and silicon which can easily drain way through the landscape.

 

2  Silicon: Of course, sap pressure would be no use without a transport system to contain it, and silicon provides the actual transport of nutrients. Interestingly, applying too much boron too early in a crop cycle is notable for burning seedlings and young transplants-such as sprouting squash, beans or tomatoes-because too much sap pressure in such a tiny plant drives sodium out the leaf margins. Nevertheless, in plants where leaf veins are highly branched, like peas, beans, squash and tomatoes, boron is important in later growth to maintain strong enough sap pressure to make such a complex system work.

On the other hand, highly siliceous plants, such as grasses, do well on less boron to give them sap pressure since their transport vessels all run parallel without branching. That’s like irrigation lines that only feed one sprinkler head. Such a thing doesn’t take much pressure.

Obviously without robust transport, nowhere near as much nutrient reaches the leaves or is stored in the fruits. Chemical agriculture gets around this to some extent, since-even with a weak transport system-anything that is highly soluble, such as potassium nitrate, is simply taken up along with water. Though this dilutes the sap, it flows quite easily due to low sap density. This is why chemically grown foods commonly have coarse, watery cell structure, as well as lower nutrition and poorer keeping quality. However, without a robust transport system, heavier, less-soluble nutrients such as calcium, magnesium, carbohydrate-and-amino-acid complexes can easily be left behind.

 

3  Calcium, which comes next in the sequence, is the truck that travels on the highway. Along with magnesium, potassium and sodium calcium forms the lime complex traffic that dominates the reactive side of life chemistry.

Where silicon, along with carbon forms the weakly-reactive nutrient highway, calcium, along with oxygen, forms the strongly reactive cargo that flows down the silica transport and containment system. Calcium and the lime complex is the last thing you want to leave behind because of its role in nitrogen fixation and amino acid chemistry. Calcium balances charge in proteins and is particularly important in cell division, which is the first thing that happens in fruit or seed formation after pollination. Without it there would be no fruit or seed. It collects and carries with it the nutrients that follow in the biochemical sequence.

As the opposite polarity of plant chemistry from the free-handed silicon, calcium is hungry, even greedy. This is why it needs the aloof silica to line the transport system. Above all else, calcium engages nitrogen to make amino acids, the basis of DNA, RNA and proteins. In turn, these nitrogen compounds are responsible for the complex enzyme and hormone chemistry of life which employs everything from sulphur and silicon to magnesium, iron, phosphorous, zinc, manganese copper and other trace elements. Probably the most important point is, nitrogen provides the amino acids in chlorophyll, which is key to photosynthesis, a highly efficient means of catching energy.

For example, taking corn, Zea maize, if calcium does not reach the ear in sufficient quantities, the kernels near the end of the ear simply do not fill out. With a crop like soybeans Glycene max, double or even triple the calcium values of maize are needed for full pod set without shedding pods-a common problem in soybeans. Wouldn’t you like to see every kernel on your maize fill out to the end of the ear and every soybean blossom produce a full pod of beans? This only happens when boron, silicon and the calcium lime complex work together well.

 

4 Nitrogen: As just mentioned, wherever calcium goes there also goes nitrogen. And nitrogen is the basis of amino acid formation, protein chemistry and DNA replication and expression. Once nitrogen enters the picture all sorts of proteins, enzymes and hormones are produced and very complex things are set in motion involving trace elements.

Unfortunately, soluble nitrogen fertilisers only stimulate this latter portion of the sequence without addressing the priorities of sulphur, boron, silicon and calcium. Such fertilisers stimulate growth, but they are like methamphetamine. They grow weak crops that depend on growing in weedy conditions where they fall prey to pests and diseases. 

All parts of a plant’s protein chemistry require amino acid nitrogen. Nitrogen straddles the divide between the chemically indifferent silicon and the calcium large amounts of amino acids go into the formation of chlorophyll where energy is gathered. After all, gathering and sequestering energy is essential to life. Without photosynthesis plants would never grow. This is where magnesium, phosphorous, potassium and a wide range of micronutrients follow nitrogen in the biochemical sequence.

 

5 Magnesium: Since photosynthesis requires magnesium, it is fifth in the biochemical sequence, ahead of all the more minor trace elements.

Of course, photosynthesis is not simply a matter of chlorophyll catching energy. The energy has to be transferred from the chlorophyll to the silicon into producing sugars out of carbon dioxide and water, which requires phosphorous for energy transfer. Otherwise the chlorophyll burns up, and the leaves turn a wine red colour.

However, as long as there is enough phosphorous, carbon is pried loose from carbon dioxide so it can combine with water to make sugar and release oxygen.

 

6  Phosphorous: Of course, photosynthesis is not simply a matter of chlorophyll catching energy. The energy has to be transferred into producing sugars out of carbon dioxide and water, which requires phosphorous for energy transfer. Otherwise the chlorophyll burns up, and the leaves turn a wine red colour.

 

7  Carbon: As long as there is enough phosphorous, carbon is engaged as carbon dioxide and the energy transferred from chlorophyll via phosphorous to combines carbon dioxide with water, making sugar and releasing oxygen.

 

8 Potassium: At this point the sugars pass into the plant’s sap where potassium, the electrolyte, guides them to wherever they most need to go.

 

Yes, Oversimplified

 

Understandably, this sequence is oversimplified. For example, sulphur is the classic catalyst in carbon (organic) chemistry. Without it, nothing-not even the boron-would give rise to life. Also, potassium has a very close relationship with silicon, so when silicon carries calcium and amino acids to the cell division sites in the plant, potassium plays the role of an electronic doorway that lets the calcium and amino acids enter the cells that are preparing to divide. If cold weather slows potassium down, or if it is in short supply, then calcium and amino acids cannot reach the cell nuclei, the DNA cannot divide, cell division fails and the fruit falls off the plant.  Sometimes entire fruit crops are lost to a couple degrees of frost when a light spray of kelp with potassium silicate would save the day.

 

Supplementation with Minerals and Rock Powders

 

Even though quantum agriculture is primarily about organization and biological activities, soil mineralization must be considered. How does one organise something if it isn’t there? Many soils need gypsum or elemental sulphur because they are sulphur deficient in both their soluble and total tests. Many soils also need silicon rock powders—also a source of boron. This is true if past nitrogen fertilisation has flushed whatever boron and silicon was there away. Boron and silicon deficiencies also occur following overgrazing or clean cultivation. Silicon availability may need to be fostered to get the soil biology up and running so it can release more silicon from the surfaces of soil particles. The soil’s silicon biology is easily depleted by nitrogen fertilization, overgrazing or clean cultivation.

Through lack of experience and understanding, many ‘organic’ farms use raw manures—the worst being chicken manure—as a nitrogen source. This soon depletes sulphur, boron and silicon. The remedy for this is likely to be compost made by adding 10% or so of high silicon rock powders along with a little gypsum to composts and composting fully with soil until it looks and smells like soil.

In addition to gypsum and high silica rock powders, lime can be used to provide calcium. Dolomite also provides magnesium if this is needed. Rock phosphorous provides silicon, calcium and phosphorus. There are also natural potassium sulphate ores. Rock powders tend to also provide a variety of trace elements. For high pH soils with large excesses of sodium and potassium the remedy in drier climates may be increasing the soil’s holding capacity with humates and zeolite to buffer pH and build more storage.

 

What’s the Aim?

 

Most importantly, the biochemical sequence shows us we need to start with sulphur to expose the surfaces of soil particles to biological activity so reserves can kick in. Other methods may not recognize sulphur’s key importance, but in quantum agriculture this should be clear. And where budgets are slim and long range soil fertility is desired boron, silicon and calcium follow sulphur in importance.

Unfortunately for nutrition, health and long term vitality of the soil’s biochemistry, soluble NPK fertilisers continue to be used for their ability to gloss over deficiencies of sulphur, boron, silicon and calcium. Large reserves of nitrogen, as well as phosphorous and potassium, are commonly present—even if inactive—at the surfaces of soil particles where the organization of life chemistry arises. Only when the biochemistry of sulphur, boron, silicon and calcium is thriving can the potential of these reserves become available.

This all goes back to Liebig’s ‘law of the minimum’ which says plants can only perform as well as their most deficient nutrients.

 

 



[1] Agriculture, Rudolf Steiner, Creeger-Gardner translation, pp 44-47.

[2] Agriculture, Rudolf Steiner, Creeger-Gardner translation, page 31.