Quality Agriculture- A book review

To better understand regenerative agriculture, it helps to be a systems thinker. Why? It takes system thinking to better understand how the water, carbon, nitrogen and nutrient cycles are interdependent and interconnected through photosynthesis, decomposition, the microbial carbon pump, and soil microbes including both saprophytic and mycorrhizal fungi. To better understand regenerative agriculture, it also helps metaphorically to be a dissectologist. What’s a dissectologist? A dissectologist is someone who enjoys putting together jigsaw puzzles. The regenerative agricultural community includes a wide array of these metaphorical dissectologists working together to piece together the infinitely complex puzzle of above and below ground natural ecosystems. These metaphorical dissectologists include both practitioners and theoreticians comprising of a wide array of farmers, ranchers and scientists. Scientists include soil, plant, range, animal and atmospheric scientists as well as entomologists and agro-ecologists. Regenerative agricultural is truly interdisciplinary.

One person at the forefront of bringing different people in this community together is John Kempf. With his business Advancing Eco Agriculture, training workshops, numerous webinars, and Regenerative Agriculture Podcast, Kempf is sharing all the information he has learned and gathered from other innovative regenerative Ag practitioners and scientists. His new book, Quality Agriculture, is a collection of edited transcripts from thirteen of the conversations he has had on his podcast with these innovators. Each chapter is a different podcast. This book is volume one. Future volumes will include additional transcripts of podcast conversations. Reading chapters quickly one after another provides more of a connection between the content from the different people being interview than with the original podcast recordings. Why? The different podcasts are recorded posted over a much longer span of time. So when listening to podcasts shortly after they’re posted, a lot of time has past. Personally, I also retain things that I read more than what I hear. Maybe that’s because when I read, I’m more focused solely on what I’m reading. When I listen to podcasts, I tend to be multi-tasking on my computer. I also find I’m more inclined to re-read paragraphs for greater comprehension than rewind videos or recordings to do the same. Moreover, with printed words, I can intone them myself and thus am not even further distracted by accents or other verbal idiosyncrasies.

What’s so great about Kempf’s conversations (and transcripts of those conversations) is the quality of Kempf’s questions. As both a practitioner and scholar, Kempf has the capacity to speak to both practitioners and scientists as a peer. Though as a pedagogue, he also breaks down these often very complex thoughts, ideas and practices into accessible language that less scientifically literate lay people can easily understand. And that is exactly what he does in his book Quality Agriculture. Plus the immediate juxtaposition of the various chapters allows one to make connections between the various soil scientists, entomologists, farmers and agronomists interviewed. I’ll discuss some of those connections that I made myself  in another forthcoming blog post. Needless to note, this book is very provocative. Some ideas like structured water, I’m still trying to wrap my head around. Though, the four of the many takeaways I took away from this book were as follows:

  • A natural agro-ecosystem is very resilient. Reducing or oversimplifying this system to try to improve the system creates a cascade of other problems
  • Lack of  overall soil and plant health weakens plants making plants a lot more susceptible to pests
  • Sufficient macro and micro minerals exist without the need for inputs, if such minerals are not locked up by chemicals or bad practices…plus if the right balance of biology exists in the soil’s “gut” to make those nutrients plant available.
  • Photosynthesis can be increased through better biology that makes minerals more plant available.

“Wise elders,” including Dr. Michael McNeil, Dr. Don Huber and Dr. Robert Kramer   in their respective chapters, detail how many of the different agro-chemicals used today to get plants to grow in conventional agricultural systems have had adverse long term consequences. For example, Dr. Huber explained how glyphosate chelates minerals and oxidizes soil so many micro-nutrients aren’t available to plants to utilize. As Dr. McNeil further explains, when plants lack these micro-nutrients, this weakens a plant’s immune systems making a plant more susceptible to pathogens and pests. So additional fungicides and pesticides are required to protect these weakened plants. Dr. Kramer also notes that glyphosate breaks down into aminomethylphosphonic acid [AMPA] which is more persistent in soil. Both glyphosate and AMPA shift soil microbial communities in the soil “gut” suppressing beneficial bacteria and creating conditions for more pathogens like fusarium as an example. This again results in the need for the use of more fungicides and insecticides. So synthetic (and organic) chemical inputs change the dynamics of the entire soil ecosystem…and often result in the need for even more synthetic (and organic) inputs for fertility, and pest control.

Entomologists Dr. Tom Dykstra and Dr. Jonathan Lundgren respectively discuss during their chapters how insects are attracted to unhealthy plants, and how the lack of ecosystem diversity increases pest pressure.. Consequently, plant nutrient imbalances caused by use of synthetic nitrogen and mono-cultures increase the need for insecticides.  Lundgren also discusses how many of the numerous formulations of pesticides have not been tested.  Mainly, just the active ingredients have been tested. So when active ingredients are mixed with adjuvants, including surfactants, the toxicology changes for both the active ingredient, the other ingredients and the over all formula.   

McNeil, Dr. Kris Nichols, and farmer Gabe Brown all dispel the mistaken notion that soil nutrients are continuously extracted by plants and thus need to be replaced with external inputs. Addressing this prevalent mistaken belief,  McNeil notes that soil is nothing but minerals. So depleting minerals from soils is like trying to deplete all the salt from the ocean. While it may be true that the top few inches of soil may get depleted, mycorrhizae expand the reach of roots beyond this shallow zone. Nichols, as well, stated to let mycorrhizae do the work of mining for minerals. Thus she claims that there’s a virtually inexhaustible supply of nutrients including phosphorus and potassium,  Moreover, she notes that the hyphae of mycorrhizal fungi connect the root systems of plants together to exchange nutrients. So, for example, a legume can connect to a non-legume to provide nitrogen. Gabe, during his conversation with Kempf, referenced a study that his farm participated in. In this study, Gabe’s farm was one of four farms in close proximity to one another using different farming practices. The study measured the mineral levels of the soils over a period of time on all the farms and found Gabe’s farm had significantly higher levels of these nutrients than all the other conventional tilled and no-till operations. This was despite Gabe not adding any NPK’s to his farm’s soils since 2007. Gabe recalled how he was told by skeptics, that sure he could cycle nitrogen by growing legumes, but that he was going to run out of other nutrients especially phosphorus. What Gabe’s farm has demonstrated is that soils today aren’t lacking nutrients, but instead are lacking the biology to make those nutrients plant available. Or as Gabe noted, he “…can mine all the way to China if [he] can get a root down there. If we can get a root and biology down there, we can cycle nutrients from the parent material, the rock. It’s a fallacy to not think we can cycle enough nutrients to sustain profitable production.” Mycorrhizal fungi actually weather rock and increase the amount of minerals available to plants in the soil that are accessible to plants in a form that they can utilize. 

When minerals are made available by fungi or rhizophagy (as well as aren’t locked by chelating chemicals, oxidized by chemical or oxidized by tillage), then those micro-nutrients can be used by plants for a myriad of benefits including increasing the rate of photosynthesis, For example, manganese is essential to provide the enzymes needed to split water into the hydrogen and oxygen. This process called hydrolysis is essential to convert atmospheric carbon dioxide CO2 into glucose C6H12O6  via photosynthesis and the Calvin Cycle. Kempf, in his conversations with both McNeil and Kramer, asserted with currently farming practices, photosynthesis is no where near close to being optimized.  One way higher optimized rates of photosynthesis can be measured is with Brix readings. When rates of photosynthesis are increased, more carbon is exuded into the soil where this carbon improves soil structure that, in turn, allows for more water infiltration and retention. Plus more carbon exuded feeds more soil microbes that poop and die. Those dead microbes (necromass) become soil organic matter.

So, as Volume One of John Kempf’s Quality Agriculture demonstrates, range, soil, and atmospheric science, as well as entomology and botany, aren’t confined to their separate silos. All these these different forms of science are interrelated and interdependent facets of vast agro-ecosystems. All of these different innovative paradigm challenging scientists, researchers and practitioners are also all metaphorically dissectologists putting together different parts of a huge border-less puzzle. By being able to  read what each scientist, researcher and or practitioner is doing back to back in this transcribed book format,  the reader comes away with a better picture of what that huge border-less puzzle looks like when assembled. Due to this format, the book contains no foot or end notes. So, if I had one suggestion to make the next volume in this sequence even better, that suggestion would be for each scientist interviewed to provide a short list of scientific references at the end of each chapter to support what was just discussed for further reading. Other than that suggestion, this book gets a solid 5 stars.  So prepare yourself to have your mind blown.

One thought on “Quality Agriculture- A book review

  1. Between the US agriculture described here and the tropical, smallholder agriculture described in my book, “Restoring the Soil,” there are major differences in specific techniques, but a lot of agreement on general principles. I think you might find my book of interest. It describes some 120 green manure/cover crop systems presently used across some 35 nations across the tropics. It’s available on Amazon.

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