Friday, October 30, 2009

A Wisconsin Farmer's Response to Michael Pollan, Part II

(Stewards of the Soil—continued from previous post)

My son (a UW-CALS graduate) is an agronomist. He has modified and developed a spreadsheet enabling farmers to credit their soils with nutrients from crops (legumes like alfalfa and soybeans) and manure (it is not a waste product), thereby reducing input costs from commercial fertilizer.

Respect for the land is the foundation of responsible and productive agriculture anywhere in the world. American farmers work hard to be stewards of the soil.

There Is Nothing Simple About It

Mr. Pollans “it stands to reason” argument about “chemically simplified soils” producing “chemically simplified plant” is name calling combined with junk science at best. Those of us who work the land as the basis of our livelihood have learned that there is nothing ‘simple’ about the soil or whatever plants grow in it. We have learned to use management practices that take into account the complexities of soils and plants. If we didn’t, we would not have farms that have been sustained over generations of use.

Farmlands are routinely tested field by field for macro and micro nutrients, pH, and organic matter. Farmers apply fertilizers (commercial or ‘homemade’ like manure) only as needed. How many lawns get fertilized with the benefit of chemical analysis based on correct soil sampling methodology? Even Mr. Pollan’s 10’X20’ vegetable garden will eventually diminish in productivity if he does not treat it “like a bank”.

He also characterizes commercial fertilizers as “harsh”, specifically citing nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium (N, P, and K). More name calling combined with junk science. Commercial formulations of fertilizers as used by farmers are usually applied following soil testing. No more than is absolutely needed for successful crop production is typically used.

They are configured in chemical compounds readily useful to plants, not in pure elemental form. Upon application, these compounds enter the root zone for plant use.

Soil Is Organic

Mr. Pollan throws around the word ‘organic’ the way he insinuates we farmers throw around manure. We can argue about a definition for the word ‘organic’ until the cows come home. Regardless of any definition, all farming is, arguably, organic if that farming begins with the soil. One textbook definition of soil is, “a medium for plant growth”. Healthy and productive soil is often characterized as a living breathing entity. Such a soil typically includes various sized particles, water, air, organic matter, microbes, animals like earthworms, and chemical compounds containing elements like N, P, and K.

Most plants cannot function in an ‘inorganic’ (concrete, steel, plastic) environment. Some soils, as those in deserts, can’t sustain food production for large human populations. If some farmers choose to limit the use of agricultural inputs as fertilizers and pesticides, then call it ‘organic’, and go on to convince some of the people most of the time that their production is worth a premium price, good for them!

Moderator's Note: This is page 2 of 5. Read the rest: A Wisconsin Farmer 2010-25-09.pdf

The discussion generated by Mr. Pollan's book has certainly been an opportunity to explore some issues pertaining to food and food production. The opinions I have ventured here are my own, but are probably shared by others in production agriculture. Here is my own variation on the Pollan Theme:

Eat responsibly. Eat together. Be grateful for abundance. Thank a farmer.

On, Wisconsin!
George H. Roemer
UW-CALS Class of  '70

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