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Building biological integrity



by Jeff Quinn

S.F. Ontario Correspondant


At a recent meeting in Waterloo, Ontario, Joe Scrimger, a Michigan producer who farms 140 acres organically and 60 acres biologically, spoke to a group of farmers interested in reducing their dependency on purchased inputs.

Scrimger outlined to the group a biological approach to farming, as well as some of the practices he employs on his operation.

With over 20 years of experience, Scrimger said he has found that his weed control is becoming easier while his crop performance remains consistently above average.

In addition to farming, Scrimger also owns a biological consulting and fertilizer business, and actively participates in the cooperative marketing of organic produce grown in his area.

Scrimger attributes his success to gaining an understanding of natural cycles and life processes, and choosing appropriate management options that compliment these living systems.

"The smart farmer learns to let nature do most of the work while he orchestrates the production process," he said.


Taking responsibility

The willingness of the farmer to take responsibility for every choice made in the farm production equation is the real issue, explained Scrimger.

"A farmer is not really in control of the production process unless he understands how living systems respond to various inputs and operations. Many production challenges, such as weeds and diseases, are unwittingly induced when nature's laws are violated," he maintained.

Scrimger explained to the group how it is critical for farmers to maintain control of the production process in order for a farm to be truly sustainable in the long term.

Producers complacent with agribusiness recommendations are vulnerable to losing control because of the confusing array of products offering cost-effective solutions to production problems. Scrimger explained how there is a tendency towards a cycle of increasing dependency on costly rescue chemistry to battle recurring and increasingly complex problems in the war against nature.

Scrimger said he has found that production problems have, for the most part, disappeared on his farm as he learns more about how to work with, rather than against, the biological processes.

"It's fun to let nature do more and more of the work, so I won't have to!" he joked.

Scrimger's said one of his goals is to activate the soil biology to produce a more dynamic, effective and efficient response to changing conditions during the crops and livestock performances.


Encouraging healthy soil

The concept of biological integrity implies completeness, balance and vitality in the organization and function of a living system. A healthy soil will naturally help to buffer the crops from moisture and nutrient deficiencies while conferring disease and pest resistance without the need for purchased inputs, he said.

Scringer's focus is on encouraging the proliferation of the soil's living organisms. He believes that "probably the reduction in the diversity and biomass of soil biology is the current situation in agriculture that has cost farmers more than anything else in terms of production efficiencies."

"Soils typically have one to two tons of total biomass per acre, but they should have more like five to six tons," said Scrimger.

To improve the soils carrying capacity for living organisms, the basic needs of air, water, food, and shelter must be addressed, he said.

Scrimger's fertility program for his soil starts by getting adequate calcium to release and be available for life processes. The flocculating (fluffing) effect of adequate calcium, or the base exchange of the soil, enhances the soil's ability to "breathe," he explained.

Getting oxygen in and carbon dioxide out supports aerobic activity, but this occurs only to the depth air can penetrate the soil profile. Aerobic digestion of crop and cover crop residues is inherently more efficient than their anaerobic breakdown, said Scrimger.

Scrimger's ultimate goal is to maximize the assimilation of carbonaceous residues into stable humus, which in turn will also support a larger biomass.

"The inclusion of anaerobic decomposition anywhere in the farm production system will short circuit the long term profitability of the farm," he emphasized.

Citing anaerobic manure storage as an example, Scrimger explained that even though more of the nitrogen is "conserved" as opposed to composting, this nitrogen is mostly in inorganic water soluble form. Heavy losses from leaching, particularly, at the time of application only creates pollution and waste.


Shifting soil balance

"Any surge of nitrogen release in excess of 70 pounds per acre will negatively shift the soil balance and favor weed proliferation at the expense of crop vigor," cautioned Scrimger.

In contrast, organically stabilized nitrogen in association with the humified carbons of good compost are basically non-leachable, yet available to the plant over the entire growing season, he said.

"The expression of biological efficiencies can only be achieved under a balanced fertility program where excesses, particularly, of nitrogen and potassium are avoided," said Scrimger.

It only makes sense to have the nutrients available at the time the growing plant really needs it, but often the natural release mechanisms are made dormant with heavy fertilizer applications at planting time, he said.

Scrimger explained that by including cover crops in the rotation, nutrient cycling efficiencies would be maximized.

It costs an unsurmountable amount of fossil fuel and energy to make and transport nitrogen fertilizer to a field, if compared to the fact that leguminous cover crops, in cooperation with Rhizobium bacteria, capture nitrogen for free from the nearly 35,000 tons that is potentially available from each acre, he said.

The management challenge for farmers is to allow nitrogen release from soil organic matter, whether humus or decaying crop or cover crop residues, to play a significant role in meeting crop nutritional needs without sacrificing yield from nitrogen shortfalls, said Scrimger.

This is especially critical during the transition period from chemical intensive to a more biological approach, he said.


Remarkably predictable

Despite their complexity of function, biological systems are remarkably predictable in their response to various input stimuli. For instance, raw manure always stimulates lambsquarters and pigweeds to proliferate under row crops. Yet, even weed problems seem to clear up spontaneously over time when there is a balanced nutrition and a healthy decay system, said Scrimger.

He recommends keeping soil calcium highly available to discourage grasses while keeping potassium low relative to the phosphorus levels to reduce broadleaf weed pressure.

Timely tillage, too, can dramatically shift the balance into the crops' favour. A case in point being that Scrimger no longer has a quack grass problem, yet he never used Round-Up.

Scrimger has also been reaping financial rewards from his farming efforts. Last year, he was able to sell his white hilum soybeans for $18.00/bu in the value-added tofu market because they were chemical free.

"There is a real opportunity now to capitalize on the growing consumer demands for clean foods with demonstrated quality (taste) advantages," said Scrimger.


Copyright 1994 REAP Canada

Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.

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