August 5th, 2021
So last week’s blog was a bit on the apocalyptic side. This week I will focus on the positive. I took a chance last week and put it all out there because I think the word needs to get out. I have received a number of encouraging, supportive, understanding and commiserating replies from fellow farmers. Thank you. If anyone, farmers or non-farmers, has ideas or energy to try to stem the tide please let me know. We need to do something for the sake of the next generation.
I don’t have the numbers to prove it but I’d say this has been the best growing season in at least five years and maybe ten. We have had ample rain this year for the most part. That’s a lot easier to manage than the Californian weather we’ve had the last several years. I was on the verge of complaining about the rain on Monday (remember; complaining is part of a farmers job description) but I bit my tongue. Summertime rain is scarce most years and therefore, in some way, hallowed.
So, the up side; potentially better crop growth and less cost in time, money and environmental impact from pumping water. The down side; lower quality of some crops and an increased risk of various fungal diseases that, in some cases (but not very often; thankfully) can reduce yields by 100% if not dealt with. Generally, uncontrolled disease increases the cull rate significantly so there is a lot of value in keeping diseases at bay. To do so we, at Elmridge, use mostly biological agents, good soil fertility, and micro nutrients to help combat disease.
When using biological agents to suppress disease it’s quite important to do so before disease levels become high. Natural products generally don’t pack as much punch as ‘conventional’ synthetic products so there is still an increased risk of disease related losses compared to completely ‘conventional’ production practices. (I use the word ‘conventional’, it’s not really a very good word to use as what is considered conventional continuously morphs over time; it just generally means synthetic chemicals that have been deemed safe by health Canada can be used). Our new dehydration facility is meant to take our cull product and turn it into storable product and reduce food waste to near zero.
There are differing modes of action of these biological fungicides. With ‘site competition’ various microbes, bacteria or fungi are sprayed on the crop or soil. They then begin to reproduce rapidly and take up space and food that the pathogenic fungi would otherwise use. Here’s a so-so analogy: It would be like sending thousands of sheep into a meadow to eat all the grass and drink all the water so that deer would stop frequenting the area. There will be some negative short term effects on the meadow but the grass will regrow and the spring will refill the watering hole. And the Deere will eventually return and there’s no long term damage. It’s better than killing all of the grass because the recovery time would be much longer.
Some biologicals are protectants and need to be applied just before weather elements increase the risk of disease. So you fence the Deere out of the meadow for a period of time. If you stop mending the fences, the Deere will quite quickly regain access.
Yet another mode of action would be to keep the fungi from reproducing. We use one such product. It uses the same compound that mushrooms produce to protect themselves from attack from other fungi. It would be cost prohibitive and carry a very large environmental footprint to extract this compound from mushrooms so it is produced synthetically. For this reason it cannot be certified organic which is a shame because it verges on being outright edible; whether it’s something you might enjoy is another whole conversation. But who knows....people do consume some pretty pointless and disgusting things....I’m not going to give a sheep/ deer analogy for this because, well, it might get a little awkward;-)
Very few biologicals can kill a fungus outright but the few biologicals that actually kill the pathogen, generally use a process called ‘antibiosis’ where the biofungicide produces a natural compound that is toxic to the targeted fungus.
We use a copper based product that can kill some fungal spores and also keep invading bacteria at bay. Not many years ago it was considered very poor soil stewardship to use any copper-containing products but new technology has produced effective products with only a tiny fraction of the copper that would previously be needed. The older copper compounds were very damaging to soil microbes because of the sheer levels of copper they contained. But copper is naturally present in soils in low levels and is essential for healthy plant growth. Over time soil copper levels have gone back down to the point where now we are actually adding copper as a nutrient.
There are even some natural products that will trigger the plants to activate their own immune systems before the onset of attack from some pathogen. It’s pretty much like getting your covid shot.....not sure if they feel like they’ve been hit by a Mack truck like I did...... communicating with plants is a little out of our reach just yet.
The other way to control disease is what’s known as cultural practices to prevent disease from happening in the first place. Crop rotation is key. We wait at least three years before repeating any crop in a certain field. We are also careful to space the plants and rows out in such a way that allows air flow and quicker drying in the morning and after a rainfall.
In the same way that we feed our kids healthy food, we feed our plants well with healthy soil and make sure they take their vitamins. That means a manure, green manure (plowed down crops for the purpose of building soil) and compost based fertility programme with top ups of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium as needed.
The manures and compost create a very live soil. There are billions of microbes of thousands of species in every shovel full of soil. Soil science is still very much an art from the point of view that we have so much more to learn to fully understand it. That understanding will likely be very key in figuring out how to feed nine or ten billion people in the medium future. In college most of us moaned about soil science class because there was so much to know and understand and yet so many unanswered questions. Luckily there are some among us that thrive on studying soil. So, bottom line, healthy soil is to plants what fresh fruit and vegetables are to our children.
Many of the living soil organisms can literally starve to death if they go a month or two in the growing season with no living plant tissue. For that reason, we are very religious about getting a cover crop planted as soon as the crop comes off to keep the soil live and healthy.
The ‘vitamins’ we feed our plants are mostly in the form foliar micronutrients. That means that we spray very small amounts of things like copper, zinc, manganese, magnesium, potassium, silica, calcium.......and many more, onto the leaves of the plants. The leaves can then very rapidly absorb these nutrients and put them to work to make themselves healthy so they can better ward off attacks from fungi, bacteria, and even, in some cases, insects. Soils in Nova Scotia are classed as “naturally infertile’ so adding minute amounts of certain deficient nutrients can greatly increase yield and quality with a very very small environmental footprint.
In defence of those farmers who use the dreaded ‘conventional’ pesticides; they are often able to produce more food with less environmental foot print (aside from the pesticides) than many organic farming situations. I am not convinced that we are at a point yet where we could
completely pull the plug on ‘conventional’ pesticides. We are moving in that direction for sure but there is a ways to go yet.
As an example, Bayer Crop Science, one of the leading producers of agricultural pesticides has spent literally billions on developing environmentally sound ways of controlling insects and disease. Granted they are also involved in developing genetically modified plants but they are doing a lot of work to produce biologically sound crop protectants. There are are rarely black and white answers and Bayer is kind of in the grey for many people because they are involved in production of conventional pesticides, GMO’s but also develop natural alternatives to conventional pesticides. And many conventional farmers are adopting biological pesticides in conjunction with their conventional spray programs and reducing the overall use of conventional pesticides.
At Elmridge we do not use anything GMO and are careful to kind of ‘walk the fence’ on the issue of organic versus conventional. Again, the right thing to do is kind of grey. If we have put all of the resources and associated environmental footprint into growing a crop we have sometimes had to resort to a single crop saving pesticide (and we are very careful to make sure our customers know the product is no longer ‘pesticide free’ or ‘naturally grown’). My theory on that is that it is better to use the one product to save the crop than to have to expend all of the resources a second time to produce the food. Remember, there are crop failures continuously happening all over the globe so if we reduce them overall we reduce the total sum of resources required to feed the planet.
The needle is moving toward much more environmentally sound ways of growing food and at Elmridge we are dedicated to leading the charge!
Today it’s raining...again...I’m on the verge of complaining... but I’ll bite my tongue. No irrigation!!
Keep eating your veggies. Greg