Sunday, November 29, 2009

Part IV: A Free Offer and Call for Volunteers

November 28 2009

New Food Standards, Part IV: A Free Offer and Call for Volunteers

Please note that the "free offer" slots are filled up. We have around 30 participants so far.

by Michael Astera

This part is about recruiting those who are interested in proving that we can grow food with as much or more flavor and nutrients as anyone ever has anywhere.

The hoped for result of this series of essays is the creation of some very high quality and nutritional standards for food crops. I have spent some time making the case for why these are needed and explaining how they could be accomplished. I know I said that I would write about energy in agriculture and the economics of balancing soil minerals next, and I have been trying to write that part, but something keeps nagging at me to get started on the actual process of proving that we can do this. Those other details can wait, I would like to see some things happening in the real world.
I'm hoping that with your help we can do some real science here and show a solid correlation between Brix and nutrient content of fruits and vegetables, and also show the connection between the level of mineral nutrients in the soil and the crop.

First of all we need to prove that we can consistently grow excellent nutrient dense food, as good or better than was grown three generations ago, and set some quality standards for others to match.

To that end, here are the suggested standards for food quality once again:

I. The crops must contain 125% or more of the average mineral content for food measured by the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) in 1940 and published as
U.S. Dept. Agric. Cir. No. 549, Proximate Composition of American Food Materials (1940). The crops must also have...

II. A refractometer Brix reading of Good to Excellent as shown on the chart called the "Refractive Index of Fruits and Vegetables Calibrated in % Sucrose or Brix, originally compiled by Carey Reams" and found several places on the web including here;

As the title above says, this is also a call for help, and the first help I'm asking for is "Does anyone have or can they easily get hold of the USDA Circular No. 549, Proximate Composition of American Food Materials from 1940?". It is listed at the USDA website here: but is not available on line. Not being a US resident, and living in a country with poor mail service, it's not something I can readily obtain. It would be wonderful if a reader could get a copy and scan it and send it to me to put up on line for everyone to see.

One would think that the listing of nutrients in our food back then would be a popular subject, but strangely enough the only listing of food nutrients available on line at the USDA web site is from 1896 and only lists the amount of fat, protein, and carbohydrates in the foods analyzed. What we need are listings for mineral nutrients such as Calcium, Magnesium, Phosphorus, Potassium, Iron, Zinc etc. Not having set eyes on USDA Circular No. 549 I'm only hoping that information will be there. If not, other possibilities would be USDA Circular No. 146, Proximate Composition of Fresh Vegetables from 1936 or USDA Misc. Publ. No. 572, Tables of Food Composition in Terms of Eleven Nutrients from 1945. (both of these are also listed at ) I've spent some time looking on line for mineral content of foods from sixty or so years ago and have come up largely empty-handed. Any help will be greatly appreciated.

Once we have "the numbers" that we wish to equal and surpass, the next step is to grow the food and prove that it can be done, by anyone, anywhere. Here is where the "Free Offer" part comes in.

As some of you know, I work as a consultant in soil mineral balancing and soil fertility. People send me the results of laboratory soil tests and I write a custom fertilizer prescription for their soil. For those who wish to get involved in this home-grown science project, I am offering to waive the usual fee of $45 and write a free fertility Rx for your farm or garden. Those who wish to take me up on this offer would agree to:

1.Take a soil sample, send it to the lab and pay the $20 (approximately) lab cost, then email the results to me. I will write your soil Rx and email it to you so you can....

2. Apply the recommended soil amendments to at least a small part of your growing area, or at least keep track of what amendments, preps, or various ideas you do use or apply and share that info with me.

3. Grow whatever crop you have in mind, and then when the crop is ready to be harvested....

4. Measure the Brix level of the crop (which would require borrowing or buying a 0-32* Brix refractometer, around $35).

5. Send a plant tissue sample of the crop to a laboratory for mineral nutrient analysis (another $40), and finally....

6. Send the results of the plant tissue analysis and the Brix reading on to me.

The cost for two lab tests, plus postage, plus buying a refractometer if you don't have one will add up to a little over $100, not counting the expense of purchasing any recommended soil amendments. Paying for those things will be your responsibility. I will donate the time to write your soil Rx and will also answer questions as my time permits.

Armed with the info from the original soil test, knowing what nutrients were added, and having the results of a plant tissue test and the Brix readings from a number of growers in different climates and with different soil types, I think we will have enough info to find out if this idea is going to work. My job then will be to gather the data you contribute and put it together in a comprehensible way. I'm imagining part of the results will look something like this:

Calcium %
Magnesium %
Potassium %
Phosphorus %
Iron ppm
Carrot #3

Apple #6
Leeds UK

And so on, all put together in a way that makes some sort of sense. Whatever results I come up with will of course be shared with all who participate, along with all of the raw data for those of you who like to crunch numbers and do science yourself. Everyone who contributes will have access to whatever comes of this as well as being credited and thanked for their contribution. Who knows? This could turn out to be something that changes the health of the whole world for the better.

I would like it if at least a dozen people chose to have some fun with this; I'm thinking I could probably handle up to thirty participants max without getting overloaded, but maybe if more than that wish to play some of you would be willing to help me put things together.

We wouldn't need any grants and wouldn't have anyone telling us what we could or couldn't do, all volunteer, all in the interest of science and better health for the soil, plants, animals and people everywhere.

I have set up a new email address for this project; here it is: Those of you who wish to play a part, please see the instructions on taking a soil sample and a list of suggested soil testing labs here:

Please don't volunteer for this unless you are willing to follow through to the point of getting your soil tested, growing a crop, measuring the Brix, getting a plant tissue test, and sending the results to me to share with everyone else.

Sound like fun? Let's do it!

Michael Astera

Dec 2 update on the HighBrixProject-

Fifteen citizen-scientist-volunteers so far. A great mix of vegetable and fruit growers, dairy, beef, and sheep pasture, and two coffee growers as well. Various sytems: Biodynamic, Reams RBTI, Eco-Ag, Certified Organic, and combinations of all of them. Here's the rundown as of Wednesday evening US eastern time:

Zambia 1
Denmark 1
Peru 1
Venezuela 1
Oregon 2
Washington 4
Hawaii 1
West Virginia 1
Arakansas 1
Georgia 1
Maine 1

Lots of science info coming in: soil reports, farm history, mineral analysis. We are going to have plenty of data. The plan as of now is to set up a website where all of the volunteers can post and share their info, experience, and results. The invitation is still open to anyone willing to put in the time and effort.

Dec 8 update:

It appears that the USDA did not publish mineral content of foods until 1945, so even though Circ. No. 549 from 1940 has been located by kindly and resourceful help (thanks, Frank) what we are going to need the data from are the following:

1945: USDA Misc Pub 572, Tables of Food Composition in Terms of Eleven Nutrients

1950: USDA Agriculture Handbook No. 8: Composition of Foods; Raw, Processed, Prepared

Plus the 1963 (or '75) and 1982 (or '84) editions of
USDA Agriculture Handbook No. 8: Composition of Foods; Raw, Processed, Prepared.

(Thanks Steve D for the above)

And finally, the 2009 computerized version:

USDA NN-DB Release SR22_Year 2009_Composition of Foods; Fruits and Fruit Juices

Which can be found on line here:

(Thanks to Mike K, Thomas G, and Bill and Grace S)

Once these are all available, we can start to figure out just how much the mineral supply of the foods we eat has diminished and set some informed goals to reach.

Michael A

Monday, November 16, 2009

Part III: The Recipe

by Michael Astera

Part I: The Problem
Part II: Prurient Interests and Not-So_Veiled Threats

Part III The Recipe

Assuming that it is possible to grow crops with great flavor, high levels of nutrition, excellent keeping qualities, and a high resistance to disease and insect attack, how does one go about doing it? Obviously it starts with the soil.

Astera's Hypothesis v1.0: Food of high nutritional quality can only be grown in a fully mineralized, biologically active soil in which energy is flowing or being released.

Biology, i.e. living organisms and their remains, has been the focus of "organic" growers since the 1920s, more especially since the 1950s, and is the only aspect that most "organic" growers have any knowledge of or experience with so far. For most of the this time, the emphasis was on adding more organic matter to the soil in the form of compost and manure; only in the last fifteen years or so has the emphasis shifted more towards the living soil microorganisms, what the popular buzzword calls the SoilFoodWeb.

Energy as used here means energy flow or movement from higher to lower potential. The flow of electric battery current through a light bulb filament is a simple example; as the current flows the resistance to that flow in the filament causes it to give off heat and photons of light. Chemical potentials in the battery are trying to come into balance, taking the path through the light bulb filament. When the chemical balance is achieved, the battery is dead. There are three main schools of thought on energy in plant growth: the Reams Biological Theory of Ionization or RBTI based on the work of Carey Reams, the science of Paramagnetics based on the work of Phil Callahan, and the Biodynamics approach that originated with Rudolph Steiner. All valuable, but none of them well known or accepted by "mainstream" agriculture, chemical or organic. We'll get back to these.

One does not need to know all that much to add biologically active organic matter to the soil. If one does that, and soil moisture is present, there will be an energy release and flow that will result in the growth of soil organisms and plants. Given light, moisture, and warmth, growth is pretty much guaranteed. Nutritional value is not; all that can be counted on is that the plants will produce some quantity of carbohydrates and proteins from the combination of the air and water elements Carbon, Oxygen, Hydrogen, and Nitrogen. To achieve high nutritional value, however, the crops must also contain the soil minerals that our body needs; the essential mineral nutrients.

96% of the human body is made up of the four air and water elements Oxygen, Carbon, Hydrogen and Nitrogen. Much the same goes for plants. Here is a short list of the major mineral elements our body needs to maintain good health, in descending order of amount required: Calcium, Phosphorus, Potassium, Sulfur, Sodium, Chlorine, Magnesium, and Iron. Minor and trace essential minerals include Manganese, Zinc, Copper, Cobalt, Molybdenum, Selenium, Chromium, Tin, Vanadium, Silicon, Boron, Iodine, Fluorine, Cadmium, Arsenic, Nickel, and Lead. If any of these are absent from your diet, out of balance with each other, or not available in sufficient amounts, the body will be unable to grow, repair itself, or reproduce. All of 25 of these and possibly another 30 or so are essential for human health and reproduction. They are NOT all essential for plant health. Plants have no known need for Lead, Cobalt, or even Sodium for that matter, so just because a plant looks perfectly healthy is no guarantee that it will provide the minerals that a human or animal needs.

It is unfortunate that planet Earth's crust does not have these minerals equally distributed, nor does it have them in the quantities needed in many places for robust plant or animal health. Grazing animals make up for this unequal distribution by covering a lot of territory. Predators eat those grazing animals and get their minerals by doing so. Hunter-gatherer humans also cover a lot of territory, as do pastoral nomads who follow their herds. Humans dependent on local agriculture are stuck with the minerals naturally found in their area.

Because rivers get all of the minerals washed into their drainage systems and deposit those minerals at their banks and mouths, river-bottom soil and river deltas contain the richest mix of essential mineral nutrients. The Nile river is our poster child for this phenomenon. The annual Nile floods carried minerals washed down from millions of square miles of Africa, each year flooding and depositing those nutrients along the shores of Eqypt. The lower Nile valley was the breadbasket of North Africa from the Pharaohs' times until the Aswan High Dam was built in the 1960s. Now much of Egypt goes hungry while it imports food and fertilizer and the Nile's fertility silts up the area behind the dam. One has to laugh or cry.

Worldwide, the valleys of the great rivers were the cradles of civilization, simply because of the wide assortment of essential minerals in their soils. A few other places approached or matched that level of fertility, such as the Great Plains of North America, the Chernozem soils of the Ukraine, and the Loess areas of China and the Mississippi Valley. All were the result of either a fortunate combination of rocks from which the soil formed, or windblown dust from large areas, or both.

Of course ancient and even modern people knew nothing about the mineral makeup of their soils; they only knew that some areas grew crops that brought health to people and livestock, some areas didn't. The knowledge of mineral elements and chemistry as a science didn't exist until the late 1700s; the first chemical assays of crops and soils weren't done until the 1830s, and the Periodic Table of the Elements wasn't put together until the late 1800s. Furthermore, despite over two centuries of advances in the fields of chemistry and nutrition, very little knowledge of the mineral basis of soil fertility or nutrition has filtered down to agriculture.

Our goal should be to match or exceed the fertility and mineral balance and availability of the great breadbaskets of the world, so let's get to it.

I'm going to start here with how I grow high-brix nutrient dense crops. There is at least one other method that deserves mention and we will touch on that.

The method I use is largely based on the work of William Albrecht and Firman Bear in the 1930s and '40s in the USA. The essence of it is the Basic Cation Saturation Ratio or BCSR. Note first off that this BCSR idea is neither appreciated nor recognized by mainstream chemical or organic agriculture. That need not concern us overmuch as long as it works, right? The Basic Cations that we are talking about are Calcium, Magnesium, Potassium, and Sodium. They are called 'basic" because adding them to a water solution makes the solution more alkaline or "basic". They are cations because they have a positive charge, a + charge. Ca and Mg have a double plus charge ++, K (Potassium) and Na (Sodium) have a single plus + charge. Those elements with a negative - charge are called anions.

Important notice: Anyone who wishes to follow the rest of this, unless they already have a good understanding of Cation Exchange Capacity (CEC), needs to do a few pages of outside reading here: I promise that it will be almost painless and possibly even enlightening. I'll wait.

Done? Good. Now that everyone is familiar with CEC, we can talk about the BCSR and how to mineralize or re-mineralize our soils. First of all one needs to have the results of a standard soil test that gives them the % saturation of the four major cations Calcium, Magnesium, Potassium, and Sodium presently in the soil, as well as the total CEC (Cation Exchange Capacity) of the soil. Here are some examples of the results of a standard soil test:

What we (ideally) want to end up with are the following cation saturation ratios:

Calcium 60%-70%
Magnesium 10%-20%
Potassium 2%-5%
Sodium 1%-4%
H+ Hydrogen 5%-10%

This will give us a well-balanced mineral base to start off with, and, with the anion ratios listed below, a pH of ~6.5 to 6.7.

The major anions are Nitrogen, Phosphorus, Sulfur, and Chlorine. Here is how they should fit together with the cations above:

Phosphorus should be equal to Potassium (actual P=actual K), which means phosphate (P2O5) should be 2x potash (K2O).

Sulfur should be 1/2 of Phosphorus, up to around 400 lbs per acre. More is usually not needed except in soils that start out alkaline, i.e. pH greater than 7.

Chlorine should be equal to Sodium, and not more than 2x Sodium.

Nitrogen will generally take care of itself for most crops if the soil organic matter content is 4% or above. Some N loving crops like corn (maize) or onions may need some supplemental Nitrogen.

I realize this is all a bit much at first glance. Please read it over a few times and I think it will begin to make sense. This is the only sure method that I know of to balance the soil minerals and grow those high-Brix nutrient dense crops. Just a few more minerals to look at today:

Boron: 1/1000th of Calcium, but not more than 4ppm (parts per million) or 8 lbs per acre.
Iron: 100-200 ppm (200-400 lbs/acre)
Manganese: 1/2 of Iron, but more than 50ppm is not necessary.
Zinc: 1/10 of Phosphorus
Copper: 1/2 of Zinc

That's it. Get the above list of minerals into the soil in the amounts suggested and most of the work is done. Nature will gladly take over from there, Please note, though, that these last five minor minerals must be in the soil in the right quantity; if not, if all of the majors are there without the minors, one is likely to have great yield but poor nutrition. The human body needs a lot more Calcium than it does Iron, and a lot more Iron than it does Copper, but all of them are equally essential.

The other twenty or so essential minerals are only needed in very small amounts, usually 1 ppm or less. Standard soil tests don't check for them. They can be supplied with any or all of the following:

Sea Salt
Seaweed (Kelp meal is pretty commonly available)
Various mineral deposits from ancient lakes, seas, or volcanoes
Rock dust from quarries or rock crushing operations.
(these would all be applied at a rate of about 400lbs/acre or 10 lbs per 1000 sq ft))

All of the above is explained at some length in my book The Ideal Soil, along with how to calculate amounts to apply and which organic-approved mineral sources contain how much of what. Those interested can check it out here: There are a number of books about WHY to mineralize the soil, but so far The Ideal Soil is the only book that shows the reader HOW to mineralize their soil. (If anyone knows of any other how-to books on soil mineral balancing, let me know and I will gladly list them.)

Quite a bit to take in at once, but what we have covered here will work for almost any food crop in any climate. There is no need for special formulas for special crops, no need to worry about pH. This mineral balance, combined with a biologically active soil with around 4% humus, along with sunshine, warmth, and water, will provide all that is needed to achieve good to excellent Brix readings, great flavor and keeping qualities, and a high degree of resistance to insects and disease. We are also working on the assumption that it will provide excellent mineral nutrition, as all of the essential minerals are available to the plants, but that has yet to be proven. Our proposed project will be to prove the concept, correlating high Brix with high minerals, in order to establish the world's first nutritional standards for food

It doesn't seem that I have room left in this not-so-short post to cover everything else I mentioned at the end of Part II, so I will just give a brief mention to the other school of mineral balancing, the Reams school, and wait to talk about the economics and ecology of these ideas in part IV.

Carey Reams (1904-1987) was a somewhat eccentric scientist, agronomist, and Christian mystic who worked mostly in Florida USA. The rule mentioned above that actual Phosphorus should equal actual Potassium, or phosphate should be 2x potash, originated with Reams. Reams is also who we have to thank for bringing the refractometer into use in general agriculture. The Brix chart he devised is still considered the gold standard for food crops. Here it is again:

Reams did extensive work with energy flow in soils, and came up with some ideas on the roles of energy and minerals that haven't always translated well into modern scientific terminology. Nonetheless he achieved great results and some of his students have gone on to teach and practice his methods very successfully. Unlike the standard soil test mentioned above and used by Albrecht and most mainstream soil testing laboratories, Reams preferred the LaMotte test, which uses a weak extracting solution, closer to that which plant roots themselves employ in the soil. The Reams system is not based on the BCSR, but on the measurement of readily soluble major nutrients in the soil. The mineral ratios that Reams called for, however, are essentially identical to the CEC saturation ratios of the BCSR. Here are Reams' ideal soil mineral amounts, as available nutrients per acre, based on the Lamotte soil test:

Calcium: 2,000-4,000 lbs
Magnesium: 285-570 lbs
Phosphate: 400 lbs
Potash: 200 lbs
Nitrate Nitrogen: 40 lbs
Ammonium Nitrogen: 40 lbs
Sulfate: 200 lbs
Sodium: 20-70 ppm

The major difference in practice between the Reams school and what is loosely called the Albrecht school is that Reams emphasized frequent soil testing, as often as once a week, and applying needed minerals throughout the growing season as often as variations in the soil test results called for. The BCSR ratios that this author uses only require testing once or twice a year, spring and/or fall, and it has been my experience that once the major minerals are in place and balanced these one or two tests per year (or perhaps only when a problem arises) are sufficient to grow healthy high-Brix crops. More frequent testing may be justified for larger fields of high-value crops, but I have had a hard enough time convincing growers to test their soil at all. Enough said.

In Part IV we will take a closer look at energy flow in the soil, at the economics and ecology of mineral balanced agriculture, and discuss its potential impact on human, animal, and planetary health.

Michael Astera

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Part II: Prurient Interests and Not-So-Veiled Threats

by Michael Astera

Part I ended with the promise of an appeal to prurient interests, loosely defined here as greed, power, status, and sex appeal. The promised threats will consist of the opposites: poverty, servitude, failure, and general unattractiveness. How am I proposing to make an arcane concept like soil minerals into such a combination of carrot and stick? Read on...

The basis of social standing is that what you have is better than what I have; the next step being that you have more of what is better than I do. The more of whatever is "better" that you have than I do, the more powerful you are, the higher your social standing, and the more sex appeal you have. So the challenge is to show how growing, selling, buying, and eating superior food can help to make you healthy, prosperous, and attractive while messing around with inferior food will do the opposite.

The essence of Part I was that our food is generally pretty crummy, regardless of the ideology and methods of the growers and producers. A theme running through this screed is that the main reason our food is mediocre or even bad is because of a false dogma, to wit: That volume of production achieved with the least input and sold for the highest price is the best possible outcome. It doesn't matter which ideology the farmers or gardeners I talk to or read follow, they either brag about how many tomatoes or bushels of corn they grew or they complain about not growing enough. When we see photos of successful gardens they are of giant cabbages and orchards laden with branch-breaking fruit yields. We do not have "sweetest and most flavorful" pumpkin growing contests, we have GIANT pumpkin growing contests. Again, appearance counts, and volume counts, but where does quality fit in to this?

As noted, I haven't yet had great success convincing growers to actually adopt the soil mineral balancing approach. It's not because people don't get it. Even non-gardeners get the concept easily enough: The key to flavor and nutrition in the food is the minerals available to the plants. Hopefully Part I at least made an impression on those who still believed that more organic matter or scattershot rock powders were the answer. Those who are not yet convinced I encourage to check out the bookstore's Eco_Agriculture section, particularly the books by Albrecht, Walters, Kinsey, Zimmer, and Andersen. If your local library can't get them you will have to buy them I guess, or you can access quite a lot of free info at this author's website, The Interview with Agricola is a good place to start.

Assuming that the audience is more or less convinced of the soundness of the soil minerals = soil fertility and crop quality concept, the problem of compliance still remains. Most people are not going to go to the trouble unless they see some sort of personal gain by doing so, or alternatively they see the potential of harm coming to them if they don't. Either one works, both at once is best. Wouldn't you agree?

Okay, enough dilly-dallying. What I am proposing are food quality standards. If you as that big-time produce buyer in Chicago had the choice of buying a known product of guaranteed quality versus an unknown, the choice would not be difficult. Even a price disparity could be overlooked, if you as the middleman knew that your customers would be willing to buy the product because of its superior quality, and you could also be assured of fewer losses due to spoliage. Well grown produce does not easily rot, it dehydrates. You can take that to the bank.

Realistically, only a minor portion of the populace is likely to seek out food simply because it is more nutrient-dense, and even fewer will be willing to pay a premium for it. (Not that nutrient-dense food need come at a higher cost; more on that later) If these quality standards are going to fly, they must appeal to our sensual selves. Luscious sweet fruits, zingy tomatoes, rich and flavorful nuts, cheeses, breads. People going "WOW!" when they taste the food. Who doesn't want that? What restaurant owner, home cook, produce department manager, farmer, or home gardener doesn't want to go Wow! when they taste their own food or wish to hear it from others?

So we must appeal primarily to the senses of taste and smell, and sight of course. The product must still be big and beautiful, but it must also be obviously superior in flavor and aroma, which can only be achieved by scientifically (!!) balancing the soil minerals, thereby providing the crop with every element it could possibly need to fulfill its genetic potential. The consumer need know little of this aspect. They will appreciate the flavor and quality; the health benefits will be a stealth effect.

At this point we need to introduce the concept of Brix or degrees Brix, for those to whom it is not already well known. Brix is the measure of dissolved solids in a liquid. A simple example would be a solution that was 10% sugar and 90% water. That solution would measure 10 degrees Brix (10* Brix or just 10 Brix). If the solution weighed 100 grams, it would contain 90 grams of water and 10 grams of sugar. Winemakers, grape growers, and brewers have used the Brix scale since the 1800s to measure the level of fermentable sugars. Originally this was done by floating a long, weighted glass tube called a hydrometer, like a large thermometer, in a container of liquid. The higher the concentration of dissolved solids was, the denser the solution, and the higher the glass tube would float. The glass was calibrated with markers according to degrees Brix.

These days Brix is measured with a refractometer, a simple instrument that looks like a short telescope with an eyepiece at one end and a glass prism at the other. One puts a drop of plant sap, juice, or any other solution on the face of the glass prism and then looks through the eyepiece while holding the prism up to a light source. The higher the concentration of dissolved solids in the solution, the more the light passing through it is bent, or refracted.

A refractometer:

View through a refractometer eyepiece:

Here is a list of Brix readings for fruit and vegetables, from poor to excellent:

Refractometers provide a handy snapshot of what is going on with the crop. Various plant saps and juices will vary from 2* to 30* Brix, even in the same type of plant, under different growing conditions and levels of soil fertility. It's easily understood that a fruit or vegetable that measures 15* Brix contains three times as many nutrients as one that measures 5* Brix. The refractometer measures the total of all of the components in the juice or sap, not just sugar. Proteins, amino acids, vitamins, lipids, aromatics, and minerals will all add to the total amount of refraction. As these all add to the flavor and nutrient value of the food, there is a pretty close correlation between the Brix number and the quality and flavor of the crop.

Refractometers are becoming more and more common in commercial agriculture as well as becoming popular with home gardeners and even consumers. Not long ago they were quite expensive; these days one can find a good quality refractometer online for $30 to $40. What you want is one that reads 0* to 32* Brix and is automatically temperature compensated, ATC. 32ATC is the item.

There are plenty of web sites that discuss the role of Brix and refractometers in agriculture so we needn't go into detail here other than to tie the idea in to our proposed food quality standards. High Brix = high nutrient content, even if the only nutrient present in any quantity is sugar, which is usually not the case. Most crops require a very fertile, biologically active, and mineral-rich soil to achieve high Brix.
Hybrid sweet corn is an exception; one might measure a Brix of 20 or more in the juice from hybrid sweet corn kernels while the sap in the stalk a few inches away might only measure 4 or 5 Brix. Most crops require a high Brix in the sap of the stems and leaves in order to yield a high brix in the edible parts, and in the case of lettuce, asparagus etc the stems and leaves are the crop.

The Brix level of the plant's sap is also closely associated with resistance to insects and disease. A common claim is that insects will not attack a plant of a given species when the sap Brix is above a certain level.

So we have our first simple and affordable tool to measure nutrient levels in a crop. Getting back to the produce buyer in Chicago, assuming that you now knew and understood Brix, and knew that a poor quality tomato averaged 4* Brix while an excellent one would read 12*, you could ask your potential suppliers what their tomatoes measured. If a grower promised to supply 10 Brix tomatoes you would know what you were getting, and be able to check their veracity when the shipment arrived. The produce department manager at any grocery store could quickly check the Brix of all incoming crops and accept or reject them on the spot. Any consumer could take their refractometer along with them to the produce stand and ask to check the Brix before they laid their money down.

We are starting to see the potential for personal gain or loss in the food standards concept. If you as a grower can consistently supply 12 Brix tomatoes, 18 Brix carrots, or 20 Brix oranges while your competition can't, who are the buyers going to wish to buy from?

Is it easy to grow high-Brix crops? It's not difficult when all of the pieces are in place, but it's impossible if they are not. High Brix is just not attainable without abundant and balanced soil minerals in combination with a biologically active soil. Some of the major players are the elements Calcium, Magnesium, and Phosphorus. Of those three, only one, Phosphorus, P, shows up on a fertilizer label, chemical or organic. Nitrogen, Phosphate, and K, potash, in abundance may well grow a huge crop, but without a full and balanced supply of another 15 or so soil minerals one will not realize the plant's full genetic potential or high Brix.

The claim has often been made that high Brix is a guarantee of high levels of minerals in the crop. Is this true? Unfortunately we don't know. It would be nice if that were the case, but the testing has simply not been done. The only person I know of who has actually published the results of a test to correlate Brix with minerals is Jon Frank at the web site. Jon compared green beans from the grocery store that averaged 4.2 Brix with immature green beans from his own mineral balanced garden that averaged 6.1 Brix. After measuring the Brix, he sent samples of each to a soil testing laboratory for a plant tissue analysis. The beans from Jon's garden tested 85% higher in Calcium, along with 66% more Magnesium, 100% more Phosphorus, 200% more Potassium, 300% more Copper, 220% more Zinc, and 60% more Iron than the grocery store beans. Jon also notes that his beans were planted late and had less than ideal growing conditions. A Brix reading of 6 is considered an "average" number for green beans. What would the difference be if the sample had been green beans that measured 10 Brix? Well we don't know. Jon's test is the only one I know of, sad to say. Check out the essay he wrote about his experiment here:

We will get back to the high-Brix = high minerals subject in a bit, but first a word from out sponsor:

Just kidding. We don't have a sponsor. Dang.

I spent a bit of time today doing searches at a couple of major gardening magazine web sites, http:/ and My search words were "minerals" and "minerals in vegetables". Organic Gardening yielded one hit, an article on soil pH. That's all,folks. Mother Earth News was a bit better; there I pulled up ten pages of articles that mentioned soil and food minerals going back to the 1970s. Unfortunately only one was of any value to our discussion here, a June 2006 article by Steve Solomon on how to make your own mineralized organic fertilizer. The only others that even touched on the subject were hit pieces telling me what I already knew, that industrial agriculture and plant breeding was giving us less nutrients in our food.

Moving along, I thought I'd try the Natural News site, We are again told that our soils and foods are mineral depleted. The suggestion is made to buy organically grown food. Natural disasters such as volcanic eruptions and floods are noted for their contribution to soil fertility. In several articles sea salt is recommended as a source of soil minerals. Again not much help.

I recall a couple of years back Mother Earth News had an article about the mineral content of organic produce. The writer had discovered, as many others have, that there really is no good evidence for higher mineral or nutrient content in organic produce. The upshot was that they were planning on doing some research themselves, and invited anyone interested to sign up for updates. I did of course, even sent a follow-up email a few months later asking what was going on but got no reply. Based on my search today, not only wasn't the research done, but they have even taken the original article out of the database.

Anyone who has read this far, and sees the importance of soil minerals, can also see that we have a problem. How many billions of dollars are spent on research into curing diseases? How many billions on health care, treating diseases of malnutrition and deficiency? How much is spent on developing hybrid and GMO crops that can still produce a yield on worn-out soils as long as they are fed chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides? How many articles, books, workshops, and college courses are focused exclusively on the organic portion of the soil, as if that were going to solve a mineral deficiency? How many websites that are devoted to organic and sustainable agriculture focus entirely on compost, manure, compost tea, manure tea, fungi, bacteria, and the soilfoodweb? Thousands. How many sites decry the mineral depleted state of our soils and food? Tens of thousands. How many websites actually address the problem, as in which minerals do what and how to get them into your soil in a balanced and available form? One. What is with that? I guess it's good to be in first place on any google search for soil minerals, garden minerals, organic garden minerals and on and on, but we wouldn't mind some competition. The goal is to get the message out.

Enough whining about what isn't happening; we are talking about how to make it happen. Specifically I am suggesting that those who are intrigued with the idea that they can attain high Brix and superior nutrition in their crops, and thereby gain a competitive advantage in the marketplace as well as personal health, work together to set some achievable goals. The initial goals that I am suggesting would be crops that measure good to excellent in Brix according to the chart here: and have mineral levels at least equal to the average mineral content found in crops from the USA in 1940. Those who wished to participate would need to invest $30 to $40 in a 0-32* Brix refractometer and be willing to spend another $40 or so to have a laboratory plant tissue test done on at least one crop.

The plan would be to measure the Brix level of the crop and then send a sample of the same crop for mineral analysis. The tissue test results would then be compared to the mineral content of crops measured by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) in 1940. 1940 seems to be the year when US food crops began their serious decline in nutrients. If we can achieve or better those mineral levels from 1940, along with superior flavor, we will have the basis for new food standards, the first food standards for fruits and vegetables in the history of the world, as far as this writer knows. Provably superior food. Think some people would sit up and take notice? I do. The next time one of us read a health, nutrition or gardening magazine or web site whining about declining nutrients in our food, we could write them and say "Not in MY food!" Those of us engaged in growing food for a living would have some serious bragging rights and a strong marketing advantage. What's not to like? Well perhaps those who don't or can't achieve high Brix and high mineral content will have something not to like, but we will be smiling, and we will be doing a great thing for the health of people everywhere.

There must be a catch, right? But of course. Isn't there always? In order to achieve either high Brix or high mineral content, all of the minerals must be present in a biologically active soil, available to the plants, and in balance with each other. Maybe I'm wrong about this, but I don't think so. I'll pretty much guarantee, though, that the goal will not be achieved just by adding more organic matter to a mineral depleted soil. The sacred C.O.W. (Conventional Organic Wisdom) will need to change once there is an established high quality standard to strive for. Organic alone will not be good enough. "Conventional" chemical agriculture will have to wake up and change too. High Brix and high nutrient content is not achievable simply by pouring NPK fertilizers on a dead soil

The up-front payoff for going to the trouble of growing superior food? Health and wealth, of our soils, our plants, our animals, and ourselves. Those are attractive advantages. Once there is a known standard of quality, all food will be compared against that. Crops that don't meet or exceed the new quality standards will be considered second-rate, and as the knowledge and methods of how to grow superior food spread, more and more growers and consumers will come to expect high quality nutrient dense food.
No more BS claims that "organic" has more minerals. No more need for a debate between chemical agriculture and organic. The growers would have to put up or shut up, and when consumers are given the choice to buy food that is superior in flavor, aroma, and keeping qualities combined with a proven high nutrient content as opposed to an unknown, which will they choose? Which would you choose?

In Part III we will discuss how to grow high Brix nutrient dense food, see why doing so is not more costly than present systems and may be even less expensive, and demonstrate the ecological soundness and long-term sustainability of the concept. As a bonus, we will see how we can feed the whole world better on less land than is being cultivated today.

Michael Astera

Part III: The Recipe

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Part I : The Problem

Part II: Prurient Interests and Not-So-Veiled Threats
Part III: The Recipe
Part IV: A Call for Volunteers

by Michael Astera

When was the last time you bought a really sweet melon, or a tomato bursting with flavor and zing? I don't know about you, but I pretty much gave up on even buying grocery store melons or tomatoes years ago.

When you go shopping for fruit and vegetables at the grocery store, produce stand, farmer's market, or local food co-op, how are you to know the quality of the food you are buying? Pretty much by appearance alone, yes? If it looks good, buy it. If it doesn't, don't. In most cases you are not allowed even a taste, and only after you get those nice-looking carrots, apples, or tomatoes home do you find out whether you even want to eat them. Have you ever bought luscious looking fruit, taken it home, eaten one bite and then thrown the rest in the compost bucket or the garbage because it is tasteless, sour, or bitter? I have, and more than once or twice. Have you ever bought vegetables that rotted in the refrigerator within a few days and had to be thrown out?

Imagine you were a produce buyer for a large chain of grocery stores in the upper Midwestern US. Every day you were ordering many tons of fruit and vegetables from far away places like California, Florida, Mexico, or Chile. What assurance would you have that the produce you were buying was sweet, flavorful, or nutritious? None. And as we have all experienced, this produce from far away is, as a rule, not sweet or flavorful. "Cardboard" is one of the frequent adjectives used to describe most commercial produce.

We are not just talking about agribusiness grown chemically fertilized produce; the poor flavor and keeping qualities are just as prevalent in certified organic fruit and vegetables, in my experience at least. It seems that appearance alone is not a very good indicator of quality. So what other criteria do we have to evaluate the quality of the produce we buy? Again, none. I don't know of any quality standards for produce other than a limit on the amount of pesticide residues for chemical agriculture crops and a list of what may or may not be used on USDA Certified Organic crops. There are no rules governing flavor or nutritional quality. Why? Perhaps because no one has yet instituted any quality standards?

There has been a lot of talk over the past ten or so years about "nutrient dense" food. For much longer than that, those who care about nutrition have decried the lack of minerals in our food. With all of this talk over all of these years, what has been done to change things, to ensure that our food is nutrient dense and chock-full of essential vitamins and minerals? Nothing. Not a thing. Sure, one can now buy "certified organic" food in most any large grocery, but that says nothing about nutrients or flavor. Certified organic means only that certain poisonous chemicals have not been used. That's it. Certified organic crops can be, and some are, grown on very depleted and imbalanced soils. No one checks for nutrients, the only rule is what is NOT allowed, nothing about what is required.

Yet the myth persists that "organic" crops are more nutritious. What proof is there for this belief? Little or none. A few studies claim higher levels of this or that in organically grown produce. Such studies are few and far between, and the ones I have seen are not very convincing. The fact is that eliminating the use of poisons and refined chemical fertilizers does nothing to guarantee increased nutrient levels, and neither does just adding more organic matter to the soil.

80% to 95% of fresh organic matter or compost is water. Of the remaining 5% to 20%, 95% to 98% is composed of three elements that the plants get from air and water: Carbon, Oxygen, and Hydrogen. What is left after the water and carbohydrates are taken away? A tiny percentage of minerals. The minerals that our bodies need, the minerals that are necessary to make all of the proteins, amino acids, complex sugars and starches, and vitamins that must be there if we are to be healthy and not malnourished. Minerals are what make up the matrix of our bones and teeth, carry the oxygen in our blood, bring energy to each living cell, and serve as the templates for our DNA.

In 1999, after being a dyed-in-the-wool organic gardener since the early 1970s, I stumbled across the somewhat astounding concept that if the minerals are not in the soil, they will not be in the food. Amazing, no? And if the essential minerals are not in our food, we can reasonably expect poor health and deficiency diseases. The simple and obvious solution is to make sure that the essential minerals ARE in the soil so that they CAN BE in the crop. To that end, I have spent the last 10+ years studying and experimenting with mineral nutrients and soil mineral balance and doing my best to get the mineral message out to as many as would listen. I started a web site, and put up hundreds of pages of free information on soil minerals. I even wrote a book, The Ideal Soil, to get the message out to as many as possible and to show anyone with an interest how they could balance the minerals and grow highly nutritious nutrient dense food in their own gardens, fields, and pastures. I spoke at colleges and meetings, talked to every gardener and farmer I met, and I continue to do that still. My success in getting the mineral message out to the farmers and gardeners, sadly, has not been very good.

I have to admit to being discouraged at times. This seemed so obvious to me; almost everyone who cared about health knew that our soils and crops were mineral deficient. The concept that if the mineral is not in the soil it CAN'T be in the crop isn't hard to grasp. So why were so few who supposedly cared about health and nutrition willing to do anything to make sure that the essential minerals were in their soil? Several reasons.

The first, which I touched on above, is the myth that by adding organic matter, e.g. compost and manure, to the soil, they were supplying all of the needed minerals. Simply not true. Let's look at one example of why not:

Calcium is the mineral nutrient that our bodies need in the largest quantity. It is also the mineral nutrient that a healthy soil needs in the largest quantity. Many soils need more calcium, especially in rainy climates. It's not uncommon to find a soil that needs 3,000 lbs or more of Calcium per acre in order to be in balance. How much compost would that take? On average, plant ash is around 2% calcium; the way things work out, in order to add 3,000 lbs of calcium per acre, we would have to apply around 12,000,000 lbs, twelve million pounds, of average compost. Per acre. That works out to something like ten feet deep. Isn't going to happen. Even if it did, we would at the same time be applying around 12,000 lbs of potassium, when the average soil only needs 200 to 400 lbs per acre of K.

Another reason for resistance to the idea of balancing the soil minerals is the myth that all the soil needs is some "generic" minerals, as in "glacial" rock dust. No doubt rock dust is good stuff, especially if your soil happens to need the minerals that are in that rock dust. A typical glacial rock dust analysis that I pulled up on the internet shows about 4% calcium. How much of that rock dust would we need to supply our 3,000 lbs of Ca per acre? 75,000 lbs per acre. But it gets worse; that same mineral analysis tells us that this rock dust is 7% iron, and that 75,000 lbs of rock dust would be adding 5,250 lbs of iron, around 5,000 lbs too much. Glacial rock dust is not going to do what we want.

So what do we want? We want high-calcium limestone, 40% Ca by weight. 7500 lbs of that will give us our 3,000 lbs of calcium and be doable and affordable. For a smaller garden that works out to 170 lbs per 1000 square feet; again doable and affordable.

The biggest point of resistance, however, is the concept that in order to balance the minerals in the soil, one first ought to know what minerals are already there. Wouldn't you think? Not a real good idea to go guessing what the soil needs and maybe throw things completely out of whack. Unless one has a full soil testing laboratory at home, that means taking a soil sample and mailing it off to a laboratory and waiting for the results. The lab will charge $20 to $30, plus one will have to pay the postage and wait about a week. A $25 expense and a week's wait seems to be a pretty big hurdle to most, even to those whose living depends on growing a crop. Still, if that is all it took, many would be willing, but when the results come back one still has to know how to read them and decide what to do, or find someone who does and probably have to pay them. Again, that's why I wrote The Ideal Soil. But one still has to READ it and LEARN a few things. It's all seemingly just too much trouble,

So we continue on our merry way, spouting off about nutrient dense food and the shocking lack of minerals in our soils but doing nothing about it. More compost, more manure, let's add some beneficial microbes and fungi and brew up some aerobic compost tea and maybe throw on a few pounds of Dolomite lime (wrong move there).

Mr or Ms average grower is not seemingly all that interested in learning something new or spending more money on soil amendments, so the produce they grow continues to be of fair to mediocre quality unless they are lucky enough to have naturally mineral rich and balanced soil The diseases of deficiency and malnutrition continue to take their toll. The fruits and vegetables in the stores remain tasteless and have poor keeping qualities, and the produce buyers, big and small, have no way of knowing what they are getting for their money.

What to do? Obviously appealing to common sense and such altruistic motives as making the world a better and healthier place is not enough to overcome the comfort zones of the sacred C.O.W. (Conventional Organic Wisdom), nor is it sufficient to motivate growers to learn about things like soil mineral chemistry. It seems we will have to appeal to more prurient interests like greed and social standing, with a liberal dash of competition and threats to one's livelihood thrown in. Whatever it takes; it's for the greater good, after all. Will the ends justify the means?

Coming up in Part II: Appeals to prurient interests and a few not-so-veiled threats to one's social standing and livelihood.

Michael Astera