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


Pam R. said...

I've been reading this series with great interest. But the link to the CEC stuff:

came up page not found: not uploaded or incorrect URL.

As it seemed to be a pretty critical bit of info, I was hoping you could check into it?

Thank you, and I am really learning a lot about feeding the soil.

Pam R.
whose been doing this hit or miss for years

m_astera said...

Hi Pam-

The link to Cation Exchange Simplified is fixed. The URL was correct, just some glitch in blogspot I guess.

Glad you are enjoying the series. I enjoy writing it too.


Anonymous said...

I remember you from Liberty Forum. Its nice to recognize an old friends. Best wishes.

Ditty said...

Wonderful post Michael. If there are others out there reading these posts that have not yet purchased Michael's book (The Ideal Soil), I highly recommend it. On that same note, I have no connection to Michael or the sales of his book. I just want to hear more people fluent in "brix" language - to me, brix is synonymous with Health! Thanks again Michael.

Toronto, Ontario

elhnad said...

+1 for Ditty
that'd be an awesome day, to hear ppl use Brix widely

agricultural investments said...

Great stuff - thanks

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