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Biological Farming

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I recently spoke about genetic engineering to the annual meeting of a group of 10,000 farmers in North America who employ an innovative and exciting agricultural method. These farmers spray natural (non-genetically engineered) bacteria solutions on their soil to "eat up" and "break down" pesticide residues.

I recently spoke about genetic engineering to the annual meeting of a group of 10,000 farmers in North America who employ an innovative and exciting agricultural method.

These farmers spray natural (non-genetically engineered) bacteria solutions on their soil to "eat up" and "break down" pesticide residues. They later test their crops for over 300 pesticides to show no pesticide residues are left before they market them as "certified chemical-free."

The technology is used by both organic and non-organic farmers. The non-organic farmers on this program use some pesticides (herbicides), but much less quantity and less toxic varieties than conventional farmers. Because the bacteria improve the health of the soil, the farmers can use less pesticides. These farmers also test their crops after using the bacteria to show there are no pesticide residues left.

We don't want to imply that this method of using bacteria to get rid of pesticide residues is as good for the environment as organic (pesticide-free) agriculture. However, for those hesitant to switch over to organic farming all at once, this program is an excellent step; it allows for a dramatic reduction in the use of pesticides and the production of crops free of pesticide residues, without having to radically alter agricultural practices.

For those already practising organic methods, these natural bacterial solutions can also help improve soil health and break down any pesticide residues remaining or resulting from pesticide drift. As pesticide residues can last for tens of years, a proactive method of speeding up their decay is very timely!

Farm For Profit

The farm group employing this new agricultural method is called "Farm for Profit: Research and Development." It's a farmer-to-farmer information service. The term emphasizes that their programs are both practical and profitable, while benefiting the environment.

During the conference, we visited a large nearby farm that was using the program. There were about 10 test sites where one could compare the soil and plants with conventional crops on adjoining plots. The difference was phenomenal.

On the conventional "standard pesticide-use" sites, the soil was compacted and clogged up, so the roots could only go down a few inches. Also, there were fewer nitrogen fixing nodules and very little good smell from the earth.

With the Farm For Profit program, the soil is loose and smells rich and alive. The roots go down a few feet, with numerous nitrogen-fixing bacteria nodules and evidence of earthworms enriching the soil. Also, the roots are thicker with finer root hairs, which is important for drawing up nutrients from the soil. Above ground, with Farm for Profit the plants are healthier and bigger. Also, for the conventional crop, there were secondary roots springing out from the stem a few inches above ground indicating that the main root system was clogged. This did not happen with the "Farm for Profit" approach.

Clean Soil Naturally

The farmers usually apply these microbial solutions to their soil for three or more years before testing the soil. The natural bacterial solution can be used to clean up the soil quicker, but they use a more gradual approach so that the farmers can continue to farm the land while it's being cleaned.

I asked the farmers who used some pesticides (including the owner of the farm we were visiting) why they used any chemicals at all. They said they needed to use at least a minimal amount of herbicides to control weeds.

After checking with organic experts, I found out that there are organic methods of weed management that are effective in controlling weeds, even on large tracts of land. However, it could require some work and investment. While the Farm for Profit approach may not be the ultimate goal of a toxin-free environment, it's much less toxic than conventional agriculture and is relatively easy to implement.

Conventional (non-organic) farmers use pesticides, which kill all weeds regardless of the fact that they can be beneficial, fight biodiversity and are at odds with nature's longing for covered soil. In contrast, organic methods such as intercropping, crop rotation, mulching and using cover crops, increase biodiversity and are therefore intrinsically more stable. "Allelopathic" cover crops (such as rye) exude chemicals that naturally inhibit the growth of certain weedy plants.

Listen to Your Weeds

There are two kinds of weeds the invasive and the beneficial. Some are actually necessary. They teach farmers and gardeners valuable lessons about the condition of the soil, according to Elmer Laird, alive's agricultural consultant.

Common weeds can alert you to nutrient shortages or excesses, as well as overall soil health. For example, the lowly dandelion shows that the soil is short of calcium and wild oats indicate good soil. Become familiar with your weeds. They're great soil helpers. Here are a few examples of weeds to listen to:

  • Bindweed poor drainage, compacted dirt caused by tilling while wet.
  • Mustard (includes shepherd's purse and peppergrass) too much potassium and sodium, indicates hard pan.
  • Lamb's quarters love to grow in well-manured, cultivated soil. The leaves are wonderful in salads, soups and stews and are very rich in nutrients, much like spinach.
  • Wild carrot (Queen Anne's lace) Shows that poor soil is improving. If the roots are well formed, there is humus. If the roots are knotty, the soil is compacted, but rich.
  • Pigweed Cultivated, light, dry sandy soil.
  • Nightshade/bittersweet Poor, overcultivated soil which has been used for heavy feeding crops.
  • Cinquefoils Hard pan. Poor soil needing lime.
  • Wild Strawberry Same indicators as cinquefoil.
  • Chickweed Good, fertile, cultivated soil. These plants bloom under the snow and are nutritious and good in salads all year long.
  • Burdock Too much lime, creating a gypsum soil. Aside from being highly medicinal, these plants recover the soil's fertility.
  • Daisies If these grow well, the soil is too acidic.
  • Clovers Grow in poor soil and work to rebuild it.

For more information on the power of weeds visit the website gardenguides.com/articles/weeds.html.

For more information on using natural bacteria to break down pesticides, see . For more information on organic agriculture, see attra.org or eap.mcgill.ca.

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