In the fall of 2012, I took my last ISP class, “Sustainable Food Practices.” Andrea Cloninger Wilson and John Patrick challenged the class to explore the dominant existing modes of cultivation, and consider alternatives with the obvious focus on sustainable agriculture. The consequences of modern agriculture, and present day eating habits on the health of Americans, quickly became apparent and alarming, to say the least. The coursework was of course, in depth and intense.
I was personally confronted with the fact that for decades, working in the field of landscaping, I had applied copious amounts of herbicides, insecticides, and fungicides. This was the first time I truly took a close look at glyphosate, atrazine, 2, 4-D, triclopyr, and a host of other “cides.” No longer do I use these oftentimes, indiscriminate killers.
In the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, I encouraged my clients to incorporate into their landscapes, a small garden using raised beds. If they had children, as a hook, I talked about the benefits of getting the youngsters involved. The fun and rewards includes math, biology, earth sciences, and water-resources, sowing and finally harvest. No one wanted anything to do with it. I heard most often, “What would my neighbors think if I have all these raised beds in the back yard.” I gave up. Today there is a strong and growing niche market for editable landscapes. I was motivated by this class to reassert my passion for helping others grow produce organically. I’ve subsequently built and maintain several garden plots. But my enthusiasm did not stop there.
Upon completing the ISP coursework, I was so inspired by the need for all things organic in feeding my fellow Tennesseans, that I cleared approximately three additional acres of my Hickman County property, to create an eight-acre field. (I’ve known the Barefoot Farmer, who also goes by the name, Jeff Poppin, since the late 1980’s. The goal of my post ISP dream included joining him and the host of other local organic farmers in this most crucial pursuit of food security, sustainable land stewardship practices, and good health for all). I imagined hundreds of blueberry plants, erecting the 30X96 aluminum frame greenhouse I purchased, and growing spring, summer and fall crops. Like nature, I intended to diversify my farm by raising bees for honey, chickens, and who knows what else. A close friend of Jeff’s managed the timber extraction for me. James can drop trees in his sleep. Through James I met David Harper. Little did I know when I first set eyes on Brother Dave, that we would one day become partners in a new endeavor of my landscape business.
Another confession from someone who has been employed in the landscape industry for over 30 years: When I planted, I rarely if ever gave thought to the activity below the surface of the ground. The extent of my observation was in the root systems of plants, and certainly water resources, but not what hosted and fed the roots, which support functions of the plant above ground. I did apply synthetic and organic fertilizers. In class we studied soil! Who knew there could be five or six billion microorganisms in a thumb-full of healthy soil, and by healthy I mean soil that has not been altered by the hands of us folks that walk upright. I came to realize that by simply digging in the earth, I was disrupting a complex and beautiful organic system supporting incredibly diverse life. And then along came brother Dave!
Brother Dave practiced organic agriculture in the Arkansas Ozarks for over 20 years before moving his family to Tennessee. For someone who is not an academically trained microbiologist, Dave’s knowledge of the biology of the soil is impressive and extensive. Twenty years ago, he was introduced to Elaine Ingham, who for all intents and purposes, put compost teas on the agriculture radar. (Learn more about Dr. Ingham at: http://www.lifeinthesoilclasses.com ) I learned in class that synthetic fertilizers and all the pesticides contribute to the sterilization of the soil, wiping out countless organisms necessary to maintain the soil food web, which maintains healthy plants, be they agricultural species, or the natural flora in ecosystems. The more we eliminate the biology, the more synthetic inputs are required to get anything to grow with any vigor. Monocultures resemble nothing like the way nature does it. Nature knows nothing of the plow, but instead the forces of erosion coupled with the ongoing decay of the biomass. The role of minerals in the life of plants is just as critical as the biology. The natural world thrives in perfect harmony. Humans can be a disruptive force.
To determine the mineral needs of a piece of ground, I first take a soil sample, which is analyzed at a lab in Ohio. The test reveals much more than pH. For example, the present amounts of, or lack of, soluble sulfur, calcium, magnesium, potassium, sodium, iron, copper, zinc, boron, manganese, and aluminum is determined. The analysis tells us what to add, if anything. A pH range of 6.3 to 6.5 is ideal for growing most anything we cultivate here in Middle Tennessee. However, if it is blueberries, then the pH should be around 5.4, which is fairly acidic. The minerals are mined in Mississippi from an ancient seabed. Compost tea is applied to the same ground. To the tea we may add fish emulsions, humic acid, seaweed extract, or mycorrhizae fungi, depending upon that ecosystems specific needs. We return a year later to take another soil test to see what has changed. This serves not only as a learning tool, but provides for 100% transparency! We require two years to restore the correct mineral balances, and biology to the ground, and then we are out of a job. Nature is self-perpetuating once that balance is reached. Conversely, if chemicals are applied to landscapes or agriculture, the chemical and synthetic inputs mean profits for the suppliers forever. Not a sustainable model in my opinion!
What are the benefits of this totally organic approach to landscapes and agricultural practices? A healthy plant wards off pests and disease with greater ease. It decreases water runoff and reduces irrigation costs by increasing the lands ability to absorb, hold and purify water resources. And that all encompassing, “carbon footprint” is reduced! Healthy plants make for healthy people. It takes us all contributing as best we can, understanding that the natural world, and all of it wonders, are here to serve us if we will simply love and respect that which it provides us each day, the opportunity to eat and breath good air, and hopefully, thrive. Unfortunately insight creeps in slowly, and the earth has its own rhythm.
I am forever grateful for my experience attending the Institute for Sustainable Practices at David Lipscomb University, and likewise, to Dodd Galbreath, for giving a middle-aged man a chance to go back to school and learn something new! I hadn’t been in a university setting in 27 years. Eager to learn, I showed up for my first class with pen and paper, ready to furiously write down everything the professor said! Dodd, in his typical diplomatic fashion, suggested I might want to purchase a laptop or iPad. Peace on the planet!
Submitted by Stuart Moore – Graduated in the class of 2012 with a Certificate in Sustainable Practices.